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!!

 

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Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt

Short Take: Came for the promise of gothic spookiness, stayed for the great characters.

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You know what annoys me to no end? Book descriptions that are nothing like the actual book. Not to mention grossly misleading titles. Like this one. You would think with a name like “Mr. Splitfoot”, there would be some devilish trickery, some demonic dealings, some Faustian bargains, right?

Nope.

And with sentences like this in the description, “Mr. Splitfoot will set your heart racing and your brain churning”, you’d expect some serious insanity, some crazy chase or fight scenes, some real adrenalin-firing stuff.

Again… nope.

Mr. Splitfoot is the story of two women. Roughly twenty years ago, Ruth lived in a horrifically abusive foster home run by a drunken religious zealot they call The Father. With her best friend, Nat, and the help of an experienced con man, Mr. Bell, they ran a lucrative service contacting the dead for paying customers while they planned their escape from Love of Christ! (the exclamation point is part of the name), and tried to figure out how to save the other children as well. Ruth and Nat are amazing characters. Both are broken in ways both visible and invisible, and their love for each other is gorgeous.

Cora in the present day is Ruth’s niece. She’s been raised by a single mother, and now works at a job she can’t stand, where she spends most of her days shopping online. Complicating matters, her affair with a married man has resulted in an unexpected pregnancy. She’s at a crossroads when Ruth comes back into her life.

Ruth is silent, never speaking at all, as she leads Cora on a walk that will span months and months, and hundreds of miles.

Mr. Splitfoot goes back and forth between the two timelines, as we see young Ruth’s story unfold, and Cora’s experiences on the seemingly endless walk with her aunt. And I’ll be honest, it was the walk that made me nearly put this one down and leave it down many times. There’s so much walking. Every so often, Ruth and Cora meet up with someone, and there’s some kind of interaction, and then the person is never seen or heard from again. There are overlong pieces of dialog or internal thoughts that meander pointlessly on and on and on.

And so. Much. Walking. And talking. And conversations. And perambulations.

And then the ending happened. I’m not going to spoil it. It was the most delicious ice-down-the-neck shock I’ve read in awhile. It just worked so flawlessly, the pieces all snapped into place without even a speck light in the seams.

I also have to give major props to the style of this one. Samantha Hunt is a beautiful writer. There were a few spots where her descriptions or dialog made me stop and reread a snippet over and over, like a new song that I want to hear until I’ve memorized it.

But talent like that can be a double-edged sword. For every line that took my breath away, there was a serious stretch of nothing happening at all. For every startling scene (the married guy’s plan for Cora’s baby, the truth about the man that The Father wants Ruth to marry), there are many more bloated descriptions of dirty jeans, or old wallpaper, or lists of songs on vinyl records, or how every single person or place smells. There’s an endless barrage of trivia about places in New York, washed up celebrities, even Uncle Sam.

I think that Mr. Splitfoot would have been a better book if there was less of it. There were multiple chapters that could’ve been cut entirely without changing a single detail of the plot, and that’s never a good sign. There was far more telling than showing in the rest, and after a while, the padding grew too thick for me to feel the heartbeat of the story.

But still… those characters. That ending. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this one – did I love it for the awesome parts, or hate it for the draggy ones? I think I’ll let myself land on the love side this time, but I don’t know that I would seek out more of this author’s books.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some reliable transportation. Because no part of walking for months sounds fun)

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Missing Parts, by Lucinda Berry

Short Take: I see what you (almost) did there…..

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**Note – I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review**

I have been known to dip out of my preferred genres on occasion. Maybe I should spend more time reading Serious Literature, and less time with works that are scary or gory or fast-paced. I think that my tastes are skewed to the point where I might not be the best judge of what is “good”. And the whole time I was reading “Missing Parts”, I just couldn’t get past my own prejudices.

I do want to say, up front, that Ms. Berry attempts to tackle some real, difficult, and timely issues with this book. Societal expectations of mothers are horrifically unfair even to the best of them, and for some women, difficulty in bonding with their children is a genuine issue that most people pretend doesn’t exist. So I have to commend the author for being willing to tackle some very uncomfortable truths.

That said, this book was described to me as a thriller, similar to Gone Girl (we know how I feel about that particular comparison, right?), twisty, fast-paced, and so on.  And I just didn’t see any of that. What I saw was “one terrible woman’s journey of self-discovery in which she learns nothing.”

Celeste has a great life in LA – she’s a force to be reckoned with at work, has a perfect partner in stay-at-home dad David, a great group of supportive friends, and a four year old daughter. It’s quite picturesque. That is, until her daughter becomes deathly ill, and the secret that Celeste has been holding onto for years threatens everything in her life.

On the surface, this sounds pretty good. The problem is that Celeste is, quite simply, terrible. We are assured repeatedly that she is very strong, and has always kept everything together, but in virtually every scene of the book, she’s having some kind of breakdown – crying, weeping, sobbing, tears streaming, eyes wet, and whatever other synonym for blubbering you can name. She also throws up frequently, complete with descriptions of the color & consistency. There’s even a bonus fainting spell.

