5 Things I love About HBO’s The Gilded Age (And one thing I’m on the fence about…)

I binge-watched HBO’s The Gilded Age (created by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame) over the past couple weeks, and I have thoughts: I LOVED IT! Since I’m seeing some mixed feelings about this show from other period drama fans, I thought I’d share what I loved–and the one thing I’m a little weird about.

  1. The Story is Set in America
    As much as I adore British settings in period drama, it’s fun to have a “Victorian Era” drama set in 1800s New York. It takes place about a decade after Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (also set in New York), so it’s got a lot of the same vibes. Even in the refined parts of town and society, there’s an untamed roughness to 1880s New York that was long gone by that era across the pond.

  2. Old Money vs New Money Conflict
    Whereas Downton Abbey centers mainly around upstairs vs downstairs, as well as the changes to upper class British life in the early 20th century, the primary conflict of The Gilded Age is “old money” vs “new money.” On the one side, you have old prominent American families like the Astors, Fishes, McAllisters, and other members of the infamous “Four Hundred.” On the other side, you have the wealthy upstarts, industrialists and railroad tycoons who are extremely wealthy but lacking in pedigree. Which isn’t to say that the “downstairs” doesn’t play a part in the story. It just takes a bit of a back seat to the sociopolitical intrigue of the nouveau riche Russells versus Mrs. Astor and her courtiers.

  3. Drama without Misery
    Look–I love Outlander, Poldark, Downton Abbey, etc., but there is just SO MUCH MISERY in these shows. You can’t get through a single episode without somebody being murdered, abused, or violated. Pain, grief, and death lurks around every corner, and it’s just exhausting to watch sometimes. I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed Bridgerton so much, and even Sanditon, both of which were on the lighter side. In much the same way, the first season of The Gilded Age has plenty of exciting drama without resorting to extremes. I found the sociopolitical intrigue to be plenty dramatic on its own, without main and secondary characters having to experience constant physical trauma of some kind.

  4. Inclusion without Tokenism
    The Gilded Age is far from perfect (like many period dramas), but it’s trying. We have a main Black character (Miss Peggy Scott) with her own story, who isn’t just there to support a white character’s story. She is a young woman making her way in the world, pursuing a career as a writer, but she’s at odds with her middle class family and that story unfolds as the season goes on. We also get a glimpse into a real Black-owned newspaper (the New York Globe, owned by T. Thomas Fortune) which I hope we’ll see more of next season. There’s a little bit of LGBTQ+ representation with two male characters, and I like that they address the complexities of being a gay man in a society where young wealthy men are expected to marry well–not to mention the toll that can take on relationships. I hope we’ll get to see more of that next season, too. Finally, I like that we get to see the breadth of challenges faced by women in the many different roles forced upon them by society, from Mrs. Russell’s obsessive mission to get her family on the high society radar, to Miss Marian Brook’s travails with being in love with someone deemed not good enough by her high society aunt, and the Countess Olenska-ish disrepute of Mrs. Chamberlain, whose only crime was being a normal human being. With so much to cover in the first season as we got to know the characters, none of these stories were given enough time, but it seems likely we’ll see these complex stories develop in season two.

  5. The Magic of the Era
    I’ll never forget watching The Age of Innocence for the first time–probably the exact moment I fell in love with period drama–and feeling that sense of wonder at the everyday magic of this bygone era. I felt like The Gilded Age did that very well, from the grandeur of the Russell home, to the mystique and charm of Newport and the wonder of moments like Edison lighting up the New York Times building. While the show doesn’t quite reach the “eye candy” magnificence of The Age of Innocence or even Downton Abbey, there’s still plenty to ogle with the beautiful sets and unusual costumes. Which brings me to…

    The One Thing I’m on the Fence About
    I think all period drama fans can probably agree that costumes are one of the best things about a period drama, but now and then you come across a show or movie that tries to buck the system costume-wise. Sometimes it works, like in Bridgerton, which had a beautiful alternate historical sensibility to it, and other times it just feels anachronistic. At first that’s how I felt about some of the costumes in The Gilded Age. The colors seemed too rich, the styles seemed bonkers compared to what I’ve usually seen depicted for that era. I was definitely feeling weird about a lot of the costume choices. But then I looked at some of the V&A collection for that era, along with some fashion plates, and videos like this one, and it turns out the costumes weren’t as out there as I thought. In fact, in terms of style and color, many of the colors and styles were spot-on. Others were a bit outdated, but that seemed to be an intentional choice. The actual inaccuracies (things like back-closing day bodices) were things I didn’t know enough about to notice.

