Alison Umminger’s debut novel, American Girls, tracks fifteen year old Anna, who runs away from home to get away from her mother and her mom’s new family. She steals some money and heads to Los Angeles, where she moves in with her fledgling actor sister, whose life, on the surface anyway, is filled with glamour and good times.
But, during Anna’s summer in Lalaland, she discovers that literally nothing in the world is what you think it is, from her sister, to her mother, to the world famous actors and used-to-be’s that she befriends. Most of all, she discovers that maybe she’s not who she always thought she was; to start, she always assumed she was a good person, but now? Eh.
Through her sister, Anna meets a film-maker, who hires her to research the girls of the Manson Family, and the more she learns about them, the more she realizes that they were also not necessarily what they seemed. History remembers them as fucked up psychopaths, but in reality most of them started life in L.A. as runaways themselves, in search of a new start, and often running away from less than ideal familial situations.
The marketing of the book paints it as more about the Manson connection than it really is, but I guess every book needs a hook. It’s really about a teenage girl discovering that things are messy, and that everything has layers, good and bad. It’s about that moment when you realize that life is not going to be all people taking care of you and things working out in the long run.
This is not a thriller. This is more akin to a Mike Leigh movie for millennials than it is The Hunger Games, but it is exceptionally well-written, and Umminger’s Anna walks a fine line without ever tripping into cloying precociousness. The peripherals are all equally well-drawn, especially Anna’s sister, who is barely keeping her shit together.
On a school trip to Italy, Jill and her friend are involved in a car accident that kills the friend. When Jill wakes up after, she is back in the United States, with stitched in her face and no memory of what transpired. She does have a full complement of lawyers and media relations working with her, thanks to her father and to questions that have arisen around the possibility that the accident mat not have been an accident.
Eileen Cook wisely commits to Jill’s memory loss in the narration, with only brief snippets of what happened coming forth as she recalls details. This allows the reader to experience just what Jill experiences; we never know anything she doesn’t, and our suspicions are her suspicions. The “It was an accident… Or was it???” conceit is hardly rare, but few books manage to maintain the sense of unknowing that With Malice does. Throughout, we drift from suspicion to suspicion, all of them as plausible as the next, which makes this the rare YA mystery novel with an actual sense of mystery.
K’s family is long dead. A 15 year old orphan, she narrowly escapes death in a train station bombing. Oskar, her saviour, sees something in her and offers the chance to change her life: Join The Brotherhood. Become a spy. Have friends.
K accepts the offer, of course, and for the first time -and with a new name, Verity Nekton- in her life feels like she’s making a difference. But then she notices that not everything adds up; holes begin appearing in what Oskar tells her. Her enemy begins to seem more and more human and less evil. K begins to wonder who the enemy really is.
Waudby creates a genuinely complex narrative, populated with multi-dimensional characters, like a sort of teenage Jason Bourne-Hunger Games mash-up. A few moments feel a bit rushed, like they could have warranted a few more paragraphs, but generally speaking the pace of One of Us is impeccable and unrelenting.
This is a perfect summer read.
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