My Favourite Things: 2020

For the past few years, I have begun my annual favourite things post by talking about what a hard year it has been and how glad I am it’s over. You would not be wrong in expecting me to start this year’s post the same way. After all, it is 2020. But although it’s been a difficult year (perhaps the most difficult), I have found much for which I am grateful.

My small family has always been close. We’re separated from our relatives by continents and oceans, and so used to celebrating holidays alone. To being three of us against the world. We didn’t, therefore, find isolation all too hard. We had moments of friction, as all families do, but I’ve never been more grateful for my husband and daughter. We held each other up this year. We forgave more easily, learned to communicate more clearly, and have almost mastered the art of letting each other exist in their own space for a while. (Or I have. Sometimes.)

I’ve also been amazed and delighted by the joy others have found over the past year. The news has often been universally bad, and yet someone, somewhere, has always had something to share. The wonder of small things has never been more true. 

The other aspect of being home all year has been more time to devote to my hobbies. And what I read and watched and listened to is a reflection of that. 

As always, we’ll start with what I read.

Continue reading “My Favourite Things: 2020”

Unfinished Business

We’re taught from an early age to finish what we started, and for a kid, it’s pretty good advice. Our memberships in the “Clean Your Plate” club might not have been the healthiest idea ever, but our parents and guardians meant well. They were trying to teach us that persistence is rewarded—and that we have to eat our veggies. Or they were trying to get a little value out of the ten-pack of dance/pottery/ukulele lessons you begged for. The library was an hour away, so we really needed to finish that huge, thick book we chose (with no pictures, because we wanted to read something “grown-up”) before we could go back. Anything worth doing is worth doing properly, and we had to finish what we started.

Now that I’m over fifty, I’m on a mission to quit stuff. “Life’s too short to read a bad book,” I’ll say, flinging a hapless paperback aside, or touching the back button on my Kindle. I often still feel guilty, though. Anything unfinished will niggle at me. Netflix hates it when I don’t finish a show and will insist I continue watching, months after I quit. My Steam library is full of unfinished games. I have a box of books I’ve “tossed,” but haven’t quite moved out of the house.

But, outside of certain tasks like the seventeenth read-through of a book I have a contract for and really need to submit soon, or making sure my child has clean underwear for school tomorrow, and paying things like the mortgage, I don’t really have to finish anything. I mean… would the world end if I had to wear my underwear twice?

If the world did end, I’d probably be wearing it for a week at a time, and washing out that one pair for months. My focus would be on something other than clean undies and finishing a book I wasn’t really enjoying.

What have I quit recently? It’s actually a lot. Over the past couple of years, my life has become more complicated, which ticks me off a little as it’s supposed to get easier when you get older, right? But with free time suddenly more precious than ever, I’ve had to reevaluate much of what I do and ask myself: “Do I really enjoy this?” Sometimes, it’s a simpler question, like, “How will I feel tomorrow?” (That one’s usually related to alcohol consumption.)

I’ve also developed a way to stick to the things I either can’t quit, or don’t want to. If I really want to read a book, for example, and know I’ll have a hard time staying focused, I’ll get the book on audio. Audiobooks have turned me into a non-fiction reader. I’ve always wanted to read non-fiction, like memoirs and history and science books, but haven’t been able to get through the sometimes dry prose. I also sometimes have difficulty with an author’s style. I adore Charles Stross’ books, but his writing is, like, higher plane stuff. I only grasp about half of it. But when I listen, I absorb more. I now prefer to “read” epic fantasy with my ears. A 1000 page book will defeat me before I even pick it up, but a 40-hour audio? Bring it on. I can live in that book for weeks. I’ve listened to lectures on everything from mythology to astronomy. I am fully convinced that if I could get a degree just by listening to all of the course material, I could actually go back to school.

I also break things I really want to do, like attend webinars, into small chunks. I’m usually not around when the webinar is live, but and honestly? I would have a hard time sitting there for an hour, watching my computer screen while people talk. I have to move when I’m listening to stuff. So I wait for the recordings and I listen to them ten minutes at a time, taking notes. The big tasks that have to get done, like spreading the mulch? I can’t quit, I need the driveway back. I set aside an hour a day. I paint rooms one wall at a time. I write my books scene by scene.

But, before this post soars into an uplifting essay on how to finish stuff, let me return to the things I haven’t finished—and plan never to return to.

Warning: there will be spoilers ahead.

Breaking Bad

Every time I tell someone I quit watching Breaking Bad at the end of the second season, they spend about half an hour telling me why I need to go back and keep watching. I tune them out. And if you leave a comment telling me why I need to go back and keep watching, or email me, I’ll ignore you. I didn’t like it, okay? I found the premise intriguing and actually enjoyed the first season in a “this is hilariously dark” kind of way. The second season disturbed me greatly and at the end, I decided I was done. Even if a redemption arc was in the works for Walter White, to my mind, nothing could bring him back from what he’d already done, which was allow that girl to die. When I explain this to the folks who are trying to convince me to keep watching, they tell me that’s not the point. That it’s not about his redemption. And this is why I just can’t anymore. We all like what we like and I agree that dark, heartless characters can be compelling, that their spiral into the depths can be fascinating. But following those particular journeys just isn’t my thing. I don’t watch documentaries about serial killers and I like my heroes and heroines to win at the end of the day. Call me simple; I am who I am.

I did learn something from quitting this series, though, and from continuing to stay “quit” in the face of vociferous persuasion: Live and let live. I mean, yeah, I always knew this was a thing, but it doesn’t need to be about the important stuff. It can be about books and TV. If someone said they didn’t like it, and respond to your first entreaty with, no, that still sounds like it’s not for me, step back. Let them go. Not everyone has to love Breaking Bad. Not everyone has to agree that the book with a thousand five star ratings is a literary masterpiece.

