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  • Writer's pictureThe Fiction Fox

Mid-Year Check-In 2023

With the start of July, we’ve made it halfway through 2023, which means it’s time for a mid-year check-in. Where in previous years I’ve used the Mid-Year Freak Out Tag, I’ve created my own little format this year, asking myself 20-questions, by which I will try to sum up the past 6 months of reading. As always, I love watching other people answer these questions as much as I enjoy answering them myself, so I invite you to use these questions to create and share your own reading-experiences if you feel like it. As most of you will already know the drill with these type of posts, I will keep this introduction brief, and let my answers to these questions speak for themselves.


 

1. How has your reading-year been so far? If I were to put a star-rating on this year as a whole, it would probably be a solid 3 to 4-star. There were some standouts, but overall I felt like most of what I read lies somewhere in the middle. As far as quantity goes, I’ve read 73 books, which is above average for me. Mostly, that was due to an extended vacation this spring (5-weeks of saved vacation days that I hadn’t been able to take up due to the effects of the pandemic on the healthcare-system any earlier). Regardless of those numbers, the quantify of books that left a lasting impression and might become all-time favourites was very similar to other years. In part I blame the books themselves, but part of the blame is on me and my headspace too. A lot has been happening personally, mentally and especially professionally in my own life (any doctor will tell you that first year of residency is a killer…), and the amount of new information my brain has had to process left little unoccupied space for reading. Let alone reviewing everything I read! A few years ago, I would’ve beaten myself up over this, but I’m trying to be less rigid about it. Enjoyment and relaxation are currently at the forefront of my agenda when it comes to reading, rather than reading the “qualitatively best books” out there. If this past half-year has taught me anything, it’s to appreciate the value of different books for different moments in your life even more. At times I may want to read emotionally resonant, deeply impactful novels that stick with me for a life time. Other times, a novel that’s less memorable, but provides you with an unapologetically good time, is just as valuable.



2. What were your top three favourite reads of the year? Take these with a drizzle of lemon and a pinch of salt, as it’s fully possible that other books will surpass them in my end-of-year wrap-up. My top 5 was very close this year, so the pick of these three above the other two was mostly based off the fact that I already mentioned the other two in different questions.

First we have my most anticipated release of the year: Now She is Witch by Kirsty Logan. If you’ve been around, you’ll know my love for this author, her writing and her themes. I’ve adored everything she’s written so far, and this was no exception. Now She is Witch is a literary fable of witchcraft, loneliness and womanhood in its various roles. It starts with a girl, digging her mother’s grave in a poison garden. With nothing and nobody left, she tracks through the woods into the wide world, slipping on different roles and finding herself as she goes. Logan plays with motifs from fairytales, light and dark, and themes of witchcraft, ancient storytelling and theatre. For example: a recurring theme is the ancient storytelling trope of classifying women as maiden, mother or crone. Logan spins that trope on its head and uses it beautifully to tell her story. As I’ve said in my review: I’m in awe of this woman’s skill with language. Kirsty Logan is a word-witch and I’m thoroughly under her spell.

Second is a book that’s absolutely incredible in its own right, but also came to me at the perfect time to reach maximum resonance. Tripping Arcadia by Kit Mayquist is part contemporary fiction, part literary horror; a tale of privilege, medicine, power dynamics, and the false sense of invincibility that comes with the intersection of these factors. It follows a med-school dropout from a lower-class family who, in an attempt to pull her struggling family back from financial ruin, accepts a questionable job as an assistant to the private physician of Boston’s most elite family. What begins with the care for their ailing son, struck down with a mysterious illness, soon leads into the underbelly of Boston’s elite and richest layers of society.

Tripping Arcadia isn’t a horror story, but still builds and maintains a level of tension fit for one. There’s a lot of anger and resentment (often justified) within this novel, radiating from each character, and their subsequent actions, regardless of how deplorable they might be, are fascinating to see play out.

