June Book Club: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

I have so many positive things to say about this book that I don’t know where to start, so I will start by simply saying: this book was fun. This book was so much fun that I have spent the last month telling everyone who will listen how enjoyable the Ten Thousand Doors of January is. If you’re reading this blog for the first time, and you didn’t join us in reading the Ten Thousand Doors of January, you should seriously consider putting your device down and picking the book up.

To understand one of the reasons that I love this book I think it’s worth taking a second to mention that portal literature (think Alice in Wonderland) has always played a special role in my life. As a kid, I dreamt of my shower drain opening up so that I could dive into the ocean as a mermaid and watched the stars in hopes that Tinkerbell would fly down and take me away to Neverland. The idea that we live in a mundane world but are surrounded by magic makes me so unbelievably happy to this day. So when you consider the idea that there are thousands of doors in the world that are open and just waiting to be discovered, it’s hard to imagine a world where I do not love this book.

The portal piece of this book is well done, but when you strip that piece of the story away it’s still a phenomenal story. January is a young girl living in Vermont during a time when young girls didn’t have many options in the world. She is the ward of a wealthy caretaker who is more interested in keeping her as part of his collection (both because she is mixed race and because she comes from another world) than in building her up to be the woman she is meant to be. In fact, the most painful transformation that occurs in the book is when January realizes that she needs to act a specific way in order to be loved and accepted, especially because her skin color doesn’t match those that are around her. She almost has to be extra well behaved, a societal pressure that worked well with this story.

And then he sends her to an asylum in an attempt to keep her safe and prevent her from thinking about doors. How on earth do you convince someone that you’re not crazy when you’ve been labeled as crazy? How do you behave in a way that convinces people that you are not a danger to yourself when everything that you do seems to confirm what they believe. How do you hold onto who you are while also conforming so that you are able to succeed? Although January wasn’t in the asylum for very long, I enjoyed watching her work through these questions while trying to keep herself safe.

Safety is an interesting theme within this book because it’s almost as if January is telling you that you can be safe or you can be yourself. True, sometimes there is safety in being yourself, but more often than not you need to put yourself out there in order to get what you want. This goes against all of the teachings that January has absorbed over the years and we see it pronounced the strongest when she eventually leaves her parents to write her own story.

I also want to take a moment to discuss the idea of a story within a story, because this writing technique was executed in a way that allowed me as a reader to escape further into January. I too felt comforted as she read the story in the asylum. I too felt overwhelmed when I discovered that her father wrote each word and that it was real. True, I still struggled to sympathize with his motivations, but it made me understand who he was and what his intentions were.

According to this story, love literally spans worlds waiting for you to come home again. Thought I didn’t need January to fall in love because I was rooting for her to reunite with her family, I didn’t mind it either.

I’ve only seen one episode of the Netflix series a few months ago, but that’s moreso because my partner isn’t interested in watching with me. Next month we’ll be reading the Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevisand and allowing ourselves to fall down the chess rabbit hole that caused so many games to sell out this past fall. Mostly, I’m wondering if I’ll want to pick up Alice In Wonderland when the story is over.

Cover art for the queen's gambit by Walter Tevis

When she is sent to an orphanage at the age of eight, Beth Harmon soon discovers two ways to escape her surroundings, albeit fleetingly: playing chess and taking the little green pills given to her and the other children to keep them subdued. Before long, it becomes apparent that hers is a prodigious talent, and as she progresses to the top of the US chess rankings she is able to forge a new life for herself. But she can never quite overcome her urge to self-destruct. For Beth, there’s more at stake than merely winning and losing.

May Book Club: Mexican Gothic

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This month we read Mexican Gothic, which won the GoodReads award for Horror in 2020. As I turned the pages of the final chapter, I realized that I wanted more from this book than it was prepared to give me. I wanted to feel the house entangle itself around Noemí, choking her desire to leave, really pushing the boundary between what she saw as real and what wasn’t. Instead, I found myself being told, not shown, what was happening at every turn. Noemí’s cousin was acting funny, but what did that really mean? Sure we were told that she was a girl who believed in romance and fantasy, but the contrast of a girl who seemed to sit inside herself all day wasn’t enough to lead me to believe anything beyond the suspicion of her new husband abusing her.

I wanted more from Noemí’s eventual love interest. Honestly, it probably would have made for a better story if he was playing her all along. Tricking her into trusting him so that he could manipulate the situation. Even still, for Noemí to go from not being interested to the seemingly hundreds of boys throwing themselves at her to a fungus enthusiast seemed a bit forced. Just for fun, imagine if there hadn’t been a love interest at all…

I didn’t understand why everyone in the house was so terrible to Noemí and her cousin… surely they could have had more of a sickly sweet tone about them to entice Noemí into staying and use their false kindness to hide what they were really doing. It would have made the eventual betrayal worse.

