Book Reviews

Review: The Night Circus – March 2013

the night circusThe circus arrives without warning.

This is how The Night Circus begins, and this is how it ends. From Amazon:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.

The novel is, at first, a series of vignettes, introducing character after character. It also spans several decades, and jumps back and forth to an almost dizzying effect – much like the circus itself.

I loved this book. It set out to tell a fantastical fairy tale, and it accomplished that in the most charming and vivid way. The imagery was everything I had hoped for when I picked it up at Barnes and Noble. I would recommend this book to just about anyone.

That said, the novel is not without faults. Because it is chalk-full of colorful characters, and because it jumps through time in nearly every chapter, the dizzying effect makes it difficult to narrow down an emotional attachment to anyone in particular. Though the two protagonists are obvious from the start, Morgenstern does not spend a terrible amount of time crafting their emotions or motivations. Instead, she focuses on their technical training and their execution of beautiful illusions. She focuses on the circus itself and it’s dreamlike mysteries. She focuses on those just outside the circus who are affected by its wonders. So when the two magicians finally fall in love, though it feels natural, it also feels a little empty and unearned.

This was almost a perfect book for me: it was an historical fiction, it contained fantasy and magic, it was beautifully told with style, and it was a fairly easy read, though not depthless or bland. I felt like there was just one more element, something bubbling under the surface that was never revealed. It fell just short. Short of what, I can’t say. But honestly, that undefined lacking is only a minor concern. This novel transported me, and that’s the best compliment I can give to any story. 4 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: The Final Solution – February 2013

the final solutionI picked up The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon, not knowing anything about it other than the fact that it was 131 pages, including some illustrations, and it was written by a writer whose work I have enjoyed in the past. I wanted to pick something that would be quick (because, yes, my total number of books read so far is a little behind), but smart.

The back page summary seemed interesting enough. A reclusive retired detective living in the English country-side is more content with bee-keeping than interacting with his fellow man. Into his life walks an intelligent but mute boy and his exotic African parrot. The boy is a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, and his bird never leaves his side, repeating a random string of numbers in German regularly and peaking the curiosity of several characters. When a murder occurs, and the bird is stolen, the detective is recruited to help solve the case.

And the detective is Sherlock Holmes. It’s never stated, but it’s incredibly obvious, and had I known I probably would not have picked this book. I’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes mystery, and as such I have a nagging feeling that I probably missed a lot of references in this short little book. The mystery itself is fine, I suppose, if you like that sort of thing, but honestly, I’m finding that I don’t.

I think my issue is that I love character driven stories, and this novella is framed through a previously developed character. Each additional character in the novella, including the parrot, has his own motivations, but “the old man” is the protagonist grounding the story. Having not read the source material, I felt a bit cheated. The story seemed almost hollow somehow, which I’m sure was not Chabon’s intent.

All of that being said, it’s a very well crafted little story. I’m sure if you enjoyed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection, you’d enjoy this. 3 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: Gone Girl – February 2013

gone girlBoy meets girl. Boy marries girl. Boy murders girl?

I’ll start with a non-spoilery review, but feel free to leave spoilery comments. I’d really like to discuss the second half of the book.

Gone Girl is, on the surface, the story of a seemingly normal, vaguely unhappy married couple struck by tragedy – the disappearance of the beautiful wife, Amy. Told through the husband Nick’s first person narrative, as well as Amy’s flashback journal entries, the reader sees the portrait of a dissolving marriage, leaving Nick the prime suspect in Amy’s disappearance.

And then something happens. Part Two has a fantastically surprising revelation that shifts perspective and changes the game. I struggled with this novel, but I fought hard, and pushed forward, knowing there would be a decent reveal. I had sort of guessed at the twist early on, but that did nothing to dull the excitement of the psychological mind twists to follow.

I can’t say much else without spoiling the fun, but I’ll leave you with this – Neither character is necessarily sympathetic or likable to begin with, and so for me it was a struggle to continue reading. But I am so glad that I did, because Parts Two and Three were astonishingly insane in the best, most disturbing way possible. 3.5 Stars

Notes on Reading

Notes on Reading: Gone Girl

I’m about 20% through Gone Girl, or so my Kindle tells me. This is a novel I have heard g.r.e.a.t. things about. Everyone I know who has read it loves it. It has amazing reviews. I know there has to be a brilliant payoff.

And yet.

I am not a fan of either character. The wife, Amy, is too…just so. A rich and cultured New Yorker with the exact right friends and the exact right relationship. She’s a tad too controlling, a tad too pretentious, and a tad too needy. And the husband, Nick – well he’s just not likable. The way he talks about his wife and his marriage, with the tiniest hint of sociopathy, it makes it very difficult to sympathize with him. And I know this is exactly the type of characterization that Gillian Flynn intended, and I know that 80% of the novel is yet to unfold and I’m sure that I’ll gain insight and fall in love with the story eventually. But how do you barrel through until you get to that point?

Obviously I’ll finish the book, of that I have no doubt. But I wish it were a tad easier for me to feel invested in the outcome.

