Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

From the back cover:
You can’t stop the future. You can’t rewind the past. The only way to learn the secret… is to press play.

Clay Jensen doesn’t want anything to do with the tapes Hannah Baker made. Hannah is dead, he reasons. Her secrets should be buried with her.

Then Hannah’s voice tells Clay that his name is on her tapes—and that he is, in some way, responsible for her death.

All through the night, Clay keeps listening. He follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his small town…

… and what he discovers changes his life forever.

Review:
I finished Thirteen Reasons Why yesterday and I’m still not sure what I think of it. Oh, I was certainly captivated by it, but was that because it’s well written or was it because it deals dramatically with hot-button issues? Maybe it’s a little bit of both.

Hannah Baker is a girl tormented by a reputation founded on rumor. And this reputation is the first block upon which many successively crappy incidents build until Hannah is seriously contemplating suicide. First, though, she records a series of tapes elucidating the thirteen reasons why she is planning to kill herself and sends it to the first person on the list. Each recipient is to forward the tapes on to the next person featured, with the threat that a second set of tapes will be made public if Hannah’s wishes aren’t followed. When nice guy Clay Jensen gets the tapes, he’s baffled: what did he ever do to Hannah?

As I listed to Hannah’s story, I was torn between finding the momentous quantity of suck in her life unbelievable (not to mention occasionally self-inflicted) and feeling sympathy for someone who just seemed cursed. But maybe this is the point. Maybe we are supposed to feel simultaneously irritated and sympathetic towards her. Circumstances that are overwhelming for one person won’t necessarily appear that way to someone else, and so maybe it’s natural to think “why didn’t she do this or that?” and forget that she’s just a traumatized kid.

One thing that bugged me about Hannah is actually a sign of decent characterization, and that’s her tendency to say one thing but expect others to know that she didn’t mean it and to push for more honesty from her. She wanted a sign that people cared enough not to just accept her assurances that she was fine. And, yes, that’s manipulative, but this is a suicidal teenager we’re talking about here. As for Clay… this isn’t really his story. He reacts to Hannah’s story throughout, and is motivated by it to no longer ignore signs that people may be hurting, but he’s sort of along for the ride with the reader.

In the end, I liked the book enough to seek out more by Jay Asher. I also want to commend the narrators of the unabridged audio edition—Joel Johnstone and Debra Wiseman—for a job well done. Wiseman as Hannah initially came across as a little too snarky, calm, and strong for the part, but I liked her quite a lot by the end. In fact, audio is a great way to “read” this book, given that most of it is Clay listening to the cassettes. I do have to wonder how much of the target audience even know what those are…

Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

From the back cover:
It’s not every day that you come across a naked man on the side of the road. That’s why cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse doesn’t just drive on by. Turns out the poor thing hasn’t a clue who he is, but Sookie does. It’s Eric the vampire—but now he’s a kinder, gentler Eric. And a scared Eric, because whoever took his memory now wants his life. Sookie’s investigation into who and why leads straight into a dangerous battle among witches, vampires, and werewolves. But a greater danger could be to Sookie’s heart—because this version of Eric is very difficult to resist…

Review:
I think I’d been lulled into a false sense of “hey, this series isn’t that smutty” by the previous book, Club Dead, in which Sookie’s vampire beau Bill is missing and in which the closest thing to a sex scene is Eric’s… enthusiasm when Sookie drinks his blood at one point. But now that Sookie and Bill are good and broken up (yay!), she is free to pursue other opportunities, which manifest in the form of an amnesic Eric who has been cursed by a witch for spurning her advances as well as for owning a profitable nightclub she’d like to take over. He ends up hiding at Sookie’s place while he’s not himself and though she resists his charms for a while, she eventually goes “to hell with thinking” and then we get way too much detail about what they get up to together.

Anyways, aside from the “Sookie hooks up with Eric” plot, there are two main things going on: the big bad coven of witches is attempting to take over various supernaturally owned businesses and eventually the vampires and werewolves ally together to take them out. Sookie gets involved in the attack and it’s not a pleasant experience. Secondly, Sookie’s brother has been abducted and she spends most of the book thinking that his disappearance is somehow connected to the witches. Of the two, I preferred the Jason storyline, as it has far greater potential for interesting complications down the road. The witches were rather dull, really.

