The Dilemna, by B. A. Paris

Short Take: The most depressing episode of Three’s Company EVER.

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

Hello my nerdlings! I’m back after a long-ish absence, which I don’t have any good reason for other than a general lack of motivation, and maybe a bit of CERM (Current Events Related Malaise, wherein everything is terrible all the time and blathering about whatever I’ve read seems equal parts pointless and disrespectful to the people who are Dealing With Real Stuff). But I’m physically incapable of keeping my opinions to myself for any substantial length of time, so here we are. Let’s dive in, shall we?

We meet Livia and Adam, happily-ish married for a couple of decades, on the morning of Livia’s FORTIETH BIRTHDAY PARTY, and yes, it must be shouted from the rooftops, because this is LIVIA’S PERFECT DAY. She didn’t get to have a wedding that young girls dream about so she’s going all-out for this party. She’s saved for years, planned every detail of the catering and music and whatnot, and it has to be PERFECT. 

Her family and friends humor her a lot more than I probably would. I just couldn’t relate to a 40 year old woman who demands to be celebrated to that extent. Maybe because I’m old, and birthdays don’t feel like a Big Thing anymore, maybe because I don’t like being the center of attention and the thought of dozens of people staring & taking photos while I just want to eat the cake that’s currently covered in tiny flames is the stuff of nightmares.  With a great husband, smart healthy kids who’ve made it to adulthood, a decent income, and a lovely home, why so much focus on the one thing you’ve been denied?  There was just something so childish and bratty about Livia’s IT’S FINALLY MY DAY attitude.

Anyway.

Because The Dilemma is billed as a thriller, there needs to be some kind of great big Thing Going Wrong, and we are actually handed two of them: in the titular storyline, Adam finds out something horrible that may or may not be true. Sure, he could probably just contact someone who knows and find out for sure but this is the kind of thing that would destroy Livia’s life, or even worse, her FORTIETH BIRTHDAY PARTY. Should he find out for sure? Because if it’s true, he would have to tell her, but the longer he stays dumb, the less responsibility he has to take for telling or not telling Livia.

Meanwhile, Livia ALSO has a secret that may not ruin Adam’s life, but will definitely upset him a whole lot if he finds out which could also throw a wrench in the FORTIETH BIRTHDAY PARTY extravaganza of perfection. So of course she can’t tell him, at least not till after the party, because PRIORITIES, PEOPLE. Again, this is a forty year old woman.

So as we follow Jack & Larry… er, Adam & their son Josh readying the house, or Livia heading to the Regal Beagle for pre-party drinks with Chrissy & Janet (ok, FINE, going to a local spa with some of her friends for massages and whatnot), the miscommunications pile up, and more of the troubled early days of their marriage are described. And both Jack and Livia fret over their own secrets and coverups, and it’s blatantly awful. Because the things they are carrying are bleak and grim and it’s just a big pile of unrelenting misery without even the charm of Mrs. Roper’s flowing caftans to break it up.

In the end of course, Everything Is Revealed, and all the terrible stuff comes out, and Livia’s perfect FORTIETH BIRTHDAY PARTY is served up with a side order of life-destroying awful. So, yay? 

I just couldn’t find anything to like about this book. As I said earlier, Livia is a Bridezilla without a wedding, and Adam is a wishy-washy wimp who pretends that he’s doing his wife a favor by letting her have her dream party that will be forever tied to the worst events of her life. That’s some next-level passive-aggressive cruelty. Their friends are all equally terrible in differing ways, and the kids are basically props. The one adult child who makes their own decisions is vilified for it.

I believe Ms. Paris was trying to build suspense by not letting the truth out till the very end, but the final result is an ultra-depressing deep-dive into the minds of a narcissist & her enabler. It’s not fun or enjoyable, there’s no payoff other than finally knowing what actually happened, and the people who started the story unhappy and dissatisfied end it even more so. 

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and some vodka on the patio. I am ready for some sunshine and peace, for a few minutes, anyway.

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You Are Not Alone, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Short Take: Should have been better than it is.

