The Backlist Reader Challenge 2021

I just read about this challenge from @The Bookwyrm’s Hoard. I read about the challenge on Nicole@ BookWrymsKnits‘ blog and it seems pretty made for me.

Basically this challenge encourages us to read all those books that are toppling over our TBR list that were published pre-2020. In my case that’s a good portion of my TBR. I will certainly try to review at least some of books over the year, so please stay tuned!

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books of 2020

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

December 29: Favorite Books of 2020

I know this was from last week, but I missed it then, so I’m doing it now. I also know that it’s not Tuesday anymore, but I’ve had an eventful few weeks, so this is when I’m getting to it!

I reread a few old favorites this year, so I set a rule that rereads aren’t allowed on my list. These are the top ten books I read for the first time in 2020.

1. Mariana by Monica Dickens- I read this as part of the Persephone readathon back in January. I think this was a case of the right book finding me at the right time. But it continues my literary love affair with Persephone.

2. Gravity is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty- This was a weird book. It’s about a woman, Abi, whose brother disappeared on her birthday 20 years earlier. That same year she started getting chapters from some sort of self help manual, The Guidebook, in the mail. So when Abi is invited to an all expense paid weekend retreat to learn “the truth” about the Guidebook, she links it with learning the truth about her brother’s disappearance. And all of this happens in roughly the first 50 pages of the book. I don’t want to give away too much, but this book goes in a direction I never expected- in a good way.

3. The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins- I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone looking for a fast read, but if you’re looking for a thriller that takes its time with the set up and execution, this is one. It’s about Olivia, a British historian with a high flying career and a beautiful family. She also has a research assistant, Vivian. But we quickly come to realize that Vivian has ulterior motives for helping Olivia; motives that reach back into the women’s’ past, and may lead one of them to murder.

4. The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler– This was a dual timeline story, where one of the tales bordered on fantasy, without ever fully taking the jump into it. It’s about Simon, a librarian, who lives alone in his family house on Long Island. When a rare book dealer sends him a volume that may have some connection to his family, Simon gets caught up in the tale of a misfit, living and working with the circus. But it may also reveal a curse on Simon’s family. If that’s true, only the book can save them. This book had sketches by the author alongside the text. I’m always amazed my people who can do two things (in this case writing and drawing) well.

5. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor- This book is nicknamed the Nigerian Harry Potter. It’s about a girl who was born in New York City but lives in Nigeria. Her features are west African but she’s albino. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. But when she discovers that she’s a “free agent” she realizes that she’s got latent magical power and a lot of catching up to do. As she’s learning her footing, she and her friends are asked to track down a career criminal who also knows magic. The Nigerian setting and folklore gives this book a unique flavor.

6. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware– Rowan is a nanny for a family living in the Scottish highlands. The house has an advanced communication system built into it. “Happy” is an app that controls everything from ordering food when the fridge runs low, to turning on the lights and drawing the curtains. She’s not put off by the fact that four previous nannies left the job in the past year. But soon Rowan comes to wonder if the ghostly tales that were told about the house are true.

7. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell- When the Durrell family could no longer endure rain soaked England, they fled to the sun soaked Greek island of Corfu. I read this because I love the tv series The Durrells in Corfu, and this was the basis for the series. The animals of Corfu soon became a common sight in the Durrell home.

8. Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner– Hotel Du Lac isn’t a big adventure with a complicated plot. I’d call it “quiet” book. It seems to be moving along at a slow pace, but then it sneaks up at you with it’s wit. It’s about Edith Hope, an author of romance novels which she writes under a different name. But when she realizes that her life is resembling one of her novels (and not in a good way!) she escapes to the quiet luxury of the titular Swiss hotel. But when she gets to know the other guests, she realizes that they all have their own drama. I loved the characters in this book. They started to feel like old friends after a while. Apparently it was adapted for TV in 1986, as a joint production between the BBC and A&E Television Networks. I’ll have to give that miniseries a look to see how it translated to TV. If done properly, I can see it working well.

