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Series Review: The John Cleaver Series by Dan Wells

March 6, 2013 3 comments

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Notebook paper with blood on it.Summary:
Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver is not a serial killer.  At least not yet.  John’s therapist believes he has Antisocial Personality Disorder, commonly known as sociopathy, although he can’t legally deliver the official diagnosis until he’s 18 years old.  But both his therapist and himself hope John can learn to control his illness in the meantime.  An illness John refers to as Mr. Monster.  This becomes more difficult as a serial killer shows up in his town.  John starts to wonder if he can harness Mr. Monster to find and kill the killer.  A killer he soon learns is supernatural and ultimately faces.  The demons continue coming to his town, and John feels his grasp on control and an ability to function in average society slipping.  Are there really more and more demons coming to his town? Or is it just his sociopathy getting the better of him?

Review:
This trilogy starts with an incredible bang, but makes a slow trajectory downward to end on a whimper.

The first book is incredible.  It bashes ableism on its head by featuring a main character who is a teenager struggling with a mental illness, and not an easy one to identify with either.  People with APD lack empathy, which can make it difficult to empathize with them in return.  Wells carefully crafts a realistic yet sympathetic teenager with APD.  His struggles to defeat his mental illness and be a functioning member of society are great to see in a novel period, let alone in a YA one.  On top of this, we have a single mother running a business with the help of her just graduated high school daughter and part-time help of her teenage son.  It’s the perfect mix of non-traditional and yet not off the wall family to have as a backdrop for John.  We have all this, then, with a thriller plot that starts with the hint of a serial killer then deliciously builds to the revelation that the killer is a demon.  This fantasy element fits perfectly in with what is hot in YA right now, giving an interesting, unique main character an appealing wrapping.

Knife under an x.I was stoked after reading this and had high hopes for the trilogy.  The middle book maintains some of the elements that made the first book amazing but missed on others.  On the plus side, John is still who he was in the first book, although with more confidence.  He tries to date, and his family has their own struggles.  Although the thriller pacing is less deftly done, it still works in the context of this book, particularly since the middle book of a trilogy is traditionally setting things up for the last hurrah of the final book.  Plus this book manages to accomplish two things.  It has John learning more about himself and his mental illness and it shows him learning more about demons.  It ends on a powerful note with him inviting one of the demon’s friends to Clayton County to face off with him.  He’s tired of waiting for things to come to him and is ready to go on the offensive.  Thus, although this book wasn’t as strong as the first, I had high hopes that it was setting us up for a powerful final book in the trilogy.

Things really fall apart in the final book, which is what makes the trilogy taken as a whole disappointing.  Everything is building toward the final book.  Toward what John ultimately learns and what he ultimately becomes.  Unfortunately the answers to both of those questions are a major let-down after the unique and albeism-smashing features of the first two books.  In the climactic scene, John’s mother sacrifices herself to save her son.  When he loses her, he realizes that he is feeling feelings.  He’s feeling the pain of losing her.  When he realizes this, the lightbulb goes off in his head that he stopped feeling feelings when his father abandoned them.  It was just him trying to deal with his broken family.  I shit you not.  And then he decides he has been healed by his mother’s death.  His mother’s sacrifice opens him up to letting himself feel things again. What. The Fuck.

Burnt paper background to book title.First of all, going numb after being badly emotionally hurt is a real thing.  But it’s not a real thing that would be mistaken by a therapist as Antisocial Personality Disorder. And being numb doesn’t mean a person starts daydreaming about killing everyone around him and the girls he has crushes on in particular.  Numb is not the same as lacking empathy, and it honestly doesn’t even take a therapist to see that.  Numb looks and feels different from sociopathy.  They are not the same thing and simply could not be mistaken for each other.  If we decide that perhaps Wells didn’t mean to imply that John was simply numb and didn’t have sociopathy, then we can only read this as saying that John’s father abandoning the family *caused* his son’s sociopathy and that his mother’s sacrifice cured it.  I’m sorry, but your dad running off does not give people Antisocial Personality Disorder, and it certainly isn’t cured in the span of 10 minutes by someone sacrificing their life for yours.  (By the way, does anyone see the heavy-handed religious symbolism in that? Because it is definitely there).  The cause, as with many mental illnesses, is officially unknown but is believed to be a combination of genetics and severe environmental factors such as child abuse (source).  Since John is not abused, then we can only assume that in his case his APD is genetic.  It is utterly ridiculous to present the matter as his APD being caused by something as simple as a parent leaving.  Similarly, there is no cure for APD.  People do not get magically better overnight.  It can be managed so a person may have a healthy, normal life, but it does not just disappear.  The symptoms do sometimes become less severe on their own in a person’s 40s (according to the DSM-IV-TR), but John is not 40, and he doesn’t suddenly get better thanks to aging.  The whole climax of the series turns the series from being about a person with a mental illness learning to function and do positive things into a story about how a father abandoning his family destroyed them and almost ruined his son for life.  The former is unique and powerful.  The latter is heavy-handed and preachy.  Plus that whole dynamic belittles mental illness and makes it out to be just overcoming a bad part of your life, rather than the very real illness that people deal with every day.

So what we have here is a trilogy that starts as one thing and ends as another.  It starts as a thriller with a unique main character demonstrating dealing with mental illness in an engaging, realistic manner.  It ends with a thriller that quickly goes from spine-tingling to heavy-handed and preachy.  It is unfortunate that this preachiness also gets the facts about a mental illness wrong and presents these false ideas to a YA audience in such an attractive, fantastical thriller wrapping.  Ultimately the writing is good but the last book in the trilogy takes a nose-dive when it comes to facts and the realities of having and living with a mental illness.  Thankfully, one can read the first or first two books in the trilogy without reading it all.  There are not major cliffhangers that compel the reader to continue on, and the first two books stand on their own well enough.  I’m disappointed that the series as a whole is not something I can recommend whole-heartedly.  I’m disappointed that after starting out so strong, Wells went so far astray.  That doesn’t change the quality of the first two books, though, so I still recommend them. But only if you’re capable of leaving a series partly unread.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap, Audible

Books in Series:
I Am Not A Serial Killer, review, 5 stars
Mr. Monster , review, 4 stars
I Don’t Want to Kill You, review, 3 stars

Book Review: The Craigslist Murders by Brenda Cullerton

August 9, 2011 12 comments

Woman holding bloody item behind back.Summary:
Charlotte works as an interior designer to the wealthiest of the wealthy in NYC.  She thus has a window into their world and attends their parties, but is not actually a part of it.  The wealthy women annoy the crap out of Charlotte as they remind her entirely too much of her cruel, social ladder climbing mother, yet she simultaneously needs the income to stay afloat in notoriously expensive NYC.  One day when attempting to purchase a designer item cheap off of craigslist, she finds the solution to her pent-up rage.  Periodic murders of the wealthy elite women via responding to craigslist ads.

Review:
I view Charlotte as the female and decidedly less insane version of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.  Both characters are a part of the wealthy, elite world that they simultaneously hate.  Both obviously have antisocial personality disorder.  Both murder people to deal with it.  The similarities end there, though, as Charlotte is decidedly less far gone than Patrick so there are no chapters of non-sensical rants.  Also this book is far less violent.  Charlotte murders by whapping women in the back of the head with a fire poker.  Her murders are about killing the women, not torturing them.

Honestly, this book reads as delicious fantasy to anyone who has ever lived in a city and bumped elbows with the craziness that is the world of the 1% (the wealthy elite).  Charlotte’s rage is our rage, and she deals with it in a way no civilized person would, but as Charlotte herself says when discussing the news of a murdered wealthy woman:

She’d been killed by her own personal assistant, news that Charlotte believed had come as a terrible shock to everyone in the city except the thousands of other personal assistants who dreamed, daily, of doing the same thing. (location 1101)

Yes, exactly.  This book rages against the privileged in a way most of us can only dream of doing.  And it works.

Charlotte is more than a murderer, though.  She’s a well-rounded character.  The reasons behind her murders and state of mental health are gradually revealed in a skilled manner throughout the book.  First we know Charlotte as a frustrated worker.  Then we see her murder.  Then we gradually start to see the real Charlotte beneath the facade.  A woman who was a little girl whose spirit was broken by her mother.  No one in her world, not even her therapist, offers her any real help, so Charlotte deals with her issues the only way she knows how.  It’s an excellent commentary on why quality mental health care and loving communities are so necessary.

The one issue I had with the book itself is the ending.  I won’t spoil it, but basically I’m not sure exactly why Cullerton went there with this narrative.  I can’t help but wonder if she’s planning a sequel.  I sort of wish she would write one to address some lingering questions I have, but perhaps that’s her point.  Perhaps she chose that ending to make the reader continue to think about the situation even after finishing the book.  If so, then it definitely worked.

I also find the cover infuriating, because the weapon the woman is holding looks nothing like the weapon used in the book, and that sort of thing that is mentioned repeatedly in the story shouldn’t be messed up on the cover.  Obviously that’s not the author’s fault, though.

Overall this contemporary fiction with a twist is a delightful read.  If American Psycho intrigued you but the graphic violence and sex turned you off, definitely give this book a read.  It features similar themes with less violence and more well-rounded characters.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Amazon

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Book Review: Mr. Monster by Dan Wells (Series, #2)

May 12, 2011 1 comment

Knife against a white background.Summary:
John Wayne Cleaver, diagnosed sociopath and assistant in his family’s morgue, is trying to recover from the aftermath of the demonic serial killer that was haunting Clayton County until a few months ago.  A few months ago when he let loose his own inner sociopath, otherwise known as Mr. Monster, and killed the demon.  For the sake of the town.  Now he is struggling to get Mr. Monster back under control as well as deal with new feelings for his neighbor, Brooke, both of which would be easier if the demon hadn’t killed his therapist.  In spite of all this, things seem to be slowly calming down–until new dead bodies start showing up.

Review:
In a series such as this, the second book is rather crucial.  In the first book, we see John trying to deal with his mental illness in the normal ways, only to be confronted with an abnormal solution.  He takes it.  The next book must then show not only if John continues down this path, but also why, not to mention set up the structure so that he may continue down this path indefinitely for most of the rest of the series.  Wells definitely accomplishes this tough task, although not quite as smoothly or uniquely as he set up the initial plot and character of John in the first book.

One thing that this book suffers from is uneven pacing.  Whereas the first book used the classic thriller scenario of gradually amping up the tension, here the tension rises and falls so frequently and to such different levels that it’s a bit off-putting.  It provides too many moments where it’s not too distressing to put the book down and go do something else.  It is only the last few chapters of the book that hold the same tension as in the first entry in the series.  This is problematic when this is supposed to be a thriller, but understandable given all of the set-up and developments that Wells must pull off.

The new demon is definitely well-done and scary in his own way, although I must say I guessed who he was pretty much the instant he showed up in the book.  Thus, what was shocking was not who the demon is, but what he does to his victims, why, and how he pulls it off.  This part is creative and thankfully it is evident that the demons in the series will be variable and non-formulaic.  This is essential if the elements of surprise, disgust, horror, and delight are to remain.

Yet the focus is not just on the demons, thankfully.  Wells skillfully still includes the issues John faces as someone struggling with a rather non-sympathetic mental illness, making him alternately relatable and grotesque.  John struggles.  He is sometimes unlikable, but he tries so damn hard.  Similarly, Wells continues to develop the messed-up family structure John has to deal with, an issue that is absolutely relatable to most readers of YA lit.  There is much more going on here than demon fighting.  Indeed, even John’s first romantic interest is addressed.

I feel the need to say to animal lovers, particularly ones who love the wonderful kitties among us, that there is a very distressing scene in this book involving a cat that almost made me stop reading it.  I do think Wells handles it well, including the aftermath, but if you find animal cruelty incredibly upsetting, um, either skip this book or skim that section.  You’ll know when it’s coming.

Overall, this entry in the series does well for all the tasks it had to do to smoothly connect the set-up in the first book to the running themes of the rest of the series.  Although the pacing struggles a bit, characterization is still strong, as are surprising plot points.  I’m interested to see what Wells does with the next book in the series, and I recommend this one to fans of psychological and paranormal thrillers alike.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Previous Books in Series:
I Am Not a Serial Killer, review

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Book Review: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

January 10, 2011 6 comments

Man's face.Summary:
Patrick Bateman is a 1980s yuppie working a Wall Street job with a dark secret.  He doesn’t connect to other people except in the moments he’s torturing and killing them.  But is he really a psychopathic murderer or is it all in his head?

Review:
I have a high tolerance for and even a tendency toward graphic violence and sex in novels, so I feel the need to warn my readers that this book was shockingly graphic even to me, and I was unphased by Battle Royale.  So take that warning as you will.  If you can’t handle graphic violence and sex, this book is definitely not for you.  That said, this book pushes those with a high tolerance for such things in their reading out of their comfort zone, which is always an interesting experience.

The book is told from the first person perspective of Patrick Bateman.  This is essential for us to see and feel what it is to struggle as him.  This, of course, is painfully uncomfortable because we are put in the head of a madman while he violently dismembers and eventually kills multiple people, mainly women.  Some people don’t ever want to be in that person’s head.  Personally, I feel it is essential to understand what drives some people to be psychopaths and Breat Easton Ellis has a frightening ability to get inside that head.  It is chilling to feel that Patrick gets the same sense of release from killing someone as I get from having a glass of wine at the end of the day.  Simultaneously, I don’t doubt this at all, because that is what it is to be a psychopath.

Bret Easton Ellis also does an excellent job of depicting Antisocial Personality Disorder.  Essentially, people suffering from this disorder are incapable of connecting emotionally or empathizing at all with other human beings.  Patrick recognizes this disconnect when he is talking with various people in his life.  He suffers significantly from this inability to find any connection with anything but violence.

My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone.  In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others.  I want no one to escape. (Location 8020-8023)

Beyond this, Patrick is completely confused about his world, and he knows it.  He is unsure what is reality and what is not.  This was one of the first aspects of mental illness to be recognized and seeing it all from the perspective of someone who is suffering from it is eloquent.

My mask of sanity was a victim of impending slippage. (Location 5975-5978)

Of course, beyond the uncomfortable identification with and depiction of someone suffering from one of the most difficult to understand mental illnesses is the depiction of the yuppie environment of the 1980s.  What a vain, vapid existence these people lead.  Extensive passages feature Patrick delineating every single designer name everyone in the room is wearing.  One of the main issues in the week for all of the yuppie characters is getting into what is considered to be the best restaurant that week.  Only the “best” alcohol is ordered.  Only the “best” food is served, and it is served in such tiny portions that the yuppies are still hungry, yet this is considered to be better than being satiated.  Frankly, I found these passages annoying to read, but they are necessary to the book.  They show what a shallow, vapid world Patrick is in; one that he feels he cannot escape.  These people are so selfish and lacking in empathy in that there is no way in hell they will ever notice anything is wrong with Patrick.  It’s a scathing commentary on the yuppie culture.

The only negative from a writing aspect I can say about the book is the random chapters in which Patrick educates us on various musical groups.  I honestly have no idea what the point of those are, and I skimmed over them.  I definitely think Bret Easton Ellis should have cut them.

Overall, this is definitely a difficult book to read.  It’s not comfortable or easy to alternate between identifying with a possible killer and being disgusted by his actions.  Feeling sympathy for a killer is not something our society encourages, yet this book makes you feel it.  Additionally, the passages depicting the yuppie world are vapid and annoying if for no other reason than because yuppies are vapid and annoying.  Those difficulties though are what makes the book work.  It takes the reader out of their comfort zone and forces them to confront things that they may not want to confront.  Killers are not simply inhuman.  They may do inhuman acts, but there are still elements of them that we may identify with.  That is the truly scary part of American Psycho.

I highly recommend this book to everyone who thinks they can handle the graphic sex and violence.  It will push your boundaries and force you to sympathize with those society depicts to us as the least sympathetic.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

July 14, 2010 8 comments

Torn notebook with blood on it.Summary:
Fifteen year old John Wayne Cleaver has an odd fascination with the bodies he helps cremate in the family mortuary.  He also has difficulty feeling any emotions.  He even has been studying serial killers for years.  He is not one, however.  At least, not yet.  His therapist believes John may have Antisocial Personality Disorder, but both he and John hope John can learn to control his illness, an illness John refers to as Mr. Monster.  However, when bodies start appearing on the streets of the town gruesomely murdered, John wonders how long he can keep Mr. Monster in check.

Review:
I originally had high expectations for this book.  Then I had to wait for it so long that they waned, and I felt that it was probably just going to be a watered down YA version of Dexter.  Then I grabbed it for my camping trip because I am insane and love to terrify myself when sleeping in the middle of nowhere in the woods with strange men with hatchets I don’t know a mere campsite away.  It didn’t turn out to be a watered down Dexter.  It also isn’t terrifying.  The best word I can think to describe this book is relatable.

Dan Wells chose to write a YA book about mental illness and couch it with some supernatural features and a premise that will appeal to any teens, not just those struggling with a mental illness themselves.  These were both smart moves as it makes I Am Not a Serial Killer more widely appealing.  However, he not only chose to depict a mental illness, he chose to depict one of the ones that is the most difficult for healthy people to sympathize with and relate to–antisocial personality disorder.  John Cleaver has no empathy, and this baffles those who naturally feel it.

Yet Wells manages to not only depict what makes John scary to those around him, but also how it feels to be John.  He simultaneously depicts the scary parts of having a mental illness with the painful parts for the one struggling with it.  John makes up rules for himself to try to control his behavior.  He has to think things through every time he interacts with people or he will do or say the wrong thing.  John is fully aware that he doesn’t fit in, but he wants to.  He wants to be healthy and normal, but he also wants to be himself, which at this point in time includes the behavior that is his illness.

Of course, this is a book about a serial killer, and it delivers there.  The death scenes hold just the right level of gruesomeness without going over the top.  Anyone with a love of the macabre will also enjoy the mortuary scenes, which depict the right combination of science and John’s morbid fascination.  There also is a tentatively forming teen dating relationship that is simultaneously sweet and bit nerve-wracking.

I feel I would be amiss not to mention that there is some self-harm in this book.  It is very brief and is clearly shown as a part of John’s illness.  In fact for the first time in reading about it in any book I can say the author handled it quite well, depicting the self-injurer and his reasons for doing so sympathetically and correctly, but without making it seem like something the reader should copy.

Overall this book delivers the thrills and chills it promises, but does so without demonizing John Cleaver.  It depicts what it feels like to have a mental illness in a powerful, relatable manner while still managing to be a fast-paced YA thriller.  I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA, books dealing with mental illness, or thrillers.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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