December Staff Picks: Fatman, Locke & Key, Arca’s four new albums, and video games!

Dominic Loise

In Fatman, Chris Cringe’s yearly toy delivery is subsidized by the United States Treasury to keep US consumerism going and has his funding cut because he is giving out fewer toys since he finds kids less in the Christmas spirit these days. Fatman was billed as a gun-toting revenge movie about a spoiled rich kid who hires a hitman to take out Santa for giving him coal. I found Fatman to have subtle undertones of an older man, Chris, reinvesting in his life’s work when he is hit hard by the economy and the current social climate. Watching Chris’ relationship with his workers and others, I felt the long haul it took to bring Christmas beyond one sleigh ride, as he makes a deal with the government to keep the factory operational. Also, Fatman shows an honest adult relationship between Chris and his wife Ruth who support each other through both the storms and gifts that life brings.

Miki Schumacher

On snowy December days, I love to curl up under some blankets and play games on my Nintendo Switch. Last weekend I picked up a game called Inside, a puzzle platformer that came out in 2016. You play as a boy running from guards in the middle of a rainy forest. However, as the boy tries to escape, he finds himself running deeper and deeper into a mysterious facility. The story slowly unravels as you make disturbing discoveries, and the subtle details pull you into the strange world. The atmosphere of this game is incredible. It managed to fill me with dread, relief, terror, and wonder. I’d recommend this game to anyone looking for a dark mystery. I finished it in one weekend.

Eileen Silverthorn

I am currently watching Netflix’s Locke & Key, a series inspired by the comic books series of the same name by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. It is aaaall kinds of dark and twisty! The story begins with the Locke family moving into Key House, their father’s old family home after he is murdered in what seemed to be a senseless act of violence. (But nothing is as it seems in this show.) As the Locke siblings begin settling into their new life, they slowly start discovering keys hidden throughout Key House, each one opening special doors or activating mysterious objects, either giving the user magical abilities or access to strange new places. But the Locke’s aren’t the only ones interested in the keys—there are demons looking to collect the keys, too, and act out all kinds of destruction against their family. I’m loving this series because it has a way of capturing the teenage angst of moving to a new place, the trauma of losing a loved one, and the spooky chaos of magic all at once. I find myself getting nervous and excited while I watch, yelling at the TV for the characters to “Get out of there, what are you doing?!” I never know what is going to happen, but I love trying to puzzle out the magic alongside the Locke family. Highly recommend!

Thomas Chisholm

I’ve been a fan of Arca since her instrumental days back when she dropped her debut album Xen. But earlier this month she took the music world by storm. By December 5, Arca had dropped four albums in one week: Kick iiiiiii. The first album in the series, KiCk i was released last year in June of 2020 and accurately foreshadowed what was to come in the following four albums. KiCk i is all over the map and offers samples of what’s to come in the following albums. KICK ii is basically Arca’s reggaeton album. KicK iii is the strongest in the series; it perfectly mixes what made her harsh, experimental instrumental albums so special with the more pop-driven sounds she’s been incorporating over the last five years. kick iiii showcases her softer more melodic side and really lets her operatic vocals shine. kiCK iiiii—the surprise, unannounced bonus album—is largely instrumental and a welcome come down from the onslaught of all the previous Kicks. For an artist who makes such chaotic music, kiCK iiiii is wonderful because it’s the first time we’ve heard an entire Arca album that just focuses on beauty. I spent a lot of time listening to it while proofreading the upcoming Literary Tarot from Brink. I found the title Kick very odd, but the artist herself offered an incredible explanation on Instagram recently: “a prenatal KiCk is the first undeniable evidence that there exists an individual with an expression distinct from one’s mother and father.”

KicK iii

November Staff Picks: Fleet Foxes, A24 Movies, Anime, and all things autumn!

Thomas Chisholm

When autumn rolled around I found myself once again (let’s be real, at this point it’s a seasonal tradition) listening to Fleet Foxes nonstop. I celebrate their entire discography. But their self-titled debut has always been my favorite. I’ve had it on cassette for a few years now. But this season I went all in and acquired the First Collection 2006-2009. It’s a vinyl box set Sub Pup put out in 2018 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the band’s first album. The box set includes the self-title on 12” wax, plus three 10” EPs. The EPs include the band’s first long-out-of-print (also self-titled) EP, the Sun Giant EP that preceded their debut LP, and a collection of B-sides and rarities from that early era.

The whole thing is packaged in a gorgeous box with a magnetic seal. Inside is a book of photos depicting the early years of the band. This includes members of the band as teenagers rehearsing in their parents’ basements. By the end of the picture book, we see the band on tour and playing sold-out shows. Robin Pecknold, the group’s founder and primary songwriter, provides wonderful notes throughout the book. There are also a few old flyers and early sketches of lyrics mixed in between the ten inches. I also just love that the EPs are all 10″. In the last ten or so years, labels seem to have stopped putting out anything other than 12″ LPs. It’s a fun little novelty that just shows nothing was spared in putting this collection together. If you’re a big fan of this band and a record collector, you need the First Collection 2006-2009.

Kaitlin Lounsberry

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m always hunting for a weird, thought-provoking movie come October. When I saw that A24 Films intended to release a new film in the middle of the month, I knew it would likely check all the boxes. Lamb is weird. The kind of weird that I’ve come to anticipate from A24 “horror,” but also to a degree that I still haven’t figured out. It’s set in rural Iceland, which alone is kind of creepy, and then you add into some, um, unusual elements and you get a movie that I genuinely haven’t stopped thinking about for two weeks. I don’t want to spoil anything so I’m unable to go into that much detail, but I promise it’s worth the watch.

Asmaani Kumar

Fruits Basket (2019 version) is this one anime series I keep going back to when I need to look for hope. Each of the characters have really emotionally turbulent lives but you also find them doing the best they can to keep moving ahead. Our lead character Tohru is very kind and nurturing and always knows the right things to say and even though she’s portrayed as a savior in the very beginning, you slowly see her coming to terms to all that she has lived through as well. Every episode has something to offer on the lines of friendship, resilience, family and when there is a multitude of characters with their own journeys to make, every one of them is given attention and every one of them is understood for the choices they made. When I watch Fruits Basket, as heartbreaking as some of the episodes are, it makes you want to live well and to believe that things can change, things can get better when you have good people around you. It emphasizes on the inherent goodness of people and how we all need each other and want to be there for one another even when we don’t know how. There is an underlying urge for compassion and empathy and forgiveness especially towards yourselves and how that can help you keep growing, keep living well even when it gets hard.

C. E. Janecek

I originally followed Xiran Jay Zhao for their kitten Kokochin, who struggled into this world and slowly won the hearts of Xiran’s cat-skeptical parents. Then, I found out that they made YouTube videos and Twitter threads that deep-dive into unraveling the historical (in)accuracy of Disney’s Mulan and that they recreate historical Chinese fashion. Turns out, all of this knowledge was accumulating research for their debut: Iron Widow, a cutthroat, Chinese-history inspired science fiction novel that I read in three days. Do you want a young woman protagonist who’s full of rage, vengeance, and a questioning of gender norms? Do you want a love triangle that concludes in a stunning and devastating polyamorous triad? Do you want giant, Pacific-Rim-esque mechas that function through a combination of spiritual power and acupuncture? Then get your butt to the bookstore!!

Nate Ragolia

As spooky season drifts slowly back to the beyond for another year, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out Over the Garden Wall to keep your autumn weird going. The 2014, ten-part, animated mini-series—created by the folks who brought you Adventure Time­—features the voices of Elijah Wood, Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, Melanie Lynskey, and tells a spectacularly heartwarming, funny, quirky story about two boys who get lost in the woods. Plus, the original songs and fantastic score add lushness and flavor to an already remarkable fantasy-esque world. Each episode is only eleven minutes long, so binging the series is akin to watching one feature-length movie, but I suggest giving each watch a little time to sink in. Do not sleep on this autumn classic.

