The Fiction Fox
August 2020 Wrap-Up
The month of August was a busy one, both in terms of work and personal life, so my reading slowed down a bit as a result. Nonetheless I still completed 6 books, 2 of which were just okay, and the other four all had new-favourite potential. Overall, a very good score for me. I have quite a lot to say about all these books, so without further ado, let's get to it.
Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse Rating: 2.5/5 stars
I’ve always had an interest in the legends and folklore of different cultures, including those of native America. No surprise that a post-apocalyptic fantasy novel that focusses on just that would draw my attention. In Trail of Lightning, most of the world has drowned beneath rising seas as a result of climate change, and native Gods, legends and monsters long thought to have been mere myth have reclaimed the American soil. Maggie Hoskie is a talented monster slayer The way I’d describe the premise of this book is The Last Wish, combined with Mad Max: Fury Road but for a YA audience. Although that sounds perfect, the execution left some things to be desired for me. Personally, I’d have preferred this book to be written for an adult audience. The story, its themes and much of the violent and unforgiving world that surrounds us is very dark and bleak. Stakes are high, and has clearly forced our young characters to grow up fast. Don’t get me wrong: this is a big plus in my book. I hate when authors underestimate children- or teenagers ability to understand darker topics and instead focus on teenage love-angst alone. Which was why I was so surprised when Rebecca Roanhorse forced a juvenile teenage-angst-love-triangle plot into her otherwise very “adult” story anyway. It felt so out of place, and took away the believability of the characters somewhat for me. I don’t care how much of a hormonal teenager you might be: when traumatic lifechanging things are taking place around you, you don’t have time or craving for romantic shenanigans. That wasn’t my only problem with the characters however. Maggie is very flat: she is a badass. Like, really badass. That’s about all you learn about her. I realise this is the first entry in a series, but still I would have liked a bit more depth and development to her to be able to relate to her better. Overall Trail of Lightning had an interesting concept and cool wordbuilding, but let me down in its execution. I won’t be continuing this series.
The Disappearances – Emily Bain Murphy Rating: 3/5 stars
The Disappearances drew my attention with an interesting premise and the tag of being magical realism, so I had quite high expectations for it. Unfortunately, it ended up being quite “middle-of-the-road” for me. Pretty good, but not amazing or highly memorable. The story takes us to the town of Sterling, a place the experiences that weave life together--scents of flowers and food, reflections from mirrors and lakes, even the ability to dream--vanish every seven years. No one knows what caused these “Disappearances,” or what will slip away next. But Sterling always suspected that Juliet Quinn was somehow responsible. When years later, Juliets daughter Alia arrives in Sterling, she sets off to pick up the trial of breadcrumbs her mother left behind that may lead her to an answer. What I liked most about this novel was the setting: Sterling came to life on the pages and I felt myself transported to its mysterious boarders often whilst reading. I also enjoyed the mystery-plot and the literary clues that Juliet has left behind. What I didn’t like where the characters: none of the stood out to me, which made the whole thing a bit forgettable. Additionally, I kept forgetting this book was set in the 1940’s, and not modern day. Not because it wasn’t mentioned on page plenty, but just because it didn’t for a second feel like 1940’s, nor did I feel that setting matched the story being told. Overall, a middle-of-the-road three stars for this novel: not bad, not my favourite either.
Burn Our Bodies Down – Rory Power Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Leave it to Rory Power to take a weird concept, take it for a spin to a place where you go “wait, I’m not sure this makes sense”, only to pull the rug out from under you once more to a place where everything makes perfect sense and you realise Rory Power is secretly a genius. That description could fit her debut Wilder Girls, which I read and gave 5 stars last year, but also Burn Our Bodies Down, which I loved a bit less, although not by much. With books like these, it’s hard to give a summary, without giving away any plotpoints, so I’m going to leave it at this: Margot grew up in a dysfunctional home with a single mum who isn’t going to win mother-of-the-year-award any time soon, never knowing if she has any other family. When she finds a photograph that points her to a remote rural town called Phalene, where her family tree apparently has its roots. In search of answers, Margot sets off to this forgotten town, only to find there may have been a good reason her mum tried to bury her roots deep. Honesty, this book has everything I love in a story like this. Atmospheric, creepy rural town surrounded by fields filled with diseased corn: check. Family mystery: check. Characters that are all unsettling at their best and demented at their worst: check. Elements of biological horror that may or may not be supernatural: double check. This was fast-paced and tense from beginning to end and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who’s looking for something weird and a little bit unsettling. Perfect for the upcoming spooky-season. To be fair, I’m not 100% sure what made me rate this book 4.5 instead of the full 5 stars. It was mostly a feeling by the end, that I wanted a bit more. I felt like there was so much more lore to be explored, and for that reason the ending came too soon and maybe a little rushed. Then again: it’s also the sign of an amazing book that it leaves you wanting more, so maybe I’m just being stingy with my ratings here…
Sisters – Daisy Johnson Rating: 5/5 stars
Ever since I read her debut novel Everything Under, Daisy Johnson has been an author that I’ve been watching with an eagle’s eye, on the hunt for whatever she does next. Not surprising that her sophomore novel Sisters, the story of the almost symbiotic relationship between the titular siblings, was on my most-anticipated list of 2020 releases. Sisters feels very different from Everything Under, but the two also share some important similarities. Both centre around (dysfunctional) family relationships, mental illness and more. Both are also somewhat labyrinthine, filled with uncomfortable and unlit corners, and overshadowed by an every present lingering dread. I believe I described Everything Under as “murky as the river it’s set near”: you never know what’s lurking under the surface just beneath you. Sisters is no different in that regard. Also, both are literary masterpieces if you ask me. Not only does Daisy Johnson know how to pick the exact right words, and place them in the exact place to create the most flowing language to fit the situation at hand, she is also a master of understanding her stories inside and out. When reading Sisters I couldn’t help being in awe of her complete understanding of her characters, and their highly complex and layered relationship. Even after the “twist” happens (which is not quite a twist, and still isn’t what you’d expect it to be), everything still fits perfectly; better even. I’m honestly not quite sure what to tell you if you aren’t convinced yet. Some books are best read blind, and all you need to know is that this is a brilliant one. If you loved Everything Under or even the works of Max Porter, as that’s the closest thing I’ve got, you have to read this one.
