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!!

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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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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The Silent Girls, by Eric Rickstad

Short Take:  This.  Right here.  This is how you do a mystery/thriller right.

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Oh man, y’all.  Have you ever read something that was so surprisingly good by someone you had never heard of, and you just want to write a review that is all GREAT and WONDERFUL and AWESOME but you don’t want to just come off like a squealing moron?  The struggle is real sometimes.

Simon Rath is a private detective who occasionally helps the police in his small town in Vermont.  When one of the younger detectives, Harland Grout, finds an abandoned car belonging to a teenage girl, he calls Rath in to help determine if the girl is actually missing.

Once they start investigating, they discover a pattern of missing girls, at least one of which was found murdered in an especially horrific way.  And things get far too close to home when Rath’s niece, Rachel, decides to help with the investigation.

So.  What was so awesome about this book, you’re wondering.  On the surface, it sounds like a few hundred or thousand other mystery novels.  But it really isn’t.  Start with Rath, for example.  He’s no action hero.  He’s a kind-of-beaten-up, mostly alcoholic former cop with a Guilty Secret.  But even with that stack of stereotypes, Eric Rickstad made him realistic.  His dark past doesn’t make him smolderingly romantic; he’s awkward bordering on rude around women and has a bad back that would keep him from most heroic stunts.

Then there’s the pacing.  I’m not going to exaggerate here:  I was hooked from the first chapter.  It was creepy and bizarre, and messed up in the best way.  I had to read the rest, just to see if it was as good as that first chapter, and I’ll be completely honest in saying I was prepared to eviscerate it if it wasn’t.  I hate when a book starts out amazing, then takes a slow train to Meh-town.  This one wasn’t even close.

The Silent Girls also runs head-first into difficult topics.  A lot of the plot revolves around women’s reproductive choices, abortion, and the fanaticism on both sides of the debate.  It’s not a pretty subject, and Rickstad doesn’t flinch.  

The supporting cast doesn’t feel as well-rounded as Rath.  I honestly can’t draw the line on that one though.  The story is pretty much all from Rath’s point of view, so we obviously won’t get into the others’ heads too much.  But Rachel is also pretty interesting in her own right.

My final thought is on the ending.  As a rule, I don’t like cliffhanger endings.  My usual reaction is along the lines of “Oh, Mr. Smarty-pants Author, you think since I bought this book, you’re going to trick me into buying the next one too!  Well, I’m not falling for it, so there!!!”  For some reason, I tend to take cliffhanger endings as a personal test of willpower.  Yes, I know, I have issues.

But the end of this one kind of got me.  Although I suspect the sequel will be a let-down (it almost seems to be heading into evil genius/mastermind/cliche territory), I’m more tempted than usual to give it a try.  Getting me to go against my own stubbornness is quite a feat.  

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a bottle of quality scotch)

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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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