Letter from Hell, by M. Lee Mendelson

Short Take:  Awesome Dude Is Awesome – The Super-Extended Version!

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I snagged this one when it was offered for free (count frugality among my positive attributes).  I thought that the idea was intriguing.  A suicide, an investigator, and a letter detailing exactly how fate works.  

And the first chapter was GREAT.  Little known fact:  I used to work with the police (not as a cop though, I don’t like guns).  And that first chapter was actually pretty true to life, which was cool.  No Dirty Harry heroics, no super-sleuthing geniuses, just Mike the cop doing his job, even when he’s a little freaked out.  Although I never knew a cop on his way to a domestic dispute to take a minute to joke around with a security guard.

Then I started Chapter 2, and the whole thing took a quick dive into the deepest wish-fulfilling Mary Sue depths.  You see, Mike was a fat nerdy kid.  He was bullied & humiliated at school.  Until the day he decides to take his life into his own hands, and start working out and eating right.  Within just a few short weeks, his gorgeous successful parents are suddenly proud of him for the first time, he is the star of the football team, and the hot new girl  across the street – excuse me, ALL the hot girls in school – are all up on his junk.  And he learns martial arts too, and wins the bully’s respect and they became best buds.  College is the same.   After he’s injured playing football, and his father is killed, he becomes a police officer while going to law school part-time.  He graduates and marries a gorgeous ADA.  And everywhere Mike goes, everyone thinks he’s amazing.  (This paragraph is spread out in the book to well over 100 pages.  It’s even more tedious than you imagine.)

Did I mention how awesome Mike is?  Cause the author sure does.  All.  The.  Time.  I mean, when he goes to meet with a DA regarding a criminal, the book actually reads: “Unknown to Mike was the fact that all the ladies at the District Attorney’s Office spoke very highly about him. Every time he would go there for a deposition, they would secretly gather to drool over him.”  But the thing is, Mike’s kind of a terrible person. His sole purpose in life seems to be basking in the glory of being himself.

Then when we finally get caught up to the present day with the incomparably perfect Mike, the narrative switches to his wife Meredith, who’s also gorgeous and perfect and we get another 100 pages of her life story including getting ready for the wedding, which is ANOTHER total snoozefest of perfect perfection.  And also another way to elaborate on how flawlessly perfect Mike is.  

I’m not going to dwell on the dialogue other than to say it was painful.  Ridiculously stilted, every character sounds the same, none of it sounds natural, and all the guys call each other Bro or Brother.  All of the characters are completely flat.  None of them has a distinct voice or personality (with the sole exception of a really racist – and thankfully brief – depiction of an Asian man).  All of the women are decorative and worship Mike.

The language of the book is weird. Mr. Mendelson just randomly throws adverbs in there, in ways that make no sense at all.  For example, when the main character is asked if he was THE Michael Carson, college football star, we get this gem: “Mike favorably responded, ‘Yes, sir, that’s me.’”  I…. don’t even know how to parse that one.

The worst though is the unending list of ridiculous details.  When they are dating, Mike sends Meredith flowers.  That’s nice.  Do we need to know the significance of different colors of roses, or the thought process that leads to his final choice of flower?  (Pink roses, should you wonder.  Should that have a spoiler alert?  I don’t even care anymore.)  And reciting dates and times for everything is completely mind-numbing.

And the author somehow manages to not say that the cop investigating the suicide is a different Mike.  For the entire book.  I have no idea what the purpose of that was, other than to be “clever” and mislead the reader. I don’t even know if that’s a spoiler, as I have no idea what the relevance of it was.

I could probably go on for quite a while, cataloging this book’s flaws.  But what it all comes down to is that the author has a story to tell, but no depth at all in his writing.  It’s like reading a book written by an alien who observed earth for a few weeks, wrote a story, then ran it through google translate in a few different languages.  It’s a glimpse inside the mind of someone who’s never had an actual conversation, or a relationship, or spent any time at all with a human person.  

The actual story (the cult investigation) was shoved in a little here & there.  And by the time I reached the last 40 pages or so, when bad things started happening to Mike & Meredith, I couldn’t muster the energy to care.  They had zero personality and no redeeming traits whatsoever.

