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.

scariest-movie-exorcims

“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!

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A major work from Stephen King (in the key of E)

Revival ★★★★
Stephen King
Scribner, 2014

revivalThis is how we bring about our own damnation, you know—by ignoring the voice that begs us to stop. To stop while there’s still time.
-Revival

The three true ages of man are youth, middle age, and how the fuck did I get old so soon?
-Revival

****

What the hell do you read next after you finish a book like this!?

While not a full on frontal assault horror novel in the tradition of The Shining or Pet Sematary, Revival definitely ranks as one of the darkest, most unsettling books King has written in a long time. It’s a slow burn that touches on a lot of themes we’ve come to expect from King in his golden years — family, nostalgia, grief and loss. King turned 67 this year and he seems to have reached a point in his life where the “big questions” about what it all means Alfie, and where we all end up are weighing heavy on his mind and heart. It’s inevitable, right? I turned 40 this year, and I know those questions have already started to weigh on me.

This is one of those books I want to peel back layer by layer and dig down deep into its beating heart. King has moved past penning coming-of-age novels to now tackling what happens when we get old. What do our relationships look like to friends, lovers, siblings, parents when we start to lose hair where we want it, and gain it where we don’t? What does a life of regret look like? What does redemption look like?

Stephen King

Stephen King

There is this exploration in Revival in a luxurious, patient way that could only be written by an author of King’s maturity and discipline. It’s been a humbling, emotional experience for me as a Constant Reader to watch how this man’s work and art have aged with him, have reached places only possible because he’s lived this long to keep telling the tales.

I get frustrated sometimes with certain fans (with hearts in the right place) who still want King to be churning out the kind of books he was writing in the 80’s. Some of the best stuff the man has written happened in that decade. No doubt. He was a writing machine. With young kids and a coke habit to boot. But he’s not that man anymore. Decades have come and gone and the writing should be changing to reflect that. Not just the style, but the contents. What King cares about, what he’s come to realize and believe to be true, these are some of the passions that he injects into his writing now. There is a self-awareness and self-reflection that just wasn’t apparent in his earlier novels. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just different, with different rewards to be found and had.

The first three-quarters of this book represent some of the most literary writing King has done over the span of his incredibly long (and hopefully even longer) prolific career. Yes it feels familiar — there is the small Maine town and the coming-of-age elements of young children navigating a threatening and perilous world. But the writing is so rich this time, lyrical even. The doom is laying on the horizon, you can almost glimpse it, but you don’t really know where it’s going to come from. Or when.

One of the things I’ve loved about King over the years is his profound ability to assemble a world and characters that are so very, very normal. They are us. They are him. They are who we know and love. And the world they populate is normal too. Small town USA. Baseball games, apple pie. Rock and roll on the radio. But into this normal world creeps something slimy and sinister. While ordinary life of first loves, car accidents, weddings, births and tinnitus march ever onward, the sinister stays hidden in the shadows, watching and waiting to make its move. It’s all so very fucking normal, until it isn’t.

It’s the rat trap waiting in the dark hole that you just had to stick your hand into. *SNAP*

The last quarter of this book is the snap! and it’s either going to work for you or not. King has written a beautiful dedication (he often does) paying his respects to all those legendary writers of the dark who helped “build his house”. In the pages of Revival the long shadow of their influence live and breathe in Charles Jacobs’ obsession with electricity and his unnatural lifelong quest for answers and revelation. The Bible says: seek and ye shall find. But we must be prepared for the unraveling of the mystery and realize that we are just as likely to fall to our knees in horror as wonder.

