Book Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

My Best Friends ExorcismThis goofy, spooky, surprisingly touching novel by the author of the amazing Horrorstör (reviewed here; you know, the book that looks like an Ikea catalog!) hit just the right spot for me this week. It’s an entertaining, light read that also contains moments of horror, deeply icky things, and a descent into either madness or evil, depending on how you look at it.

The inside covers and pages at front and back mimic a high school yearbook, and it’s pretty hilarious. We see a combination of silly in-jokes, clueless teacher signatures, and even the standard, meaningless “have a great summer!”.

MBFE takes place in the 1980s, and takes full advantage of the music and clothing to create an air of nostalgia that’s fun and a bit cringe-worthy. E.T. posters and roller rinks and Merit Menthols abound. Kids worry about getting VD, and Geraldo Rivera airs an explosive exposé of satanism.

The best friends of the title are Abby and Gretchen. Abby is from a poor family, but her BFFs are part of the old-money Charleston elite. They attend a ritzy private school (Abby on scholarship), where the student handbook is the Bible. An upright life is expected, although money buys a certain amount of latitude for the more privileged students.

imageAbby and Gretchen have been best friends since fourth grade, and their closest circle includes two more rich girls, Margaret and Glee. They’re all spoiled and lazy (except Abby, who works non-stop to afford the things she can’t expect from her do-nothing parents), and one bored summer evening, something goes wrong. After taking an exploratory hit of acid (which does nothing for any of the girls), Gretchen decides to skinny deep in the river… and disappears into the woods, only to be found the next morning, naked, covered with mud, and offering no explanation for what’s happened.

imageThings get weird. Gretchen withdraws into herself. She stops bathing and changing her clothes. She shuts out her friends and begins to alienate everyone. Abby is the only one who refuses to be pushed away, but when she tried to get help for Gretchen, she ends up shunned herself. And things go from bad to worse, as the people around Gretchen begin to have weird and dangerous and scary developments in their lives.

Author Grady Hendrix nails the gross and disturbing bits, from disgusting smells to suicidal flocks of birds to horrible skin outbreaks. I suppose for teen girls, bad acne could be supposed to be demonic! But beneath the horror elements, there’s also a compelling story about friendship and devotion, and the lengths to which best friends will go to save one another.

The 80s vibe is pitch-perfect, with extra points for excellent use of the Go-Gos and Phil Collins lyrics.

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I read My Best Friend’s Exorcism all in one day, and really just had a great time with it. The grosser, ickier moments are balanced out by Abby’s internal strength and resourcefulness, her dedication to saving Gretchen, and the spot-on depiction of high school cruelty and power plays. The Charleston setting is a nice plus too.

This is a horror spoof, and there’s plenty of humor, but really — take me seriously when I say that if you tend to be squeamish about things like tapeworms, cadaver labs, and horrible skin conditions, you might want to skip this one. But, if you enjoy the horror genre and don’t mind when things get squicky for the sake of a good story, check it out!

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The details:

Title: My Best Friend’s Exorcism
Author: Grady Hendrix
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication date: May 17, 2016
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of Quirk Books

Book Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Book Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell The Wolves I’m Home, a first novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, defeated my best efforts to remain stoically dry-eyed while reading. What I expected to be a not-so-extraordinary family drama surprised me with its honest, emotional look at love and loss… and yes, there were tears.

Set in Manhattan and Westchester, New York in the mid-1980s, Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a look at one eventful spring in the life of 14-year-old June Elbus. As the book opens, June’s beloved uncle Finn has just died, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. Finn was not just June’s uncle, however; he was her godfather, her inspiration, and her first true love. Finn, a gifted artist, introduced June to everything she considers beautiful in her life — Mozart’s Requiem, visits to the Cloisters, an appreciation for the fine details all around her. June believes that the bonds between her and Finn are all-encompassing, but in the weeks following Finn’s death, June begins to realize that Finn had an entire life that she knew nothing about, and is forced to reexamine her relationship with Finn and its central role in her life.

As June reels through previously unimagined depths of loss, she is contacted by a stranger, Toby, who reveals himself to have had a key role in Finn’s life. Finn, before his death, left secret messages asking June to take care of Toby and Toby to take care of June, and as they try to honor Finn’s wishes, they find themselves connecting through shared bonds of loss, love and jealousy. June is shattered to realize how much she didn’t know about her uncle, as Toby struggles to let her in and to give dignity to June’s adolescent broken heart. As June mourns Finn and all she thinks she has lost, her older sister Greta acts out in her own brand of grief and loneliness in a desperate attempt to be understood and to reforge a connection before it’s too late.

The author does a wonderful job of capturing a particular time and place: New York, in the first throes of fear and ignorance about AIDS. Glancing references are made to Finn’s “special friend”, whom June’s parents consider a murderer — blaming him for Finn’s illness and death — and who is ostracized and banned from the funeral. June worries about catching AIDS from a kiss under the mistletoe; June’s sister is yelled at by their mother for using Finn’s chapstick. Other small details of life in the 80s bring the time to life: June wears her Gunne Sax dress in a desperate effort to isolate herself from the real world, as she hides out alone in the woods behind the school and pretends to live in the Middle Ages she so adores. Finn gives June cassette tapes of favorite music; June’s parents listen only to Greatest Hits albums (“it was like the thought of getting even one bum track was too much for them to handle”), and June has a fondness for “99 Luftballons” (the German version — much cooler sounding). June wears Bonne Belle lip gloss, and Greta has half of a “best friends” necklace, the other half of which some erstwhile best friend has long since discarded. It’s these small details and more which lend this book such a sense of nostalgic poignancy. At the same time, this coming-of-age story feels like it could be the story of any girl — or rather, every girl — growing up, seeing the human flaws in her parents, realizing that long-held truths may be illusions, finding and losing love, and coming to terms with a picture of one’s inner self which isn’t always so pretty.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a quiet, lovely book, a look backward that feels current and relevant, and a sad, sweet story of love and friendship. I’m so glad to have read it, and recommend it highly.