The Maidens: A Review

The Maidens by Alex MichaelidesAfter so many years of defining herself in relation to her husband Sebastian, Mariana Andros is no longer sure who she is or how she can keep going after his sudden death.

She still has her work as a group therapist but that’s cold comfort when she has nothing but memories to hold onto.

A distressed call from Zoe, the niece she and Sebastian raised, is enough to rouse Mariana from her grief. One of Zoe’s friends at Cambridge University has been murdered. The death is violent and sinister. Worse, it is only the first.

Reluctant to leave her niece in a time of crisis, Mariana agrees to stay at the college surrounded by memories of her own time as a student when she and Sebastian first met. The longer Mariana spends on the familiar campus, the more certain she is that Edward Fosca is the killer.

Fosca is a charismatic and well-liked Greek Tragedy professor. Sharp and formidable, his cult of personality is so strong among his female students that it’s not hard to intuit his guilt despite an alibi.

As Mariana is drawn further into the investigation, her fixation on Fosca grows. Pursuing Fosca could ruin Mariana’s professional reputation, her personal relationships and–as she gets closer to the killer–even her life might be forfeit in The Maidens (2021) by Alex Michaelides.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Maidens is Michaelides’ second novel. Most of the story follows Mariana with a close third person narration. All main characters–including one readers may recognize from Michaelides’ debut–are presumed white.

The Maidens is a tense university-set thriller with an audiobook version ably narrated by Louise Brealey and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Michaelides covers similar territory here to his debut, once again featuring a psychoanalyst protagonist and a shocking case.

Although it is decidedly high concept, The Maidens does little to capitalize on any of its potential. Mariana–a theoretically complex protagonist dealing with intense grief, a patient who is stalking her (which causes her surprisingly little distress), and an increasingly obsessive interest in Fosca as the book progresses–is reduced to little more than a grieving widow. If she has a personality beyond missing Sebastian and investigating Fosca, Michaelides never shows it.

Abrupt chapter breaks eliminate any chance for readers (or Mariana) to meditate on plot points not to mention leaving no room for anything in the way of character development. The breakneck pace of the story and its focus on plot are perhaps why so much of The Maidens feels heavy-handed. Information key to solving the mystery is obscured with plot devices including intermittent chapters from a nameless male character while the identity of the murderer is heavily broadcast even as their motivations remain frustratingly opaque.

With a resolution that is as unsavory as it is unsatisfying, The Maidens feels less like a thriller by the end and more like an object lesson in the veracity of the maxim “physician, heal thyself.” Readers looking for a twisty thriller where no one is quite who they expect would be better served by Alice Feeney’s Rock Paper Scissors which although not a dark academia novel employs similar narrative devices to better effect.

Posssible Pairings: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Now You See Me by S. J. Bolton, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, House of Correction by Nicci French, Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian,  Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration through Libro.fm*

A Lesson in Vengeance: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Regret always comes too late.

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria LeeAfter a year away, Felicity Morrow hopes to keep a low profile at Dalloway School while she completes her senior year. Then she’ll never have to think about the prestigious boarding school or what transpired there ever again.

Being back at Godwin House feels wrong for so many reasons but especially because her girlfriend Alex is dead and won’t ever return.

Still grieving, still haunted, Felicity doesn’t know what to expect from her new housemates, especially the enigmatic Ellis Haley. Everyone knows Ellis. Everyone has read her prodigious debut novel while eagerly awaiting her sophomore effort. As much as Felicity is drawn to Ellis–as much as everyone is drawn to Ellis–Felicity balks at the cult of personality the writer has erected around herself.

Ellis is drawn to Dalloway, and particularly to Godwin House, because of its bloody history. Like Felicity herself, she’s fascinated by the story of the Dalloway Five–the five students who all died under mysterious circumstances with accusations of witchcraft hanging over them.

