The Music of What Happens (Book Review) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

the music of what happensThe Music of What Happens is the second novel by Bill Konigsberg that I’ve read—the first being Openly Straight—and I think that Konigsberg has definitely improved between the two novels.

What’s it about?

Aside from the fact that they’re both gay and attend the same school, Max and Jordan have nothing in common. Max is a popular half-Mexican jock who lives with his super-competent mom because his dad left to be a third-rate comedian . Jordan is an emo poet who is about to lose his home after the death of his father. They are thrown together unexpectedly when Max happens across Jordan and his mother just as they’re failing to relaunch Jordan’s late father’s food truck. Jordan’s mom bails, leaving Jordan and Max to man the truck and keep Jordan’s home even though neither of them knows the first thing about running a food truck.

What’d I think?

I liked the relationship between Max and Jordan. It unfolds slowly but surely as the two get to know each other. Konigsberg does a great job of letting their friendship grow and change without pushing it. Even though Max and Jordan seem like very different people, they fit together very naturally and they become dependable constants in each other’s lives. A lot of romance stories depend on miscommunications and drama to push the leads apart, but Konigsberg doesn’t bother with that. There’s a lot of drama in The Music of What Happens, but none of it is stupid rom-com drama. Jordan and Max are the kind of couple that the reader actually thinks should and would stay together because they don’t fight about pointless things and they communicate about and work through real problems as a team. Their being a team doesn’t in any way make the drama of the novel boring, because there is plenty of drama outside of the relationship to keep things interesting. It’s refreshing to read a romance about two characters who actually like each other and who come together when things get difficult, rather than breaking up so they can dramatically reunite later.

I didn’t like the boys’ friends. I complained about the friends in Openly Straight, too. I suspect that Bill Konigsberg’s real-life friendships just don’t translate well to the written word for some reason. Pam, Kayla, Zay-Rod, and Betts are terrible friends. I get that part of the point is that neither Max nor Jordan has a serious, communicative relationship with his friends, but still. There’s a difference between having a frothy, surface-level fun friendship and hanging out with people who actively suck. Betts and Zay-Rod make gay jokes and ruthlessly insult each other and Max in a way that is too pointed to be all fun and games (and this is coming from a person who expresses affection almost entirely in insults; if I think it’s too mean, then it’s probably way too mean). Kayla and Pam are basically the same, except girl versions. Not only do they not listen to Jordan, they actively go out of their way to ignore what he’s saying. Max and Jordan are great together, but their friends bring out the absolute worst in them. Usually I wouldn’t condone dropping your platonic friends for a love interest, but in this case… those friends are trash and should be dropped as soon as possible. Don’t get me started on how creepy it is that Jordan refers to his friends as his “wives.”

I liked how delicately Konigsberg handles…

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Skip to the next bullet to avoid (mild) spoilers.

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Agatha Christie Mini Reviews (+Miniseries Comparisons)

When I read mysteries, I tend to go for Agatha Christie. There’s a reason she is one of the most widely published writers of all time (I learned recently that she has been outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare). Her books also make very good miniseries. The BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None—which, by the way, is my favorite Christie novel—is excellent. It’s one of the best mysteries I’ve ever viewed, and it’s definitely one of the best I’ve ever read. There must be something about Agatha Christie that appeals to filmmakers (and specifically to the ones who do BBC miniseries), because there are a lot of adaptations.

Recently, I watched two such adaptations: The ABC Murders and Ordeal by Innocence. I greatly enjoyed both of them, and figured it would be fun to read the books from which they were adapted. I’d read The ABC Murders once before, years ago, but it was my first time reading (or even hearing about) Ordeal by Innocence. The adaptation process is fascinating to me, especially when the end results can vary as drastically as these two.

THE ABC MURDERS

abc murdersAs I said, I had read The ABC Murders before, but it was so long ago that I remembered essentially nothing about it except that the ending surprised me and, bizarrely, that I read it while sitting on the floor between games at one of my sister’s club volleyball tournaments. Books are basically time capsules. There’s something about them that allows me to remember things I never would have retained otherwise.

I definitely liked the book at the time; it prompted me to write this gem of a terrible review:

PAST ME: Agatha Christie pulled a fast one on me again. I even spotted the ultimate clue (the list!) but by the end I had forgotten it and got fooled anyway. I think I could read all of Agatha Christie’s books and never get the answer to one right. I did figure it out when Poirot was halfway through telling everyone what had happened. I liked how Captain Hastings is a Dr. Watson equivalent. I actually started the book being disappointed because Christie had spoiled the end before the end… except not. I got totally fooled again and I loved it! So now for a public service announcement. If you don’t read Agatha Christie mysteries, start doing it. Poirot is awesome, but I’m sure the rest of them are as well.