I seem to like the endings of these books more than what comes before, and that’s no exception here. I like where Sookie and Eric are at the end of the volume, I like Bill’s menacing return (I actually went “ohhhhh shit”), and I like the ultimate fate of Debbie Pelt. This last possibly frees Sookie to hook up with Alcide the hunky werewolf next, and while part of me cringes at the idea of this series becoming something akin to the works of Laurell K. Hamilton, the other part appreciates that Harris doesn’t keep her heroine tied down with notions of true love.

And really, that’s about all I have to say about Dead to the World. It was fluffy and pleasantly diverting. I’ll keep reading more. I’ll keep going “ooh” at certain things and “ew” at others. I still haven’t summoned the fortitude to give the TV adaptation another shot, but that might be only a matter of time.

Tales of the Gilbreth Family

Mention the title Cheaper by the Dozen and most folks know it refers to a story about a family with twelve children. Before there were completely unrelated movies starring Steve Martin, however, there was the original book about the unique Gilbreth family, written by two of the children. This was followed by Belles on Their Toes, set after the death of the family patriarch, and later by several others, including Time Out for Happiness, a more serious family biography, and Rings Around Us, in which Ernestine writes about her own married life. Three out of the four are quite charming, and those aren’t bad odds!

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
When I embarked upon reading Cheaper by the Dozen, I figured I was in for a warm-hearted memoir about the clever antics of twelve mischievous kids living in the early 20th century. And I did get that. There are stories here about playing pranks on the psychologist evaluating their intelligence and about young boys saying impertinent things to guests at dinner, about rousting a peeping tom from a tree and manipulating the family council system in order to get a dog.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that the real purpose of the book is to lovingly depict the Gilbreth parents, Frank and Lillian. I am a sucker for awesome dads, and have loved quite a few, but Mr. Gilbreth might just take the cake. He’s voluble, loud, and charming, with a zest for life and learning that leads him to devote his career to developing time-saving measures for various industries. He teaches his kids all manner of things, from languages to Morse code to nifty multiplication tricks, and at first it seems like he’s doing this just to satisfy his own curiosity—and, yes, that’s part of it—but in reality, it’s so that they’ll be able to get along without him and not be a burden to their mother when he is gone. For, you see, he hasn’t told them that he’s got a bad heart.

There is much to smile and laugh at in this book, but the end had me sobbing. In a good way. In the way that makes you want to read the book again so that you can love it even more intensely. I feel like fans of this book could meet each other and exchange a single word—mumblety-peg—and understand each other perfectly.

Belles on Their Toes by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Where Cheaper by the Dozen serves as loving tribute to Frank B. Gilbreth, Sr., Belles on Their Toes is “primarily the story of Mother.” Overshadowed somewhat by her charismatic husband in the previous book, Lillian shines here as a strong and capable mother defying social conventions and attitudes by taking up the reins of her husband’s business in order to secure sufficient income to not only keep the family together but send each child to college, as Frank wanted. There’s a marvelous passage early on that explains how Lillian overcame her timidity that left me sniffling.

There was a time when Mother wept easily, when she was afraid of walking alone at night, when a lightning storm would send her shuddering into a dark closet.

All that ended the day Dad died. It ended because it had to end. It ended because of the realization that what she really feared was that something would separate them.

Well, what she feared had happened, and tears would not wash out a word of it. So she gave his speech in London and presided for him in Prague. And she was not afraid any more.

I get a bit verklempt now, just typing that.

Belles on Their Toes also focuses a lot on the oldest daughters, as they develop into women and eventually bring beaus home to meet the family. I’m particularly fond of sensible Martha, who has no idea she’s become shapely and sought-after and devotes herself to principles of frugality. That’s not to say that pranks and mischief are entirely absent, however! Near the end, the pace of the story picks up a great deal, skipping over some of the middle children to cover the high school graduation of the youngest (Jane), followed by a family reunion in which three of Lillian’s grandchildren are christened in the same church as their parents.

It’s a very satisfying conclusion and most people would probably feel content to stop here. With a little research and a couple of interlibrary loans, however, I’ve unearthed a couple of other books about the family that are less well known.

