The Breakdown, by B. A. Paris

Short Take: Beep boop, the formulaic plot generator has completed your request.

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I have been hearing about B. A. Paris for a while, mainly with regard to “Behind Closed Doors”, the author’s first novel, which got a lot of buzz as a pretty intense thriller. I opted to skip that one, not because it looked bad, exactly, but because a lot of reviews said that it featured a lot of graphic domestic violence, and that’s not really my jam. I mean, I’m obviously not averse to pain and gore, but it just didn’t look like something particularly enjoyable.

Still, it seemed like this author would be one to watch, so when The Breakdown came out, I jumped. Even though, by now I should know that when the Amazon title reads like a sales pitch (“The 2017 Gripping Thriller from the Bestselling Author…”) it’s usually a lot of hype to mask a disappointment. Seriously, Amazon, QUIT IT. I have decided to make it a Very Strict Personal Policy to not read any book with that kind of garbage in the title. I might even circulate a petition or something. Who’s with me? We must stop this madness!

Ahem. ANYWAY.

The Breakdown has a really, really good premise. Cass Anderson is a young woman with a lovely life ahead of her. The last few years have been rough, caring for her mother as she slowly disappears into dementia before dying, but things are great now. She has inherited quite a bit of money, married a total babe named Matthew, started a teaching career she really enjoys, and even has time to spend with her best friend Rachel on occasion, sipping wine and gossiping. Cass has everything just right.

But one dark and stormy night (dun dun DUUUUNNNN) as she’s driving home, she sees a woman pulled off to the side, possibly broken down. After hesitating for a few minutes, Cass drives on, planning to call for assistance for the woman in the other car when she gets home. The next morning, however, she finds out that the woman in the car was brutally murdered as she waited there.

Cass is understandably crushed with guilt, and fear – what if the killer saw her, and now knows who she is? As if that weren’t awful enough, Cass seems to be slipping into the same illness that claimed her mother – she forgets small things, then larger ones, and can’t trust her own thoughts or perceptions anymore. It seems as though the killer is stalking and harassing her. Nobody believes her, and even she has to admit that it might all be in her head.

Sounds pretty awesome, right? It probably would have been, if the ending hadn’t been so ridiculous. The very important clue that made everything fall into place was revealed by such a huge, extremely improbable coincidence that I am facepalming just thinking about it, which makes it very hard to type. (But seriously, why were the French students speaking Spanish?)

The Breakdown also does the tired, stupid thing where the bad guy spills everything about what they are doing and why for pages and pages. Not out loud, mind you, but through text messages, which makes it even dumber. Like 90% of the text messages are about how careful they have to be to not get caught, but they don’t delete that stuff as soon as they get it? How can these people leave the house with their pants on right side up, never mind carry out a crazily convoluted plot?

And in the end, it’s all so predictable. Most people who read a lot of mysteries will have it figured out in the first few chapters. It’s like the book version of a paint-by-numbers piece of “art”.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a cup of tea. And by tea, of course, I mean vodka.)

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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!!

 

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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Lie To Me, by David Martin

Short Take:  This might be the most cracked-out, violent, bizarre, hilarious, disturbing book I’ve read in a very long time.


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“He sits in the woods holding her hand.”  That’s about as innocuous a first line as they come.  Dude’s just chilling in the woods, holding a girl’s hand.  It sounds kind of nice, actually.

But the dude in question is a seriously messed-up person.  His name is Philip, and he just got out of prison.  The girl’s hand?  It used to belong to a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker, and he carries it everywhere.  And he’s not chilling in the woods, he’s hiding, watching the home of wealthy businessman Jonathan Gaetan and his beautiful young wife Mary.  When night falls, he breaks into the house, threatens and brutalizes them both, and when morning comes, Philip is gone and Jonathan is dead in the bathtub, savagely butchered.

Yet when Mary calls the police, she insists it was a suicide, and never mentions the intruder.  And that’s just the start of the craziness.

