Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
First Published: 2009
Wow. So this book has been described as an adult combination of Harry Potter and Narnia, though honestly the only Potter resemblance is that it involves a magical school, but both the school and the magic are more akin to Earthsea than HP in my opinion. Grossman preempted comparisons, however, by throwing in a few blatant references to the series. Regardless of which it is closer to, however, the more adult themes and settings are unique to Grossman’s book. The students are all in the 18-23 range, and spend enough time consumed with the two main pursuits of that age group, sex and alcohol, that they’re hard to distinguish from the real deal.
The first two-thirds of the book follow Quentin Coldwater for four years as he studies the normally five years curriculum of magic at Brakebills College, a secret school hidden in upstate New York. Quentin is a stereotypical protagonist in many ways, smart, funny, sometimes a bit of a complete ass, but generally a likable chap, and his school years are filled with hard work, punctuated by the occasional mysterious circumstances and eventually excessive amounts of sex and alcohol. Following graduation, there is a brief period where Quentin is an insipid little shit before the third third. The last third is the Narnia third, which involves a world that is not so much like Narnia as it simply is Narnia… on crack.
There’s obviously a lot more to the book than that. but I don’t want to give anything away. What I will say is this. The characters are excellently done, perfectly individual and perfectly flawed. The world is something of a ripoff of other worlds, but done in a loving, tributary kind of way, and there is enough originality underneath it to make it stand on its own. It has been a long time since I have liked characters (at least one of them, Quentin’s ladyfriend, a girl named Alice) this much, or wanted to clock a protagonist upside the head or scream at him until he dies this much. It also happens to feature one of the best, saddest, cathartic, and genuinely touching climaxes of any book I’ve read. If it isn’t clear, I love this book, and I’m not the only one. The New Yorker, The Chicago Tribune, The Onion AV Club, George R. R. Martin, Gary Shteyngart, and The Washington Post all showered praise on it, just to name a few. It’s funny, it’s sarcastic, it has a very serious moral about coming of age and so forth but is not afraid of pulling a few punches at itself and the genre. Some people don’t read books like this because they think fantasy is a child’s genre, but those people are morons, and this book proves it. Shockingly real, despite it’s fantastic setting, I just stayed up until five in the morning to finish this book, and my only regret is that I can’t continue reading it tomorrow. There is a sequel out, The Magician King, which I plan on picking up poste haste, and I am going to recommend this book to everyone. I have read too much in the past year to pick a favorite, but The Magicians definitely makes the short list. Just, wow.
The Mall of Cthulhu
Title: The Mall of Cthulhu
Author: Seamus Cooper
First Published: 2009
So I picked up this book primarily because it was called The Mall of Cthulhu, and I’m a sucker for Lovecraft and parody. Additionally the cover art featured a guy in a barista uniform wielding an axe and a coffee pot, a gun-toting blond, and a confused looking alternative (pink hair stripe) girl, with the eponymous Old One tangling his tentacles around them. I expected a modern Cthulhu story, probably with an abundance of dark and goofy humor and probably some jokes at the overt racism of ol’ H. P.’s stories, and I got that, but I also got a surprising amount of death. The story takes place in 2003. Ten years earlier, Ted (the barista dude) saved Laura (the blond with the gun) from a sorority house full of vampires. The event severely traumatized both of them, with Ted basically becoming useless and expending his time into perfecting the latte and watching stupid television to curb his night terrors while Laura worked hard and got an FBI job, but is basically unable to have real human relationships. Because of this, the two remain close friends, strictly platonic due in small part to Ted’s resemblance to Shaggy and in large part to Laura’s preference for X chromosomes. The story begins on a day just like any other, but then plot devices start occurring and the two quickly find themselves embattled with a group of white supremacist Cthulhu cultists who aggressively want to end the world. Along the way, many jokes are made in dire situations, there are an unusal amount of vomiting instances, Laura gradually realizes that she’s maybe a bit icy, and Ted find someone who will love him despite the fact that he has a Passchendaele-sized case of PTSD.
I really picked up the book expecting it to be a mindless read that I would plow through in a day, which it was, but I was not really expecting to be as drawn in by it as I ended up being. Maybe I’m just overly empathetic, but I found the characters surprisingly compelling and sweet and flawed just enough to get irritated at them and frustrated that they did not make better choices, but not nearly enough to actually dislike them (unlike, say, the main character in Chopin’s The Awakening). I really liked this book, and part of that is because I’m a nerd and it played into my nerd sensibilities, but also part of it is because it is a very good book. To my knowledge, Mr. Cooper has not published any other books yet, but I hope he does and certainly intend to read them when that happens.
