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The Way Back

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The Way Back by Gavriel Savit; Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pages ($18.99). Ages 13 and up. (Nov. 17 publication)


Two Jewish teenagers join forces to outwit the forces of Death in this mesmerizing blend of Jewish folklore and ghost story by the author of "Anna and the Swallow Man."

Yehuda Leib, the scrappy, small, blue-eyed son of a poor woman, is a magnet for trouble ("always brawling, climbing, running") in the small Jewish village of Tupik in 19th century Eastern Europe. He is sent away from Tupik by his mother for fear he will be conscripted into the tsar's army, but an unexpected confrontation in the forest sends him on a different quest, desperately seeking to recover a soul from Death.

Meanwhile, Bluma Zalman, the baker's daughter, is mourning the death of her grandmother and trying to escape the Angel of Death who seeks to reclaim a powerful instrument that has attached itself to Bluma.

The narrative follows Yehuda and Bluma on their parallel journeys in the Far Country, beyond the cemetery, until their paths intersect as both humans and demons flock to the town of Zubinsk where an open invitation has been issued for the wedding of the beloved Rebbe's youngest granddaughter.

Savit is a richly descriptive writer: "Feet and hooves and studded wheels churned the grass into a muddy slaw." The butcher was "a man who wore blood as comfortably as others wore clothes." He also has a gift for horror, with such creepy details as an enchanted metal spoon with a razor-sharp edge, a wheelchair constructed of very long, still growing fingernails.

His novel offers richly drawn characters, an intriguing cast of demons, dark humor (Bluma's grandmother's hilarious conversation with the Dark Messenger, for one) and dizzying suspense. This original and thrilling fantasy will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman.

"The Way Back" is one of 10 finalists for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

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I love finding books that stick with me. Ones that have me staring at the silverware drawer and recalling pieces of the story weeks later.
THE WAY BACK is one of my favorite reads this year. It’s stunning. The writing is lyrical, atmospheric, and rich in Jewish folklore. If you read The Graveyard Book and wanted more, then you’ll likely enjoy this novel. This is one of those books that I wanted to put in my pocket and snack on so I could savor it in pieces.
In THE WAY BACK Yehuda Leib and Bluma each struggle with grief and loss. Bluma tries her best to escape Death after her grandmother’s own violent struggle with the entity while Yehuda Leib rushes headlong toward it after the unfortunate death of his father. Both journey through the Far Country and treat with demons on their quest to overcome Death.
This is a Young Adult novel with some upper Middle-Grade crossover. Some readers unfamiliar with Hebrew may find aspects of this novel challenging, I received an ARC through Netgalley, so I hope that final versions will include Hebrew translations in either a footnote or in the back. I’m extremely rusty on my Hebrew and had to just bookmark the pages to translate later when I had time. That said, it’s only a few lines, so it’s not a huge impact on the story.
I’ll be making a special trip to pick up a hardcover copy of this book very soon.

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As I’m sure most of us can agree, as a reader we love any and all stories. For me my first love was classic fairy tales and folklore so when I saw The Way Back on NetGalley advertised as a historical fantasy brushing the realms of folklore I had to beg for the copy. I was thrilled to receive it and enjoyed every single page.

The Way Back follows a boy named Yehuda Leib and a girl named Bluma as they both chase after the Angel of Death for their own reasons. For Eastern European Jews there is the belief that demons have a land of their own: a Far Country peopled with the souls of the transient dead, governed by demonic dukes, barons, and earls.

In their adventures we see Yehuda and Bluma struggle towards their goals and face the realities of the realm they find themselves in. I loved the fantastical elements of the story and loved the rich descriptions and interwoven details throughout the book.

I admit that I am not Jewish and while I know some folklore originating from the Jewish faith I cannot claim to know enough to feel a connection to parts of the story I’m sure others will pick up on if they are more versed in that faith. I was, however, drawn to the emotions and culture of the characters as they struggled through their journey and I began researching a bit after finishing the book which speaks to the author’s ability to transcend across religious and cultural lines.

