The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

magicians

Quentin is a genius, and he’s pretty depressed. Life lacks color for him, and he immerses himself in a children’s book series about Fillory, a land filled with magic, as a form of escape. Imagine Quentin’s delight when he finds out that magic is real, there are colleges that teach it, and he’s been accepted into one … but disillusionment isn’t far behind no matter how many dreams come true for Quentin. The Magicians has been described as a mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books, but for adult audiences, and the author does not hide the fact that he’s borrowing heavily from those two series.

I first read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians a couple of years after it came out, and I came away from it feeling pretty grumpy. I wasn’t sure why it had that impact on me. At first, I thought it was the general ickiness of most of the cast, but I’ve enjoyed plenty of books without likeable characters. I had lunch with a friend who also disliked the book, and we talked about it for a bit, but I never reached a satisfying resolution to my lack of appreciation for a story recommended by people whose book opinions I value (including my sister).

A couple of months ago, a group of friends and I decided to start a book club, and as I tried to come up with a good first book that would have some appeal to a wide range of people, I suggested The Magicians—in part because I thought that I should give it a second chance. My first reading of it was at an unsettled time in my life, and I’ve had more than a few instances where I’ve enjoyed a book more after a second reading.

The verdict after this reading? Yes, I enjoyed it more this time, in part because I was able to adjust my expectations away from a universe as magical as the ones found in the Harry Potter and Narnia series. This second go also gave me the opportunity to zero in on what was so off-putting the first time around, and the problem is largely with me. One of the reasons I read books from the fantasy genre is to be entranced by a whole new world—or an interesting new riff on the world in which we’re living. Because it borrows so blatantly and unapologetically from previously established worlds, The Magicians didn’t offer me the level of escape and diversion that other fantasy novels do. Every storyline is a distorted view of worlds I already know thoroughly and love, and it was jarring the first time I read it. (For the record, I also didn’t enjoy the Bizarro World storylines that DC put out, so at least I’m consistent.)

What did I like this time? Well, I appreciated Lev Grossman’s willingness to do a deeper character study than is often found in this genre. Although some members of Quentin’s crew are teen movie stereotypes (and icky), Quentin is more than just the typical brooding, brilliant teen/young adult. And I liked the shy-but-strong Alice quite a bit. It’s also a positive that Lev Grossman can write well, of course, though I was often bored during the action scenes.

The Magicians ends where I’m sure book 2 begins, and it left me intrigued enough to be tempted to continue the series. However, this may end up being an instance where I watch the tv show instead.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Evelyn Hugo is a Hollywood icon—Elizabeth Taylor meets Lauren Bacall, with more than a touch of Greta Garbo. She’s the woman that every woman wants to be, and that every man wants to have. Her meteoric rise to stardom and subsequent climb to superstardom leaves a pile of husbands by the wayside. To the outsider, her love life is very complicated. But in the context of her career, it makes perfect sense—to Evelyn, at least.

Evelyn is now in her late 70s, and she has been living quietly, having retired from public life decades before. She decides that it’s time to tell all. And there is much to tell. To do the job, she chooses a nobody, Monique Grant, who has been a magazine reporter for barely a year. Why Monique? That’s a mystery to everyone, including Monique, and Evelyn is in no hurry to give answers as she narrates her scandalous story.

It’s a wild ride indeed. We meet poor Eddie Diaz, goddamn Don Adler, gullible Mick Riva, clever Rex North, tortured Harry Cameron, disappointing Max Girard, and agreeable Robert Jamison, all of whom are lucky/unlucky enough to be married to Evelyn at some point. We also meet Celia St. James, Evelyn’s rival, dearest friend, and fellow Hollywood megastar. We learn, too, that the title of the book is a bit deceptive, as there is more to Evelyn’s love life than meets the eye.

