Series Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

TheMagicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Viking. 402 pp. 

I remember when The Magicians Land came out and what a big deal it was. I kept seeing it everywhere, described as the conclusion to a bestselling trilogy. And here’s where I lose some nerd cred: I couldn’t remember ever even hearing about the series! A friend of mine recommended them when the first book was released, and I must’ve forgotten to write it down or something. (I only realized that he recommended it because of those “On This Day” things on Facebook a few months ago.) So I’m not the best friend. Or the best reader. And yet somehow I managed to find my way back to this series.

I scored a paperback copy of the third book at BEA and set it aside for future reading. Then, a couple of months later, I found a copy of the first book at Now and Then, my third-favorite used bookstore (second only to The Strand, which I feel doesn’t really count because it’s sort of its own category at this point, and Arcadian Books, which has an excellent selection and a kind proprietor and poses the added benefit of being located in the French Quarter). I figured that owning the first and third installments meant it was high time that I gave this series a shot. A hundred pages into The Magicians, I discovered two things: syfy was going to release a series based on the books, and my local library didn’t own a copy of the sequel. I promptly placed a request via interlibrary loan and decided to stay away from the TV series until I’d finished the books. (I’ve since watched the trailer and the pilot, and I’m almost inclined to stay away from the show entirely. It looks like they’re trying to have a hit — making it cutesy and trendy — instead of sticking to the books. However, Hank Green is obsessed with it, so I’ll give it another shot. We tend to like similar stuff.)

Sadly, the interlibrary loan took three weeks to come through, so I did something unthinkable: I stopped reading The Magicians halfway through because I didn’t want to wait if there was a cliffhanger ending. Then I flew through the first two and a half books, slowing down halfway through the third because I didn’t want it to be over.

This series is magic. Pure magic. And I’m not just saying that because it’s quite literally about magicians. I enjoyed the idea of magical ability as a hot commodity, practiced and protected by a select few. (Side note: I want to go to Brakebills! Magical grad school? Yes, please!) Any book about magic is about power struggles, but these books’ portrayal of that war is one of the best I’ve seen. The blend of high fantasy and modernity, the almost-winking references to other popular fantasy works, the way that old characters come back just when you thought you’d never hear from them again…I can’t say enough positive things. I guess the best thing I can say is that I bought a copy of the first book for a friend as a Christmas gift; that’s pretty much the highest endorsement I can give, right?

The world-building is intense. I mean, there are so many different worlds — and they all feel different without overwhelming the reader. None of the characters is terribly likable — except maybe Josh (and Eliot?) — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They’ve got a lot going on over the course of the books, and they all grow and develop into entirely new people. It’s not a trilogy that spans six months, either; it takes place over about a dozen years, so there are many happenings and many chances for the characters to “become.”

Before I finish this raving, all-over-the-place review, I want to share my favorite passage with you. It’s from the final ten pages of the final book, but it won’t spoil anything for you. It’s just…well, this is what my life as a reader has been like. These words hit me hard.

“This is a feeling that you had, Quentin,” she said. “Once, a very long time ago. A rare one. This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and joy and hope and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory then, with a power and an innocence that not many people ever experience. That’s where all this began for you. You wanted the world to be better than it was.

“Years later you went to Fillory, and the Fillory you found was a much more difficult, complicated place than you expected. The Fillory you dreamed of as a little boy wasn’t real, but in some ways it was better and purer than the real one. That hopeful little boy you once were was a tremendous dreamer. He was clever, too, but if you ever had a special gift, it was that.”

Quentin nodded — he couldn’t quite talk yet. He felt full of love for that little boy he’d once been, innocent and naive, as yet unscuffed and unmarred by everything that was to come. He was such a ridiculous, vulnerable little person, with so many strenuous disappointments and wonders ahead of him. Quentin hadn’t thought of him in years.

