2020: A Year in Review (And Hopefully the Rearview Mirror)

I’m writing this a little more than a week before I’m planning on posting this, but I feel like I’m finally ready to start talking about what this year has meant to me, to all of us. It absolutely has not been a banner year, but that doesn’t mean some good things haven’t happened along the way.

Now, I’m not planning on going month through month here, but there are some categories of things I want to talk about and I think they will kind of play out chronologically.

COVID

Is it possible to talk about 2020 without the literal most impactful thing to happen this year? As far as I know, I have not had it. I remember back in February and March going, “What’s this…coronavirus thing, and why did they name it after a beer?” Oh, silly, naïve me. How far we’ve come.

Back in March, I started keeping a journal of COVID and news events as they happened as well as my local case numbers and death totals. I wanted to track the information and see how it changed. When I started writing it, my school had just shut down. Lockdowns were in place. No toilet paper or meat to be found anywhere. I didn’t leave my house for 2 weeks. When I finally did that first time, I nearly cried while driving because it was at a speed faster than I could walk. (I legit felt like one of those people who time travel to the future and are like, “What is this…you call it a car? Is it safe to be going…30 miles per hour? That seems pretty fast.”) All of that, plus the reactions of politicians, general news stories, and my personal news made it into the journal. I have not read through it at all in the last 10 months. I’m saving that for when the pandemic is over.

And to some extents, I haven’t been mad about the restrictions put in place. I like wearing masks around. It helps my social anxiety, now that I don’t have to constantly keep a smile plastered on my face or pretend I don’t see someone I don’t want to talk to while out. But I did realize a few weeks ago that I think I’m now developing a form of agoraphobia when I saw hundreds of students flood into the hallway after Thanksgiving break. So that’s not exactly fun, but it’s not extreme or anything. I think it’s really just an exaggeration of my normal feeling of not wanting to be around super large crowds. It faded somewhat over the following days as I got used to being around people again.

I’m thrilled there’s a vaccine now and I will be getting it when I’m allowed to. If it helps us get back to whatever “normal” looks like now, I’ll do it.

My Love Life–and Understanding Myself

To preface this, I have a strong connection to the song “For Good” from the musical Wicked. There’s a verse in it that says, “I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn and we are lead to those who help us most to grow if we let them and we help them in return. Well I don’t know if I believe that’s true, but I know I’m who I am today because I knew you.” That has never been more true to me.

In very early January of this year, I started dating a guy I’ll call Drew* for this. He was significantly older than me (7…7 years. Don’t get gross). We had a lot in common and we had the kind of chemistry where when we first met, we clicked immediately. I’d never felt that before, the way you could be so comfortable around someone you’d just met. But it we were in for some rough spots. COVID, obviously, for one thing. We’d only been dating 2 months when everything shut down. Now we couldn’t go anywhere or really do anything except sit on the couch and watch movies and make dinner. It was a struggle.

But our relationship hit some rocks right from the beginning as well. I had a hard time with the age gap, with relating to him and how we were in different places in our lives. I mean, I’m still in my 20s and he was in his mid-30s. It bothered me. And I’m also incredibly busy in January through March with show choir stuff. My weekends were taken up with competitions and rehearsals. I didn’t have time–or the energy–to go on dates even when we could.

We ended up hitting a really rough patch in late June and early July where it became incredibly clear that we had different values on things like family and what we wanted out of life. We tried to get through it for a while, but we called it quits fairly mutually in August.

While it wasn’t a successful relationship, looking back I can say that I grew a lot as a person in that time. I have frequently struggled with feeling insecure or inadequate. I felt like I was bothering everyone around me all the time just with my presence, especially if I made my voice heard and it was an unpopular opinion. I was lonely and in a bad place.

