Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Horror (page 1 of 2)

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

There’s been a lot of nostalgia for the ’90s lately, and to those of you remembering (or wishing you were old enough to remember) those days of yore, let me recommend you read American Psycho. Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel will remind you what a hotbed of toxic masculine Yuppie nonsense much of that decade really was. It’s a fascinating read, but not one for the faint of heart.

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Ellis chose the perfect quote – from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground – as an epigraph. It begins:

Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed.

American Psycho Epigraph

The first few chapters give off strong Money-era Martin Amis vibes. At first, the protagonist – Patrick Bateman, the titular American psycho (i.e., maniacal investment banker) – mentions his private obsession with sexualised violence only briefly, with nonchalance. Blink and you’ll miss it. (And poor some out for the poor early readers who didn’t know what they were in for…)

Bateman narrates his everyday activities: morning routine, office routine, endless dinner-and-drinks get-togethers with his investment banker buddies and the women they refer to exclusively as “hardbodies”. The characters – including Bateman – are constantly confused for one another, because all of those Wall Street guys are the same. Bateman is strangely obsessed with what people are wearing, Valentino this and Brooks Brothers that. It’s obviously a commentary on the consumerist culture of the era and geography, but it was so frequent and heavy-handed (seriously, about a third of the novel is dedicated to describing the characters’ outfits), that I couldn’t help but wonder if Ellis was just a smidgen obsessed himself.

Oh, and in an eerie stroke of foresight, Bateman is also obsessed with Donald Trump. Ha!

Anyway, American Psycho seems like your bog-standard Yuppie greed novel, until Bateman starts describing his violent impulses and how he acts upon them.

So, that brings us to the trigger warnings. I realise that my triggers (i.e., anything at all that might even present a minor inconvenience to a dog) are not shared by all. However, I feel pretty confident in saying if you have a trigger, it’ll be pulled by American Psycho. Some governments have deemed it so disturbing that it can only be sold to 18+ adults, shrink-wrapped like a smutty magazine.

Personally, for the most part, I found Bateman’s infamous violence almost comedic. It was just so incredibly graphic. The one instance that really stuck with me is when he narrates noticing fat spatters on his blinds and curtains from the breasts of a woman (he electrified them with starter cords until they exploded). That’s a pretty good example of what you can expect.

And, for those of you who share my concern for fictional canine welfare, there is more than one occasion of truly horrible holy-fuck-I’m-going-to-cry-until-I-throw-up violence against dogs. The first, at least, can be seen coming a mile off (when Bateman attacks the owner), so I could skip my eyes over the page. Unfortunately, the later instances are very sudden and truly sickening.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people around Ellis warned him that American Psycho would ruin his career, prior to its publication. Simon & Schuster acquired the manuscript first, but later withdrew due to “aesthetic differences” (i.e., “this is so fucked, we cannot possibly publish it”). Vintage Books then picked it up, and went on to publish it after what they called “a customary editing process”. Ellis received death threats and hate-mail galore when it hit the shelves, and even anyone who positively reviewed the book was subject to criticism. He recalled in an interview that “the one good review [that appeared in] the national press” (the Los Angeles Times) resulted in “a three-page letter section of people canceling their subscriptions”.

Even now – more than 30 years later – American Psycho continues to make waves. Apparently, in Australia, it’s supposed to be sold shrink-wrapped, but that’s news to me; I bought it naked as the day it was born. Governments and wowsers are still banning it, petitioning for it to be banned, hiding it on the top shelf out of reach of the poor impressionable children… don’t they realise by now that the banning a book is the best way to guarantee that people will read it?

Ultimately, I thought American Psycho was just another – quite good, but gimmicky – commentary on Yuppie culture. I didn’t hate it, but books that make the same point(s) without the chainsaw murders are a dime a dozen. If someone’s looking for a Yuppie-critical read, American Psycho wouldn’t be the first (or even probably the third) I’d recommend. If they’re after a horrifying novel to make their stomach churn, sure, they could pick this one up, but personally I found Tender Is The Flesh a lot more unsettling.

