Check, Please! #Hockey (Mini Graphic Novel Review)

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?

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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. I struggled to learn all the side characters and their nicknames, and even in the last few pages there were characters that I still mentally listed as “some other guy on the team.” There’s bonus content in the back that would have been greatly appreciated up front: a cheat sheet of the minor characters, additional scenes that eased the harsh transitions between one scene and the next, some moments of Bitty and Jack actually interacting (albeit in a weirdly public, performative way)…

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Banned Books Week

In honor of banned books week (September 18-24), I figured I’d highlight a few of my favorite oft-challenged books.

All quotes and statistics are from the American Library Association unless otherwise noted. You can find their yearly lists of the top ten most challenged books here.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been amongst the top ten most challenged books in 2014, 2013, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2004. Generally, this has been for including homosexuality, sexually explicit material, and profane language, and for being “unsuited for age group,” with a couple of other things occasionally sprinkled in.

Personally, I think it is one of the most masterfully written YA books out there. It tackles difficult subject material sensitively, and tells a painfully compelling story about a heartbreakingly broken young man. It should be read widely, not restricted.

I led a book club on The Perks of Being a Wallflower a few years ago. You can find my discussion questions here.


Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska gets banned all the time, mostly because of that one scene that people like to read out of context. It’s been on the ALA’s list of most banned books in 2016, 2015, 2013, and 2012. It’s also in the news right now because John Green’s own hometown is trying to ban it.

Like Perks, Looking for Alaska is a well-written novel with a lot of literary merit. It’s also one of my favorites to highlight during Banned Books week because John Green has vlogged about it lots and lots and lots and lots of times, and he’s more eloquent than I am.

I have written discussion questions for Looking for Alaska. I also briefly reviewed the adaptation.


Melissa by Alex Gino

Melissa has been on the top 10 list just about every year since its publication (so, every year from 2016-2020), and has actually topped the list multiple times. Why? Because it is a book aimed at kids that dares to center on a transgirl. I’m convinced the only reason that it isn’t on 2021’s list is because transphobic book banners are too stupid to realize that the title has changed and it’s the same book they’ve been challenging for half a decade.

There’s absolutely nothing objectionable in this book. It’s a cute story about a little girl who wants to star in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web. The only reason people want to ban it is because it’s LGBTQ+ (and specifically because it’s T). A third of the books that get challenged include LGBTQ+ characters and themes (source). People might try to hide their transphobia and homophobia by claiming that the challenges are because the books are “unsuitable for age group,” but there’s absolutely nothing in Melissa that’s even lightly objectionable unless you’re a transphobe.

I reviewed Melissa here.


Unwind by Neal Shusterman

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Half-Blown Rose (Book Review)

I adore Jane Eyre. It is one of my favorite novels, I love the brilliant 2006 miniseries, and I spent my last month of college reading scholarship about it and writing my final essay on it. In the course of my reading, I was also directed to Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which focuses on Bertha Mason and contextualizes some of the discriminatory attitudes present but unremarked-upon in the original novel. While I didn’t love Wide Sargasso Sea, I am fascinated by the scholarship that compares Brönte’s work with Rhys.’ I love comparing works of fiction, both when the comparisons are intended by the content creators and when they are incidental. This brings me to Half-Blown Rose by Leesa Cross-Smith.

Half-Blown Rose wants in on the conversation, explicitly with Jane Eyre and obliquely with Wide Sargasso Sea. “Half-Blown Rose” is a reference taken straight from from Jane Eyre, and reading the the novel as a commentary and/or loose retelling takes the already interesting story up a level.

What’s it about?

Vincent’s life is totally uprooted when her husband of twenty-years, without a word to her, publishes an autofiction novel that pulls the rug out from under her. Amongst other things, Vincent learns that Cillian was hurriedly rushed out of Ireland as a teenager when he got his Black girlfriend pregnant and his racist father freaked out, and she learns that Cillian first pursued her because she reminded him of that girlfriend. Horrified by the public exposure of the most intimate details of their marriage, Vincent packs up and moves to Paris, where she sets up as an art teacher and begins a tentative flirtation with a handsome young frenchman the age of her son.

