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If We Were Villains

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If one were to take a boarding school story, throw in a mysterious death, add to it the psychology of guilt, and top it off with a lot of Shakespeare, you get something like If We Were Villains. The story starts at the end, upon the main character's release from prison, where he spent the last ten years for a murder charge. However, who the victim was and the motivation for the crime remain a mystery. The rest of the story, minus introductory sections between each act, is one big flashback, as Oliver reflects on his senior year at the college, his friends and rivals, and the events that brought him to prison.

While it is a decent murder mystery, If We Were Villains is almost better as an homage to Shakespeare. Ms. Rio structures the book as one of Shakespeare's plays, the characters are deep into their final year of performing nothing but his plays, and they speak to each other using Shakespeare's dialogue as their own. Everything Oliver and his friends do and say oozes Shakespeare. While one does not technically need to be a Shakespearean expert to enjoy the novel, any prior knowledge about his plays and their general structure will improve one's enjoyment of the novel. Along the same lines, while understanding the quotes is not necessary to understand the story, being familiar with the dialogue and being able to interpret it will improve one's understanding of key scenes. Ms. Rio often uses the context of the plays as enacted by the characters to build the emotional context of her story. The text is too closely intertwined with Shakespeare to be able to ignore those sections completely.

When I first started writing this review, I kept thinking of the introduction for the 1990s MTV show The Real World: "This is the true story, of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped. Find out what happens, when people stop being polite, and start getting real." If We Were Villains is The Real World but when these strangers live and work together for four years rather than a few months. Just like in the TV show, tensions rise, sides are chosen, people take on various roles as required by any group of people. However, to discount the strain of acting upon the seven is to ignore a key stressor in their lives. Because they are together all the time, they forget where their emotions end and the emotions of their characters begin. The lines between the real world and the acting world blur and therein lies the conflict.

In a novel full of pretension and superiority complexes, it would be easy to dismiss Oliver and his friends as nothing more than spoiled college kids who have no understanding of the real world. In some ways, this is very true. They are complete in their isolation. The town in which the college resides is small, and the college itself accepts a small number of students. In addition, there is little interaction among the various arts disciplines outside of meal times and parties. Then, for Oliver and his friends, they are staying in a residence hall that is well-removed from the rest of the campus and surrounded by woods. They have almost no contact with the outside world and even find themselves removed from their fellow classmates. Yet it would be difficult to say that they have no understanding of the real world. Their obsession with the Bard affords them a better understanding of the human mind than most of their contemporaries. Through rigorous tutelage of Shakespeare, his words and the emotions they evoke, the historical context, and the like, they understand better than other college students and most adults man's capacity for drama and man's ability to be swept up by emotions. This should make them less susceptible to falling prey to those same emotions. However, emotions rule all Shakespeare plays, and in this way, If We Were Villains mirrors Shakespeare.

If We Were Villains is so much more than a murder mystery. It explores human nature and the fine lines that separate all emotions. It is reality television for the literary mind, with its closed set and closed cast. Moreover, it is a love note to Shakespeare and his co-authors, for the plays that capture the essence of human emotion and the words which do more to express that emotion more than anything written to date. While not for everyone, it is a worthy story that is immensely readable and exciting.
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This is by far my favorite book of the year, not just because I'm a retired English teacher and Shakespeare lover, but because the characters come alive and the prose is lovely! Seven students who immerse themselves in Shakespeare productions and are fast friends, find themselves at the center of a murderous plot when one of them is found dead and suspicion surrounds them all. What secrets will be revealed and which relationships are more than what they appear to be? Only a true Shakespeare scholar could weave the Bard's lines into this intricate and poignant novel that will keep you guessing until the end. I stayed up way past midnight to finish this jewel! Bravo!
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This was one of those stories where I couldn't stop thinking about the characters. Driving to work? Thinking about Oliver. Going to sleep? Worrying about James. Eating lunch? Wondering about Filippa. The writing is beautiful, the characters are, despite how pretentious they are, lovable. The favorite kind. A perfect nod to the Bard himself.
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Before I dive into this review, I want to give a little bit of background about why I was so excited for this book to come out and how I first stumbled across. If you're not interested in any of that, then feel free to jump past this paragraph. About a year or so ago I stumbled across this great blog on Tumblr called Duke of Bookingham. I loved the blog and the personality behind it—everything was very anonymous, so I had no idea who the identity of the blog owner was. Now, the 'Duke' had mentioned a few times that she was having a book published, but that she was leaving things separate and anonymous until it was closer to the book being released. Now, based off of how much I loved her blog, I had a really good feeling that I would love whatever she wrote, so when the Duke finally connected her book blog and author blog and revealed herself as M. L. Rio, author of the upcoming book If We Were Villains, I was beyond thrilled. And then when I discovered the summary and genre of the book, well, I knew I had to read it.

