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.