You give me fever

The Fever: A Novel ★ ★ ★ ★
Megan Abbott
Little, Brown & Co.
Expected Publication: June 2014

 

the feverNow you’ve listened to my story, here’s the point I have made: Chicks were born to give you fever, be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade

They give you fever – when you kiss them, fever if you live and learn: Fever – till you sizzle, what a lovely way to burn.
“Fever”, Cooley/Davenport

***

Sexual debut. Sometimes it seemed to Deenie that high school was like a long game of And Then There Were None. Every Monday, another girl’s debut.
The Fever, Megan Abbott

Nobody (and I mean nobody) writes the dark and secretive interiors of a teenage girl’s psyche better than Megan Abbott. But make no mistake: while she is writing about teenagers, she is not writing Young Adult. Her books are so far removed from YA Lit it’s not only a different country, but another planet. So if you haven’t had the shocking and titillating pleasure to read her yet and have Ms. Abbott shelved as Young Adult, get her off there post-haste please — asap — I mean immediately.

Seriously, do it.

Go on.

I’ll wait for you.

One of the things I’ve come to love about Abbott the most is that even when I think I’ve figured out how the story is going to go, she always manages to surprise me. And she never cheats. Here, she not only surprised me, she creeped the hell out of me, something I wasn’t expecting at all. The Fever isn’t a horror story, but Jesus damn, there are aspects of the story that are extremely unsettling and creeeeepy. I was reading this into the wee hours of the morning last night, and got to this one part and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention:

She started clearing her throat, and once she started it was like she couldn’t stop. “But most of all it’s here,” she said, clawing at her neck. “It feels like there’s something in my throat. And it’s getting bigger.”

::shiver::

megan abbott

Megan Abbott

I’ve been fangirling for Megan Abbott for awhile now, but with this she’s made me her slave. And she’s so pixie-cute petite you can fit her in your pocket. Looking at her mischievous, Mona Lisa smile you’d never expect her to so eloquently and ruthlessly explore the twisted, perilous, coming-of-age waters of teenage girls, waters that run black and deep. There are monsters that swim in that water, monsters that bite, scar and maim for life.

My only sadness and regret is that I’m finished, and this book isn’t even coming out until June, which means I’ve got a bit of a wait before I get my next Megan Abbott fix. I’m jonesing already. What can I say: she’s made me her junkie bitch.

You can find out more about the author at her website.
She’s also on the Twitter: @meganeabbott

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

****

A free copy was provided by the publishers through Netgalley for an honest review.

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.

Coming of age during The Troubles

Bog Child ★★★★★
Siobhan Dowd
David Fickling Books, 2008

bogchild

Ah Jesus. This really is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story. My one piece of advice? If you do the audio thing, then that’s how to do this one. Sile Bermingham is the perfect reader, her soft lilt a gorgeous accompaniment not just to the lyrical prose that will make you shudder when it’s read aloud, but delivering on the Irish accent transporting you to a very particular time and place.

It should have been the Irish history content of this novel that brought it to my attention (more on that later), but it wasn’t. It was its author – Siobhan (pronounced She-von) Dowd. I discovered Ms. Dowd the summer of 2011 when I read A Monster Calls. That book shattered me on a cellular level. The author of A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness – describes his collaboration with Dowd this way:

She had the characters, a detailed premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.

Siobhan-Dowd-002

Siobhan Dowd (author)

Dowd was diagnosed with breast cancer and succumbed to her disease in 2007 at the age of 47. Ness courageously took on the project and the completed novel is both exquisite and a lasting tribute to its progenitor.

So I went looking for something else to read by this woman and came across Bog Child. There was a time in my life when I was marinating in a stew of Irish history. I took an interest in it at University and it became my declared major. My BA Honors essay was on the IRA’s guerrilla tactics during the Irish War of Independence. By the time I hit grad school I was practically obsessed. I knew my next step was an even bigger research project and a trip to Ireland, hence my Master’s thesis which you can read here if you’re ever really desperate for reading material or have a love of the subject yourself.

the-troubles5Even though my subject area was late 19th, early 20th century Irish history, it was unavoidable that I would become consumed by the on-going Troubles that exploded again in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s. I eventually did get myself to Ireland on a work/study visa in the fall of 2000 lasting until April 2001, which by pure coincidence coincided with the 20th anniversary of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike.

