The Last Thing I Told You by Emily Arsenault

Full disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.  What I wish I'd also received was a better pay-off for a story with a lot of promise.  Generally, I like novels about therapists and psychologists. The variety of patient stories, the struggle for their own stability, and the chance of great surprise when it turns out they are much scarier than anything you’d hear in their sessions.  Not everybody can be Hannibal, but there’s always that chance that the plaid suit and the kitchen utensils will come out by the tenth session. I got hooked into this particular story with the promise of a mystery and an unraveling patient-doctor relationship.

The book opens in the office of Mark Fabian, therapist for years and corpse for hours.  His head is bashed in, his patient notes are sketchy, and oh, by the way, his closest friends report him as having memory problems recently, so good luck with those notes again. The chapters alternate between narrators Henry, a local cop who gained fame from a retirement home shooting a few years previously, and Nadine, a former patient of Fabian’s.  I’m still getting my head around a shooter in a frigging *retirement home.* Not that it’s too farfetched these days, but what the what?
Betty White would have taken his punk ass out in a second.
Nadine’s story alternates between the present and 1997, when she was in therapy after a violent incident at school – with all this backstory, you expect her underlying psychosis to be something shocking.  She even writes that perversion is in her blood (cue dramatic music).  I don’t know if the author planned something bigger to explain the build-up to the outburst and then gave up or we’re actually supposed to be shocked by something that turns out to be terribly garden-variety.

Henry’s side of things covers his involvement in the shooting (he took down a shooter and is now a local hero who just wants people to stop calling him that) and his attempt to piece together how Fabian (I kept reading that as ‘Fabio’) wound up dead.  Oh, and his kids are getting warped by fairytales with iron shoes and decapitations.  I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a cautionary bit about your kids winding up in therapy or a suggestion for scary stuff hidden in children’s fiction. Either way, now I want to read ‘The Red Shoes.’

Honestly, this book felt like such a tangled mess that I can barely write this review.  It started out so readable and then just seemed to drag into wet noodles. Other crimes in the area are mentioned, but written in an almost throw-away fashion, even though they are suddenly a big deal for the ending.  There’s no startling reveal of some long-buried secret to explain Nadine’s violence.  There’s no startling reveal that Henry is someone interesting.  Fabian’s murder has one of the most beige explanations I’ve ever read.

"Yes, I know, but I'm trying to look Scottish or something."
If a book starts out crap and then ends the same way, that’s bad. This whole bait-and-switch thing seems even worse, because now you’ve had a chance to get excited over where things are going. Surely this will not end in you slapping yourself awake at nine p.m. and throwing the book into the library donation bag.  Just because I was almost asleep doesn’t mean I take the whole bait-and-switch thing lying down. I won’t be looking for anything else by this author.  Now if someone will introduce me to a nice novel involving a suit and fork…


Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass

You know you look great. Great. Painfully stunning. Then the person waiting for you looks up and their face says you are the last thing they want to see and possibly you also have half a biscuit stuck in your teeth.

It sucks to see disappointment, fear (unless you are trying to scare someone) or disgust (maybe you picked that nose on purpose, who knows) on a face, but it's still information to help us process the situation.

We need people's faces - nonverbal communication typically counting for more than half of the information exchanged in our conversations to give us clues.  Now imagine a society where everyone just has a series of learned configurations to represent everything they are feeling or thinking.  It's somewhere between this at birth:

or maybe these guys later, depending on your financial state because learning new expressions actually costs money.

   In A Face Like Glass, we meet Neverfell, a preteen orphan with a past she can't remember, who is growing up in Caverna, a sprawling underground civilisation that was created after horrible things devastated the cities on the surface.  Many generations later, the inhabitants still don't believe it is safe to leave so they party/drudge/court eyesight problems and asthma in their city below.  It's a very hierarchical scene with drudges doing all the dirty work, tradesmen making delicacies just to keep their ruler The Steward from getting bored and nobility playing mind games.

