Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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Favourite quotes:

“We who live forever can know no courage, nor do we love enough to give our lives”.

“All my life, I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come’. I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me”.

“They smelled the city long before they saw it, hazed as it was with the smoke of ten thousand fires, and then the brilliant domes – green and scarlet and cobalt – showed dimly through the vapor. At last they saw the city itself, lusty and squalid, like a far woman with feet caked and filth. The high golden towers rose proudly above the desperate poor, and the gold-fretted icons watched, inscrutable, while princes and farmers’ wives came to kiss their stiff faces and pray”.

 

Vasilisa, or Vasya, loves a good story, a good fairytale. Especially those her nurse Dunya tells her and her brothers on a cold winter night – which is almost every night if one lives at the edge of Russian wilderness, beyond the Arctic Circle. Her favourite is that of Morozko (Frost) – a winter demon that claims the souls of the unworthy and rewards those who display courage in the face of the lethal cold. She loves fairytales and stories because she knows them to be real. The spirits that inhibits them are real – Vasya has seen them. Others in her household might not see them, but they honour them nonetheless, despite Christianity rapidly taking over and replacing the pagan beliefs in the old gods.

Soon, however, Vasya’s harmless stories and games aren’t so harmless anymore. Some years after her mother – daughter of a vedma (witch) dies, her father goes to Moscow to introduce her brothers to the Tsar and to find himself another wife. Vasya’s new stepmother is Anna, and she sees what Vasya sees. But she is afraid. She sees the household spirits as demons, devils. Throwing herself completely into Christianity, Anna and the new priest Konstantin, sent by the Tsar to Vasya’s village, forbid the people from worshipping the old gods, honouring the old ways. Vasya is the only one who sees, who understands the disasters that are arising as a result. The weather becomes worse, the crops fail, the wolves come closer and closer to the village, and Vasya is powerless to stop it. Or is she?

Can Vasya – a fourteen-year-old maiden now – defy her stepmother and make sure that the people remember the old ways and save them? Or will Anna and Konstantin send her to convent before she manages to do anything? And what if Frost isn’t real after all and Anna’s demand for snowdrops in midwinter make Vasya freeze to death – a fate fitting for a vedma?

 

Most of you know that I have Russian family and am fluent in the language. This is why I have such ambivalent attitude towards books based on Russian culture written by non-Russian authors. Some of those authors, like Catherynne Valente, get it so right that my heart weeps with nostalgia for childhood. Others, like Leigh Bardugo in the Grisha Trilogy, are talented in their own way, but fail to grasp the nuances of the culture and the history. Thus I was apprehensive when I picked up “The Bear and the Nightingale”.

I needn’t have been.

I’ve previously made dessert analogies in relation to reading books, and I must say that reading “The Bear and the Nightingale” was like eating a massive, decadent yet light and smooth, chocolate mousse. There were a lot of things packed in this page-turner, but they flowed so incredibly well that it was impossible to be overwhelved. And the writing was absolutely stunning.

The book strikes a perfect balance – just enough flowery prose, just enough descriptions and metaphors, and just enough references to history to satisfy the reader without overindulging them. And for me, it was a double treat – what with my Russian heritage and all! Although I should say – some of you might find a few “nuts” in the decadent “mousse” that is “The Bear and the Nightingale”. These “nuts” are Russian words that appear quite often throughout the text. Fortunately, there is a very helpful guide at the end of the book to help you figure out what the words mean.

I’m biased, as a Russian speaker, but I never get tired of seeing foreign words in an English text – especially those that fit! Some books, like “Black Widow” by M. Stohl were 90% hit, 10% obvious miss with the Russian vocabulary. “The Bear and the Nightingale” was a 100% hit. In fact, I’m not convinced that the book wasn’t originally written in Russian! It just flows so incredibly smoothly – I “translated” a little in my head and could see how well the grammar structures and sentences worked in both Russian and English narration. Miss Arden, I thus nominate thee an Honorary Russian! Although with the author’s background, it’s not surprising that she’s managed to craft such a beautiful, such a Russian masterpiece.

