YA double feature: What If It’s Us and The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

Two delightful YA books this week! Once again, a big THANK YOU to the public library for being all-around awesome and for getting me my hold books in record time. Here’s my quick take on my YA reading from the past week:

 

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera: Two YA authors come together to give us a romantic New York story of first love and do-overs. Arthur is a Georgia boy spending the summer in the big city; Ben is New York born and bred, stuck repeating chemistry in summer school so he can graduate on time. A chance encounter at a post office makes a big impression on both Arthur and Ben — but in the blink of an eye, it’s over, without names or contact info exchanged. But the sparks that flew can’t just die… so each boy does we he can to track the other down — and when, miracle of miracle, they actually find one another again, a sweet romance blooms. What If It’s Us is utterly charming, with plenty of laughs and tears. The ending may disappoint folks who believe in happily-ever-after, but I found it hopeful, grounded in reality but with a definite sense of optimism for whatever might yet happen. And I couldn’t help but love the endless geeky pop culture references, from Hamilton to Harry Potter!

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee: The sequel to the super fun The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a treat, shifting the focus from trouble-making Monty and his true love Percy to Felicity, Monty’s younger sister (who was a delight in the first book). Felicity is a scientist and scholar, but with one problem: In the 18th century, no medical school or physician will deign to even consider taking on a female student. But that doesn’t stop Felicity, who is so determined to achieve her dreams that she ends up traipsing all across Europe and getting into all sorts of wild adventures in pursuit of her goals. Along the way, she teams up with two fabulous friends, young women with their own hopes and dreams, and shows just how strong a woman can be. This book has it all — friendship, adventure, feminism, and fun — and is a terrifically entertaining read. I hope there will be more about these characters in the future — I’d love to know how their lives turn out!

Two terrific teen reads! Check ’em out! You don’t have to actually be a young adult (*cough* I’m not! *cough*) to enjoy these.

Book Review: The Wild Dead (The Bannerless Saga, #2) by Carrie Vaughn

A century after environmental and economic collapse, the people of the Coast Road have rebuilt their own sort of civilization, striving not to make the mistakes their ancestors did. They strictly ration and manage resources, including the ability to have children. Enid of Haven is an investigator, who with her new partner, Teeg, is called on to mediate a dispute over an old building in a far-flung settlement at the edge of Coast Road territory. The investigators’ decision seems straightforward — and then the body of a young woman turns up in the nearby marshland. Almost more shocking than that, she’s not from the Coast Road, but from one of the outsider camps belonging to the nomads and wild folk who live outside the Coast Road communities. Now one of them is dead, and Enid wants to find out who killed her, even as Teeg argues that the murder isn’t their problem. In a dystopian future of isolated communities, can our moral sense survive the worst hard times?

The Wild Dead is a sequel to last year’s Bannerless, which I loved. (Check out my review of Bannerless, here.) In Bannerless, author Carrie Vaughn does an amazing job of creating a post-apocalyptic world in which the focus is not on the disaster itself (known here as the Fall), but on life 100 years later. Humanity has survived, and in the Coast Road community (California), life revolves around households — groups of adults who build a home together, a communal dwelling where all are invested in the success of the whole. Communities are groups of households with a central committee and a commitment to the greater good. It’s a mostly agrarian society, where everyone contributes according to their abilities, and all are provided for… provided, that is, that some basic rules are followed.

The guiding principle in this world is producing enough, but not more. Quotas govern all farming, so that no one destroys the scarce natural resources by using up too much, too quickly. Households that demonstrate that they can support themselves may be granted banners, the most coveted reward of all. A Banner is a license to have a baby. A household may earn a banner through hard work and dedication — but a household that tries to skirt the rules may be denied a banner forever.

Enid of Haven is an investigator — the closest thing this society has to law enforcement. In this post-technology world, Enid can’t rely on firearms or fingerprint dusting or forensic science; she has to use her brain and her people skills to ask questions, dig deep, and find the truth of a community’s secrets. Enid is good at her job, but as The Wild Dead opens, she’s mostly annoyed about being called away from her home in Haven to carry out a seemingly pointless investigation right as her household is expecting its first baby.

