Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessca Knoll

Short Take:  If Carrie Bradshaw had a really ugly past.

Give Your Brain A Snack!!

Confession time!  Way back when it was on HBO as a series, before the movies (I don’t talk about those), I LOVED Sex & The City.  It was fun and fizzy and girly, it was about the dumb dating mistakes we all made in our 20’s, and it was about epic friendship and fabulous clothes.

But in looking back, the show was also 100% about the present.  Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha went careening through life, never acknowledging they had pasts, let alone learning from or regretting them, never planning for the future beyond the next hot date or perfect pair of shoes.  I envied the hell out of them.  They just WERE, you know?  No family ties or leftover high school drama.  They had a freedom that most of us can’t imagine.

Ani FaNelli has that life.  She’s a rising star of a writer at a super-well-known women’s magazine, she lives in Manhattan, her clothes, hair, shoes and nails are always impeccable, and she’s just gotten engaged to Luke Harrison, a gorgeous, Wall Street, old-money type who’s a catch by any metric.

But behind the meticulously constructed image, there’s TifAni FaNelli (yes, weird capitalization and all), the new kid at the prestigious Bradley School.  TifAni is desperate to fit in, and willing to do almost anything the popular crowd demands of her.

Needless to say, it’s ugly.  And we see TifAni spiraling down further and further, until something so terrible happens that I’m actually still having a bit of trouble processing it.  TifAni grows up, moves to New York, becomes the glamorous Ani, and tries to never look back.

But a documentary film crew wants to revisit the horror of Tifani’s past, and as she prepares to relive it on camera, we get bits and pieces until the entire awful truth comes out.

Ok.  Let’s get this out of the way.  This was yet another “If you loved Gone Girl…” book.  I think we’re all pretty familiar with how I feel about those by now.  But this was different.  Instead of seeing the lovely sweet young bride revealed as a sociopath, we see the shallow, selfish, fairly awful young woman revealed as a victim, someone who uses bitchiness as a protective barrier.

Is it predictable?  Kind of.  I mean, the whole “nasty person was cruelly tormented as a kid” thing is Pop Psych 101.  It definitely didn’t have the HOLY CRAP!! DID THAT JUST HAPPEN!!!! thing that Gone Girl had.  But that’s not to say this was a bad book.  On the contrary, there was a slow burn, a hard ugly nugget of truth revealed layer by layer, like a poisonous flower unfolding.

So in short, Luckiest Girl Alive is nothing like Gone Girl.  But it’s still a pretty good book.  Jessica Knoll does a great job of getting inside Ani’s head, of showing it all, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  She handles other characters, especially Ani’s childhood friend Arthur just as deftly, but it’s interesting that, for example, Luke is pretty much just a picture in a glossy magazine.  The people who really know Ani are fully fleshed out, the ones who don’t, aren’t.  And that’s actually a testament to the author’s dedication to her main character – when we read this book, we are so completely immersed in Ani’s world.  

Is it kind of a lousy world?  Oh yeah.  But it’s also impossible to walk away from until we understand it fully.
The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a pen with green ink)

Loved this book!!

The Silent Girls, by Eric Rickstad

Short Take:  This.  Right here.  This is how you do a mystery/thriller right.

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Oh man, y’all.  Have you ever read something that was so surprisingly good by someone you had never heard of, and you just want to write a review that is all GREAT and WONDERFUL and AWESOME but you don’t want to just come off like a squealing moron?  The struggle is real sometimes.

Simon Rath is a private detective who occasionally helps the police in his small town in Vermont.  When one of the younger detectives, Harland Grout, finds an abandoned car belonging to a teenage girl, he calls Rath in to help determine if the girl is actually missing.

Once they start investigating, they discover a pattern of missing girls, at least one of which was found murdered in an especially horrific way.  And things get far too close to home when Rath’s niece, Rachel, decides to help with the investigation.