Time Out for Happiness by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.
Whereas the first two books “stressed the comical aspects of raising a big family by Motion Study methods,” Time Out for Happiness puts the emphasis on Frank and Lillian’s work in the field of “scientific management.” You might think this sounds dull, but actually there are enough amusing anecdotes and big personalities (like “plump and boisterous” Frank) to make for quite an absorbing read.

Time Out for Happiness also dwells more on the family backgrounds for Frank and Lillian, as well as the early days of their courtship and marriage. Some of the material is familiar, but most of it is new. (Interestingly, a few small details are different here, like which child made what remark or what handyman Tom named his cats. Were those embellished the first time around?) I welcomed the insight into what Frank and Lillian were hoping to accomplish with Motion Study, especially the fact that Lillian was very much an equal partner.

Indeed, while gregarious Frank initially captures one’s heart, by the end one realizes how truly remarkable Lillie was. For a woman to get a Master’s degree in 1902 (followed by a PhD in 1914) was no small feat, and she was the first woman to receive honorary membership in several influential engineering societies. After Frank’s death in 1924, Lillie continued to espouse the Gilbreth method for over 40 years, eventually earning the public recognition of their endeavors that she’d long been seeking.

The one drawback to reading this book is that it makes one feel a serious underachiever. There were so many opportunities to think and do new things in the early 20th century that I don’t know now whether such chances simply don’t exist anymore or if I am just not personally bright enough to see them.

At any rate, this may be a more factual account of the family history, but it’s no less entertaining.

Rings Around Us by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Out of the four books on the Gilbreth family that I read, I liked Rings Around Us—the story of Ernestine’s married life—the least. I found it to be lacking the warmth of the earlier books, and I’m not sure whether to attribute that to the lack of Lillian or to the lack of Frank, Jr. as writing partner. Probably it’s a combination of both.

In September 1929, when she is a 21-year-old working girl in New York City, Ernestine Gilbreth meets Charles Carey. They hit it off immediately and are married in 1930. The book recounts their many apartments in the city, the many nurses they hire to take care of their daughter while Ernestine works, and the eventual decision to move to Long Island, where the kids have plenty of friends and room to roam and where the Carey parents experience the joy of tending a garden and the sorrows of home maintenance.

The problem is… Charles (called “Chick” by Ernestine) is a product of his time, in that he is a sexist git. He frequently makes comments about women and though he occasionally condescends to help Ernestine with meals and dishes, his attitudes eventually begin to wear off on his son. Ernestine chafes at his notions, but doesn’t get her dander up as much as I would’ve liked. But no matter, because she herself is sizeist. Many, many times she describes a person by their weight, be it the nurse whose bosoms she compares to watermelons or the dance teacher her daughter adores, “all two hundred pounds of her.” This attitude, too, wears off on the kids, as a later chapter dwells upon a game they invent wherein you score points for spotting fat people on the beach. The game is called “Whale.”

Nice. Really nice. Thanks for leaving me with a sour taste in my mouth, Ernestine.

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers (with Robert Eustace)

From the back cover:
The grotesquely grinning corpse in the Devonshire shack was of a man who had died horribly—with a dish of mushrooms at his side. His body contained enough death-dealing muscarine to kill thirty people. Why would an expert on fungi feast on a large quantity of this particularly poisonous species? A clue to the brilliant murderer, who had baffled the best minds in London, was hidden in a series of letters and documents that no one seemed to care about, except the dead man’s son.

Review:
The Documents in the Case is the one full-length mystery novel penned by Dorothy L. Sayers that doesn’t star Lord Peter Wimsey. Before I’d read it, I knew of it merely as “the one with the mushrooms.” Now I’ll know it as “the really boring one with the mushrooms.”

For the most part, this is an epistolary novel in which letters written by the residents of a particular Bayswater address depict the state of family life before the death of patriarch and mushroom enthusiast, George Harrison (yes, really). Sayers expertly and efficiently depicts the character of each correspondent through their writing, including George himself; the young, flighty, and discontent lady of the house (Margaret); her deluded-to-the-point-of-insanity companion (Miss Milsom); the dashing artist tenant (Harwood Lathom); the deep-thought-having novelist tenant (John Munting); and George’s son from an earlier marriage (Paul), who has gathered the documents together in a bid to prove that his father was too much of an expert on mushrooms to have died from accidentally ingesting a poisonous variety.

