I really liked Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, so I was excited when her newest novel, NW, was released last fall. Some of my book club friends read it recently, so after seeing it with great reviews in my Goodreads feed, I picked up a copy at the library.
Reviews for NW say that it’s a story of a city, or a story of four friends, but I really thought it was the story of Leah and Natalie.
We meet them separately – Leah first, with her hairdresser husband and their lovable dog. They live in the poorer part of the city and we see two incidents, one at the very start of the book, that clearly illustrate how living in this neighborhood impacts their lives. And while Leah and her husband are considering kids, there is something not quite right with their relationship.
In the second section of NW, we meet Leah’s childhood friend Keisha, who has changed her name to Natalie. We learn a bit about their childhoods together and see Keisha go off to college, get married, and become a lawyer. Although successful and a member of the nicer neighborhood in town, Natalie’s idyllic life isn’t what it seems.
Leah and Keisha/Natalie run into other childhood friends, Felix and Nathan, which is I guess why some people say the book is about four friends. But Felix and Nathan have such small roles that that didn’t seem to make much sense to me. Their presence is interesting and adds to the story, but to me, NW is simply about Leah and Natalie, childhood friends who now face the challenges of adulthood. Are they facing them together? That’s debatable too, but it makes for an interesting story, that’s for sure.
We recently went to Iceland and it was the most wonderful and amazing trip. Reykjavík is a great city, the people are super friendly, and we saw and did amazing things like walk on a glacier. I cannot wait to go back.
We learned a ton about Iceland from two tour guides we had while we were there – from myths about trolls and elves, to historical accounts, religious differences, political situations, and cultural stories. We tried skyr, an Icelandic treat similar to yogurt, which was delicious. I think one of the reasons that I loved Ice Land by Betsy Tobin so much was because all those little things I’d learned and loved about Iceland are in this book. It just made me so happy to read about all the things I was remembering so fondly from our trip.
Ice Land takes place in Iceland around the year 900. Tobin weaves a tale of pagan gods and goddesses into the story of Fulla, a young Icelandic woman who lives with her grandfather. While Fulla and her grandfather travel to the Alþingi (Althing) to hear the lawspeaker – and her grandfather attempts to find Fulla a husband – Freya, the goddess of love and sexuality, is desperately trying to save the island from impending doom. She journeys across the land riddled with volcanoes and glaciers in search of a gold necklace that is destined to help. We meet dwarfs and giants, travel behind waterfalls and into hot springs, we fly above volcanoes and venture into caves.
It’s an amazing ride, and a great story, that I simply loved. But I’m not sure if someone who hadn’t just recently visited and fallen in love with Iceland would love Ice Land by Betsy Tobin as much as I did.
I love Murakami and one of my goals is to read everything he’s written. I bought Sputnik Sweetheart years ago when I worked at the bookstore and finally picked it up to read before we headed off on our trip to Iceland (which was amazing).
Our narrator, K, and Sumire have been friends for years. Although he’s in love with her, she seems to have no desire for anyone, until she meets a woman 17 years older than her and unexpectedly falls for her. Sumire is an aspiring writer, supported by her parents, but she decides to give up writing when her crush, Miu, offers her a job.
Sumire enters the corporate world, puts on business suits, and even begins traveling with Miu. Her friendship with K begins to falter, but when Sumire goes missing while on a small Greek island with Miu, Miu immediately calls K. He flies out to the island and begins searching for Sumire. He discovers some of her recent writings and tries to put together the pieces of what happened to Sumire.
I liked Sputnik Sweetheart but it wasn’t my favorite Murakami. I like Murakami because his works are usually pretty crazy, but for some reason easy to believe. Sputnik Sweetheart wasn’t really that hard to believe or unusual, so it didn’t seem terribly Murakami-ish to me. The story Miu tells about her trip on the ferris wheel was probably my favorite part of the book, because it was the typical Murakami bizarro story I was looking for.
We meet Victoria, a foster child, who has had a stereotypically rough life. Bounced from foster home to foster home, she is the cliched foster child who can’t trust people, doesn’t like to be touched, and often acts out. Chapters alternate between Victoria as a child and adult Victoria, who has just been released from the foster care system on her eighteenth birthday.
