Temper, by Layne Fargo

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

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(*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!!

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The East End, by Jason Allen

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

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(*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!!

Saving Meghan, by DJ Palmer

Short Take: Ripped from the headlines! But like, not in a lame way.

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I know it’ll come as a shock to some of you, but I occasionally look at things that aren’t books. Don’t get me wrong, fiction is my longest-running love, but once in a while, I peek out of my nerd cave and get a look at the real world. I’m not going to go into a political rant (although there are PLENTY of topics ripe for a good one), but believe me when I say that some of the real-life stuff I have seen lately is crazier than fiction.

For example, I’ve been following the case of Susan Schofield Cabana for some time. This psycho has been poisoning her kids with elephant-size doses of antipsychotic drugs for conditions they’ve never been diagnosed with, and documenting it on social media for years. Those kids were recently removed from the home, thankfully, although it’s yet to be determined how much permanent damage their little brains have suffered. And everyone’s heard of Gypsy Blanchard, of “Mommy Dead And Dearest” fame, and Lacey Spears, and who knows how many others.

What I’m getting at is, Munchausen Syndrome by proxy is a very real, very terrifying thing, and the medical community and court system are just now starting to get hip to it. The idea that a mother would intentionally harm her children, and in many cases be rewarded with attention and financial gain is shocking, but it keeps happening, and usually is only discovered when the “nurturing” parent goes too far and accidentally kills the child.

Which is where Saving Meghan comes in. It’s a fairly simple story: sixteen-year-old Meghan’s health has been declining for two years, with no apparent cause. Becky, Meghan’s mother, was raised by her own mother Cora to learn all the tricks of medical manipulation. Cora taught Becky how to cozy up to doctors and fake symptoms in order to keep the disability money rolling in

Now an adult with an increasingly ill child of her own, Becky is willing to use every ploy in her arsenal to get Meghan the help she needs. But IS Meghan sick, or is Becky harming her?

It’s not a complicated question, but Mr. Palmer does an incredible job of surrounding Meghan and Becky with richly complex characters. Carl, her father, is aware of Becky’s past, and although he wants to protect Meghan, she has her own reasons for not trusting him. Dr. Zachary Fisher thinks he may know what’s going on, but he has an agenda of his own, making his motivations questionable and putting him at odds with both colleagues and superiors at the hospital.

And as parents, doctors, and attorneys fight it out, Meghan keeps getting sicker.

In order to stick to my “no spoilers EVER” rule, I’m not going to say anything else about the plot. I mentioned above that the characters are brilliantly drawn, but what really makes Saving Meghan a standout is how well the characters drive the plot, and vice-versa. Becky, Carl, Dr. Fisher, and the others are human and flawed, and even when they are doing the wrong thing, they are doing it from a place that I think most of us can sympathize with.

Now for the bad stuff – I couldn’t get a single thing done till I finished this book. My dirty clothes hamper is overflowing, dirty dishes are piled up, and Vincent the cat had to head-butt me like five times to get his food bowl filled.  He will be the first to tell you that’s completely unacceptable. Worst of all, I found myself thinking “unputdownable” and I HATE that “word”, but the lead-up to the final twist demanded it. In other words, this book is so great that it messed up my housekeeping, cat, and brain. Ok, the brain wasn’t in great shape to begin with, but you get the idea.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a snack that is most emphatically NOT chicken soup.)

Loved this book!!

Hunting Annabelle, by Wendy Heard

Short Take: Sing it with me now! “I see your truuuuueee colors shining through…”
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Hello to all of my nerdlings, and Happy New Year(‘s Eve)!! It’s that time of year, where we make a bunch of resolutions that will be forgotten by February, when the piles of Valentine chocolates arrive to wreak havoc with waistlines and willpower. Or sooner, if you’re me, and there’s still some Christmas fudge hanging around the house.

But at the same time, I can’t imagine a better poster boy for making resolutions than Sean Suh, the star of Wendy Heard’s delicious Hunting Annabelle.

