Tuesday, August 6, 2019

THESE WITCHES DON'T BURN by Isabel Sterling



Rating: A sterling silver pentagram with no embellishments

Highlight of note: Lesbian witches?

Will you read the next one in the series? Probably not unless I'm really bored.

This book underwhelmed me, I'm afraid. Yeah, it's about a magic user who likes girls, but that's where I stopped being terribly interested. There was a LOT of backstory. It didn't all get info dumped on us, but that was almost more annoying than if it had been. The main character kept talking about the awful thing her ex had done in New York and dragged this out for a good fifth of the book before telling us what had happened. And that thing didn't make me hate the ex like it was apparently supposed to. (It was one of a series of things that together are bad, but by itself? Not so awful really.)

I'll admit the book and I started out on a bad foot because "I'm a REAL witch! Who lives in Salem!" just irks me. Likewise, "I'm a REAL witch! Who works in a store selling things to silly non-real witches!" annoys me.

The ending was so thrilling that I was called away from the book halfway through it and forgot I hadn't actually finished reading the book yet.

There were multiple places where I was like, "Why are they doing that? Oh, right. Plot progression," as though the characters were aware they were in a novel so did things that they had no reason to be doing just to move things along.

It's been a few weeks since I finished this book and I can hardly remember anything about the characters. I dimly recall there was a love interest, but the romantic arc left no lasting impression.

This is one of those books that makes me sad because I wanted it to be awesome. Was it as bad as I'm remembering? Probably not? I mean, I finished it. Eventually. But I'm not anxious to get my hands on the promised sequel.

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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.

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Notes

The description states the MC, Hannah, is a witch "but not the type you think" and goes on to explain she does serious magic. But ... If I meet someone who introduces themselves as a witch, I assume neo-pagan, yes. But if a book character is described as a witch, I assume we are talking about Bewitched-style possession of powers and not alluding to her religion.

5% I'm not sure why Hannah is so sure she isn't bi. She apparently didn't know she was into chicks until about a year ago, so did she think she was ace or what?

9% There's a really large and a bit confusing amount of backstory here. This really feels like the third book in a series. Book 1 introduced the series and hooked Hannah up with Veronica. Book 2 was about whatever the hell happened with the blood witch in NY, ending with the girls breaking up. And now we're here. Yet this is listed as the author's first published work. I guess it's supposed to be mysterious and compel you to read on and figure out what happened, but it's just really annoying me.

11% I find it difficult to take Hannah's side in this disagreement with Veronica when we haven't been told what Veronica supposedly did.

16% So, I understand a little more about the breakup. Apparently Veronica was always dominant and selfish and the New York incident was just the example with the most obviously dire consequence. (Hannah nearly got murdered as a consequence, although I'm not so certain it wouldn't have happened anyway.) That Veronica didn't try to apologize or even acknowledge this is a mark against her. Nor did she challenge the statements. She just kept saying she wants to get back together without making any claims that it would be different. In fact, she seems convinced things would be exactly the same.

26% Ok... Morgan is interesting. I'm guessing her family is blood witches.

33% I can't think of any reason for Detective Archer to think Hannah started the house fire other than her being taken to the station progresses the plot.

52% No way would I even consider leaving my underpowered teenager home alone the day after another kid in my coven was attacked by a witch hunter. I'm not sure I'd be willing to be in my house at all. This person knew where the friend lived and someone has thrown a rock through the window. Once again people are doing something where the only motive could possibly be the plot progression.

53% I'm think Benton is the witch hunter. He didn't throw the brick, clearly, but he did take the note off it. And whoever it is recognized Hannah. But that would mean the witch hunter didn't set the fire. At least not on purpose... Maybe he was the target of Morgan's parents, who are actually council witches?

54% Oh, that's right. Benton has a mysterious new tattoo he never got a chance to explain... Yeah, that sounds like a witch hunter thing to me.

63% If the detective is a witch, I'm even less sure why he'd think Hannah started the fire earlier or had something to do with the racoon.

64% um..  I'm pretty sure your don't spend a day unconscious in the hospital and then get released without a heck of a lot of ado.

81% I'm surprised the hospital staff would tell a minor this much.  I feel they would have said, "Your dad is alive and we'll tell your mom more when she gets here."

81% Morgan's a witch! Yay! A blood witch! (I called it!) I'm going to go with an assertion that they aren't all evil.

83% The witch hunter is here because if Morgan's family? I should have figured that out since I thought she was a witch... Although that would take the Halls off the hook and I'm not sure they aren't involved.

