Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Golem and the Djinni – Helene Wecker

onceup8200 small This is the first book I finished for the Once Upon a Time VIII Challenge hosted by Carl@stainlesssteeldroppings. More reviews can be found on the review site.

A being made of earth. Another made of fire. Magic, a quest for immortality, religion, love and sexuality, this novel has them all and they are blended so perfectly together, the whole experience of reading the book made me go from six hundred pages, that’s a big book, to what, how many more pages left, less than a hundred, nooooo!

The golem is a creature made of clay, given life by an old rabbi whose path had long strayed from the Jewish faith. He molds her according to the instructions of the one that would be her master, a man bound for America in search of a fresh start. She was supposed to be the man’s wife, obedient, attentive to his wishes, curious and modest. And she comes with instructions, as her maker tells her new master – one command to bring her to life, one to destroy her, for golems are strong, unpredictable creatures whose nature can get the better of them. Later on in the story she is named Chava – life.

The Golem and the Djinni The djinni is a being of fire that can change shape at will. Roaming the desert, not bound to anyone or anything, his long years are spent building a glass palace in the desert and, because his curiosity is strong, following the caravans and trying to find out more about people. It is this curiosity and ultimately his involvement in the life of a young Bedouin girl, that will change his life, and forced into a human form he has to get used to new things and living among people with rules which he finds distasteful. He is named Ahmad.

The book is a wonderful story from beginning to end. The main characters, the golem and the djinni, are multidimensional, interesting, and faced with decisions that make them sympathetic to the reader. Both of them have to build a new life for themselves among people, hiding their true nature – the golem, her great strength and the ability to hear people’s thoughts, the djinni – his ability to melt metals with his bare hands and create beautiful metalwork. For a while, both manage to live a normal, quiet life, until their true natures begin to chafe at the rules imposed by human society and restlessness threatens to upset their carefully constructed lives. Also, they discover that some people can see they are not human, and an enemy with a plan of his own is threatening their existence. They find some unlikely allies, a man possessed by a djinni, a metal smith who proves to be a good friend, an old rabbi whose research is about to bring about a new discovery.

They become friends by accident, and their conversations are interesting and thought provoking, revealing details about themselves that I found fascinating. These conversations highlight their fundamental differences – while the golem is prudent, calm and composed, the djinni is impatient, passionate and given to reckless actions. Reading their conversations made me think that someone had deliberately split human characteristics and given them to the two creatures. At first it is hard for both of them to accept each other’s traits and imperfections but spending time together affects them both and forces the golem to be more bold and the djinni to accept the consequences for his actions.
The story moves back and forth in time, giving the reader plenty of details into the life of the djinni before he was captured by an old wizard, and the life of the golem’s creator. Because of this, the story feels complete, as there are no major questions left unanswered, except perhaps the one right at the end.

Under the magical beauty of the story, there are some threads worth exploring: living according to the rules vs following one’s instincts, hiding one’s special abilities for fear of rejection, and not in the least, trying to be happy in an unfamiliar and strange world. It’s an interesting analysis of feelings and actions seen from the perspective of two very different creatures that each have to learn compromise and that living among people means they have to adapt and in doing so, give up a part of themselves.

My rating: 5/ 5 stars

*Read in March 2014

Posted in Challenges | 18 Comments

Frozen – movie review

onceup8200 small I thought that I would start the Once Upon a Time challenge with a book review but I’m not yet done with The Golem and the Djinni, so I thought I’d watch and write about a movie instead.

Frozen follows the story of two sisters, Anna and Elsa, the daughters of the king and queen of Arendelle. Elsa, who is older, can create ice and snow, a magic ability she finds increasingly difficult to control as she grows older. No locked rooms or gloves can stop this magic ability from bursting through and on one fateful day Elsa can no longer control her powers and brings winter to the kingdom of Arendelle. Scared by what she has done, she runs and hides high up in the mountains, but her sister Anna is determined to bring Elsa back and put an end to the winter. On her quest she receives help from Kristoff, a young man who earns his living from cutting and delivering ice, his loyal reindeer Sven, and Olaf, a talking snowman.

