Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Fantasy (page 1 of 3)

Interview With The Vampire – Anne Rice

Going into Interview With The Vampire, I only really knew Anne Rice by reputation – if at all. I’d heard a lot of women around my age talk about reading her books as a formative experience, sneaking them home from the library and devouring them under the covers, but somehow I missed out on that rite of passage. I’d never even seen the Oscar-winning film adaptation of her most famous book, so I went into it with pretty much a blank slate.

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Interview With The Vampire is a gothic-horror vampire novel (duh), styled as a centuries-old vampire – Louis de Pointe du Lac – telling his life story to a reporter. Rice drops you right into the middle of the conversation, or that’s how it feels anyway. I wondered for a minute whether there was an introductory chapter or two missing, because the action takes off before you know what hits you and doesn’t stop.

Louis was 25 years old, back in 1791, when he became a vampire. He was an indigo plantation owner (ahem, slave-owner, but more on that in a minute) grieving the shocking loss of his pious brother Paul. In the midst of a self-destructive spiral, he is approached and bitten by a vampire, Lestat de Lioncourt. Soon, he’s allergic to the sun and sleeping in a coffin and hungry only for blood hot and fresh from the vein.

Lacking any other options for vampire buddies, Louis and Lestat become frenemies. Louis hopes that Lestat will teach him The Ways of being a vampire, but everything Lestat shows him seems either completely stupid or morally reprehensible. Louis feels stuck with him, though – and the fact that they’re immortal, so this arrangement might have to last forever, adds another layer of conflict and complexity. And, it hardly needs saying but I’ll say it anyway: it’s all deeply homoerotic. There’s no subtlety to it at all.

Even though this all happens very quickly in Interview With The Vampire, you’ll still find yourself working through long, long chapters. Rice is wordy, and she loves an ellipsis, which gives you the feeling of reading extended texts from a baby boomer.

Anyway, Louis and Lestat’s relationship is coming apart at the seams. In desperation, Louis escapes to New Orleans, and finds himself drawn to ‘feed’ (sorry, gross, I know) on a plague-ridden five-year-old girl, whom he finds crying next to her mother’s corpse (double gross, but hold onto your hat, there’s worse to come). Lestat is worried that Louis is going to abandon him, so he has the bright idea of also feeding on the five-year-old and completing the process of turning her into a vampire, too. I guess it’s the old-timey vampire equivalent of a surprise pregnancy in Anne Rice’s world. Louis can’t leave Lestat now – they have a baby.

That might be repellent enough to put a swathe of would-be readers off Interview With A Vampire altogether, but what I read about that particular plot point afterwards changed my feelings about it. Rice began working on the short story that would eventually become Interview With The Vampire shortly after the death of her daughter Michelle, at just six years of age. She’s even said specifically, in interviews and so forth, that the young vampire girl (Claudia, in the book) is directly inspired by her late daughter. Knowing that makes the story less horrifying and more horribly sad, for me anyway. What mother wouldn’t want to give her daughter eternal life, even if it meant turning her into a vampire (or, as it were, a fictional character)?

Whether you can stomach the attack, abuse, manipulation, and corruption of a child, described in yearning and tender prose, is just one deciding factor in whether Interview With The Vampire is the right book for you. There’s also the aforementioned homoeroticism (though that endears me to it more, if anything). One of my favourite critical comments on this point came from Edith Milton, writing for The New Republic: “To pretend that it has any purpose beyond suckling eroticism is rank hypocrisy,”. LOL!

What I really take issue with in Interview With The Vampire is the depiction of slavery, and the inherent racism in the narrative. I suspect you’d need a few years to write a thesis that really gets to the bottom of it, especially now with the newer screen adaptation transforming the story with a Black man in the lead. As I read this one, though, purely on a surface level, you’ve got Lestat feeding on slaves and their families, Louis exploiting their fear, and zero question or concern about their well-being or the systemic problem of race-based slavery.

It’s particularly surprising given that Rice seemed to style herself as a chronicler of the plight of the down-trodden. “I wrote novels about people who are shut out life for various reasons,” she wrote in her memoir. “This became a great theme of my novels — how one suffers as an outcast.”

I suppose Rice did try to nod to social justice when she had Louis refuse to feed on his own slaves (he predominantly drinks the blood of animals, making him the vampire equivalent of a vegetarian, I guess), but I mean… he had no issue enslaving them, so…?! Basically, in Interview With The Vampire, slaves are background characters that occasionally pop their heads up to keep the plot in order, they’re spoken about in denigrating ways and treated as disposable resources, and it all just gave me the ick.

