Book Review: Adventure and Mundane Magic

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic create a world that looks and operates a lot like ours, with one big exception – magic is real and everyone has some level of ability.

Since the world runs on magic, getting into a really good university requires both exceptional magical skill and strong academic ability.

Gooseberry Bluff Community College is not a particularly good school. Yet, there’s very powerful magic located on and around the school grounds; which is why the people who work there aren’t always what they appear.

The novel takes the reader on an adventure where bad guys from another dimension use a magic-wielding cult-like collection of community college professors as the key for entry into the Gooseberry dimension. If the bad guys get through, the very-similar-to-our-own world will be viciously invaded and transformed into something terrible (in a post-apocalyptic kind of way).

While the story is well told, with a plot that provides ample opportunity for adventure and intrigue, the truly unique aspect to this novel is Joy, the main character – a black woman with exceptional magic skills and a life-long struggle with Prosopagnosia, the inability to distinguish or recognize human faces (including her own).

Joy was recruited to work for a secret agency that greatly resembles the FBI or the CIA, despite her handicap, because her magic skills and knowledge are exceptional. She also has the ability to read auras, which she uses in place of reading faces; s system that works just fine, most of the time.

Another interesting element is the description of magic. There are characters who compete in magic martial-arts competitions where laser-light-shows and smoke machines are utilized to show where the magic is flying through the air. In this world, the combatants don’t need to see the magic attacks because they can feel every move. It’s the audience who needs the light show – to make watching the combat easier.

Tossed in here and there are the personalities of characters who cross-over into this world from other dimensions. They provide a fascinating contrast to the personalities of the Gooseberry Bluff natives, many of which are complicated and nicely fleshed out.

All in all, this is a fun read. If you are looking for some vacation-time entertainment, I highly recommend this novel

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic by David J. Schwartz

Quotes from this book can be found HERE.

Great Book, Bad Marketing

I found the White Magic Five and DIme while browsing through eBooks. From the cover art and the description, this one looked like a nice new-age themed chic-lit novel.

It’s not.

It’s nothing at all like that.

Just to be clear: I really enjoyed this book.

Unfortunately, this novel suffers from extraordinarily poor marketing, beginning with the description:

Much to Alanis McLachlan’s surprise, her estranged con-woman mother has left her an inheritance: The White Magic Five & Dime, a shop in tiny Berdache, Arizona. Reluctantly traveling to Berdache to claim her new property, Alanis decides to stay and pick up her mother’s tarot business in an attempt to find out how she died.

With help from a hunky cop and her mother’s live-in teenage apprentice, Alanis begins faking her way through tarot readings in order to win the confidence of her mother’s clients.  But the more she uses the tarot deck, the more Alanis begins to find real meaning in the cards … and the secrets surrounding her mother’s demise.

This sounds like standard chic-lit with a bit of a low-key family mystery thrown in for dramatic effect. In reality, the book is about Alanis, a woman who survived a harrowing childhood at the hands of hardened criminals. She manages to escape by conning her con-artist mother but can’t shake the law of the street. Well into adulthood, Alanis is convinced she owes her mother a heavy debt. When a lawyer locates Alanis to pass along the news that mom has not only been murdered but left behind an inheritance in her name, she decides it’s time to pay back her debt by finding the killer and exacting revenge street-style. Alanis does this knowing that there is a very strong possibility that her mother is using the inheritance to set-up her estranged daughter for some hardcore revenge post-mortem.

The fact that Alanis has been living in secret, under an assumed name, with her every move entirely focused on not being found by her mother, makes the letter-from-the lawyer even more interesting.

That’s where this book begins.

It’s a murder mystery set in a small town with a woman cast as the primary hard-hitting tough-as-nails mystery-solving hero. The new-age magic and tarot cards are merely part of the story because…and only because…that was the narcissistic mother’s last con-game.

This book reminded me of the  V I Warshawski books by Sara Paretsky. I’ve posted quotes from both Hockensmith and Paretsky to this blog – go ahead and compare the two!

I really enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it, but ignore the marketing material – here is a more accurate description:

The White Magic Five & Dime is hard-hitting murder mystery featuring tough people with difficult lives. There’s abuse, neglect, and extremely non-motherly actions; but there is also a solved mystery, adventure and….ultimately…a daughter who manages to put the ghost of her mother to rest.

