4 min read

My Favorite Reads of May 2021

May is a month of transition – the entry point into summer, a month of emergence and preparation. I spent this month preparing for summer planting, harvesting huge fists of garlic and pulling up spent sprouts, fighting off the burrowing pests that are trying to get under the house ahead of the heat.

Other than The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar (which some of you have been reading with me!), here are the books that caught me the most this month:

You Have a Match

by Emma Lord

When Abby signs up for a DNA service, it's mainly to give her friend and secret love interest, Leo, a nudge. After all, she knows who she is already: Avid photographer. Injury-prone tree climber. Best friend to Leo and Connie.

But she didn't know she's a younger sister.

When the DNA service reveals Abby has a secret sister, shimmery-haired Instagram star Savannah Tully, it's hard to believe they're from the same planet, never mind the same parents -- especially considering Savannah, queen of green smoothies, is only a year and a half older than Abby herself. The logical course of action? Meet up at summer camp (obviously) and figure out why Abby's parents gave Savvy up for adoption.

The cover art for YOU HAVE A MATCH features cutout-style art of two people -- a white femme and a tan masc -- in canoes on water, looking at each other and smiling.

This is the book that broke me out of a little reading slump I'd been in. It's a book where the answers aren't easy and the consequences are real. You Have a Match takes a classic concept – sisters reunited, trying to figure out why they never knew each other in the first place – and anchors it firmly in the real world, where people are dishonest for good reasons just as often as they're dishonest for bad reasons. The characters are beautifully-drawn, nuanced and realistic in their flaws. I loved this book and I think you will, too.
Complex, thoughtful, dynamic.

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake

by Alexis Hall

Following the recipe is the key to a successful bake. Rosaline Palmer has always lived by those rules – well, except for when she dropped out of college to raise her daughter, Amelie. Now, with a paycheck as useful as greaseproof paper and a house crumbling faster than biscuits in tea, she's teetering on the edge of financial disaster. But where there's a whisk there's a way... and Rosaline has just landed a spot on the nation's most beloved baking show.

Winning the prize money would give her daughter the life she deserves – and Rosaline is determined to stick to the instructions. However, more than collapsing trifles stand between Rosaline and sweet, sweet victory. Suave, well-educated, and parent-approved Alain Pope knows all the right moves to sweep her off her feet, but it's shy electrician Harry Dobson who makes Rosaline question her long-held beliefs--about herself, her family, and her desires.

The cover of ROSALINE PALMER TAKES THE CAKE is pinkish-red and features an apron-wearing femme holding a wooden spoon standing in front of a chalk-sketch style cooktop.

I read this one in a day. It moves fast – the pacing mirrors that of the fictional baking show, which clearly parallels the also-bingeable Great British Baking Show. This book does a simply lovely job of delivering a satisfying narrative with moments of heartfelt complexity, including subtle – and not-so-subtle – explorations of consent, personhood, mental illness, and identity. Also, this book features my very favorite thing: a weird girl who is just a little too smart for her own good.
Sweet, charming ,welcoming.

Dare Me

by Megan Abbott

Addy Hanlon has always been Beth Cassidy's best friend and trusted lieutenant. Beth calls the shots and Addy carries them out, a long-established order of things that has brought them to the pinnacle of their high-school careers. Now they're seniors who rule the intensely competitive cheer squad, feared and followed by the other girls – until the young new coach arrives.

Cool and commanding, an emissary from the adult world just beyond their reach, Coach Colette French draws Addy and the other cheerleaders into her life. Only Beth, unsettled by the new regime, remains outside Coach's golden circle, waging a subtle but vicious campaign to regain her position as "top girl" – both with the team and with Addy herself.

Then a suicide focuses a police investigation on Coach and her squad. After the first wave of shock and grief, Addy tries to uncover the truth behind the death – and learns that the boundary between loyalty and love can be dangerous terrain.

The cover of DARE ME features a heavily lipsticked feminine mouth in sharp focus. The rest of the lower half of the face is in soft focus. The person in the image is biting her lip.

I listened to the audiobook of Dare Me and was totally captivated. The background music and foley effects in the audiobook threw me off for a few chapters, but by chapter four, I was really into it, and it became a brilliant part of the tense atmosphere of the book. The prose is heavily saturated, lyrical and sharp. The story itself is brisk and well-paced, using the evolution of the cheer squad to steadily ratchet up the tension. The incredible thing Abbott accomplishes here is weaving a secret subplot into the narrative, so that when I reached the end of the book, I realized that the story I'd thought I'd been reading was simply part of something bigger and more ominous.  
Tight, tense, gripping.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to this newsletter. The paid subscriber community is a wonderful and supportive one, and we’re spending 2021 finding new ways to stay connected and share experiences. You can also find a list of my favorite reads of the year so far here.

You can also buy a paperback edition of When We Were Magic! You can order it from your local independent bookseller (find them here), or you can pre-order the paperback edition via Bookshop.org, an online retailer which supports independent bookstores in the US and the UK. Barnes & Noble ships internationally, if you don’t live in the US or the UK. You can request it at your local library here. Check out the audiobook, narrated by Amanda Dolan, at libro.fm. And if you’re at a place in the world or in your life that necessitates an order from That River Website, use this link to make your purchase go a little farther in helping folks get access to clean water.

In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.