Highlights: October 2020

It’s that time of year, folks! The time of year where the days start to get shorter, the wind and leaves dance through the air, and the scary and spooky feelings of Halloween get kicked up as well! Though it’s probably going to be a very different Halloween this year than we’re used to, that isn’t going to stop the feelings of the season. Kate has her Horrorpalooza reads all in order, and Serena is breaking out the cardigans. We also have books we’re looking forward to!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “Return of the Thief” by Megan Whalen Turner

Publication Date: October 6, 2020

Why I’m Interested: I’ve been a fan of Whalen Turner’s “The Queen’s Thief” series for years now. It’s been a long haul, around 20 years I think, to get to this point, but here we are, the last book in the series! Luckily, each book in this series has read well enough as a stand-alone, completely its own story arc fully and leaving the characters in places that aren’t too unstable which has made the wait time between books much more bearable. So it will be bitter sweet to finally pick this one up and know we’re truly at the end of the line. Sadly, I was remiss on putting my name on the holds list at the library, so it will probably be a bit before I get around to reading this and reviewing it. Unless I break down and buy it…we shall see!

Book: “Murder on Cold Street” by Sherry Thomas

Publication Date: October 6, 2020

Why I’m Interested: Yet another book that is continuing a much-loved series. While I did struggle a bit with the previous book in this series, I’m still a big fan of Thomas’s writing style overall and her unique take on the Sherlock Holmes story. With a return to England and a return to a good old murder mystery, I’m hopeful that this book will return to some of the strengths that originally drew me in to this series. I’m also still intrigued by where the romance between Charlotte and Lord Ingram is ultimately headed. Will we see any new developments (finally!) in this one?

Book: “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab

Publication Date: October 6, 2020

Why I’m Interested: A break to all the continuations of book series comes in the form of a new, stand-alone novel by V.E. Schwab. The story sounds super originally, following the centuries-long life of a woman cursed/blessed to live forever but to never be remembered. Until, of course, she finally meets someone who does remember. I’m really intrigued by the entire concept, and if anyone is capable of pulling it off, it’s Schwab. The last thing I read from her was her YA duology which was…ok. But she also really wowed me in the with her “Shades of Magic” trilogy and other standalone works. In a lot of ways, this book doesn’t sound anything like what she’s written before, so I’m curious to see what she’ll do with it!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark

Publication Date: October 13, 2020

Why I’m Interested: I was a big fan of the book “Lovecraft Country” when I read it a few years ago (no I haven’t started the show yet, but I will!), and reading the description of “Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark gave me some similar vibes. “Ring Shout” takes the idea of American Racism as the true horror and adds some cosmic and inter-dimensional elements as well. Three Black women are working to rid the world of Klu Kluxes, demons from another world that have been summoned by a sorcerer (D.W. Griffith, the man who brought the racist film “Birth of a Nation” to the screen), that have started amplifying the racist hate of the white people in this country. Led by the intrepid Maryse Bordeaux and her sword, these women and others hope to fight off the demons and bring justice to Black and other marginalized people before The Klan takes over. Unique concept and biting satire, a great combination.

Book: “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan

Publication Date: October 6, 2020

Why I’m Interested: True crime podcasts continue to be a big part of my entertainment life, and so I always like seeing books that take that idea and run with it. So I was, of course, very interested when I stumbled upon “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan on a ‘Fall Thrillers’ list. It follows Dee, an amateur podcast host whose show focuses on people who have gone missing, in hopes of getting information and attention that can lead to them being found. What her listeners don’t know is that she was a girl left behind in a notorious kidnapping case, where he childhood best friend was kidnapped before her eyes as hasn’t been seen since. Now, just as her podcast is getting more attention, another girl in her town is taken without a trace. Dee wants to help, but wants to keep her identity secret, and her own traumas under control. I’m sure it will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Book: “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter

Publication Date: October 28, 2020

Why I’m Interested: The Halloween season wouldn’t be complete without a ghost story or two, so look no further than “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene”, a joint effort by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter. Beatrix Greene is a medium working during the first Spiritualist obsession in the 1800s. The only issue is that she’s a fraud who is just trying to make ends meet. When she’s invited to Ashbury Manor by noted scientist and skeptic James Walker, she is hesitant, but wants to make him eat his hat. James has his own motivations for wanting her to be there, potentially exposing her as a fraud not at the top of the list. But both of them are completely shocked when they and their companions find themselves in a very haunted house…. and in grave danger. What a way to top off the Halloween season!

What books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “Blood & Honey”

40550366Book: “Blood & Honey” by Shelby Mahurin

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: After narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Dames Blanches, Lou, Reid, Coco, and Ansel are on the run from coven, kingdom, and church—fugitives with nowhere to hide.

To elude the scores of witches and throngs of chasseurs at their heels, Lou and Reid need allies. Strong ones. But protection comes at a price, and the group is forced to embark on separate quests to build their forces. As Lou and Reid try to close the widening rift between them, the dastardly Morgane baits them in a lethal game of cat and mouse that threatens to destroy something worth more than any coven.

Previously Reviewed: “Serpent & Dove”

Review: Well, after enjoying the first book well enough this summer, it was kind of a given that I’d include it in my fall reading schedule. After all, I’d had a lot of success this summer with reading books that had been very popular last year and then were followed up by equally good, if not better, sequels (“The Merciful Crow” and its sequel, for example!). And, while the first book in this duology (ugh trilogy) wasn’t as strong as that one, it still caught my interest, and I had hopes the trend would continue. Alas, no. Not only did the trend decidedly not  continue, but I actively disliked this book and am probably out on this (again, ugh ) dulogy-turned- trilogy.

After the dramatic events at the end of “Serpent & Dove,” Reid, Lou and their friends find themselves on the run and in need of allies. Their search is a long and arduous one, pushing them all to the limits. On top of this all, Reid and Lou are still managing the new waters of their marriage after secrets on both of their sides have now been revealed. Will they all be able to stand strong together and will they be able to outwit the powerful force amassing against them?

