Thursday, December 24, 2020

Karissa's 2020 Round-Up. Yee-Haw!
Since this is my last post for 2020 it seems like a good time for a year-end review. Not the most original idea, yes, but I always enjoy looking back and remembering. And this is my blog post, so I do what I want. Also 2020 has been a brutal year (Such a cliché at this point--don't mean it ain't true), so I like the idea of remembering the things that were good about it, and there sure were A LOT of great movies, books, TV shows that kept me from losing my mind.  I'd like to share those with you In hopes that maybe one or two can bring you joy as well.

My favorite Books of 2020

The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she's posted to an alternative London. Their mission - to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it's already been stolen. London's underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.

Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested - the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene's new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.

Soon, she's up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option - the nature of reality itself is at stake.

I loved it! Loved that it was like a great blend of Sherlock Holmes, Steampunk, and classic epic fantasy sprinkled with modern characters and a semi-sentient library that embraces computer technology. The Library knows no single time period or genre, and that made for a fun mix of world-building. I loved Irene's level-headedness and ingenuity contrasted with her craving for friendship, family and a place to belong. I loved the unexpected moments of pure wakadoo absurdity (cyborg alligators!?! A train is actually an ancient fae god?!?!)The metaphysical concepts of the Library are interesting and compelling--a little confusing when first introduced but as the worldbuilding became clearer, the books just got better and better. Irene, Kai, Vale, and Bradamant are a fun Grown-up-Scooby-Doo-esque gang, and there's just a touch of romance to make it all the more thrilling.

This series gets my endorsement for being turned into Netflix's next series (rather than another frickin' reboot of True Blood. Ugh.)

Circe by Madeline Miller

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange
child - not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power - the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love. 

Circe, as a character, is complex and flawed and so wonderfully sympathetic in this EPIC story. Miller is really a pro at giving her characters an arc that show tremendous but believable growth and change. I didn't know much about Circe before reading this, and I think it was good to come in without expectations because this is the version of Circe I'm always going to think of from now on. Madeline Miller is likely to be another of my insta-buy authors. I read her second book, The Tale of Achilles, after Circe and adored it, too, although I reserve harsh critiques for it's representation of women (so surprising after the fierce feminine voice of Circe). 

 The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother's house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?

Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.

Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.

From Hugo Award–winning author Ursula Vernon, writing as T. Kingfisher.

This was such a freaking creepy, messed up book.  Often my most favorite kind of horror is the kind that keeps the monster hidden as long as possible. People joke about it now, but back when it came out, The Blair Witch Project did such a good job with suspense and anticipation without ever really showing you a monster. This book has that same unknowable adversary quality for about 2/3rds of the plot. Bad things happen, but who is doing them and why is almost impossible to know, but clues and highly original folklore references are sprinkled in along the way. It makes you uncomfortable and uneasy without being too specific, and I loved that. However, if you're a fan of monsters, this book has plenty of that too, and it all that quiet suspense building up pays off big and very weirdly in the end.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.
Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.
Crafted with unforgettable characters, Rebecca Roanhorse has created an epic adventure exploring the decadence of power amidst the weight of history and the struggle of individuals swimming against the confines of society and their broken pasts in the most original series debut of the decade.

I fell in love with Rebecca Roanhorse's "Sixth World" series (dystopia urban fantasy), so it was sort of a no-brainer to pick her first foray into epic fantasy. This book cements Rebecca as being one of my go-to, will one-click buy all her books, authors.

I want a second-world fantasy to be THICK with worldbuilding and this one absolutely delivered. In the
beginning, understanding the vocabulary and the dynamics of the societies and clans and geography was challenging as it often is with second world fantasies but I trusted Roanhorse to deliver on the foundations she was building and boy did she ever!

 This book stood on its own but it also feels very much like only the beginning to something much bigger and grander.

The Sandman, by Neil Gaimon, Audio Production adaptation by Dirk Maggs

Adapted and directed by multi-award-winner (and frequent Gaiman collaborator) Dirk Maggs, and
performed by an ensemble cast with James McAvoy (It, Parts One and Two, X-Men: First Class, Split) in the title role, this first installment of a multi-part original audio series will transport you to a world that re-writes the rules of audio entertainment the way that The Sandman originally re-defined the graphic novel.

