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 | The Hate U Give By Angie Thomas

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5/5 Stars

From the Publisher:
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

My Thoughts:
It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It’s about more than that though. It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first – Emmett.

I don’t read much YA, but knew I had to pick up The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas is bold, throwing literary punches right out of the gate, and by the end of chapter two I was in tears. Told from the perspective of Starr, who witnesses her friend shot and killed by the police, Thomas provides enlightenment and education about #blacklivesmatter.

The story itself is one we know all too well: a young, unarmed, black person is shot and killed by the police. The aftermath is wrought with pain and injustice, families senselessly torn apart. This book stands out though, not because of the tragedy, but because of Thomas’ strength as a storyteller. She has created a robust cast of characters, each fleshed out and diverse.

Starr is sixteen years old and struggling with her identity as many teens do. Her struggles, however, eventually become a source of her strength. She attends a “white” school that her parents send her to, rather than the school in her neighborhood. She is constantly working out which star she can be in any given situation – prep school Starr, or Starr from the ghetto. When a cop pulls her and her friend, Khalil, over one night, she had no idea she would become witness to tragedy and forced to find her voice against great odds.

We follow star as she moves through her grief, initially fearful, but eventually finding her inner power. Thomas consistently returns to the importance of speaking up and speaking out against injustice – your voice is your most powerful weapon.

Among all of this, we have a YA book with elements that lighten the mood. A romance between Starr and her white boyfriend, Chris, (I laughed out loud when “swirling” came up!), complex friendships, and a love for sneakers.

This book is important and timely, and I hope it reaches beyond liberal minded thinkers. I’d love to see this book in classrooms, sparking conversation among today’s youth. I already felt everything this book is seeking to teach, so I can only hope it finds its way into the hands of people who may not understand #blacklivesmatter.

BOOK REVIEW | Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbø

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Olav lives the lonely life of a fixer. When you ‘fix’ people for a living – terminally – it’s hard to get close to anyone. Now he’s finally met the woman of his dreams. But there are two problems. She’s his boss’ wife. And Olav’s just been hired to kill her. From the bestselling author of BAFTA-nominated Headhunters, comes Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow: a short, sharp shock of a thriller.

My thoughts:
This was my second Jo Nesbø read, and I am so enamored with his writing. I loved, and raved about, The Son, and Blood on Snow packs a similar emotional punch. Nesbø writes characters you fall in love with, regardless of their criminal acts.

Olav is a “fixer”, or hitman, for a notorious drug distributor. He doesn’t like what he does but circumstances have led him to this path, and he knows he’s good at his job. When a job goes wrong after Olav strays from his directions, he becomes the target and ends up taking his boss’ wife into hiding with him to protect her. Olav reaches out to his boss’ main competitor, “The Fisherman”, for help and they set out to fix him first.

The storyline is compelling and keeps you flipping the pages, but it’s Olav that makes the book so impactful. He’s a reader and a romantic, spending his time thinking about the love story in Les Miserables and relating it to his own life. As we learn about his childhood he becomes more sympathetic, regardless of the brutal crimes he has committed.

This book is violent with some pretty shocking moments, but it’s impressive how much depth Nesbø delivers in this short story. I’ve been itching to start the Harry Hole series for ages, and with the latest installment coming out soon, it may be time. I’ll also be reading the companion to this book, Midnight Sun, when it arrives in the mail. If you’re looking for an unconventional crime read, be sure to pick this up!

BOOK REVIEW | The Nix by Nathan Hill

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.

To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.

My thoughts:
There is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many other true ones.

The Nix is exactly my type of book: long and sprawling, detailing complex human relationships. Almost immediately, this book reminded me of John Irving. Elements of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp abound, thought it manages to retain its own unique voice. I’m not sure if Nathan Hill was inspired by Irving, but I couldn’t help but compare him to one of my favourite writers. Hill tackles politics, activism, and mother and son relationships with a smart comic voice that completely drew me in. I laughed out loud more than once while reading this.

