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Plain Bad Heroines

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Horror (2020)
Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations.

623 pages, Paperback

First published October 20, 2020

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About the author

Emily M. Danforth

2 books1,801 followers
emily m. danforth's first novel--The Miseducation of Cameron Post-- is a coming of GAYge story set largely in Miles City, Montana, the cattle ranching town where she was born and raised. It was made into a feature film of the same name in 2018.

emily's second novel is a sapphic-gothic-comedy titled Plain Bad Heroines. Plain Bad Heroines is set largely in Rhode Island, the state where she's lived for almost a decade with her wife Erica and two dogs, Kevin and Sally O'Malley.

emily has her MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana and a Ph.D in English-Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For several years, she was an Assistant Professor of English at Rhode Island college. emily has also worked as a lifeguard, a swim instructor, a bartender, a waiter, an aquatics director at a YWCA, a door-to-door salesperson (for one summer in college), and a telemarketer (for about 2 weeks in college).

emily' favorite slasher movie is April Fool's Day (1986).

Her favorite drink is iced coffee with extra ice. (Followed closely by the Aperol Spritz.)

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,666 reviews
Profile Image for Melissa ~ Bantering Books.
208 reviews788 followers
November 21, 2020
Be sure to visit Bantering Books to read all my latest reviews.

3.5 stars

This is a tricky review to write.

Emily Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines has been one of my most anticipated Fall reads. And it would be a severe understatement to say I was merely thrilled to receive the ARC. “Joyfully ecstatic” may be a more accurate descriptor. I may have even done a little happy dance upon its receipt. (Don’t judge.)

But now that I’ve finished reading it, I’m a bit uncertain as to how I truly feel about the book. My thoughts are all sort of jumbled, contradictory, and complicated.

I absolutely loved certain aspects of the novel, exactly as I expected. But much to my surprise, I found other facets to be slightly disappointing.

Let’s see if I can break it all down for you.

Plain Bad Heroines is a story within a story within a story, with all the aforementioned stories being told through two separate narratives – one set in 1902 and the other set in the present day.

The novel first takes us back to 1902, introducing us to The Brookhants School for Girls, where the current obsession of the students is a memoir by the scandalous young writer, Mary MacLane. The intense MacLane fanaticism causes the girls to establish their own club, The Plain Bad Heroine Society. But when three girls are subsequently found dead on the School’s grounds, all with a copy of the memoir in their possession, Brookhants’ Headmistress, Libbie, and her partner, Alex, begin to wonder whether the school is cursed – and whether the MacLane memoir could be the source of the school’s troubles.

More than one hundred years later, Brookhants is left vacant and decaying. But it is back in the public eye, thanks to the hit novel of Merritt Emmons. The novel, telling the tale of the haunted and cursed school, is so successful that it is quickly adapted into a provocative horror film starring “It Girl,” Harper Harper (Not a typo. Her name really is Harper Harper. There’s a story behind it.), and former child star, Audrey Wells.

But as Brookhants welcomes both a movie set and a new group of Plain Bad Heroines through its gates, the line between curse and Hollywood rapidly blurs. And the three young heroines soon find themselves struggling to separate reality from horror-movie magic.

Unequivocally, Plain Bad Heroines is an ambitious novel. And to Danforth’s credit, she has created an engrossing, highly inventive, and multilayered story. History, feminism, gothic horror, sapphic love, and playful humor are all masterfully entangled by her amazing storytelling.

The novel, however, takes patience. Being 600 pages in length, it’s loooong. And the problem is, you feel it’s length. It’s noticeable. And while some parts of the story fly by, with the pages turning quickly – there are sizable chunks of the novel where the narrative plods along way too slowly. Particularly, in the middle. There are unnecessary scenes that could have been cut, and necessary scenes that could have been shortened. I appreciate the fact that Danforth never rushes the story, but I do think it would have served the novel well to have been slimmed down a bit.

Danforth’s writing style is also a bit quirky and wordy. She tells the story through the voice of an anonymous omniscient narrator, which, while cleverly entertaining at times, often comes across as forced and a little clunky. But beauty is prevalent in her words, too, and Danforth knows how to write an eloquent turn of phrase.

And I feel I should note that as with so many of the horror novels I’ve read this year, Plain Bad Heroines isn’t very scary. It’s atmospheric and creepy, and there are a few scenes of stomach-churning disgust. But scary? Not so much.

Now, on to the dual storylines.

Of the two, I found the 1902 narrative surrounding Libbie and Alex to be far more compelling. It’s dark and spooky. It’s gothic and mysterious. The pace is quicker. It’s just more riveting, all the way around. And it culminates in a thrilling and satisfying conclusion.

The modern-day narrative, however, is from where my disappointment in the novel stems. Harper, Audrey, and Merritt are all interesting characters, but their storyline is soooo sluggish for the first half of the novel. The tempo of their story does dramatically pick up once filming of the movie commences, though, and from that point forward, an underlying current of foreboding slowly begins to build.

And the foreboding builds . . . and builds . . . and builds, straight through to the end . . . and just when you think you are in for a massively huge, climactic conclusion involving Harper, Audrey, and Merritt –

The novel sputters and fizzles out.

Oh, something bad happens in relation to the three young women. But it’s not bad enough. It’s not very startling or shocking. Or heartbreaking. It’s a complete and utter letdown.

Plus, the ending to the trio’s story fails to ever wrap back around to the 1902 storyline. Like, at all. There is no overlap, no final intersection or connection of the two narratives. Nothing ever comes full circle, and we are left with quite a few unanswered questions about what transpired during the filming of the movie.

And sadly, I now wonder what even was the point of the storyline involving Harper, Audrey, and Merritt. Because I clearly am missing it. The entire book has been swirling around in my head for the last day, and I am still unable to discern the reason for their story. I don’t understand why it needed to be told, when it ends the way that it ends.

In hindsight, I believe the book, as a whole, would have worked better had the modern-day storyline simply been eliminated. Or perhaps the two narratives would have both been more successful had they been written as a duology of separate novels.

I know that my criticism of Plain Bad Heroines may make it seem as if I failed to enjoy it. But that’s not the case. I did enjoy it, and I do not regret one hour of the many, many hours I spent reading it.

Do I recommend it? Yes. My recommendation is just not an effusive one.

My sincerest appreciation to William Morrow and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy. All opinions included herein are my own.

Bantering Books
Profile Image for karen.
3,979 reviews170k followers
June 2, 2022


oooh, goodreads choice awards finalist for best horror 2020! what will happen?




when i first heard about this book; that it was a gothic-toned victorian private school story set in RHODE ISLAND with lesbians and mysterious deaths and stories-within-stories, i knew it was a must-read for me.

and once i got my hands on it, i fell into it like

it was everything i was told it was gonna be, but also more, becoming bigger and more meta, the story splintering in ways i hadn't anticipated.

and while i was reading it, i absolutely loved it, but i'm not really sure what i took away from it, if that makes any sense. i loved the journey of it, but it feels unconcluded (which is a different thing than something being inconclusive), and i'm not certain it left me with anything other than the experience of completing a long, fun book. which is not a bad thing, but it makes it difficult to consider the book as a forest instead of a series of perfectly nice trees.

this novel is long and layered. it's a book about the making of a film adapted from a book about a book, during which process the film itself becomes a film about the making of a film. set across three time periods, it's full of women in love: the doomed teen romance between clara and flo, the slightly less-doomed romance between alex and libbie, and the "it's complicated" modern romance between merritt and harper, with audrey on their periphery. there are also plenty of supporting characters and a footnote-mad omniscient narrator commenting on the events, inserting their own jabby asides along the way.

there are wasps and jealousies and seances, there's obsession and truman capote and the price of fame, there's a perilous staircase leading to a middle finger of a tower, there are secrets and secrets and secrets. also: there's some artwork.

so, you see, it is a lot.

and it's entertaining as hell, even though it doesn't really resolve into anything beyond an enjoyable romp. which is enough, especially these days. it's a fast read to fall into, and only medium-spooky unless you have an insect thing, in which case you'll be terrified.

a personal note about Mary MacLane, whose book I Await the Devil's Coming features prominently here. i remember seeing her book at st. marks bookstore when it was reissued as part of melville house's neversink series,

but i ended up buying something else because i'm not super into nonfiction, which i now regret because it's out of print and st. marks is closed and everything ends and i guess i'm partially to blame.

*update: it's still available through melville house, so support 'em if you can, and if reading this book made you curious about reading her book. but if you're "an impressionable female," bewaaaaaaare!