Still, I can see the book’s appeal. What’s particularly interesting is the recasting of the vampire as tragic anti-hero, rather than self-evident villain. I don’t know if that was Rice’s intent in having the vampire narrate his own story in Interview With The Vampire (we’re never the villains in our own story) or just an interesting by-product of taking a different perspective, but either way, it works. That’s probably why it went on to sell ten million-odd copies, and spawn twelve sequels. I probably won’t go out of my way to read any more of them, but I can see why others might.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Interview With The Vampire:

  • “I just read this pile. The main character, Louis, is just incredibly whiny. The book has pages upon pages of whining, but I can never really identify what the character finds so loathsome about his creator. The book is painfully descriptive, yet incredibly vague. Save the time and fall asleep in front of the movie.” – Erik Pearson
  • “The first and the biggest problem is the main character – he is so unlikable and such a pushover for about 95% of the story, you can’t just be annoyed with him ALL THE TIME. Most of the negative events in the book are his fault because he’s such an idiot.” – Kindle Customer
  • “In a word: AWFUL! Ann Rice has taken her love for penning overblown sexual fetishes (both hetero and homo-erotic) and single-handedly ruined the vampire as myth originally described the foul demon. Lestat’s character was so lavishly overblown as to verge on the comical. Each scene in the book was more or less a wishful description of an orgiastic costum party.” – J. Pemberton

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair is Jasper Fforde’s first novel, and he had a long row to hoe to get it out into the world. He persisted through no fewer than 76 rejections before finally pulling together this manuscript that was accepted by a publisher.

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The novel’s central character, Thursday Next, is a detective in an alternative world (circa 1985). England has been at war with Imperial Russia in the Crimea region for over a century, the occasional time travel wormhole opens up in the countryside, and there’s a whole branch of the police force dedicated to solving literary crimes. That’s where Thursday works, and how she ends up pursuing a super-villain through the pages of Jane Eyre.

This isn’t the kind of sexy morally grey villain you’ll find in your cartoon cover romantasies, though. Acheron Hades is impervious to bullets, can walk through walls, manipulates people into killing themselves, and worse. His schtick in The Eyre Affair is stealing the original manuscripts of classic works (Martin Chuzzlewit and the aforementioned Jane Eyre), and using the technology he stole from Thursday’s uncle to pull key characters out of the story. He holds them to ransom, as readers around the world bemoan the loss of their favourites from the pages.

While all that’s going on, Thursday’s father occasionally stops time in order to visit her and ask about pivotal moments in history – he’s on the run from the Chronoguard, the cops that oversee time travel, and his wife worries that he’s having an affair with a woman a hundred years ago. There’s also an ongoing society-wide debate as to the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, with door-knockers stopping by to evangelise for their leading theory periodically.

So, yes, The Eyre Affair is a bit kooky – big Terry Pratchett vibes, all throughout. It’s a bit hard to follow, especially at first, though I suspect that’s more my fault than Fforde’s. Seasoned fantasy readers would surely understand the world and follow the plot no problem, but having little experience in the genre myself, I found it all a bit overwhelming.

It’s not just fantasy, though. The Eyre Affair works in elements of science-fiction, mystery, thriller, satire – even romance. It’s like Fforde took an element from each of his 76 rejected manuscripts and cooked it into one. That didn’t really help with the “hard to follow” thing. You don’t realise how much you rely on the tropes of a given genre to understand what’s going on until you read a book that throws the rules out the window.

Unsurprisingly, then, The Eyre Affair was a mixed bag for me. I liked the small details Fforde worked in, like the dodos revived from extinction to be kept as house pets and the character named ‘Jack Schitt’. I didn’t like the gratuitous gun violence and the casual fat phobia and ableism (which probably would’ve flown unchecked twenty years ago when The Eyre Affair was first published, but not so much today). I’d recommend this one to fans of Pratchett (and Douglas Adams, come to that), but tell the average non-fantasy reader that they can probably skip it if they’re short on reading time.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Eyre Affair:

  • “It’s funny, I was just reading an article about how indie authors are ruining the book industry. How about mainstream books that charge too much and they suck?” – MEA
  • “The characters have silly names, the plot is unbelievable and it’s just tedious over all. I will never believe the reviews again.” – pdh
  • “Contrary to other reviewers, this book is NOT Douglas Adams, NOT Jonathan Lethem, NOT Monty Python, NOT Stephen Hawking, NOT gripping, NOT witty, and certainly NOT Bronte. AVOID.” – Mark Malamud
  • “Look, alternate time lines and such don’t faze me; I’m a Trekkie and a Whovian, so you want to stir things up, I say, have at it. This however is just plain silly and pretentious. You still want to read it ’cause you figure you are no doubt smarter than I am? It’s entirely possible, but do your bank account a favor and check it out of the library.” – Peach Blossom Lane

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Matt Haig really pumps books out. Fiction, non-fiction, adult, children’s – he’s done it all, twenty-six times over (by my count). This is the first of his I’ve read, and it’s one of his most popular: The Midnight Library. It came out in August 2020, when we were all descending into madness because… well, you know. We all really needed a fantasy-inspired story about choosing life.

