Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
Umuzi
Published:
 July 2014
Genre: 
fantasy, crime, horror
Source: 
Umuzi
Rating:
 
8/10

I think Lauren Beukes has hit her stride with crime fiction, or at least her distinct brand of crime fiction – a kind of character-driven, urban-fantasy crime thriller with elements of horror. The Shining Girls was like no other crime novel I’d ever read, and now I’m glad to find something similarly fresh but with a totally different story.

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters juggles multiple POVs, a large cast of great characters, and explores the intricacies of an American city (this time it’s Detroit). Beukes uses the killer as a POV character again, which means there’s no mystery as to who he is, but you do have the opportunity to see him work and experience his insanity more intimately. And, like Harper Curtis in The Shining Girls, Clayton Broom is driven by a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control.

This time though, the killer isn’t trying to snuff out brilliance but create art. The figure on the cover of the South African edition is a representation of the body that sets the story in motion – the top-half of a ten-year-old boy, fused to the bottom half of a deer. But the cover achieves what the killer does not – it is art, with a sense of beauty and magic and life. The boy in the novel is dead and butchered and he’s never going to leap like the killer intended.

Detective Gabriella Versado investigates the crime scene after a rookie discovers the body, and she’s put in charge of the case. Gabi is a single mom and has a slightly uneasy relationship with her teenage daughter, Layla. They can get on pretty well, but Gabi’s always working, and Layla is a typically feisty teenager going through more than the usual troubles. Her best friend Cas has cooked up a scheme for trapping an online sex predator, and you just know it’s not going to turn out the way they expect it to.

TK is a homeless guy who survives by scavenging the abandoned buildings of Detroit. He’s a good man who tries to help others and makes an effort to improve himself, but you know that, sadly, he’s never going to get over the rough start he had in life.

Jonno is, in some ways, like his polar opposite. While TK does meaningful work, and makes real connections with people, Jonno made a living as a blogger writing the kinds of clickbait lists we see on the internet everyday: “‘10 Rules for the New Gentleman’s Guide To Dating’ […] It’s all chum to pull in the likes” (57). He recently fucked up his life and his career, and now he’s in Detroit, ransacking the pretentious hipster scene for the edgy content that will rack up enough likes for his ex-girlfriend to notice.

If TK comes across as an unassuming, unrecognised hero, then Jonno is a kind of thoughtless villain. He isn’t the murderer, but when he finds out about the bizarre killings, he sees his chance to become a social media celebrity. He jeopardises Gabi’s investigation in his relentless bid to make the most horrifying, sensational information public, meanwhile spouting bullshit about finding the truth for the sake of the people.

Social media is a major theme in the novel and forms part of the structure of its narrative. Beukes uses chats, texts, Facebook messages and other digital communication – sometimes in text-speak and/or barely coherent ranting. Issues of privacy in a social media age become important plot points and have profound effects on the characters and their relationships.

The novel also happens to be a great police procedural, capturing the realities of being a cop in “The. Most. Violent. City. In. America” (9) and getting into the weirder information required for the investigation, like the meat glue used to fuse the boy and the deer, or the process of taxidermy. Beukes has clearly done her research, and it pays off.

Equally well-crafted are the characters. If shows like True Detective or Broadchurch appeal to you, where the narrative takes its time to develop the characters instead of focusing only on the murder investigation, then you might like Broken Monsters for the same reason.

Rather than give you a general overview, I thought I’d take an in-depth look at a few small details. On the very first page, while Gabi is checking out the body that sets the whole story in motion, we learn a lot about her relationship with Layla. She happens to think about the myth of “mothers and daughters bonding over fat-free frozen yoghurts” and counters it with her own feeling that “the best conversations she has with Layla are the ones in her head” (9).

So there’s a longing for Gabi and Layla to be a cute, quirky mother-daughter pair, perhaps something like the Gilmore Girls, but we’re immediately told that that idea is a fantasy. When we later see Gabi and Layla together, it’s clear that they could make a great team (I love the line “don’t forget the code to the gun safe, beanie, just-in-case” (26)), but there’s always a fundamental disconnect between them.

This is illustrated on the other two pages of the brief opening chapter. The hybrid body reeks, and Gabi is with a rookie cop who is hanging back because of the smell. She offers him some fruity lipgloss that she bought for Layla, to smear on his upper lip:

“Here,” she offers, fishing a small red tub of lipgloss out of her pocket. Something she bought at the drugstore on a whim to appease Layla. A candy-flavoured cosmetic – that’s sure to bridge the gap between them. “It’s not menthol, but it’s something.” (10)

Again, I love what this says about the characters. Gabi is trying to be thoughtful by buying her daughter a little gift, but she doesn’t hesitate to give some of the lipgloss to a colleague. When she later gives it to Layla, her daughter immediately scoffs, pointing out that it’s just a scam and doesn’t do your lips any good. At the same time though, she’s thinking about how she’d actually like to use some of the lipgloss. A few lines later, she complains rudely that she doesn’t want to hear Gabi’s cop stories, while texting her friend Cas and admitting that she actually likes the stories.

