Author Interviews, Horror, Paranormal, Reviews, Sci-Fi, Thriller

The Newton Cipher: Review and Interview With Author Steve Ruskin

The Newton Cipher by Steve Ruskin

Historian Trina Piper is summoned to the British Library to authenticate a coded manuscript believed to be authored by none other than Isaac Newton himself. At the same time, London finds itself in the grip of a series of ghastly murders.

When a malicious Russian scholar appears and demands the manuscript, Trina becomes the target of his wrath. She soon realizes that Newton’s papers and the terrible murders are connected, and both hint at something far more ominous: a secretive Order dedicated to reviving alchemy for sinister purposes.

Caught between ancient magic and a shadowy cabal, Trina must find a way to save not only herself, but all of London. With the help of Ulrik Stander, a handsome and resourceful agent from Interpol’s Art and Artifacts Division, she rushes from Westminster’s fog-filled alleyways to the hallowed halls of Cambridge University in a race to prevent a forgotten seventeenth-century plague from being unleashed on modern London.

As Big Ben ticks down, she discovers that Isaac Newton carried a secret so dark he buried it beneath layers of stone and forbidden magic. But now the secret is out and people are dying.

Will Trina have enough time to solve the mystery before disaster strikes?

I met Steve a few years ago at Superstars Writing Seminars, but really got to know him more in the last year or so when we both had stories in the Cursed Collectibles Anthology. When Steve told me about his new book coming out and I read the description, I knew this was something I wanted to read because it was right up my alley.

But when I sat down to start the book, I didn’t predict how much I would love it straight off the bat. It reminded me a lot of when I first sat down to read The DaVinci Code, which was my first introduction to adult thrillers in general and more specifically to thrillers with a historical angle to them. I fell instantly love with this subgenre and all these years later, The Newton Cipher delivers the same captivating reading experience.

I read almost the first half of the book in one evening and then finished up the rest the following weekend. The book gets quickly underway, delivering a smart, fresh story that, unlike some others I can think of in the genre, is as well-written as it is entertaining. I enjoyed the historical angle Ruskin covers in this story and think it is a fantastic introduction to a new series. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment. Actually I need about ten more of these books, stat!

I particularly loved the meticulous research that went into the story and those that have previously visited London and Cambridge will enjoy journeying back to England in The Newton Cipher. Since it is 2020, I’ll note that the book does contain mention of a plague which is about as eerie and unsettling as you’d imagine it would be to read about while experiencing a global pandemic. Of course, I have to give credit where credit is due and Ruskin gets all those details exactly right as well. I just wish we weren’t actually having to live through it to fact-check that part.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced and fun new read this fall, definitely pick up a copy of The Newton Cipher on Amazon!

Today I’m also excited to bring you more than a book review – Steve agreed to do an interview with me AND give away a signed paperback copy. Make sure you read all the way to the end to find out how you can win your own copy of the book!

Shannon Fox (SF): You’re a historian of science. What exactly is that, how did you become one, and how does it inform your writing?

Steve Ruskin (SR): I have a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science, which is a sub-field of history in general. As an undergrad I studied various sciences and engineering, and also history. I think I loved history most of all, but still had a heart for science. Around my junior year, I learned that there were universities with entire departments devoted to the history of science! So I applied to a few, got in (I chose Notre Dame), and that was that.

As to myself, for a long time I wrote a lot of non-fiction about the history of science, and, when I started writing fiction, that history stuff invariably spilled over into my fiction writing. My first professional short story sale was inspired by a book of scientific drawings I had in my personal library. And recently, of course, I wrote this new novel called The Newton Cipher

SF: What inspired The Newton Cipher?
SR: This is tough, as I don’t exactly remember. The real Isaac Newton was very interested in alchemy, and a few years ago I had a germ of an idea about his alchemical work being more than just an interest, but a full-on scandal, a secret that he tried very hard to bury. From there, it made sense to me that the story should become a thriller, the kind where a modern person stumbles upon that forgotten secret, and, well, BAD THINGS start to happen and suddenly the world is in danger unless the secret is solved. So, I ran with it.

