Tag Archives: disappointment

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

 

This is the book that beat Ready Player One for the Locus Award (Best First Novel). Now, I adored Ready Player One, so I had to see what could beat it.

……

Well, I definitely liked Ready Player One better, but I can see why The Night Circus won. Contests and prizes and general acclaim tend to go to subtle, ethereal, almost inscrutable writing, not stuff that’s more plot-based, no matter how well-constructed or well-written that plot is.

I did like The Night Circus, just not as much as Ready Player One. I found the use of present tense jarring at first, but after the first few pages I got used to it. (Sidebar: we have been so conditioned to past tense in prose that any use of present tense is going to be seen as innovative and/or disruptive. The very best example of present tense done smoothly and well is Bleak House, where the narrative switches between past and present depending on whether it’s first-person Ada or third-person omniscient narration. My personal favourite is The Rainmaker by John Grisham, which sucked me in before I fully realised it was present tense – and then when I did realise, about a third of the way in, I had to go back through and make sure it was deliberate and not just a proofreading failure.)

So the present-tense didn’t bother me. No, what bothered me were the short second-person passages. Now, I don’t know about you, but my exposure to second-person narration, and hence my initial reaction when faced with it, is Choose Your Own Adventure type books. As such, I kept waiting for some sort of disaster to strike “me” walking around the circus, and when nothing did I felt tense and disappointed. One review I read said that it put the reader in the middle of the circus, but it didn’t do that for me – it just took me out of the story and broke the connections I was forming with Celia, Marco, Bailey, Poppet, etc.  I found it unnecessary and pandering and even now, after finishing the book and thinking about it as a whole, I don’t think it added much, if anything, to the story or the structure. It tipped the balance and broke the story-bubble and, for me, one of the greatest strengths of the book was its balance.

For if we learn anything from the circus, it is that destruction follows imbalance. The entire point of the competition is to tip the balance between chaos and order and, in doing so, to destroy the other player. (Collateral damage includes destroying a part of yourself, and anyone else who may have unwittingly gotten involved.) Celia and Marco work best when they are creating together, when they are each enhancing what the other has done – for one of them to win would destroy not only what they have done together but what they would do in the future. And the only way the circus can continue is if the balance between them is maintained – if either one of them tips the balance, the circus and everything in it will disintegrate.

And the book itself, outside of the second-person interludes, is fairly well-balanced between the various threads: Celia, Marco, and Bailey; those affecting the circus and those being affected by it; exposition and events. But then the second-person interludes come in, describing things that haven’t been introduced yet, or things that were described better and more evocatively a few pages before, or things that you think should become significant but never reappear.

Maybe on a reread, this won’t bother me so much. But when I finished Ready Player One, I wanted to jump back into the world, to go deeper into the details and find the hidden meanings in references. I don’t feel the same way about The Night Circus or Erin Morgenstern’s writing. It was nice enough, but I’m not compelled to reread it or relive it. I won’t turn down another book by Morgenstern, but I won’t rush to read it, either.

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The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

This is the sequel to The Magicians, which I really enjoyed a few weeks ago. I compared it to Harry Potter meets Narnia, for grownups.  And I was really looking forward to the sequel – getting back into Fillory, finding out what happened with/to Julia, helping Quentin find direction and satisfaction with his life.

Well, we find out what happened with Julia. It’s really dark and disturbing, and she loses herself and her humanity and her ability to connect and relate to other people. Some of it is her own choice, sort of, as she chooses to pursue “underground” magical studies. Some of it is not, as unexpected consequences take her over. All of it is dark, with only occasional glimpses of light and sanity.

There’s a sort of implicit connection made in the book, especially in Julia’s story, between the underground study of magic and mental illness, especially depression. I don’t know if there’s a deliberate connection there -some sort of mysticism, irrationality granting access to a different realm, something like that – or if it’s just coincidental and implied. If it is deliberate, I’m just glad that i’ts not romanticized. Magic in this world is very cool, but it’s also presented as very difficult and dangerous – and the consequences of failure are devastating. It wouldn’t help to present it as glamorous.

Quentin also shows signs of ennui and depression – some of it is his general personality (he showed the same symptoms in The Magicians) and some of it is events – Alice’s death, etc. It makes me wonder whether the connection between magic and mental illness that is so prevalent in the underground (read: non-Brakebills) community is also a factor in the use of magic as a whole.

