2018 — A Year in Review

Ok, so I’m not normally the kind of person who likes to take a look back at the last year and all that, but since this year was…well, 2018 and something of a dumpster fire, I figured it could be cathartic.

So first, let’s talk about the good stuff.  LET’S TALK ABOUT BOOKS.

Image result for book excitement gif

According to my Goodreads account, my year looks something like this:

  • I’ve read 117 books this year (falling quite short of my 2015 record of 173, but still a solid number).
  • This translates to roughly 44,796 pages, which is also solid but again short of my 2015 record of 64,328 pages.  (And that year, Goodreads didn’t track rereads.  0_0)
  • Mostly, I rate books 4/5 stars.  I will admit that part of this is laziness, but also partly because I tend to read books that I like and if it doesn’t completely blow me out of the water, I’m not going to give it a five.  Hence, a four.
  • I’ve only had 2 DNF’s this year.  Surprisingly, this is about 2 more than normal because I can’t bring myself to not finish a book.  But I’m learning that if I think it sucks, why waste the time?
  • My longest book was The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon at 979 pages (a reread from the Outlander series) which I started rereading to prepare for season 4 of the show.  Fiery Cross is book 5, but I got on a roll and I remembered how much I liked this one.
  • I’ve also had a significant uptick in romance novels that I read.  I think this is two-fold.  1) I have less of a stigma now about reading what I want and 2) these books typically have great character development, funny plots, and happy endings, which has been really nice considering how dark the news has been.

Now let’s kind of take a look at more of what’s been going on personally.

  • Technically starting in November 2017, I started falling in for-real love with my high school crush.  In many respects, it was a dream come true.  I’d wondered what it would be like to be with him for so long that to actually be able to kiss him and cuddle with him?  It was great.
  • Until it wasn’t.  There were layers to him I’d never known about.  He kept secrets from me and started doing drugs in front of me (something I loudly and vehemently let him know was NOT OK).  I ended things with him in May when it all became too much.
  • Attended a cousin’s wedding.  While it looked nice (and the bride comes from a bit of money), it was also a bit redneck.  They served Little Caesar’s pizza at the reception.  LITTLE CAESAR’S.
  • It’s been years in the making, but I have now earned the family reputation of being The One Who Will Turn Anything Into a Dirty Joke.  Thank you.  This award will take a place of honor among my things.
  • I’ve watched a friend lose her job in the wake of the #MeToo movement.  She threw something across the room to get a student’s attention and it accidentally hit him in the face.  Parents were informed, principal talked to her, everything was fine.  Next day, she’s in huge trouble after the parents talked to their kid.  Suspended for 3 days.  But it was snowballing by then and the parents wanted nothing less than her head on a pike.  After her suspension, she was fired.  (Let it be known, there is a male teacher at my school who, it is well known by the administration, throws chalkboard erasers at students daily.)  Now, she has arguably a better job than she did before and the principal of her old school is now struggling to fill her position and grades the homework himself since short-term subs can’t do that.  #Karma
  • This was The Year I Got My Extended Family Interested in Genealogy.  (Immediate family is a lost cause.)  It’s been like 4 years in the making, but hallelujah, I can finally talk about family history with family!  (Nearly every one of them doesn’t care about it if they don’t know the people personally, so it’s frustrating.)  But once I was able to organize everything into easily accessible binders, they’ve all been fawning over me to get their hands on the binders.
  • This was also the Year I Almost Bought A House.  During October, I made an offer on a cute little ranch.  Only problem was it was a bachelor pad and the guy was not handy at all.  Problems compounded.  When I got the inspection done, they pointed out thing after thing we didn’t see before, like how the windows were rotted through.  When I asked for money to fix the windows, they tried to stonewall me and bully me into taking virtually nothing.  It was a horrible experience.  I felt almost every day like no one was looking out for me (especially not my realtor) and I was fighting everything on my own while knowing nothing about real estate.  About 1.5 months after I made my initial offer and 3.5 weeks after I alerted them that I was 1000% done with this house, they finally let me out of my deal when I threatened to take further action to get my earnest money back.  I did not mince words.  Sometimes, getting on your broomstick and making threats gets things done.
  • I’m now teaching strictly one grade level rather than two.  It has its perks, I admit.  Like I don’t have to spend nearly as much time planning anymore.  If I get an idea, I just roll with it and I’m done.  But the bad news?  I’ve gone from grading 80-100 essays at one time (depending on the size of that grade level) to getting about 140 at once.  It makes a difference.
  • OUTLANDER SEASON 4 IS AMAZING.  Also, Call the Midwife.  And The Last Kingdom.  You want historical fiction shows, I can point you in the right direction.
  • I learned a ton of French this year!  I can actually understand most of it when I read it or hear it in movies.  Well, hearing’s debatable, but I can read the subtitles well.  I have a Duolingo streak of like 240 days that I’m massively proud of.
  • This was also the year I sucked up my pride and tried out for a musical again, my first time in about 8 years.  The audition went horribly, but at least I did it.
  • I’ve taken up painting more seriously.  And knitting.  I’ve created some really interesting works in both that I’m proud of.

