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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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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Homeric Tragedy for a Modern Me

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. The hype wasn’t wrong about what an excellent story this is. The development of the friendship and relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was very organic and sweet, and also bittersweet at times. Because this is based on the legend of Achilles, it got darker toward the end, and that was emotionally difficult to read sometimes. However, I don’t think it lingered too much in its own grimness or brutality, and Patroclus, despite being grieved by people’s deaths in the Trojan War, remained hopeful enough that I never felt so overwhelmed that I needed to put the book down for a while. There was a moment very close to the end where I was very scared and pained for a particular character, and I had to skim over that, but for better or for worse, that part is over quickly, and the story continues on toward its endgame.

What I was most struck by in the second half of the book — which is all about the Trojan War — is how the ending comes about. Anyone who’s familiar with the legend knows how it ends for Achilles and Patroclus, so it’s hard to write an ending that feels satisfying when the original Homeric tale is a tragedy. My fluffy little heart may have wanted a little more joy, but honestly, I’m still blown away with how she approached the ending. As someone who struggles with writing endings, I feel so inspired by how well she handled it.

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First Book of 2019

Fist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer DesireFist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire by Amber Dawn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an effort to be less precious with my words, I’m going to start posting reviews even if they are less intellectual and more my impressions of books. So, here goes.

This collection was a little darker than I expected — somehow, I wasn’t expecting actual horror stories, and I thoroughly regretted reading some of these at night. While it wasn’t quite my cup of tea, I really appreciated the fact the queer content in here was expansive in its definition of “queer.” Whereas other collections I’ve read focus very narrowly on the individual letters of LGBTQIA+, a good portion of these explored varied kinds of relationships and kinks as well. That’s not something I see very often, and it was kind of refreshing, even as I wanted to pull the covers over my eyes because I was scared of ghosts.

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