Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Book Reviews in brief: The Golem and the Jinni, The Abominable, etc.

I have powered through a pile of library books and some, in fact most, have been absolutely wonderful. I’d like to say I bought them all but I can’t afford my own reading habit. There are some books I will buy for my Reader and then I hoard them for holidays and for reading on the elliptical machine. Right now Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam and Bill Bryson’s One Summer are on the Reader for when we go to Hawaii. Also G.J. Meyer’s history of World War I, A World Undone. Remember him? He wrote about the Borgias and the Tudors and I am a fan. But I thought I’d quickly run through some of the fabulous books that have kept me reading late into the night….

1. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. GolemI didn’t know what to expect from this book but from the first paragraph I was totally mesmerized and neglected my work and family so I could finish it. I think everybody’s enjoying this book because it took AGES to get from the library. I love stories about magical creatures finding their way in our world and in this novel a golem and a jinni find themselves in New York City circa 1910. I was rhapsodizing about this book to anyone who would listen, forcing my husband to look up from the sports pages, and found that I had to explain what a golem was quite a few times. I guess everyone hasn’t read Marge Piercy’s amazing book He She and It, and if you haven’t you should. Its main point is the immorality of creating a self-aware intelligent being for your own purposes and denying its right to its own life. In Piercy’s story a futuristic self-aware robot is created for the defense of a community, yet it has its own needs and desires. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of the golem of Prague, the clay man brought to life by a rabbi who also desires to protect his community. In Wecker’s book, the golem’s master dies within hours of bringing her to life and she arrives in New York masterless. Wecker just takes it from there and she does it beautifully. Thank you, Ms. Wecker, and please get right to work on your next novel. I’ll buy it.

2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. On the theme of intelligent self-aware beings, this book is about the fallout when a family that has adopted a chimp is forced to give her up. I heard today that there is a lawsuit in the United States being filed on behalf of a male chimp named, I believe, Tommy, which is interesting as it argues Tommy’s rights as a person, so the whole issue of personhood will soon be wrangled in the courts. This book is gripping and made me remember the films from Psych 101 with the signing gorillas and chimps. I didn’t really consider what would happen if one of them threw a grad student into a wall. If you raise an ape with a human family, they believe they are human. To then – even though it’s clearly necessary for everyone’s safety – send them to an ape research facility is incredibly cruel. It’s hard to believe that smart people like psychology professors don’t see the eventuality looming, but there you go. Fowler’s previous book, The Jane Austen Book Club, was a good read but this one blew me away. I needed to take a break after I read it so I could properly process and then I told the whole story to Justin. It’s ok, he wasn’t going to read it anyway. I’d love it if he would read more fiction, but you know. Horse, water, drink.

3. The Abominable by Dan Simmons. I just love books about climbing, even though you would never get me near a mountain. I’m fascinated by the thought processes of people who can’t wait to endanger their own lives and those of others in this totally unnecessary physical feat. Into Thin Air? Awesome, and it got me started on this genre. Abominable The Abominable is a novel about climbers in the 1920s and has a great spy-novel-ish plot. There are lots of minutely detailed descriptions of climbing that made my eyes glaze over a few times, but overall it’s great fun to read. It’s even more fun if you read it with Google Earth by your side so you can look up the Matterhorn and the Eiger and say knowledgeably, “Yeah, that north face does look pretty tough,” from your warm and cozy bed.

4. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. I put off reading this book because it was about the Balkans and everything I’ve read about the Balkans has been devastating. Then the due date loomed and I was forced to and I was glad I did. This book is, unsurprisingly, devastating but it’s a very good read nonetheless. It’s one of those “small world” plots in which the main characters’ stories are entangled together but they don’t know it and the reader gets to put it all together. Layers of tragedy and irony. Cue the dolorous minor-key Chopin Nocturne.

5. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s books are just pure fun. My seven-year-old watches a good movie with wide eyes and a big smile on her face (it’s hilarious) and that’s what I look like when I read Neil Gaiman. I think I’ve already established myself as a fan in a previous blog post. I love it when characters from our world encounter some alternate reality and are going along with the quest or whatever but their internal thoughts are, essentially, “WTF!” That’s so fun.

