If You Liked This 📕, Try That 📖

Greetings, fellow book fanatics! I come bearing recommendations 😌

Now, a read-alike for a book you love is not an easy thing to come by (trust me, I’ve been trying to rekindle the Selection magic for years), but if you’ve read and enjoyed any of the titles on this list, I hope I can be of help to you in falling in love all over again.

(Especially if you’re a Lunar Chronicles fan who needs to read R.C. Lewis’ Stitching Snow, now. This is too important to leave until the rest of the list. Do it. Watch Jupiter Ascending (2013), and then do it.)


1. Small Favors by Erin. A Craig 👉 Extasia by Claire Legrand


If you’re anything like me, Erin A. Craig’s gorgeous sophomore work of horror fantasy, Small Favors, absolutely has you by the throat. With a romance that keeps you guessing, an atmospheric woodsy setting whose trials you can feel, and salient commentary to be made about how the binds between people crumble under hardship, it’s a mesmerizing work you won’t soon forget.

Extasia, though it’s a post-apocalyptic horror about witches, has a lot of the same themes, and lands them equally well. Just like Small Favors, it gets right to the heart of what makes rigid, isolated communities so dangerous, particularly for young women. Though a bit more bloody than Small Favors, Extasia is an invigoratingly vengeful response to a similar set of evils.

2. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo 👉 The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna


Look: I make no secret of the fact that half my personality comes from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. I’ve taken the quiz, I’ve watched the show, I’ve, um…read the fanfiction 🙈? There’s just something about the unrestrained fun of a girl discovering secret powers, being taken to a palace to learn how to wield them, and finding herself in a web of intrigue, that hits every time.

But nowhere else does it hit quite the same way as it does in Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones, where the author’s unique combination of ultra-cinematic storytelling, explicit feminist critique, and heavy focus on on-the-page training makes this setup feel addictively fresh. The book also cinches on a masterfully-executed paradigm shift that flips our understanding of the world and its monsters right on its head. The West-African-inspired worldbuilding is also drop-everything incredible, and practically every setting Forna writes is a total stunner. (Reviewed here.)

3. Cinder by Marissa Meyer 👉 Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis


My seventh grade self and I have one very important thing in common: if you pair a romp of a space opera with a fairy tale, we’re exceptionally easy to please. Such was the case when I first read Cinder: I loved the Star Wars-y energy Meyer brought to the proceedings of her Cinderella retelling, and I loved how her world’s sense of adventure accommodated royalty and spaceships alike.

Reviewers criticized Stitching Snow for being too similar to Cinder when it first came out in 2014. I’m here to tell you that they’re right, but it’s entirely to the book’s benefit. It has that same wonder, that same sense of humor, that same cocktail of space-opera worldbuilding that makes the rules of fairy tales compatible with the language of action-packed sci-fi. Plus, if you’re also a fan of the 2013 camp masterpiece Jupiter Ascending, this is the only title I’ve read so far that comes anywhere close to it in feel. You need more space Cinderella in your life, right? I think you need more space Cinderella in your life.

4. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman 👉 Trial by Fire by Josephine Angelini


I was utterly captivated when I first read The Golden Compass earlier this year, and I still haven’t stopped thinking about it. It’s a sprawling work of science fantasy that begins in a world with a few striking differences from our own, and expands to cover a struggle that encompasses multiple parallel universes. It comes armed with a thoughtful examination of the responsibilities adults have to children, and worldbuilding prowess that I, as a writer, genuinely envy. None of Pullman’s concepts seem like they should work together in theory, but it’s almost maddening how well they do.

Trial by Fire, the first in a YA trilogy by Josephine Angelini, also offers a satisfying blend of magic and sci-fi. Using some of the same principles Pullman draws upon in constructing his parallel universes, Angelini crafts a North America ruled by the witches who happened to survive their Salem trials in this timeline, anchored by a magic system that takes its cues from chemistry, and a similarly compelling set of ethical struggles. As a heads-up, this book was published in 2014, and I can’t speak to how well it represents its Indigenous characters, but Angelini does make an effort to include Native peoples in her re-imagining of American history.


Thank you so much for reading! Have you read any of these books? Have any other read-alikes to share? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕

What I Read In December

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 💕

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read in 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a series hosted on That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we’re looking back on a year of reading…and picking winners.


1. Villette by Charlotte Brontë

This 600-page gothic is the last novel published by the author of Jane Eyre before her death in 1855. It’s moody, atmospheric, and full of restrained longings, as you might expect, but Brontë also makes time for surrealism, tear-inducing tragedy, and a touch of caustic social critique. Following a young Englishwoman who takes a job at a boarding school across the channel, the novel plays its heroine beautifully off of her coworkers, superiors, and students, making use of everything from personal power dynamics to the maybe-paranormal for a deliciously complex, one-of-a-kind treat. (Bonus points for a well-earned yet utterly devastating ending.)


2. A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

Set against the fierce and magical Tournament of Wishes, Roshani Chokshi’s lyrical, mythology-infused fairy tale lacks nothing. A thorny tenuous-allies-to-lovers romance sweeps the pages like a storm. A vibrant cast of supporting characters––and creatures––brings her vivid worldbuilding to life. Her prose, though, is queen of them all: if extended metaphor and flourish-heavy turns of phrase are your thing, this book and its companion novel, The Star-Touched Queen, are an addiction you should’ve developed yesterday. Every page is a lyrical treasure, and it makes for a crushing loss when there are no more of them left to turn. (Reviewed here.)


3. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I won’t shut up about Naomi Novik’s gorgeous, Eastern-European-inspired retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, and for good reason. It’s a work of fantasy with every trick up its sleeve, opening with a thoughtful look at antisemitism and its devastating personal consequences, and closing with a brilliant reinvention of the original fairy tale. As erudite as it is enchanting; as sweeping in scale as it is singularly concerned with every detail, Spinning Silver is a shining example of a fable re-sewn. Novik’s writing is meaty and absorbing, her worldbuilding is textured and considerate, and her love stories are impossible not to love. With all three combined, the result is pure magic. (Reviewed here.)


4. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Following Bree Matthews as she investigates the likely-magical death of her mother, Legendborn is Arthuriana fused with contemporary fantasy as I never knew I desperately needed to see it. In this brilliant take on the legends, the Round Table’s descendants are university students in a secret society, and they fight invading demons at a terrible human cost. But Deonn’s mythos goes deep, and there’s far more to this than meets the eye: a grizzled history entwined with systemic racism. A repressed form of magic whose power the knights’ heirs have failed to recognize. And the key to their future held in the last hands they’d expect. Alongside its heavy, and necessary, subject matter, though, Legendborn is thrilling, fast-paced, and addictive. Its 500 pages read like 250, and stick with you long after you’ve raced through them to the end.


5. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Of the three Dickens titles I’ve now read, Great Expectations is the comfortably-won favorite. It’s home to a zany and memorable supporting cast (Miss Havisham!), full of excellent setpieces, and occasionally even laugh-out-loud hilarious. The book’s endearing main character, Phillip Pirrip, or ‘Pip,’ is such a moving depiction of how status and its lack capture and obsess a young mind to the point of harm, and I found myself rooting for him even when it was clear he was setting himself up for pain. (And not just because of our shared nickname!) What’s most impressive, though, is how Dickens manages to honestly show a fundamentally flawed society while also making ample use of the nostalgic warm fuzzies: Great Expectations as a book is warm and welcoming, even if its setting is very authentically not.


6. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

This stunning work of high fantasy and its superb sequel, The Shadowed Sun, are vast epics of genuinely jaw-dropping vision. Set in a secretive priesthood that uses the magic of dreams to heal (or destroy), N.K. Jemisin’s sophomore duology offers delicately-crafted political intrigue, arresting visuals, and a far-ranging exploration of war and occupation. As is becoming a theme on this list, the prose is dense, rich, and infinitely rewarding, but the setting it’s calibrated for does you one even better. It feels like Jemisin left this world out to mature for a few thousand years, then decided to put it to use in her story. The City of Gujareeh is filled with history and brimming with organic tension, and it feels anything but invented.


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

If you’re familiar with The Secret History, If We Were Villains has a similar setup: an intimate and obsessed group of young scholars (Shakespeare, this time, instead of classics), a murder, and an extremely culpable institution of higher education. What Villains offers, though, and uniquely, in my opinion, is an understanding of the fact that vulnerable artists act to protect one another where directors and administrators fail. That’s the animating factor in the central tragedy: very much in Shakespearean fashion, this condemning, bloody deed is yet an act of love. Largely because of this, but also because it’s bolstered by a compelling ensemble and a superlative use of the Bard’s tragedies, If We Were Villains is a god-tier work of dark academia.


8. Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor’s 2017 Strange the Dreamer is an exquisite enough series opener on its own. Muse of Nightmares, its follow-up, is just showing off on Taylor’s part, honestly. Now that its lead, the subdued librarian Lazlo Strange, has found the lost city of Weep, his lifelong obsession, it would’ve been all too easy for the sequel to sputter out in the absence of its starting conflict. What steps up to replace it, however, is doubly good: Taylor’s use of the distant past in creating a dire present is skillful and satisfying, and her ability to craft a jaw-dropping setting continues to amaze.


9. Gilded by Marissa Meyer

This dark retelling of Rumpelstilskin (yes! another!) is a surprising new direction for the author of such romps as The Lunar Chronicles, and, most recently, Instant Karma, but, owing to its delectable wickedness, folkloric edge, and bracing sense of danger, it’s a promising one. Gilded is a tribute to fairy tales that has what our contemporary understanding of them often lacks: a starring role for fear. In Meyer’s dark forest, we feel every bit of the terror that bids her characters to shut their doors and bar their windows every full moon, and when her lead, Serilda, falls into the grasp of the terrifying Erlking, no punches are pulled in our introduction to her best villain yet.


10. The Excalibur Curse by Kiersten White

The first two books in Kiersten White’s Arthurian trilogy, The Guinevere Deception and The Camelot Betrayal, are engrossing for their big questions: if our heroine, who’s taken the “real” Guinevere’s place as Queen, has no memory of her past, what secrets is it hiding? In the war between magic and order, who is right? The Excalibur Curse answers them in a way that’s likely to be divisive, but as a trilogy finale, it’s all the more admirable for the risks it takes in this department. White’s take on Arthur and his quest is substantial and nuanced, and her take on Guinevere herself more than once moved me to actual tears. I keep returning to Arthuriana often, and this series, full and gratifying in its now-completeness, is an exemplar as to why.


Thank you so much for reading! I hope you had an excellent year for books, and I most definitely want to hear about all your favorites, 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 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.