The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern


Judging by reader reviews, this is a book you love or hate. It is the story of a circus, one that “arrives without warning” and whose tents and even the ground around them are black and white. No other color intrudes.

I should have been warned right there.

The point of view is third-person omniscient, meaning that the story is told from the perspective of a distant and unnamed consciousness who knows everything that goes on in people’s hearts. Thus we enter the minds of no less than fifteen characters.

The two main characters are Celia and Marco, whom we first meet as small children who have come under the care of two magicians. These two father figures, whom we later discover are fantastically ancient, profoundly disagree about the place of magic in the world and long ago devised a competition to prove their respective points. In this round, Celia and Marco will be their proxies and the circus their gameboard.

After a long introductory section devoted mostly to their training, Celia and Marco begin devising magical attractions for the circus, aware that they are competing (though initially Celia does not know with whom), but not what the stakes are. We know that they couldn’t be higher. Of course, the two young people fall in love, just to make things harder.

There is much that I loved about this book. The circus attractions are astoundingly creative: a pool of tears where you drop in a stone to leave your grief behind, a cloud maze where you climb “a series of platforms swooping in odd, diaphanous shapes, quite similar to clouds” and jump from them without injury. And each contains an element of emotional truth about our humanity, reminding me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. For example, another character, Widget, creates a tent of bedtime stories, full of tables and shelves stocked with all sizes and sorts of bottles. When you uncork one you are enveloped by a mixtures of scents:

The scent that wafts from it is the unmistakable smell of the ocean, a bright summer day at the seashore. He can hear the sound of waves crashing against the sand, the cry of a seagull. There is something mysterious as well, something fantastical. The flag of a pirate ship on the far horizon, a mermaid’s tail flipping out of sight behind a wave. The scent and the feeling are adventurous and exhilarating, with the salty tinge of a sea breeze.

The magic is presented so matter-of-factly that it’s easy to accept, even as another part of your mind suggests that, to a boy, simply the smell of the ocean can evoke memories of Peter Pan.

Another thing that I enjoyed, though it took until almost the end of the book for me to appreciate it, is Morgenstern’s intricate plotting. She weaves together the stories of many characters and multiple timelines, inserting clues whose significance only becomes clear much later.

There is also much that I hated about this book. Those multiple timelines had me forever flipping back four or five chapters to understand how they fit together. Just one of these timelines had anything distinctive, a character named Bailey who only shows up in the most distantly future timeline. The others had the same characters doing similar things but back and forth in different years. Looking back, I can see how this way of organising the material enabled Morgenstern to unfold her story in an important way, but as I was reading, it was confusing and downright annoying.

The pace is mostly excruciatingly slow, especially in the beginning. I was quite bored and came close to giving up.

Worse, the characters are flat. They are good or bad. Period. Marco and Celia have no inner life, no goal other than the game imposed on them by the two evil magicians. Marco and Celia are so unrealistic as to be not even human—seriously, what teen would put up with the abusive training regimes their mentors devised for them? None of the other characters have much more to them, though at least they have interesting quirks. Only Bailey, whom we get little of till the end, has any inner life.

My opinion shifts, though, when I consider the book through the filter of Angela Carter’s definition of a tale: something not reflecting everyday experience, drawing on fairy tales and the unconscious rather than placing the reader in the experience of realistic characters. We don’t expect Hansel and Gretel to give dramatic monologues about their internal conflict. In fact, I see Carter’s influence here, though not acknowledged beyond a book written by a character mentioned once with the title of Carter’s novel, Nights at the Circus. I also see the influence of Ray Bradbury’s stories of dark circuses and carnivals.

As a novel, I would say this book deserves all the one- and two-star reviews it has gotten on Goodreads. As a tale, though, it earns the equally many four- and five-star reviews. Although a bit slow, it makes a fine tale. And you have the added delight of the imaginative attractions, whose descriptions are like gems scattered through the story.

Have you read a story that you consider more of a tale than a novel?

And When She Was Good, by Laura Lippman


While in line at Starbucks, small businesswoman and single parent Heloise Lewis learns of the apparent suicide of the so-called “suburban madam”. She hears the woman behind her patronisingly mocking the dead woman’s mental health and—in an action that might seem odd to anyone not from Baltimore—turns to confront her. Heloise defends the dead woman, arguing that prostitution is a victimless crime and, further, that as a person the woman deserves more respect than to have her entire life summed up in two words. She was “‘Someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s mother.’” Like Heloise herself.

This 2012 stand-alone from the popular author draws us irresistibly into Heloise’s life, a life she’s fabricated out of her damaged past to protect herself, her son, and her employees. Chapters alternate between Heloise’s history and the present where her carefully constructed life is under siege from an increasing number of threats.

Lippman deals out these threats with care. She follows up the surprise of Heloise’s profession with an account of the moment when as a child, then called Helen, her father first turns on her the anger and fists previously reserved for Helen’s mother. Then in the present, Heloise suffers the small betrayal of one of her oldest and favorite clients asking for someone new on his next visit.

By this time it was hard for me not to identify with Heloise and feel so firmly on her side that I could not abandon her when a worse threat is revealed: the possibility that her son’s father, a gangster and murderer, might be released from prison. I could not distance myself, thinking that such a thing would never happen to me. I could understand only too well how I might have gone down that path.

As K.M. Wieland describes in her blog for writers, it is a character’s backstory (or history) that makes a reader identify with her. As Lisa Cron says, backstory is “what gives meaning to everything that is happening up there on the surface” of the story. The trick, of course, is to weave it in carefully so it doesn’t overwhelm the story. With the parallel stories of Heloise’s past and present, Lippman doubles the difficulty. The difference in names–Helen and Heloise–helps keep the reader oriented between the two stories.

