Six of Crows

Title: Six of Crows
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company

I did not have high hopes for this book–the Nook version was on sale and so I bought it. I like having a stash of books available on my phone for when I inevitably get stuck somewhere with only my phone and want to read. I was very pleasantly surprised, though, because this book is AMAZING.

Basically, this is the tale of criminals in a fantasy land who go on the heist to end all heists. The settings are interesting without being so complicated that I stop caring (see: Lord of the Rings); the plot is tightly woven and fast-paced; and the character development is top notch. I want to personally escort Kaz Brekker–the tough-as-nails mastermind behind the group–to a therapist. There’s some subtle nods to romance, but nothing overbearing. There are mentions of prostitution and slavery, but nothing  graphic. I would be comfortable letting a high school student read this book.

Oftentimes with group adventures like this, I find that there are certain groups of characters that I care a lot more about than others, but I thought all six of our heroes (or anti-heroes) were pretty captivating. Besides Kaz, there’s Inej who for being a mysterious teenage assassin/spy is also a constant source of peace and wisdom. Matthias and Nina are moody and unpredictable former enemies/lovers. Jesper is a good comedic foil who nevertheless has his own struggles and interests, including Wylan, the youngest of the bunch who really comes into his own over the course of the book.

The only thing I didn’t love about this book was the ending–it’s a cliffhanger that sets up the sequel. I need more resolution! But, really, that’s a good thing for the author . . . because now I’m going to buy the sequel (and probably anything else she’s written) just to get that itch scratched 🙂 Happy reading!

The Epiphany Machine

Title: The Epiphany Machine
Author: David Burr Gerrard
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

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Although the description of the titular machine sounds like something out of a science fiction or fantasy novel, this is really a book about humanity’s tolerance for self-awareness. There’s no real exploration of the magic or science behind the epiphany machine–in fact, the question of its origin and authenticity is left open. Certainly, the man who operates it has some control over it, as it eventually tells most New Yorkers that they are “stronger than terrorists” when its reputation wanes post-9-11.

Although the open questions about the machine are still bugging me, the book is absolutely complete (and probably better) without answering them. It follows Venter as a child whose parents used the machine because, as he perceives, they are “lonely, gullible and numb” to a young adult who becomes enamored with it and the knowledge he perceives it gives him. (In case you can’t tell from the cover, the “epiphany machine” is a tattooing device that gives you a personalized revelation on your forearm. The revelations are almost uniformly negative).

But the book doesn’t confine itself to people’s reactions to this tattooing device–instead, its a device that lets Gerrard explore the degree to which people can change (and whether they should) and the relative value of privacy vis a vis safety. I think its easy for authors who want to tackle big questions like that to err on the side of moralizing — of stacking the deck towards the argument they want to win and getting preachy about the conclusion they think you should draw. This book avoids that. Not only am I still pondering the machine’s possible origins, but I’m still not sure who I think is right about whether epiphany tattoos should be reported to the authorities.

What I am sure about is that this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. If you’ve read it and have thoughts on the above, let me know! Happy reading!

Fictional Book Club: The Mermaid’s Daughter

Scene: a beautiful, old Chicago apartment. The white walls glow softly in the candlelight. There are two women on a worn, navy couch, another in a paisley armchair, and a fourth pouring white wine. A greyhound is lurking, waiting to make a run for the cheese and crackers on the coffee table.

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Lucy finished pouring the wine. “Ok, girls, the book this week is ‘The Mermaid’s Daughter’ by Ann Claycomb. Who wants to start?”

Silence. Naomi finally piped up, “I thought this was more of a let’s drink and hang out book club and less of a, let’s actually read the book, book club.”

Joanna rolled her eyes. “I called it. She’s the one who wouldn’t be prepared.” Claire and Lucy chuckled. “Okay, Naomi, here’s the quick and dirty version: The Little Mermaid–the creepy traditional one, not the Disney princess–passed a curse on to her daughter, and her daughter’s daughter, etc., all the way to a modern day soprano studying to be an opera singer. She and her girlfriend and her father have to figure out how to stop it.”

Naomi interrupted. “I only know the Disney version–what curse?”

Claire picked up the thread. “So, she traded her voice for human legs, just like in the Disney movie. But it hurts her to walk — like walking on glass or something — and to get her voice, the sea witches actually cut out her tongue. So her daughter has a tongue, but it hurts like her tongue is missing and her feet still hurt. But the mermaid’s sisters feel bad for her so they trade their hair for a knife that can change the mermaid back if she uses it to kill the prince. So then, for the next however many generations, the mermaid’s descendant is given the knife by the witches and told the pain would stop if they killed their lover.”