My favourite Amazon reviews of American Psycho:

  • “I don’t think I’ve ever read a more boring or uninteresting book. He literally just goes on and on about clothes and other boring stuff” – Amazon Customer
  • “Maybe some men shouldn’t be allowed to read & write.” – Kathryn Harvey
  • “Yes it’s repulsive, but so is a puddle of vomit on a school room floor. How this got out of the trash bin and actually published is an insult to even marginally better writers.” – George Zucco III
  • “If you really want to punish an ex of yours, buy them a copy of this book. They’ll never stop cursing your name.” – Jesse L. Cairns
  • “I will grant the business card scene is fantastic, although it is not enough to make up for the crapfest this book is.” – Ira Jaxon

Misery – Stephen King

Can you imagine a writer so twisted that they write a best-selling book about a writer who is kidnapped, abused, and forced to write a novel by an axe-wielding villain? Such an idea could only come from the mind of the King of Horror, Stephen King! Misery is his 1987 psychological horror novel with that exact premise.

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The main character, Paul Sheldon, is a 42-year-old author. He has recently published the final installment of his best-selling Victorian romance series, much to his relief; finally, he’ll be able to focus on his more Serious Literary(TM) novels. Unfortunately, Paul also likes a drink, a bit too much. He gets plastered to celebrate his success and winds up totalling his car. He’s pulled from the wreck by Annie Wilkes.

Ah, yes, Annie Wilkes – even if you’ve never read Misery or seen the movie adaptation, you’ve probably heard her name in hushed whispers as one of the most horrifying villains in fiction. She’s a former nurse with a healthy home-stash of medication “samples”, and she’s a big fan of Paul’s romance novels. She’s also very, very unhappy about his decision to kill off his protagonist in the final book.

So, here we have a severely-injured writer, “fortuitously” discovered by his number-one fan who’d do anything to have him continue writing. What’s a girl like Annie Wilkes to do… but take him hostage in her guest room, set his broken legs, get him hooked on painkillers, and plonk a typewriter down in front of him? That’s right, she forces him to write the story she feels Misery (the character for whom King’s novel gets its title) deserves.

When King first had the idea for the story of Misery, he envisaged a 30,000 word manuscript that he would call The Annie Wilkes Edition. In that parallel-universe version, Paul finishes the story Annie forces him to write, and Annie kills him, in order to bind that special, final book in his skin. Ultimately, though, he decided to go with a much longer version (four times as long) and a different ending (which I won’t spoil completely here, but…). When asked why the change, he said:

… it would have made a pretty good story (not such a good novel, however; no one likes to root for a guy over the course of three hundred pages only to discover that between chapters sixteen and seventeen the pig ate him), but that wasn’t the way things eventually went. Paul Sheldon turned out to be a good deal more resourceful than I initially thought.

Stephen King (on Misery)

Misery moves a lot faster than the other Stephen King novel I’ve read (Under The Dome), but that’s not surprising really, given that it’s a third of the length and only has two central characters. Unfortunately, despite having a narrower focus, King really doesn’t flesh out his characters as fully as you’d hope. Maybe I’m jaded from reading too many more recent and more intricate thrillers, but everything in Misery just seemed a bit two-dimensional. Annie Wilkes had no depth, no complexity – she was like a cut-out of a “psychopath”. Paul Sheldon was a mess of convenient realisations and insights; by way of example, he kept having dreams that would point him in the right direction or “reveal” how he truly felt. The “shocking twists” were just small bumps in the road, overcome by Paul thinking really hard about them for a bit. It’s paint-by-numbers intro-to-Psychology “show, don’t tell” stuff, and I honestly expected more from King.

Maybe he was blinded by how deeply personal and autobiographical Misery was for him. It’s not just the emphasis he puts on the importance of dreams (he has said, IRL, that the character of Annie Wilkes came from a dream of his own). King’s personal struggles, and the at-times destructive passion he feels for books and writing, feel encoded into Misery‘s DNA. Firstly, you can see the way King sees his books (and himself, come to that) hinted at in the way he describes his main character:

He was Paul Sheldon, who wrote novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers.

