Book Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

Title: The Ladies of the Secret Circus
Author: Constance Sayers
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: March 23, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family’s strange and magical circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.

Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother’s journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.

The Ladies of the Secret Circus is a tale of family secrets and a dark heritage — but it doesn’t quite live up to the mysterious air promised by the cover and synopsis.

Lara is eagerly awaiting her wedding to Todd, the man she’s loved since her teens. But her joy turns to heartache when she’s left waiting at the altar on her wedding day. Did he jilt her? Did something happen to him? His abandoned car seems to provide a link to a similar disappearance that occurred 30 years earlier. Dark forces seem to be at play. Could this be related to Lara and her mother Audrey’s talent for magic? Or the fact that their small town in Virginia hasn’t had a single murder case in decades? Or Lara’s strange memories of being visited as a child by an unusual man who made incredible things happen?

In the months that follow, Todd’s fate remains a mystery and Lara starts to rebuild her life, but a gift from her mother sends her on a strange journey. The gift is a small painting that’s been hanging in Audrey’s house for as long as Lara can remember — a portrait of her great-grandmother Cecile as a young circus performer.

When Lara takes the painting to be reframed, the art expert who handles it is astonished to realize that this may be one of the rumored missing paintings by the great Jazz Age artist Emile Giroux. He supposedly painted his masterpiece, a series of three paintings called The Ladies of the Secret Circus, before his death, but no one has ever seen the paintings. If Lara’s painting is authentic, then its value is in the millions, and its discovery will rock the art world.

But as Lara investigates, the connection to ancient magics is revealed, especially once she begins to read Cecile’s long-lost diaries. The diaries tell a story of a mysterious, otherworldly circus that only appears to those who truly seek it, and the strange, damned performers who populate the circus and seemingly can never leave. There’s a connection to Lara’s family, but it’s beyond anything Lara could have expected, and carries huge dangers for her and everyone around her.

While the set-up is promising, the book itself didn’t meet my expectations. Some of this may be me — I seem to have issues with magical circus settings, since apparently I’m the only person in the world who didn’t love The Night Circus. The big revelations in this book about the Secret Circus struck me as too out-there to accept. I have problems with books where the use of magic makes anything and everything possible — at some point, it stops feeling like any rules apply at all.

The connections to Lara’s family are confusing, and the origin of the connection is just kind of dumped on the reader earlier on. The how’s and why’s of it all just didn’t work for me. So many of the more fantastical elements are stated as fact, but without a sense of build-up or setting to make these aspects feel at all plausible. The identities of some of the circus performers are supposed to ground the circus in our own world, but without giving anything away, I’ll just say that these pieces struck me as absurd and funny, rather than dramatic.

I enjoyed the diary entries, with their 1920s Paris setting, but again, the constant name-dropping of artists and authors like Hemingway, Chagall, and Man Ray made me feel distracted and as if the author were trying too hard to make the story real. It just didn’t work for me — somehow the use of real artists in this fictional tale felt out of place and at odds with the story the author was trying to tell.

Sad to say, overall this was a disappointing read for me. I loved the author’s previous book, A Witch in Time, and such high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, The Ladies of the Secret Circus started slowly and never fully pulled me in.

Book Review: That Time I Joined The Circus by J. J. Howard

Book Review: That Time I Joined The Circus by J. J. Howard

That Time I Joined the Circus

I’m a New Yorker; smugness is my birthright.

Lexi is most assuredly an avid New Yorker, so when calamity strikes and she’s forced to set out in search of her long-gone mother, a random hick town in Florida is probably the last place she wants to end up. And yet there she is, with no money and nowhere to turn, seeking out her mother’s last known employer — who happens to be the owner of a traveling circus. Lexi’s mom has come and gone already, and left no forwarding address, but the circus folk are willing to take Lexi in if she can work and if she’ll commit to staying through the end of the season.

From New York prep school student to shoveler of elephant manure and midway salesgirl — to say that Lexi’s life has been turned upside down is an understatement.  Back in her upscale school, Lexi never quite fit in among all the pampered Barbie-like rich girls. With her best friends Eli and Bailey, she had a small but dependable trio, until Eli and Bailey became romantically involved and Lexi was left out in the cold. Bad decisions and bad luck lead to Lexi’s flight from New York, and as she settles into her new life in the circus, Lexi is forced to confront her own role in her recent disasters. With new friends and some newly discovered talents, Lexi starts to finally understand some key things about herself, about friendship, and about the different shapes and sizes of family.

