Super Adjacent (Book Review)

I work in a bookstore, so I see a lot of books every day. A few months ago, I saw Super Adjacent by Crystal Cestari on a display. I’m a sucker for a cute cover, and the summary sounded cute, so I put it on my to-read list. Then I coincidentally read a bunch of disappointing romances and worried that Super Adjacent would be yet another one and I let it drop several places on my list. Well, I finally got around to reading it, and this is one of those instances where I should’ve gone with my gut. Super Adjacent is an adorable novel that is both a sweet romance and a better superhero novel than any other I’ve read recently.

What’s it about?

Claire has been obsessed with Warrior Nation since she was ten years old and one of the heroes, Blue Streak, saved her life when she and her mother were held at gunpoint. She’s devoted her life to learning everything there is to know about superheroes, and when she lands a coveted internship at Warrior Nation it’s a dream come true. Bridgette has been connected to the superhero world for longer—she’s dating one of the heroes, and has been for four years—and the glow has long since worn off. When you’re a superhero’s girlfriend, your life is full of kidnappings and skipped dates. When Claire and Bridgette are briefly kidnapped by a group of villainous malcontents, they are made forcibly aware that something dangerous is brewing in Chicago’s underbelly.

What’d I think?

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I’ve had a run this year where I’ve read a lot of disappointing YA romances because the covers sucked me in. Coincidentally, I’ve also recently read a lot of superhero stories that intended to complicate the hero/villain dichotomy that were executed to… middling results, let’s say. So I’ll admit that I went into Super Adjacent with a healthy heaping of skepticism. I left it thoroughly impressed. I hoped I’d like it—obviously; no one starts a book hoping to dislike it—but it didn’t occur to me that it would be anything more than a sweet, simple romance with some superpowered antics thrown in for good measure. It is a sweet romance with superpowered antics, but it also highlights the villainous potential of a heroic corporation more effectively than most similar titles I’ve encountered.

Specifically, I recently read Hench by Zina Walschots. Hench was billed to me as THE hot title this winter and it promises to lead the reader into a world of villains and henchmen and the not-so-pure superheroes who created them. It disappointed me. It was a novel that expressly promised me a world of moral ambiguity and served me absolutes. Super Adjacent could have gotten away with moral absolutes. I was promised a novel about the difficulties of being a superhero’s girlfriend. It could easily have been sweetly, sappily straightforward. Looking at Hench and Super Adjacent, you could be forgiven for guessing incorrectly which one handles its subject matter in a more mature, more proficient way. Hench has a blurb from a New York Times bestselling author. Super Adjacent has an unattributed tagline. Hench is marketed towards adults. It has a dark, broody, atmospheric cover. Super Adjacent is lavender and has little cartoons on it. It’s clearly meant for teen girls. But teen girls have great taste. Some of the best books I’ve ever read were written for teen girls. Some of the best books I’ve ever read were written by teen girls.

My main issue with Hench was that it kept telling us that heroes make villains. It wanted us to sympathize with the villains and one in particular who took on the role of the protagonist even though her actions were largely unconscionable. Super Adjacent actually demonstrates wonderfully how a bad system of heroes can create villains, and it actually got me to sympathize and empathize with its villain even though both of the novel’s POV characters are solidly aligned with the heroes. Super Adjacent definitely focuses most on its romances—the official summary on the inside flap actually includes spoilery late-in-the-game developments, likely because most of the first half is fluffy and largely plotless—but it still manages to do the complex supervillain morality better than Hench, which employs it as its main plot.

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Hench (Book Review)

Almost every review for Natalie Zina Walschots’ antisuperhero novel Hench says something to the effect of, “Get ready to root for the bad guys,” so I got ready to root for the bad guys. I prepared myself for a morally complex novel that blurred the lines between good and evil. Superhero stories have been smudging the good/evil dichotomy for a while but the best ones manage to bring something new to the heavily populated genre, and since Hench has gotten such hype I hoped it would be one I could get excited about.

C/⭐⭐⭐

What’s it about?

Anna is a data analyst who works with supervillains. She’s almost entirely behind the scenes until her current supervillain decides to bring her along for some fieldwork. While Anna is holding a mind-control device that helps her boss torture a child, a superhero called Supercollider arrives to stop them. Anna is collateral damage in the battle that follows; a glancing blow from Supercollider sends her to the hospital with irreparable physical damage. Her boss lays her off and Anna decides to turn her data skills towards the societal damage by superheroes.

