Wheel of Time: what to watch out for in Season 2

Despite being a lifelong lover of fantasy stories, I didn’t know much about The Wheel of Time series before the first season of Amazon’s adaptation came out last year. The trailer intrigued me and I’ve been a fan of both Rosamund Pike (since Pride&Prejudice, 2005) and Daniel Henney (from his appearances in Criminal Minds and X-Men), so I decided to give it a try.

After enjoying the first season, with questions about what was going to happen next and funny hints from the active Tumblr fandom, I decided to check out the books. There are 14 in total (well, 15 if you count the prequel New Spring) and they are massive. Seriously, these are basically the definitive doorstop novels. The longest has 58 chapters and the ones in the main series are all 500+ pages long.

Season 2 is going to be adapting books 3 and 4 (The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn). Both books are far more exciting than The Eye of the World, which was the focus of season 1.

So, if it’s been a minute since you’ve read them or you’d rather not read 1,000+ pages to prepare, here are some things to keep your eyes open for in Season 2. Never fear, no major plot spoilers ahead!

The Royal Family of Andor

Some fans were bent out of shape that we didn’t meet the royal family in season 1 despite their appearance in The Eye of the World. For my part, I can see why moving it to season 2 makes sense as they didn’t have much to do beyond meeting Rand in the first book.

The matrilineal royal family includes Queen Morgase, a shrewd and beautiful ruler. The daughter-heir is Elayne (played by Ceara Coveney), who is a key player in the books. Her brothers are Galad (a man with a rigid moral code who is described by almost every female character as the most handsome man they’ve ever seen) and Gawyn (who basically gets voted ‘most punchable’ by many book-readers as he struggles to be more important in the narrative than he actually is).

If you’re getting Camelot vibes from the names I just listed (Egwene, Nynaeve, Thom Merrilin, and Moiraine all say hi by the way), just wait. The royal family of Andor lives in the city of Caemlyn. And, if the show adapts to the end of book three, there is straight up going to be a sword in the stone by the end of this season.

Wondergirls Unite!

Speaking of Elayne, her arc in books 2 and 3 is great fun, particularly once she meets up with Egwene and Nynaeve. Often called “The Wondergirls” by the fandom, these three are all powerful wielders of the One Power and they get up to all kinds of important plot-related mischief, especially whenever they’re together. Their storyline was my favorite in those books, so I’m extremely excited for them to meet.

The Aiel

We got our first glimpse of the Aiel in action with a fabulous fight scene in episode 7 of season 1. It not only showed the veils they wear to fight, but gave us insight into how lethal the Maidens of the Spear can be, even when heavily pregnant. That episode also showed Rand’s birth; the fact he looks like an Aiel was mentioned many times in the first season, so it was cool to see the confirmation of his Aiel heritage on screen. That cold open also gave us some backstory for Tam al’Thor (Rand’s adoptive father) as well as a bit about the Aiel War, which is at least part of the reason for the fear and prejudice directed towards the Aiel.

The Aiel are majorly important in the books and at least a few of those arcs should get their start this season, especially with casting for Aviendha confirmed. Aviendha is a badass, enjoyable character with great connections to several of the leads we met last season. She’s one of the ways we and the characters learn about the Aiel’s intricate culture as well as their different societies, including the Maidens of the Spear and the Wise Ones. I’m looking forward to seeing what Ayoola Smart does with the role!

The Seanchan

Another important culture we glimpsed at the very end of season 1 was the Seanchan, who showed up on boats with women wielding the One Power sending a tidal wave onto a beach and one very unlucky little girl.

Particularly important antagonists in The Great Hunt, you can expect them to be major players this season. (They should also have Southern accents from what is now the U.S.; I’m curious to see that on screen.) Egwene’s interactions with them are pretty critical to her character arc as well as a major source of trauma, so stay tuned for that.

Fun with the Forsaken

We learned a little bit about the Forsaken–antagonists just below the Dark One himself–in the first season, mostly from Rand’s dreams. Oh, and those creepy figurines we saw at one point.

While it looks like several are being cut for the show, at least 8 of them are likely to appear throughout the course of the show. It can be tough keeping track of them in the books because of their propensity to take on new names as they try to win Rand over or work against him. The Forsaken come from The Age of Legends; they’re ancient, devious, and powerful. They’re also all deeply flawed, so that should be fun.

Expect to meet several of them this season. Basically, if someone seems shady, it’s not a major leap to think they’re one of the Forsaken in disguise….

More ter’angreal

Ter’angreal are enchanted items. Some ter’angreal help a user of the One Power channel more power safely, while others have specific purposes. We saw a few of them in the first season, from the figurine Moiraine has to the Oath Rod used by the Aes Sedai to swear the three oaths.

There are several extremely important ter’angreal that should be coming down the pike this season, including the sword in the stone I mentioned earlier, as well as others inside the White Tower and several held by enemies. Keep your eyes peeled for these powerful objects…some of which you may recognize.

Traps on traps on traps

Our heroes are going to be in a lot of shaky situations this season. You will likely be tempted to make like Admiral Akbar and shout “it’s a trap!” at your screen, but they’re going to walk into them anyway. Sometimes, they’re even going to do it on purpose….

Ta’veren shenanigans

One funny aspect of the books is how Robert Jordan basically coined a term for “main character syndrome.” In the books, it’s only Rand, Perrin, and Mat from the Two Rivers that are ta’veren, but the show added Egwene into that number too. Which honestly makes sense, given her role in the story.

Weird things are going to happen with them around, especially Rand. Of the original Two Rivers crew, Mat Cauthon is being played by a new actor this season. In the first book I wasn’t a major fan of Mat, but I soon understood why people said he’s likely to become one of your favorites by book 3. Let’s just say he ends up with some interesting side effects after all his time with the cursed dagger….

