Library Reading Round-Up: A classic re-told, spooky scarecrows, and the invention of a monster

It’s been a busy week, but not so busy that I couldn’t pick up the books waiting for me on the library hold shelf! Here are the three library books I’ve read in the past few days:

 

Pride by Ibi Zoboi: A contemporary YA retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Pride is the story of Zuri Benitez, who lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. When the wealthy Darcy family moves into the mini-mansion across the street, it seems that gentrification has really and truly arrived, and Zuri is not at all happy. What will become of the neighborhood’s way of life? Zuri’s sister Janae falls for Ainsley Darcy, but his brother Darius is rude and stuck-up and immediately sets Zuri’s teeth on edge. Well, if you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, you know where this story is going, but it’s nice to read this take on the classic. Jane Austen’s stories don’t necessarily translate well to the 21st century, but Pride does a pretty good job of sticking to the bones of the original while infusing a new and different vibe. Will the target YA audience love it? No idea. I think Pride works well as a contemporary story about family, culture, loyalty, and teen romance, even without the context of the Austen original. As an adult who’s an Austen fan, I wasn’t 100% sold, but then again, I’m more than a little bit outside the demographic for this book!

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden: Moving on to middle grade fiction… Small Spaces is a spooky treat, perfect for the month of October, with some great scares and a memorable main character. Ollie is a sixth-grade girl in a small rural town. In the year since her mother’s death, she’s withdrawn from friends, activities, and everything that once gave her joy. When she’s forced to go on the class field trip to visit a local farm, she sneaks along a copy of an old book to keep her company. The book tells a ghostly story, and as the class explores the farm, Ollie starts to realize that the story may be true. There are sinister scarecrows, spooky fog, a creepy corn maze… and daring escapes, lots of bravery, and the forging of strong bonds of friendship. Katherine Arden is the author of the beautiful adult novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower. It’s fun to see her turn her writing skill to a middle grade ghost story!

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Julia Sarda: A gorgeous picture book about the life of Mary Shelley, showing her early years and the events that shaped her development into a writer. The story is told simply, and the beautiful illustrations give life to Mary’s imaginations and dreams. A lovely book.

 

Three books, three target age ranges, all quite fun — overall, a nice way to amuse myself during an otherwise crazy week. And now I can return them, and come home with even more new books to stack on my nightstand.

Shelf Control #139: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
Published: 1966
Length: 343 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy about 5 years ago at a used book store in Anchorage, Alaska (of all places!)

Why I want to read it:

In Cold Blood is one of those modern classics that seemingly everyone reads eventually. I never had it assigned for school, and just never got around to picking up a copy until recently. It seems like a big oversight in my reading life never to have taken the time to read In Cold Blood, and I’m planning to make this a priority in the coming year.

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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The Monday Check-In ~ 10/15/2018

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

One Day in December by Josie Silver: A bit of romance, to break up my sci-fi heavy week. My review is here.

Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi: I’ve made it halfway through the series! My thoughts so far, here.

Pop culture goodness:

I saw this:

And now I’m obsessed with this song:

Fresh Catch:

Bookish goodies! I treated myself to the Subterranean Press edition of one of my very favorite novellas by Patricia Briggs, Alpha & Omega.

I also picked up these two used books, which just happened to catch my eye:

 

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Pride by Ibi Zoboi: The public library comes through again! Hurray for my hold request getting processed in record time — I’m so happy to be starting this Pride and Prejudice retelling.

Now playing via audiobook:

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: I LOVE this — but I’m getting super frustrated by how long it’s taking me to get through it. My week has been crazy, with so little listening time. Must correct that this coming week!

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads:

  • Classic read: My book group’s current classic read is Middlemarch by George Eliot.  We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week. Slow but steady!
  • The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon. An ongoing group read, two chapters per week — we’ll be finished in December. Want to join in? Ask me how!

So many books, so little time…

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A view from the halfway point of the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi

The Old Man’s War series has occupied a place of honor on my TBR list for years now… I almost feel like I’m breaking with tradition by actually reading these books, rather than featuring them in yet another January post about my reading resolutions for the year.