The book might technically be “fantasy” but it is also a terrific study of a little-known period of Russian history – post-Mongol invasion, pre-Peter the Great. It takes place a few years after the introduction of Orthodox Christianity to Russia (or Rus’, as it was known back then), and makes history and religion both important plot points and significant details of the overall atmosphere of the novel. And one thing “The Bear and the Nightingale” certainly doesn’t lack is atmosphere! I believe that one would enjoy reading this on a cold winter day/evening, curled up in a comfortable chair, under a warm blanket – that’s what I did. Best weekend in a while! I can’t really imagine rushing through a book like this one when you’re on a train, for example. No, these kinds of book demand being invested in them – both in terms of time and emotion. “The Bear and the Nightingale” is tricky to put down! Once you get pulled into it, only Solovey (Nightingale) himself can help you out of it! And that’s only because he would be exhausted of Vasya trying to braid his mane and need something to do.

Like I said above, this isn’t a quick book. But if you’re looking for a novel you could really get into, get invested in the plot and the characters (both the human heroes and the storybook villains), and enjoy the inevitable book hangover that follows, you need to pick up “The Bear and the Nightingale”. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I can wait too long for the sequel! Rating – 8.5/10.

 

Recommendations

You would enjoy “The Bear and the Nightingale” if you liked:

“Egg & Spoon” by Gregory Maguire

“Uprooted” by Naomi Novik

“Deathless” by Catherynne Valente

 

Have you read “The Bear and the Nightingale”? What are your favourite books inspired by Russian folklore and history? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading this review and don’t forget to check out my Etsy charity shop before you go!

 

Book Review: The Vanishing Throne by Elizabeth May

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My review for Book 1 of this series can be found here.

Favourite quotes

“The truth is, memories weigh a great deal. Each one bends your bones a little more until the heft of them wears you down. Now I know that some scars go so deep that they never fade”.

“Truth is never as pretty as a lie. It’s never as appealing. It’s a sword to the gut, the thing that reminds us that some people aren’t who we thought they are. Truth forces us to confront the ugliest parts of the people we love”.

“Don’t look at me for ideas. I just got to keep my body parts”.

 

Aileana Kameron has made a grave mistake, and now the faeries have been released and are wreaking havoc upon Scotland. She doesn’t know how long the assault on Edinburgh has been going on for – days, weeks, months, years have no meaning in Sith-bhruth, where she is trapped and kept prisoner by Lonnrach. Since Aileana is a Falconer – the last representative of a race that kills faeries – and Lonnrach is a baobhan sith, i.e. brother of the very same faerie that killed Aileana’s mother, their relationship is the opposite of pleasant. What Lonnrach puts her through in order to find what he needs is nearly impossible to bear, and it changes Aileana forever. These changes become clear when she escapes Lonnrach with the help of another badass lady and sees what has become of Scotland and her friends. The remaining people of Scotland have formed a fragile alliance with the fae in order to survive, but both the human world and the fae world are on the brink of destruction. The last remaining Falconer can get the solution to saving the worlds, but at a grave cost. Is Aileana ready to – literally – die to save the realms? Or is she still consumed by vengeance?

 

I waited for “The Vanishing Throne” pretty much since the moment I closed the very last page of “The Falconer” in the summer of 2014. I wanted to know more about Aileana’s world, and I wanted to see more badassery, but at the same time, I was anxious about “the second book syndrome”. Fortunately, “The Vanishing Throne” is just as good as “The Falconer” and in some aspects, it even surpasses it. In my review of “The Falconer” I mentioned that I wasn’t thrilled with the cliffhanger, but book 2 starts right after book 1 ends, which worked really well and made for a smooth transition. We don’t see Kiaran and other lovable characters from book 1 for a while – the first part is Aileana-centric, and provides a lot of material for character development, that’s written in a very compelling way. This part also provides us with some insight into the fae magic, which is quite disturbing. The Fae are generally pretty creepy creatures, I find, and I was glad to see that the author doesn’t romanticise them like many other fantasy authors I read. The bone-chilling history of the kingdoms of Seelie and Unseelie that’s revealed throughout the book just adds to the “creepy” factor. We also learn more about the world in which the series is set, which is what I was hoping would happen in this installment.

