Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: "The Magician's Land" by Lev Grossman

Another series of books I really enjoyed has come to an end. As I've said many times before, I'm always hesitant to read the last book in a series, both because I don't want to be left without another book to look forward to, and I'm always nervous about how the author will conclude a series I've grown attached to.

Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land is the conclusion to his Magicians trilogy, a series that followed a group of young magicians as they discovered the magical land they had read about in children's books was actually real, and it was in need of rulers to lead it. In this final book, Quentin Coldwater has found himself banished from his beloved Fillory, where he and his best friends had ruled as kings and queens, defending the kingdom where necessary and protecting the magic within it.

"Six months ago he'd been a king in a magic land, another world, but that was all over. He'd been kicked out of Fillory, and he'd been kicked around a fair bit since then, and now he was just another striver, trying to scramble back in, up the slippery slope, back toward the light and the warmth."

Left with nowhere else to turn, Quentin returns to his alma mater, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, to try and find a new purpose in his life. While he discovers a love for teaching, it's not long before circumstances connect him with Plum, a graduate student with tremendous talent and a mysterious history, and they both find themselves exiled from Brakebills as well. The need for money and a purpose lead the two toward a dangerous mission, which is connected to Quentin's past in more ways than they can imagine.

Meanwhile, in Fillory, Eliot and Janet, the High King and Queen, have found that all is not harmonious in the kingdom. Enemies are invading, and the magic that has kept the land protected for years on end seems to be failing. The end of Fillory is at hand, and they are desperate to find a way to stop their kingdom from being destroyed, and them along with it.

This is a book about trying to discover your true purpose, and not losing sight of the person you are, even in the face of tremendous adversity. It's also a book about trying to save the things that mean the most to you. And more than anything, this is a book about the pull of friendship, and the willingness to do whatever is necessary for those we care about.

In all of the books in this trilogy, I marveled at the immensely creative and poetic details that Grossman brought to his descriptions of Fillory and the other magical places, and the powers that the magicians have. I also loved the unique voices he gave each of his characters, how their personalities remained relatively consistent throughout, and I really enjoyed the interactions between them.

I found the concept of Fillory's imminent destruction tremendously intriguing, and felt the book really hit its stride whenever it focused on that, as well as the dynamics between the characters. More than the other two books, however, I felt as if The Magician's Land got a little more bogged down in backstory and details that threw it a bit off course. This is definitely a trilogy where you're expected to read the books in order, because Grossman doesn't provide much information about what happened previously, instead simply mentioning characters and incidents without elaborating.

In the end, while this wasn't my favorite book in the series, I did enjoy the way Grossman concluded everything. I really found Fillory to be a special, intriguing place, and so enjoyed spending time with the characters, and I'm just sorry to see everything end. If you believe in magic, and want something a bit more cerebral, definitely check out this trilogy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book Review: "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty's last novel, The Husband's Secret, was tremendously popular last year, and when I finally got around to reading it I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, domestic drama and all. Her newest novel, Big Little Lies, explores similar territory as it looks at the haves and have nots in a small Australian community, and throws in a little mayhem, melodrama, and murder to boot.

Another year of kindergarten is about to start at the Pirriwee Public School. Madeline, who loves to be the center of attention and will fight for any cause—or person—she thinks needs her support, is struggling, because her ex-husband Nathan and his new yoga-instructor wife Bonnie have moved to the same community, and their young daughter is in the same class as Madeline's daughter, Chloe. (And don't even get her started on the fact that Madeline and Nathan's teenage daughter Abigail would rather live with her father—who abandoned her and Madeline when she was an infant—than her mother.)

Madeline's gorgeous best friend, Celeste, has a picture-perfect life. She has the gorgeous, enormously wealthy husband, Perry, and two beautiful twin sons. Perry gives Celeste anything she wants, and their lives are the envy of most of the parents in their community. But what looks like the perfect life from the outside can be far from perfect on the inside, and Celeste has to figure out how to regain control.

New in town is single mother Jane, who is younger than most of the other parents—so young, in fact, that she is often mistaken for one of the children's nannies or au pairs. She is fiercely devoted to her young son, Ziggy, and despite the way many of the parents treat her, she becomes fast friends with Madeline and Celeste.

When a bullying scandal erupts in the kindergarten class, battle lines are drawn between groups of parents. As the most innocent of incidents are misinterpreted and re-interpreted, the scandal threatens to explode, and it brings many other issues between spouses, between friends, between sets of parents, to a head. And it all explodes one evening, at the school's "Elvis and Audrey" Trivia Night, when everything goes much too far, and someone winds up dead.

I really enjoy the way Moriarty writes. She completely hooks you in this tempestuous little community and gets you invested in the characters, and just when you think you know where she's going to take the story, she flips the script on you. The book flashes back to the months before Trivia Night, and is interspersed with commentary from a Greek chorus of sorts comprised of the other parents, as well as the teachers and administrators from the school.

