BOOK REVIEW | You by Caroline Kepnes

3/5 stars

I had a lot of trouble deciding where to place this review. Part of me wanted to leave it at 2 stars, but there are good elements to this book that led me to 3.

Joe is a bookseller with demons. When Beck walks into his shop one day, he knows that she is the one. He stalks her, and eventually finds a ways to weasel himself into her life. The two bond and develop a relationship, but she is never fully committed. Joe disturbingly explains away the reasons for her indiscretions and behaviour, but decides there are people in Beck’s life that are taking her focus away from their relationship. With those people gone, she will only have him to turn to; so he sets out to remove those people.

I’m not sure if it’s the political climate we’re in, but I really wasn’t in the mood to read another book about a man inflicting violence (or worse) on a woman. Yes, Joe is equal opportunity in regards to gender, but something about this book just didn’t sit well with me.

Kepnes wants you to know what she likes, and the relentless name dropping in this book gets tired very quickly. Within a couple of chapters, I started to wonder how long it would keep up; the answer is for the entire book. Kepnes name drops books, authors, movies, music, music videos, bands, actors, and directors throughout the novel, and it quickly goes from being sort of fun to utterly gag-worthy. Sorry, but this sort of overtly pretentious vanity is hard to stomach.

I get it – Kepnes is going for a bit of satire with this – a serial killer who likes to keep up with the arts and the New York scene. That said, I have trouble believing that someone as twisted as Joe would be serving up Larabars to his victims. I will be starting on the follow up to this, Hidden Bodies, next, primarily because I’ve heard that she gets the satire right with that one. Kepnes wrote a compelling story with You, but it’s shortcomings were hard to ignore.

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BOOK REVIEW | I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Ian Reid

5/5 stars

I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things painted with every color in my reader’s palette. I finished this mere minutes ago, reread certain sections backwards as per Ian Reid’s subtle guidance, and am totally blown away. And I’m sad. This is a profoundly sad book. This is the sort of book that causes book hangover – this story will live with me for a while, and all other books will not stack up. The ending didn’t matter to me as the journey was so enthralling. But the ending, wow.

An unnamed female narrator is on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake. They are heading to the small farm where he grew up so she can meet his parents, but she has one thing on her mind: ending things. She has been thinking about ending things with Jake for a while, but decides to go through with the trip, thinking that meeting his parents might change her mind about the relationship.

Along the way they ask each other many philosophical questions, often alluding to the nature of relationships, how you can never truly know someone else, how your thoughts are the only thing that is real, and whether we can get through life without meaningful relationships. What ensues is, hands down, one of the most chilling and atmospheric stories I have ever read.

This book is touted as psychological horror, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, Reid has painted an incredibly eerie portrait of the old farmhouse, as well as a rural school where our characters end up, but everything going on below the surface is heavy and black once pieced together. Towards the end of the book, it’s suggested that the story is read again, backwards. Each chapter is prefaced by an italicized vignette – a conversation that is taking place about an even that occurred. I read these sections backwards, and was blown away by Reid’s process.

I’ve read many reviews that suggest this book made no sense, and I can see that if it was picked up as a typical horror read. This is not classic horror (though it can be read as such), this is pure psychological horror, dealing with a heavy topic. I don’t want to spoil this for potential readers, but go into this book knowing that everything is not as it seems, and if you enjoy books that deal with the metaphysical or mental health you’ll find a connection here.

BOOK REVIEW | American War by Omar El Akkad| Canada Reads 2018 Contender #2

3/5 stars

I struggled to get through this book – it’s dark and heavy, but something didn’t quite click for me. Omar El Akkad imagines an America of the future; sides are strongly divided and a second civil war breaks out.

Sarat is our central character and force driving the narrative – I wanted to know what would happen with her, so I kept reading. She is six years old in 2074 when the war begins; it’s not long before tragedy strikes her family, leaving them displaced. They end up in a refugee camp where Sarat meets an older man who guides her in unexpected ways . In El Akkad’s future, innocence disappears quickly and people become instruments of war. War crimes are punished through torture, and humanity is lost.

The focus here is on the ways war shapes people. If not for the war, Sarat’s life, and who she ultimately becomes, would be entirely different. It’s heartbreaking to partake in Sarat’s transformation from an innocent child, to a woman of war, to a woman seeking revenge.  El Akkad is making a bold statement and offering a warning with this book – the Red (South) and Blue (North) are deeply divided, mirroring modern America: a country this polarized will eventually break. Something must give. This is a dystopian story, but one that doesn’t feel impossible.

BOOK REVIEW | Broken River by J. Robert Lennon

5/5 stars

This book is so unique. It opens with a violent scene: a family in upstate New York is trying to escape from their house with their young daughter in tow. The whole scene is narrated from the perspective of “the observer”, a ghost-like presence that floats in and out throughout the entirety of the book. We do not know what the family is trying to escape, but the husband and wife are murdered as their daughter hides in the woods, leaving the young girl alone. The killers remain on the loose, with the observer being the only witness to the crime.

Over the years, the abandoned house becomes a spot for young lovers to find privacy and eventually for vandals to destroy. Realtors try relentlessly to sell the house – it is renovated beautifully, and then destroyed again. No one wants to buy a house where murders have taken place. After a long vacancy, the house is finally sold, renovations take place yet again, and a new family moves in.

