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: Spellslinger

Spellslinger, by Sebastien de Castell, is the first book in a proposed fantasy series aimed at young adults. Its protagonist is fifteen year old Kellen, an initiate in a land where those who can pass four tests before their sixteenth birthday become powerful magicians. Kellen is from a respected family but his magical abilities are weak. He faces the prospect of a life of servitude if he fails the tests.

The story opens with a duel and the arrival of a stranger who saves Kellen’s life. Introducing herself as Ferius Parfax she shows little respect for the Mage’s ways. When Kellen’s family are ambushed as they take him home to recover from his ordeal she once again steps in to help, thereby joining them as a target for a rival family.

Such rivalry is supposedly banned but with the death of the clan prince there is a power vacuum that both families intend to fill. Kellen’s actions risk dishonouring his parents but others are taking an interest in the attention Ferius continues to pay him. The dowager magus issues a summons and requests he find out more about this enigmatic stranger in order to report back. Kellen is uncomfortable with his role as a spy but is intrigued by the dowager and her hermit like existence within the opulence of the magnificent palace.

In many ways this is a standard story of an arrogant, ruling elite and the behaviour their young people will accept as normal, and indeed aspire to, having been raised to think of themselves in a certain way. Kellen begins to question the supposed truths he has been fed, but perhaps only because his own gilded future is threatened by his lack of magical ability. His younger sister is the family protégé, the apple of his parents’ eye. Kellen is appalled to discover why he is more of a worry to them than he ever realised.

The self-importance of the mages and their sanctioned brutality in order to maintain their privilege may be universal, but the twists and turns of this story keep the reader engaged. The writing is taut with the darkness of the plot relieved by humour. The squirrel cats are a fabulous creation.

History will always be manipulated by the victors. It is the gradual reveal of truth within this tale, complete with multi faceted intrigue and nuance, which provide wider perspective and a story worth reading. This is an enjoyable adventure with a satisfying denouement that offers an introduction to a fantasy world that the author may now develop as the series progresses. I look forward to discovering where Kellen goes next.

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

Book Review: Sleeper

Sleeper, by JD Fennell, is the first book in a proposed action adventure trilogy aimed at young adults. It introduces the reader to sixteen year old Will Starling who has been training since the age of twelve with the agents of VIPER. This ruthless organisation has military links around the world, access to advanced weapons technology, and is intent on acquiring power and wealth for its elusive puppet masters.

When the story opens it is 1941 and England is at war. Will is near Hastings on the mission for which he has been groomed. He is to infiltrate a country house and steal a notebook containing codes and instructions. He has been ordered to kill anyone who gets in his way. Will is backed up by other VIPER agents who are unaware that the teenager has been duping them. Will intends to keep the notebook and hand it on to others equally keen on gaining control of the secrets held within.

A running battle ensues and Will ends up half drowned in the sea. He is rescued by a passing fisherman but has no memory of who he is or why he was being pursued. The notebook he finds in his blazer pocket is his only clue. He sets out to uncover his past, but must first escape killers who are hot on his tail.

Will’s combat skills are impressive and he discovers that he is not the only teenager who has been trained in this way. With the help of associates he meets at a school for underage spies he starts to unravel the secrets of the notebook. To save London he must find the Stones of Fire before VIPER catches and defeats him. A ruthless psychopath known as The Pastor is also intent on recovering the notebook, and Will is not the only double agent.

The action is relentless and the death count high with short chapters and concise, fluent narrative keeping the reader engaged. I became a little frustrated at Will’s reluctance to kill but this adds to the character’s ambiguity which I hope to see developed further in subsequent instalments. Although aimed at young adults, who will likely enjoy the vicarious thrill of out-witting evil adults and solving ancient puzzles, it is an entertaining adventure for any age.

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

Book Review: Traction City / The Teacher’s Tales of Terror

2017 is the first year since I became aware of the event’s existence that my children did not return from school on World Book Day eagerly clutching either their choice of book or a voucher to be exchanged at a bookshop. My youngest is now in sixth form and is presumably no longer a part of the target demographic.

Recently, however, he has urged me to read a series of books that the rest of my family have already enjoyed – the Predator Cities Quartet by Philip Reeve. Having posted the reviews for these over the past few weeks I decided to pick up an associated, former World Book Day publication to see how it slotted into the fantasy world.

Traction City is a short story set in a time shortly before the first book in the quartet. London is on the move and a young boy, Smiff, is creeping through the city’s bowels searching for dropped or discarded items that may be saleable. Instead he finds a dead body. Smiff then witnesses a violent attack on the outlaw men who roam this abandoned area. A tall, human like figure with glowing green eyes allows the boy to escape. Despite his aversion to the police, a terrified Smiff reports what he has seen. He finds a sympathetic ear in Sergeant Anders.

Anders rarely has much to do during his shifts at the lower level police station where he was assigned when his home town was eaten by London. This evening, however, he has a prisoner to process. A young girl has flown in and been apprehended carrying a small amount of explosive. Her shabby airship is named the Jenny Haniver.

There follows a chase, the discovery of body parts, and a run-in with the Guild of Engineers. As ever in this series, where a potential weapon exists, all sides vie to harness its power for their cause, whatever the cost to the wider population.

This was an interesting add-on but was not as compelling as the excellent quartet. I will now need to decide if I wish to read the prequel trilogy starting with Fever Crumb. These are set around the time cities first started to move.

As with many of the World Book Day offerings, a second story is included on the flip side of the book. In this case it is an addition to Chris Priestley’s chilling Tales of Terror, not a series I am familiar with.

