This is the second in the Tales from the Grim series. I picked it up not realizing it was the second book, so I recommend reading the first, because it felt like much of the story’s background was missing without it.
Although readers can pick up on who the characters are from the previous book without having read it, they still lack depth. Throughout the story, the strongest relationship dynamic happens between Margo and her adopted brother Luis. The rest tend to fall flat and rely on previous knowledge of the last novel.
The romance felt secondary to the plot, but that may be because it didn’t feel like there was much chemistry between the characters. Even if there had been build up in the first book, this one felt lacking in the connection that brought them together.
The politics and magic of the world were a more interesting plot. Again, it needed more development, as there wasn’t much background on Margo’s djinn heritage. It’s a world in which mixed-blood, paranormal beings are held in disdain, which could have made the story powerful as commentary on real-world issues. But it never delved far enough.
Despite its shortcomings, the novel did move at a fast pace and keep me intrigued. It’s well written and keeps you turning the pages. It shows there’s great potential for more from this world and this writer. I might go back and read book 1 to get the complete picture of these characters and their story.
Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much follows an unnamed narrator as she struggles with her love addiction. The protagonist moves from one toxic relationship to another, and when she finds something that could be solid, she self-sabotages. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel spins the tale of an imperfect and complicated human.
The main character is not likable. She’s messy and self-destructive. Her infidelity could read as playing into the stereotype that bisexual people are cheaters. But Arafat does an adept job in showcasing that she’s unfaithful because that’s part of her personality overall, not a result of her bisexuality.
As the book unravels, we learn about the protagonist’s past and childhood, including her mother’s history. This all comes together to create a whole picture of why she engages in such toxic behavior and relationships. It never necessarily makes her likable, but it does make you understand her better as a person.
The protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive to her as a child. It’s this lack of maternal warmth and love that leads her to act out as she craves that unconditional love her mother never gave her.
She enrolls in a rehabilitation program for love addiction, but she’s skeptical in the beginning. She feels her issues aren’t comparable to problems like drug, alcohol, or sex addiction. But as she progresses through the program, she finds a sense of camaraderie with her peers and even confronts some of her emotional trauma.
It’s interesting that the protagonist explicitly states her physical attraction to men and women, but asserts she only sees herself romantically happy with a woman. It brings up the idea of a broader spectrum, with bisexuality combined with homoromantic orientation. And none of it is ever easy. She encounters a lot of biphobia, especially from her mother, who thinks she’s just a closeted lesbian.
I can’t speak to it as it’s not an experience I’m familiar with, but I did want to mention a content/trigger warning in the novel for eating disorders. The main character often discusses her anorexia as part of her issues with seeking control in place of love. It’s a subject that is mentioned casually throughout the novel, not playing a central role but clearly having an influence on her character.
Once she leaves the clinic, she falls back into old habits, adding to her unlikability. But by the very end of the novel, she comes to have a sense of closure with her relationship with her mother. And that alone feels like she’s grown so much from where she started, making it a satisfactory ending.
Jess Tran comes from superhero parents and has an older sister with powers, but she did not inherit this gene. She decides to find her own way in a world of metahumans and superpowers and ends up at an internship working for The Mischiefs, her parents’ and the city of Andover’s nemeses. However, everything is not what it seems in the world of superpowers, heroes, and villains. With the help of her crush Abby and her friends, Jess sets out to find and reveal the truth.
One of the more refreshing aspects of the story is how Lee handles Jess’ coming out. It’s casually stated when she tells a brief story of a flashback to English class during her earlier high school years. From there, it’s simply a part of who she is and not a narrative point in which the plot revolves around.
The story deals a lot with being exceptional, and it’s weaved deftly within the world-building. In a world where metahumans were created by X29 after the Disasters, it’s easy to see why Jess feels inadequate, especially compared to her superhero parents and sister. Even though her younger brother doesn’t exhibit metahuman powers either, he’s also a child prodigy. Jess finding a way to know her value without exceptional traits makes her a protagonist to root for.
