Book 104: The Paper Magician

"From her pocket she pulled a tiny snowflake, the one she had stowed there after her first day as a Folder. She rubbed her thumb over its tiny, delicate cuts, grateful she hadn't yet washed this particular skirt. The snowflake still felt frosty, just like real snow. Snow he had made for her. All of it had been for her in one way or another, hadn't it?"

Dates read: November 13-15, 2016

Rating: 5/10

When I was a child, like many other children, I desperately wanted magic to be real. From Tamora Pierce's Wild Magic series to the J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, the idea that people could have secret powers inside themselves, just waiting to be harnessed, was, well, enchanting. I kept waiting for my own magic to manifest, because of course if magic were real I was going to be special enough to get it. I think most of us longed for a world where we had extraordinary powers at some point, and that helps explain the enduring popularity of these kinds of stories.

It's not really clear in Charlie Holmberg's The Paper Magician if one needs to have been born with magic. Ceony Twill doesn't seem to have manifested any particular powers from what we learn about her life before attending Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined. But she does want to learn magic, and maybe that's good enough. In the world Holmberg builds, students take the classes they want and experiment and may aspire to a particular kind of magic, but ultimately are bonded to one particular kind of substance through which they can perform it. Ceony longs to be bonded to metal, but instead, because of a lack of paper magicians, she's sent to Emery Thane, to become his apprentice.

Ceony sulks a little but I was pleasantly surprised at how non-mopey she generally seems like characters like this are usually 100% pro-pity parties. But even though she wishes it hadn't been so, she dedicates herself to learning the craft of paper magic. She's settling into a mostly comfortable groove when suddenly she and Emery, on who she is starting to develop a bit of a crush, are brutally attacked by an evil magician, and although she's been forbidden to, she (of course) adventures to save him. She has to make a journey, both literal and metaphorical, through his heart in order to do so.

The journey through the heart is where most of the character development comes from. It's in a way a kind of blunt plot device...instead of having to learn things about her Emery's inner life organically, she's treated to highlight and lowlight reels of the most sensitive, defining moments of his life. But I think it works, mostly. It not only rounds out his character, but it makes her growing crush seem less like the oh-so-tiresome InstaLove trope. And the system of magic that Holmberg creates for her world is fresh and interesting. But at the end of the day, this isn't high literature. It's fluffy, and perfect for the way I read it: on an airplane. Or at a beach. It's pleasant and light and thinking about it too hard isn't recommended. There are sequels, but I'm not nearly invested enough to seek them out. If you need something to help pass the time, though, you could do a lot worse.

Tell me, blog friends...were you, too, convinced you had magic inside you as a child?

One year ago, I was reading: The Emigrants (review upcoming)

Two years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books I'm Thankful For

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic, with Thanksgiving in two days, is books that we're thankful for. This isn't usually how I think about books (I tend to think about good to bad, not more to less thankful), but I pondered for a bit, and here are ten books that make me grateful.

A Wrinkle In Time: For teaching me it was okay to be a prickly adolescent girl, and that I could still be the hero even if I was.

Anna Karenina: For teaching me that I didn't hate Russian literature (just Dostoyevsky).

Memoirs of a Geisha: For being a wonderful book, and then inspiring me to think more critically about own voices.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: For inspiring in me a lifelong fascination with psychology and the brain.

Lolita: For teaching me that the English language can be playful and unexpected.

To Kill A Mockingbird: For showing and not telling its lessons about injustice and being all the more powerful for it.

Gone With The Wind: For teaching me that sometimes the movie is better.

Harry Potter: For being magical.

The Hunger Games: For reminding me that reading outside of my usual genre lines can be very rewarding indeed.

The Handmaid's Tale: For making the misogyny behind male control of female reproduction blindingly obvious.