   Of course there's a statement about injustice and entitlement, but the part of the book that just kept fascinating me and creeping me right the hell out was the facial thing. Caverna infants come out "blank as eggs" and are taught a few expressions during their time in massive crèches. Lower-class babies are taught about what you'd expect for a servant (i.e., automaton who can't complain), usually amounting to only 3 or 4 expressions.  No matter if they are sick, dying, furious, joyful or what; they can only make the "I'm eager to serve" or "I understand your need to punish me" or "I'm happy that I sleep on rocks" faces. Upper-class kids are given more and can buy lessons from Facesmiths ("Face 57, the Willow Bows Before the Gale" is an actual thing) as they get older.

   The unique Neverfell has a 'face like glass,' in that it allows you to see through to whatever she is thinking or feeling. No Facesmiths required, lots of suspicions raised. Of course this makes her very special and very upsetting to the status quo.  When she gets caught up in a rich girl's scheme, Neverfell starts seeing things she can't unsee and finding out more about who she is - and why it's so important that nobody rocks The Steward's boat.

   Her story was frustrating at times but that actually worked to make it more believable. Of course someone's going to get busted half a dozen times when they have no Face 372, Dawn Breaking Over Ohio or whatever to cover up their intentions. Hardinge does a good job of building a world that is sprawling and vivid - it startled me all over again when someone's carriage was hoisted from cave to cave or people fed the lamps hanging over everything. I felt like I was right there (and then remembered I was also claustrophobic.  Maybe don't read this in a small, enclosed space.)

   Usually I refuse to recommend post-apocalyptic stories but this was so far post and the scenario was so strange that I just have to tell people to read it. Also there's no teen romance, vampires or boarding schools, so if you're inundated with all three, this is a nice break.  Hope you enjoy the book, try Hardinge's other work or, at the very least, feel relieved that all those cringeworthy selfie faces didn't have to be paid for.


Burntown: Can't see a clear story or likeable characters for all this smoke

I really wanted to like this book. I didn't even stop to read the summary, just said "ooh, the new Jennifer McMahon!" and marked it 'want to read.' Her books usually have characters I care about, plot twists I don't see coming and clear narrative. This book seems to have been written by someone else, because it has none of those things.

Narration is a jumble of viewpoints including a boy who witnessed his mother's murder, a homeless girl who lost her house and half her family in a flood, a drug-dealing closeted lesbian teen, a morbidly obese lady who pretends to be a fat lady in a circus and a private detective who features in the fat lady's mental circus as the strong man. Got all that? The jumping around was dizzying and the main character - the girl from the flood – seems as flat as the others. I thought I was misunderstanding who the protagonist was. In the end, I think nobody was. Things happened around them and to them, but none of them seemed to really push the story along.

The book begins with a young boy witnessing his mother's murder by a man in a chicken mask.

(Might be frigging terrifying but still makes me think Chik-fil-a got a little too vindictive about bad reviews.)

Murder evidence is found and the killer is caught...until the same chicken-masked man (I hate typing that) reappears several years later in pursuit of the now-grown boy's own children. What follows is the meandering story of the man’s daughter, now four years older and surviving on the streets by sticking flaming cotton balls in her mouth for money and candy.
I really wish I was making that up.
Actually, I wish nobody had made it up. Homeless people get a bad enough rep.

Did I mention there's also a device that lets you speak to the dead using a radio? That particular bit gets tossed in and you'd think that this supernatural aspect would be threaded through the storyline. NOPE. Even the character who's supposed to be dead-set on retrieving the radio's blueprints doesn't really seem to care - it's like the villains who want to take over Gotham but don't notice they need to actually kill Batman instead of hoping he doesn’t foil their plans. Ugh.

The twists were sort of lazy squiggles and for the first time reading this author’s work, I figured out the surprises before the reveals. Characters reacted in totally unrealistic ways to incredibly stressful and dangerous situations. The ending seemed simplified to the point of juvenile and rushed. Burntown was a burn-out.


