BOOK REVIEWS

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

The Hollow Places is a thoroughly entertaining novel that plays around with parallel worlds, portal fantasy and cosmic horror. When our narrator, Kara, moves back to her hometown (Hog Chapel, North Carolina) she is still reeling from her divorce. To avoid sharing a house with her mother she volunteers to work in her uncle’s peculiar museum (Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosity, and Taxidermy). She decides to catalogue the many curios and bizarre objects that live there. After her uncle is forced to take a break from the museum due to some health problems, she offers to look after it. Things however take a creepy turn when a hole in one of the museum’s walls leads to her bunker and that this in turn is connected to a rather horrifying reality which often defeats human comprehension. Simon, the gay barman who works next door to the museum and believes that he devoured his twin in the womb, is Kara’s offbeat companion. The two get in over their heads when they decide to the bunker.
Kara and Simon are immediately endearing. Kara, who is down-to-earth and incredibly witty (ranging from caustic to silly), is a likeable and diverting narrator while Simon is such a weird yet genuinely nice guy (capable of coming out with or believing in some seriously bizarre things). Their banter made the novel, and it was really refreshing for the main relationship in a book to be a platonic one.
While readers will probably feel some sense of anxiety or apprehension now and again, I would not classify this novel as a horror one. It certainly has horror elements, but ultimately, it seems more of an adventure/weird fiction type of thing (Stephen King by way of Terry Pratchett with some Jeff VanderMeer). Moments that have the potential of being disturbing (such as those scenes in which certain things appear to be ‘inside out’) and the willow trees were kind of creepy are alleviated by Kara’s humour. While I enjoyed the meta aspect of this novel and I do think that T. Kingfisher showcases some pretty impressive creative talent, part of me did find the latter part of the story to be a bit repetitive.
Overall I would probably recommend it to those who are looking for a fun read with some horror undertones.

my rating: ★★★ ½ stars


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Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire — book review

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Although occasionally entertaining, Come Tumbling Down struck me as a rather unnecessary and insubstantial addition to the Wayward Children series.

“Once a wayward child, always a wayward child.”

Don’t get me wrong: Seanan McGuire’s writing style is as lush as ever. Her prose, with its use rhythm and repetition, echoes that of fairy-tale, lending a certain allure to her narrative. As with the previous instalments McGuire weaves real issues into her fantastical setting (such as body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria, anxiety, OCD, trauma) however in this case not all of them were seamlessly woven into her story. Some—such as body dysmorphia—were just rushed through and consequently seemed to lack depth.

“No one should have to sit and suffer and pretend to be someone they’re not because it’s easier, or because no one wants to help them fix it.”

The story sadly feels like a rehash of the previous volumes. Part of me doesn’t think that we needed another chapter that focused on Jack and Jill…the dynamics between Jack and Miss West’s students—old and new—weren’t all that compelling. I wish we could have had more of Christopher or Kade instead. The exchanges between the characters felt repetitive and aimless.
The humour felt forced. Sumi was very much the ‘clown’ character who eased the tension of a scene by saying something silly/absurd. The quest itself felt unfocused and made Jill into a rather one-sided character.
On the one hand I really love McGuire’s writing…but here her storyline and characters lacked depth.There were some clever phrases and some ‘aesthetic’ character descriptions but they never amounted to anything truly substantial. Pretty words aside, Come Tumbling Down doesn’t really add anything new to this series.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones — book review

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“I’m dying of boredom,” Howl said pathetically. “Or maybe just dying.”

Like many, I fell in love with Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of this novel. I consider it a personal favourite and have watched it many times. So once I learnt that it was ‘loosely’ based on a book, I was eager to get my hands on it. For some reason or other however it took me a few years to actually to do so (this was my oldest book on my TBR shelf).
From the first pages I became absorbed by Diana Wynne Jones’ playful writing. The way in which she blends together magic and humour is simply enchanting. Although some of the plot and characters felt familiar, there is a sardonic tone that is entirely missing from Ghibli’s version.
The narrative follows Sophie as she embarks on a fantastical romp. There is comedy, drama, and an abundance of absurdities. Sophie, the oldest of three, believes there is only one path for her…she is proven wrong when she is stripped of her youth. It was fun to see the way in which old age allows her to be ‘more’ of herself. For one, she is a lot more confident…and she happens to be quite headstrong.
The banter between Howl and Sophie was highly entertaining. Their very different personalities clash time and again with often hilarious consequences. Whereas Sophie has a rather serious disposition, Howl’s is one of the most overdramatic characters I’ve read about:

“I feel ill,” he announced. “I’m going to bed, where I may die.”

