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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Novel Review: How To Build A Golem And Terrify People


How To Build A Golem And Terrify People
Author: Alette J. Willis
Floris Books
224 books (paperback ed.)
Edda is tired of her nickname, 'Mouse', and wants to be braver. But when her house is burgled on her thirteenth birthday, Edda is more afraid than ever. That is until new boy Michael Scot starts school. There's something peculiar -- and very annoying -- about know-it-all Michael. He claims to be a great alchemist who can help Edda overcome her fears by teaching her to build a golem. But surely they can't bring a giant mud monster to life? Can they? (Source: Floris Books)
Note: I was provided a free e-copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley. No monetary compensation was involved in the development of this review.
I came into this story knowing pretty much nothing about the plot beyond the title (dang it, Goodreads, why didn't you have a summary for this?). In a way, I'm kind of glad. Despite the rather 'okay' opening, by the time after the burglary and Michael the mysterious starts to make his presence known in Edda's life I found myself irreversibly drawn into Alette Willis' story. Fans of coming-of-age novels with a supernatural bent will certainly enjoy this one. Plus, who doesn't love a good golem in their middle school lit?

In the vein of stories like Vera Brosgol's graphic novel Anya's Ghost and Yukako Kabei's light novel series Kieli, author Alette J. Willis' How To Build A Golem And Terrify People is a charmingly effective mixture of a young girl coming into her own during adolescence as well as exploring a world of magic – or in young Edda's case, alchemy. It also turns into a very entertaining lesson on history and various aspects of Jewish folklore as Edda and her new companion go through various trials in making her a golem that will protect her and make her fears go away.
I read How To Build A Golem on my Kindle and was amazed at how fast I blew through it. The ease in reading came from the writing style – the just-enough-details set at a clipped pace writing that is common in books for middle school and early young adult readers – as well as the magnetic attraction of the story itself. The more I read of Edda and Michael, the more time I wanted to spend with her. Her struggles as a young artist who is insecure in her art and feels like she can't stand up for herself really spoke to me on a basic level.
The one thing about Edda I found odd was how quickly she realized certain things, like some of the quirks of the golem and what was terrorizing her garden. This is a weird complaint, yes, but I was thinking that it would take her longer to realize some of the more pertinent details as that usually adds to the overall dramatic tension. However, in the grand scheme of things and considering it is a tightly paced novel, it's a minor detail that can be ultimately overlooked.
Michael was a wondrous foil to Edda's character. It's rather funny that his outward appearance is so Harry Potter, but his inner character is like a darker Hermione Granger – or a Horace Slughorn, considering his purpose is to make Edda a better, more realized person. Like a true magical figure, his character is shrouded in mystery until the very end but his friendship with Edda is no mystery, even if it turned out to be much more faceted than previously thought.
A surprising character turned out to be Euan, the school bully who terrorizes Edda and is pretty much the bane of her existence. He is also the prime suspect in who burglarized her home and squashed all of her things. But here is the strength of Alette J. Willis' writing; she is able to give characters deep, believable transformations just like Michael and Edda transformed a bevy of ingredients into a golem. If you hate Euan like I did at the beginning, stick around for the last third of the book and you may find yourself growing a soft spot for this bully like I did.
Speaking of golems, I loved that Willis made its creation so detailed and layered. She did not shy away from its Hebrew roots, which is a plus. More than a plot device, the golem became a character in itself. The scenes with the golem were amazingly tense and exciting; I was surprised as how much book-appropriate dread the author was able to work in.
The only downside to reading this book on the Kindle was the slightly wonky formatting. Maybe it was the file or a formatting error, but there were a lot of odd line breaks and not all the chapter heading graphics were present. If you want to read this – and you should – then you should definitely pick up the paperback instead until the publisher gets around to fixing the file.
Software follies aside, I really enjoyed reading How To Build A Golem. It was a solid, magical middle school novel with a likeable and utterly relateable main protagonist and a well-written cast of characters in a vividly set Scottish town. I look forward to reading more of Willis' writing as well as more works of fiction from Floris Books.