“Did the sea witches bother anyone else?” Lucy asked. “Like, I know they’re an unreliable narrator but the more I think about it, the less I trust anything they said. Why in the world would the daughter have to kill her lover and not the prince’s descendant? The prince was super terrible and the reason she asked for legs in the first place, so I get why he needs to die but like, what did Harry do?”

“And how do you distinguish between like, your lifelong lover, and, hey this is college and I like you but who knows what we’ll happen when we graduate?” Joanna asked, pouring herself another drink. “God, there are some ex-boyfriends from college I would stab with the knife regardless of any curse!” She laughed, but Naomi–the only one who went to college with her–frowned. She knew exactly who Joanna was talking about and a knife would be too good for them.

“And how do they all have one daughter and that’s it?” Lucy laughed, smearing brie on her cracker. “Nobody had a son, or multiple kids or no kids? Ever?”

“Okay, critics,” Claire interrupted. “Yes, the book about a mermaid and witches isn’t scientific. But c’mon–it’s beautiful. I couldn’t put it down.” She slipped the dog, now begging at her feet, a piece of cheddar.

“Me either,” Lucy admitted, “But don’t feed Parker cheese, it makes him gassy.” Claire gave him an apology kiss on his furry head. “I was surprised, I think, to read a book that could so easily be a dramatic, romantic tragedy that is still pretty grounded – like, listen to this part:

“I know what I can do to try to tell Robin and Harry that I’m going to be okay, that I’ve gotten over myself. I’ll ask if we can go out to dinner. Someplace ridiculous, with a big list of flavored margaritas and food that’s terrible for you, like breaded zucchini and coconut fried shrimp. There’s nothing tragic about going out to dinner at a restaurant like that, and you can’t give up on life and eat something called a zucchini zircle all in the same night.”

Naomi laughed. “Here’s my contribution,” she said, typing on her phone. “I’m finding a recipe for zucchini zircle and that’s what we’ll eat next time. Now, can we talk about the Bachelor?”

Read or Watch? The Magicians

In which I tackle the age-old question: which was better, the book or the movie?

Growing up, I always felt like this was a litmus test: if you had read the book before the movie and if you thought the movie didn’t live up to the book–or even better yet, couldn’t possibly have lived up to the book, then you had “nerd” credit. And if you didn’t, well, football team tryouts were next week. Good luck.

Obviously, I never tried out for football.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’m afraid I’d no longer pass that nerdy purity test with flying colors: sometimes the on-screen version is better than the paperback. And at the risk of alienating all of my bookworm readers, I’m going to start this series with an example of a TV show that I think surpassed the book its based on: The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

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I had originally read The Magicians on my Nook a while ago, but when I was at my local book store recently, I noticed it had an updated cover advertising its TV-counterpart airing on the ScyFy channel. I’m not a fancy cable person, but I found the first season of The Magicians on Hulu and skeptically started the first episode. And then binge watched the entire season. And then had the sickening feeling that I was betraying fellow book-lovers everywhere, because I’m pretty sure I like the on-screen version more than the on-page version.

Here’s why: the point of the book seems to be that life is terrible and hard and purposeless and even when you get what you think you’ve always wanted–magic is real! Fillory exists!–it’s actually terrible and heartless and it won’t fix you because you are inherently broken. Quentin, the main character, is a depressed high school student headed for an Ivy League college when he is granted admission to Brakebills, a prestigious school for magicians. He feels like his life is finally turning around–that maybe this is what he’s been waiting for his whole life–but then it turns out to be the hardest thing he’s ever done and, despite his tenacity in putting in the work, it turns out to essentially be a meaningless pursuit: magic is boring, Fillory is evil, his favs are problematic. Seriously, at least half of this book is a description of how hard and difficult things are even though Quentin is an Ivy League student who is brilliant and gifted. The rest is the author destroying his dreams.

Look, I get it: I’m a sucker for a good training montage and I certainly believe a lot of hard work goes into things that otherwise look like dream professions–but if I wanted to read about someone complaining, I’d go on Facebook.

The TV show, on the other hand, tightens up the plot significantly. While still overusing the term “Ivy League” nevertheless spends way less time on the arduous spiel in favor of more adventures. The characters are drawn into the central conflict earlier in their schooling, so we skip the post-school blues, which, again-I know it’s a real thing — but that doesn’t mean it’s entertaining to read about! The result is that the plot keeps moving, the characters continue to act with purpose and motivation–even when it’s a misdirected purpose or motivation–and the result is a more structured story that I thought was more engaging while still keeping the dark, gritty tone of the book.

