We’re eight months into the year and, honestly, I haven’t counted the number of books I’ve read so far! Mostly because I’m not too fussed about it; I’m a serial book repeater, after all, and if a book is in my e-reader, I’ll read it whenever I’m in the mood for it. (As Cady Heron once said, “The limit does not exist!”)
But when I started listing the books I read from May to July, I got really excited to think about them again. Then I realized: Why not start from the beginning? Which is why I’m curled up in bed with a mug of Creme Brulee loose leaf tea, trying to recall everything I’ve read recently.
This list is as accurate as I could make it, but I may have overlooked a book or two. Some books I remember better than others, so I’ll probably be able to write more accurate or comprehensive thoughts on the books I’ve read more recently! But that’s to come in Part 2.
If We Were Villains – M.L. Rio
Oliver Marks has just served ten years in jail – for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the man who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened a decade ago.
As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra. But when the casting changes, and the secondary characters usurp the stars, the plays spill dangerously over into life, and one of them is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.
You can’t take one step into the dark academia Tumblr without tripping over a quote from everyone’s favorite novel, If We Were Villains, and I was intrigued enough to start my year with it. Revolving around a group of young actors whose tight-knit friendship and intimacy—mostly fond, but other times dangerously, thrillingly sensual—are threatened by ambition, jealousy, lust, and more, If We Were Villains explores the lengths you go in pursuit of your art, the complex, all-consuming relationships that evolve when you feel all alone in the world, and how isolation from the wider world—the inability to compare experiences—can push you to do the unthinkable.
Reading If We Were Villains, I easily understood the comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But one thing that Villains has going for it is that it’s immensely readable, with compelling writing and complex character dynamics that I enjoyed seeing explored—and I ended it with an ache in my heart. A caveat: It’s impossible to show how these actors perform Shakespeare without quoting him, so the characters’ performances come with long excerpts from his work. As a fan of Macbeth, which comes at a pivotal part of the book, I had no problem with it.
A page-turner that will leave you thinking, and feeling, long after you’re done.
[Publisher: Flatiron Books. 354 pp. Genres: Mystery, thriller, literary fiction. Content warnings: Domestic violence (physical and verbal abuse), drug abuse, slut-shaming, homophobia, depression, violence, death, murder.]
Unclean Spirits – Bikram Mann
At some point last year, I marathoned Buzzfeed Unsolved and enjoyed its blend of horror and laughter—so when I discovered Ryan and Shane’s new Watcher show Are You Afraid?, in which Ryan reads a spooky tale aloud, accompanied by unsettling artwork by Mollie Ong, I jumped right into it, and found myself amazed by an excellently written, atmospheric story called “Are You Scared of the Ocean Bleeding?” Turns out the author is prolific writer Bikram Mann, known on r/nosleep as Mandahrk, and Unclean Spirits is his debut short story collection!
The key to keeping people’s attention on r/nosleep is drawing people in immediately, and thanks to Mann’s Reddit experience, Unclean Spirits is a solid little collection of horror stories that touch on real human fears. Mann’s writing is clear and conversational, and through the different narrators, he sounds like an everyman taking you through different stories—right until they take an unexpected, chilling turn.
While some stories were reminiscent of Goosebumps in the way that they made me laugh or smile, my favorite stories of his are set in his homeland of India and exceptionally grounded, specifically 1st November 1984, Homecoming, and The Wandering Wraith of Wadgaon. As a note: Though the stories never get particularly gruesome or gory, it is a collection of short horror stories that can deal with mature, sometimes disturbing content.
Let’s support new authors! Get Unclean Spirits here.
[Publisher: Velox Books. Genres: Horror, short story collection.]
A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life (The All Souls Trilogy) – Deborah Harkness
Picking up from A Discovery of Witches’ cliffhanger ending, Shadow of Night takes Diana and Matthew on a trip through time to Elizabethan London, where they are plunged into a world of spies, magic, and a coterie of Matthew’s old friends, the School of Night. As the search for Ashmole 782 deepens and Diana seeks out a witch to tutor her in magic, the net of Matthew’s past tightens around them, and they embark on a very different—and vastly more dangerous—journey.
Looking at Goodreads, the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness seems to be a fairly divisive series, with people either loving or loathing it; each book is lengthy and filled to the brim with characters and details that you may or may not appreciate. But after seeing screenshots of the TV adaptation, A Discovery of Witches, I read it to be immersed in a whole other world, and I was.
Shadow of Night (pictured left), the second book, is my favorite among the three because it takes Matthew and Diana to 16th century London and Prague (one of my favorite cities in the world!), and features a wide range of characters, a good number of whom are real people—or, well, fictionalized versions of them. (There’s an appendix at the end of the book, titled Libri Personæ, that helps you keep track of them.)
Despite the fact that supernatural beings fill the series—Diana and Matthew are a witch and a vampire, respectively, and you meet many more along the way—the All Souls Trilogy is less about supernatural races and more about magic. Even when you’re knee-deep in discussion of alchemy and time travel, Harkness’ writing makes her historical fantasy series feel as grounded as realistic historical fiction. And while she makes some worldbuilding decisions—specifically, time travel mechanics—that don’t quite make sense, Shadow of Night shows that Harkness is an absolute nerd for historical detail. Which makes sense since she’s a historian and wrote the nonfiction book The Jewel House, which revolves around the colorful personalities in the alchemical community of Elizabethan London.
