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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Magicians

I read a few pages of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians in a bookstore once (it’s a thing I used to do) and I fell in instant love. Then I read the whole book and I still enjoyed it a lot though I very much did not enjoy volume two and so didn’t read on. However, I was still interested in the TV adaptation.

er-themagiciansThe Magicians (S1–3)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
This is this adaptation. So far it’s had three seasons, each one, I’d say, better than the previous ones. The story in the show (it differs a lot from those books I read) focuses on a group of students who are accepted into a mysterious college of magic where they learn to harness, well, magic. They are, however, all damaged in their ways and so their magical talents might do them (and the world?) more bad than good. They also discover that the magical world of Fillory of which they (some of them) read as children is real and much less idyllic than the books claimed.

How I found it:
Even though I didn’t love the second book and gave up on the literary series, I knew the adaptation was in the works and was curious. In fact, I watched season 1 a long time ago and barely remember it, especially as it didn’t enchant me (har-har) but I’m glad I never gave up on the show after that.

Summary judgment:
I seriously can’t wait for the next season!

Best things about it:
As the show progresses, it manages to get you more and more interested in the story and the characters (who start off as pretty unbearable). As it embraces the silliness of the premise, it finds ways to become what it should: a fairy tale for adults, not just because of the sex and violence (which, mercifully, they limit later) but especially because of the sense of wonder. It’s so rare these days that a story would evoke this fascination and simple curiosity about what’s going to happen next, which used to be the main reason for reading and watching stuff as a child.

Worst things about it:
Season one starts drunk on the fact that they’re able to show an “adult” fantasy in precisely the wrong sense. This results in a rather depressing story about a bunch of people you’d like to see quartered (well, not literally) rather than succeed.

Other pluses:
✤ Grossman’s book tries to take a more realistic view on what it would be like for young people to get magical powers. It seems to suggest that they wouldn’t do a whole lot of good with it, instead ending up as burnt out disappointments. Starting with this assumption, Grossman gets to play with fantasy tropes and famous series (most notably Harry Potter and Narnia) in quite an interesting and often funny way. The show finds its way to this fun, too, and adds to it a lot of meta-humor, with characters recapping stuff to each other and explaining the archetypes which they represent. I know there are classy people who frown upon such things but me this ain’t.
✤ I love the kickass women of the show: Alice and Julia. Both of them are beautiful, smart and powerful and leave the men of the story in their dust without even trying.
✤ But I also like Penny, jerk that he is. Arjun Gupta is doing possibly the most convincing job with inhabiting his character.
✤ I’m so glad that as the show progresses, the creators stop  being afraid of showing heart: they gradually shed the cynicism and discover that the story only gets better for it.
✤ The fantasy world looks very pretty: from the slightly psychedelic Fillory, through rather unimpressive Brakebills to the gloomy city, all the environments have recognizable visual tone.
✤ I particularly liked the structure of the third season. No more storylines dragging so long that you forget what they are about: instead the characters go on a quest and each episode has a slightly different idea (or gimmick). They even managed an unrepulsive musical episode (gosh, how I normally hate those).

Other minuses:
✤ Even though she slightly grew on me, especially during the last season, it was still a long way to grow and I am not entirely sure I’ve forgiven Margo for being the worst.
✤ Some other characters that it took me a while to, well, even recognize, let alone care about are Kady and Fen. I just don’t find them as compelling.

How it enriched my life:
It gave me many pleasants evenings and the, already mentioned, child-like sense of enchantment and wonderment.

Follow-up:
I wish season 4 was here already because I’m really curious about what’s going to happen (unfascinating as the new big bad looks yet).

Recommended for:
People who love urban fantasy and Narnia-like fantasy and would like to see them not only combined but also from a (sort of) adult perspective.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Arthur & George

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Rotten Tomatoes

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Penelope

The leaves are no longer green (except some still are) and the days are short. Halloween is over but Christmas is coming. It is Penelope season, guys. This movie gets some bad rep but for me, it’s one of my favorites. Let me tell you why.

er-penelopePenelope

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 2006 fairy tale starring Christina Ricci and James McAvoy (before he was Xavier). Ricci plays Penelope, a girl born with a pig’s snout because of a family curse and only a marriage to a “blueblood” can lift the curse (or so the story goes). McAvoy plays a down-on-his-luck ex-piano player, who falls in love with Penelope, snout and all. However, as in any rom-com worth its salt, both need to do a lot of growing to deserve a happy ending.
Also, let’s get this out of the way: I heard this movie criticized as one that tells girls they have to be pretty to win a guy and that’s their whole job… this movie says just the opposite. Now, I’m not saying it’s deep and complex but this kind of shallow it isn’t.

How I found it:
I don’t even remember but it was quite random. I like re-watching it in fall.

Summary judgment:
You might have already inferred that I’m a big fan of Penelope.

