I’d really hoped to make it through to the end of the school year without anyone needing another sick day. But no such luck. The children and I woke up hacking and coughing like a TB ward, so they’ve been watching Scaredy Squirrel and reading Captain Underpants, and I’ve been crying my way through the last couple of chapters of My Best Friend’s Exorcism.
I’d been wondering if the waves of 80s nostalgia would bring me to tears in the end. They didn’t, exactly, but the final exorcism scene (in which the kernel of goodness required to banish a demon takes glorious pop-culture form) did the trick. (I’m running a low-grade fever, so that probably helped).
My Best Friend’s Exorcism is exactly what it says on the cover: a possession-and-exorcism story. It’s also a tribute to friendship, and a playlist in book form. The spectres of some real horrors of the era, like Satanic-hysteria and false accusations of abuse, dance neatly around the edge of the book, lurking in rumour and urban legend and talk shows.
This isn’t just a horror story, it’s a full-blown 80s epic, containing snatches and hints of all that made the era great and terrible and ridiculous. As such, parts of it are probably lost on younger readers.
That might explain why I’ve already stumbled across a review complaining about a “racist line,” only to find out that the shocking line in question is someone telling a starving character she looks like an Ethiopian. Kids: the famine in Ethiopia was the go-to reference for world hunger in the 80s (there’s still famine in Ethiopia, but in North America it seems to have disappeared from the news). So the character isn’t referencing their race, she’s referencing their circumstances. All teenagers in the 80s had seen and heard about, and were expected to care about, the plight of the starving Ethiopians.
(What makes that even more painful is that the book is perfectly honest about the real racism of the 80s. Things referenced that are actual instances of racism: a rich neighbourhood where any black person except the one guy who lives there is asked if they’re lost; a school performance of We Are the World in which one student performs in blackface; a high school using “slave day” as a fundraiser.)
But the past is another country, and we did things differently there. Badly, quite often, which would be why Live Aid failed to fix much of anything.
We did music well, though. Even our exorcisms rocked, at least in this version. Go listen to the playlist, and bask in the nostalgia.
So I went mildly crazy in the YA section recently, which is massively out of keeping with my usual “all backlist all the time” review tendencies. But sometimes I’m just in the mood to booksplurge, I guess.
Here are the first splurgings (all worth reading, and I’ll include Amazon links):
Title: Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here
Author: Anna Breslaw
Thoughts: This is probably my favourite read out of this batch, and I loved everything on here (I don’t usually even write reviews of books I don’t like, tbh). Scarlett was funny and feminist (in a non-overt but resoundingly lovely way that consisted of recognizing that, for instance, the flaws of female characters written by men have nothing to do with real women and everything to do with the male writers).
During the course of the novel she also learns to appreciate the intelligence and strength of non-bookish people, a thing I don’t think I fully managed until I was about thirty. It’s both heartbreaking and encouraging to see her work out that her father, an author with an aspirational lifestyle that includes being married to another author and living in New York, is actually a mild form of jackass, and her not-bookish-at-all mother who cleans houses is a damned impressive person who deserves to be happy.
And, okay, the recognition of the limits of Jonathan Franzen breaks no new ground for anyone who spends time online discussing the sheer LOL MENness of his work, but I still think it’s amazing and empowering to have a book with a teen protagonist who is already over him.
Thoughts: I knew nothing about this book going in (I think someone rec’d it to me, but I don’t know who; whoever you are, THANK YOU). It’s a delightful fantasy novel in which the heroine has inherited the ability to grant wishes, only because she doesn’t know that she spends one amazing night doing incredible damage at a house party: the next morning she’s got classmates with, for instance, the scariest version of the Midas touch imaginable and batwings and whatnot.
The story of how she works out what’s been going on with her own family, how her utterly terrifying father got that way and what further damage he’s waiting to inflict, and how to undo all of that just races along. I read the whole thing in one massively enjoyable rush one Saturday, and it brought back my love of reading in full force. Seriously, the fun I had reading this is the reason my current book binge is happening.