This is roughly the plot of the story and even though there are a multitude of other tangents, to say more would spoil the surprise. While the story employs the classic fairy tale elements, with a prince and a princess falling in love at first sight and planning to marry, the dreamy beginning punctuated by a few songs gives way to a harsher reality as things are not what they appear to be. The heroine is not a helpless damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by prince charming. She is strong, determined (even if a little clueless at first) and possesses the ability to save herself and others if need be. Olaf provides most of the funny and heart-warming scenes, as he is a most unusual snowman and a true, loyal friend. The men play secondary roles. The Duke of Weselton (just wait until you actually hear his name) and Prince Hans of the Southern Isles are interesting characters whose true nature is revealed as the story nears its climax. Frozen - movie

The visuals are stunning – there’s a whole battalion of trolls who can change shape, a giant snow creature that looks quite scary, and beautiful snow and ice artwork that almost made me wish for winter. And even if the story seemed a bit predictable at first, there were two quite shocking moments that quickly turned it on its head and gave it a fresh new direction that was gratifying, sad, and happy at the same time. Love does conquer in the end, but it’s not the kind of love you would expect. A very good retelling of a famous fairy tale that manages to be surprisingly charming and touching without being shallow. If you haven’t figured out which one I’m not going to spoil it for you – I didn’t know it either until the very end. A pleasure to watch and highly recommended.

Click on the link below for a little preview and a great song:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moSFlvxnbgk

 

My rating: 5/5 stars

Posted in Challenges | 15 Comments

Once Upon a Time…

onceup8300 Spring may be already on the way in some parts of the world, but in Thailand summer is in full swing, and only the occasional breeze can save the days from being uncomfortably hot. This is the mango season, my favorite tropical fruit, but also the time for magic, fairy tales, folklore and fantasy stories.
Carl from stainlesssteeldroppings is hosting the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge which starts today and runs until June 21st. I’ve been waiting for this event since January and collected some interesting books over the last few months.

My friend Vishy recommended The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter and the blurb on the first page makes me want to start reading it right away:

“From familiar fairy tales and legends – Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss-in-Boots, beauty and the Beast, vampires, werewolves – Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark and sensual stories. Her hypnotic prose breathes new life into these enduring tales, every bit as haunting and disarming here as when encountered for the first time.”

I’ve also discovered Poison by Sarah Pinborough which is a retelling of Snow White. This beautiful hard cover gem is a work of art in itself, just wait until you see that first page.

It’s Snow White, but not as you know her…

Take a wicked queen, a handsome prince, a beautiful princess, and a poisoned apple…

…and now read the true story of Snow White, told the way it always should have been…”

Another book I’m excited about (and currently reading because I had just finished Doctor Sleep by Stephen King and just could not wait) is The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker. I saw this one while browsing online but can’t remember where. I don’t know anything about golems and very little about djinnis (apart from the stories in the Arabian Nights) so I decided to give this book a try and so far I’m really enjoying it.

“New York, 1899:

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a Jewish rabbi. When her master dies on the voyage from Poland, she arrives alone in an unknown city.

Ahmad is a djinni, a being of fire, trapped for centuries and brought back to life by Arbeely, an impoverished tinsmith who invites him to stay in his workshop in Lower Manhattan.
Together, experiencing freedom for the first time, they form the most unlikely of friendships. But a powerful threat will soon test their bond driving them back into their own worlds and forcing them to make a fateful choice.”

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. Byatt is a collection of five short stories:

The Glass Coffin
Gode’s Story
The Story of the Eldest Princess
Dragon’s Breath
The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye

A few years ago I read Possession by the same author and enjoyed the book so much that I jumped at the chance to read more of her work.

Fate by L.R. Fredericks

Three years ago I read a book called Farundell, the first book in a series. I loved the name and the cover, and the book proved to be equally great and I was so in love with it that I wrote to the author and requested a short interview. You can read it here. Fate is the second book in the series but both can be read as standalone novels. I’ve been waiting to read this one ever since it was published in 2012. This blurb is from goodreads.com:

“Death and Beauty, Magic and Science: Lord Francis Damory’s Quest for the Elixir of Immortality

In the brothels and debtors’ prisons of Georgian London and the gilded salons of the Ancien Règime…

Through love affairs and deadly duels, among courtesans and castrati, alchemists and anatomists, visionaries, monsters, charlatans and spies…

From Paris to Venice and across the pirate-infested Mediterranean to Egypt, Cyprus and distant Constantinople in pursuit of his mysterious ancestor Tobias the Alchemist, who may yet still be alive.”

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, a Penguin Classics book. The descriptions of the tales in this book seem vaguely familiar. I may have read something similar as a child. I am intrigued.

“In these tales, young women go on long and difficult quests, wicked stepmothers turn children into geese and tsars ask dangerous riddles, with help or hindrance from magical dolls, cannibal witches, talking skulls, stolen wives, and brothers disguised as wise birds. Half the tales here are true oral tales, collected by folklorists during the last two centuries, while the others are reworkings of oral tales by four great Russian writers: Alexander Pushkin, Nadezhda Teffi, Pavel Bazhov and Andrey Platonov.”

