The Magicians

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The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
Rating: ⭐️⭐️
Thoughts: Definitely a Lot of Good Parallels for Fantasy Fans; Too Much Exposition; Narnia Spoof; Really Hard To Get In To, But Wrenching Once You Do; The Story Doesn’t Start Until The End

I was really excited to read Lev Grossman’s series because I’d heard it was like a “Dirty Harry Potter” and as a thorough Harry Potter nerd, I really looked forward to passing my judgement. Outside of a few joking references, though, The Magicians has nothing to do with Potter, but a lot to do with The Chronicles of Narnia.

Grossman was clearly creating a Narnia spoof, and with good reason, but I couldn’t help but feel like he didn’t actually get to the plot until maybe the last 150 pages of a 400 page book. The protagonist, Quentin, gets invited to a magic college early on, but then we spend the entirety of the first half of the book learning next to nothing about Quentin’s school, but rather passing his way through time through a series of large time-gaps and exposition. Characters are plucked from nothingness only to be tossed back in (and occasionally repeating the process). It was as though Grossman had gotten the idea into his head of a magic college and then married the idea when, in fact, the college had almost no significance to where the story was going other than that they thereafter (and somewhat feebly even) knew magic. I’m not even sure why the first half of this book exists.

Basically, the first half of this book is prolonged exposition scattered with a smattering of actual scenes that seem to take on no real significance. What is the point of Welters? for instance. Or the whole South Pole thing? If you’re looking for a book about a magic school, this is not it. You get very little from Q’s time there.

The strongest point of this book is definitely the coming of age aspect, which I felt didn’t really shape up until quite late as well. Quentin, of course, has a lot of growing up to do. I like that Grossman puts his character through the ringer, that he has him make almost catastrophic mistakes, that his personal life is in shambles. I’m tired of this genre of writing having everything work out so perfectly. Quentin’s life gets messy and not everything goes well. That’s a hard lesson for him to learn, but a lesson so quickly left out of Young/New Adult literature. I definitely enjoyed that theme abutting the Narnia-spoof.

Honestly, I didn’t love this book. By the time we FINALLY get to Fillroy (the Narnia-esque land), it’s a bit rushed to me. I hated most of Quentin’s friends. I hated the way Grossman tossed around characters, the way I always seemed to know less about the character’s lives than what was happening, and–most of all–I hated all the exposition. Is it so wrong to want to be in a story, rather than hearing about a story? But I did like the adult themes, the way he clearly dirties up a typically innocent cannon, the way he could create issues out of one’s grasp.

But honestly, I didn’t get into it until the end. It was hard slugging for a long time there, waiting merely for the inevitable Fillroy plot to finally manifest. I’m probably not going to be reading on, albeit I’m a bit curious and angry about a curveball that’s mentioned entirely without comment, as if it’s perfectly usual, at the end.

SPOILER

Seriously? Where did Julia just come from? YOU CAN’T JUST DO THAT!

Feeling Oriented

So. Yesterday I spent the entire day at orientation for my MFA program and, honestly, it was awesome! It was really cool to be around writers again, to get to talk incessantly about books, and to realize how much future I still have ahead of me.

I’m 24, but I would say I was probably the youngest person there. I feel like I suddenly have entered BONUS TIME and that my whole life is ahead of me. I’m just so stupidly excited.

Anyway, classes start on Tuesday and I’m sure I’ll have plenty of awesome workshop tips to share thereafter, but now that school is in session, my book is going to be tabled for a while. I’d like to work on it intensely over the holidays, but I think the best thing for it at the moment is to let it snowball.

In other news, I am of course still writing. I had a fairly intense writing weekend and wrote two very short, very rough stories. I hope maybe to continue to work on these for the next week before quickly delving into my next work. Strike while the iron is hot and, now that I’m in class, while the volume of work I’m expected to produce is about to triple.

So. If I’m not writing here, don’t worry, I’m still writing somewhere.

Percy Jackson

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Percy Jackson (series)
Author: Rick Riordan
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Thoughts: Definitely Cute; I Was A Little Disappointed With The Conclusion; Entertaining, But Not Exactly Insightful; Worth A Quick Read

In my quest for entertaining Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, it was only natural that I would feel compelled to read the Percy Jackson series. Probably one of the most successful series since Harry Potter, there isn’t a household of school-aged children I enter that doesn’t have a copy of this series.

