How To Become a Villain

a neon darkness pic

A Neon Darkness by Lauren Shippen
dark, emotional, mysterious, tense, slow-paced

Plot- or character-driven? Character
Strong character development? It’s complicated
Loveable characters? It’s complicated
Diverse cast of characters? Yes
Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes
4.0 ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Robert is so beautifully fucked up, and I love it.

Somehow I didn’t really believe he would go that dark and quite in that way, even though it’s right there in the tagline. This story is delightfully sickening because Robert is so twisted up and so hurt inside, and he can’t stop hurting other people, and he’s unwilling to learn how to stop hurting other people. I’ll be a little spoilery here but I don’t know how to talk about this book without that, so here we gooooo

Robert has this underlying hurt that has haunted him for years, and it affects literally everything in his life. He has conceived of himself as a victim and the story he tells himself, the narrative he’s constructed so that he move past this hurt and live with it, relies on him being a victim. So even when he starts seriously morally shady stuff, he re-writes his actions in his head to fit the narrative that he’s already a victim and needs to be on the lookout for anyone who might hurt or abandon him.

Without being overly spoilery, I love the progression of Robert’s actions and how far he takes things, and if I read this book again, I’d bet my life that all the warnings signs are there.

I love the ending, as well. It felt so inevitable and so right, and I love love love the final line of the book.

(Sidebar, this really makes me want to listen to the Bright Sessions)

Read more of this review on my StoryGraph.

Ghost Stories Told by Candlelight

never have i ever picture for real

Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap
dark, inspiring, mysterious, reflective, slow-paced

Plot- or character-driven? Character
Strong character development? Yes
Loveable characters? Yes
Diverse cast of characters? Yes
Flaws of characters a main focus? It’s complicated
4.25 ⭐⭐⭐⭐

 

(I chose not to rate several stories due to my tragic lack of critical reading notes while I read the first half of the book.) 
 

Good Girls — (chose not to rate) 
The way the braided narrative switches between the second and third person threw me off at first, but once I understood our two POVs, I felt equally invested in both. Love the way the monster plays out here. The resonance of the good girls refrain hits hard even when I didn’t entirely understand its use. Those final lines are TO DIE FOR, and it feels like they’re something powerful in here about bridging loneliness. 

 
A Cup of Salt Tears — (chose not to rate) 
I love the articulation of the hollowness, and I gotta stan this monsterf*cking 
 

Milagroso — 4/5 stars 
Fascinating worldbuilding, so much to chew on here. 
 

A Spell for Foolish Hearts — (chose not to rate) 
Deeply sweet and quietly magical. Patrick is a little anxious, and I am very anxious, so my intense worry for Patrick’s happiness was distracting. Luckily, this is the kind of short story (novellete!) that becomes more enjoyable with every read. 

 
Have you Heard the One about Anamaria Marquez? — (chose not to rate) 
I love this so much. I love the different versions of the ghost story of Anamaria Marquez, I love the group of friends at the center of the story. 

 
Syringe — 3/5 stars 
Short and bittersweet. Not personally one of my favorites because I think it raised interesting ideas but didn’t ultimately explore them very deeply, and I’m the kinda girl who likes to chew on interesting concepts for a while as I read a piece. 

 
River, Asphalt, Mother, Child — 3/5 stars 
This story was not my favorite because it felt slightly removed from the human characters, but was nonetheless very moving. 

 
Hurricane Heels — 5/5 stars 
This whole story is a delight. This is a great magical girl story, and the creatures they fight are so cool! 

 
Only Unclench your Hand — 4.5/5 stars 
The relationships are moving, and the monstrous turn feels justified. There is something quietly horrifying here, an instinct to back away, but it also feels like justice… this seems to be a theme in the collection. 


