Stay Gold (Book Review)

I’d been meaning to read Stay Gold ever since I enjoyed Tobly McSmith’s sophomore novel Act Cool. I bought it ages ago, and it finally made it to the top of my pile. 

What’s it about?

Pony is an army brat, so he’s used to moving around all the time. This time, though, switching schools feels like an opportunity rather than a hardship. After being bullied at his last school after coming out, Pony decides to go stealth; because he can pass, he decides that there’s no reason to tell anyone that he’s trans. When he meets Georgia, a popular and beautiful cheerleader, his decision to stay under-the-radar starts to look decidedly less attractive.

What’d I think?

On the whole I enjoyed reading Stay Gold, but there were a lot of things that bothered me the more I thought about them. For that reason I decided to break out an old review format: I liked/I didn’t like.

I liked the cover. I mean, look at it! It’s so adorable! I love this art style, and in fact it was the covers that first brought me to Tobly McSmith’s books. Is it maybe a little too cute for the seriousness of the end of Stay Gold? Yeah, possibly. But I still love it.

I didn’t like Pony’s name. It took me a minute to get past what a stupid name “Pony” is, but I accepted it because of the The Outsiders homage (for the record: I love that book but Ponyboy is a dumb name there, too; also, it feels like every time I hear something about SE Hinton lately it’s bad, so…). It’s a slightly tough pill to swallow that anyone would choose their own name and go with “Pony,” especially since he repeatedly teases that it has a good story behind it and then it doesn’t. You might be thinking: didn’t Pony name himself for The Outsiders? Good question, but no. Georgia makes the literary connection but when Pony finally explains how he picked the name it is literally a reference to… ponies, which makes me wish that McSmith had approached the name differently. Like, maybe by naming him Johnny (or Dallas or Darrel or something)—which would have an indirect Outsiders reference for Georgia to grab onto) or simply by letting Ponyboy actually be Pony’s inspiration. In light of Hinton slamming Stay Gold‘s existence, though, I sort of think that the novel would have been better served to move away from that connection, as Hinton—with all her arguably anti-gay twitter tantrums—is a weird public figure to link to a queer character; it’s not quite as bad, but it would be like a trans person choosing their new name from Harry Potter; it’s plausible, but there are, let’s say, better role models).  

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Stranger Things 4: Will

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into a series of mini character-focused essay akin to my I care too much about fictional characters series, so that’s what it is. The short version of the Stranger Things 4 review is: I really liked it and I’m really looking forward to season five.

The long version is… a lot longer. When I realized my thoughts were nearly 10k words I decided to split them up into more manageable chunks. If you follow me, prepare to get spammed with a lot of Stranger Things content.

In the previous installment I discussed the missed opportunities with Eleven’s storyline. This time it’s Will’s turn.

I care too much about fictional characters

Will Byers

Despite the fact that, in terms of plot importance and screentime, Will is a minor character in Stranger Things 4, he has dominated much of the news cycle regarding the show. He has been a big part of the discourse this year, and he’s one of my favorite characters. Like everyone else, I have a lot to say about Will this season. A lot of it has been said often and loudly, but not all of it.

First things first: I wish Will hadn’t been sidelined again. I don’t know when or where Will became one of my favorite characters. From the start? When I started to painfully relate to him? When he just wanted to play D&D? When the show started to imply his queerness? Who knows? In any case, I love Will. Every season I make a wishlist for what I want to see and the two major things are

  1. Steve survives
  2. Will is happy

(I got one this season).

But poor Will just got kicked around and devastated again. Let the boy go ten minutes without crying, please and thank you. That’s bad enough when it’s just a regular favorite character, but when it’s the one you deeply relate to on an intrinsic level? Ouch. 

That being said, the scene with Will and Jonathan in the pizza place was absolutely beautiful. If I had to pick a favorite scene from Stranger Things 4, that would be it. It’s well-acted, it’s heartbreaking but also kind of healing, and it is one of the most nakedly vulnerable moments the show has given us to date. I guess if you’re going to give two of your main characters only a handful of scenes apiece, you’ve gotta make sure the ones they do have are doozies.

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July 2022 Wrap-Up

July was a tough one! I made the potentially unwise decision to do Camp NaNoWriMo after not working on my own fiction for quite some time, so I was very rusty to start with, and I decided to make things harder for myself by committing myself to plotting my book and figuring out background info instead of just blundering straight in and word-vomiting 50k words like I usually would. I’m very good at writing lots of words; I’m less good at writing coherent, succinct words. I did manage to get a win, but it was a close one; I started the month strong, but work burnout and catching COVID (despite being vaccinated and boosted) at the end of month didn’t help. But I did it!

As is always the case during NaNoWriMo, my reading took a major hit. I read a lot of graphic novels for something a little bit less demanding on my brain. I also read several books I really didn’t connect with but expected to and a few that were outside my usual wheelhouse, so on the whole this felt like a weird, off-kilter reading month. My favorite read of the month was one I was initially uninterested in; I read it for work and got super psyched, and it broke me through my slump. Slumps are the worst, aren’t they? In any case, All of Us Villains was great. The rest of what I read was bad to middling, with one or two that I liked but wouldn’t necessarily rave about.

