Review: The Night Circus (Common Problems with YA Fiction)

I really ought to stop reading books I strongly suspect I won’t enjoy. But Erin Morgentstern’s The Night Circus had a high rating on Goodreads, and after finishing Atonement, I wanted something a bit lighter. Well, I certainly got it…

When reading Young Adult fiction, I often get a distorted sense of déjà vu. It seems like there’s a finite number of proven-to-be-profitable topics that are deemed appropriate for YA authors to discuss. Dystopias have been popular for the last several years, but magic is probably even more prominent. So, too, are lightly historicized settings in which few details and little regard to accuracy are given. Romance is crucial, but it must be cliché, not idiosyncratic, to ensure that all members of the target audience can relate to it.  Social issues should preferably be entirely absent, or disguised as platitudes. These elements are blended together in varying quantities and combinations, then churned out as a series of hard-to-differentiate, but unchallenging and easy-to-read, mass-market concoctions. And sometimes, if the author is lucky, his or her banality will be rewarded with a movie deal.

The Night Circus - cover page

Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is the result of precisely that kind of exercise. In 1873 New York, stage magician Prospero the Enchanter has just completed a performance. He is displeased to learn that one of the women with whom he had an affair has killed herself, leaving him the sole guardian of his five-year-old daughter, Celia. Prospero is cruel and unemotional toward his daughter, and when he realizes the extent of her magical capabilities, he does not hesitate to enter Celia into a binding competition with another, as yet unidentified, magician. Prospero believes that all magical acts should be instinctive; he scorns the practiced methodology of his rival, Mr. Alexander H–, “the man in the grey suit.” Prospero trains Celia in an ad hoc fashion, while Mr. Alexander forces Marco, a boy plucked from an orphanage in London, to read hundreds of ancient magical volumes and memorize thousands of charms and symbols. And thus the two competitors grow up, each aware of the other’s existence, but never formally introduced.

Eventually, after a respectable amount of time has passed and Marco and Cecilia are both in their physical prime, a venue for their competition is created. Imagined by Chandresh Christophe Lefevre, an ostentatiously wealthy theater producer, and created by a team of vaguely magical conspirators, Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams) is a fantastical black-and-white circus open only at night that features genuinely magical performers. Cecilia is quickly employed as the circus illusionist, while Marco works as Mr. Lefevre’s assistant in London. The circus travels across the world in a magic train, its upcoming venues a perpetual surprise. Since Marco cannot be physically present in the circus, he casts a spell on the massive bonfire that allows him to participate in the competition from afar — though the specifications of this arrangement are never discussed.

These events comprise approximately 1/5 of the book. The remaining 400 pages are what really frustrated me.

A few of the book’s (and YA fiction’s) biggest issues:

The Night Circus - cover

#1: Generic Historical Setting

The Night Circus begins in 1873 and ends in 1903. This arbitrary selection of years lends the novel an undeserved “historic” setting. It is based on the romanticized idea of an era, not the era itself, and contains little to no actual historical detail. It’s far enough in the past to grant the author immunity from historical accuracy; the average reader knows nothing about late 19th-century society apart from the fact that women still wore gowns. Admittedly, The Night Circus is not billed as historical fiction, but exploiting a vaguely historic setting because of the misperception that certain eras are inherently more “romantic” or “daring” than others has become far too common of a trend in books and movies alike.

#2: Lack of Characterization 

Celia, Marco, Prospero the Enchanter, Mr. Lefevre, Bailey, Lainie and Tara, Isobel, the man in the grey suit… None of these characters are even granted a full physical description, despite the book’s focus on visuality. They are sketches that exist merely to populate the void, the never-quite-grounded world of the Night Circus. When a fairly major character dies, there is virtually no emotional impact, and it has zero effect on the plot. A couple hundred pages later, after nothing has happened for a while, another major character dies both randomly and unnecessarily. Characters fall in love, commit suicide, leave their families, etc.; all of these actions are received with complete indifference.

The most egregious example of this hollow characterization, Mr. Alexander H–, a.k.a. Marco’s instructor, a.k.a., the man in the grey suit, is a wizard-like man who no one seems to notice — justifiably so, since he never does any magic. He rarely talks, is always wearing that damn grey suit (also, why it is a GREY suit, not a GRAY suit, since the rest of the spelling in the novel is conventionally American?), and he lacks a shadow. Ooo, mysterious.

