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Let’s review all the books I read this summer

Ah, summer, the time when we attempt to catch up on all the reading we didn’t manage to do during the school year. I began this article as a way of keeping myself accountable for my summer reading, so think of this as a book diary of sorts. I ended up reading more than I thought, so this week will just feature half of my summer’s reading. I will be rating these books with a very official system of 1-5, and I ask that you not judge my taste—sometimes I just pick books for the pretty covers.

If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio

The first book I read this summer was a short dark academia novel centered around a group of drama students at a Shakespeare-centric conservatory. If you know your Shakespeare, all the references sprinkled throughout the text are a real treat. The murder mystery plot is straightforward but strong. Reading this book, I was definitely transported to my own (less violent) experiences studying Shakespeare with groups of crazed overachievers. This was the first book I read this summer, and it’s still sticking with me. Dark academia is an easy genre to get wrong, and I think this novel really nailed it. If you like Shakespeare, murder mysteries, or morally gray characters, this could be for you. Yes, the book owes a little too much to “The Secret History,” but the Shakespeare nerd in me is willing to turn a blind eye to that. 5/5.

Bitter Medicine” by Mia Tsai

This book is the reason why I have trust issues with the “Staff Recommends” section of my local bookstore. I picked it up because I saw a staff review absolutely raving about this book. I was promised epic romance, an awesome magic system, and a nail-biting plot. And I got none of that. This book is an urban fantasy with a romance between a Chinese glyph worker/healer and a half-elf strongman. There’s a bit about work-life balance. But alas, the worldbuilding is sloppy and borders on unintelligible. The writing style is YA, but the plot and themes are definitely adult. No character feels fully developed, and none are convincingly the immortals they are supposed to be. This book has a great idea and it is readable, but the execution of the plot and worldbuilding is very lacking. 3/5. 

Winterland” by Rae Meadows

I also picked this due to a “Staff Recommends” section, although from a different bookstore. Plus, the cover was pretty. But that’s not the point. This is a seriously grim book about Soviet gymnasts in the 1970s. There’s a harrowing subplot about a Gulag survivor. We watch a man slowly and painfully become disillusioned with the Soviet Communist project. And against the harsh backdrop of Soviet Siberia and high-level gymnastics, there’s a sweet love story between our main character Anya and fellow gymnast Elena. If you’re interested in history, this book will definitely engage you. Personally, I learned quite a bit. Unfortunately, a couple plot lines, most notably the disappearance of Anya’s mother, go unresolved, keeping this book from realizing its full potential. 4/5.

Radio Silence” by Alice Oseman

I took advantage of being abroad to pick up another Alice Oseman book, because for some reason I can never find anything other than “Heartstopper” and “Loveless” in my local bookstores. This book came heavily recommended and I was absolutely not disappointed. This is a big-hearted coming of age novel with an adorable platonic love story, a great message, and amazing characters. It’s a book I wished I read in my junior or senior year of high school. The subjects of parental abuse, academic pressure, and toxic fan scrutiny are all handled excellently. Despite seemingly small-scale storytelling, this book sucked me in more than many “epic” novels. 5/5.

Queen of Thieves” by Beezy Marsh

Never trust a pretty cover. When will I learn? With the title and synopsis, I was expecting a feminist adventure novel full of derring-do and drama. I thought it would be a great beach read. Instead, all I got were three horrible people being horrible to each other for 350 pages. I couldn’t root for anyone. These weren’t anti-heroes you still liked, or villains you could engage with. They were just a bunch of jerks. Plus, this book had a kind of anti-feminst message to top it off. It was bad. All that being said, I did finish it, which is more than I can say for some books I picked up this summer. Some of the writing was decent, and that should count for something. 2/5.

