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Jasmyn, Alex Bell, Swans and CASTLES

March 21, 2010

While window-shopping on Amazon (an absorbing pastime), I came across a book I very much wanted to read called JASMYN, by Alex Bell. Incidentally, ‘to window shop’ in French is ‘faire du lêche vitrine’. Now you know some French. Well done.

Although this incident interrupted my important mission to the library to acquire it, I was, neverthless, unthwarted! I finished it, and I LOVED IT. And I love to love a book. It justifies the time you spend reading it.

Jasmyn is about…well, Jasmyn (you couldn’t have guessed that, huh?) 😄 No, anyway, Jasmyn’s husband suddenly dies, and she begins a slow process of falling apart. But bizarre things start happening – dead swans fall from the sky at Liam’s funeral; a strange man she has never heard of turns up on her doorstep claiming to know her husband; she is haunted by dreams of feathers and roses. Jasmyn begins to uncover discrepancy after discrepancy relating to her husband, and nothing is quite as it seems. She enters a world of fairytales and magic, horror and splendour, but what is real? What is the truth?

In the immortal words of Robert Jordan: RAFO.

There were many, many things to love about this book, which is why it was such a satisfying read altogether: it masquerades most deceptively and convincingly as an unextraordinary modern-set story of a grieving young widow for a couple of chapters, and THEN sweeps you into this universe of fairytale, legend and folklore, without ever losing touch with the reader’s inner cynic. Although it was fantastical, it never strained belief – I don’t think I went into suspended-disbelief mode at any point – which is a good indicator of the skill of the author. Her characterisation was sympathetic, with the first-person narrative opening Jasmyn up to the reader.

Part of the delight of reading this is that you keep on trying to figure it out, and my theories changed every few chapters. I phoned my sister up several times just to share with her my speculations about what was happening and then forbidding her to either confirm or deny whether I was right (she read it before I did). One night, she asked me if I wanted a clue. I said no, because I hate spoilers. Then I caved and was all ‘omgtellme!’ And she said, ‘don’t think like a detective.’

WHAT? WHAT KIND OF A RUBBISH CLUE IS THAT? It drove me mad trying NOT to think like a detective, because of course IT IS IMPOSSIBLE. That is saying DON’T TRY TO FIGURE IT OUT.

So then the next day, I was EVEN MORE wound up in suspense, being in the last third of the book. A new theory suddenly occurred to me, and I phoned my sister up again, explained it to her…and she was quiet for a moment. Then she said, do you want me to tell you if you’re right or not? I told her, NO OF COURSE NOT! And then she said she would give me another clue and I protested but she told me anyway.

‘Read the back.’
‘WHAT! I’ve already done that! Like, a MILLION TIMES! IT DIDN’T REVEAL ANYTHING TO ME.’

Later I kept pestering her to find out if she had figured it all out already before it was revealed, and she said she pretty much had.  So then I was sad because I wasn’t clever enough to. And then when I FOUND OUT, I was like, WOAH DÉJÀ VU, and felt like I should have known – so although it didn’t surprise, I thought it was BRILLIANT. And THEN, it didn’t just reveal the mystery and leave you languishing (yes, I languish! Everybody normal languishes! How can you NOT languish?!) – there was an aftermath, and the author gives you the satisfaction of following through and wrapping up. Then you can pester her by email to explain the things you are too stupid to get.

This is a spoiler – an absolute complete spoiler – so if you intend to read this book, DO NOT HIGHLIGHT THE FOLLOWING: It was a kind of analogue of Thursday Next and the mindworm, in First Among Sequels, with a magical twist. Okay, you can look now.

I loved the fact that the setting was real: it really feeds the (ravening) inner geek. While I was reading it, I wasn’t quite sure; it all sounded too fantastical to be true: a castle that Disney rips off? A mad king with an obsession with swans? A hotel made entirely of ice that is rebuilt every year? Surely not. But it really was! I loved that you could google it and look at the pictures: the front cover is a stylised version of the real castle mentioned, the Neuschwanstein.

Speaking of the front cover, isn’t it gorgeous? I admit I’m a sucker for awesome covers: if it catches my eye, I’ll pick up the book, and this one captured me the moment I saw it. YES, I AM SHALLOW AND SUPERFICIAL AND JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS.*

I really enjoyed the Bavarian setting, because I have a kind of personal interest in that area and its traditions. What was great to discover – and I didn’t realise until I had done some reading – is that Bavaria is a pretty hot player in the Western European cultural scene, and well-known for its food. And and! I loved the depiction of the Christkindlmarkt in Munich: apart from evoking every memory of every exotic market ever, there were LEBKUCHEN HEARTS. And let it be known that I have been a complete Lebkuchen-junkie ever since I discovered them the winter after I came back from Egypt.

