Monday, 26 September 2011

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Reviewing Policy:

Because I’ve never reviewed a book on here before (or elsewhere, for that matter), I thought I’d put up a little modus operandi with this review to explain how I plan on going about it.  I’ll be reviewing primarily what I regularly read for fun, namely YA fantasy, a smattering of adult fantasy, and contemporary literary fiction, usually historical.  I will of course comment on the classics in all genres that I happen to be reading, as well.

I likely won’t be posting negative reviews on this blog, because I don’t know if I want my antipathy towards Book X to be public knowledge.  However, I also don’t want to limit myself, so we’ll see how this plays out.

Also, I’ll only be reviewing books as I have the time and inclination.  I also have two other small commitments at the moment: a doctoral dissertation and a novel.  :)

UK Edition
In this transatlantic tale, two late-Victorian magicians pledge to set their students, Celia and Marco, against each other in a magical competition testing skill, invention, and sheer endurance.  A black and white circus, only open at  night, becomes the staging ground for a contest that takes almost twenty years to play out.  Marco and Celia of course fall in love, complicating their duel, whose stakes they don’t yet fully understand, and endangering Le Cirque des Rêves, which becomes more important than either the competitors or the competition that created it.

Morgenstern’s rich, sensory prose creates a magical atmosphere from the first words of the novel.  The author also does an excellent job of illustrating her mysterious, monochrome circus.  We see many characters – magicians, performers, patrons – experiencing the delights of the Night Circus: its sudden appearance and disappearance, acrobats who perform without a safety net, an ice garden.  Interspersed throughout the novel are second-person vignettes, which allow the reader to experience the circus for him or herself.

North American Edition
Morgenstern also makes excellent use of shifts in time, sometimes showing, consecutively, several characters’ experiences of a crucial event, sometimes jumping back and forth in time to illustrate the consequences of an incident or to dramatize an effect’s cause.  These time shifts are especially effective in the lead-up to the novel’s close.  This element reminded me, favourably, of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, also featuring dueling Victorian magicians.

Celia and Marco’s characters are complicated and well-drawn, especially as they come to discover that they are pawns in a larger contest.   The reader sees their sporting courtship through their contributions to the circus for years before they meet each other.  When they finally do meet, they fall in love hard and fast, but this is believable and has human and magical consequences, which Morgenstern follows through to their inevitable conclusion.  Supporting characters, such as the Murray twins (born on opening night), Bailey, a patron, and Herr Thiessen, the circus’s clock-maker, are also endearing.

Now, gripes, of which there are happily few.  First, though the prose is generally spot on, concise, and image-rich, it sometimes falters, slipping into repetition or weakened by unnecessary modifiers.  This is a shame, because the writing is otherwise so strong.  Second, there are elements which struck me as just too precious, such as the Murray twin’s circus act: acrobatic kittens.  Now, I love cats, but I just can’t see a cat being willing to tumble through the air purely for its master’s satisfaction, magic circus or no.  This felt a bit too cute for my sensibility, though perhaps it tickles everyone else’s.

When I picked this book up, I wanted it to be a virtuoso performance of a first novel, like Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (incidentally, also about 19th-century dueling magicians), solid, without a word out of place.  It wasn’t quite that.  Perhaps my expectations were unfortunately high, having taken in some of the pre-publication hype.  All else aside, this is a great book, whose perfectly-pitched ending made me choke up.  The Night Circus is a well-written, well-constructed novel about the power of dreams, imagination, community, and love that will appeal to readers of YA and literary fantasy.

Two addenda:

Book design: The UK edition is a joy to behold.  It has a lovely black and white cover with just a splash of red (the significance of which is explained inside).  Under the dust-jacket is a lovely red hardcover with a gold clock on the front.  The end papers feature black, white, and red top hats and bowlers (again, also significant).  There’s also a helpful ribbon to mark one’s place.  This was very helpful, as I have not yet acquired any bookmarks here.

YA crossover appeal:  This title could definitely succeed as a YA and could have been published as such, I believe.  Adult and young adult characters share the stage throughout the novel.  The Night Circus contains no more sexuality than one would might find in a YA directed toward older teens.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

North American cover
Again, it isn't Wednesday.  Also, there won't be much of a wait involved, because I've been a bit slow off the mark to blog about this particular release.  It comes out in North America and the UK on September 27th, which is this coming Tuesday.

