What I Read In June 🌺

Hello and happy July, everyone ✨

June has been all about figuring out how to fill my summer. Should I practice chemistry for my college class in the fall? Should I pick up a new instrument? Should I be writing? I don’t think any of us truly know what the “best” way to spend our time is, but for now, the days are long (in the Northern Hemisphere), the sunset makes the perfect light for reading by, and I’m this close to tying my mom in Scrabble wins.


June In Books

52. The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

My dad’s complaints, though blunt, probably say it best: too many characters. The Chronicles of Prydain, of which The Black Cauldron is book two, is a middle-grade fantasy series he loved as a kid back in the 70s. (The Black Cauldron was published in 1965.) But here, Lloyd Alexander falls prey to something that seems to hinder lots of quest-fantasy types: he tries to introduce the entire fellowship by, like, page ten. This holds back everything from the reveal of a twist villain to a rivalry meant to bring out the worst in Taran, the book’s impulsive young protagonist. For someone who likes the quintessential beats of a Tolkien-like fantasy, it’s still a fairly charming read, but The Black Cauldron’s 178 pages are still woefully few for what Alexander’s trying to achieve.


53. Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

Fierce rivalry with my mom notwithstanding, Queen of the Tiles is to blame for my recent obsession with Scrabble. Pitched as a murder-mystery set at a Scrabble tournament, it had me hooked from the get-go, but Alkaf’s engrossing depiction of gameplay––both in the actual matches and in the way it animates the character’s thought process in her daily life––truly shines. And, even though the mystery’s answers at curtain weren’t entirely satisfying, there’s a lot to love in the way Alkaf writes complicated relationships that keep unfurling through grief. New, hard-to-accept layers of the main character Najwa’s best friend, Trina, keep emerging, and, despite some of the supporting players being confined to archetype, their ties to Trina, good and bad, keep changing, too.


54. The Art of the Drama by Millet & Bentley

So this long out-of-print work of theatre criticism doesn’t even have a cover on Goodreads, much to my rage. But, aesthetically tarnished reading challenge row aside, this was fairly interesting and supremely verbose. Part 1 (which covers the different forms comedy and tragedy have taken over the course of theatrical history) is much better-structured and more insightful than whatever the hell was happening in Parts 2 and 3. The authors, both English professors at the time of the book’s publication in 1935 (!!!), draw on a range of intriguing play selections that I felt compelled to actually jot down at a number of points, but I’m afraid of the fun of this can’t overcome the frustration of the reading experience. If these professors ever managed to start making points without their ‘yet’s, ‘but first we must’s, and ‘one could never’s, I’m sure their students were grateful.


55. The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

After a bit of a lull in The Black Cauldron, Prydain hits its stride again in book three, an adventure that pits Taran and a (much more manageably-sized) band of heroes against an enchantress, as they race to rescue a sharp-witted princess before her talents can be put to use for evil. This time around, Lloyd Alexander makes a point of emphasizing Taran’s insecurities about status, a layer of complexity that adds to an otherwise familiar tale of princes and swords. The group dynamic is inviting, the humor stays present even though the tone shifts a little darker, and the villain––though we certainly don’t see enough of her!––is one of my favorite characters in the series. Some weaknesses still persist, but consider them sufficiently clouded by secondhand nostalgia from my dad’s middle school days 😂


56. Henry VI, Part 1 by Lloyd Alexander

After trudging through Henry V, I’m finally at the trilogy of history plays that covers The Wars of the Roses––a massive, years-long contest for the English crown between the houses of York and Lancaster. Because this is an era with so many powerhouse players, Shakespeare’s expert ensemble work reflects that: Henry VI, Part I is not only about the floundering king, but the factions swirling around his court, the desperate wars overseas, and the new hope for England’s opponent at the time, the French court determined to retake their territory. I’m of the opinion that this volume might be the best at juggling them out of all three in the Henry VI trilogy, but it’s missing some of the things that make Shakespeare at his most popular so enjoyable: if you’re looking for true agency, for example, for the play’s titular king, you’re more likely to find it elsewhere.


