Who says all reality shows are fake? They have very much adapted to the needs of our reality. In the aughts, the networks were littered with cutthroat competitions. Now, in 2020, the year that nearly broke every last one of us, reality TV has taken a kinder turn, with gentle competitions full of nice, talented people.
If you’re looking for some reads that capture that same joie de vivre—the same warm blanket of decency—here are some curated picks based on your favorite gentle reality show.
If you like The Great British Baking Show:
Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg
As any technical challenge will illustrate, baking is not without its travails (Sussex Pond Puddings, anyone?). But every showstopper shows us baking also can be magic. As its title suggests, Holmberg’s Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet features that same mix of darkness and light. Maire has a gift; though she doesn’t know why, she can infuse her baked treats with feelings and abilities. When she’s captured by marauders, she’s given bizarre baking tasks and slowly begins to unravel her past.
If you like Nailed It!:
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
Some of the things that host Nicole Byer and judge Jacques Torres have had to stuff down their gullet are truly wild. The same can be said of the sourdough starter Lois Clary is gifted. Lois is not a baker, but the sourdough culture she has is not exactly the norm either. With some unusual TLC, Lois is soon making bread, and it’s dang good. But when she makes a move to join the farmer’s market, she finds herself in a much more bizarre, more sinister situation.
If you like The Big Flower Fight:
Botanicum by Katie Scott and Katie Haworth
Watching artists on the ridiculously exuberant The Big Flower Fight sculpt with flowers and various types of flora is a feast for the eyes. The closest reading experience I can think of is this coffee table book that will continue your botanical education experience. Gorgeous, full-page illustrations are paired with vividly written descriptions of the plant life pictured.
If you like Tidying Up with Marie Kondo:
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
Organizing queen Marie Kondo famously delights in mess. While I do not know whether Gay could also find delight in your stacked-to-the-ceiling closet, his essay collection celebrates the small joys of life. This is not an exercise in toxic positivity but a meditation on the joyful moments that come even amid life’s complexities and terrors. Gay doesn’t shy away from addressing the injustice and fear he experiences as a Black man in America; he simply also finds time to note the beauty in sidewalk weeds too.
If you like The Big Family Cooking Showdown:
Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu
If you are able to complete a cooking competition with your family without dissolving that family, I absolutely applaud you. The magic of home cooking has forged a bond so strong nothing can break it. In that spirit, you should check out this first book in the cozy Singaporean Mystery series. Rosie “Aunty” Lee built a home-cooking culinary empire in Singapore. And like any good and clever busybody, she also has a habit of solving murders.
If you like Queer Eye:
The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee
The Queer Eye squad does matchmaking—of a sort. If anything, their ministrations attempt to match people with freer, fuller, more confident versions of themselves. If you’re looking for the same kind of feel-good entertainment, give this YA fabulist novel a chance. Sixteen-year-old Mimosa is an aromateur whose keen nose helps her mix love elixirs. She herself can’t fall in love without losing her gift, but that may not be a decision in her control…
If you like Antiques Roadshow:
The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
There is no gentler a tradition than watching folks bring forth their family treasures. Well, gentle, at least, until that treasure turns out to be an utterly worthless knockoff. You may wonder why I’d suggest a horror novel on this list of gentle whimsy, but this delightfully spooky novel is like a grown-up Gravity Falls. This book, set in the museum of oddities owned by Kara’s uncle, is dark, but it also has a dark humor and quirk that is weirdly irresistible—just like that lamp your grandma told you was a priceless ancestral heirloom.
If you like Holiday Home Makeover with Mr. Christmas:
In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren
Whether you’re feeling the seasonal spirit or you just keep Christmas in your heart all year long, Netflix’s latest reality series is chockablock with ho-ho-holiday romanticism (and shrink wrap). What could go better than this romance novel? In a Christmas-meets-Groundhog Day story, Maelyn Jones is returning to the Utah cabin of her childhood holidays for what she thinks is the final time. But then an errant yuletide wish puts her into a holiday time loop.