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The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls by Emma Cline

I have a dislocated elbow at the moment; my arm is in a full cast and I’m unable to work so it’s the perfect time to catch up with some of my giant TBR pile. Last year there was a lot of buzz about The Girls, it was hyped to the max, and I remember hoping it wouldn’t be one of those novels that are full of potential that doesn’t quite get realised. The jury’s out on that one, but I’m happy to report that when I began reading I was totally absorbed. It’s a reimagining of the Manson cult (I initially tried using a dictation device as my right arm/hand is out of action, but it typed Manson cult as mints and coat and I gave up) told from the point of view of Evie, a 14-year-old who is bored by her long-standing friendship with Connie, upset with her separated parents, ignored by her crush, and disillusioned by school. She is the perfect blend of yearning romantic and brittle bravado for the Mansonesque Russell and his girls to manipulate and influence. Cline is dazzlingly good at the socially awkward shuffles and games adolescent girls employ hoping to be accepted and cool, and the faith we have that one day we will discover our real purpose, our real lives.

She was lost in that deep and certain sense that there was nothing beyond her own experience. As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be received. How sad it was to realise that sometimes you never got there. That sometimes you lived a whole life skittering across the surface as the years passed, unblessed.

Interspersed throughout, a middle-aged Evie, damaged and lonely, spends time in the company of a couple of teens who are impressed by her past. Her life is indelibly marked by her association with the cult. Her “inevitable self” is not anything she would have hoped for.

Cline writes convincingly about how the girls, and boys too, come to find themselves part of Russel’s commune, living a bullshit free love existence. Evie is entranced by one of them, Suzanne, enough to return to the grimy commune rather than stay with either of her parents. Russell is the magnetic leader, but he remains distant to the reader as the novel moves towards the inevitable brutal murders. It’s Suzanne who is Evie’s focus, although like all the cult characters she too remains unknowable and mysterious.

On reflection, the weird problem I have with the book is that probably the least successful part is the Manson story. The teen girl insights chimed with me and were where my interest lay. I’m not sure the cult part is that interesting – maybe read Helter-Skelter if that’s your area (the bestselling true crime book written by Vincent Bugliosi, the chief prosecutor in the Manson case – a book I devoured many years ago when I was a teen). I wonder if Cline’s novel was actually hindered by following that narrative. However, her perceptiveness and ability make whatever she writes next very interesting to me.

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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

This isn’t the kind of book I would usually read. I am not someone who thrills to tales of real life violence; the True Crime section in the bookshop is of no interest to me and although I do read in-depth newspaper and magazine articles, I try to steer clear of sensationalist nonsense that seems to glamorise crime. There’s a ton of that crap about though, so clearly there’s an audience.

Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of two teens who murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris injured another 24 people, attempted to kill many more with home made bombs which failed to detonate, and committed suicide. I haven’t read anything beyond news reports at that time, did not want to read assumptions and theories about what happened, but was interested to hear that Sue Klebold had written a book and curious to know what she had to say. I imagined it would be a painful read, and I approached it with empathy – I am a mother of teens, I know our teens make choices that aren’t comfortable for us, but this horror is unimaginable and unbearable. There are those who squarely blame the parents  – how could they not have seen who their sons were? That’s not how I think, but how do you live with that anger against you, that level of blame? How do you endure when your son is revealed to be a hate filled murderer?

This book is Sue Klebold’s attempt to do something positive. She wants to alert people to the signs she missed in her own son (that he had “brain illness”, that he was depressed, bullied, at break point. She aligns herself with other mothers of kids who committed suicide, albeit murder-suicide, and speaks about how her son wanted to die. Unlike Eric Harris, who wanted to kill. There is a clear distinction.)

Sometimes people speak passionately and the words are vivid and maybe a little messy, but heartfelt, and other times, usually when professionals speak, each word has been carefully chosen and the delivery is dry and careful. This book is the latter. It reads as if lawyers have combed through it 1,000 times for anything potentially damaging. There is nothing here but a few descriptions of her son, meaningless to anyone except her family, a few anecdotes that present him as “normal”, a lot of scientific evidence of brain illness, and an avoidance of anything potentially controversial. The first few chapters describe her disbelief as the police turn up at her home immediately after the shootings. She has no access to news but bits filter through as she waits outside while the house is searched, enough that she understands her son was involved. She assumes he was an unwilling participant, or didn’t understand what was happening, or was in thrall to Eric Harris. But she won’t describe the actual events, or what it felt like to comprehend the truth.

There is a necessary need not to offer a template for others, but what is left is not a compelling read. It’s a terrible story, but we do not learn anything here and Klebold seems reluctant to go beaneath the surface. Perhaps she can’t, our minds protect us from unbearable things, but it makes me wonder why she wrote this.