Dominic Loise

With SurrealEstate, it felt good to break the TV binging habit during the pandemic and have a Friday night show again to cap off the week. It’s about The Roman Agency, which assists in moving homes that have been on the housing market for too long due to supernatural disturbances. The show is put together by creators and actors who have worked on Wynonia Earp and Schitt’s Creek. SurrealEstate is more than a just “monster of the week” with each new investigated and sold property. The backstories of the diverse cast are all handled with care as we learn that the houses are not the only haunted things. I’m interested to see the show get a second season and watch these characters’ relationships continue to grow beyond the real-estate office and more into their real worlds.

October Staff Picks (Intern Edition): K-dramas, Podcasts, and Animorphs!

Asmaani Kumar

Jung Hae-in has been one of my most favorite actors ever since I started watching K-dramas. When his latest series D.P. was released, I had to watch it. It is the story of two soldiers searching for fellow soldiers who have deserted the army. It is a haunting tale of the cruelties that unfold within the military. With only six episodes, it leaves a mark. It’s been weeks since I finished, but even now I recall those stories and the unfairness of it all, the unforgivable tragedies, the trauma that they live through, and the entire futility of expecting change and the rage behind it. The soundtrack is absolutely beautiful as well, there is so much emotion in it. I would recommend giving “Higher,” “Free,” “Tell A Lie,” and “Goodbye” a listen. I have been hooked on these tracks and they keep bringing those stories back to me with the desperation of wanting things to change and my desire for those soldiers to lead better lives.

Manal Ahmed

Recently, I’ve been binge-listening to the podcast Say More by Melissa Olivia-Lozada and Olivia Gatwood. It has strangely functioned as a sort of mirror to my internal monologue and innermost thoughts, especially during this very murky pandemic year. Melissa and Olivia are best friends, poets, and feel very real. They discuss issues like retroactive jealousy, pop culture icons like Lana Del Ray, and veer off on lengthy tangents about karaoke. What I love about them, and the podcast, is that though they’re definitely two strong, independent female writers, they also come across as deeply human, plagued by the same troubles and anxieties that their listeners undoubtedly share (I know I do). They’re spunky, wildly funny, and exceptionally perceptive. Not only do they have the best insight (on a range of issues, from capitalist power structures to The Bachelorette), the language they use to relay this insight is so precise and incisive. They’re keenly aware of the world around them, and as they respond to it with gentleness and thoughtfulness, you can’t help but get completely sucked in.

Jessenia Hernandez

A novel I read semi-recently that stuck with me and that I’ll continue to recommend is Night Film by Marisha Pessl. This is a mystery/thriller with elements of experimental and psychological fiction—genres that intertwine beautifully to make a haunting and mind-bending story. A perfect Halloween-time read, this story starts on a late October night, when Ashley Cordova, daughter of infamous movie director Stanislas Cordova, is found dead in an abandoned warehouse. The death is ruled a suicide, but investigative journalist Scott McGrath is doubtful of this conclusion due to the strange details surrounding Stanislas Cordova: he hasn’t been seen in over thirty years, and yet he and his cult-horror films, some of which are rumored to show real violence, have amassed a devout underground following. Shunned by the journalistic community the first time he tried to learn the truth about the reclusive director, Scott is determined to redeem himself, even as things become increasingly dark and dangerous the deeper he pries. Night Film had me hooked from the beginning, as Pessl does an exquisite job of building suspense and keeping her reader just as paranoid and unsure as her protagonist. The novel also directs the reader to a website with links to images, recordings, and documents to supplement the story—you can quite literally experience parts of this story as Scott does. The novel itself includes newspaper clippings, pictures, and screenshots of websites throughout to make this a truly immersive read.

Carter Elwood

I saw Pig recently and I can already tell it’s going to be one of my favorite movies of all time. Rob (played by Nic Cage) loses his beloved truffle pig, and will stop at nothing to get her back. First of all, the eponymous pig (played by Brandy the pig) is absolutely gorgeous. She’s a natural born actress with no formal training. I would watch an entire movie of Brandy running around in the dirt doing pig things. In addition to being a most excellent vehicle for Brandy footage, the movie also serves as an exploration on love, the pitfalls of prestige, loss and the avoidance of loss, and how capitalism destroys art. Nic Cage is magnetic as a mystic hermit chef/truffle hunter/secret . . . underground . . . Portland restaurant, uh . . . ? You’ll just have to watch it. If you need more convincing, watch this scene.

Gina Gruss


Remember Animorphs? Those goofy, human-turning-into-animal covers? The overly saturated backgrounds; the sometimes-messy, usually awkward shifts? I was entranced. My older sister had a few of those books stuck in our garage; I stole them for myself, reading through the books late at night, flipping through the pages to watch the transformation, the limbs twisting and shrinking, faces flattening. Yes, I was hooked by the gimmick. But Animorphs was much more, and much darker, than their goofy covers. It is one of the most unexpectedly mature, strange, and wild book series I’ve ever read, igniting my love for strange sci-fi and fantasy.

It begins lighthearted. We love the cast, we root for them, and maybe we expect a (children’s) book standard: a happy ending. Instead, the story ends in abject horror: the death of a main character. The series’ ultimate main character commits genocide. Characters are romantically separated, suffering from PTSD, depression; others have cut ties, left. The book is callous. The characters, ghosts. No goofiness is left; the book has calcified fully into war. It ends ambiguously, with the remaining main characters ramming their ship into the enemy’s.

People were angry with that narrative choice. K.A. Applegate, the series’ writer, responded to dissatisfied readers: “Animorphs was always a war story. [W]ars very often end, sad to say, just as ours did: with a nearly seamless transition to another war.” Animorphs showed me how powerful, mature, and nuanced children’s media could be. It still scares me, but I always return to it. I highly recommend it.

September Staff Picks: Perry Bible Fellowship, Kingdom, Nancy Drew, and the Fantastic Four!

Nate Ragolia 

This month, I’ve been getting into Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, which just hit Amazon Prime for viewing with its brilliant mix of absurdist faux-80s sci-fi-horror-British humor. Also, one of my favorite long-running web comics, The Perry Bible Fellowship, continues to offer laugh-out-loud-and-think-deeply work, post after post.

Kaitlin Lounsberry

What do you get when you combine a historical political story with a zombie outbreak? Another award-winning Netflix series that you can’t stop thinking about, at least that’s how Kingdom has been for me. I’m often hit or miss when it comes to zombie stories, especially as of late as one post-apocalyptic show after another hits streaming channels. Which is why this series was so captivating to me. It felt like a political drama set in the 1600s that just so happens to be dealing with dead people trying to eat those still left alive. The family conflict and desire for the truth are elevate with the addition of the undead. Not to mention the second season ends on a gripping cliff-hanger that has me eagerly checking news sources for confirmation of a third season.

That being said, Netflix recently released a stand-alone episode, “Ashin of the North,” to satiate viewers and suggest more to come. Depending on who you ask, you could watch this before the series, but there are moments and characters of significance that filter in and out of this episode. And, personally, I think those moments hold much more significance if you understand their importance in the series.

Jaclyn Morken

Anyone who knows me is going to roll their eyes when they read this, but I have been obsessed with Nancy Drew for over a year now, especially the brilliant point-and-click PC games from HerInteractive. Mid-pandemic (can we use that as an indication of time now?), I was reminiscing with some friends about huddling around the family computer with our sisters to play as the iconic sleuth, so I dug out some of my old games for nostalgia’s sake. I was surprised at just how much fun they still are. These games are creepy, funny, educational, exciting, and relaxing in equal measure. Since jumping back in, I’ve solved a binary code, uncovered a secret network of underground tunnels, fallen off a cliff (whoops), and played the “Fox and Geese” mini-game way too many times.

And if you’re, like me, have an old laptop that won’t run a lot of PC games, at least listen to the soundtracks on YouTube. The music is perfect background noise for concentration; I listen to the soundtracks on repeat while I’m working and writing to keep me calm and focused. If you’re in the mood for something hauntingly beautiful, do yourself a favor and look up “Nancy Drew: Warnings at Waverly Academy: Violin” on YouTube. It’s one of my absolute favourites.

