Hello there. Tell me, friends, do you recognise me? No? Well, it’s been a year, you know… it doesn’t surprise me. I know it’s been a very long time and I know that you probably all missed my high-quality insights on literature. I wish I could have delivered something sooner, but I was very busy writing gay Star Wars fanfiction and also finishing my degree. It’s been a very long, wild year, and sometimes life just took over, took my hand, and wrecked my plans by making everything very exhausting and stressful. I have a job now, and now my parents are slightly proud of me (just slightly! Someone’s gotta be the disappointing child), and I was stupid enough to finish my degree on September 23rd only to immediately start a master’s degree in October. You might ask yourselves why I did that. Well, I have nothing left to lose. In-person classes have finally made a comeback, but just like Lorde, she’s nowhere to be found a couple of weeks after said comeback – but there was a brief window of time where I had to juggle in-person classes (incl. a 1.5-hour commute), online classes, and a part-time job. I just had no time, basically, which is the reason why I am still single.
But now that things have calmed down a bit, I am very happy to make my comeback and while writing doesn’t quite come naturally to me anymore, I shall try my level best – and I think you’re in for a treat. ‘tis the damn season, and what better way to celebrate the holidays than with something loosely resembling a Christmas gift giving guide? As last year, this is basically me looking back at some of my favourite reads of the year and telling you why you should read them or give you just the right idea of what to give your loved ones for Christmas this year. Since we’re awfully close to Christmas, this is more of a last-minute guide. But I think you’ll find that this (doing things last minute and with mediocre quality) is the true meaning of Christmas! As you can probably tell from me dropping the fact that I write fanfiction in the third sentence, I am very lonely and need someone to talk to – which is what put this article at a word count I usually save up for things I upload on ao3 dot com. There’s a lot to get through, so buckle up and don your gay apparel (I’m donning mine all year), and let’s embark on this journey! And hopefully you’ll consider this holiday-themed article a holi-slay.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
This book is probably the hardest for me to write about considering that I’ve read it back in January and don’t remember it all too well. But I shall do my level best to remember things now in order to justify my five-star rating of the book. As the title suggests, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is an account of the titular character’s life. But how is it invisible, you might be asking.
Well. It’s kind of a long story. In 1714, Adeline LaRue – or Addie – is 23 and due to be married to a man she doesn’t love – despite her dreams of freedom and exploring the world. As a woman in her time, such things are not hers to have. So, Addie tries to run away, to the forests, and in her desperation prays to spirits that only answer after dark. Spirits who will grant her wishes, but twist her words and turn blessings into a curse. Which is what happens to her. Her wishes for more time, unconditional freedom, a life independent from anyone else curse her to a life of being forgotten. No one in her village remembers her, her connection to her parents is gone. She cannot write, her footprints fade, lines drawn in the ground disappear. Every person she meets eventually forgets her sooner or later. She is immortal but completely invisible in the long lines of history. Only Luc, the personification of darkness that has cursed her for the price of her soul, remains as her companion. Then, in 2014, things change. Henry, working at a second-hand bookstore in Manhattan, remembers her. Really remembers her. Even after nights spend together and as their lives entangle, she doesn’t vanish from his memory, she is no longer invisible.But how? Is Henry just someone who slipped through the curse? Is Luc, torturing her with a lifetime of loneliness for so long, losing focus? Well, I guess you’ll just have to read the book!
It should be no surprise that this book deals with a lot of history. As Addie lives roughly 300 years before running into Henry, there is a lot of ground to cover. The narrative focuses on how she grows and the ways she learns how to work around and deal with the curse. It also tells the story of the relationship between Addie and Luc. So while of course a lot of the book is dedicated to Addie’s time with Henry, there also is a lot of her life to uncover. And not all of is glorious, as you can imagine that life as a woman without means in the 1700s wasn’t simple. And whenever she manages to set up shelter, find a home, or anything like that, it gets taken from her sooner or later. Which shapes her into a person who doesn’t quite let herself settle down – and why would she? People forget her anyways. So, in the end, she gets her freedom and travels. She runs from revolution, from wars, runs right into new movements – and while her way of seeing the world more so resembles the bucket list of an English Literature student (literally, Paris, London, New York City, Los Angeles), it was very interesting to read about.
