The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

Summary from Goodreads:

For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams…

Do you ever read a book and just wish that you had discovered it at a particular point in your life? Well, I so wish that I had read this book when I was a little human. I picked this one up because my good friend told me that it is the book that got her into reading (she is probably the most prolific reader I know and you can read all of her musings about books here), and I totally understand why. It’s basically a very punny love letter to the English language and the joys of reading and learning!

If you, like me, think that puns are the highest form of wit, then this is the book for you. In the magical world that Milo enters, we find markets where words are sold and mines full of numbers. We discover that Conclusions is an island that’s easy to jump to but hard to escape, that eating subtraction stew just makes you hungrier, and that to reach the Kingdom of Wisdom you must scale the Mountains of Ignorance. 10/10 for whip-smart wordplay.

A lot of people compare this book to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which I can understand to an extent. Both books are highly imaginative, full of obsessives, and ought to go over children’s heads, but don’t. However, at least in my opinion, there is one big difference between them. The more you think about Alice in Wonderland, the more morbid and perverse it becomes. The Phantom Tollbooth on the other hand is a book filled with charm and joy that nonetheless carries an important message. It calls on us to rise to the challenge of the world by paying proper attention to its wonder and difficulty. As Princess Reason says, “whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer”.

The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic that will be read many many times and while I didn’t get to read it as a little human, I sure loved it as a slightly bigger one.

DISCLAIMER: “RESULTS ARE NOT GUARANTEED, BUT IF NOT PERFECTLY SATISFIED, YOUR WASTED TIME WILL BE REFUNDED.”

Have you read The Phantom Tollbooth? What did you think of it? Did you love it as much as I did? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Summary from Goodreads:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Ugh, this book made me cry like a little baby. What is up with me choosing really sad books at the moment? First Lincoln in the Bardo and now this! I think I definitely need something light and funny to read after the heartbreaking, ugly-cry-inducing, I-want-to-hug-my-mom kind of book that is A Monster Calls. 

It is a middle grade children’s book, yes. And if I had read it as a child, I probably would have loved it. It’s got monsters, nightmares, loveable characters, scary grandmothers, and thirteen-year-old bullies – you know, the whole shebang. Little me would have loved that. But it is not just a children’s book. A Monster Calls is a book that can be read and loved by all.

Well-written and compelling, this is a book about grief, loss, and love that will resonate with readers of all ages. While Conor does confront his demons more literally than most, there is nothing didactic or forced about this. The writing is intelligent and beautifully simple, the characters are well-developed, and the whole time I was reading this, I just wanted to hug little Conor. After the first chapter, I could already feel the tears coming and by the end of the book, well, they definitely spilled.

While this book is incredibly sad, more than anything else, I felt a great deal of love while reading this. Love for Conor and his family, love for my own family and friends, and love for everyone who has ever experienced a profound loss. This is such a beautiful book, and one that will stay with me for a long time. In just 215 pages, this book will break your heart and piece it back together again, so that you can go and be present in the world as a wiser, more loving human being.

Just a little note about the illustrations: 

While the words themselves are powerful, they are complemented perfectly by Jim Kay’s magnificent and wildly expressive illustrations. If you do decide to read this book (please do), I would highly recommend getting your hands on the illustrated edition. If you’d like to learn more about Jim Kay and his work, you can find his website here.

And another little one about the story: 

The story behind this book makes it even more poignant. Siobhan Dowd, the award-winning author of numerous young adult novels, came up with the original idea and the characters, but died of breast cancer before she could put pen to paper. Patrick Ness was asked to write the book based on her idea, and he succeeded in achieving a work of fiction that both transcends its genre and painfully wrenches your heart.

Have you read A Monster Calls? What did you think of it? And most importantly, can you please recommend a book that won’t make me bawl my eyes out? 

~Anna

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

To be honest, I haven’t been desperately waiting for Saunders to finally produce a novel – especially not when presented with such outstanding short story collections such as Tenth of December and Pastoralia – but even if I had been, I would never have expected something as gripping, moving, or as flat-out strange as Lincoln In the Bardo.

The structure of the book is very unusual (I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Saunders), comprising of a series of different sources – some historical accounts of the night, some invented historical accounts of the night, and some accounts from ghosts that Willie becomes acquainted with over the course of the night. At first, this took some getting used to, but soon I was totally absorbed in the story and attached to all of the weird and wonderful characters.