Misery (Page 7)

But the larger, overwhelming metaphor is that of addiction. Misery is like King’s come-to-Jesus moment about his own addiction(s) manifest. Paul Sheldon becomes addicted to the painkillers that Annie Wilkes forces him to take, and his days come to revolve around her dispensing his medication, more than food, water, or his bedpan; even when he contemplates escape, he wonders and worries about cutting off his supply. So, you’ve got a murderous captor holding the writer hostage, getting him high and forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do, until he almost loses himself completely – honestly, if Misery isn’t handed out at AA meetings, it should be. To his credit, King doesn’t deny the connection.

I wrote [Misery] when I was having such a tough time with dope. I knew what I was writing about. There was never any question. Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave.

Stephen King (On Misery)

He stops short, however, of admitting that Paul is some kind of cathartic Mary Sue; he concedes that “certain parts of him are [me]”, but qualifies that “I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you”.

(Maybe he spoke too soon. In a strange twist of life imitating art, King himself was in a serious car crash similar to his character Paul Sheldon’s, in 1999. Luckily, no one took him hostage and forced him to write anything afterwards… as far as we know.)

After publication, Misery won the inaugural Bram Stoker Award for Novel, and critical reception was generally positive, despite disgruntled voices from fans who resented King for steering away from his prior fiction’s supernatural/fantasy elements. Personally, I preferred the realism of Misery, but it still fell a bit short for me in other ways (see above). I might check out the movie adaptation at some point, just to see if the story translates better to the screen (though if they do any cheesy dream sequences, I may actually vomit). All told, Misery is a middle-of-the-road horror novel, made more interesting for its parallels to King’s personal life.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Misery:

  • “I bought it as a present for myself and wasn’t disappointed. Reading Misery on New Year’s Eve was relaxing, soothing, and good. It was like my mind had a vacation on its own.” – Sofia Petrovna
  • “The book was really good I like misery” – bina shrestha
  • “I couldn’t even feel for Paul much. He seemed wimpy. After his legs healed from his accident, he could have escaped, but didn’t.

    King also had too many coincidences in his storyline. It’s enough to make your eyes roll.

    Instead of taking the axe to Paul’s leg, King should have did it to the book instead. This would have saved me the “misery” of reading it!” – MJ
  • “True misery is reading this novel. By the time he’d written this, King had succumbed to the “my every word is golden” delusion, so the thing is much larger than it needed to be. After reading this because I promised a friend I’d do it (oh, what we do for pretty women)I decided that even 180 pages would’ve been too long. The conclusion is unsatisfactory because some of the cast of characters survive.” – James K. Burk
  • “By the time I was halfway through I wanted one of them to die. It didn’t matter which one it was.” – Pharoah 12
  • “I order “misery” by Stephen King and received a diet book. Granted, both are thrillers but I was really looking forward to stimulating my imagination and I really don’t like losing weight” – enobong essien

Room – Emma Donoghue

Sometimes a book’s premise alone is enough to chill you to your core. Room, a 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue, is a story told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, a boy who has spent his entire life held captive in a single locked room with his mother. It’s all he has ever known. This is no post-apocalyptic hide-out or agoraphobic folie à deux – they are both victims of a terrible crime (based on the real-life horrors of Josef Fritzl).

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At first, Jack is unaware of his own origin story. The man he calls “Old Nick”, their vile captor, kidnapped Jack’s Ma when she was just 19 years old (oh, yeah, by the way: TRIGGER WARNING, for everything you can imagine in such a scenario). Ma has been imprisoned since that time, seven years ago in the book’s timeline, and Jack is the product of Old Nick’s ongoing sexual abuses. He keeps Ma – and now, Jack – secured in a single-room outbuilding, fitted out with the bare basics (stove, toilet, wardrobe, sink, bed, a TV set): the titular room.

As the narrator of Room, Jack notices every detail, so his world feels very big, even though we know it is suffocatingly small. While for us (and for Ma) such an existence is horrifying, for Jack it simply is. Lacking any frame of reference, Jack believes that the room constitutes the whole world, that the objects it contains (Plant, Rug, Toothbrush) are his friends, and that the things he sees on TV aren’t “real” the way that he and Ma are. She, of course, can’t bring herself to scare or shatter him by telling him the truth.

