There is almost nothing I look forward to more when I’m in Disney World than hopping aboard one of the beloved Jungle Cruise boats. For ten minutes you escape into a new adventure, with a wise-cracking skipper to navigate your passage through the winding river. From my very first Disney trip all the way into adulthood, the Jungle Cruise ride has always held a special place in my mouse-shaped heart. I had very high expectations when I heard Disney was developing a film based on my favorite ride. When one looks to the success and quality of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, you know Disney can get it right. Thankfully, Jungle Cruise starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson delivered.
True to the nature of its source material, director Jaume Collet-Serra’s film retains the humor found in the ride, while introducing new lore and history that will be appreciated by Disney lovers young and old. Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall play siblings who require the navigational skills of a boat skipper portrayed by Dwayne Johnson. Blunt, last seen on Disney screens as Mary Poppins, is Lily Houghton; a determined, revolutionary woman. Blunt is effortlessly cool as she channels Indiana Jones, and volleys hilarious quips back and forth with Johnson. These two embody the spirit of Bogart and Hepburn in the African Queen, a film Jungle Cruise gently tips its hat to. Johnson, as the fearless skipper Frank Wolff, is charming and full of surprises. Jack Whitehall as MacGregor Houghton, makes good use of his “posh boy” stand-up routine, but don’t expect this portrayal to be one-note. Whitehall infuses warmth and depth to the persona he’s cultivated over the years to delight viewers. Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Edgar Ramírez, and Veronica Falcón round out this marvelous cast with wonderful performances of their own.
Something mysterious is hidden deep in the whiles of the amazon, and this trio is determined to find it. If I say anymore, it will ruin the pun-filled ride, just know the plot twists and turns are worth the adventure. Jungle Cruise is reminiscent of films like Romancing the Stone and The Mummy, with well-executed action scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny. Cinematography by Flavio Martínez Labiano is sweeping and grand, while a score from James Newton Howard perfectly complements the action.
There is no shortage of trials when traversing the Amazon, and Skipper Frank has a dad-joke prepared to meet them all. Johnson and Blunt are a dynamic duo, making this 2 hour and 36-minute run time feel like no work at all. Jungle Cruise will sail in to theaters and Disney+ Premier Access Friday July 30th. For those who think they should skip this one, well, you’re in De-Nile!
Lunar Ladies#1 from Scout Comics is a galactic ride from the Moon to prehistoric Earth. Written by Omar Morales, this story will strike a chord in any sci-fi loving heart. Readers are transported to the Moon, where inside its hollow core, lives a futuristic society composed entirely of women. This utopia is led by the beloved Queen Velouria, who is threatened by the evil machinations of jealous geneticist Docteur Venus Verga. Venus is determined to steal a powerful talisman from Queen Velouria, as well as execute her plans to create a perfect army of test-tube soldiers to overthrow leadership on the Moon. To make matters worse, Venus’s entire army is made of…MEN!
DUH DUH DUNNNNN!
Venus is certain this legion of warriors will ensure her domination over the Moon. But after a scientist on her team is pushed too far, she sabotages Venus’s original characteristic code for the soldiers; ensuring the men will be created with some future passionate consequences. The characteristic changes in the army’s code are sure to be a featured plot point of future issues. I’m hesitant to say more and spoil the fun, but I can’t imagine the changes made to them will produce anything but infatuated results. How will that work in a society made up entirely of women who love other women? I’m not sure, but I’m certainly waiting for the next issue to find out.
When Venus is thwarted once more, she accelerates her plans for an army and Queen Velouria decides it’s not safe for her daughter, Clare, and the talisman to remain on the Moon. She departs via space shuttle with Clare and her lover, Star, traveling to prehistoric Earth to find a place of safety for them. Just as Queen Velouria returns to the Moon to subdue Venus, all hell breaks loose and readers are left with a cliffhanger that’s guaranteed to have them itching for the next issue.
Lunar Ladies is certainly a thrilling ride for sci-fi lovers of the vintage comic era. Morales’ story is ripe with the best tropes of the genre, including boastful villains, virtuous leaders, and dialogue that has you recalling the iconic sci-fi B-film era of the 1950s. It’s heavily influenced by these well-loved concepts, from the depiction of their laser guns to the design of their clothing. Readers will marvel at the quintessential domed architecture that every person in the 1950s imagined the future would look like. I found the harmonious combination of design and story to be an obliging nod to the genre it was inspired by.
Lunar Ladies is drawn by Joel Cotejar, colored by Paula Goulart, with lettering by Jaymes Reed. Their work together is a stunning homage to comics of the past, creating a sepia-toned aesthetic that will leave readers thinking they’re not encountering a new release, but a gem from the past.
Lunar Ladies celebrates the love between women, science fiction, and remarkably doesn’t take itself too seriously. This reviewer is very interested and excited to see how the army of men will fit into the narrative going forward and what’s in store for the little moon girl, Clare, as she spends time on prehistoric Earth.
Issue #1 of Lunar Ladies is out now from Scout Comics, but look for issues 2 & 3 to drop in October and November to read the concluding chapters of this interstellar mini-series.
