Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I first heard of The Night Circus because of NaNoWriMo, and immediately added it to my TBR list for two reasons: 1) it sounded cool, and 2) it was originally a NaNo novel, and I feel a solemn duty to support those whose November scribblings got published.

Synopsis courtesy Goodreads:

the-night-circusThe 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 both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.

I liked Celia and Marco, for the most part, but their romance wasn’t as large a part of the story as I expected (or okay, hoped—I like romance!). Since Marco was required to stay in London while the circus traveled all over the world, he and Celia were separated for great swaths of the story. We see their relationship build from the different tents and areas they add to the circus, in addition to the few times they actually see each other.

By and large the book is about the mysteries of the circus, the mysteries of Celia’s and Marco’s teachers, and their competition. From the moment the story begins, Morgenstern gradually brings everything she needs, weaving together all the pieces that will come into play by the end of it.

The key word there, though, is “gradual.” The beginning of the book moves very slowly as we go through both Celia’s and Marco’s childhoods before the competition actually begins, and then occasionally jumping forward in time a bit to tell the story of Bailey, a young boy very intrigued by the circus. Because of this, the early sections of the book drag at times. However, about a third to halfway through the novel, the story hit its stride.

The language is absolutely beautiful, and probably the strongest part of the novel. The descriptions are so lush it feels as though you’ve been transported to the circus, and reading Morgenstern’s writing was a large part of what kept me going when the story itself was dragging.

Viewpoints swap between third-person present tense, telling the story of the competition between Celia and Marco and the circus’s inception, and then second person. This is one of the few stories I’ve read that does second person well, and that’s for two reasons.

One, it’s speaking as if you, the reader, are a visitor to the circus, which works very well within the story. And two, it doesn’t happen often. The second person sections aren’t very long, providing just a bit of a frame and some foreshadowing to the unfolding story. (This is good, because after If on a winter’s night a traveler, I’ve developed a twitch regarding stories in second person.)

Overall, I really enjoyed The Night Circus, I think in part because it felt like reading a fantasy disguised as a literary novel (or perhaps vice versa). It’s not on a “holy cow, you have to read this now” recommendation level for me, but it’s a lovely, beautifully written story.

Book Review: If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

If on a winter's night a travelerIf on a winter’s night a traveler was given to me by one of my WriMos during our TGIO party after NaNoWriMo 2011. Half a glance at the book and I knew it was so far out of my typical reading zone that it may as well have been in another solar system. However, he assured me it was good.

Of course, I put off reading it. I had a draft to finish, then other books that were more interesting, that I was more excited about. But finally, finally I sat down and started it, because I wanted to expand my reading horizons and because I needed clear off some of my growing TBR list before I’m allowed to get any more books.

It’s not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a book to make you think, really think, where the author never uses a ten-cent word when he has a shiny five-dollar word at the ready, and where every single person talks as though they picked up their vocabulary from a doctoral thesis in the fine arts.

And the paragraphs are longer than a football field.

And the paragraphs are longer than a football field.

It’s difficult for me to review because it’s not the type of story I’m most familiar with. It’s almost as though If on a winter’s night a traveler is an experiment in storytelling, a new way to write a novel, through the lens of a reader reading other novels.

That being said, the style and structure of it ultimately fascinated me, and that was what kept me reading. I wanted to see how Calvino was ultimately going to tie all the disparate threads together.

The novel begins with, perhaps, the most meta opening sentence in the history of novels:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.

That’s your first clue that this isn’t the typical novel: every other chapter is written in second person, talking about you, the Reader, on your journey not just through If on a winter’s night a traveler, but the beginnings of nine other novels, each interrupted for one reason or another at a very tense moment.

It’s a viewpoint decision that makes sense, considering what Calvino is doing, but it definitely takes some getting used to, and it was a struggle for me to initially get into the story.

However, there were a number of slyly amusing moments early on, like this excerpt about types of books that any booklover will recognize:

Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading… And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.

Sections like this made me smile and made it easier to read, particularly early on. Calvino has a wonderful way with words and an adoration of long sentences and longer paragraphs. He excels at putting words to universal concepts, so that while you’re reading you have to stop and consider the words and say, “Yes, I understand that. I’ve felt that.”

And it’s very interesting to follow the Reader and the Other Reader on their journey through the books, through what novels mean to them and through the search that brings them closer together. It’s so unlike anything I’ve ever read before that it was cool just to see how it would turn out.

About halfway through the book, though, the main story gets to a point where it starts requiring a suspension of disbelief far more sizable than I usually allow, and I read fantasy and sci-fi on a regular basis.

Not to mention Ludmilla (the Other Reader) is the type of female character I don’t particularly like: the attractive, mysterious, slightly aloof woman, whom every male character in the story is absolutely captivated by for no discernible reason.

And frankly, the less said about sex scenes here, the better. Yeesh.

However, mentioning those things seems almost like I’m missing the point of the book. While they might have annoyed me, it wasn’t enough to stop me from reading, or to keep me from recognizing Calvino’s skill, particularly in handling what had to be an ambitious project.

It’s like this is a book you read because it does something more than simply tell a story, and if you look at it only on that level, then it’s like only seeing one part of a picture. It might be a very pretty part, but if you take a step back and refocus, you’ll find so much more.

This book is certainly not for everyone, but it what I’ve mentioned intrigues you, then you should pick it up and give it a try.