One o fthe disappointing things about  this book for me was the lack of adventures in Fillory. I find Fillory fascinating, in the same way that I find the actual world-building of Narnia fascinating (my two favourite Narnia books are Dawn Treader and The Magician’s Nephew, for the world creation and exploration), and I was looking forward to a kind of Dawn Treader-esque exploring tale, especially when the quest for the keys showed up. But instead Quentin keeps being dragged out of the situations that I’ve become invested in, and that he has. Because of this, I found the ending more frustratingly sad than poignant. Because I never got to see much of Quentin in Fillory – just his boredom and dissatisfaction – I never quite believed his desperation to get back.

The Magician King also throws in a lot of new levels to the magical world, and it’s a bit too much. I feel like the whole “Old Gods” story  and Julia’s story could have been expanded, the dragons could have been expanded, and more could have been shown of “normal” Fillory to increase the dramatic necessity of saving it/getting back to it. In some ways it felt like the second and third parts of a trilogy had been compressed into one, as if The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had been merged: cutting Hoth down to one or two scenes, skipping most of Dagobah and only telling us about the cave scene (including its significance), cutting right from Han encased in carbonite to rescuing him on Tatooine and then going straight to Endor and the second Death Star. It’s entirely possible that if the book had been extended, even turned into two volumes, I’d be saying that it was too long and padded. But I felt like there were things introduced that are presented as deep and important, but in a tell-not-show kind of way.

Luckily, Lev Grossman is a good enough writer, and I became invested in the world enough during The Magicians that I wanted to keep going and try to recapture it. It never quite made it back to the level of interest that The Magicians did, but there were still glimpses of what the world could be.

I highly doubt that there will be a third book in this world, because there aren’t really loose ends – not in the same way that The Magicians had loose ends. I almost wish there would be, because I still like what the world has, even if I found the execution less-than-perfect in this case. But a third book would either have to restart something or fill in the gaps between these two. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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Dogs and Goddesses, by Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich

I love these women. I’ve never met them, of course (although I do have a signed copy of Faking It that my writer-mom got for me at RWA one year) but I read Argh Ink and ReFabbing It on a daily or more often basis – pretty much as soon as they post anything, I read it. I enjoy – okay, enjoy is not QUITE the right word – their progress through their struggles, and I especially like reading their articles about craft and rewriting. I remember when they first collaborated on Dogs and Goddesses, when they were working through plots and characters and scenes.

I wish I liked it better. It’s not that I didn’t like it – it was fun enough – but it wasn’t as tight as I was expecting or hoping, and certainly not as good as their individual titles. My all-time standard for Jennifer Crusie and similar authors is Bet Me,  which has an excellent mix of friendship, lust, manic madcap slapstick, family tension, etc. This book had a lot of that, even all of that, but it doesn’t work as well.

I’ve been thinking about it since I finished the book, and I actually think that my problem is with the romances – they’re too quick. All three women fall in lust, sparked by the “temple tonic” and their latent powers, and by the end they’re in “love”. But none of the relationships are much more than sex. The closest thing is Shar and Sam, who actually do communicate as she tries to teach him what modern life is like. The other two couples don’t even have that.

Even the female friendships, the strongest part of the book, aren’t exactly organic. They’re friends because Kammani says, “You Will Be Friends” and then, magically, they are all inseparable friends. Even Gen and Bun get pulled into it. I suppose it’s part of the whole past lives/inevitable reliving aspect, but it didn’t work that well for me. I suppose in a book that makes such a big deal out of free will versus required service, having none of the relationships come apart through free will doesn’t sit that well.

It’s not bad though. Certainly better than some others that I’ve read (not by these three). It’s just not as good as their standalone books.

PS Lani Diane Rich is another author that’s a hero like Sara Gruen. She finished NaNo, found a publisher, and is now writing full-time (and teaching writing via StoryWonk and Writewell).

Crusie and Krissie are heroes of mine as well, but for other reasons.

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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! is another book that I learned about from the Tournament of Books. I may have to go back to the Tournament recaps now that I’ve actually read the book, and see how much I agree or disagree with their comments.

