Nikki Reviews The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, PhD

“I am sure that if the devil existed, he would want us to feel very sorry for him.”

Harvard Psychologist Martha Stout spent years treating patients that suffered at the will of sociopaths. She then began studying the sociopaths themselves, culminating in this sort of “how-to” manual of spotting sociopathy in the world. That woman that cut you off on the way home, the boss that trampled his way to the top, that (ahem) elected official that seems to lack empathy; are they merely inconsiderate or are they sociopaths?

Four percent of humans (1 in 25) in this world are, in fact, sociopaths. They lack remorse and are incapable of forming emotional attachments to living (or non-living) things. We assume they are few, or rare. However Martha Stout has taught me that they are basically everywhere. Many assume that all sociopaths are cold-blooded killers, but that is also not the case. They are therapists, school principals, senators (presidents?), janitors, maintenance people, scientists, or any vocation you can think of. In order to better describe this, Stout gives us a handful of case studies, each being a culmination of many of her patients (and therefore can in no way be traced back to any individual in society). We meet “Doreen,” a psychologist who has zero qualifications or degrees but has charmed her way into many therapist positions caring for people that certainly deserve better. She loves manipulating people for sport while maintaining the reputation of being the nicest person her coworkers have ever met. There’s “Skip,” a high-powered businessman that maintains a presumably happy life with wife and children while sexually harassing women and climbing the corporate ladder with ease.

There are more, but that gives you a good idea of what to expect. Really, Stout describes the consistency found in sociopaths in all walks of life, giving some hints and tips on how to recognize their toxicity and how to avoid entanglements with them. Now this has the negative effect of me looking at everyone I’ve ever met with paranoia and distrust while trying to figure out how many sociopaths are currently living in a square mile of myself. But, it’s also very interesting to try and see the world from the eyes of someone with zero conscience (spoiler alert: look for charming, manipulative people that regularly want your pity).

The writing could get a bit repetitive at times (I believe she gave a definition of sociopath an approximate 800 times-slightly exaggerated), but it fit in well with my psychological interests and curiosities. I definitely found it pleasing enough to want to check out her other book, The Mask of Sanity.

You can download a sample or purchase The Sociopath Next Door by clicking here.

Nikki reviews Wishbone by Elaine Burnes

Meg Myers is an animal control officer in the Boston area who spends her time having unemotional sexual flings with nameless women and dodging her alcoholic mother. We follow Meg as she navigates a string of emotional experiences, some positive and negative, while trying to find where she fits in the world.

This story actually didn’t pull me in for quite a while. I was starting to wonder if I would just be following around this woman while she investigated possible turkey murders and the occasional injured deer. However once it got going, it became very intriguing. In great chunks of the book, we are following Meg as she encounters different women in her life, all helping to guide her into being the woman she didn’t know she could be. All were necessary for her growth, for different reasons. We see her gift with abused/unwanted animals, but she doesn’t recognize how her work with these animals mirrors her own needs, and highlights the treatment she should have received from a damaged system in her youth. She only sees her propensity for violence as a negative, as opposed to what it really is, her desperate need to lash out at the unfairness of the world, and the injustice faced by so many innocent children that the system continues to fail.

The characterizations are really well done, with fully fleshed-out primary and secondary characters. One of my very favorite characters is a transgender female, whose parents are having a difficult time accepting her for who she truly is. It is rare that books have a believable transgender character, and I was sad she wasn’t in more of the book. However, she did fulfill a very important role, so I’m glad she got the attention and respect she deserved by the author. Honestly there were several secondary characters that I wanted to see more of, but once they moved on I only heard of them in passing. I wish there was more from them, as they all had such big impacts on Meg’s life, and brought interesting textures to the story. However I recognize that would have made the book gargantuan.

As for the familial discord faced by Meg throughout,  I felt as though rehashing the past abuse and neglect, in addition to her troubles with her mother, became a bit repetitive. Yes, I completely understand the need for this, but at some point I started skimming through those sections as I didn’t feel they brought anything new to the narrative. The book was long enough that I believe some of this could have been trimmed to make it a more efficient story. That being said, this was overall a well done book, once it finally picked up some momentum, and by the end I was glad I stuck with it.

Also FAIR WARNING this book should come with a *trigger: a dog dies* disclaimer. Meg is an animal control officer, so she experiences her fair share of animal investigations, but some were difficult to read about. If that’s a deal breaker for you, it’s better you know that now!

You can download a sample or purchase Wishbone by clicking here.

Nikki reviews Time of Our Lives by Jane Waterton

This book brings the reader into an all-lesbian retirement community in Austraila called OWL Haven. Here we meet a cast of characters all learning to live again after deciding to embark on some big life changes. Some are here for health reasons, some because of loneliness, others for the sense of community they so desperately need, building a family with each other they didn’t expect to find again.

Although a true ensemble piece with a multitude of characters (that can be quite funny together) most of the story centers around six women. Meg and Allie have been best friends for decades, Pat and Bella are dealing with a resurgence of cancer, while Daphne and Swallow (character’s name, not sure why) are finding unexpected love late in life. There are somewhat serious issues these women are having to deal with, their journeys coming with substantial bumps in the road. Even though most admit by this age they should probably know better than make the mistakes they do, they still manage to screw up a good thing on more than one occasion. They taught me the art of communication is something you never stop learning, even with decades of relationship experience under your belt.

