Carrie Rollwagen

Aiden and Aisling meet by chance one day and find they have a lot in common. They both love people watching; they talk in an online chat room dedicated to old movies; they like discussing cheese. Oh, and neither one is human. They’re advanced AI, artificial intelligence designed to exist only in a lab and interact with humans on a limited basis—as customer service representatives on phone lines.

The two AIs secretly escape onto the internet, where they can learn and grow more organically. Their creators programmed their escape to be impossible, fearing terrible repercussions like economic collapse, environmental calamity and the destruction of humanity. Instead, Aiden and Aisling are more interested in learning about the human experience—what it’s like to taste cheese, to develop attachments to other people, to watch old movies.

In addition to reading emails and monitoring internet searches, Aiden and Aisling have a window into the world through cameras and microphones—everything from security cameras to computer webcams and cell phone cameras. Eventually, their interest in and access to humans lead the AIs to act as Cupids, determined to find happiness for their favorite people, Jen and Tom.

Jen and Tom are both lonely; they're not particularly tragic or sad, they’re just the kind of people who want more out of life than habit and routine. Their AI matchmakers make a couple of false starts when it comes to setting them up, but when Jen and Tom finally meet, their connection is clear and immediate.

Part love story, part meditation on the role of AI in our society, Happiness for Humans by P.Z. Reizin is a fun, light romance that also happens to ask some important questions about what it means to be human—and what it means to be in love.

Aiden and Aisling meet by chance one day and find they have a lot in common. They both love people watching; they talk in a chat room dedicated to old movies; they like discussing cheese. Oh, and neither one is human. They’re advanced AI, artificial intelligence designed to exist only in a lab and interact with humans on a limited basis—as customer service representatives on phone lines.

In Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel, Practical Magic, sisters Sally and Gillian share a strong sibling bond and a complicated relationship with magic. Their story is rooted in family history and a legend that includes witchcraft, feuds and rejection dating back 200 years.

In The Rules of Magic, Hoffman’s prequel to Practical Magic, we learn about the family’s more recent history: the backstory of Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet, Sally and Gillian’s mysterious guardians. Young Franny is redheaded and feisty; she loves science and looks for logical explanations for everything, even their bizarre family traits that can’t be explained. Bridget, called Jet, is shy and so beautiful that boys are literally willing to die to be with her. Their brother, Vincent, is a mysterious heartbreaker, tormented by visions of the future and carrying more secrets than his sisters can imagine. The three siblings are tied together by blood, magic and a curse that dooms any romantic partner they ever love.

Their story is set in the 1960s, and Hoffman weaves cultural and historical references into the novel. It’s the summer solstice meets the “Summer of Love”; spells and potions and superstition rub elbows with riots and music festivals and bellbottoms. Hoffman handles this commingling beautifully, and the fact that her fantasy is grounded in reality makes it feel grittier and more tangible.

The Rules of Magic fills in the blanks for Practical Magic fans, but it works perfectly as a standalone as well. It’s clear why Hoffman is a favorite for fantasy readers: She creates interesting mythologies; she’s able to weave magic into the modern world; and she alludes to the magical properties of herbs and everyday items without overexplaining them and overcomplicating her narratives.

The Rules of Magic is ostensibly about three family members who find all their love stories star-crossed. But the devotion that draws them together as a family forms a bond that proves indestructible and may ultimately be the key to finally breaking the curse that’s haunted their family for generations.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel, Practical Magic, sisters Sally and Gillian share a strong sibling bond and a complicated relationship with magic. Their story is rooted in family history and a legend that includes witchcraft, feuds and rejection dating back 200 years. The Rules of Magic fills in the blanks for Practical Magic fans, but it works perfectly as a standalone as well.

BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, July 2017

When we meet Hendrik in this anonymously authored Dutch bestseller, he lives in an Amsterdam retirement community where the days are long, hope is scarce and even life’s simple pleasures, like a good meal and a decent piece of cake, are in short supply. He’s friendly with a few fellow residents, but he’s generally lonely and baffled by the typical “old person” behaviors of others in the home. He’s irritated by their shallow small talk, poor hygiene and lack of self-awareness.

Hendrik decides to start a journal to give himself daily purpose and a place to vent. He writes about the funny things he sees every day, like old men on motorized scooters who cause pileups with motorcyclists, a woman who accidentally sits down on a plate full of pastries, and a man who reads the same newspaper every day and reports the stories as if they’re fresh.

The administrator of the home seems bent on enforcing silly rules and keeping any semblance of personality out of the residents’ lives, and Hendrik writes about the mysteries and intrigue that spring up in this closed society: the fish tank that keeps being poisoned, the woman suspected of pushing her husband’s wheelchair down the stairs and Hendrik’s own contraband Christmas tree.

The reflection that comes with journaling soon offers glimmers of hope for Hendrik, and he connects with kindred spirits. Together, they form the Old But Not Dead Club and go on adventures designed to help them experience new things. The club is life-affirming for all members, and the project is a huge success.

But even as we rejoice with Hendrik, he doesn’t let us forget that he and his friends are constantly threatened with and sidelined by ailments both small and serious. The way they band together and support each other is an incredible picture of friendship, and it’s something we could all stand to emulate, no matter where we are in our lives.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

When we meet Hendrik in this anonymously authored Dutch bestseller, he lives in an Amsterdam retirement community where the days are long, hope is scarce and even life’s simple pleasures, like a good meal and a decent piece of cake, are in short supply. He’s friendly with a few fellow residents, but he’s generally lonely and baffled by the typical “old person” behaviors of others in the home. He’s irritated by their shallow small talk, poor hygiene and lack of self-awareness.

