Writers Write

What I Loved in 2018

I don’t know about you, but most of my social media newsfeeds and updates from friends were overwhelmingly about how awful 2018 was and how happy they were that 2019 is here.

I don’t know how many were exaggerating and how many really did have A No-Good Terrible Very Bad Year, but for me, as years go, meh, 2018 was hunky-dory.

Here were some of my favorite things.*

*cue Julie Andrews

Note: Don’t expect anything deep and wise in this posting. We’re talking My Favorite Things of the television, movie, book variety for the most part. Please and thank you.

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My Favorite FILMS

Instant Family

Starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, Instant Family is a family comedy/drama with a surprise bite. If you don’t have a background with the foster care system you might not spend the entire running time crying and laughing like I did, but I bet you dollars to donuts you’d still find a place in your heart for this movie.

A naive and childless couple decide to take on a group of siblings in foster care. Okay, okay, you know where it’s going from the beginning but the journey will be worse/better than you (or they) ever expected. The kids are full of problems and issues and baggage, the parents are at times clueless, at their wit’s end, and full of regret, and the real-life day-to-day roller coaster of foster parenting is portrayed with humor and brilliance. Some moments I loved:

  • the DHS workers. They were absolutely hilarious.
  • not sugar-coating the relationship between the biological mother and the eldest daughter. That bond, no matter how threadbare or one-sided, is not to be trifled with, and the writers didn’t just gloss over, take the easy way out, or set it aside.
  • the REAL talks between Wahlberg and Bryne. When they are sitting on their bed, debating giving the kids back … well, it had my husband and I alternating between hiccup-crying and snort-laughing. Two very attractive traits we have.
  • it’s based on a true story.

While occasionally cheesy, it balances that out with heartfelt moments, poignancy, and flat-out hysterically funny bits. Whomever wrote this script … they get it.

Bird Box

Available on Netflix

Starring Sandra Bullock, Julian Edwards, and Vivien Lyra Blair.

If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you A.) live under a rock, or B.) don’t like scary flicks. I’m here to say, GET OVER IT!

Occasionally billed as The Quiet Place for one of the other five senses, the story begins with Malorie, a single and pregnant artist. A bit of a drifter who has trouble attaching herself to anyone except maybe her sister, she is caught up in an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world nightmare, when the entire world erupts into chaos.

With mass unexplained suicides happening literally in front of her face (including her sister’s), she is pulled into a safe house with a group of strangers. The human population begins to dwindle rapidly as Malorie, her friends, her enemies, and her baby struggle to stay alive.

I haven’t read the book that this is based on, but I could tell instantly that it was a book to begin with. You can feel the words in your head as you watch it acted out, if that makes any sense, and while some people didn’t care for the ending, I could definitely picture how satisfying it would have been to close that last page with a contented sigh.

Unusual and clever, with a stellar performance by Bullock, this is a movie that will get under your skin and stay there for a while.

Mary Poppins Returns

Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and about a thousand other incredibly talented humans.

At first, I was like you: is this a remake? Jesus, Mary, and the camel, don’t let it be so! 

But it’s not, so don’t get your bloomers in a wad. The original series of books, by P.L. Travers, was eight novels long, and according to producer Marc Platt:

We went right to the source, we went to P.L. Travers. And it turns out that P.L. Travers wrote eight books, and the original film really capitalizes on only one of the books. And what we found in her books was really a treasure trove of new characters and episodes. And we realized that we could bring the sequel, our own version and our own story, an original story of Mary Poppins all these years later in a very exciting way, but that we could draw upon the original source which is P.L. Travers.

She wrote her books in 1934, 1935. Our film, Mary Poppins Returns, is set in those years, which is the depression era in England. So, it takes place about 25 years after the original film took place.

That made my bookworm heart happy and oh-so content, and I consented to see the movie.

I’m so glad I did!

It was a joyful romp, full of the old-fashioned hand-drawn animation I’ve missed in the last twenty years, clever songs, difficult dance sequences, and may I just say I want to be Angela Lansbury when I grow up?