Aileana Kameron is the best part of “The Vanishing Throne” – just like “The Falconer”. Her development is central to the novel, as it was in book 1. If in book 1 she was primarily driven by revenge for her mother’s death, book 2 shows us that Aileana’s actions that involve killing faeries are no longer about avenging her mother’s murder – she is determined to save the world, even if it costs her her own life. She is not perfect – she feels like a real person, with strengths and flaws, and the emotions she experiences throughout the book are felt by the reader, even when the author doesn’t name them. We all know that a great author shows but doesn’t tell, and May has done the job perfectly in “The Vanishing Throne” when it came to the reader getting to know the Aileana that has gone through what few people have. The writing in “The Vanishing Throne” is even better than in “The Falconer” – as I pointed out, May’s way with words has genuinely made Aileana Kameron a stand-out. The setting in book 2 is much more sinister than in book 1 – there are fewer dances and no society functions, but a lot more blood, death and torture. The blend of the fae and human realms is very vivid, and the reader has an excellent picture of the world created by the author and inspired by the Scottish folklore in their head.

“The Vanishing Throne” is NOT a happy book. “The Falconer” wasn’t either, but the second installment is much darker, and Derrick’s jokes unfortunately bring less relief when the characters know that the world is ending. The romance between Aileana and Kiaran is more interesting than it was in the first book, but after finishing the book, I felt that there was even less hope for them than after Aileana was pulled under into Sith-bhruth at the end of “The Falconer”. The ending of book 2 is less of a cliffhanger than that of book 1, but it is nonetheless quite shocking and makes you yearn for book 3, which unfortunately doesn’t come out until 2017. I can wait, but it’ll be hard! My rating of “The Vanishing Throne” is 7.5/10.

 

Recommendations:

You might like “The Falconer” series if you liked:

“The Infernal Devices” by Cassandra Clare (and “Shadowhunters” TV series)

“Fever” series by Karen Marie Moning

“Throne of Glass” series by Sarah J Maas

 

Have you read “The Falconer” series? What are your favourite books set in Scotland? Do let me know in the comments! 🙂

Book Review: The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

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I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

There is a troubling undercurrent rumbling beneath the surface of the town of Elston, Oregon, and it’s particularly troubling for Hanalee Denney, a sixteen-year-old daughter of an African-American man and a white woman. Hanalee’s dad Hank was murdered last Christmas by a drunk driver, Joe Adler, and a few months later, Joe is out of jail and back in town. To add to the grief his return is causing Hanalee, the Ku Klux Klan is breeding fear and hatred across Elston in their attempt to “purify” Oregon of everyone who isn’t white, Protestant, American-born or heterosexual. Hanalee’s friends are abandoning her one by one, and her father’s alleged murderer is suddenly claiming that the man who actually killed Hanalee’s father is the town doctor who tried to save him and who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather. Does Hank Denney’s ghost, or a “haint” hold the answers Hanalee is so desperate to find? And will she be able to solve the mystery and to cope with the devastating results that she finds?

 

My readers probably know by now that I believe that it’s impossible for Cat Winters to ever write a bad book. “The Steep and Thorny Way” is definitely her best book to date – and the darkest. I’ve been known to spend hours in front of a Cat Winters book and finishing in a day. The same happened when I started “The Steep and Thorny Way” – thankfully, it was a weekend so I didn’t have to go to work. The novel is gripping. It’s devastating. And it’s honest and real. The emotions are very, very, real.

Winters’ fans know all about her talent to masterrfully convey the atmosphere of a setting in writing, and in “TSaTW” the reader can’t help but feel as though they are also a part of Elston, Oregon of the 1920s. Unfortunately, that setting has little beauty in it. It is very scary to think about the fact that the travesties described in the novel occurred less than a hundred years ago. Every page is saturated with despair and sadness of those times and thanks to Winters’ writing talent, the reader feels them as much as the characters. Hanalee, Joe and their  families are devastated by what is happening in their town, but they are the kinds of characters that don’t give up. Hanalee, for instance, is fully aware that there are few good things awaiting her in the future if she stays in Elston, but it doesn’t deter her from pursuing her dreams of becoming a lawyer. She is kind, smart and compassionate, despite all the atrocities American laws and Elston society put her through on a daily basis.