So I’m trying to take a step back, too. When I think about how many hours of my own life I might have wasted trying to convince someone to do something they really didn’t want to do, I cringe. Over-fifty-Kel isn’t going to do that—is going to try not to do that. At the risk of sounding utterly millennial, you do you, okay?

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

We started watching this just recently and buzzed fairly quickly through the first season, pausing only to binge The Umbrella Academy (which you should totally watch, you know, if you want to). I liked the first season a lot, especially as I gained the sense toward the end that the story was going to continue past the book and into the epilogue.

It might? But in episode three of season two, Offred is recaptured at end of a thrilling chase, and the minute it happened, my husband and I turned to each other and said, “I’m done.” We haven’t continued with the series.

Why? It’s entirely possible, and probable, that the resistance will gain ground and that Gilead will be challenged and eventually overturned. I hope that happens. But in the meantime, I’ll have to watch more rape and torture and I just don’t want to. One of the reasons I often lose interest in a series (TV or book) is because of recurring villains. The ones who are supposed to be dead, or who show no remorse. The ones who make me, as the audience, feel hopeless. I don’t want to feel hopeless. I just don’t.

 

Moby Dick

You know those lists that circulate social media every so often, full of books people either lie about reading, or are supposed to have read? Moby Dick is on ALL of them, and I was suckered. About ten years ago, I decided I was going to read the damn thing. I’d seen the movie, sort of. It had Sir Patrick Stewart in it and he was brilliant and I wanted to appreciate all of his brilliance, but I really only remember a lot of grey water, his voice, and the fact I was probably surfing the ‘net on my phone for over half the movie. Then I tried the book and got to the end of the first chapter and decided. Nah, nope, life is too short. So, this is a double fail.

I know it’s on all those lists for a reason and I do actually remember what I learned from reading other classics in high school and beyond, but, ugh, shouldn’t there be an alternate? I mean laying out the themes of a particular classic and assigning your students to find and experience (watch, read, listen to) a book that either compliments or dissects. Wouldn’t that be more fun?

It’s possible I could do Moby Dick on audio and if I needed it for a class, I guess I’d try that. But maybe my above suggestion would be worth a try also. Let’s start thinking outside the lines!

 

Full Metal Jacket

I have walked out of two movies in my life: Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange. In Full Metal Jacket, it was right after he got shot in the ankle (I don’t remember who or where or why). That was my tipping point. I was in my early twenties and a somewhat delicate little flower and I just couldn’t with the blood and blood and blood. Now I recommend Cormac McCarthy novels to everyone I meet (mostly for the dialogue, but also for the stories and the writing and the should be expected by now blood), so it’s odd that this movie got the best of me. I made it through Apocalypse Now. The difference is probably the context.

I just didn’t like A Clockwork Orange. It was weird and disturbing. My daughter thinks it’s amazing. It’s okay for me to think otherwise and she respects that. We’ve talked a lot about letting people have their own opinion. 😉

 

House of Cards

Everyone was so awful! Like, no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Watching this show made us feel dirty.

 

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Holy disappointment, Batman. Also, boring. And… boring. Mostly, though, it was a case of expectations not being met. The Mass Effect trilogy is my holy grail of gaming. Andromeda just didn’t measure up.

 

Fallout 76

We all know what the definition of insanity is, right? I killed my way down to the basement level of that building in order to activate my shiny new power armor FOUR times, and four times, the machine bugged out and wouldn’t do the thing.

Done. So done.

 

Horizon Zero Dawn

I nearly finished. But that final boss fight! After dying about fifty times, I realized I needed better gear, more ammo, more potions, and just more everything, and that in order to do that, I’d have to go back several hours—probably more than ten—and play through to the end again. I’d seen my husband defeat the boss and I’d seen what came after. I called it a day.

True story, though, when I quit a game before it’s done, 80% of the time, it’s because I can’t get through a fight. I hate this. It kills my love for a game like nothing else. So, I really appreciate when a game either helps you along by advancing you to the next stage of the fight after a certain point, or allows you to adjust the difficulty. I’m all for a challenge, but sometimes I just want to see the end, you know?

Because of my history of epic fails in gaming, I have been known to say, “If I could beat that game, you can.” 😀

 

Ancillary Justice

This book might get moved to the list of exceptions one day. I’ve heard such good things. My mistake in this instance was opting for audio. I just couldn’t get along with the narrator. I’d just finished listening to the same narrator read Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear which I wanted to love and just didn’t. My jaw ached from gritting my teeth at the end, mostly because of the narrator’s style of, gather ‘round, children, and let me tell you a story. It thrust me out of immersion, and combined with Bear’s penchant for including all of her research (which is pretty amazing), I was tired of feeling schooled. So, when I started a new book and heard the same voice, I was predisposed toward quitting early, and quit early I did.

I’ll try reading this one for myself one day.

 

I have 90 other books on my not-for-me Goodreads list. Some of them I tossed at 90%, when I just couldn’t anymore. But there are exceptions…

 

The Witch of Cologne

Tobsha Learner killed my favourite character (perhaps ever) in this book. I read the scene three times to make sure she’d actually done it before putting the book aside. Then I grieved. It’s a testament to the power of her writing that I felt the loss so keenly. I ached and wept. I decided not to finish the book because without him, how could I go on? What was the point?

About two weeks later, I picked it back up again and read to the end and I’m glad I did. The book ended well, in some respects, and I was satisfied. But I also felt the author was able to transmit both her own distress over the loss of that one character, as well as the sadness of those left behind. The ending was uplifting, in a way, but also melancholy. And also very much suited to the subject matter and time period. It’s now one of my favourite books and one I recommend often.

