What’s With The Girls?

I’m often perusing various outlets for books–my local bookstores, the Barnes & Noble a few towns away (these are special trips my sister and I take, with conversation and catching up in the car on the way down and back, then separating on our own book odysseys in the store,  followed by chat over coffee to discuss our findings), my library’s online newsletter (or just browsing the actual library), and a print flyer called Book Page with reviews, interviews and book advertising.

I’ve noticed something over the past few years, and maybe you have, too. I’m probably a little late in the noticing, but the thing is the abundance of book titles with the word “girl(s)” in them. Here’s just a sampling:

  • The Girl Who Chased the Moon (Sarah Addison Allen)
  • Lilac Girls (Martha Hall Kelly)
  • The Good Girl (Mary Kubica)
  • The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Heidi W. Durrow)
  • Or simply, The Girls (Emma Cline)

Don’t forget these classics:

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring (Tracy Chevalier)
  • Girl, Interrupted (Susanna Kaysen)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larson) as well as the sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and

I could go on and on. When I googled it, Goodreads had a list of 759 books with the word “girl” in it. 759! Why is this so?

One could point to the mega success of novels like Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) and The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins). Do authors–or publishers–really believe they can replicate that kind of success simply with a certain word in the title? Do they really think readers will flock to a book with said title, in the hopes of finding the same thrilling reading experience? I wouldn’t be surprised. Human beings are like sheep, content to go where they’re led.

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Maybe it’s something about the word “girl” itself. It connotes youth, beauty, innocence, a nascent sexuality. It’s what men want, and what women want to be. There’s a yearning associated with it, or a nostalgia. There’s so much that can go wrong–the misconceptions or corruption of youth, poison behind the beauty, the smashing of innocence, inappropriate or destructive sexuality. These stories behind the girl are alluring. We’re drawn to these images like a moth to a flame.

Maybe I should take up this trend and insert the word “girl” into my titles. My wolf novel could be Wolf Girl, instead of Wolf Dream (and believe it or not, it’s an expanded version of a short story I originally called “Lost Girl”–maybe I already intuitively understood the power of that word). My dragon novel could be, of course, Dragon Girl, instead of The Last Dragon, or The Girl with the Ruby Red Scales. I don’t have a title yet for the story I’m planning right now, but maybe it could be Girl, Reincarnated. Or The Poet Girl. I’m kidding, but it just goes to show how important titles are, and the influence they have over readers.

 

Book Blurbs

I’ve been seriously slacking in the book review department, so here are some blurbs about the last four books I’ve read:

The Light Between the Oceans, by M.L. Stedman.

light oceans

In 1920’s Australia, Izzie, a lighthouse keeper’s wife, struggles with miscarriage; one day, she decides to keep a baby that washes ashore in a boat with a dead man. It’s a decision that will haunt her husband Tom for years. As a man who lived through the horrors of World War I, he clings to his integrity as a remedy for what he saw and did in those years. The isolation of the lighthouse allows them to keep their secret for a time; Tom’s love for his wife, and the child they named Lucy, keeps his torment at bay–for a time. Inevitably, the secret comes out, and the pain and grief that follows–for Tom, for Izzie, for the people who lay claim to the child, and mostly for the child herself, is almost unbearable. It was hard to know who to root for in this wrenching novel that explores the devastating consequences of a decision made in grief and longing, hope and love.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novick.

uprooted

It’s been many years since I’ve read a traditional fantasy–I thought maybe I’d “outgrown” them some time ago; turns out, I’ve just been waiting for one that doesn’t replay the same old tired tropes. Or maybe I’ve been away long enough for it to feel fresh again. At any rate, I immensely enjoyed this tale Novik culled from Polish folklore. Agnieshka, a young woman from the local village, has been chosen by the Dragon Lord to live with him and be his assistant in his tower across the river; he has chosen a young woman from her village every ten years for as long as anyone can remember. The Dragon Lord is a wizard who uses his powers to defend their valley from the evil influence of the Wood: a malevolent forest that corrupts and sickens anyone who strays too close to its borders. Agnieshka bumbles about in her new role with the cantankerous wizard, until they discover that she has her own powers–a Witch whose abilities confound and fascinate the Dragon Lord. Throw in a little politics and court intrigue, a relationship fraught with sexual tension, and a quest to discover the source of the Wood’s malevolence, and I couldn’t put this book down.

My Life with Bob, by Pamela Paul.

