“The Night Circus”

Morgenstern, Erin.  The Night Circus.  New York: Doubleday, 2011.  Print.

Borrowed from the Cedar Falls Public Library.

Read between December 15, 2012- January 3, 2013.

Three and a half out of five stars.

night circus

Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel “The Night Circus” is about just that: a circus that shows up unannounced and is open for business between dusk and dawn.  There is also a side story about a competition between two magicians: Celia, the Night Circus’s Illusionist (who in reality possesses the ability to manipulate tangible objects while making her performances appear merely magical) and Marco whose talents lie not only in his capacity to create illusions within a person’s mind that seem genuine and authentic, but also in his role as the circus’s offsite caretaker, (which apparently requires lots of handwritten journals full of spells, charms, hieroglyphs, symbols and the like).  This magician’s duel was arranged by Celia’s father, Hector “Prospero the Enchanter” Bowen, and Marco’s teacher, the mysterious A. H. —*  long before either student fully understands their extraordinary talents.  The Night Circus, or Le Cirque des Rêves, is then created as an elaborate arena for the two to play their game, but without either knowing their opponent, or the premise of the competition, nor its stakes.  But wait, that is simply a side story you say?  Isn’t the contest the entire premise of the book?  That is after all, what was promised on the book jacket…

Yes, and no.  Sure, the game between Celia and Marco comprises the majority of the plot and involves many of the novel’s main characters, but to me it was just, well, meh.  It lacked suspense (non spoiler alert: Celia and Marco fall in love!  They figure out what will happen when one of them is declared the victor!  Sappiness and predictable reactions ensue!), and I never felt fully invested in either character: I couldn’t care less who won or lost, or what would happen to them once the game reached its (anti-climatic) conclusion.  For being the novel’s main protagonists, Celia and Marco were far too underdeveloped, unimaginative, and uninteresting.  Yawn.

What I loved about “The Night Circus” was the imagery and atmosphere that Morgenstern effortlessly constructed.  Her vivid descriptions of the various circus tents and performers were entrancing and seductive.  Also I thoroughly enjoyed the novel’s supporting cast, in particular the German clock maker Herr Thiessen, and Poppet and Widget, the red-headed twins who were born on the circus’s opening night and are able to view a person’s past and see into the future, respectively.

“The Night Circus” is written in a nonlinear format, jumping between times, places, and character perspectives.  Personally, I enjoy books that are constructed in this manner, but I am fully aware that it can be rather annoying or confusing to some readers.    Also, in the case of “The Night Circus”, rather than adding to the overall drama and suspense, the writing format instead impeded the pace of the plot tremendously.  I can certainly understand why some readers would become frustrated with the book’s lack of action and quit reading 100 pages in.  For me, the setting and language kept me interested enough until the pace finally picks up just after the halfway part.  It took me over two weeks to read the first half, and only a few hours to finish the rest.

Overall, I felt that “The Night Circus” was seriously lacking in its depth of characters and the premise of the plot, however I was completely drawn in by the fantastical environment Morgenstern created.

* A. H.— is truly how his name appears throughout the book, ugh. Honestly, what is with the “—“?  Is it because the characters are never privy to his real last name?  Or, does A. H — somehow place an enchantment on everyone to simply forget?  Perhaps it was covered somewhere, but I can’t seem to recall…

(Sidenote: I read this book for my upcoming “Resources for Young Adults” class.  I think the professor’s intention in including this on a YA reading list is to explore crossover titles, because it didn’t scream YA, but neither did it seem strictly “adult”.  Perhaps New Adult, a term that I’ve only recently been made aware?).

Advertisements

“Winter of the World”

Follett, Kenneth, narrated by John Lee.  Winter of the World: The Century Trilogy, Book Two.  Westminster: Penguin Group USA, 2012.  Audio Book.

Borrowed from the Waterloo Public Library.

Listened to between September 20 and November 28, 2012.

Four and a half out of five stars.Winter of the World

Winter of the World is the second book in Ken Follet’s Century Trilogy*.  The first, Fall of Giants, followed five families across Europe, Asia, and North America throughout the Russian Revolution and the First World War.   Follett continues these stories vicariously through the children of Giants’ characters taking readers on an intricately plotted ride through the world-wide economic, political, and social turmoil of the 1930’s and 40’s.  Readers will get to know Carla von Ulrich as she struggles to stand up for what is right, in spite of the dire consequences to defying the Nazis; Lloyd Williams the son of a housemaid-turned-Labor Party Parliament member, who travels to Spain to fight Fascism and witnesses the horrors of civil war;  Daisy Peshkov as she climbs the social ladder from Buffalo, New York to London meanwhile her half-brother Greg works to develop a nuclear bomb for the United States and their cousin Volodya spies for Russia, vehemently defending (but eventually questioning) communism; Chuck and Woody Dewar, sons of an American senator who travel vastly different roads to war; and a large supporting cast of complex characters with varying degrees of likability, but all written with such candor and grit as Follett is known for.  Though Winter of the World is packed with action, the characters are developed over time and the overlapping plot lines are slowly unveiled, spanning the course of sixteen years.  There is an equal amount of description and dialogue, both of which are engagingly and richly written.  The tone of the book changes from bleak, melancholy, and sobering as it deals with the realities and hardships of war, to moving, impassioned, and dramatic as the multitude of characters fall in and out of friendship and love.  The book is heavy (both figuratively and literally), and not for the faint of heart as sex and violence are detailed with absolute frankness.  Fans of historical fiction, particularly that dealing with World War Two from different countries’ perspectives, will enjoy Winter of the World, as will those who enjoy a large assembly of multifaceted characters and deeply interwoven plot lines.

