This was a much better month for reading than I’ve had lately. I’ve been borrowing books from people with tastes that don’t match mine, but this month was almost entirely dedicated to books that have been on my list for a while and that are entirely of my own choosing.
The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Cycle #2)
Have you noticed that some series don’t get off the ground until their second attempt? The Raven Boys was okay. I liked it, but I liked it more for its potential than for what it actually is. Thankfully, The Dream Thieves lived up to the potential and more. The interesting secondary characters got more involved in the main story, and Stiefvater stepped back or straight up nixed elements that clearly weren’t working in the the series debut, specifically the uninspired love triangle. I love the whole series now that I’ve finished it, but The Dream Thieves is the pinnacle.
Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
I am whatever the opposite of a hipster is when it comes to reading. If everyone is reading something, I read it. I figure everyone probably has a point. This has been a widely read book ever since the movie came out, and I’ve heard raves about the quality of the writing. I liked Call Me by Your Name fine, but I didn’t love it. The writing is incredibly good, as promised, but the story is mediocre. There’s such a laser focus on the romance that anything and everything else is an afterthought. This is absolutely the intention, but it’s not to my taste. I’m glad I read Call Me by Your Name so that I know what everyone’s talking about, but I’m glad I got it from the library instead of buying it.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Getting Lucky by Mackenzi Lee (Montague Siblings #1.5)
I absolutely adored The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue when I read it back in 2018. I found it hilarious and cute and refreshing and surprising, so I read The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy as soon as it was released. I didn’t jump on this one quite as fast, mostly because it’s a novella and I read to fast too warrant buying those, but as soon as I saw that it existed I knew I’d get it from the library ASAP. I enjoyed it, but it has a definite fanfictiony feel (no shade to fanfiction; it’s just not my jam). While the main series mixes its silly, fluffy moments with entertaining plot and social commentary, Getting Lucky is all silly and fluffy. That said, it works for what it is. The only people who would like it are people who really, really love Percy and Monty… but thankfully the only people who are going to read it are people who really love Percy and Monty.
Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee
If you’re looking for a quick, queer, fangirlish read, this is a good one. It’s about a girl who is adapting Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina into a YouTube series. Her project blows up unexpectedly, leaving her to juggle new commitments while trying to figure out her future and her romantic prospects. I wouldn’t read this if you’re looking for a great romance (while the asexual representation is good, Tash’s love interest doesn’t do anything for me). I enjoyed the nerdy elements of this book as well as the platonic relationships between Tash, her best friend/co-creator Jack, and their cast. While Tash Hearts Tolstoy isn’t going to make my annual top ten list, I did like it a lot.
Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst (Of Fire and Stars #1)
This book. I really wanted to like it. I found it on a list of LGBTQ+ novels, and since queer fantasy is one of my favorite subgenres (Six of Crows! The Darkest Part of the Forest! The later Shadowhunters books! The Song of Achilles! The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue!) I figured I’d give it a try. That was… well, not a mistake. I didn’t hate Of Fire and Stars, but I also didn’t like it. The romance is cute enough. This is one of the rare books that has a more compelling romance than actual plot. That’s not necessarily saying much, though, since the plot is… like that. It moves slowly, hinges on powerful characters being idiots, and wraps up with one of the most blatantly obvious twist endings I’ve ever encountered. While I’m all for more diversity in fantasy–there aren’t a lot of queer women in fantasy, at last as far as I’ve observed–that’s pretty much the only thing Of Fire and Stars has going for it.
Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland
I read this for book club, and I very much disliked it. The basic plot comes from a real story in author Rachel Beanland’s family history, and I think that blinds her to how inherently sexist it is. It’s supposed to be a story about a mother putting herself and her family through a horrible ordeal to protect her daughter and unborn granddaughter. It’s actually a story about a mother who makes an illogical, irrational choice to methodically strip her daughter of all agency in her life by lying relentlessly to her all while acting like she’s a martyred mother of the year. I was barely two chapters into Florence Adler Swims Forever before I couldn’t stomach it any more, and I only plowed through it because I knew I’d be called upon to discuss it.
Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Cycle #3)
It’s been way too long since I found a good fantasy series that I could blow all the way through in a matter of weeks. The Raven Cycle was a good one. The series hit its stride in book two, and while that is overall the strongest book of the series, I really enjoyed Blue Lily, Lily Blue. Probably my favorite part of it is that Adam and Ronan teamed up and made a kind of team-within-the-team, and their dynamic is surprisingly sweet and emotional. I felt that some of the plot elements in this book were slightly less sharp than in The Dream Thieves or The Raven King, but there are some great twists and I felt that of all the single-book villains introduced in this series, Blue Lily, Lily Blue arguably has the strongest.
The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Cycle #4)
What a great ending! I’m actually really sad to be done with this series, because it’s been a little while since I found a fantasy series I could really dig into. The Raven King finishes the series on a high note, and I know that I’ve said it a thousand times, but I’ll say it again: I’m so glad that Stiefvater figured out that Adam and Ronan are the standouts of the series. Gansey and Blue definitely improved from The Raven Boys to here, but shifting the focus slightly to give all four members of the squad roughly equal billing (although I’d argue that, though Gansey seems to be the leader of the group, Adam is actually the hero of the series, as much as there is a singular hero) was absolutely the right move. Anyway, I really enjoyed this series and I added Call Down the Hawk to me to-read list literally less than a minute after finishing it.
Opal by Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Cycle #4.5)
I almost didn’t include Opal on this, because it’s so short calling it a “novella” is a stretch. In the end, though… I did include The Gentleman’s Guide to Getting Lucky, and–roughly speaking–Opal is for Adam and Ronan what The Gentleman’s Guide to Getting Lucky is for Monty and Percy. It follows Ronan and Adam through the eyes of Ronan’s little faun girl, Opal. It’s mostly a sweet, domestic story but the POV is intriguing; Opal is childlike and made of dreamstuff and therefore has incomplete knowledge of what’s going on and lacks the ability to use context clues. As a result the reader has to continually filter Opal’s narration into more human terms, which makes for a very different reading experience. It’s intriguing, too, and there are some occurrences that neither I nor Opal fully understood and will likely be touched upon in the Dreamer Trilogy.
The Lightness of Hands by Jeff Garvin
Years ago, I was blown away by Jeff Garvin’s first novel, Symptoms of Being Human. I liked it enough that I read The Lightness of Hands without reading the summary first, which is almost unheard of for me (I like to know what I’m getting into). It’s good, but it didn’t make the lasting impression on me that Garvin’s first book did. It’s not a sophomore slump, but personally I found it less engaging. The thing Jeff Garvin does best is tossing his readers into his characters’ heads. Ellie, the protagonist of The Lightness of Hands has Bipolar II. Her tough financial situation means that for a significant portion of the novel, she doesn’t have access to the medication she needs. It’s viscerally exhausting and stressful, but extremely well written. So even though the plot is pretty predictable, the book is worth reading for the strength of the writing and the characters.
I blabber on and on about musicals, so of course I watched Hamilton as soon as it was available. It is so, so good. I laughed, I cried, I obsessively talked about it with everyone in my life who is even slightly interested in musicals. It’s just… it’s Hamilton! There’s a reason it’s a global phenomenon.
Did I mention that I love musicals? I think I did. My sister recommended Smash since she’d seen a few episodes when it aired and liked it. Also, for Broadway lovers like me, it’s a smorgasbord of great cameos. I love seeing Broadway stars on TV, so seeing people like Christian Borle, Wesley Taylor, Leslie Odom Jr., Jeremy Jordan, and Bernadette Peters on popular shows is super fun. I’m the person who spends the whole show going, look! Philippa Soo is a background dancer! Aside from that, any show with elaborate musical numbers is going to appeal to me, so I really enjoyed Smash despite its flaws. And apparently it’s going to become an actually Broadway musical sometime? That’s so cool!
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist
Once again, musicals. I promise I didn’t only watch musicals. Just mostly musicals. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has been on my radar for a while. If you’re the sort of person who watches Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Galavant, Glee, and Smash the Internet algorithm is going to figure out to market all musical TV shows to you (also, my sister-in-law recommended Zoey). It’s great, and even though it’s also a TV musical, it’s about as different from Smash as you could get. It’s far more dramatic, for starters, and even though it’s got actual magic in it (magical realism, at least), it’s more grounded. It uses existing songs exclusively rather than writing its own numbers, and–with the notable exceptions of Alex Newell and Skylar Astin–features a cast of actors who aren’t necessarily known for their vocal chops. And it really, really works. It has some hysterically funny moments and some that are heartbreakingly sad, and it also manages to be really feminist (and diverse!). Two thumbs up!