Book Review, Erin Morgenstern, Fantasy, Fiction, Magic, Magical Realism, Uncategorized

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (With Bookalicious Pam)

Hello, Readers!

This is a week of firsts for me!  Yesterday, I posted my very first video-blog, and today I am posting my very first joint review!  Bookalicious Pam and I decided that, since The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was getting so much hype, we would read it together and review it under the same format, to compare notes as it were.  Enjoy!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Roof Beam Reader’s Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

Bookalicious Pam’s Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0


 Plot/Story:

RBR’s Thoughts:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Welcome to Le Cirque du Rêves!  The sun has set, which means the doors are just opening.  Catch it while you can – it’s back in town, but not for long.  Be sure to visit the Ice Garden and the Wishing Tree… and don’t miss out on the Pool of Tears.  Grab a caramel apple, something hot to drink, and wander through the aisles of black and white.  If you have questions while you’re here, feel free to seek out someone wearing just a splash of red – they’re the experts, after all.  Celia Bowen and Marco Alistair, magicians trained since birth, are bound by their masters’ unbreakable spell, to compete against each other, exhaustively and eternally, until one magician wins.  But what determines a winner?  In whose hands does the final verdict rest? And what will it cost the victor to win?  Morgenstern’s darkly-whimsical drama is an intricate play – the reader is strung along, a viewer to the events unfolding.  There are brief moments when the reader is invited in, allowed to be a part of the action, but one soon learns that The Night Circus is largely a private event, where spectators are allowed, but never truly privy to all that is happening.  The Night Circus is Romeo and Juliet meets The Prestige – a delicately constructed, intricately designed, beautifully crafted love story, with a novel twist.

BP’s Thoughts:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

I was entranced by the first sentence of The Night Circus and every sentence after that. Rarely does a book hold so much magical fodder to keep me entertained long past the 200th page has passed. I am in awe of Morgenstern’s writing chops and the fact that she flashed these chops so brilliantly in a debut Novel.  Normally I am wont to breeze through a novel and swiftly move on to the next, however, The Night Circus is like an expensive woody Cabernet to be savored slowly and in small doses. It’s not easy to make a magical world wholly believable and Morgenstern did just that. 


Characterization:

RBR’s Thoughts:

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Characterization and character development were almost the sole point of contention for me.  There are certainly a wide assortment of characters, from the dark, dangerous, and seemingly cold-hearted mentors, to the naïve farm boy, a gentle soul who is sucked into the magic of the Circus, almost against his will (not that he isn’t willing, ultimately).  While the characters –be the major or minor, external to the Circus or crucial to it- are each of them interesting in their own way, filling a separate need in the plot and final climax/resolution, it is ultimately the subtle changes in certain characters, including Marco and Celia, their mentors, and some of the Circus folk, which demonstrates Morgenstern’s mastery of characterization.  It is further demonstrated, and perhaps most profoundly, in the realization that the Circus itself is a complicated character, the one which grows, develops, and changes the most throughout the story – and the one which is crucial to the existence of all the other characters.

BP’s Thoughts:

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

The Night Circus has a brilliant cast of characters. Moving beyond your main protagonist there is a whole circus to explore full of everything and everyone you believe would be haunting and working at a circus that only opens at night. It is very comparable to that episode of Torchwood about the Night Circus. At times I was able to imagine Captain Jack running about in Morgenstern’s world. The whole characterization style was wholly refreshing.


