Cover Image: Plain Bad Heroines

Plain Bad Heroines

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Two girls die at an exclusive boarding school, clutching a controversial book that has mesmerized the students. The deaths spark a series of bizarre incidents that leave the school reeling. In particular its unconventional Headmistress Mrs Libbie Brookhants and her partner Miss Alex Trill. Long after the school closes its doors, a new film by a hipster horror director depends on three young women, the precocious but blocked author of the book "The Happenings at Brookhants", a trendy megastar actress and "celesbian" and the daughter of a cult horror actress. But the filming of the movie version is plagued by unsettling incidents and soon there are rumours of an Omen-like curse haunting the sets...

It's impossible to tell which bits are "true" and fictional in the world Danforth had created and it is brilliant. She delights in dread, building and releasing tension with great aplomb and style, keeping you guessing and on the edge of your seat throughout. The characters are cleverly drawn, providing a cast of many (mostly queer) women, all original and complex and I found myself rooting for them all, and dreading (in the best way) what might become of them. The structure is complex as it develops different strands in the two timelines and moving back and forth between and within the two eras. One particular thread didn't feel quite a fleshed out, perhaps because it was so minor compared to the others. The fact that it was there simply to reveal the fate of one major character meant that it felt a little off-kilter with the rest of the narrative. And lets talk about that narrator because it it so difficult to get an intrusive one right without ruining the flow of the story. Danforth manages it admirably, her mysterious narrator is sly and playful and teases the reader brilliantly, evoking horror and humour often in the same breath. This is the strongest, most memorable part of the writing (and Danforth is no slouch in the rest).and made this novel a blast to read. For a minute I thought I was going to be disappointed by the resolution (or lack thereof) but it played out beautifully. A brilliant, brash, bonkers novel full of gothic horror, feminist fire, queer power bucketloads of character. I loved it.
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I didn't really know anything about Plain Bad Heroines before I started reading, beyond the fact that I'd seen people raving about it on social. It took me a little while to get into it, but when I did, I absolutely loved it. It was on the spooky side for me, but because of the intricacies of the plot and the great characters, I didn't mind being creeped out.
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I really enjoyed the way the two time lines interacted and the growing sense of unease. I also really liked the narrator and their asides.
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I'd give this book a 2.5 out of stars. The storyline had lots of promise but unfortunately didn't always deliver. It plodded along at times and could have done with shorter buildups to the action. Things also got a bit murky with the dual narrative and I struggled to follow parts of it. It felt like there were two separate books in there trying to get out. However, it was atmospheric and felt dark which I liked.

The characters were well developed and you either loved or hated them. The ending was a bit weird because the modern narrative didn't really have any conclusion.
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‘Plain Bad Heroines’ is a complex novel set across two timelines – the early 20th century, where both students and staff at Brookhants School for Girls are captivated by a new, audacious book by Mary Maclane, and the present day, where a film is being made about the events at Brookhants over a hundred years ago. Told by a mysterious narrator, it switches back and forth between the timelines, emphasising the parallels between the past and modern day events. I enjoyed the comparisons and clever interspersing of gothic elements, but the exceptionally ambiguous ending wasn’t as satisfying as I wanted it to be.

Brookhants, an exclusive school in Massachusetts, was set up by Libbie Brookhants after her husband’s death. With the help of her close friend – and lover – Alex, it became a huge success – until the death of two students, Clara and Flo. Thus began a series of events ending in the school’s permanent closure, passing into legend – until a precocious young writer, Merritt, decided to write a book about the tragedies at Brookhants. The book was subsequently optioned, and two actresses at very different stages of their careers – Harper Harper and Audrey Wells – were signed on to star. These characters make up our plain bad heroines – in the past timeline, Clara, Flo, and their classmate Eleanor, along with Principal Brookhants and Alex; in the present timeline, Harper Harper, Audrey, and Merritt.

Each character is complex, and the relationships between them are highlights. I especially liked Libbie Brookhants – a bold and independent woman never given the freedom to be as independent as she’d like – and Audrey Wells, a child star struggling to grow out of the shadow of her infamous mother and show off any talent of her own. The relationship between Libbie and Alex in a time when such things were not accepted is brilliantly portrayed, and it’s fascinating seeing how each of them viewed it – even when those views didn’t align. The interplay between Harper Harper, Audrey, and Merritt is also excellent, although I did feel that the changes in Audrey and Merritt’s weren’t always written with the subtlety of the others.