6. The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar. WeightofWater Another devastating tragedy, but beautifully written and so worth staying up late to finish. You know it’s well written when even though you know where this is going you still read on and on because every word is worth savouring. Then you get to the end and it’s heartbreaking but you knew it was going to be. It’s like watching a car crash. Horrid but it gets your attention. Let me start you off: A couple from Ann Arbor move to India after their 7-year-old son dies of meningitis. That’s just the beginning and it gets even more tragic. And it’s set in India, so cultural misunderstandings just make matters worse. But it’s so good.

OK, it’s bedtime and I have to make sure the kids’ light is off. (They’re allowed to read until 9.)


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Summer Books! Spies and Monsters and Teenagers, oh my

There are intelligent books, and there are summer reads. In the summer I’m not looking for challenging literature, because I keep getting interrupted by kids, house guests and meal times. However, this year I’ve had the good fortune to read intelligent books that were also loads of fun, and it’s been wonderful.

Last summer I read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy. I’d been impressed by this youth lit fantasy so I thought I’d try a few more I’d had recommended to me. Veronica Roth’s Divergent was one such. Once again, dystopian future, disaffected rebellious youth. I liked it enough to download Insurgent, the second book in the series. Book Three is due out some time this fall, so I’ll watch for that.

Cassandra Clare’s ‘City of -‘ books have been made into a movie so I figure they’re really hitting the mainstream and I’d better catch up. I read the first three about a year ago, downloaded the rest, then forgot about it and got her mixed up with Cassandra Clark (more on her work later). I have to keep a list of the books in order so that I don’t get lost. This is important with e-books because you don’t have the benefit of a quick glance at an endplate to see what this one’s all about and where it fits in the series. In this story, there are special descendants of angels called the Nephilim. They are sort of UN peacekeepers of the supernatural world; when vampires, werewolves, or similar get out of line, the Nephilim sort everyone out. Plus they’re gorgeous and really well dressed. The main character finds out late that she is a Nephilim, she falls in love with a Nephilim, there’s a confused bit where they think they’re brother and sister for a while, but then it’s all good, except that her personal style never catches up and she feels really insecure. Her best friend becomes a vampire, her mother’s boyfriend turns out to be a werewolf leader, but they all get along. It’s fun, there’s lots of drama, a certain amount of silliness, but it’s a good read nevertheless. How good? I’ve downloaded her next series, Clockwork this and that. Angel, Prince, Princess, I believe.

I had Cassandra Clark’s books downloaded because initially I mixed her up with Cassandra Clare. I identified my mistake but then looked into the matter and found that Cassandra Clark writes intelligent medieval murder mysteries! Jackpot! I think I actually cheered when I discovered this. Her protagonist is a nun named Hildegard and the stories are set during the reign of Richard II, the boy king, son of the Black Prince, nephew of John of Gaunt. This is a period I’m not very familiar with so I’m happy to have some fun fiction to bring this era to life. Prepare for nerdiness: I find it’s easy to follow the monarchy from William the Conqueror through to Edward I (Longshanks) but then it gets a bit confused (because Sharon Kay Penman’s books stop around there and I have to depend on non-fiction to fill in gaps). Edward II’s wife essentially pulled off a coup with Roger Mortimer and they did away with Edward II, but her son, Edward III (not the offspring of William Wallace, I’m sad to say because that would be awesome) took the throne when he achieved his majority (and executed Mortimer). His son Edward was the Black Prince who died before his father. Richard II was overthrown by his cousin and son of John of Gaunt, Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV. Then Henry V (Agincourt). His son, Henry VI, was a weak king. Because of this and because he had such a strong French wife whom everybody hated (Margaret of Anjou), his cousin Richard of York started going after the throne, thus beginning the Wars of the Roses (Philippa Gregory’s books start here and go right through the Tudors; Sharon Kay Penman has a book about the Wars of the Roses also). That little exposition is not necessary in a quick review of Clark’s books but I just wanted to see if I could do it. One of those bursts of nerdiness that are hard to control. I’m interested in seeing how Clark deals with the downfall of Richard II, so I’m hoping for more Hildegard stories. I’ve read Hangman Blind, The Red Velvet Turnshoe, The Law of Angels, and Parliament of Spies. Enjoyed them all, especially Parliament of Spies and if you read it you’ll know why. Yow! But read them in order first!

