The Pike Cast & Die Softly

Chatting about the new podcast and a vintage YA book review

3.5/5 Star Review

Christopher Pike and L.J. Smith were my two absolute favorite YA horror writers in the mid-90’s. I couldn’t get enough of them and I waited impatiently for each new book to come out. They are the two authors whose work I have held on to since my middle school days. While I have reread a few of L.J. Smith’s series, I have been wanting to revisit my Pike collection for a long time and kept putting it on the back-burner – until now. Enter The Pike Cast!

The Pike Cast is a brand-new podcast put together by Cooper S. Beckett author of the Prudence Osgood series, Cassie Daley artist and reviewer for Dead Head Reviews and Ladies of Horror Fiction, and Becca reviewer for As Told by Bex and Dead Head Reviews. The Pike Cast premiered on October 1, 2020 with a discussion of Die Softly. Every two weeks the gang will be back to discuss another Pike title! What better time to start rereading my Pike books?! The second episode will feature Whisper of Death.

Bear with me for one more bit of nostalgia before I get into the actual review of Die Softly… Once upon a time, in the early days of dial-up internet, there used to be an online Pike community called The Midnight Club. There was a website, but most of the communication was on ICQ and a listserv. It was so exciting to communicate with Pike fans from all over! Long before Facebook and Pike himself posting occasional updates there, he communicated with Scott and Shannon from The Midnight Club and we were able to get exclusive bits of news! (Fun fact – Pike’s long-awaited Execution of Innocence was dedicated to them!) You may be asking why I am bringing this up, aside from a trip down Pike memory lane. Simple – The Pike Cast has a Patreon and when you support the show for as little as $3/month, you get access to their private community on Discord. The community feels exactly like The Midnight Club used to feel – a warm, welcoming place for like-minded folks to discuss Christopher Pike. There are different channels for different chats and it is just a fun place to spend a little time every day. If you’re a fan, I highly recommend joining the group!

Ok! On to the review of the actual book – Die Softly by Christopher Pike. This will contain mild spoilers.

“Why did you two bake those cookies?” Herb asked.

“For money for drugs. I thought that was obvious?”

“I suppose. Did they have cocaine in them?”

“Just a tiny bit. Gave them a special flavor….”

The thing about Christopher Pike books was that they were always more mature than the other YA books out around that time. Reading them always felt like you were getting away with something. His teenagers drank, did drugs, had sex – they did things real teenagers did. That’s what I remember thinking at the time when I first started reading them.

I’m revisiting Die Softly about 25 years after reading it for the first time. Holy hell, friends! The amount of cocaine consumption in this book is insane! I’m sure that I understood it was an illegal drug when I first read this book, but reading it as an adult? Whoo boy! These cheerleaders have a serious habit! Fueled by the money from illicit school bake sales and a little B&E, Alexa and Lisa live a high-risk lifestyle. They bend boys to their will and make them into their personal slaves by addicting them to cocaine and sex. They are just trying to pass the time until they graduate high school and move out to L.A. where they dream of being famous. The All-American Dream, amiright?

Enter Herb, the self-proclaimed nerdy guy who will never get the girl. His passion is for photography and he just wants to get a few snapshots of the cheerleading squad naked in the showers after practice. After Lisa ends up dead and Herb develops the photos, he realizes he caught more on film than he ever bargained for!

The whole of Die Softy takes place over a couple of days and it is absolutely bonkers. It’s a whodunit fueled with cocaine, no sleep, drinking and driving, drinking and shooting, illegal weapons, and lots of teenagers getting murdered. Who even are these teenagers?! While Die Softly is certainly not one of Pike’s better books, it is so over-the-top that you can’t help but to appreciate it for what it is and chuckle at the absurdity of it.

There are some descriptions in here that are certainly signs of the times. Die Softy was first published in 1991 and it shows. We have an all white cast with the pretty popular girls holding all the power. Sammie, one of Herb’s best friends is an overweight girl who, “… didn’t have a body, her body had her. Somewhere inside, hidden beneath the rolls of fat, was the real Sammie.” Yikes. This description coming from the POV of her best friend – double yikes. Unfortunately though, that was typical in YA from this time period.

Overall, this is not one of Pike’s better books. It is notable, again, because it is so over-the-top, but it is also one of his few books with no supernatural element. It’s worth a read, but if you have never read Pike before I would not recommend this one as a jumping off point.

Next up – Whisper of Death! (A title that is a great jumping off point!)

Betty

A staggering coming-of-age novel by Tiffany McDaniel

5/5 Star Review

I rate many of the books I read with four and five star reviews – With a finite amount of time, I generally only dive into books that I really think I am going to enjoy. I’m lucky that they are usually as good as I expect them to be. These books are rated based on their own merits and I do not necessarily compare one 5-star read to another. Every once in a great while though, a book will come along that blows me out of the water and delivers a solid punch to my gut – Betty is one of those books. Simply put, this is really a 10-star read and has bumped itself up into my top 5 reads of all time.

I finished reading this book yesterday morning and I have been struggling with what I want to say in this review ever since. Betty is both a coming-of-age tale and a family drama told through the eyes of Betty, the youngest daughter in a poor family living in rural Ohio.

“A girl comes of age against the knife. She must learn to bear its blade. To be cut. To bleed. To scar over and still, somehow, be beautiful and with good enough knees to take the sponge to the kitchen floor every Saturday.”

So begins the story of Betty Carpenter, a girl born of a white woman and a Cherokee man. She is the youngest girl and the only one of her six living siblings that strongly resembles her father. The majority of the novel takes place during the 1960’s in the fictional, southern Ohio town of Breathed and follows Betty from the time she is seven until she is eighteen. Betty has been raised on the stories of her father’s people and the strength she inherits from powerful Cherokee women; likewise, she has been raised on the stories of her mother’s people and the the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her family. The dichotomy of these truths allows Betty to see the horrors that are happening within her own family and surroundings.

While Betty encapsulates the sense of time and place with McDaniel’s understanding of certain rural truths: mental illness was not a topic to be discussed and women being inferior to men, chief among them; She presents these truths in a manner that allows us to recognize that time has not erased these problems. The curtains may have changed, but they still cover the same old dirty windows.

It should be said that Betty is not a horror novel, but rather a literary novel with horrific elements. It is beautiful, tragic, and gritty enough to surpass the works of Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, or Stuart O’Nan. McDaniel handles topics of discrimination, racism, sexism, abuse, incest, and cruelty with a deft hand. She commands attention with her lyrical prose, vivid imagery, and powerful use of metaphors; she paints over all this with a watercolor layer of magical realism that both softens and hardens truths at their edges.

Betty is a tough read, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There were moments where I had to walk away for a little while and come back to the book the next day. The reality that Betty endures would have broken me – she is a far stronger woman than I am. Having said that, the moments of beauty and strength are more powerful than the enduring tragedy of the Carpenter family. There are passages and images in my mind that will stay with me forever. If you read one book this year, please, read Betty.

Betty is released on August 18th through Random House. Click the image above to pre-order through Amazon or click here to order a 1st edition hardcover with a signed bookplate from Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. Betty is, in part, biographical – how much is fact and how much is fiction in unknown. Click here to visit Tiffany McDaniel’s website to view some photographs of the Carpenter family – Betty is the author’s mother.

I was given a digital copy of this book for review consideration from the author. I have since pre-ordered a signed copy of my own from Lemuria Books and plan on moving her first novel, The Summer that Melted Everything to the top of my TBR pile. Tiffany McDaniel has cemented herself as a must-buy author for me.