The Night Circus - author page

#3: Stunted Dialogue

As a result of its quasi-Victorian setting, the dialogue in The Night Circus is unbearably stuffy. Again, though,  these conversations are based on modern-day stereotypes of the 1880s, not genuine Victorian conversations. Compare this excerpt from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847, with a conversation between Celia and Marco, below:

‘Jane, be still; don’t struggle so like a wild, frantic bird, that is rending its own plumage in its desperation.’
‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.’
Another effort set me at liberty, and I stood erect before him.
‘And your will shall decide your destiny,’ he said: ‘I offer you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions.’

The conversation between Jane and her beloved Mr. Rochester is formal, certainly, but it’s also beautifully written and full of characteristic symbolism. In contrast, Cecila’s interactions with Marco are hollow and cloaked in clichés:

It is around this time that Celia becomes certain that the umbrella she is holding is not her own.
‘Excuse me, Miss Bowen,” a voice calls to her, lifted over the din of the rain and carried down the street. A voice she recognizes even before she turns to find Marco standing behind her…
‘I believe you have my umbrella,’ he says, almost out of breath but wearing a grin that has too much wolf in it to be properly sheepish…
Once Celia composes herself she gives him a low, perfect curtsey…
‘My sincere apologies,’ she says, the amusement still sparkling in her eyes.
‘I would very much like to speak with you, if you care to join me for a drink,’ Marco says… The wind whips Celia’s dark curls in wet ropes across her face as she considers him, watching his eyes as the raindrops evaporate from his lashes. (pp. 200-201)

A rendezvous in the rain, a superficial misunderstanding, an inexplicable curtsey, dark curls and luscious eyelashes. Which brings me to…

#4: Hollow Romance

Notes 2 - The Night Circus

Because I have difficulty remembering characters’ names, I take notes on a loose piece of paper that I discard once I’ve finished my review of a book. My notes on The Night Circus were rather amusing, containing gems such as “bleargh vom romance” and “Marco Alisdair: the contender, green eyes, destined for Celia, probably.”

Predictably, the two opponents grow up to be remarkably good-looking people who are deeply attracted to one another, despite having only a handful of conversations scattered across decades.


[Marco] could tell from across the room that she was lovely, but when she is near enough to look him in the eyes the loveliness — the shape of her face, the contrast of her hair against her skin — evolves into something more. She is radiant. (p. 89)


The chiseled features become softer and younger. His striking green eyes fade to a green-tinged grey. The false face had been handsome, yes, but consciously so… He feels closer, though the distance between them has not changed, and his face is quite handsome, still. The intensity of his stare increases with these eyes; looking at him now she can see deeper, without being distracted by the color. Celia can feel the heat rising up her neck… (p. 263)

It’s a typical Disney romance featuring two ridiculously attractive protagonists whose only real obstacle is not being able to be with each other. Best of all, Celia and Marco loved each other before they even knew each other’s identities — their fate was sealed the day they became opponents in a magic show. How convenient! The resulting conversations are nauseating rather than inspiring:

‘I’ve tried,’ Marco says, cupping her face in his hands. ‘I have tried to let you go and I cannot. I cannot stop thinking of you. I cannot stop dreaming about you. Do you not feel the same for me?

‘I do,’ Celia says. ‘I have you here, all around me. I sit in the Ice Garden to get a hint of this, this way that you make me feel. I felt it even before I knew who you were, and every time I think it could not possibly get any stronger, it does.’ (p. 336-337)

Add a few contractions, and you’ve got the lyrics to the next hit pop song.


#4: Pacing 

The romance would have been more palatable had it not been unnecessarily spread out for 16 years. The circus begins in 1886; Celia and Marco’s first conversation takes place in 1894; they briefly hold hands in 1896; after not speaking for three years, they kiss (in front of people! how scandalous) in 1899; in 1901, Celia decides they should cease all romantic activity, but later that year they succumb to their carnal urges and have sex. After a year of frustrating abstinence, in 1902 Celia traps them in the circus for infinity.

The rest of the novel moves at a similarly glacial pace. One character dies under suspicious circumstances, but it takes FIVE YEARS for her twin sister to start asking questions. It takes nearly 400 pages for the rules of the competition between Marco and Celia to be established, and another 50 pages before the book finally reaches its long-overdue climax. The remaining chapters are a poor excuse for a denouement, containing only slightly more information than the bloated exposition.