As always, Saunders’ skill is in the punctuating of the fun, fantastical elements of his narrative with the sobering awfulness of reality. While some of the ghostly elements sound absurdly heightened – we meet ghosts covered in eyes, three sprit-bachelors who sweep through the skies trailing hats, and a host of other bizzare characters – what ultimately emerges is a moving portrait of grief over the loss of a child. Word of warning: this book is definitely a tearjerker (especially the ending, oh my god), but don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It is also hilarious and surreal and touching and honest and ugh, I’m running out of adjectives to describe this book. Just read it.

My only criticism of this book (and well, it’s not even really a criticism) is that Saunders is actually too good at what he does. While most authors require 300+ pages to make a character seem real and well-rounded, Saunders needs just ten. Or even less. The whole time I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that it could have been condensed into one story and I would have felt the same way about it.

Overall, I thought this book was an absolute delight. It requires some patience, a willingness to embrace the unusual, and a bit of imagination, but it is oh so worth it. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Or any of George Saunders’ other books? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. 🙂 

~Anna

Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

Summary from Goodreads:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

Oh my goodness, I haven’t had this much fun reading a book in so long! It’s like a gothic soap opera, but in the best possible way. It’s dark, atmospheric, melodramatic, and oh so decadent. Honestly, I don’t know why I only discovered this now.

From the very first sentence, which is one of the most famous opening lines ever written, I was totally immersed in the story. I got lost in the descriptions of Manderley. I wanted to walk those paths through the woods to the beach. I wanted to wander the halls and peer into rooms, long abandoned after Rebecca’s death. I wanted to touch, taste, and smell everything our heroine was experiencing. I wanted to sit by the fire in the Manderley library, watching the rain stream down the windows, and read this book until the end of time. Yes, it’s that good.

The characters in this book, especially the female characters, were utterly fascinating. Mrs Danvers sent chills down my spine and for most of the book, I found myself totally terrified of her, but then she also had these moments of incredible fragility and sadness. But just when I found myself sympathising with her, she would go back to being a manipulative hag. What a brilliant character. As for Rebecca, I could almost feel her presence in the room while I was reading. I could almost hear her malicious laughter and picture her at her desk writing her letters in her elegant, cursive script. In contrast to our timid, nameless, and ultimately forgettable narrator, Rebecca is someone who demands to be remembered, long after her death.

The book is often compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever was. In fact, she seems more alive than our little heroine, who seems to exist only to serve and appease others. Rebecca infuses every room with the strength of her personality, while our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, afraid to touch or disturb anything. Personally, I love that she remains nameless throughout the novel as it shows the extent to which her identity is subsumed by her husband’s and makes Rebecca seem all the more present.

Now I know there are a few Maxim de Winter fans out there, but I have to admit that I am not one of them. The whole time I was reading this book, I just wanted to slap him for being so condescending, brooding, and peevish. Yes, Mrs de Winter is portrayed as a sexless, child-like creature with very little personality, but that doesn’t mean that she should be treated as the human equivalent of a doormat. I mean, she is his wife after all. He asked her to marry him, not the other way around. This man who is more than twice his wife’s age never once calls her by her name, asks her how she is feeling, or gives her the freedom to form her own opinions. What a jerk. Ugh. It’s no surprise really that Rebecca turned out the way she did.

Overall, I cannot express how much I loved this book. In my opinion, it is the perfect book to read on a rainy day, while covered in blankets and sipping a hot cup of tea. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend adding it to your TBR. I just wish I had discovered it sooner.

Have you read Rebecca? Did you love it as much as I did? I would love to hear your thoughts. 🙂 

~Anna

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary from Goodreads:

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Magnificent. As a big Adichie fan, I had pretty high expectations for this novel and thankfully it did not disappoint. Smart, funny, thought-provoking, moving – the list of adjectives I could use to describe this book is endless.

About halfway through the book, there is this scene where Ifemelu is at a posh dinner party in America and one of the guests makes the comment: “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy”. Well, Americanah is one of those books that is neither precious nor pretentious. And it is very much about race. And it is honest and well-written and wonderful.

Yes, this book is a love story (and a great one at that), but it is also so much more than that. It is about race, social inequality, immigration, self-acceptance, loss of cultural identity, and change. It’s full of memorable characters, hilarious and brutally honest commentary on cultural differences, and very detailed instructions on how to care for naturally kinky hair. At 477 pages, it is quite a chunky volume that does drag a little at times (I guess it is a bit Proustian in some ways), but it is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Americanah? Or any of Adichie’s other books? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

Summary from Goodreads:

Under the streets of London there’s a place most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks.

