Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Midnight Library - Matt Haig

 
Title: The Midnight Library
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Harper Avenue, 2020 (Paperback)
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Adult; Science Fiction
Started: July 29, 2021
Finished: July 30, 2021

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Between life and death there is a library. 

When Nora Seed finds herself in the Midnight Library, she has a chance to make things right. Up until now, her life has been full of misery and regret. She feels she has let everyone down, including herself. But things are about to change. 

The books in the Midnight Library enable Nora to live as if she had done things differently. With the help of an old friend, she can undo every one of her regrets as she tries to work out her perfect life. But things aren't always what she imagined they'd be, and soon her choices place the library and herself in extreme danger. 

Before time runs out, she must answer the ultimate question: What is the best way to live?

Review:
Yet another recommendation courtesy of TikTok, never say social media is completely useless. This book is insanely popular, with two million sold worldwide, and after reading it I can say the hype is well deserved. However good it is though, this could be a very triggering read for some people due to the subject matter (suicide).

Nora is thirty-five and has regrets over her life choices. As a teenager, she had the potential to become an Olympic-level swimmer but didn't. The band she formed with her brother could've been huge, but she left it. She could've been a scientist or a professor, but never pursued it. She was supposed to marry her fiancee Dan, but called it off. She just lost her job at a music store, her elderly neighbour doesn't need her help anymore, and her cat just died. After attempting suicide, she wakes up in a library reminiscent from her school days, complete with a figure who resembles the librarian from her youth. 

Mrs. Elm tells Nora that she is between life and death, and has a chance to undo the regrets she has in her current life by exploring one of the infinite alternate universe versions of herself, represented by the never-ending books on the library's shelves. She can explore the lives where she did become an Olympic swimmer, married Dan, became an internationally known singer, and many more. When she finds the life she likes most, she can become part of it and her journey will end. As Nora moves through numerous versions of herself, she comes to a few realizations that literally brings the library crumbling down around her. Nora's final choice will seal the fate of not only the library, but herself too. 

I'll admit that based on the summary I was expecting something a different story from what I actually got. Granted, I still enjoyed it, but I envisioned a tale based in magical realism with a magical library as the setting, some sort of ode to literature and stories in general. And this book is not that. However...

This book is perfect for anyone who's ever questioned their choices and wondered, "what if I had done this instead?" I think all of us have done that, to a degree. I know I have, though on a much smaller scale and with less consuming regrets than Nora. The author himself is very open with his struggles with depression and mental health in general, you can tell he poured a lot of his personal experiences into Nora and her story, so I give him tons of kudos for that. 

Long ago, I came to the same realizations that Nora hits at a few different points in the story (don't want to go into too much detail to avoid spoilers), so I knew exactly how the book was going to end before hitting the hundred-page mark. This didn't make the story any less enjoyable in my opinion, I had a really fun time exploring the philosophy from Nora's point of view. Other enlightened people might not feel the same though, and might find the story boring if they don't connect with Nora as a character. 

Recommendation: 
If you enjoy the premise of a person exploring alternate-universe versions of themselves, then you'll enjoy The Midnight Library. Anyone triggered by suicide will want to skip this book, though. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple, yet effective. I really like how this version has a little tiny Voltaire (Nora's cat) in the lower corner. 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The House in the Cerulean Sea - TJ Klune

 

Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor, 2020 (Paperback)
Length: 396 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 12, 2021
Finished: July 15, 2021

Summary:
From the back cover:

A magical island.
A dangerous task.
A burning secret. 

Linus Baker is a by-the-book caseworker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records for company. But his quiet life is about to change. 

Linus is summoned by Extremely Upper Management and given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to an orphanage on a distant island and determine whether six dangerous magical children are so dangerous, in fact, that they're likely to bring about the end of days. 

When Linus arrives at the strangest of islands he's greeted by a series of mysterious figures, the greatest mystery of which is Arthur Parnassus, the master of the orphanage. As Linus and Arthur grow closer, Linus discovers the master would do anything to keep the children safe, even if the world has to burn. Or worse, his secret comes to light. 

The House in the Cerulean Sea is an enchanting love story, masterfully told, about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place - and realizing that family is yours. 

Review:
I have TikTok to thank for a massive surge in my reading recommendations, this being one of them. So many people have posted about this particular book with the description that it "made your cold dead heart feel something for the first time in years" and "simply brought joy to your soul." I concur with both of those statements wholeheartedly. 

