Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel is the sort that you read quickly at first because it’s so delicious and compelling you want to consume as much of it as possible. It’s inventive and insightful and feels like fuel for your imagination and why not read 28 chapters in one sitting? But then, once you realize that the weight of the book has shifted from your right hand to your left, you… slow… down. As slow as you dare to in order make that final third last as long as you can manage. Because at this point you’ve realized that the story will eventually end and that knowledge has its own unique kind of sadness associated with it. It’s the sort of bittersweet heartache that only comes with the most well written stories, those that consume and inspire.
The Night Circus is filled to the brim with magic, romance, and mystery, yet never manages to feel overstuffed or bulky. Centered around a competition between two people skilled in magic, the novel achieves an intelligence and cohesion rare in similar genre-blending works. Morgenstern’s world of magic never resorts to gimmick. The spells are often rooted in visual illusion and surrealism, which makes the instinctual “wow!” reaction more thoughtful. The characters outside the dueling pair are fully fleshed out with their own dreams and tragedies, which the readers see unfold before them to beautiful, sometimes wrenching effect. I’ve also never wanted to attend a fictional dinner party so badly – the descriptions of the food, not to mention the company, will make you salivate.
If Le Cirque des Rêves came to my town, you can bet I’d be there every night with a red scarf wrapped around me.
The Technologists delivered everything I expected from a Matthew Pearl novel: a young protagonist with a conflicted history, a seminal historical event, and an intelligent mystery. Instead of his usual literary backdrop, Pearl opted for science and academia this round, setting his latest novel amidst the inaugural years of MIT. In this world, strange things have begun happening around Boston. Not your run-of-the-mill odd murders or disappearances, but unusual events on a grand scale. Ships in Boston harbor crashing into each other after their navigational instruments spin out of control. Glass melting off buildings. Strange things. Knowing that the suspicious and fearful public already has it out for the Institute and its godless technological ways, a group of students go on the offensive to figure out the reason and means behind these happenings to prove that it’s a human, not science itself, that is capable of such acts.
Pearl does an excellent job putting faces on the man versus machine conflicts of the Industrialist era, but the novel didn’t quite take off for me as effectively as The Dante Club. It could be that the blend of science fiction and historical fiction never felt seamless, that the credibility of the mystery was stretched a little too thin. Nonetheless, the novel remains well plotted and fun, especially when some Harvard boys attempt to assert their dominance. Learning more about the history of MIT was more than enough to make it a worthwhile read.
Set in the always atmospheric Salem, MA, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane follows doctoral candidate Connie Goodwin as she attempts to ready her grandmother’s decaying house for sale. After discovering a key and a slip of old paper marked “Deliverance Dane” tucked away in a book, Connie’s natural penchant for research almost instantly has her investigating the Salem witch trials and local history. Positing that the trials were actually about a fear of magic as opposed to the subjugation and vilification of independent women who lived on the fringe of traditional colonial society is an interesting assertion, and the book’s light historical lessons make a nice juxtaposition to its thriller/cliffhanger aspects. Though not quite as creepy as I wanted it to be, it’s still a fun, solid read.
After completing Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, I am even more sympathetic towards Chanel’s various biographers. A savvy businesswoman, as this book illustrates repeatedly, Chanel understood the value of image and façade, and worked tirelessly to cement her persona of allure, intrigue, and aloofness. This, regrettably, makes getting to know her personality beyond this veneer an almost insurmountable task for both the reader and the writer. Picardie, when not overcome with blind worship for her subject, does well in presenting the myriad of legends associated with the designer. Where she falls down is guiding the reader through that labyrinth to get to the facts. Knowing the myths is fun, but so is discerning the kernel of truth within them. Picardie rarely offers such insights, making it seem like her research on Chanel was subpar. Frequent references to Chanel’s imaginary past as though it were fact further confuse the issue. If you can peel away the sycophancy and Picardie’s clear desire to protect her subject’s reputation, Coco Chanel is the story of a fascinating, elusive woman. Beautiful photographs accompany the text.
I will always have a soft spot in my heart for stories involving Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her biography has intrigued me since middle school, where I dressed up as her for a history project and made a pretty cool poster board. Eleanor was one of the most powerful women of the middle ages: she participated in the machinations behind two crusades, patronized the arts, supported a revolt against her second husband, and acted as regent when her son when off to fight in the Third Crusade. She married the king of France at 15, obtained an annulment 15 years later, and then married the much younger king of England with whom she had Richard the Lionheart and the infamous Prince John. Strong and intelligent, Eleanor was more than a match for the powerful men surrounding her, standing her ground against conspirators, war, and imprisonment. She captured the heart of my feminist 12-year-old self, which is why I still love reading about her, fiction or non.
The Eleanor in The Queen’s Man is nicely characterized, as is the young hero of the story, the illegitimate Justin de Quincy. De Quincy witnesses the murder of a messenger, and attempts to sleuth out the killer at the Queen’s request. The precarious political situation of the time (Richard has been captured; John is making nefarious plans) makes an excellent setting, and Penman’s deft writing and clear knowledge of the era makes this mystery well thought out to the end.
This stunning example of historical fiction has so much on its plate you’d think it would crack under the weight of its subjects. Happily, All Other Nights weaves its varying threads into an enthralling tapestry of cultural exploration and dedication. Set during the American Civil War, the novel follows a young Jewish spy whose missions force him into committing deep personal betrayals beyond the realm of usual espionage: first against his uncle, then against the rebel-sympathizer he persuades to love and marry him. What could have been a simple spy versus spy story resonates instead with meditations on family, love, and the role of Jews during the time period. Horn’s skillful writing does good by the subject of competing loyalties, amounting to a story that brought more than I was expecting.