 

Dune

Have you ever seen one of my best of lists? Dune is at the top. I own six print copies and one audio edition. I’d collect more if they happened my way. I think it’s one of the most brilliant books ever written. I cannot wait for Denis Villeneuve’s new movie adaptation. But the first time I read this book, at the encouragement of my father, I didn’t get past the hand in the box scene. I was bored and not interested and bored and it just wasn’t my thing. I couldn’t feel the promise. Also, it was a thick book and I was a teenager afraid of thick books. I liked my thin and pulpy sci-fi paperbacks.

But I LOVED the movie and the mini-series, so when I started getting seriously back into audiobooks, I decided to try again. I’m so glad I did. I lived and breathed this book and the sequel, Dune Messiah, for the couple of weeks it took me to listen.

I think a part of it was that I was older and more able to understand and appreciate the intricacies of the plot. And maybe having seen the movie, I was better able to picture what was happening. But listening to the book was a completely separate experience. I enjoyed it for its own merits and got so much more out of the story than I had before. I felt more and got more involved in the world. It’s an audiobook I’ve listened to more than once, which is rare, and one I might even listen to again sometime.

 

The Walking Dead

I actually came back to The Walking Dead after quitting around the third episode of the second season. My reason for quitting was twofold. I was bored. The first season had been nonstop action and now they were sitting around a farmhouse being all reflective. I also didn’t like Shane. He was the nasty character I wanted someone to deal with. An almost recurring villain.

But I kept hearing how good the series was and I loved the premise, so I decided to try again, picking up where I left off, and burned through six seasons over a period of weeks. I’m glad I went back, because season five in particular was amazing, and overall, this has been some of the best TV and the best writing I’ve encountered. I could write a whole post about why I love The Walking Dead and I might get a little carried away if you tell me you don’t want to watch it. I’ll try not to. Remind me who over-fifty-Kel is.

 

I could easily list another ten disappointments and another ten moments of enlightenment, but I’ve rambled on long enough for one post. If there is a point (and there often isn’t), it’s this: life is too short to suffer through something that, at the end of the day, has little consequence. Stop reading the books you think you should be reading, or the books everyone else is reading. Especially stop reading the books you know you’re going to dislike, but everyone else thought it was great, so…

Yeah, don’t do that. Read something you really want to instead.

Mostly, though, stop telling other people what they should be reading. Keep the recommendations coming. We all love to hear about new books. But if someone says, no, I don’t think that’s for me, respect that. They could be wrong. They could be missing out on the experience of a lifetime. But you know what? Maybe they’ll use the time to experience something that changes them in other ways. Their very own form of enlightenment.

So, what do you think I should be reading or watching? (If you recommend Breaking Bad, so help me…) Or what have you quit in the middle because you realized life was just too short? (Hey, it’s okay if it was one of my books. I nearly quit most of them in the middle as well!)

(Featured image created using Canva. Yes, I have boxes of unfinished puzzles.)

The Movies I Wasn’t Supposed to Talk About

I’ll be honest: none of the movies I’m about to talk about are movies I shouldn’t really talk about—except for the fact I did this thing on Facebook where you were supposed to post an image a day, for ten days, that represented a movie that had impacted you… and not give an explanation.

Picking only ten movies was really, really hard. I love movies and usually watch a couple every week. I love going to the theatre. There’s just something about the smell of popcorn and a big screen. I also love talking about movies—much to the consternation of my husband who has to listen to me geek out about such things as background sounds, lighting, and scripting. Sometimes in the middle of a film.

Posting hints about ten movies without talking about them was ever harder. So I’m breaking that rule. I’ll try to keep my comments brief, but by way of an overall explanation:

  • I didn’t pick just favourite movies, though these all qualify.
  • I picked movies that had had an impact, and that’s what I’ll talk about in relation to each title.
  • There is no order to this list.
  • I didn’t plan my list in advance. I’d have had to narrow it down from too many choices to do that.
  • I did discuss a few choices with my husband but mostly went with the movie that called to me most strongly every day.
  • They’re listed here in the same order here as they were on Facebook.

 

papillon

Papillon (1973)

Papillon (starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman) is a movie I saw once—many, many years ago—and never forgot. The story stayed with me for a couple of reasons. The characters (and the actors who brought them to life) and the circumstances (I love prison escape movies) are a huge part of it, but really, it all comes down to the friendship between Henri “Papillon” Charrière and Louis Dega. It’s one of the most unlikely partnerships in the history of friendship, and over the course of the film, we get to watch it deepen into a bond stronger than brotherhood. These men would die for each other, which makes the ultimate ending of the film incredibly stirring. And it’s all pretty much true. I haven’t read Charrière’s book (a memoir of the same name), but what strikes me most strongly about the 1976 version of the film is that friendship, and I love the idea that the book was written in part as a testament to that.

Unfortunately, the updated version of the film (2018) starring Charlie Hunan and Rami Malek failed to strike the same chord with regards to the friendship. I just didn’t feel the same chemistry.

thedarknight

The Dark Knight (2008)

First time I watched this movie, I disliked it. I think a part of it was that Heath Ledger had tragically died and everyone was making a big deal out of his interpretation of the Joker. With that in the forefront of my mind, it felt as though the Joker was larger than the movie, in a way. He became the most important character in the film—and I’d been waiting for the continuation of Batman’s story. I didn’t want a movie about the Joker.