The present-day story is told in the first person by the frankly uninteresting Monique, which works to give us an outside perspective on Evelyn—at least, Evelyn as a still-glamorous senior citizen. Evelyn’s story, though, is told in the first person by Evelyn, which is awkward. It’s just too much of a stretch for Evelyn to be able to remember full conversations and assign thoughts and feelings as she does. On the other hand, this approach does provide an explanation for the reader’s inability to grasp any of the other characters in the book—Evelyn is all about Evelyn, even when she’s protecting those she loves.

The answer to the first mystery of the book—who is Evelyn’s true love?–is revealed early; the answer to the second mystery—why Monique?—develops late and is a bit unsatisfying. And the book skips over some major, and potentially interesting, sections of Evelyn’s life. But despite its flaws, this is a rip-roaring beach romp through old Hollywood, with some interesting observations on love versus intimacy, and on the sacrifices needed to keep up appearances while living in the public eye.

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

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In post-apocalyptic Africa, there are two peoples: the dark-skinned, oppressed Okeke and the lighter-skinned, dominant Nuru. Our heroine, Onyesonwu—whose name means “Who fears death”—is born a mixed-race Ewu, conceived in a rape during a genocidal raid on her mother’s village. The rape was intended to create a powerful sorcerer, and it succeeded, though not quite as Onyesonwu’s evil magical father had intended. Emotional, passionate, curious, strong, impulsive, and fiercely independent, Onyesonwu is a girl who is no one’s sidekick.

The first half of the book shows Onyesonwu learning who she is while battling prejudice, both as a woman and as an Ewu. At first she tries to conform to the norms of the Okeke village in which she and her mother ultimately reside, but at the same time she begins to exhibit incredible powers that ensure that she will always be an outsider. Eventually she bonds with three other girls with whom she shares a clitoridectomy ceremony, and she grows close to a mysterious Ewu boy named Mwita. Then, when she finally persuades an extremely reluctant sorcerer to take her on as a student, Onyesonwu begins to learn her destiny.

As tends to happen in fantasy novels, there is a prophecy. Although Onyesonwu does not originally seem to fit the description of the one who will literally rewrite the rules, it soon becomes clear that fate may be wrong about some details. As tends to happen in fantasy novels, a journey must therefore be undertaken, and a fellowship must be formed.

The second half of the book follows Onyesonwu and her posse through five months in the desert on the way to a showdown with her father, who leads the Nuru in attacks meant to obliterate the Okeke. Nnedi Okorafor is a skilled raconteur, but given the buildup, the ending comes so quickly that it feels like an afterthought. And Onyesonwu is hardly an untainted heroine, given the destruction she heaps on two villages along her journey. Indeed, she exhibits—even welcomes—the violent tendencies that Ewu are assumed to possess because of the violence of their conception, which is the reason why Ewu are universally shunned. But then, conception is a central theme of this book, and Onyesonwu’s Ewu lover Mwita, born not of rape but of love between the two races, is a moderating force and a healer.

The book has a hard time settling into a groove. It feels at times like a YA novel, except that Onyesonwu and Mwita (not to mention Onyesonwu’s girlfriends) are constantly having sex. (Although their sex feels like YA sex—lots of reaching for each other, and then….) The story follows a fantasy outline, but it throws science fiction elements into the mix without following the paths they suggest. And though there’s nothing wrong with a little ambiguity, there are a ridiculous number of overly sly hints about how this world came to be, with too many questions left unanswered—including the question of how a Schoolhouse Rock lyric might become embedded in post-apocalyptic African lore.

This is not to say that the book doesn’t have a great many rewards. The author has grand ambitions for her story, most of which are at least partially satisfied. The female characters, Onyesonwu in particular, are fully drawn and thoroughly believable. The storytelling is deft and compelling. And the author uses her tale to ponder a variety of social topics,from feminism to racial inequality, from acceptance of one’s fate to control of one’s body. A reader is left to wonder whether “Who fears death” is a question or a statement, and whether the answer even matters to one for whom dying is just another bump in the road.