Now, is this novel a page-turner? A thrilling spectacle of plot twists? No. I’d say it doesn’t even have a plot twist. The novel itself heavily relies on the characters, the reader’s interest in history. And as a former history student (not in a nerd way, but a pretty, mysterious way!), I tick that box! I loved the characters, especially Henry who is too much of a good person, wears his heart on his sleeve, and is just very desperate to be liked by people. His constant struggle for other people’s approval – which might be a curse of its own – was rather relatable to me. Even Luc, or the darkness, grew on me over time, and I’ll admit that the final 50 pages or so of the book had me hooked and also crying. And if that isn’t an endorsement, then I don’t know what is!
I think The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a perfect gift, in fact, my sister gave it to me last Christmas, and I read it right at the beginning of the new year – the time I usually feel very low, considering that all the Christmas cheer is gone and all I have is another long year to overwhelm me. So, if you think of reading something that fits right in that January mood, this book will be right for you!
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
Back in 2019, Casey McQuiston’s debut novel, Red, White and Royal Blue, was the hottest book on the Internet for a while. The story of the son of the American president and the youngest prince of the UK falling in love made it on to everybody’s booktube channel, and for a while, you couldn’t hear the end of it. I, inevitably, ended up reading it too – and while I did enjoy the love story portion of the book, I felt that the portrayal of politics was very awkward and clumsy. Sure, I mean, with the premise itself the book is setting itself up for liberal centrism, and obviously, no contemporary romance novel will ever be perfect at depicting the political landscape – which I never expected it to do – but it still was a bummer on my enjoyment of the book. Parts of it read like a die-hard Democrat’s sex dream. I mean, Texas turning blue? What the hell was that about? Despite my mixed response to McQuiston’s first novel, I did look forward to her sophomore novel One Last Stop. This time around, the book wasn’t going to be an obvious response to the Trump presidency, this time around it would be all about the thing Red. White and Royal Blue did well. Queer romance.
But it also is so much more. It has amazing side characters, there’s the element of space-time continuum mystery, and there’s a heist on top of the love story between two queer women? What more could I ask for? (Side note: anyone interested in a heist? Please reach out!)
One Last Stop tells the story of August, a 23-year-old who moves to New York City. As a cynical loner, August doesn’t believe in love and instead is set on making her way through life on her own, forever. This seems to be a good strategy at first glance, but from personal experience I know that it does not work. But that might just be the romantic idealist who listened to ‘Enchanted’ by Taylor Swift way too many times in me. My cynicism about romance is rather delicate, and all it takes for it to shatter is a cute smile.
But unlike me, August hasn’t ruined her brain with romantic comedies from the 90s and the early 2000s. It turns out, however, that (just like me) she isn’t immune to attractive, charming strangers on public transport. On a day that’s going terribly, she meets Jane on the subway. Dashing, pretty, a punky, with a fashion style that makes her look like an extra from Grease . Someone special. Something clicks between them, and the more August sees her, the more smitten she’s with Jane. But there’s a problem. There’s a mix-up in time, and somehow Jane is stranded in the subway – displaced from her life in the 70s. She can’t leave the subway, she’s bound to it. August tries to uncover the mystery surrounding Jane – how she got stuck and maybe how to get her unstuck – and for the first time in her life she has to rely on other people, the ragtag consisting of her three flatmates, the drag queen living next door and her colleagues at the diner. Queer people trying to pull off a time-heist? Sounds great to me, is anyone interested in doing that in real life? (the time heist, but also the falling in love part!)
