Illusions, Wonders and Nights at the Circus

Lose yourself inside the black-and-white world of Le Cirque des Rêves, the enchanting fantasy world in Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus. Morgenstern weaves a tale of illusion, passion, romance and rivalry between two illusionists set in a 19th century circus. This novel is a feast for the senses, a magical ride for a reader who loves a slowly-unfolding story full of descriptive and elegant prose and detailed imagery.

Le Cirque des Rêves, or The Circus of Dreams, is not an ordinary circus. It arrives in towns without warning, mysteriously, as if appearing out of thin air. It opens at dusk and closes at dawn, and houses within its wrought-iron gates black-and-white tents full of grand illusions and hidden magic.

The circus itself is a remarkable world, but ultimately serves as a performance space for the two key characters, Celia Bowen (the daughter of a famed illusionist, Prospero the Enchanter) and Marco Alisdair (student of the Mysterious Mr. A.H.). The two illusionists are unwillingly – and for a time, unknowingly – pitted against each other in a game of magical talent and ingenuity. The game is simple: the best illusionist wins, the loser pays a terrible price. But when love gets in the way… the price may be higher than Celia or Marco could have anticipated.

Tiny Furniture on DVD

Lena Dunham is the director, writer and star of Tiny Furniture, an independent dramatic feature film released by The Criterion Collection. The film centers around Aura, who has recently graduated from college and returns home to New York to her mother’s house and now has the task of figuring out her life. She struggles with employment, and with her relationships with love interests, as well as her friends and family.

As is the trend of recent low-budget indie films, it is dialog heavy and features a young protagonist finding her way. Aura is deep in the dilemma of being young and aimless, but is also at the point where she knows responsibility should be taken; she just doesn’t know which direction to turn. The film also subtly focuses around her relationship with her mother, who is a grounded and successful artist. Interestingly, Aura’s mother and sister in the film are portrayed by Dunham’s real-life mother and sister, so there’s extra chemistry among the actors.

In addition to sharp dialog, Dunham also blesses viewers with great composition and visually appealing images on the screen. It’s a charming little film, and even though the subject matter is slow and heavy, it’s filled with witty dialog that keeps you amused, and it has a touching ending. As a bonus, The Criterion Collection DVD release also features Dunham’s first feature film, "Creative Nonfiction," and four of her short films.

Grown in Detroit

Detroit is a city that has been reviving itself for decades, as new generations bring new life to the city. With the city’s growth has also come growth in urban agriculture, as people are turning vacant lots into fertile land. Some call it the greening of a gray city.

The documentary film Grown in Detroit focuses on a group of students at Detroit’s Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a high school for pregnant teens, as they work in the school's urban garden and learn how to grow nutritious food for their children. One of only three schools in the country for this population, the curriculum focuses on helping these teens care for themselves and their children, and uses urban farming as a means to teach them.

The students featured in Grown in Detroit are at first underwhelmed by the amount of physical labor required for farming. The teen moms eventually realize that they can profit from the food they are growing, as well as provide nutritious food for their children and themselves, all stemming from the fruits of their labor. It’s a beautiful film that places an eye on this unique opportunity happening for these girls -- right here in Detroit.

In addition to being available on DVD at AADL, the film is also available for instant online streaming to logged-in AADL cardholders here! You can also watch it on the Grown in Detroit website, where you pay whatever denomination you want in order to view it.

Powerful Teen Novel: Personal Effects

Personal Effects is a well-written, highly engaging, debut novel by E.M. Kokie, an attorney in Madison, Wisconsin, who has long been drawn to teen literature. Readers will find humor, compassion, excitement, and a memorable coming-of-age story in these pages.

The story opens as 17-year-old Matt Foster is trying to recover from the death of his older brother, T.J., in Iraq. Matt is failing classes at school, fighting with classmates, and trying to tune out his father's command that he follow T.J.'s steps to the military after high school. When T.J.'s stuff -- some of the “personal effects” in the title -- are shipped home, Matt thinks sneaking to go through them will help put closure on his grief. Instead, he unearths letters and secrets about his brother's identity, strength, honor, and bravery that show him that he did not know T.J. as well as he thought he did.

As Matt comes to terms with his brother’s life and death, he begins to better stand his ground with his dad and to become the hero of his own unfolding young-adult life. Matt’s high-school girlfriend, Shauna, is an intriguing and charming character who contributes much to the page-turning magnetism of the narrative. I hope Ms. Kokie is writing more books!

Grief Breeds Drama in The Invisible Ones

Stef Penney, bestselling author of her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves, continues her repertoire with her second novel, The Invisible Ones. Both novels contain suspense-filled stories weaved with strands of mystery and shrouded in intrigue. Penney’s first novel was set among trappers in 19th century Canada. The Invisible Ones delves into the more recent past, focusing on the Gypsy/Romany community of 1980s England.

Private investigator Ray Lovell is not surprised when Leon Wood will only accept his help in discovering what happened to his daughter, Rose Janko, after her disappearance six years ago. Mr. Wood, a member of the Romany community in England, refuses to go to the police, but he is willing to trust Ray because of his Romany heritage. The mystery begins in the present with Ray in the hospital hovering between states of delirium as paralysis grips his body. The story continues to alternate between present and past, including insights into the investigation and viewpoints from Rose's nephew, JJ. Not surprisingly, the Janko family is hard to crack. Not only can the story be difficult to put down from the nagging questions that need to be answered, but Penney's book takes a close look at the culture of Romany families today, including their customs and traditions.