The next important thing to bring up here is the setting. Despite taking place in Mexico, the bulk of the story takes place in an English Manor. On the one hand, this is a setting that I’ve come to know and love about horror novels and the setting of our story is more or less based on a real place. On the other hand, it’s a little unclear to me what made this story “Mexican” because it reads as though it could have taken place in England. Now, I didn’t live in Mexico during the 1950s, but perhaps there should have been more of a contrast between the manor and the world that Noemí new? Or perhaps the lack of contrast was the point because of the relationship between the house, the town and the mushrooms? Is it even fair of me to want more here?

Speaking of Mushrooms, I actually really like the idea that a fungus growing on a dead body can lead to such horrifying events. Fungi are so resilient, the idea that eternal life can be found in a mushroom if provided the right conditions is really cool! It also plays on the “whatever you do, don’t eat anything” rule that tends to go hand in hand with supernatural. Again, it would have been nice to have spent more time on this idea and to have been shown rather than told.

Finally, I wish that the first two thirds of the book read like the last third of the book. As one of my friends pointed out to me when we were discussing our feelings, “It goes from nearly Gothic Romance, with bits of ‘Oh these people are hiding a terrible secret’ to ‘Body horror and super haunted house’ within about a single page.”

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this book as well! Where my expectations too high? Do you disagree with me on anything?

Next month, we’re going to step into The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. The description and title make me long to reread Alice and Wonderland, I love a good portal literature story.

Cover art for The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
The Ten Thousand Doors of January

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

April Book Club: Reverie

Book art for Reverie by Ryan La Sala
Reverie, by Ryan La Sala

Perhaps one of the reasons that I enjoyed this book so much is that the idea of a Reverie speaks to me on a fundamental level. Portal literature, or literature where the main character starts in “the real world” and then falls down a hole (Alice in Wonderland), goes though a mirror (Through the Looking Glass), crosses a wall (Stardust), or goes through a wardrobe (Narnia) to find themselves in a magical land, is literature that I always seem to fall into. The idea that crossing an invisible magical barrier is all it takes to go on an adventure in a magical world was something that I spent hours daydreaming about as a child.

In this magical world, I would be something spectacular. A witch or a fairy. Perhaps a knight on quest. The options where literally endless in my mind. When you add this to the concept that reveries are a subconscious dreamscape that come alive in the real world, is it really a wonder that I quickly became enthralled with this book?

Kane Montgomery is an interesting main character because he is both who he was before his memories were wiped and who he is trying to be based upon the information that he learns about himself. Though I don’t typically enjoy plots that are driven by “amnesia”, the loss of memory in Kane’s case leads to an accepting of who he is and a desire to be better. It was his “humbling moment” if you will, the reason that he makes the choices he does when the pieces are finally put together.

One of the other things that’s interesting about this book is the mixed, and I mean truly mixed reviews on it. People either love it (me for example) or they struggle to get through it. Those who love it find themselves being swept away into the idea that you deepest fantasies can come alive just long enough for you to live them. They find themselves rooting for the Others to save the day because that means dreams can live on. Those who don’t like the book seem to be hung up on the idea of a Reverie to begin with, they didn’t like Kane as a character or they had very different expectations going in. Where do you fall on the spectrum and why?

I was patiently waiting for the library to notify me that my copy of Mexican Gothic is available, when one of my friends enthusiastically said that they had a historical fiction for me to read. When she dropped by to pass it into my hands I couldn’t help but squeal as the words Mexican Gothic poked out from her bag. This book has gotten so much hype about being a good historical horror story, let’s check it out together for May’s book club!

Mexican Gothic
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind. 

March Book Club: The Bride Test

Cover art for The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang

The Bride Test was one of those books that fell into my lap (aka reading mood) at the right time. This is one of those books that would not have worked as well if Helen Hoang (the author) didn’t have Asperger’s Syndrome herself; her characters would have lacked the authenticity that goes hand in hand with fundamentally understanding a different way of experiencing the world.

And we are talking a different way of experiencing the world. Khai’s feelings toward getting a haircut and being touched correctly were a friendly reminder of some of the little things that I take for granted. Without this insight into Khai’s world, it would have been hard to truly understand his hesitancy around intimacy and how one wrong touch could ruin everything.

Speaking of intimacy, it was a little comical to be inside Khai’s mind when he thought he was doing a great job and then to witness the discussion between himself, his brother and cousin. When Khai’s family said that they should have prepared them better, I couldn’t help but think about my own first time and how unprepared I was for it.

