Five Directions Press
Books We Loved, Jan. 2023
Updated: Jan 18
A new year means a new book list. If you got gift cards or, better yet, an ebook reader or tablet for Christmas, here are three selections you may enjoy. And don’t forget to look for
C. P. Lesley’s Song of the Storyteller, which we put out on January 17, 2023—especially if you’d like to learn more about Ivan the Terrible and the bride show that led to his selection of Anastasia, mentioned in her first review below.
Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, The Witch and the Tsar
(Ace Books, 2022)
Any novel set in Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533–1584) is an instant draw for me; that is, after all, the setting for most of my own fiction. Throw in Baba Yaga, the wicked witch of Russian folklore, and give her a makeover, and I am hooked.
Throw out the warts and the cackle, the flying mortar and pestle, the human skulls lighted from within, and even the appellation “Baba” (“granny,” but also “hag” or “crone”). These attributes, according to Gilmore, are part of a vicious plot to discredit her heroine, Yaga—the half-mortal, extremely long-lived daughter of the Earth goddess Mokosh. Born in the tenth century, before the introduction of Christianity cast the old Slavic deities into the shade, Yaga has become a noted healer who doesn’t appear a day over thirty in 1560, when the story begins. Over the centuries, she has acquired a frenemy, Koshey (Koshchei) the Deathless, who for reasons that become clear during the novel has chosen to break his prior deal with Yaga and interfere once more in human affairs, pushing Tsar Ivan the Terrible along his path of suspicion and terror. The first victim is Tsaritsa Anastasia, a friend of Yaga’s before Anastasia’s selection as Ivan’s first royal bride. It’s that connection that draws Yaga into the fight. But the forces opposing her are immortal as well as mortal, complicating her efforts.
It’s all very well done, although the impact of Ivan’s atrocities and of Koshey’s insistence on violence as necessary to the survival of Russia is only heightened by Putin’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, which the author could not have anticipated when her book was accepted for publication. The history is mostly sound (allowing for the supernatural element) and the Russian correct, as one would expect of a native speaker. And there is the fun, for those in the know, of watching the author play with familiar (Little Hen, the hut on chicken feet) and new (Yaga’s immortal helpers, the wolf Dyen and the owl Noch, named for Day and Night, respectively) tropes from this set of ancient myths. If you like fantastical takes on history or reexaminations of literary villainesses, this novel is for you.—CPL
Allison Winn Scotch, The Rewind (Berkley, 2022)
Reimagine The Hangover as a classic ’90s rom-com, and what you'll end up with is The Rewind. It’s the eve of the new millennium, and Frankie and Ezra have returned to their college campus to celebrate their friends’ wedding. But after waking up together with wedding rings on their own fingers—ten years after their explosive breakup and the resulting decade of angry silence—and no memory of how they got there (or if they actually got married themselves), they have less than twelve hours to piece together the events of the previous evening before the wedding starts. And in order to do so, they also must piece together the fragments of their past relationship and forgive each other, and themselves.
The ’80s and ’90s nostalgia is almost a character in itself, and anyone who’s ever slipped into a pair of Doc Martens, strapped on a Walkman, and watched MTV for the videos will enjoy the flashes of simpler times (though Frankie and Ezra do their best to make them as complicated as possible). The story itself is endearing, as two seriously flawed characters learn how to set aside the shortcomings that caused them to fail the first time around and discover if the people they’ve become have a better shot.—CJH
Susan Stokes-Chapman, Pandora
(Harper Perennial, 2023)
It is the very end of the eighteenth century, and Pandora Blake—known as Dora—lives at the edge of London society. Despite the opposition of her obnoxious uncle Hezekiah and his live-in housekeeper/mistress Lottie, neither of whom has much interest in their orphaned charge, Dora has a dream. She wants to sketch jewelry designs that will appeal to the beauties of the haut ton, in the process earning Dora a livelihood sufficient to free her from her family’s antique shop, now in decline due to Hezekiah’s mismanagement. To that end, Dora spends hours in her attic bedchamber drawing with only her beloved magpie, Hermes, for company.
Even before we meet Dora in this enchanting yet troubling tale, we have encountered an unnamed diver bent on retrieving the cargo from a scuttered ship somewhere in the Mediterranean. It soon becomes clear that the mysterious cargo includes a massive Greek vase (more properly, a pithos, used for storing wine or grain), which Hezekiah acquires, together with a shipment of Greek pottery. Dora at first believes this is an attempt to save the store, but her uncle’s behavior raises questions—not least whether he obtained the pithos legally. To find out what Hezekiah has in mind, Dora enlists the help of a bookbinder, Edward Lawrence, setting them off on a journey that will lead deep into Dora’s past.
This is a novel of many layers, as intricately plotted as Dora’s jewelry designs, which seem to have inspired the book’s gorgeous cover. The characters and setting are Dickensian, yet the themes are modern and the reconsideration of the mythical story of Pandora’s Box rings true. Definitely a book worth reading. To find out more, listen to my interview with the author at New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL