March 3rd, 2012

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Book 15: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

UK Cover
Book 15: The Night Circus.
Author: Erin Morgenstern, 2011.
Genre: Historical Fantasy. Magical Realism. Tarot. Circus.
Other Details: Hardback. 387 pages.

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. - from the author's website.

The Night Circus is the venue for a dual between two young magicians - Celia, the daughter of an enchanter, and Marco, a sorcerer's apprentice, both trained from childhood for this purpose alone. Unbeknownst to Celia and Marco, this decades-long game of imagination and will is one in which only one will be left standing.

US Cover
Mainly set in the late 19th/early 20th century, this novel was a magical experience that enchanted me from its opening pages. The writing is elegant and lyrical; weaving rich descriptions with a cast of intriguing eccentric characters. It is just the kind of novel that I love, blending elements of magical realism with a strong sense of its historical setting.

Erin Morgenstern is an artist and quite obviously a natural storyteller. She invites her readers into an exploration of the circus and through it of what might be possible. The narrative jumps back & forth in time, switches points of view, with a a sprinkling of vignettes: all of which add to its dream-like atmosphere. The Tarot also plays a significant role in the story and Erin had designed a deck of her own, The Phantomwise Tarot.

Noting reviews on various sites, it seems to be a novel that polarizes readers. Certainly, there is a restraint and coolness to her writing style, which is somewhat at odds with the current trend in fantasy for first person narration and emotional outpourings. Morgenstern also does not seek to answer all the questions raised by her story, leaving a sense of mystery at its heart. This novel reminded me a little of the style of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, another novel I fell in love with and one that people again seem to love or hate in equal measure.

The UK hardback edition book was beautifully produced with a real attention to details in its binding and use of colour. I also did admire the cover art for the US edition with the circus being cradled in an elegant white-gloved hand.

Erin Morgenstern's website - lots to explore!
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#24 Rosie's War: Rosamond Say and Noel Holland (2011)

This is the extraordinary true story of a plucky young woman and her dramatic escape from a German-run internment camp in Occupied France. Written in Rosemary's own words and completed by her daughter and son-in-law after her death, it includes photographs and documents from Rosie's incredible journey. Rosie's story moves from artistic circles in Avignon, through occupied Paris and the privations of prison camp, and across war-ravaged Europe. A tale of remarkable courage: not only of Rosie herself, but also of the many people who helped and harboured her at huge personal risk. Rosie's story sheds light on the little-known story of the thousands of British women trapped in Occupied France. Moving, enthralling, and inspirational, 'Rosie's War' is a book for all to enjoy.

I find, I often really enjoy true stories of World War Two.  For me they really bring home the realities of a time that I think is hard for us now in the 21st century to properly appreciate. We live in a world now, where everything is known in an instant, where travel is easier and faster than it has ever been.  This book – and many like it – remind us of a time when people could go weeks without knowing whether their loved ones were ok, making a phone call or sending a telegram was an involved process and sometimes a costly one during the lean years of 1939 – 1945.

This book – which I think is only available in hardback or kindle edition at the moment – is a hugely readable and enjoyable book. A fairly quick and easy read it is a quite extraordinary story of courage and overcoming adversity. I found myself wondering time and again how I would have coped – as a young twenty two year old, trapped in a terrifying situation – I don’t think I would have done anything like as well as Rosamond (known as Pat) Say did.

Rosie – working in France as an Au Pair – realises in 1940 she has to get out of France fast – unfortunately she receives some poor advice – and finds herself in Paris just as the Germans arrive. She’s a young English woman alone and with little money in a city occupied by her country’s enemy. Around her are people living in fear, collaborators and Germans.  After working in a police station for a short time, Rosie is interned as an enemy alien, and sent to a women’s camp. Here she endures horrendous conditions, poor food and sanitation, terrible cold, lice and overcrowding. Later she and the friends she has made are moved to the much nicer camp at Vittel, a camp used for German propaganda – conditions are better with less restrictions – Rosie begins to think of escape. How she escapes and what follows is an amazing mixture of good luck and bravery. Rosie and her friends were a remarkable group of people – and their stories are extremely well told.

Reading this on kindle – I had to wait until I came to the end to examine the pictures that are included – which I would have enjoyed being able to flick to whilst reading – but that is a small point – as at the moment the kindle edition is far cheaper than the hardback. I would certainly recommend this to people who enjoy true life stories from World War Two.


#9 - Mankind ill needs a fanfic such as this.