Ma actually does a remarkable job of keeping Jack happy and healthy, given the circumstances. She continues to breastfeed him, bolstering the meagre nutrition he gets from the food Old Nick provides. They have a daily routine of physical exercise and rudimentary schooling, and she is fastidious about Jack’s hygiene. After all, if he gets sick, there’s nowhere she can take him and no one she can ask for help.

That notion is actually the impetus for the big turning point in Room, an escape plan to get Ma and Jack out from Old Nick’s clutches. Ma convinces Jack to feign deathly illness, hoping that Old Nick would take pity on the kid and take him to a hospital. She coaches Jack on how to ask for help in a world he has never seen or known (and, to be honest, isn’t really sure exists).

The first attempt fails, with Old Nick refusing to take Jack to get medical attention, so Ma ups the ante: she teaches Jack to play dead. She manipulates Old Nick into removing Jack’s “corpse” from the room, and Jack waits until the opportune moment to run and find help. Despite his fear and his difficulty communicating (remember, he has never seen or spoken to anyone other than Ma – when Old Nick visits for his nightly rape, she hides Jack in the wardrobe), he manages to help the police find the room and his mother. The two are “rescued”, and taken to a mental hospital for treatment and re-integration.

Reading Room is strange for a lot of reasons, but mostly for the uncomfortable yet compelling contrast between the horror of the truth and the innocence of the child narrator. Old Nick is perhaps one of the most terrifying villains I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and yet I really appreciated that the story is not “about” him. He is never given a real name or a back story, beyond his abduction of Ma, and he’s rarely actually “seen”, by Jack or by the reader. He’s more of a looming threat, an anonymous boogeyman.

This was actually a very deliberate decision by Donoghue in writing Room. In an interview, she said: “I didn’t want to let him off the hook. Once he’s arrested he disappears, because I refuse to be that interested in him. As a society we’ve given disproportionate attention to the psychopaths – the average thriller is about a psychopath who wants to rape and chop up a woman. I wanted to focus on how a woman could create normal love in a box.” Well said!

Donoghue has also been very open about her inspiration, saying that the idea was “triggered” by the Fritzl case: “The newspaper reports of Felix Fritzl [Elisabeth’s son], aged five, emerging into a world he didn’t know about, put the idea into my head. That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me.” The whump Donoghue experienced on hearing Felix Fritzl’s story may have had something to do with the fact that her own son was four at the time. The bond between mother and child is the heart of Room, and while that’s not usually my schtick, it really got me in this one.

All told, Room is stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it readable (as, indeed, I did). You’d be forgiven for being skeptical going in, figuring (once again, as I did) that the premise and the plot was too obviously horrifying to be truly immersive and that the pulling-of-heartstrings would feel contrived, but I can promise you you’re in good hands with Donoghue. Even if you know every single spoiler, you’ll still find your heart pounding, as the emotive nature of the novel isn’t rooted in any schlocky plot twists. Room is one of the very few genuinely scary reads that definitely lives up to the hype.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Room:

  • “This book is the reason I haven’t gotten any housework done the last 2 days! I couldn’t put it down.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Well done movie about a disturbing subject, I was surprised to find it on the list by Amazon as a Mother’s Day gift. Not easy to watch and heartbreaking, why would you do that to your mother?” – Nicole M.
  • “If you don’t like kids, don’t bother. The first half of the book is the kid describing the room. It’s brutal. I get that it’s set up for how shocking the world will be when he finally experiences it, but still. I found myself wishing there was an alternate ending where Old Nick comes back and kills them both. It would have been more interesting. Seriously…this is Brie Larson if Brie Larson were a book. Boring and uninspired. I hated this. At least this book didn’t ruin the Marvel franchise.” – Josh
  • “One of the worst books I ever read. Couldn’t wait for the last page to come. Stick a fork in me.” – @TLDougherty