Dreamcasting: Sabriel

I'm back with another take on Dreamcasting, where I combine my love of movies and books by casting some of my longtime favorites. Today, it's Sabriel, a book that I've loved ever since I picked it up as a teenager (and passed on to my sister, who loves it as much as I do!). It's a fantasy adventure story, about a young woman who uses seven bells to cross into Death and fight necromancers who try to bend the Dead to their will against the living. There are two sequels in the original trilogy, with another two novels having come out since, but the original book is the one I've returned to most often.

Sabriel: Saoirse Ronan

She's actually a smidge old for the role (Sabriel should be about 18, Ronan is 23), but by Hollywood standards that's practically dead-on. She's done dark hair for a role before, she's played a bad-ass in Hanna, and she's a talented enough actor to play a lot of things just with her face...Sabriel's not a talkative character, so whoever plays her needs to be able to be subtle and I think she'd be just perfect.

Touchstone: Armie Hammer

He's gotten rave reviews for his portrayal of a romantic lead lately, and he's got the kind of warm attractiveness that would make it easy to understand how an otherwise-down-to-earth teenager like Sabriel would get a big crush real fast. But Touchstone isn't a one-dimensional character, and Armie has the range to give light to his dark side, too, I think.

Colonel Horhees: J.K. Simmons

Horhees is a military man who interacts with Sabriel early in her journey and plays a bigger role at the end, but still not a ton of screentime. But he's someone that we do need to connect with, and I think Simmons has the right mix of gruffness and warmth to make the most of it.

Mogget (voice): Tim Curry

If you love this book, just shell out the money for the audio version, which is narrated by...Tim Curry. His version of Mogget is so perfect I can't imagine anyone else doing it better.

Abhorsen: Ralph Feinnes

Sabriel's father is a relatively minor character and only has a few scenes, but because it's the search for him that prompts the entire story, he's an important prescence. He should have an almost-otherworldliness since he's been in and out of Death for his whole life, and even though he's unquestionably a good guy, Fiennes' excellent turn as Voldemort made me think he's been great in the role.

Kerrigor/Rogir: Benedict Cumberbatch

Since I think a lot of Kerrigor's non-flashback appearances would need to be CGI'd, I wanted someone with a distinctive voice that could be menacing...but was also young enough to appear as Rogir in flashbacks.

Book 103: Invisible Man

"For the first time, as I swung along the streets, I thought consciously of how I had conducted myself at home. I hadn't worried too much about whites as people. Some were friendly and some were not, and you tried not to offend either. But here they all seemed impersonal; and yet when most impersonal they startled me by being polite, by begging my pardon after brushing against me in a crowd. Still I felt that even when they were polite they hardly saw me, that they would have begged the pardon of Jack the Bear, never glancing his way if the bear happened to be walking along minding his business. It was confusing. I did not know if it was desirable or undesirable..."

Dates read: November 10-13, 2016

Rating: 8/10

Awards/Lists: National Book Award, Time All-Time 100 Novels, New York Times bestseller, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

I've never been followed around a store by a salesperson. I've never been afraid when I've been pulled over. No one has ever treated me like I don't belong pretty much anywhere I've ever wanted to go. No one has assumed that I speak for all other people that look like me. These, and countless other indignities I don't have to suffer, are facets of my white privilege. I will never really know what it's like to live as anything other than a white woman, and in the interest of learning about what life is like outside of those confines, I've found myself more and more drawn lately to stories about experiences of people of color.

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man shouldn't be confused with H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man. While the sci-fi classic deals with literal invisibility, the unnamed black man who narrates his story in Ellison's novel is only figuratively invisible. We meet him at the end of his story, living in a New York City basement that he's lit up brightly by siphoning power from the utility. Ellison doesn't belabor the metaphor...right from the start, the narrator tells us that it's his status as a black man in mid-century America that renders him effectively invisible.

