As 2020 draws to a close, I’m taking a moment to review some of this year’s books. These are the most memorable things I read that came out this year, in the order that I read them, with my ratings and reviews. I mostly read genre fiction, so that’s what’s ended up here. I’ll avoid as many spoilers as possible, and if they’re unavoidable, I’ll include warnings.
The books I’m reviewing are:
- The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
- Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
- Midnight Sun by Stephanie Meyer
- Fazbear Frights #1-4 by Scott Cawthon, et al.
- The Ickabog by J.K. Rowling
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins - 5/5
I’ll admit that I didn’t come into this one with high expectations. Often, when an author revisits a popular work years later to add a sequel, prequel, or companion novel, it comes across as a desperate cash grab. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which was a belated prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy, came as a pleasant surprise when it sucked me in. I enjoyed the original trilogy, or at least the first two. The third suffered some pacing issues, among other things, with a particularly rushed ending. This new novel takes its time in a character study of a young Coriolanus Snow as it explores his rise to power.
If you’ve read the Hunger Games trilogy, then you know that certain events and the fates of certain characters are a given. Other plot points are heavily foreshadowed throughout the story. It’s a credit to the story and the way Collins crafted her characters that part of me was hoping against hope that things would turn out differently, or that this would retcon events to make things turn out better for some of those people. Having said that, I’m very glad she didn’t go that route, and I think the book ended exactly how it needed to.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes starts with Snow as a young man from a notable but impoverished family pretending that it’s still wealthy. He attends a prestigious Academy in the Capitol and is part of a student think tank that’s helping troubleshoot the Hunger Games. They become mentors in the Hunger Games, and Snow is assigned to Lucy Gray Baird, the girl from District 12. A member of a musical company, Lucy Gray turns out to be enchanting and popular, and Snow starts to care about her more and more. He eventually tries to help her win for her own sake, not just for the status and money it would bring him and his family. As the novel goes on, though, Snow also resorts to more and more desperate acts to try to get ahead in the Games and in his life, and we the readers get to watch the gradual effect this has on his psyche.
As you might expect in a book about child murder and its surrounding industry, a lot of the characters are awful people, but there are some neutral figures, too, and even some good guys to cheer for. Snow’s cousin Tigris is hard working and selfless. Lucy Gray is interesting to watch as she tries to charm the crowds with her music in order to stay alive and as she starts an ever-changing relationship with Snow that neither of them see quite clearly. Another good-guy major character was Sejanus, Snow’s compassionate but overwhelmed classmate who originally comes from the Districts but has to help the Capitol kill District citizens in the Hunger Games. Yep, I really wanted things to work out for him, but I obviously won’t say here whether or not they do.
If I had one complaint with the book, it’s that some of the setup for the Hunger Games trilogy was heavy-handed, like Snow’s arbitrary hatred of mockingjays. That’s only a minor criticism, and other motifs like poison and roses are incorporated more naturally. Even the mockingjays themselves participate in a crucial plot point and work thematically with the story and the title. (The songbirds and snakes reference Lucy Gray and Snow, respectively.)
Speaking of themes, music is a big part of this book, with Lucy Gray and others singing throughout the novel, and the way people use music tells us a lot about them. (Even the Snows sing the Capitol anthem.) Since Suzanne Collins included the text for several songs, and since this book came out during quarantine when people were looking for things to do at home, this book spawned a rash of fan compositions of music the songs inside. I especially enjoyed the renditions done by Maiah Wynne and Emma Lee.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke - 5/5
One of my favorite books of all time is Susanna Clarke’s alternate history fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It had a great mixture of character development, plot, and world building and was told in very stylistic language. Clarke also wrote a book of short stories set in the same universe, which came out in 2006, and she hadn’t published anything since then, purportedly due to health issues. I had long since stopped my periodic Internet searches, looking for more content. Then, lo and behold, as I was in the library hanging a decorative autumnal flag from the ceiling, I looked down from the ladder and saw Piranesi sitting on the new book shelf below me with Susanna Clarke’s name on the cover! Since I was on a ladder, I couldn’t exactly fling myself at it, but I descended in haste to snatch up the novella. I was not disappointed.
