The Better Liar, by Tanen Jones

Short Take: She’s a good liar, but not quite good enough.

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Good morning, my marvelous nerdlings! I hope that everyone is enjoying the preparations for whichever mid-winter holiday (or holidays) you celebrate, with a minimum of stress and unexpected expenses!

Oh, who am I kidding, we all know that the traditions of stress and financial delirium in December are the green cherries in the fruitcake  We don’t know how they came about, or why, or if they should even exist, but we all just accept it because it’s what we do and have done for as long as we can remember.

And, you know, alcohol.

Speaking of questionable life decisions, meet Leslie. She’s your typical middle-class working wife and mother to a year-old son, suffering from the typical malaise that often accompanies  those cliches. So when her father dies, leaving a hundred thousand dollars to be split between Leslie and her sister Robin, it’s a chance for Leslie to breathe a little. 

There’s one catch though: in order to claim the money, the sisters, who have been estranged for a decade, have to appear together to sign the paperwork. And when Leslie goes to Vegas to track down Robin, she instead finds Robin’s dead, overdosed body.

But fate (or alcohol) intervenes, as it tends to do. Leslie decides to not report Robin’s death, and instead have a drink or twenty-seven. And that’s when she meets Mary – cocktail waitress, stalking victim, and Robin’s doppelganger. In a plan borne of desperation (and maybe alcohol), Leslie persuades Mary to come home with her for a few days and pretend to be Robin long enough to sign the paperwork, at which point they can both go their separate ways, fifty thousand dollars richer.

It seems easy enough, right? But we all know that you should probably not trust your future to that stranger you got drunk with that one time, especially when both of you have secret motivations and plans of your own. And of course it all becomes a Cat And Mouse Game as they plot against each other and the stakes grow well beyond the cash.

The Better Liar ALMOST nails it. The characters are fun in that infuriating way that all thriller readers are familiar with – we have no idea why they are doing the things they are doing until All Is Revealed. There’s some meaty subtext on the pressures women face in society to be a certain kind of wife or mother or homemaker, and how suffocating those roles can be, and the idea that tradition doesn’t necessarily mean “good thing” (green cherries, I’m looking at you). 

But I feel like Ms.Jones dropped the ball on the plot somewhat. To be a little more specific without spoilers, there was one reveal that I think was supposed to be a major twist that was telegraphed early on, and so the second half of the book wasn’t as exciting as it should have been. I mean, it could just be me, I’ve read so many of these things that my twist-figuring skills are LEGENDARY. (Ok ok ok, maybe closer to slightly above average, but my point stands.)

So in the end, The Better Liar is an OK-bordering-on-meh-level mystery, but a great look at two very well-drawn female characters living with or trying to escape from the choices they’ve made.

THE NERD’S RATING: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a few festive cocktails, and what the heck, toss a few green cherries in there. Happy holidays!!)

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Grim Harvest, by Patrick Greene

Short Take: A too-brief visit with old friends.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

Good morning, nerdlings! I am mostly recovered after a late night out at the fair, where I was lucky enough to see Gabriel Iglesias, aka Fluffy live. He put on a fantastic show and my face still hurts (yes, I know, IT’S KILLING YOU) from laughing.

I also have to give a shout-out to local fairs, and all their fun traditions: corn dogs, rigged games, fried oreos, animal smells, cotton candy, rides with questionable safety ratings, and fried cheese on a stick.. Having always lived in a small town, I tend to take fairs for granted, and don’t go to them very much anymore, but it only takes a single whiff of the air to kick me right in the nostalgia-bone.

And speaking of nostalgia for small towns, dearies, welcome back to Ember Hollow, which we first visited in the gloriously Halloween-themed acid trip of Red Harvest. Consider yourselves warned: Grim Harvest is the sequel to Red Harvest and therefore, this review will have many spoilers for the latter. If you haven’t read it yet (dude, what?? Get on that already!), you should probably stop right here.

It’s a year after the Pumpkin Parade Massacre, when Ragdoll Ruth (religious fanatic) and Everett Geelens (psychopathic killer) nearly destroyed the town, killing dozens, injuring even more, and causing untold anguish before being slaughtered themselves.

Among the walking (read: staggering) wounded is Dennis Barcroft, former lead singer of the Chalk Outlines and no-longer-recovering alcoholic. Now, he’s off the wagon and into a ditch, leaving behind the band, his friends, family, and Jill, the love of his life. Dennis’s younger brother Stuart is also suffering from a humiliating condition as a result of last year’s trauma, on top of the usual growing pains of puppy love and pubescent body image issues.

