Genuine Fraud

IMOGEN: is a runaway heiress, an orphan, a cook and a cheat.

JULE: is a fighter, a social chameleon and an athlete.

Imogen and Jule. Jule and Imogen.

An intense friendship. A disappearance. A murder, or maybe two. A bad romance, or maybe three.

Blunt objects, disguises, blood and chocolate. The American dream, superheroes, spies and villains. A girl who refuses to give people what they want from her. A girl who refuses to be the person she once was.

A girl who is a… genuine fraud.

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Spoilers ahead.

I adore E Lockhart. There are very few authors who have been with me as long as she has, and many of her books were very formative for my younger self. I picked up The Boyfriend List when I was in my early teens, and it cemented forever my love of contemporary YA fiction. A series about the heartbreak of broken female friendships, mental health and first love, it was everything I needed at that point in my life. Then she released The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which remains one of my favourite books to this day. The feminism, experimental writing – the way she manipulated language in that book really woke me up the possibilities of what writing can be – and complicated characters marked a shift in Lockhart’s writing career that she has expanded on in fascinating and often heartrending ways in subsequent novels.

Almost all of Lockhart’s work is concerned with female outsiders. Whether it’s Ruby becoming a social pariah after losing her boyfriend to her best friend, Gretchen Kaufman feeling like the only boring girl in art school or Frankie Landau-Banks tearing her boarding school apart proving her superiority to the boys who discounted her, all of her books are somehow concerned with women on the fringes – by choice or otherwise.

Then she released We Were Liars, and further built on her evolving writing style, creating a female outsider so alienated from everyone around her that even the reader didn’t realise she was lying to us until it was too late.

In Genuine Fraud, she’s done it again. Jule is perhaps the most unreliable narrator of them all, but unlike Cadence in We Were Liars, she isn’t trying to hide it. We know that Jule is a liar, it’s what she’s lying about that remains mysterious.

Genuine Fraud is a book told backwards, with fascinating consequences. To read it is to have constant whiplash, as every truth you’ve taken for granted is turned on its head, picked apart and then re-established as something else entirely. Jule tells stories about herself to craft an identity that she can live with, and has so completely assimilated with these adopted identities that it’s all but impossible to differentiate between the truth of Jule and the illusion she has thrown up for us and everyone else – but most crucially, for herself.

In her latest offering, E Lockhart has crafted yet another novel that keeps up guessing throughout. Her rejection of chronology creates a story filled with tension, manipulation and the occasional explosion of violence. It looks at how one snap decision to lie can change the direction of your entire life.

It’s quite an experience.

 

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Bonfire

TW Sexual exploitation/revenge porn

It has been ten years since Abby Williams left home and scrubbed away all evidence of her small-town roots. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has a thriving career, a modern apartment, and her pick of meaningless one-night stands.

But when a new case takes her back home to Barrens, Indiana, the life Abby painstakingly created begins to crack. Tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the town’s economic heart, she begins to find strange connections to a decade-old scandal involving the popular Kaycee Mitchell and her friends – just before Kaycee disappeared for good.

As Abby tried desperately to find out what happened to Kaycee, troubling memories begin to resurface and she starts to doubt her own observations. And when she unearths an even more disturbing secret, her search threatens the reputations, and lives, of the community, and risks exposing a darkness that may consume her.

With tantalising twists, slow-burning suspense, and a remote, rural town of five claustrophobic miles, Bonfire is a dark exploration of what can happen when your past and present collide.

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Bonfire by Krysten Ritter – actor, writer, dog owner and knitter extraordinaire – is a hair-raising, sickening, intriguing, dark and compulsively readable thriller. Consumed with corporate crime, sexual exploitation, abuse and cover ups, it makes for a deeply unsettling and memorable debut. While I was reading it I found myself thinking… So Krysten gets to be good at everything?  The worst part is I couldn’t even resent her for it. I was enjoying myself too much.

There is a lot to unpick in Bonfire. The mystery is enthralling and wide ranging. Our MC, Abby’s home town of Barrens is all but owned by a plastics corporation called Optimal. Though Abby left Barrens when she graduated high school and vowed never to return, the spectre of the place and, particularly, the ominous role that Optimal played within it had never truly released its grip on her. During her final year of high school, three girls in her class got sick. It started with the school’s it girl – and Abby’s primary tormentor – Kaycee Mitchell one day collapsing and having a seizure during a school assembly. Then the sickness spread through all of her friends. After a few weeks of fear and madness the girls all said they were faking, and shortly after that, Kaycee Mitchell disappeared for good. But Abby saw Kaycee’s sickness, and she never bought the idea that it could possibly be a lie. Abby’s theory was always that the sickness that overtook her high school was connected to Optimal somehow, and ten years later, she’s finally come home to prove it.

Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be easier said than done. Optimal has infiltrated the lifeblood of the town, not only providing the main source of employment, but funding for local schools and infrastructure. It’s hard to find anyone to speak against the company, and impossible to coax anyone to speak about what happened to Kaycee Mitchell all those years ago. The town only wants to forget – but Abby Williams refuses to let them.

