What an excellent day for an exorcism

My Best Friend’s Exorcism: A Novel ★ ★ ★
Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books, 2016

 

“What an excellent day for an exorcism.”
~The Exorcist (1973)

bfexorcismThis is an okay book. Fair. Acceptable. But it takes too long to really get humming (I’m all in for foreplay, but Hendrix really pushes the limits to impatience here). More than three-quarters of the novel is essentially an angsty teen, coming-of-age high school drama about a group of girls and their growing pains with each other and with the world around them. It could very well be Gossip Girl or One Tree Hill — except that one of the main characters might be demonically possessed (instead of merely being a catty bitch). Sometimes it’s nigh on impossible to tell the difference.

Here’s the thing — this book suffers by comparison to a lot of other things. Nobody writes the mysterious, dark and turbulent interior lives of teenage girls better than Megan Abbott. Seeing Hendrix attempt to do the same thing here as he explores the iron bonds of friendship forged by Abby and Gretchen when they were children pales in execution and gravitas to Ms. Abbott’s vast talents with her mighty quill.

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“What an excellent day for an exorcism” ~The Exorcist (1973)

The demonic possession and exorcism angle is adequately covered — but again suffers by comparison to 2015’s Bram Stoker Award winning A Head Full of Ghosts. And no matter who you are, if you’re writing about this subject, your book is always going to be compared to Blatty’s classic horror novel The Exorcist and Friedkin’s enduring film adaptation of the same name.

Hendrix might have thought he was doing something new and clever here by mashing-up a coming-of-age teen drama with the horror tropes of demonic possession stories, but he doesn’t quite make it. Some scenes are definitely creepy and unsettling, there just weren’t enough of them (too few of them coming too late in the story) to sustain any kind of coiled tension and impending sense of doom in the reader. And boy, is it really hard to write an exorcism scene that chills, rather than have it feel like a spoof out of a Scary Movie sequel, or a daytime soap opera.

Who’s old enough to remember Marlena Evans? Me!

Book Review: All The Missing Girls

All the Missing Girls ★★★
Megan Miranda
Simon and Schuster Canada
Release Date: June 28, 2016

missing_girlsHeaded to the beach or cottage this summer? Got a long plane ride ahead of you? Just hanging out by the pool with a pitcher of margaritas? Yeah, this is the book you’ll want to have with you. It’s one of those unreliable narrator psychological thrillers that once you start it, you will be utterly compelled to keep turning the pages until you get to the end to find out what the hell really happened? As these kind of books go, it’s a satisfying resolution. There are enough sleights of hand, and red herrings, to keep a reader on their toes and guessing until the last page is turned.

The author is trying something a little tricky with her narrative too; she tells the story backwards over the course of fifteen days. This is a neat little fun trick, but really, at the end of the day, I don’t think it added much to the tension of the novel, or its structure. Had she just adhered to a straight linear narrative approach I don’t think anything would have been lost in the overall impact and delivery of her story.

There are also a few scenes that genuinely had me feeling creeped out and uneasy, because for most of the novel you’re really not sure where the threat is coming from (and even if there’s any threat at all). Miranda conjures up a heavy and pressing atmosphere that’s practically claustrophobic at times, always welcome in a book like this. The setting is suitably small town and insular, carrying its secrets and guarding them closely to the peril of those who wish to turn over the mossy rock and expose the dank underbelly to the glaring sun.

None of the characters are very likeable, but I think because out of necessity, Miranda has to create an impenetrable distance between them and the reader to keep us off kilter and guessing. At their core however, most of their motivations are very relatable and when you finish reading and put the book down, you’ll find yourself questioning what you would have done in the same circumstances.

I would like to thank Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a copy to review.

A new chilling vision of Hell

devils detectiveThe Devil’s Detective: A Novel ★★★1/2
Simon Kurt Unsworth
Doubleday | March 2015

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

I picked up this book with the initial impression that I was in for an urban fantasy piece in which Hell (and angels and demons) would play a role, but that some of the story would inevitably take place in a concrete, corrupted human city. But no. This is full on, 24/7 Hell, all the time Hell, everything Hell. There is no reprieve. And very little hope. The hope is so miniscule you need a very expensive microscope to see it.

