A Twisted & Beautiful Folkloric Fantasy Debut: Review of The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

I swear, this post did not want to be published! I have been working on this for weeks now because every time I’ve saved it as a draft as soon as I come back to it all I get are error messages so I have to start all over again! This time I’m just going to try and get it all done in one sitting, including images and links, so that I can finally post this.

The Wolf and the Woodsman
Image: Cover of The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.

Reid provided content warnings for her book which will be included at the end of my review

First off, I wanted to thank William Morrow through NetGalley for the e-ARC of this book as well as Danielle at William Morrow for sending me a finished copy!

The Wolf and the Woodsman was everything I hoped for and more. This folkloric fantasy debut from Ava Reid follows Évike, a pagan woman who has been treated as an outcast in her village of “Wolf Girls”. Évike has not only been scorned because of the man who fathered her, but also because she’s the only girl in her village without any magic powers. When the Woodsmen come to take away yet another girl, it’s Évike who gets taken. A sacrifice for the protection of someone else in her village. As the plot unfolded and twisted itself down grim and harsh paths I read with bated breath and finished this in two sittings.

This book was whimsically dark as Reid knit together Jewish mythology and Hungarian history. I’m not Jewish though I ended up picking up on a number of references that were made throughout the book. I really enjoyed seeing how Reid tied everything together. The writing was absolutely beautiful. Rich descriptions of the world woven throughout fantastical stories and Évike’s own stinging inner dialogue. I was so immersed in the story that I didn’t want to drag myself back out until I was finished reading. I’d like to note that the body horror and gore described throughout are not for the faint of heart. The Wolf and the Woodsman is an adult novel and I would heed that warning. If you’re a person who is sensitive to graphic descriptions this might be a book that needs to be passed on. It was all pertinent to the story itself and added to the dark nature. This was a dark story and it was unexpected because I find that many fantasy stories I’ve read tend to lean towards a “happily ever after” ending. And obviously I love those too but I appreciated that this book felt so realistic in terms of characterization and life consequences of horrific events.

The grim fairytale-esque sheen that covered the surface of the story revealed thought provoking horrors once peeled back. A corrupt kingdom, filled with impoverished peasants who stood atop the backs of the pagans and the Yehuli because they believed themselves to be more worthy of an upward climb. An impending war that has caused a turning tide in the kings own men. It was fascinating and terrifying to read it all unfold because I was so invested in Évike and her survival. Over the course of the book, Évike put every ounce into protecting such fragile relationships that developed over the course of the story. As she interacted with her peers and eventually her father I couldn’t help but hope that these characters would hope for the best for Évike just as I was. For her to want to save anyone but herself was heartbreaking because even after years of being treated as less than and fighting for her survival she still revealed a caring nature in these moments.

Now, not only was Évike caring but she was powerful in her own way. The self discovery journey she went on through the course of the book proved to be beneficial in numerous ways. Her power in bringing men to their knees was hands down one of my favorite parts of this book. She intimidated a king but her enemies-to-lovers relationship with Prince Gaspar was perfection. They were never meant to be and yet as their banter and curses turned to something more I couldn’t stop reading. As I reached the end of the novel I couldn’t help but see all the beginnings that could unspool from it.

This was a standout read and will definitely be one of my favorites for the year. Hands down a 5/5 star read! Links to purchase the book for yourself will be included underneath the content warnings.

CONTENT WARNINGS (as provided by the author)
– Gore, including graphic descriptions of dismemberment, amputation, mutilation, and immolation
– Torture, including whipping
– Self-harm, including self-amputation 
– Animal death (graphic; the animals are not pets)
– Antisemitism
– Cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing
– Physical abuse by parents and parental figures
– Graphic descriptions of vomiting

If you’d like to pick up your own copy of The Wolf and the Woodsman you can find it at any of the following links:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // Indiebound (you can find a local indie to purchase through there!)

And as of writing this post, Sierra Elmore has a book box available for preorder for September. You can find that here!

And if you’d like to connect with me elsewhere:
I’m on Twitter: @/nihilisticactus

Readerly: @/sideofadventure

For review inquiries, etc my email is adventuresandespresso@gmail.com.

You can follow my reviews or add me as a friend on Goodreads here.

And if you’d like to buy me a coffee, my Ko-fi is here.

I’ll talk to y’all in my next post!

Middle Grade Monday: Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Song for a Whale
Image: Cover of Lynne Kelly’s Song For A Whale

The story of a deaf girl’s connection to a whale whose song can’t be heard by his species, and the journey she takes to help him.

From fixing the class computer to repairing old radios, twelve-year-old Iris is a tech genius. But she’s the only deaf person in her school, so people often treat her like she’s not very smart. If you’ve ever felt like no one was listening to you, then you know how hard that can be.

