Friday, October 28, 2011

Review #21: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This book has been described as Harry Potter for grownups, and I think that's a pretty good descriptor.

The Magicians is about Quentin, an apathetic, lonely teenager growing up in New York City. One day, after finding an unpublished manuscript by his favorite author (who is famous for a Narnia-style series of books) in the home of the man with whom he is supposed to have a college interview, he stumbles through a park and into the world of Brakebills, a school of magic. After several rigorous tests, he is accepted as a student, and the rest of the novel follows his time in the wizarding world.

I liked this book a lot--it's definitely a book for grownups. There is plenty of sex and violence, and Quentin is a sarcastic, often unlikable narrator. Grossman does a good job of setting his world apart from that of Hogwarts, as there are no cutesy owls or house elves in this book. The Magicians is considerably darker, taking the more depressing tone of the later Harry Potter books and magnifying it. Magic is dangerous, often uncontrollable, and decidedly scary in this world, and the potential for evil is much greater.

My biggest criticism of the book is that the Brakebills years, which only take up about half of the novel, feel sort of rushed. We fly through four years that could have easily been expanded into their own novels. I get why Grossman did this, to separate himself from J.K. Rowling, but there were times when it felt like he was merely glossing the surface of a potentially rich narrative. I do like how Grossman takes us outside of Brakebills in the second half, letting Quentin and his friends put their magic to use and understanding the true power of their gifts.

I really recommend this to anyone, whether or not fantasy is your thing. This is pretty far from the tamed-down world of Harry Potter, as good as they may be, and it's cool to see this type of book through the perspective of an adult.

Reviews #18-20: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

I'm a little late to the party when it comes to The Hunger Games. The first book came out years ago, but I only got around to reading them this year, when I mentioned them to my mother and she was shocked that I hadn't read them.

The Hunger Games trilogy is set in the fictional country of Panem, which is located in the remains of what was once North America. After a huge war, which effectively destroyed the continent, the survivors emerged and created a hierarchical society, the capital of which is, appropriately, called the Capitol. This city is surrounded by twelve districts, each of which is responsible for the production of a different good, and these are all strictly monitored by the Capitol's army. As punishment for the rebellion which incited the war, each year the districts must all send two citizens, one female and one male, under the age of eighteen, to compete in a brutal tournament called the Hunger Games. The goal? Be the last living contestant.

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, which is responsible for producing coal. She is the sole provider for her family, as her father was killed in a mining accident. She spends her days hunting in the woods with her best friend, Gale, illegally killing animals to provide food to her mother and sister. When her sister is chosen at random as the District's female tribute, she volunteers to go in her place. And so she and Peeta, the son of a baker and the other tribute, are sent to the Capitol to compete, along with their mentor, the alcoholic Haymitch, who won the Games years ago.

The first book follows Katniss and Peeta's experiences in the Games, half of the book following their preparation for the event and the second portraying the Games themselves. The second book, Catching Fire, picks up where the first leaves off, right after the end of the Games, and is centered around the Quarter Quell, a celebration of the anniversary of the Games and which sends Katniss back to the Capitol to participate in a second round of Games. This book introduces hints of impending rebellion , which leads into the third book, Mockingjay. In the third and final book of the trilogy, Katniss heads the revolution against the Capitol, as Panem breaks out into a full-blown civil war.

I'm being deliberately vague with the plot details, since a huge part of the fun of these books is the anticipation of figuring out what will happen next. Collins has created an incredible world, filled with violence and inequality, that is eerily reminiscent of today's society, and presents a bleak view of the possible future of our world. Collins is a great writer, and creates a tension-filled narrative with unforgettable, realistic characters. It's impossible not to fall in love with Katniss, who is exactly what female YA heroines should be: fierce, tough, and smart.

The one criticism I have of this series is that the quality definitely decreases after the first book. While books 2 and 3 are both wonderful in their own right, it's impossible for them to live up to the perfectly paced, tightly plotted narrative of the original Hunger Games. The third one, especially, leaves a bit to be desired, and it almost feels like Collins ran out of time while writing it.