57. The Vorrh by B. Catling

Seeing as this book was recommended by a friend with way more eccentric taste than mine, I probably should’ve been forewarned: this book is genuinely unnerving. It’s a work of fantastical alternate history set in and around an impenetrable primordial forest, following a cast of strange characters with, in my opinion, very little solid connection to be found between them. Catling, a sculptor, is way more concerned with the in-the-moment experience of his writing than with its overarching structure, which yields some ultra-vivid imagery but renders the story overall pretty self-defeating. I’m also uneasy about a white author writing about “Africa” in a vague way meant to evoke something like Heart of Darkness. This choice of setting strikes me as especially loaded with the white gaze, and the few Black characters Catling puts in prominent roles all read as pretty powerless.


58. This is Shakespeare by Emma Smith

If you think Shakespeare’s plays have been talked to death, you may want to take a gander at Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare, a volume of essays that take a bunch of brand new angles on 20 of the Bard’s plays, old favorites and overlooked gems alike. There’s no overarching theme, really (sometimes Smith pulls from history, sometimes she doesn’t; sometimes the plays’ source material matters and sometimes it doesn’t), but I think that’s to the book’s credit. Each essay builds its approach from scratch and you can never guess what angle Smith will take: she cracks open Romeo and Juliet as a shattered romantic comedy, re-evaluates Antony and Cleopatra in a strikingly modern lens of celebrity and scandal, and makes the case for a much more subversive Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s best enjoyed, though, if this isn’t your first Shakespeare rodeo: Smith does her best, but there just isn’t room for background amidst all the festivities.


59. Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Coming in fourth in The Chronicles of Prydain, right after The Castle of Llyr, this book might be––no, scratch that, is––the best in the series. It’s the one where Taran breaks from the battle-against-evil mold to find himself, as well as answers about his parentage, in the Prydain countryside. Lloyd Alexander not only makes the right move in denying him easy answers from start to finish; he also gives him a way to grasp at meaning that has nothing to do with his heroic role in the rest of the series. And, with something that follows medieval fantasy’s mythic prerogative the way The Chronicles of Prydain does, that’s an opportunity all too easy to miss. When it comes to villains, as well, Taran Wanderer challenges and contrasts its namesake in all the right ways, and its somewhat open resolution bodes well for the finale ahead.


60. Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

After the events of Henry VI, Part I, England has a new queen, the York and Lancastrian factions have new reasons to hate one another, and King Henry has a spate of new political problems right under his nose––only some of which he’s, like, actually aware of. This play, like its prequel, is full of scheming, deliciously conniving characters like Margaret of Anjou and Richard, Duke of York, and its fair share of absolutely banger rhyming couplets. But it’s also held back by its structure. While Part I expertly wrangles three simultaneous struggles, Part II sort of parades through its royal crises, one after another, with about an act for each. It doesn’t kill the suspense, but it does make me miss how well Part I pulled it off.


61. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Everyone seems to be head-over-heels in love with this book. But no one’s part of ‘everyone,’ every time. In this case, I can certainly agree that the atmosphere, the prose style, and the concepts that Erin Morgenstern weaves into her titular magical circus are all dutifully lovely, but her choice of distantly and omnisciently following so many characters over such a long time can make them feel more like thought experiments than like people. Especially the two romantic leads, for whom the thought experiment is “What if magicians on opposite sides of a duel fell in all-encompassing forbidden love?” You’re obviously supposed to buy into it and have it sweep you off your feet, but I had to rely on the book’s other charms. They’re there, to be sure, but they’re not quite magical for the reader unless that central conceit sticks.


June in Blogs 💜

Krysta @ Pages Unbound made some excellent points in a YA Book Wishlist!

Jordyn @ Birdie’s Book Nook has been doing a delightful Author Spotlight series!