The investigation is set in the community of Estuary, a marshy, unpleasant location where the people live in uneasy proximity to one another. There’s no true closeness or cooperation in Estuary — the people seem argumentative and suspicious. And while Enid’s case is simply about determining whether an old house should be preserved, the situation becomes complicated by the discovery of a body belonging to an outsider. As the investigation shifts from mediation to a murder case, Enig and her partner Teeg try to find a way to get the people of Estuary to share their secrets.

The Bannerless world is opened up further in this second book in the series. In the first book, the author did an amazing feat of world-building, showing us the Coast Road society, the nature of this post-tech world and how the people live. At the same time, she gives us a glimpse into the history of the Fall and how civilization re-formed in the century since then. In The Wild Dead, we explore further, and learn for the first time about the people who live outside the society of the Coast Road, choosing to live wild and with fewer resources rather than be restricted by the rules that dictate so many basic elements of life, including child-bearing.

The puzzle of the dead body is intriguing, and I enjoyed seeing Enid use her wits and intuition to read the situation in Estuary and finally arrive at the truth. The mystery aspects of the story are quite good, and held my attention from beginning to end. But truly, what I really love about these books is the detailed description of this unique world and how it works, and getting to understand the psychology of a society which has survived what could have been the end and has created a new version of the future.

(In some ways, I’m reminded of The Walking Dead — minus the zombies, of course — particularly the newest season, when the communities have rediscovered non-industrial era technology such as plows and windmills as a way of surviving and building after a disaster. But I digress…)

Enid is a terrific main character — smart, strong, fair, and devoted to her people and to doing what’s right. She’s not perfect, and she struggles with herself quite a bit, but in the end, she’s committed to the essence of being an investigator: helping others, and being kind.

I highly recommend both Bannerless and The Wild Dead. I’m really hoping this will be an ongoing series. I can’t see myself ever getting tired of Enid or her world.

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The details:

Title: The Wild Dead
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books
Publication date: July 17, 2018
Length: 264 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey

SHE LOOKS LIKE ME. SHE SOUNDS LIKE ME. NOW SHE’S TRYING TO TAKE MY PLACE.

Liz Kendall wouldn’t hurt a fly. She’s a gentle woman devoted to bringing up her kids in the right way, no matter how hard times get.

But there’s another side to Liz—one which is dark and malicious. A version of her who will do anything to get her way, no matter how extreme or violent.

And when this other side of her takes control, the consequences are devastating.

The only way Liz can save herself and her family is if she can find out where this new alter-ego has come from, and how she can stop it.

There are actually two interwoven storylines focusing on two different characters in Someone Like Me. First, there’s Liz, a single mother whose ex-husband is an abusive creep. Second, there’s Fran Watts, a 16-year-old girl who’s known at school as a freak. Ever since a bizarre and traumatic abduction ten years earlier, Fran has suffered from a host of symptoms of mental illness, and fears that she’s just plain crazy.

During a particularly bad encounter with her ex, when he turns violent and seems on the verge of killing her, Liz finds herself responding by bashing Mark with a broken bottle — but she’s not the one controlling her own body. Someone else seems to be pulling the strings, and yes, it saves her life, but it also leaves her terrified.

Meanwhile, Fran is accompanied by an imaginary friend, a fox known as Jinx, who has been with her ever since the kidnapping and who’s always ready to protect her. And sometimes, Fran sees the world change — the color of a blanket or a figurine or something else in the background will change from one thing to another. Desperate, Fran returns to her psychiatrist to beg for stronger meds, anything to make these hallucinations go away. When Fran sees Liz and her teen-aged son Zac at the clinic as well, a strange connection is forged between the two teens, and they start to discover that the oddities in Fran and Liz’s lives may be linked.