Samuel Andresen-Anderson is an apathetic college professor and struggling writer. His mother, Faye, abandoned him and his father when he was a young boy, leaving him with a gap in his life that he has been unable to fill. Meanwhile, a 60 something year old woman is thrown into the media spotlight after committing a bizarre crime, and he soon realizes that the woman is his mother. The media is quick to label Faye as a radical hippie with a troubling history, but that’s not the woman Samuel remembers. When his publisher offers him a deal to write a tell-all book about his mother, he begins the journey into re-discovering the woman who abandoned him all those years ago.

This is an ambitious debut novel for Hill, and I am so impressed by its strength. This book is over 600 pages long yet I didn’t want it to end. His prose and wit are razor sharp, and his ability to connect this wild story to the human condition blew me away. This deeply emotional journey centers on the power of forgiveness and the value of the supporting characters in our lives.

BOOK REVIEW | Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
One hot August day a family drives to a mountain clearing to collect birch wood. Jenny, the mother, is in charge of lopping any small limbs off the logs with a hatchet. Wade, the father, does the stacking. The two daughters, June and May, aged nine and six, drink lemonade, swat away horseflies, bicker, and sing snatches of songs as they while away the time.

But then something unimaginably shocking happens, an act so extreme it will scatter the family in every different direction.

In a story told from multiple perspectives and in razor-sharp prose, we gradually learn more about this act, and the way its violence, love and memory reverberate through the life of every character in Idaho.

My thoughts:
Perhaps it’s what both their hearts have been wanting all along – to be broken. In order to know that they were whole enough to break.

I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by the writing in a book. I read beautifully written books all of the time, but Ruskovich’s prose is absolutely stunning. It’s simple and lyrical, yet carries so much weight. Simple revelations or descriptions would nearly move me to tears. I read this book slowly, because it’s the only way to read a book like this. I savored the prose, and was completely enthralled with the characters. Ruskovich tells the story of a deeply broken family and the power of memory.

Anne is a music teacher who married a man named Wade. Wade is loosing his memory to dementia, and came to her intent on taking piano lessons after hearing that it can help with memory. He was married previously and had two daughters, May and June. On one tragic day, he loses it all. Years later, he is haunted by the parts of his memory that he can recall, as well as the parts that he is loosing. Anne meets Wade during the early stages of his memory loss, and desperately wants to care for him and find her way into his heart. The story is told from multiple perspectives and timelines, making for a well rounded picture of the family. We hear from Anne, the girls, Wade’s ex-wife Jenny, and more.

This book is painfully sad, but has so many moments of joy and beauty within. I adored the scenes with May and June as little girls, swimming in water barrels and playing the game MASH. Ruskovich so perfectly captured the innocence of childhood, and I loved getting to know them. Wade’s memory loss really resonated with me, as I watched my Grandmother suffer with Alzheimer’s, and eventually completely forget who I was. It’s absolutely shocking and heartbreaking to experience.

Here’s the thing – this book will not be for everyone. It’s completely character driven, and I think some readers will find this dissatisfying. There is a plot here, but the plot is the force behind the characters motivations and choices, not what keeps the story moving forward. For me, this book was nearly perfect. Ruskovich crafted something truly unique with Idaho, and I will be anxiously awaiting her next creation.

BOOK REVIEW | Exit West by Moshin Hamid

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, Saeed and Nadia share a cup of coffee, and their story begins. It will be a love story but also a story about war and a world in crisis, about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow. Before too long, the time will come for Nadia and Saeed to leave their homeland. When the streets are no longer useable and all options are exhausted, this young couple will join the great outpouring of those fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world . . .

My thoughts:
Exit West by Moshin Hamid couldn’t have come a better time. This is the sort of book that we need right now, and I am so glad that I took time for this short read. It’s a book about civil war and migration, and how life can suddenly change during times of turmoil. The heart of this book, however, is a love story. It’s the story of two people falling in love, and then falling out of it.

Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. 

Nadia and Saeed meet, and before too long the relationship blossoms. They make a quick connection, and are soon spending their evenings together. Hamid is quick to let the reader know that this is not your average couple – Saeed is set on keeping the relationship chaste, while Nadia is not. She also smokes marijuana, takes psychedelic mushrooms, and rides a motorcycle. When asked why she wears the “all-concealing black robes”, she simply replies “so men don’t fuck with me”.

