What Comes With The Dust, Gharbi M. Mustafa, 2016

Today is Nazo Heydo’s wedding day, and today she will set herself on fire. Gharbi M. Mustafa

Spoilers

The “Book set in the Middle East” challenge seemed simple. I picked up a seemingly simple book. What Comes with the Dust sports an ambiguous title, lives in the young adult section of the library, and at 189 pages didn’t seem like a difficult commitment. And yet.

Mustafa begins his tale with the origin story of Ta’us Malik, the Peacock God, a central figure to the Yazidi people. Ta’us Malik’s creation story shares similarities to Lucifer’s, leading some to accuse the Yazidi people of worshiping Satan and persecuting them for their beliefs. Ta’us Malik’s story differs in important ways. Prior to Adam’s creation, God forbids Ta’us Malik from bowing to any other being, since he was made from God’s illumination. Later, when He creates Adam from the dust, he orders all the angels to bow before him. Ta’us Malik refuses, reminding God of His order. God rewards Ta’us Malik by making him the leader of the arch angels. The Yazidi’s celebrate Ta’us Malik for his obeyance of God.

The book follows two young Yazidi characters from Iraqi Kurdistan as they navigate the new landscape of their country after ISIS gains control.

Nazo, a beautiful teenage girl, plans to elope with her beloved, Azad. Nazo’s parents arranged for her to marry her own first cousin, Chato. Nazo, afflicted with hip dysplasia she believes resulted from her own parents being first cousins, fears her children will suffer a worse fate if she marries Chato. Nazo and Azad know they must flee the village if they plan to have a life together.

The second character, Omed is a bitter and lonely young man who’s lost his family to violence and deals with the pain by cutting. He loves Nazo from afar, knowing that he will never win her away from Azad.

Their lives change quickly and permanently. On the night Nazo and Azad plan to leave, ISIS soldiers occupy their small remote village.  They take the girls and women to sell into slavery. Omed and the other men are forced to convert to Islam or die.

Nazo and her deaf and mute sister Sarah cling together. Sarah’s safety motivates Nazo as she tries to keep them safe and together and untouched. Through the course of the book Nazo and the other girls and women endure beatings, rapes and violence. Nazo and Sarah are separated when Nazo sends Sarah away with an ally. Nazo’s life becomes a series of escapes, near misses and recaptures.

Omed suffers humiliations and violence until he meets up with a group of resistance fighters. As he trains to be a soldier, he becomes a new man. Ironically, training to take his country back helps ease his anger and hatred. He even finds love with a woman named Soz, his commander. His love for her and his newfound love for himself instills a surprising sense of mercy in him.

Both Nazo and Omed struggle to survive, yet they find joy in the most hostile environments.

It’s difficult to read a translated work without feeling like some of the nuance and beauty of the original language has been lost. There are times when the writing feels blunted. In some cases, it’s a blessing as when Nazo endures her violations. Perhaps because the book is considered Young Adult fiction, Mustafa doesn’t go into gory details, which is fine. Yet, there are times when the characters’ emotions aren’t given the depth they deserve.

I don’t know if there’s a name for the phenomenon of finding pleasure in something that leaves you uncomfortable. What Comes With The Dust can be painful. The ending is heartbreaking. But it also feels necessary to hear this story and know that it’s taken from the accounts of real women who have suffered at the hands of the Taliban. Mustafa’s work gives voice to the many silenced and ignored victims. It seems like the least I can do is let those voices be heard.

All The Rage, Courtney Summers, 2016

It feels like too much and not enough at the same time. Courtney Summers

Spoilers

I took a break from the Book Challenge for this one, so it doesn’t fit into a category.

This book reads like a poem. It’s lyrical, ethereal and metaphorical.

High school senior Romy Grey is the girl from the wrong side of the track in the small unforgiving town of Grebe. Just as she gains social currency via her new friendship with the popular Penny, she loses it in one night. Drunk and in love, Romy ends up alone with the predatory Kellan who takes advantage. Kellan is the sheriff’s son, untouchable, and when Romy tells the police what happened the town turns against her.

