July was a tough one! I made the potentially unwise decision to do Camp NaNoWriMo after not working on my own fiction for quite some time, so I was very rusty to start with, and I decided to make things harder for myself by committing myself to plotting my book and figuring out background info instead of just blundering straight in and word-vomiting 50k words like I usually would. I’m very good at writing lots of words; I’m less good at writing coherent, succinct words. I did manage to get a win, but it was a close one; I started the month strong, but work burnout and catching COVID (despite being vaccinated and boosted) at the end of month didn’t help. But I did it!
As is always the case during NaNoWriMo, my reading took a major hit. I read a lot of graphic novels for something a little bit less demanding on my brain. I also read several books I really didn’t connect with but expected to and a few that were outside my usual wheelhouse, so on the whole this felt like a weird, off-kilter reading month. My favorite read of the month was one I was initially uninterested in; I read it for work and got super psyched, and it broke me through my slump. Slumps are the worst, aren’t they? In any case, All of Us Villains was great. The rest of what I read was bad to middling, with one or two that I liked but wouldn’t necessarily rave about.
Here’s what I read…
Half-Blown Rose by Leesa Cross-Smith
Generally speaking, I don’t generally like traditional literary fiction. When I read the summary of Half-Blown Rose, I wasn’t particularly excited. Mid-life crises and affairs in Paris are pretty standard fare for the genre, so I was surprised that Leesa Cross-Smith managed to take these well-worn and often irritating storylines and turn them into something compelling. I adore Jane Eyre, the novel from which HBR takes its title, and the literary allusions to that novel elevate this one, opening it up to some fascinating interpretations. I had so much fun considering this as a very, very loose retelling: who is Jane? Who’s Rochester? Bertha? St. John? The mix of narrative styles makes for an interesting read, and the overall impression is that of a mixed media experience (more than once I paused to listen to a song from one of Vincent’s many playlists). I found the pacing a little off—the end moved very fast, and ends on a somewhat unfulfilling cliffhanger—but on the whole this is a good one. Novels about failing marriages and foreign flings are never going to be my thing, hence the lower star rating, but on the whole this was a win.
Full review to come
A Dark and Hollow Star by Ashley Shuttleworth
I wanted to like this one. I really did. A queer fantasy about faeries? That’s a concept right up my alley. Unfortunately, this book missed in every conceivable way. The worldbuilding is both too much and not enough; every page introduces a slew of new concepts for the faerie system. Fae are different than faeries. Sidhe fae and lesidhe fae are different. The Seelie and UnSeelie courts are different, and there are at least eight different courts, all with different royal families and elemental alliances. Then there are changelings, a Wild Hunt, the ironborn, Reapers, cava, and more. This is almost all infodropped, making it almost impossible to keep it all straight. And yet despite this apparently well-developed magical system, the world still feels weirdly underdeveloped. The characters are extremely one-note, with Nausicaä—the character on the cover and almost certainly author Ashley Shuttleworth’s favorite—is so cringily annoying that I nearly DNF’d a dozen times. I love snark as much as the next person, but sometimes it doesn’t work, and it really doesn’t work here. The plot also felt pretty disjointed, but I’m pretty sure that’s due more to me zoning out and reading with 1/3 of my brain than to the actual writing. Sorry for the mean review, but this was a miss for me. I’m glad there are more LGBTQ+ characters in fantasy series these days, but I’m personally going to keep looking for other ones.
Full review to come
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
I read this one on the recommendation of multiple book-loving friends who have good taste. I’m glad I did, because I’ve been on a bit of a slump and it pulled me out. It is a solid start to a fantasy series, with echoes of books like The Hunger Games or Marie Lu’s Legend, but it also feels very much like it’s own thing. Tahir’s worldbuilding is done well: there is a lot to this universe, but the reader is guided through it at a good pace to feel immersed without feeling overwhelmed. The pacing is likewise good; it moves along at a steady clip that encourages a quick read, and the alternating POVs does a lot to keep the reader’s interest. It is a slightly more adult read than I was expecting—several characters are slaves who are regularly abused physically and mentally, and the threat of rape is ever present for the two main female characters; this all rings true, but it is pretty intense for a YA novel—but it handles it’s difficult material well. Strangely for a fantasy novel, I didn’t have a favorite character. I found that almost unsettling because I always have a favorite. Here, though, I liked everyone but loved no one; I suspect that a few minor characters will rise to prominence in the next few books and I will be able to glom onto one of them then. I’m excited to keep reading this series, even though I suspect it may veer more into romance than I’d like. In any case, this was a good one.
