June 2021 Wrap-Up

June was an interesting month. I feel like I got to read a bit more than usual, and I finally got through my intimidatingly large library stack, so I feel like I have slightly more control of what I’m reading now, since I’m no longer chasing overdue deadlines. I reread some books I’ve been meaning to get back to, which is always fun, and I read a few things outside my usual wheelhouse (which always feels good). I also had a fun time putting together some LGBTQ+ recommendations for Pride Month. I also, apparently, watched more interesting things, because I usually feel like writing about one or two shows that I saw a month, and this time I have a whole bunch that warrant mention.

Work has been a bit more stressful than usual recently since we’ve had some understaffing issues (everyone makes big life changes in the summer! Some are unavoidable, like moving away to go back to college, but everyone else needs to wait!), I’ve gotten some additional duties (it’s nice to move up in the world/company, but it comes with a lot more anxiety!), and my bad knees have been acting up.

But no amount of work stress is so bad that a good book and this cute face can’t cheer me up!

I haven’t published all these full reviews yet because I wanted to keep my schedule somewhat constant, but they should all be up within the next month or so (with the exception of To the Lighthouse, since this is all I wrote; reviewing classics is weird, so I only do it if I have a lot of thoughts). Without further ado, here’s what I read in June….

The Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

historical fiction (late 1600s), courtroom drama, book club

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

While I might not have picked Hour of the Witch for myself, I still really enjoyed it. It’s a courtroom drama packed inside a historical fiction story that centers on power structures and the dangers inherent to a deeply unbalanced social dynamic. It takes some time to get into it as it has a somewhat slow start and uses old-timey dialogue that sounds weird to the modern ear at first, but the payoffs in the second half make up for the slow start. This is probably not a book for everyone, but if you like historical fiction or stories that challenge the social status quo, Hour of the Witch is likely one you should put on your TBR.     

I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi

YA sci-fi, bildungsroman, apocalypse fiction

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I really enjoyed this one, but perhaps not as much as I’d have liked to. The three central characters are fabulous: complicated, likable, frustrating, compelling. They’re almost too good for the story they’re in. Because I Hope You Get This Message is a story about humanity as a whole and whether or not we deserve—as a species—to live, it feels odd to hyperfocus on three teens who end up in the same town. Why don’t we see a broader cross-section of humanity? The individuality of the excellent protagonists keeps humanity as a whole from being the central entity in this book, and the looming alien invasion keeps the heroes from making any organic development. More than anything else, this feels like two great books that got squashed together to the detriment of both. The plot-heavy demands of science fiction don’t let Rishi plumb her characters to their full depths, and the interconnectedness of the characters make the threat of worldwide alien genocide feel weirdly localized. This is the rare book that is less than the sum of its parts. The writing is good. The ideas are good. The characters are great. But at the end of the day, I Hope You Get This Message is fun but ultimately forgettable. Still, if you’re looking for something to fill the void after you’ve finished They Both Die at the End, this is a good choice as it wrestles with many of the same ideas.

Warcross by Marie Lu

YA sci-fi, series (book 1), dystopia, romance (straight)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I read this for the first time years ago. I always meant to get around to reading the sequel, but I kept putting it off because I couldn’t remember enough of what was going on to jump in without the reread. I like rereading, but I rarely prioritize it, so here I am three years after Wildcard finally getting around to it. I wish I’d done this reread sooner, because I loved Warcross even more the second time around. The parts of the story that I remembered liking—the heroine, her friends, the moral ambiguity of the love interest—are just as intriguing the second time around. As is the case with any well-written book with a twist, rereading with an eye out for foreshadowing is lots of fun and quite rewarding. I’ve often found that I remember books fondly and then find them slightly weaker than I remembered. I was glad that wasn’t the case here; the only thing I remembered originally disliking—the nebulousness of the Warcross game rules—didn’t actually bother me this time around, and I was even more sucked into the story than I was the first time around… which is saying quite a lot because I liked it a lot.