The writing is charming and whimsical – the only thing I was bothered by was an excessive and sometimes unnatural use of ‘for’ (i.e. ‘I didn’t go out for it was cold’): because the prose was quite contemporary, it didn’t always fit in, and yet it was the chosen form instead of ‘I didn’t go out because/as/since it was cold’. Not a big deal, but it caused a little cognitive dissonance each time it happened, for the first half of the book. The second half I was too keyed up to pay attention to a little word when MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THINGS were happening.

Oh, and my sister made sure to tell me that my pet-hate of English misuse turned up several times: the use of ‘antisocial’ to mean ‘unsociable’. A little disambiguation:

  • If you’re antisocial, you mug old ladies and do rude graffiti on the neighbours’ garage and probably spit on people you don’t like.
  • When you’re unsociable, you are surly and don’t like people and likely will avoid them at all costs, particularly if they are grieving sisters-in-law. But you probably don’t spit on them or mug them, or inform them with spray paint that Chezza Woz Ere ’99. You’re much more likely to write a letter.

Fellow writers (and readers!)! You Want To Read This Book. And oh my, I almost forgot the Violectra! And that, Rivenheart and Chuuurls, should be enough reason to convince you to acquire this immediately. MUSIC AND VIOLINS. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an electric violin. And I wasn’t quite sure if the Violectra was real until I consulted the oracle Google image search. See? GEEKFOOD.

Alex Bell: ‘Jasmyn is…part fairytale, part thriller, part romantic suspense and part supernatural mystery’. This is clearly Fiction’s version of a platter of red velvet cake, samosas**, brownies and horseradish pasties*** ALL TOGETHER.

You will like Jasmyn if:
…you like Diana Wynne Jones, Susanna Clarke, (maybe) Jasper Fforde.

~

Coming up: Alex Bell being pretty awesome (also pretty and awesome, but we’ll talk about that later), was awesome enough to share with us a few things she learned from her mother, although some of it is hilariously haram.

~

* Allow me to mitigate that by saying most of my most-read, most-loved books have boring and even unappealing covers, but I hardly notice that because I LOVE THEM FOR WHAT’S INSIDE.

** I do apologise for the recurring samosa-theme. It isn’t deliberate. Really.

*** I’m not exactly sure whether that is or isn’t a culinary impossibility, but it does certainly seem like a supernatural mystery involving edible matter.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Maryam permalink
    March 21, 2010 2:24 am

    well so are you sending this to me or are you just *further teasing me* with this like you did on fb?? now i reeeeeeeeealllly want to read it! okay, okay, so we have libraries here. i will harass them next.

    i’m excited to read it BUT i will be shamed if alex bell submits her what i learned from mama post before i do. sigh.

  2. Maryam permalink
    March 21, 2010 2:25 am

    they don’t have it!!! gah!

  3. Maryam permalink
    March 21, 2010 1:54 pm

    welllllll……

    way to set me up for being totally spiritually ashamed if i pick the alex bell book instead of the hadiths! blaaaah!

    nice summary of our relationship, by the way. that’s about it in a nutshell, excluding the very long deep emails and the very long deep pauses between them while we think about what to say and when to find time to say it and i’m just fine with that and i’m writing this sentence purposefully bad so that you get goosebumps because this is your punishment for making me choose between good fiction and prophetary wisdom.

  4. March 21, 2010 10:03 pm

    Ah yes, the very long pauses while we think and you know what I can totally deal with not ever using punctuation and this isn’t punishment at all but a kind of pleasant feeling of warm toastiness and I’m trying to match the length of my sentence to yours but I don’t think I’m doing too well but nevertheless I live in hope and I leave the choice to you 😀

    PS – re: spiritual shame – you understand my dilemma, then!!!

    Or I can send you both. Although you will need to wait longer (i.e. until I get paid!)…

    Then we salve both our consciences?

  5. Maryam permalink
    March 26, 2010 4:50 pm

    oh, well, don’t send me both. that’s really generous, but expensive! i’ll happily accept the alex bell book and look locally for a hadith book for the kids (and me). ahhh, as if i weren’t in the throes of l.m. montgomery’s the blue castle (so awesome) and on the second-to-last laura ingalls wilder books. no, i have not woken at midnight and stayed up three hours reading the long winter or little town on the prairie. pffff. who would do that?