The most valuable thing in the book is not written by her. In the introduction, Andrew Solomon says, “…we want to believe that parents create criminals because in supposing that, we reassure ourselves that in our own house, where we are not doing such wrong things, we do not risk this calamity. I am aware of this delusion, because it was mine…

I came away thinking that the psychopathy behind the Columbine massacre could emerge in anyone’s household. It would be impossible to predict or recognise; like a tsunami, it would make a mockery of all our preparations.”

Which is chilling, but feels true to me. There is a tipping point when our children, necessarily so, grow away from us and all we can do is hope the foundations we have laid hold them steady. We can’t be responsible for their actions. Klebold’s efforts to get more recognition and support for people suffering mental illness is admirable and I applaud her determination to use this awful notoriety she has to do something positive. I don’t think this is a good book though. There are a variety of assertions made – “We’ve all felt angry enough to fantasise about killing someone else.” Well, no, actually I haven’t. “Most of us can’t name a single celebrity who has struggled–successfully anyway–with depression or another mood disorder…” Erm, well actually I can… There’s an attempt to present Dylan Klebold as a “normal” teen but offers scant evidence of it and all the while we know that behind his mother’s back he was writing diaries planning his suicide, filming vitriolic segments with Eric Harris, playing with guns, getting into trouble with the police.

Why would we want to judge Sue Klebold? Why would we need to? I hope she finds a peace in her activism and support. But this is a book review and this book is not great.

The Museum of You by Carys Bray

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When Carys Bray writes, woah, she sure does get you in the feels. Both “The Museum of You” and Bray’s first novel, “A Song for Issy Bradley,” deal with the aftermath of death, but Bray has a wonderful way of illuminating darkness with humour and empathy so the novels remain a pleasure to read.

Clover Quinn’s mother Becky died six weeks after Clover was (unexpectedly) born. Now 12, Clover lives with her bus driver dad, Darren, whose silence on the subject of her mum only fuels her desire to know more. In the long summer holidays, inspired by a school trip to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Clover attempts to curate an exhibition of her mum, using bits and bobs of belongings that have remained in a cluttered, untouched bedroom for years. Where the novel is strongest is in the relationship between Clover and her dad and in the depiction of him adapting to a life that looks entirely different from how he’d once hoped. Darren is a wonderfully sympathetic character, flawed as all of us are, and very recognisable in his attempts to be the best parent he can.

“He could make jam or something. He remembers the things mum used to make with the raspberries: cheesecakes, trifles, tarts, fools and mousses. They could have a go, him and Clover, she’d like that. He has had these ideas before but it’s a struggle to make them materialise; by the time he gets home there will be something else to occupy his thoughts – the detached radiator, the hall walls, the worry that there may be something else she needs.”

The novel features a supporting cast of characters, the most interesting of whom is Jim, Darren’s troubled brother in law who has mental health issues and is hopeless at self-care. Describing Darren’s feelings towards him – “His kindness comes in bursts and he tires quickly. It was easier in the early days, when it seemed as if it was going to be more of a sprint than a marathon,” succinctly describing the fluctuating resolve of trying to help someone desperately needy who doesn’t seem likely to want to, or be able to, ever change.

Mrs Mackeral is the malapropism yelling next door neighbour who is maybe a little too cartoonish to feel fully realised, but provides some amusing moments. Colin is Darren’s best mate who along with his sister, and Darren’s dad, form a kind of family unit around Clover. Whilst death underpins the narrative, there is a sense of optimism that this wonky group provide.

Clover is deftly drawn and is a character to cheer for. The story is heart warming whilst not shying away from truth.

Towards the end of the book Bray writes,“Grief never goes away. And that’s no bad thing – it’s only the other side of love, after all.”
How beautiful is that?

This is an emotionally honest novel written by a writer who marries real insight with engaging writing.

Smash Lits with Dan Powell

So, the first person to face my Smash Lits questions is Dan Powell.

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His debut collection of short fiction – “Looking Out Of Broken Windows” – has just been published by Salt. I got to read it before it was published. (Yeah, I’m showing off.) Dan was entering it into the Scott Prize and I told him “It’s a winner for sure” and “I fully expect you to win this competition”. I have NEVER said that to anyone else. I mean, what a thing to say! But, that’s how certain I was. That’s how good his stories are. All of them! He’s consistently excellent. Fanfare please, Salt loved it so much they published it and I think you should probably buy it. Or you can enter a competition to win a copy by commenting here or on any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet this March, or you can “like” the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page. All the names will be put in a hat for the draw which takes place on April 6th. Anyway, enough blurby stuff, on with the questions.

1) How do you organise your bookshelves?

I keep all my short fiction collections together on a series of shelves, but beyond that it is all chaos. I buy too many books (just ask my wife) and now there are stacks on top of stacks. I may have to start double layering each shelf but I am currently resisting that. It feels wrong.

2) What is your favourite biscuit?

Custard Cream. A design classic. The Helvetica of biscuits. They’re everywhere.

3) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

All of my electronic devices have the same digital wallpaper. Clouds against a blue sky. Very calming. So that. Walls and ceiling, please.

