Death Shall Have No Dominion: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson


The Madness Underneath

Shades of London 2

Maureen Johnson

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Review by Tessa


Rory Deveaux, transplanted private schooler, ghost-interacter-and-destroyer

Stephen Dene, head of the secret ghost division of the London Police

Callum & Boo, the other two members of the secret police squad

Jazza, Jeremy & Charlotte – school friend, boyfriend, and frenemy

Jane – a mysterious and almost supernaturally calming therapist who provides her services for free


The Ripper-emulating ghost re-terrorizing London has been destroyed, but not without weird consequences.


In The Name of the Star, Rory learns that the world is a little different than the normal world we all live in. It’s still normal, but some people can see and interact with ghosts–as long as you have the natural inclination and add a near-death experience into the equation.

Rory’s a fish out of water, being a ghost-seer, and a fish out of water, being a Louisiana native trying to hack it in a London boarding school for her senior year. Her snarky sense of humor helps her deal with all the weirdness being thrown her way, as well as her natural curiosity. Occasional drama-free makeout sessions don’t hurt, either.


However, the situation of figuring out the ghost-mystery-murders almost seems easier than the situation of picking herself up in the aftermath of the murders. Rory is failing school after spending time with a therapist and her parents in Bristol. She’s now a human terminus – her touch destroys ghosts – and the police want to use her as a clean-up tool for London’s ghostly lurkers, since the original diamonds used for the purpose went kaput. But she doesn’t know how she feels about being the post-Grim Reaper Reaper. Worst of all, she can’t confide in her friends, her boyfriend, or her parents about what’s really going on in her life.

On top of it all, the ghosts around London, especially around Rory’s school, are upping the ante on being angry and causing bloodshed. Rory thinks it might have something to do with what the area used to house, who was buried there, and maybe the crack that opened up in the earth when the faux-Ripper got terminated.

Then she’s fortuitously led to a laid-back, rich woman named Jane who’s been helping stuck-up Charlotte deal with her own Ripper trauma. Jane practices for free, always has brownies to offer Rory, and finally Rory can almost relax. Or should she?

Does this book live up to its intentions?

Johnson writes delicious hook-y adventures and her sense of humor is one that I enjoy. The Madness Underneath has all of these qualities and some shivery moments, too.  I admired Rory’s feistiness in the face of depression and loved getting back to the foggy, twisty streets of her neighborhood.  Johnson is very good at writing place – enough detail but not too much – and I could effortlessly picture where Rory was going (even if I can’t stop picturing Rory as Alexis Bledel).

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

The Madness Underneath definitely a second novel in a series of more than two books. Rory’s in transition and trying desperately to ignore that she might be in free fall. She tries to be normal but her life is breaking into some pretty clear paths. She has to decide what she wants and why, from boyfriends to future career plans. But there doesn’t seem to be space to think.

If anything, the book moves too fast, and, like The Name of the Star, drops off at a really crucial moment. The mystery that starts the book gets solved pretty quickly by Rory and the ghost squad, and then just as quickly is subsumed in a new, bigger mystery with sinister implications – really intriguing, culty, conspiratorial ones.

Then Johnson jabs us with two big knocks of the Plot Fist and closes the book. It happens so fast I don’t even know what I think of those developments yet.

Maybe I should’ve waited another year or so to read 2 & 3 in succession.


Want more ghost-exploring?

Try Karina Halle!

Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

For the same traveling-in-a-new-place-and-discovering-otherworldy-things feel, try these:

Witch Eyes

Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs


A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray


The Diviners by Libba Bray

possessed   Consumed
Possessed / Consumed by Kate Cann


If a Skippy Dies in a Doughnut House, does he make ripples in the multiverse?


review by Tessa

Skippy Dies
Paul Murray
Faber & Faber 2010

Warning: this review contains so many quotes. Here’s the first one as an epigraph.:

“You know, you spend your childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see there will one day happen to you: that you too will win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone ‘Give me the gun’, etc. Then you start secondary school, and suddenly everyone’s asking you about your career plans and your long-term goals, and by goals they don’t mean the kind you are planning to score in the FA Cup. Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg — that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride you’d imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing the dishes, going to the dentists, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life’.” (25)


Daniel “Skippy” Juster – Sure, he dies, but there’s so much more to him.
Ruprecht “Blowjob” Van Doren – Skippy’s roommate and string theory obsessor.
Lori Wakeham (Frisbee Girl, Lollipop Lips) – trying to figure out what she wants in life and how to get it while also being the object of two boys’ fantasies.
Carl Cullen – I believe if you saw Carl he would have what is known as a flat affect – also cut up arms, a serious obsession with Lori Wakeham, and not enough EQ to know what to do with that obsession even if it were returned.
Geoff, Mario, Niall & Dennis – the main core of Skippy’s friends.

Howard “the Coward” Fallon – haunted by his past, and sort of stuck there, too – he’s teaching history at the school he attended
Farley – friend of Howard, a sometime instigator and sometime voice of reason
Aurelie McIntyre- businesswoman turned substitute geography teacher, incidentally she’s pretty good-looking, just kidding, that’s not really incidental
Greg “the Automator” Costigan – really wants to bring the modern money into the school, and really wants the school’s current Director to quietly die and let him take over.
Father Green (Pére Vert) – archetypal scary priest

Pagan Influence
The White Goddess – something different to everyone, but relevant to all.


If a Skippy dies in Ed’s Doughnut House, does he make a sound (in the sense of being remembered by his friends, family and loved ones)?

an irish door from flickr user infomatique - it's in the town of Black Rock.

an irish door from flickr user infomatique – it’s in the town of Black Rock.


