Yesterday, When We Died, by Chad A. Clark

Short Take: Delicious horror with a heart.

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You know that feeling, when you pull on a pair of jeans or a coat you haven’t worn in a few years, and when you stick your hand in the pocket, you find a $20 bill? Or maybe, you’re kind-of thinking about something sweet, and morosely looking through the fridge for the fifth time, not seeing anything you want, and suddenly, you happen to notice half of a Symphony bar stuck way in the back. Maybe it’s been a long day, and your feet are cold and achy, and there’s that exquisite moment when you put on your favorite thick puffy slippers.

In other words, that feeling when a half-realized craving suddenly shoots to the front of your brain at the exact second that it is blissfully and completely satisfied. That, my friends, was the feeling I got when reading this book. I’ve been seriously jonesing for a good haunted-house story for SO LONG, and had practically given up hope, when this little gem came across my “free horror ebooks” feed. I downloaded it, then grumpily sat on it for a bit, having decided that haunted houses were dead, and not in the good way. But one night when idly flipping through my nook to find something that wouldn’t tax my brain too much, I figured, well, why not, it couldn’t be much worse than some of the stuff I’ve read lately.

What a savory surprise I got! In short, Yesterday, When We Died is the story of Kyle, and his two best friends Grant and Shannon, who decide to spend a bro-bonding week at a remote cabin. Kyle has not been the same since his ex-girlfriend Cheryl’s suicide, and the others think that it would do him some good to spend some time drinking, fishing, farting loudly, peeing outside, and whatever else it is that guys do when bro-bonding.

What Kyle doesn’t tell the others, however, is that shortly before killing herself, Cheryl also spent some time at the cabin to get some distance from the breakup.  But she came back…. different. She wouldn’t eat or sleep, and when she spoke, nothing made sense. Her family and Kyle tried to intervene, but eventually, she had to go into an institution, where she leapt from the roof and died.

So, here we are, a year later, with Kyle, Grant, and Shannon digging into the aforementioned bro-bonding in the aforementioned Cabin Where Something Is Very Wrong, when things start getting crazy. And crazier. And creepier. And really freaking scary.  Threatening figures seen out of the corner of an eye that disappear when examined more closely. Horrific dreams that might not be dreams, and visions that could drive any one of them to murder the others. And of course, the obligatory car that won’t start in the middle of nowhere.

Let me tell you all, for such a short work, Mr. Clark does an impressive job of packing in the atmosphere. The earthy smells, the shadowy woods, the isolation – I could seriously FEEL the place.  And the final climax hurt me in a good way, because despite the many fantastic fear elements in this book, ultimately, it’s a story about friendship, love, redemption, and sacrifice.

All horror should be so loving.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a Symphony bar. I could swear I stashed one somewhere around here….)

Loved this book!!

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The Touch: A Trilogy, by A. G. Carpenter

Short Take:  I can only say wow so many times, people.

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

I do love me some good Southern Gothic. Give me the moss, the humidity, the accents, the witchy women and rawboned men and we are in BUSINESS. Alas, my reading adventures have been sorely lacking in any kind of tasty home-fried creepy southern goodness lately, to the point that it had been so long, I didn’t even realize how much I missed it.

Until today.  The opening of this book is a harrowing, attention-getting, where-are-my-socks-oh-they-are-blown-off, unexpected treat. I was hooked from that very first snippet.

The Touch Trilogy is (as the name implies) a collection of three sequential novellas, combined here into one juicy delicious book. The book takes place in various locations in Georgia, in a world that’s basically ours, but with one glaring exception: Some people have The Touch, which allows them to see and affect the future, go through flames without being burned, and a whole bunch of other fun things that I won’t spoil here.

The problem with having the The Touch is that it frequently drives people to murderous insanity. Enter Delaney Green: as a child, her mother attempted to burn her alive (see murderous insanity), and she spent most of her formative and young adult life in an institution, where the people in charge used electroshock therapy and drugs to suppress her powers.

There are different levels of magic though, and while Delaney has the strongest, others, such as FBI Agent Percival Cox are known as Sensitives. They can see/hear/feel things that the rest of us can’t, but it doesn’t seem like their powers can affect others, nor are they known for losing their minds and going on homicidal rampages.

