The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

magicianIt really starts, as it always does in this kind of story, when the hero’s father dies. Returning from his father’s funeral, Quentin Coldwater uses a spell to light a candle, and feels a buzzing in his hands that alerts him to a new power in his magic: “Something had broken loose in him. He was truly alone in the world now, no one was coming to help him.” The thing about Quentin is that no one has ever been coming to help him; not in the way that he needs. There’s no savior, nor is there even any pre-ordained quest. In Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, magic doesn’t make things any easier– only more interesting.

In the first book of the series, Quentin finds entry to the magical land of Fillory, a place he’d formerly believed to exist only between the covers of a series of children’s novels. In the second book, he rules for a time as king of that land before being exiled and stripped of his crown. Now Quentin has tried to “go straight” by taking a teaching position at Brakebills, his magical alma mater.

But in the process of saving a student from her own prank gone wrong, Quentin encounters Alice, his ex-girlfriend who died to save him at the end of the first book. Alice now exists as a malevolent being of blue fire, a “niffin,” neither dead nor fully alive. Because he cannot bring himself to subdue her, as is his duty as a professor, Quentin is fired from Brakebills. The student he has saved, Plum, is expelled, and they meet again when they are asked by an anonymous backer to join a team of thieves. The object is a sealed briefcase that formerly belonged to one Rupert Chatwin, the now-deceased personage on whom Quentin’s beloved Fillory books were partly based. Plum has a unique tie to the heist, being the last living descendant of the Chatwin family, though she’s completely unaware that Fillory truly does exist.

There have been other books about how magic might work in the real, modern world, but not so many books about how magic might work with real people. Real people don’t get to sublimate their every disappointment into a single epic quest in which they are the heroes. Real people, when they get what they’ve wanted, usually find a way to be dissatisfied with it somehow. Or, as in Quentin’s case, they’ll find a way to remain dissatisfied with themselves. But his father’s death changes Quentin. As long as his father was alive, there was always the hope that he might be pleased by Quentin, that he might even be someone worth pleasing. It occurs to Quentin that perhaps his father was a magician whose emotional distance and inattentiveness were a result of an effort to protect his son.

But Quentin’s father was not a magician, and the realization that his father did not live up to his expectations frees Quentin from the unreasonable ones he holds for himself. He finally finds his specialty (repair of small objects: “think smaller… like a coffee cup,”) which one of his colleagues attributes to his newfound maturity: “…I couldn’t find your discipline last time because you didn’t have one yet. I always thought you were a bit young for your age.” The dean of Brakebills will tell him, “You were always one of the clever ones. Everyone saw it but you. If you hadn’t been so busy trying to convince yourself you didn’t belong here, you would have seen it too.” Quentin’s emergence from his twenties sees the diminishing of his self-loathing and self-pity, and grows his character in a way that does credit to Grossman’s careful work with him over three books.

Other characters are less developed, but more fun. (Quentin has always been kind of a drag, if a realistic and intermittently relatable one.) In particular, Janet, Quentin’s former classmate who still rules as a queen of Fillory, remains deliciously angry and selfish. Even the Fillorian high king and fellow Brakebills alum Eliot is simultaneously baffled and impressed to find out that, though she can be kind and brave, Janet really has no soft gooey center. In her case, it’s “turtles all the way down,” so to speak, and it’s hard not to bear her the same kind of love/hate her cohorts have for her. Julia, a main character in The Magician King, plays only a supporting role here, but the loose ends of her story are gathered and tied. Alice is more difficult to fathom, since as Quentin’s love interest she is viewed primarily through his eyes.

This is understandable but disappointing at the same time. Grossman has a lot of character and plot to manage, and he does it with uneven finesse. He has so many stories and people in his head that they stream out at times in an unwieldy fashion. The writing itself can be smart and hilarious, as when Grossman shifts his third-person voice out of Quentin’s head to match the cadences of either Janet or Eliot’s thoughts. Other times it lapses into lazy descriptions the book could do without altogether.

