Friday, October 29, 2010

Co-review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

It's fitting that this review comes so soon after Jenny recently reviewed Brandon Sanderson's newest book, since Dan Wells credits Sanderson with pushing him to write I Am Not a Serial Killer in the first place. Having Sanderson's support wasn't enough to make it very easy to get a hold of, though. Initially it was only published in the UK, then was released in the US last spring. But I still had to wait for an InterLibrary Loan (from out-of-state, no less!) to finally get my hands on it.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is a first-person narrative by an intriguing, yet disturbing, 15-year-old boy. John Wayne Cleaver is a morbid teenager who has been raised in a mortuary and has a keen fascination with death. He is obsessed with serial killers and makes a hobby out of studying them. The more he learns, the more convinced he is that he is destined to become a serial killer himself. But he doesn't want that, so he desperately follows a set of self-imposed rules to try to counteract his sociopathic tendencies.

Things change for John when a series of gruesome murders begin haunting the small town. John's unique perspective allows him to discover the murderer long before the police even get close, and he becomes convinced that he is the only one who can stop the killer. But to do so, he feels he must surrender to the monster within, and risk losing himself (or fulfilling his destiny, he's not sure which) forever.

As usual, we like to discuss these co-reviews openly, so consider yourself forewarned!

Caren: After a run of somewhat blah books lately, I Am Not a Serial Killer really made me sit up and take notice. I don't like guts and gore, so I felt pretty squeamish at the beginning when he was describing the process of embalming and the details of the first violent murder. Fortunately, he didn't go into a lot of graphic detail with every murder, or else I might not have been able to get much farther than the first few chapters! But I have to admit that I have a new appreciation for morticians now. I'm so grateful that there are people who make death so sanitary for the rest of us!

Jenny:  I made the mistake of sitting down to eat my lunch while I read this book the first time.  I made a note to myself never to do that again.  It did make me grateful that there are people, non-psychotic people, out there in the world who are willing and able to do the work of preparing the dead for burial.  'Cause it's gross.

I thought it was fascinating that our protagonist and potential hero is a mentally-disturbed teenage boy with his own monster waiting to strike and kill.  Very cool and original.  Freaky too, but it made the angle of the story different than what I was expecting.  Two things that took me by surprise was that we found out who the killer was fairly early in the story and that the killer wasn't human.  I thought for sure this would be a murder mystery that put John into suspicion as the killer and then he used his knowledge of serial killers to find the real killer.  Nope, nothing like that.  When I realized that the story was more about John using his inner demon to destroy the actual demon, it was all symbolic and stuff.

Caren: I was surprised by the supernatural element too.  John talks about himself and his disturbing tendencies in such a gritty matter-of-fact way that I expected the villain to be someone straight out of the news, not out of a comic book.  And it sure surprised me when the killer turned out to be his harmless neighbor!  (It's been a while since I've been genuinely surprised in a novel, so that was kind of fun.)  In some ways it was probably better to have the killer be this weird demon masquerading as a nice old man.  It was easier to read it late at night with the distance of "this could never happen in real life."

The demon was scary, but the creepiest and most disturbing thing to me was watching John struggle with his own unnatural inhumanity.  It makes me wonder how accurate Wells' portrayal is from a psychological standpoint.  I liked that John's therapist didn't think he was beyond hope, and I was glad that he shows himself capable of genuine feeling at the end when he and his mother defeat the demon.  That gives me hope that he's not a true sociopath destined to become a serial killer like he fears.  Even the fact that he doesn't want to become one should count for something, right?

Jenny:  I have a really hard time with books or movies that are about horrific things that can actually happen in real life.  Sci-fi doesn't scare me, just gives me the fun heebie jeebies.  If the killer had been a real person, it would have been way harder to read and I definitely would have avoided reading it at night.  For that I'm glad it was just a super creepy killer monster with a soft side for his wife.

What was really scary to me was when John let his inner monster out.  When he bashed Mrs. Crowley's head with the alarm clock and barely stopped himself from killing her, I was in agony.  I begged Wells not to let John become the monster that he was threatening to become.  Like you said, I also like that his therapist was a good person who truly thought John was a good person with a strong moral code.  He needed Neblin at that critical point and Neblin didn't fail him.  It cost him his life, but it kept John under control.

At that point in the book, my heart was pounding in my chest and I could barely breathe.  As soon as John saw on his GPS that the demon was heading back to the house, I thought I was going to jump out of my skin.  It's been a while since a book had me in such suspense.

