Crooked Kingdom

Dear Jeannie,

I hope you have gotten your sheets together but if you haven’t know that it will get better. (Which sounds so cliche and trite and bleh but is true! There’s always an adjustment period when you go to a new school even if you’ve been there before.)

This week I read Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, which is the second book in the “Six of Crows” duology. It would definitely make more sense to have reviewed Six of Crows first but like American politics, I too don’t believe in sense-making.

The series follows a gang of what seems to be late teenagers, in a fictional world where superpowered humans known as “grisha” exist. The gang is led by criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker (think of a much, much more violent and sociopathic Artemis Fowl), and his close cohorts, Inej who’s a spy/acrobat/Kaz’s love-interest (I say “love-interest” lightly because Kaz is so emotionally stunted), Jesper, who’s a young, sarcastic version of Deadshot, Wylan, a rich boy turned chemistry/demolitions genius, the grisha of the team, Nina, and Matthias (who is the muscle? Nina’s on again off again bf?). Essentially the two books can be boiled down to: they get into some bad situations and then have to scheme their way out. The series is almost gratuitously gritty. Every character’s backstory is steeped in trauma.  And most if not all seem to have symptoms of PTSD.

Some themes: drug addiction, life after prostitution, murder, corruption, very effed up parent child dynamics (a dad tries repeatedly to murder his kid), torture, abuse etc.

If the themes above sound like they could be a list of key words from another terrible Batman reboot, that’s because they probably could.

At this point, it’s hard to tell if Bardugo is aiming for shock value, or if she thinks the story couldn’t be told without every single bit of grit. I do have to say that while the issues are very much real issues irl, Bardugo’s world building is strong enough that the reader sees these problems as if through a thickly tinted lens. In a sense, she casts fantasy as a buffer for the reader’s trauma. Bardugo is also a rather talented writer, with a gift for character-craft and witty dialogue. Below I’ve included some quotes I found either characteristic of Bardugo’s style or just interesting tidbits in general.

“He’ll be charged with violating a contract and attempting to interfere with the market… There is no greater crime according to Kerch law. The sentences are the same as for murder. He could hang.”

And it’s not just real world trauma that she tries to recreate in her fantasy world, Bardugo also tries to recreate a lot of real world systems. She exposes capitalism by creating something that is so hyperbolic it’s like looking into a funhouse mirror and learning something new.

No mourners, no funerals. Another way of saying good luck. But it was something more. A dark wink to the fact that there would be no expensive burials for people like them, no marble markers to remember their names, no wreaths of myrtle and rose.


Inej almost felt sorry for her. Dunyasha really believed she was the Lantsov heir, and maybe she was. But wasn’t that what every girl dreamed? That she’d wake and find herself a princess? Or blessed with magical powers and a grand destiny? Maybe there were people who lived those lives. Maybe this girl was one of them. But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.

So anyway, as terrible as school is, at least your parent/half the city isn’t trying to kill you (an active problem for Kaz’s entire gang).



The Stranger

To my darling sister, Crystal,

I am still stressed.

I hope you are having a decent week! I’m so sorry for the late post. Right now, I am sitting in a corner of the library surrounded by a mind-boggling amount of math and science homework and labs that are all due tomorrow. Wish me luck!


I recently read the book, The Stranger by Albert Camus. The story, originally written in French, follows a man named Meursault. The book opens with him finding out that his mother died. He then goes to her funeral and expresses little to no emotion. He has a girlfriend named Marie, who he doesn’t actually love, he just likes having sex with her. Already, I’m thinking, huh, this guy is a sociopath. BUT THEN HE GOES AND KILLS A MAN FOR NO REASON. Why?? Because it was “hot” outside and he wasn’t thinking straight. Meursault is arrested and goes to court. Even in court, he doesn’t regret anything. There, they condemn him to the guillotine, and the book ends with him accepting the idea of his execution.

