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REVIEW:  The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

REVIEW: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

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In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

Dear Ms. Wecker,

The decision to try this book came about in a way that often catches me. It just seemed “different.” When faced with such a book, I’m often like a child who sees a something unknown and just has to pick it up and look at it closer. Sometimes it pays off with a wonderful discovery and other times it won’t. Here the payoff is thoughtful, mesmerizing book with intriguing characters, situations and a hopeful but by no means certain happiness for some.

I first saw the book at Amazon from their “people who…”. The cover – oh yes, I’m fickle for cover art too – made me look twice, the title made me click on it to discover more and the blurb, well that was the “different” that made me decide to buy it. While I don’t often read fantasy novels, I do like them and this one promised not only a jinni but a golem as well. Not your ordinary vampire, shifter or zombie fantasy novel here. And along with the unusual characters there’s turn of the twentieth century NYC for the same admission price. How could I resist?

The setting is a trip back in time and makes me glad to I had just finished watching the early episodes of Ric Burn’s documentary about New York City as that allowed me to much more easily “see” the places and things described, especially the angel fountain and the crowded tenements of the immigrant lower east side. I love it when things come together that way. The story is a lovely view of two immigrant communities. While it’s not always complimentary, it’s always sympathetic. I also agree with the view point that many of the issues covered here are relevant today – the clash of cultures, languages and traditions still being brought to this country 110 years later.

The Golem and the Jinni are fascinating creations. They’re opposites and yet the same. They have so many similarities but also differences. She is earth – solid, dependable and more comfortable being told what to do. He’s fire – fickle, fleeting, free spirited and damn the consequences. He’s appalled at being confined while she’s horrified at being rootless. On the other hand, they’re both “not human” and can see the truth of the other allowing each the luxury of being exactly who and what they are. They manage to understand each other as no human could ever know them. They are beings bound to another’s will who find freedom. Born of the old world, they come to the new and reinvent themselves. And yes to all the comparisons to immigrants.

The plot is one that kept me guessing and believe me, this is a good thing. Its intricacies take quite a while to unfold and take shape. At first I wasn’t sure who all these secondary characters were and how on earth their backstories would be relevant for the Golem or the Jinni. But in the end, everything is knit together and the tapestry of the story is completed. Oh dear, that’s a mixed metaphor.

The pathway to the denouement is a twisty one which must have taken a good deal of time to imagine and then wrestle under control. I do love when a plot leaves me guessing and interested.

But is there a romance?, I can hear readers asking. Well, in a way. Each is the one the other thinks of when times get tough. She gets him to see and accept his responsibility for his actions while he gets her to loosen up, find some joy in life and be willing to take a few chances. In the end, as the Golem thinks, they’ll have to work at a relationship, carve one out that will fit and suit only them. Can they do it? I think yes. They’re both strong but still flexible and as they continue to make and remake their lives, I think they will find a place just for them. B

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich

REVIEW: The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich

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The Imperial Harem, Constantinople, 1578. Hannah and Isaac Levi, Venetians in exile, have overcome unfathomable obstacles to begin life anew in the Ottoman Empire. He works in the growing silk trade, and she, the best midwife in the capital, tends to the hundreds of women in Sultan Murat III’s lively and infamous harem. One night, Hannah is unexpectedly sum­moned to the extravagant palace and confronted with Leah, a Jewish peasant girl who was violently abducted. The sultan favors Leah as his next conquest and wants her to produce his heir, but if the spirited girl fails an important test, she faces a terrible fate. Taken by Leah’s tenacity, Hannah risks everything to help her. But as Hannah agonizes over her decision, an enchanting stranger arrives from afar to threaten her peaceful life with Isaac, and soon Leah too reveals a dark secret that could condemn them both.

Dear Ms. Rich,

When I’ve enjoyed an author’s book(s), I’ll try and keep an eye open for new releases. “The Midwife of Venice” was one of my happy discoveries in 2012 so when I saw this book had been released and that it’s a continuation of Hannah and Isaac’s story, of course it went on my want list.

One thing I noticed immediately is that the pace and “feel” seemed off. Chapter One is a violent yet strangely emotionally unmoving opening to the story. A young girl’s life is upended but I never felt my heart catch. She acts as if her feelings are blunted – shock, I guess – but the way the scene is written my response was more ho-hum than Oh-dear-God. After this, the action moves to Constantinople where Hannah and Isaac now live after the events of “Venice.” Hannah is a midwife to the Sultan’s harem and Isaac is now a silk merchant. Hannah is called to the palace and more time gets spent describing the journey there and the palace rather than what happens after. Lots of things about the city, palace and court are described but all of it seemed more a well integrated college lecture instead of pulling me into a “you are there in this splendid world.”

The main point of view is told by Hannah yet the opening chapter is from Leah’s view though it’s the only time this happens in the book. I wanted more. What were her feelings during her journey from her capture to the Seraglio? If we’re only going to get her past tense feelings as related to Hannah, why have the first chapter at all? The villain, Cesca, is fascinating to dive into early in the story but after some scenes giving her more depth and a background which explains her drive in life, we only get two short POV chapters much later in the tale. And poor Isaac who was such a delight to read about in the first book is little more than a life size cardboard cutout from whom we get nothing.

No wait we do get something from Isaac. We get actions that swing wildly depending on what the plot needs at that moment rather than anything that feels like a real character. We need to see how happy Isaac and Hannah are in their new life? Isaac is on automatic as a kissing fool. When Hannah is needed to be seen as unsure of her life, suddenly Isaac appears to be falling for another woman. When that part of the plot is resolved, just as quickly he’s back to his old self almost as if a fairy waved a wand. None of it felt real.

Lots of aspects of the plot get rushed over too. It’s almost as if the plot skipped over water like a stone. “Two months later…” “several weeks had passed…” and I feel as if I’m getting glimpses of a story that got drastically edited down. Seemingly major issues would loom largely, get truncated build-ups and then, whoosh, they’re over with little drama. The whole has a curiously flat feel. I thought “this is it??” In addition, lots of the plot is already laid out and revealed so that I already knew what was going to happen without even peeking at the end. That took a lot of the suspense right out of it.

The finale reminded me in a way of a bad mystery/crime story in which a lot of villain exposition occurs to wind things up and explain all the things needed for closure. And rather than having Hannah or Isaac take charge as they did in “Venice,” another character serves as the all powerful judge who dictates everyone’s actions. It was all too neat, too pat and too easy.

After my delight in “Venice,” I have to say that “Harem” was a sad disappointment. From the way certain events are left, I can tell that the plan is for another book to wrap them up. However, I’m not sure I’ll be eagerly waiting since this book certainly won’t be one I’ll probably think much about after a week or so. It’s rare that I say I’m glad I bought a book at used book prices but for this one, I am. It does have a pretty cover, though. D

~Jayne

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