The Starless Sea

I had expected the unusual from Erin Morgenstern after reading her Night Circus, but The Starless Sea goes beyond my expectations for strange and complicated. The book has elements of Scheherazade in her storytelling, and bits of Lewis Carroll in her references and visits to fantastic worlds, but the story Morganstern most reminded me of – even referencing it in the beginning of her book – was Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.

Just as in Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s Cemetery of Lost Books, Morgenstern creates her own secret underground library and a mystery involving the hero and books, as well as their pages and words, sifting them through a tangential plot sometimes hard to follow. If you have read The Westing Game, you might see some of its elements too.

But it’s the many stories, not necessarily the one following the main characters, that become pieces that can be taken by themselves – fairy tales of fantastic places and sometimes horrible creatures. I was tempted to skip over these chapters to follow the main line, but after a while they seduced me into reading, and then I wasn’t so concerned about Zachary Rawlins, the graduate student on a quest – I knew he’d be back somewhere in later pages as the time warp flexed.

If all this sounds wild and ambiguous, it is – probably because the book is written that way too. The pages are crammed with symbolism – The Owl King, a sea of honey, magic doors – mixed with real places – the New York Public Library, posh hotels, and a professional fortune teller. Read it if you dare, but be prepared to get lost. In the end, I thought I caught a moral from the Never-ending Story, but maybe I just imagined it.

Review of the Night Circus: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2011/10/06/the-night-circus/

 

Mysteries with Ghosts, Murder and Magic

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

With a cast of quirky characters, including a handsome stranger, a dead billionaire, and a weird heroine, Kate Bacculia creates a puzzle-solving mystery through a citywide treasure hunt in Boston in Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts.  The promise of a fortune, as well as the possibility of finding a murderer, drives Tuesday Mooney,  clever and intelligent researcher, who dresses in black and usually tries to avoid most social contact. Her sidekicks, a gay friend and a teen neighbor, help her face a painful past as well as propel her to a future with promise as they search out strange clues and coded messages.

Not for everyone, this story has elements of Edgar Allen Poe mixed with Agatha Christie, with a touch of Sophie Kinsella, and allusions ranging from Ellen Raskin to King Arthur.  I’m not sure I caught them all but the ones I did connect were hilarious.  Suspending belief is key as the reader gets involved in these strange and sometimes nefarious doings.

The Last House Guest

Megan Miranda’s The Last House Guest involves a mystery in Maine with tension between the rich with summer houses and the locals. The death of Avery’s best friend, Sadie, triggers the story, with the action going back and forth over the years. Eventually, Sadie’s suicide is ruled as murder, with Avery as prime suspect. As she works to clear her name, Avery solves not only the mystery of her friend but sadly discovers more deceit leading back to her parents’ car accident when she was a teenager. A whodunit with a sad twist.

 

Ninth House

Leigh Bardugo’s strange tale in Ninth House involves ghosts and dangerous magic at Yale University. Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a high school dropout, has a second chance at the good life with a scholarship to Yale; the quid pro quo requires her using her powers (seeing ghosts) to watch over the famous Yale secret societies. The most well known “Skull and Bones” can read the future of the stock market in blood and guts (both Bush presidents were members).  Bardugo lists all the societies at the end of the book, with the names of the famous alums.

Alex’s freshman outsider problem – the poor girl who doesn’t fit in – quickly gives way to her struggles to solve a murder noone wants solved, with ghosts hovering nearby.

With a nod to Harry Potter some of the magic seems harmless at first, like the library conveniently shaking its stacks to deliver books requested through a special portal, but Bardugo has a flair for more adult consequences.  When the magic goes awry, lethally burying someone under books cascading down from the walls, she notes ironically “Suffocating beneath a pile of books seems an appropriate way to go for a research assistant.”

Although Bardugo is noted for her children’s fantasy books, Ninth House is for adults only.  As the story gets more complicated, so do the magical malfunctions, often with lethal results.  I enjoyed following the witches, demons, and ghosts, and if you are a fan of Deborah Harkness books, you might too.

