Happy Saturday, everyone!
Can you believe that there are only a few hours of 2022 left? Or that I am actually here and posting something for a change? Miracles will never cease, I suppose…
Anyway, I figured I might as well give you this wrap-up today because
a) I don’t have another post ready and
b) the workload I’ve neglected over Christmas is so immeasurably large that I am strictly forbidden from reading anything else before I leave for a New Year’s Eve party with my friends later today.
Even if that means there is now absolute finality to me having failed to achieve pretty much all of my 2022 reading goals. **sneakily proceeds to adjust her Goodreads challenge in order to hide at least part of the incriminating evidence**
Quite honestly, though? I’d rather forget the first half of December altogether. There were a few highlights, such as my tenth-graders baking me an enormous personalized gingerbread cookie as an Advent present or me visiting friends in Munich to take advantage of Christmas markets finally being fully reopened, but for the most part, my life was an absolute nightmare that I was trying to survive on a day-by-day basis. I was teaching on about four hours of sleep a night, spent my birthday doing nothing except grading exams and trying to avoid answering phone calls because I was afraid I would start crying if people asked how I was doing, and to top it all off, my car broke down, leaving me stranded in -20°C weather that could definitely not be navigated by bicycle. A huge shoutout goes to my wonderful neighbors, who didn’t ask any questions when I appeared on their doorstep at 6:30 a.m., drove me to school, helped me figure out how to change a car battery, proceeded to drive me around all week when it turned out that changing the car battery hadn’t solved the problem, and refused to accept any thanks other than me inviting them over for dinner. Neighbors, I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but you are amazing!
Then, thankfully, came Christmas break. Which was wonderful! Miraculously, I made it home on December 23rd without any train delays whatsoever, meaning I got there right on time to meet up with my friends from school for our annual pre-Christmas dinner and Secret Santa exchange. And Christmas itself was pretty epic, too. I ate way too much food, played a ton of board games with my siblings and parents, read way more than I have in months, and “enchanted” everyone with my Christmas carol accompaniment skills until my sister rudely wrested the guitar away from me…
Anyway, that pretty much sums up my December, so let’s get into books! From awesome to downright awful, I had a bit of everything this month, which means you should have a variety of reviews to choose from!
The Witness for the Dead (4.5/5 Stars) and The Grief of Stones (5/5 Stars) (The Cemeteries of Amalo #1-2) by Katherine Addison
(I listened to both of these as audiobooks; the narrator was Liam Gerrard.)
When I started reading this series, I was sure it could never compete with Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. How could I possibly love something that didn’t include Maia or the Untheileneise Court? My biased heart, fearful of disappointment, had me skeptically judging everything – until I suddenly realized that I loved this every bit as much as The Goblin Emperor and that I would give my dying breath to defend the protagonist.
Set in a steampunk fantasy world, The Cemeteries of Amalo is a crime fiction spin-off series that takes place shortly after the events of The Goblin Emperor, following the formerly disgraced Prelate of Ulis and Witness for the Dead Thara Celehar. Due to his ability to communicate with the recently deceased, Thara is drawn into petty squabbles, inheritance disputes, and murder cases. Simultaneously, he must find his place in a city where he isn’t always wanted and come to terms with the darker parts of his own past.
Briefly put: I positively, wholeheartedly adored both of these books. Yes, I docked half a star off the first one, but that was because I didn’t know what Katherine Addison was planning in the grand scheme of things. I felt like the plot of The Witness for the Dead was a bit disjointed, with Thara suddenly jumping from one case to another in the middle of the book. And while I loved that we got to see Thara’s entire thought process while trying to solve the various mysteries he was working on, I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get all the clues needed to solve them slightly earlier.
However, The Grief of Stones changed my mind on a lot of these minor quibbles. For one thing, details which I thought had been dropped for just a bit of extra subplot in book one suddenly became really important! And for another, The Grief of Stones made me realize that I didn’t just love Thara Celehar – I wholeheartedly adored him. He was the dutiful, depressed, idealistic, deeply caring, I-can’t-let-anyone-get-too-close-to-me-because-they-probably-won’t-like-me-anyway character I didn’t know I needed, and at some point, I honestly stopped caring what kind of plot Katherine Addison threw at me. As long as I got to read about Thara Celehar, I was happy!
