I have been anticipating reading Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo, for several reasons: Although I didn’t care for her Grisha series because it was so full of angsty teenage indecision, I absolutely loved the duology Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, particularly the latter. I felt like Bardugo had stepped up her style and discernment by a lot in the second series, and also, I can’t resist a “gang of thieves” story.
I’m really not sure why Ninth House has been identified as an adult, rather than a teen, book. Admittedly, it’s far too gory and explicit for younger teens, but I could definitely see some of my former book club members from the 10th-12th grade club enjoying this. After all, the philosophy in writing for children or teens is that they always want to read “up,” which is to say, they want to read about a protagonist who is a year or two older than they are. As a freshman at Yale, the Ninth House protagonist, Alex Stern, is just the right age to appeal to seniors in high school. I imagine many parents of said older teens would still quibble with me, because they feel their children should be protected from such graphic fare; and there is a part of me that thinks everyone should be protected from it! But as you learn from reading a lot of books, sometimes you need that stuff to make a point, to expose a wrong-doing, to create empathy in your reader. (Plus, of course, for dramatic effect in your adventure story.) There were certainly plenty of opportunities for that here!
Within the first few pages of this book, I seriously considered putting it down without finishing it. There is a scene early on in which a group of students from one of the magical “houses” at Yale performs a “prognostication” by reading the innards of a man who is still alive (although sedated), with his stomach cut open and pinned back; when they’re done, they stitch him up and send him off to hospital without another thought for his well-being. Also present at the ritual were a group of “Grays,” ghosts who gave off a really frightening vibe. The entire scene turned my stomach, and since I hadn’t as yet invested much into either the story, the scene, or the protagonist (and didn’t really want to encounter more of this), I thought about stopping. But surely all my friends—both personal and Goodreads-type—who were bowled over by this book couldn’t be wrong? So I kept reading.
Ultimately, I was glad I did. Although it took a long time to understand what was happening and also to bond with the main character, I eventually came to appreciate both the bizarre behind-the scenes action and the dogged, flawed, yet honorable Alex, who didn’t give up no matter what.
“Could she grasp the ugly truth of it all?
That magic wasn’t something
gilded and benign, just another
commodity that only
some people could afford?”
Some things I liked about the book:
It gives this Ivy League school an ulterior motive for existing that is both completely creepy and also believable. The concept of a university elite is nothing new, but the idea that they became that way by the practice of necromancy, portal magic, splanchomancy (the reading of entrails), therianthropy (basically, shape-shifting), glamours, and the like is certainly novel!
The funniest part of this is at the end of the book, in an appendix, where the author describes the eight occult houses, reveals in what talent or magic each is invested, and then names graduates (from the real world) who have benefited by being members of the houses during their careers at Yale.
This is not just an amusing commentary, however, on how these students one-upped their futures by participating in magical solutions on the sly. As highlighted in the quote above, Alex comes to realize that magic, while theoretically accessible to whoever was trained or born to practice it, was in reality a tool of the rich and privileged that was sought after at the expense of the poor and defenseless. This is a huge theme of the book, and this is why the reader is able to bear with all the dark scenes, because they are so illustrative of our own contemporary world where billionaires are tripling their wealth during the pandemic while so-called “essential” workers are flogged back to their minimum-wage jobs, despite the danger, by the threat of unemployment. I don’t know if she intended it, but Bardugo here reveals the true “deep state” of influence,
bought and traded favors, and a deep disregard for anyone who gets
in the way.
Up against this mostly impenetrable and nearly unbeatable system of advancement is Galaxy “Alex” Stern, an underdog heroine if there ever was one. She is recruited (and given a full ride to Yale) to be a member of a secret society, Lethe, whose officers are trained to monitor the other eight houses for stepping over the line, and to report and penalize them when they do. Alex wants to use her special abilities for good, but quickly realizes that her job is mostly for show, and that there will be few consequences for any of these offenders, because to bring their activities out into the light would mean embarrassment for alumni, for administrators, and for Yale itself as an institution. What the people who recruited her don’t realize, however, is that first, Alex has abilities about which they (and at first she) are unaware, and that second, Alex has been conditioned by life as an almost constant victim to fight for herself and for other victims no matter how hard the going.
