The Girls by Emma Cline

Last month I found out that almost everyone on my Twitter timeline was talking about a book called The Girls by Emma Cline, and it was not only my fellow and trusted bloggers, but non-literary vloggers as well, such as Lex. I did some research online and when I found out what the book was about I knew I had to get my hands on a review copy as soon as possible before Penguin Random House ran out of them in the summer.

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls tells the story of Evie from two moments in her life: the present, and the 1969 fateful summer in California when she first saw Suzanne. Long-haired, a bit dirty, and verging on too-thing, Suzanne will bring to mind the heroine-chic image of the 1990’s. And middle-class, and sixteen-year old Evie fell for that image like many other men and women have done ever since. From this moment on, Evie will find her own rebellion against her parents and the comfort and security they stand for, while Suzanne will let her into a new world of drugs, sex, and death.

If you are a reader of crime fiction or have any interest at all in the history of crime, the plot of The Girls will ring a bell or two. Cline’s inspiration for the book is the Manson Family and the killings that Manson’s followers perpetrated in 1969. The similarities with the Manson Family crimes are many, beginning with Suzanne’s name,  inspired by real-life Susan Atkins, and the key role music plays in the story. I mention this here because it does not take anything away from the book. Evie’s story is a bildungsroman and a coming-of-age story with a dark and twisted turn. But we know from the very first page that she comes alive out of it. The novel is still built around the crimes, but Cline’s elegant and captivating prose is all about Evie and how she construct her identity at a time when the hippie culture was everywhere and middle-class values were rejected.

From left to right: Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten in 1970.

From left to right: Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten in 1970.

We were, Russell told us, starting a new kind of society. Free from racism, free from exclusion, free from hierarchy. We were in service of a deeper love. (From The Girls).

The combination of present and past narratives is quite interesting, but the present storyline failed to catch my attention. Cline is a much better writer of the teenager, tortured mind than she is of an adult, middle-aged woman, almost comparable to Megan Abbott in the way they denounce the specificity of being a girl in a patriarchal society:

The didn’t have very far to fall – I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Oujia board.

I was surprised at how much I still identified with Evie  – despite our 11-year age difference – more than likely due to the desire to escape mundane, everyday life. All the music, drugs, late-night bonfires and parties make of The Girls the perfect reading for escapism and a bit of nostalgia for a past so far away, it feels like a golden age, hence my desire to get my hands on a review copy before its release next June. I do not think the publishing date is arbitrary and I truly believe the book will become one of the books of this summer, paying back to Penguin Random House the $2 million contract Cline has supposedly signed. Forget about your job, your career, or your family. This book will resonate with anyone who has ever needed a break from her own life: long, hot, summer nights spent with friends, with barely no cares and no schedules, no deadlines. Just total freedom.

The Girls is everything it promises to be. It is an ode to a long gone age when we knew nothing about drugs, and everyone had the freedom to experiment, all through pink-tainted glasses. But it is also a retelling of a pop culture event that has captured the USA’s attention for half a century. So much so, that when a 25-year old California artist decided to write her first novel, she decided to revisit the events. If not for the story, The Girls has to be praised and analysed as a reflection of what a new generation of writers is looking back at. Or, maybe, it needs to be read as a representation of structures of power that are still at play, with Cline’s own captivating relationship with a charismatic man four times her age when she was just 13. In any case, The Girls is a novel that needs to be read for the brief break it will give readers about adult, modern life and transport them back to adolescence at a time when everything seemed simpler. But, there’s the trick: everything that looks simple has the danger of being deeper and darker than we imagined. Just like Cline’s debut.

The Girls by Emma Cline will be released next June by Penguin Random House in the UK.

