My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix

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I can remember watching The Exorcist with my dad one afternoon when I was nine. It scared the living freak out of me, even though I played it cool (while hiding in the crook of his massive arm). But even though it terrified me, that story has always stuck with me. While it is not the same as the original 1973 Exorcist, starring Linda Blair, Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism is one of those books that transfixes readers. It grabs hold of them (perhaps like the demon who takes over Gretchen’s body?) and refuses to let you set it down until you are finished. (Or is it finished with you?) Full of fun, 80’s nostalgia and a compelling narrative about female relationships, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is the perfect summer read for those who want to laugh and scream at the same time.

Campy, 80’s Awesomeness

Reading My Best Friend’s Exoricism felt a little bit like watching Cabin in the Woods, which is a campy, self-aware narrative that pokes fun at the horror genre in many delightful ways. What I loved about this book, was that not only was it fast-paced, but it also set a light-hearted tone for readers with 80’s song titles as chapter titles. Setting the story in the 80’s made it seem like one of those old, slightly goofy 80’s horror movies, which I loved. And can we just talk about that gorgeous, VHS reminiscent cover that Quirk Books has going on? It’s delightful.

A Clever Framework

I’m always a sucker for anything that harkens back to the 80’s, but what really possessed me to keep on reading was the compelling narrative about female relationships that Hendrix situates within his campy, 80’s horror story. On the outside, it’s a story about a girl who gets possessed by a demon and does a lot of very gross, disturbing stuff to her best friends and her family. On another level, Hendrix touches on issues of sexual assault and male aggression without ever dropping a (delightful 80’s beat). I loved that the plot hinged on girlfriends standing up for each other despite the horrific events that happen. Even though demonic possession is (hopefully?!?) in the realm of fiction, the heartbeat of this narrative felt authentic.

Whether or not you love to be freaked out, this spooky book has good bones and a terrifically fast-paced plot. Read this book; you won’t regret it the way Gretchen regrets running off into the woods…

 

 

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the witch doesn’t burn in this one, by amanda lovelace

 

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First, let’s get something straight. I am a feminist. I’ve read Bell Hooks and I have handed out enough copies of We Should All Be Feminists to buy Chimamanda Ngozi at least a nice little trip. I teach my four-year-old son that boys and girls are equal. When someone argues that feminism is irrelevant or based on a man-hating female group, I am the first to come to the defence of feminism. Furthermore, I think that the #MeToo movement is extremely important, as is the ability for women who are survivors of assault and rape to be able to speak up, be angry and be heard.

However, Amanda Lovelace’s poems in the witch doesn’t burn in this one fell flat on me.   I do think that Lovelace is saying important things, but I felt at times that they were ideas that have already been expressed in other narratives. I grew up in the 80’s reading stories about girls who rescue themselves, like  The Paper Bag Princess  , Princess Smarty Pants and  Tamora Pierce’s many stories about lady knights.  I read Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and felt suitably bad for the witch who in recent years has found a place in feminist discourse. (My favourite representation of a feminist discourse situated around witches is Amy McKay’s The Witches of New York). Perhaps I was not the intended target.

Keep in mind that I have no desire to denigrate the empowerment of others, but I’m going to be a little bit honest here. While trying to engage with the spirit of Lovelace’s narrative, I decided to write out my review in the poetic style found within the pages of the book:

 

my mind was not

blown wide

o

p

e

n

by this book.

sadly, my heart did not ignite

with feminist fury.

these are lines

that i have already read.

(maybe i am just one of the lucky ones)

an important message?

absolutely.

i am sure

it came

from a genuine place.

an engaging, original narrative structure?

nope. 

sorry, amanda lovelace. 

 

 

The Favourite Sister, by Jessica Knoll

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I first heard about this book while completing (procrastinating on finishing) an assignment for my publishing program. I’m a sucker for any book that involves reality TV, but when you add in a good mystery, I was hooked!

