Category Archives: Fantasy

Rooms by Lauren Oliver

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We’ve nested in the walls like bacteria. We’ve taken over the house, its insulation and its plumbing–we’ve made it our own. Or maybe it’s life that is the infection: a feverish dream, a hallucination of feelings. Death is purification, a cleansing, a cure.

If death ever takes a holiday I expect he might vacation in Coral River, the upstate New York locale where Richard Walker lives…well…lived. Richard’s recent passing is what has brought the Walker family back together for a spell. A funeral, a burial, a will-reading, and a chance to go over some of the events, the challenges, the hopes and disappointments, the failings of their lives.

Ex-wife Caroline tries to lubricate the process with a steady ingestion of alcohol. Their children are not faring much better. Twenty-something single-mother Minna has a taste for spirits as well. Failure and desperation to fill the emptiness inside will do that. Even the introduction of cosmetic surgery and various prescription meds seem unable to fill that void. Trenton is Richard and Caroline’s teenage son, and he has issues. He barely survived a car crash that left him feeling even more of an outsider than he already was. Trenton sees things that the rest of us cannot, actual holes in the fabric of reality. He wonders if he might be better off dead. Of course some of the household residents already are.

Sandra, whose gray matter once decorated a wall, and Alice, an abused wife who has also contributed to the body count of the house, have made the place their own, or is it the other way round? These golden girls are not necessarily precious. In addition to remembering their lives and observing the Walkers, they squabble and tell lies. And while they may not be able to exactly tote luggage or dig ditches, it is possible for them to effect small acts in the living world, pushing this, bursting that. Having some unresolved issues keeps them from being able to open a doorway to a less geographically restricted existence. Reports of missing children also figure in, from decades past and right now. There are plenty of secrets to be delved into here. Such as just how did Sandra and Alice die? What happened to the missing girls? Who is that new girl ghost who just showed up? And who is Minna banging now?

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Topper and transparent pals

This is not a scary ghost story sort of tale. No spectres coming to take over anyone’s body. More Topper than The Evil Dead, although not a comedy. A bit of spookery goes on, but there are two elements here that seem dominant, mystery and sadness. In a way, I was reminded of Agatha Christie, as Oliver presents readers with a sequence of mysteries to be solved, offering clues here
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Bruce Campbell in his best-known role

and there, hints, red herrings, the usual tools of that trade. While the ghosts may not be scary, their stories and the stories of the living as well are intensely haunting. Choices, mistakes, regrets, the impact of the past echoes in the present, for both the dead and the living.

Oliver organizes her story into eleven parts, representing diverse rooms in the house. The tales told connect with each room in turn. Rooms features an ensemble cast. Oliver’s characters are well-drawn and very human. It is hard not to sympathize with Alice or relate to Trenton. And it is possible to understand why some of the others behave the way they do, given what we learn of their histories.

There is a lot here about identity, being oneself or wanting to be someone, or something else, to have some other life, and coping with other people’s masks.

It was unfair that people could pretend to be one thing when they were really something else. That they would get you on their side and then do nothing but fail, and fail, and fail again. People should come with warnings, like cigarette packs: involvement would kill you over time.

There is also a lot about being trapped whether as a child in a abusive household, a woman in an abusive marriage, a teen in what seems a dead-end existence, or a ghost in an empty house. There are some moments of humor, although none of the LOL variety, but dollops of charm do seep through the walls from time to time.

In short, Rooms is a fun, engaging and fast read. There is real content in the very believable characters’ attempts to make sense of their lives. While this spirited entry into the adult novel category is not the sort of ghost tale that will cause anyone to leave on the lights at night, there is considerable material here that is indeed quite haunting.

Review posted – 6/13/14

Publication date – 9/23/2014

====================================EXTRA STUFF

Lauren Oliver, is the pen name adopted by Laura Schechter, a young 30-something author who has already seen considerable success with her youth-oriented novels, most notably the YA Delirium trilogy. Her latest YA novel, Panic, was released in March, 2014. Rooms is her first novel for adults. Oliver’s parents are both literature professors. Dad is Harold Schechter, who has written many books on true-crime and American popular culture. Oliver lives in Brooklyn.

Here are links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages, and to her blog and Tumblr pages as well.

If that is not enough you can also check her out on YouTube

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The Bees by Laline Paull

book coverThe Bees is a powerful tale of what life might look like to a hive member. This is not your kids’ Bug’s Life, but a very grown-up, compelling drama that includes both sweetness and considerable sting. There are several elements that might make one think of Game of Thrones Drones. Corruption on high, battles of succession, sinister enemies, both in the hive and outside. Not only must all men die but winter is coming, twice. There is also a lot of religious reference here. This sits atop a marvelous, deep portrayal of a world that is very alien. And to top it off we are led through this journey by a character who, while far from perfect, is a very good egg, or was.


Bee life cycle

Of course Flora 717 might not have been considered a wonderful egg to those around her. She was born to the Flora caste, a group responsible for, ironically, cleaning up, a sanitation caste, essentially untouchables. But this Flora is a bit different. She is larger for one, possessed of great determination, curiosity, and a capacity for speech that is mostly suppressed among her peers. Still she is different and that is not usually allowed. The police are about to remove her (Deformity is evil. Deformity is not permitted.) when a Sage intervenes. Sages are the priestess class. Their intentions however, are not entirely holy. This Sage takes Flora under her wing, and the story is on. Sometimes it is good to spare the deviants, and experiment a little. We get to see many aspects of hive life through Flora’s five eyes, but also through her six feet, which are able to interpret vibrations in the floor, and her antennae, which she uses to sense scents and for more direct communication with other bees. That Paull can make the very alien sense environment of bees understandable to those of us with only four limbs and no antennae at all (well except for our friends in intelligence) is a triumph on its own. The Hive Mind is considered for its positive and negative aspects as well.

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Laline Paull

Paull tells about the origin of the story on her web site

A beekeeper friend of mine died, far too young. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I began reading about the bees she loved so much. Very quickly, I realized I was exploring the most extraordinary ancient society that was like a hall of mirrors to our own: some things very similar, others a complete inversion, whilst more were fantastically alien and amazing. The more I read the more I wanted to find out, but when I learned about the phenomenon of the laying worker, I became incredibly excited by the huge dramatic potential of that situation.

Her feeling of loss is very much present here. Bees are not the longest lived creatures on the planet, and more than a few see their end here. But there is another element as well, from a recent interview posted here on Goodreads,

Becoming a mother changed me and made me stronger—but evolution is never easy. I didn’t write Flora from an intellectual perspective but in a very visceral way: Motherhood made me a more passionate person—or allowed me to express that innate side of myself much more. So perhaps that’s why Flora works as a character: There’s primal truth in her motivation. She accepts her life one way, but then a forbidden force takes possession of her. Called love.


Religious nomenclature permeates the tale. The Queen is not only a temporal ruler, but is considered divine as well. This is helped along by her ability to produce pheromones in vast quantity that can soothe her hive family. There are sacraments in this world, a catechism, rituals, prayers, some of which will sound familiar. There are also some virgin births. And what would religion be without a little human sacrifice, or in this case bee sacrifice. It is a place in which religion is joined to politics to generate Orwellian mantras like Accept Obey Serve, Desire is Sin, Idleness is Sin, From Death comes Life Eternal, and the like. And, of course, there is some Orwellian behavior. Life is held cheaply, particularly for those not of the favored groups, and the jack-booted police that enforce the rules are definitely a buzzkill. The death penalty is more the norm than the exception, and it is often applied immediately and energetically.


Western honey bee

Flora’s explorations of the world are entire adventures on their own, as she encounters not only adversaries like wasps, spiders and crows, but man-made hazards as well. On the other hand she experiences the longing of the flowers, and the expanded internal horizons that result from expanding one’s horizons externally. She has a particular longing of her own, which fires the engines of her determination.

The Bees is a fast-paced, engaging, invigorating tale that will have you flipping pages faster than a forager’s wings. You will come away not only with the warm feeling of having shared a remarkable journey but will find yourself eager to learn more about our buzzy brethren, well, except for Nicolas Cage. And you might even find yourself tempted to get up and do a


Waggle Dance

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

In Paull’s site there is a photo of a Minoan palace map that informed her hive layout. Worth a look .