We should also see more of Perrin’s connection with the wolves that we started to see last season. Dreams are going to become even more important as well for several of our leads.

I hope you’re looking forward to season 2! There are some exciting moments I can’t wait to see play out on screen. It won’t be the same as the books, but I think it will still be fun ๐Ÿ™‚

Rejection and Resilience

Rejection has been on my mind this month. I recently had a story make it to the third round of a competitive publication–they accept less than 1% of submissions–before receiving a form rejection. That was gutting. The fact it took 140+ days, and that I’d made it through multiple rounds, only to get the “does not meet our needs at this time” brush off seriously stung. Getting two more rejections for other stories within the same three day period…didn’t exactly help.

As Beyonce and Captain Picard (weird combo courtesy of Tumblr) say above, you can lose even if you give everything you have. Losing is part of life. Rejection isn’t always fair. Many times, you don’t even learn why and the only closure you get is realizing it was out of your control.

I’ve applied for, and been rejected by, jobs I’ve wanted desperately. I was wait-listed at the college I wanted most. Those rejections brought me to new friendships, new skills, and experiences I couldn’t have imagined at the time.

Romantic rejections have happened too.

There is a certain subset of guy in fiction (and on dating apps), that believes he’s owed love/sex/attention/time. That he deserves someone he finds beautiful because he does nice things for her or is just generally decent, that there’s something wrong with her if she doesn’t want him back. Those guys seem to think that rejection is something that only happens to men, instead of just part of being human.

Love isn’t merit based. Neither is attraction.

Image result for veronica riverdale "most of the time the people we like don't like us back"

Like Veronica (from the one episode of Riverdale I’ve seen) says in the GIF above, “Most of the time the people we like don’t like us back.” Which is why it’s so great when it does work out.

The only way to ensure you never get rejected is to never put yourself out there. To never reach for the experiences or romantic partners you want. To never try.

It’s better to try.

So yes, the rejections I’ve experienced hurt. They always hurt. But I believe in these stories and know I will find them a home. My work keeps getting better and I’m going to continue sending it out…however long it takes.

If you’ve been rejected, please don’t lose hope. Learn whatever lessons you can from the experience, continue to grow, and keep looking for the people and places that will say yes. You can do this.

And so can I.

You better Belize it: a buggy, beautiful trip

I have been lucky enough to travel to some incredible places in my life. I’ve walked along dry hilltops in Utah, marveling at fossilized clams left behind by a long ago sea. I’ve seen the sun rise over Uluru and SCUBA dived on the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve flown over a South African national park in a two seater light aircraft with an anti-poaching pilot. Sparkling black sand beaches in New Zealand, crumbling Scottish castles, canal houses in Amsterdam…I’m grateful for all the things I have seen.

Travel is amazing. It’s a chance to learn the stories of people you otherwise wouldn’t have met as well as a chance to make new stories of your own.

It’s also frequently uncomfortable. Strange beds, inclement weather, strangers, getting lost…well, travel offers all of that too.

Belize provided both beauty and discomfort.

In the summer of 2020, I was supposed to go on a trip to Paraguay with my grad program. (I’m sure you can guess how that turned out.) With that still on my mind, when I got the chance to go to Belize for a professional development program through the same group that ran the programs for my grad school, I jumped at it.

Beyond reading an article on the traditional chocolate making in Belize and tracking down every item on the 2 page packing list, I didn’t know much about the country before I went.

So, what to know before you go?

#1 Humidity

As soon as I stepped out of the plane, humidity hit me like a wave. There’s no getting away from it. If you’re outside, you start to sweat, even if all you’re doing is standing in place. The tropics don’t mess around. I’d known that it would be humid, but experiencing it was something else entirely.

First picture I took in Belize

In the areas where I stayed–halfway between Belmopan and Dangriga for the first half and right near Gales Point for the second half–the relative average humidity in July hovers somewhere between 82 and 88%. Whatever the thermometer says, it feels much, much warmer.

Workaround for #1: Tech clothing is your friend

Was I sweating? Absolutely. But I was also wearing quick wicking, lightweight clothes with SPF built into them. The clothes made a big difference. For most of the trip, I wore the trusty pair of Royal Robbins hike pants I’ve had since 2014 when I bought them on sale from Sierra Trading Post. Sturdy, but lightweight and comfortable, I wore them nearly every day for work when I taught outdoor education. They’ve held up well. This trip, I even wore them snorkeling when we were told we should wear long pants so as not to sunburn the backs of our legs. (These are not made for the water, but the quick dry part helped. I just wish I’d known to buy swim leggings too.)

Striking a pose at Gales Point

Shirts-wise, I splurged on some long sleeved tops from an REI sale and picked up a three Xersion tech tees from JCPenney. The “Capilene Cool” Patagonia top was probably the most comfortable of the three long sleeved since it’s so light it almost feels nonexistent. The TYR one I’m sporting in the picture above is from their SunDefense line made for watersports and feels a lot like a rashguard.

I also picked up some viscose panties which dried faster than cotton and tried out two separate bras from a list of what worked best in high humidity. Of the bras I brought, the Hanes Oh So Light Comfortflex Wirefree was the most comfortable. It can’t stop the sweating, so it still got wet, but it dried the fastest.

#2 Bugs

I knew there would be bugs of course. But, when I arrived a day late due to a missed connection and saw my classmates’ legs covered in bites from Botlass flies, I decided to wear long pants for the entirety of my stay at TREES (Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society).

