It’s the end of the world as we know it!
Oi, I’d almost take a Grey Havens ship into the West at this point. It’s really become a cry or laugh type of laugh, you know? Anyway, there’s been so much wrapping up in the last few weeks, so ICYMI, here are my top five middle grades, top ten
mild lie contemporaries and sequels, annnnnnnd (drum roll, please!) top ten reads of the year! I also wrapped up my 2020 goals, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s 2021 goals! Also, like, this shouldn’t be a surprise, but there’s a Tolkien announcement releasing in a couple days, so keep your eyes peeled for that, too! Lots of things are happening, apparently, but we’re here to talk about just December.
Mini Book Reviews
I Wish You All the Best | Mason Deaver
I had my top contemporary reads list all set for this year, and then I read this and had to revamp the entire thing. I felt so seen by this book. That fear of being out to people, of not knowing how they’ll respond, and of being so terrified that the love you hold for them and truly believe they hold for you might be snatched right out from under you–that was such a painful thing to see written out, but so close to my own heart, and it was amazingly done. When Nathan first uttered that glorious line, I wish you all the best, Ben de Backer, my heart just about broke because SAME! It was such a powerful thing to say, and something that I was practically screaming the entire book. This was so heartbreaking and wonderful, and I’m so, so glad I’ve finally read it.
The Two Towers | JRR Tolkien
It’s insane to me that the battle of Helm’s Deep is only ten pages long, and yet it takes up half of the movie. Also, I totally forgot that Shelob was in the second book, so I was real confused when she showed up at the end. It’s possible that ROTK might take the spot as my favorite of the trilogy (stay tuned), but I’m fairly certain TT is forever going to hold the number one spot just based purely on Legolas & Gimli’s adorable friendship. And since this is really not much of a review, here you go! It’s long, it’s rambling, and I somehow managed to cry about Morgoth, which I guess we all really should have expected.
Girls of Storm and Shadow | Natasha Ngan
Honestly? This is the book I’m going to hold up as a perfect example of exactly what I want in a middle book. So rarely do we get middle books in a trilogy that even meet expectations, but this one just completely blew me away. Not only did the story continue to develop, the pace was well done and the characters never fell flat. It continued to be a hard-hitting, powerful story, and each chaotic moment came exactly when I was hoping for it. I loved each piece of the conflict, even with our MCs, because it felt deserved. Not that they deserve conflict, but like the conflict came about naturally, like it wasn’t just thrown in there for drama, but rather made sense given everything else. And even beyond that romantic conflict, ugh. This was so good. SO GOOD. It made me cry so many times, and I can’t believe I can’t preorder the third one yet, but I’m also hella terrified, and maybe it’s a good thing that it’s a while before it comes out.
The Weight of Feathers | Anna-Marie McLemore
WOW. Well, this was officially my last McLemore, and what a finale it was. I knew that I was going to love this, just based on the rest of their writing, but, as always, for some reason, I wasn’t prepared for just how much I was going to love it. This was so damn powerful, and I kept realizing that I was holding my breath during certain passages, so nervous about how everything was going to turn out. The Romeo & Juliet vibes in this were really well done, and I liked the several twists on the story. The magical elements were just gorgeous, too, and if I wasn’t already a McLemore fan for life, this would have done it.
Empire of Sand | Tasha Suri
Wow, this was utterly perfect. It was like a perfect amalgamation of The Wrath & the Dawn and The Star-Touched Queen all wrapped into one with my favorite elements for each quietly threaded together, and I am just in awe of it. I loved the lore so damn much, and it was really wonderful to see the daiva in this regarded with so much respect and awe rather than the normal horror. It added another layer to them that was so brilliantly done. And while this perfectly wrapped up the story and its characters, I would just adore to see more of Mehr and her growing relationship with the daiva. But ugh, her relationship with Amun! It was heartbreaking and beautiful all at once, and they unfolded so naturally. And I would be truly remiss if I didn’t mention how utterly gorgeous the writing was–it read like music, and it sold me on Suri’s future books forever.
We are Lost and Found | Helene Dunbar
This honestly blew me away. The lack of quotation marks was initially going to drop this to a four star because it drove me insane, but the rest of the book was too good to give it anything less than five. It was so poignant, and I felt so deeply for the characters. It reminded me so much of The Normal Heart, but in a teen angst sort of way, and it was just unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It broke my heart and healed it in so many different ways, and I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time.
