The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater thinks there should be more to life than the daily grind. More than growing up, going to school, going to college, getting a corporate job and then dying. Maybe something more like Fillory from hisfavorite children’s novel Fillory and Further. Turns out Quentin is right. On the day of his interview for Yale, weird things keep happening until he finds himself transported to a strange house with a strange exam that he manages to pass and is accepted to a strange magic school. His journey toward becoming a Magician is long and more difficult than he expected, but Quentin finally feels like he’s where he belongs, like his life has a purpose.

It’s worth mentioning that I specifically sought this book out because it’s a current television show on the Syfy network that I happen to really enjoy. There are some changes between the media, but overall the adaptation is pretty true to form. I am a little sad that I watched the show before I read the book because there are some reall blow-your-mind moments that I knew were coming because I’ve already experienced them. I would have liked to have the full impact when I read them for the first time, so if you’re considering watching the show/reading the books, just think about that.

I’m sure Grossman’s gotten this mroe times than he can count, but The Magicians is basically the adult crossover of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. It lacks the iconography, historical references and morality lessons from either of the stories, but that contributes to the atmosphere of the novel. It’s very much intended to be an imagining of what would happen if these whimsical stories of childhood wizardry took place in the real world, where there isn’t always a lesson and there are consequences for the choices you make or don’t make.

Mental illness and addiction are undercurrents of the novel. Quentin, for example, the main character, suffers from chronic depression. It shapes his worldview and taints it. It’s why he’s always looking for more, why he’s always so whiny when things don’t go the way he hoped they would, and why he’s so good at self-sabotage. He’s not an incredibly likable character, and he’s not meant to be. This also contributes to the complexity of the story and speaks to the intended audience of the novel. The Eliot of the television show says something about where he thinks magic comes from: pain and suffering. There a reason that not everyone can do magic. They simply don’t have the misery to draw from. That’s probably why they all feel the need to numb everything with alcohol or drugs or whatever they can find really.

The pacing is a tad confusing. They get through the entirety of their time at Brakebills in Book One, but the novel still has three acts left. We don’t really have the time necessary to grow with the characters. Suddenly they’re in college, suddenly they’ve graduated. Next we spend a lot of time doing nothing in the real world until Penny shows up to take us on an adventure. One of the brightest spots of this novel when compared with other novels about magic is it’s inclusion of magical theory. That could have been used more effectively to expand upon the growth of the magicians.

I’m really excited to read the sequel and subsequent novels of the series. Thankfully, I am at a point in my binge-watching of the television series that will allow me to enjoy the novel version the first time through. I give this book a hopeful 4 out of 5 stars for characterization and world-building. Those who grew up on fantasy novels and are looking for a more adult take on their genre will enjoy this.

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Shatter Me by Tehareh Mafi

Juliette has a curse. When she touches another person, she absorbs their energy. Since a terrible incident when she was younger, Juliette’s been locked away and isolated in an asylum to protect others from her. Until she gets a roommate. A boy roommate. Juliette tries to keep her distance from Adam, but he’s just so clueless. Or… is he? Because the next thing Juliette knows, their both being pulled from the asylum to work for a deranged military commander named Warner, and Adam seems pretty chummy with the other soldiers.

This book felt like such an X-men meets Delirium kind of story. Juliette is literally Rogue. The romance is what makes it feel like Delirium. There’s the tyrannical government sectioning people off, only allowing them to live in Zoned in Areas. I forget what it’s called in Delirium, but in Shatter Me, the governing body goes by the Reestablishment. They limit personal freedoms and people live in squalor in the name of protection from a world ruined by people. Then both of the love interests names start with “A”, and the steamy love scenes just felt so similar and had really similar dialogue. I don’t know, it’s just what it reminded me of.