How to Swallow the Moon — 5/5 stars 
GREAT IMAGERY, and the moon-eaters described filled with an incredible sense of wonder 

 
All the Best of Dark and Bright — 4/5/5 stars 
Lovely and grounded in its main character Macho, and I would love to discuss this with people because I’m not sure what to make of those final pages. 

 
Misty  —  (chose not to rate) 
I don’t entirely understand the way the braided narrative comes together at the end, but it is fascinating and I love it so much. There are such meaningful links between both halves of the story. 

 
A Canticle for Lost Girls — 5/5 stars 
I fucking love this! This is the kind of story that makes me screech and be so thankful I can read because I love the story so much. I love the focus on “girl world,” the isolation of this all-girls school. The building creepiness is done so well and it is genuinely horrifying. I love the way monstrousness creeps into the story, and there are both literal monsters and human monsters. Yap has talked about how slowly this story came together for her, but I’m so glad it did come together for her because this is wonderful. 

Read more of my reviews on my StoryGraph.

The Quietest of Screams

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
challenging, dark, emotional, mysterious, slow-paced

Plot- or character-driven? A mix
Strong character development? It’s complicated
Loveable characters? It’s complicated
Diverse cast of characters? Yes
Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes
4.25 ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Husband Stitch — 5/5 stars
What this world does to girls, how it hurts them while promising that it actually doesn’t hurt at all. How some women carry wounds that are visible and are triggered and jostled in their everyday lives. How some people deliberately reach for those wounds, not caring if it hurts the women. It matters that the husband isn’t a bad man, because this is something that is socialized into all men, regardless of good or bad.

Inventory — 4.5/5 stars
The story I wasn’t prepared for. Too real. The moment where the CDC doctor is saying the epidemic would end faster if people would stay apart and then she goes and has sex with the narrator because human beings aren’t meant to TBR kept apart — painful ans good.

Mothers — 4/5 stars
The romance in here is SWOON.

The abuse and anger so perfectly rendered. So real. It crystallizes from salt granules into tall salt pillars. I don’t understand the ending but the love in here, between narrator and Bad, and narrator and her children, especially Mara, is so believable and intense.

Especially Heinous — 5/5 stars
There are so many layers to this I’ve barely begun to untangle it, but I adore it. It moves from a episode summary, or supposedly so, and then it becomes this fascinating digging into what I means by be haunted by horror, by death, by a job, and then it goes a step further and implicate every single viewer of Law and Order: SVU by letting the characters ask, “What kind of world is this where we are this tired and this haunted, and we are not allowed to rest?”, only to be answered, “Because there is an audience who does not want you to rest. Because they want your pain and exhaustion and your hauntings. They are hungry for it.”

Probably my favorite story of the collection for how it is so beautiful and painful and raw while also raising media questions as expertly as any pop culture essay would.
Real Women Have Bodies — 5/5 stars
Ugh the pain in this. The poignancy. The tragedy of it all. The lost potential of it all.

Eight Bites — 3/5 stars
Deprivation. Didn’t quite land as hard with me, but the imagery in the last 30% is thought-provoking.

The Resident — 3.5/5 stars
I adore the way past and present collide in there, and the narrator’s voice. The narrator is very engaging, and every one of these residents is fascinating for how completely unable to function around other people they are. The narrator finds them so grating I cant help but feel the same.

Difficult at Parties — 3.5/stars
Painful. Fascinating. Appreciate how it’s actually very non-voyeuristic, as a story, even as it’s writing around ideas of voyeurism and emotional interiority vs. exterior sexuality.

Read more of this review on my StoryGraph.

A Beautiful Ghost Story

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour was published Sept. 15, 2020.

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour
emotional, hopeful, mysterious, reflective, sad, medium-paced

Plot- or character-driven? Character
Strong character development? Yes
Loveable characters? N/A
Diverse cast of characters? Yes
Flaws of characters a main focus? It’s complicated
4.0 ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The way the title turns from referencing a biological mother/familial relationship to referencing a chosen family 👌 Deeply love this movement and journey.

