Bright, Bloody and Intense: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsPublished: June 4th, 2013
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 384 pages

Lauren Beukes first came to my attention thanks to William Gibson or maybe Cory Doctorow. Some great author who recommended her on Twitter. I picked up her first two books, Moxyland and Zoo City, and read Moxyland a few years ago. I liked it, but it definitely felt like Gibson’s sensibility filtered through a South African setting. On the other hand, The Shining Girls, her third novel and first for Mulholland Books, reads like Beukes striking out on her own and making a name for herself. The result is stunning, harrowing and immensely readable.

The Shining Girls follows the interlocking lives of two characters: Curtis Harper, who discovers a mysterious house that lets him travel in time as long as he murders the “shining girls” mapped out on the bedroom wall, and Kirby Mazrachi, one of Harper’s attempted murder victims who manages to survive and devotes her life to tracking him down. We are also treated to heartbreaking vignettes of the women Harper kills throughout the 20th century; every woman he murders is full of endless potential that he snuffs out by torturing them to death and mutilating their bodies.

Although time travel is part of the narrative, The Shining Girls feels more like a crime thriller than a scifi story. It helps that the story all takes part in the past – Kirby’s “present day” is the early nineties. The speculative elements exist mostly as plot devices and a way to build tension, and Beukes doesn’t spend much time explaining how Harper is able to do what he does. Beukes has a background in journalism, and it’s clear that a lot of research went into this novel. The women we meet throughout the story span multiple social classes, decades and races, and each one is carefully drawn in the short moments before she dies terribly.

My only criticism of the novel is that it feels like Kirby discovers the truth very late in the story, and after that point everything kicks into high gear until the ending. I would have liked to see a bit more of Kirby exploring the strange world of the house and its dangerous inhabitant. If nothing else, Beukes left me wanting more at the end, which is definitely a positive thing. My hope is that The Shining Girls is just the first of Beukes’ forays into crime/thriller writing. It’s a genre that suits her well.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Shift by Kim Curran

Published: September 4, 2012
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Young Adult, Horror
Format: eBook
Length: 320 pages

Shift is the story of Scott Tyler, a British teenager who accidentally discovers that he has the power to “shift” between possible realities by changing his past decisions. Along with this discovery comes his entry into a secret world of shifters and a dawning understanding of the terrible powers at play in a world where reality can be changed at will.

One on side there is a clandestine government organization called ARES that focuses on training young shifters to use their powers for good, and on the other there is a rebel faction of shifters called the SLF, who believe that shifters should be allowed to use their powers without regulation. Scott’s first contact with the world of shifters, Aubrey Jones, is also, conveniently enough, the girl of his dreams. Aubrey is a pixieish blonde with a chip on her shoulder and conflicted loyalties between ARES, who took her away from her family, and SLF, who seem bent on anarchy and destruction for the sake of it. At first it seems like the book might be about a clash between ARES and SLF, but then we meet the true villain, a morbidly fat man wants to eat Scott’s brains.

The villain, Benjo, is easily most original thing Shift has going for it. However, he is so vile and over-the-top that he seems slightly out of place in the story. I actually would have liked the author to delve more deeply into the darkness that might result from people with the power to reset their decisions controlling the world. As it was, the book felt like it flipped back and forth between a fairly by-the-numbers secret world adventure and a squick-inducing serial killer tale.

I did also appreciate that the book retained its inherent Britishness, using uniquely British phrasings and colloquialisms that seemed slightly exotic to this American reader. I suppose it’s possible that when the book is eventually published in America, that regional flavor will be stripped out, but I certainly hope not.

However, my main problem with Shift is that the underground world of the shifters never seems particularly exciting. The scenes in the school for shifters feel fairly dull and a bit cliché when compared to other similar entries in the genre. In fact, the author ends up quickly summarizing Scott’s time at school after a few scenes, and promotes him to junior agent status as if impatient to get past all that training. The end results is that we never really understand why Scott feels an allegiance to ARES, and it seems like he only really dislikes SLF because they’re the snotty popular rebels.

Also, after one of Scott’s early shifts goes terribly wrong, he never really experiences any further consequences from his new-found shifting ability. Although he uses his ability to save himself from death at one point, it never feels like we get to see him exploring his shifting powers. Additionally, the author establishes early on that shifters can only control conscious decisions, so whenever there is a passage where Scott agonizes over a decision, it openly telegraphs that he will need to shift a few pages later, which immediately lowers the stakes. The only real stakes that come into play are when the villain, Benjo, lumbers onto the scene, simply because he is so outrageous that it feels like anything could happen when he is around.

Overall, Shift is a bit of mixed bag. The storyline follows familiar contours, as a “normal” kid discovers that he is actually very special and then proceeds to save the day. The cast of supporting characters are all fairly two-dimensional, and several characters established early on barely get more than a few lines before being shuffled off-stage for the rest of the book.

Although the villain is a uniquely twisted touch in an otherwise familiar-feeling story, he never completely meshes with the rest of book around him, and the end result is a story that only hints at something darker and more compelling.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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