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The Night Circus, like many very popular books, seems to divide opinion. Lots of "best of the year" lists and five-star reviews, but quiet a few 1- and 2-star reviews as well. There's a lot of magic here, both in the literal sense and metaphorically in term of atmosphere and wonder. Circus imagery abounds, which is not a surprise given the title, and the "black and white with a dash of red" color scheme of the cover seems to be the color of just about everyone and everything in the story. Descriptions are rich with detail, and it would be fair to say Erin Morgenstern devotes at least as much attention to describing the accoutrements of the circus as developing her major characters.



Le Cirque des Rêves, a seemingly mystical traveling circus which appears without warning, vanishes just as suddenly, and is only open to patrons at night. A pair of young magicians, Celia and Marco, are brought up in lifelong magical training, each by an adoptive father figure, in preparation for between these two older men which will be played out by Celia and Marco, at some time in the future.

If the book has one failing, it's a greater focus on the performances and mechanisms of the circus and the magical contest than on the internal workings of the characters. The story is not perfect, but the writing is so lushly descriptive and image-rich, the setting so attractive, I found myself in love with it all anyway. I believe this is one of those books prospective readers can easily judge by the cover and synopsis. If it doesn't seem like your kind of thing, it almost certainly isn't. Those readers to whom the central conceit seems interesting will likely be enchanted and forgive the book its few shortcomings. Like me, many will adore this book and find themselves eagerly awaiting a followup from this first-time novelist.
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Nightingale Songs is the third story collection from Canadian writer Simon Strantzas, following Beneath the Surface and Cold to the Touch. While these earlier collections might be characterized by more of a Ligotti or Lovecraft vibe, Nightingale Songs takes the reader into quieter, more restrained territory. The influences underlying these stories are acknowledged up-front, in John Langan's introduction, which mentions Ramsay Campbell and Robert Aickman. I perceive more of an Aickman feel here. Robert Aickman is a favorite of many readers of horror fiction, but some consider his work too vague or low-key. The same quality is true of Strantzas's work. His work is so accomplished, so cleanly polished, that he's quickly acquired a devoted following. At the same time, the style and the mood of these stories may not satisfy those readers seeking a more visceral or dynamic experience. This collection is most suited to those who enjoy a subtle, introspective read in which the reader's imagination is called upon to enrich and enliven the experience.

One word that comes to mind, as an overall descriptor for these stories as a group, is restrained. The emotions at play here aren't terror, rage or mania. The characters in Nightingale Songs worry. They suffer anxiety or hesitation. In some cases they doubt, or wonder if they saw what they think they saw, if they can trust their memory. When they obsess, their focus is directed inward. When they act, they do so quietly.

The writing is transparent in style. The simplicity and clarity of the prose is its strength, though some readers will consider this its weakness. Sentences are stripped-down and polished, and convey the sense that a lot more craft and care goes into this almost Zen-like level of straightforwardness than is immediately apparent to the reader. Much writing in the horror community is concerned with splashy set pieces and gotcha moments, so a writer who cares so much about subtler, slower effects stands out from the crowd.

At the same time, I'd argue most of the stories could benefit from a bit more sensory detail. Descriptive passages seem intentionally vague. I'd like to see how a Strantzas story worked, with all the same tension and disquiet, but with greater fleshing-out of the sensory world of the story. The inner world of the character is described with subtlety and nuance, and I think these stories could be improved by giving the reader a more vivid sense (mostly visual) of the characters and their surroundings. This may be completely my own bias, and doesn't indicate Strantzas has failed to achieve his aim with these stories. My impression is that the author has rendered characters and settings in an intentionally elliptical way, leaving many details blank, to be filled-in by the reader's imagination.

There is much to respect here in terms of writerly craft and care. These stories all have a distinctive clarity, a sort of crystalline straightforwardness. I enjoyed this collection and will definitely keep an eye on Strantzas in the future.

