Mini Reviews: If We Were Villains + The Belles

Hello all! I mentioned this before, but I have decided that I am going to start posting mini-reviews for books I’ve read but don’t have enough to say to write a full review. This means they’ll largely be books I give average ratings to, although there may be some 4-star ratings here and there that I simply don’t have a lot to say about. I’ll probably end up doing groups of 2, since they’re still kind of long (and to help give me more posts). They will typically be spoiler free since I don’t have that much to say, but, as always, I’ll let you know if there will be any. Without further ado, here are my first couple of mini reviews!

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IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M. L. Rio

OVERALL: ★★★½/5

I definitely see why this is characterizes as “dark academia” alongside The Secret History. Between the two, I enjoyed this one significantly more, but that might just be because I have a much firmer foundation in Shakespeare than I do classics. I also found that parts of The Secret History tried a bit too hard, which isn’t really a complaint I had with this one. Mostly, I was more fond of the conservatory setting in If We Were Villains than the small liberal arts school setting of The Secret History (maybe because the small, prestigious, in-the-middle-of-nowhere liberal arts vibe hits a little too close to home.) 

Independently, I really liked how easy it was to read If We Were Villains. One of the reasons I tend to read less adult fiction is because it takes more effort to concentrate on what’s going on, which is all well and good, but it isn’t always something I can or am willing to do. Now, the fact that it reads easy doesn’t mean it’s an easy read. There are parts that are dense and confusing and complex, but the actual prose is relatively easy to follow. It may be generally caused by Rio’s decision to format a lot of the dialogue like dialogue in scripts, which I actually thought was a nice touch, since that’s how I would expect Oliver to tell his story.  

I don’t mean to keep comparing this book and The Secret History, but I did read this through the same kind of lens. I know that the characters in The Secret History are meant to be unlikeable, but the characters in If We Were Villains were far more realistic in that they were simultaneously likeable and unlikeable. It made them see far more real, like I could actually be attending school with them, which I couldn’t really say of the Classics gang in TSH 

I know a lot of people complain about how unrealistic and pretentious it is for the Dellecher kids to quote Shakespeare in real life, and I kind of agree, but mostly I just thought it matched the overall atmosphere of the novel. If this book is about people becoming the characters they play on stage, it makes sense that they would find ways to bring their stage personalities into their real lives. Yes, it’s obnoxious, but you can’t deny that these characters are kind of pricks who of course would converse in Shakespeare quotes (I think it’s more realistic and acceptable than students conversing in Latin or classical Greek.) It worked for me in a strange way, although, again, I am biased as an English lit student with a long track record of Shakespeare. 

I know the trope of becoming your character off-stage isn’t exactly new, but I thought it was really well done in this novel. It really made me think about the confines we put on others and on ourselves, and how those perceptions can remain beyond where they’re really supposed to. In general, I thought it was an interesting look into what happens when life imitates art. 

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THE BELLES by Dhonielle Clayton

OVERALL: ★★★/5

In the most general sense, I thought The Belles just wasn’t my kind of book. I’ve never liked books that fixate on beauty (Uglies being the first to come to mind), and so the fact that literally all of this book is centered on making people look better just was not my cup of tea. I definitely thought it was an interesting idea but wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to read about. 

I think one of my main issues was that I found the writing inconsistent. The book starts off very slow, and the action mentioned in the synopsis doesn’t actually start to happen until about 60% of the way through the book, which is a major pet peeve of mine (like, come on, that’s false advertising). I was definitely more invested once things actually started happening, but I thought it took way too long to actually get to that point. Also, the final bits of action and climax all went down in the last 50 pages or so, which is another major pet peeve of mine. Like, I want to see all the major drama play out over time, not have it dumped on me all at once. Also, there were times when I found the descriptions really well balanced with the dialogue and the action and other times where 8 types of desserts were listed for no apparent reason.  

Also, I know a lot of people really love the world building in this, I can certainly see where they’re coming from, but I also thought it was a little… lazy? Hear me out: Clayton relies on the reader having some basic knowledge of what New Orleans is like and just puts a couple fantasy spins on it. I’m all for taking a real place and making it fantastical, but you have to do it right, and I just didn’t get that here. There were all sorts of technology and magic-esque things that have no explanation, and I often found myself confused about what was going on. I realize you don’t have to explain every single new thing in your story, but you also shouldn’t just assume your reader will figure it out. I like learning about worlds and feel cheated when interesting things are glanced over. In this same vein, I was really frustrated with the fact that whenever Clayton used something that is familiar to use, she felt the need to throw “Belle” in front of it. Like, is that really necessary, and is it really necessary to do it every time? Would it kill you to just say “paste” instead of “Belle-paste” or “rouge” instead of “Belle-rouge?” I get that’s what it’s called in this world, but it really can’t be shortened? That’s another thing that seemed a touch lazy; rather than coming up with a new word and explaining it once, everything just had the word “Belle” slapped onto it, as if that is some form of explanation, which, guess what, isn’t. 

Like I said before, books that focus on beauty and maintaining and manipulating it aren’t my favorite. I thought the message in The Belles was really important, but I also felt like it hits you over the head a bit too much. I’ve mentioned it before, but I like my social commentary a bit more subtle. Also, since I do think I’m already critical of society’s beauty standards, I didn’t really learn anything new. That’s not to say I know every critique of it, just that this book didn’t offer me anything new, which was a bit disappointing because it had the potential too. Some of this might be the consequence of it being aimed toward a slightly younger audience than me who are still very susceptible to society’s influence. I’m not saying it’s not important – yes, please teach young people that they are individuals and shouldn’t conform to arbitrary, bizarre beauty standards – but you’re preaching to the choir with me, so it didn’t hit as hard as it maybe should have.

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Do you have any thoughts on either of these books? What writing styles really bug you and why?

Keep reading,

Francesca M. Healy (1)

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2 thoughts on “Mini Reviews: If We Were Villains + The Belles

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