What I liked about the novel is that – while it heavily focuses on the romance between August and Jane – it also deals with the importance of platonic relationships. Jane isn’t the sole catalyst in making August re-examine her loner lifestyle, she also realises that she has to rely on other people, like her new friends in New York, to make it through life. Placing her in a group of queer people makes it even a bit more realistic – I for one used to be a bit of a loner back in school, always the odd one out as the sole gay person in my class (and also a naturally shy person), which only changed once I connected with fellow queer people at university! And I feel like often in novels, there will be a single queer person in an otherwise straight friend group, which doesn’t feel quite right. I’m not saying that I necessarily pick my friends by sexuality, but I guess it’s just natural that queer people gravitate toward one another. If not to find like-minded people, then for the possibility to expand your collection of flannel shirts!
This book is a fun read, with a feel-good vibe, and with the added time-space heist, I think it’s a very entertaining novel! Maybe I’m just a little bit of a pathetic loner, but I love reading about queer people having a good time with their friends! For me, One Last Stop becomes a much more pleasant read than Red, White and Royal Blue. And I think you, or the friend who keeps stealing your plaid flannel shirts, might also like it!
Bonds of Brass by Emily Skrutskie
Up next is a book that was initially published as fanfiction, or so I am told. Bonds of Brass is the beginning of a YA-sci-fi-trilogy set in a galaxy that has a long history of military conflicts between various Empires. Worlds have been invaded and annexed by the sinister Umber Empire – one of those worlds being Ettian’s (the novels’ protagonist’s) home-world. Years after the fall of his home and the Empire he belonged to, Ettian is enlisted in the military academy of the Umber Empire to become the galaxy’s best damn pilot. At the academy, he meets Gal and through the years they become best friends and Ettian develops some feelings for his handsome friend. Things, one might say, couldn’t get more complicated. What? *checks notes* Oh… oh… well it looks as if they get more complicated. WAY more complicated.
On a day that starts out normal, Gal finds himself as the target of an assassination attempt by fellow students and becomes a hostage of the academy’s director soon after Ettian saves their lives. As the latter embarks on a rescue, Gal has to reveal that he is the heir to the throne of the Umber Empire. The assassination attempt was started by sparks of the uprising of the former Archon Empire – the Empire Ettian grew up in, the Empire that Gal’s family destroyed. Now that’s complicated, isn’t it? Ettian, fiercely loyal and idiotically in love (oh god, not another character I relate to), upends his life and decides to leave with Gal. Taking off in a cargo-haul-spaceship – the Ruttin’ Hell – they make a narrow escape through what used to be the core and the outer rim of the Archon Empire into Corinth, the neutral neighbour of Umber. Finding refuge in the Delos system, they are faced with making a decision. Going into hiding and disappearing forever, or making a plan to somehow get back to Umber and return Gal to his fate as the heir to the throne. With the exiled remnants of the Archon Empire plotting the reconquest of their worlds, Gal and Ettian’s mutual feelings for one another, and the quirky, fun, wild Chorinthian girl Wen joining their side, things get more and more complicated and eventually the different sides of the emerging war seem to be dragging the two friends – and lovers – apart.
Now, I’m going to be real with you. From the writing and the characters displayed on the cover, I’m 95% sure this book used to be Star Wars fanfiction. Ettian and Gal obviously are some kind of version of Finn and Poe Dameron from the sequel trilogy. And you know what? I’m at peace with that! If Disney didn’t dare to give them their happy ending, I’m happy that Emily Skrutskie decided to do that for us. Stormpilot (their ship-name) is definitely the most deserving Star Wars ship in the fanfiction-to-published-book pipeline! I really, really enjoyed this book. As someone who has very low expectations for sci-fi and space opera and just loves Star Wars and stories in space settings, this book was right up my alley. Furthermore, experts (me) have classified the relationship blossoming between Ettian and Gal as “star-crossed lovers”, which according to the urban dictionary are two people whose love cannot be due to tragic circumstances. Famous examples being: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker, or Jack Antonoff and I. Considering that I’ve listened to “Across the Stars (Love Theme from Attack of the Clones)” approximately 8 million times while reading this book, it’s very apparent that I dig a love story that is full of yearning, doomed to fail, and dominated by tragedy. I might also be writing a love story like that myself, but let’s keep that between us!