When Percival is investigating a series of gruesome murders that seems to have supernatural elements, the clues lead him to Delaney. And from there, the story goes to a few of the places I expected (c’mon, you just KNOW there will be some kind of voodoo in the back of a dusty old shop), and at least one place (not spoiling!) that I absolutely did not see coming.  

Percy and Delaney are great characters, and their eventual meeting and partnership in trying to stop the murderer made for a fantastic story. However, that story is only the first third of the trilogy. Part 2 did not hang together as well for me, and this is where I almost gave up. It felt like a completely different story, like it didn’t quite match the beginning. Half of it takes place in a setting far removed from the familiar ones. There was one character who was grotesque in a way that I would assume was unintentional, as she was supposed to be one of the Good Guys, but I cringed every time she was on the page.

It also seemed that there were a few threads left hanging in the end, possibly with the intention of adding to the series. A very important file that’s negotiated for, smuggled out, and never mentioned again. Some missing bones that might be used for a nefarious purpose, or might not. Some potential for rebounding magic that could do a lot of harm in the future, or maybe no.

Overall though, just about everything else came together beautifully in Part 3. Ms. Carpenter’s writing style is exactly the kind of poetic that I like. It’s evocative, letting a few sentences create a mood you can almost touch, but not so far into the realm of purple prose as to be distracting. That’s a tough line to walk and the author does it well. The ending was exquisite, a yummy cocktail of beauty, pain, loss, and love. Despite its flaws, this one is worth savoring.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some salt. You never know when you’ll need it!)

Loved this book!!

Stingy Jack And Other Tales, by Patrick C. Greene

Short Take: Even the tricks are delicious.
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Note: I received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Hello all you lovely internet people! I come bearing some seriously spookalicious stuff from one of my favorite masters of mayhem. If any of you have been following this site at all, you’re already familiar with my fan-girly squeals over Mr. Greene, and you may have already read my reviews of a couple of these stories, from other collections. Most of them, however, are new to me, and I can say without reservation that each one of them is exactly the ooey gooey (and slightly oozing?) Halloween treat you’ve all been jonesing for.

As most of you know, I am not super into short stories, but Mr. Greene’s shorts somehow manage to satisfy my craving for something big & meaty. (Did that sound dirty? I feel like that sounded dirty). The author manages to describe a decade of backstory in just a few sentences, and can make you see a complete character with just a brief snippet of dialogue. And as for the plots, well… Besides loads of good, old-fashioned, bloody terror in each and every one, there are also liberal doses of heartbreak, redemption, and humor.

I can hear all of you howling and gnashing your teeth, imploring me, “yes, Nerd, the stories are great, but what are they ABOUT??” So without further ado, here’s a brief overview of each one.

Stingy Jack, Ol’ Scratch, and a Head Full of Fire:  A medieval-era fire-phobic, self-pitying, manipulative, lecherous, turnip-loving drunk makes a deal with the devil (is this Nerd surprised that the devil is a fratboy? NOPE). A Halloween must-read.

Unto The Earth: A terribly toxic marriage is not what it appears to be.

Nightbound:  Breaking into an abandoned mansion and finding coffins in the basement seems like a horror cliche, but there’s a whole other story here, about escaped convicts, a heist, bags of money, a sociopath, and a girl who’s prettier and greedier than she is smart.

Gramma’s House:  A trio of methheads breaks into the titular house, only to enter… The Twilight Zone.

The Plagues of Winter:  After a blizzard, an isolated northeastern island community finds itself dealing with much worse problems than no internet.

Guardian of the Orchard: The tale of three brothers who like to sneak into Old Man Peterson’s orchard to steal apples (and maybe have a good old-fashioned rotten apple fight once in awhile), and Old Man Peterson’s twisted, demonic act of revenge on them. Or maybe it’s about something entirely different.

Cinderblock:  Once a world class boxer, always a world class boxer.

Black Cloud:  If you’ve ever done something terrible, you know that the black cloud never really leaves. What you may not realize is that it might have a mind of its own.

3:33 The Bloodbird:  Sibling rivalry is no joke.

How Me and Bozy Became Dads:  A typical day of a group of inmates doing roadside clean-up duty becomes something entirely unexpected.

The Curse of Kirby: So let’s say you have the neighbors from hell.  And you happen to bump into a Goth-ish girl who can communicate with ghosts, and sort-of control a particularly strong one.  What could go wrong?