Now a reviled pariah and target of bullying, Romy tries to keep her head down and get through the rest of her high school life. She finds refuge in her waitressing job, just out of town, where her coworkers don’t know about her past. She harbors a crush on Leon, the cook at the diner who returns the feelings.

Her delicate balance crashes when Penny disappears after a senior party held at a nearby lake. The problem is that Romy went missing that night as well, so the police had to divide their resources looking for both girls. When Romy returns, found passed out on the side of the road, but Penny does not, the town’s resentment is palpable.

Despite the beautiful prose, the book becomes infuriating as Romy makes poor choices that range between puzzling to detestable.

One of those choices involves leaving her job mid-shift to attend the senior party—an event she wasn’t interested in attending and one where she knows she won’t be welcome.

Days after Penny’s disappearance, she joins the search party, knowing people blame her for what happened that night. Worse, when Leon surprises her at the search party she’s insufferably rude to him. The reader knows her rudeness stems from her fear that Leon will learn about her past. But the reader also knows that Leon, a young black man surrounded by white people, thinks the rudeness stems from racism. Let’s just say, Romy could have handled it better.

The truth of what happened to her and Penny at the senior party unfolds towards the end of the novel. Discovering Penny’s fate lacks satisfaction since the motive feels weak and the outcome a little predictable. Though it ends on an optimistic note, the very end finds Romy making an unlikely alliance that doesn’t feel organic at all. This doesn’t ruin the book because ultimately, it isn’t about the events in the story. It’s about Romy and her journey, her defiance of those who would silence her, her healing on her own terms.

The book’s strength lies in Romy’s authentic characterization. Summers does an amazing job showing the aftermath of trauma and the depression and grief that follow. Romy’s treatment by the town serves as a stark testimony about why victims remain silent.  Romy wants desperately to come out of her pain intact and because of Summers’ deft skill, so does the reader.

The Girl From the Other Side, Nagabe, 2016

In time the God of Darkness came to be called the Outsider. In turn, the God of Light became the Insider. Nagabe

A few weeks ago, I headed to Barnes and Noble to pick up some Danganronpa mangas for my daughters. Among the bright colorful titles, a dark cover stood out, like a black hole sucking up all the light. I looked closer. One of the characters could have been a long-lost Edward Gorey creation. Where the cover caught my eye, the title The Girl from the Other Side sparked my curiosity. I picked it up at least three times before finally putting it down. I couldn’t really justify spending $12.99 on a manga I may or may not like and one I could finish in roughly half an hour. When I went to check out, the gracious store associate alerted me to their manga sale (buy 2 get 1 free) and I all but skipped back to the aisle to get it. 

I’m taking liberties with the First In a Trilogy Challenge. The Girl from the Other Side boasts eight volumes so far and if Amazon.com is to be believed, volume 9 will be out in October.

Like any first part of an ongoing series, volume one’s job is to establish the world and introduce us to the characters. It’s heavy with exposition but because one of the main characters, Shiva, is a child it doesn’t seem so forced.  When the second main character, a creature Shiva calls Teacher, explains things to her it feels more organic than two adults explaining things to each other.

Two groups inhabit Nagabe’s world: Insiders and Outsiders. Cursed Outsiders, like Teacher, can’t physically touch Insiders, like Shiva, lest they pass the curse on to them.  It’s revealed that a mysterious person left Shiva Teacher’s doorstep because Insiders accuse the child of being cursed, though she shows no signs. For reasons unknown, Teacher allows Shiva to believe her aunt will arrive to take her back to the Inside, though he knows that isn’t true.

Shiva is a typical child: curious, patient, a little petulant. Like most kids, she believes she knows how the world should work and doesn’t understand why it doesn’t work that way. Teacher, a tall biped with a bird like face and kudo antlers, is patient and protective. He cares for Shiva but keeps a practical physical and emotional distance from her. He takes his task seriously and walks a fine line between keeping her ignorant of the dire situation while offering information as needed.

The dark brooding art style perfectly reflects Teacher and Shiva’s sylvan environment. It isn’t the typical anime style character and it’s dark black and white cover is what stood out from the louder mangas on the shelves. I don’t believe it will end happily, but I will continue the series. Like Teacher, I will keep an emotional distance from these characters as we all travel to its conclusion.

