The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

[amazon_image id=”0385534639″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Night Circus[/amazon_image]Erin Morgenstern’s novel [amazon_link id=”0385534639″ target=”_blank” ]The Night Circus[/amazon_link] 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: ★★★☆☆

A Room with a View, E. M. Forster

[amazon_image id=”0451531388″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]A Room With a View[/amazon_image]E. M. Forster’s classic novel [amazon_link id=”0451531388″ target=”_blank” ]A Room With a View[/amazon_link] has a whisper-thin plot: Lucy Honeychurch travels to to Florence, Italy, with her cousin Miss Bartlett. While she is staying in the Pensione Bertolini, she meets a father and his son, the Emersons, whom everyone else at the pension thinks are coarse and crude. Desiring some independence and frustrated with her companions, Lucy goes out on her own and witnesses a murder in the street. George Emerson, the son, is there to assist her. Emerson falls in love with Lucy and kisses her. The next morning, her cousin, feeling she has failed Lucy and her mother as a guardian, whisks Lucy away to Rome. When they return to England, Lucy becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse, a man whose previous two proposals she has rejected. Cecil does not much like Lucy’s family, but he sees her as something of a project, a sort of Galatea to his Pygmalion. Meanwhile, the Emersons become the Honeychurches’ neighbors when they let a cottage nearby, and Lucy must determine how she feels about George Emerson and Cecil Vyse.

A Room with a View is actually interesting as a character study. In a short book without a tremendous amount of action, Forster manages to capture human nature very well. I found myself surprised at how easily I could picture everything Forster described, and it was not as though he labored over the descriptions. Instead, he captured characters so deftly in their dialogue and in their bodily movements that not much description was needed in order to convey the scenes perfectly. I especially liked Miss Bartlett’s character—I didn’t like her personality, but as a character, she was well-drawn and so believable. Some of the things she said and did made me think of Dame Maggie Smith, so I began picturing Smith in the role. Finally, I checked IMDb, and I discovered Maggie Smith had indeed played the role of Miss Bartlett in the 1985 production (which has an outstanding cast—I plan to see it as soon as I can). Certainly doesn’t surprise me that the book was made into a film—it read almost like a film. The book also contains some humorous instances of fourth-wall breaking and gorgeous observations about humanity. For this fan of [amazon_link id=”B0047H7QD6″ target=”_blank” ]Downton Abbey[/amazon_link], it was a treat to read, and I will definitely read more of Forster’s books.

Update, 8/7/11: I never do this, but I decided to change my star-rating after thinking about it some more. I watched the film today on Netflix, and the casting was perfect. Once again, I was amazed at how well characterized the novel was and how easily, therefore, it translated to the screen. Perhaps the film was an influence, but now I can’t see why it shouldn’t have a full five stars rather than 4½. I cannot imagine a better cast for the film. The clothing and sets were gorgeous. I highly recommend watching the film to anyone who has read the book.


Rating: ★★★★★

I used the What Should I Read Next tool to decide on this book (I had already had it on my [amazon_link id=”B002FQJT3Q” target=”_blank” ]Kindle[/amazon_link] for ages), mainly so I could complete Challenge 7: What Should I Read Next Pick for the Take a Chance Challenge. I picked A Room with a View from the list of books that appeared when I searched for the last book I read (and reviewed), [amazon_link id=”B0058M62OS” target=”_blank” ]The Winter Sea[/amazon_link] by Susanna Kearsley.

The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley

[amazon_image id=”B0058M62OS” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Winter Sea[/amazon_image]Susanna Kearsley’s novel [amazon_link id=”B0058M62OS” target=”_blank” ]The Winter Sea[/amazon_link] is the story of writer Carolyn McClelland, who relocates to Cruden Bay in Scotland in order to get the feel of the location for the novel she is currently writing about the 1708 Jacobite uprising—one of the lesser known skirmishes of the Jacobite Rebellion. Carrie takes a cottage in the village near Slains Castle and becomes friendly with a local family, Jimmy Keith and his two sons Stuart and Graham.  After her agent suggests she try telling her story from the point of view of a female character, since Carrie can’t seem to find a male character’s voice, Carrie decides on a whim to write one of her ancestors, Sophia Paterson McClelland, into the story. Suddenly she is writing faster than she’s ever written before, and when she discovers that many of the things she’s writing actually happened, even though she hadn’t consulted history books before she wrote, she begins to wonder if she is remembering her ancestor’s life. Meanwhile, both Keith brothers begin to show an interest in more than Carrie’s writing, but Carrie finds herself drawn to the one with eyes like the winter sea and begins modeling her hero, John Moray, after Graham, a history lecturer at the university in Aberdeen.