Here is a book I've been looking forward to since, er, probably last summer, when the author, Laini Taylor, announced on her blog that her next book had been sold at auction and had an American publisher.  The reason I was so excited was that I had read her previous, National Book Award-winning collection of two short stories and one novella, Lips Touch: Three Times.  The first story is a modern retelling of Christina Rosett's "Goblin Market", the second is set in British Raj India and involves bargaining over souls with demons and a voice that can kill, and the third is a novella involving dual identity, strange demon-like creatues, and a long-running love affair.  The prose is rich and the imagery fantastic.  I gobbled that book up in about two nights, even though I'm sure I should have been working on my Master's thesis.  So, please go read Lips Touch if you like YA fantasy.  I'm sure you won't regret it.

UK cover
There are two other reasons I'm really looking forward to this novel.  First, it centres around a myterious teenaged girl named Karou, with naturally (kind of) blue hair and tattoos who is an art student in Prague.  Her only family are a group of chimerae and she is sent on missions to collect teeth, which are then traded for wishes.  This books also has the wonderful prefatory line: "Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.  It did not end well..."  How much better could this be?

The second reason I'm looking forward to this book is that the publisher has offered up the first few chapters as a free preview online (you can find the first five chapters in the widget on the author's blog).  Great dialogue, fun characters, mystery.  The first 50 pages have totally hooked me.

You can read a glowing review of the novel in the Los Angeles Times here.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Picture Post: First Week (Or So) in Oxford

I've finally gotten my act together and picked out some representative photos from our first week and a bit in Oxford.


River Cherwell from Marston Ferry Street

Lilypads at the Oxford Botanic Gardens (Oxford students get in for free!)

Small Venus Flytraps in the Insectivorous Plants hothouse.

The canal

And from our day trip to Bath:

The Gothic, fan-vaulted ceiling of Bath Abbey
More to come!

Thursday, 22 September 2011

One Week

We've been in Oxford for a week now and have had a chance to mostly settle in.  The details of my mental map of the city are starting to fill in and we have enough housewares now that we can get makes meals with relative ease.

We both have bikes now (hybrids - mountain bikes don't seem nearly as popular here); mine is fitted with a rear basket, the better to grocery shop with.  I'm looking forward to being able to get down to central Oxford in 10 minutes or so.

Here's quick recap of the more interesting things we've done in the last week (I'll try to provide pictures soon, I promise!).  We've been to my college (Mansfield) and seen the gorgeous library (but not the college cat...yet), the Botanic Gardens, the Ashmolean, Blackwell's (oh, Blackwell's), the University Parks.  We've been walking by the Cherwell and the canal. 

And yesterday, we did a quick day trip out to Bath on the train.  We did the usual Bath things: the baths, the Abbey, the Circus and Royal Crescent.  We got into No. 1, Royal Crescent, which is done up to look like a proper Georgian House.  It was lovely.  It also had an exhibition of the first editions of Jane Austen's six novels, which I drooled over.  We wanted to go to the Herschel Museum, but discovered, to Tim's great dismay, that it isn't open on Wednesdays.  Alas.  (William Herschel discovered Uranus in the 1780s but originally named it after George III.  Just think, the solar system could go: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, George, Pluto.  Weird.)

Also, I had my first, informal meeting with my supervisor today.  I've decided I'd better get cracking on the intensive reading I've got planned for myself!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

In Oxford

Well, we finally have an internet connection in Oxford.

We arrived in London on Tuesday, miraculously having gotten about a night's worth of sleep on the plane.  (The transatlantic flight is so much less trying if you don't have to be conscious for most of it!)  We had enough gumption to take quick spins through the Victorian sections of the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery, as well as the nearest Waterstones, where I was able to buy Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus (on sale!).  I'm about 90 pages in and absolutely loving it so far.  It reminds me a bit of The Prestige (the film, haven't read the book yet), as it is fin-de-siecle, transatlantic, and features duelling magicians.  It's wonderfully written and has a really palpable, magical sense of atmosphere.  If I have my wits about me, perhaps I'll write a review when I'm finished with it.

We arrived in Oxford yesterday, and perhaps would not have gotten into our flat in Summertown if the caretaker hadn't decided to come in on his day off.  Thank goodness he did!  We are slowly getting to know the neighbourhood and central Oxford and picking up necessities as we are able.  Today we bought a microwave, which makes me so, so happy.  Yesterday, the only thing I had to cook with was a single, solitary pot.

