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4.4 out of 5 stars453
4.4 out of 5 stars
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'The best book I've read this year' says Jodi Picoult on the back cover - well who am I to argue?

The story takes place over two timeframes - the 1930s when Jacob 'accidentally' joins the circus following a family tragedy, and the present day when he's living in a nursing home, fading fast and virtually forgotten by his family. One day the circus comes to town and this sets the cantankerous Jacob off on a nostalgic journey, reliving his time as part of 'The Most Spectacular Show on Earth'.

As well as the glamour and excitement of the circus - yes it's a cliche but you can almost smell the sawdust - Gruen also deals with the more sinister aspects - the use of 'freaks' (real and pretend), the shocking treatment of workers who are too old or sick to work and the harsh realities of trying to stay afloat in Depression-era America. There are some fascinating characters , including the dastardly but charismatic 'Equestrian Director' August, who is married to the beautiful Marlena, and of course there are also the four-legged stars, including Rosie the elephant who turns out to be a most unlikely heroine. August is cruel and twisted, and the scenes where he unleashes his anger on the animals, especially the headstrong Rosie, are hard to read. Thankfully though, they're not too graphic - I wouldn't have been able to read them if they were.

My one niggle with the book is that whilst I was happy to read about animal circuses set in the 1930s, I'm very uncomfortable with animals being used in circuses in the 21st century and I was hoping that Sara Gruen would say something to this effect in her interview at the back of the book. She skirts around the issue a bit, saying that she had difficulty getting information out of circus folk for her research, because PETA and other groups are "coming after them". I was shocked to read on the RSPCA website that wild animals are still 'performing' in circuses in the UK. I thought this had been phased out, so I've sent an email to my MP (using the template on the website) to ask him to raise the issue.

Overall though, I'm with Jodi on this one and this beautifully told, colourful and atmospheric story will definitely be in the running for one of my books of the year.
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on 21 April 2011
I bought the book because I had heard about the film and knew I was going to see it, so I felt I should read the book first as I figured if it was good enough to be made into a film it should be a good read. I wasn't wrong. I could hardly put it down, it was so fluid there was almost no good time to stop, even between chapters. a simple genre which is easy to read and get into, but the context is what's so gripping, you just cant help but want to be there and experience that era and that style of life and industry. The characters are so charming and intriguing you just want to meet them. It lets you really visualise everything, a wonderfully colourful and vibrant read.
I thoroughly recommend it.
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on 7 July 2011
Let me start with saying that the book is OK but can't make more of it. When I started reading it I couldn't get my arms around the story as I was expecting much more of it. I do think that the author did some research on circus life in the United States but I constantly had the feeling that she followed the HBO series Carnival and read the novel "Green Fried Tomatoes at Whistle Srop Cafe" as in my opinion this book is a poor mix of both stories.

I would have loved her to explore much more about the circus life itself instead of following a shallow love story. Some of the reviewers loved the way the story develops towards a surprising end but for me the end was clear as of the first page of the book and it wasn't so surprising. There would have been so much to explore around characters such as the bearded lady or other "freaks" as she called them as there is a whole story behind this part of the circus. During this period of History it was impossible for people who didn't fit the community standards to have a "normal" life and they were often obliged to follow a circus or other show in order to be able to survive. I really missed this aspect in te story and by saying that I think I just missed some depht in the whole story.

As mentioned above I sincerelly think that the book is OK and would do for a holiday read but if you are looking for a real good book and an interesting read I wouldn't go for this one
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on 25 June 2012
A truly excellent page turner of a story, I was completely hooked and couldn't put this down. I have no interest in the film and I wouldn't have bought this book based on its feminine styled cover; it was given to me, but this story of 1930's circus life is hugely enjoyable. Cruel, witty, tender and brilliantly constructed characters from Walter the dwarf and his dog Queenie, the cruel sadistic Uncle Al, the couple falling in love at the centre of the story,the long winding train carriages that transport the performers (and the reader), workers and menagerie across America, the 'rubes' and roustabouts, the acquisition of an elephant, the ringmaster desperately coveting the success of Ringling Brothers Circus, swooping in to towns to pick over the left overs of redundant circus freaks and animals of bankrupt circuses. The barbaric acts of 'redlighting'; you will be fascinated, shocked and thrilled and like me will possibly want to research more about circus life during this era. Sara Gruen has very obviously done her research and this is a riveting story for it. A great read for men and women alike; you will fly through it. It's quite large print; this would easily be a 300 page book if the text was more of a standard size.
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on 7 April 2010
I was intrigued by the title. It's meaning only becomes clear as the story unfolds......and what a story! Satisfying on all counts!

This is a wonderful book and one of my favourite reads of all time. From the opening pages I was drawn into this engaging story of a young guy's life with a travelling circus. The characters are all believable, the situations interesting and exciting, the emotions beautifully portrayed and observed. In particular, the author's depiction and understanding of the mind of the older man in the Nursing Home is so insightful.

