What I Read In May 📚

Well, well, well. We meet again! Happy June 💕

With twelve books and a lot of unusual picks for me to share today, this might be one of my favorite wrap-ups yet. (I read three works of nonfiction! Look at me go!) From my neck of the woods to yours, I hope you have a wonderful June––and I hope you get to curl up and enjoy a damn good story this month, whatever form that takes.


40. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

As much folk tale as it is fantasy, this sea-swept, delicately magical coming-of-age story is a thrilling prospect for those who enjoy books of the Death-and-the-Maiden variety. It follows Mina, a girl who volunteers to be the bride of the feared Sea God, whose wrath is said to fuel the storms that plague her village. Once Mina sets foot in the Spirit Realm, however, she discovers that the truth is far more complicated––and it’s up to her to set it right. There’s a great deal to love in The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea: there’s an emphasis on soft moments for powerful characters, Oh’s worldbuilding is brimming with ideas, and the book clearly has something to say about the burden of power. But something’s missing from the character dynamics: with some oversimplified, some rushed, and some given heavy importance but almost no room to develop, the book struggles with the ties that matter most, with underwhelming consequences for its conclusion.


41. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

A work of nonfiction by a scientist who’s also a master storyteller is something to be savored: armed with both fact and meaning, these books manage to be as moving as they are indelibly true, and Braiding Sweetgrass is no exception. Blending memoir with ecology; a body of Indigenous knowledge with a practical understanding of our current crisis, Robin Wall Kimmerer hits a remarkable range with her botanical opus. Among my favorites of its many accomplishments are an exploration of lichens, an interrogation of (white; western) science’s tendency towards exclusion, and an achingly tender reflection or two on motherhood and what it means to let go. I don’t just love this book––I want to shove it in every face I can.


42. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

In the depths of an ancient temple, a young girl is devoured by a nameless power. A sacrifice made every generation, she is to guard a horde of treasure and a labyrinth, decide the fates of prisoners captured there, and give herself entirely over to the dark. A sequel––though not in the traditional sense––to Ursula K. Le Guin’s sweeping A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan takes this solemn perspective character, Tenar, on a much more deliberate, much more closely-confined emotional journey, with thrilling results. While I was definitely looking for more from the supporting cast and climax, I’m amazed by how well Atuan lands a gratifying catharsis and a rich exercise in worldbuilding in one breathless go.


43. Nimona by ND Stevenson

As part of a long tradition of tongue-in-cheek takes on heroes and villains, Nimona has familiar commentary on heroism: the ‘good guys’ are exclusive, monsters are made by society’s failings, and there’s honor in villainy as a means of resistance. But Stevenson adds to the old tune with two lovely dynamics: 1) the one between Nimona’s lead and the supervillain she plays sidekick to, Lord Ballister Blackheart, and 2) the one between Blackheart and his nemesis, the obnoxious, do-gooder Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. (Not a typo.) Nimona, despite its hodgepodge worldbuilding and wonky pacing, works because it knows how to find what these relationships most need: time. (The cozy, soft platonic moments with Nimona and Ballister actually made my heart sing 🥺) Sometimes a book is about its world, or about its plot, but Nimona is about its trio, with some charming humor playing second fiddle. If you think you’ll love these idiots, this book is for you.


44. Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

The somewhat rocky second half to what is effectively the Prince Hal duology, this volume of Shakespearean history holds most of its predecessor’s charms––only slightly less of each of them. It has a less-interesting uprising plot, with a significant and wildly entertaining figurehead having bit it at the end of Part I. It has the same comic relief characters, only with an overhanging dread dampening most of their associated comic relief. While there are some great moments between the title king and his prodigal son, this play just isn’t the multifaceted firecracker Part I is. At its best, it manages to be pretty gripping. At it’s worst, though, it’s practically tedious. (Looking at you, Falstaff and Shallow––especially Shallow.)