One determined woman against a for-sure evil corporation determined to uncover the truth about a years old mystery by itself would have had me sold, but Bonfire, as it turns out, is about a lot more than that.

Abby’s relationship with Barrens is a complicated one. She was severely bullied throughout high school, and the torment didn’t end when she went home. Her conservative Christian father only brought violence and shame into her life, and his behaviour worsened after her mother passed away at the end of a lengthy and gruelling battle with cancer. Her childhood and teen years were characterised by loneliness, anger and grief and hard as she has tried – she has built a successful life as a lawyer in Chicago – she has been unable to let go of any of those feelings. Throughout the course of the novel they take over completely and ultimately they fuel her quest for the truth. Who could be more determined to uplift the voiceless than someone who spent years trapped herself?

There really is nothing better than wrapping up warm on a cold winter night, pouring yourself a cup of tea – or wine, depending on your inclinations – and immersing yourself in a thriller. I can think of none better than the claustrophobic, intriguing and disquieting world Ritter has created.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

TW for discussions of rape and sexual assault.

The Industrialist

Henrk Vanger, head of the dynastic Vanger Corporation, is tormented by the loss of a child decades earlier and convinced that a member of his family has committed the murder.

The Journalist

Mikael Blomkvist delves deep into the Vangers’ past to uncover the truth behind the unsolved mystery. But someone else wants the past to remain a secret and will go to any lengths to keep it that way. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic, delinquent and dangerous security specialist, assists in the investigation. A genius computer hacker, she tolerates no restrictions placed upon her by individuals, society or the law. 

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I knew going in that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson was a book that was concerned with rape and sexual violence. What I didn’t realise was that it is consumed by it. There are graphic, horrifying scenes of rape and sexual assault in this novel. Had I known before starting the book how upsetting it would be, I probably wouldn’t have read it at all.

That said, I’m really glad that I did. The words ‘feminist hero’ get thrown around a lot. Usually it refers to a girl with quick wit who isn’t afraid to use her fists. She’s almost always beautiful. She is nothing like the girl with the dragon tattoo. Lisbeth Salander is a warrior crafted by a misogynist culture. She’s unconcerned with beauty and a lot more interested in repelling people than attracting them. She’s a genius of the Sherlock-ian variety.

She’s also a ward of the state who spent her formative years either locked in a psychiatric institution or running from ill-equipped foster families (and usually into the police). After an incident in which she kicked a man in the head (after he groped her, in front of several witnesses), she is declared emotionally disturbed (because she refused to participate in her psychiatric evaluation), and in need of a guardian. This means that all her assets and interests are controlled by a state sanctioned official. While reading, you can’t help but feel Lisbeth is being punished for her lack of conformity to the agreed standards of femininity rather than any actual law breaking. Her crimes are: defending herself from the men who would attack her, having a lot of sex, using drugs and a refusal to co-operate with the agreed norms of society. Worldwide, there is a grim history of the violent removal of freedom from women who are deemed a threat to those aforementioned norms. Whether it’s force-feeding suffragettes on hunger strike, female genital mutilation, institutionalising women for their ‘hysterical wandering wombs’ or burning them at the stake for ‘being witches’ – women who refuse to conform are punished and forced to live as outcasts with control over their finances, spaces and their bodies taken from them.

Lisbeth suffers all these injustices at the hands of the state. In addition to taking control of her finances and thus, her freedom, her government appointed guardian, Advokat Bjurman, rapes her twice.

The rape is an event that is supposed to break Lisbeth. Bjurman’s intent is to control her, force her to submit to the obedience and quiet that comprise the norms of femininity (as it’s defined by misogynist culture). Rather than shrink, as she is supposed to, and continue to have non-consensual sex with him in return for her own money, as he intends, Lisbeth makes a plan. Owing to her history with institutionalisation, the police don’t feel like an option, so she instead develops her own twisted violent revenge scheme. I can’t pretend that reading Lisbeth ruin Bjurman beyond repair was anything but satisfying. In the span of only a few hours she picks apart the pieces of his life, removing his power as thoroughly as he tried to do her own. She leaves him defeated, the words ‘I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT AND A RAPIST’ literally tattooed across his violated, trembling body.

From what I can gather, there were many readers uncomfortable with Lisbeth’s actions. During some reading I did to prep for writing this review, I found book club discussion points online, all of them questioning whether or not Lisbeth took the right action. These questions speak directly to the point that Larsson wants to make about gender norms. As I said, the rape was supposed to defeat Lisbeth. Instead, it enraged her. She was obsessed with regaining her power. That led her to take violent action, something we rarely attribute to women, and especially women we consider victims. Larsson uses the almost instinctive sympathy we feel for Bjurman during Lisbeth’s attack as a demonstration of internalised misogyny. While what happened to Lisbeth was awfully inevitable – the rape of a young, troubled woman with no family support and criminal tendencies – what happened the Bjurman – the assault of a wealthy, middle class white man – was disturbing and completely unexpected.

Larsson originally called this series Men Who Hate Women. I wish the publishers had stuck with it. After her rape, Lisbeth becomes driven by the defeat of such men. It is what the rest of the novel – because the events I have discussed make up barely a quarter of it – is about.

Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls

June and Delia used to be best friends. Then June started dating Ryan and everything with Delia changed. They haven’t spoken in about a year.

This does nothing to lessen June’s heartbreak when she hears of Delia’s death. People are saying it was suicide.

June doesn’t believe it. She knows that Delia was murdered. Now she just has to prove it.

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Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls, by Lynn Weingarten is 339 pages of pure crazy. What I can’t decide is whether or not it was the good kind.

The story is split between present events and flashbacks of June and Delia’s friendship. Delia is not a normal girl. She is the ethereal type who dances into your world and changes everything for the better. For June, with her alcoholic mother and unsatisfactory social life, this was awesome. For me, with my current reading frustrations and lack of patience for this particular character trope, not so much.

Despite this, the mystery surrounding Delia’s death is intriguing. She had an abusive stepfather, an increasingly psycho boyfriend (think Will in Jessica Jones – crazy, to kind of nice, to a real fucking bad situation) and a drug dealer with a grudge against her. The number of people who might have done Delia in just keeps going up. June starts to feel like she’s losing it when her own boyfriend, Ryan, suddenly enters the circle of suspicion.

So far so good, right? I guess. I would probably have been more invested in finding Delia’s murderer if every flashback containing her didn’t prove her to be so unbearable. June, I didn’t have any strong feelings about. She seemed to be very much a spectator in her own life. The impression I had is that searching for Delia was the first proactive move she had ever made. It’s understandable – with her mother’s addiction dominating her childhood it made sense that as a young woman she would seek a life without drama. Still, it was frustrating watching June subjugate herself to everyone in her life, first her mother, then Delia, and once she got involved with him, boring, unattractive, bunny-loving Ryan. I wouldn’t say my lukewarm feelings toward June really affected my reading experience, however. I can deal with characters that I don’t fully understand much more than those I find myself kind of getting why someone might have murdered.

Isn’t it strange how you can read a book and feel okay about it, then realise after you’ve finished that you maybe sort of hated it? Does anyone else experience this?

This part of my review is going to contain MAJOR SPOILERS. I wasn’t going to include these thoughts but the more I consider the book the more certain aspects upset me.

I need to get it all off my chest, you know?

I will attempt to spoil as little as possible.

So, certain parts of the book are written from Delia’s perspective. After a quote from Delia early on in the book (when I still had hope and was trying to convince myself that Delia wasn’t the most irritating character I had read in months) when she says that ‘The messed-up thing is how so many people think your body is their business, especially if you’re a girl.’ I started gearing myself up for a novel that gave women agency over their own bodies.

As such, I was pretty disappointed when Delia spent half her air time going on about how beautiful June was and how every eye in the room was drawn to her – and June of course, didn’t know it and believed herself to be an ugly troll.

Yawn, eye roll, etc.

What I feel that this attitude teaches (and trust me, it was the least of June and Delia’s problems, but whatever) is that you’re only beautiful when someone says that you are. It’s saying that your only worth is in other people’s perception of you and it’s a lesson we only teach young women. It’s gross and particularly annoying in a book that has previously preached about your body being your business. A girl thinking that she’s attractive doesn’t make her a terrible person and I’m so over YA novels saying otherwise. I would love to read a YA protagonist get ready for a night out and telling herself that she looks fucking awesome. Because that’s what happens when you get older and learn how to do your hair.

Anyway.

Delia, in addition to being a pain in the ass, is a total creep. Her relationship with June is manipulative and abusive. While I wouldn’t say that Weingarten is by any means condoning her behaviour, I would have liked her to have been way more explicit in her writing that the way Delia treated June was not okay. Pretty much Delia and June’s entire relationship was Delia placing June in situations that made her uncomfortable, and forcing her, through either lying or manipulation, to do things that she didn’t want to do. That is called an abusive relationship. While June talks about feeling ‘not right’ and her separation from Delia ‘a relief’ she doesn’t get enough into what precisely was wrong with their relationship that made her relieved that Delia was gone.

Obsessively controlling another person does not constitute a loving relationship.

I wish YA authors would realise this.

The book ended before we had the chance to get into it.

My final issue – and by far the SPOILER-IEST concerns Delia’s stepfather. Delia tells June that he attempted to rape her. June believes her – she had no reason not to – and much of what happens at the end of the book is as a result of that attempted rape.

Then, in the last freaking chapter, Weingarten suddenly casts doubt over whether or not Delia’s stepfather attacked her at all.

AND THEN THE BOOK ENDS.

False allegations of sexual assault is an all too common storyline. Yes, it happens (in 2-8% of court cases) but the amount of false allegations of sexual assault are disproportionate to the amount of time we all spend worrying about it. If Delia’s stepfather did not in fact attempt to rape her, then the events of the entire novel were completely pointless. Delia would be reduced from little more than a manic pixie dream girl to a psychopath without a cause. And I’m just not into that.

I revise my initial opinion. Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls is the bad kind of crazy. It’s a weak story that reduces girls into those stereotypes we are all so sick of – the beautiful angel and the oversexed psycho.

I am so over that shit.