 

Easy Reads When You Just Need – Something

It’s not that I haven’t been reading at all; I just haven’t felt like writing about the books.  But, a dear friend and writer – who happens to be blind – noted that if a blind person could do it, that is, write – so I should be able to drag myself into a motivational state and write – something.

Easy reads have called to me – all happy endings – maybe one will become a comma in your daily pursuits…

9780525429258_p0_v2_s192x300The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marion Keyes

Marion Keyes is an Irish author who offers the usual angst you would expect from an Irish tale, but, unlike many of her contemporaries, she offers a happy ending. The story alternates between the drama of the narrator paralyzed by Guillain–Barré syndrome syndrome, and her life after she recovers.  Conveniently, the editor has changed the font to identify when Stella Sweeney is bedridden – blinking her thoughts to her handsome neurologist with the sexy bedside manner – and when she is recovered in Ireland, trying to deal with a husband jealous of her success as a first-time author of a book of motivational sayings, titled “One Blink at a Time” from her mute communication with her doctor.  Keyes includes hilarious excerpts from the blink book.  Although Stella’s husband claims she has stolen the life of fame and fortune he was meant to have, the title surprisingly refers to another tangent in the story.

The story reminded me of a mix of Sophie Kinsella and Maeve Binchy, with a touch of Oscar Wilde.

9781620408339_p0_v4_s192x300-1The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

If you believe in fate, and the power to change it, Pulley’s magical story of a British telegraph worker who inadvertently becomes a spy, combines clairvoyance with espionage – again ending with a life made better.  I found this book after reading Helene Wecker’s review in the New York Times. Wecker is the author of “Golem and the Jinni,” and Pulley’s book had some of the same elements mixing fantasy with mystery, requiring the reader to suspend belief, immersing the reader in realistic impossibilities, and sprinkling the narrative with enough factual history – in this case, in Victorian London, Oxford, and Japan – to drive the narrative – my kind of story.

Thaniel Steepleton finds an intricate gold pocket watch on his bed one night, after receiving a report of a bomb threat from Irish separatists.  Just before the bomb goes off, the watch sounds an eerie alarm minutes before a terrorist explosion in Scotland Yard, saving his life.  Examination of the watchworks leads him to a strange Japanese watchmaker, Keita Mori, a mechanical genius and a clairvoyant, who has the skill to create life-like mechanisms with diamond studded gears – birds, fireflies, an octupus.  On orders from his superiors, Thaniel moves in as a boarder in the watchmaker’s home, and changes from milk toast government worker to spy, to gather evidence to prove the watchmaker had created the bomb. But the two become friends, and Thaniel’s life begins to improve. Is it coincidence or is Mori making things happen?  The story has a few unlikely surprises, and creates a charming and easily readable tale.

And then there are the graphics (comic books?):

9780545448680_p0_v13_s192x300The Marvels by Brian Selznick – for a child-like escape into history from the author of Hugo Cabret. With over 600 pages and gold-leaf trimmed pages, the size of this book seemed intimidating at first, until I realized the first half was all in pictures.  Selznick has an artistic style reminiscent of Chris van Allsburg (“The Polar Express”), and he can tell a story without words.  The illustrations tell the story of  Billy Marvel who falls off a whaling ship, and his descendants who all become famous theater actors.  The second half of the book is in print, two hundred years later in 1990, telling the story of Joseph, a runaway, who finds his long-lost eccentric uncle in London.  As Joseph uncovers his uncle and his family’s history, he is convinced he is descended from the famous Marvels.  The story has an unlikely twist at the end, combining historical fact with Selznick’s brilliant imagination.

