Look Who’s Coming to Dinner

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I got a new dinner set recently. I’ve never really had a best dinner set before and my mother started me on this one with two pieces for Christmas. I loved it and we managed to get the rest of it in the after-Christmas sales.

It’s strange but having it makes me feel more grown up somehow. A formal dinner set is something I’ve always wanted and I guess now I have it, it feels like my home is starting to come together a little more.

While unpacking it the other day it made me think about that old game, ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner?’, the one where you’d make a list of people from throughout history who you’d invite to dinner if you could. I used to love doing that when I was younger and so I thought it’d be fun to do it again now as a post, but with a bit of a twist – a list of fictional characters instead.

After giving it some thought, this is my list of ten characters. It took me a long while to put it together; there are so many interesting characters from books and film etc that it’s really hard to choose.

But in the end these are the ones I think would be a lot of fun. They’re not necessarily my favourite characters but I think they’d all be interesting and more importantly I think their conversations would be interesting too.

I chose ten because I think twelve people is a good number for a dinner party as it’s not too many people to cook for and they can talk in pairs or in groups. The other two people would be you, dear reader, and myself of course.

As far as the food goes I’d do an apple and pecan salad for the entree, spaghetti with prawns and rocket for the main, and an Eton mess for dessert. I think they’d complement each other well and I could manage most of them (the dessert would take some practice).

So who would you invite for dinner? 😉

Sherlock Holmes
I’ve loved Sherlock Holmes since reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a child. His stories and intellect would be fascinating around a dinner table.

Victor Frankenstein
Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favourite novels and one of the first books that made me want to write. Frankenstein is such a tragic character and it would be fascinating to pick his mind and justifications.

Gandalf the Grey
Gandalf is probably my favourite character of all time. He’d be a lot of fun to have at the table and he’d have some pretty interesting conversations with some of the other guests as well.

Hermione Granger
I think Hermione is the real hero of Harry Potter; her intelligence and skill save them over and over again and she’d be much better company at a dinner party than Harry or Ron. I’d love to see her pick Gandalf’s brain.

Scheherazade
The Arabian Nights (the original version) is another of the books that had a big influence on me growing up and I’ve always liked Scheherazade. Her insights into her time would be interesting and she could definitely tell a good story or two which would be great too.

Mister Spock
If Gandalf is my favourite fictional character Spock wouldn’t be far behind. He’d be fascinating (sorry) to talk to and one of the few people who could keep up with Holmes.

Long John Silver
Has there ever been a villain more fun than Long John Silver? Equally devious and charming, he’d be a lot of fun around the table, particularly if Spock and Holmes tried to see through his lies.

Mary Poppins
I loved Mary Poppins growing up and must have watched the film version a hundred times or more. Mary would be the perfect guest, entertaining and fun and capable of keeping some of the other guests in line if needed as well.

Willy Wonka
I have a soft spot for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; it’s just pure imagination and with his humour and charm, Wonka would be a great guest. It’d be great to pick his brain for recipe ideas too.

Morgan le Fay
I love the legend of King Arthur and I’ve always been particularly interested in Morgan. She often tends to be depicted quite badly, either as the evil sorceress or a conniving seductress (or both), but her story is really quite tragic. It would be be interesting hearing her perspective and she’d have a lot to talk about with Gandalf and Hermione too.

Photo © CJ Levinson 2016

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I stumbled across The Magicians by accident a couple of weeks ago. I’d not read any of Lev Grossman’s work before but there was something about The Magicians that grabbed my attention. It was partly the cover, a haunting image of a tree surrounded by fog, its leaves scattered like tears across a small lake, that caught my interest. Likewise, something about the description reminded me of a grown-up version of Narnia, an adult fantasy mixing the beloved worlds of Lewis with the sex, angst and conflict of real, everyday life. With The Magicians Grossman tries to reinvent modern fantasy for adults and it’s a novel unlike any I’ve read.

The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater, a teenager who’s just finished high school with his friends James and Julia. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life and pining for Julia, his unrequited love, Quentin lives in a near-constant melancholy; the only relief he finds is in a series of novels from his childhood about the magical world of Fillory. He dreams of living in Fillory and longs for it to be real, believing it would give purpose and meaning to his otherwise unremarkable life.

