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 💕

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 💕

What I Read in April 💕

Hello and welcome to the blog! Thanks for sticking around through my break––school, as it tends to do, ramped way up just as I was finishing it! But, with my two-year associates degree (in science, of all things) behind me, I have a number of delightful reads from last month to share with you. Let’s dive in!


31. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

This last volume of Philip Pullman’s moving, expansive, magically scientific (and scientifically magical) His Dark Materials trilogy might be the best of all three books. I was wary about Pullman wandering into his universe’s pantheon in book two, but I ought not have been––The Amber Spyglass goes mind-bogglingly big in scale with its conflict and theme, but it handles it well, keeping the multiverse stuff to the deeply personal conflicts between characters His Dark Materials does best. In the least spoilery terms: Spyglass takes us into an intricate new universe whose mysteries can be untangled only through science, across a warped angelic empire, and into the afterlife and back, and every step of the journey feels utterly purposeful. I can’t wait to take it again when I watch the show. (Also, for those of you who’ve read it: Mary’s subplot is good. Fight me!)


32. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Set on a Mississippi estate, 1955’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof follows the disillusioned children (and children-in-law) of a dying cotton magnate as they vie for the inheritance. I actually read this play a few years ago for a book club and hated it, but now, I can see some of its merits, even if they don’t totally illuminate it in a positive light. I can appreciate, for example, how Tennessee Williams tackles mortality and materialism and internalized homophobia…while also holding my reservations about how little he does to undermine the racism he depicts on the page. I’m glad I re-read it, especially in an academic setting (with my English class!), but as for enjoying it? That’s a different story.


33. Control by Lydia Kang

Control’s world is a lovely 2013 YA sci-fi number with all the bells and whistles: a semi-gritty futuristic setting where high-tech meets a corporate criminal underbelly, plenty of lab work, and a superpowered found family. If you live for that stuff, Control will be a familiar treat, but it has a secret boon for all those who seek heavy science in their sci-fi: Kang, a practicing physician, uses the gory details to her advantage. (Control, as a title, refers actually to the feature of experimental design 🥰.) In the plot department, though, Control struggles. The climax and conclusion are messy and keep the book from landing on its feet––ditto for the faceless antagonists and various interchangeable henchmen who appear only for the big fight at the end. Kang certainly does her best to tap into her story’s thrills, but the sleek face of evil in Control only has so much menace.


34. Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

Set after the overthrow of King Richard II, this play kicks off a duology ostensibly about his replacement, Henry IV…but actually about the young ne’er-do-well prince, Hal. Where some of Shakespeare’s other history plays are more consistently somber, Henry IV, Part 1 is a crowd-pleasing balancing act between the heavy drama of (yet another!) uprising and the raucous comedy of Prince Hal’s drunken exploits. Your mileage with the comedy may very, but if it happens to work for you, it’s a warm anchor to a delicious overplot of courtly intrigue. If, like I did on my first go-round, you find yourself getting impatient with the play’s long-winded comic relief character, Falstaff, get your hands on a taped (or real-life!) production: this humor, especially, is best absorbed in performance.


35. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Following the events of Maggie Stiefvater’s paranormal fantasy, The Raven Boys, Gansey, a young scholar obsessed, is still on the hunt for the legendary Welsh king Glendower. Blue Sargent is still sitting on a prophecy that bodes a kiss that will kill her true love. And Ronan Lynch has just started using a deadly magic to pull things out of his dreams. In line with the series’ first installment, Stiefvater again sets up a careful use of foils for a potent character study––this time of Ronan––but owing to a fumbling of tone with an important supporting character, this one doesn’t cut nearly as deep as its predecessor. But among The Dream Thieves’ familiar charms are haunting visuals, witty and self-aware prose, and a mythic focus, all of which manage to give this volume a lot of what made The Raven Boys so special to begin with.


36. Exo by Fonda Lee

Fonda Lee’s YA take on extraterrestrial occupation is as thoughtful as it is bracing. Exo is set a century after Earth becomes a colony of the hyper-hierarchical zhree, and it follows a young loyalist security officer, Donovan, as he discovers his buried ties to the human rebellion. Lee’s stark, cinematic prose style makes Exo read like a high-caliber summer blockbuster, but this book has its thrilling cake and eats it, too. Lee looks at everything from the class disparity under occupation to the human cost of violent resistance, and Exo emerges from the scrutiny with more questions than answers, rich in nuance and all the better for it. The ensemble, however, is too numerous for Exo’s available page time, and much of it languishes in character soup. Two major family dynamics for Donovan carry a lot of weight, but both feel shirked by a few important beats.


37. Small Favors by Erin A. Craig

Small Favors is fantasy-horror scribe Erin A. Craig’s sophomore work, following the sea-drenched, wind-swept gothic vibes of House of Salt and Sorrows (reviewed here) with a rustic, something-in-the-woods approach to her signature chills. With more darkness coming from our main characters’ neighbors than from any sinister magic, and a much less romantic frontier setting, Small Favors is a very different book, but I found myself engrossed in it even more. Craig uses her setting to make extremely salient commentary on how hardship makes people turn on one another, and the darker undertones to her choice of love story serve to deepen it and make it more memorable. The monster reveal, too, is always a delicate dance in a work of horror, but whatever terror her concept loses in coming into the light is more than made up for in resonance.


38. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

First thing’s first: Matt Haig’s cheesy as hell. But here, it works to his advantage. How to Stop Time stars the functionally immortal Tom Hazard, who’s found himself detached from humanity after centuries of loss and secrecy…until he meets the person who will prove to be the second love of his life. Weaving through history, the book probably has its most fun in flashbacks: Elizabethan England, Jazz-Age Paris, Gilded-Age New York. Where Haig runs into trouble is when he tries to bring a secret society and its accompanying life-and-death stakes to a book he’s committed to steering away from darker territory: every time a gun is pulled in How to Stop Time, it’s a moment of overpowering whiplash. Still, the book’s sincerity lands what it most needs to say––that we can’t shy away from pain, that there’s always more to learn and live for––and does so beautifully.


39. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Published in 1968, A Wizard of Earthsea opens Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, tracing the many voyages of a young sorcerer as he grows into his power. Le Guin’s worldbuilding, first of all, is top-tier: Earthsea comes alive in a totally different way every time we dock at one of its distinctive islands. Filled with tradition, illuminated by a magic system that strikes the perfect balance between order and mystery, and making liberal use of the natural world and its power, this book’s settings are among fantasy’s best. But the execution in this first book, as much as I can appreciate its ideas, is mixed. Its episodic structure makes it difficult for the story to achieve unity, with the lead, Ged’s, character arc feeling more like a set of ideas than a manifest progression of personal change. The prose, though, makes it feel like a gift anyway.


Thank you so much for reading! How was your April in books? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below 💕

What I Read In March 💕

Happy April, everyone! I’m so happy to be sharing with you what will be my fifth wrap-up in a row! (🥳) March brought me some new favorite books, a great play or two, and myriad wonderful things to shout about in them all. Without further ado, here they are:


20. The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Boasting portals to other worlds, a fallen empire, and a few uncharacteristically funny scenes for the character who would eventually become the White Witch, this 1955 prequel to the Narnia series surprised me in a lot of good ways. In it, we follow the schoolkids Polly and Digory, who stumble into an experiment intended to rip passageways into other universes. Among these universes is the place that the rest of the series knows as Narnia, but there’s way more than that for the book to play in, and I’m now almost mad that the other Narnia books don’t return for more. Where The Magician’s Nephew isn’t surprising, though, it’s depressingly familiar. Lewis’ magical mentor figure, Aslan, again kills conflict wherever he goes, a few later chapters are almost fatally actionless and ceremonial, and for all the book’s potential, it has a hard time living up to its ideas.


21. Extasia by Claire Legrand

Extasia is a strange beast, but a very welcome one. Claire Legrand builds a riveting work of paranormal horror from both archaic and post-apocalyptic clay, yielding a rich story that reads sometimes like a theocratic dystopian à la The Handmaid’s Tale, sometimes like a taut, colonial-era suspense à la The Crucible, and often like something new altogether. The book begins when the solemn, pious Amity is about to be anointed one of her village’s four Saints––young girls who act as religious scapegoats for their neighbors’ anger, fear, and sorrow. But all is not well in Haven and its deadly surrounding forest, and in order to save it, Amity will have to defy her church and learn magic. From there, Extasia had me reading on with rapt attention and a white-knuckled grip: it’s excellently-paced, the characters and their terror freshly rendered, and Legrand’s observation of a fearful society searingly true. (Reviewed here.)


22. The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur

The Forest of Stolen Girls, set in Joseon-Era Korea, is a murder-mystery helmed by the daughter of a missing detective, as she re-traces his footsteps and investigates the disappearances of thirteen girls from an island fishing town. June Hur, in juggling the tasks of historical consideration and an emotionally honest story of family, seldom lets any pins fall, but when they do, they take a toll on her main character, Hwani, and her journey towards reckoning with her father’s flaws. The prose, for instance, often defaults to explaining rather than describing what she’s feeling, which gives some of her most important emotional moments a distancing effect. But in atmosphere and motives for possible suspects and accomplices, Hur consistently shines. She also makes a point of using the context of time and place to the mystery’s advantage, rather than just setting the story against it––a deep, structural choice that, in the end, sticks Forest’s landing.


23. The Lives of Saints by Leigh Bardugo

Though it doesn’t quite reach the emotional power of the rest of the Grishaverse, The Lives of Saints still has something to offer people (me) who can’t get enough of it. This volume collects the (often disappointingly) short tales of saints from the world of Bardugo’s fantasy books––some of them managing to be haunting despite their length (Anastasia), some of them actually wickedly funny (Lutkin!!), and some sadly forgettable (Petyr). It’s a worthy experiment that I’m glad exists, for the simple fact that series lore is my lifeblood, but almost all the stories lose something in brevity. The Language of Thorns, another anthology from the Grishaverse, does so well with its task precisely because it lets the stories get a little longer, and I can’t help but feel that The Lives of Saints would’ve been better equipped to follow it up had it done the same.


24. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, #1)

I’m utterly in awe of this book’s vision. Set in a world like our own (but not quite!) it charts the power plays of conniving liturgical institutions and officials, the discovery of a mysterious new elementary particle, and the adventures of a fiercely loyal and dangerously important girl by the name of Lyra. I could talk about the system of science-magic, the construction of alternate history cultures, or the almost cinematic use of perspective intercutting at work in The Golden Compass for hours, but what I was most impressed by was Philip Pullman’s willingness to not expound on his world before giving us a chance to walk in it. He lets the reader put the pieces together with the characters, in a way that made me just as eager to learn more about where we were as I was to find out what would happen next. And I, being the nerd that I am, was totally mesmerized from start to finish.


25. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

As much as I love the vibes, The Winter’s Tale might be Shakespeare’s most self-defeating play. On paper, it’s a story about redemption: the wrath of a jealous king, Leontes, kills his wife with grief, and loses him a daughter, but through the intervention of a miracle or two, they’re all reunited with Leontes a changed man. But, really, it’s hard to read or watch, without the nagging thought that Leontes didn’t need to act like he did, and none of this needed to happen––especially if we’re going to end the play mostly in the same place we began. A fog of pointlessness lies over The Winter’s Tale that, try as it might, the play just can’t shake. The fourth act, too, a pastoral starring characters only tangentially related to the earlier action, is dangerously close to insufferable. (But judging by my opinion of As You Like It, I might just hate pastorals altogether 😬)


26. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This work of historical fiction is based on a very real hoax. It’s 1885 and a sea serpent is rumored to haunt the marshes of Aldwinter, as a warning from an angry higher power, or a remnant from a Mesozoic ocean long gone, or both. We follow a widow, Cora Seaborne, as she investigates the rumor and strikes up a tumultuous, intimate friendship with Aldwinter’s devoted vicar. If you’re into science of any kind, The Essex Serpent has to its advantage an erudite bent that draws on the history of paleontology and medicine, and puts them to fascinating use. Also mostly to its benefit is the central friendship, which takes on refreshing narrative importance, even if its trajectory can be frustrating. Overall, this title proved a way more compatible read for me than I expected, which has me wondering if I should pick up more historicals. (I also love Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. Recommend away!)


27. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, #2)

As the sequel to The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife takes the trilogy in several fascinating new directions at once, only some of which worried me. The expansion of the series into new universes, one of them being ours, gives the book plenty of awesome concepts to work with, from the correlation of book one’s science with our contemporary understanding of physics, to a power struggle that careens the story’s scope into literally unfathomable territory––for better or worse. In this volume, we also meet Will, a boy whose troubled family history ties him to the fate of Lyra’s world. As deuteragonists, their shrewdness functions well against the pretense and status of those in power, and even if connecting with them is a little harder this time around, Pullman’s reliance on the ensemble approach gives us myriad eyes to look through in the meantime. (And a vast, constantly-changing landscape to look at, too, which is always a plus.)


28. I and You by Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson is one of my favorite playwrights, and what I and You achieves in a little under 70 pages pretty much explains why. It’s set in chronically-ill 17-year-old Caroline’s bedroom, where Anthony, a classmate from the school she can no longer attend, enlists her help for a project on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Over the course of a few hours, the two connect over the poem, get to know each other in a miraculous, theatrical totality, and, if you’re anything like me, will have you sobbing three times or more before curtain call. Gunderson gets something about humanity and experience and why we need each other so much that’s otherwise inarticulable, and hearing it said––shouted!––in I and You was a catharsis unlike any I’ve ever experienced.


29. A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee

A witty, hopeful, spirit-studded riot of a fantasy adventure from The Reader author Traci Chee, A Thousand Steps Into Night holds delight after delight. Its heroine, Miuko, must embark on a quest to reverse the curse that’s about to turn her into a demon, and along the way, she’ll fall in with a clever, complaining magpie, contend with a vengeful demon prince for the fate of the kingdom of Awara, and fight to keep her humanity all the while. A Thousand Steps manages a great deal in its comparatively limited page time as a standalone, from directly challenging Miuko’s weaknesses in a satisfying way to offering a broad sweep of Chee’s ultra-vivid world in a number of one-of-a-kind scenes I’d love to see put to animation. Characters appear and exit rather quickly, with a couple scenes of action bypassed or skimped on to the book’s detriment, but it’s largely an unbroken joy.


30. Richard II by William Shakespeare

This history play is tragedy, political theory, and character study all at once. While it flounders with its supporting cast (a point I controversially think its prequel, King John, excels at!), Richard II has such a keen eye on where power comes from, and what it does to those who hold or seek it. Shakespeare’s Richard is as compelling as he is infuriating; a devastating indictment of inherited privilege and a bittersweet elegy for those it eats away. Shakespeare also establishes with precision the weight of his transgressions, and why they set his countrymen against him, something he struggles with in King John. I also definitely cried while watching and reading this, not least because the language in it is so hauntingly beautiful and even––dare I say it?––a cut above the Bard’s rest.


Thank you so much for reading! May the next month bring you small joys and many good stories ☕️ 📚