 

Exclusive Interview: Megan Abbott on Girls, Feminism, and Crime Fiction

Today and I am very happy, excited and proud to welcome American author Megan Abbott to Books & Reviews. After reviewing her upcoming novel You Will Know Me (out next June), I contacted Megan to talk about her middle-class American girls signature narrative, feminism, and many other topics that I thought would be interesting for those of us who do feminism, crime fiction and female main characters. Welcome to Books & Reviews Megan, and thank you for everything:

American author Megan Abbott

American author Megan Abbott

  1. You have inscribed the female teenage experience in contemporary crime fiction inaugurating a new crime fiction subgenre. Why and when did you decide to start writing about female teenagers in such a dark – and interesting – way?
    I think the specifics and ambiguities of female adolescence are so rich and yet still pretty underexplored, so that’s a big enticement. But it’s the female experience more generally, particularly its darker corners, that I most want to push my way into. And so much about womanhood is laid bare during one’s teen years. No one’s figured out yet how to hide the pangs and sorrows of that age, and its intensity is great stuff for books. It’s the age when you become yourself, so I think we never stop going back there as women, trying to figure it out.
  1. What/Who was the inspiration for your latest novel, You Will Know Me?
    I’ve always been interested in families of prodigies and what it’s like, in particular, to be the parent of a prodigy. Then, four years ago, I saw this footage during the London Olympics of the parents of American gymnast Aly Raisman. They were watching their daughter’s floor routine and were so invested in it, so connected to her. The footage went viral and the response to it was so complicated. Some people found it funny, others found it problematic, troubling. I think we all struggle with how invested parents should be in their children’s development and in case of exceptionally talented children, all that is thrown into high relief. It seemed a perfect world to explore. How does that kind of focus affect a marriage, for instance? Sibling relationships? And families in general fascinate me—the place of the greatest darkness and the greatest light.
  1. The female body plays a key role in most of your novels: in The Fever the main characters’ bodies made them vulnerable to an epidemic, in You Will Know Me, Devon’s body is a tool, a source of both strength and anxieties. What did you have in mind for both novels (taking into account the long tradition of female bodies as passive entities in crime fiction)?
    I can’t say I have a plan or intent, but it’s certainly on my mind a lot. It’s so hard, in this culture, for a woman’s body to feel fully her own. The female body is something to be looked at, shaped, molded, concealed, sexualized, etc. In my books I’m really interested in how women shape or mold themselves. Seizing control of this out-of-control thing, or this thing out of her control. And with athletes, it’s so central. Their body is their weapon, their power.

    You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

    You Will Know Me, Abbott’s upcomig novel will be released on the 30th June

  1. All your novels feature strong female characters. They are fighters, and although they may be vulnerable, they can be considered role models for Young Adult readers (and adult readers like myself as well!). Do you consider yourself a feminist?
    I definitely consider myself a feminist. But I don’t write with any kind of agenda. That can be lethal to fiction, I think. And I avoid ever thinking in terms of role models when I write. My goal is to make all my characters real, complicated, flawed, but I do think it’s particularly important to have female characters of all ages who are full of contradictions, as we all are. And I love to explore those impulses and drives—aggression, ambition, subversive desire—that have, historically, been suppressed in women.
  1. Last, but not least, any literary crime fiction recommendations for readers looking for a strong and complex female character? [They can be from any time you want, not necessarily published this year]
    Yes! Laura Lippman’s novels, most recently After I’m Gone and the forthcoming Wilde Lake. Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger. Alison Gaylin’s dark Hollywood tale, What Remains of Me. Alex Marwood’s The Darkest Secret.

Megan Abbott is the author of seven novels, several short stories,  and the winner of the Edgar Award for Outstanding fiction. She also writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books , and has her own blog. Born in Detroit, she graduated from the University of Michigan and went to earn a PhD in American literature at the University of New York and she has written about the representation of masculinity in hard-boiled crime fiction and film noir.

For more about Megan Abbott, you can visit her website or follow her on Twitter.

Reader, I Married Him (Short Story Collection) Edited by Tracy Chevalier

Every time I review a short story collection, I always say I am not the biggest fan of them, but that is not actually true. During the time I have been writing here I have found a few marvellous collection that always become ‘one of the best books of…’. This time Hayley from Harper Collins sent me Reader, I Married HIm: Stories inspired by Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier. I did not know anything about the collection before I was sent it, but I loved the idea of seeing how Jane Eyre has influenced contemporary authors. Harper Collins is publishing Reader, I Married Him on account of Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday on the 21st of April.