Another interesting thing about the lipgloss detail is that it plays a role in the depiction of Gabi’s character and her relationship with the rookie cop. She’s not actually trying to help him – as Layla snarkily points out later, rubbing menthol or whatever on your upper lip won’t cover the smell of a body (she watches the crime channel). Gabi’s playing a prank on the rookie because he’s an FNG – Fucking New Guy. Because the lipgloss has glitter in it, the squad ends up calling him “Sparkles”. At first Gabi tries to brag about her prank to Layla (who isn’t interested) but later she feels bad about embarrassing the guy because he proves to be a conscientious, observant police officer. That affects the way Gabi treats him later in the story, and subsequently affects the way she thinks about herself, so that that random thing with the lipgloss ends up being meaningful all the way to the end of the novel.

I really appreciate this sort of writing – it’s clever, it’s thoughtful and it makes good use of the words (and thus of the effort we put into reading them).

Oh and, in case you were wondering, this is definitely a fantasy novel. I haven’t gotten into the details of how it’s fantasy, because for most of the story it’s quite a subtle thing, hovering between symptoms of madness and the decidedly supernatural. Sometimes I only realised later that a certain event had had a supernatural influence. If this isn’t enough of a fantasy element for you, then just be patient and brace yourself for the ending.

Advertisements

Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Bones and AllTitle: Bones & All
Author: Camille DeAngelis
Published: 10 March 2015
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: young adult
Rating: 7/10

Maren is a cannibal. There’s a hunger inside of her that she cannot control and no matter how many times she tells herself she’s not going to do it again, she inevitably does. She avoids making friends, but then some boy – it’s almost always a boy – tries to get close to her and she devours him.

Her mother has become an expert at packing up their things and getting out of town as quickly as possible, but the strain eventually becomes too much for her. The day after Maren’s sixteenth birthday, her mother abandons her. Not knowing what else to do, Maren decides to track down her father, who she suspects is also a cannibal. Along her impromptu road trip, she meets other cannibals like her, and tries to come to terms with being a monster.

Well, this was certainly something different. Not weird per se, but it certainly puts a different spin on the usual tale of a teenager discovering herself. Unlike most YA protagonists I’ve read, Maren is undoubtedly a monster. She’s a serial killer and what’s more she her victims are mostly lonely children who were just reaching out to another loner in the hope of making a friend. When she gets older, her interactions with her victims start to become overtly sexual, but none of them ever do anything without her consent. You’re not allowed to feel better because she kills a potential rapist – she’s a bad person who kills innocent people.

Which is not to say that you won’t like Maren – DeAngelis has written her as a surprisingly sympathetic character, and I liked her a lot. I think it’s because you really have an opportunity to engage with the struggles she’s going through. She knows that what she does is horrific, but it’s something she cannot control. When her mother abandons her, it’s perfectly understandable, but you can also understand Maren’s pain and fear. It occurs to her that her mother must have been afraid of her and she concludes that her mother never loved, just felt responsible for her. Now, at only sixteen, and she has to continue her life alone.

As she wanders, scraping by on crime and charity, you have to wonder what her life is going to be like. She has never formed a long-lasting relationship with anyone except her mother, and it’s quite possible that she can’t. It’s only when she gets physically and emotionally close to someone that she feels compelled to eat them, so she usually stays away from people – especially men – for their own safety.

On the road, however, she meets two other cannibals. The first is Sully, a strange old man who apparently only eats people who have already died, and keeps the hair of his victims in a neverending braid. Sully is pretty creepy, but Maren is inclined to trust him because he is the first cannibal she meets, he’s kind to her, and teaches her a little about what she is.

Then there’s Lee, a 19-year-old cannibal who’s been on the road since his tendencies forced him to leave home. Lee is a lifesaver for Maren. Besides literally saving her life a few times, he becomes her first real friend. In another YA novel, you would expect this to develop into a romance, especially since Lee and Maren are travelling together and often share the same bed, but they’re both very careful around each other. They’re serial killers who don’t want to jeopardise their relationship. That said, their connection is a little beacon of light in this otherwise grim tale.

And yeah, I absolutely loved it. I don’t usually care about coming-of-age stories, but this one is very unconventional. I also enjoyed the somewhat paradoxical experience of reading about this truly monstrous person who I never had trouble empathising with.

