The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern. Published in 2011.

Emily Dickinson described books in general as frigates, "to take us Lands away," but in my experience, only the special ones actually accomplish that. Those are my favorites, transporting you to another place, sometimes foreign or alien or fantastic, sometimes a near mirror of home, but definitely elsewhere. The details conjure smells and sights and sounds with enough resonance to give your imagination material to fill in the rest, and the characters seem to continue living outside the pages. The depth and breadth of the setting invites you to linger longer than the plot does, and past and future extend beyond the story's boundaries.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, is one of those rare frigates, so immersive that reading it is like jumping into a cool, clear pond and discovering you can breathe underwater. An elegant grown-up fairy tale, suffused with magical and ahistorical period color, it spins its love story with delicacy and ever-increasing warmth, but the real accomplishment is the setting, the circus for which the novel is named. So evocative, so beautifully and ardently rendered, the spellbinding circus is a wonder to visit.

The Tiger’s Wife

By Téa Obreht. Published in 2011.

The copyright page of The Tiger’s Wife includes the words “Portions of this book appeared previously in The New Yorker in different form”—the tell-tale line reflecting the fact that author Téa Obreht made her name (and quite likely sold her then-unfinished novel) as a short story writer, eventually expanding or repurposing or otherwise adapting a few of her acclaimed stories into her debut novel. That’s not at all uncommon, nor is it a practice exclusive to first-time novelists, but it does sometimes result in novels that feel fragmented rather than whole, with one or two better-polished parts jutting out awkwardly, never quite melting into the larger work.

The Tiger’s Wife is, without question, an episodic novel—one can easily see how individual chapters could have functioned as stand-alone stories—but in this case, the fragmentation works for the novel rather than against it. In many ways, it is a novel about stories: present and past, myth and legend and memory, told and retold and loosely woven together, underlying patterns gradually revealing themselves.

A Song of Ice and Fire

By George R. R. Martin. Series includes A Game of Thrones, published in 1996; A Clash of Kings, published in 1998; A Storm of Swords, published in 2000; and A Feast for Crows, published in 2005.

The studio exec overseeing HBO’s upcoming adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s sprawling epic-in-progress into a serial TV drama is fond of claiming that the series isn’t really high fantasy. His motive is obvious—HBO doesn’t want A Game of Thrones (the TV show’s title) to be consigned to the genre ghetto, seen only by fanboys—but there’s still something to what he’s saying. Despite the presence of dragons and wights and other mythical beasts, Martin’s world rarely feels alien to our own. In part, that’s because the creatures and magic are on the periphery, but more significantly, it’s because, fair or not (probably not), fantasy has a reputation for drawing bright white lines between Good and Evil, and Martin refuses to do so. In the Song of Ice and Fire books, sympathetic characters feel compelled to do terrible things, and unsympathetic characters have admirable qualities. No one has a clear Hero’s Quest to follow, and everyone encounters awful questions for which there are no easy answers. The world is complicated, muddy, and deeply unfair. Even dragons can’t make such a familiar world feel entirely like fantasy.

Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel. Published in 2009.

Thomas Cromwell, one of the closest advisers of King Henry VIII, was not well liked by his peers, at least the powerful ones, those whose assessment has been passed down through history. He was unprincipled, we are told: grasping, devious, presumptuously ambitious; a bad man who got what was coming to him when Henry blamed him for the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves and had him beheaded.

But why do we so readily accept the dubious views of Cromwell’s enemies? Novelist Hilary Mantel, drawing on the work of a number of scholars as well as contemporary sources, persuasively recasts the historical figure, her protagonist in Wolf Hall. Her Cromwell lacks not principles but zealotry—all too rare in an age wracked by religious wars. He is indeed ambitious but admirably so, rising from exceedingly humble beginnings to the king’s right hand by virtue of his broad education, financial acumen, and sound judgment. The nobles of the time might sneer at his roots, but why should we? Cromwell is the prototypical self-made man.

Mantel’s Cromwell is still recognizably Cromwell, but seen through new eyes. His alleged vices become virtues; a peek into his family life and background makes him less of a cipher; and in contrast to others of his time—most notably Thomas More—he is a man ahead of it. It’s a fascinating portrait.

In a Perfect World

By Laura Kasischke. Published in 2009.

Laura Kasischke is first and foremost an award-winning poet, and you can feel that in her prose. Unlike most novelists, she seems less interested in dialogue or plot or even character than in imagery and mood. Her evocative language wraps its tendrils around you, drawing you into its own dark dreaminess. You keep reading not because you’re desperate to learn what happens next (in fact, not much happens at all) but because the language has cast a spell you can’t bear to break.

That eerie quality is particularly well suited for In a Perfect World, Kasischke’s seventh novel, which draws unabashedly on fairy tales, lingering on such redolent items as a lost shoe, a white goose, a lonely house in the woods; the residue of magic in the prose seems only appropriate. But not all fairy tales involve princesses and starry happily-ever-afters. Kasischke’s fairy tale allusions knit together with oblique references to the medieval bubonic plague and contemporary fears about epidemics and economic instability. The result is a hushed, endearingly domestic post-apocalyptic tale with an unexpected love story, not romantic but maternal, the mythical evil stepmother redeemed.

