fantasy, fiction, Review

Review – Once Upon a River

A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.
Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.
Is it a miracle?
Is it magic?
Or can it be explained by science? – Goodreads

This book had a lot of things that I knew I would love if got right, and hate if got wrong. Murder mystery – check. Historical – check. Just enough fantasy to make you question things – check. These things Once Upon a River got right, it was a few of the other things it didn’t do as great. There were highs, and there were lows – like a river. The pace was slow and steady that could bore people as it meanders and lose them before it speeds up – like a river. There is a lot of a river metaphors (there’s a whole sex scene of them, more on that).

First, what I did love. The main plot. The central driving force of the narrative is the mystery surrounding a little girl who was found dead, but later revealed to actually be alive and who no one can figure out for sure where she came from and who she belongs to. Complicating matters is the fact there’s three families with missing little girls in the area whom she could belong to – The Vaughns, The Armstrongs, or Lily White. I loved the interactions surrounding this plot, the tension and awkwardness. I loved the settle hints of fantasy that crept into the plot the further it went on. I also really enjoyed how it was like the central tributary from which all the subplots sprung and then formed back together again. Seeing how the plot worked out and fit together was just as fun for me as it being resolved.

In terms of the characters themselves; Mrs. Vaughn’s reaction to the found little girl and her husband’s were particularly interesting to read about (In that they drove me mad, but I wanted to read more). I also loved the character of Robert Armstrong, the animal loving son of a black servant and a member of nobility. I would have loved to have kept with his story line more, but understandably he wasn’t intended to be a major character (still did not stop me from picturing him as Idris Elba and I think that’s a contributing factor as to why I wanted him to be in the book more).

There are a lot of characters and moving players in this book to keep track of. It wasn’t that I was getting them confused, it was because there were such long periods in the book between their mentions that I was forgetting who they were. Major reveals weren’t as impactful because I forgot that was supposed to be a name I was supposed to know and be shocked by. The book does get credit for this, however. I’m normally really good at keeping characters in line (I scoff at people who say there’s too many characters in A Song of Ice and Fire; come on people there’s multiple family trees you could use in the back).

Two characters that I felt I was supposed to like and be rooting for were the nurse Rita and the photographer Daunt. I just didn’t care about them. I would have liked to know more about Daunt and explore areas that weren’t romantic, but he sort of slipped into the role of romantic lead to Rita’s opposite and from then on that’s what his plot revolved around. Also, Rita’s characterization felt odd to me, she was presented one way and then drastically shifted to acting another with no real explanation for it other than Daunt was around now. On their own I really enjoyed both characters, but the fact that their stories seemed to divulge into just being about their romance turned me off.

Also they both seemed weirdly invested with this child and there was never any explanation, even fantastical, given as to why. I can easily put together my estimation as to why their story line resolved the way it did, but I would have preferred the author to shed a little light on it. This is especially in regard to Rita who throughout the book expresses not only a disinterest in giving birth but also a fear of it, then suddenly is in dire need of wanting a child. If her fairytale ending is that she realized she really wanted a child after all after just holding one, I’m even more disappointed than originally.

Taking Daunt and Rita out, I thoroughly enjoyed how the book ended. At the start and throughout the book the narrator presents the novel as a fairytale. Like one of the stories the regulars would give in the Swan (the pub featured heavily in the book). I have a weakness for books that present like this, to be honest. As I mentioned, there’s just enough fantasy for the story to seem like an exaggeration (if you believe it or not) and the end follows along like the ending of a storybook, pulling the threads together in a neat little bow.

Title: Once Upon a River
Author:  Diane Setterfield
Page #: 464
Published: Dec 2018
Goodreads: Here
My Rating:  ★★★★ /5
Suggested Reading:  Big Fish by Daniel Wallace; Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

fantasy, historical fiction, Review

Review – The Sisters of the Winter Wood

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. – Goodreads

I absolutely loved this novel. I didn’t even realize I was devouring it until I was half way through and realized how fast I was taking it in. In the most simple terms I would describe this book as beautiful. Love runs all through this book, not just between the characters, but from the author. You can tell when an author genuinely loves what they’re writing, the care they take in research, the thought they put behind actions. You can tell that Rossner loved this story and these characters and it was a joy to read.

