All of Our Demise (Book Review)

I was surprised and delighted by the explosive fantasy death-match novel All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman, and as soon as I closed the book on that epic cliffhanger I was desperate to read the sequel, All of Our Demise. I’d timed my reading relatively well, with only a few weeks to wait until the publication on August 30, 2022. However, I got lucky when a friend received an ARC of All of Our Demise. Because she wasn’t quite ready for it—she was reading All of Us Villains on my fervent and repetitive recommendation—she lent it to me and I excitedly set aside my existing TBR and dove right in.

What’s it about? (Spoilers for the climax of book one)

Unsurprisingly, All of Our Demise picks up shortly after All of Our Villains ended, leaving the surviving champions to reconcile with Elionor’s death, Hendry’s unexpected revival (and Alistair’s subsequent decision to keep fighting), and Isobel and Alistair’s deadly curses. As the tournament grow increasingly unstable, Alistair, Briony, Gavin, Isobel, and Finley settle into two distinct groups: the ones who want break the tournament curse (and believe they can) and the ones who for one reason or another would rather continue on as if the game hasn’t changed. Racing the clock, the champions suffer one surprise after another as they play a game that has become more complicated than simply kill or be killed. 

What’d I think?

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved it. The most exciting thing about this book (and the series as a whole) is that it allows its characters to be, well, villainous. All of our protagonists have grown up in horrible families with a horrific legacy to uphold or escape. Their lives are chock-full of trauma, both individual and generational. They’ve been tossed into a death tournament that most of them have been preparing for their whole lives. They have grown up knowing or hoping that they would become killers before they turned twenty. Of course they’re all a bit monstrous. It wouldn’t make any sense if they were all totally good. At the same time, though, they’re all people. Foody and Herman have drawn all these champions so well that we feel for them and empathize with them even through their worst moments. There’s not a single one of these characters who doesn’t do terrible, unforgivable things… that the reader (and the other characters, often) ultimately forgive them for. They balance the bad with good, and the effort is always palpable. They’re all villains in a way, but we understand them, even when they’re making choices that are undeniably wrong.

Like, even after Briony’s squad finds out that it is possible to break the tournament, Gavin and Alistair decide to keep playing the cards as originally dealt. Obviously the right thing to do is to work to break the curse and save anyone, but it is impossible to fault the ones who don’t believe in the possible happy ending and can’t bring themselves to throw everything away in futile hope. In fact, Gavin and Alistair are my favorites (honestly, by a wide margin, although I do still like Isobel and Briony), and that’s a testament to how well these books are written: I love these characters even at their worst. The morality here is very, very gray. There are so many people that you’d say are absolutely beyond redemption that somehow manage it… by actively working for it and changing their ways. 

Not everyone lives to the end of All of Our Demise, but no one depends on a death to be redeemed; they earn their forgiveness through what they do while living, not in how they die. That’s how it should be; redemption-through-death is overdone and a bit lazy at this point.

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Stranger Things 4: Eddie

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into a series of mini character-focused essay akin to my I care too much about fictional characters series, so that’s what it is. The short version of the Stranger Things 4 review is: I really liked it and I’m really looking forward to season five.

The long version is… a lot longer. When I realized my thoughts were nearly 10k words I decided to split them up into more manageable chunks. If you follow me, prepare to get spammed with a lot of Stranger Things content.

Last time I talked about feminism and LGBTQ+ representation with Robin. Let’s finish up the teens with Eddie.

I care too much about fictional characters

Eddie Munson

The fact that anyone expected Eddie (Joseph Quinn) to survive this season is actually funny to me. Did you guys forget about Benny, Barb, Bob, and Alexei? Did you think that just because his name doesn’t start with a ‘B’ that he’d escape the curse that took every other likable one-season character (and Billy)? Don’t get me wrong: I like Eddie a lot. He’s a very fun new character. I love how seamlessly he merges into the group with Steve, Robin, and Dustin. I LOVE that Stranger Things gave the fans a new mullet-sporting “bad boy” to obsess about so that people would let some of the Billy obsession going. At first my impression of Eddie—purely on the aesthetic—was that he was Billy 2.0, this time with less racism! (I hate Billy so much; you guys are lucky that Billy isn’t in this season or else he’d get a whole section about how much I hate him. I mean, there will be some in the Max section, but still). 

