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  • Writer's pictureThe Fiction Fox

Mid-Year Check-in 2024

With July almost upon us, we’ve reached the mid-year point, which means it’s time for my Mid-year check-in. What once started as a version of The Midyear Book Freak-out tag, has since evolved into its own thing as I adjusted the questions to suit my needs. What I’m left with is a game of “twenty-questions” with myself, in which I try to summarize the highlights of the past 6 months’ worth of reading.

1.        How has your reading-year been so far?

In a single word: amazing. After the lull had in 2023, 2024 seemed to come back with a vengeance, as after only three months I already had more new favourites to show for than in the entirety of last year. That trend has continued till today. In terms of quantity, I’ve read 68 books, which is about on-track (maybe a little above average). I’ve also managed a decent variety of genres, although I have to admit that the Young Adult category is severely lacking this year. Perhaps that’s part of the reason of my success though…

2.        Top 3 favourite reads of the year?

There was heavy competition this year, so I didn’t exactly manage to narrow it down to 3. Instead, I slotted some more favourites into the upcoming questions. This might also be a good time to mention that I attempted to have as few repeats as possible, otherwise my entire list would be dominated by about 5 novels, over and over… Consider these my three favourites that didn’t quite fit with any of the other questions. Death Valley by Melissa Broder was one of my first reads of January and set the tone for the rest of the year. It’s a strange and hallucinatory novel about a woman lost on a desert hike. Left completely alone with her spiraling thoughts, her journey turns as much inwards as outwards. In its own eccentric way, this is a near perfect exploration of themes of family, father-daughter-relations, caregiving/hospice care, love in all its forms and the grief that matches it. Original, messy, poignant and, yes, at times hilarious; I didn’t expect to love this (or relate to it) as much as I did.

From one of the first to one of my most recent reads, whenever Julia Armfield publishes something, it seems to make an appearance on my favourites list. With her newest release Private Rites that tradition might just continue. Part horror, part literary, part climate-dystopia, we follow three sisters coming together after the recent passing of their father to discuss the inheritance. Their dad, a famous architect of “climate-proof” buildings, has left them his masterpiece: a glass house designed to withstand flooding. Meeting inside these glass walls, the sisters are overwhelmed by a sense of haunting that dredges up something sinister from the murk of memory. This was my most anticipated release of the year and it lived up to my own hype!

The third book that deserves a mention is Our Hideous Progeny by C.E. McGill, which might just hold the top-spot for favourite of the year so far. This is not so much a retelling, as a continuation to the classic story of Frankenstein; a feminist gothic tale following Victor Frankenstein’s great-niece Mary. Mary, with a sharp mind and a sharper tongue, is keen to make her name in this world of natural science, despite her gender and lack of connections, wealth or privilege. When she comes across the letters of her uncle, detailing his famous experiment, she sets off on a quest to create a creature of her own… On the surface, a classic gothic tale of scientific ambition, hubris, and creation like the original. Just below, a feminist outcry for the unsung women in scientific history and an exploration of queerness, otherness and learning to embrace the hideous-side of oneself. Then in the depths; a narrative of illness, body, childlessness and legacy, that struck a personal chord in a way I didn’t anticipate. I adored it.

3.        Favourite fantasy novel?

Easily and by a mile: Dreams of the Dying by Nicholas Lietzau. I was already familiar with the world this story is set in from the game Enderal (a total conversion-mod for Skyrim, which I absolutely adored). Still I was amazed by how well Lietzau translated and expanded this into novel-format. The empire is left on the brink of collapse as the emperor lies suspended a preternatural coma without any signs of awaking. In the power vacuum left behind, chaos seems the only winning force. Against this turbulent background, we follow a troubled mercenary, haunted by the trauma of a recent war, as he takes a desperate contract in search of an arcane cure for the emperors affliction. The journey that follows takes him, not only across the lands, but across the planes of his own mind and the dreams of the emperor himself. Beyond a shadow of a doubt; Dreams of the Dying is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in my life. It’s combines a fantastic story, with brilliant character-work, and looks at philosophical and existential themes, without becoming too heavy-handed with them. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s as close to my fantasy-perfection as you can get.