The Mitford Affair” by Marie Benedict

This was also pretty bad. I thought I would get an engaging World War II intrigue sort of thing. But no. This book rose slightly in my estimations when I learned that it was based on real people, meaning the plot and dialogue I found contrived was, well, grounded in actual research. Alas, aforementioned real people are the most awful, entitled, racist rich people you will ever meet. Two out of our three leads are literal Nazis, and the third spends an eternity deciding that being a Nazi is bad. The historical setting is well-researched and the characters are well-realized (if insufferable). But the Mitford family just doesn’t make for good historical fiction. And the fact that one of the Nazi sisters never faced justice both enrages me and means the book goes out on a whimper. 2/5.

Lady Clementine” by Marie Benedict 

Why I read another book by Marie Benedict after “The Mitford Affair” I cannot tell you. But I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It taught me a lot about a historical figure I knew very little about. It threw me into the political drama of Britain during the World Wars. And thank goodness, the main character was actually sort of likeable. Benedict’s flair for research and well-realized historical characters was on full show, but this time, she had decent subject material. The book got a bit slow in the middle, but sometimes slow pacing can be an asset in historical fiction. I’m not quite sure if this book is quite worthy of all the accolades it got, but it was still very good. 4/5.

Book Lovers” by Emily Henry

Emily Henry has a way of luring me back to her books even if I didn’t love her past work. I didn’t particularly like “People We Meet on Vacation.” and I only sort of enjoyed “Beach Read.” “Book Lovers,” so far, is my favorite Henry novel. She really hit it out of the park with this one. It definitely leans more towards literary fiction than romance, but surprisingly, I didn’t mind at all. We finally get properly interesting leads with actual chemistry. Hurrah! Nora is one of the most complex and engaging female leads in a romcom that I’ve read in a while. And the message of the book is a good one. I read this on an airplane, so my critical faculties might not have been working perfectly, but I really liked this book. 5/5.

“Under the Rainbow” by Celia Laskey

“Under the Rainbow” follows the story of a task force of queer activists who move to Big Burr, Kansas, which was labeled “the most homophobic town in the U.S.” Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, from lifetime Big Burr residents to the daughter of the task force leader. The book can feel a bit all over the place in its narrative, and sometimes it’s posturing a bit, but its core message is still quietly powerful. On the whole, a solid but not spectacular read about extremely complex people. 3/5.

The Heartbreak Houseshare” by Emily Merrill

I am turning 20 soon, and I was told by the cover of this book that it was the perfect thing to read in your 20s. So I read it. It was a cute story about found family, getting over your ex, and the fact that nobody has a clue what they’re doing in their 20s. There are some nice bits about female solidarity and knowing your worth. Alas, there wasn’t really a ton going for it otherwise, and I can’t even remember the main character’s name, which is a bad sign. 3/5.

Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

A little while back, a friend asked if I was excited for the new season of Outlander. I told her that I had never seen Outlander. To which she responded “you’re a history major and you’re a fan of ‘Doctor Who’ and romcoms. How have you not seen Outlander?” After finding out that Outlander was originally a book series, I decided to give it a try. Outlander had one of the best realized historical settings I’ve ever read. It neither romanticizes the past nor does it impose modern values on it. Instead, it provides an unflinching depiction of 18th-century Scotland, seen through the eyes of a woman from 1945. It should come with a content warning for every horrible thing that could possibly happen in the 18th-century Highlands (definitely not for the faint of heart). Still, I really enjoyed it and the book had me hooked enough that all 850 pages flew by. 5/5.

The Dragon Waiting” by John M. Ford

So apparently this is a classic. I picked it up because it involved the War of the Roses and a ragtag team. Anyway, it opened with an introduction from a different author raving about how amazing the book was so I went in with very high expectations. And they were not exactly met. The first 100 or so pages of the book are spent establishing all of our characters. These chapters are brilliant and I was immediately hooked. And then, with no warning, the book suddenly jumps several years into the future with limited explanation as to what everyone has been up to. From that point on I just felt like I was playing catch-up and struggled to immerse myself in the story. The worldbuilding is top notch and there’s still a lot to like, but it was hard to follow. It’s rare that I say this about a high fantasy novel, but this needed a couple hundred more pages fleshing out the stories of our main characters and the stakes of the plot. 3/5.

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