This is actually after her bites were mostly better. She had a bad reaction and her ankles swelled.

We all thought the coast would be better, so I wore shorts when we were leaving our snorkeling day trip for Loggerhead Shores, an off season resort near Gales Point.

We were wrong.

None of us knew about the tiny, painful sand flies. Like mosquitos, female sand flies enjoy blood meals to give them the nutrition they need to make a new generation of nasty little bloodsuckers. Unlike mosquitos, sand flies are too small to see easily and they don’t respect bug spray.

Another classmate’s ankle/foot two days after he’d gotten back to the US. The little raised welts are the sand flies’ parting gift.

Workaround for #2: Picaridin lotion and Permethrin treated clothes

According to the resort manager, the sand flies are pretty bad in July when we were there and the worst in August. They’re the least active in February, so that’s something to keep in mind. (February is also when the Belizean humidity tends to be lowest.)

When I was tracking down the packing list items, I read up on the best insect repellents. Even though I still got nibbled on by sand flies, the reason I asked my friends for pictures of their bites is because I hardly had any to show.

I ended up picking the Sawyer Picaridin insect repellent lotion above and I put it on as soon as I woke up, before we went out in the evening, and right after I showered. It has a light scent–which I actually liked–that faded away pretty much as soon as it dried. It worked well.

Wearing long pants helped too. I also splurged on an ExOfficio BugsAway Wanderlux Cianorte shirt from REI, which has InsectShield, a Permethrin-based repellent built into the fabric. That certainly didn’t hurt. I wasn’t bitten even when spending time in the rainforest at night mist-netting bats.

Yes, I know, I look very glamorous. Each of the bags I’m holding also contains a bat from mist nets that was about to be examined, recorded, and released.

#3 Plastic trash

I hadn’t really been expecting this one, but plastic trash was ever-present on the coast.

The trash washes up from all over the Caribbean. I saw packaging, straws, flip flops, and bottles of every size and shape. It washes up from cruise ships (who I learned are allowed to dump all their trash in international waters) and resorts and everyday people from every country in the region. The marine biologist who was with us when we visited the little Caye above to have lunch and look at the mangroves shared all of that. All of the trash you see in the picture below had floated past the mangrove roots.

I snapped this on a little island we visited before snorkeling

We visited the garden behind the resort where the gardeners talked to us about all the amazing things they grow and about how they’d burn the garden waste and seaweed to amend the soil. When I looked at the pile they’d burned that morning, several charred plastic pieces were in it. And any seaweed they get from the beach includes plastic large and small. Breathing in that smoke isn’t good for anyone.

Picture from our walk to look for turtle nests with a researcher.

Plastic pollution is hardly unique to Belize. It was just such a shock to see a place so beautiful be so polluted.

Workaround for #3: Trash clean ups

I couldn’t do much about the plastic when I was there, other than make sure I didn’t add to it.

But plastic is a global problem and we can all help. There’s probably a clean up near you, whether it is at a beach or stream or neighborhood park. I’ve done several over the years and have started to fill a little bag with trash whenever I go to the beach. This trip inspired me to want to make volunteering at beach clean ups a much more regular part of my life. I’ve already signed up for my next one.

With all of that, is Belize worth visiting?

Definitely. It’s gorgeous.

Picture I snapped on our lunch walk on a little island before snorkeling

The water is clear and warm, home to the healthiest and second largest barrier reef in the world.

One of the pictures I snapped with my underwater camera

The people are friendly. It’s also relatively inexpensive for Americans with their currency fixed to ours at two to one and no visa requirements. (Even the required health insurance was just $18 USD.)

Belize has great chocolate, delicious fruit, and good food altogether. I loved the papaya. We also tried cooked breadfruit, fried jack, johnnycakes, and many, many variations of beans and rice. One interesting fruit we tried was wild sweetsop (pictured below), which tasted wonderful and had a unique texture.

Wild sweetsop

There’s amazing wildlife and varied ecosystems.

A view from the orchard at TREES.
A cute frog seen on one of the night walks at TREES
View in front of where we stayed at Loggerhead Shores

I’m incredibly grateful I had the chance to visit.

Pride Month: Sweet stories about love on the LGBTQ+ spectrum

It’s Pride Month and, in honor of that, I wanted to spotlight some of the sweetest LGBTQ+ stories I’ve read recently.

The stories I find at the library are thankfully getting more diverse. It’s easier to find books and shows celebrating all kinds of love lately. Whether you are part of the LGBTQ+ community or not, I hope you can agree that it’s good to read (and watch) stories beyond the heteronormative bubble.

For fans of time travel shenanigans: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

What I loved: This book was adorable! The characters were brilliant. The writing is sharp and funny, nailing what it’s like to have a crush. In addition to a likable lead who is scared to let anyone close, this features a found family anyone would be lucky to have, including a welcoming artist/engineer and her sweet, psychic boyfriend. There’s also a fabulous drag queen.

This is character art commissioned by the author from H.L. Gibby @Gibb_Arts on Twitter

What’s it about: After moving to New York City, August meets a girl stuck on the Q Train and displaced in time. While developing a deep crush, August works desperately to help Jane figure out her connection to the Q Train so she can get free before the line gets shut down at the end of the summer. Along the way, August is also realizing how much she loves her newfound community.

For Fans of Sci-Fi: Victories Greater than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

What I loved: I first heard about this author during a British writing group of all places. The story was ambitious, including a host of alien characters, a genocidal group, complicated legacies, not living up to ideals, a mysterious ancient race, friendship, and first love. At times it was hard to keep the amount of aliens/ alien jargon straight or keep track of how much time was passing–they’d suddenly be on a mission that would be over in a few short paragraphs–but there was a lot to love here. There’s action and terrible danger, interesting characters, relatable struggles, and plenty of fun sci-fi.