Lee’s world-building gets woven throughout the plot, which readers can appreciate. However, there are often more questions than answers to many of the details she brings up. Through Jess’s point of view, we learn about World War III, the Disasters, the creation of the North American Collective, and other similar governments around the world. But aside from a history book lesson, the reader doesn’t learn much.
An argument can be made though that this is done on purpose because it’s coming from Jess. She only knows what they’ve taught her in school, and up until now, she hadn’t questioned what she was taught. As she unfurls as a character and starts to realize the world she’s been fed is a lie, that’s when she questions the Collective, the hero/villain dichotomy, and her place in it all.
The blossoming romance between Abby and Jess is absolutely adorable. Everything from the squishy feelings of a crush to the first kiss to their comfortable jokes together creates a realistic and loveable relationship growth. There’s a scene in particular when Abby sleeps over and the tension is so well written.
Overall, a lot of plot points were obvious to the reader, though not obvious to Jess. But even so, it was a lot of fun to read. And the way it ends leaves the readers wanting more of the world, which is good because it’s the first in a series.
Childhood friends Sahar and Nasreen are desperately in love, but living in Tehran, their love is forbidden. Nasreen wants to lead the life her parents want for her, to marry a good man with a good job who can take care of her, even if it means she has to give up her childhood sweetheart. Sahar can’t lose Nasreen, so she considers transitioning into a man, as that is acceptable in their culture. It’s a novel filled with teen angst, questions of gender and sexuality, coming of age and deciding how to stay true to yourself while holding on to the people you love.
When it comes to the discussions of trans people and transitioning, it’s hard for me to speak clearly to it because that’s not my own experience. But throughout the novel, the discussions explicitly state “transsexual,” which I’m not sure if it’s an outdated term or if it’s specific to Iranian culture on the subject. Because in this culture, trans people are acceptable as it is seen as “fixing” the problem of homosexuality. There’s a lot to unload in that frame of mind altogether because lumping gender and sexual orientation into one doesn’t allow for nuance.
There’s also an interesting division within the LGBTQ+ community. Sahar’s gay cousin, Ali, introduces her to Tehran’s queer community to show her she’s not the only one and there’s nothing wrong with her. But Sahar is resistant to the idea that she is a lesbian. Moreover, there’s another trans character she meets who shows repulsion toward gay people, calling it unnatural.
Farizan creates dynamic, imperfect characters in Sahar and Nasreen. It would be easy to categorize them as overdramatic teen girls and to get easily annoyed with their personalities. At times, Sahar becomes frustrating, even as she acknowledges her flaws and irrationality. But through all that emotion, it’s a delight to see her go through the growing pains and become firm in her identity.
I admit I found Nasreen harder to sympathize with. She’s not a bad person, but she is more selfish and self-centered in comparison to Sahar. However, she’s never condemned for her desire to live comfortably. She’s not the kind of person to fight her role as a woman in her society, and it doesn’t make her weaker or inferior. She simply chooses to survive the best way she knows how.
That doesn’t mean I think she deserves Sahar. Nasreen’s treatment of her best friend is never justified by her desire to survive and live a comfortable life. It’s this complex and messy narrative that makes the novel a compelling read. Nothing’s black and white. Characters aren’t necessarily good or evil. There are no right answers.
Sahar and Nasreen don’t end up together. It’s a heartbreaking moment for Sahar, but it feels like the right choice for the story. However, there’s a spark of hope at the end as the novel wraps up with Sahar meeting a new girl at college.
In this collection of short stories, Carmen Maria Machado does what skilled horror writers do best: she examines real-world beliefs through a lens that highlights that real horror isn’t monsters, but our own societies. This collection grapples with the trauma and horror women and women’s bodies are put through by a patriarchal society that wants to see them submit.
In the first story “The Husband Stitch” a woman gives her lover everything he desires but keeps one thing to herself–the secret of her prized green ribbon. He’s so entitled that he constantly demands to know why she’s so attached to it, but she refuses to give him this one thing she wants to be hers. They even have a son together and one day after hearing his father ask about the ribbon, he asks about it too, but she doesn’t tell him, creating a rift between mother and child. It’s a poignant moment that illustrates how toxic masculinity is taught and passed down from one generation to the next. Finally, at the end of the story, tired of the questions and demands, she lets her husband remove the ribbon and her head falls clean off. It’s a not so subtle metaphor displaying how the demands and entitlement of the patriarchy end up killing women.
“Mothers” tells the story of a woman left with a child she doesn’t really want, not without her partner at least, who left them. But Machado’s narrative twists to make it seem like the main character had a mental breakdown and that the child, Mara, never existed. Rather, it appears as if the protagonist has broken into another family’s home and abducted their daughter. What made this story particularly scary was the inability to tell which narrative was real. It’s a tale that plays with reality and the psyche.
Machado dives into pop culture with “Especially Heinous – 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU.” Each snippet acts as a summary of an episode, but they’re not episodes of the real show. At least, that becomes clear as the story goes on. But at the beginning, it’s truly hard to distinguish if the synopses are real or not as they sound like actual plot lines from the series.
In “Real Women Have Bodies” an employee of a boutique fashion shop witnesses the strange phenomena of women disappearing and becoming invisible beings. They haven’t died, they’re just no longer corporeal. Even more horrific, these women are getting stitched into the very clothing the store sells, showing the still solid women stepping into their places. With this tale of horror, Machado depicts how the patriarchy keeps women controlling each other, doing men’s dirty work for them.
One of the most fascinating stories, “The Resident,” takes classic horror elements to create a sapphic scary story that’s part The Shining and part The Haunting of Hill House. This story highlights Machado’s skill in creating erotic horror out of lush and sensual language, with lines like, “a voluptuous silence that pressed against my ear drums.”
Every story features a queer main character, making the horrors and trauma they experience that much more terrifying. Because even though these are fictional stories, are they? Haven’t queer women–specially queer women of color–been subjected to unspeakable horrors in real life? At what point do stories and reality merge? Machado’s writing truly leaves readers with a sense of unease in trying to untangle those threads.
Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a fun historical romance about a widowed countess and lady astronomer. Lucy wants to pick up her father’s work and do the translation for a famous French astronomer for England’s science society, but lo and behold, they’re all men and sexist as hell. Lady Catherine, the society’s main patroness, doesn’t care for that at all and takes her funds to Lucy’s endeavors. Naturally, they fall in love, and romance and angst ensue.
The driving force behind Lucy and Catherine’s meeting is heartbreak. Lucy, who’s always known she only loves women, wants to run away from home after so much loss. Aside from being rejected by her lover who chooses to marry a man, her father passes away. She loved him dearly and worked alongside him for so many years. When she comes across the work of Oléron, the famous French astronomer, among her father’s work, she’s determined to throw herself into this work as well.
Lady Catherine, recently a widow, only wants to take a lover to satisfy her needs. She doesn’t want love and romance, and she certainly doesn’t want to get married again. But her previous lover after her late husband’s death wanted to marry her, so she had to call off the affair. In comes Lucy, stirring feelings in her she never knew she could have for a woman, and the idea strikes her: if she takes on a woman as a lover, she’d never have to marry. As is bound to happen in a romance novel, when two characters are running away and most definitely NOT looking for love, they find each other.
The sweetest part of their romance is how much they support one another. While Lady Catherine finances Lucy’s translation work and assures her she’s just as brilliant as the cocky bastards in the society, Lucy validates Catherine’s own artistic talents and assures the Lady her needlepoint skills have as much merit in the art world as any painter or sculptor. Together, they help each other realize their dreams. This balance and celebration of both STEM and the arts makes Lady’s Guide a delightful narrative that highlights how these pursuits complement one another.