One might ask: Why would you put yourself through reading that? Isn’t that too painful? And to that I say: I once read a book where it took them 280 pages to kiss, and I was on the edge of my seat. Of course, I love second-hand yearning and tragic, star-crossed circumstances.. And this book is ideal for that! Gal and Ettian love and yearn for each other, but they know that their love has an expiration date. Once Gal is returned to the capital of his Empire and claims his rightful place as the heir, Ettian will be sent back to god-knows-where. Plus, Gal is the heir of the thing that burned Ettian’s home to the ground and he is slowly beginning to sympathise with the uprising that wants to restore his home. So they have to also fight and suppress the feelings they have for one another.
So, if any of the above means anything to you, and you want to experience that as well, go read the book! Or maybe your casual sci-fi friend, who loves tropes and fanfictions and wild space-journeys with cool characters, this would be a great gift for them. Honestly, this isn’t very deep and doesn’t do extensive world-building, so it’s an ideal way to escape real life and whatever is going on in it for a short while. And considering my real life is going down the drain, I should probably pick up the sequel! (In the meantime: anyone interested in being star-crossed lovers?)
The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun
This was the one book on this list that surprised me! While I thought the premise of the production assistant and the star of a reality TV-dating show getting romantically entangled with one another was interesting, I had my doubts that it would be anything different. I generally am reluctant when it comes to novels with a clear focus on romance, and while this one didn’t revolutionise the rom-com book genre, I think it does stand out. So, after all of tik tok (yes, I am young and hip!) praised this book to the sky, I decided to give it a shot – which was rather difficult, considering that physical copies are impossibly to get, both due to the book’s popularity and the ongoing supply-chain issues. Funnily enough, I have actively avoided reading love stories, especially the ones that are about queer men, up until picking up this book. . I find it low-key frustrating to read about experiences I don’t have myself, and I’m a simple gay. I read a bit of romance, listen to “Lover – First Dance Remix” once, and boom – I am deluding myself to cloud nine. And you know what happens next: you fall down from there. Reading Cochrun’s novel made me yearn, it made me think things were possible for me, and I ended up lying on the cold hard ground. But it was worth it for a great novel!
As outlined before, the novel is set on the film set of the upcoming series of the bachelor-esque reality show “Ever After”, where every year a Prince will slowly narrow down a group of women for his princess or a Princess will do the same to a group of men. The result is the same in both versions: six months of contractually obligatory heterosexual bliss. Whatever extends beyond that is either true love, or produces two contestants for I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!. This season, however, is going to be way more challenging as the selected Prince Charming, Charles Winshaw is not as ideal of a candidate as the showrunner initially thought. Charlie, while arguably conventionally very attractive and someone who has very defined abs (which I, , find rather boring), has a very awkward personality. And that is rich, coming from me. He is camera-shy, robotic, and clumsy. He doesn’t like being touched, he doesn’t easily open up to people. Dev Deshpande, production assistant and personal handler for the female contestants, gets a surprise promotion and now is the personal handler of Charlie, the star of the show, instead. He is tasked with getting him out of his shell, so he can open up to these women he hardly knows, and make for good television. This involves conversations late at night, living together for the duration of shooting, and having practice dates. The two of them grow closer and become close friends that support and trust one another a lot. But maybe there’s more… just kidding. Unless?
The Charm Offensive is great because it manages to do so many things and cover many important issues, while maintaining a light-hearted tone and the feel-good-vibe, without creating a sense of disconnect. Charlie goes through uncovering his sexuality later in life than usual, he goes through figuring out labels, and then coming out to people at a much later stage than usually portrayed in books and films. And I think that’s a very important story to tell! Also, if I remember correctly, he doesn’t settle on a label at the “end” of his journey. It doesn’t quite feel right for him to say he’s asexual, considering that while he never was interested in sex before, he is very interested in being intimate with Dev. He questions if he’s interested in the women around him, that perhaps he is bisexual or pansexual, but at the end that doesn’t quite feel right either. He lands on using “gay” as an umbrella term – and while teenagers on Twitter will try to convince you that anyone who isn’t a homosexual man cannot use the term gay to describe their sexuality, they are very, very wrong. In the end, what matters is not what label fits Charlie best. What matters is that he is in love with Charlie now, and wants him to be his “Ever After”. And I quite liked that! The novel also discusses issues of mental health, which is very important too, and handled quite well. And it still is a fun, light-hearted rom-com read! Anyways, where do I sign up to be on “Ever After”?