So, that’s a pretty junky book summary that I just wrote. And that’s because…this is a pretty junky book? Seems harsh, but I really am having  a hard time coming up with any positive to say about this book. The problems start right away when I can’t write a good summary of this book because nothing happens in it. And it’s over 500 pages long! Instead of any plot to speak of, it’s made up of angst, drama, out of character actions/thoughts, and the worst case of “middle book syndrome” that I’ve ever seen. Part of the blame for this is, of course, because either the publisher or author (I’m guessing this was pushed by the publisher after the success of the first book) decided to stretch what originally envisioned as a duology into an unnecessary trilogy. And it shows. In a bad, bad way.

There is practically no action in this book until the last 40 pages. It’s just Lou, Reid and the others looking for allies, and with not much success. It’s not so much a story plot as a story plot point…a small one, at that. Definitely not one that justifies this book’s extreme length either. I mean, on one hand, it was always going to be a hard sell changing what was meant to be a duology into a trilogy kind of late in the game. But then to make the now-added middle book into a massively long middle book? The plot can’t support it. The character arcs (if there are any to speak of) can’t support it. It’s just not good storytelling.

The other major problem for me was in in the character arena and the romance. As I pointed out, this book was clearly stretched too thin on plot, and it feels the same with the characters. Their arcs no longer felt natural, but instead each character felt, at best, wildly out of character at times, and at worst, like they had been made into totally unlikable, totally different characters altogether. I struggled with Reid’s likablity in the first book. He was downright unpleasant in this one. His overly protective attitude towards Lou was in no way endearing and was often aggressively sexist in its portrayal. When he wasn’t caught up in that, it was internal angst and indecision all the live long day. Lou was a bit better, but still less likable than she was in the first. For her, much of her “arc,” such as it was, was more confusing than anything. She seemed to lose much of the personality she had in the first book and was at times almost unrecognizable.

To top a bad situation off, the book ends on a massive cliffhanger. And at this point, given how bad the rest of the book had been, this did not have the desired affect of cajoling last minute interest out of me, but instead just pissed me off more. It’s almost as if the publisher/author knew the book on its own wasn’t enough to keep most fans around, so they added this final twist as a last ditch effort. Really, the entire book seems to serve an example of publishing greed gone to far. If it had remained as a duology, with this the second and final portion, I’m sure we would have had a lot more actual plot and a lot less unnecessary character drama. The tone of the entire series could have remained consistent, and fans would have been satisfied. Instead, out of a need to squeeze the last drops out of the golden goose that was the first book, the series was stretched to a breaking point that is now losing fans. At least, they’ve lost me.

Rating 4: Supremely disappointing and barely recognizable as having come from the same author as the first book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blood & Honey” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 YA Sequels” and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2020.”

Find “Blood & Honey” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Wonderland”

52210985Book: “Wonderland” by Zoje Stage

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: If Shirley Jackson wrote The Shining, it might look like this deliciously unsettling horror novel from the acclaimed author of Baby Teeth.

A mother must protect her family from the unnatural forces threatening their new and improved life in a rural farmhouse.

The Bennett family – artist parents and two precocious children – are leaving their familiar urban surroundings for a new home in far upstate New York. They’re an hour from the nearest city, a mile from the nearest house, and everyone has their own room for the very first time. Shaw, the father, even gets his own painting studio, now that he and his wife Orla, a retired dancer, have agreed that it’s his turn to pursue his passion.

But none of the Bennetts expect what lies waiting in the lovely woods, where secrets run dark and deep. Orla must finally find a way to communicate with – not just resist – this unknown entity that is coming to her family, calling to them from the land, in the earth, beneath the trees… and in their minds.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

While usually I am perfectly fine with the winter months (even in Minnesota!), this year I am dreading it. I can handle the cold and the nutty weather, but the thought of having to be cut off from family due to COVID-19 and the inability to comfortably or safely gather outside is going to be very hard. Winter in Minnesota is already isolating in a lot of ways, and this winter it’s going to be incredibly demoralizing. But I tell myself that it could be worse. I could be totally trapped and cut off from the rest of society, and stalked by a mysterious being that wants me and my family for untoward purposes. So I guess that “Wonderland” by Zoje Stage puts some things into perspective! Seems fitting to kick off this year’s Horrorpalooza with a horror story that makes me count my blessings.

Well, horror story may be a little generous for this Gothic dark fantasy, though I do see the elements of it in there glimmering through at least a little bit. For Orla and Shaw Bennett, this new home in a remote cabin in the woods is supposed to be Shaw’s writing haven. Living in Manhattan for years before to support Orla’s dancing career has shifted now to a living situation that Shaw prefers, and his entitlement to his moment in the sun is just the first shade of something being wrong. There are definite shades of “The Shining” with Shaw and his need to stay in this place to get his career going again, even when strange things, like foot upon foot of unseasonable snow showers down and strands them with little supplies and no way out. And as their situation deteriorates, Orla is determined to save her family from whatever it is…. even as her daughter Eleanor Queen is getting closer and closer to the entity that wants them to stay. There are definite pulse pounding dramatics to be had and genuine moments of high stakes and suspense, but honestly “Wonderland” never quite got to the levels of horror or terror that I tend to associate with horror novels (outside of one moment with a bear…. and that’s all I’m going to say). I would classify “Wonderland” as more of a dark fantasy tale than horror, which means that my expectations being dashed soured me a bit to the story.

But genre aside, what really did work about “Wonderland” was both Orla and Eleanor Queen, and the mother-daughter relationship that is highlighted within its pages. Orla has put her family first from the get go, leaving her career behind to support Shaw’s aspirations and to help her children transition to a new, very different, life. Orla has strength within herself, and Eleanor Queen, too, is approaching their situation with her own inner strength. The two of them work together to try and save the family from the dark being that is holding them hostage, and even as they feel like they are losing everything, they always have each other to lean on. Eleanor Queen has a unique insight into what is going on, and she and Orla have a really powerful and touching relationship is just one aspect of this positive representation of the power of ‘female’ driven approaches. Another that really struck me was that once we do find out what exactly is going on, the origin of the conflict is unique in that Orla and Eleanor Queen have grace and empathy that we don’t usually see in stories like this. A lot of the time when supernatural entities are at play, there is some kind of vengeance motivation. “Wonderland” has a different angle. And once again, that is all I’m going to say. Regardless, it works and made the story feel more outside the box. Again, not horror. But dark fantasy to be certain.

