Want

Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits that protect them from pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by this city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother, who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.

With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.

Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgement, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is or destroying his own heart?

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Like any kind of fantasy, I’ve always had something of a rocky relationship with dystopia. I read The Hunger Games back when I was 17 and I liked it, but not as much as everybody else did. I got through the first couple books of the Divergent series, but never bothered finishing the trilogy, realising in the gap between the second and third books that the only reason I had read the first two was because of a romance I didn’t really care about any more.

This pretty much sums up my relationship with YA dystopia:

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I felt like most of what I read was a melodramatic vehicle to deliver a lacklustre love triangle in which neither of the men the girl was torn over (and they always were men) were interesting. So when I read Aila @ One Way or an Author’s review of Want by Cindy Pon and, contrary to my experience of YA dystopia so far, it sounded super relevant and interesting, I was intrigued.

Want did not disappoint. One of my favourite bloggers, CW @ Read Think Ponder once wrote a fantastic blog post about the role of dystopic fiction – which I totally recommend that you read – and the part that most stuck in my mind was her definition of what the genre actually is. She wrote. “…dystopia should contain some social or political commentary, such as discourse on government, social institutions, or have societal implications.”  Back when I first read that, the reason behind my general antipathy toward dystopia – that I had never really bothered analysing before – hit me: the reason I didn’t like most dystopia is that it’s an important genre that had become watered down into something completely irrelevant. Divergent just doesn’t stand up well against A Handmaid’s Tale, I guess.

This is why Want is a breath of fresh air wrapped in a story that is depressingly familiar and anxiety-inducing in its prescience. Set in a futuristic Taipei, it tells of a society in which the majority (known as meis, meaning ‘have nots’) die at young ages due to air poisoned by pollution, while the richest 1% (known as yous, meaning those who have) are safely encased in breathing apparatus that costs millions to obtain – so is completely out of reach of the normal person. After a successful kidnapping and ransom venture, Jason Zhou and his fellow 99%-er rebel gang infiltrate the world of the yous in order to take them down.

Pon looks at current issues with climate change and takes them to the farthest reaches of disaster. In her Taipei – much like in current times – cleaning the air is a difficult, but by no means impossible task. It’s made impossible by those with the ability to help – the yous – refusing to do so because 1) the situation doesn’t affect them and 2) they financially benefit from it. The rich are protected from the noxious air by the suits made by the Jin Corporation,  so they continue to buy from other rich companies that are in turn run by people with their own Jin Corporation suits… and on and on and on with one result: nothing changes and meis continue to die.

Watching people die isn’t enough of a motivation for the yous to make changes – in part because they don’t often actually see it. The yous and the meis live lives so utterly separate it’s as if the yous have lost the ability to recognise the humanity of the meis and their suffering at all, let alone to see it as their problem. It is, ultimately, ignorable. It would be nice to think we non-fictional people would never be capable of this kind of passive cruelty, but the fact is we’re doing it all the time. Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo mine cobalt which is then used to make our smart phone batteries, while countless rivers in Asia are completely destroyed by the textile industry, just one aspect of the destruction caused by demand for fast fashion. So much of our day to day, from clothes to technology to food, comes at the expense of people in countries far away from our own, people living below the poverty line who don’t have a platform or the resources to make themselves heard, and therefore are not seen. Just like with the yous and the meis in Pon’s world.

Pon however, takes it a step further and complicates the story by demonstrating that this lack of empathy indeed goes both ways. When Zhou joins the you community and meets Daiyu, an heiress, he is thrown off when he finds she is a nice person, albeit one complicit with the status quo through being born into a privileged you family. What had previously seemed like an easy task, bring down Jin Corp and the yous with it was harder when, rather than a nameless, faceless hoard he could easily hate, the yous turned out to include people like Daiyu, a decent and smart human being. Through Zhou’s relationship with Daiyu, Pon explores the polarities we live in and how when communities actually mix with one another, so many of them prove to be false.

