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The Magicians The Magicians by Lev Grossman


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Short version: rocked my socks! Shame about the protagonist, though.

Longer version: Extremely gifted and alienated seventeen-year-old boy is swept away from his Princeton interview to the entrance examinations for a secret college of magic. Quentin passes, matriculates, learns magic, and emerges on the other side not perceptibly happier than he came in. Then he and his friends discover a way into Fillory, the not!Narnia realm of the fantasy novels Quentin has never outgrown loving.

Ooh. I could sit here and make intellectually satisfied noises about how well this book's meta works – the allusions and homage's to the genre greats (including Harry Potter, natch), the reflections on the shape of story, the thematic conversation about what magic is and what it means to be an adult who believes in it. And the book does function very well on that meta level. But it's also a damn fine fantasy novel, with momentum and wonder and terror and humor. And writing, oh God. Writing that, more than once, socked me in the stomach and knocked the breath right out of me. Every fantasy novel that talks about the learning of magic from now on will be measured against the first half of this book, and most of them will be found wanting.

The problem is, though, that I periodically wanted to punch Quentin in his privileged, self-absorbed face. Gaah! The only thing that makes it bearable is that just when you want to grab him and shake him and tell him to OMG grow the fuck up, that's when Grossman is exercising the finest muscular control over the story. Quentin has to be the way he is for the book to work, for it to deconstruct coming-of-age fantasies the way it does, and I'm really glad it does. And because Grossman has compassion for Quentin, I found a few grains too, because every character in this book is broken in an awful or interesting way, but it just happens that our protagonist's way gets right up my nose.

Did I mention the amazing writing?

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The Big Over Easy (Nursery Crime, #1) The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A Thursday Next spin-off about Jack Spratt, chief of the Nursery Crime Division, with all the meta and absurdity you'd expect when the first book is about the murder of Humpty Dumpty (he fell off a wall, you know).

Fun, if a bit too breaking the fourth wall sometimes, which is also my problem with Thursday Next. And Fforde gets caught here in his own meta cleverness. He's deconstructing mysteries, so yes you make the repeated joke about the sidekick being boring and having no particular personality. Which is fine, except that she's boring and has no particular personality.

But the thing about Jasper Fforde is that no one else does what he does, and what he does is fundamentally cool.

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The Well of Lost Plots (Thursday Next, Book 3) The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde


My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
More adventures of Thursday Next, literary detective outside books and, inside them, Jurisfiction agent.



A lot like Terry Pratchett: British, funny, and impossible to adequately describe. I loved The Well of Lost Plots -- Miss Havisham in motor races! Cheshire Cat! Wuthering Heights group therapy! Just awesome and clever and pleasantly meta. I have to admit the fourth and fifth books were less fun for me. I love Fforde's cheerful self-conscious wackiness when Thursday's living inside books, but when she's out in her real world, the meta gets too heavy-handed for me. It's a nice idea – Thursday is still living in a book, after all, the book we're reading, so she has this moment where she can't have sex because she's worried about us watching her. And I'm not saying it doesn't work. It just doesn't always work on me.




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Sequel to The Eyre Affair. Literary Detective Thursday Next is dealing with her sudden fame, pregnancy, the eradication of her husband from the timeline in order to force her to work for megacorp Goliath by going into books, the thing where someone is trying to kill her, her training as a Jurisfiction (hee) agent to ensure the integrity of books, and the impending end of the world.

Weird, fun, metafictional. Thursday slides in and out of books and her brand of reality, and there are some great little touches like communication via textual footnotes between people in fiction and people in reality. Mostly, these books are a big conglomeration of “hey, isn’t this neat?” saved by the fact that actually, yes, most of the things really are pretty freaking neat (though I say again, WTF with the random vampire subplot?).