Definition of a Witch

Amazon.com

The word witch has many meanings in the United States, some good and some bad. The historic usage as a slur for people who practice earth-based religions or anyone practicing herbal medicine or midwifery, has resulted in unfortunate misunderstandings and excuses for senseless violence. For more information about the Pagan community and it’s use of the term ‘Witch’ see: Witches’ Vox, Starhawk, and History of Witch Burnings.

The following quote describes a very specific cultural perspective based on a definition that falls under the ‘bad witch’ category. It is not a reference to modern Paganism or the US history of witch burnings. It’s also a quote from a novel – only members of the Navajo nation could say, definitely, how accurate this information really is.

I went back and forth on these quotes and ultimately decided to post them because they are a wonderful example of the style used by this author and an excellent segment of descriptive color in a work of fiction. Also, I do not see anything racially or culturally offensive in the quote.

If there are problems in the presentation of the Navajo culture or additional issues surrounding the use of the word witch, then they are valid concerns and worthy of further discussion. If I am blind to a problem, I invite you to open my eyes. Feel free to add comments accordingly.

Quotes:

“And finally Chee had accumulated a general impression of Windy Tsossie. It was a negative impression. His kinsmen and his clansmen, when they admitted remembering him at all, remembered him without fondness or respect. They talked of him reluctantly, vaguely, uneasily. No one put it in words. Since Chee was Navajo, no one needed to. Windy Tsossie did not “go in beauty.” Windy Tsossie was not a good man. He did not follow those rules which Changing Woman had given the People. In a word, Windy Tsossie was believed by his kinsmen to be a witch.”

“To become a witch, to cross over from Navajo to Navajo Wolf, you have to break at least one of the most serious taboos. You have to commit incest, or you have to kill a close relative. But there’s another story, very old, pretty much lost, which explains how First Man became a witch. Because he was first, he didn’t have relatives to destroy. So he figured out a magic way to violate the strongest taboo of all. He destroyed himself and recreated himself, and that’s the way he got the powers of evil.”

People of Darkness (Navajo Mysteries Book 4) by Tony Hillerman

The After-Dragon Princess

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I’ll be perfectly honest, there were several points when I seriously considered putting this book down and walking away.

Inconsistencies and Plot Fails

There were a few moderate inconsistencies. For example, the main character breaks her ankle and tells her father to leave her by the window of her room because she can’t walk to the docks to see him off – and then (in the next sentence) she’s hugging him goodby on the dock. There were a few others involving objects that did not belong, for example: how did the nursemaid/nannies cloak get in the dragon’s cave?

The most glaring error was the knowledge held by Rosie’s best friend. Kit (the best friend) witnesses a rather horrific ‘cure’ for the ‘devil’s mark’ on Rosie’s hand. With a dragon’s claw for a finger, Rosie is unable to marry a prince and become queen (we’ll come back to this primary plot twist), so her mother arranges a visit with a local witch who performs medieval surgery on Rosie’s hand. Kit assists with the ‘cure,’ which doesn’t work. Later, Rosie rescues Kit from the evil witch and takes the girl on as a servant, thereby making her one and only same-aged friend – who knows nothing about the claw. How does a teenager assist with surgery and not know about the item being ‘cured?’

Women

The thing that made me seriously consider giving up on this book was the romance-novel find-a-man plot. I found myself of two battling minds. On the one hand, the culture of find-a-man-or-else is historically accurate. the characters are direct descendants of the Pendragon family whose lives were prophesied by Merlin himself. Removing the pressure placed on a princess to marry into another kingdom for political reasons would not be true to the historic setting. On the other hand, dragons exist and this kingdom has been banished to a tiny island not covered in any actual historic (or literary) text. So, this is neither a historic romance nor an alternate-history novel. It’s just a fantasy novel building off of the legends of Merlin.

More aggravating than the outside pressures were the internal ones. Rosie is fully wrapped up in finding love, landing a man, removing her curse so that she can marry well and struggling with her love-at-first-sight feelings (for a lower-born prince). There are dragons attacking the kingdom and eating people she knows well and holds dear (right in front of her) and the primary internal dialog highlighted is the whole one-day-my-prince-will-come Hollywood-esque drivel.

