The Best of the Worst Year (#312)

I know of exactly three people who are loving the pandemic lockdown. One is my Genius Nephew who taught himself to read at age 3 and did long division problems for fun on snow days. Genius Nephew loves staying home with the cats. He relishes having complete control of all social interactions via Discord. In October, as his parents and sister struggled with confinement, Genius Nephew sighed contentedly at the dinner table and announced, “This is the greatest year ever!”

At least someone is happy.

The rest of us who’ve followed CDC guidelines and state stay-at-home orders are…less happy. We’ve turned to baking, crafting, walking, and the arts to survive. Yeah, THE ARTS: books, movies, and television. (So think about just who saved your ass the next time you denigrate liberal arts degrees.)

Here’s the list of the books, movies, and shows that made me laugh and cry. Best of all, they took me somewhere else when I couldn’t leave the house.

BOOKS

Network Effect, by Martha Wells. In the first Murderbot novel after four hilarious, action-packed novellas, would-be introvert Murderbot must team up with a moody teenager and an Asshole Research Transport ship to rescue a human survey team. Murderbot has no problem with a potential suicide mission. But dealing with actual feelings? Gross.

The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune. The charming, heartwarming story of a repressed social worker investigating an unconventional orphanage of magical children–only to find the family he never knew he needed. Laugh over this island of delightful misfits, but bring your tissues for the end!

In Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots, superheroes cause more collateral human damage than natural disasters. They also protected by their parent corporation and law enforcement. Until one woman, armed with spreadsheets and a super villain, decides those super bastards are going down.

A Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker. Two women. One is a musician who lives to play for the crowds–until a pandemic hits. The second doesn’t remember life before school, work, and even concerts became virtual. It will take both of them to outwit the Virtual Industrial Complex and bring live music back to humanity.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. Mahit leaves her small mining station to serve as ambassador to a sprawling galactic empire. She discovers her predecessor was murdered. Various imperial factions conspire to consume her home station and its resources. No problem. All she has to do is negotiate deadly intrigue, avert a civil war, and not fall in love with the enemy.

A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik. There’s nothing warm and cozy about this magical boarding school. Instead of mentors, murderous creatures make hourly attempts to infiltrate the school and eat magical teens (the younger the teen, the tastier!). Can a girl named El survive without allies…or without resorting to dark sorcery? (Note: This book is a total page-turner, but it has some racist/ colonial characterization issues. The biggest is that the heroine El is mixed race. But while her heroic white mother is all things good and supportive, her non-white family gave in to superstition and decided El was evil and should be destroyed. As a child. Yikes.)

MOVIES

The Half of It. Remember “Cyrano de Bergerac?” Okay, how about Steve Martin’s Roxanne? No? That’s fine. This film by Alice Wu borrows the conceit of a genius ghost-writing love letters from a himbo, but it’s deeper and funnier than previous versions. This time, the Chinese-American girl is the writing genius and a Latina is everyone’s love interest. The growing friendship between the genius and the jock gets solid screen time and is equally delightful.

 The Forty-Year-Old Version. Once upon a time, NYC playwright Rhada was dubbed, “young, hot, someone to watch.” Now she’s forty, she’s tired, and she still hasn’t had her big break. Trying to navigate everything from her mother’s death to rich, white theater gatekeepers is exhausting (especially when the old white guy really, really needs to be punched). Rhada finds her voice rapping; Andy and I found her story compelling and pretty damned funny.

 The Old GuardI thought this was going to be another one of Andy’s ubiquitous guns/ car crash/ explosion movies. Instead, I got sucked into a tense, bittersweet story about the joys and horrors of humanity and immortality. Great cast with good banter, too.

MidwayAndy and Baby D picked this one, but I can’t argue (because we didn’t watch many movies). There are cliches galore and the segregation/ rampant racism in the Navy is ignored, but other historical details are spot-on (rarely do filmmakers bother to get the helmets right). The subject matter is inherently dramatic and had us all on the edge of our seats. The special effects were also pretty damned special.

TV SERIES

The Good Wife.” Andy and I never watched this show until COVID. Then we binged through it every night for about a month. Great cast and just enough witty banter to break up all the drama (and there is SO. MUCH. DRAMA.).

