Book Review: American Girls by Alison Umminger

She was looking for a place to land.

Anna is a fifteen-year-old girl slouching toward adulthood, and she’s had it with her life at home. So Anna “borrows” her stepmom’s credit card an runs away to Los Angeles, where her half-sister takes her in. But LA isn’t quite the glamorous escape Anna had imagined.

As Anna spends her days on TV and movie sets, she engrosses herself in a project researching the murderous Manson girls—and although the violence in her own life isn’t the kind that leaves physical scars, she begins to notice the parallels between herself and the lost girls of LA, and of America, past and present.

There are a few things that I found a bit weird about this novel, but I will tell you that the first thing that threw me off about this book is the title.  “American Girls,” just really didn’t seem to fit with the overall narrative of the story, and I definitely prefer the UK title, “My Favourite Manson Girl,” as that phrase is uttered multiple times throughout the story.  Plus, the cover for that novel is way more fitting.  Although it does feature the popular rounded sunglasses of the 60’s much like the cover of The Girls by Emma Cline, and they were being released on the same day, so I understand if the publisher decided to go a different way because of that.

I basically decided to pick up this novel because it was influenced heavily by the Manson family murders and found it interesting that two novels, one a cross-over adult novel (The Girls) and a young adult novel (American Girls) featuring details about some of the most infamous female criminals in history.  Now, where The Girls is set during the summer of 1969 and leads up to the family murders, American Girls tries to parallel some of the basic human aspects of these women and the narrator and her sister.

American Girls really is more of a commentary on life in Los Angeles and the modern teen than anything else, but there are some things that just didn’t sit right with me.  I found the main narrator, Anna, to be incredibly unlikable. She basically threw a $500 temper tantrum over feeling lonely and disregarded by her mother and her stepmother.  You don’t find out until later that she is being forced to switch schools (also something that happens to the narrator of The Girls) due to being part of some significantly disturbing bullying.  She somehow ends up being able to stay in LA with her sister after her $500 runaway scheme and is handed all of these opportunities that she takes for granted and doesn’t appreciate.

Sure, she gets in the middle of the weird life of her sister, who to be honest, I found more likable due to her acknowledgement and acceptance of her mistakes and who she is as a person, despite her flaws.  There are some pretty gruesome things that happen to her sister because of her idiotic choices, and there is a stalker/creeper factor going on that I think could have been a stronger plot point than it was, but I understand that the majority of the novel is about Anna’s journey rather than anything else.

The writing was fairly standard for a young adult novel, there wasn’t anything absolutely impressive about the narrative voice, word selection, or any risks taken with style.

I know it seems that I kind of bashed this novel, but overall, despite the flaws, I still found it an enjoyable read.  It isn’t one that I’d likely re-read over and over, unlike The Virgin Suicides (another novel about the lives of teen girls and the implications of the world around them), but it is one that I’d willingly recommend.

I’m going to give this novel an average rating of 3 Bards

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Book Review: The 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.

There is something to be said about a debut novel that tackles some of the most difficult aspects of life in 1969 and the delicately fragile aspects of being a young and impressionable teenage girl.

First and foremost I’m going to address the absolute accuracy of some of the observations that Cline makes about the treatment of women that not only transcends from youth into adulthood, but serves as a commentary on how gender inequality isn’t just a thing of the past.

Specifically, there is one major quote that depicts this for me, “That was part of being a girl – you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get.  If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch.  The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into.  Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.”  This is so true to the woman’s journey.  You are told how to act and how to look based on magazines and television shows (also touched on in the novel), and how you are perceived by society is something you have to accept for what it is.

Evie is a very insecure fourteen-year-old in the flashbacks, but let’s be honest, who wasn’t insecure and uncomfortable in their own skin at that age?  Who didn’t desperately seek the approval of their parents, their peers, or those they are romantically interested in?  It is a part of growing up, and for me I noticed that all of these portions of her personality were extremely realistic and I could relate to them.  This novel also explores the discovery of sexuality and sexual preference, which is something that you experience through Evie in an open way.