There was a period of time when this book reminded me of Julia Fierro's Cutting Teeth, in that I found many of the supporting characters so odious that I wasn't sure I wanted to keep reading. But the main characters are so much more complex than I first thought, so I was glad I kept on, because in the end, despite my feeling for some of the characters, I really enjoyed the book as a whole. This is a fun, melodramatic, soapy read, definitely one which will amuse and intrigue you—unless this is the type of life you live.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Book Review: "Tiny Ladies" by Adam Klein

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Carrie is a caseworker in Iowa doing her best to help her clients overcome their struggles and make a fresh start of their lives. She's trying to do the same thing—her previous tenure in the same role while living in San Francisco ended disastrously, with her having an affair with Victor, a dangerous client, and resuming a drug addiction that has had her in its grips since her teenage years. She's desperate to keep her life together, but she can't keep herself from caring too much about her clients.

"Caring about people is wounding. That's why so many people are reluctant to care. It hurts."

When Carrie meets Hannah, a troubled young woman with more than her own share of problems, Carrie feels like helping Hannah might be what she needs to finally move her life forward. But as she realizes Hannah is a more complicated person than she first thought, Carrie finds herself having to confront someone from her past, someone she hoped would never find her, and it sets her on a dangerous path.

Tiny Ladies is a brutal, beautifully written novel about the toll addiction takes on a person's life and those around them, and how hard it is to break the cycle of addiction when it's in your blood. It's a story about struggling to do what is right while your life is spiraling out of control, and you wonder if the effort it takes every day is truly worth it. The book shifts in time throughout Carrie's life, from her childhood growing up poor near the Florida Everglades, the daughter of two drug addicts, to the start of her own addictions, and her relationship with Victor, which has disastrous consequences for more than just her career.

I had never heard of Adam Klein before but the description of this book intrigued me tremendously. Klein is tremendously talented, and he so perfectly captured Carrie's voice and her soul, which isn't always a strong suit of male authors. This isn't a happy book by any means, and at times the storyline seems a little disjointed, but it is so powerful, and you find yourself urging Carrie not to make the same mistakes again, to try and pull her life together. This was an excellent read I'm glad I stumbled upon.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Review: "Thunderstruck & Other Stories" by Elizabeth McCracken

The short stories in Elizabeth McCracken's great new collection, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, may not leave you feeling all shiny and happy inside, but you will find yourself marveling at her writing ability, and how she captivates and compels you in just a few short pages. These are stories that look at the bleaker side of life, love, and relationships, but many pack a serious punch.

Some of my favorites in this collection are: "Juliet," which tells the story of a community rocked by a murder, as narrated by staff from the library, who knew both the victim and the alleged murderer; "Property," about a young widower who moves into a dilapidated rental home and finds himself confronted by the detritus the landlord left behind; "The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston," told by the manager of a local grocery store, who feels a vested interest in the life of the teenage son of a missing woman; "Hungry," about a woman dealing with a dying son, an angry daughter, and a granddaughter who won't stop eating; and the title story (which is probably my favorite), about a family that flees to Paris in an attempt to curb their teenage daughter's rebellious behavior, and finds themselves affected in ways they could never imagine.

It has been a while since I've read one of McCracken's books, although I remember how much I enjoyed the wonderful The Giant's House a number of years ago, but I remember how much I love her storytelling skills. The stories in this collection hooked me pretty quickly, and left me thinking about them even as I went on to the next one. And even now, a few days after I've finished the collection, some of the stories—particularly the ones I've named above—have me wondering what happened to the characters when the stories ended.

If you're a short story fan, pick up Thunderstruck & Other Stories. The stories themselves might not make you joyful, but McCracken's writing certainly will.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Review: "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki is a studious, solitary man. Always fascinated by railway stations (he finds simply sitting in a crowded train station, watching the trains and the passengers come and go), he lives in Tokyo, working as an engineer building and renovating stations. He doesn't really have any friends, and has really only had a few romantic relationships with women.

When Tsukuru was in high school, he had four very close friends—two boys, the rugged, athletic Ao, and the studious, shy Aka; and two girls, the talented, beautiful Shiro, and the equally enigmatic but less vibrant Kuro. The five were tremendously close and inseparable throughout high school, forming a perfect harmonious unit. But as much as Tsukuru reveled in the friendships, he always felt a bit like the odd man out, and wondered what his friends gained from him. He was the only one to leave their hometown of Nagoya to go to college, yet whenever he returned home, the five quickly came together again.

Yet one day during college, everything changed. Tsukuru received a call from one of his friends telling him they never wanted to see him again, offering no explanation. He was devastated by this loss, and for some time thought he might die. Although he was able to bounce back, complete his studies, and pursue a successful career, his life was forever shaped by this sudden loss of his friends, and he wondered whether it was his own flaws that caused this friction.

As an adult, when Tsukuru meets Sara, and is interested in pursuing a relationship with her, he tells her about his old friends, and how that loss affected his life. She encourages him to find them and understand why they cut him off without any explanation. His search for answers re-opens old wounds and revives old anxieties, but it also surprises Tsukuru, and teaches him things about himself he never imagined.

It's been a while since I've read a book by Haruki Murakami, and while the book definitely has a meditative tone, it's one of Murakami's most straightforward books in quite some time. If you've ever felt like you don't fit in, ever wondered whether people truly care about you or just say they do, or ever lost friends for reasons you haven't understood, this is definitely a book you'll identify with. It makes you think about the paths our lives take, and how our interactions with friends when we're young affect us in ways we never truly understand.

