YA Mystery/Thrillers: A Survey

I am very passionate about young adult literature. I am literally the YA expert at my Barnes and Noble. I read YA constantly, think about it obsessively, and blog about it compulsively. So I am very qualified to say that YA is not a genre. It’s an age category, and a wide one at that. Some middle schoolers read YA. Lots of twenty- and thirty-year-olds do as well.

If someone says they like “fiction,” they’re not necessarily saying that they read and enjoy everything from James Joyce to Ashley and JacQuavis to Madeline Miller to Colleen Hoover. They might, but that’s not assumed. For that same reason, it’s irritating to me that so many people like to boil YA down to “sparkly vampire romances.” There are a few of those, but they’re far from the majority in YA and their appeal will vary from YA reader to YA reader. Some of us love vampire romances. Some of us despise them. Some of us enjoy one every once in a while but don’t read them regularly. There’s a lot going on in YA, and it is very hard to categorize it.

Generally speaking, a book is YA if the main character is a teenager or, possibly, in their early twenties. It therefore follows that they are often about change and transition. YA characters are usually figuring out who they are, finding their place in the world, or experiencing something big for the first time. That’s something that can happen across a lot of different genres, which is why there is such diversity amongst YA. Every once in a while, one of those YA subgenres gets a boost, usually on the heels of a massive bestseller. Harry Potter was the reason we have so many magical boarding schools. Twilight gave us the aforementioned paranormal romance moment. The Hunger Games launched the dystopian frenzy. There’s always a lot going on in YA, but right now YA mystery/thrillers are having a moment.

I only read mysteries occasionally, but I figured that—since there are so few of them that get significant attention and since we’re coming up on Halloween—I’d read all the big ones and compile a list. So here they are: YA mysteries and thrillers, what you should know, and which ones are worth the hype. My full reviews are linked to the titles.

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

The hype: This book is trending everywhere, and if I were forced to name the book that got mystery/thrillers going, this would be the one. It is on #booktok, will be adapted into a TV series on Peacock, and even has a couple of sequels. At the time I’m writing this, it has a 4.04 on Goodreads.

What is it? It’s basically The Breakfast Club with murder. Five teens are sent to detention. One of them dies, leaving the remaining four as suspects. Because Simon, the victim, ran a vicious rumor blog and his fellow detentioners all had secrets they wanted kept, any one of them would’ve had a reason to kill him.

Worth it? Yes, but not as a mystery. The actual killer is very easy to predict. People who never read mysteries might be surprised, but anyone who knows anything about the genre will see the reveal coming a mile away. That being said, this book is a great teen drama. The four suspects are all really interesting, fully developed characters. They start from base stereotypes and blossom into a lot more. There’s a good smattering of romance, empowerment, and drama. While I wouldn’t necessarily hand this to someone looking for a twisty, suspenseful plot-driven story, it is absolutely a great choice for those inclined towards teen drama.


Sadie by Courtney Summers

The hype: This was everywhere a year or so ago. The buzz for it has died down, but it seemed like it was *the* book for a while there. Goodreads has it sitting at a 4.09.

What is it? In this thriller, a young woman decides to chase after her sister’s murderer and a popular radio host follows her trail for his true crime podcast.

Worth it? For my money, not really. This one benefits from the limited number of thrillers for the age group. It’s okay, but it’s a bit repetitive. The concept is really cool, but rather than having the two sides of the story come at the central mystery from different sides, the secondary POV–West, the radio guy–is always a few steps behind the titular Sadie, uncovering secrets that the reader has already uncovered with Sadie a few pages previously. It’s decent, but it’s not one you’re likely to hear me recommend.


We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

The hype: This is one of the darlings of #booktok. Surprisingly, it has a slightly lower goodreads score at 3.80, but that’s likely because of its wider readership. It’s been a steady bestseller for at least a year, and every time we think its popularity had died down, it resurrects.

What is it? Two years ago, something horrible happened to Cady. She has horrific headaches and gaps in her memory, but since no one will tell her what happened that summer on her grandfather’s private island she has to depend on her own fractured mind to find out.

Worth it? This book is a masterclass in unreliable narrators. You can’t ever trust anything Cady thinks or sees, both because she is so damaged and because people are actively keeping secrets from her. Every action has at least one level of hidden meaning, and the twists at the end are shocking (and potentially divisive, thus the lower goodreads score). It’s absolutely worth the read.


Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

The hype: I cheated a little to put this on the list, because it doesn’t really have much hype. It is the same author as We Were Liars, though. 3.29 on goodreads for this one.

What is it? This is the story of a runaway, but you don’t really know who she is or why she’s running away because it begins at the end.

Worth it? Yes. I found this novel fascinating. There were a few gaps, and I wish some things had been fleshed out a little more, but the formatting is absolutely brilliant. We’re used to reading mysteries and wanting to know what happens next. I’ve never read one that moves the opposite direction. You wouldn’t think it possible to have just as many surprises going that way, but if you think that, you’ve clearly never read Genuine Fraud.


A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

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Out of Love (Book Review)

This reverse love story has some pacing issues, but overall Out of Love by Hazel Hayes is a smart, modern take on romance that proves that the happily ever after isn’t always the point.

What’s it about?

A young woman’s long-term relationship has ended. Her boyfriend has moved out, and she has packed up his things. She knows that the relationship has objectively failed in the end, but as the reader moves backwards chronologically through the relationship they see that the ultimate breakup does not invalidate the joy that came before.

