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.

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Book Review: Asking For It

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Asking For It, by Louise O’Neill, takes the difficult subject of the alleged rape of a beautiful but drunk teenage girl at a party, and explores society’s reaction when the details are graphically shared in the public domain. It is a challenging read because it tackles so many issues that are rarely discussed between victims and the people they know. The subject may be debated by strangers, but close to home it causes embarrassment and discomfort. Large numbers of women have lived through such experiences but choose not to share, because this is the reaction they expect.

Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful and confident, loved by her family. For as long as she can remember she has been Daddy’s princess. Her mother tells her that with looks like hers she will have the world at her feet and she anticipates this shining future. At school she is surrounded by girls who admire her, whose jealousy she feeds off. Boys cannot help but look her way and she knows she could have any of them. She tests this regularly.

Emma once overheard a boy describe her as boring, a comment which still smarts. When others are lauded for any achievement, attribute or possession, she will quietly disparage. She works hard to appear kinder and more interesting than she feels; what matters is that she is noticed and admired. She is attracted to boys others want.

Emma despises her mother for the way she puts on a front for the neighbours and tries to maintain her aging looks, subduing the fear that they are alike. Mother’s passive criticism of her daughter irritates. Emma requires approbation so hides all traits that she knows would garner disapproval. Her parents believe she is a good girl, raised in a good family, and that she will behave in the way they have programmed her.

The pivotal night is a typical party until Emma loses control. Her friends blame the alcohol and leave her to it, distracted by their own dramas. The next morning Emma cannot remember what happened. Her friends are furious with her for how she behaved but she believes, if she remains strong, all will blow over and she will be forgiven. Then pictures appear on social media.

The fallout is depressingly accurate in its portrayal of how society reacts to allegations of rape. Emma was drunk and dressed in revealing clothes. She led a boy into a bedroom. In many people’s eyes she was asking for it and should not complain, the case should not be brought to court. Boys will be boys, what else did she expect?

Emma’s parents try to be supportive but cannot move beyond their own shattered illusions. They struggle with the concept of having a daughter who does not behave as they were convinced their daughter would. From basking in their child’s reflected glory they must now face a community that is blaming her for ruining the glorious futures of young men from good families such as theirs. Several of their parents were long time friends.

Emma herself has no idea how to cope and cannot talk about how she feels. She is adept at burying her true thoughts deep. All she can see in her head are the photographs. All she can hear are the comments that were posted underneath by those she considered her minions, her friends. This is a child on the cusp of adulthood, a teenager with all the difficulties and peer pressure that entails.

The judgements of others can be devastating, how much more so for a young person whose life revolved around garnering adulation. In the wider public eye she is That Girl about whom everyone now has an opinion. She is surrounded by pity and contempt.

The author wishes this book to trigger wider discussions about consent. Society continues to blame rape victims for not acting in a manner that they can approve rather than blaming the perpetrator for assuming that they have rights over someone else’s body for spurious reasons. Victims are shamed; bringing shame on one’s family is treated harshly. Sexual conquests continue to be admired.

Although written for young adults this is also an important book for parents. Emma’s experiences were harder to deal with because of her parent’s reaction, their palpable disappointment when she did not turn out to be the daughter they wanted.

Ultimately though it is society that needs to change. Sex is not shameful. Those mature enough to indulge should be mature enough to ask for consent. Giving consent is a personal choice, not one that should be frowned upon due to gender. This story raises the issues. Let’s be brave enough to discuss openly and respectfully with all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Annette, whose blog may be found here: Sincerely BookAngels  I am grateful for her generosity is sending it to me.

 

Random Musings: Why I read

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Why do we choose to read books? Perhaps we wish to learn, to gain empathy, to escape. As a reader it is possible to climb inside the pages of a book and imagine ourselves living a different life in a place beyond our dreams. There we may find love, become somebody elses hero, enjoy the adulation that will never be experienced in reality.