Here’s a favorite meme of mine to describe my thoughts:

To be honest, when I finished the 100-something paged book, I was angry. I don’t know why, but I expected The Stranger to be riveting, invigorating, and just a thrill in general to read. It was certainly not that. However, this novel is extremely deep on a philosophical standpoint. After some deep thought, I think  Meursault is the stranger after which the book is called. He feels little to no emotion about anything. Society doesn’t accept him as a functioning member of it because of his indifferent attitude about things “normal” people would usually react strongly to. Judged and misunderstood by different characters throughout the book, Mersault is perceived as a crazy freak. He is charged with murder with no mercy– he is headed straight to the guillotine (no pun intended ;)). I honestly don’t know why he would be pardoned after what he’s done, but yet again, I am part of the “judgmental” society that rejects people like Meursault.

Overall, this book is too profound for me to appreciate it to its fullest extent. But, if you are really into analyzing deep philosophical ideas like those, try The Stranger out. Otherwise, don’t step within a 5-foot radius of it.



Waiting for Godot

Dear Jeannie,

Sorry to hear about the stress! …But also welcome to the rest of your life. A good way to manage your stress is to prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Also don’t be afraid to let an activity go if it’s all really too much.

Back to the subject at hand, this week I read Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot.” The tagline reads “A tragicomedy in two acts” which I find a bit misleading. Though the “two acts” part is right on, if it’s comedic at all, it’s the kind of absurd comedy that isn’t actually funny. Tragic, I’ll agree with.

The premise is simple: two men are waiting for Godot. Like the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, the reader too spends the entire play waiting for something. Things happen of course (“things happen” is almost an axiomatic definition of existence) but *mild spoiler* not the thing the characters nor the reader waits for. Godot never materializes and the emotional payoff—some closure to the story—never materializes for the reader. In fact, what is said isn’t the important or interesting thing, it’s what isn’t said, what the shape of the silences create, the negative space, that gives this play depth and existential meaning. After all, the dialogue is often terse, confounding, trivial, fragmented, absurd:
[Exhibit A]

ESTRAGON: Then adieu.
POZZO: Adieu.
POZZO: Adieu.
Silence. No one moves.
POZZO: Adieu.
POZZO: And thank you.
VLADIMIR: Thank you

[Exhibit B]

LUCKY: Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly…

From the incomprehensibility of large swathes of the dialogue, it’s clear to the reader that Beckett probably intended this work to have some allegorical meaning. Godot, must be in reality a symbol for something bigger.

ESTRAGON: (having tried in vain to work it out). I’m tired! (Pause.) Let’s go.
VLADIMIR: We can’t.
ESTRAGON: Why not?
We’re waiting for Godot.
ESTRAGON: Ah! (Pause. Despairing.) What’ll we do, what’ll we do!

The line “We’re waiting for Godot” is repeated six times, always in the context of why they cannot leave the side of the road. We don’t know why they’re waiting for Godot, just that they are. In fact, the only alternate solution to the waiting that’s proposed with any possibility is suicide by hanging. Their only problem? They don’t have a rope that’s long or strong enough.

I personally interpret the act of waiting for Godot as a symbol for life passing by (something reinforced by the fact that four out of the five characters in the play are aged). The two men are essentially physically tied to that one spot by the roadside, merely whiling away the time until either Godot arrives or night falls—whichever is first (and it’s always night).

Vladimir: …What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—…Or for night to fall. (Pause.) We have kept our appointment and that’s an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?

Each day, their waiting is merely another go around in futile circularity, the only breakpoint of which is death.



The Big Sleep

Hey Crystal,

I have so much homework and studying to do, on top of sports and other clubs starting this week. UGH. So sorry if this letter sucks :).

This week I read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. It is a short classic mystery novel that reminded of those old black and white crime movies from the 1930’s the entire time I was reading it. After I read it, I looked it up and turns out there is a movie for this book that was made in 1946! Jeannie knows it all..

Anyway, this novel is a thrill to read. The Big Sleep gives off a similar vibe as The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (It’s a children’s novel, but it’s actually fabulous!).


The plot is pretty long for a short book, so I’ll try to keep it brief. Phillip Marlowe is a private detective hired by a dying general to investigate a blackmail attempt to his daughter. Marlowe digs into a case filled with murder and blackmail. The end is a total plot-twist– be excited!!

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.

Death is a recurring topic– over the course of the book, five people were murdered. The detective reflects on his own life and how much he valued it before. The characters were different people: a chauffeur, a pornography distributor, an ex-bootlegger who married into a rich family, a dying oil tycoon, a detective. Treasure your life because you only have one, and everyone’s the same when they’re dead.

