Imaginary Friend

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Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for providing me with a copy of Stephen Chbosky’s novel, Imaginary Friend, in exchange for an honest review.

Strange things are happening in the small, Pennsylvania town of Mill Grove. The town has been plagued with missing children spanning over several generations, inspiring urban legends. Kate Reese is escaping an abusive relationship and she decides to make a fresh start for herself and her seven-year-old son, Christopher, in Mill Grove. On the surface, it appears to be an idyllic town, but soon Christopher is swept up in the horrors that have befallen other children of the community. It all begins when Christopher makes an imaginary friend that he names “The Nice Man.”

I love horror and I have never been legitimately freaked out until Imaginary Friend. The horror and graphic imagery is on a level that almost made me quit the book. I’m quite honestly shocked by how much Chbosky’s novel affected my sleep and invaded my imagination. He’s an incredible writer.

Chbosky’s story assaults the reader in multiple ways. He balances intense descriptions that leave little to the imagination, with gaps that allow the reader to imagine the worst. I read that Imaginary Friend is in development to be made into a movie or TV series. I don’t think that I could handle it and I seriously can’t imagine how any visual could match or be worse than what I was creating in my mind. The action, especially in the last half of the story, is virtually non-stop and at a break-neck pace. I kept catching myself holding my breath from the intensity. There are several great plot twists that I did not see coming.

Imaginary Friend is one of the most unexpected books that I have ever read. It’s a roller coaster ride. I think I was caught off-guard primarily because it is so vastly different than Chbosky’s best-selling novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower and was excited to see his much-anticipated follow-up. I’m sure many readers will pick up Imaginary Friend, based on their love for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and they may be left disappointed. The books are so dissimilar and horror, especially this level of horror, is not going to be everyone’s cup-of-tea. However, it’s awesome that Chbosky wrote a wildly different type of story. He took a risk. He wrote the story that he needed to tell. I have so much respect for him.

My only criticism is that the story felt long. It is long, coming in at around seven-hundred pages. The pacing wasn’t slow, but it was too long to live in that particular story world. It’s a stressful read and I wanted out. It also suffers from a glut of action at the end of the story, pushing Imaginary Friend to continue beyond the point of where it felt like the story should have ended. It was along the lines of an action movie that has one too many explosions or car wrecks, or the horror film when the villain rises from the dead, but in this case, it was several resurrections too many.

This criticism aside, I found Imaginary Friend to be a highly memorable read. Chbosky has a unique voice and a crazy brain for horror writing. You’ll never look at deer the same way. It will also make you reevaluate any imaginary friends that your kids might have at the moment.

It was so darn creepy, that I have the chills just writing this review!

 

The Swallows

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group and Ballantine Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Lutz’s novel, The Swallows, in exchange for an honest review.

Shortly after joining the faculty of Stonebridge Academy, an elite boarding school, creative writing professor Alexandra Witt, begins to notice that dark secrets are being kept amongst the students. The faculty turns a blind-eye out of fear and the professor whom Alexandra had been hired to replaced left under mysterious circumstances. Despite several warnings, Alexandra is determined to reveal the truth.

I’m drawn to stories that take place at boarding schools. I’ve always loved going to school and ever since I was a young child, I had romantic ideas of what it would be like to attend a boarding school. The setting for The Swallows does not disappoint. The campus is lush and the students are privileged. Lutz explores the “Upstairs/Downstairs” aspect of showing perspectives from both the wealthy students and the mostly average-means faculty. These are kids accustomed to power via the privilege that comes with wealth.

The Swallows is both a mystery and suspense novel, but it is also a commentary on our times with the “Me Too” movement. At Stonebridge Academy, there is a strong hierarchy of popular students, which includes a fluid ranking of the top male and female students, but within this group, the boys have their own club. Within this “boys club”,” they use their influence against the girls by creating a secret, sex driven ranking system. Alexandra is the type of teacher who easily bonds with teenagers and as she learns what the boys are doing, she uses her influence to help the girls stand-up for themselves. However, it is not as simple as pointing out the wrongs, the girls want revenge for their humiliation.

One of the more interesting twists comes from a student who begins a nightly ritual across campus. Her silent walks with a loud scream at the end, pick-up steam and soon she has begun an entire movement. She never speaks to the meaning of her ritual and others assume that it is in response to her having been raped or assaulted. She never confirms or denies the reason and her actions explode in popularity, attracting the attention of the national news. This situation blurs the lines between reality and the way society likes to attach meaning to situations, regardless of the truth. She becomes a symbol of a movement, simply because her actions seem like they reflect the pain of a woman who has been harmed by men.

Although there are intriguing aspects to The Swallows, I didn’t find myself completely gelling with the story. It was uneven in pacing and I found a lot of it to reek of “shock value,” in a way that made it hard for me to believe or connect. I didn’t entirely dislike The Swallows, but it was a solid 3 out of 5 for me. The most interesting aspect is the ways that the various characters use power to their advantage and this alone made it a worthwhile read.

 

Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church

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Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing me with a copy of Megan Phelps-Roper’s memoir, Unfollow: a Memoir of Loving and Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church, in exchange for an honest review.

