2016 roundup: favorite reads

Since the New Year is only a couple days away, I have likely finished all the books I will be able to read in 2016—and let me tell you, I read a LOT more in 2016 than I did in 2015. It was really tough for me to read regularly for the first two years I was out of school. I didn't have as much time or energy, I was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do, and I let myself be duped into thinking the books I truly loved to read—YA fiction and fantasy—would make me seem silly.

Two things. 1) YA books are not silly and 2) Who the f*** cares if other people think I'm silly for reading YA?

*end "pro-YA for adult readers" soapbox here*

That being said, I read some truly spectacular books in 2016 that spanned many genres. Once I wholeheartedly recommitted myself to reading every day in August, I managed to read 17 books in the last four months! However, five in particular stuck out:

1. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

I already declared on my Instagram that The Raven Cycle was my favorite series of 2016. I haven't even read The Raven King yet and I still hold true to this (even though Throne of Glass got REALLY close to making me overturn this statement). The characters that Stiefvater writes are all incredibly hilarious in their own ways, but what really gets me is how much she made me like them. If an author can get me to sympathize with and root for a bunch of teenage prep school boys, I am sold on their talent. These books are also very quotable and extremely self-referential, which is actually pretty hard to do well. She's also not afraid to cause harm and kill off important and loved characters to build a great story, which sometimes can be scarce in YA books (except for Sarah J. Maas, who is essentially the George R. R. Martin of the YA world). 

Magic runs throughout these books, popping up in subtle ways for those who look for it in rural Virginia. It brings a sense of magic to the real world, like going on a hunt for the ley lines is actually a journey I could go on and follow in Gansey's footsteps. It seamlessly blends medievalism with magic and modern humor, and I would be hard pressed to find many faults with these books other than I need more of them.

2. Buffering by Hannah Hart

I have loved My Drunk Kitchen and Hannah Hart for many years, and I was unreasonably excited when she started talking up the release of her memoir. She had hinted about her extremely fraught past but never focused on it, and it just always seemed that there was more to Hannah than meets the eye. If you watch her videos talking about the release of the book, you can see genuine nervousness about putting so much deeply personal information out into the world.

Y'all, I am so glad she did. This memoir is further proof to me that memoirs written by young people are immensely valuable and should continue to find a place on our bookshelves. It made me laugh, it made me tear up, it made me want to go out and punch a couple people on her behalf, and it also showed me a side of Hannah that is deeply flawed and not all that funny. Which of course only made me love her more.

3. Witches in America by Alex Mar

This book escapes genre definition: it's like a memoir meets historical non-fiction meets documentary? The author, Alex Mar, wrote it in conjunction with a documentary she produced called American Mystic, which is why I think it reads like a film.

This book was incredibly interesting. It felt like I was reading On the Road, except written for women who are interested in paganism. Or women who aren't interested in paganism but have ever felt like they didn't belong anywhere. I savored this book for a couple weeks, and would take breaks to go look up some of the practices or rituals that were mentioned to get a better understanding of what it would have been like to be there. It's definitely a book about courage, or lack thereof, and finding the self-worth and inner peace to shrug off your critics and live authentically. I'm a terribly anxious and doubtful person who tends to focus a lot of energy picking apart and doubting myself, so reading about the tradition of witchcraft in America through the lens of someone who is even more doubtful and anxious than me was reassuring. It reminds you that it's okay to want to believe, and just not quite be there yet on a daily basis.

4. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

This book is Treasure Planet meets Kill Bill meets Peter Pan, and Kaz Brekker is the love child of Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty. The world building is beautiful and has incredible scope, pulling some elements from Tolkien's style. It's a really smart book, which I think can be overlooked because of the high-speed action and adventure elements. The plot lines and characters address sexual assault and trauma, xenophobia, and poverty in ways that have inspired countless think-pieces and articles, and will continue to grow in importance under the new administration. The thrill of the chase hits the ground running from the first page and accelerates throughout the book: my heart was literally racing as I read some of the chapters. Even though it's a large book, the speed of the plot pulled me through it in just a few days.

I am foaming at the mouth to get my hands on Crooked Kingdom...hurry up, library!

5. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

I was pretty hesitant to read Throne of Glass because I didn't really care for A Court of Thorns and Roses. However, I saw a lot of people weighing in on ACOTAR not being representative of Maas's best work, and ToG seemed to have everything I like in a book: sass, magic, disobeying authority, and political upheaval. Mmmmm, a recipe for unrest and civil war: tasty. I mentioned that Maas is the Martin of the YA genre, and, yeah, I lost track of the murders in this series about 1/3 of the way into Throne of Glass. But that's what you get when you write a series about professional killers and warriors, right?

Celaena Sardothien has become one of my all-time favorite protagonists. She's extremely imperfect and often slips up, but her insane assassin skills usually pull her through. Her ego is off the charts, which always endears me to a character. Plus, she's a weird mix of unfiltered and mysterious; it seems like she lays all of her thoughts out for the reader, but by the end of Crown of Midnight we find out she's been hiding a SUPER BIG IMPORTANT SECRET from the reader for two whole books!!!

Sarah J. Maas, you sneaky sneak.

Also, Celaena interacts with a menagerie of very shippable characters, if that's your thing. More to come in the following books, I am sure!

I can't wait to finish the series I started and pick up some new titles in 2017! What were your favorite reads of 2016?

Curious about what didn't make the list? Here's everything else I read in 2016!

