Hello and welcome back to the blog! I hope you capped off your reading year with a delightful final month. For my part, I read so much that I felt the need to split my wrap-up in half, a blessed occurrence that I can’t say I get to enjoy very often. Part 2 goes up soon, so, for now, allow me to regale you with Part 1!
107. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
A troubled legacy kept me away from this play for a long time, and when I finally picked it up, I wasn’t visited with any pleasant surprises: Merchant begins with a fundamentally antisemitic premise and, though it has its moments, it never truly manages to overcome the harm done. While productions that work to depict Shylock sympathetically can be very moving (the 2004 film comes to mind), the problems of the ‘happy’ ending, the play’s handling of his daughter, and Shakespeare’s ultimate failure to challenge the status quo make me hesitate to hold it up as an example of any kind. The cast is compelling, the romantic subplots have meaningful cores, and some excellent uses of symbolism punctuate the play, but the flaws in The Merchant of Venice run deep, and I’m of the mind that it has to be staged very carefully. (It certainly doesn’t help that one of Portia’s early appearances contains a truly gobsmacking instance of unchecked racism, in Act II Scene VII.)
108. The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
This frothy thriller follows a working-class heroine who gets called up to the principal’s office one fateful morning to discover she’s heiress to a total stranger. Fast forward no more than a few chapters, and we learn that she gets practically the entire fortune if she lasts the whole year in said stranger’s lavish mansion. Things proceed from there at a compulsively readable fast clip: a central mystery with high stakes and, admittedly, a few stumbles, makes Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ short chapters go down like absolute candy, and a superlative love triangle rounds out the rest. Barnes is careful to keep her characters in danger, but, striking a skillful balance, she also gives The Inheritance Games all the trappings of a future comfort read, yielding a book that’s hundreds of pages of almost unbroken giddy delight. (Reviewed here.)
109. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
Sunsets, air conditioning, and the Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores: each is a condition of a world where humans have an outsize influence on, well…the world. Each is also reviewed and rated on a five-star scale by John Green in this collection of essays. Green gives some much-needed voice to the contradictions of (privileged, English-speaking) contemporary life––I particularly appreciated how he made note of our being both destructively powerful and devastatingly powerless––but the essays themselves have a few unfocused misses in their midst. Memoir makes plenty of enriching appearances, but sometimes, Green uses it as an excuse to wander, and he’ll shuck the original topic for a broader conclusion the form doesn’t quite allow him to reach. Where he avoids this, though, his nonfiction writing has even better mileage than his fiction on making me cry. The best reviews have just the right ratio of research to reflection, and as such, are perfectly timed for a good sob. I give The Anthropocene Reviewed a tenuous four stars.
110. Ace by Angela Chen
Tackling a good mix of subjects through the asexual lens, reporter Angela Chen’s book is a solid entry into a sparse category of nonfiction for an even sparser area of public awareness. Being asexual myself, it was illuminating to see someone who shares my umbrella make such potent observations about the way we move through the world, and with such care given to other intersections of identity. Asexuals of color, asexuals who date and asexuals who don’t, male asexuals, and plenty in between all make an appearance in these pages, and Chen’s graceful incorporation of interview quotes and memoir make Ace read like several meaty magazine features in a row. The book sometimes wavers on organization, and it struggles to construct definitions that aren’t primarily by opposition, but it’s fascinating even for someone who’s familiar with the material, and I suspect it’d go a long way for someone who isn’t.
111. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
I say I don’t read paranormal, but paranormal keeps surprising me. The Raven Boys opens with ghosts, and for the most part, that’s what I expected going forward, but Stiefvater merely uses them as a way in to a modern tale of the legendary past that defies categorization. A psychic’s daughter sees the ghost of the boy she’s doomed to love…or kill. A prep school boy’s dogged mission to wake an ancient king is not all that it seems. With this setup, The Raven Boys makes potent observations on class, interrogates its complicated found family dynamic, and brings some much-needed self-awareness to a familiar fantasy quest for glory-meaning-absolution, three key successes that more than outweigh its fumbled twist, leisurely pacing, and occasional distance. (Reviewed here.)
112. Gilded by Marissa Meyer
As delightful as Marissa Meyer’s books are, one must admit: she has long struggled with villains. Her new duology opener, a Rumpelstiltskin retelling, marks a departure in lots of promising ways––darker tone, more rustic, storybook prose style, richer worldbuilding––but I found the greatest of its many little charms to be the discovery that, at long last, I was both afraid of and intrigued by Meyer’s Erlking. Marking the story by the full moons that light his brutal excursions into the mortal world, Meyer frolics with the sharper-toothed undertones of her fairy tale influences, and the result is enchantingly dangerous. Against the perilous backdrop, the softness of her hapless (not) gold-spinner heroine and the tenderness of the romantic subplot provide an enlivening contrast, leading Gilded to new depth for the author that I can’t wait to watch her explore.
113. As You Like It by William Shakespeare
As You Like It, is, I think, one of the weaker comedies. It makes use of plenty of the tropes and devices that Shakespeare delights with elsewhere, from the framing of nature as a counter to the rigidity of high society to a cross-dressing female lead, and at least one player or pairing is bound to win your heart (mine is Celia). Something, though, is missing. Maybe it’s the absence of real stakes once we leave Act I. Maybe it’s the tiresome, confrontation-poor anticlimax. Whatever it is, I can’t find enough to chew on in As You Like It, and, tragically, I think its spiritual siblings in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream far surpass it.
Thank you endlessly for reading! As always, I’d love to hear about your reading month (and if we share any titles!) in the comments below 💕