Book Review: Ellie and the Harpmaker by Hazel Prior

 

A rich, heartwarming and completely charming debut that reminds us that sometimes, you don’t find love–love finds you.

Dan Hollis lives a happy, solitary life carving exquisite Celtic harps in his barn in the countryside of the English moors. Here, he can be himself, away from social situations that he doesn’t always get right or completely understand.

Ellie Jacobs is a lonely housewife, her days filled with walks and poetry she writes in secret.

One day, she comes across Dan’s barn and is enchanted by his collection. Dan gives her a harp made of cherry wood to match her cherry socks. He stores it for her, ready for whenever she’d like to take lessons.

Ellie begins visiting Dan almost daily, drifting deeper into his world. But when she accidentally discovers a secret, she must make a choice: keep it from him and risk their friendship, or change the course of their lives forever

Ellie and the Harpmaker is a sweet, lovely debut novel that crept up on me and then completely entranced me! Such a magical and deceptively simple tale.

Told through alternating chapters, we get to see the world through Dan and Ellie’s eyes. Dan is unusual, to say the least. He loves his solitude, the peace of Exmoor, the woods and streams and pebbles all around him, and most of all, the hand-carved harps that are his passion and his livelihood. He view the world and understands interactions completely literally — he’s presented here as someone who appears to be somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, although this is never actually stated. He functions well, but lacks the ability to interpret many of the social constructs and behaviors that others take for granted.

A woman came to the barn today. Her hair was the color of walnut wood. Her eyes were the color of bracken in October. Her socks were the color of cherries, which was noticeable because the rest of her clothes were sad colors.

Ellie is an unfulfilled housewife in her 30s, a woman whose father’s death has prompted her to make a list of things to do before she’s 40 — and one of these is to learn to play music. When she happens upon the Harp Barn, she’s astonished by Dan’s workmanship and the beauty of his harps, and is intrigued by Dan himself. Dan insists on gifting her with a harp, but Ellie’s husband Clive forces her to return it, believing that she misunderstands Dan’s intentions. But Dan then insists that the harp is and always will be Ellie’s, and tells her he’ll keep it for her, for her to play whenever she wants.

It was her harp, and always would be. I never took back a gift. The harp would sit here in my barn and wait for her. It would sit and wait until all the cows had come home. This did not sound like a very long time, so I made it longer. The harp would wait, I told her, until the sea dried up (which someday it would if you gave it long enough) and the stars dropped out of the sky (which someday they would if you gave them long enough), but nevertheless this harp would never, ever belong to anyone else.

Thus begins a warm and unusual friendship between two people whose paths would likely have never crossed. Each adds to the other’s life. As Ellie gets to know Dan better, she digs into his world and his assumptions about the people in it, opening his eyes to new and different aspects of his life that he’d never realized before.

(Being vague here… no spoilers!)

Although the book started slowly for me, I was soon swept away by the lovely writing and the wonderful characters. At first, I was afraid that Ellie and the Harpmaker would feel too much like a clone of The Rosie Project and other recent reads about people who present with social difficulties and/or on the spectrum. Not so. Very quickly Ellie and the Harpmaker won my heart in its own way, erasing thoughts of comparisons to other books from my mind.

Sometimes the ifs work for you and sometimes they work against you. Sometimes you think they are working for you whereas in fact they are working against you, and sometimes you think they are working against you whereas in fact they are working for you. It is only when you look back that you realize, and you don’t always realize even then.

I grew to love Dan and Ellie, and felt all the feels as I read about their journeys, alone and together. Ellie’s marriage is frustrating to read about and I wanted to give her a good shake, but she becomes more self-aware as the book progresses, and I was proud of her for the realizations she finds along the way. Dan is simply lovely — a giving, creative, uncomplicated person who only knows how to be good. He’s really marvelous, and someone I won’t soon forget.

Please do yourself a favor and read this book! Ellie and the Harpmaker is a delicious read that left me hungry for beautiful music and a forest to wander through.
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The details:

Title: Ellie and the Harpmaker
Author: Hazel Prior
Publisher: Berkley Publishing
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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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Take A Peek Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

“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)

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

My Thoughts:

I don’t think there’s anything I can say about The Hate U Give that hasn’t already been said. Released early in 2017, The Hate U Give has generated a tremendous amount of buzz, has been nominated for and won numerous literary awards, and won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards for Young Adult Fiction and Debut Author. Now that I’ve finally read the book, I can add my voice to the raves and say with certainty that all the praise is absolutely deserved.

The Hate U Give is a raw, unfiltered look inside a life and a world that people of privilege never see. It’s an eye-opening, upsetting, deeply human look at the costs of violence, prejudice, and brutality.  Main character Starr leads us through her double life, letting us see the conflicts she faces on a daily basis as she tries to navigate her neighborhood and her school. The entire book is engaging and impossible to put down. Where it really excels is by showing us, through the power of fiction, what the lives behind the headlines look like, and how the victim of violence is too often labeled a thug or a criminal when what truly matters is the person’s life being unjustly ended.

I’m so glad that I finally read The Hate U Give, and will be pushing it on my family and friends. Everyone should read this book.

I’m really looking forward to the movie version as well.

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The details:

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication date: February 28, 2017
Length: 453 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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