What’s it about?

When retired private detective Hercule Poirot receives an upsetting letter from “ABC” that seems to threaten murder, he teams up with the police to track down a madman with a murderous, alphabetical agenda.

What’d I think?

I love the crime-solving duo that is Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings. Do I always forget that Hastings exists? Admittedly yes. But whenever I remember him I realize how amazing he is. He’s like John Watson if John Watson were snarkier and more apt to roast Sherlock Holmes’ fashion sense. As for Poirot… he’s delightful. He’s probably my all-time favorite fictional detective (it’s between him and Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe). There’s something endlessly endearing about him.

I’ve seen multiple Agatha Christie adaptations and sadly no on-screen Hercule Poirot matches the original’s charm. David Suchet is okay. Kenneth Branaugh, despite being one of my favorite actors, doesn’t really capture Poirot. And in The ABC Murders, John Malkovitch is barely serviceable.

While The ABC Murders is overall an excellent, faithful adaptation, its most notable and consistent weakness is Poirot. The Poirot+Hastings duo is the highlight of the novel, but apparently the TV people decided that John Malkovitch had enough star power to dispose of Hastings entirely and put more emotional heft onto Poirot’s shoulders. I don’t think they were right. Malkovitch’s Poirot, despite being considerably less appealing in the flesh than in print, is given a more personal connection to the murders and therefore a meatier role. Hastings is entirely absent. ron harry potterHe’s replaced—kind of—by Inspector Chrome (played by Ron Weasley Rupert Grint), who is in the book, albeit less prominently. I like Inspector Chrome in the show, and not just because of my affection for Ron Weasley.

Since I didn’t actually remember Hastings existed when I watched the show, I didn’t miss him while watching; it was only in retrospect that I realized he wasn’t there. I did miss the twinkly Poirot even without recent exposure to him, though. In both book and series, Poirot is getting older and is dying his beard. In the show, this is very humiliating/emotionally distressing. Everyone around him finds it ridiculous and sad. At one point the dye runs off Poirot’s face in public. In the book, Poirot brags about the strength and attractiveness of his dye and cheekily recommends his stylist to the balding Hastings.

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Opposite of Always (Book Review) ⭐⭐⭐

opposite of alwaysWhen it comes to contemporary YA writers, there aren’t many better than Becky Albertalli and Angie Thomas. The fact that they both endorsed Justin A. Reynolds’ Opposite of Always was enough for me to give it a shot. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to those two names. Opposite of Always is cute enough, but it is nowhere in the league of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda or The Hate U Give.

What’s it about?

While visiting a college campus towards the end of his senior year of high school, Jack meets Kate and they fall in love. Sounds good, right? Wrong. Jack and Kate only have a short time together, because Kate has a genetic disease that kills her before they can have their happily ever after. But then Jack finds himself transported back to the moment when he first met Kate. Given a miraculous second chance with Kate, Jack does everything in his power to save her life only to lose her again (and again and again), and return again (and again and again) to the stairs where they met.

What’d I think?

I’ve been somewhat uninspired by my own reviews lately, so I’m going to try out yet another format. I’m also trying to keep my reviews shorter than usual, as I’ve noticed that the long, analytical ones rarely get read. Here we go!

I liked Jack’s relationships with his best friends Franny and Jillian. They are a really cool trio, and the way that their dynamic shifts with the decisions that Jack makes is far and away the best part of Opposite of Always. The way that Jack’s friends (particularly Franny) are folded into Jack’s family is particularly sweet. Franny and Jillian are their own characters even outside their relationships to Jack, and I love that the narrative emphasizes them as much as it does. They’re never get pushed to the side, and their emotional wellbeing is treated as seriously as either Jack or Kate’s, which is awesome.

I didn’t like the central romance. With Jack, Franny, and Jillian, Reynolds proved that he can write a fun, deep, important relationship. Unfortunately, however, he didn’t put that ability to work for Jack and Kate. For the life of me, I don’t understand what Jack sees in Kate. Or What Kate sees in Jack. They’re both good characters, but together they’re all kinds of bland. No matter how many times I watched them fall in love, I never got it. Forget true love, they don’t even have basic chemistry. I just do not get them as a couple. So I certainly don’t understand why their romance warrants repeated time loops to get it right.

I liked the adults. Jack’s parents are goofy and cringy and very present in Jack’s life. They’re real people, not just cardboard cutouts who only show up to parent when the plot calls for it. Likewise, Franny’s dad is a great character. Terrible guy, great character. Franny’s relationship with his dad is one of the best emotional storylines.