What’d I think?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Until I found out about the Jane Eyre connection, I wasn’t very excited about this novel. I rarely go for midlife crisis/extramarital affair books, and that was what this sounded like. In many ways it is, I suppose. Vincent does have a crisis, and she does arguably have an affair. I say “arguably” because the magnitude of Cillian’s betrayal is such that Vincent largely considers the marriage concluded, though she keeps things friendly for the sake of their two adult children. 

The book does a lot to counter the things that I regularly dislike about books aimed towards adults. It’s not mopey and depressed, and despite the fact that Vincent is middle-aged and a mother, she still gets to be a person first and foremost. She is desireable both as a friend and as a lover. She cares for her children, but her life does not revolve around them. She still loves her husband, but she is not beholden to him. I expected Vincent to spend the whole time feeling guilty for her relationship with her young new boyfriend. I expected her to find ways to blame herself for Cillian’s actions. I am so used to women, particularly women past a certain age, being treated as if they should take what they can get and not demand more; it was legitimately surprising and refreshing that Vincent does not. She is bold and unapologetic about her decisions, as she should be. Her husband did something totally unacceptable and unforgivable. He shook the foundations of their marriage. He aired their dirty laundry for the world (and for profit) without discussing it with her. He left her to learn the hard secrets of his past from a book instead of telling her himself, and he never even stopped to consider the racist undertones of his actions that only exacerbate the personal betrayal. Cillian absolutely does not deserve Vincent’s forgiveness or understanding, and when Vincent considers them or offers them she does so because of where she is, not because she owes it to her husband. She doesn’t belong to Cillian, and it is only in reading a book like this that presents a grown wife and mother as a full person that I realized how rarely that happens. 

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Stranger Things 4: Mike, Dustin, and Lucas

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into 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 Stranger Things 4 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’ve largely made it through the heavy stuff with the last post about Max’s struggle with mental health and Vecna’s role as a suicidal metaphor. We’ve made it to the kids who aren’t really kids anymore.

I care too much about fictional characters

Mike Wheeler

Mike (Finn Wolfhard) gets more hate than he deserves. I mean, was season one Mike more easily likable than season three Mike? Yeah. Mike was arguably the bravest and most loyal character in the first season, and he hit that teenage angst hard last season. But he’s fine in season four. He’s not particularly important, and there are a few moments where he probably should’ve reacted differently. Not hugging Will on Will’s birthday was kind of weird move for the team’s heart, but whatever. I’m not going to pile on Mike for the crying-in-the-van scene; I’m just gonna give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he noticed and decided to give Will some space. The show has done a good job of establishing Mike as a good friend, and while I wouldn’t say Mike has been at his absolute best lately, it’s probably safe to assume he’ll engage with it later down the line. There was a lot going on, there was no way to step aside privately, and Jonathan and Argyle were both right there. If Mike had engaged there he might’ve just made things worse. If your friend is having a private emotional breakdown, drawing attention to it is not the kindest or wisest move. We saw Jonathan check in with Will later, and maybe in season five we’ll see Mike do the same.

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Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Mini Book Review)

I read Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow under the worst possible circumstances. I caught COVID (despite being vaccinated, of course) the week before I was supposed to lead a book club on it; I didn’t have the book, and I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to make the meeting. I ordered it online and only got it three days before book club, so I read it while feeling terrible and repeatedly testing. I finished it in time and thankfully recovered in time to lead discussion, but I read it so quickly and in a sick haze that, to be totally frank, I perhaps don’t remember it as well as I might have under other circumstances. That said, I really enjoyed it and had an extremely rewarding discussion. 

What’s it about?

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow follows a pair of video game developers, Sadie and Sam, who met as children in a hospital when he was recovering from shattered foot and she was loitering away time during her sister’s cancer treatment. The two bond over playing video games together. A misunderstanding alienates them for years, but they find each other again during their college years and team up to create a video game. Thus begins a lifelong relationship, bonded by love and gaming but far from smooth. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow follows them from game to game, through sorrow and heartbreak to triumph and joy, in periods of closeness and estrangement, and gives us a unique portrait of two individuals who use stories to understand, participate in, and even escape from their real lives.