Murakami is a tremendously talented writer. His prose is incredibly evocative, and I really thought the characters in this book were very well drawn. The book captivated me from start to finish, although the plot unfolded slowly. If I had any criticism of the book, it's that it left a few subplots hanging, particularly a friendship Tsukuru had that ended without reason. But on the whole, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was fascinating and a really worthwhile read.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Movie Review: "Boyhood"

I'll admit, I was a little late to the party on Richard Linklater's trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, but when I finally saw all three I couldn't believe I had missed them all these years. So needless to say, I didn't want to let another Linklater movie pass me by. And after seeing Boyhood, I can honestly say I am so glad I saw it.

Boyhood is the story about a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) growing up in Texas. When the movie begins in 2002 he's a mischievous, easily distracted six-year-old, mostly behaving the way typical six-year-olds do: taking every risk imaginable, simultaneously being terrorized by and terrorizing his older sister (Lorelai Linklater), ogling the lingerie section of a store catalogue with a friend.

Mason is also a sensitive dreamer, one who does all of his homework but doesn't turn it in because the teacher doesn't explicitly ask for it. He and his sister live with their mother (Patricia Arquette), who is tired of struggling to make ends meet for her family and wants to go back to school so she can make something of her life. When they move to Houston, the kids get a visit from their less-than-present father (Ethan Hawke), a man-child who desperately wants to be a part of his children's lives but he isn't so sure he's ready for the responsibility.

The movie follows Mason as he grows up, but in case you weren't aware, Linklater did something absolutely fascinating in making this film: instead of using other actors to play Mason and his sister as they grew, Linklater filmed this over the course of 12 years, gathering his actors together once a year or so to mark progress and see where the year has taken the characters. It's an absolutely mesmerizing tactic that gets you more invested in the characters and the story than perhaps any other movie, because you're actually watching them grow and change, essentially in front of your eyes.

Although I watched Boyhood with a bit of trepidation, waiting for the moment that everything would fall apart for the characters (and there are a few times I felt sure it would), this is a movie that for the most part doesn't lay on the drama but instead revels in the conversations of Mason's life—with his father talking about the future of the Star Wars franchise while on a camping trip; with one of his high school teachers, desperate to light a fire under him; with a girlfriend, espousing his philosophies of life; and with his mother as he prepares to leave for college. The dialogue and the situations ring true, and the fact that we've seen these actors grow makes them all the more real.

With a running time of two hours and forty-two minutes, you're probably wondering if a movie that's a snapshot of a "real" life could hold your attention. It absolutely does, mainly because the performances are so riveting. Coltrane is truly a find; I can only wonder if Richard Linklater truly realized early on just what an old soul Coltrane was as a child, and how that quality would bring such weight to his performance as a teenager. Linklater's daughter Lorelai transforms into so much more than the bratty, overly dramatic older sister, and I only wished for the opportunity to see more of her. Arquette has a meatier role than Hawke, but both bring toughness and vulnerability to their performances as they navigate life's ups and downs.

I can't recommend this movie enough—although I'll pay it forward, much as my friends did, and warn you to hit the restroom before the movie begins. Much like an excellent short story or novel, I'm left wondering what happened to Mason and his family once the camera stopped rolling. And that, for me, is the mark of excellence—to care enough about the characters you can't stop thinking about them.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review: "F" by Daniel Kehlmann

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

In 1984, Arthur Friedland takes his young sons, Martin, Eric, and Ivan to see a famous hypnotist, The Great Lindemann. Arthur doesn't believe in hypnosis and declares himself immune, but he goes to the show to humor his boys. Yet Lindemann calls Arthur up onstage and influences him to reveal his darkest secrets—many of which revolved around Arthur's desire to become a published author and free himself of the yoke of family—and then encourages Arthur to turn his ambitions into reality.

Within a few days, Arthur has emptied out his and his wife's joint bank account and disappears, only to re-emerge as an infamous author years later, with his most famous book leading people worldwide to question their own existence, and some even commit suicide after reading it.

Each of the boys are influenced in some way by their encounter with The Great Lindemann and their father's subsequent escape. Martin becomes a priest, although he struggles with his own devotion, as well as his addiction to food. Eric, a banker, is slowly losing his grip on reality as his career is tanking, while Ivan, once a talented artist, instead uses his talents to become a forger. Each of the boys has a cataclysmic encounter on the same day, which throws each of them further into chaos.

I am a voracious reader, but I tend to like books that are relatively straightforward. F is not one of those books. It tries too hard to be clever and mysterious, and it never gave you enough background to truly understand the characters or the issues they were dealing with. One of the greatest conceits of the book is that each of the sons has a mysterious encounter (on 8/8/08) with several people all named Ron—I just didn't understand the point.

This book was translated from German, so it's entirely possible that the narrative resonates more in its native language. But because Daniel Kehlmann was so deliberately obtuse and mystical in the way he unfolded the plot and developed his characters, I was never able to get immersed in the book, and truly don't understand the point of it at all.