Celeste is pathologically selfish to a degree I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.  A big chunk of the book is long, melodramatic, drawn-out exposition of her life, and I swear, the only part of her entire life in which she was happy is when she & her husband were first married, and she was 100% the center of attention in their little family. (I should add, everyone is miserable in all the flashbacks as well.) We’re talking about a person who joins AA, not because she has a drinking problem (not even remotely) but because hearing other people talk about the terrible things they’ve done makes her feel better about herself. Because it’s totally OK to use people in recovery as props, right?  Seriously… who DOES that?

There is a big reveal towards the end that should probably make her more sympathetic, but because a lot of it was telegraphed heavily early on, it didn’t have nearly as much impact. Knowing the Big Secret, without it being actually addressed for most of the book, rendered it almost meaningless.  Had it been completely revealed up front, it might have made the rest of the story slightly more relatable.

And that’s my other major issue – for all the pages in this book, there just isn’t much story.  In fact, the main issues of the book (her child’s illness, possibly a terrible crime) are barely touched on for most of it. There’s a lot of exposition, and more navel-gazing than anything else.  Celeste’s only thought for anyone, and I mean ANYONE else is “Gee, I hope they don’t think I’m a bad person!” There’s not one other person whose feelings are ever even considered, other than for the possibility that they might see Celeste as not-perfect.

Sociopaths can be fun to watch, and narcissists can be fun to hate. But there’s hard to find much fun in someone who is just so empty of everything but self-pity.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and some anti-depressants. Please.)

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Progeny, by Patrick C. Greene

Short Take: A really cool book about being a parent, regardless of species.  And Bigfoot.

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Until reading Progeny, my impressions of Bigfoot were mainly from the 1987 cinematic masterpiece “Harry and the Hendersons”.  For those unfamiliar with this classic, it involves a family who accidentally hits a Bigfoot with their car.  They take the creature home with them, and wacky hijinks ensue.  Harry is basically a giant two-legged clumsy puppy.  He’s an adorable vegan pacifist.

The creatures of Patrick C. Greene’s Progeny are an entirely different breed.

When Owen Sterling, successful author and recent divorcee, buys nearly two thousand acres of Native American land, he senses that he is to be the protector of something sacred.  He and his dog Conan spend hours exploring the woods.  Through his journals, we see his eventual discovery of the creatures in the woods, and his efforts to understand and protect them.  Owen’s biggest priority, however, is his son Chuck, who will be spending the summer with him.

On the other end of town, Zane Carver and his buddies are gearing up for their big hunting trip, along with Zane’s reluctant, bookish son, Byron.  (Sidenote – is it weird that the redneck’s son has a literary name, and the author’s son is named Chuck?  Just me?  ok.)  Zane owns the local gun shop, and is one of those guys who believe that firearms actually solve more problems than they create.  Of course he resents some wimpy writer guy owning the best hunting land around, and not allowing anyone to hunt on it.

And of course, he decides to take his band of merry doofuses onto Owen’s land anyway, where they get into an altercation with the creatures, and find out firsthand how cruel nature can be.

Progeny is a fun little horror novel.  There’s a lot of action, a bit of gore, and c’mon – it’s BIGFOOT.  How can you not love it?

But there’s so much more to it.  Despite its premise (KILLER BIGFOOT), Progeny is really a book about fathers and sons.  Both of the boys (Chuck and Byron) are pretty much the polar opposites of their fathers, and Zane and Owen are faced with the uncomfortable reality that as kids get older, parents aren’t automatically their heroes anymore.   With Owen clumsily throwing a football, and Zane discovering an appreciation for the work of W. W. Jacobs, there’s a strong theme of fathers who will do anything for their children – a theme that’s also reflected among the creatures.  Hell, the title of the book itself is a synonym for “offspring”, and it could be referring to a number of ways the author explores the parent-child dynamic.

Greene also gives us a thoughtful meditation on the nature of violence, namely that it only begets more of the same.  His linguistic skewering of redneck gun culture is spot-on.

One issue I had is that I didn’t get the timeline right away.  Owen’s journals are dated, but the other chapters are not, so it took me a while to figure out that the events in the journal and the events in the house & woods weren’t happening at the same time.  I blame the sugar.

Also, there’s a lack of good female roles.  Deanne is pretty much the only woman in the book (Owen’s ex-wife appears very briefly, for a couple of less-than-flattering exchanges).  That in itself isn’t really problematic, like I said, this is very much a father-son kind of book, but in a novel with such other richly drawn characters, Deanne is a bit of a stereotype.  She’s Native American (read: exotic), drop-dead gorgeous, sweet to old people, madly in love with Owen, happy to be an instant mother to Chuck, able to react quickly in an emergency situation, and in short, cloyingly perfect.  She felt more like a placeholder than a person.

Overall though, Progeny hits all the best notes.  It works on the fun/action/gore side, and on the emotional/family side.  And no corsages were harmed in this book.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS

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