Plus, I used to live in Cambridge, England, and spent a lot of time in London, so I already had my setting all picked out!

SF: Were you a Newton scholar before you write this book?
SR: Not really, at least not in the sense of having written anything about Isaac Newton as a scholar. I had however studied him as part of my PhD coursework, reading his work (like his Opticks, and some of his other stuff). He is one of the truly pivotal figures in the history of science, so given my studies in that field it was inevitable I should know something about him.

SF: Do you have a connection to South Bend, Indiana?
SR: My PhD is from the University of Notre Dame, which is in South Bend. So I lived there for about five years. Being from Colorado it was far too flat and I don’t miss it now, but it’s a beautiful campus, especially in the Fall.

SF: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
SR: Like any book, just cranking through the actual writing is the hard part. I more or less knew how it was going to go, but there are always surprises in the plot even you the author can’t predict. I do admit I had to spend a good deal of time working out the various codes and ciphers that my fictional Isaac Newton left behind, in order to make them as believable as possible. So I did spend a lot of time fussing with that.

SF: What period of history is your favorite?
SR: Just one? I’ll give you three: in the ancient world, the Golden Age of Athens (under Pericles) and the Pax Romana of Rome (under Marcus Aurelius) were both pretty awesome. And I’m quite fond of Victorian England as well. Those would have all been fun times to live. Or to visit, if you had a time machine…

As to the time when Isaac Newton was alive? There was a little too much bubonic plague for my liking in the mid-17th century. And war. And fire. But it makes for a great story setting. 🙂

SF: What’s one stupid cool fact of science history you bet most people don’t know?
SR: “Stupid cool”, huh? Hmm…how about this?

Everyone knows Charles Darwin was hesitant to publish on his theory of natural selection, due to concerns about both its implications for religion and contemporary scientific theory. So, he sat on it for roughly two decades. In the meantime, he was absolutely and utterly obsessed with barnacles. You know, the things that attach themselves to the bottoms of ships? But from Darwin’s perspective, barnacles (or Cirripedia), provided crucial insights into his theory. He studied both living and fossilized barnacles and used them as a model for his understanding of how species developed over time. Crazy, huh?

In fact, Darwin was so obsessed with barnacles–I mean, he worked on them for hours a day, for many years–that his children just assumed dissecting barnacles was what everyone’s father did. One day, when his son Leonard went to a friend’s house to play, Leonard reportedly walked into the friend’s house, looked around with a puzzled expression, and then said “Where does your father do his barnacles?”

SF: Who is your favorite scientist?
SR: The word ‘scientist’ wasn’t coined until 1833. So it would be anachronistic to call people scientists before then. Alas, this fact excludes people like Isaac Newton, and Leonardo Da Vinci, and even women like Margaret Cavendish from being called proper scientists. Those folks would have thought of themselves as ‘natural philosophers.’

“Fine,” you say. “But aren’t you just being pedantic?” Yeah, probably. But I just want to clarify, that when I say my all-time favorite scientist was Galileo, that he wasn’t technically a scientist. He was a natural philosopher. And also a badass.

SF: What authors have inspired you on your writing journey?
SR: There are honestly too many to mention. So many contemporary writers, both friends and mentors, inspire me all the time, and I am fortunate to be in a community of writers (which includes you, Ms. Fox), who keep me inspired by their hard work. Among the authors whom I love to read, however, and who inspire me by their own work, are Neal Stephenson, Michael Flynn, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. And if I don’t stop typing now, I could probably extend this list to 100 or more.

SF: What was your writing (and rewriting) process like?
SR: I tend not to rewrite too much, but I do spend a lot of time on my first draft so that the second draft is mostly refining.

SF: Do you use a computer or write by hand before transcribing?
SR: Computer. I’d love to be one of those who write their first draft by hand, but my handwriting sucks. I’d end up looking at the manuscript and thinking, ‘What the hell is this gibberish?”

SF: Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what do you like to listen to?
SR: Yes, I often do, but rarely music with words. I try to find soundtracks and “mood” music on Amazon Music. I also like the really cool 10-minute clips on TabletopAudio.com. They are designed for gamers, but they can really help writers set the mood for different scenes.