At its heart, Ninth House is a giant (and cleverly structured) mystery. There is a contemporary murder, there are disappearances of vital personnel, there is a string of dead girls from the past that may tie in, and Alex, despite discouragement from both her mentors and her opponents, is determined to solve it in order to bring justice for the have-nots that she sees as her equals.
But the book is not single-minded. There are also themes of friendship and (nonromantic) love, and a lot of social commentary. There is the gradual evolution, also, of the book’s characters as they confront issues and reflect upon their responses. One early-on thought from Alex that I loved was when she was pondering how easily things change from “normal” to not:
“You started sleeping until noon, skipped one class, one day of school, lost one job, then another, forgot the way that normal people did things. You lost the language of ordinary life.”
There were also, in amongst some fairly gruesome scenes that (if you are squeamish, you should be aware) include drug abuse, coercion, murder, rape, and the like, some inside jokes about college that I enjoyed, including some funny dormitory moments among roommates. One library-oriented joke, as noted by my Goodreads friend Lucky Little Cat, was, “I especially liked the special-collections library where occult search requests result in the delivery of either an avalanche of barely relevant books or one lonely pamphlet.’ Anybody who has been to college has encountered this result, with absolutely no occult assistance whatsoever!
Be aware that some readers have accused Bardugo of racism (because of a few comments on Alex’s Mexican origins), and of blatant sexism and misogyny in her portrayal of the rape scenes in the book (because they are pictured from the observer’s point of view rather than that of the victim’s). You will have to decide for yourself how you feel about these accusations.
Bottom line, apart from a rather confusing and disjointed few pages at the beginning, I found this to be a clever, nuanced read about white privilege (as symbolized by magic!) and the lengths to which people will go to cling to it. It also has both a protagonist and a secondary character that, while the book has a satisfactory ending, you are longing to follow into the sequel, which will hopefully be produced quickly.
I’m at the end of Week Six of self-quarantine, and feeling restless. That’s not to say that I agree with any of these initiatives to hurry to open things back up—we stay inside to lower the curve, to protect others and ourselves, and it isn’t time yet. But I can acknowledge my feelings and those of others who are going a little stir-crazy.
So, what could be better to read in a time of restriction than something completely escapist? And what could be a more familiar escape trope than running away to join the circus? It’s a notion secretly cherished by people young and old. Running away is one thing, but in this fantasy, destination is all.
I have a few favorites in the run-away-to-the-circus panoply of titles. First on my list is A Stranger at Wildings, originally titled Kirkby’s Changeling, by Madeleine Brent (otherwise known as Peter O’Donnell). At age 13, Chantal discovers the devastating truth about her parentage, and is about to be sent to an orphanage; instead, she decides to disappear into the world of the circus that has just paused in her English town on its way to Hungary. We follow Chantal’s career as a trapeze artist until she turns 18, at which point events conspire to change her life and send her back to England. But she’s not sure she wants this change, especially if it means leaving her circus family. It’s pure gothic magic in the style of Mary Stewart.
The book Meridon, by popular historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory, is one of my personal favorites, because the protagonist is both a gypsy and a bareback rider, so you get lots of horsey bits. But the book is the third in the Wideacre trilogy, and you really do need to have read the first two in order to understand particularly the second half of this book. All three books are engaging (although a bit scandalous here and there), so if you have the time…and you do…? The first two are Wideacre and The Favored Child (neither of which has any circus motif).
The following would most likely be found in the young adult section:
Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, by Amanda Davis, is a coming-of-age book, a triumph over adversity book, a story in which a seriously damaged and divided girl gets the chance to work through it all and pull herself together, with a backdrop of circus life that jumps off the page. The writing is beautiful, the characters are real and individual, and the story-telling is captivating. I wish the publisher had designed a cover to match.