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Lex Kent.
1,682 reviews8,718 followers
October 18, 2020
This is such an oddball book. I think enjoyment wise I’m around a 3.50 star rating, but the imagination Danforth has to even come up with this story is so impressive that I have to give it the full 4 stars. This book is weird but it is also completely different and unlike anything else I have read before which I always appreciate it. The book is also super gay which really helps.

First of all, I was surprised that this book was not what I thought it would be about. I thought this was going to be YA gothic horror that takes place at an all-girls boarding school. Nope, I was wrong about that. This is Danforth’s first adult novel and it is actually a celebrity triangle romance, mixed with horror. Yes there are scenes that go to the early 1900’s about adults working at the school, but these adults hardly even enter said school.

I need to talk about the writing style first since it is different. It is written with an omniscient narrator. I can’t remember the last time I read a book like that, it has been a while. Danforth is descriptive and honestly a bit wordy at times. This book is big at 650 pages supposedly, although my Kindle was acting like its closer to 800. Surprisingly, there were actual footnotes that made the book even longer. Some notes seemed really unnecessary and a waste of time -especially since my Kindle kept trying to turn the page instead of opening the note- but others were pretty interesting so in the end I kind of liked them. What I will say is that all of these stylistic choices combined, made it so that it took me a while to get into this book. I did not like the beginning of the book and I was worried for a while. It took until about the 25% mark that I really found myself comfortable and connected to the story. But, I do have to say that the book did feel too long and dragged a bit at times. I would have chopped some parts for sure and funny enough I would have actually extended a few scenes like the ending.

I mentioned already that this book was wonderfully gay and it really was. There are two bisexual and one lesbian main character. Then there is a lesbian and bisexual(?) main-secondary characters, and plenty of other lesbian and gay secondary characters. However, I was very surprised to find that I didn’t care for a lot of the characters. I didn’t dislike or hate them but I was having trouble finding characters that I really liked and cared about. In fact the two women who lived in the early 1900’s, I never really connected too. When it comes to the three modern mains, one comes off very plastic, one sweet, and the other just mean. The mean one actually won me over which I think was a testament to Danforth’s writing.

Celebrity romances are a trope favorite of mine so I loved the potential here. There ended up being a bit of an f-f-f triangle and while I won’t tell you how the romance ends, it ended up being one of my favorite story choices Danforth made. But you do need to remember that this horror so there is not a ton of time for romance, but what is there I enjoyed.

Speaking of horror, I do have to admit that I was disappointed that I didn’t get as scared as I was hoping for. There are plenty of creepy and gross scenes, and even depressing horror scenes -I mean like bad things happening to people- but I don’t think I was ever “oh crap” kind of scared.

This is a book that I would recommend to some people. You have to be open to a different writing style and okay with a big book that takes time to get into. If you like celebrity romances that will help, but you also have to be prepared for a horror book were messed up things happen and happen pretty often. Like I mentioned before, I appreciate this book a bit more than my overall enjoyment, but there were parts I really enjoyed and this is a book I won’t soon forget.

An ARC was given to me for an honest review.
Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,204 reviews40.8k followers
July 22, 2021
Oh holly hell!Claustrophobic haunted school theme dances with queer gothic! This is one of the best unique, heart pounding and addictive concept!
But I honestly have to admit as soon as I saw the page numbers of the book, I want to drop the book and run. Don’t get me wrong: normally long paged books are great challenge for a person for me who read Stephen King’s Stand three times which weights more than a bundle of encyclopedias!

Actually my main problem was about working too hard lately and my head is so close to get explode because of extra usage of grey cells.

But literary gods answered my prayers because this book worths every grey cell I fry! There are some books look long but when you get into story you don’t count the page numbers, you just get lost in the chapters and you wish it never ends! Thankfully this book is one of them and I was so pleased to enjoy each stories and multiple characters.

It takes place in two time lines which was challenging thing to combine the stories and varied characters’ sub stories with perfect balance but the author did a marvelous job
One of the stories sets in Rhode Island’s Brookhant’s School for girls: centered around Flo and Clara who are obsessed with Mary MacLane’s memoir- the young girl who were electrified when she was only 19 and named her memoir as “I await the devil’s coming”, founders of the badass and dangerous girls’ club named Plain Bad Heroines Society. And at the present time, two young queer actresses making movie about the school and honorary members of club: Flo and Clara as an author joined them whose book written about the school has been adapted into script.

Well, I have to admit I loved the haunted, gothic high school and bad girls’ club theme more than the filmmakers’ present time chapters. If this book has been taken place in 1902 and it could be only about the creepy boarding school, I never hesitate to read even though it was more than thousand pages.

That story carries fantastic horrifying Halloween theme and I scared, I jumped and I screamed during those parts! It was scary, smart, entertaining, mind spinning queer gothic meets dark comedy book which I loved more than I expected!

I wish there were more Brookhant’s parts so I could give five stars. But I’m still giving four impressive boarding school theme, unputdownable, great choice for Halloween week stars!

Special thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins Publishers/ William Morrow for sharing this reviewer digital copy with me in exchange my honest thoughts.
January 23, 2023
| | blog | tumblr | ko-fi | |

2 ½ stars

Readers, I am disappointed.

Plain Bad Heroines was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases...maybe I should have not ‘hyped’ it so much. This is certainly an ambitious novel, one that is a few hundred pages too long. There were elements that I liked, but these were ultimately outweighed by my frustration toward the tone of the narrative, the dual storylines, and the characters.
Plain Bad Heroines begins at Brookhants School in 1902 when two students, Clara and ‘Flo’, who happen to be lovers are swallowed by “a fog of wasps”. Another death soon rocks the school, and all of the girls shared a fascination for Mary MacLane’s work (The Story of Mary Maclane & I Await the Devil's Coming). The narrator playfully reminds us of their presence with plenty of direct addresses, footnotes, and asides. We do not know the identity of the narrator, but they posses an almost omniscient knowledge of the events they are recounting.
In the present three young women—all in their twenties—work on a film adaptation on a book called ‘The Happenings at Brookhants’. The book was written by one of these girls, Merritt (a character whom I lowkey hated) who happens to know Elaine Brookhants. Then we have Harper Harper, an up and coming actress/influencer whose personality revolves around her celebrity status, who will play Flo, and Audrey Wells (I actually had to check out her name as I could not remember it on top of my head...that’s how memorable she was) the daughter of a ‘scream queen’ who so far has an acted in B movies and ads.
The section set in the present doesn’t involve these three girls bonding or finding more about what happened at Brookhants. We are never told very much about Merritt’s book, so we don’t know how much they know about the whole affair. This timeline is also not all that concerned with filmmaking. What this storyline cares about is famous people: how they are followed by journalists or fans, how their lives revolve around instagram, how little privacy they have, and of their self-fashioning ways. The three girls do not really along. Their meeting, which happens quite a good chunk into this slow burner of a novel, reads like something that belongs in the realms ofGossip Girl or Scream Queens. And here I was hoping for an actual horror or at least something in realms of American Horror Story (the first seasons of course).
Our not-as-half-as-amusing-as-they-think-they-are narrator never really delves into these characters. It mostly describes what they are saying or doing. It focuses more on their ‘role’ (Harper=celebrity, Audrey=daughter of an 80s horror actress, Merritt=not like other girls writer). Their personalities are...kind of not there. Merritt is the only one with a semblance of one, and it ain’t a good one. The narrative tries really hard to establish Merritt’s ‘prickly’ personality (in a few occasion Merritt says or asks something generic and we are told “Merrit said like Merritt would” or “Merrit asked like Merritt would”). She’s petty, cruel, and domineering. She’s given a Sad Backstory™, so Readers are meant to let her behaviour slide. Except that this Reader could and would not. She seems blissfully unaware of her own privilege (she’s in her early twenties and has published a book, her mother teaches at a university and she has access to the library there, they are adapting her book and want her to be part of the process). She’s also not ‘plain’ looking. Her hair is pink because she’s Not Like Other Girls™ (a random character tells her she has “great fucking hair”) and she is also called hot by Harper. Yet, throughout the course of the book, Merritt acts like a fifteen-year-old girl who is spending too much time on Tumblr. Her pettiness is unwarranted and uncalled for, her jealousy is also over the top (she's only just met Harper and she already jealous at the possibility of Audrey working alongside her...yet she knows that Harper is already in an open relationship).
Harper is also not plain. She’s famous, beloved, and uber cool. She has short hair, tattoos, smokes, and rides a bike. And of course, she also has a Sad Backstory™. The story mentions some family-related drama, but this a thread that is never truly resolved. Her motivations, desires, fears...who knows? I sure don’t. Maybe she likes Merritt? Maybe not?
While Audrey may not be plain looking, her personality is definitely plain. She doesn’t seem to possess any discernible traits.
Anyway, these three ‘work’ together (there are actually very few scenes that take place while they are working on the film sadly) and weird things start happening (we have wasps, weird weather, and a general heebie jeebies atmosphere).