There is also a metafictional aspect to this novel that adds a layer of amusing self-awareness to the storyline and to its use and subversion of genre conventions, and it brought to mind authors such as Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling.
Towards the end, the weirdness did get to me a little…but perhaps a second reading would make things clearer.
Overall, Howl’s Moving Castle is a delightfully magical read that is lighthearted and fun and makes me want to read more by Diana Wynne Jones.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern — book review

Untitled drawing (5).jpgsecret libraries + magical doors + stories within stories within stories = my kind of book

“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”

This is the type of book that readers will either love or hater. Its playful style and recursive storytelling are definitely not for everyone. Within the first pages readers will realise whether they find this type of elusive narrative to be inviting or off-putting. Thankfully, in my case, I was perfectly happy to suspend my disbelief.

“Do you believe in the mystical, the fantastical, the improbable, or the impossible? Do you believe that things others dismiss as dreams and imagination actually exist? Do you believe in fairy tales?”

To me, The Starless Sea was not only a fun and entertaining read but one that wonderfully managed to pay homage to various forms of storytelling, often by incorporating and subverting established tropes and elements of the fantasy genre.
Heavily inspired by fairy tales, myths, and—surprise surprise—video games, The Starless Sea takes its readers into a metatextual romp filled with books, stories-within-stories, and magic.

“These doors will sing. Silent siren songs for those who seek what lies behind them.
For those who feel homesick for a place they’ve never been to.
Those who seek even if they do not know what (or where) it is that they are seeking.”

This fantastical adventure has many beginnings, the most notable being perhaps the one in which Zachary Ezra Rawlins, arguably the novel’s ‘true’ protagonist, comes across an odd book titled Sweet Sorrows. Zachary soon discovers that, not only is the book missing from the library’s catalogue, but that internet searches regarding it come up blank. Curiouser and curiouser still, Zachary believes that one of the chapters in Sweet Sorrows is about him.

“He had thought there could be no stranger feeling than stumbling across a book that narrates a long-ago incident from his own life that was never relayed to anyone, never spoken about or written down but nevertheless is unfolding in typeset prose, but he was wrong.”

Soon Zachary finds himself leaving the safety of his college life behind him in order to discover more about Sweet Sorrows. Secret organisations, book burnings, subterranean libraries, magical doors, pirates, men lost in time, mysterious entities, and many other-worldly things fill Zachary’s epic quest. Interspersed throughout his narrative arethe wondrous books he comes across, and the stories and characters within these books may be more real than not.

“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains an entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”

In many ways this novel struck me as a love letter to bibliophiles. Those who dream of walking into a wardrobe and finding themselves transported into a marvellous land or of falling down a rabbit hole and into Wonderland. There are many interconnected mysteries, some more slippery than others. In many ways Zachary’s quest echoes the classic hero’s journey. There is a call to adventure, supernatural aids, romance, transformations, revelations, and returns. Time and again Zachary finds himself having to solve puzzles in order to pull apart the mystery of a bee, a key, and a sword.

“Slowly they attempt to sort through a thousand questions. For every connection they make between one book and another there are more that don’t fit. Some stories seem completely separate and distant and others feel explicitly connected to the story they have found themselves in together now.”

As much as I loved Zachary and his adventure, I do think that certain elements within this novel could have been made more clear. I’m all for ambiguity and suspense but there were quite a few scenes that seemed unnecessarily cryptic. Yes, enigmatic statements and puzzling riddles sound cool enough…maybe less so when there are so many.
While I enjoyed the novel’s story-within-story structure, I think that a greater focus on Zachary’s narrative would have strengthened some of the character dynamics (especially with the main two other characters, Dorian and Mirabel). Towards the end of the book we suddenly get snippets from a character that up to that point had remained rather on the outskirts…and I didn’t really much care for those sections (if anything they interrupted the momentum of Zachary’s quest).

Erin Morgenstern’s writing style is brimming with wonderful descriptions and possesses a very strong storyteller quality. For example, the beginning of her chapters seem to have been worded in a way that echoes the openings of fairy-tales. The lovely rhythm of her prose is entrancing and extremely readable. It may appear simple but it provides us with some vibrant scenes. Not only do the locations and clothes within this novel create a beautiful aesthetic but they often carry intertextual references.
The Starless Sea is a modern and self-aware take on some well-worn and well-loved tales, one that I recommend to fans of Neil Gaiman, V.E. Schwab, Maggie Stiefvater, and Catherynne M. Valente. It may not have moved me as much as The Night Circus but I nevertheless enjoyed reading it. I was pretty excited when the narrative mentioned some of my favourite authors (Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, and Shirley Jackson) and when it referred to some of my favourite childhood stories.

