Letter from Hell, by M. Lee Mendelson

Short Take:  Awesome Dude Is Awesome – The Super-Extended Version!

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I snagged this one when it was offered for free (count frugality among my positive attributes).  I thought that the idea was intriguing.  A suicide, an investigator, and a letter detailing exactly how fate works.  

And the first chapter was GREAT.  Little known fact:  I used to work with the police (not as a cop though, I don’t like guns).  And that first chapter was actually pretty true to life, which was cool.  No Dirty Harry heroics, no super-sleuthing geniuses, just Mike the cop doing his job, even when he’s a little freaked out.  Although I never knew a cop on his way to a domestic dispute to take a minute to joke around with a security guard.

Then I started Chapter 2, and the whole thing took a quick dive into the deepest wish-fulfilling Mary Sue depths.  You see, Mike was a fat nerdy kid.  He was bullied & humiliated at school.  Until the day he decides to take his life into his own hands, and start working out and eating right.  Within just a few short weeks, his gorgeous successful parents are suddenly proud of him for the first time, he is the star of the football team, and the hot new girl  across the street – excuse me, ALL the hot girls in school – are all up on his junk.  And he learns martial arts too, and wins the bully’s respect and they became best buds.  College is the same.   After he’s injured playing football, and his father is killed, he becomes a police officer while going to law school part-time.  He graduates and marries a gorgeous ADA.  And everywhere Mike goes, everyone thinks he’s amazing.  (This paragraph is spread out in the book to well over 100 pages.  It’s even more tedious than you imagine.)

Did I mention how awesome Mike is?  Cause the author sure does.  All.  The.  Time.  I mean, when he goes to meet with a DA regarding a criminal, the book actually reads: “Unknown to Mike was the fact that all the ladies at the District Attorney’s Office spoke very highly about him. Every time he would go there for a deposition, they would secretly gather to drool over him.”  But the thing is, Mike’s kind of a terrible person. His sole purpose in life seems to be basking in the glory of being himself.

Then when we finally get caught up to the present day with the incomparably perfect Mike, the narrative switches to his wife Meredith, who’s also gorgeous and perfect and we get another 100 pages of her life story including getting ready for the wedding, which is ANOTHER total snoozefest of perfect perfection.  And also another way to elaborate on how flawlessly perfect Mike is.  

I’m not going to dwell on the dialogue other than to say it was painful.  Ridiculously stilted, every character sounds the same, none of it sounds natural, and all the guys call each other Bro or Brother.  All of the characters are completely flat.  None of them has a distinct voice or personality (with the sole exception of a really racist – and thankfully brief – depiction of an Asian man).  All of the women are decorative and worship Mike.

The language of the book is weird. Mr. Mendelson just randomly throws adverbs in there, in ways that make no sense at all.  For example, when the main character is asked if he was THE Michael Carson, college football star, we get this gem: “Mike favorably responded, ‘Yes, sir, that’s me.’”  I…. don’t even know how to parse that one.

The worst though is the unending list of ridiculous details.  When they are dating, Mike sends Meredith flowers.  That’s nice.  Do we need to know the significance of different colors of roses, or the thought process that leads to his final choice of flower?  (Pink roses, should you wonder.  Should that have a spoiler alert?  I don’t even care anymore.)  And reciting dates and times for everything is completely mind-numbing.

And the author somehow manages to not say that the cop investigating the suicide is a different Mike.  For the entire book.  I have no idea what the purpose of that was, other than to be “clever” and mislead the reader. I don’t even know if that’s a spoiler, as I have no idea what the relevance of it was.

I could probably go on for quite a while, cataloging this book’s flaws.  But what it all comes down to is that the author has a story to tell, but no depth at all in his writing.  It’s like reading a book written by an alien who observed earth for a few weeks, wrote a story, then ran it through google translate in a few different languages.  It’s a glimpse inside the mind of someone who’s never had an actual conversation, or a relationship, or spent any time at all with a human person.  

The actual story (the cult investigation) was shoved in a little here & there.  And by the time I reached the last 40 pages or so, when bad things started happening to Mike & Meredith, I couldn’t muster the energy to care.  They had zero personality and no redeeming traits whatsoever.

I have to give credit where credit is due, though.  There WERE some creepy aspects to this book – for example, the author’s fixation on the bosom of a fifteen year old girl.  And his obsession with how hot Mike’s mother was.  So if that’s your thing, go for it.  Otherwise, skip this one.

The Nerd’s Rating: ONE HAPPY NEURON (and a big vodka drink.  I seriously need one right now.)

onehappyneuron

 

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Nightmare, With Angel by Stephen Gallagher

Short Take:  So much book, so little story.

