Book Review: AUTHORITY by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the second installment in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, after Annihilation and before Acceptance. Rather than clarifying the mysteries of the first novel, Authority only adds more: we get a new main character, more exposure to the mysterious (and dysfunctional) Southern Reach organization, and a bunch of freaky new imagery. I didn’t love everything about this book–in particular, I thought it was a little too inscrutable and dense–but I’m coming to believe that the Southern Reach trilogy is an experience more than it’s a story. In the same way a trip to an interesting place can be life-changing without being pleasant every minute, diving into Authority is vivid and unforgettable even when it’s also confusing and occasionally a slog. And if you can tolerate the leadenness (intriguingly leaden, mind you–it feels like a deliberate choice rather than a failure of craft), you’ll be rewarded with an absolutely electric ending that has me on tenterhooks till I can start Acceptance.

Spoiler note: If you haven’t read Annihilation yet and you care about spoilers, you should probably skip the body of this review. It’s difficult to talk about Authority without spoiling some details of Annihilation‘s ending.

You can read my full review below.


Authority Cover

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

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  • publisher: FSG Originals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: May 6, 2014
  • length: 352 pages

In Control’s dreams it is early morning, the sky deep blue with just a twinge of light. He is staring from a cliff down into an abyss, a bay, a cove. It always changes. He can see for miles into the still water. He can see ocean behemoths gliding there, like submarines or bell-shaped orchids or the wide hulls of ships, silent, ever moving, the size of them conveying such a sense of power that he can feel the havoc of their passage even from so far above.

–from Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

After Annihilation, you’ll likely notice immediately that something with Authority isn’t quite right. First, you were probably expecting Authority to be told from the perspective of the biologist, Annihilation‘s unforgettable central character whose alliance seemed to lie with the eerie natural world of Area X more than it did with her human companions: the surveyor, anthropologist, and psychologist.

Next, if you remember key plot details, you might be surprised that Authority re-introduces us to the surveyor and anthropologist at all, seeing as both died memorable, horrible deaths in Annihilation. But here they are in the first chapter of Authority, in a lineup right next to the biologist. Our new narrator, Control, is taking stock of them.

Most of all, you will be perturbed for the same reason Control is perturbed: despite the miraculous resurrection of the surveyor and anthropologist (a resurrection Control doesn’t even realize has occurred) and return of the biologist, the psychologist is still missing. Control is supposed to figure out why–and to get to the bottom of the deeper mysteries of Area X.

Despite his moniker, Control is never in control. Right away he’s established as a troubled man with an ocean of fear, anger, and resentment right under his surface. He’s following in the footsteps of his mother, a talented government agent. She’s the one who got him the director’s job at the Southern Reach, the job recently vacated by the psychologist. All is not well at the Southern Reach. In fact, the top-secret government organization is crumbling and demoralized, and Control’s staff is incompetent, hostile, and…not quite right, to put it lightly.

Then there is the biologist, the only returnee from the twelfth expedition who seems to remember it. Control quickly becomes fascinated. Their fates intertwine, as you suspect they will from the start.

In my review of Annihilation last July, I described it as a novel that works on many levels: woman-versus-wild, a deep meditation on selfhood and grief, and an inversion of the traditional sci-fi idea that humanity must be protected at all costs. Area X threatens to catastrophically disrupt humanity, and in the view of the biologist, that outcome doesn’t seem so bad.

Authority has a narrower focus than Annihilation, and it’s a good-bad thing. The diary conceit is dropped for a more traditional first-person narration. Control is less intriguingly cold and alienating than the biologist, though every bit as weird and idiosyncratic. And rather than being set in the wide-open wilderness of Area X, Authority takes place mostly at Control’s workplace, the Southern Reach.

Where Annihilation felt a little like Star Trek, an expedition boldly going somewhere (although not quite where no one had gone before), Authority is more like Alien, a claustrophobic haunted house of a workplace drama.

I both missed Annihilation‘s open ends and was grateful for a firmer place to land.

Jeff VanderMeer is enormously skilled, and one of his most interesting qualities as a writer (at least in this and Annihilation) is the way he plays with density and opacity of narrative. Large sections of Authority felt like banging my head against a wall. I was confused and frustrated and there seemed to be no end in sight.

And yet…it was good? Yeah. It was good. It added to the experience of reading in ways I’m struggling to put my finger on. Of course Area X and the Southern Reach are confusing! That’s the point. For the sake of the new territory VanderMeer is forging here, I’m willing to be confused.

In manipulating the ways the reader can absorb information, VanderMeer keeps us in the same foggy state of mind as the biologist or Control, meaning that as revelations are slowly doled out, they hit us with full force. (The ending in particular feels like a sudden, gorgeous parting of clouds.) We are never one step ahead of the characters; we’re right along with them, or even a little behind. Even though we know (or think we know) what happened to the biologist on the twelfth expedition, we can’t make the wider connections any better than Control can.

Or…maybe I’m overreading all of this. It could just be that I don’t jive with VanderMeer’s style, even though I appreciate the skill and craft behind it. Either way, I always felt that VanderMeer was fully empowered here, making choices about how to tell his story instead of being overwhelmed by it. You’ll either like it or you won’t, but you’ll know you’re in expert hands.

