Best of 2020: Things That Made Me Happy

I think everyone can agree that this was a mess of a year. Cancelled plans of all forms, loneliness, and general frustration at the subset of people who refused to care about others made it a challenge in multiple ways. But even in the worst of times, there is always joy to be found. Sometimes that came in the form of Skype chats with friends, sometimes in the satisfaction of making or creating something that made you proud, and sometimes it was in YouTube binges. So to conclude the year, I thought I would share some of the things that made me the happiest or most fulfilled this year and offer up a whole lot of YouTube links to explore and enjoy.

Cooking

SortedFood I talked at length last year about how much I love this channel but this year I appreciated them even more. Like everyone else, they had to pivot and change their plans in March but through it all, they improvised and found a way to continue offering the same terrific content they always have on top of bonus features like a couple solid months of Instagram Lives that functioned as a way to hang out and watch them in a more casual setting. They made the first few months of lockdown easier by giving me a structure and something to look forward to daily and I am extremely grateful for it. They are dedicated to helping people fall in love with cooking and food in general, all while making us smile. Their passion is evident in everything they do and I can’t wait to see what they do in 2021.

Recommended videos: 2 Chefs Cook an Easter Feast, Ultimate Fusion Battle, one of their Pick the Premium series, a Restaurant Meal Kit review, a test of Vegan Fish and Chips, How to Roast a Chicken, and a Pretentious Ingredients Taste Test.

Mythical Kitchen This offshoot of Good Mythical Morning highlights the incredible talent and chaos of their cooking team and is ridiculous in the best possible way. It most often takes something prepackaged or fast food based and re-imagines it in some way and takes that process very seriously without ever veering into pretension or the need to act like they’re above the base food they’re working with. Everything on the show is done to their best ability but with a sense of playfulness and fun that is found in everything they do. It’s more than a little chaotic because Josh brings that out in people and Nicole and Trevor act both as perfect foils and facilitators of that chaos. It’s a source of silliness with a side of genuinely very good looking food and my 2020 would have been worse without it.

Recommended videos: Peanut Butter and Jelly Pizza recipe, Recreating Taco Bell’s Discontinued Volcano Taco, Food Fights: Hamburger Helper Hacks, Fancy Fast Food: Burger King Breakfast Sandwich, I Crashed Guy Fieri’s Party and It Changed My Life (which absolutely sounds like clickbait and it is not, it’s a really good story).

The Takeout If YouTube videos aren’t your thing and you’d rather just read an article, but still want the same sense of fun and genuine love of all things food, The Takeout is the website for you. From interesting deep dives into a local food or food celebration, to fast food taste tests, fantasy food drafts, general food news, and a whole of delicious sounding recipes that I will one day try, it’s a website for people who love food and want to talk about it with others. Its comment sections are usually wonderful and made up of people sharing food stories and recipes. It is a daily read for me with excellent staff members and guest writers that I highly recommend if it’s something you’re at all interested in.

Recommended posts: Hardee’s BFC Angus Thickburger review (or really, any of Allison Robicelli’s taste tests), the Hibernation Holiday series, Miso Butter Spaghetti Carbonara, Peanut Butter Milk, Fantasy Food Draft: Best Ballpark Food, When Finding the Tastes of Home Requires A Roadtrip, The Worst Meals I’ve Cooked This Year (So Far), Ice Cream For Dinner Night

Continue reading Best of 2020: Things That Made Me Happy

Best of 2020: Romance Novels

Like so many others, romance novels helped get me through this terrible year. The comfort in a promised happily ever after and stories that are extremely character-focused were something I could handle when my ability to follow complex plots was limited. Stories about healing and thriving after hardship were a reminder that better days were to come and that the future is worth fighting for. The kindness extended these characters at their lowest and the belief that they deserved happiness reminded me to extend that same kindness to myself when I was struggling. Romance was here to make me smile, to make my cry, and to make me forget everything else, if only for a little while, and live in the joy of these characters and the many I couldn’t include in this list.

But more than the books itself, it was the community that meant the most. It was a rocky start to the year as RWA continued its very public implosion but it also brought me a whole lot of new authors to follow on Twitter (which in turn brought me more recommendations and even more happiness). Their discussions on Romancelandia and where they would like to see it go in the future, feelings and analysis of current events, and their general no-nonsense attitude when it comes to dealing with outdated, often sexist, attempts to devalue the work they do educated me, made me think, and gave me hope when I needed it most.

Then the Fated Mates phonebanking and Romancing the Runoff happened and I really got to see the power of community. Out of a shared interest in stories, people joined together to turn that love into action and it was inspiring to watch. As of December 17th, Romancing the Runoff raised almost half a million dollars in a month and a half for voting rights organizations in Georgia and Fated Mates have made hundreds of thousands of phone calls and organized postcard drives for both the national election and the Georgia runoff. The enthusiasm and drive was infectious and did so much to make a never ending election feel a little more survivable. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this corner of this community and what they have chosen to stand for.

