Not Your Average Frankenstein: Exploring Grief, Sexuality, and the Monster in Gerardo Sámano Córdova’s Monstrilio

Published by Zando Projects on March 7, 2023.

For readers with a soft spot for unconventional monster fiction, Gerardo Sámano Córdova’s debut novel Monstrilio is packed with metaphor and nuanced layers of horror and humanity. The novel draws the reader into the raw, intimate spaces of mourning and creates something distinctly original as the story effortlessly blends speculative horror with grief, sexuality, and what it means to be human.

The novel follows a grieving family after the death of their son, Santiago, who was born with one lung. In her grief and desperation to hold on to part of her son, Magos cuts out a piece of the lung that both sustained and failed her child. Magos’s inspiration came from a play where the actress lapped up her dead son’s blood as she wept over his body, and as Magos cuts into her own son, “She savors her Santiago’s blood, a taste of iron and warmth. She could suck more blood out of his veins, but she won’t; she’s not a vampire though now she understands the impulse—the craving to drink deep and thirsty in her bowels.” Magos’s choices here are disturbing, but awkwardly justified as Córdova draws the reader into her grief, and this over-the-top, ghoulish action resonates with the raw desperation and tenderness of a mother clinging to her child. As this piece of dead flesh takes life, and morphs into a human-like creature, this desperate thirst and unsatiated hunger follows Monstrilio throughout his life and separates him from humanity. 

The reference to folklore and reincarnation, while not particularly subtle, quickly brings the reader up to speed and takes some mysticism out of the equation when the lung takes on a life of its own and transforms into something more in line with a deformed animal than a child. Magos is determined to raise the creature she names Monstrilio in place of Santiago in spite of his violent nature and the pressure from her family to kill it. From Monstrilio’s unusual beginnings, the tension of the narrative often flourishes in the undefined spaces where his evolution from monster to man intersect in ways that might remind the reader of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. This stands out when Monstrilio learns how to speak. As language connected Frankenstein’s monster closer to humanity, it also sways the rest of Magos’s family into seeing Monstrilio’s potential to evolve. While Victor Frankenstein’s creation was an act of pride, crudely cast aside in horror, Magos pours her desire into the lung and focuses on his capacity for good. Like other monster narratives from the genre, Monstrilio plays with the monster’s sense of belonging and maintains a sense of tension in regard to how Monstrilio will be accepted by society but offers a steady foundation of support and love rather than regret and alienation from his creator.

Although their marriage cannot recover, Magos and Joseph maintain a coparenting relationship and are determined to “weed out whichever Monstrilian instincts remained” as they coax the creature into evolving into something closer to human. Córdova packs layers of tension and nuanced emotion throughout the book as we see Magos and Joseph work through the stages of grief, but there is also a sense of loss as Monstrilio is forced to mask or suppress the inhuman parts of himself. This identity crisis is muddled by his name as Magos begins to call him Santiago in public, while he prefers M to distinguish his transformation and personal identity from the idyllic son that was lost. In Monstrilio’s early phase, Magos’s best friend, Lena, admires the monster. “It opened its mouth wide, revealing the fullness of its fangs. Two rows extending halfway across its body. I was jealous of the monster, how it didn’t care what it was or did. No shame. It held itself up with a certain pride.” The balance between fear and admiration for the monster carries across the horror genre, and Monstrilio stands out in the ways Córdova leans into the emotional complexities of the characters’ lives. 

The story is split into four sections, each featuring the perspective of one of our protagonists: Magos, Joseph, Lena, and M. While Monstrilio’s transformation and the fear of his inhuman nature is the central tension, each perspective is distinctly personal and introspective, and the text resonates with a longing from each character to be seen, loved, and understood. There is a primal sense of desire that manifests as both hunger and consumption, but also as sexuality, which is a place the characters are often their most vulnerable selves. Our four protagonists are LGBTQ+, but Córdova doesn’t spend his time exploring the build-up to this aspect of their personality as many novels often do. Rather, it is stated as a fact, which was incredibly refreshing to see, and left space to explore nuances of sexuality beyond sexual orientation. This opens the door to kink and fetish as Lena describes how she regularly hires women to bathe her, an act that is both sensual and allows her to explore the part of herself that longs to be cared for. When Monstrilio starts dating, the sense of vulnerability is complex because he wants to be loved and accepted as himself—perhaps not as human, but as the individual he’s grown to be. But despite his best intentions, he is a predator and his desire to bite his partners often toes the line of consensual kink and an act of violence. “I say I’m hungry because my hunger is what makes everyone scared,” Monstrilio notes. He wants to partake in the raw, unashamed, ruthless consumption of a predator consuming prey, but knows if he doesn’t resist the temptation, he can’t maintain the illusion of his humanity or live up to the idealized reincarnation of Santiago he’s meant to be. 

Córdova masterfully blends the elements of literary horror and folklore to create something distinctly modern and unique. Monstrilio might not be a typical monster story, but it draws the reader into the fold of a family moving through the stages of grief, and it resonates with hope for new beginnings. Córdova creates a classic sympathetic monster with Monstrilio as he writes him with a deep sense of humanity, understanding, and desire to be good, but also a desire to be his true self. There is a sense of freedom in acting on predatory instinct and giving in to his ravenous hunger because “hunger can be magnificent.” Perhaps the real question Monstrilio poses is not what makes a monster human, but why we would want to change him to fit our mold of humanity.

April Staff Picks: Batman, Cozy YouTube, Godzilla, and more!

Jaclyn Morken

With spring FINALLY showing itself, and winter slowly withdrawing, I’ve found myself watching a lot of peaceful, spring-aesthetic YouTube videos. In particular, I really enjoy watching organizing and decorating videos; there’s something so refreshing about seeing a space DIY’ed and reorganized into something new. (Not to mention motivating—I have definitely adopted a few methods I’ve seen for my own living space, and keep coming back for more inspiration!)

One of my favourite YouTube accounts that offers these videos is cloudyhills. These videos are so calming and wholesome, from videos about redecorating kitchens and bedrooms to upcycling thrift store finds and DIY-ing décor. I love playing these videos when I need a break from work, or when I’d like to have some peaceful background noise as I go about my day. I highly recommend the channel for any time you need some low-stakes, cozy entertainment!

C. E. Janecek

What show is brave enough to ask: What if Dr. Manhattan was a dinosaur?

Godzilla: Singular Point, a Netflix original anime that adapts the cult classic kaiju with the 4D spacetime concepts in Interstellar and futuristic AI technology. Mei Kamino is a genius student researcher studying the molecular biology of mythical creatures (which don’t even exist in her world before the kaijus’ grand entrance). Yun Arikawa is an engineer working for a quirky company, Otaki Factory, whose owner invested all assets into building a monster-fighting mech. They come in contact when a mysterious radio signal coincides with the first Rodan emerging from the sea.

This Godzilla adaptation leans in to the various kaiju slowly overtaking Japan—and then the world—in a mythical plague. Classic literature and folklore meld with Interstellar-esque spacetime distortions to create a suspenseful and visually stunning apocalypse. Much of the show pays homage to classic Godzilla films—Singular Point’s main mecha has humble origins and the even humbler design of the original Jet Jaguar. The soundtrack sent chills down my spine when there’s an opening in the red fog and we see our first glimpse of Godzilla. There’s even easter eggs in the closing credits. The interdisciplinary meeting of myth and science create a universe that—for the most part—tries to stay consistent with its own laws of physics and their limitations. I really enjoyed the hard science fiction aspect of this show, as well as the imaginative examples of how intra-dimensional creatures may adapt and grow in various environments. While the final arc of the first season has to rely on visual metaphors to express the theoretical fourth dimension that only quantum physicists can really understand, I still appreciated the imaginative leaps the writers made to bring these theories to life (along with some sick kaiju designs).