The storyline set in the past had much more potential. Sadly, it doesn’t focus on Clara or Flo (their lives prior to their peculiar deaths of course) or Brookhants but rather it follows the headmistress of the school who lives in a house nicknamed ‘Spite Manor’. She lives with her lover, who also teaches at Brookhants. This timeline was definitely more Gothic, and there were scenes that struck me as quite atmospheric and well-executed. Sadly however the relationship between the two women was a let down, as it never struck me as the complex love story I was hoping for. Creepy things begin to happen, and they begin to grow apart. The deaths of three of their pupils forces them to question whether the ‘supernatural’ is to be blamed.

I was hoping for a Gothic love story, with some horror undertones. What we actually get is a work that is extremely meta. Some may find the narrator to be amusing, I mostly didn’t. The mystery is the most disappointing aspect of the whole book. It was very anticlimactic, as we simply get a chapter in which our narrator explains things to us. Flo, Clara, and the other girl are unimportant, they function as the Dead Girl trope. We don't learn anything more about them after the 20% mark or so nor do we learn more about the book Merritt has written about them.
The storyline set in the present never reaches its apotheosis. Nothing major happens, there is no overlapping between the two timelines.
While I loved to see so many queer women, the relationships they have with one another are...a let down. Mean Girls ahoy. We have Merritt who says things like “Significant eye roll” or scenes in which characters take selfies, duplies, even quadruplies (uuuugh). More attention is paid to their hair and clothes than their actual personalities. Harper and Merritt begin flirting as soon as they meet, and later on, when there are more scenes of them together, they mostly bicker. They are sort of physically attracted to each other, but there is no real connection between them (I craved longing, passion, LOVE).
The creepy elements...aren't all that creepy? If you have spheksophobia you might find this book scary...I mean, wasps do not inspire any real fear in me (I don't like them, they strike me as kind of mean, in fact, I love CalebCity's sketch on them). Mary's writing is extremely camp and I just found it silly. While I could see why the girls back in the 1900s could be enthralled by it...I had a harder time believing that Merritt or Harper could find it as compelling.

Perhaps I approached this book with the wrong expectations (I saw Sarah Waters’ name on the cover so…) but Plain Bad Heroines was not the Gothic novel I was hoping it to be. The 'past' timeline was far from being a satisfying historical tale of paranormal suspense (I was hoping for something on the lines of Picnic at Hanging Rock meets A Great and Terrible Beauty). On the plus side: at least it was very sapphic. I also liked the illustrations by Sara Lautman (I wish there had been more) and the chapter names could be kind funny.

Anyway, just because I didn’t think that this book was the bees knees (or perhaps I should say wasps knees) doesn’t mean that you won’t love it as it may as well be your cup of tea.
Profile Image for connie.
1,341 reviews77 followers
Want to read
August 11, 2020
i'm bi and i'm ready for murder



That cover? Sexy. Unbelievably so. Incredible. Emily M. Danforth I would commit a minor crime to receive an arc copy of this. Please respond.

2nd Edit:



3rd edit:

not to brag but uhhhhhhhh i got approved to read this on netgalley >:)
Profile Image for Baba Yaga Reads.
112 reviews1,534 followers
November 24, 2020
If someone had told me that this sapphic horror-comedy set in a cursed boarding school would have turned out to be one my most disappointing reads of the year, I probably wouldn’t have believed them. But after all, this is 2020, and there is no limit to how much the world can let you down.

Plain Bad Heroines is a very ambitious novel, and in true dark academia fashion, its ambition also constitutes its fatal flaw. Right from the beginning the writing struck me as self-indulgent and pretentious, as if the author was desperately trying to appear both cultured (the constant name-dropping and overabundance of literary references got really old really fast) and “hip with the kids”, as evidenced by the endless mentions of social media, tweets, Instagram comments and other aspects of internet culture. The story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator, whose over-the-top voice and commentary I found especially grating. In general, every paragraph is egregiously overwritten, filled with wordy descriptions of mundane things that kill the pacing because Danforth uses ten words when one would suffice.

Every once in a while the narrator would break the fourth wall to say something like “I know that you, reader, must be on the edge of your seat right now”, which wasn’t just eyeroll-inducing but also unintentionally hilarious because at no point was there any narrative tension. The entire time I was reading, it felt like I was waiting for the plot to start. We follow two alternate timelines that never intersect, making this narrative choice seem pointless and gratuitously complex. Neither storyline has a satisfying conclusion, but the one set in the present felt especially flimsy and weak to me. Not only is there no climax*, the characters themselves don’t evolve in any meaningful way. Our so-called plain bad heroines (who are, nevertheless, described as conventionally attractive and very successful for their young age) witness a series of incidents whose purpose and impact on them remains largely unclear. They don’t experience any growth or inner crisis, making the unsettling events they go through seem like a poor excuse for character development.

Which brings me to my last, and perhaps most vehement, complaint about this book: the general lack of substance. With its gloomy setting, occult imagery, and heavy-handed literary references, Plain Bad Heroines does its very best to look deep and layered; but once you start scratching the surface, you realize there’s nothing underneath.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand in fiction, it’s empty symbolism: evocative, recurring imagery that seems to have a hidden meaning, but is ultimately hollow. And this book is filled to the brim with empty symbols: from the omnipresent wasps (you thought the author was going to make a parallel with WASP culture and the way it enforced puritanical social norms in America? think again), to the constant references to Mary MacLane’s works, every image conjured by the writing is suggestive yet shallow. In the end, the gothic aesthetic really is just that: a mere aesthetic.

*Just to give you an idea of how frustrating this book is: the one steamy sex scene is interrupted halfway through and never resumed. A travesty.
Profile Image for Katie B.
1,294 reviews2,965 followers
October 8, 2020
This might not have been a 5 star read for me but the author definitely has writing talent. A unique storyteller for sure. However, the pace was a little slow in my opinion and I do think the 600+ page count could have been trimmed down.

The story is told in an interesting way as you are being talked to and referred to as the reader throughout. (I'm not explaining that very well, but you'll understand what I mean if you read the book) The Brookhants School for Girls closed for good in the early 1900s after some mysterious deaths on the property. Merritt Weaver wrote a book about the creepy history of the school and now a horror movie is set to be made based on her book. The story will bounce back and forth between the past in which you get the backstory about what happened at the school a century ago and the present day following Merritt and two actresses.

I always have to give myself a pep talk when tackling a book that has more than 400 pages. It's a bit of a time commitment, and the older I get, the more I value my time. Pretty soon after I started reading this book, I thought this might be an unusual but cool reading experience with the clever writing, random footnotes, and occasional illustrations. And for the most part that turned out to be true but I just don't feel like I got as much as I wanted to out of this book.

At the 100 page mark, then the 200, and even at 300, I kept wondering why it felt like the story hadn't progressed all that much. It was this strange combination of being interesting and yet boring at the same time. I think part of the problem was too much witty commentary that really wasn't necessarily even if it was amusing at times. And while things get moving more in the last third of the book, by that time I was mentally checked out.

For me this was more of a creepy read rather than a sleep with the lights on type horror book. Despite some of my issues with the execution, I in no way regret reading it. I appreciate the author's creativity and how she was able to build a story around the real life memoir by Mary MacLane. That memoir was published in the early 1900s and was considered controversial due to the feminist ideas and Sapphic love themes in the book.

I won a free advance copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. All views expressed are my honest opinion.
Profile Image for megs_bookrack.
1,540 reviews9,835 followers
January 22, 2023

I feel like I want to read it again. Is that crazy?

I read it just over a year ago, but already feel like I need to be reunited with these characters and Danforth's captivating writing style.


Plain Bad Heroines is admittedly weird, but I love weird if it's done right. This was pretty damn well done!!!

Yesss, Emily M. Danforth! I see you.

I'm not even going to attempt to write a full review for this. I'm just going to let it sit in my brain and fester...
Profile Image for Melissa ♥ Dog/Wolf Lover ♥ Martin.
3,470 reviews9,635 followers
August 23, 2021
A smooth-stingered yellow jacket can and will sting you multiple times.

And thousands of vengeful, broken-homed yellow jackets stinging you multiple times?

Well, I was excited to get this book from my used book store but now I wished I didn’t use my trade credit, but I’ll get some back when I trade it in!

I loved the hell out of the beginning and I thought this was going to be the tone for the whole book… but no! I ended up skim finishing it after awhile. I was throughly bored. I just wanted to read about the three girls in the beginning. I wasn’t interested in the other people or the rest of the storyline.