He wasn’t that boy anymore, that boy was lost long ago. He’d become a man instead, one of those crude, weather-beaten, shopworn things, and he’d almost forgotten he’d ever been anything else — he’d had to forget, to survive growing up. But now he wished he could reassure that child and take care of him. He wished he could tell him that none of it was going to turn out anything like the way he hoped, but that everything was going to be all right anyway. It was hard to explain, but he would see.

I don’t know. Maybe that doesn’t make you cry, but I’ve read it three times and it’s made my eyes tear every time. The hope of magic existing in the world can do wonders for a lonely kid who feels like he (or she) doesn’t fit quite right. And that, in itself, is its own kind of magic.

All in all: Highly recommended. One of the best series I’ve ever read; it finishes just as strong as it starts. Buy it. Now.

Review: Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. Schwartz & Wade. 240 pp.

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. Schwartz & Wade. 240 pp.

I spotted this one at Penguin Random House’s BEA booth, in a stack on the floor next to copies of Illuminae and the new graphic novelization of The Golden Compass. It seemed to be geared to middle-school-aged kids, so I hesitated before picking this one up. Also, I had no idea that “graphic biography” was a genre…but I’m thrilled to have taken a gamble on this one because I absolutely adored it!

I’m not one for nonfiction, mostly because I love fiction so much that I rarely tear myself away from a novel to read anything else. I’ll read poetry here and there, but biographies or general nonfiction typically aren’t my thing. I’ve been even worse lately because I have two kids now, and I tend to read things that don’t require one hundred percent of my focus since I’m likely to be interrupted countless times while reading. I like to annotate and note-take while reading classics or nonfiction so that the material will sink in, and it’s difficult to do that when I have to get up multiple times an hour to help my seven-month-old settle down and get back to sleep.

So, even though I’m not the target audience for this book, it was perfect for me at this stage in my life. (I’m also holding on to it in case my sons want to read it when they’re older.) The material is broken into chapters, mostly by time but now and then by topic. The material is straightforward, and the illustrations work seamlessly with the text, making the overall story of Jobs’s life easy to envision and understand. I especially liked the two-page spreads that featured technology of the decades; today’s kids wouldn’t otherwise understand just how far music, information, and communication technology advanced over Steve Jobs’s lifetime and the specific role that he played in advancing them.

One of my favorite things about this book, though, is that the author doesn’t sugarcoat things. Jobs’s brainpower, innovative spirit, and constant quest for improvement are evident, but the reader is still shown his shortcomings (his poor personal hygiene and the way he berated his employees, for example). This isn’t a glowing, eyes-half-shut endorsement of Steve Jobs, or of Apple, and I appreciated that.

I think this particular book would be a wonderful gift for kids who are interested in Apple products or technology in general. It could be a useful medium for middle school kids in particular, or for readers of any age with lower reading skills (the vocabulary is simple, and the illustrations aid comprehension). As for the format of “graphic biography,” well, I’m in love. It’s a great way to ease unwilling nonfiction readers into enjoying fact-based books. It’s also a user-friendly way to get an overview of a topic; it provides a shallow introduction to a subject and gives the reader ideas about which specific areas he wants to research further.

All in all: Excellent concept and execution. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this (and my husband loved the tidbits of information I shared with him while reading). I learned a lot while being entertained, and I have a new appreciation for the multitude of technological contributions that Steve Jobs made.

Review: Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone. Disney-Hyperion. 368 pp.

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone. Disney-Hyperion. 368 pp.

If you could read my mind, you wouldn’t be smiling.

Samantha McAllister looks just like the rest of the popular girls in her junior class. But hidden beneath the straightened hair and expertly applied makeup is a secret that her friends would never understand: Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD and is consumed by a stream of dark thoughts and worries that she can’t turn off.

Second-guessing every move, thought, and word makes daily life a struggle, and it doesn’t help that her lifelong friends will turn toxic at the first sign of a wrong outfit, wrong lunch, or wrong crush. Yet Sam knows she’d be truly crazy to leave the protection of the most popular girls in school. So when Sam meets Caroline, she has to keep her new friend with a refreshing sense of humor and no style a secret, right up there with Sam’s weekly visits to her psychiatrist.

