Sunday, March 21, 2010

Jasmyn, Alex Bell, Swans and CASTLES

I’ve been sitting on this for a while, so while my fellow writers go about rearranging their laurels for the purpose of sitting, please enjoy the following!


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?) XD 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.’

And then 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. And 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 knew it on a subconscious level (or should have known), so although it didn’t surprise me even though I didn’t work it out, 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. And 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 MEN 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 Marktplatz 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. So come back and check it out!


* 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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