Waite creates a highly sensual atmosphere with the sex scenes between Lucy and Catherine. They highlight the importance and eroticism of consent, as well as taking charge of one’s pleasure and desires. There’s never any shame between the two women, even as Catherine engages in intimacy with a woman for the first time. She’s never repulsed by her feelings, but rather confused, as she never thought it possible. Lucy in turn shows a great deal of respect for her partner, making sure she’s comfortable and enthusiastic every step of the way. They both take great care to address each other’s needs.
Perhaps one of the best moments in the book is when it’s revealed that Oléron is a woman. The whole time the society, and Lucy herself, assumed the famous French astronomer was a man. This point gets tangled in Lucy’s discovery of other women like herself who have studied and furthered the sciences through history and who were silenced or else had their work taken by their fathers, brothers and other men. It leads her to her newest endeavor, which is to collect the work of these women and continue their scientific pursuits while giving them their due credit. A wonderful feminist ending for a Regency story with misogynistic conflict.
Ari North’s Always Human first appeared as a serial on WebToon, running from 2015-2017. Yellow Jacket published it as a collection in May 2020 as part of a sponsorship with GLAAD.
This comic series follows two young women, Sunati and Austen, as they navigate a new, romantic relationship. Set in a future world where almost everyone wears body mods, a technology used to enhance appearance or capabilities, the sci-fi scenery is lush and intriguing. But not everyone can wear body mods. Some, like Austen, have Egan’s syndrome, a condition that compromises the immune system, making body mods impossible to wear.
The story is filled with sweetness and angst as Sunati and Austen learn to understand one another, making mistakes, pulling apart and coming back together. Sunati first finds Austen attractive because she thinks she’s so brave for not using body mods. When she finds out it’s because of her Egan’s syndrome, Sunati puts Austen up on a pedestal, making it seem like her life with a chronic illness is an inspiration.
It really speaks to the attitude that exists in the real world about able-bodied language and perspectives. Those with different abilities are often held up to these impossible standards to serve as inspiration and awe for able-bodied people. Austen also frequently deals with others tiptoeing around her, because they think if they use body mods around her she will get upset. She doesn’t want special treatment and she doesn’t want others to look at her as some kind of saint. She just wants to be human.
Throughout the series Sunati and Austen get to know each other in the sweetest scenarios, creating that warm, fuzzy feeling that readers love about romance. The characters are honestly two huge dorks in their own ways, but that’s what makes them so loveable and perfect for each other. But perhaps the best aspect of their relationship is the open and honest communication. They don’t always get things right, but they talk through their problems and come to see the world through one another’s eyes, gaining a better understanding each time. It’s a wonderful example of a healthy, happy relationship.
I listened to this collection of essays on audio, in which Samantha Irby herself reads, which is how I highly recommend you consume this book. Irby brings her biting wit and raw honesty to each essay, making them feel more like confessions. But they create a lifeline to so many who feel the way she does, making readers feel more connected and less alone. And she does it all with great humor, never taking herself, or anything, too seriously.
She covers various topics, from critiquing personas and performances on social media in “Into the Gross” to how over she is of the criticism of people being addicted to their phones in “Hung-Up!” Irby has no problem calling out others who act like they’re better than the rest of the world. She understands that at the end of the day, everyone is a mess pretending to have their ish together.
“Girls Gone Mild” is by far the most relatable and funniest essay in the collection, in my opinion. She gives a hysterical rundown of a typical girls’ night out for women 30+ who can no longer handle spontaneous outings and drinking too much. Her elaborate, minute-by-minute detail of how she plans her nights out now that she’s older sounded all too familiar and had me laughing so hard I cried.