Farley says:

“‘This is Biology. These kids are fourteen. Biology courses through their veins. Biology and marketing. …They want to hear it from an adult. …They want to hear it confirmed officially that for all our talk, the adult world and their subterranean sex-obsessed porno-world are basically the same, and no matter what else we try to teach them about kings or molecules or trade models or whatever, civilization ultimately boils down to the same frenzied attempt to hump people. That the world, in short, is teenaged.’” (63).

I say: This in-depth look at the lead-up to and fallout from the titular event, centered around an Irish Catholic school is concerned with how the world is for teenagers, and how it looks to adults working with teenagers, and how it is the same and different for both sets of people. And the nature of time and memory and how that makes history, and if human lives are unimportant or important within that gigantic concept.

by flickr user Cindy Funk

by flickr user Cindy Funk

What is this book’s intention? Is it achieved?

I’m going to answer the second question first: yes.

And as for intention, it’s better rendered in questions. So, Skippy dies. Why does he die? Is there a reason? How does it make his friends feel? How is it seen by the adults who came into contact with him? How did he see it?  Etc. The book serves to explore these questions and more (see previous paragraph).

I don’t really want to describe the mechanics of the plot because they will sound falsely mundane.

On the flap copy, I’m guessing much to the author’s chagrin, Skippy Dies is compared to Harry Potter AND Infinite Jest. That’s a bit much for any book, but I will say that it does have similarities to the latter. There are many characters in the book, and the book discovers their quirks as a friends discover the weird parts of each other’s personalities, which is to say it lets them emerge over time. They are described because they exist but they’re not presented to the reader on a Platter of Quirk. I felt the same way about Infinite Jest, except Infinite Jest had a much bigger scope and often was hyperreal.

What Paul Murray does so, so well, so amazingly well, with the narrative is accordion it in and out so that somehow it is simultaneously big (Irish mythology and folklore, string theory) and small (jokes about lucky condoms, usage of zombie voices) while also making loud pleasing sounds and not making the reader dizzy. And much like an accordion it has structures inside of it that make everything work and hold everything together (in my metaphor these are the big themes of the book: death, depression, history, the point of life).

Here’s a great example of the first thing. Ruprecht is talking to Skippy at the Halloween dance. He’s talking as usual about scientific theories, relating to the world through them – and Murray describes the scene in deadpan, hilarious detail. Small moments.

“‘Fascinating,’ Ruprecht muses to Skippy. ‘The whole thing seems to work on a similar principle to a supercollider. You know, two streams of opposingly charged particles accelerated till they’re just under the speed of light, and then crashed into each other? Only here alcohol, accentuated secondary sexual characteristics and primitive ‘rock and roll’ beats take the place of velocity.’

“Skippy has gone to replenish his punch. Ruprecht sighs quietly, and looks at his watch.

“Patrick ‘Da Knowledge’ Noonan and Eoin ‘MC Sexecutioner’ Flynn pimp-roll by, plastic Uzis tucked under their arms, the faint frisson of tension still detectable between them, the aftermath of a heated debate earlier today over who was going to come as Tupac, which debate Patrick won, meaning Eoin is now waddling along in a fat suit, dressed as Biggie Smalls. The squalling riff from Cream’s ‘Layla’ blasts from the speaker; in the DJ booth, Wallace Willis nods to himself: oh yes. ‘Flubber’ Cooke, who has come in his supermarket shelf-stacking uniform, explains to a sexy nun that while it’s part of his costume, the trolley is actually company property, so although he’d like to let her ride in it, he can’t.” (171-172).

by flickr user mryantaylor

by flickr user mryantaylor

Meanwhile, he opens many sections with spot-on descriptions of what it’s like to exist in Autumn. The descent. The universal Autumnal experience (I realize this is not universal to people who live nearer to the equator, sorry). Big things.

“Autumn deepens. A fresh chaos of yellow leaves covers the lane up to the school each morning, as if it’s been visited overnight by woodland poltergeists; after school, you make the return journey through a strange, season-specific gloaming, a pale darkness, spooked and paradoxical, which makes your classmates up ahead seem to fade in and out of existence. The hobgoblin shadow of Hallowe-en, meanwhile, is everywhere. The shopping malls bristle with pumpkins and skeletons; houses lie swathed in cotton-wool cobwebs; the sky cracks and fizzes with firework-tests of increasing rigour. Even teachers fall under the spell. Classes take odd detours, routines slowly vaporize, until by the late stages of the week, the rigid precepts of everyday termtime seem no more real, or even slightly less real, than the fluorescent ghosts glowing from the windows of Ed’s Doughnuts next door…” (157)

Turnip Jack O'Lantern from wikimedia, Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.

Turnip Jack O’Lantern from wikimedia, Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.

And sometimes big and small are in the same passage, as here, when the friends are giving Skippy advice on what to put in his text message to Lori:

“‘How about, instead of “if you want to meet up again”, you say “if you want me to sex you hard”,’ Mario says.

“It’s the end of the school day; they are walking down the laneway to the Doughnut House. In the dusk the world appears pale and exhausted, like a vampire’s been drinking from its veins: the thin pink filament of the just-come-on doughnut sign, the white streetlights like dowdy cotton bolls against the grey clouds, the soft hand-like leaves of the trees with the colours leeched away to match the asphalt.

“‘What have you got so far?’ Geoff asks.

“Skippy presses a button. ‘“Hi,”’ he says.

“‘It’s the only thing everyone agrees on.’

“Geoff frowns. ‘Actually, I’m not all that crazy about “Hi”.’” (264).

