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. 

January Book Club: Kindred

Oh. My. Goodness. I don’t even know where to start on this book, so let’s start with the piece I was looking forward to the most: time travel. Time travel, something that often looks different depending on the story and rules that contradict each other. In general, there is typically a mentality that what you do in the past has already had an effect on the future. With this in mind, Dana never faces the “will I succeed in this” challenge because Butler removed it from the equation with her rules of time travel:

  1. Dana will automatically go back in time when Rufus’s life is in danger.
  2. Dana will automatically go forward in time when her own life is in danger.

This means that the reader and Dana can make the following assumption whenever Dana goes back in time: Dana will save him and then be stuck in his time until her life is in danger. In fact, this assumption is made so early on in the book that it’s almost written verbatim as the description of the book, making this the first book I’ve ever read where time travel doesn’t move the story. In Kindred, time travel causes the story but is otherwise not a motivator. We even know that Dana is going to find her way back in the end because the beginning of the book starts with Dana being in the hospital.

This brings me to the second thing that I should probably talk about: time, or rather the passage of it. The movement of time in Kindred is fascinating because Dana can spend months with Rufus, only to come back to minutes passing in her own time. Kevin spent 5 years back in time, only to miss 8 days of his own. In the past, time is not stalled, but in the present time moves forward based upon whether or not Dana is there. Time is disorienting, making you question the year while also reminding Dana that her wounds are still fresh and she needs to be careful.

The final thing I want to talk about is something that Dana told Kevin when they went back in time together: We’re just observers. First of all, I cannot imagine being thrown back in time to a place that was fundamentally unsafe for me while trying to safe someone who would grow up to be one of the reasons that I was unsafe. Now that I’ve said that, can we really say that Dana and Kevin were simply observers of a time? Kevin spent time helping slaves escape. Dana tried to change the lives of those around her. Personally, I wouldn’t call them observers, I would argue that they were fighting towards something they knew was right because the future gave them the hope required to be brave.

Kindred is a book that implemented ideas that I knew in a way that I hadn’t experienced in a book before and that was one of the reasons that it was fun to read. It’s also one of the reasons I finally reached for The Help By Kathryn Stockett, I wasn’t done reading about the importance of time and perspective.

In honor of my historical fiction kick, February’s book club with be Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton. I’m afraid I don’t remember why this one ended up on my “to read list”, but I admit that the cover had something to do with it.

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity–and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution…

Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba’s high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country’s growing political unrest–until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary…

Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa’s last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.

Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba’s tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she’ll need the lessons of her grandmother’s past to help her understand the true meaning of courage.