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

Hello, my sweet nerdlings! It’s a freezing and snowy morning, and I don’t want to crawl out from either the warm blanket or piping-hot laptop, but alas! That kitchen won’t clean itself, and if I want to eat breakfast at some point, I’m going to have to cut a path through the dirty dishes first. And believe you me, I absolutely plan on eating breakfast. Maybe a couple of times.

So let’s get on with it, shall we?

When Shay witnesses beautiful, young Amanda Evinger kill herself by jumping in front of a subway train, it’s one more lousy thing in a week that’s been full of them. She’s in love with her roommate, but he’s in love with someone else and planning on moving her in, meaning Shay is about to be homeless. Despite being a fairly talented statistician, she’s only able to find temp jobs, so joblessness is about to join homelessness and insurancelessness and all the other -lessnesses that are way too common in this country.  

But even though the list of terrible things is long & ugly, Amanda’s death creates a strange kind of bright spot in Shay’s life. Understandably traumatized by the horrific suicide, Shay wants to learn more about what led Amanda to that point. She attends Amanda’s memorial service and there, she meets Amanda’s impossibly perfect friends, sisters Cassandra and Jane Moore. Super wealthy, incredibly gorgeous, kind and generous, they take Shay under their collective wing and soon, everything is better.

They hook Shay up with a sweet apartment-sitting gig, a better job, and a makeover that will bring all the boys to her yard. 

There’s just one teensy tiny little problem: the Moore sisters are part of a small, tightly knit circle of friends who have one nefarious purpose that I won’t spoil here, and they just might be using Shay for their own reasons.

Although the story is fun & twisty enough, the characters are way too flat. Everyone is super rich (except Shay), a brilliant mastermind & expert in their field (except Shay) and flawlessly beautiful (including Shay). They do a few interesting things plot-wise, but the motivation for those things is a handful of hollow pop-psych cliches.. They have all of the advantages (wealth, a perfect figure) without any of the effort (long hours, never eating a cookie).

And of course, the only imperfect character is Shay. But she’s so whiny & helpless & clueless throughout most of the book that it’s hard to get behind her and cheer her on. Her silent pining over her roommate/BFF is just bad, a trope that needs to die already. If the genders were reversed, it would inspire a thousand moronic “friend zone” memes and encourage creepy “nice guys” to just hang in there, she’ll come around.

Honestly, after An Anonymous Girl, I had much higher hopes for these authors.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and some paper plates, because seriously? I wash the dishes, put food on them, and wash them again till I die? That can’t be right, can it?)

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The Look-Alike, by Erica Spindler

Short Take: Is Erica Spindler OK?

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

Hello my beloved nerdlings, and welcome to the space in the calendar where New Year’s Resolutions go to die. It’s bitterly cold, the Christmas lights are all gone, and the only spot of color in the stores is the Valentine’s Day candy. In short, it’s the kind of blah that only chocolate (or a really good book) can fix. 

And unfortunately, I’m all out of chocolate, and this week’s book is… well… not great.

Sienna Scott, college freshman, is walking home one snowy night when she literally trips and falls over a murder victim. Traumatized by the scene, and further distressed by her mother’s paranoid delusions, Sienna goes to London to live (hide?) with her grandmother for the next decade.

Upon her return, everything seems to be the same. Her mom is still deeply mentally ill, Madison Robie’s murder is still unsolved, her brother Bradley is still a successful real estate developer, and the kindly cop she befriended the night of the murder is still investigating it.

But beneath that veneer of same-old, everything is different. Her father has died, her brother’s marriage has failed, and there’s a hot house flipper living across the street who may have a few secrets of his own. And as more truth about that night trickles out, it looks like Sienna, not Madi may have been the intended victim.

Before I dive into why The Look-Alike didn’t work for me, I need to digress for just a moment, so please stay with me, ok duckies? 

Did anyone else obsessively read VC Andrews books back in the day? The Flowers in the Attic series blew EVERYONE away, and then there was Heaven and Dawn and Ruby and…. Wait. For some reason, which I only found out much later when the internet became A Thing, all of these series were kind of the same. That reason being, of course, that Virginia Andrews had died many years before, and her name was being used by a ghostwriter who used that first amazing series as a template to essentially write the same series over and over again.