In an equally structured but subtle way, themes of the book recur as thoughts from different characters, framed in different ways, so as to fully exploit their themeyness.  Theme-itude.  One of the big themes is history and memory, because how are we humans to achieve immortality if not by being remembered, however inevitably inaccurate memory is.

Which is what Howard Fallon is trying to get at when he takes his history class on an unsanctioned field trip to a neglected monument for the Irish fallen of WWI:

“‘We tend to think of it as something solid and unchanging, appearing out of nowhere etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. But history, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot.’” (556)

And what the Automator is also getting at, from a different perspective, when he chews Fallon out for doing this:

“‘Maybe you’re right,’ the Automator continues, ‘maybe the [school]book does leave a chunk of stuff out. And maybe in the future someone will dig it up, and make a TV documentary, and there’ll be exhibitions and pull-out newspaper supplements and people all over the country will be talking about it. But when they’re finished talking, Howard, then they’ll go back to their kitchens or their golfing holidays or whatever they were doing before. The “truth” as you put it, won’t change a goddamn thing.” (564)

Irish Recruiting Poster from Wikimedia Commons

Irish Recruiting Poster from Wikimedia Commons

And what the developer is trying to get out of agreeing to when he has to explain on TV why he still wants to put up condos over an ancient archaeological finding near Fallon’s house:

“‘So you’re saying it should be bulldozed,’ the reporter says.

“‘I’m saying we need to ask ourselves where our priorities lie. Because what we are trying to build here isn’t just a Science Park. It’s the economic future of our country. It’s jobs and security for our children and our children’s children. Do we really want to put a ruin from three thousand years ago ahead of your children’s future?’

“‘And what about those who say that this “ruin” gives us a unique insight into the origins of our culture?’

“‘Well, let me turn that question around. If the position was reversed, do you think the people of three thousand years ago would have stopped building their fortress so they could preserve the ruin of our Science Park? Of course not. They wanted to move forward. The whole reason we have the civilization we have today — the only reason you and I are standing here — is that people kept moving forward instead of looking backward. Everybody in the past wanted  to be a part of the future.” (574)

And the value of memory in history is what Fallon is trying to call upon as he inexpertly lends the depressed Ruprecht an ear and some advice:

“‘The book [a history of his dead son’s regiment in WWI] took [Kipling] five and a half years to complete. He found it extremely difficult. But afterwards he said it was his greatest work. He’d had a chance to commemorate the bravery of these men, and to keep the memory of his son alive. A man called Brodsky once said, “If there is any substitute for love, it is memory.” Kipling couldn’t bring John back. But he could remember him. And in that way his son lived on.’

“This parable doesn’t produce quite the effect he intended; in fact, he is not sure that Ruprecht, tracing Sprite-spirals on the table with a straw, is even listening. The youth behind the counter looks at his watch and begins to dismantle the coffee machine; an electric fan whirrs, like the smooth sound of time passing inexorably from underneath them. And the, not looking up, Ruprecht mumbles, ‘What if you can’t remember?’” (582)

All in only 20ish pages, tying together plot threads and characters with the poignant string of a well-wrought theme.  Don’t read my stupid metaphors. Read this book.


If the awkwardness and reality of Freaks and Geeks met the bravado and partying of Skins (UK).

freaksandgeeks    +    skins

If the boarding school scenes in Infinite Jest met the faculty life of Lucky Jim

 infinitejest   +    luckyjim

Then you’d have Skippy Dies.

Oh and in case you’re interested in other books set in the closed school environment aka boarding school, we have 2 lists for you:

1. Boarding School Books

2. Boarding School Books Redux

Links of interest:

Neil Jordan is going to direct the movie adaptation?? I’m interested.

An interview with the author at Bookslut.

A Review of The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle #1) by Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic, 2012

The Raven Boys Maggie Stiefvater

by REBECCA, November 5, 2012


Blue: the only non-psychic in a super-psychic family, rather than having an inferiority complex, Blue is open-minded and appreciative of the possibilities that others see

Gansey: a monomaniacal to-the-manor-born nice guy—who ever thought something so delightful could exist!?

Adam: a scholarship townie too proud to accept anyone’s help, he is honorable to a fault

Ronan: angry, self-destructive, genuine, loyal to his friends, he seems as scared of himself as others are of him

Noah: though he always seems to fade into the background, he is great at finding things . . . and people


Blue’s family has foreseen that if she kisses her true love he will die, so she has no intention of ever falling in love. But then she meets Gansey, Adam, and Ronan and gets caught up in their pursuit of a magic larger than she has experienced. And she gets caught up in them.


Binary Ode, by Adam S. DoyleFirst of all, can I say how pleased I am by this use of “Cycle”? It just makes me expect some glorious, Wagnerian epic. And I’m sure it won’t disappoint. Second of all, I adore this cover. You can’t really tell from the picture, but the paper it’s printed on has this really beautiful nacreous coating. The image is by the wonderful Adam S. Doyle, who also did the forthcoming cover for the paperback edition of The Scorpio Races. You can check out more of his work HERE. Third of all, I want to say the word Aglionby all the live-long day.

In The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater  combines a number of my favorite things for a delightfully balanced story that makes me immensely excited to read the rest of the cycle (apparently there are to be four? yay!), but still feels like it could stand alone. In Henrietta, West Virginia, Blue is the only one in her family without the sight, but she acts like an amplifier to the powers of those around her. Her whole life, Blue has avoided who she calls Raven Boys, boys from Aglionby, the private school in town, but one night at work, she meets four of them and is drawn into their quest for the ley lines, magical lines that Gansey (the true quester) believes will lead to a long-buried king. Gansey is driven in this quest, and Adam and Ronan are devoted to Gansey, so they’re devoted to the quest. As Blue’s friendship with the boys deepens she sees that there is truth to their quest and that, perhaps, her own story is connected in ways she never would have expected.