There are more betrayals, large and small, as Heloise struggles to save her life and the lives of her sons and colleagues. For me, the great joy of this book, aside from its powerful momentum, is the way Lippman details the inner workings of Heloise’s business. She’s thought through even minor details such as Heloise providing bracelets with GPS chips for her employees. When they leave her employ, they can have the chip removed and keep the bangle as a souvenir.

Even better is the way Lippman presents Heloise’s approach to running her business. It reminded me of Stringer Bell taking economics classes to better manage drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s business in The Wire. It only makes sense, of course. A business is a business. Yet it keeps the reader identifying with Heloise even as we venture into less familiar territory.

As always with a Lippman novel, even as I’m racing to the end to find out what happens, I’m aware as a writer of bits of information falling into place, even those that seemed random or extraneous. I resisted this book for a long time because I so loathed the misogyny of the Philip Roth novel that the title pays tribute to that I not only threw it out but also tore it up first so no one else would suffer from its poison. However, I’m happy to recommend Lippman’s book as a supremely satisfying read.

Have you read any of Laura Lippman’s books? Which one is your favorite?

Salem’s Cipher, by Jess Lourey


While the town of Salem, Massachusetts does make an appearance in this mystery/suspense novel, the title refers to Salem Wiley, a young woman whose deliberately uneventful existence in Minneapolis is torn apart by a phone call. She is a genius at cryptography and produced ground-breaking research for her PhD thesis, but her life is severely limited by a form of agoraphobia. The call from her best friend, Bel Odegaard, changes everything.

Police have informed Bel that her mother’s apartment has been broken into, a neighbor and her dog left in a pool of blood, and Grace–Bel’s mother–gone missing. When the two young women arrive, they discover that Salem’s mother was at the apartment as well, something we know from the prologue, and both Grace and Vida are missing, one of them probably dead.

Despite FBI Agent Stone’s warning that they too may be targets, Salem and Bel set out to follow the clue left for them by Vida, hoping to rescue their mothers. Or revenge them. As this tense, suspenseful novel tears along, the two women uncover a conspiracy going back hundreds of years. Each clue involves some kind of code, which Salem must decipher–and fast if they are to help their mothers. Factor in unforgettable characters they encounter, Emily Dickenson’s home and poetry, and an election about to produce the first female president of the U.S. and you have a story that works on several levels.

Lourey also works in references to scientific contributions by women, without slowing the breakneck speed of the story. She does an amazing job of capturing and conveying the emotions of the characters, especially the fraught mother-daughter relationships.

There are a few continuity problems that another editorial pass might have caught. There are also a couple of what Ray Rhamey calls “information questions” where information well known to the point-of-view character is teased yet deliberately withheld from the reader, presumably to create suspense. Mystery readers usually want to solve the puzzle along with the protagonist, so such tricks feel as though the author isn’t playing fair.

And it’s unnecessary, because Lourey is brilliant at ratcheting up the suspense. Every page has multiple instances of what Donald Maass calls “micro-tension” . A new and stunning bit of information or insight, a panicked physical reaction (“frantic movements”), even the use of especially active adjectives and verbs (“The . . . plane pitched and dropped, yanking Salem out of her light sleep.”) all keep the characters’ emotions in conflict and the reader turning the pages.

If you like to unravel a conspiracy or a good puzzle, if you long for a novel with engaging characters and a little history and literature thrown in, then hop on this rocket of a story.

Have you read a good mystery/suspense novel lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Bachman


My first reaction to this bestselling debut novel was that it was a pleasant read, but not particularly substantial. Aside the characters’ ages and the book’s length, I thought it read like a book for ten- to twelve-year-olds. I was surprised my book club had chosen it and afraid we’d have nothing to talk about when we met.

I was wrong.

We had quite a discussion about the subtlety with which Backman unfolded his characters and how they might reflect Swedish society. Although a couple of us complained about the overly cute chapter titles, we all enjoyed reading this story of a grumpy middle-aged man who has just about had it.

Although Ove is only 59, he comes across as much older. Recently laid off, he continues his engraved-in-stone routines, such as inspecting the neighborhood every morning to make sure everyone is following the rules, and fills in the empty hours with trying to kill himself. He complains about everything, from a neighbor’s dog relieving itself on his paving stones to the way computers and espresso machines are destroying peoples’ minds.

Needless to say, I identified with him. Not about dogs or computers or espresso machines, but I’ve gotten more and more grumpy about other trends, like increasingly reckless drivers on my local streets or—well, I’ll save the specifics. And I’m completely with Ove on the dire lack of practical skills among most people today. Since home ec and shop classes were done away with, too many people don’t know how to cook a meal, hem a skirt, use a stick shift, or rewire a light.

Don’t get me started.

Things start to change for Ove when a young family moves into the neighborhood and refuse to be put off by him. A scrappy feral cat adopts him in spite of his efforts to drive it off. Another neighbor asks him to bleed her radiators, and word gets out about his competence with tools.

Backman gradually fills us in on Ove’s background, the influence of his father, what he learned about work, meeting and wooing his wife. It doesn’t feel like a tease, yet the careful parsing out of details takes the reader deeper and deeper into this one man’s character, making it impossible not to care about him.

One man, but he’s also an aspect of us all. Not the grumpiness, necessarily, but the desire for a good life, the attempt to control what can be controlled, the difficult balance between solitude and society.

I still think a ten-year-old could read this and get something out of it, yet there is much here for an adult to ponder as well.

Have you changed your mind about a book you’ve read, perhaps after you finished it or as a result of discussing it with others?