And that’s what leads me back to the question I asked at the beginning of this review – is Erica Spindler OK? Because it’s been a minute since I’ve read one of her books, but from what I remember, they are fun and twisty and unpredictable, and The Look-Alike is a slog through every thriller cliche out there. 

I won’t spoil things, but anyone who’s read more than a few murder mysteries will have it solved by the halfway mark. The title is misleading, there’s no actual look-alike, just two girls wearing the same color coat. Every character except Sienna (more on her below) is a hollow collection of cliches, more worn-out than the seat of my nerd-nest.

And oh, my sweet nerdlings, Sienna is LITERALLY THE WORST. She’s whiny and self-pitying, and so so so gullible. She believes whatever anyone tells her, and spends entirely too much time worrying that she might have the same mental illness as her mother. For real, every single chapter has at least one (and often) several paragraphs devoted to the subject, and if that doesn’t sound too bad, I’d like to point out that there are seventy-one chapters’ worth of repeating “omg what if I’m sick like my mom I think I might be imagining things but I wonder if I’m in danger but if I think I’m in danger then I’m probably sick like my mom maybe I just need to cry some more I haven’t done that in like ten minutes but my mom cries maybe I’m just like her….”

Every single plot point was so predictable, and somehow dated, like an 80’s era soap opera. Even the language felt stilted, like a drunk angry man saying his girlfriend was “stepping out on” him. I’ve spent a bit of time around drunk angry men who’ve been cheated on, and believe me when I say, they word things quite differently. And of course everyone (except the bad guy) lives happily ever after. (spoiler alert?)

Which brings me back to, “Is Erica Spindler OK?” Because it feels like someone else is using her name to sell a paint-by-numbers thriller (one romance, two red herrings, etc.) that isn’t especially thrilling.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a big old bowl of chili, because the food was the real hero in this book.)

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The Lies We Tell, by Debra Webb

Short Take: Is this how straight guys feel in strip clubs?

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

Y’all it’s 86 degrees here, and it’s September. WHY is it 86 degrees in September? All my feeds are full of scarves and pumpkin spice, and while I am not into either of those, I am also not into 86 degrees in September. Everyone’s allergies are going nuts, which is just compounding the misery of the heat.

And speaking of misery, let’s talk about The Lies We Tell, shall we?

This is the second (correction – it’s book #2.5, there’s an introductory novella) book in The Undertaker’s Daughter series, and while I genuinely enjoyed the first one-point-five books, Ms. Webb jumped the shark with this blatant cash-grab.

Warning!!! The following contains spoilers for the previous books in the series, so if you haven’t read them yet, tread lightly!

Rowan DuPont’s life has been a rough one. From the drowning death of her twin sister when they were twelve, to her mother’s subsequent suicide, and her own failed suicide attempts, she has finally found a bit of peace when it’s all upended again. In her 40’s, she learns that her best friend and mentor, Julian Addington is in fact a prolific serial killer who has killed over 100 people, and he also was having an affair with Rowan’s mom, and he has just killed Rowan’s dad, leaving her the only surviving member of the family and thus the heir to the DuPont Funeral Home.

Of course her psychiatry background means that she can slide right into the undertaker role, presumably because things like licensing and certification aren’t things in Winchester, Tennessee, and it also qualifies her to jump into investigations with the coroner and chief of police, Billy, with whom she’s been exchanging goo-goo eyes (but nothing else) for over 30 years.

It also means that she somehow, over the course of DECADES, fails to figure out that her bestie is a serial killer who’s obsessed with her, her parents’ marriage was not a good one, her mother had a whole secret life that Rowan didn’t even bother looking at till thirty years after her death, and her most trusted employees are committing all manner of crimes right under her nose. We’re supposed to believe that she has no life because she’s so Committed To Her Investigation Work, but she’s really really terrible at it. She’s so preoccupied with her work that she fails to dress for the weather or buy or eat food ALL THE TIME. We’re told no less than five times at different points that Rowan wishes she had brought a coat or sweater or should probably eat lunch but oops too much more important brain stuff happening. But the brain stuff doesn’t happen. The original serial killer is still alive and well and obsessed, she never really digs into her parents’ stuff other than some journal-reading, other people have to point out the employees’ misdeeds to her. 

