You Are Not Alone, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Short Take: Should have been better than it is.

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

Hello, my sweet nerdlings! It’s a freezing and snowy morning, and I don’t want to crawl out from either the warm blanket or piping-hot laptop, but alas! That kitchen won’t clean itself, and if I want to eat breakfast at some point, I’m going to have to cut a path through the dirty dishes first. And believe you me, I absolutely plan on eating breakfast. Maybe a couple of times.

So let’s get on with it, shall we?

When Shay witnesses beautiful, young Amanda Evinger kill herself by jumping in front of a subway train, it’s one more lousy thing in a week that’s been full of them. She’s in love with her roommate, but he’s in love with someone else and planning on moving her in, meaning Shay is about to be homeless. Despite being a fairly talented statistician, she’s only able to find temp jobs, so joblessness is about to join homelessness and insurancelessness and all the other -lessnesses that are way too common in this country.  

But even though the list of terrible things is long & ugly, Amanda’s death creates a strange kind of bright spot in Shay’s life. Understandably traumatized by the horrific suicide, Shay wants to learn more about what led Amanda to that point. She attends Amanda’s memorial service and there, she meets Amanda’s impossibly perfect friends, sisters Cassandra and Jane Moore. Super wealthy, incredibly gorgeous, kind and generous, they take Shay under their collective wing and soon, everything is better.

They hook Shay up with a sweet apartment-sitting gig, a better job, and a makeover that will bring all the boys to her yard. 

There’s just one teensy tiny little problem: the Moore sisters are part of a small, tightly knit circle of friends who have one nefarious purpose that I won’t spoil here, and they just might be using Shay for their own reasons.

Although the story is fun & twisty enough, the characters are way too flat. Everyone is super rich (except Shay), a brilliant mastermind & expert in their field (except Shay) and flawlessly beautiful (including Shay). They do a few interesting things plot-wise, but the motivation for those things is a handful of hollow pop-psych cliches.. They have all of the advantages (wealth, a perfect figure) without any of the effort (long hours, never eating a cookie).

And of course, the only imperfect character is Shay. But she’s so whiny & helpless & clueless throughout most of the book that it’s hard to get behind her and cheer her on. Her silent pining over her roommate/BFF is just bad, a trope that needs to die already. If the genders were reversed, it would inspire a thousand moronic “friend zone” memes and encourage creepy “nice guys” to just hang in there, she’ll come around.

Honestly, after An Anonymous Girl, I had much higher hopes for these authors.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and some paper plates, because seriously? I wash the dishes, put food on them, and wash them again till I die? That can’t be right, can it?)

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The Lies We Tell, by Debra Webb

Short Take: Is this how straight guys feel in strip clubs?

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

Y’all it’s 86 degrees here, and it’s September. WHY is it 86 degrees in September? All my feeds are full of scarves and pumpkin spice, and while I am not into either of those, I am also not into 86 degrees in September. Everyone’s allergies are going nuts, which is just compounding the misery of the heat.

And speaking of misery, let’s talk about The Lies We Tell, shall we?

This is the second (correction – it’s book #2.5, there’s an introductory novella) book in The Undertaker’s Daughter series, and while I genuinely enjoyed the first one-point-five books, Ms. Webb jumped the shark with this blatant cash-grab.

Warning!!! The following contains spoilers for the previous books in the series, so if you haven’t read them yet, tread lightly!

Rowan DuPont’s life has been a rough one. From the drowning death of her twin sister when they were twelve, to her mother’s subsequent suicide, and her own failed suicide attempts, she has finally found a bit of peace when it’s all upended again. In her 40’s, she learns that her best friend and mentor, Julian Addington is in fact a prolific serial killer who has killed over 100 people, and he also was having an affair with Rowan’s mom, and he has just killed Rowan’s dad, leaving her the only surviving member of the family and thus the heir to the DuPont Funeral Home.

Of course her psychiatry background means that she can slide right into the undertaker role, presumably because things like licensing and certification aren’t things in Winchester, Tennessee, and it also qualifies her to jump into investigations with the coroner and chief of police, Billy, with whom she’s been exchanging goo-goo eyes (but nothing else) for over 30 years.