And that’s where Drew and his maturity really helped me. In those months, I frequently aired to him my darkest thoughts, my darkest secrets–and he talked me through them. He questioned and prodded and waited patiently for me to answer. And slowly, I healed. I gained confidence. I started singing in front of people, something I haven’t done in 10 years without feeling like I’m about to collapse in a jumble of nerves. I found my self-worth. I started truly believing that what I had to say and that my feelings were worthwhile and that people should listen to me.

At the time, I didn’t necessarily see this growth, but I have seen it a lot in the last month and I knew it’s because of Drew and how much time I spent with him. For example, I usually feel like I’m indebted to the people who are my friends for…being my friends. Like they’re doing me a favor. And one friend in particular, when I write out her Christmas card every year, it almost sounds like I’m apologizing for being me and thanking her for spending time with me. It was sad. But this year, I saw it as more equal. We relied on each other and we genuinely enjoy each other’s company–and that finally sunk in.

So if there’s one thing the pandemic has been good for, it’s that I’ve finally matured a bit more and feel more comfortable in who I am, whether someone else likes it or not. I can’t be mad at it for finally making me feel happy in a way I haven’t felt in a long time.

Family

With the holidays here, it’s been dawning on me a bit how the values I’ve placed on family have changed a little too. I haven’t seen most of my extended family since this summer, before mask mandates were a thing and while people were still a little loose in their interpretation of “social distancing”. (I still see my immediate family every 2-3 weeks.)

Do I miss my family? Yes. But also…no. And it feels weird to say that.

Growing up, I saw my extended family all the time. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, we all got together multiple times a year. And growing up, that was awesome. I had playmates. I had people to talk to who basically had to love me because I was family. (See the self-worth comments above.) But as we’ve gotten older, those relationships have become more strained. Differences in ideology and religion, life changes, and more have made it more difficult. Like, nearly every cousin my age is married with kids and all they want to talk about are their babies and their spouses. I have neither and cannot contribute to a conversation about what to do when the kid has a diaper rash. I inevitably left every get-together feeling inadequate that I had no one to share life with the way they did. (Not to mention the fact that there was always one person who asked if I was still single and if not, how serious it was. They were totally trying to plan out when I might be getting married.)

I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve actually blocked a couple of family members on Facebook for constantly posting things about how the pandemic isn’t real, we need to put on our big kid pants and deal with it because it’s like the flu, etc. And like, I’m not mad that I don’t have to hear them spit this during this holiday season.

But I’m also seeing the importance of family too. I have gone over to visit my parents multiple times just to sit and talk for hours just because. This year, one of my grandma’s developed cancer that was supposed to be terminal but now seems to have completely disappeared with chemo. (We now have to wait and see if it’s actually entirely gone, but…it’s a promising start.) I have another grandma who is developing dementia and we’re watching that decline happen. It’s hard, but with both of them it’s allowing me to spend time with them while they’re still here.

Conclusions

Look, we all know 2020 has been a dumpster fire that we’re going to patently ignore moving forward, but I hope we remember the lessons. What–and who–was important when society shut down. What we learned about ourselves. Like I learned how to make bread from scratch and the joy I found in doing that. That’s something I didn’t have the confidence to do before–I was sure I was going to screw it up and so I just didn’t do it. And you know what? I did screw up that first batch, but the second made really tasty cinnamon rolls.

We have lived I think about 20 years in 2020 alone, so hopefully we come out of this wiser for it. Take the lessons and let’s make 2021 the better for it.

-Holly

Top Ten Favorite Reads of 2020

Here we are! We’re at the end of another year, which means another check of what were my favorite reads of the year! (This also means another post I’m going to struggle with because I so rarely give anything 5 stars anymore that finding 10 is a bit of a challenge. On the upside, you know I’m serious about the “favorite” part.)

Without further ado, let’s get started! These are in no particular order, just 10 top picks.

Top Ten Favorite Reads of 2020

1. More Than Maybe by Erin Hahn

I love stories about music, so this standalone contemporary romance about a girl who runs a music blog and a boy who has a music podcast (and happens to be the son of a semi-famous former rocker) definitely checks my boxes. Great characters, excellent plot, and wonderful character development.

