The Cult of the Adolescent Girl

girlsThe Girls

By Emma Cline

Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.
Via Goodreads


We meet Evie Boyd in a waystation, housesitting for a friend when she hears voices in the house in the middle of the night. Part of her wants to lie still and accept whatever fate may befall her but she gets up and discovers her friend’s son with his girlfriend in tow. She recognizes him and is relieved, and in an attempt to remind this suddenly grown young man of who she is, he remembers – she’s that girl with that cult. This simple, terrifying situation – strangers in a house and the knowledge of what could be done – effortlessly builds the first bookend for the story.

Evie was fourteen the summer she met the group who lived on the hard-scrabble ranch. Cline’s descriptions of adolescent yearning are spot on. The inability to know what to do with your feelings. The posturing for attention. The need to be seen. Evie experiments with these feelings through her best friend’s older brother. But then she sees Suzanne, one of the girls from the ranch, and her attention lands there. Cline doesn’t draw a clear line to identify Evie’s feelings; they simply are what they are and they influence her mightily.
Abandoning her best friend and her divorced parents, Evie begins to spend more time at the ranch under the thrall of Suzanne and Russell, a Manson-like leader. She takes on their beliefs – rejecting her mother’s inherited money even as she steals from her to give to the group – and their lifestyle – dumpster diving and clothes sharing are common occurrences.
The danger builds slowly as Evie is brought into seemingly innocent situations that she begins to realize are worse than they seem, such as breaking into someone’s home not to steal something but to move things slightly, disconcerting the homeowner just because you can. She becomes more complicit with each act until she runs away to live at the ranch, throwing her lot in with them.

As Evie is on the periphery and fourteen during the events of the story, her knowledge of the capabilities of the group is imperfect and spotty. She is even left behind during the climactic event (again, think Manson here) by Suzanne, maybe to keep her safe, maybe because she’s mad at Evie.

Her childhood brush with violence unsettles the rest of her life. She moves from job to job, town to town, spending up her inherited money. She can still be pulled into the thrall of a cool girl’s attention, which is displayed in one sad scene with Evie and the girlfriend crashing at the house go out to dinner. All Evie wants is to be seen, but there is also danger in being seen.

The Girls
is a complex view into an adolescent girl’s mind and how easily a wish for attention can go astray. The language is at times lyrical, at others, tense, depending on the mood Cline wants to create. The ending bookends nicely with the opening scene to create a structure to explore hazy feelings.

One unreliable narrator seeking the truth

The Girl on the Train

by Paula Hawkins

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

-via Goodreads

The best kind of unreliable narrator is one who knows she’s unreliable. Rachel takes the train everyday and watches the world outside the window. In particular, she is entranced with a couple who live in one of a row of houses. She has named them Jess and Jason and created an entire story for their lives. They are everything she is not – happy and married. Because Rachel drinks too much, is divorced from a cheating ex and rides the train everyday to a job she was fired from month’s earlier so her roommate doesn’t learn the truth.

After an introduction to Rachel, we meet Megan one year earlier. Megan is ‘Jess’ and quite depressed. Her business has failed and she is reduced to a short stint as a nanny for a family down the road. When that doesn’t work out she is bored and constantly spoiling for fights with her husband Scott. Megan begins therapy to figure out what she wants to do. She can’t be just a wife who stays at home and takes Pilates classes.

One day Rachel sees Jess kissing a man who is not her husband. She is angry at this stranger for such a betrayal, a clear projection of the anger she continues to hold toward her husband, his new wife and their baby, all of whom live in the house Rachel used to have with her ex. (Also, conveniently, a house on the road where Jess lives.) She imagines confronting Jess or telling Jason. Because she drinks so much, there are times when she’s not sure what is in her imagination and what actually happens. She blacks out and learns about her actions through angry phone calls from her ex-husband Tom. She doesn’t trust herself because she loses memories and is reliant on others. 

Then Rachel learns in the paper that Jess/Megan has disappeared. She feels compelled to involve herself since she saw Megan with another man (possible suspect) and because she has a suspicious memory that she was in the area the night Megan went missing. She inserts herself into the investigation, telling the police what she knows. The police quickly dismiss her as unreliable so Rachel approaches Scott to tell him about the man she saw with Megan.

The women in this book aren’t nice and the men are just plain mean. Eventually everyone shows their worst side, even if filtered through the perspectives of Rachel, Megan and Anna, Tom’s new wife. Despite being filled with despicable people, the book is saved by the mystery of Megan’s disappearance and Rachel’s continual efforts to recover her memories and figure out what happens. Her effort makes her sympathetic, even as she fails over and over.

The Girl on the Train is an engaging book that raises many questions and answers them all to some degree. Not everything is wrapped up in a pretty bow but the mystery is solved and the women persevere. The story has closure which, to me, is satisfying.

