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.

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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: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Alfred A. Knopf. 552 pp.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Alfred A. Knopf. 552 pp.

I bought The Book Thief when it first came out. And — horror of all horrors — I let it sit on my shelf for years. When I was packing for the move to our new house, I set aside a just-in-case stack of books. You see, I packed my library first and couldn’t bear for all of my books to be inaccessible for a couple of months, so I started a random pile of books that I would pack the week of the move. That way, if I had any time — you know, between packing the rest of the apartment, raising a toddler, getting the housework done, and driving 45 minutes each way to strip wallpaper and paint the walls of the new house before we moved in — I could read a previously-unread book. You can guess how well that went. But because it was the last box I packed and I had set it aside, it was one of the first boxes unpacked in the new place. My other books weren’t unpacked yet, so I spent a month and a half dipping into that just-in-case box. And it was wonderful, for the most part. (I struggled with A.S. Byatt’s Possession and still haven’t gotten around to finishing it.)

When I finished The Book Thief, I sat sobbing in a bath that had gone cold while I had been utterly immersed in Liesel’s world. Here’s what I can say without giving too much of the plot away: this book wrecked me emotionally in a way that few books have. Why? Because things like this ACTUALLY HAPPENED. I adore fantasy, but there’s something about realistic fiction — especially historical fiction — that hits me in a way nothing else can. Watching families send their sons off to war, watching adolescents struggle to understand the world of Nazi Germany in which they’re coming of age, hearing the fears of a young Jewish man during Hitler’s reign of terror, and gaining a new — and heartbreaking — understanding of the power of words made this a tough read for me. I kept putting it down and coming back to it later, because it was a lot to process all at once. But it was so, so worth it.

All in all: I’d recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It’s a brilliant examination of what it means to be human, at its best and at its absolute worst, and the writing is beautiful, too.

Review: It’s a BUSLOAD of Pigeon Books! by Mo Willems

It's a Busload of Pigeon Books! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion. 120 pp.

It’s a Busload of Pigeon Books! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion. 120 pp.

A family friend gave my son a Barnes and Noble gift card for his birthday. She explained in the card that it was really a gift for me, because she knew how excited I was to share my love for reading with my little boy. And that gift card has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving, because it’s been almost a year and not only do we still have a little bit of money left to spend, but one of the selections has become a family favorite.

My son requests these books constantly; he loves The Pigeon. (That should be capitalized, right? He’s an institution!) My husband and I enjoy these books as well; they’re funny and easy to read aloud. The lines are simple and super-fun to add inflection to, like

Can you believe this guy?!

or

First of all, I’m not even tired.

It’s great fun to witness The Pigeon’s antics, and my son looooves being in charge of whether or not The Pigeon gets to drive the bus. (For once, he’s not the one begging for a privilege!)

These books are much smaller than the regular hardcover editions, which was disappointing at first, but I should have guessed because they’re also much cheaper. As I’ve gotten used to them, they don’t feel overly miniature any more; they’re actually a better size for my almost-two-year-old. The set also comes with an activity poster (one side activities, one side pop-art Pigeon poster) which is small but cute.

All in all: A fun addition to a child’s library. Also great for a gift; the box set nature makes it feel gift-y to me.

Review: Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins. Random House. 288 pp.

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins. Random House. 288 pp.

From the two-term Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins comes his first compilation of new and selected poems in twelve years. Aimless Love combines new poems with selections from four previous books—Nine Horses, The Trouble with Poetry, Ballistics, and Horoscopes for the Dead. Collins’s unmistakable voice, which brings together plain speech with imaginative surprise, is clearly heard with every word, reminding us how he has managed to enrich the tapestry of contemporary poetry and greatly expand its audience. His work is featured in top literary magazines such as The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Atlantic, and he sells out reading venues all across the country. Appearing regularly in The Best American Poetry series, his poems appeal to readers and live audiences far and wide and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. By turns playful, ironic, and serious, Collins’s poetry captures the nuances of everyday life while leading the reader into zones of inspired wonder. In the poet’s own words, he hopes that his poems “begin in Kansas and end in Oz.” Touching on the themes of love, loss, joy, and poetry itself, these poems showcase the best work of this “poet of plenitude, irony, and Augustan grace” (The New Yorker).


