Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Helene Wecker’s spellbinding debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, weaves a tale of two lost souls looking for a place to belong in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1899, a Golem awakens on a ship bound for America to find her master on his death bed. At the same time, in the Little Syria neighborhood of New York, a blacksmith releases the Jinni from an oil flask he has been paid to repair. The Golem, struggling to find a place where she belongs, and the Jinni, striving to uncover the past he has forgotten and find the man who trapped him for over a thousand years, must band together to stay alive in this brave new world.

Wecker writes with an intensity that captivates the reader, forcing me into this world of make believe. She beautifully details the separate neighborhoods of the Lower East Side and the rooftop streets that connect them all. Her decision to set this tale in 1899 allows the Golem and Jinni’s awakening to reflect the awakening of New York at the turn of the century. Although cars were not yet invented, public parks and the Brooklyn Bridge were still new developments, and the underground subway system was still being constructed. The city and the Golem and Jinni all were forced to adapt to this fast paced world. Wecker gives the city an innocent, youthful glow without ignoring the very true aspects of the time (drunkenness in the streets, prostitution, thievery, etc.).  To read this is to be drawn into New York’s history, which is not an easy feat to accomplish.

The Golem and Jinni are also reflections of the immigration process and what it meant to leave your home behind and find yourself in an unfamiliar place. The Jinni struggles with his new name, knowing it is not his and doesn’t belong to him but that he must now go by it if he hopes to survive. Wecker also shows other characters forced to change their names to appear more American.

“Let’s call you something more American,” he [the Immigration Officer] said. “It’s for the best.”

The Golem must learn new customs in America like the immigrants who must leave their own culture behind. Wecker references the ties the upper class New Yorkers had with the police and how immigrant neighborhoods often lived in fear that they would be the next target of police brutality.

The Golem and the Jinni delivers a heartfelt, exciting, refreshing tale of friendship and adventure in the New York City nights. Wecker’s novel is an incredible piece of art and history that allows readers to escape into a world of magic and science and love.

Book Review: Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

Book Review: Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

Maybe it’s small, my territory, but inside it I can still love what in front of me with all the heart I have left.

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter weaves a fantastical story of a talking doll, night incarnate, a witch who runs a department store, and severed arms that behead “shoplifters.” Retelling the Russian folktale, Vassilissa the Beautiful, Vassa enteres a BY’s department store one night for light bulbs and finds herself on an unimaginable mission to save her life and survive the evil witch who manages the store. Porter stays true to the original story but uses ingenuity to modernize the tale. Vassa is a relatable, endearing character with a heart as pure as any fairy-tale hero. Porter’s language sends me whirling through a mirror image of our world where the nights can last for days. This was a lovely fairy tale to read and something I never knew I wanted till I found it!

One thing I know from my own experience: beauty doesn’t make anybody into a whole person.

Book Review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

Book Review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

“I don’t do pity anything. Pity is patronizing. Pity is the assumption of superiority.”

Three normal humans and a demi-god walk into a high school. No, really. In The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Mikey and his friends just want to make it to graduation without the school blowing up from another superhero fight. In a world filled with superhero battles and dangerous bad guys, normal, average, powerless humans are just trying to survive things like Prom, Algebra 1, and getting into college. Mikey wants to turn his best friend into his girlfriend, wants to keep the attractive, mysterious new guy from stealing his spot in the friend group, and wants his mom to maybe calm down with the election campaigns for Senator. Most of all, Mikey just wants to avoid the new uprising of monsters that are mind-controlling the city police and killing super-powered kids (called “indie kids”) like flies and focus on his own problem instead, like his sudden return of OCD that has him washing his hands until they are raw.

Ness’s book takes an inner look at the kids who have to survive superhero catastrophes, knowing there is nothing they can do to help. This book is not about normal kids saving the day. It’s not about the underdog showing his true value by proving his worth in front of the whole town. This story is about one boy coming to terms with his mental health and learning that just because he isn’t going off on a grand adventure, doesn’t mean he isn’t important in the world.

