Cristina's Library

Joie de livres

Category: October Books

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

I didn’t read this book.
I experienced it.
You should, too.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret has 526 pages, and, in front of my own eyes, I have seen a child (one of those annoyingly loud, obnoxious, look-at-what-I-can-do types) brandish it in their friend’s face, bragging that they read the WHOLE thing.
Take THAT.
You may be wondering how it’s possible for a book of this enormity/size/weight to be read in its entirety by a small child. Well, over 250 pages are pictures. Beautiful, wondrous illustratrions sketched by the author and illustrator (and visual storyteller extraordinaire), Brian Selznick. Inspired by the story of early filmmaker Georges Méliès, Selznick, with a blend of historical fact, illustration, and film stills, tells the story of Hugo Cabret. The pictures are haunting, inspiring, and meaningful — I know everything that’s happening, and can feel every emotion the characters are feeling, simply by looking into their eyes. This is, undoubtedly, the best children’s book I have read all year, and the #1 Kids Lit Comfort book of 2011.

It is 1931.
The book opens by inviting the reader to imagine that they are at the movies, about to witness a spectacle. And you do, as the story begins. 30 pages later, there is still no text, but you have a clear and distinct idea of exactly what happened. The illustrations have filled in the blanks. There is a picture of the moon, then an aerial depiction of Paris — it’s nighttime in Paris. Hugo enters a secret passageway, watching a mysterious old man selling toys at a stand. The text finally begins with, “From his perch behind the clock, Hugo could see everything.”
Hugo Cabret is an orphan, clock-keeper, and occasional thief — out of necessity, of course. With his wayward, careless uncle, who is constantly disappearing, 12-year old Hugo lives a secret life in the walls of a busy Paris train station (from historical details revealed later in the book, the station is Gare Montparnasse). His father, having recently passed away, was the station’s clock-keeper, a position that Hugo resumes after his death. With Hugo is an automaton that his father rescued. Hugo believes that, once repaired, it will write a message that his father had for him — a message that will save his life. Hugo sets to work on the automaton, but things get complicated with the intrusion of the station inspector, meeting Isabelle, stealing from the elderly shopkeeper, and a long line of mysteries.
The novel is wonderfully innovative, highly imaginative, and completely endearing. A true genius.
Kirkus Reviews calls it “an homage to early filmmakers as dreamers…elegantly designed to resemble the flickering experience of silent film melodramas.”
It deserves all the attention it has received, and I recommend you all experience it!
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a quick read, and one you won’t forget.
It won the Caldecott Prize, and is soon to be a film entitled HUGO, starring Sasha Baron Cohen and directed by Martin Scorsese. Watch the trailer below:


The Night Circus

“We lead strange lives chasing our dreams around from place to place.”

In The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern paints a wonderful, meticulously-detailed picture of a monochromatic circus teeming with fantasy, delight, and magic, which “arrives without warning” and, as the elaborate, mysterious sign over its gates states, is only open from dusk until dawn. The only problem is that this is not a picture — it’s a book. It’s a story. And way too many pages are wasted on excessive, over-indulgent description of the dazzling circus that could have been allotted to more substantial plot and character development.

We’re readers. We do like to use our imagination.

I enjoyed this book, but I could not love it. Erin Morgenstern is an excellent writer, and the particular nuances of the circus, the elaborate, detail-driven writing, truly is beautiful. I can see the circus in my mind, as clearly as it is described. But I didn’t connect with the story at all, because it came too late in the book. There were too many inconsistencies and ambiguities throughout, and I felt impatient with the languid, leisurely suspense that Morgenstern so aptly (and annoyingly) executed. It was meant to keep you on the edge of your seat, but it spans over 16 years, flipping back and forth, and it’s altogether tiring. There’s so much description that the story actually feels incomplete. At the end, I had more questions than answers, more misgivings than praise. There is a point in the book when one character describes another as “overly complicated and covert” — this is how I feel about The Night Circus.

The premise of the book is an (apparently) centuries-old competition between the protégés, Celia and Marco, of two (apparently) ageless magicians: Hector Bowen, known by his stage name Prospero the Enchanter (a nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and Alexander (though this is not his real name, and no, you will never know what it is). I am repeatedly saying “apparently” because these assumptions are never addressed; rather, it’s left up to the reader to decide.


Celia is the unwanted daughter of Prospero, whose mother sent her to him after committing suicide. Alexander plucks Marco out of an orphanage and educates him by distance, never entering his apartment and making rare appearances. He is described as a “father-figure” towards the end of the book, but I didn’t feel that connection.

