My Favorite Things with Kelly McCarty

They might not be raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens, but that doesn’t mean that we love them any less. Welcome back to My Favorite Things, the weekly column where we grab someone in speculative circles to gab about the greatest in geek. This week we sit down with our avid reader and Speculative Chic contributor Kelly McCarty. What does she love when she’s not raiding the library for new books? Spoiler alert: the variation of life (after life after life), a modern take on a classic fairy tale, smart but stupid science fiction cartoons, and cakes. So many cakes. Curious? Read on for more!

On a snowy winter’s night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born in England and dies from the umbilical cord wrapping around her neck. She dies from drowning, a fall off the roof, and the influenza pandemic of 1918. She marries an abusive man. Ursula dies in the Blitz, has an affair with married naval officer, and stays in Adolph Hitler’s mountaintop retreat with his mistress. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson allows Ursula to live out every possible version of her life. It’s intriguing to see how seemingly minor choices alter the entire trajectory of Ursula’s life. I often find myself wondering, “What if I had zigged instead of zagged?” about my own life, so the novel was inherently appealing to me. Part of the reason that the concept works so well is that Ursula lives through some of the most significant events of the 20th century. I love historical fiction and World War II is my favorite time period. Before I read Life After Life, I knew that London was bombed during World War II but Atkinson made me feel like I was there. Atkinson also creates memorable characters. Ursula is the star of the novel but the minor characters are just as compelling. Hugh and Sylvie, her parents, are quintessentially British. In 1934, Sylvie describes the Third Reich as a “fuss” and calls Hitler a clown. Ursula’s eccentric, bohemian aunt, Izzie, is an early feminist and an important influence on her. Miss Woolf is a stalwart matron who oversees rescue efforts after bombings who tells Ursula, “We must get on with our jobs and we must bear witness. We must remember these people when we are safely in the future” (p.390). I have read this 523 page book three times, and I regret that I will never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. If you like unique premises and historical fiction, you should give Life After Life a chance.

Continuing with the World War II theme, Briar Rose by Jane Yolen uses a fairy tale to illustrate the horrors of the Holocaust. The slim but powerful novel harkens back to the original versions of fairy tales that were gruesome, dark, and not at all suitable for Disney. Becca and her sisters grew up hearing her beloved grandmother, Gemma, retell the story of Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty, except in Gemma’s version, only the princess wakes up. Just before her death, Gemma tells Becca, “I am Briar Rose” and makes her promise to find the prince and the castle. Gemma’s past is incredibly mysterious. Her own daughter, Becca’s mother, doesn’t even know her real name or what year she came to the United States. Becca travels to Poland and uses her skills as a journalist to learn what happened to Gemma during the war.

Gemma’s story is all the more horrendous because it is based on reality. Everyone has heard of the concentration camp Auschwitz but most people do not know about the Nazi extermination camps Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, although well over a million people died there. These were pure death camps, and there were almost no survivors left to tell the stories. The most poignant part of Briar Rose is the last sentence of the author’s note that reads, “I know of no woman who escaped from Chelmno alive” (p. 186). I appreciate the way that Yolen brought some of the most horrific events of the Holocaust to life, but I also loved the beautiful relationship between Gemma and Becca. Gemma’s love for her granddaughters is a testament to her will as a survivor. The novel reminds me of the importance of grandparents and their ability to make the past come alive again. Briar Rose is a part of The Fairy Tale Series, a collection of novels based on classic fairy tales for adults, created and edited by Terri Windling. I am gravely disappointed that Briar Rose is the only one my local library carries, but I enjoyed it so much that I may take the initiative to buy the other books.

