Top Ten Tuesday: “Girl”-ish Suspense Novels

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

April 24: Frequently Used Words In [Insert Genre/Age Group] Titles

A lot has been written about the publishing industry’s “girl” in the title trend. Many of these novels tend to be in the suspense genre. Why? Is it misogyny or simply publishers trying to replicate the success of a previous book? Is it good visibility for female writers, narrators, and protagonists? Is it patronizing? I don’t know, I’m just listing these! You can read some various speculation and opinions here:

The Gone Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on the Train

The Girl in the Title: More Than A Marketing Trend

This is Why So Many Books Have ‘Girl’ In the Title

This Summer, Girls in Titles and Girls in Peril

Here are a few mystery/suspense novels that I’ve read with “girl” in the title:

41n-cqd9cfl-_ac_us218_1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn– On Nick and Amy’s wedding anniversary, Amy disappears. At first, Nick seems appropriately concerned. Then his concern shifts to himself as he realizes that he might be a suspect. But when we learn Amy’s side of the story, we realize that neither Nick nor Amy make reliable narrators. I read this one after it had already become a best seller and had a film adaptation in the works. When you read something at that point, I think, expectations play a factor in your enjoyment. I definitely liked this book, but I didn’t find it as “twisty” as promised.

51vg7zt42ul-_ac_us218_2. All The Missing Girls by Megan Miranda-Nicolette returns to her hometown to help her brother fix up the family home so that they can put it on the market. She’s been away from her hometown for a decade; ever since her best friend from high school disappeared. When her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend also vanishes, suspicion falls on Nicolette. But this novel is told in reverse over a two week period. It starts on Day 15 and ends on Day 1. While this could be interesting, here it just felt gimmicky.

51vcmamyul-_ac_us218_3. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins- Rachel commutes to and from London every day. Every day, from the train, she sees a happy couple, Jason and Jess, in their yard, and fantasizes about their life. But one day she sees Jess kissing another man, and the day after that, Jess goes missing. As Rachel’s voyeurism leads her to investigate Jess’ disappearance, she also gets drawn into the lives of her ex-husband and his new wife, Anna, who just happen to be Jason and Jess’ neighbors. I was interested in this while I read it, but found it rather forgettable.

516o2pmlbl-_ac_us218_4. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll– Ani FaNelli is living what she thinks is a perfect life. Fancy job, eligible fiance, designer clothes, cool zip code. But Ani has been running from her past ever since high school. Ani attended Bradley Prep in Philadelphia, where she dreamed of being part of the cool crowd. This led her to make some bad decisions, which later spiraled out of control culminating in an “incident” that leaves Ani forever known as both a victim and a villain.  When the director of a documentary being made about the incident wants to interview Ani on film, she agrees, thinking about how great she’ll look on camera with her gigantic engagement ring. But as she goes home and revisits places she never wanted to return to, she realizes that she’ll have to reconcile what happened in her past, if she wants a future. The biggest problem this book has is that Ani is so unlikable. We do eventually learn the origins of Ani’s obsession with the perfect life, and it makes sense. But it’s hard to tolerate her attitude until that point!

41ansdjnybl-_ac_us218_5. The Good Girl by Mary Kubica– One night, Mia, the adult daughter of Chicago judge, James Dennett, impulsively goes home with Colin. What seemed like a one night stand, turns into a nightmare when Colin forces her into his car at gunpoint. He’s been hired to kidnap her for ransom, but rather than bring Mia to his employer, he decides to bring her to a remote cabin instead. Meanwhile, back home, Mia’s mother, Eva, wonders why her husband isn’t panicking about Mia’s kidnapping the way that she is. Gabe, the detective investigating, wonders the same thing.  Mia, Colin, Eva, and Gabe all serve as narrators in alternating chapters. Events are also divided into “before” and “after.” This structure initially makes things confusing. But eventually, they come together pretty well. I would have liked this book a lot more, had it not had an epilogue that throws in an additional twist. That twist makes the whole rest of the book not make sense anymore.

51ofjphi6l-_ac_us218_6. Pretty Girls by Karen Slaughter– In the early 1990’s Julia has been taken from a family with three daughters. Each member of the family has different ways of coping with their loss. The book starts twenty years later. The two remaining sisters, Lydia and Claire, haven’t spoken in years. After Claire’s husband, Paul, is killed, Claire makes a discovery that sends her to find her estranged sister, Lydia, who is quite pleased to learn of her brother-in-law’s demise. From there both sisters are drawn into a complicated “whodunnit” scenario that involves everyone they thought that they could trust. This book has a lot of twists and turns and some jaw clenching tension. However, it’s also extremely violent and quite graphic, so readers be warned.