Caroline introduces Sam to Poet’s Corner, a hidden room and a tight-knit group of misfits who have been ignored by the school at large. Sam is drawn to them immediately, especially a guitar-playing guy with a talent for verse, and starts to discover a whole new side of herself. Slowly, she begins to feel more “normal” than she ever has as part of the popular crowd . . . until she finds a new reason to question her sanity and all she holds dear.


I don’t remember how I first heard about this book, but once I heard it was about a girl with OCD/anxiety issues, I was dying to get my hands on a copy. The worst thing about obsessions is that they kind of slam you out of nowhere and they’re tough to shake, and — perhaps ironically — this book about OCD became one one for me. I refreshed NetGalley constantly until I learned that I’d been approved for this one. It was kind of a mess.

Let me just start by saying that Disney-Hyperion is fast becoming one of my favorite publishers. I can’t recall reading a book of theirs that I didn’t enjoy. It’s gotten to the point where I request their titles on blind faith, even if the description doesn’t sound like my style, and their books still satisfy me.

This book was no exception. Sam is an excellent character, terribly, painfully introspective at times but with so much promise. There were times I felt frustrated by her. “Really?” I wanted to say. “You’re having a panic attack over that?” But isn’t that the thing about people? One person’s mountain is another person’s molehill, and this book captures that perfectly.

I loved Sam’s relationship with her mom, the way that the inside of her mind is almost the exact opposite of the rest of her, and how she struggles to match her lifestyle to her true self over the course of the book. There are some excellent depictions of OCD in here, and Sam’s relationship with Sue (her therapist) is one of the most special ones in the book. It’s touching and heartbreaking to hear Sam wonder what it’s like to be “normal” and to find someone who will love her, “broken brain” and all. My eyes filled with tears as I saw how lonely she was and how hard it was for her to finally embrace her brain for its strengths while fighting against its weaknesses. I saw so much of myself in her, and it was heartbreaking at times but also so amazingly accurate and true and real.

One of my favorite quotes:

And I want to stop, but I can’t, because telling someone with OCD to stop obsessing about something is like telling someone who’s having an asthma attack to just breathe normally.

Also, can we talk about AJ for a minute? What a beautiful character. Are there really boys like this in high school? Because I’m pretty sure they only reside on the pages of YA novels — though I will try my damnedest to raise two boys as sensitive and considerate as this one was. He is a thoughtful, adorably-scruffy, guitar-strumming poet. I mean, seriously. How could Sam not obsess over him?! He’s not perfect, though, and I think I appreciated that most of all.

The only thing about this book that I didn’t like [MINOR SPOILER, I GUESS] was the sex scene. And no, it’s not the fact that there were high school kids having sex, even though I was most certainly not having sex in high school. It’s the fact that a girl who can never turn off her brain, who obsesses over everything, has sex and doesn’t think about it or analyze it at all. It happens and then isn’t really mentioned for the rest of the book It didn’t seem in keeping with the character and made me wonder what the purpose of that scene was. It felt sort of thrown in there, and I could have done without it because it didn’t seem to affect the rest of the story at all.

All in all: This is one of those rare books that I received as a free review copy that will go on my “To-Buy” list. It was just wonderful, and I can’t wait for it to hit shelves so that other readers can get their hands on it.

Review: Big Gay Ice Cream by Bryan Petroff and Douglas Quint

Big Gay Ice Cream by Bryan Petroff and Douglas Quint. Clarkson Potter. 192 pp.

Big Gay Ice Cream by Bryan Petroff and Douglas Quint. Clarkson Potter. 192 pp.

Been a fan of these guys, their approach to business, and their incomparable product for years, so I had high hopes for this book. And it didn’t disappoint. Not even a little bit.

The kitschiness of formatting the book as a yearbook works brilliantly. The photographs (they’re so good I really want to call them artwork) are mouth-watering. I enjoyed reading the history of the company, and the guest authors were a welcome surprise (especially my personal favorite, one Mr. Neil Gaiman).

