Review of “You Should See Me in a Crown” by Leah Johnson

Leah Johnson’s debut You Should See Me in a Crown is a book that I’ve been wanting to read for a while. I have been on a fantasy kick for so long that I wanted to wait until the right moment to read this contemporary YA fiction novel. Well, after a 20 or 30 something book streak (I didn’t really keep track), I put fantasy to the side and picked this one up, and what a joy it was!

The premise of the book is that Liz Lighty, a teen living in a small midwestern town, loses her financial aid to her dream college. Liz jumps at the opportunity to enter her school’s competition for prom queen, because the winner receives a scholarship. As the only Black girl and quote, unquote uncool kid in the race, Liz worries that she’s too different from anyone else for her campaign to gain traction. When she and a fellow contestant start falling for each other, Liz and her friends worry that her chances at winning will be damaged. What follows is a wonderful story that centers Black joy.

The book is happy, but it’s also poignant.

Before I read the book, I kept seeing reviews and comments talking about how sweet it is. I think the book is sweet, but Johnson doesn’t shy away from showing her readers the hard parts of life. Liz is definitely a happy character, but she also has to contend with serious issues, such as her brother’s health, and losing her financial aid for college. Johnson makes readers confront the fact that life is very unfair sometimes. The book isn’t sweet because nothing bad happens. It’s sweet because, despite bad things happening to them, the characters generally love each other and approach situations with positivity.

The characters are dynamic. They aren’t shoved into archetypal boxes.

I think that one of Johnson’s strengths is how accurately she portrays teenagers. Some writers label their teenage characters as having one defining label, i.e. “cool” or “band geek.” But this book really shows that people are more than their labels. Not all of the “popular” kids suck. Not all of the “nerds” lack social skills. People contain more than one trait. The perfect example of this is one of Liz’s friends, Jordan. At the beginning of the book, even Liz has written him off as a jock. Jordan doesn’t exclusively see himself that way, which he tries to prove to Liz.

Of course, this isn’t to say that every character is good. Liz has to deal with some serious racism during her campaign for prom queen. Sometimes the “mean girls,” and mean boys for that matter, really are evil

Liz is such a dynamic main character. At the beginning of the novel, she has defined herself as someone who could never run for prom queen. She doesn’t think of herself as particularly cool. But Liz has to learn that she contains multitudes! Throughout the book, She has to contend with the labels that she’s put on herself.

The love story is moving.

The love story is fitting for 2020. Liz does have some concerns about being outed as gay to her whole town, but her feelings are different than what they could have been twenty years ago. Obviously, people still face a lot of opposition for being gay in 2020, but queer narratives aren’t always centered around this pivotal coming out moment anymore. This is true for Liz. She is happy and content with her sexuality, and her family and friends support her, but she still has some apprehension about publicly announcing her sexuality to the whole school (relatable). She has to contend with this when she meets the girl of her dreams. Liz really is compatible with this girl. They have lots of interests in common, and it was so touching to watch them find their way to each other over the course of the novel.

If anything, I would have liked to see the love interest in the book a little more.

The love story was not the main point of the novel, but I still wish that it had gotten a little more page time! Liz and her love interest have to grow a lot as people before they can get together, and this part of the story is so moving that I wish Johnson had focused on it just a little bit more! There was so much going on in the book, however, that I understand why she didn’t.

Johnson doesn’t shy away from portraying the complexity of teenage friendship.

I like the way that Johnson portrays friendships. She shows readers how important they are, especially to teenagers. I think that some of the most complex relationships in the book are between Liz and her friends. Liz is able to overcome obstacles because she’s personally determined, yes, but also because she has a great support network. She has fights with her friends, which is unfortunately realistic, but they will always gather to support her and help her. They want to see her succeed. Her friendship with Jordan was particularly poignant. The idea of revisiting a friendship that went wrong many years ago is something that I think will cause many people to have feelings.

I love the way Johnson depicts family.

The way that Johnson depicts family is perhaps the most moving part of the book, for me. Liz is surrounded by a loving family that consists of her two grandparents and her brother. They are not perfect people, and sometimes they make mistakes, but they love each other and they stick together. I like reading about families who have been through serious heartbreak, but are still happy. They can still function and love each other. It is a delight to see and to read.

I highly recommend this book.

Madeline Miller Characters as Taylor Swift Songs

*This article contains spoilers for The Song of Achilles, Circe, and Galatea.

Here is the post you didn’t know you were waiting for: Madeline Miller Characters as Taylor Swift songs! For an extra challenge, I only used songs from Swift’s most recent album, Folklore. 

the 1 – Penelope

Excerpt of lyrics: “We never painted by the numbers, baby / But we were making it count / You know the greatest loves of all time are over now / I guess you never know, never know / And it’s another day of waking up alone”

Why it works: Penelope has incredible strength, and she has to endure living so much of her life without Odysseus because he’s away at war and on other quests. When he finally does come back, he’s changed completely. Additionally, once he’s back, only a short time passes before he dies. I imagine her nostalgically thinking about the beginning of their marriage in the song. “We were something, don’t you think so?” She asks. Then, she laments how much of her life she’s had to spend by herself. “It’s another day of waking up alone.”

