I’m extremely behind on book reviews––heck, one of these books I finished at the start of lockdown––but I wanted to write up a post of my favorite five-star reads so far this year. Now there are a few nonfiction titles I gave five stars to (Born a Crime and Becoming among them), and I’ve already reviewed two others (The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Digital Minimalism), but I’m focusing today on fiction and ones I haven’t reviewed yet!
Just looking at these covers make me so happy! I’m hoping I’ll find another gem before the end of the year. There are many other books I still need to review, and may end up doing another group post to save time. Until then, click below the break and read my five-star reviews!
The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez
(read in April 2020)
Publisher: Forever / Grand Central
Published: April 2020
Genre: women’s fiction
I adored The Friend Zone and seized the opportunity to read this companion novel in advance. Jimenez proved in her previous novel you could have a funny and realistic romcom with some serious issues and still come out with a smile through the tears. Then The Happy Ever After Playlist took it to the next level with Sloan’s story, exploring her grief and new romance and even more added pressure. This isn’t your typical “fall in love with a rock star” novel—it clearly has three defining acts circling what love really means, especially through the lens of grief and fear of that grief returning.
In Act One, we have the standard meet-cute opening. Lovable and hilarious dog, virtual meet-cute, falling in love and sweet, adorable moments between Sloan and Jason. In Act Two, Sloan discovers what it’s really like to be in love with a star––and it’s not pretty. It’s more than crazy exes and paparazzi and travel. It’s a complete loss of self. In Act Three, it’s about finding that middle ground, if possible, to make this work…or maybe accepting they made the biggest mistake of their lives.
It was a complete rollercoaster, and I loved every second of it. I especially appreciated the way Jimenez explored the easy ways out of the mess to prove nothing is ever that easy, or clear, or fixable. It’s not about having it all; it’s about adapting and finding ways to make what you have exactly what you always wanted. And for Sloan and Jason, they did just that. Jason is amazing and Sloan is so strong and remarkable and I found this whole narrative refreshing, funny, gut-wrenching, and beautiful. (Plus, I learned about hyperrealism art and let’s just say…wow doesn’t even begin to describe it.)
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
(read in June 2020)
Published: July 2020
Genre: fantasy horror
Oh. My. God.
I’m pretty certain this book is my all-time favorite of 2020, and will no doubt be one of my top five favorite books ever. It needs 5 billion stars. My immediate reaction was, “What are words?! How do I describe what this book made me feel?! How do I tell you what this meant?!”
This is gothic horror perfection. Phenomenal. Outstanding. Remarkable. I want to highlight, underline, and write in the margins of this book. I want to discuss this book in extreme detail with others. It’s such a brilliant examination of religion, misogyny, and race. It may be set in a place like The Village with witches in the forest, but the parallels with our own society are extremely uncanny––and that’s what makes it so frightening.
Furthermore, Immanuelle is such a fantastic character. This novel was introspective and character-driven, propelled by Immanuelle’s thoughts, experiences, and observations. Whole chapters would pass by without a single dialogue exchange, and yet I was left haunted and gasping.
This is wild, creepy, empowering, horrifying, stunning, phenomenal, literary perfection.
Thank you, Edelweiss & PRH, for providing this galley for review.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
(read in July 2020)
Publisher: Del Rey
Published: June 2020
Genre: historical gothic
I was blown away so hard, so fast, I swore out loud multiple times while reading this book. But I’ll attempt a review without any swearing!
Noemí is a fun and adventurous socialite in 1950s Mexico City. Her cousin, Catalina, recently married and has asked for Noemí to visit her home at High Place. Noemí’s father stresses she check on Catalina as something doesn’t feel right about her letters, so Noemí obliges. The residents of High Place are unsettlingly odd, the house is dark and gloomy, and soon Noemí begins to hear the same buzzing and have the same nightmares as Catalina. The cousins are in for a dark, twisted, uncanny, creepy ride into the Doyle family history.
Fair warning: there’s a lot of mold here. And gore, gaslighting, nightmares, and manipulation. It’s truly a deep dive in Gothic literature’s core. I loved Noemí’s resilience and constant pinch-myself-it’s-not-real attitude because it’s definitely warranted (unreliable narrators drive me up a wall, so I appreciated when she tried to find answers to the supernatural!). She fights the Doyles at every opportunity and resists the pull of High Place. Sometimes it was entertaining (a feminist woman calling out the men on their archaic, patriarchal, misogynistic nonsense), sometimes it was warranted (eugenics and incest and white supremacy), and sometimes it served as an anchor for the worried reader wondering what in the world was going to happen next and then jumping at shadows and sounds.
The first half was full of proper gothic tropes (spooky house, creepy people, science to explain the uncanny), and then it took a deep dive into intense horror. I had to start reading this book in daylight with lights on just to attempt to sleep later in the evening.
Moreno-Garcia’s writing was engaging and masterful, and like a proper gothic novel she made me question what was real and what was possible.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
(read in September 2020)
Published: October 2020
Genre: historical fantasy
With The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Harrow proved to be a writer to watch. With The Once and Future Witches, Harrow proved to be an auto-buy author for me. She can clearly write whatever she wants in whatever style or perspective she likes and I’ll happily follow.
Written almost entirely in third person limited perspective, across three different points of view, Harrow had her work cut out for her, and she delivered. Three sisters, broken apart by circumstance and brought together to strike down a terrible being, must work together to weave magic back into the fabric of society and empower women to rise up and speak out. It really is “suffragettes, but witches.”
It was a truly magical experience to see spells woven into fairytales and nursery rhymes––things we recognize from our childhood––and how, through those spells, women were able to manipulate their surroundings and protect themselves and their homes. The fairytales also served as history lessons, and it was remarkable witnessing all of them coming together for a powerful ending.
I was blown away by the character development, representation, and politics, as well. Each character revealed bits and pieces of themselves to the reader, little by little, creating such a complex web that yet, somehow, I could follow easily like a map on their hearts. The city of New Salem was a character too, a living and breathing space overflowing with magic and pounding with passion for a better, more just future. Harrow wrote this manuscript and submitted it to her publisher before the beginning of 2020 and somehow wrote about the intensity of this summer’s BLM marches, LGBTQ+ rights, a nasty politician grasping straws, and an unexplainable flu sweeping the nation. I finished reading this book minutes before the news broke announcing RBG’s death––and I felt struck by this intense empowerment to do more, be more.
This book is about finding your place in a world that wants to make you small. This book is about representation and equality. It’s about empowerment, love, and justice. A beautiful and overwhelming read.
Thank you, Orbit, for providing this galley for review.