I witnessed a candlelight vigil along O’Connell Street and listened to Gerry Adams (and the sister of Mickey Devine) speak at a public gathering. It was an emotional affair, but at the same time I remember feeling removed from the entire experience. It felt too raw and personal for me to be looking on like that, a Canadian girl who was only seven years old when ten young Irishmen starved themselves to death in political protest.

It’s easy for anyone on the outside of any event to have opinions of it one way or the other — whether those young men really knew what they were doing, or were just desperate and confused by dehumanizing prison conditions, or whether they had been brainwashed and/or intimidated to “the cause”. Some consider their actions a waste and abhorrent, while others see their deaths as an important political event worthy of commemoration as we do for soldiers who die in battle. For me, it isn’t the Strikers I think about (as sad and frustrating as their stories are), but their families. How excruciating and traumatic must the whole process have been to watch a son die slow like that.

The ten men who died on their Hunger Strike.

The ten men who died on their Hunger Strike.

The worst part? It’s within your power to take them off the Strike, against their will, so that the doctors hook them up to an IV saving them from certain death. How does any parent make that choice? It seems easy, right? Of course you would save them. It would be mad to let them die. But ten families made that choice. Other families did not, and ended their son’s hunger strike. I’ve always wondered how each family survived the very different choice they made. Is there bitterness? Doubts? What about the men taken off the Strike by their families…did they forgive them? Did they suffer from survivor’s guilt for living when others died in their place? Or was it relief? Relief that they were saved from themselves and the insanity that had taken hold of the times. For a cinematic portrayal of what the families faced I recommend Some Mother’s Son.

I haven’t thought about Irish history in any shape or form in years. I left grad school in 2005 and I was done with all of it. I had been supersaturated, I had overdosed on it. No more! I cried. Then this book.

In Bog Child, the late Siobhan Dowd is not romanticizing the Hunger Strike. It’s not a political book, for or against the Strikers. It’s just a simple story of an eighteen year old boy facing manhood. His final exams are in full swing and his dreams of becoming a doctor have never been so close, yet so out of reach. He’s falling in love for the first time. He’s getting pressured from the local IRA goon to run packets across the guarded border. But most devastating and confusing of all, his older brother Joey is on Hunger Strike in Maze Prison and it’s tearing his family apart.

Fergus stole and then broke my heart. All he wants to do is the right thing, but in a messed up world during a messed up time what the right thing is isn’t always clear. It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s light and laughter and hope in these pages too, and an abiding love for the affirmation of life and all the joy and pain that living brings.

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

Megan Abbott knocks the wind out of me

The End of Everything★★★★
Megan Abbott
Reagan Arthur Books, 2011

Can you remember the first time you ever had the wind knocked out of you? I was about ten. I was playing with my cousins out in their front yard. There was this fence that ran about 2 feet off the ground that we liked to walk along, imagining tight ropes and balance beams. It was during one of these wobbly walks when my ten year old body lost its balance and I came crashing down hard upon that low fence. It caught me right across my stomach where my diaphragm lives.

end of everythingIn a swift “whoosh” all the air was pushed out of my lungs. Every bit of it, or it seemed so at the time. I fell over onto the ground curled protectively around myself. In a blinding moment of sheer panic that exploded into terror, I found I couldn’t actually catch my breath. As hard as I tried, I could not breathe in and in those few seconds of sickening realization, I was sure I was going to die. It’s one of the clearest childhood memories I have.

Reading Megan Abbott’s version of a coming-of-age tale shot through with dark secrets and unbidden impulses is like getting the wind knocked out of you for the first time. It’s sudden, inexplicable, frightening and leaves you breathless. When it’s all over and done with, you feel a little nauseous, a lot bruised and newly wary of the world surrounding you. It’s as if your senses have been heightened, and a forbidden knowledge passed onto you that you don’t ever remember asking for, or wanting.

