What I Read In June 🌺

Hello and happy July, everyone ✨

June has been all about figuring out how to fill my summer. Should I practice chemistry for my college class in the fall? Should I pick up a new instrument? Should I be writing? I don’t think any of us truly know what the “best” way to spend our time is, but for now, the days are long (in the Northern Hemisphere), the sunset makes the perfect light for reading by, and I’m this close to tying my mom in Scrabble wins.


June In Books

52. The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

My dad’s complaints, though blunt, probably say it best: too many characters. The Chronicles of Prydain, of which The Black Cauldron is book two, is a middle-grade fantasy series he loved as a kid back in the 70s. (The Black Cauldron was published in 1965.) But here, Lloyd Alexander falls prey to something that seems to hinder lots of quest-fantasy types: he tries to introduce the entire fellowship by, like, page ten. This holds back everything from the reveal of a twist villain to a rivalry meant to bring out the worst in Taran, the book’s impulsive young protagonist. For someone who likes the quintessential beats of a Tolkien-like fantasy, it’s still a fairly charming read, but The Black Cauldron’s 178 pages are still woefully few for what Alexander’s trying to achieve.


53. Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

Fierce rivalry with my mom notwithstanding, Queen of the Tiles is to blame for my recent obsession with Scrabble. Pitched as a murder-mystery set at a Scrabble tournament, it had me hooked from the get-go, but Alkaf’s engrossing depiction of gameplay––both in the actual matches and in the way it animates the character’s thought process in her daily life––truly shines. And, even though the mystery’s answers at curtain weren’t entirely satisfying, there’s a lot to love in the way Alkaf writes complicated relationships that keep unfurling through grief. New, hard-to-accept layers of the main character Najwa’s best friend, Trina, keep emerging, and, despite some of the supporting players being confined to archetype, their ties to Trina, good and bad, keep changing, too.


54. The Art of the Drama by Millet & Bentley

So this long out-of-print work of theatre criticism doesn’t even have a cover on Goodreads, much to my rage. But, aesthetically tarnished reading challenge row aside, this was fairly interesting and supremely verbose. Part 1 (which covers the different forms comedy and tragedy have taken over the course of theatrical history) is much better-structured and more insightful than whatever the hell was happening in Parts 2 and 3. The authors, both English professors at the time of the book’s publication in 1935 (!!!), draw on a range of intriguing play selections that I felt compelled to actually jot down at a number of points, but I’m afraid of the fun of this can’t overcome the frustration of the reading experience. If these professors ever managed to start making points without their ‘yet’s, ‘but first we must’s, and ‘one could never’s, I’m sure their students were grateful.


55. The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

After a bit of a lull in The Black Cauldron, Prydain hits its stride again in book three, an adventure that pits Taran and a (much more manageably-sized) band of heroes against an enchantress, as they race to rescue a sharp-witted princess before her talents can be put to use for evil. This time around, Lloyd Alexander makes a point of emphasizing Taran’s insecurities about status, a layer of complexity that adds to an otherwise familiar tale of princes and swords. The group dynamic is inviting, the humor stays present even though the tone shifts a little darker, and the villain––though we certainly don’t see enough of her!––is one of my favorite characters in the series. Some weaknesses still persist, but consider them sufficiently clouded by secondhand nostalgia from my dad’s middle school days 😂


56. Henry VI, Part 1 by Lloyd Alexander

After trudging through Henry V, I’m finally at the trilogy of history plays that covers The Wars of the Roses––a massive, years-long contest for the English crown between the houses of York and Lancaster. Because this is an era with so many powerhouse players, Shakespeare’s expert ensemble work reflects that: Henry VI, Part I is not only about the floundering king, but the factions swirling around his court, the desperate wars overseas, and the new hope for England’s opponent at the time, the French court determined to retake their territory. I’m of the opinion that this volume might be the best at juggling them out of all three in the Henry VI trilogy, but it’s missing some of the things that make Shakespeare at his most popular so enjoyable: if you’re looking for true agency, for example, for the play’s titular king, you’re more likely to find it elsewhere.


