Review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

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Having enjoyed Lev Grossman’s The Magicians last year, I was keen to follow it up with The Magician King, its sequel. And I think The Magician King is better. It’s faster-paced, it knows where it’s going and there’s a strongly imagined magical world to marvel at and think about.

That magical world is Fillory, the land that Quentin Coldwater and his friends learned about from a series of children’s books. As young magicians at the the secret college Brakebills, they discovered Fillory was real. What happened to them after that discovery is best read in The Magicians.

In The Magician King, however, Quentin, Janet, Eliot and Julie are now twenty-something and are the Kings and Queens of Fillory, living in castle Whitespires, and enjoying the perks of living in a wealthy, magical land.

Except for Quentin, who is bored.

So when there are rumours that the Seeing Hare has been seen thereabouts, Quentin and his friends ride into the forest to find it.  As one of the twelve Unique Beasts of Fillory – creatures that are thought to be immortal and in possession of a unique gift – the Seeing Hare’s gift is to predict the future of anyone who catches it.

The hunt – ultimately unsuccessful because tragic – turns out to be the preliminary quest to a more extended quest, one involving the attempt to save magic itself. From the gods, no less.

There are many things to like about Grossman’s book, not the least of which is a thoroughly 21st century approach to tone and character. The Magicians books might have started out on similar foundations to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series but its characters could be from nowhere else except here and now. They drink a lot, swear a lot, and have the kinds of close/distant, slightly abusive friendships that rely on the overuse of irony. Grossman is aware that he’s talking to a net-savvy, lit-savvy audience so his characters are au fait and up-to-date on fiction classics such as Harry Potter as well as contemporary developments in science and IT.

Quentin Coldwater is somewhat atypical of the fantasy genre as well. He wants to be part of something big, he wants to be a hero, but he overthinks things and never manages to ‘get amongst it’ as he believes he should or could. There is a bit of the Jean Paul Sartre about him with his ennui and low expectations of life: I think therefore I am sick of everything.(1) This kind of central character almost didn’t work for me – his presence in the book felt like a dash of coldwater … – but once I worked out that that’s the point and Quentin is something of an unreliable narrator as a consequence, I began to wonder what the book held in store for Quentin.

And his story is actually counterbalanced beautifully by Julia’s story. Julia was Quentin’s high-school friend who didn’t pass the test to get into the Brakebills magic school but who learned and attained a level of magic off the streets that might be ugly and clumsy in parts but is as powerful as much of Quentin’s establishment magic. In The Magician King we learn her story and the difficulties she faced in trying to become a magician on her own. It’s riveting stuff.

I have to mention one section of the book where my heart took a turn. It’s a tribute to Grossman’s endless and clever imagination that it was able to re-turn. There is a section towards the end of the book where Julia has become involved in a quest for the gods. As I started to read these pages about gods and their histories, a tide of disappointment started lapping at my toes. I was being reminded of Philip Pullman’s somewhat clumsy attempts at skewering Christianity in the last of the Golden Compass series which, in turn, led me on to thoughts of the Narnia books with their strong allegorical Christian thread.

Not another fantasy novel that has to revert to Christianity as an integral plot device, I thought.

But no, thankfully, no. For me, Grossman cleverly found an alternative and it’s one for which I’m profoundly grateful.

The Magician King is a wonderful read written by a talented author. Go read it.

This book was on my TBR list even though it’s a library book, so yippee and yay for me.

(1.) I doubt I’m even paraphrasing Sartre, but you get the drift.

Book details:
The Magician King by Lev Grossman, William Heinemann London, 2011, 400 pages, library copy.

And we’re away in the TBR Double Dare

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Well, I’ve read my first book for the year and one which was earmarked for the TBR Double Dare: One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, a gently drifting book about the deprivations and changes affecting life in post-war Britain.  I’m not sure if I’ll review it but it was very pleasant read if a little slow, offering many insights into how the middle class dealt with the social effects wrought by WW2, the most significant being the changes to their daily lives caused by the almost complete lack of servants.  Without Nanny to look after the children, for instance, it fell to mother to pick up the reins and their is some doubt about her suitability.  Hmm, perhaps I will write about it in depth at some stage because there really are some great insights which I’d like to record, particularly in relation to the changing roles of women.

