What I Read In December, Part II

Hello, and welcome to the blog! Last week, I shared the books I read earlier last month, and today, I’m wrapping up the wrap-up with seven more. The second half of the month had a fun mix of titles, a few delightful surprises, and the 120 books milestone! Without any further ado, I’m thrilled to be sharing it with you:


114. A Snake Falls To Earth by Darcie Little Badger

Set in both our world and in a perilous realm of shapeshifters and spirits, Darcie Little Badger’s follow up to 2020’s wildly inventive Elatsoe is somehow even more ambitious. A Snake Falls to Earth juggles a sizable ensemble, a climate allegory, two coming-of-age stories, a race to rescue an endangered species, and a viral video subplot: a valiant effort that’s impressive just in the undertaking, but comes at a sizable cost. Little Badger’s worldbuilding, and the way she weaves the paranormal into the mundane with charmingly practical considerations, remains a strength in her writing, as does the richness she brings to her Lipan Apache lead’s depiction, but in the end, A Snake Falls To Earth tries to carry so much that things feel like they get dropped. The aforementioned viral video subplot reads haphazardly, the ensemble is cramped in its limited page time, and the inclusion of a vague, never-seen villain faces the book’s suspense with obstacles it can’t overcome.


115. The Excalibur Curse by Kiersten White

This series finale for The Guinevere Deception is bound to frustrate some of its readers: Kiersten White opts for the vastly unexpected in answering her trilogy’s questions, from Guinevere’s true identity to the rightful course of her future, and not everyone who liked the first two books will be happy with how the cards fall in The Excalibur Curse. For my part, though, I had the time of my life. White’s Arthuriana is rich with love, duty, and sacrifice, and her moral dilemmas are well-poised to ask the most of her characters in thoughtful ways, including and especially when she puts them at odds. Her refusal to give Guinevere (and us!) every answer makes for a refreshing take on a mythos whose familiar patterns often feel set in stone, and the nuance The Excalibur Curse brings to its tenuous happy ending, is, strikingly, more gratifying than certainty could ever hope to be.


116. A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde

Going into this play expecting something as riotously funny as Wilde’s The Important of Being Earnest is a mistake, but, if you’re attentive, you’ll un-make it as soon as you realize what else A Woman of No Importance has to offer. High-brow quips and their jaded upper-class deliverers corner the stage at first, but as the story progresses, Wilde pulls off a perspective shift that interrogates the people we instinctively center, and asks us to reconsider the play’s forgotten women––calling particular attention to the way both rigid morality and cynical amorality fail them. Admittedly, the wealthy-nihilist characters tend to blend together, but the core cast and their ties are rendered very keenly, with special regard to Hester Worsley, a dour Mary Bennet type who could’ve easily been wasted as nothing more than comedic relief.


117. This Book Is Not Good For You by Pseudonymous Bosch

Pseudonymous Bosch’s Secret Series is one of the 2000s’ many militantly quirky middle grade sagas. You know the type: takes after A Series of Unfortunate Events, narrated by a snippy author character who likes to address the audience, puts its hyper-competent child leads adrift in a sea of comically evil or downright oblivious adults. How This Book Is Not Good For You lands in this sub-category, I can’t firmly say, but on its own, it’s enjoyable, albeit in a very selective way: if a mystery in which three precocious middle schoolers are pursuing a sinister chocolatier and his army of bean-sorting capuchins is precisely what you’re looking for, read it. If not, and I cannot stress this enough, don’t. These books are unabashedly weird and make use of their setpieces in a way that dubiously evokes Wes Anderson, two statements that can’t even begin to express how diligently Bosch hams it up––and how little he cares if you’re tired of the schtick.


118. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

Another entry into Shakespeare’s notorious trilogy of yikes (accompanying The Merchant of Venice and Othello), this tale of a braggart marrying and “taming” a loud/violent/hysterical woman is precisely what it’s been criticized for over the years: sexist, reductive, and, when staged to the letter, cringe-inducing. That said, there’s something that makes me want to return to it anew. The idea of Katherine finding the love she’s been denied in someone who doesn’t make a show of being afraid of her is compelling, and if the staging makes an effort to show how wrong Petruchio is in trying to “tame” her, I could see it being a delightful watch. (With the allowance made, of course, that all of this must work against a misogynist original text.) For me, it’s fun for Shakespeare’s language, the breadth of potential interpretation, and the skill of his humor, but I don’t blame anyone else for not feeling this way, and, yeah, okay, maybe this shouldn’t be one of his most popular.


119. Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson

Held against the highs of the first two installments in Brandon Sanderson’s YA space opera, Cytonic, as solid a work as it is, can’t help but be a letdown. For one thing, Sanderson opts to start from the ground up and craft a lovable ragtag team in a wholly new setting for the third time instead of leaning on what he already has, and this go-round, it crosses the line from impressive and drifts into irritating. For another, we leave the galaxy explored in book two for the smaller, sparser world of the Nowhere, an unreality of time warps and pirates that just can’t shake the side-quest vibes. Sanderson does well with what he gives himself, though: the flight sequences we experience through our protagonist, Spensa, continue to be invigorating, and this volume is reflective in a way that adds favorably to the others.


120. Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 by David Petersen

Mouse Guard, a comic starring anthropomorphized fantasy mice, gets a satisfying expansion in this second arc of six issues, following guardmice from the stronghold of Lockhaven as they struggle to secure supplies and allies for the difficult winter ahead. Instead of lingering on the rebellion plot he introduced earlier, Peterson takes a lesser-trod but better-fitting path in turning his focus to the nuts and bolts of survival, both for the mouse cities struggling to persist in a world full of predators, and for the mice trapped on the roads between them in peril. In Winter 1152, the Mouse Guard world is enriched by extremes, made more vivid with memorable staging grounds, and re-invented in a way I hope the rest of the series makes good on.


Thank you so much for reading! How was your December in books? Do we have any titles in common? I’d love to hear about it, in the comments below 💕

“Elatsoe” Is Required Reading for Anyone Who Likes Ghosts, Sleuthing, and a Good Time

In a slightly different America, magic and the supernatural are routine: the federal government regulates the use of fairy circles, powers are passed down like traditions, and vampires are relatively ordinary––if ostracized. This is the world of Darcie Little Badger’s debut YA novel, Elatsoe. It takes some cues from fabulism, where stories more-or-less belong to the contemporary label, and magic, generally a mundane feature of society, takes a subtle back seat, but in stakes, mystery, and scientific sensibilities, Elatsoe is something all its own. A detective puzzle. A ghost story. An adventure. A family reckoning.

At curtain, we meet Ellie, short for Elatsoe, and her dog, Kirby. (And yes, miraculously, amidst everything else, Elatsoe also manages to be a touching girl-and-her-dog story.) But Kirby is more than what only occasionally meets the eye: he’s been dead for five years, and the canine playing with Ellie on page one is an oft-invisible ghost, one Ellie learned to summon at twelve, when members of her Lipan Apache family learn the family secret, along with its corresponding unbreakable rule: the ghosts of animals, both ancient and recently deceased, are fair game. But the human dead are fearsome things, not to be tampered with.

When her cousin Trevor dies in the eerie town of Willowbee, Texas, it’s ruled an accident. But his parting words, given to Ellie in a dream, tell a different story. After this revelation, the murder mystery plot of Elatsoe sets off at a fast clip, and Ellie’s keen eyes, with the close help of her family and a witty best friend, uncover the dark secrets of a too-perfect small town.

In the uncovering of Elatsoe’s plot developments, one key quality of our seventeen-year-old investigator stands out right away: Ellie, uniquely for YA literature, doesn’t stand alone. The nature of Darcie Little Badger’s fantasy world confers a surprising advantage that most paranormal and fantastical circumstances do not: unearthing the truth about Trevor’s death is a family affair, as are Ellie’s dealings with ghosts––we get to see it test Ellie and her family together, and the more dangerous obstacles are faced by a team, rather than one intrepid teenager. Elatsoe reflects, quite generously, the reality that teenagers can, and do, rely on their families, and it doesn’t make them any less capable. A crisis, with the usual friction of an I-want-to-help vs. you-should-stay-safe dispute, doesn’t have to mark an exception.

Connected with this are the largely low-stakes, research-based sleuthing techniques Ellie uses to get a grip on the situation––aside from the paranormal leads. And, yes, this is a very niche thing to get excited about, but the way Little Badger skillfully incorporates history into the proceedings lends so much richness to the novel, injecting intensity and urgency into gaps in the town’s record where unsavory details have been papered over. The revelations you can derive from an afternoon of research (and Elatsoe is filled to the brim with the nitty-gritty of afternoons of research) are the bread and butter of this novel’s truly fascinating process. What’s more, they’re genuinely feasible for our young protagonist who’s been told to stay out of trouble, rendering a strikingly grounded central plot against a setting of magic and wonder.

Little Badger’s worldbuilding is gorgeously fluid. Details emerge organically and so much of it feels unexplored––not in a wasted-potential way, but in a sense that’s true to life, where every novel has side characters with lives lived mostly off the page, and Elatsoe gives the tantalizing impression that there are as many forms of magic as there are cultures, and what we see here is the tiniest impression of a world as genuinely varied as our own.

The traditions in Ellie’s family are also tied to a rich history of story, with tales of Ellie’s Six-Great (eight generations back) grandmother making occasional appearances. The narrative threads of Elatsoe feel like so much more than themselves, connected by storytelling to the distant, legendary past, and tied by Ellie’s skill to the ghosts of a far earlier time.

Elatsoe has adventure, fairy circles, and ghost dogs, but the coolest thing in it by far is an abundance of creatures from the Ice Age and beyond. In an act of unabashed nerdiness, Little Badger uses the paranormal elements of her creation to awaken through fiction a mammoth, a trilobite, and whales of eons past, an indulgence that’s incredibly rare in speculative fiction, but so overwhelmingly cool that every work without it present is suddenly operating at a massive loss.

The most impressive quality of Elatsoe, though, is that it uses the strange and divine precisely how our world would use it, running the gamut from beauty to terror. It has magic that exploits the natural world and takes advantage of the vulnerable. It has wondrous but tightly-guarded secrets. It has dogs that are loved long after their deaths. It has an expansive sense of time that’s only broadened by dances with the metaphysical. Elatsoe, in these terms, is miraculous: it brings the faraway close, and somehow grounds the lofty without crushing it.