The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusErin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus has generated a great deal of buzz, and it isn’t hard to see why. It’s not precisely like anything I’ve read before. Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are rival magicians, entered into a competition by their teachers, Celia’s father Hector (also known as Prospero) and the mysterious Mr. Alexander H.—. No one, including the reader, really knows what the competition is about or what the stakes are until the end of the novel, but the venue for the competition is a magical black-and-white circus, filled with memorable characters and enchantments. The storyline is not chronological, but is instead told in a series of vignettes, out of order and from different points of view.

The imagery in the novel is vivid. Everything from the scent of caramel and taste of apple cider and chocolate popcorn to the vivid black-and-white striped tents and the colorful swatches of red in the Murray twins’ hair and the rêveurs‘ hallmark clothing is vividly described. The book is absolutely gorgeous with description, and it is in this area that Morgenstern excels. The sights, sounds, and smells of the circus pop right off the page. The book itself is a visual treat, from the gorgeous black, white, and red cover to the stripes on the end papers and even the fonts.

On the other hand, the plot was plodding in some areas, and the choice to tell the story out of order came off as gimmicky and confusing for me. In the end, the story did not satisfy nearly as much as the description and imagery. Some readers will enjoy the book in spite of this flaw (and, in fact, it has 4.17 stars on Goodreads after over 5,000 ratings as of this writing, and those readers are a notoriously picky lot). In many ways, it’s a beautiful book, and it’s gorgeously vivid. The story just didn’t hang together in the end. I found myself having no trouble putting the book down for days at a time, even during a month when I had a lot of time off work (to read!) because of school holidays. That’s always a danger sign to me. As beautiful as the imagery was, I never managed to become invested in the story’s plot.

Obviously, I am in the minority, and the book is receiving rave reviews, so please try it out and see what you think. If you can manage to snag one, Starbucks was giving out extended samples as their first book Pick of the Week, and perhaps you could try it on the Kindle and see if it will work for you. I can easily see Tim Burton doing something fantastic with it in film (and I believe film rights have been purchased, though who will direct, I haven’t heard). Johnny Depp would be an excellent Mr. Alexander H.— or Prospero or even Chandresh Lefèvre. A set designer and costumer will have  field day creating the images Morgenstern describes.

I really wanted to like this book because I have heard that it began life as a NaNoWriMo novel, which is always exciting for me to hear about since I would like to turn one of my own NaNoWriMo novels into a smashing success (so wouldn’t we all). Ultimately, however, I needed to have more investment in the storyline and characters than in the vivid descriptions, and the descriptions are the only thing that really kept me reading until the end. I kept waiting for another appearance of Herr Thiessen’s wonderful clock or the chocolate popcorn, and that, in the end, is just not enough.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar ChildrenRansom Riggs’s novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is part bildungsroman, part gothic fairy tale. Its hero, Jacob Portman, is a teenager living in Florida. He is close to his grandfather, Abe Portman, the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. Abe tells crazy stories about an orphanage in Wales where he grew up, and he shows Jacob the most fantastic photos of the children who lived there—a girl who could fly, a boy who had bees living inside him, and an invisible boy. As Jacob grows up, he stops believing his grandfather’s fantastic stories until he witnesses a terrible attack on his grandfather that makes him question everything. Jacob’s family believes he is unable to cope with the stress of losing his grandfather, and Jacob begins therapy with Dr. Golan. Finally, Jacob decides he must travel to Wales and see the orphanage where his grandfather grew up in order to come to terms with his grandfather’s death. When he arrives, he discovers his grandfather’s wild stories just might be true.