One of the reasons I liked this book was the genealogy thread that ran through it. Genealogy happens to be one of my own interests, and I can always sympathize with characters who find it interesting, too. Carrie’s discoveries about the lives of her ancestors fascinate her father, who is able to trace the family tree back one more generation due to Carrie’s insights as she writes. I expected to find myself more interested in Carrie’s novel, the part of the book that takes place in the past, because I have an absolute fascination for Scottish history. However, I found myself more drawn to the characters in the present—Jimmy, Graham, Stuart, Carrie’s agent Jane, and even Carrie herself. This book covers a topic that I myself have wondered about: is it even possible that memories can be passed down genetically? It seems far-fetched, but it works well in this novel. It’s a fun idea, anyway, and a nice alternative to some of the other paranormal tropes that have gained traction in recent years.

Kearsley is able to capture the past vividly in the sections of Carrie’s novel intertwined with the present-day story. She has included a historical note, and explained her painstaking attention to historical events as much as possible. I was surprised to discover that few of her characters were invented. It can sometimes be hard to make real historical people do what you want them to do when you’re writing about them, which is why, I think, that some writers of historical fiction prefer to use fictional characters.

The ending of the novel satisfies both the requirements of history and the requirements of historical romance. It’s a solid novel, and I would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Scotland or genealogy.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Two other reviews I found:

Although I’ve finished the Historical Fiction Challenge, this book (or the half of it that Carrie writes) counts. For the Take a Chance Challenge, it counts for the Challenge 6: Book Seer Pick, because Book Seer directed me to it after I read [amazon_link id=”055338483X” target=”_blank” ]Garden Spells[/amazon_link] by Sarah Addison Allen. Scottish castles on the coast during winter? So Gothic.

Reading Challenge Progress


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?

photo credit: Bogdan Suditu

Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution, Michelle Moran

[amazon_image id=”0307588653″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution[/amazon_image]Madame Tussaud, born Marie Grosholtz, is well known all over the world for the wax museum that bears her name. The story of her involvement in the French Revolution is less well known, and it is this part of Madame Tussaud’s life that Michelle Moran brings to life in [amazon_link id=”0307588653″ target=”_blank” ]Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution[/amazon_link]. The novel begins as Marie prepares for a royal visit to the Salon de Cire, where Marie and her Uncle Curtius create and display wax figures of prominent people in France. After visiting the salon, Princesse Élisabeth, sister of Louis XVI, asks Marie if she will be her tutor in creating wax figures. Marie agrees, believing the connection will be good for business. She cannot imagine how this association will later place her and her family in danger as the Reign of Terror commences and Marie must carefully straddle two worlds. She is asked to make death masks for people executed during the Revolution. Her family entertains leaders of the Revolution, including Robespierre, Danton, and Marat.

The story of how Marie Grosholtz managed to keep her head, both literally and figuratively, while the world around her dissolved into madness makes for fascinating reading. Moran captures Marie’s involvement in a series of vignettes—at some points in the novel, long periods of time are skipped over to relate perhaps the more interesting events Marie was involved in. In telling Marie’s story, however, Moran also manages to add depth to the royal family and the leaders of the Revolution. Marie Antoinette in particular is given a sympathetic portrait contrary to most historical reports I’ve read. Marie Grosholtz is an interesting person: pragmatic businesswoman and talented artist, she emerges a survivor because of the strong head she manages to keep on her shoulders.

I became interested in the French Revolution after reading Jennifer Donnelly’s novel [amazon_link id=”0385737637″ target=”_blank” ]Revolution[/amazon_link] earlier this year (read my review). It seems amazing that this period in history had not piqued my interest before, but I tend to think of myself as an anglophile and much of the historical fiction I usually read is focused on the UK or America. If you are looking for a book that will capture the anarchy and terror during the French Revolution, I highly recommend Michelle Moran’s novel. In the bargain, you’ll learn more about Madame Tussaud. I didn’t think I would be interested in a novel about the life of the famous wax sculptress, but I was drawn in by the cover and decided to give it a chance. I am very glad I did.

