The Paper Magician by Charlie N Holmberg

I usually like to write reviews about good books.  Who wants to hear about books not to read?  HOWEVER, this book annoyed me so much that I decided to write a review about it anyway.

I’m a sucker for books about magic and if you throw in a nervous student and a school of magic such as the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined I’m completely hooked.  We are launched into the world when Ceony Twill, our magician-in-training, is annoyed about being assigned to work Paper Magic rather than being bonded to one of the more interesting materials such as Metal, Plastic, or Glass.  Once bonded to a particular material, the magician will only be able to work magic with that material for the rest of their life.

Two great chapters introducing the concepts and setting and then a long tumble of disappointment and ending with a grunt of disgust.  The writing is just fine – nothing astonishing but clean and well put together – but the plot is long and pointless and the main character is an embarrassment.  The book is supposed to be about how much she wants to be a magician, how hard she has worked and what is important in her life, but within pages of first meeting her (older, more experienced) mentor, Emery Thane, it’s clearly going to be a romance novel instead of a fantasy novel.  She briskly sets about “helping out” by doing his laundry and cooking him wonderful meals, and neatening the house.  He tells her she doesn’t have to do this but she wants to take care of him.  Ugh.  This begins to make me ill.

SPOILER ALERT!!

The entire plot revolves around his ex-wife, who has gone to the dark side of the magic world.  She appears one day – beautiful of course –  and uses her magic to pluck the still beating heart from his chest and disappears.  Ceony manages to make him a paper heart to tide him over and goes tearing after the ex-wife.  Fully 1/2 of the book is Ceony traveling through his heart (the ex-wife tosses her in there) and witnessing his good memories, his hopes, his bad memories, and his fears (in the four chambers of the heart).  Then a quick bit of action while she figures out how to stop the ex-wife and get the heart back to him to save the day.  When she comes downstairs the next morning after he is all better, she puts on makeup, curls her hair and puts on a nice outfit whereas she hadn’t bothered before.

What kind of a heroine is this?  Honestly, I was disgusted. I don’t mind women wanting to look attractive for men, or looking for ways to show their love through cooking or whatever, but this whole character – our protagonist no less – was one giant stereotype for the traditional woman – complete with falling for the more experienced, older man, so that she could be his help-mate and support system. Yuck.  OK – to be fair – people have the right to live any way they like and write about whatever they like – but please don’t hide a traditional romance under the guise of cool magician story!

The Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Olivia Birch is a serious, dedicated, doctor coming home from a stint treating victims of the terrible Haag virus in Liberia. Subject to a seven day quarantine on reentry to Britain, she and her family will be holed up in her mother’s aging family estate for seven days over Christmas.

The quarantine participants include Olivia, father Andrew (one-time Lebanon war correspondent turned snarky restaurant columnist); high-born mother Emma (who discovers a cancerous lump but doesn’t want to spoil Christmas); party girl Phoebe (the sister who has just become engaged to a man nobody else cares for); and lastly Jesse – Andrew’s surprise offspring from a one night stand in Lebanon.  Jesse serves as a kind of Greek Chorus looking in from the outside and moving the plot along with subconsciously deft manipulations.

Each chapter of the book covers a single day; each section within the chapter is a timestamped story told from one of the five characters perspectives during that day evolving the plot.  And what a plot! Ridiculous coincidences abound but serve only to tighten the strings that stitch the players together and are therefore somehow completely believable.

The book is simultaneously serious and funny as we watch a family that has become stale and distant in its regular interactions rediscover the importance of family and what is important to each of them personally.  Artfully done and genuinely fun to read!

This Must be the Place – Maggie O’Farrell 

I have mixed feelings about this one.  On the one hand, O’Farrell is a good writer – I find myself reading every word and not wanting to skim (the writing is content rich). The book had an interesting composition – the primary action occurs between 2010 – 2016 but the narrative bounces around to dates as far back as 1944, each chapter speaking with a different character’s voice from a time significant to their part of the story. The novel revolves around Daniel, a Brooklyn born linguist, with a history of past relationship troubles that threaten to impact his current happily-ever-after life with Claudette – a beautiful, reclusive, movie star who disappeared herself from the whole movie scene many years before.

The story is told from the perspectives of Daniel and Claudette as well as the children from the current and previous relationships, and their parents, and siblings.  Each character is carefully drawn and interesting with their own path through life. The descriptions of various locations – a remote corner of Donegal, various exotic movie shoot locales, New York, California – are detailed and relevant (their home in Donegal has 24 gates between them and the road). The story rambles a bit, as life does, but that is part of the beauty of the narrative – the stories all intersect, bouncing off each other.  The impact of one character’s actions is felt by many.

