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 DC.com.

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

she/her

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

she/her

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

he/him

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

he/him

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.   

Otherwise…‘greengages’. 

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

they/them

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!

June Staff Picks: Modern Myths, Fire Island, and True Crime!

Eileen Silverthorn

Along with many other true crime aficionados out there, I have been watching Under the Banner of Heaven on Hulu. The show is based on the true crime nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. Set in the ’80s, it takes place in Salt Lake Valley, Utah and tells the story of a young woman and her infant who were gruesomely murdered. The pool of suspects consists of a prominent Mormon family, some of whose members have been spiraling into the fundamentalist branches and history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though I am not a member of the church, I spent my late childhood and teen years within the Mormon community, given that most of my friends were a part of it. This show has brought up all kinds of memories and feelings for me as I reflect on growing up in that culture, even as an outsider within it. But despite the show hitting close to home, I’m eager to keep watching—the storytelling is riveting, and the crisis of faith explored through Detective Jeb Pyre (played by Andrew Garfield)—a Mormon investigating the history and principles behind his own church—is intensely emotional.

C. E. Janecek

Whenever I decide to learn something new, I inevitably try to read a startling number of books on the topic. This summer, I signed up for classes with Queer ASL and before the semester even started, I was reading memoirs and novels by Deaf authors to absorb more about the culture and language I wanted to start learning. The book that I devoured fastest of all, True Biz by Sara Nović, is very likely to be the best novel I’ve read all year (trust me, that’s saying something). True Biz takes place at a Deaf school, following the stories of the headmistress and her tenuous marriage; the school’s golden boy, who comes from a multigenerational Deaf family (until his new baby sister is born hearing); and a girl who’s come to the school as a last chance to acquire a fully-fledged language, after her mother’s resistance to accepting she has a Deaf child. Full of multimedia interludes, Nović incorporates the worksheets on ASL grammar, lesson plans on historical events like Deaf President Now, and Wikipedia articles on the French Revolution—immersing us in the materials the characters themselves are reading and sharing with one another. This book is a keen exploration of education, ableism, and agency and I highly recommend it (as much as I recommend learning American Sign Language with the Deaf teachers at Queer ASL).

Dominic Loise

Joel Kim Booster successfully transplants Jane Austen to the Long Island, NY queer resort community in his romantic comedy Fire Island. The film does much more than plug Austen into the modern day via this iconic setting. Booster and director Andrew Ahn present characters with their own depth and a cast who all click together with memorable performances. Where Fire Island merges with the spirit of Pride and Prejudice best is Noah (Joel Kim Booster) learning to step back from helping/meddling in matters of the heart for the people that he loves as family so that they can start the next chapter of their self development and relationships their own way.

The heart of the movie isn’t just the Elizabeth/Darcy through line of Noah and Will (Conrad Ricamora), but the “family we choose,” especially the relationship of Noah and Howie (Bowen Yang) and the introspection Noah gains in developing his own relationship with Will by allowing Howie to finally take intimacy at his own pace instead of instilling the hedonistic reassurance techniques that work for Noah. Fire Island is about learning to admit to yourself that maybe what worked for you in past intimate encounters may actually be a protective shield, which hinders having an open and honest relationship with yourself or with someone else.

I enjoyed my time watching Fire Island, as Noah finds himself and his Mr. Darcy—or to paraphrase Jane Austen, “but for my part, if a book (or in this case a movie) is well written, I always find it too short.”

Craig Hartz

I’ve been a huge fan of Matt Bell ever since I read his breathtaking In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (what a title, right?!), a brilliant and beautiful and aching modern myth, so when I heard his second novel, Appleseed was being released earlier this year I was absolutely stoked about it. Due to my graduate student budget, I wasn’t able to pick up a copy for a little bit, but was able to snag a copy from Powell’s last month. It’s a hefty tome, but I blew through it in three days. The braided narrative, following three nuanced and arresting characters and spanning well over a thousand years, is part mythological retelling, part climate fiction, part hyper-incisive critique of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism, and all gorgeous. His characters grip and sing, the way he evokes flourishing, dying, and reborn landscapes is nothing short of masterful, and his interweaving of three seemingly disparate narratives together left me in awe. I can’t recommend this book—or really any of his fiction—highly enough.

Erin Clements

I’ve been a fan of everything Shakespeare for years, and I love all things dark academia. A friend of mine has been trying to convince me to read If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio for months, and I finally cracked. I devoured the text and even annotated as I read, and I’m so happy I did. It instantly became my all-time favorite book, and I can’t wait to read it again to pick up on all the foreshadowing and plot intricacies I missed the first time!