In Want, Pon weaves a rich world that is compelling and painfully relevant, but cautiously optimistic in its approach to some of society’s greatest problems.

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Reading slump solutions

Today I want to talk about the biggest enemy of the book blogger. It’s not Netflix, an active social life, demanding job or insecurity about your place in a community that you’re increasingly uncomfortable with.

No, it’s that most dreaded of non-physical ailments: the book slump.

Characters who would have usually lit up your life for a week lie dead and limp on the pages, plot twists that would have you reaching for your phone to tweet a GIF in reaction seem pedestrian at best. Worst of all you might find yourself reading the blurb of a YA contemporary in which two young people (her ‘too skinny’ and him possessing a surprising amount of sexual prowess for a 17-year-old*) fall in love under adverse circumstances (recently traumatically deceased parent/best friend/ acquaintance from school they just can’t forget)and think it seems… stupid.

*just me?

Obviously such a situation can’t be allowed to fester. So pop the kettle on, light up a pumpkin spice candle, ease your feet into your slippers and relax. I got you.

Bookstagram

Book + coffee + sunshine = happy place #bookstagram #belletristbabe #summer #sundayfunday

A post shared by Lydia Tewkesbury (@lydiat21) on

Bookstagram is without a doubt one of the dumbest things we do in the book community. It’s all aesthetics and no substance, which is pretty much the opposite of what reading is about. But I love it. Looking at aesthetically pleasing, highly stylised book pictures makes me imagine the aesthetically pleasing, highly stylised life I might have if I were only reading more.

Booktube

If there’s one thing that gets me more pumped than pretty pictures of books, it’s videos of smart people being excited about books. Kayley Hyde is my favourite, if you’re in need of recommendations.

Newsletters

If you’re getting lost in a novel, maybe you need something a little shorter. Everyone and their mother has a newsletter these days. Newsletters can take the form of something like Lenny, a feminist e-zine that hits your inbox once a week with a treasure trove of original writing by women ranging from personal essays to interviews to the most poetic horoscopes you’ll ever read; to something more like The Bleed, the newsletter of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast*, which is a summary of news items, articles and pictures Aminatou and Anne wanted to talk about over the month but didn’t have time for.

*Have you listened to Aminatou’s interview with Hillary Clinton yet? Omg.

Read poetry

A reading slump is often indicative of our emotional state. If you’re feeling crappy and looking to see that reflected somewhere, read poetry. Poetry is raw emotion with all the exposition of a novel removed. Sometimes cutting to the heart of the matter will snap you out of that slump and reinvigorate more than just your reading life.

Shake things up

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One of my biggest ‘post-grad realisations’ is the importance of shaking up your routine. When you don’t have the beginning and ending of school terms doing it for you, you have to do it for yourself. This applies in all areas of your life, including reading. If all you’re reading is YA contemporaries and you’re feeling bored, pick up a novel that is completely outside of your wheelhouse. Try some non-fiction, or a classic, or look up the Belletrist pick for the month because it’s bound to be beautiful, clever and personally and politically relevant.

You’re not growing if you’re not changing, or however the saying goes.

S’later, slump!

Release

It’s Saturday, it’s summer and, although he doesn’t know it yet, everything in Adam Thorne’s life is going to fall apart. Relationships will change, he’ll change, but maybe, just maybe, he’ll find freedom in the release.

Time is running out though, because way across town a ghost has risen from the lake. Searching, yearning, she leaves a trail of destruction in her wake…

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Release by Patrick Ness is a sucker punch of a novel; (as per usual for Patrick. Why do I pay him to do this to me every two years?) a story that navigates coming out, bad boyfriends, worse families and drastic change. Though I am not (spoiler alert) a gay teenage boy on the cusp of coming out to my conservative Christian family, I connected deeply with the feelings expressed in this book, which is very much concerned with the wounds inflicted on us in our childhood and how they impact the person we grow up to be.