Glendor's BannerWhile I certainly enjoyed the interlocking plot elements, The Raven Boys‘ greatest pleasure for me was the friendship among the Raven Boys, who are a rather unexpected crew. Gansey, in particular, is a gorgeously conflicted and surprising character. He is accustomed to leisure and privilege, and is driven by his monomaniacal desire to find the body of Owen Glendower, a Medieval Welsh king. With his meticulous research notebook, his khakis, and his friendships with old British dudes, Gansey is the kind of ageless character that I’m really drawn to. He seems like he could be from any time since, like, the 1920s. His friendships with boys as different as Adam, Ronan, and Noah add to this quality. He is the center of their group, and his sincere dedication to his quest and to the well-being of his friends connects them to him in ways that I imagine will only grow more complicated in the next books.

Also, I loved that Stiefvater seeded a number of things that I imagine the next books in the cycle will take up (what a fantastic and sinister final line!). It’s hard to make these tidbits both really compelling and not like big, shiny buttons labeled “HEY, I’m going to press this in the NEXT BOOK!” and Stiefvater nails it.

Blue comes from a tight family and we get the sense that they have been her main relationships thus far, so her new friendship with the Raven Boys feels full of discoveries for her. Blue’s relationship with Adam is sweet and makes sense: she is a townie who wouldn’t ordinarily poke a Raven Boy with a stick, and he is a scholarship kid who lives in a trailer and has much more in common with Blue than with his friends. It seems exactly the kind of first relationship that they would each have. Blue’s feelings for Gansey, on the other hand, are more complicated and much less clear. They’re not romantic—although, neither is her relationship with Adam, exactly—but more like the recognition of something she respects but cannot control, like an untamed animal.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The different worlds of Aglionby and Henrietta are also particularly vivid, and Stiefvater’s engagement with class is really well-done. In the way of all the best storytellers, Stiefvater manages to use the differences in economic and cultural backgrounds to develop her characters and the intricacies of their relationships:

“Adam had once told Gansey, Rags to riches isn’t a story anyone wants to hear until after it’s done” (131).

“Gansey knew he had to make a difference, had to make a bigger mark on the world because of the head start he’d been given, or he was the worst sort of person out there” (131).

“A wrinkle formed between Adam’s eyebrows as he looked away. Not at the double-wides in the foreground, but past them, to the flat, endless field with its tufts of dry grass. So many things survived here without really living. He said, “It means I never get to be my own person. If I let you cover for me, then I’m yours. I’m [my father’s] now, and then I’ll be yours.

It struck Gansey harder than he thought it would. Some days, all that grounded him was the knowledge that his and Adam’s friendship existed in a place that money couldn’t influence. Anything that spoke to the contrary hurt Gansey more than he would have admitted out loud” (133).

The only uneven thing about the book, for me, was the perspective. The roaming, third-person perspective is part of what makes the character development so strong, but it also gives the narrative a bit of a floaty feeling; I often found myself backtracking a few sentences because I realized I had shifted from one character to another. I think this was partly because in the chapters that focus on Blue, she’s the only one who we’re following, whereas in the chapters that focus on the Raven Boys there are several perspectives.

As you’ll remember from my review, I adored Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races—it was gorgeous, a soaring yet restrained duet. The Raven Cycle promises the opposite: all of Stiefvater’s beautiful writing and insightful characterization in a sprawling, wide-reaching tale that explores magic, fate, the limits of belief, and, you know, dead kings. COUNT ME IN!


Donna Tartt The Secret History

The Secret History  by Donna Tartt (1992). Something about Gansey put me in mind of Donna Tartt’s character Henry, a wealthy scholar totally out of touch with contemporary life or mores. They both have this delightfully nineteenth-century intellectual thing going on—the notion that knowledge is the highest pursuit and its own reward that only the very wealthy can envision for themselves. The Secret History is one of my favorite novels, so Gansey’s touch of Henry-ness delighted me. I write about The Secret History and a ’90s series that totally rips it off HERE.

Practical Magic Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (1995). Blue’s psychic-y, clairvoyant-y family is a little like the Owens family in Practical Magic. If you’ve only ever seen the Sandra Bullock/Nicole Kidman movie (don’t get me wrong: I love it and my sister and I watch it at least ten times a year, but . . . ) the book is far superior and completely different in tone. Check out my review of both the book and the movie HERE.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (2011). I know it’s totally cheating to put one of Stiefvater’s own books as a readalike, but I really feel like they go together in some way. Besides, as a bonus, you can read my review HERE and laugh at how I cried all over myself in public. Good times!

procured from: the library! But you should feel free to get me a copy of my very own for Chanukah, since I’ll certainly want to re-read it.

Spotted: 10 Reasons You Should Watch Gossip Girl

By REBECCA, April 27, 2012

Gossip Girl

Okay, so I came super late to Gossip Girl. Yeah, I had a friend or two who watched it. And I knew what it was, sure: a superficial show about a bunch of privileged kids with nothing better to do than talk about each other and swap lip gloss colors. Right? Right! And yet, so very, very WRONG! I stand before you humbled by the power. The power of Gossip Girl.

So, I have compiled the following list of reasons you should watch Gossip Girl if, like me, you have either a.) operated under the assumption that it wasn’t worth your time, or b.) have had it on your list and just needed a little shove into the upper East Side.

Or, for those of you who were on it from go, maybe this list will remind you that, oh, look, global climate change likely has us in for a hellish summer—what better way to spend it than inside with air conditioning, a frozen cocktail, and Gossip Girl?

