Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wish I Could Read Again For the First Time

Top Ten Tuesday is a series hosted on That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we’re beating on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…


1. Dark Star by Bethany Frenette

For whatever reason, superhero fiction in the YA realm (unless it’s from an existing property or a wildly popular author) tends to get lost to time. Dark Star and its sequels are a tragic case study. When I picked it up in 2015, I fell headfirst into its unique mythos, charming romance, and community-heavy take on having––and sharing––magical powers. I wish I could revisit it with fresh eyes, if only because superhero stories that strike my fancy are so rare that I’m starved for them (Marissa Meyer’s delightful Renegades notwithstanding).

2. Matched by Ally Condie

The era of dystopians yielded many favorites for me, but there is much I owe in particular to Matched, a lyrical take on the genre that taught me the value of contrasts: poetic prose against a stark and oppressive setting, a distinctly literary sensibility against a category with fast-paced, eventful expectations. It’s striking how much of this approach ended up in my own writing, and I want nothing more than to rediscover it afresh, and feel eerily known by the way it’s already shaped me.

3. The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson

This is a pick I make because, regrettably, I worry an actual reread might degrade my opinion. The risky ending is wistful and cathartic when it comes as a surprise, but I’m nervous that reading it with foresight will sap it of its narrative power. Paranoid? Perhaps, but there’s real credence to the “right book, right time” phenomenon, and, occasionally, it just so happens that the time can come only once.

4. Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Delirium is another case of bleak world/flowery prose, but one with totally different results. Where the world of Matched is sleek and futuristic, Delirium‘s is gritty and lived-in, more the faded remnants of our world than a brand-new one built atop its ashes. Discovering Delirium was a singular mesmerism, one I find myself grasping for with every subsequent reread.

5. Between Us and the Moon by Rebecca Maizel

At the helm of this honest, moving coming-of-age story is a tame, nerdy protagonist chafing against her family’s expectations of her: at fifteen, she’s still being stuffed into frilly pink dresses and thought of as the “kid” of the family, her inexperience taken to mean immaturity. Seeing someone like her on the page was such a relief for my high school self––one that’s become an unreachable standard for contemporary books, by the way––and while I don’t want to go back, necessarily, there was something really special about it.

6. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

This much-maligned classic (mostly for its protagonist) is another case of seeing my unspoken worries put to paper, and, where it concerns this book, I also suspect that the ending might not work its same magic on me again. To be sixteen and sobbing to Arcade Fire after turning the last page is a powerful experience, but sadly (or perhaps happily?) a fleeting one.

7. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Having read this at fourteen and found a lot of it to be almost impassably dense, I get the sense that my inexperience with classics at the time led me to miss out on some of the fun. It’s thought to be one of the more swashbuckling of the bunch, and I’m sure I’d think so now, but freshman-me probably bit off a bit more than she could chew, and lost some suspense to having been an extra in a stage adaptation of the story, besides.

8. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Meeting the Grishaverse through its very first entry, in eighth grade, was utterly magical. I raved about it in one of my very first reviews, noting the lush setting and delectable love triangle––arguably, the start of my multi-shipper sensibilities––and there’s no doubt the Netflix series would have absolutely devoured my life were it around back then. Luckily, Shadow and Bone has generally kept its delight for me, but there’s just no recreating the shock I felt at that, admittedly, rather predictable plot twist, and as much as I still adore those kiss scenes, having them more-or-less memorized isn’t exactly conducive to a thrill.

9. Cinder by Marissa Meyer

What can I say? The Lunar Chronicles was a powerful tincture for my fraught middle school years. With an adventurous kick and a setting that perfectly strikes the balance between futuristic and fanciful, these books breathed into me a passionate love for space operas, and I’ve been chasing something that can quench my thirst for them ever since. I want to chance upon Cinder again almost as much as I want to have seen “Jupiter Ascending” in theaters during its devastatingly short release.

10. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

My nostalgia for Percy Jackson and the Olympians is comparatively recent; I finished the series just last year. But even in so short a time, I’ve started thinking of these books wistfully. It was 2020 for goodness’ sake, but Riordan, somehow, has me wishing I could go back.


Thus concludes my first edition of Top Ten Tuesday! Thank you so much for reading, and feel free to tell me all about the books you want to return to, in the comments 💕

“Instant Karma” An Instantly Charming Summer Romance

Marissa Meyer’s prolific collection of gallivanting sci-fi (Cinder, Renegades) makes a contemporary set in a tiny coastal town a surprising choice, but her disarming use of character and a witty but completely sincere approach to writing it make the genre a natural fit for a writer whose domain is normally superheroes and spaceships.

Meyer’s lead is the pitch-perfect Prudence Barnett, who never lets an assignment fall to the wayside––even if her lab partner, the clubbable yet chronically tardy Quint Erickson, is more than happy to brush it off. Prudence, as a character, is definitely an extreme, and if you’re iffy about dialing up a character’s high-strung tendencies to comedic effect, she might read to you as disingenuous, but her habitual captiousness and teeth-grinding is tied with strong sinews to the heart of her character, and even when it’s transparently impossible to take her side, her insecurities have real substance, alongside the hilarious misunderstandings they set in motion.

Prudence realizing the virtue of giving others the benefit of the doubt is definitely a revelation the reader can see coming, but Meyer’s character development, as well as being self-aware, is also generous. Prudence doesn’t “loosen up” by the end in a way that condemns her. Rather, she gets to be thoughtful and particular; flexible and confident. Meyer recognizes and pokes fun at her foibles without ever being genuinely mean-spirited about it, and that makes all the difference.

Also, to bolster this widening of horizons, Meyer includes some environmental themes, with her characters working at a marine mammal rescue center. She misses a couple chances to give us more––a vegan character picks a fight over some leather boots, for example, and we hear nothing of the pitfalls of pleather––but on the whole, she does justice to the difficult tightrope of being an ordinary person and trying not to cause the environment harm.

Where the book fumbles is in the third act, when Meyer shrinks a potential conflict so small its narrative powers are almost completely foiled. In the rush to get the pair together and all the ducks in a row, Instant Karma loses the chance to burn a bridge and pay page service to the fallout. The result is a quick fix to a deep rift that comes way too easy. The book falters where it should be fixed on affirming itself, shying away from consequence where it should ultimately matter most. Its enthusiasm and earnestness carry it through, but the awkward twist and its snappy resolution are out of place in a work that otherwise embraces complexity. The ending still satisfies, in other words––but not as much as it could.

Instant Karma is worth it for the romance alone, though: Meyer mastered the banter-y, opposites-attract dynamic in The Lunar Chronicles, and wields it with joyful precision here, to graceful effect. That, and the sheer unabashed nerdiness that sings from the page whenever her characters discuss music or sea animals, and this book is a surefire winner for anyone in search of something sunny. By those standards, Instant Karma is radiant.

This review was first posted earlier this year on Goodreads.

Marissa Meyer’s “Heartless” Is Fun, But It Ultimately Misses the Mark.

For Marissa Meyer’s Queen of Hearts origin story, Wicked, the Gregory Maguire novel-turned wildly popular musical, is an obvious influence. What if the Queen of Hearts was once a teenage girl who wanted nothing to do with the crown, Meyer’s tale asks, with the catchy edge of an “I want” song looming around the corner. Catherine, a Marquess’ daughter looking down the barrel of an unwelcome marriage proposal, wants a bakery. And a love interest her parents most definitely wouldn’t approve of. And we’re off!

Meyer, ever the fairy tale enthusiast (she’s best known for her sci-fi Cinderella retelling, Cinder), has a ball reworking the absurdity in the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a framework more befitting a modern fantasy novel. She keeps the oddities and lets them run wild, but tempers them with a foundation of quest-friendly magical logic underneath. Wonderland still has much to offer those who take it just seriously enough: though Meyer’s take isn’t quite as morbid as the one in the 2010 Tim Burton film (which I seem to be citing often these days), it takes after it in the delicate balance of strangeness and tragedy. By knowing exactly when to play things straight, Heartless can frolic with the tea partiers one moment and reel from a wrenching loss the next––and rarely find itself missing the mark in tone.

