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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Until Her Darkness Goes, by Rana Kelly

Short Take: I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying!

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

I will be the first to admit that Darkness is not my usual jam. It wouldn’t have been my first pick when perusing the shelves, probably not even my second or third.

See, I think that most romance books are ridiculous bordering on abusive towards women. For decades, it’s been the rich or powerful or both and totally gorgeous guy rescuing the poor maiden from her ordinary life of ordinariness. The poor innocent naive girl has no idea what life or passion really means, so thank goodness this perfect specimen can teach her!  And if she’s not initially receptive, then his gorgeous powerfulness will wear her down eventually!

Give me a break. And let me just add that the current trend of clumsy/awkward women who seriously have NO idea, none whatsoever, that they are impossibly beautiful, is not an acceptable substitute for giving them an actual personality.

So when Ms. Kelly offered to send me her book, and told me a bit about her main character Rachel (professional, smart, bipolar, a little self-destructive), and Rachel’s love interest, Nicky (singer, junkie, major family issues), I found myself more than a little intrigued, and agreed to take it for a spin.

I’m glad I did.

Rachel is a music executive who’s on the verge of losing it all due to both a declining music industry and her own tendencies toward the extreme. One night, she wanders into a bar on impulse (which is, really, the way she does most things) and hears a band whose sound could resurrect her career, and make Murder of Crows world-famous. The lead singer is Nicky McCallum, who’s a major talent, a relative hottie, and battling more demons than Jerry Falwell in the 80’s.

Darkness is an earnest, heartfelt exploration of what happens when two people have major sharp jagged edges that COULD line up perfectly, but only maybe.  And a bit of turning and twisting and trying to force it will leave them both bloody and raw. It’s a peek behind the curtain of mental illness, in which not only are emotions heightened by the disease, but every reaction and thought has to be examined in light of it. Is this a “normal” feeling? Is my “disease” making me over-react? Where is the line between genuine grief and heartache vs. “me just being bipolar again”?

It’s exhausting to even contemplate.

This is not to say that Darkness is perfect. Ms. Kelly is a first-time author, and as such, she tends to fall into a few traps. For one thing, there’s a tendency to tell more than show with regards to Rachel’s mental state; that is, there’s a lot of her saying she’s bipolar, and other people referring to her disorder, but not much of her really behaving THAT far outside the lines. For much of the book, she’s dealing with some pretty heavy no-joke for-real trauma, and to be honest, her reactions don’t seem that far outside the pale.

Also, while Rachel and Nicky are interesting and complex, some of the other characters are less fleshed out, more a single personality trait than a real person.

Despite its flaws, however, Darkness eventually pulled me in and kept me in. The first half was a little slow, but once I read the part where (just kidding, no spoilers here), I couldn’t put it down. This book was dark, and sad, and sexy, and messy, and just so human.  It’s a romance for people who think romance is stupid.

It’ll be interesting to see what this author does in the future. Maybe she could write some excellent horror….

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a blistering guitar solo. Because I’m totally craving one right now.)

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The Shaun Hupp Collection, Volume 1, by Shaun Hupp

Short Take:  Shaun Hupp has guts.  And they are all over the pages.51GL5H8xe1L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

 

Note:  I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

This book is a little different, in that it’s not exactly a collection of short stories, and not exactly a single story.  There are actually four medium-length stories in The Collection, with a fifth story serving as a framing device.  It’s a clever trick, no question, but it also makes a little difficult to review, as neither of my usual formats (short story collections vs. single tales) quite works.  So I’m going to do a little bit of my usual reviewer-stuff for each of the five elements that make up this book, and hopefully, I’m reasonably coherent.

The framing story begins with a stressed-out, exasperated mother of a teenage girl meeting a strange, sickly old man on the subway.  He tells her a terrible story (“I Will Make You Love Me”) before moving on to other passengers in other cars, telling each of them a tale of horror that resonates with something in their own life.  Although we are shown early on that his intent is probably evil, we don’t understand his true purpose until the end.  And it is FUN.

The first story, “I Will Make You Love Me” is the tale of a young woman being held hostage by a former lover. The flashback sequences in this one were impressive.  The pacing, and jumping back and forth between Megan’s history with Nick, and her budding relationship with Shannon was deftly handled.  I can’t say enough good things about the tempo during one critical scene, where the protagonist is waiting for something horrible to happen, and focusing on happy memories at the same time.  It’s a terrifying, breathless countdown, that I wanted to hurry through and savor at the same time.

The ending was kind of predictable, if you’ve read a lot of horror.  But the story itself was very well-written, and as I said, the pacing was fantastic.