The Only Story, by Julian Barnes

The only story

I loved Julian Barnes’s meditative, Man Booker Prize-winning A Sense of an Ending, which I reviewed very briefly here. In it, a middle-aged Brit contemplated the relationships of his youth in spare but lovely prose. When The Only Story began, it felt like it might recapture the thoughtfulness of that earlier tale. Sadly, it was not to be.

In The Only Story, we are introduced to an annoying, self-important protagonist, Paul Casey, whose summer membership at the local country club at age 19 leads to a decade-long entanglement with his tennis partner, 48-year-old Susan MacLeod, a married mother of two. Susan is a spirited woman in a drab and occasionally violent marital relationship. She quickly identifies Paul as a head case, but one with whom she is happy to trade banter. She is not the world-weary Mrs. Robinson type, a cougar on the prowl; instead, she comes across more like a spunky kitten: a woman who is a bit naïve, who regrets her lack of experience but is finally ready to do something about it. She seems to see in Paul—what? A way to overwrite the choices she made at Paul’s age? It’s hard to tell; we never truly get to know Susan, whose mid-life decisions, seen through the filter of Paul’s self-absorption, seem odd at best. It’s Susan’s life that’s the tragedy here, yet the pompous Paul seizes for himself the role of tragic hero.

The first half of this brief book tells the tale of the lovers’ happy-ish first years, in which Paul becomes a strange part of Susan’s household, bringing his college buddies home to her and doing crosswords with her husband. His parents are properly alarmed, which only makes Paul more pleased with his unconventional arrangement. Eventually, though, Paul and Susan decide to run off together, and here is where the story begins to fall apart.

The second half of the book drags, with Susan’s sad spiral glimpsed between Paul’s self-centered and stale musings on love. Paul, unsurprisingly, is ultimately unable to deal with his broken lover or accept his role in her decline, yet once he tosses her back to her family, he also remains too entangled to move on with his own life. For him, this is truly “the only story.”

The author plays with voice here, moving between first-, second-, and third-person observations with varying degrees of success, and as in previous books, he makes memory a central theme. As the book winds down, we wonder: Can we rely on Paul’s recollections or not? In the end, though, this bleak book brings few insights, and even the clean, crisp writing is not enough to wash away the sorrow of two lives wasted in the name of love.

The Story Collector, by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb

story collector

Once upon a time, Viviani Fedeler lived in the New York Public Library with her family, and she dreamed of having an exciting story of her own to tell. In THE STORY COLLECTOR, Kristin O’Donnell Tubb does that for her as she takes components of the real life of Viviani and weaves them into a wonderful tale filled with pre-teen friend drama, family relationships, a ghost story, and a mystery–all in the awesome setting of the New York Public Library of the 1920s.

I love historical fiction, and I am always happy when I find an author I can trust to be historically accurate while relaying a good story. I’ve read Tubb’s other books, and the thing that shines in all of them (including this one) is her attention to detail when dealing with a setting. Tubb researches the heck out of things, and it shows. I felt I was wandering through the NYPL with Viviani and company throughout THE STORY COLLECTOR, and as is the case with all the best books, I desperately envied the main character … and Viviani is a wonderful character. She’s sweet, funny, smart, and flawed–because perfect characters are annoying. She’s also a good friend, daughter, and sibling. Her love of a good story is her strongest trait; it’s the one that gets her in and out of trouble, and it’s what propels the plot.

As should be the case in a book about a wordsmith, there’s beauty in many of the quotes from THE STORY COLLECTOR, too. I wish I had marked the pages so that I could reference all of them, but “courage is simply fear stuffed with hope” is definitely one of my favorites, and that sums up Viviani and her adventures pretty well.

One aspect of the plot that I particularly liked was the debate on stories vs. lies. Viviani is, of course, a storyteller, and Merit, the new girl at school, challenges Viviani by saying that her stories are actually lies. The tension this causes is something that every middle school student will understand.

I was sad to finish THE STORY COLLECTOR because I really enjoyed my time with Viviani, her friends and family, and in the New York Public Library setting. Those who know me will be shocked to hear that I’ve never visited the building, but this book makes me want to get there soon. I just wish I could hang out with Viviani when I do visit.

