Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams), as imagined by Erin Morgenstern in The Night Circus is both real and imaginary at once, an illusion that tempts all the senses and mesmerizes its patrons (and readers) with a seemingly endless array of curiosities and spectacles.  It is a circus unlike any other.  It appears and disappears in the night, and is only open from dusk to dawn.  Everything in it, down to the dirt on the ground, is rendered in shades of black and white.  Its marvels include contortionists and mazes and blooming gardens of ice. But Le Cirque des Rêves is not just a circus; it is a battleground.  The story opens with two aged magicians each choosing a child as a champion, each of them to be set against each other in some mysterious ‘challenge’.  Le Cirque des Rêves is the arena.

Like the circus Morgenstern describes, her novel is an astonishing feat of magic.   If J.K. Rowling and Steven King (both influences cited by Morgenstern) collaborated on a novel, the result might feel like this.  Immediately reminiscent of Harry Potter, with young sorcerers as protagonists, it quickly morphs into something completely original.  It is both dark and light, as is the concept of a circus that shines in the night, but there is no childish demarcation of good or bad here.  Those lines are blurred, and the reader is immersed in the grayness of the in-between.   Morgenstern’s vision is more subtle than good and evil, she aims instead to pit passion against apathy, idealism against calculated effort for personal gain, and, of course, love against anything that might stand in its way.

The Night Circus is so deep and gorgeous – so wildly imaginative – it took my breath away.  The fantastic details that Morgenstern uses to paint this very vivid and strange world are like tiny jewels on a Fabergé egg – a perfect world in miniature.  Morgenstern seems to know instinctively how to use words to create the very atmosphere within which the circus and its characters live. The scenes and language Morgenstern uses to paint them are evocative of dark streets and pools of lamplight and slithering things just out of sight.  The sense of wonder is there, but so, too, is the sense of spectacle, and the sense that just underneath all of the showmanship is a rotting corpse, a stinking thing that we are all afraid to look at.

Morgenstern is relatively young, and this is her first novel.  At 34 years old, her writing is hip, edgy, and dark.  The Night Circus is a joy to read, and would be appropriate for young adults, as well as the rest of us, although the darkness that simmers below the surface might be lost on the youngest reader.  Fall under the spell of The Night Circus – it’s worth the price of admission.

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Posted by on January 26, 2013 in Fiction, Young Adult


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Room, by Emma Donoghue

Room, by Emma Donoghue

Does the idea of reading a novel about a young woman and her five year old son who have been imprisoned in an 11×11 room for seven years turn you off?  Me too.  However, Emma Donoghue, in her 2010 novel Room, crafts a story that is wondrous, meditative, and transformative.  Instead focusing on the mental anguish of the victims, Donoghue writes a quiet, focused story of a child and his mother.  Donoghue’s decision to use the voice of five-year-old Jack as her narrator gives the book an urgency and sense of wonder from the first paragraph.

Jack believes that his world, the world of Room, is all there is.  Inanimate objects like Wardrobe (where Jack sleeps when ‘Old Nick’ comes to ‘visit’ his mother), Chair, Table, Rug, and Skylight are the things that ‘people’ Jack’s life.  Although Jack is exposed to the broader world through the small television set in Room, his mother intentionally leads him to think that there is nothing ‘Outside’. Donoghue doesn’t dwell on how Jack and his mother come to be in Room, she focuses instead on what Jack is seeing and feeling and thinking, especially as his world changes dramatically.

Inspired by several instances in the news where children were born and raised in similar captivity, Donoghue became intrigued with the idea of what exposure to the real world might seem like to a five-year-old who had never seen the ‘outside’.  In an interview shortly after Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, Donoghue acknowledges studying her own children’s speech and language patterns in order to create a language that would be realistic for a five year old, but not a barrier to a reader.  The voice of the narrator is unsettling, to be sure, but it serves the story well, and immerses the reader into the viewpoint of the narrator.  The author’s faithfulness to Jack’s point of view is what makes this small story so riveting.

Room is a short novel, and can be read in just a few days.  It has a simple plot with few twists, no cliffhangers, and no flashbacks, which seems odd to the modern reader.   Room has two main characters, Jack and Ma, and, stripped of all other literary embellishments, it is the powerful relationship between those two characters that carries the story for all of its 321 pages.   Because it is so minimal, this novel truly does become a sort of meditation.  Instead of sitting cross legged on a cushion with closed eyes, however, the reader is holding a book, and what happens in that book takes on the same tight, closed feeling that Jack’s life has – this book becomes a whole world.   Through Jack, we enter that world completely, and his experience changes the reader as much as it does him.

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Posted by on January 18, 2013 in Fiction


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Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

Before Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander, won the National Book Award in 2012 for Young People’s Literature, it was pretty hard to find.  I tried the library and local bookstore, but no copies were (or ever had been) in stock.  I finally found a copy in the Minneapolis airport a few days after the awards were announced.  I was hoping for a fantastic story, terrific characters, emotional depth, or astonishing writing.   In that sense, I was disappointed.  I never came across any of those things.  Instead, I found the characters to be confusingly flat, the book to be disappointingly short, and the universe that Alexander creates to have a faint shimmer rather than a solid mass.  Rather than give it a so-so review, I decided to bring in an ‘expert’ on middle grade fiction, since I don’t read a ton of it myself.  My ‘expert’ prefers to remain anonymous, even though I have raised her from infancy.  At eleven years old she reads constantly; everything from horses to Harry Potter, Nancy Drew to Narnia.  While on a long road trip recently, we collaborated on the following interview:

Q: What is Goblin Secrets about?

A: Goblin Secrets is about a young boy named Rownie whose brother used to be an actor and now Rownie finds goblins that teach him theater.  Rownie has searched his whole life for his brother, Rowan, and finally finds him turned into a puppet.  Rownie takes Rowan to the Goblins and tries to save him.

Q: Where does the book take place?

A: Goblin Secrets takes place in the world of Zombay.  It is different from the real world because it has goblins and some of the characters, like the guards, are half mechanical.

Q: What did you like about the book?

A: I liked reading about the plays and the different masks the goblins talked about.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 (ten being the best), how would you rate this book?

A: I would give it a 7.

Q: Was there anything about this book that you didn’t like?

A: I think there should be a sequel.

So there you have it- I just wasn’t in the target age group for this work, apparently.  And, lucky for eleven year olds across the land, there will be a sequel (of sorts).  It will be released in 2013, and is still untitled.  According to Alexander, it parallels the story in Goblin Secrets, sharing the same setting and borrowing a few characters.  In fact, he says, you can see one book happening in the background of the other.

Congratulations to Alexander on winning the National Book Award on his first novel!


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