Movie – Elisa lives a life of quiet routine. She goes to work, where she has one friend with whom she can converse (Elisa is mute, and communicates with sign language). She scrubs the floors and the bathrooms and the labs at a government laboratory, and then she goes home. She watches old movies on TV with her neighbor, accompanied by his cats, and she goes to sleep to wake up and do the same thing again. That is, until a new specimen is brought into the lab – an amphibious man or a humanoid amphibian, captured in South America and brought here to be studied for the secrets of his biology. Moved by his obvious suffering, Elisa starts making friends with the creature, bringing him eggs from her lunch, teaching him sign. But Colonel Strickland, who is in charge of the project to research the creature, is under a strict deadline and is coming unraveled under the pressure, which puts not only the creature but everyone else around him in danger.
Guillermo del Toro is well known for his love of monsters, and The Shape of Water, his first Academy Award-winning film, feels like a distillation of everything he’s made before: political tension as a backdrop to a fantastical story; the triumph of the powerless banding together against the powerful; the monster as the most human character in the film. Less bleak than Pan’s Labyrinth, more forthrightly fantastic than The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape of Water is the not-so-doomed love story we all need right now. Once you’ve seen the movie, be sure to check out the novel, co-written with award-winning horror novelist Daniel Kraus simultaneously with the film’s production.
Book – Greta Helsing is a physician with a unique specialty: she treats the undead and supernatural creatures of London. Whether it’s providing anxiety medication for ghouls or treating the chronic lung infection of a gentleman who’s been a family friend for centuries, she has her work cut out for her. When a vampyre turns up with an unusual stab wound and a terrifying story of fanatical monks, her already unusual life suddenly gets a whole lot stranger.
I cannot tell you how much this book delighted me – a massively enjoyable romp through undead London, featuring ghouls, vampires, vampyres (not the same thing), and a mysterious cult of evil monks living underneath the Underground. And best of all, made families: a strong group of friends, people who learn to trust and care for one another, a central female character who is strong and competent and still gets to freak out sometimes because, well, mysterious cult of evil monks trying to kill her friends. I could have wished for more of Greta’s female friends – hopefully we’ll see more of them in future installments.
Book – Mokoya and Akeha, twin children of the Protector, were promised to the Grand Monastery before they were born, but when Mokoya displays the skill of prophecy, their mother rescinds her promise. While Mokoya struggles with her gift, Akeha becomes aware of a growing rebellion within his mother’s realm. The Machinists are developing technology to undercut the Tensors, sorcerers under the direct control of the Protector, and give the people a shot at freedom. Akeha finds his calling with the Machinists, but how will he fight for what is right without destroying his bond with his twin sister?
The Black Tides of Heaven is so full of amazing characters, exciting plot developments, and a truly original magical world that it’s hard to believe it’s only a novella. Short though it is, this is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read in the past year. Fortunately for all of us, there’s already a sequel – The Red Threads of Fortune – and more are expected soon.
Book – Autism spectrum disorders exploded into the public consciousness in the early 2000s, along with worries that this sudden uptick in diagnoses meant that something unnatural was happening to children, something that had never been seen before. Really, Silberman explains, with great and gracious detail, our understanding of what “normal” development looks like and how eccentricity shades into disability is changing. In this book, he follows the history of autism and the researchers, parents, and people with autism who shaped our understanding of the different ways the human brains can work.
This isn’t a nice history; people have, historically speaking, not been nice to other people who have disabilities or even just differences that make them annoying. And since Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner, who shaped our modern understanding of autism, were physicians working in Austria and Germany in the mid-twentieth century, eugenics and genocide play a large role in early chapters. It gets better after the Nazis, but that’s not a very high bar to clear. The way people diagnosed with autism have been treated under the guise of helping them to become “normal” is upsetting at best. And yet, I found this a very hopeful book. Despite the burying of Asperger’s research; despite the litany of abuse and mistreatment; despite the struggles autistic people still face in being understood, accepted, and listened to; Silberman paints a picture of a flourishing subsection of humanity, one with astounding gifts and a great uniqueness, one which is ready, in this age of technology, to come into its own.
Book – I think it’s impossible to overstate the influence that Ursula K. Le Guin had on modern literature. She wrote books that broke open ideas of what science fiction could be, and she did it so well, with such grace and compassion and beauty, that people couldn’t keep dismissing it as “just” science fiction any more. The daughter of legendary anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, she understood on a bone-deep level the ways that our culture and society shape us, and she used that understanding to dream of better worlds, and the problems that those worlds had, and possible solutions to those problems. She was a champion of women and minority writers in science fiction, a fierce believer that the future can only be better if it includes all of us. And every time you thought she was done, she came out with something new.
After her death in January I returned to her book of poetry to remember her. If her novels are complex webs of character, plot, ideas, and language, her poems are beads of dew on that spiderweb, delicately magnifying her skill and her brilliance. Oh, and they’re gorgeous, too. If you don’t have time to re-read The Dispossessed (although you should, it gets better every year), you’d do worse than to pick up a poem or two.