Prose/Style:

RBR’s Thoughts:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The Night Circus is narrated in the third-person present for the majority of the story, aside from brief second-person interludes, where the reader is specifically directed to certain aspects of the Circus.  It is also constructed as a series of episodes, interspersed through time and space: one moment, the reader is watching events unfold in 1890s London, and in the next moment the story is developing in Boston, twenty years later.  The construction is interesting in that it almost forces the reader to slow-down and savor the story; if you read too quickly, it will be easy to get lost in the timeline.  Though I am not typically a fan of non-linear plots, Morgenstern’s layout is somehow appropriate, largely because it is 1) written so well and 2) an interesting addition to the already surreal story, mirroring the intrigue and mystery of the Circus.  Similarly to the unique structure and style of the book (which includes, I should add, a gorgeously crafted book, from cover-to-cover – you can feel the quality of this book under your fingertips), the prose is also demonstrative of high-art writing and ability.  This type of prose, so meticulously wrought, is lacking in today’s fiction, aside from a few literary writers.  Though the chapters are short, the words are so intense and the style so powerful that it makes each episode in the story impossible to skip.     

BP’s Thoughts:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The style of the book was candy but the really rich darkest chocolate. It had sustenance with indulgence that never overwhelmed the reader. The editing was top notch and reflected the author’s darker subplot fantastically. Honestly I really don’t have much to say here except that this section was perfection on a stick.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

RBR’s Thoughts:

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What really brings this altogether and makes The Night Circus not just an interesting, dramatic, magical-romance is the world Morgenstern creates both in the book and external to it.  The Night Circus has its own interactive website, where fans can continue to participate and even interact with some of the “cast.”  The proprietor of the Circus even leaves the reader his business card, with e-mail address, so that anyone can send a message (and actually get a response – try it!).  This world-building, coupled with the gorgeously designed physical book (the paper quality is superb, the book boards themselves, outside and inside are beautiful, the jacket art is lovely, the constellation section-breaks and font/type are beautiful, etc. etc.) make this a book one will not just enjoy reading, but will be proud of owning.  There is something very old-fashioned, almost ancient, about this story – though it takes place just 100-years ago.  It’s as if Morgenstern channeled the history of magic, from the Merlin myth through the Salem-age, and wrapped it up tight in this one book, for all to taste.  Some reviewers have been put off by the “diversions” in the book, which distract readers from a supposedly predictable plot, but in my opinion, these diversions complement the Circus.  At the Circus, visitors are allowed glimpses of different acts and events, depending on which tents they visit.  Because the Circus is so big, and always changing, no one person has ever seen every tent, every act.  Morgenstern allows us to see as much as we can see, to get glimpses of the characters in different times and locations, which affords readers the opportunity to come to the Circus on their own and to like whichever aspect of it is most appealing to them.  Some will fall in love with the romance, others with the magic.  Some will be charmed by the clockmaker, others by the fortune-teller.  Readers might adore the Circus twins, who are born in the Circus and grow along with it, while others might find the competition itself, the power and history of it, most intriguing.  The point is, readers get to see all of it – brief glimpses which create the whole story.  Think of it as a mosaic, where up close any one image out of hundreds can be seen, but when you stand back and look at the images from afar, the true portrait appears.    

BP’s Thoughts:

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Hello, it’s a circus, and who doesn’t love a circus? Well to be honest the only circus I will visit is an imaginary one. I have all of these thoughts and feelings about animal treatment and real circuses don’t work out for me on the whole so it was wonderful to learn about circus worlds/terms/ideals via this book. I found myself enamored by the setting which was just as much a protagonist than the characters. 


RBR’s Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: Adult

Interest: Fantasy, Romance, Whimsy, Competition, Family, Magical Realism

BP’s Suggested Reading for:

Upper YA, College Students and fans of dark literary motif. 

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Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, GLBT, Lev Grossman, Magic, Magical Realism, Uncategorized

Review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 42


Plot/Story:

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Magician King is the sequel to Grossman’s 2009 novel, The Magicians (my review can be found here). Quentin Coldwater and the other genius-magicians are back to save the world(s) again, only this time Quentin is forewarned that, part of accepting a quest and winning it is sacrificing or losing something most dear to him.  And this time, he not only battles magicians and monsters, but must take on the creators of all life, all worlds, and all universes:  the gods.  In the first book, Quentin loses someone very close to him and that pain has stayed with him over the intervening years; so, what more could Quentin have to lose?  As it turns out, quite a lot, although he doesn’t realize it yet.  In this second installment of the lives of these realistic magicians, the reader gains perspective on more than just Quentin’s struggles.  Julia, a recurring character from the first book, has a front and center role here, and her story is a dark and dangerous one.  The quests that Quentin and Julia are on ultimately lead to the same place, though the majority of each is played out in different worlds (Fillory and Earth).  Only when they come together are they able to make headway toward finding the Seven Golden Keys and to avoid a catastrophic event, the return of the gods, which will doom all worlds to the loss of magic forever.


Characterization:

3 – Characters well-developed.

The Magician King reintroduces us to some of our favorite (and least favorite) characters from The Magicians.  The four monarchs of Fillory – Quentin, Eliot, Julia, and Janet, have been ruling the land since their defeat of Fillory’s previous dictators and restoring balance to the realm.  Josh, another magician from the genius school Brakebills, reappears and helps the others on their quest to save the worlds.  Aside from Janet, who does not get much page time, and Eliot, who has minimal growth near the end, most of the recurring characters grow quite a bit over the course of the story, and are noticeably different from the personalities of The Magicians.  Some of the new characters, too, like Poppy – a brilliant Australian research magician, who is studying dragon lore, and the secret society of magicians who Julia manages to engage with, after years of strenuous study and training, add great depth and new life to this second book in the would-be series (as I do anticipate at least one more book).  The great disappointments, though, are the final resolutions for Quentin and Julia, the book’s main characters.  Each ending seemed relatively unsatisfying – Quentin seems to have learned something at the end, but he’s not quite sure what.  Julia becomes more than human, which we are led to believe is what she deserves for all her sacrifice, except that her sacrifice always seems selfish and, if anything, makes her less worthy (at least in this reader’s opinion).


Prose/Style:

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Grossman certainly has a unique voice, particularly within the fantasy genre.  His Magicians books are much more realistic than one would expect fantasy novels to be, and this includes the language.  The magicians speak in real voices – they are vulgar, colloquial, and sarcastic.  They are, aside from their magical abilities and supposed genius (a lingering point of contention for me, from the first book), very normal people.  This may be difficult for a lot of readers, particular those who pick-up these books expecting a typical fantasy story.  Reading Grossman’s fantasies is much more like reading Irving or Updike, with magical/fantasy elements, than reading J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis (though both authors’ works, in addition to works by Rowling and other fantasy writers are referenced many times, in a tongue-in-cheek manner).  This could be a pro or a con, depending on what individual readers want from their fantasy novels.  Still, Grossman’s language is fluid and engaging; the story moves forward at a steady but sometimes disjointed pace and, aside from a few proofreading errors, which I only blame an author for when he/she is self-publishes, the style is well-done and appropriate.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What I love most about this book is what I worry others may not enjoy: the realism.  It could be very difficult for fantasy lovers to enjoy this take on fantasy.  It almost comes across as satire, at times.  Many reviews of The Magicians, for instance, took issue with that book because they believed it either stole from or made fun of traditional fantasy books, and the genre in general.  I will say of The Magician King what I said of its predecessor:  Grossman does what he intends to do, which is pay homage to the fantasy genre and its giant writers, while making the genre his own.  This is a difficult thing to do, but I believe Grossman does it well and should be applauded for his efforts. I would caution sensitive readers to be prepared for some disturbing scenes.  I read subversive literature often, William S. Burroughs and Dennis Cooper being two of my favorite writers, but there was one particular passage in The Magician King which made even me a bit squeamish.  Still, if you are looking for a truly different, envelope-pushing, dangerously real-life kind of fantasy, The Magician King (and its predecessor) is for you.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: Adult

Interest: Realistic Fantasy, Fantasy-Parody, Magic, Friendship, Epic Quest Tales, Multiverses, Mythology, Theology, Poly-deities