My thanks to the author for a copy of the book. I won it during an Instagram giveaway, and in entering into the contest, I was invited to reflect on my favorite library. So, I’d like to give a shout out to Willard Library in Battle Creek, Michigan. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of walking downtown to get a stack of books (hopefully enough to last a week so I wouldn’t have to annoy my sister by digging through her books to find something to read), and it’s where I had my first real job as a Reference Page to the best librarian I’ve ever met, Jo Emerson.

 

 

Failure to Launch: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

Two pages. That’s how far I got with Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches. Obviously, it’s a Failure to Launch record, and the book against which future FtL books will be measured.

I had been looking forward to reading this book, a 2011 New York Times bestseller. It’s apparently about a descendant of witches who, in the course of her scholarly research, finds an enchanted manuscript in the Oxford University library. All kinds of demons, witches, etc. descend upon the library as a result. There’s even a vampire, described on the back cover as “enigmatic,” so clearly he’s a love interest. (Maybe that should have been the first clue.)

Now, I’m a huge fan of fantasy, and I’m willing to put up with a lot for a rousing story: J.R.R. Tolkein’s mind-numbing descriptions of mountain scenery, Terry Brooks’s stilted prose. I even slogged my way through the Twilight series, so you know I have patience and stamina, with more than a touch of masochism.

But Twilight had something that A Discovery of Witches did not.

Good writing.

(Not really, but I thought I’d take a moment to give my sister a heart attack.)

No, both have bad, bad, bad writing, but when I read it, Twilight had gone viral, and I was spending a lot of time with middle-schoolers. I needed to read the book to understand why Edward was supposedly the perfect man. I hate that I felt that way, I resent the time I spent reading that WHOLE SERIES when I could have been reading something good, and I still don’t know why Edward was even in the running to be the perfect man. But I digress.

A Discovery of Witches may have been a New York Times bestseller, but it wasn’t culturally necessary enough for me to fight my way through the bad, bad, bad writing past page 2.  Now, keep in mind, I’m a Midwesterner! I am full of optimism! I always think to myself, maybe if I just stick around for a bit, things will get better! So the writing had to be pretty bad.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what page 1 looks like:

“Dr. Bishop, your manuscripts are up,” he whispered, voice tinged with a touch of mischief.

Voice tinged with a touch of mischief? What does that MEAN?

“Thanks,” I said, flashing him a grateful smile….

He grinned back….The thin gold rims of his glasses sparked in the dim light provided by the old bronze reading lamp that was attached to a shelf.

There’s a lot of grinning going on. And unless the lamp is about to turn into a demon, I don’t care about the sparking of the glasses or the attachment to the shelf. (Actually, I was kind of tickled by the thought of the lamp turning into a demon, and then finding that it was attached to a shelf. But sadly, that didn’t seem to be in the cards.)

My smile widened.

More smiling? Did I mention that I’m a Midwesterner? We smile a lot, but we don’t dwell on it THIS much.

Sean looked at me shyly and tugged on the call slip, but it remained where it was, lodged between the cover and the first pages. “This one doesn’t want to let go,” he commented.

Maybe if he stopped looking at her shyly and looked down at the call slip, it would come out. And did we need to be told explicitly that he commented? Isn’t that what the quotation marks were for?

Muffled voices chattered in my ear, intruding on the familiar hush of the room.

“Did you hear that?” I looked around, puzzled by the strange sound.

“What?” Sean replied, looking up from the manuscript.

Wait! Wasn’t Sean looking at her shyly? When did he start looking down at the manuscript? And why are muffled voices a strange sound in a library? Did we even NEED the words, “puzzled by the strange sound”?

Okay, maybe you’re thinking that I’m being a little too harsh. Maybe I was in a bad mood that day, maybe I needed a nice soothing romance or a Jack Reacher novel to take the edge off. I had the same thought. After all, this is a New York Times bestseller! If that many people bought the book, I must be missing something—Twilight notwithstanding! Why, People magazine had called it “an irresistible tale”!

