The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

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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.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

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Where the Crawdads Sing was the book that you saw everywhere this summer—the season’s “It” book. I’ll be honest, with an “It” book, I usually wait until I’m pretty sure that we don’t have another TwilightFifty Shades of Grey, or Girl on a Train on our hands—or at least until the paperback is released. But I was heading out to the beach and in need of something to hold my attention between naps, so I took a leap and bought the hardcover. I’m not sorry; this was a solid, emotional read with some unexpected twists.

It’s the story of a remarkable girl, Kya, called “the Marsh Girl” by the denizens of the small nearby town on the North Carolina coast. Abandoned as a very young child, first by her beloved mother, then by her older siblings, and finally by her abusive father, she manages to avoid the authorities long enough for them to lose interest in capturing her, then essentially raises herself in the wild. Though a few of the townspeople provide her with subtle assistance, most consider her a freak. As she grows older, a careful friendship with an older boy tempers her loneliness and gives her the tools to educate herself; then a less careful friendship with another young man leads to heartbreak and tragedy.

The book does require some suspension of belief. The idea of a six-year-old girl surviving on her own in the marshes without starving or injuring herself is a bit of a stretch. (On the other hand, I read books where time travel and vampires are de rigueur, so who am I to judge?) I also found it hard to accept Kya’s character development through her relationships–by her late teens she had been abandoned by everyone she ever loved, which made her initial reaction to a major betrayal difficult to process. And the ending, while surprising and emotional, does rely on the reader to avoid thinking too hard about how secrets are revealed.

Still, a good story populated by appealing personalities trumps all for me, and the author does a beautiful job of incorporating the marsh and its wildlife as characters worthy of a lonely young girl’s love. Kya may be lonely, but with the marshland around her, she is never alone.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

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Well, friends, here we have another instance where my sister told me to read a book, gave me a copy of the book, and I waited a year or so to do what she said. I should know better. Since she has already posted a review of A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles. go ahead and read that here: https://thesisterhoodofbooks.com/2018/08/18/a-gentleman-in-moscow-by-amor-towles/. She has covered it all pretty well.

When I texted Sherry to tell her that I had read the book, I said this: “… I finished A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW and holy cow. What a phenomenal book. Yes. You were right again.” I followed up with “I’ll do a review of GENTLEMAN, but it might just be sighs and staring off into the distance in remembrance of the stunning prose and terrific plot.”

So I’ve decided that that’s almost all you get for my review. However, I will note that Sherry’s review states that the bouillabaisse project in GENTLEMAN is a little “too cute.” I disagree on that point. I think it was an indication of the dedication of the triumvirate to a perfect dish–which was key to their personalities and their connection to one another.

Although I agree with Sherry’s assessment that the depiction of Stalinist Russia is a little too “jaunty,” I also think that since the main character’s view is the focus of the book, it’s perfectly in keeping with the Count’s understanding of the time for that time period to be portrayed as it is.

So. I think A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW may be a perfect book. However, Sherry and I haven’t talked about it in person. We’ll post a follow-up to our reviews when we’ve had that opportunity. In the meantime, I suggest you read the book. Perfect or not, it’s absolutely charming and a complete delight.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman

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A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman should come with a warning label. I listened to the book during a two-day, nine-hundred-mile drive, and I’m sure I looked like a lunatic to my fellow motorists as I alternately laughed and wept my way across three states and back again.

Yes, I know. I may be the last person in the world to get around to “reading” A MAN CALLED OVE. My sister ordered me to read it a couple of years ago when she found out I hadn’t done so yet, and she even provided me a copy with strict instructions to return the book to her when I was done with it. This was unusual–not the part where Sherry ordered me around, of course, but the part where she requested a book be returned after reading. I was intrigued, but life got in the way of me meeting up with OVE. Until now.

With an Audible credit ready to be spent, and a 15-hour drive planned, I finally downloaded the audiobook and started it up with my teenage son in the car during a lull in our road trip.