This is exactly what YA lit needs to be. It doesn't dumb down the heavy themes or the violence for younger readers, and although that could be seen as a bad thing, I think that kids can handle it. The violence is not gratuitous or anything worse than is seen in many TV shows and movies today, and so I would consider it on a case-by-case basis. If your kid is smart and able to discuss serious themes, then I would recommend it to children as young as nine or ten. And, as always, to adults! This is a perfect example of YA lit that's appealing to a wide range of audiences.

Review #17: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I. Loved. This. Book.

Seriously. This was easily in the top 5 books I've read this year.

Ava Bigtree's family owns Swamplandia, an alligator-themed amusement park in the heart of the Everglades. Her mother, a world-renowned alligator wrestler, has recently passed away of cancer, and so Ava, her father, Chief Bigtree, and her brother and sister, Kiwi and Osceola, must learn to fend for themselves. As their park loses customers and the Bigtrees slowly lose money, their family begins to fall apart. The Chief leaves, Kiwi runs away, Ossie disappears, and Ava, an aspiring gator wrestler herself, must find her sister and restore her family, and Swamplandia, to their former glory.

This is definitely an odd book--it's got some slightly post-modern and dystopian elements to it. The world the Bigtrees inhabit is easily identifiable as contemporary America, and yet Russell uses subtly satirical details to make it unfamiliar and bizarre. However, this just makes this novel all the more fresh and interesting.

This is unlike any other novel I've read. Russell has incredible ideas and is an insanely good writer, and she creates characters that I truly felt for and a world that feels tangible and real. Ava is a kick-ass heroine--smart, funny, and strong, while still maintaining some of her childhood innocence. She's one of the greatest female heroines I've ever encountered.

Although this book has plenty of funny moments, Russell doesn't shy away from poignancy and emotional depth. Ava is, despite her tough exterior, still a little girl, and Russell uses her to convey the intense pain of losing a parent and of one's childhood world changing and collapsing. I cried as much as I laughed, and to me, that's the sign of a great book.

Go out and buy it. You won't regret it.

Review #16: Size 12 Is Not Fat by Meg Cabot

I adore Meg Cabot. The Princess Diaries was my favorite series when I was younger, and I read every single YA book she wrote back in my early teens. I sort of forgot about her, until I was at the library and I noticed a whole bunch of her books in the Adult section of the library. Meg Cabot writes grown-up books?!?! And so I picked one at random and proceeded to read it all in a matter of hours.

Size 12 Is Not Fat is classic Cabot. She's practically trademarked the insecure, quirky, down-to-earth female narrator, and although Heather Wells (the narrator) sounds exactly like Mia Thermopolis, the star of the Princess Diaries, it doesn't get old. I could read Cabot's writing all day--it's easy, funny, and sweet.

This book tells the story of Heather, a Britney-esque former teen-pop sensation who quit show business after her boyfriend (the book's version of a Justin Timberlake) cheats on her. She now works as an RA in a dorm building at a huge university in New York City, trying to blend in. She also lives with her ex's brother, a sexy private detective on whom she has an enormous crush. On top of this, freshman girls are showing up dead in the dorm's elevator shaft. Heather sets out to find out who the culprit is.

Cabot is not a great mystery writer, but she doesn't really pretend to be. The murderer is obvious from really early on (I honestly think I figured it out less than 50 pages in) and so there's not a ton of suspense. But it's such an enjoyable read that it doesn't really matter. Heather is funny and smart and a great character--again, the kind of girl that would make a great best friend.

So this is another of those mindless, fluffy reads that simply makes you happy. Definitely recommended to fans of Cabot, or fans of good chick-lit in general.

Review #15: The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

I will fully admit that I am a huge history buff. I tend to get obsessed with certain periods of history and read as many books (mostly historical fiction, but some biography/non-fiction stuff as well) as I can find about them. One of these is the Salem Witch Trials. I've read dozens of books about the trials, both children's lit (I cannot recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond more highly to young readers--and old, too!) and adult books (The Crucible is a favorite). So I was really excited to read The Heretic's Daughter.