1. Xeni by Rebekah Weatherspoon I am pretty sure that Rebekah Weatherspoon is my most read author of the year at 8 books and this was my very favorite of hers. As with all of her books, there is a grace and compassion that she extends toward her protagonists that gets me every time and then couples that with supportive friendships and truly some of the best sex scenes in the genre. I loved Xeni as a character from the little bit we got of her in Rafe and loved this particular story for her. It is a contemporary marriage of convenience plot with two bisexual leads, a whole lot of family secrets and baggage, and an incredibly sweet love story. It was a connection they never expected when they started the project (though there’s never any real animosity or bickering as they figured out their arrangement) and they were both able to find comfort and security in the other. They are both such good, kind, loyal people that you root for their happiness individually and with each other. Her books, especially her Loose Ends series, which are very connected with the Fit and Beards and Bondage trilogies, are some of the emotionally fulfilling romances I’ve read and I love their emphasis on healing and community. This book may be my favorite but really, this is just a plea for you to check out Weatherspoon’s work in general because she deserves to be a huge success. (Add to Goodreads)

2. The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon How do you not immediately love a book where three women realize their boyfriend is cheating on them with the others and instantly decide they’re going to be friends from there forward? I am in love with all three of these women and the easy friendship they struck up, it is probably my favorite trilogy setup in a very long time. This is Samiah’s story and first of all, I love that she is a Black woman developing an app that I would very much like to use. We do not talk about women in the tech world enough and that is especially true for Black women and other women of color so I appreciated that we got this look in what that means in her work life. Romance novels in general have been terrific at exploring lived experiences like this and not shying away from both the difficulties and the joys and it really brings them to life. Second, few things are more enjoyable to read than inconvenient romances. Love doesn’t always come on a timeframe and that is exactly what Samiah and Daniel found in each other. There were reasons that they should have started anything but the chemistry and attraction was undeniable and they took a chance that (of course) ultimately paid off. Sometimes we have to let our feelings take us where they will instead of shove them away and take joy when it comes and I loved watching Samiah do just that.  (Add to Goodreads)

3. Take A Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert This was one of my most anticipated books of 2020 after loving Get A Life, Chloe Brown last year and it did not disappoint. I love a determined heroine who insists she doesn’t have time (or the emotional capacity) for romance and a hero with a soft heart. Throw in some fake dating and I am all the way in. But one of my favorite things about this trilogy so far (and Hibbert as an author in general) is the weight she gives to the mental health of her characters. Zaf has anxiety, including an on page panic attack, and it’s never treated as anything that makes him less desirable as a person. Dani has some issues to work through with feeling like her personality and way of approaching the world makes her fundamentally incompatible with romance and they both start to work through and address those issues. They’re never things keeping them from being together, just things to work on and with to be the best versions of themselves. It is full of compassion for these two characters at every stage of their journeys and celebrates holding the things that bring us joy and fulfillment close, which was a message we all needed this year. (Add to Goodreads)

4. Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall If you haven’t had enough fake dating, don’t worry because this book also has you covered. Luc is the son of a rockstar and enough of a mess that he’s a tabloid staple. Oliver is the son who will never live up to his parents’ expectations but he’s going to try his hardest anyway and shut out anything that might mess up that image of himself. So naturally, when Luc needs a boyfriend to convince his nonprofit’s stuffy donors to continue to support them, his friend Bridget recommends Oliver. They are both a pile of unaddressed issues and coping mechanisms disguised as reasonably functioning adults and in addition to seeing them learn to fit together, we get to see them start to heal and move past their traumas. It gets heavy in moments but never overwhelming as it all takes place alongside Luc’s absolutely ridiculous coworkers and his fantastic group of friends who have the best group chat names. Luc’s world feels real and lived in and it’s truly wonderful to see Oliver find his place in it. (Add to Goodreads)

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Best of 2020: Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

I say this every year and it continues to be true so it’s worth saying again – these two genres are producing so much amazing content right now that it is hard to keep up with it all. But when with as many of them I read this year, there are so many more that generated a lot of enthusiasm that I couldn’t fit in and that is truly an exciting place to be as a reader. I love the variety of stories being told and all the ways these authors and more are expanding the ideas of what these genres can be and who these stories are about and for. These were some of the books that moved and excited me the most this past year, regardless of genre, with many favorite authors and some that I got to discover for the first time this year.

1. The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune This was my favorite book of 2020. It is beautifully kind and has the most precious found family full of slightly unusual children that deserve all of the love in the world. It’s a fantasy take on a “very regimented main character learns that sometimes a little chaos makes for a happier life” story but mostly it’s about finding your place and your people where you’re allowed to be exactly what you are and so you become a better, fuller version of yourself. Arthur is truly the best adoptive father to his house full of children that no one else would care for and seeing how all of these children blossom throughout the story is heartwarming, as is Linus’s growing love and protectiveness toward them. They may have started as an assignment but they became his and learning to reconcile that with the life he thought he was supposed to have, where he never knew that colors like cerulean could exist and be a part of your life, is the most satisfying emotional journey. It’s a story of good people finding happiness and it was the story I and so many others needed this year. (Add to Goodreads)

2. The City We Became by NK Jemisin I was always going to love this book. It’s by an author I love and it has an amazing premise (5 New Yorkers band together to protect their city from an ancient evil). But even going in with high hopes, it moved me in a way I wasn’t fully prepared for because of when I read it. Fiction is never divorced from our world, it is created from what is and what could be and what ifs. But to read a story of these people fighting for the soul of their city, explicitly against a villain that foments hate and distrust in others, while pausing to browse Twitter and see New York (along with cities across the county) turning out in huge numbers to say that Black Lives Matter and to demand a better, more just world, was an incredibly powerful experience. It is a love letter to New York and the diversity of its residents and neighborhoods and the way they stand together. It’s a world that is simultaneously ours and not ours and that makes the anger and sharpness of the rebukes more straightforward than the sentiments in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (which is also a gorgeous, searing read) but it does the same thing for the hope. It is a book that explicitly says “the world might be awful, but we don’t have to like it that way” and tells us to want and fight for better. It’s a tremendous start to what is sure to be another outstanding trilogy and I cannot wait for more. (Add to Goodreads)