A MAN CALLED OVE is the completely charming/hilarious/heartbreaking story of a very taciturn/steady/grouchy man named (of course) Ove. He loves his wife, Sonja, and he loves his Saab(s), and that’s about it. The rest of the world is either worthy of bemused tolerance or complete disgust (sometimes thinly veiled, but often not). Through chapters that reveal both Ove’s formative years and his current state, the book tells the story of an ordinary man who lives an extraordinary life over the course of his 60+ years. The author draws Ove and his supporting cast with amazing attention to the subtle details that help pull a reader firmly into a story, and the narrator of the audiobook, George Newbern, offers a spot-on portrayal of the many characters.

I don’t often offer written reviews of audiobooks because they rarely hold my attention in the same way as the written word, but that was not a problem with A MAN CALLED OVE. In fact, I had twenty minutes left on the book when I pulled into my driveway, and I finished the book as soon as I could after settling in at home after my trip. My teenage son was so enthralled by the first half of the book (and wasn’t with me to listen to the second half of it) that I got him a copy of the book to read … though he’ll need to give me that copy when he’s done with it so I can have it on my shelf to loan to anyone who hasn’t been fortunate enough to meet Ove yet.

My thanks to my wise sister for insisting I dive into this book. I loved spending time with Ove and his neighbors, and I look forward to revisiting them when I read the book again–because this is definitely one that will need to be re-read.

And yes, Sherry, I’ll be returning your book the next time we get to hang out.

Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna

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In TWO GIRLS DOWN by Louisa Luna, Bailey and Kylie Brandt, ages 8 and 10, disappeared when their mom dashed into a store to pick up a birthday gift for the party of one of Kylie’s friends. The local police in Denville, PA are short staffed and unable to cope with the level of manpower needed to track down leads, so the great-aunt of the two missing girls hires a private investigator to find them. Alice Vega is ridiculously successful at finding missing kids: she’s had 18 cases, and she has found all of them–and most of them have been alive. Working in an unknown town means that Vega decides to tap into the resources and connections of a local private investigator. Max Caplan resigned in disgrace from the Denville police department a few years ago, and he’s been making his living by collecting information on cheating spouses. When Vega approaches him to help her locate the girls, he initially shies away from the case; however, his precocious sixteen-year-old daughter, Nell, talks him into it.

Alice Vega and Max “Cap” Caplan are fantastic characters. Alice is a complete badass, and although she isn’t good at dealing with people, she has trained herself in how to behave in social situations. She also has a sharp mind, is incredibly resourceful, and she can kick anyone’s heinie if she can catch them by surprise. Cap is a pretty typical literary ex-cop. He drinks a little too much, but most people really like him, they want to talk to him and tell him their secrets, and he’s good at piecing puzzles together. I really liked both of them, and Vega’s shadowy assistant, The Bastard, is so intriguing that I’d love for him to get a book of his own.

Louisa Luna is a good writer who writes tight action scenes while stringing words together in a sometimes lyrical manner. Her characters are well constructed, and the mystery surrounding the missing girls is a good one. The ending was actually a surprise to me!

I really hope that Cap and Vega team up in future novels, because now that I’ve spent some time with them, I don’t want to let them go. Plus, it’s rare that a thriller keeps me guessing until the end, but TWO GIRLS DOWN did! My thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

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

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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

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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.

 

 

Hey There, Dumpling!: 100 Recipes for Dumplings, Buns, Noodles, and Other Asian Treats, by Kenny Lao

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In case there’s anyone out there looking for cookbook recommendations …

I love cooking, and I LOVE cookbooks. Fortunately, I have an understanding partner (Dan) who loves both things as much as I do. Therefore, when I signed up to review this book for NetGalley, we took our job seriously. I downloaded the cookbook, and we set out to cook as many of the recipes as possible. Dan and I have been cooking dumplings for years, so we were pretty sure there wasn’t anything we could learn from this book beyond a few new filling recipes.

