The Magicians

The Magicians

Cover image for The Magicians
Cover image for The Magicians

I feel torn about whether I should write this review now, immediately upon finishing Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, or wait and allow impressions to stew for a while before writing. If forced to describe this novel in one word, I’d say intense. I don’t mean in the way that a non-stop action flick is intense; rather, I mean it never allows your brain to rest in comfortable familiarity. Grossman takes the childhood idea that magical lands are greater than mundane reality, and flips it upside down.

“Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined. . . .”Indiebound.org

This book is unique in that the things that make it lovable are also the things that make the reader hate it. For example, it is obvious that the stories in the Fillory and Further series are modeled after The Chronicles of Narnia. At times, the commentary on familiar and fondly remembered childhood favorites is welcome, and at other times it leaves the reader feeling distinctly uncomfortable for numerous reasons–not the least of which is the unjust thought that, perhaps, the author could have been slightly more original. There are many parallels that get distressingly close to copying: the four children, the over-sized animal guide, the single-white-female villain. Then again, the reader recognizes that the author’s purpose is to make them doubly distressed when everything goes to, excuse me, shit. In this purpose, he succeeds to an alarming degree.

Another element of the novel that the reader loves to hate: characters. The players in this novel are young students of magic. They are beautiful, loose, free, and powerful. They’re magnetic and captivating. They can do whatever they want, with power literally crackling at their fingertips. They’re funny in a dry and deprecating way. At the same time, they are sophomoric and insufferable. They’re arrogant, bratty, and can’t seem to find any way to be grateful for the world laid out before their feet. One hates them in the way one hates Jay Gatsby–reluctantly but undeniably. Perhaps the only character in this novel who is remotely tolerable is Alice. As such, she is the character that gets dealt one terrible hand after another. Perhaps you are catching on to the type of novel this is.

That said, I really enjoyed reading it. In the beginning, it felt like a mash-up of Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Chronicles of Chrestomanci (a lesser-known series by Diana Wynne Jones that deserves a great deal more attention than it gets), with the notable difference of being distinctly for grown-ups. The author seems to revel in getting his reader to a place where they think they know what’s coming, and then hitting them with surprises completely out of left field. There is not one moment of this novel where I wasn’t completely taken off-guard. I even thought that perhaps I knew where most of this novel would take place. I was mistaken. I thought I knew what it was about. I was mistaken. I thought I knew who was good and who was bad. I was mistaken. It is refreshing to read a novel as unpredictable as this one.

At times, though, it is completely terrifying and slightly gross. Lev Grossman possesses several different types of genius, one of them being his ability to get under his reader’s skin. There are so many moments in this novel in which he, either by the events happening, the setting, or simply the tone, shows that nothing is quite right. Everything feels as if, one day, the walls of reality had all shifted one step over to the left. Everything is, for lack of a more descriptive word, off, and it is alarmingly eerie.

Another genius in his possession, delightful to an English nerd like me, is his vocabulary. Many words were familiar to me, but it’s rare that I have to write down and look up so many words in one novel–words like “gonfalons” (a banner or pennant, especially one with streamers, hung from a crossbar) and “palimpsest” (a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain). Elevated language and lofty vocabularies are a rare delight in the type of reading that I do, so to learn some new words was a fun challenge.

This novel deserves a confidently given 5/5. Even in its darkest and most distressing moments, it’s impossible not to enjoy it. I highly recommend for fans of Neil Gaiman, C. Robert Cargill, or Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

 

A Madness So Discreet

A Madness So Discreet

Cover image for A Madness So Discreet
Cover image for A Madness So Discreet

Where has this book been?! The title seems familiar to me, but I cannot remember if it received any hype, or if I just remember seeing it hit the shelves and fizzle. It deserves more hype than it got, in my opinion, but these days it seems only paranormal romance and fantasy books get any hype at all. In any case, I tore through this one–couldn’t put it down.