2. Tweet Cute by Emma Lord

Speaking of character development, this book should have won the Goodreads Award for YA. Like, even I went into it thinking it was going to be really cheesy (if you’ve read this, please tell me you just got my pun), but it’s actually amazing. You’ve got a girl, heir to a growing fast food chain, and a boy, son of mom-and-pop deli owners, clashing on Twitter. It is one of the first books I’ve ever read that actually harnessed social media in a realistic way without sounding like a fifty year old pretending to know how Twitter worked.

3. The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Guhrke

This isn’t YA, it’s a Victorian-era romance novel, but I think it’s worth mentioning since I’ve read so many romances this year to deal with 2020. This one, set in the 1880s England, involves a female newspaper owner who writes love advice in the newspaper and ends up angering a very influential duke in the process. It’s witty, snarky, and fun. And I loved seeing so many independent women in this book.

4. The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson

Ah, the finale of the Truly Devious series! Loads of twists and turns, lots of surprises, and a whole lot of fun. I really enjoyed this. What more is there to say? Maureen Johnson slays. (Um…literally? It is a murder mystery.)

5. Soulswift by Megan Bannen

I read this as an ARC months ago, but it was fascinating. It’s a standalone fantasy, which immediately means it’s pretty unique. But on top of that, you have two characters who come from very different backgrounds and cultures, and I loved how that played out. How they argued over philosophy and discovered something beyond their own upbringing. It was emotional and so hard to put down once I got into the story.

6. Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab

Back when we thought we might actually have Olympics this year (curse you, COVID), this was the perfect way to get ready for it. In this story, we meet two swimmers on track to become Olympians, if they’re willing to put in the work. It’s a love story, both to the water and to each other. But it also has a dark side that definitely made it stand out to me.

7. Wild Bird by Wendelin Van Draanen

Speaking of dark side, this book had that in spades…though it’s also one of the most hopeful books on the back half of this list. In it, our protagonist is a wild child, and I mean wild. Her parents can no longer put up with it and send her off to a survival camp in the desert as a kind of intervention. It’s a rough start, I won’t lie. She unlikable at first, and I certainly don’t condone the intervention style, but this is a story of growth and personal development. I really liked seeing her change over the story and I thought it was really well written.

8. The Toll by Neal Shusterman

With the overall tone 2020 took very early on, I tried to avoid politically-leaning books (see: my DNF of King of Crows by Libba Bray), so it’s a little ironic that I loved this book. The whole Scythe series has been a direct reaction to the current political climate of many countries around the world. This finale was absolutely the same thing, but it was still weirdly fascinating and different. It felt very timely and I did rather enjoy seeing certain events happen.

9. Some Boys by Patty Blount

Ok, if you have triggers about rape and violence toward women, this is not your book. And while that probably didn’t sell many of you on this book right from the get-go, I swear it’s amazing. We’ve got a protagonist who was raped by the town’s golden boy–and when she reports it, everyone turns against her. She’s afraid of being alone with boys now, not that I could blame her. So when she’s forced to spend detention with her rapist’s best friend cleaning out lockers, she’s terrified. And he starts to learn just what she’s been going through and how it affects her. It’s not a perfect story (there are times our lead male does have some issues), but I thought it was a very brave story.

10. Be Not Far From Me by Mindy McGinnis

Ooooh, man, this story left an impact! Our protagonist here gets herself lost in the woods after catching her boyfriend cheating on her at a party. Drunk, she stumbled off the path and can’t find her way back in the morning. This is 100% a survival story and there are times it gets utterly disgusting. Graphic disgusting. But that made it feel more realistic. And also, that’s kind of McGinnis’s style, so I’m actually not even mad about that. I knew what I was signing up for.

