Ghostland, by Duncan Ralston

Short Take: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

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Good morning my marvelous nerdlings, and Happy New Year!! I would rattle off a list of impressive sounding resolutions, but I’ve been around the sun a whole lot of times, and I am at the point where my resolutions would fall into two major categories: They are either things I should do but probably won’t (less junk food, more veggies) or things I would be doing anyway (read lots of cool books and write a bunch of hilarious yet brilliantly insightful reviews).

So in the spirit of fun new things, let’s talk about Duncan Ralston’s Ghostland, a marvelous blend of horror, sci-fi, and urban legends, shall we? 

When best friends Ben and Lillian are fifteen years old, construction begins on Ghostland, an “amusement” park made up of actual haunted buildings from around the world, painstakingly disassembled and transported to the park. It also features tech that allows guests to see and interact with real ghosts. Needless to say, the implications of that are vast and horrifying – not only is there definitive proof of an afterlife, but the spirits were once people, who are now trapped and enslaved, forced to relive their deaths over and over for the entertainment of the living.

But there’s a much more personal story at work here too. On the day that Rex Garrote’s house is moved to the park, Ben nearly dies, and his friendship with Lillian is destroyed. Three years later, they return to the park together with Lillian’s therapist, Allison, to put ghosts both literal and metaphorical to rest. But of course, something Goes Terribly Wrong, and a simple visit to a new attraction becomes a Deadly Fight For Survival as the dead take gruesome revenge on the living, and the gates are sealed shut.

Duckies, there is a LOT to this book. I can’t say enough about Mr. Ralston’s ambition, and incredible mix of genres, fact, fiction, and action in this book.  There were three aspects that had me picking my jaw up off the floor.

First off, we need to talk about Rex Garrote. Of all the creations and re-imaginings in Ghostland, the Sutter-Cane-esque madman/horror author is my favorite. Mr. Garrote wrote several books, hosted a TV show, amassed a fortune, and then committed suicide in a horrific way, leaving behind his own haunted house, the seeds of what would later become Ghostland, and maybe a bit more.

Secondly, the footnotes and index of ghosts in the park was a brilliant touch. The list ran the gamut from the “real-life” and well-known evil spirits like Annabelle to completely fictional creations, all blended seamlessly to create a beautifully immersive universe. It’s evocative of the newspaper articles and scholarly papers in Carrie, among other classics, and gives a rather outlandish story that extra bit of realism. Seriously, some next-level storytelling.

Finally, I loved loved LOVED that Mr. Ralston didn’t shy away from the backlash to Ghostland, the protests and hashtags (#GRP2, aka, Ghosts Are People Too) that would inevitably result from such a discovery. I don’t like to get too political on this site, but seeing discussions about who deserves to have which rights play out over and over, well… it’s not hard to draw a parallel between the undead and real-world marginalized groups, and very thought-provoking. 

But for all the ultra-ambitious story-telling, well-drawn characters, fantastic pacing, and amazing setting, there’s one bit of sand in my shorts with Ghostland, and that’s the editing. I don’t usually criticize typos or occasional spelling errors because that stuff slips through in every book, no matter how many editors scour it. But there were a few sections in Ghostland that would have benefited greatly from a harsh red-pen wielding jerk doing a thorough read-through. 

For example, there’s a scene where Ben and Lillian both dive into a truck from the passenger side, and it’s not clear who’s driving, but then somehow Ben is working the clutch from the passenger side while Lillian is doing the driving? It’s impossible to follow or visualize and the resulting confusion takes a lot away from the tension of the scene, and deals a blow to the otherwise-amazing world-building and continuity.

But then the epilogue happens, and well, this mean old reviewer might’ve misted up a teensy bit. Just read Ghostland, you’ll be glad you did.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a copy of The House Feeds, it looks really good & I can’t find it anywhere.)

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The Dead Girls Club, by Damien Angelica Walters

Short Take: Have I mentioned that pre-teen girls are terrifying? Because THEY ARE.

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

Happy Sunday my sweet nerdlings! I come to you from the depths of post-Halloween malaise and an unrelenting chocolate hangover. I don’t know about all of you, but I am not a fan of the “Halloween is over, bring on Christmas now now now!” thing that’s been taking over November for the last few years. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas, but I would kind of like to catch my breath and maybe have Thanksgiving in there somewhere? 

So what I’m saying is that I’ve been working myself into a righteous funk and the only cure for that, as we all know, is a delicious book. So it tickles me right down to the giblets that The Dead Girls Club landed in my lap.