Of course, it’s hard to summarize a year into a few bullet points, but I think I’ve hit some of the biggest points.  It’s been an interesting year to say the least.

Hopefully, your year has been full of more ups than downs.

And here’s hoping that 2019 brings with it some better luck than this year did.  I’d really like to buy a house in 2019, for starters.

Top Ten Favorite Holiday Reads

Happy Holidays everyone!  It’s getting awful close to Christmas and I don’t know about you, but I’m very much looking forward to the holidays and winter break.  (Teachers LOVE breaks.)

I’ve been trying to read a few Christmas stories lately and I started thinking that maybe I needed to compile my favorites here, to share the holiday spirit with all of you.  Trust me, with a name like Holly, I’m full of Holiday Cheer.  (Everyone spends the entire month of December singing about how pretty I am!  How could I not be cheerful?)

So here we go!  Perhaps you’ll find a favorite on this list or find something new to read just in time for the holidays.  Either way, enjoy!

Top Ten Favorite Holiday Reads

1. The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand

So, obviously, this is the book that inspired this list.  (And the fact that Christmas break is COMING!)  But seriously, for anyone looking for a modern twist on an old classic (A Christmas Carol), you need to check this out.  Pronto.  It’s amazing and really reminds you of the meaning of Christmas.

2. What Light by Jay Asher

This is such a cute story.  Short and sweet, it totally shows the struggles of the Christmas season.  Sierra’s family owns a Christmas tree farm in Oregon and every year they haul their trees to California for Christmas.  And there–Sierra meets a guy who makes her look at the world a little differently.  It’s worth a look.

3. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I had to put the classic on the list, though I only read it for the first time a year or two ago.  I was glad I could finally say I’d read it, but truly?  The movies based on it are pretty much spot on.

4. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

Ah, the master of Irony.  I love O. Henry as an author and this short story is a classic.  A tale of a husband and wife, too poor to buy gifts for their spouses, who do what they have to to show their love to each other.  The irony gets me every time.

5. Hot Cocoa Hearts by Suzanne Nelson

This is a cute little story about a teenage girl and boy who like each other–and how the girl hates Christmas.  If I remember right, she works as an elf at the mall…which, yeah, would probably show you some of the worst of humanity.  But, as she finds out, she also sees some of the best.  And it’s adorbs.

6. Forever Christmas by Robert Tate Miller

Ok, no, YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND.  Growing up, there was always this movie on ABC Family that my family watched every year.  ALL OF US.  Mom, Dad, me, brothers.  We all loved this cheesy movie called Three Days starring Kristin Davis and Reed Diamond.  It’s a little dark as far as Christmas stories go (a bit like The Afterlife of Holly Chase, actually), but it’s a must-watch for me every Christmas, even if they never play it on TV anymore and it’s not even on DVD and I have to watch it off YouTube.  (I’m not bitter…)  And THEN IT BECAME A BOOK.  NOW I CAN READ THE BOOK TOO.

The point of the story is that Andy and Beth Farmer were high school sweethearts who married and went to the Big City (Boston).  When Beth dies in an accident after learning Andy was cheating on her, Andy learns he is going to be able to relive the last three days to try to prove to Beth that he loves her, to bring him some closure.  But no matter what, on Christmas Eve (the end of the three days), Beth will die again.