A cute copy of an enamel pin from a giveaway

What it’s about: Tina is a clone of a famous captain in the Royal Fleet, an organization tasked with righting old wrongs and defending the galaxy from the genocidal Compassion. Together with new friends, human and alien alike, Tina is trying to live up to her former heroic self as well as stay one step ahead of the Compassion in the hunt for a special stone that’s a clue to a mysterious ancient race.

For fans of stories about starting over: It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake by Claire Christian

What I loved: Okay, so this is a bit of a cheat. I wrote about this one 6 months ago, but it was so good I wanted to spotlight it again. This is a genre I love, about someone deciding to remake their life. The lead’s friends and family are delightful. I really appreciated how so many different sexual orientations and types of family got a spotlight here. It was a beautiful and uplifting story featuring a bisexual lead.

What it’s about: Noni Blake decides she needs a radical change and sets off on a whirlwind trip around Europe. She has adventures and figures out what she wants for the next step of her life.

Happy reading! I hope these stories bring you all the joy they brought to me. Remember to choose love in this and every month ๐Ÿ™‚

All Creatures Great & Small: How do the book and show compare?

I first became aware of James Herriot through “James Herriot’s Treasury for Children” when I was little and wanted to become a vet. While the desire to be a vet went away, I still have an enormous soft spot for animals. The show, All Creatures Great & Small (available in the U.S. on PBS), has been a great comfort to me over the last two years and I finally read the book of the same name.

So, how do the book and show compare? Let me count the ways…

Difference #1 Siegfried Farnon’s age

In the book, Herriot describes his boss, Siegfried Farnon as being about 30 and attractive enough that all the single women in the area are chasing after him. (Speaking of Siegfried, let’s all take a moment to appreciate what a batty choice for a name that was after WWII, especially considering the real man was named Donald Sinclair. Apparently, there was nearly a falling out over it.)

In the show, Samuel West (turning 56 in 2022) plays Siegfried. He’s definitely debonair, but it’s a different sort of dynamic than the book’s 30 year old who stays up late talking and drinking with the 24 year old freshly qualified vet who’s just joined his practice. His eccentricities also come across a bit differently on screen than in the book, but West plays him with a wonderful blend of bluster and gravitas.

Similarity #1: Tricki Woo!

The adorable Pekingese that’s the apple of Mrs. Pumphry’s eye, Tricki Woo is a delight on screen and on the page. (Although I’m hopeful we’ll hear more about the long suffering employee who has to throw rings for the dog every day and get to spend time with Tricki Woo’s pig “brother,” Nugent.) I enjoy the silliness of “Tricki’s” gifts to “his Uncle Herriot” and how Mrs. Pumphry insists they come from Tricki himself. In either medium, the wealthy widow spoils him rotten and frets over him endlessly. No matter how ridiculous they are at times, all the characters in the book and show are written with love, so Mrs. Pumphry isn’t treated as an object of scorn.

Tristan Farnon (in the gif above), Siegfried’s gadabout younger brother who is nonetheless charming, is also very similar in the book and the show.

Difference #2: Mrs. Hall’s Importance

Mrs. Hall doesn’t have the same presence at all in the book All Creatures Great & Small that she does on the show. The show appears to make her something of an amalgam between the housekeeper Mrs. Hall and the book character Mrs. Harbottle (a stern secretary who keeps Siegfried on his toes).

I’m not complaining. On the show, the lovely Audrey Madeley plays her as a motherly figure who takes excellent care of the vets, doles out sound advice, and serves as a foil to Siegfried. There’s a reason so many people ship this version of Mrs. Hall and Siegfried; the two have great chemistry and plenty of sweet moments. It’s a romance that doesn’t show up in the book.

Similarity #2 The Dales

In the book and the show, the Dales is practically a character. The Dales is the region of Yorkshire where our hero moves for his first job as a vet. A place of beauty and difficult farming conditions, Herriot develops a deep love of the land and the hardy people it produces. The show lingers on the countryside’s beauty just as often as Herriot writes about it.

Difference #3 When Helen Alderson Appears

Herriot is immediately smitten with Helen, a farmer’s daughter, although their romance doesn’t necessarily get off to the best start. In the show, she’s a presence in his life from his early days in the Dales. It took close to half the book for her to appear.

The fiance in the show’s first season also appeared to be added for drama, although the book mentioned how Helen was pretty enough that everyone in the area wanted to date her. I don’t blame the show for only keeping one of the dreadful dates Herriot and Helen have in the book. In both the show and the book, however, the Farnon brothers help the romance between Herriot and Helen progress.

Similarity #3 The animals

At the heart of the show are the animals the Farnons and Herriot treat. In a world of superhero blockbusters, there’s something refreshing about stakes as tangible as a cow who needs help calving or companion animals that need tending. It’s the cases they work on that frequently deliver the most heartfelt moments in the show.

In the show’s first season, the horse that needs to be euthanized (which Herriot cries about afterwards) and the cow Tristan and Herriot defy Siegfried to save are two of the most affecting stories. The stories with the Alderson’s dog, Mrs. Dalby’s herd, and Tristan’s battle with the chickens are some of my favorites in season two.

While there were many sweet, sad, and funny stories in the book (all 60+ chapters of it), two of them stood out. The first was the elderly woman asking if Herriot thought she’d see her pets again in heaven, to which he replied he was sure she would. The second was the one about the farmer with the old horses he visited every day. Herriot ends that one on the note that the only explanation he had for the farmer keeping horses who hadn’t worked in over a decade and visiting them no matter the weather was that it was love.