But she DOES manage to do things like order inventory, and get her assistant’s printer moved, so there’s that, I guess?

In The Lies We Tell, a body brought to the funeral home for processing has a tattoo that seems to connect him to Rowan’s mother. Rowan’s subsequent discoveries somehow manage to be both completely, ridiculously, impossibly over-the-top, and completely pointless at the same time. There are a few juicy hints about Rowan’s mother’s past (again: it’s been 30 years, shouldn’t a brilliant person like Rowan have dissected at least SOME of that by now?), but no answers other than that every person involved in any investigation ever is super inept (SO MANY killers running around doing their thing for decades, like a whole network, it’s insane even for Tennessee).

And in the end, there are no answers, the whole book is just an extended setup for another book, which we all know I hate, almost as much as I hate the Criminal Mastermind cliche. Seriously, if a dude is smart enough to kill dozens of people without getting caught, why is he borderline homeless? Shouldn’t he have figured out how to steal some money along the way?

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a peanut butter sandwich, so I can also pretend to be a super-busy genius.)

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Violet, by Scott Thomas

Short Take: A loving ode to housework.

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

Good morning Nerdlings! I recently had a life-altering experience. I have apparently lived a whole lot of adult years without ever making oatmeal no-bake cookies, and now, I’m afraid, there’s no going back. These little chewy chocolate peanut butter flavor bombs may just be the perfect food. Breakfast? Sure! Dessert? Oh heck yeah. Quick energy snack when trying to power through a dull book? I’LL TAKE THREE. Unfortunately, my pants are not happy with my newfound love, but some books require copious amounts of sugar. Exhibit A: Violet.

The town of Pacington, Kansas used to be a tourist destination for one reason: the beautifully named Lost Lake, where summer visitors enjoy fishing, swimming, and boating in its crystal clear waters. However, Lost Lake didn’t always exist – it formed when a worker accidentally broke through an underground spring, and flooded part of the town, killing two workers. In recent years, however, the local economy hasn’t been great, the town is becoming more shabby than old-fashioned, and Pacington seems to be dying.

For Kris Barlow Lost Lake is much more than a pretty body of icy cold water with an odd roof sticking out of it. As a young child, it’s where her family spent idyllic summers until the final one, when her mother died an agonizingly slow death of cancer in the bedroom of their lakefront house. Kris’s father, grief-stricken, never returned to the house, choosing to let it rot rather than relive the memories of that last summer.

Now in her mid-40’s, after the sudden death of her husband, Kris decides to take her traumatized eight-year-old daughter Sadie to the lake house for a summer in hopes that the happy place of her own childhood will help Sadie heal from the loss of her own father.

Duckies, do I need to tell you that living near a drowned town rarely goes well for heartbroken children? 

What follows is a fairly cliche ghost story, told in an excruciatingly slow pace. We get two scenes of actual story, then literally 100 pages of Kris and Sadie cleaning the house. Sanding boards, dusting counters, and for some REAL excitement (I guess) washing windows.

The rest of Violet isn’t much better. Kris’s brain is flooding (see what I did there?) with things she sort-of remembers but would rather forget, but it’s nothing that a big heaping helping of prescription drug abuse won’t fix. Sadie is content to chill with her imaginary (suuuuuure) friend while Kris is mostly passed out in between washing bedding and making grilled cheese.

Whenever Kris and Sadie venture into town and interact with the locals, there are the obligatory hints that Things Are Not Right with Pacington, but these are few and far between. The characters themselves are little more than a loose assemblage of tropes – the eccentric guy, the tragic couple, the elderly woman who knows the local history.  But really, who needs a story when we can read about bracing a railing? 

It all leads up to your generic ghost story climax with flashing lightning and a struggle in the water, but by that point, I just wanted it to be over. Other than the main character being a veterinarian as opposed to a writer (seriously, why are protagonists in ghost stories always writers?) there was not one single aspect of this story that made it different from a few dozen others.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a grilled cheese, hold the Xanax. I will take the wine, however. And maybe one more oatmeal no-bake.)twohappyneurons

The Automation, by BLA & GB Gabbler

Short Take: To quote Poe (1), “It’s a wonderful idea… but it doesn’t work.”