As to my next read, I’m not quite sure what to do because four of the library books I reserved have come in all at once.  I may sacrifice a couple because the loan period is 3-6 weeks depending on whether or not someone else wants them, but the one I think I’d like to read next is Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, a continuation of his first book, The Magicians, which I very much enjoyed.  The Magicians subverted a number of fantasy cliches in an intelligent way and I expect the same from The Magician King; I’m also keen to hang out with a group of characters with whom I’m already familiar.  So perhaps it will be my next read.  But things change on a whim around here so until I’ve actually started it, who knows?

Taking up the TBR Double Dare

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I might not be blogging much but I’m still reading.

I’ve been inspired by recent posts at My Porch and Book Snob to put together a list of books I’d like to read next year.  My Porch is participating in the TBR Double Dare at Ready When You are, C.B. and given the large number of unread books around the house, I’m going to join in.  The idea is that for the period 1 January 2012 – 1 April 2012 I can only read books in my To Be Read stack.

It’s a good opportunity to put together a list of books I’ve been wanting to read for a long time and which have been forgotten on the shelves.  I’m also hoping that it will give my reading a bit of focus instead of being seduced by all the new misses that walk in the door and demand to be read first.

Research / Reading-for-Pleasure Stack

I’m working on a writing project set in the 1930s and these are books that either contain elements relating to that era or to the art of writing itself.

From the bottom up, Stravinsky’s Lunch (1999) by Drusilla Modjeska explores the relationship between life and art vis-à-vis the lives of twentieth century Australian artists, Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington-Smith.  Steering the Craft (1998) is Ursula le Guin’s instructional writing book while Aspects of the Novel (1927) is E.M. Forster’s take on the novel.  Ruth Adam’s A Woman’s Place (1975) is a non-fictional account of what it was like to be a woman in the twentieth century while Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges (1976) documents life during WW2.  I’m very excited to be finally reading the latter as I’m a Persephone virgin so this will be my first proper Persephone title, grey cover and all.  Lastly, The Tivington Nott (1989) by Australian author Alex Miller is a fictionalization of his life as ‘a young labourer swept up in the adventure of riding second horse in a west country stag hunt’.

The For-So-Long Stack

These are some of the books or authors I’ve been wanting to read for ages including firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald.  I chose Human Voices (1980) on the strength of a review by My Porch and the recent tv series, The Hour, (about the making of a current affairs tv show at the BBC during the 50s).  L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953) and E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) have been with me a very long time and it’s time to finally read them.  I enjoyed Forster’s A Passage to India and the film adaptation of Howards End so I can’t go wrong really, can I?  Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948) , E. Arnot Robertson’s Four Frightened People (1941) and Rachel Cusk’s The Lucky Ones (2003) have been chosen because I want to read more books by these authors.  I had a particular infatuation with Rachel Cusk in 2009 and 2010 but I’m not sure why I stopped reading her books thereafter.

The Easy-Reading Stack

These books are what I want when I’m either sick or want to rest my brain.  I’ve read all of Mary Wesley’s books except Second Fiddle (1988) and A Sensible Life (1990).  I’ve been saving these two up for the last few months because her books are so enjoyable but I might need to read them as part of this challenge to lighten the mood.  The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G.W. Dahlquist is a book I picked up from an op shop and which I know nothing about.  The quote on the front of the book says “Fantastic.  Somewhere between Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and Rider Haggard.  I was in seventh heaven”  Kate Mosse, author of Labyrinth.  Was it silly picking up a book by an author I don’t know with a recommendation by an author I don’t know?  We’ll see.  And finally, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen was thrown in because I was intrigued by Iris on Books’ staunch defence of Fanny Price as a character and because Billie Piper played Fanny in a recent movie adaptation and Ms Piper, as an actor, can do no wrong in my book.