Reader, I Married Him

‘Reader, I Married Him’ is probably one of the most well-known lines from literature, especially if we are talking about women writers. It would rank high with Rebecca‘s ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again‘ and Pride and Prejudice’s ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife‘. Editor Tracy Chevalier has teamed up with authors such as Susan Hill, Tessa Hadley, Helen Dunmore, Lionel Shriver, Esther Freud, Audrey Niffenegger, and Namwali Serpeli to produce a collection of short stories that take place all over the world, in very different times, and with very different themes, but all connected by Brontë’s masterpiece.

It is very hard to review a short story collection – especially like this one – because all the stories are different and they all have different themes. However, I was surprised to find more than a few short stories in which Helen Burns and Grace Poole are given a voice and more space and time than in the original. This is a collection of stories written only by women, inspired by a woman writer and a female main character that changed the history of literature forever. No wonder then, that all but a few decided to contribute by placing a young woman as the main character and a narrator most of the times. So, if there is a something that definitely connects all the stories it is the legacy of Jane Eyre as an example of endurance and female agency at a time when women were supposed to be passive and give up their own voices for the men in their lives. But, as Chevalier herself highlights in the foreword:

“Reader, I married him” is Jane’s defiant conclusion to her rollercoaster story. It is not, “Reader, he married me” – as you would expect in a Victorian society where women were supposed to be passive; or even, “Reader, we married”. Instead, Jane asserts herself; she is the driving force of her narrative, and it is she who chooses to be with Rochester.

Anyone can imagine the importance of this short story collection where the 19th century and 21st century literary traditions merge in order to pay homage to one of the best and most beloved woman writers in the history of Western literature. Not only that, but with the inclusion of authors of non-Western backgrounds Chevalier has achieved the ultimate update of the classic offering the reader a more complex and more diverse take on Jane’s story. The book is then, perfect for the #ReadWomen and #ReadDiverse projects that try to encourage the reading of books by women authors and by BAME and LGBT writers.

Due to that freedom of re-imagining, it is sometimes hard to see the connection to Jane Eyre, and to see how even the characters may relate. However, I was immediately charmed by”Dorset Gap” by Tracy Chevalier, a contemporary take on the story depicting a date between a Janey and an Ed, university students, out on a hike together. I was also fascinated by the many ways in which Jane Eyre‘s marriage to a completely inappropriate man can be interpreted as the beginning of an abusive relationship, with important consequences that would take place after Brontë’s happily ever after ending. Whenever I think about the novel, I see it as a love story, but I had never stopped to reconsider it under the light of romantic love – an enterprise of Third Wave feminism in which traditional and patriarchal ideas about love can lead to a woman’s subjection and abuse in a relationship with her partner. So, I was thankful and glad that some authors decided to explore what could have become of Jane and Rochester, and how their relationship would translate to a time when despite 200 years of social developments, women still consider 19th century a role model. Just a reminder that Charlotte is still shaking our world and urging us to lead better, more fulfilling lives as women.

If you want to read more reviews, click here.

Kate Atkinson Not Shorlisted for the Bailey’s Prize… Yet Again

This is both a love note and a quick rant. This is a post about being bookishly devastated – if that is even a thing: British author Kate Atkinson has not been shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize for fiction, even though her latest novel, A God in Ruins, made it to the long list. What can I say? I am both surprised and angry, but I saw it coming. Atkinson has been snubbed at numerous literary prizes for ages. Her novels offer readers a complex, rich, humourous, dark and unique take on diverse themes that range from everyday life to moral relativism.

I can take the cynical route and diminish the power of prizes and trophies, and say that a work of art’s value lies on itself, rather on the recognition from outsiders – see the controversy regarding the Academy Awards this year. However, I have a lot of respect for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I truly believe if anyone deserves it, that’s Atkinson. I, like many others on the Internet, already thought Atkinson deserved that prize for her previous novel, Life After Life, which is such a complex work of art I’m terrified at writing anything scholarly on it.