Particularly given the loss of a beloved pet cat when I was reading the book, I appreciated Herriot’s meditations on love, loss, and the importance of animals in our lives.

While other characters may appear in the show in the fullness of time (there are A LOT of books in the series of memoirs Herriot wrote and a vast array of characters), I can understand why everyone isn’t there at the start. I’d enjoy seeing the funny stories with the vet Grier and Mallock’s fascinating knackerman in the show, but I get why Mallock’s yard full of decomposing animals doesn’t feature.

Both the book and the show were lovingly created and have given me, and so many others around the world, comfort. If you love animals, even a little, I’d definitely recommend them!

Best books from 2021 (& a reading challenge for 2022)

It’s that time of year again, when we say goodbye to the last twelve months and get ready to “turn the page” to something new. As we welcome 2022, I wanted to look back over what I read in the past year and challenge myself for the year to come.

After all, the last few years have been tough. I know I’m not the only one who resonated with the line in The Witcher where Geralt says “I’ve lived through a whole dark age and three supposed end of days.”

A post like this has become a bit of a tradition over the last few years: 2020, 2019, and 2018, so feel free to check those out for additional recommendations.

In 2021, I read 95 books. February, fittingly, had the smallest number (5) and I read the most in July (11) when I was off work. My most frequent monthly number was 7.

January

Challenge: Read a book by an author you’ve never read before

If I Never Met You, by Mhairi McFarlane

A silver lining of the pandemic was how the local library enhanced its online presence by offering recommendations in their catalogue. That’s how I came across Mhairi McFarlane’s book. It ended up being a heartfelt and funny read about two people who never intended to fall in love. In the first part of the year, I spent a lot of time re-reading some of my childhood favorites, so this was one of the few that was new to me.

February

Challenge: Read a book that reimagines a classic

Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal

Kamal’s book takes Jane Austen’s classic story of Pride & Prejudice and sets it in (near) modern Pakistan. The switch breathes new life into a story that’s been reimagined time and again. The character conflicts feel appropriate and its fun to see how the familiar beats play out. Even if it’s a little confusing that this is a universe where P&P exists, Kamal’s book offered an interesting look into a culture I was fairly unfamiliar with outside of the news.

March

Challenge: Read a book set somewhere you’ve visited

Paris is Always a Good Idea, by Jenn McKinley

Especially when you have to stay where you are, reading can be a great escape. Reading about a place you’ve been also helps bring up your own (hopefully positive) memories. This book about a woman traveling to find the young men she fell in love with years ago during her first trip to Europe ended up being a moving examination about happiness, grief, and giving ourselves permission to start again.

April

Challenge: Read an author’s debut novel

Would Like to Meet, Rachel Winters

Okay, technically, I read this category a lot, since I love to read new books from the library and rarely look anything up about them. A young woman has to enact scenes from rom-coms to convince a famous (and rude) screenwriter they’re plausible so he’ll actually write one. This was funny and sweet; I laughed out loud at some of the bits in the coffee shop when the single father and his daughter the lead meets are playing “bad lip reading.”

May

Challenge: Finish reading a series

Take a Hint, Dani Brown and Act Your Age, Eve Brown, by Talia Hibbert

Okay, technically, I only read (Get a Hint, Dani Brown) in May, but I read the last two of this series this year. These novels follow the Brown sisters, who we were introduced to in Get a Life, Chloe Brown, which I read in 2020. They continue to be sweet and funny while each one highlights different conditions (be it fibromyalgia, PTSD, or autism) with tenderness and understanding. They’re also sexually explicit, so be forewarned.

June

Challenge: Read a book that came out this year

The Secret Bridesmaid, by Katy Birchall

First published in May 2021, I found this in the new book section of the library (always a fun place to check). A woman is hired to be a bridesmaid for an absolutely awful It-girl and shenanigans ensue. A good book for wedding season, this one felt like a fun British rom-com, which you may have already guessed I’m a sucker for given the fact this is the fourth British author I’ve highlighted in this list.

July

Challenge: Read a book that’s been turned into a show

Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo

It took some time to get this one and Crooked Kingdom from the library. After reading up on the Shadow & Bone show–I’m thorough when I get into something–I decided to skip the titular book series and focus on Bardugo’s stronger duology featuring secondary characters in the show. These YA heist books were very funny and featured complex and enjoyable characters. They also have the most dramatic pages I’ve ever seen: the first book was edged in red and the second was edged in black.

August

Challenge: Read a nonfiction book

The Intelligence Trap, by David Robson

Since I’ve already highlighted my absolute favorite book of the year in its own post, I wanted to talk about something else. Robson’s book examined how we define intelligence, how we learn, and what we can do to avoid making foolish mistakes. It was a nice one to read before starting a new year teaching, but is one I think we’d all benefit from reading. (Other nonfiction books I enjoyed this year, aside from the gorgeous Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, included Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach and World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.)

September

Challenge: Read a book set in another culture

Last Tang Standing, by Lauren Ho

Set in Singapore and Malaysia, this book was all about family expectations and personal choices as it follows a young-ish woman from a wealthy family who is still unmarried. I enjoyed this one. It feels a bit like a more personal (in that we aren’t focused on quite so many characters) and less heightened version of the Crazy Rich Asians series.

October

Challenge: Read a story featuring LGBTQ characters

It Had to be You, Georgia Clark

While I don’t usually read books set in New York–maybe it’s because I’m Californian, but I’ve never harbored any dreams about living in NYC–I made an exception. This one was a heart-warming story about a woman running a wedding planning business who loses her husband and then finds out he left half the business to his much younger girlfriend. While the two main leads undergo plenty of self-discovery along the way, one of them also learns she’s into women. This one features POV from an older gay couple as well and includes a wedding planned for a trans-woman seeking acceptance from her father. I liked this one a lot. Whether you’re part of the community or not, it’s good to read outside of the hetero-normative box.

