The Whisper Man, by Alex North

Short Take: I can’t seem to pick my jaw up.

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Hello, my beloveds! I am afraid I don’t have a lot of time for my usual not-clever but oddly charming intro today, and in fact, I hadn’t even planned to write a review for this one as it’s already been thoroughly praised by people much smarter than I, but I just couldn’t resist. My mouth is hanging open, and for once, it’s not because I’m in the process of putting food into it or making a witty comment, and I just have to share. So let’s get to it, hmmm?

When Rebecca Kennedy dies suddenly and far too young, she leaves behind her husband Tom and six year old son Jake, who are both still grieving, shocked and traumatized when they move to the quaint town of Featherbank, hoping for a new start. But changing location doesn’t actually erase loss, and the heartbreak and resulting issues (Jake’s isolation and too-real imaginary friends, Tom’s anger and withdrawal) are still alive and well in the new house.

There are larger, more dangerous problems in Featherbank though, as Detective Peter Willis knows all too well. Twenty years ago, Frank Carter, a serial killer of little boys, earned the nickname The Whisper Man. He would target unloved and unwanted children, and whisper to them outside their windows, luring them away. He’s spent the last two decades in prison, but now another little boy has disappeared, now Jake has heard the whispers, and now he’s learned a new nursery rhyme….

“If you leave a door half open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken.

If you play outside alone, soon you won’t be going home.

If your window’s left unlatched, you’ll hear him tapping at the glass.

If you’re lonely, sad, and blue, the Whisper Man will come for you.”

I could probably say a lot of things about the plot, but I’m just going to leave it at this: The Whisper Man is one of the best books I’ve read in ages. Mr. North gives us horror, sure, and loads of creepiness, but it’s also a murder mystery, ghost story, thoughtful meditation on generational trauma and what it means to be a father or son or father to a son, a bit of a romance, and an edge of your seat thriller that also includes a twist that should be soap-opera-ish and ridiculous but somehow is just beautiful instead.

The pacing is likewise spot-on, and the characters are absolutely brilliant. Detective Willis, in particular, is a man haunted by both the monsters he’s pursued and the demons in his past, the ones he can’t let go of, and the ones that won’t let go of him. And as for Tom and Jake… their hurt was so very real. Experiencing a loss while also trying to guide a child through it is a nonstop, grinding, exhausting, infuriating process, and it was captured perfectly, in ways both ugly and true.

Just read it. I mean, make sure you can take a day off, because you won’t get anything done till you’re finished, but this one is worth clearing your schedule for.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and an unopened bottle of vodka. Because I have a lot to do around here but I might just reward myself later.)

Loved this book!!

Blood Echo, by Christopher Rice

Short Take: There is a LOT of story here, and all of it is good.

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Well, I don’t know about all of you, but I am OVER this cold weather. My shabongas are shivering over here, y’all. Which is why it’s a good thing that I found a tasty treat to get our collective blood pumping & temperature rising.

As I am sure any horror fan knows, Christopher Rice is the son of Anne Rice. I bring that up to shoo the elephant out of the room, because I’ve read & enjoyed a lot of Anne, but Christopher is an entirely different kind of writer. Don’t get me wrong, he’s immensely talented, but if you’re looking for new & improved Vampire Chronicles, this one ain’t it.

Before I dig into my review of Blood Echo, I want to point out that it is the second book in the “Burning Girl” series (and oh man, that name is the best). There are some series in which each book works as a standalone, but THIS IS NOT ONE OF THEM. If you haven’t read the first book (Bone Music), well first of all, you really should. It’s excellent. But be warned, if you go any further, there WILL be spoilers from the first book.

Got it? Onward!

Raised by serial killers, and turned into a superpowered weapon by a brilliant but unethical scientist, Charlotte Rowe is Having Some Issues. First off, she’s been recruited by a secretive group of billion-dollar corporations to relieve society of the worst of its predators. Although she likes the idea in theory, when a mission goes terribly wrong, she’s forced to reckon with her own potential for violence.

