Monthly Archives: October 2012

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

“The circus arrives without warning.” After hearing so many rave reviews from friends, I finally read The Night Circus for book group and it was one of those rare books that not only lives up to the hype, but exceeds it.

Gorgeous, magical, wildly inventive yet fairy-tale familiar, The Night Circus created a fully formed world of the imagination. Like the reveurs, I didn’t want to leave, and closing the book felt like walking out into an empty field where black and white tents had stood the night before.

Celia Bowen, daughter of the cruel and impulsive stage magician Prospero the Enchanter, knows from her earliest days that she is bound to compete in a battle against another student of the art of manipulating the world with your mind. Her father challenged the mysterious Alexander to a duel of sorts, a contest to assess their philosophically opposite teaching methods. Alexander adopts a suitable orphan and introduces him to a scholarly, structured approach to magic.

Le Cirque des Reves comes about solely as a venue for the ensuing contest between Celia, who performs as an illusionist, and Marco, who runs the circus from behind the scenes. Its creation serves the ends of Prospero and Alexander, but its existence fires the imagination of everyone who visits, changing lives in the process. Celia and Marco fill the circus with wonders, but what are the stakes? Can they escape the battle, become more than pawns in an ancient game?

The wonders of each tent in the Cirque des Reves are also the wonders of this book, and books and stories play an essential role in the events described in The Night Circus. Celia and Marco create amazing experiences for visitors to the circus, just as the author has created this amazing experience for the reader. Even their styles might serve as metaphors for the varied approaches to writing: letting it flow onto the page, holding a world in your mind; planning out every last detail and creating maps and models to anchor your story in reality.

Regardless, The Night Circus is a lovely, lingering read, the perfect book for Halloween–and for National Novel Writing Month, which starts today.

Genre: Fiction (that makes you believe magic might be real)

Read it if: you enjoy dreamlike beauty with your suspenseful plot, or you love reading books that take you somewhere you have never been before.

Skip it if: you refuse to suspend your disbelief, even when the author makes it as simple as stepping through the entrance to the Cirque des Reves.

Movie-worthy: Oh, what a gorgeous movie it would be! Assuming it was done properly.

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Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

In Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter explores the limits and consequences of human aspiration. Pasquale, a young Italian man, seeks to create a beach and carve a tennis court from a cliff face in order to lure tourists to the tiny hotel he inherited from his father. A young actress called Dee Moray dreams of stardom, only to face an unexpected choice. Shane, a would-be writer raised on a philosophy of “fake it ’til you make it,” believes he will finally know instant success if he can pitch his movie idea to a legendary producer. Pat, a talented but addiction-prone musician, reaches middle age only to question what he’s thrown away in his thirst for the fame he believes he deserves.

Although the story takes place partly in Italy, it is a particularly American subject: dreaming of stardom, fame and fortune, no matter how lowly your origins or how unlikely your chance of success. This idea has become so embedded in American society that contestants on shows like American Idol show up for auditions convinced that if they want it badly enough, if they believe in their own talent strongly enough, they will be chosen, vindicated in their own confidence. Unfortunately, not everyone’s confidence is justified. Sometimes outlandish dreams have to be put aside in order to do what’s right. Sometimes it’s more important to focus on the life you have and the people around you than to aspire to greatness. Sometimes even talent is not enough.

Walter has an amazingly deft touch and his characters are depicted with both compassion and a knowing eye for their foibles and flaws. Beautiful Ruins is all the more remarkable considering that the author has achieved a degree of success and acclaim his characters can only dream about. As in his hilarious and poignant novel The Financial Lives of the Poets, Walter has created a moving and highly entertaining counterpoint to the American dream and the stories we tell ourselves.

Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

After I finished this breathtaking novel, I was not surprised to learn that Peter Heller is a poet and outdoorsman, as well as a gifted writer. The Dog Stars explores familiar ground, a post-apocalyptic world where survivors do what they must to stay alive, but Heller breathes fresh life into the dystopian genre with an unforgettable protagonist and a lyrical, elliptical prose style uniquely his own.

Hig, the narrator of The Dog Stars, feels so deeply the loss of the world that each day is a struggle to remain in the moment, to hold on to the briefest tastes of beauty. His one consolation is his dog, Jasper. His only source of human contact is his neighbor, Bangley, a man with a single-minded focus on survival. Bangley is the reason Hig is still alive. He is also the greatest single threat to Hig’s humanity; the things they do to stay alive, to defend the airfield they’ve staked out as their shared territory, horrify Hig as much as they do the reader. He has to keep those thoughts at a distance if he is to keep living.

Yet Hig finds ways to sustain his spirit. He can still fly his small plane as long as the fuel supply holds out. He makes regular stops to help a small community of Mennonites afflicted with “the blood,” a secondary plague picking off even those who survived the first epidemic and the subsequent lawlessness. Bangley disapproves of Hig’s selfless gestures and extravagant journeys into the wilderness to fish or hunt, but Hig continues to do what he needs to survive with at least some tattered remnant of his humanity intact.

Reading this book was painful in the best possible way; I had to read it in small doses in order to properly absorb the potent combination of beauty and grief on every page. In the end, The Dog Stars was one of the most emotionally truthful books I have ever read. I know I’ve said books are “unforgettable” so often that the word is almost meaningless, but I feel as if The Dog Stars seared itself into my soul.

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Review: Matched and Crossed by Ally Condie

Although I normally enjoy dystopian YA, I initially hesitated to read Matched, mainly because I had the mistaken impression it was about a world where love was forbidden. In fact, the world described in Matched is not whimsical or even particularly far-fetched: it shares characteristics with authoritarian societies both real and fictional, from communist China during the Cultural Revolution to Big Brother in 1984.

In the world of Matched and its sequel, Crossed, the Society seeks to control every facet of its Citizens’ lives. Work assignments, spouses, housing–everything meaningful is determined according to statistical analysis. The Society works hard to sustain the illusion that they never make mistakes. Yet when Cassia Reyes views the recorded data on her Match, the partner arranged for her by the Society, a second face appears on the screen. Witnessing that mistake eventually opens Cassia’s eyes to a clearer understanding of the way the Society works and the high cost its Citizens pay for security and order. Cassia must choose between much more than just two boys; she must choose between following the Society’s rules and rebelling, between safety and creativity.

I particularly loved how the author incorporated poetry into the narrative. The Society has reduced all of literature to a more manageable canon of 100 poems, and ordered everything else destroyed. When her grandfather secretly gives Cassia two forbidden poems, she begins to understand how much was lost when the Society pruned the world of its creative output. I couldn’t help but imagine teenage me reading this book and swooning over Dylan Thomas, a poet I fell madly in love with in high school. I still have the commonplace book my fifteen-year-old self compiled, copying “Poem in October” in cramped handwriting with, believe it or not, a fountain pen. That must be at least part of the attraction for adult readers of YA: remembering what it felt like to be that passionate, to read a poem for the first time and see the world through new eyes.

In Crossed, Cassia learns first hand what is taking place in the Society’s Outer Provinces. She also learns some startling new information about the boy she left behind. The ending left me frowning–after everything Cassia had been through, it seemed hard to believe she would accept the role assigned to her so readily. I can’t wait to see how the author concludes the story Reached, the final installment in the trilogy. Luckily, it’s out next month so I won’t have to wait long.

Genre: Dystopian YA

Read it if: You can’t resist a heroine who loves both poetry and statistical analysis

Skip it if: You prefer to forget what it feels like to be a teenager

Movie-worthy: It would have to be better than I Am Number Four, am I right?

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