The Fiction Fox
Quarter 2 Wrap-up and Favourites
Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Believe it or not, we have already made it to the halfway-point of 2021, which means it’s time for me to wrap up my second quarter of reading. The past three months have brought me some absolute gems that I’d love to share with you, so without further ado, let’s get into the best and the worst, and shortly touch on the new releases I read over the past three months.
Quarter 2 stats: Number of Books Read: 30 Average Rating: 3.7 stars
Later – Stephen King
Jamie Conklin can see ghosts… And no, it’s not like in that movie with Bruce Willis… If it were, than this wouldn’t be a horror-story, and trust me: it is… Stephen Kings books have been fairly hit or miss for me, especially within recent years. His latest release Later (pardon the pun) is the biggest hit I read by him since Pet Sematary. Where The Institute and Elevation felt much like King wanting to go into a different direction, to varying success, Later feels like a return to form. Combining traditional horror-elements, with a coming of age story and Kings accessible writing and often snarky humour; this lived up to everything I wanted it to be. Despite being a horror-novel, Later brought me probably the most joy and nostalgic King-branded comforting creeps (yes that’s a thing, don’t question it!) out of anything I’ve read this year. Rating: 5/5 stars
Elatsoe – Darcie Little Badger
Elatsoe was one of my 2020-5-star-predictions, that I didn’t get around to until now. Luckily, it was absolutely worth the wait. We follow the story of Ellie, a Lipan Apache girl from an America just like our own. Except this America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these powers are as every-day to Ellie as walking the ghost of her deceased dog Kirby. Others pose a real thread to her safety, as well as that of her community… When her cousin is murdered in a nearby town that wants no prying eyes, Ellie must navigate this strange world to find out the truth. There was so much I loved about Elatsoe; from its beautifully imagined world where the lines between life and death are a little blurrier than normal, to its memorable character and their adventure that balances the line between grim and whimsically perfectly. My only critique would be towards the marketing-team for maybe not targeting the most ideal audience. This book is perfect for “tweens” (between the older end of middle-grade and the younger end of YA), yet it’s marketing solely focussed on YA. Thus throwing this hidden gem in possibly the hardest to please audience and possibly keeping it away from younger readers who may have also enjoyed it. Personally, I highly recommend Elatsoe: I loved every second I spend in this world and look forward to reading more from Darcie Little Badger in her new upcoming release A Snake Falls to Earth that is due to release in August of this year. Rating: 5/5 stars
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – V.E. Schwab
From a 5-star prediction, we move over to a novel I was fully prepared to find disappointing. Instead, it became one of my absolute favourites of the year so far, and will most likely remain so until the end of the year. With the incredible hype surrounding not just this book, but V.E. Schwab in general, I feel it needs little introduction, but just in case you need it, here you go: In a rural village in France in 1714, a young woman makes a desperate bargain with The Darkness: she is free to live forever, but cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets once they lose sight of her. Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world. But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore. And he remembers her name… I haven’t loved V.E. Schwabs earlier books: I didn’t enjoy her characters, her writing style was too bland for me and her stories always felt original but lacked a bit of depth in their execution. This book was Victoria’s way of showing me; not only can she do these things, she can do them well! Hypnotic, lyrical and with remarkable depth and insight in its memorable characters and their lives, this is a novel I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, let alone forget, ever since I read the first chapter.