When Quentin discovers and is admitted to Brakebills, a college in upstate New York that teaches its students how to use and control magic, it seems that his dream is about to come true. But studying magic is nothing like he imagined. It’s tedious, arduous work and his fellow students are competitive and hostile. Suddenly Quentin is no longer the smartest in his class and finds himself struggling to understand his full potential. His depression returns even as he begins to fall in love with Alice, one of his few friends at Brakebills.

Eventually, after five long years, Quentin and Alice graduate from Brakebills. They move in with a few other graduates from Brakebills and Quentin soon falls into a familiar pattern, losing himself in a world of drugs, parties and alcohol. It begins to drive a wedge between them, with Quentin seemingly content to live a life of mediocrity, while Alice continues to learn about magic.

When another graduate of Brakebills reveals that he has found Fillory — a real place connected to a whole nexus of other worlds — Quentin’s listlessness lifts again. This is what he’s been waiting for; what he’s always wanted. Together the magicians journey to Fillory but soon find that everything is different. The real Fillory is nothing like the world they know from the stories, more nightmare than dream. Together they pledge to set things right in Fillory… but as their relationships begin to fall apart around them, they realise their quest will not only reveal the truth about Fillory but about themselves as well.

I’ve been thinking about The Magicians since I finished it last week and I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it. On the one hand there’s no doubt that it’s a brilliant, literate reimagining of modern fantasy. But on the other, there’s nothing about the novel that feels particularly magical or wondrous. That’s because, when you get to the heart of it, The Magicians isn’t a fantasy novel at all, not really, and it’s hard to know how to judge it.

Rather, The Magicians is a novel about fantasy. It’s an examination of the genre; it takes classic themes — like magic, strange creatures, fantastical worlds — and in dissecting them and putting them back together asks the question, what if magic were real? How would we use it? Would we value the gift or take it for granted? It’s a serious, adult novel that uses magic to explore the darker side of human nature and particularly the danger of apathy.

As such, what really stands out about the novel for me is the characters. It’s not a particularly long novel but all of the characters feel detailed and real. They’re real people, complete with hopes, dreams, flaws, jealousies… they’re magicians capable of great feats, yes, but they’re ordinary and imperfect and that’s what makes them compelling. Alice in particular fascinated me; brilliant yet shy, she seemed almost autistic at times, capable of great power but never really understanding it.

Quentin on the other hand is a study in contrasts. He is both a dreamer and a pessimist, a young man who finds himself with a gift he has always wanted, only to squander it when he realises it’s not what he thought it would be. His moods range wildly from joy to despair and he keeps making all of the wrong decisions again and again, so much so that as a reader you just want to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. But Quentin can’t help it. He’s our eyes into this world and represents our own expectations of magic; in a way we are Quentin and it’s hard to imagine that we’d react any differently.

Quentin is the main protagonist but it’s wrong to call him the hero of the story; there are no real heroes in The Magicians, just people. Everything Quentin does is because he longs to escape from his life but each time he just makes things worse and in the end that’s what The Magicians is really about — learning to accept reality, to make the most of what you have. It’s a lesson Quentin just can’t seem to learn and it costs him everything.

If there’s one problem I have with The Magicians, though, it’s that while all of the characters feel well developed, none of them are particularly likeable. With the possible exception of Alice they’re all bitter, competitive, narcissistic brats; Quentin in particular whines through most of the novel and it becomes tiring. None of the characters seem aware of the destruction they cause around them and while that’s the point, it makes it difficult to care what happens to them or to really relate to them.

Likewise, one of the other problems with The Magicians is that while it is a reinvention of modern fantasy, none of the ideas in the novel themselves are particularly original. Of course, they’re not meant to be; the story is meant to be reminiscent of classic fantasy motifs, making us look at them with new, adult eyes. For the most part that works and Grossman’s world succeeds in feeling familiar but different, but the setting still feels a little clichéd at times, particularly with some of the similarities between Narnia and Fillory.

At times I also felt that Grossman went a little too far in trying to make magic seem so ordinary in the story. Some of the scenes, particularly at Brakebills, feel like they’re included for no other reason than to show how hard it is to use magic in Grossman’s world (more like learning a science than a skill). I know that’s the point, to make it more realistic, but sometimes it just seems to take the magic out of, well, magic. On the other hand, some of the other magical scenes are captivating. There’s one scene in particular where Quentin watches the statue of a bird that a student had tried to bring to life; the spell had failed halfway through and the statue, thinking it’s alive, keeps trying to fly. But it’s too heavy and falls, only to get up and try again and again. It was little more than a paragraph but it’s haunting and stayed with me for the rest of the novel.

My only other real gripe with the novel is that while it’s well written, some of the dialogue feels a little stilted and unrealistic. Secondary characters like Eliot, meant to sound arrogant and supercilious, instead sound overly dramatic and some of the interaction between characters doesn’t ring true, particularly when they’re in larger groups. It’s a stark contrast to Grossman’s prose, which for the most part is excellent; there’s a subtle, rhythmic flow to much of his writing and some of his passages and descriptions are breathtaking.

Overall I’m still not really sure how I feel about The Magicians. I enjoyed it a great deal but at the same time I find it a difficult book to judge. As an idea and a reimagining of modern fantasy, it’s fascinating, but as a novel it’s not perfect by any means and is held back (ironically) by some rather mundane flaws.

Perhaps in the end The Magicians is a little too ambitious for its own good but in a market flooded with Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Harry Potter rip-offs, it still feels refreshingly different. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent novel and as a novel that makes you think about the nature of fantasy and reality in our own lives as well, it’s a resounding success.

Fantasy fans and general readers wanting something a little different will love it. Highly recommended.

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August Reading List

I realised something this week: I’m so not a winter person. This has been one of the coldest winters in Sydney for years and I’m sitting here with a tea and four blankets as I’m writing this, trying to nurse a nasty cold. I don’t want to whine but I’m really looking forward to spring next month.

One of the things I like about winter, though, is that it’s perfect reading weather. It’s absolutely freezing at the moment but there’s nothing better than curling up in bed with a good book on a cold day and letting the story carry you somewhere far, far away. I think I’ve read more in the last two months than during the rest of the year combined.

Lately I’ve been working my way through the nominees for this year’s Hugo Awards. The awards are being held in Melbourne this year, which means I was able to vote for the first time. It’s a good list this year too. I voted for Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock in the end; I loved how fun and inventive it was but any of the nominees could win really. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl was the only one I couldn’t get to before the deadline; I’ll be reading that next.

I’m reading Nam Le’s The Boat at the moment and these are some of the other books I plan to read soon as well. The one I’m looking forward to the most is The Girl Who Played With Fire. I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and I finally managed to get the first sequel the other day. Can’t wait to get stuck into it. It seems like everyone’s reading Larsson’s trilogy at the moment; it’s like The Da Vinci Code all over again. Except Larsson’s books are well written. And, you know, good.

I’ll post some reviews once I’ve finished them. I’ve been wanting to try out my new camera as well, so who knows, I might even do a couple of video reviews.

So what are you reading at the moment?

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

First Impressions: Bacigalupi’s short fiction has taken the SF world by storm in recent years. This is his first novel, about genetic engineering and a post-oil future where global corporations vie for the world’s remaining resources. Looks very promising.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
Stieg Larsson

First Impressions: Lisbeth Salander finds herself accused of murder and goes on the run while Mikael Blomkvist tries to clear her of the crime. Dragon Tattoo was the best thriller I’ve read in years; if this one’s even half as good as the first, I’ll be very happy.

The Forgotten Garden
Kate Morton

First Impressions: A young woman’s journey to find the truth about her grandmother’s life. It seems a little too reminiscent of The Secret Garden at times for me, at least in tone. I loved Morton’s The Shifting Fog, though, so maybe it’ll surprise me.

The Book of Illusions
Paul Auster

First Impressions: I’m not that familiar with Paul Auster, although he seems to really divide readers. Illusions is about a man who investigates the life of a silent movie star who disappeared in the 1920s, only to find similarities with his own life. Sounds interesting.

The Art of Travel
Alain de Botton

First Impressions: I’ve not read de Botton before but a friend recommended this to me recently. de Botton explores the nature of travel (why we travel, what we get out of it, etc.) through philosophy, art and other musings. Sounds like just my cup of tea.

The Copper Bracelet
Jeffrey Deaver (et al)

First Impressions: A sequel to The Chopin Manuscript, this is a collaborative audionovel written by 16 writers including Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Scottoline and Lee Child. The Chopin Manuscript didn’t quite work but I like the idea of a collaborative novel. Hopefully this is more successful.