The OG Betty White put it best:


Phew. That was a pretty intense topic..  Time to go do 4 hours worth of homework :(. Wish me luck or I might end up in a big sleep!




Black Movie

Dear Jeannie,

I’M SO SORRY! It’s only my second post and here I am, a day late (and not even with any Starbucks either). So if it wasn’t abundantly clear before, I’m just going to say that classes have officially started and it’s busy, busy, busy. Not only do I have a lot on my plate, I’ve got food all over the table and some of it’s dribbling onto the floor.

So back to what we’re all here for, I’ll be talking about a poetry chapbook called “Black Movie” by Danez Smith, who is a pretty well-known spoken word poet (here’s one of his performances I particularly liked: He’s got phenomenal stage presence and I’ve only ever viewed videos of him speaking his work so reading it was a very different experience. I didn’t even realize the sheer scale of additional emotion and tone and power that body language or voice cadence infused into words until I was reading it and feeling like something was off, like walking into a room where the lights were a little too blue. (I don’t feel qualified to talk about the intricacies of the differences in reception and reader experience between written poetry and spoken poetry and I couldn’t tell you which I like better) but anyway, try both and see which one you enjoy more I guess.

Beyond the poems’ medium, the content is piercing and prickly and beautiful and tragic and funny and joyful in turn. Smith is supremely talented at talking about hard to talk about subjects (this particular chapbook is focused on racism and race-fueled police brutality specifically) in a tone that allows room for humor but also reminds you that nothing about this can be or ever will be funny.

It feels like a little bit of a copout to quote the same quote that the book jacket does, but what can I say, they chose well.

“Think: Once, a white girl

was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.

Later, up the block, Troy got shot

& that was Tuesday. Are we not worthy

Of a city of ash? Of 1,000 ships

Launched because we are missed?

Always, something deserves to be burned.

It’s never the right thing”

In my experience, a collection of poems is like a box of chocolates very ripe strawberries. Very rarely are all of the strawberries perfectly ripe. Usually a few are speckled with mold, if not covered completely in a white fur coat. Smith’s chapbook is the same deal. A few poems were fantastic, la creme de la creme and all that, but a few I found kind of boring or at least unmoving.

Overall, it was worth a read, as it’s a very short collection but if the chapbook is hard to get (my local library didn’t have a copy but my school did) most of the really hard-hitting, strong pieces are on Youtube as spoken word performances.

**Note: some poems do contain explicit language

See you soon!


P.S. I’ll try my very best not to be late again

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Hi Crystal,


I wonder how many of my post will start with those exact words. But did you really have to bring up both Coraline and No-Face in the first post?? WHY YA GOTTA BE LIKE THAT? [For those of you who don’t know me, Coraline and Spirited Away were (and still are) the root of all my nightmares until about two years ago. Something about scary animated characters seem extremely disturbing to me, and frankly, even more so than the ones from “horror” shows like American Horror Story and the newly popular, Stranger Things.] You suck. 😡

Anyhow, I have been slacking in my summer reading these last few weeks, but because of the impending first day of school, I decided to finally get my crap together. This summer, I was supposed to read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. And to be totally honest, I probably wouldn’t have read this book if it weren’t mandatory. The book’s cover, blurb, and reviews suggest that it’s another boring animal book (I know, don’t judge a book by its cover, yadda yadda). I’m not really an animal person, so I tend to stay away from those types of books. Contrary to my initial speculations, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the narrator, an elderly dog named Enzo.


Enzo and his owner, Denny, have a unique friendship. In a way, it is like a typical owner-pet relationship, where Denny does all the feeding, cleaning, walking, etc., but there is also a unusually close companion-like relationship between them because Enzo has an almost “human” brain. But due to his lack of ability to express himself, he is forced to just be a silent witness in Denny’s life. Kudos to Stein for creating such a unique power dynamic between the dog and his master–it very interesting. That being said, I have some issues with the plot.

While the novel is written in the perspective of a dog, the humans are the protagonists. Denny, a race car driver, faces many obstacles in his life (a little unrealistic, if you ask me). His wife dies, his daughter is then pried away from him by his in-laws, who then start a custody battle over her, he is accused of rape of a minor, and then becomes broke, and all within a span of a few years.