57. The Vorrh by B. Catling

Seeing as this book was recommended by a friend with way more eccentric taste than mine, I probably should’ve been forewarned: this book is genuinely unnerving. It’s a work of fantastical alternate history set in and around an impenetrable primordial forest, following a cast of strange characters with, in my opinion, very little solid connection to be found between them. Catling, a sculptor, is way more concerned with the in-the-moment experience of his writing than with its overarching structure, which yields some ultra-vivid imagery but renders the story overall pretty self-defeating. I’m also uneasy about a white author writing about “Africa” in a vague way meant to evoke something like Heart of Darkness. This choice of setting strikes me as especially loaded with the white gaze, and the few Black characters Catling puts in prominent roles all read as pretty powerless.


58. This is Shakespeare by Emma Smith

If you think Shakespeare’s plays have been talked to death, you may want to take a gander at Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare, a volume of essays that take a bunch of brand new angles on 20 of the Bard’s plays, old favorites and overlooked gems alike. There’s no overarching theme, really (sometimes Smith pulls from history, sometimes she doesn’t; sometimes the plays’ source material matters and sometimes it doesn’t), but I think that’s to the book’s credit. Each essay builds its approach from scratch and you can never guess what angle Smith will take: she cracks open Romeo and Juliet as a shattered romantic comedy, re-evaluates Antony and Cleopatra in a strikingly modern lens of celebrity and scandal, and makes the case for a much more subversive Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s best enjoyed, though, if this isn’t your first Shakespeare rodeo: Smith does her best, but there just isn’t room for background amidst all the festivities.


59. Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Coming in fourth in The Chronicles of Prydain, right after The Castle of Llyr, this book might be––no, scratch that, is––the best in the series. It’s the one where Taran breaks from the battle-against-evil mold to find himself, as well as answers about his parentage, in the Prydain countryside. Lloyd Alexander not only makes the right move in denying him easy answers from start to finish; he also gives him a way to grasp at meaning that has nothing to do with his heroic role in the rest of the series. And, with something that follows medieval fantasy’s mythic prerogative the way The Chronicles of Prydain does, that’s an opportunity all too easy to miss. When it comes to villains, as well, Taran Wanderer challenges and contrasts its namesake in all the right ways, and its somewhat open resolution bodes well for the finale ahead.


60. Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

After the events of Henry VI, Part I, England has a new queen, the York and Lancastrian factions have new reasons to hate one another, and King Henry has a spate of new political problems right under his nose––only some of which he’s, like, actually aware of. This play, like its prequel, is full of scheming, deliciously conniving characters like Margaret of Anjou and Richard, Duke of York, and its fair share of absolutely banger rhyming couplets. But it’s also held back by its structure. While Part I expertly wrangles three simultaneous struggles, Part II sort of parades through its royal crises, one after another, with about an act for each. It doesn’t kill the suspense, but it does make me miss how well Part I pulled it off.


61. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Everyone seems to be head-over-heels in love with this book. But no one’s part of ‘everyone,’ every time. In this case, I can certainly agree that the atmosphere, the prose style, and the concepts that Erin Morgenstern weaves into her titular magical circus are all dutifully lovely, but her choice of distantly and omnisciently following so many characters over such a long time can make them feel more like thought experiments than like people. Especially the two romantic leads, for whom the thought experiment is “What if magicians on opposite sides of a duel fell in all-encompassing forbidden love?” You’re obviously supposed to buy into it and have it sweep you off your feet, but I had to rely on the book’s other charms. They’re there, to be sure, but they’re not quite magical for the reader unless that central conceit sticks.


June in Blogs 💜

Krysta @ Pages Unbound made some excellent points in a YA Book Wishlist!

Jordyn @ Birdie’s Book Nook has been doing a delightful Author Spotlight series!

Aria @ Snow White Hates Apples wrote a really thoughtful review of Queen of the Tiles

Naemi @ A Book Owl’s Corner paired a gorgeous travelogue of her trip to Poland with some book recommendations!

Uncommonly Bound reviewed a fascinating micro-history in What The Ermine Saw!


Thank you all so much for reading! How was your June in books? I’d love to hear anything and everything, in the comments below 💕

What I Read in April 💕

Hello and welcome to the blog! Thanks for sticking around through my break––school, as it tends to do, ramped way up just as I was finishing it! But, with my two-year associates degree (in science, of all things) behind me, I have a number of delightful reads from last month to share with you. Let’s dive in!


31. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

This last volume of Philip Pullman’s moving, expansive, magically scientific (and scientifically magical) His Dark Materials trilogy might be the best of all three books. I was wary about Pullman wandering into his universe’s pantheon in book two, but I ought not have been––The Amber Spyglass goes mind-bogglingly big in scale with its conflict and theme, but it handles it well, keeping the multiverse stuff to the deeply personal conflicts between characters His Dark Materials does best. In the least spoilery terms: Spyglass takes us into an intricate new universe whose mysteries can be untangled only through science, across a warped angelic empire, and into the afterlife and back, and every step of the journey feels utterly purposeful. I can’t wait to take it again when I watch the show. (Also, for those of you who’ve read it: Mary’s subplot is good. Fight me!)


32. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Set on a Mississippi estate, 1955’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof follows the disillusioned children (and children-in-law) of a dying cotton magnate as they vie for the inheritance. I actually read this play a few years ago for a book club and hated it, but now, I can see some of its merits, even if they don’t totally illuminate it in a positive light. I can appreciate, for example, how Tennessee Williams tackles mortality and materialism and internalized homophobia…while also holding my reservations about how little he does to undermine the racism he depicts on the page. I’m glad I re-read it, especially in an academic setting (with my English class!), but as for enjoying it? That’s a different story.


33. Control by Lydia Kang

Control’s world is a lovely 2013 YA sci-fi number with all the bells and whistles: a semi-gritty futuristic setting where high-tech meets a corporate criminal underbelly, plenty of lab work, and a superpowered found family. If you live for that stuff, Control will be a familiar treat, but it has a secret boon for all those who seek heavy science in their sci-fi: Kang, a practicing physician, uses the gory details to her advantage. (Control, as a title, refers actually to the feature of experimental design 🥰.) In the plot department, though, Control struggles. The climax and conclusion are messy and keep the book from landing on its feet––ditto for the faceless antagonists and various interchangeable henchmen who appear only for the big fight at the end. Kang certainly does her best to tap into her story’s thrills, but the sleek face of evil in Control only has so much menace.


34. Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

Set after the overthrow of King Richard II, this play kicks off a duology ostensibly about his replacement, Henry IV…but actually about the young ne’er-do-well prince, Hal. Where some of Shakespeare’s other history plays are more consistently somber, Henry IV, Part 1 is a crowd-pleasing balancing act between the heavy drama of (yet another!) uprising and the raucous comedy of Prince Hal’s drunken exploits. Your mileage with the comedy may very, but if it happens to work for you, it’s a warm anchor to a delicious overplot of courtly intrigue. If, like I did on my first go-round, you find yourself getting impatient with the play’s long-winded comic relief character, Falstaff, get your hands on a taped (or real-life!) production: this humor, especially, is best absorbed in performance.


35. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Following the events of Maggie Stiefvater’s paranormal fantasy, The Raven Boys, Gansey, a young scholar obsessed, is still on the hunt for the legendary Welsh king Glendower. Blue Sargent is still sitting on a prophecy that bodes a kiss that will kill her true love. And Ronan Lynch has just started using a deadly magic to pull things out of his dreams. In line with the series’ first installment, Stiefvater again sets up a careful use of foils for a potent character study––this time of Ronan––but owing to a fumbling of tone with an important supporting character, this one doesn’t cut nearly as deep as its predecessor. But among The Dream Thieves’ familiar charms are haunting visuals, witty and self-aware prose, and a mythic focus, all of which manage to give this volume a lot of what made The Raven Boys so special to begin with.


36. Exo by Fonda Lee

Fonda Lee’s YA take on extraterrestrial occupation is as thoughtful as it is bracing. Exo is set a century after Earth becomes a colony of the hyper-hierarchical zhree, and it follows a young loyalist security officer, Donovan, as he discovers his buried ties to the human rebellion. Lee’s stark, cinematic prose style makes Exo read like a high-caliber summer blockbuster, but this book has its thrilling cake and eats it, too. Lee looks at everything from the class disparity under occupation to the human cost of violent resistance, and Exo emerges from the scrutiny with more questions than answers, rich in nuance and all the better for it. The ensemble, however, is too numerous for Exo’s available page time, and much of it languishes in character soup. Two major family dynamics for Donovan carry a lot of weight, but both feel shirked by a few important beats.