The Return of the King | JRR Tolkien
I’m so proud of myself for managing to finish up the trilogy this month because damn, that was an emotional journey. There was so much to love about this, and even though TT is definitely still my favorite of the three, I just love how Tolkien threaded everything together in the end. Gimli stole the show for me again, I managed to weep about Sauron so many times, and you can read all about it in my very, very long review!
The Princess Will Save You | Sarah Henning
This was just outstanding. I had so much fun with this, and it made me want to rewatch The Princess Bride, so it was just an all-around great time. I really liked the similarities between the two, but the differences were what sold me on this. That ending! I’ve preordered the sequel because I just have to know, and now I want to read everything else by Henning. This was just exactly what I was hoping it would be, plus a little bit more, and it was just wonderful. It had all the necessary parts of The Princess Bride while also threading in some of my favorite YA fantasy vibes, and though I do wish it was about 50 pages longer, I thoroughly enjoyed this. The ending also jumped this from four to five stars, and I am ready to see how this diverges from our beloved classic.
The Winterhouse Mysteries | Ben Guterson
What a wonderful conclusion! I fell in love with Guterson’s delightful Winterhouse trilogy this year, and though I’m endlessly sad to see it over, it was such a beautiful ending that I’m so happy to have come to this end. Everything was wrapped up so nicely, and the character arcs were just astounding. I was surprised by how Gracella’s story came to an end, but also pleasantly surprised by the actual end. It was not at all what I was expecting, but, in the end, it was just right, both as a whole and for Elizabeth. I’ll hold this trilogy close in my heart for a long, long time to come.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas | Mason Deaver
“Anxiety makes liars out of the best of us.” Mason Deaver just comes in swinging every time with these lines that knock me flat on my back, and I’d like to thank them wholeheartedly. They just get it. They get what it is to be an anxious person living in a world that’s not really made for anxious, queer people, and I feel so damn seen every single time I read something of theirs, and it’s just truly astonishing. This novella was exactly what I needed the day I read it, and it was such a sweet, wholesome Christmas story that somehow still managed to make me cry.
Beyond the Black Door | A.M. Strickland
This was not at all what I was expecting, and it was amazing. It very much felt like Memoirs of a Geisha crossed with The Handmaiden, but with an added horror flare to it. It was such a strange amalgamation of things, and it worked so damn well. I was hooked right from the very first page, and, as the lore continued to unfold, it was just woah. It was honestly unlike anything I’ve read before, and I had no idea which way the plot was going to go next. Every twist felt deserved, though, and had me going “HOW DID I NOT SEE THAT COMING?!”, and it was ruthless in all the right ways with those twists. The representation was absolutely outstanding, and it was just so intricately threaded into the world in a way that made me love it even more. I did keep thinking there had to be a second one, based on how many pages were left as I was approaching the end and how much still had to happen, and I do think the end was insanely rushed, but, other than that, this was excellent.
Kingsbane | Claire Legrand
I don’t even know. These books aggravate me so much because there are so many things that I truly cannot stand, and then it’s got an interesting plot, and I’m kind of starting to like Eliana now, so I’m probably going to read the third book, but I’m still very ughhhhhh about everything in general. I have such a hate/love relationship with Rielle because, for a while there, I liked her much more than Eliana, even if her romances drove me up a wall, and I appreciate what Legrand is doing with her character, but she’s also just hella annoying and so self-centered and is usually responsible for all the traumatic things that happen to her because she makes shitty decisions and blames everything on everyone else and leads people on constantly and is just generally a horrible person. But, like, also excited to see her go full villain? Eliana definitely grew on me in this book, and I really liked seeing her transform from a cold-hearted killer into someone who frequently cries! And I was going to keep going, but then I remembered that plot twist with Simon at the end, and I just–if your plot twist comes out of nowhere and doesn’t make sense, that’s not a plot twist, that’s just poor writing. There were literally no hints of it the entire book, and sure, if we’re going to blame it on time travel screwing things up, I can get behind that, but I’d liked if there was at least some hint of that happening when Eliana gets back from Celdaria, or even her just wondering if that was the cause of everything. It was so bad. I almost stopped reading. This was honestly teetering toward a four star until that plot twist, and then I just laughed it straight into a three star. I hate having fraught relationships with books because I’m definitely about to go buy the third one, but I’m also going to be a little bitter about it because I know that I’m going to still love parts of it even if I want to punch most of it.
Out of the ten books I set for myself in December to try to round out all the TBR books that I missed in previous months, I read 6. I’m pretty pleased with this, and though I definitely wanted to read more, I’m going to shelve these outstanding TBR books and start afresh in the new year.