I found the Shakespeare reference extraneous, considering the way it’s handled — for those who have read The Tempest, we get it: in the play, Prospero is a well-intentioned magician with a daughter, Miranda, for whom he uses magic to avenge, protect and restore to society. Morgenstern, at the beginning, states that Prospero would call his daughter, Celia, “Miranda”, though there’s no correlation to this and the play. And in the book, unlike Shakespeare’s character, Prospero is impassive to the fact that he essentially sets his daughter up for potential slaughter. This is not to say that every literary allusion has to be extrapolated, but it’s just an example of the book’s consistent lack of history, explanation, or relevance.

Celia and Marco are brought up by Alexander (referred to as A.H—) and Prospero, learning different magical methodology from two different schools of thought. Who ARE Alexander and Prospero? You will never find out. If there was more information on the two teachers or the history of the game, it would have been much more interesting. Instead, we find out most of the information, but not all of it, starting on page 378 (the book is 387 pages long). And even then, the explanation remains vague. The “competitors” never actually compete. They are unaware of how to play this game that they are raised to play and, unbeknownst to them (or anyone else), the circus is chosen as the venue for the ultimate showdown.

This, by the way, never happens.

There is also supposed to be a love story at play, and the book is advertised as such, but it was underwhelming and lifeless; I don’t feel any actual “spark”, so to say, between Celia and Marco. In fact, I felt more of a connection between Marco and Isobel than Celia and Marco.

Another unnecessary and distracting element of the book: going back and forth in time, overlapping and intertwining, sometimes from a few months to a few years. I think this was supposed to have some type of suspense-building, mysterious effect but it seemed rather pointless. There are no “WOW” moments in this book, though there could have been. There is no explanation on the magic, or the restraints (or lack thereof?) of it. It fell flat.

This review sounds completely negative, but I did like the idea and, of course, the circus, vividly illustrated. I just think so much more could have been done with it. Allison Flood’s review in The Guardian says that the book has been “tipped in the US as the next Harry Potter,” with the producers of Twilight set to bring the story to film. This is a gross overstatement, considering the two stories are not in any way similar, nor are they in the same league of brilliance.

My questions at the end: What do the tarot cards mean? The angel? Isobel’s effect? Why was Bailey’s story important? Is Prospero really dead? And are they ultimately free? They’re confined within the circus, trapped in a venue that they’ve always been bound to. Doubleday touts it as “a treat for the senses”. True. But not for the mind.
I remember the circus more than the story.
The Night Circus could have been amazing, but, about halfway through, it lost its magic.

The Hunger Games

“Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games”

There are spoilers in this review. It is less a review than my need to vent about the things I loved and hated. Feel free to join in the discussion!

I started The Hunger Games at 5pm one day in July.
I finished it by midnight.
I felt like I swallowed the whole story in one gulp. And it was amazing.

This was a book I actually COULD NOT PUT DOWN. I didn’t go out with my family. I changed plans with my friends. I needed to finish it. I felt an insatiable, irrational desire to know exactly what was going to happen. Usually, I don’t read a lot of YA fiction, but I had only heard favourable reviews for this series and couldn’t resist. Reminiscent, in some subtle ways, of George Orwell’s 1984, Suzanne Collins exposes the detriment of a corrupted, twisted, totalitarian government controlling a deteriorated society. It’s a post-America, with the ominous, terrifying Capitol reigning from the center, ruling 12 districts around it. There are no wizards, vampires, illusions, circuses or magic. This book is real, raw, and striking. The Hunger Games is all of the things that a good YA novel should be: violent, shocking, thought-provoking and, of course, there’s always an element of surprise.
It is a YA novel, yet I am 22 and loved this book. An old professor of mine is nearing the age of 50, and admitted that she couldn’t stop reading this book. Humans are naturally attracted to that which defies the norm, and when it’s painted so drastically, we feel necessarily compelled to dive into the picture.
The Hunger Games will grab your attention and not let it go until you have finished the entire series.
Except when you get to the last book. More on that later.

The first book opens on the day of the annual reaping, when the Capitol chooses, in a grotesquely elaborate fashion, 1 boy and 1 girl (“Tributes”) from each of the 12 surrounding districts, to compete in The Hunger Games, a fight to the death (literally) in an arena. They do this to remind the populace that they are in complete and total control, and any act of dissent will not be tolerated. They have the power to take your children and have them slaughtered on national television for the sake of entertainment, and you can do nothing about it. The arena is not a typical arena — it’s specifically designed to adapt to the Gamemakers’ whimsies (those illustrious fellows who dream up the horrors each Tribute will have to face), in which blood is spilled in order to win or even the odds. Alliances are made, then torn apart.

There are two extremes in this book. In the arena, Collins takes us back to the primeval nature of human beings and, outside, in the Capitol, to what has become of us. Which scenario is better? To be in the arena and know that every person in there is, during that time, their true self, or in the Capitol, where a person’s true self is empty and robotic, a human amalgamation of Capitol ideals? The arena and the emotions within it feel real, yet the entire thing is orchestrated and the friendships they make are inevitably challenged by the need to survive. Outside, survival always and ultimately depends on the Capitol. The people of Panem are all pawns in their hands. This book really made me think.