SF: What did you edit out of this book?
SR: Many, many, many mistakes. And bad ideas. And things I thought were funny at the time but clearly were not. Like, not even close.

SF: What’s next for Trina and crew?
SR: I’ve been thrilled at the response to The Newton Cipher, and readers tell me they want more. So, there are some fun things ahead for Trina and crew. Let me just say that I love Europe, have lived and traveled there extensively, and so I think Trina will find herself doing the same things as she realizes that the forces of evil, who still want to possess ancient alchemical secrets, are none too happy that Trina stopped their little scheme in London, and are now looking to execute their nefarious plans elsewhere…

SF: Where can people find out more about you and your upcoming projects?
SR: On the web I’m at www.steveruskin.com, where people can sign up for my newsletter (and get a free book!). I’m also on Facebook at facebook.com/SteveRuskinAuthor. Stop by!

How to Win a Free Copy of The Newton Cipher

Thank you to Steve for agreeing to give you a chance to win a free signed copy of his new book!

Entering is easy – all you have to do is leave a comment below with the name of your favorite scientist (or favorite historical fact!) to be entered to win!

This contest is also open on Instagram and Facebook so please visit my pages to see the corresponding post with more instructions on how to get extra chances to win! The contest is open from now until September 6th, 2020!
Business, Non-Fiction, Personal Development, Reviews, Self-Help

Stillness is the Key

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

All great leaders, thinkers, artists, athletes, and visionaries share one indelible quality. It enables them to conquer their tempers. To avoid distraction and discover great insights. To achieve happiness and do the right thing. Ryan Holiday calls it stillness–to be steady while the world spins around you.

In this book, he outlines a path for achieving this ancient, but urgently necessary way of living. Drawing on a wide range of history’s greatest thinkers, from Confucius to Seneca, Marcus Aurelius to Thich Nhat Hanh, John Stuart Mill to Nietzsche, he argues that stillness is not mere inactivity, but the doorway to self-mastery, discipline, and focus.

Holiday also examines figures who exemplified the power of stillness: baseball player Sadaharu Oh, whose study of Zen made him the greatest home run hitter of all time; Winston Churchill, who in balancing his busy public life with time spent laying bricks and painting at his Chartwell estate managed to save the world from annihilation in the process; Fred Rogers, who taught generations of children to see what was invisible to the eye; Anne Frank, whose journaling and love of nature guided her through unimaginable adversity.

More than ever, people are overwhelmed. They face obstacles and egos and competition. Stillness Is the Key offers a simple but inspiring antidote to the stress of 24/7 news and social media. The stillness that we all seek is the path to meaning, contentment, and excellence in a world that needs more of it than ever. 

Back in December, I restarted my morning routine practice after feeling like I’d gotten a little off track in my life last year and struggled more than I wanted to. I’d say my practice is a combination of Hal Elrond’s Miracle Morning and Rachel Hollis’ Start Today. And an important component of what I do every morning is ready. But it has to be a book that’s either related to business or personal development.

I don’t always review the books I read in the morning on my blog, though it’s amazing how many you can crank through when you read a chapter or so a day. And yes I know, cranking through isn’t the point of these types of books. But I do read a lot more of them then I actually cover on the blog so if you’re wondering if I’ve read something, check out my Goodreads!

Stillness is the Key is the first book I’ve read by Ryan Holiday and my first real introduction to stoicism, though I’ve heard the term before. This was a fantastic read, just in terms of the content, stories, and teaching packed into such a small book. But I really identified with the practice and ideas of stoicism, at least the way Holiday presents them. I signed up for his daily newsletter after I read the book and it’s actually been several months since I finished Stillness is the Key and I’m still loving these teachings.

