The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Erin-Morgenstern-The-Night-Circus

The Circus arrives without warning

no announcements precede it…

It is simply there, when yesterday it as not.”

The circus ‘opens and nightfall, closes at dawn.’

The Night Circus is a dazzling work that can make you dizzy with its playfulness and intrigue.  It’s utter fantasy, charged with romance, danger, haunting and history.  There’s a contortionist, psychic twins, a runaway boy, a leap between eras, an invisible man, and an unpleasant bet.

Jumping between eras of the late 1800s and 1900s it can be tricky to concentrate as you figure out which timeframe you have landed in.  However once you’ve mastered the magicians, circus performers and patrons you’ll get a tease of each of their back-stories and want to delve deeper.

The Night Circus is the story of two magicians destined to do battle with each other since childhood.  This competition is the by-product of a cruel and depraved wager between their masters who have taught them everything they know.  There are no magic wands, no spells or potions.  This magic is for grown ups – the power of invention, imagination and telekinesis.

The visual description of the circus itself is enough to sustain your interest.  Each tent is mythical, magical and evocative, but then there is this other haunting component of the past, personal conflict, emotions and obstacles

If I’m sounding vague and confused, well then I suppose I am.  There are so many levels to this fantasy, and it’s exhausting to try and explain.  Ultimately the circus is rich, inviting and pleasurable to explore, but it has an underlying darkness as the chapters progress and you know that the inevitable battle between the magicians is going to be epic and harrowing.

In Short: Magic for grown-ups

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly (Audio read by Nick Rawlinson)

Lost thingsThe last time I ‘read’ an audio book, I was about six years old. I had a cassette tape and book, and the narrator would ding a bell when it was time to turn the page.

I kind of thought audio books were the domain of grey folk or the vision impaired. However with a 2.5 hour commute and the self-imposed deadlines associated with writing a book review blog, I decided to give it a try. To compound the feeling of, shall we say, maturity, I actually borrowed an audio book from the library.

The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly was a surprise to me. I didn’t expect to enjoy the process of being read a story, and the language and style of writing, coupled with excellent narration enhanced a good plot immensely.

Set in 1939, London, we meet David a twelve year old boy mourning the loss of his mother. In just a few moments of listening I was captivated. I drove with blurred vision as the narrator described the heartbreaking moments of saying goodbye, the prelude to, and day of the funeral, and of David trying to understand the loss; closing his bedroom curtains and lying squashed under his bed to simulate the experience his Mum must be having in death.

With the benefit of verbal context, pauses in all the right places, whispers and tone, the narrator added to the language of the text; the characters instantly likable, and the revelation of drama and family angst was subtle and clever.

As war rages across Europe, and David’s personal anger grows, his only comfort is his books. Books which contain folk tales and stories that once kept him and his mother so close. The books take on their own role in his grieving and begin whispering to him inside his head.

After exploring the grounds of his new home a little too thoroughly, he is soon propelled into a land that is seemingly a construct of his own imagination, but also very real.

I must admit, I did not see an alternate world coming, and was a little stunned at first when the narrator began to add noises and dialogue in accents and strange voices. However it adds to the fantasy, as David tries to find his way back home, with his only hope being an elderly far away King who owned a mysterious book: The Book of Lost Things.

The characters David encounters are typical of a fantasy or fairy tale; trolls, woodsmen, knights, werewolves, and even Snow White, however the outcomes are not. The tale is peppered with dark and disturbing versions of classic fairytales, and genuinely evil antagonists. The plot is intense and suspenseful and David is one of the most lovely characters I’ve read in a long time.

In short: Surprising, suspenseful and aurally intense.

Postscript: Having thoroughly enjoyed the experience of an audio book, it got me hypothesizing about the importance of the narrator. Nick Rawlinson was perfect for this title. His voice was smooth and soft and polished and powerful at all the right times. However it wasn’t until I started my second book that it became obvious just how important the right storyteller was to the experience. Admittedly my second audio book was more of a chick-lit crime drama, and I soon learned it was peppered with schmaltzy and unnecessary descriptions of passion. When the Texan twang of a scratchy sounding broad came over the stereo, I cringed. When she started talking about nipples and ooh ahhs, I nearly rear-ended the bus in front of me. (Innuendo intended) With that CD sailing out my sun roof, I became determined to check the quality of the voice, as well as the story, for my next audio book.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

WildGirl_COVERI’m sure you’re familiar with once upon a times, and wicked step-mothers, poison apples, Prince Charmings and cottages in the woods.  I’ve always been captivated by the darker side of fairy tales, and the fact that the Brothers Grimm did not originally scribe such tales for children to enjoy.  For instance, did you know that Cinderella’s evil step mother made her ugly daughters slice off their heels with a knife to try and fit into the glass slipper.  The Prince only realising the truth when he noticed blood pooling in the shoe?  And our heroine Snow White was not merely sleeping, but dead when her Prince found her, and in an unsavoury twist, he fell in love with her rotting corpse and made his footmen carry her body in a glass casket?

