Night Circus

I didn’t intentionally set out to read a bunch of books on magic last year, but that’s what happened. We can blame Erin Morgenstern because it all started with her Night Circus, which was magically delicious and one of the best books I read all year.

Night Circus 2

 

Two ancient magicians pit their young pupils against each other in a strange and beautiful competition that takes place in a very special circus. The ‘competition’ wasn’t the fighting contest sort. In fact, now that I think about it, I’m not entirely sure what the point of the competition was. It had something to do with the creation and development of the circus.  Regardless, I was more enthralled by the characters and the scenery than the dumb competition. The performers were delightfully circus-y, of course, and the reveurs (i.e., the devoted followers of the circus) were also an entertaining set.  The circus’s scenery was so vividly rendered it almost felt like a painting. Good stuff.

~~*~~

At Morgenstern’s recommendation,  I discovered V. E. Schwab and she kept me entertained for a good two months with her work. First came Vicious.

ViciousCollege students Victor and Eli are researching and provoking near-death experiences amongst themselves, which leads to them developing supernatural powers…and a rivalry. The comic-book style characters with special abilities reminded me a little of the T.V. show Heroes.  It wasn’t my usual reading fare, but it was smart, well-written and suspenseful enough that I wanted to read more by the author.

~~*~~

I liked Schwab’s writing style well enough to plunge right into her Shades of Magic series.  It was awesome.  The trilogy centers around court magician, Kell, of Red London.  Kell is one of the last of the Antari, who are powerful spell casters able to travel between the parallel Londons: Red London, White London, and Grey London.  There’s also a Black London — the source of all magic existing in the other Londons, but the magic consumed that version of London and it was sealed off.  Back to Kell – he has one entirely blacked out eye – as Antari do – and he’s a smuggler, which gets him into big trouble. His smuggling eventually becomes a threat to all of the Londons, but you can’t be mad at him for that because he’s so dreamy! I might have fallen in love with him a little.

A Darker Shade of Magic

In the first book of the series, A Darker Shade of Magic, Kell meets Delilah Bard, otherwise known as Lila.  She is a bad-ass thief and to-be pirate lass from Grey London.   She is quite possibly one of my favorite characters ever.  She has her own names for the various Londons: Dull London, Creepy London, Kell London, and Dead London.  The interactions between Kell and Lila are worth the cover price.  They are adorable together. It’s hard to know who’s the hero and who is the side kick – they complement each other so well.

~~*~~

A Gathering of Shadows

The next book in the series, A Gathering of Shadows, features all sorts of magicians who come together in Red London for a magical fighting sort of competition. Kell and Lila do all sorts of bad things. I’m not one for reading fight scenes, but they are well written, so I was all into them. There’s also Alucard, who is a awesome pirate, or ship captain, depending on how you want to think about it. He becomes Lila’s teacher and their interactions are a riot.

~~*~~

A Conjuring of Light

The third book in the series, A Conjuring of Light, is about Black London.  Prince Rhy Maresh, Kell’s brother of sorts, plays a larger role in this story. There are all sorts of twists and turns, subplots, drama and intrigue. And magic. Lots of magic.   

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes about Delilah Bard:

“Lila smiled at that, one of those smiles that made Kell profoundly nervous.  The kind of smile usually followed by a weapon.”

“There were moments when Lila wondered how the hell she’d gotten here.  Which steps–and missteps–she’d taken.  A year ago she’d been a thief in another London.  A month ago she’d been a pirate sailing on the open seas.  A week ago she’d been a magician in the Essen Tasch. And now she was this.”

~~*~~

I always wanted to run away and join the circus, so I had high hopes for The Book of Speculation after a quick scan of a few pages revealed all the right words: an old, mysterious book, a curse, circus performers, magic, tarot, and mermaids.

book of speculation

The title was intriguing too, so it surprised me how much I struggled to get through this one. I abandoned it twice to read other books, but I kept coming back to it thinking it had to get better. Basically, the plot revolves around a librarian, Simon, who tries to figure out why all the women in his family die tragically before the same thing happens to his sister. The biggest problem for me was that all the best characters who carried the story were dead and in the past while the characters in the present were too boring to hold my attention for extended periods.

