Review 1800: The Midnight Library

I am usually fairly good at spotting books I’m just not going to like without reading them, but I try to keep an open mind. Sometimes I am surprised if I do read one, as I was when I read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Sometimes I am not.

Nora Seed’s life started out with a lot of promise, but for one reason or other she quit doing all the things she’s good at. Haig begins with a countdown of days and hours before she decides to commit suicide. Having taken an overdose, she ends up in a library of all the lives she could have had, free to try some of them out.

I kept my patience and read through the first alternative life, about a quarter of the book. Then I quit.

Why didn’t I like it? Let me count the ways:

  1. The horrible sprightly tone with which it discusses a character who is so miserable she is suicidal
  2. The choppy rhythm of its writing. Almost every sentence begins subject verb subject verb, more like a children’s book than an adults’.
  3. The lack of character depth, or really any personality at all
  4. The lack of any kind of depth or subtlety
  5. The confused and poorly thought out working of the library
  6. Pretty much everything else about the book

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

A Man Called Ove

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Review 1544: Sealskin

Ever since I heard Joan Baez sing “Silkie,” I have been fascinated by stories of selkies. They don’t seem to feature very often, but a few years ago, I reviewed an intriguing one in The Sea House.

In Sealskin, Su Bristow explores the legend, in particular one about a man who finds a selkie and hides her sealskin so he can keep her. This novel is set in as realistic a way as you can get in a story about a selkie (except in The Sea House).

Donald is a misfit in his Scottish fishing village because of a skin disease. Although his uncle Hugh would like him to crew with him, he avoids going out on the fishing boat because of taunts from the crew. He spends most of his time avoiding the other villagers.

One night he goes crabbing and sees seals on a rocky ledge. They take off their skins and become young maidens and dance. Thinking of the value of the sealskin, Donald steals one, and when the maidens are frightened into donning their skins and swimming away, one cannot leave.

Donald captures the selkie and in a fit of madness, rapes her. When he takes her home to his mother, Bridie, she tells him he can’t send the girl back because she knows she is with child. Bridie tells him he must marry the girl, whom they name Mairhi, and pretend he met her months before in another village.

Mairhi cannot speak but shows she is very unhappy. Donald doesn’t want to marry her, despite his mother’s warnings, so he goes back to find her skin, but it is gone.

Although I have an objection to love stories that start with a rape—a technique that used to be used often in romance novels—Bristow handles this story of love and personal growth tremendously well. It’s a touching novel about consequences.

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Review 1395: Fire & Blood

I thought Fire & Blood was going to be a prequel to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but actually it is the first volume of the history of the Targaryen kings of Westeros. It is written more like a history book than a novel, hitting on the things history books cover, which in this case is one battle after another. It is this kind of study of history that made me hate history class in school even though I am interested in history. In no time, we are overwhelmed with a huge number of names with no context except titles and no true characterization.

I gave this book two shots. I put it away for months and then restarted it. The second time, I found it a little more interesting but not enough to continue. I’m sure it’s the type of thing that Game of Thrones fanatics would love, but I just wish Martin would stop fooling around with things like this and finish the series. There are a lot of people who believe that because of the TV show, he will not. If so, that’s unfortunate.

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Day 917: Neverwhere

Cover for NeverwhereI haven’t read any Neil Gaiman except a book about a witch that he wrote with Terry Pratchett. That one was very silly, but I thought I should read some more Gaiman since he is so popular. I should maybe mention that fantasy is not usually my genre, with notable exceptions.

Richard Mayhew is happy with his life. He is a successful young investment counselor and is engaged to a beautiful but demanding woman. One night when they are on the way out for an important dinner with his fiancée’s boss, he finds an injured girl lying on the sidewalk. The girl is filthy, and Richard’s fiancée wants him to call an ambulance and leave her there. But Richard picks her up and takes her to his apartment.

We have already met the girl, being chased by two villains named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar through dirty dark tunnels. When the two men come to Richard’s apartment looking for the girl, he says she is not there.

The girl’s name is Door, and she asks Richard if he will go somewhere for her and fetch the Marquis de Carabas. Doing this favor takes him to a strange world underneath London. Richard returns Door to the Marquis, but once she is gone, he realizes he can’t return to his own world. When he tries to, people can’t see him. He finds he has no job, no fiancée, and his flat is in the midst of being let to someone else. He returns to the other world to get help from Door.

Door is the daughter of Lord Portico, a family famous for opening things. Recently, her entire family was slaughtered by Croup and Vandemar, and she wants to find out who ordered it and why. When she returns home to find her father’s diary, it tells her to go to Islington, a legendary angel. Richard finds himself accompanying Door, the Marquis, and Door’s bodyguard Hunter on a dangerous quest through this alternate world that makes its home in the London underground, with characters whose names play on the names of underground stations.

At times this novel seems quite juvenile. In fact, partway through I started trying to figure out if it was intended for adults at all. This is because the humor often seems to be aimed at 14-year-old boys, for example, a villain who is constantly eating live slugs and pigeons. But the Introduction states that it is meant for adults, to do for them what books like the Chronicles of Narnia did for Gaiman as a child.

