Finding What Was Meaningful – a 2020 Retrospective

I started a “Best of 2020” list. Then, I started over. I scrapped it. Started again. I looked through my books, ran my fingers down their spines, and tried once more. I threw together a spreadsheet from Goodreads, sorted it by date, then by rating, then by author. Deleted it in frustration when the books didn’t feel the way I needed them to.

I couldn’t do it.

For far too much of 2020, I existed not as a person, but as a hollow shell filled to the brim with grey, sloshing anxiety. Partially due to the pandemic, and partially due to challenges that had begun rearing their heads even prior to lockdown. Once the city locked down, however, all those issues became exponentially worse. At the end of the day, I can’t help but feel that “best” doesn’t have much meaning when you’re stuck in a small studio apartment for days on end, listening to the endless sirens outside, watching the world collapse around you. I stopped attending my favorite book clubs, even when they moved online. Slowly, my world became smaller and smaller. I read for comfort until I couldn’t. Things that didn’t require me to think much were helpful. Anything that could let me disassociate and remove myself from reality or complex thought. After a while, I found myself turning to webtoons, comics I could scroll through infinitely on my phone while cringing away from my computer and the world at large.

Eventually, I could read again. Sporadically, in spurts, and often outside my usual habits. I read fluffy romances and reread old favorites. It was even longer before I was able to start actually reviewing again, and I still have quite a ways to go before catching up on all the NetGalley ARCs I’ve still got sitting from that period of stagnation.

It’s still hard to reach out and be social in a way that I know is good for me, but it’s a process. Each new development (pandemic news, attempted coups, etc) sets me a step back, but I take steps forward when and how I am able – and that’s what matters most.

These are a few of the books and comics that helped me keep going.

Creator Rachel Smythe Dream Casts Lore Olympus! - Frolic

Witness what the gods do…after dark. The friendships and the lies, the gossip and the wild parties, and of course, forbidden love. Because it turns out, the gods aren’t so different from us after all, especially when it comes to their problems. Stylish and immersive, this is one of mythology’s greatest stories — The Taking of Persephone — as it’s never been told before.

Lore Olympus is a webtoon created by Rachel Smythe. I’d initially been reluctant to download the Webtoon app – frankly, I saw it advertised everywhere, and I generally don’t care for things that are overadvertised. On a particularly bad day, I caved. After all, surely it must be better than doomscrolling on social media.

I was sucked in almost instantly. For those unfamiliar, Webtoon is a “new”-ish format that has taken the webcomics of yore and transformed them into a format designed to be read on mobile phones. Each panel is the correct width for your phone screen, and you read more by scrolling down in a long, vertical strip rather than having to click through panel by panel or page by page. This format made it easy for me to keep going, keep reading, with a minimal amount of effort.

The bright colors and lovely art style weren’t the only thing that I loved about Lore Olympus. What made it special were the characters, especially the main character: Persephone. She’s moved to Olympus, away from her mother for the very first time, and is going to school there on scholarship. Her roommate and best friend, Artemis, is the one who helped her out and encouraged her to pursue her freedom. She runs into Hades, king of the underworld, and the two immediately click with one another.

Unfortunately, Persephone is quickly disillusioned about what type of people some of the other gods are. Spoilers below, and cw for rape/sexual trauma. Highlight to read:

Shortly after arriving on Olympus, she meets Artemis’ brother, Apollo. He is entitled, arrogant, and convinced that he is a gift to women. What’s more, he believes he is entitled to Persephone and her body. He pressures her, eroding her boundaries, and ultimately rapes her. He takes photos of her during the act to keep her quiet. What follows is emotional, genuine, and one of the best portrayals of support after trauma I’ve seen. When others find out what’s happened to her, they are immediately in her corner. They help her process that what occurred was rape and not just a mistake on her part, that she did not do anything wrong. Her needs are centered, and others do not pressure her to respond to questions she doesn’t have answers to. They identify on their own what she needs (as opposed to pressuring her to identify her own needs in a time of trauma). When they can, they take on the burden of resolving the problems she faces.

It was far from what I had expected when I began reading, but it was what I needed at the moment. Experiencing Persephone’s emotional journey let me lose myself and escape from my own reality and have just a little piece of catharsis.

The Surun’ do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But Uiziya now seeks her aunt Benesret in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay.

Among the Khana, women travel in caravans to trade, while men remain in the inner quarter as scholars. A nameless man struggles to embody Khana masculinity, after many years of performing the life of a woman, trader, wife, and grandmother.

As the past catches up to the nameless man, he must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya, and Uiziya must discover how to challenge a tyrant, and weave from deaths that matter.

