The Shining Girls … very bright indeed

the shining girls by lauren beukesI enjoyed both of South African writer Lauren Beukes previous novels, Zoo City and her debut Moxyland – they pretty much put her on my ‘buy automatically’ list. Shining Girls (HarperCollins Australia, 2013) is her tightest yet.

In it, she leaves South Africa behind, instead trawling through Chicago’s history since the Depression era, as a serial killer uses a most unusual house to track and kill his victims – his shining girls.

The blurb makes no secret of the fact the house enables Harper Curtis to spread his carnage across a 60-odd year span.
His evil is well drawn, leaving us in no doubt this guy needs to be stopped.

Harper has never limited his appetites to one particular kind of woman or another. Some men prefer girls with wasp waists or red hair or heavy buttocks you can dig your fingers into, but he has always taken whatever he could get, whenever he could get it, paying for it most of the time. The House demands more. It wants italic potential – to claim the fire in their eyes and snuff it out. Harper knows how to do that. He will need to buy a knife. Sharp as a bayonet.

The damage done is portrayed through a survivor, Kirby, who dedicates herself to the seemingly impossible task of finding her attacker. She teams up with burnt-out journo Dan, a crime writer now on the sports round, using his knowledge and newspaper resources to make her case file.

Adding to the sense of waste caused by the senseless murder spree are glimpses into the lives and deaths of the shining girls, sometimes in their point of view, sometimes Harper’s, as well as that of an addict whose character is well realised but whose presence in the book is of minor assistance.

And in keeping with the story’s time-travelling conceit, the episodes are presented in non-linear fashion. It’s a bit of a head spin, but it works.

Time travel brings a raft of headaches, not least the idea of if at first you don’t succeed …, but Beukes has answered the conundrums with smooth skill.

Her vignettes of Chicago are wonderfully realised, her characterisation spot on, her story enthralling. When the writing’s this good, I can accept with perfect faith the chicken and egg scenarios that come with time travel. My only regret is that the book was such a joy to read, it took no time at all.

  • Beukes says on her website she will be touring Australia in August to promote her latest novel, Broken Monsters (in Detroit, with more killings, another journo, a daughter … ooh!), due for release later this year.
  • Zoo City, chapter 1: all you need to know

    zoo city by lauren beukesLauren Beukes is looking like being one of those authors I just have to follow. I read the first chapter of her second novel, Zoo City, today over lunch, and within those few pages, however badly hyphenated on my Kindle app, despite having to read the very first line twice, I was:

  • engrossed by her world: a touch of dystopia with magical totem animals
  • familiar with her character enough to know I give a damn: touched by magic, with a nasty past and not a lot of future
  • intrigued by the story: there’s a mystery here
  • engaged by the writing: economical dialogue, and prose that’s to the point but with just the right amount of opinionated, fetching description.
  • Mission accomplished, then. Unless the book takes a swerve into Stupid, I’m on board. I greatly enjoyed her Moxyland, a multiple point-of-view thrill ride. I can’t wait to see where Zoo City takes me.

    AWWNYRC#9: Meg Mundell’s Black Glass is so very shiny

    This is the ninth book I’m reading as part of my list of 10 for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge.

    Black Glass

    by Meg Mundell

    Scribe, 2011, ISBN: 9781921640933


    black glass by meg mundell

    This is Melburnite Meg Mundell’s debut novel, and it’s a cracker. Once again*, we have Melbourne being gloomified in a near-future dystopia in which that mighty gap between the haves and the have-nots is bringing the city to the brink of anarchy. In the glass towers, the government manipulates its embedded media to try to keep a lid on. On the streets, the undocumented lower classes slink through the shadows, dodging security cameras and police patrols to earn a crust through corporate sabotage. And then there’s the young turks, looking to draw attention to the corruption at the top and the suffering at the bottom through increasingly violent demonstrations.

    Into this tense social battlefield come two sisters, divided by an unfortunate incident, one seeking the other, and both forced to engage with the world beneath the veneer of identity cards and taxable wages.

