April 23, 2012

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus was one of those books I had seen and heard about but stayed away from for so long - I'm not really sure why - I think I thought it might have been a little too "out there" for my reading tastes. How wrong I was! This book is already one of my favourite reads of 2012 and I am sure it will stay at, or near, the top of the list no matter how many books I manage to read this year.
The Night Circus tells the story of a special circus Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams) that travels the globe during the late 1800's opening only during the night hours to captivated crowds. The circus is part traditional circus and part magical realm - the setting of a contest between two novice magicians, Celia and Marco where they attempt to out perform and out maneuver the other in a contest designed to be the death of one of them.
Reading this book reminded me a lot of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - another book that I originally stayed away from but couldn't put down when I did eventually decide to read it. The Night Circus was very similar in its appeal for me - a combination of relationships and settings grounded in reality but also a magical, fantasy element that captured and intrigued me. The book is rich in imagery - I can only imagine that a movie version is already being looked at - and I felt the author did an amazing job in bringing her visionary world to life for the reader. Looking back over the plot carefully after finishing it is easy to see some gaps and inconsistencies but I prefer not to dwell on these - I certainly didn't notice them when I was caught up in the reading and I was completely transported to the world of The Circus of Dreams.
The book was long listed for this years Orange Prize but unfortunately did not make it to the short list - I would like to see books showing this much imagination and story telling ability rewarded much more often.

April 10, 2012

The Sealed Letter - Emma Donoghue

It seems like I was one of the few people who didn't fall heavily for Donoghue's much loved and talked about book, Room - I thought it was clever in so many ways but despite the content it just failed to connect with me for some reason.
My latest Donoghue read is a completely different matter however - The Sealed Letter had me hooked from the start and I can see why it has been long listed for the 2012 Orange Prize.
The Sealed Letter is set in Victorian England and is based on the true story of divorce proceedings between an upper class couple of the time - Henry and Helen Codrington. Divorce cases were still extremely rare in these times (Donoghue writes in her author's note that in Britain between 1670 and 1852 there were fewer than two divorces a year with this rising to several hundred a year after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857).
The story is told from the perspectives of the three main characters, Henry and Helen and Helen's close friend, Emily 'Fido' Faithful a young single woman firmly behind the feminist reform cause of the day who runs a successful printing press in London. Fido and Helen come back into contact with one another seemingly by chance when Helen and her family return from Malta where her husband has been stationed for several years with his position in the Navy. Fido quickly discovers that the Helen she thought she knew has developed into a woman in a compromising position - she has a lover whom her husband knows nothing about and she appeals to Fido to support her in what Fido believes to be an attempt to end the illicit affair.
The story covers the legal trial that takes place after Henry Codrington cottons on to what is going on under his nose and petitions for divorce from Helen - drawing Fido in as an unwilling and at times helpless witness. As a legal thriller I found this book to be extremely entertaining but it has so many more levels to it - the unequal relationships that occurred between men and women of the time and the powerless positions women could be placed in if they did not "toe the line" and clearly meet all of societies expectations of them was clearly demonstrated throughout the story. The characters themselves could be frustrating and very unlikeable but that intrigued me - and the fact that the story was based somewhat in fact and meticulous research just added to its authenticity for me - a fantastic read.

April 04, 2012

The Translation of the Bones - Francesca Kay

The Translation of the Bones is one of the long listed books for the 2012 Orange Prize and another example of this prize introducing me to a fabulous author.
The Translation of the Bones focuses on a small part of the community of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Battersea in the time leading up to Easter. The book opens with one of the parish members, Mrs Alice Armitage, going through her weekly cleaning routine of the church:

It's beyond belief what you find between the pews, Mrs Armitage was saying. Coins and gloves you might expect, but socks and underwear? Hairclips, buttons, handkerchiefs, and now look at these, these perculiar white pills. She held out her hand to Father Diamond, who looked at it carefully and shook his head.

We are also introduced to other members of the church, Stella Morrison, as she contributes her weekly offering by bringing in and arranging fresh flowers and then Mary-Margaret O'Reilly, a young woman with a developmental delay who is fixated on lovingly cleaning and caring for a statue of Jesus when she falls from a ladder and injures herself. The injury to Mary-Margaret sets off a chain of events and even though the start of the book is gentle and unassuming in so many ways Kay builds the tension and the storyline perfectly. I felt real connection to these characters and their stories - each character is given their own air space that does not seem to detract from the other storylines and I felt the climax and ending of the novel were written beautifully. I rarely cry when reading novels but there were definite tears in my eyes at the end of the this one.