The May 2014 GR newsletter features a brief interview with Paull

That buzzing in your ear might be more cause for concern that you’d realized. New project aims to upload a honey bee’s brain into a flying insectobot by 2015

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Religion, Reviews, Science and Nature

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

book coverThe death of Nella Oortman’s father left the family in difficult straits, saddled with unexpected debts and a declining standard of living. But the widow finds a suitable match for Nella, in a successful Amsterdam merchant and trader. As he travels extensively, the wedding is a quick affair, and it is a month before he will return to his home. In October of 1686, Nella arrives there, in a very exclusive part of the city. She is greeted by her new husband’s sister, Marin, who makes her feel as welcome as a case of influenza, and who just might make you think of Mrs. Danvers.

As a wedding gift to his 18-year-old bride 39-year old Johannes Brandt acquires for her a cabinet, a kind of doll house that mirrors the Brandt home. Nella engages the services of a miniaturist, a craftsperson, to help fill the spaces. What she receives is far more than she expected, as the pieces reflect a bit too closely persons and events in the family’s life, some frighteningly so. Also, they do not always remain exactly as they were when she’d received them. And they arrive with Delphic messages. Do these tiny constructions predict the future, reflect their owners’ fears and concerns, reveal secrets, tell truths, or offer misdirections? Nella determines to find out who this mysterious miniaturist is and what is behind these small objects.

Burton says “When writing my hero, Johannes, I had this guy in mind.”

Burton did considerable research to get her 17th century details right.

I have a bibliography as long as my arm. And then there are first-hand resources—maps, paintings, diaries, prices of food, inventories, wills—and the physical city of Amsterdam itself. I first went in 2009, which is when I saw the house in the Rijksmuseum, and then again August 2012 for my birthday – with a long list of questions and locations to visit post-fourth draft. Where did they bury the bodies in the Old Church? How many windows on the front of a gable? How did they winch furniture in? A lot in the book is all historically true in terms of life in the city… – from the Richard Lee interview

Nella’s search and her coming of age occur in a difficult time and place. The Amsterdam of the late 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, is a world financial and military capital, a harsh, unforgiving place, where human failing and difference is not be tolerated, where neighbors are encouraged to spy and report on neighbors, (yes, very much like your office) and where it is always a contest whether the worship of gold or god will hold sway in any given circumstance. The two domains cross paths frequently.

It is this city. It is the years we all spend in an invisible cage, whose bars are made of murderous hypocrisy.

It is a time when being a woman was much more of a challenge than it is today. Marriage, paradoxically, was seen by some as the only way for women to secure any influence over their own lives. But what if a woman wanted something more, something of her own, the opportunity to be the architect of her own fortune, and not submit to a life in a golden cage. Nella may have stepped into a wealthy man’s world, but she must still take care for the many traps that have been laid by a cold society and those jealous of her husband’s success and of her. And there are challenges as well with her marriage, which was not quite what she had bargained for.

I wanted to create women who are not more ‘strongly female’ or ‘stronger than other females’, or ‘strong’ because they are braver than men, or can physically lift more saucepans or anything like that. I just wanted some women who for once are not defined by any other ideal than that they are human. – from the Richard Lee interview

Images that inspired Nella and Marin

Jessie Burton has written a dazzling first novel. The Miniaturist presents readers with a worthy mystery, and maybe a bit of magic, offering enough twists and turns for a figure skating contest, opening tiny door after tiny door to reveal the secrets of Brandt’s household. This is a look at the Dutch golden age that will resonate with contemporary gender, race, religious and power issues. The author offers just enough imagery to enhance without overwhelming, and breathes life into an array of compelling characters. In addition, Burton paints this world with the eye of a true artist, and does it all in a book that you will not want to put down. It will require no Dutch courage to get through this one. To have crafted The Miniaturist is no small achievement. Jessie Burton has written a book that seems destined to be huge.

The dollhouse of the real Petronelle Oortman, currently in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Review posted – April 4, 2014
Release date in the UK – July 3, 2014
Release date in the US – August 26, 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

One must wonder what London-resident Burton thinks of actors, given how she portrays one here, and given that she has worked as an actress, while toiling as an executive assistant to bring in a few guilders. Here are links to the author’s personal webpage and her Twitter feed. She has a few more historical novels in the works. If she continues writing at this level she will be making history instead of writing about it.

In addition, her Pinterest page is most definitely worth a look

There is a lot of interesting material on Burton in this interview by Richard Lee at the Historical Novel Society site and more here in a piece from The Guardian.

Sugar loaves figure significantly in the story. While I had heard the term Sugarloaf before, my only association with it was with mountains, whether the iconic mound in the Rio de Janeiro harbor, or the host of other mountains across the planet that share the name. Never gave it much thought. But folks with a bit more historical knowledge than me (most of you) would probably know that there was a time when sugar was routinely formed into solid cone shapes for shipping. That Rio hill and its cousins seem a bit more understandably named now.

Here is a link to the wiki entry for sugarloaf, which I found pretty interesting. And another that deals with tools used for handling the stuff. Sweet.


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Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

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In the beginning was nothing. From nothing emerged night. Then came the children of nothing and night

Seventeen-year-old Finn Sullivan has the luck of the Irish, if you consider how the phrase was used during Irish immigration to the New World. When she was living in Vermont, her mother was killed in an auto accident. A move to San Francisco did not improve things for good as her older sister, Lily Rose, committed suicide there. A need for a change of scene brings Finn and her Da back to the town where he was raised, Fair Hollow, in upstate New York. Enrolled in a local college, HallowHeart, she meets the dazzling but mysterious Jack Fata. They may or may not be fated to be together, but the Fata family is very definitely a big deal in this small town, which is not exactly the epitome of exurban serenity.

“So what’s with all the little pixies everywhere? Carved into HallowHeart, the theater…”
“They were worshipped here…”
“Fairy folk. Some of the immigrants from Ireland followed the fairy faith. And the Irish had badass fairies.”

The local décor seems to favor the mythological, as if the entire place had brought in the Brothers Grimm and Arthur Rackham to consult on a makeover. The older mansions tend toward the abandoned and the locals tend toward the odd. Finn finds a few friends, and together they try to figure out the enigma that is Fair Hollow, maybe save a few folks from a dark end, and try to stay alive long enough to accomplish both.

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the author

There are twists aplenty and a steady drumbeat of revelation and challenge to keep readers guessing. Finn is easy to root for, a smart, curious kid with a good heart who sometimes makes questionable decisions, but always means well. Jack offers danger and charm, threat and vulnerability. And Reiko Fata, the local Dragon Lady, a strong malevolent force, provides a worthy opponent. Harbour has fun with characters’ names that even Rowling would enjoy. Jane Ivy, for example, teaches botany. A teacher of metal-working is named, I suspect, for a metal band front man.

Each chapter begins with two quotes (well, most chapters anyway). One is from diverse sources on mythology and literature, and the second is from the journal of Finn’s late sibling. They serve to give readers a heads up about some elements of what lies ahead. One of the things that I found interesting about this book was the sheer volume of references to literature and mythology from across the world, not just in the chapter-intro quotes but in the text as well. I spent quite a bit of time making use of the google machine checking out many of these. You could probably craft an entire course on mythology just from the references in this book. In fact the author includes a bibliography of some of the referenced works. There are references as well to painterly works of art. Harbour includes a glossary of terms used by or in reference to the Fata family that comes in very handy. The core mythological element here is Tam Lin, a tale from the British Isles about a man who is the captive of the Queen of the Fairies and the young lady who seeks to free him.

The dream scene where Finn is speaking with her older sister and things grow sinister was an actual dream I had when I was seventeen. The revision was influenced by a book called Visions and Folktales in the West of Ireland, by Lady Gregory, a collection of local stories about some very scary faeries. The Thorn Jack trilogy is influenced by Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Frankenstein. – from the author’s site

It is tough to read a book about young attraction of this sort and not think of Twilight, or Romeo and Juliet for that matter. And where there is a school in a place in which there are some odd goings on, and mystery-laden instructors, there will always be a whiff of Hogwarts in the air. But this one stands pretty well on its own.