Full review to come
Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
I found a free copy of this book at my local little free library and was pretty excited because I enjoyed Hyperbole and a Half. I enjoyed this one as well. It is significantly bigger than that other book (and surprisingly heavy!) but sped through it very fast. Is that because it is mostly pictures? Maybe, but still. I was surprised how melancholy and even downright depressing it gets at points. This is not the sort of book you look at and think, “I bet this is going to dive into the emotional fallout of divorce” and it’s definitely not one you’d expect to deal with grief following the sudden death of a sister. I thought it was going to be more frothy, silly, irreverent cartoons about dumb dogs and lightly bad decisions. There is some of that—and the chapter about the knitting grocery man legitimately made me lose my mind laughing—but the overall effect is more contemplative and sad than LOL funny. Hyperbole and a Half is definitely the better of the two books, but Solutions and Other Problems is still worth the read, even if I do find Brosh’s admittedly funny weird art style a little disturbing in moments (I have hangups with cartoons; yes, that’s weird and no, I will not elaborate). In short: not what I expected, but still good.
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
I decided to reread this after Solutions and Other Problems and it was surprising to realize that it is actually a little sad and a little depressingly introspective. I remembered the funny bits—of which there are many—like Simple Dog, the dinosaur goose, and the imminently memeable CLEAN ALL THE THINGS but somehow forgot that Hyperbole and a Half dives into territory that marries less obviously with the hilarious and weirdly childlike illustrations, like Brosh’s depression and her belief that she is fundamentally a shitty person (her word, not mine). I didn’t have a dog the last time I read this, so the dog sections, already my favorites, were even funnier this time around. I can relate to some of Brosh’s dog struggles even though my puppy is very smart and generally well-behaved (she has learned the “do something naughty just to get rewarded for stopping” trick that Helper Dog has mastered). All in all this was an entertaining reread, both because it is a funny book and funny books are fun to revisit and because it is fundamentally interesting to me to see how my brain works regarding what I remember as being the main idea of a book.
Previous mini review here
The Honeys by Ryan La Sala
Well, this was a weird one. I grabbed the ARC through work because I’m always in the mood for YA fantasy with queer leads, and recently I have specifically been looking for books with trans, fluid, or non-binary protagonists. The Honeys certainly has that—main character Mars is gender fluid and uses any pronouns—but the book as a whole feels cluttered and confusing. There is a lot going on—missing people, an uncharacteristically murderous sister, “boys being boys,” “girls being girls,” a sinister summer camp with rigid gender expectations, a budding romance, the stifling expectations of a politician mother, a mystery and magical bee cult, erased memories, sexual assault, transphobia…—but the plot and the themes don’t always mesh well, and the pacing is such that either too much is going on or not enough. The idea for this book is good, but it is too focused in the first half on creating a mysteriously sinister atmosphere and in the second half to having one plot twist after another. The end result feels a bit disjointed, like La Sala wasn’t quite sure where the story was going until nearly two thirds finished. I bet it would be a cool horror movie, though. The Honeys is slated for publication August 16, 2022.
Full review to come
Check, Please! #Hockey by Ngozi Ukazu
I was really excited to read Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu because the art style is adorable and I’d somehow gotten it into my head that if I liked Fence (which I loved) I would like Check, Please! Now that I’ve finished it, though, I feel genuinely bamboozled. This has to be bonus material, right? Or an abridged version or highlights of a longer story? Every scene feels like an excerpt, with almost every single moment no matter how big or small getting the en media res treatment. I think the style is meant to act like a vlog; we see little insights into main character Bitty’s life through what he shares online. And that’s okay, I guess, but it feels very clipped and incomplete. It is particularly frustrating that Check, Please! abbreviates everything, because there is a lot of potential. I am absolutely convinced that there has to be a huge amount of Check, Please! content existing somewhere outside this book, and this was intended as some additional fun but not something meant to stand on its own because it has the echoes of storylines, but nothing quite that tangible. The overall impression is that of a bunch of disjointed vignettes. The artwork is adorable, but personally I don’t think there’s much to recommend about it beyond that.