Juliette’s been in the asylum since she was 13, so her tendency toward hyperbole is understandable. What’s really impressive is Mafi’s handling of the internal dialogue. She manages to convey Juliette’s naivete without making her seem juvenile. Mafi’s writing is poetic and hypnotic, and while I’m not usually a fan of writing in vernacular or purposefully messing with grammar to make a point, but Mafi does it so beautifull. Instead of thought and ideas coming in a sudden rush, like with many writers who write to mimic thought patterns, Mafi has a way of slowing the thoughts down and giving them space to breathe.

Adam’s reason for loving Juliette is the same reason that I don’t love her as a character; she’s whole-heartedly and unfailingly good. She has this power to hurt people, and it’s terrible, but people have also alienated her because of it for her entire life. Any normal person would have considered retaliating, especially when she’s taken by Warner. Any interesting character would have an internal struggle over the issue. But Juliette is uncomplicated this way, and as such, loses what would have been the most compelling part of her character.

The pacing is phenomenal. The author is so aware of the purpose that every even must serve to the story. She’s aware that every moment must mean some learning or action item for Juliette and it must help the reader to discover something new about his world. This knowledge is also helpful for the necessary world-building aspect of a dystopian. The exposition is delivered within the context of the story, not set aside to be synthesized on its own.

I’m excited to see where the story goes next. We leave Juliette and Adam in a promising place for character development and upcoming action. This book is fun, if familiar. The familiarity of it lends a sense of safety, like we know how this will end. I hope the author uses those expecations to her advantage and surprises us with the next installment. I give it a 3 out of 5 stars and recommend to those looking for a steamy YA, with a quickly moving plot and beautiful writing.

The Last City of America by Matthew Tysz

This review was originally posted on Online Book Club, and the original review can be found here.

In The Last City of America, a virus has rendered most of the human race sterile, leading to widespread panic and chaos. The United States government has been disassembled and the Seven Cities of America, where corruption and oppression run deep, were established. Meanwhile, the secretive Rush University in Chicago, the birthplace of the original Hephaestus virus, has been working to further scientific advancement and destroy what’s left of humanity.

This book is macabre and depressing. In fiction, the villain is rarely out to ruin the world just for the sake of ruining it. They’re usually vengeful and angry, or they think that they’re doing something terrible that will eventually pay off in some great gain. Not in this book. The people in power in this novel are just crazy and they enjoy manipulating and ruining lives for the funsies. And while we’re talking about characters, it’s important to talk about how female characters are represented in the novel. There are few female characters, and none of them have any ambition. They’re placed as plot points to further the ambitions of the men in the novel. Language used to discuss these women is disgusting and gives me the heebie-jeebies. These women need to be fleshed out as full characters and less objectified in order to work.

Little effort is made at world-building. The reader is dropped into the Seven Cities with very few contextual clues as to the history and customs of this new post-apocalyptic world. The author does have a good understanding of long-term story development. Pacing is not usually the strongest skill in debut authors, but this author’s ability to effectively establish and follow the pace kept it moving along. I’m not usually a fan of point of view changes or the short chapters (think Dan Brown style), but it was an important tool in this story because of the geographic diversity and number of significant players.

I give this book 3 out of 5 stars because it’s a decent story and the pacing is good, but I need more in terms of character fleshing and world-building.

Becoming the Dragon by Alex Sapegin

Becoming the Dragon by Alex Sapegin, is the first novel in a fantasy series. When Andy was younger, he was struck by lightning. Now he can’t get anywhere near technology without it failing to work. That’s my theory about why his father’s teleportation device transported him to another world. In this other world, he is captured and tortured, but he also befriends a powerful dragon who, when Andy is mortally wounded, helps him be reborn as a dragon.

The writing was just confusing, but I don’t think it was the translation. The translation was actually handled really well; grammatically, everything made sense and the writing style was eloquent, but nothing made sense in terms of actual events and dialogue. For example, near the beginning of the story we find out that Andy’s dad works on a government project to build a teleportation device. I was not only surprised that Andy knew about his dad’s super secret, classified government project, but the internal dialogue he when he was transported someplace unfamiliar by accident was almost entirely non-sequitur. Things that were said didn’t fit well with events happening, so I had to read things multiple times to try and piece together what point the author was trying to make.