Gripes-section. I did indeed enjoy the mythology tutorial available here, but sometimes I felt that the author could have pared this element down a bit. One result of this wealth of material was that it made the book a slow read for me. But then I have OCD inclinations, and have to look up every bloody one of these things. You may not suffer from this particular affliction, so may skip through much more quickly than I did. Or, if you are a regular reader of fantasy fiction, you may already know the references that my ignorant and memory-challenged self had to look up. Also, there are a LOT of characters. I tried my best to keep track by making a list and I strongly advise you to keep a chart of your own. It can get confusing. Finally, the quoted passages from Lily Rose’s journal do not much sound like passages from anyone‘s journal and seem to be present primarily to offer a double-dip into mythological reference material.

That said, Thorn Jack was engaging and entertaining, offering mystery, frights, young romance, and a chance to brush up on your mythology. Think Veronica Mars in Forks by way of Robert Graves.

Harbour has two more planned for the series, The Briar Queen and The Nettle King. I would expect she would address some of the questions that linger at the end of this first entry. What did her parents know and when did they know it? Is there an actual core curriculum requirement at HallowHeart College?

Review Posted March 14, 2014

Release Date – June 24, 2014

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Also, definitely check out another of Harbour’s sites, Dark Faery/Black Rabbit , which includes additional entries from Lily Rose’s journal, among other things.

book cover There are some scenes in Thorn Jack that include statuary of magical beings. I wonder if, as Harbour is from Albany, and was certainly exposed to Saratoga Springs, only about 30 miles away, (my wife and I visited in Autumn 2013) she might have been influenced by this Pan statue and/or similar pieces in Congress Park there. On her site, she talks about being inspired by abandoned mansions along the Hudson. Here is a site that shows all sorts of abandoned buildings, along the Hudson and elsewhere.


Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews, YA and kids

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

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The last thing Mrs. Gamely said to her daughter was, “Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is to shatter time and bring back the dead.”

Winter’s Tale is a BIG book. I refer not only to its 748-page length, but to its ambition. It is a big book about big ideas, and it takes some big characters to realize the author’s ambition. There are a few here.

Colin Farrell as …

Peter Lake, the rock on which Mark Helprin builds much of his story, shares his genesis with the likes of Moses and Kal-El, set adrift as an infant in a small craft in New York harbor when his immigrant-wannabe parents are about to be turned away. Foundling Peter is raised by a group known at Baymen, an unusual band that is part deep interior bayou folk and part Native Americans. They inhabit, and work the Bayonne Marsh, a piece of New Jersey visible from New York harbor. His story is the primary character-driven thread here. We see Peter and this world from the beginning of the twentieth century to the turn of the millennium. Peter makes his way from Dickensian street urchin to mechanic to gang-member and burglar, to something grander.

Listo as …

Athansor is a great white horse, the stuff of legends, which comes in handy when there are impossible distances to be leapt and rescues or escapes to be effected. Boy meets horse when this milk-truck equine’s fanciful walkabout through the city is interrupted by his encounter with Peter, who is fleeing for his life from the Short Tails gang and its larger-than-life leader, Pearly Soames. Pearly would like to send Peter to meet his maker with extreme prejudice for a betrayal we will learn about later. Athansor and Peter gallop through this imaginary version of New York, doing things like snatching hats off policemen and dashing through a theater in mid-performance. (A real hoofer on Broadway) If you think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, you would be right. Hi, ho, Athansor, Away!

Jessica Brown Findlay as …

Beverly Penn is a consumptive 18-year-old (they upped her to 21 for the film) heiress who suffers so from the fever of her condition that she sleeps on the roof in winter in order to cool off. (Cue the Drifters ) She is playing the piano when she is startled, seeing Peter as he is in the process of burglarizing the family home. Having had a vision that something significant would be changing her life, it seems clear to her that the something is the criminal element in her living room. She has other visions as well, visual and auditory perceptions of a reality beyond that of which mere mortals are aware. There are other large figures in the story, and other story lines, but these are the main ones. And the story of Peter and Beverly’s love is balanced by Pearly and Peter’s antipathy.

Russell Crowe as Pearly Soames with his droogies Short Tails

The author is not content to weave a tale around his maybe-doomed lovers, but offers us other couples to tote some of that emotional freight. We meet families at various points in their history. A tot in one section becomes a capitalist scion in another, for example. I will spare you too much plot summary, or a fuller list of characters. Even by my generous standards it would be excessively long. But I have included a link to such a blow-by-blow in the Extra Stuff section if that seems useful. Suffice it to say that in upstate New York there is a Brigadoon-like town known as The Lake of the Coheeries, and some pretty magical things take place there. No, you do not have to wait a hundred years before it appears. It actually does not appear on any maps, but can be accessed if you know how. It is the source for several of our additional characters, and some fabulously creative images. It lies beyond the crucible zone that surrounds the city, substituting a huge hill of ice and snow as a barrier for the white clouds that enclose the city farther south. The town serves as a fairyland version of the country, in the same way that Helprin’s vision of New York City (well, really, Manhattan. His vision of the city offers little for the other four boroughs than a Breughelian image of them as places to avoid.) is a fantastical version of the real place. But all this seems a maguffin for the real business here, which lies in the themes being addressed.

Mark Halperin has written a love song to New York, well, parts of it anyway. There is a stunning lyricism to his descriptions of the city, alive with romantic vision, yet also fueled by a dose of paranoia and class fear. But he is after bigger fish than venting his affection for The Big Apple or whatever nickname might apply in his alternate universe, a whole ocean’s worth. Small matters like free will, the nature of existence, the relationship between the rational and the spiritual, the nature of time, justice, mortality. You know, stuff.

Helprin argues that the spiritual must accompany the rational or the result is a soulless existence.

Well, we’ve been mechanized. We view ourselves as mechanisms. This is a trend since The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, in my view, has two streams – a good stream and a bad stream. The good stream is the beauty of reason, to approach something via scientific method, via logic. The ugly part of The Enlightenment is that if you confine yourselves to those methods, then you are limiting yourself in terms of your understanding of what a human soul is. By necessity, because you cannot define the soul as it’s not subject to proof, human beings become mechanisms. Without faith, a person is a mechanism, and then there’s no reason he shouldn’t be treated or work under those assumptions, as a mechanism. – from Contemporary Lit interview

Is there some underlying logic to our universe, machines, physical, psychic or spiritual that whirr, turn and grind to support everything?

“Apart from natural laws, from the world as we know it,” Hardesty speculated, “maybe there are laws of organization which bind us to patterns that we can’t see and to tasks that we don’t perceive.”

And Helprin takes a long view of things

“Churchmen,” she had said, “like Boissy d’Anglas, burn themselves up in seeking, and they find nothing. If your faith is genuine, then you meet your responsibilities, fulfill your obligations, and wait until you are found. It will come. If not to you, then to your children, and if not to them, then to their children.”

Helprin posits a world or worlds in which the select few can see and access an underlying reality, and it is not clear that there is a path to this understanding other than dumb luck. One must wonder if the writers of The Matrix or promoters of born-again-isms had Helprin in mind.

her strength was not derived from things which can be catalogued or reasonably discussed. She had an inexplicable lucidity, a power to see things for what they were. Somehow she had come into possession of a pure standard. It was as if lightning had struck the ground in front of her and had been frozen and prolonged until she could see along its bright and transparent shaft all the way to its absolute source.

No, this is not taken from the Left Behind series and Bev was not bitten by an irradiated spider.

Brooklyn Bridge and God

The city as crucible, which we first see from a god-like view, looking down, is surrounded by an enormous and deitifically powerful white cloud. Unlike the low-hanging clouds in real NYC, which can make building tops appear to vanish when they pass through, this white cloud can actually take the things it touches. It makes the city into an almost-closed system that will experience both the deadly cold of extreme winter and intense heat from another source.

“…these winters have not been for nothing. They are the plough. The wind and the stars are harrowing the land and battering the city. I feel it and can see it in everything. The animals know it is coming. The ships in the harbor rush about and have come alive because it is coming. I may be dead wrong but I do believe that every act has significance, and that, in our time, all the ceaseless thunder is not for nothing.”

