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NOTE TO THE READER:  you will note that the schedule of diaries I announced a few weeks back has not squared with reality.  This is due to a combination of overwork, the deaths of two old friends, and a couple of deadlines that I simply can't miss.  

So...the last few weeks I've been doing a bit of juggling.  Two weeks ago was a bye, last week was MT Spaces' hilarious compendium of terrible comic book covers, and this week is the holiday shopping list I originally planned for Thanksgiving weekend.  Next week should be back to normal, with a look at the cosmic conspiracies and hidden histories of Zecharia Sitchin and Graham Hancock.

Thanks for your indulgence, and happy reading/shopping/storming the castle!

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Christmas of 1995 was the worst of my life.

Scratch that: the fall of 1995 was the worst of my life.  Not only was I unemployed and unable to find so much as a temp assignment, I was battling clinical depression and booted the one interview I managed to score during that horrible time, my house was in foreclosure, and my car kept breaking down and requiring repairs I couldn't afford.  My then-husband was incredibly supportive, but after two of my uncles died and my mother went into a nursing home thanks to Alzheimer's, I sorta gave up for a while.  

"Grim" doesn't even begin to describe it.

Salvation came one day in early December, when I got a call from one of my oldest and dearest friends.  Barbara was worried sick about me, and before I could really say "no, I'd rather stay home and watch Lifetime movies while we still have cable," she'd talked me into meeting her at the local mall for the afternoon.

"You need to get out," she said when she saw me, and before I could point out that a) I really wasn't much of a shopper, and b) I'd barely been able to afford gas money to get to the mall in the first place, let alone purchase anything, she shoved $20 into my hands and all but forced me to purchase a package of cinnamon twists at the food court Taco Bell.  Barbara then proceeded to spend the next few hours walking me up and down the concourse like a dog while we chatted about politics, life, religion, and our respective families, window shopped, and laughed ourselves sick over some of the merchandise for sale.

On one level, nothing had changed by the time we'd said good-bye and headed for our respective homes.  I was still poor, I still had no money, my uncles were still dead and my mother was still senile...but the mere act of getting out of the house and interacting with the world worked miracles.  I might not have been able to afford more than a package of incense cones for my husband's Christmas gift, but the worst of the depression had lifted as I started to realize that the pendulum would eventually swing back and life would somehow, some way, be better in the coming year.

I'm still not much of a shopper, but I now understand why people sometimes call it "retail therapy."  The mall is the modern agora, the place to see and be seen, to experience America in all its overblown, overhyped, and very average glory - and if commercialism is the bane of modern life, well, sometimes there's nothing like fleeing the hideous combination of scents wafting out of the Yankee Candle or howling over the cover art of the latest bestselling dreck at the Heck Piazza Lean-To & Proles to restore one's spirits.  

That's why tonight I come bearing not the bad, but the good.  The following are some of the books and movies that have stuck in my mind over the past year.  Some are pure entertainment, others have a deeper meaning, but all are well worth your holiday gift-giving dollars, whether as presents for friends and families or just a little stocking stuffer for yourself. Have fun, and happy holidays!

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Fiction - I've mainly reread old favorites this year, but here are several new or new-to-me novels, plus the return of a debut novel with a very special meaning for me:

The Tainted City, by Courtney Schafer - the sequel to last year's The Whitefire Crossing is just as good, with superb characterization, plenty of suspense, and great worldbuilding.  Yes, there's a third book coming, and if it lives up to the first two it'll be a real treat.

Casket of Souls, by Lynn Flewelling - the penultimate volume in one of my all-time favorite fantasy series is a real return to form as Alec and Seregil find themselves up to their necks in intrigue, espionage, and the hornets' nest of the Skalan royal court.  Throw in a war, a mysterious plague, a truly evil villain, and heartbreaking loss, and the result is one of Flewelling's best.

The Dark Wing, by Walter H. Hunt - I first read what became this novel in manuscript almost thirty years ago, and I eagerly bought it in hardcover when it was finally published.  It's now back in print from Fantastic Press and available with its sequels in e-format from Baen Books, so definitely check it out!

