September 7, 2016

Mini Theme: Under the Big Top

After I read Girl on a Wire, I realized there were a couple of others on my "to-read" list that also used a circus as the setting. So, I thought it would be fun to read them all at once--get immersed in the whole circus world, you know? In reality, they were all so different in tone; they bear just a passing resemblance to each other, despite their shared circus bones.

Oh, and FYI: these run the gamut from middle grade to adult.  Enjoy!

The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

4 stars: Once I got into the story I couldn't put it down.

Simon is a librarian who lives in a derelict house--a house in danger of crumbling into the Sound. He is currently alone. His mother committed suicide several years ago, his father died a few years after her, and his younger sister ran off to join the circus. Yep. Simon finds comfort in books, in answering reference questions, in solving puzzles.

One day an unexpected package shows up on his doorstep. It is an ancient book--a logbook, of sorts--apparently from a travelling show way back in the late 1700's. A antiquarian bookseller that he doesn't know sent it to him, having tracked Simon down from the name on the inside cover of the book. It's his grandmother's name. He comes from a line of circus mermaids--women who could hold their breath for 10, 15 minutes at a time. Longer, maybe. Simon himself learned from his mother how it was done, when he just a young boy.

As Simon begins to research this book and what it means to his family's story, a disturbing pattern emerges: all the women in his maternal line have drowned at a young age, all of them on July 24. Then another unexpected thing happens: his sister Enola returns from the circus show she has been working with. It is July, and it is obvious there is something not quite right with her. Simon has to unravel the mystery and protect his sister before it is too late. Again.

All the while, his personal life is in shambles. He has lost his job (budget cuts), his house is unfit for habitation, and secrets await him that he will not want to know.

* * * * *
This was a book with many layers. It had a dual narrative: Simon in the modern day, and then a long time ago, a showman named Peabody, a mute boy named Amos, and a cursed girl named Evangeline. In both times tarot cards, readings, and water appeared and reappeared. Slowly the two ends of the story curled together, until you got to the heart of it all.

Simon was a likeable character--always the responsible one, and caretaker of his sister in the face of glaring neglect. It's not very often that you find librarians as the main characters in novels. Perhaps that sealed my sympathy for him from the beginning. There's a line about how he can't stand to watch books drown. Yes, that would be hard for me, too. But they're only books! (you may say.) To which I reply, books have the potential to change a person's heart, soul, and outlook, and hence the world. The scene with the flood in the library was only a small part of the narrative, but it seemed to represent a much bigger part of what was happening.

Anyway, back to Simon. There were echoes from the past that still resounded in his life, some he was already aware of and some he became aware of as he tried to solve the puzzle of his family's curse--if such a thing existed. Certain people had been drawn into his life with deep connections to his family.

There were threads of magical realism at work here, too. Nothing that overwhelmed the story or stood out on its own, but circus performers who actually were what they claimed to be--for instance, Doyle the Electric Boy, and of course, the mermaids themselves.

Content: There's some language, including many uses of the f-word in dialogue. There's the whole suicide theme, plus a handful of non-graphic sex scenes--mostly of the fade-to-black variety. There's some abuse and a fatal beating. There's quite a bit about tarot cards: reading them and descriptions of the cards themselves.

For adults.

(Finished reading August 19.)

Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry

3 stars: A fascinating and dark story set in New York's underbelly.

It is turn-of-the-century New York, and Odile and Belle are identical twins, whose mother has raised them in the circus life on Coney Island. She built a show up from the ground all on her own, called The Church of Marvels, and it was full of real (never fake) acts of amazement and wonder. Belle began swallowing swords as just as child. With her crooked spine and legs, Odile is never in the spotlight as much as her sister, but she prefers it that way.

Then there's the fire. Their mother and many of the performers die, and the Church itself burns to the ground. Nothing left. After a few months, Belle slips away leaving nothing more than a note. Odile is bereft, and eventually decides to go into the city by herself and find her sister.

Back in the city, a night-soiler named Sylvan is doing his rounds, emptying out the privies, when he finds a baby. A baby girl who--unbelievably--is alive. He can't bring himself to just leave her there, as his foreman demands. He brings her home. He cleans her up. He knows he's going to need help--he himself is just a lone man with no relations. Perhaps he might even be able to find the child's mother somehow. He has to try.

