31 Dec 2014

A modern folktale: Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Djinni

 The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

Release Date: April 2013
Publisher: Blue Door
Pages: 484
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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How do I even begin to describe The Golem and the Djinni? I've been sitting in front of my computer for the last half an hour, trying to put into words the sense of wonder this book gave me. It is one of those books that you absolutely loathe to put down, and when you do, you spend the entire time thinking about it. The novel is well-written and self assured, so much so that it's genuinely hard to believe that The Golem and the Djinni is Wecker's debut novel. It is a wonderful blend of fantasy and historical fiction, centred around immigrant experiences & identity and questioning what it means to be human.

The Golem is a creature made from clay by a corrupt Kabbalist near Danzig, at the request of Otto Rotfeld, a selfish, unsuccessful young man. Instead of wanting to create the violent creatures of Jewish folklore, Rotfeld wanted a mate - a woman who was inquisitive, intelligent and - of course! - a sense of propriety. Despite instructions not to bring his Golem to life while travelling on a ship to New York, Rotfeld brings her to life, only to die from a burst appendix hours later. Newborn and without a master, the Golem is faced with the unenviable task of ignoring the wants of all the people around her. A retired rabbi realises who - or rather, what the Golem really is - and takes her in.

 Not too far away in Little Syria, a tinsmith named Arbeely accidentally releases a very handsome, incredibly arrogant Djinni from an old copper flask that he is trying to repair. Trapped in the shape of a young man, the Djinni must learn to live his life as a human. It is when these two creatures meet that the story really takes off, for these two characters are polar opposite. Where Chava wishes for nothing more to live her life as human - or as close to human as she can be, Ahmad wants nothing more than to take his true form as a djinni. Chava wants to satisfy the desires of those around her, whereas Ahmad only wants to satisfy his desires of the moment. My favourite part of this novel is how even though these characters are complete opposites, both make a number of concessions in order to meet the other half way, and how even as these characters grow, they are both very much aware of their limitations. In a lot of ways, their stories are emblematic of the immigrant experience - building a new life, changing in order to fit in, learning new ways. Changing your name (much to Ahmad's horror).

Wecker masterfully mixes Arab and Jewish mythology in order to create an entirely original tale, and even though I think that the story works best when the titular characters are together, their individual stories and struggles are interesting enough to keep you flipping through the pages. Even the background characters are three-dimensional, creating a cast of characters that all have an arc that runs until the book's finish. It is truly wonderful to read. 

 I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed The Golem and the Djinni. It will go down as one of my favourite reads of 2014, and Wecker has officially been put on my 'Authors to Watch' list.

Not quite totes amazeballs: Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Release Date: 27th March 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 343
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Summary (from GoodReads): 

Cat Morland is ready to grow up. A homeschooled minister’s daughter in the quaint, sheltered Piddle Valley in Dorset, she loses herself in novels and is sure there is a glamorous adventure awaiting her beyond the valley’s narrow horizon. So imagine her delight when the Allens, neighbors and friends of her parents, invite her to attend the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh as their guest. With a sunny personality, tickets every night and a few key wardrobe additions courtesy of Susie Allen, Cat quickly begins to take Edinburgh by storm and is taken into the bosom of the Thorpe family, particularly by eldest daughter Bella. And then there’s the handsome Henry Tilney, an up-and-coming lawyer whose family home is the beautiful and forbidding Northanger Abbey. Cat is entranced by Henry and his charming sister Eleanor, but she can’t help wondering if everything about them is as perfect as it seems. Or has she just been reading too many novels? A delectable, note-perfect modern update of the Jane Austen classic, Northanger Abbey tells a timeless story of innocence amid cynicism, the exquisite angst of young love, and the value of friendship.