Best things about it:
It’s a charming visual delight. Everything about the world of this movie is thought-out and designed, like in an old Tim Burton movie: take Penelope’s insane house, especially, but not only, her room and most other locations, even such minor ones as the hotel she’s staying in. Penelope’s clothes are another example. Everything is so stylized that it immediately codes the story as a fairy tale. I also like how out of time the whole world feels, with bits of technology from different periods. And if you’re a visual person at all I challenge you not to be seduced by the colors.
On top of how great it looks, the movie manages to tell a fun, optimistic story in a somewhat original way.

Worst things about it:
It’s not a very profound movie, of course, and if you’re a certain kind of person you will see it as simplistic. But personally I don’t mind.

Other pluses:
✤ I’m not that interested in McAvoy but he delights as Max/Johnnie, even despite the hair. But Peter Dinklage and Simon Woods also do a great job.
✤ Let’s talk the beauty thing. Of course, whenever a movie will choose to focus on its female character’s looks, it sets itself up as regressive. But that is still the reality that women are judged for their looks more than for anything else, even if they run for a freaking president, so why not tell a story with this premise? I used to make fun of how little of a problem the snout actually is on Christina Ricci but when you think about it, that’s the whole point. Women obsess over all kinds of little problems in the way they look so it actually makes more sense than if she looked like a real monster. And in the end the movie makes it clear that there was nothing wrong with her appearance in the first place. I wouldn’t even spend so much time writing about it except I saw many negative reviews focused on the very issue.

Other minuses:
Witherspoon’s character is fun but possibly more could be done with her. Other than that, I’m coming up empty.

How it enriched my life:
It gives me a warm feeling and makes me smile every time I watch it. It is also one of too few things that make me look forward to fall.

Follow-up:
See you next fall, Penelope.

Recommended for:
Fans of romantic comedies with a slight twist, people still in touch with their inner child and those who like to look at pretty moving pictures.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: Scott Pilgrim, the movie

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Bookworming

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

If you wondered why there’ve been no book reviews for a while (you weren’t, were you), it’s because one book took all my reading time:

er-jonathanstrangeandmrnorrellJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Clarke’s debut from 2004, a massive novel and, quite possibly, a masterpiece. In three volumes it tells the story of two magicians destined to bring back English magic who take up the task during the Napoleonic wars. It’s alternative history at its best, with the style resembling the classics of 19th-century English novels and the tempo I can only describe as gentlemanly. If there ever was fantasy for adults, this is it (and not a single sex scene in this one, it’s not what I meant).

How I found it:
This was actually my second meeting with the book. First time I found it in a library soon after it was published – and I only finished the first volume. Apparently, as my notes tell me, I found the tone jarring but I suspect it must have been the translation. I’m certainly glad I gave it another try.

Summary judgment:
What a lovely beauty this one is, and unlike anything else I know. Also, definitely my favorite read of the year so far.

Best things about it:
It’s complex. It’s impressive. It knows exactly what it wants to be and adeptly goes about it. The portrayal of the two magicians is magnificent, both in their strengths and weaknesses. I rooted for Strange because he was so likeable but I really understood Norrell (who was anything but) and in the moment when, against his character, Norrell takes Strange on as a student, I realized the book was more than I’d expected.

Worst things about it:
There’s only one thing: I read it for two months (honestly, it’s embarrassing) and it completely ruined my reading statistics for the year. Yes, it’s a long book (and I don’t have nearly enough time for reading these days). But then again, when it’s over you wish it was longer.

Other pluses:
✤ I like the idea of fairies as borderline mad by human standards. The whole supernatural part of the book is so poetic and convincing.
✤ The footnotes work great. I read that some people didn’t like the idea but it’s the right touch and I loved all the semi-historical, semi-anecdotal stories they tell.
✤ The pastiche feels just right to me: not a direct copy of older novels’ style, more of a reverential nod.

Other minuses:
I’m good. No complaints.

How it enriched my life:
It delighted me so much. It shows the value that a slightly older debutante writer brings into their work. It inspires all sorts of Victorian fantasies.

Fun fact:
Yes, I do have reading statistics. They got less impressive in the last two years though.

Follow-up:
I am re-reading this one for sure. Now that I know the story I will be able to focus on closer reading and I’m sure it will reveal many interesting things I overlooked. There’s only one more book by Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and I’m going to read that one too. I wish there were more though.

Recommended for:
Me. Or, more precisely, anyone who’s into similar stuff, like Regency/Victorian literature, fantasy, postmodern twists on literary classics… Also, if it’s you, give me a call and let’s hang out.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The wonder of Penelope

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Gaming Night

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Harry Potter Hogwarts

I am a fan of Harry Potter, board games and Lego blocks. And so today’s game was made specifically for me.* Let’s talk about

er-hplegoboardgameHarry Potter Hogwarts: a Lego game

Category: Games

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
It is a Lego board game where you build the board out of Lego blocks and then play a game with Lego figures (but those smaller than regular ones). You play as one of the Hogwarts houses, trying to complete four homework assignments (which basically means collect four objects) and return to your homeroom before anyone else. The difficulty lies in the fact that throwing dice is inherently hard and that corridors are constantly moved by players so you often find yourself on a blocked path.