The witch is a particularly wicked person who is burned to death by a mob of villagers for a crime she did not commit (a respected member of the castle/royal court gets away with murder, literally, multiple times – and is never brought to justice). She is the local practitioner of ancient healing arts that everyone goes to when their Christian-approved methods do not work. Again, this is historically accurate – except for the woman’s personality. Her character is so nasty that the burning is something of a party. There are many (MANY) aspects to this particular plot twist that deserve commentary…but I will leave that to another person.

Dragons

The book convinced me to continue to the end when the dragons swooped down, plucked the princess (literally) out of her medieval court and dropped her into a dragon’s cave. The father dragon turns her into a servant, helping him raise his newly hatched dragons after the death of his mate (killed by the lower-born love-interest prince).

The novel transforms into something completely different the moment the princess leaves the castle. The before-dragons princess is the soft waiting-for-my-prince beauty and the after-dragons princess is a tough, survivor and negotiator capable of making hard decisions in the interest of her kingdom.

Rosie’s time in the dragon cave also brings in some very interesting dragon-perspectives on history and humans that is never fully explored. Sigh. In my opinion, the dragons, their perspectives and the transforming affect on the princess are the most important and interesting aspects of this novel. I reached the end wishing the author had cut the before-dragons section down to 1/3 (or less) of it’s current length and spent significantly more time delving into the dragons and their world.

Tweens

The target audience for this book are middle-graders or tweens.  The text presents multiple opportunities for discussions of history, women, perspectives on alternative medicines/religions, relationships, witch burnings (lynchings), etc.

I do not feel comfortable giving a blanket recommendation on this text. Some tweens are more capable of reading this sort of novel than others. My fear is that some girls will be drawn in by the whole my-prince-will-come thing, without seeing all of the complications surrounding that culture and mindset.

Ultimately, this is one of those moments when parents and guardians have to stop and think – is this book good for my kid?

Dragon’s Keep by Janet Lee Carey

Good and Bad Out There

Amazon.com

This quote is a good example of the creepy…not scary, but creepy…nature of this book. Some of these stories may stick with you in rather unsettling ways:

He had read books, newspapers, and magazines. He knew that if you ran away you sometimes met bad people who did bad things to you; but he had also read fairy tales, so he knew that there were kind people out there, side by side with the monsters.

M Is for Magic by Neil Gaiman

This collection of stories was inspired by children’s stories, fairy tales and the like. However, this is Neil Gaiman – the stories are excellent, but they are not for children.

Dear Unknown Blogger – Thanks For The Book

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I must admit to deciding to read this book based on a blog posting that I can no longer locate. The blog was written by a young (teens? 20s?) woman who was making a comment about trying to discuss this book with a 30+ year old woman only to discover the older person had never heard of it.

While the post was mostly about generational gap communication (or so to speak), it made me curious enough to track down a copy and read it.

The first thing I realized was the existence of a movie I vaguely remembered seeing in random advertisements…somewhere. (I don’t have regular television, only Netflix and Amazon Prime, so visual advertisements are encountered online and in newspapers.)

The second thing I realized was how impossible it is to put this book down. Simply impossible! The first sentence drew me in. I stopped reading because it was time to get back to work or make dinner or…whatever…but the moment my eyes scanned random words from a sentence on a page it was like some irresistible force was sucking me back into the story.

Seriously!

At one point, I turned on my Kindle to check the time and the state of my email (read: how many unread messages have piled up?), glanced at the page long enough for my mind to register that this book was still open, read half a sentence and ten minutes later I was forcing myself to close the book, within the reader (before shutting it off), so that I could get back to my regularly scheduled life.

I really wish I knew what kind of mojo this author has to turn a simple and (frankly) uneventful story into such an aggressive attention grabber. Don’t get me wrong, the story was very good, but the magic is in the style, not the plot.

The Fault in Our Stars is a love story between two teenage cancer survivors (Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters). Teenagers facing both love and death. It’s a mix that could easily devolve into ultra-dramatic and highly annoying youth angst. Yet, somehow, it never loses the solidity of reality. It’s a book that gently pulls on the heartstrings instead of dragging them out of your chest. It presents the characters in moments of strength and weakness. It portrays cancer in a way that is almost to real.

