The Monday Check-In ~ 5/25/2020

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

This is a first for me — I attended a Zoom wedding!

Sunday was the original wedding date, then the couple decided to cancel about a month ago in light of the health crisis, and then decided to go forward and include friends and family via Zoom! The bride and groom and their parents were present, the rabbi officiated via Zoom, and they had a few other close family members present, plus about 120 Zoom logins. It was actually so sweet!

What did I read during the last week?

Beach Read by Emily Henry: Really enjoyable love story with a light touch. My review is here.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner: Austen-inspired historical fiction set in post-war England. My review is here.

Pop culture & TV:

Netflix kept me busy every night! First, my son finally convinced me to jump on the Tiger King bandwagon…

So weird, So disturbing. But so hard to look away from!

On a lighter note, I decided that now would be the perfect time to go back and watch a show I see through to the end:

I watched season 1 of Jane the Virgin back when it aired, and really liked it… so why didn’t I keep up with it and continue watching? Probably just too much TV, too little time. Anyway, I’ve picked back up with season 2, and I’m loving it. It’s so over the top, and that what makes it so much fun.

Fresh Catch:

I had some Amazon credits, and naturally had to spend them all immediately:

Hurray for book mail! I’ve already read Chosen Ones, but really wanted my own copy, and can’t wait to read the rest!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson: This is fun! I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across this book on my own, but then I read Reading Tonic’s review, and just had to give it a try.

Now playing via audiobook:

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor: The sequel to Akata Witch, which I really loved. Sadly, I was so slammed with work this week that I only managed to get outside for walks a couple of days, and that means I barely had chances to listen to my audiobook. I’m making progress, but sloooooooowly.

Ongoing reads:

Laughter at the Academy by Seanan McGuire: If I had a dollar for every time I’ve mentioned that I’m not a short story reader… well, I’d have a lot more dollars than I do now! Laughter at the Academy is a story collection from one of my favorite authors, so I can’t NOT read it. But knowing how I tune out if I read too many short stories in a row, I’ve decided to take a slow but steady approach, and I’m trying to read just one or two stories each day. And so far, these are excellent! Content warning, though — Seanan McGuire loves to write about world-ending diseases, so now is kind of a freaky time to be reading some of these. Still, I’m delighted to be reading this book finally (I bought it last fall), and I’m just a wee bit proud of myself for sticking with it!

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: Why is this still on my ongoing reads list? I’m now five chapters behind, and I don’t see myself getting any closer to catching up with my book group’s reading schedule any time soon. But… I’m just not ready to walk away completely!

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Book Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Title: The Jane Austen Society
Author: Natalie Jenner
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: May 26, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

The Jane Austen Society is historical fiction set in post-war England, in the small town of Chawton. The main estate of the village has been in the Knight family for generations, and centuries earlier, became the home of Jane Austen’s brother and Jane herself.

But after World War II, the last remaining members of the Knight family are Frances Knight, a woman in her 40s who never leaves her home, and her ailing, elderly, unpleasant father. With Mr. Knight’s demise looming, the future of the estate is at risk — and if the estate passes out of the family hands, so too will the priceless objects and books that once belonged to Jane Austen.

The characters of the book all seem to have some sort of special connection to Jane Austen, her fiction, and her memory. Through their love of her fiction, the various characters find common ground, and ultimately band together to find a way to save the cottage that was once Jane’s home and to preserve the books that were an important part of her life.

As these people form the Jane Austen Society, we get to know them as individuals as well. There’s the widowed doctor who may be ready for love again, the young war bride who suffers unimaginable loss, the local farmer who never got to pursue his dreams of higher learning, and the teen-aged girl whose passion for Austen leads to some truly amazing discoveries.

And then there’s the outsider, a Hollywood star whose love for Jane Austen and her admiration of the author’s works and life inspire her to imagine a different sort of career and life for herself, other than being a property of the studios who want to make money off of her beauty — but only until she ages out of starlet status.

I enjoyed The Jane Austen Society and its characters, but I can’t say that I felt particularly invested. The story develops slowly, and it was only at around the midpoint that I started to feel any sort of excitement building.

This is a quiet sort of story, and it’s lovely to see how these very different group of people, all suffering and struggling to recover from loss after the war, find new purpose and connection through their love of literature. I really enjoyed all of their conversations about the meaning they find in Austen’s works, which characters they most relate to, and how the characters’ actions help them understand elements of their own life.