9. The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates. When I was in college I interviewed Joyce Carol Oates for our campus newspaper The Bard Free Press. Well, “interviewed” might be overstating my role in the process. A fellow reporter asked her legit questions, and I nodded emphatically while slightly starstruck. But in the process of becoming totally dumbstruck by awe of Oates, I gained an appreciation for this author who doesn’t subscribe to genre pigeonholing at all, who moves from novel to short fiction to drama and back again. Who is incredibly prolific. When I saw this book consisting of a novella, and six short stories, I was intrigued. Oates often shines when she tackles the dark complexities of the human psyche, and that’s certainly the case of these seven intense tales.

10. The Witches of Crannock Dale by Thomas M. Kane– Full disclosure requires me to reveal that the author of this book is a friend of mine, so I may not be an unbiased judge. But it carves a unique place for itself in the fantasy fiction landscape. Set in a fictional place at an indeterminate time, the book follows the coming of age of 11 year old Mara Bennett. When her aunt is arrested for witchcraft, Mara vows to do what she can to help. But her efforts to learn more lead her deep into local politics, power struggles and threats of war. Mara makes a likable young protagonist, in a complicated world, trying to keep her family safe and close amidst a dangerous situation. I look forward to following her through the series.

Anyone have any must reads this year?

New Year Reflections

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on Pexels.com

Wow.

This is a year I never expected to have, that has challenged me in ways that I never could have predicted. For many others those changes have been even more drastic.

I usually post a sort of resolutions check in at this point: I think of it as a way to hold myself accountable for last year’s resolutions before I make this year’s.

But this year I’m not going to do that. This year I’ve had my mind on things other than whether or not I was keeping a resolution I made back in January when the world was a totally different place. Instead, I’m going to do a New Year’s Reflection: where I look back on the past year and think about where I am now and how I got here.

One thing I haven’t done as much as I’d want is writing. I’d wanted to have my second novel, Frost, finished and published by now. It’s getting there, but it’s happening slowly. I’m going to try not to be disappointed in myself for that. I’m going to try to accept the fact that this is the pace it’s going. I made the choice not to rush it and publish something I’m not proud of. I hope to finish this project in 2021, but we’ll see what next year brings.

Actually, as I look at my posts on this blog from the past year, I’m seeing a lot of Top Ten Tuesdays. That’s partially because I like making these lists. I also find it oddly relaxing . When I’m worrying about something, it helps to engage my mind in something else. The other reason I’ve done them so much, is that I like having something to post. Believe it or not, my life isn’t always glamourous and exiting! But I enjoy posting on here. I like reading other people’s blogs. I like the people who comment on my posts. So I continue to make them, and TTT gives me a way to do that, even when I don’t have any brilliant ideas!

Another thing I’m seeing is the read along I did of Kushiel’s Dart, hosted by Imyril @ There’s Always Room for One More. I’d been meaning to read that book for years. It’s been sitting on my shelf, waiting for me. But I haven’t always been up for a 1000 pager. The read along gave me a way to read it that was supportive, and having the weekly check ins and schedule held me accountable. I’m still not quite sure if I liked the book, but I definitely liked the experience.

Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

But I am also seeing more “original” posts than I thought! Take a look:

Sitcoms in the Time of Covid (A look at something that’s helped. Though as I read it now, I make it seem like The Unicorn is on the same level as The Good Place and Schitt’s Creek. It’s not, so don’t expect it to be. It’s just a show I’ve mildly sort of enjoyed this year.)

I’ve Been (2020 Hellscape Edition)

Novels That Would Be Great On Stage (not a TTT, but a list nonetheless!)

“Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow.” – A Patti Smith Reader (This pretty much what it says)!

“Need A Sitter” Why yes, I do (A look at the Babysitter’s Club; then and now)

I’ve Been

On Race, Justice, and Other Pressing Matters of the Day (and also books) (I’m glad I looked back at this one. It’s a reminder to myself. )

Favorite Non-Disney Fairy Tale Films (Again, exactly what it sounds like!)

Non-Disney Fairy Tale Movies: The Sequel (writing the first one was fun, so I did another!)

I’ve Been: Lockdown Edition

While You’re Isolated… (It was fun coming up with a list of events and resources during lockdown)

I’ve Been: Social Distancing Edition (This was only the beginning!)