The Favorite Sister  by New York-Times Best-Selling author Jessica Knoll, follows five successful women who star on a reality TV series called Goal Diggers. The show chronicles the lives and successes of Brett, Kelly, Stephanie, Lauren and Jen. It’s supposed to be about uplifting and supporting women in their successes, but nobody expects the season to end in murder…

A Fabulous Murder Mystery

The Favorite Sister snagged me right from the first page when I read Kelly’s admission that Brett, her sister and one of the characters that we come to know and love throughout the course of the narrative, will die at the end of the book. While sometimes I find that this convention can backfire, finding out that someone will die in the first paragraph of a story only served to pique my interest, maybe because Kelly, Brett’s sister, also admits that it is her fault. Is Kelly the killer? How does it happen? 

Wouldn’t you like to know?

An Excellent Narrative Framework

Fabulous hook aside, what kept me reading was the smart discussion around so many different feminist issues. Sure, it was fascinating to read about the tricks of the Reality TV trade, such as uncorking bottles of wine so that the actors can’t tell how much alcohol they are consuming… Or texting actors with prompts to make on-screen discussions more juicy… (Apparently all true!) …What I liked the most was the narrative framework that Knoll builds around her juicy reality-tv mystery.

Framing the mystery around the discussion of successful women and how they are often put in positions where they must be fiercely competitive and applauded for cattiness on and off television was a clever way to open up readers to an important discussion without getting too heavy-handed.

Real Women, Real Relationships

Despite the sometimes serious ideas that Knoll puts forth, I think that her narrative never gets weighed down because her characters feel like real women and their backstories, woven expertly into the high-powered plot are interesting to read about. Sure, Kelly has issues with Brett, who skyrocketed to fame and left her in the dust, but it is clear that despite their frequent fights, she loves her sister. Hearing from several female narrators, all with different life-perspectives made for excellent reading. Even better, as certain truths come out about the women on Goal Diggers and we discover more and more about their own histories, it feels in part like unraveling another dimension of the mystery.

Jessica Knoll writes about seduction in The Favorite Sister when she says:

“Isn’t that the secret sauce of seduction? First the snare of mystery, then the distinctly female instinct to rehabilitate.”

That is what The Favourite Sister does–it seduces the reader with a fantastic mystery, while subtly working to rehabilitate common ideas about feminism.

 

What are your favourite reality TV themed or girl-power books? Let me know in the comments below!

Educated, by Tara Westover

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“This is not a story about being Mormon,” writes New York Times Bestselling author Tara Westover, at the start of Educated, a book that has been compared to narratives about cults. I’ll admit that I was intrigued initially, based on this description, but I was quickly won over by Westover’s candid and heartfelt account of her experience growing up in the mountains as part of a fundamentalist Mormon family. Readers who love a good, gritty memoir packed with excitement and a narrator that you can’t help but root for will love Educated.

Family Values

There were many elements of Tara Westover’s life that shocked and surprised me, to the point that I couldn’t set down the book, because I just had to know what would happen. The many visceral descriptions of abuse and other frightening moments in Westover’s life were fascinating to read about, but what stuck out as the most dynamic parts of the story were not her “escape” into more “mainstream” culture, but the relationships that she had with her family.

Even though Westover lives through some truly terrible moments at the hands of her older brother Shawn and her bipolar father, the view that she creates of her family feels balanced. No one is ever quite a villain in this piece, which makes them all the more endearing to read about. I think it is because she includes such tender, honest moments between these characters that they are made human in the readers’ eyes. Because I felt that Westover loved her family despite their flaws, I found myself loving them too.

A College Narrative with a Twist

Maybe it is because I went on to post-secondary education that I was attracted to the descriptions of Tara at College, but I liked reading about her experiences there. This section of the book had some particularly excellent tension, as I was constantly wondering how she would pass courses that required knowledge Tara did not have based on her lack of a high school education, or how she would pay for another semester when she was too broke to eat.

