Missing Parts, by Lucinda Berry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sister, by Louise Jensen

Short Take:  “A psychological thriller with a brilliant twist you won’t see coming.”  Challenge. Accepted.

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I have yet another shocking confession to make (when did reviews become my own personal tell-all?? Anyway….): I read a lot of “psychological thrillers.” A. Lot. Like, people don’t like to watch mystery movies with me, because I can usually figure out the “big twist” about halfway through. Ok, ok, ok, in the interest of honesty, my “NAILED IT!! NAILED IT!! LOOK HOW SMART I AM!” song and dance might have a little something to do with that, but the point stands.

I can pretty much always see the twist coming. And although it might seem like a superpower to most normal people, this particular gift is also a bit of a curse, in that I tend to not be surprised nearly as often as I would like, and I think that cuts into a lot of the enjoyment that I would get from books and movies.

So, you can imagine my reaction when I saw the subtitle to The Sister, quoted above, but please, let me say it again: “A psychological thriller with a brilliant twist you won’t see coming.” That’s either a bit of marketing genius, or an act of hubris up there with Babe Ruth pointing out exactly where his next home run would land. Either way, with a target audience of people like me, Ms. Jensen made a gutsy move.

But did she pull it off?

Before I give the answer, I’ll explain a bit of the plot of the story (pffftt, and some people think writing suspense is hard!)

Grace’s life is finally getting back on track. After a childhood tragedy that robbed her of her parents, the disappearance and later death of her best friend Charlie, and a slew of other disturbing and depressing incidents throughout her childhood and teen years, she is living with her boyfriend Dan in a lovely little cottage, working in a job she loves, and is even starting to make a kind of peace with her past.

But then things start to unravel. When she tries to find Charlie’s father (something her friend always wanted to do but never managed), she instead meets Charlie’s half-sister Anna. In short order, Anna is living with Grace and Dan, becoming the best friend that Grace has needed since Charlie’s death. But when it seems that someone is stalking Grace, when Dan begins acting strangely, when the past starts colliding with the present, it becomes clear that Anna might not be who she says she is at all.

But Neeeeeerdddddd, I can hear all of you screaming in frustration. Did you figure out the “brilliant twist” or not?!?!?!

To which I would have to reply: which one?

Truthfully, the author has jammed so many twists into this book, that distinguishing one of them as the “brilliant” one is just not possible. A few of them, yes, I saw. Whether it was because they were a little obvious to draw attention from the BIG twist, I don’t know. I’m still not really clear on which twist was supposed to be the main one.

So to clarify a bit, hopefully without spoilers: Anna’s real identity, and the tragedy in her life that set everything in motion were both bits that I did not see coming. The latter event, however, like several others in The Sister, just felt gratuitous.

There were so many red herrings, and so many, many, MANY incidents of Grace being harassed, stalked, toyed with, drugged, poisoned, lied to, assaulted, threatened and so on and so on and so forth. What was at its heart a pretty good story turned into a stage show by an incompetent magician shouting “Look over there! Whatever could that be?!?!” while trying to pull an angry pigeon out of his sleeve. It’s cool when you see pigeon, but by the time you do, you’re pretty much over the show in general.

Grace was so frustratingly passive and meek and just plain stupid at times. Her method of coping with all of the above incidents is to wash a sleeping pill down with wine (seemingly several times a day) and wait for either the problem to go away, or for someone else to deal with it for her. Every time there was a big red flag being practically shoved up her nose, she grabbed her chemical security blanket and opted to ignore it. So it was hard to feel much of anything for her during the book’s final climax and Big Reveal Scene.

There’s also the fact that all of the people who cause the conflicts in the story really aren’t that close to Grace, and it doesn’t make much sense for her to be involved in, well, pretty much any of it. You could cut the character of Grace out pretty much entirely, let Charlie be alive and the main character of the story, and it would make a lot more sense.

So to sum it up: No, I didn’t see the “brilliant twist” coming. But it takes more than a good twist to make a good story.
The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and some wine. A lot of wine.)

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Survival, by Rhonda Hopkins

Short take:  It had a lot of potential.

Give your brain a snack!

Quick note:  I was gifted a free copy of this story in exchange for an honest review.