Swamplandia! is also one of the books nominated as finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, when no prize was ultimately awarded. I will admit, I have no desire to read David Foster Wallace’s book and I don’t know much about Train Dreams, the other finalist. In my mind, Swamplandia!, being the book that I’d heard of, is the de facto winner. This makes me even more curious about the Pulitzer decision – whether they couldn’t come to a consensus or whether they thought none of the finalists were worthy.

I really wanted to love this book. I wanted to be captivated by the language (I was) and transported to another world adjacent to this one (I was, mostly). I wanted to be so in tune with the characters that I was startled to find myself when I looked out of the book (….a bit). I got all those things….mostly. And it’s that mostly that makes this book less than perfect.

Oh, the language is amazing. It’s colourful and evocative without being overdescriptive. It put me in the Florida swamps and gave me its history, especially with the Army Corps of Engineers, so very clearly. I could see Swamplandia! and its dinginess and its desperation (I’ve been to the Black Hills….)

And for most of the novel, I was transported to another world adjacent to this one. But then, about three-quarters of the way through the book, what had started off as an almost Orpheus-like journey becomes just another childhood trauma story. Which disappointed me, somewhat. I was anticipating an Underworld, a struggle to recover Osceola, an amorphous but real presence, a parallel with the World of Darkness. Instead I got a well-written but tawdry attack that shifted Ava’s goal from rescue to escape.

And the ending itself was a bit too coincidence-driven for me. Kiwi JUST HAPPENS to be taking his flying test over that particular swamp, where Osceola JUST HAPPENS to spot him, and it all JUST HAPPENS to be in the same area around the same time that Ava JUST HAPPENS to get rescued.  Actually, Ava’s rescue is the most realistic of any of that – it was as close to a Chekov’s Gun as you’re going to find in something like this. (Mama Weeds, on the other hand, totally thrown in at the last minute. Not as cool as I think she was intended to be.)

There were a lot of emotional moments that I wish had been explored more. I thought Kiwi’s reactions to seeing his father again were well-done, but there was no follow-up – things just swept straight into the ending. Ava shifts so rapidly from being concerned for her sister to being concerned for herself that neither is ever really resolved. And Osceola herself is never resolved – how does her experience in the swamp change her, if it does at all?

I really loved this book – right up until the end, when I only liked it. The language is fantastic, and is probably why it got a Pulitzer nod. But the shift at the end is too great – it falls apart right when you want everything to come together.

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Made in America, by Bill Bryson

I normally adore Bill Bryson’s writing. I love his travel books, and A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Mother Tongue (although it’s been a while since I’ve read that one). I kind of want to be Bill Bryson, with his balancing between US and UK language and culture and his wonderfully readable and unique voice.

I didn’t adore this. I thought I would – it’s a linguistic history book about American English after all – but I didn’t. I found it too reliant on lists and not enough on stories and personalities. When he manages to tell the stories of etymologies, it’s fairly good, but even then Bryson’s voice is missing. There are a few good phrases, just enough to hint that it’s actually Bryson writing and not a ghostwriter, but overall it’s not nearly as entertaining as anything else I’ve read by him.

One of the things I’m most disappointed about is that I couldn’t find the reference in the book to one of the things mentioned in the back-of-book blurb: “why Americans say “lootenant” and “Toosday”. I’ve never understood why it’s pronounced “leftenant” in the UK, even though “lieu” is still “loo” – maybe a handwriting difference? – and I was looking forward to reading Bryson’s take on it. But I couldn’t find it – if anyone else has read the book and knows where I was reading too fast, pleeeease let me know.

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Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner

Some authors have certain themes that they come back to, over and over again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Some themes, some concerns, are important enough to come back to. Body image, bullying, mental illness – these are all important things to explore on a regular basis. Best Friends Forever does that, to some extent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do it completely successfully for me.

Part of my problem may be my own high school experience.  I wasn’t bullied, per se, much – that had come in middle school, before we moved – but I was certainly not part of the “popular” group (meaning cheerleaders, athletes, the well-dressed, the apparently socially well-adjusted). I had my own (divided) circle of friends, and ultimately became the happy, functioning adult that I am today. (hahahahahahahaha)

What I have noticed, since high school, is that very few of my classmates still remember or care who was “popular” or who wasn’t in high school. When I go back to my hometown and run into someone I was in high school with, they usually greet me with enthusiasm and recognition, whether we spoke to each other in high school or not. This is even true with the bullies – several years after we’d moved, I ran across one of the girls who’d been one of my worst tormenters in middle school. This girl was one of the reasons that I had literally no friends during fifth grade. She had been one of the organisers of the physical and emotional abuse that I underwent on a daily basis. (She wasn’t the one who’d audibly cheered when she learned I was leaving the school district; that was her best friend.)  But even just a few years afterwards, this girl greeted me as though nothing had ever happened between us. As one of my friends wrote in our graduation issue newspaper – high school doesn’t matter after high school.