Some of this is fairly interesting, some is irritating—seriously, although one can sympathize with Margaret for her repressive husband, she is still frequently too insincere and manipulative to bear—and some is downright tedious. Munting’s letters to his fiancée often lapse into pseudo-philosophizing, but the cake is taken by an extremely long and self-indulgent scene near the end in which Sayers uses a bunch of random professorial types as mouthpieces through which to espouse some theories on the origins of life. If I had a paper copy instead of an audiobook I would quote some of the dialogue from this section, but it will have to suffice it to say that my impatience caused me to hurl profanities at my innocent cassette player.

Eventually, this rambling conversation produces the means of proving the death was no accident, and then there’s a very brief postscript about how the culprit was hanged. The end.

Ultimately, I conclude that this one is only for completists. Completists, I wish I could say this was better, but perhaps it will be some small comfort to know that it is at least quite short.

A Traitor to Memory by Elizabeth George

Book description:
When Eugenie Davies is killed by a driver on a quiet London street, her death is clearly no accident. Someone struck her with a car and then deliberately ran over her body before driving off, leaving nothing behind but questions.

What brought Eugenie Davies to London on a rainy autumn night? Why was she carrying the name of the man who found her body? Who among the many acquaintances in her complicated and tragic life could have wanted her dead? And could her murder have some connection to a twenty-eight-year-old musical wunderkind, a virtuoso violinist who several months earlier suddenly and inexplicably lost the ability to play a single note?

For Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, whose own domestic life is about to change radically, these questions are only the first in an investigation that leads him to walk a fine line between personal loyalty and professional honor.

Review:
I finished A Traitor to Memory last night and have spent most of today trying to find the words to explain why I didn’t like it very much. The one thing that keeps coming back to me is that it just felt somehow empty, especially in comparison with the previous few books in the series.

It’s November now, a couple of months since Barbara got demoted and she and Lynley spent an entire book at odds with each other. While it’s certainly a relief that they are getting along well again, it is fairly strange that neither ever reflects upon their period of estrangement. In fact, there is exceedingly little from Barbara’s point of view and no appearances by her charming neighbors. Compensating slightly for this omission, however, are some segments from Winston Nkata’s perspective.

Anyway, the case in question involves a series of hit-and-run accidents that are connected to the murder of a child that Superintendent Webberly (Lynley’s boss) investigated twenty years ago. Interspersed with the feats of detection are journal entries by a violin prodigy named Gideon Davies who is in therapy to discover the reason for his abrupt inability to play his instrument. As with many books in this series, one must have patience and wait for the a-ha moment that connects seemingly disparate elements, and there are quite a few of those in this novel. “Ohhhh,” one says, “so that’s who he is!”

Unfortunately, I found the final solution… inelegant. Oh, I can devise arguments in its favor, namely that in the real world, detectives frequently do not learn why a given suspect did something, only that they did. But readers are spoiled and we are accustomed to learning such details. The evidence is sufficient, but without that extra level of confirmation it’s not quite as satisfying. Also, there’s a shock ending that inspires conflicting reactions. On one hand, it’s a neat twist, but on the other, I highly doubt that George will ever get around to revealing what actually happened, especially as the next book in the series (A Place of Hiding) is about Simon and Deborah St. James and not anyone inclined to comment on the details of this case.

Ultimately, this was a long, slightly tedious, and rather disappointing installment in the Lynley-Havers series. Not that this will in any way dissuade me from continuing on, however!

In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner by Elizabeth George

Book description:
Calder Moor is a wild and deadly place: many have been trapped in the myriad limestone caves, lost in collapsed copper mines, injured on perilous ridges. But when two bodies are discovered in the shadow of the ancient circle of stones known as Nine Sisters Henge, it is clearly not a case for Mountain Rescue.

The corpses are those of a young man and woman. Each met death in a different fashion. Each died violently. To Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, this grisly crime promises to be one of the toughest of his career. For the unfortunate Nicola Maiden was the daughter of a former officer in an elite undercover unit, a man Lynley once regarded as a mentor.

Now, as Lynley struggles to find out if Nicola’s killer was an enemy of her father’s or one she earned herself, Barbara Havers, his longtime partner, crisscrosses London seeking information on the second victim. Yet the more dark secrets Lynley and Havers uncover, the more they learn that neither the victims nor the suspects are who they appear to be… that human relationships are often murderous… and that the blood that binds can also kill.

