Word Witch and Professional Daydreamer

Category: What I’m Reading/Watching

Favorite Stories of 2017

(Shush, it’s still technically January, I can still do year-end retrospectives!)

Let’s be honest: 2017 was a hard year. I had a number of personal highs, sure, but on the whole I will not be looking back on it with any great fondness. So it was important for me to find books and movies and TV series that lifted up my experience, and while I didn’t set any records for quantity of new media consumed, I was overall quite satisfied with my reading/watching choices. Let’s just dive straight in, then, a roundup of my favorite new-to-me fictional worlds.

Books

One thing of note from this past year: I ended up reading a lot less genre fiction than I have in… a long long time. This wasn’t a conscious choice, not really, although I was eventually aware of the fact that I was craving literary fiction. As a genre author myself, I obviously adore a lot of science fiction and fantasy novels, but… I don’t know, sometimes I just need a break from all of the excessive world-building and high-stakes plots and fake political upheavals, in favor of slow-burn, introspective glimpses into the human psyche. Not to mention the heavy emphasis on the beauty of language for it’s own sake that literary fiction often provides. With that in mind, here are the books that I enjoyed the most in 2017.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

If we’re breaking things down by category, then this book wins “most beautiful prose” for the year. That is… honestly the only thing I really remember about it? Which makes it sound like the book itself wasn’t very good beyond that, but it was–it’s just that the writing itself was so gorgeous that it kind of overrides everything else. Listen, I read a lot of beautiful books, okay, but I don’t remember the last time I was this blown away by the craftsmanship. Heather O’Neill’s metaphors and similes, especially, took my breath away with their ability to be so unique and imaginative and yet so spot-on that it made me wonder how I’d never drawn the connection before. It’s been a while since I was outright jealous of someone’s writing, but this one did it for me.

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal

I made an effort in 2017 to consume more #OwnVoices media, and I have to say, the experience did not disappoint. No One Can Pronounce My Name was gorgeous. It was also the first book I’d read in more than a year that was written by a man, and it was the perfect title to break my girl-power streak on. I adored these characters, and I adored the slow unfolding of the past, and the way they grew and moved toward their futures. Also, as someone that had recently joined a writer’s group, every scene from that setting made me want to laugh out loud.

Dreadnought by April Daniels

I already talked about this one in my post on quality superhero fiction, but it was so great that it easily deserves a spot on my year-end roundup as well. I loved this book so much. Not only was it a fantastic superhero story, I loved the #OwnVoices capture of the trans lesbian experience. From an outsiders perspective, I’d say this was easily the best book about a transgender individual that I’ve read yet. Gorgeous book, heartbreaking and hopeful and funny and empowering.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

Sometimes you need a book that just makes you feel good. When Dimple Met Rishi is the perfect romcom: nerdy, adorable, just the right amount of drama, ultimately satisfying. I loved everything about this #OwnVoices novel, but from a personal perspective, having the plot that so heavily involved both programming and drawing (especially drawing superheroes) made this a book that was basically tailor-made to win me over.

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Also mentioned in my superhero and comics fiction post, but… I’m calling it, this was my favorite book of 2017.

Unlike some of my other favorites, this was not a light or easy book by any means. The subject matter gets really intense, and the protagonist has a lot of anxiety issues that were a little too close to home, at times. That said, this book left me breathless. SUCH an amazing look at life as a creator, as an outsider, as a person trying to find their place in the world. I loved everything about this book, but I especially loved the moment when I realized that the monsters in the title were not, in fact, a reference to her webcomic universe at all. I’m not going to say anything more on that, but… it’s beautiful. Seriously, jut go read it.

Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

Another top-notch, #OwnVoices romcom, but this time featuring two equally adorable romances playing out simultaneously. I mean, there’s no way I am not going to love a romance set at a con, okay? That alone just checks for many boxes for me that it’s not even funny. Throw in a diverse cast, shyness, cute YouTubers, and a positive look at fandom? My heart was doomed from the start.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

This is one of those books were, the whole time I was reading it, I wouldn’t have necessarily jumped up and down and professed my love for it, but… As soon as it was over and I had some time to reflect, I found my thoughts circling back to this #OwnVoices book over and over again. I guess you could say that this book was impactful, more than anything else. So many things end up reminding me of it, that even now, a few months later, it’s trailing with me like an imaginary friend.

Movies

Wonder Woman

What more needs to be said? I already wrote about how much this movie meant to me, and every bit of that original post stands up upon multiple rewatchings. Favorite movie of the year, most important movie to me of the year.

Thor: Ragnarok

And then, of course, there’s Thor.

OH MY GOD THIS MOVIE WAS WAY TOO MUCH FUN. I mean, I’m a fan of the Thor movies anyway (second only to Captain America), but this? This is the best parts of Thor, filtered out and then amplified a hundred times and thrown in splashy, amazing colors at the biggest of big screens. All I can say to the powers that be behind the Avengers franchise is: MORE OF THIS, PLEASE.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Yup, it’s on my list. While I admit that my first viewing of this movie did not fill me with the same pumped-up amazement that I felt upon leaving The Force Awakens, the longer I sit with it, and the more I read about all of the implications and storytelling decisions that this movie made, the more I like and appreciate everything that it was saying. Easily the most… complex Star Wars movie of the franchise. I admit, I didn’t think the world of Star Wars had it in it, to tell a story this layered.

TV

Elementary

Listen, I’ve watched/read a lot of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, okay? Sherlock Holmes, like Pride and Prejudice, is almost guaranteed to get me to tune in. Modern day re-imaginings, old timey retelling, descendants of Holmes and Watson stories… doesn’t matter, I’m there. A lot of them–a lot of them–I think are really, really good, even if they have slightly different “takes” on the Holmes character. But this one? This one became my absolute favorite almost instantly.

On the surface, there were a lot of changes. Holmes is living in current-day New York, and Watson is an ex-doctor turned sober companion–not to mention a Chinese-American woman. And I admit, I held off on this show for a long time, in part because I thought the sheer number of changes to canon would weaken the story.

Oh my god, I was so wrong. This adaptation feels the most true-to-canon of anything I’ve ever watched. I love the way that they had to adapt Sherlock’s personality to fit and make sense within the 21st century, and it really revealed to me just how much of what we typically associate with “Sherlock Holmes” is, in fact, just the way that his character reacts to, and reflects, the Victorian, male-dominated society that he was raised in. Not to mention how fantastic it is to see the Watson character treated with such respect, by both by writing and Sherlock himself. Not just the best Sherlock story, but easily my favorite new-to-me show of the year.

 

That said, 2017 primarily was my year of comedy. With everything going on in the world and a few recurring issues in my personal life, I needed escapism more than ever. In that light, I fell in love with…

Powerless

I don’t care if it wasn’t popular, I loved this tragically short-lived series. The combination of a superhero-filled world, but decidedly unremarkable characters, made it an instant hit with me. Were parts of it a little clunky? Sure. But I adored all of the easter eggs that the show was filled with, and the primary cast made me laugh so hard that I just couldn’t care about the rough edges. This show was a bright spot in an otherwise fairly dark few months for me, and I will always be grateful for it.

The Orville

I grew up on Star Trek: TNG. Every week, sprawled on my parents’ living room floor, eyes wide in wonder as the crew of the Enterprise raced around on campy adventures and rose above the petty impulses that plague our human nature. Listen, there is a time and a place for science fiction that plunges deep into the complexities of moral gray areas, and I am all for that, I guess? But mostly what I like from sci-fi is hope and optimism about the future. Old-school Star Trek series still deliver that, and The Orville delivers that. The Orville makes me feel the way I did when I was ten, watching TNG, when the world still seemed good, and the future looked like nothing but gleaming ships and social progress. Especially now, I need a show like this. I think maybe we all do.