Meanwhile, a girl named Alphie wakes up to find herself on a boat to a women's insane asylum on one of the islands. She's had a hard life of it: sent away from home when she was young and lived her whole life since then in the slums and alleyways, with the bruises and scars to show for it. When she got married, she thought that hard life would be over, but her husband frequents the opium dens and her mother-in-law hates her. Her memory is fuzzy when it comes to the events leading up to this disaster, but the one thing she hangs onto is her husband--Anthony. Anthony will come for her, and soon this whole thing will just seem like a bad of many. 

The lives of these four characters slowly begin to intertwine and converge upon each other. They have all experienced loneliness, rejection, and the loss of parents. There looks to be nothing rosy ahead for any of them. And yet. There may be glimmers of hope here and there. If they can survive the present, that is.

* * * * * *

A gritty, evocative story. The asylum was horrifyingly brutal, and Sylvan's world--somewhat similar to what Alphie left behind--wasn't much better. The twin girls grew up somewhat sheltered, though they had their share of worldliness being onstage and dealing with the crowds.

I had to keep reminding myself this was New York City--it had the feel of old London about it. Somewhere in the middle there's a twist that had me exclaiming out loud--"Wait, what?!" much to the amusement of my husband. Maybe I'm na├»ve, but I didn't see that one coming at all--though now that I think about it, I suppose there were clues all along. When you get there, you will know what I mean.

The story unfurled slowly, with alternating chapters from the viewpoint of the different characters, and as each piece fell into place, a few more things made sense that didn't before. However, just when I thought, "Ok, now I know what was really going on back there," Parry would throw in another twist or two.

Beautifully written. It brought me right there: onto the streets, into the despair of the asylum, on the sidelines of Sylvan's fight, into the waves and onstage with Odile and Belle, in the bedroom that one pivotal night.

It's one I would love to discuss with somebody, so you if end up reading it--tell me! Let's chat!

Content: Some language, descriptions of abuse in the asylum, violent fights, prostitution and sex (talked about, though not graphically described), LGBT issues, drug use. Definitely a book for adults.

(Finished reading August 4.)

Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley

4 stars: A magical circus and a grandfather's promise come together to rescue a boy.

Micah Tuttle has heard stories about the Circus Mirandus his whole life. A magical circus that suddenly appears; and while it demands an entrance fee, the fee does not necessarily have to be money. Stories about a wonderful magician called the Lightbender and a woman who can fly. Stories from his grandfather's boyhood.

Now Micah's grandfather Ephraim is dying, leaving Micah all alone in the world. However, Ephraim Tuttle has something in reserve: an unredeemed miracle, promised to him by the Lightbender himself. Ephraim has sent a message and is still awaiting the answer. The awaited answer may be all that is keeping him here on earth. While the miracle may very well be impossible, the Lightbender has been known to make the impossible happen. It's Ephraim's (and Micah's) last hope.
A simple story, magically and wonderfully told. For middle grade audiences.

(Originally reviewed Dec. 2015)

Girl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond

4 stars: Jules and Remy fall for each other, despite the long-standing feud between their two families.

Jules has been a wire walker since she was tiny, and hasn't fallen since she was 4. She feels at home on the wire, much like her dad, who is a master at wire-walking. That's why she can't understand it when her family has decided to pass up the chance for a job with the Cirque American, a new show recently started up by a wealthy businessman. The family's old rivals--the Garcias--will also be headliners in the show, but Jules can't believe that would keep them (or her, especially) from pursuing bigger and better things.

Jules takes a chance and forces her dad's hand. It works! The Amazing Maroni's are going to join the Cirque American! What with her grandmother's dire warnings, however, and her parent's uneasiness, Jules is not sure what they will find when they get there. What she definitely doesn't expect to find is handsome, charming Remy, one of the teenage Garcia trapeze artists. He doesn't seem to mind having her around--unlike the rest of his family--and soon they become friends...with the possibility of something more.