Boy, were we wrong.

First, we learned the importance of a good wrapper and the differences between the different styles of wrappers. Although the author offers a recommendation for his preferred wrapper, we tried a few different styles and thicknesses (because, as I said, we took our job seriously!) and came up with the best wrapper available in our area–and it wasn’t the one recommended by the cookbook. If you have a chance, and if you aren’t going to make your own, pick up the PF Select Shanghai-style wrappers for all of your dumplings. You won’t be disappointed. If you can’t find PF Select, the author’s suggestion of Grand Marquis Shanghai-style will do, but they’re a bit more doughy.

Second, we learned new folding styles for dumplings beyond the traditional half-moon.

Third, Kenny Lao has a method for cooking dumplings that is absolutely fantastic. In the past, we’ve fried them, and we’ve steamed them, but his treatment gives you a potsticker that is the best of both worlds and is oh-so-easy. It’s also a great method for making dumplings for a crowd.

Fourth, we were skeptical of Lao’s assertion that freezing the dumplings using his method would yield excellent results. After freezing dumplings based on Lao’s instructions, we have taken to making and freezing dumplings once a month, and we will never return to frozen grocery store dumplings again. There is absolutely no comparison.

Finally, there are the recipes. We tried four different recipes for fillings, two different soups, many of the dipping sauces, and three of the side dishes. All were quite tasty, and we definitely have our favorites.

Overall, this is a great cookbook. The layout is not overwhelming, the recipes are great, and the “how to” sections are clear. Plus, it has a variety of recipes that will appeal to cooks of all skill levels.

We have a lot of detailed notes about specific recipes, but that might be going a bit overboard for this review. Hit me up if you’re interested!

We’ll be buying a copy of this cookbook for ourselves, and we’ll be getting additional copies for friends. We definitely enjoyed our first attempt at cookbook reviewing, and we hope to do many more!

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for a copy of the ebook in exchange for my honest review.

Past Tense, by Lee Child

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I’ve been a fan of Jack Reacher for years. My parents introduced me to him about when book three came out, and I devoured the books in the series as quickly as Lee Child could write them–as did Mom and Dad. I soon introduced my oldest son to Jack … my son was a high school student who wanted to be a US Marine (and has since become one), and he was immediately enthralled. How many authors can have that impact on teens, parents, and grandparents?!

Then Jack and I lost touch for a while, though I thought of him fondly, and probably more often than one should think about a fictional character. When I saw NetGalley was offering up a copy of Lee Child’s soon-to-be-released book, I had to ask for a copy, and I was rewarded with an ebook of PAST TENSE.

If you read Lee Child’s books, you know what to expect. Jack Reacher is wandering through a town, and something keeps him there. The story lines are built on the details surrounding whatever it is that forces his stay in the town in which he finds himself, and Reacher is always Awesome (with a capital A). PAST TENSE follows the formula, and in this instance, Reacher is investigating something is pretty personal: his father’s past. Of course it’s not as simple as hitting the public library, sitting at a computer, going on Ancestry.com, and finding out that everything is exactly as it seems. Nope. This is Jack Reacher, so there are mysteries. And secrets. And fist fights. And there’s another part of the story in which a couple of nice Canadian twenty-somethings are being kept captive in a motel for nefarious purposes. What there *isn’t* is Jack Reacher ending up in bed with miscellaneous female character; that surprised me, but it was actually a relief.

All in all, PAST TENSE is exactly what one expects from of a Lee Child/Jack Reacher book. Reacher is Reacher through and through. The mysteries surrounding his dad and the Canadian captives are intriguing. The action scenes are written really well, and although the slower paced moments made me roll my eyes a bit, I knew there would be some mayhem with just a turn of the page. PAST TENSE isn’t my favorite of the Jack Reacher books, but it does its job and the last half of the book ended up being as entertaining as I had hoped.

My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a copy of the ebook in exchange for my honest review.