Tuesday, July 26

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

It was nominated for a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award, but I wouldn't call The Golem and the Jinni (Djinni in the UK of course) genre fiction. Not by a long shot. It also won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, which suits it much better. In fact, as I was reading it, I was struggling to recall just what it reminded me of, and looking through the list of past mythopoeic awards winners has furnished the answer: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Like Jonathan Strange, The Golem and the Jinni takes the lore of particular cultures - the esoteric or occult folk beliefs that slot into the gaps left by organised religion - and brings them to life in a richly-imagined historical setting. For Clarke's English academics and politicians of the Napoleonic wars era, it was fairies and romantic enchantment. For Wecker's turn-of-the-century New York immigrant Jewish and (Christian) Syrian communities, it's Kabbalah and golems, and Bedu sorcerers and djinn, respectively.

Indeed, the origin stories of the two main protagonists, Chava and Ahmad, the eponymous golem and djinni, both read like they are fairy tales, and serve to transpose some old-world folklore into the urban realism of life in the Lower East Side.

The golem's story which begins the narrative, detailing her creation at the hands of a Polish kabbalist at the request of a repulsive furniture seller who desires a wife, has a timeless feel to it. I couldn't pin down the historical setting with any certainty until later on, when the golem finds herself first awakened aboard a steamship, and then cast adrift in Manhattan.

The djinni's backstory is delivered in episodes placed throughout the book, presented as something like flashbacks, although the djinni himself remains amnesiac to much of his history, having woken from a centuries'-long imprisonment in a magical flask, bound to human form and without memory of the circumstances of his capture or the sorcerer who was his master.

Much of the first part of the book details these two otherworldly creatures stumbling around exploring Manhattan, the foibles of the human society they find themselves in, and their own natures. Chava really shines here as a character, with her cautious nature conflicting with her curiosity about herself and the world around her. In one memorable scene, she decides to experiment by eating a piece of bread, Wecker's prose capturing each detail as she chews, swallows, and eventually passes the mashed-up bread, and her pride as she shows the result to her rabbi protector.

Chava and Ahmad meet later in the book than you might think, which allows the reader to have a good sense of both characters before allowing them to interact, though the inevitability of their meeting does frustrate the sense of plot somewhat. When they do meet, they form an odd-couple bond predicated as much on their clashing personality differences as creatures of earth and of fire respectively as on their both being non-human beings in a world of humans. This outsider perspective mirrors that of their Jewish and Syrian adopted communities, and serves to reflect on humanity and society. In fact, despite its fantastical elements, I found myself thinking that this is one of the most 'human' books I've read in a long time.

It's helped along by a fantastic sense of place. New York City of a century ago feels fully realised and vibrant; from the character-filled immigrant communities Chava and Ahmad call home, to the archaeologically-preserved night-time hours spent in Central Park and its surrounding mansions, the backdrop is tangible and explored. If the whole book had consisted of the golem and the djinni wandering around discovering New York and trying to make sense of their lives there, I don't think I would have minded much.

Of course it doesn't. There's a plot. And it's not a bad plot, involving Chava's kabbalist creator and his continuing quest for eternal life. And it ties in with the circumstances of Ahmad's capture in the flask and the recovery of his memories. It's a perfectly serviceable plot, but perhaps it doesn't shine as brightly as some of the other elements in the narrative.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone, from urban fantasy or genre fiction enthusiasts looking for something a bit 'more', to literary fiction people looking for an insightful, character-driven bedtime read. It's one of my highlights this year.

Notes on the audiobook:

George Guidall, who is apparently like THE audiobook guy, narrates the audiobook edition. His Wikipedia entry states that he has recorded over 1270 audiobooks as of 2014 - which might be a world record. If he's narrating these books at the rate of about 1 per month, which seems reasonable, given that that's my approximate rate of consumption of them, then we can estimate that he's been recording audiobooks since about 1908.

Here's a link to an interview with him in the NYT Book Review (fast forward to about 20.30). Two quotes in particular stand out:
As far as I'm concerned, as an audiobook narrator, my responsibility is to get an overall emotional arc going for the book that involves the reader at some point. 
I don't trust anyone who says "I don't read the book beforehand because it breaks it for me. I just like to go into the sound booth and record." I have to know how the story ends before I can begin it, and I have to know what surprises are on the way.
This was my first experience of him as a narrator. His grandfatherly voice is at once soothing and pregnant with emotional significance, and though his performance is subdued and subtle, he succeeds in communicating a range of tensions and a myriad of characters. I'd happily recommend the audiobook version to anyone, and will be on the lookout for more Guidall-narrated audiobooks in the future.

Rating: 4/5
Amazon: The Golem and the Djinni
Audible: The Golem and the Djinni
Goodreads: The Golem and the Jinni

Monday, July 18

Look What I Just Bought! Audiobook Edition

I've taken advantage of Audible's 3 for 2 Summer Reads sale here, meaning that I still have 2 credits left over. My goal is to make them last until November, which I think is feasible given that I've already got George Eliot's Middlemarch (35+ hours) and James Clavell's Shogun (53+ hours) in my library. I need to get listening quick!

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Read by Anna Massey (14h45)

I've been itching for more gothic manor house fiction since reading Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger back in May. Plus this is one of those books that I know I should have read, being a relatively easy member of the EngLit canon. And it's got a solid 4.19 Goodreads score. It's probably the book in my Audible library I'm most looking forward to reading.

