Thursday 19 October 2017

The Night Circus

The Night Circus
The Night Circus
By Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a spellbinding fairy tale of a novel.  Jumping back and forth through time, and moving from London to Cairo to Boston to Montreal, The Night Circus makes you feel as though magic is everywhere, if you just know where to look.

Hector Bowen makes his living as a magician.  But unlike other magicians of the 1870s, his performances go beyond the usual sleight of hand.  Hector, or Prospero as he is known, enchants his audience like no other.  

When Hector is presented with his estranged 5-year-old daughter Celia, he realizes that she has the gift of magic as well, and vows to train her.  But Hector is an arrogant man.  He binds Celia to an unbreakable vow; Celia, as an adult, will have to compete in a magical contest she knows little about.  And Hector, as “coach”, wants her to win.

But what will be the venue for this magical showdown?  Enter the Night Circus.  This is a circus the likes of which the world has never seen.  The Night Circus will suddenly appear in random cities during the overnight hours, making residents feel as though it has appeared by magic.  The circus is open each night from dusk to dawn.  Each tent is more mesmerizing than the next, with acts that include the incredible tattooed contortionist, a vertical labyrinth with a trapdoor exit at the top, a room full of bottles containing scents that transport visitors to other lands, and of course, the magic of Celia.

At the Night Circus, Celia meets Marco, and their romantic connection causes the earth to move – literally.  But Marco is revealed to be Celia’s competitor, and the two must navigate an epic romance that seems doomed from the start.  Which one will be the victor?  Can there be a winner in a scenario where the competitors fall in love?

The Night Circus will draw you in just as the fictional Night Circus draws in followers.  Many of the novel’s characters can think of nothing else after they attend.  Erin Morgenstern’s writing is magical realism at its best; you always feel that you’re teetering on the edge of fantasy and reality, but you can never decide which is best.

Friday 22 September 2017

Station Eleven

Station Eleven
Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

A famous actor has a heart attack on stage as he performs King Lear; a paramedic-in-training jumps out of the audience to perform CPR; and a 7-year-old actress watches her mentor pass away.  Outside the theatre, snow is falling, and a deadly flu is quickly spreading across the globe.  Unbeknownst to those in the thrall of the King Lear tragedy, the world as we know it is coming to an end.

So begins Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  Fast forward 20 years and that young actress is now performing with the Travelling Symphony.  Kirsten has little memory of the old world before the Georgia Flu.  With her parents and brother gone, she now has a new family – all survivors. 

Although there are many settlements, there are no longer towns per se, or even borders.  The Symphony is made up of actors and musicians who move from place to place performing nightly renditions of Shakespeare and Bach, amongst other things.  In a world that has turned dark, the Travelling Symphony brings light.  

There are many hazards on the road, but none so frightening as in St. Deborah-By-The-Sea.  This settlement is ruled by a Prophet; he takes many wives, often young girls, and holds sway over the townsfolk.  The Symphony knows when they arrive that they are in danger, and escape is much more difficult than they imagine.

Meanwhile, Station Eleven also follows the life of our paramedic.  Jeevan must make his way out of Toronto on terrifying roads strewn with the dead.  He must avoid marauding bandits and the dangers of a lawless world, to find… what?  There must be good people out there, he reasons.

As for our actor, Arthur’s former life is revisited – a life of fame, fortune and many regrets.  He leaves behind three ex-wives – one of whom has written the Station Eleven comic book from which the novel gets its name.  He also leaves one son, Tyler, to a new and dangerous existence.

Mandel writes of a dystopian world that is well within the realm of possibility.  At times the characters’ fear is palpable as they navigate the unknown.  But amongst all the heartbreak, beauty persists.  There is a rumour of a Museum of Civilization, located in an airport in Michigan.  The Symphony brings its brand of beauty to the world on a nightly basis.  And as the new world solidifies, people move beyond survival and towards lives they enjoy. 