Kind of gross right?  But darkly fascinating too.  And these folktales, coupled with a beautiful historical narrative, make The Wild Girl an excellent read for literature and history lovers alike.

Set in the early 19th century, as Napoleon Bonaparte invades most of Europe, we meet Dortchen Wild, a twelve year old girl who lives next door to Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.   The Grimm Brothers are scholars, living a poor existence, but determined to publish a collection of translated folktales and stories.  They collect the tales from women they become acquainted with, including housemaids, Mothers and townsfolk, as well as the Wild sisters who live next door.

Dortchen falls in love with Wilhelm the moment she lays eyes on him, and over the course of two decades she tells him the tales that will one day become his famous published works.

Set in a time of drama, poverty and war, Dortchen not only battles her forbidden feelings for Wilhelm, but struggles with starvation, cold, grief and oppression.  Not to mention her day to day dealings with a tyrant of a Father.

I love that this book has intertwined the few facts known about the real Dortchen, with speculative events.  Forsyth has cleverly weaved Dortchen a fictional narrative that is believable and moving, intense and suspenseful.

The style is easy to digest, with language and dialogue reflective of the era.  As you read, you are transported to the kingdom of Hessen-Cassel and the stories that Dortchen relays are vaguely familiar yet somehow distant, and they all will give you goosebumps in the telling.

In Short:  With a sprinkle of literature and love; historical faction at its best.

The Waiting Room by F.G. Cottam

waiting room

I’ve always loved a ghost story. In fact, I really enjoy scaring the bejesus out of myself by reading spooky tales then daring to walk through the darkened house, peering into shadows, corners and crannies willing a figure to appear, but deep down hoping to Christ it doesn’t. It gives me a little thrill to get my heart rate up high, and then settle back into bed having conquered my fear of getting a glass of water without turning the light on.

Since having a baby, the idea of spirits or bogeymen don’t scare me as much. I think being a parent makes you fear real world threats; like meningococcal disease, kidnappers, private school fees, and wetting your pants when a sneeze catches you by surprise.

However, even the bravest of folk would find it hard not to feel a shiver when delving into The Waiting Room, by FG Cottam.

The waiting room is a derelict building that stands on a railway line that runs through Martin Stride’s country estate. A retired rock-star, and recluse, Stride and his family moved to the country where he hoped his children would flourish and play and breathe the hearty air. Everything changes when Stride’s son begins to hear strange music in the Waiting Room, and sees the ghostly figure of a soldier with a threatening leer on the railway platform.

Stride calls in TV’s most popular ghost hunter, Julian Creed, who is a fake and sceptic at heart. But he is famous and seemingly successful at vanquishing ghouls, so he plays the part and agrees to investigate. And then he spends the night in the Waiting Room…

Scary from the beginning, this story will curl your toes and make you look over your shoulder before turning out the light. The haunting is described so convincingly and cleverly by Cottam, that the reader can feel the cold, the goose-bumps, the quickened pulse and the terror that both lead characters experience.

And it’s not your typical kind of wave the curtains, rattle the windows, play music from an abandoned attic kind of ghost either. He is legitimately threatening, physically aggressive, and his breath smells of decomposing meat.

As the soldier’s history unfolds, he becomes more terrifying, and you’ll devour pages quickly to finally reach what is a satisfying end.

A genuine thriller, this book had me opting to go thirsty at night, and asking my hubby to block his ears while I used our door-less ensuite. There was no way I was walking through the dark house to the other loo after reading this one.

In short: Spine chillingly satisfying

Oh Dear Silvia by Dawn French

Oh dear

An easy, engaging read which contains real LOL moments, tear jerking scenes and heart racing character twists.  Dawn French has created a smart and satisfying tale.

Set in an intensive care unit, we meet the central character Silvia, who is in a coma.  What is clever is the only way we get to know her is through her visitor’s memories and dialogue.  We gradually learn pieces of her story as each chapter is constructed from the point-of-view of each different bedside companion.

Throughout the course of these visits, I felt an underlying notion that Silvia was gone for good, although I’d also be willing her to wake, and that outcome felt desperately possible too.  It presented a strange sort of tension in addition to what each character delivered.