My biggest issue with the novel is that I don’t always find the two main characters completely believable.  I don’t believe Daniel as described would have behaved the way he does.  I find it interesting that a female author chooses to make her main character a man – this does feel a little like the stereotype of male behavior as seen from a female perspective.  But perhaps I just haven’t run into people like this. Daniel’s (to me unbelievable) self destructive actions really irritated me.  I have trouble with self destructive behavior of any sort and I don’t enjoy reading about it.  However, I did find that I kept thinking about the book long after reading it – always a good sign.  My first read of this popular British novelist.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

I’m on a roll this summer for reading!

A playful and introspective whodunnit by Anthony Horowitz – creator (and writer) of Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders.  The first half of the book is a well written, engaging, murder mystery which ends suddenly with the penultimate chapter – just as the solution is about to be presented  – talk about a cliff hanger!  Then the author shifts gears because suddenly and without warning, the page numbers begin anew and the editor for the manuscript we’ve just been reading is venting her frustration at not having the last chapter! She is unable to reach the author because it turns out that he is very dead – an apparent suicide.  Thus begins the second mystery which is delightfully intertwined with the mystery he wrote and that we have been reading.

Horowitz, whose previous books include The House of Silk (a Sherlock Holmes story) and Trigger Mortis (a James Bond novel) excels at writing in different styles – his Holmes book feels a Doyle original.  In Magpie Murders he obviously allows himself the pleasure as writing in multiple styles – in the two mysteries as well as in manuscript excerpts our editor peruses. He throws in a lot of insider jokes about writers and writer processes such as naming, influences, plagiarism, you name it. Great characters, fun mysteries, insightful prose. The hit of the summer for me.

Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

Milo is on his 9,995th life and pretty happy with the love affair he enjoys with Death (aka Susie) in between lives.  Unfortunately, he finds out that he must achieve Perfection before he hits 10,000 or else be consigned to walk the long sidewalk into Nowhere (yes, it really is a sidewalk).  A brash, authority-defying, hero (even the Universe and the Oversoul don’t get to tell him what to do), we join Milo on his adventures through multiple lives and the progression of his love with a Being outside of reality.

Poore weaves science fiction and historical stories into the vignettes of Milo’s many lives. He expounds on philosophies of economics, politics, love and the great mysteries of the Universe – all simplified into bite sized nuggets. He has fun with some pretty bizarre characters and silly yarns with very little point (at one point, Milo finds himself the love interest of a very sloppy camel). Still, plenty of big themes: What makes life worth living? What does it mean to be in love? When do you go along with the Universe and when do you tell it to shove it?

Fans of Kurt Vonnegut will find a similar style and creativity.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

This book will grab you from page one and not let go.  It’s “Where’d you go, Bernadette” meets Floridian Jews meets political scandals a la Clinton-Lewinsky but what comes out the other end is a study of relationships, love, youth, wisdom, feminism, and life.

Four narratives, four different voices, and two periods in time tells the story of a scandal that occurred between a Florida congressman and a young intern. The stories give rise to discussions about feminism, about the love between mother and child, about shame and forgiveness, about how different a story is for those who revel in the telling and those who have to live it, and lastly about how to keep going in the Internet era where nothing you do ever gets forgotten.

Characters that you love instantly – all of them – even the ones that dislike each other!  Plenty of color and a tongue-in-cheek style that keeps you laughing.  Plenty of yiddishisms for those of us who love that kind of thing. Funny insight into the political process. One of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time.  Great for fans of Maria Semple and / or Betsy Lerner.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

This book will capture you in the first pages and simply not let you go. We learn the ending in the first few pages: a family named Richardson come home to find their house burning to the ground and a mother and daughter quietly leave their rental across town, leaving the keys in the mailbox. The story that unfolds to explain this ending is full of twists and turns and a panoply of developing point relationships between all the players.

The story takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio. A singular community with a long history of taking planning very seriously (their motto: “most communities just happen, the best are planned”) the residents are also very proud of their openness and diversity. The Richardson family is a good representation for Shaker Heights: a traditional family with four high-school age children, they are attractive, friendly, and open-minded. Single mother Mia and daughter Pearl rent the top half of a duplex from the Richardsons and slowly get drawn into their orbit. In the meantime, they all become embroiled on different sides of a difficult moral situation between adoptive parents and a poor immigrant who has changed her mind about giving up her baby.

The book includes a fascinating and detailed discussion of Shaker Heights as well as an elegant portrayal of Mia as the artist, including deep dives on her endeavors – photographs taken of complex projects that are months in the making. It also includes a multi-faceted discussion of what it means to be a mother in every possible incarnation from those for whom motherhood is the ultimate goal, to those who choose abortion, to those who give up their children for adoption. Race and cultural identity play a big part in the story as does the importance of reflecting on the morality of ones actions.

Great for fans of Ann Packer, Lee Smith, and Ann Patchett.