What did I think?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When I read the summary of Out of Love, my first thought was “This sounds like The Last Five Years.” Even the timeline is basically the same. While Out of Love does do a few things differently thematically, it never truly breaks from that comparison. That’s not a dealbreaker for me, as I love The Last Five Years, but it does keep me from being totally won over by the novel as it never feels entirely original.

For much of its pagetime, Out of Love doesn’t do anything that The Last Five Years doesn’t (and arguably does less, as the musical provides POV from both its leads, but Out of Love leaves Theo’s perspective out of it). The narrative trick is cool, but it runs the risk of becoming gimmicky. Each chapter moves backwards in time, but they’re not strictly moored to one time, if that makes sense. Our unnamed heroine is very reflective. At any given moment she might reflect back on her past or consider her future, which means that often when we pop backwards in the next chapter it is to an event that she has already thought about in passing. About halfway through, I found my interest lagging; sure, it is fun to see how things shake out, but there aren’t any surprises. For instance, in one chapter our girl remembers her best friend Maya’s miscarriage as well as Maya’s boyfriend’s response to it. Not long later, we experience the moment in real time. It’s still emotionally intense, but it doesn’t feel like it’s providing the overall story with anything new.

Thankfully, once I pushed through that slightly dry middle portion, everything paid off. There’s not an exact place where it happens, but subtly over the course of Out of Love the story transitions from being about a failed romance to being about a woman rebuilding her faith in love after abuse. It’s sad that the relationship with Theo ultimately doesn’t work out, but the breakup doesn’t contradict the fact that falling in love with Theo was a significant part of our protagonist’s healing process. He might not be the one but through loving him she made necessary changes in her life, met her lifelong best friend, and, not least, experienced a healthy romantic relationship in the first time in her life. Significant eras in our lives don’t spoil or become insignificant because they end, Hazel Hayes says in Out of Love. Every relationship has good and bad and, one way or another, every relationship ends. Ultimately, the ending is not as important as the journey.

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Dune (Book Review)

There’s no question that Dune by Frank Herbert is a landmark in science fiction literature. It has been on my to-read list for years, and now that I’ve read it I can say that I’m glad to have done so, but I personally have no strong feelings about it one way or the other.

With the movie coming out (tomorrow, as of the posting of this review although not of the writing), I figured there was no better time than to read this immensely popular cultural touchstone. There’s no question that Dune is a sci-fi behemoth and that it has shaped the genre as we know it. I’m not going to get into that because I’m not an expert in the history of science fiction and there are lots of writers with more love for Dune who have done so, and have done a far better job than I could.

Instead, I’m going to review Dune as I review everything else. It is a book and I am a reader. I can acknowledge a work’s historical and literary merit while also reviewing what did—and did not—work personally for me.

My first impression of Dune, strangely enough, is that it is a terrible choice for film adaptation. The reason I read it now as opposed to five years from now or whatever is because it is being released as a big-budget action film with big name stars, everyone from Timothée Chalamet to Oscar Isaac to Zendaya to Rebecca Ferguson to Stellan Scarsgård to Jason Mamoa. I’ve seen Star Wars called a Dune rip-off, and while that’s definitely visible—Tatooine is basically Arrakis, for starters—Dune simply does not strike me as cinematic. Sure, there are a few battles and our hero Paul does ride some sand worms in dramatic fashion, but between a few flashy scenes… The characters are just wandering around in the desert. Jessica transforms poison while drinking it. A literal toddler speaks and acts like an adult. Years pass. Politicians squabble over the economics of a drug. Fremen try to make an inhabitable planet sustain life. None of that translates to a visual media, or at least not well or easily. Dune is nearly a thousand pages. It’s slow, highly political, and almost entirely internal. The most interesting parts are not plot elements that you can see. I’m probably going to be proven wrong, but I don’t look at Dune and wonder how it took so long to get a good adaptation. I look at it and wonder what possessed so many people to try to film it.

I was fascinated by the ecological/environmental elements. The Fremen live on any little bit of moisture they come across, and they are slowly working to transform their planet into one that can sustain life. They work hard and tirelessly towards this goal despite the knowledge that it will be many generations before anyone reaps the benefits of their labors. Considering the state of the earth right now… Frank Herbert and his Fremen could teach us all a little something about conservatorship. He was ahead of the curve. It’s not like environmentalism didn’t exist in 1965, but it wasn’t as big a thing then as it is now (and it wasn’t as time-critical).

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I Care Too Much About Fictional Relationships (Adam Groff Part I)

Twice before on this blog, I have written long, analytical essays about fictional relationships that struck me as being particularly memorable. First I wrote about Pippin and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and how their juxtaposition and unlikely friendship contributed to mutual character growth than goes largely uncommented on because of the more obviously important twosomes in that series. Then I wrote about Andy and Erin from the sitcom The Office, detailing how the strong buildup to their romance is ultimately let down by poor writing choices and baffling character regression.

It has been a while since I wrote an involved essay of this kind, but I recently finished season three of the Netflix series Sex Education and had a lot of thoughts, particularly about the relationship between Adam and Eric. After my sister and I discussed and analyzed the series over text for something like four hours, though, I decided that I didn’t actually want to write about Adam and Eric specifically, although that will certainly be a large part of this piece. Actually, I’m interested in Adam and the masterful way the Sex Education team developed and refurbished his character from the bully everyone hates to the heartbreaking hero (almost) everyone agrees deserves better.