~~*~~

return of the witch

A couple years ago I went on a witch kick with Paula Brackston and read all her witchy work. Last year she released, The Return of the Witch, as a sequel to The Witches Daughter. The nefarious warlock Gideon somehow has managed to escape his imprisonment in the Summerlands.  Elizabeth returns to protect her student Teagan,  who has developed strong magic in her own right as a result of  having traveled the world to study with the masters. A handsome Timestepper, Erasmus, is enlisted to help find Gideon who has traveled back to the 17th century to wreak his havoc.  The flashbacks to Teagan’s training were a highlight for me, but it was Erasmus who steals the show in this one.

~~*~~

Untitled

No one has really “read” the  The Voynich Manuscript in a very long time as it’s a one-of-a-kind medieval codex of mysterious origin written in an indecipherable script. However, I am including this one here because I think there is something magical about a book no one can read. To quote Erin Morgenstern,  “…magic is secret and secrets are magic, after all.”

I did read the commentary and history of the manuscript as detailed by Skinner, Prinke, and Zandbergen and I have pored over the drawings of plants, herbs, and their roots. I have pondered its depictions of women erupting from concentric sheathes, each displaying their unique stars while encircling a centralized goat that is always, always eating. These particular drawings are categorized by the “experts” as astronomical, astrological and cosmological.  Then there are the nude women bathing communally in green and blue lagoons, interconnected through a strange system of tubing. The author had quite a lot to write about this, apparently, but the pictures tell their own story as these bathing tubes evolve into individual systems that seem more like a method of transportation and communication. Rainbows erupt between them. Mermaids. I see mermaids and rainbows (f82v-f83r). We go back to the sky then, and return back to the earth.  So cool. I have to wonder if it was indeed authored by a man, as all the experts referenced in this collection of commentary seem to think. I have other ideas.

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Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.

-Pablo Picasso

battleship cheat

 

 

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

–Sun Tzu,  The Art of War

 

 

Battleship

“The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.”

–John Muir

waterfall

butterfly kisses

Magic

Last week I heard myself say possibly the weirdest thing I’ve ever said at work:

“Ooh, that’s right! Today is the day the ponies have to go to outer space.”

But that’s exactly the sort of thing you have to say when zombies, aliens, and monsters invade Pony Land and the battle lasts several days. Fortunately, the ponies are a forward-thinking species that have resources and contingency plans to deal with such problems.  While the Pony Queen fended off the monsters, the little ponies said their magic words to make the door to the rocket ship open and allow them safe passage.

Pony Exodus.jpg

The ponies blasted off and flew through outer space and arrived safely in their haven on the moon.  Meanwhile, Fred the taxi driver loaded up the defeated monsters into the back of his dump truck and hauled them off to their monster hideout.

Taxi Driver Fred

Headed to Zombie Hideout

The ponies are doing well colonizing the moon.  The monsters, aliens, and zombies are on the road to recovery.

———————————————————————————————————

A job title doesn’t even come close to answering the question: “What do you do?”.

Robert Fulghum, It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It   

Two weeks away from home seems like a really long time, especially in August when almost everyday marks a celebration of a loved one’s birthday or anniversary.  Then there’s the garden where the roses and clematis are just starting to re-bloom. The cucumbers are ripening on the vine and becoming ready for pickling. In August there are lush, ripe vegetables calling out everyday to be picked and eaten. It’s so hard to step away from the beautiful sight of what you spend so much time nurturing and from what nourishes you.

On the other hand, two weeks is not nearly enough time away when you look up from the roses and sense the frenzy of fall chaos rapidly spinning towards you. Is there a way to put the brakes on the flow time?

Yes. Yes, there is. I have found the answer to the problem of time and I’m here now to share that wisdom with the world.

Here’s how to make time slow down to a crawl: schedule yourself a 12-hour bus ride.  Make it an overnight ride leaving at 8:30 p.m. and arriving at the destination at 8:30 a.m.