The Panic Stack 1

I put this lot together at the last minute because I looked at the books I’d lined up for the challenge and thought “Is that enough?  Have I given myself enough choices?  What if I don’t have the right book to fit my mood?”  So I quickly grabbed the half-finished One Fine Day (1947) by Mollie Panter-Downes and Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) by Siegried Sassoon, the very small Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Francoise Sagan, the historical My Cousin Rachel (1951) and Frenchman’s Creek (1941) by Daphne du Maurier and the post-war set The Flight of the Maidens (2000) by Jane Gardam and Tea at Four O’Clock (1956) by Janet McNeill.

Other books that may make an appearance are those at the library I have on reserve or on loan: Time to be in Earnest (2000) by P.D. James, Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage (2010) by Hazel Rowley, Father and Sons (2007) by Alexander Waugh, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011) by Jeanette Winterson, All That I Am (2011) by Anna Funder and The Magician King (2011) by Lev Grossman.

And then I had another little panic and threw into the mix:

The Panic Stack 2

From the bottom up: Company Parade (1934) by Storm Jameson, Miss Mole (1930) by E.H. Young, All the Pretty Horses (1992) by Cormac McCarthy, Non-Combatants and Others (1916) by Rose Macauley, The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers, Spinster (1958) by Sylvia Ashton-Warner and The Gypsy’s Baby (1946) by Rosamond Lehmann.

And that, I hope, is that.  My only qualification for reading books that are not part of these stacks is that I may need to extend the scope of my research to follow up sources as, and when, they are uncovered.  Other than that, it should be sweet.

Bring on January!

Meme of Four

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So.  This blog has been inactive for a number of months.  Forget about finishing a bunch of half-written reviews.  What better way to resurrect it than with a meme?   For some reason, I liked this one that has been appearing on a number of blogs, so I thought I’d fill it out myself.

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Four Jobs I Have Had in My Life:
1. Corporate Video Producer
2. Exec Assistant
3. Public Servant
4. Mummy

And many more besides.

Four Books I Would Read Over and Over Again:
1. Possession by A.S. Byatt
2. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
3. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon
4. Anything by Virginia Woolf (she didn’t write a book called ‘Anything’ — I just mean I’d re-read most of her work, particularly her fiction because it’s so rich).

Interesting question to answer because, apart from children’s books I read in childhood and texts set for university, I don’t re-read books — there are too many more waiting in the wings to be discovered.  So these four are ones that I’d like to read if I ever set aside the time to do so because I thought they were fantastic when I read them.

Four Places I Have Lived:
1. Adelaide, South Australia
2. Chiswick, London
3. Canberra, ACT
4. Sydney, NSW

Four Books I Would Recommend:
1. Drylands by Thea Astley (intelligent Australian writing)
2. The Country Girl by Rachel Cusk (very funny and beautifully written)
3. The Assassin Series by Robin Hobb (engrossing and gripping!)
4. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (kid’s book that’s ageless in more ways than one)

Four Places I Have Been:
1. Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges, South Australia
2. St Davids, Wales
3. Top Ryde Shopping Centre, Ryde, NSW
4. In a tent, in the snow on Mt Kosciusko, NSW

Four of My Favorite Foods
1. Chia bread toast with avocado, lime and salt
2. Tomatoes
3. Kettle chips
4. Almond and honey yoghurt

Four of My Favorite Drinks:
1. Tea, milk no sugar
2. Water
3. Ginger beer
4. Hot chocolate

Four Places I Would Rather Be Right Now:
1. Blackheath, Blue Mountains
2. In a job I enjoy doing
3.
4.

Four Things That Are Very Special in My Life:
1. My daughter
2. My partner
3. My computer
4. My new mandoline – makes slicing potatoes and fennel soooo much easier

Four Bloggers I Hope Will Do This Meme:
Anyone really.