Things That Make Me Happy (wow! I thought the first two months of 2020 were stressful. Little did I know… But I’m glad I read again. It’s always nice to have a reminder of the little things I love)

Why Self Publishing is Harder Than People Think (I had completely forgotten I wrote this! Most of what it says still stands)

What Does it Mean To Be A Successful Author? (I needed to reread this today. I’m glad I did)

On Relaxation (Back in January, when I thought I was stressed.)

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

I didn’t include any posts that were part of TTTs or tags or readathons. But they are there. One thing that strikes me as I look back on them is how often I’d begin a post the same way I began this one: with some sort of mention of how hard this year has been. I think that’s partially because I still can’t believe it. But also a reminder to myself that this is something that everyone is going through together. Our experiences haven’t been the same by any means, but it’s affected all of us in some way.

So we’ll see how 2021 goes. Hopefully better. Instead of a New Year’s resolution, I’m making a New Year’s wish: Better times. For all of us.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Love to Get As Gifts

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

December 22: Books I Hope Santa Brings

I decided to tweak this one a bit. I will accept these books as gifts from anyone. I’m not limiting it to Santa (*hint* *hint*)

  1. Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox – This is a recent addition to my TBR, after reading about it in another top ten list: Top 10 Books About Mermaids in the Guardian. It sounds just right for me though. A gothic mystery about mermaids? A Victorian set historical novel? Yes please! The writer of the list, Monique Roffey, says that Fox writes like “the  like the lovechild of Sarah Waters and Angela Carter.” Two authors I greatly admire. If I wasn’t sold before, I am now!

2. The Lost Queen by Signe Pike- This is another recent addition but I’ve heard really wonderful things about it. I also seen a lot of comparisons to a lot of popular novels from Outlander to Wolf Hall to Clan of the Cave Bear, to The Mists of Avalon, and back again. I think that sometimes comp titles can be helpful in letting readers know they’re in for a certain kind of experience (sort of a “If you didn’t like x, you probably won’t like y” kind of thing) but often they just set readers expectations in one direction, only to discover that the book goes in a different direction altogether. So I’m trying to take from those comparisons that it will be historical fiction, it’s probably on the longish side, and there will be some connections to fantasy/magic/paranormal. Actually the inclusion of Camelot and The Mists of Avalon in the (many) comp titles, and the fact that the synopsis says they the character is Merlin’s twin sister, so I think it’ll include some Arthurian elements as well.

3. Where the Light Enters by Sara Donati- I enjoyed Donati’s Wilderness series, and I liked the first in her Waverly Place series. called The Gilded Hour, even more (there’s a small link between both series). So naturally when books 2 comes out, I want it! Donati tied up some storylines at the end of The Gilded Hour, but she also left some wide open and a big question in readers minds! I want to see things resolved! Of course, that would probably open up a million new questions!

4. Readings: Seventeen Writers Revisit the Books They Love by Anne Fadiman- I love the idea of this and I’m curious about how and why these writers decided what to reread. I’m totally conflicted about rereadings: there’s a lot I want to reread, because I suspect I’ll read it differently now. But I also don’t want to ruin any memories of books that might not live up to them. Plus can I justify rereading when there are so many books out there I haven’t read? I have no answers to these questions, but I’m curious how these writers answer them. Plus, I always love a good book about books!

5. Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman– I’m sure I’ve mentioned this book on this blog before, but that’s because I really want to read it! I love Practical Magic and Rules of Magic, and I generally like Alice Hoffman as a writer, so why wouldn’t I want the prequel? Hopefully I’ll get it soon so I can stop blogging about it and start reading it!

6. A Wild Winter Swan by Gregory Maguire– I’m actually iffy on Maguire’s work. I didn’t care for Wicked, so I never bothered with the sequels. I did enjoy Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Mirror, Mirror and Hiddensee. So I really don’t know what to expect from this! But I want to read it because a) fairy tale retelling b) The Wild Swans is a favorite of mine and c) it’s set in NYC. So it has quite a bit in it’s favor already, as far as I’m concerned.