I’m so, so curious about what answers will ultimately lie in Acceptance. Either it’s going to be the mother of all payoffs, or it’s going to disappoint me, given the immense mental energy I’ve already invested in Annihilation and Authority. 

I would be remiss in finishing this review before I talked about Authority‘s character development, which is terrific. Despite the fuzziness of the plot, each character in the novel–from the protagonists to the periphery–was crystal clear and real. VanderMeer effortlessly commits to diverse characters, both in the sense of having characters from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, disability statuses, and sexual orientations, and in the sense of having characters with a variety of personalities.

In particular, Control was a fascinating character to spend time with. I loved his vulnerability mixed with bravado, his alternating anxiety and numbness, and I particularly loved the tension between the softer, more artistic side of his personality encouraged by his father and the harder, more militaristic side encouraged by his mother. VanderMeer writes about how it feels to grow up as a child of divorce better than maybe anyone else I’ve read. And a character twist we get late in the novel throws Control’s intense guilt over his status as a nepotism hire at the Southern Reach into sharp and fascinating relief.

Authority ultimately feels like anything but authority. It’s chaotic and overwhelming and frightening. That tension between name and reality is what makes Authority a true novel for the 21st century, a kind of Rorschach blot for anxieties about war, government malevolence and ineptitude, and climate change. Love it or hate it, you won’t leave feeling like it has nothing to say. ★★★★☆

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I purchased my own copy of Authority and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias is an essay collection so essential that I’m pained that it didn’t exist fifty years ago, or thirty, or ten. Thank goodness we have it now. Chronicling Esmé Weijun Wang’s years of living with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder (along with other compounding chronic and mystery illnesses like Lyme disease), its essays go far deeper than abnormal psych 101s. Wang instead weaves in more open-ended themes of liminal space, the boundaries of science and belief, and what it means to be permanently sick. The keenness and heart of The Collected Schizophrenias reminds me of the very best of Joan Didion.

If you live with mental illness, especially one of “the schizophrenias,” you need to read this book. If a loved one lives with schizophrenia, you need to read this book. And if you just plain love terrific nonfiction writing, you need to read this book.

You can read my full review below.


The Collected Schizophrenias Cover

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang

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  • publisher: Graywolf Press
  • publication date: February 5, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

In these investigations of why and how, I am hoping to uncover an origin story. Pan Gu the giant slept in an egg-shaped cloud; once released, he formed the world with his blood, bones, and flesh. God said, “Let there be light.” Ymir was fed by a cow who came from ice. Because How did this come to be? is another way of asking, Why did this happen?, which is another way of asking, What do I do now? But what on earth do I do now?

–from the essay “Diagnosis” in The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

I knew I would love The Collected Schizophrenias the second I held it in my hands. It’s a sturdy paperback, perfect bound, with a cover design like a particularly lovely composition book. I knew I would love it because that is the kind of notebook they allow you to have in a psych ward–that or a legal pad, which is what I wrote on during my own stay. If you’re a writer in a psych ward, you know that such a notebook is an escape.

What’s inside The Collected Schizophrenias also feels like an escape from the overly simple and the simply overwrought. Esmé Weijun Wang establishes a distinct style from the first page, which begins, simply, “Schizophrenia terrifies.” It does. The escape velocity from that mind-numbing terror–similar to the escape velocity required from mere bland sympathy–is one part clarity, one part mystery, one part wild love for oneself, others, and the world. Wang nails the combo. This book does not put its author-subject on display the way so many mental illness memoirs and biographies do, as if this were a zoo or a classroom. She gently but firmly commands a more personal kind of attention.

In the essay “Perdition Days,” Wang documents weeks spent in the Cotard delusion, when she believed she was dead. In “Reality, On-Screen,” she writes about how watching the movie Lucy during a psychotic episode warped reality, and how watching Catching Fire after the episode restored it, fragilely. In “The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me,” she compares her obsession with The NeverEnding Story’s The Nothing with the Creepypasta Wiki’s The Slender Man, who inspired two Wisconsin girls to stab a third.

In all three of those essays, Wang, a novelist as well as a nonfiction author, refers to needing to remove herself from fiction for her own safety when she’s psychotic. It’s a detail that moved me and perturbed me. I had never even considered it as a thing that someone might need to do. And that’s only one of many quiet but earth-shaking details in the The Collected Schizophrenias.

For each personal revelation here, there’s just as much research and reporting, on everything from the Americans with Disabilities Act to California’s dreaded 5150s to the story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who went undercover to expose the terrible conditions in 19th century psych wards.

“The schizophrenias” of the title refers specifically to the kaleidoscope of diagnoses that make up psychotic disorders: schizophrenia, nonspecific psychoses, and schizoaffective disorder, a blend of schizophrenia and a mood disorder like bipolar or depression. Wang has that last schizophrenia: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.

Less specifically, “the schizophrenias” seems to be a way of talking about a life lived in, as Wang writes in “Perdition Days,” percentages. Percentages of sane. Percentages of psychosis. Schizophrenias.