The Unseen World – Liz Moore Rating: 5/5 stars
The final two books I read in the month of August had a strange and unexpected overlap, and I ended up adoring both of them. Both The Unseen World and The Museum of You centre around young women in search of answers about the lives of a deceased parent, who they’ve never fully got to know. In 1980’s Boston, Ada grew up under the care of her eccentric, cognitively brilliant but socially inept father David, and spends most of her childhood in the computer lab where he works on the development of A.I. When he develops early onset dementia, Ada’s left tasked with not just caring for herself and her declining father, but also picking up the pieces of David’s old secret life that are slowly beginning to float to the surface. I’ve started The Unseen World before, but wasn’t in the right mindspace at the time. I’m glad I waited for a better moment to fully appreciate this gem. This book has so many thematical elements and storylines to unpack, that at first I wasn’t sure where it was going, and how it would be able to tie everything back together. By the end however, every puzzle piece fell into place in one of the best written novels I’ve read in a long time. There are three main things that make this book brilliant to me. The first is the “family-relationships”, both of the biological- and found- kind. As sad as the story is at times, it’s filled with so much love that it warmed my heart even after breaking it. The second is the depiction of dementia and the way this child finds herself trust into the role of caregiver for her parent. As someone who’s been in that situation, I think this was phenomenally done. Third is the use of A.I. Don’t worry: this isn’t a sci-fi novel, and the A.I. in question isn’t going to take over the world. It serves more as a digital log of David’s mind, when it was still intact, and a bridge through time for Ada to communicate with him, even though he himself is no longer able to. It’s also a painful reminder to Ada that, although his magnum opus survives, it will never be able to replace what she had with her real father. The Unseen World is about more than first meets the eye: it’s about humanity, identity, relationships, leaving behind a legacy and much more. Ada, David, Listen and the other characters are some that have left a legacy in my mind, as did the rest of this story. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction, coming of age family stories, good portrayals of degenerative illness or an interesting look into the inside of a genius’s mind.
The Museum of You – Carys Bray
Rating: 5/5 stars
By far my favourite read of this month (and probably the year for that matter) was The Museum of You by Carys Bray: one of those hidden gems of which I had never heard before Jen Campbell mentioned it in one of her videos. Not for the first time, one of her recommendations has become a strong candidate to be one of my all-time favourite novels. As someone who lost their mother at a young age, this novel hit me with an extra gut punch in terms of relatability. We follow Clover Quinn, a 12-year old girl with a fascination for museums and a deep desire to know her mother, who passed away when she was very young. Her father took his wife’s death hard, and has locked his grief away (literally) by keeping all his wife’s possessions in a dedicated room and sealing the door. Unable to talk to her dad about her mother, Clover takes to the locked room to find her own answers about her mom’s life. Piecing together the bits, Clover curates her own museum of a women she wish she’d got to know. This novel is very near to perfection in my opinion. When growing towards adulthood almost all of us go through a phase of subconsciously studying or even mirroring our same-sex parent. When that parent’s deceased, or no longer in your life, that leaves a hole that screams to be filled. Carys Bray portrayed that feeling perfectly. I related to Clover in almost every way: her search for answers, the almost idealised picture she creates, the way she treats these meaningless items as museum pieces, for no other reason than that her mum once handled them… I also loved the relationship between Clover and her father, especially how nuanced it was. Objectively, Darren probably isn’t the best father out there, and as Clover grows older she starts to see some of that. She also sees that he tries everything in his power to do the best he can considering the circumstances and loves him even more for it. The same nuance can be found in other aspects of this novel as well. It strikes a perfect balance of telling a story for adult readers, from the perspective of a young child. Every single character is lovable but flawed (including the dead ones!) and perhaps most importantly: it hit the exact right emotional spot for me. Although the story is bleak at times, it’s at always bittersweet, rather than depressing. Grief is balanced out with small moments of joy, loneliness with family-love. It left me with a feeling between nostalgia and homesickness, combined to a perfect cocktail that hurts but also warms and comforts going down. I feel like this is the kind of book that I will cherish for years to come, not just because of its skill and quality, but also because it touched something personal to me, and made me feel just a little more understood. To me, that’s the highest compliment I have to offer to any book.
That concludes my August Wrap-up. For the rest of the month, you can expect a quick blog-update in which I'll go into a bit more detail about my current personal situation and the consequences that will have on my reviewing. Until that time, I wish you all happy reading!