ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

With the box office this past year as any indication, we’ve had a good run of stories helmed by women protagonists, and I’m already excited to see what the next year in films will bring. One of the movies I’m most excited to see is Annihilation, a new science-fiction thriller starring some of my favorite actors, with a trailer that seemed intriguingly eerie, wondrous, and unsettling. I’ve been meaning to read the book that inspired it, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, for a long time. It was recommended to me not just as a delightfully strange, impossible-to-categorize work of speculative fiction (so, my jam), but as a book that put women at its center in an interesting and unexpected way. With the movie trailer finally baring down on me, I figured it was finally time to read this long-backlisted work. The cover was beautiful, the book small and slim. I figured I was in for a good afternoon of creature-feature adventure, and came in to the story ready to turn the pages. Don’t make the same mistake I did: this book is deceptively slim, but the story inside is so dense that it’s almost difficult to read too much in one sitting. Not only that, but I encountered something I wasn’t expecting as I read it, home alone, late one night: this book is TERRIFYING.

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Annihilation is about a team of four scientists–a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist–that have been sent on an expedition into a mysterious piece of wilderness known as Area X. They are not the first expedition to explore the area; for a variety of mysterious and disquieting reasons, no one has been able to return with any answers about this place. The book details what the four members of this new team find as they venture into the landscape, and what they learn about themselves while inside.

Any more plot would be giving too much away–then again, I’m not even sure that I could tell you what I found within the pages of this account. The story envelops you like a nightmare, moving you through its imagery and mystery in a fluid and completely immersive haze. My experience was not so much that of learning about Area X, or about what happened to the people inside of it, but rather inhabiting Area X, with all of the sweaty-palms, adrenaline terror that came with it. I’ve come out the other side, but truth be told, I don’t know that I could really sum up what happened to me while I was in there–that’s part of what makes this book SO GOOD.

And when I tell you that there were moments of sweaty-palms, adrenaline terror, I am not saying that lightly. The horror in this book is subtle, until it isn’t. Then it’s chasing you at the edges of the wilderness, breathing down your neck. The scares come in a variety, too: body horror, creature horror, things that make strange noises in the dark. The book draws both on haunting imagery and the less tangible sense of uncanny that permeates the plot. The horror wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the sprawling beauty of VanderMeer’s prose. The moments that are scariest are also some of the haziest, the surreal, nightmare-esque quality at its most heightened; as a reader, you are grounded in such moments by the vividness of the writing, the way it creates a world around you clearly and sharply, even when it’s a world you don’t understand. It was an impressive feat, and I’m curious to see how it will translate to the big screen.

If gorgeous writing and nightmare fuel isn’t enough for you, let me assure you that Annihilation is even bigger than that. Layered within the lush strangeness of Area X is a really interesting exploration of humanity–how it relates to both nature and itself, and the way that both of those questions could evolve and change. In many ways, the narrator’s exploration becomes as much a study of herself as the landscape, of trying to understand the ecosystems within us, and the ones we build for ourselves into adulthood, and the ones we forge with strangers in a strange place. The book even has some moments that would fit into a traditional literary fiction novel: deep, moving reflections on the interior of someone’s life. There really was so much to unpack in this dense little novel; I’m almost not sure how to wrap my head around it.

So, there’s a movie coming out, along with two more novels in the series that I have left to read. I guess that means that much like those first expeditions, I haven’t really come out of Area X yet, either. Given how much time I’ve spent thinking about this book after I put it down, I’m not sure when I will.

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SNOW FALLING by Jane Gloriana Villanueva

As regular readers of this blog have gathered by now, a lot of the storytelling I’ve gravitated toward since leaving college syllabi behind has been new, uncharted, unexpected. The shows I’ve been watching are no exception, and one of my absolute favorites has become the CW’s Jane the Virgin, a show that has guided me through yet another new genre: the telenovela. Jane the Virgin navigates a tricky balance, and in doing so accomplishes one of my favorite things to encounter in fiction when done deftly and intelligently. It manages to be an earnest and sincere telenovela itself, while also being about telenovelas, educating the viewers and at times mocking with gentle adoration and self-awareness toward the conventions of this genre. It populates a labyrinthine and often outrageous plot with characters so warm and lovable you can’t help but gasp along with the overzealous narrator, who, like the audience, really just wants a happy ending for his beloved cast. But alas, as he often reminds and warns us, the dramatic twists of a telenovela do not promise happy endings for everyone.

