Off the Shelf: Music, dragons, alternate worlds and time travel

by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I have very eclectic tastes when it comes to reading. That’s a fancy way of saying I like many different types of novels. If a book is good, it doesn’t matter to which genre it belongs. In most genres, it’s easy to find novels with Jewish content. That’s not true for fantasy and science fiction. So, I do take great pleasure in finding novels that include Jewish characters or themes because there are so few of them. Of the four novels in this review, two are aimed at adults and two are appropriate for young-adult/middle grade readers. The latter two have more Jewish content than the former two, but I was glad for the excuse to read all of them.

“A Song for a New Day” 

If I had to use one word to describe Sarah Pinsker’s “A Song for a New Day” (Berkley), that word would be passionate. This wonderful novel is filled with passion about music and how live music creates an experience unlike any other. I’m not certain whether it’s a blessing that the work’s plot echoes today’s world, but even those who don’t think they want to read a post-pandemic novel should find themselves engaged and excited.

The majority of the novel takes place in the future: the U.S. has banned in-person concerts and other large gatherings after terrorist attacks and a pandemic swept the country. Most people attend work or school by virtual means, and rarely have to leave home. Technology is now so advanced that people can send avatars to virtual bars and virtual concerts that make them feel as if they are really there. A few large corporations control almost all commerce. Yet, not everyone is content with this life, particularly Luce Cannon and Rosemary Laws. 

Luce is a musician who was just starting to make it big when the terrorist attacks began. She’d run away from her Orthodox parents and six siblings years before because there was no room in that world for a woman who is a musician and queer. What Luce loves is music: it fills her heart and soul in a way nothing else can. Rosemary, on the other hand, barely remembers the world before it changed. She lives her life as a customer sales person, which she does from her bedroom via virtual reality with no human contact needed. After Rosemary attends her first virtual concert, her life changes. She applies and is accepted for a new job for a corporation that holds virtual concerts: she is to find musicians who are performing illegal concerts and hire them. However, when Rosemary and Luce finally meet, Rosemary learns the difference between virtual and real audiences.

“A Song for a New Day” recently won the 2020 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the award is well deserved. Perhaps some of my love for this book is due to the fact that after 20 years without being able to listen to music, the author’s descriptions of listening to and/or playing music resonated. Pinsker’s ability to create characters who felt real is also amazing. To understand just how much I enjoyed her book, after finishing it, I immediately ordered her book of short stories. Pinsker is a writer to watch, even if you normally don’t like fantasy: the emotions in this book are real and raw – and wonderfully written.

“Anya and the Dragon”

A middle-grade fantasy novel about a Jewish girl that also features a dragon: I immediately knew I wanted to read Sofiya Pasternack’s “Anya and the Dragon” (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Although it takes place in a magic-filled version of 10th century Eastern Europe, many things are the same as they were in real life history: the Jewish population is persecuted by the tsar and his minions. 

Times are difficult for Anya’s family: her father has been forced to serve in the tsar’s army. The family may lose their home because they can’t afford to pay the taxes due. The use of magic is forbidden, which means that Anya’s mother and grandparents, all of whom have magic, may be in danger. However, Anya has a chance to help her family: if she works with one of the tsar’s henchmen – the only ones who are legally allowed to use magic – to find a local dragon, then she can earn the funds to pay the taxes her family owes. Doing so is not quite as simple as she imagined, though, especially once she learns the truth about the dragon. Anya is faced with a difficult choice: to help people she loves or the dragon who has become her friend.

“Anya and the Dragon” was great fun to read. Anya is a delight and the other characters are colorfully drawn. One of my favorites was a mercurial house spirit, who, in addition to having a beard and wearing clothes, sports a kippah on his curly hair because he lives in a Jewish household. This book is perfect for lovers of fantasy – be they young or just young of heart.

“The Lost Book of Adana Moreau”

“The Lost Book of Adana Moreau” by Michael Zapata (Hanover Square Press) is not really a fantasy novel. Instead, it’s a novel about a science fiction novel, although readers do learn the story of that novel, too. The narrative revolves around two different plot lines. One tells of Adana Moreau, a Dominican immigrant to the U.S. who publishes a successful science fiction novel, but who then destroys its sequel just before she dies. The second focuses on Jewish Saul Drower and his grandfather, who has just passed away. When Saul tries to fulfil his grandfather’s final request – mailing a manuscript to a professor living in Chile – the package is returned. Saul then begins his search for the professor, who is also Moreau’s son. 

The plot moves backward and forward in time as it tells the story of four different characters, until the survivors meet in post-Katrina New Orleans. The work contains a great deal of debate about alternative worlds and whether people exist in many different variations across those worlds. It also contains some heart-breaking stories of oppression, including Saul’s grandfather’s tale of what happened in Eastern Europe and stories of torture in contemporary South America.

Although I enjoyed parts of “The Lost Book of Adana Moreau,” the book never came together as a whole for me. Perhaps that is because I read it after finishing Pinsker’s novel, which was filled with characters who felt passionately about their lives. The characters in Zapata’s book seemed aimless and, at times, devoid of emotion. The most affecting parts dealt with the horrific tales of oppression; unfortunately, the rest could not live up to those powerful and moving moments.


Imagine if you were a teenager and could go back in time to meet your mother, grandmother and other foremothers when they were that age. That’s the premise of “River” by Shira Nayman (Guernica World Editions). When 14-year-old Emily and her younger brother, Billy, travel from Brooklyn to spend their summer vacation with their grandmother in Australia, both children are unhappy: They would rather be with their mother, who is undergoing treatments for cancer. When Emily is stricken with a very bad headache, she finds herself transported four times: first back in time to Australia when her mother was 14, then to the South Africa that existed when her grandmother was 14, before visiting her great-grandmother in Lithuania and then enduring a visit to Babylon during biblical times.

During these visits, Emily is given a unique view of each of her relatives – discovering how the hardships of life changed them and forged them into the people they became. The theme of finding a true – and safe – home underlies all the wandering her ancestors take, Emily also learns more about the Judaism her mother does not practice and experiences the oppression her relatives faced. She also must make difficult decisions: Emily knows what will happen to her relatives if they follow their current path. Can she risk telling them to change if she knows they will be in danger? Or must she let history take its course?

“River” is a well done, if not particularly exciting novel, although some sections dealing with Emily’s family were very moving. The book gives readers food for thought: if we knew why our relatives – particularly the ones we don’t like – became the way they are, would we feel more compassion or pity for them? Parents and their teens might find it interesting to read and discuss the lessons “River” offers.