51l3fbhyml-_ac_us218_7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson– This is arguably the one that started the trend. Forty years ago Harriet Vanger, the daughter of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families disappeared. Her uncle still wants to find out what happened to her, so he hires journalist Mikhael Blomkvist to investigate. Blomkvist is accompanied by tattooed computer prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Salander has her own troubling past. Together, she and Blomkvist uncover some horrific secrets. I know that this series has some big fans, but I’m not one of them. I finished it because I tend to like to finish things once I start them. But in terms of my feelings about it, occasionally I was curious, but more often I was disgusted. There wasn’t enough of the curiosity to balance out the disgust IMO.

41ay05dlaxl-_ac_us218_8. Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma– Chloe and Ruby are sisters. When a night out with Ruby and her friends goes horribly wrong, Chloe finds the body of a classmate floating in a reservoir. She’s sent away from home. Two years later she comes back. Her return forces the sisters to confront the truth about what happened that night. Even though this book is technically classified as YA, it doesn’t really feel like it.  It’s not something you’ll burn through in one afternoon. It’s surreal, strange, eerie, and atmospheric. It’s hard to tell what is real and what’s a dream/fantasy/something else. I think that you could have more than one interpretation of exactly what happened.

51azpk8ifvl-_ac_us218_9. The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel– Lane left her grandparent’s Kansas estate, Roanoke, years ago when she was a teenager. She returns when her cousin Allegra goes missing.  The story is told in two timelines. One takes place the summer that Lane arrived at Roanoke, following the death of her mother and continues as we learn what made her run away. The other takes place in the present, as Lane searches for the truth about what happened to Allegra. About two or three chapters in, we learn something that made me go “ick.” I think that was the intention. I kept reading out of morbid curiosity. Once all the pieces are in place, it’s not hard to put them together. It gets ickier. Not explicit or graphic, but it still makes your skin crawl.  If you have a high “ick” tolerance, you might want to check this out.

51ssmq6cx2l-_ac_us218_10. The Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen– A dead body is found mutilated in Boston’s Chinatown. The only clues are two silver hairs- not the victim’s- found clinging to the corpse. Medical examiner, Maura Isles, discovers evidence that links the crime to a murder-suicide that happened in Chinatown almost two decades earlier. The only survivor of that night is now the target of the killer. I’ve read most of Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series, and this wasn’t my favorite. It’s an OK read if you’re interested in something suspenseful and unchallenging, but ultimately that’s really all it is.



A Little Romance, and A Little Rant

On Sunday morning, I was watching the film She Devil. Side-note, if you haven’t seen this late 1980’s gem starring Rosanne Barr and Meryl Streep, do so right now. Seriously, I’ll wait. I’ve seen this movie about a hundred times, but as I was watching that morning, I noticed something about the occupation of one character and the reading habits of another.

51koxsdedtlIn the film, Rosanne Barr plays Ruth Patchett, a middle class suburban housewife and romance novel enthusiast, whose husband leaves her for another woman. That other woman turns out to be Ruth’s favorite author, Mary Fisher. Mary is everything that Ruth isn’t: wealthy, glamorous, sexy. But as we’re reminded many times, Mary writes romance novels. The film suggests that Ruth is sort of pathetic for being a romance reader, and that Mary takes herself way too seriously for her genre. Several scenes are played to establish that Mary sees herself as a creative person who takes her work seriously, and is wrong  and silly to do so. If the character had been a mystery writer, or a sci-fi writer, would it have been played the same way? Probably not. But then the Ruth character probably wouldn’t read another genre in the same way she devours romance. Because she’s sad and romance novels offer her wish fulfillment that she wouldn’t get elsewhere.