I do want to say, though, that these books are a perfect exemplar of the ways our IP and copyright systems are broken. Thursday does her Jurisfiction apprenticeship with Miss Havisham, and every other “real” fictional character she interacts with is in the public domain. I should also point out that these characters are explicitly extra-textual, with lives and personas outside the pages of the books they hail from – Fforde’s Miss Havisham drives motorboats, enjoys high-speed chases, and wears running shoes. But Fforde’s publisher would never permit him to work in a character who isn’t in the public domain, as it would be economically prohibitive even just to use a well-known name, irregardless of the personality attached. Fforde, being no fool, likely knows better than to even try. And if that isn’t a chilling effect, I don’t know what is.
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Fiction -- metafiction, actually. Sci fi, sorta. Okay, this is complicated, so it might take a while. In an alternate England of the 1980’s, literature is bigger than football and a production of Richard III is like a Beatles concert. Thursday E. Next (and others with Rowlingesque names), a literary Detective, becomes embroiled in the struggle between megacorp Goliath and the evil murderer Acheron Hades for her uncle’s latest invention, the Prose Portal, which allows people and things to travel between fiction and reality. It’s a new kind of terrorism when a madman can enter the original manuscript of a Dickens novel and murder a minor character, rewriting every copy in existence. The universe and technology are top notch, from the pet dodo (version 1.4) to the retinal screensaver to the Global Standard Deity to Thursday’s rogue Chronoguard, time hopping father. Thursday’s world is different from ours – Churchill was never Prime Minister, the Crimean War grinds on, and though everyone loves Jane Eyre, no one is really happy with how Jane goes off to India with St. John in the end. This is a book about rewriting – history, time, culture, your life and choices, and in that sense it is damn clever and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I am bothered by many stylistic choices, however, particularly the way every moment of emotional significance is pushed offstage and dealt with only in the tiny excerpts from characters’ memoirs and other fictional books at the beginning of each chapter. Just because it’s metafiction, it doesn’t mean it can’t be good fiction, too, and there really is no excuse for this.

More broadly speaking, all the fictional characters within the fiction, like Mr. Rochester, are explicitly aware that they are in a book and behave accordingly, and it took me a while to realize that Thursday, our narrator, operates similarly. I just don’t really dig that kind of consciousness – it’s ironic that a book which is all about sliding through the border into fiction is written in such a way to make doing so as a reader nearly impossible (aside from some of the emotional dampening, Fforde violates the first person narration in wild and distractingly strange ways). And what was up with the random vampire not-even-a-subplot?

Complaints aside, and all except the random vampires are really products of my strong personal tastes, I liked this a whole lot. It’s quirky and clever and fun, and I’ll definitely be carrying on with the series.
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Nonfiction. An extended essay, really, autobiographical and bibliophilic. It made me happy because hi, it's talking all about books. Also, it merrily stomps all over some of that MFA, academic snottiness about books which is just so ridiculous.
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Nonfiction, memoir. A novelist, recovering from cancer, takes a part-time job in an independent bookstore. This is brilliant, in that understated way which creeps up on you. She's got that trick of describing entirely ordinary things like constructing holiday book displays with deep, resonant emotion. The conceit is bibliophilic and beautiful: books and the people who love them as a healing force. In between insights on the publishing and marketing worlds and discussions of customer satisfaction, there are little glimpses of a shattered life slowly mending. Subtle, quietly chatty, informative, intensely
but unobtrusively personal.
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Fiction. A retelling of the old folk ballad, starring a small liberal arts college in the early seventies. I really dug this clever book, intended for lit geeks much like myself. The heroin is so vibrantly a literature major that I want to alternately hug her and smack her. My one complaint is structural -- this is the sort of book which accumulates 400 pages of weird happenings and saves up the explanation for the last 30 pages, ensuring that you will miss
details and some of the deeper emotional resonances of moments that the narrator didn't entirely understand. To be fair it is a retelling, but I don't know how reasonable it is to expect people to know the bones of this story (I didn't). Definitely worthwhile, though, and I'll be rereading to catch those very moments I missed.

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