Here are some brief reviews of what I’ve been reading so far this year.
Wayward Children series
The Wayward Children series consists of four novellas, starting with Every Heart a Doorway, which is set in a boarding school for young people who went through various magical doorways to other worlds and then came home again (shades of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, but with less whimsy and more therapy.) The other novellas tell a bit more about the adventures of the various characters in the other worlds.
I tried reading the Hugo-winning Every Heart a Doorway a year ago and had trouble getting into it because I felt it was too dark. But it’s really not all that dark, considering that the plot revolves around murder and mutilation of corpses (also I was post-partum at the time and reading at odd hours of the night). It actually has a really nice ending with a theme of being true to yourself. It has a great cast of characters, including several LGBT+ characters, which really adds an extra dimension to the themes about self discovery and belonging. I’m reading through the rest of them now, and I’ve been enjoying picturing Jack, one of my favorite characters, as looking like Moonbyul of the K-pop group Mamamoo.
Elle Katharine White
This book is billed as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, and that is exactly what it delivers. In fact, it starts out as a beat-for-beat retelling of P&P (same characters, scenes, conversations, etc.), which was a bit boring, but as it continues it deviates further and gets more interesting. Its strength is its world building of dragons (and dragonriders) and other creatures.
I’m waiting for the sequel Dragonshadow on hold at the library now.
The Other Einstein
This was a book I wanted to like more than I did. On the surface, I was thrilled to read the story of a female scientist, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, the first wife of Albert Einstein. But I struggled with several aspects.
I am a bit uncomfortable with the use of recent historical figures as the focus of a fictional novel. I applaud the author’s intent to shine light on Mitza, but I personally would have chosen another way to do it. (This is the kind of thing that alternate history fantasy was made for.)
The book wants to treat Mitza like a Madam Curie figure, when in reality she failed her undergraduate final exams, never achieved a degree, and never worked professionally as a scientist. I say this not to disparage Mitza, who was clearly a brilliant woman (also dealt a bad hand by society), but to emphasize that the book is fiction. Though she undoubtedly collaborated with Einstein on his early works, there is precious little evidence that Mitza had a significant role in formulating the theory of relativity.
It makes for a good story, though. It very nearly reads like a tragedy, but the book injects some hope right at the end. There was nothing particularly beautiful about the prose, but it did have a good sense of drama.
I realized partway through that I would rather have just read the letters between Mitza and Einstein; the author helpfully provides the link to them here: https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/. (You can in fact read all of Einstein’s papers and correspondence.)
Also, have you noticed a trend in historical fiction covers recently?
I was very excited to get my hands on this sequel to the supervillain revenge story Vicious, which I loved last year. However, I hit some roadblocks in that until recently, my library only had the audiobook, not the ebook, thanks to a targeted campaign by the publisher (my library did not happen to have a print copy either). I have been trying halfheartedly to get into audiobooks, and I did not think this one was great. The narrator sounded perpetually wistful, and I was not impressed with his female voices (though his accents were good). It is also not a linear story, so I didn’t like that I couldn’t just skim back a few pages to the chapter break to check where in the timeline I was.
The story itself however was nearly as good as the original, just maybe not quite as tight. It went in a different direction than I expected, and I enjoyed the journey. Victor and Eli’s roles are a bit switched in this one, plus there are some great new female characters including the powerfully ambitious mob wife Marcella Morgan and the mysterious June. The book once again has a satisfying ending but with enough threads left hanging that there could be another installment (yes, please!). So if you really like grey characters or stories that make you root for sociopaths, I highly recommend this series.
In some ways, 2018 was a great year for reading. But it had its downsides, too. I was once again able to read approximately 100 books this year (not counting re-reads). But being a parent has really changed how and what I’m reading, which is disappointing to me. Here are some notes from my reading this year and my goals for next year.
The Great American Read
PBS’s Great American Read was the highlight of my reading year. I had great fun reading four of the books on the Top 100 list, bringing my total read to 36, and voting for my favorites in the contest. To Kill a Mockingbird was the big winner, but many of my favorites rounded out the top five. You can read more about it here.
