Book Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism

My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix, is an all American story of teenage angst with a somewhat opaque plot. It charts the friendship of Abby and Gretchen, from Abby’s disastrous tenth birthday party which Gretchen just about saves, through their years together at high school and, briefly, beyond. Much of the action takes place when the girls are sixteen.

Abby’s parents struggle financially. With the help of a scholarship she attends a fee paying school where she befriends the children of the area’s wealthy patrons. She blames her parents for the life they lead.

Gretchen enjoys material privilege but must submit to her controlling parents’ staunch Republican beliefs. They welcome Abby into their home where she feels happier than with her own parents. As teenagers, both girls regard adults with disdain.

On a night out at a mutual friend’s rambling riverside home the group experiment with drugs. Gretchen wanders into woodland naked and is not found until the following day. She does not, perhaps cannot, explain what happened during her missing hours but the experience changes her. The reader is left to decide if this is the effect of the drug, anger at her friends for not looking after her better, or demonic possession.

Gretchen falls apart but, as far as Abby is concerned, her parents are more concerned with how their daughter’s behaviour makes them look than with her well-being. When Abby tries to seek help she is faced with friends who are angry and hurt by Gretchen’s change in behaviour, or adults who blame Abby for the experience that triggered Gretchen’s distress.

Determined not to give up on her friend, Abby continues to seek her company in an attempt to recover what she considers to be the real Gretchen. Meanwhile, Gretchen sets out to bring down the three girls who peer pressured her into taking the drugs. Minor punishment is not enough, she seeks their complete annihilation.

Intense friendships and alienation from adults seem to be a staple of American high school dramas. Into this mix is thrown the possibility of some darker force, fuelled by the local horror stories the young people delight in sharing. Gretchen’s actions are undoubtedly evil. The root cause and Abby’s dogged determination to help her erstwhile friend add a degree of distinction.

Chapters are headed by lyrics from eighties music, the time period during which the action is set. The book is bound to resemble a high school yearbook, not something I am familiar with. The protagonists are the clever and cool kids of the class; there is little mention of those who do not fit in.

I had expected to enjoy this story more than I did. In making the trigger to events drugs and the most likeable adults poor it felt moralistic. The casual cruelties and jealousies of the young people along with misunderstandings between generations were well enough presented. Overall though it felt extreme with too much left unexplained. I struggled to engage.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Book Review: Ten Dead Comedians

Ten Dead Comedians, by Fred Van Lente, is a contemporary Agatha Christie style murder mystery set on a celebrity owned island in the Caribbean. Hollywood funnyman Dustin Walker invites nine fellow comedians to collaborate with him on an unspecified project, details to be explained during a luxury, weekend retreat. All are excited at this potential injection of energy into their mutable careers and accept. When they arrive it is to discover that they are cut off from the mainland with no access to mobile reception or wifi. Their host then informs them that they are all here to die, including himself.

Lives may be at stake but so are fragile egos. These people have experienced the adrenaline rush of applause, of popular attention, and become addicted. Those who have touched the heady heights of fame may be aware of its disappointments but they still long for its return. They are disdainful of their fellow artistes, especially when compared to themselves.

The deaths begin immediately. At first some believe it is an elaborate hoax, a gig in which they are all being played. As the body count increases and the meagre food supplies get eaten everyone falls under suspicion.

The writing is a satire on the modern performers of comedic repartee where offence and insults pass as humour. Each character found a niche that got them noticed by agents, some even believe themselves to be funny.

The action is offbeat in places, the characters unlikable and at times pitiable, but this is a competent murder mystery. The means of death are imaginative, the reveal of the perpetrator clever even if all is understandably far fetched.

As someone who prefers intelligent humour to the more widespread unsavoury crudeness this garnered an unusual degree of sympathy for modern comedians. I may not have found the transcripts from the standup routines amusing, but the pathos portrayed gave the applause hungry entertainers more humanity than their words suggest they deserve.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Book Review: The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, by Hope Nicholson, is a fun and informative history of nine decades of North American comic books, concentrating on the female characters portrayed therein and their evolution. As I have come to expect from Quirk Books this is a well presented publication. It is laced with humour and appreciation for the form, written by an author who knows her subject and engenders enthusism in her readers – even one like myself who started knowing little more about comic books than can be gleaned from the films and TV shows they have inspired over many years.

Divided into nine chapters, one for each of the decades covered, these start with a summary of key developments in comic book creation and dissemination over the time period. There follows an introduction to a number of individual female characters who first appeared in the decade, whose stories highlight the trends of their times. Illustrations are included of the subjects in action. This is not intended to be a definitive list but rather a representation of changes in the industry.

Comic books were first created for titillation and in many ways this has not changed. Apart from in the 1940s, when there was a shortage of men due to war, female writers and artists have been in the minority although they have always contributed.

The 1950s brought a new puritanism and a Comics Code of Authority was introduced. This clampdown on permissiveness led many to believe comics were only for kids. Storylines could still be suspect with romances between teachers and pupils, children and adults, going unquestioned. It was accepted that clothes would be torn off in combat and sexual attentions forced when not freely given.