I’m mad because the book itself is beautiful. I do love how it was written inside and the illustrations. I loved the yellow jackets through-out the book. I don’t like them in real life, honey bees and bumble bees yes, wasps and yellow jackets no!

Anyhoo, a lot of my friends love this book and I’m really happy they did, I just wish I could have too. I was going to stain the edges and everything. Oh well, you can’t love them all! Sigh……

Mel 🖤🐶🐺🐾
Profile Image for Ellie.
575 reviews2,121 followers
October 31, 2020
this was actually not the dark academia story I expected upon starting, but it was something even better: the spooky sapphic story of my dreams (or nightmares, you choose).

full review to come - there's so much to discuss within this solid 600 page tome. also thank you to this book for filling the gaping black hole left by the haunting of bly manor . . . by providing me with more horror and bucketloads of sapphic content

> 4.5 stars

this was a buddy read with Kelsea but she betrayed me and read the entire 600 page book in two days

thank you to the publishers for gifting me with a copy in exchange for an honest review! <3
Profile Image for Blaine.
749 reviews613 followers
November 23, 2021
“Even now, even with the book written, she’s still embarrassed by how messy and fleshy it is when I forget to keep it only in the past for her. The stink of it has her wrinkling her nose. That’s history for you, my darlings. When you dig it up, it always carries a whiff of rot.”
That version, as with so many of the stories we tell about our history, erased a woman—a plain, bad heroine—in favor of a less messy and more palatable yarn about two feuding brothers from New England.
Dear Reader, I’ve spent a week trying to wrap my mind around this book, Plain Bad Heroines. There’s so much going in this meta-fictional sapphic gothic horror satire that I think I need some headings to break down my thoughts:

The Haunted Past, Brookhants, 1902: Half of this novel takes place a little over a hundred years ago at The Brookhants School for Girls, a Rhode Island boarding school. Flo and Clara are in love, and obsessed with a real-life writer named Mary MacLane, who at age 19 published a shocking, sex- and queer-positive memoir called I Await the Devil’s Coming that became a national bestseller and scandal. Flo and Clara’s love for each other, and that book, ultimately lead to their deaths—by a swarm of yellow jackets!—in the novel’s opening pages. But the half of the novel set in the past isn’t really about Flo and Clara. It’s about the effect their deaths have on the rest of Brookhants, especially a fellow student named Eleanor Faderman, the school’s Principal, Libbie Brookhants, and her wife-in-all-but-name, Alex Trills. Each of their stories is moving and, in its own way, tragic.

The Haunted Present, Los Angeles and Brookhants, the Present: The other half of this novel takes place in the present, revolving primarily around three, 20-something queer women. Merritt Emmons has written a book called The Happenings at Brookhants, which tells (some of) the story of what took place at Brookhants with Flo and Clara over a hundred years before. A horror movie is being made based upon that book starring “celesbian”-on-the-rise Harper Harper (think early career Lindsay Lohan or Kristen Stewart) as Flo, and former child actor Audrey Wells as Clara. Each of these characters—prickly Merritt, flirty, magnetic Harper, and insecure Audrey—is crisply drawn. The tension between them (sexual and otherwise), and the especially well-written dialogue between them, drives a significant portion of this half of the book.

The Endings, Then and Now: So, with two timelines, Plain Bad Heroines really has two endings, each with a very different feel. The timeline in the past ends with some big horror novel/movie reveals that reshape the reader’s understanding of the story. This portion of the ending feels a little bit rushed, and there’s one small piece that I’m still not sure I understand (I won’t spoil it, but you don’t have to read many other reviews to find it), but it’s satisfying in a familiar way. The timeline in the present, meanwhile, concludes in a surprisingly open-ended fashion. Rather than the usual fight or flight choices given to people in a horror novel/movie, the surviving characters appear to craft their own third path. This unexpected ending seems to be a more acquired taste, and dissatisfaction with it seems to have driven some of the lower ratings for this book. I’ll say this though, if this ending was designed in order to allow for another story with these characters, I’d be delighted.

The Narrator, Whoever She(?) May Be: Plain Bad Heroines has a distinctive, delightful narrator. Never explicitly named, the narrator is her(?) own character, deliberately telling this story in a wonderfully conversational manner. Wry, funny, occasionally a bit ominous, she(?) adds to the meta-fictional nature of the novel and draws the reader conspiratorially into the story:
You could have traced a line from those six words to Merritt’s clitoris. Too much, Readers? I was hoping that we’d come to a place in our relationship where you’d allow it.
Bonus marks to the performer of the audiobook, Xe Sands, who does an excellent job throughout, but most especially with the narrator and Harper.

Themes and Motifs: The 1902 timeline is Gothic in the extreme, with thickets and fog, creepy servants, a possibly haunted apple orchard, and a building known as Spite Tower. The present timeline incorporates all of the same locations, and many of the same unsettling objects, none more so than the ever-present, always buzzing yellow jackets. But this book is not just horror for horror’s sake. Plain Bad Heroines is about something, specifically the way history tends to erase or minimize the women involved, especially if those women are queer women. Nearly every character of note in this book is a queer woman (and the most visible man in the story, Bo the movie’s Director, is a gay man seemingly inspired by Ryan Murphy). This refreshing distinction, and the fact that these different characters are so different aside from their sexual orientation, highlights the breadth of the queer experience.

A Key Question: Is Plain Bad Heroines Scary?: If you are frightened by yellow jackets (or allergic to them, or just have common sense), there are a lot of parts of this book that will creep you out. But even before the characters began talking about the movie The Blair Witch Project, I had thought to myself that reading this book was like watching that movie. I first saw it in a quiet theatre, where everyone bought in, nobody cracked jokes, and by the end everyone was shaken up. But I have friends who went where people were cracking jokes, and the whole movie played like a joke. So, I think the scariness of this book is largely up to you. If you settle into the story, and let it work its way into you, it’s absolutely unnerving and a bit scary. If you keep the story at an emotional distance, it probably won’t be. But what’s the fun in that?

No Dear Reader, Plain Bad Heroines Is Not Too Long: Plain Bad Heroines is a long book, clocking in at 640 pages (though some of that length is due to illustrations). But I never felt that the book was dragging, even with the digressions within digressions in this story. In many ways, this novel reminded me of one of my all-time favorites, Stephen King’s classic novel It. The story in both books alternate between scenes in the past and those in the present, often with similarities or echoes between the events in each timeline. But more relevant here, both books are criticized as being too long. And sure, both books could be shorter and tell the same plot. But to what end? If you are enjoying the story and the storyteller, then the longer (actual) version of these novels adds a great deal of depth to the characterization, as well as rich detail to the story being told. Yes, the story meanders, goes on tangents, and tells stories within stories. So much the better.

Conclusion: As it may be the first of its kind, I can say without a doubt that Plain Bad Heroines is the greatest meta-fictional sapphic gothic horror satire of all time. But seriously, I loved this book. It’s completely original, and has a great narrative voice. It made me want to read Mary MacLane’s memoir. I want to know what happens next between the surviving characters. I would definitely watch the fictional movie they’re making, or a real movie/tv show based on this novel. I want to read this book again, despite all those buzzing, stinging yellow jackets, to better appreciate all of its moving parts. Give it a chance, Dear Readers. Turn down the lights, settle into the story, and let it work its way into you. You won’t be sorry. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Lisa Lynch.
443 reviews242 followers
November 26, 2020
I have never read a book more egregiously miscategorized as horror than Emily M. Danforth's Plain Bad Heroines. This ain't horror, its romance with a side of drama... and I didn't like it.

Here's why.

1: Plain Bad Heroines is unnecessarily long. This book clocks in at a hefty 619 pages and I would argue that a good 200 of those pages could have been trimmed out of it. I mean, we spend SO MUCH TIME on little, unimportant details that, honestly, just aren't very interesting and don't impact the narrative. There are entire chapters and scenes that really needed to be reworked or removed entirely as they didn't develop the characters or the plot and added no new relevant information.

Every scene, every string of dialogue, and every thought or reflection overstays its welcome. I think a lot of the excess detail was Danforth's attempt to immerse the reader in the world. However, it ended up having the opposite effect on me.

Now I know what "drowning in the details" feels like.

Because the length of this book was palpable and I swear to god it got heavier and heavier each time I picked it up.

2a: The comedy didn't work for me. The front flap of this book calls it a "...horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls-- a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit."

Imho, the words horror, comedy, and whimsical are all incredibly inaccurate words to describe this book. Some more apt choices would be: romance, drama, and boring.

So, I've said it before and I'll say it again, it takes a deft hand to weave horror and comedy together. I was hopeful when I went in to Plain Bad Heroines that the funny parts would not be stupid one liners and quips between characters like I typically find in horror-comedy. Instead, I expected this to be more intelligent and satirical.

