REVIEW: The Night Circus By Erin Morgenstern

I wasn’t really into circuses when I was growing up. I can’t remember ever going to one – something about the combination of animals being made to perform weird feats, creepy looking clowns and too many sweaty, loud people in one small space didn’t appeal to the quiet, odd bookworm kid that I was and so I never even asked to go when they came to town. As I got older I showed some interest in the new generation of circuses ala Cirque du Solei, but due to finances enjoyed it only on television, and I also grew to love old carnivals as portrayed in shows like Carnivàle, but alas these don’t really exist any more. However, if the Le Cirque des Rêves (the magical circus that is at the heart of The Night Circus) did exist I would gladly be amongst its loyal followers, the Rêveurs.

The Night Circus is one of those rare books where the setting has been developed into a vivid character in its own right, one to be loved or hated; one to fear or one to fear for; one to follow until the very end of the story, whatever that may hold. Because of the way the story progressed my feelings for the circus changed, just as they would with a complicated protagonist but throughout our tumultuous relationship I never lost my sense of wonder at what lay beyond its gates and I doubt that I would if I could actually walk its grounds.

The Night Circus begins long before Le Cirque des Rêves’ conception, in New York, 1873 when Prospero the Enchanter (or Hector Bowen when he’s off stage) receives an unexpected visitor – a child called Celia who is in fact his daughter left by her mother for him to raise. It becomes apparent quite quickly that Celia possesses magic just like her father, for though he pretends to be simply an illusionist on stage he in fact performs real magical acts masquerading as parlour magic. Early on in his paternal and mentoring relationship with Celia (which is at times cruel and often cold and emotionless) an old rival who he addresses as Alexander, pays him a visit and upon seeing the child’s abilities the two strike up a mysterious wager. Alexander (also known as Mr A.H- and “the man in the gray suit” throughout the book) then goes about choosing his own protegé by scouring orphanages and testing potential children. His choice is a young boy who is uncertain why he has been adopted by the mysterious stranger who barely speaks to him and instructs him to choose a name for himself.  The boy names himself Marco Alisdair and begins a long apprenticeship with his master which mainly consists of travel and reading, a far cry from Celia’s demanding and increasingly violent training under her father.

It is not until the  two children reach adulthood that the circus is dreamed up, seemingly by theatrical producer and eccentric Chandresh Christophe Lefevre who takes Marco as an assistant once he’s of work age. Chandresh, who is fond of lavish and unusual events, invites a collection of friends and acquaintances to a midnight dinner to discuss his idea for a unique circus and enlist their skills to make it a reality. His guests are an ex Prima Ballerina and fashion designer Mme. Padva, who will design the intricate costumes worn by the performers; period fashionistas Tara and Lainie Burgess, who will design details of the circus such as the material of the tents and general atmosphere; architect and engineer Ethan W. Barris who will take care of the circus’ structural elements; and the mysterious Mr A.H- who appears to have little impact on the circus’ creation but whose true involvement is revealed as the story unfolds. The concept  is simple but innovative: a circus which appears at its destination without warning; only opens at sunset and closes when the sun rises;  is decked out in a colour scheme of black and white rather than the usual bright circus colours; and which will feature acts never seen or scarcely imagined before. This circus will be called Le Cirque des Rêves – The Circus of Dreams.

As the circus is constructed and the performers hired (starting with the alluring tattooed contortionist, Tsukiko) the true purpose of it becomes clear – it is arena in which the protegés of Prospero and Mr A.H- will play “the game”, the mysterious event that their training has been leading to. Neither Celia or Marco  know what “the game” is meant to consist of, the outcome they are playing toward or initially who their opponent is, but they have both been told (albeit in a rather cryptic manner) that the circus is the setting and that they must both showcase their skills. Celia performs for Chandresh and his associates and is promptly hired as Le Cirque des Rêves’ Illusionist, but in doing so attracts the attention of Marco who recognises that her magic is no illusion and thus she must be his opponent. Marco is unable to conceive a reason for him to travel with the circus and so enlists his lover Isobel Martin to work as the circus’ Tarot reader and spy on Miss Bowen for him.

Thus begins a mystical back and forth between the magicians akin to a grand game of chess, in which they take turns in creating wondrous feats of imagination to showcase at the circus. In one move a tent of origami animals that fly around the tent including a paper dragon that breathes fire; in the next a beautiful forest where every detail is crafted out of delicate ice crystals. On and on the opponents try to out-do each other and along the way create a circus of mythical proportions which attracts crowds of wide-eyed visitors every night. When one devoted circus-goer by the name of Herr Fredrick Thiessen (who also helped create the circus by designing and making the extravagant clock that stands at its gates) begins to write about his treasured experiences at Le Cirque des Rêves he receives correspondence from other like-minded individuals around the world and The Rêveurs are born, a group of Le Cirque des Rêves devotees who distinguish themselves but wearing the circus’ palette of black and white with one accessory of bright scarlet, such as a scarf of handkerchief.

Unbeknownst to the circus folk and their loyal Rêveurs, the artisans of the circus, Celia and Marco are not creating the wonders for them, and as time has gone by they are no longer making them as moves of “the game” – they are creating for each other. Along the way Celia has also discovered the identity of her opponent and while the two of them should be competing, they can not fight the attraction between them and soon the exhibits transform from pieces on a chess board to secret tokens of love. But the lovers are unaware of the insidious intricacies of “the game” and how entwined everyone involved in Le Cirque des Rêves has become. No longer is the circus simply a magical wonderland where they can create to their heart’s content, there are countless lives at stake and one day “the game” will come to its deadly conclusion.

The Night Circus is a stunning creation on a very grand scale and I can barely fathom that it’s a debut novel. Every moment of it was an absolute delight, even the scenes that were heartbreaking. Even though the subject matter is in the realms of fantasy there is some themes that carry on into the realm of reality: how every war has innocent victims; the duality of life; natural talent (as shown in Celia) versus learnt skills (as shown by Marco); and of course the tried and true star-crossed lovers archetype (although it is told quite uniquely here). It also is a very sound historical novel, leading us from 1873 to 1903 and through England, America, Germany, France, Vienna, Spain and other steps in between with beautifully described fashions, buildings and social occasions and fabulous dialogue. Each character is crafted to perfection, especially the main ones, and they elicit an emotional response and connection very early on. But the real triumph of this novel is Morgenstern’s explosive, expansive, breathtaking imagination. The fact that she could come up with even one or two of the features of the circus is impressive enough, but the novel is fit to bursting with so many wonders, each one more magical than the one before it. I found myself gasping aloud at many moments as well as crying at some (I’m a sap!) and constantly longing that the circus was real. Plus it has the most stunning cover art, both inside and out and you know how I’m a sucker for a pretty cover 🙂

In researching this book online I have seen it being compared to Harry Potter and Twilight which I think is frankly ridiculous, but I guess that is because there has been a lot of hype and when you think literary hype those two series come to mind. If I was to compare it to anything it would be the movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus as they both involve a dangerous wager and a travelling troupe which offers a unique and magical experience, but beyond that I have never encountered anything quite like it. I have kept my synopsis brief (…ish) because there is so much in this story and so much that can be spoilt, so if I have piqued your interest, just go read it – it is truly amazing.

Also when I was researching I found that there is a game online where you can explore the circus (kind of like a ‘choose your own adventure’ story) and I will certainly have a play there as it’s as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing Le Cirque des Rêves….besides reading it again ;P Oh! AND I also found that there has been some buzz about a movie being made!! Apparently it is in development by Summit Entertainment and according to IMDb its due to be released next year – I hope they do it justice.

