The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

 

“You have as many lives as you have possibilities. There are lives where you make different choices. And those choices lead to different outcomes. If you had done just one thing differently, you would have a different life story. And they all exist in the Midnight Library. They are all as real as this life.”

Matt Haig presents his readers with a touching and ultimately life-affirming tale of second chances. The Midnight Library follows Nora, a lonely thirty-five-year-old woman from Bedford, who has just hit rock bottom. She’s single, her only maybe-friend lives in Australia, her brother seems to hate her or at least he makes a point of avoiding her, and she has just been fired from String Theory, the music shop she worked for the past twelve years. Nora is tired of being sad and miserable, of being eaten up regrets. She’s exhausted of living.
What awaits Nora is the Midnight Library, a place that sits “between life and death” and where “the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices”. Each book presents Nora with another version of her life. What if she had kept training as a swimmer? What if she had married her ex? What if she’d stayed in her brother’s band? What if she’d kept on studying?
The possibilities are infinite and Nora finds herself wanting to experiences them all. As she jumps from book to book Nora soon realises that there isn’t such a thing as the perfect life. Even in the life in which she has pursued swimming her relationship with her father isn’t great. By living all these different lives, Nora’s no longer feels guilty for not doing what others expected or pressured her to do. Happiness is a tricky thing, and it cannot be achieved by simply acquiescing to others desires.
Haig’s imbues Nora’s story with plenty of humour. Although the story touches on mental health (depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, panic attacks, addiction) the narrative maintains an underlining note of hope. Haig showcases great empathy, never condemning anyone as being responsible for another person’s unhappiness.
Although the novel isn’t too sentimental it did feel a bit too uplifting (I know, I am a grinch). Perhaps I wanted to story to delve in darker territories but Nora’s story is rather innocuous. Still, this was a heart-warming book, and the ‘what if’ scenarios could be very entertaining as I was never bored. Haig as a penchant for dialogues and discussing mental health related issues with both clarity and sensitivity. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Carey Mulligan, who does an exceptional job (I just really loved her narration).

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern — book review

secret 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 Historian by Elizabeth Kostova — book review

What could have been the perfect historical mystery for bibliophiles ended up being an unnecessarily long-winded and frequently dull novel.

“Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.”

The Historian alludes to a variety of works, sometimes by means of subtle allusions, while in other cases Elizabeth Kostova seems to be emphasising her own novel’s intertextuality, such as its ostensible intertextual relationship to Stoker’s Dracula.
While Dracula has come to represent a turning point in vampire literature, hailing it as the ‘original vampire novel’ means disregarding the earlier encounters with vampires of other writers such as Goethe, Byron, Le Fanu, and Polidori. Although the ‘romantic’ and ‘seductive’ vampires populating today’s media don’t seem to owe much to Bram Stoker’s hairy-palmed Dracula, he has become an intrinsic part of vampire culture (if not a synonym of vampirism itself). While vampires are inherently intertextual beings (readers know more or less what to expect when reading a vampire novel) I was hoping that Elizabeth Kostova would not relegate her version of Dracula to the sidelines of her story…which sadly seems to be the case. Kostova, even more than Stoker, pushes Dracula, otherwise known as Vlad Țepeș, to the margins of her narrative.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Historian is its supernatural ambience and the stylistic strength of Kostova’s writing as she deftly weaves together folklore and history in what is neither a carbon-copy of nor a sequel to Dracula. Kostova’s story is an amalgamation of genres: a work of Gothic that largely relies on the epistolary form, a detective novel that is equal parts adventure, travelogue, and history lesson. Through these various styles Kostova examines the often conflictual relationship between Christian West and the Islamic East.
Kostova’s re-elaboration of the myths and stories established by works such as Dracula reflects a divided Europe. She examines themes of immortality, monstrosity, and otherness, against a backdrop of quiet social upheaval. Paul and Helen’s quest to find Dracula/Vlad’s tomb is often impeded by the political atmosphere of the countries they visit. Paul in particular, being American, is regarded with suspicion by these countries’ socialist regimes. This added another layer of secretiveness to their ‘adventures’, one that forces them to carry out their true research under a guise.

While we do get an overall biography of Vlad Țepeș, the ‘man’ himself does not recount his own experiences, we don’t see from his own point of view. His potential victims inform us of his misdeeds and history…which serve to make Vlad into a rather one-sided character. He is ‘evil’, and that seems to be that. I was expecting a far more nuanced portrayal of vampires and of this infamous historical figure. Terrible people/creatures can still be compelling subjects. Kostova’s novel however does not really allow this vilified figure the chance to speak his truth. I could have understood his motivations without necessarily agreeing with them. Sadly, Vlad seems evil for the sake of being evil. We learn of his monstrous actions but we never truly glimpse the mind behind those brutal deeds. Vlad is evil because of his transgression of the natural order…and that’s it. Vampirism aside Kostova’s depiction of Vlad does not really propose any new ‘reading’ of his rule.