Okay, your turn: do I have to turn in my nerd card now? What did you think of the book or the show? Burn me on the stake people!

Help for the Haunted

Title: Help for the Haunted
Author: John Searles
Publisher: William Morrow (imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

This book is not for the faint of heart. Rarely does a book actually creep me out – yet this one did. It follows the life of Sylvie, a young girl whose parents were recently murdered, as she tries to figure out what happened to them, learn how to live with her temperamental older sister Rose, and come to terms with her parents’ unusual and controversial careers.

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My favorite thing about this book was its subtlety – a lot of authors cannot include religious themes without coming across as judgmental and condemning regardless of whether they are pro or con. This book had a more subtle, nuanced approach which made it feel like a part of the story and not just a lecture the author felt morally compelled to include. It was also subtle with the paranormal — in my experience, books that try to flirt with the boundary of fantasy and reality often end up disappointing readers who expect a “Scooby-Doo” ending – aka, for all of the “magic” to be explained — by leaning too fantastical or disappointing readers who like to be surprised or out-witted by the author by leaning too realistic. Here, the ending was satisfying (although, again – CREEPY route to get there).

I am also frequently skeptical when authors use first-person with protagonists substantially different than themselves – here, a male author writing from the perspective of a female child. But Searles does a fantastic job. It felt realistic without being patronizing – there was nothing that felt out-of-character or “jarred” you out of the book’s reality. It’s easy to sympathize and fall in love with Sylvie, to understand her frustration at therapy, her reluctance to really rebel against her sister, and her waves of emotions about her parents. Without spoiling the story, there are two scenes that really hit home for me in capturing Sylvie: when she brings a homemade good-bye gift to Mr. Boshoff, her therapist, that shows how much she has been listening to what he has and hasn’t said about his own life, and when she offers candy to malicious trick-or-treaters who had only showed up to tease her about her (dead) parents.

If you want a happy story about sisterhood conquering all, this is not the book for you. But if you want an intriguing coming-of-age story, light some candles and dive right in! Happy reading!

 

my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry

Title: my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Atria Books

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The first passage that made me cry:

“I’m not stupid, Granny,” she whispers. “I know you did all that stuff tonight to make me forget about what happened at school.” Granny kicks at some gravel and clears her throat. “I didn’t want you to remember this day because of the scarf. So I thought instead you could remember it as the day your Granny broke into a zoo–“

I would continue down the list, but I’m afraid I’d have half the book in here and I’d get sued for reproduction. Let me say, though, that I mean that in a good way. (Not the suing, the crying). This book hit home for me in a lot of ways, from the divorced parents to the go-getter mom just trying to navigate everyone’s needs, including her own. And it does it so in beautiful, unpresumptuous language that captures all sorts of universal truths.

It’s strange how quickly the significance of a certain smell can change, depending on what path it decides to take through the brain. It’s strange how close love and fear live to each other.

Okay, enough with the sappy, here are the deets: Elsa is seven and struggling with bullies at school and her divorced parents’ new families at home. It’s all okay, though, because she has her grandma and her grandma’s amazing fairy tales—until, all of a sudden, she doesn’t. Her grandma post-humously leads her on a quest that connects her fairy tales with the residents of the flat in which they lived, and, eventually, there is lots of closure for lots of people. Be warned: grandma’s first career was as a medical doctor in war zones and refugee camps, and many of the flat residents came to know her through that work, i.e., experienced significant trauma that still effects them.

Before you accuse me of never criticizing anything, let me say that, as a dog lover (check out my Instagram for puppy overload), I was not pleased with the wurse. I refuse to believe that a medical doctor told her grandchild to feed a dog chocolate. For a while, I sustained a belief that the wurse was actually a magical being or at least an exotic animal whose nutritional needs were perfectly met with chocolate and cookies, but, well — I don’t think that’s what the author intended.

Other than the wurse, I loved how this book dances around the line between reality and fantasy, between what actually happens and what we perceive happening. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think a mere recital of what physically happened often doesn’t fully capture what people experience. Adding a fantastical element can help flesh out how people see their circumstances and why they react the way they do. If books are really about exploring the human experience–which I think they are–then fantasy serves an important role here.

Ultimately, I would definitely recommend this book — but I’d also recommend you read it in private. (Unless your local coffee shop is totally okay with you bawling).