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.

“Delightfully Bendy”

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal GirlPaul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Delightfully bendy!

EDIT:
This book was delightfully bendy and kept me constantly trying to untangle its interpretation of gender. It seemed to reinforce the gender binary one moment, and then to tear apart the binary a moment later. I’m intrigued that Paul never seemed to entirely identify with either being a boy or a girl; however he transformed his body, it didn’t change who he was inside in the slightest. Sometimes I had surface level knee-jerk reactions — like feeling a little defensive while reading Paul’s assessment of femininity and women — but Paul had such fascinating observations, and there was truth in a lot of what he observed. I loved this little adventure book.

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This Is How You Claim Your Story

The Epic Adventures of Lydia BennetThe Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet by Kate Rorick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prepare for a messy review, because I don’t think I can be articulate when it comes to this book.

The ways this book depicts mental illness, especially deep anxiety and trauma responses, is painfully accurate. To my experience, anyway. One of the themes of the books is failure. How to define failure, how to respond to it, how to learn from it. And moreover, how to not let a past failure define you.

Although I don’t think the word is ever used in reference to what George Wickham did to Lydia Bennet, the word that kept coming to mind as I read through this book was that what he did was “assault.” He took advantage of an insecure young woman, manipulated her into being vulnerable with him, into proving she loved him enough to make a sex tape, and then tried to sell their tape on the internet. Something that hit me so hard in this book is Lydia’s confusion. She talks a lot about the difference between understanding something with your mind vs. understanding it with her heart – Lydia really applies her new psych classes well here — and something she struggles with is understanding how her relationship with George ended. She knows logically that he left her and betrayed her, but she can’t reconcile those actions with the man who made her feel so loved and protected. Her heart can’t understand how it happened and changed so fast. There are a lot of facets of Lydia’s journey and healing in this book, but I’d say the biggest is Lydia reaching an emotional understanding of what happened, knowing this wasn’t her fault, and it was completely George in the wrong. She originally told her story to the LBD fans with careless abandon because it seemed fun, but then George and the internet ripped her agency away from her and tried to write their own ending.

They silenced her.

And in all the months since then, Lydia is trying to find a way to reclaim her agency, her story, and tell it in a way that encompasses who she was and who she now is, so that she can live with it and feel some kind of peace.

The original web series had a lot of compassion for Lydia Bennet and her situation, and that comes through in this novel as well. This novel, which gives closure to her story, is a way of letting Lydia take back her dignity after countless people took it away and stomped all over it. It’s impossible not to read this and extrapolate its messages out to anyone else who has suffered a trauma or been betrayed: Be kinder to yourself. You are trying to heal. And It’s okay not to be “over it.” Be kinder to yourself.

And as someone who needed to hear that message more than a few times in her life, I am so grateful this book exists and that Lydia found her way out of it. Lydia is a kind of blueprint for surviving traumatic relationships.

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My Continuing Book-ish Affair with the Owens Family

The Rules of MagicThe Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t love this one *quite* as much as I loved Practical Magic, but honestly, given how much I loved that one, that’s a pretty high bar. At any rate, this book has a lovely beautiful and believable backstory for the aunts, and I understand more why they are as they are in the original book. I think I would’ve liked to have seen more peripheral story, because this story does take place r an interesting time in history, but where history does enter, it’s always very meaningful and deliberate. I’m looking forward to rereading Practical Magic sometime with my new knowledge.

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More and More Fairy Tales

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday HorrorThe Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wish I’d had read this all in one sitting as opposed 2 sittings with many months between, but this was a lovely book regardless. The stories manage to capture the vagueness and peculiarity of classic fairy tales while still turning the narrative on its head. It’s fascinating to see the varied sources that inspired each story.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of “remixes”, especially as it relates to visual media, and reading this book while keeping remixes in mind made for a different, more critically engaging experience. I would say this is an example of a high art remix vs. the kind of remixes I’m used to thinking of like fanvids and fanfiction.

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The Careful Undressing of Love

The Careful Undressing of LoveThe Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beware, here there be spoilers.

There is so much to love in this book. I love how aware of itself it is, how Lorna points out the casual racism in Brooklyn that meets the Devonnaire Street Girls. The language is so so beautiful (I drew pink hearts next to all my favourite sections, and there are a lot of hearts). I adore how the prose weaves in and out of the past, how memories break into the present moment and color the reader’s understanding of the current events (like Lorna and her father’s conversation on page 95, with the conversation abut measuring love, or like all the other memories of Lorna’s father).