3. A Killing Frost by Seanan McGuire No piece of media I consumed this year gave me as much excitement or happiness as this book. It is the 14th book in the October Daye series and I don’t understand how this series keeps getting bigger and deeper while still feeling so small and character-driven. It’s a book with gigantic plot implications that immediately set my theorizing brain (and that of the wonderful fandom on Discord) going in all sorts of fun ways but it also features one of McGuire’s favorite things to write about and that is the idea of finding your way home. Over the course of the book, it’s a description that could apply to three different characters and each time, it made me very emotional. Home is the place you fit, where there are people who love you. Whether that is a daughter, a squire, a fiance, an aunt, the man you once loved and his wife, or any of the other complicated string of relationships that make up this wonderful universe, it is finding those people and holding on to them. It gave a character I adore the happiest ending (or maybe just a new beginning) that could ever exist for him, in a way I was so utterly unprepared for and that still fills me with indescribable joy, and expanded (or just made official) Toby’s ever-expanding family and was the brightest spot during a difficult time. I am so grateful for this book and this series and the way it continues to mean a little more to me with every passing year. (Add to Goodreads)

4.The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal I absolutely love this alternate history of the space race and attempts to move significant portions of Earth’s population to space after a natural disaster. I think the worldbuilding is fascinating and with this book, we get to see a different aspect of it after the first two books spent with Elma navigating the space program as the first Lady Astronaut. Nicole is a politician’s wife as well as an accomplished pilot with space experience and watching her navigate those two warring identities would have been fascinating enough for a whole book. But then it threw in a compelling mystery with sabotage and betrayal and I couldn’t put it down. I love stories about politically savvy women who are all about image management. They know who they are expected to be and use that to their fullest advantage. I find them utterly fascinating and Nicole is such a good example. She gets to be what others expect her to be on the surface and full of depth below that she is only able to show to a few trusted friends. She’s calculating and brutal and will do it all with a smile and heels and it’s a thing of beauty to witness. It pushes things forward in a very interesting way and leaves you completely satisfied before we return to Elma’s journey to Mars in book 4. (Add to Goodreads)

Continue reading Best of 2020: Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

Best of 2020: YA Fiction

I may not read a lot of YA these days but some of things that moved me the most this year fell into that classification and I was thrilled to find that I at least read enough to do a Top 10 list celebrating the wonderful work these authors are doing. Some of these books were enthusiastically recommended on Twitter (a truly wonderful side effect of following a lot of authors), some were nominated or have the potential to be nominated for Lodestar awards, and some have been on my TBR list for a while but all brought me joy this year and excited me for what they could mean to teens today. Even as an adult, these books can still teach and reinforce messages that we need to internalize and there is value to be found in continuing to read them.

1. I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn I was just expecting a cute romance and teen girl discovering herself, which would have honestly been enough for me, but what I ended up getting was even better. I got a portrayal of a terrific grandparent-granddaughter relationship that reminded me of my own (and made me cry as a result) and a line that resonated so deeply that I can add it to the list of things I’m grateful to Kuhn for giving me, not just in this book but in her Heroine Complex series as well. One thing she does really well is capture the particular experience that comes with being full or partly Japanese American whose family has been in the US for multiple generations. In this book, Kimi reflects on her lack of knowledge about her family’s history, particularly as it relates to the internment camps during World War II. No one offered and she never pushed until this trip. It’s a realization I came to in my own life over the past few years but there’s no one who was alive at the time to answer my questions. My grandparents lived around 15 miles from Pearl Harbor in 1941, they would have been in their late teens, and I don’t know what that was like for them. It’s not something they would have wanted to talk about at all but it’s also knowledge that has been lost that I regret not considering while they were alive. It’s such a specific reflection but it hit home for me in a way that will undoubtedly stick with me. (Add to Goodreads)

2. Each of Us A Desert by Mark Oshiro This book is STUNNING. I have been a fan of Oshiro’s media thoughts and reviews on Mark Reads and Mark Watches for a very long time and it’s been exciting to see them become an acclaimed author. I took advantage of the fact that book tours and publicity were virtual in this disaster of a year and got to listen to them talk about it with Sarah Gailey and hearing this book’s journey to a finished product only made it more rewarding to read. It’s beautifully and lyrically written with original poems (in both English and Spanish) throughout and I love the way they play with the overall form by framing the book as a prayer. It was incredibly clever and well done but on top of that, it’s the kind of story I love as a reader. It is all about questioning the stories you’ve been told all your life and what they mean for your destiny. It’s a story of self-discovery and self-definition and learning to trust others to help hold your stories. Xochitl is achingly relatable in her desire to be more than the service she provides to others and to be free to discover who she is divorced from her role as the village cuentista and the journey she undertakes is so incredibly rewarding. (Add to Goodreads)

3. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo This was the first book I had read by Acevedo and I have read another one since then, which is always a good indication that I really enjoyed an author. This is a book I had always wanted to read but was a little bit intimidated by because it is a novel-in-verse and that’s not a style I feel particularly comfortable reading. So I chose to listen to the audiobook instead, read by the author, and it let me focus on the words and the story instead of being concerned that I was somehow reading it wrong. And wow, what a good story it is. I loved Xiomara’s self-discovery and finding her passion and her voice. Her questioning and pushing back against restrictive gender roles and religious practices she isn’t sure she believes in is captured so well in this format and it does really feel like a young girl using poetry to get out complicated emotions that would have been hard to access in any other form. I fully understand why this book is so acclaimed and loved and if you try it, I highly recommend the audiobook to fully inhabit the story. (Add to Goodreads)