So.  What was so awesome about this book, you’re wondering.  On the surface, it sounds like a few hundred or thousand other mystery novels.  But it really isn’t.  Start with Rath, for example.  He’s no action hero.  He’s a kind-of-beaten-up, mostly alcoholic former cop with a Guilty Secret.  But even with that stack of stereotypes, Eric Rickstad made him realistic.  His dark past doesn’t make him smolderingly romantic; he’s awkward bordering on rude around women and has a bad back that would keep him from most heroic stunts.

Then there’s the pacing.  I’m not going to exaggerate here:  I was hooked from the first chapter.  It was creepy and bizarre, and messed up in the best way.  I had to read the rest, just to see if it was as good as that first chapter, and I’ll be completely honest in saying I was prepared to eviscerate it if it wasn’t.  I hate when a book starts out amazing, then takes a slow train to Meh-town.  This one wasn’t even close.

The Silent Girls also runs head-first into difficult topics.  A lot of the plot revolves around women’s reproductive choices, abortion, and the fanaticism on both sides of the debate.  It’s not a pretty subject, and Rickstad doesn’t flinch.  

The supporting cast doesn’t feel as well-rounded as Rath.  I honestly can’t draw the line on that one though.  The story is pretty much all from Rath’s point of view, so we obviously won’t get into the others’ heads too much.  But Rachel is also pretty interesting in her own right.

My final thought is on the ending.  As a rule, I don’t like cliffhanger endings.  My usual reaction is along the lines of “Oh, Mr. Smarty-pants Author, you think since I bought this book, you’re going to trick me into buying the next one too!  Well, I’m not falling for it, so there!!!”  For some reason, I tend to take cliffhanger endings as a personal test of willpower.  Yes, I know, I have issues.

But the end of this one kind of got me.  Although I suspect the sequel will be a let-down (it almost seems to be heading into evil genius/mastermind/cliche territory), I’m more tempted than usual to give it a try.  Getting me to go against my own stubbornness is quite a feat.  

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a bottle of quality scotch)

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Butterfly Skin, by Sergey Kuznetsov

Short Take:  Sometimes, catching the bad guy isn’t the best part.

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I’ll be honest.  I didn’t have high hopes going into this one.  Crime thrillers that take place in other countries can sometimes be frustrating for me to read.  I’m used to my good old US of A rules and procedures, and sometimes, when reading a mystery that takes place elsewhere, I get annoyed with the way they can’t just put on their Criminal Minds hats and solve the damn thing.

But Butterfly Skin was different.  In this one, there’s so much wearing of the Criminal Minds hat that it’s almost too much at times.  I think that Sergey Kuznetsov read “Silence of the Lambs” and said to himself “You know, I could push this so much further.”  And oh, did he.

Ksenia is a rising star in the world of journalism.  At twenty-three, she is already a senior editor at the website evening.ru, a Russian news site.  She’s also heavily into the S portion of BDSM, and can only find release when in pain.  She keeps her personal and professional lives perfectly separate, until a serial killer begins stalking the streets of Moscow.

Ksenia’s fascination with the killer, which she expresses through long, thoughtful articles on the site, turns into his fascination with her, and from there, into a deadly cat and mouse game.  That sounds unbearably cliche, I know, but stick with me for a minute.

For starters, the setting (Moscow, present day) is so weirdly exotic and normal at the same time.  

I mean, I’ve watched a lot of youtube videos of crazy-awesome stuff that happens in Russia.  Usually there’s vodka involved, and some kind of explosive material, and lots of loud laughter, and people being thrown through the air at dangerous velocities while seeming to have the time of their lives.  And it always seemed to me that the Russians knew something about life that the rest of us may have missed, this kind of joy and adventure and big deep lust for experience that those of us who wither in cubicles for decades can only admire from the outside.