Full review to come
All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman
This was a very pleasant surprise. I was a little hesitant going in because the official summary is overwhelmingly full of fantasy concepts and very light on character details, and that can be worrisome. Thankfully, the novel itself does put its characters front and center. There are four POVs, and each of them is distinct and interesting. All of Us Villains is like The Hunger Games but with magic and more focal points. It’s impossible to pick any one character to root for, because anyone’s victory necessarily comes at the other three (plus the three non-POV champions). I liked all four of the leads for different reasons (though if I had to pick a favorite I’d probably say Gavin because there’s an unhinged desperation about him that is particularly interesting to me), which makes the shifting loyalties and constant twists extremely exciting. I also really enjoyed the multi-layered magical system that is both relatively simple and detailed enough to make this world feel very lived in and very different. Some elements feel lightly familiar, but on the whole I don’t think I’ve ever come across a magic quite like this, and it’s super cool. This is definitely a fast-paced read, and I’m very excited to read the sequel, because that cliffhanger was brutal. Highly recommended.
Here’s what I watched:
Several years ago I lived in Hawaii, and one of the things you do when you live in Hawaii—aside from playing sand volleyball, obviously—is watch LOST, because it was famously filmed there (I took an exceptionally terrible picture of the sign signifying the spot they filmed Hurley’s golf course; it’s so far away and blurry you can’t even read the sign). I really liked the show then. I’ve always been a character person, so it didn’t necessarily bother me that some of the show’s plot-centric questions went unanswered and I’m in the camp who likes the finale (and has the comprehension to know that no, they weren’t dead the whole time). As long as my favorite characters get some good moments and solid character development, I’m good. So I’m good. It’s definitely interesting to rewatch it. The things I remember are bizarrely erratic; like, I remember most of the significant deaths and lots of very specific details—the numbers, the imaginary peanut butter, Locke’s stolen kidney, Ben’s entrance, Sayid’s long fingernails, Walt burning the raft, the final shot, the opening scenes of seasons two and three, etc.—it turns out I’ve forgotten lots of major plot points, like anything that happens to Walt after season one or why Kate was on the run in the first place or what Dharma does aside from pushing that button.
It’s a strange show to watch so many years later. I am still really enjoying it, and my favorite characters are still my favorite characters—I love Charlie, and I don’t think it’s entirely down to how much I love The Lord of the Rings or the fact that Merry is my favorite character—but it’s a very different experience this time. For one thing, I watched it alone the first time and this time it is with my dad who has very different opinions on literally everything than I do (without fail he despises my favorites and loves the characters I generally dislike and/or am bored by; he also nitpicks stuff that to my eye is narratively essential or an unimportant detail that can be dismissed as “magic island”). Seriously. He loves Locke so much, and can’t resist saying idiot any time Charlie does anything, even if it’s something that is later proven to be absolutely correct and not idiotic (like believing Claire that someone was after her).
It’s also weird how my perspective of some things have shifted. Like, I don’t know if it’s because of how the show ends or me being a very different person than I was ten years ago when I first watched LOST, but there are some characters I just do not vibe with this time around. Like, Locke creeps me out even in the early seasons even though he really hasn’t done all that much to justify it thus far. And I didn’t realize/remember how misogynistic Sawyer is in season one (although he does get much better for season two, and I do remember that I originally hated him and then liked him a lot from season two on), or how fatphobic a lot of Hurley’s storylines are. I know the world has changed since the show first aired, but yikes.
Also, those belts. I’m not usually one to notice dated fashion trends, but lol.
The takeaway is still that Charlie is the best, though.
Stranger Things 4b
Stranger Things continues to be a great show. I’d been waiting with baited breath for part two since I finished part one forever ago, and it did not disappoint. It was exciting and had great character moments and on the whole did everything that it needed to.
I wrote a whole series of mini character essays about Stranger Things, starting with Eleven. If you’re interested, you can find that here.
Jesus Christ Superstar
I got to see the 50th anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar and it was absolutely phenomenal. There are a lot of filmed versions of JCS and still more official cast recordings, but it’s devastating to me that this particular cast doesn’t have one because it is far and away the best version I’ve ever seen/heard. The staging is super cool, but the performances—especially Aaron LaVigne as Jesus—put this production in a league of its own and took this from being a show that I like a lot to a favorite. Everything about it, from the visual language (Judas’ silver-stained hands! The glitter! Pilate’s hair!) to the simple stage to the phenomenal performances made this one of the best shows I’ve seen live, and if you get the chance to see it, you absolutely should.