Even more fascinating was Tara’s point of view as a strict Mormon living for the first time with “gentiles.” It was a unique perspective to view and I found that while the earlier scenes featuring her family (and the many times that Tara was put in dangerous situations), this section had its own revelations that kept me turning the pages. I loved reading about her gentile roommates, who had to remind her to wash her hands, or the moment in a lecture where she didn’t know who Hitler was. Reading this section gave me a clearer sense of Westover’s struggle.

Read This Book

Deeply moving, raw and wild like the mountain that she hails from, Tara Westover’s Educated is a narrative that you won’t want to miss. I may have come for the sensational story about escape from a survivalist family, but I found that I never wanted to leave.

Have you read Educated yet? Feel free to share in the comments what you liked about it!

 

 

*Thanks to Netgalley for providing this Advanced Readers Copy!

Prince in Disguise, by Stephanie Kate Strohm

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With the royal wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry about to become a reality, I’ve rediscovered my love of all things royal–especially when it comes to reading. I devoured The Royal WeI inhaled My Lady Jane and Kiara Cass’ Selection series too. And of course I ate up every last Princess Diaries book that there was. I might pretend like I’m a girl who cares little about girly things, but give me a story about royalty and I can’t ignore it. So when I got the chance to read Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm, I snapped it up faster than you can say “the Queen’s corgis are darn cute.”

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Like The Royal WePrince in Disguise is a light-hearted romance, with the exception being that it is a YA title. Dylan, the non-girly, “ordinary” sister of Dusty, who is marrying a Scottish “laird-to-be” on a reality TV show called Prince in Disguise, Dylan is dragged off to Scotland too for “the wedding of the year.” Although she is in no way excited about this trip, Dylan ends up meeting a cute, funny groomsman named Jamie who might just be more than he appears…

Reality Doesn’t Always Bite

I’ll admit that like the Selection series, I was hooked by the reality TV angle. Even though I’ll deny it forever, watching The Bachelor is a guilty pleasure of mine and this book fit right into that niche. I think it’s the “classic pretty girl who thinks she is ugly finds unwanted fame + handsome dork that draws me in every time. In Prince in Disguise, it was exciting to follow Dylan as she and Jamie tried to escape the cameramen that followed them relentlessly while their romance slowly unfolded.

Royal is Always In

Let’s be honest here. Attractive, available Princes are always in season. Am I right? Although it isn’t quite so obvious to Dylan that Jamie is a Prince as it is for the reader, it was fun watching her get to know him (while also imagining what it would be like to get to know a Prince a little better). While the snappy prose and fast-paced dialogue made Prince in Disguise a quick and enjoyable read, the plot was also well-done. It didn’t matter that I knew Jamie was a Prince right away, because it was so entertaining to see Dylan fumble through their encounters. In fact, I think it made it funnier, because she was so unaware of her real situation (and also a little bit sweeter when she learned the truth about Jamie).

The Final Word

We declare Prince in Disguise to be fun, fresh and an excellent way to satisfy all of your Royal cravings. If you’re looking for something to fill that Royal Wedding void once the Prince Harry/Meghan Markle wedding is over, pick up a copy of Prince in Disguise and you won’t be disappointed.

The Girl With all of the Gifts, by M.R. Carey

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“The Girl With all the Gifts” was an excellent read for many reasons. It was tense, action-packed and well-imagined. While it isn’t the first zombie book to employ the idea of a sentient and not-so-flesh-hungry zombie (i.e. Warm Bodies), it was a compelling read. It was also a heartbreaking examination of what it means to be human, or not-quite human, at least.

For the Greater Good

“The Girl With all of the Gifts” poses an interesting question: what constitutes humanity? Melanie, a zombie kid who can think and talk like the rest of us, struggles with this idea a lot in the book. Part horror narrative, part coming of age story, Melanie’s story is captivating because we follow her growth as she comes to understand who she is and what her role will be in the new post-apocalyptic London.

