Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Favorite books and TV shows of 2020 and 2021

I normally write one of these every year, but my post for 2020... yeah, it didn't happen for a whole host of reasons. But I'm feeling more myself now, and I want to fangirl about my favorites!!!

Favorite books of 2020 and 2021

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel -- I've loved this entire series, and I'm sad to see it end. I doled this book out to myself in bits and pieces over many weeks so that I could savor it, and now at last I've turned the final page with a sigh of contentment. Mantel can rest easy knowing that she's created one of the towering achievements of literature. So many passages struck me with their precision, insight, and sheer beauty. One of my favorites:

"Don't look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles, when earth and sky melt, when the fluttering heart of the bird on the bough calms and slows, and the night-walking animals stir and stretch and rouse, and the eyes of cats shine in the dark, when colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air; when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow. You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land? Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbour's conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper's flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself--slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well; must I apply to Bishop Stephen, who will tell me how transgression follows me, assures me that my sins seek me out; even as I slide into sleep, my past pads after me, paws on the flagstones, pit-pat: water in a basin of alabaster, cool in the heat of the Florentine afternoon."

Thank you, Hilary Mantel, for writing such a gorgeous series. I am forever grateful.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang -- I loved Stella and Michael. Both characters were marvelous--truly good people who are even better when they're together, and who genuinely appreciate and embrace each other, warts and all. Stella's Aspergers is both a challenge and a boon for her--it helps her hone her mathematical talents and employ them effectively. It also makes her feel different, even unlovable, and she turns to Michael (an escort) in the hope that he can help her learn to be "normal" when it comes to sex and relationships. What she learns though is that she's not "odd" or "weird." She's just herself, and she can (and should) be loved for that. And she teaches Michael that all the bad things he thinks are true about himself are false. He too, is a person worthy and deserving of love, because of the way he is, not despite it.   

The Custard Protocol series by Gail Carriger
Another delightful series by Gail Carriger, and a must-read for fans of the Parasol Protectorate series. This series follows the adventures of Prudence--the daughter of Alexia, Conall, and the delightful Lord Akeldama--and her friends as they travel around the globe. I laughed so many times throughout this series and ripped through each book in rapid succession. If you need something light and funny, look no further!

by Larissa Ione
-- Whew!!! Reaper was so intense! Then again, I wasn't expecting a joyride. The series has been building up to this for quite a while, and this book didn't let us down. Many of the many characters are revisited, and the ending sets up the new direction for the Demonica Underworld series. I'm not going to say more than for fear of spoiling the plot, but I can say that I'm really psyched for the next book!

The London Steampunk series by Bec McMaster
-- Dark, sexy, intense, and a helluva ride! A much darker, more angsty take on steampunk (as compared to Gail Carriger's work), and I loved every minute of it. Each hero and heroine are well-suited, and McMaster's world is richly imagined and fleshed out. All around fantastic!

Hello Stranger by Jade West -- This book broke my heart, and rebuilt it at the same time. As always, Jade West writes with real skill about complicated people and complex emotions. I don't want to give anything away, but this is definitely not your typical romance. You will definitely cry while reading this book. I loved Chloe and Logan and especially Logan's mom, Jackie. 

One to Watch
by Kate Stayman-London
-- I loved the premise of this book--fat fashionista/influencer Bea "OMBea" Schumacher gets cast as the "bachelorette" on a TV reality-dating show--and it didn't disappoint. Oddly enough for such a fantastical premise, the story felt grounded and realistic, especially the character of Bea. And then there were the men in the story, among them several (at times cartoonish) villains and some real charmers. I especially liked Asher, Sam, Wade, and even rascally Luc. And then there's Ray... a guy I've met several times in my own life. I don't want to say more for fear of spoiling the plot, but there are a lot of twists and turns, and I wasn't sure if Bea would end up with any of them in the end.

