Little Secrets, by Jennifer Hillier

Short Take: OH. EM. GEE.

45046683

(*Note – I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

Well, my duckies, it seems as though the world truly has gone mad. When I turn on the news, it’s all pandemic, all the time. There have been earthquakes in Utah and floods and tornadoes close to me and even a plague of locusts in the Middle East. My state is on lockdown, schools and many businesses are closed and people are strongly encouraged to stay inside and keep to themselves as much as possible.

And I feel like I’ve been training for this my whole life. I can binge-watch shows and play with string to my nerdy little heart’s content, and do I even need to tell you that I’ve been reading some fantastic books? Does the pope poo in the woods?

In that vein, let me introduce you all to Little Secrets.

Marin and Derek are a successful, beautiful, self-made power couple. She owns a string of successful beauty salons and he also runs a lucrative business. They Have It All – the impeccably decorated house in the suburbs, the cars, the clothes, and an adorable five year old son named Sebastian, or Bash as he’s affectionately known.

Until the day Marin and Sebastian are Christmas shopping, and in the blink of an eye, Sebastian disappears. 

Living every parent’s worst nightmare for over a year, Marin hires a PI to keep working the case when the police run out of leads. But instead of finding Sebastian, the PI instead learns about Derek’s Other Woman – the MUCH younger, beautiful, and carefree Kenzie, the anti-Marin if ever there was one. 

Marin can’t track down and get revenge on the person who took her son. Terrified at the thought of any more loss, she can’t rail against her husband and take out her rage on him. Her best friend Sal is always there for her, she would never push him away.

But Kenzie is a different story, and Marin will be only too happy to get her out of the picture permanently.

You guys. YOU GUYS. This book is insane, and by that I mean freakin incredible. I’ve read a lot of thrillers about kidnapped children (I really shouldn’t do that to myself, I know) and I’ve read not-nearly-enough thrillers about cheated-on spouses Out For Revenge, but I’ve never seen the two combined, and oh my sweet nerdlings, this is chocolate and peanut butter to my sugar-addicted brain.

We get both Marin and Kenzie’s point of view, and for two such different women, they are both great characters – somehow sympathetic and unlikable at the same time, in different ways and for different reasons, both driven to similar ends by questionable means. And even as they focus on each other, Sebastian’s absence is ever-present, like a soft weeping from another room – you can’t forget, ignore, or fix it, all you can do is listen and maybe feel a cramp in your own tear ducts.

I could go on and on about the addictive pacing and fascinating cast of supporting characters and the brilliant twists (one I saw coming, others not so much), but I’m just going to urge y’all to read it. 

I mean, what else are we doing right now? Stay home, stay safe, and happy reading (and snacking, of course) nerdlings!!

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some Reese’s peanut butter eggs, because now I can’t quit thinking of chocolate & peanut butter.)

Loved this book!!

 

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

Short Take: Horror that hurts in the best and deepest way.

52180399._sx318_sy475_

(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

Hello lovelies, and welcome to my least favorite week of the year. I lost an hour of the weekend,  plus there’s a new virus running around that sounds like it’ll be targeting me and my crappy lungs personally. It’s all the makings of a Mostly Miserable Monday, and my body is convinced that I absolutely should not be awake right now.

Spoiler alert: I’m awake. And not terribly happy about that.

But if there’s one thing that can always lift my mood, it’s digging into a delicious book by an author I hadn’t read before. The thrill of discovery is second only to the marvelous sensation of being completely consumed by a story, and oh my sweet nerdlings, this is one that will swallow you whole and leave you shuddering for days.

Ten years ago, four young Native American men did something stupid, and careless, and wasteful, as young men of all ages and ethnicities do. But these four young men were spitting in the face of forces they didn’t fully understand and now, they are going to Pay The Price for their actions. 

I’m not going to elaborate on the story, because although it’s great (seriously, the plot and pacing and characters were all spot-on), the story itself is almost secondary to the world Mr. Jones has created (or maybe re-created?) on the page.

(I’m going to add some personal context here that might elicit a “well duh” from more than a few, but I really do live in an extremely culturally isolated place, so bear with me, k?)

I have always lived in an area where the Native population is virtually zero. Sure, some people may be part Cherokee or whatever, but that’s meaningless here. It’s like being part Irish – it’s met with indifference or an “oh that’s cool” and the conversation moves on. Which means that in this part of the US of A, we aren’t exposed to any of the Native heritage, the myths and tribal customs, the language and the dances. But we also don’t see the ugly parts of being Native today that are too common elsewhere – the discrimination, addiction, and poverty.

