I’m in the middle of a few especially good books here, and I know when I finish them, I will be bereft, hoping that my next read will come close to matching their deep rich goodness. Therefore, I look to you, Dear Readers, to share your current best reads (preferably published recently, or upcoming). What are the can’t-miss discoveries of your summer?
The Magician King, by Lev Grossman. This is a sequel to Grossman’s 2009 novel, The Magicians, which actually lived up to the hype surrounding its publication, even the hype deeming it “Harry Potter for grownups.” The Magicians follows high-school senior Quentin, who gets invited to test for a magic academy, passes, and discovers not only that magic is real, powerful, unbelievably complicated and tedious, but also that the Narnia-like world he’d always loved in novels as a kid is not only real, but in deep trouble. Wine, sex, melancholy, disillusionment, and an adult sensibility are a few of the non-Harry Potter aspects of this complex novel. (It also accomplished what another book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, was supposed to do—provide a sophisticated, fascinating, enchanting-in-an-adult-way book about magic—but, for me, didn’t really pull off. I’m sorry! I tried. Over the course of 22 unabridged CDs.)
The Magicians is full of wry observation, flawed characters writ with compassion and also biting humor, skillful world-building, and writing that flows easily and seems effortless. So far, The Magician King is even better than its predecessor. Grossman’s style is an intoxicating blend of contemporary and classic; he pays homage to his literary predecessors, and has the smart, funny cool of a sort of laid-back Christopher Moore. Something about his writing makes me feel like I’m tagging along on a grand adventure with a buddy who’s at least a half-step ahead of me, but perhaps as likely to step in a pile of dog leavings as to discover a new parallel universe. Wait, now I’m undermining poor Lev. Forget what I said about dog leavings; there aren’t any in the book, at least not so far.
I’m loving the plot twists and turns in Magician King, and bookstore owner Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Maine assures me that there are more to come, and that the book just keeps getting increasingly extraordinary, up to and including the final page. I can’t wait! And yet, I can. I want to linger in these pages as long as possible.
On the younger teen readers’ front, I’m savoring Patrick Ness’s illustrated novel, A Monster Calls, in which a boy, Conor, is called from bed by a nightmare. It’s not the terrifying nightmare he contends with every sleep; but something much more ancient, treelike, a living monster of a nightmare, and it wants something from Conor. Ness (The Knife of Never Letting Go; The Ask and the Answer; Monsters of Men) is a consummate suspense-builder, and Jim Kay’s inky, ominous illustrations bedarken (what? isn’t that an acceptable opposite of illuminate?) the book throughout. I have to say, I LOVE seeing an illustrated novel for ages 12+.
This book has an unusual provenance: it was born from an idea by a supremely talented novelist, Siobhan Dowd (Bog Child, The London Eye Mystery, A Swift Pure Cry, etc.) who, I’m so sorry to have to say, passed away before she was able to complete it. Patrick Ness was approached to take on the story, and his Author’s Note at the beginning of the book explains that, while the book became something very different once another author took it on, Siobhan’s ideas begat other ideas that ricocheted off one another and grew into A Monster Calls. Knowing that the author was battling cancer can’t help but add another layer to the metaphor of a boy confronting his mother’s illness and nightmares. (This reminds me of another project that was completed after the author passed away, and whose story also can be seen as a metaphor for the author’s own struggle: Linda Smith’s brilliant, undersung picture book Mrs. Biddlebox, illustrated by the glorious Marla Frazee. Love that picture book! Love love love.)
So after relishing these two tasty morsels—no, meals!—what shall I read next? (Again, I’m especially interested in books from July to December of this year, just to keep us cutting-edge and all….)