The writing style was beautiful and I cannot say much more than that. I was in love with every single word choice, not once wrinkling my nose at the pace of the sentence, the punctuation or description. I find this to be rare as we all have styles we prefer and while I’ve never read anything by Gavriel Savit before it did feel a bit like “coming home” when I was reading.

If I had to complain about anything in this story it was that I didn’t feel like I knew the characters as well as you may find in other novels. I wanted to know more about Yehuda and Bluma, I wanted to know more of their backstories so that I may have connected to them a bit better. While I still cared for each of them immensely I felt like I still had hundreds of questions for each of them by the time I finished reading the book.

While the overall pace of the story may feel slow for some to me it felt like a proper immersion into the world I was entering. Perhaps that is all to do with timing of when I picked up the book, the mood I was in, etc. but I enjoyed the pace though same may deem it slow to start.

If you love folklore, fantasy and tales of people struggling to overcome many challenges you will definitely enjoy The Way Back. I would say this may be better classified as more Middle Grade than Young Adult but readers of both age groups will be able to enjoy this story (and myself at thirty-one years enjoyed it very much indeed.)

Thank you to NetGalley, Knopf Books for Young Readers and Gavriel Savit for the chance to read the ARC of this wonderful story.

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This book is/was a difficult read for me. Normally I get really excited when books are referenced to other authors whose books are similar. In this case, this book was not very fluid or for the first 25% I was rather bored with it.

I liked the history and how everything interconnected, but when 'Death' arrived on the scene, the visualization of what was going on in the various scenes became a confused mess for me.

Others appeared to really enjoy this book, and perhaps it was one of those where it was me not the book.

If you enjoy a mixture of folklore then you would certainly enjoy this book.

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Yehuda Leib and Bluma are two regular Jewish kids, living in Eastern Europe. But when they both encounter Death, they find themselves in the Far Country, one running from Death and one toward it. Can they survive the horde of demons that want to capture and use them?

I received an advanced reading copy of The Way Back in exchange for an honest review.

The Way Back is a fantasy novel by Gavriel Savit. It’s a novel that blends history, magic, and Jewish tradition. It’s also one of those novels that seems deceptively easy, but has so many layers to it once you start thinking about it. The novel’s language was simple, almost fairy-tale like, yet beautiful. In fact, I think the language would make this the perfect novel for a variety of ages, so while I’m going to call this young adult, I think middle-grade readers would be able to appreciate and enjoy it too.

This is a very difficult novel to review for me. The depth of it was fascinating, but it took me a while to understand what the main plot was. But I kind of liked that. It felt… I want to say it felt more organic. Most novels nowadays have a very straightforward plot, but it’s true that life in general isn’t straightforward, and the Far Country isn’t straightforward either. There’s chaos, and sometimes you seem to be going down one path, but then find yourself going down another. In fact, there’s several moments in the book where stuff like this gets brought up by the characters.

For characters we have Yehuda Leib and Bluma, both of whom find themselves in the Far Country after a series of wrong turns. And while they both end up in the same place, they couldn’t be more different. They spend a large part of the novel separated, actually, but even when they’re together, it’s obvious that they’re both completely different. The choices they make, the paths they take, everything. It just serves to highlight each of their qualities, and I thought both of them are easy to identify with, despite their differences. I found moments where I understood each of them, although I connected more with Yehuda Leib than Bluma, to be completely honest.

But the best part of this novel was the description of the Far Country. Every part of it came to life in Savit’s narration. I could see the demons, could hear the crunch of the snow, I could practically feel how the places would approach based on the traveler’s intention. It was spectacular to spend time here, and even when Savit took me to the little villages nearby, in our world, they just felt so realistic. And it’s not because of all the description, but more like the tone of the narrative, everything sort of came together to create a the feeling of actually living through this novel. It was so well done!

The Way Back will be released on November 17. You can pre-order your copy from Penguin Random House here.