The GateCrashers Library is officially open! Ever wonder what your favorite GateCrashers are reading or what they’d recommend? The GC Library will have a monthly theme or genre and all our writers have the opportunity to provide their favorite titles. For July, we’ll be listing all our favorite Young Adult and Middle Grade stand-alones. No library card needed, just browse our titles and find your next favorite read.
Middle Grade Graphic Novels
“I loved Jo & Rus because it’s a book about growing up and all the fears that come with it; how will I manage to do what I want? Will I have to do it alone? The characters deal with serious issues that most people have, but the book never stops believing that life can also be magical sometimes!”
Jo & Rus written & illustrated by Audra Winslow
“Superman Smashes the Klan uses its bright, expressive art to tell a nuanced story about alienation and prejudice for kids without sacrificing any depth for older readers. Everyone should read this book.”
Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang & illustrated by Gurihiru
Long Distance by Whitney Gardner
“A fun and funny comic that takes the tropes of princess stories and turns them on their head as Princess Max puts her budding detective skills to the test, along with her wise-cracking pony Justine, to find her missing brother.”
Mega Princess by Kelly Thompson & illustrated by Brianne Drouhard
Young Adult Graphic Novels
Harley Quinn: Breaking the Glass by Mariko Tamaki & illustrated by Steve Pugh
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe by Ryan North & illustrated by Erica Henderson
“You Brought Me The Ocean is an amazing coming-of-age story about a boy named Jake Hyde who has to deal with his sexuality, his emerging superpowers, and his fear of losing his closest friend by leaving for college as he must balance his fear of the unknown and his desire to keep those close to him safe.”
You Bought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez & illustrated by Julie Maroh
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki & illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
“A fun and beautiful retelling of Cassandra Cain’s backstory that treats both her heritage and disability as important facets of her life.”
Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn & illustrated by Nicole Goux
Eat, and Love Yourself by Sweeney Boo & illustrated by Lilian Klepakowsky
The Prince and The Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Middle Grade Novel
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
“Stanley Yelnats has the worst luck. Sent to the desert for a crime he didn’t commit, he is forced to dig a hole every day at Camp Green Lake. This is where the fun begins. I recommend this book to those who consider reading a chore because that’s how I felt, until I read this.”
Holes by Louis Sachar
Pepper’s Rules for Secret Sleuthing by Briana McDonald
What If a Fish by Anika Fajardo
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
“If you’re a fan of time travel, snobby Italian painter rivalries, or curious orange cats, DaVinci’s Cat is a lovely middle grade novel for any reader looking for adventure.”
Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
A Song Only I Can Hear by Barry Jonsberg
Young Adult Novels
Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
“Meddling Kids takes the Scooby-Doo tropes everyone knows and loves and completely turns them on their head, resulting in a genuinely thrilling Lovecraftian horror novel.”
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
Disney Twisted Tales: Reflection by Elizabeth Lim
Disney Twisted Tales: So This is Love by Elizabeth Lim
The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King
“When I first read Some Quiet Place, the novel haunted me, changed how I think about emotional portrayals in literature, and possesses gorgeous prose that completely influenced my own writing style.”
Some Quiet Place by Kelsey Sutton
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon
The Future of Us by Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler
The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Fake ID by Lamar Giles
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith
You Are Here by Jennifer E. Smith
This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith
“A spunky kid in 1940s Brooklyn forms an unlikely friendship with an up and coming baseball player in the backdrop of an ensuing World War. It is laugh out loud funny, heartwarming, and possibly heartbreaking. This is one of those books that will be re-read every summer!”
The Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger
My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger
The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur
Where the Rhythm Takes You by Sarah Dass
Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean
Game Changer by Neal Shusterman
Dry by Neal Shusterman & Jarrod Shusterman
Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink
Pride by Ibi Zoboi
Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant
When You Look Like Us by Pamela N. Harris
“In our current era where abusers are starting to be held accountable for their horrific actions, Grown sharply resonates, proving a difficult but vital read about mistreatment of young women in the music industry.”
Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam
This Is My America by Kim Johnson
Sadie by Courtney Summers
Bruised by Tanya Boteju
A Complicated Love Story Set in Space by Shaun David Hutchinson
The Sky Blues by Robbie Couch
When We Were Infinite by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi
Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy
How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
Girls Save the World in This One by Ash Parsons
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Rules for Being a Girl by Candace Bushnell & Katie Cotugno
Welcome back to a Galaxy Far, Far Away. The Star Wars universe has been teeming with new tales as the High Republic era finds its footing across a vast collection of storytelling mediums. The High Republic, set about 200 years before the Skywalker Saga, is a generally peaceful moment in time. The Galaxy we’re familiar with later in the Star Wars timeline is less settled at this point, but the Republic & the Jedi are committed to peace; even in the unchecked Outer Rim.
Race to Crashpoint Tower is a Junior novel whose events proceed plot points established in the previously published adult novel, Light of the Jedi, and includes characters and plot from The High Republic Adventures comics. This is starting to sound a little complicated, however, the masterminds behind the High Republic era are generous with exposition. While much needed to be explained in Race to Crashpoint Tower to make sure the reader had the most up-to-date information, it never felt too heavy-handed or redundant.