Flowers In The Attic – VC Andrews

I’m a sucker for a content warning. If the news anchor says “the following content may be distressing to some viewers”, you’d better believe my eyes will be glued to the screen. When the ladies of the My Favorite Murder podcast warned their listeners about the twisted, sickening premise of Flowers In The Attic, I knew I had to give it a go. After all, they’d read it as teenagers, how bad could it really be? Keeper Upperers, consider my lesson learned…

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Flowers In The Attic is a (relatively) contemporary (supposedly) gothic novel, first published in 1979. It’s the first book in the Dollanganger Series, so named for the family at the center of the story. It all starts in 1957, with a beautiful family of six (mother, father, and four adoring children) living a comfortable suburban life in Pennsylvania. Naturally, tragedy must strike. The father is killed in a car accident on the evening of his thirty-sixth birthday. Given that he was the family’s breadwinner, and his wife had no marketable skills, the remaining Dollangangers are forced to flee their newly-repossessed house and throw themselves at the mercy of their estranged (but very wealthy) maternal family.

All of this is narrated by Cathy Dollanganger, the second child and eldest daughter. Her perspective reminded me a bit of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird: a grown woman telling a story from her younger perspective… but that’s about all these two books have in common. Harper Lee’s classic American tale of racial injustice and coming-of-age was confronting in a way, but Flowers In The Attic is grim and sickening on a whole other level.

See, the mother feeds Cathy and her siblings (older brother Christopher, and younger twins Carrie and Cory – all Cs, yes, very clever) some cock-and-bull story about how their grandfather is evil. She says the kids will have to hide out in a far-flung wing of the family mansion until she convinces the old coot that kids aren’t so bad to have around, then he’ll welcome them with open arms and give them all his money. Sounds hinky, right?

When the family arrives, they are given a very cold shoulder by their grandmother – by which I mean she hands them a printed list of heinous “rules” they must follow in order to keep their existence a complete secret from everyone else in the house (even the help! imagine!), under the very serious threat of physical violence. Oh, and there’s a lot of God-talk too: no being naked in front of each other because it’s sinful, no thinking about what anyone looks like naked because it’s sinful, no looking at yourself naked because it’s sinful… you get the drift.

The mother is exempt from all of this, for the most part. She cops a flogging, but at least she gets to move around the house and the servants know she’s there. She tries to reassure the kids that they’ll only be locked up for a few days, but those days turn into weeks, and then the weeks into months. On one of the daily food drops, the grandmother reveals to Cathy and Christopher that they are all, in fact, the product of an incestuous union between their mother and her half-uncle. Heaven forbid! That’s why the kids have to be kept secret, it would seem. If the grandfather knew that his daughter’s marriage to his half-brother had produced progeny, he’d… well, it’s not clear what he’d do exactly, but it would be bad.

Are you following this? It’s a bit convoluted, I’ll grant you. So, here’s a little mid-point tl;dr summary for you: Mummy married her Uncle, and now the kids are locked in the attic so the rich Grandpa won’t write them all out of his Will. Ick. Now, I’m not going to tease you with content warnings or thinly-veiled references to more icky stuff (that’s the carrot that lured me to Flowers In The Attic in the first place). Consider everything from here on out extremely spoiler-y (and gross). Proceed at your own peril.

Things really start to drag in the middle. I mean, there’s only so much of kids whinging that they want to go outside a reader can take. Plus, the holes in the logic of the story become less “mysterious” and more mystifying. I tried to assume that it was all part of a masterful plot, that Andrews was being clever and leading me down rabbit holes, but 200 pages in I had to concede. The fact that they all just seemed to forget entirely about those extensive rules by the second act was what killed Flowers In The Attic for me. On day one, it was all “not a PEEP out of you until AFTER 10am or YOU’LL ALL BE WHIPPED!”, and (it felt like) the next minute the kids are all screaming their little lungs out by breakfast and no one gives a shit.