The book does have some flaws though, and despite the fact that I was willing to overlook them, I think they’re worth discussion. Firstly, there’s the cannibalism itself. It’s not gory – in fact it’s barely described – but it doesn’t work the way you’d expect. When cannibals like Maren devour people, they don’t eat in any normal sense of the word. It’s not a case of them taking one bite after another and getting full. They can consume an entire human body – Bones & All – in only a few minutes, and still be hungry afterwards. They don’t seem to gain any mass from the process, and yet whatever remains of the victim can be stuffed into a small plastic shopping bag. Although the book doesn’t have any overtly speculative elements, there’s definitely something other involved here, so maybe Maren really is a monster from the myth and folklore she studies.

It helps to know this before you start reading, because otherwise certain things can be quite confusing. For example, Maren’s first victim is her babysitter, who she eats when she’s just a baby. I couldn’t imagine how a tiny child could possibly overpower an adult and reduce her to a pile of bloody bones, but that’s what happens. Later, she starts eating children from school, again without any apparent difficulties. I wondered how a young child could hide a body until I realised that there were never any bodies left to hide.

This brings me to a second problem with the book, which is that Maren never gets caught. She kills a string of young boys, and each time her mother gets them the hell out of town and they start up in a new place. It slightly more believable once you understand that there are no bodies so these might be treated as missing persons cases rather than murders, but that’s not enough. Unless Maren drinks all the blood up quite quickly, she’d probably leave enough of a mess to make it clear that she killed her victim. But even if she executes a clean kill every time, her subsequent departure would be highly suspicious. A child disappears, and immediately afterwards, Maren is taken out of school, her mother leaves her job, and they get out of town? You wouldn’t have to be a cop to see a link, and Maren’s mother never changes their names, so they’d be easy to track.

Admittedly, the cops probably couldn’t prove or even guess the truth, but it still feels like the entire issue gets conveniently swept under the rug. And while I like the book enough that it doesn’t bother me, I can’t ignore it completely.

Nevertheless, I had a great time reading this. Maren is a wonderful character, and I was fully invested in her journey.

Top 5 Reads of 2013

I’m feeling lazy and took all morning to write about two paragraphs of the review I’m working on, so instead of that I’m offering you my Top 5 Novels of 2013. It wasn’t a great reading year for me, as opposed to 2012 where my top 5 reads stood out bold and brilliant. On 2013’s list, only one or two books were that amazing. The others were fantastic, but didn’t have as much of an impact on me, or had little flaws that were just a bit too noticeable. That said, after finishing off the reading year with three very disappointing books, I can’t say how happy I am that I had the chance to read these beauties. Here they are in the order that I read them:

The Shining Girls collectors edition

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

A brutal time-travelling serial killer, the talented ‘shining’ girls he murders, the punk who shouldn’t have survived his attack, and an otherworldly house where it all comes together. SA’s literary it-girl Lauren Beukes brings together all sorts of things I love about sci fi, crime thrillers and serial killers in her trademark edgy style. It’s a slick, creepy book, and the scene where Harper tries (and fails) to murder Kirby was one of the most gut-wrenching I’ve read, and not only because of the violence.
My review

SIlently and Very Fast

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente

I’m a big Valente fan, but I think part of the reason I enjoyed this so much is that Clarkesworld’s podcast director Kate Baker read it to me in her lovely voice. Over the past year I’ve been listening to short story podcasts regularly, and I think I played Silently and Very Fast about three times. I was disappointed to find that I could no longer buy the limited edition print copy of this novella, but it is included in the collection The Bread We Eat in DreamsIt’s the most beautiful story about artificial intelligence I’ve come across, incorporating myth and folklore, told in Valente’s spellbinding prose. Highly, highly recommended. You can read or listen to it for free at Clarkesworld magazine, where it has been split into three parts.

Helen of Troy by Ruby BlondellHelen of Troy by Ruby Blondell

I don’t often read or review non-fiction, but I would if I found more books like this. Ruby Blondell’s study of Helen of Troy is an in-depth literary analysis of the world’s most beautiful woman as she appears in various texts. It’s also a study of the nature and meaning of female beauty. I learned so much more about the mythical Helen and the society that created her than I thought there was to know. In addition, the discussions on female beauty offer fascinating and fundamental insights that are relevant to so many things that I read and watch all the time. Just this morning I read a blog post by Foz Meadows on contemporary issues of female beauty that related very strongly to what I’d read in Blondell’s book. This might sound overwhelming academic, but it’s not – Blondell is an excellent scholarly writer and her book is smoothly articulated. An elegant, captivating read.
My review