What’d I think?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is a beautifully and emotionally complex novel. Zevin’s writing here is masterful, intertwining Sam and Sadie’s nuanced and complex POVs. The narrative skips around on its timeline, largely moving forward chronologically but doubling back or skipping ahead as necessary. The construction works brilliantly, in turns allying the reader with Sadie or Sam or both or neither. There were times when I loved Sadie and hated Sam. There were times when I loved Sam and wanted to sit Sadie down and give her a stern talking-to. Often I thought they were both stubborn idiots, but ultimately I adored them both (but not as much as my beloved Marx). Sam and Sadie are painfully human, with moments of strength and moments of weakness, triumphs and humiliations. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow does exactly what this sort of dedicated character study has to: it digs deep and uncovers the good, the bad, and the ugly of both these characters.  

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Stranger Things 4: Max and Vecna

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into 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 Stranger Things 4 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.

Was Eddie’s death obvious and futile? That was last post. We’ve moved on to the season’s other sacrifice.

I care too much about fictional characters

Max Mayfield (and Vecna)

I’m sorry, Max. I hate that you have to share a section with Vecna because you’re great and he’s terrifying, but that’s just the way this season shook out. 

Max (Sadie Sink) really made the leap from secondary to leading character, didn’t she? She’s been important since she entered the show in season two, but she was never really a primary focus. She was just one of the kids, important enough and definitely a lovable character, but never the one you’d point to if you had to pick the main player from any given storyline. That absolutely changed this season, with Max becoming not only a focal point but arguably the emotional center of the season. The stakes of season four are almost entirely centered on Max. She is suffering PTSD and survivor’s guilt from the events of last season. After Billy (Dacre Montgomery)’s death, Max’s stepfather left Max and her mother, and they are now living in a trailer park. Max has closed herself off from her friends and broken up with Lucas. Her grades are slipping and she suffers from near-constant headaches. She’s struggling even before she becomes Vecna’s victim. It’s retreading everyone else’s ground to say that “Dear Billy” was one of—if not the—best episodes of the season, but everyone is saying it for a reason. It is the best marriage of fantasy horror with mental health subtext that Stranger Things has given us to date. 

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Bittersweet (Mini Book Review)

Generally speaking, I’m not one for nonfiction. I’ll read the occasional memoir if it’s by someone I’m interested in, but traditional nonfiction doesn’t appeal to me. It’s possibly because I read to escape the real world, but I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself right now. The major exception is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. My brother gave me a copy of that book when I graduated high school, and it really spoke to me and helped me understand why I so often feel out-of-step and under-appreciated. Cain published Quiet twenty years ago, and it was so good that when I saw she had a second book I had to know: what has she been working on for the past two decades? Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole did not appeal to me as immediately as a concept; I am an introvert, but I don’t consider myself melancholic. Still, I had enough residual affection for Quiet that I told myself that if I came across a copy of Bittersweet, I’d read it. 

I came across one, and now that I’ve finished it, I’m not sure how I feel. Certainly it wasn’t as clarifying as Quiet was, and I don’t have as personal a connection to the subject. It isn’t as rooted in psychology as I expected it to be, either, veering often into personal anecdotes and stories from the many people Cain encountered during her research. It also dwells lengthily and at times uncomfortably on religion despite Cain’s upfront assertion that she is herself atheist and that her findings are applicable even to those who are not necessarily religious. Some of the early assertions in the book put me on the defensive, like the idea that the root of love is parental and that people who do not instinctively love children are essentially incapable of love. As a person who generally doesn’t like kids, is increasingly uncomfortable with religion, and cannot remember ever being moved to tears, I spent a lot of the first half of this book thinking well, I guess I’m just a loveless monster

I also just kept thinking about the way Megamind says “melancholy.” I know that’s not the point and is entirely irrelevant to this or any review, but I really couldn’t stop myself. Maybe that was my brain’s dumb way or not engaging too deeply with something that seemed initially like it was going to upset me, or maybe it’s just because my response to pretty much everything is to make an irreverent reference to a movie/book/TV show that I love. In any case, for a long while that was my primary response to Bittersweet: “muhLONkuhlee.”

