Book review: How to Make a Golem and Terrify People by Alette J. Willis

Book blurb from publisher’s website:[1. Review copy provided by Floris Books via NetGalley.]

“You think you’re a fairy godmother or something?” I asked.
“Or something,” Michael agreed.

Edda is tired of her nickname, ‘Mouse’, and wants to be braver. But when her house is burgled on her twelfth 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?

Winner of the Kelpies Prize 2011.

Okay, I have a confession to make. I buy children’s books (middle grade and young adult) and use the excuse that I’m buying them for my kids. Seriously, my daughters are two and three and a half–they’re not exactly going to be cuddling with the Percy Jackson series anytime soon. But you bet your soggy winter boots in Alberta that I bought the entire set. I read them all, too. (Yes, I also have all seven Harry Potter books. Yes, I read them all. Yes, I’ve seen the movies. Well, except for the last one, the Blu-Ray of which is sitting on my desk somewhere.)

But in my defense, I’m just pre-screening these books for my kids. You know, for when they’re old enough to sit still for longer than thirty seconds and can actually read (not just recognize the alphabet and their names). Assuming they like fantasy. Because, um, yeah, that’s all I buy. (Ahem.)

When I was going through NetGalley the other day, the title “How to Make a Golem and Terrify People” jumped out and started waving its arms at me. Do you really think I can ignore a jumping golem? No, I cannot. So I requested the book.

And I loved it. I would’ve read it aloud to my kids if the giant, wailing mud-monster wouldn’t have scared the sleep out them. (Literally.) Unfortunately for me, the book is published in the UK and the print version is hard to find here (I read an e-ARC). Otherwise I would’ve bought a copy and saved it for the kidlets. (The only time I buy print versions of novels now is when they’re for my kids. If they’re for me, I get the e-book version.)

So, a quick overview:

Edda Macdonald’s thirteenth birthday starts off great but ends horribly (I know the blurb says it’s her twelfth birthday, but it’s the thirteenth in the book). When she and her parents get home from her birthday dinner, they find their house burgled. Well, actually, Edda figures it out first, when she notices her presents and the stereo have gone missing. Her mom is in the kitchen getting her birthday cake ready (chocolate mousse, yum), and her dad is…doing something.

And her presents haven’t completely gone missing–the burglars unwrapped them first. Yeah, I know, hey? Unwrapping someone else’s birthday presents! The sacrilege! (Of course, they also stole things that didn’t belong to them, so I’m pretty sure they’re not all that concerned about those pesky things called morals and ethics.)

The robbery has taken away her and her family’s sense of safety and security. Which makes sense, since a group of asshats invaded their home and stole their stuff. (My parents’ house was broken into a few years ago, and they felt the same thing. Though they didn’t make a golem.) To make matters worse, she’s being picked on by Euan, who was the other new kid when she started school at Hillside High.

(Tangent: I went to a Hillside School. Though sadly it was not in Edinburgh.)

Ahem. Anyway. Euan apparently decided that the best–and fastest–way to make friends at his new school was to bully someone. That someone was Edda. Because she was also new, she’s really small, and her nickname is Mouse. (No, really.) So he christened her Eddie the Wee Mousie, and in my head I hear him say that with a Groundskeeper Willie accent. (I’m sorry, I can’t help it. For the record, I love Scotland. Edinburgh is a great city, and I would go back there in a heartbeat.)

Determined to overcome her timid nature–not to mention her fears–Edda agrees to build a golem with the strange new kid, Michael Scot. (As he describes himself, like THE Michael Scot. But he might actually be Michael Scot.)

Michael lives in the tower in the middle of the Corstorphine Hill nature reserve. Which is a weird place to live, but I guess it could be normal for reincarnated medieval alchemists. (He also talks to a dead frog named Benedict, who sits in a pickled dead frog jar.)

Michael somehow engineers a class trip to the Royal Botanical Garden and makes Edda sneak around gathering ingredients for the golem’s heart. Once those are all collected, they go to the tower’s secret basement room that’s filled with alchemy and magic supplies, and Michael has Edda sculpt the heart. Edda has to be the one to physically create the golem, because it’s HER golem and she’s its master. (Which does actually make sense.)

