What I Read in May

As it’s fast becoming clear that I sadly can’t write a 900-word review of everything I read, I thought it would be nice to start doing wrap-ups, as a way to hammer out my thoughts on each of the books without much fuss. May was pretty good, I’d say. I got 9 books in, bringing my total to 44! Not bad for a sleepy college student 😌

No. 36 | Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ll be the first to admit that Elizabeth Gilbert’s fanciful approach to creativity isn’t for everyone: if it seems heavy-handed to suggest that creativity is the art of bringing forth “the treasures hidden within you,” just wait until she gets to the bit about genius. But Big Magic has been a huge comfort to me over the years, simply because it told me precisely what I needed to hear––that art doesn’t have to mean suffering, that letting go and embracing playfulness is as vital as the work itself––at a time when I insisted on a more punitive model of creativity, with such conviction that it almost extinguished my desire to create altogether. I return to it periodically, as I did at the beginning of this month, and every time, it rings more true.

No. 37 | Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

Tahereh Mafi’s middle-grade follow up to her Shatter Me trilogy follows a girl born entirely without color in a world where all magic depends on it. In search of her long-lost father, she travels through Mafi’s bombastic worldbuilding in the land of Furthermore. By all accounts, this should be a sweeping, whimsical adventure, but its clumsy execution leaves much to be desired: the chatty prose betrays too much, and the logic of Furthermore (the place) falls apart if you so much as poke it. Mafi has some fascinating concepts for magical villages and exciting characters, but they’re all ultimately lost in the fluff.

No. 38 | A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

I love Roshani Chokshi’s gorgeous follow-up to The Star-Touched Queen beyond words. I gushed about it a perhaps-embarrassing amount in my review, but it bears repeating because the month is almost up and the poetry of this book hasn’t yet left me: this is the wondrous, enchanting, tenuous-allies-to-lovers story your heart needs. There are few hungers this tale cannot feed.

No. 39 | The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas

With the villain from The Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu, at its helm, this little-known (and unfinished) spin-off boasts a vast array of interesting side characters and finely-woven intrigues, but Dumas’ pontificating, as well as his expository historical interludes, can get on one’s nerves, especially where it concerns battles, which in this book almost always entail a ten-page summary, sans dialogue, that feels like an eternity. A note: if you feel the need to outwardly apologize to your reader for the hassle of catching them up to speed, you’ve probably gone too far.

No. 40 | The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

This was one of my dad’s favorite books in middle school, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s funny, adventurous, and fronted by a truly lovable ensemble, the likes of which I can’t say I’ve really found since I finished the Percy Jackson series last year. The book isn’t anything new, but it’s familiar in all the right ways. There are plenty of young, unready heroes floating around in children’s fantasy classics, but I can’t say they stick with me quite like Taran does. (I have a review of it here.)

No. 41 | The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Fans of Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy are legion––in fact, it was one in their ranks who compelled me to read this book––but I unfortunately will not be joining them. I enjoyed the worldbuilding, and some of the supporting characters (Vivienne most of all), but Cardan still feels too vague for me to latch onto––a fatal shortcoming for such an important player––and the clumsy integration of contemporary teen life into the fantasy setting fiddled with a stakes in a way that made the most critical dramatic turns ring a bit hollow. It’s nevertheless a promising start, but I hope the drawn-out final third is a fumble that won’t be repeated.

No. 42 | Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

This YA mystery novel follows Daunis Fontaine, a biracial, unenrolled tribal member, as a meth crisis grips her Ojibwe community and she’s tapped to go undercover in an investigation that could prove fatal at worst, and destructive at best. Angeline Boulley’s standout use of science and the deft hand of lived experience (Boulley is also Ojibwe) are the book’s greatest assets, particularly where it concerns the tangled ethics of aiding an institution with a violent past when it comes to Native communities, as Daunis wrestles with the investigation and its potential consequences. Though the pile-up of reversals at the end weakens the book’s conclusion, it’s still an effective thriller overall, best if your tastes are suited to an atmospheric slow-burn, and a healthy dose of hockey.

No. 43 | The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games was all the rage in my fourth-grade classroom. My mom had read it, judged it not too gory, and allowed it into my hands, though there was drama abounding among my classmates about who was and wasn’t allowed to read it, and it seemed like we were all eagerly awaiting the movie the following year. The book is still as fresh and engrossing as ever, owing to Suzanne Collins’ immaculate use of structure, but it’s the commentary, I think, that really stuck with me. Most dystopians afterwards went all in on one idea (which, to be clear, still managed to spawn many favorite books of mine), but it’s a rare joy to see The Hunger Games cover so much, and so well. It loses just a scrap on reread, through a weak climax and a disorienting abundance of flashback, but I can see at a glance how this book made my younger self a reader, and I think I like her choice.

No. 44 | The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James

This book follows Romy Silvers, the daughter of astronauts on an interstellar mission, who has been alone on the ship Infinity after their deaths, with decades to go until planetfall. Though Lauren James’ prose is compulsively readable, and the pages pass quickly, James mismanages a drastic switch in tone and crafts a trite, uninteresting villain, ending the book with a dull thud.

“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.