2020 in Review: So Much Fun, We Can Hardly Contain Ourselves
by Cynthia Ward
On the first day of 2020, Joe and returned from holiday travel, mysteriously and seriously ill, to find our beloved cat Schwa dying, and I said, "I hope the year goes uphill from here."
We all know how that turned out.
Herewith, the entertainment pleasures (and occasional pains) I remember from the year:
* * *
Hit or Miss (Film and Television)
Babylon Berlin Season One - Like the mystery novels it's based upon, the German television series has strengths and weaknesses (though not the same ones), and it becomes aggravating when it turns its middle-class woman cop-to-be into a poverty-stricken prostitute and exoticizes queer and genderqueer aspects of Weimar Berlin (also, watch the show with subtitles, not overdubs).
Birdbox - The adaptation of the hit novel is John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids meets Stephen King's The Mist, only not very credible, engaging, or easy on queer or POC characters (I'm told the novel is better).
Captain Marvel - I wanted to like this major female superhero movie from the Marvel Comics universe, but it had difficulty holding my attention; I'll try again later.
Enola Holmes - An enjoyable adaptation of Nancy Springer's novel The Case of the Missing Marquess, from her YA mystery series about Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes' younger sister - I wish this feminist mash-up movie had been around when I was a kid.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey - A wonderful movie - fun for the whole family, gorgeous, imaginative, with fabulous costumes, great acting, awesome singing, and beautiful orchestration - and it's speculative fiction, too.
La La Land - Why this dull, chemistry-free romantic musical should win a single award, let alone six Academy Awards and seven Golden Globes, must forever remain a mystery; we quit when we reached 38 minutes and realized there were still some 90 left.
Supergirl Season One Episode One - Seems to be aimed at middle grade/junior high students, and weakly so; perhaps we should skip ahead to the episode which introduces Nicole Maines, the trans actress from Maine who plays the future superhero Dreamer.
* * *
Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn (Music)
Autobahn et alia by Kraftwork - Delving into albums by the electronic music pioneers, I discovered this German band (which was founded in 1970 and influenced hip-hop) was recording (or inventing) techno, electronica, and electro-funk years or decades before the genres were named. RIP co-founder Florian Schneider.
"Caravan" et alia by the Richard Carpenter Trio - Did you know the Carpenters started out as a jazz trio? Richard is nineteen here. Karen is sixteen. Sixteen.
Oro Grandes Éxitos by ABBA - It wasn't enough for the superstar Swedish band to record a bunch of their songs fluently in a second language, English - they did it again in Spanish, and just as brilliantly.
* * *
You'd never guess, but I had more time to read this year (Books)
A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup - A chemist's knowledgeable and fascinating overview of the poisons used (in her fiction) by Agatha Christie.
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss - The fascinating, jaw-dropping, and beautifully written biography of the father of the French writer Alexandre Dumas: General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, a giant of the French Revolution and a warrior who makes Conan the Barbarian look like an underachiever.
Thank you For Arguing, Third Edition by Jay Heinrichs - In my limited experience, the Internet features much fighting but little arguing, and I'm far better at the former than the latter, so I'm reading this guide to rhetoric; it's informative and entertaining, but also dense and demanding, so I anticipate many re-reads before I grow my skills in debate and logic.
Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch Book 2) by Ann Leckie - This sequel about an embodied, gender-blind ship-mind navigating a female-centric, star-spanning future is nearly as strong as the first novel in the trilogy.
Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie - An absorbing Hercule Poirot novel, although ultimately I found it too contrived, especially by the Queen of Mystery's usual high standards; I also found her sledgehammering of the "wrong" kinds of strong females to be aggravating and disappointing.
Babylon Berlin series by Volker Kutscher, translated by Niall Sellar - The novels feature intriguing crime situations and settings in and around Weimar Berlin, but I tend to find the protagonist annoying and dull, and wish his far more interesting girlfriend were the protagonist (also, if you're looking for a decadent Cabaret vibe here, you'll largely come up empty).