So yeah. Hell. In as much technicolor, cinematic horrorscape that you probably can’t handle. Seriously, it’s brutal. Claustrophobic and suffocating. Unsworth’s painstaking, meticulous world-building of this feared and unknown domain is

impressive to say the least. He spares no detail and isn’t shy about unleashing buckets of effluvia, viscera, despair and derangement. This isn’t your paranormal fantasy version of Hell where the Demons are sexy anti-heroes brooding about looking for bodices to rip open. Noooooo. These are deformed, mutated, merciless beasts seeking out any hole of any body to violate, and throw in some torture on the side for good measure.

Unsworth creates a Hell populated by innumerable species of Demons of varying size, hierarchy, power and cruelty. In this devilish brew, forsaken humans doomed to suffer Hell’s torment, must co-exist. They are Demon slaves. Mere chattel. With meaningless jobs and tasks to perform in the ever present threat of Demon violence.

Thomas Fool is one of those humans, and one of Hell’s Information Men. Normally, Fool’s job consists of looking the other way — of NOT investigating Hell’s crimes. But when a human corpse shows up with its soul entirely gone, Fool is pushed into an investigation he is not ready for. He must learn his Detective’s trade fast before whatever is consuming human souls turns its appetites on all of Hell itself.

This is a book extremely dense with description, and understandably so because the author has cut himself out a big job to build Hell and its fiery inhabitants from scratch missing no detail, no matter how small. There is A LOT of narrative exposition to move the story and action along too. Dialogue is minimally used. And that means the book can read heavy and slow in parts. You have to be patient with it and soak up the landscape. Let it unfurl in your mind and agree to stay with it until the tale is done.

Now that the book is done, and I’ve laid it aside, I find flashes of it continuing to haunt me — certain scenes appear to be burned onto my retinas. I can’t unsee them. This is a dark book, but for those seeking a dark fantasy set in the darkest and most fearful place, then you might want to give this one a go.

A free copy was provided by NetGalley in exchange for this review.

The Doctor is in

doctor sleepDoctor Sleep  (The Shining #2) ★★★
Stephen King
Scribner, 2013

Mr. King and I (or Uncle Stevie if I may) have a loooong history that stretches back decades now. His books have become the soundtrack to my life, the novels I reach for in times of stress and grief in search of comfort and solace. Some may find that weird, considering the man’s reputation as America’s Boogeyman, but it’s never been weird to me.

No one can spin a yarn quite like this man to keep you reading well past dark and into the wee hours of the morning. No one is as good as he at locating our primal fears and anxieties and purging them in a storytelling catharsis that’s as addicting as it is healing. No one can write characters as real as the person you fall asleep next to at night, or have hated to your very core since you were a child.

Yes, Stephen King knows what scares us, because it scares him too, but he also knows how we love, how we fail, how we fall down and find the courage to pick ourselves up again. He knows what makes us human, and better than that, he knows how to write it all down on the page capturing the very essence of our humanity like a magician captures lightning in a bottle.

Can he do it every time? No. But I don’t love him any less for that fact. Does he try his very best to do it every time? You bet, with intent and integrity. King is no sell-out, and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise.

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danny torrence

Danny Torrence, The Shining (1980)

I imagine King approached the story of Danny Torrence all grown up with a lot of respect and trepidation. The Shining is one of King’s most memorable novels, with an iconic film adaptation that in some ways has even eclipsed the book itself. As a reader I approached this sequel with trepidations of my own. Even though you do your best to stranglehold your galloping expectations, you can’t help but get excited and to imagine how it’s all going to come together, what it’s going to feel like.

This is a good book. Once you start it, like so many of King’s best works, you will want to (have to) finish it. But it isn’t The Shining and anyone expecting a full frontal assault horror novel on par with that classic will be sorely disappointed. In a lot of ways Doctor Sleep is a completely different book altogether, because it’s written by a completely different man who has lived a lot of life and learned a lot of things. It’s probably not even fair to compare the two, but it’s inevitable. A sequel is a sequel.

