Category Archives: challenge

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls

Emma Cline’s highly-acclaimed debut novel, The Girls, is a coming-of-age story centered on a fictionalized Charles Manson and the notorious Tate-LaBianca murders. Cline’s fictional narrator, Evie Boyd, is adrift in middle age. In 1969, as a 14-year-old, she becomes fixated on an older girl named Suzanne, who is a devotee of a mesmerizing cult leader. Evie follows Suzanne to a ranch outside of LA, where her childlike obsession blossoms as she is drawn into the inner circle of the group’s leader, Russell. Russell is a master manipulator and though he eventually convinces his “girls” to kill for him, he does not engage in some of Charles Manson’s worst atrocities.

Although Cline’s novel is well-written and compelling, I had trouble connecting with either iteration of Evie. As a lonely adolescent, Evie is sympathetic but not blameless. As an adult, Evie seems almost emotionless, as though the only spark in her life was her summer with Suzanne in 1969. In all, I think that Cline’s book is a fine debut that doesn’t quite live up to the hype.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby-Hall
Rating:  Recommended
Challenge: A book written by someone under 30. Book published in 2016

Persepolis by Marjane Santrapi

Persepolis

Persepolis is the most compelling graphic novel I’ve read since Maus. It follows the life of the young Marjane (the author), a spunky and independent six year old who is living in Tehran during the start of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The revolution unfolds before Marjane and her parents, who are committed Marxists and initially thrilled about the deposition of the western-backed shah, who tortured his dissenters in his secret prisons and got put in power through a western-funded coup. Marjane soon learns that life is much different under the new regime. She is forced to wear a veil at school, which she rips off at recess because it’s hot and oppressive. She is forced to beat her hand against her chest and chant funeral hymns for the “martyrs” of the revolution who are killed in the war against Iraq. She is forced to knit hats for the male “martyrs”- boys as young as 13 who get sent to the front lines of the battlefields in Iraq. She watches communist relatives and family friends disappear in Iran’s secret prisons, only to never emerge again. Throughout the horrors of the regime, Marjane never loses her fighting spirit. She stands up to her religion teachers, idolizes Western fashion, and hangs ACDC posters on her wall in defiance against the regime’s anti-Western rules. You can’t help rooting for her to escape the clutches of the regime and the terrifying police who snatch up dissenters in the night.

This book is written for young adults and is an easy read. I recommend if for anyone who wants to understand the history of the U.S.-Iranian conflict, and for anyone who likes reading about girls with chutzpah.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Andrea Gesumaria
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book with a one word title

Girl at War By Sara Nović

Girl at War

Sara Nović’s Girl at War is a debut coming-of-age novel about a girl growing up in the shadow of conflict. In 1991, Ana Juric is a carefree 10-year-old living with her parents in Zagreb, Croatia. When civil war breaks out, Ana’s daily life is altered by food rations, air raids, and ethnic tensions.

In 2001, Ana is a college student in New York. Although she has tried to move on from the events of her childhood, she is still haunted by her memories of war. Ana decides to return to Croatia to come to terms with her homeland.

Moving back and forth in time, Ana slowly unspools the story of how the Yugoslav War divides her household and destroys her idyllic childhood. As a young guerilla, Ana soon learns that even a child is not immune from war’s atrocities.

Girl at War is a dark, but moving, debut from Sara Nović. Only 29, Nović escaped Croatia with her family during the Yugoslav War. The author’s troubled history with her home country enriches this powerful novel.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby- Hall
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book written by someone under 30.

Grace By Natashia Deón

Grace“I am dead.” Natashia Deón’s luminous first novel Grace – which wrestles with the depredations of slavery and its aftermath – begins with those three words. Naomi, the novel’s central character, narrates her entire (far too short) life from beyond the grave. In a series of “flashes,” Naomi tells of how, at 15, she murders her master, who had systematically raped and “bred” Naomi’s mother. On the run, she finds refuge in a Georgia brothel run by Cynthia, with whom Naomi develops an uneasy and emotionally complex relationship. Just two years later, she must flee again, now pregnant with the child of a while man who abandoned her. Just after giving birth to her daughter, bounty hunters shoot Naomi dead.

