Deep Zero, by V.S. Kemanis

Short Take: ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

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

What’s with publishers mislabeling books? Deep Zero popped up on my recommended reading shelf under “Mystery and Thriller”, but honestly, it was neither. It was the story of two female attorneys who have long discussions with their families and other attorneys about legal issues.

Seriously.

The basic premise of the story is that DA Dana Hargrove is investigating a case in which a high school girl committed suicide after being bullied by her classmates.  (Note: there are only a few paragraphs dedicated to the actual investigation. Followed by long discussions as to whether the mean girls can be charged, what can they be charged with, what is a jury likely to convict them of, etc. Long, tedious discussions.)

It would appear that Dana’s case is jeopardized when a party thrown by another kid in the school gets out of hand, resulting in injuries and property damage. See, both of Dana’s children were barely, tangentially, kind of remotely involved in the incident, which led to them being subjected to long discussions with their parents on legal technicalities, as well as long legal discussions with other attorneys in the DA’s office regarding questioning the kids and so on. The incident also results in like 37 other cases being opened, each one complete with its own series of discussions.

There’s a subplot regarding Dana’s husband, who’s handling a case regarding a convicted killer who wins a medical malpractice suit, and who should get the money from that settlement. It adds absolutely nothing to the main story, other than more lengthy legal discussions.  There’s also another main character, Vesma, who occasionally works as a criminal defense attorney. She thinks that kind of work is beneath her, however, so we don’t get to see her in action. Most likely because that might have been kind of interesting. Vesma’s daughter is friends with Dana’s son, which, thank goodness for that, because otherwise, we might have missed out on a few legal discussions about the possible conflicts in all these cases.

As for the multiple cases themselves, there’s no mystery. It’s spelled out pretty clearly who did what. There’s no nuance or buildup or any real tension. There are no contentious courtroom scenes (except for the speeches lifted right out of an 80’s movie slow clap climax. It’s worse than you think.) Deep Zero is a Law & Order episode where all we see are the attorneys sitting around talking to each other.

Oh, and it’s written like a children’s book. Consider this snippet, and keep in mind, this is straight narration, NOT, as you would think, dialogue from a very young character: “Well, the whoops and cries were so loud that Judge Jones had to bang the gavel over and over again! The hammering was forceful, but the judge really didn’t look mad. A big smile was on his face.” (See? 80’s movie slow clap, in book form.)

The Nerd’s Rating: One Happy Neuron (and caffeine. Please send caffeine ASAP.)

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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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Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessca Knoll

Short Take:  If Carrie Bradshaw had a really ugly past.

Give Your Brain A Snack!!

Confession time!  Way back when it was on HBO as a series, before the movies (I don’t talk about those), I LOVED Sex & The City.  It was fun and fizzy and girly, it was about the dumb dating mistakes we all made in our 20’s, and it was about epic friendship and fabulous clothes.

But in looking back, the show was also 100% about the present.  Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha went careening through life, never acknowledging they had pasts, let alone learning from or regretting them, never planning for the future beyond the next hot date or perfect pair of shoes.  I envied the hell out of them.  They just WERE, you know?  No family ties or leftover high school drama.  They had a freedom that most of us can’t imagine.

Ani FaNelli has that life.  She’s a rising star of a writer at a super-well-known women’s magazine, she lives in Manhattan, her clothes, hair, shoes and nails are always impeccable, and she’s just gotten engaged to Luke Harrison, a gorgeous, Wall Street, old-money type who’s a catch by any metric.

But behind the meticulously constructed image, there’s TifAni FaNelli (yes, weird capitalization and all), the new kid at the prestigious Bradley School.  TifAni is desperate to fit in, and willing to do almost anything the popular crowd demands of her.

Needless to say, it’s ugly.  And we see TifAni spiraling down further and further, until something so terrible happens that I’m actually still having a bit of trouble processing it.  TifAni grows up, moves to New York, becomes the glamorous Ani, and tries to never look back.

But a documentary film crew wants to revisit the horror of Tifani’s past, and as she prepares to relive it on camera, we get bits and pieces until the entire awful truth comes out.