“Wonderland” is claustrophobic and engaging, even if it isn’t too scary. But then, isolation is scaring me right now. So maybe I’m not giving it enough horror credit. Regardless, Horrorpalooza has begun, folks. Let’s make it a good one!

Rating 7: A Gothic tale that feels less horror and more mother-daughter examination, “Wonderland” has some interesting moments of dark fantasy…. but not too many scares.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wonderland” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror Novels Written by Women”, and “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “Wonderland” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Silvered Serpents”

45044785Book: “The Silvered Serpents”  by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Séverin and his team members might have successfully thwarted the Fallen House, but victory came at a terrible cost — one that still haunts all of them. Desperate to make amends, Séverin pursues a dangerous lead to find a long lost artifact rumored to grant its possessor the power of God.

Their hunt lures them far from Paris, and into the icy heart of Russia where crystalline ice animals stalk forgotten mansions, broken goddesses carry deadly secrets, and a string of unsolved murders makes the crew question whether an ancient myth is a myth after all.

As hidden secrets come to the light and the ghosts of the past catch up to them, the crew will discover new dimensions of themselves. But what they find out may lead them down paths they never imagined.

A tale of love and betrayal as the crew risks their lives for one last job.

Previously Reviewed: “The Gilded Wolves”

Review: I wasn’t blown away by “The Gilded Wolves,” the first in this YA fantasy trilogy. But as I liked it more than Chokshi’s other books I’ve read and the cast of characters was compelling, I decided to keep going with the series. Well, I have, and…I don’t think I liked this one any better? Maybe worse? And yet I still will probably read the third? I’m not sure what this says about me as a reader or about the trilogy itself. Me, probably a completionist. The trilogy, something about it must be intriguing enough to keep me invested.

Things have kind of fallen apart for our crew after the dramatic events at the end of “The Gilded Wolves.” Each on their own, each has been trying to make their own way in the world, feeling cut-off from the rest. But when a lead on “The Divine Lyrics,” the magical book at the heart of Severin’s (and Laila’s) quest, finally comes to light, Severin brings them back together for one last adventure. Into the heart of the north and through mysteries new and astounding, the crew must once again bring each of their unique skill sets to hand in order to pull of this last job. But, of course, nothing goes as planned and a darker price is waiting than any of them could have imagined.

So, a lot of the problems I had with the first book (and with this author in general) were still present here, unfortunately. There’s something about her style of writing that I struggle with. On one hand, there’s the turns of phrase that seem to be written more because they sound beautiful and poetic rather than the fact they convey any actual image. The titles, for example, of both of these books doesn’t seem to really connect directly to much in the story. But they sure sound pretty! Most of the time it didn’t bother me too much, but there were definitely other times when I would re-read a sentence and be like “Sure…sounds nice…but…what?” And that confusion carries over to my second struggle with the writing.

While the author does a good job with characterization for the most part and clearly has a bunch of unique fantasy ideas. She’s not lacking in imagination on either front. But when it comes to the actual description of locations, objects, and how they interact with each other…it’s just not good. There were entire locations (where the book spent a significant amount of time) that I couldn’t describe to you. There was an entire action scene that was a blur of movement, and by the end, again, I couldn’t tell you what exactly had happened. The writing looks pretty on the front of things, but it too often failed at its most basic requirement: conveying ideas clearly.

I also struggled with the plot itself. The mystery was both at times not clear at all (Severin and his cohort would jump through leaps of logic that were either impossible to follow or just totally unbelievable that anyone would connect those dots). And at other times so bizarrely obvious that I couldn’t be less impressed when AHA! the reveal finally came and Severin and his crew were just oh, so clever for putting it together.

And, sadly, on top of all of this, my favorite part of the first book, the characters, was a let-down here as well. They’re all still interesting enough, but man, this was a glum book. Severin was practically unrecognizable, and his decisions were, again, hard to buy at times. As for the rest, they all seemed to become more and more caught up with unnecessary secret keeping that served no other purpose than to stir up more drama. It was just all kind of sad and tiring.

And yet…I’m probably going to finish out the story. For one thing, this book mostly felt like a place hold and necessary vehicle for the author to get from point A to point B. So while this middle portion of the trip was a let down, I can still be hopeful that it was all to the purpose of getting us somewhere more interesting. I’m not really holding out much hope for the writing to clear up and suddenly become my cup of tea, but I do have hopes that the characters themselves will go interesting places and resolve their own story lines in compelling ways. Fans of the first book are sure to like this one. But if you were on the fence there, you’ll probably have similar feelings here. I leave it to you whether it’s worth going through it based on only the hope of a well-executed landing.

Rating 6: Fairly glum and mired in its own “middle-ness” in the trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Silvered Serpents” is on these Goodreads lists: “Asian MG/YA 2020” and “2020 YA Sequels.”

Find “The Silvered Serpents” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Tea Dragon Tapestry”

51323376Book: “The Tea Dragon Tapestry” by Katie O’Neill

Publishing Info: Oni Press, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Join Greta and Minette once more for the heartwarming conclusion of the award-winning Tea Dragon series!

Over a year since being entrusted with Ginseng’s care, Greta still can’t chase away the cloud of mourning that hangs over the timid Tea Dragon. As she struggles to create something spectacular enough to impress a master blacksmith in search of an apprentice, she questions the true meaning of crafting, and the true meaning of caring for someone in grief. Meanwhile, Minette receives a surprise package from the monastery where she was once training to be a prophetess. Thrown into confusion about her path in life, the shy and reserved Minette finds that the more she opens her heart to others, the more clearly she can see what was always inside.

Told with the same care and charm as the previous installments of the Tea Dragon series, The Tea Dragon Tapestry welcomes old friends and new into a heartfelt story of purpose, love, and growth.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this graphic novel!

I don’t know if not being at work has made my advanced knowledge of titles a little rusty or what, but when I was perusing NetGalley for a new batch of books I saw that Katie O’Neill had written a new “Tea Dragon” book that I hadn’t heard of. So I of course immediately accessed it, counting my luck stars that once again we were going to join Greta, Minette, Hesekiel, and Erik, and all of their adorable Tea Dragons.

