Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Fantasy (page 1 of 3)

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.

Willful Creatures - Aimee Bender - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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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

Outlander – Diana Gabaldon

Imagine popping out for an afternoon stroll. You leave your loving husband to do his little family tree hobby, and wander around looking at interesting plants. You get closer and closer to some big rocks, and notice one of them with a hole down the middle seems to be buzzing. Screaming. You topple through the gap and find yourself 200 years in the past, dazed and confused and staring down the barrel of your husband’s ancestor’s pistol. That’s what happens to Claire Beauchamp in the first hundred pages of Outlander – and there are still seven hundred pages to go!

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Outlander is a time travel-historical romance, previously published as Cross-Stitch. Diana Gabaldon sat down about thirty years ago to have a go at writing a novel “for practice” – y’know, just for fun – and this is the result. Her test run has been published in 38 different languages, sold over 25 million copies around the world, and it’s been adapted into a highly-acclaimed television series.

It’s a CHUNKY book, as I alluded to just a second ago – 868 pages in my edition. In retrospect, it would have made a good lockdown read (so if we have to live through another once-in-a-century pandemic, be sure to put Outlander on your nightstand). As it turned out, I ended up reading it while I was laid up with a rotten cold, so I suppose the experience was mostly the same.

Back to the story: our girl Claire was an army nurse, and was happily beginning her post-war life with hobby genealogist Frank Randall in 1946 when she tumbled through the wormhole. Post-tumble, she’s in 1743 Scotland, and has to think double-quick to escape the clutches of Frank’s great-great-great-great-(great-great??) grandfather Captain Jack Randall. Luckily, a Scottish clansman, the dashing Jamie Fraser, rides in to the rescue and knocks the bad guy out so she can scarper.

Now, the logic of Outlander gets a bit convoluted, but to boil it down to its bare bones: Claire is English, but the clansmen trust her, and she ends up having to marry one of them (Jamie being the obvious choice) because the English Captain can’t arrest a Scot (even a Scot by marriage) on their ancestral lands.

Poor Claire ends up caught between two lovers and timelines. At first, she’ll do anything to get back to her own time and to Frank, but the longer she spends with her husband-by-convenience, the hotter she gets for him and the more at-home she feels in her new era. Jamie keeps being all dashing and rescuing her from hard scrapes, plus he’s pretty good at the obligatory marriage consummation, so you can understand her trouble.

The plot of Outlander is episodic, very Quixote-esque. It’s one damn thing after another, and a lot of traipsing from place to place to escape whatever trouble they’ve gotten themselves into. They still manage to make time for plenty of sex, though, naturally. It’s not a closed door romance, but the door isn’t wide-open either – it certainly wasn’t as steamy as I was expecting.

What concerned me was the romanticised violence. There’s a lot of “men beat their wives because they love them” kind of stuff, worked up to be some kind of passionate declaration of devotion (ew), and a lot of violence as vengeance for slights – real or perceived – against a woman’s honour (double ew). So, if that’s something that bothers you, you might want to give Outlander a miss.

The gay characters also made me raise my eyebrows a bit. Gabaldon doesn’t offer particularly positive queer representation. The only gays are villains, and there’s more than one instance (including one particularly extended and graphic instance) of queer men raping straight men. That said, given that it’s a historical romance set in the 18th century and written in the late ’80s/early ’90s, the presence of gays at all is unusual and commendable to some extent.

Oh, and there’s a few instances of casual ableism and racism, too. I know, I know, Outlander is “of its time”, but you know what? We’re reading it in 2021 and we should at least acknowledge that we know (or should know) better now.

The only other heads-up I’ll give is that the story takes some very strange turns in the last hundred pages or so. There’s a lot of religion, a bit of witch magic, and I think some kind of twisted not-at-all-recommended form of self-administered amateur exposure therapy? Nevertheless, Gabaldon manages to wrap everything up in a way that feels satisfying but definitely paves an inviting path for the sequel.

Ah, the sequel! And the one after that! And the one after that! There have been nine of ten planned Outlander books published now (most recently, Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone in 2021), as well as several novellas, short stories, and a whole other series (the Lord John books) telling accompanying stories. It’s now one of the best-selling book series of all time. Not bad for a book written for practice about a girl who takes a walk, eh?

My favourite Amazon reviews of Outlander:

  • “I forced myself to read on for several days (I typically can devour a book in less time!) and finally quit when I finally admitted I had made a mistake in buying a sex novel based on a ridiculous story line.” – ARS
  • “Stupid drivel. She obviously wanted to write spank-erotica but needed context, so came up with waaaaaay too much to go with the spanking. God, and the wolf. I stopped reading it at that point. Wanted to stop earlier, but so many friends just loooooved it. Why you gonna write about some horrible wolf you gotta kill? Cause you WANT to write about killing wolves. I don’t wanna read that. Why’s your mind all twisted up with wolf-icide, crazy Gabaldon?” – Hannah Flake
  • “Alice in Wonderland (Alice through the Looking Glass), and The Wizard of Oz both had the protagonist experiencing something that put them in a different time/location. The primary difference in the two older versions is the lack of pornography.” – G. McLeod
  • “I’ve never bothered writing a really bad review before, but this book compelled me. I was told that this is a good series for Game of Thrones lovers. Um, NOPE. This is a good book for women who read books with Fabio on the cover, have a strong stomach, and have a lot of patience.” – alex a

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

Last year, a little book called Piranesi bowled me over and won my heart. I felt compelled to seek out author Susanna Clarke’s only other novel, a comparatively hefty tome (four times the length, 1000+ pages!) published 16 years prior. Clarke started work on Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell back in 1992, and worked on it for ten full years before submitting it for publication. So, as I’m sure you can tell already, this book is an undertaking. Just finishing it feels like a triumph! I can only provide a potted summary, though, less this review become almost as long as the book…

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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(And by the way, there are some gorgeous illustrations in my edition, contributed by Portia Rosenberg – I highly recommend seeking out a copy that includes them!)