Here’s what I read…

Half-Blown Rose by Leesa Cross-Smith

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Generally speaking, I don’t generally like traditional literary fiction. When I read the summary of Half-Blown Rose, I wasn’t particularly excited. Mid-life crises and affairs in Paris are pretty standard fare for the genre, so I was surprised that Leesa Cross-Smith managed to take these well-worn and often irritating storylines and turn them into something compelling. I adore Jane Eyre, the novel from which HBR takes its title, and the literary allusions to that novel elevate this one, opening it up to some fascinating interpretations. I had so much fun considering this as a very, very loose retelling: who is Jane? Who’s Rochester? Bertha? St. John? The mix of narrative styles makes for an interesting read, and the overall impression is that of a mixed media experience (more than once I paused to listen to a song from one of Vincent’s many playlists). I found the pacing a little off—the end moved very fast, and ends on a somewhat unfulfilling cliffhanger—but on the whole this is a good one. Novels about failing marriages and foreign flings are never going to be my thing, hence the lower star rating, but on the whole this was a win.

Full review to come

A Dark and Hollow Star by Ashley Shuttleworth

Rating: 1 out of 5.

I wanted to like this one. I really did. A queer fantasy about faeries? That’s a concept right up my alley. Unfortunately, this book missed in every conceivable way. The worldbuilding is both too much and not enough; every page introduces a slew of new concepts for the faerie system. Fae are different than faeries. Sidhe fae and lesidhe fae are different. The Seelie and UnSeelie courts are different, and there are at least eight different courts, all with different royal families and elemental alliances. Then there are changelings, a Wild Hunt, the ironborn, Reapers, cava, and more. This is almost all infodropped, making it almost impossible to keep it all straight. And yet despite this apparently well-developed magical system, the world still feels weirdly underdeveloped. The characters are extremely one-note, with Nausicaä—the character on the cover and almost certainly author Ashley Shuttleworth’s favorite—is so cringily annoying that I nearly DNF’d a dozen times. I love snark as much as the next person, but sometimes it doesn’t work, and it really doesn’t work here. The plot also felt pretty disjointed, but I’m pretty sure that’s due more to me zoning out and reading with 1/3 of my brain than to the actual writing. Sorry for the mean review, but this was a miss for me. I’m glad there are more LGBTQ+ characters in fantasy series these days, but I’m personally going to keep looking for other ones. 

Full review to come

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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Stranger Things 4: Eleven

Like the rest of the world, I’ve been very obsessed with Stranger Things lately. I’ve been very obsessed with Stranger Things for a while. I’m a bandwagon fan. When I see everyone screaming about something online I think what is this thing? Why am I not screaming about the thing? I was a little late to get onboard because this is a scary show, but my sister (who is more of a coward than I am, which is saying something) started watching it and said it was really good, so I jumped on the bandwagon.

It’s a really great show, and that’s not just the nostalgia talking because I don’t have any 80s nostalgia; I was born in the 90s and (unpopular opinion incoming) I haven’t seen or don’t like a lot of 80s movies. Like, I’ve never liked Ghostbusters or ET and I’ve never seen Goonies or any of the many 80s horror films Stranger Things took inspiration from. Somehow despite not particularly liking the genre, generally being annoyed by fictional children, and not having any major pop culture nostalgia I still got quickly and totally immersed in Stranger Things, and the show has kept its hold on me for the past six years even through the inexplicably unpopular season three (season three has Robin! How is it unpopular?) And even through season four’s sharp turn into horror.

I thought Stranger Things 1 was horror. I was wrong, because that was absolutely nothing compared to what we see in Stranger Things 4. There are some gross and frightening moments in the early run of the show—Will with that slug attached to him in the Upside Down was creepy as heck, and Bob’s death was traumatic—but Chrissy’s season four death took it up a lot of notches. During that scene I specifically thought man, if season one had started out like this I would not still be watching. Because that scene is terrifying and disgusting, and those effects don’t get any easier to watch even as they keep getting recapped or repeated with other characters. But I was already so deeply invested in the substantive Stranger Things cast that I was willing to keep watching even as the content of the show got scarier and scarier until it was far beyond what I’m usually comfortable watching. Once I got past the horrifying horror of it, though, I found that I enjoyed this season as much as the ones who came before it. I’m not necessarily part of the crowd who is calling this the best season of Stranger Things or the season that saved Stranger Things because I like all the seasons and don’t think the show needed saving, but it is definitely very good and because I like blabbing about the stories I find very good, I’m going to break it down, and because I first and foremost love characters, I’m going to bring back my old school method and break it down character by character. 

I had originally planned to do a straightforward review like I did for The Umbrella Academy, but because the show was long and spread out, I had a lot of time to think about it and discuss it with my equally analytical, if less nerdy, sister. As I was writing this it turned out to be less a standard review and more a series of mini character-focused essay akin to my I care too much about fictional characters series, so that’s what it is. The short version of the review is: I really liked it and I’m really looking forward to season five.

The long version is… a lot longer. When I realized my thoughts were nearly 10k words I decided to split them up into more manageable chunks. If you follow me, prepare to get spammed with a lot of Stranger Things content.

I care too much about fictional characters

Eleven/Jane Hopper

Of course we have to start with Eleven. Was there any question of that?

Eleven is arguably the main character of Stranger Things, and she’s certainly one of the most recognizable. Everyone and their mother dressed up as Eggo Eleven back when the show first aired, and she has continued to be THE character for the show. Most legitimate fan theories center around her, most entertainment sites use her image when writing about the show, and actress Millie Bobby Brown’s name almost always gets thrown around for award nominations. So I kind of have to start with her, even though she’s probably the least interesting character in season four. You’re probably thinking, but what about that time she piggybacked from a pizza dough freezer? You might be thinking, but wasn’t it sad when everyone was bullying her and then she absolutely wrecked Angela? I mean, sure. I guess. She has a few good moments, but on the whole she’s season four is not El’s season.