This fast-paced, character-driven adventure opens on the planet Valo, where a giant festival is set to begin. We meet Jedi Padawan Ram Jomaram in his favorite place; the garage. There’s nothing Ram loves more than using The Force to take something apart and put it back together again. He’s elbow deep in ripping apart a speeder when droid V-18 interrupts him. The security alarm on Crashpoint Peak has been tripped, and V-18 can’t find anyone else to help investigate. Ram’s not sure if the security breach is an error, or the work of the Nihil, the resident baddies of the High Republic era. This investigation gets the story moving, and Ram, V-18, and a few friends from past High Republic works, have to band together to not only protect the peace of the festival, but the whole planet of Valo.
While I am not the intended age demographic for Race to Crashpoint Tower, I found the characters and story to be interesting and engaging regardless. Any Star Wars fan and High Republic reader will find something to enjoy in this compact (compared to the adult novels) adventure. Race to Crashpoint Tower is set for release on June 29th, 2021, the same day as the second adult novel, The Rising Storm debuts. Both books will feature events that overlap in The High Republic timeline. Don’t worry, GateCrashers has you covered; you can read our spoiler-free review of The Rising Stormhere. And with that, my fellow Star Wars-lover, remember to board your nearest Jedi Vector ship on June 29th and make the jump to your local bookstore to purchase both of these new High Republic novels.
Can you guess who’s hard to kill? The Devil. Luci-fans, Luci-stans, but never Luci-furries, we welcome you back to Season 5b of Lucifer! He’s been to hell and back (literally), and that doesn’t include a Fox cancellation and Netflix resurrection, as nothing can keep our neighbor to the deep deep south down. With character adaptation so on point some are led to believe he may be ol’ Scratch himself, Tom Ellis leads the charge into the penultimate season of Lucifer. To get you in the mood for satanic worship, Ashley & RJ are here to give you a rundown on their favorite episodes if you’re a newbie, and when to catch the irresistible Lucifer Morningstar and his detective for the season finale.
If you’re new to the show, we think starting at the beginning is going to give you the best introduction to Lucifer and the people that inhabit his world. Lucifer, the tv show, is an adaptation of a DC comic. The character, created by Neil Gaiman, first showed up in The Sandman #4. Due to his overwhelming popularity, he found himself starring in his own comic. It was formally adapted and transitioned into a FOX program, premiering in January of 2016. In the Pilot episode, Lucifer has a chance meeting with LAPD Detective Chloe Decker when a friend of his is murdered. Lucifer comes with his own set of devilish talents that aid Detective Decker in solving the case, and this episode is the framework for the rest of the series. Lucifer signs on to use his talent of persuading suspects to admit their deepest desires to assist Chloe with her cases. For our newbies, we’d like to issue a clear SPOILER WARNING: anything going forward may give away important plot points!
RJ – Episode 1: Pilot / A Priest Walks into the Bar Tough decision out the gate, as I was truly torn between this episode and a later episode entitled “A Priest Walks into a Bar”, but I think this pilot truly mastered the art of purposeful immersion for the audience. Tom Ellis, Lucifer, rolling up to his private nightclub Lux, with this effortless swagger and charm, hell, even I thought he WAS the devil. Exploring his ‘daddy-issues’ from day one, introducing his catchphrase ‘What is it you truly desire?’, and most importantly, establishing a believable connection to his partner (double entendre intended) Chloe Decker. This episode turned me from Luci-skeptic to Luci-fan and I would come back for Luci-more (okay I’m done.)
Ashley – Episode 1: Pilot / A Priest Walks into the Bar I LOVE PILOT EPISODES. Doesn’t matter what it is, I always go back and rewatch pilots, and Lucifer is no exception. There’s something special about knowing where a show eventually goes, and then returning to its humble beginnings. This episode introduces us to all the major players like Chole, Mazikeen, Dr. Linda, Amenadiel, and Detective Douche (sorry Dan). Chloe and Lucifer meet and work together to find the killer of a fading pop star. This episode is pretty low stakes, but it does a stellar job showing us what the future holds.
RJ – Episode 13 / A Good Day to Die Chloe Decker is poisoned and Lucifer must return to hell to learn the antidote from “The Professor”, who had subsequently poisoned Chloe in the previous episode before his own demise. Now, just imagining Lucifer travelling back to the home he had fled, only to return to it as a means to torture The Professor’s damned soul, all in the hopes of saving his detective, I mean, that’s enough right there. But, like Loren Allred says it’s “Never Enough, Never Never”, as this episode approaches an emotion we all know too well, guilt. For it is guilt, like cement shoes, that ground us and prevent some of us from moving on, and in this case, almost prevent Lucifer himself from returning to the land of the living and saving his partner. Won’t spoil much more, but damn, this onion of an episode has layers.