The Australian Tennis Open – a mismatch of metaphors

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From an article this morning on the Sydney Morning Herald website in which Roger Rasheed, former coach of Australian tennis player Lleyton Hewitt, comments on Hewitt’s chances of winning his upcoming match against world no. 1 Roger Federer in the fourth round of the Australian Open:

Lleyton’s a person who’s on heat during a grand slam, and there’s not quite the stigma that surrounds Federer that there was at his peak, when he was untouchable,” Rasheed said. ”A few more guys have got wings, and Lleyton’s just got to find a way to get in his kitchen.

On heat?  Peaks?  Wings?  Leaving well alone the notion of Hewitt on heat, there’s nonetheless a strange kind of alpine sense to Rasheed’s comments — that is, until he brings it crashing down to the domestic level with his reference to Lleyton finding his way into Federer’s ‘kitchen’.

What the?

Pursue this metaphor of Rasheed’s and you’re left with ludicrous images of Lleyton in Roger Federer’s (possibly Swiss-style) kitchen having a cup of tea, or maybe a sandwich, or perhaps even admiring the possibly-Swiss-style interior design.

Rasheed provides further fuel for thought when he comments that Lleyton’s “always brought something to the table at some stage.”  Do tell, Roger Rasheed, do tell!  A packet of biccies?  A cheesecake from The Cheesecake Shop?  Maybe some left over Christmas cake and some rumballs?  What?  What?

It might be the start of a new year but it’s the end of the old one that I can’t forget

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A new year, a new wordpress theme.  Ditched the previous 3-column theme for this rather pleasing-looking simpler one.  Hoping it will hang around a bit longer than the last.

I’ve been keeping a list of the books I’ve read each year for the past 10 or so years.  And each year there have been one or two books that stand out from the others.  I read some good books in 2009 but nothing that really stirred my soul and made me glad to be a reader or a human being.  Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture was stimulating at the time of reading but it didn’t survive the months after it.  Yes, the writing is wonderful but I now conceive of it as a triumph of style rather than substance – only just, but a stylistic victory nonetheless.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Purple Hibiscus was looking like the frontrunner for taking out my prize, with its warm tone and humanistic content, but then, in the last week of the year, I read Rachel Cusk’s The Country Life.  I’ll review it in the next few weeks but it’s fair to say it’s My Book of the Year.  It bowled me over with its subtle wit, and elegant, lengthy sentences but what I liked most about it was its bravado in portraying a young woman in an odd yet totally sympathetic way.

It’s going to be very difficult to do Cusk’s book justice, I fear — it’s going to be very difficult to convey its tone.  But by way of illustrating its greatness, these are the effects it had on me — I didn’t want it to end, I kept thinking about its characters, I began re-reading it once I finished it but had to stop because it was far too soon for a re-read, and I moped about wailing inwardly and outwardly that I would never read another book as quite as good as it for the rest of my life.

I am now extremely keen to read the rest of Rachel Cusk’s work.  I’ve ordered Arlington Park and hope to have it in the next week or so.  It was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007, as was Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but it was Adichie who took the prize.  I’ve also got a copy of Saving Agnes coming to me, Cusk’s 1993 novel that won for her the Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel in the same year.

I think 2010 is going to be a great year!

BOOK REVIEW: Imperium by Robert Harris

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BOOK REVIEW: Imperium by Robert Harris, fiction, Arrow Books, paperback, 2006, 480 pages.

‘Gripping’ Guardian
‘Captivating’ Newsweek
‘Marvellous’ Sunday Telegraph
‘Accomplished’ Observer
‘Fascinating’ Mail on Sunday
‘Engrossing’ New York Times
‘Yeah, look, it didn’t grab me’ Indiscriminate Reader

Somehow, I don’t think Robert Harris is going to care too much about my less-than-enthusiastic response to his book, Imperium given the positive if mono-syllabic reviews it received from a large number of major global newspapers.  But the very least I can do is outline the reasons for this lack of enthusiasm.

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