Red Seas Under Red SkiesRed Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

When review copies of The Republic of Thieves became available and the hype started to intensify, I figured it was time I checked out this Gentleman Bastard series that everyone was raving about. I liked the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, but after all the hype I found it good but slightly disappointing. I didn’t know much about Red Seas though, and that might be why I enjoyed it more. The fact that it’s got Zamira Drakasha, a fucking awesome pirate captain who also happens to be a black 39-year old mom, is another reason. And I liked that Jean starts to be more of his own character rather than just a sidekick. Also, it has a casino heist AND a thrilling pirate adventure. And it’s funny. Actually, there are a of reasons I loved this book. Even after doing a read-along for The Republic of Thieves, it remained my favourite.
My review

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsThe Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

This one stirred up a lot of interest and quite a few award nominations when it came out and Jemisin’s name has come up frequently in the online world I inhabit. But I didn’t look too closely since I’m not a big fan of epic fantasy. I figured LOTR and A Song of Ice Fire was about as much as I could handle. Thank god some of the bloggers I’d met through the Scott Lynch read-along invited me to be a host for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms read-along. Jemisin doesn’t waste time with the long-winded easily-forgotten world-building that I dislike about the genre and her characters defy the straight/white/male standards that plague epic fantasy. It’s full of fresh ideas, and complex characters who are never just good or evil or easily described. Plus, the book is about enslaved gods who have been forced to serve a powerful family as weapons, tools and whores for the past two thousand years. It’s awesome. It’s something you should be reading.
Read-along:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

There are a few other books I wanted to mention. Carrie by Stephen King and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Both could have made this list, but they were re-reads and I wanted to stick to new reads.

There are also short story collections that deserve a mention:
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor
Once Upon a Time edited by Paula Guran
and The Color Master by Aimee Bender

I enjoyed these all very much, but short story collections tend to be at a disadvantage because I never enjoy all of them, I usually find at least one or two quite boring, and their fragmented nature means that they’ll never make as of an impact on me as a novel can. One of the stories may well be that powerful, but it’ll always be watered down when viewed as part of a collection. Nevertheless, these four had plenty of good and great stories and I’m glad I read them.

Now, on with 2014!

Delia’s Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

Delias ShadowTitle: Delia’s Shadow
Author: 
Jaime Lee Moyer
Series: 
Delia Martin
Published:
 
17 September 2013
Publisher: 
Tor Books
Genre:
 
historical fantasy, romance, mystery
Source: 
review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
2/10

The setting is San Francisco, 1915, and Delia Martin is returning from a a self-imposed exile in New York. For most of her life Delia has seen ghosts but after the great earthquake that rocked San Francisco in 1906, there were so many that she couldn’t handle seeing them all, and fled. For some unknown reason, she didn’t see ghosts in New York, until one started haunting her – a young woman who also came from San Francisco and was murdered there by a serial killer 30 years ago. The ghost – referred to as Shadow – wants Delia to help solve the mystery of her death and stop the killer, who is stalking San Francisco’s streets again.

Delia is rich and could have any house she wanted, but prefers to stay with her best friend Sadie. Coincidentally, Sadie is engaged to Sergeant Jack Fitzgerald, who is investigating the serial killer with his good friend and partner Lieutenant Gabe Ryan. And it just so happens that Gabe’s father worked on the first case thirty years ago, so Gabe immediately spotted the killer’s pattern and realised they are hunting the same man. Sadie tries a bit of matchmaking with Delia and Gabe, and they all go to an international fair together, which is fortunate because it gets Delia and the detectives together right away. When the men learn that Delia sees ghosts, they share their own experience of seeing a ghost, which miraculously happens to be the same ghost haunting Delia! Shadow has been causing Delia to have dreams of her encounter with the killer, which is advantageous, because it means Delia can prove it’s the same ghost right then and there.

Luckily for Delia, everyone believes her about the ghosts, and they go to see a psychic who just so happens to have a tent at the fair. It’s a good thing that the psychic – Isadora – is the real deal and knows everything she needs to know about helping Delia deal with Shadow and figure out what happened to her. But of course Shadow can’t just lead them straight to the killer because then this would be a short story, not a novel. So Delia, the detectives and Isadora try to find the killer through the information they get from his victims’ ghosts. In the meantime, Delia and Gabe start falling in love.

I didn’t mean to write the plot summary like that, but I lapsed into snark mode because Delia’s Shadow is just so contrived and silly. It falls horribly flat in every way – as a mystery, as a romance, and as a ghost story. It’s not unnerving, tense, engaging or charming. Despite the fact that two of the major characters are policeman in charge of the serial killer case, there’s almost no detective work, like following clues, trying to understand the killer’s motives, how that influences his choice of victim, predicting what he might do next, etc. None of the interesting stuff that draws readers to crime novels. At most, they figure out that he’s following an ancient Egyptian ritual, but this is of no importance whatsoever. Gabe and Jack rely almost entirely on Delia and Isadora to make any progress in the case. Their only real job seems to be sending other policeman to provide a 24-hour guard service for Sadie and Delia, Isadora, and even Gabe’s landlady (because the killer might attack people close to the detectives).