There is the potential for greatness in cities, this one in particular, but there must be a blood-letting in order to usher in a new golden age, and that seems perfectly fine for the god of this novel.

The notion of justice also comes in for considerable attention. Peter’s first craft is named “City of Justice.” Jackson Mead, a builder of bridges, says, “My purpose, in one word, is justice.” A significant silver tray that Hardesty Marratta (a significant character) cherishes in inscribed thus: “For what can be imagined more than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.” Peter engages in a quest for justice as well. In a passage about time, justice gets the final word

The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is—and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or, rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.

And it’s just tough luck on those who fall afoul of the currents of time. If you are rich, then I guess you were meant to be, and if you were dirt poor, well, sorry, it was always thus. It does strike me that this is a point of view that might be favored by those who have landed in the cushier seats.

Be careful where you step. You may bump into another image. Gates figure large here. Both the literal gates that surround the Battery in lower Manhattan and a set of four psychic gates that cities are supposed to have, (resonating with the four parts of the novel) visible, of course, only to people who are very, very special. Color figures large. Pearly (whose name certainly reflects the seasonal milieu) is deeply affected by color and seeks it out by whatever means possible.

But, whereas the wall was white, the city was a palette of upwelling colors. Its forms and geometry entranced him—the orange blaze in clear upper windows; a gas lamp’s green and white bell-like glare; leaping tongues of fire; red-hot booming chambers in the charcoal; shoe-black horses trotting airily at the head of varnished carriages; peaked and triangular roofs; the ballet of the crowds as they took stairs, turned corners, and forged across streets; the guttural noise of machinery…sails that filled the ends of streets with billows of white or sharp angular planes, and then collapsed into the bordering buildings or made of themselves a guillotine

Blue and gold come in for particular and much-repeated attention. Stars shine brightly here as well, whether the actual universe of stars or their simulacra in a large chamber or a magical painting. Bridges and rainbows carry significance as well. Machines are also more than mere mechanisms.

Mark Helprin as a white walker

In case you did not know, Helprin is a political sort, a conservative true believer who writes speeches for Republican leaders. His particular sensibilities enter here as well, as he offers the odd diatribe on how any sort of public assistance is a form of satanic temptation, leading good people astray and allowing bad people to milk the rest of us to support what is portrayed as a life of low leisure. He also has a vision of wide swaths of the lower classes as being purely bent on destruction, as if the race riots of the 60s had burned a hole in his vision and he was forced thereafter to see everything in the world through those altered lenses. It gets intrusive at times. At least he has the decency to balance his Ayn Randish laudatory portrayal of one mogul with an equally dark one of another (a Rupert Murdoch stand-in). And he does offer an interesting proposal for an ideal way to organize a company that speaks to a need for fairness, but which would never be tolerated in the real world by those whose mission it is to absorb ALL the wealth. He also harbors a view of criminality that is, to say the least, eccentric. That said, the political aspect, while present and occasionally toxic, could have been a lot worse.

In Sum
What is impressive about Winter’s Tale is the sheer volume of creativity on display here. His portrayal of a Dickensian sort of steam-punk New York was fascinating and effective. The Lake of the Coheeries is very effectively magical. But just as it is wonderful to enjoy a slice of cake, it can become a different sort of experience if one were to try devouring the entire thing. So it is here, a case of creativity run amok. The author wanders off. For example, after we have invested in Peter, Beverly and Athansor, Helprin sets them aside for almost two hundred pages to play in some other snow fields. Really? Helprin is at his weakest when attempting a sort-of slapstick humor. Those bits fall very, very flat. As do sections where a character acquires otherworldly powers. And Athansor’s propensity for arriving in the nick of time to save this or that one makes one wonder if he might have been a sort of deity made by one of the many machines that populate the story. If you have not yet read Winter’s Tale, prepare to make a special effort to keep track of the characters. There are many. And, oh yeah, lest you think the opening quote was purely gratuitous, there are resurrections here. Helprin is definitely thinking BIG.

You may find Winter’s Tale exhilarating and you may find it exhausting. You may feel enlarged by the beauty of the imagery and reduced by the occasional mean-spiritedness manifested by the author. You may feel intellectually stimulated by the grand notions portrayed, but deadened by the familiar trope of access being reserved only to the elect. You may feel deeply at the poetry of Helprin’s descriptions, (they certainly sing to me in my love for my home town) but may experience frustration that he takes so bloody long to get to the point. Winter’s Tale may leave you cold, or it may warm you to unimagined possibilities. But whether your reaction is pain, exultation or both, you will definitely react. Winter’s Tale has been called one of the 25 greatest American novels of the 20th Century. I do not agree, but I can see why some people think that. It is pretty clear that it is one of the most ambitious. I believe it would have been a better book with a tighter focus and about two hundred or so fewer pages. But, even though I have issues with the book I do believe that it is well worth reading. Winter’s Tale may not have completely warmed the cockles of my reader’s heart, but it is still pretty chill.

Posted on GR on February 28, 2014

==================================EXTRA STUFF

Interview with MH in The Paris Review and in – This the source of the quote from the author used in the review

This review in the Thriving Family web site contains a detailed run through of the events of the book and a look at some of the imagery

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

book cover

When a family is murdered by a mysterious killer, one of the intended victims is missing, a young, diapered boy, who had wandered off just before the crime took place. But the killer needed to complete the job. Fortunately for the boy, he was taken in by the late residents of a nearby graveyard. And when the spirit of his newly deceased mother asks for their help, the residents agree to raise her son. He is given to the care of the Owens couple and named “Nobody,” Bod for short, as he looks like “nobody but himself.”

In this Newbery Medal, Carnegie Medal and Hugo Award winning novel, it takes a graveyard to raise an actual corporate being, and there are many who chip in. Perhaps most important is Silas, resident of the worlds of the dead and the living. As Bod grows there are many interesting sorts who cross his path, a young witch lacking a gravestone, an unscrupulous dealer in antiques, a snake-like protector of a long-dead master, and an array of teachers. And there must, of course, be a girl, Scarlett by name, a living girl. Bod does venture out into the unprotected world beyond the graveyard gates, not always with permission. He wants to go to school like other kids, and does, with mixed results. He wants to buy a headstone for a friend who lacks one. He wants to spend time with Scarlett. As he enters his teen years, he determines to find the person who had killed his family.

This is not your usual coming-of-age story. Bod is indeed a likeable kid, good-hearted, innocent, easy to care about. One of Gaiman’s inspirations for this story was Kipling’s The Jungle Book, with Bod as Mowgli and the graveyard residents substituting, sometimes generically, for their animal counterparts in the earlier work. There is a section equivalent to Mowgli having been kidnapped by monkeys, a werewolf might be Akela. Bod’s nemesis is the killer Jack, the Shere-Khan of this tale. Each chapter jumps in time, and we see Bod take on new challenges as he ages. Of course, his home being a graveyard, the challenges he faces are not pedestrian. And finally, he faces an adult, mortal test that will define whether he actually gets to come of age or not.

There is so much in The Graveyard Book that is just flat-out charming that you will find, as I did, that your lips keep curling up at the corners. From Bod trying to find properly fitting clothing, to struggling to learn some of the unusual skills the locals have mastered, to coping with some of the lesser baddies who make life difficult for those around them, Bod will gain your allegiance and your affection.

The baddie, Jack, is a purely dark sort. No gray areas there. And that makes the central conflict one of pretty much pure good, against completely pure evil. There are plenty of moments of real danger for Bod and that keeps tension high. But there are nuances to other characters that add color and texture to what might otherwise have become a flat gray panel. These additions add heft to the story, and make one wonder larger thoughts about the limits of change, of redemption. This one is easy to recommend, to kids of all ages, but don’t wait too long. You never know when it might be…you know…too late.

PS – Disney has acquired the film rights for this and it is likely that it will emerge, someday, with a look similar to that of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
The official website for the book

Neil Gaiman reads the entire book

This Literary Wiki page seems rather slight

I also reviewed Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane in August, 2013, and Stardust, briefly, a few years earlier.


Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews, YA and kids

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

book cover

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

William Faulkner

It is this notion, of the past steering the present away from a true course, that drives the narrative in The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, and in at least one way, it is the past that helps steer it back onto the road.

If you liked Edgar Sawtelle, the story or film of Benjamin Button, the TV show Pushing Daisies or the more imaginary tales of Alice Hoffman, you will love this book, a tale imbued with a few large dollops of magical realism. Like Edgar, Bonaventure is born somewhat different from other children. Like Edgar, he makes no sound. But while Edgar has a particular Mowgli-like talent for relating to his pooches, Bonaventure is possessed of an otherworldly sense of hearing. The medical term for one aspect of this is synaesthesia. He is able to hear color. But his gift goes far beyond the odd skills that as many as one in twenty-three humans might have. As he grows into his gift, he can hear the stories of inanimate objects. Eventually, Bonaventure is able to hear at a molecular level. He is even able to hear sounds that happened long ago.

Bonaventure never met his father, William, at least while he was alive. Before the boy’s birth, Dad was shot down on the streets of New Orleans by a madman known only as “the Wanderer.” But William hangs around, having a few tasks to complete before he can graduate from Almost Heaven, and helps his unusual son adapt to the world and complete his own mission. Bonaventure’s mother, Dancy, lives with a burden of guilt originating in the day her husband was killed. Dancy’s mother, Letice, carries a heavy load of sorrow from her adolescence. It is only through Bonaventure’s gift, with the help of his father, that these decent people can move ahead with their lives. Another force is at play here as well, in the person of Trinidad PreFontaine, maker of healing potions, and well versed in the potential of most plant life. She feels the presence of Bonaventure as if they are connected by a personal, psychic tether. She has a role to play as well in seeing Bonaventure realize his potential.

It is easy for a story with a fair bit of magic in it to get caught up in the pyrotechnics (verbotechnics?) of the incredible. (See The Night Circus) But that is not a fate suffered here. We are acutely aware of the humanity of these characters, and it is their emotional life that drives the story. The Magic takes an appropriate, supportive role.

We follow the Wanderer, a physically maimed and mentally ravaged war veteran, from his constricted life in Detroit, as he sets out on a mission of unknown origin, to the point of his deed, and after that we see him occasionally in an asylum. He is very fixated on Alexandre Dumas, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. One wonders what the wrong is that he is avenging.

It is possible that there may be readers who are put off by the obvious religious perspective presented in Bonaventure’s world. Like the Blues Brothers, some characters here are most definitely on a mission from God.

Bonaventure Arrow had been chosen to bring peace. There was guilt to be dealt with, and poor broken hearts, and atonement gone terribly wrong. And too there were family secrets to be heard; some of them old and all of them harmful.

One cannot help but wonder if Trinidad PreFontaine, given her evocative name, might have some sort of baptismal relationship with BA. But take it from this atheist. It is worth the weight of Leganski’s perspective to gain the benefit of this wondrous landscape. And she does offer an image, as well, of some who would use religion for unseemly purposes.

Leganski feathers her literary nest with some lovely imagery. Sparrows flit in and out, standing in for, probably, a variety of things. Birds, as a group are a significant presence

In the middle of her sleepless night, Trinidad experienced a vision. A scavenging raven circled the room, its beady eyes questing after death. The bird spread its wings to swoop and glide, its feathers sounding like rustling silk. From the bird’s shaggy throat came a prruk-prruk call and a toc-toc click and a dry, rasping kraa-kraa cry. After the raven came a pure white dove, and after the dove, a sparrow.


Trinidad regarded circles as symbols of God’s eternal love. Her favorite circle was that which is found in the small dark eye of a sparrow.

And again

Tristan had rescued a bird—a sparrow—and needed her [Letice’s] help. It was a life or death situation…The bird seemed no more than a wisp, nearly weightless. She believed she could feel its bones and imagined them to be made of straw, all hollowed-out and light. Letice decided the bird was a girl sparrow, a young and delicate one. The tiny creature lay on its left side, breathing very fast. Letice could feel its heart beating in sync with her own

Are sparrows the souls of these characters? Angels? Don’t know, maybe, or maybe something else entirely. Bonaventure associates another character with an eagle later in the book, keeping the bird imagery aloft. There are plenty more, but I will stop there.

There is a lovely sequence in which a few of the characters incorporate some voodoo gris gris into their experience, in a very warm, nurturing way. No black magic here, thank you very much, but maybe a bit of the sympathetic variety

Some characters seem to have maybe a bit too much of a vision, if not always an absolute road map, directing them toward their goals. Trinidad certainly has a finger on the pulse of the force. William seems to have gotten a bullet-pointed memo from the Almighty in his in-box, and Bonaventure has his father to show him the way. While this may be tactically a bit convenient, strategically it supports the emotional journey of others. Bonaventure struggles to adapt to a world that is not all that accepting of someone as different as he is, particularly in the social cacophony of school, where he tries mightily to feel normal despite his large difference. I wish that we had gotten to see more of that effort. But the boy remains a pretty nifty character on his own for someone charged with helping change others. Really, it is the women whose journey we follow most here, Dancy, Letice, and Adelaide, Dancy’s awful mother, who could easily be a member of the De Vil clan, and who adds a layer of unpleasantness to the expression going postal.

Along the way, Leganski offers a fascinating look at a time and place, New Orleans and the fictitious town of Bayou Cymbaline of the 1950s, primarily. The author, although from Wisconsin, and currently residing in Chicago, has a Southern heart. She has always been enamored of many great southern writers, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Harper Lee, among others. That sensibility comes through. Despite her northern Midwest DNA, the soul of this book resides in the South. She all but strokes the landscape with her rich, languid prose. There are enough overt literary references to offer tethers to other works. Dancy is, like her creator, a huge fan of Faulkner. From a different, if no less wonderful world, C.S. Lewis gets a mention, as does Lewis Carroll.

Leganski writes with conviction about a sense of god, but not in a good versus evil way, although there is a bit of that in this tale. Here the battle is, mostly, about good versus despair, belief as a tool to help one overcome barriers and find again one’s better personal paths. Her notion of god, while clearly Christian in origin, extends the concept to a sort of areligious universality. Hers is not one of those church-bound deities, but a wondrous extra layer of existence that embraces profound beauty, kindness, forgiveness and understanding. The Sinners in The Hands of An Angry God sorts are anathema here. The story of Bonaventure Arrow takes place in a universe of love, a universe in which bad things certainly can and do happen, but in which there are forces at work trying to heal wounds and make things right. In addition to lifting up some of its characters, this is a book that will lift up its readers. Enjoy it as pure fantasy if that works for you. Embrace the religious aspect if you prefer. The characters feel real and their struggles are all too mortal. The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is most assuredly worth shouting about.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

March 18, 2013 – I just came across this – lovely interview with the author. It adds a lot to one’s appreciation of the novel.

March 21, 2013 – I just learned that Bonnie made the Indie Next list for March

I stumbled on a fascinating web site pertaining to Bonaventure’s particular talent


Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

book cover

I am trying something a little different here. I found The Golem and the Jinni to be a fun, magical fairy tale of a romance with a fair bit of excitement to it. But it is pretty clear that this is also a serious, literary work, raising meaningful philosophical questions, while using the folklore of two different cultures to inform the immigrant experience, offering a fascinating look at a place and time, and linking the experiences of the old and new worlds. These two takes seemed to call for different reviews. And, as I maintain only one book review blog, the result is two, two, two reviews in one.


Everyone loves legends, lore, tales of long ago, filled with heroes and magical beings. They dilate our pupils, excite our imagination and provide the fodder for our dreams. Helene Wecker has written a very grown up fairy tale, bringing to life a pair of magical beings. In doing so she has transported old world legend to a place where and a time when vast numbers of more ordinary people were trying to create new dreams, new legends of their own, immigrant New York City at end of the 19th century.

