The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins

Short Take:  No Gone Girl.


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


Beautiful You, by Chuck Palahniuk

Short Take:  Chuck, you little scamp!


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


Naomi’s Room by Jonathan Aycliffe

Short Take:  It’s not weird for an adult to sleep with the light on, is it?

Naomi’s Room is a horror novel in my favorite sub-genre:  The Haunted House.  There are a lot of frightening things in the world (and in the imaginations of some pretty messed-up writers), but there’s something especially nerve-wracking about the terror happening in your own home.  And when the horrible thing is a ghost that you can’t just call the cops on or throw hot soup at or yell “GOOD GRIEF LEAVE THE ROOM IF YOU’RE GOING TO DO THAT WHAT ARE YOU AN ANIMAL???”, it’s even more terrifying.

I’m telling jokes as a way of tiptoeing around the actual story.  Naomi’s Room messed with my head in a way that very few horror novels ever have.  It’s one of maybe a half-dozen, out of the thousands of books that I’ve read, that I didn’t want to read after dark.  It’s that damn scary.  It’s also a masterpiece of the slow burn.  The awfulness is bleak and unrelenting, and it keeps getting worse and worse, but it does so in such small, subtle degrees, that you’re like the proverbial frog in the boiling pot – you don’t know how dire the situation is until it’s far too late.

The plot is so simple as to be almost laughable by a lot of storytelling standards.  Charles Hillenbrand, a rather stuffy professor of literature, takes his 5 year old daughter Naomi to a toy store on Christmas Eve.  In the crush of shoppers, they are separated for only a few seconds, but it’s enough for someone to pull Naomi out of the store and, later, brutally murder her.

(Note to all you gore-freaks out there – this is how you do horror right.  The few allusions to the things that were done to her are far more traumatic than some drawn-out torture sequence would’ve been.)

Charles and his wife Laura are, of course, shattered.  And things only go downhill from there.  There are sounds of a child singing and playing.  There are opened presents, a hair ribbon left on the floor, and a bloodcurdling child’s scream that cuts off far too suddenly in the middle of the night. There’s a reporter whose camera captures people who couldn’t possibly be there.  Never, never has the sound of a bouncing ball been more frightening.

And there are secrets that are so shocking and hideous that reading someone else’s account of unearthing them was enough to keep me awake long after I should have been sleeping.

The entire book was told in the first-person by Charles.  In the beginning, his flat, overly precise way of speaking was an annoyance.  Given that Naomi’s death happened in the 70’s, and the narrative was set down some twenty years later, it made him seem like a throwback, someone who uses archaic phrasing as a form of pretension, a rather snobby, haughty, “my intellect is bigger than YOUR intellect” academic type.

As the story moves along though, that voice becomes as effective a weapon as anything I’ve ever come across.  That sort of dry, emotionless, matter-of-fact voice alluding to so many horrible things somehow makes it even scarier.  There’s no hysteria, no overwrought, emotional tones, just “This is what happened.”  Which, OF COURSE makes the whole thing scarier.

I’m leaving a lot of out of this review.  I’m doing that on purpose.  There’s a lot more to the plot that I just don’t want to give away.  The only way I can describe this book is to imagine yourself in a dark room, pitch black, with the only sounds your own breathing and heartbeat.  It’s peaceful, and you know you’re alone, until a strange voice whispers “hello darling” in your ear.

This whole book is like that.   Hell, I’m not doing it justice.  Just read it.  And make sure your nightlight has a fresh bulb.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS


What Has Become Of You, by Jan Elizabeth Watson

Short Take:  Should have been much better than it was.


What Has Become Of You was not a bad book.  It wasn’t a great book.  It was an OK book, and interesting enough in its own way, but not necessarily one that I would want to re-read, or even think about much after I put it down.

Vera Lundy has accepted a temporary teaching position at an exclusive girls’ school in Maine.  It’s the perfect opportunity for her to get back to her roots, teaching Catcher In The Rye by day, and working on her true-crime novel at night.

As she gets to know her students, she becomes closest to Jensen Willard, a talented writer whose assigned journals reveal a much darker, more desperate side than what the rest of the world sees.  What starts out as simple curiosity and concern on Vera’s part becomes something more, as she sees far too much of herself in the girl.  Vera begins crossing boundaries and risking her career to get closer to Jensen.  It seems as though she might really be making a difference, until Jensen disappears, and all eyes turn to Vera.