So while I’ve been aware of these things at a civics-class, sort of absently-intellectual level, I never really FELT the beauty of Native culture, or fury at the injustices that are still being done today, and that’s where Stephen Graham Jones kicked my pasty nerd hiney up one side and down the other, because The Only Good Indians is a full-body immersion in both sides of Native life in the 21st century, and it’s absolutely breathtaking.

And it’s that blending of ancient myth and modern-day just-getting-by that makes the horror of the story so effective. I immediately found myself caring so much about these flawed but oh-so-human and sympathetic characters, and peeking over my shoulder in case [spoiler] might be back there and getting closer, and maybe gasping just a little as I felt the heat of the sweat lodge, knowing what was lurking in the shadows.

But the real beating heart of The Only Good Indians is the author’s voice. The story is told in a stream of consciousness style that feels somehow urgent but also like a deeply personal conversation, a late-night sharing of secrets, a heartfelt truth that makes even the fantasy elements feel so real. 

And oh yeah, it’s damn suspenseful and scary and all the other things you want in a horror novel too. Trust me, I’m too tired and cranky to lie.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a gallon-size jug of antibacterial hand soap. Wash ‘em, people!!)

Loved this book!!

 

Please See Us, by Caitlin Mullen

Short Take: So much beauty amid so much decay.

46404191._sy475_

(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

Well, my nerdlings, it’s THAT time again, and by that time, I’m of course referring to refrigerator-cleaning time. I have the best of intentions when grocery shopping, and TOTALLY AM PLANNING on eating salads for lunch every day and fruit for dessert every night, but somehow, the burgers and ice cream always materialize, and some portion of fresh produce always ends up a puddle of slime in a bag pushed toward the back of the shelf. Throw in my usual round of late-winter blahs, and it’s truly a wretched time of year.

But during this difficult time, I can take solace in one small thing: that I don’t live in Atlantic City, NJ, aka the moldy fridge fruit of North America. Between the hurricane/superstorm, opioid epidemic, and the economic and spiritual malaise that has affected most of the country for the last few years, it’s the place where hopes and dreams are born in a pile of glitter and die in a gutter pile of cigarette butts and broken glass. It’s also a city of startling contrasts – high rollers parking exotic cars on the street next to decaying pawn stores is a common sight.

And it’s there that Clara, (boardwalk tarot-reader who also has a smidge of genuine psychic ability), and Lily, (art curator who left her NYC career and everything else behind after a traumatic event) become friends. Atlantic City is also where a serial killer is preying on women just like Lily and Clara – the broken ones, the addicted ones, the ones who likely won’t be missed, the ones who have always somehow accepted that they would die young and in a terrible way, the ones whose beauty is being worn away by the ugliness of their desperate lives.

Y’all, I was prepared to not love this book. It’s not a spoiler to say that there are several chapters written from the perspective of the dead girls, the “Janes” (as in Jane Does) as they wait in a marsh for their bodies to be found. And to be honest, beautiful dead girls telling their stories has been done to death (heh) by a million and one Lovely Bones knock-offs. 

And yet.

There’s something so startlingly different about Please See Us. Maybe it’s the setting – there’s nothing picturesque about decrepit buildings populated by bruised and addicted hookers, nothing glamorous about young women with no future, so the flashes of beauty (and make no mistake, Ms. Mullen’s writing is beautiful, even when describing unspeakable ugliness) are that much more arresting.

Maybe it’s the way the reader is forced to stare, unblinking, at awful truths that most of us are used to avoiding. In other books, when [spoiler], there would be some plot twist that would keep it from happening, but not this one. For a book about a beautiful precocious teenage psychic in which we get the perspective of dead girls, the level of realism is astonishing.

But I think that what really flibbered my gibbets with Please See Us is the tiny but powerful thread of optimism throughout the whole thing. Every single person being pulled into the undertow of their own desperate circumstances believes deep down that it’s going to change – this is the last trick, the last hit, the winning ticket, the rose growing in the garbage pile. And isn’t that all of us? Surely I’m not the only one who opens the refrigerator door that I just closed, somehow believing that a nutritious yet delicious low-carb-low-calorie-totally-satisfying meal that I actually want to eat has probably materialized in there in the last five seconds, right?