Book Reviews

Review: The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch – January 2013

the hangmans daughterGreat, great read. The book takes place in 1659 Bavaria, several years after the Thirty Year War and about 70 years after the last big push for a witch hunt. After a great vignette of a prologue, the novel opens with the murder of a boy. Witchcraft is suspected and the local midwife is arrested. Jakob Kuisl, the whipsmart town executioner with a heart of gold, believes the midwife is innocent, and thus the murder mystery unfolds as he tries to find the real murderer.

Like I said, this was a really fantastic read. Well written, great characters, fast paced, and mostly historically honest (though the author, a descendant of the real Kuisl line, admits he embellished in some areas for the sake of fiction). There are enough clues, potential villains, and red-herrings to keep you guessing at every turn. I highly recommend it. 4.5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: The Witch’s Daughter, by Paula Brackston – January 2013

the witchs daughterFirstly, here’s the Amazon.com summary:

My name is Elizabeth Anne Hawksmith, and my age is three hundred and eighty-four years. If you will listen, I will tell you a tale of witches.  A tale of magic and love and loss.  A story of how simple ignorance breeds fear, and how deadly that fear can be.  Let me tell you what it means to be a witch.

In the spring of 1628, the Witchfinder of Wessex finds himself a true Witch. As Bess Hawksmith watches her mother swing from the Hanging Tree she knows that only one man can save her from the same fate: the Warlock Gideon Masters. Secluded at his cottage, Gideon instructs Bess, awakening formidable powers she didn’t know she had. She couldn’t have foreseen that even now, centuries later, he would be hunting her across time, determined to claim payment for saving her life.

In present-day England, Elizabeth has built a quiet life. She has spent the centuries in solitude, moving from place to place, surviving plagues, wars, and the heartbreak that comes with immortality. Her loneliness comes to an abrupt end when she is befriended by a teenage girl called Tegan. Against her better judgment, Elizabeth opens her heart to Tegan and begins teaching her the ways of the Hedge Witch. But will she be able to stand against Gideon—who will stop at nothing to reclaim her soul—in order to protect the girl who has become the daughter she never had?

This book was equal parts fun and frustrating. I downloaded it to my Kindle in the hopes that it would be an entertaining historical fiction with a slight mystical element to it – and part of it was. But the novel as a whole felt like it was written by two different authors.

The book spans 370 years, from the seventeenth century through modern(ish) day, stopping in the 1880s and WWI. These historical pieces were well written and fully fleshed out. They had mystery and intrigue, along with a well-defined tone and setting. The novel is weakest when it comes to present day Elizabeth. The tone shifts from historical thriller to a muddled New Age “Practical Magic” feel, and it’s quite jarring. I felt myself rushing through the modern segments to get back to the meatier period pieces.

But the tonal shifts weren’t my biggest concern with the book. What irked me the most was the pacing of the action. Each time period ended with a sort of magical battle that was heart-breakingly anti-climatic. I’m with Bess for 50-100 pages, feeling her pain and loneliness, hating the Warlock Gideon Masters right along with her, and the climax would resolve the situation in about 3 pages, sometimes killing characters, sometimes not, but never giving me a pause to register what’s happening or feel any sort of emotional release. The resolution occurs and time shifts immediately back to present day.

Overall this would be an alright beach-read for someone looking for a book more complex than The Devil Wears Prada, but the next great American novel this is not.  3 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: Terra, by Gretchen Powell – January 2013

TerraThe earth is decimated and civilization is split into two groups: rich folks in the sky-cities and poor folks on the planet’s surface. The dichotomy is reminiscent of Susan Collins’s Hunger Games. Let’s get the remaining similarities out of the way before moving on. The poor rarely have the opportunity to see the sky cities first hand, but they are practically forced to watch the unfair juxtaposition through government mandated television. They also have sky-born civil servants posted to their districts as well as security forces to maintain the totalitarian rule. And of course, the main character is a random clever girl from the wrong side of wealth, plucked from obscurity. Throw in a rocky home life and a younger sibling for the main character to cherish, and you might say you’ve found yourself a Katniss copy.

You’d be wrong.

Terra is the story of a land-bound girl doing her very best to forge a life for herself and her brother, Mica, in the shattered wasteland of earth, dodging acid rain and surviving off of canned chemical compound dinners. She is a scavenger, foraging outside of the city walls for spare parts dropped from above to take to the recycling plant for pay day.

The book unfolds in 3 acts. The first: Terra finds trouble while scavenging far outside the city limits. She meets a young man named Adam who saves her life. They get to know each other a little bit. The second: Adam follows Terra back to the city. They get to know each other better. We learn more about how civilization works in this dystopian future. The story progresses. The third: Well, I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s a pretty neat twist that makes this book decidedly un-Hunger Games-y.

Powell is a deft writer whose prose progress the story easily and keep the reader engaged. She’s created a fully-realized world with a few fascinating key characters whose personalities are at times endearing, at times frustrating, but always authentic. This is clearly the first in a series of novels, and as such, it does not have a very satisfying ending, but I will definitely be picking up book 2 when it is released. 4 Stars