I just finished reading Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, which was an unfortunate affair. It purports to be an exploration of "what if Dracula won (and married Queen Victoria)?", but the author is more interested in exploring a rote human-vampire love story between his two undistinguished leads than he is in exploring what a slow spread of vampirism would mean in this unique setting. He has no respect for the original cast, who're all dramatically OoC here: Quincey is a dumb hick, Art a cowardly, collaborating fop, and Seward's voice doesn't remotely follow from that of the books, not even allowing for the aggrieved state in which he is here.

As has been pointed out earlier in the comm, one of the book's big problems is its cavalcade of cameos from other works. Newman wants this to be not only a Dracula book but also a Professor Moriarty book and a Dr. Fu Manchu book and an Everyone Who Ever Appeared in a Novel Set or Written in the Victorian Era book. It's not only wearying and distracting, but Newman doesn't do anything with these folks once they pop up - he's interested in references, not characters. The other issue is that the author thinks he's being really, really freaking clever - so clever that we might not understand how clever he's being without help, and so he includes really ridiculously obvious signposts as to their identities way past any need for them. At one point, for instance, Dr. Moreau appears (performing a vivisection with Dr. Jekyll). "'Man is inherently a brute,'" Moreau says, and the narration then takes note of his "hairy fists." OK, fine, he's the Moreau from The Island of, I think we got that already. But wait - then Moreau, talking of vampires, expounds on how the "'shapeshifters'" are "'an atavism...the first footfall on the path of regression to savagery.'" OK, OK, "atavism," shapeshifting, "savagery," it's the vivisectionist Moreau, we got it, thanks--"'Why,' [Moreau said,] 'we would...raise lesser beasts to human form.'" OK, OK, IT'S THAT MOREAU. SHUT UP ALREADY.

Other problems:

- The big mystery that's stymying Mycroft Holmes, Prof. Moriarty, *and* Dr. Fu Manchu (and therefore needs the hero's unique talents, you see) is ridiculously simple to solve, and anyone who takes as long as our own investigators to notice the vital clue needs to hand in his or her metaphorical badge. (Sherlock Holmes is indisposed, having been shuttled off to a prison camp for political malcontents with Bram Stoker.)

- I say that the cameo appearances have no purpose, but Newman brings on some characters (Lestat, for instance) solely to insult them and point out their alleged inferiority to his original creations. That's a really bald steal from the Mary Sue playbook and perhaps the biggest sign that Newman needed his cameo addiction reigned in.

- The book is ridiculously campy in its allegedly mature treatment of sexuality. Dr. Seward: "'Now I can find it in myself to feel sorry for the Art of those days, worried sick over his worthless girl, made as big a fool as I by the Light of the West, who would submit by night to the Beast from the East.'" So, did the Beast from the East win by pinfall, or was Lucy "The Light of the West" Westenra counted out? I hope Drac snapped into a Slim Jim after his big victory.
(I also hope everyone cut a promo with Mean Gene Okerlund beforehand.)

- Every homosexual character is a sniveling, predatory fop (or, in the lone female case, a mannish, overly-solicitous false friend). The book's portrait of Oscar Wilde is pretty bad.

- Speaking of noxious stereotypes: Did Newman realize, particularly in the final chapters, how much he was playing into the unsavory miscegenation theme that runs throughout the original Dracula, the atavistic Eastern Bloc ape running roughshod over the fair English by defiling its chief woman, with only the pureblood noble Frenchwoman who "has no equal" able to gainsay his rule? It seems that Newman's playing into a clear Hierarchy of White Culture.
(Also: the thoroughly incompetent light in which the book casts Queen Victoria and the fate it holds for her struck me as really disrespectful, even at over a century removed from her death.)

The book had a good premise but made abysmal use of it. I would've rather read a book about Sherlock Holmes breaking out of that vampire concentration camp, actually.

50 Books Challenge: Book 5 - 13

5. The Walking Dead: Book One
by Robert Kirkman

genre: graphic novel/horror

The Walking Dead: Book One is a compilation of the series first twelve issues. I've been reading this amazing title since almost its beginning back in 2004, though now I tend to wait for the volumes rather than the individual issues at this point, and I decided I wanted to re-read it from the start now that the television is back under way. My issues are all in storage so I went ahead and borrowed this from the library. There's nothing like this particular title. It's not just appealing for the horror facets or the incredible way that the inking (there is no coloring in the issues) do so much for its bareness. It's the story that gets you right in the gut and heart. A group of humans surviving in a world where zombies (walkers) are diminishing their numbers daily. I can't really describe it because it's honestly a crazy awesome experience.