The relationship between Mila, Liz, and Billy was rendered so well. It doesn’t feel entirely platonic but neither does it feel entirely driven by desire — it feels driven by love, and that’s as simply as I can put it. As unnamable as it, this was probably my favorite aspect of the book. I love how the three of them lean into comfort and connection without ever entirely putting a boundary around their relationship.

My pop culture trope osmosis had me expecting the big secret to be about a sinister ghost and for this book to go in a dark, cult-y direction, and I was pleasantly surprised how the book used my own expectations and anxieties against me. It ended up being really cathartic.

This is entirely my preference as a reader, but I think that ending would’ve hit me harder if it had not switched between reality and fantasy so rapidly in the final few pages.

Read more of this review on my StoryGraph.

Delightful

Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks & SconesCheck, Please!, Book 2: Sticks & Scones by Ngozi Ukazu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5/5

Really liked it, but think it really should’ve been split into 2 volumes — a full volume of junior year and a full volume for senior year. There were parts of the story that felt rushed, and there were missed opportunities. Junior year particularly felt a little underdeveloped. I think Bitty’s very real concern about his father not accepting him and the homophobia in hockey was glossed over a little quickly, as was the Whiskey subplot. If it’s going to be raised as a plot point, it should be given the time it needs, not brought up and solved within the same episode.

We never really saw Ransom and Holster as team captains despite that being a really heartwarming moment in book 1 when they both won the role. We only got glimpses of it. The extra comics at the back, especially Ransom and Holster’s educational comic about hockey-splaining, continues to be wonderful.

I think the tweets felt more engaging this time, too. Possibly because it felt like they were compensating for things we didn’t see covered with as much detail in the main book, so I felt like I needed to read them in a way that I didn’t necessarily feel with the first volume.

There was this new technique used in this volume in which we got flashbacks to the past. Overall I enjoyed how the timey-wimey slipperiness was utilized in the episode(s) in which Bitty and Jack went public with their relationship. I think it also reflected how extremely drunk the characters were in that chapter. That said, I think Ukazu sometimes relied a little too heavily on flashbacks to add parallels and resonance to an episode. A more spare and targeted use would’ve made the volume a little tighter.

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Tragedy in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Sometimes you write 2,000 words in 2 hours because you just can’t stop thinking about a book you read.

Never Let Me Go is Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 quietly atmospheric dystopian novel which centers on Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy as they grow from childhood into adulthood. In rural England, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grow up secluded from the outside world but are constantly reminded by the teachers at their posh boarding school that they are incredibly special children. As they grow up, they come to realize the ways in which they’re different from the rest of the people in the world, and they all deal with the truth in different ways.

Major spoilers ahead. Also, probably typos because I wrote this in one coffee-frenzied sitting.

Dreaming of something better

Let’s talk about Ruth as a character, her journey, and what it means in the context of the world she lives in. Ruth was the kind of person who used to dream. She wanted to work in an office with her friends, an office where there would be “the plants, the gleaming office equipment, the chairs with their swivels and castors” (144). She dreamed of another kind of life even as she knew it wasn’t available to her. There was no way out of the life she led as a clone.

This is in contrast to Kathy, who, as she narrates the novel, is usually matter-of-fact about the circumstances of her life. She will donate her organs to strangers she’s never met. She will never be able to have children. She will never truly belong to the larger world because she isn’t like the rest of the normal people in the world. She’s a clone, and Hailsham and the students she’s grown up with are her world; the world outside has never been hers.

And truthfully, even if she did want to claim the outside world as her own, the rest of the people in the world would never let her.

Kathy has no illusions.