So yay, the heart is made. The next night, Michael and Edda go to the park and sculpt the golem’s body out of mud. Edda puts in the heart, but… There’s not enough fear in it yet! (Yeah. I  know.) So off she goes to the zoo, where she records a lion roaring. (It’s a vibration, which I guess is all they need.) She brings it back, then puts headphones on the golem (teehee) and hits play.

Once the golem has been brought to life, dead animals start showing up around Edda’s house. The golem is supposed to protect Edda’s house (and her), but she’s a little freaked out by the dead birds and hedgehogs that keep showing up. (Understandable. I’d be freaked out too, if dead things started appearing in my backyard.)

She decides to try and stop it. (The golem, not the dead things.) Mostly because she feels guilty, and because she’s horrified to realize that she stuck a thread of Euan’s sweater in it and what if it decides to try and eat him or something? After all, it’s killing poor little woodland creatures for stepping into her backyard! What’s it going to do to a guy who makes torturing her his daily homework assignment?

So she goes to her best friend Lucy–and, interestingly, Euan himself–and recruits them to help her stop the golem. After they finally believe the golem exists (that took some doing), they work together to stop it. Then they make it a nice, bunny-loving golem who poses no threat. Not even to woodland creatures.

And then…well, I’m not giving away the actual ending. You’ll have to read the book for that.

This book was fantastic. I read it in a couple of hours, and I haven’t read a book straight through in a while. It’s well-written, and uses the awesome British humor I love so much. It’s also got the sarcasm you’d expect to find in a thirteen year old girl (the story is told in first person). The dialogue between the characters is great. To wit:

“I know I shouldn’t be telling you this, but you’ve done too well to give up now. We need ingredients to make a golem.”

“Gollum?” I said. “As in, ‘My Preciousssss’?” I hissed, rubbing a pretend ring on my finger.

Kindle location 814, Kindle e-ARC version

Okay, so maybe I’m still thirteen, because that cracked me up. Here’s another example:

“To bring earth to life, all the other elements must be in balance,” he said.

I thought about all the elements on the periodic table and wondered if Michael had them stashed away on his shelves.

“But there’s over a hundred and I have to be home before my mum finishes work,” I said.

Kindle location 898, Kindle e-ARC version

Yeah, I would’ve said the same thing. (Clearly, I am still a thirteen year old girl.)

Ultimately, the book covers some serious themes, and they’re important to talk about with your kids. Edda is bullied by another student, so there’s the (very relevant) issue of bullying. The book also addresses the idea of facing and overcoming your fears, as Edda does. Sure, not everyone has a golem tromping through the woods, but everyone at some point or another has to find a way to overcome a fear of some sort.

Is the bullying shown realistically? I think so, to a certain extent. Edda is picked on, yes, but it doesn’t really go outside the school grounds (not really). She’s not cyberbullied, and she’s not being sent threatening texts. Comparing Edda’s experience with my own in elementary school, I’d say that our experiences with bullies was about the same. Is it like this now? I don’t know, but it does seem to be pretty mild compared to what’s out there. Of course, I’m not saying that “mild” bullying doesn’t happen, because it does, and I know that. What I am saying is that in many ways bullying has escalated in the last decade, especially with the new technology kids have now.

Edda does overcome her fears, and I like that the book shows a teenage girl being able to face her fears–and her tormentor–head on. She actually even befriends Euan, which is not something you’d see every day. She also overcomes her insecurity and regains her sense of safety, which are all important parts of the book.

The book also touches on the idea of revenge, and if it makes you feel better. Edda put the sweater thread inside the golem as a way to try to get back at Euan for tormenting her–in the end, it just made her feel guilty. I also like that the author included this theme. I know that the idea of getting back at people is tempting, and I myself have spent many a daydream finding creative and painful ways with which to torture that guy in high school who made fun of me all.the.time (he even nicknamed me Beast; was he trying to imply that he was Belle?).

Instead, I owned the name, and made a bracelet that had “Beast” written on it with letter beads. I have to say, that guy was baffled (not too bright, that one). So I get where Edda was coming from with the revenge thing. Actually, I get where Edda was coming from through the whole book, which could be why I enjoyed it so much. I was Edda. (Well, the Asian version. And in Canada.)

All in all, I loved–loved!–this book. This is one I’d have no problems buying for my daughters. I highly recommend it.

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