Ashley – Episode 6 / Monster If there’s anything I love more than a pilot, it’s a holiday episode! This Halloween special opens with a zombie themed wedding turned deadly. Lucifer’s on the prowl after everything that went down with Uriel (who was played by the fantastic Michael Imperioli) and Chloe is doing her best to keep him on task to solve the murder. Highlights include Mazikeen trying to take Chloe’s daughter, Trixie, trick-or-treating. Who doesn’t want a demon being their candy guide?
RJ – Episode 13 / Til Death Do Us Part Lucifer and Marcus Pierce, AKA Cain (the biblical one), AKA Smallville’s Superman himself Tom Welling, are forced to live undercover as husband and husband in a cul de sac suburbia to get to the bottom of their current case. Aside from the two of them being just an amazingly handsome couple, Welling and Ellis do a SUPERB job as their acting chemistry carry this entire episode. Even if you watch it solely for their fake wedding photo in the tropics, I may also instruct you to listen carefully as Lucifer mentions he intends on figuring out Pierce’s Kryptonite, which, I mean, c’mon, somebody save me.
Ashley – Episode 24 / A Devil of My Word Dan is reeling from the loss of Charlotte Richards, and everyone finally comes to terms with the identity of the Sinnerman. It’s time to take down Pierce, but it’s pretty hard to do that when he’s constantly lurking at the precinct. Where this episode really shines is the last ten minutes. For three seasons, Lucifer has been open with Chloe about the fact that he’s the devil. He’s never shied away from sharing his truth with her. But true to her nature, she hasn’t been able to accept that a lick of what comes out of his mouth is true. Up until this point, they’ve been at an impasse; Chloe just accepting that Lucifer believes what he says is true. Everything finally comes to a head, just as Chloe and Lucifer walk into a trap set by Pierce. To protect the Detective, Lucifer will do anything. This show of selflessness earns him back his wings, and for fans, this scene is squeal inducing. The takedown of Pierce and his thugs by a bloodied Lucifer donning angel wings is everything, and Chloe finally glimpsing Lucifer’s devil face changes their dynamic forever.
RJ – Episode 7 / Devil is as Devil Does The 4th season was not my favorite, and you’ve stuck with me this long, so I’m not in the business of lying to you. Regardless, there were still great episodes, and this is probably the best. Plot wise, there’s going on, Ameniadiel trying to protect his child, Linda and Maze becoming close, Dan is still adrift at his loss and finds comfort in Ella, but most importantly, Lucifer is starting to look like the Lucifer of old. Lucifer has resorted to his use of strength and anger to get what he needs while investigating this case. Chloe becomes concerned and eventually we see Lucifer wade his way back to doing things by the new book, not the old one. Let me be frank, I was never a fan of the Eve storyline, BUT, symbolically, the idea that Eve has become the snake in the garden, trying to lure Lucifer away from Chole…I see what they did there. Even with all that, my favorite part of this episode resides in the final moments. Lucifer, horrified by his behavior calls on Dr. Linda to find out why the worst has happened, his wings have returned, DEMON WINGS. Watching Tom Ellis convey this overwhelming lunacy the scene required, it’s something you need to watch, like NOW!
Ashley – Episode 10 / Who’s da New King of Hell? As RJ so eloquently stated above, season 4 was not our favorite. While I love Graham McTavish as an actor, I wasn’t a fan of the Father Kinley storyline and didn’t really vibe with the whole Eve arc either. This season 4 finale was a return to everything I love from this show. We open with a giant dance number to Kenny Loggins’ “I’m Alright” and the Devil is feeling himself. Father Kinley becomes the host of a Demon who escaped hell, determined to get his King to return to the throne of the Underworld. McTavish portraying the demon Dromos inhabiting Kinley’s body was so fun to watch, he is such a talented actor. Dromos wreaks havoc on L.A. and forces Lucifer’s hand. I love this episode because Chloe finally comes to terms with Lucifer’s devil features, learning to appreciate every side of him. However, their declarations of love are bittersweet, because Lucifer must return to hell and keep the demons at bay.
RJ – Episode 6 / BluBallz Let me begin with stating the obvious, Our Mojo, is the better episode by far. However, this episode gives us two moments that are much too important to ignore: Dan finally sees Lucifer’s true face (Devil Face), and CHLOE AND LUCIFER HAVE ADULT TIME UNDER THE COVERS!
Ashley – Episode 7 / Our Mojo Thats right folks, they FINALLY did it! And afterwards, it appears that Chloe has stolen Lucifer’s mojo! She’s now able to compel him to expose his deepest desires, and Lucifer is rattled. They pay a little visit to Dr. Linda for some couples therapy to get to the heart of their sharing issues. Aside from the emotional drama, there’s a serial killer on the loose and the gang is hard pressed to find who’s responsible before another body turns up. This episode ranks as one of my favorites because we finally make some emotional headway between Chloe and Lucifer. Their dynamic is the driving force behind this show, and it’s far and few between when they’re on the same page emotionally. Leave it to Dan to come in during the last moments of this episode and rain bullets on our joy.