For obvious reasons, an essay about a lead character’s development which encompasses all of his significant relationships is by necessity going to be much longer than one about a specific relationship between two secondary characters. For that reason, I have split this essay into two parts. Part I, this one, covers seasons one and two. Part II, which will be out later, is all about season three. I have also created a table of contents with links that will let you jump to specific sections within parts.

Table of Contents

This is an extremely long post, so here’s some navigation to let you skip around to the parts you’re interested in:

Adam and Michael: The Bullied Bully

Despite anchoring a major emotional storyline in season three and wrapping up as a fan favorite, Adam at the beginning of Sex Education sits somewhere lodged awkwardly between sympathetic villain and antagonistic antihero. It would be easy to say that he begins the show primarily as a homophobic tormentor. For much of the first season, many of Adam’s scenes have him tormenting Eric, the openly gay best friend of the show’s lead character Otis. Adam is the school slacker. He cheats on his schoolwork and is apathetic whenever he’s not stealing Eric’s lunch money. It would be easy to immediately write him off as the one-note bully that every teen drama needs.

Even from the start, though, Sex Education doesn’t let the viewer slot Adam neatly into that role. Along with his season one girlfriend Aimee, Adam is the first character we see onscreen. We meet Adam before we meet Eric, or even before we meet Otis. It’s not always true, but it is often the case that fiction will open with its primary character, the one with whom we are going to navigate the story. That’s not generally true of Sex Education, which usually opens with Otis’ client for the episode, but in s1e1, we don’t know that yet. We open with Adam struggling with his sexuality, and we’re therefore primed for sympathy. It’s only in Adam’s second scene—his first with Eric—that we see the school bully. Even then, the scene is queercoded. Of course, there’s a whole history to the closeted homophobic bully, but Sex Education does seem to want to let Adam land comfortably there, either.

Even as he’s viewed through Otis and Eric’s eyes as a bully and an idiot, the viewer gets a little more context for Adam; episode one is Adam’s episode. It’s carefully built so that, as much as it’s easy to hate him, there’s the hint of something less despicable underneath.

AIMEE: Ruby and Olivia think I should dump him. They say he’s bringin’ down my social status, but… the thing is, he can be really sweet when nobody’s watchin.’

Sex Education season 1, episode 1

Adam being sweet when no one is watching is something that recurs with him, and it introduces the idea that at least some of his assholery is performative. Then there’s the fact that the rest of the episode, basically, is about Adam owning his narrative. Adam’s problems start the whole show. He’s Otis and Maeve’s first client, and we are forced to listen to him explain his problems through Otis’ therapeutic ears. It’s the rare situation when you sit in a therapy session with the antagonist. Sex Education does not create a monster and then try to retroactively redeem him. From the start, it builds his insecurities into his character (and also keeps Adam from being the only source of homophobia; most of the homophobes are minor straight characters, which avoids the dangerous all-homophobes-are-closeted-homosexuals trope that might’ve prevailed if it had just been Adam).

OTIS:  It’s interesting you mention your father. How does being the headmaster’s son affect you?

ADAM: Well, it’s shit, obviously… Everyone’s watching me all the time. Everyone’s like, ‘There goes Adam Groff, headmaster’s son. He’s got a big massive elephant’s cock.’ I’ve got feelings. I guess that… I wish I could be a normal kid. With a normal dick, and a normal dad.

Sex Education season 1, episode 1

Then Adam owns his narrative and Aimee dumps him because he’s a social liability. We’re sympathetic, because that must hurt. Adam’s speech to the whole school and his promise to Otis to leave Eric alone prime the viewers for a redemptive turnaround. But then he goes back on his word and resumes his bullying, and it again becomes very, very difficult to root for him. Because Sex Education immediately builds Adam the bully and Adam the victim concurrently, it’s hard to totally hate him, but it’s impossible to actively support him.

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The Guilt Trip (Book Review)

Although all the marketing information indicates that The Guilt Trip by Sandie Jones is a mystery/thriller in the vein of Lucy Foley’s The Guest List, it reads more like a soapy social drama. Normally, that would be fine; unfortunately in this instance, the characters are too thinly drawn to support a character-driven story.

What’s it about?

Rachel’s brother-in-law is getting married in a little villa in Spain, which feels like the perfect opportunity for a couples’ getaway for Rachel and her husband Jack. Rachel’s lifelong best friend Noah was invited as well, and is bringing his wife Paige—also a close friend of Rachel’s—and it would be ideal… if everyone didn’t hate the bride-to-be so much. Everyone is at each other’s throats, and eventually violence erupts.

What’d I think?

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Mild spoilers throughout.

This is one of those books that I pushed through in a single day because while I could force myself to keep reading, I wasn’t confident in my ability to pick it back up. Reading inertia is real. This resulted in a somewhat painfully long day in which I wanted to grab Rachel by the shoulders, shake her, and scream “Why are you so stupid?”

Here’s the thing. Rachel seems to have been conceived in the vein of Amy from Gone Girl or Rachel from The Girl on the Train. She’s not a reliable narrator, and she’s not really a good person. She’s overemotional, she has secrets, and she often has the wrong take on things. However, she’s not nearly as subtle as those other narrators. It takes no effort whatsoever to wade through The Guilt Trip’s Rachel narration and determine what she has right and what is bullshit.