“They’ve all got other lives. Jared’s got all this family stuff, Mel’s dating a doctor, Henna’s going to Africa. And what do I have? I have them. I don’t have anything else.”

Mikey is such a relatable narrator for me because of his self-doubt and anxiety. One of the things Ness did really well is write a character who is scared of turning into his old self and falling back into a boatload of mental health issues. Mikey wants to get better and wants to be better, but he struggles with feeling right in his skin. Even though he’s one of the normal kids, Mikey doesn’t feel normal at all, and more than anything, he wants to be like everybody else (who’s normal). Because of this, Mikey feels sympathetic towards the indie kids, who already have low survival rates and are constantly facing some supernatural challenge on top of everyday puberty and homework.

Overall, this is a cute story with really intriguing characters and a nice sibling relationship. I enjoyed reading the parts in which Mikey and his sisters hang out. Those scenes felt very unique to this book and were fresh to read. At the end of the day, I didn’t feel a strong connection to any of the characters (besides Mikey) or the storyline, but I am glad I read it and would recommend it for a light read that could be finished in a day.

 

Book Review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Book Review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Lisa just wants to get into the second best psychology program in the US. If that’s means using sixteen-year-old, agoraphobic Solomon as her personal project to help her get into her dream school, then that’s what she’ll do. The only problem is once Lisa meets Solomon, she realizes he’s actually a really cool person, and her mission to “fix” him becomes even more imperative than ever. As Lisa and her boyfriend Clark fall deeper into Sol’s life, the question of whether to tell Sol about Lisa’s interest in him and risk ruining their friendship forever or to keep it a secret and let the guilt eat away at Lisa weighs heavy over their shoulders. With all the progress Sol has made towards leaving his home, isn’t it better to put his future in the outside world above an honest friendship?

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Whaley’s latest novel gives an intriguing look into the life of a boy too afraid of the outside world to leave his home and the friendship that might be able to save him. Told by both Sol and Lisa, readers get to glimpse the anxiety behind Sol’s disorder and the reasons Lisa has for befriending Sol under false pretense. Lisa and Sol have both have unique, blunt narrations which give this novel a taste of honesty and a strong voice. Because of this, the novel is a quick read and can be finish in a day easily. Sol is a sympathetic character, but I never pitied him. He was understandable and relatable and an absolute delight! I wish their story had been longer, because I would’ve loved to see more of him. Lisa was harder for me to like, because I wanted her to be honest and upfront with Sol from the beginning, but I could also understand her reasons for lying to Sol.

Whaley does a great job with this book. Highly Illogical Behavior was a breath of fresh air to read, and I look forward to his future novels.

Book Review: A Good Idea by Christina Moracho

Book Review: A Good Idea by Christina Moracho

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Gripping, haunting, and thrilling— these are the three words I’d use to describe A Good Idea by Christina Moracho. Reading this book gave me the same eerie feeling that sitting in my empty apartment during the middle of a thunderstorm gives me, lights flickering, thunder shaking the windows, Wi-Fi signal only showing one bar. Scary. When eighteen-year-old, Finley returns to the rural Maine town that she grew up in the summer after her best friend, Betty, was brutally murdered there by her boyfriend, she’s looking to send Betty’s boyfriend to jail, but she finds that perfect, golden boy Calder Miller walks the streets freely as if nothing had happened. However, it’s not just Calder who’s pretending he didn’t confess to killing Betty. The entire town acts as if she was still alive and had only run away, even Betty’s mother. Finley starts on a dark journey to understand her town’s nonchalance about Betty’s death and to prove that Calder is a murder who deserves to be punished.

This book reads like a Southern Gothic. I only knew as much as Finley, meaning while she believed Calder to be the murder after he confessed to doing so, there were so many other mysterious circumstances arising over town that I wasn’t entirely convinced he did it. Moracho constantly kept me on my toes in suspense, waiting for the real killer to be convicted. Then, when citizens start to sight Betty’s ghost around town, I was convinced she was still alive but in hiding. This story kept me guessing what actually happened to Betty Flynn up till the last few pages. Not only did the spooky setting and apathetic townsfolk keep me on edge, but Finley’s devotion to Betty also kept me feeling on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Moracho forces readers to become involved in this mystery. A Good Idea explores the unchanging ways of small towns and what happens when one girl acts out of the natural order and when one boy, beloved by all, makes sure she never acts out again. This novel will draw you into a world darker than you’ve ever entered before, a world so familiar it feels as if you’ve been here before, a mirror image of something you know so well.