Angelology by Danielle Trussoni

I’ve had this book on my radar for a while but didn’t actually buy it until I realized it would fit in perfectly with the themes of this challenge. Like The Golem and the Djinni, it’s over 600 pages long. I can’t wait to see what this story is really about.

“Abandoned as a child on the steps of the St Rose Convent in New York, Evangeline Cacciatore grew up knowing little of her parents. Assisting a scholar in the convent one day, she uncovers a disturbing secret connected to her family. It relates to a sinister discovery in the Bulgarian mountains: a beautiful humanlike body impervious to decay. Who is it? And what has it to do with her parents?”

The Bloody Chamber Poison The Golem and the Djinni The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye
Fate Russian Fairy Tales
Angelology

Posted in Challenges | 34 Comments

Doctor Sleep – Stephen King

It was Doctor Sleep that made me want to read The Shining. So I set out to read the scary story of the Torrance family who hole up at the Overlook hotel for a winter and face all kinds of crazy stuff, like ghosts (horribly ugly ones), and a chiming clock (hello, Poe) and a fire hose that is a fire hose (but not really), and some scary hedge animals (now I think maybe “topiary” is a contraction of top scary). I loved The Shining, with all the love for horror I have in me, and I placed the book on a shelf with Dracula and The Oxford Book of Gothic Stories and thought, now that was one heck of a great scary story. Then I read the sequel.

Doctor Sleep - Stephen King It’s never a good thing to expect a lot from a sequel, and yet I did. Danny Torrance’s story was one I was looking forward to rediscover and there were so many things I was hoping to find. Would he end up an alcoholic like his father? Will he keep in touch with Hallorann, the one who saved him? And who will he save in return and from what? All the answers are there but no matter how hard I tried, I just could get into this new story – a group of ordinary looking people called the True Knot who wander across America hunting for children with the shining, only to kill them and feed on their dying breath, the steam. And a special little girl called Abra whose psychic powers make her a top priority for the group, especially now that they are sick and dying. Danny is the one who’s supposed to help her, just like Hallorann helped him, because life is a wheel and now it’s turning and it’s time to pay back.

The first part of the book was slow going – the story picks up a few years after the horrific experience of the Torrance family at the Overlook hotel. Danny’s gift, the shining, is both a blessing and a curse and as he gets older he makes some poor choices in dealing with it. He also uses it to assist the elderly patients of a hospice on their dying bed, and this is what brings him the name Doctor Sleep.

I liked all the references to The Shining and I think the book would have been less enjoyable had I not read these two one after the other. But the horror part was just a flicker, and not a very strong one at that, and I was left wanting more. Maybe one of his next releases for this year, Revival, will bring back that horror element that was so powerful in The Shining. I look forward to reading it.

My rating: 3/5 stars

* Read in March 2014

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 8 Comments

The Shining – Stephen King

What a ride! What an amazing, exciting, horrific and gruesome ride! Having just finished turning that last page, I find myself unable to unglue my thoughts from everything that happened in this book. It’s as if I am still there, taking a ride in a wild roller-coaster, sliding down the tracks at an amazing speed, seeing (huge hedge animals come to life, fire hoses moving by themselves, a dead and bloated corpse yearning for a throat to strangle) all these weird things and being afraid of them all and loving that feeling of fear because it’s also mixed with a fascination akin to being hypnotized.

The Shining Of all the King novels I’ve read over the years, and there have been more than forty I think, this one was right up there with Salem’s Lot, Cujo, Desperation and It, in terms of scariness. My memory might be a little foggy but I don’t remember being so shaken by one of his books in a long time. It is also true that the ones I’ve read last were Full Dark, No Stars, 11/22/63, Joyland and The Wind Through the Willows and it’s also true that none of them come even close to the horror of The Shining.

The Shining is the story of the Torrance family, Jack, Wendy, and little Danny, only five years old. Financial strain, also Jack’s quick temper and alcohol problems, force the family to go and live at the Overlook Hotel, where Jack had managed to get a job as a caretaker for the winter. Bright hopes are pinned on this job – Jack will get sober, he will finish writing a play he’d been working on, get himself together, start again. But the Overlook is not just your usual hotel and the things that inhabit it have a plan. A terrifying, murderous plan.

To say that I loved the book would be a gross understatement – every little detail was worked into the story with perfect precision, making me dread turning the page and yet yearning to because I just had to know what happened next (and will Danny be ok, that’s what I wanted to know) and what twisted unimaginable act of terror was going to plague the characters next. I never thought I’d be so terrified of a fire hose, yet that scene, built with exquisite slowness, was almost scarier than the one of the dead woman in the tub, because a dead corpse is scary, yes, but it’s obvious-scary, while an ordinary thing such as a fire hose could turn that terror into a mind-numbing experience. There are a myriad of possibilities for horror in a hotel with a tainted history such as the Overlook – the elevator cage with its rusty doors where party streamers come floating out, the basement with an old boiler patched up so many times, and whole boxes filled with old receipts and a strange poem written on old-smelling stationery paper, the attic with its promise of rats, the roof shingles with a dangerous wasps’ nest. Loneliness, winter, cold.