In general, though, I loved all of the character development in these books. It wasn’t just Thara, but also the relationships he had with his friends, colleagues, and clients. Like, I am nearly as obsessed with Iäna Pel-Thenhior as I am with Thara Celehar, and the two of them together are just the best thing ever!! I adore Anora Chanavar. And although we only get to know her in book two, Velhiro Tomasaran quickly wormed her way into my heart as well.
But fine, before this turns into endlessly long, incoherent gushing, I will shut up. Just trust me and read this series, okay?
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng (4/5 Stars)
Since I adored Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, Our Missing Hearts was one of my most anticipated releases of this year. I was so excited when I found a copy underneath our Christmas tree, and although it didn’t quite manage to live up to my astronomically high expectations, I still enjoyed it a lot.
Set in a dystopian future where the United States has become paranoid about protecting American ideals and banning foreign influences, Our Missing Hearts is told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy, Bird Gardner. Raised by a broken-hearted father after his Chinese-American mother walked out on their family, Bird knows that he is not supposed to do anything that might attract the authorities’ attention. Children of dissidents, particularly those of Asian origin, are often taken away to be properly educated, and since Bird’s mother is known for her rebellious poetry, he is already on their radar. But, one day, a letter arrives, and Bird can’t help but ask questions. Questions that lead him to libraries, missing children, and the truth about his mom.
Like all of Celeste Ng’s novels, Our Missing Hearts is profoundly lyrical and does not shy away from heavy topics. The dystopian world she portrays is frightening precisely because it is not that far removed from our current reality and makes you reflect on things you’ve always taken for granted.
That being said, I feel like Our Missing Hearts’s biggest flaw is that it gets so caught up in trying to get a political message across that it fails to focus on its characters as much as Celeste Ng’s previous novels do. Bird and his parents’ personalities are overshadowed by them being a mixed-race family in a country where non-whiteness is immediately seen as suspicious. Side characters are there to provide information on all of the awful things the government is doing to its people. Which, of course, isn’t a bad thing per se, but I just felt like it would have added a lot of depth to the story if the characters had also been important of their own accord, if that makes any sense.
The Haunting Season: Ghostly Tales for Long Winter Nights (4/5 Stars)
An anthology of ghost stories set around Christmas time, The Haunting Season has had me extremely intrigued for well over a year now. Unfortunately, though, getting my hands on a copy was far more difficult than I had originally anticipated. Neither Scribd or my library had one, and since I was determined to stick to the rules of my book buying ban, I had to wait for my family to come through and give one to me… But come through they did – and with perfect timing, too, because this was the ideal winter read!
If you’re looking for dark and atmospheric holiday tales with a creepy twist, look no further. The Haunting Season includes eight chilling stories, the majority of which take place in Victorian England and all of which are set around Christmas time, by different award-winning British authors.
I didn’t love all the stories equally, but they all had me engaged and gave me the exact ghost story vibes I had been craving. So I’d definitely recommend this to fans of the macabre!
(Also, for any nosy people out there looking for more detailed thoughts on the individual stories, here are a few to satisfy your curiosity:
‘A Study in Black and White’ by Bridget Collins (5/5 Stars): Has Bridget Collins entranced me so much with her lyrically atmospheric writing style that I will unquestionably love every single one of her works? Possibly. Besides, this was about chess! Like any proper math nerd, I obviously love chess!
‘Thwaite’s Tenant’ by Imogen Hermes Gowar (3/5 Stars): This one was alright, I guess. The dramatic beginning of a mother fleeing from her abusive husband in ice-cold rain immediately had me hooked, but unfortunately, I felt like the story lost momentum from there. I just didn’t think it was particularly creepy!
‘The Eel Singers’ by Natasha Pulley (4/5 Stars): Storytellingwise, I think this had its flaws, but I still loved everything about it because it gave me more Mori, Thaniel, and Six! After The Lost Future of Pepperharrow gave me such a Watchmaker of Filigree Street book hangover that I am still in recovery, I needed this!
‘Lily Wilt’ by Jess Kidd (3.5/5 Stars): I loved the creepy necromantic premise and snide humor but found the second-half a bit underwhelming. If you ask me, this story was so busy not taking itself seriously that it lost a lot of the macabre tension it had built up in the first half.