“Grace Mae is already familiar with madness when family secrets and the bulge in her belly send her to an insane asylum, but it is in the darkness that she finds a new lease on life. When a visiting doctor interested in criminal psychology recognizes Grace’s brilliant mind beneath her rage, he recruits her as his assistant. Continuing to operate under the cloak of madness at crime scenes allows her to gather clues from bystanders who believe her less than human. Now comfortable in an ethical asylum, Grace finds friends and hope. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who will bring her shaky sanity and the demons in her past dangerously close to the surface.” —Indiebound.org

First, this novel is dark. Really dark. Especially in the beginning. We all know that insane asylums in the 1800s were not happy places to be, and that inconvenient people, especially women, could be remanded to their custody for anything from a fainting spell to infidelity. I assume that this author, having done her research well, did not invent any of the “treatments” inflicted upon our protagonist, Grace. To read the beginning of this novel felt a bit like rubbernecking–you know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t look away.

Grace struggles with the abuse she suffered, first at the hands of her family, and then at the hands of the people who are supposed to rehabilitate her (for an illness she doesn’t have). She is a powerful character with a hold on her emotions that borders on too strong. When she is removed from the clutches of the asylum, the reader hopes that perhaps her life will become a little lighter and brighter. In a way this is true, but in others, those rosy dreams can never be. Her life has already contained too much trauma to leave her completely happy. However, in her new life, she at least has purpose and friends, and the reader can’t help but enjoy her turn in fortune.

For cast of characters, this novel wins a lot of points. From the quirky voice who accompanies her in the dark at the asylum, to the doctor who rescues her, to her irrepressible half-mad friends, to the looming, terrible presence of this novel’s villains, each character is well-formed and wholly believable.

I also really enjoyed this novel for the sheer pleasure of reading about a subject I’d never encountered before. Asylums of this period hold a lot of interest simply for the bizarre way people approached psychology at this point–all the weird pseudoscience swirling around. It’s doubly interesting because it also explores the new fields of criminal psychology and, to a certain degree, forensics. I’ve only read one book about the actual history of early murder (especially serial murder) investigations, and the bumbling about of early investigators and stumped police would be amusing if it weren’t life or death for the people involved.

To wrap this up, this is a great novel. I’d recommend it to any fans of historical fiction, great female characters, and dark, twisted stories in which you’re not sure what’s right and wrong. It’s been out for a few years, and it definitely deserves more attention than it got.

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity

Cover image for Code Name Verity
Cover image for Code Name Verity

Hello! All two of my readers. Hi! How are you? I have exciting news. Are you ready? Good.

I was wrong.

Yes, you read that right. I was wrong. I was mistaken about this novel. I said, prematurely, that I didn’t like it. But I did like it, in the end. I liked it a lot.

“Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When ‘Verity’ is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure, and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?” —Indieboung.org

I’m not sure if anyone here has read enough of my blog posts to notice, but I am a sucker for a World War II story. It honestly doesn’t even have to be a novel. I was raised by a history buff, and his favorite time period was also WWII. I remember seeing bunkers and bomb shelters when we visited London when I was 10. I enjoy hearing first-hand accounts from folks who lived through the war (though those voices are slowly being lost to us as the years pass). I enjoy movies set in the time period, even though my heart is inevitably in my throat for nearly the entire thing. So when I started this novel and I had a difficult time getting into it, I was doubly disappointed. I thought that you had to be a really big goof to ruin a story about WWII.

This novel is by no means my favorite book about this time period. It is deeply flawed. There is a lot of technical language, and I feel that, because she is a pilot herself, the author gets bogged down in the details that the rest of us do not understand. The voice of the narrator is jarring for a good bit at the beginning–full of British-isms and bravado that honestly got on my nerves a bit.

