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:


The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde

9780451531070_p0_v1_s192x300  Although I am a fan of Oscar Wilde’s plays, I was surprised to discover his stories for children.  In The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde – a collection of nine stories reminiscent of Hans Christian Anderson – Wilde foregoes his usual satire and biting wit to deliver compassion and empathy for the downtrodden.

Wilde wrote these stories in the midst of his success as a writer of poetry and drama, yet his words years later, from prison, ironically reflect the stories’ themes:

“The only people I would care to be with now are artists and people who have suffered: those who know what Beauty is, and those who know what Sorrow is…”

In “The Happy Prince,” the most widely known of the collection, a golden statue revered by the local folk, uses a swallow to deliver his wealth to the poor.  When the Prince’s sapphire eyes and ruby stone in his sword are gone, along with all the gold plating on his statue, the tide of popularity he had enjoyed with the town is suddenly over.  The statue is melted down, but his heart remains.

Variety published a story two years ago, citing a movie starring Rupert Everett who is currently playing Oscar Wilde on Broadway’s The Judas Kiss.  The prospective movie has  the title “The Happy Prince”(yet to be released), and chronicles the life of Oscar Wilde – “formerly a celebrity, and considered a genius and a national treasure…now in the midst of a public meltdown.”  Sound familiar?

You can read the children’s story here on The Literature Network:  The Happy Prince

Each story from “The Nightingale and the Rose” to “The Fisherman and His Soul” has elements of betrayal and redemption.  Each is worthy of reading, and offers a different perspective on the author many only know for his arrogance and caustic wit, but read carefully  –  you may still find some traces.

Related Reviews:


When I asked my friend, the Master Gardener, the name of the tree with the colorful bark, she called it a gum tree, sometimes known as eucalyptus – evidently, pretty common in Australia and, to me, fascinatingly beautiful.  Murray Bail’s novel, Eucalyptus,  includes so much information about this tree that you could use it as a reference book.  Or you could skip over all his Latin descriptions and just enjoy Bail’s modern fairy tale- if you can persevere through his forest of words.

Just as Sleeping Beauty could only be awakened by true love, just as Briar Rose’s prince had to have pure motivation to cut through the thorns – was that the same story? – Bail’s hero in Eucalyptus has to pass a test to get the fair Australian maiden, Ellen.

Ellen’s father, Holland, came into wealth by taking out insurance that his wife would have twins; after Ellen is born, her twin brother and her mother both die.  Holland cashes in the policy, eventually buying land in New South Wales and begins a life with his young daughter.  At first, Ellen becomes a partner in his quest to find every type of eucalypt and plant it on their property.  As she grows older, she tires of her father’s obsession; when she becomes interested in men, her father creates a plan to find her a husband.

He devises a test that he thinks no one can pass.  To win Ellen’s hand in marriage, the successful suitor will have to name each elusive name of the hundreds of varieties of eucalypt he has planted on their Australian land;  only such a  man will be worthy of his daughter.

Throughout the narrative, Bail provides instruction with botanical references, descriptions of leaf formation, color, plant size, etc. – but no pictures.  After reading about the Yellow Bloodwood, the Black Peppermint, and many more in the eucalyptus family, I found a website – Australian Native Plants – just to see what they looked like.

Many suitors try and fail, but eventually, Mr. Cave arrives and appears to know as much about the eucalyptus as Holland, which does not necessarily endear him to Ellen…

“Really, what sort of man could go and name all the trees? … The sheer number of names shifting about in English and Latin would occupy vital space in a person, space that could be used for other, more natural things…”

As Mr. Cave methodically progresses through his naming of trees, charming Holland and ignoring Ellen, another man mysteriously appears under a tree one day to captivate Ellen with his stories.  While Mr. Cave is wandering the acreage with Holland, Ellen is secretly meeting the mystery man every day to hear him tell her stories.  The mysterious man seems to know all the tree names and connects each  eucalyptus with a tragic love story laced with a little philosophy, romance, and morality.  He has a story for every tree, and  the trees cover the wide expanse of the land, so the stories seem neverending.  After a few pages of “a thousand and one nights” of rambling,  you’ll wonder where the original plot went.

Just as Mr. Cave is about to finish naming the trees and claim Ellen as his prize, Ellen is suddenly struck with a despairing illness; the mysterious man has disappeared.  For days, she languishes in bed;  only a story by the right person can save her.

Just in case you decide to wade through all the botany and the Scheherazade marathon, I don’t want to spoil the ending for you.  Remember,  most fairy tales have a “live happily ever after” ending.

For some reason, Eucalyptus weaved its spell and entangled me in its prose, but not everyone will want to wallow in Bail’s poetic descriptions and philosophizing.  I admit, I did skip most of the eucalyptus lecturing – and went for true love.

Happy Easter!

It’s Easter – time for chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs.  Sally Forth isn’t the only one who likes to bite off the chocolate ears and raid the Easter basket.  Maybe those Cadbury eggs are your favorite?

Jasper Fforde serves up The Big Over Easy with the most famous egg of all – Humpty Dumpty – as the victim in a crime mystery with detective Jack Spratt (giant killer) and assistant Mary, Mary (who has plastic flowers) as investigators.  Was HD’s fall an accident or murder in the fictional town of Reading?

Jack has just lost the case of the three pigs against the wolf – he was sure the pigs were at fault – so he is determined to make this case his comeback.   Characters with names from nursery rhymes have families and careers, yet they live in the fictional world of nursery rhyme –  on the other side of the looking-glass.

It’s all very clever and the mystery meets the formula for the serious sleuth – lots of red herrings and a hard to guess whodunnit.

Gets a little tedious in Reading Society at times though.   The audiobook with British voices might be better for keeping all those nursery rhyme characters straight – there are quite a few.  And you’ll have your hands free for eating those jellybeans and sticky marshmallow chicks.