Tuesday, March 29, 2011

CBRIII Book 10: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

It should come as no surprise to those of you who know me that I loved this book. LOVED IT. A story about a young man who discovers a world of magic that lies beyond our own? I didn't stand a chance against this book.

Quentin Coldwater is disillusioned. At the young age of 17, he's tired of his home in New York City, and the ever-pervading feeling that the life he's living is not the life that was intended for him. He longs to discover that his real life exists elsewhere... like the magical world of Fillory, a Narnia-esque fantasy world created by an author named Christopher Plover. Quentin is a huge fan of the Fillory series, and secretly compares his life to the adventures of the Chatwin family in the series. A smart, sharp, brooding teenager (is there any other kind?), Quentin is on his way to an interview with a Princeton alum when things go awry - the interviewer is dead, and left behind in a file for Quentin to find is a manuscript for a sixth Fillory book - a book that does not exist. Intrigued, Quentin opens the book and slips down the proverbial rabbit hole, ending up on the grounds of a school in upstate New York - Brakebills College. He discovers in short time that magic is real, and he is being offered the chance to study it at Brakebills if he passes an exam unlike any other he's ever taken. Quentin naturally jumps at the chance - could the life he'd been longing for actually be real? It may not be Fillory, but it's something amazing and new, and worlds away from his life in high school.

Soon, Quentin is a student at Brakebills, learning how to cast spells while trying to figure out his specific Discipline (a specific area of magic that he'll focus on, like picking a major at college). This is no Hogwarts, though, and it's clear that there is a dark side to everything he learns. As the years pass by, Quentin slowly comes to realize that he can do anything he wants, with the magic he's learned - so what is there to do when you can literally do anything? He again experiences disillusionment and fears that he's losing the battle when one of his classmates comes to him with an amazing discovery - Fillory is real, and is theirs for the taking. He and his friends travel to Fillory to discover the truth behind Plover's stories - and to discover their fate once and for all.

I could go on and on about this book - it's filled from start to finish with captivating adventures. One scene in particular has stuck with me since reading the novel. One typical day, while stuck in a boring lecture, Quentin tries to find a way to entertain himself by causing the professor to mess up his lecture, and inadvertently creates a spell that allows an otherworldly creature referred to as "the Beast" to cross over into their world. Grossman creates such a permeating sense of absolute dread that you can't help but feel as terrified and helpless as the students feel in being trapped in the hall with the Beast as it stalks about playing with its prey.

I found myself identifying with Quentin's ongoing inability to just live in the moment and enjoy it. I mean, who hasn't at one time or another looked around and thought, "Is this it? Is this really how my life is?" And even as Quentin gets the chance to live the life he thought he wanted, he's still not sure if it's going to lead to the happiness he's been missing. I've read some reviews that thought that Quentin was basically a big idiot - he got his wish, what is he waiting for?, that kind of thing - but to me that just made the character more realistic.

I've heard the book described as "Harry Potter for adults." That's a very easy comparison to make, but I think the world that Grossman has created here is strong enough to stand on its own. Brakebills and all of its students felt very real to me, and Fillory comes to life in the last section of the book. Grossman is working on a sequel to be released sometime this year. I cannot wait to read what new adventures he's come up with since he finished the Magicians.

CBR III Book 9: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby is a British author whose works are well-liked and have been adapted into many movies: Fever Pitch, About a Boy, High Fidelity, etc. "A Long Way Down" is a trifle of a book that I can't imagine would make a very good film, but it does have that Hornby wit that elevates it above a typical mindless read.

On New Year's Eve, four strangers find themselves on the top of Topper House in London, a building with a reputation as a last stop for those considering suicide. Martin is a breakfast tv show host who has messed up his life due to a scandalous affair with an underage girl; Maureen is a single mother who has devoted her life to her (both physically and developmentally) handicapped son; Jess is a slightly loony British teen who hides a family secret; and JJ is the lone American of the group, a musician who is trying to come to terms with the end of his career. Although they're all considering jumping, none of them are able to do it in front of the others, and they end up forming an unlikely bond. The book follows the group as they leave Topper House together and, over the next few months, try to figure out what led them there in the first place and if it's worth changing their lives to they don't end up there in the future.