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I’ve mentioned this book in a previous postand it was as entertaining as I thought and hoped it would be. Paul is the NY Times Book Review editor; she chronicles her life with BOB (Book of Books)–a notebook wherein she lists every single book she’s read for the past 28 years, since she was a teenager. Because I keep my own list of books (in print for many years, now digitally), I had to see how Paul’s choice of books impacted her life (or vice versa). Of course, her life has been much more interesting and varied than mine–she’s traveled extensively, several times to France during her school years, taking off to live in Thailand by herself after college, as well as many other places. The book progresses gradually from her youth to the present (in her mid-forties, married with three children). A person’s lifetime reading list is like a fingerprint, never the same for any one person. Later in the book, a book group asked the question, why do you read? Paul replied, in part, “To be transported.” I agree. I read to go to all the places I’ll never go, to live all the lives I’ll never live. I can’t get enough.

The Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova.

shadowland

Years ago, I enjoyed Kostova’s The Historian, a kind of literary take on the Dracula myth. Her books are long and sprawling, with several points of view revealed through various sources: oral histories, letters, flashbacks. Her stories involve a core mystery that is ferreted out over distance and time. The Shadow Land takes place in Bulgaria (Eastern Europe and its history is a common theme in her books–Kostova is married to a Bulgarian). Alexandra is a 26-year-old woman who has traveled to Bulgaria to teach English at the Institute in Sofia, the nation’s capitol. She carries an old grief with her–as teenagers, her brother Jack disappeared on a hiking trip with their family, and was never seen again. This goes far to explain why, when she finds herself with someone else’s bag–containing an urn with someone’s ashes–in a taxi mix up, she stubbornly goes so far and endures so much to return the ashes to its family, instead of simply dumping it at the local police station. Alexandra finds herself enmeshed with the Lazarov family; in particular, Stoyan Lazarov, whose ashes she carries. With the help of Aspurah “Bobby” Iliev, her taxi driver–who turns out to be much more than a taxi driver–they pursue the elusive Lazarovi, discover Stoyan’s history as a violinist, his sufferings in a forced labor camp during the Communist regime, and why the police are pursuing them and the urn. This is a rich, engaging read that led me on a journey through the beautiful landscapes of Bulgaria (a country about which I knew almost nothing), and the sufferings of its people through various wars and political climates. Mostly, it’s about Stoyan, his genius and secrets, his sufferings and the sacrifices he made for the people he loved.

 

Have you read any of these books? What have you been reading? Comment and we’ll talk about it!

My Life with Paige

One of the books on my TBR list is My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, by Pamela Paul. Paul is the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and she’s kept a list of all the books she’s ever read for the past 28 years. She calls this running list Bob (Book of Books).

bob

This is a book I must absolutely read, because I, too, have kept a list of books that I’ve read, for a period of at least 15 years. In 2000, I bought a beautiful hardcover notebook with the tiny handwriting of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre on the cover. For each entry, I wrote the title and author, the copyright year, the number of pages, the dates I read the book, whether or not I owned it or if it was a library book, whether it was a new read or a re-read, paperback or hardcover. And then I’d write a few pages summing up the plot, what I thought of the book, anything and everything about how it made me feel. Sometimes I’d start a book and never finish, and I’d explain why I didn’t, or what I didn’t like about it. I wasn’t writing formal book reviews; it was purely subjective, a stream of reactions and thoughts at gut level.

The first book I recorded in that journal was The Innkeeper’s Song, by Peter S. Beagle, in 2000. The last book was Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn, in 2004. On the last page I listed the total number of books read (64) and a list of the authors. On the inside covers, I recorded quotes about books and reading by various luminaries. If I saw a picture of the cover of the book, I’d cut it out and tape it into the entry. It truly is a detailed picture of my reading life, a scrapbook of literary experiences.

I have four of these beautiful hardcover notebooks, and they cover my reading from 2000 until 2011. The last one is a larger purple hardcover that covers 2011 to 2015; it’s only one third filled in, and I was getting lazier with my entries–I had begun to photcopy the cover of the book and tape it in, and jot down a few words about it. It was about this time I began the blog, and all the books I’ve read since then have been informally reviewed here. For a list of them, go here. To read the reviews, go to “Books” under Categories on my Home page.

With the inevitable transition from handwritten entries to digital posts, I’ve traded in a personal and private relationship to books for a slightly more formal, public one. I can share my love of books with others here and talk about my reading habit with other book lovers, which is wonderful; but I’m also sad that the hardcover book journals have come to an end.