Between the flashes, Naomi haunts her young daughter, Josey. Born blond, Josey is first adopted by a white woman and then later enslaved by her. Emancipation, when it comes, brings no relief from suffering. As a young teenager, Josey disassociates from reality after enduring rape at the hands of her mistress’s brother George. Meanwhile, Naomi, consumed with revenge, tries to avenge her daughter.

This book is not easy to read. Deón writes of a world consumed by suffering, grief, and terror; she has the rare ability to make readers experience these emotions along with Naomi and Josey. Grace is one of the best-written novels that I’ve read in some time. Both the plot and Deón’s prose are magical and harrowing.

Near the beginning of the novel, Naomi explains that justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is being spared the bad you deserve, and grace “is getting a good thing, even when you don’t deserve it.” She explains that, had she lived, she would have named her daughter Grace. Deón’s novel explores a time in American history when justice, mercy, and grace were not easy to find. But Deón manages, in this outstanding novel, to deliver all three.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: Book published in 2016. Book with a one-word title.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

WildCheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild begins with herself at 26. Broke, addicted to heroin, and newly divorced because of her unfortunate habit of cheating on her husband with many men, for reasons unknown to her, she decides to hike the entire length of the Pacific Central Trail (PCT) to learn how to be something other than “the woman with the giant hole in her heart.” Strayed realizes at the start of her hike that her downfall began at 22, the year her mother died of cancer. She looks to the PCT for a means of salvation, but there is only one problem: she’s never in her life backpacked on a long-distance hike.

What follows is a deeply honest, reflective journey through hot and dry California and green, wet, Oregon, where she encounters a charging bull, dwindling water, kind strangers and brown bears. As a Washingtonian whose most terrifying hiking moment was encountering a coiled rattlesnake in Catoctin, I was floored by the relative placidity that Strayed uses when describing her multiple encounters with rattlesnakes, including one that she nearly stepped on in a dust storm. Strayed’s deeply honest writing is moving, and her journey – harrowing and beautiful, is hard to stop reading. I challenge you to not want to put on a pair of hiking boots and get outside after reading this book.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by: Andrea Gesumaria
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book with a one word title.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak

This book really opened my eyes up to how a traumatic event can really change someone’s life and alter their personality. As Melinda unfolds the story of what happened to her, I constantly found myself struggling with her, wanting her to speak up for herself but knowing that she didn’t know where to go for help. If somebody is easily triggered I would warn them before picking this book up; however, for those who may not understand from a victim’s perspective what the pain may feel like, Anderson does a good way of explaining how Melinda’s life used to be before the event, and how it changed her perspective after it happened.

Availability:  USMAI, SMCM, COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Reilly Cook
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book with a one word title

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing

In the late 1700s, on the coast of Ghana, two young half-sisters (unknown to each other) meet undesired fates. Effia’s father sells her to James Collins, the new British governor of Cape Coast Castle. In the castle’s dungeon, Effia’s half-sister Esi waits with other enslaved women for transport to America. Yaa Gyasi’s illuminating first novel, Homegoing, is really a book of linked tales – moving back and forth to tell the stories of the sisters and their descendants, one generation at a time.

Gyasi, born in Ghana but raised in the American South, writes beautifully about both her homelands. Although the chapters set in the United States are compelling and important, I particularly enjoyed reading the sections focused on Effia’s family and the history of Ghana. Gyasi does not employ sentimentality and doesn’t airbrush history. In Homegoing, 18th-century Ghana is not an ahistorical rural fantasy but a complicated, multi-ethnic kingdom that enriches itself by kidnapping and selling humans into slavery. No one is completely innocent.

Homegoing is an ambitious first novel. Gyasi, who is only 26, effortlessly pulls off the novel’s conceit. She is able to capture both the heartbreak and joy of her characters, while also subtly shifting the novel’s tone and prose to fit each time period and location. Homegoing is an emotionally difficult, but very powerful, read.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: A book written by someone under 30. Book published in 2016