The disconnect between how Rachel perceives the world and how it actually is blatantly doesn’t line up from the start. Look at Paige. Paige calls herself a feminist and Rachel seems to back her on it, and repeatedly calls Paige a good person and friend, but Paige either fatshames or slutshames literally every other woman in the novel and repeatedly badgers Rachel about her relationship with Noah. And Rachel’s husband Jack gets nothing but free passes when he acts like an asshole and offers clearly dishonest explanations for his explosive overreactions. So forgive me for not taking all Rachel’s character assessments at face value.

Seriously. The only two characters I could stand were Will, the clueless but otherwise inoffensive groom, and Ali, the much-despised bride. Rachel, Jack, Paige, and Noah can’t go more than a few paragraphs without calling Ali a skank or a homewrecker or a pathological liar, but if you pay attention to what Ali actually does instead of what Rachel and her buddies claim she does… there’s nothing wrong with her. The critiques of Ali stem entirely from sexism and jealously; Ali is exuberant and sexy, and she wears tight, low-cut clothes. That’s pretty much it. The lengths to which Rachel bends over backwards to pretend that Ali is some sort of demon are pretty ridiculous, and they served more to turn me against Rachel than to shape my opinion of Ali.

I’d say it’s a classic case of show-don’t-tell, except that if Jones had showed us Ali being a horrible person, all the quote-unquote “twists” at the end wouldn’t work.

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Musical Monday: Diana the Musical

I wanted to like this. I mean, it’s a professionally shot Broadway show by the team behind Memphis. What’s not to love? I adore Memphis, which deservedly won the Tony for Best Musical in 2010. Memphis has absolutely gorgeous music, a powerful storyline, and absolutely phenomenal performances. Diana… does not have that. I was somewhat skeptical when I first saw this announced. The trailer was a little uninspiring and Netflix released a clip of “This is How Your People Dance” in advance. “This is How Your People Dance” is the worst song in the show, and they’re all pretty iffy. Still, I was undeterred. Some of my favorite shows have crappy trailers. I mean, the trailer for The Wind in the Willows is terrible, so terrible that I almost skipped the free showing on The Shows Must Go On, and that show is precious.

Even before I watched Diana there was a part of me that worried that the show could be a little exploitive. I’m not from the generation that experienced Princess Diana firsthand and loved her in real time, so I don’t have that personal connection to her. Obviously I know the general strokes of her life and am clearly in favor of what she stood for, but I don’t have the same protective let her rest reaction to this musical that so many people did.

At least, I didn’t before I watched it. Now, that’s my response as well. While I overall enjoyed it, I criticized The Crown for its portrayal of Princess Diana being too focused on memorializing her instead of focusing on depicting her as a living woman. Now that I’ve seen this musical, I appreciate The Crown more; Diana could have used a bit of that tact. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason for this musical aside from coasting on the love for Princess Di. It doesn’t add anything to the known story. The score isn’t particularly good. There’s maybe one semi-memorable song in the whole thing, which is remarkable considering that the spoken scenes are very short and serve only to move from one song to the next. And the lyrics are pretty oof. At one point, some photographers refer to getting photos of Diana as “better than a wank.” That might not even be the worst lyric. Just Google “Diana: the Musical” and you’ll find no shortage of articles that have pulled the most egregious ones.

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The Gilded Ones (Book Review)

I’m excited to read Namina Forna’s third or fourth book because her first, The Gilded Ones, has good ideas but middling execution. The strong ideas are disserviced by uneven pacing and tired tropes that do nothing for it. When she has tightened her craft a bit, I’ll happily give Forna another shot, but I think I’ll skip the rest of the Deathless series.

What’s it about?

Deka lives in a fiercely patriarchal society in which women are taught above else to court piety and purity. At age sixteen, girls undergo the Ritual of Purity during which they are bled. If their blood runs red, it’s all good. If it runs gold, it means that they are unpure and are subject to the Death Mandate. Deka’s blood is gold. In times past she would have no recourse but to die death after death until one sticks—these gold-blooded girls are immortal but for one specific death, which is individual to each—but Deka luckily has another option. She can join an elite army of girls like her who will be trained to kill deathshrieks, the demonic creatures that are slowly invading the empire.

What’d I think?

Rating: 3 out of 5.

First things first: I love the cover. I read this book because of the cover, which broadcasts all the best parts of this novel. Its fierceness. Its Blackness. Its femininity. It is eyecatching, it matches the novel within, and it doesn’t closely resemble any other book.

I also really like the worldbuilding. The society that Forna has created for The Gilded Ones is brutal and unique and at times strangely beautiful. I read enough YA fantasy that most magical worlds feel at least a little familiar or derivative, but The Gilded Ones has a setting that is fresh and exciting, clearly inspired by elements of the real world but fleshed out into something very much its own.

I like how feminist the novel is. The main theme is the subjugation and oppression of women. It is both metaphorically and literally about toppling the patriarchy, and specifically the white patriarchy. Our heroine Deka grows up in a society that would have her quiet, weak, and subservient to the men around her but she suffers the worst men can throw at her and comes out the other side stronger.

That said, this does come with a few unintentional consequences. First and foremost is the idea that strength must come from suffering. Deka occasionally reflects on her horrific abuse and seems thankful for it because it allowed her to access her power. While it is true that some people can find strength in their suffering, it’s a little unsetting that The Gilded Ones seems to posit that strength for women is necessarily borne from suffering.