86% The detective has an assistant. I'm guessing it's Cal.

87% And now we have to wonder whether what Morgan did actually caused harm... Maybe she broke up a blood clot. Or maybe she formed one. Why is Hannah not wondering about this?

90% Witch Hunter dude has the same tattoo as our friend Benton. Who would have thought? (Other than me?) Still not sold he started the fire he nearly died in though. How confident was he someone would save him? Or was that just when he realized they were witches and someone else started it?

95% And they're saved by the grownups? Really? That's disappointing.

96% Yep, Cal's the detective's assistant.

96% And I officially feel asleep midday partway through the resolution. That's not a good sign... Then I went the test of the day forgetting that I hadn't actually finished the book.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

BINGO LOVE by Tee Franklin


Rating: A dagger of emotion straight to your heart

Highlight of note: I cried all the way through this book and loved every second of it.

Will you read more by this author? Yes!

Hazel met the love of her life in a bingo hall during middle school and they fell hard and fast for each other. There was just one problem. This was the 1960's and they were both girls.

When their homophobic families force them apart and influence them to marry men, the girls start on decades of separation. But then one day, now grandmothers, they walk into the same bingo hall and realize they never got over each other.

This romance is beautiful. And heartbreaking. And sweet. And happy. And gutting. It hits hard and keeps hitting until the very end.

If this had been prose, it might have seemed long and melodramatic. However, it's a graphic novel, which allows us to cover huge amounts of plot in a swift fashion that never drags.

I'll freely admit I don't know how to judge artwork, so all I can say is that the style of drawing in this novel worked well for me. The colors are bold and the lines have a curviness I enjoy. Although it's the plot and characters I'm left reeling over, the artwork enhanced the experience.

Overall, I can't recommend this work enough.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

STRANGE GRACE by Trisha Gratton


Rating: A gorgeously bejeweled dagger and a milkshake with three straws

Highlight of note: This is the story of a boy and the girl he loves. And the boy they both love. Believe it or not, this is only the second novel I have ever come across that portrays a polyamorous triad in a positive light. (Feel free to recommend others!)

Will you read more by this author? Absolutely. Although I don't think the others are poly books.

We start off with a town where everything is idyllic. The weather is perfect for crops, wounds heal overnight, no one ever gets sick, and all pregnancies go well. There's a price for this, of course. Every seven years a young man is sent into the forest and only occasionally does he survive meeting with the demon therein.

It's a trope I've seen before, an ancient story archetype, although I'm stumped on remembering the name for it.

The curse gets triggered earlier than expected. A horse is sick, there's a blight in the wheat field, and a child is born premature. Sure enough, the blood tree turns read to signal it's time for a new sacrifice. Three teens now come together to work out why the sacrifice is being called for early and to try to save the boy who "wins" the right to enter the forest under the full moon.

I'm gonna get a tad spoilery now, so you might want to skip the rest and just go read this book. The writing is almost lyrical, the plot is captivating, the characters are detailed, and although it's a little on the dark side, the gore and violence are actually pretty lowkey.



Okay.... Spoilery talk in...

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Our leads are the daughter of the local witch, the boy so wonderful everyone has been certain he will be the next sacrifice for years, and an angry hunter who was raised as a girl for the first years of his life because his mother didn't want him in the running for death-by-demon. The cover copy didn't present this as a romance, but it very much is. It's a love triangle, but an actual triangle and not the v's people call love triangles. My first hint that this was more than it seemed was when Rhun thinks of Mairwyn and describes her as "the person he loves who he is allowed to love." My eyes went wide and I may have shrieked happily over the implication that he loved more than one person and that's there's something others consider unsuitable about the other one. It's obvious from soon thereafter that Mairwyn knows her boyfriend is into their mutual friend and is absolutely cool with it, perhaps because she also loves the other object of his affections.

I was scared for a little that this was going to be a "gay boy tries to force himself to love a girl because he's scared of being out in a middle ages society and winds up hurting people" story, but was very happy to be wrong about that. He absolutely does love and is attracted to Mairwyn. He just also loves and is attracted to Arthur.

I'm not going to tell you if the story goes so far as to allow all of them to survive and live together happily ever after, but I did want to confirm that this is a positive polyamory novel and I will say I found their end state quite satisfactory.

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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.

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Notes

5% Mairwen is the person Rhun loves who he is allowed to love. So he loves someone else he's not allowed to love? That's interesting. I wonder if it's the other boy in their group.