Onto the romantic side of the books: the relationship between Gale and Katniss is endearing. In fact, I am probably in love with Gale. But the situation with Peeta just annoys me, though I realize its necessity for survival. Peeta is almost — almost — too nice and piteous. He is constantly evoking pity from Katniss, which drives her to act in the way she does. I never, ever get the sense that she feels the same way for him as she does for Gale, which is something much more deep-seated and long-lasting. The ending of this book had me dying for more, which is when I started Catching Fire…
And it is not better than The Hunger Games. The second book in the series is good, don’t get me wrong, but I felt like it was a buffer book, the book she needed to provide plot development and background info for the finale. There’s one of these in every series. This is why this portion of my review/rant is not very long. However, it is brilliant in that the plot is constructed in such a way that it is impossible to guess what will happen next.
Synopsis: Katniss and Peeta return to the arena. President Snow gives the order to hold the Quarter Quell, a showdown between victors of past Hunger Games. However, there is something that everyone, except Peeta and Kitness, know — a rebellion has begun. You’ll find out in the last few pages, where everything you’ve been wondering is explained. It’s annoying, but surprising and exciting.
My favourite character in the sequel: Finnick Odair
Most creative plot element: the arena as a clock (terrifying)
Worst plot twist: Cinna dies. Come on, Suzanne Collins. Come. On.

Regardless, I was very excited to read Mockingjay and still in love with the series…

And by the end of this book, I was no longer in love. Collins had an amazing story with relevant and shocking and attractive themes, and she could have done so much with it, but she completely ruined the last book. Mockingjay begins in District 13 (it exists!), the hub of the rebellion against the Capitol. Panem is at war, and President Coin of District 13 is at the forefront. We discover that Katniss was rescued from the arena in Catching Fire because they want her to be the “face” of the rebellion. Peeta, instead, was left to be captured by the Capitol and tortured. I expected so much from this book. I expected an epic battle between the rebels and the Capitol, a grand finale, clear decisions and strong wills.

Instead, we see Katniss as a mentally-withering, high-strung, emotional basketcase hooked on painkillers and wandering around in a dreamy, half-present state. She remains a pawn in the hands of the government, and has little moments of dignity and power — and even those, she cannot execute freely. There are many, many pages of self-loathing, incessant reflection, and uncharacteristic uncertainty. Katniss, in the beginning, was strong and assertive, her own person. In this book, she is fighting for her life in a costume that is provided for her, for a series of propaganda shoots. Everything she does is a direct result of someone’s manipulation on her. She has no choices.

I kept waiting for a moment of clarity, strength and true rebellion, and it does not happen.

I was unhappy with the way Collins constructed the final book. It is bleak, bloody and hopeless. Even the rebels, who are fighting for justice, are portrayed as brutal and merciless. I realize that there is no distinct line between good and evil, and one is often synonymous with the other, but it all could have been presented in a better way. They are fighting with good intentions, for a real reason, and yet Collins makes it seem like even those battling for social justice are evil, and to fight is pointless. There are no heroes in this book, there’s no satisfying conclusion.The final battle is completely skipped over and not described or discussed at all. There are 2 pages after-the-fact that summarize, practically in point form, what happened. Katniss, conveniently blacks out (*cough* COP-OUT).

Also, Prim dies. This was as pointless as every other death (and there were MANY) that occurred in Mockingjay. Thanks for negating the entire purpose of Katniss’ sacrifice for her, the series, and the rebellion? Finnick’s death? Ridiculous. Gale leaving? COP-OUT. This is what happens when the author wants to quickly finish up the book — they leave loose ends, hanging questions, and disappointed readers. Gale literally disappears without warning, without any emotion from Katniss, and finds a job in District 2. It is not possible to end a friendship/love that has been building up throughout all three books so abruptly. They should have been together. Gale is strong, resourceful and understands Katniss on a different level. It is also unlike the character that Collins painted of him to suddenly and carelessly leave, when he spent the better part of the first books doing everything he can to stay and provide for Katniss and their families. Clearly, I am upset with the ending. Instead of moving on to happiness, self-fulfillment and bigger/better things after defeating (I guess) the government, Katniss returns to her old life in District 12, full of self-reproach and depression. She complies with what everyone wanted of her, the easiest choice, and falls into a predictable life with Peeta out of pity — she did not choose it. Katniss was at first inspirational, and she later turns out to be more weak than when the Capitol was in power.

Is Collins sending out a bleak message of hopelessness? That no matter what you do, you will never win? Somehow, I don’t think that’s what she intended to convey to young readers, but that’s the message I got.