This author broke up the story too much with the star breaks. There was a set of stars at least every three pages. If you’re using that many breaks, you likely should consider adding more events to a certain time point, or not cutting to a different character. For example, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the scene with Andy’s father at work. Leave your audience in the same position Andy is, wondering what happened. It could have been explained with more effect if it had been saved for later in the story, and it would have reduced the number of breaks and point of view changes that pull readers out of a story.

I like Andy a lot. Except for the fact that he’s good at everything (which is annoying), he’s relatable. He likes to frustrate people who deserve to be frustrated and his meltdown in the forest is almost exactly how I would react to the situation. His love for his family is also admirable. On that note, I wish we had spent more time with Andy than switching POVs. Switching back and forth is distracting, but also keeping readers in the dark about things going on elsewhere in the novel can be more powerful for building suspense.

I rate Becoming the Dragon 2 out of 5 stars. This story would be okay for younger teens or older children. It’s not quite complex enough for a YA designation, but the characters may be too old and the vocabulary too advanced for younger children to relate to. I didn’t enjoy the story mostly because it didn’t make sense most of the time. While there were few technical errors, there were many non-sequitur moments that made this story hard to follow. The story also had pacing problems and I don’t like changes in point of view. Some redeeming qualities were the likability of characters and the amount of fun the premise of the story is.

This review was originally published on Online Book Club and can be viewed here.

Superhighway by Alex Fayman

Superhighway is the story of orphan Alex who discovered his strange ability to travel through the Internet. He can Google the location, grasp a fiber optic internet cable and the next thing he knows, he’s there. He uses this strange power to act as a modern day Robin Hood, stealing from rich mobsters to gift to those in need. Along the way, Alex, the nerdy, orphan boy learns more about himself and his past. I give this book 2 out of 5 stars. It wasn’t an outstanding book, and was difficult to get through at times, but the storyline itself is original, and it had its fun moments.

The opening chapter was really off-putting. It was in medias res, which is usually a compelling way to start a story, but there simply wasn’t enough information about the character or his history or where he’s headed for it to have made sense. Additionally, the writing style is a little heard to get through, especially at first. It’s not technically wrong, but it’s clunky and clear the author is much more comfortable in an expository mode. When there are action moments, they’re rushed and incomplete.

His confidence in his abilities throughout the entire story is strange. Usually when someone is newly introduced to a power, they’re confused. And his lack of confusion doesn’t make Alex seem macho, just weird. Additionally, his characterization is inconsistent. In the arm parts of the novel, Alex is described as anti-social, nerdy and a book-worm. When he travels, suddenly he’s turned into a hunky habitual runner? I don’t believe it. Finally, every time he speaks about women disgusts me. His objectification is gross and his unearned confidence in himself is off-putting.

A sense of familiarity is not a bad thing. Alex didn’t need to leave the orphanage, and he didn’t need to do it when he chose to or the way that he chose to. Giving him a familiar home-base is good for humanizing him and helping the reader feel comfortable. I get it, the orphanage sucks. But the lady there is the only family Alex has ever had. That’s the only home Alex has ever known. Even when he lived there, he wasn’t disdainful, so it makes no sense that he became so bitter and left when he did. Not only is this problematic for Alex, who I already don’t like. But it’s problematic for the reader, too. Missing home is relatable, which is something Alex sorely needs in order to be a more fleshed out character. If you ever read a well known sci-fi novel, they learn massive truths about themselves and the world, but they almost always have a home to miss and go back to.

The author tried to be subtle with the foreshadowing, but it was thinly veiled and often pulled the reader out of the story. The author’s ability to build-up to any climactic moments could also be improved. There were also a lot of random side adventures that didn’t really add to the story, and it’s hard to build up to those small side-plots. It was clear they were meant for exposition, and they really were boring and made any build up to the actual climax less effective. Finally, the dialogue was poor. There was nothing wrong with it technically, but it was clunky and uncomfortable to read. The author should consider using contractions or fewer words in the future.