Yeah, it's definitely not.

Nothing actually funny happens in this book and all of the "comedy" does, in fact, come from one liners and quips of dialogue.

And the narrator...

2b: The narrator in this book is painfully annoying. When the "comedy" isn't coming from dialogue between the characters, it is coming from commentary from this unnamed narrator. And, in an attempt to be cool and edgy and meta the narrator addresses the "Readers" personally. Not only that, but the narrator also makes a lot of assumptions about us Readers that just rubbed me the wrong way. Example:

But only-- and this is crucial to understanding Alexandria Trills' mindset, eye-rolling Readers-- because she knew that she and Libbie Packard were truly, truly in love. (p.309)

Like, I'm not rolling my eyes and YOU AREN'T AS FUNNY AS YOU THINK YOU ARE.

Just about everything the narrator says is meant to be funny, but it isn't. Its just a snarky attitude! And that snarky attitude is so obsessed with inserting itself into and interrupting the story that, and I'm not even kidding, there are footnotes included to give the narrator more (unnecessary) room to keep snarking.

And I didn't make this up either. I swear there is a part in this book, a footnote in fact, where the narrator interrupts the story TO LIE TO THE READER. And I just... I mean... I don't... like, WHY??

Speaking of footnotes...

2c: The footnotes aren't funny. They are stupid and unnecessary. Go ahead and skip them all, seriously. Nothing in them is important to the narrative and, instead, they are used by that annoying narrator in an attempt to insert some comedy. Example:

They plantified the lyrics to other Beyonce songs as they worked.* (Jump to footnote)

Come on flowers, now let's get in formation.
You know you're the shit when you need all that pollination
'Cause if you like it, then you probly should have watered it--
Don't be mad because you didn't fucking water it.

Yeah, they weren't great, Readers. Calm down about it. (p.386)

I am calm, so just stop, please, I'm begging you.

But do you see what I mean?? Why would I care that they are "plantifying" Beyonce lyrics? And why this so important to interrupt the narrative and make me read a footnote about it?

If the narrative voice was removed, I think I would have been able to make more of a connection with this story. However, between being addressed directly, being overloaded with small, insignificant details, and having to look for asterisks for the footnotes, I felt like the book itself was actively trying to distract me from the story. It was weird and tonally inconsistent and just not fun to read.

Also, the asterisks were super tiny in this book and I cannot tell you how many times I got to the end of a page, realized there was a footnote, and had to scan back through the text for the asterisks just for some stupid snarky quip or a joke that was more cringy than funny. It was infuriating!

And just because I want to, I'm going to add a few more examples of the "comedy" in this book for you to judge for yourself:

So now let's have at it, shall we? Really there can be no more keeping it from you. Let's do now talk about the striking, the stunning, the hot-damn-arch-eyed-strong-jawed-lip-stung-long-limbed-celesbian elephant in the room: the looks of one Harper Harper. I mean, everyone else is always talking about them. Why not Merritt? (And so why not me?) (p.145)


Those flopping volumes tangled in their feet-- Audrey's more than Harper's own-- and made Merritt say, "Could you both calm your tits, please?" (p.453)


...she said, "You look hot in my shirt," before walking away herself. You could have traced a line from those six words to Merritt's clitoris,* (jump to footnote)

*Too much, Readers? I was hoping that we'd come to a place in our relationship where you'd allow it. (p.508)

Like, NOW my eyes are rolling ffs! Also, why are you like this? Do you think it is cute and funny and cool? Cause its not... it's juvenile and embarrassing and not fun to read.

3: The plot of this book, which is actually fairly simple, is stretched so far over these tediously long, lingering scenes and this convoluted structure and all these unfunny jokes, that it becomes AN ABSOLUTE SLOG to push through.

Plain Bad Heroines has two different timelines. In the past, we follow Principal Libbie Brookhants as she handles the mysterious deaths of 3 students. In the future, we follow Harper, Merritt, and Audrey as they participate in making a movie about the Brookhants school and the deaths of those 3 girls.

So Danforth took this perfectly simple and interesting plot and did to it what women did to their hair in the 80's- teased it up to Jesus until it was unrecognizable and obnoxious and 100 times bigger than it really needed to be. It's almost tragic how mishandled this narrative is! I mean, between the insufferably unfunny narrator and the dual timelines and the switches between protagonists and the footnotes and the unnecessary chapters, I found myself wanting it to be over not 200 pages in. It was painful!

Oh, and I should also mention that Danforth does an exceptional job of showing me the LEAST interesting parts of this story. I mean, this is labeled as a horror novel, so you'd think we would see tons of spooky scenes in this old, Gothic school or perhaps some freaky stuff happening on set as they film the movie...

But no. Instead, we get far better descriptions of what Harper posts on social media than we do of anything scary. And I swear, there is only 1 scene of Audrey and Harper acting together and its BEFORE they even start production on the movie. So we literally see ZERO scenes of them working on this movie together.

4: The characters weren't dynamic and far too much of this book focused on their relationships instead of their actions. That is why I feel like this book would be better categorized as a romance or a drama. I never would have read this book if I had known how much of it is spent on bullshit like who has a crush on who and how they fell in love and feelings and whatnot. I just don't care about any of that!! I care about dead people and haunted schools and ghosts and movies.

And I wish I had more to say on character, but I finished this book this morning and I'm struggling to differentiate between the 3 main protagonists and it probably isn't due to memory. Its more that the characters were boring and unremarkable. Harper had a tattoo sleeve and smoked cigarettes. Merritt was a "prickly" bitch. Audrey had a famous mom. And that's really all I can tell you about these girls that is unique and interesting in the slightest.

5: Not only is this "comedy" not funny, but this "horror" is not scary!! Unless, maybe, you don't like bees. Most of the scenes that are supposed to be scary in this book (and there aren't many of them) are either encounters with bees or weird visions of "scary" things that aren't actually there. Towards the end, there are like two scenes where our characters are put in a contrived "scary" situation and it just felt obligatory and disingenuous by that point.

Calling this book horror is like calling Twilight horror ffs. You can't spend like 95% of a book on romance and personal relationships and drama then toss in a couple horror elements and call it horror. Especially when those horror elements are so poorly and ineffectively done.

6: There is no climax* (see footnote at the bottom of this review) and the end of the book is not worth the tedious journey. I'm honestly shocked at how abruptly this book shifts from rising action to conclusion.

The BIG REVEAL at the end (which I won't spoil) was about Brookhants and all the whos and whys of it being kinda haunted. And I guess all the answers were satisfactory with that timeline, but I really didn't think this was what we were building up to.

And then the current timeline with Harper and Merritt and Audrey basically cuts to black and all of a sudden THE END. We get so many unnecessary detail about every little thing in this book, why oh why was so little put into the end?? Why did we spend so much time with these girls for the only change to happen to them is now they are all in love. Like, what??? I feel cheated!

The Positives:
1) The writing, at times, was nice.
2) I appreciate the queer representation.
3) The artwork is cool.

I rated Emily M. Danforth's Plain Bad Heroines 2 out of 5 stars. Not a lot of this book worked for me, so my rating is on the low end. If I'm being honest, than this is probably a 3 star book, but I just can't bring myself to click on that third star.

I might return to this review at some point and try to put it together a bit better. I feel like this book did something to my brain and I'm not so sure a lot of what I've said has made sense. But, these are my (somewhat jumbled) thoughts for the moment. I cannot wait to slam dunk this one back into the return bin at the library.

You might like this if you like: slow burns, drama, and horror that isn't very scary.

*The narrator would have inserted some stupid joke here. Also, see how annoying it is to look at footnotes for a dumb joke?
1,534 reviews
September 3, 2020
I DNF at 50%.

I couldn't do it anymore. This needed some serious editing. For this being labelled as a sapphic tale of hauntings, the "dark atmosphere" and full cast of characters did not hold my interest long enough to want to keep reading. Maybe it gets better in the second half, I won't know.

Told in two time periods about two sets of girls, who are all lesbians (maybe bi? I'm not sure about Audrey to be honest), there is a something sinister going on and it's all tied to this boarding school and this tell-all novel written by a 19 year old in 1900 about her desires for the ladies. I was all about this. I wanted a good boarding school creepy adventure with some love triangle lesbians. This sounded amazing. This is not what I got.

1902: Clara and Flo have a secret love, they create the bad heroines club and go out to the woods to read the diary and make out. Until they accidentally disturb the yellow jackets underground nest and are killed. This causes a stir of issues, including the fact that a fellow girl gets the book, reads it, and ends up dying by eating a poisonous plant. Once these three are dead the story switches to the relationship between the headmistress and her lover (who is also a woman and a teacher at the school) and some craziness occurs to them.

