Lauren Beukes – Broken Monsters

Lauren Beukes just blew me away with last year’s The Shining Girls, so naturally I jumped at the invitation to read an ARC of her latest novel. This was such an amazing book and probably the first novel I ever read that felt truly contemporary in its use of social media. Lots of love ahead.

broken monstersBROKEN MONSTERS
by Lauren Beukes

Published by: Mulholland Books, 2014
Ebook: 448 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The body. The-body-the-body-the-body, she thinks.

IN A BROKEN CITY, A DISTURBED KILLER IS TRYING TO REMAKE THE WORLD IN HIS IMAGE.
Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies. But this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half-boy, half-deer, somehow fused together. And it’s only the first.
As winter closes in on Detroit, strange and disturbing corpses start turning up in unusual places, pulling several lives into the killer’s orbit.
Gabi has to juggle the most harrowing case of her career with being a single mom to her troubled teen daughter Layla.
Layla, egged on by her best friend Cas, is playing a dangerous game with an online predator.
Broken Monsters is a dark and gripping thriller about the death of the American Dream, online fame, creativity, compromise and the undercurrents of the world we live in right now.

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I’m not a big reader of horror novels or, indeed, anything other than fantasy and science fiction. Lauren Beukes has been settled fairly well into the SFF genre, but The Shining Girls was much more horror than science fiction (if you forget about the part where the serial killer is also a time-traveller). It goes to show that trying out new things is usually a good idea – at least if it leads people like me to authors like Lauren Beukes.

Broken Monsters is many things. A police procedural about hunting down a serial killer, a portrait of Detroit, a psycho-thriller, and a healthy dose of reality. Because it was so fantastically done, let met talk about that bit first.

Among the protagonists is Detective Versado’s teenage daughter, Layla. She and her best friend are  probably the most realistic teenagers I’ve ever read about. They clearly live in our time, although there are no mentions of what year the story is set it. They use facebook, know about reddit and 4chan, hell, youtube has a huge influence on their lives. The internet is often forgotten or boiled down in fiction. Like a fictional universe – whether it’s on TV or in a novel – only has those parts of the internet that are useful to the story (i.e. Wikipedia or Google) but none of the ugly sides. Truth is, and we all know this, the internet as a whole doesn’t have rules. It doesn’t have ethis. Once something bad is out there, you can never ever get rid of it completely. And these ones and zeroes somewhere on a server have real influence on people’s lives. Lauren Beukes does an A-MA-ZING job portraying this. And she doesn’t overdo it. Her characters sometimes speak in memes, but only as far as is realistic and believable. Layla regrets calling her cat NyanCat, for example, and her mother still makes fun of her for it. I won’t spoil anything but let’s just say that the internet (and the hunt for likes, views, or reddit gold) is a major player in this story, as it is in most of our lives. I wish more authors took that into consideration.

broken monsters international editions

Joey Hi-Fi cover (South African edition) for the win!

I’ve already talked about Layla in terms of her grounding the story in a certain time, but she is much more than that. She and her best friend Cas do stupid things, as teenagers will. Layla’s mother also happens to be on the case of the Detroit Monster, a serial killer who combines animals with human remains, to create “artwork” – or so we assume. Here’s the next surprise: I also never considered myself a fan of police procedurals but, boy, was I glued to the pages when reading about the investigation for the Detroit Monster. I could have spent hours and hours at the police station, following every single deputy on his or her part of the investigation. It was just all so damn interesting! Then again, maybe Lauren Beukes is just one hell of a great writer (yes… yes, she is).

The other characters – Jonno, the “citizen’s journalist”; TK, the homeless man with a horrible past; Clayton, the sculptor whose mind is decaying – were also vivid and very different types of people. Clayton’s chapters constantly sent chills down my back, I empathised with TK, and I kind of hated Jonno for the attention-seeking, greedy fuck-up that he is. On the other hand, I understood them all. There are no good or bad guys here. Every single character makes mistakes, every one of them does something good(ish). And you can’t know whether their next decision will be good or bad.

Lastly, the city of Detroit needs to be mentioned as a character in its own right. It came to life mostly through Jonno’s chapters, and gave me a real sense of being there. From graffiti artists to hipster coffee shops, to ruined buildings and soup kitchens for the homeless, we get to see a lot of the city, and not just through the eyes of someone who’s lived there all their life. You might think this was just the author cramming in exposition to create a nice setting, but it’s all relevant to the plot – which makes the book so amazing.

broken monsters coverThe writing is so on point, I really don’t know what else to say about it. Just like in The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes doesn’t need 50-page chapters to set a scene, develop a character, and push the plot forward. It’s all done so effortlessly. There was not a single chapter, not even a page, that bored me or took me out of the plot. This is one of those books that you sink into and don’t come up for air until you’re done. Beukes also effortlessly wrote a cast of characters that represent groups of people who don’t get to shine much in SFF. Most of the characters are black or Mexican or biracial, one has diabetes – a trait that doesn’t take over the plot but stays present, nonetheless – one is homeless, and several have suffered through events that would give anyone PTSD. None of the characters are defined by their race or disability or past, but it follows them around wherever they go. Of course it influences their daily life. I loved reading about all of them and I loved seeing so much diversity in a book that is, ostentatiously, just about a crazy serial killer who glues together animals with humans.

There is one thing to be said about having the stomach flu – if you have to stay in bed all day, might as well bring a fantastic book. So take a weekend and make sure you have no appointments. Once you start reading, you’ll gobble this up, no interruptions allowed! I’m still in awe and can’t wait to see what Beukes does next.

