Stranger Things 4: Eleven

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

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

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

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

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

i care too much about fictional characters

Eleven/Jane Hopper

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

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

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Elektra (Book Review)

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

What’s it about?

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

What’d I think?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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

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Nightingale (Mini Book Review)

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

What’s it about?

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

What’d I think?

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

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

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Skandar and the Unicorn Thief (Book Review)

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

What’s it about?

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

What’d I think?

Rating: 1 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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Sea of Tranquility (Book Review)

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

Somehow, I was wrong about that. 

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

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

What’d I think?

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

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The Umbrella Academy Season 3 (Mini TV Review)

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

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

Mild spoilers throughout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s Ben.

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June 2022 Wrap-Up

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

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

Here’s what I read:

(or jump to what I watched)

Elektra by Jennifer Saint

Pride? No. There are no LGBTQ+ characters.

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

Full review here

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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

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

Full review here

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

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