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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Grim Harvest, by Patrick Greene

Short Take: A too-brief visit with old friends.

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

Good morning, nerdlings! I am mostly recovered after a late night out at the fair, where I was lucky enough to see Gabriel Iglesias, aka Fluffy live. He put on a fantastic show and my face still hurts (yes, I know, IT’S KILLING YOU) from laughing.

I also have to give a shout-out to local fairs, and all their fun traditions: corn dogs, rigged games, fried oreos, animal smells, cotton candy, rides with questionable safety ratings, and fried cheese on a stick.. Having always lived in a small town, I tend to take fairs for granted, and don’t go to them very much anymore, but it only takes a single whiff of the air to kick me right in the nostalgia-bone.

And speaking of nostalgia for small towns, dearies, welcome back to Ember Hollow, which we first visited in the gloriously Halloween-themed acid trip of Red Harvest. Consider yourselves warned: Grim Harvest is the sequel to Red Harvest and therefore, this review will have many spoilers for the latter. If you haven’t read it yet (dude, what?? Get on that already!), you should probably stop right here.

It’s a year after the Pumpkin Parade Massacre, when Ragdoll Ruth (religious fanatic) and Everett Geelens (psychopathic killer) nearly destroyed the town, killing dozens, injuring even more, and causing untold anguish before being slaughtered themselves.

Among the walking (read: staggering) wounded is Dennis Barcroft, former lead singer of the Chalk Outlines and no-longer-recovering alcoholic. Now, he’s off the wagon and into a ditch, leaving behind the band, his friends, family, and Jill, the love of his life. Dennis’s younger brother Stuart is also suffering from a humiliating condition as a result of last year’s trauma, on top of the usual growing pains of puppy love and pubescent body image issues.

Candace Geelens, Everett’s sister and the only surviving member of their family, is in foster care hell. Reverend McGlazer’s faith is being tested in ever more horrific ways as the unholy presence in the church grows stronger, and secrets from the town’s past threaten to destroy its future.

And if all that weren’t fun enough, Nico Rizzoli, Ragdoll Ruth’s lover and partner in crime, has escaped from prison and is out for revenge. Bloody, gruesome, gory, creative revenge. I mean sure, he could just kill everyone with a gun or knife or chainsaw, but it just so happens that he knows a witch who knows a spell to turn Nico and his biker friends into werewolves for a little extra havoc-wreaking. And maybe, if Nico can figure out just the right spell and sacrifice just the right person, he could even bring Ruth back.

Grim Harvest, as I mentioned, is the second book in the Haunted Hollow series, and it’s my understanding that there will be at least one more. It’s a decent follow up to Red Harvest (which I legit LOVED), but it feels more like the middle of a trilogy than a complete work in and of itself, a bridge between a fabulous introduction and an explosive finale. Other reviewers have mentioned that if you haven’t read the first book, this one is hard to follow, and I can totally see that, but I don’t really count that as a flaw. It’s kind of the nature of a series – if you have no idea that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, it makes no sense when he’s swinging on webs. 

My issue is more the sense that Grim Harvest is a placeholder between the major parts of the story, instead of a major part itself. Sure, there are a couple of new plot lines and characters that have a complete beginning, middle and end, but our main characters just don’t get much movement. They’re in the book, but it doesn’t feel like they grow or change in any significant way, or even play as much of a role as they did in the first book. 

Sure, they go to the places and do the things, but with so many characters and plot lines in barely 200 pages, they just don’t get to breathe the way they deserve to. All of the psychological fallout for each of them is explored in great depth and detail, throughout every scene, and in the end, each of them is fixed with a couple of sentences. It doesn’t feel earned.

One of the best parts of Red Harvest was the way the friends & families interacted with each other, the simple affection and humor that they had, and that feels somewhat lacking here. Even when Stuart and DeShaun are being their obnoxious thirteen year old boy selves, there’s part of Stuart that just can’t relax and enjoy the moment. It’s understandable, but it also undermines a lot of what made Red Harvest so much fun despite its horrific sequences. Ditto the group of punks – their friendship and banter were fantastic last time, and they don’t even really have a conversation this time.

