The Death of Mrs. Westaway, by Ruth Ware

Short Take: Last night I dreamt of Manderley… ahem… Trepassen again……

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(*Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review*)

I have always had a weird fixation on houses, especially old ones. I read The Witching Hour by Anne Rice obsessively, not just because of the creepy stuff or hot witch-on-witch action, but for the loving descriptions of the old Mayfair house being restored. There’s just something so delicious about an ancestral home, the one that’s been in the family for decades if not centuries, and the way they tend to become a starring character in some of my favorite stories.

In The Death of Mrs. Westaway, the house is known as Trepassen, and the unlikely heroine of the story is Harriet, or Hal for short. Hal works as a tarot card reader in a somewhat run down beach town, a trade she learned from her mother, who was killed by a drunk driver shortly before the start of the book. When we meet Hal, she’s flat broke, nearly homeless, and about to have her face kicked in by some very serious loan sharks.

So when she opens a letter addressed to her, stating that her grandmother has died, and Hal is  the sole heir of a massive estate, it seems like things might finally be breaking her way. Ok, the grandmother is someone she’s never heard of, and the person named as her mother in the letter is another stranger, and the letter was probably never meant for her in the first place, but if anyone could pretend to be the missing heir, it would have to be an experienced fortune teller.

And so, Hal travels to Trepassen, where she has to pretend to be a long-lost relative of people she’s never met. In order to play the part Hal tries to quietly snoop and learn as much as she can about them, but when her digging starts turning up skeletons that someone would rather keep buried, things take a Turn For The Worse.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, but I couldn’t help but feel like Ruth Ware had read Rebecca a whole bunch of times and used it as a template.

Chick with dude’s (nick)name? Check.

Ancestral home with dark secrets being investigated by our heroine? Check.

Creepy housekeeper screwing with our heroine at every turn? Check.

[spoiler] hidden in a [spoiler]? Check.

That last is a MAJOR plot point that I won’t describe, because it would be a huge spoiler and everyone would hate me forever after, but trust me – it was lifted directly out of Rebecca.

Of course, there are still plenty of differences, and overall, Mrs. Westaway is a lot of fun (especially the tarot stuff), but to me, there were just too many similarities, and it was distracting.

 

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and an Ace of Swords, just because it looks cool).

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Bring Me Back, by B. A. Paris

Short Take: VERY enjoyable, if you don’t think too hard about it.

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*Note: I received a free advance copy of this book for review.*

I LOVE road trips. Especially when someone else is driving, and I can enjoy some delicious books and thrilling unhealthy snacks while the wind is in my hair and the radio is playing. In theory, it’s fantastic. In practice, however, there are less-than-fun circumstances, like GPS sending you the wrong way, sitting for seven hours in traffic, arguments over the radio station, or all that fantastic junk food deciding that it’s not your friend after all.

Or, if you’re a strapping young lad named Finn on a trip with his girlfriend Layla, you could stop at a rest area to use the bathroom, and return to the car to find Layla has disappeared, which would definitely put a damper on the festivities.

Bring Me Back begins with Layla’s disappearance, then jumps ahead ten years. No trace of Layla has been found, and Finn has since become engaged to Layla’s sister Ellen (yes, it’s weird & creepy). With his life finally starting to come together after losing Layla, Finn is thrown back into the nightmare when someone begins sending him and Ellen messages and packages with meanings that only Layla would have known about.

So is Layla still alive? Or has whoever killed her and gotten away with it for ten years decided to play a sadistic game with Finn and Ellen?

I’ve seen similar setups in other books, but I have to say that I did not see the final twist coming. I was caught completely off guard, and that is generally a good thing, but the final reveal was so incredibly implausible that I just couldn’t buy in to it. It’s something that has been done a few times in other books & movies, and much more effectively, I think. And it only works if you assume that one of the main characters is a complete and total moron, more than a little blind and deaf, and self-centered to the point of caricature.

Ok, I’ll concede that last one. Finn was a class-A d-bag, with anger issues and pretty much zero redeeming qualities. And not in the fun, twisted, sociopathic kind of way, either, he’s just the guy that nobody likes having around.

