Pick of the Week: Golem and the Jinni
I read The Golem and the Jinni in large part because the author grew up in Libertyville and went to Carleton College, my own alma mater. I was also intrigued by the premise and have always enjoyed historical fiction and fantasy.
Helene Wecker tells the story of two non-human creatures, a golem and a jinni who both look human, and who have inadvertently ended up in New York City at the turn of the last century. Their personal backstories and folk stories from their homelands are seamlessly intertwined with their struggles in their strange new world.
Although each finds a person who recognizes their true natures and is able to protect and help them to some degree, both Chava, the golem, and Amhad, the jinni, long to truly belong to the human world in which they are living and working. Yet, as many immigrants learn, in order to belong they must adapt and give up much of their true selves. Chava and Ahmad discover that they have bigger problems than all that, when they learn that something more sinister is on their trail and threatening to destroy them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and think it would be good for book discussions and could be recommended to older teens as well. It reminded me a bit of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore in the way that magic and the real world mix easily together. Amazing that this is Helene Wecker’s debut!
Pick of the Week: The Silver Star
I’ve been on a Jeannette Walls reading kick this month. I started with her brilliant memoir, The Glass Castle, which unflinchingly tells her story about growing up dirt poor, sometimes homeless, with two creative but irresponsible parents. I followed Glass Castle with the fascinating true-life novel about Walls’ grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, in Half Broke Horses.
In Walls’ moving new novel, The Silver Star, all the characters come from her imagination. Yet it is clear she draws from her personal experiences about how tough and resilient children can be in the face of neglectful or abusive adults. Sisters Jean “Bean’’ and Liz Holladay learn at a young age how to fend for themselves when their mother Charlotte starts leaving them on their own while she pursues her dreams of becoming a musician and composer.
In 1970, when Charlotte takes off yet again and doesn’t return, 15-year-old Liz and12-year-old Bean decide to embark on a bus journey from their shack in the California desert to their Uncle Tinsley’s home in Virginia. Tinsley grudgingly welcomes them into his rundown house, which once had been a stately mansion and the entertainment heart of the mill town. Bean quickly embraces her new life, and learns more about the father who died before she was born. Her older sister Liz has difficulty adjusting to her new surroundings, and becomes more isolated. When tragedy strikes Liz, the sisters once again face having to overcome adversity.
I really enjoyed The Silver Star, and read it in one day. Jeannette Walls is exemplary at writing from a child’s point of view and telling an entertaining story. I highly recommend this coming-of-age tale about love, family, and strength.
Pick of the Week: "The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls" by Anton DiSclafani
In the midst of the Great Depression, wealthy Southern families still sent their daughters to North Carolina's Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls -- which was not so much a camp as a finishing school, designed to create proper Southern ladies who would be able to find the right sorts of husbands. Into this environment comes passionate, headstrong Thea Atwell, a 15-year-old from Florida who has spent her life isolated with her parents and twin brother in their comfortable home surrounded by orange groves. She's been thrown out of the house for a horrible act she's committed -- but the reader doesn't know what that is until well into the book. This keeps the momentum building in an otherwise dreamy story. Told in first person, it weaves seamlessly back and forth between the actions unfolding at the camp and Thea's previous life at home in Florida.
It's a beautiful coming-of-age tale, as Thea learns painful lessons about family, sex, friendship, money, and social class, all set against the picturesque backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains. I loved DiStefani's detailed descriptions of the riding camp; it brought me back to my own first anxious days at summer camp, getting to know my cabinmates, figuring out whom to be friends with, whom to avoid. And it will remind everyone of the painful choices and the unexpected joys of adolescence. This is a wonderful read!
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Pick of the Week: "Light in the Ruins'' by Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian returns from his magnificent novel about the Armenian Genocide, “The Sandcastle Girls’’, with a suspenseful tale that gives a new spin on Romeo and Juliet by adding a vengeful killer. These two books demonstrate Bohjalian’s versatility in tackling all kinds of topics in a wide variety of time frames. He is not a formulaic writer, but a craftsman who tells a great story.
“The Light in the Ruins’’ (published July 9) alternates between the last years of World War II and 1955 in Italy. The Rosatis are a family of nobility living in their beautiful villa near Florence. Their peaceful existence ends when the occupying Germans start taking over the Rosatis' property and devouring their supplies. In the meantime, 18-year-old Cristina falls in love with a young German lieutenant, much to the chagrin of her family.
The story flashes forward to 1955 in Florence, where police detective Serafina Bettini is called to a gruesome murder scene: a member of the Rosati family has been murdered and her heart ripped out of her chest. When a second Rosati is murdered soon after, it is clear that Serafina is looking for a serial killer who is targeting one family. Her investigation ends up crossing her own troubled past as a partisan fighting the Germans.
Bohjalian’s writing will make you feel you are in Tuscany with his vivid descriptions. This is a well-crafted page turner that had me going until the end and will appeal to mystery lovers. Once again, the author has given readers a wonderful book to devour.
Pick of the Week: And the Mountains Echoed
When I read The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, I was immediately drawn into the story. Likewise, Hosseini's third book, And the Mountains Echoed, mesmerized me from page one.
Hosseini is a master storyteller who delves into the topics of love, heartbreak, guilt and friendship exquisitely. Told from multiple points of view over 50 years, his characters are faced with difficult choices that end up rippling through other people's lives. Hosseini, who was born in Kabul and moved to the United States in 1980, takes the reader to Afghanistan, France, Paris, Greece and California.
The thread that ties all the characters together is a brother, Abdullah, and his little sister, Pari, who are inseparable when they are young. But when their father faces makes a decision that he thinks will give 4-year-old Pari a better life, the brother and sister are pulled apart. Abdullah never stops thinking and wondering what happened to his sister. Pari, not remembering her original family, always feels like something is missing from her life.
“And the Mountains Echoed’’ will tug at your heartstrings, but isn’t as wrenching as the first two books, especially my favorite of the three, “A Thousand Splendid Suns.’’ I highly recommend this book, and it will be one of my favorites of 2013.