Release, if you didn’t know, is kind of an homage to Mrs Dalloway, so takes place over a 24 hour period with a narrative that is heavy on the flashbacks. Adam is dealing not only with the fact of his family – his father is the preacher at their local church and his whole family very conservative and homophobic – but also with a recent break up. His ex, Enzo, decided he was straight over the summer and treats Adam as if nothing ever happened between them while dating a girl that looks exactly like him.

Enzo is the worst. I kind of wanted to feel bad for him because his actions are obviously the result of an intolerant and heteronormative society… but he was just too much of an a-hole.

As in Mrs Dalloway, the novel has a split narrative, with Adam’s story interspersed with another separate but interconnected sequence of events. While Adam struggles, a girl in the community recently murdered by her drug addict boyfriend is possessed by a spirit from another world, and wanders the town seeking to avenge her own murder. It’s reminiscent of The Rest of us Just Live Here, but with a much more developed (and much sadder) plot.

While all of Patrick Ness’ books are emotional (the death of Manchee will haunt me forever THANKS PATRICK), with his past few novels it’s as if he’s moved from these grand, dramatic narratives (Chaos Walking, A Monster Calls) to smaller stories filled with emotional truths. Rather than deal with death and destruction (which, don’t get me wrong, he does exceptionally well), these days he writes novels filled with more ‘mundane’ concerns. The Rest of Us Just Live Here, for example, was the book about insecurity I wish existed when I was 17 (that whole I’m the only unnecessary member of the friend group thing? I got to the age of 22 thinking I was the only one who’d ever felt that way). Release is about the difficulty of recognising the good in your life – and accepting it, which in Adam’s case came in the form of Linus, probably my favourite love interest of the year so far (any real life Linuses out there who are into women… call me?) – when your whole life the people who are supposed to have loved and supported you have instead torn you down, bullied you, and made you feel like you’re all wrong.

Ness artfully uses the supernatural narrative – in which the world might end – to emphasise the importance of living your truth now. The day Adam decides to be himself no matter the consequences – certain rejection by his family – is a day when, unbeknownst to him, the world might end. The idea of now or never takes on an urgent significance without Adam even knowing it. Yes, it’s kind of a cheesy idea, but as Adam says, “sometimes you just got to eat the corn and enjoy it.”

Release is a beautiful and heart-rending novel from an author who never fails to surprise and challenge me. I hope everybody reads it.

#TheReadingQuest: The Bone Witch

I read this for #TheReadingQuest. Book 3, a Book That Contains Magic DONE. I am at this point pretty confident that I will finish my quest. Given that I have deadlines coming out of my ears and that The Buried Giant threw me into a bit of a slump, I’m feeling good about how I’ve done.

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Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracised in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living – and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wider bone witch. There, Tea puts all her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong – stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland… and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

Lyrical and action packed, this new fantasy series by acclaimed author Rin Chupeco will leave you breathless.

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The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco is a villain’s origin story unafraid to take its time. Told between the past and the present, we get to know 14-year-old Tea, enthused to become an asha and serve her kingdom, at the same time as seeing 17-year-old Tea, hell bent on destroying that very same place.

Why? We don’t know yet.

As I’ve mentioned, the narrative of The Bone Witch is pretty slow. Though I have to admit there were times when it failed to hold my attention, overall I think this technique was effective. As the plot currently stands, it’s very hard to see the events that would lead Tea to become the person we know that she does, and if Chupeco were to rush that process the story would be weak and unsatisfying as a result. A good villain story builds itself up to its highest point before the fall, and this building was the business of book 1.Chupeco even goes so far as to reference deaths that don’t even take place during the first book’s narrative, which is an interesting choice that really builds the tension.

As much as I love Tea and I’m sad to see what has become of her, I’m oddly curious to see exactly how it all goes to hell.