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The Midnight Library – the book and this review – warrants some BIG TIME trigger warnings. So, here they are, up front: watch out for death/suicide, mental illness, death of/cruelty towards animals.

If you’re still with me, here we go: the story follows 35-year-old Nora, a British woman having a really rough week. Her cat dies, she loses her job, her neighbour hires someone to help him out so he doesn’t need her anymore, and it all piles on top of a lifetime of regrets and chances not taken. She decides to take her own life…

… but, hovering somewhere between Here and The Afterlife, she ends up in the library. The Midnight Library. Her childhood librarian guides her through the stacks, an infinite number of books, each representing a life that Nora could have had. Before she Moves On, Nora has the chance to “try” as many lives as she wants, simply by pulling the book that represents it from the shelf.

The opening chapters of The Midnight Library are a perfect demonstration of how we’re all just an unfortunate event or two away from complete crisis. I really liked that aspect, and also the short chapters (some are just a sentence or a paragraph long), which make for quick and easy reading.

It’s a clumsy metaphor, though – even if it is a comforting one for bookish types. And the plot is a little… linear. I promise you, there are no surprises or shock twists waiting for you in The Midnight Library. It’s as predictable as an after-school special. Even the exposition is boringly straightforward: Mrs Elm, the librarian, lays it all out for Nora (and the reader), as often as she needs, straight as an arrow.

After trying all the lives she can think of – marrying the fiance she left at the altar, working as a glaciologist in the Arctic, working the inspirational speaker circuit after a career as a champion swimmer, playing sold-out stadiums as a rock star, making an honest living as a vineyard owner – Nora… makes exactly the choice you’d expect her to make. Seriously, imagine the most obvious and saccharine way The Midnight Library could end, and you’ve got it. It’s basically an updated version of The Wizard Of Oz or It’s A Wonderful Life.

Even if I hadn’t known going in when The Midnight Library was published, I would’ve *known* it was a pandemic novel. If the themes and ending weren’t enough to clue me in, there’s the dedication (“To all the health workers. And the care workers. Thank you.”). I suppose, looking back, we all needed something a bit sweet and optimistic to get us through a tough time – but I’m not sure the story holds up now that the initial devastation has passed.

“Life is worth living! It’s never too late!” is a nice sentiment, but I didn’t love the overall message of The Midnight Library. It read to me like: “if you’re just grateful and kind and hopeful, you’ll be able to think yourself out of depression and suicidality!”. Despite the fact that you’ve lost your job, your parents are dead, your cat got hit by a car, you have no support system, and you clearly have some unresolved mental health issues going on? Sure, Jan.

Oh, and one last gripe: Haig works in a lot of watered-down philosophy by making Nora a philosophy grad. It’s clumsy and obvious and annoyed me all the way through The Midnight Library.

Alright, and now I’m going to stop being a Negative Nancy! Yes, it was too simple and sweet for me, but The Midnight Library was highly readable and a fun thought experiment. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who gave it five stars on Goodreads and gushed about it to friends on Zoom.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Midnight Library:

  • “Like other reviewers, I thought the premise was interesting. However, the ending is predictable and I found myself actually rolling my eyes while reading the last few pages. Appreciate the beauty in the life you already have. We get it. I prefer the beauty of subtlety.” – K. Short
  • “If you can guess where this book is going in the first 30 pages, congratulations, you’re slightly above the comprehension level of an inebriated oyster. I kept reading in an attempt to reconcile the text with the praise this book has received, and, much like the endless streams of philosophical nonsense you’ll have to endure before the last page, came up short. Philosophy isn’t the search for answers. It’s the search for more questions, and often only pointless ones. (Goodness Mr Thoreau, I guess perspective really does matter! I’ll start seeing instead of looking right away!) Unless you’ve never seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” or any of that film’s tired and trite imitators, this book will be a dull, repetitive experience.” – spaceflounder
  • “To the reviewers who complained because their physical copies of the book were missing pages – count your blessings!” – Kandy Witte

Before The Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi

If you could travel back in time, would you want to? Who would you want to see? What would you want to say? Four people at a Tokyo cafe find out in Before The Coffee Gets Cold (コーヒーが冷めないうちに, or Kohi ga Samenai Uchi ni), a 2015 novel by Toshikazu Kawaguchi.

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Kawaguchi is a celebrated playwright in Japan. Before The Coffee Gets Cold was actually a play before he turned it into a novel. The text was translated into English by Geoffrey Trousselot and went on to become a best-seller around the anglophone world. (Plus Kawaguchi’s follow-ups – Tales From The Cafe in 2017, and Before Your Memory Fades in 2022, sold gangbusters as well.) Even if the play-writing game isn’t paying like it used to, Kawaguchi is surely in the black!