Eddie definitely evolves beyond being Billy 2.0, thankfully. He’s sweet and goofy and even though he seems sorta mean at the beginning (just reschedule for Lucas, Eddie!) he really is a good dude. He’s charismatic and he has good chemistry with the group, and I wish he’d survived if for no reason beyond it would’ve been nice for Will to get to play D&D with him. 

Here’s the thing, though. Eddie did not have to die. I don’t mean that in a fangirly, please come back as a vampire sort of way. I mean that from a story standpoint, his death was unnecessary. It was to emotionally crush the fans. To be fair, it worked, so good job. But is there any reason why Eddie had to die aside from martyring himself and becoming the latest one-season fatality? Maybe Eddie sacrificed himself so the Stranger Things curse didn’t take Argyle or Dmitri. In-universe, though, Eddie chose to die, and for no real reason. Did those thirty seconds Eddie bought make any real difference? Dustin was already safe, and while it’s arguable that he kept the bats away from Steve, Robin, and Nancy for that extra minute it’s not definite that doing so really saved them. The bats would have kept fighting him right by the exit. He could have bought more time and then climbed the rope. He could have left the rope when he ran away and made a big circle with the intention of buying more time and still trying to escape.

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All of Us Villains (Mini Book Review)

For August, Barnes and Noble chose All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman as its YA monthly pick. It’s been a few months since I picked one of those up, and I’d heard good things about All of Us Villains, so I figured I’d give it a shot. 

What’s it about?

For longer than anyone can remember, seven families in Ilvernath have been simultaneously cursed and blessed. Blessed because they alone have access to the increasingly rare high magick that is needed for the most potent spells and curses, and cursed because in order to gain control of the magick they must sacrifice one of their children to a battle to the death; every generation, seven teenagers fight underneath the blood veil and only one emerges alive. This tradition of power and violence has long been a secret known to only the seven families and the spell- and curse-workers whose assistance they rely upon, but when a tell-all book is published, it throws the bloody competition into public view for the first time.   

What’d I think?

Despite the fact that both the official summary of All of Us Villains and the one that I wrote above focus on the magical-Hunger-Games plot of the novel, it is actually very character-driven. There are four POV characters, one apiece from four of the seven families: Alistair Lowe, whose family always wins and who was raised to be reclusive and villainous; Isobel Macaslan, who is individually talented but whose family has fallen out of power and is reduced to unsavory magick-collection; Briony Thorburn, who has trained to be champion for her whole life and is dedicated to winning at all cost; and Gavin Grieve, whose family wrote the inflammatory book and who are seen as a joke that will never win. Each of the four brings a different perspective to the novel and to the competition, and the way those perspectives and goals shift constantly as alliances shift and betrayals are revealed and secrets are uncovered is a major part of what makes All of Us Villains so fun to read.

All of the characters have layered and rich relationships with each other. Isobel and Briony were best friends before a falling-out. Alistair, being the favorite, is feared and hated by the others before he meets them; because he is different than his reputation would imply, the others have mixed reactions to him, from confused attraction to unexpected sympathy. There are other characters, some of them champions, others family members, and still others spell- and curse-crafters who also add compelling relationships and and storylines. The whole town is a fascinating patchwork of traditions and rivalries that make for a very well lived-in world. There are all kinds of different relationships here, from romantic to platonic to I’ll-kill-you-later-but-I-need-you-now, each more compelling than the last.

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Stranger Things 4: Robin

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into a series of mini character-focused essay akin to my I care too much about fictional characters series, so that’s what it is. The short version of the Stranger Things 4 review is: I really liked it and I’m really looking forward to season five.

The long version is… a lot longer. When I realized my thoughts were nearly 10k words I decided to split them up into more manageable chunks. If you follow me, prepare to get spammed with a lot of Stranger Things content.

In the previous installment I discussed the reversal of the Steve/Nancy/Jonathan love triangle, but now it’s Robin time.

