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.

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BOOK REVIEW | The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Enid, long-time matriarch of the Lambert family, sets her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.
Published to universal acclaim, Jonathan Franzen’s novel about a post-modern family breaking down in late-twentieth-century America is a comic, tragic masterpiece. Richly realistic, darkly hilarious, and deeply human, The Corrections has been a fixture on bestseller lists since its debut and was one of the most talked-about books of the year.

My thoughts:
Finally, after way too long, I have read Franzen. Yes, this was my first. I’m not sure what my expectations were going into this book, but I must say I really liked it. I think I was prepared to hate it purely based on Franzen’s reputation for being, you know, a pretentious asshole. I love confident, bold writers, but cannot stand it if there is no merit behind the big personality. Thankfully, I was able to connect with it and understand his appeal.

This is the story of a family, the Lamberts. Enid and Alfred, the matriarch and patriarch, are living together in a way that many couples live together after a lifetime – as roommates. Enid longs for Alfred’s touch and attention, while Alfred grows increasingly irritable and senile. Alfred has always been moody and distant with his family, while Enid fantasizes about romance and the ideal family. Enid wants, more than anything, to have one more Christmas celebration in their hometown of St. Jude. This means attempting to rally her three children, Gary, Chip, and Denise, together for the event. This sort of sounds like the setup for a fun holiday movie, but I can assure you that is not what this is.

I’m finding this review difficult to write – there’s a lot going on with this book, but there’s also not a lot going on – which I realize makes no sense. There’s action and advancement of the story line, but this is heavily character driven. Franzen shines with his characters. He has created a cast of flawed people with messy lives that many will hate, but I found myself relating to each member of this family for different reasons. Enid’s desire for love and family, Alfred’s internal space and need for privacy, Gary’s depression and the pressures of family life and responsibility, Denise’s search for identity, and Chip’s hunt for success. Some of the moments that hit me the hardest in this book are so quiet and unassuming that they can easily be missed. For example, a family meal that no one is enjoying only to be topped off with a desert of pineapple, igniting Alfred to become angry with Enid. It’s not a loud moment, but it also is. If that makes sense.

There’s a lot of unpack with this book, and a lot more going on than I will touch on here: economic crisis, sexuality, depression and mental illness, elder care, and so much more. Readers who enjoy beefy books that call for analysis will likely be at home with the Corrections.

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 | The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Young Jude Brighton has been missing for three days, and while the search for him is in full swing in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, the locals are starting to lose hope. They’re well aware that the first forty-eight hours are critical and after that, the odds usually point to a worst-case scenario. And despite Stevie Clark’s youth, he knows that, too; he’s seen the cop shows. He knows what each ticking moment may mean for Jude, his cousin and best friend.

That, and there was that boy, Max Larsen…the one from years ago, found dead after also disappearing under mysterious circumstances. And then there were the animals: pets gone missing out of yards. For years, the residents of Deer Valley have murmured about these unsolved crimes…and that a killer may still be lurking around their quiet town. Now, fear is reborn—and for Stevie, who is determined to find out what really happened to Jude, the awful truth may be too horrifying to imagine.

My thoughts:
Ania Ahlborn takes the dysfunctional family to new heights with her latest book, The Devil Crept In. She explores the lengths that a mother would go to to protect her child, while delivering just the right amount of mystery to keep you flipping the pages.

Stevie is a bit of a weird kid: he has a speech disorder, a couple missing fingertips, and no friends except for his cousin, Jude. With an abusive drunk for a step-father and an older brother who wants little to do with him, Stevie depends on his relationship with Jude for escape. Jude, who developed behavioral problems after his father’s death, is known to be aggressive and is often in trouble. When Jude goes missing, most people chock it up as Jude acting out again. Stevie knows that Jude didn’t just run away and is determined to find him, even venturing out into the woods to search for him on his own. Stevie is a great unreliable narrator; he’s constantly on edge and questioning every shadow he sees while trying to find answers. Suddenly Jude returns – but, it’s not the Jude that Stevie knew: he’s unresponsive and blank, with peeling, itchy skin.

The story is told in three parts, and is a bit slow to get going. I really enjoyed the middle section when we are introduced to Rosie and her struggles. Rosie’s longing and self-consciousness are relatable, and in a strange way I understand the choices she made. You’ll have to read the book to understand what I mean! The action picks up in the final third, and it’s a brutal and gruesome as I hoped it would be. I could have done without the epilogue, as I wasn’t crazy about how it capped off some of the story lines. Ahlborn really shined in her capture of Stevie’s childhood, and I completely believed I was in the mind of a ten year old boy. I also loved the big brother / little brother dynamic between Dunk and Stevie – Ahlborn totally nailed this relationship. It’s hard to read a story like this and not be reminded of the King; I can certainly feel Ahlborn’s influence, and fans of his will likely enjoy this book.

My only complaint with this book is that it just wasn’t scary enough – I didn’t feel a foreboding sense of dread. . Creepy? Definitely. Disturbing? Heck yes! This was a great read, but not one that kept me up at night.

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.