Born, Darkly and Born, Madly by Trisha Wolfe -- Dark psychological suspense at its finest! These books just sucked me in and had me flipping pages as fast as I could. London and Grayson... what a crazy, f-d up couple they are, and yet... I found myself rooting for them, and I really, really shouldn't have been! 

Enemy Storm by Marcella Burnard -- Wow! I've loved this whole series so far, and it just keeps getting better! This story clipped along nonstop from the moment when Edie and V'kyrri first meet right up until the final pages. I loved both of them--Edie with all of her sharp edges, V'kyrri with his steadfast dedication and empathy for others--and they made an even better team when they decided to trust each other despite the fact that they had ample reason not to, given her past as a revolutionary bent on eradicating the Claugh and his present as an officer of the Claugh empire.

I had no idea how Burnard was going to resolve the differences between them, but some excellent twists and turns brought everything together. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say that this book was exciting all the way through and deeply touching, especially when Edie finally comes to terms with her past and allows herself to truly open up to V'kyrri.

I'm hoping that we're going to get more in this series soon because I'm really dying for a book about Eilod! Highly recommended, especially for sci-fi lovers, but even if you think sci-fi isn't your jam, give this excellent series a try!

40-Love by Olivia Dade -- A perfect pandemic read. I laughed so many times while reading this book. Tess and Lucas were a great couple, and I loved how they worked out their challenges and made each other more complete, helping each other become better people.

Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade -- I loved, loved, loved this story of the romance between a Hollywood heartthrob and the woman who writes fanfic about the TV series he stars in. When she posts a pic of herself in costume as a character on the show, the jerks come out to play and insult her because of her weight. Marcus thinks she's lovely, and he asks her out on Twitter. April accepts, thinking he's just being nice, not suspecting that they have more in common than she thinks.

Turns out, he writes fanfic too because he's frustrated with the show's storylines. But of course he doesn't tell her because it's a violation of his contract to criticize the show. He soon realizes that April is his best friend on the fanfic server, and trouble ensues! 

Though there are a number of improbable bits, I sailed right through this charming and heart-wrenching story, wondering how Marcus was ever going to make things right with April. Of course he finally does, and my heart melted right along with hers.

All the Feels by Olivia Dade -- Loved, loved, loved this! I loved Spoiler Alert, but All the Feels was even better. Alex and Lauren were absolutely perfect together, and the two of them had me laughing again and again throughout the story. Both of them are charming in their own way, but Alex just stole my heart with his unabashed cheekiness. ADORE HIM!!! This is one I'll be reading again.

The Claimed by Lucifer series by Elizabeth Briggs
-- As a fan of the TV show Lucifer, I'm a sucker for stories about Lucifer, and this series did not disappoint! Each story builds perfectly on the last, and the final story for Hannah and Lucifer (Infernal God) wrapped everything up perfectly. Highly recommended if you love dark, sexy, paranormal romance. I'm eagerly awaiting the next book! 

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo -- If I had to recommend one book that everyone in America (well, the world) should read, it would be this one. When Barack Obama was elected President, I was overjoyed. I thought at last this country was becoming what it always should have been--a place of freedom and equality for every person, no matter who they were. How my hopes for this country were dashed in 2016 when the ugliest side of America crawled out of the shadows and into the White House. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't understand how this had happened. Where did all this hatred come from? Why was it so strong? Why couldn't it just die already?

In So You Want to Talk About Race, Oluo digs into the reasons why racism is so pervasive, so entrenched, such a stain on this nation's soul. Every one of us is tainted by it. Every one of us has been raised in a system that reinforces and teaches white supremacy so well that we carry unrecognized privilege and unconscious bias within us. And until we break up that system and root out the beliefs behind it, it will continue to haunt us and drag us down.

by Lindy West
-- Lindy West's Shrill is a funny and sharp memoir about her life as a fat woman and feminist activist. I enjoyed a lot of her insights about the events that formed her into the person she is today. I also laughed my butt off several times. I plan on watching the Hulu series based on this book. (I also highly recommend West's The Witches Are Coming.)