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This is a story that is visually amazing! Even though its in book form you will dive right in and be taken away to a new world that is breathtaking! I love this story so much! The characters are just amazing and will keep you reading until the last page.

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This was a seriously good, but challenging read.

This rich tale based on folklore and myths takes us into a world of demons and other supernaturals. The narrative, and the slow pacing may put off the anxious readers looking for something in your face scary and fast-paced.

We follow two young people who are after the Angel of Death for two different reasons. Bluma, who had stolen something from Death is an entirely different emotional state than Yehuda Leib who is trying to retrive something that's been taken from him. Both leave their villages on this mission and they soon intertwine.

I am drawn toward folklore of any kind. I love opening myself up to other cultures and other myths. It was refreshing to have one from the Jewish perspective. I think this book is a gem amongst it's peers. But perhaps that was my downfall, as well. I know next to nothing about Jewish folklore and that may have distanced me more than I was with the characetrs. I'll explain that below.

What I wished for was a little more backstory on both characters. I felt distanced, disconnected. While Yehuba had a bit of a past, we learned next to nothing about Bluma and why she had done what she'd done and reacted the way she reacted. Some reviewers will call this, "caring about the characters" and while I did feel something, I was not 100% invested.

This is a middle-grade book, and certainly one that sets itself apart. I applaud the author for his wonderful prose and storytelling. At its core, this is a book about love, loss, and grief and I think it will resonate with many people.

I recieved an arc from NetGalley.

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Thank you to Netgalley and Random House Children’s for an advanced copy of The Way Back, in exchange for an honest review.

The Way Back by Gavriel Savit is a YA fantasy novel based on eastern European Jewish folklore. Yehuda Leib and Bluma both live in a shtetl in eastern Europe. Yehuda Leib runs away from home to avoid being kidnapped and being pressed into the Tsar’s army. Bluma runs away when she accidentally steals the Angel of Death’s instrument when her bubbe dies. Both of them negotiate the world of spirits to meet their temporary goals, as well as find their way back home.

Given that the book is supposed to be based on Jewish folklore, of course Lilith plays a large role. In homage to more modern interpretations of Lilith, she is not portrayed as clearly good or bad. Lilith was Adam’s first wife, who left him when she wasn’t treated as an equal. She was then said to steal babies. More modern interpretations focus on Lilith’s grievances, rather than her evil actions. In this story, Lilith definitely has her own agenda, but she isn’t easily categorized as evil.

I enjoyed the character of the Rebbe. I feel like most of the religious figures in what I’ve read recently end up being disappointing at best, despicable at worst. At first, it seems like the Rebbe is merely around as a plot device. The demons and spirits are on the move to take advantage of the wedding of the powerful Rebbe’s last child. The Rebbe actually ends up being very helpful, without playing too large of a role, though his last act is anachronistic.

Overall, I didn’t feel the sense of connection I felt when reading similar stories, but it was interesting and enjoyable.

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The Way Back very lyrical and fairytale like, and it was lovely to read a story about Jewish culture that wasn’t about the Holocaust. I feel like they are few and far between. It took me a while to get into it but then I was hooked by the creepiness of it. That being said, I found some of the plot confusing and was lost a lot of the time. I don’t know if it was the writing style or just the nature of the vague world of the Far Country. I felt like it was reminiscent of The Cruel Prince and The Book Thief, with the whimsical writing and dangerous world of magic, as well as Death being a major character.

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Even as someone that knows little to no information about Jewish people and their beliefs, this books was easy to follow along with and is really excellent at puling you in to keep reading more. I had the hardest time putting the story down, actually, and finished within a day. Interesting book I'd definitely recommend to someone looking for something different than the main stream stuff that's popular.

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Intricate, layered journey through the land of demons. For lovers of complicated fantasy. The beginning has somewhat jumpy pacing; I had trouble connecting with the characters.