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I think I need to stop reading “best of” lists.  Last time I was jonesing for something really good to read, I started googling “psychological thrillers” to see if there were any great authors out there I was missing out on.  Lo and behold, I found a huge list, hundreds of books that all looked really good, many by authors I had never tried.  I narrowed it down to about 25 or so that looked like the most fun, and dove in.  Nightmare, With Angel was my second one, and I am starting to think that the list writer never actually read the books they recommended.

Nightmare, With Angel (why does that comma in the title annoy me so much?) started to go down some interestingly dark paths, but consistently stopped short.  I don’t generally seek out mystery/horror novels just to read drawn-out descriptions of murder or torture or whatever, but I think that if you’re going to introduce the elements of murder or some kind of sadism into a story, you should at least explain what happened.  Especially if the book is over 600 pages.

The entire book can be summed up in just a few sentences.  I’ll avoid spoilers (even though everything is pretty telegraphed).  Ten-year-old Marianne lives with her father (Patrick) along the English coast.  Patrick’s days are spent trying and mostly failing to build a business that will support them.  He doesn’t care to spend too much time with his daughter, anyway.  Marianne spends most of her non-school time exploring the beach with her dog Rudi.

One day, Marianne and Rudi are exploring a sandbar when the tide comes in, stranding them and putting their lives in jeopardy.  The local junk-picker, Ryan, happens to wander by, and rescues them.

Ryan has A Secret Past, and so he tries to avoid Marianne, as he doesn’t want to be accused of anything.  But when things finally come to an ugly head with Patrick, she persuades Ryan to help her find her mother in Germany.  What follows is a long, drawn-out chase that takes place all over Germany.  Jennifer, an English police officer trying to make her way up the ranks, and Patrick, who suddenly realizes that Marianne is pretty much all he has, both go to Germany and join the police there in the hunt.

There are some revelations, some interesting twists, but Stephen Gallagher just couldn’t commit.  We learn that Marianne’s mother, Anneliese, was involved in some pretty twisted stuff, but we never really get into her head to see how she got from point A to point WTF.  Apparently, Ryan was accused of murder, and spent quite a few years in an institution, but we never get his explanation of what transpired, and never know for sure if he was the killer.  There’s also a human trafficking subplot that adds almost nothing to the story.

There’s little to no tension in the chase.  Ryan keeps Marianne safe from all of the horrors that might befall a young girl on her own.

The characters were also just bad.  Marianne is precocious almost to the point of absurdity.  Not only is she able to dig through her father’s private papers to figure out where to start the search for her mother, she’s also able to out-think virtually every adult around her.  She makes plans that are pretty meticulous, but when she has trouble meeting up with her mother, it never occurs to her to look for other relatives she remembers.

Her father, Patrick, is a first-class a-hole.  The minute he finds out that his wife is involved in something that he doesn’t understand and can’t accept, he grabs Marianne from school and leaves the country with her.  No trying to talk to his wife to find out what is going on exactly, if she was being coerced or forced in some way, no trying to get her away from these awful things.  Nope, just take the kid, run, and proceed to neglect the kid for years on end.  He nurtures his grudge far more carefully than his daughter.

I think we’re supposed to think that Ryan is some kind of saint who just really really wants to atone for his past mistakes, but he lets a ten year old talk him into running away to another country.  He then spends weeks on the run with her – despite his frequent indications that he only has her best interests at heart.  He’s resourceful enough to get information from seemingly impossible situations when the plot calls for it, but not enough to make sure they have a decent place to sleep or enough food.

Nightmare, With Angel seemed to be trying to be about a broken family that goes through a crisis and is able to heal itself, but all I could think when reading it was that all of these people would be much better off if they just stayed far, far away from each other.

The Nerd’s Rating:  ONE HAPPY NEURON

onehappyneuron

Night Visions, by Thomas Fahy

Short Take:  A book about insomnia that is also a cure for it.

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Sleep and I have had a long and difficult relationship.  There are family legends about three-year-old me getting out of bed to go exploring in the middle of the night.  Every night.  It reached the point that my dad would sleep in a recliner in my bedroom doorway to catch me as I went cruising past.  It didn’t get much better as I got older, and it’s still not unusual for me to get up at 2 AM, read for a while or watch a movie, and maybe, eventually, pass back out for an hour or so before work.

What I’m getting at is that I’m pretty familiar with insomnia, and the havoc it causes with, well, pretty much every aspect of life.  So when I was perusing a list of psychological horror and saw Night Visions, I figured I would love it.

I didn’t.