Rating: ★★★★½

I read this novel for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the Take a Chance Challenge. I had seen it all over the place in the book blogosphere, and so am counting it toward Challenge 3: Blogger’s Choice Challenge. I don’t know if it’s kind of cheating or not: I haven’t seen this book mentioned in any sort of Best Books posts. It’s more that I just started seeing it everywhere. I have now read eight of the fifteen books I committed to for the Historical Fiction Challenge and four of the ten for Take a Chance.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

American Gods: A NovelAs a result of your votes when I was struggling to decide what to read next, I picked up Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Neil Gaiman himself has said that this book tends to be a somewhat polarizing book: people tend to either love it or hate it. The novel is the story of Shadow, who is in prison for an indeterminate crime involving robbery of some sort. He is released a few days early when his wife dies in a car accident. Having nowhere to really go and nothing to do, he accepts the offer of a mysterious man named Wednesday to work for him—to protect him, transport him from place to place, run errands, hurt people who need to be hurt (only in an emergency), and in the unlikely event of his death, hold his vigil (37). Gradually, Shadow learns that Wednesday is actually Odin the All-Father, brought to America by immigrants who believed in him and sacrificed to him during the Viking Age. Wednesday has really recruited Shadow to help him face a coming storm—the new gods of television, the Internet, media, and other modern conveniences are usurping the old gods, and what’s more, the new gods want the old ones dead. Before he knows it, Shadow is on the ultimate road trip across America, helping Wednesday gather forces from among the old gods to fight the new gods.

This book was cleverly researched and interesting from a mythological standpoint. I kept wondering what Joseph Campbell would have made of it. In the novel, the reader meets gods and creatures as diverse as leprechauns, Anansi, Thoth, Anubis, Mad Sweeney, and Easter. The book certainly had me researching various mythological references so I could understand what was happening in the story. For sheer chutzpah with storytelling, I have to give Neil Gaiman props. What he did with this novel is not something very many writers could do. All that said, I didn’t completely like it. I liked parts of it. Other parts seemed to go down a path I couldn’t follow, and some threads introduced in the novel were dropped later. In some ways, it felt to me like Gaiman tried to do too much with this novel. On the other hand, some threads were brilliantly woven throughout the book. The concept is pure genius, and I don’t really even have problems with most of the execution. Ultimately, it just didn’t have some indefinable something that makes me enjoy a book. I give it four stars because I can recognize its brilliance, and I certainly don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I hated it. I didn’t. It just didn’t do “it” for me, even though I found it interesting, and despite its size, a quicker read than I anticipated. Four stars then is a compromise between the three stars I’d give it based on my personal reaction to it and the five stars I’d give it for what I’d recognize as its epic greatness. My own reaction probably has something to do with the fact that I’m not a huge reader of fantasy or science fiction. I have certainly liked other books by Neil Gaiman: Stardust, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. I would certainly try other books by Gaiman in the future.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I read this book for three reading challenges: the Once Upon a Time Challenge, the Take a Chance Challenge, and the Gothic Reading Challenge. Gaiman’s books are great for Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge, which asks readers to try fantasy, fairy tales, myths, and similar types of stories. The first person who ever recommended American Gods to me was a Barnes and Noble employee who described it as Gaiman’s masterpiece. While it wasn’t quite on the employee recommendations shelf, I think a personal recommendation counts for the Staff Member’s Choice part of the Take a Chance Challenge. I hesitated about including it in the Gothic Reading Challenge, but the more I thought about it, the more I concluded it had some definite gothic elements (as in Poe or Lovecraft rather than Brontë). It’s more strictly supernatural than the sort of haunted gothic of books like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, or Rebecca.