The Gilded Ones has a very strong thesis about women’s strength, but it accidentally becomes very binary. Deka and her blood sisters are part of a powerful race that is specific to women. Women have one kind of magic, and men have another. And the women’s magic is very much tied to their blood, and while the obvious and intended reading of this is that their power comes from enduring sex-based trauma, there’s also the unspoken implication that it is inherent to them. Defining these women by the blood that they bleed but that men do not feels the slightest bit trans-exclusionary. Again: I don’t think it’s intended, but the world of The Gilded Ones is very binary, with no room for gender nonconformity.

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A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (Book Review)

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson is a thrilling page-turner of a mystery with enough shocks and twists to keep you glued to the page. I picked it up and didn’t put it back down until I’d finished it.

I’d been looking forward to this one for a while. It has been sitting comfortably on bestseller lists and trending on #booktok for months. I’d heard nothing but raves for both A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder and its sequel Good Girl, Bad Blood, so I did what I always do: I jumped on the bandwagon.

What’s it about?
For her senior project, Pip is ostensibly researching the role of media in the coverage of a local murder. In reality, she’s attempting to solve an old case because in her heart she does not believe the theory—believed wholeheartedly by police and neighbors alike—that local boy Sal murdered his perfect girlfriend and then committed suicide out of regret and shame. Pip knew Sal, and she doesn’t believe he had it in him to kill Andie, so she teams up with his brother Ravi to revisit the old clues in hopes of discovering a new lead.

What’d I think?

This is easily one of the most addictive books I’ve read in recent memory. When I was younger, I did all-day reading binges all the time. I still do them occasionally, but now they’re the exception and not the rule. Only the best, most compelling and exciting books do that to me now. Books like Six of Crows or In Other Lands and now A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. I really did not intend to read all day. I had lots of other things planned, and then Holly Jackson swooped in and ruined all those plans by making Pip and her mystery so dang addictive.

I love a good character-driven story. As I’ve said literally every time I’ve reviewed a mystery, mysteries tend to be more plot-motivated than character-motivated. It is inherently a plot-heavy genre and when the plot is good enough it doesn’t matter if the characters are more motive than person. That said, this makes it a particular treat when a mystery novel focuses in on its characters as closely as if it were a standard contemporary novel. Pip takes up detection only because her connection to this murder is personal. She knows the supposed murderer and feels in her heart that he must be innocent. Sal was Pip’s best friend’s sister, and Pip wants to prove his innocence both to comfort her own sense of wrongness and because she wants to spare Naomi that pain.

As Pip gets deeper and deeper into the mystery, she starts making real discoveries. As she goes, though, she is forced to make difficult decisions. New clues point her towards loved ones, and more than once she has to choose between relentlessly chasing down every lead and protecting the people she cares about, between solving the case and respecting the boundaries of her still-grieving friends and neighbors. Unlike a detached, disconnected detective like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Pip has to constantly weigh the human element of this mystery: is it worth digging up old wounds and creating new ones to expose the truth of a case that was neatly buried years ago? Pip has a strong moral center, and watching her struggle with this balance is a highlight of the novel.

Pip’s story is also a bildungsroman of sorts. YA often uses the ‘college personal statement essay’ trope to force its characters to look within, but it works really well here with Pip. Pip before the mystery is characterized largely by her work ethic and straight-laced amiability. She doesn’t rock the boat. She does her homework and picks her little brother up from practices and does all the things that good girls do, but she struggles to understand her identity beyond doing what’s expected. Pip finds herself as she hunts for Andie’s true killer (I mean, she also finds Andie’s true killer, but you know what I mean).

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September 2021 Wrap Up

It’s hard to believe that it’s already October! 2021 is flying by, not necessarily in that when-you’re-having-fun way, but flying nonetheless. The most important thing that happened this month is that this darling angel turned one!

That’s right! Darcy, the world’s sweetest puppy and this blog’s mascot (she deserves better), had her first birthday! In November, we get to celebrate her adoption day.

With the most exciting news out of the way, let’s move on to my literary recap.

Since I’ve written full reviews for all these books, instead of rehashing my thoughts I’m going to try something new: five-word reviews. If you’re interested in my full thoughts, the full reviews are linked as always (unless they’re not posted yet; some of the reviews are behind). We’ll see how that goes. Here’s what I read…

(or jump to what I watched)

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Serviceable mystery, but mostly romance.

When You Get the Chance by Tom Ryan and Robin Stevenson

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Queer AF but otherwise bland.

The Guilt Trip by Sandie Jones

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Platonic friends? Nope. Affairs only.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Promising but flawed fantasy debut.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Classic, but not my taste.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Totally worth the hype. Unputdownable.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Smart, surprising, funny… but slow.


Here’s what I watched…

I was apparently in the mood to watch a bunch of campy musicals this month, because I watched a bunch of them. I’m still doing five-word reviews, but since in most cases I haven’t written about these movies and shows at all elsewhere, I’m elaborating a little more after the fact.

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When You Get the Chance (Book Review)

When You Get the Chance by Tom Ryan and Robin Stevenson is unapologetically queer, but aside from that doesn’t have much to offer.

What’s it about?

Cousins Mark and Talia haven’t seen each other in years. They used to spend every summer together at their grandparents’ cottage, but haven’t done so since their parents fell out. When their grandfather unexpectedly dies and their grandmother suffers a health setback, their parents leave them alone at the cottage—along with Mark’s sister Paige—to clean it up and potentially get it ready to sell. Unbeknownst to the adults, though, Mark and Talia have plans in the big city: Talia wants to reconnect with her ex, and Mark just wants to cut loose at Pride.

