Getting back on track (and maybe even better!) + “Good Me Bad Me” by Ali Land

If you read my ramblings yesterday, you know I’m working to get back in my reading groove. And that means getting back into my reviewing groove as well.

If things go the way I want them to go, I’m going to do a couple of weeks of full reviews, and then cull it back to about three days a week. I want to tell you all about the (mostly) wonderful books I’ve read in 2017, but I also want to share newly released books.

I’m also really considering taking this blog to the next level and making it more of a business. I’ve felt guilty, for some reason, thinking about making money from something I enjoy doing, but recent events made me realize a few times: If you can do what you love and make money at the same time, why not?

So my next few months will make that decision for me.

But let’s get to today’s review: Ali Land’s Good Me Bad Me.  (I was lucky to receive a copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)


Milly’s mother is a serial killer. Though Milly loves her mother, the only way to make her stop is to turn her in to the police. Milly is given a fresh start: a new identity, a home with an affluent foster family, and a spot at an exclusive private school.

But Milly has secrets, and life at her new home becomes complicated. As her mother’s trial looms, with Milly as the star witness, Milly starts to wonder how much of her is nature, how much of her is nurture, and whether she is doomed to turn out like her mother after all.

When tensions rise and Milly feels trapped by her shiny new life, she has to decide: Will she be good? Or is she bad? She is, after all, her mother’s daughter.


I’ve written about reading synchronicity before: those moments when something your reading matches up with what’s going on in your life. OR that moment when you’re reading more than one book at a time and they connect.

This happened with my last round of books. No, my daughter did not turn me in for being a serial killer (the only thing I kill on a regular basis are cups of coffee and bottles of wine). It was the second scenario — the two books I was reading connected.

I’m talking about Good Me Bad Me and Julie Buntin’s Marlena. Both are debut novels by young, talented writers. But, more than that, both books deal with lost adolescent girls. And both are incredibly dark in nature.

After reading both of these, I started making sure my 14 year-old was not going dark. I mean, these two books were like a road map to the dark side for teenage girls.

Okay, back to my review . . .


Right from the start, Good Me Bad Me hooked me. Starting with Annie’s visit to the police to turn in her own mother, a serial killer, and then having to return home and act normal until the police can arrest her mother.

Annie becomes Milly after he mother’s arrest. She’s whisked off to a posh home and enrolled in a posh private girls’ school (I get to use the word posh because the story takes place in England), and that’s when the evil of teenage girls is underscored.

Throughout Good Me Bad Me, Land magnificently explores the age old argument of nature versus nurture. Milly is a young woman trying to shake the psychological scars left by her mother, and wondering if it’s too late.

At the same time, she’s watching girls raised by ‘good’ families and trying to learn how to be normal from them. That’s really not a great idea.

These girls are MEAN. If  Milly’s learning anything from her foster sister Phoebe, it’s how to be duplicitous. Phoebe is that girl, the ring leader, the one that decides Milly needs to be bullied.

Land does a tremendous job describing the madhouse that is an all girl’s school and the utter malice that simmers throughout any group of teenage girls.

Milly’s story is the piston that drives the story, and the climax seems to be her mother’s trial. But the best part of the book is the underlying dichotomy between Milly’s struggle with herself as opposed to Phoebe’s just plain beastliness.

The two stories work well together — Milly’s conflict with the two parts of herself is underscored by the battle with Phoebe and her friends.

Land’s stark prose works well in telling Milly’s story. She delves into the heart and soul of Milly, using sparse words to pull us into the mind of daughter of a serial killer.

I thoroughly enjoyed Good Me Bad Me. In the end, I still wasn’t sure if nature or nurture won as far as Milly was concerned. But my favorite part of the book is the engrossing and terrifying look at bullying by girls, which only accentuates Milly’s confusion, and mine, as to which side of the good and evil line she falls.

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Ramblings from a reader + Julie Buntin’s “Marlena”

In case you don’t know it, my life has been in shambles this year. Just one knock-down-drag-out thing after another. I’m hoping, as a family, we’re through the worst of it now.

I decided, a couple of weeks ago, that there was one thing that would define the end of our bad run. And it happened today. So I kind of want to believe that we’re back on the upswing in life, but I don’t want to get too cocky. That’s usually the best way to make sure that we’ll backslide into bad luck.

I learned something about myself this year, something that surprised me. When I’m severely stressed and worried about those I love, I can’t sit down and read. Even when not with that loved one. My brain was too chaotic,  my pacing wrong for reading. I was unable to hold onto a sentence or two, let alone a whole book.

What I learned was during my greatest times of need, the thing I needed disappeared. What I counted on to console me, to be there for me, to take me away from these horrible moments — I just couldn’t connect.

There were a few ‘reads’ here and there, but I listened to many more–mostly books I’d read before. A lot of Stephen King. (More on that later this week).

The few books I did read tended to be thrillers. Most were read in those few weeks when life seemed normal.

I had to make a choice this past week: Do I go back and read all the books I’ve missed in the past few months, or do I jump to present and near future new releases on my ARC reading list?

I decided to jump to the present, but take time to LISTEN to the books I’m very disappointed I missed.

One that falls into that category is Marlena by Julie Buntin. I finished listening to it a couple of days ago. Buntin’s prose faultlessly pulls readers into Northern Michigan, telling the story of teen friendship and addiction. And it was a great listen: Emma Galvin did a fantastic job as reader/narrator.

 


 

When Cat’s parents split up, her mom uproots Cat and her brother and takes them to a small, Northern Michigan town, plopping them unceremoniously in a prefab house in the country, with only one visible neighbor. Far from everything she knows, the book smart but naive Cat is lost and angry.

And then she meets Marlena.

Living next door, Marlena’s life is completely different than anything Cat has known. Marlena is beautiful and streetwise, with an incredible singing voice and a firm grasp on algebra.

But she also has a father that cooks meth, a mother who is gone (and probably dead), and an addiction problem. She’s the defacto mother to her little brother, and is bound and determined to live life on the edge.

And Cat goes along for the ride.

Told from Cat’s point of view, readers can see how the troubled Marlena draws in not only Cat, but also her older brother and even her mother. Marlena is charismatic and beautiful, with a fatalistic attitude that makes her nearly hypnotic.

Cat tells her story as an adult looking back, forced to confront her memories when Marlena’s little brother calls out of the blue, and a piece of Cat’s past collides with her wobbly present.

Marlena is dark but beautiful, exposing readers to that long ago emotion of teen friendships. When life not only revolves around crushes and hormones and falling in love, but also in that seemingly invulnerable bond of best-friendship; friendships that are emotionally charged and loyal and vulnerable, entwined and co-dependent and frantic.

Buntin’s prose pulls readers into Cat’s emotional friendship with Marlena while also faultlessly telling us the story of her own fall into addiction, and of her inability to help herself any more than she can help Marlena. The flashes between past and present emphasize Cat’s own struggle beautifully.

The shifting timelines is a device that seems to be nearly played out — or so I thought. And then same could be said of the navel-gazing looks back at troubled friends of the past. But Marlena is just different enough. Maybe its the fact that Cat is looking back at not just her friendship with Marlena, but also on herself. I think it was also Marlena herself; her unintended charisma, but also her unwavering fatalism.

And I’m more than a little in love with Buntin’s writing. I cannot wait to see what else she give us.