If you’re willing to overlook an unlikable narrator though, and to just go along with the craziness, Bring Me Back is actually pretty fun. The pacing is spot-on, and the writing is engaging enough that I devoured this one like it was a gas station burrito and I was cruising down I-79 with the 80’s station playing.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some Clapton. LAAAAYYYYLLLAAAA!!! has been stuck in my head for days.)

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After Anna, by Lisa Scottoline

Short Take: Wait for it….. Waiiiiitttt for it…. Keep waiting…. Almost there…. Waiiiiitttttt…. OMG DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?????

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

I am not as smart as I like to think I am. See, I read the first three quarters of this book in a state of mild annoyance and semi-resigned boredom. I accepted After Anna in exchange for a review, which means I had to read the whole thing in order to write an accurate and honest review. Generally, I that’s not much of a hardship, but that first seventy-five percent of this one was a slog.

It starts when Maggie is reunited with Anna, the daughter she had lost custody of seventeen years before. Maggie went through a pretty rough bout of postpartum psychosis after Anna’s birth, and Anna’s wealthy caricature of a father, Florian, promptly took full custody of Anna, then dumped her with a series of nannies and boarding schools.

When Florian dies suddenly, Anna finally contacts Maggie, and both Maggie and her new husband, Noah, welcome Anna into their lives and home. Six weeks later, Anna is dead, and Noah is on trial for her murder. The book flips back and forth between Maggie and Noah’s sides of the story, and plays with alternating timelines – Noah’s trial, and the events leading up to Anna’s death.

And it’s kind of a pain to get through. It’s long, and drawn-out, and virtually every scene leading up to Anna’s death is played out repeatedly – it’ll be mentioned in the murder trial, and then we’ll get both Noah’s and Maggie’s perspective on it in multiple chapters. There are just too many words rehashing the same scene over and over, when really, anyone who has seen at least a few dozen Lifetime movies (and who here hasn’t???) would know within the first couple of chapters that Something Isn’t Right with Anna.

So there I am, going through chapter after chapter of “didn’t I just read this exact scene?” and “who brings a strange 17 year old home and then just immediately accepts everything they say at face value no matter how ridiculous?” and “there are only a few characters in this book, if Noah didn’t kill Anna, it’s going to be one of like two other people, I am A GENIUS” and so on, when OH. MY. WOW.

Everything turned sideways. I could hardly believe what a fantastic twist I was reading. The final quarter of After Anna moves at a breathless pace as Maggie starts putting pieces together and the absolutely batcrap insane truth starts coming out. I’ve been processing that ending for the last hour, and my gast remains flabbered.

So if you are willing to use a little patience getting through the beginning, the payoff is more than worth it.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a Top Gun DVD, because there’s a shortage of shirtless-man-volleyball montages in my life)

 

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Twisted Prey, by John Sandford

Short Take: NANANANA NANANANA DAVENPORT!!!
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*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*

Twisted Prey is the 28th (holy crap) entry in the Prey Series, and let me be right up front in saying that I have read and loved every single one of them, and I will also be the first to say that they are pretty darn ridiculous. In a fantastic way.

Our hero, Lucas Davenport is a cop. No, more than a cop, he’s smarter, tougher, richer, handsomer, and better dressed than you. He’s a millionaire a couple of dozen times over, drives a Porsche, wears fancy Italian suits and shoes, but what he loves more than anything in the world is catching bad guys. So what I’m saying is, he’s Batman. Unlike Bruce Wayne, however, Davenport has worked his way up from the bottom, starting as a lowly detective in Minneapolis. Through a couple of decades of solid police work, a massive body count, and a whole lotta dirt dug up on bigwig political types, he’s risen through the ranks and is now a US Marshall, with all of this great nation as his jurisdiction.