But maybe it’s the magic: I don’t really care that much. If there are too many stories in The Magician’s Land, they are all stories I want to hear, not least because they are so well-connected to stories I have heard before in different contexts. A primary feature of the series has been the self-conscious borrowing of themes and plot threads from famous fantasy novels, most obviously The Chronicles of Narnia, and this third book continues in that vein, borrowing from, among other sources, media as varied as The Neverending Story, The Ring of the Niebelungs, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fans of the first two books will be well satisfied with the final installment. It has most everything they might expect, and enough of what they won’t to keep them as vested in the action as ever Quentin hoped to be.

 

 

This book was given to me free of charge for advance review as a popmatters.com writer.

The Hundred Year House, by Rebecca Makkai

Hundred YearBy the time you get to the end of The Hundred Year House, you can play the events of the novel backwards in your head, as if you were rewinding a video of a glass breaking: here at the end, you see all the pieces scattered on the floor, and now you see them bestirred and lifted as if by an invisible wind, and now they come neatly, impossibly, but deeply satisfyingly, together. And if you start the video from the beginning and watch it at half speed, you can see one complete story become pieces that fitted perfectly together only a moment ago. Among the fragments that compose Rebecca Makkai’s wonderful book are time, ghosts, fate, unrequited love, requited love unconsummated, and art.

But the first time you read the novel you won’t have the whole story, so you’ll have to start at the beginning, when Zee and her husband, Doug, move into the former carriage house on her mother’s estate in Illinois. It is 1999. The estate, Laurelfield, was formerly an artists’ colony that housed various writers and artists, among them the deceased poet Edwin Parfitt, about whom Doug is writing a book.

Zee, a Marxist scholar, is somewhat embarrassed by her family’s wealth and stature. The Devohrs of Toronto “sat firmly in the second tier of the great families of the last century, not with the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts of the world but certainly shoulder-to-shoulder with the Astors…” Even her mother, Grace Breen neé Devohr, never uses her maiden name, though she bequeaths it to her daughter as a middle name, a fact Zee conceals fervently. But Zee is not without class-consciousness, of a sort: her embarrassment at Doug’s lack of progress in his writing makes her increasingly anxious to push his career forward by any means possible.

Laurelfield, which will be one hundred years old on New Year’s Day, is said to be haunted by the ghost of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr, who killed herself somewhere in the house. Zee has always been fascinated by the haunting. While teaching a course on ghosts in British and American literature, she muses, “We aren’t haunted by the dead, but by the impossible reach of history. By how unknowable these others are to us, how unfathomable we’d be to them.” We are more fortunate than Zee in this respect, because Makkai will show us the extent of this “impossible reach.” After the first half of the book, the narrative goes back in time, first to 1955, then to 1929, and finally to 1900, when the house was built. But Zee is only partly right about the nature of haunting: Makkai shows how unknowable we can be to each other in the here and now, when we may seem to be together, but are really only slowly passing each other in space and time.

Zee and Doug are only the first obvious example of this. Doug blames Grace for stalling his progress on his book, since she refuses to grant him access to Laurelfield’s attic, which he believes may hold crucial files on Edwin Parfitt. He schemes with fellow outsider Miriam (Zee’s stepbrother’s wife) to gain access to the attic and uncover the secrets of the estate’s past. Meanwhile, Zee tries to seize rigid control of her future. She underhandedly manipulates circumstances, even jeopardizing another professor’s career, to clear a path for Doug to succeed on her terms.

Doug and Zee are figuratively moving in temporally opposite directions. Throughout the novel, Makkai depicts this kind of missed connection again and again, whether it’s in the form of a verbal miscommunication, a misinterpretation of events, or a result of poor timing. Even the reader is subject to the misunderstandings caused by the gaps in a story one hundred years old.