4. You Should See Me In A Crown by Leah Johnson This book was everything I wanted in a teen romantic and coming of age story and I don’t understand how it hasn’t already been optioned for a movie or show. I loved the setting of this very intense high school prom culture with a competition and scholarship money. It was exactly the correct level of heightened stakes for me and within it, I love the relationships that grew from it. I really loved Liz and Mack from the moment they met and the tension they had with Liz wanting to stay closeted because being queer and Black in this midwest school didn’t really feel like a possibility if she wanted to be prom queen and get the much needed scholarship money. But she was proven wrong (and a little right but mostly wrong) in the best possible way. I also really loved the way Liz and Jordan came back together to repair their friendship and the past miscommunications and outside interference they had to work though. Childhood friends know those quirks about you in a way new friends can’t and the ease with which they fell back into something supportive and real was everything to me. So I am going to need 2021 to get on with an adaptation of some sort and until then, I’ll settle for encouraging everyone I know to read this book. (Add to Goodreads)

Continue reading Best of 2020: YA Fiction

Best of 2020: Nonfiction Books

It’s time to talk about the things we loved this year! This was not a huge year of TV for me so my friends at Marvelous Geeks and Nerdy Girl Notes teamed up to do a a couple podcast episodes together instead of writing our own lists! You can list to us talk about our favorite performances, characters, and platonic relationships in part one and our favorite romantic relationships and episodes (plus a quick bonus discussion on the shows that made us happiest this year) in part two. It was a lot of fun to collaborate with both of them for the first time in this format and I hope you’ll go listen if you’re mostly here for TV content and let us know your thoughts! And for more year end content, be sure to check out the rest of the great content at Marvelous Geeks.

I may have watched much less TV than usual this year but it was a terrific year for books. I have no explanation for why my brain couldn’t focus on a 25-minute episode of TV but could sit down and read a book but it’s 2020 and we had to roll with the things we could enjoy wherever possible. This is the first of four book lists and potentially a couple other lists of things I loved depending on time so if nonfiction isn’t your favorite, stay tuned for other things you may enjoy more.

As I’ve mentioned in previous years, my academic area of interest was social psychology and sociology and I’m a big fan of understanding systems and the way things operate. I love the way it allows me to get a better understanding of the world around me and to incorporate new knowledge into a broader and more thorough mental image of society and all that entails. Which is terrific for me, there are a lot of books designed to talk about exactly those things. However, it does mean that I choose things on the heavier side or things that are likely to make me mad while I’m reading them because we live in a society that has deeply rooted systemic problems. I know these books aren’t going to be the kind of reading that everyone wants to do in their limited free time but if the mood strikes for one, they can be so rewarding. They can take a lot out of you and make you examine your own thought patterns or weaker areas (which is not always the most comfortable) but they can also help make you better to your fellow humans and more determined to build a society that works for everyone, which is a reward I can always get behind.

1. Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall This is the nonfiction book I have thought about more than any other since I read it in April because it shifted my framing of feminism and what it should be. It’s a book I want everyone to read and learn from and then take the ideas found within and remake the world. In the introduction, Kendall writes “For a movement that’s meant to represent all women, it often centers on those who already have most of their needs met” and she’s right, yet that’s not what our conversations look like. It’s a dichotomy that had never fully occurred to me before because I have been privileged enough that it’s never needed to and I’m grateful it exposed that gap in my thinking and understanding of the world. It challenges each of us to really examine what we can do to truly show up and consider the needs of all women in all areas of life, from housing and education access to the environment, because they are all feminist issues. What would it look like to build a world that was actually concerned with meeting the needs of the most marginalized and trusting in the work those communities are already doing to support themselves? It’s an exciting thought and one I look forward to keep with me as I continue to learn and grow. (Add to Goodreads)

2. How We Show Up by Mia Birdsong I have no idea how I discovered this book but I am so grateful that I did. In a year with a lot of physical isolation, this book’s focus on how we build communities within our lives and how we live out those connections spoke so deeply to me. It was the same feeling I got while reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, that idea of finding a way to describe the values you hold most dear but didn’t have the words to vocalize. I love the intentionality behind Birdsong’s writing and life and the excitement in building something outside the model we’ve been given all our lives. There is joy and reflection and a deep sense of commitment to the work of nurturing the connections in our lives. It is beautiful and inspiring and a balm for my soul this year and I hope more people discover this book and get as much from it as I did. (Add to Goodreads)

3. March trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell I can struggle with graphic novels, my brain hasn’t quite figured out how to absorb both the words and the pictures and use them together to tell a story. That being said, I think the choice to tell John Lewis’s story in this way was a smart one. The juxtaposition that was possible between his fight in the civil rights movement and President Obama’s inauguration was extremely powerful and there are a couple jumps between time periods that took my breath away. It also allowed readers to experience the violence and hatred of the time in a more visceral way than just words on a page would have fully conveyed. It makes it a tough trilogy to get through but it’s no less worthwhile for it. You will be moved and feel such deep admiration for this man who fought so strongly, not just on the front lines in the South during Jim Crow but continued that fight in Congress until his death. He was a remarkable man and we are all better off because of him.  (Add to Goodreads)

Continue reading Best of 2020: Nonfiction Books

Best of 2019: TV Series

I feel like I complained a lot about TV this year but despite some disappointments and hurt, it was probably overall one of my most enjoyable in quite a while. Whether it was because I was better at stopping shows that ceased to make me happy or because I discovered so many great new things, I can look back at this year and find so much to appreciate. Once again, half hour shows are where it’s at right now for creative and unique storytelling whether its in the format of the show or the types of stories being told. As evidenced by this list, it was a terrific year for female creators telling very specific stories and doing so incredibly well and a terrific year for compassionate storytelling. It wasn’t always nice and happy but so much came from a place of love and care for its characters and their world and that’s what I want most.

