My Best Friend’s Exorcism – Grady Hendrix

In the way that the monsters and demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are a metaphor for the horrors of high school, Grady Hendrix’s page-turner My Best Friend’s Exorcism works on a both a figurative and literal level. Or, at least, it did for me.

Abby and Gretchen have been besties since the day that Gretchen, a new kid in school, turns up to Abby’s tenth birthday party. She’d invited the whole class to the roller rink for an E.T. themed party (it’s the 80s), but Gretchen is the only one who shows up. All the others accepted an invitation to Margaret’s polo plantation (the novel takes place in South Carolina, where apparently there are such things) for a day of horse-back riding. When Abby asks Margaret why she didn’t go to that party, Gretchen replies “You invited me first.” It is from this awkward beginning that the two girls become best friends.

My best friend story has a similar beginning. When Michelle arrived at the country school I attended at the beginning of grade eight, I didn’t like her. And she didn’t like me. At least that’s how I remember it. Her hair was too blonde, her jeans were too tight and she hung out with the older kids. I was about as geeky as they came. We both imagined being writers and I remember that the Prize for English was a hot commodity; I won. Then in grade nine, more than half of the students in our class went on an exchange to Marathon, Ontario. Neither of us went, and that meant that we were without our usual friend groups. One afternoon, we found ourselves talking at the back of a classroom. Turns out, we had way more in common than not and that afternoon cemented a friendship that is now 45 years strong.

Abby and Gretchen have the best friend short-hand. They bond over movies and music. They trade secrets and commiserate about their families; “Everything happened over the next six years. Nothing happened over the next six years.” When Abby’s home life starts to crumble, Gretchen’s family is there to pick up the pieces.

And then. Abby, Gretchen, Margaret (same one, now a friend) and Glee are in high school and one afternoon, they decide to take acid. Just to try it out, not because they’re druggies. It’s 1988. The incident kicks off a descent into a hellscape that causes friendships to fracture. Gretchen disappears that night, and when Abby finds her the next morning she can’t remember anything about her night lost in the woods.

Things take a decided turn for the worst over the coming weeks, and the beauty of this novel (and there are many of them) is that I couldn’t decide whether Gretchen’s possession was literal or just a function of being a high school sophomore. People change, right, especially at this point in their lives. They’re always trying on new personas, shedding one skin to try out another. Abby never gives up on her friend, even when Gretchen behaves horribly; even when her own sanity and safety are threatened.

The nostalgia is a river running through Hendrix’s book, the chapters titled after popular songs, the allusions to the TV shows and pop culture of the era. The book is packaged like a high school yearbook. And I was sent hurtling back to my high school days, when friendships are the most important things in your life. About fifty pages in, I couldn’t put the book down.

And for the record, I would fight the devil for you, too, Michelle.

Highly recommended.

Island of Lost Girls – Jennifer McMahon

Rhonda Farr, the protagonist of Jennifer McMahon’s second novel Island of Lost Girls, has stopped at the Mini Mart for gas when she sees something that sends her reeling back through her past. A gold VW Beetle pulls up next to her, a car she recognizes, but instead of being driven by the eccentric Laura Lee, it’s being driven by a large, white rabbit.

…when the rabbit got out of the car, there in the Pat’s Mini Mart parking lot at quarter to three on a Monday afternoon, it didn’t occur to Rhonda that there might be a person inside. He hopped like a bunny, moved quickly, nervously, jerking his white head one way, then the other. He turned toward Rhonda, and for an instant he seemed to stare at her with his blind plastic eyes.

While Rhonda watches, the rabbit knocks on the door of another car parked in the lot and leads little Ernestine Florucci, whose mother is inside the store, away. It is from this absurd beginning that Jennifer McMahon (Promise Not to Tell, Dismantled, The Winter People) spins the tale of not one missing girl, but two.

Rhonda, perhaps out of guilt, decides to help with the search effort and to do a little investigating of her own. She’s aided by Warren, Pat’s nephew. Pike’s Crossing is a small place, and Rhonda knows everyone. Trying to help find Ernestine also brings back a wave of memories about Lizzy, Rhonda’s childhood best friend who also went missing many years ago. It also brings to mind the summer they spent together launching a production of Peter Pan with Lizzie’s older brother, Peter, who is the object of Rhonda’s unrequited affection and also her dearest friend. As she searches for clues, Rhonda comes to suspect that Peter might have something to do with Ernestine’s disappearance.

There is a mystery, well two mysteries, at the centre of McMahon’s novel and I think she successfully pushes the plot of both along, switching between the past and present with ease. (I read the book in pretty much one sitting, which is about a good a recommendation as I can offer, really.)