Any interest they may have in each other will have to be put on hold, though, because apparently the old feud is far from over, and superstitious unlucky objects have begun turning up. Worse, accidents begin to happen. The Garcias and others in the circus already think Jules' grandmother is a witch. This is not helping matters any. Jules doesn't believe in magic and she is determined to get to the bottom of this--before it's too late for her or someone she loves.

* * * * * *
This retelling of Romeo and Juliet sucked me in! More than I expected it to, actually. I was ready for a high-drama rendition, with added elephants and tigers, but in this one Remy and Jules are actually the more sensible, level-headed ones. I thought their investigative tactics were age appropriate and believable. The friendship/romance managed to stay on this side of sweet, with the obsessive nature notable in the original downplayed quite a bit. It's more "I'm crushing hard," rather than, "I will die if I can't be with him," which was a nice change.

I don't do well with heights (an affliction that has gotten worse the older I get, for some reason), so the wire-walking descriptions were fascinating and slightly terrifying. How could anyone on purpose do such a thing?  Just--gives me the shivers.

Anyway. A fun little diversion for those who like circuses, Shakespeare retellings, or teen romances.

Content: A tragic death, and some passionate kissing. Recommended for teens and up.

(Finished reading August 1.)

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

3 stars: Some beautiful, dreamy bright spots, with unanswered questions lurking in the background.

Celia and Marco are two magicians, each raised by a different master to be weapons--or pawns, depending on your point of view--in a game. It is to be a game of skill and of mastery. The venue: a circus that only opens at night: Les Cirque des Reves--The Circus of Dreams. The two don't know the rules and for a long time, Celia doesn't even know who she is competing against. They add exhibits and tents to the marvelous circus and circle each other unknowingly as though in the main ring.

The circus performers, including Celia, are a tight-knit group, from the contortionist to the twins who were born on the very first opening night. They are all involved in the game, whether they know it or not, and their very lives depend on the outcomes.

Meanwhile the circus has gained a cult following of its own. Those who inform each other as soon as it pops up in a new location, who write about its wonders and form a club of like-minded enthusiasts. A family of fans. There's also a boy named Bailey, who first discovered the circus when he was young, and met one of the twins. Now he is a man and finds it is like an addiction--a thirst that cannot be slaked. Little does he know his fate is bound up with that of all the others, as well.

As the game wears on, Celia and Marco fall in love, and even (gasp!) begin to collaborate on various projects that were meant to be a competition. That's when everything else starts to fall apart.

* * * * *
This book had a dreamy quality to it. When I think about it, it's in images: the fantastical clock at the entrance to the Circus, Celia's dress at the party that took on whatever color she was standing near, the tent of ice sculptures, bright red scarves against black and white. The fantastical shows and events of the circus were lovingly described with an eye for detail, as though one of the fans themselves had written about them. What an amazing place it would be if it were real! The Cloud Maze, and all the rest.

The bits involving the circus itself was where the book really glowed. However, the story faltered and began to blur out around the edges. At the end of the book I was left with quite a few questions. Who were the 2 masters, really? Why must this "game" be played out over and over? Why couldn't the contestants know the rules (perhaps the author wasn't clear on the rules herself)? How was it a fight, if all they ever did was make new exhibits?

Celia and Marco were okay, but I didn't actually care about them very much. Were they products of their strange upbringings? Why didn't they ever ask why they had to do this, or even try to rebel, or something? Once again, the book is primarily about the Circus itself--the characters are more of an afterthought.

Unlike some, I didn't mind Celia and Marco's solution to their seemingly unsolvable problem. In a world where The Night Circus exists, what's one more snip of impossibility, after all? Plus, it was a lovely, romantic impossibility, so cut it some slack alright?

Of all the characters, the twins were my favorites. Literally born and raised as part of the circus, they were able to step outside its bounds in ways some of the others couldn't. Bailey's involvement was a nice touch. I was satisfied with the ending for their sakes, as well.

Content: There are a few rather traumatic scenes, for instance, where Celia stabs her own hand through with a dagger (to prove she can heal herself), and mentions of her father cutting open the tips of her fingers--over and over--for the same reason. Recommended for teens on up.

(Finished reading Aug. 14)

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