And then I found out that it was the last story in the series.

giphy-7
How can this possibly be the end? HOW? (source)

“The Tea Dragon Tapestry” takes us back to the characters in “The Tea Dragon Society”, as we are reunited with blacksmith Greta, tea shop apprentice Minette, tea shop owners Hesekiel and Erik, and the always adorable Tea Dragons. Everyone is a bit older, and now Greta and Minette are starting to wonder about their places in the world and what they are going to do next with their lives. All the while, the Ginseng Tea Dragon that has ended up in Greta’s care after its owner passed away hasn’t been flourishing, and Greta is worried that she will never be able to bond with it. So right off the bat, identity and grief are presented as the themes of this book. O’Neill has a real gift for taking on heavy topics and making them feel digestable and gentle for the reader, and no matter how much anxiety or conflict a character may be feeling, you never get the sense that things are going to turn out badly for anyone. While this may come off as a lack of conflict and therefore a lack of investable plot, I actually really liked the calm atmosphere of this book. I also liked that there were moments dedicated to addressing the grief of the Ginseng Tea Dragon, and that grief is natural and doesn’t have to abide by timelines, nor does it mean that a person (or Tea Dragon) is broken. It was a great way to teach the young reader demographic potentially reading this (as this is generally a Middle Grade series) that when someone you care about is dealing with it, just being there is better than trying to find a fix so YOU feel better. Important lessons that even lots of adults don’t quite get, so I loved seeing it here.

Along with some great themes, revisiting characters from both “The Tea Dragon Society” and “The Tea Dragon Festival” was such a joy. O’Neill ties the two stories together and finally brings all of the characters to one place, with Rinn and Aedhan visiting Erik and interacting with Greta and Minette, and helping them with their self reflection. It was delightful seeing Rinn all grown up, and seeing her relationship with Aedhan and how it has changed and progressed. And even with the treat of familiar faces, O’Neill still manages to bring in some new characters, and lets us get to know them and learn to love them just as much as the old. I was particularly taken with Ginseng Tea Dragon, as it had a different, and just as valid, personality to some of it’s compatriots. New favorite Tea Dragon? Very possibly.

But it’s hard to choose, of course, because the Tea Dragons REMAIN EVER SO CUTE!! The design of this story is the same unique imagery that O’Neill has had for her previous books, and I still love it and how sweet and dreamy it is. The simplicity and bright and vibrant colors really bring out such joy and bring the story to life.

Screen Shot 2020-07-30 at 2.46.44 PM
Source: Oni Press

While I am not ready to say goodbye to the charming and wonderful characters of this series, “The Tea Garden Tapestry” gives it the best kind of send off I could have hoped for. I am very interested in seeing what Katie O’Neill does next now that she’s leaving her Tea Dragons and those who care for them.

Rating 8: A heartwarming and sweet conclusion to a series that I have come to associate with kindness and tranquility, “The Tea Dragon Tapestry” gives us one more adventure with Greta, Minette, and all the Tea Dragons.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Tea Dragon Tapestry” is included on the Goodreads lists “Fantasy Fiber Fiction”, and “2020 YA Books with LGBT Themes”.

Find “The Tea Dragon Tapestry” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Not Just Books: September 2020

While we do love us some books, believe it not, we do have a life outside of reading. So to highlight our other pop culture interests, on the last Monday of each month, we each will highlight three other “happenings” from the last month. Big events on favorite TV shows, new movies we’ve watched, old movies we’ve “discovered,” etc. Pretty much whatever we found of particular interest outside of the book world during the last month. Share your own favorite things in the comments!

Serena’s Picks

TV Show: “Lucifer” Season 5

After many Covid-related delays, the first half of “Lucifer” season 5 dropped in late August. I think it probably took me like two days to binge it? In most ways, it’s everything one would expect, which is both good and bad. The cast is, of course, still excellent and the show doesn’t hesitate to lean into the silliness of its own concept. However, the longer it has been on Netflix and the more it has dived into its own supernatural storylines, the aggressively episodic approach to much of its storytelling seems to feel more and more out of touch with where the show itself wants to go. Maybe part of that feeling has to do with the fact that season 5 has been split into two parts which further weakens the serialized elements that are present. I think the second half is set to come out sometime in early 2021, so we’ll see how that plays out. I’m still enjoying the heck out of this, either way.

Video Game: “The Witcher III: Wild Hunt”

Perhaps foolishly, I decided recently that I needed a new video game to immerse myself in. I’d already played through “Skyrim” a few times and with the sequel seemingly stuck in development for….forever, I turned to another super popular fantasy franchise. I still haven’t gotten around to watching the Netflix show for this game/book series, though my love of Henry Cavil is never-ending. So it will be interesting to play this game through and then compare it to that show whenever I do get around to it. I’m still barely into the main plot line, but I’m enjoying the familiar-feeling open world concept and so far the plot and dialogue have been interesting and engaging. I’m now mostly feeling guilty for starting this without my husband…

Movie: “The American President”

So, politics…yeah, they’ve been a thing. And whenever I feel like I’m beginning to become overwhelmed with pessimism regarding politics, my go-to is usually a re-watch of “The West Wing.” But at 7 seasons long, that’s quite the commitment, so this time around I turned instead to its predecessor and inspiration: “The American President.” Re-watching this movie, it’s so clear the connections between these two. Mostly, it’s the clever dialogue and the supremely idealistic imaging of what politics, and the White House in general, could be. The lovely romance at its heart is pretty swell, too.

Kate’s Picks

Movie: “Bill and Ted Face The Music”

I have been a huge, huge, HUGE “Bill and Ted” fan ever since I was about six years old and saw “Excellent Adventure” randomly. When I found out that they were going to make a third one with Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter coming back to play their roles of Ted and Bill, I was ecstatic that I would finally be able to see a “Bill and Ted” movie in the theater!!…. And then COVID found another way to ruin something. But I went for the VOD option at my house, and my gosh, it was everything I needed. In this long awaited third film, Bill and Ted are now middle aged, and still haven’t written the song that is supposed to bring synchronicity to the universe. When Rufus’s daughter Kelly comes to tell them that they need to do it now, they start a new time traveling adventure… But along with that, their daughters Billie and Thea go on their OWN adventure through times in hopes of helping their dads. It’s sweet, it’s wholesome, it’s everything 2020 needs to make it a little gentler. And yes…. The Grim Reaper is back.