My Thoughts:

Whether or not a person will like a sequel, prequel, spin-off or modern retelling of an Austen novel will always be a personal thing. I find some of them to be interesting and – like any other genre – there are some good ones and there are some shockers (I adore Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason as stand alone novels, but as modernisations of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion respectively, I find them lacking). If you’re an Austen purist, than the second novel in HarperCollins’ The Austen Project is probably not for you. The vibe that I got from McDermid’s Northanger Abbey is that it is intended to introduce a younger generation to Austen’s works, rather than something that is to be enjoyed by someone familiar with the original. 

Our heroine is seventeen-year-old Cat Morland, a vicar’s daughter living what she views to be a rather humdrum life in Piddle Valley, Dorset. Cat reads to fuel her imagination, loving any novel that features a zombie, vampire or ghost. At one point Cat mentions that she prefers these books because it’s easy to believe that these things could happen in real life, and they’re just hidden under the surface of our society (Cat mentioned this is a conversation about Harry Potter, which confused me because it’d be just as easy – if not more - to believe that a hidden magical world exists, but Cat scoffs and insists that Harry Potter is for children because it’s so unbelievable). Her naivety and sheltered life is explained by the fact that she has been home schooled by her mother, a former teacher who believed that education system was not beneficial for learning. Her rich neighbours, Susie and Andrew Allen, invite Cat to attend the Edinburgh Festival with them and she is too happy to take the offer up - she believes it will be the perfect setting for the kind of adventures she reads about.  Under the guidance of Susie, Cat is introduced to theatre, art and books. She also takes up dance lessons for the Highland Ball, where she is partnered with the incredibly witty and charming young attorney, Henry Tilney. With a bit of Facebook stalking (of both Henry and his sister Ellie), Cat discovers that his father is a much-decorated general who fought in the Falkland’s war and that his family owns Northanger Abbey. Through Susie Allen, Cat also meets Bella Thorpe, the daughter of one of Susie’s school friends. 

While I find the original Catherine Morland quite charming (most probably because I first read Austen’s Northanger Abbey at an age where I found Cathy to be incredibly relatable, although I was too young to really understand the context in which the novel was written), she’s a little less charming in an updated version. Maybe because in an age were information is widespread and readily available, superstitions and folktales are practically obsolete and those who believe in them are judged for it; but it was quite difficult to believe that somebody who is eighteen would still believe that vampires actually exist and convince herself that an entire family are vampires. However, it’s an integral part to both Cat and Cathy’s character and a driving force of the story, and it wouldn’t have felt right had this aspect of Cat been removed. 

It feels like there’s some literary understanding is there, but there’s something missing. I’ve never read any of McDermid’s work, but she seems to be a celebrated (crime) author, so I feel like there could’ve been – and should’ve been – a bit more to this adaptation. Moving it from Bath to Edinburgh was a great creative choice, but it felt like that was really the only major creative change. McDermid has stuck pretty closely to the original story, which is the book’s biggest downfall. I’m a big believer in remakes of classic literature finding ways to creatively retell the original story, and this doesn’t mean updating the setting and throwing in a few references to Facebook, mobile phones and technology in general. This really is a retelling of Northanger Abbey, rather than the modernisation that it is advertised to be.

