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3.8 out of 5 stars
The Swan Gondola: A Novel
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
We are in Omaha, Nebraska, 1898. A hot air balloon falls from the sky, crashing into the farmhouse of two elderly spinsters out somewhere on the prairie. In the balloon, a young man with a broken leg. How did he get there? And what is the story behind the passionate love letter they find in his suit pocket?

This is the brilliant beginning of this beguiling book that tells of the doomed love between ventriloquist Ferret Skerritt and the beguiling but mystifying Cecily, sometime actress who plays the part of Marie Antoinette going to the guillotine on the hour every hour. The book is set against the backdrop of the Omaha State Fair, with its glorious white city and its midway, full of thieves and scroungers trying to make a buck. We are introduced to a cast of interesting ne'er-do-wells, including anarchists, carneys, a half-Native American cross dresser and various con artists. We also meet some of the upper class of Omaha led by the tragic but sinister William Wakefield.

Skerritt falls hard for Cecily, and for her baby daughter Doxie - and Cecily eventually returns his ardor. But Wakefield, who can buy everything he wants, has decided to possess Cecily and Skerritt is powerless against his machinations. The symbol of Wakefield's acquisitiveness comes when he manages to persuade Skerritt to sell his ventriloquist dummy Oscar, who is like a part of him. Skerritt parts with the beloved alter ego to get some money in his pocket to lavish on Cecily -- but he loses something essential in the bargain. And Wakefield will soon have his evil way with her.

There is a dreamlike quality about much of this book, which seems to take place in an imaginary world. The characters fall into Victorian swoons and are victim to mysterious maladies. Spirits haunt the pages, characters speak from beyond the grave with messages both urgent and enigmatic. Fanciful towers are built out of odds and ends dusted with sugar. The brilliance of this contrivance only becomes clear at the end of the book when we realize that the whole thing has been a wonderfully inventive prequel to the "Wizard of Oz."

Timothy Schaffert has fashioned here a traditional love story set in a magical yet squalid world of his own invention. Those readers who visit his world will be handsomely rewarded.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Ever since I read Erik Larson's The Devil and the White City about the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 I've been fascinated by novels using the World's Fairs as plot points. In Timothy Schaffert's The Swan Gondola we find the "other" White City, namely Omaha, the focal point of this novel with its World's Fair of 1898.

Omaha, up to this point, had been a slaughter-house town on the edge of the prairie. The squalid township decided to become the focus of the World and build a fabulous venue for locals and tourists alike by hosting the Fair of 1898. The characters that author Schaffert builds his story around come alive with the plots and strategies of this unique and one-of-a-kind novel.

Ventriloquist Bartholomew "Ferret" Skerret is the opening character who falls out of the sky à la the Wizard of Oz from a silk balloon. His tale is told as back story for how he eventually landed on the farmhouse and finds himself being cared for by two elderly sisters with his leg broken from the fall.

He is in love with the enigmatic Cecily who is an actress in a wandering troupe that follows fairs and carnivals around the globe reenacting the ghoulish side of history. The first time Ferret finds her at the Fair she is playing the part of Marie Antoinette being beheaded.

His friend August is a showy Native Indian salesman with an edge of the flamboyant. August does his best to keep his friend out of trouble but his unrequited love for Cecily makes him willing to continue to make decisions that are questionable at best.

The villain of this tale is the sinister and wealthy William Wakefield. Wakefield succeeds in persuading Ferret to sell him his ventriloquist dummy and alter ego Oscar. Though he fills his pocket with cash to impress his lady he finds his loss is more costly then he'd ever imagined.

This is an unusual book that has been compared to The Night Circus, Like Water for Elephants, and The Wizard of Oz but let it stand on its own for you. It's magical, mysterious, charming and dreamlike. The only thing that could have made it better is if, maybe, it was read to you aloud by Garrison Keillor. I loved it and hope you will too.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
A lush and thrilling romantic fable about two lovers set against the scandalous burlesques, midnight séances, and aerial ballets of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair.

On the eve of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, con man by birth, isn’t quite sure how it will change him or his city. Omaha still has the marks of a filthy Wild West town, even as it attempts to achieve the grandeur and respectability of nearby Chicago. But when he crosses paths with the beautiful and enigmatic Cecily, his whole purpose shifts and the fair becomes the backdrop to their love affair.

One of a traveling troupe of actors that has descended on the city, Cecily works in the Midway’s Chamber of Horrors, where she loses her head hourly on a guillotine playing Marie Antoinette. And after closing, she rushes off, clinging protectively to a mysterious carpetbag, never giving Ferret a second glance. But a moonlit ride on the swan gondola, a boat on the lagoon of the New White City, changes everything, and the fair’s magic begins to take its effect.