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

Do you ever look back and wish you’d learned more in school? I don’t mean all the stuff that they teach you, that nobody ever pays attention to or uses later in life, like cell mitosis or algebra or drivers ed? (2)

I wish we had learned more of the cool classic literature, like mythology from all over the world, or the King Arthur legends, but since I live in a small town in the rust belt, we got Ethan Frome (3), auto shop, and relentless bullying. I grew up in a world where “classical” was a synonym for “as boring as humanly possible”, at least according to the local board of education.

So I wish we’d learned more of the cool stuff, but fortunately, there are people like the pseudonymous BLA, who deep-dive into alllllllll the awesome stuff, and take it to crazy directions.

Odys (no, it’s not short of Odysseus, quit asking) Odelin and his twin sister Odissa have a quiet life together. They share an apartment, consume copious amounts of coffee and cigarettes, and collect generous payouts from their father’s will every so often.

But one day, when Odys is out walking, he is confronted by an old man who introduces himself as Pepin, insists that Odys take an old coin, and then blows his brains out in the middle of the street.

And that’s just the start of the weirdness.

The coin is actually an Automaton, an immortal being created by the god of fire Hestus. An Automaton bonds with its Master (now Odys), can transform between a human shape and a small metal object, and turn anything into gold.

Now, this sounds like a pretty good deal (4), but there are a few teensy drawbacks. For one, the Automaton draws its energy from its Master, meaning that Masters are often exhausted, and it slows down the aging process for its Master, meaning that Masters will have to watch everyone they know die. And then there’s the thing where there are only nine Automatons (5) in existence, and one evil-ish Master is trying to collect them all, so the other Masters have to band together to protect themselves and their demigod-ish servants.

It’s a really, really fantastic concept. The Automatons are very cool, along with the rules of their existence, the backstory, and all of it. But it’s just not told very well.

From the start, the author has inserted themselves in the story, as The Narrator, and the editor (Gabbler) does so as well through a series of footnotes in which they make sarcastic comments or explain references. When I first started reading The Automation, I thought it was a pretty clever idea, but it doesn’t take long to become grating (6).

Speaking of sarcasm… it overflows in this one. I’m obviously not opposed to snarky comments (quite a fan, actually), but it is NONSTOP. Masters, Automatons, humans, gods, everyone sounds exactly the same. It’s exhausting after a while – the author/narrator/editor feel the need to constantly reassure themselves that they are more clever than YOU, the lowly reader.

Also, it’s just too crowded. There are several Automaton/Master pairs, plus Odissa, and they are all treated as main characters. It’s difficult to keep everyone straight. The writer(s) could’ve consolidated some of these characters down, and, as it’s the first book in a series, introduced others later. And as bits of some kind of Grand Design are revealed, the relationships between everyone become more and more convoluted.

Oh yes, the relationships. There’s a lot, I mean A LOT of ick going on here. The twins are engaged in an incestuous relationship, and I don’t even want to THINK about what happened to Odissa in the past and how she’ll be used going forward. One of the Masters (Mecca) is a ten year old boy who’s a raging pervert obsessed with taking pornographic photos of his Lolita-ish Automaton. That particular character, we are told repeatedly, has only one purpose in the story: to be annoying. We’re supposed to believe that he is mentally older, due to the slowed physical aging, but he constantly acts like a screechy oversugared kid at the world’s longest Chuck E Cheese birthday party. Who also is a big ol perv.

Finally, the story just doesn’t work. There are these super powerful beings, and a whole lot of Masters over the centuries who know what the Bad Master is up to, and they haven’t just taken him out. Instead, they all go into hiding and allow him to do horrific things to them. It makes no sense, and it’s never explained. Early in the book, Odys has a serious case of OCD and can’t deal with any kind of odd number. Then it just randomly goes away and is never mentioned again. Huh?

