Welcome back to the blog! As we clear another month, I hope you’re doing what brings you joy, whatever form that takes. For my part, I found plenty of joy in the books I picked up this month, and even more in reviewing them 🤓
11. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
This charming comedy of manners, mistaken identity, and ethically dubious pranks is an ever-renewing treat. In it, we meet Viola, who’s just lost her brother in a shipwreck on unfamiliar shores. There, she enters the service of the duke Orsino disguised as a pageboy, and marvelously funny hijinks ensue. Twelfth Night contains some of the most iconic antics, clever uses of dramatic irony, and painfully sincere scenes of pining in all of Shakespeare, and in addition to being a favorite of theatre companies, it’s also a dear one of mine. The last of the Bard’s comedies in my dogged quest to read ‘em all, it proves a fitting swan song for the category that will likely remain first in my heart.
12. Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans
Tracing the art form from its courtly inception to its contemporary shifts, Jennifer Homan’s 500-page ballet history is all about one thing: context. This book’s commitment to illuminating ballet against the backdrop of everything else––politics, money, other artistic disciplines––makes it as much a vast chronicle as it is a critic’s look at changes in style and staging. I loved reading Homans’ long chapters of biography interwoven with choreography interwoven with the happenings of the wider world. (Even if it started to wear on me around page 450, where we enter ballet’s 20th-century American heyday, and lose some of the earlier chapters’ perspective and restraint.) All in all, I had a great time, despite ending the book feeling a little like this.
13. Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis
I’m looking to finish more works of classic fantasy this year, and after clearing The Lord of the Rings (again) with much weepy fanfare, I’m arriving at the sequels to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which I read in 2020 and delighted in. My mileage with this next book is mixed, though. We meet the four child heroes of book one, the Pevensie siblings, as they return to the Narnia of their fond and fantastical memories, only to discover centuries passed in their absence and a terrible king on the throne. Their mission, which I found awkwardly paced and anticlimactic, is to help the titular exiled prince to his rightful crown. What Prince Caspian has to its advantage, though, it has in spades: a cast of characters bound by a deep, unwavering love, a tradition steeped in myth and fairy tale, and an adventurous spirit that has its kindred in fantasy books to this day.
14. Half Life by Lillian Clark
YA sci-fi author Lillian Clark conducts a promising experiment in 2020’s Half Life, even if its results aren’t always up to par. Following the 15-year-old perfectionist and Ivy-League aspirant Lucille, the book injects the dilemmas of human cloning into ordinary teenage life, using Lucille and her eventual double to poke holes in both corporate greed and soul-sacrificing personal ambition. As promising as this fusion is, though, doing both has its drawbacks. Neither of these aspects feel like they have enough time, and Lucille’s clone is much fainter of a character than she is. Still, Clark is scarily honest about the aforementioned perfectionism––having been swallowed by it at regular intervals in my past, I often felt a little too Seen.
15. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis
Helmed by the two younger Pevensies, Caspian, and a new character or two on a perilous journey across the sea, the rocky experience of this book’s soaring achievements and punishing failures is genuinely messing with my head. Hysterically funny! Heavy-handed as hell! Magical! Patronizing! Inspired! Infuriating! Though I admire Lewis’ departure from the quest form for something more episodic and fluid, the book’s structure feels unfocused and totally unmoored. Though Eustace Clarence Scrubb and his bah-humbug vibes were some of the most fun I’ve ever had with an ‘unlikeable’ character, I found myself actively cursing the means and timing of his redemption. And, though I love the mysticality and ambiguity of the ending, I take some serious objections to how Lewis uses his mentor figure, Aslan. On the whole, I come down on the side of disliking this book, but given how much potential I found in it, I’m totally bummed about that.
16. Aerie by Maria Dahvana Headley
Aerie is the sequel to Magonia, which follows a girl who discovers her secret heritage as one of the Magonians, a nation of sky sailors whose magic guides the weather over Earth. Both books are filled with song magic, maritime settings re-imagined for the clouds, and lots of identity-flavored angst, but this second book struggles with the climate allegory, and suffers from too much time spent away from our antagonists. Still, the world is as memorable as ever, and the way Headley illuminates the love interests’ flaws is incredibly considerate; one subplot in particular matches much of the first book for emotional depth. While I don’t necessarily think this sequel outpaces its predecessor, it comes damn close. And as far as duologies are concerned, this one is a shining example in its restraint and skillful completion.
17. The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis
I think this next entry in the Chronicles of Narnia makes a much better swing at adventure for a lot of reasons, but allow me to begin with the one nearest and dearest to my heart: Eustace Clarence Scrubb is a grouch again, and this is a blessing and a relief. Our other leads, Jill and a Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum, follow suit, showing more flaws, more conflict, and, as a result of both, more memorability than the earlier books’ Pevensie siblings. Also, the settings, villain, and general trajectory of this book are nicely dialed for mythical resonance, novelty, and, above all, focus. It’s fun to see a litany of fresh places in Dawn Treader, but I’d take The Silver Chair’s near-perfect handful over them all any day.
18. King John by William Shakespeare
Following the sequence of the titular characters’ reigns, King John is the first of Shakespeare’s history plays, a collection of cycles, Henriads, and notoriously long run times dramatizing the lives of kings throughout English history. This play starts the category with a bang: it’s a morally complex, ensemble-bolstered interrogation of shaky authority and what an increasingly paranoid king does to keep it. Several of King John’s supporters also undergo expertly-timed disillusionment arcs, with one in particular, a bastard son of the late Richard I, straddling the archetypes of cynical fool and determined young hero in a really interesting way. Some developments feel a little quick (as do a few scenes of tragedy and remorse that dip into melodrama), but the play triumphs overall as a portrait of a deeply flawed ruler.
19. War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi
In a post-apocalyptic Nigeria racked by civil war and scoured by exploitation, War Girls welds a moving odyssey of parted sisters Onyii and Ify to a blistering, hard-edged vision of a futuristic world. With real history and a real Republic of Biafra as a basis, Tochi Onyebuchi constructs an intensely considerate work of sci-fi: he writes riveting scenes of tech-powered combat without ever reducing the casualties of war to thrills, and handles his two leads’ indescribable trauma with care that speaks to their analogues in actual child soldiers. It’s not rare that, through Onyii and her crushing responsibility, Onyebuchi will utterly floor you with a glimpse at the senselessness of war’s waste (a senselessness often accompanied by the greed/apathy/active malice of wealthier countries watching from the sidelines for opportunity). Part III of the book can flag, though. It struck me as sutured onto an incompatible first two thirds––never truly deciding whether it wants to be about consequence or recovery.
Thank you so much for reading! How was your February in books (or anything else)? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