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.

BOOK REVIEW | Ill Will by Dan Chaon

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.

Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients has been plying him with stories of the drowning deaths of a string of drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses his patient’s suggestions that a serial killer is at work as paranoid thinking, but as the two embark on an amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.

My thoughts:
This book is completely my wheelhouse – incredibly dark, twisted, pure literary goodness. I was on edge the entire time, but not because of the action – this book is not fast paced but rather a calculated unraveling of the pieces of a puzzle. I felt uneasy while reading it, and the discomfort made me squirm. I’m honestly in awe of Dan Chaon and what has accomplished with this story.

When Dustin Tillman was a child, his parents, aunt, and uncle were killed. His foster brother, Rusty, was arrested for the crime, Dustin’s testimony and the Satanic Panic of the 80’s playing major contributing factors in his conviction. Years later, Rusty is released from prison, exonerated by new DNA evidence. Meanwhile, young men are turning up drowned in rivers across the country. Dustin, a psychologist and widow with two sons of his own, is treating a new patient who believes he has insights into the drowned men, and all is not what it seems.

Initially this plot and Chaon’s direction seen straight forward – a sinister novel about murder, revenge, and hysteria. There is so much more here though, and I soon began to question Dustin and his memories. As we learn about his past, more questions arise than are answered.

The ending of this book will drive some readers mad, but I actually found it perfect. You are not going to get a perfectly wrapped up story, and questions are left unanswered. This book was a hell of a ride, and I loved it so much I have already stated reading Stay Awake, a book of Chaon’s short stories.

BOOK REVIEW | Brother by Ania Ahlborn

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Deep in the heart of Appalachia stands a crooked farmhouse miles from any road. The Morrows keep to themselves, and it’s served them well so far. When girls go missing off the side of the highway, the cops don’t knock on their door. Which is a good thing, seeing as to what’s buried in the Morrows’ backyard.

But nineteen-year-old Michael Morrow isn’t like the rest of his family. He doesn’t take pleasure in the screams that echo through the trees. Michael pines for normalcy, and he’s sure that someday he’ll see the world beyond West Virginia. When he meets Alice, a pretty girl working at a record shop in the small nearby town of Dahlia, he’s immediately smitten. For a moment, he nearly forgets about the monster he’s become. But his brother, Rebel, is all too eager to remind Michael of his place…

My thoughts:
It’s been a while since I read a horror novel that got under my skin, leaving me utterly terrified and disgusted. Enter Ania Ahlborn’s Brother. This is the horrific story of an Appalachian family bound together by a disturbing practice. Readers be warned – this one is twisted, depraved, gory, violent, and so so brutal. I loved it.

Michael has never really fit in with his family. He gets along with his sister, Misty, but couldn’t be more different than his brother, Reb (short for Rebel). The relationship with father seems non-existent and his mother is cold and unloving, but needs Michael around to make good use of his…unique…skill set.  On a trip into town with Reb, Michael meets a girl named Alice who works at the local record shop. Alice dreams of a better life for herself; she is a talented comic artist who fantasizes about getting out of West Vigninia and making something of her work. As their relationship develops, Michael starts to imagine a life with Alice and away from his family.  Tension builds from this point on, as you wonder how Michael would be able to bring someone into the folds of his offbeat family unit. Reb is quick to remind Michael that family is everything. As the story unfolds blood is spilled and horrific secrets are revealed. The final pages left me so upset I was almost in tears.

Here’s something I’ve never said before: this book would make an amazing graphic novel. As soon as we learn that Alice draws comics, I started picturing this book in panels. I’m not a huge graphic novel reader, but I couldn’t shake this the entire time I was reading it. It would be SO GOOD!

Ahlborn is clearly a huge fan of 80’s music and classic horror movies; a woman after my own heart. The music references are a ton of fun (Ania also thanks The Cure in the book’s acknowledgements – one of my favourite bands), and I can’t help but wonder if naming her central character Michael is a subtle nod to one of my all time favourite scary guys, Michael Myers.

If you’re a fan of horror, you must read this book – it gets 5 starts from me for shocking me right to the end.

BOOK REVIEW | The Other by Thomas Tryon

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Holland and Niles Perry are identical thirteen-year-old twins. They are close, close enough, almost, to read each other’s thoughts, but they couldn’t be more different. Holland is bold and mischievous, a bad influence, while Niles is kind and eager to please, the sort of boy who makes parents proud. The Perrys live in the bucolic New England town their family settled centuries ago, and as it happens, the extended clan has gathered at its ancestral farm this summer to mourn the death of the twins’ father in a most unfortunate accident. Mrs. Perry still hasn’t recovered from the shock of her husband’s gruesome end and stays sequestered in her room, leaving her sons to roam free. As the summer goes on, though, and Holland’s pranks become increasingly sinister, Niles finds he can no longer make excuses for his brother’s actions.