For those that have not seen an episode of the show, it centers on Jane Gloriana Villanueva, an aspiring writer living with her mother and grandmother in Miami whose life is thrown into chaos when she becomes accidentally artificially inseminated with the child of her boss, the owner of a luxury hotel. That may sound like an overwhelmingly plot-y premise for someone new to the genre, but I promise, the depth of character development (and the helpful notes from the narrator) keeps you moving through the story with ease. But be warned: while at times one of the laugh-out-loud funniest shows I’ve ever watched, it has also been one of the most emotional. These highs and lows never feel unearned or simple, and experiencing them is really worth your time. Having said that, the rest of this review will contain spoilers for the show, so in short: watch the show, then read this book.

Those of you still with me were probably as heartbroken as I was when the fate that, to be fair, the narrator has spent seasons preparing us for, was finally realized: Michael and Jane did not get to have their happy ending. You all, I was NOT OKAY. So much so that I almost wasn’t sure I could continue with the show. I was sure that while I admired the ambitious storytelling choice, the show couldn’t retain the sense of joy that gives it its beating heart after such a tragic turn. And yes, the show is different for Michael’s absence, and the grief that Jane felt for his loss cannot and has not been ignored. But the joy and love, and even humor, that has always held me to this show has definitely remained, in a storytelling feat that, frankly, amazes me. Nevertheless, when I found out that Snow Falling, the book that Jane writes to work through her grief and give herself and Michael the happy ending they deserved–the book that ultimately becomes her first published novel–was something I could really buy and read, I was ecstatic. I needed the catharsis of that happy ending, too.

By the look of the book, you would think it’s the real deal, with Jane being listed as the author complete with bio and photo (and with completely wonderful in-universe blurbs from her thesis advisor, writing mentors, and of course, gregarious and garrulous father). The book is actually published by Adams Media, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and ghost-written by actual romance author Caridad Piñeiro (who also gets an adorably cheeky blurb on the cover). The plot itself is basically a pared down version of the show, but set in Miami during the 1900s. It was nice to get to experience the story in this way; the more spare story, as well as the inner narration for each character that books allow more easily than television, kept the plot points from being redundant. The tighter focus on the three main characters of this particular part of the broader Jane the Virgin plot was refreshing, but the cameos of the other characters were also fun and introduced with the right balance. The historical setting is a nice touch, as well, although I wouldn’t have minded it playing a bigger role.

Piñeiro deserves a lot of credit for capturing the spirit and voice of the show and adapting it to her medium. The book both feels like the show and reads like a romance novel, mostly. My one complaint is one I share with Slate’s Marissa Martinelli: the book has occasional inserts from the narrator speaking directly to the reader in an imitation of the narrator on the show. While the narrator is one of my favorite elements of the show, and I can understand why Piñeiro/the publisher/the network/whomever wanted to feature this characteristic, I found it a bit distracting here. For one thing, it’s IMPOSSIBLE not to hear the voice of the narrator from the show, but as I kept reminding myself, this is supposed to be Jane telling the story, so every time the narrator popped in, I ended up doing this mental gymnastic move trying to make myself hear Jane’s voice instead. I think another reason it was distracting is that, well, all books have narrators that speak directly to the reader, whether it’s a character of the story doing it in first person or, like the narrator of the show, an omniscient third-person voice. This book is written in third person, too, making the extra pop-ins from the narrator who is already speaking to us throughout the whole reading experience feel a little strange. But it’s not a big deal, and the only reason I’m even talking about it this much is because it’s nerdy fun to compare and contrast conventional modes of storytelling.

My complaint aside, this book was lovely company, and an interesting way to spend time with characters in a universe I already love. I am also excited that it happened at all, and would encourage any other cross-medium explorations like this. It’s hard for me to know how Snow Falling holds up as a romance novel independent of the show, and it’s also hard for me to know if a fan of the show who doesn’t enjoy romance novels would get much out of it. There might be a disconnect there, and I can understand why it’s getting mixed reviews. But at the end of the day, I was sold on this book when I opened the first pages to find a dedication to Michael, a fictional character over whom I am still heartbroken. Now, like Jane, I can always return to the happy ending I wanted for these characters, and like Jane, I find a lot of value in the happy endings that live within the pages of romance novels, helping us to find and appreciate the messier and more complicated joy that exists in our lives.