I have read that when the ‘Grey’ books were first published they proved particularly popular amongst middle aged women. There was speculation that these readers wished to live out fantasies when their own sexual lives had gone stale. Despite being a member of this demographic the phenomenon is beyond my comprehension. Having watched the film (I have not read the books) I cannot understand why anyone would desire such experiences.

I understand that desires are as individual as each person and would not wish to limit or condemn whatever others choose to read. When I am offered books to review I will always state that I do not enjoy romances. I try to avoid stories which involve a woman requiring a man for fulfilment, or a man using a woman as arm candy and to service his physical cravings.

A romantic plot thread can be written with depth, humour and originality without descending into lengthy detail. As ‘Pride and Prejudice’ demonstrates, suggestion can be a powerful device. My antipathy is not towards the background to a mutual attraction but towards the reason for the intimacy and the way it is described. I have written of my dislike of gratuitous detail before, here.

Yet this was not always how I felt. When I was in my late teens I devoured easy to read romances by the dozen. Through my twenties I read books involving peril and rescue which often ended with the handsome hero taking his beautiful conquest to bed. The stories have not changed but I have. My life experiences have darkened my views and I now look at that couple and extrapolate their future. In my eyes, happy ever after is Icarus before his fall.

If books are an escape from reality then perhaps our choice of book reflects the place to which we each wish to travel in our dreams. Some look for the heady excitement of a new romance. As a mother of teenagers I fantasise about being held in some regard rather than contempt.

I enjoy books involving strong characters who can hold their own against attacks on their being, to read of relationships founded on mutual respect rather than outward beauty. My heroes can stand alone against the world; they do not require another for fulfilment. When their life presents a trial they do not blame others or look to them for a fix. They appreciate their moments of happiness but can move on.

Books offer a window to the world and I choose to avoid voyeurism. I seek out varied settings that I may expand my learning of other cultures, the characters thoughts enabling me to empathise with why people think as they do.

I read more fiction than non fiction because I also wish to be entertained, to immerse myself in a story as if I were there. I rarely travel and have few people interested in conversing with me so perhaps this is my way of experiencing life.

What do you choose to read and why?

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Deep Water

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Deep Water, by Lu Hersey, is a children’s novel (age 12+) set in Cornwall, England. Taking myth, folklore, witchcraft and ancient beliefs as inspiration, it weaves a contemporary tale about a group of teenagers caught up in a legacy of family secrets. Puberty is a time of change. What if that change also involved the mastering of mysterious abilities?

The protagonist, fifteen year old Danni, comes home from school one day to a cold and empty house. When her mother fails to return from work, and has still not appeared by morning, Danni knows that something is wrong. Such a disappearance with no explanation is out of character. Her mother fusses about the smallest of things and would not leave her only child alone for so long without contact.

Danni moves in with her father and starts to uncover clues as to what may have happened. She learns that the town in which she is now living is close to where her mother grew up. Realising that she knows little of her mother’s past she determines to find out more.

Danni encounters people who remember her mother and some of them react to her with hostility. She befriends her father’s assistant, an older teenager named Eliot, and discovers that he too comes from a family with mythical powers. As the town’s history is revealed Danni begins to understand why her mother left. She embraces her newfound knowledge but finds herself in danger. The inexplicable is regarded as a threat by those who seek power and control.

The writing is assured and original. The disconnect between adults and teenagers is well represented as are the relationships between the children. Although the story requires an acceptance of possibilities, it is interesting to reflect on those things in life which are given credence and those which are dismissed. The Christian church may be powerful and have written much of this island’s history, but there have always been other beliefs.

An enjoyable read and one which I would recommend to young teenagers. The what ifs may inspire some pondering.