  6. March 26, 2010 11:08 pm

    I’ve never read the Blue Castle! Should I? I wasn’t sure I would like her other books as much, since Kilmeny of the Orchard was kind of predictable/boring. I used to love watching Little House on the Prairie when it was on TV (I say ‘used to’, but, er, it is entirely possible I still watch it on the sly and love it even more >_>), but I never read any of the books.

    I’m trying to acquire L M Montgomery’s journals – I’m intrigued by the snippets of her life I’ve read about: that she had an unhappy marriage, was fighting mental illness, and that her last two years were utter darkness. /shiver

    I don’t exactly want to read it, but I feel like…I have to know. I had a horrible episode of the world going wobbly when I read she committed suicide. Ididn’t want to know, but some perverse fascination/curiosity made me unable to stop reading – completely aghast and really really wanting it not to be true. It was slightly less awful to find there isn’t any consensus on it, but even the possibility of it did its damage. Sigh.

    I have never sat up until 4 am reading. Of course not. What a ridiculous idea. People who do that need more hobbies. Or friends. Or daylight.

    • Maryam permalink
      March 27, 2010 1:21 am

      why did you just tell me that she committed suicide??? spreading the misery, saya. hrmph.

      i didn’t read kilemny, but i found the story girls SO BORING, and also got tired of the fat kid being pointed out for being fat as if that was part of his (or was it a her?) personality. that got old.

      read the blue castle if you want a super romance! with marriage! it was great, still is, and i may never give it away. ever.

      i say that now. i really like books where people rise up out of their external oppression or internal insecurity and find their own way.

      oh, the little house books have forever ruined me from the show. i don’t have tv anyway, but i could get the dvds from the library. i end up borrowing the books on cd with this really husky voiced woman doing all the different voices. man, those readers are something cool, like, um, voice actors? talented, anway. the books are great, but there’s some bits of racism in there that are not so pretty. ma, turns out, hates indians. what fer? no reason. pa respects them more. laura *wants* a papoose. hm… next page… in another book some townspeople dress up as “darkies” for entertainment and that’s pretty reviling.

      it’s really interesting to see how people grew up, the rules and restricitons of the time, and how this country of ours (ha, i mean, MINE) developed and changed. it’s also really neat to see how laura felt as a child and young adult. she was full of rebellion and feelings that were not acceptable and had this wildness in her that was so much like her pa. reading the books is reading the slow repression of those parts of her. when i got to one of them, maybe the fourth, i realized it was beginning: taming laura. i was sad. the series fascinates me. i love pioneer stories so much! and man alive, pa had issues. he did not want to settle down! if ma hadn’t made him swear they wouldn’t move again, they would have just kept going forever, homesteading and then picking up and moving on the next year. as a homebody, this seems insane to me. isn’t it easier to break ground and build a house and dig a well and put up a stable ONLY ONCE AND THEN STAY? no, pa wanted to see the west. he didn’t want to stop moving. and he understood laura in this way where, well, i wonder if it’s literary fiction or if laura really truly felt that close to him. i want to meet her. (and can you tell i have a teensy crush on pa? i just realized it myself.)

  7. March 27, 2010 1:42 am

    Oh Maryam, I love reading these! I’m totally cracking up at your closing 😄 😄

    I’m going to keep it short mainly because I need to SLEEP (XD)…

    She didn’t commit suicide. I’ve decided. Do you really think that someone who wrote the books she did, who had such a….a thirst for living, and life, and beauty, could ever be led down the road of suicide? Don’t answer that, by the way.

    They don’t know. She had a hard life, but I think people would like to think she killed herself, it would make more sense to them. It makes more sense to me to think…things happen as they are meant to, and everything about her character that you can understand from her books tell you she was a woman of mettle – she believed in life. Although, of course, there’s so much you could never guess about a person x situation circumstance, I think it’s open enough that you can choose what to believe about that, and I choose not to doubt her.

    Have you ever read ‘Daughter of the Land’, by Gene Stratton Porter? It’s really just…brilliant book. I am rubbish at summarising books, but it was one of those that shored me up during some really tough times. All triumph-of-the-human-spirit but REALLY.

    Oh God, sleep. ❤

    • Maryam permalink
      March 27, 2010 3:15 am

      you are far from rubbish at summarizing books! you are quite good at it actually! sleep helps all things, though. except trying to sew secret projects when kids keep on waking up. grump.

  8. Maryam permalink
    March 27, 2010 5:10 am

    teehee… found a picture of pa and ma: http://www.thealmightyguru.com/Reviews/LittleHouse/Images/CharlesAndCarolineIngalls.jpg

    • March 27, 2010 10:57 pm

      No I really am rubbish at SUMMARISING. I can re-tell but to re-CAP, BRIEFLY? Fail!