If We Were Villains fall into the category of books often likened to The Secret History, which is one of my all-time favorite books, hands down. That genre—close knit group of students, secrets that are potentially deadly, an almost unhealthy obsession with a certain area of study, etc.—is also one of my favorite genres, and I am such a sucker for any book like that (if you also like that genre, then may I also recommend you try out Black Chalk by Christopher Yates?). Because of this, I had extremely high expectations for this book, which actually made me a bit hesitant, but everything turned out quite splendidly, as I will begin discussing now.

If We Were Villains (abbreviated as IWWV for the rest of this review) centers on seven college theatre students in a program dedicated to studying and performing Shakespeare's many masterpieces. During their final year and while preparing for their production of "Julius Caesar," a tragedy occurs that forever alters the course of each person's life. The story starts out with Oliver, the protagonist, as he is just being released from prison.

As a debut author, M. L. Rio does an incredibly job at crafting an incredible involved, intricately told tale filled with strong characters and an enticing plot.

The beginning was a little rocky for me, as there was quite a large amount of exposition that bogged me down a bit. Each character was introduced in quite a bit of detail and in a manner that didn't seem to flow as well as it could have, but I had faith and kept on. Fortunately, this rockiness in the beginning completely flattened out and the rest of the book was pretty smooth sailing from there.

I loved the characters in IWWV. We have Oliver, Alexander, James, Richard, Meredith, Filippa, and Wren, and the story is told entirely in Oliver's first person narrative, which alternates between the present and his retelling of past events. At first, I was nervous about the fact that this group of friends consisted of seven different people. It's not that I don't like large casts, but I was worried that certain characters would fade into the background or would be too similar in voice and personality to be able to tell apart. My worries were needless, however, as each and every character had so much vitality and so many unique qualities that I had no problem telling one from the other.

Rio is clearly a gifted writer. Throughout this novel, there are beautiful descriptions of emotions and scenes that urged me to go back and re-read them, and Rio's use of foreshadowing is extremely artful and carefully done. I thought it was particularly interesting to have her character regularly having conversations and quoting lines from Shakespeare, because they really seemed to cement the impact and influence his works have had and would continue to have in each character's life. My only caveat with this, however, was that I felt that sometimes Rio was just a bit too heavy-handed with the Shakespeare dialogue, and I wouldn't have mind if it was toned down ever so slightly.

I definitely think that this book may have a slightly stronger impact on readers who are theatre students or also have a deep love of the works of Shakespeare. In fact, the love/obsession of Shakespeare in this book is something that I actually appreciated, because it showed me just how much Rio herself loves this man's work. Before I even knew this book existed, I was aware of her passion for the Bard, and I love how much it comes through. There is nothing more exciting and meaningful to me than being able to see an author's true passion for their subject really shine forth.

Overall, I recommend this book to any who love a little intrigue, strong character development, and/or anyone who loves books in the same genre as The Secret History. I've given it four stars!
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Rio drops us right into the middle of an insular group of Shakespeare students, and from the beginning we know each of the characters extremely well. They are an unusual lot. They carry on their day-to-day lives as though they were the characters they are playing on stage, even to the extent of conversing mostly in Shakespearean quotes. While this might seem altogether too precious in a less talented author's hand, Rio manages to make this obsessive environment seem realistic for a group of 20 somethings.

The book takes place during the group's final year at an arts conservatory, the year in which the students take on Shakespeare's tragedies. As the students immerse themselves in their roles, the emotional and physical intensity of Shakespeare's characters play out in the students themselves. By mid-year, one of the students is dead and the others are on the road to disintegration. 

