Well, well, well. We meet again! Happy June 💕
With twelve books and a lot of unusual picks for me to share today, this might be one of my favorite wrap-ups yet. (I read three works of nonfiction! Look at me go!) From my neck of the woods to yours, I hope you have a wonderful June––and I hope you get to curl up and enjoy a damn good story this month, whatever form that takes.
40. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
As much folk tale as it is fantasy, this sea-swept, delicately magical coming-of-age story is a thrilling prospect for those who enjoy books of the Death-and-the-Maiden variety. It follows Mina, a girl who volunteers to be the bride of the feared Sea God, whose wrath is said to fuel the storms that plague her village. Once Mina sets foot in the Spirit Realm, however, she discovers that the truth is far more complicated––and it’s up to her to set it right. There’s a great deal to love in The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea: there’s an emphasis on soft moments for powerful characters, Oh’s worldbuilding is brimming with ideas, and the book clearly has something to say about the burden of power. But something’s missing from the character dynamics: with some oversimplified, some rushed, and some given heavy importance but almost no room to develop, the book struggles with the ties that matter most, with underwhelming consequences for its conclusion.
41. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
A work of nonfiction by a scientist who’s also a master storyteller is something to be savored: armed with both fact and meaning, these books manage to be as moving as they are indelibly true, and Braiding Sweetgrass is no exception. Blending memoir with ecology; a body of Indigenous knowledge with a practical understanding of our current crisis, Robin Wall Kimmerer hits a remarkable range with her botanical opus. Among my favorites of its many accomplishments are an exploration of lichens, an interrogation of (white; western) science’s tendency towards exclusion, and an achingly tender reflection or two on motherhood and what it means to let go. I don’t just love this book––I want to shove it in every face I can.
42. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
In the depths of an ancient temple, a young girl is devoured by a nameless power. A sacrifice made every generation, she is to guard a horde of treasure and a labyrinth, decide the fates of prisoners captured there, and give herself entirely over to the dark. A sequel––though not in the traditional sense––to Ursula K. Le Guin’s sweeping A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan takes this solemn perspective character, Tenar, on a much more deliberate, much more closely-confined emotional journey, with thrilling results. While I was definitely looking for more from the supporting cast and climax, I’m amazed by how well Atuan lands a gratifying catharsis and a rich exercise in worldbuilding in one breathless go.
43. Nimona by ND Stevenson
As part of a long tradition of tongue-in-cheek takes on heroes and villains, Nimona has familiar commentary on heroism: the ‘good guys’ are exclusive, monsters are made by society’s failings, and there’s honor in villainy as a means of resistance. But Stevenson adds to the old tune with two lovely dynamics: 1) the one between Nimona’s lead and the supervillain she plays sidekick to, Lord Ballister Blackheart, and 2) the one between Blackheart and his nemesis, the obnoxious, do-gooder Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. (Not a typo.) Nimona, despite its hodgepodge worldbuilding and wonky pacing, works because it knows how to find what these relationships most need: time. (The cozy, soft platonic moments with Nimona and Ballister actually made my heart sing 🥺) Sometimes a book is about its world, or about its plot, but Nimona is about its trio, with some charming humor playing second fiddle. If you think you’ll love these idiots, this book is for you.
44. Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare
The somewhat rocky second half to what is effectively the Prince Hal duology, this volume of Shakespearean history holds most of its predecessor’s charms––only slightly less of each of them. It has a less-interesting uprising plot, with a significant and wildly entertaining figurehead having bit it at the end of Part I. It has the same comic relief characters, only with an overhanging dread dampening most of their associated comic relief. While there are some great moments between the title king and his prodigal son, this play just isn’t the multifaceted firecracker Part I is. At its best, it manages to be pretty gripping. At it’s worst, though, it’s practically tedious. (Looking at you, Falstaff and Shallow––especially Shallow.)