Without giving too much away, If We Were Villains follows Oliver Marks—who has just finished doing ten years in prison for a murder he did not commit—as he takes the now-retired lead detective on his case through the truth of what happened that fateful night ten years ago. Set up in the format of one of Shakespeare’s plays, the novel introduces a motley crew of seven, who fit the archetypes of Shakespeare’s works—the hero, the villain, the tyrant, the temptress, the ingenue, and the extra—as they complete their fourth and final year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory. When one of the actors is found dead, the line between art and life becomes irreparably blurred.

Green

Flash fiction winner of the Spring 2021 F(r)iction Literary Contest.

Kate says it’s easy. All you have to do is pucker your lips. Push them out like a duck’s bill. Squeeze them together tight. Then suck the air in slowly, like drinking through a straw. That’s kissing.

I want to kiss Lauren. Her red lips. Her hair, black as empty space when you look between the stars. Long and straight and tied back with a pink velvet band. I like velvet. The feel of it on your hand, smooth and soft as a gerbil’s coat. And pink is a good color for me. Red too. Not like green. I hate green. The alien in charge of second year wears green: green jumpers, green ties, green jackets. I wish he’d go back to whatever planet he came from.

Lauren said hello to me on Thursday on the bus after swimming. It made me feel all funny inside. You get these feelings when you like someone. It’s called attraction. When we’re attracted to someone, we experience emotion. 

I’m learning about emotions. Joy is a primary emotion. Then there’s anger, fear, and hatred. Kate says it’s from these primary emotions that all the other more complex emotions branch out. It’s easy for me to learn the facts about emotions because I’m very good at facts, like I’ve no trouble understanding Euclid’s theorem that in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two other sides. That’s not a problem for me. But knowing what I’m feeling is difficult, which is why I have to be taught how to relate to people. For example, I have to learn how to relate to Lauren. And I’m practicing how to kiss, too. Just in case.   

Kate says the reason why people like me have a problem with feelings is maybe because there’s something wrong deep in the brain, in my amygdala. The amygdala is so good at detecting emotion, she says, it responds automatically even before the conscious part of the brain has worked out what is happening. Like if you see someone’s eyes wide showing lots of white, then you know they’re scared, and you should watch out too.

Because my amygdala is likely switched off most of the time, I don’t know for sure if Lauren likes me or not. Take last Thursday on the bus on the way home. There I was telling her all about my new telescope and how, when you point it to the night sky, you can see Venus. I told her how I was going to be a scientist when I grew up, like Einstein who was the greatest genius that ever lived. How I sometimes imagine he’s talking to me when I’m trying to figure out why nothing travels faster than light. How he wondered what would happen if a man traveled alongside a light beam with a mirror in his hand and got the insight that there would be no reflection in the mirror.

I look in the mirror now. Pucker up my lips. Push them out like a duck’s bill. Squeeze them together tight. Suck the air in slowly. Just practicing.

Kate says it’s important to look at eyes. That’s how I noticed that the snake’s eyes were green. Usually, I don’t look at eyes. I’m far more interested in noses or mouths. I would like to kiss Lauren on the mouth. John Paul Connolly says when you kiss a girl, you’re supposed to stick your tongue down her throat. I wondered about all the millions of germs we would share if we did that, so I asked Kate about it. She said best just stay with the lips for the moment, to see how things go.

I pucker up my lips. Push them out like a duck’s bill. Suck air in slowly. I can see my reflection in the mirror because the light bounces from my face onto it. It takes the light, travelling at one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second, eight minutes to reach my face from the sun. My mouth is open wide now and turned up at the corners, which means I’m happy. Like the happy face on one of Kate’s flashcards. When I think about relativity, space-time, and black holes, I’m happy. Sometimes I wonder why we have to bother with emotions at all, when thinking makes us happy. But Kate says it’s because being human doesn’t only mean thinking. We are also emotional beings, and it’s important to get the balance between the two. She says scientists have produced computers now that are able to beat humans at chess so very soon the only thing that will make us unique as humans will be our emotions. That’s a worry because I’m very good at chess.

On Thursday, after I was done explaining the theory of special relativity to Lauren, I noticed she had her back turned to me.  There she was leaning across the aisle, talking to Liam Keogh. Keogh has green eyes like a boa constrictor. I don’t like constrictors and if I saw one on a dark night, I’d tear it apart with my bare hands. Kate says that’s jealousy.