You’ll have to wait until the end to learn who the thin man is

The Thin Man

By Dashiell Hammett
Read by William Dufris
Nick and Nora Charles are Hammett’s most enchanting creations, a rich, glamorous couple who solve homicides in between wisecracks and martinis. At once knowing and unabashedly romantic, The Thin Man is a murder mystery that doubles as a sophisticated comedy of manners.
-via Goodreads
Nick Charles is a former detective who gave up the game when he married Nora, a wealthy socialite whose inherited business allows them a lifestyle of ease. They spend Christmas in New York City in 1934 to get away from her family. There is much socializing, enough drinking to knock out a horse, and a murder to boot.
The style of The Thin Man is typical of a detective novel – clues are dropped along the way before the hero explains it all at the end. And there is a decidedly light, comic tone to the novel despite Nick clearly being a hard-boiled detective.
Part of why I enjoyed this book so much was because of William Dufris, the narrator of the audiobook. The Thin Man is written in first person and Nick’s swagger comes across in every line that is not someone else’s dialogue. Dufris did a wonderful job of capturing the rhythm of Hammett’s language which is conversational and full of slang.
Nora is clearly amused that her clever husband used to be a clever detective. She dismisses his ridiculous stories that are clearly lies when he doesn’t want to answer a question and pesters him for information on the case that he is unwillingly drawn into. Nora practically pushes Nick to take on the case so she can find out what happened. She is in most scenes, even if not in the dialogue, so knows just about everything that is going on. She is also able to gather a few clues of her own, which tickles Nick. He’s amused by her interest and will also take help wherever he can get it.
The rest of the characters are whackadoos.
Dorothy Wynant shows up because she wants Nick to help her find her father, Clyde. Around the same time, Clyde’s secretary and mistress is found dead by Mimi Jorgensen, Clyde’s ex-wife and Dorothy’s mother. Dorothy wants Nick to help their family (there is vague history there) and especially help her father who she can’t believe killed the woman.
Dorothy is scared of her mother. (I think Mimi beats her in fits of anger.) Her stepfather, Christian Jorgensen, isn’t so great either. Her brother Gilbert is another whackadoo. He is constantly badgering Nick about strange topics like incest and cannibalism. (There is a part when Gilbert reads a section of a book that relates a tale of cannibalism in American history. I’m not sure what the point of that was except to show how weird Gilbert’s tastes are and to possibly comment on the nastiness of people, as seen via the Wynant family.)
Another murder occurs with the same gun that killed Clyde’s mistress. Nick works with the police, Clyde’s lawyer Herbert Macaulay, and the Wynants to discover who killed the mistress.
I’ve always willing to admit when I don’t see an ending coming. This often happens in mysteries. It’s either too obvious from the beginning, which is no fun, or there are plenty of red herrings to keep me interested and looking elsewhere. I’ll be honest – I had my money on creepy Gilbert, probably because he was just creepy enough and popped up periodically.
After the reveal of who the thin man is and who killed the mistress and where the hell is Clyde Wynant, Nick sits down with Nora to explain everything to her. She peppers him with questions and pokes holes, to which he says it’s the only logical answer that fits. And it’s true. Everything he says makes sense. Luckily there are some parentheticals that mention information found after the conversation that help support the theory. His remarks on how the system work are found. The police figure out who did it, they get the best evidence to back up the theory, the prosecutors build on that theory and go to trial. Imperfect, but there you have it.

Having not read any Hammett, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed this as much reading it as opposed to listening to it. Dufris’ rendering of Nick Charles was so enjoyable and made the experience for me.

We all keep secrets

The Secret Place

By Tana French
The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

The Secret Placeis a powerful, haunting exploration of friendship and loyalty, and a gripping addition to the Dublin Murder Squad series.