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is an alternative history, set in early 19th century England (think Napoleonic war era). As Clarke tells it, magic once ran rife through the British Isles, but has since disappeared entirely… only to suddenly return to two particular men, Jonathan Strange and (you guessed it!) Mr Norrell.

These two are a magical Odd Couple. Jonathan Strange is young, adventurous, and impulsive. Mr Norrell is a cantankerous bookworm, a fusspot of the highest order.

Clarke’s mastery of storytelling is on display right from the get-go. The first chapter of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is exquisitely crafted: word built, exposition clear (but not patronising to the reader), and the hook baited. You can’t help but dive in! The Learned Society of York’s “theoretical magicians” (i.e., old white men who study the history of magic, even though they can’t perform it) is stunned to learn that Mr Norrell – curator of the world’s largest personal library of magic books and books about magic (they’re different) – can actually perform it. Norrell compels them to disband their silly gabfest club, and goes about quietly studying and practicing magic all on his own.

Strange, on the other hand, decides on a whim to simply Be A Magician. He doesn’t know jack about magic or its history, but when has that ever stopped a rich white guy? He travels to meet Norrell (who is now living in London), and blags his way into becoming his student. The two clash – frequently, and how – over the proper conduct of magic, the importance of the legendary Raven King, the employ of fairies, and just about everything else. They battle along for a while, learning from each other and trying not to kill each other, until the conflict becomes too much and they part ways.

Jonathan Strange heads off abroad to help out the troops by magicking up roads and favourable weather conditions, completely on the fly (in fact, heads up, the Napoleonic wars play a much bigger role in the narrative than you might expect), while Norrell stays in London and publishes a lot of stuffy books and papers about the Proper application of English magic. Astoundingly, people actually want to read them, and England ends up divided into “Norrellites” and “Strangites”.

Reminder: I’m skipping over a LOT. Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is over a thousand pages long. A LOT happens. The pacing fluctuates throughout. Sometimes, it was so compelling I felt like I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Sometimes, it dragged so much that I wondered whether I would ever finish it. That said, I attribute the latter feelings to my own impatience (after everything that 2021 has thrown at my brain), rather than any fault in Clarke’s storytelling.

We get Norrell’s side of the story in the first volume, Jonathan Strange’s in the second, and the third ties it all together with a focus on the Raven King. Jonathan Strange becomes involved in increasingly dark and dangerous experiments, to try and counteract some of the personal tragedies that have befallen him, and Norrell gets a few boots up the bum to remind him to get his nose out of a book every once in a while. Most importantly, the true nature of the book’s villain is revealed, one of the greatest mysteries I’ve ever encountered in contemporary literature: The Man With The Thistle-Down Hair.

Clarke offers a Tolkien-esque level of detail in her speculative history (though she’s far less dull in the telling of it). In fact, she once said that she re-read Lord Of The Rings when she first had the idea for Jonathan Strange And Mr Norell, so the parallel seems natural. She pulls from every literary tradition you can imagine without becoming overwhelmed: the Gothic novel, the comedy of manners, the fantastic, the dramatic… She even gets her David Foster Wallace on and includes 200+ footnotes, each offering some gem of insight into her magical world.

What really sets it apart, though, is the wry humour. It’s like a blend of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, with a contemporary comic sensibility. By way of example:

It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell

Naturally, given the book’s length and breadth, it’s a book about many things. It’s a scathing critique of bureaucracy, for one. It’s a book about “Englishness”, and the divide between North and South. It’s about the thin line that separates madness and reason. It’s about the “silencing” of underrepresented groups, and the capacity for social change.

That said, Clarke doesn’t rely on the sheer volume of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell to invoke all of this. It just so happened that this particular story had such a level of detail and traversed such a world that it required a lot of pages to tell. This isn’t one of those books where you can point to a hundred pages here, or a hundred pages there, and say: “oh, she didn’t really need that, you can skim it or skip it”.

Prior to the publication of Piranesi, Clarke had mentioned in a couple of interviews that she started work on a sequel, focusing on a few of the minor characters. It would seem that progress has stalled (even halted), due to her experience of chronic fatigue syndrome. Her illness, she says, has made the effort to research and write a comparable book is “insurmountable”. I, for one, don’t need a sequel and would rather she save her energy for other endeavours. Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is a remarkable book, one that says everything it needs to (though it would undoubtedly take many readings to truly hear it all).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell:

  • “To all the Jane Austen fans out there, I advise you to avoid this book as assiduously as you would avoid the society of Mr. Collins.” – 24karats
  • “Boring. Goes nowhere. And takes you forever to get there.” – Jake B.
  • “Normally, I wouldn’t bother to review a book I hadn’t finished, but thought that, for someone reading through these reviews before purchasing the book, I will gladly mail you my copy. Hell, I will even pay the postage if it means getting rid of it. I tried putting it out with my recyclables, but they said they don’t take human waste material.” – S. OLEARY
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