Schizophrenia may onset in your late teens, twenties, thirties, long after your life is already on its course. I’ve thought about that endlessly. My bipolar I disorder crested and changed my life when I was 17. I was psychotic too, and when I started treatment they thought I might have schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, just as Wang does. I have now lived for years without psychosis. The schizophrenias seem to have been ruled out–for now. But I have always wondered if they might make up a second wave of my mental illness; now that I’m 24, they could be just around the corner.

After reading The Collected Schizophrenias, the thought of that potential new wave no longer feels frightening or crushingly sad to me. Wang gave me a picture of how my life–any life–might go on with schizophrenia; the way she writes about how her “physical” illnesses like chronic Lyme intertwine with her mental health only strengthens this picture of going on. The Collected Schizophrenias offers a new framework on how to be sick and whole–perhaps wholly sick–without losing your self underneath.

There are 13 essays in the book, and the only way you might know they were essays rather than chapters of a single memoir is that certain biographical information is occasionally repeated: Wang’s diagnosis (schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type), her acceptance to Yale, her work in a psychological research lab. Somehow this works to make the book more cohesive, not less; it feels faceted, and each time this information was repeated I felt a different way about it. The narrative is remarkably tight, even when it veers far from chronology.

Every essay in The Collected Schizophrenias reminded me of Joan Didion. Maybe that’s because I’ve been working my way through The White Album for the past two months. Maybe it’s because, like Didion, Wang has strong ties to California, and California permeates this book.

But I think most of all it’s because both Didion and Wang tell stories using decisive, crystallizing, anchoring words even when those stories are about the times they felt most anchorless. Wang’s prose here is lilting and light, punctuated just enough by sharpness and dark. Didion’s, too. They blend the detail and rigor of reporters with the wide-ranging questions and openness of artists. Neither writer is ever just one thing. They are full notebooks. Perfect bound. How lucky we are to have their words to escape into.

The Collected Schizophrenias is everything I want creative nonfiction to be: sharp and soft in all the right places, conveying things that dates and numbers and statistics cannot. What a stunning book. I found it life-changing. ★★★★★

Books you might also enjoy:

  • The White Album by Joan Didion
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks

I purchased my own copy of The Collected Schizophrenias and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I love short story collections, but they’re devilishly tricky to review. Luckily, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection, White Dancing Elephants, makes it easy for me: every single story is a knockout, cohering into a whole even greater than the sum of each part. Spanning continents, centuries, societies, religions, languages, genders, and sexualities, White Dancing Elephants offers up a profoundly moving series of observations about what it means to be alive (and sometimes dead), in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read lately. Fans of the short stories of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri won’t want to miss this one, though this collection is far from a mere imitation of those authors: with White Dancing Elephants, Bhuvaneswar forges terrific new ground all her own.

You can read my full review below.


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White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: October 9, 2018
  • length: 208 pages

Two years ago, when I went back to Agra, India, at the age of twenty-two, to visit my grandparents and let two of my uncles set up my marriage, my ex-girlfriend Lauren, whom I work with now on a daily basis, came after me, hoping to stop me from giving in.

–from the story “Adristakama,” in White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I always forget how much scaffolding goes into making a good story until I read–or attempt to write–a short story. A novel (or even a novella) has so much room for curtains and cover-ups, words that smooth over worldbuilding and stakes in order to keep us fully immersed in the fiction. A short story does not.

Authors of short stories must hit a bullseye every time in order to be successful: they need to choose a premise that’s exactly the right size for the story, peopled by the right number of characters, made meaningful by the right array of metaphors and themes and big reveals. One wrong move and the spell is broken.

Assembling a collection is even harder. The stories must not only work well on their own, but add meaning to each other. They must be unified into something that’s more than just a collection of pretty items in a shoebox–something more like a thoughtful exhibit at a museum, something you’d remember for a long time.

I was reminded of all these difficulties because White Dancing Elephants makes it look absolutely effortless. It’s a high wire act that its author, physician and writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar, might as well be performing at ground level for all it seems to test her.

It’s hard to say what, exactly, unifies the stories of White Dancing Elephants, except that they are unified. The titular story (also the first one in the collection) follows a woman struggling with a miscarriage. It’s trippy and surreal, but not self-consciously so, a watercolor-y portrait of pain and dreaming.

From there the collection opens up into a riot of color, idea, sound, humor, violence, ache. “Talinda” is vicious and tender by turns, chronicling a toxic friendship poisoned by cancer, an affair, and overwhelming, terribly attentive cruelty. “A Shaker Chair,” my least favorite story in the collection (but still a damn interesting one) is also about two women determined to hurt each other, but this time it’s a black biracial therapist and her Indian client. It probes at the ways abuse, prejudice, and sex intertwine, especially at how Asian anti-Blackness and Black xenophobia work in frustrating tandem, neither sin of mistrust cancelling out the other.

My favorite story comes near the midpoint and is also, I believe, the shortest. “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” explores the “world’s worst industrial disaster” (the 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant) in language that’s far from the clinical and numerical, the way it’s mainly written about in the U.S. today. A girl goes outside to play and does not come home. Bhuvaneswar handles the material with great tenderness and sharpness both, managing to avoid a simple environmentalist morality play in favor of something more spiritual, piercing, and indicting.

