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