Caren: Oh man, me too! It's a good thing it didn't get any more suspenseful because I could barely stand it as it was.  Which made it perfect for Halloween!  And yet, for as creepy and violent as it was, it was surprisingly clean.  I can't remember any bad language or anything sexual, which I would have expected for an edgy novel about a would-be serial killer.

I thought Wells did a really good job with the suspense and developing John's character.  In the acknowledgments, he insists that it's not autobiographical, but I wasn't convinced.  That's how believable John's character was!  (That, and I can't help but wonder about how well-balanced an author can be who writes about such psychosis so convincingly.)  But I admired Wells' restraint.  He showed us just enough of John's dysfunctional relationships with family and friends and his obsession with serial killers to give us a clear picture of his psyche without overdoing it.  It would have been really easy to go over-the-top with a character like John, but Wells didn't, and his reserve made for a stronger novel.

I am both intrigued and nervous that Wells intends this to be the first of a trilogy (I think the second was just recently published).  Intrigued because I am a little curious about what happens to John now.  He's made a breakthrough with his mother.  He has let loose his own monster with it's major issues.  And there were enough references to his father that make me wonder if there is more to come with that story.  But I am nervous that for the story to continue, it will only be because John has greater demons -- both within and without -- that he has to face.  I'm not sure I can handle that!  And I definitely don't like what more novels might mean for the sweet and innocent Brooke that he's stalking at the end.  It makes me shudder just thinking about it!

At least he ends this first novel well enough that I don't feel like I have to read the next one to finish the story.  I always appreciate that in an author!

Jenny:  Yeah, I just read online that it was going to be a trilogy.  It didn't have the feel of a trilogy at the end of the book, so I was surprised.  I'm kinda excited to see where Wells takes John and his tortured self.  There was some seriously scary and upsetting parts in this book, but nothing that wouldn't stop me from reading the next two books.  I have enough faith in Wells' plans for John that I think it could turn out okay in the end.

I just remembered that we read Odd Thomas a few years ago for our October co-review and how scary that was.  Comparing Odd and John to each other, they are polar opposites.  Odd is peace-loving and non-violent except when he's forced to while having a strange ability thrust upon him, while John is tormented by desires to do great violence and constantly keeps it in check.  Yet, I think I like John just as much as I liked Odd.  Not because John is inherently likable, but because he works so hard to be good.  You've read more Odd Thomas than me, what do you think?

Caren: You know, it's funny that you mention Odd Thomas, because I thought of it too.  Partly because that was probably the last time I read something this suspenseful, and partly because of the supernatural element.  You're right that whereas Odd is so good and innocent, John is just plain scary.  But at the same time I can't help feeling compassion for him and wanting everything to work out.  I liked him, even though he freaked me out.

One thing I liked about the story is that as disturbing as it was, there was no such thing as violence without consequences.  So often in the action/thriller genres the good guys commit necessary acts of violence without it affecting their characters.  But the violence John committed changed him, just as it would in real life.  I liked that Wells forced us to face that when a good guy does bad things he can't walk away unscathed.

Okay, I looked up the next one and it looks to be even darker and more intense than the first.  It's called Mr. Monster and picks up right where I Am Not a Serial Killer ends.  The reviews look compelling; people seem to like it even more than the first.  Tell you what, you read it and then let me know what you think.  Maybe I can muster up enough courage if I know it's worth it.

Jenny:  Deal.  I will totally take care of that for you.  I'm excited to see where Wells will take the story.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Slumdog Millionaire and The Wednesday Letters

I started out reviewing Slumdog Millionaire with Crispin: The Cross of Lead, because I read them at the same time, and they both came from my sister-in-law's library cleansing.  But I quickly realized that that would be a really unsettling combination, so Slumdog gets lumped with another strange companion, but one that is at least still geared toward adults.

Slumdog Millionaire, by Vikas Swarup, is a gripping story, but horrible in a way so that I had mixed feelings about it the whole time I was reading it.  Two weeks after finishing it, I still have mixed feelings, but they are settling more and more in the negative.  It is a fascinating story about an illiterate young man in Mumbai who is arrested for cheating after becoming the first winner of the game show, Who Will Win a Billion?  Similar to the format of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? game show that inspired it, Ram Mohammed Thomas had to answer a series of increasingly difficult trivia questions, all of which he happens to know the answer to because of his unique past.  As he explains how he knew the answer to each question, his poignant, funny, and heart-breaking life history unfolds.