9780307908278_p0_v1_s192x300The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua  – with a New Yorker cartoon style, Padua spins a tale about the real invention of the computer, with help from Lord Byron’s daughter, and its unlikely possibilities.  Although Babbage did create the idea for the hardware, and Lovelace for the software, their machine never materialized before they died.  In the second half of the book, Padua imagines what their computer could have done in a fictionalized story where the two “live to complete the Analytical Engine, and naturally use it to have thrilling adventures and fight crime!!”  The footnotes are overwhelming and take over the page at times; Padua seems determined to provide all the facts.  I got lost about midway through and found myself skimming through to the end – but then I do that with New Yorker cartoons too.

Silver Phoenix

Whenever a bookstore owner tells me about her favorite book, I must buy it. Megan O’Sullivan, owner of Main Street Books in Cedar City, Utah not only recommends “Silver Phoenix,” she has a watercolor painted by the author, Cindy Pon, hanging above her shelves.

This young adult fantasy has no vampires nor zombies, but there be dragons and demons. The heroine, a young Chinese girl who had vowed in her former life to return to destroy the villain, has special powers – as most superheroes do. Ai Ling can hear others’ thoughts as well as connect her spirit to read their innermost feelings.

The quest to free her father connects her to a young handsome boy who is also in search of his father, a former ambassador from another country who loved his mother, one of the Emperor’s concubines. They both are outcasts – Chen Yong for his mixed heritage and Ai Ling for a crime in her father’s past.

The emphasis is on adventure, with only hints of romance. I read it between flights – fun and fast fantasy – the first in a series of three, and passed it on to a young girl who was trying out her new skateboard on the carpet at the gate.

20140710-170041-61241138.jpg

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

9780062255655_p0_v4_s260x420Although Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline, is best known as a writer of young adult science fiction and fantasy, his new book – The Ocean at the End of the Lane – is for adult readers. Some scenes may be too scary for adults, but the story has that same weird other worldly flavor that Gaiman fans expect.

When a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral, he detours to the site of the old farm where he grew up – now a suburban housing development – and finds the old Hempstock house with the duck pond (the ocean) still there. As he stares into the “ocean,” his thoughts fade back into an amazing incident that he experienced when he was seven years old, and the duck pond had the same life energizing force as the swimming pool in “Cocoon.” The Hempstocks are a cross between the Tuck family in Natalie Babbitt’s classic and the good witches of Oz; eleven year old Lettie, with her mother and grandmother, seem to have been around forever and can save the world from “varmints” and “fleas.”

In the flashback, when the seven-year old narrator drops Lettie’s hand, as they are battling a Monster, the Monster places a worm in the arch of his foot that later takes on the form of his new beautiful blond nanny who seduces his father and tortures the boy. Only the Hempstocks can help. After excising the monster worm from the boy’s foot, Lettie discovers that a small but important part has been left behind in the boy’s heart. The ensuing battle involves an array of fantastic skirmishes with strange birds who plan to destroy the boy to get that small piece of worm. The resolution is both sad and hopeful.

Although some of the illusions are strange, and the analogies to childhood fears and adult realities are hard to miss, Gaiman mixes his tale with imaginative magic and Roald Dahl darkness, holding the reader as captive as the narrator in his fairy ring. When the story returns to the present, the narrator finds he has been watched over the years to see if his life had been worth saving.

“I’m going to tell you something important. Outside, {grown-ups are} big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have… The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane reveals the terrors and wonders that perhaps only the child within can see.

9780060530945_p0_v1_s260x420I am now reading Gaiman’s 2009 Newbery Award winning The Graveyard Book – the tale of a toddler who escapes a villain who slaughters the rest of his family in the middle of the night, and is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Since this book is targeted for a younger audience, the horror is not described, and the story quickly shifts to suspense and adventure. The graveyard has an array of ghosts – a village – to raise the little boy they name Nobody – Bod for short. He connects with older residents who teach him to read and explain their history to him (some dating back to the Celts); younger ghosts offer companionship and play. He has already made a friend who is alive, and I have just met the ghouls – one is the 33rd President of the United States (look it up) – and Liza Hempstock, the ghost of a witch. I wonder if she’s related to Lettie.

The Graveyard Book is more fun than The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but then I tend to favor the scary fantasies that are for children. Have you read it?