So in the end, I’ll still read the next book, because Mr. Greene has never really let me down. I imagine that he’s got something incredible planned for the finale. 

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and some fried fair food cause I’m craving it again already.)

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Red Harvest, by Patrick C. Greene

Short Take: Addiction is terrifying.

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

Yes, I KNOW that it’s still August (it’s so crazy-hot that my buns are perma-toasted) but today, I have an extra-special Halloween treat for y’all. Try, if you can, to imagine a world that’s pretty much our own. It has the same traditions, music, and movies, but with a few teensy little changes – cell phones and computers aren’t used, ghosts and psychics are real, and OH!! My darling nerdlings, the nerds rule the school! Ok, they are absolutely terrible people, but they are still MY people, and so that last one tickled me purple.

On the surface, Red Harvest is Our Town on a nightmare acid trip. You see, the town of Ember Hollow itself is one of the main characters, in that there’s a strange, possibly dark and pagan history to the town’s founding, and traditions such as the annual Pumpkin Parade, and a lot of people with only a degree or two of separation. It’s a small town where everyone knows everyone, but nobody really KNOWS what goes on behind closed doors.

Take for example Everett Geelens, a freakishly strong Michael Myers-ish young man who has a child-like obsession with all things Halloween, especially the blood and death. He’s kept locked up by his family, but when he gets loose on Devil’s Night, well, I don’t have to tell you that nothing good will come of it, do I?

Or Ruth. She has recently discovered religion, and has decided that it’s God’s will that she do whatever it takes to put an end to all the “satanic” Halloween festivities. And if “whatever it takes” involves some decidedly un-Christian acts, well, the ends will justify the means, of course.

Then there’s Dennis Barcroft, lead singer of the Chalk Outlines, a punkabilly band with a spooky sensibility. He’s tried to channel his demons into his music, and his thirteen year old brother Stuart is only too happy to tag along, especially if it means the chance to impress Candace Geelens, who is Everett’s younger sister and the object of his first real crush.

I could list another dozen or so really great characters, but you see, all these fascinating people, and the beautifully complex web of alllllll their relationships isn’t what Red Harvest is really about. Neither is the high-octane plot that swings effortlessly between the strands of Everett’s violent spree, Ruth’s growing madness, a haunted church, a minister with his own difficult past, all the trials and tribulations of high school, and a zoot-suit wearing music agent.

What Red Harvest is REALLY about is addiction. Every one of the characters has their drug of choice, whether it’s Halloween, booze, religion, music, or power, and that’s what makes this book so amazing. It’s easy to make bad guys bad and good guys good. But by showing us how thin the line really is, and how even good people can do bad things for the sake of what they value most, or how bad people can genuinely believe they are doing a Good Thing, Mr. Greene has brought a brilliant level of complexity and humanity to a horror novel.

Don’t get me wrong – the horror elements are flawless in this one, but for me, the real horror is how believable so much of it is. Except maybe for the nerds who are drunk with power. That just seems needlessly cruel. 

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a pumpkin spice anything, because I’m so ready for fall now!)

Loved this book!!

The Method, by Duncan Ralston

Short Take: DOH!!! Ya got me!!

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So I snagged a copy of this one recently, and I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect to like it very much. From what I had seen of some of the author’s other work, he’s an extreme horror kind of guy, and although I’m not bothered overmuch by the occasional gory scene, it’s not something I really seek out. I tend to go more for psychological horror – the thing that just might be hanging out in the closet always affects me more than the dripping decapitated head.

But I found the concept intriguing. As someone who’s pretty familiar with the various ways that marriages and long-term relationships can die, I wanted to see if the author could effectively make me believe in this couple. Could he really show how it feels from the inside when partners start drifting and stop connecting, and could Mr. Ralston make me care if they ever got it together?

More importantly, could he freak me out quite a bit while doing so?