The Golem is a clay creature constructed by a corrupt Kabalist near Danzig, at the behest of Otto Rotfeld, an unsuccessful, unattractive young man. But Rotfeld was not looking for a thuggish destroyer. He wanted his golem to be made in the form of a woman and imbued with curiosity, intelligence and a sense of propriety. On the passage to New York, Otto suffers a burst appendix and dies, but not before he speaks the words that bring his creation to life. Newborn and alone, but with an ability to perceive the wants of those around her, the Golem is set loose in New York. Wandering around, she is spotted for what she really is by a retired rabbi on the Lower East Side. He takes her in, tries to get her settled and struggles with how to deal with the fact that she is a creature usually built for the purpose of destruction.

Not too far away, in Little Syria, an Arab immigrant community near the southern tip of Manhattan, Boutros Arbeely, a tinsmith, is brought an unusually old copper flask. While attempting to repair it, he is confronted by a magical being of his own, a handsome arrogant, and unclothed jinni. Unfortunately for the jinni, despite having been freed of the flask, he remains trapped in the shape of a human, bound there by an iron cuff on his wrist. In this telling jinnis, despite excelling at metalwork, have no power over iron. He will have to cope as a human.

Each faces challenges. The Golem, named Chava (which means life) by the rabbi must cope with the flood of wishes that assail her consciousness from the thousands of people around her. She must learn to keep her identity secret. This includes coping with the fact that she does not sleep, and that it is not considered ok for a young woman to be seen walking the city streets at night, even if it her purpose is honorable. Like many immigrants before her, she is helped by prior arrivals. She learns to bake and gets a job in a bakery. Unable to go out at night she takes in sewing. How immigrant is that?

The jinni, taken in by the tinsmith, is given work in the shop, once it becomes apparent that he is a marvel with metal, able to heat and mold it with his bare hands. Boutros names him Ahmad. The jinni is also challenged to keep his true nature under cover. But a part of his nature is a lustful side. He is smitten with a young thing he encounters and one thing leads to another. Chava, while not much hot to trot herself, becomes an object of romantic interest to a very good young man.

Of course, in time, the two encounter each other, and that is where the story takes off. Not only is there magic in the interaction of these two friends, strangers in a strange land, they bring depth to their relationship, adding even more depth to this novel. Chava has content-rich discussions with her rabbi rescuer, on matters such as why people risk so much to have sex, or whether people need a concept of God to keep them from self-destructing. She and Ahmad discuss the stresses of free will vs the certainty of slavery. They talk about her interest in satisfying the wishes of those around her while Ahmad is mostly concerned with satisfying his desires of a moment. A great part of the magic in this fable is how the two begin at extreme ends and meet somewhere in the middle, growing and changing, but very much aware of their limitations.

The two embody, in a way, the immigrant experience. Coming to a new country, learning new ways, changing in order to fit in, coming to value what has been found, building a life. But character growth, consideration of serious moral subjects and a moving relationship are not all that this book has going on. There is danger afoot.

Keeping the action moving, we get not only a look into the jinni’s ancient past, a fascinating and moving segment, but there is pursuit on those cobble-stoned streets. A person with evil intent is tracking the scent of magic and surviving this onslaught is the motive force. As we have come to care about both our primary characters their safety matters.

Not only has Wecker populated her fable with two wonderful leads, but her backup players are extremely rich. In fact this is one of the best supporting casts I have seen in a while.

The Golem and the Jinni has love, parental and romantic, philosophical heft, a vibrant picture of a place and time, the equivalent of an action/adventure trial-by-danger and enough magic to shake a wand at. In short it is everything in a book that you could possibly wish for.


It may not take you a thousand and one nights to read The Golem and the Jinni, but you may wish it did because you will hate to put it down.

It is 1899. In a town near Danzig, Otto Rotfeld is a failing Prussian Jewish businessman. He does not have much success with the ladies either. A leering and dismissive manner will do that. Determined to change his luck he opts to join the throng heading to that new Mecca, the USA. Figuring the female sorts there will find him as appealing as did those of the Old World, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Well, rather into the hands of a morally challenged Kabalist who is ok with crafting what Otto wants, a bespoke Golem, using the traditional clay, but made in the shape of a woman, and not the sort of towering, lumbering, bad-hair destroyer that usually pops to mind, thanks to early German cinema.description
Or a more 20th century version

Gotta confess, I kept seeing Amanda Righetti of The Mentalist in the role as I read.

Hey, the guy’s got needs. (This raises the wonderful theoretical possibility of a high-end retail business, Build-a-Golem. Schmul, more clay, hurry up.) Unwell in his steerage accommodation, Otto is looking for a little companionship and wakes his special friend. Just in time, as it turns out, as Otto, and his burst appendix, fail to make it to the particular new world he was hoping to reach. This leaves a rather bewildered, powerful and telepathic mythical creature heading for Ellis Island. She finds an unusual way to cope when asked for her papers, which I will not spoil, then, wandering around the city, is taken in by a retired rabbi who sees her for what she really is. (Yeah, he’s a lot older, but he really sees me) The Golem truly is a stranger in a strange land, but she is not the only oddity on shore.

In Little Syria, an immigrant community near the southern tip of Manhattan, a Maronite Catholic tinsmith, Boutros Arbeely, is brought a copper flask to repair. While beginning work on the piece with a soldering iron (no rubbing of the magic container this time) he is blasted across the room, and before you can say Robin Williams three times fast, there on his shop floor is a naked man. And it’s not even Halloween in the Village. Really, he is a creature made of fire and mist, but is confined by virtue of an iron bracelet into the form of a human. In this imagining, iron is something a jinni can’t do anything with, I guess like bad fashion sense. Sorry, no puff of smoke. But this magic man is a hottie. He is, of course, cut and handsome, but in addition, he is a natural metalworker. Boutros, despite the jinni’s arrogance, gives him a place to live and a job. He ain’t never had a friend like him. I see in my tiny mind the steamy Colin O’Donoghue (currently Captain Hook on Once Upon a Time)
Ya think these two illegal immigrants might cross paths? Duh-uh. But it will take some time, as each has his and her own road to travel.

If I had three wishes the first would be to be able to write as well as Helene Wecker. She manages to combine several layers to make a compelling whole. She compares a bit of folklore from two different cultures and looks at how they work in a new place. She offers philosophical consideration of deep human issues. She offers a wonderful view of a place and a time, and there is a motive force here that keeps the story moving, and presents our two leads with a mortal threat.

On one level this tale is a bit of a romance. Boy meets Gol. (permission to groan) Well, not exactly a boy, but a mythical fire being who was 200 years old when a wizard confined him, maybe 600 years prior to the now of the story. And this clay hulk is not just a soul-less destroyer, but has a definite tender side. I was reminded of Mary Shelley’s creation, the novel’s version, really trying to figure out his, or in this case, her place in the world, struggling to work out her relationship to god and to morality, and to the people around her. I could not help but think back to my Catholic school days and the Q and A of the Baltimore Catechism.
Q – Why did God make you?
A – God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him…
Sounds a little creepy in this context, doesn’t it?
As a creature built to be a slave, but lacking a master, the golem must become her own master in a way, (a Ronin?) accepting guidance for sure, but facing real existential dilemmas. What happens when the guy in charge is no longer around? She engages in a discussion with the jinni about the messiness of free will versus the certainty of slavery to the will of another, raising up issues not only of actual slavery, but of blind allegiance, whether to a military cause, a political party, a religious persuasion. When is a person responsible for his or her actions and when does responsibility lie elsewhere? (I am including that discussion here, but am using the spoiler label to separate it from the body of the review. It is not really spoiler material.)“If, by some chance or magic you could have your master back again, would you wish it?”
It was an obvious question, but one that she had never quite asked herself. She’d barely known Rotfeld, even to know what sort of a man he was. But then, couldn’t she guess? What sort of man would take a golem for a wife, the way a deliveryman might purchase a new cart?
But oh, to be returned to that certainty! The memory of it rose up, sharp and beguiling. And she wouldn’t feel as though she was being used. One choice, one decision—and then, nothing.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. “Maybe I would. Though in a way, I think it would be like dying. But perhaps it would be for the best. I make so many mistakes on my own.”