‘The Chillingham Chair’ by Laura Purcell (3/5 Stars): Meh. This one was probably my least favorite story in the collection, due entirely to how it was written. The plot – think creepy manor, mysterious accidents, and a wealthy soon-to-be brother-in-law – was good, but the way it was presented had me rolling my eyes. I guessed the big twist right from the get-go and with all the super obvious hints we kept getting, I just found it utterly unbelievable that the characters were so clueless!
‘The Hanging of the Greens’ by Andrew Michael Hurley (3.5/Stars): The main story about a recovering alcoholic was pretty decent, but the frame narrative felt kind of forced and made the whole thing a bit too disjointed for my tastes.
‘Confinement’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (4.5/5 Stars): Yellow Wallpaper-vibes with a creepy child-murdering witch thrown in? Yes, please! I’m not gonna pretend my evil soul wasn’t hoping for an even darker ending, though…
‘Monster’ by Elizabeth Macneal (5/5 Stars): Hands-down my favorite story in the entire collection! What could be better than a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist digging up dinosaur bones on Victorian beaches?)
Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley (4/5 Stars)
I am unashamed to admit that I picked this up solely because I’d heard that parts of it were set in a bookstore. Well, that and because Words in Deep Blue was supposed to be simultaneously depressing and hopeful. How can you not love depressing hopefulness?
Set in an Australian coastal town, the novel follows two teenagers, Rachel and Henry, who used to be best friends before Rachel moved away and broke off all contact. Now, however, Rachel is back. In an attempt to escape from the meaninglessness she has felt since her brother drowned several months ago, Rachel moves in with her aunt and promises to get a job – and her first offer happens to come from Henry’s parents, who run a struggling second-hand bookshop. A bookshop that a heartbroken Henry, who was just dumped by his girlfriend, also happens to work at.
From page one, Words in Deep Blue had me completely engrossed. I loved how messily real the characters were – and let me tell you, they definitely make their fair share of realistically stupid decisions -, I loved how Rachel’s grieving process was portrayed, and I loved the dynamic between Henry and his sister George, who was by far my favorite character.
However, I also think that the ending wrapped things up a bit too neatly. Sure, there were a few messy ends as well, but overall, I guess I wanted more pain and unresolved complications considering what the characters had gone through. Sometimes, I felt as though the romance overshadowed the subtler, more meaningful themes in the story, and I would have liked just a little bit more balance.
Still, Words in Deep Blue is certainly a YA contemporary story worth checking out if you want depth in addition to a cute friends-to-lovers romance. Get your tissues ready, because if you’re a book crier, you’re probably going to need them!
Unplugged by Gordon Korman (3.5/5 Stars)
Gordon Korman is one of my favorite childhood authors, so I’ve made it my mission to read whatever the man publishes. And while his most recent release isn’t exactly a new favorite, I did have a ton of fun with it!
Unplugged follows a group of kids who are sent to an off-the-grid wellness retreat in Arkansas – a place where daily meditation is a must and technology and meat are strictly forbidden. There’s Grace Atwater, a true believer who has been coming to the Oasis for years now. Tyrell Karrigan, who’s allergic to pretty much everything and has a permanently boyfriend-obsessed older sister. Brooklynne Feldman, who knows way more about the Oasis than any other guest. Jett Baranov, the spoilt rich kid condemned to stay at the Oasis after his billionaire father decided his pranks had gone too far. Despite their initial dislike for one another, the four children become unlikely allies when Grace rescues a baby lizard that soon turns into a secret pet. And their friendship is further cemented when the adults at the Oasis start acting very, very strange…
If I had read Unplugged when I was around ten, I think I would’ve whole-heartedly adored it. At age 27, I still enjoyed it a lot, but also found it to be a bit predictable and lacking the character-depth I now look for in novels. It was fun, fast-paced, and unique, but not the kind of story that sticks with you and that will make you think even months after you’ve read it.
Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler (1/5 Stars)
(I read this in German – if anyone is interested, a heavily annotated edition by the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich can be found here – but there are several English translations, most of which are titled Mein Kampf: My Struggle)
Well, I did it. After half a year of struggling though this book, I have finally finished. And it was absolutely not worth it.