I give The Night Circus By Erin Morgenstern:

4 ½ / 5 Stars

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Fiction and Fairy Tales in the mail and a Raven rises from the Grave.

Yesterday I woke up to a lovely sight – a package of books that mum had brought in out of the heat for me and left on the arm of my chair 🙂

I had almost forgotten that I ordered a couple of books from my book club Doubleday when they were having a sale and I could get an added discount thanks to a code I received in an email (I’m a sucker for a bargain!), so I was quite excited to rip open the cardboard and gaze upon my bounty!

The two books I bought were The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which was the 2011 Man Booker Prize winner and an absolute steal at $17.95 instead of the usual price of $30; and Fairy Tale Rituals by Kenny Klein, a non-fiction book that delves into the magic and mythology behind popular fairy tales and then details rituals based on the tales that work on different aspects of your life. As I may or may not have mentioned before, religiously I define myself as an Eclectic Pagan and mainly take my beliefs from various mythologies as well as herb/flower/animal/stone etc. based beliefs, and since I love traditional fairy tales I was instantly drawn to this book (plus it was only $11.65!).

Then, later in the day while I was hiding from the heat in front of a fan in my room and reading, I finished Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris  and chose a new book from the Books-I-Own-But-Have-Yet-To-Read pile which had grown to 19 strong!

This meant a long and involved eeny meeny miny moe session (in which I wrote down the publication details for all the books to make it easier in the future!) and eventually I landed on The Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder, a debut Historical Romance set in Scotland during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. I haven’t read much Historical fiction of late (the last one was Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier and that was one of only a handful last year) and since it is one of my well-loved genres it was nice to delve into the past again, especially as my other reads are on the more fantastical side.

In other news this month is the first time I have posted 10 posts (more now!) in the one month since May! This may be due to the fact that I’m on holidays so I’m reading more, or it could be because of my 2012 National Year of Reading extras, but either way I’m quite pleased that my post numbers have been up when they’ve been lagging a bit over the months.

Stay tuned for the next Top 10 lists (Top 10 “Classics” and Top 10 Classics I Want to Read) at the end of January/beginning of February as well as the final Top 10 theme poll, and hopefully some old reviews so I can get back to regular reviewing 🙂

Happy Reading!

Plentiful Finds and What a Coincidence!

Hello all!

I’ve had a couple of crazy weeks lately, leading up to the end of the semester and working as well, but on the upside my recent work at Central library and starting casual work at Joondalup has resulted in some extra money which is always nice 🙂

This extra cash burning a hole in my pocket has allowed me to start my Xmas shopping and, as is to be expected, I have bought myself quite a few books – and pretty exciting and cheap ones at that!

The books I have found are (yes, alphabetical order and all!):

Title: Ares Express
Author: Ian McDonald
Country of Origin: UK
Genre: Science Fiction

 

 

 

Title: Boneshaker
Author: Cherie Priest
Country of Origin: USA
Genre: Science Fiction/Steampunk-zombie-airship Adventure ;P

 

 

 

Title: Bye, Beautiful
Author: Julia Lawrinson
Country of Origin: Australia
Genre: Australiana/Literary/Young Adult

 

 

 

Title: The Crimson Petal and the White
Author: Michel Faber
Country of Origin: Netherlands
Genre: Historical/Literary

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of these were op-shop finds and so cost under 10 bucks each, and I’m quite pleased with the variety of genres I have found 🙂

On top of the op-shop finds I also purchased a book that I have been waiting for since the beginning of time (or at least it feels like that) – the newest book in the Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody, The Sending!

I am outrageously ecstatic about finally getting my hands on this book, because as I have said before I have been hanging out for it since I finished the last one (Feb 2009!) and the release date has changed so many times since then.

