Book Review: Last Girls by Demetra Brodsky (2020)

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

“Our end will bring our beginning to light.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for child abuse.)

When I reminisce about the pieces of art I’ve left behind over the years, I get pensive. I could have taken them, but I chose to leave them behind, in places we lived, in art rooms at different schools. Never signed, but as an artistic Honey Was Here trail.

If we were living in a different time, she’d be the first of us weirds to be tried as a witch. Birdie would be next, for failure to cooperate with the magistrates. And then me, because with my sisters persecuted I would straight up lose my mind.

Sixteen-year-old Honey Juniper and her two younger sisters – Birdie and Blue, collectively known at Elkwood High as “the weird sisters” – are preppers. Along with a handful of other families, they live on a secret compound in the backwoods of Washington State. Dieter Ackerman’s acolytes hide in plain sight: bartering and selling homemade goods in the small town of Elkwood, attending nearby Elkwood High School, pretending to live in the mobile home park they use for extra storage.

Though the Juniper sisters have moved five times in ten years, it’s starting to look like the Nest might be their final home…at least, until Dieter’s increasingly risky and erratic behavior, coupled with Alice Juniper’s social climbing, proves to be their undoing.

I expected to enjoy Last Girls so much more than I did. I mean, doomsday preppers! Badass sisters with pouty lips and wild hairdos! Forbidden love/lust! Sick presidential burns! Cultish stuff galore! A freaking peregrine falcon! Alas, it was not meant to be.

I think my main gripe is that there’s just too much going on here. A story about three sisters caught in a doomed doomsday prepper group (lol, see what I did there?) is interesting enough on its own. The culture of paranoia would make for a rather gripping psychological thriller; throw in some teenage hormones a la Remy and Honey, and you’ve got yourself one rousing tale. But on top of a prepper cult engaged in some sketchy terrorist activities and maybe under investigation by the authorities, we also have a triple kidnapping and some random psychic shit thrown in to make things extra weird, I guess.

To be fair, Blue’s prophecies are obvious throwbacks to Shakespeare’s witches – as are the sisters, collectively – as well as Cassandra of Greek mythology. Even so, it’s all just too much.

I also felt like many of the characters, including Honey and her sisters, could have been fleshed out more. The Juniper sisters feel more like a collection of quirks and eccentricities than honest-to-goodness people. And the secondary characters? Ugh. Caricatures, mostly: Magda is the jealous scorned wife; Annalise, the power-hungry second child; Dieter, the erratic messiah. Even Alice Juniper is elusive at best, and it’s her actions that set this whole story in motion.

There’s an exhilarating seed of a story here that sadly never fully blooms. I’m sure Blue would have something especially prescient to say here.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt (2016)

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Near perfection (~90%).

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Edelweiss/Library Thing. Trigger warning for rape and domestic violence.)

Once again, Iris thought, here she was, undone by love and mad with grief because of it. She had seen that poster in Lucy’s room, that ridiculous sentiment that you don’t belong to me, and I don’t belong to you, but if we find each other, it’s beautiful. What a stupid thing to say! Of course people belonged to each other. Love owned you. It kept you captive.

At sixty-seven, Iris Gold had long since given up on having children. She and her late husband Doug were never quite able; and, when she broached the idea of adopting, he insisted that he didn’t want to raise children who weren’t his own, biologically speaking.

But after a long and loving – if unconventional – marriage, Doug passed away in his sixties, felled in his beloved garden by a heart attack. Initially grief-stricken, Iris finally decided to carry on, as she always had done. Iris is nothing if not a survivor – a “tough old bird” – and this would hardly be the first time she’d had to fend for herself (the scandal!). So she decided to use the money Doug left her to travel to all the places she’d dreamed of, but had never been able to go: Paris. Spain. Istanbul.: “The whole world was opening for her.”

Days before she was to depart for her new life, an unexpected phone call threw Iris Gold one more curve ball – and not the last. A man from Iris’s long-buried past had died suddenly; he and his wife perished in a club fire, leaving their two little girls orphaned. Five-year-old Lucy and six-year-old Charlotte had no other relatives. Reluctantly, Iris canceled her plans and took the girls in. In her golden years, Iris finally got the life she’d always wanted; or almost, anyway. She fell in love quickly and deeply, as did Lucy; Charlotte was a little slower to come around, but come around she did.

Now it’s eleven years later; Lucy is a sophomore in high school, and Charlotte will be headed off to college in a few short months. But Iris’s life is upended again, when Lucy disappears on the last day of school. Though Iris doesn’t know it yet – won’t, for many months – Lucy ran off to the Pennsylvania wilderness to be with her thirty-year-old English teacher, William Lallo. In her wake, Lucy leaves behind a cryptic note assuring Iris and Charlotte of her safety – and a family that’s tattered and struggling, but surviving as best it can.