While I really appreciated the use of different timelines in Kostova’s latest novel, The Shadow Land, here the various storylines were rather uneven: in the 1970s our narrator is a sixteen-year old girl who remains unnamed throughout the course of the novel, her father Paul (his story takes place in the 1950s), and Paul’s former mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi (most of his letters are dated from the 1930s). Initially I thought that the narrative would mainly switch between Paul and his daughter…so I was rather disappointed to discover that the daughter’s story is non-existent. She appears at the beginning of this bulky book and has a few chapters here and there…and that’s it. Paul’s story is the main focus of the narrative, and sadly I just wasn’t all that taken by him or his adventures. Him and Helen definitely travel through interesting cities and places (Turkey, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, France) and I did appreciate Kostova’s use of the sublime in these ‘travelogue’ sections: the way in which the landscapes inspires fear and awe in Paul (these sections reminded me of Ann Radcliffe).
Sadly Paul and Helen’s journey soon grew rather repetitive and predictable. They always seemed to encounter the right people and the right time which definitely struck me as a too coincidental. While I certainly enjoyed reading of the history of the cities they travel through, I wasn’t all that invested in them or their ‘quest’.
Perhaps I was hoping for a more emotionally involving story (such as the one in The Shadow Land) but here the characters were largely secondary, if not downright passive, and while there were plenty of opportunities to flesh them out, to give us an impression of their personalities, their ‘quest’ has far more importance.
The ‘quest’ largely relies on their finding documents or people who know something about Dracula’s existence. They gather information slowly, over the course of hundred and hundred of pages. A lot of what they ‘discover’ wasn’t all that surprising…the ending felt anti-climatic to the extreme.
Nevertheless, in spite of my not so great opinion of this novel, I did appreciate Kostova’s subject matter and her confluence of classicism and romanticism, of logic and emotion, of mysticism and faith. Last but not least, I have always loved descriptions of books and libraries…

“Besides, you can tell a great deal from a historian’s books.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes – book review

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“She wasn’t really one for big groups, but she quite liked this, the jokes and the merriment, and the way that you could see actual friendships springing up around the room, like green shoots.”

The Giver of Stars is a sweeping romantic western that tells a fictionalised account of the Kentucky Pack Horse Librarians. It is very much a book-club kind of book as it is inspired by a real group of librarians who between 1935 and 1943 delivered books to some of the most remote regions in the Appalachian Mountains. Although this project, and the women behind it, make for a very inspirational subject matter….I’m not sure that this book does them justice.

While I enjoyed those parts that focused on the library project, I found much of the story to be bogged down by unnecessary drama. Most of the book focuses on the way in which the big bad Van Cleve tries to ‘destroy’ this project and the women behind it…and it was all-too predictable. Plus, I found the romance factor to be far too twee for me.
When the narrative chronicled the librarians’ rounds, swiftly taking us alongside them through their rides across a vast and treacherous landscape, I felt very much engaged. The interactions between the librarians and those who inhabit these remote places were compelling, especially since the people they visit were mistrustful, if not downright aggressive. The librarians rise to the ‘challenge’ and try to emphasise the importance of literature without causing offence. In these sections the novel outlines the direct correlation between poverty and illiteracy, and the way in which literature can ‘unite’ people together.

Sadly, to deliver some of these deliberately positive messages, the book relies on a cast of shallow characters. We have the clearly good gals/guys (Alice and Margery are very much the heroines of the story) and the comically wicked guy, Van Cleve.
Alice would have been more suited, and convincing, in an 18th century novel (something like Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady). Her main distinguishing attribute is that she is British, so she has an ‘accent’ that is different from those around her. She possess only good qualities, and it is other people’s (the baddies) lack of understanding or ignorance that makes her seem like a ‘rebel’ of some sort (she isn’t).
Margery was the typical unconventionalwoman, who is opposed to marrying until she (view spoiler) Why in historical fiction there has to be this female character who is made to seem so unlikeother women (often the narrative or other characters will compare her to a man) in that she is against the marriage institution and does not wish to be tied down, and then (view spoiler).
Alice and Margery happen to fall in love for two handsome men, who happen to be laid-back, kind, aware of social injustices as sexisms and racial intolerance (ahem…sure….lets remember that this book is set in Kentucky during the 1930s)….and they (view spoiler).
The three other librarians are not given their individual character arcs, rather if something happens to them it is usually when either Alice or Margery is there, so that it can be thanks to our heroines that these other women gain self-assurance or whatnot. In fact Alice and Margery seems singlehandedly able to right any wrongs, save lives, unmask Van Cleve…
Van Cleve…is all flaws. You name it, he has it. He is corrupt, sexist, racist, cruel (against his fellow humans & animals), greedy, hypocritical…the list goes on. He is the villain. That’s all you need to know.
His son, Bennett, is presented as a coward who is unwilling or unable to stand up to his father (even when Van Cleve is haranguing Alice, his wife). Unlike the two heroes Bennett doesn’t do physical work and doesn’t care about women’s rights or literature…and that’s believable-ish…I guess (after all he does come from a well to do family). What I found pretty objectionable is that his sexual inexperience is made fun of by the narrative and our so called heroines & heroes. For some reason or other Bennett has never learnt about sex, and perhaps because of this he has come to regard sex as a sinful if not ‘bad’ act. Rather than making it clear that it was his strictly conservative and religious upbringing that has lead to his sexual abnegation/impotence, the narrative implies that it is another facet of his cowardice, something to be ridiculed as it is further confirmation that he is notenoughof a man (he doesn’t stand up to his father, he doesn’t work, he isn’t concerned by the inequities around him) and because of this he is ‘afraid’ of having sex. Ahaha (not).
If we were to reverse Alice and her husband’s role (so that it was Alice who was reticent or unwilling to have sex ) wouldn’t we criticise Bennett for pressuring his wife into having sex? Or of thinking her a coward or less of a woman because she doesn’t want to/can’t have sex? Wouldn’t we disapprove of the narrative and other characters making fun of her because of it?

The story started well enough but the cheesiness of the story, the one-dimensional characters, the unnecessary melodrama, were all not to my taste.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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