But Butterfly Skin showed me something else, something darker and more complex, a fatalism running beneath the outward jubilance, a sense of “eh, we could all be dead tomorrow, might as well have fun tonight.”  This is a book about a killer who does terrible things (and even a hardcore horror lover like me had trouble getting through some of the descriptions of murder and mutilation in this one), but it’s also a book about what it’s like to be a young woman on a path that looks great, but who never really knows if it’s the right one.

Ksenia has two close girlfriends, Marina and Olya, and through them, we see other people she might have been, or could yet become:  Marina is a single mother to a toddler whose father has long disappeared, Olya is a professional businesswoman who owns her own home and car.  Formerly promiscuous Marina has embraced motherhood to the exclusion of nearly everything else, Olya’s long-term affair with a married man can’t end any way but badly.  More than anything, this is a book about obsession.  

Ksenia is obsessed with the killer, but not in the way that most of us would be (seeing him brought to justice).  She is obsessed with the horrific things he does to women’s bodies.  In him, she seeks a kind of transcendent experience, being pushed beyond all of her previous limits of pain and pleasure.  It’s kinky, but not in a fun way.  

Did I mention that many of the descriptions made me cringe?  

The language of Butterfly skin is lush, bordering on purple prose, and there’s a rich vein of sensuality that runs alongside descriptions of removing body parts.  (Note: this was a translation from the original language; I can’t say what the “real” book sounds like.)  At times, it got a little dense, and a bit repetitive.  But there was still something so compelling about Butterfly Skin.

I probably sound kind of conflicted, and all over the map.  That’s really how I felt reading this book.  There was just so much to it.  So much beauty and ugliness all tied together, and joy and fear, and lust and rage.  Definitely one to check out if you want something darker and deeper, but absolutely not for the squeamish.

The Nerd’s Rating:  Four Happy Neurons (and a bottle of vodka because of course.)

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Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn

Short Take:  You know the high wire act where the guy rides a unicycle while juggling bowling pins that are on fire?  Ania Ahlborn did that.

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It was with great sadness that I heard of Ann Rule’s passing.  Her books were my first dip into the true crime genre, and The Stranger Beside Me is still one of the only books ever to actually keep me up at night.  So why am I writing this review instead of reviewing one of her works?  Because the main character of Within These Walls is also a true crime writer, and Ania Ahlborn has created a fascinating study of the writer’s relationship with his work.

To non-writers like me, telling a great story is a kind of magic, and I’ve heard many fiction writers say that part of them lives in the worlds they create.  So the logical conclusion becomes, what if the world you are writing about not only exists, but is terrifying and violent?  Can you live within that, and still keep your “real life” neat and orderly?  What if you feel like you have no alternative?  How far would you immerse yourself in that world to tell a great story, to write a career-making book?

Lucas Graham’s life is hitting the skids.  Once a best-selling true crime author, he’s watched his relationship with his wife go the way of his sales ranks: right into the toilet.  He can see his twelve year old daughter starting to drift away as well, and when he gets a letter from a death row inmate, it looks like just the rope that could save him from drowning.

And in pure horror-fiction tradition, Mr. Graham pays no mind to the idea that rope can hang you just as easily.

The letter he receives is from Jeffrey Halcomb, an enigmatic Charles Manson wannabe.  Thirty years ago, he formed his own little “family” consisting of neurotic rich girl Audra Snow and eight other people.  They all lived in Audra’s house, and they all died there.  Audra was murdered by Halcomb, and the rest of the family appeared to have committed suicide.  Halcomb was sent to death row, and kept his silence for decades, never revealing why the atrocity happened, until he writes to Louis.

Louis of course jumps at the chance to revive his career and possibly his relationship with his daughter.  He doesn’t think much of the catch, that they will have to move across the country to Pier Pointe, Washington, and live in the house where the deaths occurred for two months while he interviews Halcomb and writes his book.

But even when strange things start happening in the house, and more people involved in the case begin dying, Louis has to choose between his real life and his book.

