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.

BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, November 2016

In the United States, good journalists are muckrakers, rabble-rousers, sometimes even troublemakers—their job is to rock the boat. In this sense, newly naturalized U.S. citizen Feng Danlin, the hero of Ha Jin’s page-turning but profound new novel, The Boat Rocker, is a true American. A columnist for a Chinese-language newspaper operated out of New York City, Danlin knows that some of his columns make it into China despite the country’s outside-media freeze, and he takes that responsibility seriously.

When we meet him, Danlin is chasing a new obsession: a story about his ex-wife, Yan Haili, who left him for another man and went on to write a romance novel starring idealized versions of herself and her new husband. Adding insult to personal injury, the Chinese government has positioned itself firmly behind Haili’s book, hailing it as an example of improving relations between the U.S. and China. When Danlin discovers that reports of American excitement over the book (including a huge movie deal and English-language translation) are lies, he makes exposing them his focus.

Danlin is self-righteous about his hatred of the book, and he’s tireless in attacking both it and his ex-wife. Initially, his pursuit of such a seemingly silly story in which he has an obvious personal stake makes the reader question his credibility and judgment. We find ourselves wishing Danlin would drop his personal vendetta. But eventually we start to see the point: When a government begins to manipulate art, even romance novels, it signals a determination to root out individuality and liberty wherever it grows.

Haili’s betrayal of Danlin echoes the bigger betrayal of Danlin by China itself, a home that has been closed off to him. His divorce lets him finally access the pain of being rejected by a country that attacks his sense of justice, his right to question authority and even his right to seek truth and fulfillment in his own life and work. The twists and turns of Danlin’s fight with Haili make The Boat Rocker a compelling read, but Jin’s insight into nationalism, patriotism and the true cost of freedom of the press gives the novel depth and brilliance.

 

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

In the United States, good journalists are muckrakers, rabble-rousers, sometimes even troublemakers—their job is to rock the boat. In this sense, newly naturalized U.S. citizen Feng Danlin, the hero of Ha Jin’s page-turning but profound new novel, The Boat Rocker, is a true American. A columnist for a Chinese-language newspaper operated out of New York City, Danlin knows that some of his columns make it into China despite the country’s outside-media freeze, and he takes that responsibility seriously.

Briddey has it all: a loving family, a great job and a boyfriend, Trent, who wants to get serious. She and Trent plan to take advantage of a scientific breakthrough, the EED: a medical procedure that connects the brains of two romantic partners so they sense each other’s feelings. No more dating guesswork, no more games, no more drama. 

Of course, there are naysayers who think rigging the game of love is a bad idea. Briddey’s family is opposed to the procedure and overwhelms her with constant busybody texts trying to change her mind. Briddey’s weird, genius coworker warns of mysterious EED hazards that he won’t fully describe. And there’s the pesky fact that the EED only works if a couple is truly in love, so if the connection doesn’t form, you’re not soul mates.

Despite the risks, Briddey is eager to take the leap. In the whirlwind of surprises that follow, she battles not only her own demons, but also those of a few others. She becomes the target of a corporate giant, learns more about genetics than ever before, takes refuge in zombie fortresses and secret libraries, reconnects with her heritage and is surprised by her family’s love in a way she never thought possible. 

Crosstalk is a fun technological fairy tale. It’s also a fable that asks us to question the nature of love and the ethics of technology. How much connectivity is too much? Are we too tangled together by social media and constant texting? Connie Willis, an award-winning science fiction writer (To Say Nothing of the Dog), addresses these questions and more with humor and wit. Crosstalk not only asks whether it’s possible to know and connect with another person completely, but also makes us reexamine whether it’s even healthy to try.

 

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

Briddey has it all: a loving family, a great job and a boyfriend, Trent, who wants to get serious. She and Trent plan to take advantage of a scientific breakthrough, the EED: a medical procedure that connects the brains of two romantic partners so they sense each other’s feelings. No more dating guesswork, no more games, no more drama.

In Loner, protagonist David Federman has a quirk: When he hears a word or a name, he likes to turn it backward in his mind, reversing the letters so they spell something different. “Star” becomes “rats.” “Pupils” becomes “slipup.” “Lived” becomes “devil.” Most of the words he switches around become incoherent, recognizable only to himself. David’s wordplay comes off as geeky and sweet; he seems ready to bloom in college.

But the shy kid we’re introduced to in chapter one soon grows as twisted and bizarre as his mirrored words. We learn that he views his new friends as disposable pawns and his fellow students only in terms of what they can do for him. The limited interactions he has with girls—with one girl in particular—grow heavy with innuendo and implications in his own mind.

Veronica is the object of David’s affection, and the book grows darker as his choices lead him from crushing on her, to stalking her, to becoming truly frightening in his actions toward her and others. As readers, we’re left off-balance, not quite sure whether Veronica is being played by David, or if she’s part of the game. The fact that the banalities of David’s life are so familiar makes his behavior all the more creepy, and author Teddy Wayne (The Love Song of Jonny Valentine) deftly weaves in literary allusions, to Macbeth and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in particular, that add another layer to the narrative.

Loner is a genre mashup—coming-of-age meets thriller—and the result is magnetic. Campus gender dynamics is a hot topic in the media, but Loner takes us back to the very beginning, tracing how small choices and hidden motivations lead to those attention-getting headlines. The reader has a front-row seat as David turns his privilege inside-out, twists the kindness of strangers into something perverse and loses the life he could have lived—and although that journey isn’t always pleasant, it’s incredibly compelling. 

 

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

In Loner, protagonist David Federman has a quirk: When he hears a word or a name, he likes to turn it backward in his mind, reversing the letters so they spell something different. “Star” becomes “rats.” “Pupils” becomes “slipup.” “Lived” becomes “devil.” Most of the words he switches around become incoherent, recognizable only to himself. David’s wordplay comes off as geeky and sweet; he seems ready to bloom in college.

First, we had The Devil Wears Prada, written by a former assistant at Vogue. Now comes The Assistants, a novel by Camille Perri, a former assistant to Esquire’s editor-in-chief, which similarly shines a light on the underpaid gatekeepers to the one percent. The difference in this book is that our heroine gets ahead by illicit means. This isn’t exactly the stuff fluffy romances are made of—it owes more to Robin Hood, or maybe Bonnie and Clyde, if Bonnie left Clyde in the car and distributed her spoils among her friends.

In The Assistants, 30-year-old Tina Fontana works for fictional titan Robert Barlow. Robert is capitalism personified: He’s cutthroat in the boardroom, but generous at home. He drops businessmen who cross him, but loves his wife. He manipulates the media, but oozes Southern charm in real life. Tina dedicates herself to him, masters his schedule and earns his trust.

But Tina also owes thousands in student loans, and she realizes that no matter how hard she works, earning $50K a year in Manhattan will never let her get out from under it. Her friends, almost exclusively assistants, are in the same boat. They attended expensive colleges only to land in a job market that has them running errands and cutting cocktail limes for the rich and famous. As they watch their bosses spend massive amounts on expensive meals, jewelry and liquor, it’s no wonder they’re tempted to reach for the money that literally passes through their fingers.

Perri, who has also worked as a books editor for Cosmopolitan, has an assured voice and grounds her story and characters well. The Assistants is an economic fable, a story of class warfare dressed up as chick lit. We have the familiar heroine, the love interest, a quirky band of 20-something girlfriends and a New York City setting complete with cheap apartments and expensive cocktails. But the real story is Tina’s search for justice and compensation for her hard work—a timely theme in a world where so many expensive college educations yield underpaid menial jobs and years of unpaid internships. Powerful people of the world, take notice: The assistants will have their revenge.

 

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

First, we had The Devil Wears Prada, written by a former assistant at Vogue. Now comes The Assistants, a novel by Camille Perri, a former assistant to Esquire’s editor-in-chief, which similarly shines a light on the underpaid gatekeepers to the one percent. The difference in this book is that our heroine gets ahead by illicit means. This isn’t exactly the stuff fluffy romances are made of—it owes more to Robin Hood, or maybe Bonnie and Clyde, if Bonnie left Clyde in the car and distributed her spoils among her friends.

In Love in Lowercase, Samuel lives a quiet life based on routine. He’s a loner in every sense of the word: His family interactions are perfunctory, not pleasant. A professor, he teaches about great stories and tortured characters, but his own life is quite shallow and plotless—until a cat wanders through the front door of his Barcelona apartment and changes his life, inviting in love, friendship and even a little bit of adventure.

Inspired by his new cat, Samuel begins to reach beyond his comfort zone. He cultivates friendships with a vet, a neighbor and people he meets at a bar. Of course, a book with “love” in the title wouldn’t be complete without romance, and when Samuel meets a beautiful, mysterious woman named Gabriela, we get to see if his decision to re-engage with his life pays off romantically as well as platonically.

Samuel attributes his new relationship success to following signs, to the butterfly effect, to magic and happenstance. But Spanish author Francesc Miralles seems to be showing us that Samuel’s decision to take the opportunities life’s been handing him all along is what really creates his relationship changes.

The title of Love in Lowercase refers to the power of small actions. Miralles has given us a lovely little book with nods to literature, philosophy and music that encourages us to wake up to our lives and to the people in them, and to let small coincidences lead us to love.

 

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

In Love in Lowercase, Samuel lives a quiet life based on routine. He’s a loner in every sense of the word: His family interactions are perfunctory, not pleasant. A professor, he teaches about great stories and tortured characters, but his own life is quite shallow and plotless—until a cat wanders through the front door of his Barcelona apartment and changes his life, inviting in love, friendship and even a little bit of adventure.

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