Sunday, February 15, 2015

From the Bookshelf: Recently Read - February 2015 Edition

It's once again time for the Show Us Your Books! link-up (yes, I know the link-up started on Tuesday, but I really wanted to finish another book before posting), and I'm happy to say that I've been keeping a pretty consistent pace with my reading this year.  It took me a little longer than I thought it would to finish a couple of these books (especially The Pilo Family Circus), but I still think I'm on track to finish 50 books in 2015.


The Contortionist's Handbook by Craig Clevenger - 199 pages

Completed on 01/20/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I first read this book about 8 years ago.  I thought I remembered a lot of the story, but as I began reading, I realized that I actually remembered very little.  So while this was a reread, it was almost as though I was reading it for the first time ... And that was kind of nice.

The main character in this novel is John Dolan Vincent, though he goes by a variety of names throughout the book.  He's a master of forgery, constantly reinventing himself in order to escape mental institutions, legal authorities, and, most recently, some pretty hardcore criminals who hired him for his talents.

The novel rapidly flips between the past and the present, giving readers insight into John's past and his need to remain on the run as well as his intelligence as he tries to convince the psychiatrist currently interviewing him that he is not suicidal and does not require further evaluation in a mental institution.  Unfortunately for John, this psychiatrist is a little better at his job than some of the others he's fooled in the past.

One of the best things about The Contortionist's Handbook is that it allows the reader a true escape.  What if you could just completely start over without leaving a trace of your old self behind?  Would you do it?  And how many times could you do it before you started to crack?  Before your new reality and the truth began to run together?  Before someone figured you out?  These are just a few of the questions that might arise as you're reading, and they're all (at least in my opinion) interesting things to consider.

I loved this book the first time I read it, and I was happy to find that I still loved it the second time around.  It's one of those books that starts strong and doesn't let up until the very end (and even then you want just a little more).


Deranged by Harold Schechter - 303 pages

Completed on 02/01/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

Like The Contortionist's Handbook, this was a reread.  I read Deranged for the first time during my senior year of college (sometime between the fall of 2005 and the spring of 2006) while I was researching serial killers for my Honors thesis.

Deranged is the only nonfiction book I read during January.  It tells the story of Albert Fish, a harmless looking elderly man who was guilty of some of the most shocking and brutal crimes against children in the 1920s and 1930s.  While he's not the most famous American serial killer, he's certainly one of the most terrifying.

There are things that I really appreciated about this book, such as the obvious effort the author put into researching Albert Fish and his crimes and his ability to paint a vivid picture of the era in which these crimes took place.  On the other hand, I had a love/hate relationship with the way he presented the story.

The author attempted to make the book read like a work of fiction.  This isn't a terrible thing, since I wouldn't want to just read a book full of dry facts.  Schechter was obviously trying to keep the story fresh and interesting, and I could definitely appreciate that.  Unfortunately, there were times when it felt like he was trying too hard to make it seem like a novel.  I don't know if it was an effort to gloss over the horror (I mean, you almost want it to be fiction) or if he just thought it would spice things up to write it this way, but it kind of annoyed me at times.

This is one of those books that you'll probably appreciate if you're a fan of true crime and/or you're interested in learning more about serial killers.  If you're not into either of those things, Deranged is definitely not the book for you.


The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott - 300 pages

Completed on 02/14/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

This book has been sitting on my shelves for at least 2 or 3 years.  I was actually really excited about it when I bought it, but, for whatever reason, I never got around to reading it.  Since I'm really trying to get through 50 books in 2015, I knew I'd pick it up at some point this year.

The Pilo Family Circus is, in a word, bizarre.  I'd venture to say this book would fall under the "bizarro fiction" category (the only thing I could even remotely compare it to is Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III, which, despite the strange title and odd premise, is actually very good), though it's also been described as "horror."  I'm terrified of clowns, so when I originally picked this book up, I thought I might be in for some nightmares.  (If you're curious, the only novel that has ever given me nightmares was A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans.  It's scary as fuck, but I loved it and would definitely read it again in the future.)

The Pilo Family Circus wasn't nightmare fuel for me, though.  While there were definitely some creepy scenes (and a lot of death!), it was also full of dark humor and interesting characters.  On the surface the book seems like it's just a weird work of fiction, but the underlying themes are much deeper than they appear.

The novel follows Jamie, a young Australian man in his 20s just trying to get by.  He lives in squalor with a few roommates (mostly drug dealers and/or addicts), and goes to a boring job he hates every evening.  One night as he's heading home from work, he sees something very strange: 3 clowns in his neighborhood.  He hides in order to watch them, unseen, and subsequently picks up a small velvet pouch filled with some kind of powder after one of the clowns tosses it into the night.  This later proves to be a very stupid move, as the powder is much more valuable than he ever could have imagined.

After toying with him for a while, the clowns eventually capture Jamie, taking him to The Pilo Family Circus to work with them.  This isn't a typical circus, though ... It's in a strange area of space that's essentially a borderline between Hell and Earth.  It's a dark place filled with violence and insanity, and, as Jamie is initiated into the group of clowns, he realizes it is also a place filled with magic.  When he applies his white face paint, he not only looks like a clown ... He becomes someone else entirely, a wild, dangerous clown named JJ.

I don't want to share much more about the plot than that, mostly because I hope that at least a few people who read this will want to pick up the book themselves.  I hate when books (or movies!) are spoiled for me in a review, so I really try to avoid doing that.  I will say, though, that The Pilo Family Circus takes many common themes (good vs. evil, power and corruption, etc.) and twists them into something fresh and interesting.  Although it took me a while to finish it, it wasn't because it was boring.  (It wasn't at all.)  I just got kind of busy this month (and, if I'm being totally honest, a little obsessed with watching a bunch of shit on Netflix), and reading got pushed down on my list of priorities.

Anyway, I really enjoyed The Pilo Family Circus overall.  I kind of wished it had more horror elements (but I'm weird and actually like to be scared shitless by books, movies, and TV shows) and a better editor (I found multiple typos, which really annoyed me), but I'd read it again in the future.


  1. It's definitely a fucked up clown story, which is exactly what I wanted. It wasn't really scary (even though clowns are terrifying!), but it's worth a read if you're into dark humor and are looking for something really different.

  2. I loved The Contortionist. I'm glad you found you still enjoyed it the second time upsets me when a book I liked a lot isn't as good as it was the first time.

  3. I meant to reply to your comment a while ago, but better late than never! I reread books a lot, but I'm always worried I won't like them as much the second time around. There are a few books that I absolutely loved (and would even describe as a "favorite") that I've been putting off rereading for this very reason. I'm sure I'll read at least a couple of them again this year, but I worry that I won't appreciate them as much since I'm in a very different place in my life than I was when I initially read them.