This is another one of those books that’s hard to review, because I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s nearly impossible to say what was so cool about it without adding some detail.  So I’ll start by saying, I thought for sure that it would be a kind of predictable thriller, a Silence of the Lambs knockoff in which the criminal genius toys with the mind of the earnest person just trying to do their job.

And it wasn’t really like that at all.

I considered that it might go the way of the typical haunted house book, in which everyone makes it out alive and OK with maybe some nightmares.

Nope.

Don’t get me wrong:  there was some cat and mouse with Halcomb, and some haunting, but there was a lot more.  For one thing, Louis Graham is kind of an a-hole.  Yeah, I said it.  He’s self-absorbed and self-pitying, and that never looks good on anyone.  He’s too weak to be an antihero.  He seems to really want to fix his relationship with Virginia, but the siren song of his work never goes away.  What’s great is, even when you want to slap the hairs out of his nose, you still understand his choices for the most part.  He’s desperate, and that desperation is clouding his judgment badly.

We also get some really great characterization with Virginia, and especially with the tragic Audra Snow.  Interspersed with the present-day chapters, we see the events leading up to her death through her eyes, and the chapter names of these sections create an eerie countdown to her murder.

But the biggest surprise of all is in how Ms. Ahlborn handled the character of Jeffrey Halcomb.  I wanted so much more of this man, but we only get bits and pieces.  It’s a daring move, and one that could have failed and tanked the whole book.  But somehow, it works.  I wanted more, yes, but at the same time, I felt like I had seen almost enough, and sometimes, that’s plenty.

That’s not to say that Within These Walls is flawless.  The last few scenes before the epilogue felt a little messy and overcrowded, and pretty much every woman in this book is a victim or a villain.

But overall, this was a great surprise, and I did NOT see the end coming, which is my favorite kind of book.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some incense. Crazy cults love their incense.)

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Crazy Love You, by Lisa Unger

Short Take:  Uh… what just happened here?

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I think I’m getting cranky in my old age.  Or maybe it’s that I’m lazy, and I just don’t like to think too hard anymore.  Maybe my OCD is finally winning, and I just can’t be happy unless everything is wrapped up in a nice neat package, with the corners all taped down and the loops on the bow exactly the same size.

Take, for example, Crazy Love You.  This was a really, really, REALLY fun book up until the end.

Ian Paine’s life is one big raw deal.  As a child, he suffers through a terrible incident that ends with the death of his baby sister and his mother’s institutionalization.  His father tries to make sure he’s OK, but is one of those manly types who has a hard time with emotions.  A relentlessly bullied teenager, Ian turns to food and comic books for comfort.

And he turns to Priss – his one and only friend, confidant, lover, avenging angel, his everything, for a very long time.  Priss gets even with the bullies and unkind teachers for him.  She’s dark and angry, but she doesn’t care how much he weighs, or how much of a social outcast he is.  She’s also all he has.  He never questions the twisted roads she leads them both down.  Eventually, as an adult, Ian begins creating his own comic series “Fatboy and Priss” which becomes successful enough for him to move to a luxury apartment in Manhattan.

Priss moves as well, and the two still see each other occasionally.  But then Ian meets Megan.  Megan is, quite simply, good.  She’s working as a nanny, and actually really cares about the little boy she watches.  She’s kind, and pretty in a simple way, and open – everything Priss is not.  Ian falls head over heels in love with Megan, and she with him, and their lives couldn’t be any more perfect but for one thing:  Priss isn’t happy.  And when Priss isn’t happy, very bad things can happen.

There’s a lot of meat to this one.  We get flashbacks to when Ian was a lonely, furious teenager, and little drips of insight into who Priss is, interspersed with the scary and bizarre things that are happening to both Ian and Megan today.  Crazy Love You shines so hard in these parts.  Lisa Unger is fantastic at building these characters, and putting them in jeopardy, and making me flip pages faster and faster to get to the answers.