A few other things that grated on me:
  •    This may sound a bit odd, but I didn’t like the constant referencing of Austen’s work – Ellie Tilney was described as looking like she’d stepped out of the pages of Pride and Prejudice; at one point Cat is reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Not only does it come across (well, to me, anyway) as lazy story telling, but also I think it conflicts with the world building. If Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice exist in Cat’s world, it would stand to reason that Northanger Abbey would too, and wouldn’t you feel just a little strange if you found out that there was a Regency-era novel that was eerily similar to your life?  I don’t like the idea of just pretending one of Austen’s works doesn’t exist just to make your story work, it doesn’t feel right to me.
  •   Cat comes across as a bit of a dodo brain at times? At one point she says to Henry, “I don’t think Freddie knows that Bella’s engaged to my brother!” Um, yes he does. It was basically the first thing you said to him when you two were introduced a few pages back. So… while Cathy wanted to believe the best in everybody, Cat just seems a bit dim.
  • The other thing – Bella and Jamie engaged? Really? They weren’t even dating and then they get engaged? I realise it would’ve been difficult to send Jamie away in order for Bella and Freddie to flirt, but I would’ve much preferred Jamie being called away on a work-related matter. Like I said, creative ways to update the original, rather than just plonking it in an updated setting and keeping everything else the same.
  •   Bella’s shorthand – bgf? Totes? I find when somebody tries to replicate teenage slang; it just comes off as awkward and cringe worthy. McDermid’s efforts are no exception. There’s only so many times I can see text speak before I want to hurl the book across the room.  It was incredibly jarring, having Bella scream “totes amazeballs!!!” every time she appeared. Am I missing something? Do teenagers actually talk like this and I’m just past the age to find it cool? It felt like McDermid was just projecting her idea of teenagers, rather than accurately portraying one. I know it’d be unlikely for McDermid to do, but the writers of Clueless actually sat in on high school classes so they could get the feel for how teenagers talked and behaved and make it feel authentic.
  •    While the original wasn’t as polished as Austen’s other works, it still had her signature wit and there was a subtlety to it. McDermid’s writing comes across as clunky and heavy handed. John Thorpe, irritating in the original, becomes downright unreadable.
While I’m still on the fence about how I feel about The Austen Project (if you want teenagers to be interested in Austen, encourage them to read Austen rather than Austen-lite), I liked Northanger Abbey enough to be interested in checking out Joanna Trollope’s updated version of Sense and Sensibility. Despite the book’s downfalls, despite it not being in the same league as the original, it really is a light, fun read. If modernisations of classic literature are your thing, check it out! 

Promising premise: Lori M. Lee's Gates of Thread and Stone

Gates of Thread and Stone by Lori M. Lee

Release Date: 5th August 2014
Publisher: Skyscape
Pages: 333
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Summary (from GoodReads):

In the Labyrinth, we had a saying: Keep silent, keep still, keep safe.

In a city of walls and secrets, where only one man is supposed to possess magic, seventeen-year-old Kai struggles to keep hidden her own secret - she can manipulate the threads of time. When Kai was eight, she was found by Reev on the riverbank, and her "brother" has taken care of her ever since. Kai doesn't know where her ability comes from - or where she came from. All that matters is that she and Reev stay together, and maybe one day move out of the freight container they call home, away from the metal walls of the Labyrinth. Kai's only friend is Avan, the shopkeeper's son with the scandalous reputation that both frightens and intrigues her.
Then Reev disappear. When keeping silent and safe means losing him forever, Kai vows to do whatever it takes to find him. But to save Reev, Kai must unravel the threads of her past and face shocking truths about her brother, her friendship with Avan, and her unique power.  


My Thoughts:
You think I would've known better, but I've been on such a YA-streak lately that I thought I'd take my chances. The cover was GORGEOUS, the blurb was intriguing... I thought I had another winner in my hands. I don't regret the time I spent on this book, because I knew I was going to think about reading it until I actually picked it up and read the thing. Curiosity = satisfied.

Gates of Thread and Stone had a really promising start. We're introduced to Kai, who is fierce and headstrong and thinks for herself. After her adoptive (foster?) brother, Reev, goes missing, Kai goes searching for him. These are the scenes that Lee excelled at: the horror and terror Kai felt upon finding out that Reev had been taking by the Black Rider. I really felt with Kai in these scenes, especially because I had found earlier scenes with Kai and Reev so heartwarming.

Unfortunately, the story kind of deteriorated for me once Kai went searching for her brother. I think it's because, for me, Reev brought out the very best of Kai. Kai never really has the same connection with any other character, not even her love interest, Avan. Side note: I love that even though Kai has a crush on Avan, her focus is solely on finding her brother. She never let the fact that she was romantically interested in Avan distract her from her mission. Four for you Kai, you go Kai! Anyway - I think that the reason that Kai never managed to establish any lasting connections with any other character is because they are constantly coming and going; the locations are always shifting.

I gave this book two stars because it was one of the few YA books where I couldn't predict the ending. Every time I thought I had an idea of where the plot was heading, something proved me wrong - and in the end, I don't think I would've ever in a million years have been able to predict it. It just wasn't enough. In the end, there wasn't enough to make me care about what happened to Kai in the next two books (I'm assuming Gates of Thread and Stone will follow the YA trend and be a trilogy). I find it to be underwhelming, unimpressive, and overall disappointing read. Possibly because I'd hyped it up in my mind. That said, I might keep an eye out for the sequel at my local library.

Love makes us such fools: Helene Wecker's The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Release Date: 27th March 2014
Publisher: Walker Books
Pages: 301
Format: Hardcover | Purchased

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Summary (from GoodReads): 

Foolish love appears to be a Roux family birthright. And for Ava Lavender, a girl born with the wings of a bird, it is an ominous thing to inherit. In her quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to join her peers, sixteen-year-old Ava ventures into the wider world. But it is a dangerous world for a naive girl...

My Thoughts: 

I was not expecting to love this book as much as I did. I read it just after I had finished The Golem and the Djinni and was still in that "well what do I do now?" phase I have every time I finish a good book for the first time. Like the title implies, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is both strange and beautiful. It is a story of love in all of its forms. Of familial love. Of maternal love. Of the love between two friends. Of lust. Of lovers who missed their moment. It is a story of loss, of wanting, of desire and obsession. Even though the story has its fantastical moments, there is something about that makes it so real and relatable that I was thinking about it long after I'd finished it.

Despite being the title character, Ava Lavender doesn't show up until about halfway through the book. We are first introduced to Ava's grandmother, Emilienne Roux, and mother, Vivienne. Their stories are every bit as interesting as Ava's. Of course, a 301 page book covering three generations of women means introducing a lot of characters that we don't get to spend a lot of time with - and you would think that they would be underdeveloped or caricatures. Somehow, Walton makes you feel like you know and understand these characters. I've seen a few reviews where Walton's characterisation is compared to Melina Marchetta and I feel that that's an apt comparison. Even if you don't spend a lot of time with a character, you're given enough of their story to both know the character and want to know more about them (from the very moment I was introduced to Quintana in Froi of the Exiles I was simultaneously wanting to know more about her and having my heart hurt because of what I knew about her).

And this book did make my heart hurt, because while I was reading, I was watching the characters make these foolish mistakes and getting hurt by it (especially Vivienne). These characters... they make mistakes, they wonder how things would've been if things had turned out differently, and I definitely felt everything from joy to frustration to horror as I was pulled along the journey of the Roux/Lavender women. But as the back of my book tells me, "love makes us such fools," and it wouldn't have been such a beautiful story filled with whimsy and raw emotion if it didn't.

Not with a bang, but with a whimper: Alexander McCall Smith's Emma

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

Release Date: October 2014
Publisher: Borough Press
Pages: 361
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Summary (from GoodReads):
Fresh from university, Emma Woodhouse arrives home early to embark on adult life with a splash. Not only has her sister been whisked away on a motorbike to London, but her astute confidant, Miss Taylor, is at a loose end watching as Mr Woodhouse worries about his girls. Someone is needed to rule the roost and young Emma is more than happy to oblige.

Often found rearranging the furniture at the family home of Hartfield or instructing a new protégée, Harriet Smith, Emma is in charge. But for someone who knows everything, Emma doesn't know her own heart. And there is only one person who can play with Emma's indestructible confidence, her friend and inscrutable neighbour George Knightley - this time, has Emma finally met her match?

