Happy April, everyone! I’m so happy to be sharing with you what will be my fifth wrap-up in a row! (🥳) March brought me some new favorite books, a great play or two, and myriad wonderful things to shout about in them all. Without further ado, here they are:
20. The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
Boasting portals to other worlds, a fallen empire, and a few uncharacteristically funny scenes for the character who would eventually become the White Witch, this 1955 prequel to the Narnia series surprised me in a lot of good ways. In it, we follow the schoolkids Polly and Digory, who stumble into an experiment intended to rip passageways into other universes. Among these universes is the place that the rest of the series knows as Narnia, but there’s way more than that for the book to play in, and I’m now almost mad that the other Narnia books don’t return for more. Where The Magician’s Nephew isn’t surprising, though, it’s depressingly familiar. Lewis’ magical mentor figure, Aslan, again kills conflict wherever he goes, a few later chapters are almost fatally actionless and ceremonial, and for all the book’s potential, it has a hard time living up to its ideas.
21. Extasia by Claire Legrand
Extasia is a strange beast, but a very welcome one. Claire Legrand builds a riveting work of paranormal horror from both archaic and post-apocalyptic clay, yielding a rich story that reads sometimes like a theocratic dystopian à la The Handmaid’s Tale, sometimes like a taut, colonial-era suspense à la The Crucible, and often like something new altogether. The book begins when the solemn, pious Amity is about to be anointed one of her village’s four Saints––young girls who act as religious scapegoats for their neighbors’ anger, fear, and sorrow. But all is not well in Haven and its deadly surrounding forest, and in order to save it, Amity will have to defy her church and learn magic. From there, Extasia had me reading on with rapt attention and a white-knuckled grip: it’s excellently-paced, the characters and their terror freshly rendered, and Legrand’s observation of a fearful society searingly true. (Reviewed here.)
22. The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur
The Forest of Stolen Girls, set in Joseon-Era Korea, is a murder-mystery helmed by the daughter of a missing detective, as she re-traces his footsteps and investigates the disappearances of thirteen girls from an island fishing town. June Hur, in juggling the tasks of historical consideration and an emotionally honest story of family, seldom lets any pins fall, but when they do, they take a toll on her main character, Hwani, and her journey towards reckoning with her father’s flaws. The prose, for instance, often defaults to explaining rather than describing what she’s feeling, which gives some of her most important emotional moments a distancing effect. But in atmosphere and motives for possible suspects and accomplices, Hur consistently shines. She also makes a point of using the context of time and place to the mystery’s advantage, rather than just setting the story against it––a deep, structural choice that, in the end, sticks Forest’s landing.
23. The Lives of Saints by Leigh Bardugo
Though it doesn’t quite reach the emotional power of the rest of the Grishaverse, The Lives of Saints still has something to offer people (me) who can’t get enough of it. This volume collects the (often disappointingly) short tales of saints from the world of Bardugo’s fantasy books––some of them managing to be haunting despite their length (Anastasia), some of them actually wickedly funny (Lutkin!!), and some sadly forgettable (Petyr). It’s a worthy experiment that I’m glad exists, for the simple fact that series lore is my lifeblood, but almost all the stories lose something in brevity. The Language of Thorns, another anthology from the Grishaverse, does so well with its task precisely because it lets the stories get a little longer, and I can’t help but feel that The Lives of Saints would’ve been better equipped to follow it up had it done the same.
24. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, #1)
I’m utterly in awe of this book’s vision. Set in a world like our own (but not quite!) it charts the power plays of conniving liturgical institutions and officials, the discovery of a mysterious new elementary particle, and the adventures of a fiercely loyal and dangerously important girl by the name of Lyra. I could talk about the system of science-magic, the construction of alternate history cultures, or the almost cinematic use of perspective intercutting at work in The Golden Compass for hours, but what I was most impressed by was Philip Pullman’s willingness to not expound on his world before giving us a chance to walk in it. He lets the reader put the pieces together with the characters, in a way that made me just as eager to learn more about where we were as I was to find out what would happen next. And I, being the nerd that I am, was totally mesmerized from start to finish.
25. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
As much as I love the vibes, The Winter’s Tale might be Shakespeare’s most self-defeating play. On paper, it’s a story about redemption: the wrath of a jealous king, Leontes, kills his wife with grief, and loses him a daughter, but through the intervention of a miracle or two, they’re all reunited with Leontes a changed man. But, really, it’s hard to read or watch, without the nagging thought that Leontes didn’t need to act like he did, and none of this needed to happen––especially if we’re going to end the play mostly in the same place we began. A fog of pointlessness lies over The Winter’s Tale that, try as it might, the play just can’t shake. The fourth act, too, a pastoral starring characters only tangentially related to the earlier action, is dangerously close to insufferable. (But judging by my opinion of As You Like It, I might just hate pastorals altogether 😬)
26. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
This work of historical fiction is based on a very real hoax. It’s 1885 and a sea serpent is rumored to haunt the marshes of Aldwinter, as a warning from an angry higher power, or a remnant from a Mesozoic ocean long gone, or both. We follow a widow, Cora Seaborne, as she investigates the rumor and strikes up a tumultuous, intimate friendship with Aldwinter’s devoted vicar. If you’re into science of any kind, The Essex Serpent has to its advantage an erudite bent that draws on the history of paleontology and medicine, and puts them to fascinating use. Also mostly to its benefit is the central friendship, which takes on refreshing narrative importance, even if its trajectory can be frustrating. Overall, this title proved a way more compatible read for me than I expected, which has me wondering if I should pick up more historicals. (I also love Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. Recommend away!)
27. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, #2)
As the sequel to The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife takes the trilogy in several fascinating new directions at once, only some of which worried me. The expansion of the series into new universes, one of them being ours, gives the book plenty of awesome concepts to work with, from the correlation of book one’s science with our contemporary understanding of physics, to a power struggle that careens the story’s scope into literally unfathomable territory––for better or worse. In this volume, we also meet Will, a boy whose troubled family history ties him to the fate of Lyra’s world. As deuteragonists, their shrewdness functions well against the pretense and status of those in power, and even if connecting with them is a little harder this time around, Pullman’s reliance on the ensemble approach gives us myriad eyes to look through in the meantime. (And a vast, constantly-changing landscape to look at, too, which is always a plus.)
28. I and You by Lauren Gunderson
Lauren Gunderson is one of my favorite playwrights, and what I and You achieves in a little under 70 pages pretty much explains why. It’s set in chronically-ill 17-year-old Caroline’s bedroom, where Anthony, a classmate from the school she can no longer attend, enlists her help for a project on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Over the course of a few hours, the two connect over the poem, get to know each other in a miraculous, theatrical totality, and, if you’re anything like me, will have you sobbing three times or more before curtain call. Gunderson gets something about humanity and experience and why we need each other so much that’s otherwise inarticulable, and hearing it said––shouted!––in I and You was a catharsis unlike any I’ve ever experienced.
29. A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee
A witty, hopeful, spirit-studded riot of a fantasy adventure from The Reader author Traci Chee, A Thousand Steps Into Night holds delight after delight. Its heroine, Miuko, must embark on a quest to reverse the curse that’s about to turn her into a demon, and along the way, she’ll fall in with a clever, complaining magpie, contend with a vengeful demon prince for the fate of the kingdom of Awara, and fight to keep her humanity all the while. A Thousand Steps manages a great deal in its comparatively limited page time as a standalone, from directly challenging Miuko’s weaknesses in a satisfying way to offering a broad sweep of Chee’s ultra-vivid world in a number of one-of-a-kind scenes I’d love to see put to animation. Characters appear and exit rather quickly, with a couple scenes of action bypassed or skimped on to the book’s detriment, but it’s largely an unbroken joy.
30. Richard II by William Shakespeare
This history play is tragedy, political theory, and character study all at once. While it flounders with its supporting cast (a point I controversially think its prequel, King John, excels at!), Richard II has such a keen eye on where power comes from, and what it does to those who hold or seek it. Shakespeare’s Richard is as compelling as he is infuriating; a devastating indictment of inherited privilege and a bittersweet elegy for those it eats away. Shakespeare also establishes with precision the weight of his transgressions, and why they set his countrymen against him, something he struggles with in King John. I also definitely cried while watching and reading this, not least because the language in it is so hauntingly beautiful and even––dare I say it?––a cut above the Bard’s rest.
Thank you so much for reading! May the next month bring you small joys and many good stories ☕️ 📚