I promise you, it’s SO GOOD.

7. My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories edited by Stephanie Perkins

TWELVE HOLIDAY STORIES.  BY SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE AUTHORS.  It’s adorable and amazing and cute and snuggly all at the same time.  Though some of that also depends on the story you’re currently reading.  But I do remember enough.

8. Let It Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

When you put John Green and Maureen Johnson in the same book, I’m so in.  This carries both of their outrageous, realistic teen voices in their characters.  (I’m not all that familiar with Myracle, but I’m pretty sure she shines too.)  It’s just so funny.  I still remember quotes from this.  (Also, the news was just announced a few days ago that they’re turning this into a Netflix movie for next Christmas.  Something to keep in mind.)

9. Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Speaking of quotes, this is one of the most quotable Christmas books on this list.  I have three notebooks full of quotes and I think this book easily took up 2-3 pages because it’s full of wisdom about family, fate, the holidays, winter, etc.  It’s gorgeous.  This, brought to you by the writers of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

10. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

I don’t typically read the story anymore, but I love the movie.  (Jim Carrey, 2000.  Genius.)  It’s totally worth the watch/read this season.  (Ok, yes, I cheated on this final one.  It turns out most of the Christmas stories I actually read are historical romances or novellas in a series and that didn’t feel right to include them on the list.)

The Afterlife of Holly Chase

Image result for the afterlife of holly chaseFirst Lines: The first thing you should probably know is that Yvonne Worthington Chase was dead.  It was all over the news when it happened, the entertainment shows, the newspapers and magazines, even the trashy tabloids.  A sudden tragedy–that’s how the media described it, because she was only fortysomething when it happened, plus Yvonne was famous, so her death was considered a much bigger deal than an ordinary person’s.

I was so excited to see this book come out.  1) Cynthia Hand has never steered me wrong before.  2) It was a Christmas story and I freaking love Christmas stories.  3) The main character shares my name.  I was stoked to read this.

On Christmas Eve five years ago, Holly Chase was visited by three ghosts who showed her how selfish and mean-spirited she was to those around her.  They tried to get her to change.  She didn’t listen.  And then she died.  Now, as a ghost herself, she works as the Ghost of Christmas Past for Project Scrooge, a company that tries to reform one Scrooge-esque person each year.  Every year, it’s the same thing–and old miser, a sob story, three ghosts, and a new outlook on life.  And it’s been miserable for Holly.  But this year…things are about to change…

This book was absolutely wonderful.

A modern retelling/spin on A Christmas Carol, Holly Chase is a Scrooge. She only cares about herself and how many Instagram followers she has. It doesn’t matter that she’s mean to the help or that she blows off her dad all the time–it only matters that she looks good while doing it. And when three ghosts visit her on Christmas Eve…Holly doesn’t learn her lesson. And dies months later. But that’s not the end of her story. In fact, she now has to take the place of the Ghost of Christmas Past and try to help others who are just like her avoid her fate.

The ties to the original Dickens tale are very present but not Easter Eggs. Actually, they’re a large part of the story. With every Scrooge they focus on, they try to find a way to make their story fit the Scrooge narrative–where’s the Crachit? Where’s Tiny Tim and Belle? I liked that it wasn’t hidden but was actually woven creatively into the story.

Holly, as you would expect, starts off fairly unlikable. But after she becomes the Ghost of Christmas Past, she starts to change and she’s more manageable. Even when she was being really mean, I still found that I understood her, and I think that’s a sign of great writing.  You understand that a part of it is an act, something she’s been taught to do rather than actually how she truly feels.

And the writing got so much better from there. Descriptive and subtle, it was the kind of book I didn’t want to put down. I stayed up past my bedtime to finish it and didn’t regret it. Yes, there are parts that are predictable, but I found myself making my predictions and then anxiously waiting to see if I was right. I was always excited to see what would happen next.

And the ending…keep some tissues handy is all I’ll say. It was so so good and I spent so much time thinking about it even after I finished the book.

Read this. It’s so worth it.

Puritan Girl, Mohawk Girl

Image result for puritan girl mohawk girlFirst Lines: “Listen!” Eunice said, sitting up straight.  “Don’t you hear that rustling sound out by the summer garden?”  It was midnight.  Beside her in the little wooden bed, her older brother Stephen lay snuggled beneath a heavy quilt.