The novel is made up of his story and how he came to recognize his own non-entity status. And it hits you in the gut right away: the first incident he relates from his life is when he's awarded a scholarship from a prestigious philanthropic organization in the small Southern town in which he grows up. He's invited to a country club dinner to make a speech about his scholarship, but once he gets there, he and several other young black men are forced to fight each other and be humiliated chasing for electrified coins. Only after he's been degraded is he allowed to give his speech and receive the scholarship and the briefcase. It's a horrifying sequence, incredibly difficult to read, and the book is just getting started.

This experience, and the ones that the narrator has at a black college and then in New York are rooted in a fundamental denial of his humanity. He's entertainment, or a tool, or an experiment, or just disposable. He struggles and fights and gets up after being knocked down over and over again, but he can't escape the fact of his race and the broad social structures designed to keep him and other black men firmly in the underclass. And while things have gotten better today, it's maybe not as much better as we'd like to think.

This is a hard book to read. Not because of the quality...Ellison's writing is incredible. But it's heavy and dark and the unending awfulness of what the narrator is subjected to is a lot to get your head around. I usually try not to get heavily into politics on this blog, but I read this book right after the 2016 election, and it really made me think about the racism that persists in our society. Despite the "grab them by the pussy" tape that we all heard, and the many sexual assault allegations against him, a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump rather than the candidate who has worked on women's and children's issues for her entire adult life. And while there are lots of factors that motivated people to vote for him, he was an open bigot as well as an open misogynist. It's hard not to see that as white women "choosing" the interests of white supremacy over feminism. I'm not saying anyone in particular who voted for Trump is absolutely a racist or hates women, I think it's easy to underestimate your own internal bias or internalized misogyny, a lot of it works on unconscious levels. If I were a black person in America, I have to think that I'd feel pretty invisible (at best) right now too.

Tell me, blog friends...what piece of fiction has especially resonated with you lately?

One year ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine (review upcoming)

Two years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology 

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books I Want My Future Children to Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week, we're believing that children are our future, and thinking about what books we'd want our own kids, or nieces/nephews, or our friends' kids to read. I do want kids someday, and here are ten books I am going to stock on their bookshelves (arranged, roughly, in order from youngest to oldest).

Greek Myths: This book of Greek myths, rendered as comic strips that kids can understand, inspired in me a lifelong love of these classic stories.

Charlotte's Web: Although I don't plan on raising children vegetarian (I think it should be their choice to make), I would like them to understand where meat comes from and this book is gently upfront about raising animals for slaughter. It also was something that I remember being particularly helpful to me in gaining a more mature understanding of death.

A Wrinkle In Time: I loved this whole series and no matter what gender my future child(ren) may be, I want them to see a girl who doesn't play nice as being a hero.

Harry Potter: OBVIOUSLY.

Speak: Again, regardless of gender, this book explores sexual assault and its aftermath and how hard it can be to make the accusation, and that's something everyone should be aware of.

1984: This book made me question the way information is disseminated and the way the public is expected to consume it even as an eighth grader (even more so now).

Lord of the Flies: It's perhaps a dim view of humanity, especially in groups, but I haven't seen anything in my life to this point to make me think that it's not a fair one.

To Kill A Mockingbird: The lessons here about not judging people without understanding their circumstances are timeless and important.

The Lord of the Rings: This series has its issues (including a horrifying dearth of female characters), but it's a wonderful adventure tale and the basis of a lot of fantasy media.

A People's History of the United States: The version of history we're presented in school is a very sanitized one, and I hope my kids have the intellectual curiosity to investigate past the shiny surface.

Book 102: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

"A key ring gets left in your care and you reject all responsibility for it yet can't bring yourself to throw it away. Nor can you give the thing away- to whom can someone of good conscience give such an object as a key? Always up to something, stitching paths and gateways together even as it sits quite still; its powers of interference can only be guessed at."

Dates read: November 6-10, 2016

Rating: 6/10

I don't know about you, but I am inclined to get stuck in ruts. I have very firm opinions of what I like and what I don't like, and I tend to stick to those preferences very closely. Sometimes to the point of shutting out trying new things just because I'd rather stick to what I know. I'm bubbly and lively, so I think people assume I'm spontaneous and don't really realize the extent to which I am actually a die-hard clinger to my established habits.