Its greatest virtue is in falling back on sincerity, a lesson well-learned in the way Cinder and its sequels burst with wide-eyed joy, and put to good use here. Whatever the consequences (the book is a bit unkind to a few side characters, for instance), Heartless follows its heroine with tireless conviction, grieving when Catherine grieves and judging where she judges, even if it’s overblown; even if the reader can see right through it.

Some care might have been taken, though, in the way Meyer depicts the King of Hearts, Catherine’s unwanted suitor. He’s extremely short in stature in almost all his appearances in modern retellings, shown as squat and a little over half Catherine’s size in Heartless. Going this route isn’t a mistake in itself, but the book wades into messy territory in emphasizing this when it wants to convince us how unattractive he is. In the same way making Queen Levana’s disfigurement a factor in her villainy is a mistake in Cinder, using the King of Hearts’ stature like this is a mistake here. If Meyer planned to go this route in crafting him, she would’ve done well to avoid showing Catherine being openly repulsed at something a reader could reasonably recognize as a real-life disability.

As far as suitors go, Meyer makes a solid but not illuminating mark with the King’s foil, Jest, a court joker who’s more than meets the eye. When he’s not angst-ing over the impossibility of sharing a life with Catherine, he’s interesting enough to watch to keep the pages turning, but underneath, there’s a real dearth of substance. The love story in Heartless, in a searingly tragic turn of events, in other words, hits the same walls that Wicked‘s does––you know: the one between Elphaba and what’s-his-name.

There are bigger pitfalls looming in the offing, though, as Heartless dwindles to its last line. For one thing, Catherine is as different from the Queen of Hearts as they come, but all this serves to do is make the eventual transformation more jarring. Heartless opens on a surprising Point A, introducing us to the young Queen of Hearts as a teenage girl with no royal ambitions, a love of baking, and only the slightest hint of her future tendencies, but from that vantage point, the tragedy about to befall her has no central weakness as a sticking point.

In lieu of this, Meyer’s forced to dish up a series of heartbreaks that, in tandem, are supposed to amount to that fateful day-to-night switch, but ultimately feel more incidental than truly ordained. They don’t reflect on Catherine: they reflect on the her rigid station in Wonderland. Something like this can be a moving tragedy in its own right––but it doesn’t produce the conclusion Meyer is aiming for. Approaching Heartless as a reader, I wanted to watch the making of a villain, but all I got was a hero who breaks spontaneously after an incident of misfortune.

There’s one moment, in the middle of Act III, that, with some tweaks, might have better sealed the deal than most of what the actual conclusion has to offer, but you can almost see the author’s hand shrinking back before it unfolds. The rage Catherine feels in that moment as her parents back her into the proverbial corner is fresher and more in character than the rage that tears through her in the denouement: the only thing stopping this from being the tipping point is hesitation on Meyer’s part.

Its blistering resonance is instead cut short in favor of the real conclusion, maybe because Meyer worried that it was too juvenile or trivial to be truly convincing as the last straw. What replaces it, however, is a convoluted destiny plot that eats up the last 80 pages, breaching an ‘inevitability of fate’ motif that was conspicuously absent from the first 300, and pushing the excessive pulp of a gruesome tragedy to the fore at the cost of something quieter but much richer in character.

The ultimate weakness of Heartless, if I may be so bold as to call it a tragic flaw, is its fixation on the ‘what if’ that spawned the book, more concerned with making a convincing argument than with letting the character change organically. It seems like Meyer opted for the drastic ending not because it suited Catherine in particular, but because it’s an easier ‘what if;’ something an outside viewer would more readily accept as a villain origin story.

In effect, I’m being convinced where I should be enthralled, Catherine’s eventual fate a drag on the story where it should be an asset.

Destiny works in mysterious ways. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.