Someone Like Me is a gripping story of psychological terror. We alternate between Liz and Fran, seeing their world views and the (figurative) demons they each battle. Each is desperate to just live a normal life, and fears that she’s losing her grip on sanity and reality. Of course, there’s something else going on here, and it’s weird and scary — and neither Fran nor Liz feel that they’ll be believed if they find a way to describe it to anyone.

At 500+ pages, Someone Like Me is a bit longer than it needs to be. Some of the chapters, particularly the chapters focused on Liz and her family and her struggles, seem overly long, and the story takes a while to really build up steam. Still, it’s worth sticking with. By the halfway mark, the plot really picks up and the crazy twists become more and more absorbing.

M. R. Carey knows how to tell a fast-moving story with great action sequences. I loved The Girl With All The Gifts. This book doesn’t quite measure up, possibly because it’s a story set in our day-to-day world, with just a taste of supernatural/mysterious forces/unexplained phenomena, whereas The Girl With All The Gifts was a marvelous example of horror world-building, creating an entire post-apocalyptic new world order for the characters to navigate. But leaving the comparisons aside, Someone Like Me is very good, very creepy, and very inventive. Definitely check it out if you enjoy stories of psychological horror and twisty mindgames!

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The details:

Title: Someone Like Me
Author: M. R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: November 6, 2018
Length: 500 pages
Genre: Psychological horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

The warm fall day starts like any other at the Center—a women’s reproductive health services clinic—its staff offering care to anyone who passes through its doors. Then, in late morning, a desperate and distraught gunman bursts in and opens fire, taking all inside hostage.

After rushing to the scene, Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, sets up a perimeter and begins making a plan to communicate with the gunman. As his phone vibrates with incoming text messages he glances at it and, to his horror, finds out that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside the clinic.

But Wren is not alone. She will share the next and tensest few hours of her young life with a cast of unforgettable characters: A nurse who calms her own panic in order save the life of a wounded woman. A doctor who does his work not in spite of his faith but because of it, and who will find that faith tested as never before. A pro-life protester disguised as a patient, who now stands in the cross hairs of the same rage she herself has felt. A young woman who has come to terminate her pregnancy. And the disturbed individual himself, vowing to be heard.

Told in a daring and enthralling narrative structure that counts backward through the hours of the standoff, this is a story that traces its way back to what brought each of these very different individuals to the same place on this fateful day.

Jodi Picoult—one of the most fearless writers of our time—tackles a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel. How do we balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn they carry? What does it mean to be a good parent? A Spark of Light will inspire debate, conversation . . . and, hopefully, understanding.

In A Spark of Light, Jodi Picoult presents yet another ripped-from-the-headlines scenario: At the last remaining clinic that provides abortions in the state of Mississippi, women seeking services must brave a gauntlet of protesters to get inside the doors, where they’re treated with kindness, despite the convoluted laws that dictate timing, method, and communications around care. But on the day this story unfolds, the normal tensions and emotions are disrupted by a gunman who bursts into the clinic, shooting indiscriminately and taking hostages, so blinded by his own rage that he feels no compassion for the people whose lives he’s endangering.

We see events through the eyes of multiple characters: The doctor, who flies from state to state to perform the services that give women choices; the teen seeking birth control for the first time; the older woman who trusts the clinic staff to help her understand a medical diagnosis; the woman seeking an abortion; the relative there as an escort, and more. The author has chosen an unusual approach to this story: Instead of starting at the beginning of the day and taking us through it step by step, the narrative starts at the end, at the climax of the hostage situation. From there, the story moves backward, hour by hour, so that with each chapter, we learn a little more about the people involved, the events that have already happened, and how these different people all ended up in this crisis together.

I have mixed feelings about the backwards chronology. There are plenty of “aha” moments with each chapter, as another piece of the puzzle slides into place. So THAT’s why this person came to the clinic! So THAT’s why this other character acted this way! So THAT’s how these scenarios are connected. As with all of the Picoult books I’ve read, there’s a fairly large twist toward the end that further explains things. But does this work in terms of the actual power of the story? Well, for me, not so much. Yes, it’s satisfying to see the pieces come together, yet the horrific opening scenes would have been more powerful if I’d actually felt like I knew the people involved. Instead, we start with a bunch of strangers in a terrible situation, and have to work through each chapter, each going backward by one hour, in order to get to know their backstories, their personalities, and their motivations.