But Ruth, her best friend, hopes so hard that she even inspires Kathy, despite Kathy’s determined realism. Ruth describe her “dream future” — this lovely, futuristic office environment — with such desire that even Kathy wonders “if maybe it was all feasible: if one day [they] might all of [them] move into a place like that and carry on [their] lives together” (144). Kathy allows herself to imagine such a future for them, one in which they are almost normal people. Kathy explains of their “dream futures”:

I’m not sure what was going on in our heads… Maybe once Hailsham was behind us, it was possible, just for that half year or so, before all the talk of becoming carers, before the driving lessons… it was possible to forget for whole stretches of time who we really were… (142)

They even catch the tiniest glimpse of what it might be like to be “normal” in a Dover art gallery. They’re in town, looking for Ruth’s clone model, her “possible”, and they follow her into an art gallery, but Ruth’s possible leaves, another woman approaches them.

Eventually, the silver-haired lady came out from behind her desk… and asked: “Are you art students?”

“Not exactly,” I said before Tommy could respond. “We’re just, well, keen.”

The silver-haired lady beamed, then started to tell us how the artist whose work we were looking at was related to her, and all about the artist’s career thus far… we gathered round her to listen, the way we might have done at Hailsham when a guardian started to speak. (164)

This moment is notable because they’re treated just like any other teenagers in the world might be treated. It’s a glimpse of normality.

This Dover trip marks the end of Ruth’s dreaming, at least for herself. The woman she hoped was her clone model doesn’t look like her, after all, and she feels stupid for hoping.

…turning to Chrissie and Rodney [Ruth] went on: “…We all know it, so why don’t we all face it. We’re not modelled from that sort… We’re modelled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe… That other woman in there, her friend, the old one in the gallery. Art students, that’s what she thought we were. Do you think she’d have talked to us if she’d know what we really were? What do you think she’d have said if we ask her? ‘Excuse me, but do you think your friend was ever a clone model?’ She’d have thrown us out.

No more dreaming for Ruth, nor for Kathy, either. While the rumor of getting a deferral in the name of love takes hold of Tommy and briefly enchants Kathy with possibility, they all ultimately lose faith and lose track of each other.

Resignation to her reality, hopeful for her friends

[Tommy] put up a hand to shield his eyes. “I wasn’t much good as a carer… I’m a pretty good donor, but I was a lousy carer.”

No one spoke for a while. Then Ruth said, her voice quieter now:

“I think I was a pretty decent carer. But five years felt about enough for me. I was like you, Tommy. I was pretty much ready when I became a donor. It felt right. After all, it’s what we’re supposed to be doing, isn’t it?” (227)

What strikes me is Ruth’s use of “supposed to be” here, which is echoed by other characters throughout the novel. There is no room to grow beyond their intended purpose; they were created to donate their organs when they reach an age of maturity, and that’s all they can ever do. Ruth has been changed by the reality of spending five years caring for clones just like herself, who are donating their organs and dying for it. Her old friends are “completing,” or dying, and she’s no longer got room for dreaming of another kind of life.

Not for herself, anyway. At this point, too, she’s ill and hasn’t recovered well from her donations. Whether or not anyone will say it, she’s resigned herself to her own oncoming death, which she knows will be sooner rather than later. She won’t survive past her second donation.

She still dreams, but no longer for herself: for Kathy and Tommy, who are in love.

“Kathy, listen,” Ruth said. “You and Tommy, you’ve got to try and get a deferral. If it’s you two, there’s got to be a chance. A real chance.” (233)

Because Kathy and Tommy have been quietly loving each other for years, and their quiet affection and bond means that if anyone could disrupt the track on its way to their inevitable deaths, it’s them. Tommy and Kathy could have a real shot at spending a few years together and not dying so young.

No Hope

Of course, that’s not what happens. There are no deferrals, no softness for clones in this world. As Madame tries to explain to Kathy, the kindness of old world will not keep hold of the students, and they will inevitably be tumbled forward into their fates. They never had a choice at all. In the face of Tommy’s looming death, Kathy and Tommy’s relationship falls apart, but they have an interesting conversation before they part for good.

Then, as we were sitting in the dull light, side by side on the edge of his bed, he said to me:

“… don’t you get tired of being a carer? All the rest of us, we became donors ages ago. You’ve been doing it for years. Don’t you sometimes wish, Kath, they’d hurry up and send you your notice?” (282)

What I read in Tommy’s line is the same resignation expressed earlier by Ruth, but to a greater degree, now that he knows there’s no chance at all for him and Kathy to have any part kind of normal relationship with each other, untouched by the fact of what they are. After all, if they’re going to die, anyway, why waste time? They might as well get on with their fate if there’s no chance to defer it. He says as much when reflecting on the debate between Miss Emily and Miss Lucy.

Miss Emily, at this point, has told them of the debate, which amounted to whether it was better to raise the clones in ignorance of their role in the world while continuing to educate them and let them express their creative souls, or whether it might be better to tell them the truth even if the clones conclude that their art and writing is pointless since they’re going to be killed, anyway. Miss Lucy believed in informing the students; Miss Emily did not.

… as we were going down a particularly dark lane in the back of nowhere, he said suddenly, “I think Miss Lucy was right. Not Miss Emily.” (273)

In other words, better to know the truth and accept your fate rather than live with the illusion that you actually matter to the wider world.

Kathy, for the most part, holds her feelings close to her chest throughout the novel, but when she does confess her feelings to the reader, she’s resigned and realistic. As always, matter-of-fact. But her response to Tommy asking if she wouldn’t rather just get it over with, get on with her life’s purpose already, contains the subtlest hints of a rebellion:

I shrugged. “I don’t mind. Anyway, it’s important there are good carers. And I’m a good carer.” (282)

In other words, Kathy might be a clone, but she has more to contribute more to the world than just her organs. She says as much on the very first page:

I do know for a fact they’ve been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too. My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as “agitated,” even before fourth donation. Okay, maybe I am boasting now. But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well, especially that bit about my donors staying “calm.” I’ve developed a kind of instinct around donors. (3)

She has a lot more to offer the world than people might think she does, and to a degree, the mysterious powers-that-be have recognized that by letting her be a carer for a full 12 years before becoming an organ donor.

Miss Lucy vs. Miss Emily

By the end of novel, I agreed with Miss Lucy, too.

The effect of the students being kept ignorant means that the students never had any agency, no chance to rebel or protest that their lives are unfair. They don’t even fully understand what it means to be a normal person who can choose to be an actress or even just work in an office. These career options aren’t available to them because their only purpose — in the minds of normal people, anyway — is to donate all their vital organs and endlessly sacrifice their own lives and their own potential for people they’ve never met. They’re not only denied a full picture of what their role in the world is, but they’re also denied the chance to realize how monstrously inhumane their lives are. After all, what does it matter if they’re well-read and clever and might want children and fall in love if they’re just going to be sacrificed, anyway?

They’re only going to get sacrificed by a world that can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge this horrible thing they’re asking, that refuses to even see them as human.

In a different novel, had the students understood their role in the world, had they not been raised separately on different estates all over the country, had they not been constantly been split up and moved around and kept ignorant, they might’ve had a chance to rebel against the cruelty of their world.

Musings on Empire and Power

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1)A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I tried very hard not to be influenced by the knowledge that this won the 2020 Hugo, but I think I failed. It’s certainly very different from the previous nominees I’ve read. I think this book plays it a little safer than the previous two books I read did. A Memory Called Empire put forth a fascinating world with interesting characters and languages, but it feels like it took fewer risks.

Teixcalaan the empire reminds me a bit of America as it is today, how it dominates so much of the world despite geographically dominating relatively little. I did catch the Aztec references and thought they were intriguing. Still, I felt just a bit disconcerted by a seemingly-white author borrowing so many elements from Aztec culture. That said, I don’t know Martine’s identity, and she could be light-skinned or mixed, as I am.

I’m really interested in how the Teixcalaanli language is so referential. I’m sure there are languages and cultures that are actually like this, maybe even my own, but because I speak one language, this just reminded me of what it’s like speaking to people on Tumblr. How we all know the same memes are constantly referencing and remaking those memes as a memes to communicate, how we references the same events, our Befores and Afters.

This book is supremely readable on a sentence-to-sentence level. For a book that is so dedicated to the use of language, I expected this book to have the kind of technical control over its own sentence construction I’d found in previous Hugo nominees. This book privileged plot over sentences mechanics, and as someone who loves her sentence mechanics, I was a little disappointed by that, but more plot-focused readers might enjoy it. For these reasons, it felt a little jarring when Teixcalaanli poetry entered the page — sometimes beautiful, sometimes bad, but always with a rhythm and a meter that made it such a contrast to the surrounding paragraphs. As a language nerd, I rested in those stanzas: Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun.

I did appreciate when the language was used to convey an emotional energy, which happened more toward the end of the book. “[—] thought of how the water shimmered too, how water and light moved the same way, if you thought about physics correctly. Ripples.” That line worked so well to convey the emotional exhaustion the character felt.

Character-wise, the dynamic between Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass was so much fun. I felt very invested in the bond between them and their interactions, which had such interesting layers to it — layers which I didn’t entirely understand, as an American living in America (another kind of empire), but perhaps a reader who grew up outside of an empire would understand. There was an interesting recurring theme of Mahit and Three Seagrass arguing and misunderstanding each other over the question of who is a citizen, who is a person, who is human, how an empire works, what a person’s blindspots are within and without an empire. “If you were one of us,” and all that, and the lines between being a citizen and being a xenophile.

There was a death count as the book went on, and I think some of those character deaths felt rather cheap and predictable. There were very few, if any, character deaths that I-reading-as-Mahit mourned because Mahit had clearly never really bonded with those characters. The sadness didn’t land because the story hadn’t worked to endear those characters to us. Felt like a missed opportunity.

I am fascinated by the emotional story arc that builds and crescendos at the end of the book: “She wouldn’t have become part of that strange triangle.” For me, this was the most interesting part of the book — everything about the permutations of love, all the various forms it can take, and what it means to be a ghost or to be born again. There are so many possible emotional complications of a dead ambassador being replaced with a younger, alive ambassador who meets all of the dead ambassador’s friends, acquaintances, and lovers. I wish that had been explored sooner because it felt like such an interesting complication that came to a head very late in the book.

The imagery, when rendered as metaphor or simile, is remarkably consistent — fruits/floral imagery or space/stationer imagery. As an aforementioned language nerd, I thought the metaphor choice felt very appropriate to these characters, their referential experiences, and the cultures from which they hail.

The only major critique I have of this book is that it takes place in such a short time, and so much changes in those handful of days, but as a reader, I couldn’t appreciate those changes because we never got to know the world well enough in the first place. If the world is never going to be the same, I want to know what it was like before. Yes, six days can change an empire and an entire sector of space, but squeezing all that story into six days meant we didn’t get the sense of scale that monumental changes should warrant. It all just kinda happened…I’ll maybe edit this part later if I figure out how to word this. In my opinion, the timeline didn’t match up with the worldbuilding, is what I’m trying to say.

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Middlegame Ups the Stakes

Middlegame (Middlegame, #1)Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(4.75/5)

“Her smile is the first brick in what she will one day call the improbable road. Today, now, in this moment, they are beginning their voyage toward the Impossible City… The deed is done. It’s too late to turn back now.”

This is one of those books that redefines what a single book is capable of achieving alone. This book is comprehensive, moving through such a range of concepts, layers upon layers of metaphor, worldbuilding, and timelines that it feels like at least three books in one. I have so many questions for Seanan McGuire: did she outline this book? Did she outline the up-and-under stories, too? What did those outlines even look like? In what order was this written? How did the manuscript change from draft to draft?