Fresh off the Boat

This has become my go-to pick-me-up show. Like I said above, I’ve tried to diversify my media consumption lately. I’ve loved reading about experiences outside of the WASP-y upbringing I had, and immigrant/first generation stories especially have found a special place in my heart. It helps that this series is set in the ’90s, and that I was almost exactly the same age as the oldest child at the time. But I adore how endearing this series is, how much heart is has. It’s sweet and funny, and it somehow manages to capture both what it’s like to be an outsider, and what it was like to be an American in the ’90s middle-class, all at the same time. Don’t even ask me to pick a favorite character, because they are all fantastic.


So there you have it, finally, a glimpse into the stories that sustained me last year. What about you, what were your new favorites in 2017? Did you try any of the ones I did? Let me know in the comments!

Jenn Recommends: Superhero Books!

While the most common forms of superhero storytelling have always, of course, been visual (comics, movies, TV), there has been an uptick in superhero novels in the last decade or so, as well. And though it can be tricky to pull off, there are a number of them that I think have done an astounding job. Below are some of the books that fueled and inspired me while I was working on The Private Life of Jane Maxwell.

Superhero Novels

Dreadnought and Sovereign by April Daniels

One of the most recent superhero fiction that I’ve tried, and also hands-down a masterpiece of the genre. Dreadnought captured an elusive but indelible superheroness that I kept chasing when I was working on my own book. This story manages to be happy and sad, real and fun, light and dark and hopeful all at the same time. It’s a glorious encapsulation of everything that makes superheroes great. Plus, it features a transgender lesbian as the main character, and who doesn’t want more of THAT?

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Would any list of superhero fiction be complete without this title? My favorite V.E. Schwab book by far, this book breaks and subverts so many expectations, and delivers it all with a flare that delighted me to no end. I love everything about it: the nonlinear narrative, the characters, the prose, the world. Normally, I’m all for lightness in my superheroes, but if all “dark and gritty” superhero stories were like Vicious, I’d be seriously tempted by the dark side.

After the Golden Age and Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

If there’s anyone that I look to as my go-to How To Write Superheroes author, it’s Carrie Vaughn. These books capture the exact same delight that I experience while watching any of the bigscreen counterparts. Fun and big and splashy, these are solid superhero books. You’ll get exactly what you expect when reading these.

Soon I Will be Invincible by Austin Grossman

I admit that I haven’t read this one in a while, but the enjoyment of it still shines bright in my mind. This one, like Carrie Vaughn’s work, was among my introduction to superhero prose. I loved the exploration of the villain in this one, and the backstory that’s woven in.

Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond

While I’m primarily a Marvel girl, Superman will forever hold a soft spot in my heart. So when I heard about a book from Lois Lane’s perspective, updated to be YA in the modern world, I knew I had to read it. Fallout does not disappoint, and it’s fun to see a superhero story where the primary characters are those normally left outside the main focus. Looking forward to reading the sequels.

Nonfiction about Comics and Superheroes

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Not only is this a wonderful and fascinating history of an iconic character, it’s a delightful lens through which to explore the history of the women’s movement throughout the 20th century. This book enriched my appreciation of Wonder Woman tenfold, and entertained me as much as if it was a novel.

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History by Hope Nicholson

This one is an enjoyable reference book of female comics characters, broken down by decade. It explores the history of comics in relation to their female characters, and provides an interesting overview of how women superheroes got treated throughout the years.

Last Night, a Superhero Saved My Life: Neil Gaiman, Jodi Picoul, Brad Meltzer and an All-Star Roster on the Caped Crusaders That Changed Their Lives Edited by Leisa Mignogna

As with any collection of essays, some of these I enjoyed more than others, but on the whole this book was fantastic. I loved how it showed the impact that superheroes can and do have, not just on society as a whole, but the way that they shape and inspire individual lives. If anyone ever doubts the importance of superheroes as an archetype, just hand them this book.