Theodore Camel, the cop investigating Jonathan’s death is, well, an a-hole.  He’s boozy and burned out and bitter and just wants to nap at his desk until he can collect his pension.  At one time, he was a hotshot known as The Detector because of an uncanny ability to persuade (read: bully) suspects into telling the truth.  Camel would have preferred to stay out of the whole thing, but given the high profile nature of the case, the higher-ups want him to dust off the old Detector act to interrogate Mary Gaetan.  He can tell that she’s lying, but she sticks to her story, that Jonathan cut himself nearly to pieces in the bathtub.

It’s the next day, when Jo-Jo Creek, Jonathan’s assistant, shows up with some new and interesting information that Camel finds himself wanting to solve this particular mystery.  Teaming up with his old partner, Alfred, he (almost against his will) takes on a case with more twists than a small intestine.

David Martin doesn’t just Go There.  He buys a house, moves in, and becomes the mayor of There.  There’s quite a lot of sexual sadism in this one.  Like, to the point that I think the phrase “cut it off” could be retired.  His writing style is some of the best I’ve seen, though.  There’s a lot of story in less than 300 pages, and no wasted words.  Every sentence is perfectly on point.  For example, when Camel meets Jo-Jo, this happens:  “‘I have some information,’ she announced. A lot of what she said came in the form of announcements.”

That, right there.  Two brief sentences, and you already know so much about the character.  That’s the difference between telling a story, even a good one, and serious word craftsmanship.  I was so caught up in the delicious story, and fantastic, if unlikeable, characters, that it didn’t dawn on me until I started this review that Lie To Me was first published in 1990.  I didn’t even notice the lack of cell phones and Internet in the detective’s toolbox.

And let me just say, Philip is one of the most fascinating bad guys I’ve come across.  He’s sick, he’s insane, he has zero limits.  He has a lifetime and a half’s worth of seriously awful stuff in his head, and the only thing you can be sure of with him is that no matter what you think he’s about to do, he’s going to do something worse.  But he’s also just not that smart.  It’s refreshing to read a character that is horrible and scary but also comically inept.  When Philip would fail to do something terrible (usually injuring himself in the process), I found myself cheering and giggling.  Hannibal Lecter he ain’t.   His missteps are hilarious… until they aren’t.

There are two major revelations by the end of Lie To Me, and I’m proud to say that I had figured one of them out.  The other one, however… whoa.  Also, ew.  There’s a final scene, after the mystery is solved, and the characters have all gone onto whatever happens after The End that just doesn’t square with the rest of the story.  In a lesser book, it would probably cost the author a neuron in my rating, but when the rest of a story is so fantastic, I’ll forgive him a few pages of questionable choices.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS.  

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My Sister’s Grave, by Robert Dugoni

Short Take:  This could have been just another fun, fluffy mystery novel, but it was SO MUCH BETTER.


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The archetype of the Female Detective rocks my socks, y’all.  In a world where anything that’s described as “feminine” or “like a girl” automatically means less-than, these characters can shoot, fight, run, curse, and detect just as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts.  They work harder to be taken seriously, but they still look fantastic in high heels and lipstick.  They’re ballsy and tough and have hot sex with hot guys.  They might take some abuse for being a woman in a man’s profession, but in the end, they will make their detractors eat those words, usually while handcuffed or being ridiculed by their colleagues.

In short, there’s this whole awesome trend of badass women in books, movies, and TV, and I think it’s fantastic.  So of course, I knew I would enjoy My Sister’s Grave, but I didn’t really have super-high hopes.  The title is seriously pretty bad.  I figured it would be pretty cliched, but what the heck, sometimes, it’s fun to read something where you can figure out the end and feel smart, you know?

Ok, I guess I’m not that smart, cause WHOA, I totally did not see that coming.

Tracy Crosswhite’s sister Sarah disappears one night while driving home.  Soon afterward, Edmund House, a convicted rapist, is tried and found guilty of her murder, despite the fact that her body has never been found.  Twenty years later, Tracy has become a detective in Seattle, and is still trying to find out exactly what happened to Sarah.  The evidence against House (who is still in prison) is flimsy at best, and his trial was a joke.  But without new evidence, there’s really nothing to go on.