The book is told in flashbacks (scenes) by one of those students as he is released from prison ten years after the events of that fateful year. The plot is fascinating both on its own and also in the manner in which it mirrors many of Shakespeare's tragedies. But the characterization is really where Rio shines. Setting, character, plot...they are all handled as if by a master rather than the debut novelist that Rio is.
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Unfortunately a family emergency happened and I never downloaded If We Were Villains. I apologize for the inconvenience. Downloads will happen much earlier to avoid this issue in the future.
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College students can be pretentious a-holes. I know, because I was one. I was a student of literature (see? Why couldn’t I just say “English major”?) instead of theater, like the group of friends in If We Were Villains, but the effect is the same. Throwing out obscure references in casual conversation, trying to out-intellectualize everyone else, making mundane observations in a way that is supposed to seem “deep”—21-year-old Taryn was guilty of all of that. There is a particular high that comes from eviscerating another student’s point with textual evidence, a sharp tone, and a haughty flip of one’s hair. I remember it well.
So yeah, the characters in this book are pretentious to the max. They attend an exclusive art school where students are cut from the theater program each year, leaving only a handful to survive to senior year. Oh, and they perform Shakespeare. ONLY Shakespeare. Because no other play ever written by anyone else in the history of the world is worthy of their attention, obvs. The seven friends/frenemies that make up the cast, if you will, quote Shakespeare constantly, even in their off-time, even when completely plastered. Like the characters they play onstage, they are larger than life, their flaws and foibles magnified, their romantic entanglements and betrayals explosive. While part of me was rolling my eyes at them, another part was salivating to see what crazy shit they were going to do to each other next.
Because crazy shit is a guarantee from the beginning. One of the seven died senior year, and another one of the seven went to jail for it. Now ten years have passed and he’s being released from prison, but the true story of what happened and why is…complicated. I couldn’t turn pages fast enough to unravel the mystery. And the book is peppered throughout with descriptions of performances they staged, which worked so well and brought the story so vividly to life. Especially when the actors go off-script. (Think about it—anything can happen onstage during a performance. You could physically hurt another actor, and they would have to choose between breaking character and ruining the show, or taking it stoically so the show can go on. I had never realized how vulnerable you are to the people you’re performing with! Yikes!! How did I survive all those high school musicals?)
I got a bit of whiplash from a couple of too-fast plot twists right at the end of the book, but overall, If We Were Villains was a super fun way to revisit my past. And it made me thankful I escaped my pompous college days without a brush with murder.
With regards to Flatiron Books and NetGalley for the advance copy. On sale today, April 11!
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If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio (debut)
Publisher: Macmillan
Release Date: April 11, 2017
Length: 368 pages

Single Sentence Summary: At an elite art college, seven young acting students (performing only Shakespeare) are the best of friends until one is found dead and another is charged with the murder.

Primary Characters: If We Were Villains is a story that centers on seven students from a private conservatory in Illinois. All play a prominent part in the story. Oliver, newly released from prison, narrates.

Synopsis: Richard, Meredith, Filippa, Alexander, Wren, James and Oliver are the seven remaining fourth-year acting students at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois. At this elite art school the number of students moving on is pared down every year leaving only a handful to finish each program. Those in theatre perform Shakespeare exclusively. The seven actors are very close. They live together, attend classes together, act together and socialized together. They’ve made it to the top and are excited for the year ahead. When the expected castings change just a little, tensions mount until one is found dead and the others are left trying to convince themselves and the police that none are to blame.

Review: If We Were Villains is an absolutely incredible debut. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed another book more this year. Bravo to M. L. Rio! If We Were Villains has been compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Comparing a new book to another beloved book is a big risk. Often times doing so sets the reader up for disappointment. That did NOT happen here. If We Were Villains constantly reminded me of The Secret History, one of my all-time favorite books.  Both take place at a small college where the key players study some sort of “classics.” Both involve a group of close friends. And, both involve a killing. More importantly though, both are books I could not put down!

The cast of characters in this book is studying and performing Shakespearian plays. Their love of Shakespeare is why they are at the school. It’s also why they have developed a common affectation of peppering their conversations with snippets of quotes from The Bard. Initially, this might be a little off-putting to some readers. For me it was just a part of who the characters were, and it was something I quickly grew used to. Not being a real follower of Shakespeare, I felt like If We Were Villains schooled me a little. I’ve not been to anything by Shakespeare in years, but now think I’d like to try him again.

A cast of seven characters can get cumbersome, but that didn’t happen in If We Were Villains. Rio was able to develop each of her characters into very real people that I felt like I truly knew. I didn’t always like each one, but I eventually understand them. It was compelling to watch the slow disintegration of their friendships.

“The moral outrage we should have suffered was quietly put down, like an unpleasant rumor before it had a chance to be heard. Whatever we did – or, more crucially, did not do – it seemed that so long as we did it together, our individual sins might be abated. There is no comfort like complicity.”

Rio logically set her book up using a play motif. Divided into five acts, each started with a prologue featuring Oliver in the present. The remaining parts of each act were broken into scenes, telling the story of what happened to the seven friends during their final, fatal year of school. The build up of tension, both between the friends and within the plot as a whole, was palpable. The nervous energy it created made it impossible for me to put this book down. If We Were Villains is truly a MUST read book! Grade: A

Note: Thank you to Macmillan for providing me a copy of this book (via NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.
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Debut author and a self-described “word nerd”, M.L. Rio, holder of a Master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies, uses her background to write a stunning mystery revolving around a cast of self-absorbed young actors that the Bard himself would be proud of.

The book opens with the protagonist, Oliver Marks, about to be released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him there is still not convinced that he did it. Oliver agrees to tell him the truth on one condition: that there be no repercussions for the real culprit.

Cut to ten years ago, when Oliver is a theater major in his final year at the elite Dellecher Classical Conservatory. His circle consists of his fellow thespians and housemates, all so deeply entrenched in the Shakespeare-only syllabus of their school that they often have entire conversations in quotes and poetry. Over the course of their last year, as the group performs works as varied as Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet among others, we come to know their insecurities and their motivations. The story comes to a head when an unexpected death exposes the fault lines in an ostensibly tight-knit group and the line between reality and play-acting is truly blurred.