Redshirts, by John Scalzi - Scalzi's trademark humor melds with metafiction as a group of expendable junior officers on a starship very similar to the USS Enterprise realize that they're dropping like flies and decide to strike back....

One Saved to the Sea, by Catt Kingsgrave - beautifully written erotica that starts with the old legend of the selkie and takes it places the Scots never could have imagined.  Just wonderful.

Somebody Killed His Editor, by Josh Lanyon - take a somewhat nerdy writer who's been dropped by his publisher, his incredibly hot (and very, very successful) ex-boyfriend, a group of eccentric mystery novelists, a murdered editor, and a storm that strands everyone in a rustic resort, and prepare to laugh till you're in tears at this hilarious and very, very sexy parody of the cozy mystery.

Non-fiction - this year I've been on a World War II/Depression kick, partly because I'm a history buff, partly because of the somewhat terrifying parallels between that time and our own:

The Second World War, by Antony Beevor - This excellent one-volume history of the most significant event of the 20th century starts with the story of a Korean who somehow ended up fighting for Nazi Germany, and if that doesn't drive home the reality that what Archie Bunker called "the big war" really was global in scope, nothing will.  Highly, highly recommended.

New York at War, by Steven J. Haffe - readable if somewhat light history of America's greatest city at war from colonial times to 9/11.  The Revolution, the Civil War draft riots, the racial and ethnic tensions leading up to both World Wars...there's a lot of good, little-known information here.

American-Made:  The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, by Nick Taylor - wonderfully detailed history of the Works Progress Administration and its continuing impact on American life.  I was particularly struck by the parallels between contemporary howls about how jobs programs are nothing more than government hand-outs to those too lazy to get a "real" job and Republican opposition to the WPA.  

Ayn Rand Nation, by Gary Weiss - Randians pitched a hissyb fit about this searing look at the profoundly anti-American philosophy of their goddess, to the point that they attempted to bury it with terrible reviews on Amazon.com.  They also came after me here on DKos for having the nerve to give it a good review.  Need I say more?

Only Yesterdayand Since Yesterday, by Frederick Lewis Allen - the first is a classic of social history, written only a few years after the Roaring 20s had disintegrated during the stock market crash.  The second is a sequel detailing the 1930s from the point of view of the early 1940s.  The similarities to our time are striking, and a prime example of the old saw about "those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  

The Devil in the Grove, by Gilbert King - excellent, heartbreaking account of a notorious yet almost forgotten fake rape/lynching in the orange groves of post-war, pre-Civil Rights Florida.  Almost worth buying for the horrifying cover photo alone.

Fellow Kossacks - There are a ton of writers on this site, as one might imagine.  In addition to Sarahnity's old list, here are a few of particular note:

Wil Wheaton (Clevernickname)

Lia Matera(Scilicet)

Kelly McCullough (KMc)

David Brin (David Brin)

R.A. Salvatore (RASalvatore)

Frederick Clarkson (Frederick Clarkson)

Jeff Sharlet (Ishmael)

Karen Schwabach (SensibleShoes)

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And for those can't get enough of your humble and obedient servant's own works, few and feeble as they are:

Quilt history (under my own name):

"The Same Counterpoincte Being Olde and Worene:  The Mystery of Henry VIII's Green Quilt" in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 4 - Henry VIII owned over 100 quilts, many of them new and gorgeous.  So why does his death inventory devote so much space to a ragged green silk coverlet with his first wife's heraldic device smack in the central medallion?

"Anomaly or Sole Survivor?  The Impruneta Cushion and Early Italian 'Patchwork' in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 8 - think that patchwork started in the United States?  A tiny silk funerary pillow in an Italian tomb says otherwise....

As Sarah Ellis, fantasy erotica writer:

"Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves" in Spellbinding:  Tales from the Magic University - short story using the characters and setting of Cecilia Tan's Magic University series.  My first published short story.

"The Place Where Heroes Are Made" in the forthcoming What Happens in the Tavern anthology from Circlet Press.  This will be out in the next couple of weeks, and I'll make sure to update the link.