So I set it down and picked up a nice soothing romance, and the book sat on my bedside table for months, bookmarked on page 2.

But when I finally picked it up again, taking care to be in a forgiving mood, nothing had changed. There was still all of that smiling, and looking up without looking down, and sentences spoken with concerned frowns and prim disapproval and smothered sighs.

I opened the book randomly to other pages. Maybe things got better? After all, authors sometimes over-write the first few paragraphs, trying to make a good impression.

Things didn’t get better.

I lifted to my toes. He bent his head. Before our lips touched, a tray clattered on the table.

“That’s it; I’m outta here,” I remarked gruffly with a disappointed frown while stiffly flashing a look over my shoulder to my extreme right. The pale globe of the lamp on my bedside table taunted me with its jaunty brightness, contrasting with the dank darkness of my disenchantment.

And so A Discovery of Witches, Book One of the All Souls Trilogy, was moved to my Failure to Launch pile of shame, with a scrap-paper bookmark in permanent residence on page 2.

What’s in YOUR FtL pile?

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Moscow in 1922 is no place for a count. The Bolsheviks are in charge, and they are not fond of the leisure class. Happily for Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, there are those who feel that despite his membership in the ranks of the elite, he is a hero of the prerevolutionary cause, thanks to an inspiring poem he published in 1913. Thus, rather than execute him, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs decides that he should be confined to his recent place of residence: Moscow’s grand and glorious Metropol hotel. But if the Count should ever step outside of the building, he will be shot.

Thus begins the splendid story of the Count’s decades-long house arrest. The Count—already, in his own gentlemanly way, a man of the people—may find himself in reduced circumstances, but his charm, humor, and powers of observation will serve him in good stead. He makes his attic hovel into a home and accidentally creates a family out of the Metropol staff and guests.

The cast of characters is delightful: the precocious young girl with a fondness for yellow, whose curiosity cannot be contained (and who ends up giving the Count two precious gifts); the brilliant, temperamental chef; the snooty actress; the warm-hearted seamstress; the officer of the Party with a thirst for knowledge (and for film noir); and many, many more. Each character has a role to play, and all offer the Count ample opportunities for bon mots, erudite ruminations, and cheeky capers.

Though occasionally the author gets a little too cute (the bouillabaisse project comes to mind) and the depiction of Stalinist Russia can be a little too jaunty, all is forgiven when Count Rostov begins to muse–which he does often. He is a gracious and endearing companion, a man who manages to make fine wine from the grapes at hand, and saying adieu to him as the book came to an end was sweet sorrow.

Behind Closed Doors, by B. A. Paris

Ever since Gone Girl, I’ve been waiting for the next great creepy relationship book with a twist. There’s just something about a gripping story in which an attractive façade disguises true, shudder-producing evil. The key to a successful story like that, though, is that its dangers need to be shocking, and its pretty surface needs to be at least passingly believable—we need to be horrified that such evil can live unquestioned in plain sight, and feel the emotional claustrophobia of the situation.

Here’s where Behind Closed Doors fails. We’re introduced to a successful 40-year-old lawyer, the ironically named Jack Angel, who has built his career defending domestic abuse victims. He is smooth, drop-dead gorgeous, and unmarried, and (we later find out) he has built a very pretty house of horror with metal security shutters on all of the downstairs windows on spec. After all, who knows when you’re going to run across the ideal prey? He’s been a creep since he was 13 years old and killed his mother—maybe. But apparently since then he’s gone regularly to Thailand to fulfill his nonspecific terrifying fantasies that don’t include sex with vague, nameless people, as one can apparently do with impunity in Thailand. It seems that he’d really like to up his game, though, and ideally move his horror show closer to home, for convenience. After all, he went to all of that trouble, building the house.