We meet Silvia’s estranged daughter, her ex-husband, her bohemian sister, her housekeeper, her BFF and her nurse.

The characters are richly woven, lovable, hateable and moving.

Some of the more amusing and tender moments come from the ‘interaction’ between her and her Jamaican nurse, Winnie, who is well rehearsed at helping people move closer to the end.  Her own backstory is a highlight, as is the humour and warmth of Silvia’s housekeeper Tia who owns some of the most memorable and funny parts.

I must admit, I felt detached from Silvia and angry with her on behalf of her estranged kids.  Even though Silvia seemed irrelevant at times (her visitors became the heroes of the story) and it took a long time to understand HER full picture, this book touched me, made me cry, gave me a good belly laugh and twisted my thinking more than once.

In short: tickled my fancy and warmed my cockles.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gone-girl-high-resHave you heard about the cool girl syndrome? It’s the one that many women suffer from when they first start a relationship with a guy. It’s the one that makes us say: “Hey I’m cool with you staying out all night for a poker game with the boys. Want me to drop buy with bacon & egg rolls for you all in the morning?” It’s the one that makes us assert that there’s nothing wrong with watching porn or a visit to the strippers. It’s just window shopping right? “As long as he comes home to me I don’t care a bit. I’m not the jealous type.” It’s the one where you pretend to enjoy video games, and violent movies, and stay out all night drinking tequila shots and being super fun even though you have an 8am start the next day.

It’s no wonder men get confused as the relationship becomes long-term. All that stuff we used to be cool about, now makes us dish out the silent treatment. When we say we’re ‘fine’ with it: you know we’re not. But guys, we’ve actually always felt shit when you pull an all-nighter and ignore our texts. And we’ve never felt OK about someone else’s fanny gyrating in your lap. We spent our ‘quiet nights alone’ downing bottles of wine and Lean Cuisine, stalking your Facebook profiles and cursing you for not being a mind reader.

It is this very concept that is weaved subtly into Gone Girl. A book that sophisticated, compelling and a genuine thriller.

Written in the voice of the two main characters, the author introduces us to Nick and Amy, a married couple who met and lived a cosmopolitan life in New York. They have now moved to Nick’s hometown in Missouri and things have turned sour. On their fifth anniversary Amy goes missing, with evidence of a struggle in the home and all signs pointing to foul play.

What’s awesome about this story is that you get insights from both characters; Amy’s from her private journal, but there is still a sense of mystery and you never fully understand or believe either of them. Nick does not behave like a husband whose wife is missing, and the detectives are breathing down his neck (interesting folk in their own right.)

There’s a killer twist in this book, and there’s a risk that too much will be revealed if I carry on with the synopsis. Just know that it’s a captivating, unsettling crime drama that’ll keep you turning the pages and questioning your perception after each chapter.

There is no doubt that this book is Popular Fiction and will appeal to the edgier masses. It will likely enjoy the same mainstream success as Sebold and Picoult but it has more grit. It’s also worth mentioning that Hollywood has their hands on it, so watch out for spoilers in the media.

 

In short: Enjoy the twists and chills now; before the movie effs it up.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe

lowe

I must admit I felt pretty weird buying this book.  It probably didn’t help that an intellectual chap Readings Carlton sold it to me, and gave me a very strange look which questioned my credibility and sanity at the same time.

However, I had seen Mr Lowe interviewed a few times and he seemed decent enough. Besides, everyone needs a brainless holiday read every now and then right?

So into the 80s I delved, and I was pleasantly surprised.  Rob Lowe can write. His book is simple, readable, self-deprecating and honest.  It is classy and slick, and reads like a private conversation.  It also gives a cool insight into Hollywood, and is peppered with name dropping and star spotting which proves for a fun ride.

Lowe talks about some predictable memoir themes, such as his childhood, an absent father, his rise to stardom, shitty treatment of women, alcoholism and insights into the acting world.

But in addition to that, is the grittier and more moving stuff; his relationship with his Mom who demonstrates severe traits of mental illness, his views on American politics tied nicely to the chapters on his time on the West Wing, and his feelings the day his friend JFK Jnr was killed.  He also reveals the ugly moment when he realised he needed rehab.  Described to conjure a sexy image of Hollywood glamour and excess, juxtaposed with a grimy, unhinged tumble from grace.

What I found the warmest and most relatable were his revelations on being a parent:

“And today, that is what I look forward to.  Time… Time to love my wife and watch our young men grow to make us proud, as I have no doubt they will.  Time to watch them crystallize into the strong, sensitive, witty and engaging men they almost are.  The future is theirs.  It’s all so close for them.  It takes my breath away.”