Romance sells more than any other genre. Yet there is the implication that people who read it and write it are stupid and pathetic.   Why? Are that many people really stupid? Or do romance novels and the people who write them get a bad rap? Can romance novels be formulaic? Absolutely. So can just about every other genre of fiction. Can they be stupid? Sure, but again, many other fiction genres have their good examples and their bad. So why the ire?

my-american-duchess_final-175x283Mary Bly writes romance under the pen name Eloisa James. Bly is an English professor and Shakespeare scholar at Fordham University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a M. Phil from Oxford University, and a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Yale University. She has done a great deal of academic writing under her real name. (She’s not stupid!) When she started writing romance, she was told that she could not have a successful career in academia if it was known that she did this. Once she got tenure she “came out” as a romance writer. She identifies as a feminist, and explains that “the main thing I do as a feminist concerns sexuality: Anything you’re doing for somebody, they should damn well be doing for you. Sex is a two-way street. I get letters saying, I’ve been reading your books and I realize he shouldn’t be talking to me this way and I deserve better.” She argues that “There’s something very upsetting about a book viewed as existing only to titillate women. I’m surprised by the letters I get saying these books raise unfair expectations among women about sexuality. What you’re hearing is this deep anxiety about their personal lives.”

Tess Gerritsen is best known for mystery novels. Her Rizzoli and Isles series found success in a tv adaptation. But she started off writing romance novels. Well, technically, she started off as a medical doctor. She graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor’s in anthropology before getting her MD from the University of California, San Francisco (she’s not stupid either!). She began writing romances while on maternity leave from medicine. She wrote eight romance novels before eventually switching over to mystery. Those books have since been reissued by her publisher. They were written as romantic suspense and they are mostly being sold as thrillers now, which has led to a lot of anger. keeper-of-the-brideAccording to her:  “many mystery readers loathe a romance plot in any way, shape, or form. Some of them even admitted that if an author at any time in her career ever wrote a romance, they wouldn’t pick up her mystery novel. Their hatred borders on the irrational. They think they are too discriminating and literary for such drivel.  A brush of the lips, a longing glance, and BAM! They slam the book shut. They will eagerly devour pages and pages of spattered blood and glistening entrails, but a man and a woman falling in love? Horrors!”

A lot of the people who criticize romance as a genre don’t seem to know much about it. On her blog, Gerritsen cites a comment on a discussion forum: “Romance seems to be pretty much nothing *but* formula the identical formula of the love triangle and the woman who has to “tame” the “wild” man…. Mysteries, while they do have formulae, have a huge field of variations — serial killer procedurals, psychological thrillers told from the killer’s pov. So far as I know, Romance doesn’t have anything like that.” This is an example of prejudice being born out of sheer ignorance. Because romance novels have just as much variation as mystery novels do: historical romance, paranormal romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense etc. Within each subgenre there are conventions, tropes, formulae, and yes, original work.

Now, I’m not saying that mystery readers are under any obligation to like romance. But to dismiss a writer because s/he once wrote romance at a different point in his/her career is absurd.  All it can indicate is that at some point in his her career, this writer gave women “a form of reassurance that someone is interested in ordinary women’s inner lives and is rooting for us to resolve our conflicts about work, love and what we deserve from our relationships” X.  Perhaps some people do find that threatening.

Of course that implies that only women read  romance. That’s not the case. But men who read these books tend to do so in secret. It’s considered “unmanly” to have an interest in a story about a romantic relationship. Why? Well, reading about (or having) feelings is considered somehow feminine by a certain contingent. And there are a lot of myths in popular culture about romance novels and romance readers. One of those myths is that only women read it. There’s a feeling that if it’s for women it must, by definition, be lesser than other genre fiction.

All readers have preferences and that’s fine. But why judge others based on their preferences? I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged based on mine!  I don’t like romance when it doesn’t feel well developed or natural. Many books of other genres tend to shove a love interest into their stories only for the sake of having one. I tend to dislike that. But if a book tells a good story, I don’t care whether it’s romance, mystery, sci-fi/fantasy or something else. I won’t go into the romance section of a bookstore first (I tend to start in general fiction and work my way through the various genres after that, unless I’m looking for something in particular.) because I often find them very formulaic (but as I’ve said, a lot of genre fiction is guilty of the same thing) But I also won’t ignore a book recommendation if the book happens to be in that genre. Nor will I ignore an author because s/he writes/once wrote romance.

I think people like to be able to classify and categorize things. It helps to makes sense of the world. Publishers do the same thing. And it can mean sales- often when they’re not sure what genre a book belongs in, they’ll stick it in romance because it means that there is more money to be made. Maybe it was intended to be written as a romance. Maybe it wasn’t. But the genre doesn’t define the writer. As readers lets all try to be more open minded and tolerant about what others enjoy!