Monthly Archives: September 2011

THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern – Review

A contortionist folds herself into a tiny box.  A young girl’s gown changes from white to black in front of your eyes.  A magical ice garden waits to be explored within a black and white striped tent.  Welcome to the Night Circus, a place where imagination is real, and reality is whatever you can imagine.

Erin Morgenstern has an abundance of creative ideas, and many of them seem to reside in The Night Circus. Told in lush, fluid language, the story centers around a pair of magicians who decide to have a competition. Each selects a protégée to train in the art of illusion, and many years later a playing field is selected and, unbeknownst to the players, the games begin.  This playing field is the Night Circus, a creation of mystery and wonder by a man named Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, that appears out of nowhere and is only open from nightfall until dawn. The two players in the game, Celia and Marco, finally meet as young adults; Marco is the circus proprietor’s assistant, Celia the circus illusionist. Both have become masters of illusion, but amidst the magic of the Night Circus, their enforced rivalry turns to love.  If the plot seems hazy from this inadequate description, then you can begin to understand the complexity of this labyrinth of a book. 

Like the Night Circus itself, there are many twists and turns in the story, and time is a fluid character that winds in and out, taking the reader back and forth between the story of Marco and Celia, and the near future where a boy named Bailey is set to play an important role in the circus.  Morgenstern writes in present tense, usually a negative for me, but for this book it seems to work fine; the style creates an immediacy and a feeling that something is about to happen, and it might just be a mystery to the writer as well.  The chapters alternate more or less between the present, linear story of the creation of the circus and its beginnings, and the future chapters about Bailey and his propitious meeting with Poppet and Widget, red-haired twins who were born the night the circus opened. Occasional short bursts that address the reader directly are interspersed throughout, leading us on a private tour of some of the circus’ hidden corners.  As present and future converge, secrets are revealed and magic is lost and found. Characters fade away and the circus grinds to a halt.

Reading The Night Circus is like being in a dream.  Each of Morgenstern’s descriptions of the circus and its inhabitants is more unusual and sensual than the next, her creations a feast for all the senses. To over-explain my experience of reading it would take away from the enchantment, and so I leave you to discover the magic for yourself.


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A SPY AT HOME by Joseph Rinaldo – Review

A Spy at Home is not the kind of book I usually choose to read.  Nonetheless, as a new book review blogger it is flattering to be asked to review a book by a writer who visits your website. So I set off to read it, and discovered a new sub-genre: the international spy thriller/domestic drama with a strong central character who just happens to have Down syndrome. Joseph Rinaldo knows what he’s talking about. From his website biography, I’m guessing that he himself has a child with Down syndrome, and he has experienced all of the highs and lows associated with raising a special needs child. At the heart of the story, Garrison and his wife Louisa are living with Noah, their adult Down son whom they adopted as a baby.  Garrison’s career as a CIA operative takes him away from Louisa and Noah for long months at a time, infiltrating rebel groups in countries of political unrest, and putting his life in constant danger. After one such assignment, Garrison hatches a plan to steal nine million dollars from the CIA and largely succeeds, though gaining sudden wealth does anything but make life easier, in this case. From this point, tension builds as the family tries to decide what to do with the money and how to avoid being caught.

Had Rinaldo used the embezzlement plot line as his main story arc, this book would have been more successful.  However, Garrison’s thrill at getting away with his theft and Louisa’s plan to give the money to a charity, if they can figure out how to do it, are overshadowed by a number of disparate plot elements that leave the reader confused as to what this story is actually about. The family decides to spend part of their money purchasing a vacation home in Martinique, and Rinaldo spends a good part of the book shuffling them back and forth between their home in Tennessee and the vacation home, where, well, nothing really happens. Many pages in the book are spent talking about fishing, one of Noah’s favorite activities.  (If you fish, perhaps these passages will work for you.) There were several overly dramatic events that seemed thrown in simply to ramp up the drama, and in effect, add confusion:  heart surgery for Noah, a house break-in and an accidental death, and a surprise cancer diagnosis that was just one blow too many to keep the story believable. One of the truly tragic elements, the onset of Noah’s Alzheimer’s and Garrison’s heartfelt reactions to his memory loss, would have had more emotional impact with less drama surrounding it. In the end, we are teased throughout the story that Garrison is on the verge of being caught for stealing the money, but ultimately, that plot line fizzles out. The story arc that seemed promising in the beginning turns out to be a disappointment.