I care too much about fictional characters

Robin Buckley

Robin! Another one of my favorites. Yes, I realize that pretty much everyone is one of my favorites. Robin (Maya Hawke) is one of those incredible characters who fits so well into a show that it’s lightly mind-boggling to realize that she’s only been in two of the four seasons. If you asked me what my favorite season of Stranger Things is I’d probably say season two—Will actually gets to do stuff, Steve and Dustin have teamed up, Max has made her first appearance, Hopper and Eleven’s cute father+daughter relationship hits the ground running—but if you followed that up with a question about favorite characters I’d be stumped because Robin is very near the top of that list, but how is it possible that one of my favorite characters isn’t in my favorite season?

Robin and Steve’s inexplicably competent yet lightly unhinged energy together was a clear highlight in season three

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A Clash of Steel (Book Review)

A Clash of Steel; A Treasure Island Remix by C.B. Lee has been tentatively on my TBR since its publication. A good cover will do that for you, and A Clash of Steel has a gorgeous one that is objectively attractive, specific to its book, and stands out even amongst the hundreds of others on the shelf. It had never quite made it to the top of the list because I’d previously read Lee’s novel Not Your Sidekick, and while I liked it, I didn’t necessarily like it enough to actively seek out her other work. But then I watched Our Flag Means Death and got incredibly obsessed with pirates; when I went to the library and saw A Clash of Steel and its beautiful cover, I decided it would be a good time to give it a shot.

What’s it about?

Xiang has lived a very sheltered life in a small village, stealing moments to read adventure stories and to watch the boats coming and going. More than anything else, she wants to impress her cold, distant mother and be brought with her to Canton to run the bustling tea house there. Her mother has other ideas, but eventually brings Xiang to the city where Xiang meets Anh, a girl with whom she has an immediate connection, but who steals a precious family heirloom. Xiang is heartbroken and embarrassed… until Anh returns with an unusual request: unbeknownst to Xiang, the stolen pedant held a part of a treasure map, and Anh needs Xiang’s help to make sense of it.

What’d I think?

I really liked A Clash of Steel. My reservations about Not Your Sidekick all came from the writing; the story was strong and the characters likable, but the writing wasn’t quite there to support it. Happily, in the years that separate the two novels, the writing has gotten there.

The pacing is really good. Everything feels appropriately high stakes but is never so frantic that you lose track of what is happening or have to sacrifice character or connection for adventure. This is definitely an adventure book, with exciting high-seas dramatics and pirate battles, but it takes the appropriate time to craft an engrossing bildungsroman as well, and neither story is lost in the other.  

The two main characters—plus the important secondary ones—are all very well drawn. They feel fully-realized and their development over the course of the story is natural and believable. They are likable both as individuals and as a couple. 

A particularly exciting element of A Clash of Steel is the romance. I didn’t realize that this was going to have a central sapphic romance, even though in retrospect I probably should’ve considering that it’s by C.B. Lee. So that was a nice surprise considering my ongoing quest to find some that are good. I particularly love the romance between Xiang and Anh because of how delicately it is balanced with the rest of the novel. It’s a very important storyline, but it doesn’t ever outweigh the adventure or Xiang’s individual character development, or even Xiang’s enfolding into the larger family of the Huyền Vũ. Lee manages to write a scene of spark-of-first-sight and back it up with legitimate chemistry. There’s attraction right off the bat, but this isn’t a love-at-first-sight book. The girls’ relationship builds steadily throughout the whole story, suffering the occasional backslide (it’s a pirate book! Of course it isn’t all smooth sailing) but remaining compelling throughout.

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Stranger Things 4: Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into a series of mini character-focused essay akin to my I care too much about fictional characters series, so that’s what it is. The short version of the Stranger Things 4 review is: I really liked it and I’m really looking forward to season five.

The long version is… a lot longer. When I realized my thoughts were nearly 10k words I decided to split them up into more manageable chunks. If you follow me, prepare to get spammed with a lot of Stranger Things content.

In the previous installment I discussed Will’s sexuality and its real-world handling. Let’s move onto the teens.