I can’t decide if Bhuvaneswar’s style is deceptively simple or simply deceptive: she’s a master of storytelling sleights-of-hand, focusing your attention on the details so that the full emotional weight of each story sneaks up on you right at the end, without feeling like a cheap “gotcha.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so full of revelations.

She also writes with incredible specificity, name-dropping brand names and place names and disorders and configurations of queerness. This would feel less interesting if the stories were obviously autobiographical, but they’re not: in addition to “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” there’s “Heitor,” a story about a Portuguese slave, and “Jagatishwaran,” about an artist living with schizophrenia in an Indian city wandering between a brothel and his fraught family home.

You can feel how precious each story is to Bhuvaneswar, and because their subject matter is so diverse, the effect is one of intense empathy. Perhaps this is what unifies White Dancing Elephants so well: an intense love and attention paid to the margins, wherever they may be.

It also helps that White Dancing Elephants goes out on such a high note. The final story, “Adristakama,” about a star-crossed lesbian couple fighting culture clash, but even more than the culture clash, fighting the fear of loving and being loved freely that I think we all hold inside, is so beautiful I could do nothing but read it again once I finished.

Lastly, if you’re tired of the way American publishing houses market the work of South Asian writers–flowery language, emphasis on spices, lots of images of tea and henna and lotuses and such–you’ll find a lot to love in Bhuvaneswar’s sly commentary about writing and publishing.

In “The Bang Bang,” a father speaks Sanskrit at an open mic and then gives up his family in exchange for literary recognition (and no small amount of tokenism); it’s a darkly funny and sharp critique of publishing as well as being a powerful story about family. Other stories also draw from this well: one’s about a writer on a retreat who’s processing her unsatisfying marriage (“Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold”; it’s also an element in “Talinda.”

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the stories in this book, nor what they meant to me. How could I? I adored this book. It’s going on my shelf right next to Runaway by Alice Munro, another favorite short story collection marked by its empathy, its vision, its deep sadness.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a writer of tremendous power, skill, and gift; her work is visionary and experimental without sacrificing readability. (I tore through each story, barely pausing for breath.) White Dancing Elephants is simply dazzling. ★★★★★

Standout stories: “Jagatishwaran,” “The Bang Bang,” “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” “Adristakama”

Content warning: White Dancing Elephants contains a graphic rape scene in the story “Orange Popsicles” (highlight to read). It is also substantially about infertility, abuse (including towards disabled people), and bigotry in ways that may be triggering. Read with caution if you have those triggers.

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I received a copy of White Dancing Elephants from the author in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

Book Review: THE HOT ONE by Carolyn Murnick

I’m still recovering from surgery, which means my reviewing and reading pace has gone way down while I relax and nap. (Lots of naps!) I’m in the mood to catch up with older releases I’ve missed over the past few years, and that’s why it feels like the perfect time to review The Hot One, a memoir that’s been near the top of my TBR list since it first came out in 2017.

The Hot One, dramatically subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is about the murder of writer and editor Carolyn Murnick’s childhood best friend, Ashley, who was the victim of a serial killer in the early 2000s. It’s also about the ways our adult selves diverge from our child and adolescent ones, and especially all the ways women are limited by one-dimensional definitions (for example, “the hot one” vs. “the smart one”).

The premise is powerful and The Hot One’s first third is excellent, but the book soon fizzles into what I found to be boring, confusing navel gazing. You can read my full review below.


The Hot One Cover

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder by Carolyn Murnick

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  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018
  • length: 272 pages (paperback)

In the courtroom I had seen in a new way what it looks like when a life is cut off at twenty-two. All the messy baby fat of emotional immaturity still stuck on you for eternity, paraded out for everyone to see.

–from The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick

A woman’s murder is never just her murder: it’s a stage for social commentary and catharsis, too. Usually it’s men drawing the conclusions, but in the true crime memoir The Hot One, it’s the victim’s female friend, Carolyn Murnick. Murnick uses the murder of her childhood friend Ashley as a jumping off point for big ideas about friendship, men, women, girls, the criminal justice system (kind of), journalism, sex, sex work, drugs, and most of all, herself.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot? It is, at least for Murnick. Her intense emotion is palpable and her courage in writing about this experience is admirable. But on the page, The Hot One feels remarkably understuffed. It’s simultaneously airy and swampy, overly personal and too broadly political, very dry and also too messy.

The memoir does crackle along nicely in its first third, in which Murnick details her friendship with Ashley and its tragic end. Murnick and Ashley were not close at the time of Ashley’s murder, and this is the best part of the book, although it is of course the worst part for Murnick. She is angry at herself for abandoning Ashley; she is angry at Ashley for abandoning her; she is angry at the fact of the murder for destroying any chance at reconciliation. That’s compelling stuff.

Crucially, it’s compelling stuff that also has a linear narrative. Murnick and Ashley become inseparable; they drift apart; the murder happens. It’s an arc.

It’s when that arc transitions into Murnick’s solo journey to come to terms with the murder that The Hot One becomes a voyeuristic-feeling slog, like you’re overhearing a stranger’s rambling therapy session rather than reading words assembled for publication. It’s told out of order, but not very effectively. I don’t mind piecing things together for myself, but it would be nice if it felt like I had the whole puzzle rather than odd parts.