Perhaps the most infamous work ever published, Mein Kampf is the autobiographical manifesto of Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler, which he began writing while imprisoned in Landsberg am Lech after his failed 1923 coup in Munich. In two volumes, the book explains Hitler’s political ideology, his plans for Germany’s future, and the struggles he encountered while trying to realize his ideals.
Heavily controversial, publishing Mein Kampf was forbidden in Germany from 1945 until 2016 – and, with me being the idiot that I am, anything forbidden obviously peaked my interest. There were probably historical insights to be gained from this, I thought, especially within the current political climate!
Boy, was I wrong. After forcing myself through over 800 pages worth of Nazi ideology, antisemitic propaganda, glorification of war, and the most disorganized, boring, and grammatically atrocious writing style I have ever encountered, as well as an additional 1,000 pages of footnotes in which the editors painstakingly fact-check Hitler’s claims, the only things I can honestly say I have learnt are:
1) Hitler was a terrible writer, and
2) Heart of Darkness is officially no longer my least favorite book of all time.
Everything else was pretty much only a bloated version of what I had already learnt in history class, and trust me, you do not need 800 pages of Hitler ranting about Jews perpetuating Communism to wipe out the superior Arian race and Germany having to fortify its position within Europe by allying itself with Italy and England to claim more territory when a summary will do. My encounter with this book was the worst reading experience of my entire life, and if you value your sanity, I recommend you steer well clear and read a history textbook instead.
The Red Scrolls of Magic (The Eldest Curses #1) by Cassandra Clare and Wesley Chu (3/5 Stars)
Give me something Shadowhunter-related, and I will read it. Especially if it includes characters as precious as Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane!
The Red Scrolls of Magic follows the two of them on their first ever vacation together, right after the events of City of Glass. However, what was supposed to be a relaxing journey across Europe quickly turns into a dangerous mission filled with demons, murder, and a vengeful cult that Magnus may or may not have founded himself…
Overall, I had a ton of nostalgia-filled fun with this, loved all the cute Malec moments, and enjoyed getting to see a bit more of Aline Penhallow and Helen Blackthorn. Still, a lot about The Red Scrolls of Magic also felt really random, like the plot had been hastily cobbled together to provide the reader with plenty of groan-worthy jokes and Mortal Instruments/Infernal Devices/Dark Artifices Easter eggs. I didn’t find the book particularly compelling in its own right, thought the ending was extremely predictable, and found several of its scenes similar to what I had already seen in other Cassandra Clare novels.
If you’re a big fan and craving more Shadowhunters content, go for it – but also don’t expect anything too special.
Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux (1.5/5 Stars)
(I read this in the French original, but in case anyone had trouble figuring this out, the title of the English translation is The Phantom of the Opera 😜)
Let me preface this by saying that I am not fluent in French. After German and English, it is the language I am most comfortable in, but I still had to look up quite a bit while reading this. Which means it is entirely possible that a lot of what happened in The Phantom of the Opera went over my head. Maybe my intense hatred of this novel is simply due to me not having understood it properly?
Anyway, The Phantom of the Opera is a French classic that gained world-wide fame through Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical adaptation in the 1980s. Set in 19th-century Paris, it tells the story of a haunted opera house and a beautiful soprano, Christine Daaé, who is torn between the affections of her childhood friend Vicomte Raoul de Chagny and a mysterious angelic voice that has been teaching her how to sing.
To sum up it up: I liked absolutely nothing about this book except the creepy gothic atmosphere and the descriptions of the opera house. The entire plot was based on the characters being total morons who needed hundreds pages to figure out what I had assumed everybody had known all along and whose decision-making skills made Bella Swan look like a world-class genius. Seriously, Christine’s thought-process can be summed up pretty much as follows: “Oh no, Raoul, I can’t tell you anything or I will die! Oh, actually, never mind, let me tell you a boring twenty-page story about how this ghost has been courting me. I’m so terrified! But, no, we can’t run away today because it will break the ghost’s heart. Let’s do it tomorrow instead so the ghost will have another opportunity to kill me! Or actually, never mind, let me completely ignore you and make dumb decisions that you are not going to question because your brain flew out the window the minute you met me!” IT WAS INFURIATING! I hated Christine, I hated Raoul for having no personality that didn’t involve being obsessed with Christine, I hated how conveniently this character called the Persian knew everything whenever information was needed, and I hated the phantom for how utterly pathetic it was. The Phantom of the Opera could have been such a tragic unrequited love story, and instead we got… this. It was boring, it was repetitive, there were tremendous plotholes, and the characters were thoroughly flat and uninteresting.