#5 – Disorganization

Overall,  the novel comes across as disorganized and unwieldy. The plot is split into several different time frames, which give the impression of movement without actually advancing anything. Someone has probably argued that the shifting stories are a metaphor for the circus’ infinity, but, frankly, that gives the novel more credit than it is due.

Furthermore, there are several significant issues that never get resolved. What happened to Celia’s father, a victim of his own overambitious magic trick? He floats in and out of the story, but he’s really only there as a matter of convenience, an instigator of the competition and a perceived impediment to Celia’s relationship with Marco. Are Celia and Marco still alive at the end of the story? Or do they just exist in the ether, in some sort of undefined boundary between reality and the beyond? But, most importantly, how much did a damn admission ticket to the circus cost?!

One of the primary plot “twists” involves the revelation that Celia has secretly been controlling the circus since its inception. This announcement seems both unnecessary (why would Celia need to protect the inhabitants of the circus, all of whom are magical and presumably capable of performing their stunts without supervision?) and contradictory to the discussion of Celia’s powers. Fourteen years earlier, in 1887, a new tent appears in the circus and Celia goes to investigate:

The sign proclaims something called the Ice Garden, and Celia smiles at the addendum below which contains an apology for any thermal inconvenience. Despite the name, she is not prepared for what awaits her inside the tent. It is exactly what the sign described. But it is so much more than that… everything is sparkling and white. She cannot tell how far it stretches, the size of the tent obscured by cascading willows and twisting vines… And everything, save for occasional lengths of white silk ribbon strung like garlands, is made of ice… Celia cannot imagine how much power and skill it would take not only to construct such a thing but to maintain it as well. (p. 148)

If Celia lacks the power to maintain a single tent, then how, exactly, is she able to control the circus? It’s possible that these unanswered questions are supposed to cultivate a sense of mystery, but in reality it just muddles the entire endeavor.

Notes 3 - The Night Circus

I’m giving The Night Circus two stars instead of one only because it’s not completely terribly written (well, parts of it are) and because it didn’t manage to infuriate me. Instead, it left me feeling deflated, as it was yet another indication of why YA fiction is usually regarded as a trash genre, a place to shove underwhelming novels that most adults would sneer at. There are notable exceptions, of course, and children’s literature — not to be confused with YA — is flourishing.

I’ve seen all of these problems — generic historical setting (Eragon, A Great and Terrible Beauty), poorly developed characters (Uglies, The City of Ember), stunted dialogue (Percy Jackson, Number the Stars), hollow romance (Stargirl, The Hunger Games), pacing (Jacob Have I Loved, The Dark Hills Divide), and disorganization (Matched, Maximum Ride) — in YA fiction many times before, and I doubt these issues will be resolved anytime soon. All it takes is a small kernel of original thought, which can then be fleshed out with the usual stereotypical suspects until you’ve created a hollow 400-page homage to imitation that, for reasons still unknown to me, sells tens of thousands of copies.

Overall rating: 2/5 stars

The beautiful and artistic photos of this utterly underwhelming book were taken by G. 



Frustratingly Overwrought: Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

I am often flummoxed by the critical praise and general adoration that certain novels receive. Atonement has been added to that list.

After hearing many good things about Ian McEwan’s novels over the years, I have unfortunately found myself among those who find his writing unimpressive, even offensive. He is the subject of much scholarly analysis, which simultaneously baffles and fails to surprise me, given the emulative and lightly modernist style in which he writes. What he lacks in originality, he overcompensates for with florid descriptions, impressionistic character sketches, and emotional tropes descended from the Victorian age. Most irritating, however, is the pomposity layered into the narrative, which allows McEwan to indulge in self-reflection time and time again without making himself an actual character in the story.

