Transcendent Kingdom (Book Review)

I read Yaa Gyasi’s second novel Transcendent Kingdom for book club. It’s not the kind of novel I usually read, even though Gyasi is a very well-regarded writer. Her first book, Homegoing, has been recommended to me many times and while I’m not necessarily opposed to reading it, the description doesn’t catch my attention. Honestly, the description for Transcendent Kingdom didn’t strike me as much better, but I was still up for it because I was excited to see what all the hype was about.

I think I’m going to have to put this one down to a matter of taste. It’s very well written, but I never found a point of connection. I never fell in love with any of the characters. I never got invested enough in the plot to wonder what would happen next. Even the central thematic question—how to reconcile a childhood spent studying a literal interpretation of the Bible with an adulthood dedicated to hard science—never fully engaged me.

What’s it about?

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Spooky Musicals

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post for Musical Monday. I haven’t discovered many new shows lately. For a while, I was watching musicals almost exclusively (thanks, BroadwayHD and The Shows Must Go On!) but now I’m back to watching them at a normal pace, which means that there aren’t too many that I have strong feelings about that I haven’t already discussed here. But since I’m planning to put Musical Monday on hiatus through November (it’s NaNoWriMo, which means that my more regular book reviews will likely also take a hit), I wanted to post at least one more. Since this week is Halloween and I’m always very excited about Halloween (I love dressing up; this year I’m going to be David from Schitt’s Creek), I thought it might be fun to write about spooky musicals.

I’m easily frightened, so I tend to prefer things that are lightly spooky. I love Halloween, but I love the cutesy, cosplay side of it, not the nightmare fuel. But I adore musicals of all kinds, so I listen to and watch them even if I’d aggressively avoid them if it weren’t for the music.

The Rocky Horror Show

Which cast recordings have I heard, and which is my favorite? It’s hard to believe that there’s a campy cult queer movie musical that I haven’t seen, but here we are. Between the movie soundtrack, the Glee episode, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I feel like I know The Rocky Horror Show about as well as is possible without actually having seen it. While I think that the Glee versions of the songs are very good and I haven’t heard anything from Fox’s 2015 version, I’m assuming that you can’t get any better than the classic movie.

How can you see it? There’s a movie, plus the Fox Live version, and apparently another live version from 2015 that I’d never heard of until I Googled it just now.

What’s it about? Basically, a straight-laced couple gets caught in a storm and has to wait it out in a creepy mansion with a group of bizarre Transylvanians.

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Supernatural 15×16 Review (Drag Me Away From You)

About midway through “Drag Me Away (From You),” Billie checks in on Dean and expresses bewilderment that he’s working a standard Monster of the Week case this late in the game, and I have to say that I agree. As a general rule, I’m not onboard with all Billie’s takes. I mean, she wants Jack to die! But she’s right on the money here. There are four episodes after this, and we’re spending time here? A flashback episode with no Cas, no Jack, and no Chuck? There are three important scenes in this episode, and the rest, while entertaining, feels like a waste.

It’s not that it’s a bad episode. If we’d been farther from the end, I probably would’ve liked it a lot, but the simple fact of the matter is that we’re not farther from the end. As close to it as we are, every episode like this feels like a confirmation that the final resolution is going to be rushed an unsatisfying. There are four episodes left, right? We still need to defeat Chuck, deal with Amara, and resolve Cas’ deal with the Empty. And that’s just the plot stuff. Once you get into the character stuff… Dean alone still needs to make huge strides before he’s at a place where the show can reasonably leave him without it feeling like a copout. And it’s not like Sam, Cas, or Jack are totally set yet.

But anyway. On to the recap. Sam and Dean are headed to meet an old friend at her brother’s funeral. We didn’t get to see Cas tell Dean about Jack, but that conversation did happen.

Side note: last week I said this:

I hope we get more of this conversation next week because Dean and Cas’ talks account for a lot of my favorite scenes in this show, and they’ve been in very short supply lately.

So, yeah. I’m a little upset that we didn’t see that scene at all. But whatever.

Dean knows, but he hasn’t filled Sam in yet, despite Cas nagging him about it via text. The main takeaway from this scene is that, after fifteen years of this nonsense, someone finally tells Dean to keep his eyes on the road.

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Darius the Great Deserves Better (Book Review)

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram is a fantastic novel. For about a year now, it’s been the standard by which I’ve been judging contemporary YA fiction. So when I found out that it has a newly released sequel, I was excited.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

What’s it about?