So when United States Senator Porter Smalls is involved in a car crash just outside of Washington DC that just might be an assassination attempt, Davenport is the guy to call. It doesn’t take long for Taryn Grant, Smalls’ biggest rival, and Davenport’s One Bad Guy That Got Away to become the number one suspect. Taryn is a sociopath, but she’s also very, very smart, and super wealthy, and is probably one of the few people who could be Davenport’s Joker….er, his equal.

Davenport knows that Taryn is behind the attempted murder. Taryn knows that Davenport knows that she’s behind it. Davenport knows that Taryn knows that he knows that she’s the mastermind, and that he’ll have to work this case with a large target on his back.

It’s a fun, fast, utterly delicious cat-and-mouse game. Twisted Prey follows the standard Prey template: a crazy crime, Lucas being summoned, Lucas rounding up his posse of bad-guy-catchers, a few more bodies thrown on the pile, some super-smart detectiving and some kind of resolution that may or may not be completely above-board, but is extremely satisfying nonetheless.

For all that, Sandford manages to keep it fresh. Even though Davenport is a man’s man fantasy of masculinity and over-the-top testosterone, the women are just as smart, tough, and wisecracking as the guys. Sandford’s dialogue is some of the best in the game, and every time I pick up a new Prey book (did I mention there are 28 of them so far???), I feel like I’m hanging out with old friends.

As great as that is, it’s also kind of problematic for the author, in terms of moving the series forward. Because Lucas is now a Marshall, he’s not tied to Minnesota. Which is a necessary step (how many psycho serial killers can one small-ish state hold?), but the usual cast of characters wasn’t around, and I found myself missing them. There wasn’t enough banter with his wife Weather, who was back in Minneapolis while Davenport was kickin hineys and takin names in Washington DC. I missed the oh-so-cleverly named Del Capslock, and Sherrill, and Sister Elle, and the rest of the regulars.

But who am I kidding, I’m going to keep reading, because even when new people come in, the cars are still fast, the women are still gorgeous, the mysteries are still smart, and Lucas is still a teensy bit psycho (in other words, just my type).
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a Range Rover Evoque. Because this winter is never-ending, and I’m ready to let my hair blow in the breeze).

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After The Woods, by Kim Savage

Short Take: Not at all what I was expecting. It was better.

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I’ve been on kind of a lady-thriller kick lately, and I haven’t been writing reviews, mainly because most of them tend to travel similar paths, and they all kind of blur together after a while. It was the scheming best friend, and/or the husband/boyfriend, always. I guess I’ve been craving some literary comfort food, not to mention that when I figure out the ending, I can congratulate myself on my mental superiority, no matter how obvious the clues were. I’m quite clever that way.

Except for the book that actually had a “they were dead THE WHOLE TIME!!” ending twenty years after that stopped being surprising. Seriously, that “shocking twist” is neither shocking nor a twist anymore and that particular trend in fiction needs to die out already.

But I digress. After The Woods looked to be more of the same – two girls go into the woods, and one comes out. The second girl emerges days later, traumatized, and unable to fully remember what happened.

It’s a familiar story on the surface. The prologue shows us Liv and Julia, best friends, out for a run in the woods. When Liv pulls ahead, she is grabbed by Donald Jessup, a sex offender with a huge knife and some very strange fixations. Julia catches up, tackles Jessup, and is taken hostage while Liv runs for help.

The book then jumps to nearly a year later.  Julia is in therapy, trying to remember what happened during the time of her captivity, and Liv is self-destructing with a violent new boyfriend, drugs, and an eating disorder. The press is gearing up to hound Julia for more juicy sound bites on the anniversary of The Event. And another girl’s body is found in the woods, but Donald Jessup has committed suicide months before, taking all of his secrets to the grave.  Julia is left as the one to try to figure out exactly what happened, and more importantly, why.

Adhering to my strict “no spoilers unless the book was really terrible and deserves it” policy, I’m not going to elaborate on the final outcome, other than to say that it caught me completely off-guard. I expected to be angry at [redacted] but ended up feeling pity and sorrow, along with hope for their future. That’s…. unusual for a genre in which the bad guy is always a nasty schemer with no conscience. Don’t get me wrong, there’s at least one of those (and oh what a piece of work they are!) but the humanity and empathy the author gives even her “bad” characters is unexpected, and quite lovely.

