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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Mayhem, by Sarah Pinborough

Short Take:  Jack the Ripper had some very creepy company.

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I’ve always been a big fan of the trifecta of disturbing reading:  Horror, Mystery/Thrillers, and True Crime.  The three genres do tend to have broad themes in common, such as violence, a puzzle to be solved, and usually, some kind of creepy setting (which, in the case of true crime, is often some perfect-looking suburb – YIKES).  But there aren’t many specific subjects that combine all three genres.

Jack The Ripper is the exception.  And, like Jack, Mayhem is the rare book that hits all three – the true crime, the mystery/thriller, and, most definitely, the horror.

There have been so many books written about the Ripper killings.  Carefully researched nonfiction tomes, semi-factual novels in which the mystery is solved once and for all, speculative works in which the Ripper was actually some demonic force.  And the movies… I wouldn’t know where to begin counting those.

I’m using a lot of words to say, Jack the Ripper is famous.  Infamous.  But what very few people know is that at the same time old Jack was doing his thing, there was a far more gruesome series of murders happening right nearby from 1887-1879.  Dubbed the Thames Torso Killer, the murderer’s trademark was to dissect his victims and leave their body parts scattered around London and in the Thames River, each piece carefully wrapped and tied in paper or fabric.

All of the above is historical fact, and it is the setting for Mayhem.

Dr. Thomas Bond, the local coroner/early criminal profiler is trying to help the police get an idea of the type of madman they are dealing with, and the long hours of trying to get into the mind of a murderer are taking their toll on his life and career.  He’s having no luck in solving the Ripper killings.  He’s not sleeping, he has no love life, and his enjoyment of opium is turning into a full-fledged addiction.

In the midst of all this, a torso is found in the construction site of the new police headquarters.  The body parts keep coming, and Dr. Bond quickly figures out that this is not the work of Jack the Ripper, that there are two killers stalking London’s slums.

During his investigation, he will team up with a couple of unlikely allies: a Jesuit priest with a habit of self-mutilation, and a madman, whose visions of the killings are destroying him.

Got all that?  Good.  Because there’s a lot more as well.  We get to tour the opium dens of the late nineteenth century, where peaceful rest and dreams are only a puff away – for a price.  We meet the charming Harrington family, who are Bond’s closest friends, as well as some of the other investigators working both cases.  And we learn a bit of so many things!!  From Eastern European folklore, to early forensic practices, Mayhem is overflowing with glorious nuggets of trivia and fun facts.  I can’t imagine the amount of research that Ms. Pinborough did.

The male characters were beautifully, gloriously, human.  Dr. Bond’s angst, and Kosminski’s terror and vulnerability were fantastic.  The female characters were…. there.  The only woman who appears in more than a couple of scenes is Juliana, and she’s a boringly perfect 19th century woman, who is very smart and very pretty and doesn’t do much of anything at all.

I take that back:  there are also a few scenes from the point of view of one of the killer’s victims, but she also is not very interesting.  All of her actions are nothing more than reactions to her former lover and later, the killer.  She has no agency of her own.  Typical of the times, I suppose, but not very engaging.

The setting of Mayhem is a series of interesting contrasts.  There’s the squalor and grime and stink of Whitechapel, and the illusory tranquility of the opium dens, and the beautifully maintained drawing rooms where men have brandy and cigars and manly discussions.

It’s strange to me then, that somehow, Mayhem just didn’t quite work.  There are a lot of great elements, like I said – the character, the setting, the cool mix of historical fact and supernatural entity.  Maybe it’s because once you take away the “wow” factor of Jack The Ripper’s London, what you’re left with is a pretty boilerplate horror novel, where the unlikely trio have to join forces to destroy the centuries-old evil.  I felt like the author created this beautiful setting, and breathed life into a couple of very interesting characters, and decided that was enough.  I would’ve liked a little more mystery, some twists and turns, maybe a few red herrings – in general, just more story.

There’s a lot of surface glitter to Mayhem, but not a whole lot in the depths.

The Nerd’s Rating:  Three Happy Neurons (and a hot shower. Believe me, you’ll appreciate it after this one.)

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The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins

Short Take:  No Gone Girl.


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Is it me, or is every book coming out lately with a female lead of questionable motives being hailed as “The Next Gone Girl”?  Is that annoying to anyone else?  Gone Girl is in a class of its own.  It was a brilliant social satire disguised as a mystery, and was excellent for a whole lot of reasons, not just because of the rare appearance of (spoiler alert!) a female sociopath.  So can we all just agree that the only Gone Girl is Gone Girl, and get on with our lives?  I’m really sick and tired of having my emotions toyed with by publishers who want to make money off of something that’s not even remotely like what they are marketing.

The Girl On The Train is yet another “next Gone Girl”, except for, you know, it totally isn’t.

Once upon a time, Rachel was married to Tom, and it was a lovely marriage, until Rachel’s infertility, depression, and alcoholism drove him into the arms of Anna.  He divorced Rachel, and now he and Anna and their baby daughter live in the house that used to be Rachel’s.  Rachel is still drinking heavily, obsessing over Tom, and riding the train, daily, past their house.  It’s another lovely couple that catches her attention, though.  In her mind, she calls them Jason and Jess, and they are frequently outside where she can see them clearly when the train makes a stop.

They look like everything she no longer has.

One night, Rachel drinks WAY more than usual, and has decided to confront her ex-husband Tom.  Or maybe she’s going to tell “Jason” (real name: Scott) that she has seen “Jess” (actually, Megan) kissing someone else.  There’s a whole booze-logic thing working there, and the next day, Rachel can’t remember exactly what her intentions were in going to that neighborhood, or what happened there, but she’s got some new and interesting cuts and bruises, and Megan has disappeared.