Then Sarah’s body is found.

Tracy goes back to her childhood home, the small town of Cedar Grove, and teams up with an old friend (Dan O’Leary, who is now an attorney)  to get an innocent man out of prison, and to find out what really happened to Sarah.  She’ll get the answers that she’s been digging for, but in the process, she’ll set off a truly horrific chain of violent events.  And when I say violent, I mean VIOLENT.  The author’s restraint throughout the first 85% or so of this book makes the ending that much more shocking.

Robert Dugoni has a way of flirting with stereotypes but never completely embracing them that elevates this book.  For example, the small-town sheriff, Roy Calloway, is almost but not quite exactly the corrupt redneck Boss Hogg type.  Tracy is everything I said above about the archetypal female detective, but she also isn’t quite so perfect and invincible.  In this case, her single-minded obsession with solving the crime actually does more harm than good.  Being lulled by characters who are exactly what you expect, only to have them veer off in a different direction, is fantastic.

The pacing is a little weird, but it works.  There are a few chapters that feel draggy (usually dealing with Sarah’s other cases in Seattle), but it’s a really effective reminder of just how much real life happens, even when there’s something else that you think is much more important that you want to focus on.

And finally, the setting is really, really good.  I also live in a small town that’s been dying for the last couple of decades, and I think that Dugoni really captured that sense of people who know that things aren’t good, but who are afraid to try to change anything and lose what little bit of a livelihood they still have.

Definitely a must-read for people who love a great mystery, regardless of the gender of the detective.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS

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Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes

Short Take:  Oh, you like murder mysteries with a twist?  Hold my drink and watch this….

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This review is a hard one to write, namely because I can only say “WOW GREAT AMAZING” so many ways.

Broken Monsters begins with Detective Gabriella Versado at the scene of a bizarre homicide.  The corpse is actually half of the body of a 10 year old boy, and half of the body of a deer, somehow fused together.  It’s strange, and otherworldly, and hideous, and it won’t be the last one.

Assisting her is brand-new-detective Marcus Jones, a touchingly earnest rookie.  After earning the nickname “Sparkles”, Jones does everything he can to go above and beyond in solving the case, and also to provide a spot of comic relief every now and then.

Working the bizarre homicides from a completely different angle is Jonno, a freelance journalist whose glory days are well behind him.  With his girlfriend, DJ Jen Q, he is trying to expose the murders in order to create his own documentary.  He’s a particularly sleazy breed of opportunist, willing to exploit the horrific murder of a dead child for his own career.

Beyond the crime-scene tape, Versado’s 16 year old daughter, Layla, is a good kid who’s starting to play with fire.  Artistic and a bit of an outcast, she and her new friend Cas have been playing To Catch A Predator with an online pedophile.  What starts as a prank turns dark and ugly, and Gabriella is far too preoccupied with the media-intensive case to realize what’s going on until events have started to spiral out of control.

And finally, there’s TK, a homeless man with a gift for resource liberation and allocation that he uses to benefit as many of Detroit’s homeless as he can.

Speaking of Detroit….

Without a doubt, the main character in Broken Monsters is the city of Detroit.  It’s grimy and squalid, it’s run-down, shabby, crime-ridden, and decaying.  The overwhelming feeling rising off the streets like an odor is despair, and it wafts off of every page. For every person trying to bring back art and culture to the motor city, there are a dozen others who would be happy to see it all burn.

What’s fascinating is that, as insane as the murders are, there are other crimes, smaller crimes, that are happening everywhere, not just the Motor City.  There’s a subplot revolving around a drunken high school girl’s sexual assault that has been recorded and put on the internet, in an uncomfortable echo of Steubenville.