For this adult, anyway, it fails. I was mildly sympathetic to Richard’s plight, but the book doesn’t do enough with the characters to get us more interested in them. And I wasn’t enamored of Gaiman’s vision of a filthy, mud-filled underworld of strange beings.

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Day 875: The River of No Return

Cover for The River of No ReturnThe River of No Return was popular a few years ago, but I didn’t get around to reading it until now. The plot combining time travel and romance reminded me of The Time-Traveler’s Wife, which I loved. I found Ridgway’s book not nearly as interesting, though.

Nick Davenport appears to be a wealthy dilettante dabbling in cheese making in 2013, but in 1810, he was Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown. While fighting in the Peninsular Wars, he was suddenly thrust forward in time to 2003. There he was picked up by a society of time travelers called the Guild, trained to live in modern times, and given a potload of money to live on. Now, the Guild wants him to travel backward to 1815, something he didn’t even know could be done, and resume his earlier life to carry out a mission for them.

Back in 1815, Julia Percy’s grandfather has just died, leaving her at the mercy of an unknown cousin. Since she was a child, Julia has watched her grandfather play little tricks with time. She is just beginning to realize that she can do it, too. Then her cousin Eamon arrives and begins looking for something, a talisman. Julia eventually realizes that she herself is the talisman.

When Nick arrives back in time, he learns he is to find a representative of a rival time-travel society called the Ofan and kill that person. The Guild has learned that the time period within which they can go forward is moving backward in time, and they think the activities of the Ofan have affected the river of time. The Guild thinks this Ofan member lives in a house neighboring Nick’s, the home of Julia Percy.  But Nick has no intention of killing anyone.

A portion of this novel is more romance novelish than I like, a fairly standard romantic plot with unlikely (for the time) sex scenes. Since I am not a fan of the standard romance novel, this was not a plus for me.

Worse, though, is the theory of time travel and its link with human emotions and monetary exchange, which is scientifically absurd. Audrey Niffenegger’s genetic abnormality is at least faintly believable.

All in all, my reaction was fairly meh. The novel is well written, but I wasn’t particularly interested in most of the characters. I thought Nick was incredibly naive about the Guild and went along with it far too long. An alternate explanation of the moving time horizon seemed immediately obvious to me, although it is not addressed in this novel. Because this novel is clearly designed for a sequel, only the romance plot is resolved.

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Day 796: Slade House

Cover for Slade HouseBest Book of the Week!
I haven’t read any ghost stories lately, so David Mitchell’s Slade House will have to do for a first nod to Halloween. Fans of Mitchell know to expect something unusual from his work, and Slade House is no exception. This novel features a series of characters over five decades all about to set foot in the mysterious Slade House.

Nathan Bishop, a nerdy teenager perhaps on the autism spectrum, is on his way with his mother down Slade Alley looking for Slade House. In the alley they meet a workman and ask him directions. He has never heard of it. They find the small iron gate leading into the gardens, and the workman is the last person ever to see them.

Nathan has taken a little of his mother’s Valium, so he thinks the drug is affecting his vision when the scenery in the Slade House garden fades. But something more sinister is happening while his mother is in the house attending a concert.

It’s difficult to say much more about this novel without revealing too much. Suffice it to say that people are in peril and the suspense builds accordingly. The book is divided into six sections, beginning in 1979, with each one set nine years further on. Each time a person is drawn into the house, never to be seen again.

link to NetgalleyReaders of Mitchell will pay attention in the last section when the name Marinus is mentioned, for they know that a few of the same characters appear in his books, sort of. Let us say that characters with the same names appear in his books. Slade House continues the complex story of horologists that came to the fore in The Bone Clocks.

As usual with Mitchell’s books, Slade House reflects exciting writing, a complex back story, a large creep factor, and a battle between good and evil. What more could you want?

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Day 763: The Vet’s Daughter

Cover for The Vet's DaughterIt was several days before the doctor came. It was my father who sent for him. Even he noticed something was wrong with Mother. When he saw her all doubled up over the dining room sideboard, he suddenly bellowed, “For Christ’s sake, woman, send for the doctor, and if he can’t put you right, keep out of my sight!”

Best Book of the Week!
Alice and her mother live in terror of her father, the vet, in this novel written in 1959. He ignores Alice and treats his wife with brutality and contempt. Alice is in her teens, living in a dreary house in a London suburb with only one friend, a deaf girl, when her mother becomes ill. The one bright light for Alice is it brings vulgar but kindly Mrs. Churchill to help.

Mrs. Churchill continues to come after Alice’s mother dies, but within weeks Alice’s father has brought his lover home to live there, so Mrs. Churchill leaves. Rosa Fisher moves into Alice’s mother’s room and stays until she tries to pimp Alice out to an acquaintance.

Alice occasionally seems to have what first appears to be some kind of fits. But they are actually the slow development of an uncanny ability.

As with Sisters by a River, the simple, innocent manner in which this novel is narrated gives it a distinctive tone. Alice is a naive and unsophisticated girl whose isolation from society means she doesn’t always understand very common things. The plot is impossible to predict, as it takes us to some unusual places. The Vet’s Daughter is another strange and vivid novel from Barbara Comyns.