Then, when the release of The Dark Knight Rises was imminent, I watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight back to back—and, um, wow. Holy perspective change. Heath Ledger’s Joker was phenomenal, but this was not the Joker’s film. He’s important. Hugely so. This is the movie where the Batman takes the fall; where he becomes the Dark Knight so that others can stay in the light. I cried at the end. And The Dark Knight became one of my favourite movies of all time.

Lesson learned: first impressions don’t always last, and watching the movies in a series together can really change the impact of the story.

2001

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this movie—I lost count years ago. I can recall three of the most memorable occasions, though. The first time I watched it was with my dad and I didn’t get it. I loved the first half, was scared spitless by Hal, and lost the thread during the beyond Jupiter sequence. Years later, I rediscovered the film at the Astor in Windsor (Victoria, Australia). This was the kind of theatre where the smell of the ancient wood and leather was like dust, and they had couches right down the front where you could sprawl with friends, or bring a blanket to curl up in and lie there watching something old. They featured 2001: A Space Odyssey regularly, and I started making a habit of going to see the film. I understood it now, and there was just something about lying there in the dark, cozied up with friends, and watching a movie that questioned the very meaning of our existence. Also, there was the, um, pot.

The third memorable occasion is when I watched the movie with my daughter. She was eleven at the time and had asked me what my favourite film was. Without hesitation, I answered “2001.” She wanted to watch it with me, so we did. She loved every minute and at the end, turned to me with tears in her eyes, and preceded to tell me what it was all about. I was pretty envious of the fact she hadn’t had to wait until she was twenty-something and under the influence of marijuana to understand it, but also proud.

archie

Gallipoli (1981)

I wanted to include a war movie on the list. I watched a lot of them as a kid and still remember classics like The Guns of Navarone fondly (which should be disturbing). Thing is, while a lot of war movies can be upsetting, they’re often triumphant in the end. They’re a tribute to human resourcefulness and spirit, and those are pretty much my favourite kinds of stories.

Gallipoli is not that movie. It’s… tragic. Even as I sit here typing away, my eyes are misting over, and it’s not just because I’m Australian. (Though, if you ask any Aussie of a certain age about this movie, you’ll probably get the same reaction.) It’s because war isn’t always about the triumph of good over evil. In fact, it rarely is. War sucks.

I’m trying to think of an uplifting way to wrap up and move on to the next movie and I can’t, so…

doubtfire

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Yes, I needed a comedy after that and this is one of my absolute favourites, and another movie I’ve seen multiple times. I’m not sure what to say about this movie except that it’s the sort I wish they made more of right now. We need more stories about ordinary people doing “ordinary” things. Where heroes aren’t always the ones in capes. Where a family what you make of it.

wonderwoman

Wonder Woman (2017)

I didn’t expect to cry as much as I did in this one or to feel as emotionally rifled. This is a movie that could inspire semesters of study, for so many reasons. Everything I’d like to say about the experience of watching it can be summed up pretty easily, though. I didn’t know how much I needed a movie like this until I watched it, and then I wondered why it had taken so long to happen.

legally blonde

Legally Blonde (2001)

Being blonde isn’t the worst thing ever, and the jokes aren’t the most cutting out there. In fact, a lot of them are pretty damn funny—and fairly interchangeable. And, honestly, I’ve ever been much of an Elle. I don’t have closets full of clothes, I don’t collect shoes, I’ve only ever had one perm (God, what a disaster), and I wouldn’t know what to do with half of my daughter’s makeup collection. But I know exactly how it feels to be underestimated, and worse, dismissed because of who I am and how I present myself. So, I love this movie, because time and again, it shows us that sometimes, confidence is only skin deep and that we all should be our own biggest fans.

shawshank

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

I’ve always thought Stephen King’s shorter stories make better movies than his novels (with the exception of Misery, which is just… Wait, why isn’t Misery on this list??) and The Shawshank Redemption is a prime example of that.

On the surface of it, this movie does for me much of what Papillon does and I do have to wonder if King was inspired by Charrière’s book. But he has definitely made the story his own. This one is quintessential King, and the reason it’s on this list is mostly for that last scene and these words:

“Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

Tell me you didn’t start sobbing right then! Again.

alien

Alien (1979)

I saw this in theatres when I was eleven years old. My best friend’s dad took us to see it, and yes, I am scarred for life. What, you want more? I was impacted, okay? Very severely. 😀

I could waffle on about set design and the inspired direction, but honestly, it’d be nothing most of you haven’t heard before. Besides being utterly terrifying, Alien is a cinematic masterpiece that set the stage for nearly every science fiction movie that followed after it. I’m a lifelong fan of the series and while I wasn’t in love with the last installment, I’ll continue watching until I’m dust in the wind.

spiritedaway

Spirited Away (2001)

I knew I would love this movie even before I saw it because I have loved every movie created by legendary director, Hayao Miyazaki. And I did love it. Every minute of it. But the Spirited Away was far from my favourite Miyazaki until I attended a panel at an NYCC about his films, presented by a student working on a thesis about myth and folklore. The student talked about various representations of the maiden, the mother, and the crone, and how Miyazaki included them in so many of his films—nearly always to good effect. The discussion had me looking at Spirited Away in a whole new way and the next time I watched it, the story changed. It became less about a girl who’d gotten lost on the way to somewhere and more about a girl metaphorically traveling through the various stages of her life.

Getting more out of the film the second and third time is a lesson that serves to remind me that most of my favourite movies (and many more besides) really do benefit from multiple viewings. There are a number of films I’ve watched over fifty times—mostly because I simply love them. There are a lots more that need to be watched again, though, for the message to really sink in. For clues to align from the beginning instead of in retrospect, and because sometimes the impact is stronger the second time around.

