The Magicians Trilogy Review

Book: The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land
Author: Lev Grossman
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2007 – 2014
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: (from The Magicians) “Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams may have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined….
The Magicians is one of the most daring and inventive works of literary fantasy in years. No one who as escaped into the worlds of Narnia and Harry Potter should miss this breathtaking return to the landscape of imagination.”

Review: To fill you in on a little background, I found The Magicians through a show on the SciFi channel appropriately named The Magicians. It was compelling, I was immediately struck by what a massive budget the show must have had, and I was completely sucked in by the quality effects and overall put-together-ness you often miss with fantasy and sci-fi shows. It wasn’t until this year, though, that I realized the show was originally a book series so without much thought I dove right in.
I’ve struggled to find ways to review this series without also reviewing the show, continuously finding ways to compare what was done in the show to what was written in the book, seeking out plot holes between the two, and being somewhat marveled by the apt characterization of each person in the show vs the book. It’s already a bit of a strange review, attempting to review a series rather than each book individually, but I found the stories blended so seamlessly, I could have been reading from one enormous book.
Despite plowing through this series in under a week, I chose to rate these books with ultimately 50% because I’ve found, particularly in more recently popular fiction, one does not have to be a great writer to turn pages. One only needs to be compelling, and Lev Grossman writes stories that are nothing if not compelling. If we look past the glaringly obvious copy-cat of The Chronicles of Narnia, we’re still confronted with an author who wields the trope of a miserable, privileged teenage boy as if it’s a blazing sword of originality. It isn’t. I remarked recently, in the show you’re presented with Quentin as a miserable, privileged boy in a way that points to the remarkably pathetic nature of his character, in the book, however, we’re supposed to believe wholeheartedly in his “nothing is ever good enough” facade. Was it meant to be written in a way that makes you want to gag slightly over how rough Quentin has it with his genius IQ that allows him access to a magical world he’s been dreaming about his whole life only to continue pining for something more (a something more that included access to every ivy league school he could possible wish for)? I doubt it. I think we’re truly meant to feel sorry for him and that’s not something I can find myself doing. Poor rich boy, with his magic and his smarts and all the doors opening for him – it hits harder when we realize that his best friend, a girl who is likely better at magic and just as smart as him, didn’t gain access to the magic world for reasons that are never fully explained in the book.
Moving on. Grossman is cavalier with his use of mental illness, he relies heavily on fat shaming, and throws around words I wouldn’t dare use as a conversational piece. Looking at the published date of 2007, I’m not entirely surprised by some of the language he uses, but it doesn’t stop Grossman from continuing to make light of horrific sexual trauma and deep depression even as his writing moves further into the 2010s. That alone is enough to knock the rating down at least two points, in my opinion. It neither adds to the story nor furthers any action, it merely serves to show how little Grossman cares for an audience that often seeks fantasy and sci-fi to escape from the realities of life; mental illness, trauma, abuse, and bullying.
Something I found hard to move past in this trilogy is the way in which Grossman sets up magic; it’s unattainable to the average person and unless you have an IQ higher than practically everyone you know, the idea that you could insert yourself into this world he’s created is implausible. He builds a world we are meant to love and wish to escape to and then holds it so high over the heads of his readers to keep them out that we couldn’t reach it if we jumped. It’s impossible to insert yourself as a reader into a world like that, and frankly isn’t that what sci-fi and fantasy are about? How can we, as readers, be expected to escape to a beautiful world of magic if it’s so far beyond our intellectual reach?
Grossman writes in such a way that I thought perhaps he was simply trying to convey how pretentious Quentin and his friends are throughout the series, but the more I progressed through the books the more I realized it isn’t Quentin and his fellow magicians who are pretentious, it’s Grossman. I found myself looking up words I absolutely never hear or read – thrown into books that read at a YA level, words that, again, don’t further the plot or move the action along; they serve merely as yet another tool to keep his readers at arms length.
Finally, as I finished the trilogy, I began to see the book devolve into a tangled mess of “probably”. I didn’t have the time, energy, or heart to go back through the entirety of the third book, but I did sift through a few of the final chapters (26-28) and found the word probably used over fifteen times – often as the start of a sentence, used both in narrative and conversation. What’s the point? I’m really not sure. Did the other two books and maybe even the remainder of the third contain more of the p-word than I realized? Probably.