When she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales, Iris understands how he must feel. Then she has an idea: she should invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. How will she play her song for him?

Lynne Kelly’s Song For A Whale was a beautiful book about a young girl’s need to belong and her determined journey to help a whale also find a place to belong. Iris is deaf. Her grandparents are deaf and she has a friend, Wendell, who is also deaf but she attends a hearing school. On top of all this, while her mom and older brother have learned sign language to easily communicate with Iris, her father has never put in the effort instead relying on her lip reading skills and other people to translate. This book centers on her discovery of a whale called Blue 55 who sings in a frequency that other whales can’t understand. Iris immediately relates to Blue 55 and she sets out on a journey to give him a song that might finally make him feel heard.

In both high school and my first round of college I took ASL classes. I spent three years learning it in high school and was actually planning on minoring in it in college. For a really long time I was interested in becoming an interpreter and while my career goals have ultimately changed since then I think that learning sign language is something that everyone should do if presented the opportunity. The Deaf community is wonderful and I’ve met a lot of great people over the years that have pulled me out of my shell from my time learning ASL. It’s an incredibly expressive language and it taught me a lot about communication so I was excited to pick up a book featuring a deaf main character! I feel like if I let myself talk about it too much I would take up the entire post but I’ll just say that while communication and school and everything surrounding that is up for individual families to decide it is incredibly important for deaf children to be able to communicate. ASL has its own structure and grammar but it is a language and it opens the world up so much more than relying on lip reading and speaking.

Song For A Whale was emotional. Iris feels misunderstood and often floats through life feeling like an outsider. At school she has to rely on an interpreter and with interactions with Deaf (uppercase D means individuals who identify with the larger Deaf community) people she feels like she’s getting left behind because she isn’t around fluent signers all the time. My heart hurt for her because she had so much passion that I wanted everyone else in her life to see that too. So when she begins to create a song for Blue 55 after learning about the whale in science class I couldn’t help but cheer her on as she began to make unlikely friends along her journey. I think that this book is a perfect one to help young readers begin to step into the shoes of those that have different abilities to their own. Being deaf does not define a person and I really enjoyed that Kelly fully made Iris her own person because that will help readers understand that too.

One of my favorite things about this book was that not only was it a story of belonging but it was also one of healing. Before the events of this story took place, Iris lost her grandfather. So on top of everything she was navigating her grief for one of the few people that fully accepted her as she was. Her grandmother was grieving the loss of her husband and life long companion and I loved seeing the support and hope she had for Iris. She stepped up for her granddaughter and ended up beginning to move with her grief as well. As they both opened up to each other and the outside world I was really proud of both characters for being so strong.

This is a very character driven book. Interspersed between a few of Iris’s chapters were some written from the perspective of Blue 55. They were moving and brought me hope that the two would be able to interact in some way before the story ended. I loved how Kelly tied the passion Iris felt for radios to this mission to create a song for a whale. It was unique and I think it added so much to the importance for everyone to be able to communicate with those around them. I also thought that it was cool to find so many educational tidbits sprinkled throughout about whales and whale song. It was well worth the read and whether you’re hearing or deaf I couldn’t recommend this book more.

If you’re interested in picking up your own copy you can find it at the following links:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // IndieBound (to find a local indie to shop through!)

And with that, I’m signing off for the day. I’ll talk to you all in my next post!

You can also connect with me more by following the blog or at the following:

Twitter: @/nihilisticactus

Readerly: @/sideofespresso

You can add me as a friend or follow my reviews on Goodreads here.

For review inquiries, etc. you can email me at adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

If you’d like to support the blog financially, my Ko-fi is linked here.

Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

This post may contain spoilers…

My Dark Vanessa

Synopsis:

Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood.

Rating:

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Review:

After completing this book, I was so numb I forgot how to cry. I crawled under my blankets in my bed and stared out the window as I watched the sky grow dark. To say this book was powerful is an understatement, at least in my opinion. I knew that it would be triggering, I knew it would be painful, and it was, incredibly so, but in the end I have nothing to say but praise for this novel.

As I mentioned, this is triggering and if you’ve read the synopsis you could probably garner that as well. The entire story stems from an incredibly abusive sexual relationship that has been created between main character Vanessa and her teacher Mr. Strane. When it comes to my own personal triggers, I’m not usually effected strongly by things that I read, my triggers tend to come from real life scenarios instead but this book hit me so hard in some portions that I had to take hours long breaks in order to feel fine enough to begin reading again. So if you are sensitive, I would highly suggest steering clear of this book. It is strong and it is dark and I just wanted to caution those of you that might be looking for something in depth with the trigger warnings.

This story was utterly haunting and a complete masterpiece that will follow me for years to come. Russell has written a complex and dark story that follows main character Vanessa as she navigates the lifelong consequences of an abusive manipulative sexual relationship with her former teacher. It is powerful and does so well at going into the lasting psychological damage that can be done to a person that has been placed in this situation.