Present day. Three girls. Merritt wrote "The Haunting of Brookhants" which is about the strange deaths and goings on at the boarding school. She is filled with anxiety, has absent parents, and spends most of her time with the current owner of Brookhants. She can't seem to have a normal relationship but wants to make out with Harper Harper. Harper Harper is a famous actress who is in the social eye all the time. She's had a string of partners but her current one seems to be sticking around. She's an artist and believes in open love, so she doesn't mind that Harper Harper goes and makes out with Merritt or is seen kissing her, at least that's what we're told. Harper Harper has a troubling background and a best friend that wants to do drugs all the time, but she's a serious actress so she's going to focus on her career. Audrey has some serious issues. Her mom was a big movie star for a few years, but has faded from the limelight. This has caused her mom to push Audrey into acting, though she's only had bit parts, and breaks down whenever Audrey doesn't want to do what she wants. It's really disturbing. In all of this, there aren't redeeming characteristics for any of them. Either way, they're all going to go to Brookhants and create a movie.

I think I would have kept reading and be more invested in this, if it wasn't for the goddamn narrator. The narrator constantly interjects their own thoughts, and they know what's going to happen, so there are all these side comments about things to come but then we're told to wait and see. The constant referring to "Readers" to try and pull them into the story only forced me to step back. (And a peeve of mine is when authors use readers plural instead of reader singular, because I'm not reading this with multiple people, it's just me, but that's a personal preference.) Also, the narrator has all these footnotes (which are a pain to read on an ebook) but none of these footnotes have anything to do with the goddamn story. I don't need to be told to remember a character's name when you've only mentioned 4 people so far. I don't care about the crop life of the local orchard, or your opinion of Roman Polanski. None of this did anything but pull me out of the story. I started skipping them because I knew they weren't going to add anything, but in one page there were 5 footnotes! If you have something you think is relevant to the story just write it in! If it's not relevant to the story but your opinion, leave it out!

I have spent a month trying to read this, complaining the entire time, and at 50% of the way through it can't hold my interest or make me want to finish it, so I'm going to thank Net Galley and the publisher for giving me a copy and I'm sorry this wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Beverly.
807 reviews290 followers
November 1, 2020
Brilliant dual stories of doomed girls haunted by an ancient curse

Emily Danforth has a huge imagination to come up with this story revolving around a girls' school in Rhode Island. Beginning with the tragic death of two girls who were lovers and were about to be broken apart by the prejudice and small minded ideas of the early 1900s, the story then jumps to the present day and the making of a film about said girls.

The author of the book about the girls and their haunted school, Merritt, and the two actors chosen for the roles of Clara and Flo are Audrey (a bit of a has been) and Harper (a meteoric young star), together they set out to tell the sad story of Brookhants and the weird deaths surrounding it.

The only caveat I have with this multilayered, rich story is the abbreviated ending and the feeling I carried with me throughout that all the girls and women in the book are being punished for their lesbianism. Haven't we gotten past that yet?
Profile Image for Jenny Lawson.
Author 9 books17.2k followers
January 21, 2021
Enjoyable and creepy and meta. It was like reading a season of American Horror Story, but one of the seasons that was just good rather than great. I expected more of the end to tie up the storylines and I'm not sure that happened, or if it happened and I just missed it because it was subtle? Still, I like it.
Profile Image for monica kim.
202 reviews6,072 followers
February 6, 2021
3.5 💫 “but the truth was: she could see a shiny version of her future, without having any clue how to get there. she only knew that how not to get there was to let herself sink into the easier life.”

plain bad heroines was a delightful gothic novel where the entire cast of women are queer. the dual storylines take us both through modern young hollywood and an early 1900s girls boarding school. the writing was stunning, characters brilliant, and the atmosphere and feeling of unease the danforth creates were fantastic. but, dear reader, the plot. the book just kind of...ends, which was definitely disappointing as this could have easily been 5 💫 from me otherwise.

still, i’m glad i spent time in this book getting to know these characters. i loved how complicated, real, and messy they were. seeing such a large cast of queer women and girls, both modern and historical, was amazing and definitely the best part from me.
Profile Image for charlotte,.
3,132 reviews821 followers
December 9, 2020
On my blog.

Rep: bi mcs, lesbian mcs, Indian American gay side character, Black side character

CWs: gore, attempted rape, past suicide

Galley provided by publisher

When I was younger and being annoying (probably a common occurrence), my mum would often ask if I’d like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. At which point, younger me, being sensible and in possession of a decent sense of self-preservation, would shut up and let be. (To be clear, there were no actual sharp sticks involved.)

Having finished this book, I can now say that there is something I would prefer a poke in the eye with a sharp stick to. Plain Bad Heroines is the perfect storm of things I hate: a confluence of a narrative voice I can’t stand, character voices I can barely enjoy more, a general sense that it sounds like reading the most irritating of Twitter threads for six hundred plus pages, a continuous stream of pop culture references (the true horror of this book was, in fact, the repeated references to Tumblr) — this book was basically destined to piss me off.

In case this all seems like hyperbole, let me assure you, it is not. I have read a great number of books this year that have bored me to tears of frustration. I had not, until now, read a book that quite so spectacularly filled me with pure irritation.

But it’s not a bad book, as much as my rating may bely that fact. I can tell you that it’s a perfectly polished and accomplished piece. It’s just also a piece that annoyed me like no book has annoyed me before.

Let’s start from the top with why this book and I did not get along. Firstly, the blurb set up some wildly different expectations of what this book was about for me. I was expecting a lot more gothic haunted house mystery, perhaps some modern day deaths, perhaps some ghost sightings. Instead, for the first part of the book (which took up some 300+ pages), it’s about Hollywood, with the occasional flip back into the past to set the scene for when they eventually made it to the school.

And the thing is, not only did that bore me, but it also hardly built a sense of horror. In fact, there was very little truly horrifying about the book (barring the aforementioned pop culture references). And even when the curse came to light later on, even when everything that had happened in the past was explained, there was never that true feeling of horror. No creeping sense of the unknown. Nothing. All in all, it was a little nebulous a storyline, a bit unresolved at the end. It connected together, but only in the vaguest sense, and there were never answers to anything.

In that regard, the plotline that followed the beginning of the 20th century kept my attention a little longer, but it all dragged. There was a lot of flip-flopping between current storyline (1902) and past, to explain motivations, to give background, a lot of exposition — all of this served to kill any chance I had at enjoying this book. And the same happened in the present storyline. For 300+ pages, just to set up the second part, where they actually go to the school.

Honestly, it just felt poorly paced.

And then we come to the voices. The whole omniscient narrator could have been good but for the fact that they had the most irritating voice. I don’t necessarily mind having the fourth wall broken, but it got to the point where I just wanted the plot to get a move on. The voice too had a certain kind of smugness to it, a nudge-nudge look at this feeling, a smirking knowingness. In a way, I’m glad the formatting of the mobi file meant that the footnotes all appeared at the end of the book because I am sure that would only have worsened my experience.

Moving onto the characters, what I found was that they all felt somewhat one-dimensional. That is, you could probably sum them each up in a word or two. They weren’t caricaturish, but they did lean in the direction of being just sort of larger-than-life and not in a good way. The way they spoke at times felt ripped straight out of some Twitter or Tumblr discourse, or straight from the worst of reality television. It was, to put it lightly, not fun.

Really, then, the last straw for me was the repeated use of the q-slur, particularly its use as a noun. Reclaiming a slur is a thorny thing anyway, and I can just about deal with it being used maybe once or twice in the entire book, as an adjective. Having to see it in noun form, having to see it four or five times on a page, was about as nice as a slap in the face. And yes, this is a massively personal point, more so than the rest, but it’s a key reason I couldn’t enjoy this book.

But hey! It wasn’t the book for me, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be for you.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,035 reviews48.5k followers
October 15, 2020
For the past two weeks, I’ve been haunted by a lesbian ghost story, and I hope its ectoplasm hangs around for a long time.

“Plain Bad Heroines” is a shapeshifting novel by Emily M. Danforth. A hot amalgamation of gothic horror and Hollywood satire, it’s draped with death but bursting with life.

The book opens by calling forth the restless spirit of Mary MacLane. Though now largely forgotten, MacLane electrified America in 1902 when, at the age of 19, she published a shocking memoir originally titled “I Await the Devil’s Coming.” (Until further notice, all double entendres intended.) In this luxuriant confession — what she called her “record of three months of Nothingness” — MacLane announced herself as a kind of female Walt Whitman, bouncing between egotism and eroticism. “I know I am a genius more than any genius that has lived,” she proclaimed, giving voice to frustrated teenagers everywhere. “My strong and sensitive nerves are reeking and swimming in sensuality like drunken little Bacchantes, gay and garlanded in mad revelling.” Looking across the world’s literature, MacLane saw few figures like herself. “I wish,” she wrote, “some one would write a book about a plain, bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her.”