I have to give credit where credit is due, though.  There WERE some creepy aspects to this book – for example, the author’s fixation on the bosom of a fifteen year old girl.  And his obsession with how hot Mike’s mother was.  So if that’s your thing, go for it.  Otherwise, skip this one.

The Nerd’s Rating: ONE HAPPY NEURON (and a big vodka drink.  I seriously need one right now.)

onehappyneuron

 

Nightmare, With Angel by Stephen Gallagher

Short Take:  So much book, so little story.

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I think I need to stop reading “best of” lists.  Last time I was jonesing for something really good to read, I started googling “psychological thrillers” to see if there were any great authors out there I was missing out on.  Lo and behold, I found a huge list, hundreds of books that all looked really good, many by authors I had never tried.  I narrowed it down to about 25 or so that looked like the most fun, and dove in.  Nightmare, With Angel was my second one, and I am starting to think that the list writer never actually read the books they recommended.

Nightmare, With Angel (why does that comma in the title annoy me so much?) started to go down some interestingly dark paths, but consistently stopped short.  I don’t generally seek out mystery/horror novels just to read drawn-out descriptions of murder or torture or whatever, but I think that if you’re going to introduce the elements of murder or some kind of sadism into a story, you should at least explain what happened.  Especially if the book is over 600 pages.

The entire book can be summed up in just a few sentences.  I’ll avoid spoilers (even though everything is pretty telegraphed).  Ten-year-old Marianne lives with her father (Patrick) along the English coast.  Patrick’s days are spent trying and mostly failing to build a business that will support them.  He doesn’t care to spend too much time with his daughter, anyway.  Marianne spends most of her non-school time exploring the beach with her dog Rudi.

One day, Marianne and Rudi are exploring a sandbar when the tide comes in, stranding them and putting their lives in jeopardy.  The local junk-picker, Ryan, happens to wander by, and rescues them.

Ryan has A Secret Past, and so he tries to avoid Marianne, as he doesn’t want to be accused of anything.  But when things finally come to an ugly head with Patrick, she persuades Ryan to help her find her mother in Germany.  What follows is a long, drawn-out chase that takes place all over Germany.  Jennifer, an English police officer trying to make her way up the ranks, and Patrick, who suddenly realizes that Marianne is pretty much all he has, both go to Germany and join the police there in the hunt.

There are some revelations, some interesting twists, but Stephen Gallagher just couldn’t commit.  We learn that Marianne’s mother, Anneliese, was involved in some pretty twisted stuff, but we never really get into her head to see how she got from point A to point WTF.  Apparently, Ryan was accused of murder, and spent quite a few years in an institution, but we never get his explanation of what transpired, and never know for sure if he was the killer.  There’s also a human trafficking subplot that adds almost nothing to the story.

There’s little to no tension in the chase.  Ryan keeps Marianne safe from all of the horrors that might befall a young girl on her own.

The characters were also just bad.  Marianne is precocious almost to the point of absurdity.  Not only is she able to dig through her father’s private papers to figure out where to start the search for her mother, she’s also able to out-think virtually every adult around her.  She makes plans that are pretty meticulous, but when she has trouble meeting up with her mother, it never occurs to her to look for other relatives she remembers.

Her father, Patrick, is a first-class a-hole.  The minute he finds out that his wife is involved in something that he doesn’t understand and can’t accept, he grabs Marianne from school and leaves the country with her.  No trying to talk to his wife to find out what is going on exactly, if she was being coerced or forced in some way, no trying to get her away from these awful things.  Nope, just take the kid, run, and proceed to neglect the kid for years on end.  He nurtures his grudge far more carefully than his daughter.

I think we’re supposed to think that Ryan is some kind of saint who just really really wants to atone for his past mistakes, but he lets a ten year old talk him into running away to another country.  He then spends weeks on the run with her – despite his frequent indications that he only has her best interests at heart.  He’s resourceful enough to get information from seemingly impossible situations when the plot calls for it, but not enough to make sure they have a decent place to sleep or enough food.