Having been raised on both Dead Poets Society and Single White Female, I kinda-sorta expected the story to travel one of those paths, but I was happy to be wrong.   It’s clear that the author had her own vision of where it would go, and I have to say, she followed it to its logical conclusion.  There were no awkward twists, or inconsistent plotlines.

I found the names in this story interesting. The spinsterish teacher’s name is Vera Lundy, which just SOUNDS frumpy.  And the rebellious student is Jenson Willard, which sounds an awful lot like “jimson weed” to me.  As Bell Biv Devoe helpfully pointed out, that girl is poison.  And the title itself is full of meaning.  It’s a question – what has become of you? – that could apply to several aspects of the book.

Vera used to be an artsy outsider type of girl, always looking at the inner circle of high school popularity, but never a part of it.  She used to nurture that part of herself with prolific journaling and a standoffish attitude.  But now, she’s 40, single, working on a book that will never be finished, clinging to the hope that the popular girls in school will accept her, miles and light years from who she thought she’d be.  It’s a question a lot of us ask ourselves, when we look at what our dreams used to be – what has become of you?

It’s also a question that can be asked in the most literal sense when Jensen disappears.

I think that my biggest complaint is that the book just isn’t that exciting.   I realize that it doesn’t necessarily take guts, gore, and car chases to make a good story (in fact, I’ve reviewed books where the opposite happened), but a story that has multiple murders, a disappearance, and a frankly uncomfortable teacher-student relationship should not be dull or tedious but somehow, it was.

I’ve tried to put my finger on what I didn’t like, why it didn’t work for me, and I’ve been coming up blank.  Maybe it’s that everything was filtered through the perceptions of Vera, and she was just a boring, unlikeable person.  Not interesting enough to be an anti-hero, too unimaginative to be an unreliable narrator.  We didn’t get to see much of her interactions with anyone other than her students, which as I’ve already pointed out, are self-centered and inappropriate.  Maybe if Vera had more of a life, this book would have as well.  But maybe if she had more of a social circle, she wouldn’t be as drawn to her students, and there wouldn’t be any story at all.

Maybe it’s that the author didn’t go far enough.  Vera’s “crimes” really aren’t that major.  The truth about Jensen isn’t that shocking (I figured out one of the major revelations about halfway through).  It could just be that I’ve read so many “thrillers” that I’ve become jaded.  In any case, it just wasn’t there for me.



Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

Short Take:  Give me a second, there’s something in my eye….


I’ve been a fan of Jodi Picoult for quite a while.  She’s an unusual choice for me, because I generally favor some guts and gore, or at least, a really intense mystery with a bunch of life or death situations.  But there’s just something about Jodi.  Maybe, it’s the fact that no matter what the controversial subject is, she’s not afraid to Go There.  And when she does, she immerses me in whatever the situation is, and drags my emotions through every minute of it.  School shooting?  Yup.  Teen suicide?  Uh huh.  Having to make an excruciating choice between daughters?  Gotcha covered.

So when I saw that she had a new book out, and that it was partially about elephants (did I mention that elephants are my favorite animal?  They.  So.  Are.), I was ready to love it.

Leaving Time is the story of Jenna, whose mother disappeared under very strange circumstances when Jenna was only three.  Alice was doing groundbreaking research on grief in elephant herds, and living on an elephant sanctuary with her husband Thomas, and three other employees – Gideon, his wife Grace, and his mother in law, Nevvie.  One terrible night, Nevvie is killed, apparently trampled by an elephant, and Alice is badly injured.  She is rushed to the hospital, where she later wakes up, walks out, and is never seen again.  Jenna’s father, Thomas, suffered a psychotic break from the events, and has been institutionalized for the past 10 years, unable to recall or explain what happened.

Jenna, now thirteen years old, has been trying everything she can think of to locate Alice, not knowing if she is even still alive.  She finally saves up enough babysitting money to enlist the services of a psychic (Serenity), and a washed-up, alcoholic, former policeman turned private investigator (Virgil).

From there, Leaving Time turns into a fairly standard Picoult novel.  There are secrets that are revealed, and alternating chapters in different voices (Alice, Jenna, Serenity and Virgil are our narrators).  You can tell that the author did her research – when Alice is speaking about the elephants she is studying, there’s an insane amount of detail on the animals and their habits.  Some of it made me curious enough to google, and based on what I found, it seems like everything is true.  In that way, Leaving Time is similar to Lone Wolf.