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August 2022 Wrap-Up

It’s been kind of a tough month personally, but I read some absolutely fantastic books and watched some charming, wholesome TV/movies. To shake things up a little I decided to swap the order of this recap and put my viewing highlights first and books second because all the books will eventually get their own individual posts but the movies and TV won’t necessarily.

Here’s what I watched…

Abbott Elementary

Rating: 5 out of 5.

My sister recommended Abbott Elementary to me and I can’t believe I hadn’t either seen it before or heard more about it, because it is a hilarious, warm-hearted show that feels like a spiritual successor to Parks and Recreation. It follows a group of passionate teachers lead by a hysterically funny but woefully incompetent principal who teach at an underfunded elementary school. Each episode sees them them try to do their best by their kids by whatever means necessary, whether it be by leading an after-school step class or using hush-hush connections or by participating in a dangerous viral trend to suck the cool out of it, and it hits that all-too-rare combination of genuinely funny comedy that touches on real subjects but comes from a place of love rather than taking shots at people. Like any good sitcom, it balances small, arguably unimportant plotlines (Melissa and Jacob play poker) with more blatantly character-driven and important ones (Janine, whose mother was never there for her, tries desperately to get in contact with a struggling student’s hard-to-reach mother, and suffers jealousy when work-mom Barbara’s real daughter pops by for a visit). Somehow every character, from the shallow and conceited Ava to neurotic but secretly soft-hearted Gregory, feels fully developed and lovable. It’s hard to pick a favorite because they’re all so funny and because their slightly different styles of humor bounce off each other well, and the show does an admirable job of mixing everyone up into different combinations so that no pairing ever feels stale or merely informed. Perhaps most importantly, the show manages to be largely lighthearted and happy without losing sight of its central premise: because they love their kids and want to do right by them, these teachers are working in a profession that pays them too little and expects too much from them. Watching it, you’ll laugh but you’ll also want to do right by your teachers. Abbot Elementary also—and this can’t be understated—knows how to balance the kids. There’s enough of them that it feels like a real elementary school, but it doesn’t ever focus on them at the expense of the teachers who are the heart of the show. Let’s face it: fictional kids can be very annoying, but Abbott Elementary managed to cast only cute ones and to keep them out of the direct spotlight enough that they don’t put off the people who don’t want to watch a kids’ show.

Basically, this show is hilarious and you should watch it and I’m very glad that it got renewed for season two. That was well-deserved. We need more feel-good sitcoms!


The Descendants

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Yes, I watched these again. If there’s anything I love, it’s a catchy, campy musical. I really don’t know how I missed these movies when they first came out because 1) they’re exactly my jam 2) Kenny Ortega is the best and 3) I LOVE High School Musical. One night my parents and I were looking for something to watch and I was like, “Hey, do you want to try this kids’ movie that I discovered last year in my campiest phase? You might hate it.” But they watched it and, honestly, they loved it too. Even my dad! It’s hard to get him to watch anything all the way through with me because we have very different taste. Mom and I invited him to be nice, expecting him to turn us down, but he watched all three movies! They’re just so much fun. No, the politics don’t really make sense and yes, there’s arguably a little too much autotune, but other than that, what more can you ask for?

There are ridiculous allusions to Disney movies. There are delightfully cheesy big group dance numbers. There are some legitimately sweet romances, and a big emphasis on platonic friendship and personal responsibility (which isn’t always something you get in a romance!). There’s a variety of different musical sounds, from emotional duets to upbeat group numbers to power ballads. There are chaotic pirates (you know how much I love my chaotic pirates) and amazingly over-the-top costumes and hair. Last time I watched these I ended up listening to the songs on repeat, and I am literally listening to “Do What You Gotta Do” as I’m editing this. They’re just a fun time, and I’m side-eyeing old me who said they were “so bad they’re good.” They’re so good they’re good. You’ve just gotta be into a silly, singy good time.