MIRACLE AND OTHER CHRISTMAS STORIES by Connie Willis

Readers who remember my Halloween-themed posts from past Octobers know that I love to match my reading to the season. As much as I love Halloween, I love Christmas even more, but for whatever reason, I’ve always had more trouble finding Christmas books than Halloween books. I think it’s a matter of the genres I’ve traditionally steered toward: while ghost stories and fantastical horrors have been part of my reading life since I was a child, the types of stories one typically associates with Christmas have not really been something I’ve explored (I’ve only recently begun reading romance, for example, a genre that is FILLED with Christmas stories).

Another part of my problem, I think, has been striking the right balance to match my own feelings about Christmas. I love Christmas fervently and without irony. I’ve always believed in its example, seeing it as the apogee of the year that can and should encourage the best from all of us. And also, of course, I love the aesthetic of Christmas, the carols and the decorations and some of the best episodes of my favorite television shows (you’ve seen the stop-motion Christmas episode of Community, right?). And yet, like many people, I think the point of Christmas, a season that celebrates compassion and charity, needs restating often, especially once we’ve become so bogged down in to-do lists and credit card charges that we start snapping at strangers on the street. “It’s Christmas, everyone’s miserable” is a fairly bleak but accepted assumption sometimes.

But I do still love it, and yet, despite this (and my burgeoning love of the romance genre), I don’t tend to go for overly sentimental writing; on the other end of the spectrum, though, I don’t want too much cynical, “real-world” darkness infused in my Christmas stories, not when I can’t bring myself to roll my eyes at it yet. In terms of finding something to read, it leaves one a bit stuck.

That’s why I was so excited when I learned about Connie Willis’s collection Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Willis is a science fiction writer, and she has given Christmas a unique genre treatment in this completely charming book. I knew that I was in good hands as soon as I read her opening essay, in which she speaks to her own love of Christmas and what it means to her. (She also thinks Miracle on 34th Street is better than It’s A Wonderful Life, and agrees with me that the Muppets put out one of the most faithful adaptations of A Christmas Carol. It’s so nice finding a kindred spirit in an author!) Willis approaches the holiday with the perfect balance of sentiment and sharpness, and the resulting collection provides almost a prism of new ways to think about the season, with many different angles given to both genre and Christmas staples.

I was expecting most of the stories to have a strong science fiction bend, but actually, the stories represent a variety of speculative genre subcategories. Some of the stories are more genre-specific–including, as I recall, one horror story and one mystery–while others are Christmas stories with hints of fantastical elements. This could have been a risky move, because it means while there is something for everyone, there is likely also something that isn’t as much of someone’s cup of tea in there. (For me, that came in the form of the more straightforward mystery, the genre that remains my least-explored; if you love mystery stories and have suggestions for me, leave them in the comments!). However, I think the diversity of these stories pays off. It makes the collection fresh and engaging all the way through, and even though I liked some of the stories more than others, it was nice to not have an entire collection of the same thing. Not to mention that Willis’s skill makes each of the stories enjoyable–even the ones I worried I would struggle to get through on the first page had me turning them eagerly before long.

This breadth carries over into the kinds of Christmases depicted in the stories, as well, which was also something I really liked. A couple of the stories work with the religious origins of the holiday, featuring biblical mythology in really inventive ways (that readers of any amount of religiosity could enjoy). Other stories take a more contemporary approach, often drawing from the pop-culture staples that have become their own part of the modern Christmas mythos. One story even took on the classic archetypes from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, managing to carry over the themes and characters of a tale that is pretty much acknowledged to be the best Christmas story in the western canon and, consequentially, pretty much done to death. And yet, this story ended up being my favorite for its originality, as well as its perfect balance of earnest sweetness and honest reflection of the way we treat each other, especially around the holidays.

As broad as the collection is, the stories do have some common threads. They all have a good sense of humor, as well as a rich grounding in literary and folkloric tradition. They are also bubbling over with Christmas atmosphere. All of these things combined made this the perfect collection to kick off a month of holiday reads. And good news: the book has just been re-released this year as an updated collection called A Lot Like Christmas, with new stories added to these originals. It would make a great gift for anyone who loves Christmas, but is looking for something a little different than the traditional Hallmark-channel fare (no shade intended–the world can and should have both!). It’s hard to imagine I’ll find a new Christmas read to top this one, but luckily for me, Willis provided a reading list at the end of her book, so I know I have a trustworthy place to start.