For January, I’ve got some big Tolkien plans, hence two of the books below, but I also want to start the new year with as much love as I ended this year (I mean, 9 five star books, and 7 of them in a row?? TUDO BEM!), so I’m really hoping these’ll be favorites. Not that I don’t always hope that, but you know what I mean.
- The Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 1 by JRR Tolkien
- The Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 2 by JRR Tolkien
- Horrid by Katrina Leno
- The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman
- B*Witch by Paige McKenzie
Look, that’s a pretty transparent list, if I’m being honest, because I miss my witchy books, and given that I’m going to be editing sister witches 2 in January, I’m just going to drown in all the magic. Also, it’s not on there, but I do have a nonfiction Tolkien review scheduled for January, so that’s on my radar, too.
I don’t often write long reviews, mostly just paragraphs, and I’m always so grateful that there are people in the world, like The Orangutan Librarian, who do write incredible reviews so I can do one of those jazz hand excited gestures at their review of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue BECAUSE YES TO ALL OF THAT.
Holly @ Nut Free Nerd wrote the most wonderful letter to Northanger Abbey to describe her love it, and it’s just so fitting!
Well, I finished the duology? I only had about 20k left after NaNoWriMo was over, and I cranked that out real quick in the first week. With an additional 21,881 words written, the researcher & the librarian sequel came out to 121k, and I am really proud of it. It came into existence in August, completely by accident, and it wouldn’t leave me alone until I spent four months going absolutely mental as I churned this duology out at about 70k words a month. It was insane, and I had so much fun, and I can’t wait until you can finally read it someday.
Of all of my books, it’s probably the one that shines a light on the weirdest aspects of my interests the most. It goes hard on conversations about religion and mythology, rants about my Lucifer is misunderstood cry for vengeance, and definitely goes over the top in its Divine Comedy love. It’s a strange combination of old literature, occult magic and demonology, and the biggest and most diverse queer family I’ve ever written. It’s written in a time period when differences were a jail sentence, at best, and it challenges society’s hatred of those differences with a celebration of love, freedom, and determination. It’s fun, and it’s full of angst, and it’s got so much damn heart. I never expected it, and it’s still such a young idea in my head, but it feels good to have written it, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
I intended to finish it early on in December, too, and to just spend the rest of the month doing nothing, so that’s exactly what I did, and though this is a really small word count for me, it’s been a chaotic four months, and I’m happy to have had some time to rest.
What I’ve Been Watching
Though most of our movies were holiday ones this month, Erin really wanted to rewatch The Lovely Bones, and I’m so happy I finally got to see it. It was not at all what I expected, and I really enjoyed the moments in “heaven” because it took the expectations I had of a story about the murder of a child and completely turned them on their head in a way that felt like reclaiming the story for Susie, and I just really liked it for that.
I told myself I had to read & review the rest of the LOTR trilogy in December, and my dad was confused when I said I wanted to watch the second one first, so we ended up watching Fellowship of the Ring to kick off a three-week Tolkien celebration. It was so much fun, and I’m never not going to scream endlessly about the scene when the Fellowship is all first together and they walk over the mountains from Rivendell. It was particularly hard this time around not to FUN FACT every fifteen minutes, but I managed to hold in all but two, and the second one was in answer to a question my dad asked that he actually wanted to know the answer to, so feeling pretty proud about that.
I’m a huge Shawn Mendes fan, and I was so excited when he announced the In Wonder documentary. It took me way longer than I expected to actually watch it since I planned on watching it when it first went live, but I finally did, and it was absolutely adorable. He’s such a humble, sweet guy, and it was so wonderful to hear his story. I definitely recommend it if you’re a fan, or if you’ve just been casually listening to the gloriousness that is Wonder.
Okay, look, we were going to watch only queer holiday movies for the season, but trying to do a watch party on Hulu proved impossible, so we ended up watching Rebecca, and I truly don’t know what to say. I loved the first 25 minutes? Even in the following 25 minutes, I’d added the book to my Goodreads, and I was eagerly waiting to find out how everything was going to unfold, and uhhhhhhh, by the end, I don’t ever want to read it, and I’m really not sure what happened. That was–insane? It was like eight genres cobbled into one, but not in a good way. It starts with romance and then swerves into Gothic horror, so I was having some Jane Eyre & Northanger Abbey vibes that I was very excited about, but then it leaps toward some weird dramatic confession stuff that just didn’t fit the story before turning into a court drama? That was where it lost me, though Erin had given up with the confession and was just frowning at the screen. After the court drama bit, there was a brief foray into 20s film noir that made us cackle, and then it was very We Have Always Lived in the Castle for a second, except really, really bad, with some possible queerbaiting and a lackluster ending. So yeah. That was a movie that we watched, and I’m even more upset than expected because I love both Armie & Lily, and I’m just so confused.