Home from his life-changing trip to Iran, Darius is getting used to the new status quo. Although he’s still the target of some racist and homophobic bullying, things are overall much better: he has mended his previously distant relationship with his father, he regularly videochats with his best friend Sohrab, he is on the varsity soccer team and his teammates have embraced him in a way he’s never experienced before, he’s landed a coveted internship at Rose City Teas, and he has his first ever boyfriend. But this new, improved existence is still not perfect: Laleh is struggling at school, the family has fallen on hard times, Stephen’s depression rears its head, Sohrab goes suddenly radio silent, and Darius’ friendship with his teammate and one-time bully Chip has become very complicated.

What’d I think?

I love Darius. I loved him in his first appearance, and I continue to love him in the second. He’s the sort of character you want to read about and the sort of person you’d want to befriend. Khorram’s character work is extraordinary, and he does a particularly great job of presenting Darius as a three-dimensional character even as he focuses on certain elements of his identity. Darius the Great is Not Okay is primarily about Darius connecting with his heritage: his mother is Persian and his father is white. Because he was never immersed in his mother’s culture, he feels isolated from it and the first novel takes him to his mother’s childhood home to meet her family and explore that long-unexpressed part of himself.

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Supernatural 15×15 Review (Gimme Shelter)

Well, this episode was a lot better than last week’s, wasn’t it? I always say that I can’t decide whether Dean or Cas is my favorite character, but at times like this I think I have to come down solidly on Cas’ side because the episodes he’s in tend to be a lot more entertaining and engaging. That’s what makes it so frustrating when he disappears for full episodes. There are only a few episodes left, so I was already a little miffed that Cas was absent last week and I’m not taking the implication that he’ll be gone next week particularly well. He has just as much necessary resolution as the other guys. More, even, and since character growth and emotional arcs on Supernatural are developed and resolved so slowly… I don’t think he can afford to leave again without being shortchanged yet again.

Anyway…

Sam and Dean are researching leads, but they’re not finding much. Sam finds a story about a mysterious death but isn’t sure that it’s their kind of thing, and Dean suspects that a city-wide blackout in Atlantic City may be an indication that Amara is there. That’s not much to go on, but since “not much” is more to go on than they’ve had recently, Sam and Dean head to Atlantic City and encourage Cas to take Jack to check out the murder. Cas is initially unwilling, but gives in to Sam and Dean’s insistence and Jack’s adorable enthusiasm wear him down.

JACK: Can we wear matching ties?

CAS: …yeah.           

They do wear matching ties, and Jack shows off his many similarities to his angelic dad. He presents his FBI badge upside down (Cas finally has his right-side up) and even uses an extremely famous current female popstar’s name for his alias (he’s Agent Lovato to Cas’ Agent Swift).

Can and Jack’s son-father relationship is on full display this week. “Gimme Shelter” is a strong episode thematically. The emphasis on fatherhood and the different sides of religion/faith are really interesting and well-done. Davy Perez is one of my favorite Supernatural writers. He does a really good job with Cas and Jack and he usually manages to make the standard hunts more interesting than they would be in the hands of a different writer.

A major theme of season fifteen so far has been that monsters are not always, well, monsters. “Gimme Shelter” has one of the most gruesome murders we’ve seen in quite some time. It’s so bad that we don’t even see the Connor’s body. We’re just told about it, which is good because yikes. I do not do well with body horror. The scene with the second victim’s hands was too much for me, so I would not have been able to handle seeing the first kid.

The murder seems demonic—the victim had his fingers cut off and crammed down his throat, and the world “Liar” carved into his body—so Cas summons a crossroads demon while Jack looks for Connor on social media. This scene is possibly my favorite in the episode, because it gives us two amazing moments: Cas’ cowboy hat picture, and this exchange:

JACK, A 3-YEAR-OLD SIGNING UP FOR SOCIAL MEDIA: It says I need a parent or guardian’s permission to join.

CAS: You have my permission.

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The Voting Booth (Mini Book Review)

Brandy Colbert’s Little and Lion was one of my top ten reads last year. I loved it, and I keep reading her other books in the hopes that I’ll love them just as much. I tried Finding Yvonne and now The Voting Booth, and while both are good, neither reaches the heights of that first one. It’s always a bit disappointing to read an author’s best book first, because it makes all the subsequent ones—not matter how good—a little disappointing.

B/⭐⭐⭐

What’s it about?