The answer, my friends, is yes, yes, and oh hell yes.

We meet Frank and Linda Moffatt when they are on a walk in the woods, bickering in the way that married couples frequently do. On the surface, they are arguing about directions, and if they are lost, but underneath, the conflict is about everything that’s wrong in their marriage. So walking, fighting, and BAM! Something so awful happens that I seriously wanted to cover my eyes while reading, which is a skill I have yet to master.

From there, the story jumps backward to where Frank and Linda first hear about The Method, a super-exclusive couples’ retreat where friends of theirs were able to save their marriage. We see them check into the Lone Loon Lodge (a uniquely perfect name, given future events), and meet the only other couple there, Neville and Teri.

Although some strange things happen in the lodge, possibly orchestrated by the mysterious Dr. Kaspar, the story really takes off when Frank and Linda take that walk. And oh, my beloved nerdlings, what a horrific walk it becomes.

I won’t reveal any of the specifics of the story from this point, but I will say that this section of the story is nearly where The Method lost me. The plot seemed to go from an interesting psychological thriller with well-rounded characters into, well, a sophomoric and mostly dumbed-down horror movie that I’ve seen roughly eleventy billion variations of in my life. I actually remarked to a friend that “this book had better have a KILLER ending after putting me through this.” And so I kept reading, even though I wasn’t really feeling it, since I’m a sucker who’s always willing to hope that there is an ending somewhere out there that is awesome enough to make up for a meh rest of the book, although I mostly don’t believe they exist.

Let me just say, I may have found such a unicorn here. The reveals in the final quarter of The Method come fast and hard, and although I anticipated a couple of them, there were still plenty that I didn’t see coming. Which isn’t to say that it was necessarily a 100% perfect ending. Although everything was explained, and it all came together in a way that didn’t seem to leave any loose ends hanging, and it did so in a brilliantly unexpected way, I found it just a teeny bit on the side of “too much”.

Obviously, it’s hard to explain what I didn’t totally love about the ending without giving away the ending, so I’m going to say that there are a lot of moving parts, and although I could believe that a certain number of them could function as they are meant to, it’s a stretch to say that all of them would. Overall though, it’s a heck of a lot of fun, and if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you’re a horror fan, so OF COURSE you’re willing to make that jump), Duncan Ralston is a guy to watch. His characters and dialogue are great, and he definitely has a feel for pacing and setting.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a nice dip in a cold lake. It’s sweltering out there today!)

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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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Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

Short Take:  Haunting.

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Have you ever read a book that feels like it’s so much MORE?  You know?  Like, House of Leaves is the most obvious example.  Or The Blind Assassin.  You know, where there are stories within stories, and while the top layer is deceptively simple, once you go all the way through to the center, there’s just…. more.  (Insert your own “it’s just like life” analogy here.)

A Head Full of Ghosts is the same way.  It’s actually a pretty simple story when you look at it from the outside:  a teenage girl (Marjorie Barrett) shows signs of extreme mental illness, but also something more sinister – possibly demonic possession.  Her parents, John and Sarah are desperate.  Besides the horrific things that Marjorie is experiencing, John has lost his job, and stay-at-home-mom Sarah can only stretch things so far.  With Marjorie’s medical bills growing rapidly, they agree to let a reality TV crew film an extreme attempt to save Marjorie:  an exorcism.

Along for the ride is eight-year-old Meredith (Merry).  The majority of the story is told through a dual perspective of eight-year-old Merry, who doesn’t understand everything she’s seeing, but sure sees a whole lot of it, and 23-year-old Merry, who is trying to come to peace with everything that happened by telling the story to an author writing a book on the now-famous case.  We get the rest of it from a blogger who recaps the tv show, and adds her own thoughts and comparisons to other pop-culture phenomena.