On a lighter note, another speculative thing that I have enjoyed recently is the cult favorite cartoon show Rick and Morty. This unique science fiction show has aliens, portal guns that let you travel through time and space, and multiverses galore. The basic premise is that Rick, a genius scientist, takes his grandson, Morty, on a series of intergalactic adventures. It all sounds very wholesome, except that Rick is a narcissistic alcoholic who regularly risks Morty’s life for no reason. The tagline for season three was “Only a show this smart could be so stupid,” and it is an odd combination of juvenile and philosophical that somehow really works. In the episode “Pickle Rick,” Rick literally turns himself into a pickle to get out of going to family therapy. In my favorite episode of season three, “The Ricklantis Mixup,” the show goes to an alternate universe solely populated by versions of Rick and Morty to explore police brutality and government corruption. Rick and Morty features a character named Mr. Poopy Butthole and an episode where Rick tells Morty, “I hate to break it to you but what people call ‘love’ is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage. I did it. Your parents are going to do it. Break the cycle, Morty. Rise above. Focus on science.” There are so many speculative fiction television shows that require you to read an entire series of books or comic books to really be in the loop or if you miss one episode, you’ll be completely lost. I stopped watching Game of Thrones because it felt like a chore. The great thing about Rick and Morty is that you can jump right in and watch the episodes out of order. I didn’t start watching it until the second season. I also appreciate that the show is available on basic cable because lately it feels like every speculative fiction show is on a different subscription service (Starz, Hulu, Netflix, HBO) that costs extra.

I practically jumped for joy when I learned that we could include a non-speculative favorite. Although reading is my first and truest love, I also have a passion for baking. The weight of my cookbook collection has collapsed my bookshelves — twice. My favorite is Grandbaby Cakes, an all cake cookbook, by Jocelyn Delk Adams. I learned to love baking from my maternal grandmother, June, so I enjoyed the stories that Adams includes about her mother, aunts, and grandmother, Big Mama. I cannot stand a cookbook with no pictures, so I appreciate that nearly every recipe has a photo. Pound cakes are my favorite and this book has an entire chapter devoted to them. The German Chocolate Pound Cake and the Seven-Flavor Pound Cake are both excellent. Novice bakers will appreciate easy recipes like Cookies and Cream Gooey Cake that can be made with boxed cake mix and ‘Nana Pudding Tiramisu Cake that is basically just layering ingredients. If you love spending time in the kitchen, you will want to try the more challenging recipes like Real Deal Caramel Cake with a caramel that takes an hour and a half to cook and Strawberry Sundae Cake that requires homemade ice cream. The cookbook contains the chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry recipes you would expect, but it also has more unique flavors like peach cobbler, roasted raspberry, fig, and arnold palmer (sweet tea/lemonade). My father may be the first person in history to be sent to rehab for being a chocoholic. Every time I make something without chocolate, he says, “Well, it’s good but it’s not chocolate.” If you take the cake from the insanely delicious Mississippi Mudslide Cake and the whipped chocolate frosting from the Classic Yellow Cake, you get my dad’s favorite chocolate cake of all time. If you love to bake or you’re looking for a show-stopping cake for the holidays, you need to get Grandbaby Cakes.

Kelly McCarty is a graduate of Hollins University who has lived in Roanoke, Virginia her entire life. She is a reading addict who crushes the 50 Book Challenge every year. Her favorite book of all-time is Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. She loves to bake and describes herself as “the kind of girl that any man would love to have — as a grandmother.” Her work has been published in Paprika Southern magazine.


  • Shara White November 27, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    I’ve had Life after Life on my list for a while. One of these days….

    • Kelly McCarty November 27, 2017 at 3:17 pm

      I think anyone who likes historical fiction will really enjoy Life After Life. I feel like it is one of those “speculative fiction books for people who don’t usually like speculative fiction,” if that makes any sense.

  • Weasel of Doom November 27, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    I, too, love “Life After Life”. Have you read “A God in Ruins”, Kelly?

    • Kelly McCarty November 27, 2017 at 3:20 pm

      I did read A God in Ruins, and although it’s worth reading, it is a bit of a disappointment compared to Life After Life. I’m not sure you could actually call A God in Ruins speculative because it’s more of a straightforward story but I loved the characters in Life After Life so much that it was nice to revisit them.


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