Movie – After coming home so-late-it’s-early and hungover one too many times, Gloria’s boyfriend kicks her out of their New York apartment, and since she’s also out of work, she has no choice but to move back to her parents’ empty house in the town where she grew up. She gets a job tending bar for a guy she knew when they were kids, and shortly after, everyone is glued to the news, watching footage of the giant monster that mysteriously appeared in Seoul, South Korea, tromped through downtown, and disappeared again. When it happens again, Gloria recognizes something in its gestures — and realizes that she is in control of the monster. Sharing her revelation with her new-old friends, however, has unexpected and momentous consequences.
I saw a trailer for this movie that made it look like “rom-com plus Godzilla,” which meant that of course I had to see it, but it turns out it’s even better than that – Gloria’s growth and development does not revolve around her finding the right guy to date. She’s dealing with alcohol problems, an unhealthy relationship with her boss, and mysteriously wielding an unusual amount of supernatural power. It’s an unusual genre mash-up, but if you like stories about women taking control of their lives and also giant monsters, you’ll love it as much as I did.
Book – If you are a person who lives on the Internet, you probably know who Zoë Quinn is – or at least you know the movement that sprung up after her ex-boyfriend posted a long, defamatory screed about her online, and then grew into an online harassment machine. Even if you don’t, though, you’ve seen some of its effects in the rise of online hatred, the never-ending stream of YouTube-star scandals, and the recent death of a man in Kansas by “swatting” – the practice of calling in a fake report to a police department that will result in a SWAT team being sent out.
Quinn’s book is part memoir, part guide to this environment of a new kind of harassment, one that disproportionately targets women, people of color, and other minorities, and which police and the legal system are woefully unprepared to cope with. She describes how she survived the initial onslaught, and the barrage of harassment and privacy violations she continues to struggle with, and how she founded an organization to help other victims do the same. She also offers some valuable information on how to protect yourself from a similar harassment campaign (without “just getting offline”). But even if you’re not concerned about attacks from the Internet, this is a valuable book to read. Internet culture is a part of our culture now, and we all should be aware of the ways it can go horribly wrong. (Also, Quinn has a great sense of humor. Seriously, just read the chapter titles.)
Movie – Ever wondered if vampires ever get into petty fights with other vampires? If they sometimes forget how old they are? If they establish moral guidelines for who they’ll eat and who they won’t? If they ever hold things up in front of a mirror to giggle at their own lack of reflection? All these questions (and more!) are answered in What We Do In the Shadows, a hilarious mockumentary about a group of vampires (and a few werewolves) living in modern-day New Zealand. It feels very much like a BBC documentary-of-the-week – not especially polished, without much of a plot or narrative angle, but deeply, deeply hilarious, and you kind of wish it were narrated by Richard Atenborough.
Now that director (and star) Taika Waititi is the man behind the best-reviewed Marvel movie since the original Iron Man, you owe it to yourself to see this utterly delightful movie. (Which just had a sequel announced!) Next on my list is The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, his 2016 rural-Australia adventure starring Sam Neill.
Book – Janet Moodie is an appeals attorney, specializing in death penalty appeals, but since her husband’s suicide she hasn’t worked a death penalty case. That is, until a colleague calls her with an interesting case: Andy Hardy, who was convicted along with his brother of the murder of two women. Andy got the death penalty; his brother got life without parole. And after meeting Andy, that doesn’t seem right. The prosecution argued that Andy was the mastermind behind the crimes, but he’s socially passive, heavily dependent on his mother and tested as intellectually disabled as a child. This is good news for the appeal, but what does it mean about what really happened to those women?
This is by far the most laid-back legal procedural (I certainly can’t call it a thriller) that I’ve ever read. Robertson is a practicing attorney, and she’s written a book about what dramatic legal discoveries are actually like: slow, drawn-out revelations put together piece by piece that usually don’t have dramatic consequences. Despite the high stakes (serial murder! death penalty appeals!), I found this a very soothing read, an enjoyable example of watching someone do a difficult job well, even if the results aren’t Hollywood-worthy.
Book – Hygge, the Danish concept of coziness and wintery happiness, is all the rage right now, but the Danes don’t have the market cornered on winter bliss. Winter is a wonderful time for all kinds of making things – making presents, baking treats, crafting warm and cozy things out of yarn. (Is there anything better than a nice skein of yarn and a hot cup of tea on a snowy afternoon?) In this book, Emily Mitchell offers a range of crafts and activities suitable for the long, cold winter months, including tasty recipes and lovely crochet patterns. Her projects span the whole of winter, from the late days of fall when you can collect freshly-fallen leaves to preserve, to the earliest parts of spring when the first bulbs begin to sprout. Rather than getting depressed about the end of summer, get excited for winter with this wonderful book of ideas.