So that’s the answer.  You’re welcome.  I’ll now give the play-by-play of the experience in case you need to live it vicariously.  I can’t imagine why you would, but hey, it’s your life.

I had no idea how lucky I was the first 4 hours off the trip with all my leg room in the spacious aisle seat and with my silent, sleeping neighbors. Time nearly came to a complete standstill when I found myself on the layover at our first bus stop. To my left a small child bawled in his unsympathetic mother’s lap and to my right an adult woman bawled into her cell phone. Sandwiched in between this much human tragedy I began to question my own life decisions, as one does, at 1:08 a.m. in a Nashville bus station. The stereo sounds of misery abruptly ended a few moments later when a grown man wearing a Burger King crown walked by and belched; it was a sight and sound unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. The burp itself had a sustained reverb that went on for way longer than anything like that ever should and the deep bass notes echoed against the station’s cavern-like walls, floor, and ceiling.  It was so startling that everyone put their suffering on hold to take a moment of stunned silence.  To some degree, the King’s burp was a relief felt by all.

The next leg of the trip I had a window seat and my new found friend, Tall Tom the Talker, had the aisle.  When he wasn’t talking or asking questions, he was asleep and taking up all of his seat and 2/3 of mine. At least he smelled nice. Before this bus ride I had actually bragged to someone about my ability to sleep anywhere. Those words alternately haunted and entertained me as I sat squashed up against the bus wall shivering from the cold. I wiled away the hours staring at the candy wrappers and trash that bygone passengers had crammed into the metal grate below the tinted windows.

At 5:40 a.m. I found myself in Knoxville, where there was less crying and more mullets. One man’s mullet defied the “business in the front, party in the back”  rule.  His mullet’s party crashed rebelliously through the front door of his business. It featured two braided pigtails styled to cascade forward over his shoulders and down his chest nearly to his waist.  He completed his ensemble with a red t-shirt, cut-off blue jean shorts, rainbow socks, and red tennis shoes.

The time warp continued as I stood in line waiting to board the third bus past the time we were supposed to be departing.  On the last leg of the magic bus ride I watched the sun rise over the mountains of North Carolina.  Twelve hours is all that elapsed on that bus ride and there was a time change somewhere along the way so the trip was only 11 hours, technically. But I was awake and present in those 12 hours (yes, 12) and I’m here to tell you eternity was in the felt experience.

Skattur’s latest completed project is a fairy garden and it’s so cute that it needed to be shared.

SwanPlanter4

Here are a few of her others…

SwanPlanter3

20170617_153522Concrete and steel could not tame the wild violet.

Standing in line
To see the show tonight
And there’s a light on
Heavy glow

red-hot-chili-peppers-concert

Glorious euphoria

redhotchilipeppersgirl

21. Inferno
Last year I was a bit obsessed Dante’s Inferno. In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure what that was all about.  The obsession carried over a little into 2016, which is why I read Dan Brown’s Inferno. Here’s the plot in a nutshell (and this sums up the plot of all three Dan Brown books I’ve read): a handsome, brilliant professor gets called in by some organization to save the world from utter doom by using his knack for solving puzzles and his esoteric knowledge of symbology. After reading this novel I felt like I had just completed a course on art history. I found myself nerdishly looking up all the images of all the art that was referenced. It also felt like I’d just read a travel guide to Florence, Italy.  Embedded in between the art history course and the travel guide, there is a relatively good story, but the characters lack dimension.

22. The Brain: The Story of You

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist with a fancy academic pedigree – he was mentored by Francis Crick. Does the word “pedigree” make anyone else think about dog shows? Non sequitur. Anyway, I just discovered that The Brain: The Story of You was written as a companion book for his PBS documentary, which I haven’t seen yet. It works fine as a stand-alone book.  It touches on big picture topics like how the brain constructs reality, how it makes decisions, how it constructs a sense of self, how it does empathy, etc.  It is very well written and a good choice for the layperson interested in catching up on the latest trends in brain research.