My Thoughts:
 Jane Austen's Emma is a finely crafted novel. Clues are carefully woven throughout the story, so that the astute reader can pick up on the mystery of the novel. McCall Smith's Emma lacks the finesse of the original. I had really high hopes for The Austen Project, but after reading Val McDermid's take on Northanger Abbey and McCall Smith's take on Emma, I think that it's safe to say that this project is not for me. There really is no author like Austen, and these retellings are quite weak. Maybe I've been especially hard on this one because Emma Woodhouse is my favourite Austen heroine, but I was immensely disappointed with McCall Smith's offering. In order to modernise an adaptation, you need to follow the general plot of the original, while making changes that both update it to a modern setting and make sense within the original narrative. It's what made Clueless such a great modernisation of Emma and Bridget Jones's Diary an interesting take on Pride and Prejudice. The original Emma is an incredibly sheltered young woman, who is wealthier and therefore social superior than almost every individual in Highbury. She has no equal in Highbury, and literally befriends Harriet so she would have somebody to walk with. This Emma is unlikeable, selfish and nasty. It's kind of implied that the only reason Emma befriends Harriet is because she is overwhelmed by her beauty... to the point that Emma wonders if she is gay. The original Emma was upfront with Harriet about Elton's proposal and takes her share of the blame - this Emma spins a web of lies in order to come out completely blameless. Emma is also supposed to be clueless in regards to Elton's true character, only realising the littleness of his character after his proposal - but here, Emma is completely aware of it the entire time! Similarly, my favourite part of the original Emma is the mystery surrounding Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill - this is similarly downplayed. Frank Churchill is an overgrown child, Jane Fairfax, while accomplished, has none of the goodness of the original, and both manage to be unlikeable in the little page-time they have. Harriet is even thicker than the original, so I was very surprised when [SPOILER ALERT!] she managed to hide the fact that she'd been dating Robert Martin the entire time from Emma. Knightley barely features in the book, which makes one wonder when Emma had time to fall in love with the man. Their interactions are reduced to Knightley chatting to Emma on his way out the door. The original Miss Taylor was Emma's friend and mother figure as well as governess, this Miss Taylor is entirely responsible for Emma's disgusting personality. The first quarter of the book is filled with descriptions of Emma's early life, which means that the first quarter of the book is more tedious than the rest. It does nothing to advance the plot, nor provide any real insight into Emma's character, except to add to the perception that she's a horrible human being. This novel is about half as long as the original, but it took me twice as long to read, and the entire time I was checking how many pages I had until the end. If you want to get into Austen, read her novels. The Austen Project is just a very pale imitation.

30 Dec 2014

The Re-Read Challenge 2015

The 2015 Re-Read Challenge
I am so excited to be kicking off 2015 with a bang and participating in my first challenge as a blogger! I'll be participating in So Obsessed's re-read challenge. I'm auditioning for Jane Eyre in February, so that will be high on the list, and am hoping to take a short course on Jane Austen novels, so Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion will also probably be on the list. You can sign up for the challenge here.

Tundra Books Releases Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon in Paperback & Hardcover!

I'm a sucker for gorgeous book design. A lot of book snobs will tell you that a book is not a design accessory (which is true) and that books are supposed to be read, not looked at (which is also true, although I do enjoy looking at my shelves and seeing all the gorgeous books lined up together), and that what's on the cover shouldn't matter - it's the content that matters. But in this day and age, I think that what's on the cover is indicative of what the publishing house thinks the content is worth.

And judging by the new editions of L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables & Emily of New Moon series, Canadian publishing company Tundra Books thinks these series are worth a whole lot. Look at them. Just look at them! They are gorgeous.

Anne of Green Gables & Emily of New Moon,
artwork by Elly Mackay; cover design Kelly Hill.
Image from Tundra Books
I am particularly excited about the hardcover editions. I love hardcover editions, especially ones with gorgeous endpapers and ribbons to keep your place.
Anne of Green Gables & Emily of New Moon,
cover design by Kelly Hill.
Image from Tundra Books
  I've already purchased Anne books #2-4 & 6 from Amazon.ca (they're already out of stock of Anne's House of Dreams!) and am eagerly awaiting their delivery. The last time I read this series was in high school (although I recently finished rereading Anne of Green Gables), and have never read Emily of New Moon so I am definitely excited to delve into life on Prince Edward Island!

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