What’d I think?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I read tons of LGBTQ+ books. I rarely read books that aren’t at least a little bit queer. I love stories about loving families and other platonic relationships. When You Get the Chance looked like it was going to be a home run for me. I mean, just look at the cover. It’s so joyfully gay! And since a lot of LGBTQ+ fiction is, for obvious reasons, focused on romance, I was extra excited about this one. The concept was appealing enough that I read it without taking even a preliminary look at any reviews. I probably shouldn’t have done that, because if I had I either would have skipped it or I would have prepared myself for a solidly three-star read.

There main problem with When You Get the Chance is that it’s scattered. There’s too much going on. Too many characters, too many plotlines, too many ideas, etc. There are two main plotlines that feel entirely disconnected from each other.

The first is the family drama with Talia’s dad and Mark’s mother. They were close as children and then had a falling out, possibly involving a childhood friend neither has ever mentioned to their own kids, and now they’re thrown back together because of their dad’s death. At the start of the novel, the two families head back to the summer cottage after the funeral to clean it out. Talia’s dad wants to sell it, but Mark’s mom wants to hold onto it. They’re eternally at each other’s throats, and Paige wants to dig deep and find out what is going on. Mark and Talia are less concerned, assuming that it’s just standard grown-up growing apart. Talia wants to be responsible and get the cottage cleaned up. Mark wants to bum around, get drunk, and flirt with the bad boy next door. This set up could have sustained a whole novel, but instead most of it gets quickly wrapped up for a road trip. After only a few short chapters, Mark’s guy ends up being a homophobe who was just hanging around to steal old tools, so Mark decides to totally bail and drive to Pride. Talia, who wants to reconnect with her ex, ditches the cleaning and they all go together.

Remember the apparently large plotline with their parents’ puzzling animosity? Mark and Talia don’t. They forget it entirely, only to remember it and have it quickly and anticlimactically wrapped up a few pages from the end when they get back from the city. Want to know what else they forget? Their dead grandfather. The dead grandfather is a really weird bit of this book. The authors go out of their way to tell us that he was in incredibly good health and that his death was a shock that no one saw coming… and yet no one really grieves. The parents are a  little sad, but our main protagonists apparently couldn’t care less. If Ryan and Stevenson didn’t want to engage even superficially with grief, they should’ve found a different way to bring the families together. Even changing it so that Grandpa had been ailing for long enough that everyone had already made peace with his passing would’ve made Mark and Talia’s apathy more palatable. Maybe Ryan and Stevenson could have leaned into the idea that his death was such a shock that no one has processed it yet. As is, it’s just weird and makes everyone seem heartless.

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The Silver Arrow (Book Review)

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman is a deceptively simple young reader’s fantasy. What starts as a standard, straightforward story about a magic train slowly morphs into a nuanced and emotional reflection of humanity’s power regarding our environment.

What’s it about?

Eleven-year-old Kate loves to read, but she’s pretty much resigned herself to the fact that world-saving adventures don’t happen in real life. Still, she wants excitement so she writes to her mysterious and rich uncle and requests that he give her a birthday present. He complies, and brings her a full-sized train. When Kate and her little brother climb onboard one night, the train whisks them away on a journey full of talking animals and hard work.

What’d I think?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the start, the narration style of The Silver Arrow caught me. It’s witty, full of direct addresses to the audience, and meta observations. This is a style of writing I’ve always been partial to. It keeps the story from feeling too earnest, and it adds an element of humor that might otherwise be lacking.

Interestingly, the writing style gets more traditional the farther in we get. The first chapter is full of silly asides—like the observation that Kate’s mother’s real reaction to seeing the train could not be printed in a children’s book—which served to get me hooked. I’ve aged beyond the target audience for this book, but the style still appeals. As the true stakes of The Silver Arrow become apparent, though, the silliness of the narration tapers off. I honestly didn’t notice it as I was reading; it’s only in retrospect that I see that as Kate and Tom got deeper into the realities of their adventure the frivolous tone was no longer entirely appropriate. The change is subtle and gradual, and it works incredibly well to mirror the style of the writing to the substance of the plot.

I’ll admit I was skeptical when I first got to the talking animals. I usually find talking animals annoying, but they’re not here. As I read deeper and deeper, I learned that these are not the typical talking animals. They’re real wild animals, given the power of speech so that they can advocate for themselves. At the beginning, Kate, Tom, and the readers don’t really know why the animals are boarding the train. Eventually, though, we learn that the animals are endangered and displaced; they’re traveling to new habitats because humans have made their old ones unlivable. We spend just enough time with the animals to become emotionally attached to them, and when we realize that we are the villains from whom they are running—and the only hero on whom they can depend to save them—it’s devastating.

The last few scenes, particularly the ones with the pangolin and the polar bear, are gut-punches. This all sneaks up. At the start of The Silver Arrow, I never would have anticipated tearing up at the end, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Grossman builds slowly but surely up to this heartbreaking climax.

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Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), here are a few amazing Hispanic and Latinx authors and books to add to your list!

Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not

Adam Silvera is one of my favorite writers. I love literally all his books, but More Happy Than Not is the first one I read and it therefore has a special place in my heart. It’s heartbreaking and brilliant and it’s mindblowing that this was a first novel. I’m really excited that everyone is discovering Silvera through They Both Die At the End nowadays, but I hope you won’t stop with just that book. It’s great, but Silvera has so much to offer in his other books as well.