Thoughts: Oh, my heart. Jaycee has been mourning her daredevil brother for three years, and she’s still in that painful place of clinging to memories and being brutally honest with everyone around her (although not with herself about her brother’s flaws; accepting the real him is part of what she’s pushing towards). Meanwhile her former best friend’s controlled persona is imploding, again partly because of the fallout from Jake’s death; the former BF’s slacker boyfriend is sweet, self-aware, and anguishing over the losses in his life (including the impending loss of his girlfriend, which he knows is happening); and his best friend is suffering heartbreak of his own.
It’s gorgeous and painful to read, but it’s as honest and unflinching as Jaycee is, and so beautifully put together (including illustrations of Bishop’s poems and graphic-novel bits for selectively mute Ryan’s POV chapters) that I can’t bear to give it away (the usual fate of my novels).
Thoughts: This was my most recent acquisition out of this first clump of YA, and I admit I bought it because it popped up as an Amazon suggestion and I loved the cover. It’s a quietly impressive book that sneaks up on you. The pain and teen-drama situation of being cheated on (by her boyfriend and her best friend, no less) leads Sloane to decide, wisely, that this summer will be all about her as she attempts to heal from the betrayal and find some happiness.
She ends up understanding more about human weakness and how to move on and forgive people than she ever wanted to, but the book doesn’t make the mistake of having her forgive her friends to the point of forgetting what they did. I cheered a little when she realized that, however much she cared about him and forgives him, things can never be the same with her former boyfriend. It hits a nice balance, showing the fallout from a loss of trust but also not collapsing into lifelong-grudge territory.
Which is okay because I’m GRUDGY ENOUGH FOR BOTH OF US apparently; I will never forgive her best friend. I don’t care who you think you’re in love with, child, you just don’t do that. The best friend’s misery at the end is a little over-the-top, but honestly as a reader I kind of needed to see her suffer a bit. Sorry. The real world lacks justice sometimes, so I like to soak it up in fiction.
Thoughts: This was darkly funny, and perfect in its portrayal of totally-not-One-Direction fandom. Okay, I’m too old for 1D and I was too old for bandom, but that didn’t stop me from loving either of those things, so I was laughing and cringing all the way through this as I recognized the attractions and perils of fandom. (For the record, no one I know actually killed anyone. That I know of.)
I loved this book, although I was troubled on behalf of poor Apple. She’s definitely a known fandom type, and I worry about her real-world counterparts too, because even their fellow fans can be cruel to the fat girl. If anyone writes fic for this book, I would be all over Apple-centric stories that show us what she’s really thinking.
According to Goodreads there were only eight of these published, and one is called “The Thirteenth Sign,” so either five zodiac signs were considered too damn boring to get their own books, or the series just didn’t sell well. I’m betting it’s the second thing, because there’s only so much room in the market for “let’s cash in on Point Horror’s popularity!”
Twisted Taurus is the first one I’ve read, and I started with it because I’m a Taurus. Not a twisted one though, at least not in comparison with Micaela (the blonde chick on the cover).
This book was the most amazing schlock, and I mean that as a compliment.
We open with a prologue, naturally. Oh, before I continue: every chapter has a little silhouette of a leaping bull on the first page. I love how committed to the theme this is. ANYWAY, the prologue: Micaela James has been hearing a voice in her dreams, the same voice that led her to plant her secret garden. This time it tells her the time of isolation is over, and that a brother and sister will enter her life. Sure enough today in class she heard people talking about two new kids, Darci and Kurt Callahan. Micaela decides Kurt will fall in love with her and Darci will be her best friend.
Chapter One is from Darci’s POV. She’s struggling a bit in art class now that they’re doing sculpture, and the girl next to her suggests she check out Micaela’s work, because it’s “so good it’s scary.” Darci goes over to wash her hands so she’ll have an excuse to look at Micaela’s sculpture, which is Darci’s head. You’re right, girl in art class, that is scary.
In Chapter Two Darci admires the sculpture, and Micaela says working with clay is easy for her because she’s a Taurus and that’s an earth sign. Also she guesses that Darci is a Pieces. Uh-huh, this is your cue to back away slowly and then report her for stalking you, Darci. Instead Darci accepts a ride home, tells Micaela too much information about her family (divorced, etc.), and lets Micaela use the bathroom. Naturally Micaela takes that opportunity to eavesdrop on a phone call, explore Kurt’s room, and steal his leather choker. Because she’s creepy.