Ever since discovering John Scalzi’s amazing books, I’ve know that I needed to make time for this series, but after talking about it for so long, it started feeling like a huge undertaking — and I’m not quite sure why. Now that I’ve dived in (and read three books in the space of a week), I can tell you that this series contains all the trademark Scalzi wit and smart-assery (is that a word? it should be a word) that we know and love from books like The Android’s Dream, Redshirts, and Lock In. I was afraid that Old Man’s War would be all hard sci-fi, serious and full of space battles, and I’m happy to say that that’s not the case. I mean, yes, there are space battles and the eradication of planets and species… but these books are funny, dammit, even while containing moments of deep emotion and moral dilemmas.

The series kicks off with Old Man’s War, which sets up quite a neat bit of world-building. From the opening lines, we know we’re in for a treat:

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited by wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

John Perry is the main character — a nice, decent man who misses his late wife, and has nothing much tying him to life on Earth. So, John enlists in the Colonial Defense Forces, a space-based military whose purpose is to protect human colonists across the depths of space, as they fight other species for possession of habitable planets. Why would a 75-year-old enlist? Because the CDF only accepts senior citizen recruits, enticing them with the prospect of technology that can make them young again. Sure, there are a few catches, like never being able to return to Earth again, and — oh yeah — going out and killing aliens in battle after battle, but the elderly recruits are all eager for a new chapter in their lives, so off they go.

What follows is an intriguing story of warfare, military training, the bonds between squad-mates, unimaginable danger from unimaginable aliens, and a rip-roaring good adventure. The morality is decidedly grey, and John Perry becomes more and more aware of the fallibility of the CDF powers-that-be. Danger, adrenaline, and even love come into play. It’s an awesome start to the series, although Old Man’s War can certainly stand on its own as a single-volume story, for those not looking to make a long-term investment in a series.

 

Book #2, The Ghost Brigades, shifts gears and perspectives quite a bit. While some characters cross over into this book, for the most part, The Ghost Brigades introduces a brand new cast of characters and a new set of dilemmas and conflicts.

The question of free will and consciousness is front and center. What does it mean to be a person? Are you still a person if your consciousness has been manufactured? Can a non-self-aware species become self-aware through technology? And if so, should they?

The adventure here feels much more personal, as it focuses on a few key people and their struggle to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t always obvious. The technology in this book expands on what we know from Old Man’s War, and is quite fascinating.

I did feel that the first third or so of the book was rather slow-moving, as it throws us into a new situation amidst new people and species, and spends a lot of time laying out the framework of the current conflict. I missed John Perry quite a bit (he’s absent from this story), although by the later sections of the story, I found myself just as invested in the new characters’ lives.

Things definitely pick up by the end — I couldn’t put this book down, and had to immediately move on to the next book to see what happened next…

Which brings us to The Last Colony, the third book in the series. As you might guess from the title (and as is clear from reading the author’s acknowledgements), The Last Colony was meant to be the end of the story. And a great end it is! Although apparently enough people loved these books for the author to continue the story for three more books, but I haven’t gotten there yet!

In The Last Colony, we’re reunited with John Perry, who’s once again at the center of a galactic battle for domination between the CDF and the non-human species who have allied together to put a limit to non-authorized planetary colonization. John is sent to head up a new colony on a new planet (which the CDF names Roanoke, not that that’s ominous or anything).  But the aliens aren’t particularly happy with this bold move by the humans, and they’re willing to do something about it.

I won’t give away too much about what actually takes place. It’s quite a good story, full of military maneuvering, intelligence gathering, high technology… and also domestic drama, snarky colonists, and plenty of awesome wordplay and quippy, snippy arguments. I was completely engrossed by this book… and now that I’ve finished, I’m trying to force myself to hit pause and read something different before diving into the 2nd half of the series.

Yes, there are three more books in the Old Man’s War series, and at this point, I can safely say that I’ll be reading them all… probably very, very soon.

_________________________________________

The details:

Old Man’s War – published 2005; 351 pages
The Ghost Brigades – published 2006; 347 pages
The Last Colony – published 2007; 320 pages

 

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Book Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

 

A love story about what happens after you meet, or rather, don’t meet the one.

Laurie is pretty sure love at first sight doesn’t exist anywhere but the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window one snowy December day, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there’s a moment of pure magic…and then her bus drives away.

Certain they’re fated to find each other again, Laurie spends a year scanning every bus stop and cafe in London for him. But she doesn’t find him, not when it matters anyway. Instead they “reunite” at a Christmas party, when her best friend Sarah giddily introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie. It’s Jack, the man from the bus. It would be.