Friday 25 August 2017

Miss Emily

Miss Emily
Miss Emily

By Nuala O’Connor

“Oh, chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words!  I love to use the pretty ones like blades and the ugly ones to console.  I use dark ones to illuminate and bright ones to mourn.  And when I feel as if a tomahawk has scalped me, I know it is poetry then and I leave it be.” (p. 40)

Nuala O’Connor’s lyrical language brings poet Emily Dickinson alive in Miss Emily.  And although Emily Dickinson’s poetry is held in high regard, her world is surprisingly small.  Reclusive and private, 36-year-old Emily is reluctant to even leave her own home.

Emily is close to her family: her mother, father and sister Vinnie, whom she still lives with, and her brother Austin who lives next door.  These are her primary contacts.  Austin’s wife, Sue, is Emily’s best friend (although Emily’s feelings for Sue run far deeper than friendship).  Emily’s entire world is close at hand and she likes it that way.  She does not want a husband or children, for she is in love with the words that run through her head at all times of the night and day.  

Enter Ada Concannon, an 18-year-old Irish servant.  Ada has left Ireland in search of work and adventure.  She’s a capable maid and cook, and she opens up Emily’s world. Emily often spends her time in the kitchen baking with Ada and observes with awe as Ada falls in love with an attractive young Irishman, Daniel Byrne.

Told in alternating chapters from the perspective of Emily and Ada, Miss Emily surprised me in its ability to pull me in.  The descriptions of 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts, and Ada’s reflections on Dublin and the Irish countryside evoke the period beautifully.

But the story begins to shift as Ada is catches the attention of the gruff Patrick Crohan, a colleague of Daniel’s.  As love between Daniel and Ada grows, Patrick’s behaviour becomes progressively more sinister, foreshadowing a coming storm.  Suspense in this novel builds carefully and slowly, and culminates in a horrifying crime. 

Miss Emily is a story of friendship and courage, and is almost entirely about women: their passions and their fears.  There is also the element of class struggle, and the question of whether justice for women is in the realm of possibility.  Despite its bland appearance, Miss Emily consistently made me want to read on!

Highly recommended!

Thursday 10 August 2017

History of Wolves

History of Wolves
History of Wolves

 History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Told through the perspective of 14 year old Linda/Madeline, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund is an incredible first novel filled with emotion, power and depth exploring Linda’s coming of age in a remote community in the northeastern US. 

Linda lives in a shack on the edge of a lake in northern Minnesota. The shack is what remains of a commune where Linda spent most of her childhood, until relations among the members became strained and the commune dissolved. Linda and her parents live off the land, away from town, and Linda is often left to her own devices, her parents not asking where she goes or what she gets up to.

Linda is alone, she attends the local school and we learn a bit about her school life, which does not include any close friendships. Her tales of school revolve around her teachers, particularly one teacher who encourages Linda beyond her comfort zone, but disappears later as he is accused of child pornography. 

The greatest focus is Linda’s relationship with the new neighbours across the lake, a young couple with a small child. The father, Leo, is often away and the mother, Patra, hires Linda to watch over her young son, Paul. Linda really enjoys the time spent with this family and loves teaching Paul about nature. However, from the start we get the feeling that Paul is not your typical toddler.  Patra is very protective of Paul and sometimes snaps at Linda unexpectedly. 

The relationship Linda has with Patra’s family is interwoven with stories of her life at school and at home, and show her as an outsider in each, wanting to belong. It is this need to belong that perhaps allows Linda to be unaware of what is really happening to Paul. The reader is as unsure as Linda as nothing is told to us outright, we are continually piecing things together until the tragic end.

The dreamy magic realism writing structure gives the story a surreal feel, but at the same time the characters and action compel you to keep reading to see what happens next. I really enjoyed this story and found it a quick read as I needed to keep reading to find out if my suspicions were correct. 

For other popular reading suggestions check out Richmond Public Library's Web site at