And the recipes. Oh, the recipes! From store-bought toppings to make-your-own sauces to shakes/ice cream/sorbet, this book is chock-full of things I’m excited to try. I’ve been wanting to make their bourbon butterscotch sauce since I tried it a couple of years ago (in February, no less…Big Gay is so good we visited in the dead of the New York winter) and cannot wait to give it a go. I have a feeling my ice cream maker will be getting a run for its money this summer.

It’s rare that a cookbook can make you laugh, but this one will (unless you’re of a more stodgy persuasion; then I make no promises). It serves its purpose by providing lots of complimentary flavors and new recipes, but that’s almost an aside to a book that’s full of feistiness and color. There are even mix tape playlists and yearbook photos (I remember when they held the photoshoot at one of their shops and how sad I was that I couldn’t make it into the city that day).

All in all: This works brilliantly as a cookbook, gift, or even coffee table book (though your visitors may begin demanding that you serve them ice cream…). Absolutely worth buying. And you should probably grab one for a friend!

Also, as a side note: if you ever get the chance to visit one of their shops, I hope you seize the opportunity. Their employees are among the friendliest I’ve met, their flavor combinations are surprising in the best possible way, and their overall quirkiness and lust for life are blazingly apparent. This is one of my favorite companies, and I’m thrilled to see them doing so well.

Review: I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios

I'll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios. 379 pp. Henry Holt.

I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios. 379 pp. Henry Holt.

I love summer-after-high-school graduation stories. There’s so much potential for growth and change as the characters try to figure out what they will become in a new setting. But there’s also room to tie up loose ends. It’s closure and the promise of a bright new tomorrow all in one. I won this book in a Fierce Reads giveaway, along with five other books, and so far it’s the only one I enjoyed enough to keep and re-read. It’s so. good.

I’ll Meet You There is about a girl named Skylar, a gifted artist who can’t wait to escape her small town and go to college. But during the summer after graduation, her mom loses her job and falls off the wagon, and Skylar starts to wonder if maybe things aren’t going to go as smoothly as she hopes. Should she stay and support her mother or pursue her dream?

And then there’s Josh Mitchell, a former Creek View resident who’s returned after being enlisted in the military for a couple of years. He’s not unscathed, though; he’s lost a leg and gained a slew of experiences that the people around him just can’t understand.

Josh and Skylar used to work together and reconnect over the course of the summer. They each have their own issues and try to keep them hidden, but eventually (of course) they end up meeting halfway and helping each other through some really tough times. Some love stories can be cheesy, but this one featured a couple that I couldn’t help but root for.

Skylar’s relationship with her mom broke my heart, her constant wonderings of “What if?” with Josh kept me on my toes, and her tendency to hope even in the darkest of times was beautiful. Josh’s flashback scenes hit me harder than I expected them to. I’m fairly anti-violence and don’t usually enjoy war narratives, but this book reminded me of how much more there is to returning soldiers than meets the eye.

All in all: Moving, romantic, and heartbreaking, this is one of the best contemporary YA books I’ve read in a while.

Review: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Between You & Me by Mary Norris. 240 pp. W.W. Norton.

Between You & Me by Mary Norris. 240 pp. W.W. Norton.

I’ve got a bad habit of buying books about the history and proper usage of the English language and not reading them. I’ve got a shelf in my home library that’s attractively stacked with books like Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way and Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey. I tend to read the first few pages, enjoy them as much as I expect to, then get distracted by some work of fiction or other. I’m terrible about nonfiction, even if it’s on a topic I’m very interested in. But Between You & Me was a Goodreads win, and I’m more likely to win other titles if I read and review this one, so I had a bit more motivation than usual. Also…well, it didn’t hurt that Mary Norris is so funny. Witness the following examples and tell me you don’t want to read this book, too:

“Whom” may indeed be on the way out, but so is Venice, and we still like to go there.

and

Chances are that if you use the Oxford comma you brush the crumbs off your shirtfront before going out.