I care too much about fictional characters

Steve Harrington and Nancy Wheeler 

I wrote whole essays for both Eleven and Will, but not everyone needs quite that much space all for themselves. Steve (Joe Keery) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) have very intertwined storylines, so I figured I would group them. Steve is favorite character (I love Will, but I relate to him too much for him to be my first favorite). I know, I know, I’m not original. Everyone loves Steve the most. Everyone watches the Stranger Things terrified that Steve is going to die. I’m no different. I was convinced that Steve was going to die, and I was extremely relieved when he didn’t. Steve is such a great character because of all the reasons that everyone always says. He developed as a character, learning from his mistakes and becoming a better person. Plus, he has a dynamite dynamic with the younger cast, most specifically Dustin. Also Robin. Steve+Dustin and Steve+Robin are peak Stranger Things. When it comes to platonic relationships, Steve is the MVP, which is why I’m a little disappointed that his focus this season is romance.

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Stay Gold (Book Review)

I’d been meaning to read Stay Gold ever since I enjoyed Tobly McSmith’s sophomore novel Act Cool. I bought it ages ago, and it finally made it to the top of my pile. 

What’s it about?

Pony is an army brat, so he’s used to moving around all the time. This time, though, switching schools feels like an opportunity rather than a hardship. After being bullied at his last school after coming out, Pony decides to go stealth; because he can pass, he decides that there’s no reason to tell anyone that he’s trans. When he meets Georgia, a popular and beautiful cheerleader, his decision to stay under-the-radar starts to look decidedly less attractive.

What’d I think?

On the whole I enjoyed reading Stay Gold, but there were a lot of things that bothered me the more I thought about them. For that reason I decided to break out an old review format: I liked/I didn’t like.

I liked the cover. I mean, look at it! It’s so adorable! I love this art style, and in fact it was the covers that first brought me to Tobly McSmith’s books. Is it maybe a little too cute for the seriousness of the end of Stay Gold? Yeah, possibly. But I still love it.

I didn’t like Pony’s name. It took me a minute to get past what a stupid name “Pony” is, but I accepted it because of the The Outsiders homage (for the record: I love that book but Ponyboy is a dumb name there, too; also, it feels like every time I hear something about SE Hinton lately it’s bad, so…). It’s a slightly tough pill to swallow that anyone would choose their own name and go with “Pony,” especially since he repeatedly teases that it has a good story behind it and then it doesn’t. You might be thinking: didn’t Pony name himself for The Outsiders? Good question, but no. Georgia makes the literary connection but when Pony finally explains how he picked the name it is literally a reference to… ponies, which makes me wish that McSmith had approached the name differently. Like, maybe by naming him Johnny (or Dallas or Darrel or something)—which would have an indirect Outsiders reference for Georgia to grab onto) or simply by letting Ponyboy actually be Pony’s inspiration. In light of Hinton slamming Stay Gold‘s existence, though, I sort of think that the novel would have been better served to move away from that connection, as Hinton—with all her arguably anti-gay twitter tantrums—is a weird public figure to link to a queer character; it’s not quite as bad, but it would be like a trans person choosing their new name from Harry Potter; it’s plausible, but there are, let’s say, better role models).  

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Stranger Things 4: Will

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into a series of mini character-focused essay akin to my I care too much about fictional characters series, so that’s what it is. The short version of the Stranger Things 4 review is: I really liked it and I’m really looking forward to season five.

The long version is… a lot longer. When I realized my thoughts were nearly 10k words I decided to split them up into more manageable chunks. If you follow me, prepare to get spammed with a lot of Stranger Things content.

In the previous installment I discussed the missed opportunities with Eleven’s storyline. This time it’s Will’s turn.

I care too much about fictional characters

Will Byers

Despite the fact that, in terms of plot importance and screentime, Will is a minor character in Stranger Things 4, he has dominated much of the news cycle regarding the show. He has been a big part of the discourse this year, and he’s one of my favorite characters. Like everyone else, I have a lot to say about Will this season. A lot of it has been said often and loudly, but not all of it.

First things first: I wish Will hadn’t been sidelined again. I don’t know when or where Will became one of my favorite characters. From the start? When I started to painfully relate to him? When he just wanted to play D&D? When the show started to imply his queerness? Who knows? In any case, I love Will. Every season I make a wishlist for what I want to see and the two major things are

  1. Steve survives
  2. Will is happy

(I got one this season).