Everyone knows magic isn’t real. After what happened last year, Felicity needs magic to not be real. But as Ellis draws her back to the school’s dangerous not-so-hidden, arcane history Felicity will have to decide if she has the strength to face the darkness festering at Dalloway and in herself in A Lesson in Vengeance (2021) by Victoria Lee.

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A Lesson in Vengeance is a standalone novel. Felicity and Ellis are white with secondary characters adding more diversity and brief conversations of the history of segregation and exclusion inherent to elite boarding schools like Dalloway.

This novel is an ode to all things dark academia with vivid descriptions of Dalloway’s ivy-covered glory, brittle winters, and its gory past. Lee also carefully subverts the genre using both Felicity and Ellis’ queer identities to inform the story. Pitch perfect pacing and careful plot management further help this story pack a punch.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a clever, suspenseful story filled filled. Come for the satisfying mystery and evocative setting, stay for the moral ambiguity and plot twists.

Possible Pairings: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, When All the Girls Are Sleeping by Emily Arsenault, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Night Migrations” by Louise Glück, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Malleus Maleficarum, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, “The Shroud” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Dear Life by Alice Munro, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, What is Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig, Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

How We Fall Apart: A Review

How We Fall Apart by Katie ZhaoAt Sinclair Prep, the whispers never stop; it’s a small price to pay for being at the most elite private high school in the country. Graduating from Sinclair Prep will open doors for every student–even scholarship kids like Nancy Luo.

Nancy knows a full scholarship and perpetual class rank as second best isn’t enough to make her truly belong at Sinclair Prep. Nancy’s best friend, Jamie Ruan, is quick to remind Nancy of that whenever she lets herself forget. But even with Jamie’s vicious reminders, even with everything she’s had to sacrifice to get this far, Nancy knows Sinclair Prep is the first step to becoming one of the beautiful, entitled people who can get whatever they want.

When Jamie doesn’t show up for Honors night, Nancy thinks it’s her chance to step into the spotlight and finally claim her spot at the top.

Nancy realizes how wrong she was when Jamie is found dead. As rumors spread that Jamie was murdered, an anonymous post on Tip Tap, the school’s gossip app, from “The Proctor” points to Jamie’s best friends–Nancy, Krystal Choi, Akil Patel, and Alexander Lin–as the prime suspects. The Proctor promises to reveal all of their darkest secrets on Tip Tap until they admit their complicity in Jamie’s death.

If the Proctor makes good on their threats, Nancy and her friends could lose everything–including Nancy and Alexander’s coveted scholarships. In a group of friends where everyone is hiding something, could keeping a secret prove deadly?

At Sinclair Prep Nancy has always known that being good and being the best are mutually exclusive. As the stakes climb, Nancy will have to choose how much she’s willing to give–and to take–in order to stay at the top in How We Fall Apart (2021) by Katie Zhao.

Find it on Bookshop.

How We Fall Apart is the first book in a projected duology. The story, narrated by Nancy, starts with the fallout from Jamie’s death. Flashbacks throughout the novel shed light on the secrets Nancy and other members of her friend group are trying so hard to keep buried during the murder investigation.

How We Fall Apart is one of the best mysteries I’ve read this year. Zhao’s plotting is unrivaled as every single thread in this story proves to be crucial to the larger plot while also leaving just enough seeds to justify a second book. At the same time, readers should be advised that mental health plays a major part in this story–and in the circumstances of Jamie’s death. Be sure to check Zhao’s website for full trigger warnings.

Nancy is a calculating protagonist. She knows what she wants and exactly what price tag to attach to it as she struggles to keep her head above water within Sinclair Prep’s cutthroat social scene. With everything to gain, and so much to lose, Nancy is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her spot at the school leading her to increasingly ruthless choices as the novel progresses.

How We Fall Apart is an engrossing mystery set in the pressure cooker of an elite high school. Say hello to your next dark academia obsession.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, The Best Lies by Sarah Lyu, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*