Wildcard by Marie Lu

YA sci-fi, series (book 2), dystopia, romance (straight)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Wildcard is an okay book, but it’s a bad sequel. I’m honestly bewildered at the direction it took. Instead of building on the parts of Warcross that really worked—the dynamic between Emika and her teammates, the emotional complexity of Hideo’s grief-motivated megalomania, Emika herself—Wildcard starts from scratch. It introduces a new villain and a character who seems to play second fiddle to Emika as a hero but who, when you actually pay attention, is the one with all the agency. It literally dehumanizes Zero, cutting out the possibility of a brotherly reckoning between him and Hideo. It rekindles the Hideo/Emika romance instead of letting Emika stick to her moral convictions. It even changes the way the world feels, taking it from a science-fiction universe that feels frighteningly plausible to one that is a lot more out there. Wildcard is a decent conclusion to a story that Warcross did not start. Warcross is a brilliant start to a story that Wildcard does not finish. This makes for a bizarre duology. Judged individually, I’d give Warcross five stars and Wildcard three. As a sequel, though, Wildcard only gets two. Maybe one and a half. But I have no idea how to judge the duology as a set because it is so disjointed. Warcross is so good that it feels wrong to rate it any lower than three, but at the end of the day… it doesn’t feel complete. The things I wanted from the conclusion never came and now I feel unfulfilled. Now I wonder if I should recommend Warcross. Is it worth reading, knowing the ending is so lacking? Or do I ignore Wildcard’s shortcomings and continue to talk about Warcross the way I did before? It’s just so weird. I have never read anything like this. I’ve read series that drastically drop in quality as they go on, but never one that totally changes direction and hopes no one will notice.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

classic, modernist literature

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I have a list of 100 Books to Read Before You Die, and every once in a while I remember that I have a goal to read classics 10% of the time. It was time to read another classic, so I grabbed this one because I figured I’d have to get around to it sooner or later. I was not particularly excited to read To the Lighthouse because, much as I like the idea of Virginia Woolf, I’ve never actually enjoyed reading anything she’s written. I read both A Room of One’s Own and Mrs. Dalloway in college and they left me cold. Woolf’s reputation and status as one of the foremost women in the overwhelmingly male literary canon endears her to me, but while I agree with many of her ideas I don’t actually like her writing all that much. I don’t much care for stream-of-consciousness. Modernism is not and has never been my jam. Left to my own devices, I never would have read To the Lighthouse, but it was on my poster so I figured… why not now?

It is very much the sort of book that is better read for a class. It is not enjoyable in the traditional sense. The first section is slow-moving, basking in the minutiae of an unspectacular day. For more than half the book, nothing happens. In part two, everything happens. I’ve never bolted to attention as quickly as I did when Woolf casually, in passing, kills off the most central character and then quickly moves on as if the world of her novel has not undergone a cataclysmic alteration. Part three feels more like the first part, slowing down, bringing the remaining characters back to the fore, and focusing fiercely on the internal. Part three I liked, but it took a lot of slogging to get to it. It brings the novel’s main ideas forward and lets the reader finally figure out what exactly Woolf was going for the whole time. I wish I’d had a professor to point to the most important parts as I went, to tell me in advance what we would eventually arrive at, because I felt entirely unmoored at the start. Of course, not every novel needs to broadcast its purpose from part one, but since the start of To the Lighthouse is so slow and plotless it’s hard to see a point. Until I got to James and Lily’s epiphanies, I kept thinking why am I reading this? With someone directing my attention, or someone to discuss the main ideas with, I might have enjoyed To the Lighthouse more. In particular, the conflict between Mrs. Ramsay’s traditional feminism and Lily’s more independent modern spirit is right up my alley. Without that discussion, though, without that directed focus, my attention wavered. Woolf may be good, but her style does not appeal to me. Her ideas very much appeal to me (the central idea, for instance, behind A Room of One’s Own, is something that I agree with 100%), but her long-winded, circular execution unfortunately puts me off. I respect Virginia Woolf for her literary contributions, but I think I’ve read enough of her work to say she’s simply not for me.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

nonfiction, essays

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I love John Green. He’s one of my favorites, and he’s good enough that he was able to get me to read—and love!—a nonfiction essay collection. I am not prone to reading nonfiction essay collections. The Anthropocene Reviewed is a good one. It has enough silly in it to be fun, but it is thought-provoking and affecting enough to leave a more lasting impression. It revels in the beauty of the world and in human ingenuity. Even though it touches on the current state of the world—at least a few of the essays were written during lockdown and reference the pandemic—it never loses its sense of joy and hopefulness. It’s a great reprieve from the incessant anxiety of the modern world (ironic considering how many of the essays touch on or delve into John’s own anxiety) and I learned a lot about far reaching subjects from the invention of the QWERTY keyboard to Halley’s Comet to the meaning of the word “anthropocene” (this has actually already come in handy; the word popped up in I Hope You Get This Message and I felt smart for knowing it!). I knew I’d enjoy it because I love John Green, but I was surprised by just how powerful a reading experience it is. Even if you’re not usually a nonfiction person, this is a great one to pick up and peruse. You’ll probably laugh, but you’ll definitely learn something and feel slightly better about humanity.  

Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

YA romance (wlw), contemporary

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I got the opportunity to read this as an ARC, which was very exciting. I’d read and liked Johnson’s first book, You Should See Me in a Crown, and while I wasn’t eagerly anticipating her next novel, I still scooped this up as soon as it was available. It’s very like Johnson’s first outing, although unfortunately I don’t find it quite as enjoyable. It is an easy read. It keeps you reading, even if it doesn’t necessarily command the attention. That said, If you liked You Should See Me in a Crown, you’ll almost definitely like Rise to the Sun. It has the same sanded-edges happy-romance flavor. It acknowledges the darker parts of the world but brushes them off as if to say no thank you! Nothing by happy wlw vibes here! And that’s valid. It’s good. We need more stories about happy Black queer girls. I just hope that in the future we get some that are slightly better, because Rise to the Sun is fine but unspectacular. The main characters are a little too similar and don’t have enough chemistry to carry a whole novel, and I dislike the way they brush off their platonic friendships in order to pursue a weekend romance. It is very much a romance novel, so if you want a romance you’ll like it. (I wanted a contemporary bildungsroman with a romance, so that was my bad). Ultimately, I think that Rise to the Sun will appeal to the same crowd that liked Johnson’s first book because it has the same sunny, optimistic outlook. It’s a romance between unapologetic queer Black girls and if that’s something that interests you, definitely check it out. But read You Should See Me in a Crown first, because it is better.      

Fence: Striking Distance by Sarah Rees Brennan

YA contemporary, romance (gay), sports story, series (book 1), adaptation

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fence: Disarmed was published mid-May, and I had been waiting for it ever since I first read Striking Distance last year. I wanted to read it immediately, but due to some catastrophic mismanaging of library requests, I had a humungous pile of overdue books that I needed to get through first. When I finally got through with those, I was able to turn my attention back to the new releases that I’d purchased. Even though I was excited for Disarmed, I’ve learned from my past mistakes and know better than to launch right into sequels without refreshing my memory. It hadn’t been a long time since I read Striking Distance, but it had been long enough that I’d forgotten a lot of the specific points. I’m glad I reread it, because it was just as much fun the second time around. There’s nothing I like more than a ragtag group of disparate personalities who love each other but don’t really get each other. Fence has the perfect blend of emotional heart and goofiness. I love Aiden with all my heart, and the others are almost as great. My only complaint about this book is that the ending feels abrupt and slightly unsatisfying, but that is a complaint that virtually disappears when you have the sequel in your hands, which I did. I was able to laugh my way through Striking Distance and move on to the next book in a matter of seconds, which is the best way to read any series if you ask me.

Fence: Disarmed by Sarah Rees Brennan

YA contemporary, romance (gay), sports story, series (book 2), adaptation

Rating: 5 out of 5.

While Fence: Disarmed is perhaps not quite as strong as Striking Distance, I still love it. Aiden, Harvard, Seiji, and Nicholas are a charming foursome and since characters and character dynamics are the most important part of any story, that’s enough for me. Sarah Rees Brennan is an excellent writer. She can take a dark, emotionally complex storyline and make it funny without losing any of the touching nuance. She infuses her characters with an excellent blend of wit and heart, allowing the most flawed of them to be the most lovable. I wish that the boys had a little bit more to do in this book—the plot is a bit thinner here than it was in Striking Distance, and because Striking Distance also did the legwork to establish the characters, the overall impression of Disarmed is that it is less substantive—but I still read it hungrily. Brennan has mastered the art of swapping the POV at just the right moment to encourage the reader to sprint through the book at the same rate Nicholas runs his suicides (so, inadvisably fast), and that’s what I did. I raced through it, smiling the whole time. Fence is a very fun, very queer series about a bunch of goofballs getting into a surprising amount of trouble while fencing. It has enough genuine heart to keep from being too cutesy and it has helped to establish Sarah Rees Brennan as one of my favorite writers. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but to someone like me who just wants to relax and smile with a book, it’s just about perfect.  

Here’s what I watched…

In the Heights

movie musical, Broadway, hip-hop, rap

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I love musicals. I haven’t written as much about them recently because I’ve been working more and I’m burned out and trying to make more time to work on my novel (and, since The Shows Must Go On hasn’t been posting as many full musicals, I don’t have as many to enthuse about). I was really excited for In the Heights, both because I love Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda and because it’s the first new musical I’ve seen in a bit. Going in, I wasn’t particularly familiar with In the Heights. I’d listened to the cast recording a few times, of course, and seen the performances at the Tony’s and the Macy’s Day Parade. So I didn’t go in totally blind, but if you had asked me to name as many of the songs as I could, I only could have come up with the big ones: “In the Heights,” “96,000,” and “Breathe.”

It is so good. I’m already excited to watch it again, and I bought In the Heights: Finding Home, which is the full libretto plus commentary from Lin-Manuel Miranda and a few of the creative minds behind the musical and movie. I really and truly think that Miranda is a genius. You have to listen a few times (or watch with the captions on) to catch everything because there is so much going on lyrically, and the way that he is able to create such a vibrant community of characters is testament to his skill. I love how each character has their own distinct sound and the way those sounds layer on top of each other to create a rich tapestry. Usnavi’s rapping goes perfectly with Veronica’s powerful, sustained refrains and both of them compliment Benny’s more mid-tempo choruses. It sounds great, but it is when you listen closer that you get the full effect.

In the Heights cuts to the heart of a lot of really important issues. Everyone, but particularly Benny and Usnavi, struggles in their difficult day-to-day jobs and wish for the means to follow their dreams and command more respect. Nina worries about disappointing everyone’s expectations, and particularly about letting her community down when she drops out of school (the verse in “Breathe” where her voice crescendos as she remembers her struggle to be the first to get to college is probably my favorite moment in the entire musical). Sonny grapples with the knowledge that his undocumented status will likely keep him from many of his goals. Veronica feels trapped in a life she doesn’t want. Their community is being gentrified and therefore losing some of its community leaders and hubs of camaraderie. It would be easy to say that Usnavi is the main character of In the Heights because he opens the show and acts as a narrator of sorts, but it is really the neighborhood that takes on the starring role. Usnavi’s story is just one of many that overlaps in the Heights, and even the most minor character—the Piragüero, for instance, or Carla—is an integral part of the neighborhood and therefore an integral part of In the Heights.

Then there’s just the spectacle of it. The full-group dance numbers are joyous and immensely fun to watch. The little details like the close-ups of the food create a more immersive, cultural experience and it is clear that everyone who worked on this project did so with a lot of love and passion. I loved it, and I hope that its quote-unquote “disappointing” theatre performance doesn’t dissuade movie studios from making more musicals (or movies led primarily by people of color, or movie musicals with unknowns/Broadway stars in the leads).

[Side note: I’m white and therefore have no relevant commentary on the colorism controversy. I think it is a beautiful movie but I have seen that while some people feel seen and represented by In the Heights, others feel conspicuously left out.]

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

musical, TV, romance (straight), family drama, season 2

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

If you ever want to watch a nearly perfect season of TV, watch season one of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. I love musicals, so I expected to like Zoey; I was, however, surprised by what a nuanced, poignant, and deeply emotional show it was. While the format is that of a zany musical romp—in the first episode, a rogue MRI machine gives Zoey the ability to hear people’s innermost thoughts in the form of “heart songs”—the story is actually that of a family experiencing grief in slow motion. Zoey’s father has a terminal illness, and she and her family are trying to hold onto him even as they can see him slipping away from them, trapped inside a body he can no longer control. It is beautifully written, and there are moments in it that are deeply powerful and immensely emotional (the scene where a deaf and nonverbal girl performs an instrumental version of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” in a plea to her overprotective father to let her live her life comes to mind). When the first season ended, I wondered where the show would go from there, because the ending is perfect and the season itself is very self-contained. This month, I finally finished watching season two and having done so, all I can say is that they probably should have let it go after that beautiful season one finale.

The problem with season two is that it doesn’t really know what it’s about. Season one is about grief. Season two is mostly about a love triangle. Zoey spends the whole time flip-flopping between her two love interests and, depressingly, the finale (which, as the show has been cancelled, now likely serves as the show’s curtain call and not just a season finale) focuses almost entirely on Zoey making it work with one of her ex-boyfriends. Not to be petty or shippy, but it is hard to support a finale in which the main character gets with the wrong guy. I’m not a fan of possessive love interests. He acted like he owned her from day one, even before she told him she had feelings for him, and then got pissy with her because she wasn’t able to turn off her superpowers on his command. He rubbed me the wrong way the whole season, so to see him as the happily ever after irks me mightily.

A lot of the side characters are wasted. Simon has the best storyline of the season, but it is deeply abbreviated. He easily could have carried the whole season, but instead he has big moments in only a handful of episodes. And it’s not like it is a small, easily solvable plotline. He is challenging the racial bias at his company, implementing change, and fighting back when called up on to be the (Black) spokesperson defending racist programming done by his (majority white) company. That’s a big story, and when the show is actively telling it, it does a good job. The problem is that it only occasionally actively tells it.

Ditto for Emily. She suffers really horrible postpartum depression for one episode—so bad that she seems suicidal—and then one episode later she mentions offhand that she was on medication and feeling optimistic and hopeful again. I mean, hooray for anti-depressants, but wow was that a quick recovery from the pits of despair.

Also Maggie wins an insane amount of money gambling and that never comes up again. There is that one episode where Zoey’s Australian neighbor moves back after being away and he and Zoey (and Danny Michael Davis) do a bunch of drugs.

And poor Mo, the best character in the show, gets sidelined with the same stupid romantic plotline that every freewheeling character has to eventually go through: his partner has kids and Mo isn’t sure he is ready/willing to have them. Guess how that turned out. Just kidding. You don’t have to guess. Whenever one partner wants kids and the other one doesn’t, the one who doesn’t changes their mind and comes around because it’s seen as character growth. I was so disappointed, because the boyfriend was actually pretty funny before he got reduced to “dad.” His straight-laced personality was a great foil for Mo’s flamboyant one, but then instead of exploring that dynamic the show instead went with the stale but what about kids thing and reduced Perry’s character to just being a father.

There are like two episodes with flashes of brilliance. One focuses on Simon and the other has Zoey realize that the songs she hears are cheats; most people can be empathetic without hearing someone literally spell out every little thing they’re feeling. My sister and I thought that episode was setting Zoey up on a trajectory wherein she learned to be more attuned to her loved ones and eventually get to the point where she no longer needed the songs to clue her in, but then that storyline was basically dropped. It could have been really interesting, and it would have set up the twist at the end of the season (in which SPOILER Zoey’s power transfers to Max).

The whole season feels weirdly disjointed, like every writer in the writer’s room had something different they wanted to do, and instead of picking a few and building a cohesive narrative around them, they just decided that anything goes. It is an okay season. The songs are still fun, Mo and Simon are great, and Danny Michael Davis is hilarious, but it is a major letdown after the near perfection of the first season.

You never want your favorite shows to be cancelled, but I think Zoey’s cancellation is for the best. It’s possible it would have gotten over its sophomore slump and come back better, but the drop in quality from the first season to the second is so steep that the show absolutely could not survive another like it. It probably should have been cancelled after s1, as it was clearly conceived as a limited series, and expanding something beyond its concept goes badly far more often than it goes well.

The Great Pottery Throw Down

competition TV, British TV

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is the most ridiculous show. I never used to think that I could possibly like reality or competition TV, but here I am. I watched The Great British Bake-Off as a concession to my sister during quarantine after years of refusing, and to my shock found that I actually enjoyed it. The Great Pottery Throw Down is essentially a GBBO rip-off, but I actually think it’s more fun. The reason? It’s more visual. It has the same good-natured British vibe as the original, but I can tell if something is good from the comfort of my own couch. When Paul Hollywood says a cake is too dry or has no flavor, I have to take him at his word, but when a pot has shattered or a spout doesn’t pour well, I can see it as well as Keith can. Plus Sister Michael from Derry Girls is the host in the most recent season! Also there is something deeply satisfying about watching Rich the kiln guy get promoted to full-time judge. Not to mention that one time someone made a toilet that squirted a comical geyser of water all over everyone.


TV, fantasy, buddy comedy, MCU, extended universe, alternate universe

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, and I hope the next few weeks don’t prove me wrong, but Marvel has *gasp* actually made a good TV show. I didn’t bother to write anything about WandaVision because I found slightly underwhelming (it started slow, had a few legitimately great episodes in the middle, and then went steeply downhill and ended up like any old brainless action film), and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is actively bad (I wrote about why in last month’s wrap up, and my feelings about it have soured even more thanks to Anthony Mackie’s foot-in-mouth interview). To say was hesitant going into Loki would be an understatement, because I had basically resigned myself to the fact that while Marvel makes fun movies, it has no idea what to do with a TV show (I got like four episodes into Agents of SHIELD before giving up on it, and I probably would’ve quit WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier after the first episode if I hand’t been watching with my family). Also, Loki is probably my favorite MCU character. He is by far the best villain they’ve had (the only others who can compete with him are Killmonger, Vulture, and Hela), and he is a pretty darn good anti-hero as well. If Loki had ruined him, I would have been angry. Still, it had some promising signs. Tom Hiddleston is a very good actor (probably all that Shakespeare). Also, I love Owen Wilson (Loki has inspired a nostalgic rewatch of Shanghai Noon and Night at the Museum, and apparently ‘Owen Wilson is a cowboy’ is one of my favorite comedy subgenres). Despite the strong leads, this could have gone very wrong. Loki has always been a side character, important but never fully in the limelight. A lot of great side characters suffer when they make the leap from supporting cast to leading man. Thankfully, Loki managed it quite well. He’s an interesting, multifaceted guy. He’s funny. He’s surprising, and while he does a lot of bad things, there’s enough substance and vulnerability to him that you always sense that he has more to him than mere villainy.

So far, Loki has done a great job of experimenting with Loki. The show is dramatic, but it never takes itself too seriously. You can’t get too far without someone (usually Owen Wilson) cutting Loki down to size with a harshly funny yet deeply accurate quip. Loki and Mobius have a great repartee. After episode one, I turned to my sister and said,” Loki and Mobius have what Sam and Bucky were supposed to have.” They have a natural back-and-forth that is both affectionate and contentious. Possibly Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson are better actors. Definitely they’re better suited to their genre. Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie are dramatic/action stars tossed into a buddy comedy. Loki‘s blend of action and comedy is something Owen Wilson has done often, and Loki/Tom Hiddleston has always carried the Marvel universe’s most darkly comic moments, so it’s a good fit. These actors are playing into their strengths instead of their weaknesses, they’re starting with one of the MCU’s most interesting and popular characters, and they have a genuinely interesting script.

Also—and this is probably the biggest reason Loki works and the other two shows didn’t or didn’t as well—Loki is not deeply beholden to the rest of the MCI. I think the extended universe has become its own worst enemy. Everything has to fit neatly into everything else. They have to match tones and hint at future developments for other franchises so that they can fit cleanly together down the line. It makes everything interestingly interconnected, but the individual projects suffer because they don’t have as much space to breathe and be their own thing. Loki, though, takes place in a kind of alternate universe where things don’t fit as nicely. In fact, they can’t fit as nicely, and that’s the whole point. Loki is running amok, not worrying about what Captain Marvel or Hawkeye might get up to next. All he cares about is himself and the other assorted Lokis running around. Loki feels like its own thing. When there’s a plot development, it feels like a plot development for Loki, not for the next Doctor Strange sequel. The side characters, like Mobius or Ravonna or B-15, are their own characters that were created specifically for this story instead of being plucked and shoehorned in a la Sharon or Zemo or Darcy* who seem to be there more for the look who is cameoing now! feel than any legitimate story reason.

Loki works. When it tells a joke, I laugh. When there’s a plot twist, I start. When new information is unearthed, I ponder it. When an episode ends, I actively look forward to the next one. To me, that is the mark of a successful television show. It’s not perfect, of course, I’m not sold on the teased Loki-Sylvie romance (please, please don’t let that be more than a joke or a brief, misguided stop on Loki’s larger journey towards self-acceptance), but on the whole I’m really enjoying this one and it is the first time I’ve been actually, legitimately enthusiastic about the MCU in a little while.