While an enjoyable take on Greek mythology, modernized, and an entertaining, action-packed read, I wouldn’t say this series will change your life or anything. It’s cute. Percy is endearing, but it lacks any enduring philosophy for future generations.

Annabeth, Percy’s best friend, is a little bit annoying, if not overly-unrealistically-intelligent, I sometimes found her a little too perfect to buy. Her role in the final book, The Last Olympian, is a little bit frustrating, if not downright sad. Why make apoint of making this girl so great, only to turn her into somewhat of a moody brat in the last book? I know Riordan was aiming for a bit of a jealousy aspect, (why do we always have to have a love triangle?!) but I couldn’t help but feel it was all a bit contrived.

I think the part of this series that frustrated me the most was the strange way time is spaced between each book in the series. Sometimes Riordan picks up again in the strangest spots so that I can’t help but feel like I’ve missed something (and perhaps I have, Riordan produced a strange array of marketable work to promote the movie franchise. Sad to see that interfere with his work, but who can blame him? It’s the business). I felt like, at the beginning of almost every book, I had no idea where or what we had suddenly just picked up.

But Percy himself is redeemable enough for the whole series. He’s clueless and somewhat dim-witted, but he’s exactly what I’d expect from the narrative of a Greek hero. A lot of courage, and very little understanding. Some of his quips are pretty sweet, funny in almost a laugh-out-loud way. If I were still 14 I would definitely have had a little crush on him. He’s a good kid and a great role-model sort of character.

So, cute and entertaining, mixed with a Disney publisher, I’m not at all surprised this book has done as well as it has, but, in all honesty, I’m no die-hard fan. Not sure yet if I’ll bother with Riordan’s other series in the Camp Half-Blood franchise…

HOLY CRAP, IT’S DONE!

After a couple of months of ardent struggle over the last few chapters of my first draft, I kind of hit a break through this weekend.

Went to a “Shut UP and Write” group through meetup.org where a bunch of writers get together to not talk and write for a straight hour in a coffee shop. This may sound like some sort of writer’s cliche, but honestly I really recommend trying this for anyone out there who has hit a wall. Maybe I respond well to peer pressure, but I wrote more in that hour than I have in months. And best of all, I wrote the (what seemed last week/month/year to be an impossible feat) climax.

So the first draft is, well, close to done. Really I have a few updates to do, and maybe a final chapter. But it’s… well, not so impossible anymore.

Clearly, I’ll be hitting up this writing group again next week. Afterwards we all sat around and talked writing and literature, and for once I didn’t feel like the most inept person in the room. In fact, I actually felt like I’d accomplished something. Like I actually knew what I was talking about!

Woah, that’s a new sensation.

So anyway, no matter what’s happened in my life since January, I can always remember this as the year I wrote my first book.

Now… for editing. Erk.

We Should Never Meet

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We Should Never Meet
Author: Aimee Phan
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Thoughts: Excellent Writing; Kind of a Downer; Frustratingly Ambiguous; I Wish I Knew More About These People

So I grabbed Phan’s collection of linked short stories off a shelf at my favorite used book store in New Orleans (she’s the director of my writing program so I felt I needed to read it before classes began) and carried it around with me for a month before I could finally bring myself to read it. Something about it just seemed like it would be a painful read, but I was surprised to learn the opposite. Each story was fluid, gliding into each other and these people’s lives.

Set both during and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the book explores, through various persons related to the event, Operation Babylift (an American intervention to immigrate orphans left in the wake of the war–mainly those children with American parentage) and the lives of the orphans related to it as they grew up in America. So clearly this was going to be a fraught topic: babies, war, American foster system and orphans. It’s a rough subject, but Phan doesn’t make things too wrenching. She isn’t trying to punish the reader, but rather give them this brief glance into the window of those affected’s lives.

I think, though, despite Phan’s seamless writing style, I couldn’t bring myself to love this book. She builds some frighteningly tense situations (the scene with Bac and Vinh in “Visitors” is wrenching) and then, at the last minute–right before the climax, takes you out of them. I felt a bit cheated to never hear the end of Bridget’s story, only left to assume the worst of her. The final story was, to me, the most flat and a bit of a bitter note to end on. And as for the various characters left behind in Vietnam, I craved more knowledge of their lives. What happened to them in the war. The worst is the terribly vague opening, effective in what it never says, but I felt most connected to Nan and then you never even learn the details of her situation and she’s never heard from again.

Overall, it’s a fast read with an interesting, lesser-known perspective on the Vietnam War. Worth a read, you may learn something, but overall, it won’t be replacing any favorites on the shelf.

How FanFiction Changed My Life: A Personal Writing History

I wasn’t one of those children that carried home delicately bound paper books full of my stories from school. I actually hated Writing class because I was (undiagnosed) dyslexic and couldn’t pass a spelling test to save my life. So any stories I wrote before I started using a computer were scoured, discouragingly, with red marks and tossed shamefully in the garbage before my parents could see them.

It was clear I had a natural propensity for math and not writing. I still score better on a math test, even after all this time.

But I never learned to love math. Math bored me. It was stories that I spent my time with, my face lovingly pressed deep into the pages of a book. I carried around volumes as big as I was, always another story waiting to be discovered like a lingering adventure. So I read a lot as a child, but it never much occurred to me that I could create my own books until I was older.

So while, clearly, I couldn’t write as child, I had a great affection for stories. I diligently spent much of my free time (of which there was a lot, the daughter of a working, single mother and a commuter father) making a terrible, terrible comic strip called The Bigheads.

My propensity for drawing rivaled my ability to spell, in that it was horrible and mostly consisted of heads, shoulders, and arms (the hands always hidden behind their bodies, I never got the hang of fingers). The Bigheads was about a small family: a moronic, dopey father who was a professional baseball player; a quirky family dog, who sat silently judging like a laconic Garfield; and a moralizing, do-gooder daughter. I remember them all quite clearly–I spent ages shaping them in my mind, albeit my terrible drawings could never quite capture them as elaborately as they were in my head.

The Bigheads is probably still squashed away somewhere in my mother’s attic. I spent ages drawing them out in my rainbow-colored pens. They were probably my most successful project from Fourth Grade, if not ever…

In middle school I was finally tested into gifted and no longer spent my time in class sitting bored in the corner, passing tests without ever opening the text books. I finally found a creative bunch of weirdos I could call my own.

We did nothing simply. Dress-up became a full-on soap opera re-enactment. Soccer practice became a musical song-and-dance. Our lunches had to be served in a separate room from the rest of the kids or else they’d come up and rub our heads while we ate: they called it the Gifted Petting Zoo.

We didn’t pass notes, we passed notebooks. Between each class, each of us would sneak our notebook into the next recipient’s backpack and they would spend the whole next class scrawling a long-winded missive about Phillip’s hair or whoever.

I didn’t care for boys. How could I? I was always at least six-inches taller than the tallest boy in class, and I still held a grudge because they were the same boys who called me gay repetitively in elementary school. I only had one crush in middle school and it was mostly fabricated (most popular guy in school, I hadn’t even the patience to come up with a creative lie!). I didn’t write about boys in our notebooks.

So I made things up. Lola the Lizard who spent much of her time living in our English teacher’s ratty hair. That sort of thing. My most popular stories were a strange brand of Harry Potter FanFiction that depicted multiple, almost episodical, scenarios in which Harry started falling in love with Ginny Weasley (called it–sorry, my inner-fangirl will never get over that I TOTALLY SAW THAT COMING!). Eventually, these became so popular that I started getting my own notebooks and filling them with these terrible FanFiction romances, which were passed around school like a John Green novel.

I became known for these. Oh man, I’d cringe to read even a single one these days, but people liked them. We giggled over them in the locker room. Sometimes I pushed the boundaries into the elicit.

We also used to play this game in English where we’d write for a while and then pass our story onto the next person and they would continue it. By the end of class, we’d read them aloud. It was always known which parts I’d written, everyone would turn to me and laugh as I’d take a perfectly dull story and turn it into something absurd. I loved that feeling–making people laugh with my own strange thoughts.

One day before soccer practice, I remember it perfectly, I was at my friend Kelly’s house and, while her mom was otherwise preoccupied (she was a helicopter parent), she took me into the computer room and promised to show me something. It was a website devoted to Harry Potter FanFiction (this was back in the day, FanFiction wasn’t even a term yet). It was like my Mecca. It was just a trove of stories about Harry Potter, hypothetical later books (the series was only on about Four at the time), short stories, minor characters turned into major. This changed my life. It was like giving a twelve year old the key to changing her world.