Without further ado, here are 10 Reasons You Should Watch Gossip Girl!

Veronica Mars Kristen Bell1. Kristen Bell. I wouldn’t necessarily say that everything is better with Kristen Bell’s presence. Nope, I just double-checked on IMDb and I can confirm: Everything Is Better With the Presence of Kristen Bell. It’s like, actually, all the times when I thought to myself, “self, this show Gossip Girl is probably crap,” myself should have said, “shutup, RP-G—it has Kristen Bell in it.” Even though she’s only voice-over, she manages to seem like she knows everything and yet could be anyone. That, my friends, is talent.

[Sidebar: once, my friend A— tricked me into seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshall (ok, she didn’t trick me; I was writing my dissertation and she basically had me at “want to go to the mov—”). When we got there and I realized that it was a romantic comedy in which I was going to have to watch people be laughed at for humiliating themselves I was un-pleased. However! Within like 14 seconds of Kristen Bell coming on camera, I was laughing. (Well, and then there was that thing with the puppet musical of Dracula that just slayed me.)]

Sugar Cookies xoxo

Image: Whipped Bake Shop, Philadelphia

2. Relatedly, the signoff “xoxo, Gossip Girl.” This is one of the most addictive and delightful inventions of the information age. The “xoxo, —” provides an email salutation that is simultaneously warm and suggests a shared cultural milieu,  but isn’t overly intimate and can always be explained away as a GG citation were the recipient to feel it intrusively intimate. Besides, Kristen Bell’s snarkly little “you know you love me. Xoxo, Gossip Girl” is about the best ending to a tv episode ever. It works no matter what the state of the cliffhanger. Because we do love her!

3. Incestuousness. Among the core cast, that is. I love when even the cast photos make it clear that a show is going to have all the cast members sleep together.

Gossip Girl Queer as Folk The L Word 90210

America's Next Top Model


Seriously, though, sometimes it’s infuriating to see a show where the couple combos just keep flip-flopping: it’s like, what, show, do you not have the budget for a new character—go to a coffee shop and meet someone. But in Gossip Girl, with the familial expectations of marriage, the incredible elitism, and the suspicion of people being after them for their money, the inter-relating actually makes sense. And it’s kind of cool to see a model of how a small group of people can be friendly after dating, rather than the character having to leave the show.

Blair Waldorf

Image credit:

4. Fashion, of course. Unlike many teen shows where fashion isn’t mentioned and the designer clothes, coiffed hair, and high heels are supposed to just be naturally occurring, in Gossip Girl fashion is talked about, aspired to, and expected. This is so much more realistic (narratively), and it actually acknowledges the time, money, and effort that it takes to look put together, much less stylish. My particular favorites in the fashion department are Blair and her school cronies. Blair’s gowns are stunning, and her school clothes (dictatorially echoed on her ladies in waiting) are like British school boy uniform + Godard waif + Marie Antoinette + money.

Gossip Girl Blair Waldorf Gossip Girl Serena Van der Woodsen Blair Waldorf

5. Champagne. It’s as effervescent as the nightlife and as fizzy as the fashion. The folks of Gossip Girl remind us that it doesn’t have to be New Year’s Eve or a wedding to pop the cork on some bubbly. And, especially with summer coming, Gossip Girl has inspired me to pair my YA with a bit of the Brut, thank you very much. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go get a bellini.

6. What I called the Random Appeal Factor in my list of 10 Reasons You Should Be Watching Make It Or Break It.  I’ll just be honest. I’m really not the intended audience of Gossip Girl. I mean, I’m like the anti-Gossip Girl. But I LOVE it. And then one night my sister was hanging out, and we were all, what should we watch while sipping whiskey, petting the cat, and brainstorming how to topple capitalism? Well, Gossip Girl, obviously. I was in the middle of season 2, and I just popped it on, telling my sister we’d change it if she didn’t like it. By three minutes in, she was like, “wait, pause it and tell me EVERYTHING about EVERYONE.” And I did. And then she kept calling me after work and after hanging out with her friends, all, “oh, yeah, hey, um, I’ve got like 48 minutes before my next thing—you wanna watch an episode of Gossip Girl?” Yes. Yes, I do.

7. Blair. Sure, it’s “Serena” that gets whispered in the opening credits; sure, it’s Serena’s return that whips the upper East Side into a tizzy in the first episode; sure, dudes seem to find her irresistible. But who cares about Serena when the HILARIOUS Blair Waldorf is in a scene? Oh, Blair, you are so crazy. You’re insecure, entitled, uncompromising, spiteful, vindictive, petty, and dictatorial. And HILARIOUS.

I have discussed my love for monomaniacal characters here and here, and Blair definitely makes the list. And that’s why I actually love her; because despite her many, many horrible qualities, she is a hella hard worker who goes after what she wants and is willing to appear ridiculous to get it. And, as Chuck remarks to Blair, “you don’t get nearly enough credit for your wit.”

8. Chuck. Chuck Bass. Chuck Basstard. Mother Chucker. Speaking of monomaniacs with extremely questionable ethics! Ok, Chuck, I hated you in the beginning of the show because I have a soul and you treat women like disposable party favors. And yet, despite finding every element of your politics despicable, with each passing 42 minutes I found myself more and more delighted by you. Dude, you are fucked up. And hilarious, ambitious, smart, and resourceful. Plus, you can say things that would sound ridiculous coming from any other character/actor. (In response to why he should be chosen for a position: “Because I’m Chuck Bass.”) Chuck Bass, you diabolical, screwed-up fiend.