What’d I think?

The biggest problem with Hench is that it’s difficult to get onboard Anna’s staunch belief that superheroes are horrible for society. Because here’s the thing: Anna is apparently a brilliant data analyst. Like, the best ever. Like, so good that she is entirely and immediately irreplaceable. So good that a legendary supervillain is willing to pay her to not work so that she can heal and work at full capacity later. You’re telling me that someone that good couldn’t find honest work anywhere? We’re supposed to believe that Anna pounded the pavement for work before turning to villainy, but the book skips past that and just says at the very beginning that Anna had tried everything and couldn’t find anything. We’re supposed to take it for granted that henching is Anna’s only option. It’s a big pill to swallow, but I’d have accepted it if the rest of the book made it worth it.

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Kind of a Big Deal (Book Review)

This cover–designed by Aurora Parlagreco and illustrated by Ana Hard–is the best part of the novel. The second best part? The graphic novel chapter, drawn by Samantha Richardson.

Shannon Hale’s Kind of a Big Deal should have been my perfect book. It’s about a Broadway-loving girl whose amazing high school life led her to believe she’d make it big in the real world; when she doesn’t, she moves to a small town and stumbles across a bookstore with magical books that literally suck her into their pages. If that wasn’t written specifically for me (or people like me, whatever) I don’t know what was. I mean, there’s even some Greek mythology thrown in there for some good measure. I was so sold on this book before I even started it. It would have to majorly underperform to be able to underwhelm me.

C/⭐⭐⭐

Unfortunately, it does underperform. Kind of a Big Deal feels less like one cohesive novel and more like a collection of discarded drafts. Protagonist Josie finds herself in a number of different stories–including a bodice-ripper, a graphic novel, and a post-apocalyptic YA dystopia, among others–and there’s only the barest attempt to tie the stories back to her real life. The only real takeaway from them is that her love interest is always played by her ex-boyfriend, indicating that she’s still in love with him. This could have been a brilliant storytelling move if these forays into fiction had told me something deeper about Josie, but they… don’t. Very occasionally, there will be a slight moment that ties back into Josie’s real life, but those are few and far between. They feel like afterthoughts. Some of Josie’s books feel like they’re supposed to be humorous parodies of existing genres, but those unfortunately fall flat as well. Josie spends a significant amount of time in a YA zombie romance that exists, apparently, to lampoon bad YA paranormal romances. The problem with that is that the reader has to read a bad YA paranormal romance for nearly fifty pages. It’s less a parody than an example. The same is true with the other genres. Josie’s magical journeys don’t illuminate any parts of her character, and they don’t have a whole lot to say about the genres being parodied, either. It’s hard to figure out their point. I did like the graphic novel bit, though. The illustrations are delightful.

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Have Yourself a Musical Little Christmas

I can’t believe it’s almost Christmas already! I did a list of spooky musicals for Halloween and figured it was only logical to do a Christmas list as well. When I sat down to it, though, I realized that there aren’t actually a lot of Christmas stage shows. There are movie musicals for Christmas, of course–the Rankin and Bass Christmas specials come immediately to mind–but since I watched the Matthew Morrison Grinch musical (which was okay; it was neither as good as I hoped it would be or bad enough to be good in a camp way) I thought I’d focus on the stage productions. Otherwise, this whole post would’ve been about how The Muppet Christmas Carol is the greatest Christmas movie ever (well, along with Arthur Christmas and Love Actually, but they aren’t musicals).

There aren’t many full Christmas musicals I’m aware of, so I ended up finding Christmas songs from shows that aren’t otherwise about the holidays to round out my list. It was fun, and I found a wide variety of songs, some of which are jolly in the traditional Christmasy way and others that are decidedly not.

The Wind in the Willows—“The Wassailing Mice”

What’s the context? After living with his friend Ratty for some time, Mole rediscovers his home just in time to welcome a group of caroling mice, who regularly come by at Yuletide and sing in return for hot drinks. While the mice sing sing, Rat and Mole dance and decorate the Mole hole for Christmas.

How’s the song? Beautiful. While the heroes of The Wind in the Willows of course sing most of the songs, there are also several songs sung by the background animals to show the passage of time. Without exception, these songs are sweetly sincere and beautifully sung. This one is no exception. It’s adorable, and it’s all about sending goodwill and cheer into the world, so it’s definitely got the Christmas spirit.  