6% Arthur doesnt know if he's in love with Mairwen or if he wants to set her on fire. Lol.

6% Yeah, Rhun and Arthur definitely have a romantic history

10% The Lord answers his own door? Curious. Also, he seems strangely attached to Mairwen.

15% Mairwen refuses to love Arthur because of Rhun... If this doesn't turn out to be a triad romance, it's missed an excellent chance at polyamorous representation.

27% Mairwen throws herself at Rhun and he doesnt want to have sex because Arthur isn't there. And says he wouldn't want Arthur without her. 

37% With all the emphasis on life, death, and the breath between, it makes a lot of sense for all three of our triad to go into the wood to rework the magic.

41% The final hour already? They're not spending nearly as many words in the forest as I'd figured they would. I wonder what aftermath the second half of the book.

42% The demon ties a boy to the tree.... But then both the boys who went in come out. Followed by Mair, who isn't alone. Who did she bring out? A previous Saint? The demon? The original Grace witch?

59% I love the image of the three of them holding hands in a circle.

60% Is the lord really getting younger or was that Rhun's perception? It seems someone else had commented recently in him seeming young even before the group went into the forest.

62% Mair is returning to the forest without any of the boys? That doesn't seem wise.

63% The old god left and then the boys started being sacrificed... I'm wondering where the Lord of the valley fits into all of this. Could he be descended from (or actually) the original forest god?

65% All this with Mair kissing the saint/devil makes me wonder if this is a triad story or a wider polyamorous tale.

66% It's interesting that the first ordeal seems to have made Arthur more mellow like Rhun and Rhun more tense and angry like Arthur. The boys have both described Mair as having grown into her true self but I wonder if they have as well.

68% I don't know why this just hit me, but shouldn't Mair have grandparents? Why no mention of them? Especially her maternal grandmother, who would have been a Grace Witch... How old is her mother?

73% The triad sleeping together scene is really sweet.

77% Mair's mom is bi. Interesting. I still want to know why her parents aren't around. Is she older than indicated? She almost has to be since people don't die young here.

77% Mairwen's father is in the door? HE'S NOT DEAD?! Hetty screamed... Is he the true devil or the Saint we thought was her father?

80% I'm worried about all these evil forest creatures merrily traipsing after Arthur as he goes to kill the tree...

82% And the Lord is missing one scene after the devil says he's back in the forest...

83% Yep, the Lord is the devil. And Mair's father, judging by the portrait of her as a girl in his house and how fond of her he's always seemed.

99% A lovely ending! Mairwen is a goddess. Or a demon, depending on how you look at it. And our triad is happy and together. Yay!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

HOT DOG GIRLl by Jennifer Dugan

Rating: A glittery carousel horse

Highlight of note: The main character is a bisexual in a hotdog costume at a low-end theme park. What more hook do you need?

Will you read more by this author? Probably. Her earlier works are comics and have an odder vibe (they apparently start with the rather cliched dream-lover-is-real concept) but are still LGBTQ (the lover the MC shares dreams with is nonbinary) and I liked her style, so I'm willing to check them out when I get time. I put them on my "Want to Read" shelf on Goodreads.

If you look at the cover of this book, it was obviously something I would have been willing to read as soon as I saw it. I mean, that image! Poor girl in the hot dog suit! I needed to know more!

I'm pretty sure I saw this book on an LGBTQ recomendations list, but I'd forgotten that by the time I actually got to read it. Consequently, while I knew the best friend character was sapphic, I didn't realize the main character was bi until about a quarter of the way through. Up til then she'd been pretty focused on the crush she had on the diving pirate guy who was dating the park Princess, only mentioning exes and never discussing names or using pronouns for them. (We'll ignore for a second what it says that a panromantic such as myself was assuming heterosexuality in a character...)

This book seems like it would be predictable, but I was actually uncertain who Hot Dog Girl was going to end up with for much of the story. I assumed at first that the crush would be an ass and there was another love interest, but when he turned out to be a great guy, I thought maybe it was just a "hooking up with your crush" book and the main conflict was from other aspects of growing up and dealing with impermanence. But then I learned the MC was bi and suddenly started wondering about some of the sapphic best friend's attitudes, especially when a "Let's fake date to make him jealous!" plot was hatched about a third of the way in. Was this a "Grabbing your crush" book after all or a "hooking up with you best friend / ending up with the person you fake date" book? It really could have gone either way for most of the story. I won't tell you which one it is, but I will tell you I was absolutely happy with the ending. The couple goes into a happy zone and the person Hot Dog Girl doesn't end up with is also in a pretty good place.