The year is 1986, and Sean has a lot of issues. Like, a LOT a lot. Recently released from a mental institution after committing a horrific crime as a teenager, Sean now lives with his mother, a prominent neurosurgeon who loves, fears, and resents her son in equal measure.

A diagnosed schizophrenic and gifted artist, Sean spends his days at Four Corners Amusement Park in Austin, sketching random people and admiring the beautiful, colorful auras he sees surrounding them. It’s there he runs into Annabelle, and where the fun really gets going.

Over the next couple of days, Sean is charmed by Annabelle and her glittering, copper-colored aura, even as he fights his own worst, most violent impulses. It seems like he might be getting things under control, when suddenly, Annabelle is shoved, screaming, into a strange van and disappears.

Needless to say, Sean’s life quickly takes a turn for the desperate. Unsure at first if Annabelle is even missing, it doesn’t take long for the authorities to focus their attention on Sean, and he himself can’t even be sure that her kidnapping actually happened, or if it was another one of his delusions.

What follows is a somewhat by-the-book thriller, as Sean must Search Annabelle’s Past to find out Who She Really Is, and to try to save her (and himself) Before It’s Too Late.

But then…. Well, then there are a few really great twists and an ending that is absolutely dizzying. And while my curmudgeonly side is trying to poke holes and find alllllll the ways it would never ever work out that way, I’m smacked upside the jowls over and over again by Ms. Heard’s one brilliant, simple, perfect plot device:

She set the book in 1986.

Seriously, I caught myself repeatedly thinking things like “Why doesn’t Sean just Google Annabelle?” Uh, 1986, ya stupid nerd. “Wait, you’re telling me the FBI databases don’t show a pattern of [spoiler]?” Hello, 1986, lunkhead.  And so on and so forth. Simple, but extremely effective.

And the author maintains the illusion perfectly. From the color scheme that every home had (peach and aqua) to the fashions (shoulder pads, slouchy socks with snow-white Keds), to the music on the walkman (SO MANY FLASHBACKS!!), the mullets, the white pages and rotary phones, smoking indoors in public places, and a thousand other details, it’s seamless.

But the juiciest treat of all is that ending. THAT ENDING. I had guessed fairly early on who was behind Annabelle’s kidnapping, but the why of it, and the aftermath, well, chalk up another jowl-smack. Of course I won’t give it away here, but trust me, you are not prepared for where Hunting Annabelle takes you.

Now, time to break out some booze and snacks, cause it’s midnight somewhere, and I want to get a head start on my resolution-breaking.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a New Coke. Seriously, SO MANY FLASHBACKS.)

Loved this book!!

Caged, by Ellison Cooper

Short Take: Welp, my gob is thoroughly smacked.

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My last review focused pretty heavily on comparing a new book (Pretty Ugly Lies) to a previous bestseller (Big Little Lies), and the fact that it tried to copy a successful book, and left out everything great about the original. Today, I’m looking at the flip side of that coin: Ellison Cooper has brought Clarice Starling into the 21st century, and oh my sweet nerdlings! She. Freaking. Killed. It.

Caged begins with a bang – two Washington DC cops are called to an abandoned house with a report of a foul odor, and as they begin searching the house, well, something pretty awful and unexpected happens that I’m not going to spoiler here even though it’s the first chapter. Just trust me.

Eventually, a young girl’s body is found in a cage in the basement of the house, along with a living puppy and evidence that the killer may have another girl locked up somewhere else. It’s going to be a race against time to find the girl, and the killer is really, really smart, y’all. I mean scary-smart, in the Hannibal Lecter way, not the cheesy super-villain who spends a half hour explaining everything way.

Enter Sayer Altair. She’s an FBI agent and a neuroscientist, who works cases and also is using various brain imaging techniques to try to figure out if psycopathy has a physical cause in the brain. She’s also biracial, rides a motorcycle, and is a little (or a lot) damaged and isolated since the death of her fiance.

The rest of the cast is also well-rounded and interesting: Vik Devereaux, a laid-back Cajun who’s a perfect yin to Altair’s yang; Andy Wagner, a hot-shot profiler with arrogance aplenty; Joan Warren, medical examiner who’s the closest thing Sayer has to a girlfriend; Ezra, an evidence tech with hidden talents; Janice Holt, battleaxe boss extraordinaire; and Tino, her downstairs neighbor who’s just a really cool guy and first-rate dog-sitter.