Candace Geelens, Everett’s sister and the only surviving member of their family, is in foster care hell. Reverend McGlazer’s faith is being tested in ever more horrific ways as the unholy presence in the church grows stronger, and secrets from the town’s past threaten to destroy its future.

And if all that weren’t fun enough, Nico Rizzoli, Ragdoll Ruth’s lover and partner in crime, has escaped from prison and is out for revenge. Bloody, gruesome, gory, creative revenge. I mean sure, he could just kill everyone with a gun or knife or chainsaw, but it just so happens that he knows a witch who knows a spell to turn Nico and his biker friends into werewolves for a little extra havoc-wreaking. And maybe, if Nico can figure out just the right spell and sacrifice just the right person, he could even bring Ruth back.

Grim Harvest, as I mentioned, is the second book in the Haunted Hollow series, and it’s my understanding that there will be at least one more. It’s a decent follow up to Red Harvest (which I legit LOVED), but it feels more like the middle of a trilogy than a complete work in and of itself, a bridge between a fabulous introduction and an explosive finale. Other reviewers have mentioned that if you haven’t read the first book, this one is hard to follow, and I can totally see that, but I don’t really count that as a flaw. It’s kind of the nature of a series – if you have no idea that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, it makes no sense when he’s swinging on webs. 

My issue is more the sense that Grim Harvest is a placeholder between the major parts of the story, instead of a major part itself. Sure, there are a couple of new plot lines and characters that have a complete beginning, middle and end, but our main characters just don’t get much movement. They’re in the book, but it doesn’t feel like they grow or change in any significant way, or even play as much of a role as they did in the first book. 

Sure, they go to the places and do the things, but with so many characters and plot lines in barely 200 pages, they just don’t get to breathe the way they deserve to. All of the psychological fallout for each of them is explored in great depth and detail, throughout every scene, and in the end, each of them is fixed with a couple of sentences. It doesn’t feel earned.

One of the best parts of Red Harvest was the way the friends & families interacted with each other, the simple affection and humor that they had, and that feels somewhat lacking here. Even when Stuart and DeShaun are being their obnoxious thirteen year old boy selves, there’s part of Stuart that just can’t relax and enjoy the moment. It’s understandable, but it also undermines a lot of what made Red Harvest so much fun despite its horrific sequences. Ditto the group of punks – their friendship and banter were fantastic last time, and they don’t even really have a conversation this time.

So in the end, I’ll still read the next book, because Mr. Greene has never really let me down. I imagine that he’s got something incredible planned for the finale. 

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and some fried fair food cause I’m craving it again already.)

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The Arrangement, by Robyn Harding

Short Take: A stick of dynamite with a long fuse that never goes off.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

Good morning, my lovely nerdlings! I don’t know about all of you, but sometimes, I get an idea, and it just cascades into a whole lot of other ideas. Case in point: The Spousal Unit and I decided that it’s about time we get some new living room furniture. Simple enough, right? Then the decision was made that the loveseat from the old set would be perfect for under the younger kid’s loft bed, which means the too-big futon that’s currently under there should go in the office which needs painted and while we’re moving stuff, let’s put this dresser in this other room, and reorganize this closet to move some of the stuff in it to the office since we’re redoing it anyway and now…. Everything in the house is a mess. So it’s a perfect time to kick back with a book, right?

And speaking of messes, meet Natalie. She’s an art student living in New York City, and she is dead broke (I feel like that’s a redundant statement). Her roommates are looking for any excuse to kick her out of the only place she can almost afford, and her brilliant plan of sneaking a few bucks out of the cash register at work goes about as well as you’d imagine.

So with no job and homelessness only a few days away. Natalie is willing to try just about anything, and her friend Ava has the perfect solution: Become a sugar baby. Just go out for drinks or to a show with a wealthy older man, and make some quick money. 

Natalie decides to give it a try, and in very short order, she meets Gabe – powerful corporate attorney, thirty years older than her, a married father who has no interest in disrupting his home life, but is more than happy to pay for a little something on the side.

It would seem as though Natalie’s problems are solved. All she has to do is play along, take his money, and not intrude on his Real Life. But…. Natalie is a mess, always. She falls in love with him, and becomes increasingly demanding until he ends it. 

