To catch a killer

The Shining Girls ★★★
Lauren Beukes
Mulholland Books, 2013
Available June 4th

shininggirls

THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE HUNTS THE KILLER WHO SHOULDN’T EXIST.

Book Description: A time traveling serial killer. He’s the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable–until one of his victims survives.

My review: This just might be the hype / ‘it’ book of the summer. Only time will tell. I can say that there’s a lot to love:

1) The main character Kirby is fantastic. She is a survivor (literally), independent, courageous and determined, a bit of a smart ass with a smart mouth. But she’s no mere Mary Sue, possessing vulnerabilities and flaws that make her uniquely “Kirby” and nobody else. I found her funny and totally sympathetic. Quite honestly, the entire novel pivots around her. Without her, the intricate house of cards the author builds would collapse in on itself at the slightest shift.

2) The villain Harper is a skeevy, creepy predator, a wholly horrific construct of misogyny and homicidal tendencies. There isn’t much depth or nuance to this guy — he’s just a walking talking body of hedonistic impulses and demented desires. We don’t get any personal history for him or why he should have become what he’s become. We know some of his twisted motivations derive from the magical qualities of “the House” — but not all of them. You could even argue that “the House” sees the evil in him and draws Harper to itself.

3) It’s about time travel in that tangly mind-fuck way that makes my brain itch, a pleasant buzz but one with bite. The mechanics of the time travel are not explained or explored in the ways they usually are in a sci-fi novel. The time travel just exists. There is a “House” that holds the magic and its door opens onto different years of the same city anywhere from the 1930s to the 1990s. It’s this “House” that allows for a time traveling serial killer, and for that unique premise alone the book deserves a second look.

What can I say? This book has a lot going for it, and I liked it, I liked it a lot. But not once did I free fall over the precipice in love with it. I was intrigued, I played along with the mystery of the time travel, fitting pieces together where I could and trying not to get too caught up in the logic, faulty or otherwise. While Kirby stood out bright as the sun as one of “the Shining Girls”, the rest of Harper’s victims feel underdeveloped by comparison, almost throwaways, mere plot devices. It was hard not to get them mixed up with each other.

I also felt a tad underwhelmed by Kirby’s “hunt” of her attempted killer. The uncovering and following of clues felt clunky, a cobbled together hodge-podge process where results are based more on luck and coincidence than real groundwork and actual “hunting”.

This is largely a plot driven piece and if puzzles and the snake eating its own tail nature of time travel appeals to you then definitely check this out. As I was reading it, I was struck by its cinematic qualities, and won’t be surprised if The Shining Girls gets optioned for the big screen.

There are several cover versions available for this one, and since I suffer from a raging case of cover lust I’ve included them here. The first is the Harper UK edition and the second (my favorite), the Umuzi (Random House) trade paperback.

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Stephen King tackles time travel and the assassination of an American President

11/22/63 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Stephen King
Simon & Schuster, 2011

The past is obdurate for the same reason a turtle’s shell is obdurate: because the living flesh inside is tender and defenseless. ~11/22/63

112263I may be a mad dog fan of Stephen King, but that doesn’t mean everything he writes gets me foaming at the mouth. Over the years there have been disappointments — but this book is not one of them. I would rank King’s foray into time travel and historical fiction as a rousing, emotional, unforgettable success for in it he is doing what King does when writing at his absolute best – create an epic, original story arc that grips the reader with a serious case of “the gottas” (as in, I gotta know what’s going to happen next) and people it with richly drawn characters with unique pasts and motivations that empower them to walk right off the page.

Kennedy’s assassination may not be THE shot heard round the world, but it definitely qualifies as one of them. For those Americans who lived through it (and other interested observers from afar) it became one of those watershed moments in history (where were you when it happened?) Not just because a President was murdered in cold blood (a rare event if there ever was one), but because he was the youngest President, a father of two small children with a beautiful wife, cut down in the prime of his life. Kennedy carried a mystique around him as a tall, handsome, capable man who was going to steer America into the horizon of a happy ending. He had his detractors (no doubt about that) and those who felt he robbed Nixon of the 1960 election, but his obvious charisma and charm garnered him an equal amount of support and admiration as well.

His death shocked millions and left a generation of supporters to wonder what if? What if Kennedy had lived? It’s easy to build someone into a hero and a saint after they have died too young. It happens all the time. When it happens to a man such as Kennedy? That myth-building starts immediately and never ceases. The “walk on water” Christ mythology that sprouted up around Kennedy since his assassination definitely exists. Baby boomers like to believe that had he lived he could have saved an entire generation, but that’s just wishful thinking. Kennedy was just a man. Not a saint or a miracle worker. He had his flaws and shortcomings like anyone else. Yet the temptation to believe an America where Kennedy had lived would be a better America persists to this day, and King, being the master storyteller that he is, taps into that long held dogma and runs with it as only he can.

At the heart of this story is the sexy question: if you could change history, would you? Should you? It’s nothing but hubris and complete folly to assume that the changes you wrought would guarantee something better. There are no guarantees in this life except for one: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. King is taking one of his country’s watershed moments – the Kennedy assassination – and sending an unassuming English teacher back in time carrying all the “good intentions” in the world. Jake Epping has a mission and his heart is filled with the certainty that what he is doing is the right thing. Such a man can be a fool, a hero, or very dangerous. At his most influential, such a man will be all three.

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