Author Discovery: VE Schwab
When I was getting back to reading earlier this year, I picked up the A Darker Shade of Magic trilogy by VE Schwab and fell in love. You can read my longer review here. I then went on to read Vicious, which I may love even more! I’m still working my way through the rest of her repertoire, so expect to see more about her other novels next year.
I tried listening to some audiobooks for the first time this year and had a mixed reaction. I listened to two romance novels and VE Schwab’s Venegeful (sequel to Vicious). I did enjoy listening to them on my commute, but I actually like listening to music just as well. Mostly, I felt very impatient with them. I was listening to them on 1.5 speed, and it still took hours longer to listen to them than it would have to read them. I also didn’t really like the voice performance aspect, because when I read of course I never do different voices for characters in my head, so that was a bit weird to me to hear that. What do you guys think? Should I keep trying? Do you have suggestions for books that are really good as audiobooks?
Blogging Book Reviews
One of my goals at the end of last year was to review more of what I am reading here, and I’m happy that I did review a lot of my genre reads here on the blog.
Although I read about 100 books, about 80 of these were Regency romances, and I would say only about half of those were worthwhile reading. So I hit the mark for quantity but not quality. Hence I want to change a few things in my reading next year.
Read from more genres. Although I did read a good mix of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as evenly from adult and YA, I barely read any manga or comics and no nonfiction at all this year. I also want to read more short stories and historical fiction.
Finish Heyer’s romances. I’m not giving up Regency romance entirely! I mentioned last year that I began reading through the works of Georgette Heyer, and I was able to read several more this year. I have yet to be really disappointed by a single one of her stories. I want to finish reading her oeuvre of historical romances (I only have about five left) and maybe try some of her mysteries.
Read books I already own. I have shelves and shelves of books and people keep giving me more. Yet I’m constantly requesting books at the library, and then I have to finish them first because there’s a deadline! Which leads me to…
Finish the books I started. I started 11 books this year that I was unable to finish before they had to go back to the library. Eleven!! I would check out too many books on my Kindle, then not get to one until it was almost due, then be unable to finish it. I couldn’t renew because they all have long wait lists. It was a vicious cycle I want to break next year. Because my reading time is more limited now, I need to be a little more focused in my reading and maybe not check out every single ebook that looks vaguely interesting. I’ve also discovered that I can “suspend” holds, so instead of a library book just showing up on my Kindle when it comes available, it won’t come until I’m ready for it.
What books did you enjoy most in 2018? Do you have reading goals for 2019?
1. “All I Want for Christmas Is You”: Favorite bookish couple.
I have a lot of favorite book couples, including Lizzy and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice and Eowyn and Faramir from LOTR. But this said “bookish,” which makes me think nerdy, so I’m going to go with Anne and Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables. Among other things, their relationship is built on academic rivalry. This image is from the marvelous 1980s Canadian TV adaptation starring Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie. One of my favorite scenes is where Gilbert gives Anne a standing ovation after she recites “The Highwayman.” He’s always so proud of Anne’s intelligence and her hard work.
2. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”: Name a book where a character is away from home (school, vacation, etc.).
Jane, Unlimited is a unique speculative fiction story that relies on a classic premise: an orphan travels to a strange mansion. Very gothic! Jane is visiting Tu Reviens, the large and intriguing island home of her friend Kiran, where everything from art theft to alternate dimensions may be happening. The premise is reminiscent of Jane Eyre as well as Rebecca, but spins off into an interesting type of choose-your-own-adventure story.
3. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: Name your favorite “little” book (children’s book, short story, novella, etc.).
Ella Enchanted, a classic middle grade Cinderella tale, is one of the books that inspired my love of fairy tale retellings. It is on the bookshelf next to my bed, along with 101 Great American Poems, which I think was a gift from my mother about fifteen years ago when I was in high school. I have read both countless times, and they are great for when I want a quick, satisfying read before bed.
4. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: What book(s) do you hope Santa brings you this year?
I have a lot of books on my wishlist, and my family always gets me lots of books for Christmas. One I’m really looking forward to is Daemon Voices, a collection of essays by the author of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman.
5. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”: Which book turned your nose red (made you cry)?
I scared my husband when I was reading The Book Thiefbecause he looked over to see me silently sobbing with huge tears rolling down my face. “What’s wrong?!” he said. Oh nothing, just this book broke my heart into pieces. What a beautiful, powerful book. Narrated by Death, it’s the story of a young girl in Nazi Germany who steals books.
6. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”: Your favorite book/kind of book to read during the holidays.
In my Seasonal Reads blog series, I mentioned that I frequently read The Dark is Rising during December. It’s full of both warm and cozy Christmas cheer as well as ominous Yuletide magic. I love the whole series, but this one in particular is my favorite. I also love Christmas cozy mysteries and Regency romances.
7. “We Three Kings”: Your favorite trilogy.
I’m going classic for this one: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I first read in high school, right when the movies were coming out. It’s still one of my favorite series. Trilogies are very standard nowadays, especially for YA fantasy, and I think that can be traced back in part to LOTR.
8. “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”: A character you would love to be snowed in with.
If I were snowed in, I would want Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie’s mystery series to be one of the party. Because inevitably there would be a murder, and then we could rely on Poirot to solve it! I’m imagining something like the premise to Christie’s play The Mousetrap, which places a bunch of guests trapped in a manor inn together. But luckily Poirot would be there to solve the crime before any further murders take place. Plus Poirot is just a genial guy.
9. “Last Christmas”: A book that seriously let you down.
Sometimes I hear about YA books that are getting a lot of hype and figure I should check them out. Spoiler alert: they don’t always live up to the hype. That’s how I felt about Snow like Ashes and An Ember in the Ashes (maybe I should just avoid books about ashes?). The first books in the series were fine, but nothing spectacular, and the follow-ups got less interesting so that I didn’t continue on with either series.
10. “White Christmas”: An upcoming release you’re dreaming about.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the novels I’ve been reading recently.
The Hate U Give
I read this one for Banned Book Week back at the end of September. I just wanted to give it another mention because it deserves it. Aside from the relevant topics of police shootings and race relations, I really loved the depiction of Starr’s family. Starr’s parents are not perfect people, but they are good parents. Her family life can be messy, but it is loving, and I think that’s a great thing to show in a YA novel. Also, I really want to know Starr’s reaction to her favorite player LeBron moving to her hometown Los Angeles!
Don’t you just love a book that gets you to root for the sociopath? After loving Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series, I picked up another of her books and was blown away. If ADSoM had a weakness, it was the villains, and this series avoids that neatly by having all the characters be villains!
Well, that might be overstating it a bit, but I love a good “grey” character, and this book is full of them. It centers on Victor and Eli, who were college roommates studying EOs: people with ExtraOrdinary abilities caused by near death experiences. Ten years later, Victor is out of prison and going after Eli. I loved the way the story unfolded in both time periods, picking up a strong supporting cast.
It was also a great read for the Halloween season, having some of the same themes as Frankenstein. Plus it starts and ends with the characters digging up bodies in a graveyard. Can’t ask for better atmosphere than that!
I read this in anticipation of the sequel Vengeful, which is out now, so check back soon for my thoughts on that one.
Into the Bright Unknown
A solid conclusion to the Gold Seer trilogy, a YA historical fantasy series. After an Oregon Trail scenario in the first book, and a more standard conflict with the main villain in the second book, this one switches it up with a heist story.
While I appreciate the effort to show the contributions of women and minorities to American history, I did find it a bit funny that these books were apparently trying for the title of most woke series ever. Some examples:
Only the villains own slaves. Even the closest thing we have to grey characters, some prospectors, make sure to mention that they are from Ohio and therefore abolitionist.
A villain deliberately misgenders our protagonist Lee as an insult.
The male lead asks for affirmative consent before kissing Lee.
A random white male bank clerk in California is sexist, then a few pages later also racist.
Lee is rebuked several times for playing white savior
This kind of black-and-white morality is a not quite subtle enough for me, but I think it serves YA fiction well. Overall, I’d recommend the series to anyone who likes YA light fantasy and the Wild West.