Malala: My Story of Standing Up for Girls’ Rights, Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick

One person had tried to silence me. And millions spoke out. Malala Yousafzai

When I scanned the criteria for this book challenge (now going on two years ago), I almost instantly knew Malala Yousafzai would be the author I chose for the Author Under 30 challenge. I didn’t think it would be the abridged version of her work I am Malala, but I wanted my kids to read it so I figured I’d work it into the challenge.

Malala’s outspoken advocacy for girls’ education began well before the attack that brought her worldwide fame. Her father ran a girls’ school which she attended. As the Taliban took over Pakistan, they quickly chipped away at the already meager rights women and girls had. Under an alias, Malala began writing for the BBC about life ruled by the Taliban regime. Her father inadvertently shared her identity making Malala a target.

In October of 2012 a Taliban fighter stopped the truck Malala and other students rode in and shot her and two other girls. The act mortified the world and opened its eyes to the true nature of the Taliban. After her recovery, Malala went on to be an outspoken advocate of equal rights and continues that work.

Because the book is for kids, I would guess between the ages of nine and thirteen, it keeps a positive tone. While she does talk about the injury and the recovery, the details are glossed over and downplayed. Her message, that girls deserve to have an education, remains clear and unwavering.

At one point, a British doctor who happened to be in Pakistan when Malala was shot, speaks out about the serendipity of his presence. He states, “It is my belief God sends the solution first and the problem later.” This seems to be true of Malala and her mission as well. The fates worked to gather all the necessary components to create an effective and inspiring leader—bravery, tenacity and empathy mixed with dire circumstances.

Alex, The Life of a Child, Frank Deford, 1983

She was dear and noble, and nothing ever controlled her.

Frank Deford

I expected one of the most difficult categories of the 52 week book challenge to be “The book that makes you cry” and I was right. I read a few books that I thought might have an impact, but while I could appreciate the moroseness of the situations, no tears came.

Deep down, I knew the book I had to choose for this challenge. The one book I could count on to reduce me to ugly crying tears. Even after thirty years, even after multiple readings.

I first came upon the story of Alex Deford at my grandparents’ house. Reader’s Digest ran an abridged excerpt in one of its issues and shortly after a tv movie came out. After sobbing hysterically during the film, I made my mother drive me to Waldenbooks the next day so I could get a full copy of the book. At twelve years old, the story of Alex’s struggle touched me in a way I still can’t explain. Though not a bestseller, many of us who read this book have a devoted, near obsessive love for it and Alex herself.

In October 1971, Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford lived an idyllic life in Connecticut. Married to a former model and father to a healthy son, the birth of daughter Alex completed the American dream. Briefly. Just four months later, Alex was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes the sufferer to produce too much mucus in the lungs as well as other ailments. The disease is progressive and fatal. Even today, the life expectancy is 37.5 years (Cystic Fibrosis News Today). Back in the seventies, the age was eighteen. Alex only made it to eight.

Yet, even as her health deteriorated, Alex’s vivacious nature kept her and her family going. Up until the last week of her life she had no intention of going gently into that good night and held out hope that there would be a cure.

Deford wrote the book shortly after Alex’s death as a way for his adopted daughter to get to know her older sister. He chronicles Alex’s life by interviewing those who knew and loved her, revisiting entries from the diary he kept and sharing memories and philosophical reflections. But the book is more than just a biography of Alex. It’s a look into the lives of families affected by terminal illness, something those of us blessed with health don’t have to think about and probably can’t really comprehend. While Alex’s presence no doubt made their lives better, it’s fair to say her disease made their lives more challenging. Simply put, it’s an account of the toll a terminal disease can take on a family.

Because the reader knows how Alex’s story ends, her eventual death looms in the distance, adding weight to all the action that comes before it. Part of what makes the book so devastating is knowing that Alex’s suffering (and there’s a lot of it) will ultimately yield nothing. Deford mentions this himself in a refreshing display of deserved bitterness and righteous anger. He doesn’t shy away from “negative” emotions or hide the truth behind saccharine sentiments like “There’s a reason for everything” or “God must have needed another angel” drivel. He knows his daughter got a dark cloud and he doesn’t pretend there’s a silver lining. While I don’t begrudge people taking a more optimistic approach to grief, sometimes it feels like it belittles the person’s life and suffering when we act like there’s an upside to their death.  