I think stoicism is a slight misnomer if you’re not familiar with the concept. To me, I associate the word “stoic” with being tough and strong, even in the face of immense mental or physical pain. If you’ve read George Orwell’s, Animal Farm, I think Boxer the horse embodies the concept of “stoic,” at least the way I’ve always thought of it. I might not have mentioned this on this blog before, but I identify with Boxer in how I approach work/life which SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t read the book, but that’s not always a good thing. I acknowledge the good in the way that I am and I also use Boxer as a reminder of where that slippery slope can lead.

But that’s not really the use of the word “stoic” that’s on display in the concept of stoicism. Used in the way Holiday means it, Stoicism is more about creating mental fortitude, cultivating inner peace, and finding the kind of stillness that allows great leaders to make game-changing decisions with clarity and precision of thought. In short, if you’re trying to survive as a high achiever in the modern world, get this book. It is an introduction and a road map to the intensely different way of living we are all craving. This movement is growing louder, about rejecting the hustle, hustle, hustle mindset for a quieter, more focused and measured way of being.

You’ve probably heard the story about the two woodcutters. Taking a stoic approach to business is to me, a lot like that. Sharpen your ax, take deliberate, thoughtful action, and at the end of the day, reap the benefits.

I’m excited to continue cultivating the wisdom and practice of stoicism. I’ll definitely be rereading this book soon and I plan on picking up the rest of Holiday’s books for my morning reading.

Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Forty Autumns

Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner

In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.

Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.

In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.

A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family.

When my book club picked this one, I’ll be honest and say I didn’t look at it too closely when I ordered it. So when it came in the mail, I glanced at it and was like, “Cool, they picked another WWII book” and nightstanded it. Cause ya’ll know how I feel about WWII books.
Then when my friend texted me to see if I’d started it yet and was liking it, I dug it back out of the pile and actually READ what it was about. Turns out it’s not about WWII, but the Cold War.

And then I started reading it and HOLY WOW this book was so good. I feel like I say this about every memoir I read, but honestly some people have absolutely fascinating lives. This one is the story of a family divided by the Berlin Wall for 40 years. About the family that stayed behind in East Germany and the branch of the family that went to West Germany and ultimately the United States.

Not only is this book a riveting, absolutely fascinating read, but the quality of the writing is also excellent. The result is a stunning portrait of life behind the Iron Curtain, contrasted with a portrait of life in the West during the Cold War years. A story so richly and deftly intertwined, a fiction writer couldn’t have done it better.

If you like memoirs, family stories, and history, GET THIS BOOK. I feel like this is an under-the-radar memoir that we all need to stop sleeping on. Especially because some of what is discussed in terms of what life was like at the start and end of the Cold War is applicable to our current world – and also left me with a measure of hope in these tough times. If the Berlin Wall can fall not with a bang, but with a whimper, then this too shall pass. I believe.

Children, Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews, Young Adult

Here There Be Dragons

Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen

An unusual murder brings together three strangers, John, Jack, and Charles, on a rainy night in London during the first World War. An eccentric little man called Bert tells them that they are now the caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica — an atlas of all the lands that have ever existed in myth and legend, fable and fairy tale. These lands, Bert claims, can be traveled to in his ship the Indigo Dragon, one of only seven vessels that is able to cross the Frontier between worlds into the Archipelago of Dreams.

Pursued by strange and terrifying creatures, the companions flee London aboard the Dragonship. Traveling to the very realm of the imagination itself, they must learn to overcome their fears and trust in one another if they are to defeat the dark forces that threaten the destiny of two worlds.

I met the author of this book (and the subsequent other titles in the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series) a few years ago at Superstars Writing Seminars in Colorado Springs. I’ve heard the story of this book’s publication a few times and it never fails to both impress and move me to tears. But only recently did I get around to reading the first book in the series.

It proved to be another perfect quarantine pick. Imaginative, fun, charming – the perfect antidote to long days of worry about the world, cabin fever, and growing wanderlust.

To me, Here, There Be Dragons is a wonderful nod to classic children’s fantasy by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carrol, L. Frank Baum, and many others. I admit to not being super well-versed in all of the classic children’s fantasy titles – I’ve never read A Wrinkle in Time or A Wizard of Earthsea. But I’ve read enough to say that if you enjoyed the above authors and their stories, you will love this book. Even as an adult coming to this series for the first time, I found much to love here and knew I would have been obsessed with this series as a kid.

