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.

Biting Back

Salt SlowSalt Slow by Julia Armfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just read this entire book in nearly sitting. Literally, I didn’t want to put it down! This book exposes the seams of the world and of daily life.

UPDATE: So I wrote tiny associative reviews for each story.

Mantis — 5/5 stars
Alternative puberty in the grand tradition of girlhood transformations. There is something in here about repressed girls suddenly being able to bite back at the invisible harm that power systems can do to them. (Or maybe I’m projecting my own Catholic baggage onto this story.)

The Great Awake — 5/5
Something beautifully psychological about this. Wistfulness and wishing. A sweet semi-unrequited love story at its core that encapsulated “almost.” Captures something universal living inside an surreal, alien-to-us shell.

The Collectibles — 4.5/5
Captures the way good friends are when living together, the way ideas kinda simultaneously form between 3 heads that all think a little alike but not quite, the kinds of telepathic leaps that get made. Something I noticed in this story is how it (and some other stories) end; some of the endings feel like they stop right at the point of no return, after which nothing will ever be the same, but then the story ends there. Likely just because that’s not what the story was interested in circling around, but as someone interested in consequences, that move stood out to me.

Formerly Feral — 5/5
This story teethers on the edge of absurdity but by surrounding our immediate main characters with a cast of absurdly horrific background characters — the homicidal neighbors — this story manages to lean decisively into the beauty and horror of making a real emotional connection. The unbecoming of girl and walk until they meet in the middle is fascinating to read.

Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax — 5/5
This is our world but tilted on its axis. Horror and realism despite the supernatural bend. Teenage girls and grown women desperate to be heard, understood, to be told its ok to let your fury and hunger spill over into entropy. A seduction of a kind. Glitter and blood and a mythology until itself. My favorite story in the collection.

Granite — 4.75/5
I understood this story more on my second read. The fragility of loving a man. Still undecided on how to fit the pieces of this story together — the neighbor, the boyfriend, the friends’ advice. Beautifully rendered, though, with imagery that took my breath away: “Morning sky. Gasp of purple, like the dark pit at the back of a throat. Day like a wallow. Promise of snow.”

Smack — 4/5
I enjoyed this for the portrait of Nicola and the look backward at her disintegrated marriage. The tone/genre felt different and certainly leaned more realistic. I love the imagery at the end. Think there’s a connection to be drawn between the fragile helplessness of jellyfish and Nicola… fragile with a sting? With some fight still in them both.

Cassandra After — 4.5/5
Structure felt more traditionally braided than the dreamy organic pace of previous stories. I felt conscious of how we moved through time. I do like the rendering of a complex relationship and the musing on being so float-y on the surface on someone’s life that you almost miss their death.

Salt Slow — 5/5
Surreal, horrifying. The most horrifying parts are the body horror but the implications of analogous real-world violence. I don’t know how this couple ever feels normal again, but the end felt like a benediction, an answer to the violence implicit elsewhere in this story.

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