The opposite, yet equally compelling side of that is that the “good” characters have plenty of unlovely moments. Julia’s trauma often comes out as bitterness, anger, and sarcasm, and her mother, trying to protect her from further upset, usually just looks clueless and out of touch.

Another tasty little surprise was the author’s willingness to kill off her bad guy early on. It’s hard to build tension when the immediate threat is neutralized for pretty much the entire book, but Ms. Savage handled it so smoothly that Jessup’s absence was barely felt. It was a gutsy move that could have tanked the whole thing, but it worked.

My only real complaint with After The Woods was its large cast of minor characters. I get that the author was going for a claustrophobic small town vibe, but there were just too many students, teachers, parents, neighbors, newspersons, police, and even members of the clergy for a smallish book. Many of them only appeared in a scene or two, and could probably have been edited out or consolidated in some way. My sugar-soaked brain can only handle so many imaginary people in it before it rebels, especially right after the holidays.

All in all, however, After The Woods is a wonderfully layered novel. There’s the obvious surface mystery, but also so much more in the depths. I wasn’t expecting to see such nuanced examinations of friendships between high school girls, and mother-daughter relationships, and the ways in which we see and don’t see the people close to us.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and an old-school composition notebook. Great for nostalgia AND organizing one’s very dark thoughts.)

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Quiet Places, by Jasper Bark

Short Take: Readers: “You can’t fit this much cool story & history into a hundred pages.” — Jasper Bark: “Hold my beer.”

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*Note – I was sent a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*

Sometimes, I start reading a book and say to myself “Oh great, here we go again…” I’ve waxed eloquent (read: whined and complained) many times here about how overplayed most horror tropes are. And so I must confess, that when I read the prologue of Jasper Bark’s “Quiet Places”, I groaned inwardly a bit. Zombies, I thought. Here we go again with freakin zombies. I fully expected a rehash of the 1984 movie classic “Night of the Comet”, only probably without a delightful Valley Girl dress-up montage featuring Cyndi Lauper singing in the background (which, let’s face it, just isn’t done enough anymore).

I stuck with it though, because I’m a little OCD about finishing books, and WHOA. I don’t think it’s too spoiler-y to say that Quiet Places is most emphatically NOT about zombies. Or any other beastie that I can remember encountering before.

Quiet Places is the story of Sally McCavendish, and her partner David, who move to the tiny town of Dunballan in the Scottish Highlands after David inherits a beautiful estate and property. There’s more to David’s family legacy than Sally ever could have imagined, however, including a horrific beast, a talking spirit in the hedgerow, and an inter-generational curse, and Sally will have to go up against powerful forces she doesn’t fully understand to keep David’s soul (and their life together) intact.

The story unfolds through Sally’s eyes. As an outsider to the town, the family, and the complicated, conjoined history of both, she is always slightly off-center, never sure who she can trust, or what anyone’s intentions are. Mr. Bark does a fantastic job of giving the reader the same sense of being inside a kaleidoscope, with the ground constantly shifting underfoot. He deftly skips among multiple timelines, with chapters jumping back and forth between a few days, months, decades or centuries. There are delightful contrasts all around – the banality of a Tupperware box, for example, containing a bodily-fluid-soaked lure for a supernatural entity.

Quiet Places is surprisingly coherent for all that, and don’t let its short length fool you – there is a LOT of story here, and all of it is fascinating, especially the history and philosophical ideas. 

There’s just one small flaw that I noticed a few times throughout the book, and I’m honestly not sure if it is a deliberate style choice or an unconscious tic of the author’s, but I found it grating. Occasionally, when writing an otherwise fine descriptive passage, Mr. Bark dips into the second person. An example: “It ruffled the grass, rattled the hedges, and lifted Sally’s hair and skirt, but she couldn’t feel it on her skin, nor could she smell any of the scents that a wind such as this usually carried. It was almost entirely bodiless, you could see and experience its effects, but you couldn’t feel them.”