Dominic Loise

The new BatMan/Superman: World’s Finest is set in the DC Universe Silver Age. Since it is before the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans, Dick Grayson is not yet Nightwing but still Robin and part of the Dynamic Duo. He is also an integral part of the World’s Finest team just like he was back when the original series debuted as World’s Best Comics in 1941, before the name changed to World’s Finest Comics.

One of the best issues of the series centers on a time-displaced Robin stuck in the late 19th century. Til BatMan and Superman come to retrieve him from 1892, he falls back on his years in the circus as one of the Flying Graysons by finding a surrogate family in Stratford’s World-Famous American Circus. While with the traveling circus, Dick solves a mystery with the modern detective knowledge learned from BatMan but needs to keep the explanation relevant to the times. This book shows the type of beacon of joy comics can be as Robin is first reunited with BatMan & Superman undercover in the late 1800s as circus performers and how Bruce and Clark have both become father figures and family to Dick since the death of the Graysons.

Both writer and artist keep fringe characters fresh in this series while drawing definitive lines on the core characters. Mark Waid writes classic DC characters with the watchful eye and keen sensibility of a childhood friend who has helped you find solid footing through the years on the way to adulthood. Artist Dan Mora’s clean line work and body composition lets these characters tell us their physical stance on the philosophy of Truth and Justice.

Truth and Justice come to play in the most heartfelt and heartbreaking storyline of the series Strange Visitor, about Boy Thunder, Superman’s Sidekick. First, there is the truth of Boy Thunder and how this story ties into one of the most groundbreaking DC comic books of all time. Then, the Truth of Superman and the fact that the character never lies. How writer Mark Waid ties these two truths together shows his understanding of DC history from the Silver Age to the current Heroic Age.

BatMan/Superman: World’s Finest is ongoing from DC Comics.

Emily Brill-Holland

The world is a lot right now. Dedicated to “anybody who could use a break,” A Psalm for The Wild-Built by Becky Chambers is a wholesome, thought-provoking hug. Dex’s journey of discovery, the gorgeous world-building, Chamber’s stunning sentences and the soul-warmth of the growing friendship between Sibling Dex and Moss have lingered since I finished it.

Just like another beautiful novella (This is How You Lose The Time War), I started this in the bath and then the bath went cold and I couldn’t get out until I’d finished it.

A Psalm for The Wild-Built follows Sibling Dex on their journey through what I would equate to a quarter-life crisis.

In this solarpunk world of Panga, centuries after humans and robots peacefully parted ways with a Promise, humanity lives in harmony, both as a society and abutting the natural world. Nobody wants for anything; oh, friction still exists, in the form of human needs like tiredness and needing somebody to listen, and for that, they have tea monks who will offer a quiet moment to just be, a steaming cup of perfectly-brewed warmth,and a shoulder to cry on.

In this perfection, in this wanting-for-nothing, Sibling Dex feels entirely alone with their discomfort, in wanting more. Attributing it to a desire to hear crickets, Sibling Dex becomes first a tea monk and then,  startlingly, the first human to make contact with a robot, Moss, since the robots disappeared into the wilderness. Moss has arrived with one question: what do people need?

The answer for me was “this series.”

March Staff Picks: Intern Picks!

Alex Schotzko

Okay. Seriously. I’m being serious here. I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed reading the graphic novel On A Sunbeam by Tillie Walden. It’s queer, it’s magical, it’s trippy and tear-jerking—and above all, it’s gorgeous! (I mean, just LOOK at that image from the first chapter! Seriously.)

The story centers around protagonist Mia as she joins a small and quirky crew of ancient building restorers working in the quiet fringes of space. Flickering between past and present, the narrative flows as beautifully as the visuals, weaving a kaleidoscopic story of love, heartbreak, danger, and chosen family. If you like graphic novels featuring powerful, intelligent women and non-binary folk doing dope things and feeling big feels while flying around in their giant koi fish spaceship, then this book is for you. This is also probably the only book out there that hits every one of those markers, so you better get on it!

You can read this treasure online for free (it was first released as a webcomic), but if you can afford it, I would highly suggest purchasing the graphic novel. First of all, you can support the artist this way! And second, the beauty of the pages when they’re in your hands… it’s just a sublime experience. Seriously.

Marizel Malan

The comedian and actor Brett Goldstein, who many may know as the stoic footballer Roy Kent in Ted Lasso, hosts a film-related podcast that I have become slightly obsessed with. And it’s not just any old film podcast: Goldstein begins the conversation with his guests by asking them how they died, hence the name Films to be Buried With. As he interviews other well-known actors and comedians, I have not only found myself answering the questions alongside them, but genuinely smiling throughout the hour-long episodes. The first episode, recorded in 2018 in Goldstein’s kitchen and featuring British comedian James Acaster, serves as the perfect example of how chaotic and unhinged the podcast can be. With questions ranging from “what’s the first movie you remember seeing as a kid?” to “which DVD would you like to be buried with?”, you can’t help but become immersed in the conversation. While I still have a ton of episodes to listen to, some of my favorites include the very first with James Acaster, Ed Gamble’s “Judgement Day” episode, and Quinta Brunson’s lovely episode.

Simon Kerr

The Murderbot Diaries, written by Martha Wells, has the spirit of a crime procedural with the trappings of a sprawling galactic setting and a very unamused bot narrator. Have you always yearned to see a salty detective, with less gender and more built-in arm guns, roundhouse kick a capitalist goon in the head? You’ll probably like Murderbot as much as I do. The only thing more endearing than Murderbot’s love of media is Murderbot’s love for the humans it reluctantly but fiercely protects. (“Reluctantly” according to Murderbot, but its read on its own emotions is not to be trusted.) There’s nothing more lovable than a character who refuses to love and yet is suspiciously keen on protecting a certain few.

Besides having an agender, asexual protagonist I’d let rescue me from terrifying space fauna any day, The Murderbot Diaries is also a mirrored look into the future. Will capitalism claim the stars, or will bright spots of genuinely caring humanity endure? Come for the neopronouns, stay for the sarcasm-drenched fight against the corporates.

The Hugo and Nebula award–winning series has five novellas beginning with All Systems Red, one full length novel, and a new release scheduled for November 2023. Catch up before System Collapse releases at the end of this year!

Haley Lawson

As I write this, the days are getting longer. Spring in Northern Minnesota is marked by surprisingly sunny days—ice drips from our roofs creating craters in the snowy banks. Just when I’m about to naively pack up my winter gear, a winter storm warning blows through, turning the roads to black ice and coating us all in fresh snow. It’s a season of constant change and one that makes me recognize the wild beauty of the world around me.

I’ve long felt that my soul rests at the bottom of Lake Superior, or Gichigami. A striking and powerful body of water, so large it feels like the ocean. It is along these shores that the Ojibwe and Dakota people have always, and still, thrive and reside.

With this in mind, there are two Native Minnesotan artists I’d love to recognize!

Thomas X, musician and artist: The Seven Teachings

The Ojibwe Seven teachings: respect, truth, wisdom, honesty, humility, courage, and love.

I hope today you can take a moment to think about these teachings. How can you incorporate them into your day today? Maybe even your daily practice?

Rabbett Before Horses Strickland, artist: Native Report

I was in AICHO (American Indian Community Housing Organization) when I first saw Strickland’s work. His series of paintings are a gorgeous mix of folklore, mythology, and history. In all of his pieces, he depicts the figure of Nanabozhoo, a prominent figure in Ojibwe creation stories. Strickland’s work is truly breathtaking.

Art Print: “Nanabozhoo Getting Nibi [Version #1]” by Rabbett Before Horses Strickland. Available for purchase here.

Hungry Ghosts: An Interview with Kevin Jared Hosein

You have said that your own writing career got off to some false starts before you made a conscious decision to “be strategic.” What did being strategic about writing and getting published look like? What advice can you give to emerging writers?