Forty years after her death Alex still impacts those of us who read this book. Her story is inspiring and long-lasting. Cystic fibrosis robbed Alex of years, but it didn’t diminish her spirit.

The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking, 2017

But how do you create hygge? How are hygge and happiness linked? And what is hygge exactly? Meik Wiking

It was difficult finding a book by a Scandinavian author that wasn’t a murder mystery. Anytime I typed “Scandinavian author” into Google it led me to lists of crime novels as if those phrases were synonymous. I happened to stumble upon The Little Book of Hygge in my mother’s pile of library books. Books like this are hard to review.  It’s non-fiction, so there aren’t any characters or story to analyze. Though the book is filled with interesting information, anything I have to say about it is basically going to come out as a summary. So, I’ll keep it short.

According to author Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Danes are some of the happiest people on earth. Which is akin to your brain telling you that your brain is the best brain in the world. Not to say it isn’t true, but it’s what I’d expect to hear from that particular source. Wiking attributes this happiness to hygge (pronounced Hoo-ga).   

Hygge is a Danish concept that’s difficult to translate as the English language doesn’t have an equivalent word. Wiking describes it as “well-being”, “coziness of the soul” and “the art of creating intimacy”.  It’s the feeling you have inside your warm home as it storms outside. Adding suffixes changes it from noun to verb to adjective and possibly other parts of Danish language that I don’t understand as a non-Danish speaker.

Danes strive to create the feeling of hygge in all aspects of their lives: home, work, even vacations.

            Wiking fills this minimalist book with inspirational ideas to bring more hygge into your life. He explains the importance of items like candles, blankets and books. Hygge attire consists of scarves (not necessarily for winter), casual hair and sweaters. He includes recipes for Danish comfort food and drinks (alcohol seems to be as important as lighting). The seemingly opposite pursuits, TV night and outdoor movie viewing, are both hygge activities. You get the idea.

            For a concept that’s simple—it’s a feeling, how simpler can you get?—it seems like many things have to be just right to achieve perfect hygge. Lighting, temperature, food, company: if something’s off the mood is shot. It isn’t subjective, either. Things are either hygge or not hygge. Like feng shui, konmari, minimalism and other lifestyle philosophies, hygge seems to have rules to achieve maximum level hygge. An entire chapter of the book is devoted to lighting, a design element that can make or break the mood.

            The concept is very much a part of Danish culture and as such, it’s probably easier to practice there since it’s so important to their identity. Though achieving hygge takes work, one can’t argue with the rewards.

Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher, 2007

Spoiler Alert

Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo. Jay Asher

For the Y on the cover challenge, I chose the YA bestseller Thirteen Reasons Why. Three Y’s grace the cover as well as the actual word “why”. I figured my bases were covered.

High schooler Clay Jensen receives 7 cassette tapes in an unmarked package with simple instructions: Listen to all the tapes, send them on to the next person. To his shock, he realizes he’s listening to the audio suicide note of Hannah Baker, his classmate (and unrequited love) who died two weeks earlier. Each side (one side is blank) is dedicated to a person Hannah feels contributed to her choice to commit suicide. Clay can’t understand how he made the list and must sit through several tapes waiting to learn about his transgression. Though tempted to stop, Hannah has a foolproof plan to ensure that everyone listens, at least to their part. If anyone fails to pass them on, a duplicate set of cassettes will be made public, an act that could be devastating to some of them.  Clay spends an anxiety-filled night listening to Hannah’s scathing accounts of cruelty, feeling more and more guilt for not being able to help someone in need.

Author Jay Asher uses dual narration to tell the story. As Hannah’s tape plays, Clay reacts. This becomes annoying since Clay’s interjections don’t move the story along. They’re mostly generic exclamations of shock or defensiveness that break up Hannah’s monologue but also dampen the impact of her words. Luckily, Hannah’s dialogue is in italics, Clay’s in regular so its easy to skip over Clay’s.