Rinaldo did an unusual and brave thing, however. He wrote his story in second person, a potentially risky point of view that often doesn’t work.  Here, it does.  By addressing the reader directly, he creates an intimate relationship that establishes Garrison’s character right away. Even when Garrison makes irrational choices, like stealing nine million dollars, the reader sympathizes with him and believes that he did the right thing. Garrison’s love for his wife and son are genuine, and the reader will love them as well.  As a main character with Down syndrome, Noah is a big part of the story, and Rinaldo excels in presenting all the experiences of living and caring for a person with special needs.  He does not shy away from the difficulties, but he also goes out of his way to spotlight the joys of life with Noah.

A Spy at Home is well-written, well-researched, and its heart is in the right place. It may not be my kind of book, but I’m sure it will strike a chord with many readers. You can learn more about Joseph Rinaldo here, and purchase the e-book here.


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Read Me! THE BARBARIAN NURSERIES by Hector Tobar – Recommended Reading

Just released today is my pick of the week: The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar. It is the story of Araceli, a Mexican live-in maid for the Torres-Thompsons, and what happens when she wakes up one morning to find herself alone with the two Torres-Thompson boys and no parents in sight.  After trying and failing to locate them, Araceli sets off with the boys to find their grandfather, a mysterious figure that Araceli only knows through a photo in an album. Set in current day Los Angeles, Tobar’s novel explores the social and economical differences between classes. Here’s what the reviewers are saying:

“Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries is that rare novel that redefines a city. It has the necessary vital sweep of culture and class that brings a city to life, but its power lies in Tobar’s ability to persuasively change the perspective from which the Los Angeles of the present—and, by extension, the United States—is seen. This book confirms the promise of Tobar’s debut novel, The Tattooed Soldier.” —Stuart Dybek, author of I Sailed with Magellan and The Coast of Chicago

The Barbarian Nurseries is a huge novel of this century, as sprawling and exciting as Los Angeles itself, one that tracks a Mexican immigrant maid not only as static decor in ‘real’ America’s economic rise and fall. Like yard workers and cooks, construction laborers and seamstresses, Tobar’s Araceli has flesh, brains, dreams, ambition, history, culture, voice: a rich, generous life. A story that was demanded, we can celebrate that it is now here.” —Dagoberto Gilb, author of Before the End, After the Beginning and The Flowers

“Héctor Tobar’s novel is astonishing, like a many-layered mural on a long wall in Los Angeles, a tapestry of people and neighborhoods and stories. A vivid testament to Southern California as the world. Araceli is so unexpected and unique; she’s a character America needs to see, and this novel takes her on a journey America needs to understand.” —Susan Straight, author of Highwire Moon

“Tobar delivers a riveting, insightful morality tale of conspicuously consuming Americans and their Mexican servants in the O.C. . . . Tobar is both inventive and relentless in pricking the pretentious social consciences of his entitled Americans, though he also casts a sober look on the foibles of the Mexicans who serve them. His sharp eye for Southern California culture, spiraling plot twists, ecological awareness, and ample willingness to dole out come-uppance to the nauseatingly privileged may put readers in mind of T. C. Boyle.” —Publishers Weekly

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Read Me! Recommended Reading for the Week of September 19th

This week I have two books that are worthy of mentioning. First, Brian Selznick’s WonderstruckThe Invention of Hugo Cabret was one of the most surprising and beautiful books that I read back in 2007, and Wonderstruck is his follow-up in the same vein. Of the 629 pages in the book, over 450 of them are illustrations by the author, which means this thick, heavy book is not as daunting as it seems.  This is the story of Ben and Rose, two children who live fifty years apart, yet whose lives magically intertwine.  Both children are compelled to set out on quests after they discover puzzling clues, and although their stories are separate, Selznick weaves them together with words and pictures, and creates something astonishing and unique.  If Wonderstruck is anything like Hugo Cabret, it is sure to be a wonderful experience for both children and adults.