    So, if you’re a period drama fan and enjoy things like Downton Abbey and The Age of Innocence, I definitely recommend checking out The Gilded Age on HBO. And the best news is it’s already been renewed for season two!

“I Don’t Read YA…”

One of my bookish pet peeves is when people proudly declare that they don’t read a particular genre or type of fiction. “I don’t read romance/YA/comic books/memoirs/…” Weird flex, but okay?

I firmly believe people should read–and not read–whatever they want without judgement from others. But taking pride in what we don’t read (and haughtily announcing it as often as possible) just comes across like we’re calling people idiots if they do read it.

Maybe I’m extra sensitive to it because I’m a big fan of YA books, and next to steamy romance, there’s no category that gets more guff. People get so catty about how they don’t read YA… like it makes them better than people who do. Whether these people have ever actually read YA or not, they’re usually completely off the mark about what YA is about.

If you don’t know, Young Adult (aka “YA”) is a marketing category for books that target readers in the 12 to 18 age range. The key word, however, is “targeting” which doesn’t mean “exclusively for.” It just means books in this category have wide appeal in that age range and are age-appropriate. Vegetable cookbooks have wide appeal for vegetarians and are vegetarian-appropriate, but that doesn’t mean meat-eaters won’t enjoy the recipes.

But why would adults enjoy juvenile stories and simplistic writing?” Why wouldn’t they? But also, that’s not what most YA books are like. In fact, the moral complexity of themes explored in YA rivals that of adult fiction, and the backdrops of these stories are often anything but simplistic. Right now I’m reading a YA contemporary romance called Pride by Ibi Zoboi. It’s a Pride and Prejudice retelling that tackles cultural identity, class, and gentrification in an Afro-Latino neighborhood in Brooklyn–and, yes, it’s YA. I’ve read sweeping YA fantasies set in dark and gritty worlds that ask complicated questions about trauma, vengeance, and finding justice in an unjust world. And YA urban fantasies that take on the power of myth and the complexity of family. One of my favorite YA sci-fi series is set in a terraformed universe with cities reminiscent of Blade Runner and wild frontiers like something out of Firefly, that examines corporate power and corruption along with class struggles, survival, trust, and culpability. So, yeah… YA novels are more complex than they get credit for, but that’s actually beside the point.

What I really wanted to say here is that everything isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. If teenage crime bosses, 17-year-old heart-of-gold hackers, myth-obsessed treasure hunting high schoolers, and young survivalists who aren’t as human as they think they are isn’t your cup of tea, that’s fine, but why wear it like a badge of superiority? Same with any genre or category of fiction whether it’s steamy romances or comic books or celebrity memoirs. It’s okay if you don’t like something, but, don’t be snippy about it. Y’know… let people enjoy things?

Book Review: Black Ice by Julia Blake

Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

When I heard Julia Blake was writing a steampunk retelling of Snow White, I thought two things:

  1. “Steampunk” isn’t the first thing I think of when I think “Snow White…”
  2. OMFG THIS IS GOING TO BE FUN!

And IT WAS!

Julia Blake is a master at crafting intriguing but believable settings, and filling them with vibrant characters you can’t help but adore. With the Dwarvians of Black Ice, in particular, I fell in love completely and genuinely wanted to be part of their close-knit band. Completely humble-yet-swoonworthy Ronin, sweet old Arden and wise old Grein, lovable young Eli, no-nonsense Kylah, the lovely and talented Fae, brooding and mysterious Nylex, and the wise and cunning Greta… all so unique and well rendered, they came completely to life in my head.

So often with fantasy, it feels like more effort is put into the world building than the actual plot, but that isn’t the case here. Julia Blake excels at balancing plot and setting, giving the reader a strong sense of the story’s world without letting it overwhelm everything else. The Five Kingdoms was a fascinating land with a natural and believable back story, including the rise of the dangerous and power-hungry Contratulum and its surprising counterparts, which made for unusual and intriguing villains.

The twisting and turning plot kept me turning the pages, and I absolutely loved the low-tech meets high-tech sensibility created by the steampunk technology. It was all woven into the plot in a way that felt so natural and believable, it was steampunk in the truest sense.

If you’re a fan of sweeping fantasies, adventure-filled steampunk, ensemble casts, or fairy tale retellings, this is a book you’ll definitely want to pick up!