Chuck Bass Evil Genius

9. Chuck and Blair! If you look up “synergy” in the dictionary, you will find the equation “Chuck+Blair.” Okay, you won’t; you will find something like “the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements” ( Or, as George Orwell would put it, 2+2=5. These two superpowers are each formidable on their own. But whenever they join forces, it’s seismic. Their scenes are far and away the best written scenes on the show, and it’s worth the price of admission just to see them glower at each other, admire their own and each other’s craftiness, and dress impeccably.

[slight spoiler for Season 1:]

“Blair: Do you . . . ‘like’ me?
Chuck: Define like.
Blair: You have got to be kidding me.
Chuck: How do you think I feel? I can’t sleep! I feel sick, like there’s something in my stomach . . . fluttering.
Blair: Butterflies? Oh no, no, no, no no.
This is not happening!
Chuck Bass: Believe me no one is more surprised or ashamed than I am.
Blair Waldorf: Chuck, you know that I adore all of God’s creatures and the metaphors that they inspire, but those butterflies have got to be murdered”

Image: January Jones Prints on etsy

10. Scheming, Plotting, and General Mischief Making via Gossip Girl. Okay, so ordinarily, I’m not a fan of lying and scheming on shows—it so often feels like the writers couldn’t create drama without a convenient “misunderstanding” that leads to plotting, etc. But, in Gossip Girl, the scheming seems so much a part of the characters and the world they’ve been raised in that it all makes sense (we even see how Upper-East-Side-itis can be contagious . . .). Despite all their money and connections, there is so little that these teenagers have control over in their worlds that they seem to crave the tiny pops of control that they get when they reveal something via Gossip Girl or use it to punish someone else, even if they know they’re inviting retribution.

Image: Blue Ribbon General Store

These people use Gossip Girl to measure their social cachet, perpetrate retribution on one another via truth and lies alike, and air confessions and grievances. And they variously describe Gossip Girl as ally and threat. As Gossip Girl points out at one point, though, it is only through the very active participation of each person who sends tips to Gossip Girl or acts in accordance with her tips that she has any power to destroy their lives or tell their secrets. As my sister astutely pointed out: even though they would be better off if they simply didn’t play the game, it’s like a very well-orchestrated self-destruction that they all participate in because they believe momentary notoriety and the upper-hand are the only forms of capital they have.

And so, the scheming, lying, vicious truth-telling, innocent acts caught on camera from the wrong angle, incidents of omission, and flat out manipulation creates drama, yes, but it’s a dynamic and dangerous drama, even when it’s based on lies and misunderstandings.

So, there you have it. Have I missed your favorite (or most hated) thing about Gossip Girl? Your favorite Chuck- or Blair-ism? Let me know in the comments!

The Path To Wisdom Is Paved With . . . Terror?: Skin Hunger

A Review of Skin Hunger (A Resurrection of Magic # 1) by Kathleen Duey

Simon Pulse, 2007

By REBECCA, March 2, 2012


Skin Hunger’s story is told in chapters from alternating viewpoints.

Sadima’s narrative:

Sadima: Caring and artistic, with a penchant for hearing animals’ thoughts and cheese-making

Somiss: brilliant & sociopathic? sociopathic & righteous? righteous & corrupt & brilliant? yes!

Franklin: Sadima’s love, servant to Somiss, and conflicted about whether the ends justify the means

Micah: Sadima’s well-intentioned but limited brother

Papa: Sadima’s father, ruined by the death of his wife at Sadima’s birth

Hahp’s narrative, centuries later:

Hahp: Slightly suicidal, abused son of a rich merchant with a talent for thought control

Gerrard: Hahp’s roommate, mysteriously astute with the ancient language of magic . . .

Franklin: Distant, if not actively malevolent, wizard who teaches the boys to move their thoughts

Somiss: Somewhat Nietzschean wizard, devoid of mercy, who inspires terror wherever he goes

Jux: Manic and vaguely psychopathic wizard whose backstory is told in the sequel, Sacred Scars

Other pupils at Limòri Academy: fellow sufferers, not allowed to help one another on pain of death


What would you sacrifice to resurrect the power of magic? Once resurrected, what would you sacrifice to possess it?


Skin Hunger is told, alternatingly, from Sadima and Hahp’s perspectives. Sadima lives in a time when all knowledge of magic has been banned by reigning royalty, who (as always) fear the power it gives to the people. The promise of magic’s resurrection is the promise of closing the immense gap between royalty and the starving peasant classes in the cities and farmers in the country. Magic is a practical tool that could drastically ease these folks’ daily lives—it can cure stomachaches, calm a crying baby, or ease childbirth. In Hahp’s time, centuries later, magic has been resurrected and is controlled by a group of elite wizards, making it (as always) a commodity that fetches a high price— prohibitively high for those whom it might actually help. All this makes for a worldview that values magic and education, hopeful for their ability to change the world. But it also makes for a worldview that is distinctly suspicious that the power to wield magic corrupts absolutely.

Somiss is the ultimate embodiment of this promise and this threat. The son of a wealthy noble family (with one of many claims to the throne), Somiss abandons his family, monomaniacally driven to research the old magic. He is brilliant and tyrannical, and in his paranoia that his work will be discovered he resorts to . . . extreme measures of . . . research. What’s awesome about Kathleen Duey, though, is that Somiss’ goal of restoring magic is absolutely an honorable one that the reader roots for, one that, if it goes as Somiss claims it will, would make the world a better place, flushing out royal corruption and leveling the classes. Sadima, who was raised on a farm and finds her way to Somiss and Franklin’s city garret in her teens, is not naïve, and yet her love for Franklin entices her to participate in their work long after she believes that it has soured. This tension continues in the sequel, Sacred Scars (2009), which is also amazing, and proceeds directly from where Skin Hunger leaves off (review forthcoming).