I seriously can not say enough good things about the way the various forms of modern storytelling are reflected in this book.  Face it, most stories (even modern day ones, even really good ones) are the equivalent of the cavemen sitting around the fire, and saying this happened, then that happened.  Even when we get different perspectives, we don’t really get the layers of storytelling that the digital age has afforded us.  It’s why reading a book is different than reading a blog or social media which is different than watching TV or going to a movie.  Paul Tremblay managed to capture the feel of multiple mediums into a book, and I have to tip my metaphorical hat to him.  

And Merry.  Although both older Merry and the blogger (Karen) are cyphers, eight year old Merry is one of the most amazingly written children I’ve ever come across.  She’s smart but not annoyingly precocious.  She is well-behaved for the most part, but not perfect.  Her thought processes, her quirks, the “goon dance”, so many little things make you feel like you’re seeing a real, living, breathing child.  Even Stephen King would have a hard time writing a character as good as Merry.  (Yeah, I said it.  COME AT ME BRO.)  

I loved, loved, LOVED so many things about this book.  But I can’t quite reconcile the ending.  It’s a twist, for sure, and kind of a shocker, but the seeds were always there.  It has the feeling of inevitability, which is how I tend to define a “good” ending; that is, it felt like a natural progression to the rest of the story.  

But there was still a fair amount of ambiguity.  The “what” was pretty clearly covered, but I still didn’t entirely understand the “why” of it.  Also, there were a couple of revelations that had me calling into question a lot of really important aspects of the story that I had accepted as “true”.  Usually, this kind of thing annoys me.  Either it feels too unnatural in the context of the rest of story, tacked-on just for effect, or it makes me feel like I only got to read half of a story, and I’ve been cheated somehow.

Paul Tremblay somehow managed to find the sweet spot, where I feel like I’m still missing some important pieces, but I’m OK with that, because this author knows how to make the journey itself delicious.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a plate of pasta, hold the sauce.)

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Survival, by Rhonda Hopkins

Short take:  It had a lot of potential.

Give your brain a snack!

Quick note:  I was gifted a free copy of this story in exchange for an honest review.

The Zombie Apocalypse.  It’s huge right now.  Books, movies, tv, the undead are everywhere.  Which means that there’s very little new material to be found anymore.  Zombies used to walk slowly, then they moved fast…. and that’s about all the genre has progressed in the last few decades.  So I’ll admit that while I was skeptical going into this one (another zombie book?  really?) I thought the premise was a fun one – normal person having to team up with terrible co-worker to save her sister – and so I dove in.

Survival opens right in the middle of the action, as Sarah and her twin sister Dana are being held in a basement somewhere in Fort Worth, Texas, by a few men with guns who are threatening to feed them to the zombies.  Sarah manages to escape, and, promising to return for Dana, seeks out her workplace arch nemesis.  Meredith may be a difficult coworker, but her husband has lots of guns, and Sarah sure could use a few of those.

Upon arriving at Meredith’s, however, Sarah finds out that Meredith has cancer and is currently suffering from a particularly brutal round of chemotherapy.  She loads up Meredith, and the guns, and goes out into a new and terrifying world where she needs to save her sister and possibly the rest of the human race.

So.  What did I think of this story?  As I mentioned above, the zombie genre has been done to undeath.  For a story to really hit me as a standout, it needs to have something different.  Because the basic plot of all zombie stories is the same (the few humans that are left have to fight the zombies and sometimes each other for survival), the “oh, this is GOOD” point for me tends to be well-drawn characters, cool dialogue, maybe an unexpected twist or two, something that I haven’t already seen a dozen times.  And I hate to say it, but I just didn’t get that with Survival.

There’s a lot of exterior action in this one (zombies!  gore!), but the characters have no internal world.  For example, Sarah is the heroine of the story, but all we know about her for 95% of the story is that she has a twin sister, and she used to work with Meredith, whom she didn’t like.  It’s stated at one point that Meredith used to make her work life difficult, and make Sarah feel inferior, but we’re never given any examples of this.    And she’s also some kind of… action hero?  Maybe?  She knows how to fight and kick bad guys’ butts and use guns and break things, but not till the very last scene do we get a tiny bit of background on how Sarah learned some of the ninja skills she uses.

