Danika reviews Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

This book was a real rollercoaster of a read: I was intrigued by the beginning, felt the middle dragged, and then I was completely on board again by the end. It’s about Caroline, whose best friend, Madison, has just gone missing. Caroline hasn’t been having a great time even before this. Her mother sent her to a conversion camp (where Caroline then set the place on fire and escaped). Her father doesn’t believe in anxiety or depression, and would try to swap out her medication for a juice cleanse if her knew about it. The only light in her life was Willa, her girlfriend, who she’d see by driving across the border into West Virginia and hanging out at a seedy bar with a fake ID. But Willa broke up with her and moved away. And now her best friend has disappeared. Caroline has reasons to not trust the police, so she’s determined to find Madison herself.

This is, unsurprisingly, a dark book. It begins with the lines “Everything started with the body at the edge of the lake. I know that now.” On top of Caroline’s abusive family, there’s another unnamed narrator who has gone through her own horrors: she’s living in poverty, and has seen two of her mother’s boyfriends overdose. (Unlike Caroline, who goes to a prestigious private school.)

I recommended this book on All the Books, where I have recently become a cohost. I read a few reviews in preparation, and I found out that a lot of readers didn’t like the main character. They felt she was mean, and “unlikable.” Personally, when I hear someone say a book has an “unlikable” female main character, I head straight for it. Usually, it just means they’re flawed. In Caroline’s case, I think it’s because she’s angry, and rightfully so. Do I agree with all her decisions? No, but I understand them, and I can even respect them. She is a survivor. She hasn’t had a safe environment to grow up in. So she’s always got an exit plan, and she’s not afraid of using it, even if it’s “mean.” The one who tempers this is Willa. She was clearly Caroline’s anchor: she describes her as “Willa was quiet strength, endless optimism, the girl everyone told their secrets to because they knew they’d be safe with her.” She is unmoored without her, and prior to Madison’s disappearance, her entire focus was getting through the days until graduation and then her 18th birthday, when she could finally escape for good.

There are a few other characters here: two friends who help Caroline in her search for Madison. Both are possible love interests, putting this in the bisexual character with a male and female love interest category–sort of. Because Caroline has very little space to consider either of them as romantic interests, and is still very much in love with Willa. Also: what is with the bi love triangles where the guy is just a total asshole (and the girl is very sweet and on every possible level a better choice)? I couldn’t stand Jake, who says that some people are “puddles” (and Caroline, of course, is the ocean), and is judgmental of anyone who isn’t rich, and who asks Caroline, “Why do you like girls?”

As I said, I had an up and down experience reading this. I found it difficult to get into the writing style: things seemed to keep happening abruptly, and I felt like I had missed a paragraph or a page. It’s also weird that men being framed for rape/statutory rape is an ongoing motif. Considering how much this book has to do with misogyny and which women are considered victims (and worth seeking justice for), I found that a very strange choice. I should also note that because it’s a very dark book, there are trigger warnings for murder and violence, and there’s also smoking and drug use by the teen characters. For me, the ending made me glad I stuck with it, though I can also understand why it lost some people. If you’re interested in reading about an angry, flawed character who finds herself discovering a system that considers poor and racialized victims “throwaway girls,” check this one out. If you’ve already read it, or don’t care about spoilers, here’s what I think about the ending.

It was interesting, at this point in time, to read a thriller that is so skeptical of the justice system and the police. (Caroline was “rescued” by the police while running from conversion camp, who then delivered her back to her abusive mother.) [Spoilers, highlight to read] Because of that, the murderer made perfect sense. And although it’s an exaggeration, the idea of men with power weaponizing it against women, especially poor and racialized women, is not. Caroline, already angry at the world, is consumed with rage to learn that Willa has died–and that she was trying to reach out to her. She had the opportunity to save her, and didn’t realize it, didn’t put it together. It’s sickening, but it’s an interesting story choice. She is overly harsh with Madison, of course, but Madison’s choices did lead to her girlfriend’s brutal murder, so I think that’s understandable. The moment that really turned the book around for me, though, is that she shot him herself. Many stories take that moment, where the hero has a gun pointing at the villain, and have them walk away. That’s a valid choice in some stories, but not in this one. Caroline doesn’t trust the justice system. She is facing the man who killed the love of her life, and many other women. There is no reason she wouldn’t pull the trigger. But I was impressed with this YA novel following through on it. And honestly, I cheered for her attending his funeral just to spit on his grave. She may not be “nice,” but her choices made sense, and I didn’t blame her for them. I think they made for a better story, and I wish we had more stories about women’s anger. [end spoilers]