Equally absurd, is the fact that they have the resources for 24-hour protection. Isadora gets a police guard right after they meet her at fair, based on the fact that she also saw Shadow and understands the connection to the killer. How the fuck does Gabe justify this to his squad? “Please protect this psychic. She saw the ghost of a woman the killer murdered 30 years ago.”

Mind you, no one ever questions Gabe’s decisions, and he and Jack are portrayed as exemplary detectives. Nevermind that there’s a killer running loose while the best policemen take Delia and Sadie shopping.

And then there’s the romance. I don’t usually enjoy romance, and I didn’t realise it would be a major feature of this plot. Also, it’s SO BORING. Gabe is still in mourning after his pregnant wife’s death in the earthquake, and neither nor Delia are looking for romance. Still, they hit it off immediately and their relationship progresses very quickly and smoothly. That’s part of the problem – it’s just too easy. Another problem is that, because the serial killer poses a danger to all the major characters, the romance – and the story in general – involves an awful lot of fretting about everyone’s safety, how terrible it’d be to lose someone to the killer, how difficult it is for Delia to see ghosts, how brave everyone is being, how very very dreadful this whole situation is. Basically a whole lot of mundane thoughts that people in this situation would naturally think about, but that don’t make for thrilling reading. A better author would have made it succinct but forceful. This is just a stream of blah blah blah.

And it’s all very traditional too. The men go out to investigate (not that they achieve anything), and make it their responsibility to protect the women. The women mostly stay at home wringing their hands, and only go out when escorted by men. Whenever Delia makes a major effort to get useful information from the ghosts, Gabe is there to hold her hand and catch her in case she swoons (which she often does).

No shortage of female stereotypes here. Sadie is a collection of them – she’s charm incarnate, likes matchmaking, and has a reputation as a gossip, but is a loving, caring person at heart. She makes little contribution to the story, except to connect everyone who does (Jack, Gabe, Delia and Isadora, who is also a friend of hers), and to be a perpetual damsel in distress

Delia annoyed the crap out of me with all her trembling, crying and worrying. And let’s not forget Annie, the black housekeeper, who is not just a female but a racial stereotype as well. Annie is happiest when she has people to feed, you can immediately tell she’s black because of her sentence structure, she sings hymns while working in the kitchen, has a forceful but caring personality (no one would dare refuse a plate of her pancakes!), and is full of wisdom.

Not that the male characters are any less cliche. Jack and Gabe are sturdy old-fashioned men, brave and strong and kind, worrying about their women and often sharing a chuckle over how smart and charming the girls are. Our villain is the very simplistic evil psychopath who kills people because of something that happened in his childhood.

The climax to this tedious story is predictable and surprisingly short. The killer only appears on the page for about five seconds. You get the sense that he was almost a sideshow, or an excuse for the drama and romance that characterises the story.

Honestly, this book got progressively worse as I read, and it continued to worsen the more I thought about it. Besides all the issues I’ve discussed, it’s riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies. And it has so much padding. Like descriptions of clothing and decor that are probably meant to build the historical setting, but which are totally irrelevant and will be forgotten the moment after you’ve read them. Or all the affection, concern, random observations and other useless blathering that comes out of the characters’ mouths. The author wastes words, and I felt like I wasted my time reading them.

Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

 

The Shining Girls MulhollandTitle: The Shining Girls
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
review copy published by Mulholland Books; originally published by Umuzi
Published:
 15 April 2013 by Umuzi; review edition published 4 June 2013 by Mulholland
Genre: 
fantasy, science fantasy, crime thriller, historical
Source: 
review copy via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

Kirby is a bright girl bursting with life, despite her troubled childhood with a single mother whose “default state of being is absent” and the constant upheavals as they move from one home to another.  It Kirby’s sense of promise, the fact that she’s a “shining girl”, that draws Harper Curtis to her. He visits her for the first time when she’s six years old. He gives her a My Little Pony that hasn’t been invented yet. Fifteen years later he returns to kill her in a brutal attack, as he does with all the shining girls.

Harper is a serial killer travelling through time in the city of Chicago, drawn to girls who ‘shine’ with potential and determination. It’s his destiny to snuff their lives out. It’s the House that drives him. He was living in the shanty towns on the outskirts of Depression-era Chicago when fate delivers him a key that unlocks a seemingly abandoned house. Inside is a room full of objects and women’s names written on the wall in Harper’s own handwriting. The names of the shining girls. The objects are what will lead him to them, and Harper knows that he has to find them and kill them.

