My Friend Dahmer / The Darkest Minds

28 01 2014

Work, work and more work getting in the way of the most important stuff…

… reading. So: impressions of books, rather than actual reviews of books.


My friend Dahmer (by Derf Backderf)

my friend dahmerI was too young to experience the whole Dahmer-thing consciously. Obviously during my own ‘fascinated by serial killers’ phase (doesn’t everyone have one?), the name Dahmer was a chiller. Derf Backderf went to the same high school as Jeffrey Dahmer and after Dahmer got arrested, Backderf – a talented graphic artist – started to put his memories of his “Friend Dahmer” to paper in the form of his own artwork (in all seriousness, Dahmer really wasn’t “a friend” at all, that much is clear from this book).

Actually, Backderf already started to draw Dahmer when he was in highschool… Dahmer was a weird kid, who seemed to just exist and was a total social outcast at first, but then became an almost raving lunatic impersonating his mother’s interior decorator, and who ended up as the school drunk (which Backderf sees as a severe coping mechanism, especially after Dahmer discovers his sexual preferences) whom people tried to avoid at all cost.

Yes, people (adults) should have seen that something was off with Dahmer, but aren’t there tons of weird kids in a high school? How many of them end up as serial killers? It’s a telling fact that when Backderf was notified of the fact that one of his high school classmates was arrested for murdering all these people, his first guess *wasn’t* Dahmer, but another one of his classmates…

Anyone reading this book expecting a sensationalist account of Dahmer’s crimes, look elsewhere. My Friend Dahmer is all about Dahmer’s disturbing home life, Dahmer in high school and how he was perceived by classmates but also how he was used by his classmates. Backderf doesn’t just rely on his own memory, though, he also did a ton of research into Dahmer’s family and teenage life. Backderf is also quite insistent that his novel is not about ‘making excuses’ for Dahmer’s crimes. Yes, you can feel pity for Dahmer up until his first murder, but that’s where empathy and pity stop for Backderf. What Backderf is trying to do is finding reasons, or at least, contributing reasons for what Dahmer did.

My main ‘objection’ to this graphic novel / memoir has nothing to do with the artwork (which is really in line with the topic: quite expressionistic and slightly grotesque). It is with the amount of meta-text. OK, this is partly a memoir and partly a journalistic effort, but I didn’t actually need all the “explanations” to piece together what was going on in this novel. If what is written as meta-text is there to make the reader think about e.g. nature vs. nurture, well, even then, I didn’t need it. As I said, the drawings are quite expressionistic and tell a tale. Dialogue can convey a lot, and then meta-text is just too much. In other words, I think that Backderf is a much better graphic artist and illustrator than he is a writer… but, hey, that’s just me, right? James Ellroy seemed to dig this book a lot, so choose who you want to believe 😉

3.5 stars


The Darkest Minds (by Alexandra Bracken)

darkestmindsThis book combines a number of tropes that have been popular in the last couple of years: dystopian and/or apocalyptic madness, psychic or otherwise supergifted kids (sometimes even locked up), a romance that might be (or not) and a whole lot of running around that may or may not amount to anything. Rather than being wholly unoriginal, however, Bracken has enough talent to pull things together somewhat… But, despite the fact that it’s clocking in a hefty 488 pages, there are on the one hand elements at the heart of this book that clearly needed to be explored more (the weird disease IAAN that affects kids but not adults and why ‘governments’ don’t try to find the cause etc. etc.). At the same time, though, this book also could have used a big comb to weed out some of its needless inconsistencies and superfluous ‘running around scenes’… No, running around does not speed up the action but slows things down and it definitely did not increase the tension (messy comes to mind). This book – and this writer – shows a lot of promise but needs just that final push to get me on the edge of my seat…

3 stars



I Hunt Killers (by Barry Lyga)

20 05 2012

Barry Lyga is on the list. Barry Lyga could be writing his grocery list, and I’d read it, so I Hunt Killers was also on the ‘most anticipated ‘ list of 2012, especially since the cat likes serial killers likes the next cat.  But truth be told, I Hunt Killers feels like an ‘in-between’ book: it’s definitely great fun while it lasts, but it doesn’t actually make you linger like Fanboy or Hero Type did.

Jasper ‘Jazz’ Dent was raised by the world’s most shocking serial killer – his father – who taught and groomed Jazz so he could become a worthy successor. When “Dear Old Dad” is finally caught and safely behind bars,  Jazz has to try and lead a normal life and prove that he is not his father. Like any ordinary teenager, he has a girlfriend, participates in school activities such as the school play (The Crucible!), has a best friend Howie (who is a hemophiliac…)… Trying to escape foster care (his mom is dead – casualty of dear old dad?), he lives with his crazy almost senile grandmother. The book actually starts when the body of a woman is found dead in a field with some fingers missing.  Jazz immediately realizes that another serial killer is running rampant in his small town of Lobo’s Nod. But because he can’t get the local Sheriff – G. William – to agree with him, he does his own little investigation, which of course is going to make him look suspicious. Most of all, though, he does this to prove to the world and himself that even though he knows how a serial killer thinks, he is not  like “Dear Old Dad”.

When you are raised by a serial killer, I’m sure you have issues.  Jazz has them, but other than that Jazz is a surprisingly “normal” YA character trying to figure out whether his past determines his future.  I Hunt Killers shows Jazz at his most vulnerable:  struggling with his past, his present desires and questioning his feelings every step of the way. Luckily there are a few people who can help Jazz with this: best friend Howie and girlfriend Connie.

And, when you write a serial killer book, there are a few options at your disposal. You can decide to gross everyone out by writing gruesome and extremely detailed descriptions, sort of like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Saw book version. The chance of that happening in a YA book is rather slim, though. I haven’t actually encountered a YA book that does just that. Plus, you’d probably end up alienating too many readers. Or, there’s the psychological horror option, like e.g. Silence of the Lambs, which manages to be a lot more menacing than any Saw movie ever could be. One of the creepiest scenes in television in this regard, is the one in which ‘Dutch’ kills a cat in Episode 11 of The Shield’s Season 3…to see how it feels to kill another living being. I Hunt Killers never reaches that level of darkness, which is a bit unfortunate, since a boy with the legacy of the greatest serial killer of almost all times, could have led to some serious psychologically disturbing behavior. Lyga on the other hand, doesn’t really take the Silence of the Lambs route in I Hunt Killers, either, but opts for route # 3: yes, there are definite gruesome acts (which you never actually *see*, because it should appeal to a broad audience), some serious creepy thoughts, but always with a huge twist of dark humor.  Most obvious reference here is of course Dexter. And yes, I Hunt Killers is definitely Dexter for teens.

Plot-wise I Hunt Killers is actually fairly predictable, although the end of the book feels a bit too forced for its own good and actually defies one of the prime facts about serial killers (which Jazz also even mentions!): serial killers don’t play well with others. I don’t buy it, and it leaves the door way too open for a sequel.

As a YA book, Jazz is an interesting albeit not really standout YA character, with quite some crossover appeal. As a serial killer book, I Hunt Killers falls between the cracks of murder mystery and psychological horror and takes the more self-gratifying route, making it into Dexter-lite. As a Barry Lyga book, it’s a bit disappointing. Yes it’s extremely fast-paced, and Lyga can draw in a reader like the best of them. So I Hunt Killers is always entertaining and fun to read, for sure (OK, so fun inasmuch as reading about serial killers and their offspring can be considered fun), but this is Barry Lyga we’re talking about, and don’t want any Dexter-lite, I want the real Barry Lyga to stand up now, and write me some Barry Lyga!

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