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some fruit – hold the mold, but bring on the fermentation if you know what I mean and I think you do.)

Loved this book!!

The Kill Club, by Wendy Heard

Short Take: Here, have a supersize twist, with a side order of twist, and an extra scoop of twist on the top.

43599925

Greetings nerdlings! I come to you from the great frozen north…. Err, some bit of Appalachia which is currently freezing its tiddlywinks off for no particular reason. It looks like a snow globe outside, which, while pretty, means that I am not leaving the house for any reason. So it’s vodka o’clock, right? 

Ok, maybe it’s still just a teensy bit too early in the day for booze, but it’s ALWAYS a good time for a revenge fantasy, and believe me when I say that my fevered little nerd-brain always has a few of those kicking around. We’ll start with gathering up all the girls who bullied me in high school, shaving them all bald, and forcing them to work for an MLM for the rest of their lives….. 

Sorry, got distracted there for a second. 

The truth is that just about everyone has a name in mind when they hear “The world would be better off without…”, and in Wendy Heard’s latest, there’s a shadowy someone who can make your wish come true. An abusive parent, a dangerous stalker, an ex who cheats the system in family court – anyone can be targeted, and there’s not even any money involved. It’s a very simple setup – your tormentor will be killed, and in return, at a later date, you’ll kill someone else’s. 

For Jazz, the voice on the other end of the phone seems like a godsend at first. She’s been struggling to get custody of her little brother Joaquin from their horrifically abusive, religious-fanatic adoptive mother Carol. Jazz agrees to kill another abuser in exchange for Carol’s death, but if home renovations have taught me anything, it’s that nothing is ever as simple as it first appears. 

Complications arise and multiply, and I’m not going to elaborate on what those complications are, because The Kill Club is best experienced with as much surprise as possible.

And oh, my darlings, what delicious surprises they are! Even though some of the plot elements are a bit outlandish, the characters are so richly drawn (especially Jazz, my god, she’s so damaged and imperfect and real), the tension is so relentless, I was all-in. And the most awful/amazing trick in the author’s arsenal this time out is the too-mundane ways in which we humans are terrible to each other: A parent abusing a child. A man who will take by force what he wants from a woman. The guy in the office who eats chips with his mouth open. Revenge isn’t a new idea, someone being driven to murder by the callousness of another isn’t a new idea, but a person or persons quietly organizing those crimes so that victims are given justice without ever being directly tied to the death of their tormentor…. Now that’s just brilliant.

And more than a little scary, if I’m being honest, because of how attractive the idea is. It’s kind of a good news/bad news thing, I guess, that in real life, eventually there’d be one moron to bork the whole thing and bring everyone down, as anyone who’s ever had to do a group project at work can attest. 

Which is why even when The Kill Club veers into the implausible, it still works perfectly because I think deep down we all believe that people who have been hurt should get their pound of flesh, and the bad guys deserve to be sent straight to hell. Or an MLM.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a few shots of Fireball, let’s get some heat in here!)

Loved this book!!

Dark Tides: A Charity Horror Anthology

Short Take: You should absolutely immerse yourself in this.

edewknwxkae6ksy

(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review. Also the link above goes to indiegogo, not amazon this time.*)

Good morning, my lovely nerdlings! I’m bringing you something a little extra-special today. You all know that I have a deep affinity for the twisty, the bump-in-the-night-y, the creepy and the kooky, the mysterious and spooky (ok, ok, I’ll stop), but this time, I’m reading my favorite stuff for a wonderful cause. In the Dark Tides anthology, a whole lot of my long-time favorite authors and a few marvelous up & comers contributed stories, with all proceeds going to the families and victims of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach (which happens to be one of my favorite places), with all of the stories having a watery-depths theme.

And oh my darlings, what an eclectic treasure chest this book is! There truly is something for everyone – Cthulu-ish cosmic horror, ghosts and zombies, serial killers and witches, mob hits, makeout sessions, the past, the future, children, the elderly, and of course, everything aquatic.

If you want a quick overview, as a whole, I can tell you that Dark Tides is one of the most solid anthologies I’ve ever read. I’m a salty (heh) old nerd, so generally, when I read a collection, about a quarter of the stories are fantastic, half are enjoyable enough, and the final 25% is a firm meh-to-bad. I’m thrilled to report that this one has no clunkers. I’m also concerned that I might be losing my famously impeccable taste. 