The book is mostly about changes and how to accept them. This is brought about by the closing of the amusement park. The teen workers are upset, especially our main character, who has abandonment issues thanks to her mom leaving when she was young and who consequently views the park as a more stable place than her home. She launches into a drive to save the place, dragging the other characters along with her enthusiasm even though the park owner isn't interested in keeping the place open no matter how much money she raises.

The main character is sometimes clueless and sometimes rash, but she's convincing as a teenager whose passions sometimes kick in before her logic. The rest of the cast is likewise realistic, relatable, and likeable.

Overall, this is a fun book that leaves the reader with a happy fuzzy feeling, so I highly recommend it to those who like contemporary YA romances.


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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.

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Notes

6% I'm not sure I'm sold on Eloise's obsession with a guy who's into someone else, but I'm loving that his car broke down in the rain and she rescued him.

9% A tragic backstory involving the MC's mother. Sigh.

19% Heat stroke during a job that would be a nightmare for me. I feel much sympathy.

25% Everyone is doofy, straight, or in love with her friend? Is Lou into girls? The only person she's named herself as being interested in is the one guy, but she could totally be bi...

27% Hmm. Lou took a class because a girl she liked was in it. I guess she is bi.

30% Oh, dear. So Lou's fake dating her best friend to make a guy jealous. And presumably the bff is going to go along with it to give her an excuse not to date the girl she went out with last night? Who will probably be all hurt but also confused because Lou's the one who set them up.

31% I'm really happy bff isn't wanting to go along with this horrible (and cliched) idea. Although I'm kinda starting to hope she's pissed because she'd rather date Lou for real... And Lou has repeatedly described Seeley as attractive... So BFF could actually be the love interest...

41% Yeah, I don't know there's a way to convince a guy to keep a business he doesn't want going. They could maybe become a co-op? But who would run it? I don't see things going well in the save-the-park arc.

41% Whoa. The yelling at her dad here is so seriously uncool. At least she figured that out as soon as she'd said the hateful things.

43% Yeah, I think the tension with Seeley could be romantic...

47% Elouise still hasn't asked Mr P WHY he's closing the park...

49% I can't help but think that a GoFundMe to help Mr P would do better if we had any idea what his actual problem is...

58% I can see how all of Seeley's talk that people see and value Eloise could be seen as just being a friend, but it really seems love-interest level of passionate.

59% And we have confirmation that Nick's girlfriend is cheating on him. ... I'm really liking Nick, but I'm not so sure about Lou ending up with him. I really do want her with Seeley.

62% Yeah, I officially feel bad for Ari. The girl he's been into for five years is finally willing to kiss him, but is officially dating someone else. Apparently has something to do with her whackjob mom. So he gets to watch her being all cute with this other guy while not being able to acknowledge him.

68% "If he's your Seeley, you should be with him." Uh huh. Apply that to yourself, please, Louise.

72% Yeah, it's starting to be implausible that Lou doesn't realize she's into Seeley in a girlfriend kind of way.

73% Okay, after a kiss like THAT she's gotta figure this out.

83% And she's finally talking to Mr P! And lo he is closing the park for personal reasons and not because he needs money. And lo the microchip plant would provide more energy to the local economy than his theme park.

90% That's a pretty good apology.

93% I'll take all this making out at the apology being accepted. :)

100% The end

Everything ties up pretty well with lots of cute happiness. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

THROUGH THE WHITE WOOD by Jessica Leake

Rating: A large scoop of gourmet vanilla bean ice cream in a waffle cone

Highlight of note: The main character freezes things, something I liked well before Elsa ever appeared. :) And she's followed around by a remarkably intelligent eagle, which is just nifty. Not as good as being followed by a dragon, sure, but still interesting.


Will you read more by this author? Most likely, yes. There is a previous work that centered around two of the secondary characters in this book that is on my to-be-read list.

This is another fantasy set in a historical Russia. It seems like there have been a fair number of these recently. In this case, the time is approximately a thousand years ago and the place mostly Kiev.

The action starts with our main character, Katya, tied up by her village. The local prince's representatives sweep in and whisk her away to the capital. Despite the fact that they treat her very nicely, even to the point of welcoming the eagle who always follows her around, she assumes she's be taken to her execution. Why execute her? She has magic powers, the power to turn things to ice. It's soon revealed she has used this power on people in her village, so execution would seem fitting if one believed she was truly in control of her power and knew what she was doing. But she wasn't and she didn't.