The novel is marketed as a retelling of “Hamlet” – one of my favourite works of Shakespeare. In a way, it is – you can see it in certain passages and characters. And of course, the murder most foul of the novel initially seems to parallel that of “Hamlet”. However, nothing is ever what it seems in Cat Winters’ books, and “TSaTW” is no exception. Given the setting, I knew that the solution to the mystery was not going to be a happy one – plus  “Hamlet” is a tragedy for a reason. It was, however, nothing I expected it would be and all the more devastating for it. Winters uses paranormal elements as plot devices quite a few times in her books, but they are only there to further highlight the devastation and the hatred that was a big part of those times. “The Steep and Thorny Way” uses these scary elements in a manner similar to “Hamlet”, but other than that, the fear we feel in this book comes from the villains that were very real. There is little need for additional fantasy elements – history provides us with enough source material for antagonists. Hanalee and Joe are in constant danger because of who they are – a biracial girl and a homosexual young man. Ku Klux Klan, eugenics and general prejudices not only prevent Hanalee and Joe from living carefree lives, but they make them constantly fear for their very lives. Things are somewhat better today than they were back then, but diseases like racism, xenophobia and homophobia are unfortunately still a very big part of our society. And this is why we need diverse books like “The Steep and Thorny Way” – to remind us that these disgusting things occurred not so long ago and that prejudice and discrimination are something to be fought on a daily basis.

“The Steep and Thorny Way” is emotional, gripping and absolutely amazing. I cannot wait for my next Cat Winters! My rating is 8.5/10. Once again, my only issue with Cat Winters’ books is the lack of sequels!

 

Favourite quotes:

“Hate is a powerful demon that worms its way into the hearts of fearful men”.

“I think love and wrong are two deeply unrelated words that should never be thrown into the same sentence together. Like dessert and broccoli.”

“Candlelight cast such a delicate beauty. It flickered with emotions and warmed one’s skin and soul”.

 

Recommendations:

You might like “The Steep and Thorny Way” if you liked:

“The Diviners” by Libba Bray

“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare 

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

 

Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

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Sorry I haven’t posted in a while – it was hectic at work last month of the year! This retelling of “Snow White” was my first read of #ReadWomen of December 2015.

It’s 1953 and Boy Novak has finally managed to escape New York and her abusive ratcatcher father. By mere chance, she ends up in a tiny town called Flax Hill in New England and tries to make ends meet by taking whatever job is on offer until she is finally offered a position at a local bookstore. She finds some friends, and she meets a rich widower who is somewhat older than she is and has a daughter, Snow Whitman. She marries him and finds herself in a role she’s never pictured herself to play – a stepmother. Soon, Boy and Arturo have a daughter of their own, Bird Whitman, who exposes the secret of the Whitman family. The secret that they are light-skinned African-Americans passing for white people is dangerous to say the least in the 1950s in the States. And it is certainly not something Boy’s obsessive, addictive personality is prepared to deal with well. How far can a girl go when she’s forced into the role of a wicked stepmother?

 

I dove into “Boy, Snow, Bird” expecting a “Snow White” retelling with a twist that went into social issues such as racism and xenophobia in 20th century America. I did get the latter (and then some), but I don’t see this as a retelling. Actually – and this isn’t a criticism – I see this as an attempt to make it a retelling of “Snow White” that ultimately turned out to be an introspective story of obsession, symbolism and familial relations impacted by social issues that are undoubtedly relevant today. That’s not to say, however, that “Boy, Snow, Bird” lacks in typical elements of a fairytale (hence the “attempt” part) – it features a dead birthmother, half-sisters, sexual awakenings, good vs. evil conflicts, and last, but not least, mirrors. Boy, Snow, and Bird have a somewhat disturbing obsession with mirrors. Oyeyemi wrote the book to make the mirrors bring the element of magical realism into the novel, and what really makes the whole thing stand out is how our three protagonists view them and their significance in their interwined lives. “Boy, Snow, Bird” features symbolism that isn’t limited to mirrors on almost every single page, and most of it relates to Boy’s inner struggle with the “wicked” inside her.

“Boy, Snow, Bird” also makes a very solid attempt to explore the subject of evil being born vs. evil being made. Boy Novak is a very unreliable narrator, and so is Bird, albeit less so. The combination of this and the Jekyll-Hydesque symbolism, as well as mirrors, is a strong argument if favour of the dual nature of every person that Boy seems to reject throughout the book and Bird seems to struggle with, given her heritage. The fact that Boy sends Snow away when Bird is born because she feels that she can be nothing but bad can be interpreted both as a wicked stepmother act (if we go along with her notion that she was born evil), and an act of kindness (if we don’t). Bird’s point of view is too subjective for us to see how Boy actually feels about her, and Boy herself is too unreliable of a narrator to answer that question. Her treatment of Snow following Bird’s birth is when her narration is the hardest to understand and connect with. By the end of the novel (the third part, as well as the first one, are told by Boy, whereas the second one is from Bird’s point of view), the narratives are at their most confusing and at times, even jumbled, resulting in a somewhat ambiguous ending.