To be an accomplished Caribbean writer back then typically meant moving from the Caribbean. That wasn’t an option for me—my secondary school did not even offer Literature as a subject. Still, I hungered to be a writer! When Trinidad started hosting our Bocas Literature Festival, I illustrated and self-published a short children’s book (Littletown Secrets) in the hope of somehow participating. I’d been in education for a few years, so it was easy using contacts from fellow teachers and librarians to secure orders for their classes and book clubs. The initial run sold out and I became part of their children’s caravan for a few years. To emerging writers, I would say: avoid talking about your work too much before you’ve finished, or even started… you’ll feel as if it’s already complete. Work with the hunger.

Your short stories have won awards and appeared in many journals and magazines. Which stories are you most proud of?

That would be Passage. I wrote it based on memories of a Trinidadian news story when I was a teen, about the uprooting of a family living in a mountain forest. I wrote it in one feverish night ten years later, only for it to be rejected from every single outlet I submitted it to. Ultimately, it went on to win the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2018. I’m proud because it’s written fully in our lyrical Trinidadian English Creole—and so many people from so many countries got to experience it.

You have said that, as a teenager, you were most interested in three literary themes: revenge, salvation, and madness. Which literary themes most interest you in 2023?

I often say that Trinidad writes itself. Many stories I write are drawn from actual people, communities or events. We are a theatrical kind—people of entertainment. Revenge, salvation, and madness continue to be three thematic sources of entertainment and dramatic intrigue in our oral traditions. At the same time, I am interested in up-ending expectations of these themes. I’m drawn to thinking about moments that cause humans to react in the most seemingly inexplicable ways, and how madness can be relative to scenario and time.

Hungry Ghosts features a sizable cast of characters. Did certain characters come to you first with their stories, with others branching out from them as the plot required? Or did the community at the barracks appear fully-formed?

Marlee Changoor came first, and everyone else met her along the way. The settings had already come fully formed, however, from the barrack to the dark riverside to Bell Village to the wild plains; senses and ecology, all. In my head, I had weighed the majesty and sovereignty of the land against the gilded diorama that the Changoors had created, almost as if to shut nature out. I created keystone images to guide each character, like leitmotifs—Hans hidden in water, Krishna surrounded by torn magazine pages, Shweta being lashed by laundry.

The novel is set “sometime in the 1940s in Trinidad,” with specificities of time and place richly evoked throughout. How much of the Trinidad in this novel is the land you know, and how much the product of research?

Many parts of Trinidad have acted as time capsules, preserving the conviviality of halcyon days: ancient graveyard parables, hammocks and bead curtains, and rituals of self-sustenance. I spent my first few years in a rural village where time has slowed like this. So much wilderness has stood against the olden beast of time. I haven’t lived in the 1940s, but I can recognise its faded echoes. And I was fortunate enough to converse with the elders of my family and childhood village, who lent a cerebral tone and timbre to those echoes.

How do you approach the responsibilities that come with writing historical fiction? Does one side of this equation lead the other?

I did once feel nervous about elders and historians reading Hungry Ghosts and secretly compiling all the anachronisms and misnomers—all of which I’ve tried my best to keep to a minimum! However, my goal was never to create a facsimile of Trinidad at that time, but rather to capture the growing dread of us having to face ourselves in becoming what the colonial authorities never wanted us to be—a civilisation. And the ensuing beautiful nightmare of clashing faiths and privileges along the way.

You describe going through a transition period of writing “in the uncanny valley of an unconfident identity,” writing over-explained stories set in your home country and doubting whether to write in Creole vernacular. Do you feel like you have left that valley?

In school, we never really learned how to write in Creole vernacular. Some are still probably discouraged from doing so! And so it exudes an illusion of clunkiness when put on the page. It’s foolish now to think that nobody will know what you’re talking about—they have Google. Still, I keep in mind that some of the more specific or esoteric aspects of Caribbean culture can benefit from elucidation—it can be slickly done with just an em-dash and a short poetic phrase. If decades of readers can be cool with A Clockwork Orange’s ‘devotchka’, ‘moloko’ and ‘malchick’, I think there’s little sense in worrying about ‘badjohn’, ‘dingolay’ and ‘tabanca’.

What book are you most looking forward to reading in the year ahead?

Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. I’ve heard that at its meta-fiction core is a moral greyness that tackles (and possibly subverts?) ideas of privilege, identity, and appropriation.

January Staff Picks: Horror, K-Dramas, and Romance!

C. E. Janecek

Twenty-Five Twenty-One has all the spirit of a sports drama (professional fencing, in this case), the youthful enthusiasm of a bildungsroman, and the heart of familial and romantic relationships coming together and pulling apart over the course of Na Hi-Do’s life. Through the frame of Na Hi-Do’s daughter reading her mother’s diary entries about her high school years in the 90s, the majority of the story takes place during the 1997-1998 Korean Financial Crisis, striking the fine line between being a sobering drama about class and also a genuinely uplifting story of growing up with dreams of being a professional athlete and finding one’s way into adulthood during a crumbling economy. Athletic rivalries, professional sacrifices, and heartbreakingly written friendships make this drama feel deeply in tune with its difficult backdrop. The ending—unlike many dramas that struggle to find the right tone between comedy, romance, and drama—felt absolutely perfect and bittersweet. Grounded deeply in reality as well as the high hopes and aspirations of teenagers’ dreams, Twenty-Five Twenty-One is one of the best Korean dramas I’ve ever watched.

Jessenia Hernandez

Heartstopper is a delightfully sweet series of graphic novels that was recently adapted into a Netflix show, and I have been absolutely in love with both since discovering them this past month. Alice Oseman’s story follows Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson, two teenagers who meet in school and proceed to have the warmest, kindest, and most refreshing romance I’ve seen in a long time. While Charlie was outed as gay and is still recovering from the incessant bullying he faced, Nick is known as the straightest guy on campus, a “rugby lad” who’s popular with all the ladies. But as Nick spends more time with Charlie, he starts to question his own sexuality.

The most beautiful part of this story is that despite the two main characters dealing with their own insecurities and expectations, there is an overwhelming amount of love and support in every interaction they have. When one is afraid, the other is there to comfort him. When there’s a misunderstanding, it’s usually not long before the characters are word vomiting their honest feelings. The characters are never working against each other, only holding each other up as they navigate being queer in a sometimes unaccepting environment.

Aside from the perfect pacing, killer soundtrack, and abundance of adorably romantic moments, I also love that the show incorporates little bits of animation from the graphic novel. Leaves float around the pair or sparks fly between their hands, adding a certain magic to moments between them while paying homage to Alice Oseman’s endearing art style. Needless to say, I binge watched Heartstopper’s first season in one night and read the four volumes of the graphic novel the next day. The later volumes get into some heavy mental health topics (TW: self-harm, eating disorders, homophobia), but Oseman deals with them honestly and compassionately.

It’s very unlike me to watch something first and then read the books, but the show left me feeling so happy that all I wanted was more Nick and Charlie content. Luckily, volumes three and four go beyond the show’s first season, so I got to read some fresh Heartstopper content before watching the story unfold again when season two comes out!

Dominic Loise

Rats! The year 2022 is over and I still have a stack of unread books, as well as a queue of unwatched shows. New Year’s Eve hit and I hadn’t finished the first season of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities on Netflix. Yet, the single episode called “Graveyard Rats” may be my favorite television viewing experience of 2022.