…”I have no idea,” he said, “how long I was that man’s servant. His slave. I don’t know what he may have forced me to do. I might have done terrible things. Perhaps I killed for him. I might have killed my own kind” there was a tight edge in his voice, painful to hear. “But even worse would be it I did it all gladly. If he robbed me of my will, and turned me against myself. Given a choice, I’d sooner extinguish myself in the ocean.”

“But if all those terrible things did happen, then it was the wizard’s fault not yours,” she said.

Again, that not quite laugh. “Do you have colleagues at this bakery where you work?”

“Of course,” she said.”

…He said. “Imagine that your precious master returns to you, and you give yourself to him, as you say perhaps you would. Because you make so many mistakes. And he said, ‘Please, my dear golem, kill those good people at the bakery…Rip them limb from limb.”

“But, why—“

“Oh, for whatever reason! They insult him, or make threats against him, or he simply develops a whim. Imagine it. And then tell me what comfort it gives to think it wasn’t your own fault.”

This was a possibility she had never considered. And now she couldn’t help but picture it: grabbing Moe Radzin by the wrist and pulling until his arm came free. She had the strength. She could do it. And all the while, that peace and certainty.

No, she thought—but now, having started down this path, her mind refused to stop. What if Rotfeld had made it safely to America with her, and the Rabbi had noticed them on the street one day? In her mind, the Rabbi confronted Rotfeld—and then she was dragging the Rabbi into an alley, and choking the life from him.

It made her want to cry out. She put the heels of her hands to her eyes, to push the images away.

“Now do you understand?” the jinni asked

The Golem has content-rich discussions with her rabbi rescuer, on matters such as why people risk so much to have sex, or whether people need a concept of God to keep them from self-destructing. She and Ahmad talk about her interest in satisfying the wishes of those around her while Ahmad is mostly concerned with satisfying his desires of a moment. A great part of the magic in this fable is how the two begin at extreme ends and meet somewhere in the middle, growing and changing, but very much aware of their limitations.

The jinni, while he may still have a trick or two up his sleeves (yes, Boutros does cover him up), chief among which is the ability to mold metal with his bare hands, is still stuck in a human body and is forced to cope as a human. The Golem, whom the kindly rabbi names Chava, which means life, of course, must constantly struggle to hide her real identity. She struggles as well to control her impulses, in a way, like Shelley’s creature, a child attempting to grow up. And she does pretty well, whether restraining herself from satisfying the flood of mental wants and needs that her telepathy picks up, or the occasional urge to pound some a-hole into bits. She is not the most outgoing sort, and is seen by many as a stick in the mud at times.

So, are these two crazy kids gonna get together or what? Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that. Different paths, remember? The jinni happens to be hanging at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park when his attention alights on a young thing of a late-teen socialite, Sophia, kept on a leash (or is it in a lamp?) by her mother. Her entire life is planned out for her. Someone follows her home and things heat up. Chava, is not a slave to carnal whims, she may or may not even have carnal whims. But the rabbi has a mensch of a nephew, Michael. Sadly fallen from The Chosen, but a very nice young man who runs a hostel for new immigrants. Such a nice boy. You could do worse, Chavelah.

So, you may wonder, do jinnis or golems sleep? I’ll tell you. No. While not much for snoozing, the jinni has the ability to insert himself (what did I tell you about that? Stop it) into people’s dreams. At least in this story it is only into the dreams of females. Sorry, boys. I imagine that when she was writing these sections, Wecker had to struggle to keep images of Barbara Eden from inserting themselves into her consciousness and giggling until she choked.description
What to do with those long nights? Walking of course. Well, for Mister Ahmad, anyway. It was not considered proper in that era for a young lady to be seen walking the streets alone late at night. It creates the wrong impression, and attracts the interest of unsavory sorts, like the police. As an illegal, and a non-human, that would not do. So Chava does what any young, energetic young lady in the turn of the century Lower East Side would do. Stop that, no, not that. She takes in sewing. Jeez.

In fact there is a lot in this book about the immigrant experience, legal and not, at the end of the 19th century. Two communities both nurture their new arrivals, struggle to get by, to make a better life, attempting to leave behind some of the problems of the Old World. The two embody, in a way, the immigrant experience. Coming to a new country, learning new ways, changing in order to fit in, coming to value what has been found, building a life. Receiving new names.

Free will permeates as a theme. A young New York socialite feels as imprisoned by the future that has been laid out for her as the golem does by her subservience to magical commands, as the jinni does to the metal cuff that denies him his true form, and as another young Bedouin lass feels back in the Old country. You will want to keep in mind notions of imprisonment and the difference between sand castles and other sorts, belonging, community, and note the odd angel motif.

But character growth, consideration of serious moral subjects and a moving relationship are not all that this book has going on. There is danger afoot. Keeping the action moving, we get not only a look into the jinni’s ancient past, a fascinating and moving segment, but there is pursuit on those cobble-stoned streets. A person with evil intent is tracking the scent of magic and surviving this onslaught is the motive force. As we have come to care about both our primary characters their peril matters.

Not only has Wecker populated her fable with two wonderful leads, but her backup players are extremely rich. In fact this is one of the best supporting casts I have seen in a while.

You will not need to endanger your community through the use of dark magic or possess a magic vessel to find your next great read. The Golem and the Jinni will be available far beyond the shtetls of Europe, the deserts of the Middle East, and the New York City limits. This modern Sheherezade has written a magical book and there is no rub. The Golem and the Jinni is all that you could possibly wish for.

This review was originally posted on GR in November 2012

It was posted on Fantasy Book Critic on January 22, 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

3/31/13 – I found a group of interview clips with the author, from Library Love Fest. They broke the interview up into 17 clips, and popped them onto Youtube. There is a lot of interesting information there.

GR bud Susan Tunis taped the author’s reading and Q/A

5/6/13 – NY Times review

5/16/13 – NY Times Sunday Book Review

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The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien

book cover

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Books exist in time and place and our experience of them is affected by the specific time and place in which we encounter them. Sometimes an uplifting or inspiring book can change the path of a life that has wandered onto a wrong course. Sometimes a book, discovered early on, can form part of the foundation of who we are. Or, discovered late, can offer insight into the journey we have taken to date. Sometimes a book is just a book. But not The Hobbit. Not for me. In January, 2013, I pulled out my forty-year old copy in anticipation of seeing the recently released Peter Jackson film. It is a substantial book, heavy, not only with its inherent mass, but for the weight of associations, the sediment of time. The book itself is a special hard-cover edition published in 1973, leather bound, in a slipcase, the booty of new love from that era. The book, while victim to some internal binding cracks (aren’t we all?) is still in decent shape, unlike that long-vanquished relationship. Not surprising. I had read the story six times and been there and back again with this particular volume five.

The Hobbit had first come to my attention in 1965 or ’66. I was then a high school underclassman, and my eyes were drawn to it at a school book fair. That was probably the ideal age, for me anyway, to gain an introduction to Tolkien. Not too far along into adolescence and an appreciation of the reality of the world to have completely tarnished my capacity for child-like wonder. That is what one must bring to a reading of this book, openness and innocence. Tolkien was a step sidewise for me, as I was a fan of the science fiction of that and prior eras. It was also, of course, a gateway drug for the grander addiction of LOTR, still my favorite read of all time.

One might think that looking at this book again with old, weary fresh eyes might lend new insight. After all, I have read literally thousands of books since, and have picked up at least a little critical capacity. And yes, there are things I notice now that perhaps skipped past back then. Of course that begs a specification of which back then one considers. While I first read the book as a high-schooler, I read it again when I was gifted with this beautiful volume, in my twenties. That makes two readings. But there would be more. I well recall reading the book aloud while sitting in a chair by my son’s bed. And yes, each of the major characters was delivered with a distinct voice. I went as deep as I could for Gandalf. I vaguely recall giving the dwarves a Scottish burr. Bilbo was definitely a tenor. My Gollum was remarkably like the sound of the one created by Andy Serkisssssss. (patting self on back).

Of course, my son was not the last to arrive at the gathering. Some years later there was a daughter, and more bedside theater. It was a bit more of a struggle then. Life was rather hectic. Nerves were often frayed. Sleep was in short supply. And there were far too many times when my eyes closed before those of my little gingersnap. But reading it that fourth time, one couldn’t help but notice the absence of any significant females. Who might my little girl relate to here? It is certainly possible for folks to identify with characters of another gender, but the stark absence of representatives of the female persuasion did stand out. Somehow I managed to keep my eyes open long enough to get through the volume.

But the party was not yet complete. There would be one more arrival, and one more opportunity to sit on or near a daughter’s bed and read aloud, sometimes to an upturned, eager face, sometimes to a riot of ringlets as she settled. My capacity for consciousness remained an issue. By then, my voice had also suffered a bit with the years, the reward for too many cigarettes, too much yelling, too much ballpark whistling, and the usual demise of age, so it took a fair bit more effort and strain than reading it aloud had done previously. I am pretty certain I made it through that third time aloud. Truthfully, I am not 100% certain that I did.

You probably know the story, or the broad strokes anyway. In the quiet rural village of Hobbiton Across the Water, in a land called Middle Earth, an unpresupposing everyman, Bilbo Baggins, lives a quiet existence. He has a smidgen of wanderlust in him, the genetic gift of ancestors on the Took branch of his family tree, but he is mostly content to enjoy hearty meals and a good pipe. One day, Gandalf, a lordly, father-figure wizard Bilbo has known for many years, comes a-calling and Bilbo’s life is upended. Gandalf is helping a group of dwarves who are on a quest. Led by Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf king, they aim to return to their home, inside the Lonely Mountain, somehow rid the place of Smaug, the dragon who has taken up residence, and regain the land and incredible treasure that is rightfully theirs. Gandalf has recommended that Bilbo accompany the group, as a burglar. Bilbo, of course, has never burgled a thing in his life, and is horrified by the prospect. But, heeding his Tookish side, Bilbo joins the dwarves and the adventure is on.

One need not go far to see this as a journey of self-discovery, as Bilbo finds that there is more to him than even he realized. This raises one question for me. How did Gandalf know that Bilbo would be the right hobbit for the job? Bilbo faces many challenges and I betray no secrets for any who have not just arrived on this planet by reporting that Bilbo’s dragons, real and symbolic, are ultimately slain and he returns home a new, and somewhat notorious hobbit. Bilbo serves well as the everyman, someone who is quite modest about his capacities, but who rises to meet the challenges that present, acting in spite of his fear and not in the absence of it. He is someone we can easily care and root for.

Elements abound of youthful adventure yarns, treasure, a map to the treasure, a secret entrance that requires solving a riddle to gain entry, a spooky forest, foolishness and greed among those in charge, a huge battle, and, ultimately, good sense triumphing over evil and stupidity. Oh, yeah, there is something in there as well about a secret, powerful ring that can make it’s wearer invisible. Sorry, no damsels in distress.

(Rivendell remains a pretty special place. If I am ever fortunate enough to be able to retire, I think I would like to spend my final days there, whether the vision seen by Tolkien or the Maxfield Parrish take as seen in the LOTR films.)

There are magical beings aplenty here. Hobbits, of course, and the wizard and dwarves we meet immediately. A shape shifting Beorn assists the party but remains quite frightening. There are trolls, giant spiders, giants, goblins, were-wolf sorts called wargs, talking eagles, a communicative, if murderous dragon, elves of both the helpful and difficult sorts, and a few men, as well. Then there is Gollum.

IMHO, Bilbo is not the most interesting character in Tolkien’s world. Arguably there is a lot more going on with Gollum, an erstwhile hobbit riven by the internal conflict of love and hate, corrupted, but not without a salvageable soul. While he is given considerably more ink in the LOTR story, it is in The Hobbit that we meet him for the first time. He is the single least YA element in this classic yarn, one of the things that elevates this book from the field and makes it a classic.

The Hobbit was written before Tolkien’s ambitious Lord of the Rings. While there are many references to classic lore, the bottom line is that this is a YA book. It is easy to read, and to read aloud, (something that is not the case with LOTR. I know.) and is clearly intended for readers far younger than I am today. It remains a fun read, even on the sixth (or so, I may have dipped in again somewhere along the line) time through. Were I reading it today for the first time, I would probably give it four stars. But as, for me, it bears the weighty treasure of memory, I must keep it at five. If you are reading this for the first time as an adult, or an antique, the impact is likely to be different for you. If you are a younger sort, of the adolescent or pre-adolescent persuasion, particularly if you are a boy, it might become an invaluable part of your life. Maybe one day you can sit by your child’s or grandchild’s bedside and be the person who reads these words to them for the first time, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” and begin the adventure again. To see the glowing young eyes as the tale unfolds is nothing less than absolutely precious.

PS – I would check out the review offered by GR pal Ted. He includes in his review outstanding, informative and very entertaining excerpts and comments re info on The Hobbit from JRRT’s son Christopher.

========================================EXTRA STUFF

Here is a lovely article on JRRT, from Smithsonian Magazine, January 2002

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The Child Thief by Brom

book cover

Like so many before me, I am fascinated by the tale of Peter Pan, the romantic idea of an endless childhood amongst the magical playground of Neverland. But, like so many, my mind’s image of Peter Pan had always been that of an endearing, puckish prankster, the undue influence of too many Disney films and peanut-butter commercials.
That is, until I read the original Peter Pan, not the watered-down version you’ll find in the children’s bookshops these days, but James Barrie’s original and politically uncorrected version, and then I began to see the dark undertones and to appreciate just what a wonderfully bloodthirsty, dangerous, and at times cruel character Peter Pan truly is.
– from the author’s site

This is not your father’s Peter Pan. Brom found some rather un-Disney-like mayhem tucked into this supposedly children’s novel. In The Child Thief he explores those darker regions. Mixing a stew of old-world mythologies, which he very nicely sources for us at the end of the book, Brom has created a very dark view of a childhood lost. What manner of creature is Peter? How did he become the way he is, violent, sociopathic, with some serious mother issues, yet supremely charismatic, deft, and fun? A history is offered.

Peter – from the author’s site

One thing making the book a fun read is that it is a sort of Where’s Waldo of literary and mythological references. One battle might have been taken from C.S. Lewis, replete with diverse species joining forces. Our Virgil into this inferno is Nick, a Brooklyn kid beset by drug dealers who have taken over his single-mother’s home. Peter, on an ongoing mission to recruit fresh blood for this tale’s version of Lost Boys (and Girls), The Devils, is ever on the lookout for kids with nowhere else to turn. He saves Nick from deadly peril and leads him through the Mist to Avalon, a decaying former paradise, resonant with the many such darkening worlds in children’s literature. A Wrinkle in Time pops to mind, The NeverEnding Story. The darkness here touches some contemporary issues, as the nasty flesh-eaters, degraded Puritans who were trapped in the Mist of Avalon centuries ago, have been dredging up oil from beneath the surface and using it to burn supposedly inflammable, sentient trees in an attempt to push back the magic folk and gain control of the place for their own, and in so doing obliterating the magic to be found in nature, as embodied by Peter and The Lady. Their evil leader is familiar, the completely irrational, sadistic Torquemada type.

The Captain and The Reverend – from the author’s site

Characters are not all so simplistic as the evil preacher. A Captain of the flesh-eaters (the local magic folk are decidedly vegetarian) turns out to be more than he appears. Nick struggles with his attraction to Avalon and the uber-mother, Lady of the Mist, while struggling to come to terms with his actions back in the real world.


There is considerable violence in this story, a body count that would be right at home in any contemporary video game (and yes, there is frequent mention of gameboys) and a chilling numbness on the part of most of the characters to the carnage. Arms, legs, and heads are chopped with enough frequency to carpet what remains of Avalon. It is a very male story, sort of a 300 for the pre-and-early-adolescent set. Far too much rah-rah-let’s-go-kill-some-flesh-eaters sort of speechifying. Can we zip up now and move along with the story?

There is a climactic big battle that I found a bit too much, even for this. But that is a quibble. Brom has wrought an interesting look at a classic character who has not seen much treatment of this sort before. Root questions are asked, and possible answers offered.

In addition, Brom has created beautiful black-and-white illustrations for the beginning of each chapter, and a set of full color paintings for the principal characters.

Review Posted 9/5/2009
Expanded and Re-posted – 6/5/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

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