The Pigeon’s Guide to Reading and Enjoying Shakespeare

Hello and welcome to the blog! If you’ve been around here awhile, you’ll know that I love the works of William Shakespeare: watching them, reading them, and occasionally even performing in them. But they’re not always the most accessible for new readers. Language has changed a lot since they were written, much of their context no longer exists, and even with some schooling behind you, these plays can be demanding reading.

So, today, whether you’re picking up Henry IV because you miss your English class, using Macbeth to fill the If We Were Villains-sized hole in your heart, or trying your hand at Much Ado About Nothing because you’ve heard Beatrice and Benedick are the original idiots-to-lovers (it’s true; they’re legends), I hope I can help you find some joy in my favorite plays of all time. My amateur advice is as follows:


1. Get Some Background

If you were studying your play of choice in a literature class, your professor would give you the low-down: here’s the basic premise, here’s who the characters are, here are some lines from the play, here are a few important scenes. So do the same for yourself! Read the introduction included in your edition if it’s there, watch videos about the play, or otherwise know your characters and your places apart so that Act I, Scene 1 doesn’t throw you into the deep end. There is also no shame in taking notes, which I am known to do! Whatever helps you get what’s happening and when is worth a little extra time.

If you’re looking for some resources, my favorites include:


2. Watch It First!

When it comes to enjoyment, I find Shakespeare is the reverse of most books: always go straight for the movie. (Or, if you’re lucky and have some actual stage productions nearby: go see them, go see them, go see them, go see them!) There are so often depths to these plays that only directors and actors can really convey. For the darker tragedy and history plays, these are the speeches, the fights, the death scenes. For the comedies (my favorites!), this is the physicality and comedic timing that will have you doubling over in your seat if you see them live. Also, if you watch the plays first, you get some faces and voices to put to the character names, which will help you out if you like to visualize scenes while you’re reading. All the plays have at least one version that’s been taped and put on YouTube, but you can also try:


3. Act It Out!

Curling up with a paperback is a lovely way to spend an evening, but I find Shakespeare to reward a reading experience that’s a little more boisterous: there’s nothing like staging a one-man production of King John in your kitchen. If you can get up on your feet and pretend you’re playing one of the characters on stage, I highly recommend it! If you’re only comfortable with whispering the lines to yourself, that’s equally as good. Plays, whether they’re Shakespeare, Hansberry, Gunderson, or Wilde, are meant to be staged, and because of that leave a great deal of interpretation up to you as you read them. This can be as limiting as it is liberating. The difference between the two often lies in how much like an actor you’re willing to think––solo production in your kitchen or no.


4. One Line At A Time

I got this trick from Thinking Shakespeare by Barry Edelstein, a book about how to confront the Bard as an actor. All you need is a bookmark or index card, and whatever text you’re reading. Whatever line you’re on, cover up everything immediately below it, and only move the paper down once you’ve read and more-or-less understood it. Rinse and repeat many hundred times.

By going one line at a time, you force yourself to concentrate on the piece of the task in front of you, instead of seeing the block of text still ahead. It’s a great way to avoid getting overwhelmed, but it also helps you use the line breaks as natural stopping points in a character’s thought process. Take this bit from a soliloquy in Richard II, where the now-deposed king is reflecting on his rule from prison:

Thus play I in one person many people,

[Line break; he thinks about it for a second, spurring on the next line.]

And none contented […]

Act V, Scene 5

Instead of hitting you all at once, these thoughts build upon each other in manageable pieces, and they’re much easier to enjoy one line at a time.


5. You Know More Than You Think

If you like books––scratch that, if you like stories, period––you know Shakespeare. A litany of his plots have been repurposed in books and movies you know like the back of your hand, and you’ve heard the writing quoted hundreds of times, maybe without even registering some of them. Even if you’ve never read or watched one of the plays, their subject matter (life, power, friendship, responsibility, love, mortality!) can speak to you. As unapproachable as the Bard may seem, his plays, along with everything in the storytelling tradition, no matter how distant, belong to all of us. If you want to read the plays, you are absolutely “smart” enough to read the plays.

Never, ever let anyone tell you they’re beyond you.


Thank you so much for reading! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, and––if you want to start reading the plays but don’t know where to go first, I made a quiz that will give you a personal recommendation of one of my favorites 💚 Happy reading!

What I Read In January

Happy February! (And happy premature Valentine’s day!) I hope you got to start your year with a wonderful month of books. Mine was lovely, and I have my fingers crossed for many more like it to come.


1. The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings, the classic fantasy series, marked such an important love in my childhood that it has ripples to this day. Peregrin Took, the hobbit and erstwhile prankster, is the source of my chosen name. I probably owe LOTR most of my current love of fantasy. There was even a brief period in fifth grade where all my notes were written in elf-runes. I’ll admit that this first volume isn’t always on the pacing––it’s obvious why the leisurely first half turns so many readers away––but it has so much else to its favor, from the iconic ensemble, to the immersive scenery, to Tolkien’s committed use of the legendary past, that I often even enjoyed the notorious initial slog.