The End of Everything is a story about that tender, delicate, powerful place girls find themselves in before they become women, when they cling to each other like life support systems, sharing breaths, secrets, curiosity and hormones. Hug your daughters close, because I did not need Megan Abbott to grip me by the throat and show me that when our girls are laughing the hardest, and tumbling cartwheels in the sunshine, that is when they are at their most vulnerable. How they yearn for what they cannot name and do not understand, moving towards it like moths to flames, ignorant to the perils, to how much something can burn and leave scars. Thirteen-year-old Lizzie is our narrator, which makes for a brilliant choice. We see events from her innocent eyes and as she is thinking one thing, we are thinking something else.

This is a sad story, and it is a difficult read. There are many times where you will feel deeply uncomfortable. There are truths here that we do not want to know, do not want to ponder, and for some readers, truths they will not want to remember. But it is also a beautifully constructed piece of prose and if I wasn’t a fan of Megan Abbott before now, this novel has clinched it.

To my ridiculous delight, I also just recently found out Ms. Abbott is married to Joshua Gaylord (a.k.a Alden Bell) author of one of my Desert Island books The Reapers Are The Angels (see previous post Literary zombies is not an oxymoron). You can find out more about Megan Abbot at her website, or by following her on Twitter (@meganeabbott)

This review also appears on Goodreads.com

An extraordinary debut

Tell the Wolves I’m Home ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Carol Rifka Brunt
Random House, 2012

The sun kept on with its slipping away, and I thought how many small good things in the world might be resting on the shoulders of something terrible. ~Tell the Wolves I’m Home

tell the wolvesI don’t know how to write a review for this book. I’ve made a few false starts already. It’s always SO HARD to review the exceptional, the beautiful, the sincere and heartfelt. When what you’ve just read humbles you, when it so keenly reminds you of the raw power of storytelling — of why we read in the first place — it can leave you floundering without any words to describe the experience (a cruel irony if there ever was one).

I have no words, or I feel like I don’t have enough, or know the right ones to use to capture the intensity and sweetness of Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Like Mozart’s Requiem, it’s meant to be experienced. It’s the really funny joke that “you had to be there” to find funny at all.

I can tell you it’s a coming of age story that hits all the right notes regarding that excruciating, confusing transition between childhood and adulthood, from innocence to innocence lost. June is fourteen and bright and funny and loveable, but also fierce and stubborn and selfish. She’s prideful and lacks confidence, while at the same time marches to the beat of her own romantic drum. She’s learning to love, not just perfection, but flaws and failures — discovering that real beauty, real love, has scars and history, mistakes and disappointments.

There is so much character in this story — not just June, but her sister Greta, their beloved uncle Finn, and his beloved Toby. Each character is whole with lives and souls to call their own. Their voices are distinct, their points of view crystalline and unique. It makes you care, it makes you feel and cry, and sigh and laugh out loud.

There’s also a sense of place — a time really — that’s so vivid it acts as a powerful subtext to the entire novel. June is growing up in the 1980’s while her uncle is dying from AIDS. We remember the music, the clothes, the movies and that makes us smile. But then we remember the ignorance and fear, the prejudice and cruelty — as much a part of the disease as its auto-immune deficiency — and we weep. Toby and Finn, with genuine humanity, symbolize the tragic loss of so many young men in the early days of AIDS, before anyone really understood what was happening, before anyone had the courage to do anything about it when they finally knew exactly what was happening.

Ultimately, this book is about profound loss and the giant grief that accompanies it. It’s about finding yourself in that loss, and then finding your way through it. If you’ve been there, you know. There are no shortcuts. It is what it is and it’s you and it. But if we’re lucky, if we’re really lucky, there will be someone beside us to hold our hand, to pull us in, to catch our tears, to guide us back to the land of the living.

This is an emotional story, but it is in no way maudlin or melodramatic. It could be that book, that smacks of manipulation and exploits tragedy for the big win. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is not that book. It is the very opposite of that book. I’m going to end this review with a Hemingway quote that I would like to dedicate to June and Greta and Finn and Toby. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

This review also appears on Goodreads.

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