It also means that she somehow, over the course of DECADES, fails to figure out that her bestie is a serial killer who’s obsessed with her, her parents’ marriage was not a good one, her mother had a whole secret life that Rowan didn’t even bother looking at till thirty years after her death, and her most trusted employees are committing all manner of crimes right under her nose. We’re supposed to believe that she has no life because she’s so Committed To Her Investigation Work, but she’s really really terrible at it. She’s so preoccupied with her work that she fails to dress for the weather or buy or eat food ALL THE TIME. We’re told no less than five times at different points that Rowan wishes she had brought a coat or sweater or should probably eat lunch but oops too much more important brain stuff happening. But the brain stuff doesn’t happen. The original serial killer is still alive and well and obsessed, she never really digs into her parents’ stuff other than some journal-reading, other people have to point out the employees’ misdeeds to her. 

But she DOES manage to do things like order inventory, and get her assistant’s printer moved, so there’s that, I guess?

In The Lies We Tell, a body brought to the funeral home for processing has a tattoo that seems to connect him to Rowan’s mother. Rowan’s subsequent discoveries somehow manage to be both completely, ridiculously, impossibly over-the-top, and completely pointless at the same time. There are a few juicy hints about Rowan’s mother’s past (again: it’s been 30 years, shouldn’t a brilliant person like Rowan have dissected at least SOME of that by now?), but no answers other than that every person involved in any investigation ever is super inept (SO MANY killers running around doing their thing for decades, like a whole network, it’s insane even for Tennessee).

And in the end, there are no answers, the whole book is just an extended setup for another book, which we all know I hate, almost as much as I hate the Criminal Mastermind cliche. Seriously, if a dude is smart enough to kill dozens of people without getting caught, why is he borderline homeless? Shouldn’t he have figured out how to steal some money along the way?

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a peanut butter sandwich, so I can also pretend to be a super-busy genius.)

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A Nearly Normal Family, by M.T. Edvardsson

Short Take: A family drama trying to be Nordic noir.

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I know I complained before about the lack of truly summery weather, but seriously y’all, WHERE IS SUMMER?? How am I supposed to read in the pool, or drink vodka on the patio, or do whatever else people do when they go outside (not super clear on that)?

I seriously want a do-over. This is road apples (keepin’ it clean for the Amazon censors).

There is one thing that was OK about this lousy weather though, and it’s that as I was reading A Nearly Normal Family, with its rich descriptions of Sweden’s autumn weather, I was legit pulling my own blanket tighter (in freakin JUNE for cryin out loud), and it made a somewhat difficult book a little bit better.

Eighteen year old Stella is a handful – drinking, smoking weed, sneaking out to party, and of course constantly fighting with her parents, well-respected defense attorney Ulrika and well-loved pastor Adam. But it’s still shocking when she is arrested for the murder of a wealthy businessman nearly twice her age.

What follows is a delicate balancing act, as Adam and Ulrika struggle with the most basic, primal impulse parents have: protect your child at all costs. And for Adam and Ulrika, the choices they will feel compelled to make are the hardest of their lives. In a small town where everyone knows everyone, what would happen if the pastor lied? Or if the hotshot defense attorney destroyed evidence?

And at the center of all the swirling turmoil is Stella, who won’t see or speak to either of them, who holds her own secrets and catastrophic choices.

The story is told in three parts, with Adam, Stella, and finally Ulrika each taking a turn telling their story. It’s that narrative structure that presents the first real issue I had, which is the glacial tempo of the story. At a hefty-ish 400 pages, I expected a slow burn, but it feels like a lot of padding with not much story. Every character is keeping secrets which is usually A-OK in my book, but there are just too many descriptions of one character wondering what another character is doing, and not enough of things actually happening.