Aria @ Snow White Hates Apples wrote a really thoughtful review of Queen of the Tiles

Naemi @ A Book Owl’s Corner paired a gorgeous travelogue of her trip to Poland with some book recommendations!

Uncommonly Bound reviewed a fascinating micro-history in What The Ermine Saw!


Thank you all so much for reading! How was your June in books? I’d love to hear anything and everything, in the comments below 💕

“The Red Pyramid” A Promising But Iffy Series Opener

The first book in The Kane Chronicles, a middle grade fantasy trilogy from Rick Riordan, promises an interesting world, but fumbles the delivery.

Rick Riordan, the keeper of many a fond middle school memory, returns to the mythological fun and archaic-curio-prompted adventures that made his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series such an unflagging romp in The Red Pyramid, the first in a trilogy of middle grade fantasy novels inspired by Egyptian mythology. Though the elevator pitch is pretty much the same, this volume departs from Percy Jackson in some really promising ways, but on the other hand, an unwillingness to make narrative sacrifices that stick and consistently floppy action sequences tank this book’s sense of scale.

Instead of building to an apocalypse like he did in PJO‘s five installments, Riordan threatens the end of all life as we know it from the get-go, and fittingly, the adventuring party––estranged siblings Carter and Sadie Kane, along with a rotating door of various magical and/or godly chaperones––loses members to hordes of scorpions, crocodile gods, and haughty sorcerer leadership, to much tragic fanfare. However (and this is the sticking point), if I had a nickel for every time a character shockingly returned from almost certain death, I probably wouldn’t have more than 25¢, but it’s odd that such a Marvel-movie bait-and-switch becomes habit here for a storyteller who’s demonstrated a perfectly competent sense of stakes elsewhere. The thing about bringing characters back from the dead is that it’s a plot tool that can be worn down with repeated use. Do it once and it’s a triumphant return that sets a stirring reunion in motion; do it with The Red Pyramid‘s frequency and no threat of annihilation or death you make will carry any weight, ever again.

Also, concerning the rotating door of chaperones: this hero’s journey has a few mentors too many. Part of the fun of a long and arduous quest is the familiarity it inevitably breeds between our characters. Percy, Annabeth, and Grover leave Camp Half-Blood strangers, and come back an iconic trio. When you sacrifice that commitment to a set of characters for the whole duration of the journey, instead trotting out multiple distinctive figures who essentially fulfill the same narrative role (and––even more egregiously––disappear under dangerous circumstances only to return for round 2!!), you cheapen the scaffolding of your plot, you cheapen any hope of a connection your characters might have, and you cheapen the potential of your characters coming off memorably. You can have Amos, Thoth, Zia, or Bast. Maybe even more than one. But you cannot have all four.

Interestingly, as the strengths of Percy Jackson become weaknesses here, the shortcomings of the very same get a fresh treatment and become The Kane Chronicles‘ strongest assets, particularly as it concerns worldbuilding. In PJO, things feel rather haphazard, like the internal logic is a desperate slap of glue to hold the various mythic hijinks together (it more-or-less works because Riordan has so much fun both parodying quest stories and winking at the audience through his own), but the world of The Kane Chronicles has depths and conflicting factions that beg to be further explored. You get the most enticing sense of richness here: little corners of our journey hint at whole novel-worthy stories transpiring just out of our sight. It’s enough to make you wish this flighty tale had a bit more focus––I’d probably be falling over my feet with praise for whatever mentor character we might have gotten for the whole thing, if only Riordan had stuck to them.

I’m particularly intrigued by the potential further explorations of the House of Life, the ancient association of magicians, hold: I want to meet more new recruits and see what it’s like to train under this order. I want to see what animates the passionate debate afoot in the highest levels of the maybe-trustworthy, maybe-not magical establishment. I want to see more of the Chief Lector and his shifting loyalties.

And, damn it, I’m reading the next one.

This review was originally posted on Goodreads earlier this year. I have since reviewed the next one! (I liked it a bit more.)