Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book Review: John Belushi is Dead by Kathy Charles



Pink-haired Hilda and oddball loner Benji are not your typical teenagers. Instead of going to parties or hanging out at the mall, they comb the city streets and suburban culs-de-sac of Los Angeles for sites of celebrity murder and suicide. Bound by their interest in the macabre, Hilda and Benji neglect their schoolwork and their social lives in favor of prowling the most notorious crime scenes in Hollywood history and collecting odd mementos of celebrity death.

Hilda and Benji’s morbid pastime takes an unexpected turn when they meet Hank, the elderly, reclusive tenant of a dilapidated Echo Park apartment where a silent movie star once stabbed himself to death with a pair of scissors. Hilda feels a strange connection with Hank and comes to care deeply for her paranoid new friend as they watch old movies together and chat the sweltering afternoons away. But when Hank’s downstairs neighbor Jake, a handsome screenwriter, inserts himself into the equation and begins to hint at Hank’s terrible secrets, Hilda must decide what it is she’s come to Echo Park searching for . . . and whether her fascination with death is worth missing out on life.


The Short Version:
Beautifully grotesque and poignant, John Belushi is Dead slips a coming of age tale into a world of the macabre and death, a world centered around a teenage girl struggling to figure things out. Covering a range of situations and emotions, and with dramatic, essential and striking character growth and development, this debut will suck the reader in and leave them ragged after the twisted ride. With a small cast that covers a range of ages and personalities, several shocking hooks and twists, and a gritty and raw way of showing the world as it is, John Belushi is Dead is rapt with powerful messages, fumbles and all.

The Extended Version:
Hilda is an intricate character, harboring layers of darkness despite the frankness about her from the beginning. There is a very striking, honest change in her from the beginning to end, and the road that leads her there is painful, unexpected and rough. Charles has done an absolutely amazing job with this character, building her in multiple dimensions and showing all her flaws. Hilda’s world perception and outlook speak bounds about her, and her interactions with not only Benji but everyone else she encounters fluctuates as the story progresses. The way Hilda comes to new realizations and understandings is one of the best I’ve read, speaking straight into any reader no matter the actual reasons to kick it off.

Benji is a gritty character, not quite right in ways the reader can see early on. Even as Hilda starts to see signs off this dissonance, she has a hard time facing and accepting it. Benji drives some strong parts of the plot, but his character and actions don't overshadow Hilda or her story. He is there when needed, lurking in her thoughts as expected, but not overly present and a turn off. Much of Benji and Hilda’s history is shown as the story progresses, building their relationship and what led them to the point they find themselves at throughout the book, while not bogging things down with too much past recollection. Benji, too, makes striking strides and development, and often will leave the reader gutted and stunned.

Hank is a crack up, a bitter old man who doesn’t bite his tongue and comes off as brash and unflinching as Hilda. They are an interesting pair, and form a gentle kinship that gives this book something unique and refreshing, while still keeping things in line with the overall air and nature. Hank has secrets of his own, but a deep understanding of people and Hilda herself, and the way things unfold between the two is both beautiful and stunning.

Jake, too, is a unique character, adding his own bit of flair while often remaining cloaked in mystery. Like Benji, there is something not quite right about Jake but for different reasons and with a different presentation. Regardless, Jake plays an important and strong role, and as with much else in this book, there is something gentle and fluid about his presence and purpose.

One of the most prominent features of John Belushi is Dead is the focus on the macabre, centered around Benji and Hilda’s hobby of visiting the places of famous deaths. Whether it was a movie star or simply something notable, this pair had countless knowledge of where the spots were, the gory details of the events, and a bond between them that grew as they visited the places. Though hard for most readers to understand at first, their reasons for this attraction to death come through, but as with many things, it can go too far. As Hilda starts noticing more things about Benji’s behavior, her overall view towards this gawking of death begins to change, but not immediately or without cause. There is an abruptness in the unadulterated way Charles portrays things, not bothering to throw sparkles on the grit that comes with death. Though some scenes and parts are hard to read and almost sickening, it isn’t for shock value or without purpose, and Charles handles this aspect flawlessly.

The setting is lushly written, bringing to life not only Beverly Hills and LA, but the specific sites/places the pair visits. From the graveyards to the houses, from Benji’s wealthy set up to Hank’s run down apartment, each setting is vivid and well described. It is easy to imagine standing next to Benji while he snaps photos.

The plot is very character driven, focused on Hilda’s changing views and need for growth and change, but still holds plenty of action and movement. There are some very intense, emotional and striking scenes, and an overall air of the death that all but seems to cling to Hilda lingers in the air constantly. Things progress to a few unforeseeable and shocking climaxes, one particular scene more powerful and gutting than the rest, which really bring everything together. Through Hilda’s eyes, especially, things come as a shock and are almost painful to read, the full impact warded off only by her disbelief and reactions. The deeper messages and shifting views on many things are driven into the reader in subtle but powerful ways, resonating long after the book is closed.

Source: Received for review from author
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: MTV; Original edition (August 24, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1439187592
ISBN-13: 978-1439187593


  1. Wonderful review. I loved this book as well. It's one of my top favorites now. I even had my mom read it and she flew through the pages fairly quick and loved it as well. It's just amazing and interesting and so differently great.


  2. Wow what a great review! I'm looking forward to reading this one.
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  3. Great. Thanks to this AMAZING review I really want this book... my to-be-purchased list has grown massively because of you! *shakes fist*

  4. I'd have to admit that I probably wouldn't have given this book a second thought. The cover doesn't really appeal to me, nor does the title. After reading your review though, I would like to read it. It sounds like a fantastic book. I love a book that keeps you in thought well after you've finished reading!
    Fantastic always!

  5. Great review! It sounds really intense!