Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Read by Jim Dale)

Hidden Things by K9Penguin

Hidden Things by K9Penguin

Several people at various libraries I have been employed at, and my sister, recommended this book to me. A few told me to read the print version and many told me that the audio book version was very good. But all of these conversations about The Night Circus (save the one with my sister) had one thing in common: the book was very good but also quite confusing. That meant that I was somewhat apprehensive about picking it up. But, to be quite honest, I shouldn’t have been.

The Night Circus is an amazing novel and not the least bit confusing. Well, okay, there’s one part near the beginning that is confusing, but I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be — so it doesn’t count. I believe the reason people found it confusing is because the stories contained in the novel are both overlapping and not told in a linear way. Each chapter jumps around from character to character and time period to time period. I found I didn’t mind if I lost track of what year the chapter was taking place, because in the end I always figured it out.

Because I found Bailey’s story to be the most interesting, I did make a point of paying attention to the years he was mentioned, so that when it was used, I knew I was getting a Bailey chapter. And it was the same with Poppet and Widget. This proved a pretty useful tactic, until near the end of the book when it no longer mattered, as the stories all came together (in space and time).

But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the rest of the characters and stories, I did. From the founders of the circus to the players in the game to the minor characters who Morgenstern developed with obvious care and love. They were all written in such a way that they came alive to me whenever I was listening (and I did 100% of the listening while in my car, usually driving). Not to mention the fact that Jim Dale voiced each and every character is a truly marvelous way. If I was inclined to listen to the Harry Potter books (I’m not), his versions would be at the top of my list.

The central story of The Night Circus is not so much about the circus as it is a game of magic. We follow the lives of two young magicians, Celia and Marco, as they grow up and into themselves — and we follow them on their quest for freedom. But, as you can tell, they are not the only characters in this novel. There are many, most of which I won’t have time to mention. But, by far and away, the most important character — one that appears in every single chapter, save the beginning few, is the circus itself.

The Night Circus, to me, combines things I never knew I needed — magic and the surrealism that you rarely find outside of a Haruki Murakami novel. His novels are very, very different from Morgenstern’s, but the world she creates (late 1800s-1900s) is as modern and real as any of Murakami’s. The Night Circus is fantasy, but it is also filled with shades of reality. There were times when I forgot the novel wasn’t set in the modern world — that is how good her writing is.

I cannot recommend this book enough; whether you choose to read or listen to it. It’s an easy book to love, but only because Morgenstern has given us characters who are if not always likable, incredibly interesting. I went through periods in the book where I didn’t like certain characters only to find that I liked them a few chapters later. Never has a (non urban-fantasy) book about magic (geared at adults) enthralled me so entirely. I couldn’t wait to finish it, only to be sad that it was over.

The Night Circus is about a circus — but not any circus you’ve been to. This circus is alive and it’s inextricably bound to the people who created it and run it. The Night Circus is about love, live and magic. And if you haven’t read it, you need to.

Night Circus: The Clock by TheSearchingEyes

Night Circus: The Clock by TheSearchingEyes

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Series Review: Fire and Thorns – Rae Carson

Note: This review does not include the novellas, which I haven’t read. You can find the complete list of titles here at LT.

Fire and ThornsPrior to getting into YA literature (before I was even a librarian, but after I had started library school), I had grown tired of fantasy. Obviously I hadn’t yet discovered the world of YA fantasy and had no idea what I was missing out on. But if it had magic, dragons, etc (except for Harry Potter), I just wasn’t interested in it. But once I got into YA, I discovered that there’s a whole world of fantasy that isn’t Lord of the Rings (sprawling, epic fantasy, no matter how popular it is, isn’t for me). In more recent years, I’ve looked for fantasy novels that have strong female characters (Kristin Cashore’s Seven Kingdoms series is one of the better ones), which is why I was so excited to pick up the first of Carson’s trilogy, The Girl of Fire and Thorns.

The series is about Elisa, who is the bearer of something called a Godstone, which results in her having some magic inside of her. She is smart, strong and devoted to her studies (religious in nature). Because of the Godstone, she is one of the chosen people and Elisa is left wondering what it is exactly she must do to fulfill this task, a theme which Carson weaves throughout all three novels. In the course of the first novel, she is required to marry into a neighboring kingdom and so the story of Elisa truly begins.

Throughout all three novels, Elisa must fight for her survival, those of her friends and loved ones as well as that of her people/kingdom. Elisa is strong and brave, but she’s more than that. She kicks ass, she fights back and she’s willing to make sacrifices that a queen should make. Carson doesn’t shy away from anything — including the death of characters we’ve grown to care for. The novels aren’t without love and Elisa does have a couple of love interests, but they are not the focus on the story, they are additions that give us a fuller picture. Carson is also good at writing her secondary characters and we learn about them as the story (and stories) progress. I read the three books soon after each of them came out, so there was about a year in between while I waited for the new ones to be published. But as soon as I picked each book up again, it was as though I’d never left.

Carson’s Fire and Thorns series is a fantastic bit of fantasy. It is appealing to both adults and young adults. Elisa is not your standard view of beauty, but you never question that she is, indeed beautiful. I would recommend this series to fans of Kristin Cashore, Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, as well as anyone who wants to a well written fantasy series.