I’d like to think that the death of Odysseus doesn’t destroy her, though, which is why I chose a slightly more upbeat song like the 1. Penelope honors Odysseus and mourns the time they lost together, but she’s also living in the present. I like that Madeline Miller makes her a very active character and gives her characteristics other than worrying about Odysseus. Penelope is an amazing character in her own right (I would say personally much better than Odysseus), and maybe someday she found another “the 1” who didn’t let her down horribly, or she became “the 1” for herself instead.

the last great american dynasty – Circe

Excerpt of lyrics: And they said / “There goes the last great American dynasty / Who knows, if she never showed up / what could’ve been / There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvelous time ruining everything”

Why it works: I struggled to find a song worthy of my beloved Circe, but I ended up choosing the last great american dynasty because of the way that the narration of the song is set up. The song is about this woman who is living life on her own terms, and people are talking about how bad she is, scoffing that she doesn’t fit in and that she ruins everything. I imagine that’s how the gods talk about Circe. Circe is sick of living around the gods and discovers that she doesn’t have to be cowed by them, and that she has the power to live the life that she wants. The song is also closely tied to the image of a house, just as Circe is very tied to the image of being exiled on her island, so there are definite parallels there, as well.

my tears ricochet – Patroclus

Excerpt of lyrics: I swear I loved you / ‘Til my dying day / I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace / And you’re the hero flying around, saving face / And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake? 

Why it works: I wish that there were happier songs on this album that I could give to Patroclus and Achilles! My tears ricochet is weirdly fitting for Patroclus, though, especially considering his relationship to Achilles. This song describes a time for Patroclus when he’s died and become a spirit, unable to move on. He knows that Achilles can’t sleep without him. He’s desperately praying for Achilles to do the right thing and bury Hector. “You know I didn’t want to have to haunt you but what a ghostly scene.” 

He also has a little bit of anger for how Achilles has handled the war. He tells Achilles that he had to die the way that he did in order to save the Greeks, even if it meant that he died after being defeated in battle, stuck as a spirit with unfinished business. He’s asking Achilles to right the wrongs that have happened in the war. 

I will note that the biggest difference between the song and Patroclus are the endings. At the end of the song, the relationship that Taylor Swift is describing is very much over, and at the end of the book, Achilles and Patroclus are very much together, united and happy in the afterlife.

seven – Paphos

Excerpt of lyrics: Please picture me in the weeds / Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously / Any time I wanted 

Why it works: I connect Paphos with this song because of its innocence. The narrator says that she hit her peak at age 7, and I think that this is when Paphos was the happiest, considering that her father forcibly removes her from her mother not too many years after that point. Paphos really does “hit [her] peak at seven,” in the sense that she gets to be with her mom, and her mom is fighting her dad to give her a full life. Throughout the song, she’s speaking to an unnamed friend who is also a child, and they’re reflecting on the years that they were happy together just playing in the weeds. 

august – Deidameia

Excerpt of lyrics: But I can see us lost in the memory / August slipped away into a moment in time / ‘Cause it was never mine / And I can see us twisted in bedsheets / August slipped away like a bottle of wine / ‘Cause you were never mine 

Why it works: I think this one is pretty straightforward. The song is about a girl lamenting for a lost love that she realizes she never actually had any claim to in the first place. This is precisely what happens with Deidameia and Achilles. He never really loved her, and belonged only to Patroclus. Even though she was married to Achilles, she still managed to be the “other woman,” and their relationship “slipped away like a bottle of wine,” because Achilles returns to Patroclus. 

Invisible string – Telemachus

Excerpt of lyrics: Time, curious time / Gave me no compasses, gave me no signs / Were there clues I didn’t see? / And isn’t it just so pretty to think / All along there was some / invisible string / tying you to me? 

Why it works: I picked this song for Telemachus because I think that he and Circe really were fated to be together all along, and in a sense they were tied together by this invisible string that neither of them could see.The idea that out of all the people Circe could have ended up with, it’s Odysseus and Penelope’s son? Wow. 

Also, the song questions the nature of time, which is fitting considering the timing of their relationship, as Telemachus and Penelope are seeking shelter with Circe after the death of Odysseus. There’s also the fact that Circe is an immortal, so it’s interesting that after all the thousands of years that she’s been alive, she finally finds her partner, even though she didn’t get any “compasses” or signs giving her warning.

mad woman – Galatea

Excerpt of lyrics: And there’s nothing like a mad woman / What a shame she went mad / No one like a mad woman / You made her like tha  

Why it works: This song was meant for Galatea. Her husband insists she’s sick and that there’s something wrong with her, and he pays doctors and nurses to tell her the same thing. The song has a biting, teasing tone, which reminds me so much of Galatea’s dry sense of humor. The lyrics take shots at the men who use negative labels for women in order to control them, such as “mad woman.” What happens to a woman when her status as a sex object is threatened in a man’s eyes? When she speaks out for what she wants and dares to become a person with her own thoughts and opinions? She becomes a mad woman. This is exactly what happened between Galatea and Pygmalion.

epiphany – Chiron

Excerpt of lyrics: Keep your helmet, keep your life, son / Just a flesh wound, here’s your rifle / Crawling up the beaches now / “Sir, I think he’s bleeding out” / And some things you just can’t speak about

Why it works: This song fits Chiron because he’s seen so much death and suffering over the years. He’s mentored many heroes and soldiers and felt their pain. The song reflects that he tries to teach his students that no one can really be prepared for war or battle or sickness until it’s actually happening to them. 