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Pulp (Book Review) ⭐⭐⭐

pulpIt has been so long since I sat down to write a book review that, once again, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do it. While I like Robin Talley’s Pulp well enough, I wasn’t enthusiastic enough about it to write this review immediately. A lot of books demand to be discussed, but Pulp isn’t one of them, at least for me. It took me an unusually long time to read, and after I finished it I set it aside for almost a week before I got around to actually writing this review.

I initially picked it up on a whim. I thought it was going to be the lesbian equivalent of Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie—they have similar premises—and while it sort of is, I did not find it as compelling (although to be fair, I have more going on now than I did when I read Moxie, so I could commit more time, emotion, and effort to my reading then).

What’s it about?

For a final creative writing project, Abby—who has just broken up with her girlfriend and whose parents’ strained relationship is making her home life difficult—decides to study lesbian pulp fiction from the fifties and then write her own to deconstruct and comment on the form. She finds herself particularly drawn to one novel, and feels driven to discover more about the life of the author, Marian Love. Sixty-two years before, Marian love—real name Janet Jones—is discovering her sexuality. Her love for her best friend and her own accidental discovery of a lesbian pulp novel launch her into a world she never dreamed existed and which she can join only at great personal cost.

What’d I think?

Pulp does a lot of things well. It strives to be intersectional even during Janet’s chapters. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction because there is so rarely diversity (here are a few exceptions), so it is always a pleasant surprise to find queer people and people of color there. It’s also really interesting. No one really talks about historical experiences that aren’t mainstream, so it was fascinating to me to learn about the popularity of lesbian pulp fiction and lesbian bars in the fifties. The fact that lesbian bars were actually more common then than they are now is hard to believe, because that’s something I would expect not to exist then but to be somewhat more present now.

The pacing is possibly Pulp’s greatest strength. The novel hinges largely on the mystery of what happened to Janet between her storyline and Abby’s, and Talley reveals it at exactly the right pace, with each new piece of information arriving at the perfect moment for maximum suspense. One could argue—and honestly, I probably would—that the substance of the reveals isn’t as well done as the execution—it’s clearly there for narrative drama and doesn’t necessarily feel true to Janet as a character—but the mystery is interesting enough that I can let the slightly disappointing conclusion slide.

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And the Ocean Was Our Sky (Book Review) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

and the ocean was our sky
I love that the title seems so poetic and deep… but it’s also literal.

Patrick Ness is one of my favorite writers. I’ve been a huge fan of his since I read A Monster Calls for a book club a few years ago. The Rest of Us Just Live Here is one of the first books I reviewed for this blog, and I was pumped to read Release and And the Ocean Was Our Sky even though they’re inspired by classic novels that are decidedly not amongst my favorites (Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, respectively). When I picked up And the Ocean Was Our Sky, I knew that my main takeaway was going to be the answer to one question: which is stronger, my love for Patrick Ness or my hate for Moby-Dick? Seriously. That book has sooo many unnecessary descriptions. The parts that are actual story are good, but that’s like 10% of the book. If you want to write a textbook about whales, just write a textbook about whales. Don’t try to pass it off as a novel.

What’s it about?

Bathsheba is the youngest apprentice to the great hunter Captain Alexandra. Their pod, like all hunter pods, has one goal: hunt and kill humans. But for Captain Alexandra—and therefore for Bathsheba—it goes deeper than that. They are destined to hunt the dangerous, mythological Toby Wick, who hunts with a single ship and has left untold hundreds of whales dead. When their pod comes across a human survivor of a wreck with Toby Wick’s calling card clutched in his hand, they know that—if destiny is real—it has come for them.

So what won? My love of Patrick Ness or my hate of Moby-Dick?

My love of Patrick Ness.

What’d I think?

I knew that And the Ocean Was Our Sky was based on Moby-Dick, but I did not know that the protagonists are to going be whales. It’s pretty cool, but it took me entirely surprised. When I first figured that out, I was hesitant. Talking-animal stories aren’t my thing. It took a little while to get oriented (the whales have boats? Their world is the inverse of the human world, not just beneath it? They actively try to kill humans and harvest the remains?), but once I did I was fully onboard. The whales aren’t exactly like humans, but the core of them is quite similar, and the novel focuses on very human issues: the nature of good and evil, self-fulfilling prophecy, the power of reputation, etc.

And the Ocean Was Our Sky defies description. Describing it makes it sound, honestly, terrible. If I’d known before starting that the book was about a murderous pod of whales intent on seeking the devil, I probably would’ve been like… pass. But in true Patrick Ness fashion, the writing is lyrical without being self-indulgent and the ideas are big enough to prompt a great discussion. I wish I still ran a book club, because this would be a very fun one to write questions for. The characters are perhaps not the most compelling in the literary world, but this is one of the rare cases where that doesn’t really matter. The main player in this book is humanity, not specific people, so it works.

