Books Read in 2020: Five-Star Children's, YA, Short Stories, Horror and Fantasy

Things are pretty bleak here at the moment. We still don't know when Eve will be going back to school - at least she was there for the beginning of the course so got to actually meet her teacher, and she's doing well, considering it's grade twelve physics and she has a test every two days or so. I was hanging out in her room the other day and she was talking about the olden days and said "we used to have, like, five weeks before a test. FIVE WEEKS" and we both burst out laughing. My January depression is late but making up for lost time. Eve and I are both having bad allergy weeks, which at least is an explanation for why my head hurts all the time and my sinuses are burny. Mostly I am okay with our new normal, and I realize how lucky we are compared to many people. Sometimes I miss tiny normal things to a ridiculous degree - like Lucy jumping on the stool beside the front door a little before three o'clock to watch for Eve walking home from the bus, and going nuts when she sees her. And Eve coming in and giving me what we used to call The Daily Download - a lightning-fast, witty, hilarious, sometimes complainy recounting of whatever happened during her day. Odds are it won't happen again even if she goes back to school, because I'd rather drive her than have her take the bus. Of course, picking her up is nice too, but I'm sad that her last time walking home from the bus has probably happened and we didn't know it was the last time. Our Covid numbers are at their lowest since mid-December today, though, so that's something. This too shall pass. 

It's pretty widely agreed that the Goodreads five-star rating system is imperfect. No half-stars, little nuance. I don't pretend to any great rigour in the way I rate books either. Much depends on my mood at the time, and there are so many elements in play - plot, characterization, dialogue, writing, subject matter, world-building etc. I don't remember if I ever was very stingy with five-star ratings, but I've definitely decided not to be in recent years. I mean, what's the point? According to Goodreads it means "it was amazing", and many books are, for one reason or another, even if it's just because I thought nothing would make me smile that day and one did.

Five-Star Children's, YA, Short Stories, Fantasy and Horror:

A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty: Synopsis from Goodreads: This is a tale of missing persons. Madeleine and her mother have run away from their former life, under mysterious circumstances, and settled in a rainy corner of Cambridge (in our world). Elliot, on the other hand, is in search of his father, who disappeared on the night his uncle was found dead. The talk in the town of Bonfire (in the Kingdom of Cello) is that Elliot's dad may have killed his brother and run away with the Physics teacher. But Elliot refuses to believe it. And he is determined to find both his dad and the truth. As Madeleine and Elliot move closer to unraveling their mysteries, they begin to exchange messages across worlds -- through an accidental gap that hasn't appeared in centuries. But even greater mysteries are unfolding on both sides of the gap: dangerous weather phenomena called "color storms;" a strange fascination with Isaac Newton; the myth of the "Butterfly Child," whose appearance could end the droughts of Cello; and some unexpected kisses.

This is the first in the Colours of Madeleine trilogy, which I have banged on about endlessly. I reread it almost yearly because it just makes me happy. It's amazing for a few reasons - mostly because the setting of the Kingdom of Cello paired with 'Oxford, England, The World' is among the most vivid and wonderful I have ever experienced, but also the amazing characters and the sprawling, dazzling, hugely imaginative plot, the tie-ins to historical figures such as Byron and Ada Lovelace, the . This is the the most entrancing and wondrous portal(ish) fantasy I have discovered since Narnia (without all the heavy-handed religious symbolism). 

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden: Synopsis from Goodreads: New York Times bestselling adult author of The Bear and the Nightingale makes her middle grade debut with a creepy, spellbinding ghost story destined to become a classic After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn't think--she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with "the smiling man," a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.  Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she's been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn't have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: "Best get moving. At nightfall they'll come for the rest of you." Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie's previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.  

Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver's warning. As the trio head out into the woods--bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them--the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: "Avoid large places. Keep to small."  And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.

This is really middle grade, not even YA, but WOW. It was amazing because it's pretty rare when you read a lot of books to find something that makes you think "I haven't really seen anything quite like this before". I mean, obviously there's a formula. A child, usually experiencing some kind of life challenge already, runs into something frightening and dangerous and discovers their inner fortitude while overcoming the challenge. But the details that clothe this structure are all-important, of course, and here they were fresh and surprising. And pretty effing scary, considering the reading level.

Sadie by Courtney Summers: Synopsis from Goodreads: A missing girl on a journey of revenge. A Serial―like podcast following the clues she's left behind. And an ending you won't be able to stop talking about. Sadie hasn't had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she's been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water. But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie's entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister's killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him. When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie's story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie's journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it's too late. Courtney Summers has written the breakout book of her career. Sadie is propulsive and harrowing and will keep you riveted until the last page.

I read this because it was so well-reviewed, and deservedly so. It's an intense, wrenching read that doesn't shy away from difficult topics. The subject-matter would easily lend itself to exploitation, but the writing is anything but. As in The Butterfly Girl, we are given a mercilessly detailed look of what it's like to be young without any security or protection, and the constant danger and exhaustion of having to calculate and scheme to obtain food and shelter. Where it really shines, though, is in bringing Sadie to life as a beautifully complex character. 

Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacle: Synopsis from Goodreads: Legendary genre editor Ellen Datlow brings together eighteen dark and terrifying original stories inspired by cinema and television. A BLUMHOUSE BOOKS HORROR ORIGINALFrom the secret reels of a notoriously cursed cinematic masterpiece to the debauched livestreams of modern movie junkies who will do anything for clicks, Final Cuts brings together new and terrifying stories inspired by the many screens we can't peel our eyes away from. Inspired by the rich golden age of the film and television industries as well as the new media present, this new anthology reveals what evils hide behind the scenes and between the frames of our favorite medium. With original stories from a diverse list of some of the best-known names in horror, Final Cuts will haunt you long after the credits roll.

Like I said, I'm always down for a Datlow anthology, but I admit I thought this sounded cheesy. Blumhouse is a great horror movie maker, but short stories? Come on. 

It was magnificent. The one or two stories that weren't an out-of-the-park home run for me still didn't go the way I expected. The last story by John Langan was outstanding, and the A.C. Wise entry destroyed me. There were echoes of European folklore, a Hong Kong setting, and a university video podcast, so a lot of diversity of culture and place (and at least some diversity among the authors). Many stories as melancholy as they are frightening. A lot of ruminating on the fear of the camera stealing or corrupting the soul. I'm always up for a good 'infernal film' tale, and often they fail badly. Most of these were immensely successful. 

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: Synopsis from Goodreads: A tale of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition.The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

Holy crap. I don't even know how to articulate how absolutely lacerated I felt by this book. This is own voices (an author from a marginalized group writing about that group's experience from their perspective), and a bit unlike anything else I'd read in the horror or indigenous literature categories. Like all the best horror, it is warm and real and and funny and then evisceratingly sad, as well as having an almost unbearable sense of apprehension that actually made me feel slightly sick. The friendship between the three doomed men, the hunting camaraderie, the young male goofiness, was achingly perfect. The fucked-up nature of the racism that is woven into the very fabric of their existence. The bad choices and the self-justifying inner monologues of the older men, the second-chance hopefulness pinned on relationships when the outcome is likely doomed. There are some deep, natural, archetypal rules in place but then some of them get broken which seemed "unfair" to me, which I then realized was probably a big part of the point. Just masterful. 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: Synopsis from Goodreads: In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age. For two weeks, the length of her father's vacation, they join an anthropology course set to reenact life in simpler times. They are surrounded by forests of birch and rowan; they make stew from foraged roots and hunted rabbit. The students are fulfilling their coursework; Silvie's father is fulfilling his lifelong obsession. He has raised her on stories of early man, taken her to witness rare artifacts, recounted time and again their rituals and beliefs—particularly their sacrifices to the bog. Mixing with the students, Silvie begins to see, hear, and imagine another kind of life, one that might include going to university, traveling beyond England, choosing her own clothes and food, speaking her mind. 

The ancient Britons built ghost walls to ward off enemy invaders, rude barricades of stakes topped with ancestral skulls. When the group builds one of their own, they find a spiritual connection to the past. What comes next but human sacrifice? A story at once mythic and strikingly timely, Sarah Moss's Ghost Wall urges us to wonder how far we have come from the "primitive minds" of our ancestors.

Short but impactful, with an almost suffocating atmosphere of creeping dread. The rendering of what it's like for Silvie living with a violent father and a mother who is too defeated to offer protection is viscerally disturbing. The sense of place and the discomfort and disorienting effect of trying to re-enact living in the past add another layer of unease. I couldn't put it down. 

Borderline by Mishell Baker: Synopsis from Goodreads: A year ago Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she's sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.For her first assignment, Millie is tasked with tracking down a missing movie star, who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. To find him, she'll have to smooth talk Hollywood power players and uncover the surreal and sometimes terrifying truth behind the glamour of Tinseltown. But stronger forces than just her inner demons are sabotaging her progress, and if she fails to unravel the conspiracy behind the noble's disappearance, not only will she be out on the streets, but the shattering of a centuries-old peace could spark an all-out war between worlds. No pressure.

This is also Own Voices, which I didn't realize until after I had read and loved it. There is a lot of talk about the need for mental illness representation in books and on that alone I feel like this book is really unusual. The main character has Borderline Personality Disorder which I knew about vaguely and then got more of an education on from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a highly entertaining and hilarious show which also includes realistic and informative representation of mental illness. BPD does play a large part in why Millie is chosen for her role in The Arcadia Project, but this is illustrated respectfully, as are the daily realities of being a double amputee and managing her mental illness as well as those of the people she lives with. All this and then a deft political mystery involving the fairy world next to ours. I got partway through this and then realized there were two more and frantically searched the library's ebook catalogue to establish that I could read the next two right away. 

Just going to list the next two books, I feel like reviewing them would be redundant. 

 Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker (The Arcadia Project #2): Synopsis from Goodreads: Four months ago, Millie left the Arcadia Project after losing her partner Teo to the lethal magic of an Unseelie fey countess. Now, on what's meant to be a last visit to the scene of the crime, Millie and her former boss, Caryl, encounter what seems to be Teo’s tormented ghost. One problem: according to Caryl, ghosts don’t exist.Millie has a new life, a stressful new job, and no time to get pulled back into the Project's chaos, but she agrees to tell agents from the Project's National Headquarters her side of the ghost story. During her visit, an agent is gruesomely murdered in a way only Caryl could have accomplished. Millie knows Caryl is innocent, but the only chance she has to save her from the Project’s severe, off-the-books justice is to uncover the mystery behind incorporeal fey known as wraiths. Why has the centuries-old Project never heard of them? And how do you fight an enemy that is only seen when it wants to be seen? Millie must answer these questions not just to save Caryl, but to foil an insidious, arcane terrorist plot that would leave two worlds in ruins.

Impostor Syndrome by Mishell Baker (The Arcadia Project #3): Synopsis from Goodreads: In the third book of the Nebula Award–nominated Arcadia Project series, which New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire called “exciting, inventive, and brilliantly plotted,” Millie Roper has to pull off two impossible heists—with the fate of the worlds in the balance.Three months ago, a rift between agents in London and Los Angeles tore the Arcadia Project apart. With both fey Courts split down the middle—half supporting London, half LA—London is putting the pieces in place to quash the resistance. But due to an alarming backslide in her mental health, new LA agent Millie Roper is in no condition to fight.When London’s opening shot is to frame Millie’s partner, Tjuan, for attempted homicide, Millie has no choice but to hide him and try to clear his name. Her investigation will take her across the pond to the heart of Arcadia at the mysterious and impenetrable White Rose palace. The key to Tjuan’s freedom—and to the success of the revolution—is locked in a vault under the fey Queen’s watchful eye. It’s up to Millie to plan and lead a heist that will shape the future of two worlds—all while pretending that she knows exactly what she’s doing…

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker: Synopsis from Goodreads:The baker's dozen stories gathered here (including a new, previously unpublished story) turn readers into travelers to the past, the future, and explorers of the weirder points of the present. The journey is the thing as Pinsker weaves music, memory, technology, history, mystery, love, loss, and even multiple selves on generation ships and cruise ships, on highways and high seas, in murder houses and treehouses. They feature runaways, fiddle-playing astronauts, and retired time travelers; they are weird, wired, hopeful, haunting, and deeply human. They are often described as beautiful but Pinsker also knows that the heart wants what the heart wants and that is not always right, or easy.  

I discovered Sarah Pinsker this year - by which I mean another writer I love mentioned her and I then tracked down everything I could. Pinsker is also a musician with recordings to her name, which explains how she writes so well about music. There is a kind of yearning woven through many of the stories, bittersweetness and loss. The story And Then There Were {N-One} is an enthralling murder mystery involving a conference at which all of the characters are Sarah Pinskers from different dimensions. 

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. KluneSynopsis from Goodreads: A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret. Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages. When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he's given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days. But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn. An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours. 

I finished this on New Year's Eve after someone in my Book Bingo group recommended it, and it was SO charming and delightful. It's not exactly surprising how things turn out - it's more a kind of fable than a mystery with a lot of tension -- but the journey could not have been lovelier. Such a heartwarming and hopeful read to end the year on.


When school shut down here, and we were put on super-strict restrictions RIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, I despaired of them ever going back to school. I thought there was no way in hell and here we were forever, but amazingly our lockdown DID work and our numbers are way down. So I hope it will be the same for you. I was talking to a friend (on the PHONE, how old school) about it and I said I worried we would go through all this and nothing would change, and she said "we can just do what we are supposed to do, we can't control the outcome" and it actually really helped me to think that way. We can't control the outcome but we can do our best to do what we need to do as individuals. That said, it's super sad when something comes to an end and we don't realize it was the last time. I get it, I really do. xoxoxo
StephLove said…

North hasn't seen the inside of a classroom since last March. The governor of Maryland is trying to force all the school districts to go back by March 1 regardless of metrics and as much as I think in-person school would be good for North (academically, socially, emotionally) that doesn't seem like the right approach to me.

When we drive by North's old middle school, I often think that the last time I went there (and I don't even remember when that was) I had no idea that it would be the last time. There was no real end of 8th grade and I feel no particular connection to their high school. It doesn't feel like they are a student there, they just go to high school in the abstract, if that makes any sense.

Ernie said…
Thanks for these recommendations. Curly just finished reading 10 books that she was assigned. She is not into reading. I have hope though and I wonder if a few of these might interest her. The A Corner of White and Small Spaces maybe. Also the House in the Sea one. Fingers crossed.

That is sad about Lucy no longer hanging by the door to wait for Eve. I'm sorry that the regular joys of a final school year are suddenly absent. I'm sad that Reg is missing his freshman year in a building with two siblings and next year Tank 'Mr. Fun' won't be there. I'm with you. It stinks.

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