My Reading Challenge 2017 – January recap

So at the beginning of this year I decided I would read more. I have three houses full of books now and it’s high time some of them got read! So I set myself a relatively easy goal: 12 books in the year, 1 book a month. I went through my bookcase in my house and picked 12 books. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction. Some are brand new, some are second-hand shop finds. The idea is to read 1 a month. If I finish that month’s book early, I won’t read the next one for the month. Then I’ll have to pick another book up. A good solid plan.

January’s book was The Magicians by Lev Grossman. A former coworker of mine used to rave about this book and I thought it sounded right up my street: a magic university? What happens when Harry does his degree. I’m a big fantasy fan and I like me a good bit of magic realism too, so I was happy to start off with this one.

Feburary's book on the left, January on the right
Feburary’s book on the left, January on the right

Grossman has a very readable style and the pacing of the book is so fast that you easily get swept up in the action. I am a fast reader and this sort of pacing often works against me, as I tend to skim ahead so fast that I miss important plot points. I’m getting better, and this book was useful in an exercise on Slowing Down. In the beginning, I quite liked Quentin, our protagonist. He was the typical academic over-achiever, super-intelligent and a bit socially inept. Maybe Grossman thought that was too much of a cliche, because about midway through the book Quentin has a sexual awakening (though if I’m honest references were confusing to his past) and turns into a Cool Kid, and that really didn’t sit well with me as a reader. As a child I loved the Harry Potter books, up until Goblet of Fire, and then I got really tired of Harry’s Poor Little Special Boy routine, and there were hints of this weary self-indulgence in the characterisation of Quentin. He goes from hopelessly in love with his friend Julia to at it like rabbits with Alice to then a bit of a man-whore and finally a sulky petulant child.

Brakebills, the magical university, was a wonderful creation and I really liked that. The evocation of magic was solidly done as well, which is always a contentious point in fantasy writing. It can turn too twee very easily. Wrapped up in archaic academia worked very well and it gave the story that element of mystery that maintained the reader’s interest. I liked the professors and the variety within Quentin’s classmates, though I thought Eliot was a little shaky and under-developed. Janet however was spot on for the Femme Fatale/Queen Bee.

The move of scene from our world to Fillory was a bit jolting. This supposed make-believe world of Fillory was expertly weaved throughout the story, as books that for some reason all the children in the world had read before, however I think the jump into the world didn’t grab me enough. I get that the Beast was the villain and it was the setting for the big Showdown, but to me it needed to be hinted at earlier, or the transition made smoother. Fillory as a world was also where it began to fall apart for me. I really enjoyed the part in Brakebills and thought that was well-crafted and realistic (or as realistic as magic can be), but Fillory read too much like a Lord of the Rings role-playing game. I mean, there was even an Ent! That being said, I liked Umber the Ram. But I’m a farming girl now, and in my head he just looked like Dolly our horned black yow.

The book saved itself at the end. In about the last thirty pages Grossman pulled a major character, who pops into the narrative at the beginning and in the middle for brief cameos, and made them the grand architect of it all, which was an exciting reveal, but a little rushed.

All in all, a great premise, if not as well executed as I maybe would have liked. It took a while to get into, and then after being led ever so far down the rabbit hole at Brakebills, I was then pulled out by my belt loops and spent the rest of the book sleepwalking. If I believe rightly, there are two more books, but I’m not sure I’ll pick up the next one.

However, I will learn from this for my own writing. I have a similar set up in one of my books, where university is only a small part of a larger story. If I can make both worlds – the university world and the outside world – equally appealing and involving, with no Ents, I will be happy.

So February’s book will be Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. It sounds like a wintry read, perfect for February. A friend from my MA sang this book’s praises, so I’m excited to get started.

In January, I also read another book: The Yorkshire Shepherdess, by Amanda Owen. I also started reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

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