So, let me skip ahead. It turns out the reason that the evil grandmother was so hard on them with all this God business was that she was worried history was going to repeat itself… which, of course, it does. It comes on gradually, with Cathy suddenly noticing her changing body, and catching her older brother staring at her now and then, but eventually they’re snuggling and making out and there is a particularly awful incident whereby Christopher forcibly rapes Cathy, only for her to later tell him that she “secretly wanted it” and he “didn’t need to feel bad because they did nothing wrong”.

Feel free to take a moment to let the wave of nausea pass. I know I needed to take a few, myself.

The thing is, I’m really only assuming the grandmother’s motivation and role in the whole business. As a villain, she’s completely two-dimensional. Her dialogue and mannerisms are laughably cliche, like a child’s imagining what an evil grandmother would be like. At one point, she is literally (in a dream, no less) likened to the witch from Hansel and Gretel. There’s no insight into her past, her marriage, her motivation for keeping up the charade when (clang!) we find out the grandfather has actually been dead for months.

Ah, yes, the big twist reveal (as if we needed another): the mother and grandmother kept the “flowers” locked in the attic even after the grandfather passed away. The ladies have actually been trying to kill the kids off, by putting arsenic in their daily food deliveries. Andrews explains this strange new malevolence by having the kids overhear the servants say that the grandfather wrote a “codicil” into his will, stating that the mother would never inherit a dime if she had any children. Yeah, sure. Sounds legit. What lawyer wouldn’t sign off on that?

That’s the final straw for the kids (not the locked-in-the-attic-for-three-years thing, not the starved-for-two-weeks-because-Cathy-took-her-shirt-off thing, not the their-mother-didn’t-visit-them-for-months-because-she-was-honeymooning-with-her-new-husband thing, not the death-of-one-of-the-twins thing). Arsenic in their desserts? No, thank you! They hustle up everything of value that they can carry and run away. And they decide not to dob in their mother and grandmother for the imprisonment and attempted murder because…? Something about not wanting to go to a foster home? Wanting their deeply disturbing incestuous union to continue? Holy heck, I could barely bring myself to care by that point. I was just glad to be done with Flowers In The Attic and the terrible, schlocky writing.

Flowers In The Attic is a strange hybrid: a barely-comprehensible poorly-written story full of holes that still managed to disturb and horrify me. At first, I was frustrated by the mistreatment of the children, but all too soon I was frustrated by the children themselves, and the whole ludicrous set-up. I was sickened by the abuse and incest, but also by the fact that this is marketed as a young adult novel. I’m hardly one to restrict any young person’s access to any reading material, but damn. Even for kids that have a taste for the macabre, it’s a bit much, and the quality of the writing and the strength of the resolution (or lack thereof) just doesn’t justify it. If you’re going to serve young readers up a heaping plate of “adult themes”, best you give them some redeeming quality to wash it down with. They’d be better off reading Lolita.

It would seem that I’m pretty much alone in my opinion, however – maybe because I never did, in fact, read Flowers In The Attic as a young adult and as such have no nostalgic attachment to it. The book was an immediate sensation, and went on to sell over forty million copies world-wide. Of course, that success was not without controversy, with schools and libraries removing it from the reach of young readers (with limited success). Controversy also tainted the novel’s supposed inspiration; Andrews maintained all her life that Flowers In The Attic was “based on a true story”, but there is basically no evidence (beyond Andrews’ account and the reported corroboration of an unidentified family member) to support that. I’m not saying people aren’t held captive against their will for years on end, and that terrible things don’t happen… but Flowers In The Attic is so preposterous and flawed, I’m disinclined to believe a word about it.

Still, the legend lives on. There have been two film adaptations of Flowers In The Attic, a stage-play, a slew of sequels, prequels, re-tellings… even after Andrews’ death, the ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman took up the torch and continued publishing under her name. There are now more than 80 books in circulation for the VC Andrews brand, but I can tell you what: as far as I’m concerned, one was more than enough. If you get your jollies being scared, read some decent true crime. If you want some campy gothic fun, read classics like Dracula. If you want taboo, pick up some Henry Miller. But, for the love of all that is good and gory, don’t bother with Flowers In The Attic, not even to see what all the fuss is about.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Flowers In The Attic:

  • “Disturbing and infuriating all wrapped up in one. Don’t think I’ll be continuing the series. Not a fan of terrible parenting, child abuse or incest. No thank you.” – aziza
  • “good read will have to put it down due to getting angry” – Brandy
  • “I liked the movie but I’m halfway through the book and can’t stay interested. Oh look they’re still in the attic…still….yup, still there. Next chapter…still there.” – Kellyann

My Sister The Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

As much as we all love a bit of mystery and intrigue, sometimes it’s nice to read a book with the premise laid out completely in the title. My Sister The Serial Killer gives you exactly what it says on the tin: the story of Korede and her sister, Ayoola, who has the unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends.