Though Thirteen Reasons Why deals with some serious subjects, especially for the young adult genre, they aren’t handled with gravity they should be. The book treats Hannah’s suicide as a mystery to be solved instead of a lesson in prevention.  Really, the suicide becomes little more than a plot device for shock value. She didn’t have to be dead for the mystery to unfold. She could have moved away. It could have occurred over summer break when classmates naturally lose touch. Or when they were college freshman, miles away from home. The author just needed to keep Hannah out of reach from the others so she could maintain control, rendering the others helpless.

Major spoiler alerts, like for real

Throughout the tapes, Hannah accuses everyone of ignoring her pain, even as she admits going to great lengths to hide her emotions. Clay sincerely tried to be there for Hannah, not because he wanted to get in her pants like the other guys, but because he found her interesting.  However, he’s the one she pushed away, literally. Hannah admits that Clay doesn’t belong on the list because he’s genuinely a good person, but it never occurs to her that it’s the good person who would be most guilt-ridden by the inclusion, deserved or not.

Some of Hannah’s choices towards the end of her life make it difficult for the reader to sympathize with her. She watches silently from a closet while an inebriated classmate is date raped. Later, she allows the rapist to have sex with her—keeping her disgust secret. Not in a strange attempt at penance, but because she needed him to be the final straw that causes her to lose faith in humanity. On the last day of her life, she visits her guidance counselor, more as a test than to get real help. Mr. Porter, let’s see how you do, she says before placing the recorder in her backpack to secretly tape the session. She remains closed and esoteric and when he can’t give her the answers she wants, she prepares to go. He asks her four times to stay but she leaves and then gets mad because he doesn’t follow her.

Hannah comes across as the stereotypical drama queen who snaps “Nothing” when asked “What’s wrong?” and then is furious because you don’t keep asking. After purposefully hiding her feelings and thoughts, she lays her choice at the feet of people who aren’t equipped to help her and then blames them when they fail. The tapes are a physical manifestation of the “you’ll miss me when I’m gone” fantasy we all had as children.

And, to be completely politically incorrect and insensitive to the realities of suicide, as written Hannah doesn’t seem like the suicidal type. She seems more like the terrifying woman scorned, exacting revenge and then faking her death so she can watch her victims squirm (an ending I half expected).

I believe the real message of the book was supposed to be along the lines of “You don’t know what someone is going through, so be kind” but it gets lost in Hannah’s vitriol. Ultimately, the reason Hannah killed herself seems to be for revenge, which is a terrible message for a young adult book.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl, 2013

Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect.

For the book with 600 pages challenge, I chose the mystery, Night Film, by Marisha Pessl. The book benefits from the ingenious use of images alongside text.  Pages of visual materials like fake newspaper and magazine articles, emails, documents and webpages are scattered throughout. It’s like a picture book for adults. It’s enhanced with interactive elements and Easter eggs found on a website that the reader can still access as of the writing of this review.  

Pessl establishes a world that straddles reality and fiction in a fantastic feat of world-bridging.

The author creates a mythic and brilliant director, Stanislav Cordova, whose films are revered by loyal followers and reviled by detractors. Parts Kubrick, Von Trier and Lynch, his work is potent and dangerous and causes viewers to question everything they think they know. His films are difficult to find and eschew mainstream topics. His fans, who call themselves Cordovites, hold red-band screenings, rave-like gatherings in abandoned buildings and tunnels to secretly view his movies, dubbed “night films” some of which are banned because of the disturbing imagery.  

Cordova and his family, as mysterious and reclusive as he is, remain a source of curiosity veiled in myths and urban legends even decades after his public appearance.

While the Cordova family is the subject, the book’s main character is Scott McGrath, a relentless journalist fallen from grace, having chased the shadow of Cordova to his own peril.  Years before, after receiving bad intel, he falsely accused the director on national tv of heinous acts against children. It costs McGrath his reputation, job and marriage. While clawing his way back to decent society, he has a strange encounter with Ashley, Cordova’s twenty-four-year-old daughter in Central Park. She appears like a wraith in red and quickly vanishes. A week later she’s found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft. McGrath convinces himself that Ashley’s appearance was an attempt to reach out to him.