At this point, I rather wished I hadn't read the description of the book because I would have had no idea where things were going. So in that spirit, I will go ahead and tell you that I recommend this book. The writing is lush and engaging, the characters likable and strong, and the plot engaging. If you want to start it with no spoilers at all, I wouldn't blame you for ignoring the rest of this write-up and finding a copy without knowing anything else.

So... Let's get a little more spoilery....

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Okay. They're not leading her to her execution. Which you probably guessed because that would make this book really short considering that our MC is also a first person narrator. The people who were sent after her are knights in the prince's court. They can't freeze things, but they have their own magic powers and are tasked with helping her to understand and control hers. One of them can travel through shadows. One can block magic users from their powers. One can manipulate plants. Eventually, we meet people who can control earth and fire.

The knights are detailed characters and their interactions with each other, the prince, and Katya all seem very genuine. The prince is intriguing and I found myself really pulling for him and understanding why the others follow him. Katya herself is also likable and plagued by personal mysteries that I found myself intrigued by, even though a few of the answers were obvious to me well before she figured them out.

The romantic arc was cute and heartfelt. Was it realistic? Depends on what you mean by that. But it played out well I thought.

The conclusion was satisfactory. It was solid enough to make this very much a stand alone novel, but leaves plenty of opportunity for a sequel. The fact that we saw characters from one of Leake's previous works in this one makes me suspect we may see more of Katya even if she isn't the star of another book.

I did find the villains to be a little too simplistic, which I think may be what made this a book I liked rather than a book I loved. I would have loved to have seen better motives out of them and more conflict with the character who was once close to the prince but betrayed him.

Overall, I found Through the White Wood enjoyable and will be looking for other works by Leake.

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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.

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Notes
6% I really like this bird. The only way to make her more awesome would be to turn her into a dragon

8% I really wish I hadn't read the cover copy and this didn't know this mysterious prince has similar powers to Katya. It would add a bit more suspense not to know that 

18% Whoever selected these tapestries was certainly morbid.

22% Keeping birds of prey on hoods all the time has always struck me as cruel. That puts a damper on this scene, which I assume is meant to humanize the prince by showing him caring about his birds.

28% So fire and ice must work together to save the land. I'm guessing the prince is a fire elemental.

32% Yep, the prince wields fire.

34% This secret exit, which is presumedly also an entrance, does not seem at all secure.

38% The destruction of the village is really gory. Also, our girl should have stolen a horse. Or, hell, asked for one. The prince was begging her to fight these invaders, so he would presumedly have helped.

44% How does this party not have a healer? I mean, I guess maybe the healers died, but they should have been keeping to the back. And, really, shouldn't most of the soldiers have basic first aid if not something better? And shouldn't there be a pack of clean strips for wounds even if the healer did die? These people seem very poorly prepared for arm conflict considering that they were riding out because of an invasion force.

45% I had assumed that Gosudar was a title or honorific people used for addressing the prince, but now they're using it as though it's his name. As in, "Take this to Gosudar." The absence of an article there is confusing me. Google says the word is Russian for prince, so it doesn't seem likely that it really is his name, but then shouldn't people be saying THE gosudar?

 47% The prince's name is Alexander. And Grigori isn't just a jerk but actively a bad guy.

54% All this talk of never seeing someone transform into an animal combined with the disclosure that Katya has never seen Elation poo had me convinced the bird isn't really a bird. But it she Katya's mother, her father, or someone else?

63% So... Elation may be her dad. Because apparently Spring could not return his human life and that he's a shadow of what he was and being a bird of prey would fit that.

72% Everytime Katya talks about riding with Elation on her arm, I wonder how hard that is. Just holding your arm out for more than a hours would be really hard, but with an eagle on it? That seems extreme.

75% The Emperesses are pretty dang hurtful. I don't know they really think Sasha killed his folks, though. I suspect they just want an excuse to brush him off.

78% There's something really sexy about the prince's new power.

83% Nice battle scene. Nicer kiss.

85% Elation is male and had more advanced thoughts than animals ever do. So, yeah, pretty sure he's Katya's dad.

86% Yep, confirmed by mindmeld.

THE END
I'm not sure why Katya even tried to leave without Sasha. He knew where she was going and would obviously have followed her. 

The ending is sweet. And solid enough that it doesn't require a sequel while being open to one.

Monday, May 20, 2019

THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN by Roshani Chokshi


Rating: A tiara decorated with constellations

Highlight of note: This is a fantasy inspired by Hindu myth. I've always thought there should be more of those.