This review was originally written for Online Book Club and can be viewed here.

Solaris Seethes by Janet McNulty

Rynah’s world has been destroyed. Literally. And by her boyfriend. He stole the crystal that stabilized magnetic field on their planet, unleashing volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, storms and general apocalyptic chaos. In Solaris Seethes, Rynah is on a mission to beat her boyfriend to the other 5 crystals that exist on different worlds and prevent him from creating a dangerous weapon from the powerful objects. To do so, she’ll need the help of four Earthens, who she picks up with the help of her sentient ship, Solaris. I gave this book 1 out of 5 stars for issues related to writing style, pacing and character development.

The author is really wordy. And wordiness isn’t always a bad thing, but the word choice is often really strange. Using words like ‘heliotrope’ doesn’t help anyone understand what’s going on, it just makes them stop reading to check their dictionary. Additionally, so many of the sentences are run on, including unnecessary information that pulled the audience out of the story. This contributed significantly to the existing pacing problem.

Pacing was a real struggle. My reaction right from the beginning: what is going on? We open, and there’s no set-up and no given information. The audience is thrown face first into a firefight. This trend is pretty consistent throughout the story too. It’s normal for an ensemble cast to get in a lot of little messes like this crew does, but there is rarely any form of rising action to it. They go someplace. Suddenly there is trouble. The trouble is resolved just as suddenly. They move on. And in the interest of long-term pacing (like you’re looking for in a series), fewer climax points are more effective when it comes to audience impact.

When you’re writing sci-fi, there’s going to be a lot of exposition. You want to build a world, and you want that world-building to not pull the audience out of the story. For that reason, it’s often useful to have the main character act as the audience. The main character should be dropped into the middle of a new world (like the audience is) and needs the world explained to them by another leading character. The author doesn’t do that here; instead the story is primarily told in 3rd person with a focus on Rynah and what she already knows. This makes Rynah come off poorly. She feels like a cold know-it-all instead of a leader we actually want to empathize with.

On the topic of Rynah, she keeps doing this thing where she’s a sh*t, and then she’s scolded by Solaris, and then she doesn’t change anyway, so there was no point to the scolding. It makes her an uninteresting character and her lack of development through the story is really boring. Actually all of the characters lack development. They never learn anything or change as a result of anything. They all feel flat as a result, and nobody can relate to that. I like the story line, even if I don’t like the characters. I liked watching Rynah come to terms with the fact that all of her myths were the same as Earthen myths. That theme was pretty consistent and will likely play a role later. However, I feel like it’s worth pointing out that Hercules is a Roman myth, not a Greek myth. Heracles was the Greek version of the myth.

This review was originally published on Online Book Club and can be viewed here.

Feast by Hannah Howard

In Hannah Howard’s powerful memoir, she writes about her love affair with food. She writes about her tendency to hurt herself with food. Food fills an unfillable hole for Hannah, and when she doesn’t think she deserves to be hole, she deprives herself of it as a punishment. Hannah is open and honest about her experiences and she delivers one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

The writing in this novel is beautiful. She writes so descriptively, you can taste what the food Hannah is eating. Whether or not you’ve been through the things that Hannah’s been through, her thoughts and feelings are laid out so bare for the reader to see. It’s impossible not to empathize or relate. And for those who have been through something similar to what Hannah’s been through, she’s right. You feel so alone, until you realize that you aren’t alone, and then everything becomes about something so much bigger than you.

It’s so refreshing  to read a book featuring a person with an eating disorder that doesn’t end in the character having a starvation-induced, near-death dream sequence and realizing they want to live. The strength of Hannah’s story comes from her learning to love herself over time. Every thing she’s learned, every ounce of self-worth and perspective she’s gained, Hannah’s had to work for. That’s what’s so powerful about her story. That grit is the reason anyone who reads Hannah’s story should love it.