Thanks for hanging around for another year and don’t forget to check out the many wonderful lists over on MGCircles and a fantastic year-end essay at Nerdy Girl Notes!

1. Fleabag Season one of this show is good and creative and rightfully brought attention to Phoebe Waller-Bridge for what she created. Season two is extraordinary. It is emotionally resonant, creatively efficient storytelling and it deserves every one of the accolades it’s received. It’s simultaneously soothing and unsettling, which makes perfect sense for a show that is about connection. It’s a season of healing and acceptance, particularly self-acceptance, and the fucking terrifying nature of vulnerability and letting yourself be seen. It’s raw and visceral but not in a way that screams at you. It’s a seductive whisper instead of a roar. It asks you to open your heart and experience the exhilaration of falling in love with someone who is everything you need but that you ultimately can’t have. It’s not anger that ends the season and it’s not even really heartbreak, although that is a component, it’s learning to be present and to sit with your emotions instead of shoving them aside. There’s not a quippy joke meant to deflect and for the first time, Fleabag is going somewhere we can’t follow. She’s ready to be alone now, knowing that she is capable of connection and that she can love and survive even after the loss of that love because she’ll carry it with her. She doesn’t need to run from her own mind and pain to keep going. It’s powerful and deeply affecting in a way that is really only possible when something is as well-constructed as this season was. Everything about it is thoughtfully chosen and led to a whole that was somehow even stronger than the sum of its parts. 

2. Good Omens This show came at precisely the right time. After a spring season of television that was once again rough on my emotions in an unplesant way (seriously shows, stop doing this), Good Omens came along with a terrific adaptation of a book I already loved, with a terrific cast, a ship to fall head over heels for, and a celebration of humanity and our ability to choose a path other than the one seemingly laid out for us. The love Neil Gaiman put into this show to make it something his best friend and co-author Terry Pratchett would have been proud of is evident in every choice and especially in interviews. The humanism that is a hallmark of Pratchett’s work is all over the show. It sees who we are, for better or worse, and says that we can choose better. The Them standing up for the world they want to be grow up in against the Four Horsemen and Adam telling Satan that he’s not his real dad despite that being his whole purpose of creation are a demonstration that we don’t have to accept what we’re told is the way things should work. We can rebuild something of our own, something that makes space for all the things we’re told are impossible. We can make a world where an angel and a demon can dine at the Ritz because the side they’ve chosen is the one they can be on together, where a witch burns the prophecies that are her legacy in order to discover a life where she makes her own choices. It is a show full of hope and love that I will cherish forever. 

3.  One Day At A Time Look, this show has been at or near the top of my lists for the past two years and this year is not going to be an exception. I love this family, the ethos behind the show, and the cast and writers too much for it not to appear. It continues to be smart and full of laughter and warmth and love in its third season as we see Schneider relapse, Penelope become a Nurse Practitioner, Elena and Syd becoming more serious, and Alex trying drugs and promptly getting grounded. It handled things like street harassment, addiction, mental health, and sex with it’s typical consideration and compassion for these characters and lets them have their own perspectives and challenges. They feel like real people that you might know and want to spend time around and you can’t help but love them and root for their successes. It’s not easy to make characters that feel so well-formed and each choice they make feel like it comes from who they are and not whatever topic they want to address, plot point they need to squeeze in, or punchline they need to hit but they have consistently done a terrific job from both a writing and acting perspective. This show is incredibly special to me and PopTV swooping in and saving it was a highlight of my year.

4. Vida This is a show with a vision and a fierce pride and joy in the communities it represents. It also has a deep compassion for who these characters are and what they have been through. As a result, it feels unlike everything else on television right now. Everyone is allowed to be full of contradictions, no one can easily be defined as good or bad. It allows space for complicated issues and is content to sit with the lack of easy answers. Above all, it’s a show about family and learning how to connect and come together after time and distance apart. Emma and Lyn’s relationship with each other and their complicated memories of their mother and her legacy are the backbone of the show. The grace it gives them to navigate that space even when its ugly and come to terms with the loss of a woman who raised them and influenced the person they became, for better or worse, while recognizing that they didn’t truly know her is extraordinary. I can’t speak to the specific ways it portrays Latinx and specifically Mexican culture but every choice they make feels like it’s one made from love and care. It doesn’t feel made to explain things to others, I know I only pick up about 75% of what’s being said when the characters are speaking Spanish, and it’s stronger for it. I love everything Tanya Saracho has created in this show and cannot wait for whatever s3 brings. As long as it maintain its compassion, and I have no reason to believe it won’t, I’m in until the end. 

Continue reading Best of 2019: TV Series

Best of 2019: Romance Books

This is the year I really got into the romance genre in a big way. Nothing brought me as much comfort and happiness as I read more of authors I’d previously enjoyed and found several more (often with extensive backlists) for me to read through. It’s been a tiring week for many of these authors as they’ve dealt with bullshit from their major professional organization but it’s so clear to me that these authors represent a new way forward for this genre and I am thrilled to be getting into it at this moment in time.

