Fantasy, Fiction

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

Happy Halloween! Since I don’t read a lot of horror, I figured a fantasy series was the next best pick for Halloween.

The Magicians Synopsis

Intellectually precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater escapes the boredom of his daily life by reading and rereading a series of beloved fantasy novels set in an enchanted land called Fillory. Like everybody else, he assumes that magic isn’t real – until he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York.

After stumbling through a Brooklyn alley in winter, Quentin finds himself on the grounds of the idyllic Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in late summer. There, after passing a gruesomely difficult entrance examination, he begins a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery, while also discovering the joys of college: friendship, love, sex, and alcohol. But something is missing. Even though Quentin learns to cast spells and transform into animals, and gains power he never dreamed of, magic doesn’t bring him the happiness and adventure he thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends embark on an aimless, hedonistic life in Manhattan, struggling with the existential crises that plague pampered and idle young sorcerers. Until they make a stunning discovery that propels them on a remarkable journey, one that promises to finally fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than Quentin could have imagined. His childhood dream is a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

Series Review

Oh Quentin. My bloody brilliant Quentin. I both adore and despise you. This might be less of a review and more of a Quentin Coldwater character analysis…

Never have I had such a love-hate relationship with a primary character in a book. I abandoned The Magicians halfway through the first time I started reading it back when I was a 20-year-old junior in college because I hated Quentin. I couldn’t stand him. He embodied everything that I hated about the stereotypical college boys but at the same time, like my dear, beloved, favorite character Alice (she rivals my Hermione love like no other), I was inexplicably drawn to him. I just didn’t want to read about him.

Fast forward five years and I found myself one day just staring at the cover of The Magician’s Land and, surprising longing for Quentin’s world of Brakebills College of Magic. So, continuing on my quest of “reading” the books already on my shelves by listening to the audiobook, I rented The Magicians from the library as I find it best to return to the beginning and not to trust my loathsome memory to remember all the details (and especially why I found Alice so awesome) required to start in the middle of The Magicians half a decade after my initial foray into reading about Quentin and his motley crew.

Is Q still terribly annoying more than 75% of the time? Yes. Does it matter anymore? No. Because I realized that Quentin is simply the mouthpiece for the larger story and by the time The Magician King rolls around, he is not the only point of view character (yay!). Quentin isn’t even the hero of his own story half the time (which leads to his melancholy and delight for me!) and he really messes up – like royally screws things up and skewers his own happiness by trying to be happy. Crazy, I know, but true. But this happens to nearly every twenty-something – invariably we wind up making something we care about worse by trying to make it better, but trying to fix something that isn’t broken to begin with.

The trilogy covers roughly 13 years of Quentin’s life and over that time he grows from a scrawny, gangly asshole at 17 to a semi-distinguished (albeit fired) professor at 30. But what I really love about The Magicians trilogy is that isn’t not just the Quentin show 24/7, but all the other supporting characters, particularly classmate and eventual love interest Alice, are whole. They are complete, and they are independent, and they are certainly not defined by their relationship to Quentin, hero though he insists on being. And if Quentin pisses them off, so be it. They move on with their lives and things aren’t magically righted or fixed just because he eventually finds it in himself to say sorry (even when it’s 7 years later).

Point being, Quentin can suck, a lot. But, and it’s a big but, you don’t have to care about Quentin to enjoy the story, you just must tolerate him and his role that he plays in the big scheme of things. And eventually, he grows on you. You might have to give him 600 pages and hours and hours of your life, but eventually, you’ll be routing for him (and Alice) too.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

The Magicians Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780452296299 • 402 pages • originally published August 2009, this edition published May 2010 by Plume Books • average Goodreads rating 3.47 • read in June 2015

Lev Grossman’s Website

The Magicians on Goodreads

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Magicians

Fiction, Science Fiction

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I had wanted to read Station Eleven for quite a while, since I first saw it sitting on a table in a bookstore. I picked it up regularly in stores and contemplated purchasing it before finally doing so two years ago. And then it sat in my to-be-read pile for far too long. So when I decided to start my book club, The Modern Readers, I thought it would be the perfect first book! In starting a book club, I hoped that if I picked the books, I would really want to read them and it wouldn’t feel like required reading… but, confession time, alas, it sort of did feel like required reading – I was flying through most of the second half of the book while half-awake early in the morning a few hours before our first meeting.

1 - October 2015 - Station Eleven

Synopsis

Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. That was also the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves the Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as they story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

Review

Station Eleven was a book I desperately wanted to love. As the first pick for the Modern Readers, I was hoping it would just knock my socks off. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find that I was struggling just to finish it, let alone enjoy it.