Band Sinister, Lilywhite Boys series, The Magpie Lord, The Price of Meat, Proper English, The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, Sins of the Cities series, A Society of Gentlemen series, Spectred Isle, Think of England, Unfit to Print, Wanted: A Gentleman, the Will Darling Adventures by K.J. Charles - If I could bottle whatever the hell it is this brilliant, genre-blending author is doing, I'd guzzle a six-pack every time I sat down to write.
Beau Brummell series by Rosemary Stevens - Four entertaining historical mystery novels featuring the sharp-witted Regency dandy, fashion trend-setter, and remaker of society (note: Book 4 is notably darker, and the Beau is presumed allo-heterosexual throughout).
Best Laid Plaids: A Paranormal Historical Romance (Kilty Pleasures Book 1) by Ella Stainton - This fun, sexy, paranormal MM romance novel set in the '20s treats its disabled co-leads respectfully, and I suspect it passes the Fries Test.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler - With this re-read, I am once again reminded that Chandler was a brilliant prose stylist and god of hardboiled detective fiction, and that there's a reason I never binge-read his Philip Marlowe series (for my tastes, character behavior is too often a cross between Kabuki-esque stylization and idiot-plot foolishness, which I find wearing).
Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb - I re-read the classic mystery novel for the first time since the '90s, and it is very funny (in a satirical, snarky, mean-spirited way that offers insight into the female co-lead's vulnerabilities and defense mechanisms) - the book is also utterly fatphobic (in line with other '80s fiction, I am sorry to say), and it is set at a science fiction convention and hated by many in fandom. Caveat lector.
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite - This Regency FF romance goes for rather more of a slow burn that I like (there are years of pining), but it has many strengths, among them the well-drawn middle-aged co-leads and the careful consideration of the emotional costs of a lavender marriage of convenience, however open and respectful.
Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood - This retro mystery novel featuring a well-off, mostly-het, 1920s Bright Young Thing is amusing fluff, and it leaves me curious to try the Netflix series.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle - Brilliant as ever.
Damned Pretty Things by Holly Wade Matter - A pair of Weird sisters, a romantic triangle (or quadrangle), a magical family, a witchy town, a deal with the devil - all these elements are present, but none are what you expect. Best debut I read this year.
The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow - An absorbing, evocative surf-noir mystery which recurrently reminded of my crack to Nisi Shawl that much of fiction is fanservice for men; and, as for the choice of a villain from its diverse cast...major facepalm.
The Family Vault by Charlotte MacLeod - A contemporary mystery in '79, but a historical read now, this strong first novel in the Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn cozy mystery series was a bittersweet pleasure, allowing me to revisit my homeland of New England, where I haven't been for two years, and which I cannot be sure of seeing again in the era of COVID-19.
The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue (Montague Siblings Book 1) by Mackenzi Lee - This historical romantic (MM) YA novel deals with abuse, racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia, but is more oriented to its historical, romantic, action, and speculative elements, and its protagonist's voice is a delight.
Hope Rides Again (Obama/Biden Mysteries Book 2) by Andrew Shaffer - Narrated by a certain president-elect, this fun mystery novel captures Biden('s public persona) well, though ultimately it's a little flat compared to the prequel - still, I'd be happy to read another volume in the series, if not as happy as I'll be to see a second Biden/Harris term and a couple of Harris terms.
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera - The vibrant page-turner of a debut novel by Marvel Comics' first Latina writer (most famously of the America series) celebrates queer and genderqueer PoC cultures and does a precise job of skewering Portland hipsterism and straight white cis feminism.
Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole - Featuring an African-American businesswoman/club owner/ex-prostitute and an immigrant East Indian chef/incognito gentleman in 1917 Harlem, this fun, hot, feminist MF romance novella proved informative for me (I hadn't realized early-20th-Century Harlem had an East Indian immigrant community [among others]).
Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann - A charming, insightful romance about a mixed-orientation cis MF pair of romantics (asexual and allosexual), but the ask ultimately accepted by one character is so enormous, it's the reason gay/straight MF marriages are typically not recommended.
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley - A queer, time-slipping, brutally hardboiled, and brilliant SF critique of war and late capitalism, which also tips its hat gracefully to every SF war novel I've ever read, and no doubt to those I haven't, as well.