The Murder Between Us and The Grave Between Us by Tal Bauer -- Excellent M/M romantic suspense, with great chemistry between the leads, great twists and turns, and a truly intriguing mystery at the heart of each story. The second book is even better than the first! 

Deal with the Devil and The Devil You Know by Kit Rocha - Excellent first entries in the Mercenary Librarians series! This series is set in the same world as Kit Rocha's Beyond series, and there are some fun Easter eggs in the story that call back to that series. While there are some similarities to the Beyond series--most of the characters have been enhanced through some means--this series stands entirely on its own, and I can't wait for more.

I loved the leads and the secondary characters were great as well. Several lines in both stories made me laugh out loud, the books were exciting and fast-paced, and the sexual chemistry was so, so good. I can't wait to see how the rest of the characters find their HEAs. And each story ends with one hell of a twist!

If you enjoyed these books and haven't yet read the Beyond series, get on that NOW. 

Untamed by Glennon Doyle -- So much great insight and advice in these pages. If you suffer from self-doubt and uncertainty, read this book now. 

Dark Places
by Gillian Flynn
-- I've been meaning to read this book for years, and I wasn't disappointed. The characters are well-drawn, and the mystery is excellent, with several twists and turns I didn't see coming.

Flynn's writing is sharp and specific. You feel like you've been on a journey with these characters, that you've been somewhere real, that you've seen it, smelled it, touched and tasted it. Brilliantly done.

If you enjoyed Gone Girl, you'll enjoy this one as well. I'm frankly surprised this hasn't already been made into a movie or a limited series.

The Immortal Doc Holliday series by MM Crumley
-- If you're in a funk, pick up this series today. Funny, inventive, and a rollicking good adventure in each installment. Plus, with the charming, inveterate rascal Doc Holliday as the lead, you know you're in for a damn good time! The good-natured banter and bickering between Doc and his crew -- talking plant Thaddeus, vampire Jervis, and witch Jury -- just adds to the fun. I've laughed out loud dozens of times while reading this series, and I'm eagerly looking forward to more. I would love to see these books get turned into a TV or movie series!

The Astral Heat series by Laura Navarre
-- I love, love, love all four of the leads in this series! Their chemistry is sizzling hot, and each one is well-drawn and fascinating. On top of that, there's a meaty story of galactic conflict that has me wondering how these four are ever going to get their HEA. I'm impressed with how Navarre keeps upping the ante in every scene. 

The first book is  more of a slow burn, but holy hell, the second book was SCORCHING!!! And of course, each one ends on one giant cliffhanger. I'll be counting the days until my pre-order for the final book arrives!

Favorite TV shows of 2020 and 2021

The Witcher -- Come for the hotness that is Henry Cavill, stay for the story and the richly drawn characters. After Game of Thrones ended, I was looking for another meaty series to sink my teeth into, and The Witcher fits the bill perfectly. The second season was even better than the first, and the interplay between Geralt, Jaskier, and Yennefer was often hilarious, and sometimes poignant. Ciri's development in the second season was welcome, and was the introduction of the other witchers. And wow, does season 2 end on a hell of a twist!

-- First things first: Rege-Jean Page is HOTNESS personified, and he was perfectly cast as THE Duke that every girl in the marriage market is after. There's so much to love in this series--the witty dialogue, the twists and turns, the inventive casting, the sets, the costumes--you'll find yourself swept up and carried away. Can't wait for season 2!

Lucifer -- I didn't think Lucifer could top itself, but it did. And the final season wrapped everything up perfectly. I could certainly watch several more seasons about these amazing (and often hilarious) characters, but I'm glad that the series ended on a high point. Many thanks to the cast and writers for bringing us so much entertainment. And many thanks to Netflix for not letting this show die out early! 