betty – Odysseus

Excerpt of lyrics: But if I just showed up at your party / Would you have me? Would you want me? / Would you tell me to go fuck myself / Or lead me to the garden? / In the garden, would you trust me / If I told you it was just a summer thing? / I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you

Why it works: James, the narrator of the song, shares a lot of characteristics with Odysseus. Mostly that James leads women on, just as Odysseus does. And sure, James and Odysseus might not be the worst people ever, but they’ve definitely caused some pain. While James pretends to be young and dumb to get out of the pain that he’s caused people, Odysseus has a different tactic, hiding behind his sharp intelligence. At the end of the day, though, they’re lying to themselves about the hurt they’ve caused. When James hurts Betty by cheating on her and then tries to bring up another man, it parallels when Odysseus jealously kills anyone interested in Penelope. As if Odysseus hadn’t been unfaithful more than a few times on his journeys, and as if Penelope would ever have been unfaithful to him. Plus, even if James and Odysseus are charming, they are still both snakes. There, I said it. Odysseus is a snake, even if he’s a heroic snake at times.

peace – Achilles

Excerpt of lyrics: But there’s robbers to the east / clowns to the west / I’d give you my sunshine, give you my best / But the rain is always gonna come in you’re / standin’ with me

Why it works: Again, I wish I had happier songs to give to my favs. Peace just perfectly describes Achilles inner monologuing to Patroclus about his feelings. The song brings up the question of if Patroclus loves Achilles enough to stand with him, because Achilles chooses to have this crazy life rather than die in obscurity. “Your integrity makes me feel small,” Achilles thinks, because Patroclus is such a good person. 

Achilles can do anything for Patroclus except give him a peaceful life. He’s being honest about why he’s not such a good person. Patroclus has to weather a lot of rain in his choice to stand with Achilles, and he wants Patroclus to know that, but also know that he loves him.  

the lakes – Briseis

Excerpt of lyrics: Take me to the Lakes where all the poets went to die / I don’t belong, and my beloved, neither do you / Those Windermere peaks look like a perfect place to cry / I’m setting off, but not without my muse 

Why it works: This song fits Briseis in a lot of ways. It expresses her desire to run away, and to run away with a lover, even though it’s not clear if this lover returns her feelings. She’s speaking to Patroclus, and telling him that he doesn’t fit in with the rest of the people fighting the war, either. The song talks about “calamitous love” and “insurmountable grief” which is what Briseis gains from the war. The whole song seems kind of like a far off dream, which is appropriate for Briseis’ state of mind. Briseis doesn’t have any power after she’s taken by the Greeks, as she is forced into servitude, and I’m sure she imagined running away many times.

Review Of “Galatea” by Madeline Miller

A short review for a short story! 

How can Madeline Miller pack such a punch in a story that’s basically 20 pages long? I do not understand how she had the ability to make Galatea as powerful as it is. I have seen calls for this short story to be turned into a full length novel, but I think it works as it is.

This story is a retelling of the Pygmalion myth, which hasn’t aged well. The basic premise is that Pygmalion finds flaws with every woman that he’s come across, and, because he’s a sculptor, he decides to carve the “perfect” woman out of stone. He falls so in love with what he’s created that he prays for the sculpture to come to life. One day, Aphrodite grants his wish. The statue, named Galatea, thereafter marries Pygmalion, and the story is about their marriage.    

There’s a lot to process here. 

People apparently used to think it was a sweet story, but Pygmalion’s actions have me running for the hills. I’ll list the facts. This guy fell in love (but really lust) with a statue because he was too much of a creep to attract any other woman in town. He hated human women so much that he could only stand to be with one that he created from clay. He only wanted to be near a woman if it meant that she perfectly pleased him.

Galatea is a fitting heroine for a story this short. 

Galatea is hilariously abrupt and succinct. She gives the story much needed humor. She’s a statue brought to life by the goddess Aphrodite, so it’s not like she had a lifetime to learn tact.

Galatea exposes Pygmalion for what he is, which is a man who needs complete control over a woman, who only wants a woman whose goal in life is subservience. Really, I think Aphrodite in all of her infinite chaos decided to breathe life into Galatea in order to punish Pygmalion. She knew that, despite his prayers, he didn’t actually want a living woman, just a piece of clay who could move and obey.

He ends up with Galatea, who has a strong personality and a mind of her own, and over the course of a decade, the two slowly drive each other to the brink, until one day, when the tension between them explodes. 

This story is ultimately about control. 

Pygmalion wasn’t interested in other women because he couldn’t control them the way he could control a marble statue. And he only prayed for the marble statue to come to life because he wanted to have sex with it.

Pygmalion tries to stifle Galatea by keeping her trapped with her nurses and doctors who tell her that she’s sick, but this can only go on for so long. Galatea is too strong to ever let Pygmalion have the last word. Galatea uses Pygmalion’s disgusting self-obsession against him, and pretends to be into him in order to get what she wants.

The ending didn’t make me weepy the way that the ending of The Song of Achilles or Circe did, but I still felt some grief. Like all of Miller’s writing, I came away from Galatea feeling like I had loved and lost and had wounds that needed to heal.

I recommend this story!