McGrath forms a rag tag team with nineteen-year-old Nora, a quirky Florida transplant with a tragic past and Hopper, a man who shares history with Ashley, though he is reluctant to spill the details. Together, they reconstruct a timeline of Ashley’s last few weeks, interviewing anyone who may have had contact with her that can help solve the riddle of her death.

Though interesting, the book isn’t without its flaws. There’s lots of unnecessary info dumping through dialogue, which is just this side of unforgiveable given the copious amounts of supplemental materials included in the book itself and available online.

The main problem is with the enigmatic Cordova family, especially Ashley. She’s yet another ineffable creature, dreamlike, ethereal and unknowable. Her gray eyes (because she couldn’t just have blue) bore into people’s very souls leaving them changed. All the people who’ve looked at her basically give the same gist: piercing eyes, otherworldly stare, she’s haunted, she’s haunting. The reader knows nothing about Ashley because characters can’t explain her. She’s too enigmatic to comprehend or care about.

Sometimes the dialogue and descriptions can be a little cringe-inducing. Characters who shouldn’t have more than a few sentences of dialogue are given pages of backstory and dense monologues and then evaporate. As Pessl allows minor and side characters the time to unfold, they start sounding the same. They fall into a similar poetic cadence, heavy on metaphor and symbolism. The following three lines are said by three different characters, all different ages from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“She looked so familiar…Like a tune you suddenly recall from childhood and yet you can’t remember the lyrics or really anything beyond a handful of mysterious notes.”

“I’d long given up my actress dreams, dreams of fame, which I understood was nothing more than consigning oneself to a cheap carnival where one lives forever in a cage, applauded and ridiculed by equal measure.”

“To know her then not…is like serving a life sentence. You see everything at a distance, through thick glass and telephones and visiting hours.”

At 600+ pages, Night Film is a commitment, for sure, but I think most readers will know early on if this is a book they want to see through to the end.

Splintered, A.G. Howard, 2011

This is my one chance to find Wonderland, to cleanse the Liddell bloodline of this curse, and to save Alison. A.G. Howard

Disclaimer 1: I don’t like Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Disclaimer 2: I am not the intended audience of this book

Participating in this book challenge has been an overall rewarding experience. Thanks to the wide-ranging categories I’ve read books I’d never pick up had it not met certain criteria.

On the flip side, sometimes those books I never would have read are books I would have been happy without, as is the case with Splintered.

The “character with your name” challenge has been problematic. Despite the rising popularity of the name Alyssa, the literary world lags.

I settled on Splintered, mostly out of desperation (see disclaimer 1). It’s a Young Adult Fantasy (see disclaimer 2) set in the Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland universe. Splintered is an imaginative continuance of the Wonderland saga, one in which Wonderland and the book Alice in Wonderland co-exist.

The main character, Alyssa Gardner, is the teen descendent of Alice Liddell, Carroll’s inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. Lewis and the rest of world consider Alice’s adventure to be childish make-believe. But the real Wonderland is a dark twisted realm lurking below. Alice’s visit left Wonderland’s inhabitants embroiled in political struggle and upheaval and only Alyssa can restore the balance.

Above ground Alice’s descendants suffered as well, victims of an insanity curse placed upon them for Alice’s transgressions. Alyssa, the great-great-great granddaughter of Alice, tries to break the curse to save her mother, Alison, from a scheduled lobotomy.

Following clues left by her Wonderland guide, Morpheus, Alyssa realizes Wonderland is not only real, it hides the cure to her mother’s insanity. Throughout her childhood Morpheus appeared either in the form of a moth or young boy her age so despite the bizarreness of the situation, she trusts him. Alyssa takes the plunge through the looking glass and embarks on a series of quests to repair what Alice broke and save her mother.

The story is compelling, though needlessly complicated, which fantasy stories lean towards. Rules for how magic works are doled out on a need to know basis and even then there’s always some exploitable loophole rendering the rules useless.

But that’s not the biggest problem Splintered has. It’s the characters.

Alyssa is an insufferable Mary Sue, who’s simply too delicate and fragile to be able to take on the quest alone. Enter Jeb, the overbearing lummox/love interest. Simply being Jeb makes him the authority in every situation, even when he has no clue. While Alyssa is certainly no expert, she’s still ahead of him in terms of information. She’s familiar not only with the Carroll story, but her own family’s history. She’s gathered clues. And yet when Jeb takes control, she demurs. In a world of powerful magic, Jeb is convinced his brute strength is more powerful. It isn’t.