As much fun as this has been to write about, it has unfortunately stirred the two of us to give up on our current spare time activities (Ashley just finished reading People We Meet on Vacation and RJ is starting Six of Crows) and take up binging more than 60 hours of Lucifer! Netflix drops Lucifer Season 5b Friday May 28th and Season 6 is due out sometime late 2021/early 2022. So, don’t be a Detective Douche, put on that adult diaper and grab the snacks because this is what you TRULY DESIRE.
Netflix has once again traversed the stacks of the library to adapt its next big-budget fantasy adventure. They’ve set their sights on Leigh Bardugo’s New York Time’s bestselling trilogy series, Shadow and Bone – as well as incorporating her later books, the Six of Crows Duology. If you’re like me, then the book was better. Yes, I know I haven’t actually watched the series yet (and believe me, I’m excited!) – but I’ll fall on this sword. The book is ALWAYS better. If you’re a newbie to Bardugo’s Grishaverse, and you’re looking to catch up on the book series before devouring the TV adaptation, then this is the article for you. I’m here to help you understand the magic system, and figure out which order you should be reading the books in (because yes, there are quite a few of them at this point).
To understand Shadow and Bone’s world, one must first understand The Grisha. The Grisha are a group of people born in the countries that inhabit the world of these books. They practice The Small Science, which is essentially being able to manipulate elements and the human body, depending upon which order you belong to. In Ravka, one of the countries within the series, children are tested for Grisha abilities. If they’re identified with a capacity for The Small Science, they are are sent to The Little Palace to live and train under the direction of The Darkling, eventually joining Ravka’s Second Army (the first Army is for non-Grisha). Being a Grisha sounds great on paper, but they’re often outcasts. Ravka is one of the only countries that trains Grisha to reach their potential, though the power-free population is weary of them. In other countries outside of Ravka, Grisha are hunted, sold, or experimented on; often hiding their power for fear they’ll be discovered. The Grisha are broken up into three groups: Corporalki, Etherealki, and Materialki. And dear reader, just to make things simpler for you, I’ve made a handy chart explaining what each group specializes in:
What sets Bardugo’s universe apart from other YA fantasy fare is the Russian/Eastern European inspired settings. Her imagined countries within the Grisha books are characters themselves. You can feel the grit of war-torn Ravka, the permafrost of Fjerda crunching under your boots and the limitless possibilities available in a city like Ketterdam, found in prosperous Kerch. All roads to these places begin at Shadow and Bone. This is the first book in the series and introduces us to our heroine, Alina Starkov, a refugee orphan of Ravka’s endless wars. Alina finds kinship in Mal, a boy living in her orphanage and the story follows them further into young adulthood. Shadow and Bone is the setup; we watch Alina go from a nobody with nothing to… well… without ruining the story, somebody. We are also introduced to one of my favorite fantasy villains – I’m keeping this spoiler free, so no names! But I can say Bardugo writes such a multi-faceted baddie, that you find yourself empathizing with them. To complete the arc of Alina’s story and see if she succeeds in aiding the Grisha, you should follow up Shadow and Bone with Siege and Storm and close out with Ruin and Rising.
I enjoyed the Shadow and Bone Trilogy; they lay some exceptional ground work for future books. And while I strongly suggest that you start at the beginning, I’d be lying if I told you I began my Grisha journey there. I’d heard a lot of hype around a book called Six of Crows. Naturally, I picked it up and oh my, it was EVERYTHING. Six of Crows is a separate story taking place in the same world as Shadow and Bone. You do not – I repeat – DO NOT have to read the first trilogy before picking up Six of Crows. Nevertheless, you will have to make peace with the fact that the ending of the Shadow and Bone trilogy will be ruined for you. Six of Crows is to this day one of my favorite books. It’s a rag tag team pulling off an unthinkable heist – gleefully blowing stuff up and taking down oppressors. This story is a two-parter, so when you’re finished make sure you pick up Crooked Kingdom for dare I say it – an emotional and action-packed finale? I love Leigh Bardugo’s writing, but you can tell that Shadow and Bone is her first series. I suggest reading it because it is a worthy tale that is interesting and really immerses you into her unique magic system and world, but Six of Crows is where lightening strikes. It’s a five-star page-turner that I recommend to almost everyone I meet.
In 2019, Bardugo returned to the Grisha Universe to continue the story of Prince Nikolai, a fan-favorite character from the original trilogy. The first book is King of Scars. In it you will find excellent humor, monsters, and an ending that will SHOCK YOU. The follow up, Rule of Wolves was released in March of 2021 and includes a satisfying ending to Nikolai’s story with the possibility for more tales on the horizon.
There we have it folks. Leigh Bardugo has created a magical world where the lives of the Grisha hang in the balance. There are riveting villains, politics, humor, and a coming-of-age cautionary tale on the balance of power. So pick up a book and get a head start on Bardugo’s Grishaverse and don’t forget to stream Shadow & Bone on Netflix April 23rd, 2021.