Blunt and Miranda are stellar in their roles, and with cameos by Dick Van Dyke, the original Jane Banks, and Angela Lansbury (Julie Andrews only said no reportedly because she didn’t want to be a distraction and wanted it to be “Emily’s movie”), it was a visual treat from beginning to end.

Please Stand By

Starring Dakota Fanning, Toni Collette, and Alice Eve.

A lesser-known gem of a film that centers around a young adult with autism named Wendy (Fanning), who is just volatile enough to need care in a group home. Collette is the manager of the home in which she lives, and helps her to function on her day-to-day life, including navigating the bus system, and working at Cinnabon. In all of her spare time, Wendy lives for Star Trek, and is writing a manuscript she intends to enter into a competition.

Now, I’m not a Trekkie, but I’m married to one, so I appreciated the funny nuances of Wendy’s nerdy side. The story picks up its pace when Wendy misses the deadline for the competition and sets out on her own to hand deliver it. Sometimes she makes you nervous, sometimes sad, sometimes you just want to love her, but you won’t want to leave her side on her journey to L.A.

You definitely don’t need to be a Star Trek fan, all that familiar with autism, a lover of Indie dramas, or anything else to adore this movie. It will creep into your heart and stay there.

Deidra and Laney Rob A Train

Available on Netflix

Starring Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow.

Another indie jewel, this is a fun dramedy about two sisters trying to make it in the world without their mom (Danielle Nicolet), who is in jail for basically having a nervous breakdown in a Best Buy store.

I mean, a girl’s gotta survive, am I right? Why not rob a few trains to pay the bills?

Sweet, but not cloying, with excellent performances by Murray and Crow, this is a smart flick that is clean enough to watch with your daughter, but gritty enough that you won’t be bored.

Mamma Mia, Here I Go Again

Starring all the stars from the first one, plus Lily James and Cher.

While rom-coms are my least favorite genre, I make exceptions for musicals.

Why? I dunno. I grew up on them, I’m a dancer, I’m married to a singer … you do the math.

Lily James was fantastic in her role as a young Meryl Streep, and all the songs and dances were catchy and fun. Set in two different time frames, the first one in the sixties, the second a few years after the first, the movie tells the story of Donna and Sophie and all their loves and heartbreaks and travels. This flick will get your toes tapping and your throat giggling (is that where giggles come from?).

My Favorite Novels

Note: I read a lot. A LOT. So what I’m mentioning is hardly all I’ve read over the year, nor is it even all I’ve enjoyed. It’s what I consider five star … or four-and-a-half at least.

Tell No One

By Harlan Coben

A great who-dunnit that will make you turn pages as quickly as possible. I almost deducted a star because I was left a little confused at the end, what with all the characters, but I think it was because I was reading so fast! Had I slowed down and not skimmed paragraphs when I just wanted to get back to Beck and Elizabeth, I probably would’ve seen all more clearly. An exceptional thriller.

Note: there is a sequel I was excited to find, however, I couldn’t just couldn’t get completely into it. I recommend Tell No One as a perfectly great stand-alone.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

By Bryn Greenwood

I went into this not knowing much of anything about it. In fact, it sat, totally past-due from the library, on my coffee table for probably three or four weeks before I decided to crack it open.

When I read the blurb I couldn’t figure out why I had even checked it out, but I was hooked instantly. Normally I only give 5 stars to something I can recommend to ANYONE, and/or to a book I would reread. This is neither of those things, and yet…

The writing is so strong, the characters so real, the emotions so raw. The story is disturbing in a hundred ways. Somehow though, Greenwood doesn’t preach, doesn’t tell you what to feel, doesn’t sneak in her personal opinions. I don’t know what she herself would say about Wavy and Kellen: it seemed as though she was simply telling the tale as they told it to her, which is a talent as an author that makes my jaw drop.

A book that made me think, cringe, cry, woke up at night thinking of, and definitely won’t forget.

The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio

By Terry Ryan

Remember up above when I said I don’t usually give five stars to something I can’t recommend to just about anyone? Here’s one that I can freely offer to up to any human on the planet. I was a sniffly mess at the end.

