Sunday, June 15, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The Golem and the Jinni" by Helene Wecker

So, it's been a while. Like, a really long while, and here's why:

This book about killed me. Seriously, I know I put this book in my Top Ten Tuesday post on beautiful book covers, and the book in person is even better than pictures online, but I was so incredibly disappointed with its contents that I'm not even sure how to articulate it. Just getting myself through it took several weeks, and I can honestly say it wasn't worth my time.

A shame, really, since the premise was so promising. A golem, an anthropomorphic creature made of clay from Jewish folklore, and a jinni, a supernatural spirit from Arabic mythology, meet in 1899 New York after having arrived from their homelands by means largely beyond their control and struggle to conceal their identities from the people around them. According to the dust jacket:

"Meeting by chance, the two creatures become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice."

Unfortunately, almost none of this happens until the last 300 pages. You spend the first 200 bouncing around between characters and time periods, digesting massive info dumps, only to realize as you're closing in on the nearly 500 pages of this book that most of it was completely unnecessary. There are whole character arcs that don't need to exist for the story to function. You get the feeling that Wecker thought she was making some kind of grand statement about human nature by using all these characters and back stories, but the execution is incredibly clunky and drawn out, not to mention pretty par for the course in terms of these Forrest Gump-style "normal life through the eyes of outsiders" stories.

There were massive portions of The Golem and the Jinni that I just skimmed over because they were so boring and pointless. Wecker takes pains to articulate various aspects of both Jewish and Arabic culture (the backgrounds of herself and her husband respectively), but again, little of this information actually matters. At its core this story could have taken place anywhere during any time period, and the pages and pages spent on cultural exposition don't serve to ground the story so much as just add to its bulk.

Here's the problem in a nutshell: "show, don't tell" is Creative Writing 101. The Golem and the Jinni is almost exclusively tell. That's why it dragged, and that's all there is to it.

Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker
Published: 2013, HarperCollins
Pages: 486
Would Recommend: Obviously not. If you cut out about 150 pages or so you'd have a much better book, but even then it would still just be ok.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Top Ten Books About Friendship

This week's Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Books About Friendship. I wound up choosing mostly children's books, since those tend to be the ones that present friendship in its purest, sweetest form. Lots of animals, too.

The American Girl Historical Series': I don't know the official name for these series', but I think just about every girl reads at least one of two of them during their childhood. If you somehow don't know about these books, there are a bunch girls, each from a different time period and place, and they all have a series about their lives and the stuff going on in the world around that time. Samantha was always my favorite, because she looked the most like me. She's an extremely wealthy girl growing up in the early 1900's who befriends the servant girl who works next door. All the girls in these books have pretty great-ass friends, and the stories revolve around all those pre-adolescent issues still relevant today while mixing in a good bit of American history. Good stuff.

Winne the Pooh: Come on, now. Who wouldn't put this on their list? This book, along with The House at Pooh Corner are some of most precious, adorable books around. There's a sort of magic to childhood that allows you to befriend your toys, along with the backyard animals, and go on adventures with them, and no one has captured that magic more effectively than A. A. Milne. When they all throw that party for Christopher Robin because he's growing up and moving on? Don't get me started. Don't

Good Omens: I suppose this falls into the "unlikely friends" category. Basically, an angel and a demon team up to prevent the end of the world because they enjoy living on earth and don't want to go home. There's a whole cast of fun characters, a lot of mix-ups and silliness (the Antichrist is accidentally switched at birth and sent home with the wrong family), making for a entertaining and irreverent read. Aziraphale and Crowley, the angel and demon at the heart of the story, are both likable characters with an unlikely but very believable friendship.

The Giving Tree: Heaven forbid you wind up in a friendship like this. The first time I read this book I was quite young. We were at a funeral home, and I found it in an area that was set aside for children to play quietly or read while the adults payed their respects. I was extremely affected by the story of a tree giving up everything for the boy it loved, and even now there's something about that last image of the old man sitting on the stump that just hurts my heart. Still, looking at it from the tree's perspective, the whole thing seems pretty thankless, doesn't it?

Wind in the Willows: There's a particular chapter that made me pick this one, called "Dulce Domum". Rat and Mole have been living together for a while, and are on their way home from something or other when they by chance come across Mole's old home. It's been shut up for a while, and Mole's kind of bummed out and embarrassed when they get there and he sees how plain and run down it looks compared to Rat's house, but Rat just gushes about the place, helps Mole clean up, and by the end of the story they've got a whole party going. It's great to have friends who can sense when you're upset and care about what matters to you, even if it's outside their own area of interest. Rat's a good friend, guys.