Book Review(s): The Peculiars and The Drowned Cities

The Peculiars by Maureen McQuerry

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book, because I’ve had some bad luck involving books with similar covers (aka, girls with wings), but the gears that are part of the title won out on my skepticism. I’m glad it did, because McQuerry’s book is a pretty fun ride. The Peculiars is the story of Lena, who has abnormally long fingers and large feet. Her mother tries to play it off as normal birth defects, but her grandmother blames Lena’s father for making her a goblin. Because Lena has no idea about her father, she finds it hard to disbelieve her grandmother. Then, on her 18th birthday, her mother gives her a note from her father and Lena decides to embark on a journey to a place called Scree, where she hopes to find her father and the truth about herself.

The story really begins as soon as Lena boards the train to Scree and meets a boy, around her age, called Jimson Quiggley. One of the things I love about McQuerry’s writing is how she creates the relationship between Jimson and Lena. While they come from different backgrounds, they’re both curious and quite smart. They end up complimenting each other in such a lovely way, despite all of the problems they must go through. There’s also some lovely discussion of libraries and librarians that warmed my heart.

Overall, this was a really fun book with an exciting adventure that fills the second half of the story with action. I loved all the characters and Lena’s character development (which was very well executed). I hope there’s a second book, because I really want to know what happens next.

Recommend? Definitely. This is a great steampunk crossed with fairy tale characters (without the fairy tale) novel. It’s got a cute potential romance, but with enough angst to keep you wanting the next book. The story is self-contained, so while you might be annoyed with the ending, it won’t leave you wanting to throw the book across the room.

The Drowned Cities by  Paolo Bacigalupi

My past attempts at reading Bacigalupi’s books results in me not getting very far in The Windup Girl  and quite liking Ship Breaker. So when I saw that there’s a companion book to Ship Breaker, I just had to read it. The Drowned Cities is, in some ways, a darker novel than much of the young adult SF/F I’m used to reading. I think, in some ways, it’s even darker than The Hunger Games. The violence in The Drowned Cities is very personal, as the story takes place during a war. There are several central characters, many of whom give up their lives for what they believe is right, but also because they have no other choice.

The central character in the story is Mahlia, a castoff. Her father was a Chinese peacekeeper who slept with her mother, and then left them when the peacekeepers left what used to be the US for China. While escaping from one of the many armies (who sent the peacekeepers running) she lost her part of her arm, including her hand. She makes rash (and sometimes poor) decisions, that results in her and her friend Mouse stumbling upon the body of a bio-engineered half-man named Tool. One of the things I loved about this book was Tool. We got his point of view (along with several other characters, including Mouse and Mahlia), which differs from the children and the adults found in the book. He’s full of instinct and conflict and so many emotions that he’s not sure what to do with them.

The Drowned Cities is as engrossing as it is harsh. There’s not happy ending, no Mahlia defeats the bad guys. The ending is heartbreaking, but beautifully written.  I don’t know why Bacigalupi’s YA books work better for me than The Windup Girl, but they do. You do not need to read Ship Breaker to read the second book, but it does give you more of feeling for the world both books take place in. I look forward to the next installment.

Recommend? To older teens, definitely — especially if they’ve read Ship Breaker. Fans of Bacigalupi’s adult books might enjoy it as well. It’s a harsh read, as I said above, the not for those with weak stomachs. At it’s core, the book is a survival during war story and the main characters are all children/young adults. It’s not an easy read, but it was good, well written and thoughtful.

Book Review: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Inkheart by Cornelia FunkeAs a librarian who works on both youth/teen and adult reference desks, I walk past this book at least once a week, if not longer. I didn’t really know what it was about, except that there was a movie (which I knew even less about). But I was waiting for something new to listen to (in between listening too Cooper’s Dark is Rising series and L’Engle’s Time Quintet) and there it was, on Overdrive, just asking for me to download it — and so I did. Let me just say, it’s a long book. It’s 14 parts, which is about 15 hours and sometimes those parts seem to go on forever. I’ll give the reader, Lynn Redgrave, her due, because she’s fantastic (almost as much as my favorite audio book — Fire by Kristin Cashore, read by Xanthe Elbrick). She, as cliche as it sounds, really made the characters come to life. I’m not sure I would’ve enjoyed the book as much without her reading. That being said, it took me a very, very long time to listen to the whole thing.

Let me begin my actual review by saying that I had just listened to A Wrinkle in Time, where the main character’s name is Meg, when I started listening to Inkheart. So, having a main character with a similar name, that of Meggie, in Inkheart was kind of confusing.  I soon got over that. My initial impressions of the book were that it was probably set in England — boy was I wrong. Instead, the book (written by a German author) is actually set in Italy. The second was that I honestly had no idea what the story was about, so discovering that Mo could read people/things out of books was just as much a discovery to me as it was to Meggie. I actually quite enjoyed all the little discoveries (from what happened to Meggie’s mother to the secrets of the rest of the characters) and found the dept of all the secondary characters to be quite fascinating.

But, and this isn’t really a bad thing, there’s quite a lot of book. I didn’t find the story boring, but by the last couple of parts, I was really itching for things to be over. Not because I was tired of the story, but because I got tired of people not telling each other the truth. This is something that’s been bugging me* much more since I started watching kdramas. But eventually, as things are wont to do in J/YA novels, they worked out.

Recommend? Definitely. Especially to tweens/teens who like fantasy, perhaps even epic fantasy. There are plenty of subtle and overt references to popular/famous fantasy novels (including Lord of the Rings and Peter Pan). Harry Potter fans might find it a bit boring, unless they’re also fans of Narnia. If you have the time, I highly recommend the audio book version (Inkspell is read by Brendan Fraser and Inkdeath is read by Allan Corduner).

*I promise to talk about this later when I talk about my love of kdramas. I promise!