Everything I’ve said above would have worked really well in “Boy, Snow, Bird” if that was all there was to it. I have mixed feelings about the book, because there were things in it that prevented me from fully enjoying it. It was dense, it was packed with important subjects, and Oyeyemi dressed them in beautiful writing, but it doesn’t mean that all of them were handled properly. While I believe that the issues of race and identity were explored really well, the issues of gender were rushed through and Oyeyemi tried to pack them in a book that was already dense with other subjects. A 300-page book is not long enough to explore too many issues at once, in my opinion, and I don’t think the author realised that, which resulted in a very densely packed novel, leaving little space for answers I was hoping to get.

My advice – do pick up “Boy, Snow, Bird”, but don’t rush through it, and definitely don’t treat it as a “Snow White” retelling. My rating is 7/10.

 

Favourite quotes

“Sometimes you write down barefaced lies, or words you don’t really mean, just to see how they look, and it’s comforting to think that after six hours, the words will just disappear. No need to show them the door, they’ll just be seeing themselves out”.

“Evil studies the ordinary and iminates it. Then you can say it was just a little bad temper, we all know what that is. But some people… with some people the spite goes so deep, it is a thing beyond personality…”

“First you try to find a reason, try to understand what you’ve done wrong so you can be sure not to do that anymore. After than you look for signs of a Jekyll and Hyde situation, the good and the bad in a person sifted into separate compartments by some weird accident. Then, gradually, you realize that there isn’t a reason, and it isn’t two people you’re dealing with, just one. The same one every time”.

 

Recommendations

You might like “Boy, Snow, Bird” if you liked:

“The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

“The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender” by Leslye Walton

“Redemption in Indigo” by Karen Lord

Have you read “Boy, Snow, Bird”? What are your favourite retellings of “Snow White”? Do let me know! 🙂

Book Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

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Would you be surprised if I said that I bought another Cat Winters’ novel only a few days after finishing “The Cure for Dreaming”? If you’re anything like me, I doubt it.

It’s 1918 and the US is facing one of the hardest times in its history. The country is on the brink of collapse from the Spanish Influenza and the First World War. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black is one of the lucky few who hasn’t been infected. However, her pacifist father is labelled a traitor and taken away. Mary Shelley is forced to go to Oregon to live with her favourite aunt Eva and wait until either they both die or something good occurs. Unfortunately, Mary Shelley’s childhood friend and sweetheart Stephen Embers who is just as fond of science and photography as herself, has enlisted and left for Europe, leaving Mary Shelley and aunt Eva with his half-brother Julian, who is addicted to opium and is either trying to defraud people by capitalising on the new spirit photographs craze or genuinely believes that he can connect his clients with their departed loved ones via the power of a camera.

One night, Mary Shelley is struck by lightning, but miraclously comes back from the dead. A few nights later, the Embers’ receive devastating news about Stephen, and strange things begin to happen around our heroine. Why is she the only one who can hear her dead friend’s distress? Why does he visit her at nighttime and why does he look so afraid? And what is so terrifying about the shadows of blackbirds?

 

“In the Shadow of Blackbirds” is Cat Winters’ debut novel that I picked up after being enchanted by “The Cure for Dreaming”. I’m pleased to report that this book is just as hauntingly beautiful and captivating as Winters’ sophomore novel. You can tell that the author genuinely loves writing about the time period and is thorough. I’ve read the book on an electronic device, but I would love a physical copy – the black-and-white “spirit” photographs make the story even more layered. Not that it needs it – Winters’ writing is very good at submerging the reader into the tragic atmosphere of the 20th century war- and disease-torn America. I absolutely loved how the author has entwined the plot of the story with the real historical events without shying away from the difficult topics like loss, war and PTSD. I don’t know much about the latter, but I’ve experienced many books where the writers gloss over mental illnesses or even glamourise them. “In the Shadow of Blackbirds” does the opposite, which makes the storyline even more haunting and tragic.