This book was a delight from start to finish. It has moments of laugh-out-loud humor and hair-raising terror. I really liked the way Riggs managed to describe the reason for everything from sideshow “freaks” to cannibalistic serial killers to the Tunguska Event. After reading this book, you’ll look at mysteries in a new way. Most reviewers who read this book remark on the way Riggs manages to seamlessly weave bizarre photographs into his narrative, but it’s true. I would not read this one the Kindle. You will not enjoy the full effect of the photographs in that way. Jacob is a likeable hero; in fact, I liked all of the characters in this book. I also enjoyed the time-travel aspect. A word of warning: the book is ripe for a sequel, and if you pick it up, who knows how long you’ll have to wait until the next installment (and I hope there will be one!). This novel is one of the most unusual, fun, and absorbing novels I read this year. Perfect for the R.I.P. Challenge!

Rating: ★★★★★

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Reading Challenge Progress

Darts

I just took stock of the reading challenges I’ve taken on this year. I am participating in so many challenges, that I was finding it difficult to keep up with them. Luckily, I found a plugin called ProgPress that allows me to create and customize progress meters. Check them out in the sidebar over to the right (RSS feed readers will have to click over to my site).

I’m not doing badly.

First, I set a goal to read 50 books this year. I read 40 last year. So far, I’ve read 27, which puts me slightly ahead of my pace. That’s a good thing because school starts for me again in a few weeks, and I will need to be a little bit ahead.

I can say I’ve completed the Steampunk Challenge, the GLBT Challenge, and the Once Upon a Time Challenge, as I really only had to read one book to complete these challenges. All of them were low-commitment “just try it and see if you like it” challenges, at least at the level I committed to.

I need to finish one more book to complete the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, but I am not doing well with the YA Historical Fiction Challenge. I guess I don’t read as much YA historical fiction as I thought I did. I don’t think I’ll finish that one, and I’m not going to worry about it if I don’t make much progress there.

I haven’t made much progress on my own challenge—just one book of six. Ditto the Shakespeare Challenge. On the other hand, I’m making steady progress with the Take a Chance Challenge and the Gothic Reading Challenge. I should be able to make good progress on the Gothic Reading Challenge in September and October, when I can combine it with the R.I.P. Challenge.

I haven’t started either the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge or the Being a Jane Austen Mystery Challenge, yet. Still plan to complete those.

Did you participate in any challenges? How are you doing?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Bogdan Suditu

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The Secret Diary of a Princess, Melanie Clegg

Melanie Clegg’s (Madame Guillotine) novel The Secret Diary of a Princess is the story of Maria Antonia, daughter of Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and her husband Emperor Francis I. Marie Antoinette is perhaps best known for being executed during the French Revolution, but this story begins around the same time as negotiations for her marriage to the future Louis XVI began and ends as the wedding itself begins. As such, it offers a rare glimpse into a lesser chronicled period of the life of Marie Antoinette. She emerges a sympathetic character—dutiful and kind, but also hopeful and optimistic. One cannot help but feel sorry for her as we know where the road she is marching down will ultimately lead her.

Clegg’s decision to write the novel as a secret diary and focus on the years leading up to Marie Antoinette’s marriage is an interesting one, and ultimately, I think, a smart one. It is hard to feel pity for a girl brought up in the Hapsburg Court with every luxury, but Clegg manages to create a likeable Marie Antoinette, so happy with her family and so frightened to leave, most likely never to see them again. Clegg’s research into the time period results in an authentic read, and the vivid descriptions of everything from clothing and furnishings to food make the period come alive. The groundwork for some of the dislike the French later felt for Marie Antoinette as an Austrian outsider is also laid, and the novel begs for a sequel chronicling Marie Antoinette’s years in Versailles. The book was published directly to Kindle. It is a quick, compelling read and especially enjoyable for readers who might want to learn more about France’s much maligned queen.

Rating: ★★★★½

While this book definitely qualifies for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, I am making a sort of educated leap including it in the YA Historical Fiction Challenge. The author does not necessarily classify it as YA, but given Marie Antoinette’s age for much of the book (she is 14 as the book ends), and some of her concerns, I would say it fits squarely in the YA genre, although adults who don’t necessarily read YA would also feel completely comfortable reading the book.