TALKING AS FAST AS I CAN by Lauren Graham (and also some thoughts on audiobooks)

As I so often have to say, I want to apologize for the radio silence. I’ve been going through a bit of a challenging time, and a side effect has been that it has been difficult to read for fun. I’ve so missed being able to settle into a good book, and I needed to figure out a way to get back into what I love.

Recently, I downloaded a new app called Libby. Libby connects to your local library through your library card, giving you access to ebooks and audiobooks. I’ve been using it to check out ebooks for my kindle, but I’ve never really gotten into audiobooks. I tried to listen to a novel once, but I found it difficult to keep track of the story and characters that way. I’ve heard from other book bloggers, including the lovely folks over at Book Riot (you might recognize them from my recent conversion to romance novels–they haven’t steered me wrong yet) that it’s easier to start with nonfiction audiobooks. This made sense to me, especially as a fan of podcasts; it seemed to align with the way I already consume a lot of the true stories I encounter. Returning to some of my favorite podcasts has come to feel like keeping company with friends, which has been so comforting lately.

So, I was approaching my audiobook search with this idea in mind; I was looking for a book that would make a good companion, and allow me to ease back into reading. One of the books that’s been on my to-read list for a while seemed suddenly like the most obvious choice, a great way to be in conversation with someone from a world that has so often served as a refuge for me. Lauren Graham’s (or Lorelai Gilmore, of my favorite TV show) memoir Talking as Fast as I Can proved to be as delightful as I expected.

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Anyone who knows me knows how devoted I am to the show Gilmore Girls. In high school I had every season on DVD, and I became a sort of library for all of my friends who were trying to catch up in syndication (I could easily identify where they were in the series from a quick description). I watched it first with my mother, loving how much I saw our closeness and friendship reflected in the compassion and wit that threads through the show, and came to bond with many friends (and my delightfully feminist younger brother) in subsequent viewings. In my many re-watches of the series, some of the jokes and lines don’t age super well, and there’s an unfortunate lack of diversity (especially troubling given that the show is not THAT old, and that some of the humor-missteps carried over even into the 2016 revival). I certainly acknowledge that it’s not a perfect show, but I have to admit, it’s always been the one closest to my heart. When the revival season aired on Netflix last year, it was a bigger deal for me than I ever would have expected a television show could be. And so even though I don’t usually read a lot of celebrity memoirs (no judgment, just not my thing), I figured that this would be an interesting way to get to do what I’ve so often done: return to Stars Hollow when I need it the most.

It’s certainly worth noting that Lauren Graham is not Lorelai Gilmore. As the subtitle highlights, Talking as Fast as I Can details moments from Graham’s life “From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and Everything In Between),” encompassing more than just Graham’s time playing Lorelai. The book doesn’t follow a linear path through Graham’s life, but is instead a collection of essays that include snapshots of her wisdom (and humor) that mostly focuses on her career, from her most memorable milestones as a young actor to her more recent navigation through some of the absurdities of Hollywood life. Throughout, Graham is quick to offer direct advice, often turning her own anecdotes into encouragements and lessons for others who might be pursuing a challenging dream. I especially enjoyed the moments that focused on her pursuit of a writing career, and found her advice about developing a system for committing to write to be direct and illuminating.

Of course, some of the most captivating moments for me were her recollections of working on Gilmore Girls. Graham seems aware throughout the book that this part of her career is the most likely access point most of her readers have, and she doesn’t seem to mind. Where some actors might want to step away from such a strong connection to a character, Graham is refreshingly ebullient as she talks about her love for Lorelai, and her gratitude and joy at getting to return to the character. It makes sense; I could hear Lorelai in Graham’s own sense of humor and voice, although I could also hear their differences. I expected this to be jarring, but if anything, it made it impossible not to be immediately at ease with Graham as a narrator. It was like having coffee with a more down-to-earth version of a character I’ve known for years, someone not bizarrely ripped from my television set but still familiar and comforting.

