Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

"The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not."

Shrouded in mystery, enveloped in shadows, Erin Morgenstern's debut novel pulls the reader in as much as the scent of caramel carried on the cool night air might draw in the denizens of this fine tale.

Marco and Celia are the apprentices of two powerful magicians who have entered their protegees into a contest which only one can win, with the circus as their battlefield. Yet it is a contest in which the two come to be reluctant participants in a game they do not begin to truly understand until it is nearly too late.

The Night Circus is a love story for those who don't like love stories. The tension between the protagonists is almost palpable yet manages to not overwhelm the larger story of the circus and its impact on everyone it touches, no matter how peripherally.

Further, Morgenstern's skill as a writer is on display in the seamless transitions between the second person interludes that immerse the reader into this intense and moving world and the third person narration of the story itself. This is a story that continues to play with the imagination even after the book is laid down between chapters, and it haunts the mind long beyond its conclusion.

I borrowed this book from my local library and ended up buying it from a local bookstore; I liked it that much. I've also recommended it to just about all of my friends, which is why I'm recommending it to you. Reminiscent of The Map of Time in its flow and intensity with shades of Neil Gaiman (one of my all-time favorite writers, so this comparison is not one I'd make lightly and is to be considered high praise), The Night Circus was nearly impossible to put down. Its ending drove me forward with a mix of anticipation for what was to happen next and dread that the story was soon to end.

The Night Circus is published by Doubleday and is available from your local, independent bookstore. (Want to make a difference? Shop your local, independent bookstore!)

Book review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs)

Quirk Books is rapidly becoming one of my favorite publishers of fiction. The...well...quirky...stories they publish are consistently well-crafted, often unusual and somewhat irreverent, and always entertaining and represent stories that more "mainstream" publishers wouldn't touch. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs is no exception to this rule.

It would be easy to write off Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children as a derivative of Marvel's "X-Men" characters. It would be easy, and it would be wrong.

Jacob Portman grows up hearing his grandfather's fantastic stories of strange young children who have been gathered together in an orphanage off the coast of Wales during World War II. His grandfather's "proof" is a collection of odd, and even disturbing, photographs he claims were children he knew. As Jacob gets older, he begins to view these stories as colorful tales, even metaphors, told by an aging, possibly senile, man.

And then Grandpa Portman gets murdered.

Jabob's quest for his grandfather's killer leads him to Wales, where he discovers that not everything that seems fantastic is a fairy tale, and that sometimes, the monsters are very, very real.

Riggs' story is filled with enough twists and turns as would befit a story about peculiar children, and scattered throughout the book are photographs Riggs himself has collected and used as inspiration for this wonderful story. The photographs themselves add to the unusual, and at times menacing, atmosphere of the tale and are interspersed at perfect intervals throughout the text.

The trailer for the book speaks to and for it as much as I could:

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is available at your local, independent bookstore. (Want to make a difference? Shop your local, independent bookstore!!)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book review: A Clash of Kings (George R.R. Martin)

War has come to Westeros. Murder, betrayal, incest, violence and intrigue return as a hallmark of George R.R Martin's outstanding "A Song of Ice and Fire" saga.

(SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN'T READ A GAME OF THRONESA Clash of Kings picks up shortly after the events of A Game of Thrones. The king is dead, and various lords have declared themselves kings of their respective regions, in defiance of the heir apparent. No alliances seem possible, save for how it will aid in the overthrow of the Lannisters. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen assembles her forces to retake the Iron Throne, and as with A Game of Thrones, no character is completely good, and none is completely evil.

Shades of gray continue to pervade Martin's epic tale, and that only strengthens the story itself. The tapestry of back stories, intrigues, plots and subplots is a masterfully woven cloth that draws the reader in and holds them from chapter to chapter as the story unfolds.

"A Song of Ice and Fire" is an epic tale that is proving to not be a "light" read; its complexity would belie any effort to turn it into one, but it is a story that is like a multi-course meal at a fine restaurant: a rich indulgence meant to be savored and enjoyed rather than gulped down without thought or regard to the flavors within.

Like A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings is a hefty text (the hardcover version clocks in at over 700 pages), but at no point does it seem overly long. It is well-paced, and Martin's writing and storytelling remain strong and even. Even though this is a fantasy novel, it reads closer to realistic historical fiction, and his use of  magic as a storytelling device remains light and secondary to the story and characters. However, "A Song of Ice and Fire" remains a story for adults rather than young people or even young adults. The violence remains graphic as does the use of adult situations and language. However, none of these are gratuitous in nature as each propels the story forward or reveals something further and important about the characters and the way they view and interact with their world.

Highly recommended for lovers of well-crafted fantasy as well as those more inclined towards stories of political intrigue and realism. From Bantam Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Want to make a difference? Shop your local, independent bookstore!!)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Book review: The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (Sam Kean)

This wonderfully quirky, fascinating, and just plain fun read moves the periodic table of the elements off of the dusty walls of chemistry classrooms and into living, breathing narrative.

Back when I was in high school, the periodic table was presented to me in all its (not quite, as it turned out) completed glory, assembled and whole, and after memorizing the first several elements, utilizing it in balancing equations, and repeated the information on the tests without giving it further thought, and like most high school chemistry students, likely thought it sprang fully formed from the head of Dmitri Mendeleev, and was the only possible arrangements of the elements. Yet, as Sam Kean has revealed in his book, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Disappearing Spoon (so named for a practical joke scientists play involving gallium) offers a fascinating glimpse into not only how the table came to be, but also provides a story connected to each element on the table that is both compelling and entertaining.

While chemistry students and teachers will no doubt find this book a must read, The Disappearing Spoon is written to appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in science, history, and even literature (the madness of the Mad Hatter of Alice In Wonderland fame can be attributed to mercury). This book will make your inner nerd rejoice and your outer nerd smile. From Back Bay Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Want to make a difference? Shop your local, independent book retailer!)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book review: Fated by S.G. Browne

S.G. Browne's Fated, his follow up novel to Breathers, is a thought-provoking, hilarious take on the concepts of fate, destiny, love, and our roles in each. Fabio is the anthropomorphism of fate. His job is to assign and monitor the mass of humanity and their lives of "quiet desperation," a job that after a quarter million years, has lost some of its luster. That is, until Fabio meets Sara, a mortal human with whom he falls in love, despite all the rules to the contrary. The story that ensues is one of both solid reflection laced with you healthy dose of laughs as Fabio attempts to balance out his supernatural existence with his all too mortal desires.

This quirky, wonderful novel gives chuckles and laughs in equal dose to providing fodder for thought about the roles of fate and destiny, and ultimately, the role we all play in determining our lives, and even the lives of others with whom we choose to get involved.

From NAL Trade and available at your local, independent bookseller. (Make a difference: buy from your local, independent bookstore!)