By Daniel Kraus
ARC Paperback, 222 pages
2019, Titan Books
ISBN: 9781789091939 (trade paperback)
From the back of the book: In a ruined house at the end of Yellow Street, an angry outcast hatches a scheme to take revenge for all the wrongs he has suffered. With the help of three alienated kids, he plans to hide razor blades, poison, and broken glass in Halloween candy, maiming or killing dozens of innocent children. But as the clock ticks closer to sundown, will one of his helpers – an innocent himself, in his own streetwise way – carry out or defeat the plan?
I can’t blurb this book because I wasn’t prepared for how much it would fuck me up and I don’t know how to summarize it without going into way too much detail.
Let me start this review by saying I had ZERO IDEA what the hell this book was about going in. Yes, I read the back of the book. Yes, I know that some guy deciding to poison candy with the deliberate intent to hurt and kill children is dark. Yes, I know kids being involved in this plan is even darker. But, holy fuck, this book is DARK.
I took me ages to read what’s a relatively short book with reasonably sized font (you know, not like some fantasy or historical fiction books that are printed in like size 3 font and are 600 pages long) with lots of spacing at the end of each chapter. This was a heavy book, content-wise, and I had to keep putting it down after only reading a small portion.
I want to say this book was good. It’s well-written for sure. But it really just messed me up, so I can’t say that I liked it. Yet. It’s hard to describe. It took me almost as long to sit down and write this review (actually, maybe longer?) because I really don’t know how to talk about this book. But I’ll try!
The tone does take some getting used to – our narrator, Jody, almost speaks his own language (though it’s easier to understand than A Clockwork Orange). He’s making a concerted effort not to swear, so he uses words like sharkweek for shit and mightyducking for motherfucking. He doesn’t use apostrophes in his contractions and his grammar is mostly terrible. It’s charming, amusing, and mildly annoying.
But I really liked Jody. I’m not sure how old any of the characters are, but I would guess Jody is maybe 12-14. He’s a total nerd and loves Lord of the Rings (so much so that he decorated his jean jacket with quotes, including: “They have a cave troll”) and Ellen (“The only time I go in Moms room these days is for Ellen. We love that dancing bitch.”) He’s also desperate to be seen as tough and streetwise, but typically only picks on an old black man who works at Walgreens, or starts fights with Robbie.
From Jody’s point of view, we see his little corner of life with Dagmar (known as Dag, also probably Jody’s age), Midge (his adopted sister, maybe 6-9?) and Robbie (our “villain”, maybe 23-30???). Jody’s mother is severely depressed and basically doesn’t leave her bed or stop watching TV, so Jody and Midge hang out at Robbie’s house. Robbie has been abandoned by his parents and is living in their old house, which is essentially a dump. Robbie clearly suffered from childhood trauma, and as the book goes on we find out all about what he went through. Dag is escaping the pressure of her own seemingly posh life by hanging in the hood with Jody and the gang. Midge only talks to bugs (we find out why that is too and it was utterly disgusting.)
I won’t talk about the plot really, because it’s tied in with the character development. Most of the story is told from Jody’s perspective over the course of one day (Halloween), but we do get flashbacks from Jody and letters written by Dag and Robbie. It’s all very intense, or at least it was for me.
Blood Sugar has a lot more depth than I expected for a crime novel, especially because I judged this one by the cover. I figured it would be pulpy with a down-on-his-luck-but-lovable detective character thrown in. I think what lends to the depth is Jody’s perspective. Despite his wanting to be a tough little punk, he’s very aware that his situation and that of his friends is a seriously messed up one. He knows that something isn’t right with his mom. He pities Robbie. He knows that Midge needs help, that’s it not right for a child to speak only to bugs.
This is illustrated throughout the novel, but one example I marked is his reaction to something Midge has done:
“Im freaking. Its like I dont want to see. Like I dont want to see nothing no more, not ever. Like I want to rip my eyeballs out so they have to give me a seeing eye dog with a special official vest and I can just pet it and never have to see nothing confusing or scary ever again.”
The ending was grim and also incredibly ambiguous. I decided to tell myself it was the tiniest bit hopeful, but I think I was lying to myself.
I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book quite like Blood Sugar. Maybe it’s me. I don’t read a lot of crime novels and I’ve never read a ‘Hard Case Crime’ novel. I’ve never read a book that caused me to feel such a mixture of depression, pity, humor, and hope. Do crime novels do this to other people!? I’ve never read anything else by Kraus – are all his books like this? I don’t know if I could handle another book by him.
Y’all know I don’t generally give trigger warnings, but because I felt like I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I wanted to throw some out there for you guys. This is not what I would expect from a “typical crime novel” and maybe this book wouldn’t have felt so heavy if I’d had a better idea of what I was going to be reading about. Warnings for: rape and sexual abuse, child abuse, drug use, drug use by children, suicide, murder, and probably more fucked up things that I didn’t think to label or don’t know how to describe.
I won a copy of this book on an IG giveaway and now I’m not sure what to do with it. I know I’ll never read it again. As I said earlier, I’m not sure if I could get through another Kraus book if they’re all this intense. But I didn’t dislike this book, I just disliked the content and the way it made me feel. Haha. But it was still funny at times! I don’t know!
If you’ve read this book, please tell me what you thought! Or if you’ve read any of Kraus’s other works, or any of these Hard Case Crime novels – should I give them another chance?