If you enjoy extensive, immersive historical fantasy, the blend of science and the occult, and have a soft spot for England and France in the past and present, you’ll enjoy the attention to detail in the All Souls Trilogy—the intersection of Harkness’ different passions.
[Publisher: Viking Adult. 584 pp. Genres: Historical fantasy, fantasy.]
The Paris Apartment – Lucy Foley
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Guest List comes a new locked room mystery, set in a Paris apartment building in which every resident has something to hide…
Every now and then I get a hankering for thrillers, and after Lucy Foley’s 2020 novel The Guest List, I was excited to read The Paris Apartment, which follows Jess, a young woman who travels to Paris to stay with her journalist brother in his luxurious yet run-down Paris apartment, only to find that he hasn’t been seen in days. Foley enjoyed showing readers around her settings through the eyes of different characters in her first thriller, and that’s also the case here; with a mix of unreliable, shifty characters, the novel keeps you guessing until the end. But if I were to choose, I prefer The Guest List, an atmospheric read which has a more divisive cast and makes better use of its location, a beautiful yet remote island off the coast of Ireland.
[Publisher: William Morrow. 360 pp. Genres: Suspense and thriller, mystery.]
The Thousand Eyes (The Serpent Gates, #2) – A. K. Larkwood
Two years after defying the wizard Belthandros Sethennai and escaping into the great unknown, Csorwe and Shuthmili have made a new life for themselves, hunting for secrets among the ruins of an ancient snake empire. Along for the ride is Tal Charossa, determined to leave the humiliation and heartbreak of his hometown far behind him, even if it means enduring the company of his old rival and her insufferable girlfriend.
All three of them would be quite happy never to see Sethennai again. But when a routine expedition goes off the rails and a terrifying imperial relic awakens, they find that a common enemy may be all it takes to bring them back into his orbit.
At the start of the pandemic, I was in the middle of three very active D&D campaigns and in the mood to read fantasy—and the concept of an orc cult priestess turning her back on her god called me. With its exciting worldbuilding, captivating writing, and distinctly queer energy (swordswoman Csorwe, closed-off mage Shuthmili, temperamental mercenary Tal, and Sethennai himself are queer), The Unspoken Name became one of my favorite reads of 2022.
The Thousand Eyes picks up two years after the events of the first novel, but things rapidly shift on a massive scale when—Spoilers ahead!—they awaken the Echentyri serpent goddess Iriskavaal. To fend off the threat from Sethennai, Csorwe trustingly decides to become Iriskavaal’s vessel, not realizing that when she has a body, the last thing she will want to do is leave. Then we go through a massive time skip, landing 14 years later, with Shuthmili having chosen to serve Iriskavaal and her newly rebuilt empire, while Tal is known as the legend who defied her. And soon, he finds Tsereg, a mysterious youth who wants nothing more than to kill a god. That god, in particular.
In D&D terms, if The Unspoken Name depicts Csorwe, Shuthmili, and Tal from Levels 1 to 5, the latter half of The Thousand Eyes shows them at Level 15, weary from years under imperial subjugation. But though it was disappointing to have Csorwe absent from most of the novel when she was the heart of the first, I enjoyed seeing Shuthmili and Tal take the lead, with Shuthmili questioning the dragon goddess in her head, and Tal struggling to handle having someone to protect and the mess that his affection for Sethennai made of him. And the twists! Frustrating! Masterful! I am not over them!
It seems like I have much more to say, so one of these days I’ll reread The Thousand Eyes and make a full review! But I definitely recommend the first book, The Unspoken Name, as a great place to begin.
[Publisher: Tor Books. 385 pp. Genres: Fantasy, science fiction and fantasy, LGBTQIA reads.]
Gallant – V.E. Schwab
Olivia Prior doesn’t belong at the Merilance School for Independent Girls. But this drab, friendless place where girls are prepared for a hard life of service is all she has ever known–until she receives a letter from a long-lost uncle inviting her home to Gallant.
Gallant was mentioned in the last remembrance that Olivia has of her mother, a diary which chronicled the mysterious “G’s” escape from home as well as her descent into despair and madness, as a place where Olivia should never go. But having read her mother’s words that “Home is a choice”, she chooses to go–only to learn that there’s something wrong with Gallant. Because her older cousin Matthew doesn’t want her there. Specters roam the halls. And after a life without ever having a dream, something in Gallant calls to her in her sleep…
Though I have great fondness for V.E. Schwab as a writer, the only books of hers that I’ve fully enjoyed are Vicious and Vengeful. But it was a treat to read Gallant, a YA standalone novel that follows Olivia, a lonely young girl as she bravely steps into the old estate of Gallant, only to realize why her mother has kept her away from it for so long.
There’s something quiet about Gallant, and while part of it stems from the fact that Olivia is mute, some of it comes from Schwab’s writing style, which makes it feel like you’re lost in Olivia’s head. But Olivia expresses herself to other people through drawing (which she’s skilled at), clear body language and hand gestures, and even writing out her thoughts and questions—and it’s interesting to see how she navigates both her eerie new home and the silent, dangerous world beyond it.
If you or a younger friend enjoyed Crimson Peak, The Haunting of Bly Manor series, or Coraline, you’ll enjoy this.
NOTE: I reviewed Gallant for Fully Booked! Read the full review at the link below.
[Publisher: Greenwillow Books. 334 pp. Genres: Fantasy, young adult fiction.]
I had a lot of fun looking back at these books! I’ll be following up this post with Part 2, my April to June 2022 reads, in a week or two, and I’m really excited since I enjoyed those, too.