In “Late 1900s Time Capsule,” she breaks down a typical mixtape from her youth track by track, annotating how each song captivated her teen angst, pretentious thoughts and intense emotions. As she talks about including the Indigo Girls on her mixtape she declares, “What do you mean you’re surprised I ended up with a lady?” proving there is a way to joke about queerness without being offensive. She even talks about those bygone days when you really had to be sure you wanted to invest in buying a whole album, because you couldn’t just purchase a single track.
Irby doesn’t shy away from topics often considered taboo, especially for women. She freely discusses sexuality alongside romance and relationships. She even tackles the horrors of getting your period in “Hysterical!” While hilarious in its unabashed humor, it’s also a critique on how any talk that does happen around the menstrual cycle centers on white women’s bodies and experiences, thus neglecting BIPOC bodies.
In essays like “Body Negativity” and “Hollywood Summer,” she tackles issues with body image and lack of representation of fat people. Or rather, the dismal representation of fat people. Although she takes on the topic with her signature humor, it’s clear it’s a subject that cuts to the core, and anyone who’s ever lived as a fat person in this world can relate.
Overall, this essay collection will make you laugh, but also make you think. It’s smart, witty, sarcastic, and filled with tales of horror about living as an anxious individual. You can’t help but laugh alongside Irby’s commentary on everything from making a living as a writer to moving to the country from the big city.
Nicole Dennis-Benn delivers a heart wrenching gut punch with Here Comes the Sun. The story follows two sisters as they contend with the effects of colonialism in Jamaica and the intergenerational trauma caused by that violence. Their relationships with each other, their love interests, their mother, and everyone in between are informed by the lasting influence of continued colonization.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin, which I absolutely recommend. She captured the melodic cadence of Benn’s prose with incredible precision, bringing each character to life with their own unique voices. That marriage of Benn’s narrative with Turpin’s voice acting created the perfect recipe for an immersive read.
Benn deftly intertwines various themes of colorism, trauma, sex work, sexual assault, and homophobia, all through the lens of the ramifications of patriarchal, white colonialism. By focusing on the main characters’ relationships with the supporting characters, she makes it clear that none of these issues exist in a vacuum. Everything is informed by the damage done by racism and colonization.
You can’t talk about one plot or character arc without talking about the others. That’s the brilliance of Here Comes the Sun. Margot regards her younger sister Thandi as an innocent girl to protect from the cruelties their mother put her, Margot, through. Thandi wrestles with a hatred of her skin color, as she’s been taught that her darkness is ugly and undesirable.
“No one gon’ love a black girl. Not even herself.”
Thandi and Margot’s mother’s words hit hard, reflecting the scars she’s endured from the violence of white men. It’s a moment that makes you understand Dolores’ hard exterior and lack of empathy for anyone, including her daughters. But it never excuses her behavior and actions.
At the same time, both sisters resent one another. Margot resents Thandi for having opportunities she didn’t have and throwing them away, in her opinion. Thandi resents Margot for putting the pressures of success and getting out of poverty on her at the expense of her dreams and personal desires.
All the while, Margot protects Thandi from their mother’s propensity for selling her daughter into sex work. Thandi doesn’t have a clue of their mother’s cruelty until the very end, where she finally understands why her sister Margot is the way she is. But this doesn’t let Margot off the hook for the damage she inflicts.
Dennis-Benn’s narrative shines a light on how a victim can also become a victimizer. The characters are messy and complex. It makes it hard to hate any of them, but you won’t necessarily love any of them either.
Readers looking for a happy ending to a lesbian relationship will not find anything of the sort here. Margot uses Verdeen as an escape from the lack of love from her mother. But she is also willing to sacrifice Verdeen for a sense of freedom from the prison the town’s atmosphere creates for her. While Verdeen endures ostracization and violence for being the town “aberration” to stay with Margot, Margot is willing to throw her under the bus.
The best way to summarize Here Comes the Sun is messy and complex. It’s tough content, but Dennis-Benn’s writing is so adept you cannot help but race through the story.