Unusually for a book with multiple timelines, both the past and present stories are equally strong. Jumping between them never feels unnatural or out of place, and there are some truly beautiful moments of mirroring. The only weakness in either timeline is the pacing. This is a long book, with a great deal of build-up before each new event happens, and I feel like it could be edited down without losing any of the gorgeous atmosphere and tension.

My main issue with this book, however, is the ending. The past timeline is more-or-less wrapped up – not everything is answered, but then some mystery adds to the atmosphere – but the present just ends with no resolution. The reader is left to decide for themselves what happens to the plain bad heroines – which will suit some readers well, but I want a few more answers. The ending also leaves the reader knowing a lot more than the protagonists, which is interesting, but definitely a situation more could be done with. 

Overall, this is a clever piece of fiction that straddles the boundary between literary and gothic. It’s filled with sapphic relationships and intriguing characters, and the writing is gorgeous, evoking beautiful imagery across its multiple timelines. Recommended for fans of gothic literature, dark academia, and stories with real atmosphere.
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Deliciously dark, darkly comic. Who knew I needed a queer ghost story this much? I thought it lost its way slightly in the last 20% but it was still such an enjoyable read.
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Brookhants School for Girls has a troubled past littered with myriad unfortunate ends that befall the females who dwell there. Over one-hundred years later and both the horror and allure of this eerie spot still holds it sway. This is especially true for Merritt, who has penned a fictional account of all that historically transpired, and the actresses, Harper and Audrey, who are to star in her movie adaptation, both set and filmed upon this doomed spot.

Whilst the initial story-line was intriguing enough alone, I can only stand back in awe and applaud all the divergent narratives and side-plots that Danforth managed to pack into these 500 pages. Not one single character knew the whole truth of what was occurring and the reader too was forever kept just short of pulling together the threads for the abundant mysteries featured here. This convoluted style of storytelling became even further muddled with the ever shifting character focus and chronological order. I had a tricky time obtaining and then keeping the few facts Danforth reluctantly allowed the reader, and so have no idea how she managed to so cleverly construct and link them all!

Asides from remaining mesmerised by the complexities for all that occurred, I also adored how diverse this cast of characters was. I had no idea who to root for when every single female was so fierce, independent, and just an all-round good, plain bad heroine. Sapphic, wonderful, brilliance!

The horrifying elements and eerie atmosphere remained light (which was the aim but not what I had anticipated from not looking into the genre tags thoroughly enough) and there was a point, around the central portion of the novel, where I longed for an increase in the pacing. These were minor shortfalls and, for the rest of this chunky tome, I remained enamoured, intrigued, mystified, and delighted.
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I really enjoyed this book, highly recommend it! I found the gothic setting very immersive and the dual narrative made it really hard to put this book down. I've never read anything by this author before but particularly liked her writing style. Great storytelling which gave just enough away to keep my interest until the very last page. A really interesting and original read which I'm sure will be hugely popular when it's published next year.
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This sounds so much fun as it takes on Gothic with a sardonic modern-day scepticism but I'm afraid I just found it messy and chaotic. I suspect this is one of those books where you need to bond with the narrative voice: I just didn't and so the humour fell flat. The book feels very long for the story it's telling and a judicious edit might rescue the good stuff. Great cover, though!
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Plain Bad Heroines has all the hallmarks of being a good read. Characters you love, characters you absolutely hate and an original plot.
Parts of it grip you and compel you to read more, while others fall flat and add little to moving the plot along. It's an enjoyable read over all.
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Plain Bad Heroines is a dual narrative gothic novel about a girls school, a curse, and how to tell a horror story, as well as love between women in both the 1900s and the present day. In 1902, Brookhants School for Girls is struck by tragedy, as students Flo and Clara—madly in love and both obsessed with a scandalous memoir of the day—are found dead in the woods after a wasp attack. And then in the present day, Brookhants becomes the set for a film starring a celebrity lesbian actress and a B movie star's daughter, but the production seems cursed itself.