This is also a book about the loss of innocence. Rhonda loses hers when she discovers family secrets, and when she realizes her feelings towards Peter are not returned. It also ruminates on the end of childhood. Rhonda recalls her role as Wendy in Peter Pan and remembers saying her lines and having “a sudden vision of herself as an adult,saying that line quietly on some far-off night as she stared up at the sky, like it might help bring her back.”

I haven’t always liked everything McMahon has written, but I did enjoy this book.

The Roanoke Girls – Amy Engel

Sometimes I can’t resist the three for $10 bargains at Indigo. Just because a book finds its way onto the bargain shelves doesn’t mean it’s a dud. Case in point: My Sunshine Away  I managed to snag a handful of bargain copies for my classroom library and I was thrilled to be able to offer it as a choice for my grade 12 students this year. That is an amazing book.

RoanokeAnd then there’s The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel. Can’t remember when I bought it or how long it’s been languishing on my tbr shelf, but I started reading it and finished reading it in just a few hours because it has ALL THE THINGS I love in a book.  (Lots of other reviewers loved all the things, too, because this book received lots of well-deserved praise.)

Lane Roanoke is fifteen when a terrible tragedy brings her to small-town Kansas to live with her grandparents, Yates and Lillian, and her cousin, Allegra, who is also fifteen.  She knows very little about these people. Her mother left the family home as a teenager and never returned because her life there was a “nightmare.”

Lane is mesmerized by the family home

Roanoke had clearly started out as something resembling a traditional farmhouse – white clapboard, wraparound porch, peaked dormers. But someone had tacked on crazy additions over the years, a brick turret on one side, what looked like an entirely new stone house extending from the back, more white clapboard, newer and higher on the other side. It was like a handful of giant houses all smashed together with no regard for aesthetics or conformity. It was equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing.

The house is symbolic of the labyrinthine Roanoke secrets.

Her cousin Allegra is alternately  moody and loving, and Lane is never quite sure which version she’s going to get. Her grandmother is mostly distant. Her grandfather “was fiercely handsome. …If charisma was power, my grandfather was king.”

The Roanoke family has a long history of loss. Yates’s two sisters are gone, so are his daughters. Until Lane returns to Kansas, Allegra has been the only Roanoke girl. It is a special designation, Lane comes to discover.

The novel toggles back and forth between ‘Then’ (Lane’s fifteenth summer) and ‘Now’, which happens eleven years later when Lane gets the call that Allegra is missing. Yates begs Lane to return to Roanoke. Despite her reservations, the pull of family is strong and Lane finds herself back in Kansas. Her return puts her back in contact with Tommy, Allegra’s on again – off again teenage boyfriend, now a cop, and Cooper, “still the most beautiful person” Lane has ever seen. It’s a toxic mix and makes for absolutely riveting reading.

What happened to Allegra? What happened to all the Roanoke girls? That’s the central mystery in the book. Actually, you’ll learn  the what pretty early on and it’s an explosive family secret.

This book had all the things I loved: great writing, a compelling main character who is damaged, but fierce and smart, a never-ending air of menace and unease, a hot, broken guy and a lot of twists.

LOVED it.

 

 

 

The Headmaster’s Wife – Thomas Christopher Greene

The Headmaster’s Wife is my second outing with Thomas Christoper Green. I read his headmaster's wifenovel Envious Moon almost a decade ago. The Headmaster’s Wife has been on my tbr shelf for quite a while, and I read it in one sitting.

Arthur Winthrop is headmaster/Literature teacher at Lancaster School, an elite boarding school in Vermont. When we first meet him, he’s walking through Central Park reminiscing about a time he’d visited the park with his wife, Elizabeth, and their young son, Ethan. That was years ago, though. Now “standing on the same path…he gives up trying to find this memory.” Instead, he disrobes and starts walking. “All that matters to him is the feel of his bare feet crunching wonderfully on the crusty snow beneath him.”

Of course he is scooped up by the police, and in the interrogation room he tells the story of Betsy Pappas, a young student in his Russian Literature class. At first, Arthur is attracted to Betsy’s mind, but soon he becomes almost obsessed with her. The novel tracks Arthur’s increasingly desperate attempts to woo and possess Betsy.

At the halfway point – after a wallop of a revelation – the story switches its focus to Elizabeth Winthrop. Her story, about being a student at Lancaster, fills in some backstory and allows a glimpse into her marriage to Arthur. It also allows us to meet, however briefly, the Winthrop’s son, Ethan, whose own story is the catalyst for some of the drama in their marriage.