In the spring I’d picked up a prominently displayed book by Daniel Silva in the library (thank you library people!) and it was GRIPPING. Whenever a good espionage writer comes along he’s compared to John LeCarré; in my opinion Daniel Silva is even better. I’ve downloaded his Gabriel Allon series (The Kill Artist, The English Assassin, The Confessor, A Death in Vienna, and it goes on) and am galloping through it. Gabriel Allon is an Israeli assassin who daylights as an art restorer. He’s also good-looking, speaks a zillion languages, totally cool. Yet he’s not cheesy. He’s an assassin with a conscience; he was part of the team who avenged the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes. (I’m interested in comparing the characters in the movie Munich to Daniel Silva’s books to see if they correspond.) So far, he’s been part of teams that have blown open Swiss banking collaboration during the war and the major art thefts that happened under the Third Reich and also a team that investigated a threat to a Pope who wants to open the Vatican’s Secret Archives to expose the Church’s role in the Holocaust. Whoa. Interesting and well-researched, and intensely gripping. Just enough description so you can get a good picture in your mind, and enough character development that you have emotional connection to the various players. If you like Ken Follett, John LeCarré and similar you’ll love Silva.

Before we went to the Island I was downloading books for my Sony Reader, and I often visit best-seller lists to see what’s new. Here I found Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Joe Hill’s NOS4A2. I downloaded them, took them with me on the ferry and started reading. The Neil Gaiman book was hard to read at first because the download had something wrong with it; every apostrophe was misrepresented by a weird tangle of characters. This went on for chapters but eventually the text improved. Nevertheless, I found I was obsessively reading late into the night to see What Happens. It’s one of those charmingly rooted fantasies in which the world of magic is separated from ours by the thinnest of veils. Someone stumbles through, and chaos ensues. It’s lovely and humorous (reminds me a bit of Christopher Moore) and I immediately went back to the Sony site to find other Gaiman books, and found that he is the writer of Stardust, one of our favourite movies.

I read through Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 thinking to myself, “This guy’s read a lot of Stephen King,” because it’s a very Kinglike novel and I honestly think that any writer of horror nowadays has to be familiar with King’s incredible oeuvre, as King himself references H.P. Lovecraft. Vampire writers hearken to Bram Stoker, ghost story writers to Wilkie Collins, etc. So as I read, I thought, Scary, monsters, children, etc. = King influence! Great fun. So then I read the Acknowledgements at the end and he thanks Tabitha King – his mother, which means he’s the son of Stephen King! It’s genetic, folks. Immediate download of previous works followed.

I am a big fan of Barbara Vine – who is actually Ruth Rendell, famous British mystery novelist. I actually prefer the Vine novels however, as they are dark and psychological. The Child’s Child is her newest and once you start reading you are totally sucked in. Rendell is a genius. I’d started to read the new Dan Brown novel and, sorry Dan, it was hard labor. I was doing that thing where you say to yourself, I’ll read 30 pages and then if I’m still not intrigued then I’ll quit. But then I figured, a Canadian summer’s too short for this, and started the Vine book. And she whisked me away into her world. Effortless. I cannot recommend her books highly enough.

Postscript: Before summer began I read two very good nonfiction books which I’ll just name here: Paleofantasy, by Marlene Zuk. There’s a good review in the Guardian on this book. Basically, when someone tells you you need to eat a lot of meat/don’t eat carbs or dairy/run barefoot, because when we were cavemen that’s what we did, they’re full of nonsense. And anyway, cavemen didn’t live so long so why should we copy their habits? They ate meat, or fish, or whatever, because that’s what was available; they didn’t have a Cupcakes store two blocks from their house the way we do. Anyway, archaeologists have proven that they did eat carbs because they analyzed plaque in Neanderthal teeth, so there. Read the book, and you’ll be armed with knowledge against this kind of bizarre notion. I’ve heard a lot of this twaddle lately so I was glad to read a book by an actual evolutionary biologist who is also rolling her eyes. The other is With Charity for All, by Ken Stern. This is about the charity business in the United States and I figure Canada isn’t much different. Good review in the Wall Street Journal online. It was hard to read.I’ve read other books about charities being big frauds but it’s really depressing to seriously contemplate. Nevertheless, it’s well written, well researched and we need to know this stuff!

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