At the same time, A Spark of Light does a good job of making the various sides of the reproductive rights battle comprehensible. The author does not depict anti-choice protesters as mindless fanatics. Instead, as we get to know characters from all sides of the issue, we’re given insight into why they believe what they believe. Whether we agree with a particular character’s viewpoint or not, we come out of this reading experience at least understanding why a person could feel what they do, and even more importantly, get to understand how a person’s individual experiences and struggles often play into the stance they take as adults.

To be clear, there’s a sharp distinction between belief and action, and the author in no way supports the actions of the shooter in this story. What he does is unforgivable. Still, there’s a backstory provided, to explain how a man might snap and take such extreme action. I have to say that this is where the story feels weakest to me: I don’t really buy the chain of events that led this man, in the blink of an eye, to change from family man to mass murderer.

In the author’s notes at the end of the book, the author provides some fascinating statistics about abortion law and how it’s changed, the restrictions placed on women who need care, and the ways in which choice continues to be curtailed. She also makes compelling arguments for the need for greater access to contraception and healthcare in order to reduce the need for abortions. She draws on interviews with countless medical providers, political advocates from both sides of the issues, and women who’ve contemplated or chosen termination of pregnancies, and presents a powerful portrait of what this means for the people involved.

A Spark of Light is though-provoking and absorbing. While I do feel that the backwards chronology is not effective, I still found myself caught up in the characters’ lives by the end of the book. This book has both dramatic action and interesting moral dilemmas, and is sure to be a hit with Picoult’s many fans.

Warning: In addition to the gun violence, some readers may find the graphic description of the abortion process particularly disturbing. 

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The details:

Title: A Spark of Light
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: October 2, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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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.

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!

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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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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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Book Review: Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

 

When the California drought escalates to catastrophic proportions, one teen is forced to make life and death decisions for her family in this harrowing story of survival from New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman.

The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbors and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive.

This father/son-written novel starts at a point not so foreign to our world today — a drought in California that’s gone from bad to worse. Water restrictions have been in place for a while. Lawns are brown, swimming pools are empty, and the Central Valley, California’s agricultural hub, has become a new Dust Bowl.

As the story opens in a Southern California suburb, Alyssa’s mother turns on the kitchen faucet, and nothing comes out. Is this the result of yet another plumbing mishap on the part of Alyssa’s father? When the family turns on the news, they discover it’s the Tap-Out — there is no more water. Outside of California, the situation is slow to draw attention, as there’s a major hurricane wreaking havoc on the East Coast. It doesn’t seem so dire at first. Surely, the water will be back soon.

A visit to stock up at Costco that afternoon reveals the panic already setting in. The bottled water shelves are already empty. So are the shelves of Gatorade, juices, and anything else to drink. People are intense and possessive, in competition for the remaining liquids. Alyssa and her brother fill a cart with bagged ice, which they then need to fiercely protect from predatory adults. It’s only been a few hours, and already kindness is evaporating along with the water supply.

Alyssa’s next door neighbor Kelton and his family are “preppers” — survivalists in suburbia, with a well-stocked safe room, an armory, and all sorts of defensive perimeter booby traps, as well as a bug-out location in the mountains. But as the neighborhood becomes more and more tense, even this well-guarded and provisioned home won’t remain safe for long.

As is typical for a YA adventure/survival tale, we eventually end up with the teens cut off from their parents and forced to make life-or-death decisions if they’re to have any chance of survival. Things get violent and scary very quickly. Panic leads to riots and death. Martial law is declared and people are herded into evacuation camps — but even there, there’s only enough water for about a tenth of the people cramming into the centers. As people get more and more desperate, safety becomes even more elusive. Finally, Alyssa and Kelton, joined by two other teens, are on the run with Alyssa’s younger brother, seeking hydration and safety from the masses, just looking for a place to hole up and wait out the Tap-Out. It can’t last forever… can it?

