Happy Halloween! My October booklist just happens to be appropriately uncanny (coincidentally or subliminally?), so I figured I’d do a quick reading roundup instead of breaking down the reviews separately. Here’s what I’ve been reading this month!
THE NIGHT CIRCUS, by Erin Morgenstern
Wow, is this book gorgeous. The premise—two magicians caught in a lifelong duel to produce increasingly enchanting illusions amidst the backdrop of a nocturnal circus—has a timeless, fairytale quality to it. The story itself is simple, narrated with a sort of dreamlike detachment as it progresses through an engaging if not unpredictable plot. But the writing! I selected this book specifically looking for examples of well-developed, atmospheric setting; and this is exactly the arena in which Morgenstern demonstrates her own magic. The descriptions of the circus itself—mysterious, hypnotic, and beautiful to its visitors—are stunning, full of evocative detail and conveyed through highly sensual prose. I could only describe this to my friend as “wordporn” while reading it.* The language and syntax mirror the dark, lush dreamscape of the circus; and if it’s perhaps a little over the top for your typical novel, it works wonders within the context of this one. I’ve read some complaints about the development of the central love story; but without giving away too many spoilers, I personally found it to be perfectly resonant with themes regarding art, illusion, and the way in which people perceive themselves and others through the conduit of art. Apart from a small section at the conclusion that felt a little didactically ham-fisted, this novel had me completely engrossed from beginning to end. I only wish there were a real night circus!
*Note: wordporn is not to be confused with erotic fiction; it applies to the sensuality of the language itself rather than the content of the text!
WICKED GENTLEMEN, by Ginn Hale
Wicked Gentlemen was my dark horse selection for the month. I don’t read many books these days without a friend/family recommendation or some publisher hype, but I stumbled on this one through a Goodreads search. I’ve been researching examples of non-hetero, primary protagonists in genre fiction (specifically fantasy and sci-fi), where the protag’s sexuality is a part of his or her character without being the character’s defining feature or the focus of the novel. This one fit the bill! The novel is a modern-ish, alternate history fantasy with mystery and crime elements. The protag is a Prodigal, part of a race of demonic descendants who live among normal humans but are threatened by a theocratic government. He’s also a private detective, and his services are quickly tapped by an Inquisitor (a cop/priest) following a series of brutal murders and the disappearance of the Inquisitor’s sister. This is a classic case of “love the characters, couldn’t care less about the plot.” If you can get past some “broken protagonist” angst, the two main characters are incredibly sympathetic and likable. Their relationship develops slowly throughout the novel in a way that is natural and fun to read. My issue was that, while the relationship was clearly not the main focus of the novel, I found myself far more interested in how the characters were developing within and between themselves than I was in the actual plot. The mystery starts out intriguing, but runs out of steam shortly before what should be the final sprint toward the conclusion. The world-building also falls a bit flat, but has enough potential that I felt cheated to learn that there are no sequels that might better develop it—especially since I so enjoyed the premise and the characters.
THE UNCANNY, essays by Sigmund Freud; translated by David McLintock; Introduction by Hugh Haughton
planning ever since to read the entire volume. It’s obviously not light reading, but I think it would be fascinating to anyone interested in psychoanalysis who has never seen Freud apply his theories explicitly to art/literature/creativity in general (something English majors may have personally done in critical theory-focused classes, but which I imagine few others have). His examination of how the uncanny manifests itself not in the great unknown, but in mysteries far closer to our homes and inner lives, is stirring and intensely thoughtful. The Penguin Classics edition has an introduction by Hugh Haughton that includes specific portions prefacing each of Freud’s essays. I found these very helpful. Also helpful was my pad of sticky notes, which I was glad to be using to mark pages when I decided that the book cover was too damn creepy to look at anymore. Pro Tip: Post-Its work great for hiding scary covers!