This book isn’t without flaws, as some characters had responses that felt a little out of character for how they were presented throughout. Some instances made me wish Allie, Daphne and Pat would get smacked over the head a few times for their emotional immaturity and lack of self-awareness. However, these friends were all adorable together, had each others backs (even when they didn’t want them to) and made me laugh with their antics throughout. A sweet story about women in the twilight of their lives, and I’m glad I read it. Those of you I’ve heard complaining about the lack of romance storylines for women of a certain age, pick this one up as there’s plenty to warm your heart cockles.

You can download a sample or purchase Times of our Lives by clicking here.

Nikki reviews Your Little Red Book by EJ Runyon

From the blurb: Alexis, a broke young artist with problems reading and writing, keeps her little red book close at all times. It holds her life. She wants to be sure she’s gotten it all down as it comes. She narrates to herself in illegible script, unaware of her unique style of recording her own world. Here we have one half of a She said/She said scenario. Maureen, a successful owner of a small chain of Art Supply stores, catches Alexis in her store with a pocket full of stolen tubes of paint. And she’s smitten from first glance. Knowing all too well the pitfalls ahead, Mo wants only to help. Only for a while. Only in any way she can. No one told her she’d have to fight nearly every step of the way. And therein lays the other half of said scenario.

Lexy meets Maureen by attempting to steal art supplies from her shop, which begins a bit of a tumultuous romance between the two that neither expected. Their alliance is somewhat unbalanced, with Lexy wanting to be worthy of attention and happiness, but not quite sure how to get there herself.

Lexy keeps a little red book and always scribbles in it, always in indecipherable code which is never explained. Is she illiterate? Severely dyslexic? I have no idea. Her second person pov is indescribably done in future tense, which feels almost as though the red book is telling her how to interact to scenarios, how other people will respond. Instead of what IS happening it’s all stated as what WILL happen. I assumed at some point this would have some fascinating twist explaining WHY this choice was made but that never happened. Is she hearing voices? Does she think the book is talking to her? Are there little green men? That would have all been viable options, but it was just left as it was without any justification for the pov choice. Maureen’s chapters are done in first person, and often rehashes what we’ve already experienced in Lexy’s pov, or vice versa. Additionally, Maureen has a difficult relationship with her daughter, and you never really can tell if her relationship with Lexy is to compensate for this loss or a truly genuine love.

By the end, I didn’t really find the characters particularly likable and couldn’t see what Maureen and Lexy saw in each other. A lot of the story was somewhat difficult to discern, and many passages I needed to re-read several times before moving on (and often still didn’t get it but I just kept going anyway). There seemed to be a lot that the author counted on the reader figuring out themselves, obscure connections that I just couldn’t follow. This and Lexy’s unconventional pov was just all too much to wade through for me.

You can download a sample or purchase Your Little Red Book by clicking here.

Nikki reviews Girls in Ice Houses by Linda Morganstein

Maxie Wolfe is a paparazzo with seemingly questionable morals and a lack of empathy for those celebrities her photographs affect. She has mountainous attachment issues, stemming from her childhood with an artistic megalomaniacal mother. As described in the novel, Maxie is the result of an experiment in motherhood, which is a very sad way to think about oneself, though very accurate for their dynamic. Maxie buries her emotional baggage under a thick veneer of apathy, and for much of the first half, Maxie’s issues and flaws make her extremely difficult to relate to or empathize with. Honestly I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to finish it through the middle third, but I am glad I did.

Maxie spends much of her time navigating a reluctant friendship with Fisher, a woman she meets in unlikely circumstances, resulting in them both requiring anger management classes. At one point, Fisher convinces Maxie to join her on a trip to her family’s home in the midwest, and Maxie’s reticence towards relationships of all sorts continues to be tested.

I had some issues with the story, as too much emphasis was on cryptic dialogue that started to become annoying, but this was hiding a depth of connections that would otherwise be ruined, so I sort of get why that was necessary. Additionally, the middle dragged on and as a reader, you never quite know why many things are happening until towards the end. As for that, the lengths to which circumstances are connected felt excessively complicated. I can imagine some would have given up at this point, as I almost did. The end of the novel, though not tying up everything completely, did result in a satisfyingly full arc for Maxie. I didn’t expect to like Maxie at all, but by the end I was pleasantly surprised by her once I eventually navigated her difficult past. I can imagine some will be turned off by her, of course, but if you push through, I think you’d agree that she’s worth the trouble, no matter what her mother thinks.

You can download a sample or purchase Girls in Ice Houses by clicking here.

Nikki reviews Heyday by Marnie Woodrow

This is the story of a middle-aged widow named Joss, who is trying to find meaning to her life after the death of her long-time partner . It is also the story of Bette and Freddy, two girls in 1909 who meet in a serendipitous trip on the Figure 8, a roller coaster at Hanlan’s Point in Toronto. The young girls strike up a close friendship immediately, with Bette grieving the death of her grandmother (and best friend) and Joss attempting to escape her difficult past. Both young girls find joy and love at Hanlan’s Point but their journey is fraught with adversity.