And in this book, nothing really happens. There are pages and pages of exposition, and when bullets, flames, or explosions break out, there’s a brief moment of “that happened” followed by a multitude of characters all explaining things to each other. Sarcastically. And in the end, when we think we’re going to finally learn some of what’s been hinted at (repeatedly), well, turns out it was all just a setup for the next book in the series.

So in the end, although there are quite a few moments of genuine brilliance, I can’t get past the writer’s obvious disdain for the reader.

  1. The musician, not the author. Actually, the line is spoken by someone else, but the point stands.
  2. I’m basing that last one on the moron I got stuck behind the other day USE YOUR FREAKING BLINKER YOU IDIOT.
  3. Absolutely nobody on reading Ethan Frome: Wow, this is great! Unputdownable!
  4. BRING ON THE GOLD
  5. Automata?
  6. Getting annoyed yet?

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and some gum. Which I will not be sharing.)

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All The Broken People, by Amy Rivers

Short Take: An episode of Law & Order SVU, written by a first-year social worker.

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

Y’all, I am SO OVER winter right now. It’s friggin MARCH for cryin’ out loud, can we please, please get rid of the snow and bone-snapping wind chills yet? Needless to say, when I saw a chance to mentally escape to somewhere warm and green, I jumped as fast as an un-athletic pasty nerd can.

Alice Bennett has eagerly agreed to be a temporary caretaker for her mother-in-law, Mae, who has suffered a broken hip and concussion after a fall down her front porch steps. Although Alice is hoping distance will give some clarity to her on-the-rocks marriage to Mae’s son Will, she soon finds out that this won’t be a peaceful break at all. Was Mae’s fall an accident, or did someone try to kill her? Mae’s the matriarch of the Small Town Bigwig Family, so of course there are plenty of seething have-nots who would be happy to see terrible things happen to her.

People like the Simms. Larry Lee, his mother Agnes and sister Beth have a long list of simmering resentments against the Bennetts. Correction: it’s more like a wildly-boiling pot of rage, just waiting to get thrown at the nearest Bennett in sight.

So when Alice, who’s really only a Bennett by marriage to the Town Golden Boy, shows up, well, allllllll kinds of sludge gets stirred up. Virtually every character in this book has Deep Dark Secrets, and when they are revealed, it sets off a chain of ever-increasing violence.

I think the author did a great job with creating a setting, with everything from the lush kudzu to Southern-awful names like Joylyn to the ever-present beer and cigarette smell in run-down trailers. But the characters, their motivations and the resulting story are not nearly so well-executed.

Take Alice. Everyone comments that she’s too plain for Will, but also that she’s beautiful. She’s “substantial” which I would take to mean forceful in some way, but complete strangers can tell that she’s damaged. She’s an unbelievable doormat, married to the most insufferable man imaginable. But she tolerates it, because she’s a collection of cliches, right down to having A Terrible Childhood.

Speaking of terrible childhoods – ALMOST EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER in this book has had one. Seriously. Every bad act committed by anyone is because they have suffered so much in the past, and so whatever they did shouldn’t really count.Because of the terrible childhoods and all. But even if the character just did something awful because they were selfish & cruel, well, they pinkie-promise to do better, so all is forgiven.

I understand that Ms. Rivers wanted her characters who have suffered so much to have some kind of redemption, but it was just too pat, too easy. Of course when someone commits a horrific crime, we want to know WHY, but pulling the curtain all the way back, and over-explaining just which suffering buttons are being pushed doesn’t hold much entertainment value.

Which leads to my other big complaint: there weren’t any real twists or surprises. As a very good friend of mine likes to say, “Hurt people hurt people”, and when it’s telegraphed early & often that this or that or these people are emotionally injured, it’s not shocking or interesting when they do bad things.

The Nerd’s Rating: Two Happy Neurons (and some homemade granola, because that sounds delicious. And copious amounts of booze.)

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Tell Me No Lies, by Alex Sinclair

Short Take: When Hell overflows, the dead shall walk the earth. Or maybe there’s a simpler explanation.

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

It’s beyond a cliche to say that life can change in an instant, but it’s also very true. Every major event has that one pivotal second: the plus sign appearing on a pregnancy test, the mugger pulling out a gun, a gurgling sound from the lower abdomen.. We can all point to that one moment in our own lives just before everything takes a drastic turn and there’s no going back.