That Time I Joined the Circus, by J. J. Howard, tells of Lexi, a snarky New York City girl, who makes a huge mistake and faces a terrible tragedy. In the face of this, she decides she must track down her mother, who is rumored to be traveling with a circus somewhere in Florida. Lexi doesn’t find her mother there, but she does find a temporary home with the circus. In this story, what the protagonist is running from is equally as important as what she is running to, and she
has to resolve these issues, which are dealt with in jumps from past
Even in the circus sub-genre, there are books with “girl” in the title!
Girl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond, is a little different, in that most of these stories start with someone running away to the circus, but Julieta Maroni is already a circus performer who is fleeing her family to convince her father, the best wire walker in the world, to join the giant Cirque American despite his feud with their other stars, the Flying Garcias. It’s a rather obvious Romeo-and-Juliet set-up, but it’s also a mystery, a fantasy, and a great depiction of performances on the high wire and trapezes. It has a sequel,
Girl in the Shadows, with a different protagonist but taking place at the same circus.
Some more adult books in this sub-genre:
One title to which your mind will probably immediately go is The Night Circus, by Erin Morganstern, in which the circus is the magical, seductive background for both a battle of wills and a deeply romantic love story.
Another is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, a funny gothic tale about a man who sold his soul to the devil, but decides he wants it back. Satan agrees to a wager: Johannes has to persuade 100 other people to sign over their souls in exchange for his own. He can have one calendar year and a traveling carnival as the timeframe and setting to achieve his task. Johannes summons an unearthly crew and takes his show on the road.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine portrays a post-apocalyptic future in which a band of lost souls travels from one ruined city to the next, bringing their marvels to eager crowds of war-ravaged humans. It’s been described as steampunk, as a prose poem, and as a disjointed tapestry of image and text that will only appeal to a few—but those few rave about it.
In Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, Jacob Janowski, 23 years old and only days away from his final exams to become a veterinarian, is devastated (and stricken by poverty) when his parents are killed in an auto accident. He hops a freight train that happens to be transporting a circus, and soon becomes an integral part, caring for the animals while yearning after a married woman and a difficult elephant. The story is told in flashback, from the viewpoint of an elderly nursing home resident reflecting on his past. (There is also a movie, though I haven’t seen it.)
The Blue Moon Circus, by Michael Raleigh, is the highly rated story of ringmaster Lewis Tully, who gathers together an eclectic group of people to form an independent traveling show. It’s sweet and funny, with likeable characters both human and animal, and a lot of heart.
There are also those stories of circuses that occupy the dark end of the spectrum, the evil circus or carnival from which you wish to escape, such as the classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, Full Tilt, by Neal Shusterman, or The Carnivorous Carnival, by Lemony Snicket. (To this day, hearing the eerie carousel music soundtrack to the movie version of Something Wicked can really mess with my mood.)
Goodreads has quite a comprehensive list of “circus and carnival books” you might want to visit, if one of these books whets your appetite for more “escapist fiction”! One I have always wanted to try is Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.
A friend reminded me recently of the purportedly “best opening paragraph of all time,” which, according to LitHub author Emily Temple, is the one that opens We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson.
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
Whether or not you agree with Ms. Temple, you do have to acknowledge the brilliance of this book, in which two sisters live an exceedingly reclusive life sequestered in Blackwood House, caring for their ill and aged Uncle Julian. The narrative, which is carried by the younger sister, Mary Katherine (Merricat), gradually reveals that there is a sinister tragedy in their past, that the town holds a grudge against the family, and that in fact they are reclusive for good reason. All of Ms. Jackson’s trademark creepiness eventually prevails over the almost mundane initial tone.
Thinking about this book put me in mind of a different book with “castle” in its title. Dodie Smith wrote I Capture the Castle in the 1940s, and its opening paragraph is also beguiling, though with a completely different vibe:
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring. I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry
is so bad that I mustn’t write any more
This book is also about two proud but poor girls who live a quiet life in a moldering castle, but that’s where the similarity ends. Rose and Cassandra Mortmain live in this ruin with their famously eccentric writer father, his statuesquely beautiful nature-worshipping second wife (who has the habit of wandering naked about the grounds), and their precocious little brother. The father has a massive case of writer’s block, and hasn’t published in years, and the family is all but destitute; the rundown property is all they can afford. When two handsome and wealthy young men move into the neighborhood, the entire household collaborates to change the family’s luck by ensnaring one of them as a spouse for the beautiful Rose. It’s obviously not a feminist tale on that account, but the younger, spunkier Cassandra has aspirations to be a writer, and the book is entertainingly narrated through her journals.