Then there’s Charlotte’s boyfriend Luke: Altamira sheriff’s deputy, total hunkola, and also Dealing With Some Things. Charlotte does her best to keep him from seeing her Hulk-side, and refuses to talk about the things she does, which puts a bit of strain on their relationship. And when some strange, seedy stuff starts going down in Altamira, well, his career is definitely not helped either. Toss in his master-hacker younger brother who’s on the run from the FBI, and we can say that he’s also having some family issues.

There are a few other great characters rounding out the cast: Cole Graydon, billionaire who inherited his Dad’s company and is probably in over his head, Dylan Thorpe, insane genius, Bailey Prescott, hacker extraordinaire, and Martin Cahill, a longtime family friend and recovering alcoholic who is exactly the kind of grizzled, laconic, blunt fount of wisdom you’d want in this (or any other) situation.

When Charlotte is out of town on a mission, Luke is pulled into a seemingly simple case: a badly battered woman wants Luke to arrest her on-again off-again boyfriend. Now, if you’re reading this review, you know what I like, and do I really need to point out that nothing that follows is even on the same continent as “simple”?

I’m just going to say that there’s a whoooooooole lot of other terrible stuff going on in idyllic-looking Altamira and let it go at that.

But what really makes Blood Echo work isn’t the awesome (but somewhat crowded) plot, or the characters’ interactions with each other. What really grooved for me was the introspection the main characters displayed. When Charlie is triggered, she can literally rip a man to pieces with her bare hands. Which, don’t get me wrong, is ALL KINDS OF AWESOME, and her unbreakable rule about only using her power on bad guys is great, and the fact that she really doesn’t want to KILL them, just make sure they are captured and punished is way admirable, but…. If she does what she does, and somehow uses just a teensy bit too much force totally on accident, is she really any better than the monsters she pursues?

Each character is forced to reconcile their ideals with reality, and to admit to their own blind spots, to own their own baggage. And Cole Graydon’s story at the end… well, I’m obviously not going to spoil it here, but believe me when I say, I’m going to be kicking that one around in my head for years to come.

And oh yeah, there’s a smidge of steamy stuff and a whole bunch of futuristic tech that has me paranoid and side-eyeing my laptop camera right now.

My one gripe is that there’s just SO MUCH, and so many overlapping groups. You have the billionaires pulling the strings, and their underlings, and Luke and his coworkers at the station, and Martin’s gang of AA guardian angels, and the OTHER billionaire who’s running the stuff in town, and his son Jordy & Jordy’s gang of buds, and so on and so forth. It’s all very well done, but my poor sugared-up brain was definitely getting a little cramped by the end.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a big old shot of anything hot – it’s not getting any warmer here!)

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Hunting Annabelle, by Wendy Heard

Short Take: Sing it with me now! “I see your truuuuueee colors shining through…”
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Hello to all of my nerdlings, and Happy New Year(‘s Eve)!! It’s that time of year, where we make a bunch of resolutions that will be forgotten by February, when the piles of Valentine chocolates arrive to wreak havoc with waistlines and willpower. Or sooner, if you’re me, and there’s still some Christmas fudge hanging around the house.

But at the same time, I can’t imagine a better poster boy for making resolutions than Sean Suh, the star of Wendy Heard’s delicious Hunting Annabelle.

The year is 1986, and Sean has a lot of issues. Like, a LOT a lot. Recently released from a mental institution after committing a horrific crime as a teenager, Sean now lives with his mother, a prominent neurosurgeon who loves, fears, and resents her son in equal measure.

A diagnosed schizophrenic and gifted artist, Sean spends his days at Four Corners Amusement Park in Austin, sketching random people and admiring the beautiful, colorful auras he sees surrounding them. It’s there he runs into Annabelle, and where the fun really gets going.

Over the next couple of days, Sean is charmed by Annabelle and her glittering, copper-colored aura, even as he fights his own worst, most violent impulses. It seems like he might be getting things under control, when suddenly, Annabelle is shoved, screaming, into a strange van and disappears.

Needless to say, Sean’s life quickly takes a turn for the desperate. Unsure at first if Annabelle is even missing, it doesn’t take long for the authorities to focus their attention on Sean, and he himself can’t even be sure that her kidnapping actually happened, or if it was another one of his delusions.