This extends to my reading...I'm very reluctant to step outside my usual comfort zones of historical and literary fiction or nonfiction. Which is why the first book I read for my book club was a stretch for me: Helen Oyeyemi's What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a collection of short stories. At the time I read it, I didn't have a single other collection of short stories on my shelf, as it's not a format I generally enjoy. But we all benefit from a step outside the old comfort zone every once in a while, eh?

Honestly, I found the book more interesting than enjoyable. This is my first taste of Oyeyemi (although her well-regarded Boy, Snow, Bird is on my shelf, I haven't read it yet) and she's a powerful, talented writer. Most of the stories (but not all) are loosely interconnected...characters introduced in one have a way of showing up in others, but it's like a kaleidoscope in a way: the same pieces getting combined in different ways to create a whole new view. The boundaries of the world she creates in each story are all slightly different, so it doesn't feel cohesive despite the repeating characters and even the repeating motifs.

Possession and belonging, doors and keys, transition and fluidity are all over the stories in What Is Not Yours. Some of the stories really manage to develop these themes in interesting ways that feel complete, but for my money, this was maddeningly inconsistent. There was only one story I didn't like at all, but several of them felt unfinished and slightly underdone to me. Which is why I don't usually read short stories...when they're very good, they're amazing, but when they are anything less than great I find them mostly frustrating. I like immersing myself in the characters and setting of a book, so I find the constant change in setting and characters that short stories bring to be jarring. Most of the stories in this collection were good but not quite there for me...I wanted more from them, and from this book as a whole.

Tell me, blog friends: do you enjoy short stories?

One year ago, I was reading: this book!

Two years ago, I was reading: Kramer v Kramer

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Characters Worth Following

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week, we're looking at characters that would make great leaders, so here are ten characters that I think would be worth following.

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter): The Harry Potter series would have been, like, one book long without Hermoine making sure Harry and Ron didn't kill themselves by accident. She is smart, capable, and I would be more than happy to follow her wherever she went.

Lyra Belacqua (The Golden Compass): Lyra's just one of those "natural leaders"'s no accident that when the Jordan College kids are fighting the townie kids, that it's Lyra that leads them into battle. Her natural charisma is obvious even on the page.

Gandalf (The Fellowship of the Ring): When the Fellowship sets off on their quest, it's the wizard that leads part to quell arguments between the races about leadership, but also because he's wise and thoughtful and anyone who's beloved in Hobbiton is someone I'd be okay trailing behind.

Madeline Mackenzie (Big Little Lies): After reading this book (I still haven't seen the show and I really need to!), I so appreciated Madeline's take-charge attitude that I'd have happily joined her book club (or anything else she wanted me to).

Charles O'Keefe (A Wrinkle In Time): While Meg is my favorite character from this series, she's too short-tempered to make a good leader. Leaders are most effective if they're liked, and who wouldn't like and line up behind Charles?

Emma Woodhouse (Emma): England in Austen's time didn't have a lot in the way of formal leadership roles for women, but clever Emma was clearly the queen bee of her social set, which is about as much as an upper-class lady could aspire to.

Mr. Wednesday (American Gods): There's a reason he's the one that goes on the journey to round up the old gods across the country...he's the one that's got the persuasiveness to get them to join up!

Achilles (Song of Achilles): He's a strong, true, and fair commander of his troops, who wouldn't want to follow him...and who would care that he's gay, for that matter?

Ned Stark (A Game of Thrones): Noble, brave, and always doing the right thing, Ned is pretty much the platonic ideal of a hero and a worthy leader.

Jean Valjean (Les Miserables): He spends most of his life repenting for a criminal act by becoming selfless and kind and the kind of man who gets elected to be the mayor of his town.