11. Secrets of a Summer Night by Lisa Kleypas

Now, I know this is 11, but I really wanted to mention this too. This is a Regency romance novel, but it’s oh so fabulous. A group of wallflowers band together to become friends and find matches for each other, since clearly the men in the ballrooms are dumb and don’t see their worth. But let me tell you, this one packed a punch. There’s one scene in particular where I completely melted. I had to read it twice, it was that good. And it wasn’t even a kissing scene! Character development is great, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s got so much heart. I really loved it.

Wayfarer (Passenger, #2)

Wayfarer (Passenger, #2)

First Lines: Etta woke to the rumbling call of thunder, her body wrapped in ribbons of fire.

I read the first book in this duology a few months back and really enjoyed it. Not for any historical accuracy, but just for the fun of it. It was a fun, wild ride and I really wanted to see how things ended.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

All Etta had wanted, even just two months ago, was to make her violin debut. She didn’t count on being thrust into a dangerous world full of people trying to kill her. So when Etta awakes after having lost the most important object and the most important person in her life, she’s surprised to find that help comes in the form of the last person she expected to see–Julian Ironwood, the Ironwood heir who has been presumed dead. Meanwhile, Nicholas and Sophia are searching for the astrolabe and Etta with Ironwoods hot on their trail. They cross paths with an assassin-for-hire named Li Min. But as they travel on, Nicholas begins to fear that his one of his companions may have ulterior motives. Will time run out before Nicholas and Etta can right the Timeline?

This kind of wasn’t what I was expecting…and it kind of was in the ways I didn’t want.

Let me explain. So first of all, this does the very cliché thing that 2nd books do, which is separate the two leads to increase the drama. That was obvious from the book jacket. This is what I wasn’t looking forward to. It just feels so contrived, though I will admit that it was actually a feature of this plot and not some misunderstanding or something that kept them apart. So, you know, bonus points for that.

What I was not expecting but was pleasantly surprised by were the other characters who really stepped up. Like Sophia. She becomes kind of awesome? And the introduction of Henry was unexpected as well, but I’ll just let you figure that one out. Oh, and Julian. We can’t forget about him. The character arcs here were just…unexpectedly delightful, whether you liked the character or not.

What was interesting was that this really started to feel like two separate stories in one. I frequently found myself getting so sucked into one side of things that I forgot there was this whole other story going on at the same time. These chapters do take turns between Nicholas’s POV and Etta’s, but it isn’t an every-other-chapter kind of situation. It plays out a particular plot point, whether it takes 1 chapter or 5. And I actually kind of liked that. Yeah, sometimes I was impatient to go back to the other story, but this felt more thoughtfully planned out.

I kind of wish there was more of a conclusion, but I thought this was an interesting story. Just, as I said with the last book, try not to look too closely at how the time travel works because there are some issues I see, things that don’t add up too well.

Sixteen Scandals

Sixteen Scandals

First Lines: She was going to die here, crouched beneath a table on a dirty tavern room floor with bits and crumbs of food that predated the Magna Carta surrounding her. Glass shattered nearby, and she flinched, shrinking into herself as tiny shards sprayed her and the pungent scent of sweat, ale and wine soaked the air. If this was the be it, then it was an ignominious end.

As many of you know, I’m a big fan of historical romances and, obviously, YA. When I saw Sophie Jordan, who was a prolific historical romance career, was going to merge these two genres, I was so excited. Lucky for me, I got my hands on an ARC. (Release date is May 25, 2021.)

Primrose Ainsworth has just turned sixteen and so far, nothing is going right. Instead of having a party and being treated like an adult like she expected, she’s now being told by her parents that she may not come out for years, not until her older sister finds a beau. Frustrated and indignant, Prim sets out to celebrate her birthday in style. Except, well, nothing goes to plan…at least there’s a mysterious hero to get her out of the worst scrapes…

In this story, we’re introduced to Prim. She’s just turned 16 and literally no one in her family cares that it’s her birthday or that she’s supposed to be making a big come-out to mark the occasion and her entrance into society. Instead, she’s suddenly told she will still be a child in society’s eyes for at least another year–a year in which Prim will continue to be ignored, bored, and lonely. She decides that on this night, she needs to live. So she makes a break for Vauxhall with a friend.