Ian is an unreliable narrator, and we don’t know if he’s lying or hallucinating or telling the honest-to-God truth throughout the book.  Priss is a cypher, maybe real, maybe not, maybe a delusion or a ghost or just a really mysterious person.  Megan is drawn to Ian for her own reasons that don’t necessarily make sense to anyone else.  What’s great about all of it is that the characters are so damn real.  From Megan’s compulsion to be a caretaker, to Ian’s anger and self-loathing, you really get a feel for who these people are, and even when they are behaving in ways you don’t agree with, their actions are exactly what you’d expect.

But none of the story clicks together in any kind of satisfying way by the end.  Had the first seven-eighths of Crazy Love You not been so great, I would probably be a lot more forgiving of the ending.  I’ve always thought that the open ending is a cop-out.  “Was it this, or was it that?  WE MAY NEVER KNOW.”  Ugh.  It’s not thought-provoking, or mysterious, it’s just ambiguous and a little lazy.  It’s a way to avoid having to tie up loose ends or fix inconsistencies.

But then again, damn, those were some great characters, and the pace was perfect, and the steadily increasing threats and assaults made Crazy Love You impossible to put down.  What the heck, I’d still recommend it for those reasons.


The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS

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Lie To Me, by David Martin

Short Take:  This might be the most cracked-out, violent, bizarre, hilarious, disturbing book I’ve read in a very long time.


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“He sits in the woods holding her hand.”  That’s about as innocuous a first line as they come.  Dude’s just chilling in the woods, holding a girl’s hand.  It sounds kind of nice, actually.

But the dude in question is a seriously messed-up person.  His name is Philip, and he just got out of prison.  The girl’s hand?  It used to belong to a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker, and he carries it everywhere.  And he’s not chilling in the woods, he’s hiding, watching the home of wealthy businessman Jonathan Gaetan and his beautiful young wife Mary.  When night falls, he breaks into the house, threatens and brutalizes them both, and when morning comes, Philip is gone and Jonathan is dead in the bathtub, savagely butchered.

Yet when Mary calls the police, she insists it was a suicide, and never mentions the intruder.  And that’s just the start of the craziness.

Theodore Camel, the cop investigating Jonathan’s death is, well, an a-hole.  He’s boozy and burned out and bitter and just wants to nap at his desk until he can collect his pension.  At one time, he was a hotshot known as The Detector because of an uncanny ability to persuade (read: bully) suspects into telling the truth.  Camel would have preferred to stay out of the whole thing, but given the high profile nature of the case, the higher-ups want him to dust off the old Detector act to interrogate Mary Gaetan.  He can tell that she’s lying, but she sticks to her story, that Jonathan cut himself nearly to pieces in the bathtub.

It’s the next day, when Jo-Jo Creek, Jonathan’s assistant, shows up with some new and interesting information that Camel finds himself wanting to solve this particular mystery.  Teaming up with his old partner, Alfred, he (almost against his will) takes on a case with more twists than a small intestine.

David Martin doesn’t just Go There.  He buys a house, moves in, and becomes the mayor of There.  There’s quite a lot of sexual sadism in this one.  Like, to the point that I think the phrase “cut it off” could be retired.  His writing style is some of the best I’ve seen, though.  There’s a lot of story in less than 300 pages, and no wasted words.  Every sentence is perfectly on point.  For example, when Camel meets Jo-Jo, this happens:  “‘I have some information,’ she announced. A lot of what she said came in the form of announcements.”

That, right there.  Two brief sentences, and you already know so much about the character.  That’s the difference between telling a story, even a good one, and serious word craftsmanship.  I was so caught up in the delicious story, and fantastic, if unlikeable, characters, that it didn’t dawn on me until I started this review that Lie To Me was first published in 1990.  I didn’t even notice the lack of cell phones and Internet in the detective’s toolbox.