Given how much I liked Zachary, I would happily read this novel again. And perhaps a second reading will make me love and understand the various stories even more.

“Zachary recalls innumerable fairy-tale warnings against eating or drinking in underworlds and at the same time realizes he is incredibly thirsty.
He suspects this is the only way forward.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4)

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The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow — book review

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“Reason and rationality reigned supreme, and there was no room for magic or mystery. There was no room, it turned out, for little girls who wandered off the edge of the map and told the truth about the mad, impossible things they found there.”

Readers who have yet to dip their toes in the vast sea of YA fiction will probably enjoy The Ten Thousand Doors of January more than those who are well acquainted with this popular genre.

In spite of its first promising chapters, The Ten Thousand Doors of January never quite reaches its full potential.
The premise of the book called to mind Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series—which also stars ‘magical’ doors—and the more adventure/travelling oriented YA such as Alexandra Bracken’s Passenger. The start of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, with its focus on the relationship between a young child and her guardian, held echoes of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and Cornelia Funke’s The Inkheart Trilogy: Inkheart, Inkspell, Inkdeath. What followed sadly lacked the magic of these two series and throughout my reading of The Ten Thousand Doors of January I had the impression that it’s the kind of book that doesn’t know wherever it’s aimed towards middle-grade or young adult readers…it stars cartoonish characters that would be more suited to a MG while also trying to address more serious themes, all the while attempting to establish a complex ‘magical’ system.

The Good
Occasionally I do like to first address the good things—or to be more accurate, the things I personally liked—in a book. In the case of The Ten Thousand Doors of January that would be the writing style. Alix E. Harrow’s writing style was the best aspect of her debut novel.

“Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, of literary weight or unsolved mysteries.”

The first-person point of view allows for a compelling and engaging narrative, a narrative which our protagonist is aware of:

“I ought to introduce Mr. Locke properly; he’d hate to wander into the story in such a casual, slantwise way.”

This awareness creates many charming moments as she intersperses her narrative with many amusing asides, for example telling us what she thinks of certain words or sayings: “After that, our fates were more or less sealed (a phrase that always makes me picture a weary old Fate tucking our futures into an envelope and pressing her wax seal over us).”
The openness of January’s storytelling is incredibly effective as it holds the reader’s attention and makes us sympathise with her.

“But, as Mr. Locke so often complained, I could sometimes be quite improper, wilful, and temerarious (a word I assumed was unflattering from the company it kept).”

That she often refers to existing stories/tales of children wandering into magical realms or such places acknowledges the intertextuality of her own story.

“People never got to stay in their Wonderlands, did they? Alice and Dorothy and the Darlings, all dragged back to the mundane world and tucked into bed by their handlers.”

And it is the very way that January recounts her own story that kept me interested…it was also nice to follow her character growth. Due to her father and her own appearance (she is described as having coppery-red skin) she is pegged as ‘no good’. Because of this, January does try to meet expectations of respectable femininity, an attitude which—as she herself notes later in her narrative—will hinder her future independence. We could see the way her circumstances affected and shaped her.