Linus Baker lives in a world (reminiscent of 1984 and X-men combined) where those born with powers are kept under control and monitored by the government. Many of these magical children are orphans and live in government-controlled institutions. Linus is his world's equivalent to a children's aid caseworker, visiting these orphanages and determining whether they should remain open or be shut down. Linus genuinely cares about his work and the children he's tasked to look in on, but his life has otherwise become a bit stagnant. 

He's ordered by the higher ups of his organization to observe the Marsyas Island Orphanage due to the unique abilities of the six children that live there. When they include the literal Antichrist, a wyvern, and a child that defies all explanation, he's not sure what to expect. This is made even more confusing when the master of the house, Arthur, doesn't always abide by the organization's rules. As Linus learns more about the house's inhabitants and bonds with them, he has to decide what should become of the place, and what to do when his one-month stay is over. 

Reading this book is like being wrapped in a cuddly blanket. There are some pretty dark and relatable themes of government control, prejudice, abuse, and hatred towards the "other", but those are tempered with humour and some of the most adorable moments that will just make your heart melt. 

The plot of the book is not overly complicated and it's pretty clear early on how the story will play out, but that's not the point of reading this book. The beauty is in the details. 

The characters are immediately relatable and endearing. Linus is just precious in how he cares about people in spite of his adherence to rules. Arthur is soft and fatherly, you just want to hug him. The kids are both adorable and hilarious, my favourite being Lucy, the devil himself, because his lines made me laugh so hard. All the other characters are amazing too, there honestly wasn't one that failed to capture my interest. 

The writing is simple, but nonetheless beautiful. The setting is described evocatively to the point where I, like Linus, was enchanted by the beauty of the island. There are so many beautiful quotes in this story that will make you laugh and cry, possibly at the same time.

Recommendation:
I can't recommend this book enough. It's become an instant favourite of mine, similar to everyone else who's read it (there's a reason it's so popular). If you want a book to enrapture you, go read this. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple, but good. The art style almost makes this seem like a children's book, but I find it charming.  

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Breaker: Tales of the Outlaw Mages - Amy Campbell

Title: Breaker: Tales of the Outlaw Mages (Book One)
Author: Amy Campbell
Publisher: Independently published, 2021 (Paperback, ebook)
Length: 433 pages 
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Started: June 30, 2021
Finished: July 5, 2021

Summary:
From the back cover:

Walking Disaster. Ruiner. Spook. Sorcerer. The reason we can't have    nice things. 

The citizens in the of Bristle have called Blaise every name in the  book. Born a Breaker, his unbridled magic wreaks havoc with a touch. As his peers land apprenticeships, Blaise faces the reality that no one wants a mage who destroys everything around him. When enemy soldiers storm the town hunting for spellcasters, he has no choice but to escape and rush headlong into the unknown. 

A chance encounter with a pegasus sets Blaise on the path to a new life. Despite the machinations of a surly gunslinger, he finds a place to belong in the hardscrabble world of the outlaw mages. 

But even an outlaw mage can't outrun his past, and Blaise's returns with a vengeance, threatening his chosen family. Can Blaise find the grit to harness his volatile magic into a saving grace, or will his most dangerous challenge be his last? 

Review:
Now that the school year is done and I can finally breathe, it's time to read for pleasure once again and thanks to TikTok I have plenty of recommendations to rebuild my TBR pile. This one was the first and it was a great way to kickstart my summer reading. 

In Iphyria, those with magical abilities are rounded up and controlled by the Salt-Iron Confederation, and there's very few places where mages can live without being forced to use their powers against their will. Blaise lives with his family in Desina, one of those few few hold-outs. Although he hasn't had to worry about the Confederation, Blaise still struggles because his magic isn't supposed to exist. Blaise is a Breaker, an untrained one at that, destroying everything he touches. 

When the Confederation comes calling in Desina, Blaise is forced to flee. He finds himself, alone, in the Gutter, a harsh region populated by outlaw mages that the Confederation doesn't control. When he rescues a Pegasus named Emrys, he discovers a community in Itude that accepts and welcomes him. But when the Confederation tracks him down even there, can Blaise control his magic to protect his newfound family?

This author had me hooked with "Asexual magic cowboys." 'Cause if that's not a reason to read a book, I don't know what is. Add in the Pegasi characters and you really can't go wrong here. 