The story is told from the perspective of Oliver Marks, but we get to know his six peers very intimately. Each one is distinctive and memorable, and I honestly can’t decide who my favorite is. I really enjoyed the friendship between the students, individually and as a whole. Each relationship in this book – whether romantic or platonic – is complex and realistic and interesting.

I found the book to be exceedingly clever. Ms Rio does a tremendous job of piecing together the events of ten years ago with the reality of the present. Despite the heavy influences of Shakespeare, the book has a distinct narrative voice. Oliver, James, Wren, Filippa, Richard, Meredith, and Alexander are fully fleshed out and vivid characters, both on and offstage. These characters speak Shakespeare like a language in its own right, with double meanings layered into every sentence. 

If We Were Villains is a love letter to Shakespeare and the theater. Ms Rio’s characters often blur with the characters they play and are affected by the plots they recreate. Shakespeare isn’t just mentioned in this book a lot, his writing is almost a character in an of itself, and it is brilliant! I will say, that Ms Rio definitely has an exhaustive knowledge of Shakespeare (obviously), and someone who isn’t very familiar with his writing may not quite understand some of the subtleties of this book.

That being said, I would recommend this book to all fans of the Bard and anyone who loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
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"There are things they don't tell you about magical places-- that they are as dangerous as they are beautiful." 

This book is what happens when The Secret History mates with Brideshead Revisited while using Shakespearean DNA to fill in genetic gaps and avoid congenital birth defects. 

For me, this book was a balance between sharp dialogue and great prose, and unending tedium. M.L. Rio utilized the "theatre kid" stereotype to the hilt-- meaning our six main character's drank too much, used drugs, and emoted enough for 15 people resulting in extreme emotional reactions to every situation. When taken in the context of the overall plot, this was  NOT a bad thing. The characters were undeniably well written and suitable complex. However, it made the characters extremely unlikable and un-relatable. 

How unreachable it is for the reader to connect with the characters is a problem considering how there is little to now motivation for the actions, emotions, and events that led to our main character telling his story to a retired cop after being released from prison. (Personally, I set the book down thinking that all the involved should have gone to prison and the at least one professor should have been fired for endangering the mental health of her will know which one when you read it.)

But let's get back to the story.

 "You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough." 

Our little play opens as our main man is being let out of prison. He agrees to tell the truth about what happened to the man who put him in the clink on the provisos that it go nowhere , it be done at the scene of the crime, and that he will never speak of it again. Our main man (not a hero) is the quintessential doomed, suffering male that we are suppose to suffer along with (I was not suffering.) Not my fave in the character development realm, to be honest. But the well written characters and flowing prose did drag me in and I could not help but devour,  yes devour, the novel. 

The book was written as a series of "Acts," with each act being a cross between a play and a short novella. We began each act in the present but the rest of it was immersed a decade before in the exclusive art school that seemed to devour its students and spit them out raw. If anything seemed evil in this novel, that school certainly did. 

"...Dellecher was less an academic institution than a cult. When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some strange fanatic religion where anything could be excused as long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses." 

We move through the past where emotionally confused college students compete with each other for lead roles and a place in the next academic school year. It is a race to make it to the 4th year. And our little group of players have not only made it, become a sort of family in and of themselves. They loved and hated each other. And it was the hate and confusion {of young adult college kids} that ultimately tore them apart. 

"I am myself indifferent honest," I admitted. "But yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all. Believe non of us." 

When the star player does not get chosen for a main role, he becomes unhinged. His attacks on friend and foe bring out the worst in him. But worse for the reader, it seems, well, extreme and out of know where. It is like the other characters knew a secret they never bother to tell us about their relationship with this young man. ...Like they suddenly feel that he was never a part of their little family but tolerated him because he made it along with them. This does not fit the dynamic that was set by the author, however. We will call this main point of plot contention number one. With the incomplete background, what ultimately happened just does not make sense. I found myself confused for a portion and then when five of the six made what we will call the "BAD DECISION," well I found myself thinking about how that escalated rather extremely and out of nowhere. 

 "Whatever we did-- or more crucially, did not do-- it seemed that so long as we did it together, our individual sins might be abated." 

After the little family bans together, they begin to fall apart. Reality and fiction blur for them. Individually they are breaking. They cling together and yet push away from each other. They can trust no one but each other; and yet at the same time being together only worsens their inner turmoil. It is only a matter of time before it all falls apart. But then, we already know that. After all, no secret can be kept forever. Finally, it all comes crashing down in a way that Shakespeare would have been proud of, and no one leaves unscathed. Not even the police officer who sends a man to prison. 