Advice: These books are compelling, they really are. I found it hard to put them down, wanting to know what was going to happen next, reading quickly because the plot moved quickly. It’s an enjoyable read if you don’t think about it too much, or if you’ve watched the series and found it to be something you liked. It’s not an enjoyable read for a myriad of other reasons and I will likely not be reading anything further from Grossman in the future.

Where the Crawdads Sing Review

Book: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Publisher: Putnam
Year: 2018
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl.
But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life – until the unthinkable happens.
Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject the the beautiful and violent secrets nature keeps.”

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing came highly recommended and it was absolutely without question as to why my book club chose this title to read. It is a New York Times Bestseller, it’s a book in Reese’s book Club, and it’s been highly praised. A quick online search shows it ranks between 4.5 and 5 stars from multiple rating sources. I began reading this book truly uncertain about how I would feel – I waited until the last minute to cram it in before our bookclub meeting and never actually read the synopsis. The story begins in 1952 when Kya, the “Marsh Girl”, is six years old and jumps back and forth between the years leading up to 1969 and 1969 itself. Crawdads is Owens’ debut novel, though it is not her first publication. As a native to North Carolina herself, Owens has a unique perspective of the swampy, marshy areas along the coast, and in fact she has written several books on wildlife (though, notably not about her time in NC). The writing of Crawdads is gorgeous and striking, at no point during the novel are you lost in imagining the marsh and the amazing creatures who call it home. This, at the very least, warrants Crawdads 50% of it’s rating. However, while Owens’ writing skills are clearly well developed, her novel writing skills are not. The conversation is stilted and unbelievable – most townsfolk speaking as Owens writes: in prolific, beautiful language, describing things people would likely think rather than say. She weaves an intricate tale of murder throughout the novel, something that the entirety of the plot relies upon, yet when it comes time to reveal who the murderer really was (gasp! plot twist??) we are left with an incomplete story, a predictable ending, and a story that would absolutely never have happened. And maybe that’s my fault for hoping that a realistic book would have a realistic plot line, but I’d rather read something realistic and deeply moving than something that Nicholas Sparks himself might have written and written better.
The ending leaves the story with gaping holes and I find myself stewing over this days after having finished the book. If what the novel was aiming for was a purely romantic plot line with absolutely no need for reality, it could have and should have been written differently. If, what I suspect Owens was trying to do, the novel was written to be poignant, address prejudices, and introduce the reader to the amazing wildlife and human life that reside within a marsh, it should have absolutely taken about three different turns and concluded in a much different manner. But what I’m left with is disappointment and frustration that I spent $25 on a hardcover copy of what ultimately turned out to be a Nicholas Sparks book in disguise and for that I would have passed it up.

Advice: If you are interested in a slow moving and deeply unrealistic love story, first of all, no judgement. Secondly, this is the book for you. It is a gorgeous book with amazing tales of wildlife and a truly remarkable coming-of-age story that turns on its head and becomes a sappy love story at the end. I can admit that this is not at all my style but is the style of many a summer book reader. If you are not looking to think deeply about the plot or the potential holes in it, definitely pick this book up. Again, I can’t say enough about the gorgeous imagery Crawdads provides, it is striking and compels you to continue reading without putting the book down. It’s a 50/50 for me, some good with a lot of, in my opinion, bad.

Daisy Jones & The Six Review

Book: Daisy Jones & the Six
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Year: 2019
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis
“Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock ‘n’ roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.
Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camilla finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.
Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.
The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.