I got prematurely excited about starting my ROTK reread (see below section for why), but I forced myself to wait for the Battle of the Pelennor Fields until we’d watched The Two Towers, and I’m glad for that because I got to experience Helm’s Deep in all of its glory without anything else distracting me. Did my dad & I cry when Gandalf arrived with the Rohirrim? Duh. This movie is amazing, and I love every single moment of it, and it definitely is still my favorite.
You know, I watched The Prom because it promised to be queer, full of glitter, and had Meryl Streep. And while two of those definitely happened, the straight romance between Streep & Key had more screen time than the lesbian romance, and I’m never going to forgive Ryan Murphy for that. I knew, too, as soon as I saw Murphy’s name in the opening credits that I should probably exit stage left, just given his history (not including Glee, I will always love that), but I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and I was so, so wrong. There are so many things to hate about this, and I wish I could erase that two hours of my life and fill it with the New Girl reruns I didn’t watch, but thought about watching instead. Gods, and I watched the whole thing like some kind of masochist. Let it be stated, for the record, that I absolutely adored Jo Ellen Pellman & Ariana Debose, and they were the only redeeming qualities about this trash fire.
I got some really, really great news in the middle of the month, and since I can’t go out anywhere to celebrate, I decided to rewatch The Old Guard because that’s basically the same as eating good food in one of my favorite restaurants, right? Somehow, I forgot just how good this movie was, which is insane because I know exactly how amazing it is, but wow. I just love this so much, and it’s going to be one I continue to rewatch over and over again.
I finally finished my reread of the trilogy, which meant it was time to watch The Return of the King! My dad and I both cried a lot, but my favorite moments were, as always, when the Rohirrim arrived at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, when Aragorn did his whole you bow to no one and we practically fell apart, and the Grey Havens. These three movies are just so good, and I’m really glad that I ended 2020 with them.
Obviously, after I finished The Princess Will Save You, I just had to rewatch The Princess Bride, and somehow, I forgot just how good it was. Like, right from the very beginning, I was utterly in love again. It’s just such a staple from my childhood, and Westley is forever my favorite, and I just kept thinking about we lived long enough to see our princesses becomes generals, and it’s just SO GOOD. I love every single second of this.
I adore Tom Hiddleston, and vampires are one of my favorite mythical creatures, so I’ve been wanting to watch Only Lovers Left Alive for a while now. And it was perfect. We decided to say screw it to holiday movies after several failed attempts to watch some queer ones, and just watch vampire movies instead, and though I loved our other one, this was exactly what I wanted to start with. It matches the vibe of my vampire story–though mine takes place over 2000 years rather than a couple days–and it’s got the same life is insufferably long theme to it, and though Erin hated this and called it self-indulgent, that’s exactly why I loved it. This was just everything I wanted it to be.
Look, I do this thing where I watch about 20 seconds of a trailer and no more. It’s pretty similar to how I read books! I get distracted about three sentences into the summary, and then I forget what the book is about by the time I get around to reading it. I don’t like trailers. I love going into things blind. But when I tell you that I watched a full minute and a half of the trailer for Bridgerton, even after Erin had already shouted “FAKE DATING” and “BROODING ANGSTY BOY” at me, well. I knew I was going to be a goner.
What a whirlwind, damn. There’s a lot that happened this month, but no matter what, we’ve got to start with the highlight of my entire life. Seriously, nothing will ever top this, and everything will forever pale in comparison.
For Christmas, my best friend, Jen, gave me three very vague hints about my gift. It was not tangible, but it had to be created, it was insanely expensive, and she thought it might be the best thing in the world that she’d ever gotten me. And that’s a lot to say considering Jen and I have exchanged some pretty fantastic gifts over the years, including a damn tattoo one year and a trip to the UK that we unfortunately had to cancel, but still! I’ve known Jen since we were in high school, too, so it’s been a decade of friendship all leading up to this–I don’t even know how to describe it.