Third we have a middle-grade novel that warmed my heart and left me with tears in my eyes by the final page. The Girl From Earths End by Tara Dairman tells the story of 12-year old Hannah, living a peaceful life with her two fathers on a small isolated island, tending to the gardens there. Everything changes when one of her dads falls seriously ill. When Henna learns of the existence of a legendary, near-extinct plant with miraculous healing powers, she sets of on a quest to the main-island to join the Academy of Botany located there, in the hopes of bringing back this plant for her dad. What follows is a beautiful journey of friendship, acceptance and a wonderfully diverse cast (including non-binary, disability, and various LGBTQ+ representation). You can find my full review here, but safe to say it’s one of my new favourite middle-grade novels.



3. Best fantasy novel? I’ve had a lot of luck with fantasy reads this year, and I could probably already fill a top 10 if I wanted to. Therefore this was probably the most difficult answer to narrow down. Ultimately, the number one spot goes to the novel I had the best reading-experience and fondest memories with. It’s Secret Project number 1 by the King of Fantasy himself, aka: Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson. It's probably best described by Sanderson himself, when he explained the idea for this book was born as him wanting to write a more light-hearted fantasy story in the style of The Princess Bride, set in the Cosmere-universe. He absolutely nailed that endeavour. Tress of the Emerald Sea is a cosy pirate fantasy, with memorable characters, an even more memorable setting, and a witty narrator with a unique narrative voice. All of which is supported by the phenomenal backbone of the in-depth worldbuilding of the Cosmere-Universe. If it wasn’t on your radar already, this is your call to action to change that. As it’s hard to beat a master like Sanderson, a lot of great fantasy books didn’t make the spot, despite being deserving of a shout-out. Therefore, a quick shout-out to the ones that almost made it: Dark Water Daughter by H.M. Long; a high-fantasy pirate story that feels like the love-child of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Liveship trilogy. The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman; a tale of an underground theatre-group run by societal outcasts against the backdrop of Elizabethan London. And finally A Fire Endless by Rebecca Ross, the worthy, deeply atmospheric conclusion to the Elements of Cadence duology.



4. Best horror/thriller novel? I’ve like Catriona Wards previous novels well enough, but was taken by surprise with the level of existential horror that Looking Glass Sound managed to evoke in me. Our story begins with 16-year old Wilder, spending the summer in his parents cottage at the coastal Maine town of Whistler Bay. He spends most his time exploring the beaches with his friends Nat and Harper, swapping ghost-stories and local legends; mainly the tall-tales about the towns infamous serial killer known as the Dagger Man of Whistler Bay. Their innocent fun is upended when the three make a gruesome discovery on the beach one day, that reframes every but of childhood safety and nostalgia forever. Now, years later, Wilder is a washed up author, still haunted by the traumatic events of that summer. In an attempt to face his ghosts, Wilder returns to Whistler Bay to finish his latest novel: the autobiographical tale of the summer that changed his life. Before long, the lines between facts and fiction begin to blur for Wilder ánd for us as the reader. You can find my full review here.



5. Best children’s/middle-grade novel? The Girls from Earths End obviously stands out as my favourite middle-grade read, but since I’ve already mentioned it, I’ll give you my runner up as well. The Secret of Haven Point by Lisette Auton is a novel I loved for many of the same reasons. It’s a heartwarming, magical, coastal adventure filled to the brim with wonderful representation of various disabilities. The story centres around a found-family-community of disabled kids, who came together in search of a place where they belong and feel accepted. When Outsiders threaten to discover their isolated community, they embark on a journey of standing up for themselves, and deciding on the place they want to occupy in the world. Packed with beautiful messages, memorable characters and fun adventures; this is one that can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike. Full review can be found here.



6. Best Young Adult novel? I’m always on the hunt for good disability representation within the young-adult genre, and this has to be one of my favourites in recent years. Where do You See Yourself by Claire Forrest is a contemporary novel that follows a girls journey through her final year of high-school and applying to colleges. Graduation, finding the right college and planning for the future is stressful for almost everybody. For Effie however, there’s the extra consideration accessibility: will this school accommodate for new student in a wheelchair? Torn between the choice of her dream-school that won’t accommodate her, and the “safer choice” of a local school that will, we follow Effie’s year of personal growth and finding a balance between advocating for herself, and allowing herself to just live the life of a prospect college student. Filled with fantastic conversations about ableism in academia, beautiful supportive friendships and families, and a sweet romance on the side, I absolutely adored this book. It’s one of the best depictions of an underrepresented topic, and I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of bodily abilities.