Reading The Midnight Bargain could be a very timely literary venture if you’ve recently devoured Netflix’s popular adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton. World Fantasy Award winner C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain grounds itself within a fictional country of Chasland, heavily influenced by the time period of Regency England. Similar to the marriage market of Bridgerton’s debutants, Chasland’s ingénue’s in the Chapter House takes center stage in this story. What makes an ingénue worthy of a fine gentleman’s hand? Why, the normal things – connections, family, money, and her magic of course. The Midnight Bargain’s heroine is Beatrice Clayborn, eldest daughter to a father whose fortunes have never quite reached their potential. After a disastrous investment, Beatrice’s father knows a smart match for his daughter could turn the tide for their family. While Beatrice might not come with connections and fortune, she is blessed with a desirable abundance of magic.
As fairytales often remind us, magic comes at a cost. For the women of Chasland, that statement could not be more accurate. New brides find their lives forever altered when husbands lock the mandated warding collar around their neck, dampening their perception of the world and shutting off their ability to perform magic. Beatrice is coming apart at the seams, being pulled between true love, her right to perform a gift she was born with, and the responsibility to save her family’s fortune. The ladies of Chasland can’t catch a break. Gender denies them proper training and education, society demands they give up their right to use magic at a marriageable age, and there seems to be nothing they can do about it but submit. Beatrice Clayborn never began the novel with an intention of bringing society to its knees. She began this story, like most readers, on the hunt for a book that might change her life. With the help of a few friends and a luck spirit named Nadi, she finds the power to shake off her oppressors and master the spells she so desperately wants to use.
While all the parallels to Regency England’s confining arranged marriages got me interested, what really hooked me was Polk’s heroine being courageous enough to sacrifice all for the betterment and equality of her sex. The Midnight Bargain is a dash of romance, mixed with the complexities of female friendship and a healthy dose of bringing down the damn patriarchy. If you’re looking for an immersive world with an interesting magic system that feels historical, you can’t go wrong with The Midnight Bargain.
If you liked The Midnight Bargain, Ashley also recommends: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore Chain of Gold by Cassandra Clare The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
While the following list isn’t comprised of things only created/released this past year, they are all things that succeeding in keeping me sane during the dumpster fire that was 2020. So, in no particular order, here is my best of 2020:
Avatar the Last Airbender
I was one of those individuals who came to the ATLA world late into its existence. But I can unequivocally say, Avatar found me when I needed it most. This summer I was feeling the quarantine blues. Then I started watching Avatar on Netflix and suddenly, I was happy again. The story structure is so well done, the characters are so special, and it really is a timeless cartoon that transcends the age range it’s intended for. There is so much that my husband and I want to watch and simultaneously need to be cognizant of language and themes in front of our young son, but ATLA was something all of us could enjoy.
The 2020 Presidential Election– more specifically – Our First Woman VP!
Hi, everyone. My name is Ashley and –to get this out of the way– I’m a staunch feminist liberal. Not to make this all political or anything, but the last four years of my life have been like living in a divisive hellscape. Within the tenure of Chief Cheeto’s rule, I’ve developed sleeping issues, anxiety, and an overall fear of impending doom because I don’t feel like there’s an adult in the room at the White House. I’ve worried incessantly over my rights as a woman, the rights of my LGBTQ+ family & friends, racism, unchecked police brutality, and honestly just where the country was headed as a whole. While the election of Joe Biden hasn’t eased all my fears and worries, it has at least made me feel optimistic that we have the opportunity to work towards something different than what we’ve experienced through this last presidency. Also, the election of our country’s first woman Vice President possibly might be a highlight of this decade for me. I’m not sure if any other women just sobbed on their couch like I did after the election was called, but it just felt like such a monumentally joyous moment shoved in the middle of the most tumultuous year, bookended by four years of utter anxiety and fear. Here’s to hoping we’re moving in a better direction. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the great losses of 2020, once said, “Women belong where decisions are being made”. While it’s devastating to know Justice Ginsburg didn’t get to see it, Kamala Harris’s appointment as VP shattered another glass ceiling hanging over the heads of women living in the United States forever.
There are many shows on this platform that I could have singled out individually on this Top 10 list, but to save space, I thought I’d umbrella them under Disney+ as a whole. Whether it was choosing not to blink while watching The Mandalorian so I wouldn’t miss anything or rewatching Hamilton for the thousandth time, Disney+ has had some incredible content this year to keep me entertained and happy. Some of my other favorite originals have been The Imagineering Story, Encore!, Spark Shorts, and Howard, a documentary profiling the incredible lyricist, Howard Ashman.
Taylor Swift has had a presence in my life since the moment her first album dropped. I wasn’t even a country music fan, but the truth in her self-written lyrics felt as though she wrote them just for me. We’re relatively the same age, so her music grew with me. Even when my tastes in genre changed, my love for Taylor never wavered. This July, while I was still contented with screaming the bridge of “Cruel Summer” to keep my spirits up, Taylor shocked us all by dropping her surprise album, Folklore. Folklore was like a dream I wanted to live it. This year had very few bright spots, and Taylor really served some excitement after LoverFest was postponed (at this point it seems indefinite). Some of my favorite songs on Folklore were “Mad Woman”, “Peace”, “Invisible String”, “Betty”, & “The Lakes”. Well, our girl surprised us again by dropping her ninth studio album, Evermore barely five months after we were blessed with Folklore. Evermore is gorgeous and wintery, a perfect soundtrack to short days with long nights. My favorite tracks so far are “Ivy”, “Marjorie”, “Evermore”, “Champagne Problems”, and “‘Tis the Damn Season”. I have no illusions that my lord & savior TS will ever read this, but I want to send my gratitude out into the interwebs and say THANK YOU FOR SAVING MY 2020!