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My book journals

I’d love to take the time to read through them all and perhaps match book choices to life events. I have personal journals stowed away somewhere from this time; it might be interesting to match the dates between the book journals and the personal journals, and maybe see what might have influenced my reading choices. In 2000 I was 29 and two years married; my daughter was nine years away. I worked at the accounting office for most of that time, and I scribbled away privately on various stories. Nothing too exciting outwardly; but my inner life was always working away, churning, evolving, planning, dreaming.

Could I write a book about my reading habits, as Pamela Paul has? Maybe with some thought, but I doubt it would be very interesting to other readers. It’s more of a personal thing, this choosing of stories, of deciding who I’m going to spend the next 15 hours of my reading life with.

I never named my book journals, but if I did, I suppose I would name them, collectively, Paige (get it?).

I really miss Paige. She was an old friend that was always there for me, during the good times and the bad, but I can always revisit her and reminisce. In the meantime, I’ll read My Life with Bob and add it to my list of books read, a continual, never-ending thread sewn into the fabric of my life.

Another Book Roundup

I haven’t been keeping up with full-length book reviews here, so I thought I’d just jot down a few lines about the books I’ve been reading lately.

  • The Last One, by Alexandra Oliva. A woman competes in a Survivor-like reality show, only to find the line between show and reality beginning to blur. As her Solo Challenge progresses, it becomes clear to the reader that something terrible has happened in the outside world, but Zoo thinks it’s part of the game-or refuses to see it. An interesting tale on how we can blind ourselves to the truth.
  • the-last-one
  • Low  Country Bribe, by Hope C. Clark. A Department of Agriculture employee finds herself mixed up with bribes and murder. Not my usual cup of tea, but I love Clark’s website Funds for Writers, and thought I’d give her fiction a whirl.
  • The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson. A woman dreams an alternate life in 1963 Denver. By day, she’s Kitty, a single woman who runs a bookstore with her friend. When she goes to sleep at night, she’s Katharine, wife to perfect husband Lars and mother to two beautiful children. But it turns out that perfect life isn’t so perfect, and Kitty struggles to make sense of the two lives she’s living.
  • bookseller

 

What I’m reading now:

  • The Light Between the Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. I’m reading this one for the book club, about a couple living on a lighthouse island in 1926 Australia, who decide to keep a baby washed up onshore in a boat. Like that won’t have devastating repercussions.
  • light oceans
  • Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is my favorite fantasy author, and I’m finally reading his latest. Opening up one of his books is like coming home.
  • Children

So that’s what’s been going on in my reading world. Have you read any of these books? What are you reading these days? Let me know and we’ll talk about it!

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

peculiar-children

I’ve been intrigued by the strange photo on the cover of this book for awhile now, but probably would never have picked it up if my book club members hadn’t suggested it. My sister didn’t realize it was a YA novel, though in the end it didn’t matter-this is a delightfully “peculiar” book no matter what the genre.

As a child, Jacob Portman loved his grandfather Abraham’s stories about the house of peculiar children he’d been sent to as a child-in order to protect him from the “monsters”. The children who lived there had odd powers or peculiarities-an invisible boy, a levitating girl, a boy who had bees living inside of him-peculiarities that were backed up by some old photos that his grandfather had shown him over the years.

As he grew older, Jacob realized his grandfather had probably been telling tall tales, and that the “monsters” were actually the Nazis during World War II. His parents had likely sent him to an orphanage in England to protect him, while the rest of his family was slaughtered. And the pictures? Weird camera tricks.

But then his grandfather is killed, supposedly by a wild animal; Jacob is sent to check on him that day, and his grandfather dies in his arms with some enigmatic words: “Go to the island, it’s not safe here. Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September 3, 1940.” And then Jacob sees something in the underbrush nearby, something decidedly monstrous.

Afterward, he suffers nightmares and anxiety, and his parents send him to a psychiatrist. Dr. Golan suggests that he look into his grandfather’s stories, if only to find some kind of closure. When his aunt gives him a book from his grandfather’s house, an Emerson book with Jacob’s name on  it, he finds a letter inside written to Abe from Headmistress Alma LeFay Peregrine, with a postmark from Cairnholm Island, Cymru (Wales), UK.

From this and various other clues, Jacob pieces together that his grandfather wanted him to find this Miss Peregrine and her home for peculiar children-and realizes that if he did, maybe they could shed some light on his grandfather’s secrets.

