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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Shelf Control #136: Home in the Morning by Mary Glickman

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!

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Title: Home in the Morning
Author: Mary Glickman
Published: 2010
Length: 233 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A powerful debut from a new literary talent, this novel tells the story of a Jewish family confronting the tumult of the 1960s—and the secrets that bind its members together

Jackson Sassaport is a man who often finds himself in the middle. Whether torn between Stella, his beloved and opinionated Yankee wife, and Katherine Marie, the African American girl who first stole his teenage heart; or between standing up for his beliefs and acquiescing to his prominent Jewish family’s imperative to not stand out in the segregated South, Jackson learns to balance the secrets and deceptions of those around him. But one fateful night in 1960 will make the man in the middle reconsider his obligations to propriety and family, and will start a chain of events that will change his life and the lives of those around him forever.

Home in the Morning follows Jackson’s journey from his childhood as a coddled son of the Old South to his struggle as a young man eager to find his place in the civil rights movement while protecting his family. Flashing back between Jackson’s adult life as a successful lawyer and his youth, Mary Glickman’s riveting novel traces the ways that race and prejudice, family and love intertwine to shape our lives. This ebook features rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.

How and when I got it:

I don’t really remember buying this book… but I assume I picked it up at one of the library book sales over the past several years.

Why I want to read it:

The synopsis makes this book sound fascinating — civil rights, a love story, the 1960s, Jewish life in the South. I’m definitely drawn to the description… and I’m glad this book just resurfaced for me during a shelf tidying adventure, because I plan to bump it up the TBR list!

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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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Shelf Control #120: The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve

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!

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Title: The Family Orchard
Author: Nomi Eve
Published: 2000
Length: 336 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the bestselling tradition of The Red Tent, The Family Orchard is a spellbinding novel of one unforgettable family, the orchard they’ve tended for generations, and a love story that transcends the ages.

Nomi Eve’s lavishly imagined account begins in Palestine in 1837, with the tale of the irrepressible family matriach, Esther, who was lured by the smell of baking bread into an affair with the local baker. Esther passes on her passionate nature to her son, Eliezer, whose love for the forbidden Golda threatened to tear the family apart. And to her granddaughter, Avra the thief, a tiny wisp of a girl who thumbed her nose at her elders by swiping precious stones from the local bazaar-and grew to marry a man she met at the scene of a crime. At once epic and intimate, The Family Orchard is a rich historical tapestry of passion and tradition from a storyteller of beguiling power.

How and when I got it:

I bought a used copy about 3 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

Nomi Eve’s more recent novel, Henna House, went straight to the top of my oh-my-god-this-is-so-good-everyone-needs-to-read-this pile — and so I knew I needed to read her first novel as well. The subject matter and synopsis of The Family Orchard sound fascinating to me. I love reading books set in Israel and incorporating Jewish history, and I’m really looking forward to finally diving in.

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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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Shelf Control #68: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

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! Fore 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!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

17707514Title: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands
Author: Natasha Solomons
Published: 2013
Length: 339 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

London, 1958. It’s the eve of the sexual revolution, but in Juliet Montague’s conservative Jewish community where only men can divorce women, she ­finds herself a living widow, invisible. Ever since her husband disappeared seven years ago, Juliet has been a hardworking single mother of two and unnaturally practical. But on her thirtieth birthday, that’s all about to change. A wealthy young artist asks to paint her portrait, and Juliet, moved by the powerful desire to be seen, enters into the burgeoning art world of 1960s London, which will bring her fame, fortune, and a life-long love affair.

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

2 or 3 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I don’t know how I first heard about this book, but when I stumbled across it at a book sale, it seemed familiar. The Jewish theme really calls to me, as does the idea of a young woman who’s already been pushed aside by society even though so much of her life is ahead of her. Between the setting and the time period, it sounds like a must read!

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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!
  • And 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: Henna House

Henna HouseHenna House tells the tale of the little-known world of the Jews of Yemen in the early 20th century, taking place largely during the tumultuous years of the 1920s and 1930s. As seen through the eyes of Adela Damari, whom we meet for the first time at age five, the Jewish community of the village of Qaraah is small and isolated, steeped in a tradition and a simple way of life that seems at odds with the modernity of the time period.

The Jewish community of Yemen at that time was by law an underclass, kept subservient and oppressed through a string of harsh restrictions and edicts, none more feared than the Orphan Decree. According to the Orphan Decree, an unmarried Jewish child left orphaned would be confiscated by local authorities, adopted by a Muslim family, and permanently removed from his or her relatives, community, and faith. Families lived in fear of confiscation, taking the preventive measure of betrothing children at birth so that hasty marriages could be enacted when needed.

Adela first enounters the Confiscator when she is five years old, and is terrified. This official routinely visits her father’s marketplace stall, observing her father’s illness, and practically counting the days until his death so that Adela can be taken. Despite having a very  large family, Adela is at risk, as all of her potential betrothals have come to naught. One day, however, her young cousin Asaf comes to live in Qaraah, and the two children become fast friends — and more. Despite their young age, they form a deep bond, and it’s only natural that their betrothal is announced.

Other arrivals in Qaraah further change Adela’s life. Her uncle Barhun moves to the village with his wife Rahel, a skilled henna artist, and their daughter Hani, who quickly becomes Adela’s closest friend and confidante. Adela is introduced to the women’s henna rituals, in which symbols and patterns are painstakingly painted onto the skin to celebrate happy occasions, commemorate significant events, and represent a secret language full of mystical power and meaning.

That first night I was a novitiate. Soon, like the others, I would learn about the stars in the heavens by reading the astronomical tables they inscribed on my feet, shins, and fingers. Soon, I would grow to believe that I myself was an actual text, and that my skin without henna was like a holy book without words — a shameful, almost blasphemous, thing. Without henna, I wouldn’t know how to read myself. With henna, I was as sacred as a sanctified Torah. With henna, I was the carrier of ancient tales — a living girl-scroll replete with tales of sorrow, joy, and salvation.

The story of Henna House moves from the small mountain village of Adela’s birth to the city of Aden, through the anti-Jewish riots of the 1940s to the rescue of the Yemenite Jews by the newly declared nation of Israel. The story of Adela is at once large in scope, covering the significant events in the global Jewish community during the devastating years during and after the Holocaust, and at the same time, is a deeply personal tale.

Adela herself is a girl and then a young woman finding her way through an ever shifting series of homes and relations, experiencing both joy and love as well as terror and grief. She values the traditions of her people and the rituals of the henna house, yet also finds an inner strength that sees her through horrible loss and betrayals.

I was incredibly moved by this lovingly crafted story. The writing is often poetic, rich with tradition and symbolism, yet the pace never slackens or drags. The forward momentum of the story is engaging while also allowing the emotions of the characters room to breathe.

I was quite taken with the use of traditional rituals and foods to highlight the lives of the Jewish families, and found the depiction of their lives in Yemen completely fascinating.

Henna House is an intimate look at a time, a place, and a people, at a by-gone world with rich yet mysterious traditions. As historical fiction, it’s deeply affecting as well as informative and revealing. And as a novel, Henna House succeeds in telling a story full of love, wonder, loss, and excitement.

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I leave you with a collage of images (scavenged from Pinterest, thank you very much…) which bring to mind some of the people and food mentioned in Henna House.

HH collage

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The details:

Title: Henna House
Author: Nomi Eve
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: August 12, 2014
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribner via NetGalley