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vegan alternatives for a cruelty-free samhain

For most of the witches I know, witchcraft is something that is woven into the fabric of their identity, and given equal weight to other beliefs and values. For example, I recently met for the first time a witch who is also Christian. As you can imagine, her brand of Christianity is not particularly Evangelical or traditional, but she felt that both of these belief systems were equally important in making up her worldview and how she chose to act, think, and emote on a daily basis. There were certain things in her Christian faith that conflicted with her traditionally held beliefs about witchcraft, and vice versa, but ultimately she decided it was more important to live authentically than to adhere to rules and regulations from either side.

There are a lot of supposed "rules" in historical witchcraft that are meant to be followed without exception. Animal sacrifice, blood letting, burning bones and hair...it all seems a little Macbeth, in the scheme of modern understanding. Certain traditionally held beliefs about witchcraft are so staunch that they don't allow much room for accommodating other parts of your identity, including veganism. Animal parts and essences are such a huge part of many spells and rituals, especially more powerful ones that coincide with witch/Pagan holidays. Things like graveyard dirt can blur the the lines for some vegans, and even using discarded materials like found feathers, fur, or bones can violate certain vegan values. 

I firmly believe in accommodation, change, and adaptation, and I want my vegan friends to be able to enjoy their Samhain rituals as much as I will. Although I am not vegan, I have drastically reduced my intake of meat and animal products over the last year, and concentrated on finding cruelty-free alternatives to the convenience items I buy. With that in mind, I've come up with a few ways to make Samhain more friendly for vegans and non-vegans alike. Samhain is celebrated at sundown October 31st, so make sure you make time for some ritual reflecting in between costume parties and candy-eating!

1) Make your own vegan "graveyard dirt."

While graveyard dirt is not necessarily composed of bone or decomposing tissue, gathering it from a graveyard where bodies are buried implies that the dirt is charged by decomposition of bodies in some way. While all dirt is composed of decomposing matter of all kinds, the implication that graveyard dirt carries crosses some boundaries for certain vegans. Instead of going to an actual graveyard, you can create your own "plant graveyard" in any pot using garden soil, dead plants, and an empty ceramic garden pot. 

First, gather any dead plant material you can find. Dried leaves, pine needles, tree bark (fallen off the tree, not chipped off the trunk), and dried household herbs are perfect. Next, using your ceramic or otherwise fireproof pot, burn the dead plant material until it is ashy. While you are burning the plants, thank them for cleaning our air in their time of life, for providing nourishment to other animals and ourselves, and providing homes for tree-bound animals and insects. Meditate on your respect for the earth, and allow yourself to feel deep sadness for the death of nature and the disrespect she is shown on a daily basis. After the "funeral pyre" extinguishes, mix garden soil with the ash. If you like, you can pot a new plant in the "graveyard" to simulate the life and death balance present in graveyards. Place a crystal or rock as the headstone. Water the pot lightly once, then wait for it to dry out. Voila! You now have a plant-based "graveyard" right in your backyard that can be used to replace traditional graveyard dirt. For bonus points, continually charge your "graveyard" by burying household plants that die in your graveyard. It will only grow more powerful over time.

2) Craft cornhusk dolls instead of voodoo dolls.

It is tradition on Samhain to offer up effigies of our past selves or of our enemies to cleanse intentions, cast curses, or drastically alter life paths. Most voodoo dolls or effigies require hair, skin, or nails from the intended target, as well as feathers, fur, or hair to stuff the doll with. Instead, you can make vegan-friendly effigies by stripping the husks from corn, making the dolls, and drying them in the sun. The silk is used to stuff the doll, and you can get creative with making them look like you or whoever you are trying to target. Traditionally, folks make cornhusk dolls at the Lammas feast celebrating the summer harvest and burn them on Samhain, offering up the doll sacrifice as protection from evil spirits when the veil grows thin during Samhain. My Lammas doll has been drying up since August in anticipation of its fiery end, but it's not too late to make one for yourself! I used these instructions from Martha Stewart to make them with my witchy friends: we had fun, and we're looking forward to our Samhain fire! You can eat the corn yourself, or you can set it out with apples as offerings for the spirits that will visit during Samhain.

3) Host a vegan Dumb Supper to honor ancestors and spirits.

The Dumb Supper is a beautiful and reflective Samhain tradition. At the Dumb Supper, places are set for each guest, as well as a place setting for visiting spirits. Guests share food and wine in silence, honoring the dead who are present but can no longer speak or interact with their loved ones. After the meal is over, the food and wine from the place setting is brought outdoors to a small outdoor altar and offered up to the spirits. Traditional Samhain foods are the centerpiece of the meal, including apple pies, pumpkin soups, roasted squash, and red wines and apple ciders. Use your favorite vegan recipes to whip up a tasty and lovely meal, or invite your vegan (and non-vegan!) friends to bring plant-based dishes for a shared Samhain potluck. Encourage guests to bring photos, trinkets, or notes that remind them of their deceased loved ones. Once the supper is over, share stories about your family and friends who have passed on, so that their memories are respected and their lives honored.

Witchcraft is evolving, and it doesn't have to center on animal bones and vials of blood. These are just a few suggestions for incorporating veganism and vegan alternatives into your Samhain rituals, but it doesn't have to stop here. Witchcraft is a fluid belief system that is brought alive by those who practice it, and your values outside of magick can help shape the flow of tradition and how witchcraft is taught to generations to come. Happy brainstorming, and happy Samhain!

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