Best of 2019: BOOKS

Normally, I enjoy celebrating the books I’ve read with some silly and–inevitably–lengthy superlative lists, including awards like Favorite Villain, Best Booyah Moment, and Super Ability I’d Most Like To Steal. This year, however, that just sounds kind of daunting? And not terribly fun, which is obviously antithetical to the whole point. So instead, I present you with my only sorta-lengthy Best Of list, i.e., a list of my favorite books in various genres and sub-genres. (From any year. I read all of these in 2019, but one of them was written in 1937, so, yeah. I wouldn’t exactly characterize these recommendations as super current. If you’d like the full list of everything I read, go ahead and click on the link.)

No spoilers were produced in the making of this post.

FAVORITE FAIRY TALE STORY

The Seventh Bride – T. Kingfisher

Bluebeard is one of my favorite fairy tales, specifically Mr. Fox–like, I’m the weirdo who actually adds Post-Its with be bold, be bold . . . but not too bold to bedroom doors and the like. So, when I realized that Ursula Vernon (a.k.a. T. Kingfisher), one of my very favorite writers, had published her own Mr. Fox retelling*, well, obviously, I was ecstatic. Like nearly every T. Kingfisher book I’ve ever read, The Seventh Bride features a compelling heroine, a cool animal sidekick, and a lot of humor, weirdness, and heart. Also, some truly creepy shit. Also, a fantastic supporting cast: Maria is my absolute favorite. I really enjoyed the hell out of this–it also wins for FAVORITE NOT-SO-CONTEMPORARY FANTASY–and I’m looking forward to reading T. Kingfisher’s other fairy tale retellings, namely Byrony and Roses and The Raven and the Reindeer.

*In nearly every review I’ve seen, this book is described as a Bluebeard retelling, but personally, it strikes me more as a Mr. Fox/Rumpelstiltskin mashup. I know it doesn’t have some of the bigger earmarks of the latter–no naming game, no “I’m gonna steal your baby” stuff–but Rhea is literally a miller’s daughter, and her parents play an arguably significant role in why she’s in this mess in the first place. Plus, “do this impossible thing, or I’ll do something horrible to you” is a plot structure from Rumpelstiltskin, not Bluebeard/Mr. Fox. Also, let’s be real here: the King in Rumpelstiltskin is totally a villain. Like, make me gold or I’ll kill you; make me more gold and I’ll marry you?” Fuck this guy.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Not-So-Contemporary Fantasy: The Black God’s Drums; Clockwork Boys; The Killing Moon; The House of Shattered Wings

FAVORITE CONTEMPORARY FANTASY

Undead Girl Gang – Lily Anderson

Oh, this was a delightful book. I loved so much about it: the voice, the dialogue, all the humor and Feels. Undead Girl Gang is laugh out loud funny, but it also handles grief in a very real way, and I enjoyed that. The characters are all great; Mila, in particular, is a wonderful protagonist, and I related so hard to how she finds hope and laughter and a certain measure of control in Wicca. (Oh, you don’t even know the middle school flashbacks I was having while reading this one.) The fat positivity in this book was also really refreshing, especially in a year where I managed to stumble across even more fat shaming than normal.

This was easily my FAVORITE YA BOOK I read all year, something I’d happily give my teenage kids if I, you know, had any. As is, I’m just gonna have to keep enjoying Lily Anderson’s writing for myself.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Contemporary Fantasy: A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark; Magic for Liars

FAVORITE HORROR

The Cabin at the End of the World – Paul Tremblay

What’s interesting about this, to me, is that I don’t generally consider myself a big fan of psychological horror, but I absolutely love this novel. It’s occurring to me, finally, that it’s not the entire sub-genre I dislike, just stories where the narrative tension is largely drawn from the majority of characters (plus the reader) questioning the MC’s sanity. That’s just not really my thing; thankfully, it’s also not quite what’s happening here.

And this book, man. It’s a wildly clever and entertaining page-turner (which is why it also wins for FASTEST READ) with a solid conclusion and some absolutely brutal moments. This is my first Paul Tremblay book, and I can absolutely guarantee it will not be my last.

Honorable Mention for Favorite Horror: The Sundial; The Migration; The Twisted Ones

Honorable Mentions for Fastest Read: Undead Girl Gang; Magic for Liars; A Man Lay Dead; The Twisted Ones; From Here to Eternity: Traveling The World To Find The Good Death; The Seventh Bride

FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION

TIE!