The Financial Lives of the Poets
Title: The Financial Lives of the Poets
Author: Jess Walter
First Published: 2009
I was drawn to this book both by its title, which seemed a little too strange to pass by, and its cover art, which featured silhouette of a man falling through the sky towards suburbia. The interior of the book starts out with much the same grim sense of humor. We, the readers, meet Matt, a middle aged, middle class guy who is buying milk at a 7/11 because he can’t go to sleep and he has to do something. Matt, as is typical of midlife crisis novels, is incredibly introspective and depressing, but also very funny. He falls in with some stoner kids who smoke him up and drink his milk, and so his life takes an interesting turn. Matt has a bit of a problem, or rather problems (his wife may or may not but almost certainly is cheating/is planning on cheating on him, his dad has dementia, he is unemployed and their house is being repossessed soon [this was published in the thick of the housing crisis, mind, and all of this is revealed very early on, so no spoilers] et cetera) and is trying to think of a way to get out of all of them, and so, or perhaps instead, furthers his relationship with the stoners. Matt was a journalist, before he quit his job to start poetfolio.com, a poetry/business journalism website, and his running commentary on life is peppered with spouts of poetry and financial advise. He as a character is really enjoyable because you are rooting for him, but he really captures that sort of clueless middle-age white suburban dad thing where he tells lots of jokes that are not only not funny to the characters he is speaking to, but also are just generally not funny (though his internal monologue is the stuff of legends). He wants a lot of things in life, but most of them are pretty basic, e.g. providing for his family. And he wants to have sex with his wife, the degree to which this, and his petty reactions to the fact that that does not happen, govern his life is both somewhat alarming and somewhat totally realistic. The other characters are similarly real, whether they are the crazy, horny senile dad, the overstressed and desperate wife, the deadbeat stoner community college students, the really adorable kids, or the morons he used to work for, Matt is surrounded by people that seem like, well, people. Walter’s prose is excellently crafted as well, and it really does make a difference whether a book is well written or simply a good idea. The book is savvy and endearing and laugh out loud hilarious, while also being really sad at points as you basically watch Matt’s life crumble around him, par for the genre, but Walter hits it right on the mark.
The Wee Free Men
Title: The Wee Free Men
Author: Terry Pratchett
First Published: 2003
So first off, this book is excellent. I knew it would be excellent before I started reading it for two reasons. First, it is written by Terry Pratchett, who is quite simply the best. If you haven’t read any Pratchett yet, you are wrong and should take measures as soon as possible to stop being wrong. He is wonderful. Second, my copy of the book featured a sheep’s face with what appear to be tiny blue Scotsmen, kilts and red hair and aw, crawling through its wool. Armed with these facts, it was simply incomprehensible to me that this book would disappoint, and it didn’t. Early on a character is introduced named Perspicacia, a river monster is dispatched with a frying pan, and the “pictsies” are introduced (the afformentioned fairy/Scotsmen). The pictsies are clearly the highlight of the story, they speak exclusively in Lallans Scots, with a heavy helping of “crivenses” and “waily waily wailies,” and they exhibit just about every slightly racist stereotype of the good people of Scotland that has ever existed, rowdy, drunk, and prone to thievery. There is also a good amount of jokes at the expense of lawyers and shepherds.
Ultimately a children’s book, The Wee Free Men is a quick read that is suitably endearing for the genre. The main character is a young girl who must confront a strange and supernatural world (with the help of the pictsies) in order to rescue her brother. Tiffany Aching is no ordinary child protagonist, however; in typical Pratchett fashion she breaks the mold of her type by fitting it almost precisely. The adventure is not typical either. At times very dark, the end of the book features a series of setting jumps and quick adventures that makes it stand out even among its fellow Discworld novels in terms of strangeness. Overall, it is very cute and sweet and features a nice little folksy/Spidermany moral of how those that can do have a duty to help those that can’t do, and considering the fact that it takes about a day to read, there really is no excuse not to.
Funerals in Azerbaijan are extraordinarily extravagant, often costing as much as $1000 US dollars, about a third of the per capita GDP. It’s such a problem that a law is being considered that would limit the amount of money that could be spent on a funeral.
Sometimes, things are just wonderful
Stephen King interview
A wonderful conversation between wonderful people.
I just put the text up of the interview I did with Stephen King in the Sunday Times Magazine on my blog at neilgaiman.com. It’s a much longer interview than the one in the magazine, and if you are interested in working writers, you might enjoy it….