7. Fallen Angel by Kim Wilkins– This was recommended a while back in a tweet from Australian author Kate Forsyth (can’t find the tweet now). It’s also released under the title Angel of Ruin. However it has not been released in the US. Not to worry though, I’ve got my Aussie friend on the lookout for it! Hopefully when I finally get to read it, it’ll be worth all the effort!

8. The Tiger Catcher by Paullina Simons– About a year ago I won a goodreads giveaway (that I have no memory of entering!) for the sequel to this book. But based on what I’ve read about it, it’s the kind of thing that should be read in order. This is the first book in the trilogy. The second has been sitting on my shelf for a while, waiting for me. I do hope that I actually want to read the second after reading this one!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books From Old TBRs That I’ve Actually Read

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

The prompt this week was:

December 15: Books On My Winter 2020-2021 TBR (or summer if you live in the southern hemisphere)

But I thought that since I’ve done so many TBRs, I’d go through them and comment on what I’ve actually read.

  1. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey– This is one I readalong and I’m glad I did read it that way, because I don’t know if I’d have made it through if I didn’t have that holding me accountable! I was very unsure of how to rate this (I eventually gave it 3/5 stars on goodreads) because, while I can see what others enjoy it and it had qualities I enjoyed, I don’t think it’s for me. (Mentioned in: TBR Procrastination)

2. The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis– This was another 3 star read, but that was more or less in line with my expectations. I love historical fiction set in NYC, and the period stuff was great, but I found it lacking in terms of plot and character. (From: Upcoming releases for the 2nd half of 2019)

3. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware– I gave this one 4 stars. It wasn’t great literature and it didn’t try to be. It embraced what it was: a twisty thriller. (From: Upcoming releases for the 2nd half of 2019)

4. The Starless Sea by Erin Morganstern– I loved The Night Circus, so my expectations for the follow up were high, but this lived up to most of them! I think it’s a tough book to describe, it’s more like an experience. I’d like to give it a reread at some point because I’m sure I’ll notice new things. (From: Upcoming releases for the 2nd half of 2019)

5. Autumn by Ali Smith- It’s hard to explain precisely why someone should read Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, but they should! Each book is a stand alone but connections emerge if you read them all . It’s very alert to where the world is right now. (From: Fall TBR 2017)

6. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell– This is definitely a good Halloween read. Not everyone in my book club enjoyed it as much as I did though. So take my recommendation with a grain of salt, I suppose! (From: Fall TBR 2017)

7. The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman– I’d say that this prequel to Practical Magic lived up to the original. There’s another new prequel to them both out now. I haven’t read it yet though! (From: Fall TBR 2017)

8. The Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdich– This was a disappointment. I think I gave it two stars. The quality of the writing was very good, but it didn’t explore the premise enough. (From Fall TBR 2017)

9. Idaho by Emily Ruskovitch– I remember that I loved this book but on amazon and goodreads there was a very so-so reaction amongst other readers. It was ambiguous, which I liked, but I guess not everyone did. (From: Winter TBR: 2017)

10. The Bear and the Nightengale by Katherine Arden– This is one of the rare cases where I liked a books sequels better than the book itself. Not that it was a bad book by any means! It was very good! I just felt like the story opened up a little more in the second and third novels. (From: Winter TBR 2017)

Top Ten Tuesday: Snowy Books

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday: It’s late today, but it’s still Tuesday!:

December 8: Holiday/Seasonal Freebie (holiday books/covers/titles, wintry reads, snow on cover, cool color covers, takes place in cold settings, cozy scenes on cover, etc

Last year I listed books that were set during/about the December holidays. This year I’m just going for snow. Snow plays a significant part in all of these books. Maybe I’m just thinking snow because my upcoming book is very snowy (I had to get a bit of Shameless Self Promotion in there!)

1. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey– Jack and Mabel are a childless couple, struggling to make a home in 1920 Alaska; a brutal environment. In a rare moment of levity during the first snowfall of the season, they build a child out of snow. The next day the snow child is gone, but they discover a little girl, who calls herself Faina. Faina seems to survive alone in the Alaskan wilderness. They come to love her like their own child. This retells a fairy tale, but in a very elegant way. It feels very grounded in the realities of the Alaskan homestead.