Karl is an overgrown teenager – childish, irresponsible, and unfaithful. His wife Eleanor is a cancer survivor and begrudging, though successful, “chick-lit” novelist who suspects her cancer may have returned. Irina, their adolescent daughter, is witty and wise, brave and insecure, and an aspiring writer as well. Eleanor and Irina take a great interest in their home’s history, unknowingly becoming  apart of its narrative. A local resident, Samantha, soon becomes entwined with the family, culminating in a dramatic denouement.

It’s difficult to put into words that which makes this book so good. I cared about these characters – they are all spiraling in different ways, and I wanted them to wake up. They are messy, real. The omnipresent observer served as a clear vantage point for everything going on – sort of a non-judgemental landing place that helped to piece it all together. This is the sort of book that begs the question: what does it all mean? How much control do we have in our lives? Are we really writing our own narratives? Is everything predetermined? There are no bells or whistles here, just great storytelling and character development. I’ll definitely be checking out Lennon’s other books in 2018.

BOOK REVIEW | A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

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4/5 stars

I am so behind on book reviews and am trying to get caught up before 2017 ends, so I’ll keep this brief!

I am a horror fanatic but, admittedly, not a huge fan of exorcism stories. I’m not sure why, but they have never been my go-to for horror, and I rarely find them genuinely scary. In A Head Full of Ghosts, Tremblay takes the familiar exorcism narrative and flips it on its head. Clearly a fan of the genre, I felt like I was reading the work of someone who did their homework, and I mean that in the best way possible!

We follow the Barrett family as they search for the root of 14 year old Marjorie’s sudden strange behaviour. It she acting out as teenagers often do? Is it mental illness? Or is this a genuine possession? It all starts years after the drama, when Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry, is being interviewed by a best-selling author for a tell-all about her family’s experience. Take everything you know about demons and exorcism, and add in a reality TV scenario along with a complicated family dynamic and you’ve got the makings of a great book. Through unique blog entries, Tremblay is able to dive deep into the business of making horror movies, and I must say I flagged many pages so that I can remember to check out some of the iconic scenes he mentions later.

I loved this book and I’m glad that I went for it, regardless of my fatigue with exorcism stories. This is a great addition to the horror section of my bookshelf!

BOOK REVIEW | Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

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3.5 / 5 stars

My thoughts:
This is a solid collection of short stories from an incredibly talented writer. Reading Chaon’s work, you can’t help but feel as though he is either consciously or subconsciously revealing parts of himself. His flaws, his fears, thoughts on family, love, and death. He is a man who has loved and lost, and you feel the depth of his experience between the pages of his books.

This collection has a few brilliant, eerie stories. The first story, The Bees is so, so good, and so, so creepy. This collection started off with a bang! There’s some imagery there that I can’t get out of my mind. This story felt complete, it gave me everything I needed.

I struggle a little with short stories because I almost always want more, and this collection is no different. Many of the stories felt incomplete – I wanted Chaon to save therm to flesh out full novels! That said, they were all great to read and that is certainly the mark of a great writer – give me more! All of the stories are dark and twisted in one way or another.

Chaon is my kind of writer, and I am excited to continue working through his catalog. If you’ve read Chaon, tell me what I should pick up next!

 

BOOK REVIEW | All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

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5/5 stars

My thoughts:
This book is stunning. It’s challenging, disturbing, and will make you uncomfortable. Bryn Greenwood creates a relationship that by all practical accounts will make your stomach turn, and flips the table so drastically that you will question everything you know to be right and moral. I found myself struggling with some of the scenes, but also found myself justifying so much of it. I had to ask myself, what defines love?

It’s 1975 and Wavy is a little girl at 5 years old. Her parents are addicted to drugs, and she is living with her aunt Brenda and her cousins. As a result of her trauma, Wavy doesn’t speak, leaving everyone to think she’s mentally challenged. Wavy eventually goes on to live with her he grandmother, and finally ends up back with her mother.

Living with her mother, Wavy takes care of herself and her younger brother, Donal, cleaning and preparing food. A few years have passed and she is 8 years old when a chance encounter with 19 year old Kellen occurs. Kellen, a criminal who works for Wavy’s father, crashes his motorcycle by her house, and Wavy rushes out to see if he is OK. There is clearly a connection between the two, and after her becomes aware of Wavy’s living situation, Kellen steps in to help. Kellen cleans the house, buys food for Wavy and Donal, and begins to pay for Wavy’s school fees. Over time, Wavy begins to trust Kellen, and the two become inseparable.

As the years pass, Wavy and Kellen’s relationship evolves from something innocent to something more – there are many moments that gave me pause. Their connection, however, is something hard to define, something more than love. Is Kellen a pedophile? Is he taking advantage of Wavy in her disadvantaged situation? There is no sexual attraction between Wavy and Kellen initially. Kellen states “that’s not the only thing love means. You just got your mind in the gutter”.

Told from multiple points of view, we gain other character’s perspectives on their relationship. Naturally, many characters are horrified by their bond and work to keep them apart. Greenwood herself is the ” daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer”, and has stated that this book was partially inspired by her relationship with an older man when she was 13 years old. Greenwood has created a world in which this relationship feels right, regardless of how inappropriate much of it is. As a mother and a fierce protector of children, I’m blown away by her feat. Only a skilled writer can craft a story like this and have you rooting for the couple. I’m looking forward to more from Greenwood, and may have to check out her backlist.