Having offered to help Darci redecorate her bedroom, in Chapter Three Micaela drags Darci to The Bazaar. She chose the store based on having learned (from the phone call she listened in on) that Kurt would be there with his girlfriend, Kristin. I foresee trouble for Kristin. AM I PSYCHIC? No, I just read a lot of YA horror. Micaela also guesses that Kurt is a Leo and Kristin is a Scorpio. Kurt and Kristin leave because they have dinner reservations (what?), and Micaela buys a poison-concealing ring and tells Darci about the Borgias. Because she is still creepy.
Chapter Four opens with Kristin sort of manipulating Kurt into buying tickets so they can go to the Luka Bloom concert next week, and then accusing Darci of always “tagging along” just because she ran into them at the store. Harsh. Kristin’s hoping that now that Darci has Micaela to hang out with they’ll see less of her. At the end of the chapter Micaela goes trespassing on a Catskill preserve to get containers of spring water, and then goes out barefoot at night to water her secret garden of poisonous plants. She takes cuttings of something she calls Hearts of Darkness. This is going nowhere good.
In Chapter Five Darci has lunch with a guy named Ian, who admits his father is in jail for embezzling. He says his father lied a lot, and while he hates to think of him in jail, at least in there he can’t hurt anyone else. He also says Micaela has a weird reputation, but when Darci challenges him on whether that means she can’t be his friend if she’s Micaela’s he says “Micaela Jones has nothing to do with you and me.” Awww.
Micaela, on the other hand, tells Darci that Ian is an Aries and therefore no good for her. Later Darci gets dropped at Micaela’s house, and Micaela prepares some cranberry juice with dried Hearts of Darkness powder in one glass.
The crazy mounts in Chapter Six. Darci arrives at Micaela’s family’s mansion. They talk about van Gogh and star charts (as one does) and then Micaela poisons her. Darci feels sick and dizzy and then collapses. She has convulsions and Micaela tells her not to die because it isn’t time.
So of course Chapter Seven opens with Micaela denying the convulsions and conversation ever happened. She says Darci felt sick and then took a nap, and the rest must have been a dream.
At school Ian invites Darci out to see a movie the next weekend. Then, after Darci is gone, Micaela comes up to him and convinces him Darci has been telling everyone at school that his father is in jail. She even tries to sound compassionate, saying Darci’s probably just trying to get attention because she wants to be popular at her new school. Ian believes it because today Ian is an idiot, I guess. He cancels their date. Meanly. Like, so meanly that Darci feels “as though something deep inside her had been torn in half and would never mend.” (p. 67)
Chapter Eight opens with Ian whining to his friend John about Darci, and John being appropriately skeptical because Micaela’s the source of that news. Darci’s at home alone when Micaela calls and invites herself over to help paint the bedroom the next day.
So in Chapter Nine they paint and Micaela babbles on about astrological signs. Kurt and his friends Marc and Eric are downstairs, and they share popcorn and then play an erotic game of Twister. Nothing I say can do justice to the hilarity of this scene.
At Marc’s next call Micaela, moving as smoothly as a snake, raised her upper body and twisted so that her side was pressed against Kurt’s, her breast touching his arm.
The game continued. Darci was no longer having much trouble placing her hands and feet, because with each call Micaela made sure that she found a wayto press her body against Kurt’s; all the action was at their end of the board. Darci watched with amazement. She’d seen a lot of girls come on to her brother, but she’d never seen anything quite like this. (pp. 82-83)
Chapter Ten opens with Micaela deciding she needs to steal something from the chemistry lab to change the red colour of her poison and make it less detectable. Ian sees the theft, and his experiences with his father have taught him that thieves are also liars. So he apologizes to Darci, and tells her what Micaela did. Darci still defends her, because today Darci is an idiot. Meanwhile, Micaela’s voice-in-her-head tells her that Darci and Ian are together again, and she must act now to stop them.
Three days later (in Chapter Eleven) Micaela performs a weird ritual in her bedroom, using a wax doll and a lock of Darci’s hair and various ingredients out of her Chinese medicine cabinet. I don’t know, it’s an occult smorgasbord of crazy. It works, though, because Darci suddenly feels repelled by Ian and tells him they’re through.