What follows is a somewhat by-the-book thriller, as Sean must Search Annabelle’s Past to find out Who She Really Is, and to try to save her (and himself) Before It’s Too Late.

But then…. Well, then there are a few really great twists and an ending that is absolutely dizzying. And while my curmudgeonly side is trying to poke holes and find alllllll the ways it would never ever work out that way, I’m smacked upside the jowls over and over again by Ms. Heard’s one brilliant, simple, perfect plot device:

She set the book in 1986.

Seriously, I caught myself repeatedly thinking things like “Why doesn’t Sean just Google Annabelle?” Uh, 1986, ya stupid nerd. “Wait, you’re telling me the FBI databases don’t show a pattern of [spoiler]?” Hello, 1986, lunkhead.  And so on and so forth. Simple, but extremely effective.

And the author maintains the illusion perfectly. From the color scheme that every home had (peach and aqua) to the fashions (shoulder pads, slouchy socks with snow-white Keds), to the music on the walkman (SO MANY FLASHBACKS!!), the mullets, the white pages and rotary phones, smoking indoors in public places, and a thousand other details, it’s seamless.

But the juiciest treat of all is that ending. THAT ENDING. I had guessed fairly early on who was behind Annabelle’s kidnapping, but the why of it, and the aftermath, well, chalk up another jowl-smack. Of course I won’t give it away here, but trust me, you are not prepared for where Hunting Annabelle takes you.

Now, time to break out some booze and snacks, cause it’s midnight somewhere, and I want to get a head start on my resolution-breaking.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a New Coke. Seriously, SO MANY FLASHBACKS.)

Loved this book!!

Once Gone, by Blake Pierce

Short Take: Hello, Clarice. These are the Days of Your Life.

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(*Note: I received a free copy of this book for review.*)

Once Gone is the first book in a series of thirteen (so far) starring FBI Agent Riley Paige, and as far as serial killer thrillers go, it’s pretty straightforward. Women are being killed, then mutilated and arranged to look like dolls. The investigation begins with Riley’s former partner, Bill, flying solo, and wishing that he had her brilliant mind to help on the case.

And why, you may be asking, is Riley, our ostensible heroine, not at the crime scene putting her extraordinarily intuitive mind to use? It’s because she is at home, not-recovering from a serious case of PTSD and major depression brought on by her previous case, in which she was held captive and tortured by a different serial killer.

Bill manages to get Riley back in the saddle, but she is definitely not OK. She is prone to horrific flashbacks, too much alcohol, and a need to prove herself that generally results in situations that cause more harm to her career. Meanwhile, more bodies are turning up, and Riley’s personal life is spiraling further out of control.

There is a lot to love about Once Gone. Mr. Pierce did a bang-up job in creating real characters in Riley and Bill, mainly by showing us what the people surrounding them are dealing with. Bill’s wife Maggie is fed up with his “marriage to the job” and is about to divorce him and take their two young sons with her. Riley’s fourteen-year-old daughter April is angry all the time and experimenting with drugs, torn up over her inability to help her mother heal. And of course, Riley herself is obsessed with bringing down a killer regardless of what it might cost her.

The pacing and structure are exceptional, with the story of Riley’s ordeal being dribbled out over time.  Essentially, the first story (Riley’s previous case) is told last, which makes for quite the page-turner, and although Riley’s profiling abilities border on ESP levels, her conclusions read as logical, not ridiculous or over-the-top.

The problem is that for all the devotion to the main characters’ lives, the story that should be front and center (the doll-killer-dude) is shoved in around the edges, a paint-by-numbers police procedural. There are a few obvious red herrings, and the obligatory higher-ups who are pursuing their own career-driven agendas and inadvertently sabotaging the investigation.

What I’m saying, in my usual long-winded way, is that when you strip away the soap opera elements of Once Gone, you’re left with an episode of Law & Order SVU. Clues are gathered, leads are followed, bad guy is caught. It’s an OK story (I like SVU, personally), but I feel like the author could have done more with the actual investigation, or told us more about the killer. We get a couple of chapters from his perspective when he’s doing his serial-killing thing, but we’re never really inside his head in a way that makes him frightening. His motivations are rather clumsily spelled out in the final confrontation, but for most of the book, he’s just generic serial killer #15,487.