7. Best debut novel? Catfish Rolling by ClaraKumagai is not only my favourite debut of the year so far, but unfortunately remains painfully underrated and underread. With echoes of both Annihilation and The Astonishing Colour of After, this is a magical realism story with elements of Japanese mythology that tells a haunting tale of grief, family, time and the earthquake that shook a nation.Again, I’ve written a full review which you can find here. In short though, it ticks many of my boxes as far as favourite themes are concerned, and nails its sense of emotion as well as setting. Highly recommended, especially since it hasn’t nearly gotten the amount of attention it deserved so far.



8. Favourite reread? I included this prompt for the sole reason that my best reading memories for 2023 were all rereads. Tied for this first place are my (probably 3rd or 4th) reread of the Area X trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, which cements its place as probably my favourite series ever even deeper with every revisit, and Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, which is quickly becoming a go-to comfort book for me. If either of those are still on your TBR: I cannot recommend them highly enough.




9. Best sequel? In line with the previous answer; my favourite sequel was Authority by Jeff Vandermeer, book 2 in the Area X trilogy. I distinctly remember being a little disappointed by this book back when I first read it, after how much I loved Annihilation. Authority took a bit of a different direction that I had hoped at the time. In hindsight though, and upon reread, I’m coming to love Authority even more every day. It’s astounding to me that Vandermeer has written a series that has so many secrets and layers within its pages that after countless rereads, I still find something new in them with every revisit.



10. The longest book you’ve read? The longest book I’ve read this year immediately popped into my mind, as it truly felt like an accomplishment that I finished this beast. I’m talking about The Deluge by Stephen Markley, clocking in at a whopping 896 pages. I have a full review in which I discuss my thoughts, but in short: I would’ve probably given it a 5-star rating, had it been 1/3 the length. It’s a multi-POV climate-epic that has many brilliant moments speckled in between a lot of unnecessary filler. The seed of a 5-star novel is in there, but it doesn’t justify its almost 900-page length.


11. The shortest book you’ve read? For my shortest read, there were a few stand-out short stories within the collection Metamorphosis by Penelope Lively. I felt the entire collection was very strong, but the titular story stood out to me. Metamorphosis follows a woman’s musings about big questions on life, change, and the legacy we leave behind when we pass, triggered by various household-objects made from animal-parts (a tortoiseshell mirror, an ivory umbrella-stand, etc.).



12. Biggest disappointment?

As sad as I am to say it, my biggest disappointment of 2023 was Shy by Max Porter. It was far from the worst book I read, but it does stand out as the one to let down my expectations the most. I’ve been a fan of Porters previous works, especially Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Lanny, so his latest release was a book I highly anticipated. The story of Shy follows a troubled teenager over the course of one night in which he runs away from his Last-Chance-House. As he wonders the empty streets, he converses with the voices inside his head and shows us a bit of his inner world. Not only did the book not resonate with me personally the way his previous works did, I also felt like Porter played it a little safe with this one. What I love about his style is that he’s comfortable to experiment a little, but Shy felt like more of the same techniques he used before. You can find a full review with my thoughts here.


13. A book that made you happy?

Two books immediately stand out for this question. As I’ve already talked about Tress of the Emerald Sea, this spotlight goes to In the Lives of Puppets by T.J. Klune. Although I’ve liked his previous two books, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one as much as I did. It’s a (very!) loose retelling of Pinocchio, with element of Frankenstein speckled through it, set in a post-apocalyptic future. We follow a young man and his inventor-father, as they live an isolated life in the forest, rescuing and repairing robot-wrecks from nearby scrapyards. Their repair of a very special type of robot draws the attention of a larger outside force, that upsets their peaceful existence. In the Lives of Puppets has Klune doing what he does best: create a whimsical tale with a slightly awkward protagonist, a cast of lovable side-characters and an adorable M-M-romance. They may not be complex SSF-masterpieces with intricate worldbuilding and character-arcs, but within their own genre of feel-good-SSF, Klune’s stories are some of my favourites.