Natsume's Book of Friends: A manga about a young boy (named Natsume, oddly enough) who sees spirits, and has spent his whole life being passed from home to home since no one understands his odd behavior. Now he's finally starting to meet people he can be himself around, both human and other-than-human, and throughout the series we see him slowly start to open up and make friends. Some of them know about his abilities and some don't, but this series is as much about Natsume's mundane interactions in the human world as it is about the supernatural. The stories are so sweet and beautifully told, I wish more people read these books.

The Incredible Journey: If you somehow made it through childhood without either reading this book or seeing Homeward Bound, this is the story of two dogs and a cat who are separated from their humans and travel hundreds of miles on their own to get back home. What's amazing about this book is that Burnford was able to convey the bond between these three pets without the use of dialogue. These pets are very much animals, no talking, no spontaneously acting in ways contrary to their nature. Thanks to that, not only do you learn about the animals and landscape, you get a classic story about survival and friendship, all without overly humanizing its protagonists.

Frog and Toad: Basically, the complete opposite of The Incredible Journey. This short series follows a completely anthropomorphic frog and toad as they live their very cute, simple little lives. What else can I say?

A Thousand Splendid Suns: Talk about heartbreaking. Basically, this story spans fifty years, detailing the lives of two Afghan women and the circumstances that bring them together and pull them apart. The two main characters are forced together by outside circumstances, and they find solace it each other. One of my older female cousins lent this book to me when I was in middle school and it's stuck with me ever since. It's a story about resilience and quiet strength and, while at times a bit heavy-handed, it remains a both honest and readable portrayal of female life in this part of the world.

As for number ten, I couldn't think of one. There are obviously other books about friends that I've read, but I wanted to keep this confined to books that were significant to me in some way specifically due to the friendships portrayed, so there you have it. For the most part it looks like I prefer animals friends to people. But I'm sure that's fine, right?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Book Thoughts: YA Potpourri

As I said in my last post, with no cable or internet to distract me, I got a lot of reading done this past week. Several of the books were YA novels that had been highly recommended to me for quite some time now, which I finally decided to break down and read, in spite of the fact that I tend to dislike YA. It's not that I have an issue with the genre itself, it's just that I find the plots and writing in many YAs to be a bit watered down and overly focused on romance. There are exceptions, of course, but that's my general takeaway.

On that note, here are the YAs I read this week and my brief thoughts on them:

The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd

This is a retelling of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells, imagining that said doctor had a daughter he left behind in London, and that this daughter comes to his island to find out what he's been up to. Sounds like a good enough premise, but sadly play into just about every cliche that made me step away from the YA genre. We have a female lead who we're constantly told is strong and independent, but still spends most of the novel getting pushed around and saved be various men. We have a shoddy love triangle. Perhaps most disappointingly, we have what could have been a halfway decent stand-alone novel that's pointlessly being stretched out into a trilogy.

On the plus side, it was faithful to the plot of Doctor Moreau on several points, and used some of the old characters in clever new ways. If the author hadn't sacrificed more interesting areas of the plot for romance, I think this could have been a great read. The writing style could also be a turn off, depending on whether or not you need to have your historical fiction told in a historical voice, because the narrator's voice in The Madman's Daughter is unmistakably modern. I personally found it off-putting. There are two more books in this series, one based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the other on Frankenstein, but judging how Doctor Moreau was treated in this first offering, I'd rather just reread the originals.

Title: The Madman's Daughter
Author: Megan Shepherd
Published: 2013, Balzer + Bray
Pages: 420, though my copy had 19 pages of extras, including a short story, and the first 17 pages of the sequel, Her Dark Curiosity
Would Recommend: Not at all. I was glad to see a new take on a classic that hasn't been done to death like Dracula or Alice in Wonderland, but that's where my happiness ended. There's actually a scene where our protagonist stands helpless off to the side in a burning building while her two potential lovers wrestle on the floor for her affection. Megan Shepherd claims she wanted to explore gender issues in this book, so thanks for that, I guess.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Walton delivers exactly what she advertises, both beauty and sorrow. Magical realism done magnificently, this is a story told by Ava Lavender, a woman born with wings, about her life and the lives of her mother and grandmother. The heart of the plot involves young Ava and the man next door who becomes convinced she's an angel, but the overall theme is the two-sided nature of love, it's ability to either bring strength or destruction depending on the people and circumstances.