John Lee, (who also narrates Follett’s other historical fictions Fall of Giants: Book One of The Century Trilogy, The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End), effortlessly conveys the emotional developments of the novel’s numerous characters with clarity of tone and pitch.  In addition, Lee also captures perfectly the various dialects and accents (Russian, German, Welsh, English, Spanish, French, and more), as well as both male and female characters, throughout the book’s 31.5 unabridged hours of listening time.

Having listened to quite a few audio books, I have developed more than a few personal preferences when it comes to this particular format.  That being said, a few criticisms come to mind with this production of Winter of the World.  For one, there were relatively few tracks per disc, about twelve, which made each individual track around six and a half minutes long (which, from what I can tell, is fairly standard for audio books).  However, I listened to this book while driving, and was therefore not always able to devote my full attention to the story, and occasionally would not miss a minute or so.  This meant I would have to go back to the beginning of the track, or hope I hadn’t skipped anything too important and carry on.  Secondly, there was not any indication on the final track that I had reached the end of a CD, so I would sometimes inadvertently start to re-listen to the first track. These didn’t stop me from listening to the book in its entirety, but are just a few idiosyncrasies I thought I would address, in case Penguin Audio reads this (ha!).  I am already a huge fan of both John Lee and Ken Follett (The Pillars of the Earth is my favorite book of all time…), so it came as no surprise that I loved this book.

*Although it is technically a sequel, Winter of the World could be read as a stand-alone title or as the second book in Follett’s Century Trilogy, which may appeal to readers and readers’ advisors alike.

“The Wedding Dress”

Hauck, Rachel.  The Wedding Dress.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.  Electronic Book.

Purchased for Nook Tablet from Barnes and Noble.

Read between October 31 and November 6, 2012.

Three out of five stars.The Wedding Dress

It’s what every little girl dreams of: Finding her perfect wedding dress.  For Charlotte Malone, it should be a piece of (wedding) cake.  She does, after all, own a contemporary bridal boutique in Birmingham, Alabama that she runs with her best friend Dixie…
Finding the perfect gown should also be “To-Do List Task Number One”, being that her wedding to Tim Rose is just two short months away.  So why then, does Charlotte find herself heading up to Red Mountain seeking God’s wisdom and guidance, praying for answers to her questions and doubts?  Perhaps it was fate that brought her there on the exact day of the famous Ludlow Family Estate auction.  Maybe it was destiny that drove her to bid on and win a rickety old trunk.  Inside the trunk, to Charlotte’s surprise, is a pristine wedding dress.  One that has quite the story to tell…

What follows is Rachel Hauck’s heartfelt, homespun novel The Wedding Dress, tracing the interwoven tales of four women: Charlotte, Emily, Hillary and Mary Grace; and the bridal gown that is the common thread tying their lives together.  It makes a valiant attempt at being a whimsical blend of romance, historical fiction, and chick-lit, but in the end falls short of this lofty goal.  The book focuses heavily on only two of the women, Charlotte and Emily, almost ignoring the other two, and bites off more than it can chew.  I felt that it should have picked one or the other, romance or historical fiction, instead of trying to be both plus Christian  and/or Inspirational fiction.  I include Inspirational fiction because it’s not overly religious, rather it mentions God sporadically or a character prays in passing.  The Wedding Dress will appeal to brides-to-be, newly-weds, women celebrating their umpteenth anniversary, and anyone in between who appreciates a sincere and spiritual light-hearted book about love between friends, strangers, partners, families, and yes, occasionally God.

“One Thousand White Women”

Fergus, Jim.  One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd.  New York: St. Martin’s Griffin., 1999.  Print.

Borrowed from The Cedar Falls Public Library.  

Read between September 19-September 25, 2012.

Four out of five stars.

Jim Fergus’ One Thousand White Women follows May Dodd and a motley crew of women from her incarceration in a Chicago insane asylum where she had been committed for falling in love with a man beneath her station, to the prairies of the Nebraska Territory as part of President Ulysses S. Grant’s “Brides for Indians” program.  The program, intended to assimilate Native Americans into “white culture” was (unsurprisingly) met with hostility and horror when it was proposed by a Cheyenne chief in 1875.  Grant, however, saw an opportunity and secretly recruited prisoners, patients, and other unsavory women to participate and marry Cheyenne men with the intent to becoming pregnant, thereby joining the two cultures together through matrimony and children.  What ensues is carefully recorded in the fictitious diary of May Dodd in an amusing, offbeat, and bittersweet chronicle.  Writing in a candid, descriptive and witty style,  Fergus is able to capture the triumphs and hardships of this unique group of women who are thrust into the unknown and married to men with whom they can barely communicate.  Like most Western novels, One Thousand White Women relies on strong story telling and descriptive narrative with themes of justice, redemption and survival being present throughout.  It is a tale of strength and character, not only of May Dodd but also the other women and their Cheyenne families, which ranges from sassy and sarcastic to reflective and nostalgic.  May Dodd is at the center of a strong cast of characters who must learn to adapt and evolve to drastically new lifestyles whilst being caught in the middle of a tumultuous time in history as the Cheyenne people try desperately to cling to their traditional way of life, and white Americans press westward in search of land and gold.  At times romantic, occasionally violent, One Thousand White Women will appeal to readers who connect to strong female protagonists, are fans of historical fiction, and those seeking a thought-provoking Novel of the West.

 

I absolutely loved this book, though I tend to really enjoy historical fiction.  I thought the narrator was charming and affable, and I empathized with her struggles, cheered with her victories. The ending was not what I expected, though I found it fitting (I won’t spoil it).  I recommended the book to my mom, who then bought it for my grandmother.  I would definitely re-read this book.