More than a century later, “I Await the Devil’s Coming” is still a gobsmacking book. At the time, it was an instant bestseller and, of course, instantly condemned by the usual powers that be. One can only imagine how young women must have thrilled to read MacLane’s outrageous descriptions of sexual longing.

And that’s exactly where “Plain Bad Heroines” begins. “It’s a terrible story,” Danforth writes with . . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for DeAnn.
1,317 reviews
October 10, 2020
4 crazy unique haunted stars

I hardly know where to start with this one! You should first know that it is long, 608 pages! Once I got into the story, it did read quickly, but I was daunted by the size at first. There are some interesting black and white illustrations sprinkled throughout too.

There is a haunted school and grounds at the center of this one, set in Rhode Island – The Brookhants School for Girls – and this part of the story starts in 1902. We get to know Clara and Flo and their obsession with a certain book by Mary MacLane and their club, appropriately called The Plain Bad Heroine Society. The school and grounds seem to be haunted (or cursed?) as bad things start happening to the students. Look out for the yellow jackets! A teacher and the principal play key roles in this part of the story too.

Another storyline features the movie world, and we meet two young actors who are making a movie about the Brookhants School and playing Clara and Flo. There’s a third woman in the mix, Merritt, an author who has written a story about the school that is the basis for the movie.

This one has a lot going on and quite a few characters, but it wrapped up in an interesting and satisfying way. I think I liked the earlier storyline more and I wish more had centered around the haunted school! Overall, this would be a good one to read for Halloween!

Thank you to Scene of the Crime/Harper Collins for the copy of this one to read. Set to release 10.20.2020
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
666 reviews3,236 followers
February 16, 2021
Since I've been reading more 19th century fiction in the past year I have been hungering for a contemporary writer to utilize the particular kind of authorial voice often found in these classic books. I'm sure this has been done in other recent novels but going into Emily M Danforth's “Plain Bad Heroines” I was thrilled to find it includes a narrative voice that self-consciously interjects and steers the story. It only shows up occasionally so as not to be intrusive but it does add another dimension to the story and there's something so playful and comforting about this “dear reader...” style of telling where we all agree to sit down to lose ourselves in a riveting, imaginative tale. Of course, it's a technique that's most commonly and potently used in ghost stories and gothic tales so it's ideally suited to the content of Danforth's creepy and darkly playful novel. The text is also beautifully illustrated with evocative drawings making it feel even more like a Victorian novel.

This book is partly a historical novel about a fictional New England boarding school for girls called Brookhants which briefly existed at the beginning of the 20th century. A number of girls are found dead amidst mysterious circumstances which gives rise to rumours and local legends. Interspersed with this tale is a contemporary story about a Hollywood film being made about the deaths of these girls and the supposed curse upon this school. As the book progresses and we move slyly between the past and present, there are numerous twists and turns in the plot which skilfully tread the line between the supernatural and the realistic. The story thrillingly shows how certain characters utilize or exploit this grey area for their own purposes. It's such a richly immersive read for its atmospheric detail that gives the spooky ooky factor while also making me desperate to know what happens next.

Read my full review of Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Dannii Elle.
2,034 reviews1,421 followers
December 12, 2022
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.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to the author, Emily M. Danforth, and the publisher, The Borough Press, for this opportunity.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
November 1, 2020
I spent my quiet Halloween night finishing this novel, which has been such fun! 1900s girls' school /gothic /contemporary Hollywood shenanigans, queer representation at every turn, fun black and white illustrations and occasional footnote to the reader. I can't think of the last time I raced through a novel like I did with this one. I probably would have finished it in 2 days instead of 3 but my power was out and I had to put it aside when I was only down to candlelight.

There are a few scary things in here, and the horror-gothic element is no joke.

I had a copy of this from the publisher, so I'm hoping they fixed those typos! It came to me intelligently packaged with a cover that said "Keep Away from Impressionable Female Readers," which shows me they know their audience. It came out October 20, 2020.
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,606 reviews2,051 followers
June 22, 2020
This book left my brain buzzing so much it's hard to know where to start. It is a big fat doorstop of a novel with multiple storylines spanning over a century, a horror novel about a curse that follows a certain kind of independent-minded woman, a Hollywood novel with a behind-the-scenes feel, and a book where almost every single character is queer.

A big doorstop of a horror novel should have a few plots and several characters to help drive the momentum and this book mostly does the trick. It stalls out in certain sections, but having another timeline to jump back to makes up for much of that. Meandering is pretty much inevitable in the big doorstop, it is baked in, the important thing is whether you want to keep coming back to it and I always did. What's particularly impressive is that I wasn't really reading to find out the Why, which is usually the horror novel way. I just wanted to see what happened to these characters, how they would crack under the intensifying conditions. (You do get the Why, but Danforth wisely doesn't dive all the way into it, you have to leave a little mystery and I think she gets the balance just right.)

Readers who are not usually that into horror will find a lot to enjoy here, though the book is not trying to be sneaky about what it is. It starts right off with a rather gruesome pair of deaths (and it tells you that is what it's going to do, who will die and how is right up front, as is the unique voice and style of the unnamed narrator) and this is clearly Just the Beginning. But while there may be a Big Unspeakable Evil, there is so much more.

I am sure queer readers will approach with both excitement and caution. Several queer women die in this book. So let's just get that right out in the open. And there is queer suffering in this book, but there is a lot less of it than you expect. Mostly it's from our early 1900's storyline, a time when girls are allowed to fall in love but only while at school with other girls and then they must go off and marry men. The book starts with a man being mad at a woman for not being womanly enough and indulging in general sapphic inappropriateness, but that first chapter is about as much as you'll get for the rest of it. The general difficulty of being a queer woman in the early 1900's is certainly a part of the story, but actually our protagonists of the time have a pretty good situation for themselves and are able to live basically how they like. You get plenty of indulging in happy early 20th century lesbians along with the horrors a horror novel promises. And then we have the contrast with our modern protagonists, a trio of young queer women including "celesbian" Harper whose queerness is almost never a hindrance to their lives.

My critiques are pretty minor. Our present-day trio, Harper, Audrey, and Merritt, each get shortchanged in slightly different ways. (We get so much of Merritt's prickliness and frustration that we get none of her identity as an artist. Harper almost disappears part way through the book for structural suspense reasons but the loss is felt. And Audrey, having to do so much of the latter half's plot, becomes flat on the page, so consumed with the plot that we lose her as a person.) But with critiques this specific, you have to actually be good. With many horror novels I don't get to know characters well enough to get anywhere near this kind of criticism. The horror relies too heavily on the same few cues and the premise of the present-day storyline removes much suspense and the growing dread I would have liked. But I can't be mad, I didn't want to worry that much about the safety of the characters, honestly.

The narration is also worth discussing. It is its own character, even if it doesn't make it clear exactly who it is. It is definitely someone, there is far too much happening in the text and the abundant footnotes for it to be omniscience. Good horror knows when to let you relax and laugh, and this is one of the ways this book is smartest.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book, but it definitely exceeded my expectations, both as someone who loves queer fiction and as someone who loves horror.
Profile Image for Ellis.
1,210 reviews136 followers
October 29, 2020
I received a copy of this from Netgalley in exchange for a review.