The Rose Legacy
Jessica Day George
This book is for all those little girls (or former little girls) who are horse crazy! It’s a charming light fantasy, middle grades story of an intrepid girl and her horse companion who get involved in secret plots affecting the whole kingdom. I didn’t find it quite as strong as the author’s other books, but still enjoyable.
The opening of the book reminded me of a favorite, The Blue Sword. As an orphan, Anthea has been bounced around between family and now goes to join relatives past the wall in the north of the kingdom, where there are rumors of secret magic things (like horses). The story has some interesting twists, and the characters are pretty good, especially one that reminded me of Mrs. Coulter from The Golden Compass. The ending could have been tighter, but there will be a sequel coming next year.
The Potion Diaries
You may have seen this one under a previous title, Madly. This cute fantasy adventure would be a great beach read, a fun mix of princes, puzzles, and pharmaceuticals. I liked the magic and the characters were fun, but ultimately it was on the forgettable side.
Reading the wonderful and wild Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore a few months ago got me thinking about alternate dimensions–specifically, about their use in stories. The concept appears across a range of speculative fiction, including both sci-fi and fantasy stories, and across a variety of media. It can be an interesting way to explore the age-old question “What if?” as well as the idea that even the smallest events or decisions can change the course of lives.
So here’s my list of some favorite parallel universes in fiction. I wanted to tend more towards the idea of multiverses, so I haven’t included any stories where there are only two dimensions, such as Star Trek’s mirror universe, the world of Fauxlivia and Walternate in Fringe, and the Light/Dark worlds of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
The Flash (CW)
After scientist Barry Allen was gifted with super speed during an accident with Central City’s particle accelerator, he became the superhero known as the Flash. Barry can do some pretty crazy stuff with his speed powers, including traveling through time and opening portals into other dimensions. The breaches between dimensions weren’t originally intentional, more of a side effect of Barry trying to fix something else he’d done unintentionally. (This kind of stuff happens to Barry a lot.)
The Flash probably comes the closest on my list to a true multiverse idea. Barry Allen’s world is Earth One, the centerpoint or juncture of the multiverse. There are theoretically an infinite number of worlds comprising every possible existence (though about 50 are known in the show), each vibrating at a different frequency so they don’t normally interact.
Accordingly, some worlds have “doppelgangers” of our main characters; the Barry Allen of Earth Two, for example, is also a scientist but is not a meta-human and has no powers. There are also worlds where there is no Barry Allen.
This TV show was originally a spin-off of Arrow, and later crossed over with Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow as well. Together, the Arrowverse has been able to do some really fun stuff with dimensional travel, including an obligatory visit to a dimension where the Nazis won WWII.
A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab
I wrote in praise of this series a little while back, and one of the things I liked about it is the world building. The main character, Kell, is a magician who can travel between worlds: there are four total, and each has a version of London (Black, White, Red, and Grey). In fact, each has a specific tavern in a specific spot in the city, which serves as a kind centerpoint, but that’s about where the similarity between the worlds ends. Our world is ostensibly that of “Grey” London, the home of Lila Bard, which is ruled by the Prince Regent (later George IV) and has no magic. Black London, however, was basically destroyed by magic, and White London still feels the effects of this, struggling to hold onto what power they can, which manifests in major societal and political upheavals.
Red London, Kell’s London, does still have magic, and Kell is their ambassador to White and Grey, being one of the ancient line of Antari, who can do blood magic to cross worlds. Antari are few and far between, and are distinguished by a single black-filled eye (the color black is closely associated with magic in general in this series). They draw magic seals with their blood, speak a phrase in the language of magic, and use a token from the other world to cross over (leaving us to wonder how the first Antari got their tokens, but that’s really not important to the story). They can also travel between two points in the same world, but when crossing worlds always travel to the same geographic point they left in the last world.