Jane Austen in Film: The Renaissance of 2005’s Pride & Prejudice & Early Release of Emma
2020 gave me a new film favorite & kindred spirits to swoon over a well-loved classic. The new film adaptation of Emma hit theaters pretty quietly in February 2020 and was inaccessible to viewers by March, when lockdown began. It became one of the first shuttered theatrical films to be released on streaming platforms in early May. I’m an enthusiastic lover of Jane Austen’s work, so I was eager to watch this new adaptation of her spoiled matchmaking heroine, Emma. I found this version strikingly beautiful. The set dressings and costumes were so vivid and eye-catching, as well as having a cast stacked with amazing talent. It reminded me so much of another favorite film of mine, Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. P&P is one of those films I’ve watched so many times over the years, that I could probably recite it. Color me surprised when Netflix released Pride & Prejudice this summer to their streaming platform and it BLEW UP. Suddenly I had a whole community of people creating videos, writing articles, and wanting to bond over a film I’ve held dear to my heart for 15 years. I’m not sure if anyone else inhabits the same corner of TikTok that I do, but seeing other people connect with something I love so much was such a bright spot in this year for me. At a time when I felt further from people than ever, I finally found other people who understood and wanted to discuss the intensity of Mr. Darcy’s hand flex (if you know, you know). Fun facts: I love P&P so much that I walked down the aisle to “Liz on Top of the World”, a beautiful theme from the film’s soundtrack, and I named my son Bennett after my favorite heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. The madness doesn’t stop there, you’ll have to continue reading this list for another Pride & Prejudice tribute I had this year.
Reading New Book Genres
If you see me reading, there’s about a 99% chance I’m reading a fantasy book. But like most things, 2020 wrecked my reading schedule and put me in a rut. I was feeling all over the place, and the constant world-peril present in many fantasy novels had me feeling more stressed, rather than feeling like I was escaping my troubles. A friend recommended I try a different genre. And oh man, did I ever get my reading mojo back. I picked up historical fiction, biographies, women’s lit, and books of poetry. Some of my favorites from this traverse down different aisles of the library were Beach Read by Emily Henry, Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore, You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, and Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. Each of these books brought light hilarious stories that brightened up an otherwise dark time.
The Dragon Prince
I actually found this before Avatar, and I was so hooked that I watched the whole series in 3 days. My addiction made a little more sense when I realized The Dragon Prince’s creator was a head writer at ATLA. They share similar themes of redemption and the future being in the hands of the young. I love that The Dragon Prince & ATLA both incorporate characters with disabilities who are never sidelined, kicking ass along with the rest of the cast. I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan, so the questing-vibes I got from Dragon Prince kept ticking all the boxes for me and made this one of my favorite shows in 2020.
What can I say? My therapist deserves a raise. I started therapy in February just to work on myself in general. Then Covid hit … and she was one of the pieces in the puzzle that helped me feel hale and whole throughout this year. Therapy is hard, but so incredibly worth it. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, so remember to make it a priority with all those other self-care things you’d normally do for yourself. An honorable mention for mental health is the “Calm” app. If you’re looking for something to assist in guided meditation and sleep stories to quiet your mind at bedtime, I can’t recommend this app enough.
We ended 2019 with our beloved dog, Chase, crossing the Rainbow Bridge. It was heartbreaking and we miss him every day. Thankfully, one of the highlights of 2020 was adopting a new dog to love from one of the local rescues in our area. She is a 3-year-old husky mix and we named her Darcy -a la Mr. Darcy- because this gal loves a gender-bent homage to Pride & Prejudice. I’m of the firm belief that humanity doesn’t deserve dogs. Our sweet girl loves us so much and lets us know every day. If we had to have 2020, I’m glad it at least brought her to us.
Netflix’s Never Have I Ever
Never Have I Ever, the latest creative endeavor of Mindy Kaling, premiered on Netflix in April 2020. I didn’t find it until later into the year but Never Have I Ever had so many elements I crave in a smart teen comedy. It, like Avatar, was transcendent to age. Yes, this is a show about teenagers, but the peripheral adults are also so well fleshed out that it feels wrong to just call it a teen comedy. I love the way Kaling and her writers treat the cast of characters. They’re intelligent, they’re diverse, and they grapple with some heavy shit. They are also allowed to say terrible things, lash out, and apologize. Nothing aggravates me more than a female character who isn’t crafted in the form of a real person (she can’t be too good, she can’t be too bad, she can’t say something so terrible that the viewers turn on her). Kaling takes the norm and throws it out the window and grounds this show in a family’s grief that is so visceral, I found myself sobbing throughout the entire final episode while simultaneously laughing like a mad hyena. It sounds like a lot, but if you haven’t, give Never Have I Ever a chance. I’m willing to bet you’ll love it too
The clock struck midnight. Instead of worrying that my carriage was about to turn back into a pumpkin, I was planted firmly in front of my computer in the dark of night, a pair of Beats headphones around my ears, as my excitement reached a crescendo. The lead single to Taylor Swift’s surprise 9th studio album, Evermore, was about to premiere.
