Review: The Near Witch

Nothing like a spooky read to get into the Halloween mood!

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The Near Witch was actually VE Schwab’s first published novel, now republished in a new edition containing a companion short story, “The Ash-Born Boy.”  While it is not as strong as her later fantasy novels that I have read and enjoyed, The Near Witch had a wonderful atmosphere as well as some good characters and themes that were reminiscent of classic YA dark fantasy tales.

The story begins when a stranger comes to the village of Near, a place where there are no strangers, and soon children begin to be called away to the moors in the middle of the night.  The main character Lexi must hurry to find the children and keep her sister safe, but to do that she must first unravel the mystery of the stranger and the local legend of the Near Witch.

There were many things I liked about the story, including the setting and the fantasy elements.  The magic has a vague, fairy-tale-like quality. Lexi had some really good moments, and the villain is at once creepy and relatable.  I really liked the theme of how fear of the unknown can hurt rather than help. Overall, the story brought to mind elements of The Hunger Games, CLAMP’s manga Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, the movies of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and the stories of Diana Wynne Jones.

However, the book is not as epic or sophisticated as her later novels.  I thought the plot meandered a bit, moving in fits and starts, and sometimes was a bit frustrating and repetitive.  And while the romantic elements were sweet, it definitely is a case of insta-love.

I enjoyed the short story at the end as much if not more; it reveals the backstory of one of the novel’s characters.  It has a slightly different feel but was a good addition.

So, if you’re looky for a spooky read this October, The Near Witch definitely fits the bill, but I wouldn’t call it a must-read unless you are a really big fan of VE Schwab.

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

20191009_091115-1Guys, I am not sure I have ever seen another book hyped like this one.  Where the Crawdads Sing, the debut novel of Delia Owens, has been out for just over a year now and was at the #1 spot on the NYT bestseller list for about half of that time (it’s currently sitting at #5).  It is the top-selling book of 2019 so far with over 1.5 million copies sold.  It catapulted to fame when Reese Witherspoon picked it for her book club, and the movie rights have already been acquired, with Witherspoon producing.

After waiting many months for it at the library, I am happy to report that it is indeed an excellent book and I happily recommend it, though I wouldn’t say it was the best book ever, or even the best book I read this year.

Crawdads is the story of Kya, abandoned as a child by her family in the marshes of North Carolina during the 1950s, interspersed with the 1969 investigation of the murder of a popular young local man.  The back-and-forth between the two plot threads is wonderful, though the payoff when they finally connect was a little underwhelming to me.

The writing in general is excellent, though at points it does feel like a debut novel.  The world building is really special, with a unique setting and atmosphere.  There also is a sweet young love story that I was head-over-heels for.

But what did I really love?  The biology!

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Photo by Wendy Wei on Pexels.com

Kya grows up in the marshes, swamps, and estuaries of the coastal South, and comes to see Nature as her real family.  She sleeps outside and lives off the land.  She knows all the plants, birds, and fish of the region.  She collects flowers, nests, and bird feathers which she then sketches and categorizes by species.  She feeds the gulls on the beach and names them.  Many people have said that the marsh is treated like a character in the book, and it’s really true.

The descriptions of all these ecological details are like catnip to a biologist like me.  As someone with a background in animal behavior, I loved the way Kya approaches human relationships from the lens of the animal behavior she has observed and read about.  She always looks for comparisons between animal and human social behaviors; sometimes they correspond well, like with certain male and female mating strategies, and sometimes slightly less, like with certain maternal behaviors.

Owens is a biologist herself, having already published books about her time spent studying wildlife in Africa.  (She’s also been published in Nature, which is a pretty big deal for a scientist.)  As a biologist and aspiring novelist, Owens is a big inspiration to me, along with other biologists such as Diana Galabdon (Outlander) and Stephanie Laurens (Regency romances) who have gone on to have phenomenal careers as fiction writers.

If you are looking for a quick, engaging read with some new perspectives but nothing too groundbreaking, I think Crawdads is for you.  I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t think it quite lived up to the excessive hype.  Since many of you reading this have probably read it, what were your thoughts?

Review: We Hunt the Flame

I heard a lot of hype about this YA debut fantasy; its Arab-inspired setting was a huge draw for me.  But ultimately, my feelings about We Hunt the Flame were complicated.  In short, I’d probably give it 3 / 5 stars, and I’m not planning to read any future books in the series.