Is it jolly? Yes! It’s a slower song, but it is emotionally very bright and hopeful and everything you’d want at Christmas.

And here’s to the Badger, and here’s to the Toad
And here’s to the Rat and the river he’s from
And here’s to the Mole (Mole!) our amenable host
Come one and come all
We shall now drink a toast

Wassail, wassail all over the land
With warmth in our hearts and a bowl in our hands 
And if you should fill it with apples and spice
Then you shall be blessed by the wassailing mice

Does it belong on a Christmas playlist? I mean, people who don’t know the characters might be a little confused to hear this without any context, but it’s so wholesome, so I say absolutely!


Rent—“Christmas Bells are Ringing”

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Cemetery Boys (Book Review)

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas was Barnes and Noble’s teen book club choice for October, which means I’ve been seeing it everywhere. It’s gotten very good reviews, it’s got a very interesting cover, and the summary sounded really interesting so I figured I’d pick it up whenever it became available at the library… which thankfully didn’t take too long.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐

I’m not actually associated with the teen book club, which I have mixed feelings about. I love YA a lot more than books targeted towards adults, which means that the books that I do read for work rarely interest me all that much whereas the YA ones are almost always something I’d likely pick up on my own. But I also live in Texas, and from what I’ve experienced both firsthand with my bookclub and secondhand from overhearing the YA discussions… it’s probably a good thing I don’t facilitate. A major reason I love YA is how diverse it is, and there are a lot of conservative people here. My book club read The Pull of The Stars and Leave the World Behind recently; the former has a lesbian couple and the latter mentions one, and both novels are by queer writers. Even this tiny bit of engagement was bewildering for the (straight, white, middle-class, female) group. I got the impression they thought they were reading something taboo and instead of actually engaging with the novel’s content (both novels had real points to make about societal norms and homophobia), they decided that it was more fulfilling to just gape I can’t believe it’s not heterosexual… or maybe it is? for like twenty minutes. The YA group, upsettingly, doesn’t seem much better. Apparently they once decided to skip the corporate-chosen book because the summary sounded gay boring. For the record, the book was Loveboat, Taipei and it is extremely straight. The protagonist is Chinese, though. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the group’s reticence. I hope not, but I suspect it did.

The point being, I can’t imagine reading a book like Cemetery Boys with one of those groups. Its queerness, its Latinx-ness* is so baked into every part of the novel that I’d be afraid to hear the group’s hot takes.

*For the record, I know some people don’t like the ‘x’ at the end of Latinx. Personally, I like the gender-neutrality of it, but I acknowledge that this is not my culture so it’s in no way my call. That said, Aiden Thomas uses it throughout Cemetery Boys, so it feels appropriate to follow suit for this review.

I loved getting to read it on my own. Hopefully some of those I can’t believe it’s not heterosexual people read it—or something like it—and manage to get over some of their deep-seated biases, but I’m selfishly glad that I don’t have to sit there with a customer-service-approved fake smile and nod like, “Yes, it is wild that a Latinx, trans author wrote about a Latinx, trans character. Great insight, Karen.”

Cemetery Boys actually illustrates really well why fiction should be more diverse. It’s not about ticking boxes. It’s not even just about representation, although that alone is enough reason to need more of it. It’s because diversity increases and deepens the stories we can tell. Cemetery Boys follows Yadriel, a young man desperate to prove himself to his family by undergoing a ritual that will prove both his magical power and his maleness. He tries to solve the mystery of his cousin’s sudden, violent death both out of an obligation to his family and because doing so will guarantee him the recognition and respect that is currently denied him. There is no version of Cemetery Boys that could exist if Yadriel were white or cisgender (let alone both) because both the plot and the emotional beats are tied so closely to his culture and identity.

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A Darker Shade of Magic (Mini Book Review)

For me, there’s been a lot of delay with V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. The first time someone told me to read it was something like five years ago. I try to read the books that people recommend to me, but I put this one off because this person had previously recommended A Discovery of Witches, which EASILY makes the my personal list for worst books I’ve ever read. I wrote a full review for that book but decided not to ever post it because it felt too mean. But I also decided that I’d let that particular person’s suggestions go in one ear and out the other. This seemed like a double good idea when I read and mostly disliked one of Schwab’s other books (This Savage Song).I figured that this was simply not an author for me. But then randomly this year I decided to request A Darker Shade of Magic from the library and found myself really enjoying it. And then I stupidly waited almost a whole month between liking it and recording my thoughts about why I liked it. By the time I get around to the sequel, I’m sure I’ll have forgotten most of what happened. Oops.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

What’s it about?