The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowall
Artificial Condition – Martha Wells

I enjoyed the hell out of The Calculating Stars: it’s an equally fun and fascinating alternate history, and I really like our MC, Elma. I especially appreciated how this novel explored her anxiety, like, that was just phenomenal. I also enjoy Elma’s friendships with other women in the novel, particularly Nicole and Helen. Elma and Nate, too, were a joy to read: it was lovely to find such a healthy, supportive romantic relationship in this story. I’m very eager to continue with the Lady Astronaut series in 2020.

But no way could I choose between The Calculating Stars and Artificial Condition, which was an amazing follow-up to All Systems Red. (In fact, I actually liked it even more than All Systems Red, which is incredibly impressive.) It is the rare novella that feels like it’s exactly the right length–one of many reasons it’s also winning FAVORITE NOVELLA–and I just absolutely adore MurderBot’s somewhat antagonistic friendship with ART. People. I was invested. This series is so damn good.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite SF: Alice Payne Arrives; Rogue Protocol; Record of a Spaceborn Few; To Be Taught, If Fortunate; An Unkindness of Ghosts

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Novella: The Black God’s Drums; In an Absent Dream; Alice Payne Arrives; Rogue Protocol; To Be Taught, If Fortunate

FAVORITE GRAPHIC NOVEL

Die, Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker – Kieron Gillen + Stephanie Hans

I mean, just the whole concept of this: teenagers being sucked into a fantasy RPG, experiencing massive amounts of emotional (and in some cases, physical) trauma, and then having to return to the game years later as adults? It’s like It meets D&D. Or, as Kieron Gillen apparently describes it: “goth Jumanji.” People. You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to read goth Jumanji.

This one is such a creative and exciting comic, full of fun plot turns and great characters and just awesome magical abilities. Highly recommended.

Honorable Mentions: Young Avengers: Style > Substance, Vol. 1 – Kieron Gillen + Jamie McKelvie; Teen Titans: Raven – Kami Garcia & Gabriel Picolo

FAVORITE NON-FICTION

From Here to Eternity: Traveling The World to Find The Good Death – Caitlin Doughty

This is both an incredibly informative and fascinating look at how different cultures around the world handle death and death rituals, and while it is occasionally hard to read because of, well, death anxiety, it’s also just vastly neat. There were so many things I didn’t know. Learning more about Indonesian death customs or the ñatitas in Bolivia or the fertilization experiments in North Carolina . . . it’s all just so immensely interesting. I might actually have been most surprised by the open pyre ceremonies in Colorado; I honestly didn’t think that was a thing you could do in America.

I also didn’t know that family had the option of viewing cremations (the more standard kind), though I confess reluctance at the possibility of viewing any myself. Doughty brings up excellent points in its favor, especially as she discusses the idea of giving grieving family members meaningful tasks–but when I imagine going back and witnessing my own father’s cremation, my whole brain just balks in horror. I don’t know. It’s an obviously difficult subject. Regardless, this was a pretty great book, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in cultural anthropology, or books that frankly discuss death without looking down on readers for their own death anxiety. That’s big for me.

Honorable Mentions: The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick – Mallory O’Meara

FAVORITE NOVEL

Busman’s Honeymoon – Dorothy Sayers

I’ve been slowly making my way through the Lord Peter Wimsey novels for years, but to my very great surprise, it’s this final book in the series that’s been my absolute favorite–and not just of the series but also of the whole year. (Also, it wins for FAVORITE MYSTERY, in case that wasn’t already glaringly obvious.) Busman’s Honeymoon is regularly characterized as either a “detective story with love interruptions” or a “love story with detective interruptions,” and to my very great joy, I found the balance of murder mystery and established romance utterly delightful. (Many mysteries from this time period include a hasty and thoroughly underwhelming romance, but Busman’s Honeymoon has been building the Peter/Harriet ship for several books and literal years, and I am so thoroughly obsessed with them.)

The mix of witty banter, murder, and newlywed shenanigans are really the best, and I was both extremely surprised to see the novel actually come back to Peter’s PTSD in a surprisingly emotional way. So many Feels with this one. An instant comfort read.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Mystery: The Nine Tailors; Magic for Liars; The Song Is You; A Rising Man; Gaudy Night

Finally, here is the rest of my Top Ten of 2019, not in any particular order. (With links for the books that I didn’t already link above.)

2. The Cabin at the End of the World – Paul Tremblay
3. An Unkindness of Ghosts – Rivers Solomon
4. The Seventh Bride – T.K. Kingfisher
5. Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers
6. Artificial Condition – Martha Wells
7. The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowall
8. To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers
9. The Twisted Ones – T.K. Kingfisher
10. Undead Girl Gang – Lily Anderson

Happy New Year, everyone! I’d love to hear your favorite books of 2019 in the comments!