Baking Cakes in Kigali

By Gaile Parkin. Published in 2009.

The skill of the storytelling in Baking Cakes in Kigali sneaks up on you. It’s such a sweet, pleasant little book that it’s easy to miss how deftly debut author Gaile Parkin weaves dramatic, quietly heartrending themes into her modest, charming tales of a middle-aged woman who runs a small home business baking and decorating cakes for friends and neighbors. Of course, the novel is set in Kigali, Rwanda, so there’s that to suggest that the book won’t be all sugar and spice, but with the Rwandan genocide in the past, and with Parkin’s Tanzanian protagonist not having experienced it firsthand, those horrors initially appear to be background. In fact, I wondered at first why Parkin chose to set her light story in such a dark place—and if Baking Cakes had merely been about baking cakes, perhaps that would have been would have been a question worth asking. But Baking Cakes is not merely about baking. Parkin has a more ambitious agenda—and much more sensitivity and grace—than I first credited.

The Year of the Flood

By Margaret Atwood. Published in 2009.

I’ve read Oryx and Crake several times, and never once did I think, This book needs a sequel. Without question, there are ambiguities, story elements implied but not confirmed, and an unresolved, open conclusion, but those all work aesthetically. They aren’t holes. They don’t cry to be filled any more than do the rests, the silent beats, in a piece of music. Absence and uncertainty are part of what makes the book so striking and memorable. It’s beautiful on its own.

So as excited as I was to see that Margaret Atwood had written a sequel, of sorts, to Oryx, I couldn’t help wondering why she felt the need to return to that universe. Did she think something was missing from Oryx? Was there somewhere new she wanted to take the characters? Was there something else she wanted to explore? And the thing is, even having read the new novel, The Year of the Flood, I don’t know the answers to those questions. It’s an immersive story, and Atwood’s writing is always enjoyable, but I don’t see the point here. I doubt Year stands alone, and Oryx doesn’t need a companion, and whenever Year pauses to connect dots from Oryx or underline an idea from Oryx, I feel slightly insulted, as though I’m being condescended to. The Year of the Flood is a good book, but it’s superfluous.

The Magicians

By Lev Grossman. Published in 2009.

For a book with such an obvious sales gimmick—in this case, “Harry Potter for grown-ups”—The Magicians is strikingly well imagined. It might be opportunistic, but it’s not uninspired, and author Lev Grossman is a talented enough writer to find new ways around familiar elements while exploring fresh themes. The result is a book that’s less a fantasy novel than a dark coming-of-age tale—magic without the carefree whimsy and bright moral lines that usually accompany it.


By Dave Cullen. Published in 2009.

Dave Cullen taught me the difference between hate and contempt. Some five years ago, he wrote an article for Slate exploring the motives of the notorious Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, with new analysis from the FBI’s lead investigator on the case, a clinical psychologist. The key idea was that the two boys were very different people: Harris was a full-blown psychopath (in the true psychiatric sense), and Klebold was a suicidal depressive who fell into the other boy’s orbit.

That conclusion and the well-informed rationale behind it are fascinating, but it was the distinction between hate and contempt that haunted me. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, most people assumed that the killers’ motive was hatred—for jocks, for minorities, for Christians, whatever—but judging from the considerable evidence left behind, Harris, the mastermind, wasn’t motivated by hatred of individuals or even of specific groups. In a way, that would have required acknowledging his victims as human beings, fellows worthy of hate. Harris considered himself a god among insects; his victims were interchangeable fodder for his apocalyptic vision. In short, he didn’t feel hate so much as general contempt. And that’s what makes him so frightening.

Cullen expands upon that old article—along with his numerous others and a decade’s worth of investigation into the attack—to produce Columbine, an exhaustive, compelling look at that horrific day in April 1999, the months that lead up to it, and the years that followed. At once a true crime tome, a psychopathy primer, and a media criticism treatise, the book is engrossing and deeply thought-provoking. That unforgettable lesson on hate and contempt is not an anomaly: Columbine is not a rubber-necking tabloid tale but a reflective, compassionate view of both the trees and the forest. As the New York Times acknowledged, Columbine isn’t In Cold Blood reborn (which cracked me up: Capote’s masterpiece is truly the unattainable grail of the true crime genre), but by virtually any other standard, it’s a triumph.

The Hunger Games

By Suzanne Collins. Published in 2008.

I checked out a copy of Suzanne Collins’s well-reviewed YA novel solely because the premise immediately recalls that of the cult classic Battle Royale. For those who haven’t experienced the Japanese movie, it’s an elaborate, bloody melodrama about a group of adolescent schoolmates forced by a police state to fight to the death as part of a poorly explained effort to suppress dissent. When you watch Battle Royale in the United States, someone always notes that it was banned here (not true: it simply never found a distributor) or that it could never have been made here (OK, that’s probably true), so the existence of an American book aimed directly at teenagers with that exact forbidden plot cracks me up.