37. Small Favors by Erin A. Craig

Small Favors is fantasy-horror scribe Erin A. Craig’s sophomore work, following the sea-drenched, wind-swept gothic vibes of House of Salt and Sorrows (reviewed here) with a rustic, something-in-the-woods approach to her signature chills. With more darkness coming from our main characters’ neighbors than from any sinister magic, and a much less romantic frontier setting, Small Favors is a very different book, but I found myself engrossed in it even more. Craig uses her setting to make extremely salient commentary on how hardship makes people turn on one another, and the darker undertones to her choice of love story serve to deepen it and make it more memorable. The monster reveal, too, is always a delicate dance in a work of horror, but whatever terror her concept loses in coming into the light is more than made up for in resonance.


38. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

First thing’s first: Matt Haig’s cheesy as hell. But here, it works to his advantage. How to Stop Time stars the functionally immortal Tom Hazard, who’s found himself detached from humanity after centuries of loss and secrecy…until he meets the person who will prove to be the second love of his life. Weaving through history, the book probably has its most fun in flashbacks: Elizabethan England, Jazz-Age Paris, Gilded-Age New York. Where Haig runs into trouble is when he tries to bring a secret society and its accompanying life-and-death stakes to a book he’s committed to steering away from darker territory: every time a gun is pulled in How to Stop Time, it’s a moment of overpowering whiplash. Still, the book’s sincerity lands what it most needs to say––that we can’t shy away from pain, that there’s always more to learn and live for––and does so beautifully.


39. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Published in 1968, A Wizard of Earthsea opens Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, tracing the many voyages of a young sorcerer as he grows into his power. Le Guin’s worldbuilding, first of all, is top-tier: Earthsea comes alive in a totally different way every time we dock at one of its distinctive islands. Filled with tradition, illuminated by a magic system that strikes the perfect balance between order and mystery, and making liberal use of the natural world and its power, this book’s settings are among fantasy’s best. But the execution in this first book, as much as I can appreciate its ideas, is mixed. Its episodic structure makes it difficult for the story to achieve unity, with the lead, Ged’s, character arc feeling more like a set of ideas than a manifest progression of personal change. The prose, though, makes it feel like a gift anyway.


Thank you so much for reading! How was your April in books? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below 💕

What I Read In February

Welcome back to the blog! As we clear another month, I hope you’re doing what brings you joy, whatever form that takes. For my part, I found plenty of joy in the books I picked up this month, and even more in reviewing them 🤓


11. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

This charming comedy of manners, mistaken identity, and ethically dubious pranks is an ever-renewing treat. In it, we meet Viola, who’s just lost her brother in a shipwreck on unfamiliar shores. There, she enters the service of the duke Orsino disguised as a pageboy, and marvelously funny hijinks ensue. Twelfth Night contains some of the most iconic antics, clever uses of dramatic irony, and painfully sincere scenes of pining in all of Shakespeare, and in addition to being a favorite of theatre companies, it’s also a dear one of mine. The last of the Bard’s comedies in my dogged quest to read ‘em all, it proves a fitting swan song for the category that will likely remain first in my heart.


12. Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

Tracing the art form from its courtly inception to its contemporary shifts, Jennifer Homan’s 500-page ballet history is all about one thing: context. This book’s commitment to illuminating ballet against the backdrop of everything else––politics, money, other artistic disciplines––makes it as much a vast chronicle as it is a critic’s look at changes in style and staging. I loved reading Homans’ long chapters of biography interwoven with choreography interwoven with the happenings of the wider world. (Even if it started to wear on me around page 450, where we enter ballet’s 20th-century American heyday, and lose some of the earlier chapters’ perspective and restraint.) All in all, I had a great time, despite ending the book feeling a little like this.


13. Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis

I’m looking to finish more works of classic fantasy this year, and after clearing The Lord of the Rings (again) with much weepy fanfare, I’m arriving at the sequels to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which I read in 2020 and delighted in. My mileage with this next book is mixed, though. We meet the four child heroes of book one, the Pevensie siblings, as they return to the Narnia of their fond and fantastical memories, only to discover centuries passed in their absence and a terrible king on the throne. Their mission, which I found awkwardly paced and anticlimactic, is to help the titular exiled prince to his rightful crown. What Prince Caspian has to its advantage, though, it has in spades: a cast of characters bound by a deep, unwavering love, a tradition steeped in myth and fairy tale, and an adventurous spirit that has its kindred in fantasy books to this day.