Benjamin Alire Saénz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a mouthful of a title, and it takes a remarkable novel to stand up to it. This is a remarkable novel–poignant, heartbreaking, charming–and there’s an unexpected sequel coming out later this year!

Aiden Thomas, Cemetery Boys

Cemetery Boys is an amazing fantasy novel that beautifully winds identity and culture together with magic. Aiden Thomas is still a relatively new voice to fiction, but they’ve already definitively proven themself! Cemetery Boys was one of my favorite reads last year, and if you haven’t read it yet please correct that immediately. There won’t be a better time for this unique ghost story: it’s Hispanic Heritage Month now, and we’re approaching Día de Muertos (and Halloween).

Pam Muñoz Ryan, Esperanza Rising

I have a horrible memory, so it’s saying a lot that Esperanza Rising is one of the first books I remember reading. I read it back in elementary school for an English class that was run more like a book club, and I remember being absolutely struck by it. I suspect I owe some of my love of literature to Pam Muñoz Ryan.

Kirstin Valdez Quade, The Five Wounds

Quade is amazing writer. She took a wrote about religious extremism and teen pregnancy and made me love it. The Five Wounds is an intense read that incorporates a number of incredible, powerful storylines and sociopolitical elements but boils down to family. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t made as much of a splash as some of the other titles on this list, but it definitely deserves attention.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, In the Heights: Finding Home

Okay, so this one isn’t a novel (and the third author, Jeremy McCarter, is not Hispanic), but I still wanted to include it because I love Lin-Manuel Miranda, I love In the Heights, and I’m reading this book now. It’s fascinating to read about the creative process, and it’s always cool to read all the lyrics to a musical, particularly one like In the Heights that has so many layered passages that it’s almost impossible to catch everything just by listening to it.

Give me your recommendations! Which Hispanic and Latinx writers should I read next?

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Movie Review)

September 2021 is a gift to musical fans. Aside from Broadway reopening, a slew of musicals are coming to the screen. Dear Evan Hansen is coming to theatres at the end of the month. A proshot of Come From Away has already been released on AppleTV. Amazon Prime has been particularly busy, giving us a new jukebox version of Cinderella and a movie adaptation of the West End’s majorly successful Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing movie and musical reviews, not for any reason in particular. I’ve been trying to focus more on my creative writing and work has been crazy. But I watched Everybody’s Talking About Jamie the day it was released and was moved enough that I wanted to write a bit about it. This is no shade to the other two newly available musicals. I thoroughly enjoyed Cinderella (the “What a Man/Seven Nation Army” mashup was incredible and I would like to start a petition that Pierce Brosnan is only allowed to be in campy musicals from now on because between this, Mamma Mia!, and Eurovision he has found his niche) and I haven’t seen Come From Away yet (I have tickets to see the traveling production, and want to experience it for the first time live).

I’d been looking forward to Jamie passively. I’d listened to the cast recording a few times and even written about it once on this blog, but it wasn’t a show I knew a whole lot about. I’d kind of assumed it was a sort of Kinky Boots copycat with a bit of Billy Elliot mixed in. It isn’t.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy (Max Harwood) from a small town who wants to be a drag queen. There are some similar elements to Kinky Boots, of course. Both musicals are about drag, are based on true stories, and challenge the stringently enforced gender binary found in small, conservative communities. The overall feeling, though, is very different. When we meet Simon/Lola in Kinky Boots, he’s already who he is. He’s been through the hardships of his youth and while there are still struggles, he’s mostly pushing against the people who won’t accept him. The song “Not My Father’s Son” has the same feeling as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, but overall Kinky Boots is about a grown adult and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is about a teenager still growing up. Also, much as Lola steals the show in Kinky Boots, it’s Charlie’s story. Jamie’s queerness is the story of his musical, and Lola’s queerness colors Charlie’s.

Jamie and his musical have a closer, more introspective story. He’s young. As his mentor Hugo (Richard E. Grant) says, of course he doesn’t know who he is yet. He’s sixteen. He’s still developing his drag personality, but more importantly he is still developing himself. He seems comfortable with himself—we find out in the first scene that he’s openly gay and thinks nothing of calling out the bullies who say anything to him about it—but much of that is a front; he is still working through a lot of internalized shame stemming from his father’s bigotry.

It’s easy to miss how absolutely devastating Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is when you’re just passively listening to the cast recording. Just listening, it’s the bold, confident songs that stick out—“And You Don’t Even Know It,” “The Legend of Loco Chanel”—but watching it pulls the subtler, sadder songs to the surface. Hands down, my favorite song is “The Wall in My Head.” It’s the second song of the musical, and it has Jamie expressing how difficult it is for him to overcome the internal shame that he has built over the years, but how desperately he wants to get over it. It’s beautiful and it’s powerful and it’s a gut punch right at the start.

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Malibu Rising (Mini Book Review)

The was no question of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s most recent novel Malibu Rising being anything less than excellent; it lived up to expectations.

I’ve been a big fan of Taylor Jenkins Reid for a while. I fell in love with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and was even more impressed by Daisy Jones and the Six. I hadn’t realized that those two novels, along with the new Malibu Rising, create a trilogy of sorts. They’re only loosely connected—one character appears in all three, and there are a few references to the other stories that are easy to miss if you’re not looking for them—but they have a lot of thematic similarities. They’re all about famous, beautiful women in or around the entertainment industry whose lives are shaped by the Hollywood, sex, infidelity, marriage, drugs, toxic masculinity, fame, and more; however they all approach these topics from different directions.