Night Visions is a big sprawling mess of a book.  There are two stories happening here.  One is the present-day story of Samantha and Frank, two former lovers who are trying to solve a disappearance-turned-murder in the present day.  Samantha has severe insomnia and is taking part in an experimental treatment which seems to have two pretty lousy side effects:  she is having horrific visions of murder scenes, and the people involved in the study are being murdered.

The second plot, interwoven throughout, is the story of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and a curse surrounding its creation? Maybe?  The details are a little vague.  But the gist of it is that the curse is passed on when a cursed person’s blood is mixed with their victim’s, and it causes the person who is cursed (cursee?) to murder people while sleepwalking.  So there were like a dozen scenes of people trying to commit murder and managing to get stabbed themselves. There were so many secondary characters in these scenes, and the time jumped around so much, it was hard to keep it all straight.

There were also a lot of references to the death of St. Peter, but I’m not really sure how it tied in to the rest of the story.  Some of the victims were killed in a similar way, but it seemed really random and meaningless to the rest of the story.   For all it added, the various possessed murderers could’ve been performing a live-action game of Clue.  There’s also the insomnia angle, but again, not sure how that plays in.  Does the curse only affect people who have it?  And does the music make the cursed people start killing, or is part of the curse just that you really really like the Variations?

The present-day stuff wasn’t much more coherent.  The time period seems to be all over the place.  People use cell phones, and it seems like there’s at least one meeting that happens over Skype, but crime scene photographers are still using the kind of flash bulbs that pop.  Sam and Frank are not police officers, have absolutely no authority to be involved in any investigation, but are able to go into multiple crime scenes and poke around.  I’m not a cop, but I watch a lot of SVU, and that seems like a pretty big no-no.

So we have a couple dozen characters, and a lot of murders, and a curse, and a piece of music, and St. Peter, and Sam and Frank and visions that don’t seem to serve any purpose at all other than to provide an opportunity to describe a murder scene twice.  Oh, and an ending that was a pretty obvious sequel set-up, but I don’t know where the author could possibly go from here.

Thomas Fahy clearly had a lot of cool ideas, but I think this book would have been much better if he had used less of them, and developed them more thoroughly.

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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Above, by Isla Morley

Short Take:  Half of a really great book.

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I saw Above on another reviewer’s “Best of 2014” list, and the premise intrigued me.  I had read both Room by Emma Donoghue and Jaycee Dugard’s autobiography, and really loved both of them.  They stuck with me, and made me really think about what I would do in that situation, made me wonder how many young girls are going through something similar right this minute, and managed to make me feel hopeful and heartbroken all at once.  So of course, I was excited to dive into this one.

Let.  Down.

Blythe Hallowell is just 16 when she’s kidnapped by Dobbs Hordin, a religious fanatic, survivalist, doomsday prepper, conspiracy theorist, and all-around creepster of a guy, who just happens to own a missile silo in the middle of Kansas.  He imprisons Blythe in the silo, and keeps her there for 18 long years.

During that time, she gives birth to a son, Adam, and constantly tries to figure out how to escape.  Also during that time, Dodds gets crazier and crazier.  Whenever he goes into the silo to visit or bring supplies, he rants about the apocalypse that has happened.

Eventually, Blythe and Adam escape the silo, and that’s where the second half of the book begins – Above.

The first half is great.  Every time Blythe came close to escaping, I held my breath, and felt a wave of disappointment and frustration every time it didn’t happen.  She’s a great character – her reactions and motivations are realistic and very little about the first half of the book feels contrived.  Well, aside from that whole missile-silo-with-all-the-trimmings thing.

It’s also kind of wonderful seeing Adam’s reactions to the outside world for the first time, like the way he has to pick up a bit of everything he sees, and his fixation on keys and what they mean.

But once Blythe and Adam got out of the silo, the book tanked for me.  As long as they are being held prisoner, there is hope and conflict and a very realistic struggle.   When Blythe is trying to outmaneuver Dodds, there’s tension and excitement.

Once they go Above, however, the whole thing just takes a turn into the meandering and depressing and purposeless.    I don’t want to give away the main reason it was so bad.  It’s a pretty big spoiler.  Let’s just say, there’s something major, but it isn’t enough. There’s no doubt that Ms. Morley is talented, but I think she might have bitten off more than she could chew.   The main conflict is gone, and no matter how imaginative the set pieces are, there’s just not enough heart anymore.  Blythe and Adam go from place to place, and situation to situation, and none of it really seems to matter very much.

There are some cool chase scenes and the like, and a few interesting characters, but overall… meh.  There’s no really happy ending, no real resolution to the one final question, no real sense of having been through something along with the characters (really good books do that to me).

The second half also suffers from following the amazing first half.  There’s a pretty good chance that most second halves would suffer by comparison.

 

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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