2. Light on Snow by Anita Shreve– Twelve year old Nicky Dillon and her father discover an abandoned baby in the snowy woods near their home in New Hampshire. They rescue the baby and bring it to a nearby hospital. Then Nicky and her father, a grieving widower, settle in for a bleak Christmas. But as the snowflakes from the season’s first blizzard begin to fall, a young woman turns up at the house, claiming she wants to purchase a table from Nicky’s father (he builds furniture). It soon becomes clear to Nicky and her dad that this girl is the baby’s mother. She faints, and by the time she comes to, Nicky, her father and the girl are snowbound. Will Nicky’s dad turn the girl in to the police for abandoning her baby in the cold? Nicky soon becomes drawn to the girl, who she sees as an older sister/mother figure, creating a tense emotional situation for all three characters.

3. Whiteout by Ken Follett– Maybe not the best to read during a pandemic, this thriller is about what happens when a canister of a deadly virus goes missing from a Scottish research lab. The lab’s security director, and several people (all with something to gain or lose from the drug they’re creating to fight the virus) take shelter in a remote house during a Christmas Eve blizzard.

4. Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin– This story brings us to a slightly alternate version of the Belle Époque in New York City. In this version the city is bombarded by blizzards. One freezing night, a thief called Peter Lake, breaks into a mansion where meets and falls in love with a young woman who is dying of consumption. The harsh winter is a death sentence for her. But Peter will do whatever he has to, to change things.

5. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton– Ethan Frome is married to Zeena, a hypochondriac. Her marriage to Ethan is unhappy and both are bitter. When Zeena’s impoverished cousin, Mattie, moves in with them, Ethan falls in love. This book has a key scene involving sledding, so I’m counting it. (Also it’s set in a snowy Massachusetts winter)

6. Icebound by Dean Koontz– I read this one a long time ago, but I do remember snow and ice! It’s about a group of scientists (scientists seem to have bad luck with snow in thrillers!) in the Arctic. They find themselves stranded on an iceberg. A massive explosion is hours away (they’re blowing up the iceberg for sciencey reasons I think…) and if that wasn’t bad enough, one of them is a murderer. I know the plot is rather farfetched, but it’s just fun!

7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie- Snow foils what should have been the perfect crime when an avalanche stops the Orient Express in it’s tracks- just before a passenger is found dead in his berth. There are 13 potential suspects on the train, and no one can get away, but all have seemingly perfect alibis. What’s a detective to do?

8. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg– This one is also sort of hazy in my memory, but I remember that Smilla was half Inuit and she was raised in Greenland, where she became very intuitive about snow. As an adult, she works as a scientist who studies different types of snow. When her six year old neighbor dies from a fall of the roof of their apartment complex, the police think he had an accident while playing. But seeing the tracks that the child left in the snow on the roof, Smilla knows that isn’t what happened. She suspects murder, but the police don’t want to hear it. So Smilla investigates for herself.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Want To Reread

For ThatArtsyReaderGirl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

December 1: Books I Want to Read Again (This could mean books you plan on re-reading OR books you wish you could read again for the first time.)

I was commenting the other day about how my “want to reread” list is getting to be almost as long as my TBR. Sadly I hardly ever feel like I have time for rereads because there are so many books out there that I haven’t read yet. But here are a few I want to revisit.

1. Devil Water by Anya Seton– I read this when I was in college or shortly after. I tend to remember Seton’s books by little facts about them rather than overall plot. Only in this case, I don’t remember anything about the plot! I remember that it took place during a Jacobite rebellion in Scotland (1715 according to the synopsis) but other than that, nothing. Actually, if I had all the time in the world to reread things, I’d reread a lot of Anya Seton’s books.

2. Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray– I bought the first book because I liked the cover, but I quickly got pulled into the plot. It combined a lot of things that I love (feminism, fantasy, the Victorian era) and actually got me started reading YA again. I remember the broad strokes of the plot, but the details are hazy. I’m a little nervous to read it again though, because I’m afraid it won’t live up to my memory of it.