Netflix Show: “Cobra Kai”

So I watched the first few episodes of “Cobra Kai” when it premiered on YouTube a few years ago, but couldn’t justify getting YouTube Red to finish out the series. Which pained me, because I loved the continuing stories of “Karate Kid” characters Johnny and Daniel. So when I found out that Netflix got the rights to it, I was ECSTATIC. “Cobra Kai”, as I’ve mentioned on here before, follows Johnny, the bully from “Karate Kid” whose life hasn’t really gone very far, and his journey to reopen the Cobra Kai karate studio, this time attracting misfits and weirdos. Daniel, the hero from the movies, is living a GREAT life now… but is stuck in the past. When they meet up again, old rivalries start up once more. What I love most about this show is William Zabka’s new take on Johnny, and showing how a lot of his worst characteristics are and were the result of serious childhood traumas and baggage. Plus, this show is wildly funny, and the new karate students, especially the sweetheart Miguel, are charming as hell.

TV Show: “The Vow”

Will I ever get enough NXIVM content? It seems that I won’t, because even though I’ve listened to podcasts and read books about the cult, I am now obsessed with the HBO docuseries about it. “The Vow” has actual footage from the likes of Keith Raniere and his creepy minions in action, and follows former members who had deep ties to the group until they started to realize that something was very, very wrong. The most interesting aspect of this is that the footage is something you wouldn’t expect from an expose like this, but the people who made it had been documenting the group and its members before everything hit the fan and Raniere, Alison Mack, Nancy Salzman, and others were arrested for sex trafficking. It’s super interesting being able to see these primary source interviews of some very manipulative and dangerous people.

My Year with Jane Austen: “Mansfield Park” [2007]

Movie: “Mansfield Park”

Release Year: 2007

Actors: Fanny – Billie Piper

Edmund – Blake Ritson

Mary Crawford – Haley Atwell

Henry Crawford – Joseph Beattie

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

For all my complaints about the 1999 version of this story, there’s a reason I’ve seen that one a decent number of times while this is only my second viewing of this version. Sure it’s free of some of the truly upsetting changes that the 1999 version made, but it also feels strangely dull and heartless, nothing something you ever want to see from an Austen adaptation.

With the exception of Haley Atwell, I think most of the casting is wrong is film. Or, at the very least, worse than the 1999 version’s cast. There is very little chemistry between any and all of the characters up to and including our main romantic pair. Atwell, alone, manages to have good chemistry with most of those she works alongside. The rest seem to be largely working alongside each other rather than directly with one another. It’s hard to buy into any of the relationships we’re being presented with, let alone become terribly invested.

I also think the overall tone of the movie is working against our main characters. Fanny and Edmund are both serious characters. But the movie insists on making them run around and frolic like children. The grand ball scene becomes a capering picnic. And the final romantic climax is marred by our two love birds chasing each other around like little kids. There’s just something off about the whole thing that never allows the movie to feel like it has settled into what it wants to be.

It, too, changes aspects of the original story, most notably cutting out the entire Portsmouth scene (to save money on actors and locations??). This single change alone I think hurts the movie quite a lot. And strangely, like I said, that while the 1999 version arguably made bigger (and often worse) changes, the smaller, seemingly less offensive, changes made here somehow make this movie, as a whole, less engaging. Even while remaining more true to the book in many ways (the inclusion of Fanny’s brother William, for example), I would say this movie fails just as much as an adaptation of Austen’s work. And, when given the choice, I’ll still watch the 1999 version before this.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

I really don’t love this version of Fanny Price. Full disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of Billie Piper at the best of times, but I don’t think it’s just her acting that I don’t like here. Like the previous version of “Mansfield Park,” this one takes a similar route with Fanny by making her much more exuberant. Even more so, I’d say. We have multiple scenes of her running around through the house, chasing a dog around, playing with children. I’m sure it’s supposed to emphasize her innocence, but combined with her hair styling (loose hair is only for very young girls in this time period), all it does is serve to make Fanny seem overly child-like herself.

Other changes, like re-imagining the ball as a picnic do nothing to help with this perception. No lovely, noble dance scenes, but instead, again, children’s yard games that do nothing to help Fanny’s coming across as little girl-ish. I also don’t like the change of having her remain at Mansfield Park by herself rather than go to Portsmouth. By removing this contrast of settings, we’re left with even less to highlight the truly well-bred refinement of Fanny that is supposed to be hiding beneath her quiet nature. And, of course, the final “romantic” scene that has her and Edmund chasing each other around the house…like children.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I have a bit of a “chicken or the egg” issue with Blake Ritson’s version of Edmund. I saw the 2009 “Emma” where he plays the sleazy Mr. Elton before I saw this one, so that impression was firmly in my mind the first time I saw this movie. But, on the other hand, he was cast into that role very shortly after portraying Edmund in this film in 2007. So obviously someone else saw his performance here and thought “Eh, maybe not romantic hero material…but this kind of slimy character? Perfect!”

Edmund as a character is always a tough role. His morality can come across as patronizing and preachy. He falls for the obviously wrong woman and spends most of his time with his head in the sand. And then the book itself does very little to show him coming to his sense, so any adaptation is left almost entirely on its own for how to navigate this transition.

Unfortunately for him, Ritson also had to go up against Miller’s version of the character from the 1999 movie, one of the few aspects of that movie that most fans agree was solidly good. And I just don’t think Ritson was up to the task. He’s very hard to take seriously and often comes across more as a caricature of a gentleman than anything else. Him, also, running around after Fanny during the big “romantic” scene doesn’t help this version of Edmund’s character be taken seriously.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

I really like Haley Atwell’s version of Mary Crawford. She has a natural easy charm that makes it much easier to buy into Edmund’s blind infatuation with her. She’s beautiful, but also brings a different type of warmth to the character that makes her very engaging. If anything, it’s almost a bit harder to see faults in this version of Mary than in others. For one thing, when Henry Crawford approaches her about his plans to woo Fanny, this Mary seems to be much more earnestly concerned for Fanny’s welfare, which endears her more to viewers.

