Just finished The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Although you cannot fault her prose, I can’t help feeling as if the story would have been much better if it had been cut down by a hundred pages. The novel tracks the intersecting lives of two mythological creatures–the Golem of Hebrew lore and the Jinni from the Arabian tradition–but takes 484 pages to tell the story of these two main characters, their struggles, their saviors, their enemies, and friends along with the backstory of each and every one of these secondary characters. There is a lot going on here. I felt as if the plot did not really get going until page 300 when a crisis erupts which sets everything spinning. What kept me hanging on through the story up until this point was the beauty of Wecker’s descriptions of turn of the century New York and the magical worlds she creates. Her descriptions employ all the senses so that a reader feels she has travelled the desserts with the caravans, meandered along the streets of The Bowry at night, and worked alongside the Golem, Chava, at the bakery. Unfortunately for this reader, I somehow felt let down at the end of this tome, as if the conclusion did not live up to the build-up of almost 500 pages. Still, I would read another of Wecker’s works.
William G. Tapply’s novel Gray Ghost is a quiet meditation on the art of living simply, wrapped in a very simple mystery package. The Stoney Calhoun character is a fellow who just wants to live in his cabin in the woods with only his dog as company (with the exception of an occasional visit from his lady friend) and guide fishing trips in the waters around his home in Maine. The funny thing is, Calhoun knows how to do things like examine a witness or thwart an attacker–skills he has no idea how he came by because he lost all memory after a lightening attack several years ago. Someone else in very keen to find out what he knows–a mysterious visitor known only as The Man in the Suit. He probes and grills Calhoun to determine if he has remembered anything significant. Against this backdrop, the charred remains of a mutilated man is discovered on Quarantine Island–a small smudge of land with a haunted past. Calhoun, against his will, is dragged into the investigation. Eventually, the danger lands on his doorstep, literally. The murder mystery plot is not overly complicated because the beauty of this book is the description of Calhoun’s simple life and struggle to keep it that way amidst modern demands and complicated relationships. The description of nature and the author’s deep understanding of fly fishing adds interest and atmosphere. It is a quiet read with some disturbing twists and turns. The Gray Ghost of the title refers to both a fly fishing lure and a reference to the nuns who haunt Quarantine Island.
Mary Rickert’s novel The Memory Garden is the story of a foundling, Bay Singer, who struggles with who she is and the powers she may possess as she comes of age. Bay’s mother, Nan, is a woman her grandmother’s age, who behaves in ways which embarrass young Bay and which have caused the neighborhood kids to dub her a witch. The story takes place over only a few days when Nan decides to invite her long-estranged girlhood chums to a weekend together at her magical home, but with the hidden agenda of finding someone who will agree to take care of Bay. The author hints at something that occurred in the past involving these old women which strained their friendship to breaking and has haunted each in a unique way. The story unfolds very slowly, but with lovely bits of magical realism and sensory descriptions of Nan’s enchanted garden. It is told in two alternating viewpoints: Bay and Nan. I must admit that at times I became impatient and felt as if I was trapped in an old woman’s confused thinking and wished for some clarity, but the teasing hints of what these women did as young women kept me reading to find out. If you are looking for a leisurely read with some magical elements, this is the book.
I’ve been neglecting my reading list and book reviews lately while I concentrated on finishing writing False Gods, a Young Adult novel which, at first glance, is about a girl shooting for the Washington International Horse Show against the odds. On a deeper level, the story is about the nature of desire and whether what you want in life twists and torments you or lifts you up and fills the void. For the months of December and January, all proceeds are going to a local church’s youth program. The book is now available on Amazon http://amzn.to/163iXsS in paperback and ebook versions. Please post a review on Amazon if you buy it! #YA #horses #FalseGods
Thanks Blog followers and I hope to be back with some book reviews soon.
The gothic tale The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill, author of The Woman is Black, starts out promising but leaves the reader stranded. It is the tale of an Englishman, Sir James Monmouth, who has travelled the globe in the footsteps of his hero–an adventurer named Conrad Vane. The author trots out the usual satisfying tropes of the genre–the barren English countryside, the haunted boys’ school, the gilded manor house at Christmastide–which is richly described and a satisfying backdrop as Monmouth journeys to uncover the truth about Vane. Along the way, he encounters a ghostlike boy, crying in the night, disappearing doorways, a gypsy woman and misty images in the mirror–not to mention everyone he meets tells him to abandon his pursuit, but will not say why. After all the 200 plus pages of build-up, Sir James finally uncovers an aged relative living in the ancestral home, which has some connection with Vane. But despite all the warnings, the ghosts, the mysterious hallucinations, author Susan Hill just ends the story without much of an explanation for any of them (don’t want to spoil it for readers). Hill certainly has the voice down perfectly for this genre and ability to transport the reader back to another time, but the plot was weak and inconsistent.