A Review of Every Word You Never Said by Jordon Greene

Published April 26, 2022 by F/K Teen.

“I’m not looking for your voice. I’m aiming for your heart.”

Every Word You Never Said is a romantic dream come true for YA bookstagrammers. There’s Jacob, a broody drummer from an evangelical family who has recently come out. And there’s Skylar­—who’s used to being an outcast because he’s gay, disabled, adopted, and gender non-conforming (GNC). When Jacob invites the new kid to his favorite local bookstore (one of the few safe places away from his homophobic family), Skylar wonders if he should harbor some hope for their friendship as they’re “browsing the books, seeing what Jacob’s hand gravitated toward.” This novel is full of quiet noticing as the two teens navigate their first queer relationship in a conservative small town, but also because Skylar is nonverbal.

Jordon Greene puts a lot of care into representing Sky’s disability, the way it’s shaped him, and how the people around him adapt to be more accessible. Skylar lost his voice after a childhood illness and was in the foster care system for most of his life. At the beginning of the novel, he’s resigned himself to being an outsider and doesn’t expect his peers to hold a conversation with someone who uses an AAC device to speak (Augmentative and Alternative Communication), which in his case, is an iPhone. In many ways, he’s right about the ableism he continues to face throughout the novel. Teachers who don’t bother to learn about his accommodations single him out in class or in detention, when Skylar has his only means of communication taken away: “. . . it’s literally my voice. And I almost had a mini-panic attack when the first teacher took it. That dead look in the man’s eyes. I shiver.”

However, for the first time, Skylar meets peers who are unfazed by his disability and are willing to communicate with him, rather than putting the entire burden on Skylar. Imani is one of the few people who can lip-read, so Skylar doesn’t always have to use his phone to tell her a story, which is much less frustrating for him. Jacob, who struggles with reading lips, finds out that Skylar is also fluent in sign language and begins teaching himself because he knows that Sky prefers it to the monotone voice of his AAC, which limits his expressiveness. With his friends’ acceptance, communication stops feeling so isolating for Skylar, but friendship doesn’t erase a lifetime of ableism either as Skylar admits: “[Romance books] are the only way I’m ever going to experience it, you know?” Little does Skylar know that he is the protagonist in a YA romance. Alongside the awkwardness of a teen relationship, Every Word You Never Said also explores different approaches to sex and sexuality. Most importantly, sex in this novel isn’t the enigmatic, coming-of-age moment or a moment of consummation with “the one.” Instead, one of the characters puts it quite succinctly: “Sex doesn’t mean you love him or that he loves you. People just do that. It’s sort of weird, actually.” Disability and queerness intertwine deeply with regards to sex and romance as well; particularly the ways society desexualizes disabled people and Skylar’s femininity as a GNC guy. I really appreciated the candid conversations about disability and desirability, making me think back to the times I’ve felt un-sexy when I go non-verbal from overstimulation, or how autistic folks are infantilized and what that’s done to my self-esteem in relationships.

Jacob’s character development focuses on his overcoming his biases and becoming an advocate (sometimes awkwardly). In the beginning, Jacob sees a separation between Skylar and the British-accented voice on his phone: “I find myself wishing I could hear his voice, like his actual voice, not his phone. As cute as he is, I bet it would be amazing.” We see the change slowly in Jacob as he realizes that Skylar’s AAC isn’t a burden or separate from him, the same way many abled people will say “I’m sorry” when someone uses a wheelchair, but other disabled people will see it as the freedom to move around painlessly. Most importantly, when Jacob and Skylar’s relationship experiences some turbulence, Jacob never stops advocating for Skylar’s causes and continues working with the local Pride Center to challenge the dress code that prevents Skylar from wearing skirts and dresses when he feels like it. Even Jacob’s friends at first are surprised to find out that he’s still making calls and participating when the issue doesn’t affect him directly, but then join him when they see it’s a cause he cares about.