The Bone Witch is a strong first book that absolutely makes me want to continue with the series. My main complaint was with the three guys in the royal family, Kance, Khalad and Kalan. Reading that while extremely tired, which I almost always am, was no joke. It was like being back in the mid-00s before we all knew which Kardashian was which.

That complaint aside, characterisation in this novel was strong. Although Chupeco set the groundwork for a potential love triangle featuring the uninteresting Kance (or, as I like to think of him, the Stefan Salvatore of the story), overall she majored on Tea’s relationship with her brother/familiar Tea raised from the dead, Fox (LOVE HIM. Fox, you can be my dead boyfriend any day of the week.) and her dynamic with the other witches she lives and trains with. Watching Tea find her place in this group of strong, loyal and close women was wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the ‘mother’ of the witch school, Mistress Parmina, cast in the role of withholding mentor so often given to a man (think: Dr Cox in Scrubs, Cal Lightman in Lie To Me and Sam Sylvia in GLOW) and Tea’s evolving friendship with Zoya, the mean girl. Main girl becoming besties with mean girl is my favourite female friendship trope. I just love the mean girl in general (think: Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl and Coco Connors from Dear White People. BE BESTIES WITH ME PLEASE.).

This magical tale of necromancy, coming-of-age and mysterious betrayal is a compelling start to a story I definitely want to know the ending of.

 

 

 

#TheReadingQuest: Nevernight

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I read this for #TheReadingQuest, started by Aentee @ Read At Midnight with artwork by CW @ Read Think Ponder. First book of a series done.  

Mia Corvere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death. Destined to destroy empires, the child raised in shadows made a promise on the day she lost everything: to avenge herself on those that shattered her world. But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, and Mia must become a weapon without equal. Before she seeks vengeance, she must seek training among the infamous assassins of the Red Church of Itreya. Inside the church’s halls, Mia must prove herself against the deadliest of opponents and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and daemons at the heart of a murder cult. The church is no ordinary school. But Mia is no ordinary student.

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Nevernight by Jay Christoff is a gripping tale let down by racist undertones. The story, in theory, has a lot going for it. It has an appealing heroine, Mia, hell bent on revenge and dealing with some severe trauma from one event we know (the hanging of her father) and one that remains shrouded in mystery (whenever Mia’s mind starts to go there she tells herself don’t look). She’s darkin, which means she has some magical powers that involve being able to control shadows, though she mostly doesn’t know what she’s capable of unless she is pushed to find out. To be darkin is very rare, so there isn’t another one about she can ask. She is forever accompanied by her shadow cat (literally a cat made of shadows), Mister Kindly, who appeared to her the night her powers first manifested (the day her father was hanged for treason and her mother and baby brother imprisoned and Mia herself almost murdered.) and feeds off Mia’s fear. Since she is dealing with not a little trauma, Mister Kindly is very well fed.  Oh yeah, and he talks. With sass. They are together attending a boarding school where teenagers learn to be assassins.

Kristoff’s method of storytelling appealed to me. He uses a third person omniscient narrator who becomes one of the biggest personalities in the story. Through a mixture of footnotes and asides the narrator keeps the tone light in even its darkest moments –disappearing in its most violent, which was particularly effective – using humour and satire to inform the reader of all of the grimmest aspects of the world we have, however temporarily, stepped into.  The narrator was kind of like the villain in a Shakespeare play, nodding and winking at the audience as the others flail about none the wiser.

But it was the narrator, as one of my favourite parts of the novel that came to be the biggest let down. As a voice on the outside of the story, analysing it and at times mocking those it describes, it was perfectly placed to challenge the problematic ideas posed by Kristoff’s characters.

But it never did.`

The problem was with the representation of the Dweymeri people, who are described as ‘dark of skin’. And also as violent rapists.

Sigh.