Hamid’s brilliance comes in the anonymity of the country that Nadia and Saeed flee from. A civil war is breaking out, and the reader must experience the violence and death from a completely unbiased perspective. This is a story about people who are in danger and the sacrifices they make to stay safe – it’s as simple as that. Not naming a specific country allows the humanity of the story to take the lead. Imagine a life in which a window becomes an instrument of death – Hamid reminds us of the reasons people emigrate.

One’s relationship with a window now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire…the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily.

I was not expecting a story rooted in magical realism, but that’s much of what this is. Nadia and Saeed move through doors that transport them to new places as they seek refuge after fleeing their homeland. Through their journey they grow closer, and then apart. Hamid describes them as a couple that is uncoupling, a sentiment many will relate to. Hamid’s prose is fluid and unique – I’ve never read anything like this before. Allow yourself to be swept away by this magical book, it’s a timely and rewarding read.

BOOK REVIEW | Christodora by Tim Murphy

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4.75/5 stars

From the publisher:
In this vivid and compelling novel, Tim Murphy follows a diverse set of characters whose fates intertwine in an iconic building in Manhattan’s East Village, the Christodora. The Christodora is home to Milly and Jared, a privileged young couple with artistic ambitions. Their neighbor, Hector, a Puerto Rican gay man who was once a celebrated AIDS activist but is now a lonely addict, becomes connected to Milly and Jared’s lives in ways none of them can anticipate. Meanwhile, Milly and Jared’s adopted son Mateo grows to see the opportunity for both self-realization and oblivion that New York offers. As the junkies and protestors of the 1980s give way to the hipsters of the 2000s and they, in turn, to the wealthy residents of the crowded, glass-towered city of the 2020s, enormous changes rock the personal lives of Milly and Jared and the constellation of people around them. Moving kaleidoscopically from the Tompkins Square Riots and attempts by activists to galvanize a true response to the AIDS epidemic, to the New York City of the future, Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself.

My thoughts:
This book gutted me; it tore me apart. It made me laugh and made me cry. It’s the kind of book that sticks – I know I will be thinking about this story and these characters for a long, long time. Tim Murphy’s Christodora is a bold story centered around AIDS activism in New York in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s so much more to it than that, though. There is love, death, and heartbreak. There is loneliness, addiction, and depression. There is beauty, art, and hope.

At the heart of this story is Milly – a talented young artist and daughter of Ava, a pioneer in the fight for AIDS research. In a story spanning 30 decades, we follow Milly from her youth into her middle-age, jumping back and forth in time to paint a clear picture of her life. Ava struggles with her mental health, something that impacted her ability to be a good mother to Milly when she was a child. As Milly gets older she begins experiencing depression and fears that she is following in her mother’s footsteps.

In her early 20’s Milly lives with her sculptor husband, Jared, in the Christodora House, an iconic apartment building in New York’s East side. Hector, their neighbour, was once a prominent AIDS activist, but after a personal tragedy turned to crystal meth. Jared is frustrated by his presence in the building and wants him out. However, Hector and Ava were a part of the early AIDS fight together, and Milly feels conflicted about where her loyalties should fall. Through Ava’s work, Milly and Jared meet a 5 year old boy, Mateo, whose mother died of AIDS when he was a baby. Milly falls for the little boy with the wild hair, and they end up adopting him. Mateo’s life will eventually crash with Hector’s in unimaginable ways.

Going into this book I knew very little about AIDS and the activism that took place during the 80’s and 90’s. For example, I had I no idea that early definitions of AIDS excluded women and that many believed women couldn’t contract the illness. I had no idea that there was a fight for proper medical funding and research, a fight for adequate medication. This book was an education, and I have to thank Tim Murphy for that – it was eye opening. That said, please don’t think of this as an AIDS book, it’s so much more than that.

Murphy has created something truly remarkable with this story, and I didn’t want it to end. Even though they are often selfish and flawed, I can’t recall the last time I felt so deeply invested in the characters of a book. Reading Murphy’s acknowledgements solidified for me how personal this book was for him, and I can only be grateful that he chose to share so much of himself, his experiences, and his losses with the reading world. Fans of A Little Life, this one is for you.