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

Random Musings: On loving and letting go

Seventeen years ago today I gave birth to my elder son. His birth was a very civilised affair. My labour got going in the morning, not too early, so the neighbour who had offered to take my daughter could be summoned without getting her out of bed. It was the weekend so my husband was available to drive me to the hospital. I was admitted, walked around a little, and then pushed my son out just before lunch with no more histrionics than are absolutely necessary to birth a child. He was a healthy, 8lb boy. Once we were cleaned up there was no reason to stay in the hospital so we went home to introduce him to his sister. That afternoon the football team my husband supported won the FA Cup. It was a good day. In so many people’s eyes that was our family complete; a girl and a boy, less than sixteen months apart in age.

Unlike his sister, my second child was an easy baby to care for. Determined to get it right this time I managed to breast feed him for his first year. He would sleep between feeds, or lie within sight of me without grizzling. He seemed settled and happy. There was no jealousy from my daughter. She took the new addition to our family in her stride.

These two children have always been close. When one wished to try a new sport or club the other would go along too. Thus they played football, learned to ride, became Scouts, joined the hockey club, trained at judo together. They were active, intelligent and eager to learn. Early on they developed a strong sense of fair play and became frustrated at the injustices meted out by the adults charged with their care. School was a trial, not for the work which they found so easy and repetitive it often bored them, but for the culture of favouritism.

I wished for my son to enter school early but was denied. When his teachers complained that he did not concentrate in class I pointed out that he always knew the answers to their questions and perhaps needed to be stretched more. They labelled me a difficult mother. Perhaps I am.

The other mothers regarded my son as undisciplined and blamed me. His energy and constant questions appeared to them as rude, unacceptable behaviour. He would stand up for himself against the bullies, their mothers blaming him for aggression although he never went to far. He bruised egos rather than limbs.

Our family unit folded into itself and I shouldered the criticisms as nagging guilt, sure that I was doing what was right for my children but concerned that society would quash their potential with demands for conformity. We had fun, so much fun, but only when alone.

At four years old my son could swim a length of the pool and ride a two wheeled bike. At eight years old we bought him hiking boots and climbed a mountain. He and his sister would storm ahead, eager to meet the next challenge. My husband took them in hand while I lagged behind with their little brother, just as willing but, due to his lesser age and size, never quite as able.

At some point in his teens my elder son’s intelligence overtook mine. How difficult it must be for a child to discover that a parent is not the font of knowledge they have previously appeared to be. I wonder if he felt tricked.

These days I watch my son through the filter he has erected between us. When he chooses I am allowed a glimpse of his world. I see that he has friends, that school has worked him out and can now offer him the opportunity to learn. At home he teaches himself through the resources available on line.

I remain a disappointment to him. Despite having been accepted into university to study Maths I cannot answer his queries on a subject whose challenges he adores. Despite having worked in the IT industry for a decade I cannot teach him to code. He does not understand why I spend my days as I do when he sees that there is so much to learn. He does not understand that my learning is of a more nuanced nature.

I know that the teenage years can be challenging for both parent and child. I ponder if this is nature’s way of enabling independence, making it easier for both to let go. I recognise that I am lucky in so many ways. My son does not indulge in nefarious activities. He enjoys sports, the company of like-minded friends, academic pursuits.

I miss the regard he once had for me. My sadness is selfish. I want for myself, to be a part of his world. He is doing just fine on his own.

As we celebrate this birthday I remember the little boy who once took me by the hand and showed me his world. I hope that, in time, he will allow me to share in a part of it again.

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Random Musings: The books that defined my teenage years

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It is February which means that #Bookadayuk is back on Twitter after a month long hiatus. Today’s prompt was to name ‘the book that defined my teenage years’. I chose Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ but it took me some time to select this title from the many considered. People change constantly throughout their lives as they are influenced by new experiences but the personal development between twelve and twenty can be particularly radical. As now, books were my companions and my teachers. I was beginning to question everything about my accepted way of living and my choice of reading material reflected the variety of directions explored.

I entered my teenage years an ardent fan of JRR Tolkien. My brother had bought me a copy of ‘The Hobbit’ and my father was reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’ which I picked up when he had finished. I don’t recall ever discussing the book with him but I went on to purchase and read every Tolkien book published. I loved the fact that such a complex world had been created and that I could feel such strong empathy towards those who were different to me.