Second Highlight: There's a demon horse that goes around asking to nom on people the way regular horses look for apples and sugar cubes. I simply adored her.

Will you read more by this author? Yes! In fact, the companion novel to this one is on my To Be Read List already.

(Note: I had thought I wrote about another novel by Ms Chokshi, The Gilded Wolves, when I read and loved it, but apparently that was just before I started this blog rather than just after. It was a magical realism set in 1800's Europe and I highly recommend it.)


Maya was born with a horoscope that said her marriage was linked with death. You might think that would mean she'd never be married. And it did for many years, but then her father, the local raja, decides it's politically important to hold a wedding. He's going to hold a big ceremony with a long list of potential husbands appearing. Maya will get to pick one. Which is better than any of her sisters were afforded as their marriages were completely arranged.

At the wedding, an unexpected suitor appears. As violence breaks out, Maya chooses the mysterious stranger, Amar, and is whisked away to another realm. He tells her that due to some magic regarding the phase of the moon, he can't tell her who he is or give her any of the details about his country. She's not happy about this, but his throat visibly seizes up when he says too much, so there doesn't seem to be much to do about it.

Over the next month, the couple grows to know one another, but a mysterious voice seeds doubts about her husband's goodness in Maya's mind. Is it possible that she is but one in a series of doomed brides? Could this be a Vedic version of the story of Bluebeard?

The setting is the ancient India of myth, and I cannot express how happy I was to see that. Hindu mythology is fascinating to me and is rife with amazing stories, characters, and mythic beings. It is, honestly, a setting I would love to write in if it didn't feel like cultural appropriation, so I'm obviously happy to read things set here.

Maya is highly likable, as is Amar. In fact, I almost found Amar too likable because when Maya started to doubt him, I didn't share her concerns. In fact, I spent quite a bit of time silently lecturing her for acting like a silly twit. Also, I felt she acted a bit too much like a twenty-first century girl dropped into an ancient epic rather than someone who grew up being treated like property and led to expect constant disrespect from men.

The villain of the piece is, to me, the weakest point. Quite frankly, I found their motivation to be flimsy and boil down to "Something bad happened and drove me insane for revenge on the person I image wronged me." But it worked alright within the context of myth, as the bad guys in mythology are frequently ruled by such motives.

And the story moves along well. It's adventurous and fun and frequently funny. The conclusion is both emotionally satisfying and solid. Maya's story is over now and the sequel is about her sister rather than her.

Overall, it was a highly enjoyable book and I look forward to reading more from the author.


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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.

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Notes
3% Maya's shadow is missing. That's interesting. Although she seems to find it merely odd rather than incredibly freaky.

7% I'm a little confused that Maya's to be married for political reasons but gets to pick who to. Presumedly who of a preselection, but who did the preselecting?

8% I have no idea where she's thinking to run away to... This doesn't seem like a great time/place to be a young single woman.

13% Locked up and now told to poison herself. And seeing demons. This is fun.

15% I am incredibly intrigued as to who/what Amar is. A shinagami maybe? (I'm sure there's a Hindu version of those.)

20% I'm now sure why she hasn't pegged Amar's kingdom as death. He's a guardian who most people think take things and you get to his kingdom through the Night Bizarre just like she told her sister is how you get to the land of the dead. (Yes, she made that up, but other things she made up have been proven true so it's more like she just knows things.) AND she was prophesied to marry death. Or that her marriage would lead to death or something like that. Seems logical to assume her husband is the lord of death.

20% Although I do wonder why he took her JUST AFTER the new moon if he can only talk about his role on that one night. Does he hope she'll react better if she's used to him before he can explain? Could he not take her to his kingdom until she was on the brink of death? (Did she actually take the poison and is actually dead without knowing it?)

22% Servant guy reminds me of Alfred from Discworld. I wonder if he's secretly human...

23% If I looked at something that was shaped like a mirror which did not show reflections, then I would call it a window and not at mirror.

24% "You look like edges and thunderstorms. And I wouldn't have you any other way." DAMN! The assertion that this guy sucks at flattery is WAY off.

34% VERY nice kissing scene.

39% I'm really not sure why Maya is so angry with Amar here.