And of course, because Once Gone is the first in a series, it ends on a cliffhanger, which is where the personal-life-drama hit the “too much” mark for me. With easily three books’ worth of over the top situations heaped onto Riley in just the first book, the thought of a dozen more is plain exhausting.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a cozy supply closet, cause man, I could use a nap.)

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The Serial Killer’s Wife, by Robert Swartwood

Short Take: Insulting.

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Who doesn’t love serial killers? If you’re a horror fan, then you know how the serial-killer subgenre has evolved over the years:  It started with the guy in the mask, stalking around & killing his victims with a combination of a machete & brute force. Over time, as audiences grew tired of seeing the same moronic teenagers get vivisected over and over, the serial killer became a smarter, more refined gent who preferred to commit his murders from a distance, usually with a combination of over-elaborate traps and psychological manipulation. The latter is my favorite type of (fictional) killer. I want to be kept guessing, to see if I can figure him out.

The problem with a good thing (a bad guy who’s pretty darn smart) is that eventually, it heads into the realm of Too Much Of A Good Thing (aka, the Criminal Mastermind Cliche). And that, my darling duckies, is precisely where The Serial Killer’s Wife lands.

It started with a pretty interesting premise. Elizabeth Piccioni had a nice normal life – devoted husband, teaching job, newborn son. However, it all went to pieces when her husband, Eddie, was arrested & convicted of raping and murdering six women, keeping their ring fingers as trophies.

Elizabeth, panicked and terrified, does the only thing that makes sense to her. She grabs her son and runs, starting a new life under an assumed name. Six years later, she again has a peaceful, ordinary life, until she gets a phone call. Her son has been kidnapped by a man who is obsessed with Eddie’s case, and Elizabeth has 100 hours to find the finger bones & give them to him, or he will kill Elizabeth’s son in a fairly gruesome way.

Oooooo, now this is EXCITING, right? And yes, it totally is at first. Then it takes a hard right turn into You’ve-Got-To-Be-Kidding-Me-Ville. See, the bad guy is, as mentioned before, the cliched mastermind. He’s got all these great tech skills, and can follow Elizabeth virtually anywhere, and out-thinks her and out-maneuvers her at every turn. Which is pretty predictable by now, but can still work when you get a real feel for the characters.

Elizabeth’s side of the story, however, is just awful. For starters, she has no interior life at all. Zero. None. Wait, I take that back. There is a description of how she used to punish herself for thinking that her son would turn out to be like his monstrous father, but then she, I don’t know, stopped? For some reason? We’re virtually never given any insight into who she is. The entire book is all Elizabeth, all the time, but it’s just a narration of what she’s doing or saying, not what she’s thinking or feeling. Except for when she’s about to barf, we get detailed descriptions of that a lot.

Also, despite the kidnapper warning her against telling anyone, Elizabeth promptly gets pretty much everyone she has ever known involved. Her friends from before Eddie was arrested, the shady underworld characters who helped her get a new identity, even her current boyfriend. And let me add that the rest of the characters are just as shallow. They show up, serve their purpose, and disappear. The worst was the crime boss guy/fairy godmother, who randomly meets her, then practically adopts her and makes sure she has everything she needs to start her new life. Again, because of reasons, I guess.

Of course, since she’s being hounded by a murderous, obsessive, (but very smart & patient, apparently) psychopath, the bodies start piling up. Everywhere, all the time, character after character.

Which might be fun, in a way, but seriously, no matter how many gunshots are fired, no matter how public the site is (Times Square? Really?), nobody gets caught. Like, ever. And then there are the obligatory half-dozen twists & turns and final reveals that would have been pretty cool if I cared by the time I got to the end, when the “real” bad guy is revealed.  Well, all of the real bad guys, there are multiple people involved who have ALL managed to keep everything secret for over a decade, because sure, that’s something that happens.

In short, if you can read without thinking AT ALL, this is the book for you.

The Nerd’s Rating: Two Happy Neurons (and my old Silence of the Lambs VHS tape. Because Hannibal did it with STYLE.)

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