The new novel by Julia Dahl, Invisible City, refers to the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community within New York. The story opens when Rebekah Roberts, stringer to the New York Tribune, is assigned to cover the story of a body found in a scrap heap by the river. Things get complicated when it is revealed that the body is a young mother of the Hasidic community, whose husband owns the scrap yard. Despite these damning coincidences, the body is quietly taken away by members of the Orthodox community’s private police force and buried without police involvement–neither the collection of evidence, autopsy, nor questioning of the woman’s husband and family– all pointing to a suspected NYPD cover-up for the sake of political ambitions and financial donations from the wealthy and powerful Jewish community. Roberts, refusing to let the truth behind the murder of this woman be buried with her, attempts to get answers from a silent Hasidic community, distrustful of outsiders. But Roberts, haunted by her own crippling past in which her Orthodox Jewish mother abandoned her, probes deeper into the murder in an attempt to get answers not just for the victim’s sake, but also for herself. The story is written in the first person and in present tense, lending a breathless immediacy to the action, which takes place over the course of only one week. The story is a well plotted page turner and the characters are well drawn. The author’s own experience as a reporter shines through in the authenticity of the character’s experiences. My only objection is the over-use of profanity and at one point an awkwardly phrased apology to the Orthodox community in the mouth of one of the characters. Overall, an interesting read.
Who doesn’t love a tale of secret identities, impersonators of kings or heiresses, or body-doubles. Mary Miley in her “First Crime Novel” award winning story, The Impersonator, gives us just that. It is the tale of a down-and-out vaudeville actress who is approached by an unscrupulous uncle to take on the identity of his niece, the heiress Jessie Carr, who mysteriously disappeared seven years ago. If actress Leah Randall can convince Jessie Carr’s family that it is she, Jessie, who has returned, she stands to inherit a fortune on her upcoming twenty-first birthday. Leah/Jessie wins over the family–all but cousin Henry–who is the one who knows Jessie’s true fate. The tale is told through Leah’s eyes as she likens the challenge to the greatest acting role of her life, but with life-and-death stakes if she fails. The backdrop of events is early 1920’s Oregon in a world of Prohibition, bootleggers, jazz age costumes, and larger than life stars of vaudeville. It’s a good tale despite seeing some of the twists and turns coming down the road beforehand, and will keep a reader engaged to the end in order to see if Leah/Jessie pulls it off. The narrative voice of Leah is fun, if somewhat unbelievable. The story sometimes drags a bit when the author puts all she’s learned about the era into the mouth of a character for a long exposition on a topic, but it is forgivable. Miley has done her homework on the vaudeville era of the early ’20’s (but I did catch a few phrases that were not likely used at that time.) The ending is very dramatic (no spoilers) and reads more like a romantic thriller perhaps, than a murder mystery. Miley has followed up with a second novel out this year which continues this character’s story called “Silent Murders,” focusing on the silent movie era.
Robert Galbraith’s (aka J. K. Rowlings) mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling opens with the apparent suicide of a troubled super-model who falls to her death from her posh apartment balcony. Only her half-brother believes it was not suicide and hires down-on-his luck private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate. Cormoran has no shortage of troubles of his own–just tossed out of his home by his fiancé, his business failing and in debt, and health in crisis, he takes on the case not quite believing it wasn’t indeed a suicide. He soon starts to have his doubts. Cormoran’s investigation is aided by a “temp agency” gal who shows up and stays long after her contract, drawn by the excitement of the detective work and maybe just a bit by Cormoran himself. The novel’s plot is very slow and consists mostly of the investigator interviewing various family members and friends in an attempt to piece together the model’s last day alive before her death. It is full of wonderful prose and vivid descriptions from the worlds of high-fashion to that of drug rehab programs. Galbraith has a talent for painting a vivid picture of these people (most of whom were quite unlikeable) and surroundings, for example, she described the mouth of a wrinkled, aged woman sucking on a cigarette to the anus of a cat. Try to forget that image. For what it lacks in compelling plot twists it makes up for in interesting heros. Cormoran Strike, the bastard son of an aging rock star, Iraq war veteran, amputee, and large hairy man comes to life as a sympathetic and believable character. His temp gal, Robin Ellacott, plays well off his character and we soon suspect that she is attracted to the big lug (even though she’s engaged), which lends the novel a bit of romantic tension. After all, who wouldn’t fall for a homeless, one-legged, big hairy failure of a private eye? Galbraith makes it work. All in all I would say that I finished the impressive 456 pages of the story not so much for the solution to the mystery, but just to see how Cormoran makes out.
The newest YA novel by E. Lockhart, We Were Liars, follows the narrative of a young girl, Cadence Sinclair Eastman, from a privileged family who spends every summer on a private island off of Massachusetts with her cousins and one very special boy. The summer of her fifteenth year something terrible happens which leaves her with memory loss, debilitating headaches, and the urge to give away all her possessions. Returning to the island for a brief stay two years later, she tries to uncover what happened. (None of the family members will talk about it.) Through her scattered and unreliable recollections, we piece together the image of a highly dysfunctional family torn apart by greed, prejudice, jealousy. The perfect veneer of the powerful Sinclair family is ripped away to reveal their true poverty of spirit, Cadence included. The horrible accident which occurred the fifteenth year is the culmination of Cadence’s attempt to right her perception of the wrongs. The author, Lockhart, does an interesting job using the voice of her main character in an almost poetic narrative prose to describe the people and events. She does an outstanding job giving us glimpses and hints as to the character of the adults in the book, whereas the portrayal of the teenaged friends/cousins is less subtle. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels too forced and precocious for the voice of the young teen. Overall, the book was very readable, the story engaging (although I did figure out the twist miles before the big reveal), but I would say the ending is unsatisfactory. It goes out with a little puff after such emotional fireworks that precedes it.