It was well-written, fast-paced, and with a clever premise that kept me interested.  But the language was really bad, and the first few chapters were so full of sexual abuse that I started to think that all Indian men were either gay, incestuous, or pedophiles (or two out of three).  Ugh.  It got better after that, and it was remarkable how Ram's purity of character continued to shine in the filth around him, but there were so many horrible things portrayed that I understood why my sister-in-law said she wouldn't read it again.  (As a sidenote, I don't know how a person could stomach watching the feature film.  As horrible as it was to read, I think it would be way worse to watch on screen.)  The ending was ultimately positive and there were some wonderful moments where evil got its just reward and good won out.  But I felt like I needed to scour the creepy crawlies out of my mind when I was done.  So while Swarup had definite talent, I won't be reading any of his work again.

Again from that same batch of disparate books, I recently just finished the New York Times Bestseller (so says the cover) The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright.  A complete reversal from Slumdog Millionaire, The Wednesday Letters overpowered me with it's over-the-top sentimentality and shoddy writing.  Again I felt like I needed a mental scrubbing, but from an overdose of intellectual cotton candy instead.  How do books like this get published, let alone become bestsellers?  The basic plot wasn't so bad.  While getting ready for their elderly parents' double funeral, three adult children discover boxes of letters written from their father to their mother; one on each Wednesday throughout their marriage.  They uncover troubling secrets about their parents' and their own histories that cause crisis, resolution, and eventual healing for each of them.  It's full of emotion, moralizing, and ultimately a good message about forgiveness and cherishing those we love.

My problem with it?  The writing was mediocre at best.  There were times when the perspective would shift mid-sentence to a different character, leaving me with vertigo wondering where I was in the scene.  And every character had to be introduced with a whole pedigree and history instead of just allowing us to discover their essence as the story unfolded.  The dialogue was flat and insincere.  The plot was predictable.  I have no problem with emotional novels that celebrate relationships and family values.  But not when they are an embarrassment to decent writing.  I don't want to invest any more effort than it's worth into saying more about what was wrong with it (like how the resolution of the love triangle was shallow and contradictory), but if I'd had anything else nearby to tempt me, I wouldn't have finished reading it.  Was it a total waste of time?  Not completely, but nearly.  Very nearly.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crispin: The Cross of Lead

Like Jenny, I too have a growing pile of books I've read that are now waiting for me to review. But unlike Jenny, one of them isn't a 1000-page behemoth that at least gives her a good excuse for why she hasn't been able to get to the computer! As it is, I've only got time to do a couple of them here, but I will try to get to the others soon.  The books I've read lately are very different from each other, but have several things in common: Short, require minimal investment, and given to me by my sister-in-law when she was cleaning out her personal library.

(Note to self: When a fellow reader with good taste gives you books from her personal library, remember there's probably a good reason she is getting rid of them.)

The first one I picked up was Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi.  As a Newberry Award winner it most piqued my interest.  And of these recent reads I also enjoyed it the most.  The story takes place in the 14th century, featuring a poor nameless boy who is cast out from his village after his mother dies.  This isn't the fanciful setting most medieval authors portray in their fiction.  It's a more realistic version with feudal lords, serfs, the black plague, and crippling poverty.  Which also made it more interesting, I thought.  Eventually the main character learns that his true name is Crispin and that there is more to his history than he would first suspect.  But it is a history full of sorrow that threatens his life and the life of his one friend and protector, the traveling entertainer called Bear.

That's not really doing the story justice, but you don't really need much more than that.  Once you get started, the book has enough momentum to keep you going.  Like I said, the story, subject, and setting were all really interesting.  But not as gripping as I would normally expect from a Newberry winner.  I've heard that there is a whole series about Crispin, but I haven't decided on whether I'm invested enough in his story to continue it.  However, I would definitely recommend it to it's older children / early teen audience.