    The sisters provide the emotional thrust of the story, while other points of view are offered by a journalist delving into the underworld and a ‘moodie’ — a cross between tech and artist who uses lights, sounds and smells to exert subtle emotional control over people, usually in a crowd: say, keeping gamblers happy, helping concert-goers get frenetic without being destructive.

    australian women writers challenge 2012And then there are the walk-ons, often undescribed, mere transcripts of conversation as their conversations offer extra explanations and bridge scenes.

    It’s a fetching combination of character-driven narrative and reportage, as shiny as the black glass that hides the corporate shenanigans, but not dark enough to be opaque.

    All the pieces fit together and the ending is sublimely satisfying. It reminded me a little of the most excellent Moxyland, by South African Lauren Beukes, with its ensemble exploration of social strata.

    Black Glass has figured in a bunch of Australian awards short-lists this year; it wouldn’t surprise if Mundell goes all the way in the future.


    * cf The Courier’s New Bicycle, below.

    Previous Challenge reviews:

    more Angry Robots

    Two out of four ain’t bad, neh?

    HarperCollins’ new spec fic imprint, Angry Robot, has released four books to launch itself, showing a wide scope. There’s Aussie Kaaron Warren’s Slights (which I’ve reviewed here previously), Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets, Tim Waggoner’s Nekropolis and Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland.

    moxyland book cover, by Lauren Beukes

    Beukes, a South African, riffs off that country’s socio-political injustices with her near-future, Orwellian vision. The tale is told through the viewpoints of four characters, each giving an insight into different levels of that society: the rebels, the corporate ladder climbers, the celebrity blogger, and a dysfunctional artist caught up in the latest corporate skullduggery.
    The story unfolds at a pedestrian pace and never really accelerates towards a climax, but the characters are effective and Beukes’ world is wonderfully drawn. The conclusion is gorgeous, for a cynic such as myself.
    Unlike some others in the Angry Robot range, the text is delightfully clean of typos, perhaps thanks in part to Beukes’ background in journalism (ah, those heady days when sloppy work could be remedied by a whack to the back of the head with a Concise Oxford, or perhaps a tap with a Strunk & White).

    book of secrets by chris roberson

    Roberson, who I had the pleasure to meet at World Fantasy in San Jose and is a very cool guy, has delivered a story with many stories within it, a conspiracy tale involving a Biblical secret sought by nefarious, homicidal agencies. Into this is thrown a down-at-heel freelance journo with an unusual past — one that is proven to be even more unusual than he realises thanks to his own family mysteries.
    This isn’t my kind of story at all, and its structure didn’t warm me to it. The pulp stories contained within the text didn’t need to be there (I’m sure others will love these homages), vying with interminable info dumps for causing the greatest urge to skim read, and the supernatural conclusion left me cold. As I said, not my kind of story, but I suspect those with an inclination towards The Da Vinci Code will find plenty here to entertain (and what a shame it is that that book has become the benchmark for this style of story).

    Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner

    Which leaves the most disappointing of the four, Nekropolis. A great idea is so quickly hamstrung by some clunky structure and an appallingly Hollywood ending reminiscent of the ugly denouement forced on Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner. The protagonist is a former cop from Earth who has found himself turned into a zombie in a demon dimension. He has garnered a deep understanding of this bizarre world and its denizens, as well as forging a wide network of contacts of dubious moral worth. It’s a very cool world, filled with neat critters and a bunch of witches and vampires and shapechangers, all competing in a petty pissing contest for status. What wrecked the story for me were the logic potholes: an awful rewind moment regarding a set of lockpicks, a contradictory solution to an ensorcelled door, and a hugely underplayed and slightly farcical showdown with a nemesis. That the author signals that his major characters all survive undermines any suspense, and the aforementioned Blade Runner moment is the salt in the wound. It’s such a pity a little more care couldn’t have been taken, because the premise, and poor Matt the zombie cop, really have legs.