While Jacob and Sky fall head-over-heels for each other relatively quickly, I wasn’t constantly lamenting about the obliviousness of the characters or their bad decisions, which was a relief. I know that I­—and many readers/moviegoers—feel frustrated with friendship dynamics, like in Simon Versus the Homo Sapiens Agenda, in which the friends all turned against Simon for not coming out to them sooner. Instead, the friends in Every Word You Never Said stand in for the rationality of the reader at times. When they see Skylar making a bad decision, Imani and Seth gently tell him where he’s right and where he’s wrong, even though he wants them to wholeheartedly take his side. What I valued most was that Skylar’s supposed “overreaction” to conflict didn’t frustrate me—Greene makes the character’s backstory seamlessly lead up to this confrontation in which he realizes the extent of his abandonment and trauma. But this novel isn’t all struggle and conflict. Actually, it doesn’t even come close to being a “sad” book. While there are scenes of homophobia and ableism, there’s so much joy in this novel. The characters aren’t particularly witty—their teenage flirting is awkward and sweet, feeling much more natural than most Netflix high school dramas these days. We get to see everyday happiness: Skylar celebrating his birthday with his new family and friends, getting his first kiss in a corn maze, and a group of friends fawning over a bottle green dress that Skylar wants to wear to prom. We see Jacob carving out his own identity in his religious family, introducing Skylar to his favorite music, and even finding that he likes wearing skirts himself sometimes. For all the depressing LGBTQ+ YA I’ve read (especially in the late 2000s) it’s a joy to read the words: “I feel comfortable, and it’s been so long since I’ve been able to say that.”

A Review of If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

To be published April 5, 2022 by Graywolf Press

Noor Naga’s novel If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English is a masterclass in complex characters and incisive writing. It is a novel deeply aware of itself—just when you think you know what the writer is trying to do, she surprises you. It is as though the book is consistently conscious of its ambitions as well as its shortcomings, harboring some secret knowledge that the reader is not always privy to. Operating from this knowing distance, it presents difficult notions of identity, otherness, gender, and race, splaying all these themes out in their entirety and asking us to look and closely examine what is in front of us. And in participating in this active examination, the reader becomes an inextricable part of the novel itself. Because so much of the novel interrogates notions of power, it becomes important who gets to tell the story, and who gets to read it, too.

The novel is centered around the story of an Egyptian-American woman and a man from Shobrakheit who meet in Cairo and the pain, love, abuse, and power that is ever-present in their dynamic. Products of their histories, the two cannot extract themselves from what precedes them. And yet, Naga is not writing a story merely about identity, but instead how our ideas of identity might be limiting. Her characters are not one-dimensional, nor do they defy or uphold stereotypes as if to make some sort of statement. They just exist in all their multiplicities. And her writing is at its best when she lets the interactions between her characters speak for themselves, allowing us to fill in the gaps. In one scene, the boy from Shobrakheit—always unnamed—calls the girl “a whore in ten different ways” and then suddenly he is “crying on [her] living room floor” in child’s pose. Naga frequently juxtaposes moments of absolute vulnerability and abhorrent power like this, so that the reader—and the characters too—reckon with the ways human beings can inflict immeasurable pain on others while also being in pain themselves. In the same scene, Naga then inserts the girl’s thought: “Why is this pity I feel so frightening?” and the sharpness of this sentence cuts through the paragraph with such intensity I had to take a break upon reading it.

Consider also the weight and painful beauty of these two sentences: “She wouldn’t let me kiss her like I used to. When I tried, she bowed her head into my chest and that was all, my hair dripping on her like a tree after good rain, and the two of us fragile as birds.” The novel thrums with such precise yet poetic language. And for all their shifting power (his because he is a man and knows the city well, hers because she is American and rich), in the end, the two really are fragile beings caught in a complex web of inadequacy and powerlessness.

The novel works less when the writing becomes obvious and Naga is directing us into exactly what to think. For instance, at one point, the girl launches into a series of rhetorical questions. She asks “Why did he choose me in the first place? Was it because I was neither of him nor truly other?” This kind of writing can sometimes feel as if it is leading to a place already obvious to the reader. Such instances, however, are far and few in between. As a whole, the novel does justice to the intricacy it explores. It is wholly captivating and will challenge you in ways you don’t see coming.

A Review of What We Harvest by Ann Fraistat

Published March 22, 2022 by Delacorte Press.

“What good is a legacy if it’s always been a lie?”

What We Harvest by Ann Fraistat is, first and foremost, tight. It’s limited to one all-American town, Hollow’s End, a handful of key characters, one primary plot that the primary character needs to solve, and one major subplot (as well as smaller issues and character dynamics). There are other unsolved mysteries and questions—but they’re not distractions. This story is constrained, clipped—and it works. The format is refreshing, especially when most YA books are a series. This story is a one-and-done, a quick read.

Hollow’s End feels like a fully realized, all-American town with lots of farmland, familial pride, history, and strange fruit. There are the ghost melons, which glow blue; the rainbow wheat, which, when baked into unicorn braid bread, tastes like a variety of different fruits and vegetables, which are also Wren’s, the main character’s, family crop. There is magic in the soil—the crops are unnatural; their effects, nothing short of supernatural. I’m sure their taste is (literally) magical, too. The magic turns sour in the Quicksilver Blight. It’s a lovely twist on the idea of magic being ethereal: instead, it’s carnal and physical.