In Chapter Twelve Micaela tells Kurt her car won’t start and asks for a ride home. Once inside his van she grabs his head with both hands and kisses him, so naturally Kristin shows up and sees this, at which point Micaela hops out of the van, sweetly says he’s lying about her car not starting, and proves the point by driving off in it. Everyone in this book is such an idiot that I’m almost rooting for Micaela at this point. Ian, who witnessed the whole thing, tells Kurt he’ll back him up once Kristin is willing to listen, and also shares the weirdness that went down on his date with Darci.
At the beginning of Chapter Thirteen Micaela shows up with Darci’s star chart, then lights a candle and makes up a ceremony where Darci swears allegiance to her and promises to do what she’s told. That sounds like a swell idea. Then Micaela goes out to Kurt’s room to hit on him some more, and he admits he liked kissing her but he can’t so it again because of Kristin. Because that’s exactly what you should do when dealing with a psychopath: make them think your girlfriend is all that’s keeping you apart. Good going, Kurt.
Chapter Fourteen opens with Darci reading some book of magic that Micaela gave her. Her mother catches her, and confesses to having done the same thing when she was young and wanted power. She also says she thinks magic is real, but that Darci already has more power than she realizes. It’s a very odd encouraging-parent moment. Micaela, meanwhile, is doing a ceremony because that’s her hobby: ceremonies and poison. She has a vision showing Kristin wandering through the woods, and knows how to get rid of her.
Chapter Fifteen begins with a genuinely creepy moment. Micaela’s voice tells her to call Kristin, and when she does, her own voice comes out sounding exactly like Kurt’s. She sets up a fake date for the following night. Then we cut to Micaela digging a grave in the woods, spreading a blanket over it, and setting up a picnic on the far side with flowers and a card addressed to Kristin. Sick. Kristin arrives and falls into the hole, and Micaela starts filling in the pit.
That’s the precise point when my suspension of disbelief crashed and burned, and I laughed my way to the end. I made it through the astrology, the poison, the secret garden, the mansion, the secret voice and various rituals, but you cannot bury someone alive when they’re standing upright in a grave. They can just step onto the dirt as you shovel it in and eventually walk out. COME ON. But Kristin must literally be dumb as a brick because she stands there and gets buried up to her shoulders.
Chapter Sixteen starts with a phone call from Kristin’s mother to Kurt’s. Then at school he gets taken away to be questioned by the police. Ian, currently the last person with a functioning brain cell, tells Darci he thinks Micaela is behind it all. Then he goes and confronts Micaela, and she just tells him “the ram is a stubborn one” because he’s an Aries and then kisses him. At lunchtime she sits with him and then he starts convulsing.
In Chapter Seventeen Darci and Kurt catch up. She’s just been questioned by the police. Then paramedics rush past, and they find out it’s Ian. At the hospital a doctor tells them Ian won’t make it unless they find out what poisoned him. He’s conscious, though, so Darci visits him long enough to find out 1) everything looks like it has a yellow aura around it and 2) he thinks she should search Micaela’s house for the poison. Kurt and Darci decide to go do that together. The housekeeper lets them in to look for the library book Darci claims she left there. They conveniently find an article about Vincent van Gogh claiming he may have been poisoned by digitalis, since he was seeing yellow halos around everything. But they ALSO find Micaela’s handwritten notes about the Hearts of Darkness (complete with a record of her poisoning Darci, LOL).
Micaela comes home as Chapter Eighteen begins. They hide and Darci hears her talking to…nobody, and also listening to the silence as if someone’s answering. She’s repeating instructions to “cut a finger from the dead girl” so now Darci thinks Kristin’s dead. They follow Micaela to the woods, and she starts yet another ritual, only she’s interrupted by a mud-caked figure. It’s obviously Kirstin, who even more obviously has escaped, but Darci has hysterics because she thinks she’s a zombie now.
On to Chapter Nineteen. Darci pretends to be under Micaela’s power long enough that Micaela gives her the knife and tells her to cut off Kristin’s finger. She doesn’t do that. Instead she and Kurt tie Micaela up with his belt (kinky) and then Kristin stumbles towards them again.
She’s still alive, of course, but in Chapter Twenty Darci does some more hysterical screaming while Kurt embraces Kristin and tells her it’s all over now. And that’s how it ends. No, really, that’s it.