I was involved with these people from the start and really wanted to know what happened to them as their lives unfolded. You will care too. There is genuine warmth and depth in this novel which left me feeling it is good to be alive. I was sad and sorry when I had to turn the last page! Buy it soon as you can and immerse yourself in a small masterpiece.
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on 3 April 2011
I was given this book which I hadn't heard of, and I didn't really fancy reading it at first, but once I started, I couldn't put it down. It took me into a world I didn't know existed (Circus trains in America in the last century!)and I found it fascinating.The writing is very good, and the story gripping and fast-paced. I liked the structure, starting and finishing in the present day, with the main storyline being the old man's memory of the life he lived. And what a satisfying ending! I felt like cheering but as I had stayed up into the middle of the night to finish it, thought I had better not...
I've now bought it to give as a present twice. One quibble is that the new cover is a bit misleading, doesn't convey the atmosphere of the story at all. I've heard rumours that it is to be made into a film - it could be a good one!
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on 12 June 2009
This was not the usual type of book i would read but decided to try something different. To be honest even the blurb on the back didnt grab my attention but i was engrossed from the very first chapter. The story is beautifully written and very discriptive and made me feel like i was swept up with the story. The main character was very likeable and i just couldnt put the book down , think i read it within two days even with three demanding children under my feet. This may or may not be your genre of book but give it a go its a brilliant story that held my intrest form start to finish.
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on 24 February 2012
This book was ok. It took a long time to get going which i found a bit boring, but i did like the love story that began to emerge (in my opinion, way to far on in the book.) The story line was good and i feel that a lot more could have been done with a circus theme, alcohol and corruption that wasn't. The story seemed to plod along and whilst the characters were very believable and had depth, the story line was lacking for me. Not much happens but i would be quite interested in seeing the film- i think the characters were well worth the read even if the story was a bit slow. xxx
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I have to say this is not the kind of book I would usually pick up for myself - it mostly sounded like a romance, and that's just not my kind of thing. Stacie picked it for me for our Random Reads feature - and that's why I love doing this feature, so I can try things out of my comfort zone.

I tried to go in with an open mind, but my head just kept providing images of the film with Twilight guy and Bridget Jones (I've not watched it, and I don't think I will after reading the book).

There were two things that I really liked about this book. One was the beginning, and how it influenced the way I read the book and thought about the characters. I can't say too much without spoiling it, but it was very clever.

I also really liked the bits in between the main storyline, where we see Jacob as an old man in a nursing home. This is just a personal point for me, but I found it really sad. I have a grandmother who livs with me and a nan who lives in a home and they both have varying stages of dementia. This book let me imagine things from their point of view, getting frustrated when you forget things you know you should remember, getting confused over time and over your words. It was a bit painful to read to be honest, but in a way I could appreciate.

I think the main downfall for me on this book was that I just didn't feel the connection between the main couple (Jacob and Marlene). It was a bit insta-love for me: they both just saw each other and fell in love and I don't buy it. Even when they were together, I just didn't see it, and as a lot of their actions - towards the end especially - revolved around that love for each other, it just didn't make sense to me.

Marlene was also a disappointment to me. The other characters in the book felt so well rounded and I completely believed in them, but she felt a little hollow to me. It felt like she was just there for Jacob to fall in love with - I didn't get much character from her. A big bugbear (is that really a saying?! It looks weird...) was the fact that the two bits where she spilled her heart out and talked about her past and relationship problems, were narrated by Jacob, rather than us hearing it from her, which spoke volumes to me.

I think her flaws were more obvious because Jacob was such a brilliant character. Again, I loved him as the old man, where he was witty and grouchy and loveable in equal measures.

Overall, this isn't really my kind of read, but I can see why others like it. I didn't hate it by any means, but I also probably won't read it again.
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on 7 August 2014
Jacob Jankowski’s parents are killed in a car crash just days before he is due to sit final exams at Cornell University. Alone and afraid, he hops on a train and ends up running away with the circus.

That circus owned by the Benzini Brothers Circus is hailed as the Greatest Show On Earth but the reality of it is quite different. Greed, backbreaking work and a joyless existence between man and beast, circus life is different to anything I had ever experienced before. Yet all is not bad as there is always magic to be found in a circus after all.

Jacob is an interesting narrator of what goes on there – as he tells us his story from his position as a young circus vet one moment and then as old man in a nursing home the next. The two sides to this story are fascinating and a first hand account of Jacob’s amazing journey with the circus. He is a skilled and funny narrator.

The author takes us deep in to the heart of depression era America and at times the reality of both the setting and the circus are hard to take in. Isn’t the circus a place of magic and wonder? Well they can be but the reality of working in a circus and in a depression hit America is something else.

Roll up roll up dear reader and come join the circus. Step into the big top and you will fly through the air from one emotion to the next, you will laugh with the clowns, be in awe of the magic, yet always be on the look out for that safety net which you hope is still down below. Jacob is your ring master for the event. Roll up roll up!
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