This book is a feat. Every single event in here is the culmination of all previous choices, and this is both explicit and implicit. I truly can’t count how many timelines exist on the page, because for every explicit timeline reset, there were more that happened between the lines of the page. The final series of events is as inevitable as it is improbable.

The writing in here is so strong, even at the sentence-to-sentence level. I love the parenthesis and how McGuire makes her punctuation work for her to tell the story and imply how much information is being consciously acknowledged, what’s actually a secret, and what’s unknown to the characters. This is a technique I see more in fanfiction than published work, and it works super well here.

McGuire has this way of sinking down into her characters’ perspectives until it feels like I, as the reader, am occupying some small corner of the characters’ minds, watching it all play out but unable to change anything. I do think this comes through much more strongly with the twins, their friends, and allies, and less so with Reed and Leigh, but seeing as the book focuses so much more on the twins’ side of the story, that makes sense, even if I wish we’d had a little more “sinking down” into the other characters’ heads.

Every emotion in here is a gut-punch. As the book goes on, we get deeper and deeper into one character’s perspective, and I absolutely didn’t expect them to become my favorite, but god, I adore them. This book obviously does many things very well, but if I had to pick one thing that worked perfectly, it’s the fact that in a book full of horrific tragedies, there’s this one tragedy that stands out. It’s not foregrounded very often, but when it does, the bitter fact is this: if a tragedy were to befall the twins, they’d have each other and all the power in the universe as consolation, but not everyone has something as consolation. Sometimes, everything that ever mattered to you is ripped away, and there’s emptiness in the world, and you’re so tired and just want to rest, but you can’t… and it doesn’t even matter. (I have a lot of feelings about this minor storyline.) (Hands down, my favorite part of this book.) (I would fight a war for this character.)

There’s a fascinating commentary on how intelligence gets gendered. Dodger and Roger both observe how the world just doesn’t know what to do with a mathematics genius who’s a girl, and how she just doesn’t fit the world’s idea of a smart girl. A girl can be book-smart, but math-smart just isn’t normal. This fades as the characters grow up and instead becomes a commentary on strength, on who gets to weak and who have to always, always be strong. Who is allowed to fall down and cry and stay fallen, and who can’t. I’m still thinking my way through the idea of strength, to be honest, because most, if not all, of the characters in here can fit that; there is very little rest in here for anyone.

Having finished the book, I’m especially interested in the parental characters and in the contrasts between their two sets of parents. Also, I feel like one of the parents was characterized a little inconsistently. One of the twins has this fascinating book-long journey about when a lie is permissible, but I thought the implication at first was that this kid needs powerful lies to save them because they’re terrified on their abusive parent. As in, why do you need a life to save your life when you are still a literal child? But it was only there at the beginning, and then they have a normal parent-child relationship for the rest of the book. I just feel like the implication was in there from a previous draft… oooo, or maybe a previous timeline?

There are some things I wish we’d gotten more of or spent more time on, especially toward the end of the book. For as long as it is, some things were barely in the book. The Up-and-Under as a metaphor for alchemy and a parallel for Roger and Dodger was excellent when delivered side-by-side with the main story, but when the main story begins using Up-and-Under terminology literally, the logic of the story falls apart for me. I still enjoy it! But I do think we needed more explanation for what is literally happening. The end feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the book for this reason. I had lingering questions, like what exactly happened between Asphodel and her enemies? Why would manifesting the Impossible City in their world be a controversial idea? Also, what even is the Impossible City? “The whole damn Impossible City is about to fall on your head” sounds super cool, but I still have no idea what that actually would look like, physically, literally, etc.

This is second time I’ve read a Hugo-nominated book and been so blown away that it’s revised my standards, so the lesson I’m taking is this “read all the nominees” challenge I’m doing should be a yearly routine.