I am of the opinion that the reality of life lived by the dying is the strongest aspect to the plot. There are many points where the popular perception of the dying is discussed by the dying in blunt, honest and occasionally sarcastic tones. It frankly examines the realities the not-yet-dying either do not consider or purposely chose to refrain from acknowledging. It also frames these observations and events within an almost to-perfect-to-be-true relationship.

Obviously, I enjoyed the book.

If you are the blogger who inadvertently recommended it to this no-longer-20-something reader, I thank you. If you are a reader (of any age) who is still considering cracking the spine of this text, here are a few quotes to whet your appetite:

““Augustus Waters,” I said, looking up at him, thinking that you cannot kiss anyone in the Anne Frank House, and then thinking that Anne Frank, after all, kissed someone in the Anne Frank House, and that she would probably like nothing more than for her home to have become a place where the young and irreparably broken sink into love”

““The world,” he said, “is not a wish-granting factory,” and then he broke down, just for one moment, his sob roaring impotent like a clap of thunder unaccompanied by lightning, the terrible ferocity that amateurs in the field of suffering might mistake for weakness.”

“If you go to the Rijksmuseum, which I really wanted to do—but who are we kidding, neither of us can walk through a museum. But anyway, I looked at the collection online before we left. If you were to go, and hopefully someday you will, you would see a lot of paintings of dead people. You’d see Jesus on the cross, and you’d see a dude getting stabbed in the neck, and you’d see people dying at sea and in battle and a parade of martyrs. But Not. One. Single. Cancer. Kid. Nobody biting it from the plague or smallpox or yellow fever or whatever, because there is no glory in illness. There is no meaning to it. There is no honor in dying of.”

-The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Academic Aspirations

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White Noise is one of those books that you find on college reading lists. Google searches on the text produce plenty of suggestions for teaching the text and bookstore catalogs have more copies of books about the novel then they have of the novel itself. This preponderance of academic interest is why I read the book – and why the story completely perplexes me.

Granted, there is plenty of symbolism, offensive dialog, absurd behavior and imagery simply waiting to be uncovered as hidden commentaries on society. It’s a veritable goldmine of possibilities for anyone writing a college level paper. While it has been some years since I read the novel, I distinctly remember noticing how very easy…noticeably easy….it would be to write an American Literature 101 paper on this book. In fact, the text seemed to be written expressly for the purpose of being discussed among academics, dissected by students and lectured upon by professors.

Don’t get me wrong, the story line was solid, the writing high quality, and the novel kept my interest from beginning to end. Yet, during those moments when I struggled with the suspension of disbelief that is necessary to truly enjoy any fictional work, it was because I had the jarring sense of collegiate preparation. It was as if the author stopped his story telling, pulled out an old wooden pointer and clearly indicated those areas where a student would be best advised to focus when writing a term paper.

This left me wondering if this book were truly a high quality work of fiction, or a convenient way to structure a literature 101 class. If it was written for the purposes of academic discussion and teaching-tool-creation, then the book as a whole seems (to me) to be an example of false quality. It is not good literature, it is a collection of examples of what good literature might look like.

True to this analysis, it presents many opportunities for quotes, which I will post to this blog; but only after I have made my own critical commentary on the academic nature of this book…and that would be this post…so…there it is.

A few quotes illustrating my comments above:

“She said I made virtues of her flaws because it was in my nature to shelter loved ones from the truth. Something lurked inside the truth, she said.”

“In a crisis the true facts are whatever other people say they are. No one’s knowledge is less secure than your own.”

“Was he a Samoan, a Native North American, a Sephardic Jew? It was getting hard to know what you couldn’t say to people.”

White Noise by Don Delillo

Zombies Are Better In Print

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This was an excellent novel. In fact, two books that I had requested through my local library came available while I was in the midst of reading this one – both had exceptionally long waiting lists and I needed to get through them both before the return date. Yet, I simply could not stop reading this book. Could. Not. Put. Down.