45. An Ordinary Age by Rainesford Stauffer

Deep down, if you are (or recently were) what this collection of essays calls an “emerging adult,” you know that we expect too much of you. You’re supposed to land a job that gives you purpose and a good paycheck, in a fashionable city far from home, with the perfect group of friends, the perfect collection of hobbies, and the most enviable Instagram feed. Maybe the most comforting thing An Ordinary Age can offer is the sound assurance that none of this is actually true, but it’s also careful to address both why we’ve come to feel that these are our expectations, and what we can do about it. It’s such a validating read for someone who feel the walls closing in––I particularly appreciated Stauffer’s commentary about perfectionism in young people as a response to a tightening gyre of a job market. As I somewhat tersely put it in a Goodreads review earlier this month, every 16-19 year old needs to read this book and then calm the hell down 😂


46. The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

The third volume in Le Guin’s classic fantasy series The Earthsea Cycle (following A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan), this book combines the scope of book one and the darkness of book two for a slow, searching adventure that hits an entirely new stride. We follow a third new lead, the ambitious Prince Arren, as he and a certain Archmage hunt down the source of a far-reaching magical decay. Of all three original Earthsea books, this one probably has the most salient commentary: tackling the warped desire for power and immortality, Le Guin makes a compassionate case for resisting both that has broad applicability, in her time of writing and ours. But The Farthest Shore still stuffers from what’s becoming a curse for the Earthsea books: a resolution that comes way too easily––this one even some excellent dragons can’t save.


47. Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak by Charlie Jane Anders

If you’re in search of a joyously weird space opera to tide you over until the next series of Doctor Who, look no further than Charlie Jane Anders’ Unstoppable series, where coders become queens and artists become conduits for the ruins of an ancient galactic empire. The trilogy’s book two, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, follows two perspective characters from book one, Victories Greater Than Death, and, in my opinion, beats the latter on almost all of its strengths. The ensemble cast finally comes into its own, and the sparkling concepts in Anders’ worldbuilding finally get to shine. Plus, two incredibly resonant areas of commentary––creativity after trauma and the oversaturation of information in the digital age––give the book some excellent themes to chew on. Action scenes remain a little fuzzy (and Anders still introduces way too many new characters for her own good!), but this second book is well worth crossing the shaky ground of the first.


48. Henry V by William Shakespeare

Even with another five still ahead of me in chronological order, I’m going to have to call it now: this will probably be my least favorite of Shakespeare’s history plays. It traces Henry V’s part in the Hundred Years’ War, dramatizing his invasion of France from Harfleur to the Battle of Agincourt, and ending with the ensuing peace treaty. If all of this sounds like dull military history, it’s because it, kind of, um…is? Henry V, as a play, is woefully poor in the court intrigue that makes the other histories so much fun, and, because its focus is almost solely on war, it presents the most simplistic interpretation of its title character in what I’ve read of the canon. To sum it up: Henry is violent, valiant, and seldom criticized, and even Shakespeare’s word– and scenecraft can’t save his play.


49. Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Rowan Roth has been locked in an academic standoff with the pretentious, detestably clever Neil McNair for the better part of her academic career. When her last chance to beat him arrives in the form of a senior class scavenger hunt, she’s determined to take him down––but Today Tonight Tomorrow is a romcom, and Rachel Lynn Solomon’s (deliciously witty, gloriously rose-tinted) universe has other plans. Set over one whirlwind of a night, the book sometimes struggles to reach the full depths of its characters’ feelings, but it also happens to read like magic. Solomon’s voicy prose, charming use of setting, and singular talent for choosing quirks makes Today Tonight Tomorrow read like the most wondrous of teen comedy films in book form.


50. Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer

This year, my annual craving for a writing craft book led me to Wonderbook, a manual for speculative fiction in particular that offers an encyclopedic look at the whole process, from tapping into your imagination before you begin, to revising and workshopping your finished story. Of the writing books I’ve read, this one is probably the friendliest to experimental forms: VanderMeer tailors his advice to fit the ultra-weird, in narrative structure, setting, and prose alike. The book also draws on a breadth of references: the expertise of other writers as guest essayists, the examples of various gems of genre fiction, a not-insignificant amount of homework in the form of other craft books (!). Some of it is so out-there that it becomes unwieldy as advice, but the book as a whole is impressively thorough and delightfully ambitious. I can’t wait to give it another read (and actually do the exercises this time!).


51. An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

First performed in 1895, this whip-smart comedy of manners follows a politician whose past comes to haunt his since-upstanding public record––and his marriage. The play’s dialogue and characters are perfectly witty and charming, in the way that Wilde on stage is always witty and charming, but An Ideal Husband, like its spiritual sister A Woman of No Importance, also has something vital to say about how we fail one another. In this case, Wilde takes remarkably compassionate aim at the way we put impossible expectations on our loved ones, and what a disservice in doing so we do to ourselves. The play is no The Importance of Being Earnest where humor is concerned, but its vibrant main cast very nearly makes up for it.