Heather Cole is a child psychologist, going about her usual daily routine, when she gets an unexpected delivery in the mail – half of a “Best Friends” necklace that was worn by Becca, Heather’s preteen BFF. But Heather hasn’t seen Becca since they were twelve, and never expected to hear from her either, because Heather killed Becca way back then.

(This is not a spoiler by the way, it’s revealed very early in the book. Feel free to complain about anything else I say however, I can be pretty irritating.)

From there, the story flips back and forth between present-day Heather, who keeps getting unwanted souvenirs of that last night with Becca, and almost-adolescent-Heather, who doesn’t quite grasp all the undercurrents in her friend’s life or why Becca is so obsessed with morbid stories. What starts as Becca, Heather, Rachel and Gia getting together to give themselves the giggly shivers talking about gruesome crimes becomes something much darker when Becca fixates on the story of the Red Lady, a woman killed for witchcraft whose vengeful spirit still works spells but always exacts a horrific price. As Becca’s obsession deepens, fear and friendship are the irresistible force and immovable object – pulling tighter together even as they destroy each other, leading up to that final, tragic night.

The Dead Girls Club is a fun, twisty, tightly-plotted exploration of a society-wide phenomenon that almost nobody talks about: we are all fixated on dead girls. If you look at some of the most sensational news-making cases, from JonBenet to Laci to Nicole, there’s usually a girl or young woman with a sunny smile at the heart of it. Look at our fascination with serial killers like Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy who gleefully destroy female bodies.  And let’s not forget the cop procedural shows that almost always open with an artfully framed shot of a female corpse – manicured fingers tinted blue, a hint of thigh with a carefully centered scrape, full lips and perfect teeth being gently pulled open by gloved fingers to reveal a clue.

Even our undead, like the most recent incarnation of The Mummy or any and all vampire or werewolf movies that include the fairer sex make them WAY fairer – perfect bodies, skimpy clothes, long glossy hair, a kind of dark allure that signals seduction far more than terror.  

So is it any wonder that young girls fixate on the morbid? Deep down, they internalize from a very early age that being a Dead Girl is something special. They’ll be forever beautiful and young and immortalized in a dozen different ways in the media, a weird form of celebrity. Never mind that everyone remembers the names of the killers but rarely the victims. 

(There’s also a whole dissertation to be written on the idea that by venerating Dead Girls we’re conditioning young women to accept violence toward themselves as inevitable and even glamorous, but I just don’t have the intestinal fortitude to look too closely at that one this morning.)

Going back to the book (I swear I’m making some kind of point here), Becca’s single minded obsession with the Red Lady – victim-turned-victimizer – is beautifully, tragically, hauntingly perfect.. As the girls chant her name and their lives grow stranger, as Heather-of-today sees everything important in her life being threatened by the stalker who knows her darkest secret, well, let’s just say Vincent the cat is feeling somewhat neglected as I couldn’t focus on anything until I finished reading.

And oh duckies, the final twist left me speechless, for reasons that had nothing to do with the Milk Duds I was eating at the time. I’m not going to elaborate, but WOW. 

I did have one complaint.  I’m not sure if it would be considered a spoiler, so I’m just going to say that young girls are not always reliable narrators, and I found some of their story problematic. But overall, Ms. Walters delivered.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some mini Twix bars, I need to get the rest of this Halloween candy out of here to make room for pumpkin pie!)

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The Dead Don’t Sleep, by Steven Max Russo

Short Take: The ghosts of the past are the REALLY terrifying ones.

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

It’s Halloween, y’all, and I am PUMPED to take the nerdling out tonight, despite a forecast calling for cold, rain, and possibly snow. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not usually an outdoor person even when the weather is ideal, but, well, there is candy involved, and I will do a lot of things outside my comfort zone for a pile of candy.

No, not that, you sickos.

ANYWAY.

This is the time of year when most reviewers are jumping on the supernatural horror train, but let’s be honest here – I read that stuff all the time, so while it would probably be appropriate to post a review of something demonic, it’s a little too on the nose for me. So instead, I’m going to talk about the scariest monsters of all: human ones who not only enjoy killing, but have been trained to do it very, very well.

When Bill Thompson’s elderly Uncle Frank loses his wife of forty-five years, Bill does what any loving nephew would do. He invites Frank to take a break from his houseful of memories and never-ending stream of well-meaning casserole-bearing neighbors in Maine to come and visit Bill and his family in New Jersey for a few days. It’s a nice-enough visit (given the reason), but when they go to a firing range for a few hours of target practice, Frank runs into a fellow Vietnam vet with whom he shares a horrific history.

Although both men are now in their seventies, Jasper recognizes Frank immediately, and just as quickly, decides to get revenge for what Frank did fifty years ago. 