In describing the book’s considered structure and myriad moving parts, it would be easy to inadvertently make The Hundred Year House sound a bit intimidating. Never think it. The book is rich and complicated, yes, but also light and funny and in love with its characters, in their good and bad moments. If Doug is a poor husband, self-centered and un-self-aware at the same time, he is also charming in a way that shows us why Zee fell in love with him. And if Zee is controlling and even unethical, she is also unexpectedly principled in her own way, and we are compelled to empathize with her loneliness.

And this is only the first half of the book. When Zee and Doug’s stories are finished, Makkai takes us back and shows us how haunted the house really is, and by whom. At least the first time you read it, The Hundred Year House is a mystery novel in the purest sense, in that it is not about what will happen, but what has happened, and why. When you read it the second time, mystery solved, the book becomes something else, but equally excellent.

 

 

This book was given to me free of charge for advance review as a popmatters.com reviewer.

July Yeas and Nays

I was traveling for just about half of July, so my reading this month was pretty slim. Here are my short recommendations for the month:

 

Your Presence is Requested At Suvanto Maile Chapman NAY. I think the author is talented, but I’d rather wait and see whether she does something else than read this again. Great prose and atmosphere, thin on plot, glacial pacing.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Maria Semple YEA. Pretty much the perfect summer book: smart, funny, a bit wacky, with a mystery to solve.
The Magician’s Land Lev Grossman YEA, if you’ve read the first two in the trilogy. This is the best of the lot, and I’ll have a review up soon-ish.
The Hundred Year House Rebecca Makkai YEA, one of the best books of the year, in my opinion. Another one I’ll be reviewing soon.

June Yeas and Nays

Halfway through the year! It’s been pretty great, book-wise. Here are the books I read in June and my brief recommendations on whether I think they’re worth a look.

The Cuckoo’s Calling J.K. Rowling YEA. A great start to a series I know I’ll be reading in its entirety.
Famous Baby Karen Rizzo NAY. It’s okay, but there are better books of its type.
Independence Day Richard Ford YEA. I would never presume to tell someone NOT to read Richard Ford. But despite this book’s Pulitzer Prize, I preferred his more recent novel, Canada. Though of course the writing itself, in both books, is as good as writing gets.
Ruin and Rising Leigh Bardugo YEA, if you’ve read the first two and enjoyed them.
The Silkworm J.K. Rowling YEA, it was great fun, and even better than Cuckoo’s Calling.
The Leftovers Tom Perrota MAYBE. It’s a thoughtful, though not groundbreaking book.
The Snow Child Eowyn Ivey YEA. I unreservedly loved this simple, eerie story, and Ivey’s calculatedly restrained style.

The Silkworm, by J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith

After enjoying the debut mystery in J.K. Rowling’s new Cormoran Strike* detective books, I of course wondered whether the books to come would be as enjoyable. I’m glad to report that at least this second installment is even better than the first, having a more interesting plot, deeper character development, and a surer handling of the elements pertaining to its genre: the clues, the red herrings, and the inevitable denouement.

silkwormIn The Silkworm, Strike takes on a case from Leonora Quine, the plain-faced, middle-aged wife of philandering author Owen Quine. Owen Quine has seemingly disappeared for the past three weeks. Though Quine often disappears for days at a time to write or to meet other women, his wife finds this particular disappearance strange not only because of its duration, but also because shortly before disappearing, she spoke with her husband about his newly-finished novel, Bombyx Mori (The Silkworm). He was excited about what he perceived as a rave from his publisher, and was gearing up for a major round of publicity to sell what he thought would be his best work yet.

“I knew you would,” says Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott, when he asks her how she knew he would take the case. “She’s your type,” Robin explains. Robin knows Strike well enough to know what a sucker he is for lost causes, and how much he sees his job as a way to help people, and to right injustices. The desire for justice is one Robin shares, which is part of why she is willing to help Strike do detective work for a relatively low-profile client who may or may not be able to pay.