14. Half Life by Lillian Clark

YA sci-fi author Lillian Clark conducts a promising experiment in 2020’s Half Life, even if its results aren’t always up to par. Following the 15-year-old perfectionist and Ivy-League aspirant Lucille, the book injects the dilemmas of human cloning into ordinary teenage life, using Lucille and her eventual double to poke holes in both corporate greed and soul-sacrificing personal ambition. As promising as this fusion is, though, doing both has its drawbacks. Neither of these aspects feel like they have enough time, and Lucille’s clone is much fainter of a character than she is. Still, Clark is scarily honest about the aforementioned perfectionism––having been swallowed by it at regular intervals in my past, I often felt a little too Seen.


15. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis

Helmed by the two younger Pevensies, Caspian, and a new character or two on a perilous journey across the sea, the rocky experience of this book’s soaring achievements and punishing failures is genuinely messing with my head. Hysterically funny! Heavy-handed as hell! Magical! Patronizing! Inspired! Infuriating! Though I admire Lewis’ departure from the quest form for something more episodic and fluid, the book’s structure feels unfocused and totally unmoored. Though Eustace Clarence Scrubb and his bah-humbug vibes were some of the most fun I’ve ever had with an ‘unlikeable’ character, I found myself actively cursing the means and timing of his redemption. And, though I love the mysticality and ambiguity of the ending, I take some serious objections to how Lewis uses his mentor figure, Aslan. On the whole, I come down on the side of disliking this book, but given how much potential I found in it, I’m totally bummed about that.


16. Aerie by Maria Dahvana Headley

Aerie is the sequel to Magonia, which follows a girl who discovers her secret heritage as one of the Magonians, a nation of sky sailors whose magic guides the weather over Earth. Both books are filled with song magic, maritime settings re-imagined for the clouds, and lots of identity-flavored angst, but this second book struggles with the climate allegory, and suffers from too much time spent away from our antagonists. Still, the world is as memorable as ever, and the way Headley illuminates the love interests’ flaws is incredibly considerate; one subplot in particular matches much of the first book for emotional depth. While I don’t necessarily think this sequel outpaces its predecessor, it comes damn close. And as far as duologies are concerned, this one is a shining example in its restraint and skillful completion.


17. The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

I think this next entry in the Chronicles of Narnia makes a much better swing at adventure for a lot of reasons, but allow me to begin with the one nearest and dearest to my heart: Eustace Clarence Scrubb is a grouch again, and this is a blessing and a relief. Our other leads, Jill and a Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum, follow suit, showing more flaws, more conflict, and, as a result of both, more memorability than the earlier books’ Pevensie siblings. Also, the settings, villain, and general trajectory of this book are nicely dialed for mythical resonance, novelty, and, above all, focus. It’s fun to see a litany of fresh places in Dawn Treader, but I’d take The Silver Chair’s near-perfect handful over them all any day.


18. King John by William Shakespeare

Following the sequence of the titular characters’ reigns, King John is the first of Shakespeare’s history plays, a collection of cycles, Henriads, and notoriously long run times dramatizing the lives of kings throughout English history. This play starts the category with a bang: it’s a morally complex, ensemble-bolstered interrogation of shaky authority and what an increasingly paranoid king does to keep it. Several of King John’s supporters also undergo expertly-timed disillusionment arcs, with one in particular, a bastard son of the late Richard I, straddling the archetypes of cynical fool and determined young hero in a really interesting way. Some developments feel a little quick (as do a few scenes of tragedy and remorse that dip into melodrama), but the play triumphs overall as a portrait of a deeply flawed ruler.


19. War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi

In a post-apocalyptic Nigeria racked by civil war and scoured by exploitation, War Girls welds a moving odyssey of parted sisters Onyii and Ify to a blistering, hard-edged vision of a futuristic world. With real history and a real Republic of Biafra as a basis, Tochi Onyebuchi constructs an intensely considerate work of sci-fi: he writes riveting scenes of tech-powered combat without ever reducing the casualties of war to thrills, and handles his two leads’ indescribable trauma with care that speaks to their analogues in actual child soldiers. It’s not rare that, through Onyii and her crushing responsibility, Onyebuchi will utterly floor you with a glimpse at the senselessness of war’s waste (a senselessness often accompanied by the greed/apathy/active malice of wealthier countries watching from the sidelines for opportunity). Part III of the book can flag, though. It struck me as sutured onto an incompatible first two thirds––never truly deciding whether it wants to be about consequence or recovery.


Thank you so much for reading! How was your February in books (or anything else)? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