In short, A Darker Shade of Magic is about a set of alternate universes with intersections over London. Only a few people, called Antari, possess the magic requisite to move from one London to another. One of these Antari, Kell, is the adopted son of the royal family of magically-rich Red London, and is tasked with conveying messages to the other worlds. Although it is forbidden to bring souvenirs through the portals, Kell can’t help himself and eventually it all goes terribly wrong.

What’d I think?

I skimmed the Goodreads reviews before I started reading, and having done so I braced myself for a slow start. Almost all the reviews I saw claim that A Darker Shade of Magic takes a little while to get going but is excellent once it gets going. This was absolutely not my experience. If anything, I wish more of the book had followed Kell’s day-to-day. I liked the actual plot fine. It was interesting. It had high stakes. I wanted to know what happened next. But for me, the best part is before anything starts to happen.

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Loveless (Mini Book Review)

It’s no secret on this blog that Alice Oseman is one of my favorite writers. I’ve reviewed all her novels here and they’ve made appearances on lots of my “best books” lists. It deeply frustrates me how difficult it is to find her work in the United States. Radio Silence and Solitaire are available here, but not widely, and Heartstopper is even harder to find (and it’s the only one I haven’t read; I don’t buy graphic novels because they’re not generally something I reread and my library doesn’t carry it). I had to get both I Was Born for This and Loveless from Book Depository even though I work in a bookstore. Americans, you are sleeping on Alice Oseman.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I was quite excited for this one both because I’ve loved all Oseman’s earlier books and because I try to read diversely if I can and while I’ve found a few books with asexual characters, there still aren’t many. It’s not surprising to me that Loveless is one of the best of the bunch, but I was a little sad that it falls into some of the same pitfalls as the others: namely, having to spend an inordinate time explaining what asexuality actually is.

When you read as much as I do—and if you’re reading an amateur’s book review blog, I’m reasonably certain that you do—you start to see patterns across books, and that goes double when you gravitate towards certain types of stories or particular genres. Loveless is both a bildungsroman and a coming-out story, which means it uses building blocks from both. Coming-of-age and coming-out stories are inherently similar; they don’t necessarily have to go together (and, obviously, not everyone who comes of age has to come out), but since both involve the difficult process of knowing yourself and becoming known to others, there’s a lot of overlap. Loveless sees protagonist Georgia attending her freshman year of college. She’s a bit of a homebody, but she’s a romantic at heat, so she determines that this is going to be her year for breaking down her walls and finding true love. She’s immediately struck by her juxtaposition with her roommate Rooney, who is effortly cool and outgoing, and who eschews romance for casual one-night-stands.

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To Be Messing About in a Boat on the River with Musicals

I haven’t written about musicals for more than a month because I needed as much writing time as possible for NaNoWriMo and I figured this was the easiest thing to suspend. I didn’t even totally succeed, though, because The Shows Must Go On aired The Wind in the Willows and I absolutely adored it and had to write about it ASAP. That show is so precious. I knew it had to be the next show I posted about, so I decide to force a theme that worked for it. So the theme for these three musicals is… classic children’s literature.

The Wind in the Willows

How I’ve experienced it: The Shows Must Go On, the YouTube channel started by Andrew Lloyd Webber and that has been a bright spot in an otherwise deeply stressful year, aired the proshot that was filmed on the West End in 2017. It was only up for 48 hours, but I watched it twice.

It’s about: The Wind in the Willows is based on the children’s book by Kenneth Graham. When their pal Mr. Toad becomes a menace to society because of his compulsion to recklessly drive increasingly fast vehicles, the friends—a Mole, a Water Rat, and a Badger—try to stage an intervention.

Are there any good YouTube-available clips? Yes! The Shows Must Go On posted my favorite song, “We’re Taking Over The Hall,” along with “The Amazing Mr. Toad.” Those are actual clips from the proshot, but you can also watch Craig Mather and Simon Lipkin singing “Messing About in a Boat” at West End Live in 2017.