2. All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare

Not fully a comedy but certainly not a tragedy, All’s Well That Ends Well joins Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida as a problem play, with a tenuous, happy-ish ending and a delicious set of dilemmas that invites wildly different interpretations. Of the trio, though, All’s Well That Ends Well is my favorite. It shows our romantic leads contending with a troubled arranged marriage, critiques toxic masculinity, and even reads at times like a fairy tale…if a very complicated one. But what really puts this play atop its (excellent!) companions is its capacity to be both complex and deeply earnest. Helena, our heroine, is nothing but sincerity, and the ending, should you chose to read it happily, is unwaveringly sappy as hell.


3. A Sorrow Fierce and Falling by Jessica Cluess

This YA historical fantasy (mostly) sticks the landing for the Kingdom on Fire trilogy, an intrigue-heavy take on Victorian England in which three magical traditions must unite to face an army of interdimensional demons…or perish. I lead with the worldbuilding here because it’s Jessica Cluess’ greatest strength: the three hierarchies, and the fraught history between them, make for an engrossing look at old institutions floundering in crisis. That drama, far more than the monster stuff, is what really animates A Sorrow Fierce and Falling. The monster stuff, in fact, is the source of most of its weaknesses. Sometimes vivid and harrowing, but mostly oversimplified and under-articulated, the fantastical threat itself doesn’t pull all that much weight, but luckily for this book, its political and personal scaffolding make up a fair part of the difference.


4. The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

This panoramic sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring makes a world’s worth of worthy additions to its predecessor. Taking the ring to Mordor––and protecting the rest of Middle-Earth in the meantime––loses what remains of its optimistic, early-quest luster for something much more perilous, and, I think, much richer. As we see the effects of Sauron’s mustering more closely, the industrialization-weary subtext comes into starker relief. As things darken on the horizon, the characters’ conviction in protecting what, and who, they love shines with a sincerity that puts The Two Towers firmly into tear-jerker territory. I cried often, and generously, though this reading, and that’s to say nothing of book three. 😭 😭


5. Red Tigress by Amélie Wen Zhao

The sequel to 2019’s YA fantasy Blood Heir, Red Tigress also makes a rewarding go at expanding the world of its series, following the exiled princess Anastacya as she tries to gather allies in her bid for the throne. The villains are iffy, and the climax is clumsy and drawn-out, but on the whole, Red Tigress is a well-structured fantasy of political intrigue, and it makes a keen use of character that speaks well to Zhao’s talent for cutting to the heart of things, something she swings with equal prowess as a worldbuilder and as a chronicler of people. Red Tigress is actually slightly shorter than Blood Heir, but because it does that expansion so well, it feels a lot bigger. (Reviewed here.)


6. The Hawthorne Legacy by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

While it veers often into soapy territory, this sequel to 2020’s The Inheritance Games makes three crucial improvements on its predecessor: higher emotional stakes for the love triangle, a more personal slant to the late-stage twists, and a banter-y group dynamic that lets the puzzles get more dangerous while, paradoxically, the general tone veers very light. It may seem an odd approach for a sequel whose subject matter is a little darker, but in all things, Jennifer Lynn Barnes errs on the side of maximum fun, yielding another volume of pure popcorn that reads splendidly in three sittings or less.


7. Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

Based off of characters from the Iliad, Troilus and Cressida follows the ill-fated love of a Trojan prince and the daughter of a defector to the Greeks, as the war over Helen of Troy drags on with progressively less purpose. It’s bitter for its shaky place among the comedies (and just bitter, period), but that’s part of its appeal: Shakespeare paints a frustratingly modern picture of a conflict that persists only because it’s been persisting, and his pretty open disdain for the entire cast allows him to put them all under harsh scrutiny, a boon that very nearly makes up for the fact that it’s difficult to get attached to them as I would plenty of the Bard’s other ensembles. Lots of the characters typically seen as “noble” in tales of the Trojan War are shallow, stupid, and inconsistent here––but after centuries of deification, maybe they need to be.


8. The Return of the King by William Shakespeare

If I think the Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers are good (an understatement), I think The Return of the King is marvelous (also an understatement). Tolkien’s writing continues to inhabit a well-chosen crossroads in a visibly vast history, and, line-by-line, his prose again allows place and time to marinate in a reading experience that’s downright luxurious by modern standards, but the soul of this final book, in comparison to the first two, is something truly special. It shows us loss and stewardship; responsibility and resilience, with an urgency unlike anything Tolkien accomplished before. The long ending, in contrast to the extended beginning, feels wholly purposeful, standing as one of the deepest catharses I’ve ever read. I’ve been feeling the past Frodo can’t return to since I turned that last page, and I doubt I’ll ever recover.


9. Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen

I’m still chewing on this one. Ibsen, the 19th century Norwegian playwright behind A Doll’s House, tackles a heroine familiarly at odds with the expectations of marriage and motherhood in this later play, but Hedda’s chafing is harsher. Rather than suffocating in her role, she lashes out at it by setting those around her against each other and watching the resulting fires from afar. While I like the unrestrained take on a woman who feels genuinely trapped, Ibsen handles her with too much of a bent towards sensation. The ending feels abrupt and irresponsibly trivializing, and I think the play sets out to shock us, rather than turning our eyes towards the structures of power they need to see underneath the spectacle.


10. Star-Touched Stories by Roshani Chokshi

Set in the vivid, enthralling world of Roshani Chokshi’s Star-Touched Queen duology, this lovely trio of novellas is the best sort of gift: the kind you are not clever enough to ask for. Two feature familiar faces, and one does not, but all three are a testament to how well Chokshi uses conflict to give her characters exactly what they need, whether it’s the courage required to love in the face of loss, or a willingness to offer one’s true self at the risk of rejection. While they don’t quite reach the emotional power of Chokshi’s preceding novels, all the magical delights are there, and this addition to the Star-Touched world is orders of magnitude more than just a few cameos. (My favorite story was Rose and Sword! Chokshi’s use of a framing device to contend with the coming of the inevitable is just genius.)


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

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Winter 2021 To-Read List

Top Ten Tuesday is a series hosted on That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we’re looking ahead to yet another season of books I hope I’ll finish (feel free to poke me until I do)…


1. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Immensely popular among my bookish friends, Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series has been imposed onto my radar for some time. Following Blue Sargent, a non-psychic from a family full of seers, and an ensemble of private school boys obsessed with the burial site of a legendary Welsh king, the series’ devoted fans are legion, and I look forward to finding out whether I’ll be among them. My history of fantasy with paranormal leanings is mixed, but having just begun the book, I’m intrigued. Stiefvater’s prose is witty and apt, and she paints her many characters vividly, albeit with a broad and hurried brush. If my first impressions are to be trusted, I’m in for a treat.


2. As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Still making my way through my Complete Works, I find myself eagerly awaiting this one: a lighthearted pastoral full of romantic misadventures and home to one of Shakespeare’s most iconic settings, the Forest of Arden. I saw it staged years ago, and little memory of the plot remains, but I can always find something to love in the Bard’s comedies, and I shall be bereft when I’ve made my way through them all and there are no new ones left to discover.


3. Gilded by Marissa Meyer

Marissa Meyer, the author of The Lunar Chronicles, Renegades, and, most recently, Instant Karma, pretty much owns me now, and I’ve made my peace with it. Her new book, Gilded, is a venture into the realm of fantasy and a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, promising deadly court intrigue and sinister magic. For my tastes, Meyer is fairly dependable for great character dynamics and vibrant worldbuilding, and I’m eager to see how these talents express themselves in her return to fantasy (which she visited briefly with 2016’s standalone, Heartless).


4. The Excalibur Curse by Kiersten White

First things first: I love the Camelot Rising trilogy and I wish it didn’t have to end. But, if it must, I have high hopes for its concluding volume. Kiersten White’s approach to beloved figures from Arthuriana is fresh, compelling, and often even surprising. The domestic-minded approach of her worldbuilding––special attention to young women and maidservants, an element of domestic labor entwined with the magic––gives a well-trod legend appropriate new focus. I would be remiss, however, if I neglected to mention my deep investment in the romance department: I’ve spent the past year on the edge of my seat over Guinevere’s endgame, and if it’s not Arthur, I’ll be devastated (but, because it’s Kiersten White, in a good way).


5. Red Tigress by Amélie Wen Zhao

The sequel to her 2019 debut fantasy Blood Heir, Amélie Wen Zhao’s Red Tigress follows the Crown Princess Anastacya as she tries to wrest back control of her troubled kingdom. Zhao’s is precisely the kind of fantasy I need to return to every now and then: bloody, detailed, and far more about the criminal underbelly of her Russian-inspired Cyrilian Empire than it is about the throne rooms and royal soirées. While the royal power struggle didn’t immediately grab me, the rebellion subplot––and the ethical complexity of the charismatic romantic lead––did, and I’m eager to see where the sequel takes us.


6. A Sorrow Fierce and Falling by Jessica Cluess

The final volume of Cluess’ Kingdom on Fire trilogy, A Sorrow Fierce and Falling, takes place in a Victorian England teeming with inter-dimensional monsters, where the magic needed to defeat them is caught in a reductive, repressive class system that’s sustained a litany of strategic losses in the face of crisis. In the first two books, Cluess makes quick work of stringing excellent tension amidst her courtly drama, while also astutely critiquing the system that created it. Even though the second book, A Poison Dark and Drowning, fumbles some of book one’s promise, I look forward to devouring book three. Enthralling worldbuilding, compelling dynamics, and a fraught web of romantic entanglements are sure to make this one a delight.


7. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Here’s something I doubt you know about me: I was obsessed with The Lord of the Rings as a fifth grader. In the meantime, I’ve let my obsession rest, but, having re-read The Hobbit last year, I think it’s finally time to rekindle my love of Middle Earth. Coming to it as an adult with more-developed tastes is bound to be an interesting experience, but, if anything, the years I’ve spent in fantasy better prepare me to appreciate where much of it came from. A few more fond memories, though, wouldn’t hurt, either.


8. Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans

I’m, admittedly, rather weak on nonfiction, but this thick, extensive history of ballet by a dance critic whose work I admire caught my eye a while back. Stretching hundreds of years and packing an impressive bibliography, Apollo’s Angels intimidates me, but I’m apt to the challenge. In the past year, I’ve been loving all things ballet: taped productions from Sleeping Beauty to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, documentaries like A Ballerina’s Tale and Ballet 422, and now, hopefully, books! I can’t promise I’ll become a prolific nonfiction tome reader from now on, but, fingers crossed––this looks like a promising start.


9. Star-Touched Stories by Roshani Chokshi

Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a spellbinding, lyrical fantasy with immaculate prose, and its companion novel, A Crown of Wishes, is even better. Star-Touched Stories, a collection of short stories from the world of both, is a tantalizing offer for a lover of the books, and I was thrilled to discover it after finishing A Crown of Wishes with the distinct suspicion that I’d never recover. Chokshi, as mentioned, writes beautifully, and I can’t wait to see her fairy-tale flair put to use in the medium of short story.


10. A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde

I loved Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, so it’s only natural that I continue on in my anthology and make my way to another, no doubt, delightful comedy of manners. I’m looking forward to another jaunt with Wilde’s banger dialogue, and I’m always down for a 19th-century social satire, so this’ll make for a fitting play to round out the year. I’m also eager to see if it unseats Lady Windermere’s Fan as the reigning favorite––though it’s the least popular of Wilde’s “drawing room” plays, I have high hopes.


Thank you so much for reading! What are your winter reading plans? Have read/want to read anything on this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Fall 2021 To-Read List

Top Ten Tuesday is a series hosted on That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we’re looking ahead to a season of books I hope I’ll finish (feel free to poke me until I do)…


1. Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood

If you’ve read my incoherent babbling about Jane Eyre, you know I have a taste for the gothic, and Lauren Blackwood’s debut, an Ethiopian-inspired fantasy set in an old castle beset by a curse, looks poised to check each and every one of those boxes. Atmospheric, eerie fantasy in step with House of Salt and Sorrows and Down Comes The Night (which I also have to get to!) has seen a surge lately, and I couldn’t be happier to see this trend culminate in a fresh, diverse take on a time-honored setup. Sketchy manor, possible ghosts, and romantic tension? I’m in.


2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I’m still getting a taste for my opinion on Dickens’ canon. A while back, I read Our Mutual Friend, which I loved up until the last hundred pages, and A Tale of Two Cities, which I enjoyed all the way through, if rather mildly. Great Expectations, his penultimate complete novel, contains one of his most iconic characters in Miss Havisham and, in general, gets talked about a lot, so I’m anxious to see where I stand on it. It’s been too long since I’ve picked up a 19th-century doorstopper, frankly.


3. If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio

Dark academia is very popular at the moment, but I think there’s a lot of potential in a similar subgenre, one with the psychological toll of the performing arts in the spotlight instead. M. L. Rio’s literary thriller follows a clique of Shakespearean actors reeling from a murder, and deeply beloved as it is in my bookish circles, I think it’s high time I crack it open and give it a try. If nothing else, my ego will have a field day feeling clever for spotting all the references.


4. Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward, the young-adult space epic from Brandon Sanderson, has totally devoured my life. The deep love I have for Spensa and her wonderful supporting cast knows no bounds, and I have been reeling from the cliffhanger at the end of Starsight since I turned that last page. (Reviewed in my August wrap-up here.) I’m anxious to see where Sanderson takes us after that jarring and ambitious turn, and even more anxious to jump into another rousing adventure through a galaxy that’s become one of my new favorites to play in.


5. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South, Gaskell’s clear-eyed romance set in the North of England in a time of industry and turmoil, is beloved for a reason: with a strong moral core and powerful character dynamics, it’s a punch in the gut in the best way possible. Mary Barton is her first novel, similarly concerned with love, labor and class, and I can’t wait to dive in. In my limited experience with books from the 1840s, they’ve reliably tended to slap.


6. A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger

Last year’s Elatsoe (reviewed here), a brilliant murder mystery with a fabulist twist, was a rare treat. Following Ellie, a Lipan Apache teenager who uncovers a magical conspiracy with the help of her dog’s ghost, it offers a surprising combination of elements that seem like they shouldn’t work together, but do, and like a dream, at that. Little Badger’s follow-up, a fantasy that takes its cues from Lipan Apache storytelling, sounds magnificent. If it’s anything like her first, I’ll be absolutely falling over myself with praise.


7. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I’m about halfway through Jane Austen’s body of work––Mansfield Park I adored, Persuasion I was rather fond of, and Emma…we don’t discuss. Sense and Sensibility doesn’t get talked about as often as its all-but-ubiquitous sister, Pride and Prejudice, but it has its loyal fans all the same, and for my part, I hope to be one of them. I’ll say this right now, though: I doubt it’ll top Mansfield Park (very little can).


8. The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

At great injury to my pride, this wildly popular series has won my heart in its entirety. (The saga is chronicled here.) Alas, all things must end, and it’s time for me to make my way to the divisive final book. I can’t say with any conviction what I think my opinion will be, but as it stands now, it’s been far too long since I’ve read about Jude Duarte, and I’m itching to return to Faerie, especially because that plot twist at the end of The Wicked King was just rude, on Holly Black’s part. Honestly.


9. Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

For the past couple months, I’ve been making my way through my ancient Complete Works at about a play a week, and after adoring Measure for Measure, I’ve grown ever more intrigued by the two other comedies classified as “problem plays,” stories with a happy ending, technically, that still tow the line between comedy and tragedy. All three are later plays, generally thought to hold a healthy dose of complexity and contradiction, and with how gracefully Measure for Measure straddled these tonal opposites, I can only hope that Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet‘s more cynical cousin, serves up the same. I’m equally excited for All’s Well That End’s Well, though.


10. The Faithless Hawk by Margaret Owen

This sequel to Margaret Owen’s The Merciful Crow has a promising point of departure. I’m always down for overthrowing the reigning monarch in fantasy, and with Owen’s tightly-controlled scope and thoughtful take on magical caste at the helm, The Faithless Hawk‘s odds look really good. I’m hoping the prose holds up a little better in action scenes, but even if it doesn’t, there’s a lot to love about this story: dialect woven gracefully into the narration, a slow-burn, platonic hate-to-begrudging-respect subplot, and of course, the cat. I would die for Barf without hesitation. ❤


Thus ends the first TBR post of any kind I’ve written for the blog! How are your fall reading plans? I’d love to hear about the books you’re looking forward to, or your thoughts on any of mine, in the comments 💕

Let’s Talk Bookish: What Is One Book Everyone Must Read?

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly discussion series hosted by Rukki @ Eternity Books and Dani @ Literary Lion. This week’s topic was suggested by Mikaela @ Mikaela Reads!


Reader, you knew this was coming.

What can a humble soul like mine do with the opportunity to tell you to read any book of my choosing, other than put forth my very favorite, my ride-or-die, my dearest, most beloved rant-starter––

I say this with all the conviction I can muster: you simply must get your hands on a copy of Jane Eyre.

When I did, in high school, it wrenched me out of my teenage stupor and showed me what magic looked like. I clung to my Vintage paperback edition, the one with the silhouette on the cover, desperate to discover if this guarded but deeply passionate girl would find the belonging she so craved. I wept when it escaped her and wept harder when it found her again.

I can’t say for certain whether the magic will strike you the same way, but I’ve collected five of what I think are the book’s best qualities for your perusal, and it is my delicate hope that you’ll find at least one of them will leave an impression on you in the pages of my favorite book.

1. Charlotte Brontë Writes Some Banger Prose

It’s often said that Jane Eyre is ahead of its time (it was published in 1847) for the agency it gives its female lead, but I’m of the opinion that its most modern sensibilities lie elsewhere: in its writing style.

Where I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d always find the classics I read to be dense and distant, the immediacy of Jane Eyre, the intuitive flow of its paragraphs, and the deeply personal way we get to connect with Jane as a narrator struck up a match against my mostly YA, mostly fantasy sensibilities, and brought me to a place where I could finally find myself in the books of the past.

This is why I’m always naming it as a great first-time classic, despite its length. Its digressions are artful, and not overwhelming. Its descriptions are rich, but pared down just enough to keep a deliberate, never-faltering pace.

I’m still amazed by how quickly the hypnotism of the first page sets in: two paragraphs and I’ve sunk into the book entirely. I’d never had a classic come to me so naturally before, and the best part? Every other classic has come to me more naturally since.

2. Jane Eyre Is The Gothic Standard

If you like dark, lonely manors with dubious histories, possible(?) ghosts, and fires with no discernible cause (or is there?), Jane Eyre is the best of the best. Brontë is an expert at using her setting to the fullest: from Lowood, the dreary boarding school where Jane spends her childhood, to Thornfield Hall, the mysterious estate where she finds work as a governess, every detail is gorgeously rendered.

The vivid atmosphere of Jane Eyre is precisely what I mean when I say books set in our world use worldbuilding, too. Brontë perfectly externalizes Jane’s inner turmoil with her brilliant use of weather and landscape, the very world built to give us her complexity made manifest.