The Witches of Eastwick or How I Learned to Hate John Updike

Movies tend to screw up books.  It happens so often you can say "oh, I saw the movie" to anyone recommending a book and they will automatically go into zombie-groan-eyeball-rolling despair.  However, I saw the movie version of The Witches of Eastwick years ago (it was released back in '87) and it grew into a thing of beauty compared to the tripe from which it sprang.  It still had some scenes that made me turn green and the casting made no sense - with the exception of Jack Nicholson - but the story was far less of a clusterfoque.  *I would like to clarify that this book and movie are in no way connected to the book and tv show The Witches of East End.*

In the book, we meet three witches living in a small town and screwing everybody.  No kidding, those are the two things you are told straight off and then repeatedly about these women.  It was the late 60s and that whole sexual freedom thing was rampant. One of them even boffed the other one's husband but nobody cared. We're also told one of the husbands was transformed into a table mat, another is hanging like dried flowers in a basement and the third turned to powder and is shelved in an urn.  Somehow the women are also involved with this Unitarian church, one of them is nailing the pastor and all of them became extremely powerful sorceresses upon moving to the town, though that's never really explained.  Makes me want to stay the hell out of Rhode Island, because who wants a third nipple? Wait, did I tell you all three women had an extra nipple? yeah, there's that.

Enter a scruffy sleazeball who sets up an unseen lab in a crumbling mansion and installs a teak wood spa room with a retractable roof where he can have orgies and share his greasy loins with women who are inexplicably drawn to him.  All three witches go from scorn to hot-tubbing in a blink.  At one point, one of the witches actually kisses his ass.  There's a visual.

To sum up, we've got some longstanding criterion for your average American witch:  the presence of a third nipple (aka a "witch's teat"), inversion of religious phrases to perform pagan rituals and blind devotion to a devil character to whom she shows allegiance by kissing his backside.  We've got what I'd call serious misogyny with a dash of "look how well I know witchy shit" e.g,  "I made it rain so I could walk my dog on the beach! Watch out for piles!"  What we don't have are characters that make you care about how they turn out, explanations for their sudden mastery of the craft and roles for any strong women who aren't just relying on smooching devil tupkes.  If you think Mad Men just wasn't tough enough on those crybaby girls who shouldn't be in an office anyway, this book might be for you.  For the rest of us, there are plenty of others that won't give you the urge to vacuum in high heels...for example, Alice Hoffman's The Probable Future, those East End chicks I mentioned, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, or Erik Setiawan's Of Bees and Mist.


Last Words

"Don't embarrass me with this shit."

Investigator Mark Novak can't get those words out of his head; two years ago they were the last words he spoke to his wife before she was murdered.  It also happens to be exactly what I was thinking when I started this book.  I like Koryta but he's been hit ( So Cold the River ) or miss (Those Who Wish Me Dead) in the past.

Mark works for a pro bono company that frees wrongfully convicted criminals.  They get a letter from a small-town pariah named Ridley Barnes who isn't even in prison but for years has been under suspicion for murder.  When a girl went missing in the local caves, Ridley was the experienced (if mostly batshit, no pun intended) cave expert who brought her out.  Bad news was, she was dead and his time in the cave was riddled with memory holes and strange exclamations about the mystical qualities of the cave.  Didn't help he referred to the cave as a "she."  Anyway, the town decides he's guilty despite lack of evidence and Ridley decides he has to find out for himself if he is guilty.  Enter Novak, who has been careening around looking for whoever killed his wife.

Ridley's hometown of Garrison, IL has all the stereotypical small-town characters you'd expect and sadly, none of the surprises.  Again and again, Mark runs into people who won't talk, truth that's skirted like an antebellum housewife and characters that lack so much fleshing-out they may as well be on a forensics table.

I admit caves scare me silly, so if I'm going to spend even imaginary-time in one, there had better be a pay-off.  I waited and hoped that there would be something supernatural or at least surprising as the mystery unfolded, but only got a goose egg and a reveal that was lacking in both imagination and impact.  If you're interested in caving - or even not - and want an interesting story of what goes on down there,  let me recommend Jeff Long's The Descent (not the same story as the movie, trust me) or Cherie Priest's Those Who Went Remain There Still.