Since solving the Lula Landry case and inadvertently humiliating the police as a result, Strike has been experiencing a degree of notoriety and a steady stream of well-paying clients looking for surveillance on their unfaithful spouses. But something about Leonora’s plainness, straightforwardness, and lack of entitlement touches him. That Robin realizes this speaks to the understanding she has nearly always had of him, and how it has grown since their meeting. In this book, she continues to prove herself invaluable to Strike, and even to surprise him with talents he could not have guessed. Despite Robin’s engagement to another man and Strike’s history of dangerous women, Rowling continues to hint at the possibility of future romance for these two, and I have to admit I hope it never goes any further. Their partnership is a beautiful thing as-is.

In working on Quine’s disappearance, Strike discovers that Bombyx Mori is a grotesque kind of Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the main character is an underappreciated genius who undergoes all manner of torment at the hands of the characters he meets on his journey. These characters are thinly-disguised caricatures of the people in Quine’s life, and his depiction of them and the secrets he hints at metaphorically are enough to turn any of these people against him. Rowling archly opens each chapter with a quote from different Jacobean revenge plays, suggesting that the grotesqueries of Bombyx Mori are at play in her novel as well, and that she is having terrific fun with it, dropping clues and planting false turns left and right.

The reader has terrific fun as well: Rowling is evidently well aware of the Hitchcockian delight readers can take in despising perpetrators of abominable acts even as we read of their acts for pleasure. Strike and Robin are too sympathetic and intelligent for us to root for the villains, but we get the best of both worlds in being able to wallow in the perversity of the crime before turning smugly self-righteous when Strike and Robin figure it all out.

And it’s no spoiler to say they do figure it all out. The Silkworm, like Cuckoo’s Calling, is fairly formulaic: Strike takes the case, embarks on an RPG-like round of talking to all the villagers suspects, sometimes more than once, a few dangerous scenes ensue, personal lives complicate things, and then Strike has his Sherlock moment, during which he puts it all together, and we know it’s only a matter of time before we’re happily settling in for his ten-page explanation of How it All Happened. But Rowling’s gift has always been to take a well-worn story and polish it up new. She gets better at it every time.

 

*Does anyone else hear “Cormoran Strike” and think it sounds like a move from Street Fighter II?

Famous Baby, by Karen Rizzo

FamousbabyThe blurb on the back cover of Famous Baby notes that author Karen Rizzo’s plays “have been staged at several theaters.” With its larger-than-life characters, spontaneous and slightly incredible emotional vicissitudes, and tragicomic misunderstandings, Rizzo’s first novel would in fact make a fine play, and would possibly work even better that way than it does as a novel– but there’s plenty here as it is to keep a reader turning pages and feeling not unsatisfied upon turning the last one.

On the first page, even before the prologue, we learn that Ruth Sternberg is “The First Mother of Mommy Blogging.” That is, she was the first major blogger to rise to prominence for publicly detailing motherhood in all its joys and agonies. Of course, her main topic of discussion was her daughter Abbie, who at eighteen has had quite enough. Upon learning that her mother plans to move her dying grandmother, Esther, into her home for her final days– and blog about it with the help of hidden web cameras– Abbie suggests a “vacation” to her grandmother.

She sweeps Esther off to Arizona, where she hopes to steal a few more precious moments of privacy before her grandmother passes away. Shortly thereafter, Ruth sets out to find Abbie and bring Esther home. Meanwhile, Abbie’s father, Justin, decides to show up to check on his daughter, and a documentary filmmaker, Eric, uses any means possible to track down Abbie to convince her to work with him on a film about her life.

Of course Abbie’s motives aren’t entirely noble; she wants to stick it to her mother almost as badly as she wants to spend some undocumented time with her beloved grandmother. But then, Ruth’s motives are equally complicated. Ruth loves Abbie, but is self-centered, and somehow never connects Abbie’s resistance to being written about with the possibility that she may have legitimate reasons to resent being treated like a character in her own life instead of as a real person with feelings. Ruth is too busy nursing a wound that is the one secret she does keep.