The Not so Good
Although I loved the portions recounted by January herself, incorporated in her narrative are sections from a book that she is reading…called The Ten Thousand Doors. These sections were boring and led to a very predictable reveal.
The magical doors that we are promised in the summary of….do not really make a ‘proper’ appearance as we are told of the adventures of other characters in a very rushed and indirect manner.
I was hoping that the story would follow January’s adventures but that wasn’t the case. She reads of other people’s adventures, and it is only it last 20% or so that she actually gets to do something more enterprising.
The book she reads is supposedly written by a scholar but it just seemed pale when compared to January’s own narrative. While her voice is engaging and genuine, the book she’s reading never really convinced me. It seemed to be trying for a similar effect as January’s sections but the ‘author’s’ voice failed to come across as believable or even as belonging to an actual individual.
The magic system, in other words the Doors, was poorly explained and explored. Parts that should have been more detailed and fleshed out are rushed over so that we never get a clear picture of how a Door works. We know that they introduce “change”, which is a very generic way of defining them.
There is little to no action and, with the exception of January, the characters we are introduced to never seemed very fleshed out. Some had very inconsistent personalities while others, such as the love interest, were painfully dull additions. And it isn’t great when as soon as we are introduced to a character we know the role they will play. Take for example this love interest. As soon as the words “childhood friend” and “boy” appeared on the page it was quite obvious that he would form a romantic attachment to January. His main two qualities are: he is Italian and he likes January. That’s about it (his name/appearance/personality are pretty much irrelevant).
I think that having more characters would have filled up the backdrop of January’s non-adventures a bit more. Maybe it could have detracted from the overall one-sidedness of two or three people in her life. Other than January there are mainly two other female characters, and they seem to share the same I-am-sort-of-empowered personality. With the exception of January’s father and her love interest all men sort of suck, seeming closer to caricatures of evil men rather than actual evil men.
While I loved January’s narrative voice, I disliked the way the writing would sometimes use metaphors or description that seemed to exist merely to meet certain YA aesthetics (we have the typical overabundance of colours: “I dreamed in gold and indigo”; as well as descriptions alluding to ‘glitter/shards’: “The thought was dizzying, intoxicating—I’d already broken so many rules tonight, left them smashed and glittering in my wake—what was one more?”).
The plot seemed to predictable and undeveloped…less sections from The Ten Thousand Doors would have given more page-time to January and her story.

Overall
The summary and first few chapters lead to disappointment. The simplified vision of evil, the boring and wafer-thin side characters, and the poorly developed ‘Doors’ all left me with a not so great impression of this book…which is a pity as I really really enjoyed the first few chapters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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IN AN ABSENT DREAM: BOOK REVIEW

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In an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire

 ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

Katherine–never Kate, never Kitty, never anything but Katherine, sensible Katherine, up-and-down Katherine, as dependable as a sundial whittling away the summer afternoons–was ordinary enough to have become remarkable entirely without noticing it.

Compared to the previous volumes in this series [book:In an Absent Dream|38244358] is a bit of a let down.McGuire’s writing style is enchanting: she uses a lot of repetition which gives the narrative an almost hypnotising rhythm (recalling traditional faerie tales). This instalment follows Lundy, a character previously introduced in [book:Every Heart a Doorway|25526296], who is a solitary and quiet child fond of books and logic. After entering a special sort of door she ends up in the Goblin Market.
AbsentDream-Memories.jpgWhile novel takes inspiration from Rossetti’s [book:Goblin Market|430788] the two do not have a lot in common. The market featuring in this story seemed rather dull. Yes, there are plenty of weird rules that make little sense, and two sisters appear in this in this story, but for the most part Lundy’s adventure lacked the allure and danger of Rossetti’s market.
I also found it weird that a the ‘strict’ rules did not seem to be clearly obeyed by all characters. Initially it seems that no one can ask any question of any sort, then it turns out that very young children can on occasion, and then someone says that it depends from the sort of question.This Goblin Market wasn’t clear cut.
Lundy looses a friend which readers are never aquatinted with, and she goes on dangerous adventures which we also never get to see. Why put these things in? To make this world more interesting?
The characters seemed a bit like a mix of the characters AbsentDream-Market.jpgfeaturing in the previous volumes of this series.
The beginning has a lot of potential. It reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making but the story that unfolds is both rushed and surprisingly boring.
Still, McGuire’s writing is compulsive enough to make up for the rest.

He shouldn’t have treated her like she didn’t matter. He shouldn’t have treated her like his idea of a girl.

 

Review of Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)

Review of Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3)

BOOK REVIEWS

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire


McGuire’s style resonates completely with the fairytales she draws from. Her lyric narration thrums with the magic which she portrays. Her prose is alluring, it carries a melodic repetition that is incredibly compelling. And while she might be paying homage to old tales, McGuire is also creating her own – equally spellbinding – tales.
Her characters showcase plenty of emotional depth, and McGuire swiftly establishes their differences and similarities. The plot-line in this instalment does not carry as many surprises as the one of Every Heart a Doorway or Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but is nevertheless a vivid and endearing take on the ‘hero’s journey’. The various worlds visited by Cora and the others were all equally tantalising.
That McGuire is able to interwoven realistic issues (eg. anxiety) into a fantastical setting makes her novel all the more unique.
Scary and delightful, bitter and sweet, Beneath the Sugar Sky is a must for any fairy-tale aficionados.

My rating: 4.25 stars

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