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From Goodreads:

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king.

When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.

The world building did end up being my favorite thing about this book.  I loved the setting of Arawiya and its countries, based on ancient Arabia.  We learn a lot about its government and culture, including food and rituals.  The author drops in Arabic words frequently, which I liked.  Some of the fantasy even ties into the cultural aspects with appearances by mythological creatures like ifrits.

The story was pretty engaging.  Although a bit slow to begin, it really picks up about a third of the way in, once Zafira and Nasir meet on their quest.  There are some nice twists at the end, several I saw coming and several I didn’t.  The characters were all pretty interesting, but I can’t say I really fell in love with any of them.

The fantasy and romance aspects were fine, nothing really special or new.  Zafira reminded me strongly of Katniss from Hunger Games because of her home life situation, her prickly personality, and her talents with a bow.  The overall tone of the book as well as some of the fantasy elements reminded me of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series.

The prose was one aspect of the novel that did stand out to me, being rather pretty and flowery, even going almost into poetical forms at times.  While it was nice, it also was not particularly easy to read.  I frequently had to stop and re-read sentences or even whole paragraphs to figure out what had actually happened.

Occasionally, the writing seemed overly detailed in a confusing way.  For example, one of the side characters I ended up liking the most was the young general Altair, but during his introduction scene I couldn’t get a read on him at all.  He is described, all within about a page, as having a “cheery voice” and a “wolfish grin,” while “anger feathered his jaw” and he spoke “hateful words,” yet “he acted as if everything were a jovial affair” and had the “eyes of a hawk.” Huh?

Overall, I enjoyed We Hunt the Flame, but I didn’t feel that it really stood out among other current YA fantasy except for its setting and world building.

Feeding Reading — Free Books!

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Kellogg’s is running their Feeding Reading program again this summer that allows you to get free books when you purchase certain products like cereals, Cheez-Its, Eggo waffles, and Pop-Tarts.  You can get up to 10 free books, from all reading levels from picture and board books to YA titles.

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My family lives on Pop-Tarts, so I’ll definitely be able to get all ten books without even buying anything I wouldn’t already buy at the store.  I got my first set last week, two for me and two for my kid.  I am always impressed by the selection of books available, with both current and classic titles.  Steelheart and Illuminae are two (thick) YA titles that I’ve heard rave reviews about.  Llama Llama Red Pajama (also available in Spanish) is even a hardcover.

So what do you guys think of my haul?  Feeding Reading is going on until the end of September, so I hope you can check this out and get some free books yourself!

This is Why Representation is Important

Last week, Slate published an essay by an 11-year-old reader that illustrates perfectly why I believe in the need for books with diverse characters.  “This is Me” by Audrey Hall was a winner in the New York Public Library’s Summer Reading 2019 Essay Contest.  In her essay, Audrey describes how the book Blended by Sharon Draper expanded her universe.

You can read the full essay here, which is well-written and even includes quotes from the book to support her thesis.

Audrey checked Blended out of the library and it quickly became a favorite.  The book features a multiracial protagonist with divorced parents, which also describes Audrey.  She describes how she related directly to the character’s experiences in the book, moving between households and debating how to describe herself.  It was a revelation for her to know that there might be other kids who shared her own experiences. “This book made me feel like I belong,” she wrote.

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An excerpt from Audrey’s essay

I personally could not have written a better essay to describe why representation is important, especially in children’s and YA literature.  Every child should have the same feeling that Audrey had when reading.

38351370Of course, we will not relate to every character we read about, which also expands our minds.  And of course, we can relate to characters who don’t look like us at all. For example, my pen name Mei-Mei was taken from a Chinese character in a Japanese anime.  But I won’t pretend that I don’t automatically feel a sense of kinship with every redhead character that I meet. Being able to see ourselves so directly in characters is such a valuable thing that I want every child to be able to experience it as I have.

For this reason, I have been a fan of the We Need Diverse Books movement, which started as  a Twitter hashtag and has become a phenomenon. I think we have seen a huge growth of diverse books in YA fantasy (my wheelhouse) over the past ten years, and I hope this trend will continue.  I am personally making an effort to read more books featuring diverse characters and, just as importantly, by diverse authors to support the publishing industry following this trend.

Audrey’s prize for the essay was a trip to a NY Yankees game.  I hope she has a great time!  I also hope she grows up to be a writer of many more characters like herself.