The Voting Booth is, basically, a 304-page PSA about how important it is to vote. It takes place over the course of a single day. Voting day, to be specific. It is told with an alternating POV between two main characters, Marva—who is a dedicated political activist—and Duke—a musician whose brother was killed in a drive-by shooting a few years ago. They run into each other at the polls; Marva is the first to cast her ballot, but Duke runs into difficulty and despite never having met him before, Marva takes it upon herself to drive him to the correct polling place to make sure that his voice is heard.

What’d I think?

The bottom line is that voting has never been more important, and the point of The Voting Booth is clearly to remind us of that. Marva has waited her whole life to be able to vote, and she knows how important it is. She’s a young, Black woman so it’s particularly important to her personally that the right people win. Duke is not as personally invested as Marva at the start, but his family still imparts on him how serious voting is. The only one who doesn’t grasp the importance is Alec, Marva’s wealthy white boyfriend, who is taking a step back from politics because he’s tired of being upset and angry. He’s refraining from voting because he thinks it doesn’t matter and also to passively protest the two-party system. More to the point, though, he’s not voting because he’s rich, he’s white, he’s straight, and he’s a guy. The results of the election will affect him some, because they’ll affect everyone, but they won’t AFFECT him because, whatever happens, no one is going to actively and intentionally restrict his rights or promote his dehumanization. He has the luxury of not voting.

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Daisy Jones and the Six (Mini Book Review)

I know that it’s Monday and that I should have posted about musicals, but I haven’t had time to write anything for that this week. I did, however, have this book review ready to go and it is a book about music, so… partial credit?

I’ve wanted to read Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid since it was released a year ago, but I’m too cheap to buy hardbacks and there was an insanely long wait list at the library. So I’m late to the party, but I loved the book every bit as much as I expected to.

I’m so proud of Taylor Jenkins Reid. I’ve never met her and I don’t know anything about her personally, but I’ve read a lot of her novels (not all, but most) over several years, and while I’ve liked all of them, there’s been a marked improvement from her early works to her more recent ones. It’s rare that you see someone get so much better like that. Once I read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I knew that Taylor Jenkins Reid was going to be one of my go-to writers, and Daisy Jones and the Six might be even better.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Written like a transcript of interviews for a career retrospective, Daisy Jones tells the story of an electric 80s rock band who shot quickly to the top of the charts only to fall completely apart because of interpersonal drama.

Daisy Jones is very much about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. That’s not my scene, but I devoured this book anyway. It would have been easy for Daisy and her bandmates to fall into stereotypes. Arguably, Daisy—the drug-addicted lead singer of a rock and roll band who falls for her bandmate and occasionally flirts with manic-pixie-dreamgirl-ness—does have something about the stereotypical about her, but she is also so rawly emotional that she overcomes it. It’s the mark of good writing that a character can make bad decisions almost exclusively without losing the reader’s affection or respect. Daisy is a deeply, deeply flawed woman but she engages the reader’s sympathies so completely that you’ll spend the whole novel just going Daisy, Daisy, no.

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Supernatural 15×14 Review (Last Holiday)

Supernatural has been on hiatus for COVID-19 for a really long time, and I’m very out of the habit of writing TV reviews. I’d also forgotten pretty much everything that happened, so I had to go back and reread all my own reviews from this season. Gosh, those things are long. And thorough. I’m glad for it, because I really needed the refresher, but this recap is likely going to be considerably shorter, both because I’m out of the groove and because I have a lot of other reviews and writing projects that I need to get to.

Also, I just finished watching Schitt’s Creek and adored it. At this point, any show I watch that isn’t Schitt’s Creek is going to disappoint me a little bit; it is so funny, so sweet, so unabashedly queer and filled with lovable characters and amazing story arcs. So I decided to switch up this recap by reacting solely with Schitt’s Creek gifs. You’re welcome/I’m sorry.

After a recap that doesn’t cover nearly as much information as I expected (if I were in charge, I probably would’ve opted for a long-style musical recap the likes of which we normally see in a season premier), we find Sam and Dean in the bunker, discussing Jack’s recent trauma. What with all the things he did without it, Jack is suffering from the weight of his recently-restored soul. Sam and Dean are worried about him, but they’re letting him have his space. Later in the episode, Dean says that he’s been through worse than Jack and is fine and he and Sam have this amusing, on-brand conversation about Jack and trauma generally:

SAM: Ignoring your trauma doesn’t make you healthy.

DEAN: Sure it does.

Dean is in homemaker mode: he found an apron and is making burgers. Sam makes fun of him for the apron, which strikes me as a dumb move. Never mock someone who’s making you food.