Nightmare, With Angel seemed to be trying to be about a broken family that goes through a crisis and is able to heal itself, but all I could think when reading it was that all of these people would be much better off if they just stayed far, far away from each other.

The Nerd’s Rating:  ONE HAPPY NEURON

onehappyneuron

The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica

Short Take:  Mary Kubica should have quit while she was ahead.

So, I saw that The Good Girl was getting a lot of buzz, and a lot of comparisons to Gone Girl, so I figured I’d give it a try.  I kind of wish I hadn’t.

The Good Girl is the story of Mia Dennett, (daughter of prominent judge James Dennett), who is kidnapped by Colin Thatcher.  The story is told through the eyes of Mia’s mother (Eve), Colin, and the detective who can’t rest until he finds her, Gabe Hoffman.  The narrative jumps back and forth in time, taking place both before and after Mia’s rescue.

Colin’s job was simple.  He was to snatch Mia and deliver her to underworld boss Dalmar, for which he would be paid five thousand dollars.  However, once he meets Mia, and she drunkenly agrees to go home with him, he finds that he can’t just turn her over to the hardcore criminal who will likely kill her.  Instead, he goes on the run with her.  They hole up in a secluded cabin in Minnesota, where they have to fight for survival in the freezing cold.

Mia is eventually rescued, but it’s not exactly a happy ending.  The Mia who is returned to her mother is not the Mia who was taken.  She insists that her name is Chloe, and she has no memory of anything that took place during her captivity.  She’s nearly mute, and terrified of everything.  We gradually learn what took place during the long, cold weeks in the cabin, how it ended, and how it all came about.

Sometimes, I’ll read a story, and immediately dislike it, but as I think about it, it makes more sense, and grows on me.  The Good Girl is the opposite – the more I think about it, the worse it gets.

The last few pages ruin the whole story.  For one thing, a shocker-twist ending really only works if there are some hints along the way (even if they are subtle ones) as to what really happened.  The Good Girl’s final reveal felt tacked-on, and made absolutely no sense in light of all that had come before.  In fact, it was an insult.  It was like “Hey?  You know alllllll those chapters that take place in the freezing cabin, where Mia and Colin were hiding from the boogeyman?  Yeah, just ignore all that, ok?”

Oh, there’s a brief mention of Stockholm Syndrome, but rather than explain everything, it just highlights how far you have to strain to make this story at all credible.  There are other “are you serious?” moments as well.  I mean, how many career criminal mastermind types leave voice mails for their accomplices directly referencing the crime they are committing?  How many upper-class, highly-connected people who commit crimes go immediately to jail, without dragging it out for months or years?  Don’t get me started on Gabe’s love interest at the end and how very little sense it made.

And the characters.  Eve’s a martyr, Gabe’s a saint, Colin is the Bad Boy With A Heart of Gold, James is a heartless power-hungry jerk, and Mia is the poor little rich girl who has everything but love.  They are all one-dimensional.  There’s even a bit of casual racism thrown in.

Mary Kubica had a lot of potential with this one, and I think that’s what frosts my buns the most.  The setup was good, the weird way the first three-quarters played out was almost a brand-new take on the hostage thriller, and I liked the Chevy Stevens-ish way the author mixed up the timeline.  But it was like someone told her that a book wouldn’t sell without a twist ending, so she went “Ok, FINE, here’s a twist ending” and added it without ever editing any of the rest of the book.  What a letdown.

The Nerd’s Rating:  ONE HAPPY NEURON

onehappyneuron

Kate Gosselin: How She Fooled the World, by Robert Hoffman

Short Take:  Kate Gosselin is a terrible person.  So is Robert Hoffman.  Both of them are also terrible writers.

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I’m not much of a gambler.  But I do love my Steelers.  So when a friend suggested that they MIGHT lose to the Eagles, OF COURSE I said “I’ll bet you ANYTHING (except money cause I’m cheap) that they win!”  

So the deal was, if Pittsburgh won, I would have to read and review a book I did NOT want to read, let alone review, and if Philly won, my friend would actually read a book.  Congratulations, M., you won fair and square.  Enjoy.