A Love Letter to Circe From Someone Who Can Relate

On Monday, you heard from Dana about why she loves The Song of Achilles more than any other work of Madeline Miller’s. I promised you all that friends would be pitted against each other over the course of the week on this blog. That’s why today I’m here to discuss the reasons why it’s actually Circe that is unrivaled as Miller’s best novel. 

Naturally, in a post that will argue that Circe is better than The Song of Achilles, I have to start by talking about how spectacular The Song of Achilles is. I’ll name the main reasons why I thought it was so good. For one, the ending devastated me. This was in part because the writing is so lyrical and poetic. I believe that someone with Miller’s writing style was meant to write a love story like the one featured in The Song of Achilles. And perhaps this book’s biggest strength is its love story. It made me acutely aware of what it means to be tragically in love. Circe had no hope of containing a love story anywhere as compelling as this one, and thank goodness, it didn’t even try. 

All of these are reasons why I was shocked when I read Circe and began to love it in a way that was deeper and more complex than my love for The Song of Achilles. It is hands down one of the best books that I have ever read. Since I started Ristra Reads and Recs, I have been waiting for the chance to explain what this book means to me. 

Before I came up with the idea for Madeline Miller Week, I didn’t feel the need to soliloquize about why I find Circe to be better than The Song of Achilles, even though I think that this is a fun way for Dana and I to engage with the two novels. I do think that comparing the two novels serves a purpose, though, because they allow me to explore what the difference between a very good book and a truly outstanding book is. What I mean by all of this is that this post is not meant to bring any negativity to The Song of Achilles. It is a great work of prose in its own right. But at the end of the day, Circe has my whole heart, and it’s time to discuss why that is. 

“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

― Madeline Miller, Circe

On a basic level, Circe is more well plotted and better narrated. 

The Song of Achilles is not always well plotted. Namely, it does drag in some areas. Everyone who is familiar with the Iliad or the story of the Trojan War will spend quite a while waiting for the book to get to the war. I think that Miller was reveling in the narrative freedom she had before the war scenes, and wanted to give her characters the chance to experience real happiness. Accordingly, a lot of the book focuses on Patroclus’ and Achilles’ childhoods, and it makes the pacing of the novel feel off. With so much time spent in childhood, I felt like I was often waiting for the book to get to its point.

Circe, on the other hand, has a more natural plot, in the sense that there is a clear beginning, middle, and end, and these parts are evenly spaced out. Miller wasn’t stuck to a particular story with the titular character Circe in the way that she was with Patroclus, so I think she had more freedom to tell the story in the exact way that she wanted. In a lot of ways, Miller’s freedom to be creative also contributes to Circe being a stronger narrator than Patroclus. Circe’s narration focuses on mapping out who she is as a person, while Patroclus’ often focuses on his love story. Circe’s voice as a narrator consequently comes across more strongly than Patroclus’. 

Additionally, there is a certain part of Patroclus’ narrative that I think Miller could have written better. Without spoiling anything, at one point in The Song of Achilles, the story becomes more focused on Achilles, and Miller struggled a bit with how to continue to include Patroclus’ perspective. The route that she chose to go was jarring, in my mind. Circe doesn’t encounter any of these troubles, and as a result is a superior narrator.

The crowning achievement of Circe is the titular character. She is endlessly relatable.

Circe is a masterfully well written character. To start with, Miller manages to make her relatable. I have seldom related more to a character in my entire life than I have to Circe. Strange as it may seem, I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of the same experiences that this witch goddess has. The way that other people treat her is horrible. She is often the laughing stock in the room, deemed a freak, liked by virtually no one, and still she has the compassion to try to love and change and take chances. Her story gets to me, and it takes me back to when I was very young and unsure of how to fit in and usually failing miserably at it. I have had so many similar experiences to Circe that this book was painful to read at times, to see my emotions so blatantly exposed on the pages for everyone to see. 

Circe isn’t just relatable, she’s also brilliantly written and full of complexities. 

I can only hope that I will be able to write a character like this someday. 

Even though I relate to her, Circe isn’t a sympathetic character at all times. She didn’t do what I wanted her to do at points throughout the story. She was beholden to her emotions. This just made her feel more alive to me. She is a complex and imperfect person in my eyes. I can’t help but think of her as a real person sometimes. 

In a world that tries to put her down, mock her, and leave her in the mud, Circe has a determination to be herself. She loves recklessly, even after people let her down. She’s brave. She challenges the natural order of the gods. She’s everything I want in a main character, and in a heroine. Even after I put the book down for a while, and the specifics of the plot started to fade, Circe has stayed with me, reminding me to ignore the people, and specifically the men, who want to put me down, and to focus on living life on my own terms. Even as I think about her now, I get emotional, because she means so very much to me.

And yes, the ending of The Song of Achilles was like a punch to the gut and it hurt to breathe. But I actually cried more at the end of Circe. At the end of the book, for a few minutes, Circe made me acknowledge my humanity and what it means to truly live, which felt like a gift. 

I highly encourage you to read this book if you haven’t already!  

A Small Compilation of Books Steeped in Mythology

One of the best aspects about Madeline Miller Week so far is that I’ve been able to discover a wide variety of books about mythology. In the U.S., stories from Ancient Greece are often the only mythology that people are exposed to from a young age. This is a disappointing practice, because there are many other cultures with mythological and folkloric traditions that deserve to be highlighted!