14. A book that made you cry? I’m not a book-cryer, but there were two books that put a lump in my throat and/or a glistening to my eye. I’ve already mentioned The Girl From Earths End, which caught me by surprise as most middle-grade novels with heavier themes tend to do. The second book that really hit me hard was my reread of We Speak in Storms by Natalie Lund. It’s a deeply melancholic read, about a small town with a legacy of tragedy brought on by seasonal tornado’s. When the latest tornado touches down, it brings with it the ghosts of three people that perished in one of the towns largest wind-blown disasters from decades ago. Each ghost attaches itself to a teenager within the town, going through personal struggles of their own. These hauntings prove more helpful than hurtful however; each duo of living-and-dead helping each other to put their own personal ghosts to rest. The part of the book that got me (and has gotten me every time I’ve read it) is Callie’s storyline, which follows her caring for her terminally ill mother. It’s heart-wrenching and brilliantly done, and as such it hits very close to home for me. Although I want to recommend this stunning work to everyone, I recognise its subject-matter comes with a lot of triggers, so please be sure to look into those before you decide to pick this one up.



15. A book outside your comfort zone? If you’ve been with me for a little longer, you’ll probably know my almost irrational hatred for the trope of fae. I think it’s ultimately the amount of cringe-worthy fae-romances that people have tried to sell me on, that have made me so cynical towards this subgenre, but I cannot remember a single fae/fairy-story I actually enjoyed, ever. Until now… Emily Wilde’s Encyclopedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett still wasn’t a favourite, but it’s at least my most enjoyed fae-story to date. Although it has a lot of familiar tropes, Heather Fawcett gave her own spin on it, bringing the Fae in this tale closer to the mischievous folk of northern-European legend that the winged-hot-dude depiction that’s dominated fiction lately. My full review can be found here.



16. A book you can’t stop thinking about still thinking about? In Ascension by Martin MacInnis has lived rentfree in my mind ever since I flipped the final page. I immediately felt deeply conflicted about this novel; feeling on the one hand like this had to be new favourite based off its themes, messaging and style. On the other hand, there were so many point I resented that there was an undeniable bitter aftertaste to it too.

In Ascension is one of the most ambitious novels I’ve read this year. It follow Dutch marine biologist Leigh Hasenbosch, who tries to outgrow her troubled youth through an ambitious career of traveling the globe to study ancient deep-sea microbes. When a trench is discovered in the Atlantic ocean, Leigh joins the exploration team, hoping to find evidence of the earth's first life forms. What she instead finds calls into question everything we know about our own beginnings and sets her up on a lifechanging journey even further up.

The novel spans from the largest places we know (the deep sea to space), to the smallest and darkest places of memory we hide within ourself. On paper, it’s absolutely brilliant, but I couldn’t shake the feeling throughout that the author was very aware of his own brilliance. The language often veers into the overwritten, and many of the characterwork that’s presented as “deep” doesn’t truly outgrow a level of arm-chair-psychology that often rubbed me the wrong way.

I feel like time (and possibly a reread) will tell if I actually end up loving this story, or if my thoughts remain as conflicted. Part of that confliction and inability to say for sure whether I love or resent this book, has made it so memorable to me.



17. Most beautiful book (cover and/or overall design)? We have another tie, as both these hardcover editions are beautiful enough that I’ve flipped through them from now and then, just to admire their design. My first purchase of the year was a signed preorder of my most anticipated novel of the year Now She is Witch by Kirsty Logan. Stunning from cover to end-pages, ánd a valuable addition to my collection of signed pieces by one of my favourite authors.