Now, my duckies, do I have to tell you that things Go Very Wrong? Because of course they do. Natalie’s messiness turns into a real spiral of alcohol, obsession, and Very Bad Decisions. Gabe tries to maintain his distance, but Natalie legit has no bottom – she can always go lower and let me just say, it was shocking to me to see exactly how low she would go. It’s this build-up to the inevitable explosion that is the most fun, intense part of the book.

From there, it’s not very surprising that someone ends up dead. It’s also not surprising that someone else is accused of the murder, or that the suspect may or may not have actually done the deed. 

And that’s where the whole thing falls apart – once the dead person is dead, and the story moves from an intensely toxic, passionate, red-hot relationship to the cold sterility of the legal system, all of the emotion and energy get sucked clean out of the story. The length of the chapters even changes – during the buildup, they are short quick punches that I felt in my solar plexus, but afterward, a leisurely stroll through a mostly empty Walmart. You’ll find what you were looking for, but it won’t feel like anything remarkable.

The final chapter, the longest one, is the worst. It’s of course the one where All Secrets Are Revealed, but it’s also a multi-page info-dump, bereft of feeling. Sure it has lots of answers, but so does a calculus textbook. It doesn’t feel surprising or shocking, or even all that interesting. Maybe it was the switch to a completely dispassionate character’s point of view, but it just fizzled.

Another major issue was with Natalie as a character. It’s not that she’s unlikeable (she is, but that can be fun), it’s that she’s exhausting. She’s that friend who makes the wrong choice every single time but is always the victim in her own story. Even while I was marvelling at the sheer brazenness of some of her actions, I wanted to shake her and tell her to clean up, grow up, put on her big girl panties, and get on with her life.

Finally, there’s a heavy-handed subtext that the whole sugar baby thing is yet another way for women to be victimized, that it’s inherently harmful and will only and always end badly for the women who choose it. I think that the issues around sugar babies (and other sex workers) are far more complicated, that there’s a whole spectrum between “get that money girl!!!” and “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!”, and I would have liked to see a more nuanced look at the lifestyle.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and something sweet, because SUGAR.)

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A Stranger On The Beach, by Michele Campbell

Short Take: When your mama says “don’t talk to strangers”, FREAKIN LISTEN.

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Good morning, duckies, from the land of the massively sleep-deprived! I took a much-needed road trip to attend a book launch for one of my favorite authors about four hours away yesterday. I was going to drive, but while I was all about “not wasting time” the Spousal Unit kept going on about “speeding” (to-may-to/to-mah-to, right?), so we switched spots and I was able to finish reading Stranger from the comfort of the passenger seat which may or may not have been my intention all along.

But I digress. 

Caroline Stark Has It All. She’s got a gorgeous face and body, mega-rich also-gorgeous husband, multi-million dollar beach house, and of course, the envy of everyone around her. So when her husband Jason brings another woman to Caroline’s extravagant housewarming party, then takes off with said woman, Caroline is devastated. 

Distraught, she spends a night drowning her feelings in vodka and Aidan Callahan – bartender, Brad-Pitt-lookalike, and Man With A Dark Past who’s a little too fixated on Caroline and her house for someone she’s just met.

But after that steamy night, things get… complicated. Caroline wants to reconcile with Jason, but Aidan believes that he and Caroline are meant to be together. What follows, for the next two-thirds of the book is a strange, hallucinatory narrative, in which Caroline and Aidan give contradicting accounts of every interaction, until it’s impossible to tell what’s real, a lie, or a delusion.. 

Of course, in the end, All Secrets Are Revealed, and there’s a big twist followed by a happy ending for the person who deserves it.

A Stranger On The Beach is a serviceable thriller. The pacing is decent, the characters are fairly developed, but it just doesn’t work. I’ll admit, it could be my own form of cynicism, or that I’ve read too many of these types of books, When it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s often a safe assumption that it’s a chicken. 

Ms. Campbell has a great feel for an interesting story, but lacks subtlety. There are several points when a revelation should have been shocking, but the author tries too hard with the red herrings. It’s like a stage magician shouting “Look over there!”. Sure, it’s a type of misdirection, but not a particularly effective one, and most audiences will figure out pretty quickly what the actual trick is.

And when it’s a trick you’ve seen many times before, it’s that much harder to be excited by it.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a nice long nap!)

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A Nearly Normal Family, by M.T. Edvardsson

Short Take: A family drama trying to be Nordic noir.

