Book Reviews

Cousin Calls

A college student reluctantly attends a family chili cookout that turns into a never ending nightmare. A man desperate for job skills uses a brain implant to help him learn, but it malfunctions and leaves him sexually attracted to shadows. A private investigator is hired to discover who keeps befouling the walls of convenience store bathrooms. Two deer engaged in combat find that they are unable to unlock from one another’s antlers after the fight is over. A single mother spends 2020 battling an evil landlord, a fascist neighbor, national political chaos, and a global pandemic. These are the strange stories told by regulars at the local bar on Christmas Eve, stories which each began with a phone call from someone who announced “you don’t know me, but we’re cousins.”

There are two types of people in this world: Those who believe Die Hard is a Christmas movie; and those who are wrong. While I may be a little more partial to that perennial Christmas classic, Batman Returns, my statement stands. So it is by this measure that I classify Zeb Haradon’s Cousin Calls a Christmas book—and because I say it is so, it is so.

Unlike most books set during this time of year (including the book I reviewed last week, and more than likely my next two Christmas themed reads which you will be able to read about over the next fortnight), Cousin Calls doesn’t have that air of happiness, of wonder, of magic that comes with Christmas. Instead, it has an air of horse crap, technology gone horribly wrong (or beautifully right, depending on your perspective), more crap (that may or may not have come from a horse), deer brutality, and even more crap (that may or may not be Donald Trump… okay, it is. Maybe I should have added a spoiler warning).

If the above sounds like your idea of a great Christmas story, Cousin Calls will be right up your alley. Broadly speaking, it tells a tale of Harold, who after receiving a call telling him, “You don’t know me, but we’re cousins,” goes to meet his cousin in a coffin shop turned bar. As we all know (or at least, the characters Harold meets in this tale), when you receive a phone call or message telling you that “you don’t know me, but we’re cousins,” bad things happen.

Cousin Calls is more a series of short stories than a novel. Each story is connected by the ongoing conversation in the Coffin Bar, as its patrons tell their very own stories about a time in their lives when they were told “you don’t know me, but we’re cousins.” This throughline brings some continuity to these wildly different tales, building momentum as it goes.

The tales included in Cousin Calls are:

  • “World’s Greatest Chili,” where the cousin call leads to a trip between the storyteller and her boyfriend to attend a chilli cook-off where they are assured they will sample the world’s greatest chilli.
  • “The Shadow Thief,” where the cousin call kicks off a series of events where the story’s protagonist’s hippocampal implant designed tp download other people’s learnings gives him more than he bargained for.
  • “The Mysterious Case of Who Was Wiping Shit All Over the Bathroom Walls,” where the cousin call leads to a private detective trying to solve the mystery so beautifully illustrated in its title.
  • “The Lucky Bucks,” where a deer’s cousin call leads to a mating season that doesn’t go as well as he had hoped.
  • “The True Story of Douchebag Dave,” where the cousin call leads to a sequence of events spanning much of 2020.

I thoroughly enjoyed Cousin Calls, and the stories have stuck with me days after reading them, and I still find myself chuckling over various moments through. However, while it has many fine qualities, tastefulness is not one of them. The short stories contained in the book are transgressive, and often push the limits of taste. However, Haradon balances this well, preventing these elements from being purely horrifying moments that overpower the stories. But it’s there, and if you are easily offended, you may want to steer clear.

If you aren’t so easily offended, though, there is a whole lot to love in Cousin Calls. This book is hilarious, with the stories building up slowly as the story gains momentum, and then hitting you over the head with the punchline. And in every instance, the punchline is pure gold.

Cousin Calls is not purely comedy, however, and the balance that Haradon brings to the story is a thing of beauty. At 371 paperback pages or an estimated 373 Kindle swipes, it tells five tales about a variety of characters and situations. Each story has its own individual merits, and they all come at their own length, which feel appropriate. And while these stories are fun, the final entry (“The True Story of Douchebag Dave”) crammed in some emotion and thrills, while also providing a brilliant look back at the year that was 2020, between Covid-19, the US presidential election, racism, modern day Nazis and the medication of children. This story fills roughly 30 percent of the book’s length, and works beautifully as its grand finale. I will say, however, that if you’re a fan of a certain former President, you might as well move on: Cousin Calls is not the book for you.

If you’re a fan of transgressive fiction, or have a messed up sense of humour (like me, and evidently the author), I can not recommend Cousin Calls highly enough. You can sit down and read it like a novel, or you can just read each story when you’re ready. If you’re not quite as messed up as I am, or don’t gravitate towards transgressive stories, there is a lot to love and Haradon’s skilled writing will draw you in, even during its lowest of beautifully lowbrow moments. Cousin Calls is the first Zeb Haradon book I’ve read, but after my time with it, I doubt it will be my last.

If the themes mentioned in this review offend you and your sensibilities, or if you’re a Donald Trump fan, steer clear. Not only will the words assault your eyes, Cousin Calls lingers in your mind.

Favourite Passage

“You don’t know me, but we’re cousins.”

This was how my cousin Mortimer, who I would come to know so intimately and fatally, introduced himself to me. I’m translating of course. He wasn’t speaking in English, but in deer grunts, bellowed loudly from the other side of the dense wood, distorted by the acoustics of the forest and by his arrogance. But just as Cousin Itt’s whining chirps can be understood by the rest of the Addams family, I understood Mortimer, and I knew what his tone meant. I stood upright.

Cousin Calls, “The Lucky Bucks”

Cousin Calls was provided to the author for the purpose of an honest review.

Cousin Calls is available in paperback and on Kindle, exclusive to Amazon, including on Kindle Unlimited.

You can follow Zeb Haradon online, via:

Note: I do not post scores on reviews on this website, but do post them on my Amazon and Goodreads reviews:

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