That said, there were a few stand-outs, and those ones have stars next to them in the list below. If I had a gun to my head & were forced to choose a favorite, I’d have to go with Hanson Oak’s “They Came From the Sea. They Went To the Stars.” because even though it didn’t feature water or the beach as much as the others, it was a mind-bending blend of horror, love story, mythology, and a lot of Alice In Wonderland hallucinogenic weirdness. 

Although it’s probably a tie between that one and Widow’s Point, because my heart is always in haunted houses, and that one is so freakin’ innovative. And legit creepy. 

Because Dark Tides is a leviathan-sized collection of 30 gems, I can only devote a few words to each of them.  Let’s dive in (heh), shall we?

Terror From the Briny Depths, by Elizabeth Massie – Say you’re a young bride-to-be in the 1950’s, on a beachfront vacation with your somewhat-overbearing fiance, when you happen to notice an enormous monster beneath the waves. And it knows your name. Wait, what??

Pockets Full of Rocks, by Justin M. Woodward – On the worst day of a young man’s life, he meets an old man on the beach who has some very strange things to say to him.

Old Bastards, by Tony Bertauski – Thomas wakes up on a deserted island with no memory of how he got there. Fortunately, there’s someone else in his head who can give him all kinds of helpful information – how to treat his wounds, what to eat, where to hide, and most importantly, how to sabotage what needs to be sabotaged.

** Flange Turner, by Gene O’Neill – Ian’s been let go from the waterfront factory where he worked for 20-odd years. But his job isn’t the only thing in his life that’s fading away. A creepy story that’s a brilliant portrayal of a dying rust belt town.

** NIGHTSWIMMING: A Creepy Little Bedtime Story, by William F. Aicher – A rebellious teenage girl convinces her boyfriend to go skinny-dipping in the pool of a closed-up mansion. Surely nothing terrible could happen. 

By the Seaside, by Kevin J. Kennedy – When it rains on their beachside vacation, little Sarah and her parents decide to spend an evening inside, telling scary stories. But no matter how creepy the story is, it’s just pretend, right?

The Burdens of the Father, by Mark Matthews – In a not-too-distant future America, air is rationed, and any citizens deemed not worthy of their share are eliminated. Everything is carefully controlled by the government, but Janis’s wife is secretly pregnant, and a strident street preacher seems to be openly flouting all the rules, with no consequences. And that’s just the start of the strangeness of his day.

Black Mill Cove, by Lisa Morton – When Jim kisses Maren and leaves their camper to hunt for abalone in the pre-dawn dark tidal pools, he finds something completely unexpected. And horrifying. And then things get REALLY bad.

** Down to a Sunless Sea, by Neil Gaiman – A mother’s heartbreaking lament, lyrical and haunting, a shocking amount of story in very few words. 

** Devourer, by Andrew Lennon – When Pete persuades his cousin’s grown-up boyfriend to take him on a jet-ski ride, he thinks it’s the coolest thing ever. Until it isn’t. Sidenote: I am never again swimming where I can’t see the bottom. No way.

A Quickee, by John Skipp – A moonlight tryst is not what it seems.

Dark Skies, by Jason Stokes – Trying to walk home in a hurricane is a bad idea. Getting lost in a hurricane is bad luck. Or maybe it’s something worse.

** Cycles, by Chad Lutzke – A young man decides to face his (well-deserved) fear of the ocean while on his date with the girl of his dreams. What could go wrong?

** They Came from the Sea. They Went to the Stars. By Hanson Oak – Oliver, nearly destroyed by the loss of his wife and sons, goes into the graveyard to mourn them and ends up somewhere entirely different. Beautiful and strange.

Night Surf, by Stephen King – A classic, moody piece in which the world ends not with a bang, but a sniffle.

** Anniversary, by John R. Little – Jimmy and Gail really love the ocean, and each other. My heart can’t take this one, y’all.

Beneath the Tides, by Kelli Owen – After a painful breakup, Trevor rents a beach house for a quiet weekend of reading & relaxing. And then the screaming starts.

Eternal Valley, by John Palisano – In 19th century Missouri, there’s no Medexpress. So when little Jesse becomes deathly ill, his father has to look elsewhere for a cure.

** Widow’s Point, by Richard Chizmar & Billy Chizmar – found footage (yes, I know it’s a book, just go with it) piece in which an author spends a weekend in a haunted lighthouse. I’m a sucker for haunted houses, and this one is superb

Messages, by Mark Allan Gunnells – A grief-stricken man who doesn’t really believe in anything finds and replies to a message in a bottle. Probably not the best idea.