In other reading news, I finished Trick or Treat by Kerry Greenwood last night and straight away chose another book off my Library book to-read pile using my usual process and out of the 9 books on the pile I happened to end up on this book:

The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle by Catherine Webb

I’ve wanted to read this for a while, and I did borrow it from Joondalup after a uni friend and Bookbagger recommended it, but recently it had to go back because someone else had requested it and I re-borrowed it from Maylands.

The reason choosing this book was a bit of a funny coincidence is that last week I saw that the friend/Bookbagger who recommended it in the first place (you know who you are ;P)  is currently reading it as well! Maybe we can share little Horatio Lyle tidbits with each other 🙂

Well, that’s all for now. I am closing my recent poll tomorrow so if you want to have your say get in fast! At the ‘mo the theme in the lead is Obscure books/recommended books which will consist of the following two Top 10 posts: Top 10 books I’ve read that no one seems to have heard of and Top 10 books I think everyone should read. It’s a pretty fun one so I’m happy it’s winning, but there’s some other great ones in the poll too so I wouldn’t mind a sudden landslide ;P

REVIEW: The Secrets of the Chess Machine by Robert Löhr

Imagine you’re a noble in 18th Century Europe, a time when concepts like computers, the Internet, and smart phones were as foreign as alien technology. A time of powdered wigs, white faces, corsets and carefully placed beauty spots (and not just for the ladies!) where the height of human invention was the automatons, clockwork machinery that performed tasks previously only achievable by people, such as writing and playing music. And imagine that in this world an automaton is revealed that can think for itself and play a game of chess against real opponents. This is the world in which The Secrets of the Chess Machine flourishes, illuminating the sordid secrets of Europe’s nobility and the depths they would stoop to, to be in the limelight.

The plot is based on the true story of an unbeatable chess-playing automaton named The Turk that toured Europe from 1770 to 1854, but was revealed to be a hoax in the late 1820s. In the book (as well as in real life) the creator of this “machine” is Wolfgang von Kempelen a civil servant of Empress Maria Theresia of Austria and Hungary. After seeing a magician perform at the palace, Kempelen boasts to the Empress that he could come up with a more impressive experiment, even without the former training, and she calls his bluff, giving him 6 months off to develop his invention. Kempelen has ambitions to build a speaking machine, but he soon realises that it is not achievable in the time and so he comes up with the fiendish idea of the chess machine – a contraption that appears to think and play chess but in fact will house a man controlling its actions from the inside.

To find the perfect “brain” for the chess machine Kempelen travels to Venice, and approaches a dwarf called Tibor Scardanelli, who is a gifted chess-player and is in prison for a bar fight. Tibor, a devout catholic, doesn’t initially want to be involved in the hoax but when his circumstances take a turn for the worse he approaches Kempelen and secretly travels with him to his home in Pressburg. So starts an intricate tale of deception and sin where Tibor must be kept secret but is constantly being coerced into breaking Kempelen’s rules by his assistant Jacob. The trio tour with The Turk, exhibiting it and playing against nobility and the common man alike, with relative ease, until the Countess Ibolya Jesenák – Kempelen’s former mistress – dies under suspicious circumstances in the company of The Turk. At this point the novel shifts genre from a strictly historical saga to a mystery/thriller as Kempelen and Tibor’s professional relationship shifts into ugly territory, rife with blackmail and accusations.

Löhr has a very interesting writing style, which I’m sure would have been even better in its native tongue, but as I can’t read German I am thankful for Anthea Bell‘s expert translation. His style mixes traditional story-telling devices such as conflict/resolution with unexpected metaphorical battles, such as a game of chess being described like an epic war, and a debate between Kempelen and a church representative (who believes the automaton is an unholy abomination) described as a retelling of Zeus’ punishment of Prometheus. The detailed descriptions of the chess games and various automatons were fascinating, and Löhr certainly painted a vivid picture of 18th Century Vienna, Hungary, Italy and France with his cast of over-fluffed ladies and powder-wigged dandies. Overall it was a really enjoyable read with a solid historical basis, with an addition of author notes at the end where Löhr explains the truth behind his fiction and makes clear the parts he made up. A recommendation for lovers of good historical fiction with a dash of murder and intrigue.