45. An Ordinary Age by Rainesford Stauffer
Deep down, if you are (or recently were) what this collection of essays calls an “emerging adult,” you know that we expect too much of you. You’re supposed to land a job that gives you purpose and a good paycheck, in a fashionable city far from home, with the perfect group of friends, the perfect collection of hobbies, and the most enviable Instagram feed. Maybe the most comforting thing An Ordinary Age can offer is the sound assurance that none of this is actually true, but it’s also careful to address both why we’ve come to feel that these are our expectations, and what we can do about it. It’s such a validating read for someone who feel the walls closing in––I particularly appreciated Stauffer’s commentary about perfectionism in young people as a response to a tightening gyre of a job market. As I somewhat tersely put it in a Goodreads review earlier this month, every 16-19 year old needs to read this book and then calm the hell down 😂
46. The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
The third volume in Le Guin’s classic fantasy series The Earthsea Cycle (following A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan), this book combines the scope of book one and the darkness of book two for a slow, searching adventure that hits an entirely new stride. We follow a third new lead, the ambitious Prince Arren, as he and a certain Archmage hunt down the source of a far-reaching magical decay. Of all three original Earthsea books, this one probably has the most salient commentary: tackling the warped desire for power and immortality, Le Guin makes a compassionate case for resisting both that has broad applicability, in her time of writing and ours. But The Farthest Shore still stuffers from what’s becoming a curse for the Earthsea books: a resolution that comes way too easily––this one even some excellent dragons can’t save.
47. Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak by Charlie Jane Anders
If you’re in search of a joyously weird space opera to tide you over until the next series of Doctor Who, look no further than Charlie Jane Anders’ Unstoppable series, where coders become queens and artists become conduits for the ruins of an ancient galactic empire. The trilogy’s book two, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, follows two perspective characters from book one, Victories Greater Than Death, and, in my opinion, beats the latter on almost all of its strengths. The ensemble cast finally comes into its own, and the sparkling concepts in Anders’ worldbuilding finally get to shine. Plus, two incredibly resonant areas of commentary––creativity after trauma and the oversaturation of information in the digital age––give the book some excellent themes to chew on. Action scenes remain a little fuzzy (and Anders still introduces way too many new characters for her own good!), but this second book is well worth crossing the shaky ground of the first.
48. Henry V by William Shakespeare
Even with another five still ahead of me in chronological order, I’m going to have to call it now: this will probably be my least favorite of Shakespeare’s history plays. It traces Henry V’s part in the Hundred Years’ War, dramatizing his invasion of France from Harfleur to the Battle of Agincourt, and ending with the ensuing peace treaty. If all of this sounds like dull military history, it’s because it, kind of, um…is? Henry V, as a play, is woefully poor in the court intrigue that makes the other histories so much fun, and, because its focus is almost solely on war, it presents the most simplistic interpretation of its title character in what I’ve read of the canon. To sum it up: Henry is violent, valiant, and seldom criticized, and even Shakespeare’s word– and scenecraft can’t save his play.
49. Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Rowan Roth has been locked in an academic standoff with the pretentious, detestably clever Neil McNair for the better part of her academic career. When her last chance to beat him arrives in the form of a senior class scavenger hunt, she’s determined to take him down––but Today Tonight Tomorrow is a romcom, and Rachel Lynn Solomon’s (deliciously witty, gloriously rose-tinted) universe has other plans. Set over one whirlwind of a night, the book sometimes struggles to reach the full depths of its characters’ feelings, but it also happens to read like magic. Solomon’s voicy prose, charming use of setting, and singular talent for choosing quirks makes Today Tonight Tomorrow read like the most wondrous of teen comedy films in book form.
50. Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer
This year, my annual craving for a writing craft book led me to Wonderbook, a manual for speculative fiction in particular that offers an encyclopedic look at the whole process, from tapping into your imagination before you begin, to revising and workshopping your finished story. Of the writing books I’ve read, this one is probably the friendliest to experimental forms: VanderMeer tailors his advice to fit the ultra-weird, in narrative structure, setting, and prose alike. The book also draws on a breadth of references: the expertise of other writers as guest essayists, the examples of various gems of genre fiction, a not-insignificant amount of homework in the form of other craft books (!). Some of it is so out-there that it becomes unwieldy as advice, but the book as a whole is impressively thorough and delightfully ambitious. I can’t wait to give it another read (and actually do the exercises this time!).
51. An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde
First performed in 1895, this whip-smart comedy of manners follows a politician whose past comes to haunt his since-upstanding public record––and his marriage. The play’s dialogue and characters are perfectly witty and charming, in the way that Wilde on stage is always witty and charming, but An Ideal Husband, like its spiritual sister A Woman of No Importance, also has something vital to say about how we fail one another. In this case, Wilde takes remarkably compassionate aim at the way we put impossible expectations on our loved ones, and what a disservice in doing so we do to ourselves. The play is no The Importance of Being Earnest where humor is concerned, but its vibrant main cast very nearly makes up for it.
Thank you so much for reading! How was your May in books? I’d love to hear anything and everything about what you read in the comments below 💕