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Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly

RevolutionAndi Alpers, one of the protagonists of Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution, is a guitar prodigy attending a tony private school in Brooklyn, but she’s haunted by the loss of her brother Truman, her mother’s subsequent breakdown, and her father’s absence. When she has decided not to write her senior thesis, which will prevent her from graduating, her father, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, takes her with him to Paris, where he is helping his historian friend G with a project—they are testing the DNA of a heart G discovered to determine if it belonged to the lost king Louis XVII, the Dauphin of France, who died in the last days of the French Revolution, imprisoned, mad, alone, and orphaned. Andi’s father hopes that access to primary sources and his strict guidance can help Andi make some progress on her thesis, which concerns the musical influence of eighteenth century composer Amadé Malherbeau on modern music. G gives her a guitar discovered in the catacombs, and Andi finds a diary hidden in a secret compartment. The diary belongs to Alexandrine Paradis, a performer hired by the French royal family to entertain the young Dauphin. As Andi reads the diary, she becomes entranced by Alex’s story. While in Paris, she also meets Virgil, a Tunisian musician, and forges a strong connection with him. One night when he takes her to the catacombs, the world of Alex’s diary suddenly becomes real when Andi discovers herself transported to the last days of the French Revolution.

I cannot describe how much I loved this book. I said in my last post that a gauge of how much I like a book is whether or not I can put it down. I didn’t want this book to end. I put it down only to prolong the pleasure of reading it. I could easily have finished it off in a couple of days if I hadn’t done so. The strongest gauge of how much I love a book is when I wish I had written it myself. I don’t know why I feel that way—I suspect I want the book to belong to me even more than it does if I’ve read it. Jennifer Donnelly is an excellent writer. She brings the life of a 21st Brooklyn teenager to life in ways I’ve seen few young adult authors do with as much honesty and realism. She also brings Revolutionary-era France to life in sharp-relief. The invented parts of her book fit so seamlessly with the historical aspects, that you will find yourself Googling references, unable to tell what is real and what is invented. Andi and Alex are likable, real protagonists, and I found myself falling in love with the characters. Donnelly managed also to kindle an interest in an era of history I have previously not been as interested in—the French Revolution. I know you’re thinking “How could I not have been interested it that?” I don’t know! I sure can’t figure it out after reading this book, but I know I want to read more now. This novel isn’t just one of the best historical fiction YA books I’ve read, or one of the best YA books I’ve read. It’s one of the best historical fiction books I’ve read of any stripe. Whether you think of yourself as interested in France, the French Revolution, or even music or not, you will enjoy this book. What’s not to love in a book that mentions both Jeff Buckley and “Ten Years Gone,” my favorite Led Zeppelin song, in nearly the same breath as Bach and Beethoven? My recommendation: READ IT!

Here’s the book trailer, if you’re interested in learning a bit more about the book:

YouTube Preview Image

Rating: ★★★★★ (I wish I could give it six stars. Out of five.)

I read this book for the Historical Fiction Challenge and for the YA Historical Fictional Challenge. I now have 13 books left for the Historical Fiction Challenge and 14 left for the YA Historical Fiction Challenge.

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YA Historical Fiction Challenge

YA Historical Fiction ChallengeI love historical fiction, and I know some great YA historical fiction has been written since I was actively seeking out new YA some seven years ago or so. I am going to participate in the YA Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by YA Bliss.

I won’t name titles right now because I might want to read some titles that have not yet been released. I’m wondering if I should put off reading The Ruby in the Smoke until January so I can count it? I do, after all, still need to read Mansfield Park for the Everything Austen Challenge this year. I also feel compelled to read it because it’s the only Austen novel I’ve never finished, and I know I’m being distracted by The Ruby in the Smoke. But we’ll see. I am definitely interested in suggestions if you have them. I have enjoyed Ann Rinaldi’s YA historical fiction in the past.

I’m going to commit to level 3—15 YA books. By the way, in case anyone cares, my own book A Question of Honor counts for this challenge, and if I had published the other two novels I had written.

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