So to sum it up, this is the Halloween candy you have been craving, minus the calories. You know you want it.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a full-size Milky Way bar. Seriously, whoever came up with the concept of “fun size” doesn’t understand fun.)

Loved this book!!

The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena

Short Take:  Y’all can stop looking, I have found the new Gone Girl.

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Yes, I’m back after a long hiatus consisting of mental misfires, dodgy doldrums, and a dearth of reading material that tickled my giblets enough to make me want to write reviews. Until now. As much as I’ve railed against every publisher blurb that promises me “It’s the next Gone Girl!”, I should have guessed that at some point I would eat my words.

So here I am, choking down my many many MANY statements that no other book could possibly be anything like Gone Girl. I will still sleep with my homemade Gillian Flynn doll, however, because the book gods giveth and the book gods taketh away and I ain’t taking any chances.

On its surface, the premise of The Couple Next Door is entirely different than the aforementioned Gone Girl. Anne and Marco, a lovely, upper-upper-upper middle class couple are at a dinner party at the home of their neighbors, Cynthia and Graham. Cynthia has made it very clear that this was to be an adults-only party, so when Anne & Marco’s sitter cancels at the last minute, they decide to leave their 6 month old baby by herself. After all, they reason, we’ll be right next door, we have the baby monitor, we will take turns checking on her every half hour, she’ll be sound asleep the whole time anyway. What could go wrong?

It should probably go without saying that PLENTY could go wrong.

Marco checks on Cora at 12:30, and tells Anne that all is well, but when the couple go home at 1 AM, the baby is gone.  And what follows is one of the most deliciously twisty mysteries I’ve read in quite some time. Everyone wants something out of this case: Anne and Marco want their baby back. Detective Rasbach wants to figure out what happened and to find Cora.  The media wants to salivate over the fact that the baby was home alone and that Anne is being treated for postpartum depression. But above and beyond all other motives and goals, everyone wants to keep their own dirty secrets tucked safely away.

We get point-of-view chapters from Marco, Anne and the detective, as well as the occasional bits from other characters, including Cynthia. All of these characters are portrayed with a surprising amount of depth. My favorite was the detective. He’s seen too much in his career, and it’s made him jaded and cynical, but he still wants to believe that someone, anyone, is telling him the truth in all this. Yet he never lets himself quite believe anything he’s told. You really get a sense of how exhausting it must be to live like that, day in and day out. Beautifully done.

There are a few overused themes in Couple Next Door. Namely, Everyone Has Secrets. Nobody Can Be Trusted. And so on. But I have to add that for every reveal that I saw coming, there were at least three that I didn’t. And although many of the characters were unlikable at times, you also got the sense that their humanity was intact, that sometimes the wrong decision feels like the only one.

And the best part? On the amazon page for this book, NOT ONCE was it called “The Next Gone Girl.” So maybe, just maybe, publishers will stop using that line. Everyone wins!

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a duffel bag full of unmarked bills. Cause who couldn’t use one of those?)

Loved this book!!

 

Of Foster Homes and Flies, by Chad Lutzke

Short Take: Weirdly gorgeous.

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*Note: I was given a free copy of this story in exchange for an honest review*

Every so often, a jaded old reader likes me gets smacked right in the gob with something entirely different. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it’s both a delight and a burden. A joy, because how often have I read the same-old, same-old, the tired tropes and the telegraphed twists, the scares that aren’t scary, and the “emotional” scenes that read more like soap operas performed by nervous middle schoolers?

Far too many.

And it’s a burden, because how can I explain my delight in something when I don’t even fully understand it? Oh, not the story itself, that is actually pretty straightforward. Denny, a highly precocious if profoundly neglected sixth-grader has decided that this is His Year. He will compete in the school spelling bee, and bring home a ribbon that would make his deceased father proud.

There’s one flaw in the plan, however. A few days before the competition, his extremely alcoholic mother dies in her sleep, right in the middle of the living room.

What’s a very smart kid who wasn’t at all close to his mother to do? Well, he could report her death, and run the risk of being sent to foster care or an orphanage and miss the spelling bee, or he could just hold off for a few days, keep it a secret, and finish what he set out to do. Needless to say, Denny opts for the latter choice.

For such a short work, less than 200 pages and covering only a few days, there’s a surprising amount to unpack here. For one thing, Foster Homes doesn’t quite fit into any simple category.

