Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio


Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces.

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

Kids, when you come across this book, you’ll hear a voice saying, “Oh, this sounds interesting! Do it.” That’s the devil talking. Continue reading “Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio”


Review: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan


Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

The Astonishing Color of After is the kind of book that guts you, and buoys you, rips out your heart and gives it back somehow bigger. I’ve been putting off writing this review for many days, because the inside of me still clenches with the memory of what I’ve read, and I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to keep control of all my tethers long enough to articulate all that I’m feeling.

But, here we go.

So, what’s this book about?

Leigh’s first kiss with her best friend and first love, Axel, vanishes into the thickening dark of what follows: Leigh’s mother, Dory, has taken her life, and the way she’d left—no note, no explanation—had carved a space so deep Leigh got drawn down into it.

Leigh is still feeling the pull of her mother leaving, like a little of her had trailed after Dory, when a huge crimson bird calls out her name and Leigh knows it’s her mother, reincarnated. In the fragile hope of uncovering all the secrets her parents kept stacked around the house like bricks in a wall, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her estranged maternal grandparents, and with the aid of the bird and a box of magical incense that brings forth vivid illusions, Leigh sifts through a kaleidoscope of spliced memories, trying to find the moment everything had shifted, the rip that tore her family’s foundation apart.

“Once upon a time we were the standard colors of a rainbow, cheery and certain of ourselves. At some point, we all began to stumble into the in-betweens, the murky colors made dark and complicated by resentment and quiet anger.  At some point, my mother slid so off track she sank into hues of gray, a world drawn only in shadows.” 

The experience of sitting with this book, sinking into it, aching along with Leigh as her voice gives up the grief she’d folded inside her, as the loss breaks and punctures and shapes and sutures her back together, was wonderful, painful and moving.

To read The Astonishing Color of After felt like a privilege and a gift. This is a book written with a complex beauty—it plays with colors and turns to poetry as its muse. I relished the way Emily X.R. Pan told the story of Leigh. The prose is so startlingly gorgeous that reading descriptions never left like work—her words sometimes a sharp blade, sometimes a soothing tea, or a Pandora’s box. And I found myself so awed by individual pages, underlining and pondering passages, reading them again and again to savor them and roll them around in my mind.

But the marvel of this book was how it made me turn back through things I knew but hadn’t thought of in so long. I couldn’t tell if I was reading words someone else has written or if they were getting ripped out of me. I’m quite frankly still trying to pull myself out of the feeling that there were pieces of me left in this book.

Pan shines a light on the dustless, unfaded patches the loss of a loved one leaves behind. She doesn’t shy away from the empty places where everything Leigh had lost once fit. Leigh’s heart lived deep in her mother’s rib cage, and in the wake of her suicide, so many questions sat burning on the back of Leigh’s tongue, ready to spew into the world—questions that were only stray threads, frayed from Leigh going over them so many times: Did we love her wrong? Who was at fault? How did we fail her? What makes a person so fiercely loved want to die? Leigh’s voice had its own weight, and her loss had enough gravity to wear both of us down.

But Pan doesn’t play at victim-blaming, instead we get a raw, unflinching take on what it’s like to live with mental illness and how hard it is to explain it to friends and family. She draws the reader into Dory’s mental state with such intensity that it becomes tangibly real, yet she doesn’t attempt to psychoanalyse her either. This book shows you that there’s no step-by-step guide to understanding mental illness, nothing as simple that could be memorized. How can you explain that sometimes your own mind is a place you’re afraid to be caught in after dark? How can you articulate that you’ve collected so many other ways of being broken that you can only carry them for so long?

But it’s important to have that conversation. It’s important that we talk about it, all of it—the hurt, the triumphs, the failures. We can’t let the stigma swallow every slice of light and give depth to the darkness. “The stigma can and does kill. That stigma is perpetuated by not talking,” Pan says in her author’s note. We need to talk about these things, so that we no longer feel alone. The hardest part about mental illness, in my experience, is feeling like I’m alone. But I’m not, and I promise, neither are you.

Leigh’s journey is as much about understanding her mother and her family as it is about understanding herself. She incorporated so many new revelations about her history into the anthology of herself and the deeper she dug, the deeper she delved into herself, and the more shocking a relief is the first unfurling of her healing.

Leigh decides she is done letting people determine which world she belongs to—she is as much Taiwanese as she is American, and she feels the truth of it through her. She also confronts her distant father and reproaches him for his absences when she needed him the most, and together they decide they will make do with the broken bits of themselves that Dory has left behind, they’ll jigsaw them together however they can, they will come together again on the other side of their grief and reclaim a new shape for their lives.

The Astonishing Color of After is a bold and illuminating story that affected me so deeply and still lights up my insides hope. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

“We’re not lost. We’re just headed somewhere different.” 

TRIGGER WARNINGS: suicide, depression, loss of a loved one, depiction of grief, abandonment, racial slurs, and mention of electroconvulsive therapy. Please make sure you’re in a good mental spot before you pick up this book.


Review: Vengeful (Villains #2) by V.E. Schwab


The sequel to VICIOUS, V.E. Schwab’s first adult novel.

Sydney once had Serena—beloved sister, betrayed enemy, powerful ally. But now she is alone, except for her thrice-dead dog, Dol, and then there’s Victor, who thinks Sydney doesn’t know about his most recent act of vengeance.

Victor himself is under the radar these days—being buried and re-animated can strike concern even if one has superhuman powers. But despite his own worries, his anger remains. And Eli Ever still has yet to pay for the evil he has done.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

Me, having absolutely no concept of liking things in moderation: I LOVE THIS BOOK WITH THE FIRE OF A THOUSAND SUNS.