We mainly hear about the Dweymeri through the character of Tric, who is mixed race, with a Dweymeri mother and Itreyan (white) father,  and because of this, rejected and abused by the Dweymeri people (strike one). With the exception only a few, including Tric and another student of the Assassin School he and Mia attend, Floodcaller, who is a violent asshole and then a dead one (who hates Tric for being mixed race), the Dweymeri people are barely represented in the novel at all (strike two), so when we’re told early on that they are rapists and murderers (strike three and we’re out) there is really no basis on which to challenge that idea. Even more so given that the only positive representation we get of the Dweymeri people is through Tric who we learn was not brought up in that community. This style of storytelling leans heavily on the trope of the dark skinned aggressor, and it stings particularly in a book about ruthless murderers to single out one group for being ruthless murderers.

Kristoff does make some efforts to challenge his own use of stereotype. There is a scene early on where someone calls Tric koffi, which it comes to light means ‘child of rape’. Mia’s immediate assumption is that Tric’s mother must have been raped by a Dweymeri man, but Tric quickly corrects her that it was in fact an Itreyan man who assaulted his Dweymeri mother. Obviously this is a step forward, but Mia’s mistake isn’t analysed, she isn’t ashamed of it and the wider context and social and racial politics of her remarks were never discussed at all. Given that the characters of Mister Kindly and the narrator (who I have a theory may be one and the same) in particular were so astute in their summaries of other situations in the novel, it felt wrong to me that on this they were silent.

I also felt like Kristoff had a tendency to exoticise people of colour in the book. Mostly because, with the exception of Mia, he would largely only ever describe a person’s skin colour if they were black or brown – never white. For example when we’re introduced to Spiderkiller (another ruthless, murdering Dweymeri), the potions teacher at the Assassin’s Hogwarts, she is described like this: “Her saltlocks were intricate. Immaculate. Her skin was the dark, polished walnut of the Dweymeri..” where as one of Mia’s best friends is simply called “brunette.” Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset that Kristoff neglected to describe white skin as such, but I felt like this practise served to other people of colour, and as I said, exoticise. To not describe someone as white in this scenario, felt like the reader was supposed to assume they were, which creates a situation in which whiteness is necessarily considered the norm, and anything else other. So. Freaking. Problematic.

I would like to think that as the series progresses, Kristoff will break down the stereotypes he has introduced in the first novel and reveal them for the ignorance they truly are. But, seeing as by the end of the novel we are down yet another Dweymeri, I sort of doubt it.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

She annihilates standardized tests and the bad guys. Genie Lo is among droves of ivy-hopeful overachievers in her sleepy Bay Area suburb. You know, the type who wins. When she’s not crushing it at volleyball or hitting the books, Genie is typically working on how to crack the elusive Harvard entry code.

But when her hometown comes under siege from hellspawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are dramatically rearranged. Enter Quentin Sun, a mysterious new kid in class who becomes Genie’s self-appointed guide to battling demons. While Genie knows Quentin only as an attractive transfer student with an oddly formal command of the English language, in another reality he is Sun Wukong, the mythological Monkey King incarnate – right down to the furry tail and penchant for peaches.

Suddenly, acing the SATs is the least of Genie’s worries. The fates of her friends, family and the entire Bay Area all depend on her summoning an inner power that Quentin assures her is strong enough to level the gates of Heaven. But every second Genie spends tapping into the secret of her true nature is a second in which the lives of her loved ones hang in the balance.

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The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee is a DELIGHTFUL book. It’s an action packed, romantic, relatable and funny read – giggling to myself on the bus level funny – driven by Chinese folklore.

‘“Go ahead,” I said, groping behind me for any heavy, hard object I could find to clock him with. “Tell me your real name and we’ll see if that makes it all better.”

Quentin took a deep breath.

“My true name,” he said, “…is SUN WUKONG.”

A cold wind passed through the open window, rustling my loose papers like tumbleweed.

“I have no idea who that is,” I said.’