Shadow and Bone -- I haven't yet read the books this series is based on, but I was intrigued when I saw a preview of this series on Netflix, and I'm glad I checked it out! The storyline is inventive, the characters are well-drawn, and the world-building and costumes are lush. Plus, Ben Barnes makes a great villain!

What We Do in the Shadows -- I loved the first two seasons of this show so hard, I was almost afraid to watch the third for fear that it wouldn't live up to the prior seasons. Thankfully, the show stayed just as hilarious, and it even gained a bit more heart in the third season. One of the few shows that I've rewatched all the way through just to pick up on the jokes I missed the first time around. Don't know what it's about? Think The Office meets vampires, but like, really incompetent vampires. Trust me, you'll love it. (Bonus: The movie it's based on is hilarious too!)

The Rookie -- This show just keeps getting better and better. I love all of the characters, and the stories have remained intense and thought-provoking. Even though Nathan Fillion is the star, each character is well-drawn and has their own storyline. While John's story was the one that drew me in, I'm loving the slow-burn, will-they-won't-they tension between Lucy and Tim, the ongoing troubles in Nila's co-parenting arrangement with her ex, and the sometimes fraught, often sweet marriage between Wesley and Angela. 

-- Okay, yes, it's yet ANOTHER doctor show. And yet it's not. Set in Canada, it's about a Syrian doctor working in a restaurant who steps up during a disaster and saves the life of the local head of an ER--by drilling into his skull with ordinary power tools! Bashir's quick thinking and years of scrappiness and improvisation in war-torn Syria make him a great fit for an ER, and he's given a shot at being a doctor again. The tensions between his past, his family life, and his new job make for great TV. I also like the secondary characters, and I'm enjoying the Canadian setting and learning more about Bash's culture. So glad this got renewed!

What/If -- I wasn't sure what to expect from this Netflix series. At first glance, it seems to be a take-off on Indecent Proposal, but there's way more to this story than you'd guess. Great twists, a mesmerizing performance from Renee Zellweger, and an intriguing examination of how your life can turn on a dime depending on your choices. 

Squid Game -- Hoo boy, was this INTENSE! I didn't really know what to expect going in, but I could not stop watching. Thought-provoking and twisty, it's much more than it seems at first. 

You -- Stalker Joe Greenberg should be no one's hero. He's a mess, falling obsessively in love with woman after woman, and when things don't work out, he's prone to making life-altering mistakes... including murder. And yet, I can't help rooting for the guy to sort his life out. He so wants to stop what he's doing and live a normal life. Three seasons in, and he still hasn't figured it out. Can he?

Schitt's Creek -- This show got me through the most anxiety-provoking months of the pandemic with its combination of sweetness, saltiness, and silliness. My hat's off to the Levy family, Annie Murphy, Emily Hampshire, Noah Reid, and the inimitable Catherine O'Hara for their fine portrayals of this cast of loveable oddballs. Excellent writing, acting, and direction made this series an instant classic. If you haven't watched it yet, give it an episode or two to draw you in--it's well worth the watch! 

Breaking Bad -- Yes, I'm woefully late to the greatness that is Breaking Bad. It's earned every superlative thrown its way, and I'm glad that I finally dived in. The entire cast is amazing, but its brutal heart belongs to Bryan Cranston. Be sure to watch El Camino, the post-series movie that wraps up some loose ends. I've just started Better Call Saul, and I'm really enjoying this deep dive into Saul Goodman, the rascally lawyer who's always in over his head, swimming with sharks much bigger than he is and somehow managing not to get killed. 

-- It starts out with a bizarre murder (a corpse pieced together from multiple bodies) and turns into an examination of the tortured past and present of DS Nathan Rose and his partner, DI Emily Baxter. Rose and Baxter soon realize that Rose's past has caught up with him in a big way, and he's now on the murderer's kill list. The killer is truly diabolical, and the twists keep coming as Rose, Baxter, and new recruit, Edmonds (who has secrets of her own), try to find the killer before he completes his list. Little do they know that the man they're hunting might not be the true architect of his crimes... If you're looking for something intense and thrilling, give Ragdoll a watch! 