But what I love most about these games—and the Nancy Drew character in general—is how they keep teaching girls that they can be smart and bold and resourceful, that they can trust their instincts and follow their interests, that they can be the hero of their own story. If you like puzzles and mysteries, I highly recommend checking out these games—there are over thirty to choose from!

Dominic Loise

As the Spider-man: No Way Home trailer dropped, I am reminded that Jon Watts, the current Spidey movie franchise holder, is set to tackle the Fantastic Four next for Marvel. Next year is the sixtieth anniversary of Marvel’s First Family. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four heralding “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” on issue one in November 1962. The modern Marvel universe rippled out from that comic as it hit newsstands. New readers wishing to tackle the Fantastic Four’s history may be intimidated where to begin with six decades of stories. I don’t recommend starting with Stan and Jack’s 108 initial issues (1-102 including annuals), John Bryne’s epic run, or Mark Waid’s return to core family values and stunning story, but with Tom Scioli’s Fantastic Four: Grand Design.

Marvel’s Grand Design line does retool and replay with the overall continuity of the actual comic book events as they actually played out from issue to issue. What Grand Design does right is introducing old stories from over fifty years ago in the spirit of a hip hop remix, allowing one artist to Spark Notes info from an entire run of a comic with an overarching storyline. Scioli’s art pays tribute to Jack Kirby while holding his own indie style. His panel work is tight yet detailed and Scioli conveys the traditional information without losing his own artistic touches. 

Reading Fantastic Four: Grand Design, the reader not only gets the human stories of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Sue Storm/Richards (The Invisible Girl/Woman), Johnny Storm, (The Human Torch), and Benjamin J. Grimm (The Thing) but how a fateful rocket trip launched comics as we see them on the screen today. We have already been introduced to the Skull, the Kree, Wakanda, and Agatha Harkness just to name a few elements of the Marvel Universe, which came from the Fantastic Four. Tom Scioli’s Fantastic Four: Grand Design shows that the Fantastic Four comic is the missing link to what we have been enjoying in the superhero movie genre and the books they are based on.

Meet Our Fall 2021 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.

Manal Ahmed


Where is your favorite place to read?   

Park benches, slightly dewy grass, or my bed, when it’s cold outside. When I was much younger, I loved reading books at school during Math class. I feel like every literature kid has done that, haven’t they? 

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? 

Wherever it leads, there has to be a body of water somewhere. I grew up in a city beside the sea so everywhere I go, I look for lakes, rivers, seas, and reservoirs. So, I would open the door and then sink my feet into the blue. 

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

I alternate between being chai-obsessed and coffee-obsessed, depending on the season or place I’m in (chai in Karachi, coffee in Boston). I like both to be super milky; creamy and thick, but I almost always forget about my cup of chai/coffee while I’m working and then commit the cardinal sin of re-heating it throughout the day. 

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

I like words that sound exactly like what they are. Like glean, holler and unfurl. Or even something as simple as flower.

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

Oh, that’s such a hard one. Melodrama by Lorde is one of those albums I can’t imagine life without so I would probably pick that. I also love Kartography by Kamila Shamsie. On a deserted island, it would provide me with some much-needed solace by reminding me of home because it relies so heavily on Karachi as a character. 

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

I would make it less daunting for those that wish to enter it. There’s such a kind of mystique around it, which can be cool, but that also makes it appear so inaccessible. I simply want people to believe they can be a part of it. 

Carter Elwood


Carter Elwood Headshot

Where is your favorite place to read?   

Under a big tree! 

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 had a dream similar to this a couple weeks ago! I was walking through tunnels in a mountain, so I think it’s safe to assume there was some kind of door I went through to get there. I climbed through the tunnels and found myself in a beautiful forest with canopy trees, iridescent flowers, and strangely haunting bird songs. A shoebill led me to a tall wooden ladder at the side of a tree. When I reached the top of the ladder, I saw a huge tortoise shell floating in the sky. I approached the shell and fell on my knees in reverence. Then about a dozen blinking tortoise heads emerged from all around the shell.  

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

I don’t drink coffee, but I love smoothies! I like to add strawberries, bananas, raspberries, cantaloupe, kale—whatever I have around! 

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

My favorite English word is open, because I feel like the ability to remain open to our experiences and the experiences of others is crucial to moving with the flow of our lives. My favorite word in American Sign Language is peaceful/serene, which is signed the way you would sign BECOME + QUIET.  

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

My one album would be The Very Best of Elton John. I can never stay totally sad when listening to “Crocodile Rock.” My one book would be The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, which I’ve probably read hundreds of times. I love it more every time I read it! 

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

I would make books more accessible to marginalized communities.  

Gina Marie Gruss


Gina Gruss Headshot

Where is your favorite place to read?   

My favorite place one is on my bed, with the lights just dim enough to the point I can read clearly, the air cool, and my phone playing some ambient music to match the book. The other requirement: at least one of my two cats curled up on my lap. Apollo, my cat, often likes to bite the pages, so that only adds to the experience of action/adventure books. 

My other favorite place to read is right up until sundown at the beach, when the wind picks up and the humidity fades. It’s best with friends, when we’re out of the water and a little salt-crusted from previous swims (with or without a little copper sargassum in my hair too) and the initial excitement has faded into a mutual chill. I’m someone who doesn’t mind making an impact on my books, as scandalous as it is—I write in the margins and fold pages—and I don’t mind if the book gets wet. It lets me know that I was there, and that I literally made my mark on the book, just like the book hopefully left its mark on me. 

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? 

You open the door and— 

See a swirling constellation of dust, the breath of achy stone and dank water, and feel a full-bodied pull, something deep within, unfathomable, telling you to step deeper into the cave, to continue, sink, sink, deeper into the heart of the mountain. You have no choice but to go in, despite the darkness, which reminds you of the sliver of shadow of your childhood bedroom’s closet, you as a kid staring, fearing, the unknown.  

The walkway is lined with lights. You don’t know where they come from—no cords leading to or away from them, just one endless line above—but you don’t question it. You’re ensnared by the possibility of whatever lies ahead. Something impossible drags you forward. You’re not yourself. 

But who are/were/will be you? What will your story be? 

Sedimentary, metamorphic—the rocks are lined by history, by stories. You continue. The air thickens, cools. The stones change, unbecome, become; they crystalize like ice, like quartz—you can’t help yourself. You step towards them, set your hand against the wall— 

You calcify. You stare inside and see your mind unfurl like an accordion, a fan, a canary in-flight, feather-fall, it shoots up and away and is majestic and gorgeous and— 

Slams into a window far away. It crumples into a corpse.  

You see every moment of your life both at once and separately. You see all of the options you can take, will take—and with it, the stories. Every option, every chance, every thought, immortalized into text.  

You weren’t the you that you were a moment ago. This is your story, right? Who are you within it all? You return to the wall, the stone, the chances, the options. 


You’re back at the wooden doorway, the winding path. The sky shimmers. There is a deep wrongness within you. You must go back, figure yourself out, delve deeper. 

You return to the stones. The heart of the mountain. You watch, repeat; are trapped in a loop of yourself, of your actions, the potential. Could you write another story? The darkness is darker than ever, deeper than ever. Your head hurts. You don’t feel the ground beneath your feet. 

(Another bird crashes into a window, mistaking the panel for a strip of sky, and—) 

Back again. Outside of the cave once more. 

You look to look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. 

You walk past it, deciding to avoid that story for now. 

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

I drink almost exclusively water-sans-coffee beans. Though, around wintertime, and preferably when it feels like winter (see: south Florida), I make a big batch of hot chocolate for my yearly Friendsgiving party! Ever since I read and watched The Polar Express, I’ve been in search for the perfect hot cocoa that’s rich, but not too thick. I add a ton of warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg (of course, taking a cue from Mexican hot chocolate); a lot of salt, some molasses, vanilla extract, and at least five different varieties of chocolate, from Dutch-process cocoa powder to milk chocolate morsels. And I toast up some mini marshmallows and add them on top, because what’s hot cocoa without the extras? During Friendsgiving, I’ll always randomly spike a cup of hot cocoa with a healthy glug of the hottest hot sauce I have as a little game, and see which friend receives their holiday gift a little early!  