It’s mildly embarrassing to admit that I started writing because I was a huge Harry Potter nerd. I was a Fangirl, plain and simple. I used to like to write myself into the books. Tall and awkward, I craved a place where I’d be accepted–maybe writing could be it?

I got carried away with the whole FanFiction thing. By high school, we’d all stopped passing notebooks, and Harry Potter had been replaced by Jane Austen. I had fewer and fewer friends and more and more stories. I finished novel-length works that were really just modern adaptations of classic novels.

I fed on reviews. I honestly believe that FanFiction was the perfect place to start for a young writer–hopelessly regurgitating the same plot, fleshing out classic characters over and over again. I can still repeat Pride and Prejudice to you scene-for-scene. I learned what a good story consists of by repeating these stories on message boards. I learned through reviews how people would react to every word I typed. I learned how to write on a FanFiction forum.

Eventually things morphed and I wasn’t even, without even noticing, writing FanFiction anymore. I was just writing. They weren’t from a novel updated or adapted, they were from my own head. Some loosely held the plot of the book I’d posted them in, but they were a whole new thing entirely.

I was becoming my own writer.

It’s weird that I still feel the burn of shame for something that took up so much of my time and childhood. I didn’t want to go to a party on a Friday night, I wanted to stay in and write FanFiction. I wrote it until around the time I graduated college, but I’m not sure I ever intentionally told a soul; every now and then someone would use my computer or look over my shoulder and I’d snap at them as if they’d just offended my mortal being (or rather glimpsed my biggest secret).

I was (still am?) really embarrassed about the whole thing, but, in a way, grateful. I am the writer I am now because FanFiction made me really passionate about sitting down and creating a story.

His Dark Materials

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His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass)
Author: Philip Pullman
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Thoughts: Why Am I Just Now Reading This; Heartbreaking; Perfect Ending; I Cried; Every Kid Should Read; They Really Messed-Up The Movie; Please Read This

I feel like it has geniunely been a long time since I was as invested in a book as I was in Pullman’s trilogy. Sure, the first book took me a little while to get in to (I was not convinced for the longest time that Lyra was a particularly likable character), the second seemed more like a transition than an actual story, but the third… Pullman’s last installment in this series is nothing short of a masterpiece in his genre (all of his genres, since I felt this series covered quite a few).

I’ve actually needed a few days since finishing the series to process it all. Recover, even.

I remember after finishing The Subtle Knife that I wasn’t even quite sure what the conflict was, yet alone how there could be a conceivable ending, but Pullman really speeds things up for The Amber Spyglass, which moves so quickly, both action wise and, particularly, character development. Even the most hated character from The Colden Compass, by the end, is so thoroughly flesched-out that you understand her perfectly, even empathetically.

Lyra starts out a little silly, but she’s brash and interesting enough that I was curious, albeit maybe a bit wary of her. For me, Iorek Byrnison (and Lee Scoresby (and Serafina Pekkala (and the Gyptians))) is the real hero of The Golden Compass. It’s the side-cast that kept me reading. That and a wild fascination at the world Pullman had created–just familiar enough that you still felt grounded enough to understand it, but fascinated by some bold differences. PUllman’s world-building is exemplary.

The Subtle Knife (second book), almost impossibly, starts out in our world with a whole new character. Will is a whole person, no half-formed thing of paper. He is not some hyperbole of a “child.” Pullman never writes his own characters off, never, even for a second, underestimates what they are capable of.

I would love to discuss the ending of this series at length, but I genuinely don’t want to ruin it for any of you. I can’t even bring myself to bring up The Amber Spyglass without giving too much away. All I can say is that I loved this work, I wish I’d read it sooner. I see why it never caught on, though; if Harry Potter could be satanic in any way, His Dark Materials is borderline blasphemy (I’m not sure how, but Pullman managed to write a modern day Paradise Lost for children). But get over it and see that what he’s trying to say is godlike in a very genuine way.

So read it an try not to cry at the end. Will and Lyra are everything that I think popular teen novels are missing and their conclusion leaves you salty with disappointment, but the perfect anecdote for growing up and finding one’s purpose for life.

It’s every message I could hope for my own work.