I was going to write more about some of the other books I've read, but I realized that none of them really belong paired with a children's novel like Crispin.  So I'll save those for another time.  In the meantime, if you have read the series I would love to hear if you think it's worth continuing or not.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Way of Kings

One of these days I need to stop reading so much and actually write something down.  My pile of finished books keeps growing larger and the blog grows dustier by the minute.  The bigger the pile gets, the more intimidated I get by how far behind I'm getting, which makes me hesitate even more.  It's a vicious cycle.  I should just take notes from Brandon Sanderson who seems to write about a hundred pages a day.  That guy is producing huge amounts of writing per year and has tons more books lined up for publication.  His latest book is The Way of Kings, a whopper at 1,000 pages and the first in what it planned to be a massive epic series.  I'm glad I'm getting in at the beginning of this because if I were to look at ten or so books with 1,000 pages on average twenty years from now, I'd throw my hands up and say forget it.  I don't seek out epic, lengthy fantasy series in general, but for Sanderson, I'll dive in quite happily.

Brandon Sanderson has a gift for world building in his writing.  Well, he also has a gift for witty banter, clever plot developments, believable characters, engaging stories, and fascinating magic systems, but let's focus on the world building for now.  I've had my fill of elves and goblins and apparently so has he because I've yet to read a book of his that has any of the traditional fantastic characters.  In The Way of Kings, it's a world populated by different races of people, some more colorful than others.  By colorful, I mean some have blue skin, some have super long white eyebrows and some have marbled black and red skin.  In the country of Alethkar, the nobility is determined by eye color, the lighter the better.  Dark-eyed people make up the working class.  The nobility have swords and armor that are remnants of an ancient warrior group called The Radiants, and all of their major wars and even minor skirmishes are in pursuit of these swords and plates.  Men who possess Shardplates and swords are called Shardbearers and are very hard to defeat, though it is possible and the swords and plate have passed hands many times over the centuries.  The ancient Radiants used the weapons to defeat the evil Voidbringers and protect mankind, but they are no longer used for such noble purposes.

The world is afflicted with regular hurricanes, called great storms, that occur every few weeks.  The seasons are very short and unpredictable.  Because of this constant barrage, the flora and fauna have both had to adapt.  The animal life is made up of animals with hard shells, like giant crawfish and clams.  Being able to draw into their shells keeps them safe during the worst of the storms.  Even the trees and plants are able to draw within a shell to stay safe, which is kinda bizarre.  The ground is scoured and barren due to the fact that no soil can stay put with winds like that constantly blowing.  There are other parts of the world that are more like the world we live in, but the residents of Alethkar think it's mythical and have a hard time believing anything could be different from what they know.

Our cast of characters includes Kaladin, a dark-eyed slave who was once an apprentice surgeon and then soldier.  He is now a bridge carrier for a lord's army, a ranking that means certain death and reserved for the most disposable men.  Kaladin has a sad past and the unnerving ability to stay alive even in the most dangerous situations.  His past is slowly revealed and we get to watch him change his bridge crew into more than just disposable workers.  His dealings with the nobility and his superiors in the army were so frustrating though, since the way their aristocracy is set up is so stupid.  Sanderson is good at making me frustrated on behalf of his characters.

Another character I loved was Shallan, a minor noble from a small nation whose family has fallen on hard times.  Her only hope is to become a ward of the princess Jasnah Kholin, sister to the king.  She's a famous scholar and heretic and becoming her ward would put her in a position to save her family from destitution.  Shallan is an amazing artist with a photographic memory and many of the illustrations in the book are from Shallan's notebooks.  Shallan is fascinating because you think you know what is motivating her and then Sanderson surprises you.  What happens with Shallan towards the end of the book knocked me for a loop.  If I had written this book, I would have been giggling with glee at my deviousness, so I like to imagine Sanderson chuckling as he typed on his laptop, delighted with his own cleverness.  Chuckle away, Brandon.

Instead of describing each character, which is what I'm tempted to do because I like them all so much, I'll just tell you that Sanderson creates a colorful cast and keeps the stories moving for each of them.  When their paths collide, it's awesome.  My only complaints about this book is that Sanderson takes his sweet time setting everything up.  It wasn't until halfway through the book that it started to move faster.  I know he's planning on making this a ten book series and that the details he's laboring over in the first hundred pages or so are important to the series as a whole and not just this book, but it doesn't make it any less slow to slog through.  My other complaint is that there's not a whole lot that is concluded in this book.  Some, but not much.  Again, ten book series, yadda yadda.  It makes me tired to think I'll have to somehow retain a bunch of this information and detail until the next book comes out.  I don't know if I have room in my brain.

Oh well.  Knowing Sanderson, the next book will be just as awesome and I'll read it happily and if I can't remember details, it won't matter all that much anyway because it'll be so fun to read.