Fortunately for Jack, he eventually happens upon Grace, a young, successful, beautiful, globe-trotting professional woman with ridiculously irresponsible parents and a sister, Millie, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. He courts Grace and quickly wins her devotion by being nice to her sister. They marry hastily, Jack bizarrely skips out on the wedding night, and the next thing Grace knows, she’s in Thailand on her honeymoon, locked outside day after day on a hotel balcony, unable either to go to the bathroom (which I found to be the most chilling part) or to make anyone believe that her brand-new husband is a raving lunatic, despite her best efforts. But then, a thriller that can do no better than “My experience … was made even worse by the knowledge that when Jack wasn’t with me, he was exhilarating in someone else’s fear” is no thriller at all.

When the newlyweds return to the US from this idyllic (for one of them, anyway) wedding trip, Jack continues to hold Grace hostage. Every day, as Jack goes off to work, he locks Grace in an empty room for the day with nothing to do. If Grace somehow displeases him, she is forced to miss a weekend of visitation at Millie’s special boarding school. (Apparently, no one from Millie’s school finds it odd that previously devoted Grace would go almost two months without visiting her sister.) But the real threat is that once Millie graduates, Jack is planning to bring her to live with them and have his totally unspecified nonsexual but terrifying way with her, somehow feeding off of Millie’s fear, which Grace finds too frightening to even contemplate. He puts together a secret red room for Millie (despite the fact that her favorite color is yellow—the horror!) in the pretty house’s basement and decorates it with portraits of battered women that he forces Grace (a very, very amateur painter) to paint as a form of torture. When Grace has been particularly uncooperative, he punishes her with the ultimate form of torture, by making her … sit in the red room looking at the awful portraits she’s painted. The couples with whom he makes her socialize on the weekend and for whom she’s forced to bake perfect souffles have no idea of the anguish Grace is enduring, because she has no way of saying anything—Jack has cut off all access to pens.

As Millie inches closer to leaving her boarding school and coming to live permanently with Jack and Grace in the menacing red room, Grace finally feels the need to take action. Grace’s conundrum is that although she desperately needs to get away from Jack, she knows that in everyone else’s view, he’s Prince Charming. So whatever she plans to do needs to hold up against the judgment of the outside world. In unbelievable fashion, Millie herself hatches a surprising plot, giving Grace an unexpected tool. (What luck that Millie had been recently listening to Agatha Christie audiobooks!) Grace then creates her own elaborate plot and lays the groundwork for carrying it out by demanding a glass of whiskey every night in her prison room. For some reason, once she really puts her foot down, Jack is happy to share a whiskey with her night after night—whew! Thank goodness! Because without that poor decision on his part, Grace is never going to be able to carry out her plan to get out of her empty room and save Millie from the miserable fate of Jack feeding off of her fear in undefined but nonsexual ways!

Author B. A. Paris just doesn’t seem to be able to dredge up the kind of ickiness needed for this kind of story. And there’s really no shame in not having a sick, twisted mind—it just means less fun for the rest of us. With characters and plot that have little grounding in reality, the cringe-worthy questions the book asks on its cover—“The perfect marriage? Or the perfect lie?”—beg for a third option: The perfect dud.

Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler

Even if Anne Tyler’s name hadn’t been prominently displayed on the cover, it would nonetheless have been obvious very quickly that the wispy Clock Dance is an Anne Tyler book, with quirky characters, odd family dinners, a fondness for Baltimore, and a protagonist, 62-year-old Willa, who greets an out-of-the-blue opportunity to shake things up with impulsive decisiveness.

Willa is a mild-mannered harmonizer with a lifelong attraction to people who make use of her peacekeeping skills without ever appreciating them, or her. The backstory in the first third of the book attempts to explain how Willa has come to be living rather uncomfortably in Arizona with her pushy retired second husband, wishing she felt needed, even if she doesn’t quite realize it yet. To start, we see Willa as an 11-year-old dealing with a manic mother, a milquetoast father, and a much younger sister. She makes a clear if unconscious choice at that impressionable age to avoid drama at all costs. We are then shown Willa ten years later, bringing the young man who will become her first husband home from college to meet her parents. We see why she makes the choices that she does, but we also see the behaviors that lead to the next scene, twenty years later, when she loses her first husband in a tragic accident.