Note: there’s also a good movie based on this memoir, starring Juliann Moore and Woody Harrelson. 

Lying in Wait

By Liz Nugent

A wild ride, totally twisted, unexpected, and ultimately satisfying (though I feel completely loony for saying so). Since the killers are literally unmasked at the very first sentence there shouldn’t have been any suspense or any twists and yet … and yet.

Yet.

Elizabeth is Missing

By Emma Healey

Alternating between 1946 when teenage Maude’s older sister goes missing and present day when Maude is 82, suffering from dementia/Alzheimer’s and trying to find her friend Elizabeth, this is a stellar work.

Clever and suspenseful, with a coming of age feel in the young Maude, and a sad but quirky old Maude, it’s a truly wonderful novel that isn’t like anything else out there. It’s dark at times, and sad too, but witty and well done.

Just One Damned Thing After Another (the Chronicles of Saint Mary’s #1)

By Jodi Taylor

A really fun read with a huge cast of eccentric characters (author is kind enough to put a Who’s Who in the beginning for reference). Tons of snarky and makes-you-smile-if-not-laugh-out-loud humor, with clever twists and turns.

Taylor was a self-published go-getter who found success (envious sigh), and she deserves it. A witty series opener. My only complaint were too many exclamation points and maybe a couple too many characters and plot lines, but I’ll definitely check out Book II. If you like Warehouse 13, Psych, Dr. Who, and/or anything written by Gail Carriger, you’ll love this.

Speaking of Gail Carriger, I didn’t read this this year, but I’m throwing it in anyway because I love it so …

Soulless (Parasol Protectorate, #1)

By Gail Carriger

This was adorable. Full of real words (maybe I have been reading too many YAs which remind me of Easy Readers sometimes), hilarious characters, fun plots, and even some bodice ripping.

I am not a fan of vampire and werewolf fiction (or non-fiction, haha), but steampunk is so very fun, and this is enchanting. It’s like Amelia Peabody crossed with Austen mixed with Wodehouse and tossed with I don’t know what all. Will definitely finish the series.

Note: if you like the idea, but prefer completely clean and G-rated, check out her Finishing School series, which begins with Etiquette and Espionage.

Faithful

By Alice Hoffman

Despite being relentlessly sad nearly all the way through, the story of a badly damaged teen girl who survives a car accident while her vibrant, popular best friend is destroyed, is full of hope and humor. You can’t help but adore Shelby, even at her most self-destructive.

She kind of makes you want to take her home and make her soup, and also smack her really hard with her own novel at the same time. I loved the side characters – her mom especially, but maybe I’m just at that age where I relate more to the middle-aged moms than I do the heroines – and Marabelle and all the dogs.

I like that it took her years to put together some sort of a life after the tragedy; it was realistic that she literally lost her entire 20s before she could come to a place of forgiveness and learn to live again. The beginning made it seem as though Helene would be a much larger story line than she actually ever is, but I liked that better, since the point is, after all, Shelby.

SPOILER ALERT: The only thing I found distressing from a story telling point of view was the reappearance of Ben at the end; he deserved his own happy ending and I didn’t like that he was pining for Shelby and his life didn’t work out well.

Burntown

By Jennifer McMahon

Other than Ann Patchett, Jennifer McMahon is the only author I know who writes incredibly bizarre story lines, yet makes them intriguing and believable.

This book is no exception: the weirdness starts with a murder committed by a man in chicken suit, and a stolen invention of Edison’s that can speak to the dead. That’s the most normal part of the whole book.

From there, we’re introduced – sometimes in flashbacks, sometimes in real time – to a fat lady of the circus, some fire eating hippy drug addicts, runaways, and all sorts of other oddness. I loved the first half or two-thirds of the book, but the ending started getting a bit too silly. I for sure could have done without the fire eaters; they didn’t add anything to the book and weren’t particularly believable.

McMahon doesn’t explain much, especially about the invention which you would think would play a much bigger part than it did, but that’s a small disappointment. All in all, better than her early books, but not as good as The Winter People or The Night Sister.