I had no idea what to expect from this novel, except a vague awareness it had a blurb from Sarah Waters and having read Danforth's earlier YA book, and as I was reading an ebook, I wasn't even aware quite how long it was. Plain Bad Heroines opens with a distinctive, opinionated narrator who gives extra comments in the footnotes (the tone quietens down a little as the novel goes on, but not much), moving between the two narratives and the numerous main characters (three in the present day, and a handful in the 1900s) to set up everything. The present day story is deeply linked to the older one, but refreshingly isn't focused on the characters finding out the secrets of the past; instead, it makes jokes about the popularity of historical lesbian films and looks at the horror tendency to make the actors go through horrific experiences (often in the name of a 'curse').

With dual narrative books, it is often the case that you'll prefer one narrative to the other, and perhaps controversially (seeing as this is marketed as a dated gothic story) I preferred the present day story, following Harper, Audrey, and Merritt as they become the (partly unexpected) focus of the making of an experimental film. Though some of the humour and satire felt a bit forced, it is a classic story of clashing personalities and unnerving happenings combined with some ideas of what is consent on a film set or for celebrity social media. In contrast, the 1900s narrative was more of a feminist gothic tale, blurring the line between curses and jealousy and students gripped by a craze. The two teachers and lovers, Libbie and Alex, have a fully sketched out backstory, but it felt like the narrative could be a bit slow and not really about the girls school after a certain point.

This is two stories combined with a metafictional twist into one book, and whilst it doesn't always come together, it is bold and fun and does leave you with a lingering sense of buzzing. Instead of just being one book, it seems like many, and though this may leave you wishing you got more of your favourite (I would read another book just watching Harper, Audrey, and Merritt make bad choices), it makes Plain Bad Heroines feel like something a bit different. One not just for fans of gothic horror, and coming with knowing hints of Bret Easton Ellis and some YA elements, this book probably should come with a warning not to read if you're scared of wasps.
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I have struggled to write a review because I felt like I was reading two different books -  the plot set in 1902 is a masterclass in gothic storytelling. The author's voice was intriguing and entertaining, but it also set the mood. When I was reading it I felt the air around me charged, i couldn't take my eyes off the page, and when a wasp flew too close I screamed. The characters revealed themselves like opening flowers, naturally, without unnecessary exposition. My only note would be that at a key moment the character of Simone is called inexplicably 'Margot' a couple of times. 

But the other half....God, that was unbearable. As if written by a different person, the story dragged with detailed outfit descriptions, the characters were caricatures, the exposition and description of their backstories was amateurish, the online references almost embarrassing, and the imaginary Hollywood described in it made it sound like a teenage fanfiction. Much like Bo's movie, I didn't see the point of ruining a perfectly good ghost story with paragraphs of privileged white girls who listen to cigarettes after sex and the dave matthews band. 

The past chapters are a Good Book. The present day ones make sure I can only recommend it to YA readers who don't particularly look for quality. 

It's sad because i honestly went from not being able to put it down to eyerolling my eyes and needing to skip ahead before i died of boredom.

As an aside,  Audrey is later revealed to not be on Instagram and yet she's introduced in the novel as she obsessively watches harper harper 's Instagram stories. You can't do that without a profile. Sigh.
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I was so excited to read Plain Bad Heroines. A queer, gothic romp by the author of The Misadventures Of Cameron Post? Hell yes, sign me up!

Sadly, this is where I insert the Tyra Banks "I was rooting for you" gif. Because Plain Bad Heroines was just, well, plain bad. The narrative tone was weirdly, offputtingly sardonic; at one point I said to my partner "This is reading like bad Brett Easton Ellis fan fic" and then literally the NEXT PAGE had a B EE reference and there were several more over the course of the book, which leads me to suspect that this was a deliberate choice. Which, weird. And when it wasn't unpleasantly sardonic and rude, the narrative skewed towards a sort of Douglas Coupland slacker detachedness. And at the risk of going all "get off my lawn", I am literally in Gen X (well, X/Y cusp) and I don't, in the year 2020, want to read something aping the literary styles of 1991.

And Merritt. Oh my god Merritt. She's literally the most unpleasant book character I've ever had the misfortune to read, I couldn't stand her. I almost threw my e-reader across the room after reading the audition/table read scene. Meanwhile, the historic sections strike an extremely odd tone, like they're aiming for gothic but just hit on B-Movie schlock, with all the ahistoricism that implies. I guess you can tell I didn't like this book, hey? I ended up DNF-ing at 72% when I realised life is too short.
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