I love all three movies, but the second one is definitely the best one. It has all the best songs! “Chillin’ Like a Villain,” “What’s My Name?”, “Ways to Be Wicked,” “Space Between”! There’s not a bad song in any of them (although I’ll admit that Ben’s rap of “Be Our Guest” does give me major secondhand embarrassment). Also the presence of Kristin Chenoweth gives any musical franchise a major boost, even if she only actually sings one song before getting turned into a lizard.

Are these movies made for kids? Yeah. Does that stop adult-me from unironically loving them? Definitely not.


Only Murders in the Building

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Season two can make or break a TV show. I loved season one of Only Murders in the Building, and I was excited for season two. It’s such a funny, clever, and warmhearted comedy-mystery that both appeals to my current sensibilities and my nostalgia. The Three Amigos was one of my favorite childhood movies, so seeing Steve Martin and Martin Short team up again after however many years was charming to me. Do actors have to be friends to work together? Obviously not, but it’s just always cute when you find out that people who play buddies onscreen are buddies offscreen. Also, just lifelong buddies. Lifelong buddies are the best. Beezus and Ramona, which stars Selena Gomez, was also a major childhood favorite. I loved season one, but knew that sophomore seasons are often shaky. I shouldn’t have worried. This one wasn’t!

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All of Our Demise (Book Review)

I was surprised and delighted by the explosive fantasy death-match novel All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman, and as soon as I closed the book on that epic cliffhanger I was desperate to read the sequel, All of Our Demise. I’d timed my reading relatively well, with only a few weeks to wait until the publication on August 30, 2022. However, I got lucky when a friend received an ARC of All of Our Demise. Because she wasn’t quite ready for it—she was reading All of Us Villains on my fervent and repetitive recommendation—she lent it to me and I excitedly set aside my existing TBR and dove right in.

What’s it about? (Spoilers for the climax of book one)

Unsurprisingly, All of Our Demise picks up shortly after All of Our Villains ended, leaving the surviving champions to reconcile with Elionor’s death, Hendry’s unexpected revival (and Alistair’s subsequent decision to keep fighting), and Isobel and Alistair’s deadly curses. As the tournament grow increasingly unstable, Alistair, Briony, Gavin, Isobel, and Finley settle into two distinct groups: the ones who want break the tournament curse (and believe they can) and the ones who for one reason or another would rather continue on as if the game hasn’t changed. Racing the clock, the champions suffer one surprise after another as they play a game that has become more complicated than simply kill or be killed. 

What’d I think?

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved it. The most exciting thing about this book (and the series as a whole) is that it allows its characters to be, well, villainous. All of our protagonists have grown up in horrible families with a horrific legacy to uphold or escape. Their lives are chock-full of trauma, both individual and generational. They’ve been tossed into a death tournament that most of them have been preparing for their whole lives. They have grown up knowing or hoping that they would become killers before they turned twenty. Of course they’re all a bit monstrous. It wouldn’t make any sense if they were all totally good. At the same time, though, they’re all people. Foody and Herman have drawn all these champions so well that we feel for them and empathize with them even through their worst moments. There’s not a single one of these characters who doesn’t do terrible, unforgivable things… that the reader (and the other characters, often) ultimately forgive them for. They balance the bad with good, and the effort is always palpable. They’re all villains in a way, but we understand them, even when they’re making choices that are undeniably wrong.

Like, even after Briony’s squad finds out that it is possible to break the tournament, Gavin and Alistair decide to keep playing the cards as originally dealt. Obviously the right thing to do is to work to break the curse and save anyone, but it is impossible to fault the ones who don’t believe in the possible happy ending and can’t bring themselves to throw everything away in futile hope. In fact, Gavin and Alistair are my favorites (honestly, by a wide margin, although I do still like Isobel and Briony), and that’s a testament to how well these books are written: I love these characters even at their worst. The morality here is very, very gray. There are so many people that you’d say are absolutely beyond redemption that somehow manage it… by actively working for it and changing their ways. 