I first read Vicious a couple years ago, and I completely inhaled it. I read it again last year and afterward, it stayed inside my heart, setting me alight from within like a candle flame. I was beyond excited for this sequel and I think my situation now is rather an object lesson in being careful what you wished for because that ending still presses hard into my ribs, making me feel simultaneously warm and sad. I NEED MORE.

Schwab wastes no time in bringing readers back into her merciless, shades-of-moral-gray world, smartly expanding it outward into new dimensions, fleshing out new characters, and seeing heads aflame, more than once.

Five years have made Victor Vale’s hatred of Eli Cardale lose its spark, its flame dampened by the fear introduced with Victor’s new unsettling reality: Victor keeps dying, again and again. Victor, it seems, has been torn and broken and put back together with half the pieces missing. He is desperate to not die, and even more than that, to live. In the collision of his whirling thoughts a plan begins to form, an architecture of gruesome messes that Victor will haul out in the hope of suturing himself back together. And Victor’s makeshift family—Sydney, Mitch, Dominic—is a lifeline to be tightly gripped… but things between them are falling apart in direct proportion to the rate at which Victor’s time is swirling away.

Good luck doesn’t seem to be something that holds the hands of Eli Cardale these days either. Captured and imprisoned, he is left tormenting himself with the notion that his most desperate desires are just out of his reach, and one name leaps to mind above and before all others: Victor.

Meanwhile, Marcella Riggins—a new EO—has made theater of murder in the town of Merit. Fear was her medium, and nightmares her art. She refuses to bow to fate and determines to embody the word that defines her: ruin. And she’s not alone. On Marcella’s side is Jonathan, a taciturn human-shield, and June, a shapeshifter whose past is shrouded in secrecy and shadows.

The one thing they all have in common? They’ve all put themselves on top of a trapdoor going directly to the bowels of hell… with absolutely no way to unlatch it.

“Power,” said the woman, “belongs to those who take it.”

Vengeful is a fast and gripping and staggeringly satisfying tightrope walk of a book. It’s so damn good. Though I wouldn’t venture to call any of the people in it “good.”

There are so many aspects of this book that leap out to me as brilliant: the examination of the grey spaces that exist between traditional definitions of good and evil, the introduction of women who were not beholden to the story of the men around them but rather had their own agency on full display, Schwab’s love of villains and antiheroes and her lilting voice, how she gives her characters power without the moral imperative to be good but does not allow them to slough off their culpability, how this book synthesizes the material in the previous book and gives it a new, different wholeness.

There’s something so disarmingly captivating about the motley collection of punctured, unpredictable, bitingly likeable individuals which makes up the heart of this book. Schwab is a skilled writer with a gift for voice and characterization. She makes every character a concrete individual with a definite presence. My old feelings for the recurring cast came softly thronging back, while I grew fond of new characters. I mean, look, they’re all terrible people, unmoored to any discernible first principles that guide their decision-making and always hoping for cruel ends to justify their brutal means, but… would I, for example, take a bullet for my asexual fashionista foster father Victor Vale? Hell yeah.

“Maybe we are broken. But we put ourselves back together. We survived. That’s what makes us so powerful. And as for family—well, blood is always family, but family doesn’t always have to be blood.” 

I’m not gonna lie, the only thing sustaining me right now is the elaborate and entirely self-indulgent fantasy version that I’ve created in my mind of a world where Victor, Syd, Mitch and their thrice-dead dog are safe and together and away from *gestures vaguely* all this.


Review: The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton


The Rules of Blackheath:

Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m.
There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you to inhabit.
We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer.
Understood? Then let’s begin…


Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others…

RATING: ☆★☆★☆ Continue reading “Review: The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton”

Wrap-ups & TBR

🍂 HUGE OCTOBER TBR 🍂 Spooky reads and most anticipated releases!

me: *looks at the 20 books on my tbr for October*

me: *yelling at myself with a megaphone* WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU LIKE THIS?

Hello, friends! First of all, I’d like to formally call myself out for always planning an unrealistically humongous tbr and inevitably setting myself up for failure, only to then wallow miserably in my disappointment…..then doing it all over again because mama truly raised a dumbass! But I figured, since no dead ancestor has appeared (yet) in the sky to stop me, it can’t be that bad of a decision, now can it? Continue reading “🍂 HUGE OCTOBER TBR 🍂 Spooky reads and most anticipated releases!”


Review: A List of Cages by Robin Roe


When Adam Blake lands the best elective ever in his senior year, serving as an aide to the school psychologist, he thinks he’s got it made. Sure, it means a lot of sitting around, which isn’t easy for a guy with ADHD, but he can’t complain, since he gets to spend the period texting all his friends. Then the doctor asks him to track down the troubled freshman who keeps dodging her, and Adam discovers that the boy is Julian—the foster brother he hasn’t seen in five years.

Adam is ecstatic to be reunited. At first, Julian seems like the boy he once knew. He’s still kindhearted. He still writes stories and loves picture books meant for little kids. But as they spend more time together, Adam realizes that Julian is keeping secrets, like where he hides during the middle of the day, and what’s really going on inside his house. Adam is determined to help him, but his involvement could cost both boys their lives…

RATING: ☆★☆★

I don’t know how a book can splinter in my mind with a haze of pain around it, make tears spring unbidden to my eyes and generally feel as though I was seeing into a bottomless well of anguish, but then, right when I thought the flint shell of my heart would crack, it hits me with a keen pang of hope and sets like a little ball of tingling warmth in the pit of my stomach. Continue reading “Review: A List of Cages by Robin Roe”