Fast forward to the present. Willa is going through the motions, newly settled in Arizona, longing for connections but unable to create them for herself. Then comes a shocking phone call: Her older son’s ex-girlfriend Denise has been shot in Baltimore, she’s in the hospital, she has a 9-year-old daughter, Cheryl, who needs to be looked after, and a neighbor is reaching out to Willa, who is mysteriously listed as an emergency contact on Denise’s phone list. Willa doesn’t know the neighbor, the ex-girlfriend, or the ex-girlfriend’s daughter, but she suddenly sees a chance to be useful, and she barely hesitates in booking a flight.

Once Willa arrives in Baltimore and meets her delightful charges, together with the engaging, eccentric neighbors, there are few surprises. But despite its familiarity, her journey is entertaining. Willa is her usual self: cheery and polite and genteel and, yes, maybe a little superficial. Perhaps in this setting, though, her gift for harmony can be appreciated, and she can learn how to achieve balance between everyone else’s needs and her own.

The reader is left to supply much of the detail regarding Willa’s relationships with her sister and two sons, which are at best strained. One can sense their likely frustration with her terminal inability to take a stand against the forceful personalities she attracts. “Marriage was often a matter of dexterity, in Willa’s experience,” Tyler writes, and we are left to wonder if perhaps what Willa saw as dexterity, those closest to her saw as weakness. The reader can feel the pain and bewilderment that the absence of these key figures in her life causes Willa, perhaps driving what would otherwise be some odd choices in Baltimore.

Anne Tyler leaves her beloved Baltimore to work its magic on Willa, in an ending that’s neat, predictable, but satisfying nonetheless. As the book ends, it’s hard to say goodbye to its inhabitants, particularly level-headed young Cheryl, who loves to bake and is a sweet pastry of a character, with much to teach her surrogate grandmother. We leave Willa in a good place, though, learning that family can have many names and faces, and embracing her serendipitous second chance.

The Drawing Lesson, by Mark Crilley

the drawing lesson

THE DRAWING LESSON by Mark Crilley is a wonderful approach to learning to draw. A graphic novel combined with an art tutorial, the author/illustrator does a fantastic job weaving his drawing lessons into the story of David and Becky and the time they spend together. David is a young boy who desperately wants to learn to draw well. Becky is an artist who isn’t looking to be an art teacher, but who can’t resist David’s eagerness and his talent.

Crilley’s drawings throughout the novel are simple, but effective. The characters’ emotions shine through, and the story is well developed despite how basic the narrative is. David and Becky aren’t overly complicated artistic figures, and that allows the real star of this book to shine, the art lessons. As Becky teaches David the basics of drawing, their relationship grows along with his skill, and the lessons broaden to show the reader how to navigate life as well as how to complete a drawing: patience; recognizing mistakes and correcting them; and putting time into what you love are highlighted. These are important lessons for readers of all ages, but particularly Crilley’s target age group.

As for the drawing lessons themselves … I can’t rave enough about them. I haven’t seriously tried to draw in over 25 years (though my sitting-in-a-meeting doodles have a fan base), but if I’m reviewing a book on how to draw, I don’t feel I can do it justice without trying to follow along with the book’s lessons. Crilley does an AMAZING job teaching the techniques necessary to draw and draw well. As I did each exercise with the most rudimentary of tools (a mechanical pencil and my college ruled notebook), I produced sketches that had my children dazzled—something that’s not easy to do. Those same children have artistic talent, and I look forward to giving this book to them to see what they can do with it. I’ll also be sharing it with any kids on my gift buying list, and I’ll be recommending it to anyone who will listen.

I can’t stress enough how awesome I found this book to be. Be sure to check it out, and check out Mark’s YouTube channel too. He’s generous with his instruction there as well, and he obviously finds joy in helping others find their inner artist.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.