I don’t know what exactly was so disappointing about Station Eleven, other than to say all of my fellow book club members seemed to feel similarly. Our overall consensus was that the idea was completely intriguing – a disease decimates most of the population and those who survived must figure out how to survive in this new and unfamiliar world. My problem, specifically, was in the characters. They really just existed in the world and their connections and relationships to each other all felt a bit forced and contrived and didn’t really add to the reader’s understanding of the characters.

There was one big exception to this – Clark, the British friend of the man who started everything, Arthur, the great actor. While Clark is absent for the vast majority of the story, when he does come back into play, his presence is not meant to only draw other story lines together, but we really get some insight into who Clark is as a character – the first and only time we really get any character motivation injected into the story.

Other than a perceived lack of character development, we collectively agreed as a book club that we would have loved to see some of the drawings and pieces of the graphic novel mentioned throughout the story that lends the book it’s title, Station Eleven.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780804172448 • 352 pages • first published September 2014, this edition published June 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.02 out of 5 • read in November 2015

Emily St. John Mandel’s Website

Station Eleven on Goodreads

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Station Eleven

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Clearly I’m on a YA fantasy role here with reviews… Sometimes I get so thoroughly immersed in a genre it can be hard to pull myself out to switch to something else, something new and different. As I get to the end of a genre jaunt, however, my reviews tend to become a bit skewed, so take them all with a grain of salt.

Synopsis

Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood – those with common Red blood serve the Silver-blooded elite, who are gifted with superhuman abilities. Mare is a Red, scraping by as a thief in a poor, rural village, until a twist of fate throws her in front of the Silver court.

Before the king, princes, and all the nobles, she discovers she has an ability of her own. To cover up this impossibility, the king forces her to play the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks everything and uses her new position to help the Scarlet Guard, a growing Red rebellion, even as her heart tugs her in an impossible direction. One wrong move can lead to her death, but in the dangerous game she plays, the only certainty is betrayal.

Review

Red Queen is part of a long line of YA fantasy books that have been written in the last five years or so to feature varying takes on power and poverty, haves and have-nots, and each primarily female author’s take on a strong, feminist, protagonist. The books that stand out are those that are spectacularly good or spectacularly bad. Red Queen is neither.

It is an enjoyable book with a serviceable plot and intriguing characters. Were it published at a different time, I would call it unique and original. However, it came out halfway through the present YA fantasy boom and the influence of previous works is evident in Aveyard’s storytelling. Similarities to GracelingThe Hunger GamesThrone of Glass and Shadow and Bone are easy to pick out if you are as well versed in the world of YA fantasy as most of Aveyard’s target readers.

The writing is decent, the twists and turns of the plot and the effort into world building that Aveyard puts forth are not missed, this review would be much more scathing if Red Queen lacked in any of these areas, but it doesn’t have the ineffable “stand-out quality” that makes me remember years down the road, makes me anxiously await the next book in the series. Red Queen is at it’s best, another decent YA fantasy debut, and at it’s worst, another YA fantasy.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780062310644 • 416 pages • first published in February 2015, this edition published June 2016 by Harper Teen • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in May 2016

Victoria Aveyard’s Website

Red Queen on Goodreads

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Red Queen

 

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Photography/Art, Travel

My Holiday in North Korea by Wendy E. Simmons

In January 2016, I went with my boss to an ABA (American Booksellers Association) event called “Winter Institute.” It is the biggest gathering of independent booksellers and my boss reminded me that in addition to learning lots about the book world and being starstruck by all the authors present, I should bring a book back for each of my coworkers. My coworker Su is the most difficult person to pick out books for, so this is the one I brought back for her. She thought I was nuts, until she started to read it. And then she couldn’t shut up about it! On her recommendation, my book decided to read it last September.

10 - September 2016 - My Holiday in North Korea

Synopsis

Most people want out of North Korea. Wendy Simmons wanted in.

In My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, Wendy shares a glimpse of North Korea as it’s never been seen before. Even though it’s the scariest place on earth, somehow Wendy forgot to check her sense of humor at the border.

But Wendy’s initial amusement and bewilderment soon turned to frustration and growing paranoia. Before long, she learned the essential conundrum of tourism in North Korea: travel is truly a love affair. But, just like love, it’s a two-way street. And North Korea deprives you of all this. They want you to fall in love with the singular vision of the country they’re willing to show you and nothing more.

Review

If you’ve ever wondered what life is really like in North Korea, this is not the book for you. If you’ve ever wondered why North Korea wants you to think life is really like there, then this is the book for you. Wendy Simmons is one of a very limited number of Americans granted access to a tour of the country, a fully planned, fully monitored, full devoid of any genuine moments, tour of the “empire.”