3. Evelina by Fanny Burney – I remember I read this because I heard that the author was a strong influence on Jane Austen. I definitely remember seeing the influence (focus on a young woman, comic misadventures, vulgar relatives, hypocritical society), and wanting to read more of Burney’s work, Actually that reminds me that her other work is still sitting on my TBR.

4. Sophie by Guy Burt– This book is sitting on my shelf. I have a vague memory of picking it up and reading it at some point in my life. I also remember something about it frustrated and confused me. Based on some of the reviews it looks like I wasn’t the only person who was confused. But I do wonder what it was about…

5. Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livsey- This is one of several books by Margot Livsey on my bookshelf. I remember at some point about 10-ish years ago I really liked her and read several of her books. But I don’t remember much about them. I picked this one to reread first because I liked the cover. I figure if I enjoy it, I’ll reread the others.

6. Middlemarch by George Eliot– I read this for a class in college. I remember finding it hard to get into, but once I did, I enjoyed it. But I suspect I’d probably get more out of it reading it now. It seems like the kind of story that improves as one matures.

7. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle– I read this as a kid and I remember liking it, and I remember it was about kids on a journey through space and time, trying to find their father. When the recent movie came out I read an article somewhere (I can’t remember where) that discussed some of the religious, political and scientific undertones and subtext in the book. Needless to say, that went totally over my head as a kid, but now I’m curious about them.

8. A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle– This is actually 4th in L’Engle’s Austin family series. I remember enjoying the series as a kid, and finding it very different from the sci-f of A Wrinkle in Time. The reason I want to read this one in particular was that I recall the main character writing a poem in it, that 12 year old me found beautiful. I’m curious as to whether that holds up.

9. The Quincunx by Charles Palliser– I read this in college and I remember it was a combination of historical fiction and mystery. It was a complex, Dickensian plot, that when all was revealed it was kind of like a puzzle. But I don’t remember the specifics. It had something to do with a kid whose mom dies, and some inheritance. But that’s it.

10. This one is two books I want to reread for the exact same reason.

The Pirate Captain by Kerry Lynne and Exit Unicorns by Cindy Brander– Both books are the first books in a series. I enjoyed both for different reasons (The Pirate Captain was just a lot of fun, Exit Unicorns was a vivid depiction of characters and historical setting) I remember the broad strokes of the plot of each. But that’s all I remember. Both books are first in a series (the sequel to The Pirate Captain is Nor Gold, the sequel to Exit Unicorns is Mermaid in A Bowl of Tears) and I want to continue with both series. But I think I should remember more about how they started.

Thankfulness and Shameless Self Promotion

This is just a quickie:

I hope that everyone celebrating Thanksgiving had a happy, safe, and healthy holiday.

I was thankful to have been included in Portergirl’s list of The Best Indie Authors You’ve Never Heard Of! True to the title, I’ve never heard of the other authors in the post, but I’ll have to check them out.

A bit of promotion for someone else too:

This year, Enchanted Quill Press released a fairytale continuation series. To celebrate, they’re doing a $500 Amazon gift card giveaway. You can enter at the link.

That’s all for now. Please be healthy and safe this holiday season!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That I Got Lost In

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

November 24: Thanksgiving/I’m Thankful for… Freebie

For this list I decided to look at the kind of books I’m thankful for. This year I definitely sought out the experience of losing myself in a book for a while. I was thankful when books allowed me to do that. So I decided to list books that I was able to fall into, and forget about reality for a while. They’re not all books that I read this year (nor are they all great literature, by any stretch of the imagination!) but they’re books that gave me the sort of experience that I was grateful for this year. Hope that makes sense!

  1. Harry Potter series- In spite of my ongoing issues with the author, I will always have love in my heart for these books. They created a world that I cared about, and let me live in it with the characters for seven books. When it was done, I felt like I’d grown up with these characters. Oh, and I say that I can put an entire series in one spot on this list! My list my rules!