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I wanted to love this book. I really did. The writing is gorgeous. The folklore is woven together so well and brings to light a lot of Jewish mythology/demonology that is generally not acknowledged or represented in mainstream books for young people. My problem was with the main characters. Bluma and Yehuda Leib are both chasing the Angel of Death for different reasons. Unfortunately, we don't learn much about them before their quests begin. Yehuda Leib has a bit more back story, some of which is revealed along the way, which is fine. I understood his motivation. I had a harder time understanding why Bluma reacted the way she did and why she made her series of choices throughout the book. I would have given this 5 stars if I'd been able to care about the characters more. I'm also not sure what ages to suggest this book for. The best I can say is middle schoolers and up who can appreciate literary writing.

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Fabulous, But Challenging

This is a marvelous and richly imagined tale of adventure and suspense. But the very richness of the narrative, the supernatural setting, and the cultural connections can make reading some parts of the book rather daunting.

Basically, we follow our two heroes, Yehuda Leib and Bluma, as they travel through a "Far Country" underworld of demons, spirits and folk characters. Both children have suffered the loss of a loved one, and overcoming their grief and anger, while trying to return home, (the "Way Back" of the title), is the subtext that keeps the narrative wheels turning.

The book takes quite a while to get going. We spend a lot of time meeting our heroes and wandering the streets of their home, the little shtetl of Tupik. This part of the book is practically a course in the culture of Eastern European Jews of a certain time, and is beautifully rendered and fascinating, but it presents a slow opening to what is billed as a middle grade fantasy adventure. It sets the tone nicely, (being just a touch formal and arch), but does require some patience on the reader's part.

Once Death shows up, and each kid hero is launched into the unknown, the tale takes off. The heroes have differing motives and goals as they quest about, but eventually they meet up and develop a compelling and tender partnership. Death is both terrifying and a bit of a frazzled klutz, and this two-sided portrayal is playful and true to various different older folk traditions. From here on the heart of the book is presented in a sort of Alice's Adventures style with events, meetings, situations, and developments piling on top of each other and sending the two heroes every which way. Some scenes are played for humor, some for terror, some for awe, and some for general mystic and fabulous window dressing.

The tale is well written, with some stunning scenes and a good deal of arresting word play. Memorable characters abound. The entire tale has a storyteller feel, and by that I mean it feels like the tidied up transcript of a story that started out as an oral, or told, tale. You can almost hear this being spoken and performed as you read.

You know, all those middle grade books with Roman and Greek and Egyptian gods or Arthurian figures are certainly fine and entertaining. But this book affords the reader an exciting introduction to an entirely distinct and satisfyingly rich body of lore. For that, and because it stands in any event as a ripping adventure, it is a wonderful and unique find.

(Please note that I received a free ecopy of this book without a review requirement, or any influence regarding review content should I choose to post a review. Apart from that I have no connection at all to either the author or the publisher of this book.)

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Thank you Netgalley for the opportunity to read this novel!

Gavriel Savit has written a haunting, yet relevant story on grief. The story focuses on two children, Bluma and Yehuda Leib, as the struggle to grasp the death of family members: Bluma her grandmother and Yehuda his father. Savit weaves masterfully Jewish folklore to try to teach his audience the relationship one must have with Death. It is not of fear or anger but acceptance and understanding.

Yehuda Leib was born with sharp, perceptive, blue eyes. His mother struggled to raise him well without his father around (father being an abusive man--though he wasn't always). He is a troublemaker--not out of spite but because he is poor and must steal to help his mom out. Word travels in this small Jewish town that a terrible man is after Yehuda--a man who beats, kills, and drinks without remorse. HIs mother sends him off to run--run as far away as possible. For if this man finds him, he will have no qualm in conscripting a young boy to the Tsar army. The evil man, Yehuda will realize too late, is his father. Fate will rob Yehuda of his father and thus his journey to recapture and take his vengeance on Death begins.

Meanwhile, Bluma comes from a family who loves her. She smiles and frowns at the same time. Where Yehuda's eyes are sharp and observant, Bluma's mouth is locked in a tight grimace always. The only one in her family that truly understands her is her bubbe (grandmother) who is stitched the same way. When Bluma witnesses Death take her grandmother away, Bluma is filled with fear. Death drops its instrument--a spoon--that Bluma steals. Where Yehuda is off to fight Death, Bluma is trying to runaway from it.