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

Namesake is one of my favorite words. It’s partly broken down into name, what someone is known as, whether that is decided by the person themselves or someone else. Names hold power and can say a lot about a person. The other half, sake, is a reason, a cause; something that drives someone to act. Together, the word namesake is about commonality, a shared name. It’s an uncommon word but can speak of lineage, and connection/disconnection. In Spanish, namesake’s translated to tocayo—which I find to just generally be a pretty word. 

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

As far as music goes, my mood shifts like the tides—I’d probably take Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s a mix of some of my favorite things: jazz, electronic, and classical music. The entire album is one piece that shifts through eight movements, all anchored by one running loop, and is truly a transformative album, focusing on liminality and stillness. It’s an album I never want to get tired of and probably won’t, even if it’s the only piece of music I have on an island. 

As far as a book, for practical reasons, I’d probably pick a book that details how to live on and sail away from deserted islands, but I’d probably go for Tony DiTerlizzi’s The Search for WondLa—it’s a fantastical blend of sci-fi and fantasy in a weird, new setting. I love the use of art (and plus—maybe I judge books by their covers. Just a little.) It’s weird and experimental and everything that continues to inspire me today. The book’s themes involve exploration, self-discovery, and personal growth, which I return to even as an adult to get nostalgic, and to remind myself that I still am looking for my own WondLa. (And, if I’m trapped on a deserted island, I’m probably searching for a way off it.) 

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

I’d love to see more diversity within the industry, both in the sense of the writers themselves coming from different (and intersectional!) points of view, as well as in the diversity in writing styles, plots, characters, and other story elements.  

The true magic of creative writing, to me, is its lack of limitations—all a person needs is to be literate enough to effectively communicate and portray their piece. They can create sprawling, intergalactic epics and fantastical worlds with only text—no need to have access to CGI or actors.  

I hope to see larger publishers take greater risks with who they sign on, as well as what they publish. There are so many wonderful writers and stories that are too weird, novel, and/or different that are turned down, so hopefully they’re willing to branch out and diversify the market, and in turn, show everyone that their story can be told, no matter who they are, or what they write. 

Jessenia Hernandez


Jessenia Hernandez Headshot

Where is your favorite place to read?   

My favorite place to read is anywhere that I can get comfy, with natural light nearby to illuminate the pages. If I can find a big window to read beside, or just read outdoors on a pleasant day, I’m content. A dream of mine is to have my own book nook in my home one day, complete with a lounger beside a big window and bookshelves all around.  

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? 

If I’m being honest, I’ve always been afraid of the unknown. I’ve dived headfirst into it regardless quite a few times, but I can’t say I wasn’t completely terrified of what would happen. For this reason, if I saw a door in the side of a mountain, I think I’d avoid it like the plague. My mind would likely immediately turn to any number of fiendish creatures that might be willing to eat me. While this means I might not be the most adventurous (or optimistic) person, I see myself hastening in the opposite direction of this mysterious door, content with the fact that I’ll never know what lies behind it. 

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

My go-to coffee order lately has been an iced latte with caramel and almond milk. The flavor changes depending on my mood, and I might sometimes opt for vanilla, white chocolate, or whatever novelty flavor catches my eye. Ever since making the switch to non-dairy milk, though, I am devoutly dedicated to almond milk in everything, including my coffee. 

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

My brain tends to short-circuit when people ask me to pick favorites, so I had to put a lot of thought into this question. The word that kept coming to mind is ubiquitous. I saw this unfamiliar word in a book I was reading when I was quite young, and this is one of my earliest memories of being in awe of language. I felt an intense need to know the meaning of the word. Defined as, “present, appearing, or found everywhere,” it made perfect sense and no sense at all to me—that’s why I fell in love with it. Now, whenever I see the word, it reminds me of my fervent passion for language and literature and their ubiquitous influence on the world. 

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

On a deserted island, the one album I would want with me is Ben Platt’s Sing To Me Instead. I first discovered Ben Platt when he originated the lead character in the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. This show sparked my love for musical theater, but also for Ben Platt’s voice and music. Sing To Me Instead is his debut album—a perfectly balanced collection of both upbeat and melancholy songs, as well as a heartfelt exploration of relationships between family, friends, and lovers.  

My book of choice would be The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. I will always hold this book near and dear to my heart. Despereaux loves to read; books show him how big the world is and open his heart to ideas that his fellow mice never consider. This, I think, is the magic of reading, and reading this story was largely where my own love for literature bloomed. The Tale of Despereaux is also a classic story about love, friendship, bravery, forgiveness, and hope, a collection of themes I’d love to revisit time and time again while stranded on a deserted island and beyond.  

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

While there has been progress in the level of representation in the literary world, I believe there is a long way to go. If I could change something about the literary industry, I would want to see more diverse voices and stories published regularly. I would like to see marginalized communities represented and uplifted through literature, in stories that are about more than just race, sexuality, religion, etc. While people’s identities are integral to who they are and to their experience in this life—and literature should reflect that—people are also far more than their identities. I therefore believe the ideal literary industry would illuminate stories that are complex and engaging and varied in nature, while also having diverse main characters.     

Asmaani Kumar


Asmaani Kumar Headshot

Where is your favorite place to read?   

Although I mostly read in bed these days, my favorite places to read are in metros when I used to travel from one end of the city to the other—or lying on grassy lawns out in the sun. Mostly outdoors, so I have my own world to slip into as the world carries on.  

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 the door and when I opened it; it would take me back to the past, this moment in time when I was back in college and I used to spend my days and nights with the people who mattered to me the most. There would be lots of food and laughter and art and long walks and I would get moments to spare with everyone and it would feel as though it were a refresh button, from here on I would make some choices differently and some choices the same but I would be more open with my heart and treat time as it were a lot more precious.  

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

Although I do like my coffee a lot sweeter and definitely cold, my favorite beverage ritual would be getting a glass of peach iced tea whenever I’m out with my friends or as a sweet break from too much work. But warm tea for winters.  

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

My favorite English word these days is warmth because it embraces everything that I could want from the world. There is warmth in kindness, in the company of people you love, in a song, in a memory, in every little thing that brings you comfort. Warmth is what we keep asking for from ourselves and from people to feel a lot less alone, to find strength to keep moving ahead. In another language, my friend says this word Insha’Allah a lot and there is this beautiful poem by Danusha Laméris on that word, and there is so much hope and resilience in that one word. We don’t know what is going to happen to us, if we’ll even find all the things we hope for, but this is a word that’s repeated like a prayer and there is a sense of acceptance and bravery in it. It might happen, it might not happen and that is okay—but we still hope it does. 

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

The one album that I will have is BTS’s Love Yourself: Answer. Even though my most favorite song is “Blue and Grey,” I will choose this one because it’s a compilation of all their songs in their journey of telling people to love themselves. There is so much hope, comfort, and strength in their music and what they’re trying to share about themselves. It makes you feel that it is possible to be that person who is soft, who is brave, more hopeful, and believes in themselves. But there is a sense of friendship too because they reiterate that in this journey, you’re not alone and they will be there too. When it comes to a book, it would be Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra because it’s about loss and memory and storytelling and oral history and also it was the last gift that I was given by my most favorite person in this world before he passed away.  

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

It’s an answer which has been said time and again, but I’ll still say it: to make it more accessible to people. There are too many restrictions when it comes to publishing your stories or even working in publishing. There are these constant set guidelines and those need to be broken down. Stories can be written differently, people who are passionate about storytelling and not exactly from a literary background can become a part of the publishing industry, if the drive is there, everyone should be given a chance. There’s nothing more beautiful than telling stories. The more stories that are out there, the more chances are given to people to share themselves, and the more we’ll learn about people and about ourselves.  

August Staff Picks: Graphic Novels, Anime, W. G. Sebald, and Stardew Valley!

Dominic Loise

I loved being introduced to the Sangerye family in Bitter Root by writers David F. Walker & Chuck Brown and artist Sanford Greene. Volume 1: Family Business sees our multi-generational monster hunters defending their neighborhood of Harlem from a supernatural attack in 1924. The Sangeryes also deal with their past ghosts and failures in this volume showing that no matter what happened in the past, family is the one group of people you can call on when all hell breaks loose.

I recommend Bitter Root for fans of the shows Supernatural and Lovecraft Country. Both of those shows are about families taking on the unknown and both Bitter Root and Lovecraft Country take on the issue of racism through horror. The step beyond tackling the unknown, which is an undercurrent through Bitter Root, is working together beyond their tight-knit circle to help others heal. We see early on that elements of the police force work with the Sangeryes and the family members are not slayers but trying to save the humans possessed by the Jinoo, which is what people become when their souls are infected with hate. Bitter Root Volume 1 is my go-to gift right now for friends and family because I feel we could all use this graphic novel right now on our bookshelves. Something fun and entertaining that digs up to the surface the issues of hate, which we need to deal with as neighbors and as a nation.

Carissa Villagomez

I recently re-watched The End of the F***ing World and getting to witness all the additional nuance I didn’t notice before made my awe of the show run even deeper. It will always be one of my most adored media products, and no matter how many times I revisit it, the show still has the same effect. Both seasons are incredible.

Evan Sheldon

I’m reading W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants right now. I’m late to the party here, there’s already a term, Sebaldian, in reference when other authors copy his style, and it’s easy to see why so many do. He uses long, beautiful sentences, rarely uses paragraph breaks, and intersperses the prose with black and white photos. Told in four parts, The Emigrants narrator retraces the steps of four different men who committed suicide. It’s really something, all about memory and lives lost to war, even if those lives were lived for a long time after.

Esther Hsu

1. You only have twelve hours.

2. Follow my lead and change nothing.

3. Just let the past and future be.

For Cheng Xiaoshi and Lu Guang, those are the three rules of time travel. Shiguang Dailiren, or Link Click, is about two people who can travel back in time via photos. With this power, they fulfill requests and solve mysteries.

I binged this show in one night. It was that good—a hidden eleven-episode gem (twelve, if you count episode 5.5). The only caveat: it ends on a cliffhanger, so I’m counting down the days until season two is out.

Erin Clements

I have always loved more “casual” games like The Sims and Minecraft, where you can jump in and out of the game whenever without missing a beat. But recently, I’ve been on a Stardew Valley kick. In times of stress, it’s the perfect soothing, chill game to dive into. Whether you want to fight monsters in the mines, hang out on your farm with animals, or socialize with the townies, there’s an endless supply of things to do, and it’s all practically stress-free. The co-op option allows you to share a farm with up to three of your friends, which just adds more joy to the game. I’m always drawn towards the social aspects of the game, hanging out with the townies and growing my relationships with them is my favorite part of the game. But most of all I love that Stardew Valley offers essentially endless ways to play.

June Staff Picks: Cobra Kai, True Crime, and Math Rock!

Dominic Loise

I am late to the Cobra Kai train but the Netflix show offers plenty of throwbacks for the Karate Kid film franchise fans. In a half-hour bingeable episode, Cobra Kai doesn’t lean on its retro relatability but offers a show about adults putting to bed the haunting relationships of their past and finding the peaceful balance they need to be present for the people who need them in their everyday lives.

Carissa Villagomez

I recently watched the 2019 Australian show Upright, and I highly recommend it. It has some of the most well-developed and well-acted characters I’ve ever had the fortune to watch. All the actors are great, but Milly Alcock, in particular, delivers an astonishing performance, and I can’t wait to see what she does next in her career. You’ll be crying and laughing as you ride along with Meg and Lucky, two complex individuals with past traumas who quite literally crash into each other’s lives and manage to develop a beautiful friendship as they travel 4,000 miles across Australia with an upright piano.

Eileen Silverthorn

I’ve been loving re-watching Criminal Minds on Netflix and Hulu. Criminal Minds has been a love of mine for years—I’m a lover of true crime, crime dramas, unsettling stories about serial killers, you name it—but I felt the urge to return to it and watch it all start to finish. I know it’s weird to say my comfort TV features gruesome murders and watching the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit break down doors and psychoanalyze every little clue, but I have a special place in my heart for all the characters and the dramatic flair of each investigation. That and they almost always get the bad guy, and in this upside-down world we’ve been living in, it’s nice to have a guaranteed happy ending, even if it is a tad predictable.

Kaitlin Lounsberry

Though my taste might be questioned, I have to admit I had been looking forward to the release of John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise on Peacock for a while. And upon its release, I quickly flew through the six-episode docuseries. Despite being one of the most prolific modern serial killers, Gacy hasn’t received much commercial content compared to his counterparts in recent years (i.e., The Night Stalker, The Golden State Killer, and Ted Bundy). This docuseries felt interesting and eye-opening to watch in part because of the lack of content on Gacy and his crimes. In particular, I appreciated the filmmakers decision to highlight and explore the mistakes of the police and legal systems in the 70s, as told through the perspective of the victims’ family, which turned a blind eye to the behavior displayed by Gacy in the years leading up to his active killing period. That choice offered up a more complex and complete retelling that I felt offered the full story without capitalizing on the pain Gacy generated. Maybe not your typical summer recommendation, but it’s one I’ve been telling people about regardless.

Thomas Chisholm

Once every other year I find myself revisiting the math rock bands I fell in love with in the late 2000s. Wikipedia defines math rock as, “characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures (including irregular stopping and starting), counterpoint, odd time signatures, angular melodies, and extended, often dissonant, chords.” The last two weeks have been a fun rehash. There are the deranged groups like Daughters, whose early work, Hell Songs, is criminally underrated. It’s an overwhelming, ugly, and bleak album from Hell. The guitarist once aptly described Daughters as his “bad guy band.” I counterbalanced the darkness with colorful and upbeat groups like Deerhoof and my personal favorite math rock band, Tera Melos. Deerhoof’s Friend Opportunity is the point where the band started veering more into pop, which makes it a great entry point into their discography. My favorite Tera Melos release is actually a two EP compilation, Drugs/Complex. It marks an era in the band’s career when vocals were only sporadic—guitarist Nick Reinhart began incorporating lead vocals upon the release of their excellent second album, Patagonian Rats.

In talking about math rock I’m obligated to bring up Hella, the Bay Area group that gave us Zach Hill of Death Grips fame. Their dizzying debut album, Hold Your Horse Is, is a bonafide genre classic. But it can be a slog of nonstop guitar and drums drilling into your head. I much prefer the more creative Zach Hill/Nick Reinhart collab, Bygones. Last but not least, I must shout out Maps & Atlases who may be the only math rock group that has soul. Their EPs, Tree, Swallows, Houses and You and Me and the Mountain somehow thread the needle of technical virtuosity and pop sensibility. These songs are sweet and somehow wholesome; dense, yet bordering on twee.

Drugs/Complex by Tera Melos

May Staff Picks: Horror, Anime, Novels, and Movies!

Kaitlin Lounsberry

I know it’s not October, but I’ve been on a horror kick lately. Specifically, I’ve been devouring content on the horror streaming platform, Shudder. Though it’s advertised for horror, thrillers, supernatural, and suspense genres, I’ve found it largely hosts niche horror films and loads of original content. I hate to pick favorites, but if I had to it’d definitely be the docu-series, History of Horror by Eli Roth. Roth, a la Hostel and Cabin Fever, brings together the greats that have come to defy modern horror all while diving into the genre’s biggest themes. Despite horror being a significant storytelling genre, I’ve found it difficult to find documentaries, let along docu-series, on it. But History of Horror gives me everything I’ve been looking for, and then some. Jumping from slashers to zombies to killer creatures to chilling children, the episodes are conversational and allow the filmmakers and stars to speak candidly behind their inspiration and how they came to push boundaries. While it lacks scares, I have enjoyed learning more about the genre and feel like I could crush a horror trivia section—whenever that’s a thing again. 