In “The Worst Kind of Monster”, Dustin is a six year old boy with a pretty awful home life who hears a monster in his basement one night and decides to find out for himself what’s going on.  Mr. Hupp really shines when showing us the world through Dustin’s eyes.   He acts like a real little boy, and the dread we feel when following his investigation is intense.

I should add that I thought I had figured out the monster thing would go one of two ways, and I was happy (and more than a little horrified) when I found out I was wrong.  The gore is heavy in this one, bordering on torture porn.  But that wasn’t the scariest part of this story.  The final sentence is going to stay with me for a long, long time.  This is one of those “OH MY GOD THIS IS HORRIBLE I DON’T WANT THIS IN MY BRAIN” but at the same time “OH MAN I NEVER SAW THAT COMING I KIND OF LOVE IT” stories.  But absolutely not for those with delicate sensibilities.  You were warned!

“Last Words” is very similar to “I Will Make You Love Me”, in that it involves a woman being held captive, this time, along with her boyfriend.  The kidnapper, Adam, is kind of an odd character, in that he seems to bounce between serial killer/sociopath cliches and very human oddities and quirks.  Some of the dialogue rang a bit false, but there was at least one twist that I didn’t see coming, and I always like that.   

That said, I just didn’t care for the ending of “Last Words”.  The denouement was unnecessary to the rest of the story, and turned what would have been a fairly complete tale into an introduction to a whole other story that wasn’t included.  I would have preferred either just this story, with the rest of it, as a separate book, or for the final bit to be cut out.  And let me just take a second to say EW EW EW GROSS YUK – there are loads of gore in this one.

The final story, “Pound” is where Shaun Hupp really drops all pretense and shows us what he’s made of.  It’s two completely different stories, one of sudden, shocking violence during a home invasion and one of an overheated, disturbed high school boy who’s home alone when his dream girl knocks on the door.  The narration flips back and forth, and if you’re like me, you’ll be simultaneously following the action, and wracking your brain to figure out how the stories will collide.  When they eventually intertwine, the results are completely unexpected.  

So what did I think overall?

I’m well aware that I’m in a minority here, but to me, gore and horror are two different animals.  Gore is the terrible thing you see, and horror is the terrible thing you don’t.  I always tend to prefer the latter, and so to me, some of the more extreme elements in this book took away from the good stuff.  At times, it felt like the author was going for shock value, instead of using his obvious skills to go for more subtle jabs to the reader’s psyche.  Given Mr. Hupp’s flair for character, pacing, and telling a damn cool story, I feel like he could’ve toned down some of the over-the-top violence and had something just as good, and maybe even more effective.

There were also a few rookie mistakes, such as the occasional tendency to over-explain circumstances, and few paragraphs here and there that felt more like chunks of information which, while they might be relevant, slowed down the action.  But this book is a solid foundation on which to build, and I believe that Shaun Hupp is going to be a horror author to watch.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some carrot sticks.  I think I’m off cheeseburgers for a while.)

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The Heroin Diaries, by Nikki Sixx

Short Take: Yeah, it’s the same old, same old situaaaaaaaation…..

Give your brain a snack!

Man, I love 80’s hair metal.  I’m probably revealing myself as an Old Person, but back in the day, I couldn’t get enough of Poison, Whitesnake, Winger, Warrant and all the rest of them.  C’mon… Kip Winger?  RAWR.  Jani Lane in white leather pants?  Yes please.  

But all of those guys, as sexy but “dangerous” as they were, were tame compared to the boys in Motley Crue.  And during my naive-but-headbanging youth, I had no idea exactly how wild those Crue boys could be.

Usually, in this part of a review, I describe the plot of a book, but do we really need it for this one?  Rock star recovery books have become so common at this point that they are a cliche.  I’ve read more than a few of them, heck, even some written by other people who are in Sixx’s book.  In a nutshell, every one of them follows the same pattern:  the downward spiral of addiction that mirrors the upward climb of superstardom, increasing tension within the band and disintegrating personal relationships, a rock bottom moment, followed by a long recovery with a few setbacks and ultimately triumph over the demons of booze and drugs.

So yeah, the story here is nothing new.  What sets this one apart, however, is the WAY it’s told.  

As I said, all of the rock star recovery books follow the same story, but also, most of them are told the same way.  It’s a single person’s point of view (said rock star), probably with help from a professional writer, and it’s invariably a look backwards, with the narrator trying to gloss over their behavior a bit (“yeah I was a jerk and I beat my girlfriend and set the hotel room on fire, but I was really messed up and never meant to HURT anybody sheesh”), and at the same time, grab their chance to air all their complaints about their former bandmates, crew, managers, whoever.  No matter how “uplifting” the story is meant to be, they almost always come across as self-serving, one more chance to be the center of attention now that the spotlight has faded and the stadiums aren’t packed anymore.