I don’t want to spoil anything because one of the delights of this books (if you can actually call a novel about grief ‘delightful’) is letting the pieces of this puzzle click together in their own time. This is a book that sort of reads like a mystery, but isn’t that what life is at the end of the day? An unfathomable mystery.

Greene suffered a personal tragedy while writing this book. It’s highly worth reading his acknowledgments if this is something you generally skip when you read.

Highly recommended.

The Winters – Lisa Gabriele

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

The opening line of Daphne du Maurier’s brilliant novel Rebecca will be instantly recognizable, likely even to readers who have never read it. In that book, the unnamed protagonist meets Maxim de Winter and embarks on a whirlwind courtship. They marry and he brings her home to Manderly, his estate on the Cornish coast. It is there that the narrator’s troubles begin because Manderley is haunted by Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, who was (apparently) beloved by all. Rebecca is a riveting read.

 

 

 

Lisa Gabriele treads…tromps…through du Maurier’s landscape in her novel The Winters and although I am in the minority, I am sure, I feel as though this book suffers by any comparison to its source material. But you have to compare them because Gabriele’s story is “inspired” by du Maurier’s.

In The Winters the unnamed narrator is a dog’s body for a boating company in Grand Cayman, where’s she’s grown up with her parents who were “disillusioned Americans who chose to live and work on a small fishing trawler.” Now both her parents are gone, and she is still working for Laureen, the brash Australian who owns the charter boat company.

Our plucky narrator tells us that

My features are even, my body trim, hair, eyes and skin compatible with each other in ways that make sense. Even my character, self-sufficient and serious-minded, watchful and earnest, doesn’t draw attention to itself. Men do not clamour after me.

Enter Max Winter. He’s older. Handsome. Rich. And immediately smitten with the narrator. Cue whirlwind courtship and suddenly she’s being whisked off to Asherley, Max’s Long Island version of Manderley. Instead of Manderley’s menacing housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, there’s Dani, Max’s troubled fifteen-year-old daughter.

Even though the former Mrs. Winter has been dead for almost two years, the house is still full of reminders and our narrator has trouble finding her footing. Dani, when she finally returns from Paris, takes an immediate dislike to her, and the narrator doesn’t have any experience with teenagers anyway. Dani mostly holes up in her old mother’s turret bedroom, smoking weed and (seemingly) plotting ways to make the narrator’s life miserable.

My issues with The Winters don’t really have anything to do with the story. I mean, if you’ve never read Rebecca I think you’ll probably find the plot of this one engaging enough. I was frustrated reading this book, though. I think my main problem was with the characters themselves; I just didn’t believe them. I certainly didn’t believe the way they spoke to each other. There wasn’t any real chemistry between the narrator and Max and the denouement, when it arrived, had wayyyy too many contrivances.

It’s a beach book. It doesn’t ask anything of you, and I suspect many readers will find it diverting and entertaining. For my money, though, Rebecca is a much more satisfying read.

 

The Damned – Andrew Pyper

223C2A3B-A2C4-455F-AEFE-1A58DF3297B0Canadian writer Andrew Pyper is often compared to Stephen King and I can see why.  Both writers skillfully find the scary in the every day, and in relationships which should be sacrosanct. Pyper mined that territory in his novel The Guardians  and he does it again in The Damned which hooks you in pretty much from page one.

Danny Orchard has come back from the dead on more than one occasion. He wrote about the experience in a memoir called The After a book that, many years later, keeps him busy at “dentists’ conventions and service club fundraisers” where he talks about what’s at the end of the long tunnel. Danny’s experience has inspired a group known as The Afterlifers, “a community for those who’ve traveled to the other side and returned.”

When Danny was sixteen he and his fraternal twin, Ashleigh (Ash), were killed in a house fire. Well, Ash was killed; Danny was saved. If saved is what you want to call it. I guess Danny would have a different opinion about it since he’s been haunted by his sister ever since. Although on the surface, it looked like Danny and his family had it all

My father, mother, and I were aware that a monster lived with us, however photogenic, however scholarship-guaranteed. And because she was only a girl, because she was one of us by name, because we feared her, there was nothing we could do about it.

Ash is clearly a psychopath and death doesn’t change that, so Danny’s life is pretty solitary until he meets Willa and her ten-year-old son Eddie.  He believes that he can keep them safe, but Ash isn’t about to let go that easily and Danny soon realizes that he is going to have to face her on her terms. If heaven is reliving the best day of your life over and over, hell is quite the opposite.