4.        Favourite horror/thriller novel?

There were three possible ways I could’ve answered this question, but since the other two books make an appearance elsewhere (see question 11 and 15), I’ll go with Nestlings by Nat Cassidy. A young couple moves into a high-end gothic apartment-complex, hoping this fresh start will help them adjust to the drastic changes in their lives that happened over the past few months. The birth of their new baby didn’t only bring the typical challenges of parenthood, but complications during childbirth also see Ana adjusting to a newly acquired disability that leaves her wheelchairbound. Although the apartment initially seemed to be a dream come true, Ana soon starts to sense something sinister about their new home. What she discovers might threaten her own safety, as well as that of her baby. Tense, suspensful, claustrophobic and with fantastic representation of new motherhood and a strong disabled protagonist; this was every-bit the modern gothic tale I hoped for.

5.        Favourite young adult novel?

To the surprise of absolutely nobody I’ve talked to since reading it, it’s Sheine Lende by Darcie Little Badger. Frankly, this novel could’ve single-handedly been my answer to half of these questions and is partly the grounds of my “no-repeats”-rule. Sheine Lende is the prequel to one of my all-time favourite comfort books Elatsoe. Although I was convinced nothing would match my love for that book, Darcie Little Badger somehow managed to do just that, perhaps even surpassing it… Elatsoe takes place in an alternate reality close to our own, where elements of Native American mythology like ghosts and mythological creatures are a part of everyday life. We follow Ellie, a Lipan-Apache teen and her Ghost-dog Kirby on a mission to track down the person responsible for her cousins killing. Throughout her story, Ellie has already hinted at her family’s unique gift for summoning animal-ghosts popping up through the generations. In Sheine Lende, we get to see this for ourselves through the story of Ellie’s grandmother Shane. This had everything the original had and more: strong community vibes, heavy themes handled with absolute care, and an overall feeling of deeply radiating comfort. There stories are hugs in book-form…

6.        Favourite children’s/middle-grade novel?

This one’s a two way tie. The novel I’d recommend to the broadest audience is Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell. It’s a classic fantasy story that echoes of the “golden age of fantasy” and therefore immediately carries the feeling of a modern classic. We follow a boy traveling to the magical isles of Archipelago; a cluster of unmapped islands where magical creatures of every kind have thrived for thousands of years—until now. Alongside a baby-griffin and a mysterious girl he meets along the way, he must fight the threat that plagues these magical lands. Impossible Creatures is that perfect blend of whimsical and wise that good children’s fiction can have. It makes for the perfect kind of buddy-read between parent and child, as each will love the story and get something different from it. Highly recommended to fans of the likes of Philip Pullman, Narnia or Nevermoor.  Since I have to stay a little within my lane of recommending disability-themed childrens-fiction; Not Quite a Ghost by Anne Ursu is my favourite within that category. This contemporary novel with light horror elements explores chronic (post-viral) illness through the lens of a haunted-house tale. Through understandable metaphors, it makes a difficult subject recognizable and comprehensible for young readers and parents alike. I cannot recommend this enough, especially with the rise of post-viral illness (like Long-COVID): kids deserve to see themselves/their loved ones reflected on page!

7.        Favourite non-fiction?

An honest apology to my international readers; this book is currently only available in the original Dutch/Flemish. I could not, however, in good conscious give this spot to any other book than Handicap: een bevrijding by Anaïs van Ertvelde. This author combined scholarly research and her own-voices insights into one of the best-penned, most insightful and striking explorations of disability as a personal and cultural phenomenon I’ve ever read. Deeply relatable (even with regards to things I didn’t know quite how to voice), critical and nuanced; this is a gem I hope will be picked up overseas as well.

8.        Best debut? My track record with poets debuting in fantasy continues as I give this one to The Night Alphabet by Joelle Taylor. This is a speculative literary novel that opens with a woman entering a tattoo-parlor with an unusual request. She wishes final tattoo to add to her already extensive collection of them; a single line that connects them all. Throughout the tattooing process, she takes her tattoo-artists on a journey “across the map of her life”; each tattoo revealing a story of her past and weaving an integrate pattern of a turbulent life lived. Told in the most striking prose it portrays a kaleidoscopic journey of queerness, identity and what is meant by “inhabiting a body”, rather than “being” one.