The power in the bunker has been fritzing, so Dean goes down to the basement to hit the reset. All seems fine until he returns to his bedroom to find a strange woman folding his underwear. Yikes. Also, Dean has cartoon characters on his underwear, which is somehow not at all surprising.

It turns out that underwear lady is a wood nymph called Mrs. Butters. Apparently she’s been in the bunker this whole time. The Men of Letters used her power to supplement the bunker, and it–and she–have been in standby mode the whole time Sam and Dean have been there. With her out of standby mode, the boys have all kinds of new toys, including a monster radar that shows the guys what monsters are in the area and exactly where to find them. They want to believe that Mrs. Butters is what she says she is, so they head to the spot indicated by the sensors, figuring that if they find vampires there, they can trust her.

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Burn (Book Review)

Patrick Ness is one of my all-time favorite writers. A Monster Calls is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I am endlessly amazed by Ness’ creativity and pure talent. All his books are extremely different (The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a hilarious meta take on fantasy; And the Ocean Was Our Sky is essentially Moby Dick from the whales’ perspective; Release is at once a contemporary coming-of-age and a fantasy retelling of Mrs. Dalloway; and A Monster Calls is about a young boy making sense of his mother’s imminent death), but they’re all absolutely amazing. I’ll read literally anything he writes, but I was especially excited for Burn because I adore fantasy and I’ve been on a major fantasy kick lately. I was not wrong to be excited, because Burn is vaulted over my high expectations.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

What’s it about?

In an alternate universe, dragons have lived alongside humans for as long as anyone can remember. They’re feared and disliked, but there has long been a truce. Having fallen on hard times, Sarah and her father are forced to hire a dragon for some cheap farm labor. She is unaware that a teenage assassin, a member of a dragon-worshipping cult, is coming to kill her and that the hired claw has come because of a prophecy that predicts that she will save the world.

What’d I think?

This book is just so good. I shouldn’t be surprised by how tightly plotted, well written, and thematically surprising it is considering Ness’ phenomenal body of work, but… wow. There is a lot going on in Burn. There are a lot of characters and they all have complex emotional journeys, but the balance is masterful. Sometimes books with large casts and a revolving POV have dead spots where one character can’t hold interest as well as the others, but that’s absolutely not the case here. The storylines all click together like puzzle pieces, and they are all sufficiently interesting even before they come together.

Burn takes place in 1957, during the Cold War, and Ness makes excellent use of the historical period. The threat of nuclear war is a major part of Burn; humanity threatens itself so thoroughly that dragons are way down the list of secondary concerns. One of the major themes of the novel is humanity’s great potential for violence and destruction; kindness, love, empathy… those are choices people make even when up against great pain and danger.

The tension with the Russians isn’t the only product of the era present in Burn. Sarah (who is biracial) and her best friend Jason (a Japanese-American whose mother died in an internment camp) spend their lives dodging the racist attentions of a local sheriff. Nelson is living out of his car after being kicked out of his home by homophobic parents. Nuclear war is not the only destruction humanity is capable of; there’s a lot of ugliness and violence even in the day-to-day, and the little scenes of people triumphing over discrimination are nearly as triumphant as the obvious fantasy-protagonist-saving-the-world moments. If anything, they’re more affirming. Of course I want Sarah to save the world, but on an emotional level I care more about her getting the upper hand against Deputy Kelby and about Malcom confronting and coming to terms with his religious brainwashing.

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You Should See Me in a Crown (Mini Book Review)

Leah Johnson’s debut novel You Should See Me in a Crown has gotten lots of good hype and I’ve wanted to read it since June but only just managed to get it from the library. It’s every bit as cute as promised.

Report card: B/⭐⭐⭐⭐

What’s it about?

Liz is an excellent student and a talented musician, but—as a Black, queer, shy girl living in Indiana—she’s not your typical Prom queen. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, because under normal circumstances Liz wouldn’t care any more about prom court than prom court cares about her, but then a scholarship she was counting on falls through and Liz realizes she only has one option: take advantage of her school’s obsession with Prom, which comes with a hefty scholarship grant.

What did I think?