Not everyone lives to the end of All of Our Demise, but no one depends on a death to be redeemed; they earn their forgiveness through what they do while living, not in how they die. That’s how it should be; redemption-through-death is overdone and a bit lazy at this point.

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Stranger Things 4: Eddie

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into 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 Stranger Things 4 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.

Last time I talked about feminism and LGBTQ+ representation with Robin. Let’s finish up the teens with Eddie.

I care too much about fictional characters

Eddie Munson

The fact that anyone expected Eddie (Joseph Quinn) to survive this season is actually funny to me. Did you guys forget about Benny, Barb, Bob, and Alexei? Did you think that just because his name doesn’t start with a ‘B’ that he’d escape the curse that took every other likable one-season character (and Billy)? Don’t get me wrong: I like Eddie a lot. He’s a very fun new character. I love how seamlessly he merges into the group with Steve, Robin, and Dustin. I LOVE that Stranger Things gave the fans a new mullet-sporting “bad boy” to obsess about so that people would let some of the Billy obsession going. At first my impression of Eddie—purely on the aesthetic—was that he was Billy 2.0, this time with less racism! (I hate Billy so much; you guys are lucky that Billy isn’t in this season or else he’d get a whole section about how much I hate him. I mean, there will be some in the Max section, but still). 

Eddie definitely evolves beyond being Billy 2.0, thankfully. He’s sweet and goofy and even though he seems sorta mean at the beginning (just reschedule for Lucas, Eddie!) he really is a good dude. He’s charismatic and he has good chemistry with the group, and I wish he’d survived if for no reason beyond it would’ve been nice for Will to get to play D&D with him. 

Here’s the thing, though. Eddie did not have to die. I don’t mean that in a fangirly, please come back as a vampire sort of way. I mean that from a story standpoint, his death was unnecessary. It was to emotionally crush the fans. To be fair, it worked, so good job. But is there any reason why Eddie had to die aside from martyring himself and becoming the latest one-season fatality? Maybe Eddie sacrificed himself so the Stranger Things curse didn’t take Argyle or Dmitri. In-universe, though, Eddie chose to die, and for no real reason. Did those thirty seconds Eddie bought make any real difference? Dustin was already safe, and while it’s arguable that he kept the bats away from Steve, Robin, and Nancy for that extra minute it’s not definite that doing so really saved them. The bats would have kept fighting him right by the exit. He could have bought more time and then climbed the rope. He could have left the rope when he ran away and made a big circle with the intention of buying more time and still trying to escape.

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All of Us Villains (Mini Book Review)

For August, Barnes and Noble chose All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman as its YA monthly pick. It’s been a few months since I picked one of those up, and I’d heard good things about All of Us Villains, so I figured I’d give it a shot. 

What’s it about?

For longer than anyone can remember, seven families in Ilvernath have been simultaneously cursed and blessed. Blessed because they alone have access to the increasingly rare high magick that is needed for the most potent spells and curses, and cursed because in order to gain control of the magick they must sacrifice one of their children to a battle to the death; every generation, seven teenagers fight underneath the blood veil and only one emerges alive. This tradition of power and violence has long been a secret known to only the seven families and the spell- and curse-workers whose assistance they rely upon, but when a tell-all book is published, it throws the bloody competition into public view for the first time.   

What’d I think?

Despite the fact that both the official summary of All of Us Villains and the one that I wrote above focus on the magical-Hunger-Games plot of the novel, it is actually very character-driven. There are four POV characters, one apiece from four of the seven families: Alistair Lowe, whose family always wins and who was raised to be reclusive and villainous; Isobel Macaslan, who is individually talented but whose family has fallen out of power and is reduced to unsavory magick-collection; Briony Thorburn, who has trained to be champion for her whole life and is dedicated to winning at all cost; and Gavin Grieve, whose family wrote the inflammatory book and who are seen as a joke that will never win. Each of the four brings a different perspective to the novel and to the competition, and the way those perspectives and goals shift constantly as alliances shift and betrayals are revealed and secrets are uncovered is a major part of what makes All of Us Villains so fun to read.