Atonement - book cover

In case you are not familiar with either the book or movie version of Atonement, the story begins on a languid English estate, home to the wealthy but socially inept Tallis family. Cecilia Tallis is a beautiful and restless Cambridge graduate nurturing a blooming infatuation with Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son. Briony, Cecilia’s younger sister, is a precocious and utterly unbelievable 13-year-old who unfortunately witnesses Cecilia and Robbie having sex in the library. She also reads a note intended for Cecilia in which Robbie infamously uses the word c***. Briony folds these two events together and concludes that Robbie is some kind of sexual deviant, a wicked man with a violent infatuation with her sister. When Briony’s cousin, Lola, is raped later that evening, Briony, eager to confirm the shocking tale playing out in her head, convinces herself — and Lola to some extent — that the perpetrator was Robbie. She all too happily condemns Robbie in front of the police and her family, and Robbie is taken away to prison while the actual rapist, wealthy friend of the family Paul Marshall, gets away with his crime.

McEwan’s depiction of a foolish 13-year-old girl is too outrageous to be believable. Briony is a trifecta of self-absorption, hubris, and immaturity, and I find it hard to believe that even a highly sheltered 13-year-old girl from an upper-class English family would behave the way she did — and, furthermore, that she could misunderstand sex and affection so badly. The story would be more palatable if Briony were, say, eight at the beginning of the novel. But that is what happens, sometimes, when a middle-aged writer of the opposite gender tries to write from a perspective he knows nothing about.

Just as Briony, the 13-year-old criminal, is melodramatically hell-bent on condemning Robbie Turner, so, too, is Cecilia’s behavior inexplicable. When the police arrive at the house and start asking questions, Cecilia is too overcome to defend the man she loves:

Where was Cecilia? She hovered on the peripheries, speaking to no one, always smoking… At other times she twisted a handkerchief in her hand as she paced the hallway…Cecilia’s eyes were bloodshot. While others stood murmuring in groups, she moved restlessly up and down the room. (163-164)

Ever the condescending depicter of women, McEwan assumes that when confronted by such a terrible accusation about her lover, Cecilia would be utterly incapable of doing anything productive. Meanwhile, Lola, the 15-year-old victim of the rape, is forgotten in the intervening 100+ pages, as Briony (a.k.a., McEwan’s terribly imagined adolescent female alter-ego) is more concerned about the fate of the falsely accused.

Atonement - Emily's migraine

These developments comprise the first third of the book, or 175 pages. Why it takes McEwan so long to run through this series of events continues to elude me. There are innumerable unnecessary asides, such as the lengthy paragraphs McEwan devotes to describing a vase (p. 21-23), as well as vaguely interesting character descriptions that fail to advance the story in any meaningful way. One chapter is devoted entirely to Emily Tallis, Briony’s mother, and her attempts to avoid a migraine while lying on the bed. Ironically, the chapter gave me a headache.

It may seem whiny to complain about McEwan’s overly descriptive prose — after all, many great novels feature a verbose narrator — but in the case of Atonement, the pseudo-modernist style seems like nothing more than cheap imitation. Atonement never delves fully into modernist territory. Its attempts at stream-of-consciousness are halfhearted; it emphasizes the idea of psychology, but undermines all progress with a strong vein of moral absolution; it uses WWII as a convenient setting, but fails to analyze how the war impacted British society as a whole.

I found it easier to get through parts two and three of the novel, largely in part because the settings — a WWII battlefield and hospital, respectively — involved enough gory details to offset the saccharine story. The novel’s fundamental issues, however, still frequently found expression. In a pseudo-stream-of-consciousness paragraph, for example, Robbie ponders the meaning of what has happened to him and comes to the following conclusion:

Waiting. Simply one person doing nothing, over time, while another approached. Waiting was a heavy word. He felt it pressing down, heavy as a greatcoat… Briony would change her evidence, she would rewrite the past so that the guilty became the innocent. But what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. (246)

These trite aphorisms, dressed up in imitative scholarly language, are peppered throughout the novel. Cheap statements of truth always irritate me regardless of context, but I feel they are especially egregious considering the high praise Atonement has received. They are symptomatic of McEwan’s high self-regard, which manifests itself in a letter Briony receives from a notable magazine editor. Briony still nurses dreams of becoming a writer — and, indeed, Atonement itself is supposed to be her creation — and the indulgent letter outlines her early talent.