Tourists come, and in flashbacks, we get a sense of how the town was once, and what it’s since become. The Quicksilver Blight, the strange sap that leaks from the ground, has turned animals and people into zombie-like creatures. The crops are dead. The town quarantines, severed from the rest of the world. Strange government officials are investigating it. Nothing changes. Life has been leached from the ground, and it’s up to Wren to save it while learning about the town’s, and her family’s, past in the process.

Legacy is one of What We Harvest’s primary themes. Family ties, ancestors. Their farms. Their history. Wren is a sixteen-year-old girl who cares deeply for her ex-boyfriend (whom she may not yet be over), Derek. She’s tethered to her family, the farm, and, of course, her dog. She learns of the dark secrets of her family history—and reading it, I found parallels back to America’s stolen and scrubbed histories, the farms built over indigenous peoples’ lands; the things taken, not received. While the story doesn’t develop the true horrors within legacy enough to me, it leans into it—and in a fantastically strange way.

Wren is a great character. She’s young but has matured quickly. She isn’t spectacular, isn’t a genius or a supernaturally gifted girl—she is, rather, persistent. Her resilience and care are what keep her going, which I adore. She feels fully realized, understood—she grapples with questions about the future. She’s also still full of feelings for her ex, Derek—he’s a sweet, strong guy who was very communicative and loving. Their relationship is the B-plot, and I thought it was a great compliment to the very heavy A-plot, the Quicksilver Blight. Other characters, like Derek’s sister, Claudette, and her girlfriend, Angie, stole my heart too. Claudette is rough-n’-tough; Angie softens her up. The parents also play a role, and they all deal with loss in different capacities, different ways. I wonder if this book changed through COVID-19. The Quicksilver Blight, the idea of anyone being contagious; those themes run parallel to everyday life in the pandemic, and What We Harvest carries those themes realistically and well.

This book has a pulse. It’s alive (or perhaps undead-ish, like the blight of Hollow’s End), and jerks between visceral, tense action and necessary slow moments for character development. Those places where you catch your breath. It’s well-balanced, well-constructed. Things continually get worse, and worse, and worse. I genuinely had my mouth open for a few parts. This story gets truly, and meaningfully, horrifying. I shuddered, I feared, and I loved every moment of it.

“Every person, every animal we’d lost was down there right now. Blight seeping into their every inch.

Gnawing away.

Melting them into more of itself.

If I went in, no way would it be me that crawled back out.”

Fraistat’s lyrical writing is why the book remains in my mind like an echo, even after I’ve set it down. It’s cinematic—she doesn’t skimp on the drama or the details. Again, the pulse: long and short sentences, gorgeously horrifying details. If you’re not a fan of gore, I would suggest staying away. If you love horror that gets down to the guts, literally, this is the novel for you. The writing is never dull; Fraistat truly takes advantage of every sentence. She crafts the world through her writing, having a great sense of where and how to stop. The lyrical style lends itself to magical realism as well.

My primary gripes? The conflicts settle a bit too easily for convenience’s sake, since Wren is such a driven person. While the conflicts’ resolutions underlined the importance of familial and interpersonal relationships, I wish that Wren was the one to coax the solutions out, rather than for them to have come to her. It’d give her more agency and establish her as an even stronger character because of her spirit. Lastly, the ending is rushed—satisfying, yes, but it feels like it’s gone too fast. The book had built tension up so well; I wanted that cinematic ending. I wanted the cooldown to be a bit longer, to take its time out of the blight, the ending, and into what happens later.

I also wish that we could learn more of the town’s past, since What We Harvest interrogates legacy. I’d love to see more of the past of the town, the family, and to understand more of the magic as well. Not to explain it, but just to envelop me into it. As it stands, the magic still feels too distant and underdeveloped. I want to see more of it in action since it was one of the weirdest and most fascinating elements of the story.

(Also, I want to try their unicorn braid. I’ll take a lightly toasted slice, please.)

This book is a fantastic debut, satisfies and surpasses my expectations for a weird, wild, and exciting horror story. With a cast of well-developed characters, gorgeous writing, fascinating world, and strong themes, it’s easy to slip into and hard to disconnect from. It is a standalone piece (or seems to be so); I’m glad it’s on its own. It is satisfying in a way that any piece with sequels can’t be. Unearth this book and see just how fast quicksilver can spread.