Bee reviews Die For Me by Luke Jennings

Killing Eve: Die For Me by Luke Jennings

SPOILER WARNING

Trigger warning: emotional abuse, transphobia

Being a Killing Eve mega-fan since season one began, it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading the books. I picked up Luke Jennings’ series at just the right time – only a couple of months before the release of the third and final book, Die For Me. Codename Villanelle and No Tomorrow were unbelievably enjoyable for me. Although very different to the TV series, they retained a different kind of charm: slightly trashy thrillers (in the best possible way), filled with designer brands, designer sex, and designer murder. I had the best time reading them, and when the end of No Tomorrow saw Eve jumping on the back of Villanelle’s motorcycle and the pair of them riding off into the sunset together, I was practically salivating for the final installment. I preordered Die For Me, and eagerly awaited its arrival. When it came, I devoured it immediately. And I was disappointed.

There were certain things I was expecting from this book, based on the previous ones. I wanted sensuousness. I wanted desire. I wanted absurdly and wrongly hilarious kill scenes. I wanted the passionate explosion that could only come from Eve and Villanelle’s final collision after their sizzling mutual pursuit. I wanted haute couture and fast cars and spies, lies, and intrigue. What came instead was what can only be described as an abusive relationship. Where previously Villanelle and Eve were matched in their pursuit of each other, playing out an ouroboric cat-and-mouse, this third book casts Villanelle as deliberately cruel, bullying, and emotionally abusive towards the woman she claims to love. It is true that Villanelle – or Oxana, the name she reverts to in this book – is a psychopath. Her feelings for Eve are constantly in question, by both outsiders and Eve herself. But she expresses enjoyment of bullying Eve; she calls her vicious names; she flies into rages and then acts cold and distant; she flagrantly cheats. Through it all, though, Eve makes excuses for her, and clings to her attraction. I wasn’t expecting Villanelle/Oxana to do a complete one-eighty and transform from calculating killer to doting girlfriend. They do say that psychopaths readily manipulate people’s emotions, even those who they know care about them. But even so, it was jarring and uncomfortable to read Oxana treating Eve so horrendously, and for Eve to defend her – again, and again, and again. It is a familiar abuse narrative, one that is harrowing to hear about. It made for distressing reading which drastically shifted my perspective: I no longer wanted Oxana and Eve being murder wives. I wanted Eve to get away.

What made it even more distressing was that the final sixty pages of the book delivered one hundred percent on what I wanted. I got an absurdly funny murder, some entertaining banter between Oxana and Eve, tenderness and sexiness, and a high-stakes assassination plan. The ending is utterly perfect. Or, it would be, if not for the entire beginning and middle of the story. It feels like a completely different book, focused on a completely different relationship, with a completely different tone.

There were other facets of the book that I enjoyed. I loved that it permitted its women to be dirty, messy, violent. I do love a story about feral women. They sometimes don’t shower, they revel in the sourness of each other’s bodies, they get bloody. I liked Eve’s character arc as she comes to embrace the parts of her that are more like Oxana than she wants to admit. I liked how fast-paced the overall plot was, with the right amount of action to maintain interest. These qualities aren’t enough to surpass the genuine distress I felt over Oxana and Eve’s relationship, especially as they were glimmers of what this book could have been.

Another point to make is about Charlie. Charlie appeared in the previous two books as Lara, Villanelle’s lover and fellow assassin. Eve experienced considerable jealousy over their relationship. In Die For Me, it is revealed that “Lara” is non-binary, and has chosen the name Charlie. Charlie’s pronouns are they/them. It is something I would normally be excited about – there aren’t enough non-binary characters generally, and a kickass non-binary assassin? Amazing! Fantastic! Incredible! However. There is something slightly off in the way that Charlie is written and written about. Eve, as the narrator, always uses the correct pronouns and name. And it is obviously realistic that of the people who Charlie interacts with, not all of them respect their identity and their pronouns, and they have to deal with that transphobia. But when Charlie corrects these people, it is almost a punchline. The phrase “PC language” is used multiple times. There is something well-meaning in Jennings’ use of correct terminology, but it all feels a bit Googled. One of the characters makes a joke about being woke, and it sort of comes across that this is what Jennings is trying to prove. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but I really do feel that there is something in the tone that suggests the reader is supposed to find Charlie a little ridiculous.