Henry Crawford is also well-cast, having that roguish and somewhat wild look that appeals to certain women. It’s easy to see why flags go up for Fanny, and this version doesn’t hesitate from pushing the Crawford/Maria romance to its extremes, having them actually make out while practicing for the play, almost being caught by Rushworth and Julia. Again, however, the decision to have Fanny simply stay on at Mansfield Park instead of making her trip to Portsmouth doesn’t serve the story well. Crawford showing up here has much less impact that it did having him show up on the poor doorstep of Fanny’s original family. If anything, it’s even easier to see why Fanny would be unmoved by all of this. She doesn’t have the comparison of Mansfield and Portsmouth that Sir Walter mentions when hatching a plan to urge her towards Crawford in both the book and the 1999 version of the movie. Her just being lonely at Mansfield doesn’t seem like it would at all serve the same purpose. Given how little many of the family members pay attention to her anyways (and when they do, it’s just to give her orders, so in some lights, this is almost a vacation for her), it’s hard to think that the lack of “society” is really all that much for a young woman who stayed home much of the time anyways. And then, what’s more, Fanny doesn’t have an opportunity to see Crawford at his best when he’s behaving so nicely to her often rude and uncouth family in Portsmouth. Altogether, it’s no wonder she doesn’t waver here.

The biggest miss as far as villains go, however, is Mrs. Norris. This version of the character is all over the place and the movie never seems to really settle on what aspect of her personality it wants to highlight. It’s never clear exactly what her motives are, why she says/does what she says/does, or what her problem with Fanny is in the first place. Obviously, the book has plenty of time to flesh out her character, but even the 1999 version of the story was able to provide a clear image of who Mrs. Norris is. Here, she just kind of flits in and out of scenes and makes an odd comment here or there. Without having the book as a mental reference, I’m not sure if the casual viewer would have any idea what to make of her.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

Shocking no one, as I’ve already referenced it in both the heroine and hero sections, I don’t love the romance in this movie. I don’t think that Piper and Ritson had very good chemistry. In fact, I think they almost worked against each other in some ways. Unlike the 1999 version of this story, this movie doesn’t put nearly as much effort into establishing Edmund’s underlying feelings for Fanny. I think Jonny Lee Miller was much better at some of the smaller, more subtle facial expressions that indicated interest in Fanny along the way. And the screenplay itself wrote in more opportunities for this relationship to be brought forward. Not having a grand ball scene really doesn’t help this. I can’t remember where I read this, but some commentator once noted that the ball scenes were almost like the sex scenes for Austen romances, often the pinnacle and brimming over point for building up these relationships.

And, I really can’t express this enough…I hated, hated, the whole running after one another scene as the grand finale of this romance. It’s just so silly and juvenile. Any romantic tone is completely undercut, and it just feels anticlimactic. There is a fairly big change to Lady Bertram’s character in this scene, as she is instrumental in getting Fanny and Edmund alone, and then notes to Sir Walter that Fanny’s always been in love with Edmund and it looks like he finally noticed. There’s obviously no hint of this type of perception in the book version of the character, but it’s the kind of funny little change that I didn’t mind in this movie. If anything, it felt more “Austen-like” than anything else in this last scene. So, with everything else, I’ll take it.

It’s only a small thing, but I do like the inclusion of Fanny and Edmund waltzing at the end of this movie. It’s one of those small, throw-away moments that will appeal to history fans who will recognize that this type of dancing was just coming onto the scene around this time. It’s a nice little wink of the eye.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

The comedy is always the challenge for this story. The book itself is probably the least comical of all of Austen’s works and the adaptations have to come to their own decisions about what to do with a leading lady who is so aggressively earnest, quiet, and good-natured that the thought of her cracking jokes is almost unheard of. The 1999 version did a fairly decent job of getting some humor in for Fanny, but, of course, that version was also way off base with much of Fanny’s characterization (as far as it resembling the character in the book, at least) so it’s no wonder that they could make this practically original heroine funny on top of the rest. Here, Fanny is more in line with the book version, but also just more dull.

The loss of Mrs. Norris is pretty huge here. The other movie used her for comedy to great success, even if it was the “love to hate” kind of comedy. But she’s such a non-presence here that the same can’t be said. The Crawfords, too, with their limited screen time, don’t have much humor. Rushworth is still good, of course, but he also doesn’t capture the screen the same way that the previous Rushworth did. I have a harder time even remembering anything distinctive about this version where I can point to several instances of laughs from the 1999 version of the character.

Overall, the movie feels fairly joyless, for all that they’re trying to make some grand point of Fanny’s child-like wonder of life with her constant frolicking.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Really not much here, other than the usual costume connections between many of these Austen adaptations.

The actress who plays young Fanny also played a younger version of Billie Piper character in “Doctor Who.”

And, speaking of “Doctor Who,” a whole host of actors from this film have made appearances in the long-running show, including Billie Piper, Julia Joyce, Michelle Ryan and Jemma Redgrave.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

This is the big moment where Edmund realizes his love for Fanny…about sums it up, I think. *snores*

In two weeks, I’ll review “Northanger Abbey.”

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists”

25101Book: “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists” by Neil Gaiman, Matt Wagner (Ill.), George Pratt (Ill.), Dick Giordano (Ill.), Kelley Jones (Ill.), P. Craig Russell (Ill.), Mike Dringenberg (Ill.), & Malcolm Jones III (Ill.).

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1991

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Ten thousand years ago, Morpheus condemned a woman who loved him to Hell. Now the other members of his immortal family, The Endless, have convinced the Dream King that this was an injustice. To make it right, Morpheus must return to Hell to rescue his banished love — and Hell’s ruler, the fallen angel Lucifer, has already sworn to destroy him.

Review: Up until this point, “The Sandman” has been a combination of vignettes, massive world building, and showing how Morpheus/Dream is adjusting to trying to rebuild The Dreaming after his captivity. I think that it’s safe to say, however, that we don’t really know THAT MUCH about Morpheus as a character in terms of his wants, desires, and personality. He’s a deity of sorts. He’s a bit grumpy. He can be vengeful, or merciful. But in “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists”, we finally get to see him grapple with some very tough decisions, as well as having to look inwards and grapple with his own demons and mistakes. After a meeting with the other Endless, aka his siblings, Morpheus is taken to task by Death for banishing his former lover Nada to Hell after she refused to marry him and rule The Dreaming by his side. Realizing that he did something reprehensible, he decides to go to Hell, confront Lucifer Morningstar, and see if he can set her free. You think that the story you’re about to read is going to be a great battle between two powerful beings, and that it’s going to be a focus on the big fight between the two to save Nada.