It’s also not until the last page that we find out where Sarah and Meredith worked and what they did.  It’s still never entirely clear if they were in competition with each other or if Meredith was the one who ALWAYS took the last yogurt out of the fridge or didn’t bother refilling the coffee pot or cleaned her teeth at her desk or any number of other things that drive people crazy when they are forced to spend hours a day in close proximity.   And other than the fact that Meredith was nasty because she was jealous (spoiler alert!  Everyone loves Sarah because of course they do, she’s perfect), we still don’t get a feel for the history that would’ve made the partnership between these two interesting.  

Meredith’s cancer also seems awkwardly shoved in.  Were Meredith still healthy, or at least feisty and rude, it would’ve created an interesting dynamic between the two women, but immediately Sarah jumps into the role of caretaker and protector, and Meredith limply agrees.  There’s no tension, no “Oh I am so going to leave this beyotch for the zombies if she says ONE MORE WORD about her marble countertops…”  Nothing.  

I feel that Ms. Hopkins had a really great setup here.  Although it is kind of formulaic, the “people who can’t stand each other have to team up to accomplish something important” thing can be a lot of fun.  When the people involved bicker, they can bring some humor to the situation, or toss out exposition, or do both in a way that feels organic.  

For example, had Meredith started doing… whatever it is that Meredith does that Sarah can’t stand, Sarah could’ve thrown back something along the lines of “You know, when I was a kid my cousin Brian taught me twenty-seven ways to break a kneecap, and I haven’t used 26 of them yet today.  Unless you’d like to make it 25, I’d cut the crap right now!”  (*Nerd’s Note:  I fully admit that there are many good reasons why I’m not a writer.  This paragraph should be Exhibit A.)

In the end, I feel like there was a lot more story in the author’s mind than what made it onto the page, and it suffered for that.
The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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From Away, by Deke Mackey Jr.

Short Take:  Book Nerd is sad.  Conflicted.  Loved the story.  Didn’t love the style. Hard to review.

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From Away was submitted to me by the author as a free book in exchange for an honest review.  I honestly think that Deke Mackey Jr. has the potential to become a next-level horror author.  Before I describe the plot, it should be noted that From Away is the first novel in, as I understand, a planned series of at least seven books.  This book serves as more of an introduction than a stand-alone work.  It’s also on the short-ish side, roughly 160 pages.  

Therefore, the plot is pretty small in scope.  Ren Lesguettes is returning to the island where he was born, accompanied by his teenage daughter Dawn.  Ren is a federal agent in charge of a project to build a bridge connecting the island to the mainland.  However, there’s a lot more to the island and its inhabitants than it would appear, and they have a very good reason to not want the bridge to be built.

The citizens of the island include a group of nuns who could almost double as Navy SEALS, an ancient couple who only answer questions if nobody is looking at them, a woman addicted to a bizarre drug, and a troubled boy trying to figure out his place in his family and in the island’s history.  

I’ll start with the good.  Mr. Mackey has a GREAT feel for setting.  The isolation of the remote island is fantastic.  He also has a deft hand with characters.  There’s a large cast of them, but they are all well-rounded, different, and interesting enough to make it easy to keep them straight.   Mackey manages to convey the awkwardness and obnoxiousness of teenagers/just barely adults without overdoing it, or sounding like someone’s dad trying to imitate cool phrases.

The dialogue is also pretty spot-on.  A few lines felt clunky, maybe a little overdramatic, but overall, I could hear the conversations clearly, and they felt natural.  It’s a hard thing to master, and I give the author full credit.  The pacing was also fairly perfect, as the secrets trickle out, and connections between the characters become apparent.

From Away is an intriguing mix of the supernatural terrors that are pretty common in horror novels, and the more common but harder to write down struggles that happen within families.  Sometimes, the wounds inflicted by words spoken by a relative can last longer than a bite from a mouth with a thousand teeth, and the author does a tremendous job of keeping the supernatural scares muted and in the background for most of the book, and really showcasing the family ties.  But the scary things with teeth are always lingering there in the corners.  It’s really great.