I have for a long time been a huge fan of epic stories of saving the world told within the boundaries of a domestic setting. In a genre overflowing with tragically dispatched parents and groups of feral teenagers, a character who has to save the world from the rabid demon horde and get home before curfew? That’s an interesting story.

And Genie Lo is a fantastic main character. She is a joy to read, with Yee deftly avoiding all of the stereotypical and trope-ish behaviours so often displayed in characters with Genie’s snowflake status. She is, as Quentin puts it, unquestionably, undeniably human, just with a whole bunch of other stuff going on as well. The ‘stuff’ sometimes being finding out that she is the reincarnated physical form of a stick Quentin used to fight demons with, and other times, figuring out how to have a relationship with both of her parents after their bitter divorce.

She also defies many gender and racial stereotypes. Genie is a hot tempered lady, and, for better or worse, not above punching an asshole in the face every once and a while. In Western culture, which is flooded with negative representations of Asian women as passive sex objects, Genie’s self-directed narrative is a refreshing and necessary one.

I found Yee’s focus on Genie’s body to be super interesting also. It is emphasised throughout that Genie is a big girl – she describes herself as ‘monstrously tall’. This puts Genie’s appearance at odds with the ideal of the tiny, stick thin Chinese woman her body shaming mother makes it clear she thinks that Genie should be.

Additionally, Yee makes a point of Genie being much taller than her love interest, Quentin. That this was something of a revolutionary move is a testament to how fucked up our body image is as a society, but whatever. It was. And guess what, all of those girls out there who have staunchly declared they would never date a guy shorter than them (me included)? It affected nothing. I was shipping as hard as ever. Obviously.

Yee makes it more and more apparent as the story develops that Genie’s big body is for the benefit of her badass, demon slaying self. There is a point, fairly early on in the novel when Genie discovers that she can in fact grow herself to whatever size is needed for the purposes of demon slaying. Initially, she is totally ashamed and embarrassed by this development. Getting bigger is literally the opposite of what she wants for herself. But, as the narrative progresses, Genie embraces and starts to appreciate her body, something that is shown in the final battle of the novel where she deliberately grows her physical self to gigantic proportions in order to defeat her adversary. In a culture where women are taught to take up as little space as possible, with Asian women suffering from this in particular, it was such an empowering and, as the title would suggest, EPIC, moment.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is a wonderful example of a YA novel. Genie and her supporting cast leap off the page, and their adventures swept me along so fast I finished this book in only a couple of sittings. It 100% lives up to the hype.

July Wrap-Up

This has been something of a big month for me.

I am officially no longer a waitress. I am officially no longer and intern.

I am officially an editorial assistant.

!

And I graduated 2 years ago this week. WTF?

A friend of mine started work as a qualified doctor. In a hospital. Where she plans to care for people’s vaginas. WTF?

I hung out with my school friend and her husband, who is awesome and someone I am glad to know. WTF?

Adulthood. Oof.

Let’s dive into safer subjects.

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This month I reviewed:

The Upside of Unrequited – Becky Albertalli

Feelings: I would like to join the Peskin-Suso family, please?

Marlena – Julie Buntin

Feelings: Difficult but beautiful, this tale of addiction and grief will stay with me for a long time.

Radio Silence – Alice Oseman

Feelings: NEW FAVOURITE ALERT.

Too Much and Not the Mood – Durga Chew-Bose

Feelings: A gorgeous, dream-like essay collection. Beautiful, whimsical and everything my brain needed.

I also talked wrote:

To the Bone: Authentic or irresponsible?

Mood Reads

5 Reasons to Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Other than books: Some recommendations you didn’t ask for…

To read: THIS fantastic interview with Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter AKA one of my favourite books of last year.

To watch: Lilly Singh talking success and hard work with Lewis Howes (review of her book How to Be a Bawse coming soon.).

To listen: Edie Falco on WTF with Marc Maron talking about being an adult with a chaotic childhood and why she’s too scared to talk to her heroes, even when she’s on set with them. I LOVE HER.