But instead, when Dream arrives to confront Lucifer…. Lucifer quits his mantle as the ruler of Hell, and tells Dream that he is now responsible for what happens next to his former kingdom.

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Lucifer as he peaces out. (source)

So in a great twist and subversion, now Dream has to hold court to those who would want to take Hell over, and The Dreaming becomes host to Gods, Goddesses, Deities, Demons, and others who all think that they should get this prime real estate. Frankly, I loved that this was the main conflict. Seeing Morpheus have to bring all of these beings into his home and to let them say their piece, and then have to do some critical thinking about the pros and cons of giving one of them Hell (through sucking up, threats, or bribes no less), was such a fascinating turn of events. We get to see Gods from various mythologies come in, from Odin to Anubis to Bast to Susanoo-no-mikoto, Gaiman gives all of them a reason to want Hell for themselves. It also gives Dream time to think about what kind of terrible fate he left Nada to. That was actually the greatest weakness of this arc, in that things with Dream and Nada is almost resolved too quickly and easily. I liked seeing Death read Dream the Riot Act about how AWFUL he was to her. It doesn’t sit as well these days for MANY reasons (given that she was also of African royalty, so seeing Morpheus subjugate a Black woman just feels all the more tone deaf and problematic). But over all, I really liked this entire arc, and feel that this is where “The Sandman” has finally become it’s own thing, even more so than “The Doll’s House”.

But more significant for me within the whole of “The Sandman” mythos and universe is that this is the collection in which we finally get to meet Delirium, the youngest Endless and my number one favorite character in this series. Sure I’ve sang the praises of Death, and while she is my number two gal, Delirium holds the key to my heart. I love her so much that in 2015 I was her for Halloween.

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Not many people at my party got it, but those who did were LIVING. 

Along with the intros of Delirium and Destiny, we get to see the Endless interacting with each other, and seeing the power dynamics, as well as hints towards a missing Endless, but more on that in later collections. They are definitely dysfunctional, but you at least get the feeling that they, mostly, care for each other, as well as otherworldly godlike beings can (though Dream seems to have no love for Desire, which is fair as Desire is the wooooorst in many ways). This extended scene felt natural and was incredibly charming.

As I’m sure you noticed above, there are SO MANY illustrators with this arc, and they all added something unique to each story. But once again my favorite is the one that deals with the Endless, with illustrations by Dringenberg and Jones. The dreamy details of the Endless as they confer and debate really made me feel like I was in a strange place between worlds.

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(source)

Rating 9: A fascinating and twisted (yet also somewhat lighthearted) storyline that brings together many myths and legends, “Season of Mists” gives Morpheus a lot to think about in terms of fairness, and his own culpability in monstrous acts. We also meet my favorite character in the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists” is included on the Goodreads lists “Great Non-Super Hero Graphic Novels”, and “Mythic Fiction Comics”,

Find “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: 

Serena’s Review: “A Deadly Education”

50548197._sy475_Book: “A Deadly Education” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Learning has never been this deadly

“A Deadly Education” is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere. El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

Review: Naomi Novik has quickly become a must-read author for me. After this book, she’s pretty much a must-buy author (I only have maybe 5 of those, so that says something, I think!). But, still, when requesting this book, what I’d read from her had been both of her fairytale retellings and the first several of her Napoleonic wars/dragon historical fantasy series. This didn’t sound remotely like either of those, instead being billed as a modern, more grim, “Harry Potter” style boarding school story. But man, Novik can do anything, and my trust is now fully earned, no matter how strange the book description is!

Scholomance is technically a school. There are no teachers and students are on their own to make classes and finish homework, sure. But that’s only half, and arguably the less important half, of what this school provides. Instead, it offers magical kids the best chance they have of surviving their juvenile years. Sure, their odds are still pretty darn bad in the school, but better than the next to nothing they have outside. El’s chances have been even worse from the start. Yeah, she has the raw power, but she seems to repel people for some reason. And in a place where forming alliances is a necessary survival tactic, that’s not good. But here, in her second to last year at the school, staring down the barrel of a final year full of even more likely death, El begins to uncover secrets about not only the school, but herself, and the boy who has been roaming around annoyingly playing savior to all this entire time.

I adored everything about this book, so it’s kind of hard to think of where to start when reviewing it. It’s also so totally unique, interesting, and complicated that it’s hard to find the middle ground between reviewing important aspects of the story and not spoiling the fun for new readers. There’s just so much good stuff to unpack!

I guess I’ll start with the world-building itself. The book description has a tough job trying to describe what Scholomance really is, and, as you can see, I probably struggled too in my own summary. That’s because it’s so complicated and well-constructed that it’s almost impossible to really give a broad overview. Novik seems to have thought out every intricate detail for this magical place, from how the cafeteria works, to the menacing library, to the simplest of things, like how the school assigns and monitors homework and what happens if students fall behind. And it’s all just so creative! I can’t think of a single other fantasy story that has anything like the place Novik has thought up here. And that’s saying something, I think, in a genre that is becoming more crowded by the day (especially YA that has a tendency to become trope-ridden and bogged down in certain themes every few years).

One of the most impressive aspects of all of this that, being as complicated and detailed as it all is, our narrator is given a heavy load of information to be handing off to readers. There’s a significant portion of the first half of the book that is largely devoted to detailing all of these little aspects. It would have been so easy for it to have felt like info-dumping or to have dragged down the pacing and plot of the story. But, for one thing, the information being provided is just too interesting on its own to feel bored by. And secondly, our narrator had a fantastic voice from the start that is strong enough to carry this type of detail-ridden load.

El is everything I like in a narrator: snarky, consistently characterized, yet vulnerable in ways that we (and she) discover throughout the story. From the book description, I was kind of expecting some type of tired anti-hero story or quasi-villain plot line for her, but it’s really nothing like that. Sure, her powers are destructive and there’s this pesky doomsday-esque prophesy lingering around her, but she’s just as skeptical of all that nonsense as the reader wants to be. El’s story, here, is not only finding acceptance with some key friends around her, but in accepting what she has to offer. On one hand, she can be overly confident, but on the other, we see her realize her own values and where her personal lines are between survival and standing up for some moral greater good.