Female cyclist riding without lights on a dark, foggy road.

I know I complained before about the lack of truly summery weather, but seriously y’all, WHERE IS SUMMER?? How am I supposed to read in the pool, or drink vodka on the patio, or do whatever else people do when they go outside (not super clear on that)?

I seriously want a do-over. This is road apples (keepin’ it clean for the Amazon censors).

There is one thing that was OK about this lousy weather though, and it’s that as I was reading A Nearly Normal Family, with its rich descriptions of Sweden’s autumn weather, I was legit pulling my own blanket tighter (in freakin JUNE for cryin out loud), and it made a somewhat difficult book a little bit better.

Eighteen year old Stella is a handful – drinking, smoking weed, sneaking out to party, and of course constantly fighting with her parents, well-respected defense attorney Ulrika and well-loved pastor Adam. But it’s still shocking when she is arrested for the murder of a wealthy businessman nearly twice her age.

What follows is a delicate balancing act, as Adam and Ulrika struggle with the most basic, primal impulse parents have: protect your child at all costs. And for Adam and Ulrika, the choices they will feel compelled to make are the hardest of their lives. In a small town where everyone knows everyone, what would happen if the pastor lied? Or if the hotshot defense attorney destroyed evidence?

And at the center of all the swirling turmoil is Stella, who won’t see or speak to either of them, who holds her own secrets and catastrophic choices.

The story is told in three parts, with Adam, Stella, and finally Ulrika each taking a turn telling their story. It’s that narrative structure that presents the first real issue I had, which is the glacial tempo of the story. At a hefty-ish 400 pages, I expected a slow burn, but it feels like a lot of padding with not much story. Every character is keeping secrets which is usually A-OK in my book, but there are just too many descriptions of one character wondering what another character is doing, and not enough of things actually happening.

Also, it could just be that the translation isn’t as effective as the original, but there’s a sense of reserve, a kind of formality and stiffness throughout the narration.  Even when someone was recounting something traumatizing and painful, I never really felt what they were feeling. There were no moments of levity, of these people who love each other just having fun and enjoying each other, making it hard to appreciate the importance of their relationships. Every interaction is ponderous and loaded with subtext, and drawn out just a few beats too long. Each major scene is repeated from different perspectives

In the end, All Is Revealed, but much of it was telegraphed pretty clearly throughout the book. I can’t help but feel that the author wanted to write only about the tension in this family, and someone convinced him that it should be a murder mystery, so he quickly sketched that out & threw it in at the last minute.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a cider. I’ve decided to give up on summer, and go straight into autumn drinking.)

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Keep You Close, by Karen Cleveland

Short Take: Ripped from the headlines! But in a not-fun way.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

This is where I usually put a witty intro, where I find some clever way to tie some aspect of my life to the book I’m reviewing, but I recently made the fateful decision to finally join the rest of the population of Earth and start watching Game of Thrones. Therefore, my time is limited at the moment. So let’s all just pretend that I wrote something catchy about how I can’t look away from all these warring factions and backstabbing and power grabbing, k? On to the book!

Steph Maddox has the job of her dreams. She’s head of Internal Affairs for the FBI: investing the investigators, fighting corruption, and keeping the most powerful people in America from abusing that power.

As is always the case with women who hold onto major careers, she’s had to fight and make a lot of sacrifices along the way, and one of the biggest of those sacrifices is time spent with her son, Zachary, during his formative years.

Now seventeen, Zachary is closed-off and quiet, occasionally prone to teenage moods, but basically a good kid. At least, that’s what Steph thinks, until two incidents rattle her complacency. First, she finds a loaded gun in Zachary’s room, then, a fellow agent knocks on her door and informs her that Zachary’s name has come up in an investigation into a domestic terror group.

Forced to face the fact that she may not know her son as well as she thinks she does, Steph embarks on her own investigation, one that leads into her own past as well as the highest levels of government. And it’s not just herself she’s putting in harm’s way.

Of course there are many twists, a few of which are genuinely shocking, and I found myself racing to the end, reading and re-reading the final chapters, trying to absorb it all.

And in the end?

I’m exhausted. And depressed.

In any other period in American history, this book would’ve been a fun diversion, a twisty “ooooo what-if” kind of tale, something so wildly implausible that its sheer out-there-ness makes it fun.