Tomorrow, my goal is to start thinking about getting bikes and to finally get a set of dishes.  We'll see how that works out.

Today, we went up to my college (Mansfield), which really is a very short walk from the Bodleian (and Blackwell's...), and took a look around.  The porter signed me out a key to the library, so I finally got to see inside.  It's beautiful.  It has two storeys and a high, painted ceiling and dark wood.  Lovely, lovely, lovely.  We also went up the tower to the MCR (Middle Common Room, or grad student common room).  Much nicer than the one at the U of S (I think), with red walls and comfortable-looking chairs.

Here is our bookshelf.  Just as when we first moved in together, Tim and I unpacked and arranged our books first thing.  Also, we've added some new ones to our collection, as we stopped in at Blackwell's today and took advantage of their 3 for 2 deal.  :)

Monday, 12 September 2011

Countdown: Leaving Today!

Well, frankly, I'm getting pretty excited.  We will be in London approximately in approximately 16.5 hours.  I've got my airplane books packed and ready to go.
North American cover

  1. Dreamhunter, by Elizabeth Knox (published as The Rainbow Palace in the UK).  I finished this book just before I went to England for the first time with my parents, three years ago.  I read the sequel, Dreamquake, while in Britain and finished the book in a massive book-reading spree lasting seven hours (ending at 5:00 am), even though I should have been getting a good night's sleep ahead of a day of touring around London.  Brain-twisting book crack, that's what this series is.  (It's set an an alternate New Zealand in the early 20th century and follows a family of Dreamhunters, who can go into a mysterious desert realm called "The Place" and bring back dreams to broadcast and sell and the corrupt government who tries to "regulate" the industry and people's lives.)
  2. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters.  This is the only Sarah Waters book I haven't read yet and probably her most well-known.  It follows a pickpocket who is sent to pose a maid to a young woman as part of a plot to ruin her and steal her inheritance.  But things don't quite go as expected.  It apparently riffs off of Victorian sensation novels such as Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, which I read last year and loved, so I'm really looking forward to this.  Waters' other novels - Tipping the Velvet (Victorian music hall-lesbian coming of age), Affinity (Victorian women's prison mixed spiritualism crossed with a mystery), The Night Watch (reverse chronology-women on the home front-World War II), and The Little Stranger (post-WWII country house ghost story with social criticism) - were all fantastic in different ways.
  3. Rick Steves' Great Britain 2009, which I just stole from my parents this morning.  Steves is absolutely my favourite travel guide writer and I'm looking forward to poring over the maps and coming up with grand travel plans for the coming weeks, months, and years.
For the record, Tim's taking an omnibus edition of the first four Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, for his airplane reading.

    Sunday, 11 September 2011

    Countdown: 1 Day!

    Well, aside from toiletries, our bags are packed and ready to go and seem to fall below the weight limits specified by Air Canada.

    All of us had a lovely barbecque over at Tim's parents' place.  Everything seems very strange now.  I still can't really believe we're going tomorrow - and not coming back until next summer.

    Not much more to say for now.  Will likely blog tomorrow, possibly en route.

    Countdown: 2 Days

    Just got back from an absolutely lovely farewell evening with friends at our favourite lounge.  Perhaps had too much to drink.  Tim is still out socializing, but I had to come back for some much needed sleep.

    Also, we managed to almost destroy our little 1993 Corsica (named Napoleon) yesterday.  I had noticed the "Low Oil Level" indicator light on my way home from an outing and before taking the car out again, Tim checked the oil and noticed it was very, very low so we drove it over to Tim's parents', because his dad and brother are both very capable of topping up oil, accompanied by strange engine noises and smells, and being aware that the engine temperature in the red zone for much of the trip (yikes!).  Turns out the heating core has busted and will be a bit interesting to fix.  If we had driven our car much longer, we probably would have blown the engine.

    Anyway, just we can get a good price when Tim's dad sells the car.  So, we are indeed carless, but seeing as we only have one full day left here, I think we'll be just fine.  We always wondered if our old car would die  before we left and it looks like the answer is: almost.

    Thursday, 8 September 2011

    Waiting on ... Thursday? The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

    North American cover
    I don't have much patience for blogging traditions (also I clearly didn't pay enough attention to the date yesterday and I don't want to wait until next Wednesday...), so I'm going to tell you about a book I am anticipating today.

