031. Review of Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link.

I have an assignment for my novel into film class. I have to adapt a short story into a screenplay, and it can’t be one I’ve written. This means I have been reading many, many short stories, and I came across a brilliant collection that warrants talking about*.

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link is undeniably brilliant. It’s one of those books that’s full of compact but well-thought out concepts and worlds, and it is also the kind of book that upon after finishing it, you wish you could read it all again, and also that you’d written it yourself. It’s been recommended to me often enough — Amber Benson told me about it, which was the first thing I’d ever heard about it. Link’s been regarded as the freshest voice in short fiction and in fantasy by many, many writers, and after reading through the entire collection, I can see why. Her voice is unique: at turns funny and frightening and touching. She’s very versatile. She uses first person, third person, and sometimes even switches briefly into second person. She writes about many different characters: teenage boys and girls, married couples, small children, ghosts, zombies, witches, and magicians. She uses modern technology and present-day settings and she does it well. You don’t wonder about their timelessness. They are timeless.

I was grabbed immediately, as any Bostonian would be, by the first page of the first story, “The Faery Handbag,” mostly because it begins with a description of The Garment District, a misnamed “thrift” store in Kendall Square. But I didn’t keep reading because of the familiarity, I kept reading because Kelly Link has the ability to make everything twist into something unexpected and brilliant. She has that rare gift of explaining things precisely the way you know they are but the way you never’d have thought to describe them on your own. And no story is like the next. I bought this book on Thursday. I have already read the entire thing, even though I have a lot of homework and an article to write, plus a social life that sometimes needs tending.

My favourite story in the bunch — although it is hard to choose, and it’s very dependent on mood — is the title story (which is really a novella). “Magic For Beginners” has this brilliant television show in it and I have never wanted anything to be more real. The characters are real. Her characters are always real. In short fiction, it’s hard to care much about a character, but every time she writes one, you cheer for them or empathize with them or despise them with every fiber of your being. She writes characters with quirks; in “Magic for Beginners,” Jeremy’s father is a recreational shoplifter and writes thrillers about (and only about) giant spiders. In “Stone Animals,” Catherine pretends she’s had an affair, and Henry’s boss has a problem with her tear ducts. These are things — tiny details — that real people do or don’t do, but you don’t question their validity; they work and they are brilliant.

And the fantasy — it’s got zombies, sometimes, but not the kind you’d usually see. Vampires are mentioned once and are not involved at all. Werewolves don’t even come close. Ghosts are important. There are aliens. And there are cats and many witches and magic handbags and for the most part, Link mixes magical realism and science fiction and urban fantasy and literary fiction into something wonderfully compelling.

There are many books you buy on a whim that sit on your shelf and after you’ve finished you regret ever buying it, and you think you should’ve stuck to the library version. But Magic for Beginners is that book where, even though Kelly Link’s got a free download of it on her site, I have never been happier to hold the physical collection in my hands.

*This review is a little convoluted. I apologize. I got very excited and I don’t much care if it’s a jumbled block of energetic ravings.

028. Review of Embassytown by China Miéville.

For the first time in perhaps three or four months, I finally started and finished a book within a reasonable amount of time — a book, that is, that I chose to read myself, not one that was assigned to me for a class. And let’s be honest: as good as required books can be (I’m thinking of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy for Irish Lit, Ariel Dorfman’s In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land for Latin American Lit & Cinema, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus books for Literature of Extreme Situations), they’re still required. You still have to read them for homework, you still have to pick them apart and examine each miniscule, painstaking syllable for some hidden meaning. And even when you don’t have to do that, they still have a cover with invisible-to-everyone-else flashing neon lights that spell out I AM HOMEWORK.

So on my two weeks of vacation between the end of spring semester and the beginning of summer semester, I finished Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter which, in brief, was wonderfully written stylistically (you can practically hear Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter and co. reading every line in the book. The show’s screenwriter was very, very faithful to the original text. Minus some annoying plot things. And in general, I prefer the show to the book.

I also started the bestselling The Book Thief which so far I am liking. But I quit reading in the middle — not because it bored me, but because a friend at Random House got the new China Miéville book in and sent it to me free of charge.

China Miéville is by far one of my favourite writers. He knows how to turn a phrase. He has a love for language that is really evident, and his imagination is incredible. He is one of those writers who really knows how to write many different genres, and he has, although he has a prevailing love for science fiction and fantasy, which he has melded into a genre called New Weird Fiction, of which he is one of the great pioneers. But it’s all very literary; it’s complex in plot, the characters are distinctive and original, and there are many, many deeper themes and meanings, some of which are completely lost on me, as an American reader who is unfamiliar with the English political system, and with politics in general (Miéville is a Marxist; I have been told by physical readers, reviews, and articles alike that his politics are very salient in his fiction. I have never caught on).

He has never written a book I didn’t like. Sure, there are some I prefer to others, but generally, he can do no wrong, in my opinion. And this book is phenomenal; certainly one of my favourites.