Another old book with “castle” in the title that everyone should experience is Blandings Castle, by P. G. Wodehouse, a set of 12 short stories about the dotty Lord Emsworth and his bone-headed younger son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood; his long-suffering secretary, the Efficient Baxter; and Beach, the Blandings butler. The stories add to the main saga, which begins with Something Fresh and continues for 12 volumes. Although in my opinion they are not quite up to Wodehouse’s inimitable pairing of the clueless man-about-town Bertie Wooster with his enigmatic puppet master butler, Jeeves, they are similarly riotous in their mostly fond mockery of the British class system.
And there you have the results of poking about in my reader’s brain for books with little in common beyond a word in their title! Was this too thin a pretext for a book review?
As I have mentioned before, I am neither a horror fan nor (specifically) particularly tolerant of gore, so that I would choose to read a zombie book (without prompting from my teen book club) seems unlikely. I actually picked up the book thinking it was a different young adult novel (and now I don’t know which one that was—it was about a girl whose parents locked her in the garage every night because she had scary abilities), and when I realized what The Girl with All the Gifts was, I almost put it down. But the protagonist immediately caught at my imagination, and I had to keep going. I’m glad I did.
I came late to this one (the book came out in 2014 and the movie apparently premiered in January of 2017 only to sink like a stone—I never heard of it, despite the inclusion of Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell!), but I agree with author Maggie Stiefvater‘s analysis:
The most sure-footed novel I’ve read all year. A dystopian thriller with a real, beating heart. Recommend. Recommend. Recommend.
So many zombie books are basically action/adventure/gross-out, with people constantly trying to figure out ways to escape being eaten and/or turned. This one, on the other hand, is more of a philosophical analysis of what constitutes a human being, who is worth saving, and what acts are justified in the cause of scientific inquiry and the hope for a “cure.” That makes it sound pedantic and slow; be advised that it is also filled with action, chase scenes, creeping horror, and unbearable poignancy.
The book opens with a bunch of kids who are locked into wheelchairs to attend school. The viewpoint is Melanie’s, arguably the brightest girl in her class, who comments on the variety of teachers and subjects, her interactions with other personnel (including doctors, soldiers, and the other children), and the weekly routine, an undeniably bleak and peculiar one to be imposed on children. The reader gradually comes to realize what’s going on in this cell block locked away from the wider world (the setting is England), just in time for this routine to shift utterly and eject certain of the characters out into that world, following them to see how they fare.
The science—the kind of fungal infection that could plausibly mutate into a zombie-type disease—felt new and interesting. The characters who persist throughout the story are thoroughly developed, with an understanding of their motivations and aspirations. The dystopian world is horrifyingly bleak, and definitely conveys the feelings of the last few people in a dying apocalypse. But for all that, the book is fresh, the story is moving, and the conclusion both beautiful and terrifying.
There is a second book, The Boy on the Bridge. I initially thought I wouldn’t read it, because the ending of this one is so satisfying I didn’t feel the need; but that book turns out to be a prequel to this, answering some questions about things taken for granted in The Girl with All the Gifts, and I may have to go for it, distaste for zombies notwithstanding!
Although I believe the author wrote these books for adults, because of the age of the protagonists one could also consider them high on teen appeal. From my slightly squeamish position regardingly the sometimes excessively graphic detail, however, I don’t think I would recommend them to teens under the age of 16!
This is the time of year when I look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and ponder which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads, where I record my reading, conveniently keeps track of statistics for those who set a reading goal, so before I get to the specifics, here are some of mine:
I read 41,346 pages across 113 books.
My shortest book was an e-book-only novella (71 pages) by Sharon Bolton, while my longest was a reread of a Diana Gabaldon book (928 pages) in preparation for the next season of Outlander on TV. The average length of book I read was 365 pages.
