Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

16131077Title: The Shining Girls

Author: Lauren Beukes

Publisher: Mulholland Books

Format: Audio

Where I Received the Title:


In anticipation of The Shining Girls, I picked up Lauren Beukes’s novel Zoo City earlier this year (review here). Where her previous novel was more niche — filled with fantasy in a South African urban setting, The Shining Girls is more mainstream. The location has moved to Chicago and the fantastical elements are limited to time travel, which has become a common trope in mainstream literature (The Time Travelers Wife, Outlander). Before its release, the novel garnered attention, first with an auction for publishing rights and a TV deal to boot.

What I like about Beukes’s writing is her keen sense of voice. She has a hip, cultural flavor in her writing and is able to shift both her language and prose to suit the various characters. The Shining Girls is her most ambitious novel, taking on several viewpoint characters and weaving them in an intricate non-linear timeline.

The novel is primarily focused on two characters: Kirby, a survivor of an attack from a brutal serial killer, who decides to bring her attacker to justice, even if it is at the chagrin of the law enforcement agencies. The killer is a man named Harper, who primarily resides in the 1930’s, but travels into the future to commit his crimes. There are other viewpoint characters as well. Kirby’s mentor, Dan, plays the traditional relationship character and the shining girls — young women filled with potential, are expressed not just as cardboard victims, but living, breathing characters. Unlike serial killer novels like Silence of the Lambs, Lauren Beukes does not romanticize the mind of a sociopath. Harper is no evil genius. He is a pathetic, ruthless maniac who unfortunately is successful in his pursuits.

But Harper’s killings don’t come without a cost. The novel does not spare violence and the shining girls do not go down without kicking or screaming. Harper suffers many injuries from his attacks, which provides a little consolation to the reader.

I listened to the audiobook version of the novel, which was put together very well, with different voice actors for each viewpoint character. I don’t recommend this format; however, since the novel does tend to jump around a lot from the thirties to the nineties.

17411823As far as the art work, I want to make note of the Umuzi (South African Imprint of Random House) paperback version of the cover. Lauren Beukes provided several pictures of the windy city to artist, Joey Hi-Fi for inspiration. He, in turn, used this inspiration quite literally. I like the panel-style layout, particularly with the one pink-framed window that stands out among its sepia-tinted counterparts. I imagine Harper staring up at that window, staring at the silhouette of a shining girl through the reflective glass. The lettered photographs of the title are also a nice touch.

So what was my general consensus on the novel? It was a great read, but a little gruesome at times. Kirby was a very well-rounded character, but her victimhood was almost transparent. Even though she was traumatized, I did not get the sense of her being damaged in any respect — just motivated to seek justice. She was ambitious, resourceful, and exhibited real emotions.

The Shining Girls is deserving of the popularity it has gained and I do think it would make for an interesting TV series. It was quite different from her previous novel, but her voice still shined through. This novel may appeal to genre fans, but it is certainly written for a broader audience. While time travel is a device, characters take center stage. And in the end, you will love and hate and be glad you read the novel.


Review: Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

11641612Title: Edge of Dark Water

Author: Joe R. Lansdale

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Mulholland Books / Hachette Audio

Format: Audio Book

I first came across this book when I was perusing the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2012. It was listed as one of the top horror novels, but what I discovered in reading this novel was something quite different than I expected.

Having not previously read anything by Joe Lansdale, I was expecting a more traditional novel. The publisher describes the book as “Mark Twain meets classic Stephen King,”  which led me to think of perhaps a supernatural occurrence along the Mississippi. What Lansdale delivered; however, is something much deeper.

The comparison to Mark Twain is made primarily because of the themes shared with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It takes place in depression-era east Texas, dealing with subject matters such as racism and abuse. Like Huckleberry Finn, the narrator of the novel is young — a sixteen-year-old named Sue Ellen — and it tells a coming-of-age story as she undergoes a brooding rite of passage to start a new life. Also, like Twain, Lansdale has a keen sense of dialect, employing an uneducated sense of southern speech in his dialog.

The comparison to Stephen King is a bit odd to me and I almost prefer a comparison to Cormac McCarthy. The novel’s setting, strong antagonist, and the adroit dealing with the deepest of human emotions leads me to draw this connection. Thankfully, Lansdale does not fear punctuation.

The plot is not what makes this novel extraordinary. It’s quite simple, actually. A girl is found dead in a lake and Sue Ellen, who lives with an abusive stepfather with no real chance for life on her own, decides to follow her friend’s dream by bringing her ashes to Hollywood. Accompanying her on her journey are her alcoholic mother and two friends, Jinx and Terry. When they come upon some stolen money, the worst of rural civilization comes to get their piece of it. Their most dangerous foe, Skunk, a bogeyman whose reputation precedes him, is also after them and the money alone won’t be enough to satisfy his evil ways.

What makes Edge of Dark Water a beautiful novel is much more than the plot. The writing is excellent, depicting the drawl and sensibilities of the south with such a flavor that the reader gets completely enveloped in the protagonists’ travels. Sue Ellen has a combination of sass and southern charm as she tries to respect her alcoholic mother’s choices, but make the right decisions as well.

Lansdale also handles many difficult themes with style. Alcoholism, racism, domestic violence, and societal norms are interwoven into the narrative, making a southern gothic tale much richer on many levels. These struggles are ones that the reader can identify with, adding a lot of depth to the characters.

Ultimately, there is nothing tangible for me to criticize, but I must admit there were many times while listening to the novel during my commute that I had to focus to stay in the story. I don’t know if that is more of a reflection on me than on the novel itself, but the literary sense of the narrative at times left me skimming the surface instead of fully immersing me in Lansdale’s world.

Overall, Edge of Dark Water is a rewarding novel with interesting characters, deep and emotional themes, providing quite a satisfying journey for the reader. For those who like smart writing in the style of someone like Cormac McCarthy or William Faulkner, I think Joe Lansdale may be a worthy read.