Also, it could just be that the translation isn’t as effective as the original, but there’s a sense of reserve, a kind of formality and stiffness throughout the narration.  Even when someone was recounting something traumatizing and painful, I never really felt what they were feeling. There were no moments of levity, of these people who love each other just having fun and enjoying each other, making it hard to appreciate the importance of their relationships. Every interaction is ponderous and loaded with subtext, and drawn out just a few beats too long. Each major scene is repeated from different perspectives

In the end, All Is Revealed, but much of it was telegraphed pretty clearly throughout the book. I can’t help but feel that the author wanted to write only about the tension in this family, and someone convinced him that it should be a murder mystery, so he quickly sketched that out & threw it in at the last minute.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a cider. I’ve decided to give up on summer, and go straight into autumn drinking.)

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Stay Hidden, by Paul Doiron

Short Take: Wait, who was that guy?

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

Living on an island seems like it should have a lot of perks. I mean, you have 360 degrees of beach, right? Unfortunately, according to Stay Hidden, that’s about the only thing going for island living (at least islands off the coast of Maine), because it sure does seem to be pretty miserable for everyone.

Newly minted Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch is on his first case. A woman has been shot to death outside her rented cabin on a small remote Maine island, and although it appears to be a simple hunting accident (excuse me, INCIDENT, this is Very Important and repeated many times), things quickly take a turn for the complicated.

First off, when Mike takes the call, he gets the impression that someone has already confessed to the shooting, but of course that isn’t the case. Secondly, although the corpse is identified as super-famous journalist Ariel Evans, she turns up the next day, alive and well and ready to dig into another juicy story.

It’s a very intriguing setup, but it just doesn’t work.

I can’t exactly say that Stay Hidden was bad, but there were just so many things that could have made it better. For example, all of the descriptions of the book online state that Ariel is not the woman who was murdered, and to me, that would have much for a much better surprise-reveal.

There’s also far too much of a lecturing tone to many passages. I’m sure that Mr. Doiron knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, but long sections on minutiae of forensics, or what happens when deer are overpopulated, or meteorological trivia and so on just slow the pace. Throw in adding a new character or five every couple of pages, and my brain just wanted to quit.

Which brings me to my biggest problem with this one  – the massive cast of characters. The book takes place on an island with a population of eighty-nine, and I swear, over the course of a slim 300 pages, we are introduced to every one of them, and also given their relationships to everyone else on the island, which is especially fun when it’s a prominent family whose names all sound alike. I got tired of having to stop and try to remember or flip back to where I first encountered that character, to the point that I gave up and just trusted that whatever they were doing/saying in any given scene would be sufficient to jog my memory eventually.

All in all, Stay Hidden is a serviceable, although somewhat dull and formulaic mystery.
The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a nice venison steak. Because I live in an area where deer do a lot of damage, and screw those mangy jerks.)

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The Sister, by Louise Jensen

Short Take:  “A psychological thriller with a brilliant twist you won’t see coming.”  Challenge. Accepted.

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I have yet another shocking confession to make (when did reviews become my own personal tell-all?? Anyway….): I read a lot of “psychological thrillers.” A. Lot. Like, people don’t like to watch mystery movies with me, because I can usually figure out the “big twist” about halfway through. Ok, ok, ok, in the interest of honesty, my “NAILED IT!! NAILED IT!! LOOK HOW SMART I AM!” song and dance might have a little something to do with that, but the point stands.

I can pretty much always see the twist coming. And although it might seem like a superpower to most normal people, this particular gift is also a bit of a curse, in that I tend to not be surprised nearly as often as I would like, and I think that cuts into a lot of the enjoyment that I would get from books and movies.

So, you can imagine my reaction when I saw the subtitle to The Sister, quoted above, but please, let me say it again: “A psychological thriller with a brilliant twist you won’t see coming.” That’s either a bit of marketing genius, or an act of hubris up there with Babe Ruth pointing out exactly where his next home run would land. Either way, with a target audience of people like me, Ms. Jensen made a gutsy move.

But did she pull it off?

Before I give the answer, I’ll explain a bit of the plot of the story (pffftt, and some people think writing suspense is hard!)

Grace’s life is finally getting back on track. After a childhood tragedy that robbed her of her parents, the disappearance and later death of her best friend Charlie, and a slew of other disturbing and depressing incidents throughout her childhood and teen years, she is living with her boyfriend Dan in a lovely little cottage, working in a job she loves, and is even starting to make a kind of peace with her past.