As much as I love elephants, and as fascinating as some of their chapters were, I wish there had been a little less of it.  At times, it started to feel repetitive.  There were too many descriptions of the death of an elephant and the reactions of the herd.  All the references to how elephants mother their young started to feel too heavy-handed.  Jodi Picoult is usually a lot subtler with her metaphors.

Elephants aside, this book was incredible.  The four main characters all have their own struggles, and distinct voices.  Jenna is the heartbroken child who just wants her mother, Alice is the cool, logical scientist (until she isn’t), Serenity’s self-doubt is crippling, and Virgil is angry at the police force, his landlord, and most of all, himself.

I could write pages about the ending.  I’m really torn.  On one hand, I did NOT see it coming, and the emotional impact was huge.  I had to walk away for a little bit to process it.  On the other hand, as much as it pains me to say this:  it’s been done.  Maybe not exactly the same, but close enough to feel painfully derivative.  It was a little disappointing… but at the same time, in the context of previous events, it was not at all what I was expecting.  And did I mention the emotional scars I now have?

So the question becomes, if a book has an ending that is almost a carbon copy of something you’ve seen before, is it automatically bad?  What if it’s done so skillfully that in a lot of ways, it’s better than the original, one of the few books that can actually bring you to tears?  Does that make the “copying” better or worse?  I don’t know the answer.  I do know that there’s a lot of great, thought-provoking, heart-wrenching stuff in here, and I would still highly recommend it.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS.  And a box of tissues.  Trust me on that one.


Wrapped In Black (Anthology)

Short Take:  Sometimes you get your wish, and sometimes, your wish gets you…..


Note:  I was gifted an advance copy of Wrapped in Black in exchange for an honest review.  So, below are my honest opinions!

I’ve said it before, I’ve never been a fan of the short story.  My preference for oversized novels is pretty well-known.  Lately, though, I’ve started to re-think my position.  Maybe it’s that I’m getting older, and my patience and attention span aren’t what they used to be.  Maybe I’m finally starting to see the beauty in a lack of excess, enjoying the idea of something smaller, but just as well-crafted – the lovely, personal tiny house versus the soulless McMansion.  Is reading a collection of short stories by very talented but not very well-known authors the same experience is diving into the latest thousand-page Stephen King tome?  No, it isn’t.  But that’s not to say it’s a lesser experience in any way.

Wrapped in Black opens on the perfect note:  “Hair Shirt Drag” by Gordon White.  The voice of the narrator (Jesse) is so completely matter-of-fact about himself and his life and the extent to which he is “over it” that you can’t help but want to listen to him all night.  I mean, come on: “I ain’t never read the Key of Solomon, but I read the Book of Kings. Rest of the Bible, too, back when Mama thought that’d help me fit in. It didn’t, I won’t, and, truth be told, I ain’t all that broken up about it.”  With three sentences, White has created an entire personality.  Oh yeah, there’s a story here too, and it’s a good one (seriously), but truth be told, I would read a whole novel of Jesse doing things like grocery shopping and making coffee.

The downside to such a strong opening is that the rest of the stories will almost certainly suffer by comparison.  The next story, “Comes the Rain” by Gregory L. Norris is a good piece with some spooky touches that somehow seemed a bit hollow, more of a scene than an actual story.  Loved the nightmare Mary Poppins, but it just felt lacking.

“Number One Angel” by Allison M. Dickson is a similar type of work, in that the whole story happens in the space of a few minutes, but it felt more fleshed-out.  The author knows how to get into the head of a character though, and with a few well-chosen phrases, she gives us decades of history between Louise and her mother.

“Unto the Earth” by Patrick C. Greene is probably the story that I felt had the biggest shocker-twist-wait…what?? ending in the collection.  I’m not going to spoil it here, but trust me, it’s a GOOD one.  This story is also the one that screwed with my emotions a surprising amount for such a brief tale.

“Haxenhaus” by Nick Kimbro was also a stand-out.  The medieval setting was a great backdrop, and the atmosphere was wonderfully realized.

