Reviewing: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth, Narrated by Xe Sands

Content warnings: Suicide, alcoholism, mentions of homophobia, unwanted pregnancy, death

Highlights:

  • It’s queer and creepy and I love it 
  • I love an intertextual read and BOY does this one have a lot of layers 
  • The narration was world class
  • Did I mention it’s queer
  • It’s just amazing please read this book 

Alex saw very clearly how dangerous a book like Mary’s could become in the hands of such impressionable girls, such privileged girls: girls who kissed and fondled and laughed as they read each other passages out in the woods; girls whose parents’ social standing had taught them that there was nothing at all in the world they could not subjugate, purchase, or ignore; girls who set fires only to watch as others tried, and failed, to put them out.


This year is the year of queer horror for me and I am loving it so much. Plain Bad Heroines is a twisting narrative stretching across centuries and containing pretty much every single one of my favourite things – abandoned gothic buildings, sapphism, book clubs, potential hauntings, openly queer actresses and texts within texts (within films, within….well, everything). This thing is a BEAST of intertextuality (also in size, clocking in at 640 pages or 19 ½ hours of listening), a book about a movie about a book about a group of girls obsessed with another book that actually exists in real life (I spent the entire book thinking Mary MacLane was fictional, she was not and now I kind of want to read the cursed gay book she wrote).  

Years ago, at Brookhants school for girls, Flo and Clara were in love with each other and with Mary MacLane’s book. Their club, the Plain Bad Heroine Society went down in history as tragedy befell the girls enthralled with this one, dangerous text. In time their story became local legend, then a book in its own right – penned by Merritt Emmons, and finally a movie. Celesbian A List actress Harper Harper and former child actress and B lister at best Audrey Wells step into the roles of those two tragic young girls – and that is just the beginning. 

This book was addictive, the twisting nature of the narrative adding to rather than obscuring the story. Bridging the gap between centuries, between Brookhants the school and Brookhants the crumbling film set, whilst simultaneously making us care about quite a few characters at the same time is one hell of a task and Danforth absolutely smashed it. I just did not want to stop listening to it, I will definitely read it again, it’s just fantastic. Had I gone to that school, read that book, I probably would have been one of those girls obsessed with the validating words of Mary MacLane, in that period of youth where the outside world cannot touch you, where adulthood and its decisions and responsibilities are far enough away that you can ignore them. Add this to the isolated bubble world that is a boarding school attended solely by very rich young girls whose whims are catered for, and you have the perfect recipe for tragedy. This is a book about secrets as much as it is one about curses, about love requited, unrequited and sometimes simply not requited enough to pay the price of what it costs to maintain. There’s a distinct feeling of unreality to this book, a sort of semi-waking state shared by characters as Brookhants settles itself into their minds, that made it a truly remarkable book to read, and especially to have read to me courtesy of my Audible account. 

I want to take a moment to say that Xe Sands did a phenomenal job narrating this book, the importance of narration when it comes to audiobooks cannot be understated and Xe really contributed to the dreamlike, almost hypnotic feel of the reading experience. Listening to the audiobook whilst working in a predominantly empty building was an experience, let me tell you, and honestly if you’re an audiobook reader I can’t recommend this one highly enough. 

This was just an incredible book, and is definitely among my favourites in the last few years. It is a book that really pulls you in and holds you in its grasp until the final page, and then stays with you even once it is done and I need more books like this in my life, full of young girls obsessed with secrets and legends and each other, kissing and whispering and vanishing in orchards of ripe, sweet apples and the lingering sound of yellowjackets on the breeze. 

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