I’ll admit, when Jon & Kate + 8 first came on TLC, I was absolutely charmed by it.  The children were all adorable, Jon was clueless but loving, and Kate was trying to hold it all together and losing at times due to the stress – hey, who wouldn’t??

But then it morphed into something darker and uglier.  Like the rest of America, I watched as this sweet family story began to unravel.  Jon was cheating, Kate was an overbearing, nasty, joyless shrew who didn’t really like her kids that much, they were getting a divorce, and all of it played out on TV, in the tabloids, and across the internet for all the world to see.   It was morbidly fascinating and depressing at the same time, the proverbial train wreck we couldn’t look away from.  Were it not for the kids caught in the middle of all of it, it would’ve been just another all-American freak show, where ordinary people are granted some degree of fame and fortune, spiral out of control, and become another reality-tv cautionary tale.

But the unfortunate fact is that there were eight (EIGHT!!) innocent children at the heart of all of it, eight beautiful kids with broken hearts and a broken home.  Their mom was in ever more desperate pursuit of new ways to hold onto her fame, and their dad was an overgrown adolescent too busy partying and getting laid to deal with them.  How did this happen?  I was more than a little curious to see exactly what had unfolded behind the scenes, so I thought that this book might actually be a little bit interesting.

I was wrong.

For starters, I thought this would be a biography.  There is an opening chapter or two briefly outlining Kate’s early life, then it’s just paraphrased journal excerpts, and the author’s opinions of them.  Yes, Robert Hoffman got a hold of Kate’s private journals by going through her trash.  I suppose there’s something poetic about Kate’s trash being turned into this trash.

Robert Hoffman’s editorializing is horrendous.  Reading a grown man repeatedly say nasty things about a woman (even if she is no saint herself) just feels icky.  Some examples:

(after a list of entries in which Kate claims that God has provided this or that to her family) “No wonder the whole world is so screwed up. God is spending all of His time taking care of Kate Gosselin.”

“Kate called her kids boring because they didn’t do anything interesting like the trained monkeys they usually behave like apparently.”

And so on.  There’s a lot more, but I can’t bring myself to skim back through it.  Why not just state the facts & let readers sort it out for themselves?  If she’s that bad, it’ll be obvious, no need to add your own sarcasm to it.  This is a 500+ page burn book written by a teenage Mean Girl.

Hoffman writes quite a lot about his gut feeling that Kate is lying about trying to conceive sextuplets because she “protests too much”, in other words, she says over and over again that she wanted JUST ONE MORE child.  Meanwhile, he states over and over again that he has no interest in damaging Kate’s reputation, and that he verified everything he wrote over and over again, that he’s only telling the truth for the children and that even though Jon’s a good friend of his, he would tell the truth even if it made Jon look bad.   I couldn’t help but wonder if he was protesting too much.

For example, there were lots of words devoted to the fact that Kate didn’t try to stop her Twitter followers, fans, etc. to stop insulting Jon.  However, there’s not one sentence stating that Jon asked people to stop insulting Kate.  Robert Hoffman wrote a good 80 pages about Kate going tanning & getting her nails done, but barely mentioned Jon sleeping around and partying in Vegas.

The whole book is a mess.  It’s not organized in any coherent way, whole chapters seem to have been repeated several times, and the misspellings are plentiful.  For a man who mocked Kate Gosselin’s spelling (in her private journals no less), you’d think Hoffman would’ve learned the difference between roll and role at some point.   

There are long, drawn-out descriptions of the abuse Kate inflicted on her kids and pets.  There are painful recaps of the scenes in the show where the children’s privacy was violated over and over when they were sick, on the toilet, exhausted, upset, and so on.  It’s painful to read.  The worst part of all is that apparently it’s bad to exploit the Gosselin children for money, unless you are Robert Hoffman.  I must’ve missed the part where he took all of this information on child abuse to CPS, or pledged the profits of the book to child abuse charities.  How exactly does this book help the kids AT ALL??

Seriously, I wonder if Robert Hoffman and Kate Gosselin conspired to write this book together, drum up some controversy, and split the profits.  


The Nerd’s Rating:  One Happy Neuron.  I really need to get some sad ones, this might be the worst thing I’ve ever read.

onehappyneuron