Evelyn reflects back on a lifetime of regret and love. It deals with racism, biphobia/homophobia, and objectification. Its titular heroine is a force of nature, but she’s also a beautiful, bisexual woman of color (mostly white-passing) in Hollywood in the 60s which means that her life is full of men who try to control her and do to varying degrees.

Daisy’s heroine is also famous in her own right. She is a talented songwriter and has an almost otherworldly voice. She makes bad choices and nearly throws her gifts away at every turn. Her band is plagued by in-fighting, drug use, and her ongoing flirtation/affair with her married bandmate; despite their incredible talent and lightning-in-a-bottle success, the group has no longevity because they seem determined to destroy themselves form the inside.

Malibu Rising is also about women in and around the industry, but it takes a step back from the spotlight. Evelyn and Daisy are headliners, while Nina—while well known and easily recognizable—is not. She is a model and married to a tennis superstar, but she also makes regular appearances at the seafood restaurant her grandparents owned and her dream is to live anonymously on the ocean where she can surf in peace. She actually has an uneasy position between fame and anonymity. She is very visible, but it is just her body. She is clothed and posed in ways she would not choose, and we’re specifically told multiple times that her most popular pictures make her uncomfortable (in one, her surfboard has been cropped out; in another, her swimsuit has gone nearly transparent, distracting from the fact that her poor form caused a wipeout mere moments later). Nina’s body is famous, but Nina herself—Nina the person—is nothing. Evelyn and Daisy are famous for their beauty and their talent; Nina is known only for her beauty, and if she were to retire, she’d be replaced quickly without a second thought.

It is fitting that Malibu Rising is not named for Nina, or for her siblings. It’s their story, of course, but it’s also their father’s story. It’s also the story of the insanely out-of-control party Nina throws. It’s about growing into adulthood with the scars of a traumatic childhood. It’s about Malibu. It’s a generic story told through the specific lens of these four young adults.

In the first chapter, we’re told the story will end with a fire that burns the Riva mansion to the ground, and then we’re presented with a plethora of characters and conflicts that may have caused the flames, but while the fire is literal it’s also metaphorical, because there’s a symbolic burning down of one way of life to make way for another. The fire is a destruction, but it is also a cleansing.

Malibu Rising is all about contradictions. Nina, the sex-symbol who just wants to be alone and unobserved. Jay, the champion surfer whose heart literally won’t let him surf. Hud, the nice guy who’s been sneaking behind his brother’s back. Kit, the woman whose family will never see her as anything but a child. A family who has everything except what they need, who have the adoration of many but the love of only a few. We get to know all four Riva children, both as who they are and who they might be without the pressures of a semi-public life. But the Rivas are far from the only characters. There are dozens of them, some who only pop in briefly to add to the obscene excesses at the party or who fill out the flashback scenes that chronicle the Rivas’ parents’ courtship and marriage. These characters provide a contrast to our protagonists. We can understand Nina more by comparing her to her peers, to her husband and his lover, than by merely viewing her in a vacuum.

Reid does such a great job. She’s such a decisive, composed writer. Malibu Rising does a lot with its 350-odd pages. It’s part mystery. It’s part love story. It’s part coming of age. It’s part family drama. It starts out as a fun, low-stakes romp: a supermodel is throwing a fancy party for other rich, famous, beautiful people. By the end, it has become something much more intimate, but emotionally bigger. I confess that when I started Malibu Rising I was concerned that it was more flash than substance in comparison to Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones, but it more than made up for that in the latter half. Once the party starts, and particularly once it winds down, it’s one emotional gut-punch after another.

It’s brilliant. Taylor Jenkins Reid has always been good, but she has improved so exponentially since Maybe in Another Life that she may as well be an entirely different writer. Malibu Rising is not exactly what I expected—it tells the story of the family left behind by an irresponsible superstar instead of following in the footsteps of the previous two books by telling the story of said irresponsible superstar, and its focus on family is likewise a change after the stories of two women who were essentially alone—but it is exceptionally well-written and is just as enjoyable and emotionally satisfying as Reid’s other recent work.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Paper Palace (Book Rant)

At the end of December, I make lists of my ten favorite and least favorite reads from the year. There’s still some time to go before I start compiling those lists, but I’d be willing to bet nothing beats The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller for the number one spot on the worst books list.

If I’ve read a book more detrimental to my mental health, I can’t remember it. I felt nauseated. I felt angry. I read with a visible grimace on my face because I was so disgusted I physically couldn’t hide it. It took me four days to read The Paper Palace (and that was aggressively pushing through it because I needed to be done with it for my own sanity) and I was irritable and unhappy the whole time. I slept badly and woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I wanted badly to DNF, but since I read the book for a book club that I’m leading for work, I couldn’t exactly nope out of it, even though I desperately wanted to. The Paper Palace is unrelentingly miserable and triggering, and for my money there’s nothing in the story or the writing that makes up for it.

Rating: 0 out of 5.

This review, as you can probably tell, is going to get into ranty territory. If you liked this book, this review is not for you. (Also, how did you like this book?). There are also a few spoilers, although I avoid the biggest one. If you want to be 100% spoiler free, this review is not for you. Lastly, there is no discussing The Paper Palace without discussing rape, incest, child abuse, and pedophilia. If you need to avoid these topics, this review is not for you and this book is DEFINITELY not for you. Please, please take care of yourself and do not read The Paper Palace if you have any sex-based triggers.

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