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Elektra (Book Review)

I was very excited when Elektra by Jennifer Saint was selected for the Barnes and Noble book club. In general, those selections aren’t particularly in line with my personal preferences—they tend to go for depressing literary fiction that touches on the most disturbing elements of the modern world, like pandemics and political extremism—but this one really excited me. I’ve loved Greek mythology since I was a kid, I adore Percy Jackson and have since I was younger, and am amongst the many, many people who are obsessed with Madeline Miller’s retellings. I’ve also heard great things about Saint’s first novel Ariadne. I’m less familiar with the stories of heroes than gods, and I’ve never actually read The Iliad (I know, I know) so the main stories in Elektra were only peripherally familiar to me. I know Achilles well, but had never heard of Elektra. I’ve heard the stories about Odysseus and Penelope many times, but wasn’t familiar with Clytemnestra. I know the basics of the Trojan War—Helen of Troy and the Trojan horse—but I was bleary on some of the more specific details, and even though I know the story of Cassandra, I somehow didn’t realize that she was part of this period. So I was very excited to read a new POV on Greek stories that I knew as well as learning some new ones I hadn’t experienced before.

What’s it about?

Elektra is a fairly straight retelling of the events of the Trojan War and its aftermath. However, instead of focusing on the male heroes who usually helm such tales, Saint instead tells the story through the lens of three women: Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, their daughter Elektra, and Apollo’s cursed prophetess Cassandra. 

What’d I think?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I liked Elektra. Also, I didn’t like Elektra. I’m not sure. I can’t decide. I was interested, but I also kept putting the book aside and waffling around on Instagram instead of returning to it. It’s a strange book. I can’t quite tell if the intended audience is people who are just getting into mythology or people who already know it well. It’s a pretty straightforward retelling in that aside from clarifying emotion and focusing its attention on characters who are usually left on the sidelines, so it doesn’t necessarily bring a whole lot that’s new to the story, and the writing is fine but not spectacular. On the other hand, though, there are moments where Saint is clearly asking the readers to bring their own existing knowledge. Clytemnestra and Elektra regularly hear stories from the front, and it is understood that the readers will be at least passingly familiar with Achilles and Agamemnon’s exploits. Patroklus’ death is presented as a major moment even though he is never mentioned before dying, and Achilles himself never actually appears in person. If you don’t know their story, you’d likely be left scratching your head like wait, *who* died? When Clytemnestra first speaks Iphigenia’s name, it’s written like a dun dun dun moment, like Saint knows that her mythology-fan readers will recognize Iphigenia and her role in the war. So it’s a little odd.

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Nightingale (Mini Book Review)

Two things happened that led to me reading Nightingale by Deva Fagan. First, I read and was massively disappointed by the supposed blockbuster Skandar and the Unicorn Thief, but when I said as much, a coworker (who has not read it) heavily implied that I only disliked it because I’m too old to know when a children’s book is bad vs. when it’s written for a younger audience. So when a work friend told me about a book with a young heroine who, at the start, gave her Inej Ghafa vibes I was totally in, both because that sounded good and because I wanted to defend my honor.  

What’s it about?

Lark, who was orphaned when her union-leader mother was killed for standing up for her beliefs, has turned away from noble ideals and to theft because that is the only way to keep a roof over her head without having to work at an aether factory so dangerous that working there can literally turn people into ghosts. But when a heist gone wrong throws Lark into the path of the second-born prince of Gallant and an enchanted sword, she has to reevaluate her no-heroics stance. 

What’d I think?

I knew I could tell the difference! Of course the writing in Nightingale is simpler and more straightforward than what I normally read. That’s the nature of a middle grade novel. This is a novel for young readers, so of course a few moments—like when Lark has to save people from some magically super sticky, super large soda bubbles—are a little juvenile. Yes, my taste has aged beyond that, but that doesn’t prevent me from seeing that Nightingale is an excellent book. It’s especially excellent for the right age group, but I thoroughly enjoyed it even at age twenty-eight.

Nightingale is what today’s children books should be. Masked superheroes are tons of fun. They’re great escapist fantasy, and if the success of the MCU is any indication they’re something that just about anyone regardless of age or politics or race or gender can get behind as long as they’re done well. But the sad truth of the world nowadays is that there’s way too much wrong to be able to fix things by putting on spandex and punching a single bad dude. In Nightingale, Fagan gives us a story about children fighting the real fight… but dresses it up as a superhero romp. Yes, Lark has a conscious sword that imbues her with flight and freezing powers which she uses to do battle against baddies, but the main takeaway from the story is that no one person can save the world alone, and that systematic problems have to have systematic solutions. It’s also notable that Lark isn’t a Chosen One. It looks like she might be at first, but multiple times over the course of the novel we see her making deliberate choices; she is only a hero because she chooses to be. She could walk away at any time, and she is a hero because she doesn’t.  

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Skandar and the Unicorn Thief (Book Review)

While I don’t read as many middle grade novels as I did back when I was a children’s librarian, I do still enjoy them. When I heard about Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A.F. Steadman, I was immediately interested. It is being touted as the next Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. It is the biggest known upfront children’s book buy, and the film rights have likewise already been sold for six digits. That’s absolutely insane, and it made me curious to check it out. Great children books are great books; my being nearly thirty doesn’t impede my enjoyment of books like Percy Jackson or The Westing Game or The Mysterious Benedict Society. I figured that Skandar would go one of two ways: either I would adore it or I would be bewildered and angry about another book claiming to be the next big thing when it is anything but.

What’s it about?