The novel is broken into sections from the past, set in 2000 when Vanessa is in high school and then in 2017 when Vanessa is an adult. There are also a few chapters that take place while Vanessa is in college in 2007. It is intriguing to see how the story unfolds between these time periods and I think that the nonlinear chapter layout only helps to illustrate just how strongly the abuse that Vanessa endured burrows itself into her entire psyche.

I’ve seen a few reviews in which people have a critique over the story being repetitive and I agree, it is, but that’s exactly how it needed to be written to illustrate what was going on. Vanessa had her entire life taken from her because of Mr. Strane. He changed her memories, changed her behavior, he dug himself into every corner of her life and completely changed her. This is a story that happens to many. Abuse is repetitive. That’s exactly how abusers maintain their control. The repetitive nature is exactly why this story is so important. It’s not a one time offense, it’s not an obvious catastrophic “event”, it’s years of psychological manipulation and gas lighting and coercion. It’s seeing Vanessa’s entire life fall short in front of her eyes as she realizes that everything she has ever experienced is nothing like she had once imagined it to be.

The complexities of Vanessa’s own thoughts are hard to delve into, to see herself so strongly defend her former teacher, to so strongly believe what she was taught to believe. It’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating. And I can only hope that this story will get into the hands of people who need it. That as years go on, more people will find strength in their stories both fiction and not.

As a final thought, I have also seen people express disappointment at the ending and I can see where people could imagine this story taking a different direction than where it ends up. But I applaud Russell for how she wrote the ending. People can find power in simplicity, in finding the strength to start to mend from their broken pasts. Healing and change isn’t instantaneous, it is not the social media posts, the protests, the yelling and the crying, the complete 180’s in lifestyle. It can be this, but healing can be quiet. It can be healing relationships with those that you lost while you were trapped, it can be finding companionship in a new pet, or a new person. It is therapy and medication and spending weeks upon weeks asking yourself “what would my life look like if I had chosen a different path… If I hadn’t made this choice.” Healing is different for every single person that has gone through abuse or trauma. I mean the book illustrates that very clearly. Compare how Vanessa has lived her life compared to Taylor, the girl who publicly accuses Strane. Life is lived differently by everyone and I felt like the ending showed just a sliver of hope for Vanessa and that’s exactly what I needed to see.

Have hope. Find strength. Learn and live.

Review: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

“Broken people don’t hide from their monsters. Broken people let themselves be eaten.”

When I say that this is the book that I have been waiting my whole life to read, I don’t say that lightly. Like there are some books that you read and you enjoy and you move on from and then there are books that open your mouth and crawl down your throat and into your soul… This book crawled into my soul and stuck its tendrils in every nook and cranny and I’m not sure if I could expel it if I tried.

I am…. Very emotional right now. Genuinely cannot stop thinking about this book. Wow. Wow. Wow.

So I read Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia this week. I had heard of this book a few times before now, but I never actually knew what it was about. I knew that it had been compared to both Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and Radio Silence by Alice Oseman; both of which are books that I related to immensely. It was on the shelf at my library when I was there last weekend so I decided to finally check it out.

Here’s the blurb for the book on Goodreads:

In the real world, Eliza Mirk is shy, weird, and friendless. Online, she’s LadyConstellation, the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Eliza can’t imagine enjoying the real world as much as she loves the online one, and she has no desire to try.

Then Wallace Warland, Monstrous Sea’s biggest fanfiction writer, transfers to her school. Wallace thinks Eliza is just another fan, and as he draws her out of her shell, she begins to wonder if a life offline might be worthwhile.

But when Eliza’s secret is accidentally shared with the world, everything she’s built—her story, her relationship with Wallace, and even her sanity—begins to fall apart.

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I started off with this book not really having any high expectations of the story. Of any sort of these fandom-centered books, Fangirl was still the one that I hold nearest and dearest to my heart. But after reading this, well, that’s all changed.

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I rated this 5/5 stars and I will make my claim here that I genuinely do not think that any book that I read for the rest of the year will top this one. This is- and I cannot stress this enough- my new favorite book.

So I’m going to do this review in two parts. An objective part, which I’ll do real quick first, and then my own personal review in the secondary part.

Eliza and Her Monsters hits on so many aspects of living life as someone who is very online. There are great storylines, good character development, an adorable first romance, intense backstory, this was a familiar story and yet so unique… The mental health representation is spot on and the fact that the author portrayed therapy visits and actually put a character on medication. *Chef’s kiss* For anyone that has grown up in a fandom, grown up loving books or comics or been part of an online community, I highly recommend. It weaves together both the good and bad parts of being online and really highlights the inner strength that it takes to be able to get up and move forward when you really, really don’t want to be around anymore.

