Day 1094: The Girls

Cover for The GirlsBest Book of the Week!
Sometimes a novel is imaginative in its approach or subject matter, but The Girls is an imaginative act of empathy. For Emma Cline has drawn a convincing portrait, in her main character Evie Boyd, of the kind of girl who could be attracted to a cult, inspired by the Manson Family.

In the summer of 1969, 14-year-old Evie is insecure and dying to fit in somewhere. Her parents are newly divorced, and she blames her mother for failing to hold her philandering father’s attention. She has just been abandoned by her childhood friend, Connie, as teenage girls will do.

She spots Suzanne at the park. She and her friends are different, dirty and sort of feral, but free. When Evie gets picked up by Suzanne and her friends after her bike breaks down, she goes with them to the ranch.

The ranch is centered around Russell, an older man whom his followers consider a genius. He uses various techniques to manipulate the girls surrounding him, and he befriends famous people in hopes of using them to become famous himself. He organizes the activities at the ranch around some half-baked philosophy.

Evie can actually see through some of this, but she willfully blinds herself to what is wrong at the ranch through a love for Suzanne. When things at home get worse, she ends up with only one place to go.

The novel is brilliantly written, and I was completely enthralled by the description of Evie’s journey. I found the story believable and watched in dread as Evie got pulled ever deeper into the dangerous group.

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Day 1056: The Owl Killers

Cover for The Owl KillersIn the 1321 village of Ulewic, England, a group of women have settled into a beguinage, a community of women who are committed to a life of celibacy and service but not one sanctified by the church. Some of them are from Belgium, and they are led by Servant Martha.

The village is experiencing dark days and some of the villagers are returning to a pre-Christian cult called the Owl Killers. When the beguinage takes in a leper and then the daughter of a lord, who has been raped, the villagers and the Owl Killers begin to turn against them.

Although this novel is atmospherically dark and seems well researched, I had a hard time sticking with it. This problem may have more to do with the fact that we were moving cross-country while I was reading it than with the book itself. But I frankly found few of the characters sympathetic. The village priest is so terrified that the truth of his affair with a man will come out that he is led into dastardly acts. Servant Martha seems completely blind to what is going on with some of the members of the beguinage. Beatrice is jealous and bitter. Osmana is sympathetic but one-dimensional.

I may try another Maitland novel at a better time. The novel blends a bit of the supernatural with a fairly straight historical narrative, which combination is interesting.

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Day 1009: The Miracle on Monhegan Island

Cover for The Miracle on Monhegan IslandI enjoyed Elizabeth Kelly’s The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, so I was pleased to find she had written another novel. I felt a further pleasure in store because of its setting. Ever since I found online a map of the island with links and information about rental cottages, I’ve dreamed of renting a cottage on Monhegan Island.

I didn’t count on the dog, though. This novel is narrated by a Pekingese named Ned, a truly intelligent Pekingese with lots of insight to offer. I could almost buy this approach in The Art of Racing in the Rain, but not quite. Here, I didn’t buy it at all.

Ned is stolen from the back of his car by Spark Monahan, who takes him as a gift for his son Hally, whom he hasn’t seen in four years. Hally has been living on Monhegan Island with Spark’s father Pastor Ragnar and his brother Hugh.

Spark is the family black sheep, but Ragnar has recently also run into trouble. He was in charge of a concert on the island, but his security wasn’t able to handle the number of people who tried to attend it for free. Now he is being sued for proceeds that were never collected from the people who got in without paying. He is the pastor of a church he basically invented and has the ambition to be a cult leader.

Hally is just beginning to find out some of the secrets of his family, and he finds them upsetting. One day when he is off by himself, he returns claiming to have seen and spoken to the Virgin Mary. Pastor Ragnar latches on to this event and starts trying to make the most of it, while Hugh and Spark more or less passively object. At a second event, people attending claim to see odd effects in the sunlight, and soon Hally is receiving national attention.

Spark and Hugh know that Hally’s mother was mentally ill when she died, so they are worried about Hally. But no one actually does anything to stop Ragnar.

Aside from the problems of the narration, Kelly leaves nothing unsaid. The dog is always pointing things out to you in case you missed them. At the same time her focus is all over the place. There are discussions about religion and faith, mental illness, inheritance, celebrity. The characters, the most interesting part of the novel, sometimes get lost in the baggage.

Also, I missed the darker overtones of the previous novel. Although this novel provides plenty of dark overtones, it lands solidly in the feel-good zone by the end, which for me is not necessarily a good thing.

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Day 734: The Sun Is God

Cover for The Sun Is GodI have just become aware of the work of Adrian McKinty, said to be one of the best Irish crime novelists. The Sun Is God is set in New Guinea in 1906 and is based on an unsolved true crime.

Will Prior is a failing plantation owner in German New Guinea when his friend Lieutenant Kessler comes to request his assistance. Will is a former British military police officer who left the service after a massacre of rioting prisoners in South Africa. Kessler has come to ask him to help investigate a possible murder on a nearby island.

The island is occupied by a cult of mostly German nudists who call themselves Cocovores. They eat only coconuts and bananas and are sun worshippers. The pilot who brought Max Lutzow’s body back to Herbertshöhe, the regional capital, was told Lutzow died of malaria. But an autopsy reveals that he drowned.

Prior and Kessler are dismayed to find that they are expected to take a woman along with them on the investigation, Bessy Pullen-Burry, a travel writer. She is coming as a representative for Queen Emma.

The investigation seems to go nowhere almost immediately. Although the autopsy indicates otherwise, all the Cocovores tell the same story of malaria. The only discrepancy is whether Ann Schwab was with Lutzow right until he died. Yes, the investigators are surprised to find three women among the nudists, whom they had understood were all men.

Even though the investigation seems to stall, hampered by the islanders’ consumption of high-grade Bayer heroin, which they believe to be nonaddictive, Will grows worried about his party’s safety. They are not finding any evidence, but something is wrong, and they only have one opportunity a day to leave the island.

This novel is very well written and compelling, although it suffers from the feeling that no investigation is going on. So many men are on the island that I had difficulty keeping track of them and didn’t get much of a sense of their personalities. Still, the setting and situation are atmospheric and there’s a surprising shift of point of view at the end.

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