I loved that this conversation (and the books that Khai were given) translated into better communication between Khai and Esme. It was a moment that made both parties realize that without telling the other what feels good, they had no way of knowing. No one is a mind reader and, no matter what your views are, intimacy should be an act between two people where they both participate. It should never be something that is just done to you (which should really be a part of the conversation when everyone gets the “birds and the bees” chat).

Was anyone else surprised when no one batted an eye about her existing? After all, Esme spent the summer living with Khai and working with his family. It’s hard to believe that everyone was that accepting, though it was nice to see.

I also have mixed feelings about Khai’s brother constantly saying that he was interested in Esme as a way to trick Khai into evaluating his feelings. On the one hand, he obviously knows Khai very well and was confident that the correct “result” would be recognized. On the other hand, I think he would have gone through with everything if Khai didn’t act…

Our next book for book club will be Reverie, by Ryan La Sala. Reverie came onto my radar back in November because it was my library’s “Next big read” or the ebook that you could borrow without putting a hold on it no matter how many people had it checked out. I have a habit of having three or four books checked out at a time, so I added it to my to read list. Where it has patiently waited for less books to be on my plate.

Cover art for Reverie by Ryan La Sala
Reverie by Ryan La Sala

All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember how he got there, what happened after, and why his life seems so different now. And it’s not just Kane who’s different, the world feels off, reality itself seems different.

As Kane pieces together clues, three almost-strangers claim to be his friends and the only people who can truly tell him what’s going on. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident. And when a sinister force threatens to alter reality for good, they will have to do everything they can to stop it before it unravels everything they know.

This wildly imaginative debut explores what happens when the secret worlds that people hide within themselves come to light.

February Book Club: Next Year in Havana

A young woman wearing a sheer sleeved princess cut reddish pink dress, a pearl necklace and a heather in her hair on a turquoise couch. Her dress fades into the Havana city line.
Next Year in Havana, By Chanel Cleeton

The cover art for this month’s book is so beautiful, the fancy pink dress providing a stark contrast against the empty city line. The image provides a a lot of insight into the book, foreshadowing that I might have noticed if I had been paying enough attention.

Over all, I enjoyed Next Year in Havana, though I have to admit that I’m bias towards Elisa’s story and wanted more of it. To live with a character whose world is being turned upside-down. Where promises are being broken and hope is all that you have. My heart broke for Elisa when she learned the news that her fiancé didn’t make it back from the mountains, further still when Marisol learns that Elisa’s father had neglected to tell her that he had helped him out of prison.

As Marisol traveled to Cuba and began to piece together her grandmother’s (Elisa’s) story, I couldn’t help but long for the chapters that provided us with insight from Elisa’s perspective. The historical context was a romantic, or at least as romantic as a country on the brink of rebellion can be.

When Marisol fell in love, I couldn’t help feel a twang of irritation. On the one hand, it was clear that Chanel Cleeton (author) was trying to mirror the future with the past. On the other, I didn’t need Marisol to fall in love in order to experience what she experienced. Louis could have been someone who was just a friend (of either gender) and Marisol could have still felt a duty to help.

Then we learned the truth about Pablo being Marisol’s grandfather and the duel love stories held a little bit more power. Would Pablo had helped Marisol if Louis hadn’t been a love interest? Would he have been able to relate to someone else?

Thought less compelling, my heart broke a little bit when Louis realized that he had to leave Havana and when Marisol realized that he would be leaving a piece of his heart with him. Cleeton never told us whether or not this was a torn in their relationship, but the book ends with Hope.

“When Fidel dies, we’ll return.” A saying initially uttered by Marisol’s family, she finds herself saying it when speaking of Cuba with Louis. Despite Fidel’s death, the legacy he leaves behind will be in tact for who knows how long. There are many ways that the Castro’s are still controlling the government.

All in all, Next Year in Havana left me itching for more information, especially because the book takes place right before the “wet foot dry foot” policy was removed. Perhaps someday the limited information on Cuba will grow and I will find myself wandering its shores. Until then, I will do my best to satisfy myself with stories.

I’m not sure how The Bride Test made it onto my “to read list”. Perhaps it was the yellow cover that seemed inviting or the idea that there was a test you had to take before you could become a bride.

A young Vietnamize woman holding a pencil eraser to her mouth as she stares down at a piece of paper.
The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang

Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions—like grief. And love. He thinks he’s defective. His family knows better—that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.

As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can’t turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn’t go as planned. Esme’s lessons in love seem to be working…but only on herself. She’s hopelessly smitten with a man who’s convinced he can never return her affection.

With Esme’s time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he’s been wrong all along. And there’s more than one way to love.