RATING: 9/10  – Close to perfection

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When I am this much of a fangirl, I like to offer second opinions for you guys:

Lauren Beukes – The Shining Girls

I’ve been wanting to read Lauren Beukes for a while now but I always thought I’d start with Zoo City, whose description somehow spoke to me the most. Then I listened to the book review and interview with the author on Speculate! and the decision was made. “Time travelling serial killer” sounded too good to be left on the TBR.

shining girlsTHE SHINING GIRLS
by Lauren Beukes

Published by: Harper Collins, 2013
ISBN:0007464568
Hardcover: 391 pages
Standalone

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: He clenches the orange plastic pony in the pocket of his sports coat.

The girl who wouldn’t die, hunting a killer who shouldn’t exist…A terrifying and original serial-killer thriller from award-winning author, Lauren Beukes. ‘If you’ve got a Gone Girl-shaped hole in your life, try this’ Evening Standard “It’s not my fault. It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.” Chicago 1931. Harper Curtis, a violent drifter, stumbles on a house with a secret as shocking as his own twisted nature – it opens onto other times. He uses it to stalk his carefully chosen ‘shining girls’ through the decades – and cut the spark out of them. He’s the perfect killer. Unstoppable. Untraceable. He thinks…Chicago, 1992. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Tell that to Kirby Mazrachi, whose life was shattered after a brutal attempt to murder her. Still struggling to find her attacker, her only ally is Dan, an ex-homicide reporter who covered her case and now might be falling in love with her. As Kirby investigates, she finds the other girls – the ones who didn’t make it. The evidence is …impossible. But for a girl who should be dead, impossible doesn’t mean it didn’t happen…

divider1This book shows beautifully that you can get me to read anything if you just promise me the tiniest speculative fiction element. The idea of a time travelling serial killer immediately appealed to me (in a I-want-to-read-about-it way only, of course) because we’ve all seen movies where the police hunt a serial killer. Usually, these killers fit into a psychological profile, killing their later victims more violently than the first ones, and so on. But Harper travels randomly through time, so nothing about him makes sense to the modern police. It is assumed there are several murderers and some of them are even in prison (with only the readers knowing of their innocence).

The story is told alternately from the points of view of Harper, Kirby, the other victims, Dan, and occasionally a random person who gets involved in Kirby’s hunt. Being the only girl that survived Harper’s attempt to murder her, Kirby carries a lot of scars with her, and not just visible ones. She is almost obsessed with finding her almost-killer and bringing him to justice. After the police didn’t really help her, she starts an internship at a newspaper and works her way through old clippings of murders similar to hers. Her boss Dan, who is kind of falling in love with her, was a wonderful (and sane) counterpart to obsessive Kirby and her relationship with Harper.

We follow both Harper and Kirby’s storylines in a linear way. However, since Harper disocvered his time-travelling house, he jumps wildly in time, popping up in the 1950ies, then again in the 30ies, and then in the 80ies. Lauren Beukes does an excellent job of bringing each of these time periods to life. When Harper sees a television for the first time, he just stands there and watches ads for half an hour. But his goal are and always will be his Shining Girls, whom he sometimes “visits” when they are still young to tell them he’ll come back for them later. Invariably, he returns to kill them when they are in their early twenties.

shining girls 2I have to watch my vocabulary here because saying I enjoyed or liked getting to know Harper’s victims just sounds wrong. I loved that the author gave them a life of their own, a backstory with hopes and dreams, and didn’t just leave them to be pretty corpses on a policeman’s wall. Of course, as soon as we read a chapter about one of the Shining Girls, we know how it is going to end – which makes it all the more tragic that the girls themselves make plans and think about the future. We know there is no future for them. But, and this made me insanely happy, we get to understand why they are Shining Girls – because each of them shines in their own field, be it science, social work, or art, they are talented, promising young women.

I was also impressed by the diversity and range of characters we get to meet. There is a young black mother, working hard to feed her children, a woman working for an (illegal) abortion clinic, a brilliant young scientist, a dancing girl who painted her body so it would glow in the dark, and of course Kirby with her sharp wit and lovable personality, despite the bitter edge whenever someone talks about her scars.

Any novel about a serial killer will have a certain amount of violence in it. Let me say right away that I didn’t feel it was gratuitous at all! Most murders Harper commits aren’t described in detail at all. We get the glimpse of a knife slicing through skin and fiber, a crumpling body, sometimes only a sensation of pain and then darkness. In other cases, we do learn Harper’s preferred mode of killing his victims and, yes, it is gruesome and horrible. But I felt that Lauren Beukes kept it to a minimum and let us know just enough to properly hate Harper.

Apart from the police (or journalist) procedural nature of the book, Kirby’s story was interesting on other levels as well. Her relationship to Dan intrigued me, his careful attempts to make the right steps. How do you treat a girl who has been through something that horrible? Dan grew on me very quickly and I was hoping throughout the novel that Kirby would come to see that she has a true friend and ally in him.

All things considered, I am very impressed, not only because I couldn’t put the book down, but because in addition to a thriller, it offered a glimpse into different periods of the 20th century. The historical aspects, and Kirby’s journey, were at least as gripping as the hunt for Harper. Lauren Beukes is an author to watch out for, and I personally can’t wait to pick up another of her books.

RATING: 8/10  – Excellent!

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Lauren Beukes in front of her "murder wall". http://laurenbeukes.com/

Lauren Beukes in front of her “murder wall”.
http://laurenbeukes.com