While I am writing this, I wonder if Atkinson is still suffering backlash from her feminist comments while promoting her novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum back in the 1990’s. I wonder if that journalist who twisted her words to make her say all women should live together in an Amazon-like world with no men. I wonder if after that terrible experience that led to Atkinson cutting almost all contact with the press, she is still trying to heal, I know I would. But, most importantly, I wonder if those twisted words, if Kate Atkinson’s feminism (which she hasn’t openly commented on) is still haunting her. As if the rumour of being a feminist could destroy someone in 2016. I hope from the bottom of my heart that it is not the case because I want Kate Atkinson to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I also hope I get to write a love letter to Atkinson next year along with a congratulations note. She deserves it. We all know it.

Tastes Like Fear (Marnie Rome #3) by Sarah Hilary

Last January I was one of the lucky bloggers to get a super early review copy of Tastes Like Fear, the third installment in the Marnie Rome series by Sarah Hilary. If you have not heard about the series, Marnie Rome or Sarah Hilary, I highly recommend you skip this review and check my review of Someone Else’s Skin (# 1) here or an interview with Sarah Hilary in which she discusses crime fiction, and the Marnie Rome series here, or check our talk about feminism and women writers here.

Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary (Marnie Rome #3)

If you have continued reading I can then start my enthusiastic review of Tastes Like Fear. Like No Other Darkness, Tastes Like Fear starts soon after the previous book finished, which is something that has become typical of the series, and which I really appreciate because it allows for a more complex character development. We meet Marnie and Noah barely six months after the previous novel, with Sol still living with Noah and Dan, and Marnie spending an important amount of time at Ed’s flat, and with Stephen Keele still trying to call Marnie’s attention. This time, Marnie’s team find themselves investigating the appearance of a nearly naked young girl in the streets of London, who caused a traffic accident in which a teenager died and a young mother has been left in a critical state. That girl could be May Beswick, the white, middle-class girl who has been missing for three months. But what is she doing at the Garrett, one of the poorest and most troublesome neighbourhoods of London? And why was she running away,  nearly naked and disoriented? And, most importantly, where did she go after causing the accident?

As she did in the previous novels, Hilary creates two parallel stories: Marnie’s team, and the victims’. This narrative strategy offers the reader a much more complex approach to the story because it allows us to experiment the tension between what is happening with the victims, and the developments in Marnie’s team to catch the criminal before he/she does more harm. In Tastes Like Fear Hilary has mastered her own craft and offers four of the victims’ points of view, each of them different, and with different interests in mind. Contrary to what happened in previous installments, we do not get access to the killer, although I think recent crime fiction is paying more and more attention to victims, since they are the raison d’être of the genre. With this diversity, Hilary is portraying different responses to situations in which we can feel in danger, or that cause us extreme anxiety. We think we would do if we were robbed, or kidnapped, or hold at gun point, but we have no idea how we would react, and Hilary explores the surprising ways in which victims can behave in a masterful, and detailed way.

Tastes Like Fear also includes a new character: the city of London. Space and place had been quite important in previous novels in the series, but in this one Hilary pays special attention to the ways in which we interact with a city. The urban space is race, gender, and sexuality constructed: there are places a ‘good’, middle-class, heterosexual girl like May should not go, and where she would call everyone’s attention. We are given an insider’s view thanks to DS Noah Jake, who grew up in a state similar to the Garrett and knows the allegiances and the prescriptive behavioural codes that come from social pressure. As a homosexual cop, born and raised in communal living, he finds himself in an inbetween: neither on Marnie’s part, nor on the people at the Garrett’s, allowing for an exploration of his identity, and the many ways in which we can construct and change ourselves.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of a lot of diverse teenager voices. I have already commented on the necessity to portray teenage girls in fiction more frequently, like Abbott does, because, needless to say, they are part of society. Hilary pays attention to those teenagers who feel the need to escape their supposedly comfortable, middle-class homes searching for something more. She also describes how many of these teenagers use the urban space and the city to rebel against their parents, who would rather have them in gender and class appropriate spaces. Teenage years are quite difficult because we experiment a lot of changes in both our bodies and our minds, and sometimes it is hard to negotiate those changes with your environment. I had the greatest of times by Hilary’s portrayal of three teenagers – two boys and a girl – who are drinking beer, and eating expensive crisps in the subway, with their Doctor Marents boots and warm coats protecting them from the cold before they finally return to their homes. This is not what rough life as a homeless teenager feels like, and the book makes a point of highlighting the difference letting rebellious teenagers know they do not really know how hard it is while never overlooking pain. For this reason I would suggest Tastes Like Fear as a reading for young people who enjoy crime fiction participating in the #ReadWomen and #ReadDiverse projects.