Growing up, we had a small, highly-stylized globe that bore the inscription “here, there be dragons.” I love that this series used this classic cartographic feature as a jumping off point – that “here, there be dragons” literally means, dragons, and also that sailing into uncharted waters brings you a world of myth and magic and fantasy – and also dragons.  I don’t want to reveal a few of the twists that occur in the story, but I will say they were all absolutely delightful and everything I could have hoped for and more.

Finally, it should be noted that the author is a supremely talented illustrator and both the cover and the artwork inside the book (there’s an illustration that heads each chapter) are the work of the author.

I am looking forward to acquiring the next volumes in the series and continuing on with the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica!

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Horror, Mystery, Paranormal, Reviews, Sci-Fi, Young Adult

The Diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City—and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.

Evie worries he’ll discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.

As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho hides a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened.

I loved Libbra Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty series when it came out, but I haven’t really kept up with her other books over the years. I can’t remember if I found The Diviners series because I stumbled on the series while looking for comp titles on Amazon or an IG post from author Roshani Chokshi inspired me to check out, but both together ultimately motivated me to order the first book in the series.

I usually keep my reviews on Isle of Books positive these days and only review books I thoroughly enjoyed. And I DID thoroughly enjoyed this one, but I have to say I did not like the way Evie spoke. I DO think her voice is very true to the time…I just personally don’t like the way people spoke at that time in American history. I find it grating and I have a hard time watching old movies for the same reason. So while I’m commenting on this to say that the main character does have a distinctive voice that didn’t appeal to me…the story and series is so darn good and intriguing I read it anyway. And I already bought the next book. That should give you an idea of how strong I think this book is overall that I’m still recommending it despite having a personal beef with the main character’s voice!

This book does an excellent job laying the groundwork for what I think will be a unique, immersive, and addicting series. The first book is rather lengthy, but it does an extraordinary amount of world-building, introduces us to a big cast of characters, opens the door to what I think will be a series-spanning arc of solving a cataclysmic problem, and combines the best of many different genres into one neat package (History! Paranormal! Horror! Mystery! Young Adult! Steampunk!) The Diviners feels like the start to a boldly ambitious series and I. Am. Here. For. It.

I will note that I’m not a big fan of horror because I’m easily scared…and this book creeped me out in places. It’s definitely on the more horror-y side of things. And still I kept going because I was intrigued by the characters and the story, both the plot that spans the pages of The Diviners and the larger plot that we just get a taste of in this book.

As I mentioned above, I already bought the second book in the series and am excited to dive back into this quartet of books!

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Mystery, Paranormal, Reviews

The Girl With No Face

The Girl With No Face by M.H. Borosan

It’s the end of the Nineteenth Century. San Francisco’s cobblestone streets are haunted, but Chinatown has an unlikely protector in a young Daoist priestess named Li-lin. Using only her martial arts training, spiritual magic, a sword made from peachwood, and the walking, talking spirit of a human eye, Li-lin stands alone to defend her immigrant community from supernatural threats.

But when the body of a young girl is brought to the deadhouse Li-lin oversees for a local group of gangsters, she faces her most bewildering—and potentially dangerous—assignment yet. The nine-year-old has died from suffocation . . . specifically by flowers growing out of her nose and mouth. Li-lin suspects Gong Tau, a dirty and primitive form of dark magic. But who is behind the spell, and why, will take her on a perilous journey deep into a dangerous world of ghosts and spirits.

Not too long ago I raved about how much I enjoyed The Girl With Ghost Eyes. Well, The Girl With No Face managed to be even BETTER.

The second in the Daoshi Chronicles series, The Girl With No Face took everything that I loved about the first book and paired it with even stronger character development for Li-Lin and other returning characters. In particular (and this is a slight spoiler) the relationship between Li-lin and her father is a standout in this book.

What this series does really well I think (but it often isn’t mentioned in reader reviews and I didn’t mention this myself when I reviewed the first book) is it presents a strong female character that also feels contextualized to her time and culture. So yes Li-lin is a kickass heroine, but she doesn’t feel wildly anachronistic. She feels like she belongs in 1899 San Francisco and that makes her struggles and character development feel believable. There are also some nice gendered cultural touchstones in this book that are very, very well done (in particular, a conversation about foot binding and a conversation about why Li-lin’s father wanted a boy, not a girl).

The other thing it does well is present Chinese culture in a way that doesn’t feel Westernized or watered down. I would say I have an above-average knowledge of China, her history, and her culture (compared to the average American which is, I know, a super low bar), but a lot of the stories, figures, and cultural practices are things I’ve never heard of or even have the glimmer of a memory that maybe I learned about it in the past. Obviously I can’t comment on the accuracy of everything that’s used, but wow am I learning a lot by reading this series.

If you liked, but didn’t love the first book in the series, I would recommend continuing on to this one because it raised the bar on the series and I’m very, very excited for the next to come out (whenever that is).

The only thing I actually don’t like about The Daoshi Chronicles series is that I’m discovering this when it’s only two books deep. I could use about ten more of these right now haha.

I also want to note this series would be a great quarantine choice. They’re fun, fast-paced, magical, transportive, non-depressing, and they’ll teach you something if you’re open to learning, but you’re not at all required to do deep, meditative thinking.

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Reviews, Young Adult

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

I first saw mention of The Ten Thousand Doors of January online, but it really piqued my interest when I visited Mysterious Galaxy bookstore last summer and saw it on the shelf as a staff pick. I still didn’t buy it, but a few moments after that it was suggested as our February book club pick and I enthusiastically backed it.

I loved, loved, loved this book. The writing is absolutely fantastic. The story rich, detailed, and imaginative. This world is one I hope we get to revisit again and again in subsequent books. It’s no wonder this debut had so much buzz around it and a Hugo and Nebula nomination to back it up! Incredibly well deserved in my opinion.

I don’t want to talk specifics because it’s easy to give away plot twists and the magic of reading this book for the first time. You should really just experience it for yourself. But I will say that if you read the back cover copy and think you know what this book is – you’re wrong. This is a book that surprises just as much as it enchants.

Definitely don’t miss this one!

Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

One day, Lori Gottlieb is a therapist who helps patients in her Los Angeles practice. The next, a crisis causes her world to come crashing down. Enter Wendell, the quirky but seasoned therapist in whose office she suddenly lands. With his balding head, cardigan, and khakis, he seems to have come straight from Therapist Central Casting. Yet he will turn out to be anything but.

As Gottlieb explores the inner chambers of her patients’ lives — a self-absorbed Hollywood producer, a young newlywed diagnosed with a terminal illness, a senior citizen threatening to end her life on her birthday if nothing gets better, and a twenty-something who can’t stop hooking up with the wrong guys — she finds that the questions they are struggling with are the very ones she is now bringing to Wendell.

I like getting book recommendations from other people because sometimes it leads to a book I really enjoy that I never would have picked up on my own.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is that book. The premise of “a therapist, her therapist, and our lives” revealed didn’t necessarily hook me. But a strong recommendation led to me opening up the book and getting hooked on the first few pages.
In her book, Gottlieb not only chronicles her work as a therapist, she tells the story of the evolution of a few different patients and her own time spent in therapy. I think anyone who’s done any type of therapy themselves will appreciate this book, as the actual act of therapy in the book is comfortingly familiar, even if the individual narratives that unfold are not.
I do wonder how Gottlieb went about selecting the patients to include in her book. She did a good job picking a group that had both wildly different issues, but no less engaging personality quirks. In particular the lonely old woman who’s planning to kill herself before her next birthday, the young woman dying of cancer, and the television writer with the asshole personality really stood out to me.
Lori Gottlieb has a really accessible writing style that lends itself well to this type of storytelling. The kind of writing style that manages to be both dense, detailed, and highly engaging. I could have easily read this book in a sitting or two. But since I designated it for my morning reading (I try to read either a chapter or about fifteen minutes of a non-fiction book every morning), I read it in small pieces. Which meant each time I returned to it with a hunger to pick up the threads where I left off. Since the story jumps around in a way that wasn’t always linear, it meant I often had to read through chapters to get back to where I “left off” with a person to see what happens next for them. This didn’t bother me, but it might bother some people.
I would definitely recommend this book to someone looking for a new memoir-type read that is addictive and engaging. It’s definitely not a beach read as this book did make me cry in a few spots, but it’s a great book to get lost in and help you emerge with a more nuanced, considerate view of those people in your life you have written off as damaged or difficult.
As the saying goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Reviews, Young Adult