As a sequel it does succeed brilliantly in one important aspect, and that is answering the question: “hey, whatever happened to the kid in The Shining?” Dan Torrence carries some heavy burdens which have derailed his life in more ways than one. Blocking out his traumatic childhood has doomed him to repeat history — at least that of his father and Jack Torrence’s black temper and unquenchable thirst for booze. Dan is an alcoholic, selfish and unscrupulous, and facing his rock-bottom. Anyone who knows anything about King’s personal life, knows he is a recovering alcoholic. So who better to write a story about a life lost to booze and the battle to get healthy “one day at a time”.

Dan’s life, what it was, what it becomes, is a great part of this novel, and I loved reading about it. Then there’s the other part — a band of psychic vampires traveling the dusty back roads of America by RV calling themselves the True Knot. These are interesting, hideous creatures with a colorful history. On the King villain scale however, we’ve encountered way worse, and way more memorable.

Ditto Abra. As a child heroine facing down the supernatural dark King has equipped her with some pretty mighty powers. She is in fact, King’s most powerful, making little Danny Torrence, Carrie White, Charlie McGee, and Johnny Smith combined look like a dim bulb on a Christmas tree. Becky describes it best in her review this way:

Things were just so easy for her, since she was so powerful in the shining, and on top of that, she had a support system – two parents, Danny, Billy, and John. And she was more than twice Danny’s age when he had to fight for his life, alone. So I just didn’t really feel all that concerned about her, as unfair as it may be. I feel like King went easy on her.

Abra surpasses super-human into superhero range. And while I feared for those around her, I never ever feared for her.

There is a lot to enjoy here, but for me there is an emotional depth missing that I’ve come to crave with King’s books and the characters he creates. I wanted to live in this story, and think about it constantly, and I did neither. I enjoyed it for the adventure it was, and will have no problems recommending it, but it won’t live on and linger in the mind the way so many of his other books have for me.

King’s Joyland neither horror nor crime

Joyland ★★★
Stephen King
Hard Case Crime, 2013

joylandWritten for the Hard Case Crime line of paperback novels, Stephen King’s Joyland may look like a duck — with its tantalizing pulp cover making promises of sex and violence — but it definitely doesn’t quack. In fact, it’s another kind of animal altogether, a coming of age tale tinged with the bittersweet tang of nostalgia and the wistful remembrances of what was and what might have been.

This isn’t new territory for King. Anyone who’s read him at all knows that this is his stomping ground and when he’s firing on all cylinders, nobody does it better. It isn’t done badly here either (there are some great passages filled with humor and insight), it’s just that the effort and subsequent result feel lackluster overall. The characters are fleshed out just enough to move the story along and give King some hooks to hang his “looking back on it now” philosophizing, but stacked up against King’s pantheon of memorable characters, the ones found in the pages of Joyland are easily forgotten (at least by me).

I almost think this little book suffers from the schism of an identity crisis. King has in his hands a paranormal crime plot replete with a garish 1970’s amusement park setting haunted by the ghost of a murdered young woman. This being Hard Case Crime, I was keen to get King’s take on hard-boiled noir or just full on pulp. I looked forward to sensationalist violence, cheap thrills and snappy, stylistic dialogue (and no, sorry Uncle Stevie, but you don’t win any points for injecting the patter of carny speak on every other page).

King can’t stop himself from telling an entirely different kind of story about a young man with a broken heart and his extended summer spent growing up and getting on. It’s a story of emotions and memories and the metaphor of a flying kite and the panoramic view from a giant Ferris wheel. It’s 80% middle-aged navel-gazing and youthful angst. The other 20% consisting of uncovering the identity of a murderous predator and revealing the details behind a haunting feel tacked on as afterthoughts. In this case, for Hard Case, I would have much rather seen those ratios reversed.

Still, while it wasn’t the novel I wanted or expected, Joyland is a sweet story, a little maudlin in places, but enjoyable nevertheless. Constant Reasers will take pleasure in immersing themselves for a little while in a Kingscape that feels both familiar and satisfying.

It’s good people, it’s just not all that it’s quacked up to be.

Everybody’s working for the weekend

Severance Package ★★★
Duane Swierczynski
Minotaur Books, 2008

severance

EVER WANT TO KILL YOUR BOSS? WELL GUESS WHAT, THE FEELING IS MUTUAL.