And to balance her out, of course, we have a “Chosen One.” This friendship was everything! Both El and Orion’s characters play perfectly off each other. She, stand-offish, uninterested, and, again, snarky. He, bumbling, clueless of his affect on people, and obnoxiously heroic. I loved everything about this friendship and the slow build to sort of romance that it comes to towards the end.

It’s also clear, here, where the comparisons to “Harry Potter” are coming from. Orion Lake is definitely a response to Harry Potter and all of the other “chosen” heroes we see in fantasy fiction. Novik has said that “Spinning Silver” was essentially her “yelling” at the “Rumpelstiltskin” fairytale, and that this would be her yelling at “Harry Potter.” Comparisons to “Harry Potter always make me nervous. For one thing, I love Harry Potter so, for me, a book being compared to it is either going to be a massive let-down of trying to copy something that shouldn’t be copied. Or it’s going to be some type of “response” piece that spends more time criticizing another book series than in being its own thing. Luckily, this falls right in the middle and does it perfectly.

You can definitely see where Novik is making a point about the type of “chosen one” story that Harry Potter tells, but, while she does touch on some of the obvious themes, she also deep dives into a lot of aspects of this type of storyline that one doesn’t often think about. There’s a strong focus on inequality and injustice, but it’s approached through angles and perspectives that are unique to this world. The themes, of course, carry over, but it stays true to the fantasy world it is and the types of justice and injustice that would be inherent to it. It’s left to the reader to transcribe these thoughts onto our own world and our own experiences of injustice within society.

This review has already gotten pretty long, and I could go on and on. But, in this case, I almost feel like the less said the better! There’s so much great stuff to discover here that I don’t want to spoil any more of it! Needless to be said, my copy is already pre-ordered, and I highly recommend any and all fantasy fans to get their hands on this book ASAP!

Rating 10:Breaking fantasy walls that I didn’t know even exited! Simply fantastic!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Deadly Education” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “Non JKR Magic School Novels.”

Find “A Deadly Education” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder”

45874065Book: “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Everyone in Fairview knows the story.

Pretty and popular high school senior Andie Bell was murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh, who then killed himself. It was all anyone could talk about. And five years later, Pip sees how the tragedy still haunts her town.

But she can’t shake the feeling that there was more to what happened that day. She knew Sal when she was a child, and he was always so kind to her. How could he possibly have been a killer?

Now a senior herself, Pip decides to reexamine the closed case for her final project, at first just to cast doubt on the original investigation. But soon she discovers a trail of dark secrets that might actually prove Sal innocent . . . and the line between past and present begins to blur. Someone in Fairview doesn’t want Pip digging around for answers, and now her own life might be in danger.

This is the story of an investigation turned obsession, full of twists and turns and with an ending you’ll never expect.

Review: Back when we were a COVID-free world and the thought of going shopping in person didn’t give me hives, my Mom and I went to Barnes and Noble on a trip to the Mall of America. I always like to check what the YA display has, because even though I know it will usually be heavy on the fantasy and romance, you can also find some gems of teen thrillers. That was how I initially learned about “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson. I let it be, but the name stuck in my head enough that when quarantine happened about a month later I had the title of a book I wanted to order. It still took a little time to get to it, but I finally picked it up and gave it a go…. and kicked myself for waiting to start it as long as I did.

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” has all the elements that I want in any kind of thriller, let alone a teen one. The protagonist is interesting and well fleshed out, for one thing. Pippa is the kind of teenage girl I probably wished I was at the time. She’s clever, she’s funny, and her true crime obsession, one true crime in particular, is a fun nod to all true crime enthusiasts everywhere. But on top of all of those things, she is by no means perfect, but not in the obvious ways that some thriller heroines go. She has a well adjusted home life, she has healthy friendships and relationships, and she isn’t drowning in her own dysfunction. You like her almost immediately, and even when she does sometimes do dumb things (like most teenagers probably would on occasion), they are believable. And it isn’t just Pip that is enjoyable as a character. Her friends are all fun with witty and snappy personalities, and her partner in investigating, Ravi, is incredibly likable along with being a little bit tragic. Ravi is the younger brother of Sal, the boy who everyone assumes murdered Andie but who ended up dead before he could be charged (supposedly by his own hand). Not only does Ravi’s involvement make Pip’s endeavor all the more personal and high stakes, it also makes it feel more ‘legitimate’ as opposed to just a random girl not really connected to a tragedy sticking her nose in it because of a quirky true crime obsession. Jackson also makes note of racism within police investigations and media coverage, as Sal, being Indian American, was immediately accepted as the murderer because of racist ideas about his culture and how women fit into it, in spite of a few big inconsistencies. Ravi, too, doesn’t have the same privileges as Pip does as they investigate, and Jackson definitely makes certain to address these things when Pip needs to be educated on them. I thought that was a good theme throughout this novel.

And on top of likable characters, we also get a VERY stellar, complex, but not overwrought mystery at hand. We get to see Pippa approach it through her perspective in a few different ways, be it through the narrative itself, her log entries for her capstone project, or the notes that she has taken about the case. The clues are all there, and while I admit that I kind of figured out one of the big aspects to the case pretty early on, Jackson throws in enough believable red herrings that I did end up doubting myself. It’s a classic whodunnit with a lot of people who would have reason and motive, and then you add in ANOTHER layer with a mystery person starting to threaten Pip as she gets closer and closer to finding out the truth about what happened to Andie. There are well executed moments of legitimate tension, and you do really start to worry about Pip as she starts to unearth long kept secrets and lies. This is the kind of suspense you really want in a thriller, and Jackson is able to maintain it throughout the story, though there are a good number of moments of levity sprinkled in. Just to give the reader a break in the tension here and there. I was hooked, and basically read it in the course of two days, foregoing other forms of entertainment until I was done. Yeah, it’s VERY fun.

And the best part is that a sequel is coming out next Spring here in the States.

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Between this and the hope of a potential vaccine, Spring 2021 is looking PRETTY good! (source)

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” is a great read and a hell of a lot of fun! Shame on me for sleeping on it for so long! Thriller fans, do yourself a favor and go read this book!

Rating 9: Incredibly fun, properly twisty, and a very impressive debut novel, “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” gave me everything I want in my YA thrillers, and more.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries”, and “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2020”.

Find “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!