Book Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood

Back in January, I was browsing my favorite bookstore and came across The Sisters of the Winter Wood. I’d heard about and seen this book on Twitter and couldn’t resist buying it even though I had gone in to pick up a different book that I had special ordered. I never leave a book store with just the one book I went in for.

This one was definitely a good impulse buy.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood is about two sisters, Liba and Laya, discovering who and what  they truly and how their identities affect their relationship as sisters. Liba’s chapters are told in prose, while Laya’s are in verse. Not only did this keep me alert as a reader, but it also ensured I never got confused about who the narrator was.

Considering how in the author’s note, Rena Rossner, says this was in-part a retelling of Goblin Market, that format was a great choice for this book. Like Laya, the verse chapters were airy and musical. Like Libba, the the prose chapters were more grounded and earthy.

This book’s greatest flaw was it’s beginning. The first page or two were fascinating. The next 50 or 60 pages were stuffed with telling and exposition. Very little happened.  I am the type of person who likes to read books almost straight through. On Tuesday night, I put this book down around 10 p.m. and went to sleep. I didn’t pick it up again until Friday because at that point, not enough had happened for me to get truly invested in the characters.

The beginning also fell into a trap that a lot of historical fantasy does. It goes a little overboard with the world building, especially when it comes to the gender within the period and place. It was great that eventually, a lot of the men turned out to be decent people, but there was so much emphasis on gender roles and relations in the beginning that I thought all the men were going to be a lot worse, and honestly, a lot of build up t really didn’t seem relevant by the end.

It was 100% worth slogging through the begining to get to the rest of the book. The tension and growth between Liba and Laya was fantastic. They each had their own delicious romantic subplot with someone they didn’t think their parents would approve of, and I wasn’t quite sure how it was all going to work out.

The dark, cold, forest setting was as enchanting as the goblins and shifters haunting it. And once we were past that initial info dump, there was a perfect blend of history and magic.

I learned a lot about Jewish culture of the time and place the book was set it, which according to the author’s note, was on the border of Ukraine and Moldova around 1904. The building antisemitism in the town, and the way it hurt the characters, was a tangible thing. It made me uncomfortable times, but in a necessary way. Scenes where characters are being harassed or slurred at are supposed to make a reader uncomfortable. If they don’t, something is wrong.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a beautiful novel filled with magic, tension, darkness, and plenty of opportunities to learn. I highly recommend it.

 

Book Review: Cthulhu Blues

I finally got around to reading Cthulhu Blues, the third installment in the Spectra Files trilogy.

It was refreshing to read a book set New England. Many of the books I’ve read lately have either been set on the West Coast or in the rural midwest. While I do enjoy reading about places I’ve never been, especially in the Pacific Northwest, I also like to see my corner of the US represented in novels.

Another thing I like about Cthulhu Blues is the mental health representation. Becca’s depression always seems well described, and I appreciate how the narrative doesn’t shy away from talking about how Becca’s meds and therapy help her. This is something I rarely see in speculative fiction.

Becca’s love for photography, cargo pants, and her dog is another thing that allows me to connect with her. Django is a faithful, intelligent four-legged sidekick, is the only character in the book that I like more than her. While there were a few times I worried about him, he always makes it through okay.

The other characters are well developed, but Becca and Django are why I read the series.

This series is labeled as horror, but it feels like dark urban fantasy to me. Yes, there are cosmic, tentacles monsters, but they’re not any scarier than beasts one encounters when reading The Dresden Files or The Mortal Instruments.

One thing that annoys me a little is how the narration will start out wide and distant. A chapter will have an omniscient tone in the beginning, then it will zoom into close third one Becca or another character. While it does give the book an interesting tone, it slows things down and keeps me away from my favorite character. Sometimes I’m tempted to do things like this in my own writing. However, when I find myself getting annoyed at it in a book like this, I understand why I shouldn’t start chapters that way.

The end seemed abrupt and left me a little confused. The book really needed one more chapter, or at least an epilogue, to really wrap things up and make it feel complete. I understand not wanting to drag it out, but when ending a series, it is important to really bring everything to a close.

Click here to buy a copy of Cthulhu Blues.

IWSG April: Wishful Writing

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If you could use a wish to help you write just ONE scene/chapter of your book, which one would it be? (examples: fight scene / first kiss scene / death scene / chase scene / first chapter / middle chapter / end chapter, etc.)

For me, this would be the first chapter. However, I wouldn’t use the wish to help write it. I’d use the wish to help revise it.

Writing a first draft of a first chapter is a blast.

It’s like standing at the base of  trail I’ve never hiked. The sun is out but there is a cool breeze. I have a map. I have ample snacks and water for both me and my dog. It is going to be an awesome day even if I am going to be gaining about 1,000 vertical feet per mile.

The first chapter is just that first stretch of trail when I am full of energy, when I’m practically running, wondering just how long it will be before the trail gets steep and I hit a scramble.

IMG_1365.jpgThe whole hike up is the first draft of the manuscript. It’s hard work, but it is the kind that gets the adrenaline going and results with a breathtaking view.

I can’t stay at the summit forever. Eventually, I have to come down.

Often, when hiking in New England, the steepest scrambles are close to the summit. They’re my favorite part to go up and my least favorite to go down.

I can just see myself on my way down Killington. I’m a little ways down from the summit, standing on a slab of granite, staring straight down a ravine thinking,
“Did we really go up that? Do I have to go back down that way?”

I’m exhausted. My spouse is exhausted. The dog is exhausted. The dog, who was like a brilliant mountain goat on the way up, needs assistance going down the steep sections.

For a minute, I just stand there wondering what the heck I was thinking. I curse myself for picking an out and back trail and for being so obsessed with scrambles in the first place. But then I think about how much fun I had, how worth it the view was, and of how many times I have done this before on other mountains.

Then, after I’ve planned a way down in my head, my spouse and I slowly work our way down, helping the dog when necessary.

It’s the most difficult and nerve-wracking part of the hike. It’s the one part I would skip if I could magically do so. It reminds me a lot of revising my opening chapters.

As fun as the first draft was, I never start the book in the right place, and fixing that is never as simple as just deleting a chapter or several chapters. It’s deleting a whole chapter and replacing it with something else and then rewriting it, deleting it, and replacing it. Once I find something that works as a concept, then I still have to fine tune it over and over.

For current WIP, I haven’t revised the opening chapter four times. I’ve written four completely different opening chapters, and that isn’t counting all the false starts I had while trying to get the first draft going.

So if I could use a wish to help me write a book? I would use that wish to revise my opening chapter.

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