The extra-awesome thing about all of these characters is that there’s some degree of growth and change in them, but not in a stupid way. There’s no romantic subplot (and how nice is it that for once, a strong female character can be just that, without having to grab a man to round out her story), just people who start out with a common goal (GET THE BAD GUY!!!!) and start to find a bit of introspection and camaraderie.

The plot is even more compelling than the characters. As I mentioned above, this killer is miles beyond just about any I’ve ever seen, and there are twists, turns, red herrings, and lots of science that sounds crazy, but is actually A Real Thing, along with splashes of mythology, psychology, cool forensics tricks, and a distinctly charming puppy. In other words, it has everything.

I realize I’m not saying much about how the story unfolds, but trust me when I say, this is one that you just want to jump onto and enjoy the ride. I had pegged the killer as one of two people, and although I got it half-right, I was totally off on the motivation side of things. But listen, do yourself a favor, and when a certain medical condition is mentioned, no matter what, DO NOT google image search it. Seriously, it’s too late for me, but you can still save yourselves.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some brain bleach, because OMG CAN NOT UNSEE!!!)

Loved this book!!

Jar of Hearts, by Jennifer Hillier

Short Take:  Way more than I bargained for. In a good way.
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*Note: I received a free advance copy of this book for review.*

When is a punishment enough? Like, say you steal a bag of Doritos from the local convenience store, because you’ve had a few adult beverages and you forgot your wallet when you walked over and you had REALLY bad munchies and it was snowing so you didn’t want to walk back home and get your wallet, so you managed to smuggle them out under your coat without being caught.

But then when you get home and start to chow down on some delicious, illicit, chemical dusted fried corn product, you find that you just can’t do it. Oh you still have the munchies, all right, but you feel bad for having taken them, and you just don’t want them the way you thought you would.

Is that punishment enough? Or should there be fines, jail, public humiliation?

It’s an interesting question on a much larger scale in Jar of Hearts, which opens with Georgina Shaw (Geo to her friends), age 30, testifying in court about the role she played in the murder of her best friend Angela when the girls were 16. You see, Geo’s first love was none other than Calvin James, a serial killer who began his career with Angela, and then skipped town and went on to murder three other women, while Geo helped to hide the body and lied to protect them both.

Angela’s remains stay buried, and Geo goes on with her life as best she can, until 14 years later, when both Angela’s bones and the truth about that night come to light. Geo admits to her role in the crime, and is sentenced to five years in prison. Calvin is sentenced to prison for life, but escapes almost immediately.

And shortly before Geo’s release, new victims start turning up, practically in her backyard. It looks like Calvin never forgot his first love either, and is coming back for her.

So…. punishment. Although Geo doesn’t go to prison for well over a decade after Angela’s murder, her life in that time isn’t exactly unicorns and rainbows. Her time in prison is about as bad as you’d imagine. (Worse, if your imagination isn’t as messed up as mine). And when she gets out, well, some pretty awful things continue to happen. Her father’s home is vandalized repeatedly, and mistakes from her past continue to rise up and torment her, plus there’s that whole “being stalked by a serial killer” thing, which doesn’t sound like much fun at all.

I wanted to feel sympathetic towards Geo. Surely, I imagine, this poor girl has suffered for like 20 years for something she did when she was 16. I was an IDIOT at 16, and every day, I’m grateful that there was no internet back then or digital cameras or anything else that would serve as a record of my idiocy. Hell, EVERYONE is an idiot at 16. How long should she be punished for what she did (and just as importantly didn’t) do? The court decided that 5 years in prison was punishment enough. The residents of her small town decided that heaping scorn on her after that was necessary.

And there’s a terrifying man who wants to punish her more than anyone for [spoiler].

Is it enough? Does Geo deserve to have a life with love and happiness and whatever else comes to people who weren’t involved in murder?