I adored “Stories I Tell To Girls” by Michael G. Williams, mainly because I loved the idea of the Book people, and am hopeful that one day they’ll open a chapter in my local library, and let me hang out with them.  But it’s also terrific at creating a sense of stories within stories, and complicated relationships, and pasts that become futures and… yeah, you’ll just have to read it.

James Glass’s “The Rising Son” is a tough one.  I loved the hints at the antagonist’s identity (some will recognize him at once). I don’t want to give too much away here, but it seemed like the author was going to go in a new direction, but instead, went for the expected one.  Beautifully written, though, and I will probably pick up his longer works.

“Beautiful, Broken Things” by Rose Blackthorn was also a tough one.  It seemed to take place in a futuristic version of a typical US city, but that wasn’t really clear, so some of the references  (like the drug Prizm) were awkwardly shoved in.  I liked the story, but think it would have worked better without being bogged down by the sci-fi aspects.

“Not This Time” by Mike Lester was probably my least favorite story in this collection.  It might just be that too much sugar has rotted my brain, but I couldn’t make sense of the story and relationships between the characters.  I had to re-read the ending several times to figure out what happened, and even then, it didn’t really stay with me.  I also couldn’t figure out if there was actual witchcraft involved, or just kids playing pretend.

“Into the Light” by Solomon Archer was more meaty than the other stories.  It had a bigger scope in terms of time period, characters, and actual physical action.  I actually wish someone would make a movie of this one, it’s fun and gory and fast-paced.

Shenoa Carroll-Bradd is just not right.  “She Makes My Skin Crawl” is one of the most crazily-inventive stories I’ve read in ages, but damn did it make me queasy.  Some serious nightmare-fuel, but at the same time, so ridiculously out-there that you can’t help but love the craziness.

Eric Nash’s “Pigeon” is a funky Rube Goldbergian (is that a word?) piece from the perpective of the Scorned Woman.   It’s an archetype as old as stories themselves, but with twists both digital and supernatural.  Fun, but the ending was a little flat.

“Pig Roast” by Aaron Gudmunson is the perfect ending to the collection.  Chet is the polar opposite of Jesse from “Hair Shirt Drag”.  He’s overweight, awkward, shy, and oddly attached to his mustard.  I sort of knew where the story was heading, but I wasn’t expecting the last few sentences.  YIKES.

Overall, this was a GREAT collection.  Every story was so unique that comparing them to each other isn’t comparing apples to oranges, it’s comparing apples to elephants to picture frames to knitting needles to meteorites.  And that’s the beauty of it – there’s literally something for EVERYONE.  You like in-your-face gore?  subtle metaphor?  killer birds?  Wrapped in Black has got you covered.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and one eye of newt.  Happy Halloween!)


Breed, by Chase Novak

Short Take:  Stick with teen romance.


Chase Novak is a pseudonym of Scott Spencer, better known for his novel Endless Love, among others.  I don’t know why he’d use a pseudonym for a horror novel, as anyone who has read Endless Love can attest to a certain horrifyingly graphic scene.  Be that as it may, I just couldn’t get in to Breed.

Breed begins with a well-to-do New York couple, Alex and Leslie Twisden, who are suffering from infertility.  Neither of them is getting any younger, and although many of the most expensive treatments have failed, they decide to take one last, desperate chance.  They fly to Slovenia to meet with Dr. Kis, a man who has had remarkable success with his unorthodox treatment methods.

It seems fairly pedestrian at first, a couple of injections, and they are free to go.  Leslie becomes pregnant right away, and they are ecstatic.  However, this being a horror novel, there’s a price to pay for their happiness.  Soon, they both begin changing, becoming hairier, angrier, and hungrier.

The second act picks up 10 years later, when their twins finally get tired of being locked up every night (not to mention their disappearing pets, and the awful noises from the basement), and run away.  Most of the rest of the book is the parents hunting their children, and the children trying to escape.  They are aided by Michael Medoff, a teacher at the exclusive school they attend, as well as Rodolfo, leader of a group of “wild children” who live in abandoned properties and Central Park, and have dark secrets of their own.

The final act is the desperate race for a cure, a sacrifice, and a possible sequel set-up.