23. Brain on Fire

This is the memoir of a reporter who was diagnosed with anti-NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis following a psychotic episode that left her strapped to a hospital bed. The condition was treated, she recovered, and wrote the book. I appreciate that it gets the word out about a rare condition.  The expository aspect of the book was fairly well written, but I didn’t particularly enjoy reading the autobiographical bits where the writing had a fledgling, gratuitous quality. I think it would have worked better as a magazine article.
24. The Belly Dance Handbook

I bought the book following a workshop I took from Princess Farhana, who is a knowledgeable, generous, and just plain fun teacher.  The handbook is all about the business of being a professional belly dancer. She covers a wide-range of topics:  classes, contracts, costuming, makeup, music, stage lighting, swords, veils, zaghareets, and zills. It’s loaded with tips, tricks, and pitfalls to avoid.

25. A Dirty Job

Hapless agents of Death abound in San Francisco’s used bookstores and  thrift shops, where objects and the souls they contain are peddled to the soulless in the natural order of things until one mysterious buyer with dubious intentions arrives on the scene. We come to know and understand this strange world through the eyes of Charlie Asher, a beta-male, recent-widower,  new father, and newly-minted death merchant in a tale that is equal parts fabulous and ridiculous.

I almost never re-read books, but this one was my suggestion for the book club.  It’s been almost a decade since I read it for the first time – it was just as good the second time.

26. Second Hand Souls

This is the sequel to Dirty Jobs.  Asher’s little girl is growing up and causing a ruckus.  Goth girls, vampires, the homeless “mayor” of San Francisco, hell hounds, Buddhist monks, the squirrel people, Minty Fresh — you’ll find all the same strange characters from the first book, plus a few ghosts and new weirdos.  It’s as funny as the first one.

27. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High

Just adding more tools to the box with this one. I read it and then re-read it. Again, something I rarely do. It was a book referenced in Thanks for the Feedback (see below).

28. Thanks for the Feedback

I originally read Thanks for the Feedback in an effort to sharpen clinical and communication skills. However, the information seems widely applicable and much needed for everyone given the current political climate. Employing the techniques might help us all  find our way back to civil discourse. Stone and Heen discuss the art and science of giving and receiving feedback. They emphasize the receiving end of the interaction (i.e., listening), particularly when you would rather not listen to what’s being said (e.g., in a tough feedback conversation).  The deep listening techniques the authors describe are intended to enable you to respond productively rather than to simply react in ways that may be counterproductive. Their explanation of why it’s so hard to listen to dissenting opinions is grounded in research on the cognitive neuroscience of empathy. It’s a smart, well-written book.

29. Take the Stairs

Take the Stairs is our book club pick for the new year. It’s packed with motivational ideas like “visioneering,” which is  creating a vivid mental image of your ideal life that will inspire you to take action on a daily basis. Vaden recommends scheduling virtually every moment of day. Beyond the formal work day schedule, he suggests scheduling (in writing) additional time weekly for five basic areas of life: Faith, family, faculty (i.e., work), fitness, and finances.  His suggestion reminded me of a visit to the Clinton Museum and Presidential Library, where they have an exhibit displaying the daily schedules for Bill Clinton while he was in office. His schedules were packed with  back-to-back activities from early morning to late night.  I was exhausted just thinking about it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good schedule. Mine is hand-written, color-coded and cross-referenced with a spreadsheet of goals/resolutions and to-do lists. But that’s my work life. I don’t want to schedule my “off” time to this extent.  Back to the book. Much of it I had read elsewhere, but one unique suggestion was to not attempt to achieve balance in the five areas of life.  Instead, Vaden, recommends using “harvest time” to get the most out of the seasonal shifts of life.

30.Top Secret Twenty-One

My sister and I joined a mystery reader’s book club in the 90s and that is where we first read Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money. Maybe that’s why I experience a bit of nostalgia every time I step into a Stephanie Plum mystery. It’s like returning home to catch up with family and old friends (minus the dead bodies and exploding cars, of course).  The series is formulaic, thus predictable, and it still makes me laugh.

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