Ally Geist

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich made me feel ALL the things, and challenged me in ways only a great story can. Definitely one of my favorite books I’ve read all year. I first picked it up for my office book club and basically didn’t put it down for three days. After all, nowadays, who doesn’t love a great book to escape into? Set in 1953, the book explores the strength, resilience, and bravery of the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. We see Thomas, the night watchman at the town’s factory (and prominent Chippewa Council member) empower his community to fight back against a new bill that Congress calls an “emancipation”—a bill that threatens the rights of Indigenous folks’ land and identity. We also see Pixie’s (“Patrice”) experience working at the factory, dealing with family trauma, and searching for her missing sister, Vera. The book made me think about myself and my society in a new way, and was a truly beautiful read.

Miki Schumacher

My favorite show that I’ve watched this spring is the 2020 anime Akudama Drive. My partner recommended this to me, and I didn’t know anything about it prior to watching. But the moment after I finished the first episode, I was hooked: I watched the entire twelve-episode series in just two days. I highly recommend Akudama Drive if you enjoy dystopian sci-fi and rebellion stories.

Akudama Drive is an action-packed cyberpunk adventure following the story of several infamous criminals as they fight against an oppressive government. The main character is an ordinary citizen who unintentionally gets herself involved, and the story is filled with unexpected twists. The animation for this show is wonderfully dynamic, and I even listen to the soundtrack while working. Each episode is also titled after famous movies like The Shining and Mission: Impossible, so it’s fun to try and pick out the references to various iconic scenes. If that doesn’t convince you to try this series out, there’s also an adorable black cat in the show.

Carissa Villagomez

I listened to the first episode of National Theatre’s “Life in Stages” series with Olivia Colman and Artistic Director Rufus Norris. I found it comforting and encouraging to hear such talented people talk candidly about the parts of themselves they have to battle back when pursuing their dream careers. Norris is notoriously shy, and Colman has stage fright and impostor syndrome, yet they both continue to win acclaim for their work and live the exact life they want to be leading. Alongside passages from bell hooks’s book All About Love: New Visions, these pieces of media reminded me to not get in my own way so much and never compromise on my goals.

Thomas Chisholm

I recently watched the 2020 movie The Kid Detective and was very impressed. I heard about it from one of my favorite YouTube channels, RedLetterMedia. The movie is a dark comedy starring Adam Brody as Abe Applebaum, a thirty-something man who was locally famous in his youth for solving petty crimes. He was something like a solo Hardy Boy. Some of his rewards include a lifetime supply of ice cream and an office in City Hall given to him by the mayor himself. But when his friend and daughter of the mayor, Gracie Gulliver, goes missing and Abe can’t find her, the whole town loses faith in him. As an adult, we see Abe having no faith in himself. He never recovered from Gracie’s disappearance. He’s a washed-up joke still taking gigs finding lost cats, still collecting free ice cream cones, and ranting to his parents about how he can’t give up on his “career.” The movie takes a lot of suspending of disbelief to appreciate the world it takes place in. It’s sort of like a less stylish Wes Anderson movie with much darker overtones. It’s very funny and incredibly well written—one of the best new movies I’ve seen since the pandemic set in.

A Review of The Descent of the Drowned by Ana Lal Din

Published March 15, 2021 by White Tigress Press

The Descent of the Drowned by Ana Lal Din is a fantasy novel steeped within Islamic-Arabian mythology. Throughout the novel, Ana Lal Din’s main characters take center stage in a serious, tragic, and heart-wrenching story.

Readers learn about the world through the eyes of two characters: Roma and Levi. Roma, from the lower zaat (or caste), is a sacred prostitute (read: slave) who refuses to let others dictate what they can do to her body. On the other hand, Levi, a highly sensitive person raised to be a killer and executioner, is the casteless son of a tyrant. The two live vastly different lives, but both strive towards a common goal: freedom.

It is a difficult read. The novel explores a variety of mature themes such as rape, torture, murder, self-harm, trauma, and physical and emotional abuse without any sort of sugar-coating. But that’s also what makes this novel so powerful. Lal Din’s exploration of these two characters, the trauma they face, and the effect it has on their lives are very well-developed. Readers get a front-seat view of the internal thoughts and motivations of these two. But as I was reading the novel, I found myself feeling extremely frustrated. Lal Din expertly frames society as oppressive, often blaming victims for situations that society itself enforced upon individuals. This is true of Roma and Levi’s situations, as well, and I just couldn’t help but desire to protect them despite their faults.

That’s also where Lal Din makes her characters shine: they are very human and complex individuals with oftentimes conflicting motivations. Roma seeks to protect those she loves, but what if that means protecting her oppressor and the other girls who have been indoctrinated by this oppressor? Leviathan wants to see a world where those belonging to a lower zaat don’t have to hunger or want. But what if murder is the only way he knows how to make that happen? The conflict these characters feel and their back-and-forth in emotions show readers just how human they are.

Where the novel falls short, however, is its pacing. Though the plot summary mentions a “tyrant [who] hunts an ancient treasure that will doom humankind,” readers don’t see much mention of this until the last eighth of the book. Similarly, Lal Din dedicates the first quarter of the book to world-building and character introductions. Even then, the world-building still felt incomplete—the characters mention magic at various points, but by the end of the novel, I still had no clue how magic actually works in this world. The vast number of secondary characters also made it difficult to keep track of them all. I found myself flipping back and forth trying to remind myself who each character was. Combined with an excessive amount of exploration into Roma and Levi’s trauma that fails to further the plot, the pacing of the novel needed more work.

Overall though, The Descent of the Drowned is a solid read. While not without its faults, it does transport readers into another world, one that is beautifully described. Since this series is meant to be a trilogy, I can only anticipate what Lal Din will do in her next two books.

April Staff Picks: Video Games, Spec-Fic, AeroGardens, and Terry Gilliam!

Bianca Fogah

I have recently taken to playing copious amounts of hours of Red Dead Redemption 2. A game that I believe captivates the hearts of many whilst taking you through a passage of history from the suffragette movement, invention of the electric chair, and serial killers of the 19th Century. There are so many wonderful and albeit wacky characters you meet on your journeys who even though some are completely fictional will leave you wanting more or devastated by their unforeseen demise. The music, the colors, and the conversations are incredibly beautiful—making it a journey worth taking all the way. I started playing this through “meeting” my current love interest, playing online and riding off into the sunset like the outlaws it seems we were born to be, (I am much more of a liability as he calls it) we are sparking a modern-day 2021 lockdown romance.

Samantha Dow

I can’t think of a single other book I’ve read in the last few years that I’ve enjoyed as much as Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. I finished the novel and its sequel, Harrow the Ninth, in a matter of days—and then reread them immediately, this time taking notes. The blurb on the cover promises “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!” and the first two books of the trilogy (the third is due to be released in 2022) immediately deliver, blending to marvelous effect a variety of genres. It’s mystery, it’s horror, it’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi, it’s swords-and-necromancy fantasy. The primary plot whips along at speed, propelled by a cast of complex and fascinating characters and narrated by the titular Gideon, a swordswoman whose blunt and humorous voice is an absolute joy to read. It’s grim, gay, heartbreaking, a study of how we struggle to live with loss . . . and often screamingly funny. And it’s full of lore breadcrumbs hinting at an ancient, tragic mystery underpinning the whole of the trilogy, which is what makes a reread so rewarding: with the knowledge gained on the first read-through, Muir’s conversational asides, off-hand details, and subtle literary references make for an entirely new experience the second time around. I haven’t stopped thinking about the series since I first finished it, and I can’t wait for the third book!

Nate Ragolia

This month, I’ve been throwing an hour a night at the re-release of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game – Complete Edition. Originally from 2010, this tenth-anniversary reissue returns players to fighting their way through The League of Ramona’s Evil Exes in colorful, pixel-art majesty. It’s a charming, leveling-based beat-‘em-up that hearkens back to mid-’90s arcade experiences, and you can play it with friends on the couch. Add in the game’s loving, easter-egg loaded telling of the classic graphic novel series and this is an ideal escapism experience for the gamers out there.

If you like movies, check out My Octopus Teacher on Netflix for a stunning, beautiful, and genuinely heartwarming documentary about a man’s journey to escape his stress and the octopus he befriended along the way.