My Favourite Things: 2018

It’s time for my favourite post of the year, and thank goodness for that. Did anyone else think 2018 was a long year? Time’s supposed to speed up when you get older, isn’t it?

I needed all the time I could get, though, to write the last book of the This Time Forever series, a final novella for Marc and Henry, edit everything I’d written last year, this year, and what felt like an entire library full of books, and then promote it all. I also taught three writing workshops and continued my volunteer work at the library. And my husband bought a bagel shop. And my daughter is preparing for college. And…

But, still, I found time to read, to watch, to play, and to fall in love with a year’s worth of stuff. ❤

 

Books

FTBooks

I read nearly 220 books this year, which is a little more than average for me. I’m honestly not sure how I found the time earlier in the year, but I do know that a lot more of my reading is now done with my ears. I’ve always been a fan of audiobooks, but as my days become increasingly busy, listening to a book is so often the only reading time I get—and a great way to switch off my own thoughts for a while. Half of the books I’ve chosen as this year’s standouts were listened to as I walked the neighborhood, drove to town, cleaned bathrooms, and mowed the lawn.

 

Bitter Legacy by Dal Maclean (Mystery/Thriller)

Extremely compelling. I had a really hard time putting this one aside to deal with real life.

I really enjoyed the mystery aspect of this novel—more than I thought I would, actually. I liked the slow collection of clues and the “procedural” feel of having them snapped together, one by one, but not always in the right order. I’d love to read more mystery written by Dal Maclean. I think she demonstrates great talent.

The romance aspect of the book was a little more difficult to… like. This isn’t a happy, fluffy contemporary. But it totally worked for the characters. Jamie is so new and so inexperienced when it comes to relationships that it was easy to imagine him making the excuses that he did. His hesitancy and heartbreak were also really well written. I felt them both quite deeply.

I did have a hard time accepting the reconciliation at the end, but justified it in much the same way Jamie did: love can overlook a lot of faults, especially when we think we’re getting what want/need. Also, if Ben isn’t to be a bitter, twisted, and lonely old man, someone has to take a chance on him.

I’m really looking forward to reading Maclean’s follow up novel, Object of Desire.

 

Dangerous Women (Anthology)

One of the reasons I love short story collections so much is the opportunity to try new authors, and I will forever be thankful to this anthology for introducing me to Lawrence Block. This is otherwise a solid collection. I skipped a few stories, mostly those set in worlds I wasn’t all that familiar with (Jim Butcher, G.R.R.M.). I imagine those stories would work better for existing fans, but S.M. Stirling’s entry really worked for me.

The stories I enjoyed the most:

  • “Some Desperado” by Joe Abercrombie. A Red Country story. This was a great intro to the collection.
  • “My Heart is Either Broken” by Megan Abbott. Really well done.
  • “Raisa Stepanova” by Carrie Vaughn. Fantastic piece of historical fiction.
  • “Wrestling Jesus” by Joe R. Lansdale. This was one of my favourites. It was just so quirky and out there.
  • “Neighbors” by Megan Lindholm might be my favourite story. It was so well written and complete.
  • “I Know How to Pick ’Em” by Lawrence Block encouraged me to give one of his novels a try.
  • “Second Arabesque, Very Slowly” by Nancy Kress was amazing. Perhaps the best in the collection.
  • “Pronouncing Doom” by S.M. Stirling – An Emberverse story. Had me wondering why I never got back into the Emberverse books.

 

Dedicated (Rhythm of Love, #1) by Neve Wilder (Romance)

I just finished reading Neve Wilder’s Center of Gravity (Nook Island, #1) last night and considered replacing this with that, but in the end chose to stick with Dedicated because for as much as I loved Center of Gravity (to the tune of almost half a box of tissues toward the end), I feel Dedicated is the better book. It’s a little tidier and tighter, story-wise, and is one of the best rock star romances I’ve ever read.

What really make this novel work are three things. The first is the almost flawless integration of plot and romance. I’m one of those readers who require quite a lot of story with my steam, and this has that. Second are the tropes: friends to lovers and fake relationship. Yes! Third, the interview snippets interspersed throughout the book. These are awesome, and taken alone, give wonderful insight into the characters personalities. Along with the story, they’re gold.

 

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell (Historical)

Fools and Mortals had been on my wishlist for a while, and after I finally read it, I almost wish I hadn’t so that I could read it all over again—for the first time. Briefly, it’s the story of the first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as related by one of William Shakespeare’s younger brothers.

The history of the play itself would have made a fascinating story—and Cornwell’s attention to detail stood out here with facts so expertly interwoven with fiction as to give the book that peculiar weight of good historical fiction. I came away feeling as if I’d learned something, and with a desire to read more about the subject.

What made this book so special, though, was Richard. He’s a compelling character in his own right with a very Dickensian life story. I loved his point of view and enjoyed his unique insights into the character of his older brother William. I actually became so engrossed in the lives of the players in Shakespeare’s company that I could have kept reading forever.

 

God Country by Donny Cates (Comic/Graphic Novel)

How do you even describe a comic book like this? The shelving label on the back reads “Epic Texan Battle Fantasy” and there is a quote inside the front cover from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the WestGod Country lives up to both. It is a western. But it’s also a fantasy that borrows from Norse mythology. And it’s the story of a family devastated by Alzheimer’s.

I most often buy comic books for their art and it’s gorgeous here, with the style definitely working in support of the story. But what made this comic one I was keen to shelve in my library with a reverent stroke of the cover as I slipped it into place, were the spontaneous tears that caught me about five pages from the end. I’m a self-admitted sap. I’ve cried in more Star Trek episodes than anyone else on this planet. But I’ve only teared up over one comic book before, the poignant Roughneck by Jeff Lemire.