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
This book is a bit of an odd one, and just like Schwab’s Addie LaRue, it is more of a mood read. When I picked this novel up back in May, I failed to make it past page 80. I didn’t quite get into it, and the slow pace, no-plot storyline irked me back then. Two weeks ago – back in November – I picked it up again on a whim, mostly just because I felt bad about letting a birthday present rot on my TBR for that long. But I also thought that, since in-person classes were still a thing back then, the long commute would force me to make more reading progress. I also felt like it would make me look more interesting than I am. Perhaps someone would see me read this book and think I’m a mysterious, pretty, intellectual reader and then ask me out for coffee. While I would love for that to happen, it never did (as you could probably tell from the start of this anecdote), but back then I was still more hopeful and used to think I would meet somebody. Well, in the meantime multiple lecturers have e-mailed me again just to break me like a promise, and with the return to online classes and the small dating pool for gay people in a small town, my chances of getting that meet-cute rom-com situation have quickly decreased from like seven percent to zero. Unfortunately, I am not the main character. Which is a great segue from my sad, sad private life to Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a fortune teller, is anything but a main character. Quiet, reserved, always getting lost in books, video games, thoughts, and dreams. Someone who’d be more likely to be a supportive sidekick, not someone who dominates a story. As a college student, he spends more time in the libraries and his dorm room than out and about, and if so he’s more of a passive bystander, a listener in conversations, rather than someone who talks. He is also gay and rather lonely, and sometimes very sad. Easily swept off his feet by strangers, men who are charming and mysterious. In other words: he is a lot like me (if you disagree, please just be quiet & let me have this). His story is put in motion by an unregistered library book, donated in the name of the Keating Foundation (research on them leads to dead ends). Zachary (pretty name, btw) checks out the book and reads it. Then he reads it again. The thing that puzzles him is that one of the short stories in the book is based on him and his childhood. Which is very, very strange. In trying to work out this mystery, Zachary finds himself invited to a festive ball (with masquerading & stuff) where he meets the peculiar Mirabel, who is everyone and no one and perhaps fate herself, and later runs into the strange, mysterious – yet very charming & handsome – Dorian, who pulls him into a book heist that later sends Zachary into a world underneath the world we know. A wonderland-sort-of world, where stories live and breathe, strangers come and go, and the kitchen is inhabited and managed by bees. The world that leads further down to the – titular – starless sea. There he goes on a journey, trying to untangle the mysteries of this world and the stories he reads and hears all around him. It’s dangerous to go alone, it’s easy to get lost in wonderland, and perhaps in the end in wonderland, one might go mad.
The story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins is often interrupted by the stories found in Sweet Sorrows, or Fables and Fortunes, and interludes from different points-of-views in different places and different times. In the beginning, this seems to be just to let the reader know what the protagonist is reading, and while that was fun, I found that the stories tended to interrupt my reading flow. But the more it progressed, the more complex it got, the more I enjoyed it. The stories begin to connect, at least somewhat, and chapters told from Dorian’s POV or excerpts from Kat Hawkins’s diaries as she tries to find out what happened to Zachary when he went missing, add more richness to the story overall and it becomes less clear what is merely storytelling and what is happening. In fact, Zachary’s story turns into a fable more and more as his journey down to the starless sea continues. He turns from Zachary Ezra Rawlins to Mirabel’s sidekick Ezra, and then he becomes the Son of the Fortune Teller. The way Morgenstern toys with storytelling and narration was one of the things that pulled me into the book. With all the intricacies and many different stories that have the same vibe, it sort of reminded me of the folklore – evermore cinematic universe, where pianos are entrances to different worlds, where everything is a bit of a story, where there are deep forests that long to be explored and ventured into. The stories told in The Starless Sea are sad, beautiful, and tragic. No jokes, this book made me tear up so, so many times, especially towards the end. And maybe that makes me pathetic and pretentious and a loser, but I don’t care all that much.