Between You & Me covers such topics as spelling, punctuation, and profanity in a direct and easily-understood manner. Norris makes frequent mention of the ways that style and usage vary between major publications such as The New Yorker (where she’s worked since 1978) and The New York Times. There’s even an entire chapter dedicated to pencils and pencil sharpeners! (This might sound boring to you, but if it doesn’t, we should probably be friends.)

I learned from this book, and I enjoyed myself immensely while reading it. It’s made me want to pick up my next work of nonfiction sooner than the usual schedule (which would be maybe in six months or so?). It made me want to buy, read, and annotate/highlight a style guide to learn even more. I have an advance copy, but I’m tempted to buy a finished copy — partially to support the author, but also because the advance copy doesn’t include the Recommended Reading list. (Yes, I am that much of a nerd. I want to do the background reading!)

All in all: A great read for anyone with a sense of humor who’s also interested in usage, and a particularly great graduation gift for an English major.

Picture Book Roundup #6

It’s that time again: time to tell you about the picture books I’ve been enjoying with my toddler. We make frequent use of our local library to take picture books for a test run; if we didn’t try books on for size before buying, my house would be overrun. (I’ve always lived with books piled high in corners of my living space, but my husband doesn’t appreciate this system of storage as much as I do. He’s built me a few extra bookshelves, but we’re still running out of space.) This installment contains three great finds: books that are purchase-worthy and stand up to multiple re-readings.

Little Blue Truck by Alice Shertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 32 pp.

Little Blue Truck by Alice Shertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 32 pp.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 40 pp.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 40 pp.

We received Little Blue Truck as a gift a year or so ago. My son adored it then and still requests it from time to time. I was impressed by the whimsical illustrations, the catchy rhymes and meter, and the typography (sounds are larger and more brightly-colored, swooping across the pages). It’s a larger board book, ideal for little ones who are ready for longer books but not careful enough with paper pages, and it was such a hit that we added the second book, Little Blue Truck Leads the Way, to our collection as well. Both books deal with parent-pleasing topics such as friendliness, politeness, and manners in the toddler-friendly format of trucks and other vehicles (and, in the case of the first book, farmyard animals).

I'm a Big Brother by Joanna Cole, illus. by Maxie Chambliss. HarperCollins. 32 pp.

I’m a Big Brother by Joanna Cole, illus. by Maxie Chambliss. HarperCollins. 32 pp.

I found a copy of an older edition of I’m a Big Brother at a local library book sale while pregnant with my second child. After flipping through it, I realized that it was the perfect way to introduce my older son to the idea of having a baby in the house. It reminded him that he was once a baby, unable to do lots of things, and that he has more abilities and privileges now that he’s “big.” It gave him a crash course in what to expect with a newborn; crying is covered matter-of-factly and explained, not as a negative behavior, but simply as a means of communication. My favorite thing about this one is that it ends by reminding my firstborn that he is still special and that my husband and I still love him for him. I didn’t want him to feel threatened by the baby, and this book did a great job paving the way for open discussions about what it would mean to have a new little one in our home.

Note: This is the cover for the edition that I purchased. I’ve since spotted this book at Barnes and Noble and flipped through it, and the boys are now much fairer and, if memory serves correctly, blond. I prefer the older edition because these boys look more like my own kids, but the content seems to be the same.

Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss. Random House. 72 pp.

Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss. Random House. 72 pp.

This is one of the most fun children’s books I’ve read…and I’ve read quite a few!

My husband has been all about Dr. Seuss lately, and he loves reading Seuss books to our son, so I grabbed this one when I spotted it at the library since we hadn’t read it yet. (My mom swears she read it to me when I was a kid, and I’m sure she did, but I don’t remember it.)

The tongue twisters in this book are tricky and silly and great fun to read aloud. My two-year-old (and his parents!) giggled all through the first reading — and the second! He enjoyed it so much that we bought a copy to add to our permanent collection. I’ve since read it to him many, many times and there are still a couple of pages where I really have to focus to say the right words. It’s tricky!

This one is so much fun that my husband asked me to read it to him last night…after we’d already put our son to bed! 🙂