I might have to start a new Goodreads shelf.

 

Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins (Contemporary)

I loved Now That You Mention It from the first chapter, the first page, the first paragraph—the first line!

The first thought I had after I died was: How will my dog cope with this?
The second thought: I hope we can still go with an open casket.
Third thought: I have nothing to wear to my funeral.
Fourth: I’ll never meet Daniel Radcliffe now.
Fifth: Did Bobby just break up with me?

Everything you need to know about this book is right there, in black and white. Nora is obviously at a turning point in her life, and she has questions. What follows was a funny, deeply thoughtful, honest, romantic and just a damn fine story about a woman finally coming to terms with herself. As always, the secondary characters were wonderful, populating the small island off the coast of Maine with authenticity and charm. I particularly loved Nora’s mother and niece. The dialogue was amazing—effortlessly flowing through every subject—and the romance was sweet without overwhelming the true message of the book.

I loved every minute spent within the covers of Now That You Mention It and can’t wait for my next Kristan Higgins. She has become one of my favourite authors.

In contemporary fiction, I also really enjoyed Less by Sean Andrew Greer. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara isn’t a book you could say you enjoyed, but the reading of it consumed a part of my soul this year and I’ll carry the story of Jude with me forever.

 

The Dark Defiles (A Land Fit for Heroes, #3) by Richard K. Morgan (Fantasy)

I tried to read The Steel Remains, the first book in this series, several years ago and put it aside after only two or three chapters. I can’t remember why, but the usual reason for putting something aside is simply a lack of connection. It’s frustrating when it’s a book I really want to read, so I’ll often return later, or try it on audio. That’s what I did here and I immediately became invested in the first book, then the second, and finally the third. As soon as I finished, I ordered books two and three to go with the first on my keeper shelf. This is a series I want to revisit and remember.

It’s not always a pleasant read. The violence is brutal and the themes quite dark. But Morgan has a way of drawing you into a story almost unaware, and making you care about characters who aren’t even particularly “nice.” He did it with Takeshi Kovacs and again here with Ringil. If I had a favourite character at the beginning of the series, it would have been Egar, but only because he’s typical. He’s a man meant for more. Arceth’s story is fascinating and she grew on me as the series progressed.

But Ringil. He was hard to love, but once there, impossible to shake off. I adored his caustic wit and unrepentant attitude toward his homosexuality. If ever a character was who he was, it would be Ringil. Society reviles him, his family despairs for him, and yet… and yet. Without giving away too much, Ringil doesn’t bloody care, except for when he does.

I loved the ending, and what I presumed to be Ringil’s fate. Even more, the coda afterward that hinted at Arceth’s epilogue (and maybe the fulfillment of a certain prophecy), and the circumstances surrounding the birth of a certain baby. I shed a few tears throughout. I laughed, too. I stood silent sentry at every funeral. But that last chapter of the coda. I pretty much lost it there, as Morgan tied up every loose end and brought us back to the beginning.

This was a great year for fantasy (for me) and I had a hard time choosing a favourite. The other contenders were Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold, and The Blinding Knife (Lightbringer #2) by Brent Weeks.

 

Touch by Claire North (Science Fiction)

I invented chores to keep listening to Touch. I baked muffins. They were horrible because I left them in the oven too long because I was listening to this. But I did get all the bathrooms cleaned and even vacuumed my stairs. I hate vacuuming stairs.

What drew me to Touch was the premise: Kepler is a being that can pass from host to host through touch. There’s also a mystery. Kepler is trying to solve the murder of his most recent host, a woman killed while Kepler was “in residence.” Toss a mystery plot into a novel with speculative elements and I can’t help myself.

Touch was exciting, compelling, different, but not weird. There was a logic to it all and it was kind of beautiful. I don’t think it made quite the comment on gender that some reviewers seemed to think it did, though. I thought was actually more about self and love.

As an aside, Touch reminded me of another of my favourite books, Purpose by Andrew Q. Gordon. If the premise of Touch appeals, I’d suggest you add Andrew’s book to your wish list as well.

 

Movies

FTMovies

I’m going to share a secret: if you go to the theatre at about four or five in the afternoon, on a Friday, you can see a new release film at matinee prices, and pretty much have your pick of seats. It’s not a “cool” time to go to the cinema, but it works for me. I can be home and in bed by about eight. You know, like the old folks. 😉

2018 was a great year for movies, seeing me in theatre seats forty-four times. That’s… nearly every week. And I didn’t really see a movie I regretted. My picks for favourites are a bit surprising, though, and not what I would have predicted going in.

In Theatres: Crazy Rich Asians

I had such a good time watching this movie! The story, the characters, the sheer spectacle of it. I laughed and cried and just felt good the whole time. I was thoroughly entertained, which is about all I ask for when I buy a ticket.

My other favourites in theatres this year were Hostiles—one of the most moving Westerns I’ve ever seen, plus… Christian Bale. I’ll always go to see Christian Bale. And Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse, which I expected to be good, and was better than good, almost taking the top spot.

I can’t let the year pass without mentioning Love, Simon, which I saw twice. The kiss at the end was everything. Also, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit more than the book.

On DVD: The Rider

One of the most quietly touching movies ever made, The Rider pretty much broke me and Jay. By the end, we had a box of tissues on the couch between us and were shamelessly grabbing handfuls. The two standout scenes were the campfire, where the guys shared their songs and stories, the faith that keeps them going, and Brady’s dedication to his family and best friend.

I also enjoyed The Wedding Banquet and I Feel Pretty.

 

TV

FTTV

2018 was the year of The Walking Dead.