9.        Best sequel or series continuation?

The honest answer would probably be Sheine Lende again, but since we’re not doing duplications, I’ll give you the runner-up: Tidal Creatures by Seanan McGuire. Although I haven’t loved any of McGuires other work, the Alchemical Journeys series has been an unexpected hit ever since Middlegame. Although I haven’t loved any of the sequels as much as the first book, I still love returning to this world and its wonderfully unique characters with each iteration. A proper synopsis would contain heavy spoilers for the previous two parts, but imagine (in McGuire-terms) a high logic/science, low whimsy world with a cast of characters the exact opposite…  

10.   Longest book you’ve read?

In terms of actual page-count, it’s Dreams of the Dying by Nicholas Lietzau clocking in at 720 pages. Since, I’ve already talked about it though, I’ll mention the book that felt the longest too. That (dis)honor goes to Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu, for giving me probably the longest 650 pages I’ve ever endured. More on this one under question 12…

11.   Shortest book you’ve read?

Another candidate for the favourites-list, Green Fuse Burning by Tiffany Morris blew me away with how much it manages to do in only 107 pages. This eco-horror novella explores themes of grief over the loss of a parent, queerness, death and rebirth, all through a lens of natural beauty and terror. A struggling artist stuck in art-block after the death of her father is offered a solo-cabin-holiday by her girlfriend, in hopes of sparking her creativity. Amidst the natural beauty and decay of the surrounding swamps, something indeed begins to bloom within her mind…Hallucinatory, profound and lyrical; this reads like an unhinged extended poem. 

12.   Biggest disappointment? 

This is my one chance to air some negativity in this tag, so allow me this little rapid-fire of complaints about my 4 worst offenders. Worst in terms of disappointment was Infinity Alchemist by Kacen Calender, as it’s by an author I trusted. Unfortunately, their adult fantasy debut didn’t meet those high expectations. Unbalanced and underdeveloped; this simply didn’t make the most out of its admittedly interesting set of foundational ideas. Worst in terms of my actual enjoyment was Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu. For the life of me, I cannot understand why this is so internationally acclaimed and beloved?! Infuriatingly pretentious and utterly dull, this tries its hardest to disguise our protagonists mundane navelgazing as profound intellectualism. I didn’t have the patience to deal with this for its outrageous 700 pages length…  Worst in terms of actual quality is a two-way tie of horror-fiction. The Deading by Nicholas Belardes, on paper, sounds like it might be my perfect horror novel. Eco-horror where a small coastal town is overrun with a mysterious contagion wreaks havoc on the local population that comes from the depths of the ocean. Instead, Belardes overreaches with too many incoherent plotlines, unmemorable characters and a story that’s ultimately little more than disjointed. Finally, This Wretched Valley by Jenny Kiefer… I should’ve known better, based off my poor track record with YA-horror, yet I was still intrigued by the idea of a mountain-set horror-mystery that drew comparisons to the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Shame on them for using the name of a true mysterious tragedy to promote their cheap YA-slasher story…

13.    A book that made you happy?

Look, I warned you Sheine Lende would dominate this tag if I didn’t reel myself in properly… Instead, I’ll give you a book that made me happy for an entirely different reason. Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett was one of those rare times where you go in with extremely high expectations, and they are actually met/surpassed! Tainted Cup is the start of a new series, which blends a murder-mystery with a Sherlock-Watson-style detective-duo with a high fantasy world crafted with the meticulous care we know from Bennett. An eccentric detective and her assistant, each with a set of uniquely enhanced skills, investigate the puzzling murder of an imperial officer and find themselves caught in a scheme that festers beyond this single mans death… Fantastic worldbuilding, a captivating mystery, genuinely hilarious banter and a hint of neuro-divergence representation. Chefs kiss!

14.   A book that made you cry?

No books physically made me cry this year, but one that got the closest to putting a lump in my throat was Shark Heart by Emily Habeck. This magical realism novel explores the topic of (chronic) degenerative illness and its effects on not only the affected person, but their caregivers alike. We follow a young couple as the husband is diagnosed with a rare condition that will gradually see him transform into a great white shark. Although that premise might sounds ridiculous, the heartwrenching journey of uncertainty, caregiving, anticipatory grief and an unrelenting love throughout it all left a deep impression on me.

15.   A book outside of your comfort zone?

I’ve used this question in previous years to discuss novels that were outside my general reading-tastes or preferred genres. This year, I’ll do you one better, as there was one horror novel that genuinely challenged me and made me viscerally uncomfortable with how hard it hit home. Where I End by Sophie White is a horror novel with (coincidentally similar) themes of caregiving, but in the darkest way possible. On an isolated island off the Irish coast lives an equally isolated family of three in a dilapidated house held together by wood rot and grime. Here lives 20-year old Aoileann, raised by her hardened grandmother, spending their days as the full-time caretakers for Aoileann bedbound mother. When a new young mother, similar in age to Aoileann arrives on the isle with her infant son, Aoileann quickly develops an obsession with her that takes a turn for the dark. What makes this novel so disturbing is deep-seeded domestic hatred that seeps off the pages. Aoileann has a deeply fraud relationship with her mother that refracts and distorts her view of every relationship she views. It plays with mother-daughter dynamics, the ugly side to disability and caretaking and the toll that can have on a relationship, grief, guilt and desperation, and the emotional numbness and alienation that can result from it. Truth is often scarier than fiction, and this is one of those cases. I highly recommend it for how brilliantly it is done, but I will say it comes with a heavy trigger-warning for anything to do with disability.