Rating: 5/5 stars
The Mending Summer – Ali Standish
From my favourite middle-grade author comes another wonderful tale combining hard-hitting subjects with comfort, hope and whimsy. Georgia has been looking forward to another summer visiting summer camp with her friends. Instead, she is sent off to the country to stay with her mysterious great-aunt for the summer, so she doesn’t have to worry about her parents fighting all the time about daddy’s heavy drinking. Exploring the woods around her great-aunts home, Georgia meets Angela and together, they discover a magical lake—one that can make wishes come true. At first, the lake offers Georgia a thrilling escape from her worries and hope that she can use its magic to heal her family. But as things grow worse at home, a troubled boy appears at the lake and the wishes threaten to spiral out of control . . . Ali Standish greatest selling point is the way she tackles hard-hitting topics in a way that is understandable, manageable and relatable to younger children. Both children and adults alike deserve to see themselves reflected in books, even if their lives aren't as unconcerned as that of your typical whimsical adventure plot. Often middle-grade shies away from those stories, or uses them as sentimental tearjerkers in the background. Ali Standish' stories are different, striking the perfect balance between optimism, realism and a warm understanding that can only come from a place of knowing and remembering what these kind of experiences were like as a child. I wish these books were around when I was a child, but I will gladly take all of them as an adult retroactively as well. Rating: 5/5 stars
The Mirror Season – Anna-Marie McLemore
Last and likely the hardest to describe, we have The Mirror Season. If you read my “first thoughts”-post on Goodreads, you will have heard me say it already, but I think this book is about as close to perfection as anyone can get. Imbued with elements of magical realism and written in the lyrical voice that is their signature, McLemore tells the story of a boy and a girl who are sexually assaulted at the same party. They develop a cautious friendship and navigate their way through the healing-journey that follows their ordeal. That journey takes them through her family's magical pastelería, his secret forest of otherworldly trees, anatomically correct hand-puppets and a ceiling filled with condom-balloons… If I were to critique this book “technically” it would be a very short review: take any of the positive things I said in my reviews on AM’s previous books and apply them to this one. All are true: stunning lyrical writing, a raw and unflinching portrayal of hard hitting topic combined with magical elements that somehow feel “more real that reality”, and deep and complex protagonists will stay with you for a long time… When it comes to structure, pacing, motifs and metaphors, and tone; I genuinely have nothing to add. As a book, it’s “technically perfect”, as far as I can tell. That brings me to the more important part however: The Mirror Season was clearly more than just a book to AM themselves. They reveal as much in their epilogue, but it’s also evident through every word on these pages. This book is a journey of healing, a triumph of survival and a powerful take back of control that was crudely stripped away. It’s a reminder that love cannot “fix” you, but you do have the power to fix yourself, and loved ones can support you, and make that battle easier to bear. I won’t pretend to relate or fully comprehend AM’s experiences, but I truly hope this book has brought her healing. What I can say is that it has brought a little bit of healing to me. AM passed that little shard of reflective glass on, and refracted its light out into the world. Regardless of the kind, the age or the depth of the trauma you may have: I hope that light finds you too. Rating: 5/5 stars
Horrid – Katrina Leno
Last on my disappointing list is one that doesn’t actually deserve to be here, as it’s by no means a bad book and I “objectively” rated it 4 stars. Subjectively however, I did not enjoy this book the way I was hoping I would. A horror-novel that combines a haunted house, the grief over a lost parent and elements of mental illness: this book sounds like it was written for me. The thing is: it wasn’t… The book I was looking for has this premise, but is written for a more adult audience and focusses on actual grief over the loss of the protagonists father, rather than the main plotline (which I can’t mention due to heavy spoilers) Katrina Leno chose to focus on. The result of these choices made Horrid too timid, too predictable and lacking in emotional punch to me. Objectively and for its target audience, Horrid probably makes for a nice spooky tale, and doesn’t deserve a bad rating. Based on my personal enjoyment vs my expectations however, it deserves the top of this list of disappointments.
Here there are Monsters – Amelinda Bérubé
I should have known based on the low average rating, yet still I couldn’t resist the “Blair Witch Project meets Imaginary Girls” tagline. In Here There are Monsters, we follow two teenage sisters, one of which goes missing in the isolated woods near their house. Her older sister discovers a horrible secret in these woods that means she’s the only person who can save Deidre before it’s too late. Although there are some great ideas in effect here, the execution left much to be desired. A slow, drawn out build up with little pay off in combination with a cast made up of only insufferable characters made this a chore to finish. Although I’m usually okay with realistic teens and their stupidity in horror, these girls read like bratty 10-year olds (instead of 16yo like our protagonist is supposed to be). Then there’s, of course, the obligatory love interest, who’s flatter than a cardboard slate. Perhaps if you’re on the younger side of the YA target audience and are looking for a forest-set horror story, this may be just what you’re looking for but to me this book was mostly infuriating. If like me, you loved the forest setting and idea of these creatures, but wanted some more fleshed out characters I highly recommend you try The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher. Same vibes, just way better, ánd funny as an added bonus.
