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JRS' Year in Review: Year of the Binge

2016 was a turbulent year that left many of us gasping. For me, the ups and downs meant I often sought relaxation in fiction. It became a year of series - whether it was bingereading or bingewatching, I mainlined fiction like Eddie Dean made love to heroin. So starting with books, then television, then comics, I'm going to review 2016 through a series lens. Note that while several of these are recently published or distributed, not all of them are; some are reviews of things which have only recently come on my radar.

As my Whimsy takes me: Dorothy Sayers

"What do you do with the people who are cursed with both hearts and brains?"

I found the work of Sayers by accident, while searching out other mystery authors; after all, Agatha Christie can only stretch so far. I have a broad palate when it comes to mysteries. I don't necessarily mind the mindless. I even enjoyed the Coffeehouse Mysteries. To discover a writer with a complete series and a sensitive, literary bent was, however, pure pleasure.

Sayers published eleven novels and a handful of stories chronicling a detective who seemed at first an odd mixture of Bertram Wooster, Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes all at once. A fluent French speaker, a dilettante with a known wine palate, Lord Peter Wimsey is the heir to the Duke of Denver and extraordinarily perceptive and sensitive man who uses these skills to solve mysteries. In the process he meets the woman he's fated to love–the fictional fiction writer Harriet Vane, an avatar perhaps of Sayers herself–a graduate of a woman's school in Oxford, and simple daughter of a country doctor. And yet while there are some traditional detective motifs Sayers stands many of them on their head, to utter mental and emotional satisfaction, and the relationship between Wimsey and Vane is one hard-won and, for the reader, both stimulating and rewarding. If reading this series I'd advise you to begin at the beginning of the series with Whose Body? but if you absolutely must pick out one or two, for me the height of the series were the novels Murder Must Advertise and Gaudy Night, called by some the first feminist detective novel.

These books show a transparent love of literature, country and culture while simultaneously portraying the sexism and racism of England and worked deeply into the meat of the text in the way we see such things embedded into society itself. Wimsey watches, and whether he says anything you know by what he does the truth of how he feels. A medley of magnificent mysteries.

Rereading already.

Around the world on a Dragon, in nine books: Naomi Novik

"We're meant to go. We're not meant to stay forever."

It's the Dragonriders of Pern meets the French Revolution in this nine book series which chronicles the life of the dragon Temeraire from his hatching and adoption by (of?) Captain William Lawrence. The two develop and maintain a complex, boundary-free relationship in the midst of an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars where dragons are viable forms of transport and in some cases artillery.

Alternate history done right excites the mind with the depth of potential in a single maybe, and Novik juggles several maybes. These are definitely not stand alone books! Read as a series it has many rewards; one sees the patterns of character growth. There's lots to love. Lawrence struggles throughout with an evolving identity and notoriety he never wanted. Captain Jane Roland alone is a treasure. Novik's description of battles and historical alternavents, plus her Napoleonic depiction of Napoleon (he fascinated me throughout) had me fascinated throughout. I also loved the gay character Granby and his nuanced friendship with Lawrence. Temeraire and his evolution into a political creature intending to fight for dragon rights is at times hilarious and at times poignant but Novik avoids preachiness. The first, second, fifth and final books are likely my favorites, but the others are no slouches, either. Will reread at some point.

Chasing the end of the world: Brandon Sanderson

"Incredible cosmic powers do not equate to high IQ."

Sanderson exploded on the fantasy scene when he inherited the Wheel of Time series posthumously from Robert Jordan after said author sadly passed away leaving his work uncompleted. Sanderson proved equal to Jordan's task and, I think, did honor to that gentleman's work by keeping his voice and characters honest throughout.

He was already famous, however, for his Mistborn series and the various worlds he styles as part of his 'Cosmere.' Each of Sanderson's worlds mix science fiction and fantasy; his latest series - the Reckoners, beginning with the novel 'Steelheart' - chronicles a future time when superpowers are mysteriously spreading amongst humanity and those who receive them turn evil. It's a nice new twist for a young adult series with some sexual themes. As a teacher I keep an eye out for such series to recommend to parents–but also because I find authors writing for such an age group tend to keep in mind an idealism which is no longer fashionable to include in adult literature. All that's here–true love, sincere wanting to improve the world, unwavering faith. So is good writing; Sanderson creates unusual but realistic characters especially in his protagonist, David, the kick-ass love interest (think a young Black Widow or Agent May), and Dr. John Phaedrus. I enjoyed this series and don't know if I'd reread it—but think and hope there could be at least one or two more books with stories to tell. And watch out for the third novel - the slow beginning and middle come with a huge payoff at the end. Keeping an eye out for more Sanderson.