There’s a lesson here as well, regarding our own voyeuristic tendencies, the way we make entertainment of the tragedies of others.  It almost reads like a cautionary tale, like Detroit and its misery is actually what the future holds for all of us.  As a species, we’ve become jaded to the suffering of others, and so isolated from our neighbors that other people are often little more than images on a screen.  It’s this tendency that gives power to the worst of the worst.  If terrorists didn’t have a way to televise their beheadings, and an audience to watch them, would they still do it?

There’s a strong element of is-it-or-isn’t-it with regard to a supernatural slant to the killings.  I’m not going to comment on that either way, as I went into it with zero preconceptions, and it made for a damn fine reading experience that I wouldn’t want to ruin for anyone else.  Suffice it to say, the tension of not knowing what’s really going on is FUN.  There’s one scene where the question is settled, and that scene is flat-out insane in the absolute best way.  I can’t say enough without saying too much.

And finally, the characters are, in my humble opinion, what most writers can only dream of.  They are living, breathing, flawed, loving human beings.  Lauren Beukes has mastered the “show don’t tell” school of characterization.  Each person’s dialog and inner voice and choices reveal so much about them.   You understand them, even when you don’t agree with them.

I could go on and on, but I’m just going to say, read the book.  Read it slowly and savor it, even though you’ll want to race through it to see what happens next.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (only because I don’t have a picture with more than that.)

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Tell Me You’re Sorry, by Kevin O’Brien

Short Take:  Well, this is convoluted.

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In Tell Me You’re Sorry, Stephanie Coburn is a single airline pilot whose only family is her sister Rebecca, Rebecca’s husband Scott, and their two kids, CC and Ernie.  When Rebecca commits suicide, Stephanie is at first shocked, then furious when Scott remarries a mysterious woman named Halle just three months afterward.   And her world gets turned even further upside down when Scott, Halle, and both children are murdered on Thanksgiving, in an apparent robbery gone wrong.

Stephanie tries to figure out the deaths of her sister, brother-in-law, and their two children.  She slowly begins putting together the clues from her brother-in-law’s past, and finding connections to two other slain families who follow the same very specific pattern:

  • For several years, a father receives unsigned cards on Fathers Day.
  • Then the mother commits suicide (or seems to).
  • The grieving father remarries a short time later, usually within a few months.
  • Shortly after that, the father, children, and dad’s new wife are all murdered.
  • After the deaths, it’s discovered that all of the family’s money and valuables are gone.

In trying to solve the mystery of Rebecca’s death, Stephanie meets Ryan, a high school student/football star, who was living away from his family due to an estrangement with his father when his whole family was murdered.  He begins working with Stephanie long-distance to try to figure out why their families were targeted, and who the murderer is.  They are later joined by Allison, a teenage girl whose family may be next.  

To further complicate things, the bad guys know that Stephanie is on to them, which brings a next-level element of cat and mouse to the book, as they try to destroy her credibility and kill her before she finds them.  There’s also a whole side plot about a woman who’s been kidnapped and is being held prisoner throughout the story.

I’m just going to say it – I had it figured out about ⅔ of the way through.  I knew who the killer was, and why they were killing these people, and how they were getting away with it.  Usually I hate that when I’m reading a mystery.  I want to be kept in the dark, to have my head messed with, to be able to say “Oh man, how did I NOT see that coming??”  

I’ll give it a pass this time though, because knowing who the murderer was really built up the tension, in that it became a race to see if the characters would also figure it out.  There were a lot of close calls, a few narrow escapes, and several scenes that genuinely raised my heart rate.

However, there were also some things that just didn’t work for me.  There are several passages devoted to how much Stephanie misses her sister, but almost nothing about her dead niece and nephew.  There are also a couple of romances that develop, one of which is awkwardly shoved into the last few pages.  The characters aren’t especially interesting. We see a lot of what they do, but nothing really about who they are.  Maybe that’s why the final romance seemed so silly, because there was nothing at all before that showing that the two people involved were in any way attracted to each other.  Had the characters shown a little more emotional depth, the connection might have made sense.

Overall, I’d say that Tell Me You’re Sorry was fun, but mostly forgettable.  

The Nerd’s Rating:  Two Happy Neurons

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