What follows for Laurie, Sarah and Jack is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.

It seems to me that your personal enjoyment of One Day in December will depend to a large part on a) whether you believe in love at first sight and b) your overall appreciation of love triangles, finding THE ONE, and other staples of modern-day love stories.

As I’ve mentioned about a zillion times elsewhere on this blog, I’m not usually a romance reader, and while I enjoy a good, frothy contemporary love story every so often, it’s often an uphill battle for me to get past the meet-cute scenarios and the seemingly obvious obstacles that come with the territory.

All that said, let’s focus on One Day in December.

First off, yes, it’s the love-at-first-sight scenario. From the bus, Laurie sees the perfect man. They make eye contact. He tries to get on the bus — but it’s too crowded, the bus pulls away, and Laurie spends the following months pining for the man her best friend Sarah dubs “bus boy”. So naturally, when Laurie finally meets Sarah’s perfect new boyfriend, it’s “bus boy” himself (a.k.a. Jack), and Laurie makes the split-second decision not to tell Sarah.

Laurie and Sarah are true-blue besties, and Laurie wants Sarah to be happy, so she says nothing about her prior encounter with Jack. Laurie and Jack become friends, and she’s always aware of an underlying chemistry — but meanwhile, Sarah and Jack are in the early stages of what will become a years-long committed relationship. Laurie is the best friend, and becomes close friends with Jack, but that’s it… apart from one drunken kiss that they agree to forget ever happened and never, ever tell Sarah about.

One Day in December covers about ten years, starting with the bus encounter, when Laurie and Sarah are in their early twenties, and following the three main characters through to about age 30, when their lives and loves and careers have all dramatically changed. Laurie and Jack both move on, but neither has ever completely forgotten their secret connection, and it haunts every encounter and every relationship they each try to have over the years.

In general, I found this a quick and entertaining read, heavy on the bestie-love, with plenty of wine and silliness to enjoy — not to mention vintage clothing shops, perfect gifts, romance on Thailand beaches, yearnings for babies, and plenty of hot men. But I do have some issues with the plot…

ENTERING MINOR SPOILER TERRITORY – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Here’s the part where I talk about what bothered me about this book.

First and foremost, Laurie — how dumb is it not to say something to Sarah when you’re introduced to Jack? The entire tension could have been defused by laughing, saying “oh my god, it’s bus boy”, and moving on. Either Jack and Sarah continue to date and get serious, or not — but that way, Laurie is upfront with both of them, and the situation could have been dealt with. Instead, the truth comes out years later, and Sarah is rightfully pissed at Laurie for hiding the truth for so many years, to the extent that it almost destroys their friendship for good. Which leads to…

Second complaint, Sarah — you choose to pursue the conversation about bus boy on the eve of Laurie’s wedding, blow up at her, stomp out, and skip the wedding, where you’re supposed to be the maid of honor. Not cool. Having the blow up at this particular junction is unnecessary and over the top.

Third complaint, Laurie’s love interest Oscar — he’s a perfect guy, madly in love with Laurie, gives her everything she could possibly want in a partner, and then seems to have a change of personality and becomes married to his work. Too big a turnaround, too suddenly, in my humble opinion. It would have been easier to accept the gradual decay of their relationship if there’d been earlier signs of Oscar being unworthy or otherwise acting like a jerk.

Final complaint, Jack — I just wasn’t so impressed. He lacks focus and clarity for much of the book, and doesn’t seem worth the adoration that Laurie feels for him. For me to believe that he’s Laurie’s perfect man, I would need to be a lot more convinced of his wonderful qualities.

But most of all, I just don’t buy the overarching concept, that two people can know at a glance that they’re each other’s perfect match, and nothing can ever stand a chance of coming close to that perfection. Nope. Life doesn’t work that way… I mean, yes, it makes nice stories in books and movies, but this ten-year drama seems awfully forced to me.

END OF SPOILERS

All this may sound like I didn’t enjoy reading One Day in December, which isn’t exactly accurate. Like I said, it was quick and fun, and I was never bored or uninterested. It’s a light read, great for a day when you need a bit of comfort and cheer, probably best read while wearing flannel pajamas and drinking a big mug of cocoa (or glass of wine — whatever rocks your world.)