I should mention, though, her handling of the maybe-paranormal is also excellent. She lets us sit with the discomfort of not knowing what is or isn’t, strictly, real, and the natures of some of her phantoms even go undefined permanently, yielding some wickedly fun arguments about just how much of the supernatural Brontë’s world allows.

3. The Romance!! Ugh THEM!

No discussion of Jane Eyre would be complete without touching on its complicated––and controversial––main couple. To those who find a power dynamic in a romantic subplot to be iffy, the Jane/Rochester thing most certainly will not be your cup of tea, but your honor I love them!!1!!!

For the uninitiated, Edward Rochester is the surly, secretive guardian of Adèle, the child Jane comes to Thornfield to teach, and over the course of her stay there, Jane develops a truly devastating crush on him that had me putting down the book to dry heave into the abyss over, because the Yearning was just too much.

Jane and Rochester are the slow burn of all slow burns, the blueprint of every stalwart-heroine-meets-absolute-Byronic-disaster pairing (Reylos, Jurdan shippers, and/or Darklinas, listen the fuck up), and they have absolutely wrecked my shit.

If any of this sounds good to you, you should’ve picked up Jane Eyre yesterday. I expect a full report on my desk next week.

4. …But There’s Also A Standout Supporting Cast

Despite my, uh, strong words about our romantic leads, neither actually wears the crown of my favorite character. That honor, dear reader, goes to St. John Rivers, an ethically conflicted priest who has a substantial role in the last third of the book. I find him so compelling because he illuminates what I consider to be the book’s central question (though this has been a point of contention for almost two hundred years’ worth of readers, mind you): in the face of our happiness as individuals, how much stock should we put into structures of conventional morality?

St. John (hence the profession) is used really elegantly in Brontë’s exploration of what it means, and what it costs, to devote yourself in totality to a doctrine. He’s a great foil to the fraught relationship with religion Jane’s childhood gave her, and a deliciously complicated subplot all his own, besides.

Beyond him, his sisters Diana and Mary, Helen Burns, Mrs. Fairfax, Blanche Ingram, and Adèle are always a pleasure to revisit, and I glean more from them every time.

5. It Doesn’t Tidily Fit Into One Interpretation, And That’s Great, Actually

If you’re familiar with the book, you might notice one very conspicuous absence in all my gushing about it: I’ve made no mention at all of Bertha, a supporting character whose very spoilery role in the story has been the subject of much debate. If you happen to share my interpretation and don’t allow for any contradictions, she more or less gets erased in your reading of the book, and there’s really no accounting for her in a way that shines a favorable light on some of the other characters.

Is she the shadow to Jane’s conflicted soul? What about her feelings, then? Is she the narrative’s condemnation of [redacted]? Why, then, does that person get to [spoiler]?

If you let it, Brontë’s apparent neglect on Bertha’s part can grow to encompass, and then, effectively, ruin your reading experience, but if you take your cues from her handling of the maybe-paranormal, maybe-not elements, there’s room for plenty of contradictions in the world this book builds. Bertha, in fact, is the one who makes room for them: this is the right thing to do, but yet this is the consequence.

I don’t think I fully appreciated this until Brontë’s last novel, Villette, found its way into my hands this summer, with intentional contradictions abounding. Looking back at Jane Eyre, it became my favorite all the more, even considering the fair fight Villette gave it.

It’s just too splendid of a book to ever have true competition in my eyes, and, in the end, I love it far too well to foist anything else into your hands.

Enjoy, reader. You have quite the treat ahead of you.


Join the conversation! Have you read Jane Eyre? What did you think? And, if there is one book you think everyone must read, what is it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 💕

What I Read in June

Happy July, everyone! My summer is off to a pleasant, if not incredible, start where reading is concerned: I read 10 books this month, with a tad more sci-fi and nonfiction on offer than usual. This month’s books showed me distant planets, mathematical oddities, and re-imagined monsters, and I thoroughly enjoyed (most of) the experience.


45. Spinning Starlight by R. C. Lewis

Holding this book against the author’s wickedly fun space-opera “Snow White” retelling, Stitching Snow, there’s really no comparison: Spinning Starlight is less focused, less adventurous, and suffers from a truly dreadful case of supporting character soup. When it breaks the yoke of these flaws, however, there are some marvelous ideas in store, and R. C. Lewis’ use of alien technology, coupled with her intriguing variations on the original fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans,” make for a fascinating sci-fi, if not always a thrilling one. I was also rather fond of the predicament of our main character, Liddi, who’s a tech heiress with no preternatural engineering abilities to her name, though, like a few other of Lewis’ intriguing concepts, Spinning Starlight would’ve done well to explore it more. (Reviewed here.)


46. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Absolutely packed with examples and brimming with the author’s careful study of pop culture, this writing enchiridion proved to be one of the month’s unexpected treats. In breaking from craft-book tradition, The Anatomy of Story tackles symbolism and setting before it even touches plot, and the resulting approach––deeply concerned with meaning, and content to wait for structure to emerge organically from there––holds an allure that almost makes up for the fact that I had to read a 20-page scene-by-scene summary of a movie I have not, and will never, see. Almost.


