Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, one of my favorite new releases this year, pairs page-turning plot twists with well-developed characters and stellar writing. Alternating between two perspectives, a white mother of two in her thirties and a black babysitter in her twenties, Reid unspools her story of these two women fumbling through different chapters of their lives. (I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than that because experiencing it unfold was a huge point of interest while I was reading.)
Reminiscent in all the best ways of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere in its discussion of the politics of race and motherhood, Reid embraces the absurd humor of each of her characters’ situations without sacrificing the emotional realities of the story’s more somber moments.
Each type of experience Reid portrays: racism, babysitting long term for a family, the relationship between viral media and the news cycle, feels completely grounded in reality and specific to the character living it. In particular, the relationship the babysitter develops with her charges and the way Reid fleshes out the toddler character feels realistic without ever becoming overly precious.
After reading her debut novel, I’m eagerly awaiting Reid’s next release.
I remember standing in Target’s book section several years ago and picking up a book titled Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy about a fat girl who loves Dolly Parton and enrolls in her local beauty pageant. Enchanted, I picked up a copy but didn’t get around to reading it right away (although its cover of a blonde woman in a red evening dress standing in thrall to a tiara never failed to elicit a chuckle when I walked past). Fast forward to December 2018 when said book was adapted into a Netflix movie. It’s heartfelt and funny with a great Dolly Parton soundtrack. So, last winter my reading consisted of a binge of all of Murphy’s novels (including Puddin’, a sort-of-sequel that focuses on some of Dumplin’s secondary characters). Then, once I exhausted her canon, I pre-ordered of her new middle grade novel (designated for readers roughly eight to twelve years old), Dear Sweet Pea, which is on bookshelves now.
Dear Sweet Pea is set in a small Texas town where, following a recent and amicable divorce, thirteen-year-old Sweet Pea’s mom and dad live in near-identical houses on the same street. Sweet Pea finds this same-but-not-the-sameness frustrating as she splits time between the two houses. School is equally challenging as well since a former best friend, now frenemy, creates new drama. In the middle of all these changes in Sweet Pea’s life, her eccentric neighbor and newspaper advice columnist, Miss Flora Mae, asks Sweet Pea to water the plants and forward the advice column correspondence while Flora Mae’s out of town. Sweet Pea intercepts a few letters and gives some advice of her own.
Despite transitioning to a middle grade book after her
earlier YA novels, Murphy’s writing is confident in both its style and storytelling.
The vocabulary and sentence structure are streamlined for younger readers (but
also kept this big kid reader very entertained). Murphy creates a beautiful
array of characters from Sweet Pea and her classmates to assorted teachers and
parents. My favorite might just be the deliciously eccentric Miss Flora Mae who
keeps her most important documents in the oven and who the local kids suspect
may be a vampire. Murphy perfectly captures the feeling of being caught halfway
between childhood and teenagedom as well as the uncertainty of not knowing how
to move from one stage to the next. Dear Sweet Pea is ideal for fifth to
seventh grade readers (and anyone who remembers what those in-between years
For fans craving the next movie adapted from Julie
Murphy’s work, Disney Channel has your back as they are developing a movie
version of Dear Sweet Pea!
Read if you like: Harriet the Spy by Louise
Fitzhugh as well as Dumplin’ and Puddin’ by Julie Murphy.
Gone are the days when Dateline and Forensic
Files were the mainstays for murderinos (the affectionate name given to
fans of the podcast My Favorite Murder) seeking details on infamous or puzzling
cases. True crime podcasts now routinely place in the top ten of Apple’s
podcast chart and whether you’re flipping through channels on basic cable, tuning
into HBO, or searching Netflix, true crime is sure to be one, if not more, of
the offerings. Now, the problem is not seeking out true crime stories but
discerning which ones to spend time consuming when faced with a plethora
Enter Billy Jensen. He spent much of his journalism
career writing about true crime, specifically unsolved cases. In recent years,
he’s gained attention for helping to finish Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone
in the Dark about the Golden State Killer who was famously identified and
arrested just months after the book’s release in 2018. McNamara died unexpectedly
while writing the book and Jensen worked with a collaborator to piece together
drafts and write new material as well, focusing on techniques like familial DNA
searches and geoprofiling that McNamara was using to help solve the case. I’ll
Be Gone in the Dark is already a true crime classic not only because of
McNamara’s stellar writing but also because the techniques she advocated for were
actually used to identify the suspect after decades of searching. I highly
recommend I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (although it is disturbing and, full
disclosure, it did give me nightmares).
So, back to Billy Jensen. If his involvement with I’ll
Be Gone in the Dark fails to convince you of his pedigree, let me explain
what distinguishes his new book from other true crime releases. While Jensen’s
work on both the Golden State Killer case and McNamara’s book about it are
woven throughout his true crime memoir, Chase Darkness with Me, he
focuses on a number of cases he worked (and sometimes solved) using targeted
ads on social media platforms to solicit witnesses and tips leading to suspects.
The majority of these are cases are likely unknown to readers since most of
them rarely received media attention outside of the area where they occurred.
Yet, Jensen clearly outlines the stakes for the families and communities
impacted by each crime, making each compelling. Although he covers a large
number of cases, his explanations of the details make them unique enough to
remain distinct rather than blurring together. In addition, Jensen explains how
his techniques have actually solved crimes and includes an addendum explaining
best practices for those who want to be become citizen sleuths, as he refers to
Jensen’s years as an investigative journalist have
honed his prose into concise yet informative sentences. Yet because this book
is at least partially a memoir, the crimes and investigations are always
filtered through Jensen’s perspective and that prevents the book from feeling too
clinical or like a mere list of facts. Rather, he weaves stories about his own
life into the book in ways that feel organic instead of forced, providing brief
respites from the crimes themselves. Much of his interest in true crime came
from his father, and those anecdotes are particularly evocative in placing the
reader within Jensen’s point of view.
I knew Jensen from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and
the podcast he currently co-hosts with retired investigator Paul Holes, The
Murder Squad, but this new book and his work on citizen sleuthing is sure
to establish his important role in the future of true crime. Jensen’s strong
writing skills and compassion for everyone affected by these crimes are
striking. Chase Darkness with Me is a page turner that asks how citizens
can harness technology to help chip away at the ever-growing backlog of
unsolved cases in America. True crime fanatics and people interested in the future
of criminal investigation should seek out Chase Darkness with Me.