Willow picks up right where Folklore‘s Cardigan video left us. With Taylor, a water-logged lyrical goddess divine, staring straight into the camera with all the vulnerability of Bambi. The golden dust of the previous video is now a shimmering gold string – a la Folklore‘s Invisible String where Swift sang “One single thread of gold tied me to you“. The string beckons her, and us, back into the world of the magical piano and deposits us through the crack in a willow tree on the banks of an inky lake.
“I’m like the water when your ship rolled in that night. Rough on the surface, but you cut through like a knife.”
Swift slices us lyrically in the opening lines of Willow; setting the stage for her specialty: transportive tales of love, magic, and hopeful optimism in the face of obstacles, real or other-worldly. As the pitch-black lake draws our focus, Swift peers over its edge as a man stares back at her through the watery depths of her memories. As she begs for us to take her hand, she dives in, chasing the golden string, and her man, through time and place.
Prior to the video’s midnight release, Swift participated in a YouTube Q&A, mentioning that Willow‘s video would evoke scenes harkening back to four songs from Folklore: Seven, Mirrorball, Exile, and Mad Woman.
We’re transported presumably to the past, as two children who represent our video’s love interests share some fun in a makeshift tent of blankets with the string of fate that ties them together. This scene most directly reflects the imagery of Folklore‘s Seven, where two children escape their reality with whimsical fantasies and a pure love that stretches “to the Moon and to Saturn“. All too quickly, the boy has disappeared from Taylor’s life. Her younger-self leaves the naïvety of childhood behind, exiting the tent and following the string once more.
She enters an enclosed stage at a fairground in the dead of night. She sings from her pedestal, entertaining the folks of the fair as they pass her by. Swift watches them kiss and laugh, talk and live; paying her little mind. This scene elicits the feeling of Folklore‘s Mirrorball and Swift’s opinion on her own fame. This shouldn’t come as a shock to the fans who expertly spotted her diving into a fishbowl during Lover‘s music video from 2019. As Swift eyes the dusty fairground crowds, they part. Her mystery man has appeared, grown once more, and slowly walks the path toward her. His eyes are locked on her, ignoring all the sights and sounds around him. In Mirrorball, Swift expresses her feelings on being an entertainer, and the appreciation she has for the one person in her life that sees past the performance to the beating heart underneath.
“You are not like the regulars, the masquerade revelers, Drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten.”
When Swift tries to join him on the ground, she realizes she’s stuck in the glass case of fame. Our lovers are separated once more. Her only out is a trapdoor through the bottom of her gilded cage, with a familiar gold string leading the way. A physical reference perhaps to a line in Folklore‘s Exile, where Taylor sings, “I think I’ve seen this film before, so I’m leaving out the side door“. She takes the exit with a coy wink to the camera, reminding us never to count her out; she’ll “come back stronger than a 90’s trend“.
The glittering rabbit hole drops us on the edge of a snowy clearing at night, where a caped Swift leads a pack of masked followers. They begin to dance in a ritualistic way as she weaves through them while crackling gold strands descend into the night sky and out into the world. I’m suspecting this is her nod to Mad Woman, where she sings: “Women like hunting witches too“. This group, very clearly, are witches working spells. Swift joins them, dancing around the mystical golden fire as she croons, “The more that you say, the less I know. Wherever you stray, I follow“.
Once again, the string beckons, and she follows for the final time. Leaving the glow of the group behind her, she treks off into the snowy night to seek her fate. When the camera pans up, Swift is gone, but the man she pursues was there the whole time, masked and dancing right along with her. She exits through the magic piano in the cabin, seemingly back where it all began, though now she’s dressed as a pioneer woman. Her cardigan is long gone and the golden strands of fate finally come to an end, leading her to a place and time where her love was meant to thrive. Her lover is there, and the smiles on their faces tell us they finally have all the time in the world to just be. They walk out of the cabin into the light of day, hand in hand.
As the screen faded to black, my first thoughts were of the track Daylight on Taylor’s seventh studio album, Lover. In it she says, “I once believed love would be burning red, but it’s golden, like daylight”. The gold string was able to lead her through the long dark night into the morning of peace and contentment in her relationship. Willow‘s music video is a beautiful companion to the raging seas of Cardigan‘s video imagery. They each feel like bookends to the lyrical tales packed within. While Taylor Swift has made a career of being a chameleon, morphing into the the physical representations of her next album era, Evermore, and it’s first single Willow, are a testament to the magic that can happen when she takes off her coat and stays a while. This mad woman never ceases to amaze me.