Category Archives: literary

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

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle

The Harder they Come

The Harder They Come is a modern family drama, set in small-town Mendocino County, California. Eccentric Adam Stenson tries to live “off the grid” after his parents, Sten and Carolee, sell his long-time residence that once belonged to his grandmother. As a modern self-styled “mountain man,” Adam sporadically accepts (or demands) the well-intentioned help of his free-thinking girlfriend, Sarah Hovarty Jennings.

Author T.C. Boyle’s typical rich tapestry of events and characters will not disappoint his fans. Amid enthusiastic reviews by a few hundred reviewers, one on-line criticism of this book was that some of his characters were shallow. This may be somewhat justified, but Boyle usually displays an economy of narrative and he seems to delve deeper when needed. I read this book after attending a lecture where the author talked about researching this novel, which incorporates murder, serious mental illness and the western legend of 19th Century “mountain man” John Colter, a courageous soul who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition early in his career. If you like this novel, you might want to try one of Boyle’s short story collections, or World’s End, his 1988 Pen/Faulkner award-winning historical novel of the Hudson River valley.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Mike Luginbill
Rating:  Highly Recommended

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.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven
Station Eleven opens just before a pandemic hits the earth, wiping out the majority of the human population. The majority of the story takes place post-pandemic, in a world without electricity, cell phones, and modern transportation, though the story does flash back to give the reader a glimpse of what happened in certain characters’ lives prior to and just after the pandemic. Having said that, it seems as though the book would be extremely depressing–but it’s not. The story focuses on small groups of people surviving in different ways, and their stories are surprisingly hopeful.

One of the main characters, Kirsten, is a young girl when the pandemic hits, and when the reader meets her again years later, she is performing with a traveling Shakespeare troupe whose motto is “because survival is insufficient.” Of course, the power vacuum created in such a world is bound to draw out bad actors, and Kirsten becomes the target of a self-designated “prophet” who uses terror tactics to gain and keep control over people. I won’t give away the ending, but it’s uplifting (for an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it story). This is a fantastic book–a “Must Read!”

Read more reviews of Station Eleven.

Availability:  COSMOS, SMCM, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Kelly Smolinsky
Rating: Must Read

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi


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

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian GrayWho decides what book (or any other art, for that matter) is decreed “a classic”? Having heard references to this book all of my adult life, I figured I should finally read it. Yes, I’m sure I’m missing the finer nuances of imagery, blahblahblah, but what a stupid, insipid book! I read it as the plane carried me, non-stop, from one coast to the other and I still resent the time that took out of my life! Find your own “classic” and enjoy it!

Read an earlier review of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Availability: SMCM, COSMOS, and USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Jane Kostenko
Rating:  Not Recommended