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Series Review: The John Cleaver Series by Dan Wells

March 6, 2013 Leave a comment

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

Finishing the Series Reading Challenge 2013

December 23, 2012 2 comments

Finishing the Series Reading Challenge 2013 BadgeHello my lovely readers!

Because life is so incredibly busy, I hadn’t been planning on participating in any of the many wonderful reading challenges in existence around the book blogosphere.  (Beyond hosting my own, the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, of course.)  But when I received a GoodReads invitation to Socrates’ Finishing the Series Reading Challenge, I couldn’t resist because it fits in so well with my already established (in my head) reading goals for 2013.  It’s incredibly simple. Choose a single (or multiple) book series you’ve previously started to finally finish reading during 2013.  I already have a GoogleDoc of all the series I’m reading and was saying to myself, “Amanda, finish at least a few of these in 2013,” and doing that in the context of the fun that is a book blog reading challenge just makes me happy.

I’m currently reading 26 series. I know, I know.  I’m not going to challenge myself to all of those, because then I’d only be reading series books all year. :-P  But I am signing up for the highest level of the challenge: Level 3: 3 or more series.

So what am I pledging to finish?

  1. Georgina Kincaid series by Richelle Mead
    #3 Succubus Dreams review 1/31/13, 5 stars
    #4 Succubus Heat review 12/25/13, 4 stars
    #5 Succubus Shadows
    #6 Succubus Revealed
  2. Y: The Last Man series by Brian K. Vaughan
    #8 Kimono Dragons
    #9 Motherland
    #10 Whys and Wherefores
  3. Riders of the Apocalypse series by Jackie Morse Kessler
    #3 Loss
    #4 Breath
  4. John Cleaver series by Dan Wells
    #3 I Don’t Want to Kill You review , 3/2/13 3.5 stars
  5. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
    #2 Children of God
  6. Katherine “Kitty” Katt series by Gini Koch I will not be finishing this series, due to severe dislike of the third book. It’s a permanent dnf.
    #3 Alien in the Family review, 10/3/13 2 stars
    #4 Alien Proliferation
    #5 Alien Diplomacy
    #6 Alien vs. Alien
    #7 Alien in the House
    #8 Alien Research

For the Katherine “Kitty” Katt series, it is not yet finished, so I’m only pledging to books that are projected to be published before the end of 2013.

I also reserve the right to give up on a series if it starts nose-diving before the end. ;-)

Phew! That’s a lot of books…but it would also make a serious dent into my series list.  So fingers crossed that I have good luck with it.

If the challenge sounds like a good match for you, be sure to check out the official challenge page!

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

Buy It

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

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Pile of books.

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

Buy It

Imminent Arrivals and TBR

June 24, 2010 17 comments

Since I didn’t quite manage to finish my current read on the bus this morning (I literally had to stop in the middle of the climax.  I HATE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS), I thought I’d do something a little bit different today.  As you all know, I use PaperBackSwap for acquiring a lot of my books.  It lets you sort your wishlist by estimated time to fulfillment, so I thought I’d share with you guys the books that are estimated to be mine shortly.

Woman in the woods.First up, I’ve been waiting for this book forever: The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan.  All I really know about it is it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie story with a girl/woman/female-okay! at the center of the plot.  I love all things zombie.  Love.  They’re grotesque and fabulous and really fit my dark sense of humor to a T.  This is one of those books that will jump to the top of the TBR pile when it arrives.

Black and white image of women.Next is The Groupby Mary McCarthy.  This got added to my wishlist after reading Nymeth‘s review of it.  It’s about eight female Vassar graduates in the 1930s and the struggles they faced as women at that time.  I’m a sucker for stories about the struggles women face due simply to the fact that we’re women, and the early 1900s are a favorite time period of historical fiction for me.

Giant moon over snowy earth.Third is yet another post-apocalyptic book: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  I can only explain my post-apocalypse obsession by pointing at my fundamentalist Christian upbringing.  Or maybe I just enjoyed the apocalypse sermons because I secretly love tales of suffering.  Take your pick.  Anywho, this one is in journal form, a format I came to love through those Dear America books back when I was in middle school.  This particular apocalypse takes the form of an asteroid hitting the moon, moving it closer to the Earth and giving us some fun Arctic weather.  I’ve heard good titterings from my fellow librarians on this one.

Ok, so I also have books in my TBR pile, so I’m going to show you guys 3 random books from there.  If there’s one you sorely want reviewed soon, tell me now!

Person in a tree.I stumbled upon The Integral Trees by Larry Niven on PaperBackSwap’s customized homepage (it shows me recently added scifi, horror, and memoirs).  The cover caught my attention, so I checked out the description.  It’s supposed to be about a planet where humans evolved to live without gravity and live among the trees.  All other life forms also live among the trees, including the fish.  Honestly, it reminded me a lot of Wii Mario Galaxy, so there you have it.

Torn page in a notebook.A pretty recent arrival, I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells features an untrustworthy narrator with sociopathic tendencies who spends the book trying to convince us and himself that he’s not a serial killer.  Kind of reminds me of Dexter-lite.  I was really stoked for this the whole time it was on my wishlist, but I haven’t touched it since it arrived.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe I’d enjoy it more if it was called, Yeah, I’m a Serial Killer, Deal With It, Bitch.  As is, it just seems like the author was afraid to take it to the edge that Dexter is at.  Prove me wrong, people!

Cartoon of a woman sitting on a tombstone.Finally, there’s Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson.  Yes, it’s yet another paranormal romance series, and I have yet to finish the two that I’m on (Demon Slayer and Sookie), but well this one seems a lot more like Shopaholic, plus it’s not in the south, which is a huge plus.  I mean, really, why must all tongue-in-cheek paranormal romance take place in the south, whereas the dull I’m-a-huge-bitch-because-I-was-wounded-as-a-child-LOOK-AT-MY-TATTOOS paranormal romance take place in the north?  Sooo dull.  So, yeah, I have high hopes for this series.

That’s it!  Please tell me what you think, my lovely readers!

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