Thank you so much for reading! How was your May in books? I’d love to hear anything and everything about what you read in the comments below 💕

The Pigeon’s Guide to Reading and Enjoying Shakespeare

Hello and welcome to the blog! If you’ve been around here awhile, you’ll know that I love the works of William Shakespeare: watching them, reading them, and occasionally even performing in them. But they’re not always the most accessible for new readers. Language has changed a lot since they were written, much of their context no longer exists, and even with some schooling behind you, these plays can be demanding reading.

So, today, whether you’re picking up Henry IV because you miss your English class, using Macbeth to fill the If We Were Villains-sized hole in your heart, or trying your hand at Much Ado About Nothing because you’ve heard Beatrice and Benedick are the original idiots-to-lovers (it’s true; they’re legends), I hope I can help you find some joy in my favorite plays of all time. My amateur advice is as follows:


1. Get Some Background

If you were studying your play of choice in a literature class, your professor would give you the low-down: here’s the basic premise, here’s who the characters are, here are some lines from the play, here are a few important scenes. So do the same for yourself! Read the introduction included in your edition if it’s there, watch videos about the play, or otherwise know your characters and your places apart so that Act I, Scene 1 doesn’t throw you into the deep end. There is also no shame in taking notes, which I am known to do! Whatever helps you get what’s happening and when is worth a little extra time.

If you’re looking for some resources, my favorites include:


2. Watch It First!

When it comes to enjoyment, I find Shakespeare is the reverse of most books: always go straight for the movie. (Or, if you’re lucky and have some actual stage productions nearby: go see them, go see them, go see them, go see them!) There are so often depths to these plays that only directors and actors can really convey. For the darker tragedy and history plays, these are the speeches, the fights, the death scenes. For the comedies (my favorites!), this is the physicality and comedic timing that will have you doubling over in your seat if you see them live. Also, if you watch the plays first, you get some faces and voices to put to the character names, which will help you out if you like to visualize scenes while you’re reading. All the plays have at least one version that’s been taped and put on YouTube, but you can also try:


3. Act It Out!

Curling up with a paperback is a lovely way to spend an evening, but I find Shakespeare to reward a reading experience that’s a little more boisterous: there’s nothing like staging a one-man production of King John in your kitchen. If you can get up on your feet and pretend you’re playing one of the characters on stage, I highly recommend it! If you’re only comfortable with whispering the lines to yourself, that’s equally as good. Plays, whether they’re Shakespeare, Hansberry, Gunderson, or Wilde, are meant to be staged, and because of that leave a great deal of interpretation up to you as you read them. This can be as limiting as it is liberating. The difference between the two often lies in how much like an actor you’re willing to think––solo production in your kitchen or no.


4. One Line At A Time

I got this trick from Thinking Shakespeare by Barry Edelstein, a book about how to confront the Bard as an actor. All you need is a bookmark or index card, and whatever text you’re reading. Whatever line you’re on, cover up everything immediately below it, and only move the paper down once you’ve read and more-or-less understood it. Rinse and repeat many hundred times.

By going one line at a time, you force yourself to concentrate on the piece of the task in front of you, instead of seeing the block of text still ahead. It’s a great way to avoid getting overwhelmed, but it also helps you use the line breaks as natural stopping points in a character’s thought process. Take this bit from a soliloquy in Richard II, where the now-deposed king is reflecting on his rule from prison:

Thus play I in one person many people,

[Line break; he thinks about it for a second, spurring on the next line.]

And none contented […]

Act V, Scene 5

Instead of hitting you all at once, these thoughts build upon each other in manageable pieces, and they’re much easier to enjoy one line at a time.


5. You Know More Than You Think

If you like books––scratch that, if you like stories, period––you know Shakespeare. A litany of his plots have been repurposed in books and movies you know like the back of your hand, and you’ve heard the writing quoted hundreds of times, maybe without even registering some of them. Even if you’ve never read or watched one of the plays, their subject matter (life, power, friendship, responsibility, love, mortality!) can speak to you. As unapproachable as the Bard may seem, his plays, along with everything in the storytelling tradition, no matter how distant, belong to all of us. If you want to read the plays, you are absolutely “smart” enough to read the plays.

Never, ever let anyone tell you they’re beyond you.


Thank you so much for reading! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, and––if you want to start reading the plays but don’t know where to go first, I made a quiz that will give you a personal recommendation of one of my favorites 💚 Happy reading!

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 💕