Liba and Laya are presented as the typical polar opposite sisters that fiction loves (one blonde, one brunette; honestly what else do you need to know), but they rarely fall into the trap of being at odds with one another over it. Every other chapter is written from the perspective of one of the sisters, back and forth and back again. Rossner gives herself the added task of writing all of Laya’s chapters in poetic verse form. While jarring at first, the different writing structures only enhance the differences between sisters and cements them in the readers mind – Liba’s prose is formal and traditional, Laya’s is flowing and rhythmic. The different structures are indicative of the sisters’ personalities and only helps the reader to keep the distinctions between them. Another beautiful choice in this already beautiful book (and something I have never seen before.)

The sisters’ love for one another is the driving force behind the narrative. There are love interests and obstacles, but through it it all it’s the sisters’ drive to protect one another and do good for the other that’s really the focus of the story. I suppose it’s a bit like Frozen in that regard, but with a lot more bears and less of those rock-troll guys.

History is another major factor in this novel. In the afterword Rossner goes into her research and inspiration for the story, not only from a historical perspective but also a mythological one. The major historical plot of the town in the story is based on true events that took place in the early 1900’s. Part of the sisters’ personal story is based on the author’s own family history. Many of the words and sayings presented by the characters are in Hebrew or Yiddish (and thankfully translated in the back of the book). Rossner also pulled from various fairy tales and folktales. Symbolism also played a key role.

The plot seemed shaky at first, like it was in a rush to get going, but soon it calmed to a steady pace. Characters seemed rational, and not forced into decisions nor do they lack basic communication skills just to case drama. The atmosphere was very reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm, not just their fairy tales but also the 2005 movie (starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger).  A small eastern european town whose young people are being attacked by something mysterious in the woods, that just so happened to appear right after the suspicious new group of traders arrive – Jacob and Wilhelm would be right up this alley.

Very early on in the novel I was struck by the thought that this was possibly the first novel I had read where the main characters were Jewish and it did not take place during or around World War 2. The only other novel I could think of was EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED and I never finished it. This realization has made me want to read more novels of a similar breath – a people should not be fictionally confined to one era.

Title: The Sisters of the Winter Wood
Author:  Rena Rossner
Page #: 464
Published: Sept 2018
Goodreads: Here
My Rating:  ★★★★★ /5
Suggested Reading: The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden; The Gold-Son by Carrie Ann Noble;



My 2019 Reading Challenge

2018 was the year that I finally completed 52 books in 52 weeks. I had been after this goal for three years now, getting ever closer each time but not reaching it. Finally, this year – I got it. Typically, readers will up their challenge goal each year, striving to read just a little bit more than the year before. Which is why it might come as a surprise to some that my goal this year is not 55 or 60 (reasonable goals to reach once hitting the illustrious 52) but 40.

Yes, I’m going backwards in my reading goal.

While I am an ambitious person, I am also a logical one. I know my strengths and I know my limitations. I am not a fast reader, I never really have been. Plus, I have a full time job, and a handful of other hobbies that keep me from devoting more then 2 hours a day  on average to reading. Could I take a break from other hobbies and read more? Of course, but then I would only be reading for the sake of racking up a high challenge number.

That’s been a source of contention for me for a couple years now. I constantly feel like I’m in a state of needing to read more just to reach a number. I don’t take breaks between books. I strategize what I read based on how fast I can read it in. I hardly ever take time to sit and digest a book because almost as soon as I finish I have to start thinking of the next book I’m going to read.

My stack of bricks – books previously “too big” for my Goodreads Challenge.

All in the name of hitting that challenge goal number.

This also means I’ve skipped over a handful of books, time and again, because they were too big. I would want to read them, take a look at the page count and know I couldn’t do it. It would set me behind too much to be able to catch up and reach my GoodReads goal.  They would set me scrambling at the end to find comics and novellas – any quick read to get under my belt to reach the finish.

And I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to read books I want to read. I don’t want to think about how long they’re going to take me, what small books I will have to read in penance for daring to read a book over 600 pages, or how deciding to skip a day is going to set me back in my challenge.

So, I’m going backwards. I’m going into 2019 with the goal of reading 40 books, still a good amount by most people’s standards, but small enough to give me the freedom of choice. To not constantly feel like I’m in a race with the GoodReads number. But I’m still going to be challenging myself. Despite my goal being 12 less books than last year I want to read just as many pages.

Making my challenge 40 books or more with a total of 16K words or more.

Have you all set your GoodReads Reading Challenge Goal yet? How do you consider what number you ultimately end up picking?

anthology, fantasy, Review

Review – Fierce Fairytales

Traditional fairytales are rife with cliches and gender stereotypes: beautiful, silent princesses; ugly, jealous, and bitter villainesses; girls who need rescuing; and men who take all the glory.