I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t had much experience with Billy Collins’s work before starting this collection. (I’m not very well versed in poetry, especially that of the twenty-first century. But I’m working on it.) I’d come across a poem of his here and there in anthologies but hadn’t picked up a collection of his work yet. And — like many books I’ve been reading lately — I’m disappointed in myself for taking so long to read this one. Aimless Love is a great place to start because it includes Collins’s old poems as well as new. It was a great sampler for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Collins’s poetry reminds me of the time I stood in St. Paul’s Cathedral: the world seemed so big, and as a result I felt small and insignificant, but it was overwhelming in the best possible way. I felt connected to the world around me, a small cog in a complex mechanism. (And I’m not Catholic. This may have been a sort of architectural revelation.) There are things that we all experience, and there are aspects of life unique to each of us, and good poetry (good writing of any kind, really) finds a way to bridge the gap between people until we remember that we are all part of the same underlying human experience.

All in all: Collins writes poems that are easily accessible to the reluctant reader but well-crafted enough to be admired by lovers of the written word. An excellent collection, one that would make a great gift. (I received a digital review copy but plan to purchase a print edition so I can underline my favorite lines and pencil in some marginalia.)

Review: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden

PoemsThatMakeGrownMenCry

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony & Ben Holden. Simon & Schuster. 336 pp.

Grown men don’t cry.

But in this fascinating anthology, one hundred men—distinguished in literature and film, science and architecture, theater and human rights—confess to being moved to tears by poems that continue to haunt them. Representing twenty nationalities and ranging in age from their early 20s to their late 80s, the majority are public figures not prone to crying. Here they admit to breaking down when ambushed by great art, often in words as powerful as the poems themselves.

Their selections include classics by visionaries such as Walt Whitman, W.H Auden, and Philip Larkin, as well as contemporary works by masters including Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, and poets who span the globe from Pablo Neruda to Rabindranath Tagore.

Seventy-five percent of the selected poems were written in the twentieth century, with more than a dozen by women including Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Their themes range from love in its many guises, through mortality and loss, to the beauty and variety of nature. Three men have suffered the pain of losing a child; others are moved to tears by the exquisite way a poet captures, in Alexander Pope’s famous phrase, “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.

From J.J. Abrams to John le Carré, Salman Rushdie to Jonathan Franzen, Daniel Radcliffe to Nick Cave, Billy Collins to Stephen Fry, Stanley Tucci to Colin Firth, and Seamus Heaney to Christopher Hitchens, this collection delivers private insight into the souls of men whose writing, acting, and thinking are admired around the world.


You don’t have to say it: I am fully aware that I am not a man. Also, I’m an embarrassingly easy crier and will shed a tear at the drop of a hat. (I’ve recently taken to speed-reading through sad scenes in books because otherwise I’d have to tag far too many reviews with “Made Me Cry.”) So what made me request this one from Edelweiss? Basically, I figured that this had to be a collection of damn good poems in order to move so many eminent men so deeply. Also, the range of contributors seemed pretty broad, and it included a lot of my favorites. I’m always interested in finding out if my tastes match the tastes of the writers/performers/etc. I admire.

The editors allowed each contributor to include a brief piece explaining why he chose his particular poem. I found it particularly interesting when two men chose the same poem for different reasons, which happened more than once. After the poem, there’s a brief bio on the selector. Although I recognized most of the names, there were a few I didn’t, and I found this feature helpful.

The poetry itself comes from various time periods and languages, though most were written in English in the last 100-150 years. Some are beautiful but not particularly emotional, some seemed chosen for strictly personal reasons (and therefore felt a bit distant for me), and some left me pacing the floors of my home while sobbing.

Some of the poems didn’t make me cry, but they opened my eyes to a new poet and a style that I admired (I’ve included links when I could find them): Abioseh Nicol’s “The Meaning of Africa,” chosen by James Earl Jones, with its sweeping descriptions; Elizabeth Bishop’s powerfully evocative “Crusoe in England,” chosen by Andrew Solomon; Philip Larkin’s terrifying “Aubade,” chosen by William Sieghart; and — one I’d read previously and forgotten about — Bukowski’s “Eulogy to a Hell of a Dame,” chosen by Mike Leigh.

Other poems’ messages moved me: Consantine P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka,” chosen by Walter Salles, and Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love,” chosen by Tom Hiddleston.

Poems that hit me the hardest — the ones that made me out-and-out cry — were the ones about family, whether having/losing a parent (Tony Harrison’s “Long Distance II,” chosen by Daniel Radcliffe) or being one (John N. Morris’s “For Julia, In the Deep Water,” chosen by Tobias Wolff; Victoria Redel’s “Bedecked,” chosen by Billy Collins; and Rabindranath Tagore’s “Those Who Are Near Me Do Not Know,” chosen by Chris Cooper).

All in all: There’s something for everyone in here. Buy a stack of copies and gift them!