Unfollow is a memoir of faith and forgiveness that details Megan Phelps-Roper’s decision to leave the controversial Westboro Baptist Church. The church was founded and headed by Megan’s grandfather, Fred Phelps and is famous for its aggressive protest campaigns.

If you live in the United States, it’s very unlikely that you haven’t heard about the Westboro Baptist Church. They are constantly in the news for their hate-filled attacks towards what they believe is sinful behavior, such as homosexuality, even going as far as to protest at funerals of those whom they believe are sinners. The church is considered by many to be a hate group and they certainly do not shy away from hateful speech in efforts to have their message heard. They relish the attention and media coverage, including leveraging it to their advantage by arguing with those who disagree with their tactics.

I found Phelps-Roper’s memoir to be eye-opening and honest. I knew about their protests, but I didn’t know anything about the members of the church or its structure. The Westboro Baptist Church is comprised almost entirely of members of the Phelps’ family. It’s a small group. It rarely has outsiders join and therefore, is a very insulated group. I wrongly assumed that they would behave more like other conservative fringe groups, but what Phelps-Roper revealed was surprising to me. For example, the kids attended a regular school and were very familiar with pop culture, such as current music and movies. Pop culture was not forbidden or sinful. Although they had a modesty dress-code, it was probably even more liberal than other churches and did not become more restrictive until Phelps-Roper was an adult and deciding to leave the church.

The Phelps family is highly educated and above all, law degrees are prized. Fred Phelps was a lawyer and he encouraged his children to follow in his path, including Phelps-Roper’s mother. The women in the church take a very active role, using their education to fight lawsuits and also fight for their protections under freedom of speech. I suppose that this shouldn’t be surprising, as the Westboro Baptist Church has operated a shocking campaign for many years and has been able to defend their right to do so. I think most people, myself included prior to this book, would be surprised to learn that they are a very educated group of people with strong women.

I was also surprised that in his early years, Fred Phelps was a strong defender of civil rights. This is such a contradiction, as Phelps is in many ways a villain, yet he was also a strong activist, using his legal background to help the black community.

Phelps-Roper’s memoir is about a girl raised in the faith of The Westboro Baptist Church. She spent her childhood and young adult years at protests and believing the faith of her family. She even took on a stronge leadership role when she became an adult, which included spearheading their social media campaign. Yet, she was always questioning and engaging with people who had different beliefs. It took many years, but over time she began to have a crisis of faith. This crisis occurred around the same time that her church was undergoing changes, including a rise in male leadership and a suppression of women. She grew up in a church where every church member’s voice was heard, but now hers was being minimized. She saw terrible things happening to her immediate family, when they were accused of breaking church rules. She also began to see the ways to interpret the Bible and had doubts about her church doctrine.

I had mixed emotions for Phelps-Roper, as she made her decision to leave the church. Leaving the church mean’t a total cut-off from her family and although she left at the same time as her younger sister, Grace, they were two young women who were very alone in the world. I feel like it is important to make clear that I don’t agree with any of their principals, nor their tactics. I think what the Westboro Baptist Church does is disgusting. As much as I want to defend their and anyone else’s right to freedom of speech, I feel their sentiments are hate speech. It’s reprehensible. That said, I can’t image the bravery that it takes to make the decision to leave both your faith and your family. in addition, Phelps-Roper is a public figure and she had to leave under the scrutiny of the public eye, especially of those whom she hurt through her previous actions.

The amazing thing is how her memoir shifts to forgiveness. Phelps-Roper found many friends from those whom she had protested against and considered sinners. She was welcomed with many hugs and much forgiveness. It seemed like the people she had harmed were actually more willing to offer her forgiveness, than she was towards herself. Phelps-Roper continues to make amends by publicly speaking about her childhood in the church and writing books, such as Unfollow.

Unfollow is an important memoir for the insight that it provides. It’s very easy to hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, but it isn’t easy to take a deeper look at them. I still consider their speech and tactics to be hateful, but I also have a broader understanding of what it would be like to grow-up in that world and what it truly means to both seek and give forgiveness.

 

The Wolf Wants In

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Laura McHugh’s novel, The Wolf Wants In, in exchange for an honest review.

Sadie Keller’s brother has died and although the case has been closed, she is convinced that her former sister-in-law, a member of the infamous Pettit clan, is hiding the truth. The Pettit’s are well known in rural Kansas for drug running and other criminal behavior. The situation escalates when the body of a local child is found in the woods. Sadie is an old friend of the child’s mother and she fears that the Pettit’s could be involved. Eighteen-year-old Henley Pettit is caught in the crosshairs of the family business. Henley desperately wants to get out of town and live a normal life, but she is also compelled to guard the Pettit’s secrets.

McHugh is a great suspense and mystery writer. I throughly enjoyed The Wolf Wants In. It’s a tension filled novel with strong characters and compelling twists. My favorite aspect of the work is the setting. Although a work of fiction, it isn’t difficult to imagine that this story could have taken place in many rural towns in America. The story speaks to the opioid epidemic and the way addiction fall-out impacts so many lives. This is a timely subject and one that McHugh tackles with care.

The characters have heavy dilemmas, especially Henley who has to make some irrevocable and dangerous decisions at a young age. The tension is thick throughout, making The Wolf Wants In, a page-turner.