1. Reluctant Royals by Alyssa Cole The first book in the series (A Princess in Theory) made my list last year and if possible, I liked books two and three even more and loved the side stories in the two associated novellas. I couldn’t choose between them all for this list, so I’m including them all. A Duke by Default gave me a main character I absolutely adored in Portia and an internal journey for her that I loved even more than I loved her relationship with Tav (which is also very good because I am weak for grumpy people falling in love with someone who is pure sunshine). I loved watching her gain confidence in herself and her abilities as she realized she had ADHD and used the tools she had available to find a way to work with it instead of constantly fighting against it. That journey to self confidence was also what I loved about A Prince on Paper. Nya fighting for herself and pushing back against her abusive upbringing was incredible to read and you couldn’t help but cheer for her every step of the way. I adore this series and the intermingled friendships that formed as friend groups merged and became stronger with the new additions. It is full of tropes I love, incredible women and the men who love them, and so many moments of growth for everyone involved. No one is the same at the end of their book as they were in the beginning and the courage and work for each of them to get to their better place was everything I love about romance books. None of it was easy but all of it was worth it. Growth and healing are processes that are made easier with a strong support system and that is what this series provides in abundance. 

2. The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai You know a book and its main character resonated with you when you kind of want to fight all the people who didn’t like her. I perhaps related too strongly to Rhi’s tendency to throw up emotional barriers around herself and run away at the first hint that she might be hurt again all while refusing to allow herself any sort of emotional expression for fear that it made her look weak. It may not be the healthiest long-term response but it was a survival response that kept her going after an emotionally abusive relationship with her boss nearly left her blacklisted from the industry she loved. I enjoyed Rhi’s relationship with Samson and how easy it was for them to care about each other despite Rhi’s insistence that it was only going to be a casual sex and mutually beneficial work arrangement because those are romance tropes I will fall for every single time, but as always, I loved the emotional journey Rhi went through most of all. I loved her finding the strength to speak out against her former boyfriend and lending her voice to the other accusations against him. I loved her realization that she had a whole lot of people who loved her and had her back, that she didn’t have to fight and go through life alone. It was incredibly rewarding and the perfect example of why I love Alisha Rai’s books so much. Her heroines are all so complex and have been scarred by their past but find ways to heal and thrive regardless and she always manages to throw in a line or two that are exactly what I needed to hear at that moment in time. 

3. Tempest by Beverly Jenkins Beverly Jenkins is legendary in the romance world and this book made the reason abundantly clear. I am not going to write a better summation of why I loved this book than the first line of KJ Charles’s Goodreads review, “Honestly, any book where the heroine semi accidentally shoots the hero and then tells him off for not accepting her apology with sufficient grace is a winner with me.”. Regan is an absolute joy to read about from moment one. She’s incredibly competent and ready to defend herself from perceived bandits and willing to apologize when she messes up but also demand respect and basic human decency from others when they fall short. I love her immediate desire to nurture Anna’s good, curious mind and protect her from people who would force her into a strict definition of what a “good woman” should be that doesn’t allow for either childhood or self-sufficiency. I love a good grumpy guy who falls head over heels for a kind, strong woman despite his best attempts to keep her at arms length and Colt more than delivers. The character dynamics were everything I could want and I loved the look at the Wyoming frontier at a time when women were starting to be allowed to vote and formally shape their society. 

4. Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert After a near-death experience, Chloe decides to make a more exciting life for herself by creating a checklist to follow. First of all, I love that her solution was to choose a handful of things and insist that she’d be a more exciting person if she completed the list. It’s very me and I love her for it. Second, I love romances where both people have past issues to overcome and are actively taking steps to do so and this book celebrates the process of working through your trauma in order to find a fuller life for yourself. Third, this book is really adorable. There’s a rescued cat, flirty emails, and a whole book of two characters finding someone who sees and cherishes them for all they are. There is so much care that she manages to convey between Chloe and Red in ways both big and small. They’re not perfect and both mess up, but they apologize and work to do better. Sometimes their sore spots come into conflict and it’s painful but it’s also an opportunity for each to grow and learn for the future. Finally, this book is very hot. Hibbert is very good at her sex scenes and the chemistry she managed to convey on the page was explosive.  

Continue reading Best of 2019: Romance Books

Best of 2019: Episodes

As much as I enjoy cliffhanger-driven television for encouraging me to keep watching a series, I will always prefer shows with slightly more discrete and distinct episodes. The ability to craft a good story that satisfies in 22-60 minutes that also ties into the season or series as a whole is a difficult one that not every show can manage, but when they do, it stays with with you. Some of these episodes, I liked simply because they did a good job doing exactly what they set out to do, others had something more profound to say that spoke to me on a deeper level, and I think both types are important to me as a viewer.

If you’re not already, be sure to check out the year-end reviews over at MGCircles and continue to celebrate the things that you enjoyed the most this year!

Episode One (Fleabag) Everything about this episode is brilliant and absolutely riveting. The jumps between scenes, the choral backing, the most satisfying punch in the history of television, the introduction of Hot Priest, and the complication and devotion that can only exist between sisters. It’s a fantastic reintroduction to the series after three years away and the whole episode is infused with a frantic energy that sucks you in and won’t let go. The family dinner after over a year apart where they are so desperately trying to appear normal in front of this outsider and utterly failing because they are absolutely not functional as a unit. The writing and acting are both terrific and Andrew Scott slid so seamlessly into this world and immediately feels like a natural fit for the off-kilter, fast-paced banter that helps define its style. It’s a masterclass in efficient, dynamic television and I cannot possibly say enough good things about it. 

The Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (Game of Thrones) In a season that was mostly filled with disappointment and horrible writing choices, this episode feels like a gift from Bryan Cogman. In this precursor to the battle against the White Walkers, the characters and the viewers were given a chance to breathe and to take stock of what was important. And this import was found in each other – the history they’d shared, the bonds that had formed, the trusts that had yet to be shaken. This show is plot-heavy, it always has been. But just this once, we got a look at a version of the show that wasn’t. Yes, there was some necessary battle prep like the shots of Gendry making weapons and the war council, but really, it was a change for discussions and decisions and declarations. It was only right that Cogman wrote this episode after gifting us with “Kissed by Fire” and “Oathbreaker” in previous seasons. This was the culmination of Jaime and Brienne’s arc that started so many seasons ago and I could not have wanted anything more. Regardless of their ending that I will be mad about forever, this is who they were to each other. The person they chose to fight and potentially die alongside. The one who had their unquestioned trust and loyalty. The one they loved. There are three separate points in this episode where that subtext nearly ticks over into actual text and for as much as I love these two, it was the better choice to leave it unspoken but still heard. Then we cap off the episode with Jon and his terrible timing but as a result, we headed into battle with all the cards on the table for the most important relationships on the show. 

Anxiety (One Day at a Time) This episode is so well-made and the care that went into its creation is so apparent in every choice. As always, Justina Machado is incredibly talented and I will never understand how every awards body isn’t showering her with accolades and she grounds her performance in something compassionate and real. I love that the bulk of the non-flashback portion of the episode takes place at group therapy. We absolutely need to normalize getting help like this and the benefits of having a supportive community around you and there was something special in seeing this group of women come together around an issue that affects them all in very different ways. There’s not one way for anxiety to present and not a single coping mechanism that will work for everyone and it feels like the writers of this episode wanted to be extra sure that the viewers knew that. It was an outstretched hand saying that we aren’t alone and there is possible relief. This episode also really demonstrates what’s so special about Penelope and Schneider’s relationship. We all need that person in our life that we can be honest with and trust that they will be there in response with whatever it is that we need. Just being able to tell someone “I’m having an anxiety attack” and putting a name to the feeling is an important step and allowing yourself to lean on someone else when shame would have us isolate and hide away is a powerful and healing part of the process and this episode demonstrated that perfectly. I’m so grateful for everything that went into making this episode what it is and hope that it started conversations and fostered a little more understanding in the world. 

Who’s Got the Pain (Fosse/Verdon) Coming together and falling apart. This episode is Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon’s relationship in a nutshell. From their first meeting, you see why they connected both personally and professionally. It changed nearly everything for them, they found someone who instinctively understood them creatively and worked to make them shine even brighter. It invigorated them in every way. But it didn’t change who they were. Fosse wasn’t capable of a monogamous relationship with anything, he was always looking for something more or new or different. We see it as his marriage with Joan falls apart and we see in the fight in Majorca. He undoubtedly loved Verdon as much as he was able and it was never going to be enough. She needed more of him than he had to give and sometimes that made her walk away but sometimes she stayed anyway because some of him made more sense than none. This episode is brilliantly directed and edited, the camera angles in their pre-rehearsal fight are tense and suffocating, William’s line delivery of her stage directions for their fight on the beach are brutal and cutting, and the dance scenes are all filled with chemistry and a natural intimacy. Every element of it was perfectly executed and it’s the episode I’m most likely to keep coming back to as an example of who these two were and how the show captured them. 

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Best of 2019: Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books

I love the possibility that sci-fi and fantasy offer and there’s really never been a more exciting time to love this genre. All but one of these books were published in the last two years and the wealth of talent in the genre at the moment is ridiculous. There’s truly never been a better time to fall in love with these very wide, diverse genres and dream up a better future with them. If you want stories about hope, healing, and compassion, this list is a good place to look. Those were the stories I wanted to hear most this year and these books delivered.

1. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal When a meteor strikes the Earth, causing initial problems as well as long-term climate change, the need to get to space and establish a colony becomes increasingly critical. This alternate history takes place in the 1950s and centers around Elma York, a member of the WASP program during World War II and a scientist, who dreams of becoming an astronaut. But it’s still the 1950s in America and thoughts on what’s acceptable for (certain types of) women are what we know them as. She gets to struggle with the roles she’s placed in as well as becoming aware of the advantages she had in comparison to other women at the time. We get to see her learn and grow and struggle and overcome as she reaches toward and achieves her dream. It’s a story of drive and longing and friendship that I enjoyed from start to finish. 

2. How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin I am not always a fan of short stories – it’s a format that I often struggle with, even when the work itself is good. With that said, this is an incredible collection. I didn’t love everything, as is to be expected, but the writing is undeniably strong. Most of the stories are standalones with one set in her Broken Earth universe (which I was delighted to return to) and another in her Dreamblood universe (which immediately got moved up my TBR list). Some of the highlights include “The Ones Who Stayed and Fight”, an interrogation of the concept of utopia that was no less enjoyable for the fact that I hadn’t read the Ursula LeGuin story it interacts with; “Red Dirt Witch”, which blends the Fae with the Jim Crow South and is above all about the necessity of hope; “The Trojan Girl”, a AI story about dreams helping to make us human; and “Cuisine des Mémoires”, which muses about memories and getting stuck in our past through the use of a restaurant that can recreate any dish so long as you know the place and date on which it occurred. 

