The most enjoyable book (audio actually) I read last year was The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. Just announced as the winner of the William C. Morris Award for a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens. I recommend it as a modern, if sentimental, coming of age in the south story of friendship.
Unfortunately, The Serpent King was one of two bright spots in a personally horrible literary year. Seeking to reignite my reading fire and elevate my choices this year, I entered the Redolent Mermaid’s reading challenge for 2017.
Off to a shaky start, I juggled 3 books at once, delaying the completion of any of them. You may assume being a library specialist makes me a fast reader, sadly, not so. My powers of concentration aren’t what they used to be, often taking me longer to get through most books than it does many of my patrons. Alas, I waded through a few and am currently on my fourth.
*My reviews are for editorial purposes only, book critic I am obviously not.
20. Female authored-
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, published 2016. Described as “a fever dream” this brief story features a young African-American girl from Tennessee replanted in Brooklyn in the 1970s.
Woodson writes in memories and memory lapses, so that the reader is spinning, shifting through the storyline on unsure footing. Alternating between a punch to the gut softened by splashes of warmth and humanity, the writing is bare, sparse, and spare. Drifting through the protagonist’s broken memories meant I didn’t really experience or understand the supporting characters. Her best friends, brother and father felt like strangers. Real human beings portrayed in the unreality of snippets of memory, I was never pulled into the story.
The interesting takeaway was that everyone in Woodson’s Brooklyn dreamed of living in better places. If you’re looking for a feel-good read, keep looking. If looking for diverse, LGBT-authored, I lukewarmly recommend it.
21. Paranormal or supernatural-
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, published 2013.
For the purpose of the reading challenge, I put the G+J into the supernatural phenomenon category. Cataloged as Fantasy, a more appropriate description is Folklore, or a sort of Historical/ Fantasy hybrid. Unlike anything I’ve read before, I predict it will be the best book I’ll pick up this year. I dare say the best I’ve read in a decade, but while still feeling the post-read pull on the heartstrings it’s too early to say.
Told through seamless multiple narratives, The Golem and the Jinni is a story about legends, good versus evil, the nature of humanity, whose main characters don’t qualify as human. Set in late 19th century New York City, a tale of lost souls seeking friendship, love, community, freedom and acceptance while navigating two different cultures, Jewish and Syrian.
Reviewer William Schwab said, “a good book answers questions you didn’t know you should ask.” Reading this brought forth so many questions: Can people rise above their nature, or are they destined to fulfill it? Which has greater value, one’s duty or self-determination, safety or freedom? What does it mean to be truly free? What is a purposeful life? Who is worth one’s faith and devotion and at what cost? My personal favorite dilemma these characters struggled with; should great knowledge be sacrificed for happiness?
Never have I read a story containing so many unforeseen and unpredictable developments that I nonetheless knew was barreling toward it’s inevitable conclusion. This is Wecker’s debut novel, researched and written over 7 years and I hope that she carries on. No encounter was wasted, no character or detail superfluous, not a single word. With visceral imagery and impeccable pacing, even at 484 pages I felt I was leaving the Golem and Jinni’s world too soon. I perceive I’ll continue to live with the memorable Chava and Ahmad, the thoughtful rabbi, solitary Arbeely, good Michael Levy, caring Maryam and the fateful Ice cream Saleh a little while longer though, I’m not ready to give them up.
At the suggestion of my buddy Sandra, who’s been pairing her challenge reads with nail art
, I will tie in fragrances inspired by a few of mine.
The Jinni – a character both “dazzling and dangerous”, fiery and impulsive, is represented by Bright Copper Kettles from Yankee’s My Favorite Things collection. Jinni’s skill at metalsmithing was an integral part of the story and a fitting choice. Cinnamon bark, and spicy clove cast an inviting spell while patchouli and cedarwood radiate the warmth of home.
The Golem -tougher to choose, I rejected a baked bread scent for one elemental and earthy. Silver Birch, with ozone, Siberian pine, clove, eucalyptus and patchouli fit nicely. Leaning masculine, it represents the strong, stoic Golem, with a steady even throw to it as well. The beautiful birch tree label symbolizes all of the nights wandering the parks.
11. A book with an animal on the cover or in the title.
Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase published 2016 (audio book)
A dual narrative flipping between 1960s and present-day Cornwall and the happenings and mishaps occurring at the Alton family’s stately title home. Though a rabbit graces the intriguing book cover, the animals play a minor indirect and unlucky role.
Both premise and character introductions were promising, but the story became disappointing fairly early on. The audio narrator didn’t help as I found myself rolling my eyes at the developing melodrama. Our modern heroine Lorna, initially likeable, came across quite selfish and petulant by the conclusion. The tragic Amber’s flashbacks, though a more stimulating story, began to read like teenage diary entries. There was also a Flowers-In-The-Attic undercurrent happening and if you’ve read it and that’s your thing, then BRH may be for you. I read it as a pre-teen and am not looking for V.C. Andrews read-alikes at this point in life. The revelations and predictable subsequent revelations weren’t worthwhile enough for the rest of the plot. I recommend any of Kate Morton’s novels instead, far better at untangling old family secrets.
Happy Reading friends, send any thoughts and recommendations, I vow to read better in 2017.