But he didn’t kill Kirby. Four years after his attack, she starts tracking him down. She joins the Chicago Sun Times as an intern for Dan Velasquez, the reporter who covered her case. He’s writes for the sports desk now, but Kirby will do whatever she can to find the man who nearly killed her, even if she has to waste time compiling baseball scores.

Kirby gets everything she needs, but Harper still presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge. He started killing in 1931, and with the House he can leap across the decades before returning to his own time, untraceable. Any evidence he leaves behind offers only impossible conclusions, allowing him to murder the girls unhindered.

The Shining Girls is the third of Beukes’s novels, and I think it’s now my favourite too, trumping Moxyland. Beukes writes with a very snarky, edgy style that I loved at first but tired of in Zoo City. The Shining Girls feels more mature, more refined, and offers a better story as a result. That’s not to say it doesn’t have that signature style or that Kirby isn’t smart-mouthed and bold enough to stand-up to her counterparts in Beukes’s earlier novels; it’s just toned down in a way that feels more natural and helps the story flow.

Mind you, it takes a fair bit of concentration to keep a firm grasp on the narrative, because the time-travel aspect means there’s a time shift with almost every chapter. The chapters are short too, keeping you on your toes. The key is to take note of the names, dates, and locations that comprise the chapter headings. I tend to ignore most chapter headings as unimportant, but I quickly learned that these are vital. The story is composed of multiple POVs in various times. Harper’s story begins in November 1931 but constantly moves between that time and 1993 as he hunts the shining girls. I think his story is actually relatively linear, but it doesn’t feel that way because what he experiences as linear time involves multiple time shifts, while the House itself is a atemporal space – a place that exists in all times and no time.

Kirby’s story begins in 1974, when Harper first contacts her. We see her as a child and a teenager, but usually as the scarred (literally and figuratively) 25-year old in 1993. The 1993 narrative is also told from Dan Velasquez’s perspective, as he tries to help Kirby out of his growing respect and affection for her. Then there are several minor POVs, including the shining girls and a junkie named Malcolm who tails Harper in the hope of getting some cash for his next hit.

It sounds overwhelming, but it easy to adjust to. The characters are distinctive and memorable, and there was only one chapter where I was confused about the POV. It’s not essential to understand everything in strict chronological order anyway; the most important events will come together smoothly. Beukes also employs an elegant tactic, using the objects in the House as narrative devices that tie the stories together: “Shining stars linked together through time. A constellation of murder”. The House is an atemporal space where the objects are always present, even when Harper takes them out. We see the links when objects in the room turn up in the shining girls’ stories, or when Harper takes an object from one girl and leaves it with another. Besides their practical narrative function, the objects are also just a pleasure to spot, like putting a puzzle together.

How they came together in the House, however, remains a mystery. The novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but in a way that intrigues rather than frustrates. There are hints and ideas that seem to lead to understanding but never quite get there, leaving the reader pondering the possibilities. There is no how and why for the House. We don’t know how it enables time travel, how it came into being, or why it is focused on killing the shining girls. It’s not clear what exactly motivates Harper either, even though we spend so much time in his head. He avoids taking responsibility for his acts, blaming his victims for shining:

“It’s not my fault, sweetheart,” he says, “It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”

There’s also a sense in which he’s driven to do what he does by the objects, the House itself and the time paradox it’s entwined him in. The objects call to him and shine in ways that show him what to use and when.

He tells himself he is only looking around, but he knows one of his girls is here. He always does. It’s the same tug in his stomach that brought him to the House. That jolt of recognition when he walks into someplace he’s meant to be. He knows it when he sees the tokens that match the ones in the room. It is a game. To find them through different times and places. It’s a destiny he’s writing for them. Inevitably, they’re waiting for him.

The force exerted on him by the House and the object sometimes makes him uncomfortable, hurts him even, suggesting that he’s being coerced. He certainly doesn’t choose any of the victims himself; they’ve already been chosen and he’s just drawn to them. On a personal level though, Harper is a sadistic psychopath. It’s obvious that he wants to kill and takes a perverse pleasure in contacting his victims as children and then murdering them as adults, destroying the potential that makes them shine.

I will definitely be in the minority here, but Harper is my favourite character. Which isn’t to say I like him – he’s utterly despicable and I like all the other characters a lot more, with the possible exception of a hipster who wants to film Kirby having sex with him so that she can “reclaim what happened to [her]”. Harper disgusts me, but I love a good villain. He’s not especially smart, but he has an intuitive understanding of the House and eschews all gasping disbelief that characters typically go through when fantasy invades reality. When he steps into the House he claims his destiny as if slipping into a perfectly tailored suit. The way Harper hunts and kills the shining girls is so sick and brutal that I find him fascinating and repulsive in equal parts.