This book pulls you right in from the start, and I attribute that to the excellent characters. Blaise is a sweetheart and you just want to hug him and tell him everything's going to be okay. Jack is perfect and prickly, adding just enough conflict in the beginning to make his character development throughout the book nice and satisfying. And the Pegasi, oh, the Pegasi are the best part of this book, they totally steal the show. Emrys and Zepheus have a fair bit of range, their telepathic communications with their riders varying from sweet to sarcastic and a bit scathing, and their little business venture selling Blaise's baked goods to the other Pegasi had me laughing. I haven't even touched on the rest of the characters that populate Itude, but they're all endearing to say the least. 

The world building is nicely done throughout the book rather than all at the beginning, and the magic system is unique in that each person born with magic (not everyone is) having their own particular specialty, and I'm not talking basic elemental magic like your average fantasy book, there are actually some types described that are quite impressive in their originality. 

Recommendation:
When the book you're reading has subtle Community references and librarian humour, you know it's going to be good (go read this!). There's an intriguing universe and magic system, and the characters are just phenomenal. I've already put book 2, Effigest on my list to buy when it comes out. 

If anyone wants to check out the author and her works, you can do so here: Amy Campbell
If anyone wants to read the book, you can find links to various retailers here: Breaker
If anyone wants to check out the cover artist, you can do so here: EerilyFair Design

Thoughts on the cover:
It's so pretty. I never thought I'd say that about a cover with obvious western motifs (that usually aren't my thing) but it's so stinkin' pretty. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Down Among the Sticks and Bones - Seanan McGuire


Title: Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor (Tom Doherty Associates), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 187 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: February 14, 2021
Finished: February 15, 2021

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. 

This is the story of what happened first...

Jacqueline was her mother's perfect daughter - polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it's because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline. 

Jillian was her father's perfect daughter - adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tomboy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you've got. 

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can't be trusted. 

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you for a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

Review:
After Every Heart a Doorway, the subsequent instalments in this series tackle the backstories of different characters from the first book. Twin sisters Jack and Jill were a favourite of mine from the first book (and apparently everyone else's too), so it makes sense that the next book focuses on them. 

I love these dark fairy tales, if for nothing else then to remind ourselves that children are living beings with preferences and needs that we can't necessarily shape and mould as we will. Pretty much all the damage done (at least so far in these first two books), comes from forgetting this. 

Chester and Serena are probably the last people in the world who should be parents, but all the men at his firm have perfect sons, and all the women on her committees have the most idyllic daughters. How hard could it be? When Serena gives birth to twin girls, it throws a bit of a monkey wrench into their plans of getting the perfect family all at once, but they work with what they have. Jillian is more daring and outgoing, while Jacqueline is more cautious and observant, so Jill becomes the tomboy stand-in for the son Chester always wanted, and Jacqueline becomes the quiet and proper daughter Serena always wanted.

When the girls are twelve and hating the rigid roles that have been thrust upon them, a doorway opens up at the bottom of a trunk in a closet, and what twelve-year-old with little freedom can resist the promise of adventure? They find themselves in the Moors with werewolves in the forests and a blood-red moon in the sky. Two men offer to care for them during their stay there...which will they choose? 

This instalment is just as engaging as the first book, even though we're only focusing on one set of characters. Jack and Jill's story is a good one; dark, but not to the point where it could turn readers off. If anything, I'm finding I want more of these stories and wish they were full-length novels rather than short novellas, but they're still excellent as they are.

Recommendation:
If you like dark fairy tales, give this series a try. I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of books 3 and 4 as we speak. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Again, similar to the first book, the landscape with the doorway as the central image is a good strategy to appeal to adult readers (this is not your usual YA cover) considering the cross-over potential. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Every Heart a Doorway - Seanan McGuire

Title: Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor (Tom Doherty Associates), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 169 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: February 10, 2021
Finished: February 12, 2021

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children

No solicitations
No visitors
No quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions - slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells and emerging somewhere...else. 

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children. 

Nancy tumbled once, but now she's back. The things she's experienced...they change a person. The children under Miss West's care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world. 

But Nancy's arrival marks a change at the home. There's a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it's up to Nancy and and her newfound schoolmates to get to the heart of things. No matter the cost. 