I must say I was never really a Lowe Fan.  I was more of a Corey Haim and Feldman kinda girl, but this book made me want to watch classic 80s films again, download the West Wing, and listen more to exceptionally good-looking people – they may actually have something worthwhile to say. 

In Short:  Devine dimples and a great holiday read.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

the_book_thief_review(My most very favourite book ever!)

Is it possible for a work of fiction to change the way you feel about death?  The cynic in me wants to *insert bible joke here* but I really I must refrain because The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, has affected me so profoundly that it would be crass to detract from that.

It’s a book that you devour, but want to take in slowly at the same time.  You want to savour the writing; which is truly astonishing.  A work that is utterly beautiful, compelling, heartbreaking and darkly humorous all at once.

One of the most unusual (and engaging) elements of the tale is that it is narrated by Death.  A character who you’d expect to feel no sympathy for, the antagonist, the guy you want to fail.  However, within the first few lines of the Prologue – you cannot help but feel warmth and empathy, and a sense of cautious appeal, as the narrator introduces himself.

“I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary.  You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables.  It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible.  Your soul will be in my arms.  A colour will be perched on my shoulder.  I will carry you gently away.”

Beginning in 1939 Nazi Germany, we meet Liesel Meminger, a 9 year old foster girl moving in with her adoptive German parents in Munich.  Her biological parents have been taken to a concentration camp, her small brother has been taken by the narrator.  She lives a poor and meagre existence, taking pleasure in such small things – a stolen book, the opportunity to learn to read, and the music from her Papa’s accordion. 

Throughout the course of the tale, the narrator observes Liesel; her penchant for thievery, her friendship with a neighbourhood boy, and her family’s struggle to remain safe but morally responsible in a time filled with Nazi propaganda, falling bombs and human atrocities.

It’s kind of daunting to have a story narrated by death, it sounds chilling and a bit creepy.  But in actual fact, the character brings such light and love to a dark and sad tale, that I have myself wishing that his existence were real.  He treats the souls he collects with such compassion and care that I can’t help but think of loved ones I’ve lost, and hope (however futile) that they too were met with the same gentleness at the end.

This is not a book to read while sipping cocktails at a beach resort, or on a long haul flight where sobbing would be discouraged.  It would be challenging to take in if you have personal grief that is fresh.  But if you lie in bed, free of distraction, on a cold winter’s night and read Death’s tale of the book thief, you’ll be fulfilled and moved, and changed forever.

In short: Life (and death) changing

Chapter One

Once upon a time there was a bookish girl who loved reading, and, on occasions, even writing her own words.  She finally decided it was time to stop procrastinating, and actually hit publish on her very first blog post! 

jade readingStories have comforted me, distracted me, inspired me and kept me company since I can remember.  Never was there a happier child than I, when I could read One Fish, Two Fish to my little brother or imaginary friend.  I poured over the pages of A Lion in the Meadow wishing the mother would understand the threat in their backyard.  I willed Frances to try something other than bread and jam.  The Babysitters Club got me through my parent’s divorce, Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High got me through puberty.  Marsden & Morrison cured me of my first heartbreak, and Harry Potter 4-7 got me through subsequent ones.

I now read every day for pleasure.  First a storybook to my daughter before bed; thankfully she has inherited my love of the turning page (particularly if it has lift the flap or touch and feel) and then it’s normally fiction before setting the alarm.  This allows me to switch off from my day, and escape into someone else’s life for just a little while.

My friends know me as a book nerd, and every year before they go on holidays or start their Christmas shopping, they ask me what reads I recommend.  I probably bore them senseless with my answers, but ultimately if I loved it – I’ll loan it.  And that’s where this idea stemmed from. 

I don’t get the point of a bad book review.  If I’m not enjoying something, then I’ll give it the flick. I won’t persevere just so I can say it’s finished, but I hated it and you really shouldn’t bother with such a terrible read.  There are too many books in this world to enjoy, and only a short time to digest them, so why waste time on something you can’t get into?

The plan for this site is to let you know what books I think are terrific, and hopefully help you, dear reader, pick your next gift, holiday read, or bedtime escape.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be adding my thoughts on the best.of.words, and I hope to make you giggle, consider stories, ask questions, and ultimately, inspire you to take interest in a new read. 

I know it’s not quite right that a site exploring the best.of.words has a distinct lack of actual book reviews, but I promise a mix of recommended reading will be added soon.

Read On!