Between, Georgia, by Joshilyn Jackson

Between, GeorgiaJoshilyn Jackson’s novel Between, Georgia is the story of Nonny Frett, born to teenage Hazel Crabtree, who turned up on Bernese Frett Baxter’s doorstep in labor in the middle of the night. Bernese, a nurse, also happens to be the sworn enemy of Hazel’s mother, Ona Crabtree. Hazel gives her baby to the Fretts, and Nonny is adopted by deaf and blind Stacia Frett. Once Ona gets wind of the deception, her cold war with Bernese heats up and eventually breaks out into all-out war in an incident involving a dog attack. Biologically a Crabtree, but raised a Frett, Nonny always seems to be in between: caught between her no-account husband Jonno, whom she can’t seem to get rid of, and her friend, Henry Crabtree (either a distant relation or no relation).

First of all, it bears repeating (because every review I’ve read by a Georgian includes this fact), Between, Georgia, is a real place. I have driven through it. And that’s all most people say about places like Between. It is Between Athens and Atlanta, yes, but also exactly between Loganville and Monroe, which is think is the original origin of its name (if I’m not mistaken). One review I read of this book criticized it for having eccentric characters. It is true that Southern literature has its fair share of crazies. Maybe this video can illuminate things for you Yankees.

I know the reviewer said she’s lived in a small Southern town and folks were actually normal, and she’s probably telling the truth. Mainly (as Huck would say). But these are real people. I sure know them. So yes, this book has crazy people in it, but I think some of them were my family members—in fact, I’m pretty sure a lot of the Crabtrees were based on family members.

Joshilyn Jackson spoke at a Georgia Council of Teachers of English conference I went to a couple of years ago. She is hysterical in person, and has a wonderful voice, which is why folks seem to like her audio books. I remember her saying at the conference that she got interested in Between as she drove through town because she noticed the population sign: it had evidently lost a resident, and the sign had been changed. Jackson imagined that a person who would be so meticulous about the population sign must be someone like Bernese.

This was a fun, light read, and it was genuinely funny in some parts. It’s always a bit interesting to read about places you know or have visited or lived in.

Rating: ★★★★☆

This book qualifies for the Loved One’s Choice book in the Take a Chance Challenge because my mother passed it on to me and said I would like it. She was right. I did.

Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants: A NovelTonight is a school night, and I should probably wait to write this review. After all, I am probably one of the last human beings in America to read Water for Elephants, so it isn’t as if my review couldn’t wait. Except I read this book in a day. A day. I just sat and read and read and couldn’t put it down. I think the last book I did that with was Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. It was an awesome way to spend my Sunday. Jacob Jankowski is my BFF.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Jacob Jankowski is 90. Or 93. He is living in an “assisted living” home. One day, the residents notice a circus going up near the home, and it brings back a flood of memories for Jacob. He unfolds for the reader the story of his time with the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931; of how he met Marlena, Walter, Camel, and a cast of other characters, especially Rosie, who is one amazing elephant (I fell in love with her, too). It was an incredible ride, and I’m not sure how to summarize it better than that.

Gruen’s descriptions are so apt one can smell the animals, the popcorn, the sawdust, and the sweat. It’s an incredible achievement. The entire spectacle is so vivid that you’ll swear all the people contained in its pages are real and breathe, or did once. It’s the kind of book that makes you forget you’re reading a book and transports you to another time and place, and it’s definitely earned a place on my favorites shelf. How on earth did I wait so long to read it? I think on the face of it, I didn’t think it would interest me because I didn’t consider myself interested in circuses. Then a colleague at work who has great taste in books (with the exception of saying The Great Gatsby is overrated) said it was a wonderful book, which was high praise indeed coming from him, so on my TBR pile it went. And it sat there for too long. I am glad I read the book before I saw the movie so I can have my own picture of the characters and my own enjoyment of the story untainted by a film version. I’m sure the film will be fine, but you know how it is with books and movies. I’ve only ever seen one movie that was better than the book it was based on, and that had as much to do with the charismatic actors as it did with the smart changes and cuts made (it was The Princess Bride, for the record).

If you, like me, have waited to read this one, do yourself a favor and read it now. I’m already pushing it into my husband’s hands (and hoping he doesn’t laugh at my annotations). I would give it infinity stars like I’d like to give Revolution if I could.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book was read as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the Take a Chance Challenge: LibraryThing Pick. I have nine more historical fiction books to read to complete the first challenge, and nine more Take a Chance books to read to complete the second.