Review:
As we enter another year of pandemic restrictions and stress for anyone working in education right now, my pleasure reading choices have reverted to favourite genres that are personally comforting. And what better way to take someone out of their own head than a good portal fantasy. I always liked these types of books as a kid: Narnia, Wonderland (though my least favourite out of the bunch), Oz, Hogwarts, you name it I ate it up. As kids though, we never gave any thought to what happened to these characters when they went back, which this series explores nicely. 

When seventeen-year-old Nancy comes back through her door from the Underworld silent and devoid of colour, her desperate parents send her to Miss West's school in the hope of getting their happy little girl back. But like the other kids at the school, Nancy wants to find her door again so she can return to her real home. That is, if she can survive the rash of killings haunting the school since her arrival. 

This novella is a nice, quick read; but thanks to good, concise writing it isn't short on plot or development. The story introduces not just Nancy and her door, but several students and their fantasy worlds, all of them  engaging.

The author makes some clever observations that she works into the narrative, the following being my favourite, when Nancy asks why there are more girls than boys at the school:

"Because 'boys will be boys' is a self-fulfilling prophecy...They're too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds. It's not innate. It's learned. But it protects them from the doors, keeps them safe at home. Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women." (pg. 59)

And this one is from Miss West lecturing the children about supporting one another rather than treating each other as suspects, that could honestly be printed on the walls of classrooms everywhere:

"This world is unforgiving and cruel to those it judges as even the slightest bit outside the norm. If anyone should be kind, understanding, accepting, loving to their fellow outcasts, it's you. All of you. You are the guardians of the secrets of the universe, beloved of worlds that most will never dream of, much less see...can't you see where you owe it to yourselves to be kind? To care for one another? No one outside this room will ever understand what you've been through the way the people around you right now understand. This is not your home. I know that better than most. But this is your way station and your sanctuary, and you will treat those around you with respect." (pg. 100)

Recommendation:
If you're in the mood for a short but very satisfying fantasy read, give this a go and then get the rest of the books in the series: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, In an Absent Dream, Juice Like Wounds, Come Tumbling Down, and Across the Green Grass Fields.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover with a landscape and the door as the central focus is nicely suited to the content and targeted audience. This type of cover is nicely consistent with the other books in the series, so they look great on a shelf. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London - Garth Nix

 

Title: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

Author: Garth Nix

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (Harper Collins), 2020 (Hardcover)

Length: 393 pages

Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy

Started: December 1, 2020

Finished: December 3, 2020

Summary:

From the inside cover:

In a slightly alternative London in 1983, Susan Arkshaw is looking for her father, a man she has never met. Crime boss Frank Thringly might be able to help her, but Susan doesn't get time to ask Frank any questions before he is turned to dust by the prick of a silver hatpin in the hands of the outrageously attractive Merlin. 

Merlin is a young left-handed bookseller (one of the fighting ones). With the right-handed booksellers (the intellectual ones), he belongs to an extended family of magical beings who police the mythic and legendary Old World when it intrudes on the modern world - in addition to running several bookshops. 

Susan's search for her father begins with her mother's possibly misremembered or misspelled surnames, a reading-room ticket, and a silver cigarette case engraved with something that might be a coat of arms. 

Merlin has a quest of his own: to find the Old World entity who used ordinary criminals to kill his mother. As he and his sister, Vivien, tread in the path of a botched or covered-up police investigation from years past, they find this quest strangely overlaps with Susan's. Who or what was her father? Susan, Merlin, and Vivien must find out, as the Old World erupts dangerously into the New. 

In this pulse-pounding and laugh-out-loud expedition to the world of magical booksellers, Garth Nix crafts a unique fantasy that blurs the boundaries between reality and mythic legend. 

Review:

I've read Garth Nix's novels quite regularly since my teenaged years, so I'm always up for something new from him. This newest novel seemed quite appealing as both a bookstore-lover and a lefty. 

In an alternate imagining of London in 1983, 18-year-old Susan Arkshaw arrives before the start of her  fall term as an arts student to search for the father she never knew. When she approaches Frank Thringly, an old acquaintance of her mother's, she becomes caught up in a whirlwind of events concerning the world she knows, the Old World, and the governing body of Booksellers (left and right-handed) that keep the two from mixing. 

This story is a very fun, engaging read. It's big on plot and moves quickly. It's not a very deep story though, and doesn't really get into any depth in terms of character development, which I would've liked to see for Susan and Merlin.

Merlin makes up for any deficits in depth though, he's a great source of witty comic relief, and as a gender-fluid character, a welcome addition to diversity in YA fiction (especially for a story set in the 80s).