The most popular book I read this year was (surprisingly) The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (which I read for high school book club), while the least popular (though one of the most useful to me) was the “textbook” (Reading Still Matters, by Catherine Sheldrick Ross) that I assigned to my readers’ advisory students in the masters program at UCLA. And the highest rated book that I read, according to Goodreads, was The Empty Grave, a young adult horror novel that is the final chapter of the Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud, a wonderfully entertaining series for 8th grade and up.
One of my favorite books of the year, but not one I would consider a “best book,” would be Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. It was a favorite for a couple of reasons: It was a long-anticipated fifth in her beloved Queen’s Thief series (beloved by me, though apparently unknown to far too many people); and it had her typical intricate yet understated plotting and humor that made me appreciate it throughout and also at the end. But for most people, it would probably be far too subtle to consider as a “best book,” and it needs to be viewed within its setting as part of a series to give the full effect. If you are, however, looking for a good and also untypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief (the first book) and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and finally, Thick as Thieves. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.
Tess is a slow, compelling, character-driven fantasy, so if you are impatient for breathless action, it may not be for you. But I found the writing, the characters, and the story all to be completely gripping. Tess’s transformation throughout the book was a fabulous coming-of-age story for resentful and impetuous young women everywhere. I identified with her repression by a rigid, religious mother, was dismayed by the ways she tried to disengage from her life, and was delighted by her choices, though some of them seemed idiotic in the moment.
Defy the Stars was entertaining from start to finish. I loved the characters—Noemi is so idealistic, stern, determined, and committed, but with a squishy interior that occasionally surfaces. Abel is, well, a ROBOT—this is my favorite robot book since the Lije Bailey/Daneel Olivaw pair-up in Isaac Asimov’s old mystery series. As with Daneel, Abel turns out to be so much more, mostly because his creator, Burton Mansfield, gave him enough agency to continue developing on his own. But Noemi is really the catalyst who brings him to his ultimate personhood. What I especially liked about this book is that it gave you a glimpse into possible worlds that could have been colonized from Earth, and how they evolved differently depending on the expectations and ideals of their colonizers. This isn’t just space opera; it also goes into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and is thought-provoking in all areas.
One of my faves that I would also consider a “best book” was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Her quirky character Eleanor is, in many ways, profoundly broken, and Eleanor’s metamorphosis depends on courage that she wouldn’t have found without making some human connections, but it is not a romantic book, for which I was grateful. Her story is told in a tender, sweet, and humorous way that isn’t manipulative and never descends into mawkishness, that pulls both Eleanor and the reader out of melancholy into hopefulness. I was impressed that this was the author’s debut novel: The language, the characters, and the world in which she places them are smart and engaging, and she writes with confidence. I have always believed re-reading potential is the true test of a good book, and as soon as I finished this one, I wanted to go back and read it again to feel the emotions brought forth in me by the story.
In the mystery category, I thoroughly enjoyed the reliable offerings from among my list of favorites: Louise Penny, Elly Griffiths, Robert Crais, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Sharon Bolton, and Craig Johnson; but the most anticipated and most enjoyed one had to be Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. I was completely enthralled by everything about the book: The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosted up the energy exponentially. I was thrilled that the book picked up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin married the detestable Matthew Cunliffe. When she returns to work as Cormoran’s partner, he labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, giving the reader a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation as we find out where their personal choices will lead them.
I have already mentioned, in a recent post, my favorite fantasy of this year, Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor; if you have, in your past, been prejudiced against books because they were given a “young adult” categorization, please let go of that long enough to pick up and read Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares. You won’t be sorry. I will add to the best fantasy category another, completely different offering: Vengeful, the long-awaited sequel to Vicious by V. E. Schwab.
As usual, being the bibliophile that I am, I managed to find a few new novels based on reading and bookstores to add to my list, including The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan, and The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland. I think the last would be my favorite of these.
Please feel free to respond with your comments on any of my favorites, and share your own—if I receive enough responses, I will publish an end-of-the-year book bonanza from readers, full of ideas for January catch-up!