When I was at the library about a month ago, I took a quick spin through the YA section (I already had way too many books checked out as it was, but I couldn’t resist).  This book was on a display in an attempt (I think?) to get people ready for Thanksgiving.  (Puritans, Native Americans…I think that was the point.)  As a history buff with a specialization in colonial America, I saw this and had to grab it.

Conflicts between the English colonies of America, the French colonies of Canada, and the Native Americans raged through the early 1700s.  Eunice, a young Massachusetts girl, has been lucky so far.  Raised by a preacher father in a loving family, she’s never really encountered the Natives before.  But then they arrive in her town and burn it to the ground, taking the survivors to their villages as captives.  She’s adopted into a Mohawk family and raised on their ways.  She’s taught their language and she makes new friends along the way.  But when a stranger comes to the village and offers to take Eunice back to Massachusetts, Eunice will have to make a choice between the family of her birth and the family of her rebirth.

There were a few things about this I absolutely loved: it was based on a true story and thus entrenched in real history (something I nerded out over) and it showed a much different perspective than we usually see of colonial America.  This actually looks at the Native Americans in a sympathetic, understanding light.  It looks at their culture as a valid culture, rather than inferior to the colonists.  I adored that.

But let’s just get it out of the way now: it’s pretty obvious pretty quickly that fictional writing is not Demos’s wheelhouse. The prose feels fairly lifeless throughout the story. Someone dies or something big happens and it’s explained more reactionary: “Eunice cried herself to sleep” rather than something more like, “A sob bubbled up in Eunice’s throat, the emotions choking her.” You get my point, I hope. It felt elementary, like a child relating the day’s events to a parent.

Which, in some ways, actually worked for the story. When it starts, Eunice is seven and that type of storytelling made sense, even if the narrator sort of made an appearance from time to time with some pointed comments about race and morality. But as Eunice got older, it felt like it should have changed more, but it didn’t. It’s pretty emotionless.

But the story (and the actual history it’s built on) is really interesting. Eunice Williams was a real person.  She was a young Puritan girl growing up in the early 1700s Massachusetts. She was actually kidnapped by Native Americans and adopted into the tribe of her kidnapper (which was a standard Native American custom–the newcomer was taking the place of someone who had died in the tribe). And this outlines her story really well, filled with notes at the beginning and end about her life. I’m definitely going to read more about her.

I will not claim to be an expert on Native American tribes and customs, but from what I do know, this was pretty darn accurate. Things about the Mohawks, things about relations with the French and English, etc. I found no faults with the research. Just the writing style.

This is definitely a fast read and kind of a launchpad for introducing yourself/someone to early 18th century America through the French, English, and Native Americans in America and Canada.

Lady Midnight (The Dark Artifices, #1)

Image result for lady midnightFirst Lines: Shadow Market nights were Kit’s favorite.  They were the nights he was allowed to leave the house and help his father at the booth.  He’d been coming to the Shadow Market since he was seven years old.

My decision to read this book was unique for a couple of reasons.  First, it was something I hadn’t planned on picking up–ever.  Not until a number of you here recommended it to me in the comments of a post over the summer.  (A few months later, my 16 year old cousin recommended this too.)  Second, I don’t like to pick up a book when I know I’m not up-to-date on the series.  I stopped reading Clare’s books after Infernal Devices ended (and I never read the last 3 books of Mortal Instruments).  And I don’t remember a whole lot about either series, but I hoped it was enough to pass through this.

In the Shadowhunter world, a parabatai is a sacred thing–a friend you tie your life to, a person you trust with everything you have inside you and they to you.  But the most important rule is that you can never fall in love with your parabatai.  Emma Carstairs is one of the best warriors of her age and, with her parabatai Julian Blackthorn at her side, she’s nearly unbeatable.  But war looms on the horizon as other supernatural creatures–vampires, werewolves, faeries–all chafe under the rule of the Shadowhunters.  When bodies start turning up in the same mysterious fashion as Emma’s parents five years earlier,  an uneasy alliance is formed to try to get to the bottom of the mystery.  It’s Emma’s chance at revenge and Julian’s chance to get his brother Mark back.  They have to solve the murders in two weeks–and before the murderer makes them targets.  But each clue leads to more secrets.  Who killed Emma’s parents?  Why are they killing again?  What is Julian hiding from her?  And why is it that parabatai are forbidden to fall in love?