From the critically acclaimed author of The Coffins of Little Hope, The Swan Gondola is a transporting read, reminiscent of Water for Elephants or The Night Circus.

-- My thoughts:

I loved EVERY minute of this book. I stopped and reread sentences and lines, eager for each word, savoring it because it ended way too fast. I loved Ferret. He was a good guy, a little down on his luck. But that seemed like it changed when he met Cecily. I just think everyone should read this book. It is that amazing! I will think about this wonderful read for years to come!

You start out with Ferret landing at the sister's home, and then we go back, way back to find out why. Why was in he that balloon? I loved the bit of mystery, lots of love, friendship and more in this fabulous book! Read it NOW! You won't be sorry!

I received this book from Goodreads first read program in exchange for my honest opinion!
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2014
Format: Hardcover
One wonders if the American publishing industry is trying to saturate the market with novels about circuses and carnival troupes in an attempt to introduce the genre to all tastes. 2011’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS is an impish fantasia for fans of surrealism. 2007’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, a novel about a veterinarian who becomes animal doctor to the Most Spectacular Show on Earth, is more romantic. For those who prefer darker fare, there’s 1984’s GEEK LOVE, Katherine Dunn’s story of freaks and geeks intent on breeding a race of genetically altered children.

THE SWAN GONDOLA, Timothy Schaffert’s new novel, is the anti-GEEK LOVE. It’s an old-fashioned and unabashedly romantic tale of hobo clowns and lion tamers, pickpockets and card sharks, dishonest peddlers of tonics and purveyors of naughty postcards. The goal of the book is to charm rather than challenge, and it attempts this through the simple story of a 25-year-old ventriloquist, the actress he falls in love with, and a wealthy Fair patron grieving over the death of his son.

It’s 1898, and the Omaha World’s Fair has just concluded. In a small Nebraska town, two elderly sisters are sitting in their cabin when the house starts to shake and items tumble from the shelves. The room is blanketed in darkness. They step outside and discover that a balloon made of yellow silk, a Civil War relic that was displayed at the Fair, has fallen on the house.

The pilot is B. “Ferret” Skerritt, a ventriloquist who makes his living by writing “letters of proposal and promise and regret” on behalf of clients. The sisters bring Ferret home and nurse him back to health. During his stay, he tells them the circumstances that prompted him to steal the balloon. The first two thirds of the book is a flashback to Ferret’s arrival at the fairgrounds and his romance with a carnival performer named Cecily.

Cecily is an actor with the Silk and Sawdust Players. She portrays Marie Antoinette at the Fair’s Chamber of Horrors. Ferret is smitten. With the help of friends such as August Sweetbriar, a gay huckster who sells licorice-flavored tonics guaranteed to cure baldness, Ferret gets Cecily to meet him late at night at the swan gondola in the midway’s lagoon. He falls not only for Cecily but also for her baby daughter Doxie, whom Cecily keeps in the Fair’s live babies incubator exhibit when she isn’t hauling her around in a carpetbag.

One afternoon, a car pulls up alongside Ferret. The driver is William Wakefield, the wealthy President of the Board of the Fair. His little boy died in a railroad accident many years earlier. Wakefield offers to buy Oscar, Ferret’s dummy, but Ferret won’t sell. Later, Wakefield invites him and Cecily to a “Remember the Maine” masked ball to honor U.S. soldiers who have died in the Spanish-American War. Ferret and Cecily become regular guests at Wakefield’s mansion. It soon becomes clear that Wakefield sees in Ferret, Cecily and Doxie the family life he lost, and that he would do anything to regain.

The two biggest problems with THE SWAN GONDOLA are the romance between Ferret and Cecily and the sketchiness of the characters. We are never given a reason for Ferret’s attraction to Cecily other than that she’s pretty. This may be enough for some readers, but their relationship is generic rather than specific. Wakefield, too, is a stock character, a wealthy man with a burden to bear. The prose doesn’t help, either. When Wakefield offers to buy Oscar, Ferret fantasizes about the “bottle after bottle of the finest wines and box after box of chocolates” he can buy. Early in the novel, Ferret plucks the petals off a peony Cecily drops and makes a wish as he approaches her. Cecily flutters her lashes at least half a dozen times throughout the book, including twice in three pages at the start of a chapter. There’s a lot of winking.