Richard Mayhew, a young businessman, is going to find out more than enough about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his workday existence and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly bizarre. And a strange destiny awaits him down here, beneath his native city: Neverwhere.

Everyone has their opinions on Neil Gaiman, but I personally think he’s great and I really enjoyed reading this book. In particular, I think Gaiman has a real talent for seamlessly blending the mundane and the fantastical. In Neverwhere, Gaiman takes the people that you see every day in large cities, the ones you ignore and turn your heads from – the ones on the side of the road holding out empty cans, the ones muttering to themselves, the ones covered in filth and grime that you pretend not to see – and he creates a whole new world around them that is completely ignored by the inhabitants of London Above.

This world beneath London is terrifying – it’s full of sewage, grime, and monsters (both human and not-so-human). It is a world where old and new converge and time is relative, where there are regal rats and loyal rat-speakers who serve them, where darkness and shadows can come alive, and where thousand-year-old secrets are kept. This world is incredibly imaginative and Gaiman makes it seem just as real as the London that exists above it.

My main criticisms of this book are about the characters, specifically the main character. Richard is honestly the most useless noodle of a character I can think of. He is unbelievably passive and just, well, totally useless! By the end of the book he becomes ever so slightly less useless – maybe a worthless potato as opposed to a noodle. A little more substance, but still more like a foodstuff than an actual human being. Now I don’t need to like the protagonist to like the book, but Richard honestly made me want to throw this book against a wall. The other characters are vastly more interesting, but unfortunately we don’t really get to see any real character development, which is a bit disappointing.

All in all though, I thought this book was good fun! The world-building is fantastic, it’s funny, and it kept me up at night reading. It’s by no means a literary masterpiece, but it might make you think twice about those people who you often pretend don’t exist. Recommended.

Have you read Neverwhere? Or any of Neil Gaiman’s other books? What do you think of him? Would love to hear from you. 🙂

~Anna

 

Our Magic Hour – Jennifer Down

Summary from Goodreads:

Audrey, Katy and Adam have been friends since high school-a decade of sneaky cigarettes, drunken misadventures on Melbourne backstreets, heart-to-hearts, in-jokes. But now Katy has gone. And without her, Audrey is thrown off balance: everything she thought she knew, everything she believed was true, is bent out of shape. Audrey’s family-her neurotic mother, her wayward teenage brother, her uptight suburban sister-are likely to fall apart. Her boyfriend, Nick, tries to hold their relationship together. And Audrey, caught in the middle, needs to find a reason to keep going when everything around her suddenly seems wrong.

Evocative and exquisitely written, Our Magic Hour is a story of love, loss and discovery. Jennifer Down’s remarkable debut novel captures that moment when being young and invincible gives way to being open and vulnerable, when one terrible act changes a life forever.

Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour is a gorgeous Australian debut – raw, affecting, and occasionally heartbreaking. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, but I read it in one sitting and I still find myself thinking about it.

The story develops out of a triangular relationship between three childhood friends now in their mid-twenties – Audrey, Katy and Adam – and grows in scope to include Audrey’s relationships with her boyfriend, Nick, and her family. Tragedy strikes within the first few pages and the novel traces the different ways that people process their grief. Plot, in a traditional sense, takes a back seat, allowing Down to explore the complexity of these relationships with empathy and nuance, never shying away from her characters’ ugliness or shortcomings. The characters in this book felt so incredibly real to me and they seemed to almost jump off the page.

While the characters are wonderfully constructed, my favourite thing about this book is Down’s depiction of place. The story is set both in Melbourne and Sydney, and these cities almost feel like characters in their own right. Maybe it’s because I have lived in both of these Australian cities, but I think that Down perfectly captures the atmosphere of both of these places and they felt so familiar to me when I was reading this book.

Overall, I thought this was an extraordinary debut and I’m really looking forward to reading more of Down’s work in the future. I think that she is incredibly talented and I believe that this book deserves a lot more attention than it is currently receiving. It made me smile, it made me sob, and it made me love and appreciate Melbourne so much more. Highly recommended.

Have you read Our Magic Hour? What did you think of it? Would love to hear from you. 🙂 

~Anna