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The Orphan Palace smacks the reader in the face from the first page just to resolve any question about who's in charge. Pulver's approach here is to make the story not just something the main character experiences, but a series of thoughts and perceptions. It takes place "in here" rather than "out there." The stream-of-consciousness style took me a while to settle into due to the hyper-saturated poetic style. This may be the most uncompromising narrative I've read in years, but it's worth settling into the groove of this energetic and strongly poetic tale. 

The story's protagonist Cardigan is profoundly damaged, and burns and kills his way across the country in search of redemption or revenge for events long past. That the reader ends up identifying with and caring about such a reckless and even murderous character testifies to the way Pulver's narrative technique takes the reader inside Cardigan's head. The story's events seem like something you're living through, not simply reading. Like the most daring works of art, no summary can do justice to what's happening here. The blurb on the back cover does almost nothing to convey what this book is like. The story is dreamlike, told in language ranging from vivid poetics to a hard-bitten shorthand to incantatory near-ravings. Frequent use of repetition gives a sense of the shattered reality Cardigan inhabits. The effect is cumulative, so that repeated elements and phrases take on a different meaning and carry more weight as the story advances. 


An energetic mix of noir/crime and surrealistic dark fantasy verging on horror, The Orphan Palace feels more like "cinema of the mind" than narrative fiction, and it may be for that reason that I find myself thinking more about filmmakers when I try to find something to compare it to. Pulver's surreal dreamscapes seem to have some precedence in David Lynch (especially Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire), Alejandro Jodorowky (El Topo and Holy Mountain) and Lars Von Trier (especially Antichrist). I was even reminded of Guillermo Del Toro in some of the novel's more fantastic sections, especially the "night library" scene, which left me wanting more. 

Any narrative so inwardly-directed and uncompromising is bound to leave the reader scratching their head in a few places, but that is more than compensated-for by the vivid effects which simply would not be possible with a more straightforward storytelling style. The Orphan Palace feels like being led by the hand (scratch that -- led by the brain is more like it) through a dark and surreal nightmare, an experience both powerful and disturbing. I can't wait to see what Pulver does next. Highly recommended, at least for readers open to a more experimental storytelling approach.

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I fired up ScribeFire and posted those two quick entries just to test it out, but I forgot I actually had something I meant to blog about.

I'm about halfway through Singularity Sky by Charles Stross, and though it started off fairly well, I'm finding it increasingly dull. None of the characters matter to me at all, and I feel I only barely know the two main characters. The rest are just a series of names, often without a single defining characteristic (aside from the senile old coot who thinks his legs have turned to glass for some reason). There are long stretches of political back-and-forth without apparent consequence. The scenes of military maneuvering and battle have a few nifty tech tidbits mixed in, but otherwise fairly flat, as if the outcome is always a foregone conclusion.

Am I nuts here? This fucking book was nominated for a Hugo award, but I don't get it. Not a terrible book, but sort of a C-plus so far, as far as I can tell. Anybody out there who's read Singularity Sky and can point out some angle I'm missing?

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Recently read Pretty Monsters, a collection of short stories by Kelly Link.  She's one of the most interesting writers working in the fantasy, sf, horror, weird and slipstream/interstitial loose conglomeration of genres.



This is Link's third story collection (she has not yet written a novel, though her stories are acclaimed), and her first geared toward a "young adult" audience.  It incorporates stories from her first two collections, in fact my favorite stories here were already familiar to me from her Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen collections.

The stories here waver between a slightly disturbing dreamlike weirdness reminiscent of David Lynch's films, and a more whimsical, and at times humorous, fairy tale quality.  Link's stories consistently have a casual, friendly narrative voice, and that's a big part of their appeal.  It's a lot like having a funny friend tell you a really interesting, weird story by a campfire.  There is a great deal of imagination and invention on display in these stories, and if any of the above sounds appealing, I'd definitely give Kelly Link a try....

But I'd start with one of her first two books instead, unless you're a young reader.



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