Amber Sullivan

Get a countertop hydroponic garden system! I use AeroGarden, but there are tons of similar brands. Cost-wise, they’re slightly more than you may spend getting soil, pots, and grow lights, but you don’t generally have to deal with any of the bugs or other issues that soil brings. If you prefer soil, you can use the system to start seedlings to transfer to soil later, which reduces the pests you’d potentially bring in from garden stores. But if you leave the plants in the system, they’re practically guaranteed to grow. I say this as a person that is truly terrible with plants—wrote a story about it even.

Speaking of that story, if you have a cat that’s particularly murderous towards green things, use clear tape to make a sticky cage for the plants. Your cat will (hopefully) hate the sticky feeling on its whiskers and eventually ignore the garden. Most countertop hydroponic gardens are designed in a way that it’s easy to run the tape from a platform above the lights down to the base. Just make sure to keep the sticky part on the outside!

Carolyn Janecek

I entered Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi without much context––I was simply enticed by its beautiful cover and my friends’ vague reactions: strange, ambiguous, fantastical. I knew nothing of the characters, setting, or plot, and I think that was the perfect way to enter Piranesi’s unnerving architecture. The main character in all of his isolation is lovable and kind. The setting is alive––a benevolent deity in its own right. This book is a fascinating experiment in de-familiarization and rediscovery and is best read by jumping into its freezing waters without a second thought.

Thomas Chisholm

I just watched Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil for the first time. It’s a cult classic and in my opinion Gilliam’s magnum opus. Oddly, the movie doesn’t actually have anything to do with the nation of Brazil. It is named after the song and central theme of the film, “Aquarela do Brasil” by Ary Barroso. The movie conveys a particularly bleak dystopia that marries the bureaucracy and surveillance of the Soviet Union against the consumerism and empty decadence of American capitalism. Like any Gilliam movie, it has moments of comedy and surrealism. Even with the world of Brazil’s weird magnified computers, tiny automobiles, and working-class superheroes—Robert De Niro plays a rouge plumber/electrician who repairs peoples’ homes free of charge because he’s faster and more reliable than the government technicians—the film somehow feels closer to our present day than any other sci-fi movie I’ve seen. That’s what’s truly scary about Brazil. It feels so much like the dystopia we already live in, only exaggerated. I watched the director’s cut of the film, which I recommend. Gilliam had a long fight with the studio over the final cut of the film, and the director’s cut is his vision fully realized. The ending of the film was the source of conflict, and Gilliam’s ending is truly unforgettable. After just one viewing, Brazil has climbed to the top of the list of my favorite movies.

Sailing Away: A Review of The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle

Published on October 20, 2020 by William Morrow

Female-penned thrillers about bat-shit-crazy women have seen a sort of Renaissance in the last decade. From Gillian Flynn’s ubiquitous Gone Girl to Paula Hawkins’ hallmark The Girl on the Train, female rage and revenge is, well, all the rage right now. But why? Have women writers identified some deep-seated desire in suburban moms to tear their close relationships a new one? Have female audiences finally tired of the tepid, clean-cut morality offered by the works of their male counterparts? Whatever the reason is, I’m totally here for it, and welcome Rose Carlyle’s The Girl in the Mirror into the fray with open arms.

The debut thriller by the New Zealand author, The Girl in the Mirror tells the story of twenty-three-year-old twin sisters Iris and Summer Carmichael—uncannily alike on the surface, but dizzyingly different when the layers peel back. Though they are identical, Iris has always been envious of Summer and her seemingly perfect life. But when a sailing trip across the Indian Ocean goes wrong and Summer disappears, Iris finds herself stepping into her sister’s shoes. Suddenly, she has everything she coveted in her sister: her family’s prized yacht, Bathsheba; Summer’s perfect husband, Adam; and the knowledge that she’s one step closer to the hundred-million-dollar Carmichael fortune. The only problem: she needs to produce an heir before any of her step-siblings, all while navigating the mine-field of her new double life.

At first glance, The Girl in the Mirror seems to have all the elements of a saucy and successful thriller: a sibling rivalry with a sharp edge, a family inheritance with archaic stipulations, and a picture-perfect marriage fraying at the edges. Easily digestible and full of tropical flair, The Girl in the Mirror is the perfect beach read. As a narrator, Iris’s voice is intoxicating; her unapologetic-ally vain ambition and cynical outlook on life holds the reader in enraptured suspense, wondering just how far she would go to secure the Carmichael fortune. It’s a car crash you can’t look away from, in all the best ways. Her voice is emboldened by the twist, which takes your breath away, and a final line whose impact reverberates long after the book is shut.

But where The Girl in the Mirror succeeds in its intriguing premise and the potency of its female lead, it falls victim to a lack of thematic cohesion. Is it necessary for every story to have a moral? Perhaps not, and one could very well argue that its lack of morality is a function of the sphere of privilege the characters inhabit. But even after the book’s end, it’s hard to come to settle on any definitive take-away. The cut-and-dry dialogue and flat secondary characters compounds this effect. A dark current runs through the relationship between Iris and Summer, but the origins of this rift aren’t explored in full. The same stands for Iris’ relationship with her brother Ben, whose appearance is as underwhelming as it is short-lived. The illusion of Adam as the perfect husband shows signs of cracks, but stops short of showing us the full picture. In short, The Girl in the Mirror is commercially satisfying, but it fails to get to the crux of the complexity of the glittering world it creates—the intersections of pain and privilege.

The pandemic-induced social isolation sucks, which is why the escape offered by The Girl in the Mirror comes at precisely the right time. Carve out a weekend, lift the sails and dive in. Taste the sea-salt in the air, let your hair tangle in the wind that rolls off the tide, and steer your boat into uncharted waters. But don’t take your hand off the wheel— you might find yourself thrown overboard.

An Interview with Charlie Jane Anders on Victories Greater Than Death: Spoiler Free

This interview has been adapted to eliminate spoilers about Charlie Jane Anders’ forthcoming novel, Victories Greater Than Death. To read the uncut, spoiler-filled version of this interview, go HERE.

Victories Greater Than Death will be published on April 14, 2021 by Tor Teen.

As I always do, let me open with some cliché questions. What inspired you to write Victories Greater Than Death?

I talked to my agent for a while about writing a young adult book. I thought about when I was a kid, what I wished would happen, what I wanted from the stories I read. And what I really wished would happen was that aliens would come out of the sky and say, actually, you’re an alien and you belong in space with us, like what happens to Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, except, you know, without the mom dying of cancer. I always wanted to be rescued by aliens and go off and have adventures. I’d always loved space adventure stories, like Star Trek, Star Wars,and Doctor Who. I started to think it would be fun to do something along those lines.

I’ve always loved those kinds of stories and wanted to tell my own version, but by making the “be careful what you wish for” theme more complicated. In an early draft, I came up with this girl who finds out she’s an alien. That was something my editor pushed me to change. She really wanted Tina to start the book already knowing, which I think is better and makes it a more YA kind of story because she has more agency at the start and she knows that she has this destiny and really wants to achieve it. But what Tina finds when she goes to embrace her destiny is not what she’s expecting.

The kernel of it was definitely the wish fulfillment of wanting aliens to take you away and knowing you don’t really belong on this planet because this planet is not always the best. It’s obviously our planet and I appreciate that it’s here for us, but it has some issues.

So much of escapist literature, like Harry Potter, is set up with terrible stepparents. Yet I loved Tina’s fake mom, I wanted her to be my mom. What was it like to develop that positive relationship for Tina to leave behind?

In All the Birds in the Sky, the characters have terrible parents, and I didn’t want to repeat that. It felt too easy to have the mom be a monster. Having the mom be a cool person, you can see where Tina gets her ideas about fighting for justice because you get this sense that her mom used to be an activist. I’d been reading a lot of YA books and noticing that a lot of the time the mom is dead, or the parents are dead, or the parents are terrible, or we never see the parents. I thought it would be cool to have a nice, supportive parent in the mix.

In earlier drafts, it was more complicated with the mom. I originally had this idea that the mom was trying to keep Tina so safe that she tries to force her to be normal despite raising Tina to be a nonconformist. But I fell in love with this version of the free-spirited mom who wanted Tina to have a fun childhood before going off to meet her destiny. You’ll get to see more of the mom in some flash fiction I’m writing now that are prequels to the novel.