Skandar has always been obsessed with unicorns and unicorn racing. He and his sister have spent their lives wondering what it would be like to become a unicorn rider and move to the island where riders, bonded to their otherwise wild and bloodthirsty unicorns, are exalted above all else. Skandar’s sister failed the test, but Skandar doesn’t even get to take it; instead, he is secreted to the Island by a mysterious woman, where he learns that his bonded unicorn possesses an illegal kind of magic that has been outlawed since the emergence of the Weaver, a mysterious person who famously murdered dozens of riders years ago and has more recently kidnapped the Island’s most powerful unicorn.

What’d I think?

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Honestly, I suspect someone is going to get fired over Skandar. I hope I’m wrong, but what on earth were they thinking? This is not a terrible book. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been published or anything, but it is deeply mediocre and extremely forgettable. It’s a copycat. It takes elements from better-known and better-liked stories and mashes them together into a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of commerciality without any heart of its own. It has the House system from Harry Potter and the title from Percy Jackson. Skandar’s illegal ability to use/master the elements from every group feels very Divergent, and the elemental magic itself (plus Skandar as a Chosen One who wields them all) feels lifted from Avatar: the Last Airbender. Speaking of Avatars, Skandar’s bond with his dangerous steed feels very much like it could be from James Cameron’s big-budget franchise. The character types are all familiar as well. Skandar is our poor, bullied boy with a bad home life who joins the magical world and finds out he’s special. His best friend is a much smarter, much savvier girl in the Hermione/Annabeth vein. There’s a mean blonde bully who gets a single scene with a bullying parent for humanization. There’s a Star Wars-esque twist at the end. 

I’m not saying that it’s bad to use tropes. It’s impossible not to, and tropes themselves are not bad. A lot of them are great. The thing about them, though, is that great books use existing tropes and make them feel new. I’ve read dozens, maybe even hundreds, of Chosen One stories. Sometimes I adore them and other times I go ugh, not another one of these. Sometimes a character will show up and I’ll say this character is almost identical to so-and-so from such-and-such. Sometimes I’ll hate that, and other times I won’t care because this new author has made me fall in love with this new character, and the similarities will feel incidental. None of that is the case with Skandar. The impression I get with Skandar is that everyone involved wanted it to be a hit so badly that they just plugged in everything that’s succeeded in the last decade or so and hoped for the best. You know the meme where it goes, “I forced a bot to watch x hours of reality TV and then write a script?” That’s what Skandar feels like: “I forced a bot to read ten thousand pages of bestselling fantasy and then asked it to write one of its own.”

It doesn’t seem to have paid off, either. When I finished Skandar, disappointed, I read other reviews and found that most people reacted the way that I did: high expectations that were not met. Skandar is literally my least-popular book from this year on Goodreads. I realize that it’s a kids’ book and not a lot of kids are on Goodreads, but still. It feels indicative. Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is a perfectly fine children’s book. If it had a slightly different title and marketed itself less desperately, it might have done better but it wants to be Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief so badly that ultimately it has shot itself in the foot.

Here’s the thing about comp titles. You want to pick titles that are big enough to be recognized, but not so big that they’re the top titles in that category. As a reader, I’m always a little wary when any book compares itself to the biggest titles. Anything that says it’s like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Percy Jackson, or the like is trying too hard. I see those comps and think, oh so that’s how successful you want to be. I might still read them, especially if I see positive reviews coming from real people (which is not true of Skandar; the industry is raving, but there’s crickets from actual readers), but unless there’s something very concrete as to why these are the titles being comp’d, I get annoyed. There are expectations. If you are talking about PJO, for instance, I expect mythology. I don’t mind people saying that readers who grew up with Percy Jackson will enjoy reading Madeleine Miller as adults. PJO author Rick Riordan is also well-known for his hilarious, snarky voice and dedication to diversity, so I expect laughs and representation from anything claiming to be similar. Skandar isn’t populated solely by white characters, but it plays itself pretty straight. It has a few lighthearted moments, but I can’t imagine anyone pointing to humor as one of its main selling points, whereas I’ve yet to see a review for Riordan’s work that doesn’t specifically highlight that as one of main strengths. At the end of the day, Percy Jackson is a terrible comp title for Skandar and the Unicorn Thief. Aside from being middle grade fantasy, they have nothing in common.* Percy Jackson is what Skandar hopes to be commercially, not creatively. 

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Sea of Tranquility (Book Review)

Because of my book club, once a month I read a book that I almost certainly would not have picked up under any other circumstances. If I’m being totally honest, that book club has given me significantly more clunkers than hits so at this point I go in very pessimistic and walk out very happy as long as I didn’t hate the book. This month the book was Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel and, going in, my feelings were even more mixed than usual. On one hand, Mandel is an extremely well-regarded and popular writer. I’ve heard raves for both her previous novels, The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven, and the latter has even been adapted into a show that has likewise made quite the splash. On the flipside, though, I read the blurb for Sea of Tranquility and yikes. It sounds absolutely horrible: convoluted and pretentious and focused entirely on concept with barely a passing thought for character or plot. This was either going to be very good, I thought, or very bad.  

Somehow, I was wrong about that. 

What’s it about? (Kind of spoilery, I guess? I’m actually talking about the plot, not just the setup and vibe like all the official summaries do).

Is reality real or is it a simulation? That’s the question that time-traveller Gaspery-Jacques Roberts intends to find out when he investigates several strange instances—scattered through time, of course—of people seemingly transported to an airship terminal to the sounds of a violin playing music that has not yet been written. Under strict instructions not to interfere with their lives, Gaspery investigates an exiled young earl, a moon colonist stranded on Earth during a pandemic, and a woman whose husband ran a devastating Ponzi scheme. 

What’d I think?