This ethical tension (how far should we go to pursue knowledge) is one that I find endlessly compelling, and I was quite impressed by how suspenseful Duey’s portrayal of this drama is in both narratives. In Limòri Academy, Hahp and the other boys toil to be the one who “graduates.” They are punished for offering any help to one another, and are punished for their failures with food deprivation, physical torture and, most effectively, mental warfare—how long have they been there? how big is the room, really? when will they next eat? what do the wizards want them to do? The wizards push the boys to their limits in an attempt (we think) to find which of them has the makings of a wizard. It’s just like graduate school.

apples have a role to play

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Duey was clearly invested in this being a real atmosphere piece—Limòri Academy, in particular, is one of the damned creepiest places ever. With its endless twists and turns, its ability to seem like a huge space when it’s dark but resolve into a normal sized room when lit, the way the wizards seem to be able to hear your very thoughts . . . Eeurgh! Awesome. It also lives up to its intention to have complicated, terrified, weak, strong, conflicted characters. Hahp, especially, is a character that I haven’t seen in YA fantasy before. Because he barely interacts with anyone, Hahp’s characterization is all in his head and how he reacts to the bizarre and confusing challenges of the Limòri wizards. While this could, in a less skilled author, make for a solipsistic or self-indulgent narration, Duey is extremely disciplined in her choices, and so our all-access pass to Hahp’s poor little head reveals the shame, fear, and desperation that seem realistic for a pubescent boy who knows that he is definitively on his own.

As I’ve mentioned, one of Duey’s clear goals is to explore the classic philosophical issue of how far one should go to pursue knowledge. What’s unique about Skin Hunger’s take on this issue, however, is that it looks very different in 11-14 year old boys than it does in Somiss, a man in his twenties. For Hahp and Gerrard, possessing knowledge of magic is a matter of survival—the pure pursuit of wisdom twisted into a desperate Skinner-box lever pull. As the boys go through their classes, learning to move their thoughts into their toes, Hahp fantasizes about how he wants to be the one to graduate and become a wizard, not because of a desire to do magic, but so that he can finally look his abusive father in the face and know that he has the power to protect his mother. One of the more interesting elements of Hahp’s storyline is the way the boys’ deprivation and training seem almost cult-like, the wizards more monks than magicians.

As you likely noticed in the character listings, Franklin and Somiss are in both narratives, and they exemplify the underlying horror of the novel: how did we get from Sadima’s story to Hahp’s? How did we get from Somiss and Franklin’s desire to solve an intellectual mystery and restore magic to the people, to Somiss and Franklin’s mental and physical torture of children in an attempt to perpetuate their hold over magic? Holy crap, this book is disturbing and awesome.

My one critique was that the cross-cutting between Sadima’s and Hahp’s storylines happened too quickly—the chapters are sometimes only a few pages long. However, upon re-reading Skin Hunger and Sacred Scars to write this review, I realized that much of the narrative suspense comes from this style of editing.

personal disclosure

Along with being a totally kickass book that portends a kickass series, Skin Hunger is a really excellent example of how tools of production being controlled by an elite few cannot help but lead to suffering, death, and the suppression of knowledge! Is the resurrection of magic destined to produce a rarified commodity because Somiss, despite having run away, is, and thinks like, a member of the nobility? Or is it because he sincerely believes that he is the only one who could possess power without becoming corrupt? Or because he’s a psychopath?

Many reviews of this book that I’ve read seem to think that nothing happens, or that this ethical issue is treated in an overly dark manner. I can’t help but think that these reviewers are also not fans of Faust, nor are they researchers of any kind, nor do they possess a deep dissatisfaction with the system that controls access to resources and believe that perhaps if we could study what undergirds that system and find the key to toppling it then people would be better off. As such, I dismiss their opinions. More important, I totally understand why they wouldn’t find this book interesting. For me and, I think, for anyone who is intrigued by the razor’s edge on which the pursuit of knowledge becomes oppression, there is a nearly Saw-esque level of tension in attempting to be the one student who graduates (whatever that means) Limòri Academy, potentially at the cost of your peers’ lives. God, Somiss is an evil, evil genius!

I can’t wait for the third book in the series to be released! Kathleen Duey reports that she’s working on it . . . Also, check out more amazing work by the cover artist for Skin Hunger and Sacred Scars here.


The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan (2009). There is a similar sensitivity to how the lies that we tell about our histories, when revealed, can be just as horrifying as, say, zombies (or wizards, as the case may be).

Winter of Fire, by Sherryl Jordan (1992). Elsha, all her life a member of the slave class that mines coal for the Chosen, has visions that bring her to the attention of the all-powerful Firelord. She becomes his Handmaiden, and discovers mysteries that have long divided the Quelled and the Chosen.

The God Eaters, by Jesse Hajicek (2006). Ashleigh Trine and Kieran Trevarde are imprisoned and studied for their talents, and magic is strictly controlled by, who else, a corrupt overclass. Trine and Trevarde bust out of prison and begin a dusty, epic run for their lives, and for the mysterious patterns that make magic, not to mention love. One of my favorites—check out my review here.

Procured from: the library

Skin Hunger was recommended to me by my dear friend, E—. Many thanks!

The Chocolate War, or why you shouldn’t make high school kids sell candy.