Since photography is a very important plot device in this book, I’ll use the analogy of the kind. As an amateur photographer, I know that a truly good photo can’t be just “pretty” or “shot from a good angle” – some might give you some leeway one way or the other, but it generally should be both. “In the Shadow of Blackbirds” is a novel that is both – atmospheric and beautiful writing might not always be enough to make a good book amazing, and thankfully, the storyline and the characters are also very strong points. Mary Shelley, Aunt Eva, Stephen, Julian and other secondary characters feel real (which is saying a lot, since some of them are.. well.. somewhat dead!), and the story has kept me engaged until I turned the last page of the book. I genuinely didn’t see the ending coming and the novel has been (excuse my pun) haunting me for the last week.

I’m really glad I chose to read “In the Shadow of Blackbirds” over a weekend, because I spent hours with my eyes glued to my screen, immersed in the story. And unlike “The Cure for Dreaming”, I didn’t feel that the book warranted a sequel – it was just the right length! I cannot wait to read Winters’ retelling of “Hamlet”! My rating for “In the Shadow of Blackbirds” is 8.5/10.

 

Favourite quotes
“When faced with the worst horrors the world has to offer, a person either cracks and succumbs to the ugliness, or they salvage the inner core of who they are and fight to right wrongs”.

“We wouldn’t even have wars if adults followed the rules they learned as children. A four-year-old would be able to see how foolish grown men are behaving if you explained the war in a child’s terms”.

“We were all survivors – every last one of us who limped our way out to the sidewalks that afternoon and spit in Death’s cold face”.

 

Recommendations
You might like “In the Shadow of Blackbirds” if you liked:
“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak
“17 & Gone” by Nova Ren Suma
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

Book Review: These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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I apologise for being away for so long – work’s been very busy! I’ll try to catch up with my Friday Finds this week hopefully 🙂

 

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Jo Montfort is a teenage blue-blooded New Yorker whose fate is to marry an even more blue-blooded childhood friend of hers, Bram Aldrich and be a good socialite. However, Jo’s passions lie elsewhere. She wants to be a writer – like Nellie Bly – and she wants to write about girls and hardships they endure. However, society doesn’t look too kindly upon a strong-headed, imaginative girl in 19th century New York and Jo is about ready to kiss her dreams goodbye. Her life changes drastically, however, when her father is found dead in their home. The police believe that he killed himself, but Jo, who loved her father very much, wants to get the truth. She starts to dig into her father’s past and meets a charming reporter Eddie Gallagher, who has secrets of his own. As the mystery unveils, Jo is sucked deeper and deeper into the New York that she never even knew existed, riddled with prostitutes, madmen and murderers. Would her and Eddie be able to be together and achieve their writing dreams, or will Jo’s naivete make her the killer’s next target?

 

“These Shallow Graves” was the book I’ve been anticipating for a few months now – Jennifer Donnelly is one of my favourite authors. Long-time readers of this blog would remember that I fell in love with “Revolution” and “A Gathering Light”. I was thrilled to hear that she was writing another historical fiction novel with a strong female protagonist. I was therefore over the moon when I got this copy from Netgalley.

However, I must say that my expectations were too high. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the story – I most certainly did, and thought it to be one of the better murder mysteries I’ve read this year. Perhaps my love for Donnelly’s previous books has set the bar a little too high for “These Shallow Graves”, and, while I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, I was rather underwhelmed. “Revolution” and “A Gathering Light” kept me engaged from the very first page, but “These Shallow Graves” didn’t manage to suck me in until about 30% into the book.

The main character, Jo, seemed too much like a spoiled rich kid at the start, which is understandable, given her upbringing, but it didn’t compel me to like her until quite a bit into the book. She does go through quite a bit of development and become a lot more interesting as the book progresses, though. Her romance with Eddie was a little too insta-love – either I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be sixteen and in love, or girls back then fell in love way too quickly.

The supporting cast was, however, just as good as that of Donnelly’s other novels. Oscar, Fay, the Tailor and other characters were well-rounded and interesting to read about, and added several more layers to the mystery, making it all the more compelling. They are the strong sides of “These Shallow Graves”, and so is the plot of the mystery. The writing is, while as atmospheric as her other books, just didn’t work for me. This is because I expected a lot more in terms of writing, given how much effect Jennifer Donnelly’s previous works had on me. I’d still recommend the book, though, and can’t wait for her next one!

 

Favourite quotes:

“If you’re going to bury the past, bury it deep, girl. Shallow graves always give up their dead”.