The Zombie Apocalypse.  It’s huge right now.  Books, movies, tv, the undead are everywhere.  Which means that there’s very little new material to be found anymore.  Zombies used to walk slowly, then they moved fast…. and that’s about all the genre has progressed in the last few decades.  So I’ll admit that while I was skeptical going into this one (another zombie book?  really?) I thought the premise was a fun one – normal person having to team up with terrible co-worker to save her sister – and so I dove in.

Survival opens right in the middle of the action, as Sarah and her twin sister Dana are being held in a basement somewhere in Fort Worth, Texas, by a few men with guns who are threatening to feed them to the zombies.  Sarah manages to escape, and, promising to return for Dana, seeks out her workplace arch nemesis.  Meredith may be a difficult coworker, but her husband has lots of guns, and Sarah sure could use a few of those.

Upon arriving at Meredith’s, however, Sarah finds out that Meredith has cancer and is currently suffering from a particularly brutal round of chemotherapy.  She loads up Meredith, and the guns, and goes out into a new and terrifying world where she needs to save her sister and possibly the rest of the human race.

So.  What did I think of this story?  As I mentioned above, the zombie genre has been done to undeath.  For a story to really hit me as a standout, it needs to have something different.  Because the basic plot of all zombie stories is the same (the few humans that are left have to fight the zombies and sometimes each other for survival), the “oh, this is GOOD” point for me tends to be well-drawn characters, cool dialogue, maybe an unexpected twist or two, something that I haven’t already seen a dozen times.  And I hate to say it, but I just didn’t get that with Survival.

There’s a lot of exterior action in this one (zombies!  gore!), but the characters have no internal world.  For example, Sarah is the heroine of the story, but all we know about her for 95% of the story is that she has a twin sister, and she used to work with Meredith, whom she didn’t like.  It’s stated at one point that Meredith used to make her work life difficult, and make Sarah feel inferior, but we’re never given any examples of this.    And she’s also some kind of… action hero?  Maybe?  She knows how to fight and kick bad guys’ butts and use guns and break things, but not till the very last scene do we get a tiny bit of background on how Sarah learned some of the ninja skills she uses.

It’s also not until the last page that we find out where Sarah and Meredith worked and what they did.  It’s still never entirely clear if they were in competition with each other or if Meredith was the one who ALWAYS took the last yogurt out of the fridge or didn’t bother refilling the coffee pot or cleaned her teeth at her desk or any number of other things that drive people crazy when they are forced to spend hours a day in close proximity.   And other than the fact that Meredith was nasty because she was jealous (spoiler alert!  Everyone loves Sarah because of course they do, she’s perfect), we still don’t get a feel for the history that would’ve made the partnership between these two interesting.  

Meredith’s cancer also seems awkwardly shoved in.  Were Meredith still healthy, or at least feisty and rude, it would’ve created an interesting dynamic between the two women, but immediately Sarah jumps into the role of caretaker and protector, and Meredith limply agrees.  There’s no tension, no “Oh I am so going to leave this beyotch for the zombies if she says ONE MORE WORD about her marble countertops…”  Nothing.  

I feel that Ms. Hopkins had a really great setup here.  Although it is kind of formulaic, the “people who can’t stand each other have to team up to accomplish something important” thing can be a lot of fun.  When the people involved bicker, they can bring some humor to the situation, or toss out exposition, or do both in a way that feels organic.  

For example, had Meredith started doing… whatever it is that Meredith does that Sarah can’t stand, Sarah could’ve thrown back something along the lines of “You know, when I was a kid my cousin Brian taught me twenty-seven ways to break a kneecap, and I haven’t used 26 of them yet today.  Unless you’d like to make it 25, I’d cut the crap right now!”  (*Nerd’s Note:  I fully admit that there are many good reasons why I’m not a writer.  This paragraph should be Exhibit A.)

In the end, I feel like there was a lot more story in the author’s mind than what made it onto the page, and it suffered for that.
The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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The Family Tree, by John Everson

Short Take:  Attack of the Mary Sue.

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I keep telling myself, “Nerd, stay away from the best-of lists.  They are always disappointing.”  But then my self starts whining, “Awwwww, come onnnnnnnnnnn, it looks soooooooo goooooooood!!!  Let’s just tryyyyyyyyy it, pleaaaaaaaaaase?”  And eventually, I give in to the whining, and sure enough, I’m right, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t continue doing the same darn thing and letting random websites tell me what I should be reading.  Because sometimes I find a delicious hidden treat.  Unfortunately, The Family Tree is not one of those.