Prim is kind of an interesting character. She’s the wild child of the family, the youngest of four in a moderately wealthy family. She’s intelligent and clever, something her family does not generally appreciate. She even calls herself the “black sheep” of the family at one point and that does fit pretty well. She’s headstrong and witty, which I did enjoy. But her rebelliousness, in many ways, did make her feel cliché.

The plot was a slog. Thankfully, the book is short. The real problem for me is that 80% of the story takes place in a single night. I tend to have trouble with that because of the unbelievability of how a relationship can develop in that time. A good 20-25% of the story is all set-up before we even get to Vauxhall as Prim moans about how terrible her family is. And then once she does get to Vauxhall, it’s just a comedy of errors and unfortunate events. I didn’t even feel like her friendship with Jacob was super duper. It had its moments, but mostly it was forgettable.

The way this is written as YA and a younger version of a historical romance really didn’t do justice to either genre. It felt like a clean historical romance more than anything, even if the heroine was just 16. All you really get that’s YA from this is Prim’s sense of powerlessness at being under her parents’ thumbs and her first taste of freedom. I’m really not sure how much of this actually worked by combining these genres. I think I would have liked it more if it had just gone wholly as a historical romance with a slightly older heroine.

All of that said, this book isn’t a complete wash. I knew I was getting fluff when I picked this up–and I was counting on that. It has been a stressful week and I knew this would be fun and easy to follow. And it was. There were times I did giggle to myself when Prim got into a spot of trouble. There were moments of sweetness between the characters. And yeah, I read the entire book in a day. It was fast.

I guess if this is something that sounds interesting to you, give it a try. But if you feel like it’s a stretch, that this isn’t something you’d normally read, maybe just pass. 

The Court of Miracles (A Court of Miracles, #1)

The Court of Miracles (Court of Miracles, #1)

First Lines: It is a time of famine, a time of hungering want that threatens to eat you from the inside out, leaving you good only to wait for the coming of death. And Death the Endless always comes.

I swear, every time I see this title, I think it’s about The Hunchback of Notre Dame because this is the name of a song in the movie and a well-known place in the book. But it’s actually about another Victor Hugo book, Les Misérables. Well, that and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. We’ll get to that.

1828, Paris. The French Revolution has failed and the poorer streets are ruled by a group of nine criminal guilds known as the Court of Miracles. Eponine “Nina” Thenadier is a talented cat burglar who does anything and everything she can to avoid her father’s fists and protect her adoptive little sister, Cosette “Ettie”. When Ettie attracts the attention of the ruthless Guild of Flesh leader named Tiger, Nina will stop at nothing to protect her sister. But to do that, she’ll need to travel from the darkest streets to the palace of Louis XVII–and force her to make an impossible choice between saving her sister and starting a war.

It was different than I expected. While it is definitely a retelling of Les Mis, it’s done with a twist. A Jungle Book twist. It’s the urban jungle, my friends. Like, there’s a ton of animal imagery in the story. Characters are named Orso (bear) and Tiger, while the different Guilds of the Miracle Court have names like Dogs, Cats, Bats, Rats, etc. It took me a while to really get into this part of the story, or maybe it just took a while for that to start making sense, but once it works, it’s pretty interesting.

Creative, yes. But it did take some time getting used to. I was expecting a more faithful retelling than it turned out to be. Because of the Jungle Book stuff, the story does take a turn. There are something like 9 Guilds and those are entirely new to this story. On top of that, I’m pretty sure that Cosette is significantly younger than Eponine in this story rather than the same age. And one major character to the original story so far has not made an appearance. I assume he will in the next book.