*Side note: I like Darcy as much as the next person. She was one of my favorite parts of the original Thor movie, but she is very sidelined and underutilized in WandaVision. She’s there because people like her character, not because there’s anything about her that’s needed for WandaVision, as evidenced by her total lack of storyline in the finale. Also, for the record, my precious pupper is named Darcy for Pride and Prejudice.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

TV adaptation, mystery, sci-fi, children’s TV

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This adaptation came out of nowhere! The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart is one of my absolute favorite children’s books. I adored it when it first came out even though I was slightly older than the target age range (I believe I was in early high school) and when I reread it again just last year I found my enthusiasm had not been dampened by time or age even a little. If there was anyone who should have been aware of Disney’s plans to make a TV version, it should have been me. And yet I somehow only found out about it four days before it premiered… and I heard about it from my dad of all people, the only member of my family not to have read the book. I was immediately excited, and then immediately trepidatious. The trailer did not look good. I was immediately skeptical of a few changes and weird decisions. Where is Mr. Benedict’s wheelchair? I asked. Why is Constance so old? Why do we see Mr. Curtain in the trailer, when his appearance is a major twist? (Seriously, so much of the marketing for this show emphasizes Curtain and Benedict’s connection. It’s a spoiler! It’s a double whammy spoiler since the kids at first think that Mr. Curtain is Mr. Benedict. And there’s so much other good, marketable stuff they could have focused on). My sister actively didn’t want to watch the show, sure that they’d ruined it. I forced her to watch it, though, and that was a good thing because as it turns out the show—or at least the two episodes that we’ve seen—are excellent.

I mean, I still don’t understand why neither Mr. Benedict nor Mr. Curtain has their iconic wheelchair. That was an unnecessary and disappointing change, but other than that and a few other minor things (the maze challenge is altered slightly, LIVE is now the Learning Institute for Veritas and Enlightenment instead of the Very Enlightened, Constance is a little older, Sticky’s parents are dead and his aunt and uncle take over their narrative role from the book, and Kate’s hair is short and brown instead of long and blonde) this is a very, very faithful adaptation. Even little scenes that I was sure would’ve been changed due to the necessities of filming (like Rhonda impersonating a child) stay very book-accurate, and make the leap from page to screen really well. I laughed out loud when Constance whipped out her contraband pencils. Jackson and Jillson’s homogeneity is creepily comic. Number Two is just weird enough to work without going too far. Kate’s bucket actually looks like a natural part of her. Milligan actually manages to draw and keep attention despite being nearly as sad and monotone as he is in the novel. And so on.

The show has a really interesting visual language. It doesn’t look the way you’d expect. My sister is an artist, and she bought this to my attention/has a more interesting take on it than I do, but the short of it is that instead of going with the easy and expected dark academia aesthetic for the Institute, the show has created something that is somehow both modern and vintage and creates a neat kind of alternate universe that looks totally different from anything else on TV right now. It’s not distractingly different, but it is the sort of set you could look at without any characters in it and go yeah, that’s the Benedict Society.

Mostly, this show benefits from the fact that it is an adaptation of a brilliant, charming novel. There’s nothing The Mysterious Benedict Society does wrong. It has a core cast of four unique characters who are all compelling and interesting on their own, but who come together and make something much greater as a whole. And it’s smart. The book and the group. It’s full of puzzles that are fun to try to solve but that also actively drive the plot forward, and the humor is smart as well. Sure, there are a few childish jokes in there, but there’s a lot of witty wordplay and character-based humor that really works. I can’t wait until SQ shows up onscreen. He’s going to be a riot. What the show does well is capitalizing on the things the book does well. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. When a novel is adapted, people want it to be adapted, not totally rewritten. Disney’s Mysterious Benedict Society, at least so far, is sticking with what works from the book but making it better fit a visual medium and slightly expanding the roles of the adult cast to capitalize on its established actors. And the child actors are good, which is not always a given. I am particularly won over by Marta Timofeeva, who plays Constance (her poetry reading is beautiful), which is especially exciting because she was the one I was most skeptical about.

At this point, we’re only two episodes into this show, so I’ll have a longer and more specific review of it later (either as an actual review or as another wrap-up) but for now I can only repot optimism. So far, it looks good. It’s one of my favorite books, so I very easily could have been disappointed, but so far I like everything that I’ve seen.

What did you read and watch in June? What should I put on my list? Which of these is your favorite?

5 thoughts on “June 2021 Wrap-Up

      1. PJO was a huge part on what made me fall in love with Greek Mythology- glad I finally finished Circe today.

        Now, I can focus more on Heroes of Olympus- still working on the first book


      2. Cool! I had my Greek mythology phase before PJO and I think that’s one of the reasons I liked it so much. What did you think of Circe? I preferred Song of Achilles but loved them both.


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