16.   A book you can’t stop thinking about?

Aside from the previously mentioned favourites; Alien Clay by Adrian Tchaikovsky for the sheer originality and depth of its worldbuilding and speculative biology. Tchaikovsky is my personal “king of sci-fi” creating the most interesting and scientifically plausible (alien) worlds within his stories. This one was no different. The plot reminds me slightly of my favourite of Tchaikovsky’s novels Cage of Souls. In Alien Clay we follow a professor of ecology as he arrives on the distant planet of Kiln, tasked to study the ravenous, chaotic and often life-threatening ecosystem on display. This trip isn’t a research-mission, but a thinly veiled death-sentence following his Earth-past as a political activist. Trying his best to stay alive and gain understanding of Kilns strange biology, our protagonist finds himself more and more intwined with the ecosystem that surrounds him. I won’t spoil what makes the speculative biology element so fascinating, but the concept is one I can’t stop thinking about. If you love hard-science-focused sci-fi with a focus on biology and a hint of horror; you cannot pass this one up!

17.   Favourite reread?

I didn’t reread too many books this year, but Wilder Girls by Rory Power was an unexpected surprise. I picked it up on a whim when I didn’t know what else to read, and was surprised by how well it held up to my memory. Most of you will be familiar with this one already. An all-girls boarding school on an isolated island is quarantined off from the rest of the world when a mysterious contagion starts infecting the girls and their teachers alike. We following the few survivors, all mutated and changed in strange ways by The Tox, in their quest for answers and survival. It’s a thrilling tale of survival that surprised me with how well it’s themes of female-friendship and trauma stood up to the test of time.

18.   Most beautiful cover design?

2024 has a strong cover-game, but I’m giving it to A Botanical Daughter by Noah Medlock as even the ARC was pretty. The story is a loose, queer retelling of the story of Frankenstein that combines found-family, hubris and horror to remarkable success. We follow a gay couple of Victorian scientist (a taxidermist and a botanist), living an isolated life in a botanical garden amongst their experiments, far away from the prying eyes of society disapproving of their relationship. One day, they join forces on their magnum opus: the creation of a daughter from body-parts and plant life… The beautiful cover-art by Julia Lloyd matches the feeling of beauty and horror perfectly. Funnily enough, “slightly creepy flowers on faces” seems to be a theme within my reads this year, as Death Valley, Wilder Girls, Green Fuse Burning, Fervor, Bloom and Chlorophobia all share element of this in their covers too.

19.   A 2024 release you haven’t gotten to yet, but want to make a priority?

I’ll give you two answers for this question: one very recent release, and one from the very start of the year. This Ordinary Stardust: A Scientist’s Path from Grief to Wonder by Alan Townsend is a memoir chronicling the authors experiences of channeling grief through scientific exploration as both his wife and daughter are diagnosed with cancer in close succession. The reason I haven’t gotten around to this one is two-fold. First, the book has only released 2 weeks ago, so I haven’t gotten my mitts on it yet. Second, as you can imagine from the subject-matter, this is one I plan on saving for a “good mental-state-day”, in which I’m up for the challenge. A January release I haven’t gotten to yet, but want to make a priority is Voyage of the Damned by Frances White. This is blurbed as “A mind-blowing murder mystery on a ship full of magical passengers. If Agatha Christie wrote fantasy, this would be it!”. Say no more; I want to read it!

20.   Most anticipated releases for the second half of 2024?I have a full post scheduled on just this topic, so stay tuned for that… I’ll give you a slight spoiler though: Absolution by Jeff Vandermeer (the fourth and final installment of the Southern Reach saga) tops the list…

I’m looking forward to seeing other peoples take on the Mid-Year Wrap-up. If you do a version of this; feel free to use my questions as an inspiration. Don’t want to do the full tag? Just let me know your top 3 favourites of the year so far. Lord knows my TBR doesn’t need further expanding, but suggestions are still very welcome!


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