I just didn’t enjoy this book. The premise wasn’t terribly original – a mad scientist turning people into monsters dates at least as far back as Mary Shelley.  I can’t say that it dragged, exactly, the last ¾ of the book is pretty much one giant chase scene, but it just didn’t feel that exciting.  With the exception of the teacher, Mr. Medoff, none of the characters was particularly likeable, and none of them at all were interesting.  The child protagonists had no real personalities.  So when one of the characters is in danger, the reader’s reaction is along the lines of “meh”.

The plot also felt formulaic.  For example, in EVERY horror novel involving children, the kids have to face the evil alone.  The police don’t believe them, and the only adult who does is usually discredited for some reason (he’s the town drunk, or a veteran with PTSD, or, in this case, gay).  However, this time, an adult actually calls the police from inside the house where the parents have committed the unspeakable acts.  The police show up, and for no apparent reason, arrest the adult who called it in.  That was when the book just broke for me.

Completely disregarding logic and sound storytelling JUST for the sake of upholding a formula that is already beyond tired is ridiculous.  Every single plot point seemed to follow a template that has been done to death.  A bad story can be saved with interesting characters, or some kind of fun, original premise, or a sense of humor in the dialogue.  But when all of that is lacking, you get Breed.

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS


Rereading a favorite: Mind of Winter, by Laura Kasischke

Short Take:  Beautiful, brilliant, just a little too long.


This review is a little different, as I’m writing it based on a re-read of a book I was blown away by earlier this year.  I wanted to see if it would hold up to a second reading, knowing the final twist.  I have to say, yes it did.  It’s a credit to the author that her ability to build tension (and her style, let’s not forget her breathtaking way with words) still holds, even knowing the truth.

It’s Christmas morning, and Holly and her husband Eric have overslept.  She awakens abruptly, with a thought that keeps pounding in her head and won’t let go:  Something has followed them home from Russia.  A failed writer, Holly wants nothing more than to find a quiet corner, and a pen and paper, and write it down, examine and understand it, but she can’t.  Eric has to rush to the airport to pick up his parents, and Holly needs to get Tatiana to help her make Christmas dinner for the house full of company they are expecting.

Tatiana is their daughter, adopted from Russia at 22 months old.  She’s now a 15 year old beauty, with exotic black hair and eyes.  Her skin is so pale and her lips are so dark that both of them appear to have a bluish cast at times.  In many ways, she’s a typical teenager, angry then sulking then laughing then crying, sometimes in the space of a few minutes.

But there’s more to Tatiana than it would appear.  When Eric must take his parents to the hospital instead of home, and a blizzard keeps everyone else away, Holly and Tatiana are left with only each other – and with whatever may have followed them home from Russia.

It’s a tense, claustrophobic, nerve-wracking day.  Tatiana is helpful one minute, raging the next, and to Holly, she begins to look less and less familiar, and more and more dangerous and out of control.

Laura Kasischke is a poet.  I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense, she has written several award-winning volumes of poetry.  You can definitely feel her poetic roots in Mind of Winter.  The first section, when Holly becomes convinced that her family has somehow been cursed since they brought Tatiana home is the most perfect example of incremental repetition I have ever read.  The list of bad things, small and large, that have befallen them in the past thirteen years keeps growing.  It’s brilliant, and sets the mood for the rest of Mind of Winter – the sense that things will keep going more and more wrong, that the bad energy will keep building on itself until there is some kind of explosion.

Unfortunately, the final third or so of this book really dragged.  It could be because I knew what was coming, but there were so many fetishistic descriptions of Tatty’s appearance, and what felt like the same scene being played over and over in terms of Holly’s interactions with Tatiana.

But then the ending happens, and holy hell, is it good.  Even knowing what was coming, the ending was so damned great.  From Holly and Tatiana and the overwrought Christmas they are having, to the horrific heart-breaking truth in just a few sentences…. it’s a slap to the senses.  It’s that “Wait, WHAT??” reaction that makes you go back and re-read the last few pages, then read them again.  And then, when it all sinks in, and you understand, it gets under your skin in a way that (if you’re me), you have to read the entire book again a few months later to see if that really just happened (short answer: yes).  It’s like being submerged in an overheated hot tub, only to be forcefully yanked into a snowstorm.

So yes, Mind of Winter was great, and nearly as strong on the second reading as on the first.  Laura Kasischke is a genius at building and immersing the reader in atmosphere.  My only gripe is that it might have worked better as a slightly shorter story.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS


Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes

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


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.)


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

Short Take:  Well, this is convoluted.


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