But right now… it’s not fun. It’s not out-there, it’s not a “what-if” anymore. There is proof in the headlines every day that Bad People have, in fact, infiltrated the highest levels of our government, that corruption is rampant, and instead of leading or governing, power for its own sake is their goal (along with fattening their own wallets). I’m not one of those readers who gets mad if a book doesn’t have a happy ending, but the all-too-realistic bleakness of this one just left me feeling morose.

So I can’t say that I enjoyed Keep You Close very much. Don’t get me wrong, there were some high points. Steph is a great character (if not a great mother). We see her having to make difficult choices, never knowing what the outcome might be, and trying to do the right thing even when it’s not clear what that thing is. The pacing is great, and Ms. Cleveland is masterful at cranking up the tension.

But I can only really recommend Keep You Close if you’ve read all the US news you can find, and you still want more of the bad stuff. It’s well-written enough, but just too true.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and booze. Any kind will do.)

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The Company of Death, by Elisa Hansen

Short Take: This is the weirdest freakin road trip story ever. Minus the trip.

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(*Note – I received a copy of this book from the author for review.*)

I’ve said a few times that I find zombie apocalypse stories fairly boring by now. Shambling brain eaters, plucky survivors, improvised weapons, food foraging, it’s all been done over and over and over.

So when I first saw “zombie apocalypse” in the description, I kind of went “meh”. But then the blurb went on, and well, when I saw vampires, Death (the dude, not the concept), and robots well, my nerdlings, I sat up a little straighter.

This particular End Of The World started with the Ecuador Explosion, which created the zombies, who quickly started turning most of humanity into mindless, biting, walking corpses. Of course, this was bad news for the vampires, who need a steady diet of blood from living creatures, so they came out of hiding and offered protection to any human willing to be sipped from occasionally.

Not very surprisingly, some humans choose a third option, which involves killing all the undead of both flavors, and this is where we find Emily. She’s a member of a group tasked with the aforementioned undead-slaying. But when a mission goes horribly wrong, she’s on her own, kind-of dead but not really. She’s also forced to partner up with capital-D Death (a newly de-horsed deity), to try to make it across the country to Manhattan, the last bastion of civilization. Emily is hoping for a cure for her condition, and Death is going to settle his sibling rivalry with his fellow horsemen once and for all.

We also meet up with Scott, a human who’s really not cut out for this whole apocalypse thing (or relationships), and his female partner/robot protector Carol, who are also headed to New York to find Scott’s sister for very different reasons.

And oh yeah, Leif the vampire is also going to Manhattan along the same road, with plans of HIS own. None of these characters has a reason to trust any of the others, all are keeping secrets, and all of them have their own agendas. Plus, all of them have very good motivations (and means) to kill the others. It’s a fantastic setup.

The problem is that it doesn’t really go anywhere. I understand that The Company of Death is the first book in a planned series, but it suffers from a serious lack of plot. There’s the big event that introduces Emily to Death, and then, for the next three hundred pages… nothing really happens. There are a few inconsequential fight scenes, and a lot (A LOT) of conversations about Death vs. Undeath, a bit of character building (Leif’s solitaire addiction is a particularly amusing bit), a few chunks of exposition for the two humans, some traveling in circles, and that’s about it. Just when it looks like it’s going to go somewhere, it’s over.

It’s like if The Breakfast Club ended when everyone arrived at detention, and one of my biggest pet peeves about some series – if you want me to buy your book, then give me a whole book, not an extended advertisement for your next book.

The other major problem I had with this book is that Emily is a VERY frustrating character. It seems like at every critical juncture, she decides to withhold information, putting everyone around her in jeopardy. She also has this odd fixation on “purity” but not the creepy daddy-daughter-dance kind of purity. Even though no human really WANTS to be a rotting but mobile corpse, or a mostly-living juicebox, her “standards” are brought up repeatedly, without any explanation or reason why her bodily autonomy should be taken more seriously than anyone else’s.

It’s a really great setup though, and Ms. Hansen has a beautifully sensual, lyrical style. And the character of Death is infuriating in all the most hilarious ways.

The Nerd’s Rating: Three Happy Neurons (and some protein bars, the kind with nuts and caramel. You know, the ones that say “Snickers” on the wrapper.)

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A Measure of Darkness, by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman

Short Take: Interesting, but not exciting.

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I’ve seen a lot of memes that end in “…there are two kinds of people”, and I have found a new one to add: People who like mysteries, and people who like thrillers. There’s a TON of overlap in the genres, of course. They’ve practically become synonymous over the years, to the point that “Mystery/Thriller” is one category, and many readers don’t even realize that they are, in fact, two entirely different things.