2. Outlander series- This isn’t perfect either (I think issue with a few themes) but it did create another world that I could live in. Reality disappears when I read about the reality of these characters even if they’re doing something relatively mundane (with the right characters, a chapter on laundry can be fun!) but knowing these guys, excitement and adventure is usually just around the corner.

3. The Dollinganger series by VC Andrews- Full disclosure: I got lost in this series when I was about 12. What was shocking and page turningly compelling then, probably wouldn’t hold up now. But I do remember spending an entire bus ride on a school field trip engrossed in Petals On The Wind (I had just finished Flowers in the Attic and I needed to know what came next!)

4. The Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray- I came for the Victorian era feminism. I stayed- glued to the page- the find out about the worlds in which Gemma found herself. I was invested in these characters, intrigued by the mythological systems that Gemma encounters, and eager to see what a young Victorian girl with little agency in her own life, could do with supernatural realms of power. I read the first two back to back, but The Sweet Far Thing hadn’t come out and that point, so I had to wait to finish.

5. Intensity by Dean Koontz- I can’t remember what first made me pick this book up. I think someone might have recommended it. But I remember starting it on a Friday and not putting it down for the rest of the weekend.

6. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton- I picked this up with relatively low expectations (the only Morton book that I had read prior was The House at Riverton, which I thought was just OK) but I was pleasantly surprised. The story spoke to a lot of my literary tastes (multiple timelines, fairy tales, historical fiction) and just cast a spell on me. I’m glad I gave Morton another chance because now she’s an automatic read for me.

7. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield- I started getting into this late one night, and couldn’t put it down until the next morning. It was a literal all nighter. I distinctly remember coming upon a plot revelation at around 1am and wishing I could talk to someone about it!

8. Queen of Camelot by Nancy McKenzie- In this case, I don’t know why I found this book so compelling. It retold a story that I find interesting but not usually riveting. But this book was glued to my face for some reason. I read it at work during my lunch break. I also enjoyed the second and third in the author’s Camelot trilogy, Grail Prince and Prince of Dreams, but not quite as much as this one.

9. The Bronze Horseman by Paulina Simons- This is another one that I suspect would not hold up well to a reread, but teenage Fran was unable to put the book down (or stop crying when it was over!) I ordered the rest of the trilogy and read it ASAP.

10. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel- I read this my freshman year of high school and was briefly interested in studying human evolution because of it. The subject still interests me, but not as something to study. Unfortunately the quality of the books in the series diminished with each one (second was good, third was OK, fourth and fifth were not good. I didn’t even bother with #6)

11. The Pact by Jodi Picoult- For some reason everyone in my high school was reading this book, so I picked it up. In retrospect, I think some of the themes wouldn’t hold up well, but at the time, I recall it being a page turner. Though I see it’s subtitled “A Love Story” and I don’t recall it being that at all…

I think sometimes the experience of not being able to put a book down depends on the right book finding you at the right time. In these cases, these books found me in the right mood/frame of mind to read them compulsively. Some hold up better than others, and some I’d rather remember well, than revisit. Regardless, I am very thankful when I’m able to disappear into a book world, like I did with these.

Sitcoms in the Time of COVID

2020 has been a year. I think we can all agree on that! We’ve all tried to get through a collective trauma (actually several collective traumas) in our own ways. Mine has been rather unexpected. 2020 gave me an appreciation for sitcoms that I’ve never had before. To be clear, I’ve always liked sitcoms. There have always been 1-2 that I’d watch regularly. Then there were the ones that I have on as background noise while I write (yes, I write to sitcoms in the background). But this year, I’ve found unexpected comfort in half hour formats, and even the canned studio laughter.

A sitcom doesn’t demand much of the viewer. We’re not asked to invest huge chunks of time. We can just dip in for a half hour if we want. We’re not asked to follow a complicated plot, or long character histories. Most of these shows don’t even have a villain really. Antagonists? Sure. But we don’t really see characters who are fundamentally evil at their core. We can turn off our brain as we watch, and enter into a world where nothing is so bad that it can’t be solved in a half hour, where people make conversation filled with witty one liners. Yes, too much of that is probably a bad thing, but I think this year it was very necessary.