The Killing Eve books were always, for me, a separate entity to the show. I was never expecting the same level of sexual tension, nor the true ambiguity of both Eve and Villanelle’s characters. I wasn’t really expecting the same depth. But I really did enjoy the first two books, as quick thrillers told with humour and exaggeration. They were fun and wild romps. This third book was not that. I believe it needs a very strong content warning for anyone about to read it. The realism of Oxana’s abuse is confronting and horrible. There is nothing cartoonish or exaggerated about it: there are people living that reality. Even the supposedly uplifting ending was not enough to wash that taste from my mouth. I suppose all I can do now is wait for Killing Eve season three, and hope that the show strays as far from the books as possible.

Tierney reviews Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht cover

Who Is Vera Kelly? is a thoughtful, twisty spy thriller, whose eponymous protagonist is a queer American spy in 1960s Argentina. Vera’s life unfolds in fragments through the novel: passages in her present day, in which she is working for the CIA to monitor the unstable Argentinian government and suppress communist interests, are interspersed with passages recounting her troubled adolescence, young adulthood, and path to the CIA – as well as the path she takes coming in to her lesbian identity.

The novel is a spy thriller, but one with a little more languor: the focus is more on the psychological – oppressive feelings, the sense of things closing in, Vera getting inside her own head – than on heroic exploits, dastardly villains, and implausible twists of fate – like a queering of the genre itself. We follow Vera, in all her complexity, as she poses as a university student and tries to enter the inner circle of a student identified as some sort of communist operative – which includes befriending his mysterious girlfriend, Victoria, who seems to be flirting with her…

Who Is Vera Kelly? puts us right inside Vera’s head, and peels the layers back one by one: via the intermingled flashbacks, we journey through her life, starting with the death of her father and her difficult relationship with her abusive mother, moving forward right up to her present day, uncovering what she has been through and what makes her tick, as she herself tries to uncover this communist plot while the Argentinian government crumbles after a coup and she is left stranded there.

It took me a little while to get sucked in to the novel, but I once I was in, I was hooked. The novel fills you with an all-consuming desire to know what happens, both in Vera’s past and in her present… Who is on what side, and who can she trust? What is Vera’s life story? How can she escape Argentina after the coup? And, crucially, was Victoria actually flirting with her? You’ll have to read to find out.

Audrey reviews Adieu, Warm Sunshine by C.E. Case

adieu warm sunshine

Sunny’s a spy who works undercover as a cop. It’s complicated. Pamela’s a dancer on Broadway. She’s not the star, and despite having a certain something, she’ll never be the biggest draw, because she can’t sing. But she’s arresting. Sunny can’t say why she shows up behind a theater on Broadway after a (lousy) show that night, but she leaves with Pamela in her car.

Instead of a one-night stand, Pamela and Sunny find they want more, that being together is both exhilarating and a balm to the soul. But they have secrets. Pamela doesn’t understand the implications of her secrets, and that spells trouble. Sunny knows the ramifications of her own shadowy past and shady present. These don’t make for a bright future, interpersonally, despite having a supportive work partner, Vash. But the thought surfaces, for both women, briefly–maybe this could work?

Then Pamela disappears. Sunny must use all her skills and all her connections, legitimate and under-the-radar, to find her lover. In the process, Sunny and Vash stumble onto a tangled conspiracy that could spell doom for Sunny and Pamela both.

The plot is fairly straightforward, though the mechanics of the organizations are a bit nebulous. It would be a good deal of fun to read a book just on Sunny’s training. But Adieu, Warm Sunshine is an entertaining read. It’s a little choppy and starts some threads that get dropped, narratively, although they’re tied up later. Writer design choices that don’t work as well as they could. But overall it’s a fun read. Case’s metier is in her sex scenes, where she exhibits a flair for choosing just the right detail to characterize the budding relationship between her protagonists. She works well on a smaller stage here. Though the overall plot can be explained in a linear paragraph, the book’s most successful parts are the interactions between Sunny and Vash, Sunny and Pamela, and Pamela and her roommate.