I give The Secrets of the Chess Machine by Robert Löhr:

4 / 5 Stars

Short story? SHORT!?

So, I started reading the first story in Yearn : tales of lust and longing on Sunday night thinking that I could read it all that night as well as start Stardust… and I only finished it last night. The reason why it took me three night to read it when normally I read a short story in one go? It was 70 odd pages long! That is not what I call a short story! But to its credit it was a great story and definitely needed as much explanation as was given, so it can be forgiven. *Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to know the basic plot of this story, don’t read on*

The story is set in Victorian England and is about a young biographer who has almost finished writing a biography on a famous explorer but has just about run out of money as his father doesn’t support him anymore. He is therefore relying on his new book to be a success, when he finds out that his arch-enemy (and coincidentally, the uncle of his fiance) is writing a biography on the same subject, and as he is more well-known and respected, his book would be more popular leaving our hero’s book to fall into obscurity.

The only hope for the young biographer is to find some nugget of information on his subject that is new so that his book will make an impact. He looks over all the resources he has found, with no luck, and then, while he’s wallowing in despair a chimney sweep comes to clean his chimney. They get into a conversation about work, and when the sweep hears of the subject of the book he reveals that he swept the chimney of the very house that the great man once lived in, and in fact found a canvas bag up there with a journal in it belonging to the man. Trying to hide his desperate excitement the biographer asks if he can look over the papers to help with his writings (leaving out the importance of this find, so he doesn’t have to pay the sweep).

On reading the journal he discovers it contain detailed descriptions of an elaborate ritual the explorer participated in with his lover in Tahiti that involves taboo sex acts (involving two men and two women) and animal sacrifice. The biographer is elated as he knows that this controversial material is just what his book needs to become a hit, but the purpose of the ritual interests him even more. The ritual is meant to channel the participates sexual energy to a goddess that will allow the person conducting the ceremony to see through another’s eyes for an hour as long as they have a personal item of the person they want to inhabit. In a recent altercation between the biographer and his rival, one of the rival’s gloves comes into his possession and this gives the young man an idea – he could recreate the ritual, which would not only prove to him that the journal was real, but also allow him a peak at his rivals work.

To perform the ritual the biographer borrows a large amount of money from family members to buy the supplies, hire two prostitutes and enlist the help of the chimney sweep. The four travel to the woods and perform the ritual and at the moment of joint climax, the biographer does find himself looking out through his enemy’s eyes. What he sees sickens him, but you don’t find out exactly what it is until the end.

The biographer publishes the book to high acclaim, and there is even rumours that it will be banned (which is course a writer’s best publicity) but then the biographer receives a message saying that his writing has been called into question by his rival, and he has to prove it is not fiction at a public debate the next day. The biographer has the manuscript, but he also needs the chimney sweep as a witness. The biographer goes into the chimney sweep’s impoverished neighbourhood, despite the fact that there has been a outbrake of cholera, but finds that the man he seeks has died of the disease. Dismayed, the biographer returns home, uncertain of what he will say in his defence, and is visited by none other than his rival. The rival reveals that he knows the diary was a fake because he hired the chimney sweep (an actor) and wrote the diary himself, using his knowledge of the explorer’s writing style and handwriting, and he simply copied the details of the ritual from an old grimoire. The rival threatens to reveal he is a fake, but the biographer becomes enraged, and proclaims that the ritual works because he performed it himself. At this point his fiance (and his rival’s niece) enters and accuses the biographer of betrayal. He then explains what he saw through his rival’s eyes – the man having sex with his own niece. He makes the rival a deal – he won’t expose him and his niece if he withdraws his accusation and publically endorses the book at the debate.

It was a great story, and even had potential to become a novel, but I’m glad the next one is much shorter 🙂