And, more importantly, this book is important for women in crime fiction because the female victims are given a voice, even when they are dead, Hilary manages to make them feel important, to make the reader see that a female corpse, dumped in the garbage deserves respect, although it can be very difficult, even for people as experimented as DI Marnie Rome, to treat them:

Fran knelt at the dead girl’s side, studying her swollen face before touching gloved fingers tenderly to the bruises. Marine stayed back, not speaking, watching Fran work. Her presence made the scene feel less like an annihilation. She was taking the temperature of the crime, finding its pulse, feeling for its edges. Until now, Marnie had wanted to cover the dead girl, hide her from prying eyes. She’s seen the way Ron had looked at the body, embarrassed and angry. A teenage girl dumped like garbage, appallingly vulnerable. With Fran kneeling beside her, she looked safe.

Tastes Like Fear is the best in the Marnie Rome series until now, and I can see how Sarah Hilary is mastering her own art. However, I am a bit worried about the future of the series. Noah Jake is slowly becoming a more interesting and more central character to the series, while Marnie is falling back into very dark times. It does not help that Hilary herself conducted a poll on Twitter asking readers who should die next in the series: Noah, Marnie, or Ed. Although I would be happy to spend more time with Noah, I can only hope Marnie does not die, since she is one of the strongest women detective in contemporary crime fiction (also, making her go through yet another tragic death is not fair, Sarah!).

Tastes Like Fear is out today. Be sure to grab a copy!

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings

Karen Sullivan, founder of Orenda Books, and I have been Twitter friends for some time now. I even got to meet her at CrimeFest15 along with some of her authors. However, I had never read any of the books published by Orenda, despite all of them being amazing crime fiction. So, when I found out about In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings on Twitter, I knew I had to ask Karen for a review copy. She was super excited about my request, and she kindly sent me a lovely paperback edition, the perfect size to carry on my handbag, but not so small so as to make reading difficult. And this was just an advance of what was quality of the novel I had in my hands.

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings (Orenda Books)

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings (Orenda Books)

In Her Wake tells the story of Bella Campbell, 28, who has just lost her mother. Once she returns to The Old Vicarage – the comfortable but reclusive family home – she sees how her father is struggling to cope and is behaving in an odd way. After finding his corpse the next morning in his studio, she is handed down a letter that will change Bella’s life forever. I have to stop here, because although I had written a more detailed description of the book, I realised I knew no more than this when I picked up In Her Wake, and it was for the better. Amanda Jenning’s novel can be described as a blend of two of my favourite writers: Kate Atkinson and Kate Morton. So, think it would be better to left the important things unsaid, and let you discover what happened to Bella Campbell.

The novel deals with family-related issues, and Jennings pays special attention to the inner life of Bella. While Morton books focus on a mystery and try to solve it, Jennings devotes time to how the mystery affects the characters involved, allowing readers a much more close relationship with Bella and her struggles. The cover features quotes by Hannah Beckerman and Claire MacKintosh praising the moving descriptions of grief in the novel, and although I agree, I would also add that In Her Wake is a novel about accepting the gray areas of life. Contrary to fiction, life offers us relationships with people who are not completely good, neither completely bad, and it is necessary to accept such a complexity and learn to love people. without getting into much detail, I managed to negotiate a morally complex situation through Bella’s character, but came out with a different conclusion for myself, had I been in her shoes, which did not take anything away from the novel. I throughly enjoyed reading it, and I hope more women writers engage in these types of conversation about breaking away with social expectations of perfection, cleanliness, and defined areas in order to offer us more realistic family narratives featuring female characters.