But then things start to unravel. When she tries to find Charlie’s father (something her friend always wanted to do but never managed), she instead meets Charlie’s half-sister Anna. In short order, Anna is living with Grace and Dan, becoming the best friend that Grace has needed since Charlie’s death. But when it seems that someone is stalking Grace, when Dan begins acting strangely, when the past starts colliding with the present, it becomes clear that Anna might not be who she says she is at all.

But Neeeeeerdddddd, I can hear all of you screaming in frustration. Did you figure out the “brilliant twist” or not?!?!?!

To which I would have to reply: which one?

Truthfully, the author has jammed so many twists into this book, that distinguishing one of them as the “brilliant” one is just not possible. A few of them, yes, I saw. Whether it was because they were a little obvious to draw attention from the BIG twist, I don’t know. I’m still not really clear on which twist was supposed to be the main one.

So to clarify a bit, hopefully without spoilers: Anna’s real identity, and the tragedy in her life that set everything in motion were both bits that I did not see coming. The latter event, however, like several others in The Sister, just felt gratuitous.

There were so many red herrings, and so many, many, MANY incidents of Grace being harassed, stalked, toyed with, drugged, poisoned, lied to, assaulted, threatened and so on and so on and so forth. What was at its heart a pretty good story turned into a stage show by an incompetent magician shouting “Look over there! Whatever could that be?!?!” while trying to pull an angry pigeon out of his sleeve. It’s cool when you see pigeon, but by the time you do, you’re pretty much over the show in general.

Grace was so frustratingly passive and meek and just plain stupid at times. Her method of coping with all of the above incidents is to wash a sleeping pill down with wine (seemingly several times a day) and wait for either the problem to go away, or for someone else to deal with it for her. Every time there was a big red flag being practically shoved up her nose, she grabbed her chemical security blanket and opted to ignore it. So it was hard to feel much of anything for her during the book’s final climax and Big Reveal Scene.

There’s also the fact that all of the people who cause the conflicts in the story really aren’t that close to Grace, and it doesn’t make much sense for her to be involved in, well, pretty much any of it. You could cut the character of Grace out pretty much entirely, let Charlie be alive and the main character of the story, and it would make a lot more sense.

So to sum it up: No, I didn’t see the “brilliant twist” coming. But it takes more than a good twist to make a good story.
The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and some wine. A lot of wine.)

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The Family Tree, by John Everson

Short Take:  Attack of the Mary Sue.

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I keep telling myself, “Nerd, stay away from the best-of lists.  They are always disappointing.”  But then my self starts whining, “Awwwww, come onnnnnnnnnnn, it looks soooooooo goooooooood!!!  Let’s just tryyyyyyyyy it, pleaaaaaaaaaase?”  And eventually, I give in to the whining, and sure enough, I’m right, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t continue doing the same darn thing and letting random websites tell me what I should be reading.  Because sometimes I find a delicious hidden treat.  Unfortunately, The Family Tree is not one of those.

Scott Belvedere is living and working in Chicago.  He’s a single guy, not super successful with the ladies, with what seems to be a decent career  His life is interrupted when he receives notice that he has inherited The Family Tree Inn.  It’s a bed and breakfast type place in rural Virginia that has been passed from Belvedere to Belvedere for well over a hundred years, and he’s the last one.

Having no clue of his ancestry or the inn, he travels to Virginia to check it out.  There he finds a beautiful old inn, built around a huge, ancient tree.  The tree is special, as its sap, when consumed, can heal wounds and grant long life.  But nothing wonderful comes without a sacrifice, and the tree’s gifts are no exception.

The plot was actually fairly simple and straightforward, with some decent action pieces.  I usually like a fair amount of complexity in my brain candy, but the brevity was a good thing in this book. Mainly because not a lot happens.  It felt like 75% of the book was just self-inserting wish fulfillment.  The characters are mostly very flat, especially Scott.  The few sentences I wrote above are pretty much all we ever learn of him.

Most of the time when we see Scott, he’s busy having sex with every attractive female character in the book, over and over.  I’m not anti-sex-scene by any means, but when the characters have zero personality, and the plot is mostly telegraphed from the beginning, and it’s just hook up after hook up after hook up with impossibly flawless, beautiful women, it’s less like a horror novel and more like someone’s sweaty fantasy.