Now, you might think this would play out like Grumpy Old Men, but you would be very, very wrong. Because Frank and Jasper were both part of a very deadly, very secret unit back then. So when Jasper rounds up a couple of the other “All-Stars” (what they called themselves in Vietnam) and goes on a little hunting trip to Maine, what ensues is not funny AT ALL. 

This is where I usually give a hilarious summary of my feelings on a book, but I’m going to break in with a serious bit of personal info for a minute. My father was a Vietnam vet (RIP Pappy), and I think that Mr. Russo did a spot-on job of describing how vets shove their experiences down in order to relate to civilians. I grew up hearing funny stories of pranks and drunken shenanigans and one particular family legend involving a ring he bought for my mom getting dropped through a fence, and a skinny Vietnamese kid being bribed to climb through and get it. To hear dad tell it, the war was one big party, and I loved, loved LOVED that Frank was the same way. I found myself nodding along with his thoughts more than once, and chuckling at my own memories right along with Bill’s.

So on that deep character and relationship level, The Dead Don’t Sleep works perfectly. And as an action-y cat & mouse tale with lots of guns going boom and bad guys doing bad things, it’s definitely fun. 

But the pacing was just a little bit off. Scenes of characters getting ready for something exciting seemed to linger just a few beats too long, and to someone like me who doesn’t know an M-16 from an AK-47, the many, many gun descriptions were wasted space. Mossberg and Fox and Glock probably mean something to a lot of readers, but it was all gibberish to this pacifist nerd.

Another thing that bugged me was that we have four guys in their 70’s, a couple of which are heavy drinkers with lousy diets, and they are all soldiering around the forest in winter like it ain’t no thing. Nobody has arthritis or a bad knee? No blood pressure stuff or even acid reflux? No breaking a hip while diving behind a tree? 

Finally, The Dead Don’t Sleep is well-written, but it has a slightly dated, hyper-macho-80’s-action-movie vibe. Frank is compared to Rambo a few times, and it’s supposed to be a compliment, but Dad HATED those movies – something about a draft-dodger pretending to be a war hero rubbed him wrong. It cheapens Frank as a character, making him less human, and more alpha-male fantasy. 

But for all its flaws, I couldn’t put it down. There’s something compelling about the everlasting invisible wounds of war, and I don’t think enough people appreciate the courage it takes for combat veterans to live an ordinary life, to deal with things like mortgage payments and washing dishes when they feel like they’ve lost part of their soul. 

And I really, really need to start jogging or something, yikes.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a huge pile of candy, I’ll start working out tomorrow. Or maybe the next day. Happy Halloween!!!!)

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American Homemaker, by John Kaine

Short Take:  Finally! Proof that a messy house is a sign of a healthy psyche.

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Hello, my duckies, from the land of Finally Fall! The leaves aren’t quite ready to change, but the temperature is finally below “the air is lava” and you guys know what that means, right? Halloween is coming, and I for one am all about horror movie marathons and shamelessly exploiting my adorable progeny for lots and lots of candy.

Speaking of shamelessly exploiting people, let me introduce you to American Homemaker.

Kim Loomis Has It All. She’s a successful-enough businesswoman (in a small town like Montpelier, the three competing funeral homes only get so much business), always dressed perfectly in the latest most expensive clothes, and president of the Homemakers Association of Vermont.

The last accomplishment isn’t quite as prestigious as it sounds, as the HAV only has three other members at the moment, but Kim has big plans. Of course, with such a small group of women, a certain amount of jealousy and gossip is bound to ensue, but seriously…. How DOES Kim afford the clothes, Mercedes, and everything else with such a limited client base? The more Kim glosses over the truth of her lifestyle, the more determined club member Megan becomes to unearth her secret.

In another state (and really, another world) Melody Morgan has a thriving career, because let’s face it: As long as spouses leave crumbs on the counter and toothpaste in the sink, there will ALWAYS be a market for contract killers. She can’t exactly show off her wealth or brag about her skills, and she has to keep her social circle small, of course. After the job that was supposed to be her last Goes Horribly Wrong, Melody finds herself in the crosshairs of some very, very bad people.

And back in scenic, quaint Montpelier, a twelve year old boy has gone missing, and a whole lot of horrific long-buried truths might be exposed to the light at last.

Y’all, this one is BANANAS. For 370-ish pages, there’s an insane amount of story. We get the perspectives of not only Kim & Melody, but also the kidnapped Evan and his best friend Corey, Corey’s dad, at least one particularly murderous member of a ruthless drug cartel, and all of the ladies of the club. Virtually all of the women in this story are egocentric, obsessive, and unlikable, and not-coincidentally, tremendously entertaining. 

And, my beloved nerdlings, do you really need me to tell you that twists and turns abound? Because they do, oh, do they ever. But in American Homemaker, it’s not so much about the twisty plot or crazy-sudden outbursts of violence. No, this one is all about the characters, and how bad people can do good things and vice versa, and how notions like good and bad can always be contorted into each other to the point that they don’t matter anyway. Not to mention a uniquely American strain of image-conscious sociopathy that seems to be taking over the world.

(Let me briefly interject that I seem to be immune to that one, I’m quite comfy in my slovenly skin, thank you very much, and I have zero desire to “curate” anything ever.)

There’s so much discussion to be had, so many twists within turns and ugly secrets within outward perfection that I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of a single facet of a priceless gem.

Which is why the ending was such a shock. Of course this will always be a spoiler free zone, but after spending so much tension-filled time with a main character, it was a bucket of ice water to the sensitive parts when the camera cut away from them.

To Mr. Kaine’s credit, American Homemaker doesn’t have the cash-grab sequel-setup feel that I have come to loathe, and most of the major plotlines are wrapped up in perfectly fulfilling ways, but the ambiguity of that one person’s fate still doesn’t sit quite right. The best stories leave you wanting more, but this one just left me feeling a bit deprived. Granted, it’s easy enough to imagine what happens next, but it’s just not the same.

Definitely still worth the ride though.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a bucket full of Reese’s cups, because if Walmart can start Christmas right now, I can start Halloween.)

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The Hanged Man And The Fortune Teller, by Lucy Banks

Short Take: Existence is futile.

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

It occurs to me that a lot of my reading lately could be summed up with the word “overheated”. I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers in which the stakes are high, the romance is steamy, and the main character’s life is on the line at all times.

So I wasn’t really sure how to feel at first about Lucy Banks’ The Hanged Man and the Fortune Teller, because, for starters, the protagonist is already dead. We first meet The Ghost (his name is never given) in an internet cafe in 2017, as he watches a tortured young man compose email after email, trying to win back the love of his life. The Ghost doesn’t really understand the technology, but he remembers love, and it’s through his no-longer-existing eyes that we experience relationships through the last 140 years – good, bad, and in some cases, very ugly.

He’s accompanied by another spirit, the enigmatic fortune teller Agnes.  She remembers everything of life, while The Ghost remembers nothing – not his name or hers, not his wife or family, and nothing of his death.

Hanged Man is narrated entirely by The Ghost, but in two different timelines. We get to see his life in the last year or so leading up to his death, interspersed with his experiences from the present day backwards, as he finds himself tethered to various living people. He has no idea why or how he becomes attached to them, and as more time passes from his own death, he remembers less and less.

Slow-moving but written in a captivatingly poetic style, the author has pulled off one of the more fantastic tricks I’ve seen recently: a main character/narrator defined by an almost complete lack of traits. The Ghost can feel discomfort or sadness when in close proximity to the living who are feeling those things, but he has no emotions on his own behalf, no memories from which to draw reactions, only a vague sense of the person he was, a faint idea that he had a wife who he would like to find.

And after reading so many great thrillers populated by desperate, passionate characters, there is something soothing about the ghost’s detachment – a metaphysical cool hand on my sweaty little nerd-brow. 

The only less-great part was a scene where our Ghost observes a famous historical event. Sure, the timeline works, and when reading a story whose narrator died 140 years ago, a certain suspension of disbelief is necessary, but Hanged Man really works best when it’s focused on the small private moments that make up a life (or an afterlife). Seeing, for example, the effect of WWII bombings on a family works, but just watching something more tabloid-y, not as much.

Finally, I’ve never seen the Thames, but I hope it’s a lot cleaner now, because if not, I’m sorry, London. I live in the Rust Belt which has its own form of funk, but that stuff going on over there was straight nasty.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a cup of tea, of course)

Lock Every Door, by Riley Sager

Short Take: A brilliant homage to a well-known classic. With a twist.

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

Y’all, my birthday is next week, and my family decided to celebrate this weekend, so I have had WAY too much food, booze, and sun to be anything approaching functional this afternoon. I regret nothing (yet). 

But being a total overindulgent hedonist for a couple of days has reminded me of the necessity of the occasional rule or boundary. Moderation is your friend, and extremes are NEVER good – just ask Jules.

So, stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Young, naive-ish girl (Jules) moves to the Big Apple to pursue her dreams, or maybe to escape a troubled past involving dead parents and a missing sister. She’s offered a job that seems too good to be true (apartment sitting in one of the most exclusive buildings in the city for a VERY generous salary), but something seems Not Quite Right.