I loved the literary references, from Poe’s chilling “The Masque of the Red Death” whose unusual clock makes time unravel like a spool of thread and cries of “Unmask!Unmask!” that echo throughout the story like a timeless horror, to the more playful “Alice in Wonderland” to name just two. I do not doubt that this is also one little detail that made me like the story even more, as Poe is one of my all time favorite writers.
I am glad that I waited so long to read this novel because now that the sequel, Doctor Sleep, is out and on my nightstand, I can read them both one after the other. Being already half-way though the sequel, all I can say is that so far, The Shining is definitely more horror-driven. Or maybe I just didn’t get to the good part yet.

My rating: 5/ 5

*Read in March 2014

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 8 Comments

Love Minus Eighty – Will McIntosh

Technology is the magic of the future. The wand and magic spells have been replaced by screens that can pop up virtually anywhere and simulations that can bring your dream man right into your living room. There is no need for cash, as money flies right out of your account when you’re wearing your “system”. If you think social media has brought about the loss of privacy you have no idea how accurate that is and how hard is to have a moment when nobody is watching. No need to learn spells and magic formulas like Harry Potter. No, it’s way easier than that. And less complicated.

Love Minus Eighty I had my doubts about getting this book. The title is quite catchy, and the cover art even more so – the book does get a bonus point for that, but science fiction is rarely a genre I pick up on my own. Still, after reading Carl’s review, I decided to give it a try. We should get out of our comfort zone sometimes, right?

The story begins in 2103 in a dating center where Mira, a woman who’s been dead for eighty years, is revived for a few minutes to speak to a potential husband. The future has brought about the marvel of revival, where people with a generous insurance or attractive enough can be brought back from the dead. The Bridesicle program is a special section of this “experiment” and wealthy men can pay for the revival and reconstruction (that sounds awful but accurate, given the extensive physical damage some of the women had sustained) of a woman, in exchange for a lifetime marriage contract. A very disturbing version of Sleeping Beauty, except that Prince Charming is neither young nor charming but obscenely rich.
The story revolves around Mira and another woman, Winter, who also ends up in the Bridesicle program. Rob, the man who killed her by accident, is consumed by guilt and decides to visit her as often as possible, which is not a very easy thing to do as only a few minutes worth of conversation with a revived woman costs several thousand dollars. In order to get the money he has to give up his dream, move back in with his father and work a menial job – a big change from his former lifestyle.

I liked the small number of characters that inhabited the story. Each one of them feels real enough to evoke sympathy, even the attention-seeking Lorelei, who lives entirely for her social media ratings. The small cast of characters include Veronika, a shy dating coach with a not-so-secret crush, Lycan, a brilliant scientist but socially awkward, Nathan, the handsome guy who falls in love with the wrong person, and Rob, the young man whose one reckless act makes him reconsider his lifestyle. There is also Sunali, a former bridesicle who fights to change the rules of the facility that runs the Bridesicle program.

It was a weird experience reading this book. Not only because it depicts a very technologically driven world but also because it’s described in such a way as to make it very plausible. Technology had made so many wonderful things possible – traveling for example, and extending one’s life, but it has also altered the real world with the aid of virtual simulations. Imagine walking in a dilapidated old neighborhood and with just a touch being able to change the landscape, the smell, even the sounds – all this made me think of a pretty bandage over an infected wound.
The language is appropriately futuristic, from acronyms to the name given to people who have chosen to live without technology – raw-lifers they are called – but the story offers only a glimpse into what that means. It would have been interesting to see the world through their perspective.
In spite of the technological background, people’s emotions manage to shine through and the events force the protagonists of the story to reevaluate their lives. Some of them even manage to find a measure of happiness, while others are content to live a life that has more in common with a soap opera. It’s disturbing how close this feels to a near future. It made me think of the choices we have and the paths we decide to take in life. Would people accept to be frozen in case of an accident or illness, so they can be revived in the future by someone who would have entire control over their lives? Is it worth living a hundred and twenty five years in an artificial world? Is it worth living a life without privacy for a fleeting moment of fame?

I based my rating on the emotional rather than literary merit of the story. While the idea the book is based on is surprising and intriguing (not sure how original, but it certainly feels special) it made me feel sad, faintly repelled by it all, and not even the less bleak and quite abrupt ending managed to dispel that.

3/5 stars

*Read in February-March 2014

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 10 Comments