I wished for something more, somehow. It’s a sweet book, but just lacked a real oomph as far as I was concerned. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It was a nice read, and I didn’t mind it a bit, but I also couldn’t quite care very strongly about the stakes or how the various personal entanglements would all work out.

The Jane Austen Society is a good choice for fans of historical fiction, and of course, for fans of Jane Austen! And after reading this book, I’m feeling the need to go reread a little Austen myself… maybe Persuasion or Mansfield Park this time around?

Opinion: I’m tired of creepy people on Goodreads

Stop. Just, please stop.

This is getting out of hand.

Okay, deep breaths.

When I first joined Goodreads, my friends list consisted of people who were really and truly my friends, or friends of friends — for the most part, people I knew in real life in some way, or who had an actual connection to me.

Over the years, especially since I started blogging, my friends list has expanded, and that’s usually quite fun. I love seeing what everyone else is reading (yes, I’m that person on the airplane who looks at everyone else’s book as she walks down the aisle), and I love getting feedback and ideas and inspiration from the people I meet.

BUT… has anyone else noticed lately the proliferation of creepy people who seem to think Goodreads is a hook-up site?

My policy over the last couple of years has been to accept all Goodreads friend requests, because why not? The more, the merrier! We’re all book lovers, after all, so why not be friends?

Except now I find that at least every couple of weeks, I’ll accept a friend request only to get a follow up message that creeps me out. Like the one that arrived today:

You are truly a beautiful woman. Honestly I will like to be your good friend. 

Um. Thanks? But no.

Here’s one from a couple of weeks ago:

Are you on hangout so we can have a good time and good privacy for ourselves

Ick.

There are also bunches of more innocuous messages, that all seem to be variations on Joey Tribbiani:

Not casting aspersions based on gender or anything… but 100% of the creepy Goodreads messages, as well as the “how you doing” messages, are from men. Make of that what you will.

I’m just ignoring for now. If I pretend not to see them, maybe they’ll go away? If anyone really crosses a line (or if I end up seeing something I deem offensive on their profile), I’ll delete them… but otherwise, I’ve mostly just been shrugging and moving on.

It does feel like these kind of messages are showing up more frequently lately. Maybe everyone is just at home with more time on their hands these days? For whatever reason, it’s often enough that I’m starting to get annoyed.

So….

Anyone else experiencing the same thing? And if so, how do you handle it?

Book Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

Title: Beach Read
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites.

In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

Sometimes you pick up a book and it’s exactly what you need in that moment. And for me, Beach Read was it this week — as evidenced by the fact that I read it in about a day and a half, ignoring the real-world obligations nagging for my attention.

Beach Read is sweet and uplifting, but also a little heavier than you might guess from the title and the cover.

Main character January is a young, successful romance writer. She’s known for her swoony love stories and happy ending. However, she’s been thrown for a loop, and isn’t able to summon her inner belief in the power of true love — and her looming book deadline isn’t helping at all.

January’s father recently died, so she’s dealing with the loss of her incredible dad — but on top of that, at his funeral, she met That Woman. It turns out that her father had an on-again, off-again mistress for years, including during her mother’s battle with cancer. January is shattered and angry, and feels like her foundation has been swept out from under her. After all, it was her parent’s shining love story that taught her to believe in love-story-quality love — and if that was all a lie, then what is she supposed to believe? And how can she possibly write a believable love story when she’s not sure her heart will ever be in it again?

January’s father left her a beach-side bungalow in a small-town in Michigan. With her book deadline looming and a serious lack of funds, she decides to spend her summer writing at the cottage, while also cleaning, sorting, and getting it ready for sale. And the fact that this was her father’s place with That Woman is not helping in the slightest.

Also distracting is her next door neightbor, who turns out to be the revered young writer Augustus Everett — whom January knew as Gus back in their college days, when they were fierce competitors, and shared one steamy “almost” at a party.

As January and Gus reconnect, initially with resentment and animosity, they realize they’re in the same boat when it comes to lack of inspiration and dire writer’s block. Gus is battling his own inner demons and past hurts, and he can’t seem to make progress on his next book.

In the book’s central (cute) twist, they challenge each other to write each other’s genres. Gus has always mocked January’s belief in the HEA — now, he needs to find a way to see the possibility of happiness, rather than going for the gloomy conclusion. And January needs to be open to grim reality and the idea that love isn’t always perfect, that messiness and secrets and hard choices are parts of life, and that fairy tales never (rarely) come true.