But poor Will just got kicked around and devastated again. Let the boy go ten minutes without crying, please and thank you. That’s bad enough when it’s just a regular favorite character, but when it’s the one you deeply relate to on an intrinsic level? Ouch. 

That being said, the scene with Will and Jonathan in the pizza place was absolutely beautiful. If I had to pick a favorite scene from Stranger Things 4, that would be it. It’s well-acted, it’s heartbreaking but also kind of healing, and it is one of the most nakedly vulnerable moments the show has given us to date. I guess if you’re going to give two of your main characters only a handful of scenes apiece, you’ve gotta make sure the ones they do have are doozies.

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July 2022 Wrap-Up

July was a tough one! I made the potentially unwise decision to do Camp NaNoWriMo after not working on my own fiction for quite some time, so I was very rusty to start with, and I decided to make things harder for myself by committing myself to plotting my book and figuring out background info instead of just blundering straight in and word-vomiting 50k words like I usually would. I’m very good at writing lots of words; I’m less good at writing coherent, succinct words. I did manage to get a win, but it was a close one; I started the month strong, but work burnout and catching COVID (despite being vaccinated and boosted) at the end of month didn’t help. But I did it!

As is always the case during NaNoWriMo, my reading took a major hit. I read a lot of graphic novels for something a little bit less demanding on my brain. I also read several books I really didn’t connect with but expected to and a few that were outside my usual wheelhouse, so on the whole this felt like a weird, off-kilter reading month. My favorite read of the month was one I was initially uninterested in; I read it for work and got super psyched, and it broke me through my slump. Slumps are the worst, aren’t they? In any case, All of Us Villains was great. The rest of what I read was bad to middling, with one or two that I liked but wouldn’t necessarily rave about.

Here’s what I read…

Half-Blown Rose by Leesa Cross-Smith

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Generally speaking, I don’t generally like traditional literary fiction. When I read the summary of Half-Blown Rose, I wasn’t particularly excited. Mid-life crises and affairs in Paris are pretty standard fare for the genre, so I was surprised that Leesa Cross-Smith managed to take these well-worn and often irritating storylines and turn them into something compelling. I adore Jane Eyre, the novel from which HBR takes its title, and the literary allusions to that novel elevate this one, opening it up to some fascinating interpretations. I had so much fun considering this as a very, very loose retelling: who is Jane? Who’s Rochester? Bertha? St. John? The mix of narrative styles makes for an interesting read, and the overall impression is that of a mixed media experience (more than once I paused to listen to a song from one of Vincent’s many playlists). I found the pacing a little off—the end moved very fast, and ends on a somewhat unfulfilling cliffhanger—but on the whole this is a good one. Novels about failing marriages and foreign flings are never going to be my thing, hence the lower star rating, but on the whole this was a win.

Full review to come


A Dark and Hollow Star by Ashley Shuttleworth

Rating: 1 out of 5.

I wanted to like this one. I really did. A queer fantasy about faeries? That’s a concept right up my alley. Unfortunately, this book missed in every conceivable way. The worldbuilding is both too much and not enough; every page introduces a slew of new concepts for the faerie system. Fae are different than faeries. Sidhe fae and lesidhe fae are different. The Seelie and UnSeelie courts are different, and there are at least eight different courts, all with different royal families and elemental alliances. Then there are changelings, a Wild Hunt, the ironborn, Reapers, cava, and more. This is almost all infodropped, making it almost impossible to keep it all straight. And yet despite this apparently well-developed magical system, the world still feels weirdly underdeveloped. The characters are extremely one-note, with Nausicaä—the character on the cover and almost certainly author Ashley Shuttleworth’s favorite—is so cringily annoying that I nearly DNF’d a dozen times. I love snark as much as the next person, but sometimes it doesn’t work, and it really doesn’t work here. The plot also felt pretty disjointed, but I’m pretty sure that’s due more to me zoning out and reading with 1/3 of my brain than to the actual writing. Sorry for the mean review, but this was a miss for me. I’m glad there are more LGBTQ+ characters in fantasy series these days, but I’m personally going to keep looking for other ones. 

Full review to come


An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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