I’ve got to set the scene for you. She asked me if I could Facetime to go over some yoga poses for the low back, so we were doing that, and we’d decided to start exchanging presents when we were done. I sent her a box of Chanukah gifts for each night this year, so she was going to open the first one while I experienced whatever it was that this vague gift of hers was going to turn out to be. Not gonna lie, I was starting to get pretty nervous because she was hyping it up so much, but she also kept saying, “If you don’t like it, I never want to know.” And I just??? THAT’S SO OMINOUS.
We finish up with yoga, Jen opens her first present, and then she says, “Okay, I’m going to send it to you, and you need to film your reaction.” There was some technical difficulties right in the beginning, but once I finally got everything settled so I could hear the video she’d sent me, Y’ALL. MY HEART WAS FUCKING RACING. Like, just–full body overexcitement starting to shake a bit liable to scream at any given second kind of insanity. I was going to lose it.
Because Sean Astin was on my screen, and he’d just said my name. Full thing, first and last, so there was no mistaking it. BURY ME WITH THIS VIDEO! Jen requested a video from him through Cameo, and while, apparently, they’re usually about a minute or a bit longer, his was 4:44 of just–wow. I didn’t post the whole video online, but I really wish I could here because y’all deserve to witness its wonder with me. Instead, you’ll just have to take my word for it–he rambled on about how inspiring Tolkien was, pitched himself for a role in a future film adaptation of my books (Jen was like, “I don’t think you have a character that fits him,” and I just started shrieking, “I’M GONNA WRITE ONE IMMEDIATELY DON’T WORRY!”), and–AND AND AND AND AND AND OH MY GODS–quoted my favorite line from LOTR. Don’t believe me?
I sent the full video to my other two friends, Sara & Erin, with no context, just said, “This is Jen’s gift to me. You have to watch the entire thing.” Sara capslocked at me for a solid five full minutes. Erin immediately called me, crying, and said, “I had to start pacing! I can’t even imagine what you must be feeling!” My dad started shouting, and my mom had to stop eating her dinner, and even my sister freaked out with me. It was just wow. I watched it four times in the first hour, and I’ve pulled it out periodically to watch every few days because listening to one of my favorite actors, who played my favorite character in all of literature, talk about my books and Tolkien and there’s some good in this world and it’s worth fighting for?? I am never going to get over this.
Anyway, forget the rest of December–heck, forget the rest of 2020. This is all I need for the rest of my life.
What else did happen in December, though?
I started back up with Centr, and it’s been a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it when I first joined two years ago, and though I followed it for nearly half a year, I ended up stopping when I hurt my hamstring, and I just never got back into it. I love Zocchi as a trainer, though, and Rulk’s workouts always make me feel like I could conquer the world, and I was really curious about Ashley, so I decided to jump back on that bandwagon, and it’s been a really fun couple of weeks so far. I’ve still been teaching at CRG, and though I was thinking about doing 108 sun salutations there, I don’t really want to do them with a mask on, so I might end up doing them virtually or just on my own. I’ve also got to keep an eye on my tattoo and see how that heals since it’s on my upper arm directly in chaturanga territory. Oh yeah, speaking of Samwise Gamgee!
Since it wraps around my arm, it’s hard to get a single picture of it, but this video shows it off really nicely! I’ve got a stack of books surrounded by plants on my forearm, so we’re going to build a bridge of wildflowers between the two so it looks like the hobbit hole is growing out of the books. The garden is in honor of Sam, and the hobbit hole is modeled after Bag End, and the quote above is, of course, my favorite Sam one. Like the caption says, eventually I’m going to tuck Tolkien’s signature right under the quote, next to the hobbit hole, as well as add the Argonath statues and Andúril to create an entire LOTR arm. That’s not the end, either. I’ve got two LOTR tattoos on my thighs–the map of Rohan & the white tree of Gondor–and I want to get the horse on Rohan’s flag and Forth Éorlingas around the map once that’s all completed. Someday, when I’m feeling brave enough, I’m also going to get Arwen’s Evenstar necklace done on my sternum, but that’s a long way away still. Maybe. Who knows!
Annnnd, to round out this somehow wonderful month, I got a new job! I start after the new year, and the two weeks where everything was happening were just wild and stressful and amazing all at once. I’m really glad to be leaving my current job given its toxic environment, but even more so because my new company works in clean energy, so it’s not only an exciting change, but a field that I hold near and dear to my heart. I’ll actually feel motivated to go to work because we’re changing the world a little bit, and that’s pretty powerful.
All told, December was a surprisingly good month, and I hope it’s turning the corner into an excellent new year.