I'm not sure what I can say about this book to convey the effect it had on me. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, succinct yet descriptive, poetic without getting too flowery. Almost everything in this story is devastatingly sad, yet the words steer you from one tragedy to the next so gently and, ultimately, with just a twinge of hope. Magical realism quite naturally links to poetry in my mind, both using the unreal to convey something more true than any literal description ever could. Some people enjoy this type of writing, while others do not, and that difference is what will ultimately decide how you feel about this book.

Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Author: Leslye Walton
Published: 2014, Candlewick Press
Pages: 301
Would Recommend: At least give it a try, even if magical realism isn't your thing, since a well written book should be just about everyone's thing.

Angelfall by Susan Ee

As a former religious studies major, I can't begin to explain how happy it makes me to see a novel about religious subjects, like angels, that appears to have actually been well researched. I don't think I can go into much detail without spoiling the book, but the way this author used the concept of the Watchers and the Nephilim was both true to the source material and delightfully inventive. Maybe "delightful" is the wrong word to use for a post-apocalyptic novel, but that's the best word I could think of. I truly found this book delightful.

The end of days has come, angels have descended from on high to rain down fire and brimstone on humanity. Our protagonist Penryn is just trying to survive with her wheelchair-bound sister and schizophrenic mother when she accidentally stumbles into the middle of an angel-on-angel fight that results in the kidnapping of her sister. The only chance Penryn has of finding her sister, Paige, is by teaming up with the injured and wingless angel left behind, a warrior named Raffe.

On the downside, the first half of Angelfall is pretty slow. A lot of getting-to-know you awkward banter and budding feels from our main characters when I feel there should have been more worldbuilding. A whole book into this trilogy and we know next to nothing about why the angels are attacking, where they come from, or how the world as a whole is faring. If things hadn't kicked off the way they did in the second half I wouldn't have many good things to say, but boy, did things kick off. It helps that the romance wasn't tied up neatly in a bow for us at the end, either.

I think what made me like this book so much is that Susan Ee clearly knew what she was talking about. Penryn's mother isn't TV schizophrenic, she's real, pitiful and terrifying, obviously as well researched as the mythology behind the plot. I hope we see more of her in the next books, because her character is just phenomenal. I hope we see more of the angels, and more action too, because I'm excited to see what this author can do when she's not putting her leads through silly and stilted attempts at flirting.

Title: Angelfall
Author: Susan Ee
Published: 2012, Feral Dream
Pages: 283
Would Recommend: Yes. Definitely yes. I'm usually not one too forgive an uneven story, but the direction this goes in is just so interesting, plus it's a story about angels that manages to make them flawed and intriguing, rather than completely perfect. Not to mention that we've got a "strong female lead" that's actually strong for once. Imagine that. Overall, a really nice effort.

So there you have it, my foray into YA. It was better than I thought it would be. I know there are poor offerings in every genre, but for some reason I've read a disproportionate amount of sloppy YA, so I'm pretty gun-shy about picking up YA novels, even if they're well received. If you're reading this, feel free to recommend one you feel is worth the read. Maybe I'll give it a shot.

Life Time: Lightning Strike

To make a long story short, lightning hit the house last week. There was a tornado warning all night, which resulted in myself and my coworkers spending most of the night in storm shelter, and I came home to find the cable was off and the stove didn't work. Nothing too serious. However, in the morning I found out from my parents what happened, that several plugs throughout the house were now useless, along with the water softener and, most disconcertingly, the A/C and furnace. I don't know if it's spring where you are yet, but here in Ohio it's still pretty cold. Luckily my aunt was able to loan us an electric heater to keep the main rooms in the house warm.

Even so, it's not like we're suffering in any way. We're lucky no one was hurt, that everything broken can be replaced. The strangest part has been doing without television or internet for a week. For my parents it meant watching a lot of old movies they dug up around the house, for me it meant a lot of reading, not to mention a lot of quiet. I've said before that my car radio is broken, and how odd the silence can be driving home in the middle of the night. It's even more so to have that silence continue, for it to follow me through the front door and up to my bedroom, to stay with me until I get back to work the next afternoon. Thanks to my odd hours, the chit chat I share with coworkers is sometimes the only human interaction I have all day. For it to be some of the only sound I hear at all, well, let's just say I'm glad we've got the cable and internet turned on again.