47. The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

As an early foray into adult sci-fi (I’m trying to branch out), Becky Chambers’ warm, inviting, expansive first Wayfarers novel is a wonderful choice. In it, we meet a hodgepodge, banter-y crew and journey with them on a politically dangerous (but financially rewarding) mission to war-torn territory at the heart of the galaxy, with stops at sketchy black markets and deserted outposts along the way. The book is rip-roaring and eventful when it needs to be, but it’s also great at letting its characters slow down and bond with one another. Like with most of my favorite spacefaring science fiction, it’s in the combination that it shines.


48. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This wildly popular work of literary fiction is so far from my cup of tea it’s almost Sisyphean to fully articulate my quarrels with it, but here goes: I could not finish this book fast enough. The supporting cast is nothing but a shallow cluster of canvases for the fears and neuroses of our romantic leads, said romantic leads seem to have nothing to live for or want besides each other, and the book employs time travel in only the most basic of ways, that last strike being so extreme as to render its trivial complications the fatal ones. Ultimately, I found it to be hardly a compelling sci-fi, and even less a stirring love story.


49. Hilda and the Stone Forest by Luke Pearson

Being so attached to the animated series, it’s near-impossible to separate it from its source material, particularly where it concerns an expansion on theme, and the addition of some marvelous supporting players. Against the series, the graphic novel feels wanting in scope and emotional intensity, but its fresh use of familiar fantasy concepts and enticing, eerie setting make for an absorbing reading experience nonetheless. Author and illustrator Luke Pearson’s keen sense of whimsy unites the cozy and the creepy in a magical world that’s always beckoning to be returned to, for both its familiar comfort and its exciting possibilities.


50. Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Cathy Park Hong’s essay collection explores the Asian American experience with both a broad sweep and a concentrated punch, just as personal as it is political, and deeply concerned with the potent harm contained in white America’s thoughtlessness. Minor Feelings isn’t content to let any flippant remark rest, not where are you really from, not Asians are next in line to be white, and not the U.S.’s supposed “post-racial” state. Armed with the potent language of poetry and the careful eye of cultural criticism, the book is both engrossing and revelatory, right to its searing final page.


51. Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno

Katrina Leno’s magical seaside coming-of-age story holds all the trappings of a grounded, atmospheric work of contemporary fantasy––and none of the substance. The start is subtle and intriguing enough, but after an inciting incident near the halfway mark (!!!), a failure to fully articulate the stakes sends the book into a tailspin. Whatever charm Summer of Salt held at curtain is lost in a climax that feels forced and a halfhearted grasp at theme that skips the most promising aspects of the book’s concept in favor of the straight and narrow path.


52. Captive by Aimee Carter

The sequel to Aimee Carter’s 2013 YA dystopian, Pawn, this second installment in the Blackcoat Rebellion trilogy was always going to be steeped in the tradition of The Hunger Games‘ many imitators, but that’s precisely how I like it. The soapy dramas of future America’s treacherous ruling family, coupled with a syrupy-sweet love triangle and the revolution-lite vibes of its climax, make Captive compulsively readable fun for those who still linger at the literary graveyard of the frothy teen dystopian––and an inexplicable choice for everyone else. Still, its emphasis on blaming evil on the system rather than on the bad actors it created is refreshing, and save for its trite parent reveal and numerous death-cheats, it’s a great time.


53. Flatland by Edwin Abbott

This slim volume of mathematical fiction is hardly more than a day’s worth of reading, but Edwin Abbott’s explanation-over-plot style made it a trial to finish. We follow A. Square as he guides us through his home world of only two dimensions for several dozen pages of digression, clarification, and elaboration before finally getting to the “good stuff.” (At what cost?) Anyhow, the book clearly isn’t intended to be an adventure or a character study, but even held as a work of hypothetical curiosity, or satire, it’s wholly unfulfilling, and burdened by a straight-laced, rote approach to worldbuilding, besides.


54. Hilda and the Mountain King by Luke Pearson

It is pure serendipity that the only graphic novel out in the current Hilda series yet to be adapted is far and away the best. Though it follows a huge cliffhanger, Hilda and the Mountain King is, on its own, a complete and fulfilling tale, re-examining the role of stone trolls, one of the series’ magical staples, for a conclusion that’s as satisfying as it is challenging, and as dark as it is fanciful. Bolstered by a careful use of color and Pearson’s trademark visual charm, it’s hard to imagine the fun but simple first volume exploding out into something this complex, but that’s all the more reason to start there and savor the series as it grows. (Besides, of course, waiting on more from Netflix.)


Thank you for reading! If you’re so tempted, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. How was your reading month?