The End of Loneliness – Benedict Wells
I’m proud to say that I made it until June this year before encountering a book I didn’t just dislike but actively hated. That book was The End of Loneliness. I realise that it’s an unpopular opinion, and I honestly don’t think it’s just this book I dislike, but this entire subgenre which I’ve come to name “tragedy-porn”. Most famous for its posterchild and most egregious offender A Little Life, this genre has one goal only: to make its reader cry. How, you ask? Oh simple: just by chugging as much tragedy and sadness the protagonists way possible. Death of a parent: awesome! Life threatening illness: sure! Abandonment by loved one: yes please! What more can we add to make sure the audience knows our protagonist has a SAD life…? It’s tragedy for the sake of tragedy. For the sake of manipulating an emotional response out of the reader, and I for one don’t respond well to it. I’m all for katharsis through stories: finding your way through your own grief and difficulties in life by way of living through them vicariously via fictional characters. I never feel that Tragedy Porn lends itself to that however. It falls in the same category as “sick lit”: written by able-bodied people, for able-bodied people, to feel sad for the poor characters in the book, only to realise their own lives aren’t so bad after all. As someone who deals with disability and tragedy every day professionally, I know how real these kind of stories are. People with lives like this exist, and they deserve a better representation that a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out for readers to “awww” over.
Due to the large number of new releases I read these months, I’m not going to review them all in depth here. Instead I’ll quickly introduce you to them, give my rating and link to any reviews I may have available to read.
- The Bright and the Pale – Jessica Rubinkowski
A quite formulaic YA polar-fantasy. Perfect for fans of Shadow and Bone or The Girl and the Stars. Rating: 3/5 stars
- The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex A historical mystery inspired by true events, about the aftermath of the vanishing of three lightkeepers from a lighthouse near the coast of Cornwall, told from the perspective of their widows. Rating: 4/5 stars
- What You Never Knew – Jessica Hamilton A fairly standard, yet enjoyable thriller about a woman returning to the island her family used to own when she was a child, after the death of her sister. Upon her return she uncovers family secrets years buried. What sets this novel apart is the inclusion of a dual perspective, alternating between protagonist June and the ghost of her deceased sister. Rating: 3/5 stars
- Orakel – Thomas Olde Heuvelt (currently only in Dutch) A Dutch horror novel that will soon be available in the English translation as well, following two teens who find an 18th century sail-ship stranded in a tulip field. When everyone who sets foot inside this ship disappears without a trace, they discover there may be more sinister forces at play. Highly atmospheric and super-creepy, I absolutely loved this book. Didn’t hurt that I was reading it while on a weekend-get-away to the North-sea shores, visiting the exact towns this story takes place. Rating: 4/5 stars
- Black Water Sister – Zen Cho One of my biggest surprises of the year so far: a Malaysian inspired adult fantasy, about a young woman who returns to her country of birth where she left as a toddler. She there unwittingly discovers her talents as a spirit medium and finds herself accidentally possessed by the sassy ghost of her estranged grandmother, who sets her out on a quest to defeat a local spirit terrorizing the towns people. Rating: 4.5/5 stars
A highly unique piece of speculative fiction that has Rivers Solomons signature all over it. We follow Vern, a pregnant woman on the run for a religious cult that was her home for years. Seeking shelter in the woods, she gives birth to twins, whom she raises far from the influence of the outside world. Yet Vern herself is a hunted and haunted woman, chased by flashes of her past and a mysterious illness that morphs her body in inexplicable and uncanny ways. Rating: 3/5 stars
- The Last Windwitch – Jennifer Adams
A whimsical middle-grade fantasy about a clumsy apprentice hedge-witch who discovers her powers may lie elsewhere. Perfect for fans of The Girl who Drank the Moon. Rating: 4/5 stars
- The Ones We’re Meant to Find – Joan He A YA sci-fi/dystopian novel about two sisters, separated by an ocean, trying to reunite. One of them a STEM prodigy, living in a hypermodern eco-city, trying to use technology to find her sister. The other stranded on a desert shore with no memory and only scraps from which she creates rafts in an attempt to cross the sea. My full review can be found here. Rating: 3.5/5 stars
- The Stranding – Kate Sawyer An apocalyptic piece of literary fiction about two strangers who take shelter in the carcass of a beached whale to survive the end of the world. From there, we follow their lives in diverging timelines: their lives before, and their attempts to rebuild something new after. Great for fans of Station Eleven My full review can be found here. Rating: 4.5/5 stars
- The Sea is Salt and So am I – Cassandra Hartt A YA contemporary set in a coastal town, combining climate change with the impact of depression on a teen boy and his friends and sibling. Great for fans of The Last True Poets of the Sea. Rating: 3.5/5 stars