Is it weird that I kind of wish I had been here when the lightning hit? I feel like the coolest part of the story has been taken from me, and all I got was the annoying aftermath. According to my parents it was just a really loud boom, no sparks, no dramatics, just boom. Which is pretty lame, actually. This story is lame. I'm sorry I bothered you with it, I just wanted to talk about what's been going on lately, I guess. I'll leave you with this picture of Luna, one of our cats, who got so cold last night she made herself into a snugly blanket burrito:

Hopefully everything's going well with you, whoever you are, whenever you're reading this. I hope you're as happy and safe as a kitten burritoed up in a blanket.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book Thoughts: "Love Letters to the Dead" by Ava Dellaira

This review is going to be a little different.

I have a hard time with books like these, because they're simultaneously too close for comfort and completely alien to me. If you haven't already heard about Love Letters to the Dead, it's essentially The Perks of Being a Wallflower with a female protagonist. A young girl named Laurel has just started high school and is given an assignment to write a letter to a dead person. She chooses Kurt Cobain because he was her older sister's favorite musician, who just passed away the previous year. She continues writing to Kurt, and other famous people who died young, and it is through these letters that we learn about Laurel's life and the mystery surrounding her sister's death.

A lot of people are saying this book is similar to Perks, but I found Love Letters to be almost too similar. The plots are practically identical, they're both written entirely in letter form, even the side characters have similar story lines. Laurel's voice is also inconsistent, veering from beyond-her-years poetic to immature and stilted exposition: "I did this. I did that. It was fun." I found her difficult to believe.

There was a portion of this book that I found really upsetting on a personal level, and that's the letter Laurel writes to Kurt where she goes on a "how could you do this to your family" rant. It bothers me because the whole "suicide is selfish" argument is in itself entirely selfish. You are essentially telling someone, "I know you're in a lot of pain right now, but why don't you think about my feelings for a minute?" If someone's at the point where they can no longer tolerate the weight of their own existence, piling guilt on top of that will only crush them. This argument bothers me every time I see it.

It bothers me because I've had this argument in real life, and that's why books like this are difficult. My own struggles with anxiety, depression, and suicide make books like this an exercise in reliving dark days I still haven't completely left behind me. However, unlike the main character in Love Letters, or in Perks, I don't have a traumatic incident in my past to point to and say, "There it is. That's why I'm like this." I have no explanation to offer the people I alienate, frighten, or hurt with my behavior. It's like my blood is full of pressurized explosives, like little land mines, and every point of contact causes an, unnoticeable from the outside, yet very real and painful detonation. I find it hard to touch anyone, even people I love.

I've had plenty of people insist that there must be something, some big bad adult who hurt me as a kid, but there wasn't. There were those who made things worse, who told me it was my fault I felt anxious and alone because I wasn't right with god, wasn't praying enough, but as far as I can tell the land mines have been in blood since birth. I'm still in the process of learning how to live with them. Part of me still hasn't recovered from the way this problem was handled in my adolescence, the insistence by some that I just wasn't trying hard enough. It's even harder to deal with those that persist in pushing their half-baked theories, often based on media representations of "people with problems", since the simple truth that I'm like this because I've always been doesn't satisfy them.

So that's why I have a hard time with books like Love Letters to the Dead, they perpetuate the idea that anxiety and depression are caused solely by outside sources, and that everything can be fixed easily enough with the help of friends, family, and falling in love. Especially falling in love. I hate that more than one well intended person has told me I'd feel better if I got a boyfriend, and I know it's because they saw Garden State or some shit. Like that's seriously what you should do when you're falling apart, invite someone else into your cesspool of a life. What you need to do is recognize the beast inside yourself and take steps to tame it. Other people can help, of course, but the only one who can save you is yourself.

Oddly enough, that's the one part of Love Letters I appreciated. One of Laurel's older friends tells her at one point that she's the only one who can save herself, and she takes this to heart, though I still felt she relied too much on her love interest in the end. Is it strange to bring the conversation back to the book at this point? Because I'd like to.

Abuse is a very real thing, and those stories need to be told. I try not to let my personal experience get in the way of what an individual story is trying to accomplish, however, this book just wasn't great. The whole situation with the sister felt implausible to me. Is it really possible she didn't know what was going on with a setup like that? Couple that with flimsy characters, shoddy research (you don't learn anything about the people Laurel writes to you couldn't find in a two minute Google search), and the plain fact that this whole story has been done before and done better, and you wind up with a book that just wastes your time.