Below, I’ve compiled a list of books that either feature mythological aspects, or are inspired by a certain mythological tradition. I’ve also included their descriptions courtesy of goodreads.com. For the purposes of this article, I have defined mythology as lore from a specific society that focuses on the foundation and/or continuation of certain aspects of that society. This list is made up of books that I have read, that my followers have recommended to me, or that I have found online.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Inspired by folklore from Mexico and Central America.

Genre: Fantasy

Category: Adult

Courtesy of goodreads.com

The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Inspired by folklore from West Africa.

Genre: Fantasy

Category: Young Adult

Courtesy of goodreads.com

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.


Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

Inspired by folklore from West Africa and the United States.

Genre: Fantasy

Category: Middle Grade

Courtesy of goodreads.com

Seventh-grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in. Tristan is dreading the month he’s going to spend on his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, where he’s being sent to heal from the tragedy. But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie’s journal. Tristan chases after it — is that a doll? — and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree. In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature’s hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world. Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American gods John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price. Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?

The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin

Inspired by folklore from Egypt.

Genre: Fantasy

Category: Adult

Courtesy of goodreads.com

THE CITY BURNED BENEATH THE DREAMING MOON

In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and among the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers – the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe…and kill those judged corrupt.

But when a conspiracy blooms within Gujaareh’s great temple, the Gatherer Ehiru must question everything he knows. Someone, or something, is murdering innocent dreamers in the goddess’s name, and Ehiru must now protect the woman he was sent to kill – or watch the city be devoured by war and forbidden magic.

The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

Inspired by folklore from India.

Genre: Fantasy:

Category: Young Adult

Courtesy of goodreads.com

Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.

Wicked Fox by Kat Cho

Inspired by folklore from North and South Korea.

Genre: Fantasy

Category: Young Adult

Courtesy of goodreads.com

Eighteen-year-old Gu Miyoung has a secret–she’s a gumiho, a nine-tailed fox who must devour the energy of men in order to survive. Because so few believe in the old tales anymore, and with so many evil men no one will miss, the modern city of Seoul is the perfect place to hide and hunt.

But after feeding one full moon, Miyoung crosses paths with Jihoon, a human boy, being attacked by a goblin deep in the forest. Against her better judgment, she violates the rules of survival to rescue the boy, losing her fox bead–her gumiho soul–in the process.

Jihoon knows Miyoung is more than just a beautiful girl–he saw her nine tails the night she saved his life. His grandmother used to tell him stories of the gumiho, of their power and the danger they pose to humans. He’s drawn to her anyway.

With murderous forces lurking in the background, Miyoung and Jihoon develop a tenuous friendship that blossoms into something more. But when a young shaman tries to reunite Miyoung with her bead, the consequences are disastrous . . . forcing Miyoung to choose between her immortal life and Jihoon’s.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Inspired by folklore from Iran.

Genre: Fantasy

Category: Young Adult

Courtesy of goodreads.com

There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

The Genius of Madeline Miller and “The Song of Achilles”

I’m thrilled to be guest-blogging for Ristra Reads and Recs, and especially to discuss the works of one of my favorite authors – Madeline Miller! I read both The Song of Achilles and Circe at the end of last year, and I am still astounded by the beauty Miller has managed to create. 

Once Jacqueline and I had discovered we’d both loved Miller’s books and were able to form somewhat-coherent thoughts (and dried our tears), she asked me the near-impossible question: which book did you like better? After getting over the initial bewilderment that she somehow expected me to determine which of these masterpieces was better, I realized that my gut reaction was that I had enjoyed The Song of Achilles more. But the harder part was defending my standpoint. 

Before writing this post, I took some time to really think about it, and I came up with three coherent reasons as to why I preferred The Song of Achilles. However, before I delve any further, I must take a moment to say that I absolutely loved Circe as well, and it was impossible for me to discuss what I liked better about The Song of Achilles without also discussing what I loved about Circe.

First, The Song of Achilles made me cry. A lot. 

Yes, this is one of the reasons why I liked the book. What can I say? I’m a sucker for angst. The Song of Achilles didn’t just make me cry; it reduced me to a sobbing, blubbering mess. It completely obliterated any of its competition for “book that made me cry the most.” While I loved Circe and it certainly made me feel lots of emotions as well, the fact that I was up late at night, sobbing alone in the darkness for at least an hour after finishing The Song of Achilles definitely gives it an edge for me. Despite being an emotional person, I don’t actually cry that much while reading books. The author really has to immerse me in the story and its emotions in order for actual tears to stream down my face, and Madeline Miller did just that. 

Here’s the thing. Going into it, I knew what was going to happen, because The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the Iliad. (Side note: If you’re not super familiar with the story of Achilles and Patroclus, I would definitely recommend brushing up on it before reading Miller’s book). I knew exactly what was coming, and yet, when it actually happened, Miller still managed to make it absolutely devastating. I was just innocently reading along, and then I started thinking that it was getting sad, and then I noticed that my face was wet, and then suddenly I was crying so much I could barely see the pages as I finished the book. And, as I said before, I’m a sucker for angst, so any book that has the ability to pull that much emotion from me is automatically going to the top of my favorites. 

It had more LGBTQ+ representation.