From there, the story is mostly a typical mystery novel.  Other than multiple unreliable and extremely unlikeable narrators, there’s not much new ground.  Rachel, Megan, and Anna all have behaved selfishly, wretchedly, and have plenty of reasons to skew the narrative in their favor.  Rachel trying to insinuate herself into the investigation via Megan’s husband Scott, using his shock and grief to her advantage, is unconscionable.  Anna is the mistress-turned-wife who seems far happier at having broken up a marriage than in being married to the man herself.  And Megan… she is the only one I felt any sympathy at all for, but even that was tempered by my revulsion at her need to destroy things.

While plenty of other mystery novels have used memory loss as a plot point, I don’t know of many who captured the perfect wretchedness of alcoholism this well.  When Rachel wakes up after a blackout, the sick, panicky, guilty feelings she has are familiar to any of us who have gone way past our limits before.  Her drinking even when she has promised she won’t, even when it will clearly cause problems, even when it will cost her even more than she’s already lost, is both pathetic and maddeningly realistic.  But at the same time, it seems like she has a blackout whenever it will be convenient for the plot, and even when she’s sober, she makes such skull-slammingly stupid decisions, it’s hard to see her as anything but ridiculous.

The story is okay, and like I said, the whole alcoholic blackout aspect of it was handled competently, but The Girl On The Train lacks the kind of blistering commentary that made Gone Girl such a phenomenon.  Where Gone Girl spits at a whole bunch of misogynistic stereotypes, The Girl On The Train revels in them.  We have women being catty and cruel to each other over a man.  Women who are helpless little victims of their own shallow, selfish desires.  Women who believe fervently that the right man could fix their lives for them.  In fact, the only non-terrible female character is Rachel’s roommate, Cathy, and she’s mostly treated as a rather stupid obstacle.

What’s funny is, I might have enjoyed this book a lot more if the Amazon page weren’t demanding that I compare it to Gone Girl.  That’s a comparison that’s unfair to pretty much any book.  So publishers?  Cut it out already.


The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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Beautiful You, by Chuck Palahniuk

Short Take:  Chuck, you little scamp!

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I’ve been a fan of Chuck Palahniuk for a long time.  I can’t remember which book of his I read first, but I’ve read most of them.  With each book, I got the sense that Palahniuk wanted to tell a good story, but more than that, he wanted to provoke a reaction.  The story was a means to an end, the end being POW!  Gotcha!  I mean, look at Haunted.  On the surface, it was a straight gross-out gorefest, but it was also a satire of pretentious “I must suffer to create greatness” art types.  And in that respect, it was funny.  (I still haven’t forgiven him for Guts though.)

What I’m trying to say is that most of Palahniuk’s books I’ve read have lived on two levels.  There’s the first, obvious, “Hey, check out THIS craziness!”, and there’s a deeper theme.  Usually the deeper part is submerged under some bizarre situation taken to its just-beyond-logical conclusion, making you think “oh, this could never happen”, but when you look closer, there’s this little kernel of the world as it actually is, and suddenly, it doesn’t seem so crazy.  Look at Fight Club.  A bunch of guys bare-knuckle fighting to blow off steam is nothing new.  Having that evolve into an anarchist cult of bombers and arsonists is insane.  But when you think of how far some guys will go to prove their manliness (shooting up schools, running their car into a group of women), it’s something a little deeper.

I had these ideas firmly in mind when I started reading Beautiful You.  It’s a typical Palahniuk tale, starting off with the normal-ish: billionaire C. Linus Maxwell seduces plain-Jane Penny and spends a few months testing out his new line of Beautiful You sex toys for women with her very enthusiastic help.  She has a great time, he ends the relationship but gives her a very generous trust fund to remember him by, and the products are released to the general public.

From there, the story becomes pure CP.  There are warning signs that the toys may be more than just a fun occasional diversion, as virtually every woman in the world becomes addicted to them.  There are riots over battery shortages, the elderly and young children are left to fend for themselves, desperate men roam the streets in search of hot meals and clean shirts.

But it’s not exactly a picnic for the women either.  They are ignoring meals, hygiene, jobs, families, and virtually everything else in their lives.   So it falls to Penny to stop Maxwell, and restore civilization.

I wanted to love Beautiful You.  I read a few other reviews pointing to its misogyny, but I disregarded them.  I mean, most of Palahniuk’s female characters are terrible, but so are most of his male characters.  There was just no getting around it in this one though.  Early on, when Penny is meditating on feminism and how much it sucks, I was actually fairly offended.  Fiction usually doesn’t have that effect on me, but it REALLY annoys me when a man (like CP) feels the need to explain the failings of feminism.  Strike One.

Then there’s alllllllllllll the sexual content.  I mean, sure, a book about sex toys is going to have plenty of naughty content, but most of it wasn’t fun, or naughty, or even sexy at all.  It all felt like it was written by an overheated teenage boy “Hey, watch what this chick will put in her you-know-what!”  I know, it’s just Chuck going for the reaction, but it got old after a while.

In fact, I just realized what it reminded me of.  Most of the plot of Beautiful You revolves around women who are being controlled via sexual arousal.  Didn’t Dirk Diggler do the same thing in one of the movies in Boogie Nights?  That’s it.  Chuck Palahniuk has become Dirk Diggler.

There may have been more to it.  It seemed like there was a lot of intended subtext and some more interesting themes, like our consumer-driven, celebrity-obsessed culture, but in the end, it felt like Chuck regressed to a small child, streaking through the house to get a reaction from the adults.

And just as I would say to the naked kid, I feel like responding, “That’s nice dear.  Go put your pants on.”  Beautiful You was a resounding Meh.

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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