Cristina's Library

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Tag: book review

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.

Frustrating.

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.

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.

The Far Side of the Sky

“You can’t walk away from love. It clings to you night and day.”

The rare and seamless harmony of medicine, fiction, and history is the mortar to Daniel Kalla’s new novel, THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY. Kalla sheds light on the period from 1938 –
1942, when persecuted Jews were forced to flee their homelands for safety, many finding solace in Shanghai, the only place whose doors were still open to them.

A city teeming with the Japanese Imperial Army, as well as myriad cultures, Shanghai represents everything from happiness to despair for the “stateless refugees”, including Dr. Franz Adler, his sister-in-law, Essie, daughter, Hannah, and friend, Ernst. In Shanghai, Franz works at the local and refugee hospitals, and meets Sunny Mah, a young and determined Chinese nurse. When the Japanese ally with Germany following the attack on Pearl Harbour, no one’s fate is secure.  The importance of friendship, the reality of love, and the strength of family fills these pages, and will fill your heart.

The novel opens on November 9, 1938, a day remembered for Kristallnacht , “the night of broken glass”, a series of attacks on Jews, synagogues and Jewish businesses throughout Austria and Nazi Germany. Here, where one might expect statistics or meticulous numbers, Kalla delivers only the raw emotion of Franz Adler, a man hiding in his apartment, fearfully watching his neighbours tortured in the street below, his city mercilessly shattered, and his grief-stricken sister-in-law, who has just seen her murdered husband hanging from a lamp post.

And this emotion is all you need to truly understand.

You don’t need to know that nearly 3000 people were killed during Kristallnacht – not yet. You will discover all of these heartbreaking facts, and more, when you’re so moved by the end, as I was, that you feel compelled to research. Because the most wonderful, and chilling, aspect of Kalla’s novel is its adherence to fact – nearly everything described actually happened, though you don’t want to believe that it did. You will encounter familiar faces and places—you’ve heard of them before: Poland’s terrifying Chełmno concentration camp, Colonel Josef Meisinger, war-torn Vienna, Herschel Grynszpan, a Shanghai in constant flux, Adolf Hitler.

Kalla perfectly captures the present moment, making us feel that we are right there with the Adler family, sharing Essie’s grief over her lost husband, witnessing Franz’s unyielding commitment to his daughter, and learning of the horrifying treatment of European Jews. Yet in the midst of anguish, shines a glimmer of hope. Sunny’s determination, New Yorker Simon’s joviality, and the compassion shown by German and Chinese friends are touching and heartfelt.

THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY is a genuine and powerful insight into the experiences, good and bad, of one Austrian family during years wrought with the injustice of a twisted and manipulative Nazi regime. The novel combines Kalla’s medical expertise with his knowledge of World War II to produce an addicting, moving, and magnificent story of, above all, hope.

This review is also published on Savvy Reader