The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

I am a big fan of the Russian classics. I’ve read a good amount of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chesnokov. I even took a Russian literature class in college focused exclusively on Chesnokov. So in my opinion, The Bear and the Nightingale is everything you love (or maybe love to hate?) about the Russian classics, reimagined for the modern reader.

The Bear and the Nightingale is an incredibly atmospheric novel. It puts you deep into the snows of rural Russia, into a world where Christianity is warring with the old gods and old traditions. Where patriarchy is alive and well and women have little choices beyond marriage or taking the veil. In the midst of this is Vasilisa – Vasya. A strong-willed teenage girl with witchy magic who’ll do whatever it takes to save the ones she loves.

As I mentioned, this novel is incredibly atmospheric and feels like an old Russian novel reincarnated. That means the story at times is languid and utterly unhurried. The names are very Russian and difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with patronymics and the many, many nicknames each person accrues over a lifetime. But the writing is stunningly beautiful, the plot concept inventive, the setting immersive, and Vasya absolutely the kind of heroine you can root for. Also, can we talk about the gorgeous cover art?!

The first of three books, I have the sense that The Bear and the Nightingale may serve as a lengthy prologue for the story Arden is weaving. At the end of this first book, most plot points are not so much resolved as they are cracked open. A door to the real story Arden wishes to tell. I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the Winternighttrilogy and seeing if my prediction is correct!

Have you read the Russian classics? Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? Let me know what you think below!

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Mystery, Paranormal, Reviews

The Girl With Ghost Eyes

The Girl With Ghost Eyes by M.H. Borosan

It’s the end of the nineteenth century in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and ghost hunters from the Maoshan traditions of Daoism keep malevolent spiritual forces at bay. Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist, is a young widow burdened with yin eyes—the unique ability to see the spirit world. Her spiritual visions and the death of her husband bring shame to Li-lin and her father—and shame is not something this immigrant family can afford.

When a sorcerer cripples her father, terrible plans are set in motion, and only Li-lin can stop them. To aid her are her martial arts and a peachwood sword, her burning paper talismans, and a wisecracking spirit in the form of a human eyeball tucked away in her pocket. Navigating the dangerous alleys and backrooms of a male-dominated Chinatown, Li-lin must confront evil spirits, gangsters, and soulstealers before the sorcerer’s ritual summons an ancient evil that could burn Chinatown to the ground.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been on the hunt for possible comp titles for Shadow of the Magician in historical fiction. That means I’ve been deep diving on Amazon and Goodreads to find atypical novels of historical fiction to read and consider.

Of course, saying The Girl With Ghost Eyes is an atypical novel is the understatement of the decade. The Girl With Ghost Eyes is a wonderfully weird, intoxicating blend of Chinese myths and legends, ghosts, kung fu, and female empowerment set in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the 20th century.

This book was a fun ride from start to finish. I had to put it down when I went to Colorado for Christmas since I chose to bring (and finish!) Kingdom of Ash instead, but once I was back home, I could scarcely stop reading it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read and is absolutely delightful. I really hope someone makes it into a movie or tv show in the near future.

But aside from being a lot of fun, the history feels real, visceral, and well-researched. Reading through the author’s note at the back, I get the sense the author knows his stuff and so bends the facts of history/story/culture with a careful, precise hand to tell this compelling story.

I’ve already picked up the second book in the series to read, The Girl With No Face, which just came out in October. I’m looking forward to tucking into that as well, though after that’s done I’ll be stuck waiting for the next one to come out!