And let me just say, Philip is one of the most fascinating bad guys I’ve come across.  He’s sick, he’s insane, he has zero limits.  He has a lifetime and a half’s worth of seriously awful stuff in his head, and the only thing you can be sure of with him is that no matter what you think he’s about to do, he’s going to do something worse.  But he’s also just not that smart.  It’s refreshing to read a character that is horrible and scary but also comically inept.  When Philip would fail to do something terrible (usually injuring himself in the process), I found myself cheering and giggling.  Hannibal Lecter he ain’t.   His missteps are hilarious… until they aren’t.

There are two major revelations by the end of Lie To Me, and I’m proud to say that I had figured one of them out.  The other one, however… whoa.  Also, ew.  There’s a final scene, after the mystery is solved, and the characters have all gone onto whatever happens after The End that just doesn’t square with the rest of the story.  In a lesser book, it would probably cost the author a neuron in my rating, but when the rest of a story is so fantastic, I’ll forgive him a few pages of questionable choices.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS.  

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My Sister’s Grave, by Robert Dugoni

Short Take:  This could have been just another fun, fluffy mystery novel, but it was SO MUCH BETTER.


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The archetype of the Female Detective rocks my socks, y’all.  In a world where anything that’s described as “feminine” or “like a girl” automatically means less-than, these characters can shoot, fight, run, curse, and detect just as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts.  They work harder to be taken seriously, but they still look fantastic in high heels and lipstick.  They’re ballsy and tough and have hot sex with hot guys.  They might take some abuse for being a woman in a man’s profession, but in the end, they will make their detractors eat those words, usually while handcuffed or being ridiculed by their colleagues.

In short, there’s this whole awesome trend of badass women in books, movies, and TV, and I think it’s fantastic.  So of course, I knew I would enjoy My Sister’s Grave, but I didn’t really have super-high hopes.  The title is seriously pretty bad.  I figured it would be pretty cliched, but what the heck, sometimes, it’s fun to read something where you can figure out the end and feel smart, you know?

Ok, I guess I’m not that smart, cause WHOA, I totally did not see that coming.

Tracy Crosswhite’s sister Sarah disappears one night while driving home.  Soon afterward, Edmund House, a convicted rapist, is tried and found guilty of her murder, despite the fact that her body has never been found.  Twenty years later, Tracy has become a detective in Seattle, and is still trying to find out exactly what happened to Sarah.  The evidence against House (who is still in prison) is flimsy at best, and his trial was a joke.  But without new evidence, there’s really nothing to go on.

Then Sarah’s body is found.

Tracy goes back to her childhood home, the small town of Cedar Grove, and teams up with an old friend (Dan O’Leary, who is now an attorney)  to get an innocent man out of prison, and to find out what really happened to Sarah.  She’ll get the answers that she’s been digging for, but in the process, she’ll set off a truly horrific chain of violent events.  And when I say violent, I mean VIOLENT.  The author’s restraint throughout the first 85% or so of this book makes the ending that much more shocking.

Robert Dugoni has a way of flirting with stereotypes but never completely embracing them that elevates this book.  For example, the small-town sheriff, Roy Calloway, is almost but not quite exactly the corrupt redneck Boss Hogg type.  Tracy is everything I said above about the archetypal female detective, but she also isn’t quite so perfect and invincible.  In this case, her single-minded obsession with solving the crime actually does more harm than good.  Being lulled by characters who are exactly what you expect, only to have them veer off in a different direction, is fantastic.

The pacing is a little weird, but it works.  There are a few chapters that feel draggy (usually dealing with Sarah’s other cases in Seattle), but it’s a really effective reminder of just how much real life happens, even when there’s something else that you think is much more important that you want to focus on.

And finally, the setting is really, really good.  I also live in a small town that’s been dying for the last couple of decades, and I think that Dugoni really captured that sense of people who know that things aren’t good, but who are afraid to try to change anything and lose what little bit of a livelihood they still have.

Definitely a must-read for people who love a great mystery, regardless of the gender of the detective.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS

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