Sea of Tranquility is well-written and it has enough momentum to keep me reading, but until a compelling last-act twist that makes what came before feel worth it, my overall impression is that I was right in expecting a convoluted, pretentious work focused entirely on concept with barely a passing thought for character or plot. I ultimately gave the book four stars on Goodreads, but that honestly feels overly generous, because while Sea of Tranquility is objectively speaking a well-written and good book, it doesn’t have any of the hallmarks of an I-loved-it-and-will-remember-it-and-recommend-it-widely favorite. 

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The Umbrella Academy Season 3 (Mini TV Review)

This summer has been full of returning shows I’ve been looking forward to. We kicked off with Stranger Things, Only Murders in the Building is airing again, and of course arguably my favorite show came back. The Umbrella Academy is one of the funniest, most creative, most bonkers shows out there. I’ve been obsessed with it since season one—I dressed up as Klaus for Halloween and threw an Umbrella Academy themed birthday for my sister—and have eagerly anticipated each new season. We’ve been sitting on that big season two cliffhanger for nearly two years, so I was extra excited to jump back in and find out what sort of time travel nonsense the Hargreeves siblings had gotten themselves into this time. It’s another great season. This show is consistantly fun and surprising. It hasn’t ever reclimbed to the heights of the practically perfect season one, but it continues to be immensely entertaining.

Throughout its run, arguably this show’s greatest triumph is its ability to balance a huge ensemble cast. From the start, there are seven main siblings who are of roughly equal importance but each season has a slew of vital secondary characters. Season one had Reginald, Leonard, Pogo, Grace, Patch, Hazel, Cha-Cha, Agnes, and the Handler. Season two kept Reginald, Grace, and the Handler but added Lila, Ray, Sissy, Carl, Harlan, AJ, Elliot, the Swedes, and Herb. Season three again loses the Handler but retains Lila (and Harlan and Ray in minor roles)… and adds (depending on your perspective) six or seven new characters in the Sparrow Academy, plus Stan. Much like the Umbrella Academy was introduced in the pilot episode, we meet the Sparrows via a quick montage and, inexplicably, they’re immediately easy to keep straight, and even with this veritable onslaught of new characters, you never get the impression that any of the core crew suffers for screentime or development because of it. The Umbrella Academy is really a masterclass in successfully introducing a lot of characters in a quick period of time, and mirroring season one’s incredible introduction this season was a really good decision.

Mild spoilers throughout.

In fact, a lot of the development is done really well. I still don’t think any of the trajectories match what either Klaus or Viktor had in season one (seriously; those two arcs were so good), but they’re still compelling. I’d argue that Allison’s turn towards darkness could have used a bit more time to develop, but the gist of it was still very compelling, and it was interesting how the traumas of the past two seasons built on top of each other for her.

Luther falling in love was a sweet storyline for him considering everything that he’s gone through and how unloved he has so often felt. I also liked that it called back to the moon, because I 100% believe that Luther would fall head-over-heels for the first person who sat down and listened to his moon stories. Admittedly I did find Sloane the least interesting of the new characters, but you can’t have everything and I suppose if Luther likes her I like her.

Viktor’s transition, which was the most talked-about element of the show in advance of season three, was subtle and natural. I thought that everyone involved did a good job of demonstrating both how important his transition is for him while also showing how decidedly unimportant it is for everyone else. Their relationships with him are exactly the same; they just use different words for him. It’s really that easy (Five’s reaction was the best).

Klaus’ grappling for a purpose and development of his powers was possibly my favorite element of the season (I know, I know. Klaus was my favorite. *shocking*). I’ve seen critiques that he was too trusting and naive this season, but I don’t agree. Klaus has always walked a delicate line between a childlike innocence and his hard living, and this is just an extension of that.

Five’s failed attempt to retire is particularly funny but also, like, sad. This show has the funny+sad thing down pat. Five has been a standout from the start, and I love that the show has been able to maintain his crotchety-old-man-in-a-child’s-body energy going even though the actor is no longer technically a child. I was a little afraid that he would lose that edge with age, but he’s still great. Do I miss 14-year-old Five? Yeah, but this slightly-older version is good, too.

I both liked and didn’t like Diego’s plotline. I’ve never liked the unexpected child thing, but I will admit that it gave Diego some good moments (also a few bad ones; the scene where he locked Lila in a closet to protect her fetus was not a good look and yet it was inexplicably played as if it was a noble and evolved behavior).

And then there’s Ben.

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June 2022 Wrap-Up

This has been a strange month. On one hand, it was great. I took a week’s vacation and visited my brother with my parents, which was a lot of fun. We hiked, we played board games, and we ate good food. In other words, a great vacation (only not perfect because my sister was too busy studying with Dreamworks). Then I had a massively cool fangirl moment when my beloved Leigh Bardugo put my Grishaverse anniversary post on her Instagram story; mine was the least elaborate cosplay on there, but it was insanely exciting to get noticed by my favorite author.

But of course every vacation has to end. I went back to work and it absolutely sapped my energy and I spent the second half of June as a corporate zombie, stumbling my days through work trying to ignore the fact that Texas is the worst and wondering if maybe I should rethink all my life choices. It’s just been kind of a rough month, and I didn’t exactly help myself out with my usual creative outlets. I wrote less, read less, and worked out less than I have in a very long time. In any case, here’s to a better July.

Here’s what I read:

(or jump to what I watched)

Elektra by Jennifer Saint

Pride? No. There are no LGBTQ+ characters.