Show Me Where the Waters Fill Your Grave, by Todd Keisling – It’s been four years since Glenda died, and something amazing and terrifying happened during the first big rainstorm afterward. Now, another massive rainstorm is due to hit and Jonathan is ready for it.

Come Tomorrow, by John Boden – A man mourning the loss of his wife and daughter decides that a quiet afternoon of fishing might help, but he’s not prepared for what he catches.

** A Night at the Lake with the Weird Girl, by Ray Garton – Tom’s new in town, and Mina is, well, weird. But Deepshadow Lake takes strange to new levels. Also, weird girls are the best and everyone should appreciate them more.

Alone, by Taylor Grant – Jess has lost everyone and everything she loved, and really just wants to be alone with her thoughts. But then she hears the voice from the water.

The Cerulean Tide, by Somer Canon – Ok, but hear me out: toilet bowl cleaner on a planetary scale. 

Night Dive, by F. Paul Wilson – Safety, schmafety. Sometimes a wealthy man just wants to go diving alone, is that so wrong?

The Abalone Thief, by Matthew V. Brockmeyer – Theodore is a marine biologist studying abalone populations off the coast of California. But when a large number of the shellfish disappear, his investigation turns up something much crazier than he expected.

In the Shadow of the Equine, by Kenneth W. Cain – A father & son duo, along with a couple of dozen others go camping on an island famous for its wild horse population. But instead of beautiful manes and shaggy coats, they get an old man ranting a bunch of religious-ish gibberish. It couldn’t get much worse than that, right?

Thicker Than Water, by Paul Kane – Naomi’s life has been sad and solitary, until she meets Gerry, The Perfect Guy. She just has to meet and win over his family. 

Walking With the Ghosts of Pier 13, by Brian James Freeman – Visiting the place his brother always loved, Jeremy is haunted by more than memories.

So you see, this is one must-have collection. And if you’re on the fence about buying it just for the stories, (what kind of fan are you???), then you should absolutely consider picking up a copy to support the Virginia Beach Tragedy Fund. And if your shelves are as overstuffed as my Thanksgiving pants, you can donate to the victims directly here: 

https://unitedwayshr.org/vabeach/

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some abalone, because I’ve never tried it, but apparently, it’s really really good.)

Loved this book!!

The Whisper Man, by Alex North

Short Take: I can’t seem to pick my jaw up.

41940236

Hello, my beloveds! I am afraid I don’t have a lot of time for my usual not-clever but oddly charming intro today, and in fact, I hadn’t even planned to write a review for this one as it’s already been thoroughly praised by people much smarter than I, but I just couldn’t resist. My mouth is hanging open, and for once, it’s not because I’m in the process of putting food into it or making a witty comment, and I just have to share. So let’s get to it, hmmm?

When Rebecca Kennedy dies suddenly and far too young, she leaves behind her husband Tom and six year old son Jake, who are both still grieving, shocked and traumatized when they move to the quaint town of Featherbank, hoping for a new start. But changing location doesn’t actually erase loss, and the heartbreak and resulting issues (Jake’s isolation and too-real imaginary friends, Tom’s anger and withdrawal) are still alive and well in the new house.

There are larger, more dangerous problems in Featherbank though, as Detective Peter Willis knows all too well. Twenty years ago, Frank Carter, a serial killer of little boys, earned the nickname The Whisper Man. He would target unloved and unwanted children, and whisper to them outside their windows, luring them away. He’s spent the last two decades in prison, but now another little boy has disappeared, now Jake has heard the whispers, and now he’s learned a new nursery rhyme….

“If you leave a door half open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken.

If you play outside alone, soon you won’t be going home.

If your window’s left unlatched, you’ll hear him tapping at the glass.

If you’re lonely, sad, and blue, the Whisper Man will come for you.”

I could probably say a lot of things about the plot, but I’m just going to leave it at this: The Whisper Man is one of the best books I’ve read in ages. Mr. North gives us horror, sure, and loads of creepiness, but it’s also a murder mystery, ghost story, thoughtful meditation on generational trauma and what it means to be a father or son or father to a son, a bit of a romance, and an edge of your seat thriller that also includes a twist that should be soap-opera-ish and ridiculous but somehow is just beautiful instead.