Ok.  Let’s get this out of the way.  This was yet another “If you loved Gone Girl…” book.  I think we’re all pretty familiar with how I feel about those by now.  But this was different.  Instead of seeing the lovely sweet young bride revealed as a sociopath, we see the shallow, selfish, fairly awful young woman revealed as a victim, someone who uses bitchiness as a protective barrier.

Is it predictable?  Kind of.  I mean, the whole “nasty person was cruelly tormented as a kid” thing is Pop Psych 101.  It definitely didn’t have the HOLY CRAP!! DID THAT JUST HAPPEN!!!! thing that Gone Girl had.  But that’s not to say this was a bad book.  On the contrary, there was a slow burn, a hard ugly nugget of truth revealed layer by layer, like a poisonous flower unfolding.

So in short, Luckiest Girl Alive is nothing like Gone Girl.  But it’s still a pretty good book.  Jessica Knoll does a great job of getting inside Ani’s head, of showing it all, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  She handles other characters, especially Ani’s childhood friend Arthur just as deftly, but it’s interesting that, for example, Luke is pretty much just a picture in a glossy magazine.  The people who really know Ani are fully fleshed out, the ones who don’t, aren’t.  And that’s actually a testament to the author’s dedication to her main character – when we read this book, we are so completely immersed in Ani’s world.  

Is it kind of a lousy world?  Oh yeah.  But it’s also impossible to walk away from until we understand it fully.
The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a pen with green ink)

Loved this book!!

Dangerous Girls, by Abigail Haas

Short Take:  OH NO SHE DIDN’T!!

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Oh, this was a fun one.  A quick, nasty little mystery that takes place in both the island paradise of Aruba and also Mean Girls High in Boston.

Anna Chevalier is a high school junior who’s dealing with a lot.  Her mother is dying of cancer, and her father has decided that she will transfer to an exclusive private school, where hopefully, her friends’ parents will become his new clients.

After some typical new-girl hazing, Anna becomes best friends with Elise.  It’s an intense friendship.  They both are good girls with edgy tendencies, and their friendship leads them down some dark paths together.

During Spring Break of their senior year, Anna, Elise, Anna’s boyfriend Tate, and a few of their other friends decide to spend the week at a beach house in Aruba.  It’s there that Elise is brutally murdered, and Anna is accused of the crime.

Dangerous Girls flips back and forth between the year or so of Anna & Elise’s friendship leading up to the night of the murder, and the present day trial.  There are loads of secrets and rivalries and gossip and instagram and text messages, and all the usual high-school dramas that can be so much fun to watch from the outside.  (Note:  I don’t know anyone who actually enjoyed this stuff when they were in the middle of it.)

But there’s also a real life and death struggle going on, as Anna desperately tries to prove her innocence.  She’s up against a prosecutor who seems to be fixated on her despite having several other promising suspects, and in a foreign country, where the rules are vastly different.  There are a few twists, and then of course, a final reveal of the real killer.

Sure it’s formulaic.  I’ll admit, I actually didn’t figure out who the real killer was, but there were some pretty convincing red herrings, and truthfully, I wasn’t thinking about it that hard.  I was just enjoying watching the whole soap opera play out.

Abigail Haas captured adolescence in all its overblown glory.  It’s a time in life when all the emotional dials are cranked to eleven, and we all love harder, laugh more deeply, suffer more from heartbreak, and imbue every decision with so much more importance than we ever will again.  There’s an innocence to everything, even bad behavior.

Dangerous Girls also throws in a bit of subtle commentary on how many of us live our lives so publicly now, putting everything on social media.  When the prosecutor decides to put Anna on trial, there’s plenty of evidence of bad behavior right at his fingertips, pictures of her drinking, pretending to stab Elise, wearing skimpy clothing, etc.  But as the attorney for the defense says at one point “Any one of us could be made to look a monster, with selective readings of our history, but for every photograph he shows you out of context, I can show you another side”  and that’s true too.  Every single one of us, with just the worst moments of our lives plucked out and examined, would look capable of any crime.

One of my own worst fears is being accused of something terrible, and unable to defend myself against it, while some faceless authority points out every bad thing I’ve ever done or said, and every nasty thought I’ve had.  Haas’s portrayal of that was masterful.  Anna’s despair, anger, helplessness, and hopelessness were raw enough to bleed off the page.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and one non-stabby tropical beach vacation.  It’s FREEZING here.)

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