Finally falling: Downton Abbey

"I think I will hold your hand. It'll make me feel a bit steadier."

I think it's funny in retrospect how much I'm attracted to both English novels and novels about society going through change and upheaval. Is that me trying to understand 2016 or is it art mirroring society? Whatever the reason, this year I finally took the plunge and watched all the seasons of Downton Abbey, nearly straight through, and I felt it had so much relevance to the world today, seen as a dramatization of the interaction of classes (the city and the country perspective on life, the rich and the poor...) Luckily, I had a virtual friend in the process, and ChrisB's able reviews helped keep me on track through a complex series of events and some unique filming choices (the time jumps between different episodes could be occasionally confusing.)

Downton Abbey is a story about England told through the eyes of the wealthy and their servants. The tale of women's rights, the first world war - we're seeing a slice of the history of a country, sandwiched by dramatic moments. Even a few years later, the show is gorgeous - cinematography fantastic. I admit to throughout the show being much more interested in the lives of people below the stairs than in the big flighty troubles of Lady Mary and the haughty but ultimately pointless power struggles of the elite. In the end, it's Sybil and Tom and Tom's journey of self-discovery which truly stuck with me. Oh, and Carson's relationship. And the early days of the Bateses. Poignant. This series is poignant. Can't rewatch, too long, but maybe some seasons - 1, 2 and 6 are favorite. Maybe 3.

Remaking an icon and doing it well: The Flash

"Every time I think you've run out of ways to be a hero, you show me another one."

I started reading Flash comics this year. I review the Flash television show, but I wanted to start out in a way that let me see the show for what it is, not colored by the efforts of others. I'm happy I did it this way, because the Flash of the comics is different than the Flash of the TV show, and right now, Grant Gustin is a very authentic Flash for me. I won't compare the two - this blurb is about the TV series. I just want to make the point that an effective, relevant rebirth and reimagining of a character is rare - and this show does such a great job that I find myself thinking OMG stupid Iris or Barry, come on, almost like they're real people, even though one of them is the fastest man alive. This year so far they've been though incredible crossovers and are currently facing horrific speedy monsters - but somehow manage to keep it about family.

Yes, our beloved cast members do the stupid sometimes: but so do we all; and for a team of writers to find the essence of a character and series and re-translate that for the small screen and for a modern generation and do it well is great. I'm hoping they don't run out of stories to tell - some are already criticizing this show for always making it about running faster, and they may have a point. Season 3 seems to be taking Barry and his team to new heights, however, and I am looking forward to seeing where they go.

Jersey girl kicking butt: Ms. Marvel

"I can never be one of them, no matter how hard I try."

I couldn't pick one thing about the Ms. Marvel series featuring Kamala Khan to spotlight and tell you wow, this is the reason I suddenly dove into comics again. It's all of them. In 2014 Marvel announced that the bearer of the eponymous standard would now be a Muslim girl from the Jersey burbs, causing a ton of controversy all over the country. And from the first page it's charged with the true Marvel spirit; it reminded me of reading Spiderman, when I was a kid.

Khan saw Carol Danvers fighting a big bad back in the day. When Kamala finds out she's an Inhuman, she tries to emulate her hero and keep her identity - or identities, since she's not only an American and a student and a girl and Muslim but also geeky and valiant and a host of other things, like any teenager. For some reason, the secret identity issues faced by Kamala seemed more real to me here than in any other comic book, and I loved the depth of thought placed into this character.

As of this writing there are five volumes already published in this series. I'm more of a volume guy than a single-issue guy (how else can I binge?) but of the five, I only felt any slowness with Crushed, and the Super Famous storyline was awesome. Rereading already.

So... What did you binge on this year? And what are you looking forward to in 2017?

1 comment:

  1. I mainlined fiction like Eddie Dean made love to heroin.

    A Dark Tower reference! I'm so excited for the movie.

    I really like Sanderson's adult novels (adult in the sense of "for grownups," not anything tawdry), so I might check out his YA stuff. It's a long wait until the next Stormlight Archives book in November.


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