You Should See Me in a Crown has a lighter, less grounded feeling than I expected. It definitely has a heightened, reality TV short of feel. There’s a social media page for the school that everyone follows obsessively, filled with posts, hashtags, and even gifs of classmates. Liz’s friend Gabi obsessively tracks Liz’s mentions on Campbell Confidential and launches a campaign to give the impression that Liz and a (male) classmate are in a relationship, because it makes Liz trend. Maybe there are insane schools like this, but none of the ones I attended (I was a military brat; I went to several) treated even the most popular students like full-blown celebrities. I can see making memes about each other, but gifs? Shipping tags?

I sometimes have a hard time readjusting my expectations when a book doesn’t match my anticipations at least in broad strokes. I had to rapidly reassess what I thought I was getting into. Once I’d checked my this isn’t how high school works expectations at the door, I enjoyed You Should See Me in a Crown. It’s a little cheesier than my usual taste, but it is a teen romance and there’s a lot to be said for a novel that’s unabashedly upbeat. Because here’s the thing: queer Black girls deserve just as many cheerfully cheesy romances as anyone else, but there aren’t many for them yet.

This is an easy read, and while there are some serious issues lurking in the corners—Liz has to deal occasionally with racism and homophobia, but also with the worry of having a brother with Sickle Cell—but they do mostly stay in the corners, stepping into the main lane only to get beaten back. You Should See Me in a Crown takes place in a fictionalized version of the world where even a regular girl can be a celebrity, but that world doesn’t remove our world’s tragedies or inequities; it makes them surmountable. The cynical part of me doubts—especially now—that a poor, unpopular, Black, queer girl could win a popularity contest in a deeply Red state. I desperately hope I’m wrong, and at the very least I hope that books like You Should See Me in a Crown—which depict a world moving in the right direction—help to prove me wrong.

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September 2020 Wrap-Up

I had a pretty good month, in terms of entertainment consumption. In addition to finding two new favorite shows, I read more books this month than I have in a while, and most of them were excellent. I’ve gotten pretty behind on my reviews, but the books that don’t have review links now will get them in the near future.

Here’s what I read…

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green (Carls #1)

I have a bad habit of reading books when they first come out and then forgetting everything about them by the time the sequel is released. I really enjoyed An Absolutely Remarkable Thing back when I read it in 2018, so I was really excited when I saw A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor on bestseller lists (especially since, as a person who doesn’t usually read books intended for regular, non-young adults, I am very rarely excited by bestsellers). I wanted to jump right in and read it, but I decided to revisit book one first because I didn’t remember enough about it. I liked it just as much this time around. It’s very creative and very smart, and it continues to be incredibly relevant. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is about the choices humanity makes in the face of an unknown danger, and the ways that fear can split us. If that’s not an important topic right now… what is? ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

I knew right off the bat that The Pull of the Stars was not going to be my kind of book. I don’t have the temperament to enjoy a book about a pandemic during a pandemic, and I never like reading about pregnancy or childbirth. But when you’re in a book club, you read the book assigned for book club. It’s bad book club etiquette to not read or not finish the assigned book, even if you dislike it. The whole point of book club is to expand your reading horizons. I liked The Pull of the Stars more than I expected to, which is to say that I did not hate it. The writing is excellent, and it did not make me nearly as anxious as I anticipated. I think it would have benefited greatly from a few more months of rigorous editing to balance the story a little better, but overall it was decent. ⭐⭐⭐


Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

I love this book. I first read it last year, and it easily made my top ten list. Then I found out about the sequel. I was already looking for an excuse to reread Darius. I loved it just as well the second time around. It’s amazing that this is Khorram’s first novel, because the balance between the many different themes and storylines–Darius’ strained relationship with his father, his burgeoning friendship with Sohrab, his regret at not knowing his grandparents because of their physical distance, his depression, his first real encounter with his Persian culture and his discomfort in not knowing it better, his unspoken queerness, etc.–feels effortless. I’m overjoyed that Darius warranted a sequel; while it is brilliant as a stand-alone novel, that green light means that the book has found an audience. I live and work in a conservative state, so I don’t always see diverse novels selling the way that they should, so I’m relieved that there are people reading books like this, even if I don’t always encounter them.  ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green (Carls #2)

This is a lot more science-fictiony than the novel it follows. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m sure a lot of people will prefer this sequel to the first book because it’s more science-fictiony. Personally, sci-fi isn’t my genre. If the science is a conduit for nuanced social commentary, I’m totally onboard, and that’s why I enjoyed An Absolutely Remarkable Thing as much as I did. A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor is more about an action and alien-filled plot than about the fundamental truths of humanity. That doesn’t make it a lesser book by any means, but it does mean that I personally do not like it quite as well as its predecessor. ⭐⭐⭐⭐


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