Cabinet of Curiosities is an anthology horror series created, produced and hosted by Guillermo del Toro. Each of the Cabinet of Curiosities episodes has its own director and most of the episodes are based on short stories by classic authors like H. P. Lovecraft. Please note that I am putting trigger warnings for this series due to the visuals involved bringing these stories to the screen. “Graveyard Rats” is directed by Vincenzo Natali, who made the first Cube (1997) movie in that science fiction/horror puzzle box franchise. Henry Kuttner wrote the short story the episode was based on. Kuttner wrote the piece the Twilight Zone episode “What You Need” was filmed from. David Hewlett plays the main character Masson. Hewlett is an amazing character actor who fans of Murdoch Mysteries may know as Dilbert Dilton in the emotional episode “The Accident”.

I haven’t seen the version of the story done for Trilogy of Terror II and I will acknowledge that I have written about rats and horror already in 2022 when reviewing Wrath. However, this “Graveyard Rats” is a different animal. Not only is this production my favorite episode of television of the year, but I would put it up as one of my “go to” episodes of horror television. I was jumping multiple times with fright and delight. I bought Masson’s motivation for graverobbing and how the terror of his financial straits caused the crawling after rats through burrowed tunnels under the graveyard. And the confined spaces Natali filmed in Cube comes back to play here along with the same atmosphere of enclosed desperation fighting for survival that I loved in the director’s previous work. “Graveyard Rats” is one of those perfect combinations of story, director and actor that makes something memorable and nests itself as a benchmark for the genre.

Asmaani Kumar

Alchemy of Souls Pt.1 and Pt. 2 has been the IT drama of last year, spanning two seasons to tell you about this fantasy world of mages intermeshed with dangerous palace politics. Our central character Jang Uk, is the only mage without his own source of energy to cast spells and you find yourself on this beautiful journey where he becomes the most powerful mage in the kingdom. This happens all because of his stern tutor, Naksu/Mudeok, a dangerous assassin that has switched souls and is now trapped in a body that cannot perform spells. With a hauntingly beautiful OST and a host of lovable characters all on their own journeys, this is a storyline that keeps you hooked with its exploration of multiple relationships and dynamics, a series of unexpected twists and a brilliant cinematography that leaves you wanting more.

It’s been a long time since I have fangirled over a series so much but it’s also been too long since I came across a story that was so beautifully written with a solid narrative that brought in so many sub-plots together. But what I was drawn to the most was the relationship between Jang Uk and Mudeok, which as ill-fated as it may have been had all the ingredients of a romance that could conquer all. To see their journey of living with their past, accepting loss and heartbreak and becoming more powerful together was one of the best things I’ve seen all this while. I’ve been calling this story beautiful too many times, but I love it so much that I just cannot find the words to capture what I feel and how brilliant this show is. It’s an iconic must watch!

December Staff Picks: Anime horror, giant lizards, romance movies, and more!

Nate Ragolia

If you’re into anime, comedy horror, and have a strong stomach for outlandish cartoon gore, Chainsaw Man, an anime series that’s based on the manga of the same name by Tatsuki Fujimoto, might just be for you. Currently available on Hulu, the anime adaptation stars Denji, a young man who’s in debt, and living his worst possible life working odd jobs, selling his organs, and hunting Devils—strange monsters that inhabit this world’s Japan—just to be too hungry to sleep at the end of the day. He and his companion Pochita, an adorable pup with a chainsaw in its face, will have to figure out a way to pay off the Yakuza if Denji has any hope of having a normal life.

It’s funny, outrageous, and incredibly bloody at times, but at its core, Chainsaw Man might just be about finding yourself, your found family, and grasping for the small comforts and dreams that are so often hard to reach in late-stage capitalism—shelter, good food, and rest. It’s a fun, surprising, and poignant ride… and there’s literally a Chainsaw Man in it.

Victoria Bruick

What astrology would people create if we had two moons? What if gender was assigned by the date you were born and not by your sex? What if we could communicate with GIANT LIZARDS? Avi Silver dives into these fantastical “what ifs” and more in Two Dark Moons, the first book of their Sãoni Cycle trilogy. After winning a copy of the novel on The StoryGraph (thank you, Sienna and Avi!), I settled into my couch to read a few chapters on a Friday night (the best kind of Friday night IMO). I was immediately taken by stubborn Sohmeng whose identity and birth story are wrapped in a secret. Her jungle encounter with the mysterious Hei and their reptilian family of sãoni leads her to question the ways of her mountain community and takes her on a journey that had me racing to the end of the novel. I particularly enjoyed Sohmeng and Hei’s budding relationship and trying to imagine how the sãoni language of clicks and chirps would sound. I’m looking forward to diving into book two… maybe this weekend.

Dominic Loise

The Willow television series on Disney+ is a continuation of the 1988 Ron Howard/George Lucas movie by the same name. The new series is queer friendly and builds on the fantasy world of the original film. Warwick Davis reprises his role as the title character, a wizard and protector of Elora Danon (Ellie Bamber), who will bring balance to the realm. Willow deals with the balance of magic, the light & dark sides of things, and what happens after you discover who you are. Two episodes in, the series is about Elora finding herself with the internal struggle of falling in line with a prophecy and the day-to-day hard work it takes to be someone who people can follow into battle and put their hopes behind. Elora wants to know who she is now since her life up to this point has been a false identity to keep her in hiding from those who wish her harm before she can fulfill the prophecy. Willow is also about the main character’s frustrations with himself. He has made enemies of past allies since the original movie over disagreements over what is best for Elora Danon. Now reunited with Elora, Willow feels the pressure to train her and quickly loses patience. By the end of the second episode, both Willow and Elora are looking inward before the quest moves forward.

Gina Gruss

It’s the holiday season, and cuffing season, apparently (I don’t think it exists in south Florida—too hot here). Romance is in the air! As a genre, romance generally doesn’t do much for me; I find it a challenge to connect with. Love comes before character development. However, this movie centralizes character first, and the romance comes out of it.

Renuka Jeyapalan’s Stay the Night is a fantastic romance. Is it reinventing the genre? No. But it is a simple one that feels cohesive, complete, and refreshing. I was struck by the silence that passed between the two main characters. There are many moments where nobody says anything, and they just sit. And watch. And that’s exciting.

The female main character, Grace, is quiet. She doesn’t branch out and has few meaningful relationships. Her “standoffishness” keeps her from rising in her job. On the other hand, Carter is an ice hockey star for the Tampa Bay Miners, and he’s getting demoted. They meet at a bar, antics ensue, and they spend the night with each other across the city.

The two main actors, Andrea Bang and Joe Scarpellino, are fantastic; they have chemistry, and are receptive to each other. One leans forward, the other leans back. They’re dancers, listening to each other’s movements. Their characters are clear and well-developed, and they learn from each other. The city (Toronto, I think?) is dreamy, well-lit; we get a glimpse of Chinatown, a restaurant, bar, ice rink, high-rise skyscraper, hotel room. The city’s dreamy; bokeh lit skyline, slow jazz, cozy cold. If you’re a fan of romance (or not!) and are looking for something quiet, I highly recommend this movie. May all of us find what we love, whatever it may be! A new friend, new inspiration, new family tradition, so on. Happy holidays!

November Staff Picks: “Finding BatMan,” Agar Agar, and more!

Amber Sullivan

Spotify keeps sending me notifications to hype up the 2022 Wrapped playlist and has successfully incepted me into recommending music. Now that it’s winter, I need my walking music to be as fast paced as it is brooding, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Agar Agar. But let’s be honest, I always listen to a lot of Agar Agar. I don’t know how I haven’t recommended them before. Their 80’s-esque gritty synthpop sound is so addictive. The lyrics are usually narrative forward but absurd and stream-of-conscious and often related to the musicians wanting to be dogs, which I feel on a lot of levels. I think the EP Cardan is the way to ease into their music; “I Am That Guy” has so much build and movement that I can’t help but sing it every time I hear it, and “Prettiest Virgin” is like an entire 80’s high school romance in one catchy song. The Dog and the Future (2018) has a lot more range in both sound and lyrics, but it maintains the strong emotions throughout. I highly recommend it for anyone who also walks to work in the winter or wants to be a dog.