But, disheartened reader, please look past these flaws and read to the end. I cannot give you details. I cannot tell you why. I just must encourage you to please continue past your frustration and read to the end. It took me three tries to read this book, and feedback on Instagram shows that many commenters also had similar trouble finishing. But there are very few books with such a drastic turn-around. By the end, I couldn’t put this book down and had to finish it right then and there.

The characters are great. I am reluctant to give too many details, for fear of ruining the book for people, but Maddie and Queenie are both incredible and daring women for various reasons. Especially for such young women, their courage is of a sort that few who have never been to war likely ever personally witness. Even the villains, despite being despicable, are also sympathetic to a certain degree. The best characters are those that reflect the reality of humanity–namely that good and evil are rarely black and white. Wein achieves this in her characters.

This is a beautiful novel. I could live without some of the details about planes and airfields, but even the purpose of most of that is revealed by the end. The friendship between the narrator and Maddie doesn’t seem like much in the beginning, but by the end, you realize just how deep it runs, and it sort of blows you away. I won’t say I cried like a baby (like I did at the end of The Book Thief), but boy I got close. I highly recommend sticking with this one to the end. You won’t soon forget it.

Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything

Cover image for Everything, Everything
Cover image for Everything, Everything

With all the buzz surrounding this book, I expected a good novel, but just how good was entirely out of the realm of expectation.

“My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.
But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black–black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.
Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.” —Indiebound.org

First of all, I love Madeline. She is an incredible protagonist. She’s a positive and vibrant kid, despite all the adversity that she’s faced, and she makes a little joy go a long way. So when the pretty teenager next door moves in, this reader, at least, had a lot of feelings. Excitement, because yay, maybe she’ll finally have a little extra dash of joy in her life. And apprehension, because knowing how sick she is, and knowing how difficult love is and how difficult it is to be a teenager, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the whole thing.

Olly is a wonderful character, too. Both of these kids have their share of heavy burdens that seem too difficult for kids to bear. Unfortunately, sick and abused kids are all too common in our messed up world. It’s no wonder that they are drawn to, love, and support each other. I thought, perhaps, that I could predict exactly where this love story was going, but I was wrong.

Perhaps that’s what I loved most about it. It seems as if it’s going to go in one direction, but despite Madeline being trapped in her own house for literally her whole life, this novel still manages to be full of adventure, suspense, and excitement. I would argue that there is a villain, and that villain is found in the most unexpected place.

The relationships between characters are perhaps the most moving part of the novel. Obviously, the reader is simply smitten with Olly and Madeline, but the relationship between Madeline and her mother, or Madeline and her nurse are equally, if not more, moving than Madeline’s romance with the boy next door. I found myself really wanting to play Phonetik Scrabble because it sounds like a lot more fun than regular Scrabble.

This has to be one of the best YA books I’ve read in a really long time. It’s full of heart, full of adventure, lots of soaring highs and devastating lows. There’s probably more emotion packed into these 300 pages than many entire series have in them. I highly recommend it, for those few people who haven’t read it yet!

Shadow Run

Shadow Run

Cover image for Shadow Run
Cover image for Shadow Run

Please excuse me if this blog post is formatted strangely. I’m writing it on my phone because the wifi at my house isn’t working and the landlady hasn’t gotten around to fixing it yet, so no computer for me.

I finished Shadow Run last night and was reasonably impressed. Typically, when it comes to books I’ve never heard of, I’m a little skeptical (I know, I know, but so much of YA is hit or miss). I got this one in LitJoyCrate, and sadly, the last book I read from a LJC was a dreadful disappointment (The Edge of Everything–just no).

Shadow Run is seemingly set, to quote a really obscure film that I’m sure no one has ever heard of, “in a galaxy far, far away.”  The names of planets do not resemble those found in our galaxy, but it could be that it’s set so far in the future that it IS our galaxy, but our arcane names for things have been long forgotten. In any case, I always assumed that would be the most fun part of being a sci-fi/fantasy writer–to imagine a universe where physics work the same way but everything else is different. Perhaps it IS a different universe and a different galaxy because what the heck is Shadow?? Besides beautiful and dangerous, that is.