Recommended: Oh, yes. Very very much.

6. Our Tragic Universe
by Scarlett Thomas

genre: fiction

I read Thomas' previous novel, The End of Mr. Y., on recommendation of rromantic and it was such an interesting read. Though the style was familiar, it took me a little longer to fall into this story. I don't think it's for everyone to be honest. The wording can be pretentious and the characters aren't likable but somehow the story eventually gets you especially with some of the supernatural aspects to it.

Recommended: I liked it and think if its something you can enjoy, it be good.

7. Blue Dahlia: Book One of On The Garden Triology
by Nora Roberts

genre: supernatural romance

I love Nora Roberts supernatural books (though I'm not a fan of her normal romance ones for the most part) and this one is pretty good. It takes place in Georgia and involves three women who live in and run an extensive greenhouse. The greenhouse is an old mansion that is haunted by the ghost of a woman. Normally only kids can see her but sometimes mothers do as well. This books is about Stella, a widow with two boys who restarts her life in order to get through her grief. She finds work in the greenhouse as a manager and finds love with a hot landscaper as she fights against an angry ghost.

Recommended: I really loved this book and am excited for the next one. If it's a genre you like then I totes think you should give.

8. The Walking Dead: Volume Three and Four
by Robert Kirkman

genre: graphic novel/horror

Continuing with the re-reading of this awesome title. The story now delves deeper into each characters and brings starkly into view the horribleness of their situation. The artistry in this issues are amazing.

Recommended: Yes. Yes. Yes.

9. Invisible
by Robert Kirkman

genre: graphic novel

The second title written by Kirkman, it's a unique look at being a superhero's son and eventually superhero. I like the characters. They are normal despite all the powers and villains. The art is minimal in a lot of areas but it works for the title. I like the dialogue and stories quite a bit as well but it doesn't quite reach me as fan like The Walking Dead has.

Recommended: Definitely worth a read if you like your superhero origin stories.

10. If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't)
by Betty White

genre: autobiographical

Betty White is one of my most favorite people in the world, seriously. I think she's smart and savvy. Incredibly funny and sweet and raunchy in the best way possible. Quick on her feet and honest. This book shows all this. Told in small vignette format, it gives enough to satisfy without baring it all for the world. I had a great time reading.

Recommended: A definite for Betty White fans and even if you're not one, I think you'd like this book.

11. The Looking Glass Wars
by Frank Beddor

genre: fantasy

What I enjoy most about this book (and it's a trilogy so I'm excited for what's to come) is the way Beddor managed to keep to the mythology of Alice in Wonderland yet twist it so much that you feel it's a fresh perspective. In this version of the classic story, Alyss in the actual heir to Wonderland but due to her evil Aunt Redd, she's lost herself in our world while those in hers are looking to find their savior. There's genius use of side characters you don't normally think much about and Beddor manages to make the story so intriguing and a little scary.

Recommended: Definitely. It's also now available as a graphic novel title but I think you should read the books first.

12. Dear Daddy Long Legs
by Jean Webster

genre: young adult fiction

Jean Webster was an interesting woman for her times and her book reflects that. I first read this book when I was about ten years old and was completely charmed by its main character Judy and her mysterious benefactor, Daddy Long Legs. On re-reading it, I find that it's still a lovely, charming book even as I realize that there are certain aspect of it which I don't necessarily agree with. The best part is watching the maturity of its main character and her relationship with the men in her life.

Recommended: I liked it quite a bit then and again, now.

13. The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

genre: young adult fiction

Suzanne Collins is a genre saver for me. That's not even a light statement I make. After the debacle of Stephanie Meyers, who I honestly think is one of the worst writers ever and what I felt she did to the future of strong female characters, Collins' The Hunger Games thrills me. I first read this book when it came out in 2008 and decided to re-read it because 1) the movies is coming out and 2) my god-sister is reading it as well. I don't know how to explain all the feelings I get with this book, how much I love Katniss and how I wish with all my might that Peeta was an actual person in this world. Everything about this book is awesome to me. The setting, the description of the world she created, the development of her characters, the shock and discomfort of the Hunger Games and in the end the journey of her characters... it's all pretty wonderful.

Recommended: Absolutely. Do it. READ.

13 / 50 books. 26% done!