I see several descriptions calling this book a “coming of age” story, and while I suppose that’s true (Denny’s experience over those few days would be a pretty fast innocence killer), there’s both more and less to it than that. For one thing, it seems as though Denny ends the book pretty much the same person he was at the beginning. I’m not going to say if he gets a happy ending with a new family, or wins the spelling bee, or goes to foster care hell, or any of the obvious outcomes as far as plot. It’s obviously a life-changing few days, as once the truth comes out, his outer life is going to be changed.

But Denny is the same self-sufficient, basically good kid at the end of the book that he was at the beginning, and that’s not really a bad thing. SHOULD Denny lose it over a person who never really cared about him? For Denny to be OK in the beginning of the book, and the same OK person at the end is more than acceptable. In fact, it’s kind of revolutionary.  Mad props to the author for that one. Hollywood (and yes, most books) have taught me and everyone else that a major experience has to change a person on a fundamental level, that they should be wiser or stronger or braver or whatever. But what if that person is, seriously, fine the way they are? Maybe it’s about time that we recognize that not every big experience has to have a Deeper Profound Meaning.  Bravo, Mr. Lutzke.

But that DOES kinda shoot the whole “coming of age” thing in the foot.

There’s also a strong element of drama, the sense of how much the terrible secret is weighing on Denny, that his young shoulders are probably not up to the task of carrying it for five days. And when everything goes down, his genuine emotional breakdown is not only understandable, but a welcome release.

And finally, at a quick glance, Chad Lutzke seems to be mainly a horror author, and while the descriptions of the mother’s body are horrifying, I don’t know that I would consider this one a horror novel per se. That said, I also would emphatically not recommend reading this while eating.

And I also just want to throw another neuron at this author for some absolutely beautiful bits of writing throughout Foster Homes. For example, there’s a paragraph describing a chair, early in the book, that evoked a shocking amount of feeling. Yes, a chair.

But mostly, I just loved that for as tight as this book is, as narrow in focus, and as wonderfully simple as it is, it’s also kind of a messy, genre-defying amazingly human story. It doesn’t fit neatly into any bookstore category, it doesn’t aspire to be more than it is, and it’s so powerful for that.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some incense. And a long shower with lots of soap. Because seriously, VERY graphic descriptions!)

Loved this book!!

Guardian of the Orchard, by Patrick C. Greene

Short Take:  I hate this.

Give your brain a snack!

Note:  I was given a free copy of this ebook in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve reviewed a few of Mr. Greene’s works here.  By now, most of you have probably figured out that I’m a fan.  And yeah, sure, he’s talented, yadda yadda yadda.  His works are pretty near flawless, blah blah blah.  He’s an incredible author, but you know what?  I’m getting pretty darn sick of awesome, amazing work.  The reviews are just too hard to write.  WHY WON’T ANYONE THINK OF THE REVIEWER??

Guardian of the Orchard is the tale of three brothers who like to sneak into Old Man Peterson’s orchard to steal apples (and maybe have a good old-fashioned rotten apple fight once in awhile), and Old Man Peterson’s twisted, demonic act of revenge on them.  Or maybe it’s about something entirely different.  I don’t want to give the ending away, but man, it’ll stay with you.  

Patrick C. Greene is fantastic at creating a mood, or a character, or a whole universe, with just a few sentences.  The dialogue between the brothers, little Simon’s heartbreak at losing a favorite toy, the bossiness and bravado of big brother Dale are so gloriously, heartbreakingly real.  I mean, even a bit of dialogue towards the end that seemed really awful turned out to be completely spot-on when another reveal happened.  So what am I supposed to do with that?  

I mean, here’s where I, as the person writing the reviews, SHOULD point out what’s good and not good about this story.  But when an author keeps hitting it out of the park, what am I left with?  I’m left looking like a 10 year old girl at a Justin Beiber concert, and let me tell you, that doesn’t look good on ANYONE.  (Which reminds me – whoever finds my body when I die, please make sure to hide my Dukes of Hazzard poster.  You’ll know the one, it’s got some weird smudges on it.  Don’t judge.)

So all I can say is yes, everyone who likes horror should read this story, and Mr. Greene, THANKS AGAIN for making my job impossible.  You jerk.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a big Gala apple, because they are the best kind.)

Loved this book!!

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!!