Of course, the danger isn’t only from desperate mob violence and panic. Dehydration sets in quickly. People find all sorts of inventive ways to find sips of water, just trying to stay alive — but reading about the early and then more advanced stages of dehydration is plenty horrifying.

Dry takes place over little more than a week, and it’s fascinating to see how quickly society disintegrates in the face of such a catastrophe. Alyssa’s brother Garrett refers to the people so desperate for water that they’ll do anything as “water-zombies” — and it’s no surprise that some scenes reminded me of The Walking Dead, as normal life and the moral standards of civilization break down in the face of a very basic threat to survival. I was also reminded in many ways of Mike Mullin’s Ashfall series, in which a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions leads to this same type of societal collapse.

Dry is a quick, pulse-pounding read — I finished it over a day and a half of intense reading. I was drawn to this book because I’d just read Scythe and Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman over the summer, and found those books deep and thought-provoking (as well as being outstanding adventures). Dry doesn’t provoke the same sort of queries about life and purpose as those books, and it lacks the character development I found so engaging in Scythe. I was absolutely caught up in the story of Dry, but didn’t find myself caring deeply about any of the specific characters, who all sort of blended together as the POV shifted from chapter to chapter.

An additional minor quibble is that reasons and consequences are glossed over for the sake of moving the action forward. I would have liked to learn more about the events that led to the Tap-Out, and how the water was able to be restored finally. Reading Dry, we just have to accept these developments as fact, but more detail would have helped make it all seem more real.

I do recommend Dry. It’s a scary, intense adventure, as well as a cautionary tale about climate change and the need to pay attention, NOW, before things get so much worse.

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The details:

Title: Dry
Author: Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: October 2, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

“I seen a kid killed…He strangled it, up by the horse.”

When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.

Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott—once his assistant, now a partner in the agency—set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been—Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much trickier than that.

My Thoughts:

Yet another tense, tight murder mystery from the pen of Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J. K. Rowling… who obviously can do no wrong when she sits down to write a book.

In this 4th book in the Cormoran Strike series, Cormoran and Robin are both more successful and more troubled when the story opens. Book #3, Career of Evil, ended at a wedding… and Lethal White picks up right at the very same wedding, showing us all sorts of consequences and aftereffects that we could only previously imagine. The tensions each carries following the wedding spill over into their professional lives, as they deal with their respective relationship partners while trying to build their detective business now that they’ve become incredibly famous (thanks to the events of Career of Evil).

The mystery in Lethal White is two-fold, kicked off by the ravings of a schizophrenic man who finds his way into Strike’s office, and then deepened when the firm is hired to investigate a case of high-politics blackmail, which soon turns into a murder investigation. There’s danger and red herrings galore, and Cormoran and Robin are at their detective-y best as they charge off to investigate, interrogate, and stir up oodles of trouble for the rich and famous.

At 650+ pages, Lethal White is a BIG book, and the plot threatens to collapse under the weight of its endless twists and turns. The convoluted schemes and interconnected alibis and misleading clues keep things interesting, but I felt at times as if the story might have benefited from straight lines occasionally. The coincidence meter is on high alert in this book, as the double-mystery is awfully conveniently interwoven. I had to suspend my disbelief big-time over Cormoran’s powers of deductive reasoning and his ability to draw connections out of seemingly thin air.

At the same time, Cormoran and Robin are a great duo, working well together and playing off each other’s strengths. The complications of their personal lives make for a diverting and engaging side theme throughout the book, and is the piece I’ll be most anxiously awaiting in book #5, whenever that might be coming.

I’m really loving this series, and can’t wait to see where the story goes. Meanwhile, I’m delighted that I watched seasons 1 – 3 of the TV adaption, C B Strike, over the summer. It was terrific way to get a refresher on the story thus far, getting me totally ready to dive into reading Lethal White. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: Lethal White
Author: Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication date: September 18, 2018
Length: 656 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Library

Aubiobook Review: Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit by Amy Stewart

 

Trailblazing Constance’s hard-won job as deputy sheriff is on the line in Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, the fourth installment of Amy Stewart’s Kopp Sisters series.

