Calf by Andrea Kleine: Book 1 of #20booksofsummer


Andrea Kleine’s Calf is catnip to me.

From the tagline that claims it is a cross between Are You There God it’s Me Margaret and Taxi Driver, to the fact that it is a fictionalised account of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinkley, this is a book that screamed ‘Must Read!’ to me.


Despite the fact that a lot of books scream the same thing at me, I managed to convince my husband that I needed this book for my birthday. Given that I now no longer buy new books, Calf came with a lot of expectation, and for the most part, it lived up to that.

Set in the heady days of 1981, performance artist Andrea Kleine takes her inspiration from real life events. While the world was rocked by John Hinkley Jr’s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, Kleine’s world was rocked by the murder of her close childhood friend by her mother Leslie De Veau. Unconnected, apart from both happening in Washington DC, these events converged when De Veau and Hinkley later became lovers while inmates in hospital.

Kleine fictionalises these real life characters, so John Hinkley Jr becomes Jeff Hackney while Leslie De Veau is Valerie, who shots her daughter Kirin while she sleeps in bed.

Set over one year and made up of dual narratives, Kleine’s story follows Jeff Hackney as he becomes obsessed with and stalks a young actress, Amber Carroll (here standing in for Jodi Foster).  Meanwhile, eleven year old Tammy, is a friend of Kirin, the young girl murdered by her mother Valerie in her sleep.

These are dramatic, almost surreal stories, but these were surreal times and Kleine deftly captures the confusion of an era when John Lennon had just been assassinated, AIDS was in the ascendant, an actor was President and the threat of the Russians and nuclear war was a cloud over everybody’s days.

The confused, fractured and violent nature of the world is reflected in the microcosm of family life. 11 year old Tammy feels alienated from her family; she is frightened of her step-father, feels abandoned by her mother and is aggrieved at having to look after her siblings. Life outside of the home is no less confusing as she deals with the emerging sexuality of her friends, bullying and shifting allegiances. When Kirin is murdered, Tammy struggles to control the darkness within her own mind.


Andrea Kleine


Older, but just as childlike is Jeff Hackney. He is devastated by the death of his idol John Lennon and spends his days in bed thinking about writing songs. His parents are losing patience with their drop out son and his response is to create a fictional girlfriend and move to LA to try and meet Amber Carroll, the young actress with whom he has become infatuated. Delusional, manipulative and unstable Jeffrey’s descent into insanity is chilling, and Kleine cleverly portrays his suffocating need to be noticed, to be acknowledged.

When he meets a girl in a motel whom he later convinces himself was Amber, his fixation is immediate and engulfing. A flippant remark from her becomes a talisman of self-worth to him.

‘Oh yeah. You look like you could be a rock star’

Jeffrey’s entire face began to beam. No one had ever said anything like that to him before. This girl was the one person in the entire universe who got him.

Kleine may stop short of empathising with her creation, but she does try to understand him. As he moves closer to the idea that only violence can provide what he needs, she captures his twisted logic with skill.

Better to go down in a blaze of glory. Better to let the world know I was here. Better to let Amber know I really loved her. Better to let everyone know I was here and I existed and I had feelings. I had ideas. I had thoughts. I wanted things. And nobody listened to me and nobody cared. They just erased the parts of me they didn’t like and didn’t want to see. But they could only erase the parts they saw. I still saw the rest of me, the parts they didn’t give a shit about.

Her depiction of Valerie and what leads her to shoot her own daughter is equally affecting. The reader knows what will happen between mother and daughter but the lack of surprise does little to lessen the impact of the scene when it finally happens. Rather than the more famous crime of Hackney’s, this is the real centre of the novel, a fever dream of a sequence that is so well written it’s hard not to think of how often it has played over in Kleine’s mind through the years.

She told herself to breathe through her nose. She didn’t want to open her mouth. She didn’t want to risk the chance of talking herself out of it. She tried to hang on to the feeling of lightness even though the weight of being left alone was beginning to pour over her. It was trying to push her back down to her knees. But she had to stand up. She had to. She couldn’t let them win. She wasn’t going to let that happen. This was the only way. The only way. She had to do it. She had to save her. She had to.