Comic book stories are often improbable and somewhat silly but this need not detract from the readers enjoyment. The artwork is generally excellent even if impractical costumes and curvaceous figures feed the white, male, hetero illusion of desired femininity.

The 1970s saw a return of sexually explicit publications as an underground movement was created. By the 1980s comic books had moved off the news stands and into Comic Book Stores leading to a dwindling female readership. This situation was turned around with the growth in conventions which enabled women to connect with fellow fans away from the boys club atmosphere of the store. As webcomics have been developed female readership has once again markedly increased.

Although these changes have enabled more diversity, which doesn’t go down well in certain quarters, there is still oversexualisation of characters, gratuitous violence and comic books being created as porn. However, there have always been a wide array of genres – romance, fantasy and snarky teens as well as superheroes. I learned that Margaret Atwood has made some fairly silly comics too.

This book was an education on a type of publication I have had little exposure to, a celebration that accepts the criticisms of many of the common forms and depictions. I now have an increased affinity with certain types of comic book afficionados. Most of all though, it was an interesting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Book Review: Geekerella

Geekerella, by Ashley Poston, is a contemporary retelling of the story of Cinderella with the eponymous heroine cast as a lonely fandom nerd. Aimed at young adult readers it explores a world influenced by social media updates and special interest blogging; where fan fiction, cosplay and science fiction conventions provide outlets for those who feel alienated by what the cool kids and aspirational adults regard as desirable.

Ellie Wittimer lives with her dead father’s second wife, Catherine, and Catherine’s two daughters, Cal and Chloe. These three mock Ellie for expecting that she could ever make anything of herself. While she works on a fast food van, coming home to cook their meals, they socialise at an upmarket Country Club where the girls play tennis in the hope of gaining college entry. They encourage their friends to join them in putting their step-sister down.

Ellie has been miserable since her parents died. She cherishes the fond memories she retains of watching every episode of Starfield, a classic sci-fi series, over and over again with her dad, Robin, and then writing related fanfiction for him to read. Robin Wittimer founded the ExcelsiCon, an annual sci-fi event still held in LA. Ellie’s parents would go each year, cosplaying as Prince Carmindor and Princess Amara from the Starfield series, taking young Ellie along to soak up the atmosphere.

There is to be a reboot of Starfield and Ellie is wary of what will be done to something so important to her and other cult followers. When she hears that teen hearthrob, Darien Freeman, is to be cast as Carmindor she is horrified, unaware that he too is an informed and passionate fan. She writes cuttingly of him on her blog, which suddenly gains an increase in readership.

The story alternates between Darien’s story and Ellie’s. As part of his promotion for the Starfield film Darien will be required to attend ExcelsiCon and judge the cosplay competition. In an attempt to get out of this role, in which he would have to stick to his professional brand, he tries to contact the organisor. He ends up texting Ellie who still uses her Dad’s old phone. Without knowing who the other is they are drawn to each other. Communications continue, offering an escape from their unsatisfactory lives.

When Ellie decides to go behind her step-mother’s back and enter the cosplay competition she hopes to meet this unknown boy with whom she now feels such an affinity. Her carefully laid plans hit problems when Cal and Chloe decide to attend ExcelsiCon too.

I was surprised at how well this cast of characters fitted with the traditional story. Despite knowing what must happen the author creates tension and emotion as both Ellie and Darien push back against parental binds. The rarefied world of celebrities and their fans of fame are well evoked alongside the escapist geeky world in which Ellie resides.

An enjoyable romp that remained engaging and entertaining throughout. I pondered the issues raised of family loyalties given the modern, western world’s often complex households. The importance of standing up for kindness and friendship offer lessons all would benefit from learning.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk Books. 

Book Review: Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods

warrenwhisperingwoods

Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods is the second book in a series of fantasy adventure stories aimed at middle grade children (ages 8-12). It is a delight for any age to read. Written by Tania Del Rio and illustrated by Will Staehle, it mixes an almost comic book style presentation with double column text. The book is a near square shape with an eye-catching, gothic design – truly, the aesthetics deserve appreciation.

The story told is a deliciously dark take on old style fairy stories. It features a small and somewhat ugly, twelve year old hero determined to do his forebears proud. There are wicked witches, talking trees, a snake oil salesman and loyal friends with intriguing powers. Warren must solve riddles, decipher codes, and save the lives of monsters who threaten to cook him over an open fire. All the while he is trying to ensure that his beloved inheritance, the Warren Hotel, survives that he may humbly serve its guests as did the twelve Warrens before him.

warren-final-cover-web   warrenhotel

The first book in the series, Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye, ended with the discovery that, amongst the many secrets hidden within the run-down and ominous looking hotel, were a set of mechanical legs which enabled it to, quite literally, rise up and walk away. The sequel opens with the hotel restored to its former glory, travelling around the land of Fauntleroy filled with delighted guests – until a malfunction causes it to trip and fall over. Disgruntled and dismissive of apologies, the guests demand refunds and abandon the now sideways building. When Warren goes in search of a potion to put right the controls, the hotel is hijacked by a doppelganger intent on delivering it to a powerful witch who has offered a reward to anyone who brings it to her lair – a mile wide crater known as the Black Caldera.