I know everyone’s obsessed with Eponine and like, fine, whatever. For this story, she made a solid heroine. She’s known as Nina or the Black Cat, a thief of tremendous ability. Paris is not kind to her, forcing her into several painful situations to survive. And for some time, she’s content to live a hard life. But that changes when threats to Ettie (Cosette) start coming because of how pretty the little girl is. As I said, Paris is not kind and the people who want Ettie want to break her.

Surprisingly, one of the major players in this story is Enjolras St. Juste. It was an interesting turn of events, considering the role he plays. And can I just say for a moment how much I enjoy Grantaire? This drunk best friend has had a soft spot in my heart for a long time. And, weirdly, Montparnasse is cool?

I am getting seriously off track. There’s a lot to unpack in this story. It very clearly highlights class differences (and warfare), particularly between the royal family and the lowest of the low in the streets of Paris. Nina is able to walk both sides of that and you see clearly that there are villains on both sides, and people worth your respect. But let’s be real, I don’t think we really needed Les Mis to do this story. It could have been just as interesting, if not more so, with original characters.

This book does have dark moments. Violence, class issues, broken hearts, harsh realities of life, and of course, Death the Endless. But it tempers that with brief glimpses of humor and heartwarming moments of sisterhood. Ettie and Nina are sweet and I loved seeing such a tight sisterly bond in a story that, historically, has pitted these two against each other.

More Than Maybe

More Than Maybe

First Lines: I don’t believe in fate. I believe in music. I’ve heard there is one person out there for everyone. One missing half to complete your whole. The fates will magnetically pull the two halves together through some orchestrated coincidence, and that’s it. You’re all set. Bollocks, that.

Ok, so first of all, my apologies on being gone so long. In part, I was experiencing a lot of negative feelings from my job and I fell into routines that didn’t involve writing because that would mean writing about my feelings and…I didn’t want to do that. And the other part is that I’ve been reading a lot of stuff that isn’t YA. But then I realized I’m like a month behind and yeah, we’ve got some catching up to do. Starting with this one.

Luke Greenly has grown up knowing the heat of the spotlight, thanks to his famous rocker dad. But Luke doesn’t want anything to do with fame–he wants to write music instead. He prefers being mostly anonymous doing a podcast with his twin brother and awkwardly hiding his crush on Vada, who works at the bar where he and Cullen record their podcast. Vada’s life is all planned out: learn about the music scene from her mom’s boyfriend who is also a former musician, take over his music blog, get into Berkeley’s music journalism program, and secure a Rolling Stones internship. Luke Greenly was not on that list. But…he’s really cute. And when Cullen releases a recording of Luke singing an original song, why does Vada wish it was about her?

With all the bad stuff going on in the world right now, I have been having a really hard time focusing on books. I just can’t stay with a story very long.

This book changed that.

Erin Hahn seems to be making a niche for herself writing stories that revolve around music and I am perfectly fine with that. She does it well. Vada and Luke’s obsessions with music draw them together in this story–and it still manages to feel so different from her first book, You’d Be Mine. (I also highly recommend that book.)

The characters in this, from our leads to our supporting cast, were all so fascinating and interesting. You have parents who care and are still very much in love with each other, parents who are divorced and are miserable people. You have wacky best friends and relationships that stumble. It’s actually really cool to see such a spectrum and how relationships of all kinds can heal after someone makes a mistake and hurts the other person. Simply put, they all felt real and I loved it.

All of this is great, but there’s just something about the writing that draws me in right from the beginning. There’s just something…intense…about it. In a good way. When we’re first introduced to Luke, we learn he has a massive crush on someone and we get such feeling from that that it’s hard to ignore the story. And then Vada’s so intense about following her dreams and loving music and her job. The feelings are all so real. Hahn really knows how to harness that.

This is really cute. I really enjoyed it. This is definitely one of my top 10 reads for the year.