Season Premiere Round-Up: September 30th-October 16th

So, I mentioned I was behind, right? (Man, I haven’t even watched Elementary yet. I’m sorry, Lucy Liu and JLM–I forgot you moved to Sundays and have now missed multiple episodes.) Well, here’s what I’ve got for you now: the entire CW superhero lineup and one show that has nothing to do with superheroes at all.

DISCLAIMER: Spoilers for each season premiere I discuss, and anything up to that point in the show.

Westworld

westworld

So, this was a really intriguing start. The ideas are interesting, the scenery is gorgeous, and the music is on point. (Seriously, I’m all about that “Paint it Black” cover.) I figured I’d like this show going in, considering it’s Jonathan Nolan continuing to tackle AI, robotics, and morality (plus, cowboys!), but this might have been even better than I expected.  There are so many small heartbreaking moments. I loved the early reveal of the James Marsden twist. (I’m waiting to see if there will be another bigger twist, like, one of the scientists is actually a robot or something.) The mystery of Ed Harris is intriguing. I’m interested in Thandie Newton’s character. And just everything in general is so well framed (the fly, for example).

My only real critique at this point is that, thus far, there are way more naked women than men in this show. I mean, this is HBO, so I obviously expected that, but come on, guys, that robot shop is like tits, tits everywhere. You get the occasional dude butt, sure, but not all that many, and absolutely zero penises that I recall. It would be neat if this network could work a little on that whole ‘gender equality when it comes to gratuitous nudity’ thing. (I’m not exactly holding my breath here.)

TENTATIVE GRADE: A

Legends of Tomorrow

legends

Holy shit. That was actually fun.

I waffled for a long time if I was even going to bother checking out Legends of Tomorrow’s second season premiere, and if I didn’t watch literally every other show in the CW superhero multiverse, I wouldn’t have, not after how badly the first season failed. But I decided to give the premiere a chance, and if I liked it enough, I’d try to stick with it; if not, I was dumping that shit and just figuring out the other shows without it. I was pretty sure the latter was going to win out.

But guys, that premiere was so much better than last season. For starters, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and Vandal Savage are OUT, and that is already, like, a 25% boost in quality. Opening with New Guy Nate Heywood, Oliver Queen, and the mystery of what happened to the Legends was a surprising amount of fun: Oliver is always so much more enjoyable on everybody else’s shows than his own, and getting the team back together was pretty amusing. (Although I think Ray got the short end of the stick there, considering he had to deal with DINOSAURS. Is it possible that Rip doesn’t actually like Ray all that much? Legends actually capitalized on some of the more fun aspects of time travel, which it failed to do in the past, and I’m extremely excited about a villainous team-up between Reverse Flash and Damien Darhk, some of the best bad guys from The Flash and Arrow, respectively.

I would really like to see another woman on this team besides Sara (much as I love Sara, who’s pretty great) and I’m surprisingly disappointed about the disappearance of Rip Hunter (though that has way more to do with the actor, as the character himself has never been terribly interesting). Still, this was a pretty solid start to the show, and I’m definitely going to check out more. Though in some future episode, maybe they could crossover to The Flash and smack Barry around for all his history-breaking time travel shit, too? (Though, I mean, perspective. I suppose he didn’t nuke New York or anything. Still, we can all agree, right, that Barry has the WORST plans?)

TENTATIVE GRADE: A-

The Flash

flash

I like The Flash, but I’ve got to be honest: after the second season finale, I wasn’t exactly eager to pick up this show again, either. I mean, I was gonna; unlike Legends, I never seriously considered dropping it . . . but it was also very hard to make myself sit down and watch it when I haven’t even had the time to finish Luke Cage yet.

But the premiere was okay. Better than I was expecting, anyway; I was happy that the show jumped forward and Barry wasn’t totally bumbling around in this new timeline he’d created. And I’m definitely happy we aren’t in this timeline all season, like, I’m way more interested in a mostly-same timeline with a few minor but important changes. (I’ve since watched the second episode as well, so I know what some of those changes are now, but after viewing the pilot all I really cared about was: a) Cisco better still have powers, and b) Harry better be back, and he and Cisco must maintain their awesome dynamic of awesomeness.)

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this premiere, since most of what happened doesn’t exactly exist anymore, but here’s what I did jot down while watching:

A) Joe isn’t at work, and Iris doesn’t like him? Oh, I bet Joe has turned into an alcoholic. (She shoots, she scores.)

B) Best line deliveries:

Barry: “Might as well be.”

Joe: “I have a hangover. And a gun.”

Barry: “Kay, so, I can tell from the ‘I don’t believe you’ look on your faces that you don’t believe me.”

Cisco: “My money needs me.”

Cisco: “You just kidnapped this woman.”