Here’s the thing–in the middle of this fiasco, he is miraculously offered his dream job from Ferrari to test cars on a track. They tell him that they will wait for him to sort out all of his problems, and then he and his daughter can promptly join the company in Italy. Suddenly, everything quickly falls into place magically; everything is resolved– he gets custody of his daughter, the rape case disappears, he takes the job, and you later find out that Denny became a famous racing champion.

Huh. I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but as far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t happen too often irl.

debbie downer

The Art of Racing in the Rain would definitely appeal to animal lovers–it’s heartfelt, it’s eye-opening, it’s just an emotional roller-coaster. But the ending was too idealistic, and in my opinion, took away from a perfectly fine novel.

HA I just gotta be a real book reviewer and rate it– 6.5/10.

With love,


The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Dear Jeannie,

Well. It’s been over a year since I’ve had to organize my thoughts on a book in a way more coherently than a mosquito-like high pitched whining or a bland “eh” (I’m discounting school related writing because that’s its own behemoth). But I’m looking forward to using too many gifs and parentheticals to rant about literature again (and also to force you to communicate with me during the school year because YOU NEVER TEXT YOU NEVER CALL).

[While I’m talking about the past and all, I’m going to take this opportunity to bulldoze over the fourth wall and say, Reader, if a letter-writing, book-reviewing, gif-wielding Crystal sounds familiar, then welcome to the new and improved incarnation of (half of)! Yes, I am back from the dead or Freshman year of college, whatever you want to call it, and I’m here to tell you that letsplottwistagain has been released into the wild. Maybe in 2 million years it’ll be sourced in some anthropologist’s thesis as another relic of this internet age. Also Ana is now busy doing life things, so.]

The book I’m reviewing today is written by Neil Gaiman, the mind behind Coraline, which in itself should tell you something.

Like CoralineThe Ocean at the End of the Lane, plays on fears that might be more often thought of as child fears. The protagonist for most of the novel is a boy of 7 years, who has to deal with supernatural monsters and make sense of impossible thingsand he does so, with remarkable dexterityyet he’s still afraid of the dark. What Gaiman does really well is the mark of the true author, that is, he’s able to close the age gap by making the reader 7 years old again. No matter how long it’s been since the last time you were afraid of the dark, for the next almost 200 pages, you’re 10 years or 20 years or 50 years younger, back when the dark wasn’t just an absence of light but the presence of every menacing possibility.

*Mild spoilers ahead*

He evokes in the reader that primordial helplessness of being a child in an adult world and turns it into heart-pounding terror. What can you do when your father is being controlled by a supernatural being that can take on the ultimate form of power—that of a really hot governess? The novel feels faintly like Cinderella. But instead of a evil stepmother, the villain is more like No Face from Spirited Away. She just wanted to make the people happy by giving them money. Is that so wrong? Like No Face, she’s a possibly monstrous, powerful being who has a skewed understanding of the way humans work. (Also it’s interesting to note that the “Be careful what you wish for” theme so prominent in Coraline features here as well. Surprise! The money doesn’t actually make anyone happier.)

“Something came to me, and pleaded for love and help. It told me how I could make all the things like it happy. That they are simple creatures, and all any of them want is money, just money, and nothing more. Little tokens-of-work. If it had asked, I would have given them wisdom, or peace, perfect peace…”

And later:

“I ONLY GAVE THEM WHAT THEY NEEDED, she was saying, petulant and afraid. I MADE THEM HAPPY.

‘You made my daddy hurt me,’ I said…


The children vs. adults dynamic is drawn along the same lines as those in Spirited Away, wisdom vs. ignorance, adaptability vs. inflexibility etc. In this novel, the power of children is celebrated. Their ability to know hidden ways and to believe in things adults can no longer believe in is their strength, and allows them to triumph.

Gaiman has created another thematically rich and textually riveting masterpiece, as he does. If I had to unpack all of it (and I do want to) it would take me 200 of these posts, so I’ll leave with this one quote that speaks to the power of language. It’s reminiscent of the language-as-a-concept in the Bible, where speaking slides directly into being. But even if we cannot speak this “language of shaping,” it’s enough to know that with our words we can create powerful things too. Stories like this one, that can teach and elicit fear and joy and hope.

“In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly…I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.”