"Would thou do such a deed for all the world?"
"The world's a huge thing: it is a great price for a small vice." 

Within the main plot are undercurrents that rip apart what the students think they know of themselves and ultimately it is this subplot and its undercurrents that cause the whole story unfold. With nods at everything from physical and psychological abuse, to family drama, to sexual confusion...this book is definitely a roller coaster of emotion and vice. Add in the frequent, and increasingly redundant, Shakespearean dialogue, this story has all the makings of one of the great Bard's tragedies. 

There was one exception to the tragedy, the ending. Quite frankly, I hated it. I was all set up to like the ending until the last few paragraphs when the author threw something in that seemed completely unsuitable for the rest of the tale. It was not at all pleased. There was no reason for the twist and it seemed rushed and thrown in on a whim. Luckily the book was over because it was enough of a loathing that I would have stopped reading it right then. This was the big plot contention number two.

 "I need language to live, like food-- lexemes and morphemes and morsels of means to sustain me with the knowledge that yes, there is a word for this. Someone else has felt it before." 

This book had little motivational sense but the prose was engaging. My plot contentions were pretty significant (especially considering I really only had two) because they were the underlying reason for the whole book. I also wish the author would have used LESS quotations as dialogue. This was my main tedium. M.L. Rio writes beautifully. There was no reason for the characters to utilize so much in the way of plays to converse with one another...except that it reiterated for us that they all were slightly to severely unhinged. Being drunk and/or high while degenerating into verse makes sense for theatre kids. But utilizing it to converse in normal circumstances was a bit overmuch after awhile. I admit that it made me begin to skim. And the worst part of it was that I missed NOTHING by skimming. 

Ultimately,  This book was an engaging read despite my problems with the plot and extreme dislike of the characters. Once you start it you will want to finish it...however it is just not an enjoyable or unique read.
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I was really looking forward to reading this (having followed this author on various social media for a while now), and it did not disappoint. If We Were Villains is an intelligent and moving story about friendship, passion, guilt, and the role Shakespeare played in all of the above for a group of seven student actors in their final year at the fictional Dellecher Classical Conservatory. This group of friends has spent years playing the same roles over and over onstage and off, but when their instructors decide to mix up their casting, cracks begin to form in their carefully constructed group dynamic, and in a few short months, one of them ends up dead. Oliver Marks is convicted and spends ten years in prison, but it's only after he's released that he's ready to tell the truth about what happened that night.

If you've seen the comparisons to The Secret History, you'll know to expect plenty of character drama and academic geekery, and a bit of murder, but the comparisons stop there. Despite the fact that these characters have long conversations speaking only in Shakespeare quotes, If We Were Villains is actually a lot less pretentious than The Secret History (I say this with love - I adore The Secret History). The characters in If We Were Villains are much more likable, too, for the most part. I felt their youth much more acutely than I did with Donna Tartt's characters, who all seemed larger than life and at times much older than college-age. Rio creates a host of characters who are are each in their own way memorable, vulnerable, and sympathetic. This is every bit as much a coming of age story as it is a thriller - probably more so. The twists were mostly easy to guess a mile off, but it didn't matter, because I was so immersed in these characters that I found it gratifying to watch their story unfold.

Rio's prose flows with a natural elegance, and although Shakespeare himself does a lot of the legwork (his quotes infusing this narrative with such frequency) Rio holds her own. One word I'd use to describe this book is 'concise': not a word is out of place; not a scene is extraneous. It's a relatively short novel, but it doesn't feel underdeveloped, because Rio succinctly shows us everything we need to see in order to form the full picture. And it's a gorgeous picture - the setting of Dellecher is so vivid that I truly felt transported straight into this world, straight into that castle-like dormitory by the lake, straight into that world of Shakespearean drama.

People tend to be very polarized about Shakespeare. Love him or hate him, everyone has a rather strong opinion. I think I'm in the minority in falling somewhere in the middle: I've enjoyed the Shakespeare productions I've seen but I don't actively seek them out; I mostly like reading his work, but again, don't make it a priority. So I'm going to actually argue that you don't need to be a Shakespeare aficionado to enjoy If We Were Villains. Does having a love of Shakespeare enrich the overall experience of reading this novel? Undoubtedly. This is a book for Bardolators, first and foremost, and if you love Shakespeare, you should pick this up immediately. Rio's extensive knowledge shines through every inch of this narrative. But there is a sort of universality to the passion that these students display, and the Shakespeare is adequately contextualized, so that it's possible to get something from this book even if you aren't intimately familiar with the plays these students perform.

This novel isn't without faults, of course. The descriptions of the performances themselves tend to be rather indulgent and don't do much to propel the narrative forward. The concept of each of these productions is gorgeous (and I'd love to see Rio direct them!) but for such a short novel, I'd rather have spent that time focusing on other things.