Predictably, Victoria ends up with a foster mother who loves her unconditionally and is going to fix everything, but we know that it can’t possibly work out because we’ve already seen adult Victoria just graduating from the foster care system. Much of the story is building up to figuring out what happened between Victoria and the stereotypically-perfect-foster-mother-who-saves-the-day, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is such a cliche that she has, of course, overwhelmingly influenced Victoria’s life. Her teachings on the “language of flowers” – yellow roses mean jealousy, daffodils mean new beginnings, etc. – shape everything about Victoria and her life. She begins working at a florist shop using her knowledge to create extraordinary floral arrangements.
Then of course she meets a guy and in pure cheesy fashion they communicate via flowers.
While I enjoyed reading about the meanings of the flowers in the novel, I just couldn’t get past the fact that the whole story is all just too stereotypical, cheesy, cliched, and annoying. I can’t wait to debate this one with the book club!
I didn’t read the book jacket before starting Night Circus because I’d gotten it at my book club’s holiday book swap from a friend who said she knew I’d love it. When I was more than halfway through the book, I finally did read the jacket summary and I was surprised that it talked mostly of a love story, since I’d seen almost no hint of a love story to that point in the book. So just know that the circus is really the magical, mystical, amazing focus of Night Circus and the love story is just a part of the plot that kind of makes things interesting while also tying things together.
The Night Circus is a magically awesome circus that begins at sundown and continues until the morning. Tents of black and white house mystical adventures like an ice garden, a labyrinth, and a cloud maze, while patrons eat snacks like cinnamon twists and chocolate mice with licorice tails. There’s a Wishing Tree, an illusionist, a fortune teller, and a huge bonfire that never stops burning. And while the circus is amazing on it’s own, it’s actually the playing field for two magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood for this “challenge.”
While the reader meets fascinating characters and explores the bewitched circus, Marco and Celia are all the while dueling. But the challenge doesn’t seem to end and soon it’s clear that the circus may not be left standing if and when a winner is declared.
I really loved this book because Morgenstern throws the reader right into the middle of the story and there is not a minute when you’re not guessing and wondering where the challenge will go. Morgenstern makes the night circus so real and amazing that I’m not sure you could read this book without wishing that it could visit your town.
I picked up Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton at a used bookstore near our house and although I’d never heard of the novel or Charles Elton, I thought the description looked intriguing. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this book because I absolutely loved it.
Mr. Toppit is the sinister character in a series of British children’s books written by Arthur Hayman. When Arthur dies in a fluke traffic accident, it’s an American tourist named Laurie Clow who stays with him at the scene and later at the hospital. Arthur’s family arrives at the hospital and learn of his death and they somehow end up bringing Laurie with them to their home, which was the inspiration for Arthur’s books, The Hayseed Chronicles.
The main character in Arthur’s books is named Luke, after Arthur’s own son. We see how Luke and his sister Rachel react to their father’s death and we learn how a bit of notoriety combined with absent and peculiar parents shaped them.
Laurie’s interest in The Hayseed Chronicles grows until she’s not much like the insecure and bumbling tourist we first met; I began to think that Laurie had a bit more in common with the sinister Mr. Toppit then she did with the Hayman children.
Mr. Toppit is a terrifically interesting and unique book – I definitely recommend it.
I have a really nice chunk of time off for the holidays and we’ll be heading to Toronto next week to celebrate the new year and see Andrew’s family. I’ve got a great to-read list for the new year – what are you reading?
- Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton – I’m in the middle of this novel and really love it. We meet Arthur Hayman, who wrote a mildly-successful series of children’s books, the Hayseed Chronicles, and then was killed in a random accident. We then meet his family – his son Luke, who the main character in Arthur’s books are based on; Arthur’s eccentric wife Martha; his emotional and unstable daughter Rachel; Lila, the oppressive woman who illustrated his books; and Laurie, the random stranger who was there when he died. This book is really different than anything I’ve read recently and I’m loving it.
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman – This is the January book for my book club. The main character Shadow has recently been released from prison. He and Mr. Wednesday “embark on a very strange journey across the States, along the way solving the murders which have occurred every winter in one small American town.” I can’t wait to start this one!
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – I got this book in our annual book club holiday swap. We each bring a wrapped book, something that we really loved. We pull numbers out of a hat and take turns picking one of the books. I think technically we’re able to trade, if we want, but no one ever does 🙂 I got this book from Katie, who really loved it and thinks I will too. The goodreads review begins, “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.” Can’t wait to read it!