In school I was required to read the classics which I found dull. I was well into my twenties before I gained any enjoyment from the likes of Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell or the Bronte sisters. The books I read for pleasure at that time included the Poldark series by Winston Graham, the Sherlock Holmes stories, the early works of Jeffery Archer and a large selection of forgettable romances. I bought these latter works at charity shops and left them wherever I happened to be for others to find when I had finished. My sister mocked me, instilling an embarrassment that I should choose to read such books.

I also worked my way through my brother’s and father’s collections of Penguin modern classics. It was amongst these orange and then grey covered gems that I discovered ‘Brave New World’. Once again the author had created a complex world but this one was recognisable. The music that I was listening to was giving me permission to break away from the person that my family wished me to be. ‘Brave New World’ gave me permission to consider the behaviour of the adults around me as flawed.

I remember the disappointment I felt when I realised that my parents were not as awesome as I had previously thought. As a parent of teenagers I have watched as my own children go through this process. Experienced from the other side it is just as difficult to passively accept.

The books I was reading as a teenager opened up so many new possibilities but I had yet to discover the direction that would work for me. I was, of course, strongly influenced by the friends I was hanging out with. I was looking for acceptance, admiration and love. I was mimicking the behaviours of those who seemed to have what I wanted rather than forging my own path.

The bookish discussions that I was having tended towards the pretentious. I would never admit to reading romances yet happily discussed certain literary works despite having not enjoyed them so much. I wonder now how many of us were presenting such affectations.

I came across ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ by Richard Bach at exactly the right time. Although I had not yet worked out what I was comfortable being, this book made it feel good to aspire to more than those around expected of me. I put aside the romances and began my voyage to discover contemporary fiction that challenged the status quo.

I had reached my twenties before I read Iain Banks’ ‘Wasp Factory’, Josephine Hart’s ‘Damage’ and my first Margaret Atwoods but these works represent to me the blossoming of the seeds I sowed when I escaped the shackles I had worn as a teenager trying to be something I was not.

I still choose to be more maverick than romantic, and continue to seek out books that will challenge how I live now.

 

 

Book Review: The Boy Who Loved Rain

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The Boy Who Loved Rain, by Gerard Kelly, is a story about parenting, teenagers and the difficulties inherent in communicating with those we love. When the truth will hurt it can be hard to confront, especially when a lie has been perpetuated for many years.

Fourteen year old Colum suffers from recurring nightmares that he cannot explain. He feels numb, depressed and harbours suicidal thoughts. Despite an apparently loving and happy childhood he now feels alienated from his parents who put his moods and silence down to his age. His father has immersed himself in his work while his mother struggles to cope with their sullen, uncommunicative son. When serious issues at school are brought to her attention she recognises that he needs help but will not defy her husband’s wish to keep things within their church.

The church, religion, is a recurring theme that I felt was overdone. Having established its importance in the lives of several of the characters and the subsequent impact on their decision making I felt that it should have been given less prominence. I am now aware that this book is published by Lion Hudson who are ‘committed to publishing quality literature which is true to the Christian faith’ but I read it unaware of this, regarding it as I would any other work of fiction.

Putting that aside, the depiction of this troubled family was credible and universal. There were interesting issues of nature versus nurture to explore as well as the selective blindness that can occur when parents see their child as all he has been rather than what he is now. The apathy, simmering resentment and truculence of the teenager were well described.

I was less impressed with the subsequent mellowing of the boy as the friend and counsellor gradually uncovered and addressed the issues that were causing so much pain. I felt that, by the end, the teenage character had become a little too much how adults would like children to be. The development of the parents as the story progressed seemed more believable. I would be interested to know if the psychological issues explored had any basis in scientific fact.

The story is nicely written with plenty of food for thought about how we see ourselves and those we are close to. It will perhaps appeal more though to those who choose to live their lives by the tenets of the Christian church to which the key characters ascribe.

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