When The Sandman, also known as Lord Morpheus - the immortal king of dreams, stories and the imagination - is pulled from his realm and imprisoned on Earth by a nefarious cult, he languishes for decades before finally escaping. Once free, he must retrieve the three “tools” that will restore his power and help him to rebuild his dominion, which has deteriorated in his absence. As the multi-threaded story unspools, The Sandman descends into Hell to confront Lucifer (Michael Sheen), chases rogue nightmares who have escaped his realm, and crosses paths with an array of characters from DC comic books, ancient myths, and real-world history, including: Inmates of Gotham City's Arkham Asylum, Doctor Destiny, the muse Calliope, the three Fates, William Shakespeare (Arthur Darvill), and many more. 
Outstanding and exceptionally performed. I'm not normally a James McAvoy fangirl, but if he were performing as Lord Morpheus, I would listen to him read the ingredients on a box of laundry detergent. I actually own some of the Sandman comics but, confession time, I haven't read them yet. So, I can't compare this production to the quality of reading the comics, but as someone who had only a casual, shallow knowledge of comic, this audio production made The Sandman and his world extremely accessible. You don't have to be a super-fan to understand and follow the stories.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani 

Between her cruel family and the contempt she faces at court, Princess Alyrra has always longed to escape the confines of her royal life. But when she’s betrothed to the powerful prince Kestrin, Alyrra embarks on a journey to his land with little hope for a better future.

When a mysterious and terrifying sorceress robs Alyrra of both her identity and her role as princess, Alyrra seizes the opportunity to start a new life for herself as a goose girl.

But Alyrra soon finds that Kestrin is not what she expected. The more Alyrra learns of this new kingdom, the pain and suffering its people endure, as well as the danger facing Kestrin from the sorceress herself, the more she knows she can’t remain the goose girl forever.

With the fate of the kingdom at stake, Alyrra is caught between two worlds and ultimately must decide who she is, and what she stands for.
I tried to come into this book with no expectations and little advanced research. I knew it was a fairy-tale retelling, but I wasn't sure which one. Surprisingly, I have never read the original "Goose Girl" story, even though I'm aware of it as part of the cannon of classical fairytales, so I got to come into this book with no knowledge or expectations and I'm glad I did. This was a fantastic way to be introduced to the fairytale, although I can't say how true it was to the original or how subversive it might have been (or even if it needed to be subverted).

The world-building was a little on the sparse side for my tastes. In 2nd world fantasy, I'm usually looking for a lot of description and scenery. That existed in this book, but it was clear the author was focused more on theme and character and she definitely delivered in those departments. I'd say perhaps the strongest theme in this book is the idea of justice--what it is and what it isn't; and who deserves it and who doesn't; and who should receive it and who doesn't; and how those who don't get justice from their leaders or from the law go about seeking it through other means.

This was just really brilliantly done, and the author pulled no punches. This story WILL break your heart several times but that made the whole experience richer. I will definitely be reading more by Ms. Khanani.

My favorite Movies of 2020

My husband and I are both Gen X and grew up loving Bill and Ted. As soon as our kid was old enough, we showed him the movies, and he loved them too. When the Hollywood Powers that Be announced another Bill and Ted movie for 2020, I was wary. 

So many of my cherished childhood properties have been messed up by producers/studios/writers who couldn't leave well enough alone and who seemed to care more about subversion and edginess than honoring what made us all fall in love with the thing in the first place. However, Bill and Ted Face the Music turned out to be the perfect remedy for our world weary spirits. 
With COVID and the elections and everything else against which we've all had to toughen up to survive, Bill and Ted was the antithesis of cynicism and sarcasm and bitterness. It was warm and funny and light hearted and totally celebrated the original spirit of this franchise. It couldn't have been released at a better time. For a few minutes we let ourselves believe that this divisive world really could be united in peace and harmony.

The Old Guard

A covert team of immortal mercenaries is suddenly exposed and must now fight to keep their identity a secret just as an unexpected new member is discovered.

If it's Charlize Thoren being a badass, I'm there. If it's a movie with more than one woman being a badass, I'm there. If it also happens to have Matthias Schoenaerts in it, that doesn't hurt either (even if I am ready to see him do something other than being the moody silent handsome asshole).  Sure parts of it were kinda predictable but other parts of it were really fun and original. It wasn't earth shaking but it was fun and the cast had great chemistry. I'm looking forward to the sequel.