I suppose this is a fairly obvious statement, but yes, the fact that the focus of the book was on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was a huge plus for me. Achilles and Patroclus love each other so much. Miller, as always, describes everything in such a beautiful, poetic way. Knowing how the story was going to end just made every beautiful, emotional moment between them that much more gut-wrenching. Even when I was happy for them in the moment, there was also a lingering sadness, knowing what was still to come. 

It was a retelling of a familiar story.

Like any person who went through a Greek mythology phase, I knew the basics of The Iliad and the role Achilles played in it, and I appreciate fresh perspectives on well-known tales. In particular, I loved that in addition to telling Achilles’ story, Miller chose to tell it from Patroclus’ perspective. Before reading the book, I had just assumed from the title and what little I knew about it that it would be from Achilles’ perspective. But narrating the book from Patroclus’ perspective, a character who is easier for the reader to relate to, helps to build up Achilles’ grandeur, offering a unique twist to the story that I knew from childhood. 

Also, I briefly touched on this earlier, but knowing the basic story beforehand heightened the emotional impact of The Song of Achilles for me. Scenes or dialogue that otherwise would have been purely romantic or heartwarming became heartbreaking, as I witnessed their innocent obliviousness of the events that were to come. I loved that the reader had more insight than the characters did. Because the book was a retelling, Miller was able to weave in little details that broke my heart even before I reached the end.

I did, however, prefer the ending of Circe.

I must admit that Circe has what I believe to be the best ending to a book I have ever read. It made sense, it harkened back to themes throughout the entirety of the book, and it was just beautifully written. I’m afraid I can’t wax poetic about it too much more for fear of spoilers, but trust me when I say that you should read this book for the ending alone. It is a thing of pure beauty. And this is a place where I think it has The Song of Achilles beat. While the ending of The Song of Achilles absolutely destroyed me and I loved it, there was something about Circe’s ending that was just so… perfect. 

This applies to both but: the beautiful writing style.

I’m not really one for poetry, so normally I would expect that I wouldn’t particularly enjoy a poetic writing style. But let me tell you. Miller truly made me understand how the written word is an art form. She describes everything with an unparalleled poetic beauty and grace that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. Miller makes you understand how beautiful a word can be. If hearing the word “poetic” would typically turn you off, I implore you to please give Miller a chance because neither of these stories would be the same without her writing style.So in conclusion, Miller is an absolute goddess, and I wish I could have learned all of my Greek mythology from her. I have also learned that comparing her books is really freaking difficult. So while I suppose my answer is that I prefer The Song of Achilles, both of her books are entirely worthwhile, and it’s really up to you to read them both and see which one will be your new favorite.

Welcome to Madeline Miller Week!

I’m so excited to be hosting my first ever bookish event! I’m also a little nervous. The love and feedback I’ve gotten from the online bookish community has already been great. Let’s be honest, though, putting on a social media event can be scary. The thoughts in the back of my mind have been “is anyone going to read or interact with this content? Will my followers enjoy any of this? What am I doing? Ahh!!” I have to keep reminding myself that 1) my followers said that they would like this event and 2) I am focused on creating content that I personally have always wanted to see! I have loved Madeline Miller’s books for a long time, and I want to share the love that I and other people have for them!

Anyway, welcome to Madeline Miller Week! Her books, The Song of Achilles and Circe, are nothing short of essential literature, and they deserve to be discussed and celebrated.

I got the idea for Madeline Miller Week when talking to fellow Miller lover and all around book aficionado Dana. She and I have different views on what the best Miller book is, and we have had many in-depth discussions about her work. I thought that it would be great to bring those discussions to a platform like Ristra Reads and Recs, and have my corner of the internet acknowledge the work that Miller is doing with Greek mythology. Dana has agreed to write a guest blog, and explain why one of Miller’s books in particular is her favorite! Check back tomorrow to read her post! I will be sharing my own thoughts and opinions on Friday, the 28th. 

Madeline Miller Week runs from August 22 to August 29. It kicked off yesterday with some polls and questions, which asked people to talk about why they love Miller’s writing, and which of her protagonists they would prefer to meet. I will continue to do polls throughout the week, and share the interesting answers that I’ve received! I will also be posting longer form content and reviews to this site that all relate to Miller, as well as some fun new content that I’m super excited about! It is also a goal of mine to use this event to highlight diverse mythologies from all around the world. 

If you’re not following me on Instagram or Twitter, my handle is @jalovesbooks, or you can follow along with the week’s events with the hashtag I’ve created for the event, which is #MadelineMillerWeek.

My ultimate goals for this event are twofold. First, I want my subscribers to have fun reading and engaging with Madeline Miller Week content and 2) I want to learn more about hosting events.

I hope that everyone has a wonderful week!

Love, 

Jacqueline

ARC Review of “Crowning Soul” by Sahira Javaid

Welcome to my first ever advance reading copy (ARC) review! ARC reviewing has been a goal of mine since starting Ristra Reads and Recs, and I hope that this is the first of many.

For my initial ARC review, I chose to read Crowning Soul by Sahira Javaid. I chose it because of its diverse array of characters, particularly its Muslim heroine. Own voices Muslim representation in fantasy is important, and I want to highlight it whenever I can.