Scott Belvedere is living and working in Chicago.  He’s a single guy, not super successful with the ladies, with what seems to be a decent career  His life is interrupted when he receives notice that he has inherited The Family Tree Inn.  It’s a bed and breakfast type place in rural Virginia that has been passed from Belvedere to Belvedere for well over a hundred years, and he’s the last one.

Having no clue of his ancestry or the inn, he travels to Virginia to check it out.  There he finds a beautiful old inn, built around a huge, ancient tree.  The tree is special, as its sap, when consumed, can heal wounds and grant long life.  But nothing wonderful comes without a sacrifice, and the tree’s gifts are no exception.

The plot was actually fairly simple and straightforward, with some decent action pieces.  I usually like a fair amount of complexity in my brain candy, but the brevity was a good thing in this book. Mainly because not a lot happens.  It felt like 75% of the book was just self-inserting wish fulfillment.  The characters are mostly very flat, especially Scott.  The few sentences I wrote above are pretty much all we ever learn of him.

Most of the time when we see Scott, he’s busy having sex with every attractive female character in the book, over and over.  I’m not anti-sex-scene by any means, but when the characters have zero personality, and the plot is mostly telegraphed from the beginning, and it’s just hook up after hook up after hook up with impossibly flawless, beautiful women, it’s less like a horror novel and more like someone’s sweaty fantasy.

It’s nearly impossible to have a good book without having good characters.  The Family Tree has a decent (if mostly predictable) plot, but that really just isn’t enough.  When Scott and one of the female characters fall in love, it’s obvious that it’s because the plot demands it.  You know when you’re watching a movie, and the characters fall in love, and it’s obvious that the actors really have zero chemistry at all?  But they have to do what the script says, and in the end, it’s not very enjoyable to watch.  It’s like that.

I never got a sense of who these people were, why they would care so much for each other, what the attraction was beyond the same physical connection he had with the other women in the book.  If anything, she seemed rather naive and excited by the idea of living in a big city, and he was OK with that.  Not exactly the stuff fairy tales are made of.

The Nerd’s Rating:   Two Happy Neurons

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The Grin of the Dark, by Ramsey Campbell

Short Take:  So much potential.

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Ramsey Campbell is one of those horror authors that horror fans seem to really love, but I just can’t get in to.  I tried Incarnate a couple of years ago after seeing rave reviews from some other bloggers I admire, and I thought that it was OK, but not spectacular.  I figured that Campbell just wasn’t for me, and moved on.

Then I read a “Best Horror Novels of the Millenium” list, and there he was at #7, with The Grin of the Dark.  Since I’d already read most of what was on the list, I decided to give Ramsey Campbell one more try.  Plus, clowns are freaky, and so are silent movies, and this seemed like a REALLY cool concept.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I never have any luck with “Best-Of” lists, right?

Simon Lester is a writer whose career has taken a sharp turn downward.  He’s working in a gas station, and trying to put together a life with his girlfriend Natalie and her seven-year-old son, Mark, despite the difficult relationship he has with her well-off parents, Warren and Bebe.  It’s an enormous gift then, when one of his former professors shows up and offers him a job.  Simon will be researching an obscure silent movie star, Tubby Thackeray, and will receive a very nice paycheck.

Simon understandably jumps at the offer, but as always, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.  While researching Tubby, Simon learns some disconcerting facts:  namely, that everyone who watches his movies or live performances goes insane.

The Grin of the Dark has a few genuinely creepy scenes.   The circus that Simon and Mark attend is probably one of the best things I’ve read in a horror novel.  You know that feeling, in a dream, where you are scared but you don’t know exactly why?  It was like that.

Which is why the rest of the book was such a letdown.

Reading The Grin of the Dark was like following a helium balloon around a room.  It bobs randomly, bouncing here and there, sometimes looking like it’s about to drift into something sharp and pop, but still always circles back to the same place.