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1001 Books, Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, Historical, Isabel Allende, Latin Fiction, Literature, Magical Realism

Review: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 50

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

I finished reading The House of the Spirits approximately 20 hours ago; I have held off on writing a gut-reaction review because I felt this book deserved much, much more.  This is definitely one of the best books I have ever read, and probably the second best this year (after Lust for Life by Irving Stone).  The story spans three generations of Chilean women, grandmother-mother-daughter, but all from their births and onward (so, really, we also get glimpses at a fourth generation – the grandmother’s mother).  Of course, the many other families, friends, foes, and “others” in these women’s lives are also present and one of the great things about Allende’s delivery is that, though the book is about the women, she manages to never make their husbands and lovers or their children feel like “stand-ins” for any portions of the story.  The women are all endowed with certain supernatural gifts – Clara, the mother and beloved wife, is one of the greatest seers and spiritualists of her time. Her daughter, Blanca, is not nearly as gifted as her mother, but she has a certain sensuality and telepathic ability which results in her being sought after by pretty much everyone. Blanca’s daughter (Clara’s granddaughter), Alba, re-inherits, so to speak, the grandmother’s gifts – and it is Alba who eventually tells the long, tangled story of love and politics, history and family, tradition and superstition.  What made this book further fascinating for me was the discovery that its author, Isabel Allende, is the niece of former President of Chile, Salvador Allende.  He was apparently the first democratically elected Marxist in Chile and he was either assassinated or committed suicide.  Historical fact seems to point toward suicide, but Allende’s narrative clearly drives home the point that she, at least, believes the former President to have been assassinated, as the man made a radio speech during a bombing and siege of the Presidential Palace stating that he was democratically elected by the people and would serve until the end.  Suicide, then, within hours of this claim seems unlikely and Allende is clearly claiming that his opposition (which included the Nixon administration), assassinated Allende and made it look like he had killed himself.  The intrigue, the history, the intense sensual and spiritual and political passion – it is almost too much to grasp.  The story of these three women is so engaging and interesting that you almost do not realize that you are learning an incredible amount about the history and people of Chile.  It was not until the end, when the greater political action began to take precedent that I realized Allende had been teaching me so much about a country which I have taken for granted pretty much always.

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
I was very worried at first that I would begin to get characters confused, particularly because the main characters were all female and “gifted” in one way or another, and they were related and interacted regularly with the same minor characters throughout the book.  But this was not a problem.  Allende delineates each character quite well, clearly defining and describing each so that it is almost impossible to mistake them.  She also does the same for her minor character, like Clara’s brothers, Blanca’s lover, Pedro Tercero, the phony Count and husband de Satigny, Alba’s lover, Miguel.  Even more crucial than the characters being genuine and identifiable, though, are the way the grow and develop throughout the passage of time.  The prime examples are Esteban Trueba and his granddaughter, Alba, who are the two characters present (physically) for the majority of the story and who close the novel at the end.   We watch Alba grow from a small child to a strong, capable woman.  We watch Trueba visit the del Valle family as an immature, self-conscious youth and ultimately witness him grow into the wealthiest landowner and most staid, powerful Senator in Chile.   The way these characters, all of them, interact with one another – from the poor peasants of the ranch to the doctors, the soldiers, the neighbors, and the ridiculous mystics – is so interesting to watch, so fun to engage in, and so real, despite being largely impossible most of the time (at least the magical side of it).  The strength of characters and their interactions, coupled with their continued growth and development throughout the storyline does wonders in terms of holding up a plot which, in lesser hands, could have reeled off into the realm of fantasy. 