In Five Days That Shocked the World: Eyewitness Accounts from Europe at the End of World War II, Nicholas Best collects reminiscences from individuals, many of whom later became famous.  Book Review No. 6 recommends the work, for its pacing, readability, and no end of surprises, unless you're already a devotee of World War II arcana.  Jimmy Carter and Jack Kennedy make cameo appearances.  So does a sympathetic officer in the U.S. Army, who takes Benito Mussolini's wife in protective custody, allowing her son to become brother-in-law to a hungry girl the world later knows as Sophia Loren.  Alexandr Solzhenitsyn is already in another kind of protective custody.  Josef Ratzinger and Karol Wojytila have slipped away, at some risk, from respectively conscripted service and forced labor, anticipating a return to their devotions at seminary.  And Adolf Hitler's nephew William is in the Navy.  That's the U. S. Navy.  Fascinating collection of stories.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
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#25 Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi (2003)

Chosen by my book group I can honestly say it is not a book I would have gone where near otherwise. My first experience of a graphic novel, this has been an interesting reading experience for me but probably one I am unlikely to repeat. As a reader I love language – I love description and clever wordsmithery (not sure if that’s not a real word?) I like blocks of text. None of those things are really present in a graphic novel. I found the size of the print a big problem for me with my poor eyesight too. I actually gave myself quite a headache while reading it.
So as a graphic novel virgin – I’m not sure I am qualified to write a decent review, as it is a different medium, and an art form that I have no previous experience of so all I can do is recount my reactions to it.
This book is the complete Persepolis – the story of a childhood and the story of a return.
Marjane comes across strongly as an intelligent feisty young girl/woman who becomes really quite politicised; with a rebellious streak. From a fairly young age she is forced to become all too aware of the things that are happening in her country. She is the daughter of outspoken Marxists, the great-granddaughter of Iran’s last emperor. The story re-creates the everyday life of Marjane’s family, after the fall of the Shah and during the rise of the fundamentalist regime. Marjane is instantly a character that is easy to identify with she is adored by her parents and has a touchingly close relationship with her parents and grandmother. She quickly learns to separate her public and private self, but she also learns to rebel in small ways – and her parents begin to fear for her rebellious nature. At 14 Marjane is sent to Austria – where she must learn a greater independence away from her parents. The second part then relates Marjane’s four years in Austria, her confusion over who she is and her later return to Iran when is 18.
I was surprised at how this graphic style manages to covey the emotions and upheavals of Marjane as she grows up. The simple stark black and white images are powerful, perfectly conveying the fear, tension and rigidity of the regime.
I found Marjane’s story compelling and a fascinating insight into the Iranian way of life. However I didn’t enjoy the process of reading this – the print was too small for to read comfortably and I missed prose. I did feel though that I liked Marjane enormously and think she is very brave – her book is marvellously honest and for that alone she should be commended. It was an interesting book to read though for many other reasons, I learned a lot about Iran for a start – and I am glad I have had the chance to read something I would never have picked up if not for my book group. I am looking forward to the discussion of it on Wednesday evening.

Book 9: Clan of the Cave Bear

Set in the Ice Age, this book is about a little girl whose parents are lost in an earthquake and left to defend for herself. Attacked by a cave lion and left for dead, she is discovered by a Neanderthal tribe, themselves displaced. They are searching for a new home and the recovered Ayla, in her wanderings, rather propitiously finds a cave just right for them all to live in. Although some are not accepting of the new child (they consider her ugly) she is adopted by them and learns their ways. 

In 2010, a Neanderthal skeleton was found with fossilized vegetable remains in its teeth. Before that, they were considered primarily meat-eaters. It has also recently discovered that they used musical instruments, used medicine, and wore feathers as a fashion statement. Although Clan of the Cave Bear was written long before these discoveries (1980) , the author was very much ahead of her time. Much of her predictions of their human like behavior has since proven to be correct.

In my opinion the neanderthals and their society is much more interesting than the character Ayla.  She isn't much of a character , actually, just a sort of symbol for the modern human and how it began. And also, apparently their superiority. In this book she is a better hunter than any of the men, and also depicted as more intelligent. When she counts to twenty the medicine man is shocked to his core.  Also, nothing bad seems to happen to her. When it does, somehow it boomerangs back into being an advantage for her. 

Despite some qualms, this book is simply a good story about man's earliest steps into modernity. It is very interesting in that sense, and reminded me of all the modern things i take for granted. But we also miss out on awesome things like wooly mammoths, too...sigh...

The writing is pretty good. It will keep you hooked from beginning to end, even when it is dragged down with wayyy too much detail, which ends up making the book more bloated than it needs to be. 

Also, the book ends on a cliffhanger. If you want to see where (when?)  Ayla ends up, I suggest you play Chrono Trigger.