Star Trek: Discovery.” I’m a nominal Trekkie at best and thus lack the hangups  many die-hard Trekkies have with “Discovery” (which generally boil down to white men whining about “canon,” i.e., why isn’t the cast all white men and why aren’t all the white men heroic anymore?). The first season has a helluva twist and the third season finally sends the ship into exciting new territory. Andy is enjoying the show so much he hasn’t complained about paying for CBS all-access.

The Expanse.” I love Sci-Fi, but I did not like this show when Andy first started watching it. It was Sci-Fi film noir and I hated most of the characters: way too much screen time for morally questionable white guys (with one obvious, obnoxious shining white knight exception). Gradually, though, the mystery sucked me in. Later seasons had more women; the banter between the Martian Marine and the President of Earth is a show highlight.

The Right Stuff.” Disney’s series based on the Tom Wolfe novel kept us coming back every week to see which astronauts would excel in training while fucking up their personal lives with liquor and infidelity. As one character says, “They’re all great. And they’re all terrible.” Plenty of critics hated seeing their white male heroes being de-glorified, but we enjoyed the realism.

Selena” is a surprisingly funny series. I expected good music and solid drama in this rags-to-riches American story. But the show’s unexpected comedy was my favorite part, especially when the Quintanilla family members and band lovingly roast and mock each other.

Ted Lasso.” This one is my most favorite of all my favorites. Good comedies are rare. Rarer still is one that doesn’t throw in at least a few racist or sexist jokes.  Instead of wandering into that minefield, “Ted Lasso” mines our changing societal expectations for unexpected, delightful laughs. Combining the best of British and American humor, the dialogue is littered with seemingly throwaway lines that land as comedic gems. Brett Goldstein made us laugh out loud as both a writer on the show and on screen as the angry, aging soccer star, Roy Kent.

If you’re looking for more book recommendations, here are my earlier posts on SFF and Mysteries. Feel free to put your own favorites in the comments, too.

Outlast the Lockdown: 10 Historical Mystery Series (#288)

Science Fiction and Fantasy books are my first love. They’re also the best escapism around, literally taking you to another world.

But maybe you don’t want to go to a new world with new rules. Concentrating right now is difficult (unless you’re fellow blogger Ms. Bean’s husband). Let me offer up my favorite historical mystery series, guaranteed to take you to a different time, multiple times.

As usual, I’m listing them by the first book in the series because starting in the middle is just wrong and the name of the series isn’t always helpful.

10. The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey. Continue reading Outlast the Lockdown: 10 Historical Mystery Series (#288)

Escapist Sci-Fi/ Fantasy Quarantine Reading (#287)

A few of you have been after me for book recommendations. It’s your lucky day. If you don’t count the world being on fire and shit.

I was filing out my nominations for World Fantasy 2020 Awards and realized I already had half-a-list, which means it’s also half-a-post!

I love efficiency almost as much as I love books.

I like biographies and history, but for quarantine reading? No. Just no. We need something that will take us from our current surroundings.

These are Chocorooms. They’re the devil.

We need books in exotic settings, as far away from the kid howling over the lack of soccer and Chocorooms as possible.

Since our heroics currently consist of sitting on our asses at home, we need to watch someone else save the world. Or the galaxy. Or the universe! Continue reading Escapist Sci-Fi/ Fantasy Quarantine Reading (#287)

Battle of the Bloggers (#127)

Get ready to rumble!

In today’s post, blogger Mary of The Ruby Ronin and I go head-to-head on Tang Dynasty Trivia.

Author photo original (1)
This is Weina. Don’t be fooled by how nice she looks. She’s devious.

Weina Randel will be officiating the match. Randel spent six years researching China’s only female Emperor. She’s got some brutal questions for us about both her books (The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon), as well as Chinese history and culture in general.

Who will win? The woman who actually speaks Mandarin and lived in China, or the woman who took one class on Chinese history over a decade ago in college?

Let’s find out. Here’s the completely slightly edited version of our game show, conducted primarily via Skype. Continue reading Battle of the Bloggers (#127)

West Meets an Eastern Novel (#117)

Guess what? I’ve gotten so famous that I’ve been asked to review books!

Translation: book needs free publicity and I’m a sucker for historical fiction. Especially for time periods and cultures I don’t know much about. The best historical authors spin information, entertainment, and angst into a yarn that is pure magic. Continue reading West Meets an Eastern Novel (#117)