Book Review: One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva

Book Review: One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva

Director, writer, and native New Yorker Michael Barakiva debuts his first novel, One Man Guy, a coming-of-age story following an Armenian American boy who experiences falling in love for the first time while dealing with the social struggle of being both Armenian and American. Barakiva writes a comedic, gratifying love story where fourteen-year-old Alex Khederian learns how to love, not just someone else, but his overbearing family and himself. This novel includes:

  • Many mentions of delicious Armenian food
  • Conflicting family pride
  • Sk8er Bois (Avril Lavigne™ 2002)
  • Many old film references
  • A full scale teen movie makeover
  • Free tour of New York City
  • The Most Awkward Parent Meet-&-Greet Ever!!!

Alex is a sweet and intriguing narrator and my heart went out to him on every page. Give this book a try if you want a short, fun, heartfelt New York City Guidebook disguised as a bildungsroman. Plus, come on, guys. Watching a makeover on screen is one thing, but reading one? It is literally one of the greatest scenes in any book I’ve ever read. Read this!!!

Book Review: Sometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim Zarins

Book Review: Sometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim Zarins

“It is a fact universally acknowledged, that a young, unmarried woman is in want of a dolphin.”

In a modern day retelling of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, twenty-two high school seniors sharing a Civics class, their young, hopeful teacher, Mr. Bailey, and a disgruntled bus driver take a class trip to Washington D.C. How does Kim Zarins’ debut novel, Sometimes We Tell the Truth, adapt The Canterbury Tales to a modern day high school field trip? Zarins has each student tell a story and whoever has the best story by the end of the trip will receive an automatic A in the class. Our narrator, Jeff Chaucer, a shy writer, quietly watches the tales unfold while giving readers a glimpse into his own story where he and his ex-best friend haven’t spoken in months and the truth of what happened behind the senior prank gone wrong comes unveiled. In the nine hour bus ride, Jeff is forced to realize that while he may have gone to school with these kids for the last four years, he never really knew them until this day. Zarins does a fantastic job of giving attention to each storyteller throughout this novel, keeping them in character, and keeping each character uniquely their own.

While Zarins is obviously using The Canterbury Tales as a foundation for this story to follow, she pulls from other authors when the students tell their own story, using fanfiction to give each student a voice. Pard uses Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels to tell his own story using DEATH’s character and three original characters to tell the story of his broken friendships and how he was betrayed by his best friend, Jeff. Many of the students put one another in the stories to add familiarity and fun to the storytelling or just to put a classmate in their place. Mari, a writer like Jeff, creates a continuation of Charlotte’s Web where one jock classmate, Rooster, plays a cocky, sex-crazed rooster who almost gets his neck bitten off by a fox because of vanity. Narnia, Harry Potter, and King Arthur’s court all appear as background worlds for some of the stories, giving credit to the stories that influenced these students’ childhoods just as The Canterbury Tales pulls on classic medieval literature.

The number of characters does make it difficult to keep track of who’s who at first. That’s why Zarins includes a Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the novel with detailed descriptions of each student. This novel is hilarious, distinctive, and a treasure to read. Each character pops out of the page, but most importantly, Sometimes We Tell the Truth has saved me from ever having to read The Canterbury Tales!

“I’m going to write this whole thing. I’m going to write everyone’s stories and make a novel of it. A NOVEl. Not just the stories, but everything. The interruptions, the bickering, the coffee breaks. It’s going to be about loneliness and finding each others’ truths on the slant through the stories they tell. It’s going to be about lies and big reveals and how we shuffle and deal the cards and bet our souls away. It’s going to be about EVERYTHING.”