For Grace Dalton, that one moment comes when she and her beloved husband John are walking to their car after a lovely dinner celebrating their fifth anniversary. A pickup truck comes flying out of nowhere, and in seconds, John is dead in her arms.

The following weeks are a blur of grief, but eventually, Grace begins to return to her world, and that’s when things start getting weird. She sees John watching her, she passes out at inconvenient times, and sometimes does things that she has no memory of doing.

It also becomes increasingly obvious that John was involved in Something Shady.

Now, this all sounds like a really cool setup for a supernatural horror novel, in which John was a member of a Satanic cult and is currently screwing with Grace from the afterlife. However, this is not that book.

Tell Me No Lies is a paint-by-numbers thriller. The one major revelation is pretty easy to guess, and the rest of them aren’t really consequential.

Twisty plots are difficult to pull off.  I love them, but I’m the first to say that I’m not a writer, and the main reason is that I can’t think of any good ones myself. A swing-and-a-miss plotwise isn’t the worst sin an author can commit, but unfortunately, once Mr. Sinclair takes a turn to BadBookTown, he floors it.

One of the biggest issues I had was the barely-sketched characters. Grace is pretty meh, passive and dull through most of the book. Her best friend Jennifer is, quite simply The Worst. She swings wildly between “Let me be your friend and be there for you and do whatever you need me to do” and “You’re not grieving like I think you should, I’m going to take my metaphorical toys and flounce dramatically out of your life”, back and forth, sometimes in a matter of hours or even minutes. John is a cypher, of course, since he dies in the first chapter, but as information is dribbled out about his life, there are still a lot of major pieces left out of the picture.

There’s also another issue I had that I am hesitant to post, because it would probably be construed as a major spoiler. So I will just say that [spoiler] a crucial scene just doesn’t work. It’s too drastic of a change in tone, and doesn’t fit with anything that’s been shown to that point.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a coffee and a BLT, because after hearing them mentioned so many times, I am craving them.)

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Pretty Ugly Lies, by Pamela Crane

Short Take: Like a bad knockoff Michael Kors bag.

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

It might be a sign of impending old age, but I find myself getting more and more annoyed with books that try to piggyback on the success of previous bestsellers, instead of just being themselves. I mean, with a title like “Pretty Ugly Lies”, this author is obviously trying to appeal to readers who enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies”. The comparisons are pretty obvious on the surface: Take four main female characters who are all moms living in an upscale neighborhood, add some drama, and bam! Success. Maybe. Probably not.

Pretty Ugly Lies opens with a gruesome scene – an entire family has been slaughtered. It’s not revealed whose family it is, but then we meet our leading ladies.

  • Jo – Queen Bee with the best house, most handsome husband, and prettiest kids, one of whom is kidnapped right off the bat, leading to a whole lot of torment. See, she has a Deep Dark Secret that could destroy her perfect life.
  • Shayla – Jo’s best friend, bipolar, two kids. She has a nice husband who she cheats on with a really awful guy, making herself deeply unhappy.
  • June – mom to four kids including an autistic son with a lot of specialized needs. Wife to a husband who doesn’t like to work or parent when he could be watching tv. Also miserable 24/7. Best friends with Ellie.
  • Ellie – sick of being a mom to two demanding kids (really, are there any other kind?) and wife to a cheating husband. Utterly miserable, all the time, and prone to writing melodramatic journal entries full of self-pity and purple prose.

So you have a couple of interesting plot points, and a lot of misery. And angst. And sadness. And anger. And pain. And tears. And so on and so forth, spelled out in the most overwrought language possible. Like “Lies piled on top of lies. Secrets smothering secrets. I was beginning to feel bound by the web of deceit I had woven”, and much more in that vein.  No joke, even the letters from the bad guy/kidnapper read like a teenage girl’s livejournal, the ones with sparkling black rose gif’s and crying wolves all over them.