“Nev has just joined the crew of the starship Kaitan Heritage as the cargo loader. His captain, Qole, is the youngest-ever person to command her own ship, but she brooks no argument from her crew of orphans, fugitives, and con men. Nev can’t resist her, even if her ship is an antique.
As for Nev, he’s a prince, in hiding on the ship. He believes Qole holds the key to changing galactic civilization, and when her cooperation proves difficult to obtain, Nev resolves to get her to his home planet by any means necessary.
But before they know it, a rival royal family is after Qole too, and they’re more interested in stealing her abilities than in keeping her alive.
Nev’s mission to manipulate Qole becomes one to save her, and to survive, she’ll have to trust her would-be kidnapper. He may be royalty, but Qole is discovering a deep reservoir of power–and stars have mercy on whoever tries to hurt her ship or her crew.” —Indiebound.org

Despite being in a rather gloomy mood lately and not feeling like reading much at all, this novel held my interest well. The characters were enjoyable, though I thought the crew members could have been a little more in-depth. It was going for that feeling you get from gangs like The Dregs or Manon Blackbeak’s Thirteen, but it fell a little short of the mark. Nev and Qole were excellent protagonists, though I hate that it seems like female characters have to be temperamental to be strong in a lot of books, including this one. I enjoyed that it didn’t feel like either one was more important than the other. They were equals, and they saved each other (thank you for not making Qole a damsel in distress despite her Captain’s status!).

Plot felt a little ponderous at first, though it quickly picked up. By the end it was one of those you can’t put down so you can sleep. It is definitely a stay-up-late-and-finish book. I thought the denouement was great, even if I did sort of predict how the crew would solve its main problem at the end.

I was also really impressed with how casually inclusive this novel is in regards to race and also gender.  One of the characters in Qole’s crew is gender fluid (though identifies for much of this novel as male), and each of his crew members accepts how he chooses to identify at any given time and change their use of pronouns accordingly. They also accept and nurture his burgeoning relationship with another male member of the crew. It’s not a major plot point–it’s just the way that character is written. It’s nice to see themes of acceptance in a book for kids.

Of course, at its ending, it is obvious that the immediate problem of the novel is solved, but the galaxy is still massively messed up, thereby leaving room for a second novel, at least. Thankfully, there’s no love triangle–a trend it seems that smart YA authors are trying to phase out.

This is a great space sci-fi for readers of this genre. Lots of action and adventure, and they don’t shy away from the violence necessary to a war in space. Characters are likable and some are complex, making them sympathetic and readable. I’d definitely read a follow up, if one came out.

Bellman & Black

Bellman & Black

  I’m coming back to my blog to write about this book because I have a lot of feelings about it and I’m like one of those people who only creates a Yelp account to gripe about a bad experience. THIS REVIEW VERY MUCH CONTAINS SPOILERS. But I think you shouldn’t read this book, so perhaps it doesn’t matter.

I’m sorry. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. And I LOVED The Thirteenth Tale. But this book was terrible. I feel bad saying it. I sort of hate myself. Have I ever written a book? No. Do I think I could ever? No. Do I know what effort and time and blood and tears it takes? No. Do I feel like a shit for spitting on someone else’s effort? Yes.

But I have to say it. It wasn’t good. It was a valiant effort, but it was a really huge struggle to finish this. I was so, so bored from start to finish. I did not care one single bit about William Bellman. Everyone else felt like a cardboard cut-out of a character. It felt like the reader is supposed to admire William as a protagonist, and possibly sympathize with him, but I found him selfish and horrible.

Worst, though, is that his childish act of rook murder seems to bring a curse down on him, but I failed to see where his punishment began and normal hardship ended. He lived a relatively normal life, built a family, built two immensely successful businesses, and died of old age. Yes, bad things happened, but nothing felt out of the norm of what could feasibly happen to a person living in Victorian times.