My Favorite TELEVISION Shows

The Good Cop

Available on Netflix

Starring Tony Danza and Josh Groban

This is a great show when you need something before bed: it’s not violent (though it’s a crime/cop comedy), it’s really pretty clean in case your kids are running amuck in front of the TV, and it stars Danza and Groban, who are just plain cuties.

The running time is less than an hour, but more than the 20 minute sitcoms you’ll find on Netflix, so all in all, it’s just a good pick.

Bonus: each episode gets better and funnier as the writers and the stars figure out what works.

The Haunting of Hill House

Available on Netflix

Starring Carla Gugino, Timothy Hutton, Annabeth Gish, Victoria Pedretti.

This made-for-Netflix show, based on the beloved Shirley Jackson tale (loosely, we admit), might scare you to death, but at least you’ll go feeling oddly happy about it. The frights start with Episode One: The Bend Neck Lady, and they don’t let up much at all in this story of an evil house and the family who lived there for a summer, only to be beckoned back years later. Is it too cliche to say it’s scary good?

Fun fact: the director enjoyed putting in a whole ton of background ghosts in each episode. So when you think you saw something (which is hard when peering through your fingers), you most definitely did. You can find them all on youtube to give you extra chills when you’ve finished Season One.

Killing Eve

Starring Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, and Fiona Shaw.

I’m only a few episodes in, but if this shows lives up to what it’s shown me so far, I’ll be a believer and lover for life.

Oh plays Eve, a security operative, who gets bored stuck at her desk, and is consumed with female serial killers. Comer is Villanelle, a ruthless contract killer, who scares the living daylights out of me she’s so good.

Together they play a deadly game of cat and mouse. I haven’t been this enthralled or impressed since Orphan Black.

Somebody Feed Phil

Available on Netflix

Starring Phil Rosenthal

I loooooooooove food shows, and this one is a lot of fun. If you’re not familiar with Phil, you’re wrong, because he’s the writer behind Everybody Loves Raymond and Coach. So you do know him, you just didn’t know you did. In front of the camera, he’s an adorable, childlike, blue-eyed goofball, with a zany sense of humor and facial expressions that will make you laugh.

It’ll also make you hungry.

Very, very hungry!

Some episodes include his real-life wife, Monica Horan, who played Amy on Everybody Loves Raymond, and they’re what you would call relationship goals. Each episode ends with Phil’s Skype call to his extremely elderly Jewish parents, who are a hoot.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Return

Available on Netflix

Starring Felicia Day and Patton Oswald.

I was a huge fan of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 from the ’80s, and have been enjoying sharing the wacky world with my teenage daughter.

Day and Oswald do a fantastic job sticking to the original zaniness and ridiculous ideas as they force poor prisoner, Jonah, to watch the worst B movies they can find. Jonah and his robot pals, Tom Servo, Crow, and Gypsy, offer up witty commentary through flicks such as Ator, the Fighting Eagle, Killer Fish, Lords of the Deep, The Loves of Hercules, and (my personal favorite) Wizards of the Lost Kingdom. 

Harlots

Available on Hulu

Starring Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville, Liv Tyler, Jessica Brown Findlay

If you like soapy, guilty pleasures, you’ll enjoy this historical show, based on real-life women of history: two competing brothel owners in London during the 18th century. While it’s totally dramatic, occasionally bordering on over-the-top, and full of (mostly hilarious) sex scenes, the acting is top notch. Morton’s bawdy laugh gets me every time, and Manville is delightfully evil. Not a show to have on when your Littles are around, but a fun romp through history’s naughty bits.

Speechless

Starring Minnie Driver, Mason Cook, Micah Fowler, Kyla Kennedy

A smart sitcom with a stellar cast, revolving around a hilarious family whose eldest son has cerebral palsy. Without any of the sentimental fluff you’d expect or cringe-y teachable moments, it handles the story lines with no apologies and great humor. For sure my favorite sitcom of the past few years.


What about you? How was 2018 in your book-reading and binge-watching? Let me know your favorites!!