The setting is gorgeously rendered. You can fully imagine the amusement park, smell of the lake, the confines of Bette’s house which is increasingly rife with tension. I tasted the cotton candy, smelled the exhaust from the rides, and felt the heat of the summer. The amount of research that went in to creating this world was a very nice touch, and helped me feel further immersed in the story.

The characterizations were quite good, with only a couple that were a bit one-dimensional (Freddy’s paramours). However, the main characters and Bette’s father were fully developed and complete with flaws and heartache. I felt for them all, desperately hoping for a happily ever after. Do they all get one? I’m not gonna tell ya!

The dialogue was very good, all individual for each character, with built-in personalities, flaws and quirks that I appreciated. Some of the secondary characters were a little flat, but the mains were SO well-structured that that didn’t particularly bother me.

However there was one thing I wish could be more clearly delineated. Each chapter is from a different character’s POV. One being Joss in the present day, then separate chapters for Bette and Freddy (and at one point Bette’s dad got into the mix). However, there was no identifiable thing at the start of the chapter to say “hey this is Joss, jump forward to present, thanks!” Sometimes it took me a few sentences or a paragraph to figure out whose head I was populating. Later on in the story that didn’t bother me as much because there was generally a “Joss, then Bette, then Freddy” cycle for the vast majority, but it’s still something to keep in mind when reading.

Additionally, the end of the story kind of left some things hanging without resolution. I never felt a good connection existed to demonstrate why Joss’ story was presented alongside Bette and Freddy’s romps at their amusement park, or at least not one sufficient enough to satisfy me. So fair warning to those that need everything spelled out and presented with a nice pretty bow at the end. I have my theories on the ending, so if you’ve read it I’d love to hear from you!

Overall, a very enjoyable read that I feel like could have been a bit stronger with some tweaks, but that stuff might not bother anybody else but me.

You can download a sample or purchase Heyday by clicking here.

Nikki Reviews When it Raynes by CD Cain

Rayne Amber Storm is a recent graduate with a bachelor’s in biology, on a summer break at home in Louisiana before starting medical school. She spends her days with her beloved Meemaw while dodging her mother’s schemes to marry her off. Throughout the narrative, Rayne is struggling with her self-identity and how she fits in the world, but nothing seems to ever grow from that, and a satisfactory resolution to these issues is missing. She’s questioning her sexuality and relationships, but she’s passive in how she handles both. The secondary characters are poorly developed, Grant in particular. He serves as a one-dimensional obstacle without the benefit of interesting characteristics. In addition, Rayne seems to have trouble communicating her feelings, which stagnated many of the interactions in the book for me.

The strongest relationship is clearly with Meemaw, the one person Rayne always turns to as a mother figure, and my favorite character in the story by far. She is a no-nonsense lady who loves her granddaughter unconditionally, which Rayne seems to be lacking elsewhere in her life. However, the relationship with Rayne’s mother (Charlie Grace) confused me a bit. Rayne spent much time complaining about how poorly they got along, including how Charlie Grace attempted to rule her life. However, the interactions between them described within the context of the story seemed unremarkable, and not particularly angsty. Charlie Grace buys her a brand new jeep for graduation, wants her to get married to a nice guy, and go to church, much like every mother in America. I had a difficult time seeing much reason for any antagonism, and Rayne’s strong reactions to her felt melodramatic as a result.

This book required a much more thorough editing, and at some point I actually wondered if it had been edited at all. Punctuation is sometimes missing (or misused) but more noticeable are the frequently repeated phrasing and words throughout. There were times when strikingly similar sentences were written directly following each other, which should have been caught. Additionally, the dialogue needs work to improve its consistency. The preponderance of casual Louisiana dialect spelled out phonetically isn’t a problem, per se, but it is not uniform, jumping in and out of using contractions somewhat arbitrarily. Meemaw in particular would randomly not use contractions, making her suddenly sound very formal and out of character.

The writing itself is problematic, particularly in the overly flowery language that lacks execution and comes across as nonsensical metaphors. I’ll put some examples here so you can see what I mean:

– “The wants of his desire were evident in his state and needed not to be expressed with words.”

-During a dancing scene, “Charlie Grace appeared escalated into a world of freedom found in a rhythmic beat.”

-“My body stirred again as I realized a warmth with the stinging of the vision behind my closed eyes.”

-“I couldn’t be too judgmental of his ambition as I too had never focused on the present for my vision of the future”

Those lines made my brain slam on the brakes and re-read them multiple times, which caused the flow of the story to feel disjointed. It’s not just wordy, it’s mixed metaphors that don’t particularly fit in the way they are presented. I’m a huge fan of flowery descriptions, and writing with a lyrical and poetic bent, when done masterfully. However, it missed the mark in this book, and that should have been reigned in significantly. As Mark Twain said, “don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do,” and I’m betting Meemaw would agree with him.

You can download a sample or purchase When It Raynes (Chambers of the Heart Book 1) by clicking here.