When the novel works, it works because the main conflict is believable and well-conceived. The free-spirited but self-involved mother and her more responsible daughter are characters we’ve seen before, especially in film, but Rizzo’s use of mommy blogging as a source of conflict wrests a wry smile of recognition out of the reader and refreshes what might otherwise have been boilerplate in substance if not execution. Ruth’s combination of insecurity, flair for drama, and lack of sensitivity make her interesting (her blog would almost certainly be just as famous in real life as it is in the novel), and Abbie is relatable in her indignation and desire for the “normal” childhood she is too young to know that no one has ever really had.

Among the book’s other attributes is Rizzo’s careful ear for voice. Her confident handling of dialogue means that her characters, when they’re speaking, “sound” different from one another. Ruth and Abbie’s alternating chapters are different in tone and register as well as in content.

Notwithstanding voices and personalities of Abbie and Ruth, other characters lack presence. Justin, Abbie’s father and Ruth’s formerly beleaguered spouse turned New Age, yoga-teaching, chi-balancing ex-husband, contributes little to either the atmosphere or the plot. Eric the filmmaker literally stalks Abbie in order to goad her into working with him, but is supposed to be an acceptable love interest for her because he’s extremely good-looking and hey, a nice guy behind all his creepy stalking and refusal to accept Abbie’s adamant “no.” These characters might work better in a play, where the immediacy of the presentation and/or talented actors might make us suspend our skepticism long enough to accept them first and analyze them later. In a novel, they ring false. The borderline farcical feel of the plot demands the anchor of characters we can believe in.

While these drawbacks weaken any dramatic impact the resolution might have had, Famous Baby is really about having a bit of fun, anyway. This explains why things tie up a little too neatly at the end: there’s not that much to tie up, and we’re not meant to be left with much to puzzle out. Though the book does not impart the kind of satisfaction a reader feels upon seeing the elements of a more layered novel come together, there’s equally nothing to detract from the fact that Famous Baby is sufficiently enjoyable as long as it lasts.

This book was given to me free of charge for advance review as a popmatters.com reviewer.

On Ruth Graham’s Slate Article About YA Fiction

Just a few things to say about this article.

1. It’s one thing to say readers miss something when they confine themselves to reading YA and quite another to say adults who read YA should be embarrassed. The author makes the former point in the second half of her article, but leads with the latter point. So which is it?

2. Graham claims that most YA novels “consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple.” She writes this immediately after citing Eleanor and Park and The Fault in Our Stars as books that made her roll her eyes. Without posting any spoilers, I can only point out that neither of these books have unambiguous or simple endings, and that if they do indulge in a sentimentality representative of the extreme emotions teenagers often feel, these indulgences occur as counterpoints to some very “adult” situations.

3. Graham also critiques the YA genre by claiming that “[Adult readers] are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” Says who? No one says you have to read a YA novel and get no more out of it than an average thirteen year old would. She mentions Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game as having been a book she enjoyed when she was young, then says she has no desire to read it again now that she’s older. However, if she did read that wickedly funny, smart, and observant book now, I’m betting she’d pick up on about a million small things even a highly intelligent teen reader would be apt to miss, and even if such a reader did note such details, he/she would lack the experience needed to fully understand them.

4. So in that case, what is YA, anyway? Graham differentiates between the likes of Twilight, which is considered to be weak literature by and large, and the likes of Eleanor and Park, which was published to near-universal acclaim. Graham is correct to note that there are different kinds of YA, but she doesn’t go far enough. Different kinds of books are often marketed as YA simply because they feature teenage protagonists. To declare that adults should find YA “embarrassing” to read is to declare that readers, instead of making their own critical judgments about books, should simply dismiss many excellent novels out of hand simply because a publisher decided that this was how to best make money on a book.

These are my reactions off the top of my head, but at the very least, I think I can definitely say that Graham’s argument is at best unclear. She does make the point that we lose something by restricting our reading entirely to YA, and on that point I agree, though for YA, you could substitute nearly any other genre.