As an early foray into audiobooks, Talking as Fast as I Can had pros and cons. There were a handful of photographs in the book, it turns out, and I only got to experience them through Graham’s brief descriptions. However, the trade-off is getting to have Graham’s voice tell the story directly, which goes really well with the friend-sharing-anecdotes-and-giving-advice tone that the book takes. It was exactly what I needed to get me through a couple of hard days, and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who, despite the unexpected surprise of a ten-years-later revival (and FINALLY getting to hear those last four words!), isn’t quite ready to leave the world of Gilmore Girls behind yet. It isn’t just that Graham is a window back into Lorelai’s world; getting to know her as her own person adds even more depth to the experience of watching the character, and almost becomes another way that the show has become a vehicle for me to bond with a new friend. Graham seems to want to be that friend for her readers (and listeners!), and it’s a joy to invite her in.

Books and Action: THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros

So much has happened, I don’t even know where to begin. From the president equivocating about people who brandish Nazi and KKK slogans and imagery, to the devastating hurricanes, to the cruel and heedless move to end DACA, a program which protects 800,000 people who were brought here illegally as children, these past couple of months have been bewildering, infuriating, and terrifying. It’s hard to know what to do day-to-day; as those that follow this blog have probably noticed, I’ve even had trouble reading anything beyond the frantic, awful headlines.

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For those who have been protected by DACA, America is the country where they have grown up, and is often the only home they have ever known. For so many people, “home” is a concept that is layered, contradictory, and sometimes fraught. When I was thinking about this, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read in years, and I decided to revisit it. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a book that explores these contradictions of “home.” The titular house where the narrator, Esperanza, lives with her family doesn’t live up to her dreams of a physical space that could meet what “home” means to her at the beginning of the novel: not just a space to live, but a space to identify with, a space to claim and be claimed by. Esperanza talks to neighbors who remember the country they came from, and sometimes discuss plans of returning to; to Esperanza, these faraway places seem like “home” for these neighbors in a way that she doesn’t think of Mexico, where her parents came from. While these homes are a place that live in the past for her neighbors, Esperanza’s imagining of home is a place of security that she aspires to, attached to her hopes of adulthood rather than her memories.

At the same time, Esperanza is building her own childhood memories on Mango Street, a place that feels temporary for so many on it, but that becomes the center of Esperanza’s coming of age. And just as Mango Street isn’t “home” the way that those faraway countries are for her neighbors, it also seems to Esperanza to be separate from America in some crucial ways. As Esperanza notes, “Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives.” Upon moving in, Esperanza meets a young white girl who agrees to be her friend, but, as Esperanza recalls the conversation, “only till next Tuesday. That’s when we move away. Got to. Then as if she forgot I just moved in, she says the neighborhood is getting bad.”

The stories that Esperanza weaves, the pieces of home and not-quite-home that come from her neighbors, parents, and friends, were inspired by Cisneros’ work with college students who came from a variety of backgrounds. As she writes of the woman she was when she began Mango Street in the introduction of the 25th anniversary edition, “She learns from her students that they have more difficult lives than her storyteller’s imagination can invent […] I write about my students because I don’t know what else to do with their stories. Writing them down allows me to sleep.” For so many in this country, building a life–building a home–in America is complex and challenging, but there are no alternatives, no place to “go back” to, no choice but to move forward.

While Trump has started to walk back his initial rhetoric, its hard to know what will happen, especially with so many of his supporters still clinging to the aggressive anti-immigrant sentiments of his campaign. Fortunately, there are many ways to help, and this article by Jessicah Lahitou provides some great suggestions. Call your representatives to let them know that you believe the DREAMers deserve a path to legal citizenship. There are also many groups that advocate for the rights and protection of immigrants, and they can use whatever financial support you can offer. And, as this post hopes to encourage, seek to learn more about the experiences of immigrants. You’ll be surprised to learn how different the place you’ve thought of as home can look to someone else; hopefully, like Esperanza, it will make you want to work for the kind of home we should all be aspiring to create, together.

TEN WAYS TO BE ADORED WHEN LANDING A LORD by Sarah MacLean

Despite writing an entire post about the fact that there should be no shame in enjoying romance novels, I’ve still been hesitant to blog about the books that I’ve been reading the most in the last couple of months (internalized misogyny runs deep, y’all). But I started this blog to share the books I’ve been reading, and if you’ve been experiencing a similar period of significant life changes that’s been making you anxious, maybe these are exactly the kinds of books you need, too. I have been devouring Sarah MacLean’s oeuvre, and I wanted to tell you about my favorite so far.