After making deals, sacrifices, etc with demons that walk the area, both children realize that Death is not to be feared but embraced--allowed to work, not kill. Yehuda and Bluma realized they need each other as each nearly strip all that is each other to get closer to Death.

Savit does a brilliant job in explaining Death and grief--it is ok to grieve, to be afraid, to be angry. But Death is inevitable for all and all are not alone. .

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The Way Back is hands down my favorite book of 2020. It is absolutely fantastic. The atmosphere is so creepy and wonderful, the characters deep and thoughtful, and the plot is unforgettable. It basically tells the story of two young adults who end up running from Death into this place called the Far Country and what they have to do to get back out. Their stories overlap in such a cool way, but especially near the end. This book has it all, including a wheelchair made from human fingernails (still attached mind you). This is the best book of 2020 so far. Fantastic!

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This was a unique reading experience. It had a very classic fairytale feeling to the style, which when mingled with Jewish folklore (which I have very little reading experience with) made for something really special. It's quite the epic middle grade adventure as the young characters set off to face Death. The characters are well drawn and really drive the story. The fantasy parts of the story are absolutely gripping and held me enthralled, keeping me turning pages and reading well past bed time. I loved the creepy vibe.

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A beautiful and different story. Very much a fable or folk tale feel. I found the book and it's two main characters, Yehuda Leib and Bluma, well defined. At the core, a book about self, life, death and grief, I enjoyed the unique voice.

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The Way Back is Neil Gaiman's <i> Neverwhere </i> by way of Gregory Maguire's <i> Egg and Spoon </i>, rich with Jewish folkore and a wintery atmosphere that is all its own/ It is one of those stories where the targeted age bracket is difficult to qualify: while you could technically argue that it is a middle grade novel, the heavy themes of loss and grief and death and the impressive commentary about said themes make it a novel that will surely resound with adults as well.

The story follows a boy named Yehuda Leib and a girl named Bluma as they are accidentally thrust from their everyday lives into the twisted afterlife of the Far Country, squabbled over by factions of demons and ruled by the all-powerful Angel of Death. My favorite parts of the novel were actually the ones that leaned most heavily into the fantastical elements: Yehuda exploring Lord Mammon's Treasure Hoard, Yehuda and Bluma searching for information in Dantalion's realm, and Bluma's interactions with the insidious Lileen. While I also enjoyed the extended metaphor of grief and healing spread throughout, I think the novel could have also done with more of these eye-popping, extraordinary elements.

My other favorite aspect of the novel was how richly it connected to Jewish culture and history. I am half-Jewish by way of my father and was raised attending Synagogue on occasion and celebrating the High Holidays with my extended family. I find this story to be a gorgeous love-letter to Judiasm as much as it is anything else.. On a personal note, my deeply religious Jewish grandfather recently passed away, and I was struck by how much I saw the process of grief and morning, both personally and culturally, by myself and my family reflected within these pages. This was a very cathartic novel, and I am grateful to Savit for the surprising tenderness he injects into tragedy.

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I'm not really drawn to give a review for this one as it was sort of nothing to recommend in particular, and I'm sure there are reviewers who are much more interested in giving their thoughts.

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I don’t really know how to talk about this book. I liked it a lot, but otherwise I don’t really have a lot of opinions on it like I usually would. It was a bit slow to start off and had a lot of exposition just to make sure the reader knows about the village and the backstories of the characters. Once I got into it though, the demons and lore were really interesting to me, if not a little confusing. For a very long time it was really unclear to me what the goals of each character were, but by the end I think I knew most of them. I thought the characters, whether humans, demons, or Death, were fascinating and their actions seemed to make sense at least.
I really don’t know what this book is similar to. I don’t usually read anything like it, but it’s a historical fantasy with a lot of travel throughout realms and demons with various goals.

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