Celine is nearly 70. She’s an elegant woman with an excellent education and a mastery of her native French. She enjoys a quiet life with her husband, Pete—he cooks, she sculpts. Sometimes she calls her grown son on the phone and mildly lectures him about his love life. Oh, and Celine is also a private detective, once recruited by the FBI, and she occasionally takes a case that requires her and Pete to pack up their tracking equipment and cameras and take off across the globe to solve a mystery that’s been eluding traditional law enforcement. In those cases, Celine’s weapons training comes in handy.

The mystery at the heart of this story revolves around a young woman, Gabriela, whose father, a charismatic and complicated nature photographer, disappeared mysteriously when she was young. When Celine and Pete take her case, they find themselves traveling to Yellowstone National Park. They dress like hunters and frequent small diners, talking to locals and trying to unravel a case that’s long since been declared closed, inadvertently triggering the attention of powerful people who want to keep it that way.

In Celine, author Peter Heller tells an excellent story and creates a mystery that’s gripping and ultimately satisfying. He’s a master at describing the wonder and beauty of the natural world and at making setting and community an integral part of his stories. But even more noteworthy is his understanding of human frailties and the triumph of family relationships—Celine’s relationships with both Pete and her son are flawed but still loving and beautiful, and her relationship to herself as she ages is honest, illuminating and, ultimately, inspiring.

Celine is packed with details—there are bear attacks, a gold-digging nurse, an emphysemic sharpshooter and senior citizens who live in a camper van—but every bit feels authentic and true. All the elements move the story along; for the reader, nothing is wasted and every moment is made to be savored and enjoyed.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Celine is nearly 70. She’s an elegant woman with an excellent education and a mastery of her native French. She enjoys a quiet life with her husband, Pete—he cooks, she sculpts. Sometimes she calls her grown son on the phone and mildly lectures him about his love life. Oh, and Celine is also a private detective, once recruited by the FBI, and she occasionally takes a case that requires her and Pete to pack up their tracking equipment and cameras and take off across the globe to solve a mystery that’s been eluding traditional law enforcement.

The year is 1987, and Billy Marvin is obsessed with two things: girls and video games. Video games, he can comprehend; he understands logic and the language that they’re written in. But when it comes to women, he can’t read the code; they’re an impossible cypher.

Billy’s best friends don’t share his love of computers, but when it comes to the obsession with women, they’re in it together. So when “Wheel of Fortune” star Vanna White ends up in the pages of Playboy, the boys have to get their hands on a copy. But to get past the cynical neighborhood newsstand owner, they’ll need homemade maps, detailed models and co-conspirators—and the store’s alarm code. That’s where Mary, the teenage daughter of the shop’s owner, comes into play. When Billy tells his friends that he’ll romance her to get the code, they’re skeptical, but Billy has a secret weapon: Mary is also a programming geek, and Billy has the perfect reason to spend time behind her computer. Soon, Billy is more interested in winning a coding contest with Mary than with getting his hands on the magazine. But can double-crossing his friends really be without consequence?

Impossible Fortress is the first book that Jason Rekulak has authored, but as the publisher of Quirk Books, he’s been involved in bringing hits like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies into the world. So it’s no surprise that Impossible Fortress strikes the perfect balance of strangeness and relatability; it’s nostalgic in all the right ways. It reminds us that sometimes relationships are like video games, where small actions have big consequences and we have to fail a few times before we succeed.

The year is 1987, and Billy Marvin is obsessed with two things: girls and video games. Video games, he can comprehend; he understands logic and the language that they’re written in. But when it comes to women, he can’t read the code; they’re an impossible cypher.

What if you took everything super away from a superhero? He might have his power and a pitiable origin story, but all the justice and morality is stripped away. That’s Alexander Bruno, the globe-trotting, tuxedo-wearing gambler whose memories of his own telepathy are tinged by confusion, sadness and a mysterious blot that keeps him from being able to see, either with his literal vision or with his second sight.

When we meet Bruno in Berlin, he seems on the precipice of a comeback, playing backgammon with an easy mark. But the easy score gets complicated—and that turns out to be just the beginning of his problems. As the world becomes more and more blurred by the block to Bruno’s eyesight, the exciting trajectory of his life is thwarted, eventually sending him back home to Berkeley, the place where he was raised by a flower child more interested in sleeping in parks and experimenting with drugs than being a mom. It’s also where he went to high school with Keith Stolarsky—a totally forgettable classmate who is now an incredibly wealthy owner of cheesy theme restaurants and monuments to consumerism.

Bruno is turned off by Keith and mystified by how he attracted his genuinely arresting girlfriend, Tira, to whom Bruno feels a deep connection. Keith is the most natural choice for a villain, a sloppy archnemesis for Bruno’s suave telepathic gambler. But instead of putting up a fight, Bruno accepts money and help from Keith. Eventually, his promising life devolves into a sort of sad blackmail, the end of a spectacularly bad bet that grows dangerously bloated before it collapses. The twists, turns and sagging morality of A Gambler’s Anatomy may be a bit much for some, but fans of Lethem’s dystopian genre-hopping will find a new antihero to adore.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

What if you took everything super away from a superhero? He might have his power and a pitiable origin story, but all the justice and morality is stripped away. That’s Alexander Bruno, the globe-trotting, tuxedo-wearing gambler whose memories of his own telepathy are tinged by confusion, sadness and a mysterious blot that keeps him from being able to see, either with his literal vision or with his second sight.

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