As the hotel marches through the dangerous Malwoods towards the Dark Queen, Warren determines to follow it on foot. He discovers that his hotel is not the only thing Her Royal Darkness wishes to control. To thwart her wicked plans he must face every danger lurking within the shadows of the mysteriously damaged wood. There are bats and snakes, whisperings in a forgotten language, and hungry creatures who must kill to survive. The wood is home to witches intent on freeing their peers, captured by Warren’s friends and hidden within the travelling hotel.

The book is due for release in the spring of 2017 so my copy was an early proof with the artwork representative but incomplete. Nevertheless, it is clear that this is going to be a stunning addition to any imaginative child’s library. The humour and play on words adds to the enjoyment for all ages. If you are a fan of Tim Burton’s films, or of the Unfortunate Events series of books, you should seek out these stories.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk,

Book Review: Wonder Women

wonderwomen

“There are so many attitudes that need to be adjusted, so many biases that need to be addressed”

Wonder Women, by Sam Maggs, is not the book for anyone who believes that a successful woman is one who is slim, beautiful, amenable and capable of snagging a husband. Successful women, like successful men, are individuals who achieve things for themselves, and this book introduces the reader to dozens of ladies whose work added significantly to their area of expertise. They were innovators, inventors and trailblazers despite the ire they encountered from the patriarchal system. Naturally, many of them were denied credit for their work. History grants accolades to straight, white men as if they are the only people born with brains and the ability to use them. As is demonstrated within these pages, that ability was often lacking when it came to dealing with the opposite sex.

The book is divided into chapters introducing the accomplishments of women of Science, Medicine, Espionage, Innovation and Adventure. Within each chapter, five women are profiled followed by a couple of paragraphs on seven more. Each chapter is rounded off with a Q&A from a current expert in the area discussing their experiences as a women working in a male dominated field.

To achieve their aims, women often had to use subterfuge. Sisters worked with their brothers, wives with husbands, professors with lesser qualified male colleagues. Ideas were willingly shared for scientific advancement leading to men claiming credit for discoveries. Papers by women detailing the exact same research and results, sometimes published years before, were ignored.

“I’m not surprised at what I’ve done. I’m only sorry I couldn’t have had as good a chance as a boy, and have been put to my trade regularly”

Men in every time, place and discipline underestimated their female colleague’s skills. In one example, a morse code operative training for a new role was magnanimously offered a booklet by her superior, that some of his boys had found helpful, as she may need its advice to proceed. He was unaware that she had written it.

I most enjoyed the chapters on areas where I have a personal interest – Science and Medicine. In Espionage and Adventure some of the women came across as morally suspect, although being nice has never been a prerequisite for achievement. There are plenty of men lauded for their contribution to the advancement of learning who may not have made the best of friends.

One statistic that I noted was that, of the 5 million US patents granted since 1790, only 5% have a women’s name on them. A sizeable number of the 95% resemble inventions conceived and developed by women that were rejected as the patent office could not believe a women capable. Expensive court cases proved that accepted ideas had been copied and stolen by male acquaintances. Many patent requests avoided mentioning gender to circumvent the ingrained belief in a women’s lack of ability.

Determined women created their own opportunities. Some disguised themselves as men, others travelled abroad to gain the training denied them at home. One women who persuaded a college to allow her to attend seminars was required to sit behind a screen lest her presence upset the roomful of men, poor lambs.

The writing is light-hearted and brisk but carries a serious message. It offers a reminder that delicate little lady brains simply need the education and experiences routinely afforded to men in order to equally achieve. Perhaps at some level men are aware of this, and that is what they fear.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Book Review: Cat Castles

catcastles

Cat Castles, by Carin Oliver, is a DIY construction guide that will enable crafty cat owners to transform their cardboard boxes into fun, feline hangouts and hideouts. There are instructions for creating twenty different structures, including various styles of housing, forms of transport and scratching posts. Each project is preceded by a list of required equipment – all inexpensive and readily available. As well as providing boxes for cats to occupy the finished creations offer a plethora of photo opportunities.

In the interests of full disclosure I must now admit to being neither crafty nor a cat owner. My knowledge of the desire our feline friends have to climb inside a cardboard box comes from the photos friends post on social media. Which is why I believe this could be such an entertaining book.

Would you prefer a photo of a cat in a plain box or in their personally customised airplane, train or castle? These structures require simple skills and a little time to make but the homemade habitats are sure to provide a talking point. Your cat may not condescend to show a full appreciation of the efforts expended on their behalf, but my understanding is that this is par for the course where these nobel creatures are concerned.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk Books.