C. When Iris asks herself why she accepted a date from Barry, Mek says, “Forced chemistry.” Mek is correct.

D. Seriously, I would PAY MONEY for this show to quit it with the Inspirational Speeches. Not all inspirational speeches, of course, just the ones where Barry can’t figure out how to beat a bad guy or defeat a problem or anything in the last fifteen minutes of the show, but thankfully there’s someone there to tell him that he CAN, that they believe in him, and all of a sudden Barry has a Proper Hero’s Motivation. I’m. So. DONE. I know it’s thematic and all, but at a certain point, it’s also just bad writing. And in case you were wondering, we have long since past that point.

TENTATIVE GRADE: B

Supergirl

supergirl

For the most part, this was pretty fun. It’s so hilarious to watch Derek Hale as Superman. He’s not doing a bad job by any means, it’s just like . . . sourwolf, why are you smiling so much? It’s weird!

What I liked: Katie McGrath. The new DEO. Oh, neat, they’re bringing in Metallo! And Brenda Strong is working at Cadmus? Excellent.

What I didn’t like: the whole thing about Cat Grant having an infatuation with Clark Kent . .  . I really had problems with how that was handled. Like, Clark’s whole “sway” thing came across super creepy to me when I realized that what he meant by “I have sway” was “dude, this lady, like, totally digs me, and let me bask in my power over her, cause I can use that shit to get whatever I want.” Especially when Jimmy brings up the whole drunk text thing, like, that just made me hella uneasy. For the most part Clark’s portrayed here is all wholesome and charming–you know, the way Superman really ought to be portrayed–but in this scene he came off as arrogant and kind of skeevy, and I really wasn’t okay with that.

What I haven’t made up mind on: the breakup of Kara and Jimmy. On one hand, I didn’t think they had the slightest bit of chemistry and am totally okay not watching them be yet another boring TV couple. OTOH, they kind of spent all last season building up to this, and even though I didn’t ship Kara/Jimmy, like, at all, I feel a little weird about just summarily tossing a big storyline like that out the window.

What I feel about kryptonite: uh, sorry, Superman, but yeah, the DEO keeps that shit. Supergirl’s already gone evil once. It wasn’t her fault, but that wouldn’t have mattered if she slaughtered a bunch of people, right? After all, you can use kryptonite in a non-lethal manner, and seriously, you don’t just toss out your one and only weapon against superpowers. Unless we’re also telling the DEO to get rid of all their guns because the top brass might order them to shoot a bunch of innocent people.

TENTATIVE GRADE: B

Arrow

arrow

Sigh.

Okay, so this wasn’t terrible. There are still good moments here. I genuinely enjoy the back and forth between Oliver and Felicity (and Curtis, too, who is always excellent), and the flashbacks are at least more interesting, so far, than they were last year. Also, Chad Coleman doesn’t seem like a bad villain so far. (We’ll see about Mr. Mystery Archer.) And have they upped their game in fight scenes? The fight scenes seemed pretty awesome.

At the same time, though, I feel like we’re continuing a backslide that we’ve already backslid before, and I just don’t care. Green Arrow is killing people again! Yawn. Been there, done that, got the bloody T-shirt. Why is it so hard to have a stance somewhere between ALL KILLING IS WRONG ALL THE TIME NO MATTER THE CONSEQUENCE  and I MUST KILL EVERYONE EVER TO BE THE HERO THIS CITY NEEDS. Call me morally gray if you want; I’m pretty sure there’s a middle ground in there. Felicity has a new love interest that isn’t Oliver. Yawn. Diggle’s away in the army. Yawn. Quentin is drinking again and he’s broken up with Donna Smoak. Yawn, and WHAT DID I JUST SAY ABOUT SUMMARILY DISMISSING WHOLE STORYLINES, BERLANTI? Thea has found Inner Peace, or something, so she’s reluctant to put on a suit and save her brother’s life. Less Yawn than WTF: look, Oliver has his faults, totally, but if he had seen Thea getting kidnapped while he was in Retired Domesticity Mode, I don’t believe for a second that he would have hesitated on rescuing her just because he didn’t do that kind of thing anymore.

Also, the statue is a nice idea–and I do like that the show hasn’t forgotten about Laurel, and what she meant to our heroes–but the statue itself is . . . pretty bad, right? I mean, I couldn’t take it seriously at all. I hope that’s not the statue they make when I die heroically as a superhero.

Right now, I’m keeping up with the show, but unless it improves, I’m not sure how many more seasons I’ve got in me . . . because right now I’m watching this for the same reasons I gave Legends of Tomorrow a try–and Legends didn’t waste their second chance (at least, not yet). I’m not feeling particularly strong about Arrow pulling off a similar comeback.

TENTATIVE GRADE: C+