Jaclyn Morken

When I say that Taylor Swift’s Midnights took over my life after it released, I’m barely kidding. I literally listened to nothing else for at least a week (don’t @me Spotify Wrapped: I know I’m obsessed). It has been such a joy to rediscover Swift’s discography, especially over the past few years, and I swear she keeps getting better. The emotion she captures in each of her songs is unparalleled; her lyrics are pure poetry. I am hard-pressed to narrow down a favourite track from Midnights, as she takes us on a journey from gutting insecurity (“Anti-Hero”) to another self-love anthem (“Bejeweled”) to songs you just want to scream-sing in the car (“Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”) and back again, but I think “Midnight Rain” is certainly a top contender for my favourite. It snuck up on me; the opening threw me a bit with the voice distortion, but soon enough I was completely taken with it (I’ve listened to it on repeat more times than I care to admit). I still haven’t gotten tired of listening to this album, and I may or may not want to collect every special edition because I can’t decide which color I like best.

Dominic Loise

I am feeling all the emotions as I write this month’s Staff Pick. At this time, it is not yet 24 hrs since I heard the news of actor Kevin Conroy’s passing. For many of us, he was our BatMan on BatMan: The Animated Series and other DC Universe projects helmed by animator Bruce Timm. I can remember when the big screen Tim Burton movie came out and thought each frame was a cinematic wonder, but I didn’t walk out of the theater feeling I saw my BatMan on the screen. Also during the 90s, the comic books were so grim and gritty that I was reading other super heroes at the time.

BatMan: The Animated Series brought me back to BatMan. The stories and look were a tribute to the type of street noir and high adventure the BatMan comics had been from the 30s to the 70s. Grounding these stories were amazing vocal performances directed by Andrea Romano. And at the center of it all was Kevin Conroy as BatMan and Bruce Wayne.

DC Pride 2022 has Conroy’s very personal biographical story “Finding BatMan.” It is about the tools an actor uses in their utility belt to connect with a role. Conroy shares the hardships of growing up closeted, the early days of the AIDS crisis and the struggles and ridicule he faced finding work as a gay man in Hollywood. As an older man myself, I remember these times and how bigoted, contemptuous people could easily single you out shouting the “F-word” at you in public without anyone else batting an eye.

“Finding BatMan” is also about Conroy’s family life. The struggles of taking care of a brother with schizophrenia. As a teenager, he was the only family member to go to the hospital after his father’s suicide attempt. The story is about what Conroy needs to do in these situations to look after others but also look after himself. The art by J. Bone brings the emotions and compliments the story. There is also the amazing artistic choice to have a shadowing of blue through this black and white story which gives an undertone to the other main character of the stories who we don’t meet till the end.

The story ends with Conroy at a life-changing audition. He reads the script, pulls from his past and introduces us to the other main character of this story—BatMan.

Rest In Peace Kevin Conroy (1955-2022).

“Finding Batman” is available to read at

Thomas Chisholm

I’ve been listening to the new Alvvays album Blue Rev ever since it dropped in early October. It takes their excellent pop-rock formula and infuses it with a healthy dose of shoegaze. After two superb albums, the band seemed to have perfected their sound with 2017’s Antisocialites and they were in danger of stagnation if they repeated what already worked. But the songs on Blue Rev have so much more texture and nuance. The song “Very Online Guy” reminds me of something Deerhoof would put out. Overall, Blue Rev is a little less anthemic than its predecessors but every song still has its earworm moment or huge vocal delivery. I’m especially enjoying it on vinyl. It sounds like the vinyl got a separate master, which really lets Molly Rankin’s vocals shine. Her voice sounds a bit buried in the digital version.

October Staff Picks: Etsy Artists, Sci-Fi Reboots, and More!

Eileen Silverthorn

I have been loving this Etsy artist named AbiToads! She draws these adorable, wide-eyed creatures that she calls Mushlings, and they are the cherubs of your dark cottagecore daydreams. We all deserve and need more cuteness, more nature, AND more art in our lives, and AbiToads’s creations have been giving me joy as we move into October. I will be supporting her indie business by buying some of her art prints as I begin decking the halls for this cozy, spooky, time-to-imagine-yourself-as-a-leaf-peeping-woodland-creature, luscious Fall season. Check out her animations on Instagram and TikTok, as well as the range of goods offered in her Etsy store!

Gina Gruss

“When someone you have loved has reached death’s door/
space stands harder and more brutal than before.”
Aniara, by Harry Martinson

Aniara (2018) is prescient and haunting and familiar, if you’re someone who is overstuffed with existential dread about the future (due to: climate collapse, rising fascism, loss of democracy/human rights, looming war, etc., etc.). It’s about fragility, precariousness; in the near-future, a ship sends humans to Mars. Something goes wrong (keeping the spoilers minimal here, ha), and the ship veers off-course, and nobody can steer the ship. Humans do what they do best: fight for control, attempt to survive. It’s a slow film, a gorgeous film, and also features a WLW relationship(!). I can’t strip this movie from my mind, just like the existential dread it so wonderfully echoes. The best part of the movie? It introduced me to the original Aniara, by Harry Martinson, which is an epic poem with the same core plot as the film. It feels just as timely, even though it was written in 1956. A quick note—these works were both written in Swedish, so I’m sure some things were lost in translation. I highly recommend both, but only if you are in a mindset where you can handle the heavy themes at play. These pieces hurt. And yet… I want to go back. Just like it hurts to look at the sun, sometimes, you feel compelled—and inevitably—stare. And stare. And stare. Because even if it hurts, sometimes it’s even harder to look away.

Dominic Loise

A reboot of Quantum Leap has just launched on NBC and is available for rewatching on Peacock for streaming. The new show honors the original by acknowledging that Dr. Samuel Beckett (Scott Bakula), who invented Project Quantum Leap is still missing. When the first show ended thirty years ago, Dr. Beckett made the choice not to leap home in the final episode but to continue helping people one person at a time.

What I love about Quantum Leap is the premise of a person time-traveling righting wrongs by having their consciousness materialize into another person in the past and the time traveler needs to help with an occurrence in history, which happened to ordinary people in order to make the leap out of the other body. A Leaper like Dr. Beckett & now Dr. Ben Song (Raymond Lee) also has holographic helpers from the present, providing them with information from newspaper archives and computer simulations. The show is not about a person in the past not being able to handle an integral moment in their life and the universe needing to send in a time traveler to handle it for them. The importance of Quantum Leap is the timing of when the show is on the air.

The original show (now on Peacock) aired from 1989-1993 during a time when the country was examining how it looked at its past and how we wanted to be moving forward. It was a time of great divide and some old-fashioned-thinking people would call this changed viewpoint politically correct as if it was derogatory. At the same time the show was featuring a white man traveling between the 1950s to the 1980s and he was put in a different perspective to deal with: race; women & queer rights; labeling; mental health awareness; and bullying.

The new Quantum Leap also is on the air during a time of great divide in this country. I look forward to watching the further leaps of Dr. Ben Song and am interested in seeing what reflects back in the mirror each new episode.

Victoria Bruick

I haven’t stopped thinking about This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone since I finished reading it at 3 a.m. a few weeks ago. The novella follows the letter exchange between two agents, Red and Blue, who are fighting on opposing sides of a war spanning time and space. Red and Blue climb up and down the “threads” of distant multi-verses to complete missions and sabotage each other’s work to ensure their factions’ victory. Or so the novella begins.

The two enemies begin leaving letters in the ashes of a burning world, in seeds delivered by a goose, and in the rings of a tree grown over decades. As the haughty taunts develop into romantic missives, Red and Blue find themselves in a dangerous game. The story takes an imaginative spin on Romeo and Juliet and blends it with imagery-rich prose that sounds like something a queer Lord Byron may have written if Byron was a time-traveler.