The shining girls are wonderful characters too, by virtue of the qualities that make them ‘shine’. Their roles are small, but they would be strong enough to drive an entire novel themselves. Each of them shows a rare sense of determination, typically in defiance of the racial and sexual discrimination prevalent in Chicago across the decades. Zora is a young black woman doing hard manual labour in a shipping yard to support her four children after losing her husband to war. Alice is a transsexual; Willie a lesbian. Some of them shine because of the difference they make in society. Margot arranges safe abortions for girls and women who can’t afford them. Jin-Sook is a social worker changing lives in black communities. Others shine because of their talents. Willie is a promising architect who fought her way into the field at a time when women weren’t normally given such jobs. Mysha is a brilliant botanist.

What makes Kirby shine seems to be something a bit different – her ability to defy Harper, and her potential to find him and stop him. She is the very reason there is a story. Surprisingly though her part of the narrative moves quite slowly, focusing on character development, her internship with Dan on the baseball desk, and his growing affection for her. The investigation takes a back seat. It seems a little odd, given Kirby’s fervour, although we later learn that she’s spent most of her free time trawling through old newspapers and police reports looking for clues and patterns. Nevertheless, it’s not until we near the end of the book that Kirby starts to make real progress, much of which is dismissed because it seems impossible. The book is by no means boring, but I think it relies heavily on Harper and the other shining girls to drive the narrative until Kirby’s story is ready to get into gear for the climactic ending.

The advantage is that you’re kept in prolonged suspense wondering how the hell Kirby is going to find Harper, the seemingly unstoppable serial killer. I didn’t particularly like the way this happened – through chance, rather than Kirby’s deductions – but I can’t deny that the ending was pretty tense and exciting anyway.

There is much to appreciate in the interim – Beukes’s awesome writing, the horror that is Harper, the stories of the shining girls, Kirby’s relationship with her mother, Kirby’s relationship with Dan. I also waited very patiently but with growing anticipation for the chapter where Harper tries to kill Kirby. As much as I’d hyped it up by the time I got to it, it still managed to be shockingly brutal and evocative, leaving me stunned with one of the saddest and most painful images in the book.

The Shining Girls collectors edition

Umuzi Collector’s Edition

One final thing I want to mention is how impressive the depiction of Chicago is. Beukes has obviously done extensive research (don’t ignore the acknowledgements; it’s worth seeing how much work went into this). The plot traverses six decades, and in the relatively short space of 298 pages we see several of Chicago’s historical and cultural faces as the city shifts and grows.

I’m glad that I bought the Umuzi signed and numbered collector’s edition hardcover of this. It’s a great story and one of the best South African novels I’ve read. I love its mysterious take on time travel and the way Beukes uses it as a plot device that brings a fresh perspective to both historical and crime fiction. The Shining Girls deserves its status as one of the most talked-about books at the moment, and strongly encourage you to read it and join the conversation.

Up for Review: Murder as a Fine Art

David Morrell, the creator of Rambo, has published 29 novels, 6 works of non-fiction, and numerous short-stories and essays. His latest novel is a historical murder mystery featuring  real-life author Thomas de Quincey. I’ve never paid any attention to Rambo, but this sounds quite good.

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellMurder as a Fine Art by David Morrell (Mulholland Books)

NetGalley blurb:

GASLIT LONDON IS BROUGHT TO ITS KNEES IN DAVID MORRELL’S BRILLIANT HISTORICAL THRILLER.

Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier.

The blueprint for the killings seems to be De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.

In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell plucks De Quincey, Victorian London, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders from history. Fogbound streets become a battleground between a literary star and a brilliant murderer, whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.

 

Murder as a Fine Art was published on 7 May 2013 by Mulholland Books.

Links
Goodreads
Mulholland Books
Conversation with Morrell and De Quincey scholar Robert Morrisson
Pretty much everything else is covered by the novel’s page on Morrell’s website. Click through for links to the book trailer, interviews with Morrell about the novel, and buying options.