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I will admit to one misgiving I had with the prose.  The novel is mostly written in the third-person omniscient.  This is perfectly fine and acceptable, particularly in a novel which spans so much time and tackles so many themes – historical, political, and social.  What threw me off quite a bit, though, were these brief interruptions throughout the novel where suddenly the reader finds the prose has switched from third-person to first-person narration.  At first, I thought this must be a fluke – a mistake of the translator, maybe.  After it happened time and again, though, I realized it was intentional and I did not understand or enjoy it.  It was a break from the flow of the story.  Then, I got to the end of the book and I realized what was happening, and it was beautiful.  I cannot deny that, as a first time reader, I was disconcerted by the flip-flop in prose but I can argue, now that I am finished with the book, that it was a masterful stroke and that, when I re-read the book (as I surely will someday, maybe many times) these switches in narration will be lovely and bittersweet, and I will probably chuckle slyly about how superior Allende is and always will be to me as a writer. The magical realism element, too, was done extraordinarily – so well, in fact, that I can only compare it to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or perhaps some Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though, if I’m being honest, I enjoyed Allende more).  What makes the magical elements work so well in this book, aside from Allende’s hand being at the palate, is the intensely sad but romantic and passionate, personal story behind the story.  This is the story of a people, an impossible, unbelievable story, told from the memory of one of its characters who survives incomparable, unimaginable cruelty and abuse, simply for loving whom she does and for being the grandchild of a man’s mortal enemy.   The ways that history comes back to haunt us is real and terrifying – the bitter, brutal lengths that people go to in order to avenge themselves for grievances in a past barely memorable is stunning, but true.  Whether we are to believe that the magical side of this child’s ancestors was real or not is hard to say – perhaps we are to accept that it is fact or perhaps we are to infer that these are strengths the storyteller imbued her ancestors with because she had found herself so helpless and vulnerable at one point.  Either way, it works.  It works very well.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

I am still stunned by the amount of political and societal history that Allende packed into this novel.  I had never heard of the Socialist struggle in Chile, and I certainly had no idea that Chile was the first nation in the Americas to elect a Marxist President.  The insight into this history, and its ramifications at home, particularly, but also the glimpses of world involvement (or non-involvement) that the reader gets seems, now, essential.  How could I not know this had happened?  Why did we never learn about these struggles – the people’s oppression and revolution; the extraordinary failure that it was, and the metaphorical beheading that the movement endured after the loss of its leader?  How awful was the military coup that followed and the economic sanctions and embargoes?  The greedy, nasty politics of the world.  What haunts me is how similar much of the history seems to U.S. history; how dangerously close we dance along the precipices of time, poised to fall one way or another at the softest whisper or wind.  The similarities to the Nazi movement in Europe and the McCarthy era of the U.S.A – the blacklisting, the “code” words, the censorship – it is so clear to see, in hindsight, how wrong these events were in history and how seemingly easy it would have been or should have been to prevent or curb the movements; but Allende knows better, and she explains the interwoven fates of us all, the uncontrollable, unavoidable chaos which we are all wrapped up in and which, try as we might, fight as we might, tends to barrel over each and every one of us until it gets its way.   The novel winds its way back towards its beginning, closing with the memory of the scene and the very words which opened the book, and this idea of the worlds circular, perpetual fate is planted firmly, though the story seems to carry off into the vast, three-dimensionality of forever.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: Latin-American history, political history, magical realism, family, literature, fiction

Notable Quotes:

“I am beginning to suspect that nothing that happens is fortuitous, that it all corresponds to a fate laid down before my birth….” 



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Creative Non-Fiction, David Sedaris, Gertrude Stein, Laura Esquival, Magical Realism, Orson Scott Card, Philosophy, Postmodernism, Robert Coover, Science-Fiction, Voltaire, William Faulkner

Reviews: The Earlies, Part 10

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Very beautiful… very difficult.

Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

Unbelievably good sci-book. Probably the best ever.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

One of the funniest books ever. I actually ‘laughed out loud.’

Paris France by Gertrude Stein

Wonderfully playful with words and style.

Candide by Voltaire

Hilarious.

Briar Rose by Robert Coover

Stunningly creative and playfully postmodern. An examination of itself.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquival

Very pretty. Great use of magical realism.

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