These four worlds are parallel in time, but not civilizations or events. Because so few people are able to travel between worlds, and transporting objects is forbidden, even the cultural exchange is extremely limited. There are no doppelgangers here, and while a world may die like Black London, there is no evidence that new ones are ever created.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
This series, sometimes thought of as the “anti-Narnia,” begins with hints of alternate dimensions in The Golden Compass, but it’s not until the second book, The Subtle Knife, that the idea begins to really be explored. This cosmos is also theoretically a multiverse, which concept the characters refer to as the Barnard-Stokes Theorem. Just as in ADSoM, the two main characters, Lyra and Will, come from two different universes.
There are several ways of crossing between universes, the most prominent being the titular Subtle Knife. Will becomes the owner of this double-edged blade, one side of which can cut a window between worlds. However, this power is not without price: the children eventually discover that each piece of inter-dimensional fabric that is cut off becomes a Spectre that menaces adults (kids are safe).
Several worlds are visited in the course of the story. Will’s world appears to be our world, and Lyra’s is relatively similar (they both even have an Oxford University). Some are completely different, such as the world of the mulefa, animals that have evolved to use wheels, or the land of the dead. The story does not present any doppelgangers, either because they don’t exist or because the chances of actually meeting one in the multiverse would be slim.
The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
Nine Princes in Amber has one of my favorite openings of any novel ever: our protagonist wakes in a medical facility (presumably in our world) with no memory of who he is or how he came to be there, only the vague sense that he was injured and is now being kept incapacitated. He eventually remembers that he is Corwin, Prince of Amber, the one true world; all other worlds are simply shadows of Amber.
The royal family of Amber can manipulate the Shadows, essentially creating whole worlds where they can live like kings, or disappear into obscurity. They speak of “adding” and “subtracting” things as they travel through various realities on the way to Amber. With such mathematical language, it make sense that Amber turns out to be only one anchoring pole of reality, that of order; the world of Chaos is its opposite pole, with the Shadows existing between them. The royals also have a special set of cards, trumps with their own portraits, that allow them to communicate across worlds.
The parallel universes are the backdrop for a grand political struggle among the royal family, taking place over generations. Corwin in particular has spent a lot of time in the Shadows, but eventually makes his way back to Amber to fight for the crown. One interesting detail is that different universes can apparently have different laws of physics; some have different color skies, for example. Also, gunpowder does not ignite in Amber, which results in a lot of sword fighting in the books.
My favorite authors of Japanese manga are a group of 4 women collectively known as CLAMP. Over their prolific career they have produced dozens of stories, most of which crossover to form a loose universe. Nowhere is that so evident than in the two series XXXholic and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (which directly crossover, but can be read separately). In the CLAMPverse, crossing between dimensions requires such great magical power that only few can do such a thing; one of these is Yuuko the Dimensional Witch, who runs a magical store where wishes can be granted for a price. A group of travelers comes to her asking to be given the power to journey between dimensions, not just once but many times (they all have their own reasons for this quest), and she gives them white Mokona.
What is Mokona exactly? “Mokona is Mokona!” the creature helpfully cries. Mokona (a version of character originally created for Magic Knight Rayearth) has the power to take the group between dimensions by kind of sucking them into a giant whirlwind in its mouth. It’s catchphrase when traveling is “Mokona Modoki mo doki doki!” which loosely means “Mokona is getting excited, too!”
The number of dimensions in the CLAMPverse is unknown, but it seems to be many, if not infinite. We see several dozen of the throughout the course of the story. We also meet versions of many, many characters found in CLAMP’s other works, most importantly Cardcaptor Sakura (my all-time favorite manga). Each version of the character we meet is different, living in under different circumstances, but they each have the same soul and therefore have many things in common, often having similar personalities, characteristics, preferences, and mannerisms. For example, Tomoyo (first seen as a schoolgirl in CCS), is a princess in one world and the president of a toy company in another, but is always polite and caring.
Honorable Mention: Sliders
I would include this 1990s TV show on my list, except that I haven’t seen enough of it to really count myself a fan. It follows the adventures of a group of travelers “sliding” between universes to try to get to back to their home dimension. The show also has a multiverse concept; because some universes are more technologically advanced than others, it also lets the show occasionally explore time travel-type scenarios as well.