I do have another complaint having to do with a sudden shift in a certain character's behavior, and not fully understanding the impetus behind that (keeping this deliberately vague for fear of spoilers). There was something about this characterization - and the way the rest of the group reacted to it - that felt a bit like a plot device designed to move the rest of the narrative forward. From that point on the story and characters resumed their believability, but I did have this one moment in particular where I found myself thinking 'I'm not buying this.' But ultimately there was enough that I liked about this novel to compensate for this one element. 

A solid 4.5 stars. This is a really stunning debut that forces the reader to think about guilt and culpability; about youth and passion; and about art and life and the way the two coexist so intensely. I loved reading this and I'd highly recommend it to anyone with a fierce love of the humanities - and in particular, of course, Shakespeare.
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Beginning in 2007, Oliver Marks is greeted on his last days of imprisonment by the detective who put him there in M. L. Rio’s debut novel, If We Were Villains. Soaked in Shakespeare, Villains tells two stories: Oliver’s release from prison and his following conversation with Detective Colborne and the conversation itself: a retelling of what, exactly, happened at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory in 1997. One of seven remaining fourth-years at the elite school in the theatre department, Oliver is, compared to his six friends, decidedly ordinary. There’s Richard, who can nearly be described as a high school jock stereotype (though, not, as he is somewhat more complex and is a twenty-two-year-old theatre student), always cast as some king or equivalent; Meredith, his on-and-off girlfriend who is consistently cast as the temptress; Alexander, the moody and intense — too intense for his own self as he self-medicates with various substances — naturally and often cast as a villain; Filippa, nearly as much a bystander as Oliver, somewhat androgynous and cast just the same; James, a source of comfort for Oliver who is regularly cast as some hero or other; and Oliver himself, James’s sidekick both on- and off-stage. With a group so tightly wound around each other to the point of near-exclusion of other students and a natural inclination toward drama and theatrics, it’s no surprise that their lives implode when one of the students dies, or is killed, or has an accident, or who-knows-what and there’s the question of whether it’s better to know or to not know.

Having followed Rio as DukeofBookingham on Tumblr for a few years, I know a little bit about how this story came to be and the author’s work on it. It’s been a strange experience, coming into this piece of literature that I feel relatively intimately connected to, compared to any other book I’ve ever read. It made me look at the book differently and, I think, more critically. Rio regularly provides writing advice to her followers, so I went in expecting the best and, really, (probably unfairly) specifically looked for flaws. There weren’t many.

Rio, a big fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, incorporated much of one of her favorite novels into Villains: the setting, the tormented students, the relationships that spur on problems, death, an obsession with a scholarly pursuit. What I preferred in Villains over History, however, was that the novel’s narrator wasn’t quite so periphery as in History. I love periphery narrators (perhaps one of the biggest reasons I really enjoy The Great Gatsby — while Nick is present in the lives of the people he speaks of, he doesn’t act a whole lot. In fact, his inaction probably leads to a good amount of the tragedy that occurs — but I digress). Rio, however, made an excellent choice in giving Oliver more agency as a character in this instance. She very well could have made him a simple bystander, but Oliver’s guilt in all of this is far more interesting for his action, both direct and indirect.

Oliver as a narrator is observant and detailed. Readers learn about the specific architectural history of Dellecher (which I felt at points was overkill, but did do some work to build the scene). As the seven students live in what is known as the Tower, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Gryffindor dormitories of Harry Potter fame. I don’t believe this was intentional, but it did cast a sort of magical shimmer on the events of the novel without any other sort of magical realism going on, beyond, perhaps, some delusions. But back to Oliver’s narration and Rio’s skill with description: rarely, if ever, did the language become cliché. With Shakespearean quotes strewn about the text (again, perhaps too much, though it certainly served to demonstrate the characters’ immersion), anything said outside of that context was fresh. The description of the dead character’s body, in particular, was so striking I skipped lines and came back, skipped lines, came back — unusual, for me.

Also a bit overwhelming was the sheer number of primary characters. One of the female characters (I won’t say who so as to avoid leading you to figuring out which student dies) I could have done without as her involvement throughout the novel seems relatively minimal. Despite this, nearly everyone was well-developed and their individual relationships with each other similarly so, which was especially impressive given how many there were. Colborne, as a character, leaned toward a detective stereotype, though as his role as character in the novel was small, I ignored him, mostly. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s presence felt lacking. Although his words can be found on nearly every other page, there was something missing in his influence on the students, particularly as Oliver blames Shakespeare for “all of it.”

Rio incorporates a fair amount of twists toward the end. While each one was at least a little surprising, the overwhelm of them felt somewhat gimmicky and insincere. This, too, was how I felt about a major decision made around the death of the one character, which featured a thought process I just couldn’t buy into. The character was awful, to be sure, but that awful? I wasn’t convinced. Additionally, the remaining character’s decision seemed moot: the time it would have required to act was not equal to the time in which things wrapped up (and, apologies for the vagueness here, but I don’t want to spoil it!). It’s a grand idea, just perhaps not executed well and, certainly, not easy to execute.