While the story is about zombies, the focus is on a viral outbreak that causes a world war. It reads like a science fiction war novel, not a horror story. There are plenty of exciting story lines, nail-biting adventures and descriptions of creepy undead, but the undead make up the background for the human stories that occur within the midst of a new-to-the-human-race mortal danger.

The structure is based around the idea that the fictional ‘author’ traveled the world interviewing people and gathering data about the zombies, the battles and the human element. The result is a collection of first-person accounts of a massively destructive biological event that was eventually put down through offensive attacks on millions (billions) of humans-turned-zombies.

The fact that the virus is spread through human negligence (officials refusing to believe data), fear (refugees and panic), criminal activities (illicit organ transplants) and predatory commerce (selling fake cures with FDA approval) is disturbingly logical. Nuclear attacks between countries and civil wars within nations are launched because communications system fail, key individuals are lost and the difficult fact that human nature tends toward both control and revenge (even when human extinction is a potential consequence).

The most frightening thing about this novel is the description of very real human reactions – and we do not come across as a particularly logical, kind or resilient species. In the end, the human race wins the war well enough to return to some semblance of a life, but…well…you’ll have to read the book. Suffice it to say that the zombies are not gone, just under control.

If you saw the movie, then be forewarned – the book describes a very different plot, new selection of characters and a drastically different take on the zombie-as-monster. Hollywood pretty much took the bones of the narrative (UN employee searching for an the source of the zombie plague by traveling around the world and interviewing people) and created a brand new version of the story.

Bottom line – it’s a good book (REALLY good book) and I highly recommend it.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Fight Spiders Fight!

Quote

Amazon.com

It is rare that I read a book that is both powerful enough to make me want to recommend it to everyone with even a passing interest while, at the same time, causing me to cringe from the mere thought of watching the movie.

This book describes the lives of human clones, created for the sole purpose of providing internal organs to ‘normal’ people. It is told from the perspective of a small group of clones who grow up together in the same ‘school.’

(Spoiler Alert – A bit of the ending is described)

It is simultaneously moving, touching and disturbing. When the novel ended I found myself wondering whether the most disturbing element was the ‘donations program’ or the universal and often unthinking acceptance of fate on the part of those chosen to die. I kept waiting for them to fight back while somehow knowing they never would.

They didn’t fight. They accepted the life prescribed to them and focused their thoughts and efforts on making the best of it – it was very very sad.

Quotes:

Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn’t been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders”

“...there are people out there, like Madame, who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you—of how you were brought into this world and why—and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.

However uncomfortable people were about your existence, their overwhelming concern was that their own children, their spouses, their parents, their friends, did not die from cancer, motor neurone disease, heart disease. So for a long time you were kept in the shadows, and people did their best not to think about you. And if they did, they tried to convince themselves you weren’t really like us. That you were less than human, so it didn’t matter….While that remained the case, there would always be a barrier against seeing you as properly human.”

“…that night, it seemed to me these dark byways of the country existed just for the likes of us, while the big glittering motorways with their huge signs and super cafés were for everyone else.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

On The Day You Die

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As someone who was a teenager during the late 1980s, and fully remembers the hysteria surrounding AIDs, this book brought back many memories – not all of them good. It’s an excellent and authentic tale. However, it portrays teenagers doing things that most parents would prefer their children refrain from considering, much less actually doing. I highly recommend this novel to fellow cold-war era survivors, but I’m not certain I would feel comfortable handing it over to a teenager.

On the other hand, when I was a late-80s teen, teachers and other adults handed me novels like The Scarlet Letter, The Lord of the Flies, Watership Down and a handful of Russian novels that I strongly suspect I understood better than my instructors – particularly when it came to the methods of survival utilized by primary characters. Perhaps I am overly cautious.

Quotes:

“I figured that on the day you died, the tunnel would be so narrow, you’d have squeezed yourself in with so many choices, that you just got squashed...I thought about Finn. How he did whatever he wanted. Just like my mother said. He never let the tunnel squash him. But still, there he was. In the end he was still crushed to death by his own choices. Maybe what Toby said was right. Maybe you had to be dying to finally get to do what you wanted.

I used to think maybe I wanted to become a falconer, and now I’m sure of it, because I need to figure out the secret. I need to work out how to keep things flying back to me instead of always flying away.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt