Tag Archives: magic

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  January 9, 2018

Format:  E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

For me this wasn’t quite a five star read, but I absolutely loved it!  It was incredibly well written and forces the reader to ask important questions of themselves.  It is a wonderful exploration of mortality what comprises a good life or a life well lived.  Most of all, it was simply a delicious read… a book that pulls you in and unravels beautifully.

The premise is that 4 siblings living in New York City in 1969, aged 7,9, 11 and 13, set out to visit a psychic to learn their futures.  They enter her apartment one at a time and are each told the date of their death.  They do not share this information with each until about a decade later when they are all up on the rooftop of their home chatting one night, while home for their father’s funeral.  The only one who does not share his death date is Simon, the youngest, who simply says “young.”  From here, the book tells the story of the life lived by each sibling in chronological order of death dates.  Unbeknownst to them, this marks the last time the four of them are all together.

Simon’s story is first.  Klara, the only family member recognizing that Simon is gay, invites Simon to run away with her to San Francisco the following morning.  Simon does and embraces the freedom to be openly gay, practice ballet and sleep around.    He does enter into a serious relationship with Robert, a handsome dancer.  However, Simon feels that he is not meant to have the life with a career, house and partner.    “If the prophecy is a ball, his belief is its chain;  it is the voice in his head that says Hurry, says Faster, says Run.”   Just when he seems to have accepted that he might deserve love, Simon dies of AIDS before AIDS even has a name.  He has lived life fully and sometimes recklessly.  He has run away from home without finishing high school.  He hasn’t seen any of his family members in all the years he was in San Francisco, aside from Klara.  Has the knowledge of his death date forced him to live recklessly and hard, to take chances?  Or have these things just led to early death?

Klara’s story follows.  Klara, named after her maternal grandmother, has been obsessed with magic from a young age, having looked up admiringly at the life of this woman (her namesake) who had performed the “jaws of life” through Times Square.  It is a death defying act where she would slide from the top of a circus tent to the bottom suspended only from a rope that she holds in her teeth.  Klara begins performing her own act in San Francisco and calls it “The Immortalist.”  Klara ends up marrying Raj and has a daughter.  As Raj takes more and more control over the act and the magic, Klara slips more and more away and into alcohol.  Klara has always believed in the magic.  She begins to believe in the reality of it as well.  She hears Simon and Saul talking to her through raps in the floorboards.  She produces a strawberry during a magic trick that she hadn’t expected herself.  Her magic is her religion.  The reason she practices magic is the same reason a rabbi practices Judaism:  to give people faith.  “Klara has always known she’s meant to be a bridge: between reality and illusion, the present and the past, this world and the next.  She just has to figure out how.”  She feels that she must prove that the old woman’s prophecies were correct.  In taking her own life, does she accomplish this?

Daniel is an atheist because of the old woman.  He feels angry and ashamed.  He has vowed that no one could have so much power over him, whether it’s a person or a deity.  Daniel feels wounded and bitter over the drift of family.  He is married, childless, and recently suspended from his job when he invites Raj and his daughter to visit them over Thanksgiving.  Daniel’s job has been working for the military deciding which men are fit to go into combat.  Daniel and Raj end up fighting bitterly criticizing either other deeply.  He, like Klara, begins drinking more.  He becomes obsessed with old woman as the date of his death approaches.  Upon learning that the FBI has stopped their pursuit of her, he pursues her himself.

Finally, Varya who has been granted the longest life, has devoted her life to her career which focuses on aging and longevity.  Varya worries that her primary motivation is fear.  “Fear that she had no control, that life slipped through one’s fingers no matter what.  Fear that Simon and Klara and Daniel, had, at least, lived in the world, while Varya lived in her research, in her books, in her head.”  She works with primates and part of the research is to show that by restricting  food, the monkeys they will live longer.  The monkeys are stressed, emaciated and now self-harming.  A young journalist, named Luke, has been granted the rare opportunity to interview and follow Varya over the course of a week to learn more about the research in this highly secure facility.  At the end of the week, Luke finally reveals to Varya that he is not a journalist, but works at Sports Basement in retail.  He is her biological son, the one she gave up for adoption after a brief affair with her professor in college.  Varya is forced to re-examine her life.  She connects with Robert, Simon’s parter.  She admits to Gertie the story of the fortune teller.   She finally comes to accept her own mortality.

Intelligent, moving, magical and lovely… there is just so much to enjoy within this book.  The premise is awesome.   The writing is excellent.  This is a book full of characters to love, empathize with and worry about.  It brings up all kinds of questions for the reader, making it an excellent book club book.

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the title and it’s meaning/s in the novel.  Consider the Immortalists Jews, the Roms, Klara’s act and the characters themselves.  Do the characters wish to be mortal or immortal?
  2. How does knowing the date of their death affect the way they live?
  3. Daniel feels that the woman who gave the children their dates of death should be punished.  Why do you think he feels so strongly about this?   Does he believe her?
  4. Is it human nature to assume we will live a long life until faced with a life threatening diagnosis?  Does not knowing the date of our death confer a certain momentary immortality?
  5. Eddie O’Donoghue is like a thin thread that weaves through the siblings’ stories linking them together in some way.  Discuss the significance of this character and what he adds to the novel.
  6. When Daniel is researching the Roms, he writes down two proverbs: “our language is our strength” and “thoughts have wings.”  Why?
  7. Raj argues that magicians are analysts.  Klara tried to reveal some greater truth through her magic.  Discuss the contrast between these two ideologies, how it affected their marriage and lives.
  8. What is the relationship like between Raj and Ruby?  Does Ruby seem more like her mother or her father?
  9. Ruby develops a closeness with Gertie.  Why do you think she does this?
  10. The children are afraid all their lives to share their visit to the old woman with their mother Gertie.  When Varya finally tells Gertie about the visit, how does she respond?  Did this surprise you?  Do you think that hearing such a prediction in childhood versus adulthood would affect the person differently?  In other words, do you think that because they were children they gave this old woman’s words more credence?
  11. Do you think the old woman’s predictions were accurate or that the siblings’ reactions to the predictions made them accurate?
  12. Would you want to know the date of your death?  Why or why not?
  13. How do you think that knowing the date of your death would affect the way you lived?
  14. The children having grown up in a very religious household each abandoned religion.  Why?
  15. Do you feel that the old woman was doing a magic trick in giving the children their dates of death or was their some real  truth and foresight to her predictions?

Chloe Benjamin’s website

Review by Jean Zimmerman on NPR

LitLovers Discussion Questions

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

23943137

 

Pages:  371

Published:  September 1, 2015

Awards:  Locus Award Nominee for Best First Novel

Format: Audiobook

 

 

 

This magical, fantastical, witty comedy of manners meets magical fairyland is so fun to read.  There is much foreshadowing to provide plenty of excitement and anticipation for the sequel which has not yet been published.  For all it’s playfulness, there is also an underlining seriousness to this novel.  This has to do with the politics of Britain and the treatment of women and people of color.  In fairyland, race does not matter, it is not even noticed.  Likewise, in fairyland, women are equally adept and capable of practicing magic as men are.  This is in stark contrast to England.  Politics and society are portrayed as a comedy of manners in Britain where people are tripping over themselves to maintain decorum despite the pervading racism and sexism.

The story is set in 19th century England.   Upon the death of his guardian and mentor, Zacharias Wythe becomes the “sorcerer royal” more out of obligation, than desire.   Given that he is a freed slave, a black man, there is much outcry against him.  There is an underground movement afoot to unseat him, led by the unscrupulous and dishonest Geoffrey Midsomer.    This all comes at a time when there is a drain on the magic in England, there are political entanglements with magicians from foreign lands, and war is ensuing with France.

Zacharias is asked to visit a school for gentle witches where the main objective is to banish or hide their magical abilities.  Zacharias immediately notices the magical talents of Prunella Gentleman, who was orphaned and left in the care of Mrs. Daubney at a young age.    Prunella has fallen out of favor with Mrs. Daubney, the headmistress of the school and Prunella’s guardian since her father’s death.  She asks Prunella to move to the servant’s quarters, but instead Prunella accompanies Zacharias back to London and begins to study thaurmatorgy with him.  Prunella has recently discovered herself in possession of a singing orb and seven familiar’s eggs.  As she begins to grow her familiars while looking for a husband, her powers grow, and a love interest develops between Zacharias and Prunella.   Prunella is certainly a “Cinderella” character, but one with much bravery, talent and ambition.  It is she who becomes the true star, the heroine of the novel, able to take the reins of her position, to succeed as the ultimate “Sorceress Royal.”

This is, of course, a very simplified and scaled back version of the novel.  There are many subplots within the main plot.  The novel is chock full of an interesting array of characters:  nosy society ladies, seedy politicians, faeries, vampiresses, curious familiars, mermaids, dragons, and much more!

This novel is craftily written, full of surprises and larger than life characters.  It is at once serious and whimsical.  It delights and  exceeds expectations.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys fantasy fiction!! images-2

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What similarities do Prunella Gentleman and Zacharias Wythe share?
  2. Is magic seen as good or evil?  How does this differ depending upon the practitioner of magic?
  3. Discuss race and gender in the British society of this novel.  Does the author construe them as they were in 19th century Britain or modern day?   Is there a depiction of white supremacy and institutionalized oppression?  How so?
  4. How is Prunella like a Cinderella story?
  5. Discuss Mak Genggang’s role.
  6. How does Zacharias respond to Sir Stephen’s advice?  How does this differ from when Sir Stephen was alive?
  7. Discuss Prunella’s plans for the future of England.  What specific changes does she have in mind?
  8. How does Zacharias sacrifice himself for Sir Stephen?  How ultimately is the repaired?
  9. What is the value and cost of having a familiar?
  10. Zachary’s does not confront Sir Stephen about his parents until the end.  Please discuss.
  11. Discuss the parallel between Sir Stephen wanting to train a black sorcerer and Zacharias championing the rights of female magicians, or magiciennes.

Review by Marina Berlin published in “Strange Horizons”

Review published on “Galleywampus” blog

Review by Amal El-Mohtar published by NPR

Zen Cho’s website

The Tempest by William Shakespeare ~ Book Review

 

12985

 

Pages: 211

First Published: 1611

Format: E-book

 

 

 

 

As part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, I needed to read a play and what better play to read than The Tempest having recently read and adored Margaret Atwood’s retelling in Hag-Seed.  I have an even greater appreciation of Hag-Seed having read the original again.  It had been more than twenty years since I’ve read Shakespeare.  I found it simultaneously difficult to navigate the Old English and thematically extremely relevant to modern day.  There is so much complexity within this brief play, that it is no wonder that people study Shakespeare to such lengths!

This play takes place on an Island where the magician, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda have been living the last 12 years, since Prospero’s exile from his position as Duke of Milan.  The only other person on the Island during this time is Calaban, son of the evil witch, Sycorax, who used to live there as well.  Ariel is a fairy who does the bidding of Prospero.  Calaban is also enslaved to Prospero, having attempted to rape Miranda.  Prospero creates a tempest  which bring his enemies by shipwreck to his Island.  He scatters them across the Island such that Ferdinand the King’s son is separated from all others and will encounter Miranda, both falling in love with each other under Ariel’s spell.  Gonzalo, Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian are landed together.  During their time on the Island, Antonio and Sebastian plot against the king’s (Alonso’s) life, assuming that Ferdinand has perished.  Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano develop an alliance that intends to murder Prospero, so that they can take over the island.  Finally, all come together.  Prospero, with urging from Ariel, forgives all and all is calm.  Prospero, a thinly disguised Shakespeare, asks for applause to end his imprisonment.

There is much duality of humanity and the world represented within this play.  Themes of good versus evil, magical vs earthly, land versus sea, honest versus dishonest, free versus imprisoned, sober versus drunk pervade this play.  I loved the infusion of music, poetry and magic within this play.  There is obvious brilliance to the themes and the structure of the play.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and found many unique characteristics setting it apart from some of Shakespeare’s other works that I’ve read.  images-2

 

 

Study Questions and Essay Topics from Spark Notes

Discussion Questions from Schmoop

A teacher’s guide to The Tempest from Penguin Books

 

 

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis ~ Book Review

 

65605

 

Pages: 221

Published:  1955

Format:  Soft covered book

 

 

 

I loved the Chronicles of Narnia as a child and was excited to read this with my 8 year old son.   As a child, I loved the magic and beauty contained in these other worlds.  As an adult, I now see the parallels to the bible, and the messages it is intending to teach.   The ending of the book is actually a retelling of sorts of the story of creation from the bible.    I must say my remembrance of the book was that of a 5 star read, but in re-reading it, I can only give images-2.  My son, although very interested and attuned to the storyline throughout, I think would agree.

I will keep this review short as there is so much already written about this novel and instead of providing discussion questions, I will simply provide links.

Discussion Questions from Charlevoix Library

Study Questions from Oxford Tutorials

Official website of C. S. Lewis