All of the characters have layered and rich relationships with each other. Isobel and Briony were best friends before a falling-out. Alistair, being the favorite, is feared and hated by the others before he meets them; because he is different than his reputation would imply, the others have mixed reactions to him, from confused attraction to unexpected sympathy. There are other characters, some of them champions, others family members, and still others spell- and curse-crafters who also add compelling relationships and and storylines. The whole town is a fascinating patchwork of traditions and rivalries that make for a very well lived-in world. There are all kinds of different relationships here, from romantic to platonic to I’ll-kill-you-later-but-I-need-you-now, each more compelling than the last.

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Stranger Things 4: Robin

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into 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 Stranger Things 4 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.

In the previous installment I discussed the reversal of the Steve/Nancy/Jonathan love triangle, but now it’s Robin time.

I care too much about fictional characters

Robin Buckley

Robin! Another one of my favorites. Yes, I realize that pretty much everyone is one of my favorites. Robin (Maya Hawke) is one of those incredible characters who fits so well into a show that it’s lightly mind-boggling to realize that she’s only been in two of the four seasons. If you asked me what my favorite season of Stranger Things is I’d probably say season two—Will actually gets to do stuff, Steve and Dustin have teamed up, Max has made her first appearance, Hopper and Eleven’s cute father+daughter relationship hits the ground running—but if you followed that up with a question about favorite characters I’d be stumped because Robin is very near the top of that list, but how is it possible that one of my favorite characters isn’t in my favorite season?

Robin and Steve’s inexplicably competent yet lightly unhinged energy together was a clear highlight in season three

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A Clash of Steel (Book Review)

A Clash of Steel; A Treasure Island Remix by C.B. Lee has been tentatively on my TBR since its publication. A good cover will do that for you, and A Clash of Steel has a gorgeous one that is objectively attractive, specific to its book, and stands out even amongst the hundreds of others on the shelf. It had never quite made it to the top of the list because I’d previously read Lee’s novel Not Your Sidekick, and while I liked it, I didn’t necessarily like it enough to actively seek out her other work. But then I watched Our Flag Means Death and got incredibly obsessed with pirates; when I went to the library and saw A Clash of Steel and its beautiful cover, I decided it would be a good time to give it a shot.

What’s it about?

Xiang has lived a very sheltered life in a small village, stealing moments to read adventure stories and to watch the boats coming and going. More than anything else, she wants to impress her cold, distant mother and be brought with her to Canton to run the bustling tea house there. Her mother has other ideas, but eventually brings Xiang to the city where Xiang meets Anh, a girl with whom she has an immediate connection, but who steals a precious family heirloom. Xiang is heartbroken and embarrassed… until Anh returns with an unusual request: unbeknownst to Xiang, the stolen pedant held a part of a treasure map, and Anh needs Xiang’s help to make sense of it.

What’d I think?

I really liked A Clash of Steel. My reservations about Not Your Sidekick all came from the writing; the story was strong and the characters likable, but the writing wasn’t quite there to support it. Happily, in the years that separate the two novels, the writing has gotten there.

The pacing is really good. Everything feels appropriately high stakes but is never so frantic that you lose track of what is happening or have to sacrifice character or connection for adventure. This is definitely an adventure book, with exciting high-seas dramatics and pirate battles, but it takes the appropriate time to craft an engrossing bildungsroman as well, and neither story is lost in the other.  

The two main characters—plus the important secondary ones—are all very well drawn. They feel fully-realized and their development over the course of the story is natural and believable. They are likable both as individuals and as a couple. 