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A Book I’ve Been Waiting For

Little & LionLittle & Lion by Brandy Colbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes a book comes along, and it’s so good it makes you rethink every other book you’ve read that tackled similar subject matter. Little & Lion was that book for me, setting the new standard for books about mental illness, difficult romantic relationships, and fraught families. I’ve seen a little bit on the internet on how there wasn’t much of a plot, and I guess that’s true or false depending on what counts as a plot for you. For me, the driving force of the plot was Suzette’s struggle to accept herself, to feel safe, to protect the people she loves. Above all, she just wanted to feel safe and secure, and for better or worse, every choice she makes is driven by that deep emotional need.

When the book begins, she’s on the tails of a traumatic spring semester and is realizing she’s bisexual, trying to figure out what that means. Her brother is bipolar, and their relationship has fractured as he tries to rewrite his identity to include his mental illness but never, never be defined by it. Suzette’s anxiety and fear for her brother’s safety was so palpable, and I cried so much in this book for her. I really appreciated that there were a variety of opinions on how Lionel’s mental illness should be considered, but that Lionel’s safety was so prioritized.

It meant so much to me that Suzette’s feelings were validated. Throughout the story, she was so anxious, afraid, and confused. People lashed out at her and hurt her, but then they apologized and acknowledged how they hurt her, and Suzette forgave and loved them anyway because she’s an absolute gem who’s too good for this world.

Suzette has this line about how when you mess up, you apologize, and I appreciated how that came due at the end of the book. An apology may not fix the thing you broke or the person you hurt, but it means so much to openly acknowledge that you hurt someone. I didn’t know how much I missed that in other books until I finished this book and clutched it to my chest and was retroactively angry on behalf of other books’ characters who never got their feelings validated at all.

I also love how the romantic storyline concluded. I think it was perfect for Suzette, and I appreciate her growth and ability to prioritize her own needs and desires.
I honestly don’t have the words for what this book meant to me.

Okay I’m gonna say something spoiler-y after all the dashes below, so skip if you don’t want to be spoiled, but I think if anyone gets triggered or upset by unhealthy dynamics the way I do, it would help them to know the spoiler-y thing when they go into the book.












Although there are definitely hints of unhealthy dynamics in this book, especially with how Suzette watches Rafaela enjoy and delight in Lionel’s spontaneous joy while he’s hypomanic, and how it just makes Suzette feel like she’s the crazy one for being so scared for her brother, I appreciate so much that Suzette realized how badly matched she and Rafaela would be romantically, even if they’re super attracted to each other.

I am so happy for her that she recognized, “Huh, Rafeala is amazing, but her behavior caused me stress, so I don’t want to be around it or to date her,” and was able to articulate what she did need from a relationship by the end of the book. As someone who has been in a relationship that constantly kept me in that feeling of stress and fear, I was so relieved that Suzette figured that out and saved herself from further distress.

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Reality Pedagogy for the Modern Teacher

 

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is so helpful, and I’d recommend it to anyone about to start teaching. I was a TA who got thrown into the deep end of teaching last fall, and had I read this book sooner, reality pedagogy would’ve made my class so much better. Some helpful concepts I would’ve loved to incorporate into my classes: cogens, coteaching (especially coteaching!), cosmo duos, a cosmopolitan attitude in the classroom. I loved the chapter towards the end on the importance of dressing yourself well and having an aesthetically pleasing classroom, because that reinforces what I already believed but had never applied to pedagogy. Also, yes, of course, your clothing matters.

Although this book is primarily aimed at white teachers who teach urban youth/neoindigenous kids, the pedagogy it presents could be useful for any teacher teaching to a classroom of students whose background differs from their own. Coteaching, especially, can be adapted for any situation because it allows the students to lead by example and show the teacher how they learn best.

I would love to read further on the subject of teaching kids to codeswitch because although there are great examples to show your students in the “Codeswitching” chapter, I still have questions about how a teacher would present this to their students.

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