40% I mean, really. She's apparently angry because he's kept stuff from here BUT SHE ALREADY KNEW THAT. She even knew that he CAN'T tell her everything. He has, in fact, choked trying to tell her more than he's allowed to. Not to mention the fact that he's treated her roughly a thousand times better than she had any reason to believe a husband would. So why is she trusting some stupid malicious door over him? It's even a locked door, which we have very no reason to believe aren't really dangerous like she was told they are. She's really seeming like an immature brat here. And also like a modern girl dropped into what I'm guessing is the Late Vedic Age.

41% Ok... I am officially curious who the hell Nritti is. Is she from a different thread line? Or is our narrator unreliable did to amnesia?

41% Well, she's finally seen dead people. Will this clue her in that she's in the world of death? ... Yes, she has figured it out. Akaran is Naraka. Not a very clever means of hiding a name. I expect Amar honestly thinks of it backwards. Or maybe the humans write is backwards to avoid bad luck or somesuch.

42% Ok, she's figured out Amar is Death. I still don't think he's betrayed anything since HE IS PHYSICALLY UNABLE TO EXPLAIN YET. Unless he could have taken her on the new moon and deliberately waited to manipulate her, I'm still not sure what she thinks he's done wrong. (Unless maybe he forced her to forget her friend/sister/lover/whoever.) And why does she assume Death is evil?

45% I don't trust Nritti at all. I think the other woman was in Maya's memories because that was her previous incarnation. I think Maya is buying all of this insistence that's she's one of hundreds and not important because she's afraid it's true.

46% Surely if Amar was tricking Maya into thinking she had power he would have told her she had power early on rather than waiting for her to discover it herself. I repeat that I really don't trust Nritti. I think she was the scary voice from early on and that she's a threat. She admits she's an aspara, which doesn't seem like something particularly trustworthy.

47% Hmmm.  Okay, so Gumpta saying "Now that she's here, you can get rid of her like you've always wanted," does sound ominous unless he means two different she's. As in, "Now that Maya is here, you can get rid of Nritti like you always wanted."

48% Amar refuses to have sex with Maya until she knows everything. This is not the mark of someone running a con or trying to hurt her.

50% Yeah... I was right. Amar adored her and was keeping secrets because of a divine limitation. (Not waiting for the new moon, waiting for sixty moons to pass in the human world. Still, something he had no choice about because he would have told her immediately if it wouldn't have killed her.) Maya is the reincarnation of his wife. And Nritti is Bad News. Maya's seriously messed things up.

6?% Kamala saying she wants to eat anyone who upsets Maya is just really sweet.

78% So distrusting Amar is something she did in her last life too. I thought you were supposed to learn as you went through lives, but I guess that only works when you remember them 


82% THE END
It's a good ending. Very sweet. Especially Kamala saying she won't eat anyone if she's allowed to stay. But why are we still at 82%?

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

SISTERS OF THE WINTER WOOD by Rena Rossner



Rating: A loaf of fresh challah bread

Highlight of note: Jewish shapeshifters. Need I say more?

Will you read more by this author? Absolutely!

Warning: The main characters face a lot of antisemitism, the depiction of which is vital to the plot but which may be disturbing to some readers.


It's been a while since I finished this book and I'm not sure why I took so long to sit down to review it. I think part of what happened was that the day after I finished reading, while my mind was composing something that would discuss the irrational hatred the Jewish characters in this book face, a man walked into a synagogue and attacked the people worshipping there, very much bringing hope the heartbreaking and infuriating fact that the world is still full of dangers for those of Jewish persuasion.

Clearly, the faith of the main characters is part of what is sticking with me about this book. I felt Judaism was portrayed in a loving light, which is appropriate as the author is herself Jewish. I was reminded more than a bit of Niomi Novik, who also writes strong Jewish leads in magic-touched historic European settings. It makes me happy to see an uptick in this sort of Jewish magical realism.

The tale is told in alternating chapters by two sisters, one of whom inherited her their father's ability to shift into the form of a bear and the other of which takes after their mother and can become a swan. The swan-sister's chapters are told in poetry, which makes it really easy to see who is speaking when.

Early in the story, the sister's parents are called away to another town. Lacking travel permits means that the journey is inherently dangerous, so they leave the children at home. Almost immediately, both of the girls are thrust into romantic arcs. The bear-sister is courted by a boy who is properly Jewish but of whom she doesn't think her father will approve while the swan-sister becomes involved with a mysterious fruit seller. Despite the horrible antisemitic things the fruit seller and his brothers say, the girl becomes obsessed with him to a degree that is clearly unnatural.

I found both sisters to be well portrayed and sympathetic. I really liked the character of Dovid, the bear-sister's love interest, who was very supportive and understanding. The swan-sister did a few things that didn't make much sense, but it's easy to explain them with the magic that was clearly going on the entire time.

