08 July 2011

24 Days, 1 Hour, 9 Minutes, 13 Seconds

The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab (Release Date August 2, 2011; Disney-Hyperion)
Review by Laura Beutler

There are no strangers in the town of Near.

But there is a stranger. Lexi sees him outside the window. He fades away like smoke.

The next night, Near’s children begin to disappear from their beds. The town blames the stranger, a boy Lexi names Cole. For some reason, she trusts him. He insists on helping Lexi find the missing children. As they search, they realize the Near Witch is more than a story told to frighten children.

Whose whispers does Lexi hear on the moor? What is the Near Witch? What has taken Near’s children? Lexi must find the answers to these questions before tension in Near drives the town to do the unthinkable.

I knew The Near Witch was something special when I read this sentence, “The wind on the moor is a tricky thing.” It gave me chills. To say that Victoria Schwab’s novel is “amazing” would be pretty close to saying that the Grand Canyon is “a decent-sized hole in the ground.” I think if Victoria spent the rest of her life writing instruction manuals, we would all fight over those manuals and sit reading them, engrossed. That’s how amazing Victoria is. The Near Witch is a magnificent debut. I can hardly believe it is a debut. Victoria’s writing is lyrical and flows effortlessly. With every richly-imagined landscape and every living, breathing character, I was pulled deeper and deeper into The Near Witch, until the only way to catch my attention was to grab my arm and shake me.

This caused some problems at work.

I found myself thinking about characters, like Lexi, her uncle Otto, her mother, her little sister, as if each were a real person. When Lexi was threatened, I wasn’t just worried about what might happen to her, I was afraid of the people who threatened her. The characters had come alive for me. Each had quirks; each had flaws. What I loved the most about every character was that no single person was “good” or “bad.” The characters were people, capable of kindness and cruelty. Very rarely does a novel achieve this feat with EVERY character; minor characters are often overlooked. But Victoria Schwab makes it happen for each character, with details emerging even in footprints left behind by a little boy. I applaud Victoria here; she truly impressed me. And she made me cry at the circulation desk several times, which is the mark of an exquisite novel*.

The setting of The Near Witch also stands out. The town of Near is like an island, the moor surrounds it like an ocean. We have no idea what lies beyond the moor, giving the story the kind of timeless, place-less feeling all great fairy tales have. Hansel and Gretel could have been lost in the woods near my house, near your house, or in Germany or China, and Lexi’s story has much the same tone. I loved the way Victoria slowly built up tension until it felt as if Near had walls that were slowly closing in around you. Soon I felt as trapped as Lexi did, longing for her nightly escapes to the moor. Late in the novel, it was only when Lexi was outside of Near that I could seem to breathe. At that point, I was blatantly ignoring parts of my life (like meals) in order to keep reading. I’m also obsessed with settings (like cities or forests or MOORS) acting as characters in novels. The moor that surrounds Near is FASCINATING. Anything more than that would be spoilery. You’ll have to find out what I mean when you read the book (and you MUST read the book**).

I love books, all books, but rarely do I find one that I adore so much as I did The Near Witch. I read it three times, back to back, and when my Netgalley copy was about to expire and VANISH from my life, I read it one more time, savoring every word, because I knew it would be months before I got my hands on The Near Witch again. If you follow me on Twitter, you know how obsessed I am with this novel. I LOVED The Near Witch. I have already shoved aside other books on my Favorites Shelf to make a space for this one***. I even dusted! This way, if I ever stop reading it, my copy will have a special place. Love Patricia McKillip and Neil Gaiman? Make room on your bookshelves for The Near Witch!

*Beautiful writing makes me cry.

**This is a requirement, not a suggestion.

***What, you don’t have a Favorites Shelf? I just don’t understand you.

03 July 2011

Yellow Tastes Like Sunshine

Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson (September 1, 2011, Carolrhoda Books)
Review by Kenzie Helene

The line between having the reader understand the plot and connect with the protagonist is a subtle one when the narrator is unreliable. R.J. Anderson, however, is accomplished at using the unreliable narrator as a tool in her new novel, Ultraviolet. From the very first page, Ultraviolet hooks you right through the gut and pulls you into a story that is fresh and mesmerizing. You're presented with a character who is flawed in a way that compels you to sympathize with her. Simultaneously, you’ll be awed at Alison’s increased senses, due to her sensory disorder, synesthesia. When she describes the sound of red, or how the number fourteen is seductive, you just have to smile and wish you could experience the the world and its values in the same way. At the same time, you mourn with Alison because of how hard it is for others to comprehend what she's going through. Alison is a strong main character, despite the fact the reader doesn't know whether she's completely sane or not.

Plot Summary Time!

Alison wakes up in a mental hospital after claiming she killed a popular classmate, Tori. The problem is that she remembers dissolving her, which is clearly not possible. While in the institution, she battles with her increasing problems with synesthesia, which the doctors tell her is just her brain blending her senses together. Colors don't actually have sound. It doesn’t help that her mother is starting to find her dangerous and doesn’t want her at the house. She also struggles with doctors who seem to be against her, until a new doctor shows up, understands Alison, and claims to know what happened to Tori.

Throughout the book, Alison feels that she must hide her synesthesia in order to fit in. She loves her extra senses, but has been taught that being viewed as different can ostracize a person. This relates to a lot of teenagers who feel the need to hide their differences in order to fit in and remain included in all those reindeer games. Anderson uses synesthesia to show an exaggerated difference that separates Alison from both her family and peers; a difference that is hard to hide. Young adults reading Ultraviolet feel the ultimate connection with Alison, since most people have traits they choose to conceal, whether it’s a disorder, their sexuality, family issues, or anything else in between.


Doctor Faraday, who starts to convince Alison that her synesthesia is a beautiful talent, is written so the reader is pulled into his words and believes in him as Alison does. Just as the reader burns and hurts with her every time her mother cannot understand that Alison has no control over her ability, no way to shut it off. The characters are written to haul the reader into a story that relies on the connection between them and Alison.

Along with strong characters, this book offers a solid plot. Each plot point leads into the next one perfectly, leaving no strings to pull on. Still, the book remains unpredictable until the finishing chapter. Despite having a clean and wrapped up plot, the reader must decide whether or not to trust Alison’s narrative. Managing to do both of those is an admirable feat for any author, but Anderson pulled it off and made it look easy.

After finishing Ultraviolet, I feel significantly deprived of the senses I felt while reading. I want the characteristics of numbers back. I want to be able to read it for the first time again. I’ve been walking around for days envisioning what color my food would taste like, or what shapes certain music would bring out. It was odd that Alison constantly describes things that taste good as blue, but also intriguing because there aren't many edible things that are naturally blue. Sure, you have blueberries and blue potatoes, but that's really it. Ultraviolet challenges the way you think and encourages you to reevaluate things that you would have considered disorders to instead be gifts, but also makes you re-imagine your senses and how you perceive the world. It is not just about rethinking how to use our hearts or our heads or eyes, but how to use our fingers, our tongues, our nose and ears to the fullest extent.