I normally limit myself to one episode a day of whatever show I’m watching. By the time I got to season six of The Walking Dead (I picked up where I’d left off with season two sometime in January), I was devouring four episodes at a time. I couldn’t stop, even though the story was so, so dark, and the world outside was so, so dark, and life itself was… Well. March was tough. Romancelandia exploded, a blizzard dumped three feet of snow in northeast Pennsylvania, and I got the flu. And one of my favourite Walking Dead characters died. I recently caught up with season eight and might actually have to buy season nine instead of waiting for it to hit Netflix. But then I’d have to wait nearly a year for more, and…

I also got heavily invested in The Americans, which I watched from beginning to end (seasons 1-6) over the summer, sobbed my way through two seasons of Queer Eye, and thoroughly enjoyed season two of Iron Fist, which I thought was even better than the first.

 

Games

FTGames

Game of the Year: The Evil Within

Horror Survival is a genre. Who knew? My daughter showed me the trailer to this game and despite all the blood, I thought the story looked pretty good. It is pretty good. Also, the game is phenomenally fun to play. It has a similar feel to Dishonored, in theme and in appearance, with that sort of open world feel that gives you enough space to move without letting you wander off the path. The scarcity of resources reminded me a little of The Last of Us, and the way I had to plan out each encounter became addictive. Outside of the blood and gore and blood and blood, this game is one long logic puzzle, and I loved it.

Another game I really, really enjoyed was Rise of the Tomb Raider. It was pure fun from beginning to end, with a story that wrung a few tears from my eyes, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

I also played through two installments of Assassin’s Creed this year. I found Syndicate a little boring, but quite enjoyed Unity, which felt like a return to Assassin’s Creed II style of play—lots of story, compelling characters, and a thoroughly invested world.

Right now I’m playing Fallout 76 and having a lot of fun with it. While I’m hoping there are plans for more story than there is right now, and fewer disconnects, the game so far is everything I love about Fallout: a world I can explore on my own, quirky quests hidden in odd places, crafting, and lots and lots to do.

 

Music

FTMusic

The increase in audiobook listening this year meant a decrease in music listening. I’d miss music sometimes, and so tune in to Pandora while editing. Or occasionally spend an evening flipping through my somewhat outdated collection. But I did discover a couple of new (to me) songs in 2018, two of which wormed their way into my subconscious, and then into the playlists for two of my releases this year.

“You’re Somebody Else” became the theme song for Renewing Forever, my melancholic romance featuring a couple trying to bridge a gap of thirty years. The lyrics and the feel are so damn perfect that the first few times I heard the song, I’d think about the book and weep a little.

“Broken” by lovelytheband became the theme song for Chasing Forever, and the upbeat melody and lyrics are the perfect antidote to my first choice.

I still love “Whatever It Takes” by Imagine Dragons, who seem only to be getting better with age (and they started out pretty good!), and I bought the soundtracks for both A Star is Born (every time Lady Gaga sang in that movie, I cried) and Spider-Man.

 

Food

Hot Bagels Gold (1)2018 was, without a doubt, the year of the bagel. My husband and I bought a bagel shop, meaning we kind of live and breathe bagels. I still like them—but it’s only been three months. A long three months. He gets up at 3:00 a.m. to bake and I head in late morning to work the lunch shift and close the shop. And clean and clean and clean. I’ve never washed so many dishes in my life!

My favourite bagel is still the sesame, especially when it’s fresh from the oven–crisp and chewy on the outside and tender in the middle. Toasted lightly and spread with cream cheese, sprinkled with capers and piled high with lox. Yum!

 

Activity

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I’m tempted to say sleep, but really, getting out to hike became super important again this year. It’s not a new activity and I’ve always appreciated my time out on the trails, but with everything that happened this year, to crowd my headspace and my workspace, I needed the quiet of the forest more than ever.

I took several hikes with my dad this year, which added to the fun, and discovered a few new trails, including those around Boulder Field at Hickory Run State Park! I look forward to getting out there again as soon as I figure out how to get time away from the shop!

That’s another year quantified! It was productive and busy and I’m hoping 2019 at least begins a little more sedately. We’ll see. Hope it was a great year for all of you and that the New Year is better still. ❤

(For those of you looking for my writing plans for 2019, stay tuned! I’ll be posting sometime next week!)

Game to Movie

Movies inspired by games face several unique challenges. There is an existing audience that must be served. These are the core fans and most of them are going to go see this film (even if it’s directed by Uwe Boll). I’d like to believe some films are made for game fans, to broaden the experience of the game and to celebrate the stories and characters we love. (It’s probably all about money, but whatever…)

Then there is the new audience: folks who don’t game and those who might have heard something about something and are curious enough to check it out. I’m sure there are fans of the Resident Evil franchise that have never played the games.

The biggest challenge is in balancing these two audiences without boring the first and confusing the second. Then there are matters of script, direction, actors and overall vision.

MV5BN2Y2MTljNjMtMDRlNi00ZWNhLThmMWItYTlmZjYyZDk4NzYxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjQ2MjQ5NzM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,671,1000_AL_There have been some truly terrible game movies (In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale) and some pretty good ones. I like the Resident Evil movies because you don’t need to know anything about the world before going in. The movies do a great job of catching you up because the plot of each is based on the story. So even if you have no idea what came before, a few minutes in, you’ve got a pretty good idea that a) there’s a zombie thing happening and b) an evil corporation is behind it all. Recruit a capable actor (I really, really like Milla Jovovich), give the movie a half-decent plot, show us some fab stunts and special effects, and we’re happy. With the Resident Evil series, there’s also the added bonus of every movie being a collaboration of a sort between the husband and wife team of Milla Jovovich and Paul Anderson. You can tell they love the movies as much as the fans do. They do their best and it shows.