Reading this was a little like slipping back into an old favorite high school sweatshirt: comfortable, nostalgic, but also noting how you’ve changed since you wore it last. (I’ll explain that soon.)

The story itself is really interesting. The plot was always fast-paced and action packed, with a touch of romance and a mystery underlying the whole thing. The mystery was good and I particularly relished the fact that Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” was always the chapter titles. (I’ve taught that poem for 4 years–by the 3rd chapter, I’d noticed the trend.) But I just want to point out that it seems like every one of these Shadowhunter books seems to follow the same format when it comes to the romance.  That kind of made things a little boring at moments.

While I don’t remember Emma or Julian from any of the previous books, apparently they were there with the amount of times they talk about Clary and Jace. Emma is a brash, adventurous, impulsive lead. She has vowed revenge on the person who killed her parents five years ago, not believing the Clave’s assertion that Sebastian Morgenstern was responsible. But her impulses are tempered by Julian, her parabatai. Julian is responsible, reserved, and fiercely protective of his family. With his parents dead and his elder brother and sister taken away in the wake of the Cold Peace, it’s fallen on him to raise his four younger siblings (who were adorable, by the way).

I very much liked the characters and the fact that a number of them from the previous series came back. But having been so long since I’ve read the previous books (and the few I’ve skipped) made it feel like, at times, that I was missing something.

As is usual for Clare, she blends a lot of story lines together throughout this story. So on top of following Julian and Emma, we also get Julian’s older half-fey brother Mark telling part of the story. And we get Emma’s new friend Cristina’s perspective. (Cristina is from an Institute in Mexico, and she’s spending a year abroad in LA’s Institute. But Cristina’s also running from something in her past.)

And Clare mixes in a number of heavy themes and ideas. Betrayal, love (familial, forbidden, etc.), revenge, heartbreak, trust, murder. There’s a lot going on. And, as is also usual for her, a few of her characters are LGBT+. Not all, but a few.

I really did enjoy the story…but like I mentioned earlier, I can tell I’ve changed a lot since I read the last books. Something happened to Emma and Julian in this book that was very similar to something that happened to Clary and Jace in the first series. And I remember my reaction to that. My reaction to Emma and Julian’s problem was vastly different. I was much more “You’re doing the right thing” than “NO! What are you doing?! STOP!” It was just…it was a little weird for me.

I felt like an adult…it was an icky feeling.

I’ve also recently discovered that this series, as of my writing this, has now been completed, which is awesome.  I so hate trying to remember complicated stories over a long period of time.  Hopefully now I’ll quickly read the next two!

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

Image result for the dark descent of elizabeth frankensteinFirst Lines: Lightning clawed across the sky, tracing veins through the clouds and marking the pulse of the universe itself.

I’m a fan of pretty much everything Kiersten White writes, most recently the And I Darken series, which reimagined the legend of Vlad Dracul as a woman.  With this take on Frankenstein (a book I’ve read twice), I had to check it out.

Blurb: Elizabeth Lavenza hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her “caregiver,” and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything–except a friend.

Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable–and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.

But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth’s survival depends on managing Victor’s dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness.

Y’all, I’m not going to lie.  This was a rare DNF for me.  I couldn’t do it.

The initial problem I ran into was that I just couldn’t get into the story with its constantly jumping timelines.  It seemed like for every five paragraphs in the present, there were two pages of flashbacks.  I get what it was doing, but I just could not get into a groove with the story.  I was reading like 2 pages a day because that was all I cared to do.

But what got me was the darkness.

I thought I’d seen White’s ability to go dark with Bright We Burn, but she’s outdone herself.  It was so vicious and dark that I legit thought I would throw up while reading this.  There was a section that basically amounts to vivisection (dissection while the subject is still alive) and I couldn’t even finish reading that before I knew I was done.

It’s getting a lot of critical acclaim, from what I can tell.  Maybe it got a lot better after that.  But OMG, it was just too disgusting for me.