It’s no surprise to me that This Is How You Lose the Time War won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella. This is a story that’s over before it begins but continues to surprise you at every turn.

September Staff Picks: Intern Picks!

Eliza Browning

As autumn approaches, I’ve been enjoying listening to Lili Anolik’s podcast Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College. The podcast focuses on the intersecting lives of three literary Brat Pack writers, Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, and Jonathan Lethem, at their remote liberal arts college in the 1980s. A fictionalized version of Bennington appears prominently throughout their later works, making a closer examination of their college years critical to tracing their literary trajectories. Anolik’s extensive research and engaging voice, along with interviews with the major writers and their friends, classmates and professors, makes this a fascinating listen. The isolated setting, literary intrigue and unsolved mysteries of their shattered friendships also make this the perfect podcast for spooky season.

Sam Burt

Granted, I’m seven years late to the party but I have to say that the first season of Master of None gave me more feels than any other cultural product I’ve consumed of late. Despite my initial doubts—Ansari’s public fall from grace? A show about funny people with nice clothes and attractive New York apartments? Netflix comedy?—I loved the loose feel of the opener and was won over by the second episode, which manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and strike a poignant note on communication difficulties within families between first- and second-generation immigrants. The characters are so well-written and acted that they make great company, but Noël Wells’ Rachel stood out for me as the love interest who manages to steal scenes even from Ansari’s Dev—their on-screen chemistry and the slow-burn unfolding of their romance felt fresh and authentic. Many have praised the show’s formal experimentation and willingness to take risks, such as the second episode’s extensive use of flashbacks and digressions to give us the backgrounds of fairly minor characters. The makers have a firm grasp of how the Netflix platform allows for narrative innovation. It’s by no means perfect—the second season drifted for me, and I think it’s fair to question the squeaky-cleanness of Dev’s character (not because of the actor’s off-screen behaviour but just because it makes him less rounded). Nevertheless I found the first season a much-needed daily caffeine boost (with extra dopamine).

Azalea Acevedo

Ever late to the hype, I’ve recently started and finished The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It follows a young, Jewish woman, Midge, in 1950s New York who accidentally begins doing stand-up comedy after her husband leaves her for his secretary (he was not the most original man!). From seedy bar to seedy bar, her astute and sometimes crass observations of family life and social convention earn her either applause or arrest. Every episode drew me in, as even Midge’s life outside of her stand-up routine is full of comedic material. She has nosy in-laws, parents who are both nosy and astoundingly clueless, wild children and a curmudgeonly manager. The show is a brilliantly funny and irreverent look into what life in the 1950s was like for women who bucked social convention and carved their own futures.

John Legarte

While I haven’t read many works under the genre of horror recently, I do believe that one aspect of life that is often scary as it is sudden to face and process when it arrives is grief. In my current binge of reading and exploring different poetry books, Anis Mojgani’s In the Pockets of Small Gods truly stands out for the way its poems effortlessly permit readers such a personal look into how Mojgani himself has faced and processed grief. From mentions of Greek gods and goddesses and references to the status of our very broken, complex world to thorough insight into the deaths of a friend, a marriage, and even peace and reason, readers are afforded the opportunity to process their own grief in a space filled the beauty and vividness of poetic language.

In this book, the poetic language is not firm or forced but rather flexible, almost sounding like a natural conversation at times that enhances the authenticity of what Mojgani is communicating. Yet, simultaneously, there is an appropriate softness and lull that blankets the whole book as if providing that silence to grieve while still acknowledging the hope naturally embedded in the future. Ultimately, I really admire the authenticity that shines through every poem and these worlds that Mojgani so willingly invites us into, all the while displaying the power of poetry as space for both mourning and movement into what lies ahead.

Sarah Westvik

I’ve been enjoying the recently-released The Rings of Power on Prime Video. It’s a visually stunning, musically luscious, and incredibly well-acted interpretation of the Second Age in Middle-earth, a period set thousands of years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. I choose the word “interpretation” rather than “adaptation” given the sparse material in the books that can be directly adapted, which has generated a lot of conversation about the relationship between faithfulness to source material and plain old good storytelling. For my part, I tend to privilege the latter, and I can say that anyone comfortable with doing the same will find that—beyond some teething problems with pacing—the series achieves that.

After watching my favourite realm (Númenor) and favourite characters (the eventual king Elendil and his son Isildur) come to life in ways I did not expect to see in my lifetime, I’m sold on the show’s ability to incorporate the Second Age’s themes of mortality and power through moving and complex character moments building towards both heroism and tragedy. And of course, the heroes aren’t the only thing done well—the terror and horror of the villains and the more morally uncertain characters is being chillingly realised. I always return to Tolkien because I love my fantasy full of heart with compelling characters, beautiful worldbuilding, and resonant storytelling, and Rings of Power has thus far been a much-needed return to magic.

Meet Our Fall 2022 Interns!

If you’ve ever met one of our wonderful F(r)iction staffers, you’ll quickly learn that almost every one of them was once an intern in our Publishing Internship Program.

This program is run by our parent nonprofit organization, Brink Literacy Project. While our publishing internships are a great way to get a crash course in the literary industry, they can often provide a path to what can become a long and rewarding professional relationship. For more information, please visit the internship page on the Brink website.

Azalea Acevedo


What is your favorite place to read? 

Curled up in bed or by a window. 

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

I approach it slowly, scoping it out. What’s behind the door? It could be Narnia. It could be a trap. The ornate carvings of fairies, elves, and ivy pull me closer. It’s more likely a trap. I back away and leave as fast as possible. 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual. 

Always with milk and sugar. There must be enough milk to turn the coffee from black to beige, and exactly 1 tablespoon of sugar. Any more is too sweet, and any less, too bitter.  

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language? 

Supercilious. For one, it sounds made-up. Real words that could easily be fake are my favorite, as it keeps everyone guessing. Also, the fact that it sounds silly adds deeper meaning, as it highlights the ridiculousness of the person described. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why? 

I have a really hard time picking favorites as my taste is varied, but if I had to choose, they would be Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous album and Jane Eyre. I find the album aurally interesting enough to want to hear over and over. As for Jane Eyre, part of me connects with her awkwardness and growth into a braver character. I also admire that she sticks to her convictions, so I enjoy reading her as a character. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

This is a hard one to answer, but I think I would raise its profile and make it more accessible. Literary fiction and nonfiction has a reputation for being stuffy or elitist, which it can be at times. However, I think this is a space that has the potential to uplift marginalized and lesser-known voices in a way more commercially-minded publishers cannot. 

Eliza Browning


What is your favorite place to read?  

Curled up in a window seat or hammock outside! 

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead?

I would open it to discover a network of winding, interconnected tunnels leading deeper into the mountain. Whether I would be brave enough to explore is another question…

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.   

I love lattes with fun flavors like matcha, jasmine or lavender.

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?  

My favorite English word is sarsaparilla (also my favorite flavor of soda)! My favorite word in another language is pamplemousse.

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

Phoebe Bridgers’s Stranger in the Alps and Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai – both witty, layered, nuanced and worthy of returning to again and again. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?  

Greater mentorship and opportunities for students and young professionals and equitable pay. 

John Legarte


What is your favorite place to read?   

My favorite place to read on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus has to be Caffe Paradiso, one of the many cafés in the area. While I enjoy reading at cafés in general, I especially enjoy Caffe Paradiso because I consider the place to be beautifully rustic and quaint. There is a sense of the warmth of home in the atmosphere. The coffee sounds are also nice background noise as I read a good book. In addition, Caffe Paradiso does hold poetry open mics throughout the school year, and I am planning on performing at some of them in the future! 