This Dark Endeavor

“You must abandon this dark endeavour” – Alphonse Frankenstein

Prepare to enter the mysterious hallways of Chateau Frankenstein, where ancient tomes and fiery passions combine to form a captivating story of jealous love, dangerous ambition, and thrilling adventure. This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel is a prequel to the famous novel by Mary Shelley, exploring the little-known history of Victor Frankenstein as a teen, before he created his notorious monster. Oppel achieves the kind of success that befalls only the best of writers: he tackles one of the most celebrated, analyzed, and dissected stories of all time – and does so, brilliantly.

I really enjoyed this book. Proof? It took me one day to read, in between breaks at work (an advantage of a small, generally overlooked cubicle), and on my commute home. I read while ascending the escalator at Downsview station, and walking home from the bus stop, under an umbrella. If you’ve read Frankenstein, you’ll be delighted to recognize a few of the names woven into the story, subtle or obvious: Polidori, “Wollstonekraft” Alley, Henry Clerval, Elizabeth Lavenza and, of course, Victor, whose hunger for admiration, lust for knowledge, deep-seated insecurity, love for his brother, and desire for superiority paint a startling picture of the man before the monster. You will feel like you understand him more after reading this.

The story revolves around 16-year old Victor, his twin, Konrad, cousin, Elizabeth, and friend, Henry Clerval, as they discover the Dark Library and embark on an adventure in the forests and caves surrounding their home near Geneva to discover the Elixir of Life, after Konrad falls deathly ill. At first, I questioned the medical accuracy and history, as I was not sure, myself – the timing of the use of IV and the study of blood (viewed warily in the book and described as “outlandish“). Then I realized that it’s fictional and doesn’t matter, anyway. The real story lies in the characters.

From the beginning, we’re aware of a deep disparity between the twins– Konrad is clearly strong, sure, and calm, while Victor is passionate, short-tempered, and errant – in other words, he’s a hothead. But I like him. Why? As always, I tend to kind of fall in love with characters that are afflicted with good qualities and tragic faults. Oppel recreates the tragic character of Shelley’s work, and we as readers feel both sympathy and anger for him.

The suppressed jealousy Victor feels toward Konrad is immediately apparent, contrasted sharply with a deep-seated love for him. At the beginning, Victor thinks, “I was suddenly angry with him for being so sensible,” later admitting, after Konrad falls ill, “I was ashamed at how powerless I was to help him.” Moments of self-awareness reveal an unsettling internal struggle between the knowledge of who he is, and the desire to be more, both personally and intellectually. He realizes his selfish, insecure, dangerously ambitious nature, and we feel upset with him for it – for wanting his brother’s love, Elizabeth, for wanting glory.

I felt a pang of remorse, but at least her eyes were on me.”

But then there are points that he is endearing, and his better side is revealed. When Elizabeth wanders into his bed, sleepwalking, he finds himself unable to take advantage of her and gently brings her back to her room. When he admits that he will never be like Konrad, and wonders if his qualities, too, could be loved. When he vows to see his brother again. Early on, he dabbles into science, feverishly reading books on anatomy, his aptitude and disquieting obsession for the subject already clear.

I’ve noticed a less-discussed topic in every review I’ve read of this book: religion. I found the age-old battle between science and religion lightly underlying the context of the novel, with references to ineffectual prayer and the dominance of science. Arguing with Elizabeth, a steadfast Catholic with an unwavering faith in God, she angrily quotes Victor’s father, who thinks religion is “an outmoded system of belief that has controlled and abused people, and that will wizen away under the glare of science.” While looking at a stained-glass window in the church, Victor thinks, “Wine to blood. Lead to gold. Medicine dripped into my brother’s veins. The transmutation of matter. Was it magic or science? Fantasy or truth?”  And when Elizabeth is praying, he wonders if she believes herself or merely wants to. A question I’m sure we all wonder.

Oppel introduces a twist to Shelley’s story, by creating Konrad, Victor’s identical twin. Some may like this difference, and some may be slightly perturbed by the fact that he didn’t adhere to what is stated in Frankenstein about Victor’s siblings. Regardless, it is irrelevant: both stories are fictional, and the author may do as they wish. Further to the point, in Frankenstein, Victor is relaying the story to someone on his deathbed, and parts of it could be considered vague or discreet. Oppel has done a fantastic job of filling in the gaps and revealing a version of history.

I think the most important comment in the book was Henry’s, after the trio left Polidori’s: “Is the Elixir something that should be made?” Posed innocently, out of fear of reprisal from Victor’s father, the question is of essential concern, one that humankind has been confronting for centuries: Do we really want to live forever? And, if so, how?

In This Dark Endeavour, Oppel brings this topic, and the story of Frankenstein, back into the forefront, into the minds of youths who otherwise don’t know it, and adults who have forgotten.

Looking forward to the movie!

Click here to see Kenneth Oppel discussing Frankenstein and This Dark Endeavour.