We found ‘Two Figures by a Fountain’ arresting enough to read with dedicated attention. I do not say this lightly. We cast aside a great deal of material, some of it by writers of reputation…. Though we cannot offer to publish any part of it, we thought you should know that in this quarter there are others as well as myself who would take an interest in what you might write in the future. We are not complacent about the average age of our contributors and are keen to publish promising young writers. We would like to see whatever you do, especially if you were to write a short story or two. (294)

The letter arrives at an odd juncture in the text — within 50 pages of the end of the novel — and reads like a self-affirming argument in favor of McEwan’s nascent writing style. McEwan began his career, after all, by publishing two collections of short stories, and the letter, though full of praise, occasionally reprimands Briony for focusing too much on irrelevant, flowery descriptions. It is an indulgent, and completely unnecessary inclusion considering that it fails to advance the plot in any way. It is yet another psychological aside, a chance for McEwan to examine Briony and, by extension, himself. I think it is worth mentioning that I found James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from which Ian McEwan drew inspiration, completely insufferable. The difference between James Joyce and Ian McEwan, though, is the difference between a controversial trailblazer and a capitalizing parroter.

When McEwan finally deigns to mention Lola, the 15-year-old rape victim, we find out that she is engaged to her rapist, Paul Marshall. Briony attends their wedding in shock, and later, as an old woman, condemns Lola for helping to “cover up” the crime.

As for Lola–my high-living, chain-smoking cousin–here she was, still as lean and fit as a racing dog, and still faithful. Who would have dreamed it? …She wore a sable coat and a scarlet wide-brimmed fedora. Bold rather than vulgar. Near on eighty years old, and still wearing high heels… She was heavy on the makeup, quite garish around the mouth and liberal with the smoothing cream and powder… I thought there was a touch of the stage villain here — the gaunt figure, the black coat, the lurid lips. A cigarette holder, a lapdog tucked under one arm and she could have been Cruella De Vil. (337-338)

Is it criminal not to indict the person who sexually assaulted you? McEwan seems to think so. Did Lola deserve to be criminalized in such a blatant way, with most of the evidence against her derived from her physical appearance? Should a 15-year-old rape victim be eternally damned for latching onto her cousin’s story, and for covering up her embarrassment and shame by marrying the very person who violated her? It falls disturbingly close to rape apologism. Perhaps Briony feels that she deserves forgiveness because she has ardently wished for and imagined it, while Lola wears obnoxious lipstick and shows no signs of guilt. Briony considers herself Lola’s superior because she willingly enrolled herself in a humbling nurses’ training program and spent decades revising the novel that would expose the entire situation. It all feels a bit too self-righteous.

What makes the novel most memorable, though, is the shocking revelation on the penultimate page. It turns out that Briony took extensive liberties with the re-telling of the story; instead of living happily ever after, affirming the importance of true love in the midst of war, Cecilia and Robbie were not reunited as Briony claims. Instead, both of them perished in 1940. Not only is this a cheap parlor trick, a manipulative tear-jerking device shoved in at the last minute to ensure that the novel would make a lasting impression on its readers, but it undercuts the novel’s core premise: that true love is pure, and the only thing that makes life worth living. Twenty pages prior, at the “real” end of the novel, Briony asserts that Cecilia and Robbie’s love was a sacred thing, a treasure:

[Briony] was sad to leave her sister. It was her sister she missed — or more precisely, it was her sister with Robbie. Their love. Neither Briony nor the war had destroyed it. This was what soothed her as she sank deeper under the city. (329-330)

Except, Briony did destroy their love, by falsely identifying Robbie as a rapist and refusing to repent even though she knew that the accusation was born out of a flight of fancy, not reality. The war did destroy Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship; Robbie died died from his wounds while waiting to be evacuated from France, and Cecilia was killed by one of the many bombs dropped on London. Briony/McEwan argues that “…the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love” (350). The core argument about love rests on a series of events that never actually took place. Granting yourself forgiveness by inventing an untrue, alternative reality is ultimately a hollow act, and Briony acknowledges this:

The problem [is] this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all. (351)

What, then, is the point? If a novelist, who controls all of the parameters in his or her invented universe, cannot legitimately grant himself or herself forgiveness, then are we to understand that the act of invention is intended as a penance? Why is Briony so adamant about revealing the truth even though she has altered that truth in order to assuage her guilt? It’s a beguilingly Christian premise: the argument that one must constantly strive to achieve impossible God-like perfection is eerily similar to Briony’s assertion that she can redeem herself through lifetime of penance for a deed she can never undo. Comparing yourself to an omnipotent divinity, and using this as your excuse for granting yourself forgiveness, does not an honest author make.