The pacing is likewise spot-on, and the characters are absolutely brilliant. Detective Willis, in particular, is a man haunted by both the monsters he’s pursued and the demons in his past, the ones he can’t let go of, and the ones that won’t let go of him. And as for Tom and Jake… their hurt was so very real. Experiencing a loss while also trying to guide a child through it is a nonstop, grinding, exhausting, infuriating process, and it was captured perfectly, in ways both ugly and true.

Just read it. I mean, make sure you can take a day off, because you won’t get anything done till you’re finished, but this one is worth clearing your schedule for.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and an unopened bottle of vodka. Because I have a lot to do around here but I might just reward myself later.)

Loved this book!!

Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig

Short Take: The big meaty horror novel you’ve been craving.

45833143._sx318_

Good morning, my darling nerdlings, and Happy Almost Back To School! I’ve loved spending my days with the Junior Nerd, but I am definitely looking forward to having some uninterrupted reading time.

I have learned a valuable lesson though: If a book is really great, and if that book is an 800+ page behemoth of awesomeness, well, I’ll have to resort to alternative means to finish it. No kid ever died from 9 straight hours of Minecraft, right?

Anyway.

The book in question is Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, in which a comet passes overhead, and a young girl named Nessie goes for a very long, very strange sleepwalk. Unresponsive and impervious to weather, road debris, and the pleas of her sister, she’s only the first. As the miles and weeks pile up, Nessie is joined by other sleepwalkers who become known as the Flock, and their loved ones (the Shepherds) who try to care for them. The “care” is more for the benefit of the Shepherds, though, as the sleepwalkers don’t wake, eat, or drink, and any attempt to stop them results in something terrible happening.

Of course the media gets involved, and of course the paranoid right-wing and religious lunatics have conspiracy theories that get the militia gun nuts foaming at the mouth, and of course a faded rockstar sees a way to get an easy hit of his favorite drug (fame) by joining the Shepherds, and of course the CDC is struggling to find a cause and/or a cure, and of course the Internet is blowing up all of this and amplifying everything, for better or worse. 

Wanderers is a small personal story of one family struggling with the inexplicable, and it’s a massive universal tale of how humanity responds to something terrible and unknowable – hiding, helping, or hating. 

Our narrators are a nice cross-section of the factions mentioned above. Benji is a disgraced CDC doctor, Shana, Nessie’s sister and the first Shepherd, Pete, the hedonistic rock star, and Matthew, a mediocre pastor moved to fire and brimstone (and a whole lot of notoriety) when he begins preaching against the Flock. 

The main characters have a gorgeous level of depth and realism (and in the case of a certain Neo-Nazi gun nut, a far too realistic amount of insanity), and the pacing is impressive, but what really smoked my anchovies was the sense of immediacy Mr. Wendig created. Each chapter starts with a quote, which isn’t unusual, but the sources firmly ground the story in the USA of the late 2010’s. There are bits from the bible and classic literature, but also twitter, tumblr, and CNN. The author has effortlessly covered all of our contemporary sources of information.

I feel like I should bring up the Stand-sized elephant in the room. Many reviewers have already drawn the obvious comparisons, so I’m not going to elaborate on the similarities. There are a few, of course, because there are similarities in all the stories that involve something terrible happening on a global scale. And although Wanderers gave me marvelous “Stephen King in his 1980’s cocaine-fueled prime” vibes, Mr. Wendig’s writing is more disciplined and less meandering (although I think we can all agree that The Stand’s “No Great Loss” chapter is unmatchable, right?), with an ending that sticks the landing in a way that The Stand didn’t quite manage.

Yes, I know that’s blasphemy in some circles, but it’s true. Big books are hard to end, with so many characters, subplots and settings that inevitably, a ball or three gets dropped, or the author has to resort to something completely out of left field and awkwardly shove it in there. But Wanderers managed to hit the sweet spot, and wind up all of it in ways that may not have always been happy, but fit perfectly.

And I have to include what may be the best line I’ve read in years, with some light censoring for Amazon’s benefit:

Benji lifted the box. “The world was an odder place than I knew.”

“[Shoot], Benji. Have you MET America?”

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a big bowl of ice cream, which I understand enhances virtual reality experiences).

Loved this book!!

Buried, by Ellison Cooper

Short Take: This author is a sadist and I kind of love her.