5 Things That Motivate Me When Things Aren’t Great

I hoped to start 2021 with a post about big plans for the year. The stressors of 2020 felt like water under the bridge, and I was sure things would be better. Then January actually happened, and my 2020 stress levels were back in spades. The good news is I had all year to figure out how to make progress even when I’m stressed out of my gourd, so here are some of my favorite tips. I hope they help you, too!

#1 Writing Space Ambience – One thing I learned in 2020 is that having a cozy, welcoming writing space makes all the difference when I’m stressed out but I need to focus. Sometimes just turning on my fairy lights and glitter lamp, putting a candle on the warmer, and turning on some soft music is enough to bring me out from under the storm clouds long enough to get some work done. Wherever you do your writing, anything you can do to cozy it up can help!

#2 Relaxing Music – I’ve always been a fan of putting music on when I work, but I only recently discovered “Cafe Music” or “Coffee Jazz,” which is soft jazz, slow or lightly upbeat, like you’d expect to hear in a chic modern coffee shop. There are many YouTube channels offering a variety of options. Cafe Music BGM and Relax Cafe Music are two of my favorites.

#3 Ambience Rooms & Ambient Music – Sometimes I need to work on a scene and soft jazz isn’t going to cut it. Ambience rooms are YouTube videos with themed music and imagery. Need to write a scene set on a stormy coast, a wizard’s study, or the great hall of a drafty castle? No problem! These videos rose in popularity because of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, but they’re great for writers, too. Check out Michael Ghelfi – RPG Ambiences & Music, The Vault of Ambience, and Ambient Worlds. If you’re looking for relaxing music with a touch of ambient sound, channels to try are Cozy Autumn and Fantasy & World Music by the Fiechters.

#4 Writing, Planning, & Bookish Vlogs – There are days when things are too bonkers for me to get words on the page, but I still want to be productive. On these days I’m super thankful for YouTube vloggers who put together helpful, relaxing, and fun to watch videos. Writing tips, publishing advice, planner layouts and “plan with me” videos, book reviews, countdowns and lists… and get this, CLEAN WITH ME! I find these all incredibly motivating. Even if I’m not in a working mood, I can fill my head with all sorts of helpful things or just get a motivation boost. A few current authorly favorites are Heart Breathings, Writing with Jenna Moreci, Hannah Lee Kidder, WriteHollyDavis, and Author Brittany Wang.

#5 My Kanban Board Planner – This is the one I’m the most excited to share! One of the best things I learned on the Heart Breathings vlog (and a big hat tip to my CP Elle for first mentioning it to me) was about “kanban boards,” which in simple terms is a board that helps you keep track of the tasks needed to complete your goals. Sarra at Heart Breathings uses a dry erase board in three sections (to do, in progress, and completed), but I don’t have room for a whole board, so made one in an old Happy Planner!

I used a hard cover and three sets of the laminated covers. The inside of each set equals one board. The end result is super compact but does the job perfectly. I don’t have the post-its/tasks filled out just yet, but even just looking at it makes me feel motivated to get work done.

And that’s my first blog for 2021! Hoping to have a new “5 Things” blog and possibly a book review for February, so keep an eye out and have a great month!

Book Review: Knight in Paper armor by Nicholas Conley

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

I was intrigued by the blurb of Knight in Paper Armor, which promised a dystopian thriller with unusual characters battling familiar humanitarian issues and a villain that sounds shockingly believable in the modern landscape of corporate greed over human welfare. On that promise, this book delivered in spades. The story and setting were imaginative and compelling, and the two main characters were unique and well rendered. It’s so unusual to read about a Jewish protagonist outside of historical fiction, and even more unusual in speculative fiction, so that added many interesting layers to the story. It was fascinating to learn as the author shared details from his own cultural background, explored the lasting cultural trauma of the Holocaust, and also examined shared themes and parallels between the treatment of Jewish Americans and Latinx immigrants.

While I enjoyed the premise, setting, and characters, some of the prose lacked the oomph I was hoping for and I struggled with the dialogue, which didn’t feel natural to me. There was a lot of “man,” “bro,” “dude,” and “like,” even from small children, which consistently pulled me out of the story. There were some logic disconnects for me as well, but that’s on me, not the author. Overall, I thought this was a really different, fascinating take on one version of a future that could await us if we don’t decide to put humanity before greed.