THE SWAN GONDOLA also suffers from too much period detail, a problem common to many historical novels. Schaffert’s novel would have been stronger if he had cut some of the extraneous detail and spent more time developing his characters.

Despite all of this, Schaffert keeps the story moving. The hokeyness of the plot is wearying at times, but one can’t deny that Schaffert knows how to build tension. THE SWAN GONDOLA’s romance and clever twists will keep many readers entertained. Others, however, may find the plot frustratingly thin and the book lacking in enchantment.

Reviewed by Michael Magras
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's 1898, and the residents of the Midwest are filled with hope and wonder as the Omaha World's Fair opens. A ventriloquist called Ferret Skerritt and his friends - tricksters, hucksters, and showmen all - hope to find new audiences as tourists from across the country and around the world stream into town to see the sights. As he explores the midway, however, Ferret falls head-over-heels for a pretty actress named Cecily who works in the Chamber of Horrors, losing her head every hour as the doomed queen Marie Antoinette. As a romance blossoms against the rich backdrop of the fair, Skerritt's devotion to Cecily grows, but he's not the only one attracted to the beautiful performer...

This is Moulin Rouge meets The Night Circus with shades of Water for Elephants: A Novel and The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America all rolled into one epic story. If you were a fan of any of those books or movies, I think you'll like The Swan Gondola, too. It has so many elements of these stories: the romance of a lifetime between a poor writer and a beautiful-but-sickly performer, while a wealthy-yet-unsuitable suitor seducing the woman, the magical yet menacing backdrop of the Fair, richly described, the exotic cast of circus freaks, tricksters and everything in-between, all woven to create a most entertaining and lovely tapestry. Yes, it feels familiar, but though many scenes invite comparisons to other stories it never feels derivative of them.

The one exception I might make to this statement is in the case of The Wizard of Oz. "The Swan Gondola" is peppered with references to the classic children's series. They aren't blatant, at least not in the beginning, and the first few times I noticed them I thought, "I must be reading too much into this." But as the story rolls along it becomes increasingly clear that the allusions are intentional and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was very influential on the author as he wrote - a fact he readily admits to in his Author's Note. It's not a prequel, but as a tribute to L. Frank Baum's iconic character it's far more effective than, say, Oz The Great and Powerful.

But there's so much more to this book than references to hot air balloons and emerald castles! I found the passages dedicated to Spiritualists and Ferret's attempts to find a credible medium to be quite entertaining, since I'm fascinated by the movement and the place it held in late 19th and early 20th century society. The story is quite the gothic romance - meaning in the Wuthering Heights sense, not Twilight melodrama - and worth your time if you decide to check it out.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 12, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Timothy Schaffert's "The Swan Gondola" has a nice atmosphere with its turn of the century (1898-1899) setting of the nice-quite-tamed Omaha, Nebraska and its World's Fair. There's a whimsy to it even in its roughness and I really enjoyed that.

I also enjoyed some of the characters in it like August and Pearl. In fact, I liked the secondary characters a lot more than the main character named Ferret Skerritt (I like the name though) or his love interest, Cecily.

Ferret is an orphan and a con artist and a ventriloquist who falls in mad love with the actress Cecily. He recounts his doomed love affair with Cecily to Emmaline Egan after his balloon falls on the farmhouse that she and sister, Hester, live and where he recuperates from his injuries.

As noted, there is a whimsical quality to the narrative that is hard to resist but the love story just didn't do it for me. I really didn't like Ferret or Cecily much and considering their love story is the central focus, a lot of time is spent on them so while the writing is good and the atmosphere is wonderful, I can't quite give it more than a 3-star.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2014
Format: Hardcover
It's not often that I pick up a book that ends up completely surprising me by the time the end comes around. The Swan Gondola did exactly that. It surprised me in a few ways. First, it referenced one of my favorite childhood stories in a subtle, tasteful, and...really, quite perfect way. Second, it brought to mind one of my favorite (and the newest work) books of Neil Gaiman. Schaffert beautifully mixes history, intrigue, romance, love, and a bit of magic in a way that took me back to my childhood in Omaha, Nebraska through the referencing of streets, of history, and of a time long past when Omaha was living a dream of becoming a real "white city." I loved reading the history of the place I spent my youth, and I loved even more reading the story of a man who just fell in love and desperately wanted to make a life with the woman he fell head over heels for.

If you are a fan of movies like Big Fish or shows like Pushing Daisies, or if you love magical realism from Neil Gaiman to Sarah Addison Allen, then put Timothy Schaffert's book, The Swan Gondola, on your list. From the very first chapter I absolutely fell in love with Ferret Skirrett (although, not with his name). I wanted to be in the book, to be embraced by the pages and the story and view the sights that were being described. I already have nurtured a huge fascination with World Fairs but this one is special to me - it's one that referenced places I've been, streets that I've walked on.