I love Greek mythology and I love feminist books, so I expected to love this. It’s okay, but I expected more. Of course a straight (pun lightly intended) retelling of Greek heroics is going to leave the mortal women largely on the sidelines, but the overall impression of Elektra is hearing about something second- or third-hand. Our three POV characters are far removed from the main action and spend most of their time waiting for their men’s arrival and ruminating on the wrongs done to them. Even though Saint does an excellent job with Clytemnestra’s story and her emotion, for the most part Elektra feels like a blurry best-hits of the Trojan War; it is deeply unfortunate is that, instead of enjoying the women finally getting a voice, I kept wishing we could exchange one of the POVs for Achilles or Odysseus or even the detestable Agamemnon so that I could get in close to the action instead of just waiting and waiting for something to happen. I also found it an odd choice to name the novel for Elektra, arguably the most one-dimensional and antifeminist of the three leads, rather than picking something that better accounted for the full scope of the story.

Full review here

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Pride? Yes. The Song of Achilles presents the relationship between the hero Achilles and his beloved Patroclus as a romantic and sexual one, and that relationship is the beating heart of the novel.

After reading Elektra, I knew I had to reread The Song of Achilles. Even in Elektra there were moments where the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (spelled “Patroklus” in Elektra) felt like maddening empty space. Admittedly The Song of Achilles is the version of the Trojan War that I’m the most familiar with, but that being said: to me, the story just doesn’t fully make sense without that love story at its center. And it is a beautifully tragic love story that manages to keep a very human, vulnerable core even while telling a story of gods and heroes, fate and legend. Miller is a spectacular writer, and reading her mythology retelling back-to-back with one by another writer really solidifies how fantastic she really is. It takes a special kind of talent to retell an epic and make it feel both as grand in scale—while still, somehow, impossibly, intimate—and as lyrically beautiful as ever before. This is an absolute must-read for anyone even passingly interested in Greek Mythology. If you were a Percy Jackson/Rick Riordan kid, you should be a Madeline Miller adult.

Full review here

The Adventure Zone (Vol. 1-4) by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch

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Nine Perfect Strangers: Book to Series Comparison

I’m a big fan of Liane Moriarty. I read The Husband’s Secret years ago, got obsessed, and read The Hypnotist’s Love Story, What Alice Forgot, Big Little Lies, and Truly Madly Guilty in short succession. I took a break after being frustrated by the pregnancy storyline in Three Wishes, and then drifted back with the TV adaptation of Big Little Lies. Unsurprisingly, I really liked the first season (the one based on the book) and was deeply frustrated by the second (which shouldn’t exist; limited series should not be renewed for season two, even—maybe especially—if they’re really good). A few months ago, admittedly a few months behind everyone else, I watched Hulu’s adaptation of Nine Perfect Strangers and loved it, especially the first few episodes. I loved the characters and the kind of creepy anything-could-happen-and-it-might-be-bad vibe, and because—perhaps uncharacteristically—I’d never read the book, I was desperate to know what happened next. I didn’t necessarily love everything about the last few episodes, but on the whole Nine Perfect Strangers was a big hit for me and I was very interested to check out the book and find out what had changed. I didn’t think I was going to get to it for a while—my TBR is alarmingly large at the moment—but my grandparents downsized their house and offered me my pick of the books they weren’t taking with them, and by coincidence Nine Perfect Strangers was one of them, and that sort of fortuitous happenstance is how books jump to the top of the TBR.

What’s it about?

After a near-death experience, a high-ranking corporate woman decides to totally reinvent her life and become a wellness guru. Her state-of-the-art, experimental treatment is put to the test with the arrival of nine guests who need their lives transformed, but who may not be prepared to fully give into her new and experimental protocol.

What’d I think?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. I don’t spoil the show’s biggest twist, but I do discuss the climaxes of both versions of the story, as well as where certain characters end up, and the thematic implications thereof.

Strangely, my overall impression is that the adaptation of Nine Perfect Strangers somehow managed to totally change everything by changing virtually nothing. Or is it that it managed to change virtually nothing by changing everything? I loved the show and I loved the book, but I liked different parts of each. The things I felt the show dropped the ball on were corrected in the novel, but there were parts of the novel that were hugely improved upon for the adaptation. By total coincidence, I think I experienced it in the best possible way: by watching the show first, I got to meet all the characters in their most charming form. Because there are so many—nine guests, plus Masha, Yao, and Delilah—there’s not a whole lot of time to develop everyone, which means that a few of them get one or two personality traits that they have to coast on for the whole story. The show has a much longer runtime, which already gives the characters a bit more breathing room to settle into their personalities, but often just the simple act of casting a talented actor can flesh out an empty shell by giving them a face, mannerisms, and reactions. 

It also helps that, in the show, the group gets to interact the whole time rather than establishing a “noble silence” that takes up the first half of the novel. Their development and characterization therefore comes out of their conversations with each other rather than moments of contemplative silence. The show cultivates relationships that don’t exist in the novel; in the show, my favorite character is Lars, who is acerbic and snarky at the start but who ends up pulling down his walls and having sincere relationships with many members of the group, notably Zoe and Carmel. There’s no chance I would have liked Lars best if I’d read the book first; he’s essentially a nonentity. He has a few clever moments and the details we get about his career indicate that he’s a good person deep down, but he was clearly very low on the list of narrative priorities. The show just gives him so much more to do, letting him deliver funny lines and sitting with his more emotional moments. But Lars is just one example.

Even characters who are significantly more important still had lots of room for development. Napoleon is a good character on the page, but he comes to life as played by Michael Shannon; a lot of what makes Napoleon Napoleon is his relentlessly over-cheery chit-chat, but in the book that’s largely an informed attribute; we only really see it once, and then he quiets down. The show fills out his dialogue and lets him be the larger-than-life presence the novel just hints at.

