Josie’s Best of 2020

2020 sucked. Here are ten things that made it better.

Television

I fell for Peaky Blinders hard and fast right before lockdown, and now I’m (slowly) working my way through reviewing it. Glamorous violence, cheekbones for miles, beautiful clothes, intricate plots, nuanced acting, and an epic soundtrack add up to making this show about gangsters (a genre I’d lost my taste for) the absolute television highlight of 2020.

Billie gently nudged me to give Outlander another shot after I’d bounced hard off of it when it first premiered. I’m so, so glad she did, since the show is so much more than any description could indicate. It’s not a romance, but it is. It’s not historical fiction, except it is, even when it’s not. It’s not science fiction, but it’s not not science fiction. What is it? Lush, emotional, and starring two of the sexiest humans I’ve ever seen on screen. (I’m talking about Murtagh and Lady Jocasta, of course.)

Legends of Tomorrow made my Best-Of list last year, and I hope it continues to do so for years to come. Wacky and charming, meta but heartfelt, Legends, as I wrote in my Best of the Decade post, has become my new background-television standard, and the denizens of the Waverider are starting to feel like wacky roommates. (Mick is still my favorite, but I really like Behrad.)

Books

John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows the story of a young man born in Ireland in the 1940s, checking in with him every seven years until the present day. Cyril Avery, gay and adopted, rarely feels like he fits in, but observes the world keenly, and gradually comes to connect with it. He is a flawed protagonist but a loveable one, and Boyne perfectly balances the difficulty of being gay in mid-century Ireland with a mixture of delightfully sardonic humor and sweet empathy.

Anna Burns’ Milkman is set in what is probably Northern Ireland and what is probably Belfast, following a young woman who is probably Catholic as she deals with the unwanted attention of a man who is probably a Provo. It is a story about what is unsaid, what is said, what is unnamed and what is implied, and all the ways people negotiated those issues during the Troubles. The style is almost hallucinatory—it took me a few pages to get into it, and then I couldn’t put it down. Once I finally did, I felt like my thoughts took on Burns’ cadences, and that wasn’t a bad thing.

K.M. Szpara’s Docile is a thoughtful exploration of capitalism set in a near-future dystopia in which people work off their debt by becoming medicated indentured servants—all of which also somehow dovetails perfectly with issues of sexual consent and BDSM. Major content warnings for sexual trauma and gaslighting aside, this book is subtle in ways I didn’t expect, and I think it’ll stick with me for years to come.

Nicole Galland and Neal Stephenson’s The Rise and Fall of DODO was a surprise for me. I’ve tried to get into Stephenson’s books so many times—I’m looking at you,Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver—but none of them stuck, but Galland’s skillful character work made this time-travel romp wackier than Stephenson’s other books. With a great mix of genres, from letters and diary entries to Norse sagas and corporate emails, the book is just postmodern enough to feel cool but still human enough to be enjoyable.

Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series is one of my perennial favorites, but during lockdown I got to experience it in a new format: audiobooks. I’ve taken up walking, mostly because I go stir-crazy if I don’t do it, and listening to the Dark Tower series rather than reading it made me appreciate elements I hadn’t noticed before. They’re also a great “deal” with Audible’s one-credit-per-month subscription plan, since some of the books are over 30 hours long. Oh, 2020! Oh, Discordia!

T. Kingfisher’s fantasy novels were a surprise bright spot in my reading calendar; I’ve read six so far and am in the middle of the seventh right now. T. Kingfisher is the pen-name of real person Ursula Vernon (who writes books for kids), and her grown-up novels balance a childlike whimsy with more adult plots. Her books are like Narnia meets grimdark steampunk fantasy, all written by someone who loves Buffy as much as we do. I mean, one of her books is called A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking. I think that title might sum up her style better than I ever could.

Hiro Arikawa’s Traveling Cat Chronicles was a gift from a friend last Christmas. I’ve read it three times since then and loved it more each time. The story is told from the perspective of Nana, a sassy cat, as his human Satoru takes him to visit various friends, looking for a new home for Nana. Satoru’s story unspools gradually, but the heart of the book is Nana’s acceptance of his own ability to love and care for others. The final lines spoil nothing and say everything:

My story will be over soon. But it’s not something to be sad about. As we count up the memories from one journey, we head off on another. Remembering those who went ahead. Remembering those who will follow after. And someday, we will meet all those people again, out beyond the horizon.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year to all of you.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

2 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Josie, we don't tend to love the same books but every one you described intrigues me.

And thank you for what is possibly the best description of Outlander I've ever read. :)

Josie "No Gnoles" Kafka said...

Billie, I think you'd like Traveling Cat Chronicles in the same way that you liked Cheryl Strayed's Wild.

If you're interested in T. Kingfisher, I recommend checking out Swordheart, which has a sort of wacky Outlander vibe. It's not much fantasy at all, just a general not-our-world setting, a magical sword, and some gnoles. Her books are usually cheap on Kindle, and often go on sale for even cheaper.

(I won't explain what gnoles are, because I would like you to discover them for yourself.)