And who knows, someone who’s less of a grouch and much more of a romantic than I am might find this book to be absolutely swoon-worthy!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: One Day in December
Author: Josie Silver
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #138: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: Tender Morsels
Author: Margo Lanagan
Published: 2007
Length: 436 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever—magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?

And from the synopsis of another edition:

In her inspired re-working of the fairy-tale Snow White and Rose Red Margo Lanagan has created characters that are vivid, passionate, flawed and fiercely devoted to their hearts’ desires, whether these desires are good or evil. It is the story of two worlds – one real, one magical – and how, despite the safe haven her magical world offers to those who have suffered, her characters can never turn their backs on the real world, with all its beauty and brutality.

Tender Morsels is an astonishing novel, fraught with the tension between love and horror, violence and tenderness, despair and hope.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy many years ago.

Why I want to read it:

After reading Margo Lanagan’s amazing short story collection Black Juice, I was dying to read more by this author. I also read her novel The Brides of Rollrock Island, which I thought was incredibly beautiful (but also disturbing.) I’ve heard that Tender Morsels is very dark, and I’ve read some pretty extreme reviews both pro and con, which make me even more convinced that I should read it and judge for myself.

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Top Ten Tuesday: The longest books I’ve ever read… and the longest books I’ve read 2017/2018

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is The Longest Books I’ve Ever Read. I actually did this topic back in 2015 as a TTT freebie, and that list hasn’t changed… so I thought I’d repeat those, but also mention the longest books I’ve read more recently (2017-2018).

First, my ten longest books ever (according to Goodreads, based on mass market paperback editions):

1. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1,463 pages)

2. The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon (1, 443 pages)

3. A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon (1,439 pages)

4. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin (1,177 pages)

5. The Stand by Stephen King (1,167 pages)

6. Shogun by James Clavell (1,210 pages)

7. War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk (1,056 pages)

8. The Witching Hour by Anne Rice (1,038 pages)

9. Hawaii by James Michener (1,036 pages)

10. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1,011 pages)

 

My more recent reading has been a bit less ambitious — here are my longest reads from 2017 – 2018:

1. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon (1,117 pages)

2. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (826 pages)

3. The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray (819 pages)

4. Rise: A Newsflesh Collection by Mira Grant (816 pages)

5. Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King (702 pages)

6. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (656 pages)

7. The Angry Tide by Winston Graham (624 pages)

8. Feed by Mira Grant (599 pages)

9. Caliban’s War by James S. A Corey (595 pages)

10. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (592 pages)

What books are on your list this week? Please share your TTT link!

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The Monday Check-In ~ 10/8/2018

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

I just spent a lovely weekend in Boulder, Colorado with my wonderful daughter! It was a very quick 48-hours, but so much fun. We saw an amazing production of Pride and Prejudice, featuring a small cast where most of the actors and actresses played multiple roles, often across gender lines. It was fresh and funny, and we loved it!

Besides wandering and exploring, we also took a tour of the Celestial Seasonings tea factory — the heavenly smells alone made it worthwhile, not to mention all the variety of tea sampling that we indulged in. A couple of restaurants, coffee shops, and an awesome little used book store just added to the fun. Also, Boulder has a beautiful public library that made me want to move in and never leave.

Of course, best of all was doing all this in the company of my lovely girl.

And now… back to the books!

What did I read during the last week?

The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner: I loved this beautiful tale! My review is here.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi: I finished this book on the plane on the way to Boulder. Finally, after talking about it for years, I’ve read it! I really enjoyed this book, and will try to write up a quick review later in the week, once I’ve had a chance to catch my breath a bit.

Fresh Catch:

So many wonderful books arrived this week! First of all, yet another Tamora Pierce hardcover, one-volume edition:

I also received excellent bookmail from Amazon:, including:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi: The second book in the Old Man’s War series — I haven’t gotten very far yet, but consider me intrigued.

Now playing via audiobook:

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: I’ve listened to about 25% so far. Just beautiful — can’t wait to continue after a weekend away from audiobooks.

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads:

  • Classic read: My book group’s current classic read is Middlemarch by George Eliot.  We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week. Slow but steady!
  • The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon. An ongoing group read, two chapters per week — we’ll be finished in December. Want to join in? Ask me how!