The book takes off from there, with Jacob and his father travelling to Wales, the discovery of the bombed-out house, and Jacob’s initiation into the world of the peculiar. The weird photos only add to the story; they’re old pictures the author has found through tag sales and private collections over the years. I find it an ingenious way to tell a story-in the author interview at the end of the book, Riggs says that he both made up a story around some of the pictures, and tried to weave others into the narrative as he went along. It’s inspired me to more frequently use pictures as story prompts; one might get a best-seller out of it!

Going in, we thought this book would be a creepy, kind of freaky read, but it was actually more on the whimsical side, and the recent previews for the movie version only reinforces this. It’s a fun, adventurous read, for YA readers, as well as those who have a taste for the peculiar.

Book Review 2016

Looking over my reading list of this past year, I thought I’d pick out some favorites, some not-so-favorites, the hits, the misses, and the abandoned.

I’ve read fourteen books this year (12 fiction and 2 non-fiction) and I’ve loved, or at least mostly liked, all of them. I’d have to say my top three favorites are:

dark placescity of mirrorspeculiar-children

 

  • Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn.
  • City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin.
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. I just finished reading this book and don’t have a review yet; stay tuned.

My least favorite book out of all of them has to be The Martian, by Andy Weir. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the movie, but the book was a bit tedious. Good story, but better told through a different medium.

The award for Most Mind-Blowing Book goes to Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch, and the Just Plain Weird award goes to Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun.

There were three books that I started with good intentions, but will join the Halls of the Unfinished:

  • Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin. I hadn’t read a good craft book in a while, but I just wasn’t disciplined enough to get through this one at the time. I had better luck with Old Friend From Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg, which I’m still writing through.
  • Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain. I thought I’d really like this novelization of Beryl Markham’s life (the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic), but…I just didn’t. Maybe I’d have better luck with West With the Night, a memoir.
  • The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry. This book, about a family of lace readers in Salem, Massachusetts, has been on my shelf for a long time, and I finally started it a while ago and have been reading it between book club reads. I’m not sure if it will ever get finished.

The book club has really kept me on track with reading-if I didn’t have anyone else to read books with and have a deadline, it would probably take me a lot longer to read a book, and I certainly wouldn’t have read a lot of these titles, which would have been a shame. I can’t wait to see what great books the new year holds for me!

Have you read any of these books? What was your favorite book of the year?

 

 

The Wonder

the-wonder

Lib Wright is a Florence Nightingale-trained nurse who is called upon to keep watch over a girl in 1959 Ireland who supposedly can live without eating.

Lib arrives from England ignorant of this country’s culture and Roman Catholic faith, as well as with her own prejudices and assumption. She meets Anna, the girl who allegedly hasn’t eaten since her eleventh birthday, which was four months before. The girl is clearly alive and spirited, but the nurse in Lib sees troubling symptoms: swollen feet and hands, distended belly, fine hair growing on the girl’s skin, bleeding gums.

Lib has been hired by a committee of local men, including the parish priest Mr. Thaddeus and Anna’s own physician, Dr. McBrearty, to determine if Anna is somehow secretly getting food, or if she is indeed a living miracle. Lib shares her two-week watch with Sister Michael, a taciturn nun who alternates 8 hour shifts with Lib.

Convinced that the whole thing is a hoax, Lib keeps a strict watch over Anna and writes her symptoms down everyday in her memorandum book. But very soon, Anna begins to get worse, and Lib fears the girl will die soon. She brings her concerns to Dr. McBrearty, but the man is too delusional to listen to her-he’s either hopeful that Anna is truly miraculous, or is convinced that she is(“scientifically” adapting to life without food. There is no help with Anna’s parents, either her inappropriately cheery mother or her resigned, fatalistic father. Everyone’s too wrapped up in religious fervor. Even Sister Michael, a fellow nurse, is determined to just do the job she was hired for: to watch.

As Lib gets to know the girl even as she deteriorates, she cannot simply stand by and watch her die. She finds an unlikely ally in William Byrne, an Irish journalist who is seeking a story on Anna, a man who stirs Lib’s emotions as well as the secrets she carries inside. But what are Anna’s secrets? Lib is convinced the answers lie within the girl herself, and the crux of the story is the mystery of why Anna won’t eat. The answer is shocking and heartrending, but the ending satisfied when I wasn’t so sure it would.

I’d call this book a psychological mystery; it kept me turning the pages, puzzling out the mystery of Anna.