The plot was engaging and ended in a satisfactory way. I did feel the ending was a little open for something that doesn't seem like it would have a sequel, but it wasn't upsettingly so. It was more in a way that makes it clear life is going to continue and lets you decide how that will happen yourself.

The antisemitism goes beyond unkind words. The Jewish characters are actively targeted by multiple people in multiple situations due entirely to their religion. It's alarming, to say the least, but most certainly an accurate portrayal of history. And, as we saw this Passover, of the present. I don't feel that the book dwelled overly much on these issues though, but rather treated them as something that the characters were forced to accept and live around. 

All in all, I recommend this book to people who enjoy a good historical setting for fantasy tales. The only thing I would change would be to put the guide to Yiddish at the front of the book rather than the back as there were multiple words I couldn't get from context and felt compelled to google as I didn't realize there was a glossary in the book.

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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.

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Notes
2% I liked the opening about the cemetery. It was a nice piece of mood setting. Not sure about the second chapter. Is everything from Laya's viewpoint going to be poetry?

8% Whoa. Their mother is a were-swan? That's cool. And their daddy is a bear! Even cooler! I had thought it was the converted-to-Judiasm thing his family was being snoby about, but apparently she's the wrong kind of shifter.

12% I don't like this "he's not your real father" wording. He raised her and clearly loves her. She's his daughter. He just wasn't the one who sired her.

28% I wonder why the otherworldly fruit sellers care of girls are Jewish or not.

31% It's the next day? Did Dovid come over or not? Why isn't this established in the opening paragraph?

42% I really want to know who/what these fruit sellers boys are. Golblins maybe? They remind me of goblins from another book I read recently.

48% I'm curious about the bear that came into the house. Could he be tryings tonpqrotect the girls while their parents are away or is he a threat?

51% the swan's shadow breaks the illusion. Interesting. Too bad Laya's too far gone to notice. I wonder why the swan doesn't interfere more.

55% Laya's realizing the fruit boy doesn't love her. That's good. Will it lead to her seeing through the enchantment?

56% Is this vision in Laya's head or really happening? Is this young male swan her mate?
... I'm going to go with it was in her head but the male swan is real.

59% I really do wonder what's up with the fruit boy's antisemitism. Perhaps Jewish people have special powers they can use against whatever these guys are? Wouldn't that be cool? Special Jewish anti-goblin magic?

59% Fedir will help her? Really? He doesn't seem to want his brothers to know he said that, so maybe? He does seem sad, presumedly about Laya.

62% Holy shit. Fedir turned into a cat. I did not expect that.

63% Koroleva? Google says that's a name. Does Laya have a different name in Swan?

67% Ok, I can get why no one's thinking, "This is the work of vampire cats!" But how are the justifying thinking it's a bear?

77% The cat shifters don't just hate Jews; they hate humans. I didn't actually expect they were trying to get humans to destroy themselves.

82% "In general, I find that when you want to get to know a girl, it's best not to kidnap her first." Excellent observation.

85% Huh. I guess Fedir really does love Laya.

88% So Fedir died because he let Laya go? Whoa.

89% And the parents are suddenly back! Yay?

90% Wow. The genocide has started. :(

94% I wish we'd gotten to know Sasha better.

95% THE END
I'm curious how the Rebbe is going to react to Dovid, but I guess he already didn't kick the boy out of the house during all this resolution.

I'm worried about where things left off, but I guess it's a good enough stopping point. I would have liked a last poem from Laya, perhaps in America or at her wedding.


AUTHORS'S NOTE: The afterword is interesting and provides historical context. Apparently not only is the town, Dubossary, real, but the Christian kids who died were too and one of them was drained of blood before being left in a fruit orchard. Apparently Jews were blamed because of a belief that they use goy blood in matza. (WTF? How could anyone believe that?) The local Jewish community successfully fought off a murderous mob, but in several twins nearby the Jewish communities were slaughtered.

35 years later, the Nazis arrived and slaughtered the entire Jewish population of Dubossary. All six thousand of them.

The author mentions this because she didn't chose her setting at random. This is where her family was from. Her great-uncle immagrated to try US in 1905 and convinced most of his family to join him, including the author's grandfather.


...And then there's a Yiddish guide that I rather wish had been linked from the words used in the novel. Most of the usage was followable by context, but there were a few u wanted defined and wound up googling since the onboard dictionary didn't know them.