The Teacher’s Tales of Terror is appropriately set in a school on World Book Day. A supply teacher has been called in to cover for an ill colleague. The head teacher is pleased to note that Mr Munro, the rather austere looking gentleman who presents himself for this role, has got into the spirit of things and dressed for the chosen theme, celebrating a Victorian heritage.

Mr Munro soon takes control of his rather unruly class and informs them that his lesson will be to read them some stories. What follows are a series of deliciously creepy tales. These are short and spine tingling but not too scary.

The denouement was unexpected and added an extra dimension to the overall story arc. This was an engaging, nicely constructed, and satisfying read.

Book Review: A Darkling Plain

A Darkling Plain, by Philip Reeve, brings to a conclusion the author’s Predator Cities Quartet, and what a conclusion it is. Like the earlier books in the series it is filled with action and adventure, humour, a touch of romance, and some difficult truths about the predilections of mankind. All this is set on a future earth, ravaged by a Sixty-Minute War which caused massive geological upheaval and changed the manner in which survivors may live.

When the story opens, Theo has returned to his family in Zagwa but cannot forget the kiss he shared with Wren. Tom is travelling the Bird Roads with his daughter, both keeping busy in their attempts to put behind them their break from Hester. At a trading post Tom spots a face he recognises from his time in London where he thought everyone had been killed by Medusa. With his health deteriorating Tom mulls the possibility of revisiting the wreck of his old home city.

The Green Swarm and the Traction Cities have embarked on an uneasy truce but there are many on both sides who are unhappy with this peaceful acceptance of alternative ways of life they have been raised to regard as detestable. Rogue elements are determined to quash their enemies by whatever means necessary. When Tom and Wren are chartered to take a wealthy young mayor-in-waiting, Wolf, on a reconnaisance flight to what is left of old London, they get caught up in violent intrigues where trust is scarce.

Hester has been reunited with Stalker Shrike and is travelling on a sandship, intent on not allowing herself to care for anyone again. When she encounters captive slaves, recognising them from her previous life, she becomes embroiled in rivalries from both sides of the war.

Fishcake has done what he can to repair Stalker Fang who is eager to return to Batmunkh Gompa that she may avenge all who have failed her and, alone, turn the world green. Despite her deadly focus, she becomes the closest thing the abandoned young Lost Boy has to a longed for parent.

When a fearsome new weapon starts attacking from the sky, old grievances risk destroying what progress has been made in this violent and increasingly fragile new world. The race is on to prevent mankind’s annihilation.

This is an engaging and fast moving romp through an imaginatively constructed if somewhat violent fantasy world, but I would recommend reading the full series to gain the most from the story told. The quartet is proof, if anyone still needs convincing, that young adult fiction can be enjoyed by competent readers of any age. The final page is as satisfying as any I have read.

My reviews of the previous books in the series may be found by clicking on the titles below.

  1. Mortal Engines
  2. Predator’s Gold
  3. Infernal Devices

 

Book Review: Stanly’s Ghost

“That brief, glowing time when an afternoon spent on the lawn with only a cardboard box and a stick for company was an afternoon well spent. That time which, like all times, you didn’t truly appreciate until you realised it had long passed.

But then there’s new times. And you do those.”

Stanly’s Ghost, by Stefan Mohamed, is the third book in the author’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. I review the first two books here and here. In this final installment the teenage superhero, Stanly Bird, discovers that he has somehow been released from his suspended dreamstate amongst the shimmers who unleashed monsters into his world. Stanly’s awakening is abrupt and confusing, with images imprinting themselves on his memory that he cannot explain. When he returns to London he finds that time has moved on and much has changed.

Stanly’s old nemesis, Freeman, is running what is now known as Angelcorps, working with governments and heads of state to manage the roles empowered individuals can usefully play in a society still being rebuilt after the Collision. Registration and enhanced surveillance have been widely accepted, for the good of the people (of course). What actually happened, and Stanly’s role in this, have been altered in people’s memories. Alongside the myriad of superpowers now being openly wielded, the most pervasive is mind control. Stanly needs to learn quickly if he is to avoid being manipulated. His powers are particularly strong and Angelcorp will only allow him to operate in the public sphere if Freeman retains control.

Like the previous two installments in this series, the writing is witty and candid with many passing references to popular culture. Unlike his friends, Stanly has not aged so is still eighteen years old. He is impulsive, somewhat arrogant and has little understanding of the organisation he is up against. His powers have grown exponentially and he is determined to use them to help his friends. He harbours a desire to be a force for good in the world, a comic book superhero. His problem lies in deciding what good means.

Into this maelstrom of conflicting emotions and risky exposures appears another powerful individual who also wishes to influence Stanly’s behaviour. The Collision proved that alternative worlds exist and he shows Stanly that it is possible to move between them. Stanly has the power to rid his world of a dangerous megalomaniac but he fears what doing so would make him.

Issues are explored with the lightest of touches whilst following Stanly as he flies around London, throwing large objects whilst reading people’s minds and using the force, or whatever it should be called in this tale. The narrative is funny and quick, poignant and honest in its depiction of a teenager trying to retain some control over his life when most of the time he hasn’t a clue what exactly he wants to do or to be.

After the epic battles and revelations I wondered how the author could create a saisfying denouement. He does so with aplomb. There may be no easy answers to the massive questions, nor to those Stanly struggles with on a personal level, but the final page is a perfect fit with all that has gone before.

An adrenaline inducing adventure that never takes itself too seriously. The writing flows and the action is fist-pumpingly good. A must read for anyone who has ever dreamed of having superpowers. Always fun and entertaining, yet it is the originality and depth that truly impressed me.

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

 

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.