Beach Read is so much fun, start to finish, but it’s not only sunshine and swooning. (But yes, there is swoon-worthy romance, to be sure.) The author has a lot to say about families and love, how the ideals of childhood can be tarnished by the realities of adulthood, how families can hurt one another but can also save one another in all sorts of different ways… and how true love doesn’t mean no one ever makes a mistakes or hurts the other person, and that sometimes love takes work, compromise, and second chances.

January and Gus have a great chemistry together, and I loved the scenes of them writing in their respective cottages, but communicating through notes held up to the window. It’s adorable — so much better than texting!

The small-town setting is charming, and there’s a wonderful bookstore, so that’s a plus! One of the central plot elements of the book is Gus and January’s series of field trips/dates, where each exposes the other to something that feels related to their own writing style and genre. So, line dancing alternates with going to the site of a tragic fire at a cult compound… and all their excursions bring them closer to each other and also give them each different insights into their own process and emotions.

The writing is cheerful and light, but the author doesn’t shy away from harder emotions. January and Gus both have baggage to deal with, and we do see their pain and confusion as they deal with the events in their lives and try to move forward.

Bonus points too for a terrific female friendship, which helps January realize that true love can also be the bond between two lifelong friends who have each other’s backs and love unconditionally.

Falling’s the part that takes your breath away. It’s the part when you can’t believe the person standing in front of you both exists and happened to wander into your path. It’s supposed to make you feel lucky to be alive, exactly when and where you are.

Beach Read is a wonderful depiction of falling in love, but also a moving exploration of the messiness that comes with growing up and facing real life and accepting the fact that parents aren’t always perfect.

As I mentioned at the start, this book came into my hands right when I needed it, and I enjoyed every minute. A great summer reading choice — and also a great way to escape our current isolation through fiction!

Shelf Control #217: The Blue Salt Road by Joanne M. Harris

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: The Blue Salt Road
Author: Joanne M. Harris
Published: 2019
Length: 215 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

An earthly nourris sits and sings
And aye she sings, “Ba lilly wean,
Little ken I my bairn’s father,
Far less the land that he staps in.
(Child Ballad, no. 113)

So begins a stunning tale of love, loss and revenge, against a powerful backdrop of adventure on the high seas, and drama on the land. The Blue Salt Road balances passion and loss, love and violence and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless, wild young man.

Passion drew him to a new world, and trickery has kept him there – without his memories, separated from his own people. But as he finds his way in this dangerous new way of life, so he learns that his notions of home, and your people, might not be as fixed as he believed.

Beautifully illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins, this is a stunning and original modern fairytale.
 

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy last year.

Why I want to read it:

This is a slim little hardcover book, and on my copy, the cover design is in silver, not white. So eye-catching! I just happened to be at my favorite bookstore one weekend and saw this book in the window, and felt completely drawn to it. I love folk tales and fairy tales, and a story about a selkie sounds just about perfect.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Top 5 Tuesday: Top 5 Opening Lines

Once again, I’m joining in with the Top 5 Tuesday meme this week! Top 5 Tuesday is hosted by Bionic Bookworm, who posts the month’s topics at the start of each month. Today’s topic is Top 5 Opening Lines. 

This is such a great topic! So many to choose from… but here are the five that come to mind for me:

1. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

2. There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

3. I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

4. Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked in to the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman

5. People disappear all the time.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

And one extra, because how can I leave out this classic?

6. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way […]
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

What are your favorite opening lines? Let me know, and please share your Top 5 link if you have one!

The Monday Check-In ~ 5/18/2020

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

Work, work, work. Who said remote work was relaxing? Apart from getting to wear sweatpants all day, every day, I swear I’m more stressed working remotely than I ever was in my actual office.

But yeah, the sweatpants will be hard to give up when and if we finally return to on-site work.

And hey, here’s my puzzle for the week! Cute, right?

Sorry for the glare — it’s  super-detailed bookstore, with really adorable and funny book titles and all sorts of adorable little details. (I’d try to get a better picture, but I already took it apart.)

What did I read during the last week?

If It Bleeds by Stephen King: Fabulous collection of four novellas. My review is here.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane: My book group’s book for May (and yes, I finished on time!). My review is here.

Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski: Terrific audiobook! A must for Witcher fans — my review is here.