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I first encountered Oyinkan Braithwaite at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (she’s lovely, by the way, and she had a queue out the door for book signings after her session). It’s hard to imagine that such an astonishingly dark and laughably twisted plot came out of the mind of such a delightful creature. I’m sure her Google search history must’ve got her on a watch-list somewhere…

But, to the story: as I said, Ayoola keeps killing her boyfriends, and it’s up to Korede to clean up the mess. Korede is literally the person Ayoola calls to help her hide a body (c’mon, we’ve all got one). The story begins with Korede cleaning up the blood spatters of the third man that Ayoola has “dispatched”, and immediately you get the sense that this situation can’t continue indefinitely.

Even aside from the serial murders, Korede and Ayoola have a strange relationship – in no small part due to their fact that their father was horribly cruel and extremely dodgy (in fact, the knife Ayoola uses to off her suitors once belonged to him, a deftly crafted metaphor for the inheritance of violence). Korede feels responsible for her sister, but simultaneously suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex. She’s the “homely” one, while Ayoola is unequivocally the “beautiful” one, with all of the privilege and preference that beauty entails.

The plot boils over when a love triangle forms: Ayoola sets her sights on the handsome and charismatic doctor that Korede has loved from afar for months. Sibling loyalty can only go so far, after all. This forces Korede into the small gap between the proverbial rock and hard place: should she keep her sister’s secrets, or divulge them to the man she loves (possibly saving his life)?

My Sister The Serial Killer thus cleverly mixes crime, romance, and family saga. It’s definitely not a thriller, in the sense that it focuses far more on the sisters’ relationship – and what happens to it under strain – than it does any cat-and-mouse games with detectives. It’s also set in Lagos, with a remarkably strong sense of location and culture that we might more commonly associate with “place writing” (and a “place” that’s sadly not often encountered by Anglophone readers, to boot).

The story unfolds in short, punchy chapters. The family backstory – abusive father, complex mother – is revealed incrementally, in a way that naturally parallels and informs the rollercoaster of the love triangle and the will-she-or-won’t-she (kill again). I must say, I thought My Sister The Serial Killer would be more light-hearted in tone – or, at least, more morbidly humorous. Braithwaite focuses more on moral responsibility and culpability than I expected. There were few laughs, and more “wait, what would I do in that situation?” dilemmas. Is Ayoola empowered, or simply sociopathic? Is Korede doing the right thing by covering up her crimes, or is she enabling a murderer? Is she righteously loyal, or simply blinded by the affection of shared experience?

But, I suppose, I can hardly complain that my funny bone wasn’t tickled when it was such a pleasure to spend time with such complex and intriguing characters. The novel’s conclusion was satisfying without being too “neat”. Braithwaite demonstrates a talent for writing far beyond her years and experience. I look forward to seeing what she comes out with next (“My Brother, The Money Launderer”, perhaps? “My Mother, The Armed Robber”?)

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Sister The Serial Killer:

  • “I love this story. This is the first book I’ve bought since scholastic book fairs were a thing for me.” – Lauryn
  • “I don’t understand why I’m meant to care about an unapologetic murderer and her accomplice sister???? Also if I had a sister I feel like my cap would be covering up one murder for her. After that homegirl is on her own. By three I’d probably call the police myself because, you know, maybe my sister needs to work through some stuff (in prison) if she’s killing this many people?” – Miss Print
  • “Hilarious! I have two younger sisters and one torments the other with… well, not covering for murder, but other things.” – Mason J Blacher
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