Embassytown is more straight science fiction than his Bas-Lag universe. It is also written in first person; none of his other novels are written in entirely first person, although some of his sections and short stories are, and I thought he pulled it off very well. His protagonist is a woman, a human woman, named Avice. He writes her convincingly, as usual, and I believe she’s one of his most likeable protagonists yet. The setting is an unfamiliar time and land, in which Earth no longer exists or if it does, it is uninhabitable. Humans have long since been on various planets, but mostly Bremen — the planet on which Embassytown is a main city. They share Embassytown with a group of aliens the natives refer to as “Hosts” (in the polite sense, rather than the parasitic sense). It’s a complex book and story, going back and forth from early memories of Avice’s childhood to when she met her husband, another important character in the book (although not for the reasons that one might expect), to when the first issues with the Hosts began, to the present, when the world as they know it is coming to an unfortunate, untimely end. It’s a bleak book, in ways, but a brilliant one. And the most incredible part about it is the way Miéville characterizes the Hosts. Their language is incredible; how he thought it up, I will never understand. And that’s the other amazing part of the book that the writer in me appreciates so intensely: the crux of Embassytown, the very heart of the plot and the themes, is language: communication, truth versus lies, grammar and syntax, the way language does and does not represent the real and the factual and the possible. As someone who cares greatly about language, this was unthinkably wonderful.

Although there were a few misleading plot threads, I was extremely happy with the way the book went along. It is easier to get through than his Bas-Lag books, which require a lot of concentration to simply understand all the various plot points that must meld together, but beautifully complex and woven with incredible skill nonetheless. I would, without a doubt, list it was one of my favourite books of his, and highly recommend it to anyone looking to read his work, or a good work of science fiction.

018. Review of Death’s Daughter by Amber Benson.

So this week I read Amber Benson’s book Death’s Daughter because I actually sat next to her on the train home. I was curious, and therefore went out and bought the first two books of her series: Death’s Daughter and Cat’s Claw. So I finished reading the first one and here are my honest thoughts:

The premise is pretty imaginative. It follows Calliope “Callie” Reaper-Jones, who is one of Death’s three daughters. Death, in this world, is run by a corporation, of which her father is the head. It deals a lot with mythology, and she uses all different kinds of mythology: Greek, Norse, Hindu, Christian, you name it. I’m a sucker for mythology done right, and I think Amber did a pretty good job with this. Kali is one of the best characters in the book, and even the Devil is done interestingly. I like the way she dealt with the family’s history, the way Hell was conceptualized, and the way no one religion was ranked better than another. I particularly liked the fact that God was not a nameless, faceless being that showed up only in rhetoric, but was actually a character, if a minor one.

One thing I particularly admired about the characters was that none of them were too perfect. Callie’s very flawed, and can sometimes be annoying because of it, but no one can accuse Callie of being a Mary-Sue character, which means quite a bit in this genre. Even when she does have powers, she does not quite know how to use them accurately, and she makes enormous blunders. She is often emotionally weak but can pull through for herself, her family, and her friends in times of dire trouble. This is the kind of hero(ine) I like to see.

There were some negative aspects of the book: Callie sometimes reads like a valley-girl rather than someone in her mid-twenties; she (and Amber) focuses too much on fashion and labels, and sometimes the references to clothing and shopping and designer can be too much, even for someone like me who does recognise all the labels. When Amber told me on the train that it was like “Neil Gaiman meets Devil Wears Prada” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Sometimes her material concerns can be really funny; other times, it bogs down the prose and makes me feel a lack of description acutely (although for the most part, Amber’s description’s pretty good!).

Another part I didn’t like was the clunky handling of romance. Callie is, granted, hitting a dry spot in her life, and Daniel can, admittedly, seduce people with his powers, but she thinks about sexing up almost every main male character (as long as they are attractive). There’s a moment in which she’s saved by a bogus semi-sexual ritual, and I felt a little cheated by that because … honestly, there are so many ways to deal with a situation like that, and a sexual/romantic way of dealing with it seems like just an excuse to raise the heat. I also wasn’t sure why Daniel was so interested in Callie, or why he was so mind-bendingly impressed. Impressed is one thing. Impressed in total hyperbole is another.

My final pet peeve with this book was something that an editor really should have dealt with: there are a lot of italicised words. I’m not counting titles of books/movies/etc or internal thoughts. I’m talking about sentences such as this which have too much dramatic emphasis put on random words. Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But there were pages in this book (a tiny paperback) that had six italicised words that did not need to be italicised. That’s a huge issue with me, but clearly I got used to it at the end because I kept reading.

All in all, though, I think Death’s Daughter was decently entertaining; it’s not meant to be the next Wuthering Heights. It’s supposed to be a fun, action-packed beginning-of-the-series book. I’ve heard that the second one is more focused and better written, so I’m interested to read and see–it’s next on my list! I will not pass judgment until afterwards. Really.

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