Review:
Once again, Elizabeth George has created an intriguing mystery—perhaps her most complicated yet easy-to-follow case to date—while ensuring that the interactions between the lead detectives remain the most compelling part of the story.

The two victims in this case—Nicola Maiden and Terry Cole—are found on a moor in Derbyshire, and Lynley is specifically requested to work the case by the Nicola’s father, a former special operations officer for whom he worked briefly earlier in his career. Heading up the local investigation is DI Peter Hanken, a chain-smoking family man whose manner of speech frequently put me in mind of Gene Hunt. Hanken’s convinced that Nicola’s father is responsible, and while Lynley can’t buy that, he is still convinced that Nicola was the target, especially as more details of her not-so-wholesome lifestyle emerge.

Enter Havers. After the events of Deception on His Mind, in which she not only disobeyed a director order but fired a gun at a superior officer, Barbara has spent the last three months on suspension pending the results of an inquiry. She is ultimately demoted to Detective Constable and at first attributes the fact that she still remains with CID at all to Lynley’s advocacy, but it turns out that he is quite critical of her actions. He assigns her various menial tasks connected to the Derbyshire case but, headstrong as ever, Havers follows her hunch that the key to the murders lies with Terry Cole, not Nicola Maiden.

She works that end of things in London, enlisting the more-charming-the-more-we-see-of-him DC Winston Nkata to help her. (Seriously, Nkata is fun. When are we going to get something from his perpsective?) Lynley gets increasingly fed up with her defiance and I swear… the tension between them kept me on the edge of my seat much more than the murder investigation itself. It was like watching two friends keep doing things to irritate and alienate the other while being completely unable to help. How could I not sympathize with Barbara as she doggedly works to get at the truth? But at the same time, how could I not cringe when her actions drive her further and further out of Lynley’s good graces? The resolution to all this comes about a little too conveniently, but I’m too relieved to be too critical.

The case itself is particularly multi-layered, and I marvel that George is able to keep all of these balls in the air while never losing the reader. There’s not too much with Lynley’s personal life in this volume—aside from Lady Helen’s involvement in patching things up with Barbara—but Barbara’s makes some progress. Her neighbor, Taymullah Azhar, has been trying to get the details of what happened in Essex and ultimately learns that Barbara wound up demoted because she wouldn’t let his daughter, Hadiyyah, be left to drown. So now he feels tremendous gratitude to her and it almost looks at one point like he’s confessing more romantic feelings but now I am unsure again. The thought of awkward, sloppy Barbara trying to navigate a romantic relationship fills me with utter squee, though, so I will continue to hope that matters develop in that direction.

If you’re looking for a well-written mystery series with a serious claim to the label “literature,” then the Inspector Lynley series might be for you. I’ll be diving into the next book as soon as I post this review!

The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes

From the back cover:
Banished!

Old Witch likes nothing better than to fly about on her broomstick crying “Heh-heh!” and casting abracadabras, but now she has been sent away… by two young girls.

Amy and Clarissa love to tell stories about Old Witch… until one day they decide she is just too mean and wicked. Drawing a rickety old house upon a barren glass hill, the girls exile Old Witch there with the warning that she’d better be good—or else no Halloween! For company they draw her a Little Witch Girl and a Weeny Witch Baby.

Old Witch tries to be good, but anyone would get up to no good in a place as lonely as the glass hill… as Amy and Clarissa find out when Old Witch magics them into her world, a world of make-believe made real.

Review:
If you’ve got a clever and charming child and are looking for a clever and charming Halloween book that they might enjoy, The Witch Family just might fit the bill.

Amy and her best friend Clarissa, both “ordinary real girls,” are almost seven. Amy’s vivid imagination has been captured by the tales her mother tells about the wicked Old Witch, and she enlists Clarissa—who, with her faulty memory but pleasant disposition, is content with the sidekick role—in drawing a series of pictures that continue Old Witch’s adventures.

The story is presented in a really neat way. For example, it’s immediately clear through vocabulary that Amy is concocting Old Witch’s story herself. (She’s fond of big words, but doesn’t always know how to spell or pronounce them, so when she sentences Old Witch to live alone on a glass hill as punishment for her evil ways, she declares, “I banquished her!”) But a lot of the book is told from Old Witch’s point of view, so kids would probably enjoy the “is she really real?” mystery.

It’s certainly a fun Halloween tale, but I think Amy is the most fascinating character of all. What a bright little girl! Seriously, I found myself wishing for an epilogue that read, “And then Amy became a super-famous novelist” or something. There’s a real whimsy in the language used, and I love that she does typical little girl things like write the bumblebee who’d been in her yard into the story and give him a noble and heroic part to play. She’s also inserting herself into the story in a way, by giving Old Witch a little witch girl named Hannah to keep her company who looks so much like Amy that no one can tell them apart when Hannah comes to visit Amy on Halloween and goes trick-or-treating with her friends.

I find I haven’t a lot more to say about the book than this. It’s very cute. There are kitties and weeny witch babies and things to make adults giggle and the most adorable bee on the planet. Thanks for the recommendation, K!

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

From the back cover:
There’s only one vampire Sookie Stackhouse is involved with (at least voluntarily) and that’s Bill. But recently he’s been a little distant—in another state, distant. His sinister and sexy boss Eric has an idea where to find him. Next thing Sookie knows, she is off to Jackson, Mississippi to mingle with the under-underworld at Club Dead. It’s a dangerous little haunt where the elitist vampire society can go to chill out and suck down some type O. But when Sookie finally finds Bill—caught in an act of serious betrayal—she’s not sure whether to save him… or sharpen some stakes.

Review:
It’s been more than a year since I promised “Club Dead, coming soon!” at the end of my review of Living Dead in Dallas. I didn’t forget the pledge; it just took me that long to be in the mood for another round of salacious vampire shenanigans. But what better time to revisit the series than Halloween Week? This one was such an improvement over the last, however, that I’m going to make a sincere effort to get caught up on the series.

Part of what makes Club Dead interesting is that there is so little Bill and when there is Bill, he’s wronging Sookie in ways that culminate with her disinviting him from her home. As the book begins, he is working on a top-secret assignment for “the queen of Louisiana” (there’s a lot of detail about the vampire hierarchy in this book) and tells Sookie he’s heading to Seattle to work on it. This turns out to be a lie, as she learns later that Bill is being held captive in Jackson and that he was preparing to pension her off and return to his vampire love, Lorena.

Despite the betrayal, Sookie agrees to help Eric (Bill’s superior, in a manner of speaking) find Bill and is matched up with a brawny werewolf named Alcide Herveaux, who can introduce her to the supernatural element in Jackson. Alcide’s got baggage of his own, so in addition to treading lightly around “the king of Mississippi” and the werewolves the king has hired to search for Bill’s girlfriend (thankfully, he never got her name), they’ve also got to avoid Alcide’s crazy ex, Debbie Pelt.

All of this is fairly entertaining—even if a large amount of the plot is contingent upon guys finding Sookie extremely hawt and wanting to boff her—but it did seem randomly strung-together at times. For example, after Bill is rescued the gang must next prevent the crucifixion of “Bubba” (Elvis in vamp form) and foil a convenience store robbery. I really liked the ending, though, and once again find myself hoping that Sookie will not forgive Bill’s transgressions, now weightier than ever before. Sure, it’s a little ridiculous how many guys are hot for her, but her steamy encounters with both Alcide and Eric are more fun to read than detailed sex scenes starring Bill. (The fact that Eric gets fleshed out a great deal is one of the best aspects of the book, actually.) Plus, Sookie’s reaction to these tempting guys is pretty amusing. “I was not pleased with my moral fiber!”

I find that I haven’t much to say about the book beyond this. It’s diverting and amusing and has even rekindled my curiosity about True Blood. It’s not fair to compare something like this against oh, say, Price and Prejudice, but for this particular genre, it exceeds expectations.

I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

From the back cover:
John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it. He’s spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential.

He’s obsessed with serial killers but really doesn’t want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.

Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t demand or expect the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there’s something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat—and to appreciate what that difference means.

Now, for the first time, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can’t control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.

Review:
It’s hard to resist a book with a title like I Am Not a Serial Killer, at least for me, and when I picked this up I figured I was in for something akin to “Dexter: The Early Years.” But that was before Wells pulled a genre switcheroo.

Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver is a markedly self-aware sociopath, in that he is fully cognizant of his lack of empathy and bizzare compulsions and narrates about them in an articulate manner that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn is uncommon in others of his kind. He’s seeing a therapist and trying to keep “the monster” at bay by following a series of strict, self-imposed rules (a what-to-avoid list gleaned from intensive serial killer research) designed to keep him from going down a dangerous path. When mutilated bodies start showing up in his small town, John is excited and fascinated, but the more he learns about the crimes and the fact that the killer never intends to stop, the more he comes to realize that he may be the only person who can prevent the deaths of more innocents by letting “the monster” out to kill the perpetrator.

Soon it becomes clear that John is dealing with something supernatural. Ordinarily, it would bug me when a “real world” mystery suddenly veers into the supernatural for its resolution, but it actually kind of works for me here. John is such a broken person that he can’t understand why the culprit is doing certain things, and eventually realizes that even a demon is more capable of genuine human emotion than he is. This ties in some with the depiction of John’s family life—an absentee father who never follows through with promises and a mother who loves with desperate urgency to try to make up for her ex-husband’s shortcomings—since one of the most important moments of the book occurs when John is finally able to achieve a bit of real understanding with his mom instead of just faking it.

I guess the book is somewhat gross. None of the descriptions of the crimes bothered me, but the mortuary scenes—John’s mom and aunt run a funeral home and allow him to assist sometimes—are clinical and grim. They made me think of my late grandmother and made me want to call my parents. That said, I appreciate how familiarity with the mortuary layout and equipment pays off later in the story.

Ultimately, I Am Not a Serial Killer is pretty interesting. Though I’m not sure I buy the extent of John’s self-knowledge, he’s still an intriguing protagonist, and I thought Wells did a decent job of making him simultaneously sympathetic and abnormal. When I picked up the book I didn’t realize it was the first of a trilogy, but it was a pleasant surprise. Look for a review of book two, Mr. Monster, in the near future.

Winter by John Marsden

From the back cover:
For twelve years, Winter has been haunted. Her memories will not leave her alone. There are secrets she does not remember—but needs to know.

The time has come for her to go back home.

Every journey starts with a single step. But sometimes if you want to step into the future, you must first step into the past…

Review:
After reading Checkers, So Much to Tell You, and Take My Word for It, I realized that John Marsden has a certain… preferred pattern. In each case, something profoundly traumatic has happened to the (Australian) teenaged heroine and the slim book consists of her first-person narrative as she attempts to work past whatever it was, while gradually divulging enough tidbits to enable readers to figure out what happened. In many ways, Winter is very similar, though in this case, the titular heroine begins the book as in the dark as anyone else.

It’s been twelve years since sixteen-year-old Winter De Salis has set foot on the family estate of Warriewood. Both of her parents died when she was four, but she wasn’t told much about them by the relatives with whom she spent the intervening years. Now old enough to leave school and return home, that’s exactly what determined Winter does, and makes short work of dispatching the dishonest caretakers of her property while questioning anyone who might provide some useful information concerning her parents’ deaths. After making friends with a girl around her age, enjoying a bit of romance, and uncovering the family secret, she is eventually able to face her future without obsessing over the past.

Despite the structural similarities to other Marsden books, Winter doesn’t much feel like them. Its setting is more rural, for one thing, so there are sections like the one describing the cathartic process (for Winter) of removing unwanted blackberries from the property, or the depiction of her first attempt to take care of the cattle by herself. Winter is a unique protagonist, and I love how Marsden shows her capacity for being difficult—when you’re underage and you want something strongly, sometimes the only weapon in your arsenal is being stubborn—while simultaneously showing that she really is a good kid. She’s grateful for kindness and not so wounded that she can’t make new friends, and posits at one point that perhaps the early death of her famously strong mother is what has enabled her to become so strong herself. It’s a pretty devastating truth that she learns, but it’s believable that she is able to move on from it and not dwell too long on questions that will never have answers.

My only minor quibble is that the romance feels somewhat superfluous; granted, it plays an important role in demonstrating Winter’s progression from someone fixated on the past to someone anticipating the future, but I would’ve liked the boy (Matt Kennedy) to be a more well-rounded character. I’d almost wish for a sequel—perhaps a story set twenty years later with Winter and Matt as parents to a new protagonist—but I suppose that would require something traumatic to happen to their offspring, and we wouldn’t want that!