Yet another one of those books from this year about which I cannot fathom the hype. What this has going for it is that it's incredibly queer, but unfortunately there isn't much more to the plot beyond that. First of all, if I was into facetious content warnings, here is where I would give one for yellow jackets; if you dislike or god forbid despise yellow jackets as I do, beware, swarms of this predatory social wasp that is the bane of my backyard are one of the main characters; indeed, two girls are killed by wasps within the first few pages. These girls, Clara and Flo, are students at the Brookhants School for Girls in 1902 and are ostensibly members of the Plain Bad Heroine Society, although that isn't really explained beyond them being avid readers of The Story of Mary MacLane, a possibly cursed book that appears to be in the excerpts quoted about being annoyed at lots of things and wanting the devil to save you from them and being a lesbian in a time when there was zero being out of the closet. After the deaths of Clara and Flo, the story jumps to present day and into the perspectives of actress Audrey Wells, actress Harper Harper, and writer Merritt Emmons. The first two women are set to appear in a movie being made about the book the latter wrote about Clara and Flo. This is interwoven with the lives of principal Libbie Brookhants and her "companion/roommate" Alex Trills, a teacher at the school, in 1902 in the aftermath of the deaths of Clara and Flo. The movie is a red herring, as is Merritt's book; at no point did I have any idea what either of them were about beyond Clara and Flo kissing because very little is said about the Plain Bad Heroine Society, who else is in it nor what they do in the society, nor indeed who any of the other girls in the school are besides one other who gets a name and then dies horribly. It's incredibly frustrating that most of the present day story revolves around what part Audrey is going to audition for and whether or not she's a good actress, Harper Harper's instagram feed and fans, and whether Merritt wants to hook up with Harper or not, and that many of the creepy little bits that I expected to be aha moments (say, the plants in the Orangerie on campus growing eerily lush for no reason, the director's meta plan for his second movie, or who Alex sees in the picture in the tower) fizzle out without going anywhere. I enjoyed the bits about what school was like at Brookhants (and will henceforth talk about being smashed on my crushes as well as wanting to smash them) but most of this comes from Merritt telling Harper what it was like rather than the reader getting to experience it for themselves. There is a lot of kissing, often while yellow jackets are swarming, and the kissing is hot and excellent even though the yellow jackets are the opposite of that, but I was expecting gothic horror/comedy along with the queerness, especially from the way it was talked up in Harper Collins' book buzz, and I found this to be pretty disappointing altogether.
Profile Image for Katie Colson.
653 reviews5,828 followers
June 30, 2021

Reading Vlog: https://youtu.be/uxymoWMr3QE

I adored this. It is so long and I kept entertained and committed the whole way through which I was not anticipating.

The queer representation in this book blew me away. I swear every single character that got a name was queer in this book in some capacity.
And it's POLY??? Yes! You heard that right. Polyamory. We truly love to see it.

The illustrations in the book are stunning. The prose are stunning. The narrator is so quirky and intelligent and fun. It felt like an adult version of Lemony Snicket.
Profile Image for La Crosse County Library.
557 reviews142 followers
December 22, 2021
I picked up Plain Bad Heroines based on the recommendation of a coworker since she ais pretty much my reader advisory in all things horror as I am still relatively new to the book genre. The prospect of actually starting the book was daunting since it was over 600 pages long, but pages filled with illustrations and footnotes covering a large number of pages made it more than bearable.

Even though the book was long, there were not many boring parts other than a few chapters with certain POVs that dragged. Let me just say that after reading this book, I do not look at yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps the same way anymore.

The premise of the story was interesting, and the prose was quite fun to read. The narrator was unreliable and went on tangents yet was so engaging to read. The footnotes left by the narrator explained parts of the story that the narrator just didn’t care to put into the meat of the story that helped build the universe the novel took place in. I liked the author’s writing and liked the two separate timelines with one timeline taking place in the present following the making of a movie based on the other past timeline’s events.

Each character in this book was written uniquely with their own flaws and ambitions where most had great characterization. I disliked some of the characters, but eventually I came around to like most of them except for one or two characters. My favorite characters were Alex and Audrey since it was fun to see their character growth while each having interesting backgrounds. The inclusion of multiple LGBTQ+ characters was interesting to compare the two different eras in how they were treated and how they acted based on societal constraints.

I also liked how some things were left open ended with the reader supposed to fit the pieces together on what was not said. Some problems I had with that though were unexplained motivations by some characters or less important mysteries that got swept under the rug.

I guess my biggest fault I had with the book is how it is ordered. So many times, are POVs changed or cut off with every chapter alternating its POV. One instance of this occurring vexed me since the POV stopped on a major cliffhanger and didn’t get back to it until many pages later. There was also a lot of jumping around time skip wise where it felt disjointed at times. I don’t mean just jumping between the timelines, but an event would occur, and we wouldn’t get back to the characters until weeks or even months later.

I didn’t dislike the character Harper Harper, but I felt she was more shallow than other characters where her POV characterization didn’t really fit with how her character acts in other characters’ POVs compared to how she is supposed to act in her own. I liked the ending enough even if it felt a little empty. I could see certain mysteries and other things coming relatively early on so the twists didn’t come as much as a surprise.

Overall, it was a fun book with a unique premise. It reminded me a bit of books by Simone St. James story structure wise in ways as well. I would not mind a video adaption of the story even if I might not be the target audience for said adaption. Bring on the yellow jackets!

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Profile Image for Miranda.
165 reviews50 followers
January 8, 2021
I received an ARC of this novel from a Goodreads Giveaway hosted by William Morrow. All opinions are my own.

Plain Bad Heroines is Emily M. Danforth’s adult debut. I had not heard of this book before finding it listed for a Goodreads giveaway. The description sounded right up my alley, so I decided to try my luck at entering for an ARC. I was so shocked when I won, but it was really exciting, especially since it would only be my second time winning a physical ARC. When I say this book had hooked me right from the start, I mean it.

This book is pitched as gothic horror comedy like The Haunting of Hill House meets The Favourite. This was enough to have my attention, but the premise itself takes that a step further. The story weaves from 1902 to over a century later to focus on a cast of characters who are all connected to the seemingly cursed Brookhants School for Girls.

In 1902, the school is run by Libbie Brookhants. Two students, Flo and Clara, attend this school when they become infatuated with Mary MacLane’s writing and each other before their tragic deaths, leaving Libbie to deal with the aftermath and the school’s eventual closing. The novel explores Libbie’s own backstory and relationship with her partner Alex as well. Over a century later, Merritt Emmons writes a novel titled The Happening at Brookhants, which is then set to be adapted into a film. Actors Harper Harper and Audrey Wells are cast as Flo and Clara, which finally sets up the multiple timelines the novel explores and opens the doors to Brookhants again.

Plain Bad Heroines was such a fun read for me. I love when novels have nonlinear timelines that weave together multiple other stories. This book is like a story within a story within a story that features novels within a novel and a film within a film as well. It seems like a complex concept that may be hard to follow, but it really was not as daunting as it may seem. I think the narration and writing of the novel helps avoid possible confusion. I really like how the novel actually addresses readers. It employs a lot of footnotes too, which I thought was really cool. The pacing and flow are excellent as well. Danforth definitely plays up the humor aspect but expertly pairs it with darker and creepier moments. Brookhants is very atmospheric, and it was really interesting to see all the stories there. I loved a lot of the characters but especially the main trio: Merritt, Audrey, and Harper. Many of the characters featured in this novel are sapphic, but Danforth also includes a budding sapphic polyamorous relationship. It was beautiful to see how this relationship developed and played out.

I also just want to mention that Sara Lautman absolutely killed it with her artwork. It was incredible and definitely helped with emphasizing the atmosphere Danforth was creating. The cover and illustrations within the novel are stunning.

Emily M. Danforth impressed me so much with this book. Her writing draws readers in, and the story itself is just so fascinating. I honestly cannot wait to pick up a finished copy, and I’m hoping to collect both the US and UK editions. I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes sapphic dark academia!!

Thank you to William Morrow and Goodreads for giving me the opportunity to read and review this novel before its release on October 20th, 2020.

*Content warning: insects, death, queer suffering, forced institutionalization*
Profile Image for Fiona.
1,221 reviews226 followers
November 18, 2020
The orchard was a place that, before Flo, Clara had visited only once or twice in her previous years of Brookhants education. But then came black-apple-eating, soft-kissing/hard-kissing, well-travelled, sure-of-foot-and-voice, fluent-in-Italian-and-adequate-in-French, and just generally delirious-making Glo. And came Mary MacLane's book. And everything changed.
(Though not in that order. The book came first.)

What a book! Plain Bad Heroines knocked me right off my feet, wrapped me up with it's magic and creepy mystery, and is long enough that I was able to stay in its world for days. Bliss!

Right from the start I was highlighting like a madwoman -I love the omniscient narrator used here, with her pithy asides (cousin Charlies really doesn't come out well, deservedly so we're assured) and observations. And while it might be slow to hit the really creepy stuff, I was absolutely there for the beginning we got. Emily Danforth takes her time, moving between characters and times, building up a foundation of knowledge for the reader. Maybe I'm biased, but it was also pretty delightful that almost every main character is female, most of them queer - it took me until 20% in to realise, but that's just a testament to how naturally it was done.

So then we came to the creepy stuff - and honestly, it's pretty intertwined with the love stories that ran throughout - new love, young love, longer term and jealous love - so many aspects of relationships were on show here and the horror and wrongness of the land at Brookhants echoed and mirrored it throughout. In the finest horror tradition it's never quite clear what's real and what's not, if you want to see things one way or the other, though I know what our narrator believes - or wants us to believe, maybe. But as it escalates and the tension ramps, so that connection the author's built between reader and character is used against the reader with no mercy. I loved it so much, even as I was preparing to be completely heartbroken. I won't spoil the results, but I'm head over heels for this book regardless.
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