Rio’s first novel is clearly well-plotted, well-constructed, and well-written, if a little insincere at parts. I always felt a bit aware that I was reading fiction, as if Rio held back somewhat — perhaps due to her background in theatre in some way or other, but I won’t speculate too much on why, because I don’t know that it matters. Villains is a good next-pick for fans of The Secret History or Paper Covers Rock. Ultimately, I hard a hard time putting it down. With great attention to detail, Rio has a good amount of success with Villains and I’m looking forward to whatever comes from her next.

(4.5/5 stars)
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For all you lovers of Shakespeare, teachers of the Bard, and attendees of festivals, this book is for you.  The premise is deliciously different from many other 'thrillers' of today.  Setting the plot at a prestigious arts institute, with the focus on the seven fourth-year actors, debut author M.L. Rio shows off her chops...and this woman knows her Shakespeare!  The story begins when Oliver is just finishing up his decade in prison and the policeman who put him there arrives to make a deal - 'Tell me the real story of that night and I can retire in peace.'  Thus the tale begins of these seven students, their last year together before graduation, the complicated ties amongst both students and teachers, the staging of Julius Caesar,  Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and all the ways these plays interact within their lives.  Of course, it is a tragedy so a dead body and some mystery is involved, but Rio does a masterful job of fully developing each of these seven actors, as well as what motivates their behavior.  Sprinkled generously throughout the book are lines from the Bard's many plays; as a former literature teacher, I loved recognizing some lines, but did not feel bereft if I was stymied.  I do not think you need a thorough grounding in Shakespeare but I do feel you will delight in this book more fully if you also enjoy a bit of the Bard.
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If you are even slightly a fan of Shakespeare, run out and get this book!  It's a modern mystery set in an art college and all the players, are, literally, players -- fourth year theater students.  And, like a Shakespeare play, there are several threads running at once.  Personally, I got bogged down a bit in the Shakespearean references, but someone more familiar would enjoy it.

I received an advanced copy of this novel from the publisher via netgalley.  Thanks!
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4.5 stars. 

A mere skim of the synopsis would suffice to let you know that this novel is meant to be an homage to the Bard, one chapter in and you’d be able to tell that it’s written by someone with not only a passing interest in Shakespeare but a lifelong obsession with him. The playwright’s presence permeates not only the plays that the characters study, or the quotes they use in their everyday speech, but also in the structure, the language, and the very atmosphere of the novel.

For those unfamiliar with Shakespearean academia, the novel paints an enticing albeit slightly scary picture of that world; and for scholars and thespians, I can only imagine the thrill it must be to discover the wealth of hidden meanings behind each allusion. As someone in the middle of these two crowds, only beginning to immerse myself into Shakespeare beyond high school classes, at the beginning when the quotes began to randomly pop up in dialogues I was still frantically googling all of them to make sure that I wasn’t missing out on anything important, but halfway through I’ve already given up and let them all go over my head. And I’ve never lost that nagging feeling that I would’ve enjoyed the book a lot more had I taken the time to study every reference and had a pen and physical copy with me to annotate with.

If We Were Villains follows the Aristotelian tragic plot structure with a kind of self-consciousness that makes you wonder if the author intends to break away from it at any point of the novel. Every major character takes up an archetype and knows well enough that they struggle to tell apart their stage persona from their own personality. Despite the fact that the novel begins ten years after the events of the story, the reader is told from the beginning that there are still secrets waiting to unfold – and they mostly lie wherein if these characters ultimately let their fates be bound by timeless tragic narratives or overwrite them by somehow regaining their own agency. The “if” in the title therefore becomes a very weighted “if,” keeping the reader at the edge of their seat with bated breath, anticipating and dreading the final revelation.

With the question of agency being such a major theme in the novel, it frustrated me when midway through the characters still seemed hardly fleshed out. Verbatim from my notebook: “Flat characterisation. Language beautiful but novel doesn’t exactly have its own voice yet - reason why I’m desperate to compare it to something else?” This book is probably going to appear in every single “if you like The Secret History/Dead Poets Society” book recommendation once it’s been released, and I myself have jotted down how it has a kind of Hannibal (TV series)-esque beauty to it, especially in that one particular scene. But honestly, as much of a tribute to Shakespeare and all his successors and the literary genre as a whole as the novel is, has it found its own place in the literary world? Just by asking this question, I have probably missed the whole point of the novel. As If We Were Villains trudges through the age-old tragic narrative, similar to its characters it strives to simultaneously emulate and supersede its predecessors. Which then raises the question as to why it is that after four centuries there still hasn’t been anyone that’s able to surpass the Bard, and whether from Renaissance onwards Western literature is only doomed to reuse over and over again the same plotlines and stock characters, until someone decides to do something about it.