November

Challenge: Read a classic novel you’ve never read before

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

While a childhood best friend loved the 2002 film so much that we watched it several times together, and which I recently learned featured an incredibly young Henry Cavill, I’d never read this book by Dumas. There’s a reason his works have endured: this complicated revenge story is still very fun to read. (Admittedly, the bits with the Greek slave girl the titular count essentially groomed and his male slave are disturbing and a particularly odd choice from an author whose own grandmother was an African slave in what is now Haiti.) Still, those creepy parts aside, this is a fascinating story and one of the few classics I’ve actually enjoyed. “Wait and Hope” is also a good message to take into the new year.

December

Challenge: Read a book about starting over

I loved this book by Australian author Claire Christian. Featuring a lead who is openly bisexual and struggling with grief, this is a wonderful read about figuring out what is important and choosing to take a risk. It also brought up a beautiful poem I’d never read before: Starlings, by Mary Oliver. Of the lines in that, these are the ones I’ll carry into the new year: “I am thinking now of grief, and of getting past it” and “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbably beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.”

What were some of your favorite books this year? What do you hope to read in the coming year? I’m personally most excited for Sarah Addison Allen’s new book and for all the stories I have yet to discover.

With whatever you read, I wish you a wonderful year full of stories and all the people, food, and places you love.

The best Hallmark and Lifetime holiday movies of 2021

Over the past few years, TV movies have become a big part of my holiday season. In the last few years especially, they’ve been getting better at incorporating racial diversity and LGBTQ characters as well as leads who stay invested in their careers. The movies can be fun, but they’re definitely a mixed bag.

Hallmark Channel Reveals Complete Christmas Movie List For 2020 Season |  Celebrating The Soaps

Here are some of the best I’ve seen this year:

Movies inspired by The Christmas Carol

While a perennial favorite for holiday adaptations (even one of my favorite Doctor Who Christmas specials used it), I was still surprised to see two different versions of the story. They were also two of the cutest ones!

Ghosts of Christmas Past - Lifetime Movie - Where To Watch

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Lifetime 2021)

What it’s about: A young woman (Ellie) is told by a fortune-teller she needs to make amends to every guy she’s ghosted before Christmas. Her coworker (Charlie) helps her track them down as they work on a holiday-themed video game. Verdict: This one was adorable! Definitely one of my favorites this year. The leads were sweet and writing was cute. I also liked that they didn’t shy away from how sometimes online dating is terrifying.

Boyfriends of Christmas Past (TV Movie 2021) - IMDb

Boyfriends of Christmas Past (Hallmark 2021)

What it’s about: A woman working on a marketing pitch starts having dreams about her ex boyfriends, warning her she needs to be more open. Verdict: The leads were engaging (her best friend was sweet and incredibly handsome) and the premise was well-executed. I liked her blended family too. This one was cute!

“What if” movies

These are movies featuring a magic wish that comes true. (“Saying Yes to Christmas” also featured that this year. As cute as the leads were, I was horrified at the fact the female lead literally lost the ability to say no to any holiday invitation.)

Next Stop, Christmas (2021) - IMDb

Next Stop, Christmas (Hallmark 2021)

What it’s about: A surgeon wondered what would happen if she had said yes to a proposal from her ex five years ago. With the help of a magical train (and Christopher Lloyd as the train conductor), she finds herself in the past and has a chance to put things right and see what could have happened. Verdict: I liked the female lead and enjoy any time Christopher Lloyd is in a movie with time travel. It was fun.

A Kiss Before Christmas (TV Movie 2021) - IMDb

A Kiss Before Christmas (Hallmark 2021)

What it’s about: This was heavily inspired by “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Featuring James Denton as a good guy who’s been overlooked repeatedly and has been taking his family for granted, he ends up wishing he’d gotten on a different elevator 20 years ago so he’d be further ahead in work. He gets his wish, only to realize he’s all alone. Verdict: It was nice to see Teri Hatcher and James Denton together again; they have good chemistry. I also liked watching him realize what kind of person he would be without his wife.

Movies featuring more LGBTQ characters

Every Time a Bell Rings (TV Movie 2021) - IMDb

Every Time a Bell Rings (Hallmark 2021)

What it’s about: Three adopted sisters come home for the holidays and decide to complete their late dad’s final scavenger hunt to find the Christmas wishing bell. Along the way, they examine their relationship to each other and ponder what’s next. Verdict: The conflicts here felt real. I appreciated their focus on adoption and one of the sisters deciding to wait before having kids. One of the three sisters was a lesbian and actually got to have a meet-cute and her own sweet connection with a woman in town for the holidays.

A Very Merry Bridesmaid (TV Movie 2021) - IMDb

A Very Merry Bridesmaid (Hallmark 2021)

What it’s about: A woman turning 30 on the day her brother is getting married is used to putting herself last. Her childhood friend decides to make her birthday special. Verdict: Her female best friends are married to each other and raising twins, which was a very normalized type of inclusion to see on such a traditional station. This one was sweet and also resonated with me because I turned 30 this year.

Hanukkah Fare

In recent years, Hallmark has tried to make movies involving Hanukkah…with mixed success. Fortunately, they seem to be getting a bit better.