Novels about Comics, and the People Who Make Them

Draw the Line by Laurent Linn

When I first picked up this book, I actually thought that it was going to be a straight-up superhero novel, playing with similar threads that I was exploring in The Private Life of Jane Maxwell. Instead, and to my relief (because I’d hate to be rehashing things that have already been done), this was an exploration of the importance of superheroes as inspiration, and what it means to stand up for yourself and your own beliefs in a world that doesn’t always want you to. And if I have one weakness, it’s everyday heroes. I loved this one.

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Not actually about superheroes at all, but rather webcomics, this was still such an amazing and important novel that I had to include it. It’s hard to describe without giving it away, but this novel explores identity and artistic pressures and inner monsters with such grace and skill that it took my breath away. Just read it.

Bonus: Books on my Radar

The following are books that I haven’t read yet, but look like they’re going to be amazing.

Wonder Woman of My Heart

Turns out that I was not, in fact, prepared to watch a solid, female-led superhero movie as a woman.


When I was growing up, I didn’t give much (if any) thought to sexism.

This was my privilege, as a child of the 1980s. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the women who came before, all of the battles appeared to already be fought. Look: there was nothing, as a child, that my brother could do that I couldn’t. Look: my parents were both dual computer science/math majors in college. (Look: both of my parents had gone to college.) Look: I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and none of the answers felt like they were off-limits to me. Look: I played with both Legos and Barbies, and so did my brother. Look: I was not raised to feel like I had to be a baby-maker when I grew up.

What was this “sexism”, I wondered, from my idyllic life? What were people complaining about? Surely that was a thing of the past.


When I was growing up, I didn’t notice the lack of female representation in popular media.

Was it just the books and movies that I consumed as a child? I still haven’t figured it entirely out. I hear other women my age complaining about it bitterly, the deep lack of admirable women and girls in the media of our youth. They aren’t wrong, but this is only something that I notice in hindsight. At the time, I was too busy inventing my own girl characters, and putting them in my head-canons without stopping to think about why.


As a woman, and a nerd, I’m acclimated to movies where my gender is reduced. Though I notice it now, though it bothers me now, I still can’t let it bother me too much, if I have any hope of enjoying the kind of movies that I enjoy. I give rave reviews to blockbusters that have one female character, and her primary role is to inspire the male heroes. I deconstruct them later, I discuss their problems later, but I put all of that aside while I am watching it. I get swept up in the powerful storylines, the epic music, the explosive fight scenes. I leave the theater feeling pumped.

You have to. You don’t even think about it.


Enter Rey from Star Wars. Enter the female Ghostbusters. Enter Supergirl on the CW.

And I thought, okay, so I am finally getting some representation, and it’s (mostly) awesome. I’m used to this, by now, this is a good trend. My life is still privileged enough that everyday sexism doesn’t really do more than brush the edges. I was fully prepared to love a summer blockbuster about a female superhero, directed by a woman.

I did not know that I needed it.

And then I saw Wonder Woman.

And then I was sitting in the theater, and a young Diana was running through the sunny haven of Paradise Island, watching the grown-up Amazonians. And then I realized that this whole movie was made for me, that this larger-than-life hero was made for me, that I was not going to be asked to take a backseat in my enjoyment, and that’s when I started crying.

I cried my way through every important scene, and grinned through the rest. And when the movie was over and I stepped from the darkened theater into the bright light of day, I did not have the same giddy euphoria that superheroes usually give me. I was not pounding my fist in the air and skipping across the parking lot. I got into my car, and I fought not to cry some more.

I’m still crying, when I think about it too much.


A couple of weeks ago, I gave the name of my books to a man I know at work. The Private Life of Jane Maxwell, he read. He knew my newest was about superheroes. “So it’s about a woman?” “Yes.”

All of my books are about women. I’ve never considered anything else.

This is why.