40996209._sy475_

(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

You guys. You. Guys. Something seriously major has happened here, possibly for the first time ever. Y’all might want to sit down, and if you’re one of my more faint-hearted nerdlings, you may want to put your head between your knees, or just stop reading right here, because I know you will find this shocking and upsetting.

*Deep Breath*

Ok, here goes…..

I was WRONG about a book. 

I know, I know, it’s impossible to believe, right? I will be the first to admit that I’m wrong about a lot of things in life but books are the One Thing that I can usually pontificate about with great certainty, at length. 

So when I first grabbed a copy of Buried, I braced myself for that most heinous of author maladies: the sophomore slump. There is no way, NO POSSIBLE WAY, I thought, that Ms. Cooper could match the brilliance that was Caged. And by that, I mean that Caged was fantastic, not that Ms. Cooper isn’t. But all of my preconceived notions went right on out the proverbial window, and I am happy to admit it one more time: I was SO WRONG.

(*Warning!! If you haven’t read Caged, ((and just why haven’t you??)), there may be spoilers here!!!*)

It’s been a few months since the events of Caged, and Special Agent Sayer Altair is mostly recovered from both the physical and mental wounds she suffered. Her shoulder and heart still ache at times, but her new ward Adi, goofy-puppy-turned-goofy-dog Vesper, and Zen Master/downstairs neighbor Tino have done her a world of good. Although she still has questions about the death of her fiance Jake from years before, she’s ready to get back to Real Work. I mean, studying psychopaths and dodging political punches from a desk is fun and all, but it can’t compare to chasing down an active serial killer.

So she’s in luck (sort of?) when Agent Max Cho, taking a hike on his day off, stumbles into a whole pile of dumped bodies, ranging from the skeletal to the relatively fresh and gooey. 

Cue a Getting The Band Back Together montage, in which some of my favorite characters from Caged (YAY EZRA!!!) and a couple of equally charismatic newbies join the hunt,. And oh my darling nerdlings, what a hunt it is! 

Ms. Cooper has a definite flair for contrasts: combining real-life cutting edge science with the myths of the ancients, or pitting the very personal struggles of Sayer and her group against the backdrop of a Congressional investigation that has implications for the safety of the entire nation, or flashes of humor brightening a story that isn’t afraid to go very, very dark. But most of all, I especially loved (read: hated) seeing the struggles of one particular character who suffered a devastating injury in Caged – their fight for recovery and some kind of normalcy had me simultaneously cheering and tearing up.

And even with that little part of me that missed that fun, getting-to-know-you buzz of first meeting Sayer, being able to skip the niceties and just zoom off on her Silver Hawk to kick some [censored] was great too. For all the personal and emotional elements of Buried, there are still plenty of twists, turns, fights, chases, and a bombshell or two. We even get a new dog friend, who’s Vesper’s opposite in every way, and is it weird that I’m looking forward to the two of them meeting? (Confession: I may have watched way too much Lady and the Tramp as a kid.)

Guys, I even liked the cliffhanger ending, and you all know how I feel about those. For real, just read it. After you read Caged, of course, because did I mention how much I love that one?

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS! (and something sweet that isn’t lava cake. Because gooey is NOT good right now. Also, I need a hug. And maybe a puppy.)

Loved this book!!

Temper, by Layne Fargo

Short Take: Frailty, thy name is woman!! (or not)

42063845

 

(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

Y’all, this is where I would usually say something catchy, followed by a super-clever segue into whatever I’m reviewing, but you know what? This book has left me with my mouth hanging open and my usual sparkling wit has left the building. It’s that freakin good. So… uh… let me just tell you about the book, k?

Malcolm Mercer has a Reputation. He’s known in the Chicago theater world for two things: making incredible art, and driving his cast members to nervous breakdowns. That’s not an exaggeration. He believes that in order to portray a character most effectively, the actor needs to feel the anger, pain, humiliation, or whatever other awful emotion the character feels, and if the actor doesn’t already have issues, Malcolm is more than happy to give them some.

His biggest supporter/enabler is Joanna Cuyler. Their relationship is… complicated. She’s obsessed with him, but they aren’t lovers. They are equal partners in the business, but he makes all the major decisions. They have a shared living space, but separate lives. It’s an intensely combustible situation, needing only the barest hint of a spark to explode.

Enter Kira.

She’s a cliche struggling actress when she auditions for Malcolm and Joanna, for the starring role in their upcoming production of Temper (more on that in a minute). But she’s also a deeply hurt and angry person, an expert at keeping people at arm’s length even while she’s seducing them, in making sure anyone who loves her hates her a little too.