Like Jonathan Strange, Piranesi is beautifully stylistic and drew me into is strange world and the mystery inside. I loved traveling along all the twists and turns of that mystery with Piranesi, the naïve protagonist, watching it gradually unfold. It’s a dream-like story that I found myself waking up from too quickly. Since it’s a novella, it’s far more bite-sized than Jonathan Strange (which had 846 pages in my copy). I’d say there’s about 2 servings of book here, or, the amount I’d consume in 2 uninterrupted reading sessions. It’s a small investment for a large payoff, so it’s well worth your time if you enjoy new fantasy worlds and storytelling that’s less than straightforward.
Hopefully this gives you an idea of the feel of the novel, because I can’t say more about the storyline without giving things away. If you still want to know what you’ll find inside, I’ll give you a few more hints as vaguely as possible.
Minor Spoilers for Piranesi and Jonathan Strange: Piranesi is probably not set in the same universe as Jonathan Strange, but it has some of the same themes and motifs. For instance, it deals with the manipulation of ancient natural magic, and it features labyrinths, amnesia, madness, magic, and another world. And that’s it. That’s all I can say without ruining it for you. So, enjoy!
Midnight Sun by Stephanie Meyer - 2/5
Whatever you expect out of Midnight Sun, that’s probably what you’ll get. Whatever you thought about the rest of the Twilight saga, this won’t be the one that changes your mind.
I’ve found the Twilight books to be a mixed bag, with some good and bad elements. This one was my least favorite so far because it’s just an angstier, clunkier version of a story we already know. The angst was inevitable. This is an Edward story, after all, and you’re either here for it or you’re not. (I’m not.) The lack of editing is less excusable, though. For some perspective, Twilight is about 119,000 words long. Midnight Sun tells the same story in about 240,000 words, and a lot of that is filler content, like Edward having Bella list her favorite music, books, and more and then mulling over her lists. The book needs to be pared down and lose some of the dead weight. (“Dead weight” is not a vampire pun, but it could be.)
A lot of the things I liked and disliked about the rest of the Twilight saga hold true here. The best part for me is the cast of side characters, many of which have memorable personalities or interesting backstories. Like many people, I also found the cringy elements (sparkly vampires, Renesmee, etc.) to be entertainingly awkward, and Midnight Sun has lost none of that. Were you sad when you realized that Bella wouldn’t obsess over Edward’s “liquid gold eyes” in Midnight Sun? Don’t worry; this time around, Edward obsesses over Bella’s “liquid brown eyes”. Did you take one look at the pomegranate on the cover and immediately buckle in for some shoehorned references to Persephone? You, my friend, will not be disappointed.
Sadly, my least favorite Twilight elements are also out in full force. Edward, Bella, and often Jacob all irritate me for various reasons, and there’s no getting away from them here. The Twilight saga also suffers from a filler problem in general. It rarely goes to Midnight Sun levels, but large sections do drag. The exception is The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner – a novella that I legitimately enjoyed, since it was all about a side character, had very little Edward/Bella/Jacob, and had a much tighter story.
So, what’s different about Midnight Sun? There are a few new scenes with the Cullen family. The most welcome were the flashbacks, which did the most to provide new insights into Edward’s character and choices (while also taking a little break from Bella). Hearing his inner monologue didn’t add much, since he thinks exactly what you’d expect him to think. He’s already said everything he thinks throughout the course of the books, so this adds nothing but tedium. Also, when he reads other people’s minds, especially the humans, he tends to make them stereotypes of themselves. If anything, some of his classmates came across as more shallow and one-dimensional than they had been before. Having a mind reader as the point-of-view character was an incredible missed opportunity.
There are a couple positive things I can say about this book, too. The vampires act more like vampires. Also, I listened to the audiobook and was impressed by the voice actor. Jake Abel, who read the book, did a good job differentiating character voices and sounding very invested in the narrative. This is similar to the movie, where the best parts come from the actors who fully commit to their roles, like Billy Burke’s dramatic performance and Michael Sheen’s… presence.
Fazbear Frights #1-4 by Scott Cawthon, et al. - 4/5
This ongoing Five Nights at Freddy’s series put out several books this year. I read books 1-4 and it makes sense to review them all even though #1 came out last year. (Book 5 is also out now, and 6 is scheduled to come out December 29, so I’m going to have to get my hands on both of those.) Each of these books contains a series of three short novellas plus one even shorter story at the end that connects all of the books. Otherwise, each story is self-contained, so I’ll review them individually, if briefly. At least some of them take place in some sort of alternate universe, not the FNaF game canon.