On a side note: probably because it's been a classic for so long, there's so many beautiful covers for Rebecca on Google. I've included some here.

Second side note: I walked past du Maurier's father's house in Hampstead the other day, which is clearly another instance of the universe telling me to read this book.

Goodreads: Rebecca
Amazon: Rebecca
Audible: Rebecca

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker
Read by Robert Slade (20h30)

Another one with beautiful covers, I've seen mixed reviews about Quebert on Goodreads, seemingly related to the fact that it won so many awards back when it was published, but readers have found the writing clich├ęd and underwhelming, and the characters two-dimensional. Perhaps a case of poor translation?

In any case, I'm always up for a slice-of-life literary murder mystery.

Goodreads: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
Amazon: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
Audible: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

Broken Harbour by Tana French
Read by Hugh Lee (22h41)

This one's an unknown quantity for me. I've never read anything by French before. But it's got good reviews and seems like an interesting premise. Plus it's long enough that I'm not embarrassed to spend a credit on it.

Not as impressed with the cover though. The Viking hardcover is slightly nicer.

Goodreads: Broken Harbour
Amazon: Broken Harbour
Audible: Broken Harbour

Books I narrowly avoided buying:
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (do you think his friends call him "Tom Rob"?)
The Gallows Curse by Karen Maitland (though Company of Liars has been on my wishlist for a while now.)
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (I was almost tempted to try Dickens again, but I've never been able to get through any of his books, so I didn't.)

Tuesday, July 5

Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot

This is going to be a real toughie of a first review for the blog, not only because I was so confused about what was going on most of the time that it's difficult for me to summarise the damn book, but also because I just don't know how I feel about it.

But let's try.

We begin with a straightforward (it's all relative, right?) story about Woo-jin, the best dishwasher in this post-apocalyptic world, who comes across the same dead body twice, in the same place and state of decay, on two consecutive days. His foster-sister, who makes her living as an organ farm, is stolen away with their trailer into the sky. The Seattle they call home is just across the sound from New York Alki, a massive ongoing project to reconstruct the vanished Manhattan on Bainbridge Island. Add to this that Woo-jin keeps having what he calls ennui fits in which he hallucinates a desert mesa inhabited by a figure called the Last Dude, and you have a truly compelling - if weird - beginning to a story, full of questions which beg to be answered.

Unfortunately the book just gets stranger from there, and although questions do get answered, they're probably not the same ones you were asking.

The rest of the book jumps between various viewpoint characters, of mixed appeal. Woo-jin and his successor Abby, a specialist in 20th-century media who travels to the Lynch-ian Seaside Love Palace inhabited almost entirely by clones, are the best, while others, like Neethan F. (the F stands for 'Fucking') Jordan, a mono-dimensional and completely uncompelling critique of a Hollywood star, are not so fun. These are interspersed with Luke Piper's recollections his life in the 1980s and 90s as he follows his missing best friend into some kind of cult or conspiracy linked with the upcoming end of the world - the age of Fucked-Up Shit.

Part of the problem with listing elements of Blueprints of the Afterlife to give a flavour of what it's like, though, is that the novel steadfastly refuses to be the sum of its parts. The parts just don't come together like you might expect. Instead, they turn into something different and unique.

For example, despite the aforementioned organ farming and cloning, as well as 'Newman' robots and something called the bionet, all of which are key parts of the plot, it doesn't read at all like science fiction. Instead, other reviewers have compared Boudinot to post-modernists like Pynchon, Wallace, and Ballard (which seems apropos though I've not read any of their work *embarrassed*) as deadpan-surreal-satire. For example, there's a section of the book where Neethan Fucking Jordan is walking north from Hollywood to Seattle (yup), in which, among other absurd things, the following happens, out-of-the-blue:
Up ahead, hovering about eight feet above the carpet, glowed an incandescent heart about the size of three basketballs put together into a really big basketball. The heart thudded, bobbed a bit in the air, and radiated shimmery rays of light like one of those Mexican El Corazon tattoos. Neethan approached the glowing object and positioned himself beneath it, then jumped, his head getting swallowed momentarily in the hologram-like whatever-it-was. There was a noise, a pleasant chime in his ears, after which he understood that he had been granted an extra life.
Equally surreal is the nature of the Fucked-Up Shit which destroyed nine tenths of the human population. One character complains of having "survived three tsunamis and a plague of human-headed locusts."

It's the very frequency of these offhand reality-redefining moments that lend the book its amorphous nature and make it so difficult to assess, as the rug keeps getting pulled out from under you, forcing you to reevaluate what you're reading. Other reviewers have suggested that the book would benefit from re-reading, and there are more conventional narrative twists that kind of make me want to, but in the end - though I did enjoy it - I just didn't enjoy it enough. There were too many parts that were just silly or derivative, and trudging through these parts to the dollops of genius was an experience too off-putting to want to repeat in the near future.

Don't get me wrong, I liked Blueprints. Strong characters, some wickedly knowing writing, and some philosophical questions of the type raised by the best science fiction and speculative fiction - including that central question of when is an apocalypse not an apocalypse? what distinguishes dystopia from utopia and life from afterlife? - make this book worth reading and recommending. It just has its share of weak points too. Make sure you go into it with a willingness to be taken somewhere different to where you thought you were headed.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: Blueprints of the Afterlife
Goodreads: Blueprints of the Afterlife