Not so much with The Heroin Diaries.

For one thing, the book is made mostly of actual diary entries that Nikki Sixx wrote during the year between Christmas 1986 and Christmas 1987.  So instead of “I was really high and hallucinating”, we get things like “There are little people with guns and helmets in my trees.”  Instead of “I was really depressed”, we get “I hate myself and what I’m doing to my life”.  It feels much more immediate and honest.

The other thing that really sets Diaries apart is its format.  Nikki Sixx is the ostensible author, but throughout the book, the other people who were involved weigh in.  So we might see a diary entry of a fight that Sixx had with Vince Neil, but we also see Neil’s present-day take on the incident.  Sixx writes extensively about his turbulent relationship with Vanity (only people who were around in the 80’s will recognize that name), but the evangelist now known as Denise Matthews also gets to tell her side of it.  Her slightly deranged, rambling, mostly incoherent side.  

The end result is sort of an oral history of that year that ended in Sixx’s death and resuscitation, followed by a bulleted summary of the past twenty years.  It’s a really fascinating story, told in multiple voices and with many different perspectives.  It’s visceral.  You see Sixx’s actions, and you also see the wounds they left on the people around him.  And sometimes the stories contradict each other, but still, everyone has their say.  I can’t say I’ve ever read anything quite like it, although, at its core, the story is (sadly) nothing very new or original.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some Aqua Net)

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The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

Short Take:  I wanted to love it.

Give your brain a snack!!

Sometimes, I like to take a break from my usual murder/mayhem/mystery reading habits, and read something a little softer, a little gentler to the psyche.  The Book of Speculation seemed like a good fit: a family saga, a possible curse that’s passed through generations, and the irresistible lure of the carnival, a world where the Electric Boy falls in love with the tarot card reader, where mermaids are real and Wild Boys live in cages.

Simon Watson raised his sister, Enola, after the deaths of their parents at criminally young ages.  Their mother was a carnival mermaid who could hold her breath for minutes at a time, but still died by drowning.  Their father mourned her relentlessly, ignoring all other aspects of his life, until his own death by aneurism shortly after.

As adults, Enola has joined a traveling carnival as a tarot card reader, and Simon has become a man after my own heart.  He’s a librarian, an archivist, passionate about preserving books as the works of art they are.  He’s also in the middle of falling in love with the girl next door, Alice McEvoy.  Alice’s father, Frank, has watched over the Watson children their whole lives, and is now trying to help Simon keep the family home from deteriorating to the point it can no longer be saved.

Interwoven with the present day story is a history of Simon and Enola’s ancestors, who were part of a traveling carnival in the 1780’s.  As Simon researches his family’s history, he learns a disturbing truth – that all the women on his mother’s side were carnival mermaids, and all drowned on July 24th.  It’s now July 17th, and Simon has only a few days to figure out the source of the family’s curse, and save his sister.

So what’s not to love?  I am having a hard time putting my finger on it. It’s possible that my literary palate, accustomed to the book equivalent of McDonald’s, is having a hard time with more refined fare, that when I’m not getting gunfights and dismemberments, I’m bored.  I don’t think that’s all there is to it, though.

For one thing, some parts of the story felt meh.  The decay of Simon & Enola’s childhood home was harped on way too much.  A house as a metaphor for a psychological state has been done to death in most genres.  And beyond the metaphorical, as a plot device, it takes up too much space. The house has a history that’s central to the story, but it’s not that big of a history.  The references in every present-day chapter to the state of the house and neighbor Frank’s concern over it were as subtle as falling anvils after a while.  

Then there’s the problem of Simon.  He’s a jerk.  He’s weak, a liar, a thief, and has convinced himself that he’s sacrificing SO MUCH for his sister.  There’s nothing more annoying than someone who chooses to be a martyr for no real reason, then demands that everyone around him admire the “heroic” sacrifices he’s making.  A simple conversation with Enola would’ve cleared up a lot of her expectations and freed him from his self-imposed hardships.

Despite these things, there were some utterly amazing aspects of The Book of Speculation.  Erika Swyler definitely did her homework on the historical chapters, and if she didn’t, well, she faked it well enough that I couldn’t tell the difference!  They were gorgeous, and the mute Amos and beautiful, haunted Evangeline are characters that won’t go away easily.  The recurring images of tarot cards and their rich descriptions have me tempted to go get my own deck.  

So while I can’t say that I entirely loved The Book of Speculation, I can say that I liked it a whole lot, and sometimes, that’s enough.
The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a five of swords.)

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