We’ve all heard stories about how the people are brainwashed into thinking that their country really is the greatest on Earth and far better than any other in the world, but few have witnessed the truth firsthand as Wendy has, the truth being, that they really do seem to believe it.

This review is so brief because words really cannot describe the incredulity I experienced while reading – simply to say that you should go read it. Read it now. Read it immediately.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $19.95 • 9780795347047 • 312 pages • published May 2016 by Rosettabooks • average Goodreads rating 3.7 out of 5 • read in September 2016

Wendy E. Simmons’ Website

My Holiday in North Korea on Goodreads

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My Holiday in North Korea
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Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Legend by Marie Lu

In May of 2015 I traveled to NYC for my first BookCon, and what an experience it was – completely overwhelming, but wonderful as well. My favorite part of the experience, was a panel with Marie Lu, Sabaa Tahir and Renee Ahdieh and I told myself I would read all of their books! I started with Marie Lu’s Young Elites series, and when I found out she would be coming to the bookstore I work at in September, I figured I should read Legend as well!

Synopsis

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths – until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

Review

Marie Lu is a fabulous writer. And while not my personal favorite (Sarah J. Maas is), she is my favorite author to share with others. I love recommending her books to people because she has such wide appeal. Boys, girls, lovers of fantasy, science fiction, survival fiction (a la The Hunger Games), there is something in her books for everyone. Her writing is accessible to middle grade through adult readers. As a former middle school teacher, I understand the struggle that arises when trying to find books for 12 year olds that are challenging enough, but also appropriate to their maturity level. Marie Lu is one of very few authors that write about older teenagers in a way that doesn’t make parents of middle schoolers cringe.

In regards to Legend, I love how Marie Lu portrays her characters – June as a rule following member of the military, and Day as a kind-hearted fugitive. As their paths intersect, they both grow and evolve as characters, given the effect that each has on the other’s sense of responsibility and loyalty. Told in alternating perspective chapters, readers get to know both June and Day equally well and both are so intriguing that the balance is near perfect – you don’t want to skip either character’s chapters to get to the other’s.

I have been asked by customers at the store if Legend is too much like The Hunger Games or Divergent and while I mention that they are considered to be part off the same dystopian genre, there is a uniqueness to the diversity of characters that Marie Lu includes, as well as the story telling – in my opinion, she is a better writer than the authors of The Hunger Games and Divergent and therefore a better selection for young readers and budding writers.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780142422076 • 305 pages • originally published November 2011, this edition published April 2013 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Marie Lu’s Website

Legend on Goodreads

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Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Two years ago I attended BookCon in NYC and I’m so excited to be going back for the booksellers part, BookExpo, in just two short weeks! When I attended back in 2015, I attended a panel on which Marie Lu, Renee Ahdieh and Sabaa Tahir discussed the need for diverse books and I decided there and then that I needed to read at least one book by each of them. An Ember in the Ashes was the first I purchased, but the last I read, because for some reason, I couldn’t get into reading it, but, the audiobook really changed my impression of Sabaa Tahir’s storytelling.

Synopsis

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier – and secretly, it’s most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined – and that their choice will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Review

At the bookstore, I’ve become sort of the go-to YA fantasy expert, but I haven’t had the heart to tell all of my little “book-groupies” (as my coworkers call them) that my heart hasn’t really been in the genre lately and that half the recommendations I’ve been giving them are books that I haven’t actually read yet. An Ember in the Ashes was one of those books – one I had heard very good things about, but had not actually managed to read.

And to be honest, it took me three tries before I really found myself enthralled by the story. The first to times were “traditional” reading attempts, and thankfully, I still persisted after those two failed and I checked the audiobook out of my local library and, thankfully, was instantly hooked. So this review is equal parts story review and audiobook reader review.

As a story, Sabaa Tahir weaves together two characters from completely different worlds, making their paths cross occasionally, but without unnecessarily intersecting – a real challenge of writing in multiple perspectives. Laia and Elias’ stories join at important plot points, but without complicating the timeline or narrative. Both are strong narrators on their own which means that while one character is narrating, the reader/listener is fully immersed in that part of the story, not anxiously reading through to get to the other narrator, as is wont to happen in some multiple perspective plots. The two readers also do an exceptional job of conveying the urgency and emotion felt by both Laia and Elias in their individual and joint circumstances.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $11.99 • 9781595148049 • 480 pages • originally published April 2015, this edition published February 2016 by Razorbill • average Goodreads rating 4.32 out of 5 • read in March 2017

Sabaa Tahir’s Website

An Ember in the Ashes on Goodreads

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An Ember in the Ashes