In sum, with its pompous attitude, dubious characterization, florid prose, inexplicable plot development, gratuitous asides, and self-indulgent redemption, Atonement really is something unique.  It contains all the ingredients of a successful novel, with its doomed romance, exploitative wartime setting, and upper-class affectations. In other words, heed it as a warning of what can happen if you mix together classism, sexism, and a bloatedly celebrated writer.

Overall rating: 2/5 stars

Photos by G. 



Children’s Book Starter Collection

A few months ago, a friend of mine from high school announced on Facebook that she was expecting. Not being accustomed to this kind of event, I sent her a slightly panicky congratulations message and asked if there was anything I could send her as a baby gift. Toys? Clothes? Bottles? No, she was all covered. And then she remembered that I write about children’s literature from time to time here on this blog. I took my assignment very seriously and spent the next few weeks pulling together a set of books that I hoped her kid could appreciate from infancy to his pre-teen years.

Although I feature some downright strange authors and illustrators on this blog, I didn’t want to include any frightening or potentially upsetting books. Instead, I looked for great illustrations, humor, and a sense of timelessness — after all, many of the best children’s books are beloved by many a generation.

#1 - We Love Each Other by Yusuke Yonezu

We Love Each Other cover

We Love Each Other image

My first pick was a simple cardboard cutout book by Japanese illustrator Yusuke Yonezu. Brightly colored animals rendered in geometric shapes end up being each other’s complements — as you turn the pages, the animals appear to hug. It’s delightful, cheerful, and contains subtle spatial cognition lessons. Best of all, the cardboard is durable and the “story” short, making it appropriate for pre-readers.

#2 – The Pigeon Needs a Bath! by Mo Willems

Pigeon needs a bath, cover

Pigeon needs a bath, image

Mo Willems is one of the best and most famous picture book authors out there, and his pigeon series is regarded with acclaim by parents and kids alike. In this version, a dusty pigeon isn’t looking forward to bath time, but of course eventually concedes that bubble baths are lots of fun. The pigeon’s snarky dialogue is both humorous and realistic, mimicking the attitude of kids who hate bath time with a passion.

#3 – Little Bird by Germano Zullo and Albertine

Little Bird, cover

Little Bird, image 2

Out of all of the illustrators I featured as part of my series on the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award, Albertine was by far the “crowd favorite.” Her witty illustrations, rife with color, cheerfully sly humor, and minute detail, enchanted many of the adult readers of my blog. Albertine and her husband Germano Zullo have produced several award-winning books together, and of those available in English, Little Bird was my favorite. It is simultaneously simple and profound, an exquisitely expressed demonstration of the importance of kindness, friendship, and awareness.

#4 – The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

The Dark, cover

The Dark, image 1

Politics and that unfortunate YA series aside, Lemony Snicket (a.k.a., Daniel Handler), in tandem with talented illustrator Jon Klassen, has managed to produce a surprisingly wonderful children’s book. A small boy named Lazlo sometimes finds himself afraid of the dark, but, as it turns out, the dark wants nothing except to be friends with Lazlo. The concept is clever, but it’s really the minimal yet almost velveteen illustrations that make this book special.

#5 – Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers

Lost and Found, cover

Lost and Found, image 2

Lost and Found, image 1

This might be The Most Adorable Picture Book Of All Time. After all, what’s more endearing than a lonely penguin who just wants a friend? This book is the equivalent of a basket of fluffy puppies, a dandelion crown, and a dozen freshly baked blueberry muffins. It could not be any sweeter, any more lovingly illustrated, or have a better message.

#6 – The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Wizard of Oz, cover

Wizard of Oz image 2, cyclone

Putting together this gift set gave me the excuse I needed to order this incredible book. After seeing it featured on Brain Pickings, hearing that it was tragically out of print, and then magically finding it in stock on Amazon, I was determined to see the fairy-like illustrations in person. I genuinely think that this would make a wonderful gift for just about anyone regardless of age or gender, especially since it contains the full, not abridged, version of L. Frank Baum’s classic text. Just look at these gorgeous, creative, and mystical illustrations. I admit I was sad I had to give this book away!