“Morality is a luxury, my darling. A very expensive one”.

 

Recommendations

You might like “These Shallow Graves” if you liked:

“The Cure for Dreaming” by Cat Winters

“Velvet Undercover” by Teri Brown

“Vengeance Road” by Erin Bowman

 

Book Review: Winterspell by Claire Legrand

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Let’s ignore the fact that the girl on the cover looks exactly like Peyton Sawyer, shall we?

Seventeen-year-old Clara Stole hasn’t had the best life – what with having a father who’s a Mafia boss in 19th century New York, a mother who’s been brutally murdered and a sleazy doctor who’s been after her for years. Her only source of comfort are her mysterious combat training sessions with Godfather Drosselmeyer and a statue of a handsome man in his shop that causes Clara to have thoughts she’s been taught to hate. But on Christmas Eve of 1900, Clara’s house is attacked by brutal warriors who look like rats, her father disappears, and the statue comes to life. Turns out the statue is none other than Prince Nicholas of Cane, a magical land invaded by the cruel Queen Anise and the faeries. As Clara, her father, Nicholas and Godfather Drosselmeyer run away from the Faery warriors and end up in Cane, all Clara can think about is getting back by the New Year’s Eve to save her sister from the sleazy Dr. Victor and finding her father who was kidnapped by the Faeries, not helping Nicholas get his throne back. Can Clara and Co get out of Cane in time or will the gang fall apart and betray each other? And is there more to Queen Anise that meets the eye?

 

I picked up “Winterspell” because I was interested in reading a retelling of “The Nutcracker” – one of my favourite Christmas tales by E.T.A. Goffman, adapted by Tchaikovsky into one of the most famous ballets in the world. Marketed as a “dark fairytale”, this book has unfortunately failed in keeping me engaged for at least 60% of it. It was very painful to read about how much abuse Clara was taking at the start and while her reaction to it was handled quite well by the author, and she does go through quite a bit of development, she’s not the kind of heroine I’m interested in reading. What I particularly disliked was how her sexual awakening was treated. I understand that sexuality is an important and a fascinating aspect of fairytales, but the way she was attracted to the statue was, quite frankly, off-putting to say the least; I’d even go as far as to say that it was creepy. And not in the cool fairytale kind.

I appreciated the backstory of the world of Cane written in the style of a Christmas fairytale – those bits were in fact Legrand’s best pieces of writing in the whole book. Unfortunately, therey were few and far between. The narrative didn’t really flow very well – I had to go back a couple of pages every few chapters to figue out what the hell Clara was up to. Clara’s narration was also not great in the first half of the book and it didn’t get much better except during the times she spent with the villain.

To be quite honest, the villain was the most interesting character, and generally the best part of the book. She reminded me a little of Queen Levana from The Lunar Chronicles (without the raping a guy for a year part thankfully). She was a very interesting character with a compelling backstory that could’ve been explored more. I’m not hesitating in saying that this villain was wasted on a book like “Winterspell” and I almost stopped reading when she died. I don’t normally appreciate queer characters getting killed off, and in this case, I was particularly disappointed to see a bisexual villain die when she had so much potential.

However, a compelling villain and mildly atmospheric writing weren’t enough to make up for a heroine I didn’t like, a love interest that was creepy but otherwise completely bland and poorly handled sexual themes. The only things I recognised from “The Nutcracker” were the heroine’s name, the rat soldiers and a statue who turns into a man. The German words randomly scattered across the text don’t count – they were there for literally no reason other than because the original story is in German I’m afraid “Winterspell” has failed to enchant me, and my rating is 6/10. I suggest sticking with the original story or better yet, seeing the ballet.

 

Favourite quotes:

“All Lady mages were girls at one point, weren’t they? And I bet few of ’em ever planned any assassinations.”

“Like an architect dropped into a world of infinite awareness and infinite possibilities, she felt an urge to explore and create.”

 

Dreamcast

Clara Stole – Cara Delevigne

Nicholas – Armie Hammer

Bo – Amandla Stenberg

Anise – Michellle Williams

 

Recommendations

You might like “Winterspell” if you liked:

“The Lunar Chronicles” by Marissa Meyer

“Fractured Dream” by K.M. Randall

“Iron Fey” by Julie Kagawa

“Into the Woods”

Have you read “Winterspell”? What are your favourite fairytale retellings? Please let me know 🙂