Second is a book that I had no aesthetic expectations for whatsoever, so I was completely blown away when it arrived looking so stunning. The designers for The Girl From Earths End by Tara Dairman have absolutely outdone themselves with this one. Again, from cover illustration to title headings: this book is a looker.




18. A 2023 release that’s you haven’t gotten to, but want to make a priority?

First up is one of my most anticipated sequels of the year, that I haven’t gotten to as I want to reread book 1 before diving in. Assassin of Reality by Marina Dyachenko is the sequel to Vita Nostra, which I still hail to be the best dark-academia (fantasy) novel I’ve ever encountered. I’m planning on a reread soon, hopefully following up with the sequel immediately afterwards.

Second is a haunted house novel by one of my favourite horror authors currently writing: A House with Good Bones by T. Kingfisher. In this we follow a young woman returning to her childhood home, where her mother now lives alone. The home isn’t quite how she remembers it, and her mother’s behaviour seems off without an apparent reason.

I honestly don’t need to know anything more: Kingfisher taking on one of my favourite tropes is something I want to read regardless. I’ve only been waiting for an opportunity to get my hands on a copy.

Last we have The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao; a very recent release that I purely put on my TBR because of how incredibly cool the synopsis sounded. It’s described as a Hindu philosophy-inspired SSF-debut following a husband and wife racing to save their living city—and their troubled marriage—high above a jungle world besieged by cataclysmic storms.

The floating city, as well as the idea of an already established couple with a marriage on the rocks really spoke to me, so I can’t wait to see what this book brings us.




19. Any books you’ve DNF-ed or lost interest reading in since the start of this year? This one will get some pitchforks raised my way, but my mind is quite made up about this author and me not being a good match. I have completely given up on R.F. Kuang’s work, and therefore her latest novel Yellow Face. I fully recognise that her works raise a lot of important topics, and will be very valuable to many a reader, but her lecturing tone and lack of subtlety in her messaging just don’t work for me. I’ve encountered this same issue in The Poppy War, as well as Babel; both objectively great novels, but completely ruined for me by the way the author hammers home her message over and over, as if she doesn’t trust the reader to pick up on it themselves. Babel is probably the best example of it, and as someone who’s done a lot of work in fighting inequity in academia myself, the patronising tone in which she tried to educate her readers rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve heard similar critiques from reviewers I trust about Yellowface, and after already encountering some of these same issues in the first few pages, I’ve decided to give up on it. I might miss out on an “objectively good book”, but I’d rather engage with this subject matter by the hand of a different author.



20. Anticipated releases for the second half of the year? Most of my anticipated releases for 2023 have already been released, or have had their release date pushed back to 2024. As such, I have only a limited list left, three of which stand out the most. In September I look forward to the latest work by one of my favourite bookish-creators/author Jen Campbell, who’s releasing her next short story collection Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. As with her previous works, her short-stories deal with topics of disability, body, grief with the recent addition as an intersecting topic IVF, based off her own life experiences. I have a lot of trust in Jen’s ability to give words to these subjects in ways that I can only wish I could, and I look forward to an emotional but resonant read.

Out in October is A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand, which is the “spiritual sequel” to one of my favourite classics The Haunting of Hill House. Revisiting and attempting to add to a classic tale, years later and by a different authors pen, can be either a homerun or a recipe for disaster. I can’t wait to find out where this one lands on that spectrum.

Last we have a bit of a wildcard; a novel out in August that I know very little about other than the fact that a good friend read an ARC and told me I was going to love it. Swim Home to the Vanished by Brendan Shay Basham is a magical realism novel about grief, witchcraft and elements of Navajo folklore, that follows a mans journey of coming to terms with the unbearable loss of his brother, who disappeared into a river one day, presumed dead.



With that final answer, we’ve reached the end of this mid-year wrap-up. If you liked the format, feel free to use and adapt it to share your own reading-experiences of the year so far. It’s my goal to review all of the books mentioned in this post in longform, but I’ve acquired a bit of a backlog due to work-responsibilities. As such, I will link the ones I have already, and add to the list as soon as possible. Until then, happy reading; I hope your year is as least as good as mine!

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