The Chocolate War

Robert Cormier

Pantheon Books, 1974

Jerry Renault, Our Hero
The Goober (Roland Goubert), Coward with a Heart of Gold
Archie Costello, Assignment Mastermind
Obie, Disgruntled Sidekick With His Own Plans
Emile Janza, Sociopath
Brother Leon, Probably Also a Sociopath
Brother Jacques (the Head), Deus Ex Machina
Brian Cochran, Reluctant Accountant
Carter, Nominal President of The Vigils

Jerry Renault dares to disturb the universe through an act of double civil disobedience! And pays the price.

Nihilist. I think. Or Existentialist?

What was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
There’s no way that The Chocolate War is not a Message Book. I hate to say it, because message books get a bad rap.  But, like any category of book, there are good and bad examples.  And, can I just say that most books have a message somewhere in there.  But what makes a message book a Message Book is that the entire plot is dedicated to delivering a viewpoint on the world. Each cog in the well-oiled plot machine spins just to give life to a philosophical or social problem. The trick is to do this AND get a book that’s not totally didactic with cardboard characters spouting dialogue straight from afterschool specials out of it. Or some God-Narrator who tells you what you’re supposed to be figuring out for yourself.

So, what’s the message in the Chocolate War? I think the best thing about it is that it doesn’t sum up its message in one phrase (a la Jack Black at the end of King King).  In fact, you have to figure it out for yourself. It’s a message book with a personal message for you.  So maybe I should call it an Ethical Dilemma book. But that’s not as catchy.  I see the Chocolate War as an essentially existential dilemma.

Intention Achievement

The intention of the book is to present a real life example of a real-life high school Sisyphus for the reader to mull over.  Here’s a shortish summary (there are many characters, which is why this isn’t shorter): Jerry Renault goes to Trinity High. I’m assuming it’s a Jesuit school because it’s run by Brothers, but it could just be Catholic.  Anyway. Jerry’s a freshman and he’s going out for the football team.  The first chapter of the book kind of sums up Jerry’s character for us.  Let me quote the first line: “They murdered him.” Jerry’s getting his tuchus kicked up and down the field, but he doesn’t quit. Huh. Could that be foreshadowing?

In the second chapter we learn that Trinity High has a not so secret secret society called the Vigils.  Their main thing is making non-Vigils do elaborate pranks.  It’s sort of hazing, I guess, because some of the kids who do the pranks eventually get into the Vigils and go on to force other kids to do pranks.  Archie Costello is the Prankmaster, although he’s not the President of the Vigils, and his second in command is Obie. Obie hates Archie. Archie decides to assign Jerry a task, even though Jerry’s mom has just died. Archie doesn’t give a shit. He’s going to assign Jerry something to do with chocolates.

There’s a big chocolate sale at the school every year as a fundraiser. This year the Head of the school, Brother Jacques, is sick, so Brother Leon is in charge of the chocolates and the school. Brother Leon lives for Trinity, and he has a habit of messing with students mentally to get them to understand that their loyalty to Trinity is super-important. This year he bought double the amount of chocolates and he’s going to sell them for double the price and tell the kids that they have to bring in double the quota.  Even though this is all strictly “voluntary”.  And he asks Archie for the support of the Vigils. In so many words.

So, here comes Jerry. Jerry is assigned to refuse to sell chocolates for ten school days. One would think it’s not a big deal.  But it causes unbelievable tension. It makes Brother Leon apoplectic. It puts pressure on the Vigils because they were supposed to support the sale in the first place. It makes other kids uncomfortable because they’re out there trying to sell the stupid chocolates and Jerry isn’t.

And then Jerry won’t stop refusing to sell chocolates.  He realizes it’s absurd –or, he doesn’t realize anything at first. He just knows he’s doing it.  He has to.

Here’s our dilemma!  And here’s where I really connect with the book. Jerry is restless. Hippies call him a sub-human because he’s living a square life.  He has a poster in his locker that quotes T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (not that Jerry knows this): Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?  He does. Almost just because. Which reminds me of what Camus thinks about Sisyphus:

“Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is,as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth…. All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained [in his rock]. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing….The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

photo by flickr user cdrummbks

I’m not going to reveal what happens to Jerry. I’m just going to say that it’s his choice. And it’s our choice to imagine if his choice gives him any happiness, idealistic or otherwise. (Or I could read Beyond the Chocolate War and see if there are more answers there).

I’ll just say that I really identify with his stubbornness.  I’ll admit that the events of the book might be a little unrealistic and I found myself questioning their plausibility, but then I would often admit that the okay of authority figures, whether heads of schools or secret societies, often sanctions the most unreasonable behavior.  It can be very hard to talk to parents when you’re an adolescent.  In the end I’d say that it wasn’t too hard to believe in the situation.


I’ve got a classic and and upcoming readalike for this book:

The Wave by Todd Strasser. Same old-fashioned language.  Same treatment of a school-wide phenomenon.  But this time… with Nazis.

The List by Siobhan Vivian.  Multiple viewpoints. Divisive list. Dare I say… a message book?  When it comes out in April you can decide for yourself. You can also check out our interview of Siobhan Vivian here!

Disclosures and Digressions

a. I know Siobhan Vivian and I love her lots. As a person.  And  a writer.
b. We had fundraisers something like the chocolate sale at my middle school, so I can identify with the feeling of being emotionally manipulated into becoming a mini-salesperson — at my school they hired people to come in and do a presentation and show you how many AWESOME prizes you could win at what SALES LEVEL.  And then I’d go home and not sell anything.  On the other hand, I won a prize for most Girl Scout Cookies sold one year.  But that was because my dad did the selling.  This isn’t so much a personal disclosure as a nearly meaningless digression.

c. There’s a sequel to The Chocolate War called Beyond the Chocolate War. Is that where they got Beyond Thunderdome from???

I got my copy from: the library

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