Girls, Girls, Girls: Three Reads All About the Ladies

July 28, 2015

I'm not sure what it is about putting the word "girl" in a book title, but it's been all the rage for the last year or so. In June and July, I read no fewer than three that did so.

Of the three books featured here, only one of them was actually about a girl (read: a female child). One of the storylines fluctuated between a woman's pre-adolescent memories and her adult ones, and the third is about several women. When I hear or see the word "girl," I assume we're dealing with a child or young teenager. Regularly referring to women as girls conveys a casual lack of respect—how often do you hear grown men referred to as "boys"?—and it makes me sad when it leaks over into my cozy fiction bubble. I could go on for a bit about the prevalence of language that thoughtlessly infantilizes women, but I'm guessing you're here for the books.

Also, in light of this feminist rant, yes, I do realize that this post's graphic is bright pink and includes lip prints. I couldn't help myself.

Girl at War, by Sara Nović

Sara Nović's debut novel tells the story of Ana Jurić, a young girl caught in the crossfire of the Yugoslav Wars of the late twentieth century. The story jumps back and forth through time, beginning in 1991 at the start of the ethnic conflicts in Ana's hometown of Zagreb and carrying us to her present-day as a refugee attending college in New York City.

Adult Ana allows her Croatian accent to fade, all the better for avoiding awkward questions from curious Americans:
"Their musings about how and why people stayed in a country under such terrible conditions were what I hated most. I knew it was ignorance, not insight that prompted these questions. They asked because they hadn't smelled the air raid smoke or the scent of singed flesh on their own balconies; they couldn't fathom that such a dangerous place could still harbor all the feelings of home." - pg. 100, Girl at War
Nović clearly did her research, piecing together a devastating portrait of life during the Balkan Wars from family and friends' stories, but what stood out most to me were the relationships she sketched: the way Ana and her father "thought in the same circles" (pg. 67) and comforted one another; the tug of war between Ana and her mother, who wished she were less of a tomboy; and Ana's tenderness with her sick, infant sister Rahela. I especially loved reading about Ana's childhood friendship with Luka—their wartime games, their bike rides along streets devastated by shelling, their all-consuming entanglement in each other's lives—and felt adult Ana's ache when she wonders if he survived.

Tough as the subject matter is, this book was a treat to read; Nović's prose flows with the self-assurance of a more seasoned author. It manages to retain its ease even in the story's more graphic moments. I hate to say it, but overall, I just wasn't as wowed as others were. Maybe it's because I've been on a solid streak of 4-star reads, and this one blended right in with the pack. I shot for the moon and landed among the stars instead, which isn't a bad place to be.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Rachel Watson takes the commuter train to and from London every day. Each morning and evening, she passes by the same house on Blenheim Road and conjures up fantasies about the couple she sees on their rooftop terrace. It's a way to pass the time and fill the gaps in her own life... until Rachel sees something that sends her spiraling down a rabbit hole peppered with suspicious detectives, half-remembered confrontations and more canned gin and tonics than she should really be drinking.

This swiftly-paced whodunit has held fast on the NYT Best Sellers list since its January release, and I finally had to see what all the fuss was about (and land another square for my book bingo, of course). The writing, while page-turning, is nothing to write home about, but Hawkins' willingness to create a cast of utterly unlikeable characters gets her points in my book. Rachel is a not-entirely-repentant alcoholic, and Hawkins does not make much of an effort to redeem her in other aspects. The same goes for the other two main characters, whom we get to know through a shifting first-person voice. In short: everyone in this book sucks, and I loved that about it.

This thriller was a captivating romp, and I see why it has captured so much mainstream attention. It was a perfectly worthwhile way to spend my weekend, but it doesn't make me want to shout from the rooftops. I would be interested to hear what more hardcore fans of the genre think of it.

The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey

Melanie's life is average, if not a bit monotonous. Every weekday morning, guards arrive to strap her—arms, legs and neck—into her chair and wheel her to her classes. Her weekends include a dousing in the communal shower and her weekly meal of grubs. She's only free to move about when she's back in her cell. Melanie wonders why the guards go to all the trouble; after all, it's not like she'll bite...

(Though the blurb only teases at it, I don't think discussing the secret at the heart of The Girl with All the Gifts is a spoiler. However, if you want to go into it blind, skip the rest of this review.)

We learn early on that Melanie and her cohort are infected by Cordyceps fungus. The infection has a real-life basis; the fungus overtakes the bodies of insects, mushrooming out of their heads and torsos to release even more spores. I don't go for many zombie reads, so I'm not sure if the Cordyceps angle is actually unique. Regardless, I loved that Carey incorporated a real-life phenomenon into the usual, undead apocalypse.

In the book's universe, the fungus destroys the human brain and makes its host seek out other humans to eat, but Melanie and her classmates are somehow spared the normal deterioration. This makes it difficult for the uninfected to think of them as the "monsters" that lurk beneath. Carey plays on themes of us versus them and of becoming the evil that one is trying to defeat, all the while spinning a tale of unexpected, perhaps impossible love.

I read this one as a buddy read with Katie of Bookish Tendencies and Emily of Backlist Books (now known as Rain City Reads), and I liked the book the best out of the three of us. This would be a winner for sci-fi, horror and coming-of-age fans alike.

Have you read any stellar books about girls and/or women lately?

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