But in this rousing new prose and poetry collection, Nikita Gill gives Once Upon a Time a much-needed modern makeover. Through her gorgeous reimagining of fairytale classics and spellbinding original tales, she dismantles the old-fashioned tropes that have been ingrained in our minds. In this book, gone are the docile women and male saviors. Instead, lines blur between heroes and villains. You will meet fearless princesses, a new kind of wolf lurking in the concrete jungle, and an independent Gretel who can bring down monsters on her own. – Goodreads

So, I haven’t been around for a month, things got busy, but I wanted to share this little book with you guys. Especially if you’re looking for a last minute holiday gift for someone, this would make a fantastic gift.

I’m not a big poetry reader, but this collection stood out to me as being right up my alley when I read the description. I definitely went into the collection as more of a fan of re-told fairytales than poetry, and left completely floored. I absolutely adored this collection an devoured it in a couple hours over the span of 2 days. I had to stop myself from reading and instead force myself to go to bed.

She didn’t reinvent the “retold fairy-tales” genre. You’ve probably seen a similar take elsewhere. What set this collection apart for me was how it was polished. The voice was clear, and strong. The point of view was accurate. Nikita knew what she wanted to say with this collection and it came through perfectly. Some of my favorite takes didn’t even have much added to them by Nikita. She merely took the store we know and forced us to look at it from another angle.

There were definite stand out sections for me. The Cinderella section has to be my favorite of all of them. The brief dive into Peter Pan was also fantastic (although I might be a bit biased towards it). Throughout the collection the stories about and by the villains were always intriguing for me. She did great to turn the perspective on it’s head without making the villains too sympathetic.

While reading this collection I was struck by the moments after I would finish a tale or poem. It was like a rock in my stomach. Not a complete punch in the gut, but something heavy that wasn’t there before. I would be so wrapped up in Nikita’s words that I wouldn’t be thinking of how the story could possibly end or twist; by the time I got to it all I could feel was “Oh”.

Her words were a rush, I loved them.

from Nikita Gill’s Instagram @nikita_gill

Title: Fierce Fairytales: Poems and Stories to Stir Your Soul
Author:  Nikita Gill
Page #: 176
Published: Sept 2018
Goodreads: Here
My Rating:  ★★★★★ /5

non fiction, reading challenge, Review, RIPChallenge

Mini-Review – Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History

Inspired by author Tori Telfer’s Jezebel column “Lady Killers,” this thrilling and entertaining compendium investigates female serial killers and their crimes through the ages.

When you think of serial killers throughout history, the names that come to mind are ones like Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy. But what about Tillie Klimek, Moulay Hassan, Kate Bender? The narrative we’re comfortable with is the one where women are the victims of violent crime, not the perpetrators. In fact, serial killers are thought to be so universally, overwhelmingly male that in 1998, FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood infamously declared in a homicide conference, “There are no female serial killers.” – Goodreads

This was such an interesting read. Anyone out there obsessed with True Crime and tired of it being a boys game definitely needs to pick this up. Tori Telfer has a tone very in line with the girls of My Favorite Murder – tongue in cheek, and empathetic where need be. What I particularly liked about this book was that despite the fact I thought I knew about and had heard about a ton of serial killers, the majority of these women I had never heard about.

Even better is that Telfer doesn’t sit still in the western hemisphere – there’s lady killers from Africa, Russia, and South America among others. There’s killer grannies & femme fatales, Countesses & brothal madams, black widows & killer sisters. There’s women who kill for money, revenge, and some who just do it for the thrill. I also adored the illustrations of each killer lady by Dame Darcy. Telfer also took the time to go into the psyche of the women and the consequences of their crimes. I also liked how she referenced similar cases to put the main one in perspective.

My only real complaints are these; I would have liked a bit more diversity in terms of weapon of choice. I know poison is typically a ‘woman’s weapon’ but I know of female serial killers who used otherwise. Additionally, I understand the tone of the book was to lean on the historical, but I would have liked one or two more recent ones.

If you pick up Lady Killers and enjoy it, the good news for you is that it doesn’t have to end – Tori Telfer has recently started a podcast “Criminal Broads” where she dives into criminal women guilty of all types crimes.

Title: Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History
Author:  Tori Telfer
Page #: 336
Published: Oct 2017
Goodreads: Here
My Rating:  ★★★★ /5
Read For: RIP XIII