Why is it so good? I’ll be honest: I was not super optimistic about this one. I’ve never read the book, so I didn’t know anything about the story, and I knew that The Shows Must Go On was billing it as a children’s musical. Sometimes media intended for children is too juvenile for me, and the short preview for The Wind in the Willows didn’t exactly sell me. Still, I was going to watch it regardless because it was a free musical and—I don’t know if you know this about me—I love musicals. So with modest expectations, I sat down to watch. And this musical is absolutely adorable. It’s both very sweetly sincere and incredibly funny. My sister probably summed it up best when she said that The Wind in the Willows “did not have to go as hard as it did.” It could have been a perfectly satisfactory with a couple of mildly catchy tunes. Nothing against kids, but they don’t have the most sophisticated musical tastes. But the score actually has a really wide range. There are legit bangers that’ll get stuck n your head for days; ridiculous, uptempo numbers; slower, sincerely motivational numbers; sweet, lightly romanticized moments; and pretty, expositional interludes. Sometimes, when stories are very sincere they get too bogged down in sap. This one doesn’t. It’s actually laugh-out-loud funny at times, and it’s extremely high-energy. I don’t know how Neil McDermott and Rufus Hound (the actors playing Chief Weasel and Mr. Toad, respectively) managed to stay that hyped up and animated for so long. And the over-the-top silliness doesn’t take away from the core themes of friendship and community. Also, Ratty and Mole are the cutest and I dare you to watch this and not wrap “poop poop” into your regular lexicon.

Side note: it’s a crime how little of this wonderful show has been gif’d. There’s a proshot! Where are the gifers? Y’all are sleeping on The Wind and the Willows (and Memphis).

My recommendation (if you can’t see it live): Watch the proshot! It’s so worth it! It’s available on BroadwayHD.

My favorite songs: Ugh. I hate narrowing this down to three when I love the whole show, but I guess I’ll go with “We’re Taking Over the Hall,” “The Open Road,” and “The Wild Wooders.” “Messing About in a Boat” is an honorable mention. I could’ve picked almost anything, though.


Tom Sawyer

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November 2020 Wrap-Up

November was a rough month. Holiday season is no joke in the retail world. Also, it was National Novel Writing Month, so I spent most of my creative energy (and downtime!) working on that. I didn’t have much time leftover to read or write reviews, which is why I’ve been essentially MIA on this blog. Whoops. I’m going to eventually loop back and review most of what I read this November, but since I was so-so on the majority of them, it might take a while.

What did you read and watch this month? Why should I check out?

Here’s what I read…

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Leave the World Behind is a powerful novel. It has been getting a lot of hype, and for good reason. It’s impeccably written, and the oppressive atmosphere of uncertainty and terror is effective in its own right but it also taps into what we’re all feeling this year. This is a novel that thrives on ambiguity. It’s brilliantly done. It was a little bit too much for me right now–2020 has me so stressed already; I need escapist fiction!–but it’s excellent. ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Like Leave the World Behind, Cemetery Boys deserves its acclaim. It weaves together an affecting queer bildungsroman with an exciting paranormal murder mystery. The two storylines are deeply linked and make for a novel that is as empowering as it is fantastical. There are a few fairly predictable plot twists in the second half, but that’s forgivable because they fit the thematic story being told (and, in truth, a twist that is too foreshadowed is better than one not foreshadowed enough). Overall, this is an excellent YA fantasy that mixes trans and Latinx stories with charming characters and ghosts. This was, by far, my favorite read from November. ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Pumpkin Heads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

I love Rainbow Rowell, so I’ve been meaning to read this since it came out, but it was in high demand last fall so I waited until this year. It seemed like a good pick for early October, so I dove into it with high hopes. It’s… okay. It’s cute and quick, and I liked the illustrations. I was ultimately disappointed, though. I was really loving the friendship between the two main characters, so when it (spoiler) tips into romance I was bummed. They just felt beautifully platonic to me, and there aren’t many platonic love stories out there. I love a good friends-to-lovers arc as much as anyone when it feels natural, but this one feels forced. ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Oh, Hench. What a disappointment. It’s Not Your Sidekick meets The Boys, which sounds pretty good (I haven’t seen the second season of The Boys yet. Should I?)… but it takes the worst of each without the best. It has the gritty violence of The Boys without the dark humor or complexity. It has the basic premise of Not Your Sidekick without the sweetness. Hench tries very hard to complicate a world of superheroes and supervillains, but only succeeds in making its protagonist an self-righteous egoist. That would be bad enough on its own if the book didn’t have other issues, which it does. Most specifically, the pacing is jarring and the overall impression is that the book drags horribly while somehow speeding through everything of import. ⭐⭐


Love, Creekwood by Becky Albertalli

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