Now for the not-so-good…..

I’m well aware that style is a personal thing.  I mean, I personally think I look hot in my favorite baggy sweater with the stain on the sleeve, but my spouse frequently (and loudly) disagrees.  So I say this knowing that I am absolutely expressing an opinion that carries no more weight than anyone else’s on this particular subject.

For all the good things this book had going for it, the author’s writing style made it substantially less enjoyable.  Brief, choppy, fragmented sentences can work well for a few paragraphs to create a sense of urgency in, say, an intense action scene, but as a constant narrative style, it is difficult to read.  It felt like Clint Eastwood was in my head narrating this book.  I don’t want Clint Eastwood in my head narrating anything.  I don’t frequently quote from books, but here’s an example:

“The long breadknife saws. Separates three sandwiches into precise and unsquished quarters. Slides each off the cutting board into its own plastic container. Labeled long ago. Careful block letters in fading permanent marker.”  

And that’s describing exactly what it sounds like – a man is making sandwiches to pack for a lunch.  

All of the narration is like that, but the dialogue is not – it sounds like real, normal people speaking to each other, so I don’t think it’s a writer’s tic or habit so much as a stylistic choice that I just can’t get behind.

The best books are the ones that lull you into a state of complacency with some descriptive paragraphs, maybe a semi-meaningless conversation or other scene, and then BAM!!  Hit you with some unexpected twist, or horrific happening out of nowhere.  The short, choppy style of writing wouldn’t allow me to be lulled.  It doesn’t flow, I didn’t feel like I could drift along with the story.  If the goal is to have an edgy feeling throughout the book, it accomplishes that, but it also dilutes the scenes that are meant to have a genuine impact.  And to be blunt… it’s kind of annoying.

And that’s where it gets to be hard to be a reviewer.  I can see sooooooo much potential here.  It has all the elements of a really fantastic series – characters you really care about, a setting that’s pitch perfect in its beauty and creepiness, and horrifying family secrets.  But I kept finding myself putting this book down and not wanting to pick it back up.
The Nerd’s Rating:  THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a shipwreck in a bottle.  Because that’s a cool thing to have.)

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The Abductors, by Patrick C. Greene

Short Take:  How many horrifying things can you fit into one short story?  Apparently, ALL OF THEM.  

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I have mentioned before that short stories aren’t really my thing, but I was gifted a copy of this one in exchange for an honest review, so I figured why not?  It’s only 30 or so pages, no great effort.

I was wrong.

You see, Patrick C. Greene has a gift.  And he uses it in wonderful, terrible ways.  He can fill a few short words, or a single sentence with a sense of dread and terror.  And he has this way of giving the reader what they think they want, only to make you go oh no, wait, I didn’t want that AT ALL.

Ok, so I’m rambling.  For such a small tale, there’s a lot to process here.  The plot can be summed up very quickly.  Brian and Wendell are a couple of perverts for hire, who create horrific child porn for a price.  (Thankfully, the descriptions here are pretty spare, but I don’t know which is worse – seeing, or imagining.  Anyway…)  To that end, they kidnap Shelly, who is nine years old, blue-eyed, and adorable, and whisk her away to the remote forest where they usually do their dirty work.

But this time, it doesn’t go as planned, because Shelley has some awful tricks of her own up her sleeve.

So.  There are a lot of “captive turns the tables on captors” stories out there.  I’ve read a few, I’ve seen I-don’t-know-how-many movies about that.  And I can say with complete and utter sincerity, The Abductors is not like any of them.

Shelly is terrifying, and probably not for the reasons most people are thinking.  And what happens to Wendell… pure, concentrated, distilled nightmare fuel.  As much as Greene holds back on the descriptions of Brian and Wendell’s plans for Shelly, he goes right on to the other extreme when detailing what happens to the guys.  And I do mean extreme.