Minding Frankie

Minding Frankie might take a bit of effort as far as realism is concerned, but Irish novelist Binchy creates a heartwarming story of family ties (both traditional and not so traditional) that bring a community together.

In Binchy’s 2011 novel, we meet Noel, an alcoholic stuck in a dead end job, who learns that not only is one of his exes on her deathbed, but she is pregnant with his child and desperate to find a family to care for her. Noel pulls his life together with much needed support from family and friends. His greatest supporter is his American cousin Emily, who is on an extended visit to Dublin. Emily not only rescues Noel, but she manages to quietly bring order to the lives of nearly everyone in this little circle of friends and even helps a few outsiders.

Minding Frankie is another touching story from Binchy, a writer and storyteller who will be sorely missed by her fans. The bestselling writer died on July 30 at the age of 72. Some other favorite titles from Binchy are Heart and Soul, Scarlet Feather, “The Glass Lake,” and “Firefly Summer.” Two of her novels, Circle of Friends and Tara Road (also an Oprah Book Club pick), were made into films.

Teen Book: Everybody Sees the Ants

In A.S. King's Everybody Sees the Ants, the narrative voice belongs to fifteen-year-old Lucky Linderman, bullied by a peer and surrounded by kind but ineffective adults. No one stands up for Lucky, not even his mom and dad, whose marriage seems to be unraveling. To complicate matters, in his recurring dreams, Lucky is trying to save his POW-MIA grandfather―his father's father―who was left behind in Vietnam. Through all these difficulties, Lucky tries to act as though everything is fine, even when the bullying gets worse and his mother takes him to her brother's house in Arizona. There Lucky catches his breath, learns to lift weights, and finally finds some strong, helpful friends.

The story skillfully blends realism with a touch of magic. As he struggles for traction at home and in his community, Lucky's voice is by turns angry, confused, funny, and heartbreakingly self-perceptive. There are resolutions for his troubles that are satisfying and entirely believable. In this memorable coming-of-age story, a fascinating and complex young man manages to pull himself together and to find an emotional path toward adulthood.

Recommended to me by members of a young-adult book group, the novel, for grade nine and older, rates very strongly in my book for characters, plot, writing and verisimilitude (the quality of seeming true to life). A.S. King won the Printz Honor for her book Please Ignore Vera Dietz.

The Five Year Engagement on DVD

The much talked about and read about film, The Five Year Engagement, contains many scenes filmed last summer around Ann Arbor. The local movie-making created quite a flurry of celebrity sightings of the movie's stars, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, and John Krasinski, and plenty of mid-summer snow scenes on the streets of downtown Ann Arbor.

The romantic comedy features Blunt and Segel as a couple whose engagement is continually delayed as changes happen in their lives. From the producers of The 40 Year Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Knocked Up, this film will have you in stitches, too. Not only was The Five Year Engagement filmed in Ann Arbor, but Ann Arbor is also the setting for the story. True, it’s not the most amazing movie, but it’s funny, and definitely fun to see so many Ann Arbor landmarks on the big screen, especially since the University of Michigan and Zingerman’s play big roles in the couple's lives.

"Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey"

I’ve never been a fan of Elmo; I felt he overshadowed the awesomeness of Grover. But after watching the documentary Being Elmo I can’t dislike Elmo anymore, because then it would seem as though I disliked Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind that famous red face. The film is a wonderful look behind the iconic character and makes you think that maybe dreams can come true.

A gentle natured man, Clash embodies the spirit of Elmo. He grew up in Baltimore in the 60s and 70s as a fan of Sesame Street and all things Jim Henson. He fell in love with puppetry at a young age and started making his own puppets and performing puppet shows for neighborhood kids. While it was clear that he had skill, his “playing with dolls” was frowned upon by fellow high school students. But in the end, he was voted "Most Likely to be a Millionaire."

Clash stuck with it, and eventually landed a job on “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Great Space Coaster.” This lead to his ultimate gig, Sesame Street, made possible after he met Muppet designer Kermit Love and got the official Henson connection.

In theory, Elmo represents love, childhood, and innocence. After seeing the film, it’s easy to see why small children fall in love with the Muppet. The bottom line is that Elmo loves every single one of them unconditionally, and what kid doesn’t want that?

"Tales of the New World"

From time to time, the desire or the time to commit to a full length novel just isn't there; this is where short stories come in. The best selling point of short stories is that if you are not particularly interested in one story, you can move on the the next without the guilt that can come with putting an entire book to rest without consideration.

Tales of the New World is a collection of ten short stories by PEN/Faulkner Award winner Sabina Murray. Some of the stories are firsthand accounts and others outside perspectives of exploring new lands around the world. Murray delves into the complex world of writing historical fiction focused on recognized historical figures. A few well-known explorers are represented in this compilation, including Magellan and Balboa, as well as lesser known explorers, such as English-born Mary Kingsley.

While there is a definite tone of bleakness and isolation, Tales of the New World offers a fascinating glimpse into the perspective of world explorers, with fictional tales of adventure tinged with strife.

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