-via Goodreads
I have read all of Tana French’s novels, each of which revolves around a member of Dublin’s Murder Squad. I enjoy the psychological element of her crime novels as she plumbs the depths of the protagonist’s psyche. The case always brings up something from his or her past that must be dealt with. This concept has conflict inherently built in.
The Secret Placefelt different from French’s other novels. Yes, Detective Moran has appeared before and he is the protagonist. Seemingly. There is also Holly Mackey to contend with. She is the daughter of Detective Mackey (the lead in a prior book) and quite possibly gets more pages dedicated to her and her friends than Moran.
Also, Moran’s story, which includes an appearance by Holly to get the ball rolling, takes place in a single day. Other books have lasted weeks, as long as the case takes. This single day is broken up by flashbacks to Holly and her friends one year earlier before Chris Harper was found dead on their school’s property.
Because of the contract with Holly, I felt like I didn’t learn as much about Moran as I would have liked. He’s stuck in Cold Cases, itching for a chance at Murder. The note from Holly that will reopened a stalled murder case is his way in. We learn he appreciates beautiful things. When he arrives at Holly’s private, all-girls school, he is amazed at the building and grounds. His childhood never had anything beautiful like that. Moran doesn’t have close friends, although he dreams of a partner who would be his closest friend. Watching Holly with her tight-knit group of friends brings that yearning to light.
I appreciate learning about Moran as a detective over the course of the day. He is very aware of being a man in the presence of young girls who will be inappropriate to get attention. He also changes his demeanor based on each girl he interviews, giving them what they need in order to be more open. He builds a rapport with the sole female on the Murder Squad who was assigned the never-solved case.
I found myself looking for the connection between Moran and the case at hand. There were some similar themes – friendship, or lack thereof; beauty and innocence, or yearning for it. But there wasn’t a deeper layer to Moran that French’s other protagonists have.
Holly and her friends are an interesting bunch. They stand apart from the rest of the school because they made a pact to not care about boys, to not care about what the other girls think, to put themselves and the group first. This vow is shown in a flashback and explains the extreme loyalty the detectives see. But the vow is also fragile. Flashbacks reveal potential cracks in the armor that protects them from the world. The breakdown of the group from shortly before the murder to the present day demonstrates the fragile nature of all relationships. No one is without secrets.
And this fragility is reinforced with Moran and Detective Conway. Holly’s dad stops by for a round of questioning and is able to drive a wedge between Moran and Conway. Luckily, after some time, Moran realizes he has been played and Conway is still loyal to him. His ability to doubt so quickly shocks himself.
A third new element in The Secret Place was the role of the supernatural. I won’t reveal too much but suffice it to say, after the vow, the girls have some powers. There is a line in the book that refers to Holly eventually convincing herself none of that stuff was real back in high school. But it is presented as real. I haven’t figured out if French wants me to accept is as real because it is real or accept it because the girls accept it. I don’t think I’ll ever settle on that one unless I get the change to ask French someday.
The Secret Placedoes raise some interesting questions about friendship. What are you willing to do for your friends? How do the bonds between friends change over time? There’s a moment at the end when Holly talks to her mom who has recently caught up with a friend from high school. It helps wrap up the overarching themes. People aren’t always who you think they are. People change. Friendships are important. Friendships are fragile. Friendships take work.

I don’t begrudge French for trying something new with The Secret Place. She’s certainly earned it by now. I did miss the intense dive into one character’s mind. That single element of her writing is why I routinely recommend her books. I will continue to do so and will wait to see what she does next.

Cop Town

Shortest review ever: Go read this book!
Regular review as follows…
I inhaled Cop Town by Karin Slaughter. I haven’t previously read anything else by Slaughter but heard good reviews about this book. They were right. Cop Town is a tense novel set in 1970’s Atlanta during a time when cops are being killed on the streets.
Another book with a gripping Prologue. Jimmy Lawson is a cop running through town with his partner over his shoulder. Enough details are provided to know that someone shot his partner and tried to shot Jimmy but the gun jammed. He makes it to the hospital.
We next meet his sister, Maggie, also a cop. She learns about the shooting when she wakes up. Her uncle, Terry Lawson, arrives. He’s another cop bent on catching whoever tried to kill his nephew. Over Maggie’s shoulder we see her life is difficult for a myriad of reasons – her family, her gender, her profession. Terry doesn’t want to hear her theories about The Shooter, the uncaught man who has killed other cops in the same manner. Terry doesn’t really think Maggie should be a cop.
That same day, a new recruit joins the force. Kate Murphy is a widow trying to find a purpose in her life. The hazing for a rookie begins before she even walks in the door. Her official uniform is too large as are the hat and shoes assigned to her. Walking through the station to the women’s locker room is a gauntlet of men touching her and making rude comments. The women aren’t any better. There are rules she can’t even begin to know.
Using a rookie as a central character was a keen choice by Slaughter. It provides two things: a reason for information to be provided about the world the newbie has entered as well as an outsider’s perspective. Some of the best scenes are Kate being schooled by Maggie or any number of other female cops and detectives.
Here’s the breakdown so far:
  • Prologue: Jimmy’s partner is shot.
  • Chapter One: Maggie thinks it’s the shooter.
  • Chapter Two: Kate arrives at the station.
  • Chapter Three: We meet a man named Fox who is stalking Kate.
Exactly. That’s why I enjoyed this book so much. Everything moves so quickly. Those first couple of chapters are illuminating but also tell us very little about the depths of the characters and their motivations. That will be flushed out during the investigation into The Shooter which has many twists and reveals and fascinating characters. Even the supporting cast has an energy to all its own.
While the two protagonists are white females, they are very different. And I say this because this is integral to the book. So much of Cop Town is about how there are many cities within one city. Everyone thinks Atlanta is their city and by everyone I mean the whites in the crappy part of town, the whites in the fancy part of town, the blacks and their various neighborhoods, the college within Atlanta, the cops, the pimps and their girls. There is a lot of rough language in the book coming from certain characters’ mouths. While it may be after the peak of the civil rights movement, there are still many people who don’t want change.
I appreciated being pushed by the language. It forced me to consider my reactions. What bothered me and why? What didn’t bother me and why? It is a testament to Karin Slaughter’s skill that she was able to write a hard core thriller that kept me wanting more while layering in piercing questions about race and diversity and tolerance.