Some shows that really helped me through this trying time:

From spoilertv.com

I think I discovered The Good Place in it’s third season. I think I first described it as a combination of Parks and Rec and Sartre’s No Exit) I binged the first two seasons and then I tried to check out the new episodes as they aired. Most aired pre-2020, but the show concluded in January 2020. Just before the pandemic. Fortunately that means we have the entirety of the series to help us through the year. The main character isn’t likeable at first. She’s sort of an anti-heroine. But when she dies, she finds herself in The Good Place, due to some sort of error. Over the first season (there’s a twist at the end of season one) we watch as Eleanor tries to learn to be good. It’s a sitcom that actually discusses moral philosophy, and how to live a good life. It asks what kind of reward is appropriate for lifelong good behavior. And what should happen to those who are bad, but for good reasons? Some heavy ideas for a sitcom!

From Booklynvegan.com

I also discovered Schitt’s Creek in pre-2020 times. It starts off as a more or less standard fish out of water comedy. When the ultra-wealthy Rose family go broke suddenly, they move to the small, depressing title town, and live in the motel there. But from that beginning, the show builds beautiful characters. We come to root for the Roses as they learn to live on less, and discover how to be happy without money. We come to care about the residents of Schitt’s Creek as the Roses involvement goes from necessity to choice. I think that each main character had a complete arc in this series, they grew and changed in a fundamental way. It ended in April 2020, in the pandemic’s early days. But again, that means we have the whole series to watch as reruns and help us through the rest of year.

Both shows have a positive outlook on life, which is something that I found I needed this year. In The Good Place, even when the characters weren’t in such a good place, they attempted to improve it. Their response to a broken, rigged system was to fix the problems and build something better. In Schitt’s Creek, the Roses lose their money and their lifestyle, but they find connection as a family that they lacked when they were rich. They explore their passions and embark on a new chapter of their lives. I think that’s a narrative that I needed to see this year. Maybe there will someday be some positive that can come out of what’s happened. I hope so.

from FilmAffinity.com

Another new sitcom that I’ve recently discovered is The Unicorn, which premiered in 2019 and is currently in its second season. It’s about a widower with two tweenage daughters, who decides he’s ready to start dating again, about a year after his wife’s death. It’s an emotionally loaded proposition, but his friends have his back. Maybe too much. Wade and his wife had been part of a trio of couples that formed a close friend group. They all have a lot to say about the type of woman Wade should be with.

I think that part of what appeals to me about this show is that it’s about moving on after grief. It begins a year after Wade’s wife’s death, so his family has been through the initial grieving, and the funeral. But as time goes on, the kids find that they’re trying to find ways for Wade to do the things their mother used to do. They’re also trying to give tasks that his wife did to other members of the friend group. No matter how well intentioned, it’s not the same. It’s awkward. It’s a little sad the first time. But it’s ultimately how life moves on. I’m less interested in Wade’s romantic life (though some of his dating misadventures make me chuckle), than I am in his friendships. It’s clear that after losing his wife, Wade looked to his friends for support. And they gave it. And are giving it.

All of these shows seem to have strong themes of friendship, family, and community. I think that’s been one of the biggest casualties of 2020: the ability to physically be together as a community. Yes, we’ve found alternatives via zoom chats. But we’ve also missed the experience of sitting in a theater with an audience, all watching the same show and feeling the same thing. We’ve missed scoring a great table in a crowded restaurant. We’ve missed in person game nights with friends, and family dinners with crowded tables. I think some of my sitcom viewing preferences are speaking to that absence.

These are the most recent shows I’ve liked, but when I’ll also binge Friends, Frasier, or The Big Bang Theory. Friends are like my friends. Like the song says “they’ve been there for me.” A lot of these I’ve seen so many times that it’s like background noise at this point. But having them on in the background while I write does help me work. There are some British sitcoms I enjoy as well: The Vicar of Dibley, and As Time Goes By and though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, Coupling, I’ll write with those on in the background too, sometimes. I recently discovered I like The Golden Girls, so I’ve added that to my favorites list as well.

Have I forgotten anything I should definitely check out? What kind of TV has helped you through this year? Have you found comfort in anything that seems kind of strange at first?