Pop culture — Outlander, season 5:

Ha ha, made you look! Season 5 of Outlander ended last week, so this was my first week since February without a new episode to watch. I guess it’s time to say good-bye for now and settle in for the next long Droughtlander.

Other TV watching:

I had fun doing a binge-watch of Dead to Me, season 2. Maybe not quite as funny and surprising as the first season, but still really enjoyable, and it left me wanting more.

I wrote up my thoughts on the season finale of Survivor: Winners at War, here.

Fresh Catch:

Two exciting new books this week:

My awesome daughter sent me this book for Mother’s Day! It’s gorgeous.

And… after finishing If It Bleeds (as a library e-book loan), I really felt like I needed my own copy, and luckily, I had an unused Amazon giftcard sitting on my desk just begging for some attention! The book arrived on Friday. The cover image (above) looks kind of flat-orangey, but in person, it’s got a bit of a gold glittery-ness to it. Very cool. (Also, I hadn’t noticed until I had the book in my hand that the cat face actually has a rat instead of a nose, and now I wish I’d never seen it! Eek.)

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Beach Read by Emily Henry: I’m LOVING this book. I tore through about half today, and stopped only because (big surprise) I needed to get some work done.

Now playing via audiobook:

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor: The sequel to Akata Witch, which I really loved. I’m just getting started, but it’s great so far!

Ongoing reads:

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: I was within one chapter of being all caught up with my book group… and now I’m three chapters behind again. Boo.

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Title: Ask Again, Yes
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: May 28,2019
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

How much can a family forgive?

A profoundly moving novel about two neighboring families in a suburban town, the bond between their children, a tragedy that reverberates over four decades, the daily intimacies of marriage, and the power of forgiveness.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, two rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne—sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Francis and Lena’s daughter, Kate, and Brian and Anne’s son, Peter. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while tested by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

In Ask Again, Yes, we follow the trajectories of two families over the years, seeing how their connections follow them and affect their entire lives.

Kate and Peter, born within months of each other, grow up as next door neighbors and best friends. Their fathers served on the police force together, and the families’ background are entwined in shared history and parallel origins. For Kate and Peter, they have no memory of life without the other. But a tragic, violent incident when they’re fourteen shatters both families’ lives, and cuts short the romantic relationship just starting to bloom between Kate and Peter.

Ask Again, Yes traces the roots of the family dynamics at play, and then follows Kate and Peter as their lives diverge and then come back together.

There’s a lot to unpack here — themes of mental illness, alcoholism and addiction, infidelity, parenthood and abandonment, the ups and downs of a long marriage — and yet, the story for the most part left me cold.

This story of family and suburban drama covers a lot of years, but feels diffuse somehow. The POV shifts between characters, so we view events through Kate and Peter’s eyes, but also through the experiences of their parents and others. Perhaps as a result, we often don’t stick with one character long enough to see an event through, and there seem to be some odd choices in terms of which events we experience in detail and which only get referred to in passing or in summary.

There are certainly some tragic occurrences, and places where tragedy could possibly have been avoided if appropriate mental health resources had either been available or sought out. I never really bought into the central love story between Kate and Peter, and the troubles they experience later in their marriage felt sort of shoe-horned in for me.

I read Ask Again, Yes as a book group read, and I’m thinking that I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up on my own. That said, the relationships are complex and thought-provoking — it’s simply not my preferred subject matter, and the writing didn’t engage or move me.

Still, I look forward to the book group discussion later this week. Maybe I’ll find more to appreciate once I hear what my book friends have to say about it!

Audiobook Review: Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: Sword of Destiny
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 58 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety.

In this collection of short stories, following the adventures of the hit collection THE LAST WISH, join Geralt as he battles monsters, demons and prejudices alike…

Ready to toss another coin to your Witcher?

Geralt is back! In this second collection of Witcher stories, Geralt of Rivia once more battles monsters, saves people who can’t save themselves, fights his inner demons — love and destiny — and returns again and again to the people who are central to his life.

This set of six stories covers a lot of ground, some already familiar from the Netflix series, some new to me, and all delightful. As with the previous collection, The Last Wish, there are some fairy tale references included that make these stories extra fun.

While each story stands on its own, there are key characters (Dandelion, Yennefer, Ciri) who appear repeatedly. While the stories seem to be presented roughly chronologically, they’re only loosely connected — yet I’m guessing as a whole that they’re important in laying the groundwork for the novels that come next in the book series.