Apart from the engrossing journey of Melanie and a group of humans from the base where she was kept, M.R. Carey plays with some fascinating concepts. We hear stories about the bombing of “hungry infested zones,” where there are lots of civilian casualties among many other violent, ugly things that echo what has been done in the name of peace and progress. That Melanie, a zombie, can learn to suppress her violent urges and yet Dr. Caroline Caldwell makes a career of dissecting zombie children in the name of science was one particularly evocative juxtaposition.

The New American (British?) Dream

The zombie narrative is not a new idea, although there has been several iterations of zombies laying siege to continents to suggest that the trend has captivated the minds of readers everywhere. Even the CDC has a section of their website for “zombie preparedness!”

Professor Mark Anderson of University of Regina, who is aptly named “The Zombie Prof” suggests that our fascination with the undead comes from a fear of invasion, but also for a desire to rebuild and create a new “American” dream. That the notion of starting over in a world where work is permanently cancelled and there are no mortgage payments seems to be part of the twisted post-apocalyptic fantasy. After reading “The Girl With all of the Gifts,” I’d have to agree. While there is no specific moment in this book where a “takeover” occurs, we are left with Melanie and Ms. Justineau, her favourite teacher. We are given the impression that there is hope, but perhaps not the same kind of hope we had imagined in a world free of zombie pathogens.

The Final Verdict

This book was compulsively readable. Heartbreaking. One of the coolest zombie narratives I’ve ever read. What better way is there to start off the holiday season than to read a zombie book that is both horrifying and oddly heartwarming.

Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin

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At first glance, Young Jane Young is about scandal, which I happen to like. Quirky, offbeat and often hilarious, the many narrators of “Jane’s” tale are both original and highly entertaining. When you begin to peel back the layers of this complicated and (at times) emotionally eviscerating tale of Aviva Grossman and the people who orbit around her life, it becomes clear that at its heart, Young Jane Young is an exploration of the politics of relationships.

Marriage, She Wrote

Throughout this book, there were several moments where women of all ages were put in submissive positions, or were in some way forced to escape from uncomfortable situations. Aviva’s mother takes us through the trials and tribulations of dating as an older woman, Franny is constantly subdued by her husband and Aviva herself is thrown into the middle of a controversy when she has an affair with a married congressman.

What I found most interesting about this narrative thread was the constant return to the idea of marital fidelity and the role of the women involved. In several of the interconnected storylines, there are married men who are  unfaithful, but each time, it is always the woman who is judged. This is made particularly evident with Aviva’s Grossman, who we learn from the beginning that she has changed her name just to escape the scandal. I think that Gabrielle Zevin creates a lot of strong moments within her narrative that will make readers think more deeply about relationship inequalities and in particular, slut shaming.

A Complicated Kindess

Along with the hardships such as slut shaming that many of the female characters face, Young Jane Young has a lot of funny, sweet moments that kept me reading late into the night. I loved Aviva’s relationship with her daughter, Ruby and their closeness. Although I felt that Ruby’s section of narrative felt disconnected from the other non-epistolary parts, her story was necessary (and completely devastating). What I loved the most about these female narratives was that the characters felt honest and their relationships, though flawed, were enjoyable to follow. I felt like nothing was simple and that made it all the more fascinating to read.

An Intelligent, Multi-layered Narrative

Read this book if you love quick-paced books with lots of narrative layers. Each time I picked up this book, I felt like I was discovering new elements to the story that only deepened my fascination with the characters and their ongoing plights. Zevin even makes references to The Scarlet Letter and Robert McNamera’s “mutually assured destruction,” which were clever details that added to the overarching ideas.

I’m glad that I was given an Advanced Reader Copy of Young Jane Young, because it is an intelligent and funny read that I feel is particularly relevant right now with all of the scandals that are going on in Hollywood right now. Barring that, it’s an exceptionally written story that was a lot of fun to read.