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The Adventure Zone Vol. 1-4 (Graphic Novel Review)

It’s impossible to pack enough books when going on vacation, so any time I visit my brother I plan on borrowing something of his to read while I’m there. I usually go for a graphic novel because he has them and because I can be pretty darn sure that I can finish them without encroaching on any family visiting time. This time I picked up The Adventure Zone by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch, which he’s told me about before, and which I know is relatively popular. I’ve never been super interested because I watched an episode of the TV show version of My Brother, My Brother, and Me once and it wasn’t really my style of humor. Also, as much as I like the idea of Dungeons and Dragons, it’s not something I’ve actually ever played, so I don’t fully understand how it works. That being said, I’d just finished Stranger Things season 4 part 1 and was looking for something to scratch that itch and something in me said well, they’re both D&D-adjacent so I figured I’d give it a try. It was either this or A Secret History, which is way too long to contemplate reading in idle moments after everyone else has fallen asleep.

What’s it about?

This is a graphic novel adaptation of a podcast wherein the McElroy brothers (plus their dad) play a D&D-style tabletop roleplaying game. While the graphic novels largely proceed as if they’re taking place in their own fantasy world, they do occasionally break the fourth wall to allow the Dungeon Master to appear, mostly to level up the heroes or make snide comments about their proficiencies. The series follows three adventurers—dwarf cleric Merle, elf wizard Taako, and human fighter Magnus—as they sally forth to cause chaos, initially on a simple rescue mission and then ultimately to recover powerfully destructive relics and save the world.

What’d I think?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It took me a minute to get onboard, to be honest. I read volume one—Here There Be Gerblins—and was largely unconvinced. There were admittedly quite a few hurdles between me and getting fully into this series. In short:

  • I was unfamiliar with the original podcast version of the story
  • I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons, and while I understand the concept of it in theory, I don’t know how the actual nitty gritty of the game works
  • I’m very bad at reading graphic novels; I don’t process images well, which means that I’m prone to misunderstanding or flat-out missing parts of the story that take place only graphically

Still, there was enough in the first volume to interest me enough to try the second. Graphic novels take, like, half an hour to read and while not every joke hit me there were bits that I liked. Taako, specifically. Magnus is funny and Merle is okay, but I love Taako. 

I was shocked by the violence and language in this. Because the style of the drawing looks more like the younger graphic novels I’ve read (like Fence) more than the older ones (like Watchmen) I think I was instinctively expecting these to be written for the younger/teen audience. They aren’t. The kills are all played for laughs—according to my brother, who does play D&D, it’s almost impossible to play without casually murdering random NPCs almost constantly—but some of them are pretty gruesome, especially in volume one. I didn’t expect to see gerblins cleaved in half on, like, page two. 

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Family of Liars (Mini Book Review)

I loved E. Lockhart’s massively popular thriller We Were Liars, so I was very interested to hear about the prequel. In all honesty, my first response was skepticism: We Were Liars is an excellent book, but it has been out for a while and the timing of this prequel coincides with the renewed interest from #booktok. It’s very possible that this was just going to be a cash grab, but I was always going to read it. My original plan was to reread the original—it’s been four years or so since I read it, and I’m not great about remembering specifics—and then read Family of Liars when it became available at the library. Then I got an ARC, which I wanted to read in a somewhat timely fashion, so I dove right in without the refresher. 

What’s it about?

Set on the We Were Liars island one generation previously, when Cady’s mother and her sisters were teenagers. Even then their family was one of secrets and lies. The drowning of their youngest sister and the ensuing silence sets the family precedence for swallowing difficult emotions in favor of a glossy, perfect sheen. This swallowing of grief sets the stage for one fateful summer when a cousin brings a trio of male friends with her to the island, and the ensuing drama has the potential to shock even the unshakeable Sinclair family to their core.

What’d I think?

I’m now planning to reread We Were Liars directly after this one so I can see how the characters here could have developed into the people we initially met then; my impression is that the Sinclair clan is more likable here. I thought I remembered Carrie, Penny, and Bess being absolutely horrible in the original, whereas the family feels more repressed than hateful here, which feels like a potential disconnect. That is really my only complaint with Family of Liars. Even if it started as a cynical cash grab, by the time Lockhart finished it it was a polished, interesting novel filled with real emotion and characters whose feelings you can always empathize with even when you can’t necessarily justify their actions.

There are a lot of thematic and plot overlaps between the two novels. Both are narrated by an unreliable, drug-addicted heroine. Both show a decidedly atypical family in their natural habitat, a habitat that feels entirely alien to any visitors (and, of course, both provide at least one outsider). Both include social commentary about the very, very wealthy and both include ghosts. Both include fairy tale retellings. Both include death and grief, and both have a twist towards the end. All this creates a prequel that feels tonally very similar, which is good; people who liked We Were Liars will almost definitely like Family of Liars. The stories are connected, but not as much as I expected. When I saw that there’s a note to the reader warning them of We Were Liars spoilers, I worried that I was going to be lost without that story fresh in my head. That wasn’t a problem, and honestly if Lockhart had wanted to, she could have removed all traces of spoilers without any difficulty. If you know about the ending of We Were Liars, you know all you need to know. I forgot a lot of the specifics, but I didn’t forget that so I was fully set. Carrie, our heroine, tells her story to a ghost (I won’t say whose ghost, to avoid We Were Liars spoilers). This provides a tenuous connection to We Were Liars and establishes Carrie’s ability to see ghosts, but it is otherwise not necessary.

