Lorrie Moore’s first novel in many years is worth the wait. A Gate at the Stairs, like much of the author’s writing, can make you laugh out loud in places, bring you to tears in others, and sometimes makes you laugh and cry at the same time. Tassie Keltjin, a half-Jewish Midwestern farm girl turned college student, is studying random humanities courses in the made-up Midwestern town of Troy when she is jolted from a childlike passivity into a sad adulthood by a series of unexpected shocks.
Though a typically self-absorbed college student, Tassie is also a sharp observer of others. As she is looking for a babysitting job:
One forty-ish pregnant woman after another hung up my coat, sat me in her living room, then waddled out to the kitchen, got my tea, and waddled back in, clutching her back, slopping tea onto the saucer, and asking me questions. “What would you do if our little baby started crying and wouldn’t stop? Are you available evenings? What do you think of as a useful educational activity for a small child?” I had no idea. I had never seen so many pregnant women in such a short period of time—five in all. It alarmed me. They did not look radiant. They looked reddened with high blood pressure and frightened.
Tassie — the narrator of the story — is a musician, a songwriter, and a lover of language. Some reviewers complain that too many jokes and too much wordplay detract from the seriousness of A Gate at the Stairs. But sometimes you have to laugh or else you’re just going to cry all the time.
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>At age 17, Quentin has gone through the Brooklyn school system, sorted and separated by smarts into the “nerdiest of the nerds” group, and is unenthusiastically headed for Princeton when he finds himself taking an entrance exam for an entirely different kind of post-secondary education—at a school of magic.
A secret lover of the children’s series about the magical land of Fillory (a Narnia-like place that human children can only find at the most unexpected times), Quentin knows all the stories by heart but never expected to find real magic existing in the world, hidden from all but the most gifted and singled-out of humans.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman (author of The Codex) is the perfect novel for anyone who, like Quentin, ever wished as a child that magic was real and is, still, maybe even a little disappointed not to have been the one selected to go through the looking-glass, to travel to the land inside the wardrobe, or to find the Indian in the cupboard. But be forewarned. The Magicians is no light-hearted frolic into fantasy, a la Terry Pratchett or Jasper Fforde. Talented Quentin Coldwater has a depressive streak that even his wildest dream coming true doesn’t erase, and so does this novel.
Readers of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke should enjoy this completely different take on magicians.
A creepy one for October, Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is one you won’t want to sit up alone at night reading. When an aging heavy-metal star makes the impulsive online purchase of a ghost to add to his collection of oddities and perversities, he gets more than a dead man’s suit in a heart-shaped box. Instead of getting ripped off as he expected, he gets well and truly haunted, as his past comes homes to roost.
The son of horror master Stephen King, Joe Hill inherited his father’s talent for telling a scary story. The New York Times called Heart-Shaped Box “a valentine from hell.”