A particularly exciting element of A Clash of Steel is the romance. I didn’t realize that this was going to have a central sapphic romance, even though in retrospect I probably should’ve considering that it’s by C.B. Lee. So that was a nice surprise considering my ongoing quest to find some that are good. I particularly love the romance between Xiang and Anh because of how delicately it is balanced with the rest of the novel. It’s a very important storyline, but it doesn’t ever outweigh the adventure or Xiang’s individual character development, or even Xiang’s enfolding into the larger family of the Huyền Vũ. Lee manages to write a scene of spark-of-first-sight and back it up with legitimate chemistry. There’s attraction right off the bat, but this isn’t a love-at-first-sight book. The girls’ relationship builds steadily throughout the whole story, suffering the occasional backslide (it’s a pirate book! Of course it isn’t all smooth sailing) but remaining compelling throughout.

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Stranger Things 4: Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into 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 Stranger Things 4 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.

In the previous installment I discussed Will’s sexuality and its real-world handling. Let’s move onto the teens.

I care too much about fictional characters

Steve Harrington and Nancy Wheeler 

I wrote whole essays for both Eleven and Will, but not everyone needs quite that much space all for themselves. Steve (Joe Keery) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) have very intertwined storylines, so I figured I would group them. Steve is favorite character (I love Will, but I relate to him too much for him to be my first favorite). I know, I know, I’m not original. Everyone loves Steve the most. Everyone watches the Stranger Things terrified that Steve is going to die. I’m no different. I was convinced that Steve was going to die, and I was extremely relieved when he didn’t. Steve is such a great character because of all the reasons that everyone always says. He developed as a character, learning from his mistakes and becoming a better person. Plus, he has a dynamite dynamic with the younger cast, most specifically Dustin. Also Robin. Steve+Dustin and Steve+Robin are peak Stranger Things. When it comes to platonic relationships, Steve is the MVP, which is why I’m a little disappointed that his focus this season is romance.

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Stay Gold (Book Review)

I’d been meaning to read Stay Gold ever since I enjoyed Tobly McSmith’s sophomore novel Act Cool. I bought it ages ago, and it finally made it to the top of my pile. 

What’s it about?

Pony is an army brat, so he’s used to moving around all the time. This time, though, switching schools feels like an opportunity rather than a hardship. After being bullied at his last school after coming out, Pony decides to go stealth; because he can pass, he decides that there’s no reason to tell anyone that he’s trans. When he meets Georgia, a popular and beautiful cheerleader, his decision to stay under-the-radar starts to look decidedly less attractive.

What’d I think?

On the whole I enjoyed reading Stay Gold, but there were a lot of things that bothered me the more I thought about them. For that reason I decided to break out an old review format: I liked/I didn’t like.

I liked the cover. I mean, look at it! It’s so adorable! I love this art style, and in fact it was the covers that first brought me to Tobly McSmith’s books. Is it maybe a little too cute for the seriousness of the end of Stay Gold? Yeah, possibly. But I still love it.

I didn’t like Pony’s name. It took me a minute to get past what a stupid name “Pony” is, but I accepted it because of the The Outsiders homage (for the record: I love that book but Ponyboy is a dumb name there, too; also, it feels like every time I hear something about SE Hinton lately it’s bad, so…). It’s a slightly tough pill to swallow that anyone would choose their own name and go with “Pony,” especially since he repeatedly teases that it has a good story behind it and then it doesn’t. You might be thinking: didn’t Pony name himself for The Outsiders? Good question, but no. Georgia makes the literary connection but when Pony finally explains how he picked the name it is literally a reference to… ponies, which makes me wish that McSmith had approached the name differently. Like, maybe by naming him Johnny (or Dallas or Darrel or something)—which would have an indirect Outsiders reference for Georgia to grab onto) or simply by letting Ponyboy actually be Pony’s inspiration. In light of Hinton slamming Stay Gold‘s existence, though, I sort of think that the novel would have been better served to move away from that connection, as Hinton—with all her arguably anti-gay twitter tantrums—is a weird public figure to link to a queer character; it’s not quite as bad, but it would be like a trans person choosing their new name from Harry Potter; it’s plausible, but there are, let’s say, better role models).  

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