Another thing that clicked with me was the love story between Zachary and Dorian. Two people longing to find their place, somewhere to belong fall together like puzzle pieces and instead of finding somewhere to belong they find someone to begin their story with. There were many moments between the two of them where I had to put down the book, and stop reading for a second, trying to suppress the part of me that felt the yearning expressed in their story. The Starless Sea definitely isn’t a book with a gripping plot, nor a narrative arch that moves through a climax to a conclusion or a wrap-up. It’s more so a mood-based book, at least to me, and for a while there you’ll have to commit to it to make it through, but if you let it, it will pull you into this world of storytelling. And maybe it’s not the best present to give other people, but it could be a sweet present to give yourself if this is the sort of story you like. Treat yourself. You deserve it!
And this is where I’ll stop going on and on about books and leave you to consider if this was worth your time. If so, thank god. If not, I guess that kind of sucks for you, pal. There were some books I had put on this list, but sadly had to cut for the sake of brevity. And I do wish I had read more broadly across different genres to bring you a more diverse set of recommendations, but I guess you’ll stick to things you’re familiar with in difficult times like this. Here are some rapid fire recommendations, though, that might be helpful: Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo (YA-fantasy series with simple world-building and fun characters); Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales (fun contemporary YA-story); Gone Girl by Gillian Anderson (if you’re interested in a “what the actual fuck” kind of book); and as always: everything by Alice Oseman! I have also read a lot of classics throughout the year, but I find it a bit hard to recommend them to people – but I did enjoy reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and of course Shakespeare plays always make for a fun read! On the other hand, there also happen to be books I have to keep secret to keep the tiniest bit of dignity ( I will take my thoughts and feelings on The Love Hypothesis to my grave), and I sadly cannot talk about my obsession with Ian Doescher’s adaptations of the Star Wars movies in the style of Shakespeare plays. I need you to think of me as a mysterious, cool, interesting manic-pixie-dream-girl-esque person that you could fall in love with!
So, here we are again, in the middle of the night (it quite literally is two a.m. as I am typing the third version of this conclusion), and it’s December again – which is not the best thing to think about at this time of night. For me, it has been a bit of a tough year, as you can probably tell from the very long text above. It, quite frankly, hasn’t been what I envisioned it to be last December, and I guess I’m not entirely alone in that. Christmas is rather challenging in normal circumstances already, and adding new variant-new wave to it alongside online classes, more pandemic anxiety and all that is not making it any better. Just know that if this is a tough one for you, you are not alone. And if it all begins to feel like too much, maybe one of the books listed above will keep you company, distract you, let you escape for a while. I’d be very happy if anything I’ve said helps you navigate those overwhelming feelings – one or two of these books have certainly helped me in similar situations.
(I’m also going to link my Christmas playlist again, to bring you some Christmas cheer!)
I think gifting books is a very lovely thing to do – especially books that mean a lot to you – because ideally they’ll like the book too and you’ll have something to chat and connect about. Which, I think, is a great thing about books in general. I love talking about books, I’m sure you must have guessed that by now. And since the pandemic is still making it very hard to meet new people and make friends (or maybe that’s just me), this is my way of making up for the lack of conversation. So thank you for bearing with me and my annoying personality through this article. I hope you’ll have wonderful holidays and a very merry Christmas. You’ll hear from me, and my lawyers, in the new year. In the meantime, I will continue baking an insane amount of cookies (I look very good in an apron!), think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed, read some books, play some Pokémon, watch the same 3 movies I’ve seen 80 times (Yes, I am quite the catch!), dream up some unrealistic meet-cute scenarios like my life is a coffee-shop AU and ignore my academic responsibilities.
Anyways, merry Christmas and all that. If you never hear from me again, I have dropped out of university to start a bakery that only serves cookies and adopt two cats. Just kidding… unless?
- Robin (he/they) was listening to a variety of Taylor Swift songs while writing this article. (I’m very interesting and unique nonetheless!)