My thoughts:
Niles, look at me…You have a secret. Tell it to me. Tell it to Ada.

This is the sort of book that makes you want to start reading it again as soon as you’ve finished the last page. I went into The Other expecting a quick read, and ended up getting more than I bargained for. This is the dark tale of twin brothers Niles and Holland; a story full of plot twists and chilling imagery. Reading keeps you wondering if things are things what we think they are, or if we are at the mercy of a disturbed mind? As with many works that centre around disturbed children, expect some animal violence as well.

As Dan Chon mentions in his Afterword in the NYBR edition, The Other calls to mind works by Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith – not bad company to be in for Tryon. While this was a bit slow in pace, I really enjoyed it and loved reading the final chapters on Halloween!

BOOK REVIEW | The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
It starts with just one body – tortured, mummified and then discarded.

Its discovery reveals a nightmare world of hidden lives. Of lost identities, secret rituals and brutal exploitation, where nobody can be trusted.

This is the darkest, most complex case the police have ever seen.

This is the world of the Crow Girl.

My thoughts:
When I finished The Crow Girl last night, I was on a high and put it down as 5 stars on Goodreads. After thinking about it for a while, I feel like 4 starts makes more sense. This book took me an extremely long time to read, about 2 months, which is very rare for me as I usually read a book in  matter of a few days.I have a few thoughts on to why that was the case, and I will get to them soon. This book is very complex, so I hope my thoughts are coherent!

Let me start by saying that I loved this book, but, it took me a while to realize I did. It starts with a bang, the discovery of a  dead boy, and does not let down it’s pace for the entirety of it’s nearly 800 pages. This is a massive feat for a book of this length – it never lags, is exciting the whole way through, and compels the reader forward. Somewhere in the middle the plot waned, but I must say that the conclusion brought it all home for me.

There are times when this book feel a little…disjointed. This may be because it is authored by 2 people, or it may be due to the fact that the 3 original volumes were crammed together to make 1 large volume for it’s North American and UK releases. I have heard that some sections were cut out to make a single volume, and I wonder if this is why some moments felt a little out of place.

As a side note – how cool is the pen name Erik Axl Sund?! Authors Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Axlander Sundquist combined the first parts of each of their last names to created the pseudonym.

Part of what I LOVED about The Crow Girl was the focus on creating short, easily consumable chapters. I’m often reading with my two young boys around, and it’s great to know when the next break is. I loved that I could say “just 1 more page!”, rather than “just 10 more pages!”. That said, this was a blessing and a curse – I feel that this was a huge part of why the book took me so long to read! I never had to read more than a few pages at a time; sometimes I would devour 50 pages, and other times I would read 3 pages and then put it down for the day. Another reason for the long reading time for me was intense and graphic nature of this book. I never shy away from the dark and disturbing, but when kids are involved I find it much more difficult to take. Small bites worked best for me while digesting this complex piece of work.

This novel is extremely triggering – please know this before going into it. Expect:

  • Sexual violence against children
  • Children hurting other children
  • Child murder
  • Self-harm
  • Extreme phychological disassociation and complex looks at sexuality

This is one of the darkest books I’ve ever read, and I was initially concerned that all of this intensity was without merit – purely for shock value. As the story unravels in the 3rd section, everything becomes clear, and I understand the story that the authors wanted to tell . If you love crime fiction, Nordic Noir, Scandinavian novels, or psychological thrillers – you MUST read The Crow Girl!

If you’ve read this book, please comment below – I would love to discuss this book!

BOOK REVIEW | The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
A teenage girl is held captive and brutally tortured by neighborhood children. Based on a true story, this shocking novel reveals the depravity of which we are all capable.

This novel contains graphic content and is recommended for regular readers of horror novels

My thoughts:
It seems to me…likely that it was precisely because she was beautiful and strong, and we were not, that Ruth and the rest of us had done this to her. To make a sort of judgement on they beauty, on what it meant and didn’t mean to us.

This book was incredibly difficult to read, and at times I wondered why I was. In fact, Jack Ketchum said his “aim was to make you feel guilty about turning the goddamn page” – as a reader, you feel complicit in the torture of Meg and Susan. As horrific as this book is, the true story of Sylvia Likens is much, much worse. If you take this on, please know that is is extremely violent, explicit, and involves kids.