Wednesday, January 30, 2013

THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern

I love this oxymoron—magical realism.  This book falls squarely in that category, and it did not immediately draw me in.  Now that Harry Potter's adventures are finished, I wasn't sure if I was really up for more wizardry.  Celia and Marco are two young magicians who have been bound into a competition against one another, without either knowing who their adversary is.  The venue is a very special circus that seems to be sort of a combination of Cirque du Soleil, Hogwarts, and Alice in Wonderland.  Le Cirque des Reves (Circus of Dreams) runs from dusk to dawn (the time for dreams, of course) and gives both illusionists an opportunity to showcase their extraordinary talents, which far exceed those of mortal man.  The circus also gives the author a chance to showcase her vast imagination for what would make for a truly stunning visitors' experience, if the laws of the universe did not apply.  The storyline occasionally flits forward a few years to Bailey, a young man at a crossroads, uncertain whether he should create his own way by going to Harvard, or bend to paternal pressure to take over the farm.  He becomes entangled with one of the circus performers, who may offer a third option.  The author really cast a spell on me, though, with the love story that develops between Celia and Marco, even as they discover that they are rivals in their inescapable duel.  Their connection is so electric that it leaps off the page, proving once again that love is more magical than any wishing tree, labyrinth, or ice garden.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Dr. Lou Welcome stumbles upon an elite group of soldiers called Mantis, led by the diabolical Wyatt Brody, while trying to help out a friend.  The friend, Gary McHugh, is another physician who, like Lou, has a history of substance abuse.  Now McHugh is a murder suspect in the death of a Congressman whose wife McHugh was having an affair with.  At first, Sarah Cooper, McHugh's attorney, finds Lou's efforts to uncover another suspect intrusive, if not downright counter-productive, but eventually it becomes apparent that Lou can be useful in some situations.  There's also a crooked cop with some incriminating secrets and a journalist who was blinded when she became a threat to Mantis.  OK, it's formulaic, and this isn't the first thriller about a rogue military unit.  What distinguishes a Michael Palmer thriller is that it has a medical angle, and this time we have a drug, akin to methamphetamine, that works as an antidote to fear, developed for military purposes.  I had a few minor issues with this element of the plot.  I know soldiers are trained to follow orders, but wouldn't drinking a cocktail of unknown ingredients at least raise a few soldiers' eyebrows?   I guess dissent would get a man ousted from the unit.  This whole scene reminded me of the Jim Jones Guyana massacre.  Plus, Mantis's mission requires more than fearlessness; it requires suppression of a basic instinct that trumps fear:  self-preservation.  This may not be Michael Palmer's best novel, but sometimes a beach read in January is just the ticket.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Esch, a pregnant teenager, lives with her 3 brothers and alcoholic father in the Mississippi Gulf area, and a storm's a-brewin'.  One of the brothers, Skeetah, owns a female pitbull, China, that he loves dearly, but he is just as enamored with the money she can bring in as a fighter.  Her first litter of puppies represents an additional source of income, and Skeetah becomes desperate to save all of the dogs when one dies of an unknown cause.  In the meantime, the family's father tries valiantly to lead the whole crew in making preparations for the hurricane that is on its way.  On the one hand, it's hard to imagine how things could get much worse, but their desperate scramble to survive the disaster is one of the most gripping pieces of writing that I've read in a while.  Esch sprinkles her narration of all this with tales from Greek mythology and compares her own situation to Medea's.  I know these passages are supposed to lend a mystical aura to the story, but, really, this family's struggle is dramatic enough.  The more interesting and appropriate parallel, I think, is between Esch and the dog China, both having to adapt to the idea of motherhood.  Furthermore, Esch's mother died bearing the last of Esch's three brothers, and this tragedy haunts them all.  Esch and China both live in a man's world, doing the bidding of the male figures that surround them.  Esch, caught up in her infatuation with her baby's father, who won't even look at her, needs to face her future realistically.  China has even fewer options but seems to be of more concern, at least to Skeetah, than Esch, who withholds the fact of her pregnancy as long as possible.  The real authority, though, lies with a storm named Katrina.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn

Nick Dunne seems to be about as despicable as you can get, and now there's a big cloud of suspicion hanging over him, as his wife Amy has gone missing on their fifth anniversary.  Their marriage is on the rocks, especially after having relocated from NYC to Nick's Missouri hometown, and Nick doesn't have an alibi for the morning of Amy's disappearance.  The media are documenting his every smirk as evidence that he must have wanted to get rid of his wife.  He readily admits to the reader that he's lying about his whereabouts on the morning in question and about the argument the neighbors overheard the night before.  He's also not sharing with the cops the solutions to all the riddles Amy has left behind in her annual treasure hunt.  Amy, on the other hand, is the inspiration for her parents' wildly successful children's book series, Amazing Amy.  You'll have to reserve judgment about Amy until the second half of the book, but the manner in which the author presents the facts surrounding Amy's disappearance is just brilliant.  The first half of the book sets the stage, alternating between Nick's story and Amy's diary, but your jaw will drop as the plot unfolds in the second half, completely reshuffling the deck.  There are plenty of other shady characters that could have offed Amy, but their stories get rewound as well.  This is not your typical thriller, and there's no one here to carry the standard for truth, justice and the American way.  It's creepy and twisty, yet easy to follow, but the really mind-blowing way in which the author draws and then redraws the characters is what makes this book such a hit.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller

The concept, a retelling of The Iliad, appealed to me, but I found the execution lacking.  It's partly a love story between two men, and partly a story of war, but the intrusion of centaurs and visible goddesses just seemed out of place to me.  Since I haven't read The Iliad, maybe I'm not in a position to judge, but my guess is that the fantasy aspects work better in the original.  That said, this work, even though based on a well-known legend, needs to stand on its own, and that's a shaky prospect, at best.  The narrator in this novel is Patroclus, Achilles' lover and confidante.  Achilles is everything that Patroclus is not—beautiful, graceful, and unsurpassed in his skill as a warrior.  (Of course, Achilles is genetically blessed, since his mother is a goddess.)  Patroclus doesn't envy Achilles; instead, he worships him—so bedazzled that he tends to overlook Achilles' flaws, including an ego that destines him to die young.  As we get to know both men, we discover that Patroclus is really the better man in all the traits that matter.  The only human female character, Briseis, appears in the second half of the book.  At Patroclus's urging, Achilles saves her from Agamemnon's brutality, and she becomes as dear to Patroclus as Achilles, though not in a sexual way. My real problem with this book is that nothing much really happens until the last 50 pages or so.  Where is that Trojan Horse to liven things up?  Or perhaps the author could have added more depth to the odd triangle of Achilles, Patroclus, and Briseis.  Instead, we have the Greeks spending ten years raiding Anatolian farms, while camped outside the walls of Troy.  Yawn.