Overall, I recommend skipping this particular classic and watching the musical instead. Though, like I said, maybe that’s just my lack of French skills talking.
Ringel, Rangel, Rosen by Kirsten Boie (4/5 Stars)
(I read this in German, and, as far as I’m aware, it has not been translated into any other languages. The title is the German equivalent of the nursery rhyme ‘Ring Around the Rosie’.)
A coming-of-age historical fiction novel set in Hamburg during the 1960s, Ringel, Rangel, Rosen is one of the darkest middle-grade books I have ever encountered. Which obviously means I enjoyed it tremendously!
In fragmented episodes spanning several consecutive years, the novel follows Karin, a girl growing up in a typical middle-class family in northern Germany. On the surface, Karin’s childhood couldn’t be more idyllic: Although her parents only just got a television and don’t have the big house they’ve always dreamed of, she spends her summers playing outside and joking around with her family. But then, one day, Karin’s best friend lends her a book that tells the stories of Jewish children who were murdered during the war. The more questions Karin asks, the more she realizes that there are things her parents aren’t telling her. And when the dykes break, flooding Hamburg in what will later be known as one of the greatest natural disasters in German history, Karin discovers secrets that are going to change her life forever.
Although Ringel, Rangel, Rosen was extremely depressing and doesn’t exactly have much of a plot, I just could not put it down. It does a masterful job of twisting your emotions by showing you mere glimpses of a bigger story, and honestly, I found many parts of this to be extremely relatable. Like, it took my mother and her siblings years to find out that the reason they only had one grandmother was because the other one “died of natural causes” after the Nazis imprisoned her for having schizophrenia, and while my paternal grandmother did tell us that her father was a proud member of the NSDAP, we were never really sure what details that entailed. There were just some things you didn’t ask about when it was your own family under scrutiny, and I can only imagine how more difficult that must’ve been for my parents’ generation.
So yeah – I found this book to be insightful on a very personal level and liked it a lot. However, I also don’t really see myself rereading it. It’s the kind of book that packs a punch once, but whose characters aren’t really likeable enough that you’d ever want to revisit them.
After I pretty much vanished off the face of the Earth this past month, it probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise that I was abysmal at keeping up with your December posts, too. However, I do have a few recommendations to dish out! Excluding everyone’s best and worst books of the year posts – which I always adore reading and can’t mention separately because we’d be here forever if I did that – some of my December favorites were:
- Rachel @ A Bookworm’s Paradise returned to the blogosphere with a huge Autumn wrap-up! Although I’ve been pulling the disappearing act myself and can’t really complain, I’ve really been missing your posts, Rachel, so seeing this one pop up in my reader was a wonderful surprise! 🤗
- Line @ First Line Reader gave us the perfect combination of literature and music by matching books to her Spotify Wrapped! 🎶 Not only does this post feature several of my favorite books, but it has also made me realize that I should maybe stop ignoring BTS because some of their music is actually genuinely amazing…
- Amaya @ Mauve Mumblings ranted about her biggest book cover pet peeves – and if there’s anything I can’t resist, it’s good old-fashioned complaining! 😁 Especially when I agree with pretty much all of the cover atrocities in question.
- I swear I’m not actively seeking out unfavorable reviews of this book… But Mesal @ Earthly Abode wrote such a great rant on The Atlas Six that I simply have to include it here! 😎
- Robyn @ Voice of Reason created this amazingly creative Riordanverse playlist by pairing demigods with what she thinks are secretly their favorite albums! 🎼 If you love Percy Jackson and music, you have to check this out!
And that was it for today – and this year! Let me know down below if you’ve read any of the books I mentioned here, and feel free to share your thoughts on them. I’d love to know where we agree and disagree!
Also, how was your December? I’ve been so absent from the blogosphere these past two months that I feel like I missed out on a lot, so please, keep me updated in the comments!