The excruciatingly detailed accounts of the cloth mill and later his business in the funeral industry make reading this even more painful. I don’t care about the processes or the numbers. Why include them? Why repeat very similar scenes regarding these details? I just don’t understand.

Then there’s the rooks that flutter in and out of the narrative. I understand that they’re following him, or watching him, or maybe influencing his life? Are they trying to turn him mad? What exactly is their end goal? What is the deal he makes with the mysterious man in black? We never really discover the purpose of their finally meeting for the first time. There are interludes introducing details about the biology, sociology, and mythology of rooks, but the purpose of these interludes is unclear.

I’ve seen reviews that call this book spooky, but I didn’t get that at all. I’ve seen alternate covers that call this “A Ghost Story.” How?! If that was the idea, it was so poorly conveyed that I literally never picked up on it.

If you’ve thought of this one, just pass. And hope that her next novel is better.

 

Hag-Seed

Hag-Seed

Hag-Seed
Hag-Seed

I’m going to hope that I can graze over the shameful fact that I haven’t written a blog post since before I turned 28, which was over half a year ago, and instead jump right into discussing Margaret Atwood’s latest novel: Hag-Seed.

This novel is a step away from her usual fare. Atwood always has something profound and meaningful to say about the world. Right now, especially, I feel like The Handmaid’s Tale is an incredibly relevant read and everyone should pick it up, read it, and pray that that’s not where our society goes. But I digress. In her moving somewhat away from this trend, this novel fell flat for me. I missed the powerful punch-in-the-face of her typical voice.

Books in the tumbleweed
Books in the tumbleweed

“Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds.
Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge.
After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic, but will it remake Felix as his enemies fall?
Margaret Atwood’s novel take on Shakespeare’s play of enchantment, retribution, and second chances leads us on an interactive, illusion-ridden journey filled with new surprises and wonders of its own.” —Indiebound

Hag-Seed is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which showcases the talents of various best-selling novelists as they re-imagine the works of Shakespeare. Hag-Seed stars Felix Phillips, a deposed and embittered former theatrical artistic director with fantasies of revenge, and an amusing cast of convicted criminals in the drama of Felix’s vengeance. Most of the novel takes place inside a Canadian prison and follows the events of the original play in amusing and creative ways. At least, I think it does. Here’s the rub: I confess that I have never read or seen The Tempest, so I was going into this somewhat blind. The summary of the play’s events at the back of the novel helped me to find the parallels between the original text and the retelling, and I was impressed by how well Atwood worked them seemlessly into her plot. Also, if you know me personally, please don’t tell Dr. Stayton that I didn’t read The Tempest during our Shakespeare course. It was the last play of the semester and I was done. Shh!

Ready to bypass Thanksgiving and get straight to Christmas
Ready to bypass Thanksgiving and get straight to Christmas

I feel that some of the beauty standard to Shakespeare’s original works is lost due to both the use of modern vernacular and the removal of the setting from an enchanted island inhabited by elemental spirits to a sterile and austere prison environment, but the overall effect is still one that’s highly enjoyable. Felix is distinctly unlikable, but due to the fact that his enemies are even less likable, one cannot help but hope he comes out on top. My favorite part was his eclectic crew of convicts, who should be unpleasant and scary but in a fictional context are lovable. Sadly, perhaps because it’s a short novel and perhaps because it’s based on a play meant for the stage, I felt that it was very difficult to connect to characters and immerse myself in the story.

Ultimately, I felt that my initial feelings of excitement were somewhat let down. It was a good novel with a lot of excellent characters, and excellent bone structure, so to speak. Had it been written by someone else, I think I would have really enjoyed it. Coming from an author by whom I expect to be so profoundly moved and taught something new, it was not nearly what it could have been.

Verdict: Read it, but check it out from the library.