Also new this week is The Taker by Alma Katsu.  This is Ms. Katsu’s first novel, and it’s gotten quite a lot of attention already. From the book description:  “On the midnight shift at a hospital in rural Maine, Dr. Luke Findley is expecting another quiet evening of frostbite and the occasional domestic dispute. But the minute Lanore McIlvrae—Lanny—walks into his ER, she changes his life forever. A mysterious woman with a past and plenty of dark secrets, Lanny is unlike anyone Luke has ever met. He is inexplicably drawn to her . . . despite the fact that she is a murder suspect with a police escort. And as she begins to tell her story, a story of enduring love and consummate betrayal that transcends time and mortality, Luke finds himself utterly captivated.

Her impassioned account begins at the turn of the nineteenth century in the same small town of St. Andrew, Maine, back when it was a Puritan settlement. Consumed as a child by her love for the son of the town’s founder, Lanny will do anything to be with him forever. But the price she pays is steep—an immortal bond that chains her to a terrible fate for all eternity. And now, two centuries later, the key to her healing and her salvation lies with Dr. Luke Findley.

Part historical novel, part supernatural page-turner, The Taker is an unforgettable tale about the power of unrequited love not only to elevate and sustain, but also to blind and ultimately destroy, and how each of us is responsible for finding our own path to redemption.”  

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THE LAST WEREWOLF by Glen Duncan – Review

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Glen Duncan, and he’s written eight books. Where have I been? I wonder. I have a lot of catching up to do, because I loved this book. I love werewolf stories.  There is something appealing about a character who is compelled to commit monstrous acts, but whose nature does not give him any choice in the matter.  The werewolf is a tragic sort of beast, don’t you think?

Enter our werewolf protagonist, Jake Marlowe.  Jake has just been given some bad news: as of a couple of nights ago, he is now the last werewolf on earth.  This news is delivered apologetically by his long-time friend and human protector, Harley, a man dedicated to shielding Jake from “the Hunt,” a very determined group of werewolf hunters. According to Harley, Grainer, the head werewolf hunter, will have the honor of killing Jake himself on the next full moon. A complicated game of cat and mouse ensues as Harley and Jake try to prevent this from happening.

Two things set this book apart from other monster stories. First is Duncan’s writing style.  Glen Duncan is not just a writer.  He’s a writer’s writer.  Which means not only can he write a rip-roaring tale filled with action, danger, humor, sex, shady characters and redemption, but he writes it beautifully.  Reading his prose is like sipping liquid chocolate while soaking in a hot bath under a starry sky in a mountain-top retreat.  A starry sky with a full moon, of course.  The book is full of gorgeous sentences, like this one, where Jake attempts to describe a girl he has just noticed: “Certainly not ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’ but Saloméishly appealing, visibly smudged with the permissive modern wisdoms.” After only a few pages of this sort of writing, one almost doesn’t care what’s happening to the story.

The second thing I loved about this story is the complete self-awareness of the monster.  Unlike other werewolf stories where the human loses all sense of himself during the change and forgets what he’s done afterwards, Jake knows exactly what he is and what he’s doing as a werewolf. Becoming a wolf is a glorious, powerful, and erotic experience for Jake, whose first-person descriptions of how it feels to be in the wolf’s skin give the reader a unique experience.  We know from story and myth that werewolves have enhanced senses of sight and smell, but Jake’s unique perspective turns these senses sensual.  As Jake takes a life, the blood causes him to relive the victim’s life, as though watching a film strip sped up.  The experience of killing seems justified, and the reader falls in love with Jake the monster.

If some of the story elements seem predictable, then Duncan can be congratulated on his ability to make the predictable seem fresh and exciting. I won’t tell you what happens mid-way through the story. I can only say that Jake’s tale becomes infinitely more interesting, and readers will tear through the book at a breakneck pace to find out what happens. What more can one ask of a great book?

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