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The above are the books I'd recommend for your dining and dancing reading pleasure.  However, I know that not everyone on your shopping list is a reader, so here are some movies I've enjoyed recently, even though a couple of them came out in 2011 or 2010:

Brave- wonderfully acted and animated story of a determined girl learning how to make her own path without rejecting her heritage.  Visually gorgeous, with a heartwarming mother/daughter story at its core.  

Dark Shadows - yes, I know it was a parody.  Yes, I know the reviews were mixed.  Yes, I know that Johnny Depp is overexposed.  I still almost fell out of my chair laughing at this loving tribute/parody to one of the most beloved and cheesy soap operas of all time.  "That is the ugliest woman I've ever seen" nearly killed my friend Marilyn.

Marvel's The Avengers - I'm sure everyone's already seen this, or heard of this, or decided that it's too popular and made the principled decision not to see this...but seriously?  This ensemble dramedy cleverly disguised as a superhero movie lives up to the hype and ginormous box office.  Great lines, excellent performances, and a Wizard of Oz reference that is simultaneously funny and heartbreaking.

Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows - I freely admit that I thought I was going to hate Guy Ritchie's take on the greatest detective, especially after he cast short, dark, hyperactive Robert Downey, Jr., as the tall, lean, hawk-faced Sherlock Holmes...and I freely admit that I was wrong.  Downey captures the insanity, grit, and brilliance at the heart of the title character, Jude Law is perfect as Watson, Kelly Reilly, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris and Stephen Fry provide able support, and the costumes, sets, and steampunk ambience are to die for.  

The King's Speech - excellent character study of George VI's struggle to overcome a crippling stammer with the help of speech therapist Lionel Logue.  Colin Firth won an Oscar, Helena Bonham Carter, Jennifer Ehle, and Geoffrey Rush are great in supporting roles, and the period details are fine.

And finally, if you want movies that are most definitely So Bad They're Good:

Nocturna - this star vehicle for talented bellydancer and talentless actress Nai Bonet is the world's first (and thank God and the angels, only) vampire disco movie musical.  Special effects that make Plan Nine From Outer Space look like Star Wars, the utter waste of veterans Yvonne de Carlo, John Carradine, and Antony Hamilton, and a performance by Brother Theodore as a werewolf that must be seen to be believed, all framed by the tuneful dance music of Reid Whitelaw...seriously, if you can find this one, have a defibrillator standing by in case you have heart failure.  The Grant's Tomb sequence alone is worth it.

You'll also need the defibrillator for two deservedly forgotten adaptations of beloved superheroes:

Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD - long before he was played by Samuel L. Jackson, Marvel's black ops/spymaster was brought to life by legendary disco king/KITT sidekick/beach bunny David Hasselhoff in a cigar-chomping, scenery-chewing, line-shrieking tour de force of awfulness.  Horrible costumes, dreadful sets, an incoherent plot, and Der Hoffmeister in an eye patch combine for two hours that make the 1960s Adam West Batman look  like Citizen Kane.  Also features Lisa Rinna as an allegedly tough female spy who seems to injected most of North America's collagen supply into her lips.

Captain America (1990) - this Israeli production (yes, really) features Matt Salinger (son of JD Salinger, and no, I am NOT making this up) as possibly the only superhero in movie history who's such a yutz he has to steal a car to get from one place to the other.  Horrible script, special effects that seem to involve plaster of Paris, acting that wouldn't have passed muster in a high school senior play, a 1940s hero in a fluffy 1980s feather cut, and a supporting character who gets more action sequences than the title character result in a movie that richly deserves its 13% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  If that weren't bad enough, Salinger had the nerve to whine about not being given a cameo in the vastly superior 2011 Chris Evans remake.  Can we say "hubris," boys and girls?

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So...do you have any special favorites you'd like to recommend this holiday season?  Any novels that stood out?  Poetry?  Non-fiction?  Did you have a new book come out this year?  This is your chance to share with your fellow Kossacks, so don't be shy!

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Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
Tue 10:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
Thu (third each month) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 4:00 PM Daily Kos Political Book Club Freshly Squeezed Cynic
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Nov 10, 2012 at 06:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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