Pyper has created a compelling and nightmarish hellscape and, in Danny, a character readers will actually want to root for. At first he thinks that Ash just wants him to solve the lingering questions about her death. (Why was she in that abandoned house and what happened to the three friends she was supposedly with that day?) But Ash’s motives are far more sinister and when Danny returns to Detroit looking for answers he finds far more than he bargained for.

The Damned would make a terrific movie, but I’ve got a great imagination and Pyper is a great writer. I could see everything just fine, thanks very much. If you don’t mind white-knuckling it through a book, this is the story for you.

The Visitors – Catherine Burns

Marion Zetland lives with her older brother, John, in a house that’s seen better days in a visitorscoastal town in Northern England. The siblings, now in their 50s,  have never been especially close, but now that both their parents have died, they have to rely on each other and their relationship is a sort of co-dependent nightmare. There is something very odd going on in their house, a house filled with the bric-a-brac of a childhood spent in some luxury (the Zetlands owned a textile mill), and now the domain of a couple hoarders.

Catherine Burns’s debut novel The Visitors focuses the story on Marion. She is mostly friendless, surrounds herself with stuffed animals, and spends her days watching sappy television movies, remembering events from her past, and imagining a future which she surely never had access to. She’d learned at a young age that she was plain, and spent most of her life living in John’s considerable shadow. He, after all, had gone off the Oxford, and she had limped through school, barely able to understand the most basic things.

When the novel opens, Marion has just been awakened by a scream, a sound that “flapped its wings against the inside of her skull.” She knows where the scream is coming from, and she even knows, although perhaps only subconsciously, why someone might be screaming inside her house, but she tamps down the feeling by calling forth her mother’s voice, which she knows would tell her that “John is doing the very best for them; you have to trust him – he is your brother and a very clever person.”

Slipping easily between the past and the present, we learn about the extremely dysfunctional Zetland family, about how Marion was bullied by her peers, and John’s own perverse personality, which is alluded to many times.  The only time we aren’t closely watching Marion, we are reading emails to someone called Adrian. The first time they appeared, I thought there’d been some sort of printing error, but it’ll all make sense in the end.

I really enjoyed The Visitors. I found Marion to be quite a sympathetic character, someone who clearly had been dealt a crappy hand in the family department, but was also dealing with some mental illness, too. Turns out, though, the lens through which the story is told is just a tad unreliable. Although this story is not told in the first person, we are really only privy to Marion’s thoughts, and there’s no question – she’s an odd duck.

Although I wasn’t 100% sold on the ending, I still recommend giving this one a go. It’s well written and you’ll totally keep turning the pages.

 

 

 

White Rabbit – Caleb Roehrig

white rabbitRufus Holt is having a really fucking bad day. I use the expletive because, well, there’s a lot of F-bombs in Caleb Roehrig’s YA mystery White Rabbit. I’m not a prude by any stretch, but I have to admit that by the end of the novel I was getting a little tired of all the swearing. Surely teenagers as smart as the ones who populate Roehrig’s world would have the vocabularies to match.

But, really, that’s just a niggle. Overall, Roehrig has written a tightly plotted and well-written (I know what I said, it’s still a well-written book!) mystery.

Sixteen-year-old Rufus has just received a call from his half-sister April. He’s pissed because his ex-boyfriend, the handsome and thoughtful Sebastian, has just hauled him out of the 4th of July party they were attending to “talk.” But then, April tells Rufus that she’s in trouble and needs his help.

Rufus’s relationship with April is somewhat contentious. Her father is his father, but Rufus is the black sheep. His father is never anything but cruel to Rufus. His relationship with his older brother, Hayden, is downright abusive. But when April calls, Rufus feels obligated to help. What he discovers is his sister, whacked out of it,  sitting in a puddle of her boyfriend Fox Whitney’s blood surrounded by White Rabbits, “a designer drug known to cause euphoria, heightened sensory perception, and hallucinations.” But “the pills have also been linked, notoriously, to acts of extreme violence.”  April swears she didn’t kill Fox and begs Rufus to help her.

Rufus and Sebastian spend the rest of the book trying to prove April’s innocence by visiting the other people who’d attended the same party. Rufus has never been a part of the “IT” crowd, but one of the party attendees is Lia, Sebastian’s ex-girlfriend. Sebastian insists that he’s not leaving Rufus, and besides he has the car.