Crowning Soul is Javaid’s debut fantasy, and it will be published on September 8th, 2020. The premise of the book is that teenaged Nezha has been hiding a secret, which is her ability to control fire. Despite this power, she is able to lead a relatively normal life until one day, when a jinni comes for her. From that point, she is thrust into a new dimension called Noorenia, where she has to face a horde of problems. 

Javaid has a talent for writing about magical creatures.

If you love your fantasy stories to be chock-full of magical creatures, then this is a book for you! There are so many magical creatures in Crowning Soul that it’s hard to remember them all. To name a few, there are jinn, unicorns, and dragons, oh my! I can tell that Javaid really had fun including these creatures in her story, and they make the book vastly more interesting. Every time a new character is introduced, it is always a delight to find out what kind of creature they are. It’s never safe to assume that someone is just human.

The villain is convincing, and the side characters are memorable.

The Iron Prince and the jinn are well-conceived in a lot of ways. They are evil and frightening without being flat. While I was reading the book, I constantly questioned their motives and was interested in their arcs independently from how they impacted Nezha’s storyline.

Additionally, the side characters, particularly Sapphire and Thunderbolt, are memorable. They are magical talking unicorns, for one. But they are also worthy companions for Nezha as they traverse the world of Noorenia and encounter one evil creature after another. With their funny remarks, they help bring some levity into the story.

The story is fast-paced.

The story was always moving, and the characters are never doing the same thing for long. This is a novel about, among other things, a journey through an alternative realm, and epic journey stories can fall flat when authors fail to continuously throw new action and adventure into the mix. Javaid understands this, and always has a new twist and turn for the story.   

Nezha is a great example of a Muslim woman in fantasy.

We need to see more positive portrayals of Islam in fantasy books! More hijabi heroines, please! 

Javaid has written a proud Muslim heroine in Nezha, free of stereotypes, and her identity shines brightly throughout the book. Nezha’s Moroccan background is also celebrated, even as most of the book takes place in Noorenia. I appreciate that Javaid took the time to include details from Nezha’s culture, such as mentions of what she eats. Small details like this helped to pull me into the story. 

The biggest problem with the book is the writing, which unfortunately creates other problems with character development and world-building.

Javaid writes her characters broadly. Throughout the book, it feels like she knows where she wants the characters to end up, and what stops they need to make in order to complete their journey, but she doesn’t always do a good job of providing details or motivations for them. There are many times in the story when a character makes a decision without any second thought, or decides to travel somewhere or do something without any real explanation as to why. This makes it hard to empathize with any character. For example, I feel nothing about the relationship between Nezha and her love interest, because Javaid’s writing doesn’t show me that I’m supposed to. If a reader doesn’t understand what drives a character, doesn’t understand why they’re making certain decisions, a lot of the story regrettably falls flat.  

Furthermore, Noorenia begs to be described in greater context throughout the book, but it somehow never is. Even just a few more sentences of description whenever Nezha travels somewhere new would really improve the world-building.

Overall, I give this book a neutral rating. 

Review of “Realm of Ash” by Tasha Suri

I am conscious of the fact that most of my book reviews thus far have been positive. I think it’s natural that as I establish my blog, I write about some of my favorite novels. That being said, I have to note that even amongst my most treasured books, Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri is at the top of the list. I can’t think about this book without a weight settling in my heart because of how deeply I adore it. The love story in the novel is currently the standard by which I judge other literary romances. The fact that this is only Suri’s second published novel makes me anticipate her next release even more! 

The premise of Realm of Ash is that the widowed Arwa finds herself working with an illegitimate prince named Zahir to find magic that will save the Ambhan Empire from ruin. Through their magical trials in the realm of ash, they reflect on their lives and begin to question whether or not the empire even deserves to be saved. 

The heroine is deeply sympathetic.

In many cases, a book is only as good as its heroine. Luckily for Suri, Arwa is one of the best ever. I’ve written about this before, and I will repeat myself now: I love strong heroines, and I love it even more when their strength goes beyond their physical capabilities. Arwa is strong because, even in a society where her widow status renders her an outcast, she can’t help but stand up for herself when others try to put her down. Initially, she sees herself as a failure for not being able to live quietly, as a widow in Ambhan society should, but she comes to realize the futility of living a life without genuine expression. I appreciate that Suri manages to convey Arwa’s self doubts without ever rendering her maudlin. Arwa feels like a real person, even as she deals with fantastic magic.

The love interest lacks machismo.

For the sake of not giving too much of the book away in the review, I won’t mention the love interest by name here (although I know you have all figured it out already). What will I say about the love interest? He is refreshingly free from the constraints of toxic masculinity. Let us count the ways. He knows that he is not as strong as Arwa, he genuinely listens to her, he is in awe of her capabilities, and he says that he will come with her wherever she wishes to go in life without inserting his own agenda upon her. All he wants to be able to do is support her.  

The love story is gripping. 

This couple has so much chemistry. It blows me away. From the first time that the love interest is mentioned, I could tell that he had been designated by Suri as Arwa’s future partner, but even so their chemistry is almost palpable. I enjoy that both characters are too thick to realize what their feelings are for each other for a while. There’s a lot of long stares and awkward pauses and thoughts like “why does [redacted] make me feel this way?” It’s just so cute that they don’t realize that they are falling in love until it’s too late. 