After a year on the job, New Jersey’s first female deputy sheriff has collared criminals, demanded justice for wronged women, and gained notoriety nationwide for her exploits. But on one stormy night, everything falls apart.

While transporting a woman to an insane asylum, Deputy Kopp discovers something deeply troubling about her story. Before she can investigate, another inmate bound for the asylum breaks free and tries to escape.

In both cases, Constance runs instinctively toward justice. But the fall of 1916 is a high-stakes election year, and any move she makes could jeopardize Sheriff Heath’s future–and her own. Although Constance is not on the ballot, her controversial career makes her the target of political attacks.

With wit and verve, book-club favorite Amy Stewart brilliantly conjures the life and times of the real Constance Kopp to give us this “unforgettable, not-to-be messed-with heroine” (Marie Claire) under fire in Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit.

My Thoughts:

Four books in, the Kopp Sisters series is going strong! Constance Kopp is an independent, strong, career woman — at a time when these were not considered desirable attributes for a female. She works as a deputy sheriff at the Hackensack jail, where she essentially does double duty, both capturing criminals and carrying out deputy funtions, and serving as the jail’s matron for female inmates, whom she views as her charges.

Both Sheriff Heath — a fair-minded man who treats Constance as a colleague and professional, a rarity in the law-enforcement world — and Constance believe in prison reform, the idea that treating prisoners as people with options for redemption will actually lead to less crime overall. Constance takes a particular interest in the young women who often find themselves incarcerated for being wayward or otherwise uncontrollable, working with a sympathetic judge to get them released on probation, under her supervision, and finding them safe living situations, opportunities for decent work, and the chance to educate themselves and improve their lives.

All this is threatened by the 1916 elections. Sheriff Heath has termed out of his role and is running for Congress, and the sheriff’s position is hotly contested beween a man who detests Constance and a man who sees her as a cute affectation. In describing the tone of the campaign, author Amy Stewart adeptly shows how dirty politics isn’t new to today’s political climate. Sheriff Heath, perhaps naively, believes that elections can be won or lost on the merits of a candidate:

“Miss Kopp, Don’t you see that it’s better for us this way? He’s putting all his worst qualities right out on display for the public to see. You notice that he hasn’t said a word about what a sheriff’s actual duties might be, or why he’s best qualified to carry them out. A man who does nothing but cast out hate and blame couldn’t possibly be elected to office.”

If only.

As always, Constance Kopp — who is a real person, and whose history Amy Stewart draws upon for the events of the novel — is a stunningly strong, honest, and dedicated woman. She believes in her purpose, and constantly puts her own interests second to her duty to the public and to her inmates. In Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, we spend a bit less time with Constance’s sisters Norma and Fleurette, who feature much more prominently in earlier books. Still, their home life and interesting personality dynamics are always entertaining to read about.

By the end of the novel, circumstances have changed dramatically for the Kopp sisters, and it would appear that their lives are about to enter an entirely new phase. And while I’m sad to see the partnership between Constance and Sheriff Heath reach an ending of sorts for the moment, I’m still as invested as ever in these people and their lives, and can’t wait to see where they go and what they do next.

I’ll wrap up by repeating almost exactly what I wrote at the end of my review for the 3rd book, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions

A final note: I listened to the audiobook, and it’s wonderful! Narrator Christina Moore has a gift when it comes to these characters, making each sister distinct, as well as the rest of the characters, whether working class New Jersey girls or glad-handing politicians or downtrodden housewives. Their voices are sharp and funny and full of personality, just like Amy Stewart’s characters themselves.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Kopp Sisters books yet, start with Girl Waits With Gun, and then keep going!

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The details:

Title: Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit
Author: Amy Stewart
Narrator: Christina Moore
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: September 11, 2018
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 53 minutes
Printed book length: 320 pages
Genre: Detective story/historical fiction
Source: Audible download (purchased); ARC from the author

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