This was my Saturday to work, and you can bet I would have much rather been goofing off. But as Saturdays go, it wasn’t too bad, and compared to the Saturday Swierczynski writes about in this book it was heaven on earth in the library stacks this afternoon.

It’s summer. It’s hot. It’s Saturday. But Jamie DeBroux’s boss has called a special meeting for all “key personnel”. Locked in a conference room with cookies and champagne, Jamie and his fellow co-workers soon discover they have been assembled in order to terminate. Permanently. Who will survive this bloody Saturday, and what will be left of them?

Severance Package is a wickedly adrenalized, pulsating, page-turning piece of pulp. Like seriously, WTF? Everything is exquisitely exaggerated and unleashed in comic technicolor. I would love to have seen this as a graphic novel actually (or a slick Tarantino cinematic production), since so many of its best characteristics are both visceral and visual.

This novel IS NOT grounded in realism, flirting much more with parody and noir. And what can I say? I loved it! It’s bloody and ridiculous. Unbelievable and silly. Yet still manages to keep you riveted and rapidly turning pages to see what the freakin’ hell is going to happen next.

Awesome for summer. Brain candy of the sweetest kind (that will rot your brain if you consume too much) … but this … this is the perfect amount presenting the perfect escape from life’s stresses (and asshole bosses). Even though I haven’t figured out how to pronounce his name yet, this won’t be the last Swierczynski I read. In fact, I have it on very good authority that his Charlie Hardie series is outrageously violent, action-packed and very addictive.

To catch a killer

The Shining Girls ★★★
Lauren Beukes
Mulholland Books, 2013
Available June 4th

shininggirls

THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE HUNTS THE KILLER WHO SHOULDN’T EXIST.

Book Description: A time traveling serial killer. He’s the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable–until one of his victims survives.

My review: This just might be the hype / ‘it’ book of the summer. Only time will tell. I can say that there’s a lot to love:

1) The main character Kirby is fantastic. She is a survivor (literally), independent, courageous and determined, a bit of a smart ass with a smart mouth. But she’s no mere Mary Sue, possessing vulnerabilities and flaws that make her uniquely “Kirby” and nobody else. I found her funny and totally sympathetic. Quite honestly, the entire novel pivots around her. Without her, the intricate house of cards the author builds would collapse in on itself at the slightest shift.

2) The villain Harper is a skeevy, creepy predator, a wholly horrific construct of misogyny and homicidal tendencies. There isn’t much depth or nuance to this guy — he’s just a walking talking body of hedonistic impulses and demented desires. We don’t get any personal history for him or why he should have become what he’s become. We know some of his twisted motivations derive from the magical qualities of “the House” — but not all of them. You could even argue that “the House” sees the evil in him and draws Harper to itself.

3) It’s about time travel in that tangly mind-fuck way that makes my brain itch, a pleasant buzz but one with bite. The mechanics of the time travel are not explained or explored in the ways they usually are in a sci-fi novel. The time travel just exists. There is a “House” that holds the magic and its door opens onto different years of the same city anywhere from the 1930s to the 1990s. It’s this “House” that allows for a time traveling serial killer, and for that unique premise alone the book deserves a second look.

What can I say? This book has a lot going for it, and I liked it, I liked it a lot. But not once did I free fall over the precipice in love with it. I was intrigued, I played along with the mystery of the time travel, fitting pieces together where I could and trying not to get too caught up in the logic, faulty or otherwise. While Kirby stood out bright as the sun as one of “the Shining Girls”, the rest of Harper’s victims feel underdeveloped by comparison, almost throwaways, mere plot devices. It was hard not to get them mixed up with each other.

I also felt a tad underwhelmed by Kirby’s “hunt” of her attempted killer. The uncovering and following of clues felt clunky, a cobbled together hodge-podge process where results are based more on luck and coincidence than real groundwork and actual “hunting”.

This is largely a plot driven piece and if puzzles and the snake eating its own tail nature of time travel appeals to you then definitely check this out. As I was reading it, I was struck by its cinematic qualities, and won’t be surprised if The Shining Girls gets optioned for the big screen.

There are several cover versions available for this one, and since I suffer from a raging case of cover lust I’ve included them here. The first is the Harper UK edition and the second (my favorite), the Umuzi (Random House) trade paperback.

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