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The heroine of Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord is Isabel (because the female-protagonists of romance novels are called heroines–isn’t that fantastic?). Her father, a reckless gambler who’s been absent for most of Isabel’s life, has just died, leaving Isabel and her younger brother, a future duke, penniless and even more alone than they were when he was alive. But Isabel has always been resourceful; in fact, her home has become a refuge for many other women, as well. Some of them have escaped abusive marriages, cruel families, or even their own mistakes, and have found community and purpose in Isabel’s manor, dubbed the Minerva House. But with Isabel’s sudden impoverishment, she’s not sure if she can take care of everyone anymore–until Nicholas, a London aristocrat known for his knowledge of antiquities, comes into town. Isabel’s most precious possessions are her collection of marbles, but the residents of the Minerva House are more important to her, and she enlists Nicholas’s help in appraising the last things of value she owns in order to sell them. What she doesn’t expect is that Nicholas has come to her town for another purpose, one that might jeopardize Minerva House–and what Nicholas doesn’t expect is, well, Isabel.

I think what makes this book my favorite of MacLean’s novels is Isabel. She is headstrong, stubborn, and proud of her ability to solve her own problems. But she is also constantly afraid of disappointing those around her, taking on the burden of caring for everyone until it becomes her own hamartia. Her character feels real and familiar to me, making it all the more rewarding to watch her overcome her obstacles. This book also has an interesting reversal of a common trope. Usually in mainstream romantic stories, it is the man who is scared of vulnerability, too guarded to express his feelings and ask for what he wants. In this book, the reverse is true. Nicholas is a really sweet hero, and a nice change of pace from the kind of tortured anti-hero we’ve come to expect in our dramas. He’s open about his feelings, and trusting with his heart–it’s Isabel who is stubbornly resistant to what’s in front of her. In a genre of satisfying happily-ever-afters, this one had me cheering on the most.

Luckily for me, Sarah MacLean just released a new book, but once I’m finished with that, I will have read all of her romance novels. But here’s the best thing about discovering a genre: I have so much catching up to do, so many characters, settings, sub-genres, and happy endings left to explore. Expect to see romance reviews become a regular part of this blog; I’m excited to find (and share with you) more of the smart, feminist, charming, fun books this genre has to offer.

BAD GIRLS THROUGHOUT HISTORY by Ann Shen

If I imagine my book tastes as a pie chart, “badass historical women” would be a pretty big slice (a fact that probably won’t come as a surprise to many regular readers). From the time I was a child devouring the Royal Diaries series to the undergraduate thesis I wrote on Joan of Arc, I have always been captivated by the women who have made their mark on our cultural landscape, often by defying norms and expectations placed upon them. So when I heard about this book, I knew it would be something I would like, and I was right. Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen provides great introductions to some of history’s most notable rule-breakers, but of course, the fantastic illustrations that accompany the essays make the book a complete delight to look at, and the combination of these elements made for a perfect way to pass an afternoon on a porch.

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Bad Girls Throughout History takes the reader, well, throughout history, spanning centuries and cultures to highlight 100 women who, in myriad ways, left an impact on their society that resounds into our own. Shen is upfront in her introduction to the book that her list is certainly not exhaustive, but I found it to be an interesting variety. Some of the women were pioneers of science and exploration; others were groundbreaking artists. Still others were fearsome pirates and ruthless outlaws. Shen has not created a list of perfect role models, and the women found within these pages would not fit seamlessly into a Disney Princess lineup. I liked that the book included figures a little too intense for me to have learned about in school; I even read about some women that I had never heard about before. The list sometimes skews a little heavily towards entertainers, but I didn’t think this was a problem. The choices were always interesting and surprising with each turn of the page, and I really enjoyed getting a glimpse into the lives of women that I’m now excited to learn even more about (luckily, Shen included a detailed bibliography in the back of the book to encourage exactly that).

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I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the first thing that grabbed my attention about this book was the beautiful illustrations, and they are definitely as much of a draw as the essays. Shen’s art style is distinctive and pleasing, and this is a perfect book to flip through and linger over. It’s both comforting and a little sobering to thumb through the pages, to see how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. It didn’t make me want to become a pirate, but it did make me want to work to defy expectations in my own life.