Eight Gifts of Hanukkah - Hallmark Channel Movie

The 8 Gifts of Hanukkah (Hallmark 2021)

What it’s about: An optometrist starts receiving gifts from a secret admirer on each night of Hanukkah. She’s not sure which of the recent men who’ve shown an interest in her is behind the gifts. Verdict: This was better than the Hanukkah movies from last year since all of the leads were Jewish, so it was less focused on trying to explain all the traditions. I like the female lead and appreciated that her job was serious. I didn’t love the male lead, but this one was sweet overall.

Movies featuring a family business

Ah, a Hallmark staple: the family business. It comes up in about 90% of these movies and it felt like an oversight not to mention it.

Tis the Season to be Merry (TV Movie 2021) - IMDb

‘Tis the Season to be Merry (Hallmark 2021)

What it’s about: A “love expert” who’s on track to get published travels with her friend/editor to stay with the friend’s family (and handsome brother) for the holidays on their tree farm as they try to rework the book before the deadline. Verdict: This one was funny and well-written, featuring natural performances and engaging characters. It’s one of my absolute favorites this year!

Crashing Through the Snow (TV Movie 2021) - IMDb

Crashing Through the Snow (Hallmark, 2021)

What it’s about: A woman travels with her ex-husband, their daughters, and his new girlfriend to stay with the girlfriend’s family in Aspen. Once there, she feels out of place and tries to “win Christmas” with help from the girlfriend’s chef brother who’s also trying to get a job at his family’s old inn. Verdict: I liked that the new girlfriend was only guilty of trying too hard to win over the ex-wife and daughters. The chemistry between the leads was sweet and this was cute overall.

Christmas in Tahoe (TV Movie 2021) - IMDb

Christmas in Tahoe (Hallmark 2021)

What it’s about: A woman who runs her father’s inn is trying to put a variety show back together after the main act pulls out. She’s doing this with help from her ex boyfriend, who’s now a rockstar…this also features a real rockstar (Pat Monahan from Train) playing a manager at the inn. Verdict: The male lead is really cute and I liked their chemistry. Their parents were a highlight and I found the conflict between the leads believable.

Short Film Reviews: Lifetime Christmas Mini-Movies | Geeks

So there you have it. Out of the embarrassingly large number I’ve watched, those are my top picks of the year. (I’m still looking forward to The Santa Stakeout and Gingerbread Miracle, which I haven’t watched yet. The Gingerbread Miracle looks especially cute.)

If you have any favorites I haven’t shared, feel free to list them below! I haven’t watched really any on Netflix or Amazon this year, but I know there are cute ones there too.

Wishing you and yours a very merry Christmas and a happy new year!

Something ‘witchy’ this way comes: the best fictional witches

Halloween is nearly here! While Southern California doesn’t get the spectacular looking fall other places do, our days are getting shorter, deciduous leaves are changing color, and I can wear jeans again without feeling like the Wicked Witch of the West at the end of The Wizard of Oz.

Im Melting GIFs | Tenor
The Wicked Witch screaming, “I’m melting”

Since it’s that time of the year, I’ve been finding myself drawn to the spooky side of fantasy. Namely, returning to one of my perennial comfort shows, “Charmed.” Which got me thinking about witches.

If you’re reading this, you probably love witches too. Women who live by their own rules, wield amazing powers, have a cute magical cat, and rely on one another…what’s not to love? (Well, the ones who don’t dissolve into a puddle or get a house dropped on them anyway. No wonder I never really connected to the witches in The Wizard of Oz.)

Looking to add some magic to your life? Here are some of the best witches on page and screen.

Best nostalgic witches to watch

My top pick: Charmed

Amazon.com: Charmed: Seasons 1-4 : Alyssa Milano, Holly Marie Combs, Rose  McGowan, Brian Krause, Dorian Gregory, Julian McMahon: Movies & TV

Ah, the original run of Charmed. Full of silly special effects, campy scenarios, late 90s and early 2000s fashion, sisters saving innocents by kicking evil’s a**, and plenty of love interests. I grew up with this show, coming across it via TV re-runs as a young teen, and bought the rest of the DVDs to comfort-watch when I was in my first awful job out of college. Silly as it is, the way it brings up work-life balance, family loyalty, and being your own hero are pretty timeless. I love the original trio and the later set (although I mostly hated the final season aside from the last episode).

The newer version of Charmed (2018) is another option with a lot of similarities to the original but with more diversity, both with the characters and the magic. If I’d been younger, I’m sure I’d have been a fan, but I was already older than all the characters by the time it aired. I also really didn’t like their whitelighter (guardian angel) or what they decided to do with the oldest sister’s arc.

For younger watchers: Sabrina, The Teenage Witch.

Ah, Sabrina. Despite the horrifying animatronic cat (whom I un-ironically loved), this was tons of fun. It’s got some great coming of age story tropes, featuring first loves, first jobs, and all the hijinks that come with being a teen witch getting the hang of her powers. Honestly, there was a lot of fun witch content out to watch when I was a kid in the early 2000s. We had Sabrina, Twitches, Halloweentown….

Best movie based on a book: Practical Magic

Sorry, Hocus Pocus, but I prefer it when the witches win. Based on the book by Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic has sisterly bonding, an evil ex, a spooky old house, some awesome aunts, people overcoming past trauma and regret, as well as a magical margarita night.

Best witches to read

For adult readers who want to laugh: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is fun for all kinds of reasons. Playing with the literary witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the “maid, mother, and…the other one” get to have a lot of fun dismantling or leaning into tropes of magical women. Main characters in six novels–Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, and Carpe Jugulum–Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax are a joy to read. (Magrat and Agnes aren’t quite as much fun as the other two, but that’s an awfully high bar.)