The rapid spread of an unknown infection has left an entire city in ungovernable chaos, but one

survivor remains alive in isolation. It is his story.

I've been watching a lot of foreign horror this year and I think it would be smart to do a different post devoted to some of the amazing movies I've seen. I've always had a wakness for zombie movies and TV shows and Korea is having a blast with this genre. This movie has a simple concept, a charming and not entirely stupid kid has to survive a sudden zombie apocalypse alone in his urban apartment building. He uses drone technology in some really novel and creative ways. There's a cute relationship and great witty banter. It's not perfect, there are a few sub plots that are a little head scratchy, but overall it's full of the great fast paced, edge of seat tension that I need from all good zombie movies.

 Although it wasn't released this year, I also must recommend Train to Busan, which is not only a nail-biting thriller but also an emotional gut wrencher. My eighteen year old kiddo says it's the best zombie movie he's ever seen.

My favorite TV shows of 2020

Schitt's Creek

Hands down this was the best show I've seen in a long time and 2020 was the best year to watch it. I'd seen people saying "you have to stick it out past the first season," so I was prepared to do just that--stick it out. WHATEVER! I was hooked on this family from the first episode. I've been fans of Eugene Levy (Mermaid!) and Catherine O'Hara (Beetlejuice!) since I was a kid. A little later in my youth I became aware of SCTV and Christopher Guest movies and loved them even more.  Maybe on the surface they look like shallow people? I don't know...from the first episode it seemed clear to me that a devastating thing had happened to them and instead of taking it out on each other, they chose to stick together. This show is hilarious but it's also unbelievably warm and sweet.

When an acquaintance asked for Netflix suggestions, I told them to watch Shitt's Creek. They said, "The children are way too old to be acting the way they do." i.e. immature brats. But, but...that's the whole point of the show. These privileged people learn to grow up and be more real, and yeah that doesn't happen in the first episode. But in the meanwhile you get to know the delightful "bumpkins" of Shitt's Creek who are not bumpkins at all. You keep expecting them to be portrayed as small town simpletons and mostly they are but they all (well, almost all) have an undercurrent of wry, no BS intellect. 

The show regularly made me laugh out loud and cry and I want a mini version of David Rose to keep in my pocket.

The Mandalorian; Season 2

The Mandalorian was everything I wish the Star Wars sequels had been. I like season two better than the first because the whole season was more cohesive overall. The goals and purpose and narrative arc were clearer and Mando (Din Jardin) became more of a real person. Even Baby Yoda/The Child/Grogu grew a bit more than being an extremely cute puppet/prop. My favorite moment of the whole season (besides the last episode which had a lot of favorite moments) was seeing the Tucsan Raiders aka The Sand People get culture, language, and a back story that was long overdue.

There were a lot of great individual episode directors but overall I give kudos to producer John Favreau for reminding me of when I was a wee little girl who regularly asked her mom to put her hair in Leia Buns because she loved Star Wars so much.

Cobra Kai

This was an unexpected delight, though I must qualify that at the time of this post I've only seen the entirety of Season 1.  My husband and I have a hard time finding things we both like to watch together. Mostly, I gave this a try because he was interested it, and nostalgia is a powerful drug in our house (see Bill and Ted Face the Music above). 

My husband loves anything that brings him fond memories of his childhood (seriously, I think The Goonies is perhaps his favorite movie ever), and we both loved Karate Kid back in the day, but I was a kid then. As an adult, I figured Cobra Kai might be as juvenile as Karate Kid and probably very dumb. The first episodes were a little more sentimental and simplistic than I normally go for, but my husband loved it so I stuck it out. I'm glad I did. 

The writing and characterizations got a lot sharper and smarter as the season went on. It manages to laugh at itself in a way that the originals never did, and it pokes fun at some of the problematic content from the earlier movies. There are more than a few laugh out loud moments, too, which is a plus.  Maybe some of it was a little predictable, but other moments showed some complexity and cleverness I wasn't expecting. And I'm always a sucker for a bad guy who gets a better back story (see my reference to the Tucsan Raiders above) and a chance at redemption.

1 comment:

Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I loved the old guard and wished it was a TV series rather than a movie. And getting into Cobra Kai now and it's a delight. Great list!

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