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

As I scan the door embedded in the side of the mountain, I inch closer to its location. The only sounds that pierce the silence are my footsteps on the gravel and the strong breezes breaking against the leaves of the surrounding trees. The brass doorknob, the slightly chipped wood, its curious location—my intrigue only grows as I place my hand on the knob, taking one last look around me to see if anyone else has seen what has transpired. Pushing forward, I step into what seems to be a blinding light before I stumble onto some pavement in a place I do not immediately recognize. However, amidst the darkness around me, a pillar of light protrudes through the shadows, and I notice it—the Eiffel Tower, a glowing crown in the royalty that is Paris, the city of love and light. Meandering around and taking in the full beauty of the tower, I nearly run into what must have been a high school boy and soon realize the boy’s brown skin, the not quite long black hair, and the grey shirt—this younger me that traveled to Paris four years ago, a walking memory I still grasp close in my reflections of who I once was. I soon note another door in the side of a brick wall that does not match the design of the other doors and approach it, the light of the tower leaving a soft glare in the distance.  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.   

I feel like I’m one of the few people who love my coffee without any sugar or cream! I just really enjoy the strong, even bitter taste of black coffee that provides a great energy boost in the morning or whatever time I decide to drink it.

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language? 

My favorite English word is entropy, which broadly defined by Merriam-Webster is the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system. This is my favorite word because I once had a poetry Instagram account called @unspokenentropy. (I now post everything poetry-related on my personal Instagram account.) For context, I consider the words I have yet to write on paper or in a Word document as exactly that—unspoken entropy floating in the recesses of my mind and thoughts. From there, I then see the creative works I write as entropy that is mostly harnessed since I do believe there is always still a degree of entropy within any individual’s writing, with that back-and-forth between entropy and order creating opportunity for beauty and reflection.

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

The one book I would have is Anis Mojgani’s In the Pockets of Small Gods, and the one album I would have is Before We Go by Brasstracks. I would choose Anis Mojgani’s In the Pockets of Small Gods because Anis Mojgani explores grief, the beauty and pain of memory, and the uncertainty yet opportunity of the future in such a personal, authentic, and captivating way as he weaves together his own experiences. More generally, I am a big fan of Anis Mojgani’s work, and he is one of the poets that influenced me to start writing my own poetry. I would choose Before We Go by Brasstracks because Brasstracks integrates brass instruments into their songs that span and combine hip-hop, R&B, soul, and even other genres of music. I feel like Brasstracks’ songs would keep me energized and even upbeat on the deserted island. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?

One change I would like to see and work toward within the literary industry is the provision of a greater number of opportunities for people of color to break into the industry itself. With so many people of color like myself seeking to be published and pursuing opportunities to work in the industry, I believe that this shift is essential to reflect the growing number of diverse voices within writing, publishing, and editing overall. 

Sam Burt


What is your favorite place to read?   

Definitely at home – I get too easily distracted. On the bed or sofa, anywhere I can lie down – so there is no discomfort to distract, however small. I live in east London but my street is quiet and residential, providing a thin veil of white noise – frequent buses and cars, infrequent passersby making inaudible conversation – while sparing me from either loud music or excessive, expectant peace. The only problem is getting coffee refills while recumbent, but I’m working on that.

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

I try to open it, but at first it seems to be sealed shut with some kind of magic (actually, I just missed the ‘please pull’ sign). Inside is a corridor and a dishevelled man in rags – who might be anything from 40 to 60 years old – races towards me, then drops to his knees and kisses my hands vigorously. He thanks me, over and over, for setting him free: he tells me he is the architect of this secret retreat, and that he’s been trapped here ever since. For twenty years he had pulled and pulled with all his might, but no luck! 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.  

By the cafetiere/jugful. Preferably max-strength with oat milk and – a recent development – ice cubes (you can drink more, in less time, when it’s cold).

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

At the risk of seeming facetious, I find a well-placed ‘the’ very pleasing. For example, the English post-punk band ‘The The’, ‘The Red and the Black’, and ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion’. I’m not sure why, but it lends the work a sense of gravity; perhaps it signals self-confidence on the writer’s part, which can be infectious.   


You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

Album: ‘Glassworks’ by Philip Glass. It’s somehow both calming and stirring, which I think I would need in order to get anything useful done.  

Book: Maybe the Gormenghast trilogy. It has a huge cast of characters (to stave off loneliness) and Mervyn Peake was really a genius at finding dramatic potential in tedium.

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?  

It needs to advertise itself more to kids at a young age, and especially those from backgrounds underrepresented in the industry. Speaking as a pupil from a working-class background who went to a prestigious university, I’m not sure how I remained unaware of this career option for so long…  

Sarah Westvik


What is your favorite place to read?   

It varies! Sometimes I read from bed to unwind after a long day of studying; other times, I go to my favourite cafe and read a few chapters over an ice latte. I like to take notes in a little notebook while I read, so the latter is often preferable as there is a table!

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead?  

I would probably look around the door for clues as to its origin first, and I think I would actually knock before trying the knob–after all, a closed door, whether appearing abandoned or not, can be assumed to signal someone on the other side. If there is no response, I think I would try it, and I would hope it is a (two-way) portal to somewhere bright and magical. 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.    

Milk no sugar! If it’s a hot day, then ice, too. If I’m brewing it myself I tend to add cardamom and cinnamon and just a bit of honey, because it makes the coffee that much more cosy.   

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

This is a bit of a trick question as my favourite English words tend to be Greek loanwords, chief among them being “anonymous”. I adore the cadence of it as well as its written aesthetic (the “y” intercepting four letters–two consonants and two vowels–on either side). I’m also partial to the words “nuclear” and “adrenaline”.  

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

This question is forcing me to complete the impossible task of choosing between The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion, both by J.R.R. Tolkien, but I would probably choose the latter for the flow—if not the completeness—of the narrative, which has been deeply important to my life. As for the album, it’s probably Florence + The Machine’s Ceremonials. Every song on that album is a gem that is both transformational and transporting. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

Barriers to entry in traditional publishing. There needs to be more openness to a variety of stories (thematically and genre-wise) by authors from historically underrepresented groups, so that they don’t get boxed in to writing just one kind of story or gatekept to toe the line of one kind of perspective, particularly as regards their individual marginalisations. On top of that, there should be more support (especially regarding marketing) for authors who aren’t bestsellers, especially debuts and, again, those who are underrepresented in the industry.   

August Staff Picks: The Sandman, Anime, and YouTube Makers!

C. E. Janecek

As my final year of graduate school begins, I’ve been enjoying the melancholy nostalgia of watching Fruits Basket (2019). This beloved childhood manga and anime series follows Tohru, a homeless high school student grieving her mother, as she’s taken in by the mysterious outcasts of the Soma family. She soon finds out that the family is cursed by the spirits of the Zodiac, making them turn into animals at very inconvenient times, rupturing their relationships with their fully-human parents and loved ones. While much of this story is comprised of mythical elements, anime tropes, and running gags, the heart of the series is in finding community and heart to face past traumas in a tender, hopeful story.

Asmaani Kumar

I have been listening to a lot of OSTs of TV shows recently but the one that’s been stuck with me for more than a year is the OST of Nevertheless. A drama centred around the lives of students in the art department exploring different kinds of relationships, there is a beautiful indie-vibe to the tracks featured and exclusively made for the show. Almost every track from “We’re Already” to “Heavy Heart” to “Love Me Like That” has the softest vocals, each artist singing their own unique take on love and what it means to love. As beautiful as the cinematography of this drama is, every scene is elevated by the tracks playing in the background which emphasise the emotions our characters feel and for me, listening to all of these songs reminds me of my own internal confusions, anxieties and heartbreak. The OST of Nevertheless is as much about the wonders of youth as it’s about navigating the choices that we make in the search for love and intimacy.