Author J. J. Howard has a good ear for teen dialogue and sentiment, and makes nice use of pop-culture and social media references as well:

Okay, so I stopped posting status updates on Facebook a long time ago. I noticed that whenever someone posts something completely mundane and stupid, like Sushi 2nite! seventeen people have to comment on that. I Y Sushi! and Spicy Tuna 4 meee! But if you ever try to actually say something serious about your feelings or, like, your life, every one of your 386 “friends” is suddenly mute. So there you have it: My life is a post with no comments. Less interesting than spicy tuna.

Lexi herself is an dynamic, engaging character, not perfect by a long shot, but well-intentioned, self-aware, and trying to finally do right and do good. Many of the supporting characters, including the circus crowd and Lexi’s parents, are well-drawn as well, with quirks, charm, and depth.

The circus scenes are a lot of fun, with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the daily life of a show and its various social strata, finicky personalities, and immense amounts of work to be done each day.

While overall an entertaining read, I do have a couple of quibbles:

– The love interests and love triangle in this story feel a little two-dimensional. Neither of the boys in Lexi’s life are given enough individual personality. In particular, I felt that the older boy who Lexi meets in Florida was never much more than a cardboard character, and didn’t truly buy Lexi’s interest in him.

– The solution to Lexi’s problems — join the circus! — seemed too rushed and easy. Maybe she didn’t have a whole lot of other options, but being given shelter by the circus and then forming such deep connections to the circus family just didn’t strike me as entirely realistic. I understood why this would feel like a solution to Lexi, but didn’t necessarily understand why the circus owner and his family would take Lexi into their lives so enthusiastically and so quickly. Not that Lexi’s not a great person! But I didn’t feel that the other characters would have had enough to go on to reach that assessment in quite so short a time.

That Time I Joined The Circus is not a very long book, and in some ways that’s a problem. The premise and the storyline are really quite good, but I would have liked to see more of everything — more circus scenes, more time spent on Lexi’s developing friendships within the circus world so that these friendships would feel a bit more true, and more character development for some of the people who come into Lexi’s life over the course of the book.

Lexi herself is a nicely described and fleshed-out character, and I think the author is at her strongest in giving Lexi a clear, authentic voice. Good use of song quotes both fit the narrative and help illustrate Lexi’s mindset at any given point in the story. The plot unfolds through alternating chapters set in Lexi’s “before” life in New York and her current life with the circus, and this narrative choice keeps the momentum moving nicely as we readers must piece together what we know in order to understand why Lexi has ended up with no choices and no one to turn to for help.

That Time I Joined The Circus should appeal to teen readers who enjoy romance, family drama, unlikely friendships, and a hip, urban tone. It’s fun, it’s got great characters and snappy dialogue, and the circus setting is certainly different and unusual. Definitely not your typical high school drama!

Review copy courtesy of Scholastic via Netgalley.

Running away to the circus

In honor of an outing tomorrow with my kiddo to see the current Ringling Brothers extravaganza, I thought I’d do my own brief version of a salute to circus books. Here’s a smattering of a few I’ve read in the last few years:

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

This tale of love, memory, and violence, set in a Depression-era travelling circus, features unforgettable characters, and is a real treat for the reader. Perfectly captures the sights, sounds, and smells of the circus, with a plot that grabs hold and doesn’t let go.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’m among the minority of readers who didn’t love this book. The descriptions of this mysterious, phantasmagorical circus are breathtakingly beautiful at times, but the plot just didn’t come together well enough to sustain the imagery.

Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster

This strange tale of a boy who is taught to fly by a master magician is quite a puzzle. I read it, enjoyed parts, but ultimately didn’t quite know what to make of it.

Last but not least, always a favorite in my house:

If I Ran The Circus by Dr. Seuss

Who doesn’t love this fantastical trip through the backyard circus, as imagined by a boy with a day on his hands and only his own creativity to fill it? My son and I never fail to find fresh details to giggle over, whether it’s the Spotted Atrocious, the Harp-Twanging Snarp, or good old Mr. Sneelock.

The Circus McGurkus! The cream of the cream!
The Circus McGurkus! The Circus Supreme!
The Circus McGurkus! Colossal! Stupendous!
Astounding! Fantastic! Terrific! Tremendous!

So what did I miss? Any other circus-themed fiction to recommend? Add your thoughts below… meanwhile, we’ll be dreaming of high wires, trapezes, and itty bitty clown cars.