Review: Daisy Jones & The Six received a tremendous amount of fanfare preceding it’s release in March of 2019. It was read, reviewed, and adored long before it was available to buy; nearly every book reviewer I follow read the book and was singing its praises. Naturally, I was excited to pick it up, expecting a wild ride through rock and roll, drugs, and the culture of the seventies. I was sorely mistaken. DJ&TS is a kiddie ride by comparison, though Reid does discuss prolific drug use and there is some mention of sex, the details are left out and what the reader finds is a watered down story you could find on VHS’ Behind the Music. The style of the book is told as an interview, each band member giving their thoughts on the time, looking back from some fifty or sixty years later. While this style of writing is interesting and different, it requires interview subjects who have a strong grasp of the details and events as they unfolded. These former rockers talk about night after night of partying, allude to hard drugs, and mention doing lines before shows – none of which give me the impression that they would be capable of rehashing the minutiae, and yet I have come away from the book with a full and complete story. Somehow.
Reid puts a singular emphasis on foreshadowing throughout the book, leading the reader to an explosive climax, or so it seemed. The build up was hundreds of pages long, being alluded to early on and continuously referenced throughout the interviews, but when the eventual fallout occurred it was quiet, quick, and expected. In this same style, Reid turns the end of the transcript into a second “reveal”, giving the reader the details of who had been performing the interview throughout the story – here’s a spoiler: it adds absolutely nothing to the book or it’s plot.
DJ&TS is finished with a predictable rom-com ending that I saw coming from nearly the first chapter of the book. It is cheesy and it trivializes the deep connection Billy and his wife Camilla had for their entire adult lives. It takes a woman who sacrificed everything for her husband to go on tour and become one of the most famous musicians of the time, and turns her into a backdrop and a consolation prize.

My Advice: If you are looking for a book with any sort of female empowerment or feminist message, this is not the book for you. It is lacking, it is weak, and it is a massive disappointment. If you like the idea of a one note story, pun not intended, and a terribly written rom-com then this is absolutely your book. Reid calls Barbara Streisand her primary influence for Daisy’s style and after looking at pictures of young Babs online, I can say with confidence that not only was she the influence, Daisy’s style was an exact rip off of her look. It’s been done. Don’t waste your money, turn on any band interview and you’ll have the gist.


Amateur Review

Book: Amateur
Author: Thomas Page McBee
Publisher: Scribner
Year: 2018
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis : “Amateur follows the author, a trans man, as he trains to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden while struggling to untangle the vexed relationship between masculinity and violence. Through his experience boxing — learning to get hit and to hit back, wrestling with the camaraderie of the gym, confronting the betrayals and strength of his own body — McBee examines the weight of male violence, the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes, and the limitations of conventional manhood. Interrogating masculinity as emotional landscape and cultural positioning, he binds his experience to a free-ranging examination of the ways in which men fail and are failed by our society.
At once a deeply reported narrative and an intensely personal journey, Amateur is ultimately a story of hope, as McBee traces a new way forward, a new way of being a man, in the ring and outside of it.”

Review: Thomas Page McBee’s Amateur is at once a study of masculinity within the boxing ring and a deeply moving study of gender in and out of the context of boxing. McBee struggles with the concept of manhood and embarks on this boxing journey to further understand his role in the world as a man. Sharing a unique perspective on toxic masculinity, McBee provides the reader with a deep understanding of the paradoxical world in which he lives; having once lived as a female and now living as a male in a time where men are viewed often as aggressive and dangerous, he finds himself fearful and apologetic.

Not only does McBee have a new realm of existence to explore, he discusses the implications of being a “real man” whose male role model growing up was his stepfather, a man under whom he experienced decades of sexual abuse. In exploring this relationship, McBee discusses the impact this understanding has on his siblings as they become parents themselves.

Delving into the world of boxing, McBee explores masculinity in terms of love, connection, emotions, and touch. He grapples with the loss of his mother, with understanding how to interact with the women in his life, and the perception the world holds of him both as a passing male and as an out trans man. We watch as McBee falls and grows, learning how to find himself, rather than the identity he seeks based on his gender.

My Advice: If you have any interest in reading memoirs, snag this book immediately. If you have any interest in gender roles, snag this book immediately. If you have any interest in boxing, snag this book immediately.