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 know 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, with the help of her dog’s ghost, uncovers a conspiracy in a magical America mostly like our own, 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.