      To me, Ma and Pa were always these guys: Ma and Pa

      • Maryam permalink
        April 20, 2010 2:47 pm

        OMG i just saw that picture. i’m sticking my tongue out at them! they’re fine for being TOTAL FAKES lol…

        i came back to this post because i’m 4 pages into jasmyn and WHY DID YOU SEND ME THIS BOOOOOOOOOOOOK?????? NOW I WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING ELSE INCLUDING MOTHERING. pooh.

        the book has been put back on the shelf. i will pretend it does not exist.

  9. April 20, 2010 10:43 pm

    Noooooo they’re real to me!!! Pa used to be one of my kind-of heroes! I totally made that up just now, but I suspect it is retroactively true since I didn’t have any concept of having heroes back when I was a smaller person. Anyway.

    I can’t figure out if that means it is an awful book, or you desperately want to read it? BE CLEARER YOU MAD MOTHER-WOMAN!

    Jasmyn submits to not existing. That spelling of the name is – completely irrelevantly – pleasing and appealing.

    When she exists again, you have to tell me what you think before I die of suspense.

    You know if you say ‘suspense’ a certain way, it sounds like ‘sus-pants’.

    I apologise.

  10. April 27, 2010 1:57 pm

    saya, your suspants is over.

    best. book. i. ever. read.

    and i was up until 2:30 in the morning finishing it like an addict! i’m still on the high of it, but i know that’ll wear off and i’ll be dead on my feet. but that’s okay, because it was AMAZINGLY AWESOME AND NOW I’M GOING TO GO BACK AND READ THE SECOND HALF AGAIN OR MAYBE ALL OF IT!

    and who are you? brer rabbit? that was likely the most romantic book i have ever read. jane austen has nothing on alex bell. you tricked me and you lied through your teeth… or maybe you meant it was a “clean” book. anyway, i find it immensely interesting how different people perceive things — like whether or not that’s a romantic book. (or maybe i totally imagined you assuring me this would pass through the relationshipious-fiction ban?)

    i couldn’t at all figure out this book as i was reading, but I TRIED SOOOOO HARD! i really did, before finally succumbing to the fact that bell understood the mystery and i could just let her tell it! i enjoyed it after that, not knowing, but so eager to find out. it was SO satisfying! truly awesome. i was really surprised, unlike your description, but because the reason for everything made so much sense, i can see how you thought you should have known. i’m so glad i couldn’t see it coming though. much more enjoyable though. and i really like her wrap up so much, and how real it was — the feelings being extended and complicated and not all the-movie-is-ending-and-we-gotta-make-things-right-real-quick.

    i support her use of antisocial instead of unsociable. come on now! you can’t say everything accurately in a first person narrative. someone might think your character is uptight… or that you have read too much jane austen. (oh my blasphemy! i’m laughing now, btw. no one should be offended. unless you want to.)

    in the beginning i didn’t like it. i thought that nothing would change between any of the characters for the entire book. i was really full of assumptions, yeah. i decided i didn’t like it, them (other than Jazmyn), or the story. i decided i wasn’t going to keep it. i had already given it away in my mind, and then i just… loved it.

    thank you so much for this book! it has gained Keep in the House status and will live here now! truly a high honor. 🙂

    • May 2, 2010 2:43 pm

      You can’t just support her use of antisocial! It’s not what it means. I had this conversation with my brother yesterday – he used a word that didn’t mean what he meant, and then he took the Jack Worthing line of ‘I can deny it if I like! I can deny anything if I like!’ and I was like NO YOU CAN’T. Just because it SOUNDS like the right word doesn’t mean you can USE it – it already HAS a meaning that isn’t that!

      Anyway. Semantic rants aside (XD), maybe I am Brer Rabbit 😦 I’m sorry! I honestly didn’t consider it romantic up until the very end after you find everything out! And even then it wasn’t so much romantic-as-an-ambience as it was involving an amount of married-persons-romance. It seemed to me to be more about grief and grieving, and loss and pain. And all that magic supernatural stuff.

      It was knowing that you might not keep the book that made me want to send you one you would definitely keep! I was going to suggest that if you didn’t want it, you pass it on to one of our fellow writers! So I’m chuffed and relieved that it gets to stay AND it is well-loved 😀

      Wasn’t it just lovely? I loved that the end was complicated, too – no fairytale endings here. I want more Jasmyn-like books. You would have loved Maggie Stiefvater pre-ban. Noor and I are going to Maggie-fangirl soon.

  11. April 27, 2010 6:57 pm

    wow, i spelled the title of the book and the name of the heroine WRONG.

    so good.

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