In other words, she’s like catnip to Malcolm.

And when these three come together, it’s more like waves of boiling oil than sparks flying – sometimes unintended targets are hit, and the scalding burns just keep deepening. Each of them has their own ends, their own means, their own secrets, and their own detonation switches. Each of them wants to destroy and/or overpower at least one of the others. And I am wildly in love with all of them.

Our leading ladies, Joanna and Kira, are our narrators, and it’s definitely been a minute since I’ve been treated to such incendiary female voices. Ms. Fargo’s characters are perfectly imperfect, passionate even in the ugliest of ways, and so very real. Joanna, in particular, is an accurate (if stinging) reflection of the ways women frequently make unkind snap judgments of one another, and how wrong and hurtful those things usually are.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the unofficial fourth main character – the play itself. Temper, a two-person production about a toxic marriage, is a debut work by a playwright nobody’s heard of. Its scenes of raw vitriol are a catalyst and a catharsis for all three of them, their own most deeply buried impulses on display for the world to see.

And oh, my darling nerdlings, what an incredible ride it is. These beautiful, passionate, talented people are stripped down to their ugliest, most primal core, raging against the man pulling the strings even as they are destroying themselves to win his approval.

I still don’t have anything clever to say. Just read this one.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a ticket to my local community theater, cause hoo boy, I’m craving some drama right now!)

Loved this book!!

The East End, by Jason Allen

Short Take: Wildly implausible, but I didn’t even care.

2019-05-07 - Blog Tour - Allen, Jason - The East End

(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

Ahhhhhhhhhhh, my beloved nerdlings, spring is FINALLY in the air. Is it me, or did winter last about forty-seven years? Although I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not much for sports or camping, there are two things that make me crave this time of year: #1, I really, really hate being cold, and #2, I really REALLY love drinking cocktails while reading on the patio.

Speaking of debauched languor, let me introduce you all to The East End, and its fascinating look at two very different sides of the Hamptons (or any playground for the wealthy, I’d imagine).

First we meet Corey Halpern, whose single mom Gina has been working as a housekeeper for the billionaire Sheffields for a dozen years. Seventeen years old, Corey wants nothing more than to get away from the poverty, addiction, and abuse that plague his mother’s every waking moment. He’s a seething ball of resentment, but instead of following Gina’s path, he’s got his sights set on college and keeping his nose clean, as we say around here.

Except for one teensy little felonious habit: he likes to break into the houses of the super-rich, usually while the occupants are sound asleep inside. He doesn’t steal anything, or murder them, as tempting as that may be in some cases. No, Corey just likes to mess with the one percenters’ heads a bit – putting salt in the milk, rearranging paintings, that kind of thing.

It’s fairly harmless, and he’s never been caught, but when Corey decides to do his thing at the Sheffields’ house the night before they are scheduled to arrive for the summer, it all goes sideways.

First, the Sheffields’ rebellious daughter Tiffany (ugh, her name WOULD be Tiffany) arrives with her best friend for a night of drinking and movie-watching, trapping Corey on the property. And then Leo Sheffield, the billionaire himself, shows up with his Darkest Secret in tow.

My duckies, do I need to tell you that Everything Goes Horribly Wrong?

What follows is an absolutely gripping downward spiral, seen through the eyes of Cory, Gina, and Leo as each of them reckons with their own demons while simultaneously trying to outwit the others and save themselves.

As I raced to the end (of the End, heh), my poor oversugared brain was at war with itself. The characters are some of the best in recent memory, and even when I was appalled by their actions, I could understand their motivations and feel sympathy for their various situations (even the ones of their own making). But as plot twist after twist landed, I couldn’t help but think “This is INSANE!!!” more than a few times.

But by insane, I mean audacious. As much as I can’t imagine the final scenes in any real-life way, the story is so lean and tight that I also can’t find any specific point where Mr. Allen jumps the rails into “readers are stupid enough to believe this” territory. He manages to take us into the characters’ heads enough that their actions make sense, without over-explaining, hitting that sweet spot (mmmmm sweets) that many authors strive for and never attain.

And in the end (the End) (no I’m not tired of that joke yet), The East End is a breath-holding tightwire act, with more than one fall and also a couple of perfect landings. I’m willing to forgo a bit of realism for a story like this.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a lovely charcuterie platter.)

Loved this book!!