4. The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley I had previously read and loved Hurley’s nonfiction essay collection “The Geek Feminist Revolution” but hadn’t read any of her fiction yet and WOW was this a good way to be introduced to it. This is what I want my science fiction to be. Yes, it’s bloody and dark and the world created is both grim and all too believable, but in the end, that darkness doesn’t triumph. There is hope and people and things worth fighting to keep. The non-linear construction of the book is brilliant as Dietz jumps around time seemingly without rhyme or reason (with smart, thought out time travel!) alongside the interview snippets talking about a future event that gradually coalesce into a single narrative. It’s sharp, incisive, powerful and I need it to be nominated for awards next year. 

Continue reading Best of 2019: Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books

Best of 2019: Moments

There were a lot of noteworthy bad decisions written for television in 2019, often with cringeworthy interviews that followed that doubled-down on the poor choices. But sometimes, writers got it exactly right. They gave us moments that reassured us, surprised us, spoke to important societal topics, and made us feel. They were the ones that understood their characters and the contexts in which they operate and created worlds we wanted to be a part of. They gave us something to aim for as we make the world around us a more compassionate and inclusive place. They valued relationships and emotional history. They were the moments that reminded me why I love television even when it’s frustrating me.

1. Jaime knights Brienne (Game of Thrones) This moment, even more than their sex scene, is the culmination of five seasons worth of character and relationship development. It is everything Brienne has secretly wanted for so long yet it felt outside of her grasp because of her gender. Until Jaime (thanks to a good idea from Tormund) decides to change it. There was no way for this scene to be any more meaningful. It needed to be Jaime that gives this to her. He has seen very clearly who she is for the past 5 seasons and been grateful for and humbled by her sense of honor and duty. It’s her firm belief in the vows of knighthood that reminded him of his own and called him to fight for Winterfell and humanity. It’s a moment that only Nikolaj and Gwen could have made together. Their love for these characters and their ability to have full conversations with nothing more than a look were absolutely essential. There is love and admiration and gratitude and the terrifying and healing nature of being so clearly seen. I love how thrilled everyone else in the room is for Brienne (especially Pod) but it’s evident how much they all faded away during the actual knighting. It was Jaime’s declaration of love and something that needed to be said on what they thought could well be their last night alive. For one moment, Brienne of Tarth got everything she wanted. She got the honor of being called a knight and a man who genuinely cared for her as the extraordinary woman that she is and she deserved nothing less.

2. Aziraphale and Crowley Through Time (Good Omens) TV shows spend time on what matters and too often, that’s used as an excuse to forego character moments in favor of plot. But that character and relationship building matters, it’s why viewers care about what happens. The episode three cold open told us what Good Omens valued. They spent half an episode (about 8% of the total show runtime) dedicated to Aziraphale and Crowley’s incredibly slow courtship. The bond and trust between them and shared appreciation (or at least lack of disdain) for humanity is vital to understanding why they make the choices they do in the following 3.5 episodes of the show. It is an utterly delightful half hour as we fast forward through history including the Flood and a production of a struggling Hamlet and watch these two settle into their roles as something approximating allies and friends. We see the moment that Aziraphale realizes that he’s a little in love with Crowley, not after he rescued Aziraphale from the Nazis but when he saved the books from the ensuing bombing, and the moment where it all gets to be too much with Michael Sheen’s devastating line reading of “You go too fast for me, Crowley”. These actors are fantastic together and by the end, we’re rooting for them to succeed in their mission to avert the apocalypse and settle down together. That is the whole point of that cold open and it’s perfect. 

3. Queer Gatekeeping (Vida) I wish that this scene was available somewhere as a clip but in lieu of that, each word is link to a different tumblr gifset and that will have to do. Before we get to the content and why it’s remarkable, I want to take a moment to point out how gorgeous the lighting in this scene is. Their designer did a terrific job fitting the mood of a wedding but also making everyone look incredible. I absolutely adore Emma’s righteous indignation at yet another group of people trying to police her identity and her expression of it and Nico’s use of sarcasm to rebut all the ridiculous gatekeeping present in this scene. It’s cathartic for anyone who has ever been worried that they’re somehow not queer enough because they don’t tick certain boxes or for anyone who has been explicitly excluded from a community in which they’d hoped to find acceptance based on appearances or snap judgements. It’s an incredible scene and I so appreciate the writers for very clearly pushing back against that sort of judgement and policing.

4. Jimmy’s non-vows (You’re the Worst) I cannot thank Stephen Falk enough for this moment. Nothing about Jimmy and Gretchen’s relationship has ever been conventional. In their words, it’s “ugly and uncomfortable and haunting and brilliant and thrilling”. But it’s theirs and its what’s right for them as people in this moment of time. Their happy ending isn’t necessarily a wedding and kids and promises to be together forever. Instead, Jimmy promises to love Gretchen and commit to being with her every day until they decide otherwise. It doesn’t require long-term commitment on either of their parts but does ask them choose each other over and over again. And that is perhaps one of the most romantic things I’ve seen a show do. Gretchen has never been convinced that she’ll be anyone’s choice nor has she believed she should be. As she mentions prior to this moment, she can’t promise Jimmy forever when she’s not convinced she can promise herself forever. But they can give each other one day at a time. They get an ending that feels right to them, not only to honor the characters and the journey they’ve been through over five seasons but also to honor the attachment the show has cultivated to them. Falk never ended to pull the rug out from under them and have them end up alone and miserable because it felt cruel to the audience and in a year where that seemed all too common because of “clever writing” or “realism”, I appreciated it more than ever.  

Continue reading Best of 2019: Moments