All four characters take turns narrating the novel, and it helps to hear what's going on in each of their heads. Of all the characters, Maureen stuck with me the most, because she had the worst circumstances, and yet her life is the most improved by the end in very simple ways. But I have the feeling that in a month's time, I won't even remember the names of the characters. This is a very quick, easy read that doesn't leave much of an impression behind - not that there's anything wrong with that.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

CBR III Book 8: Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present by Cory Doctorow

I almost gave up on this book. It's a collection of short stories by Cory Doctorow, one of the founders of BoingBoing.net, which is a daily Internet stop for me. I can always find something amusing or fascinating on the website, so I was surprised to find myself so bored with the first few stories in the book. I'm not a gamer, and I'm not a tech geek or web geek or whatever they call themselves, so I suppose it's not really surprising that some of the stories didn't catch my interest.

Overclocked is a compendium of some of Doctorow's best known stories: "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth," "Anda's Game," and "I, Robot" are the three that I'd heard of before picking up the book. "When Sysadmins..." tells the story of a group of systems administrators who are the survivors of some epic apocalyptic event. On the back of the book, the story's blurb reads "When Sysadmins... tells of the heroic exploits of sysadmins... as they defend the cyber-world, and hence the world at large, from worms and bioweapons." And my GOD, that could not be a more misleading blurb. None of that happens. In fact, NOTHING happens in the story. These sysadmins survive, and decide that they should do something, and after a whole bunch of nothing happens, they decide to create a government made up entirely of elected sysadmins, and then a whole bunch of nothing else happens and the story ends. There wasn't any "defending" going on. As far as apocalyptic stories go, this might be the worst one I've ever read.

"Anda's Game" didn't fair much better, I'm afraid. It's the story of a girl who spends her days making money as a gamer and stumbles onto a virtual sweatshop where teenage girls are working in poor labor conditions for little amounts of money. It was an interesting premise, but the execution was rather dull, the main character was a little twat, to be frank, and it ends just as things start to get interesting and Anda decides to take down those in charge of the sweatshops.

The only story that I truly enjoyed out of the 6 was "I, Robot." Doctorow openly admits in his preface that the story borrows largely from Asimov - from the title itself to the three laws of robotics - and Orwell - he uses the geography of 1984, referring to Oceania and Eurasia in the story - and it's a little disappointing (there's that word again!) that the one story I liked is the one that is basically not his own work. I'm not saying he's not a good writer; I'm saying I apparently don't like his work unless he uses the (more interesting? better thought-out? more creative?) work of others.

Hmmm. When I set out to review this book, I didn't plan on talking so much about how I didn't like it. But the more I think about it, the more I realize just how let down I was. I guess it serves me right for having such lofty expectations for Doctorow's work. In any case, I don't think I'll be picking up any of his other stories or his novels. There's so much science fiction out there to be read, why dwell on the stuff I don't like?

And one last note: "Stories of the Future Present" - really? Really?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

CBR III Book 7: Fly Away Home by Jennifer Weiner

Sylvie Woodruff is a politician's wife who has devoted her life to taking care of her husband, Richard. She's written his speeches, set his schedule, groomed him, and raised his two daughters. Her seemingly perfect life is rocked when it's revealed that Richard had an affair with a young staffer and procured a job for her. Sylvie is devastated by this betrayal and seeks refuge in her family's beachhouse in Connecticut. She needs time away from Richard to figure out what's next - not only for their marriage, but for herself, because without him, she doesn't even know who she is anymore.

Meanwhile, Sylvie's two grown-up daughters find themselves struggling with problems of their own. Diana, the eldest, is a doctor living in Philadelphia with her husband Gary and son Milo. Diana has worked hard to build a solid, perfect-looking life of her own, but she's found herself tempted to stray from her marriage - and risks losing everything in the process. And Lizzie, the younger daughter, is a recovering drug addict who is trying to prove that she's not the black sheep of the family. Both of the girls find themselves, like their mother, trying to suss out who they are, while also trying to figure out what it means to be a family when things are at their worst.

I'm a fan of Jennifer Weiner's work - I've read everything she's ever published. I didn't think this one was up to her standard, and I couldn't quite figure out what about it I didn't like, but I think it boils down to trying to pack too much into one book. Any one of the three major storylines could have its own book; by putting them all into one novel, they ended up a little compressed and rushed in order to reach the same ending point together. However, I'd still recommend the book - it's a nice, easy read, perfect for curling up on the couch with a cup of hot cocoa.