And that’s the problem. Because where Big Little Lies also had murder, infidelity, abuse, and other awful things, it managed to include fun, and levity, and happy new relationships (both friendship and romantic) and the ways that being a parent or spouse can be the best part of a life. Pretty Ugly Lies focuses only on the negatives. Everyone is so bitter that their lives aren’t some sparkly sitcom paradise, the entitlement and self-pity is infuriating.

Seriously, who thinks things like “Not once did the kids ever thank me for my servitude”?? Are you kidding me?? Kids are kids, they need things, and no, four kids under eight are not going to thank you for your servitude for providing those things. If you’ve genuinely tried to teach them some manners, you might get a “thank you” when you give them a glass of milk, but that’s about it. You have kids, you make sacrifices, and no, it’s not always butterflies and unicorns, but it’s what you chose. Correction: What you chose FOUR TIMES.

I’m shocked, SHOCKED I tell you that the kids don’t have hearts overflowing with love and gratitude for these moms who treat them like so many unwanted burdens. In the end, the only surprise is that just one of the moms went on a murder spree.

It’s also kind of annoying that we have four main characters, but basically two entirely separate plots. You have the two pairs of best friends, and nobody ventures outside their clique in any meaningful way. Part of the fun of Big Little Lies was when the new, single, young, broke mom came to town, seeing her form friendships and become part of the group despite all of her differences.

Maybe I’m being unfair, and maybe Ms. Crane wasn’t just trying (and failing) to copy another author’s work. Then again, maybe her next book will be called Vanished Girl.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a re-read of Big Little Lies. The original one.)

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With You Always, by Rena Olsen

Short Take: Like a fun-size candy bar – tasty for a minute, but unsatisfying.

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

Mega-churches are skeevy, aren’t they? I mean, you have the pastors with their shellacked hair and blinding veneers, hopping around doing their darnedest to convince their congregation that God wants them to have a private jet. It’s no secret that Joel Osteen and his ilk prey on people who are desperate for some kind of help, and scam them out of what little they have. But as disgusting as I find their behavior, I have to acknowledge that behind the spotlights and designer choir robes, there might be worse crimes than stealing from the poor.

Enter Julia. She’s at a bit of a crossroads in life, just coming out of a bad break-up, and trying to get a promotion at work when Bryce Covington blows into her life. He’s rich, gorgeous, and treats Julia like a queen, lavishing her with attention and gifts. He’s also mysterious – he will not speak of his family, insisting that the only family that matters to him are the Reverend and his wife Nancy, leaders of the Church of the Life, who took him in as a teenager. Although Julia has never been into religion, she begins attending church with Bryce, gradually abandoning her own life in order to be accepted into his.

Julia gives up her job, contact with her family, hanging out with her friends, and pretty much everything that mattered to her before Bryce, and do I even need to tell you what a Bad Idea that is? Because of course Bryce is not the Prince Charming he appeared to be, and the church is way more sinister than Julia could’ve imagined.

As much as I love a good takedown of a religious huckster, With You Always didn’t do that. It didn’t even try. The first three-quarters of the is nothing but Julia mooning over Bryce and ignoring everyone who tries to talk sense to her. She’s That Girl, the one who will change everything about herself and turn her back on everyone who’s been there for her throughout her life to keep a guy. It’s pathetic. When Julia finally starts to wise up and realize YOU IN DANGER GIRL, there’s exactly one scene, one character getting what they deserve in the space of a single paragraph, and Bam! Over.

Ms. Olsen gives readers a lot of tantalizing mysteries to gnaw on, then ignores them.  For example, who in the church’s inner circle was responsible for [spoiler], and did they get any kind of punishment for that?  Were there any consequences for anything on the church’s end? We don’t find out what happened in Julia’s life after all this, at all. The epilogue is literally like 20 minutes after the climax, and it amounts to “and she lived happily ever after”, which, uh, NO. There’s absolutely no way that [spoiler] wouldn’t be out for revenge, or that she would just walk away and go back to her old life after burning so many bridges, not to mention the whole police thing.

And honestly, with the way Julia treated everyone around her, it’s really hard to care what happened next. I’m inclined to think the author agreed.
The Nerd’s Rating: Two Happy Neurons (and a full-size candy bar. Because whoever invented “fun size” clearly doesn’t understand candy bars.)

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