As for the stories themselves, the book opens with the wonderful The Bounds of Reason, which corresponds to the 6th episode of the TV series, “Rare Species”, aka the one about the dragons. The plotline isn’t exactly the same, but the main points hold true, and it’s awfully fun.

There’s also a story that focuses on Geralt and Yennefer, a story set in Brokilon Forest where Geralt and Ciri meet for the first time, a Little Mermaid-ish tale, and more. Throughout, the recurring theme is Geralt’s struggle to understand destiny — does it exist? Are we obligated to follow it? Is destiny enough to bring two people together, or does it require something more?

I had the pleasure of listening to the audiobook, as I did with The Last Wish, and I loved it. Narrator Peter Kenny does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. I just love his voice for Geralt, although all are quite good, and even when there’s a crowd scene or a big action sequence, there’s never any doubt who’s speaking.

As an added plus, the narrator SINGS in the story about a mermaid, since that’s what mermaid language sounds like. It’s amazing.

Now that I’ve finished Sword of Destiny, I abolutely intend to continue with the series, and most likely I’ll stick with audiobooks. Blood of Elves is up next. Can’t wait!

TV Time: Survivor Season 40, “Winners At War”

Survivor’s 40th season ended this week. 40 seasons! Can you believe it? Now, I haven’t watched every single one and I in no way claim to be an expert, but as someone who watches the show week in and week out, I thought I’d chime in today and share my thoughts on the season and the winner.

First, my Survivor history: I watched Survivor season one twenty years ago, when it was new and different, when we all thought we were watching a show about actual survival that quickly became a show about alliances and social strategy. I know I watched at least one more season (Australia), but let it fade out of my life after that. I didn’t return to Survivor again until 2011, for season 24, “One World” — I was looking for something fun and different to watch with my 9-year-old son, and this worked for us! And I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every season since.

Back to season 40: With “Winners at War”, Survivor brought back 20 previous winners, some who’ve played multiple times, some who appeared only once but managed to win and make a big impression. Some of these players are Survivor gods by now — who hasn’t heard of Parvati or Tyson or Boston Rob? For a lot of Survivor winners — and even non-winners who are extremely popular with fans — Survivor celebrity can be a career all on its own.

It was, I thought, a pretty cool concept to bring back all these winners and let them battle it out. There were a bunch of old-school winners (Rob, Sandra, Parvati, Yul, etc), and plenty of newer winners too. I liked the idea, and I liked seeing these Survivor icons thrown together in new and different ways. And yes, I liked the awkwardness too, like when Nick confessed that Parvati was his Survivor crush way back when.

BUT… the game design itself this time around had serious flaws, and these came close to ruining the whole season for me.

For the 2nd time, Survivor included the ridiculous Edge of Extinction twist, only this time, it wasn’t a surprise. In normal seasons, when someone is voted out, that’s it — they’re gone. Well, unless they’re voted out post-merge, in which case they become a jury member. Still, there’s a very clear distinction. Either you’re in, or you’re out. The tribe has spoken.

With Edge of Extinction, voted-out players get sent to a different island, where they basically just sit around, occasionally compete for rewards, and wait for a chance to get back into the game. Mostly, they seem bored, and spend a lot of time talking about how tough they have it. These players all form the jury, so while they’re not playing with the remaining active players, they’re watching every Tribal Council and keeping up with the ins and outs of gameplay.

And then, the EoE players get two chances to return to the game — through challenges that happen about midway through (Tyson won, only to get voted out again pretty quickly), and three days before the end. And man, do I have a problem with this! More on that in a minute.

The other twist this season was the introduction of Fire Tokens, described as a “Survivor currency”. As players win rewards, they also earn these tokens, which can be spent on luxury items (like blankets or peanut butter) or saved to gain advantages down the road.

The fire tokens became a part of the interplay between EoE players and the players still in the game. Someone on EoE could sell an advantage to an active player, or extort them by demanding payment of tokens in order to avoid a disadvantage. The absolutely worst part of the fire tokens was being able to use them to gain advantages in the battle-back competition.

Here’s why:

As the voted-out players spent time on EoE, there were numerous opportunities to gain tokens. The longer you’re there, the more chances there are. So a player who managed to last in the main game until day 30 had almost no chance to get any sort of advantage to re-enter the game, versus someone voted out early on, who spent weeks gathering tokens as rewards.