I adore Suri’s romantic prose. it’s easy for overtly romantic lines in books to feel cliche or cheesy, but they work in Realm of Ash. At the end of the novel, I was left with the sense that Arwa and [redacted] really are made for each other, and really would do anything for the other, which is high praise coming from my sometimes cynical soul. 

The magic system is a device through which the inner conflict of characters is explored.

The realm of ash and accompanying magic is fascinating. I like it even better than the magic system in Empire of Sand (although the system in Realm of Ash can be viewed as an expansion of the system introduced in the first book). Among other things, the realm of ash is a shadow realm where Arwa can visit people from her past. Sure, she’s supposed to enter the realm of ash in order to find information that will help save the empire, but the realm is mainly a device through which Arwa reflects on her life, which I love. Suri often sacrifices the advancement of political plots for the sake of character development, which I fully support.

There isn’t really a conclusion to the political tension. 

Is this really such a bad thing, dear reader? Suri has a fascinating quality to her writing that I just touched on, but will expand upon further. She has the ability to write amazing political tension, while also making it clear that it is a mere backdrop to the character development. Suri isn’t really interested in solving the problems of the empire in her books. She cares more about the development of her main characters, which is a quality that I can’t help but admire. If another author was writing this series, there’d be a third book in the works in order to tie up all the political loose ends, but I appreciate that Suri is the queen of character development, and can end things when her characters’ arcs are concluded, the empire be damned.

I highly recommend this book.

Review of “Empire of Sand” by Tasha Suri

Do you ever pick up a book in a bookstore, and just know that you’re going to love it? And then, some of the time, because that feeling secretly came just from liking the cover, you are horribly wrong. But on that rare, beautiful occasion, you and a book really do connect, and before you know it, you’re reading the ending, and crying your eyes out?

That was definitely my experience with Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, the first novel in The Books of Ambha duology. I hadn’t heard anyone else talking about the book before I read it, but from the moment I picked it up, I knew that I would love it.

The setting is rich and detailed.

The world that the book is set in, known as Ambha, is inspired by Mughal India, which comes across clearly in Suri’s writing. Everything from the social customs to the manner of dress references the Mughal empire, and yet Suri also does a good job of incorporating new and fantastic elements, making the world its own. The little details of the world are so well done. For example, I love the description of phenomena such as dreamfire. Suri’s lush writing creates vivid imagery throughout the book.

Mehr is my kind of heroine.

From the opening sentences of the book, we learn that Mehr, the main character, owns a dagger. Need I go on? My analysis of her is complete. Just kidding. I relate to Mehr for several reasons. She is prickly, and she knows that she doesn’t perfectly fit in the life that she’s been given. Due to her skin color and her mother’s Amrithi heritage, she’s an outsider in her own home.

Perhaps what I like most about Mehr is that she is incredibly strong, but not in a physical sense. Her great strength is endurance and survival. She outlasts a lot of the bad situations that the Maha, the religious leader who Mehr ends up in servitude to, puts her in. She finds a way to carry on, despite the people who want her destroyed because of her power.

The exploration of race and class dynamics are thought provoking.

Throughout the novel, Suri constantly explores the question of what it means to be an outsider, even one who has privilege. One example of this is that Mehr is the daughter of an influential, wealthy father, and her mother is from a people who are outsiders in the empire. Since Mehr is dark skinned like her mother and other Amrithi, she experiences more overt discimination than her light skinned sister.

Suri also does a good job of highlighting the destructivness of empires. The Ambhan empire is built on the manipulation of gods and the forced servitude of the Amrithi. It could not survive without those whom it subjugates, which is a cruel and unsettling paradox that is true of all empires.

The magic system and the mythology of the world are captivating.

All someone has to do to get me to read a book these days is say “there are gods.” The idea that the Amrithi people possess the ability to subdue the gods and make them sleep is engrossing. Unfortunately, the gods are kept kind of vague. I would have appreciated more detail about who they are and what their abilities are.

The connection between the Amrithi and the daivas is also very interesting. The fact that the Amrithi are descendents of the daiva harkens back to Mughal India. Mehr is a target because of her connection to the daivas, but also receives a measure of protection from them.

The magical rites, and specifically The Rite of Dreaming, are beautifully written. I appreciate the traditional aspect of the rites. Mehr is continuing the legacy of her people through performing the magical rituals, even though the Maha takes advantage of that.

The love story falls a little flat.

Amun, the love interest, is quiet and solemn, which I like. I generally like his personality. I think that there are some points in the book where he lacks chemistry with Mehr, however. Their romance is situational. They have trouble connecting at first, but after enduring a few trials together, they grow closer. Had they met while not under duress, I’m not convinced that they would be together. They do not seem to have enough chemistry on their own, and their connection was truly only from their shared experiences.

I think that their love story would have been better if Suri had given more details about how they felt about each other in the beginning of the novel, before their trials, and also if she had given more indication of Amun’s feelings in general throughout the course of the story.

The villain’s character arc ends badly.

I don’t want to go into much detail for fear of spoilers, but I feel that the conclusion of the villain”s character arc ends poorly. They are built up as an incredibly evil villain who spends the book torturing the main characters to no end, and the end of their story is unsatisfying because the main characters don’t have much of a hand in what happens.

All in all, I really love the world that Suri created here. I can tell that her writing is only going to keep improving.

I highly recommend this book.