She turned towards the bedroom door that was still open. The angels had left it open for her. They were nice.

Kleine appears to have some sympathy for Valerie, driven by ghost angels to kill her own daughter and then try to kill herself and when the meaning of the book’s title becomes apparent, it is heart breaking.

The telling of how these worlds collide is a slow burn. Calf is more a character study, of the disaffected, the lonely and ultimately, the mentally ill than it is a page turner, despite the subject matter. The novel is taut and well-crafted with chapters alternating between Tammy, Jeff and Valerie. Kleine builds suspense by taking her time in getting to the scenes that are most dramatic and the most anticipated.

john lesley

John Hinkley Jr & Leslie De Veau


Where the book is less successful is in the depiction of Tammy, which is unusual given she appears to be the stand in for Kleine herself. Making Kirin, the dead girl, a friend of her sister’s rather than a friend of Tammy herself is an odd choice – distancing Tammy’s narrative and diluting her grief from that of close friend to that of acquaintance. A brief scene where her path crosses with Hackney, while tense and well-written, seems too far-fetched to be believable.

For a novel about such dramatic, violent events, the ending is a quiet one, possibly underwhelming for some, however I found it to be well-judged. The relationship that developed between the real life John Hinckley and Leslie De Veau is what holds these narratives together, but Kleine does not allow that to be the overriding focus.

In the end, Calf is not about Hinkley, or De Veau but about the fragility of children’s lives and the damage that neglect can foster.

20 books

My 20 Books of Summer List is Finalised!



20 books

I have finally managed to come up with my reading list for 20 Books of Summer – always my favourite part of this challenge. I’m excited to read these books now, but you can sure as hell bet that by August I’ll be sick of them!

From 1 June to 3 September, I’m going to attempt, for the fourth year, to read my 20 Books of Summer. That’s 7 books a month, which is pretty daunting, but I think I can do it. I managed it last year, although reviews were shorter than usual!

As always, I had great fun putting this list together, although, this is about the sixth version since I started planning. I’ve tried to go for a broad range of genres, eras and styles so that there is always something I’m going to want to read! There are factual books, memoirs, short stories, a very short story and some classic and more contemporary novels.

As with last year, I’ve done a page count, so I have 6128 pages to read over 95 days, meaning I have to read 65 pages a day to complete my challenge. If I could just stop playing Jelly Crush and watching Line of Duty that would be completely do-able…

So, here are my 20 Books for summer 2017, you can click on the titles read their descriptions on Goodreads:

the hunters

1. The Hunters by Claire Messud

I adored The Woman Upstairs when I read it a few years ago, so I’m looking forward to this collection of two novellas. And yes, the phrase ‘novella’ is always attractive when putting together my 20 Books list.

blue tango

2. The Blue Tango by Eoin McNamee

I’m a sucker for true crime and really loved Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee, which is filled with beautiful writing despite the harrowing subject matter. The Blue Tango is a fictionalised account of a real life murder in Northern Ireland in the 1950s.

yellow wallpaper

3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This one is a little bit of a cheat as it’s a short story rather than a book, but I need to cut myself some slack here! I’ve been meaning to read this feminist classic for some time now, and at 26 pages, this seems like the perfect time to read it!


4. Calf by Andrea Kleine

Calf was a birthday present from my husband, so won’t be one of the 746, however I’m intrigued by the description of it as being a cross between Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret and Taxi Driver. Taking the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan as her inspiration, Kleine fictionalises the story of John Hinckley and Leslie Deveau and tells it through the eyes of a 12 year old girl.