    Lots of far more accomplished bloggers do "Waiting on Wednesday"s, but I thought I'd do one now and then so that you too can slaver over books that look fabulous but unfortunately haven't been released yet.

    A lot of people have blogged about this first book, The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, but it looks awesome and I think it will be one of the first books I buy at Blackwell's in Broad Street when we get to Oxford, in part because we arrive in Oxford on the 14th and the book comes out on the 15th.  Perfect timing!

    Here is the publisher's blurb:
    The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

    But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

    True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

    UK cover
    Doesn't that sound marvellously delicious?  And it's getting starred reviews all over the place (even from Kirkus, which is especially notable).  Also, author blurbs, including Audrey Niffenegger and Tea Obrecht, the recent - and very young - debut novelist and winner of this year's Orange Prize for The Tiger's Wife (another book I'd like to read).

    The Wall Street Journal did a story on Erin Morgenstern in which it claimed that The Night Circus could be the publishing world's next Harry Potter (which everyone knows is an easy descriptor for a hoped-for publishing phenomenon, but is an incredibly unlikely prospect).  It also outlined the crazy amounts of publicity the book has been getting: the film rights have been sold to Summit, which did the Twilight movies and the production company is directly marketing the book to those fans; there are going to be midnight lauches with circus performers in major cities.  It all seems a little over the top, since, really, this author is still an unknown quantity.  I suppose this may make good business sense, but I'd far rather just read the book and see.

    Other interesting reading:
    • A very recent interview of Erin Morgenstern with The Guardian's Alison Flood.
    • Erin Morgenstern's quite interesting blog, complete with pictures of cats!
    I am thoroughly looking forward to picking this book up on the 15th!

    P.S.  One of the chief reasons this book with likely not be the next Harry Potter is that, despite its subject matter, it is not in fact a YA novel.  It is an adult title and will be shelved with adult books.  For the sake of marketing, which is what the YA label often comes down to these days, its almost surprising that a title with such cross-over potential (see direct marketing to Twilight fans) wasn't published as a YA, which would allow it to be shelved in both locations, either in two different editions, or not.  You can really push the YA genre today, even if the book had supposedly "adult" content.  Or, perhaps it won't matter, and teens will gobble it up just as they do other adult market titles.  Interesting, in any case, as a book and a publishing phenomenon.

    (The other reason this book probably won't be Harry Potter is that it is a stand-alone title.  I find this slightly refreshing.)

    Countdown: 4 Days

    I didn't end up getting my vaccines on Tuesday, but did it today instead.  Man, boosters sure do make your arm  sore.  But that's one less thing to do in preparation for the big move.

    Still refining my SSHRC proposal.  I've started doing some reading of and on the Bronte juvenilia, which is fun.  I can't wait to be a full-time student again.  I'd forgotten how much fun it is just to read and learn new things.

    Not many days now.  None of this feels real yet.  I guess it will once we get to England.

    Tuesday, 6 September 2011

    Countdown: 6 Days

    A week from today, we will be in London, having survived our transatlantic flight.  This is absolutely crazy to think about.

    Today I'm doing some preparatory errands: refilling prescriptions, depositing cheques, getting immunized.

    Yes, I'm getting an MMR, since I never got my second dose of the mumps vaccine as a child.  Apparently Oxford and Oxford Brookes have both had mumps outbreaks in the last few years so I received a letter specifically encouraging me to go get immunized.  Also, it's time for my tetanus booster.  Oh goodie.  I'm not really a needles person, but, frankly, I'm sure I'm just building it up in my head.

    It's the first day of classes at the University of Saskatchewan today.  Campus was crawling with students and staff when I dropped Tim off at work.  I love that campus.  I'm filled up with feelings of tenderness for it now that I no longer have an official association with it (except as an alumna) and am about to leave it.  Also, I want to go back to school!  The back-to-schoolness is heavy on the air, and yet, I must wait over a month until Michaelmas Term starts.  Alas.  Oh well, I'll have plenty to occupy me soon enough.

    Monday, 5 September 2011

    One Week

    A week from now, we'll be en route to London and will officially be moving to the UK.  Frightening!  And exciting.

    We've been living quite happily with my parents for a week now and are still in the process of sorting through all our worldly possessions.  We had a lovely weekend with Tim's sister and brother-in-law, who came down for a visit.

    I really can't believe I only have a week left in Saskatoon.  It seems very strange indeed.