Bawdy, excessive and slightly unbelievable are my first impressions of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl.
Set mostly in Wolverhampton, England, Joanna Morrigan is a 14-year-old girl going on 35 who is certain she has outgrown the life into which she’s been born. Joanna is intelligent, funny, overweight and practically exudes anguish since she is still a virgin; in fact, she’s never been kissed. There’s also an awkward, embarrassing moment when she’s on TV. So, she does what most teenagers attempt: she reinvents herself. This involves a new name and a career; that’s right, a career. As a music critic.
At first, Joanna, now known as Dolly Wilde, manages to remain true to herself while projecting a much more confident demeanor. However, the need to fit in eventually overwhelms her and her journey of self-discovery leads to predictable consequences – especially since it involves sex, drugs and rock and roll.
The Morrigan family relies on government assistance to get by. When Joanna innocently mentions this to a neighbor she worries this could mean an end to their life on the dole. This is, in large part, the reason she decides to pursue a career, so she can help financially. This, of course, means quitting school.
Moran’s writing is vivid, albeit at times also lurid. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but not enough to compensate for the exasperation Joanna/Dolly causes.
My initial reaction to the novel doesn’t change much by its end.
How to Build a Girl
The adage that opposites attract is evident in Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans. Noel and Vera aren’t exactly drawn together as much as they are forced upon each other: Noel is an orphaned 10-year-old evacuee and Vera is a middle-aged woman who reluctantly agrees to care for him.
Before they meet, Noel has managed to fly under the radar in London with his elderly Godmother, Mattie, with whom he’s been living since the death of his parents. Both have a disdain for authority and are content in their relative isolation. As World War II becomes more imminent, Mattie’s health deteriorates and England increasingly is in Germany’s crosshairs.
Noel is unusual, and Vera is initially convinced he is not very bright. Today he’d be considered a nerd; certainly his intellect and lack of social skills don’t make him a popular child. Vera is widowed and trying to make ends meet, although her efforts aren’t on the up and up. Soon, Noel offers suggestions to improve upon Vera’s scams and their efforts prove to be quite successful, if not quite moral.
Among Noel and Vera’s prey is Mrs. Gifford who unwittingly (and repeatedly) donates to whatever charity the two have concocted. However, they don’t just take her money, they spend time getting to know her. Eventually, Noel becomes protective of the old woman.
Evans’ writing style is subtle as the relationships evolve. Attitudes begin to shift and bonds are created. The couple begins to accept each other’s flaws while recognizing their own.
When author Stieg Larsson died 11 years ago, it appeared to be the death knell for the Millennium Series featuring Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist and heroic bad girl Lisbeth Salander. Thanks to David Lagercrantz, the demise of the fictional characters was greatly exaggerated.
Lagercrantz has written the fourth installment, The Girl in the Spider’s Web — doing so in a voice and style remarkably similar to Larsson’s. This is a good thing.
The two protagonists have moved on with their lives; Blomkvist still writes for Millennium magazine and Salander continues to hack computers. They have not stayed in touch with one another. Then, Blomkvist receives a call in the middle of the night from a source who has been in contact with a hacker whose description can only fit Salander. This thinnest of threads ultimately expands to hold the narrative together. Blomkvist’s source and Salander’s work for him are linked to international cyber-spying, old family vendettas and the pair’s respect and faith in one another.
Many characters introduced by Larsson have new-found life thanks to Lagercrantz. He follows a similar pattern of simultaneous stories occurring within a single chapter until they ultimately come together.
Blomkvist’s source is murdered, the NSA is hacked and a child autistic savant not only has the missing piece to the puzzle that brings these events together, but he brings out an unlikely, albeit extremely slight, maternal side in Salander.
There’s intrigue, righting wrongs and descriptions of Stockholm that make it seem as if Lagercrantz is channeling Larsson.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
Okay, okay. I know donuts offer little to no redeeming value other than that they’re palate pleasing. Besides, it’s not like eat I them often. When I do, my go-to choice is of the chocolate frosted raised cake variety. That is until I discovered Amy’s Donuts. This is the warehouse of the fried pastry treats; not because it’s large and impersonal, rather for the sheer number of creative possibilities concocted on the premises.
Amy’s is actually an old fast-food establishment southeast of downtown Colorado Springs. It’s far enough away from my house and daily driving routines that I don’t have to worry – too much. My waist line, and wallet, would be in trouble otherwise.
I was glad to have people ahead of us in line to have time to peruse the options, of which there were too many to count. We narrowed it down to half a dozen with the caveat that we’d share our choices with each other (there are only two of us). Thus, it was like getting a dozen without all the guilt.
We selected Crème Brulee, Bronco Blueberry, White Pearls, Chocolate with Almonds, Orange Creamsicle and the Elvis – featuring a banana, peanut butter and bacon topping. Oh yeah! I liked them all. It’s not just the frostings and garnishes that set Amy’s off from the pack. The raised cakes are light and airy.
Our selections barely made in a dent in the display case; there were still dozens and dozens from which to choose!
2704 E. Fountain Blvd.
Colorado Springs, Colo.
Coming of age can be a mystery, and Karen Brown has combined the two genres in The Longings of Wayward Girls.
The story begins with a 1974 news clipping about the abduction of a young girl, Laura Loomis, and moves back and forth between 1979 and the early 2000s. Laura remains a mystery throughout, while other secrets surface its place. The narrative instead focuses on Sadie Watkins as a creative, energetic young teenager and later as a married mother of two. It hardly seems possible that the two characters are the same; the adult Sadie lacks imagination. That is, until Ray Filey returns to town.
Set in a rural New England community, Brown’s descriptions of the landscape and close-knit neighborhood are intriguing and easy to visualize. The novel is also evocative of a time when parents thought nothing of letting their children roam nearby woods and streets. Or, when parents (in this case, mostly mothers) chain-smoked and drank their way through summer afternoons and evenings.
Sadie teeters on the edge of being a mean girl with childhood friend, Betty, following her lead. Ray is a few years older than Sadie. As a girl she was aware of his presence, although he was never part of her circle of friends. His interest in her as a woman is intriguing, but Sadie’s response to his appearance doesn’t entirely make sense, nor do her actions. However, Brown’s merging of the two themes does offersenough interest to see the novel to its conclusion.
The Longings of Wayward Girls
Washington Square Press, 2013