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4) What was your favourite book as a child?

Treasure Island. It’s still in my top ten. Perfect boys’ own adventure. Funny and thrilling and at times very, very dark.

5) Your writing is music, what style is it?

Instrumental mood music. Somewhere between Lowercase Noises and Explosions in the Sky.

6) Are you in it for the money, fame and glory? Or?

I’m in it for the words. Just the words.

7) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

I’d swap places with Jonathan Franzen and use his computer to set him up an official verified Twitter account. I’d tweet a few for him, then sit back to watch the literary back room of the internet explode.

8) What makes the wind blow?

Those little sighs that toddler’s give when they are sleeping. That’s the starting point. It’s a butterfly flapping its wings thing.

9) Do you have a favourite pen?

Yes. My fancy-dan Fisher Space Explorer Pen. It writes upside down and in space. Just in case I’m ever upside down or in space or upside down in space. Can you be upside down in space?
(I am so jealous. I really want one of those. I asked for one for Christmas but nobody knew what I meant apparently.)

10) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Probably not. But some probably should.

11) Have you ever written an angry letter/email to a magazine or newspaper?

No, but my first ever published writing was a letter in the UK Transformers comic. I seem to remember winning twenty pounds as the writer of that week’s star letter. That’s better than you get for most short stories these days.

12) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Not seen this since the early nineties. My sister watched this and Home and Away avidly. I caught glimpses up until I left for Uni. I’ll say Mike as he grew up to be Guy Pearce which was kind of unexpected.

13) Would you rather be a bee or a wasp?

Bee. No one likes a wasp.

14) If your life story was made into a book, what would the title be?

Looking Out of Broken Glasses or No More Books.

15) What did you do last Saturday night?

Read some Karl Ove Knausgaard and watched Wes Anderson’s first movie, Bottle Rocket, with my wife. Not at the same time.

16) Do you have a writer crush?

I have a bit of a thing for Amy Hempel. She’s broken my heart many times and keeps doing so. I keep coming back for more.

17) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins and why?

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Bacon. Streaks ahead of Tofu.
(Streaks. Haha.)

18) Have you ever seen a ghost?

No. I am planning on being one though.

19) Are you Looking Out of Broken Windows? What can you see from your window?

I’m on a train as write this so I’m looking out of a wide, dirty window. I can see the suburbs of Nottingham. Uniform houses all in rows. Boxes with triangles on top. Punctuated every now and again by an industrial estate.

20) Can you make up a poem about broken windows?

The window broke
All by itself
It popped and snapped
It had no help
I tried to put it back in place
Tried but could only fail.

Is that a poem?

Oh yes, I think so. Very profound.

Thanks for answering my questions, and I wish you many sales and much success. I’d also like to say thank you for all the work you put into supporting other writers.

 

 

 

The Deaths by Mark Lawson

Four wealthy families live in four exclusive listed houses in the countryside, a half hour commute from London. From the outset we know that one of these families has been murdered, and Lawson’s novel keeps the big reveal of who and why until the end part of the book. Instead he introduces us to each of “The Eight” as they commute, work, shop, drink, eat, and holiday together. On the surface all is perfect, inevitably, not far beneath those glossy veneers, all is far from ok.

The difficulty with having four sets of couples is in establishing distinct personas for each. Max, Jenno, Emily and Jonny seemed more vivid to me than Simon, Tasha, Libby and Tom. Added to their voices are those of the children, Nick (a fellow commuter), the investigating police officers, a female vicar, a nanny. Lawson’s cast is large, as is the novel, and I don’t think he manages to capture all the voices. His attempt at teen speak is rather clunky:

“Jeez, this is awks… He’s really old (thirty?) but dead fit and definitely gives her the full body scan, even though Mumsie made her wear a body-burka and what she calls the Sensible Coat. Tilly was, like, I’ll be inside all day but she was only on transmit as usual. Troll.”

He does, however, excel at pompous men whose speech is still peppered with juvenile public school phrases.

It’s not really a murder mystery, although of course it is that; it’s a satirical look at life now, a social commentary for the middle aged. Smart phones, Waitrose, drinking too much, children speaking in faux gangster styles, the economy, hypochondria, internet porn, coffee culture and so on. There are funny lines such as “Simon blames Top Gear for the fact that so many British men now regard conversation as violently belittling banter.” There’s also a lot of sex talk, and some sex scenes that may surely be nominated for this years Bad Sex award. (I can’t be bothered to flick back through the whole book, but I think there’s even a reference to the penis as truncheon.)

I wanted to know what had happened, but I did become somewhat bored and took to skim reading occasionally. It’s all a bit of a romp, with some brilliantly well observed lines skewering the white, middle classes. My favourite line:

 “A black maid is doing something complicated with pastry. The lives of these people.

“Monifa, my wife,” Mortimer identifies her.

Kate tries not to show that she has been humiliatingly out-liberaled.”