In season 38, a player who reentered from EoE ended up winning the game, and it was a controversial win for sure. This person may have lasted a long time, but did he actually play the game?

Here, in season 40, it was even worse. Natalie, voted out on day 2 of the game, the very first person voted out, spent 30+ days on Edge of Extinction. She won a ton of challenges over there and collected more fire tokens than any other player. She had all those weeks to bond with every other voted-out player, all of whom were jury members, to observe the main game from her own jury seat, and to never have to worry about getting removed from play permanently.

When it came time for the final battle-back challenge, Natalie used her token to buy herself three advantages in the challenge plus an immunity idol to bring back into the game with her if she won.

And if you ask me — that’s ridiculous! Having someone have major advantages like that at such a key moment is just out and out unfair. If I were any of the other players trying to get back in, I’d be frustrated and mad as hell. Naturally, Natalie won, and then tried to dominate the few days left by using her idol and spreading (possibly false) info that everyone on the Edge was saying Tony would absolutely win — hoping to use this as a lever to break up his alliance and get the others to turn against him.

Natalie’s reentry into the game was a disruption that didn’t seem fair or right. The other remaining players at that point had survived through challenges, social gameplay, and numerous tribal councils. I just really don’t like the concept of a voted-out player being able to re-enter so late in the game and stand a chance of winning — and especially being able to re-enter with an idol already in her pocket.

The final three ended up being Natalie, Michelle, and Tony. As I’ve said, I don’t think Natalie deserved a place there at all, and the fact that she lasted at EoE while hanging out with the rest of the jury didn’t seem like it could possibly justify handing her any votes to win.

I’ve never like Michelle as a player. I didn’t think she deserved her first win against Aubry, and I didn’t see her doing much of anything worthwhile in this game aside from lacking enough presence as a player to make anyone else want to target her. Yes, she lasted, but she didn’t actually do anything other than winning immunity at a couple of key times.

As for Tony — well, honestly, I’m delighted he won. I would have loved to see both him and Sarah at the final tribal, either with Ben or Denise. Now that would have been a showdown! This, by the way, is why I feel that the process is flawed when it comes to the end. There’s got to be a way that’s better than a fire-making challenge for determining the final three. Maybe when it’s down to four, you have one person win immunity, then let the remaining three battle it out for the next two spots? Otherwise, the one who wins that particular immunity challenge gets an outsized amount of power.

I hate seeing weak players at final tribal, with great players voted out (or eliminated by fire) in the 4th or 5th position. I get it — you want to win, so you try to make sure you’re sitting next to someone you can beat. But wouldn’t it be cool to have three amazing players at the end, each with a really strong argument to pitch to the jury?

I was sad to see Sarah out of the competition — but was practically in tears myself watching Tony and Sarah hug and share “I love you”s.

Tony was the right winner. He’s a delight to watch, no doubt about it. His crazy antics keep the show entertaining and surprising. How can you not love a guy who perches in a tree for hours? And actually, one of my favorite moments was earlier on when he helped Sarah infiltrate the other team’s camp to find an advantage. They were an amazing duo!

A favorite Tony moment

As for Edge of Extinction, I’ve seen a bunch of speculation that the producers basically had to do this in order to lure back the big-time former winners. I guess no one wants to come back with all the hoopla around this season and then get voted out right away. Still, I think it’s a weird and unnecessary addition to the game, it eats up airtime (and isn’t all that interesting), and it upsets the game dynamic, but in a negative (not creative) way. I’m hoping they do away with both EoE and fire tokens in future seasons!

Kudos, however, to Survivor production for going all-out with this season’s loved ones visit, which usually is super hokey. This time around, they brought not just one family member, but the entire family for each player. Yup, more waterworks as I watched all the various competitors dissolve into mom and dad tears as their kids ran out for hugs! So sweet, and I loved that unlike other seasons, everyone got to spend time with their families, not just the winners of a challenge.

Overall, it was a really fun season, and it was great to see some old-time players back in the game. Of course, I did feel like I was missing out by not knowing some of the “classic” winners… so maybe I should “challenge” myself to use my shelter-in-place time to watch some older seasons.

No matter how many seasons of Survivor I watch, I always end up hooked. Here’s to many more! Hopefully, next season’s final episode won’t be hosted out of Jeff Probst’s garage.

And hey, a question for my fellow Survivor fans out there: If I were going to go back and watch an old season for the first time, which do you recommend, and why?