Metropolis by Philip Kerr - This is the last novel in the late British author's Bernie Gunther historical mystery series, but the first by internal chronology; here, the widower protagonist is a newly-minted and rather idealistic young Weimar Republic Homicide detective, which means he's not nearly as wearingly womanizing and cynical as the damaged, Nazi-stalked, ex-cop PI of the official Book One, March Violets.
Murder on Black Swan Lane (A Wrexford & Sloane Mystery Book 1) by Andrea Penrose - A solid Regency mystery which is slowly building up a romance (MF) between its nobleman/scientist and its incognita satirist/cartoonist.
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells - A semi-far-future cyborg-esque soldier circumvents its lethal programming to pass as human and binge-watch future television, and how can a series be so damned excellent from book to book, anyway?
Potato Surprise (Brimstone Book 1) by Angel Martinez - Hellboy in space, with helpings of bio-jewel heist and cis/trans queer HFN romance.
The Radio Man (a.k.a. An Earthman on Venus) by Ralph Milne Farley - I quite enjoyed this interplanetary romance novella when I first read it as a teen in the '70s, but the re-read demonstrated why Farley's contemporaries, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, became much bigger names in spec-fic pulp.
The Remaking of Corbin Wale: An M/M Holiday Romance by Roan Parrish - A lyrical and gentle Hanukkah romance.
Seducing the Sedgwicks trilogy (Two Rogues Make a Right, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, and It Takes Two to Tumble) by Cat Sebastian - Enjoyable series of MM Regency romances, one interracial, with serious concerns, but not too heavy (the last volume gets quite fluffy).
Silent Sin by E.J. Russell - Gentle and absorbing, this romantic Roaring Twenties historical novel, set in Hollywood and centered on a gay couple, takes some surprising turns.
The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera - Dense, demanding, and ambitious, this fantasy novel centered on a budding lesbian couple is influenced by manga/anime and Asian history and legends, though it's not much like what I've read or seen of those.
Trans Wizard Harriet Porber and the Bad Boy Parasaurolophus: An Adult Romance Novel by Chuck Tingle - Having not previously read the author of Pounded in the Butt by My Own Butt, I was pleasantly surprised by the gentleness and metafictional wisdom in this recent tingler, which I had incorrectly supposed would be a savage satire of the TERF creator of Harry Potter--recommended if you're okay with explicit dino-sapiens sex and spotty proofreading.
Venus + X by Theodore Sturgeon - This gender-bending mid-century science fiction novel about the war between the sexes is structured like a Utopian novel, which vitiates tension, but whether it's actually Utopian is, shall we say, up to the reader.
Wayfarers series Book 1-2 (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit) by Becky Chambers - I haven't quite put my finger on what subgenre would describe these slow-to-build, tangentially related novels--perhaps cozy, humane SF?--but they largely eschew standard conflicts, in keeping with their ethos, even as they keep you reading.
The White Mountains (The Tripods Book 1) by John Christopher - A boy's own adventure released in 1967, and very "traditional" (male/straight/white/cis/European - although I found the severely myopic French sidekick quite diverse in the '70s); if you can get past these elements, this YA/MG novel of alien occupation is a page-turner.
A Woman of the Road and Sea (The Honest Thieves Trilogy Book 2) by Amy Wolf - The fun, fast-paced adventures of the cross-dressing highway "man" Megs take a more serious turn as her beloved secret daughter grows older.
Would I Lie to the Duke (The Union of the Rakes Book 2) by Eva Leigh (who also writes as Zoe Archer) - This Regency MF romance did not quite engage my interest until the sparrow scene (which alone is worth the price of admission), but the rest kept me locked in (bonus element: fem-dom).
Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias - A brutally hardboiled, very violent, entirely unsparing supernatural crime novel of the modern Mexico-Texas border.
Cynthia Ward has published stories in Analog, Asimov's, Nightmare, Weird Tales, and other magazines and anthologies. For WolfSinger Publications, she edited the diversity-themed anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West Volumes 1-2. With fellow Aqueductista Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored the Locus Award winning fiction-writing guide, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Aqueduct Press recently released the latest novella in her Bloody-Thirsty Agent series, The Adventure of the Naked Guide.