The truth is, I don’t know. Jar of Hearts surprised me with how thought-provoking a sexy, twisty, violent little thriller could be. My feelings for Geo whiplashed between pity and disgust, between admiration and contempt.

There’s obviously more to any book than the main character, of course, and although the other characters weren’t fleshed out to nearly the same degree, the pacing was exceptional, and the writing itself was smart and engaging. It says something that although I was able to figure out what was happening about two thirds of the way through, I still couldn’t put it down, and I’m so glad I kept going – the ending is seriously WHOA.

Jar of Hearts is my first book by Jennifer Hillier, but I can safely say that it won’t be my last.

 

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some cinnamon candy. Bring the heat!)

Loved this book!!

The New Neighbors, by Simon Lelic

Short Take:  Come for the story. Stay for the narrators.

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*Note – I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*

Sometimes, writing the description of the book is the hardest part of reviewing. Let’s see…

Jack and Sydney are a young couple, just starting out in life, and have been trying for some time to buy their first home in the overpriced London market. Despite working hard, scrimping, and saving, and all the other boot-strappy cliches that Boomers love to trot out, they have been outbid at every turn, and have all but given up when they stumble upon The House. It’s old, and creepy, and full of the previous owner’s hoarded possessions, including dozens, if not hundreds of taxidermied dead animals, but they are in luck!! The owner has a soft spot for young couples, and chooses them to buy the place, despite many higher offers.

It’s a great opening for a haunted house story, but this isn’t that kind of book, so let’s try this again.

When Jack and Sydney first met, they knew they belonged together. She has had a horrible childhood, and is still carrying loads of baggage, and he’s a social worker, kind and patient, who lives to make people’s lives better. Sydney has a hard time believing in his altruistic motives, and he’s so afraid to scare her off that he keeps large parts of his life hidden from her. Can they build a future together, or will the weight of their secrets tear them apart?

Which is a great start to a romance, but New Neighbors isn’t that kind of book either. Back to the drawing board!

After finally buying and moving into their dream home, Jack and Sydney find themselves thrust into a tangled web of deception, confusion, lies, and secrets. When their neighbor is brutally murdered, Jack quickly becomes the number one suspect, and it’s a race against time to prove his innocence before he is sent to prison forever.

….is how the blurb would read for a twisty murder mystery, and although that’s the genre that probably comes closest to fitting The New Neighbors, it’s not all there is to it either.

The New Neighbors has elements of all of the above – a house that’s haunted, a romance between two people who really don’t know how to handle fragile things like love, and oh yeah, a dead guy who could have been killed by one of them, or both of them, or someone else entirely.

The story is really, really, REALLY good, but let’s face it – twisty murder mysteries are the Pringles of the literary world. You eat them, they’re kind of tasty, you may toss a few more down the hatch, but they’re mostly forgettable. Hell, I’ve read three twisty mysteries in the past week, and I’ll probably devour another half-dozen before the month is out, and I don’t bother reviewing most of them, because while some of them are quite good, most of them aren’t very special.

What makes The New Neighbors different is the voices of the narrators. Jack & Sydney switch off, which isn’t unusual, but THEY ACTUALLY RESPOND TO WHAT EACH OTHER HAS WRITTEN. The first chapter belongs to Jack, and his narration is about what you’d expect. He’s articulate and literary, and maybe just a bit stuffy, but then in Chapter Two, Sydney jumps in with an eye-rolling, are-you-kidding-me reply, and that, my friends, is a trick I’ve never seen before in fiction. The narrating characters have a new kind of life and energy, and it’s absolutely brilliant.

The one negative in The New Neighbors is a lack of well-rounded supporting characters. There are a number of them, but they are all pretty flat – a bad person is just evil, a victim is just pitiable, a tenacious cop is just stubborn.  After the richly drawn, smart, funny, sometimes frustrating interplay between Jack and Sydney, the lack of nuance in everyone else is that much sharper.

But in the end, I want to just throw all the happy neurons at Simon Lelic for giving me something I have never seen before, because that’s really, really hard to do.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a taxidermied seagull, because I have got to see my cat’s reaction to that).

Loved this book!!