So many books, so little time…

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Shelf Control #137: Peony in Love by Lisa See

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: Peony in Love
Author: Lisa See
Published: 2007
Length: 297 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”

For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.

Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.

So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting new novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.

Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy, at least five or six years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve read at least three other books by Lisa See, and have loved them all. This is one that just got away from me — I always meant to get back to it, and never did. I love the sound of the ghostly elements, and can’t wait to check it out.

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

 

Captivating and boldly imaginative, with a tale of sisterhood at its heart, Rena Rossner’s debut fantasy invites you to enter a world filled with magic, folklore, and the dangers of the woods.

Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.

But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.

Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…

The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.

What a lovely and unusual debut novel!

Author Rena Rossner draws from folktales, fairy tales, and Jewish history and traditions to create an entrancing story of two sisters whose lives are informed by magic, yet who are deeply rooted among the Jewish villagers in the small town of Dubossary (located in modern-day Moldova).

Liba and Laya are very different — Liba, the elder, is 17 years old, with wild, dark hair and a rounded body. She loves to study with her father, learning Torah and Talmud and all sorts of scholarly Jewish subjects not considered fit for girls. Laya, the younger, is 15 years old, with white-blond silky hair, pale skin, and a lithe figure. She has no interest in studies, but prefers to dream in the sun, alongside their beautiful mother. The girls’ parents are semi-outcasts. While the father was descended from a respectable, revered Chassidic family, the mother is a non-Jew who converted to Judaism when she married the man she loved, yet the neighbors have never ceased to gossip and consider her an outsider.

When the parents are called away for a family emergency, the girls are left home alone in their small cabin at the edge of the forest, and immediately, strange things begin to happen around them. A group of brothers come to town and set up their fruit stall, selling exotic, exquisite out-of-season fruits that the townspeople can’t resist — and beguiling the young women of the village with their impossible good looks and flirtatious, wild demeanors. Liba and Laya have been told secrets by their parents about their own true identities, and each begins to experience her own set of changes — physical and emotional — as she grows into womanhood.

Meanwhile, there are rumors in the village of violence coming closer, as anti-Semitism rears its ugly head and pogroms begin to devastate Jewish communities across Russia. Dubossary has always been different, with Jews and Christians living in harmony, but when a beautiful Christian girl is found murdered in a Jewish family’s orchard, unrest, evil whispers, and soon real danger threatens the Jewish people of the town.

If the plot sounds a little jam-packed — well, it is. There’s a lot going on here, with Liba and Laya’s secrets and struggles, the mysterious fruitsellers and their addictive wares, the rising anti-Semitism, and the dynamics of Chassidic dynasties as well. Beyond plot, though, there are also so many little touches of loveliness. The book is filled with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian expressions (with a handy glossary at the end) that give the story an authentic, rich cadence. Likewise, the flavors and textures of this world come to life through the descriptions of the foods (borscht, mandelbrot, kugel, and more), the flowers and plants, the wildlife, and the natural beauty of the snow, the river, and the forest.

Each girl has her own voice, as we hear in alternating chapters. Liba’s chapters are in prose, and Laya’s are in verse. Each is compelling, and while Liba’s chapters are much more action-packed and immediate, Laya’s have a lightness that’s quite beautiful to read.

Come by, he calls out
after me,
come by, come by.
When moonlight sets itself high in the sky.

Sometimes the author’s notes at the end of a story really give me a different way to understand what I’ve read, and such is the case here with The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her notes, author Rena Rossner describes her own family’s history in the region of the story and their immigration to America. She also explains the various sources of inspiration for her story, from fairy tales, Greek mythology, and even modern YA literature. She also mentions that the original idea for this book was to write a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (which can be read online here) After I finished reading The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I went and read Goblin Market (which I’d never read before), and was so impressed by how well its elements are captured and transformed in Rena Rossner’s book. (I also discovered the connection between Goblin Market and the October Daye series, but that’s another topic entirely.)

Naturally, between the setting and the introduction of folktale elements, I was reminded of Katherine Arden’s excellent The Bear and the Nightingale, although the stories are very, very different. Fans of that book should definitely check out The Sisters of the Winter Wood. It’s a magical story filled with beauty and awfulness, balancing real and fantasy worlds, and above all celebrating the love between two devoted sisters and the sacrifices they make for one another. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: The Sisters of the Winter Wood
Author: Rena Rossner
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of Redhook

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