This is also a great book that talks about passions and the choices that young people have to make in deciding whether to go on to further education, what to do for work, how to decide what we really want to do for our future. I think it is so important to see books where young people don’t follow the “traditional” path of going to college right out of high school. Not everyone needs to follow that path and it’s important to know that we have options.

On a personal note, this book struck a chord with me that no book ever has before. There were so many parallels within this story that coincided with events in my own life that on more than one occasion I had to set the book down and take a lap around the store that I work at because I was getting overly emotional. (Like I genuinely felt like I was reading my own story and it was the creepiest and most emotional thing I’ve ever felt).

I have never related to two characters more, never seen myself in a book the way that I saw myself in Eliza and Wallace. It tore me in two and then slowly glued me back together. I can’t even say that this is a book that I needed back in high school because genuinely, this is the book that I needed right now. I want to tell everyone to read this book but at the same time I want to keep it to myself because this story felt so personal.

Oh gosh, I’m getting emotional again. *deep breaths* Okay!

So there is a trigger warning for suicide in this book, and while I’m glad I didn’t know about that going into my initial reading, I also know that I probably would have saved myself from a less extreme panic attack when reading the scenes in which this trigger is relevant.

Again, 5/5 stars. Already bought my own copy of this and will probably be rereading before the end of the year.

If you want to pick up your own copy (which I highly urge you to do) here are some links for you:

Amazon // Barnes & Noble // Book Depository

Review: Radio Silence

So I read Radio Silence by Alice Oseman and IT RIPPED ME TO SHREDS.

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Like honestly from about the halfway point to the end of the book I cried for the majority of my time reading. The story was just incredibly cathartic for me and I wish so much that I could have read this back in high school but I’m glad that it made it’s way to me now.

For those of you who have not heard of Radio Silence here’s a short little summary:

Frances spends most of her time studying and working towards her goal of university. That’s been her self proclaimed path since she was young. Then she gets presented the opportunity to create artwork for her favorite podcast and everything begins to change.

She meets a new friend and can finally begin to act like herself. And then the trust that had built up between them is shattered and Frances has to work to find a way to fix what has been broken and find out what path she really needs to take with her life.

I’m really bad at summaries, so here’s the link to the Goodreads page for the book.

I rated Radio Silence 5/5 stars, however, when I started this book I was unimpressed which I was kind of shocked about (but obviously in the end my entire opinion changed). I’d heard this book hyped up for months (mainly from Kat from the youtube channel paperbackdreams) and I was so excited to pick it up that I ended up reading almost all of it in a day. Like I was reading it the entire time that I was at work. I found the writing style incredibly unlikeable and I’m not sure if it just happened to change the further into the book I got or if I just got used to it but after about the first 100 pages I was paying any attention to the writing style anymore. I will say though that I feel like most of this book was written by “telling” and not “showing” and I think that’s my main gripe with the writing.

The deeper into the story I got, the more I found myself relating to Frances and the more it broke my heart. There were so many times where I almost had to set the book aside because it just brought back so many painful memories for me from my childhood up until now. I think that for anyone who has ever felt like they just don’t quite fit in would relate to Frances. And anyone who has ever gone through something that has left them questioning their entire future would enjoy this as well.

I would have loved to read more about the podcast, it seemed very Welcome to Nightvale to me! I also would have appreciated for the ending to have been stretched a bit more, I felt like there could have been points in the middle that would easily have been taken out in order to accommodate for more closure at the end. I just wish I could have seen a bit more happiness come out of an otherwise incredibly emotional book. Again, though, I think it was only this emotional because I felt like I could have been living a mixture of Frances and Aled’s lives. I related so much to this story that I feel like I don’t know how to talk about it without starting to cry about my own life experiences.

Anyways, there’s a decent amount of representation (bi, asexuality, one of the podcast characters is agender, the main character is mixed race) in this book but I feel like most of it is essentially mentioned in a sentence or two and then we just move past it. Like I was super excited for asexuality rep and then there was one paragraph about it at the very end and that was it. Although if I force myself to think about it, these kids are 17-18 years old and honestly who isn’t still figuring stuff out at that point? So I kind of get there being so many brief instances of explanation because I know at that age I sure as hell wouldn’t be talking about being asexual to anyone.

Again, I would highly recommend this book to anyone: teens, young adults, and even adults. I definitely though urge teens and young adults to pick up this book. Especially if you have ever experienced the push to try and take a path that you have questioned. Especially if you feel like you have ever been the odd one out. And especially if you have ever had the experience of meeting someone who you can be truly you around and then losing them because that story line is the one that killed me the most.

If you’re interested in picking this up I’ve added some links to places that you can purchase the book here:

Amazon (this is an affiliate link!)

Barnes and Noble

Book Depository

And if any of you have read this book, what did you think of it? I’d love to chat with you about it!