Something about the sudden appearance of “you” makes the writing feel less like a journey in the hands of a highly competent author (which it genuinely is, otherwise) and more like an essay written at lunchtime by a high school student who hopes the teacher won’t deduct points for the food stains on his paper. It’s a jolt out of the narrator’s head, a sudden shift in voice that interrupts the flow and the mood.

At the end of the day though, a great story is a great story, and it takes a lot more than a few grammatical quirks to keep me from craving more.

The Nerd’s Rating: Four Happy Neurons (and a thick juicy steak, hold the secret ingredients!)

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How To Be A Vigilante, by Luke Smitherd

 

Short Take: A Confederacy of Dunces, rewritten as a nightmare.

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(Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into here. Yes, I read and reviewed one of Mr. Smitherd’s books a while back, and despite its occasional warts, I enjoyed it immensely. Mentally, I filed him as an author of sci-fi/horror, who amused me a bit, and went on my merry way. This book, however, was nothing like his other work.

The plot is pretty simple, and timely with the current glut of superheroes in the entertainment world. Nigel Carmelite has a life that is astounding in how perfectly ordinary it is. He’s eighteen years old, works in a grocery store, and lives with his mother and brother in a medium sized town in England. What sets him apart, however, is his determination to become the next Batman. The fact that he is physically substandard and mentally not quite all there won’t slow him down.

This book is his diary of everything he does in his quest, including designing his costume, choosing a superhero name, joining a gym and martial arts class, going on a date, and of course, all of his crime-fighting activities.

When I received an email giving me an overview of Vigilante, the description included “Psychological Thriller/Horror” or “Suspense and Mystery”, which of course, is right up my alley.

So there I was, twenty-something chapters in, completely gobsmacked and befuddled that I seemed to be re-reading A Confederacy of Dunces.  There were no supernatural shenanigans, no otherworldly oddities in sight. Now, don’t get me wrong, Dunces is a classic for a reason, and Nigel perfectly channels Ignatius J. Reilly in his inflated opinion of his own abilities, and his weird conflicted relationship with his mother.  It was hilarious. But seriously, where was the horror?

I almost wish I hadn’t asked.

See, it was around the 30 chapter mark that Vigilante started to dip down into some kind-of worrying depths. Nigel really really really wants to do the right thing. He wants justice for the little guy, for everyone who’s ever been bullied or victimized in some way to know that they have a protector.  But eventually, it becomes clear that Nigel doesn’t have a clear understanding of either his own limitations, and grasps even less of the world around him, that his own personal road to hell could be paved and with the very best intentions.

And around the 45-chapter mark, I started to dread where this was going. I seriously did not want to finish it. Not because the book was bad, no, because it was so realistic that I could feel the tension in the pit of my stomach. I had a few ideas of what might happen, but I was wrong. The ending was far more traumatizing than anything I could’ve thought up.

Vigilante isn’t for everyone. The first half is a slow burn, and Nigel is a compulsive over-sharer. The endless details of his preparation to venture into the gritty streets, at times, were mind-numbing. I get that it’s the character, and the obsessive attention to detail is because he thinks he’s writing to the massive audience he’ll have one day. He believes that his journal will inspire as well as teach others to follow in his footsteps; therefore, every detail is important. Like I said, I get it, but there were spots that felt repetitive and monotonous. Then again, the lulling effects of all these minutiae made it all the more devastating when the author decided to yank the rug out from under me.

But for all that, there were far more great parts. Despite the rising tension, the cultural differences in the USA and UK made for some fun moments for me. Like, the name Nigel. Seriously, is there like a law in the UK that 40% of male babies have to be named either Nigel or Simon? And the fact that Nigel doesn’t need a bulletproof vest, because the UK criminals don’t have guns. What? That might be enough to make this pacifist nerd overlook the weird food over there.

I definitely recommend this book, but be warned! The Night Man doesn’t play around.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some gaffa tape, for all your crime-fighting needs!)

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