What I Read In March 💕

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 ☕️ 📚

Every Witch Book Wishes It Was Claire Legrand’s “Extasia”

If you’re a fan of 2018’s Sawkill Girls, rejoice! Claire Legrand returns (at last!) to magic-tinged horror in this bloody, angry wonder of a book.

Generations have passed since the end of the world and (to our knowledge) only one fragile village remains. In Haven, women are blamed for humanity’s downfall, and a fiery gospel ritualizes their suffering in the form of four young anointed Saints. When Amity, Extasia‘s careful, prudent lead, gets her lifelong wish to join them, she hopes to bring an end to the mysterious killings befalling Haven’s men. All hell breaks loose instead.

To call Extasia a vision is only to scrape the surface of what Legrand accomplishes here. From atmosphere to suspense; eerie echo of the past to terrifying prospect for our future, this book and its world are utterly gripping. Legrand gets what makes misogynistic ideology so terrifying: not merely its capacity to breed and vindicate violence, but also the fact that the social order is built on it, and clings to it as refuge in times of terror. This is something that comes across vividly when Extasia reads like a fantasy historical, but it’s tenfold more potent in those instances where the book wields a dystopian edge––in a ritual involving the Saints that reads like an echo of 1984‘s Two Minutes Hate, in brief (but not overwhelming) touches of sci-fi, and in all the moments where witchcraft shows clairvoyance for a calamity already passed.

But this book isn’t just a satisfying experiment for lovers of all the genres it pulls from; it’s also a ruthless page turner that had me loathe to shut the cover and do anything else. Legrand makes keeping narrative pace look effortless: Amity’s shifting goals, worsening circumstances, and two beautifully-crafted forces of opposition are all excellently timed with respect to one another, and these just-under-500 pages go scarily fucking fast.

One more thing…I would go to war for this love story. Romantic subplots are a much-looked-for icing atop my very favorite cakes, and this icing is sweetened with the finest sugar around: contrast. The scenes between Amity and the spoiler-y girl in question are achingly tender, and almost heartbreakingly soft when held against the devastation around them. If a book can make me cry with a kiss, it wins ❤️

This is not the book for those who lack a taste for gore or dislike the use of religion in horror, but if you want to read about girls kissing as their world comes crashing down, wanted more to chew on from the likes of The Crucible, or find yourself in need of a healthy dose of the eldritch, you need to get Extasia read, like, yesterday.


Thank you so much for reading! Talk to me in the comments: I’m trying a shorter format for reviews every now and then, so what do you think? Also, if you’ve read this book or have recs for anything like it, be sure to let me know 💕

In “The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls,” Legrand Masters the Pointed Children’s Tale

Claire Legrand’s 2012 middle grade debut has a lot to offer: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is as charming as it is creepy, fronted by a perfectionist protagonist who likes everything just so…and bolstered by a villain who is startlingly the same. It’s the best kind of horror––one of institutional critique––and the best kind of middle grade––one that interrogates the relationships that children have with the adults in their lives, and doesn’t emerge with complete faith in authority intact.

The eponymous Cavendish Home lies at the edge of Silldie Place, the street of none other than promising, top-of-her-class Victoria Wright. Children have been disappearing from the wealthy suburb of Belleville for some time now, with explanations that would fall apart instantly if anybody cared to poke them (only no one does). This is of little concern for Victoria, who pours herself entirely into her schoolwork and forgets the chills the Home gives her as soon as she passes it by. Her peers keep shuffling out of classes, “ill” and “visiting relatives” almost entirely outside her notice, until one day, she knocks on the door of the brilliant, musically-inclined Lawrence Prewitt, her only friend, and greets his parents in his place. Bearing too-wide, plastered-on smiles, they tell her that he’s staying with his grandmother; perfectly benign, nothing to see here, thankyouverymuch.

Here, Victoria has two options, and, wielding Victoria’s desperate need for approval and vehement distaste for breaking the rules, Legrand very nearly has us convinced that she’ll shrink to the safer one. She can either keep her suspicions to herself and go on being a model student, or she can get to the bottom of it––and, very possibly, in trouble.

One thing to note about Legrand’s setup is that it isn’t nearly as spellbinding as the payoff. Every clue advances something, from the warnings of a few adults already in the know to the ominous shuffling of roaches in every shadow, but the first act does spend some pages re-trodding old ground. There are a couple false starts where you find yourself itching for things to unravel already, only for Victoria to shy away and slip back into safety, with the unsolved mystery still in the air.

In terms of suspense, Cavendish Home has the exact opposite problem as that of Sawkill Girls, Legrand’s young adult horror from 2018, which has deliciously wicked buildup and a reveal that falls short. Ultimately, we know, by virtue of its introduction and by virtue of the title, that the Home is to blame for the disappearances, and to dance around the question at the beginning wastes valuable time that we could’ve spent reading every lurid detail of what life is like in its dastardly clutches.

Once we finally get to do so, a little later than we ought, every chapter afterwards makes it worth the wait. It’s dark and twisted, indeed; a perfectly rendered cabinet of horrors: manners classes meet torture chambers and make a fittingly terrible pair. But all the more memorable is the portrait its terrors––and its evil mistress, Mrs. Cavendish––paint of Victoria.

Victoria’s friendship with Lawrence is mired in condescension. She spends an inordinate amount of time trying to tidy his faults (à la Emma Woodhouse), with the same exacting hand that Mrs. Cavendish uses to transform petulant, rebellious, or otherwise unseemly children into the empty, well-mannered shells that leave the Home––if they leave at all. Legrand cleverly angles Victoria’s greatest weaknesses against the qualities most prized by her role models. Her obedience becomes complicity, her teacher’s-pet tendencies make her a willing victim, and her Belleville-trained tastes prevent her from seeing the corruption at work until it’s almost too late.

Those same traits, brewed in A-student insecurities, are the best-examined members in Cavendish Home‘s ensemble, complete with the details that only come from lived experience, or a close study of such: the spiral Victoria’s first B sends her into, the petty feud with the only other prospective primary school valedictorian, the way she assumes Lawrence must languish without this validation––because his parents don’t brag about him, the worst fate Victoria could imagine. Legrand, having set this up, offers Mrs. Cavendish as a stirring foil for Victoria’s tyrannical tidying, just as much of Belleville’s dark side as Victoria herself. They have some truly compelling exchanges, all of which serve to nail to book’s sharp lampoon of society’s attitudes towards children into place.

As we see in the terrifying array of Cavendish Home children with spirits beaten, unable to stand up for themselves, there’s something truly insidious in a society––not to mention an institution––that tells children they have no value, and ought to sit down, shut up, and stop causing such fuss. This story isn’t just an inspired horror with a chilling monster waiting for us at the end; it’s a necessary indictment of the adult world’s worst tendencies apropos of its fledgling members, because children taught, as they are in Belleville, to keep their heads down and their grades up grow into adults who look the other way when the minds and spirits of the next generation are sanded into oblivion.

Most scathingly of all, there was space for the monster before it settled into the well-manicured lawns of Belleville. We’ve known since the first page (but it’s only spoken outright in the stormy eleventh hour) that the Cavendish Home only churns out perfect, silent children because their parents want them.

It’s the mark of a pungent social dimension in Legrand’s writing that ––despite an ebullient triumph in the book’s final act––this eerie truth lingers, and we get no guarantee that it is gone for good.