This is yet another review that’s hard to write, because I don’t want to give much away.  There are a few spots I would love to quote, but in a story this short, every sentence has weight to it, every word adds something crucial, and I absolutely don’t want to spoil this for anyone who wants to read it.  And I can say without reservation that if you’re a horror fan, you want to read this.

With the light on.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS

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Butterfly Skin, by Sergey Kuznetsov

Short Take:  Sometimes, catching the bad guy isn’t the best part.

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I’ll be honest.  I didn’t have high hopes going into this one.  Crime thrillers that take place in other countries can sometimes be frustrating for me to read.  I’m used to my good old US of A rules and procedures, and sometimes, when reading a mystery that takes place elsewhere, I get annoyed with the way they can’t just put on their Criminal Minds hats and solve the damn thing.

But Butterfly Skin was different.  In this one, there’s so much wearing of the Criminal Minds hat that it’s almost too much at times.  I think that Sergey Kuznetsov read “Silence of the Lambs” and said to himself “You know, I could push this so much further.”  And oh, did he.

Ksenia is a rising star in the world of journalism.  At twenty-three, she is already a senior editor at the website evening.ru, a Russian news site.  She’s also heavily into the S portion of BDSM, and can only find release when in pain.  She keeps her personal and professional lives perfectly separate, until a serial killer begins stalking the streets of Moscow.

Ksenia’s fascination with the killer, which she expresses through long, thoughtful articles on the site, turns into his fascination with her, and from there, into a deadly cat and mouse game.  That sounds unbearably cliche, I know, but stick with me for a minute.

For starters, the setting (Moscow, present day) is so weirdly exotic and normal at the same time.  

I mean, I’ve watched a lot of youtube videos of crazy-awesome stuff that happens in Russia.  Usually there’s vodka involved, and some kind of explosive material, and lots of loud laughter, and people being thrown through the air at dangerous velocities while seeming to have the time of their lives.  And it always seemed to me that the Russians knew something about life that the rest of us may have missed, this kind of joy and adventure and big deep lust for experience that those of us who wither in cubicles for decades can only admire from the outside.

But Butterfly Skin showed me something else, something darker and more complex, a fatalism running beneath the outward jubilance, a sense of “eh, we could all be dead tomorrow, might as well have fun tonight.”  This is a book about a killer who does terrible things (and even a hardcore horror lover like me had trouble getting through some of the descriptions of murder and mutilation in this one), but it’s also a book about what it’s like to be a young woman on a path that looks great, but who never really knows if it’s the right one.

Ksenia has two close girlfriends, Marina and Olya, and through them, we see other people she might have been, or could yet become:  Marina is a single mother to a toddler whose father has long disappeared, Olya is a professional businesswoman who owns her own home and car.  Formerly promiscuous Marina has embraced motherhood to the exclusion of nearly everything else, Olya’s long-term affair with a married man can’t end any way but badly.  More than anything, this is a book about obsession.  

Ksenia is obsessed with the killer, but not in the way that most of us would be (seeing him brought to justice).  She is obsessed with the horrific things he does to women’s bodies.  In him, she seeks a kind of transcendent experience, being pushed beyond all of her previous limits of pain and pleasure.  It’s kinky, but not in a fun way.  

Did I mention that many of the descriptions made me cringe?  

The language of Butterfly skin is lush, bordering on purple prose, and there’s a rich vein of sensuality that runs alongside descriptions of removing body parts.  (Note: this was a translation from the original language; I can’t say what the “real” book sounds like.)  At times, it got a little dense, and a bit repetitive.  But there was still something so compelling about Butterfly Skin.

I probably sound kind of conflicted, and all over the map.  That’s really how I felt reading this book.  There was just so much to it.  So much beauty and ugliness all tied together, and joy and fear, and lust and rage.  Definitely one to check out if you want something darker and deeper, but absolutely not for the squeamish.

The Nerd’s Rating:  Four Happy Neurons (and a bottle of vodka because of course.)

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