Before The Coffee Gets Cold is made up of four interrelated but separate stories: The Lovers, Husband And Wife, The Sisters, and Mother And Child. Most of the characters appear across all of the stories, and I found it kind of hard to keep track of who was who.

Kazu is the barista at Funiculi Funicula, the Tokyo cafe rumoured to let customers travel back in time. The customers featured in Before The Coffee Gets Cold include Fumiko (a woman whose boyfriend is chasing his career dreams in America), Kohtake (a nurse whose husband has Alzheimers), and Hirai (who runs a nearby bar, and has a complicated relationship with her family). There’s also the cafe co-owners, Nagare and Kei (upbeat but in poor health, and recently pregnant).

I won’t spoil their stories, but most of them travel in time. It turns out, in Kawaguchi’s version, there are a lot of finnicky rules for time travel. They’re unlike the others usually found in time travel novels. First off, you can’t change the present – it’s not just that you’re “not allowed”, you quite literally can’t. No matter what you do or say when you travel back in time, the present will remain the same when you return. Then, there’s the time limit: you can only stay as long as the coffee in your cup is warm. If you hang around after it cools, you risk becoming a ghost that haunts the cafe. When you do go back, you can only meet people who have visited the cafe in the past, and you can’t leave the Special Chair in which you sit. On and on the rules go…

Before The Coffee Gets Cold is a bit trite and earnest, more like a fable or a fairytale than a novel with a plot. It’s written in a surprisingly simple style, given the complexity of the subject matter. Some people really respond to that though (people who love The Alchemist, for instance) and I don’t begrudge them that. I’m not sure it really worked for me, though. I wasn’t swept away by it, or really moved much at all. I was mostly just annoyed at all the Rules the characters went over, time and time again.

There’s already been a Japanese film adaptation of Before The Coffee Gets Cold (Cafe Funiculi Funicula, starring Kasumi Arimura). It looks like a couple of American companies have teamed up to develop and produce a television series for English-speaking audiences, too. I’d be mildly curious to check that out, but I wouldn’t wait in any queues.

All told, I’m not sure Before The Coffee Gets Cold lives up to the hype, but it’s a short and sweet novel that wouldn’t be the worst thing you could choose from a Little Free Library.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Before The Coffee Gets Cold:

  • “The episodes of time traveling are few and far between. Mostly it consists of boring details about the sound of flip-flops and shop door bells and other uninteresting things.” – Ron Johnson
  • “Absolutely dire. Reads like a book written by someone who was guessing what a book should sound like but has never actually read one.” – Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged
  • “Not my cup of coffee I guess.” – Elissa W
  • “Average book.true review” – Vishnu reddy

Willful Creatures – Aimee Bender

Willful Creatures is yet another book I picked up after I heard about it on The To Read List Podcast. I’m worried I’m starting to sound like an obsessed fangirl – I swear I’m not (much). Their book recommendations are just really good, and Willful Creatures is no exception.

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Willful Creatures is a collection of fifteen short stories, divided into three parts. The stories are kind-of magical realism, kind-of fantasy, kind-of absurdist – if that makes sense. The New York Times review described the stories as “alternat[ing] between absurd scenarios imbued with recognizable human pathos, and apparently ordinary tales pitched at an oblique angle that reveals their true strangeness”.

The stories are also dark – not like horror or gritty thrillers, but like disturbing lucid dreams. Many of Bender’s creatures are not just willful, but downright malicious. The cruelty of Debbieland will leave you feeling depleted in the way only great stories can.

Some of the stories (like Off) give strong Ottessa Moshfegh vibes, others are closer to Carmen Maria Machado – two authors I truly love, so it’s no surprise that this collection drew me in. Fruit and Words is particularly spectacular, a real stand-out in a great collection. Dearth is another one worth mentioning, it really fucked me up – like a particularly twisted tuber version of Groundhog Day (have I mentioned that some of these stories are absurd?).

Bender uses the bizarre and surreal – a boy with keys where his fingers should be, a family with pumpkins for heads dealing with the arrival of a son with an iron for a head instead, miniature humans kept as pets – to talk about the human condition. The allegories are never too obvious though, she never beats you over the head with it. How she manages to make fabulist stories about imaginary creatures subtle is beyond me, but Bender pulls it off.

Willful Creatures is a short, punchy collection that I read in a single night – though it lingered with me for much, much longer than that. If you like your stories weird and dripping with pathos, you must add it to your to-read shelf immediately.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Willful Creatures:

  • “Aimee Bender is weird, and I love her for it.” – Nathaniel Lee
  • “Sometimes she sucks and sometimes she is amazing and sometimes she is inbetween, this is one of the latter, but even her inbetweens are better than other people’s bests.” – Christy Leigh Stewart
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