Which is where A Measure of Darkness comes in. The book opens with the charming Hattie preparing dinner for her visiting grandson, Isaiah, in a part of town that used to be a neighborhood, then became the bad part of town, and now is starting to undergo gentrification, with all the problems that tend to follow.

Problems such as eccentric new neighbors, who have bought and renovated an old Victorian, and now throw parties that feature loud music and a parade of people in varying degrees of altered consciousness in and out at all hours.

Isaiah goes across the street to ask them politely to keep it down a bit, for his grandmother’s sake, and then we jump ahead a few hours to when it’s all gone wrong: several people have been shot and killed, a person trying to get away runs over another partygoer, and oh yeah, there’s another dead body in the gardening shed, which may or may not have anything to do with all the other carnage.

Enter Clay Ellison. He’s a sheriff’s deputy who works with the coroner’s office, and it falls to him to identify the various bodies, and notify the families. He also volunteers to help the detective who’s actually investigating the murders find the killer(s).

In the end, all Secrets Are Revealed, and some of them are pretty good, including a strange cult-like “school”. Watching Clay work through the various puzzles and clues is interesting, and it seems like a pretty realistic depiction of how investigators do what they do.

The problem I had is that there are no real stakes for Clay. He doesn’t face any danger or threats, or even an argument with his girlfriend. There’s a bit of tension between him and his brother, but nothing out of the ordinary. The worst thing he personally comes up against is that other cops think that he tends to get involved in investigations that aren’t assigned to him, which, well, the whole book is him working an investigation that wasn’t assigned to him. And his job isn’t threatened or anything, it’s merely an observation by a colleague.

So while it’s satisfying to see a puzzle get solved, it’s hard to get deeply invested in a story where a guy goes to work, does his job well, and goes home. Most of us read to escape that kind of thing.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a sweet pair of extendable angel wings. For all my party needs!)

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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 Other Woman, by Sandie Jones

Short Take: You can’t see red flags if you’re wearing rose-colored glasses.

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Can we all take a moment to appreciate fictional terrible mothers, and all the contributions they have made to modern entertainment? I haven’t done much (read: any) research on the rise in popularity of stories based on horrific mothers who make monsters of their sons, but I think that Psycho was the one that started it all. Although, I suppose I could make a case for the idea going as far back as Oedipus, right? But wait, he didn’t know that the hot queen he was banging was his mom, so maybe not? Anyway, the point stands that crazy mothers make for compelling stories.

Which leads me to The Other Woman, which begins with Emily, our heroine, meeting the man of her dreams, Adam. The pair have a short but intense courtship, with Adam checking every box on Emily’s Perfect Man List (all women have those, right?), except for one teensy tiny little flaw in their bliss: Pammie, Adam’s mother, does not want Emily in Adam’s life.

It doesn’t help that Pammie is much smarter and more determined than Emily. True to the ads, The Other Woman ends with a twist I didn’t see coming. But I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed it very much. The power struggle between Emily & Pammie was kind of cliche for the most part, and without the darker undertones supplied by Adam, could’ve been lifted straight out of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

You know how we all have that one friend, who’s constantly in a state of crisis, and you know that at least 75% of their misery could be avoided if they would just put on their big-person panties and stick up for themselves, but they never do? And so you let them go on and on and on and ON about their latest Awful Thing while you’re washing dishes or playing solitaire and making sympathetic noises, because you think they are genuinely a good person, but you kind of want to tell them to grow up and move on already and stop letting people walk all over them and maybe they wouldn’t be so miserable but you don’t want to hurt their feelings so you just let them vent?

Emily is TOTALLY that friend. Pretty much every time Pammie pulls something shady, or Adam ignores his mother’s meddling or gets angry at Emily for trying to tell him what’s going on, Emily’s response is to whine to her friends “BUT I LOOOOOOOOOOOVE HIMMMMMM!!!!”. It’s just as frustrating to read in a book as it is to live through in real life, only without the option of being able to say “Girl, you need to get the heck out, like yesterday. Ain’t no man worth all this bull puckey.”

And the epilogue was pretty awful. Anything I say will be a spoiler, so I’m just going to say it was lousy, and go find some vodka.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a chocolate digestive, because I have no idea what that even means, but hey, it has chocolate in the name, so it has to be good, right?)

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