I have the utmost respect for what Murnick has been through, and I want to be clear that in no way do I think the actions or emotions she describes in The Hot One are unseemly or wrong. I just think that they’re her actions and emotions, deeply private and inaccessible to me, and that unfortunately, The Hot One gives me little reason or opportunity to get invested in them. When Murnick is writing about Ashley, her prose shines. When she’s writing about herself, it just thuds. Unfortunately, this book is mostly her writing about herself.

The Hot One hammers certain points home again and again: that Ashley did sex work, that she was hot and flirty and confident, that she was slut-shamed and a drug user and living a double life, and that her murder was left unsolved for years partially because of all those things. (It was assumed she was killed by a jilted lover or that she had gotten tangled up in drugs or trafficking.) These things are stated and restated so many times that I found myself just skimming over them whenever they reappeared.

But The Hot One then leaves other points desperately unclear. There are weird interludes in the book where Murnick visits with astrology-obsessed friends who talk about how serial killers are often thwarted water signs. She visits a guy who’d once gone on a date with Ashley, and almost ends up sleeping with him herself, until he reveals himself to be kind of a cad. She’s asked to testify after tons of writing about how she was afraid to testify…and then we get barely any details about that testimony or what it felt like.

It’s not that these events are “wrong” or “unbelievable.” Again, nothing about Murnick’s experiences could be wrong or unbelievable in this traumatic context. It’s that the way she transcribes them for readers is murky, and worse, boring. I went from loving the book in its first chapters to loathing it by its midpoint, simply because I couldn’t understand what was going on or why it was relevant.

I also think Murnick’s reaches for political relevance are clumsy, especially with the new afterword in the paperback addition, which tries to tie the memoir to the #MeToo movement and to Murnick’s pregnancy. Her points about the ways girls both are defined and define themselves with narrow concepts like “the hot one” or “the smart one” are spot on, because they’re based in her experience. Her points about, say, the male gaze are…less spot on, since they veer wildly between talking about men’s literal gaze and the feminist concept of the male gaze without clearly distinguishing the two. Lots of other feminist concepts get similarly bungled, and the courtroom and criminal justice sections are frustratingly thin.

Like Emma Cline did in her (fictional) book about murder, The Girls, Murnick seems determined to draw wide conclusions from one narrow experience when the narrow experience is actually more compelling on its own. And as in The Girls, Murnick writes about the experiences of upper/upper middle class white girls without really acknowledging that many other kinds of girls exist, with many other archetypes than just “the smart one” or “the hot one” working against them.

The Hot One is of course different from The Girls, because Murnick is writing about her own experience. Yet it’s almost worse, in a way, since The Hot One has plenty of room for interesting research that could have filled those gaps, whereas The Girls was confined to a tighter narrative structure.

Murnick has published several excellent essays about her experience, including one that’s a condensed excerpt from this book, which is what motivated me to buy my own copy. In short form, her points are salient and gripping. But spun out into a whole book, they fizzle. It’s terribly disappointing considering how much I adored that excerpt.

The Hot One is a promising new kind of true crime memoir: one that turns its voyeuristic gaze on its author and her baggage, rather than on all the gory, salacious details of the crime. I just wish it had actually delivered on that promise. ★★☆☆☆

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I purchased my own copy of The Hot One and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

The Girls was a massive critical and commercial success upon its release in 2016, and it hardly needs my voice chiming in on its behalf. Still, I wanted to write about this historical novel–set in late ’60s California, loosely based on the Manson Family and their infamous murders–because it stirred up such a complex array of emotions in me. With Cline’s prose being so luminous that it practically burned into the back of my eyelids, and The Girls‘s electric premise, I should have absolutely loved this novelinstead I only liked it. As its title implies, The Girls is a lovely novel about girlhood, but I have serious reservations about its myopic focus and the liberties Cline takes with historical events. Despite the novel’s raw power, its plot curdles instead of coheres.

You can read my full review below.


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The Girls by Emma Cline

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  • publisher: Penguin Random House
  • publication date: 2016 (hardcover) and 2017 (paperback)
  • length: 368 pages (paperback)

It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless, formless summer. The Haight populated with white-garbed Process members handing out their oat-colored pamphlets, the jasmine along the roads that year blooming particularly heady and full. Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too–you could be some moon creature, chiffon over the lamp shades, on a kitchen cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.

But all that was happening somewhere else, not in Petaluma…

–from The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls stars one girl, Evie, who is fourteen years old. Her parents have recently divorced; she lives in her mother’s mansion in Petaluma and is acting out against her mother’s boyfriends, though you quickly get the impression that her strife with her mother runs much deeper than the divorce and new beaus: Evie is ignored and smothered by her nervous mother in turns, never quite in the Goldilocks zone of affection. Her father lives in a distant apartment with his former secretary (and new lover), rarely seen. On top of all that, Evie’s best (and seemingly only) friend spurns her. It seems things can’t get worse.

Except they can. It’s the summer of 1969, Evie is terribly lonely, and that’s when she falls in with the girls. Plural. The Manson ones.

Or they would be the Manson ones, if Cline hadn’t created a somewhat scrambled analogue of the infamous cult “family” for this novel. The Girls‘s cult leader is Russell, not Charles. The Family has a run-in with an apparently famous musician named Mitch, but his band goes conspicuously unnamed (it was actually Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). They’re in San Francisco, not Los Angeles. Cline creates four composite victims here in place of at least eight real ones.

I’m being pedantic here, I know. But I list these details because Cline is working with the freaking Manson murders here, literally one of the best-known crimes in American history. I wish that Cline had either fudged more details or fewer, because the way she writes about the summer of 1969 in this novel left me cross-eyed, like my glasses weren’t on right. The Girls‘s historical details are always distractingly in the middle distance, even as Cline gets the muggy, dizzy vibe of the thing just right.

It’s unfortunate, a little like if an Investigation Discovery reenactment was suddenly given the auteur treatment. (No disrespect meant to ID, but we all know those reenactments are the pits.) Cline is a gifted auteur, and I loved to watch her work, but I could never forget I was watching her work. The Girls never feels real, too much art and too little life. It’s good art, but it can’t escape an uncanny valley.

If you know nothing to very little about the Manson murders, then this critique is pointless. Go in and love this novel, because there’s an awful lot to love. But I don’t even know that much about the murders–most of what I know comes from Stuff You Should Know’s twopart podcast about them that was released last year–and it was still a strong enough dissonance to bother me. Your mileage may vary.

And I’ll add, in a small and self-justifying voice, that I think Cline’s composite artistry also damages the plot. It leaves Evie’s moves feeling a little too planned, leaves her feeling always in the right place and never quite under her own power, meaning that even when I knew she was in danger, the danger never compelled me. (This novel is not very long, but took me two whole weeks to get through. It’s not a slog, just somewhat impenetrable. I could only give it short bursts of my time before losing interest.)

After all that, let me talk about what The Girls gets right, because there’s an awful lot that it gets right. I promise.

First, The Girls gets girls right, and in that way, the novel’s unreality almost works in its favor. Girls are girls, whether it’s 1969 or now, most of their challenges the same. The novel’s framing device is that Evie, now an adult, is staying at an old friend’s beach house when that friend’s college-age son and his girlfriend Tasha stop by. The menacing gender dynamics Evie witnesses between the boyfriend and Tasha take her right back to 1969, when those same forces pushed her into the cult and kept her there. She narrates the story from there, with brief interludes from the present throughout.

I had a (positive) visceral reaction to the way Cline writes about Evie’s loss of innocence, and the observed loss of innocence of other girls, especially Tasha’s. Evie’s circumstances are extraordinary, and yet her arc is terribly mundane and familiar. At one point, she observes that young girls know instinctively that they are objects to be judged, that whatever opinion they have of themselves is subservient to the opinions of others (i.e., men). It’s such a simple observation and yet it hit me like a heart attack. I shivered. It was otherworldly in its potency, sort of like the “Cool Girl” speech in Gone Girl.

Which leads me to the second, perhaps best thing The Girls gets right: the prose. It’s so good I got a high of sorts. I re-read some pages many times just to marvel at them. Cline writes with a manic intensity that is just right for this material. Every scene was supercharged with detail and energy, especially the ones at the cult ranch. Green potatoes foraged from dumpsters, musty girls’ clothes shared from a trash bag, and the scumminess of an unmaintained pool all take on intense significance here. The drugged-up eyes of the other girls at the compound are at one point described as “bright berries.” That lingers.

There’s a constant contrast between the innocence of Evie’s whitewashed Petaluma life, which she hates, and the drugged-up depravity of the cult’s lifestyle, which she also hates, but models herself after anyway. It’s a contrast that becomes interestingly muddled as the novel goes on, less of a choice between two things than an inevitability. She moves from the first to the second as if there’s no way to move, as if growing up were the same as decaying.

And like Evie, I’m left of two minds here. I like the experience of having read The Girls. I love that its images and observations are now bouncing around my mind. But I can’t get over the fuzzy, somewhat numb experience of actually reading it. It’s long stretches of nothing punctuated with mind-blowing moments. On one hand, I admire The Girls’s single-mindedness, and on the other, I feel a little cheated by it. Focus does not require myopia, and yet in its focus on the girls, this novel feels myopic.

It’s worth noting, to that point, that this book does not mention race at all. To my understanding every single character in it is white. The more I think about it, the weirder that is. Evie certainly lives a fairly wealthy, spoiled, insulated life in Petaluma, but it’s 1969 in California. Near San Francisco. Near Oakland! It seems odd that there isn’t even a throwaway mention of race, especially given that the real Manson murders were considered by the lead prosecutor as attempts to frame the Black Panthers and spark a race war. (Some people today think that isn’t true, but it’s still such a huge part of the case that it’s strange to leave it out entirely, even in its made-up version.)

I’m white, and the narrative of white girlhood that Cline presents here resonated powerfully with me, but it’s very much a story of white girlhood. No novel needs to include every human experience (or even most of them), but in the case of The Girls, it feels like yet another important detail elided or muddled to suit the story’s ends. It makes the scaffolding of this novel feel too visible, though I love the structure beneath.

The Girls is a powerful experience. (A real trip, if you will.) I recommend it, and am glad I own it, since I’ll likely revisit it again. I just wish Cline had channeled its raw, cathartic energy into something that flowed just a little better, felt just a little more well-thought-out. Moment by moment, The Girls is astonishingly good, but its connective tissue falters. ★★★★☆

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I purchased my own copy of The Girls and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: SADIE by Courtney Summers

Sadie is a high-concept novel with a gritty punch. 19-year-old Sadie’s younger sister is murdered in a small town, and then Sadie herself disappears. A true crime podcast investigates the crime. (Or is it crimes?) Sadie feels both meta and granular, delightful and discomfiting, a story that uplifts forgotten teen girls without ever sinking into naïveté or blasé go, girl! empowerment. Courtney Summers’s prose is blistering and urgent, her tenterhooks-plotting a tour-de-force. This book is unforgettable.

Oh, and I don’t usually offer content warnings, since everyone’s triggers are different, but Sadie has some big ones, so:

Content warning: Sadie has graphic scenes of child abuse, rape, molestation, and pedophilia. If those are triggers for you, I’d recommend leaving this book on the shelf.

You can read my full review below.


Sadie Cover.jpg

Sadie by Courtney Summers

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  • publisher: Wednesday Books
  • publication date: September 4, 2018
  • length: 320 pages
  • cover price: $17.99

Restless teenage girls, reckless teenage girls. Teenage girls and their inevitable drama. Sadie had survived a terrible loss, and with very little effort on my part, I dismissed it. Her. I wanted a story that felt fresh, new and exciting and what about a missing teenage girl was that?

We’ve heard this story before.

–from Sadie by Courtney Summers

The first thing that struck me about Sadie was its intense sense of reality: how perfectly I could hear each line of dialogue, picture each setting, hunger for a luscious slice of apple pie, tremble with icy fear at memories that weren’t even mine. I don’t always read for reality–in fact, I often avoid it–but when a fiction author is so gifted at capturing the real world on the page, as Courtney Summers is here, magic happens. Reality becomes as vivid as CGI, as immersive as a first-person video game. Background becomes foreground. You learn the world all over again, like you fell through the looking glass last night as you slept.

Sadie is no fantasy, but reading it is fantastic.

Sadie’s lived her whole life in Cold Creek, a small town rich in natural beauty and poor in just about everything else. A high school dropout who lived for her younger sister, Mattie, Sadie’s world flies to pieces when Mattie is brutally murdered, the killer never caught. And then Sadie disappears, too.

Frustrated with local police’s tepid reaction, Sadie and Mattie’s grandmother calls in a true crime podcaster to investigate, and that’s when the novel begins: Sadie is told in alternating perspectives between the fictional podcast’s transcripts and Sadie’s own first-person narration. We’re always one step ahead of the podcast, trailing Sadie as she flees Cold Creek and seeks vigilante justice against a mysterious abuser. (Perhaps killer.)

But it soon becomes clear that Sadie isn’t telling us everything, even when she’s the one doing the telling. The tension between podcast and girl is a perfect deployment of unreliable narrators: ones that work in service of the story as well as in service of Sadie-the-novel’s brutal meta-commentary on the disposability and forgettability of girls and women.

This novel just…seethes. That’s the word that was on my tongue the whole time I read. I found that weirdly soothing, though. It was nice to be met with the same kind of feminist fury I’ve been feeling my whole life. Sadie‘s violence is relentless, but in it, I found tenderness, too. There’s tenderness in telling the truth.

Again, Sadie is fiction. But it’s remarkable how much it feels like it’s not.

So many stories of sexual and sex-based violence, especially pedophilia-related ones, are either innocence-lost stories or stories of facile revenge. They’re binary stories of either dis- or re-empowerment that place the onus of said empowerment on each girl and woman in isolation.

Meanwhile, Sadie, despite the fact that it’s named for one girl, never loses sight that Sadie is one of many girls. She’s never in isolation. You know from the first page that even if Sadie’s story ends happily (a big question mark!), hers is only one story. It would be her happy ending, not a happy ending. There are so many more. And that makes the novel burn much hotter and brighter.

It’s hard to overstate or overhype the skill Summers displays here. When half your novel is a podcast transcript, having an ear for pitch-perfect dialogue is mission critical; she nails it. (Sadie has a stutter, another detail that could have sent the dialogue awry, but it’s written flawlessly.) It’s almost hard to single out particular things Summers gets right because everything is so damn right, from characterization to plotting to her creative decisions around Sadie‘s risky, courageous ending.

I loved this book. It was the first I read in 2019, so I’m hoping that means something: for the quality of the books I’ll read this year, and also for my hopes for a world where Sadie might feel less urgent, less sharp, less real. It got 2019 off on a feminist, furious foot.

Someday I hope the message of this book will feel obsolete, but I’m certain its remarkable craft and storytelling never will be. ★★★★★

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I purchased my own copy of Sadie and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: CROSS HER HEART by Sarah Pinborough

In Cross Her Heart, Lisa is a mother and career woman who’s just starting to open up after decades-old trauma she refuses to speak about. Ava is Lisa’s daughter, a frustrated teen who’s desperate to get some independence from her smothering mother. And Marilyn is Lisa’s best friend and coworker, a kind, generous woman who seems to have it all. Of course, this novel is a thriller, which means all of them are hiding secrets that threaten to tear them apart.

Cross Her Heart is a well-plotted thrill ride written in no-nonsense, clear prose that’s fun and easy to read even through the twistiest of turns. Unfortunately, I found a few of its tropes grating, and thought it was a tad too long, leaving me liking it but not loving it.

You can read my full review below.


9780062856791

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: September 4, 2018
  • length: 352 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I was lonely for a long time. In some ways, I still am. I try to be kind to lonely people now. I’ve learned that kindness is important. What else is there, really?

Cross Her Heart, page 9*

Cross Her Heart moves at breakneck speed from the very first page, when a mysterious man identified only as Him in the chapter header discovers a note from the woman who’s leaving him. Bitch, he thinks. And with that, Cross Her Heart establishes that this is a story about the cruelty women endure, mostly at the hands of men, but sometimes at the hands of each other.

It alternates between the perspectives of three women (with a few additional perspectives thrown in here and there): mother Lisa, daughter Ava, and Lisa’s best friend Marilyn. Each is obviously holding something back, but Sarah Pinborough manages the withholding deftly, unspooling the plot just fast enough to keep you flipping pages. She writes each perspective in an open, first-person style that feels disarming in a thriller. From that disarmingly open quality comes the thrills.

Pinborough is an eminently talented writer. I was in awe of the lightness of her prose compared with the darkness of her subject matter and the density with which she needs to keep throwing us clues and red herrings. She’s written over 20 books between pen names, so it’s clear she knows what she’s doing. This was one of the first twisty-turny books I’ve ever read where I think I was able to keep a handle on the plot the entire time–that’s a good thing, since being surprised is a good feeling, but being confused is not.

Unfortunately, despite the quality of the writing and the obvious care with which the plot has been drawn, the actual events and characters of Cross Her Heart didn’t grab me, and in some cases, actively pissed me off.

First, Cross Her Heart has a sordid, mushy, nastiness to it. There’s a lot of unpleasant sex, vicious abuse, slimy office drama, incompetent cops, and opportunistic, cruel paparazzi. These details are the spice to a lot of successful thrillers, but in Cross Her Heart they feel not quite repellent nor fun enough to drive the plot. They clunked leadenly across the page, making me feel sad and bored instead of interested.

Cross Her Heart also has a strong bent of female empowerment to it that is at times glorious, but more often struck me as hollow and almost silly. The close female friendship between Lisa and Marilyn veers from cliché to interesting and then back to cliché; Ava is at times a believable teenager who’s understandably struggling to live with her mother’s strange moods, and at times a sullen kid who makes terrible, horror movie, don’t go upstairs, what the hell, are you kidding me!!!!-type decisions.

I think that while Pinborough excels at plot, she’s less good at characterization–at least in this novel–and that results in characters occasionally doing things that are wildly out of character for the sake of the next move in Cross Her Heart’s chess game.

At least the female characters feel at least little bit real, whereas the male characters range from cartoonishly evil to a cartoonishly good-hearted deus ex machina. It’s an intriguing flip from the usual thriller problem of terribly characterized women and just-okay men, but that doesn’t make it good writing.

Next, I’m going to give some very light spoilers in the paragraph below, because they’re important to my lukewarm reaction to this book. Skip if you’d like to go in totally cold.

Most frustratingly of all for me, towards the end of Cross Her Heart, there’s a distinct tone of lesbian panic, which fully spoiled the “girl power” qualities of the book. I’m not going to go into details, but when your gayest character is also the most evil, it’s going to rub me the wrong way. (Looking at you, Disney movies.) It’s not that you can’t have a queer baddie, but Cross Her Heart’s baddie seems to be evil partially because she’s queer and sexually frustrated, which, ugh.

/spoilers.

Lastly, Cross Her Heart is just slightly too long. It could definitely have done with a twist or two edited away; my nominee would be the final reveal, which removed some intriguing moral ambiguity and made it less satisfying. The pages still flew by, but the excessive length made Cross Her Heart‘s flaws more noticeable.

It’s silly to ding a book for following genre conventions; I love thrillers, Cross Her Heart is a thriller, and sordidness is a key element of thrillers. The taboo is part of the thrill. But I was frustrated at the particular sordid buttons Pinborough decided to push here. As competent and enjoyable as Cross Her Heart is, it lacks the spark that makes dirty secrets fun instead of just dirty.

I’m glad I read Cross Her Heart, but I just didn’t love it. I’d recommend it for people who are true thriller fans, but if your experience with the genre is primarily through crossover authors like Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, you might have a harder time with it.

For all its twists, Cross Her Heart still feels like a train on a straight track. Its thrills come from its breakneck speed and Pinborough’s obvious skill as a conductor, but there’s nothing truly special about the ride. ★★★☆☆


I received a copy of Cross Her Heart from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

*Page numbers and quotes came from my advance reader copy, which is an uncorrected proof. These may be different in the final version of the book.