5. No one Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

I’m a fan of Miranda July’s movies, particularly You, Me and Everyone We Know so I’m looking forward to this collection of short stories.

sundance kids

6. Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood by James Mottram

This is one choice I may well regret, as it is a BIG book, but I do love a book about the movies. Here James Mottram charts the rise of the indie filmmakers in the 1990s – Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Stephen Soderbegh – and explores how their work changed the cinematic landscape.

goat's song

7. A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy

Dermot Healy died in 2014 and remains one of the most underrated Irish writers. His fans included Seamus Heaney, Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle. A Goat’s Song is considered to be his greatest work, as it chars the doomed love affair between an alcoholic playwright and his actress muse.

london train

8. The London Train by Tessa Hadley

I actually know very little about this novel, or Tessa Hadley’s work but imagine I bought this after it was longlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction in 2011.


9. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

I must have about five Alice Munro books in the 746, so I think this is a well overdue choice. A twitter call out suggested this collection of short stories was a good starting point for her work.


10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Another classic I’ve been meaning to read for several years, The Awakening shocked readers in 1899 with its depiction of female infidelity.


11. The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee

Here’s another novel I don’t remember buying and know very little about! Anyone help me out? All I know is it’s an epic love story played out against the backdrop of the Korean War!

bad behaviour

12. Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill

This collection of short stories seems to be a love it or hate it kind of book, but edgy, creepy short stories are just my thing and any book that contains the story that the movie Secretary is based on gets my vote!


13. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Like Alice Munroe, I’ve bought loads of Murakami books and never got round to reading them. I really hope I like this, as I think I’ve got about five more to get through once I’m finished!


14. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

It was a toss-up between Housekeeping and Gilead, but I thought I would go for Robinson’s first book for my first reading of her work. I’ve heard rapturous praise for Housekeeping, and Robinson’s work in general so this should be a good one.

half blood

15. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I started Half Blood Blues last year and gave up after a few pages for no good reason, so I’m putting on the list to try and finish it this time round.

dead stars

16. Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner

I have a feeling this is going to be a strange one. A satire on Hollywood, it sounds less La La Land and more Maps to the Stars. Featuring drug addicted American Idol contestants, failed celebrity photographers and Michael Douglas, I could be in for a treat here, or I could want to throw it out the window.


17. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Is I just me, or has Elizabeth Strout been everywhere for the last few years? Having read all your glowing reviews for My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible, I was delighted to find a copy of Olive Kitteridge lurking, forgotten in my iBooks.


18. Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Peter Carey, but have always enjoyed his books, particularly Oscar and Lucinda. As a former Art gallery manager, I’m always drawn to books about art and artists, so should enjoy this tale of an old famous painter whose life is turned upside down by a mysterious young woman.


19. Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is another writer I haven’t read for a long time and I like the sound of this character driven thriller.


20. Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock Star Fantasist by Simon Armitage

Anyone who knows me, will know my love for Simon Armitage, so he fills this year’s music memoir slot as he explores the importance music has had on his life and career.

So that’s my 20 books, however this year I’ve allocated two ‘spares’ just in case one of my 20 isn’t working for me and they are:

1. Zone One by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is getting rave reviews and Zone One has been on my TBR for ages now. I’ve tried to read it quite a few times now, which it why it’s a possible replacement rather than a firm choice. I’m just not sure that it’s for me, although I do love a good zombie story…

2. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson hasn’t let me down yet, from Life After Life to Behind the Scenes at the Museum. The only reason this isn’t on the main list is because I’ve read a lot of Atkinson’s work over the last couple of years and would like to try some other authors this time round.

So, what do you think of the choices? Any I should start first? Any you think I’m mad to include? Does anyone think my spare reads should be in my main list?

I’ll be keeping a pinned Master post on the blog from 1 June, with a Linky where you can share your lists if you are taking part.

Remember, if 20 seems too daunting, then there are the 15 and 10 options also!




Just take the Books of Summer image, pick your own 10, 15 or 20 books you’d like to read and link back to my Master post so I know you’re taking part.  I’d love your support and as anyone who has taken part before will know, I am wonderfully slack with my rules!

I’ll be tweeting my way through the challenge as well using the hashtag #20booksofsummer. Do let me know if you will be joining in and don’t forget to link up your lists on Thursday when it all kicks off!