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Flip the Script (Book Review)

One of the most interesting parts of working as a bookseller is that occasionally authors pop by to sign their books. One such author was Lyla Lee, who made the bookstore rounds in advance of the publication of her newest novel Flip the Script. I generally buy a signed book from every author I meet—you never know when you’ll find a new favorite, and I’m still kicking myself for missing autographs from Wendelin van Draanen and Jewell Parker Rhodes—but Lee’s YA novels about queer girls in the entertainment industry very much appealed to me and I had already put her on my very long TBR; meeting her just bumped Flip the Script to the top. 

What’s it about?

Jin Hana is an up-and-coming Korean-American actress. When she is cast to star in a K-Drama alongside Bryan Yoon, a massively popular boyband idol, it looks like her moment has finally come. But achieving her dream isn’t as straightforward as she thought it would be: her parents are feeling the pressure of relocating to Korea; Hana herself worries that she isn’t Korean enough; the show’s ratings aren’t as strong as they’d hoped for; and the loose-cannon producer makes a series of unusual marketing decisions. First, he persuades Hana and Bryan to stage a relationship for media clout and second, he hires a second lead actress to add a love triangle to the show, which is uncomfortable to Hana because it makes her worry that she isn’t enough and because the actress hired is Park Minjee, Hana’s friend from school for whom she has feelings that could get her blackballed from the industry. 

What’d I think?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the only acceptable kind of fake-dating is the kind that does not end in a romantic happily-ever-after for the faux-lovebirds. A small part of me was worried, when the fake-dating came up, that Flip the Script was going to be about a love triangle both in Hana’s real life and in the drama she stars in. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. In fact, the juxtaposition between the onscreen drama and the queerer, more mature relationships Hana has in real life was a highlight of the novel. Her scripted show is melodramatic, heterosexual, and lightly misogynistic while her real life is grounded and delightfully queer.

I’m not really a romance reader, admittedly. I love a well-done romantic relationship as much as anyone, but I can’t handle all the pointless drama and uncommented-upon toxicity that gets thrown at romcom heroes. I can’t get behind a couple who delays getting together because he is cheating on his horrible girlfriend but can’t dump her because of honor, or because he overheard her complaining about him and didn’t stick around to hear the ‘but it’s all worth it because I love him’ bit. Flip the Script, well, flips the script on all those annoying tropes. The usual hurdles get jumped at the rate a normal person would jump them, which is to say immediately. Hana deftly handles the awkwardness that is Bryan catching feelings on their fake date by telling him firmly but kindly that she likes him as a person but not as a romantic partner, and he takes the high road; instead of becoming a bitter jilted lover, he deals with his own feelings on his own time and becomes a close confidant and fierce ally to Hana. Instead of stewing on Hana’s rejection or acting like he owns her, he supports her and helps her with her new crush. It’s depressingly refreshing. It shouldn’t be surprising when a man takes rejection well, but here we are. Likewise, Hana and Minjee actually come together relatively quickly.

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Jagged Little Pill (Book Review/Musical Comparison)

I love getting free books and I’m obsessed with musicals, so when I got the opportunity to get an ARC of Jagged Little Pill, which is written by Eric Smith but based on the Broadway musical by Alanis Morissette, Diablo Cody, and Glen Ballard (which is in turn based on Morissette’s album) there was really no question that I was going to take it and read it. I wasn’t super familiar with the Jagged Little Pill musical, although I had listened to the cast recording and watched all the official and readily available performances, but I didn’t go in totally blind. I knew some of the particulars of a few of the plotlines, although not the main one, and I was quite familiar with the controversy (you can jump to my discussion of that here). In fact, that controversy was a large part of why I wanted to read Jagged Little Pill; I was fascinated what direction the official novelization would take when given the opportunity to address it without having to worry about specific actors or performances.

Since reading the novelization, I have done a deeper dive into the musical itself, reading in-depth synopses and reviews and watching any YouTube videos I could find in the hopes of being able to provide some semblance of a here’s-what-changed element to this review. That being said, I have still not seen the show—and I know that it has gone through some script doctoring since the Tony awards, and I don’t know if the things I’ve read and seen are pre- or post-edits—and would very much appreciate/welcome anyone in the comments to correct, clarify, or add to what I’ve said here about the stage show. 

What’s it about?

In the wake of an out-of-control party, five teenagers face the consequences of what they did and didn’t do that night. Frankie is suffering in the shadow of her perfect older brother Nick, and struggles to understand her place as an adopted Black girl in a white suburban family. Nick is about the break under the pressure of being the one on whom all his family’s hopes and dreams rest. Phoenix’s whole life has been upended in the chase to get his sister the medical care she needs. Jo’s family doesn’t accept her, and Bella needs someone to hear her. 

What’d I think?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

FYI, spoilers. Also, trigger warnings for sexual assault and rape.

The biggest change the story made when making the jump from stage to page is the focus. The stage show is about the fractured Healy family, with the parents MJ and Steve arguably more central even than Nick. Jo, Bella, and Phoenix are all supporting characters onstage but they are given significantly more time in the novel, likely because the novel is categorized as YA. With that categorization it is logical to give the starring roles to the teen characters and move the adults more to the peripheries. That being said, I don’t think it was the right call.

The stage show is a family drama, and MJ is the heart of that. The show both opens and closes with her, and her struggles tie everyone else’s together. MJ is the one who imposes the pressure on Frankie and Nick to make the Healys look like a perfect family. Her ‘perfect mother’ persona, despite harming her own children, is something Jo and Phoenix envy and, perhaps most crucially, her rape and its aftermath provides a contrast to Bella’s. Although MJ is not necessarily the most active character, her smallest actions arguably have more ripple effect than even the more outrageous decisions by other characters. It is MJ who put the cap of the perfect family on top of them all, and it is MJ who blows it off when she ultimately speaks about her rape and admits her drug addiction.

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