Unlike Scott Cawthon’s previous Young Adult trilogy (which was also enjoyable), these seem to be aimed at middle-grade readers. They read like slightly gorier and more mature Goosebumps books. The characters are also more layered than your average Goosebumps characters. In general, even though the audience might come for the freaky animatronic horror, the real draw of the books is the human element. The stories focused on the young characters and their problems, emotions, and sometimes growth. It’s also worth mentioning that some of these stories might end happily, unhappily, ambiguously, or with some mixture of emotions. I appreciate that, because it kept me guessing and worrying about the characters’ fate rather than assuming I knew in advance.
- Into the Pit by Scott Cawthon and Elley Cooper
Once it got going, “Into the Pit” had a creepy/suspenseful feel that drew out the tension very well. “To Be Beautiful” dragged a little. “Count the Ways” seemed kind of average, but the ending hooked me more than the story itself.
- Fetch by Scott Cawthon, Andrea Waggener, and Carly Anne West
“Fetch” was standard Five Nights fare and one of the more predictable. “Lonely Freddy” and “Out of Stock” had two of the most realistic kids (possibly any characters) that I’ve met in fiction in a while, with all the good and the bad that comes with that. I was really rooting for them both to make it. Oscar in “Out of Stock” was probably the better of the two, and this story had more of the anxiety and horror that I want from my FNaF.
- 1:35AM by Scott Cawthon, Elley Cooper, and Andrea Waggener
Unlike the other stories so far, “1:35AM” and “Room for One More” featured 20-somethings as protagonists instead of kids, which gave them problems that were slightly more relatable for me, but probably the opposite for younger readers. They still had some of the same emotions that have been in the rest, like hopelessness and loneliness, that are common to most people reading these stories. As for the stories themselves, the first shoved the protagonist effectively into a cycle of increasing insomnia and paranoia. The second seemed like it might’ve gone the same way, except that the main character didn’t know to be scared and was mostly depressed, so it didn’t have the same feel, even if there was a compelling payoff. “The New Kid” had the least sympathetic protagonist so far, and the passages occasionally skipped from the point of view of the main character to a couple of others, giving the writing a disjointed feeling.
- Step Closer by Scott Cawthon, Elley Cooper, Kelly Parra, and Andrea Waggener
“Step Closer” was the least subtle story so far. The main characters are extremely self-aware and spell out exactly why they feel and act the way they do. It also had more gore horror than the usual FNaF fare. “Dance with Me” was fine but formulaic, and it didn’t have as much of a sense of dread as most of the stories so far, which was especially jarring after the last one. “Coming Home” ended the book well with a spooky tale.
The Ickabog by J.K. Rowling - 4/5
I don’t want to be too hard on this book because it obviously came out of a place of love, and I did enjoy reading it, but it also came across as very inconsistent in tone. This makes sense considering how the story came about, so I’ll start there: Rowling originally made this story in pieces for her kids. She used to read it to them, and then she put it away for a while. During the COVID quarantine, she took it out, and her kids workshopped it with her. Rowling then made the story available for kids stuck at home, and kids around the world sent in drawings that are now included in the printed copy. This was also her first published children’s book since Harry Potter.
The result is certainly an entertaining story. I enjoyed the experience and I kept reading because I wanted to see where it was going and what would happen to the characters. At the same time, though, it didn’t always feel like one coherent work. Parts are written like a classic fairytale while parts are written like a novel. Parts seem to be written for children of different ages. Various characters are written in very various styles. For instance, some of the heroes, like Daisy and Lady Eslanda, are presented as kind, brave heroes and little else. Some of the villains, like Lord Spittleworth and Lord Flappoon, are evil and greedy and little else. A lot of the side characters, however, are written more like realistic, multi-faceted characters. As the story moves along, it also goes through a few strange time jumps. All of this adds up to a work that was somewhat jarring in the telling. Even when I enjoyed it, I couldn’t get completely sucked in.
Again, I understand that it probably had a rushed editing process and it was deployed to help children get through a crisis. I can appreciate that, and I’m also glad I read the book for its own sake. I would also happily read another version in the future if it went through a few more rounds of edits.
Tell me in the comments below what you thought of these books and if you want me to review any of the related books or properties or authors – The Hunger Games, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Twilight, or Harry Potter. One way or another, I hope everyone has a wonderful new year!