I’m still too raw from the movie to fully process what I’ve watched. I do know that I love it beyond words, though I also know that I cannot, in good conscience, rave about it without also leveling one major criticism. Can we set aside the joy for just one moment, to discuss the horrible implications of having someone with a physical disfigurement represent all that is bad and unworthy about humanity? It’s a problematic theme throughout the whole movie, and it comes to a head in the climax with a truly unforgivable moment. I am not going to spoil it, but I will say this: Patty Jenkins, you made a better movie than this. Such a message has no place inside of an otherwise exceptional blockbuster. Especially for the story of a character like Wonder Woman, who is supposed to be about love and a better way of living.

I’m lucky, that I am able-bodied and have the privilege of setting that aside to enjoy the rest of the movie. Because I can only imagine a disabled woman, crying at the sight of young Diana on Paradise Island, only to be slapped in the face a handful of scenes later.

You can do better. We can do better.

Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, would want us to do better.

Gameplay, Storytelling, and the Choices We Make

Recently I downloaded a new game to my phone: Choices, by a company called Pixelberry.

I did this in part because I skimmed an interview with one of the Pixelberry team members, and it caught my attention, but mostly I downloaded it because I am a sucker for choose-your-owns. I cannot even count how many I’ve played through. Fantasy games, mostly, because that’s obviously where the storytelling method really became popularized, so I guess another thing that drew me to Choices was that a lot of their stories WEREN’T. They had one fantasy “book” (and it’s accompanying sequel) in their app, yes, but there were also several mysteries, and a number of romances. And hey, I like seeing how storytelling methods apply to genres they aren’t usually used for, you know? And it was nice to see a normally male-centric game type being marketed toward a distinctly female audience. Overall, I was really predisposed to like this app.

I’m not even going to use this space to get into my game-level disappointments with it. Things like the micropayment system it uses and how it uses it, or the fact that these really aren’t so much choose-your-own stories as… slightly tailor a predefined narrative arc to your preference. Instead, I’m going to talk about the one “book” that I played all of the way through, all 17 game “chapters” worth, a romance called The Freshman. Because, um. Wow. Buckle up, folks, this is going to get feminist-ranty.

You play the game as a young woman, who is (duh) a freshman, newly arrived at Hartfeld University. It is, like I said, a romance, so the story presents you with three love interests out of a cast of at least… I don’t know, a dozen? Rough count from memory put me at 9, and I know there are several more people I could only vaguely remember. And okay, I get it, there are only so many possible storylines that you want to write, so fine, limit me to three. We are presented with the option of romancing these characters in a neat order of progression, so that you kind of really HAVE to either pick or reject one before being presented with the option to pick or reject the next, and then the next. Or at least, that’s how it feels when you start playing the game, although you’ll soon discover that, HAHAHAH, oh, dear player, you needn’t worry about making up your mind too soon, oh no. The Game will make sure that you have PLENTY of opportunity to backpedal on your rejections. PLENTY. More than enough. So many, in fact, that by the time you finish the first “book,” you may (like me) end up screaming at your phone, “ENOUGH WITH THE MOONY EYES ALREADY, I HAVE REJECTED YOU TWENTY TIMES, HOW DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THAT NO MEANS NO?”

Okay, so I suppose that it’s arguable that a “normal” player will toy around with her romantic options more, as opposed to making up her mind in a split second upon first meeting said character—and may, perhaps, be holding out because she’s read about the possibility of allowing your character a same-sex relationship, and totally wants to see how they handle THAT, rather than conforming to predefined heteronormative (more like heteroSNOREative, am I right? No? Wait, come back!) storylines.

The first Potential Love Interest (PLI) that we encounter is Chris. And Chris is… I am sorry, there is no other way to say this: Chris is the epitome of every boring romantic lead EVER. He is white, he is athletic, he has zero personality, and while he appears to be a BIT of a sweetheart at first, we will soon discover that he DOES NOT TAKE REJECTION. Like, at all.

The other romantic interests are as follows: James, a black man who comes from a wealthy family and whose strict parents expect him to follow The Family Business, but who would rather be a playwright; and Kaitlyn, a nice girl who likes to PARTY!, and Have Fun(tm).

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