How I found it:
I guess I saw it in a store? We got it as a Christmas present a couple of years ago and play every now and then when we want to play something silly and fun.

Summary judgment:
It’s a fun game that most people enjoy, with just enough competition and a lot of Hogwarts atmosphere.

Best things about it:
We are pretty sure this is the best Harry Potter Lego set and Lego board game set that was released (not that we have any others). Its depiction of Hogwarts, while symbolic and minimalistic, allows you to feel its atmosphere like the books do.

Worst things about it:
This feeling when you don’t know how to move the corridors to get where you want to and to stop Slytherin from getting to their destination. (I’m not great at strategy or spacial planning.)

Other pluses:
The game is quite intelligently designed in that the mechanics fit with the fact that it is built of blocks.
Like Lego tends to be, the components are of good quality and building the board is simply fun, like assembling any other simple set.
You can change the rules of the game by changing sides on the die, which we do happily every time to make for a more varied – and meaner – game.
I’m not normally into competitive playing but here it’s a lot of fun and I’m sure it would also work with kids.

Other minuses:
I guess the instruction booklet could use a bit better visual design. But it works, which means I’ve seen worse instructions.

How it enriched my life:
It’s a great addition to any evening with people who don’t take themselves too seriously and don’t irrationally hate on Harry Potter.

Fun fact:
Whenever we play no one wants to play Hufflepuff and everyone gangs up on Slytherin. I usually play Ravenclaw (and managed to lose badly the last time).

Follow-up:
I would play another Lego game if I had a chance though not necessarily buy one.

Recommended for:
Fans of any of the following: family board games / Harry Potter / Lego blocks. Which is to say: everyone?

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

* No, it wasn’t.

Next time: Holiday break. But I’m sure I’ll be back with a lot of new stuff to review

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: When Demons Walk

Not everything I read is deep and ambitious. In fact, at least since I gave birth and my reading rates dropped drastically (sad but true), most things probably aren’t. But at least some of those lighter books are very entertaining. Like

er-whendemonswalkWhen Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 1998 fantasy novel following Shamera, a magician turned thief who is recruited by a controversial leader of the intruders who invaded her country to stop a series of murders in the castle. Secrets, adventures and predictable romance abound.

How I found it:
Patricia Briggs in an author of another fantasy series about Mercy Thompson, a shapeshifter car mechanic, of which I am a fan despite its ridiculous covers (see below). When I came upon her other fantasy work, I was happy to check it out.

Summary judgment:
Well, it’s not a deep philosophical treatise to change one’s life. But as far as (non-)guilty pleasures go, it’s a fine one.

Best things about it:
It’s extremely entertaining. It reads really fast and keeps one very interested in how the story will unfold and, say what you will about lofty goals of literature, keeping the reader’s interest is the basic thing a book has to do. I’ll fight anyone on that.

Worst things about it:
I guess the title is the worst part because it’s pretty embarrassing and only tangentially appropriate for the story anyway.

Other pluses:
Pleasure reading for me lives or dies by its characters who have to be memorable and strongly drawn and Briggs succeeds with aplomb, not only in her portrais of Sham and Kerim but also of some of the side characters. The theory of magic makes sense, more or less, which I always prefer to when it doesn’t (I love Harry Potter but magic there is ridiculous).

Other minuses:
I might have been reading without enough focus (again, I guess) but I’m not sure why the trunk was open all the time and I expected it to become a significant twist. Speaking of twists, I felt that for the last fifth part of the book it was a bit too obvious who the culprit was, even before the characters realized it (but I guess that’s always a risk of mystery stories: either it’s too simple for the reader to figure it all out or so difficult that they have to be surprised at the end).

How it enriched my life:
It’s been a while since I read a book that I’d be really looking forward to continuing just to find out what happens next. It made several train rides to and from work much more pleasant.

Fun fact:
So the way I came upon Patricia Briggs’ work was through the covers of her books: but not because I thought them good. Once upon a time on the other blog we were writing a series of posts about bad book covers – we don’t do this anymore because it was unnecessarily mean but mostly because it took forever to write and document – and Mercy Thompson series was just hard to resist with the sexy lady seductively embracing a car wrench. Nobody was reading our posts back then but this one managed to attract a bit of attention and most of it came from the fans of the series who didn’t so much defend the covers as claimed that the books were good. So I finally read them, always on the lookout for a new fun series. And what do you know, they were right so thanks, fans.

Follow-up:
Apparently there are other Briggs works set in the same world and I am going to read Masques some time when I need this kind of entertainment again.

Recommended for:
Fans of accessible fantasy, strong female leads, magic mysteries and budding buddy romances.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: What We Do in the Shadows

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