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Book Review: American Girls, Alison Umminger (2016)

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

Explores some interesting ideas, but the story never really clicked for me.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for allusions to rape.)

Backstage, Olivia Taylor had removed her moon boots and was curled cat-like against Karl Marx. He rubbed his hand up her leg, almost into her crotch, and she opened a mirror and lined her lips silver-blue while he talked.

“It’s all waste,” he said, his accent as perfectly beautiful as it sounded in the interviews I’d watched. “Waste and filth. Even these women, these perfect creatures.”

These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. —Charles Manson

As a teenager, I devoured true crime books. They were a guilty pleasure, if only because some of the adults around me made me feel like a borderline psychopath for my choice of reading materials. (JEEZ UNCLE GARY, MAYBE I WANT TO BE A FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGIST WHEN I GROW UP! DID YOU EVER THINK OF THAT?) My favorite sub-genre was cults, hands down; there was something about the mix of sociopathy and religion that I found especially compelling. In college, I was lucky enough to talk my way into a sociology project on Jonestown (though I struck out when trying to do something similar for an honors course called “The Psychology of Health & Wellness.” You can’t have wellness without sickness, I argued. Two sides of the same coin! Eventually the prof was forced to pick my topic for me: hardiness. Ugh. I still nailed it.)

So it’s an understatement to say that I was looking forward to Alison Umminger’s American Girls – one of two Manson-inspired books coming out in June. (The other? The Girls by Emma Cline, which I cannot recommend highly enough.) I’ve been humming the Tom Petty tune for going on a month now.

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Book Review: The Girls, Emma Cline (2016)

Monday, June 13th, 2016

A book so shrewd and insightful, it’s sometimes painful to read.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

When I’d first tried to tell Dan, on the night of a brownout in Venice that summoned a candlelit, apocalyptic intimacy, he had burst out laughing. Mistaking the hush in my voice for the drop of hilarity. Even after I convinced Dan I was telling the truth, he talked about the ranch with that same parodic goof. Like a horror movie with bad special effects, the boom microphone dipping into the frame and tinting the butchery into comedy. And it was a relief to exaggerate my distance, neatening my involvement into the orderly package of anecdote.

It helped that I wasn’t mentioned in most of the books. Not the paperbacks with the title bloody and oozing, the glossed pages of crime scene photographs. Not the less popular but more accurate tome written by the lead prosecutor, gross with specifics, down to the undigested spaghetti they found in the little boy’s stomach. The couple of lines that did mention me were buried in an out-of-print book by a former poet, and he’d gotten my name wrong and hadn’t made any connection to my grandmother. The same poet also claimed that the CIA was producing porn films starring a drugged Marilyn Monroe, films sold to politicians and foreign heads of state.

In my teens and early twenties, I was what you’d call a true crime buff. I downed scintillating mass market paperbacks by the dozen: Deep Cover, Serpico, Wiseguy, The Stranger Beside Me, Chasing the Devil, The Devil in the White City, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Under the Banner of Heaven – you name it. For a time I fantasized about studying forensic psychology. My favorite stories were those that centered on cults: the indoctrination into bizarre religious beliefs, the charismatic (yet obviously slimy and possibly sociopathic) leader, the epically tragic ending. Naturally, my copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter was well-loved; and, in college, I was lucky enough to write a paper on Jonestown for a sociology course.

My point being: Emma Cline’s The Girls was an instant must-read for me. A novel based on the Manson Family? Give it to me now!

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Book Review: The Cresswell Plot, Eliza Wass (2016)

Monday, June 6th, 2016

What did I just read?

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and domestic violence.)

‘You will hide your true self. You will bury what you fear, in a locked chest in the cave of your heart, where you will keep the bones of the person you could have been.’

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he said, chest contracting as he caught his breath. “How beautiful the world becomes when you think you might have to leave it?”

So here’s the thing: I had high hopes for The Cresswell Plot. I love a deranged cult story as much as the next looky loo; and between its suggestive title, eloquent synopsis, and oh-so-creepy cover art, The Cresswell Plot looked quite promising. And while Father’s “religion” is indeed the stuff of nightmares, the rest of the story fell short of my expectations.

My biggest issue was with the characters. With the exception of Father – who is reliably cruel and demented – I had trouble pinning the characters down. Cas, Caspar, Morty – they’re all over the place. Their beliefs, allegiances, reasoning, thought processes – I never felt like I got a good handle on them at all. One minute they’d be rebelling, testing the rules by joining the school play, dressing in “normal” clothing, or lusting after classmates; the next, they’re snitching on their siblings and setting fire to their potential allies’ houses. Each move was a complete surprise to me, and not in a good way; there just didn’t seem to be any consistency to their behavior.

To be fair, this could be the whole point: e.g., this is what growing up in such a dysfunctional home does to a person. But if this is the case, it could have been handled with more nuance and clarity.

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