So I don’t completely understand the world that Best Friends Forever is set in – a world where neither the bullies nor the bullied have moved on in twenty years. I understand where the main character is coming from – her school life was absolutely horrible, my fifth-grade year multiplied by every other year – but  I don’t understand the way that her bullies have not let up on her.

There were so many frustrating things about the main character to me. I empathised with her, but I got frustrated. I got frustrated with the obliviousness to the relatively severe social anxiety disorder she was clearly experiencing, as well as everyone else’s obliviousness to her mental disorders in high school. She was secretly binge eating, like, every night, and no one picked up on this, or thought, “Hmm, maybe she needs medical intervention?”

Mostly, though, I got frustrated with her “friendship” with her high school best friend. This girl essentially betrays her in high school (although in a fairly understandable way, given a lot of other circumstances), calls her to help cover up a potential murder, and generally acts like a controlling psychotic bitch. And the main character lets her. There is nothing good about this friendship. There is no reason, other than desperation, for this friendship to exist.  And that is frustrating for me.

I would have enjoyed this book more if either of the main female characters had undergone any sort of growth, any sort of recognition of and dealing with the past. And I don’t feel like they did, really. I mean,  there was a lot of discussion of the past – quite a lot of the book is flashback/backstory. But they didn’t seem to move on a lot from the past, and that was disturbing to me.

To get back to my first paragraph, Jennifer Weiner’s first book, Good in Bed, deals with some of the same issues: especially body image. And I enjoyed Good in Bed a lot. I wish I had enjoyed this more.

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Preliminary thoughts on Hood, by Stephen R. Lawhead

I’m in the middle of reading the first of Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Raven King trilogy, Hood. It’s a slightly different take on the Robin Hood story – it’s set in Wales. This is causing me a slight amount of hesitation.

I have nothing against Wales. I think Wales is wonderful and I want to go there someday. But Robin Hood is from Nottinghamshire. Maybe South Yorkshire. And there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be.

Oh, Lawhead has a relatively persuasive argument about why the “original” Robin Hood might have been from Wales – citing the Saxon and then Norman-now-English adaptation of Arthur as a national hero as precedent. But the two cases are not entirely similar – and, to me at least, not similar enough to make it a fully logical connection.

The biggest problem I have with his argument is the assumption that the Robin Hood stories couldn’t have been original to the early 13th century. I don’t know why it’s always assumed that people of the Middle Ages weren’t original and creative thinkers, but that seems to be one of the underlying themes: the stories must come from an earlier source because there’s no way there would have been inspiration in the 13th century.

Yes, it’s true that most of what we think we know about the Robin Hood stories are later (sometimes much later) additions and interpretations. Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks have a lot to answer for. But the ballads themselves reflect quite a lot of 13th and 14th century ideas about life, authority, humour, etc – why try to dismiss them or cram them into an earlier culture?

And, even more, there’s one aspect of Lawhead’s interpretation that doesn’t help: the very name of his main character. His “Robin” is Rhi Bran, a prince of one of the Welsh “kingdoms”. I don’t know enough about Welsh history outside the English occupation to know how valid a Welsh kingdom is on its own, but it’s made pretty clear in the book that “Rhi” is a title. He is Prince Bran. The phonetic resemblance isn’t enough for me to justify turning “Rhi Bran” into Robin. Robin is, and has always been, a nickname for Robert – a name meaning “fame-bright”. Bran means “Raven”. It fits with the “raven king” idea that Lawhead has come up with. It doesn’t fit with the story he’s trying to adapt.

And it’s even more glaring when many of the other names are Welsh variants on the familiar names: Iwan = John, Merian = Marian, etc. But Robin, the main figure, has a name so different that it jars on me every time I read it.

There may be a point later in the trilogy where Bran inherits something more closely related to “Robert”, which would go a long way toward appeasing my onomastic nature. But for right now, it’s proving to be a minor hindrance in my enjoyment of the book.

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