Throughout most of this book, I was screaming, “But what about the girls that don’t fall in love with boys?!” Aka, any girl who isn’t straight. And then the book addressed it. I feel mostly positive toward its portrayal of gay girls. What bothers me about it is how she was forced to closet herself, to “sacrifice,” but that’s more an issue with the toxic Devonnaire Street culture than it is with the story itself.

But that’s a perfect segue into my other nitpick with this story, and that’s Angelika, and the way she controlled the entire street. I thought the way Angelika acted was emotionally abusive, the way she slut-shamed the girls, policed their bodies and their agency, enforced the gender binary, and employed her racist views when choosing their clothes. Even though she thought she was justified, she psychologically tortured them and terrified them for this entire book, and it was cruel. And no one ever called her on it, even in the end, when it was pretty obvious that the Curse wasn’t real and her propaganda had killed a girl. The young women on this street were so damaged by this culture around them, and not once until the very end (until it was too late for one of them) did a logical adult step in to remove Angelika’s influence. I thought that was a little unsatisfying, but I suppose it could argued that it’s realistic; abusers don’t always get punished. (But I want them to!)

(Also, the press was so gross in this book. Can they just not sensationalize the tragedy of these girls’ lives?)

Overall, I liked the ending. I wanted Angelika to get punished, but it was beautiful that it was Lorna’s mom’s love for her daughter that ultimately saved them both, got them free of Devonnaire Street and let them have a fresh start. Especially since it was clear that they did both have people they loved romantically, but for their own good, and because they loved each other, they left them both behind.

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Keep Swimming, For Someday You Will Reach The Shore

It Ends with UsIt Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was not the kind of book I would naturally gravitate toward, and I think part of that is my preconception of it as a straight-up romance novel, which it is not. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that romance is present, but this is absolutely about Lily and her personal journey, her hardships and getting through it, and for me, that made all the difference.

Lily’s relationships with Atlas and Ryle are definitely present within the book, but to me, the most stand-out relationships were Lily’s relationships with other women in her life. Her friendship with Allysa was so pure, so selfless. It warms my heart that they each have such heartfelt well wishes for the other. And Lily and her mom, Jenny — that was another lovely relationship. It may have begun in a place of resentment and low-key antagonism, but the growth they experienced by the end was beautiful. Also, the Ellen DeGeneres letters were ❤

This is a book I think everyone should read, despite their genre preconceptions, because the central theme — which is basically that we aren’t always very sympathetic to people in Lily’s situation — is one that everyone can appreciate.

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“Flipper-Footing”

The Brides of Rollrock IslandThe Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Low-key spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

After a few recent disappointments, it was so refreshing to read a book like this. The language was so lovely and I adore how new words are constructed. Listen to this — “when they had found flipper-footing they began to gallop toward me, as sheep hurry over their snowy field to a fresh-dropped hay bale, or pigs cross a sty at the clink of a slop bucket.” Flipper-footing. I have a new favourite word.

I had before never ventured into the realm of selkie fantasy fiction, but I’m glad to start here. Lanagan really captured the silent heartbreak of tearing these seal-women from the sea, the injustice and the cruelty of it. Frankly, by the end of this book, I would’ve quite happy to stand around with Miskaella and Trudle and watch the men stay miserable. Having stolen wives for at least two generations (my math is probably not up to snuff), I thought they deserved all the misery they got. But maybe I’m just being very uncharitable.

The book certainly did a good job of illustrating what an unhealthy love looks like, because none of these marriages, save that of Dominick’s mam and dad, were healthy. Misskaella enchanted the men and trapped the women; the men could not look beyond themselves enough to set their wives free; the seal-women loved their husbands but loved the sea more.

The seal-wives were extremely docile for much of the book; stealing their skins seemed to sap them of the spirit to protest their circumstances. That was frustrating, especially since only Daniel seemed to have the guts to release them. However, the seal-women found strength enough to do what was needed to escape and protect their children.

I also appreciate the glimmer of hope there at the end, with Lory and Daniel’s second meeting, him smiling. While slightly contrived, it was refreshing, like two souls breaking out of the shadows of the last generation. And Trudle… I didn’t expect to ever like her, but the final chapter from her perspective was so moving. I was happy that she was content as the island revived around her, that she discovered the last of Misskaella’s secrets.

All in all, a lovely read and one I’m proud to have on my bookshelf.

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