I Gently Entreat You To Read “The Book of Three”

With a 60th anniversary in the offing, Lloyd Alexander’s 1964 The Book of Three is predictably familiar, having been published only ten years after The Lord of the Rings‘ inaugural volume, in an era before we as a society collectively ran archetypal, medieval-inspired, hero’s journey quest fantasy into the ground. I say this lovingly, for the sake of anyone on the hunt for something fresh, surprising, or staggering from their fantasy: this one ain’t it.

There is, however, a different kind of virtue in a story that knows precisely what works about the tried and true, and if that’s what you’re looking for, The Book of Three has it in spades: a restless and unready hero whose inexperience actually shows. A band of adventurers whose friendship develops in a subtle yet satisfying slow burn. Magic that, while relatively straightforward in this first installment, hints at depths yet to be explored.

When we meet Taran, a kid who works the pens and anvils at the castle of Caer Dallben, it’s practically inevitable that some mishap will send him careening into a quest in Prydain, the fantasy world where the book is set, with a dangerous mission and even more dangerous pursuers, but one of the joys of The Book of Three is that it never truly stops feeling accidental. Taran, as eager a hero as he might be, is never done making mistakes, having his sheltered assumptions challenged, and––this is possibly my favorite part––putting up with an earful from his traveling companions.

It takes a deft hand to craft a group dynamic that constantly trades flack without it feeling mean-spirited or angled at a particular member, but Lloyd Alexander manages it well, even considering the additions of two comedic relief characters, the Gollum-like (but not quite as antagonistic) Gurgi, and the flighty-king-turned-bard Fflewddur Fflam, whose harp breaks a string in protest every time he tells a flagrant lie. (This conceit sounds cheesy, but it’s actually quite funny in execution.)

Gurgi, especially, presents a danger, with his habitual groveling, of making our main characters look like bullies, but Alexander is careful to make Taran––the youngest, the antsiest, and the most naïve––the keeper of most of the impatience, lending the book a chance to use Taran’s interactions with Gurgi as a tool of character. It pays off in warm, fuzzy found-family feelings the same way some of the ribbing from the other characters does, when we get to the end and discover that the irritability of strangers forced to work together has become the good-natured teasing of friends right under our noses.

Gwydion, the ragged prince Taran meets on the road at the beginning, is an excellent choice as a mentor for this very reason. The wizened, all-powerful sorcerers and kings mostly occupy the margins in The Book of Three, leaving the role of the guide to a character who hasn’t yet come into his own as a ruler, and is thus a a wanderer in this world, same as Taran, seeking a place arm-in-arm with our untitled, everykid hero.

Not only does this nurture the closeness of the group dynamic; it also allows Gwydion to act as a protector on terms of equality, less a father figure than an older brother type, and every bit the begrudging guardian recent pop culture has made us so fond of.

This assessment is incomplete, however, without Eilonwy, the niece of a minor antagonist, who is truly the bitterly complaining glue that holds this ensemble together. About the same age as Taran, she’s whip-smart but not above hurling a few insults, the perfect bantery remedy for when things get a little too comfortable around here.

Eilowny works brilliantly as a foil to Taran––where he’d give almost anything to be of noble birth and poised to be a mover and shaker in this world, Eilonwy very thoroughly wants no part of it––but she’s also an excellent character in her own right, owing to the breadth of Alexander’s characterization. Like Fflewddur Fflam, she’s a study in feeling constrained by, and ultimately fleeing, one’s title. Once she does, she also functions as an effective young hero, capable of fending for herself but not then infallible, or instantly an expert in unfamiliar territory. She’s impulsive, hasty, uncertain, and, as is to be expected, rather new at this sort of thing.

Not every fantasy character needs to fumble the sword, of course, but it can be easier to root for a genuine novice because that experience honestly cuts closer to the heart than expertise. Though it isn’t necessarily a weakness where a story offers us over-competence, it certainly works to The Book of Three‘s advantage that even in the final battle, our intrepid pre-teen leads aren’t entirely equipped on their own, and they’re only a small part of the hand that deals the victory. (This plays into the very spoiler-y role of a certain sword, and the wonderfully resonant context of the first time it’s drawn.)

For a story that otherwise deals in the well-executed familiar, this one focused subversion, in writing a hero who is very visibly not a chosen one, becomes its greatest asset. Despite Taran’s uncertain and possibly noble parentage, he reads wholly like the unprepared, ordinary kid he is, and real, substantive, plot-affecting mistakes, something a great deal of recent fantasy lacks, absolutely litter his hero’s journey, making every small victory all the more satisfying––because the plot isn’t sworn to give it to him.

In tandem with this, Alexander’s restraint where it concerns scale sets the stage for a promising direction in the sequels. Arawn, our all-powerful villain, has yet to show face, and the goal in this volume is a far cry from the high stakes we’ll likely encounter later, but the foundational work seems poised to yield a believable expansion in scope, and that’s more than can be said for a work that deals in world-ending stakes right out of the gate, like Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid: from there, you have nowhere left to go.

Prydain, however, is still wide open. I can’t wait to see where it leads us.