Schaffert's ability to tell a story that involved a very colorful cast of characters is only superseded by his ability to incorporate some really out there ideas (especially for the time period) in a way that was subtle and tastefully done. I loved Ferritt's friends August and Rosie, I adored the idea of using an incubator as a nanny (you have to read the book, seriously), and I loved the idea of a well-known story being turned on its head and beginning in a way that was completely unexpected.

If I were to read this book for the first time again, I would go into it just as I did this time. Completely unaware of the connections to any other stories or ideas. I loved exploring the tale before realizing what was happening and I would recommend The Swan Gondola whole-heartedly to anyone who loves entertainment, history, fairs, magic, and just plain, old-fashioned good storytelling.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Swan Gondola is an interesting story that left me confused as to how I feel about it all. I keep moving between 3 and 4 stars.

Ferret Skerritt one day lands on top of house of two elderly sisters living in the middle of nowhere, covering the house with the hot air balloon he was flying in. Nobody knows where he came from or what his story is and he's not inclined to open up about it initially. He begins composing letters to his lost love and finally tells his story to the sisters. Soon we find out that he is a ventriloquist and pickpocket suffering from a freshly broken heart. It seems that he is in love with a ridiculously elusive actress named Cecily. The backdrop of their love story is the Omaha World Fair of 1898 (in real life known as the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition).

There were many things about this story that I liked- the setting and descriptions of the fair, the way the story is told from the point of view of a self-sufficient yet naive hustler, a balloon randomly falling on the house of two kooky old women, and some of the Ferret's friends (especially August in all of his eccentricities).

The story in its entirety, though, didn't mesh well to me. Things got a little slow after the balloon fell out of the sky in the beginning, then picked back up, then slowed down, then picked up, then slowed down, etc. At some points I was ready to give up only to be sucked back in before wanting to give up again for good, but I had to finish it to see if the ending would glue it all together.

I don't understand why Ferret fell in love with Cecily. She was not likable to me but everybody loved her for whatever reason. I really couldn't even picture her in my mind. The ghost aspect lost me a little. The Trilby aspect lost me a little. Wakefield, the rich guy with the metal arm, was a constant enigma to me even after I learned what his motivation was supposed to be. I don't know WHAT he's supposed to be. There were seeeeeveral unnecessary parts that could have been cut out. Also, you will need a dictionary nearby for all of the antiquated words that thoroughly pepper this work.

At the same time I'm glad I read this book. There are some parts that I really loved (Hester with her gun at the beginning, Rosie's comical anarchists, August in drag). I appreciate that it was clearly very well researched. It painted a vivid picture of life, especially among the poor, at the turn of the 20th century. I could even see it making a decent movie in the hands of the right people who know what to cut out and what to emphasize. I would love to see August's character brought to life and to see Wakefield developed a bit more.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert is a love story set in the 1898 Omaha World's Fair. Ferret Skerritt is a ventriloquist who also happens to be a con man. He falls in love with Cecily, one of a traveling troupe of actors. Cecily can also be identified by a mysterious carpetbag that she never seems to give up.

The book has a wonderful beginning. A hot air balloon falls from the sky and crashes into the farmhouse of two elderly spinsters. Turns out that the balloon has a passenger - a young man with a broken leg and a love letter in his pocket. It is a wonderful way to start a tale, and it certainly made me want to find out what else was going to happen. The story goes on from there in kind of a magical way. The characters are interesting and off-beat, and the book is fun to read. I highly recommend it.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Well written and interesting occurances, read in Bora Bora (Bora Bora is highly recommended, too!) Written by my daughter-in-law: 'Timothy Schaffert reeled me in to Swan Gondola from the very beginning and kept me hooked through hours of reading. The story is replete with unusual and fascinating characters, including an inexplicably love-struck ventriloquist Ferret, his distant lover Cecily, and his friend August, a flamboyant Omaha salesman. In addition to developing the characters beautifully, Schaffert also provides a fascinating juxtaposition of the seedy background with the sparkling white palaces of the 1898 Omaha World's Fair. Surprising plot twists kept me wanting to read, and I found the conclusion to be a lovely end to a story that I had greatly enjoyed. To anyone who enjoys historical fiction with intriguing characters and a unique plot, I highly recommend Swan Gondola.' I hope this helps someone.
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