Maybe it's just because I've read so many good books about the trials, but this book was a little disappointing. It tells the story of Sarah, a young girl growing up in 17th century Andover, Massachusetts. Rumors begin to fly about supposed supernatural activity occurring in Salem, the neighboring town, and Sarah's mother--a non-conforming, stubborn woman--is eventually accused of being a witch.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book is that it's about real people. Martha Currier, Sarah's mother, was actually one of Kent's ancestors, and so the book has a sense of purpose beyond simply recounting a well-known historical event. 

The book does a wonderful job of portraying the trials through the eyes of a child, capturing the confusion and the terror and the paranoia of the experience. Sarah's innocence highlights the insanity of the actions of those around her, and works very well. Unfortunately, I never seemed to warm up to her, or any of the other characters. I'm not sure what it was, since the book is very well-written, but I felt like the characters were a bit flat and unoriginal.

For that reason, the book is a little forgettable. The writing is beautiful and the attention to detail the author clearly worked hard on is admirable, and so I would still recommend this book for die-hard Puritan history buffs. However, there are definitely better representations of the trials out there.

Review #14: Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding

I've been wanting to read this book for years, ever since my mother bought a copy way back when it came out and I would skim through it looking for the sexy parts. I later saw the movie, and enjoyed it, so when I was putting together my reading list for the summer, I threw this book on it.

And I wasn't disappointed. Bridget Jones is, as everyone knows, about the titular character, a thirty-something British woman with a weight problem, a cigarette addiction, and a crush on her dashing boss. The book is written, obviously, as her diary.

I won't say too much about the plot since a) everyone is already fairly familiar with it and b) the plot is subordinate to Bridget's character. The biggest draw of this book is her voice--she is hilarious, and I found myself laughing embarrassingly loudly pretty much throughout the entire thing. Bridget is a really relatable narrator and she's the kind of character I wish were real, so that we could be friends.

All in all, a great, funny, quick read. Perfect if you need something light and fluffy to relax with after a long day or on vacation.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review #13: Spoiled by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

I've been a fan of the Fug Girls since 2004, my freshman year of high school. Their blog ( is one of the few that I read on a daily basis, and have done so for the past seven years. So, when I found out they were coming out with a book, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. The wait at the library took about two months, but I finally got it yesterday, and I was not disappointed.

Spoiled is the perfect summer read: light, fluffy, funny and smart--and did I mention it's another example of excellent YA lit? It's the story of sixteen-year-old Molly Dix, who, after her mother's death, leaves Indiana to go live in Hollywood with her long-lost movie star father Brick Berlin, and his daughter, Brooke, who is the same age. Unfortunately, Brick is largely absent and Brooke doesn't want any competition for his attention. So while Molly must get used to the luxurious lifestyle of LA's finest, she must also deal with a constant onslaught of attacks from her new sister, who's doing her best to send Molly back to Indiana. She also struggles to maintain her relationship with her long-time boyfriend while fighting feelings for the one normal boy at her new prep school.

The Fug Girls have mastered the art of funny, clever writing on their blog, and Spoiled is an extension of their awesome style. They're good at satirizing celeb culture without being too vicious, and maintain a good level between over-the-top fluff and sweet, real emotions. Molly is a perfect representation of the girl next door caught up in a fantasy land, and she's relatable and real, if a bit too naive. Morgan and Cox create a memorable cast of secondary players as well, including Brick, who has some laugh-out-loud moments, and Molly's crazy classmates, such as a girl named Arugula.

This is a truly entertaining book, although if you're looking for something meaty and deep, this isn't it. It's just pure fun in the form of a very, very quick read (I finished it in about five hours, but I'm a fast reader). It's the perfect summer book--and if you're not already a fan of the Fug Girls, you will be once you've finished it.