MV5BNzE1OTczNTc1OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzgyMDI3MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_I found the Assassin’s Creed movie somewhat disappointing. After learning Michael Fassbender would be leading the cast, I really wanted to see the film. I read articles about how involved he was in the development of the project and got even more excited. I think my main issue with this film is that I have played nearly every Assassin’s Creed game. From the beginning. I know this world very, very well. The movie feels more as though it’s geared toward those who’ve never played a single game. There’s too much backstory and it lacks the impact of having “lived” through several twists and turns of plot over the course of nearly a decade.

I understand they wanted to separate the movie from the games in a way that allowed them to create a new and unique story, and I’m all for that. I’ve read a few of the tie-in novels and am generally a fan of any media that expands a universe. But the story felt almost foreign to me. I failed to connect. The romance didn’t work. All I really came away with was that the new Animus was pretty cool, the special effects had been handled fairly well, and I liked the inclusion of a real-world leap of faith. That was about it. I’d maybe watch a sequel on video. Maybe.

MV5BMjIwNTM0Mzc5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDk5NDU1ODE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,631,1000_AL_I really, really enjoyed Warcraft: The Beginning. I had a lot of fears regarding this one as I think it’s harder to adapt fantasy worlds to the big screen. There is so much lore. And you have to get it right or every fan with a smartphone is going to nitpick on every social media platform. (Actually, that’s probably true of every adaptation, but gamers are the ultimate nerds.) Warcraft did a good job. I loved the sets. They actually made me nostalgic for World of Warcraft. I remembered being in certain places. I felt like I was there again. I also liked the story. I think the script struck a good balance between serving fans without boring them and giving every viewer something new. If I had a quibble with the movie, it was in trying to separate Ragnar Lothbrok from Anduin Lothar. 😉

MV5BMjI5NTM5MDA2N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjkwMzQxNw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,631,1000_AL_One of my favorite film to game adaptations is Battleship. The movie has been roundly ridiculed for a lot of things, the two biggest being the Missouri actually being seaworthy and that amazing anchor-drop broadside. Whatever. The anchor-drop broadside looked SO COOL and I loved that they used real vets in the film. I liked the idea that they were still battle ready. The movie is director Peter Berg’s homage to naval conflict, which doesn’t get a lot of screenplay. My favourite aspect of the film is the unique way Berg translated the pencil and paper game of Battleship to hide and seek game on the open water using the tsunami buoys.

MV5BMTMwNDg0NzcyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjg4MjQyMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,676,1000_AL_Let’s talk Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Um, I loved it… and I’m going to tell you why. First of all, I feel Jake Gyllenhaal is an undervalued actor. He puts so much into every role, every project, and while he undoubtedly knew this movie would face the same critical ridicule garnered by every “game” movie, he put his all into this. I believed he was Dastan. I kinda loved that he was Dastan. I drew fan art of Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan and went on to design a playable character in another world based on that art. Oh, yeah.

I liked the story. I liked the other actors. I liked the production. But what I really, really loved about the Prince of Persia movie was how much like the game it felt. I’ve played Sands of Time and there were moments in the movie where I could almost have had a controller in my hands. They translated the acrobatic sequences really well.

MV5BOTY4NDcyZGQtYmVlNy00ODgwLTljYTMtYzQ2OTE3NDhjODMwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzYzODM3Mzg@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Which brings me to the reason I started writing this post: the new Tomb Raider movie. I went to see it on Tuesday and I enjoyed it very much. I’ve been playing Tomb Raider and watching the movies since the beginning. I don’t know that I was drawn to the series because it had a female protagonist and I’m pretty sure the original series, games and movies, weren’t designed with female gamers in mind. I simply wanted in for the adventure. I really like games that combine action with puzzling, making me a fan of such long-running franchises as Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted. (When are we getting an Uncharted movie??)

The 2013 edition of Tomb Raider (game) felt more like it had been designed with me in mind—except for the multiple occurrences of death by impalement. I’d always felt Lara to be a capable heroine, but her new clothing (and breast size) fit more comfortably. I liked that she could do what needed to be done while remaining feminine (which is what I loved about Wonder Woman).

So I was pretty pleased with Alicia Vikander as the new Lara Croft. She’s smart and capable, but not always the best at everything. She makes mistakes and learns from them. She screams when she’s free-falling and grunts in pain when she’s taking a beating. This is not a woman trying to be a man; it’s a woman being a woman. It’s a difficult distinction to make sometimes, but one I always appreciate.

The movie isn’t the most imaginative, spectacular game-to-movie movie out there. But it’s decent. I liked the plot. I liked that we went back to the beginning so a new generation of fans could get to know Lara. Find out where she came from and appreciate how she became the Tomb Raider. The stunts were great. I was all geared up for impalement and happily disappointed. I enjoyed seeing Daniel Wu and Nick Frost (Into the Badlands) on screen together, even if they weren’t exactly on screen together in this one.

My favourite aspect of the film, though, was the way the stunts were filmed. Like Prince of Persia, I actually felt as if I was in a video game world for some of them. There were even a couple of instances where I was glad not to be because the acrobatic puzzle would have been one I failed and failed and failed. I also felt the movie remained faithful to the game with the inclusion of notebooks and puzzles. All in all, it was just a lot of fun to watch.

I’m off to see Ready Player One today and I have high hopes for it. It looks as if it’s going to be bigger than the book—as though the producers have taken the virtual reality part and made it the most important aspect of the movie because it will all look so cool! I hope they remember to put a good story in there. The story is very good, especially for old gaming nerds like me.

What are your favourite video game movies?