I loved The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg so wholly and desperately that I reviewed it not once, but twice. This is a book that has a soul so bright you can’t help but love it. The prose, the characters, the thoughtfulness – they all resonated with me.

There are so many overlapping (interwoven?) themes within it. Aging, gender, identity, family, fear… it all comes together into one whole. I felt very seen and understood in a way that is rare. It made me think about the way gender has been forced onto me, and how that forceful act of being gendered externally reflected on my actual, internal identity.

The characters are all messy, imperfect human being who struggle both in finding their own identities and in doing the right thing. Both main character are trans and elderly; most of their life has been struggling with one thing or another. They seek closure, but perhaps that, too, will be imperfect.

The reason I rarely go home is three simple words: I’m a liar.

When the pressure to marry my childhood sweetheart became too much, I told her I was gay and then fled to New York like my ass was on fire.

Now, five years later and after a drunken encounter, I find myself invited to her wedding. And I have to bring my boyfriend—the boyfriend who doesn’t exist because I’m straight.

At least, I think I am. Meeting the guy I’m bribing to be my boyfriend for the weekend makes me question everything about myself.

Eden Finley’s Fake Dating series is dumb, fluffy, and a complete joy. The characters get themselves into such ridiculous situations. Sure, it’s contrived, but frankly… who cares? I read these books marathon-style, devouring them in single evenings. I’d mix myself a drink – breaking out the fancy booze, because I’d saved it for a special occasion and by god a pandemic is a special occasion, dammit – and liveblog them to friends as I sped my way through them.

They’re far from perfect, but they brought me so much joy in a time when I desperately needed it. In April, NYC was having to dig mass graves in parks. They had no ventilators to spare. People left in droves. But when I was tipsy and warm and laughing my way through the hijinks of these ridiculous gay boys, I could be okay, just for a little while.

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

Full review of The Once and Future Witches

Secretly, deep down, hidden far, far beneath the pleasant, helpful, and caring outermost layers of me, I am very angry. I am always, always angry about the injustices in the world. I’ve had an HR Director put his hands on me. I’ve had a married CEO who would make comments/attempt to flirt with me. A VP of sales who would POKE my arm/side during client meetings. A client who wouldn’t answer my emails who flat out said it was because I was a woman. I’ve had so, so many other reasons to be angry at how the world views me and treats me.

Alix E. Harrow distilled all of that anger and more into The Once and Future Witches. It is anger incarnate. It is a scream that goes not into the void, but into the hearts of those who also feel that anger. Each of the three main characters had a piece of my anger inside of them, and I loved them dearly for it. It is hopeful and impassioned, angry and empowered. It’s a wildfire sweeping through and cleansing the soul.

Apathetic Boyfriends by eritan is a webtoon available on Tapas. It should not be good. The art is mediocre. The writing is certainly nothing to write home about. And yet.

…Somehow, some way, it is extremely fucking good. It’s hilarious. Sometimes I reread the first few panels of it because I laugh every single time. It’s all so wonderfully, deliciously stupid that I can’t get enough of it. It’s literally just two people who kinda sorta ish start dating but are INSANELY apathetic about it all. I love it.

I honestly don’t have much to say about this one other than to tell you to give a shot. If you’re not in stitches a few episodes in, it’s probably not for you.

A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.

There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.

El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students. 

Full essay on sexual assault in A Deadly Education

Sometimes a book is meaningful not because you loved it, but because of the way it compelled you to write about it and confront it. While the book overall was enjoyable and around a 3.5 star for me, what makes it one that I’ll never forget is for how egregiously and unexpectedly Novik used graphic descriptions of rape to describe a particular fight with one of the monsters lurking in the school. She brings forth imagery of a drunken man whispering moist words into the ear of the main character, attempting to insert himself inside her. It’s unexpected, shocking, and revolting. Given the frequency with which women and genderqueer individuals experience alcohol-related rape during the college years, I simply could not believe she would include this without a word of warning to a reader. It is described with sufficient specificity that I have a hard time believing it doesn’t touch on fairly severe triggers for quite a large number of people – it certainly did for me.

This book compelled me to begin writing a large, highly researched post on how to write and use sexual assault within speculative fiction. It’s not finished, and likely will not be for a long time, but any book that gets me to write so many words on a topic so dear to me and my own personal experiences has meaning. Maybe not a good meaning, but meaning nevertheless.

3 thoughts on “Finding What Was Meaningful – a 2020 Retrospective

  1. “the boyfriend who doesn’t exist because I’m straight” 😅
    Be good to yourself and keep reading. It is not escapism, it is time out to relax.


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