Sex Education -- Poor Otis. His mom Jean (played by the remarkable Gillian Anderson) is a sex therapist, a fact that Otis is continually embarrassed by. That is, until he finds himself handing out sex advice (despite his lack of experience) to his hapless classmates at the urging of his gay best friend Eric and the school bad girl, Maeve (who keeps her keen intelligence a secret) in a scheme to make cash. The love lives and friendships between Otis and his friends--and Jean's messy romantic past and present--collide in funny and delightful fashion. The whole cast is wonderful, with Ncuti Gatwa as Eric a particular standout. His portrayal of Eric is heartbreaking, hopeful, and sweet, and Gatwa lights up the screen every time he appears. 

Behind Her Eyes -- I wasn't sure what to expect of this thriller series, and it went off in a direction I hadn't anticipated. Louise works in a psychiatrist's office, and when she meets the new doctor on the staff, sparks fly--but he's married. That ultimately doesn't stop them from embarking on a passionate affair, and when Louise meets David's emotionally unstable wife, Adele, she gets drawn into a friendship with her. As Louise learns more about David and Adele's marriage and Adele's past with Rob, a fellow patient at the sanitarium Adele was sent to after her parents were killed, Louise isn't sure whose version of events is the truth. And she's really not sure how Adele always seems to know things she couldn't possibly know...  Watch it!

Dexter: New Blood -- I loved the Dexter series (both books and TV), right up until the ending of each. The book ending was a little better than the TV ending, which was truly awful, but I felt that Dexter deserved a better ending than either series gave him. Enter Dexter: New Blood, and so far, it's everything I could have hoped for. Fingers crossed that this series continues to do the character justice! 

-- I fell hard for this show in season 1, and season 2 did not disappoint! Great characters, great writing, and a wicked sense of humor make this show a delight. By turns gruesome, scary, thrilling, sexy, touching, and snarky, it's one of the few shows where I can't predict what's coming next. Need more now! 

-- Damn it, CBS, this was one of the best shows I've seen in ages, and it surely did not deserve cancellation after season 1. Great casting, great writing, and thrilling storylines made it a standout in every way. If you loved The Silence of the Lambs and wondered how Clarice handled the aftermath of the Buffalo Bill case, watch this excellent show. 

Prodigal Son
-- Another show that ended before its time, and this time it's Fox to blame. Season 2 of this show carried on the craziness and upped the ante with the escape of Malcolm's serial killer dad, who meets his match in a wicked doctor who just might be smarter than he is. 

-- Thank goodness HBO Max picked up this most excellent Italian mob series set in Naples so that we could finally see season 3 in the US. Almost Shakespearean in the level of tragedy, this series digs into the bonds between family, friends, and lovers as they fight for power. Chilling and intense, and each season is more powerful than the last. I highly recommend watching this one in the original Italian with subtitles if you can. The acting and storytelling are fantastic.

- Another Italian mob series, this time centered in Rome, focuses on the bonds between three young men--one the ne're-do-well son of a cop, one the heir to a small-time crime family, and one the gay second-in-line to a Romani crime family--who come together by chance and decide to upend the power structure in Rome. Little do they know that they're taking on forces far more powerful than themselves. Their machinations involve the Vatican, the Roman city government, and various members of the underworld, including the Sicilian mob. Tragedy ensues, as each young man ends up destroying what he loves most in the pursuit of wealth and influence. 

I May Destroy You -- Last, but certainly not least, is I May Destroy You. This show blew me away with its superb writing, acting, and storytelling. Michaela Coel, who wrote and starred in this series, is a fricking genius, and I'm eagerly looking forward to whatever she does next. Brilliant! 

Honorable mentions: Orange Is the New BlackStar Trek: Discovery, The Handmaid's Tale, Bonding, 9-1-1, 9-1-1: Lone Star, Law & Order: SVU, Law & Order: Organized Crime