Recommendation:

A fun romp, but a little lacking in depth, so for some readers this might be a book to borrow rather than buy. 

Thoughts on the cover:

I love the colour scheme of golden yellow and blue/black/grey, it makes for a gorgeous cover.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Axiom's End - Lindsay Ellis

Title: Axiom's End
Author: Lindsay Ellis
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2020 (Hardcover)
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Adult; Science Fiction
Started: July 22, 2020
Finished: July 27, 2020

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Truth is a human right.

It's fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the U.S. government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblowing father . Even though Cora hasn't spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the internet, the paparazzi, and the government - and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father's leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him - until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.

Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence is completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human - and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.

Review:
The author, Lindsay Ellis, is a video essayist on YouTube who posts mainly about media criticism, including all the geeky things I tend to enjoy, like Disney. Her videos are intelligent, funny, and just generally well-done (especially her Hugo Award-nominated videos on the Hobbit films); if anyone is interested in them, you can find them here. The main reason I knew about and read this book is because I'm fond of the author's work, so I wanted to be clear about my bias in regards to this novel in particular. With that out of the way, this book was definitely an engaging read. It had some blips on the radar, but this was definitely read-worthy, which is a good thing because this book is the first in a series with four more books planned.

Journalist Nils Ortega has leaked evidence that aliens known as the "Fremda Group" have been in CIA custody for decades. When the government investigates his ex-wife and three children and take them into custody in the hopes of finding him, 21-year-old Cora manages to escape and seeks the aid of her aunt Luciana, Nils' sister who, until recently, worked with the group tasked with figuring out how to communicate with the Fremda aliens, to no avail. Before she can meet up with Luciana though, Cora is followed and abducted by an alien who plants a Babel Fish-type device into her, enabling him to communicate directly into her mind. He, later named Ampersand, orders Cora to take him to the Fremda group before they are killed by another alien called Obelus, who was sent to destroy them. Cora agrees, mainly so she can leverage her ability to communicate with Ampersand to guarantee her family's safety. As the two travel to meet Luciana and later the rest of the Fremda group still in CIA custody, Cora learns about Ampersand's society and how humanity will be impacted by their interactions.

This book had a bit of a slow start for me. Cora isn't a very engaging character in the beginning in my opinion. She's having some issues adjusting to adult life: she's a college drop-out with an incomplete linguistics major, loses a temp job on the first day, and in general acts younger than twenty-one (which makes sense because apparently in a first draft she was supposed to be eighteen and was aged up). Things get much more exciting once Ampersand shows up and Cora slowly pieces together the reason why the Fremda group came to Earth in the first place. The dialogue between them is engaging, and through this you can see that Ampersand does have a fully formed personality. Though Ampersand does have a chance to have his character background explained, Cora sadly doesn't. We know she has daddy issues from Nils leaving, and that she has a tenuous relationship with her mom but loves her younger siblings, and she likes to play the guitar, but no clues for why those things exist. It sometimes feels as if any time that could've been used to flesh out Cora a bit more was sacrificed to either advance the plot or to focus on Ampersand. The focus on Ampersand pays off, but I wish that we could've gotten to know Cora better (hopefully we will get that in future instalments).

In terms of the setting, it takes place in an alternate version of America in 2007. There are a lot of references from that time period from political figures to movies, music and events, so anyone who either wasn't alive or was too young to really remember that period (so anyone younger than their teens/early 20s) might have a hard time envisioning the environment the author is trying to invoke. I fear this book will not age well as a result of this.

The themes in the book can get very dark, but not to the point where you feel you have to put the book down. Colonialism, genocide, and how those two ideas often intersect in practice compose the main thematic points, with the undercurrent of what it means to be human and traits that we value and how we place those expectations on a group we view as the "other." This book could generate some great discussions in a classroom or bookclub setting.

The interactions between Cora and Ampersand are well-written and satisfying. I can't say more for fear of spoilers, but let's just say it is very on-brand for the author if you're familiar with the content she creates (it made my inner fangirl happy).

Recommendation:
A bit of a slow start, but once it gets going this book manages to be insightful and touching and is definitely worth the read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series and seeing where the story goes.

Thoughts on the cover:
Apparently the author had numerous revisions with the publisher to get the cover to look the way she wanted, and if that's true, it was worth the hassle. The reddish-orange and beige colour scheme is aesthetically appealing, and the cover image works in the context of the story.