I was so impressed with the volition and maturity these characters have. I think a lot of adult fiction authors struggle to move into YA and end up making the kids seem too childish. What was it like to balance that line of making sure they’re fully formed humans but still relatable to a YA audience?

I’ve always loved YA books. I need to underscore that because earlier I made a slight criticism of the bad parents in them. But I do love YA books. I’ve been reading them for years, and that was part of why I was excited to write one. My favorite YA books have characters with intelligence, agency, and volition. Holly Black, Tracy Deonn, and Darcie Little Badger’s books all do that really well.

As a teenager, I overthought things and had very pretentious conversations about the meaning of life or whatever. I just tried to make things happen in my life. My friend and I edited a humor magazine when we were sixteen, and we put our heart and soul into putting out the silliest magazine we could. We would even do skits on stage to promote it at school. The thing I love about teenagers is that they’re not afraid to be really serious and super earnest or sincere in a way that adults are sometimes embarrassed to be. I find it kind of freeing to write teenagers because there’s less bullshit around expressing your emotions or expressing what’s going on with you. Part of what’s great about YA books is the emotionality.

What made me want to write YA originally was having seen YA change a lot in the last ten years. We had the era of The Hunger Games and a million other dystopian novels. The dystopian format created a lot of characters being swept along by events. Katniss chooses to volunteer for The Hunger Games to save her sister, but after that, she just has to go along with The Hunger Games for the remainder of the book. The same is true with Maze Runner and other big dystopian YA stories. In the last five years, I feel like I’m seeing more than dystopias. There are fun, colorful worlds where teenagers say, I’m going to explore, I’m going to figure this out, I have goals I’m going to accomplish. I think it’s better for teens to read about characters who act rather than react.

As an instructor, I always think hard about YA. What are we teaching young people? There are so many things in this book I love from that perspective. Like, wouldn’t it be great if the parents weren’t villainized or the source for everything bad that’s happened to a character? What if there was a positive, supportive relationship? I also love what you have to say about friendship. And you’re doing so many interesting things with gender and identity. But at the core of it, there’s this idea that your characters are the primary driver in all of their actions. It’s pervasive in a way that’s subtle and beautiful.

Thank you so much. There was a challenge in having the characters be the driver of their actions. With space opera—which this is loosely—there are two kinds: Star Trek and Star Wars. I’m oversimplifying it, but in Star Trek, there’s an organization, some quasi-military thing that has rules and structure, and people have to obey orders and there are uniforms, etc. In Star Wars, there’s just a bunch of rebels or adventurers who are on their own and for good reason.

Most YA space operas start with some teenagers stealing a spaceship or running away from a space academy so they can have adventures. Something that gets the teenagers on their own with little or no adult supervision, having adventures, and doing their own thing. From a YA perspective, the Star Wars method makes more sense. But I love Star Trek so much, I really wanted to do that version where we’re on a spaceship and there’s organization, rules, uniforms, and principles. That was something I struggled with, maintaining Tina and the other characters’ agency, so it makes me happy to hear you say that.

I love this idea of institutionalization with individuality. I was so impressed with how you wove that into things like their uniforms. What was it like to create your version of the Star Trek: Enterprise that had this bit of flavor in it?

I wanted to make sure that I didn’t fall into tropes of rigid conformity. I had an imaginary dialogue in my head with the Star Trek fan or the fan of more military stories where it’s rules-bound and uptight. I didn’t want to reproduce that in an unthinking way. This isn’t a human organization. They haven’t got our military traditions. I was very careful to include this for the people who get upset by how unlike a human military organization this is.

It’s an organization made up of people from different cultures who have different ideas of authority. So, you need a lot of flexibility to make that work—having a rigid, top-down, conformist, and uptight situation isn’t going to make sense.

You’ve done a ton of world-building. There are intergalactic war wounds and darkness in these beautiful histories. You’ve built such a big universe. How did you do this?

I started working on the series in the spring of 2016, around when I quit my day job. It was a lot of trial and error and figuring stuff out—trying to come up with aliens that didn’t feel like they were aliens I’d seen before. I know that part of what teens love about these stories is the complicated mythos and world-building that gives you scope to imagine where you could go in that universe. I was intent on trying to make that as rich as I could.

I created a password-protected Wiki where there’s a bunch of stuff I came up with about the different aliens, worlds, and backstories—I’m still adding to it. It’s one of those things that the more you do it, the easier it gets. The first thing you think about with worldbuilding is a rip-off of somebody else, or it’s obvious or boring. That’s when you have to stop and go okay, we’re not doing that, what’s something unique and weird I can create? It’s about having fun, coming up with stuff that’s out of left field. It just takes a lot of brainstorming.

A lot of what I loved about your world-building seemed to be issues I had as a teen reading sci-fi. For example, why are the aliens humanoid, and of course now I have an amazing answer. Was it something you always wanted to tackle or did it come to you in a moment of inspiration?

It evolved. It was something I would think about, why aliens would be humanoid. There are two main explanations for humanoid aliens. Some scientists believe we could encounter humanoids on other planets and there’s something about our shape that’s optimal—like having two hands and biped bilateral symmetry. Star Trek and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus came up with similar explanations that ancient aliens left their DNA everywhere.

But I wanted to come up with my own explanation for humanoid aliens and use it as a backdrop for the story. I develop the answer more in the following books, too. It was interesting to deal with. I think it’s always important to find new layers to an idea.

I love that you tackled such big topics in a YA book. There’s so much about identity, and you have an incredibly diverse cast. You even have an alien race that always extends their hand politely and announces their gender pronouns. What was it like to dig into that aspect of identity?

I wanted it to be a very inclusive book with different humans/humanoids and approaches to gender, sexuality, and identity. With the pronoun thing, it made sense that, if you had a universal translator, it should let you know someone’s pronouns. When you meet an alien, you’re not going to be able to tell what gender, if any, they might have and how they want to be referred to in the third person just by looking at them. It’s kind of ridiculous in sci-fi, like Star Trek where there are lady aliens with large breasts and makeup.

By getting away from here and now, you get to look at fundamental things from a different perspective. I was interested in pushing this notion of human gender identities because it’s much more diverse and complicated than people give it credit for, but also, if you belong to a species that reproduces differently and has different family structures, they’re going to have different ideas of gender or how they identify themselves. I go deeper into that in the second book.

My sixteen-year-old self would never forgive me if I didn’t ask about the romance. What was it like to write a sixteen-year-old romance?

It was so fun! I didn’t plan on the romance, it just happened. It came out of these characters, how they were constantly butting heads at first. I had to remember how vulnerable and intense it is to have feelings for someone at that age. Your first real romance, which this is for both of the characters, is scary. I had to be true to that feeling of I don’t even know who I am, so how I can give myself to someone else if I don’t know what I’m giving them? That was really powerful to explore.

How did the book evolve? What was the biggest change between the first draft and what I am now holding?

The biggest change was the first third of the book. My original vision of Tina was this alienated, miserable teenager stuck in some boring town. Then, this mysterious woman shows up and says, Hey, guess what? You’re an alien, and you have this amazing destiny. And it turns out the woman is a con artist. Most of what she says is true, but she’s trying to manipulate Tina because she wants to leave this planet. She was this loveable rogue character, like Han Solo. She was fun to write—it hurt to get rid of her, but my editor was right. I hope I can bring her back at some point.

I’m always interested when I talk to debut novelists who think the next book is going to be easier to write. Do you think you’re better at the process now or do you think you struggle just as much every time? Is writing always a messy thing that you need to rip apart?

It gets harder with time because you get in your way more. I’m more aware of my foibles as a writer, which means I have to work harder to avoid them, but at least I know how to watch out for them now.

After everything that happened in 2020, how do you feel about writing weird stories? How is your heart as a writer?

Writing weird stories is important because fiction handles pressing issues by taking them so far out of their contexts that we can actually look at them. I think that is an important thing to do. Coming up with fictional narratives people can read into and find themselves in is more valuable than arguing on Twitter. Reading is also good—I’m trying to read more widely and expose myself to more perspectives. That’s really important.