After the slow drag of the middle acts, the pace finally picks up in the final few scenes, and the last line left a ringing in my ears the way that the best novels often do. I did eventually begin to grow fond of the characters as I came to realise that the archetypes they play onstage and in real life serve equally as a mask than as a mirror for them, and the parallels between the events of the plays and the events in their own lives all add depth both to the novel and to its characters.

If there is one thing that completely blows me away in this novel, it would be the dynamics between these characters. Tight-knit does not begin to encompass the intricacies of their relationships. Their lives are so inextricably linked that even when the lines blur between platonic and romantic love and confusing love quadrilaterals form, it does not annoy me at all but rather only makes me sigh at the pathos of it all.

Without treading too far into spoiler territory, after thinking here we go again in a  random scene where the professor talks about homoeroticism/homosocialism, words cannot express my elation when Rio decides not to take that route. I did cringe a bit when she describes that particular relationship as “transcending gender,” which sounds a bit too much like don’t worry homophobes this is only a nod at Shakespeare’s rumoured attraction to men. Nevertheless, the novel is far more diverse than what I would expect from that genre.

All in all, If We Were Villains is without a doubt a book that deserves to be reread over and over and loved all the more with each new insight and interpretation, etc. so I’d say it is certainly worth investing in for a hard copy along with several packs of sticky notes.
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The structure of the dialogue didn't work for me here as it interrupted my flow of my reading. It's an interesting concept but just not for me. As I stated above I don't rate or review books I do not finish, as a personal rule.
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4.5. A small elite school, a theater program that is only about Shakespeare, seven friends, seniors, together from the beginning, strong, intense friendships formed. Oliver, our narrator, one of the seven, just released from spending tempers in prison. How did something so special, so promising, go so wrong?

A novel of love, obsession, friendship passion and betrayal. Spending all their on and off time together, this little theater group becomes more important to each other than their real families, than the real world. Shakespeare takes over their lives, the plays they perform, always having to be on, the intense study, rehearsals, they even speak to each other in Shakespearean quotes. The author, and this her first book, does a fantastic job incorporating these quotes, fitting them into the context of the plot, often providing clues and foreshadowing into what has happened. Their obsessions with each other, and Shakespeare lead to dangerous breaks in reality. The plays begin to mimic life and these young people begin to fall apart, deconstruct with horrifying results. We learn so much about these characters, not only from the roles they play but in how they treat each other, how they behave when their loyalty is tested.

Not you typical thriller, more character studies but suspenseful nonetheless. It is not necessary to have a full understanding of Shakespeare's plays but necessary I think to be willing to read many quotes and speeches. I loved every minute of it, thought it was brilliantly done was thoroughly captivated by the players and curious to how it would end. A very special, well thought out, and executed debut novel.

ARC from BookBrowse.
Releases April 7th by Flatiron books.
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Where does Shakespeare end and reality begin? 

These characters are IN IT. They live and breathe the Bard, and it is no surprise this takes a tight hold over their behavior and decisions. The book uses many quotes and dialogues from the various Shakespeare plays that have a direct connection to the characters and what they are going through. Despite my embarrassing lack of Shakespeare experience, I didn't have a hard time following the parallels of the Shakespearean dialogue to the characters' experience and plot movements. If anything, with the help of Rio's story and characters, I feel like I can read some of these tragedies without running to Sparknotes or Fogler.

This book is definitely a nerdy pleasure, as another reviewer stated, but it has an artistic and humanistic depth that guilty pleasures normally don't have. It is a tragedy that explores the lengths to which we are willing to go for ourselves, for our art, for our safety, for our desires, and for those we love. 

The book is divided into Acts and Scenes rather than Parts and Chapters, which does make the whole story like a tragic play (Rio knows what she is doing here). With this kind of division, the plot is paced just right with mini-climaxes keeping you going at the end of each Act. When you find out how the death came to be, you might find yourself wondering, "If in the same position, would I do the same?" (I know it's something that I am left wondering, but maybe because I'm morbid and have questionable morals.) While the mini-climaxes kept the pace at a good trot, the major climax about our narrator and his fate was less climactic because of its predictability. Halfway through Act IV, I had the end figured out, all the way to the last page. But when I think about it, how else could it have ended? 

The characters are developed enough, some larger than others. I don't want to say I didn't care for the characters, but some are forgettable. I wasn't too concerned with what happened to them, but I was curious to know how the story ended. 

The writing is confident, insightful, and witty. I highlighted some really great descriptive lines that left me envious of their creator in a way I haven't felt since when I first read Junot Diaz. The writing alone is what makes me feel like this author has great potential, and I look forward to her next novel.
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Since I wrote this I really probably shouldn't review it.
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