About the Author
David Morrell is the critically acclaimed author of First Blood, the novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph. D. in American literature from Penn State and was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His numerous New York Times bestsellers include the classic spy trilogy The Brotherhood of the Rose (the basis for the only television mini-series to premier after a Super Bowl), The Fraternity of the Stone, and The League of Night and Fog. An Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, Morrell is the recipient of three Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association as well as the prestigious lifetime Thriller Master Award from the International Thriller Writers’ organization. His writing book, The Successful Novelist, discusses what he has learned in his four decades as an author. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Website
Twitter
Facebook
Wikipedia
IMDB

Review of The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi

Title: The Whisperer
Author: Donato Carrisi
Translated by: Shaun Whiteside
Published: First published in 2009 in Italian. My edition published 05 January 2012
Publisher:  Mulholland Books, and imprint of Little, Brown
Genre:  crime and mystery
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 8/10

Six severed arms are found buried in a circle in a forest. Five of the arms were surgically cut from missing girls, aged 7 to 13. The sixth arm is from a mystery child, yet to be reported missing. A special investigative team, guided by highly intuitive criminologist Dr Goran Gavila, is put in charge of the case. They also recruit Mila Vasquez, an investigator who has become well-known for her incredible skill in finding missing persons.

Soon after, a man is caught with the body of the first missing child in the boot of his car, and it looks like the case will come to a swift, if tragic ending. But it soon becomes clear that the discovery of this body was no accident; it was organised by the true killer, who remains unknown. In fact it’s just the first of a series of meticulously, almost presciently planned reveals in which a murderous mastermind releases the corpses of his young victims. When the investigators find the bodies, they never seem to find anything to help them track down the killer. Instead the carefully thought out placement of each body leads to the exposure of even more horrific crimes committed by other people. The investigation becomes more than just a study in the evil of one man – it exposes myriad monsters, not to mention the indifference of ordinary people, which allows atrocities to occur.

This unusual pattern makes The Whisperer more substantial than your typical serial killer story and it’s already been successful among both readers and critics. Originally published in 2009 in Italian, The Whisperer has won five international literary prizes, become a bestseller in Europe and been translated into several languages. I’m actually wary of bestsellers because they tend to be disappointing (overhyped and too commercial), but in this case the novel has trustworthy credentials. Great novels about serial killers should leave you with a mixture of shock and fascination and The Whisperer keeps you hooked with a pitch perfect blend. The villain is as smart, efficient and cruel as John Doe from Se7en. His killings are like a grotesque work of art. The extent of the killer’s planning alone unnerves me. In contrast, the crimes they point to are less sophisticated – the product of uncontrolled urges to abuse and hurt others, particularly children. In fact, it’s almost always children who are the victims in this novel. The irony is that the person who kidnapped six children and cut off their arms is also exposing other crimes against children, although you never get the impression that he does so because he somehow feels sorry for them. It’s pretty twisted, but hey, that’s what makes serial killers so compelling.

Another drawcard is the technical aspects of the novel. Carrisi studied law and criminology and his novel details some of the investigative theories and forensic techniques used in such cases, something I always find interesting. Here Mila acts as the reader’s gateway into the technical side of things. Because she hasn’t worked on murder investigations before, other characters frequently explain their methods to her and thus to the reader as well. It’s a useful plot device.

The novel is not without its flaws though. There are a few little continuity errors and sometimes characters behave in somewhat unlikely ways. None of the primary characters are particularly engaging, including the talented protagonists Mila and Goran. Most of the novel is written from their shifting perspectives and they both have some deep-set personal problems that make them aloof and mysterious, but in a way that’s a bit dull. I never really warmed to either, although it’s possible that this is intentional given that they are rather cold people. Mila also has this irritating habit of going off on her own little searches without telling the rest of the team. I assume she does this because she’s a loner who isn’t used to working with others, but it also strikes me as too irresponsible.

Then there’s a mythical aspect to the story that annoyed me at first, such as the use of a psychic in the investigation, and an overabundance of pointless speculation about God and the devil. However by the time I’d gotten to the ending, I’d mostly just accepted this pseudo-fantasy trend, largely because some of it was deeply disturbing and as a result I couldn’t help but take it more seriously. In fact, there was quite a lot about the novel that I found disturbing, particularly towards the end.  Crime and mystery novels about serial killers are typically about horrific acts, but don’t normally fall into the horror genre because the story is about the investigation rather than the victims or murderers, and you don’t necessarily witness the actual killing. It’s the same here, but some of the secrets that are uncovered were so disturbing that I found myself far more unsettled than when reading some stories whose main purpose is to scare. In a masochistic paradox, I also couldn’t put the damn thing down. I ended up finishing the novel in a binge-read that ended just before 5am. It might have been better if it’d lasted longer, because I couldn’t sleep anyway. I just lay there thinking about the book, listening for suspicious noises and waiting anxiously for the sun to come up.

I’d love to talk about the reasons why I found this book so compelling and unnerving, but of course that would ruin it. I recommend that you find out for yourself, especially if you’re a fan of crime fiction.

Buy a copy of The Whisperer at The Book Depository