White Rabbit  is a carefully plotted mystery. The characters are, generally speaking, awful people – with the exception of Rufus (despite his potty mouth) and Sebastian. As the boys try to get answers to clear April’s name (and there is a financial incentive for Rufus to take on this mostly thankless task), they are lied to, shot at, chased with cars. While they try to figure out whodunit, Rufus and Sebastian also try to navigate their feelings for one another. There are red herrings galore and people with nefarious motives, but all of it makes for page-turning fun.

 

 

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

liarsCadence Sinclair, the narrator of E. Lockhart’s riveting YA novel We Were Liars, lives a seemingly charmed life. The eldest of the Sinclair grandchildren, she summers with her cousins Johnny, Mirren, Liberty, Bonnie, Will and Taft on Beechwood Island, a private island off the coast of Massachusetts, somewhere near Martha’s Vineyard. Her grandparents, Harris and Tipper, have a created a sort of kingdom on Beechwood. Each of their three daughters has their own house on the island, but everything revolves around the patriarch. There is a lot of drinking and in-fighting, all of it held together by Tipper. When she dies, the daughters and their children, who are used as pawns to secure Harris’s favour, go a little off the rails.

The summer that Cadence is eight, Johnny brings his friend Gat to the island.

His nose was dramatic, his mouth sweet. Skin deep brown, hair black and waving. Body wired with energy. Gat seemed spring-loaded. Like he was searching for something. He was contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee. I could have looked at him forever.

Cadence, Johnny, Mirren and Gat, the Liars,  become an inseparable foursome. Gat is invited back every summer and by the time they are fourteen, Cadence and Gat have begun tentative steps towards crossing the friendship line. Cadence feels “the love rush from me to Gat and from Gat to me.”

But then summer fifteen happens. That’s the summer Tipper dies. It’s also the summer that Cadence goes swimming alone at the little beach. She doesn’t remember much of what happened

“I only remember this: I plunged down into this ocean,                                                          down to rocky rocky bottom, and                                                                                                      I could see the base of Beechwood Island and                                                                            my arms and legs felt numb but my fingers were cold.                                                        Slices of seaweed went past as I fell.”

It’s a summer that changes everything. Cadence is taken home to Vermont to recover and she doesn’t return to Beechwood until summer seventeen. Her memory is suspect, making her a terrifically unreliable narrator. She suffers from debilitating migraines; she starts to give away her possession. Her island has changed and so have the Liars. One thing remains unchanged though: the way she and Gat feel about each other.

I loved pretty much everything about We Were Liars. I loved the jagged edges of Cadence’s memory as she tries to piece together the mystery of her accident. I loved the dysfunctional nature of the Sinclair family. As Cadence admits in the beginning, “I am the eldest Sinclair grandchild. Heiress to the island, the fortune, and the expectations.”  And I loved the Liars.

Lockhart’s book has a big plot twist. Some might see it coming; I did not. I am not a teenage reader so while the twist wasn’t exactly shocking to me, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective. We Were Liars is a page-turning puzzle of a book. I read it in one breathless gulp.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Voice of the Night – Dean Koontz

I have read more than one novel by Dean Koontz, most memorably his 7939529 thriller Intensity.  I wouldn’t say I am a fan, really, but I know that I can depend on him to deliver a decently-written page-turner.

The Voice of the Night tells the story of fourteen-year-old Colin, who moves with his newly divorced mother to Santa Leona, a coastal town near San Francisco. There he meets Roy, a kid who is the same age, but who possesses all the qualities Colin lacks: charisma, confidence and good looks.  Colin has never really had a best friend before, and for some reason Roy seems to take a shine to him.

But it’s a sinister shine. Roy is fascinated with death. He wants to know if Colin has ever killed anything. He brags that he has, but Colin is pretty certain, at least at first, that it’s some sort of friendship test. When Roy brags about torturing a cat,

…Colin sensed that Roy was testing him. He felt certain that the gruesome story about the cat was just the latest test, but he couldn’t imagine what Roy had wanted him to say or do. Had he passed or failed?

Despite Colin’s uneasiness, Roy is “just about the best friend a guy could ask for.” Until he isn’t. And it doesn’t take long for The Voice in the Night to kick into high gear.

There are no adults in this book. Colin’s mother is running an art gallery and getting her post-divorce sea legs under her. She is rarely home. Colin’s dad takes him fishing once with a bunch of his friends, who are all drunk jerks. Roy’s parents, too, are MIA. When Colin’s relationship with Roy begins to unravel, he is all alone to try to figure it out. And more and more, Colin begins to feel as though his life depends on it.

The Voice in the Night clicks along without too much interference. The cast of characters is small, their motivations obvious and the conclusion, although a tad trite, is believable.