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Day 745: The Buried Giant

Cover for The Buried GiantI thought from what I read about The Buried Giant that it was a historical novel set in the days after the Romans left Britain. But it is really a fable or a fantasy novel or both.

Axl and his wife Beatrice are an old British couple who decide to go on a journey. They have recently become aware that their memories of the past are poor, as are everyone’s, but they vaguely remember they have a son. Years ago, their son moved to another village, and Beatrice has been wanting to visit him. Finally, they decide to go.

Beatrice has difficulty remembering the way to their first stop, a Saxon village she has visited before, but they find it by evening. The village is disturbed and possibly dangerous for the visiting Britons. A boy was taken by an ogre, but a strange warrior has brought him back. The villagers have seen a bite on the boy and want to kill him. But the warrior saves the boy, named Edwin. Once Axl and Beatrice leave the village the next day, they find themselves traveling with Edwin and the warrior Wistan.

This novel features ogres, pixies, treacherous monks, a British lord on the lookout for the Saxon warrior, an Arthurian knight, and finally a dragon whose breath has made everyone forget the past. It is about reconciliation, memory, aging, and death. As a fable, it doesn’t really characterize its protagonists; they are more like symbols. As such I wasn’t really compelled by the story.

In addition, a history class I have been taking recently indicates that it is unlikely any Britons would have been mixing freely with Saxons at this time. By the time the Anglos and Saxons began settling England in earnest, all the Britons had been pushed off to far western England and Cornwall. Although this novel does not really mention which part of England they are in, I understand that Britons did not tend to mix with the Angles and Saxons.

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Day 684: Ella Minnow Pea

Cover for Ella Minnow PeaEven though I enjoyed Mark Dunn’s unusual novel Under the Harrow, I avoided Ella Minnow Pea for some time because it sounded too gimmicky. When I finally read it, I found it mildly entertaining, but yes gimmicky, although I can see why it would amuse those with a different sense of humor than mine.

Ella Minnow Pea is a 17-year-old girl living on a fictional island off the coast of South Carolina that is not part of the United States. This island, called Nollop, is named after Nevin Nollop, the supposed author of “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” Nollop is the island’s most eminent native son, and there is a cenotaph containing the sentence in the middle of Nollopton.

This epistolary novel opens with a letter from Ella to her cousin Tassie in Nollopville, in which she relates that the letter z fell off the cenotaph. Soon, the island council announces that the spirit of Nollop has used this way to send the message that the letter z must be removed from all island correspondence and speech. Violation of this statute is punished severely with a third occurrence resulting in banishment. The libraries are soon closed, because no books exist without the letter z. A rebellious youth is banished almost immediately. Conveniently, the procedures for running the government are destroyed, including those for recalling the council, because they contain the banned letter. People make mistakes and are punished or banished. The radio station eventually shuts down and the newspaper struggles, because it is too difficult to avoid the letter.

Then another letter falls, then another.

It is mildly amusing to see how the characters get around the problem of the disappearing letters in their correspondence. Of course, the novel is a statement about tyranny and freedom of expression.

Dunn’s latest novel Ibid, a novel written entirely in footnotes, has good reviews for its originality. Another gimmick, and I’m not sure I’ll try it. Dunn’s interests seem to lie in inventing isolated imaginary places where over-elaborate speech is common, along with made-up words, and where the government can’t be trusted.

Have you read Ibid? What did you think of it?

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Day 637: The Quick

Cover for The QuickAt first, The Quick seems like a straightforward historical novel about a young writer in 19th century London. But it has a twist. To be honest, if I’d known what the twist was beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have chosen this novel to read, because frankly, I’m tired of this subject. That said, I’m glad I read the book, because it is absorbing, well written, and quite suspenseful.

James and Charlotte Norbury grow up neglected in a rambling house in Yorkshire. Their father rarely comes near them after their mother dies and seems to forget they might need attention or tutors or governesses. So, while the two children run wild, it is the older Charlotte who takes care of James and teaches him to read.

After their father’s death, James goes away to school while Charlotte stays in the care of Mrs. Chickering, an elderly relative. James eventually moves to London to try being a writer, but he is not wealthy and has difficulties finding acceptable lodgings he can afford. An acquaintance introduces him to Christopher Paige, a young aristocrat looking for someone to share his rooms. Although the more austere and shy James does not envy Paige’s life of frivolity, he slowly begins to realize that Paige is his first friend—then that he is more than a friend.

One night, though, a terrible event takes place. Christopher Paige is killed and James disappears. When James does not appear at Mrs. Chickering’s funeral, Charlotte travels to London to find him.

In London, Charlotte’s inquiries attract the attention of the members of a powerful and mysterious club, the Aegolius. There has been an unexpected event at the club, and other people are looking for James. Soon, Charlotte finds herself involved with a secret substrata of the city.

Owen depicts a wonderfully atmospheric London. Although I was at first disappointed with the direction the story took, I still was unable to put this book down.