I wouldn’t say that that this is the most engaging novel I’ve ever read, which is why it did get one star knocked off, but it is still very good and since it goes by so quickly (it’s only 158 pages, and some are illustrated) it doesn’t actually need to draw the reader in more than once or twice.

Lastly, it would be remiss not to mention the illustrations by Rovina Cai. They’re stunning. With a limited color palate she captures Ness’ world perfectly, and even manages to illustrate the parts that made me think, “Surely there’s no way to depict that.”

What’s the verdict?

⭐⭐⭐⭐

While And the Ocean Was Our Sky is not my favorite of Patrick Ness’ works, it is still a very beautiful book. The writing is violent but affecting—helped along by the gorgeous illustrations—and the huge themes are distilled simply but complexly (if that even makes sense) into a deceptively short page-count. Report card: A

i hate everyone but you (Book Review) ⭐⭐

i hate everyone but youFor a while, it seemed like i hate everyone but you by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin was on a display at every bookstore I went into. I always picked it up curiously and then decided that it didn’t intrigue me quite enough to buy it. I finally found it in my library and gave it a shot. Now that I’ve read it, I can confirm that “doesn’t intrigue me enough to buy it” is a good description of it. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m pretty sure that at the end of the year, when I’m compiling my annual top and bottom ten reads, I’m going to have to reread my own review to remember what it was about.

What’s it about?

Gen and Ava are best friends, but they have very little in common. Ava is shy and plagued with all sorts of mental disorders—OCD, anxiety, and depression are the main ones, but there are probably more—and Gen is a cool, brash tries-everything-twice sort of girl. Since they’re attending college at opposite sides of the country, they’ve decided to keep in close contact via text and email as they navigate their new lives apart from each other.

What’d I think?

i hate everyone but you is pretty typical for the story it wants to tell. There aren’t any surprises, which in itself is probably not a surprise. It’s the story of two friends who love each other and hold onto their relationship despite distance and life taking them in different directions. The format works very well; the novel consists entirely of the girls’ text and email communication. Sometimes that format wears itself thin or struggles to tell the whole story, but it functions really well here. It’s also worth noting that the girls’ voices are distinctive enough that I was able to pick up on who was who very quickly and keep track of it without difficulty even though their text communications are differentiated only with little monster avatars.

Ava and Gen are delightfully nerdy. Early on in the novel, Gen mentions Newsies, and from that moment I was like, “Yep, I love this girl.” Unfortunately, she didn’t manage to sustain that level of love for the rest of the novel (and no, it’s not just because her love is for the infinitely inferior movie version of Newsies).

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Broadway Newsies is phenomenal. Movie Newsies is meh.

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Where the Crawdads Sing (Book Review) ⭐⭐⭐

where the crawdads singI work at a bookstore, so I have a pretty good idea about what books people are reading. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens has been at the top of the bestseller list for months. It’s in Reese Witherspoon’s book club. The waiting list for it at my library is, no lie, 122 people long, which is possibly why it is selling ridiculously well. I’ve learned to recognize even the worst descriptions of it. At one point, I repeatedly had conversations like this:

CUSTOMER: I’m looking for that one book, but I don’t remember the title.

ME: Where the Crawdads Sing?

CUSTOMER: That’s it!

DIFFERENT CUSTOMER: I just finished it! It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read!

That last bit is not an exaggeration. I have had multiple people tell me that. I figured that, based on all that feedback, I should definitely give the book a shot even though it is not the sort of book I normally like.

What’s it about?

Kya lives in the marsh, at first with her full family, then with only her abusive father, and finally on her own. From a very young age, she learned to take care of herself and to stay out of view. Because of this, Kya takes on a somewhat mythical persona for the residents of the nearby town. Where the Crawdads Sing, which is takes place over about twenty years starting in 1952, tells the story of Kya’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, and intertwines it with the investigation of a murder for which Kya is the primary suspect.

Did I enjoy Where the Crawdads Sing?

Yes.

Is it one of the best books I’ve ever read?

No.

So what’d I think?

Author Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who has written several well-regarded nonfiction books, but this is her first novel. Honestly, that tracks. The writing is very good ninety-five percent of the time, and Owens does a particularly good job creating her atmosphere. She shines when she is writing about nature and the ways wildlife interacts with human existence. She’s less adept where humans interact with… other humans. Her dialogue is stilted—at times, painfully stilted—and some of her characterizations seem off.

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