For fans of historical romance: A Discovery of Witches

This one really leaned into the world-building with a complex history, time travel, and one of the few bestsellers to feature genetics. The main love story is a little abrupt, but I really enjoyed the trilogy when it first came out. It’s also a series you can watch, featuring some beautiful special effects and costuming, especially in the second season.

For younger readers: Which Witch or The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

While Harry Potter is still a fun romp, even if the author’s views have affected its legacy, I wanted to highlight Eva Ibbotson’s books. Full of whimsy and charm, her witches/hags may be (or hope to be) wicked, but they’re ultimately very human. I love the worlds she creates and the fairytale-esque escapades involved.

I hope you’ve found/ been reminded of something fun and witchy to watch or read! Wishing you a safe and happy Halloween.

Begin (Again)

I turned 30 earlier this month. It’s one of those ages that makes everyone takes stock of where they are and where they hope to be. As the start to a new decade, my recent birthday has got me thinking about new beginnings.

cbc kc GIF by Kim's Convenience

August and September have been stressful. After a month involving family car accidents, my first ever surgery, a baby niece in the hospital, and the start of a new school year teaching in a classroom after nearly two years online, I’ve definitely been hoping for better days ahead.

25 New Beginnings Quotes - Inspirational Quotes About Beginnings and Change

The stress and birthday have made me consider what matters to me. I’ve decided to focus more on my writing this year/decade. Recently, I started going to a weekly writing workshop to get the chance to read my work and get feedback. I also just signed up for a course on publishing. My writing isn’t perfect, but I’m always working to make it better.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.  โ€”Samuel Beckett | Colter Reed

I’m through pretending that I don’t love writing, through hiding that part of myself from so many people in my life. At least, I’m trying to be. Because, the truth is writing is what I want to do with my life. It’s the legacy I want to leave behind: words that inspire people to be kind, to care about the world around them, to help them feel like they aren’t alone.

Read Cup Of Coffee GIF by BrittDoesDesign

My very first post was about beginnings. Since then, I’ve made so many changes in my life and my writing. As I’ve been revisiting a number of my pieces lately and embarking on a new decade, it seemed only right to write about beginnings again.

Here are some of my opening lines and how they’ve changed:

“Trees don’t normally glow, but this one was” gave way to “The day Rebecca fell into another world started out normally enough.” (The Nestbuilders)

“As soon as she saw the book, Isabel knew her life was about to change” was removed in favor of starting with “The book was thin and old and even a little bit dusty, as if nobody had noticed it for years.” (Monster Hunting for Beginners)

1,948 Magic Book History Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from  Dreamstime

Realistically, I know that a new decade isn’t truly a fresh start. It’s a beginning built on everything that came before. I’m proud of how much I’ve grown and changed in the thirty years I’ve spent on this amazing planet. This next chapter isn’t going to be easy, but I’ll keep working (and revising) to make it the best it can be.

Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from  now and make a brand new ending.โ€ - Carl Bard | Bard, New start, Success  business

Could this book change your life?

Every so often, reading a book can be a religious experience.

Braiding Sweetgrass (by Robin Wall Kimmerer) is a book like that. First published in 2013, it isn’t a new book, but three friends I’ve mentioned it to recently already had it on their radar. I stumbled across it the same way I find virtually everything I read: in the library.

I can’t stress enough how beautiful this book is. Her writing blurs the line between prose and poetry. As someone who just finished a master’s in Biology, I appreciated how she blended together science and indigenous understanding, “braiding” her work as a professor in Environmental Biology with her culture as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The quote on the cover is accurate. This truly reads like “a hymn of love to the world.”

Rachel Carson Quote: โ€œIt is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn  again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know...โ€
In some ways, the deep love and appreciation she clearly has for the plants and ecosystems she writes about reminded me of Rachel Carson’s quote (above) about wonder and humility.

This book is also a call to action, a plea to care about and care for the world we’re all on together. To remind us that we are all part of the web of life. To remind us that being a part of the world is a gift.

In her own words: “Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back.”

As she writes, gifts also come with responsibilities. All gift cultures are about reciprocity. “Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them.” In our consumption-driven culture, it’s a good reminder.

I am not indigenous to this place, but I am here. This country is the only one I can call home. As she puts it, while those of us whose ancestors arrived from other lands cannot become indigenous, we can choose to be naturalized.

Foraging Plantain: Identification and Uses
Like the humble plantain, sometimes called “White Man’s Footstep” but a plant that has learned to, as she puts it, “be a good neighbor”

“Being naturalized to a place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground, Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.”

Place matters. What are the plants and landscapes that tell you you’re home? For me, the smell of sycamore takes me back to my grandparents’ house and I picture the mountains to the north of my childhood home. Home for me is a mix of plants both native and not, the oaks and chaparral scrub from the trails I love and the pines and roses at my parents’ house. I think of the sunshine-sweet taste of raspberries, the call of the mourning dove or cry of a red-tailed hawk. During the course of my degree, I’ve learned more about this place I’ve been a part of all my life. Now I search every plant for native bees and I’m always excited when I find one. Each thing I’ve learned about the plants and animals that call California home make me appreciate them all the more. These are the ecosystems I love, the ones that are in my bones.

What is home to you?

For the author, goldenrod and aster were two plants that are home to her. (Fun fact, I pulled this picture off Google and it led to a plant blog that mentioned their post was inspired by her book too!)

While there were so many beautiful lines in this book that it’s almost impossible to choose, I think this question may be the most important for me personally:

“For what good is knowing, unless it is coupled by caring?”

I hope you choose to read this book. It’s one I plan to buy and read again and again. It will help me whenever I need a reminder why I studied Biology in the first place, what kind of teacher I want to be…what kind of person I want to be.