Despite enough red flags to outfit a platoon of matadors, Jules takes the job. The rules are highly rigid – no visitors, no leaving overnight, and DO NOT bother the other residents. Of course Jules has a bit of trouble following that last one. She soon learns that some of the residents are quite friendly, others extremely antisocial, but all of them seem to have some secret that they aren’t willing to share. 

As Jules tries to unravel both the building’s bloodsoaked history, and more recent disappearances, it soon becomes clear that Nobody Can Be Trusted, and that Jules herself may be the next victim.

Lock Every Door is a fantastic piece of mood and atmosphere building. The Bartholomew –  small and narrow, adorned with capering gargoyles, vintage fixtures, and Rohrshach wallpaper that could resemble flowers or screaming faces – is both oppressive and alluring. The other residents are a fun mix of eccentricities, ages, and professional pedigrees.

However, there’s a major chunk of the story that seems to be a throwback to another horror classic, and it’s kind of distracting and at times, infuriating. I don’t want to spoil anything, but for a solid third of the book, my poor over-sugared brain was screaming DUDE STOP STEALING IDEAS YOU’RE BETTER THAN THIS!! The only thing missing is a certain iconic haircut.

But just when I was getting ready to quit, the twist happened, and oh my nerdlings: It. Is. Delicious. So stick with it, even when you start getting mad, and it’ll all pay off in the end.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and probably some kind of cleanse or something, cause it’s been a seriously GREAT weekend.)

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The Rumor, by Lesley Kara

Short Take: Great story messed up by a weird editorial choice.

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

You guys, this summer is the gift that keeps on giving. First the cicada swarm, then a whole bunch of not-very-summery weather, and lastly, finding not one but TWO dead bloated raccoons in the pool. I want a do-over, but will have to settle for some fun twisty thrillers instead. Like The Rumor.

Joanna is a single mom who’s recently returned to Flinstead, the small town where she grew up. Having left the city to raise six year old Alfie in a safer, quieter place, she’s beset by a whole new set of stressors.

There’s the much smaller income of a real estate agent in a very limited market, and her complicated on-again, off-again relationship with Alfie’s journalist father Michael. And speaking of Alfie, he’s having a hard time making friends in his new school, much as Joanna is among the adults.

So when Joanna happens across a juicy piece of gossip, well, that’s the richest kind of currency for a certain type of mom group. There are whispers that Sally McGowan, notorious for killing a little boy at the tender age of 10 in the 1960’s, is now living in Flinstead under an assumed identity.

The moms aren’t the only ones who are enthralled by the rumor. Michael finds the idea of an exclusive sensational story (and by extension, Joanna) irresistible, and begins spending more and more time with Joanna and Alfie. Joanna’s acceptance into the “cool” mom clique means that Alfie is being invited to parties and playdates.

But this particular rumor isn’t just a bit of harmless fun. The people of the town, especially the mothers, are horrified that a child killer might be living among them – no matter if the crime occurred over 50 years ago, and the ten year old who committed it is now a senior citizen.

With no real information on who Sally McGowan might be now, paranoia ramps up to Salem Witch Hunt levels, and oh my nerdlings, do you need me to tell you that everything quickly Spirals Out Of Control? Because it does, in spectacular fashion.

I really loved the twists, and the fictionalizing of the Mary Bell case, which is still one of the most captivating stories I’ve come across. That the porcelain-doll looking child with extraordinary dark eyes could do something so horrific… well, I can understand why the people of Flinstead freaked the heck out. And the final scenes had me breathless.

But there was one glaring problem with this book: its nationality. It’s my understanding that it was originally written and published in the UK under the name The Rumour. But for some reason, upon being published in the US, someone made the decision to change the setting of the book to the US.

This is problematic on a couple of levels. First, I’ve read plenty of British books, and as a US citizen, I’ve never had an issue with it. Sure, calling fries “chips” is weird, but eventually, lifts, flats, lorries, telly and so on is no big deal.

The real obstacle to enjoyment of The Rumor is that the Britishisms keep creeping in. I understand that my version was an uncorrected ARC, but when the name of the town changes between Flinstead (American) and Flinstead-On-Sea (British), it’s pointlessly distracting. Why not just leave the setting alone?

Have publishers decided that Americans are so intolerant of ANY cultural differences that they assume we’ll reject works that come out of ENGLAND of all places??? Frankly, it’s a little insulting, not to mention annoying.

But man, that final reveal, when we learn what REALLY became of little Sally McGowan… just whoa.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some American-type chips. Because while British slang doesn’t twist my knickers, the food could definitely be problematic.)

 

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