An additional bonus of this OST was that it made me discover RIO, who’s this brilliant indie artist and every time I listen to her, I feel this sense of comfort and validation because her music is a tender testament to the trials and tribulations of young love in the most brilliantly romanticised way. There’s a certain courage and vulnerable honesty to the way she sings and produces her music.

Amber Sullivan

It’s difficult to describe Omori without spoiling anything, so I’ll just gush about it instead. The art is a playful and seamless blend of 8-bit and colored-pencil anime with settings ranging from pastel playgrounds to neon space camps and vibrant suburbs to black-and-white voids. And those juxtapositions are not only aesthetic—something dark is lurking everywhere in this cutesy open-world. Beyond the art, though, this game is about understanding friendship and grief and how to accept the dark unwanted things inside of yourself. I love the interpretation of turn-based combat in the game, and it has the most realistic anxiety-attack-as-a-battle approach that I never asked for. Omori has so many hidden secrets and made me feel so many unexpected feelings from start to finish. I’ve never cried at so many checkpoints, and not because I was about to lose all progress; it’s just always nostalgic to have a picnic with your friends.

Jaclyn Morken

Instead of catching up on my ever-growing list of TV shows and movies, I’ve found myself turning on YouTube in my downtime. One of my favourite creators lately is Rachel Maksy. She drew me in with her video on making a book nook (another topic frequently appearing in my recent watch history), and I kept coming back because she is just so talented and delightful. Most of her videos center around creating vintage outfits, but she also does cosplay, crafting, and more, and I always appreciate her references to some of my favorite movies (especially The Mummy). I love to make things when I can, and watching Rachel bring her wild ideas to life at every step—from sewing a transformable dress from scratch to dressing like Jane Austen characters for a week—is so fun. Her silly humor and advocacy for being unapologetically yourself makes her channel such a comforting and cozy place to visit. Bonus: her adorable pets often make cameos in her videos!

Dominic Loise

I am on my second watching of The Sandman on Netflix. It is a strongly faithful adaptation if you are familiar with Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic book work. The stellar casting and mind-blowing imagery was one of the reasons I needed a second viewing as I found myself making connections in my head of the spot-on page to screen comparisons on my first viewing. The vision of writer Neil Gaiman and comic book artists Sam Keith, Mike Drizenberg & Dave McKean is on the screen.

For those unfamiliar, I still recommend a first and second viewing as the world of The Sandman is rich and layered. The Sandman is an anamorphic personification of Dream and he and his siblings (Death, Delirium, Desire, Despair, Destiny & Destruction) are called The Endless. The show also deals with magic, demons, serial killers, a talking raven and most importantly—regular old human beings (one human in particular is very, very old).

But like a dream affecting the sleeper in the waking world, I found the influence of the show in my life as I stepped away from each episode. The veil between reality and the show slipped as I learned more from The Sandman with my rewatch. Episode “The Sound of Her Wings” where Dream spends an afternoon with his sister Death fell on the day of my uncle’s passing and brought with it a comfort about my time here on Earth, the unknown of the afterlife and finding satisfaction in the life I do have. The rewatch had me look past The Endless, demons and nightmares and listen more to what they were saying in each episode about being human and how to wake up from my dreams to enjoy this amazing gift called today.

July Staff Picks: Action-Adventure Games, K-Drama, Grim Reapers, and Podcasts!

Jessenia Hernandez

Over the past few months, I’ve been slowly working my way through Hollow Knight, a 2D action-adventure game that has been as frustrating as it has been fun (frustrating in a motivating way, like any good video game, of course). You play as the Knight character navigating through the vast underground depths of Hallownest, an ancient fallen kingdom plagued by disease. Many of Hallownest’s inhabitants are bug-like creatures that you must defeat with your trusty needle-sword, and I’ve loved the Knight’s quick and agile fighting style. This game is heavy on exploration and the map upgrades only at save points, so sometimes you have no idea where you are or where you’re going next. While I’m not usually one for uncertainty in games—point me in a straight line to my objective, please—this has actually been a great practice in patience and simply enjoying the journey. I’ve had to repeat certain paths and boss fights for hours as I’ve gotten used to the mechanics and navigating the map, but overcoming hurdles has been that much more rewarding because of it. I also absolutely adore the aesthetics of this game. The characters are somehow both eerie and extremely adorable, and each unique section of the map boasts beautifully hand-drawn backgrounds with a distinct air of otherworldly magic. Hollow Knight does an amazing job of balancing the light and dark in every regard. As I experience the highs of defeating a boss after dozens of tries, I also wonder what sinister secrets the game still has in store.

Asmaani Kumar

My Liberation Notes is one of the most stunning testaments to the exhaustion which comes from a mundane, routine existence. Following the lives of three siblings trapped in hour long commutes and a mysterious neighbour, it’s about each of their journeys towards understanding what they want to be liberated from and how they can get there. The story is so grounded, real and even painful at times because of how close it mirrors reality by touching upon urban loneliness, feeling out of step, longing to be understood, trying to find purpose and even opening up past wounds. One of the things I’ve discovered of late is that there are some narratives that are in-built with grandeur and the hope of achieving something unbelievable, but narratives like My Liberation Notes are so much more about the limitations of our life and how we can make peace with them in our own ways.

With a brilliant cinematography and OST, a gentle plot pacing and relatable characters earnestly trying to understand their own motivations and intentions, this is one show that makes you want to live life differently, to do better for yourself. What stays with me after all these months is how liberating yourself and finding peace is a process, there is no end to it but it’s a journey that’s so important for us to take. And if this isn’t enough to get you started on it, here’s one of my favorite lines from my twin character, Yeom Mi Jeong: ‘Five minutes a day. If you have five minutes of peace, it’s bearable. When I hold the door open for a kid at a convenience store, and the kid says “Thank you”, that makes me happy for seven seconds. When I open my eyes in the morning and remember it’s Saturday, that makes me happy for ten seconds. Fill up five minutes a day like that. That’s how I survive.’

Dominic Loise

GRIM is a new comic book series about death and reapers from Boom Studios. It is about the working world of reapers, and writer Stephanie Phillips creates a rich inner mythology for this series that brings to the page something beyond people who punch a time clock in the afterlife. Artist Flaviano’s inviting style seamlessly blends not only different death concepts like the River Styx and Day of the Dead into the world of GRIM, but reapers who lived in different time periods all doing their part to collect the souls of the recently departed. Colorist Rico Renzi masterfully shifts the palette tones of each different world we travel in when reading GRIM while not shifting the focus off of the story.

What will keep me coming back to GRIM is not finding out the mystery of what happens after we pass away; the main story of GRIM is that reaper Jessica Harrow does not remember how she died. Or how she can be seen by the living at times. Phillips does an amazing job of setting up Jessica’s dilemma in the first issue while also world building the series. Jessica is also given a multi-dimensional supporting cast of fellow reapers to help her discover the secret of her death. I enjoy that the tone of the book is not all doom and gloom. These characters care about one another and show that there are friendships to be made no matter where you go in life or beyond.

Jaclyn Morken

I’m notoriously bad at starting things and not finishing them—books, TV shows, knitting projects, you name it. Most podcasts fall on that list too, just because I come in late and have so much content to catch up on. I’m someone who likes to consume media in chronological order, and I never seem to have the time or attention span to catch up on dozens of hour-long podcast episodes. But for You Can Sit With Us, I’ve been making the time. Ariel, Becky, Maggie, and Rachel are such delightful hosts, and it is so wonderful to hear a group of women speak so honestly—and hilariously—about their lives and experiences. It truly feels like being welcomed into a conversation between best friends. With discussions ranging from skincare and relationship advice, TV shows, and pets, to more serious topics like self-advocacy in health care, sobriety, and women in the public eye, this podcast has a little bit of everything. It’s the perfect way to take a break and wind down from the day!