As Simon goes deeper into his research, he begins to lose his mind.  We are reassured of this fact repeatedly.  Every interaction he has with another person involves a few of the same features.  He starts to see them as a chubby clown, he hears gibberish that they aren’t saying, he starts talking in gibberish himself, there may or may not be a clown face slithering around, and either he or they or both begin to grin uncontrollably.  He never remembers these encounters the way other people do.

Over and over and over and over and over.  The repetition was mind-numbing.  Any emotional response I had to these passages turned into “again?  Really?  C’mon, I GET IT.  Can we move on?”

The characters aren’t particularly well-written, to the point that I found myself frequently flipping back and forth to remember who was who – they’re indistinguishable from each other.  Also, none of them are especially likeable, which makes it hard to care what happens to them.

There’s also a protracted argument with an Internet troll who can’t spell very well.  This becomes significant in the last few pages, but after so many seemingly-meaningless message board transcripts of movie-title minutiae, I was barely skimming the posts.

Finally, the ending was just bad.  It might be that I had mentally checked out of the book about 150 pages before the actual end, but it really made very little sense.  Or I should say, it mostly made sense, except for one huge gaping plot hole that either involves time travel or some other aspect of Simon’s madness that wasn’t mentioned until the last page.

But still…. clowns, man.  And silent movies, with their weird jerky movements and over-acted facial expressions and super dark makeup and strange disturbing early special effects.  Both of these are enough to give a person a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, and marrying the two was a really cool idea.

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins

Short Take:  No Gone Girl.


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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

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Night Visions, by Thomas Fahy

Short Take:  A book about insomnia that is also a cure for it.

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Sleep and I have had a long and difficult relationship.  There are family legends about three-year-old me getting out of bed to go exploring in the middle of the night.  Every night.  It reached the point that my dad would sleep in a recliner in my bedroom doorway to catch me as I went cruising past.  It didn’t get much better as I got older, and it’s still not unusual for me to get up at 2 AM, read for a while or watch a movie, and maybe, eventually, pass back out for an hour or so before work.

What I’m getting at is that I’m pretty familiar with insomnia, and the havoc it causes with, well, pretty much every aspect of life.  So when I was perusing a list of psychological horror and saw Night Visions, I figured I would love it.

I didn’t.

Night Visions is a big sprawling mess of a book.  There are two stories happening here.  One is the present-day story of Samantha and Frank, two former lovers who are trying to solve a disappearance-turned-murder in the present day.  Samantha has severe insomnia and is taking part in an experimental treatment which seems to have two pretty lousy side effects:  she is having horrific visions of murder scenes, and the people involved in the study are being murdered.

The second plot, interwoven throughout, is the story of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and a curse surrounding its creation? Maybe?  The details are a little vague.  But the gist of it is that the curse is passed on when a cursed person’s blood is mixed with their victim’s, and it causes the person who is cursed (cursee?) to murder people while sleepwalking.  So there were like a dozen scenes of people trying to commit murder and managing to get stabbed themselves. There were so many secondary characters in these scenes, and the time jumped around so much, it was hard to keep it all straight.

There were also a lot of references to the death of St. Peter, but I’m not really sure how it tied in to the rest of the story.  Some of the victims were killed in a similar way, but it seemed really random and meaningless to the rest of the story.   For all it added, the various possessed murderers could’ve been performing a live-action game of Clue.  There’s also the insomnia angle, but again, not sure how that plays in.  Does the curse only affect people who have it?  And does the music make the cursed people start killing, or is part of the curse just that you really really like the Variations?

The present-day stuff wasn’t much more coherent.  The time period seems to be all over the place.  People use cell phones, and it seems like there’s at least one meeting that happens over Skype, but crime scene photographers are still using the kind of flash bulbs that pop.  Sam and Frank are not police officers, have absolutely no authority to be involved in any investigation, but are able to go into multiple crime scenes and poke around.  I’m not a cop, but I watch a lot of SVU, and that seems like a pretty big no-no.

So we have a couple dozen characters, and a lot of murders, and a curse, and a piece of music, and St. Peter, and Sam and Frank and visions that don’t seem to serve any purpose at all other than to provide an opportunity to describe a murder scene twice.  Oh, and an ending that was a pretty obvious sequel set-up, but I don’t know where the author could possibly go from here.

Thomas Fahy clearly had a lot of cool ideas, but I think this book would have been much better if he had used less of them, and developed them more thoroughly.

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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