It’s nearly impossible to have a good book without having good characters.  The Family Tree has a decent (if mostly predictable) plot, but that really just isn’t enough.  When Scott and one of the female characters fall in love, it’s obvious that it’s because the plot demands it.  You know when you’re watching a movie, and the characters fall in love, and it’s obvious that the actors really have zero chemistry at all?  But they have to do what the script says, and in the end, it’s not very enjoyable to watch.  It’s like that.

I never got a sense of who these people were, why they would care so much for each other, what the attraction was beyond the same physical connection he had with the other women in the book.  If anything, she seemed rather naive and excited by the idea of living in a big city, and he was OK with that.  Not exactly the stuff fairy tales are made of.

The Nerd’s Rating:   Two Happy Neurons

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The Grin of the Dark, by Ramsey Campbell

Short Take:  So much potential.

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Ramsey Campbell is one of those horror authors that horror fans seem to really love, but I just can’t get in to.  I tried Incarnate a couple of years ago after seeing rave reviews from some other bloggers I admire, and I thought that it was OK, but not spectacular.  I figured that Campbell just wasn’t for me, and moved on.

Then I read a “Best Horror Novels of the Millenium” list, and there he was at #7, with The Grin of the Dark.  Since I’d already read most of what was on the list, I decided to give Ramsey Campbell one more try.  Plus, clowns are freaky, and so are silent movies, and this seemed like a REALLY cool concept.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I never have any luck with “Best-Of” lists, right?

Simon Lester is a writer whose career has taken a sharp turn downward.  He’s working in a gas station, and trying to put together a life with his girlfriend Natalie and her seven-year-old son, Mark, despite the difficult relationship he has with her well-off parents, Warren and Bebe.  It’s an enormous gift then, when one of his former professors shows up and offers him a job.  Simon will be researching an obscure silent movie star, Tubby Thackeray, and will receive a very nice paycheck.

Simon understandably jumps at the offer, but as always, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.  While researching Tubby, Simon learns some disconcerting facts:  namely, that everyone who watches his movies or live performances goes insane.

The Grin of the Dark has a few genuinely creepy scenes.   The circus that Simon and Mark attend is probably one of the best things I’ve read in a horror novel.  You know that feeling, in a dream, where you are scared but you don’t know exactly why?  It was like that.

Which is why the rest of the book was such a letdown.

Reading The Grin of the Dark was like following a helium balloon around a room.  It bobs randomly, bouncing here and there, sometimes looking like it’s about to drift into something sharp and pop, but still always circles back to the same place.

As Simon goes deeper into his research, he begins to lose his mind.  We are reassured of this fact repeatedly.  Every interaction he has with another person involves a few of the same features.  He starts to see them as a chubby clown, he hears gibberish that they aren’t saying, he starts talking in gibberish himself, there may or may not be a clown face slithering around, and either he or they or both begin to grin uncontrollably.  He never remembers these encounters the way other people do.

Over and over and over and over and over.  The repetition was mind-numbing.  Any emotional response I had to these passages turned into “again?  Really?  C’mon, I GET IT.  Can we move on?”

The characters aren’t particularly well-written, to the point that I found myself frequently flipping back and forth to remember who was who – they’re indistinguishable from each other.  Also, none of them are especially likeable, which makes it hard to care what happens to them.

There’s also a protracted argument with an Internet troll who can’t spell very well.  This becomes significant in the last few pages, but after so many seemingly-meaningless message board transcripts of movie-title minutiae, I was barely skimming the posts.

Finally, the ending was just bad.  It might be that I had mentally checked out of the book about 150 pages before the actual end, but it really made very little sense.  Or I should say, it mostly made sense, except for one huge gaping plot hole that either involves time travel or some other aspect of Simon’s madness that wasn’t mentioned until the last page.

But still…. clowns, man.  And silent movies, with their weird jerky movements and over-acted facial expressions and super dark makeup and strange disturbing early special effects.  Both of these are enough to give a person a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, and marrying the two was a really cool idea.

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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