BOOK REVIEW | The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whithall | Scotiabank Giller Prize Shortlist

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
What if someone you trusted was accused of the unthinkable?

George Woodbury, an affable teacher and beloved husband and father, is arrested for sexual impropriety at a prestigious prep school. His wife, Joan, vaults between denial and rage as the community she loved turns on her. Their daughter, Sadie, a popular over-achieving high school senior, becomes a social pariah. Their son, Andrew, assists in his father’s defense, while wrestling with his own unhappy memories of his teen years. A local author tries to exploit their story, while an unlikely men’s rights activist attempts to get Sadie onside their cause. With George locked up, how do the members of his family pick up the pieces and keep living their lives? How do they defend someone they love while wrestling with the possibility of his guilt?

With exquisite emotional precision, award-winning author Zoe Whittall explores issues of loyalty, truth, and the meaning of happiness through the lens of an all-American family on the brink of collapse.

My thoughts:
This is a difficult book to review, given its subject matter. I wish I could say that I loved it, but I found a few elements distracting. The topic covered is so important, and I don’t want this review to take away from that.

The Best Kind of People tells the story of the Woodbury’s, a well off and well respected family. Things change dramatically for the family, however, when patriarch George is accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour with some of the young girls at the school where he teaches. This is a look at how a family is impacted by a loved one’s crimes, and I absolutely loved this concept. We follow George’s wife, Joan, and children, Sadie and Andrew, as they walk through a very uncertain path. When something this tragic happens, how are the remaining family members affected?

Whithall is a Canadian writer, and there is something about this book that feels distinctly Canadian to me, even though it is not set here. Little things that make it feel like this happened close to home. In particular, the character Anna Lansing, a woman Joan met at a support group, and her husband Richard reflected upon a very famous and disturbing case that non-Canadian readers may not have known about. A couple of years ago Colonel Russell Williams was arrested for crimes almost exactly as described in this excerpt:

Two years ago, the high commander in the US Army has been tried and convicted for two murders and dozens more sexual assaults, as well as a string of break-ins and robberies of women’s garments.

Williams’ crimes went further and were incredibly disturbing. I won’t leave a link to the story, but a quick google search will fill in the blanks if you’re interested. I recall how people questioned what, if anything, his wife knew of his crimes. This is a huge element to Whithall’s narrative – is it really possible for a wife to be unaware of her husband’s crimes?

I found the first 1/3 of this book to be riveting; I was pulled in quickly and deeply invested in the story. Then, something waned – the writing started to feel sloppy, and I didn’t enjoy the facts and statistics that were thrown in as part of the dialogue. The message was getting crammed down my throat. We know that victims are often put through terrible scrutiny after coming forward, and this is so valuable to explore. I would love to read a well-drawn book that explores this injustice, please leave a recommendation below if you have one. This book touches on this topic, but it never really goes anywhere. Ultimately, the ending and the result of George’s trial does absolutely nothing to satisfy the reader – but I suppose that is the point? The ending was incredibly frustrating and rushed, but again, this could have been intentional.

I am really interested in Whithall as a writer, and will likely check out her next work. I think she has some awesome ideas and a skill set I’d like to see grow and develop. This is an important book that would have valued from some more aggressive editing.

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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.

BOOK REVIEW | A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

My thoughts:
What is happiness but an extravagance…?

I finished A Little Life minutes ago, and am still trying to catch my breath and wipe away the tears. This book pulls you deep into its world, grips you tightly, and finally, relentlessly, lets you go. A beautiful portrait of male friendship, we follow the lives of Jude, JB, Willem, and Malcom from their years after college graduation into middle age. This, however, is Jude’s story. This book explores the darkest dark of humanity, the brutality of life after extreme violence, and the extent of human endurance.

…how hard it is to keep alive someone who doesn’t want to stay alive.

This quote resonated so deeply for me, and brought to light so many questions about what makes life worth living. If someone is in extreme pain, emotionally or physically, why are they meant to hold on? Should they have to? Is their continuation of life only for the comfort of other people? When is it OK to give a loved one permission to leave this world? These are questions that I have spent a lot of time thinking about prior to reading this book, and it was as comforting as it was difficult to contemplate these thoughts as I followed Jude through his life.

This book wasn’t perfect, and certain elements were distracting for me, but I couldn’t possibly give it anything less than 5 stars. I bawled more than once, and the ending was a perfect release. If you’re ready to take this journey, I hope that you will find it a rewarding and challenging endeavour.

BOOK REVIEW | All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker

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2.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In the small, affluent town of Fairview, Connecticut everything seems picture perfect.

Until one night when young Jenny Kramer is attacked at a local party. In the hours immediately after, she is given a controversial drug to medically erase her memory of the violent assault. But, in the weeks and months that follow, as she heals from her physical wounds, and with no factual recall of the attack, Jenny struggles with her raging emotional memory. Her father, Tom, becomes obsessed with his inability to find her attacker and seek justice while her mother, Charlotte, prefers to pretend this horrific event did not touch her perfect country club world.

As they seek help for their daughter, the fault lines within their marriage and their close-knit community emerge from the shadows where they have been hidden for years, and the relentless quest to find the monster who invaded their town – or perhaps lives among them – drive this psychological thriller to a shocking and unexpected conclusion.

My thoughts:
This is an incredibly difficult book to review – I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. To start, it’s is extremely triggering. If you have experienced sexual violence, this book may be hard to read as graphic depictions of rape are illustrated throughout. I am comfortable with all topics and never shy away from anything graphic, controversial, or frightening, but this book is extremely detailed and it’s a lot take in. Jenny Kramer is brutally raped at a party, and is given an experimental treatment that erases her memory of the traumatic event. While the graphic detail seems to be too much, it does serve some purpose; as a reader, you feel the violation – it becomes real. Since this book is marketed as a thriller, I wasn’t expecting such a significant statement on sexual violence.

The element that struck me most with this book is the idea of erasing the memory of a trauma. If you erase the physical memory, will the emotional memory still respond to triggers? Will the victim be better if they do not know what they suffered? Or, is moving through the suffering the path to healing?

I struggled with the narrator in this book, and unfortunately this is what takes away from the story. It’s written from the perspective of an unreliable, third person minor character, which is a device I often love. Dr. Alan Forrester, the psychiatrist that is treating Jenny and her family following the attack, tells us Jenny’s story through his unique lens; as a psychiatrist, he has insights into all of the major characters. I love an unreliable narrator, but Forrester often confused me: he would jump from being so compassionate and caring with Jenny, to uncharacteristically calling a young woman a slut.

Finally, the shocking twist that was promised was not really shocking at all. Unpredictable, yes, but not the major plot shift that I was expecting. I was left disappointed.

All is Not Forgotten had so much going for it, but the unreliable narrator combined with the disappointing conclusion made for a flop. Wendy Walker is clearly creative and intelligent, and I would be interested in seeing what she comes up with next.