Wizard of Oz image 5, Tin Man

Wizard of Oz image 10, crows

Wizard of Oz image 14, wizard is common man

Wizard of Oz image 12, witch melting

Wizard of Oz image 17, Dorothy flies home

Feel free to share any other iconic children’s books of which you are aware in the comments section below.

Disclaimer: Please note that the links used above are Amazon affiliate links. This means that if you purchase one of the books after following a link from this site, I will make a small commission. If you are not comfortable with this, simply open another browser window and search for the book on Amazon (or elsewhere).  


A Garden Shed in Thames

The Coromandel Peninsula is much bigger than we realized– it took over an hour to drive from Whitianga down to Thames, and all along winding, mountainous, headache-inducing roads. We had to stop for lunch — and a break — in the adorable town of Tairua, where we had some absolutely delicious (and reasonably priced!) sandwiches at Manaia Cafe.

The stressful drive was worth it, though, as Thames ended up being one of my favorite places in New Zealand. The town is situated along what is essentially an oversized harbour, the Firth of Thames, and driving along the highway provides consistently stunning views.

Firth of Thames

Incidentally, the Airbnb place where we stayed in Thames ended up being one of my favorites as well. Sleeping in a converted garden shed may not sound appealing, but the ivy-covered structure was nothing but cozy and comfortable. It was, in fact, a magical Hobbit-like experience!

The Garden Shed - exterior

The Garden Shed - interior

After consulting our hosts and several guidebooks, I became fixated on completing the highly regarded, but also highly challenging, 12-kilometer hike to The Pinnacles. I’ve found that it’s helpful to do “warmup” hikes a couple of days in advance of the main event, though, and as a result, on our first full day in Thames we went on the Waiomu Kauri Grove Walk.


The ever-changing terrain, coupled with cheerful fantails chirping and fluttering along the path and, of course, the absolutely massive kauri trees, meant that it turned out to be a very satisfying hike indeed. There are also a lot of old mining relics scattered along the track, which are fun to try to spot.

Kauri Grove Walk

The following day, we decided to take it a bit easier in anticipation of our Pinnacles hike. We ended up going to the Ngatea Water Gardens, which was an utterly bizarre experience. Despite the lush vegetation and royal white peacocks wandering the grounds, the Ngatea Water Gardens were marred by tacky lawn ornaments, an abundance of unnecessary signs featuring corny puns and outdated jokes, and even a billboard proclaiming some very frightening religious conspiracy theories.

Ngatea Water Garden

Furthermore, the Gardens didn’t arise out of any sort of communal effort, which explains why the signage is in such poor taste and the design of the Gardens themselves is fractured and idiosyncratic, if occasionally pretty. Rather, the Gardens were the expensive playthings of a wealthy family, and only became publicly accessible (for a fee, of course) a few years ago. There is a massive beer and soda can “museum” plopped in the middle of the garden. While cool, it’s also inexplicably out-of-place, along with the lone sheep its pen, the miniature castle, and the collection of pretty, but expensive, fowl. Even worse, one of the owners of the Gardens is a proponent of a dubious solution called “Miracle Mineral Supplement,” and periodically holds seminars on the premises to promote the product.

White peacocks

Needless to say, I would not recommend visiting the Ngatea Water Gardens if you find yourself in the Coromandel!

After our slight freak-out at the Ngatea Water Gardens, we were able to calm down significantly by taking a dip in the Miranda Hot Springs. Though not constructed in the most aesthetically pleasing manner, the natural mineral pools are utterly relaxing. They smell mildly sulphuric, but I hardly minded the scent while basking in the ~36 degree water (~97 degrees Fahrenheit). In addition, there is an outrageously entertaining giant bouncy dome just past the kid’s pool. We patiently waited until the one kid there finally got called away by his parents, snuck out of the pool, and promptly started jumping and laughing hysterically. Good thing there was hardly anyone there that day.

Miranda hot pool

Somehow we still felt like exploring after our dip in the hot pool, and so we drove to the Kauaeranga Valley and went on an absolutely random walk across a forded stream and into the hills.

Random walk in river valley

We stumbled upon an abandoned wooden house, some rusting farm equipment, a territorial and outraged duck, and a flooded, muddy road. I’m not entirely sure that we were on a legitimate “hiking” trail, but what can you do… So many of the trails in New Zealand zig-zag across private property that sometimes it’s very difficult to sort out whether you’re in someone’s driveway, an old logging route, a proper trail, or just a long-abandoned tractor path.

