Good Girl, Bad Blood (Book Review)

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson was a delightful surprise of a mystery. I sat down for ten minutes only to realize that hours had passed and I’d finished the book. I knew that the sequel Good Girl, Bad Blood couldn’t possibly be as good, and it wasn’t. It was still really good, but it’s definitely a step down.

What’s it about?

After making waves (and a podcast) for solving a cold murder case in her hometown, teen detective Pip is determined to settle down and go back to being a normal kid. The world has other plans for her, though; her friend Connor’s brother Jamie has gone missing, and Connor is convinced of foul play. Pip wants to sit this one out and let the local authorities handle it, but since Jamie is legally an adult and is deemed a low-risk case, Pip once again finds herself in the position of being the only one who will solve the case.

Do you have to read A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder first?

Yes! Most mystery series are loosely connected by a detective but for the most part can be read in whatever order you stumble across them. You’re not going to miss anything if you read Christie’s last Poirot book first, or if you accidentally skip one of McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. This series isn’t like that. While technically speaking Good Girl, Bad Girl picks up with a new case that is unrelated to the one in book one, the events of A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder are built upon. Jackson does a good job of recapping the important elements so any readers who didn’t go straight from one to the next don’t get left behind, so while you could understand what happens on a basic level, skipping book one is definitely not the way to go. For one thing, there are an unbelievable number of spoilers. If there’s any chance of you reading A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, stay away from the sequel. The first chapter recaps almost every significant event. Mostly, though, Pip’s story builds from book one to book two. She is deeply affected by her first investigation. She has trauma from the darker moments and revelations, and even though the mystery itself was wrapped up there are still a lot of loose ends. Ravi, Pip’s sidekick-turned-boyfriend, is attending court daily to watch the legal proceedings because in the real world you can’t just get a criminal to confess on tape and leave it there. So no, you should not read Good Girl, Bad Blood without A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. You’ll miss significant character development, you’ll lose the emotional connection to one of the most horrifically real storylines, and you’ll lack some of the needed community relationships that Pip built in the first installment.

What’d I think?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are a few spoilers for A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. I do not spoil Good Girl, Bad Blood.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder was absolutely brilliant. I loved the way Jackson balances the thrilling twists and turns of an edge-of-your-seat whodunit with the gravitas of a bildungsroman grounded on real social issues and organic connections. From the start, she situates us in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, but secrets nevertheless run deep. Everywhere Pip turns she finds a path leading back to someone she has known all her life. The deeper she digs, the more she fears what exactly she’s going to find. Likewise, the reader feels deeply tied into the town and the people who populate it.

Good Girl, Bad Blood is still excellent, but it doesn’t have that same natural feeling. To be fair, a mystery sequel is never going to feel as natural. Unless the protagonist is actually a detective of some variety, the chance of them running into more than one mystery is pretty low. The other problem, though, is that Jamie and Connor don’t feel as deeply tied to the town as Andie and Sal did. I know that Connor was in the first book, but I barely remembered him even though I only read that book a few weeks ago. When Pip and Ravi attend the memorial at the beginning of the novel and run into the important characters, it’s a bit of a who’s who. There’s a new couple living down the street. There’s a new teacher. There’s Connor’s extended family. I got the impression that I knew Pip’s hometown pretty well in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, but clearly I was wrong, because aside from Pip, Ravi, Cara, and the de Silvas, I felt like I was in a sea of new faces.

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Dark Rise (Mini Book Review)

While it suffers a few mild pacing issues, overall Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat is an engaging, exciting foray into a new fantasy world that I will happily renter for book two.

What’s it about?

Will has been in hiding since his mother was violently murdered by a group of mysterious killers who are now searching for him. But he can’t run forever, and eventually the past catches up with him, and not just the recent past. No, Will is intrinsically linked to an ancient conflict between a Dark King and a group of Stewards, supernaturally strong protectors of the Light. The Stewards believe that Will is the descendant of a magical Lady who defeated the Dark King the first time, and as such Will will be integral to the effort to keep the King from rising again.

What did I think?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I was excited when I heard about this book. I absolutely adored the graphic novel series that Pacat wrote alongside artist Johanna the Mad, and I’ve very much wanted to read more of her work, but have been a bit hesitant to do so because her other books—the Captive Prince series—are dark romance and that’s not really my scene. YA fantasy, though? I am so there. Also, just look at that cover. I’m easily won by shiny gold covers.

Overall, I thought Dark Rise was great. The writing is good. The characters, for the most part, are very compelling. It is immensely readable, and I am very eager to read the rest of the series. That being said, there are a few issues.

A lot of series start okay and get amazing by the end. My go-to example of this phenomenon is City of Bones. I adore the Mortal Instruments as a whole. But City of Bones specifically? It’s okay. When you introduce a new world, there’s a lot of early legwork that goes in. You need to create an entirely new society. What’s the social structure like? How does magic work? What kinds of technology are there? What’s the geography? Who has the power? What’s possible? That takes a lot. It’s not like a contemporary novel where you can just start the story with the comfortable knowledge that your readers will understand and recognize the general setting. Most readers have seen a standard high school before, know how cell phones work, and understand the basic function of the police, for instance. Sure, some fantasy worlds hit the ground running, but others start a bit slow and pay off later.

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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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