After following her, uninvited, through the looking glass, he starts barking orders under the guise of “protecting” Alyssa. His sole motivation is to get them back home (Does he know how? No. No matter, he’s Jeb!), despite Alyssa’s quest to save her mother. With the guidance of the deceitful Morpheus, Alyssa traverses the whimsical landscape with Jeb dragging his feet the whole way. And yet somehow, she falls more in love with the oaf as they go.

Morpheus, Jeb’s romantic rival, brings out the worst in Jeb. And by worst, I mean the worst name-calling.

The dialogue is eye-rolling. Some of Jeb’s insults:

            “Hands off you son of a bug!”

            “I go where Al goes, dances-with-bugs.”

            “Take her silence as no, bug for brains.”

Sadly, despite his duplicity, Morpheus believes in Alyssa from the very beginning. He encourages her and implores her to see the inner strength that exists (it really doesn’t, but we’re told it’s there). Jeb, meanwhile, sees Alyssa as brittle and unsound, incapable of taking care of herself.

The best parts of the book happen toward the end when she leaves Jeb in a ditch and continues the journey on her own. Unfortunately, her thoughts are constantly on him and he seems to be her sole motivation. There were several times throughout the book I forgot that she was there to save her mother. Her universe revolves around Jeb.

Again, this book isn’t for me. Some of the teens side-eyed me as I invaded their part of the library. This is the kind of world where teenage girls yearn to belong to a guy and that guy will be completely theirs in some weird possessive pact. A world where the love interest is dating a beautiful, rich cold-hearted rival but just can’t seem to get his mind off Mary Sue Alyssa. A world where the only victory that matters is winning the boy.

The Spy, Paulo Coelho, 2016

The cover of Paulo Coelho's novel The Spy features an actual photo of Mata Hari wearing an ornate swan head dress.

Yes, I turned gossip into “secrets” because I wanted money and power. But all those who accuse me now know I never revealed anything new. Paulo Coelho

Spoilers

Brazilian author Paolo Coelho brings Mata Hari to life in his espionage novel, The Spy. Formatted as Hari’s final letter to her attorney, Édouard Clunet, and his response, Hari’s life and death unfold in this fictional retelling of real events.

Born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands, she had an idyllic childhood until her early teens when her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced and her mother died, all within a three-year span. At 18, she married Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, a man twenty years older than her. He whisked her away to Indonesia, far from her turbulent life and money problems. An unhappy marriage and the loss of a child caused her to flee to Paris.  There, with a dash of cultural appropriation, she transformed herself into Mata Hari, a supposed Javanese princess and exotic dancer. She was the definition of overnight success and supplemented her dancing income by becoming what one could politely call a courtesan.  These connections to high society movers and shakers would be her downfall.

Her rise to fame was quick, but once World War I started, she lost her status. She received an offer of employment as a German spy which she accepted with the intention of actually working as a double agent for France. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong man to trust in the French government and he sold her out.

These facts are available almost anywhere. Wikipedia, biography.com, Britannica.com are some of the first sites that pop up when you type Mata Hari. Coelho supplements the facts, imbuing the space between bullet points with Mata Hari’s imagined feelings, motivations and intentions.

The Spy was translated from Coelho’s original native tongue, Portuguese.  As with any translation, the reader wonders what was lost between one language to the next.  How close to the author’s vision was the translator while maneuvering over idiomatic barriers.

I bring this up because Coelho’s Mata Hari doesn’t come across as likeable. I don’t know if he didn’t write her sympathetically or if some linguistic artistry got lost.  I get the feeling if she were alive today, her IG captions would be variations of “I’m so ugly, right?” or esoteric Facebook posts asking for prayers but not saying why. Her attention seeking seems insatiable and exhausting even while her bold resourcefulness is admirable.

Despite her poor choices, Mata Hari’s punishment had nothing to do with spying (she never gave the Germans information). Her fatal offense was cashing in on her own sexuality and parlaying her appeal into social currency. No matter how it gets translated, that comes across clearly.