One of the most prominent family-related issues portrayed in the novel is the consequences of living with fear, and how it affects our beloved ones. Fear may cause people to over-protect children, or make decisions for people seem not to be able to make those decisions for themselves. Fear may even destroy us, and take life away from us. Jennings highlights the importance of learning to live with fear, or rather accept that bad things may happen, there is no way you can prevent them, and you just have to live in the moment. In Her Wake‘s beautiful prose, and the stunning Cornish landscape play a key role in this re-education of the mind, made possible by the fear Bella feels. However,I would say this is a novel about the sea. I live a bit far from the sea myself, and I find a special happiness at visiting the sea-side, hearing the seagulls, and just being there. Jennings seems to share my love for the sea, and she features it prominently in the novel, making it a decisive main character in the creation of Bella’s identity. In Her Wake is perfect for anyone who is in love with the sea and the seaside and is looking for a complex novel about the gray areas in life, and how to live with them. While reading, I was soothed and inspired by Jennings’ descriptions of St. Ives, a real-life town in Cornwall that I can’t wait to visit now:

St. Ives (Cornwall)

St. Ives (Cornwall)

I loved In Her Wake, and I think it is one of the best novels that I will read this year, and I will definitely be following the amazing collaboration between Orenda Books and Amanda Jennings looking out for jewels like this novel.

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings is out today. Be sure to grab a copy!

Jessica Knoll, Author of Luckiest Girl Alive, Speaks Out About Sexual Abuse

Luckiest Girl Alive is Jessica Knoll’s debut novel. Published in Spring 2015, it was the book that I first reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can check my review here.

Luckiest Girl Alive

Due to copyright issues, I cannot reproduce my review here in any form, but I can say that it offers readers one of the most brutal depictions of a gang rape I have ever read. And I am doing a PhD in crime fiction, so I am not the ultra-sensitive kind. Back when I was reading the book I did not give this scene more thought than I would have done in any other book. I was surprised at the brutality of it, yes, but since the book is such a good crime novel I thought Jessica Knoll is the next American crime fiction novelist. However, Knoll herself came out as a rape victim herself in a wonderful and moving letter at Lena Durhman’s Lenny Letter entitled ‘What I know’. Apparently, quite a bunch of women wanted to know more about Knoll’s cryptic dedication:

To all the TifAni FaNellis of the world,

I know. 

Again, when I was reading the book last Spring – the book that actually got me out of a post-break reading slump – I thought Knoll knew about the pressure to fit into a size 0. The pressure to marry well. The pressure to have that effortless fashion blogger look that I find impossible to emulate. The pressure to be a millennial woman, as my review for LARB shows. But Knoll’s message did not exactly refer to that.

Jessica-Knoll-Headshot

Author Jessica Knoll

I am writing this post because I want to share Jessica Knoll’s letter (link below), but also because I want to highlight the importance of inscribing and exploring these issues in contemporary crime fiction. Knoll herself decided to share the truth about her book and her life after being approached by many other women who, like TifAni,  knew. Many of us didn’t know. Lucky us. But we live in a rape culture in which walking back home alone late at night actually feels dangerous, and if something terrible were to happen to us, we will be blamed for it and that is not how things should be. And we can change that, one step at a time. One of those little, tiny steps, is to talk about our experiences, let other women know they are not alone, and let them know it is was never their fault. Never.

There are many ways in which we can change the discourse and books are crucial: as cultural tools for change, books can help us feel less alone in whatever we are going through, they can expand our views, they can explain our own feelings to us, and it can let us know that it is fine to feel terrible about it – like TifAni does – without shame or guilt. Rape culture needs to stop blaming women when they are actually victims, and I believe books can help us achieve this much-needed change. Apparently, so do Jessica Knoll, Lena Durham and the thousands of people who have read Knoll’s letter and have shown support to her and other sexual abuse victims.

You can read Jessica Knoll’s letter here.

You can read an interview with Jessica Knoll for Buzzfeed (after she published her letter) here.

If you are a victim of sexual abuse, here are some links that could be useful:

USA: RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) offers victims a hotline, as well as other resources on how to find help.

UK: The Survivor Trust offers a hotline, and the National Health Service offers some guidelines on how to get help after rape and sexual abuse.