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:


Suspend Belief and Enjoy “The House at the End of Hope Street” by Menna van Pragg

9781410461346_p0_v1_s192x300   As a fan of magical realism in literature, I thoroughly enjoyed an old book by an author new to me – The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Pragg.  The idea for the story was inspired by van Pragg’s yearning to establish a house for female artists to give them a year to fulfull their artistic ambitions.  This house, however, exists in its own dimension, only appearing to those who need it.

Van Pragg’s story revolves around three women who need motivation to follow their dreams – Alba, the youngest woman admitted to Cambridge who is betrayed by her family and her university advisor; Greer, who at thirty-nine has yet to achieve her goals of becoming an actress and a mother; and Carmen, the sexy singer with a murderous past.

Taking a cue from the Harry Potter books, van Pragg has portraits on the walls coming alive to speak and give advice.  These pictures, however, are of famous women,  from literary giants – Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Agatha Christie  – to esteemed scientists and suffragettes.  The stream of prominent women marching through the plot adds to the fun as each of the main characters faces her challenge and moves on to a better life.   Words stream by in banners, notes mysteriously drop from the chandeliers, colors surround characters in auras of emotion.  The House mysteriously and suddenly provides whatever its occupants need: a magical wardrobe (a nod to C.S. Lewis), shelves of books with titles constantly refreshed, a baby grand piano.

If you enjoy the tales of Erin Morgenstern, Sarah Addison Allen, and  Alice Hoffman, you might add Menna van Pragg to your list of happy diversions – magical realism with a British flavor.

When I discovered van Pragg had written a book with the irresistible title of Men, Money, and Chocolate (2009) – with recipes, I ordered it immediately as an ebook ($1.99).  The story is a little too heavy on schmaltz and not my style, but the recipes may be worth trying.    Van Pragg’s The Witches of Cambridge, (2016) looks like more fun  and is on my list, as is her latest from England to be published in the United States soon – The Lost Art of Letter Writing.  Unknown-2

Related Reviews:

Books You Need to Read Before the New Year

Reading all these books before the new year may be an overly ambitious undertaking, but at least consider them as part of your New Year’s resolutions.

They were among my favorite reads this year.


The Night Circus

Magic is better when you don’t try to figure it out, and, of course, when you believe.  In Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern invites you to suspend belief and run away with a circus like none you’ve ever seen.

Two magicians, in a duel to decide who is better, create a contest with their students as the pawns in a game of illusion, manipulation, and wonder.   Marco, the orphan protegé of Alexander, and Celia, the young daughter of Prospero the Enchanter, are committed by their patrons in a test of skill and endurance.  The rules of the game are unknown but must be played to the finish.  The night circus is their venue, a place that travels mysteriously to open unannounced only at night, with circus acts that play on the imaginations of its customers.

As Marco and Celia create new attractions for the circus spectators, the night circus becomes more intricate as well as fascinating: the ice room with fragrant transparent flowers, the wishing tree of candles that never melt, the bottles of fragrances that transport to another place.  Like any circus, this one also has traditional acts  – the contortionist, the animal trainers, the fortune-teller, the illusionist.  But the actors in the night circus are not acting; they all have special gifts, and they never age.

When Marco and Celia fall in love, the game changes – especially when they learn that one must die before the game is declared over – unless they don’t play by the rules. Morgenstern adds murder and mystery to the magic, and a few ambiguous philosophical mutterings that might make you cry or laugh, depending on your own mental state when you read…

“I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held…Trying to control what cannot be controlled.  I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix. They will break no matter what we do.”

“It is not that bad to be trapped somewhere, then?…                      I suppose it depends on how much you like the place you’re trapped in…and how much you like whoever you’re stuck there with…”

With a mix of mystery, romance, fright, and morality, and a lot of magic,  The Night Circus is a story to get lost in and appreciate for the places it will take your mind and the illusions you may not want to decipher.