Not only did I enjoy how brutally honest Cline was about the experience of young teen girls and how their experiences affect them in later life, (through older Evie interjecting throughout the novel and serving as a frame story), but I did enjoy the point of view shifts.  I would argue that Young Evie and Older Evie do represent two entirely different narrators, since Young Evie is naive and desperate for any type of attention or approval, Older Evie is withdrawn and paranoid.  There are only minute differences in the writing style and word choice during these switches, but it was significant enough for it to make a major difference in my reading experience–in a positive way.

On to the other important aspect of the novel: the infamous cult factor.  Now, for anyone who knows me, I’ve read Helter Skelter by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Manson by Jeff Guinn, so I’m aware of a lot of the details of the Manson Family and their abominable crimes, so when this book was announced to have been influenced heavily by their actions, I knew I had to pick it up.  So I won’t lie to you, this was the major selling point for me.

It’s pretty obvious that the three main girls that Evie deals with in the cult are based specifically on the three Manson women, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie Van Houton (in that order in the picture).

The Susan character (named Suzanne in this tale) plays a much more significant role than the other two, who are relegated as outrageous background characters that flit around Evie and the rest of the cult.

***Side Note*** I did consider this interesting, since Susan Atkins is the only of the three that are no longer living, and that maybe Cline did this partially due to that fact, but it could just be a coincidence.

Anyway, Evie is absolutely entranced by these women from the very moment they appear in the narrative.  It’s absolutely imperative to her character development because she not only fancies herself as one of them but she falls in love with Suzanne, and spends much of her experience within the cult at her side.  Cline does such an excellent job at showcasing how these women could have devolved into the murderers they became, by showing Evie understand and comprehend how capable anyone could be.

It is important to remember where this novel is going, and there will be a lot of things that will make you squirm and make you uncomfortable.  This is not a novel for younger teens, but I would recommend it for anyone 16 and up.  Especially since the narrator spends a lot of time on her experiences as a young teen in this environment.

Parents: If you are concerned about some of the subject matter, then I encourage you to either read the novel first or read along with your teen and discuss. It could open a lot of important dialogues.

4 Bards for The Girls.

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Top Ten Tuesday

toptentuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted for us book blogger types by the Broke and the Bookish. They provide a topic, and all of us participants post our answers on our blogs and we hop around checking out one another’s answers! This week’s topic is:

Top Ten “Gateway” Books/Authors in my Reading Journey

1. The Babysitters Club Novels
-Ann Martin sure knew how to make me wish that I worked around children for a living.  However, after babysitting a few times, I definitely didn’t want to do that anymore!  But the books are the first series that I ever binge-read.

2. Sabrina the Teenage Witch Novels
-I was a huge fan of the movie and the show, so it was only natural that I would love to read the books too.  2nd Binge-read series!

3. Breaking Nova
– I had never read any New Adult novels, but Sorensen’s novel was one that I just couldn’t put down and I have read almost half of her stuff ever since!

4. California Diaries
-Another Ann Martin series that started with Dawn from the Babysitter’s club, and even spanned problems with family and eating disorders.

5. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (Classics)
-This was actually the first Shakespeare play I ever read, and considering that most students are exposed to his tragedies first, I think it really played a role in me developing a deeper love

6. Jessica Darling
-Megan McCafferty’s series was really the entry way to modern Young Adult fiction for me, because before that it all seemed like it was still fairly juvenile until I read this.

7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
-When I read this book, a new obsession was born.  I just have had to learn everything I could about the treatment of the mentally ill throughout history and the world.  It has now become a passion project.

8. Animal Farm
-This novel was definitely my gateway into Marxist literary theory and the application of Communist tropes in literature.  I ended up using Marx in my Master’s thesis and it remains one of my favorite literary lenses to use when reading.

9. Helter Skelter
-This was the first novel I read that was featured in the True Crime genre, and it really opened my eyes to the horrors of murder and the justice system as it was in the past.

10. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
-My all time favorite children’s novel.  It incited my love for Children’s Literature and I have been unable to put it down ever since.

 

What are some of your gateway series/books?

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