Abandoned Building

Farm equipment

We got back to the Garden Shed, filled our Camelback, packed our backpacks, and proceeded to get some sleep before the next day’s hike to — The Pinnacles!!

Photo credits: #9 by G., remainder by me. 

Cathedral Cove and Hahei Beach

After a brief one-night stop at a friend’s house in Auckland, we proceeded to the Coromandel Peninsula — one of the places that everyone told us was a must-see. We stayed in an extremely nice (but unfortunately very expensive) Airbnb place in Whitianga for the first two nights, where a pack of chooks roamed loose in the yard. They’re inquisitive creatures, chickens!

Chicken swivel

Luckily, Sunday, October 19 was sunny and warm, perfect for a day trip to Cathedral Cove. Cathedral Cove is considered one of the most beautiful places in the Coromandel, and by extension, the whole of New Zealand.

The Cathedral Cove car park is pretty easy to find. It’s a famous spot, and there are several helpful signs posted along the highway. Just turn onto Grange Road and drive until you can’t anymore. Even the views from the wooden lookout at the car park are spectacular — scattered islands to the north, and the cute town of Hahei to the south.

Looking North...

Looking south on Hahei

The journey to and from Cathedral Cove takes approximately two hours, but it’s a pretty easy walk as long as you don’t wear flip-flops. However, you really should allocate at least twice that amount of time so that you can enjoy Cathedral Cove and the other stunning bays along the way without feeling rushed.

Looking toward Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove, walk to

A portion of the walk passes through picturesque grazing grounds (typical for New Zealand), but there is also a miniature detour through a puriri grove which I highly recommend.

Puriri grove - Cathedral Cove

Our first detour, however, was to Gemstone Bay, which features a ruggedly beautiful rock beach. We spotted a group of tourists sharing a picnic on the boulders, so we didn’t linger for long.

Gemstone Bay

Next was Stingray Bay, which I thought was almost as stunning as Cathedral Cove! It consists of a small, secluded beach and a striking, white-rock peninsula that juts out into the sea.

Stingray Bay

Beach at Stingray Bay

We continued down the trail, pausing every few minutes to look out over the sea peppered with small, green islands.  And then, after struggling down some flooded wooden stairs, was the famous Cathedral Cove.

Cathedral Cove

It’s easy to see where the name comes from — the main rock formation linking the two beaches is a large triangular dome, much like the high-ceiling interiors of classic cathedrals in Europe.

Cathedral Cove

It’s an impressive structure, and it’s hard to believe that unlike the wooden-and-marble creations of old, Cathedral Cove is the result of all-natural forces.

Through the arch - Cathedral Cove

The second beach, which you can glimpse in the following picture, is not really a secret beach, despite what I’d like to think. At low tide, I’m sure that it’s easy to walk through the arch from one beach to the other. When the tide is coming in, however, you have to wait for a break in between the waves and hope that you can run quickly enough to avoid getting splashed. The reverse view of the Cathedral is so worth it, though!

Hidden beach - Cathedral Cove

We sat on a piece of driftwood and watched a group of kayakers make their way onto the beach, one by one, by riding in on the waves. Kayaking (as opposed to hiking) to Cathedral Cove is a popular activity, and probably worth it, although I don’t know how much it costs to rent a kayak for the day.

Kayakers - Cathedral Cove

After making our way back to the main beach, G. spotted a small waterfall trickling down the side of one of the cliffs and proceeded to take some absolutely amazing photographs.

Cathedral Cove - droplets

Cathedral Cove - waterfall


We sat on the beach for a few more minutes before deciding to turn back.

Cathedral Cove

After making our way back to the car, we decided we had just enough time to see Hahei Beach before commencing the return drive to Whitianga. (Hahei Beach is only about a 10 minute drive from the Cathedral Cove car park, so you can easily see both places in one day). We arrived at Hahei Beach just in time to see the sun set over the waves.

Hahei at Sunset

Hahei - shell

Hahei - waves

The next day, we said goodbye to the chooks (one of whom was very suspicious about my suitcase) and drove an hour back down the peninsula to stay in Thames. There, we completed the most challenging hike I’ve ever been on — but more on that soon!



Chicken lilac x2

Photo credits: 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24 by G. Remainder by me.