Title: Love Letters to the Dead
Author: Ava Dellaira
Published: 2014, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Pages: 323
Would Recommend: No. If you want a story about self discovery and coming to terms with a troubled past, read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If you somehow haven't already.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Top Ten Book Covers I'd Frame As Pieces of Art

Time for another Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish, and this week is "Top Ten Book Covers I'd Frame As Pieces of Art." Off we go:

1) Paradise Lost by John Milton
This cover in person is so pastel and soft, a nice contrast to a story about the devil.

2) Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Usually I find covers with people on them tend to show those people as either overly glossy and perfect or totally generic, but this face really draws you in. The bright colors and detail are eye-catching, as well. 

3) Rant by Chuck Palahniuk
As a kid, I remember being fascinated by these books that showed the human body layered over with transparencies, one for muscles, one for veins, and you could lift them off one by one until there was nothing but a skeleton on the last page. Anyway, this cover reminds me of that. 

4) Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
Iconic. Seriously, I love that little guy so much. This book means a lot to me both as a reader and a writer, so while it might not seem like much, it looks like art to me.

5) Daytripper by Gabriel Ba
Is picking a comic cheating? Hope not, because there's several on this list.

6) Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Shel Silverstein is a master of the bittersweet. Have you seen The Thinker of Tender Thoughts? I think this book in particular shows a good use of cover space.

7) Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse by Ben Templesmith
Yeah, this guy was on the last list too, so what? Who else would put so much work into a equally horrific and stunning piece of art just to add the tagline "It Only Hurts When I Pee"?

8) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Just a great work of art, what else can I say?

9) Saiyuki Volume 1 by Kazuya Minekura
This is my all-time favorite manga, and pretty much my favorite series in general. Back when there was next to no variety in the manga available in bookstores -- you had Sailor Moon, InuYasha, and whatever CLAMP was offering at the time -- the grit and detail of Minekura's style stood out. It's also the first time I found myself thinking "Woah, that cartoon man is beautiful." Never mind I just said "the first time." I'm doing fine.

10) The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Ok, this one I haven't actually read, but I've have my eye on it for a while and I think the cover's just splendid. Hopefully the inside is similar.

So there you have it, a day late thanks to my lack of foresight and working night shift. Better late than never!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Book Thoughts: "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" by Laini Taylor

This book has been floating around my periphery for years, but for some reason it wasn't until my last stop at the library that I saw it and thought "now's the time." At first glance the 400+ pages seem like quite an undertaking, but it's YA, so the font is large and the language light. It only took me three days to read.

In terms of plot, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is pretty weak. Basically, a young girl raised by monsters has spent her whole life collecting a wide variety of animal and human teeth for some unknown purpose, and she discovers what's really going on and her true identity. I won't go into too much detail, but there's humans, seraphs, chimera and, of course, a war. There's almost always a war going on in these supernatural epics. You'd think with all that the story would be action packed, but really it's almost entirely exposition and worldbuilding. That being said, the world presented in this book is surprisingly unique and compelling and, as the first in a series, most of the exposition is totally necessary. Mostly I can forgive it because it isn't boring.

Taylor's writing style is deceptively simple, describing settings and characters with immaculate detail, but almost without you even noticing, coaxing you down into her world like a lullaby. One of the best thing she's managed to do here is take very well known and cliche ideas and twist them just enough to keep you guessing. We have angels versus demons, but who's the real transgressor? We have Romeo and Juliet, but with a completely different, still tragic end. There was also an unexpected and worthwhile commentary about colonialism, manifest destiny, and the justifications for unjust actions in war. I was impressed with the flow of ideas in this book, and how the author managed to pack them all in without weighing the prose down.

There was romance in this book, and for the most part I found it pretty lackluster, but the turn at the end got my excited for what's coming next. Overall that's how Daughter of Smoke and Bone my me feel, excited for where the story's going in the following books. It seems this first installment is primarily a platform for the rest of the series to stand on, but it's well built and beautifully rendered, and hopefully a sign of good things to come.

Title: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Published: 2011, Little, Brown
Pages: 418
Would Recommend: Yes. If you're as burnt out on the young adult genre as I am, allow this book to reinvigorate you. It has new, interesting concepts, and a lot of fascinating creatures to boot. Something for just about everybody.