DOWN BUT NOT COMPLETELY OUT: ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE

There seems to be a bit of a boomlet in books about people who, on the surface at least, seem to be at best misanthropic and at worst kind of nasty, who in the course of the book either are revealed as being better people than that first impression indicates, or who become better people over the course of the book.  I get the appeal: doesn’t everybody love the moment in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is transformed into a loving, generous person? It’s more than that, of course: there’s a sneaky pleasure in watching Scrooge treat people abominably in the beginning of the story, maybe even a secret glee when he says the things that sometimes occur to us which we would never say ourselves (want proof of that?  Consider that some of the most famous lines of the book are from Scrooge in the first part, not after his transformation), all redeemed by our knowledge that he, too, will reach a point where he would never say anything so heartless.  We both like sharing the experience of being misanthropic and judging the person who acts on those feelings, and believing that even this person can be transformed into someone good and worthy.

It was with that kind of mentality that I started reading Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, which is a book we’re reading for one of my book groups.  The back cover description seemed to promise this kind of book: Eleanor, our protagonist, lives a very tightly ordered life, has standards of behavior which most people fail, and then comes into contact with two other people, an IT specialist at her place of work and an elderly man who gets into an accident in front of her, who help her see that there’s more to life than she’s let herself believe. With that description, and my experience of other books of this kind (Britt-Marie Was Here, for instance), I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the book would be like.

I was wrong.

Eleanor Oliphant is a more complex character than the stereotype, and there are hints of that from the very beginning of the book: her face is scarred (and, although she doesn’t describe the scars too dramatically, it becomes clear over the course of the book that these are serious, major scars that change her whole appearance), she gets periodic visits from social workers. She drinks straight vodka, and not just a little, either, every night, suggesting some major issues.  There are hints, very subtle at first, that she’s had a traumatic past.  And even the regular calls from her mother, who’s clearly a horrible person with a knack for skewering Eleanor where she’s most vulnerable, carry a hint of mystery.  Eleanor doesn’t say where her mother is calling from, though she implies it’s an institution of some sort, possibly prison, possibly a mental hospital, and there’s never a question in Eleanor’s mind that her mother belongs there, whichever kind of institution it is.

Her relationship with Raymond, the IT person, isn’t the road to romance you might expect, partly because Eleanor, from the beginning of the book, has a deep and delusional crush on the lead singer of a band she’s seen live.  While she doesn’t even allow herself to consider Raymond a romantic possibility at first (she’s merciless in her internal critiques of his appearance, his hygiene, etc.), she is crushed when she feels he might be getting romantically involved with someone else. His mother, an elderly lady living on her own, treats Eleanor as a friend, practically a member of the family, from the first time they meet. Sam, the elderly man she and Raymond rescue when they see him falling in public, immediately welcomes both Raymond and Eleanor into his family.  Eleanor’s skittishness with people’s families also hints at a darker past, as does her longing to be part of a family.

The revelations about Eleanor’s past are heartbreaking, all the more so because they don’t come as a complete surprise.  That is, I expected something awful, but the extent of it was worse than I suspected.  And kudos to the author for still managing to surprise me with one aspect of Eleanor’s background (no spoilers here).

There is a happy ending of sorts; in that, at least, the book follows the pattern.  But getting there is an unexpected journey, one well worth taking.

 

I can hardly wait to discuss this one with my Drum Hill Book Group.

THE GAME IS AFOOT, WITH ANGELS: ANGEL OF THE CROWS

Imagine Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a similar, but not identical, Victorian London, a London where vampires and hell hounds are known and more or less understood, where locales are guarded by angels, and where angels who are no longer connected to a place become Nameless, and angels can become Fallen and wreak all kinds of havoc. Then imagine that our erstwhile Sherlock Holmes is actually one of those angels, and Watson’s war wound is somewhat worse in a spiritual sense than it is in the original stories. Then put many of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories in this milieu, and what do you have? You have Angel of the Crows, by Katherine Addison, a wholly faithful and wholly original take on Sherlock Holmes.
Some of the fun of this book is tracing the original stories through their new and somewhat off center incarnations in this book; some of the fun in this book is getting into and figuring out the world Addison has created here.
Watson here is Dr. J. H. Doyle (and already we’re amused by the choice of names), who was wounded in the endless war in Afghanistan (so far so accurate to the original), but whose wound was touched by one of the Fallen and therefore there’s an additional component to Doyle’s injury that makes the good Doctor more endangered than Watson was in the original stories. He is introduced to the Holmes under very similar circumstances  to those in”A Study in Scarlet,” but here Holmes is an angel by the name of Crow, who, unlike his fellow angels, is not attached to a particular location (Baker Street, for instance), but to the whole city of London.
Both characters are somewhat like their counterparts: Crow is a consulting detective, solving cases the police are unable to solve, Doyle is Crow’s sidekick and narrator. At the same time, though, they are different, more interesting, with more depth. Crow’s lack of understanding of the way humans do things (even obvious things like eat and drink and use the toilet) comes from his angelic nature, and is charming rather than off-putting. He’s much less emotionally cold and harsh than Holmes, and his relationship with Doyle is much more a relationship of equals who genuinely care about each other than the canonical relationship between Holmes and Watson. Doyle gets more of a role in solving the cases, sometimes through his medical knowledge, sometimes through his surprising connections with other characters (and no, I won’t spoil the pleasure of finding he identity of the vampire who marks Doyle), and sometimes through the curse he suffered when he was touched by the Fallen on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
If you’re a Holmes fan, as I am, you’ll appreciate all the nods to the famous stories, from “A Study in Scarlet” to “The Sign of the Four” to “The Speckled Band” and many others, some of which get combined in interesting ways, and some of which take novel and surprising turns. You think you know what’s coming, but these characters are NOT Holmes and Watson, but are true to their own intriguing world. In addition to the obvious stories from the canon, the thread running through the book is the behavior of Jack the Ripper (and how many Holmes offshoots have created cases in which he dealt with the Ripper murders?), and yes, in this world the perpetrator is in fact identified and caught, so this is not a loose thread.
I have to say something about the worldbuildlng. The author doesn’t spoon feed you. The characters know much of the details of their world and take them for granted, so you have to pay attention to figure out a lot of the nuances. The relationship between angels and Fallen and Nameless is complicated and I’m not entirely sure, even after reading the book, that I really understand how this works, but the point is that it does work. It makes internal sense and you find yourself suspending disbelief and sitting back to enjoy the ride.
It’s a fun read, and even if your only acquaintance with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson is through the television series Sherlock or Elementary, you’ll find much to enjoy in this very different take on the classic characters, full of surprises and new looks at old friends.

JUST FOR FUN: TO HAVE AND TO HOAX

I freely admit it: sometimes I read things just because they’re fun, because they don’t promise to tax my brain or my emotions, because they’re fast and easy and provide some smiles and laughs and don’t require much more from me.  These days, with everything that’s going on, I turn to books like that more and more often, and one of the most enjoyable ones I’ve read recently is To Have and To Hoax, by Martha Waters.

This is not a book you want to read if you hate the concept of a romance novel, or if you hate romantic comedies in general, or if you’re going to nitpick historical details in a book set in the 19th century (not that I could find any obvious historical inaccuracies, but then, I wasn’t looking too hard, either).   But if you’re in a non-serious mood and you don’t mind a little silliness on the way to a happy ever after, this book is for you.

Violet and James, the married couple at the center of the book, seemed to have it all: they fell in love immediately, got married quickly, and in so doing escaped her obnoxious mother and his disapproving father.  They were crazy about each other and the envy of their social set, and then, a year after their wedding, they had a fight that basically sent them into separate worlds, from which, over the next four years, they would emerge to snipe at each other and then retreat again. 

We don’t learn for quite a while exactly what the fight was about; both of them refer to it in catastrophic terms, but neither of them is willing to discuss it with their friends or family.  This is done, I think, not just to keep readers wondering, but also to give us a chance to get to know the characters so when we do find out what they were fighting about, we can judge which one of them was in the wrong and why.  

When Violet gets a note that her husband was thrown by a horse and injured, she rushes to his side, only to discover that he didn’t even want his friend to send that message.  Insulted, she decides she’s going to show him, so she pretends she has consumption, and even though he sees through that ruse, he plays along to undermine her, and from there on, the two of them are playing a game of tit for tat, each one trying to prove his or her superiority to the other.  The back and forth is what makes the book funny, since both James and Violet are stubborn and opinionated, and their friends see what we see as well, that these two people still care about each other and, in some ways, deserve each other.

It’s a romance novel, so of course there’s a happy ever after.  That’s one reason I read books like this, to see how we get from the starting point to the happy ending, and I have to say the author did a splendid job of bringing the characters back together, after all the crazy behavior they’ve both engaged in, giving them insights into what they’ve been doing to themselves and each other and making them, by the end of the book, better and happier people in general.

If you’re a fan of classic romantic comedies, you’ll get a kick out of To Have and To Hoax.  And if you’re in the mood for something lighthearted and amusing, give yourself some fun by reading this one. 

MAGIC FOXES IN SPACE: DRAGON PEARL

One of the cool things about awards is the way they point you to materials you might not have heard about or encountered before.  The Locus Awards (see here) led me to the winner of the Best Young Adult Book, Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee, and what a fun book I would have missed if I didn’t pay attention to the awards!

Dragon Pearl, contrary to what you might think of from the title, is a space opera, not a fantasy novel, though there are certainly fantasy elements, including ghosts and magical creatures limiting themselves to human form.  Most of the action of the book (and there’s lots of action!) involves spaceships of one sort or another, battles in space, wormholes and strange planets.

One of the cool things about the book is that the fantastic elements are Korean in origin, and not the usual European shapeshifters and monsters.  There are dragons and goblins and tigers, most of whom use their magic to stay in human form when they’re around other human beings. There are also foxes, but they’re not generally accepted in human company because of their bad reputations.

Our main character, Min, is a fox herself, from a long line of fox spirits, but her mother and aunties with whom she lives have taught her not to use her fox magic ever.  She’s living on a fairly poor planet in a poverty stricken area with her family, longing to get off planet and see the Thousand Worlds, as her older brother, Jun, did.

And then one day an official arrives at their modest house, telling Min’s mother that Jun deserted his space force ship to search for the legendary Dragon Pearl.  Min knows that’s got to be a lie; her brother was dedicated to joining the Space Forces, and he never would have thrown away his dream, not even for the Dragon Pearl, which has incredible power. After knocking out the official (not entirely accidentally), Min runs away to find her brother.

Min’s a lot of fun.  She’s impulsive and hot tempered, she doesn’t always make good decisions, and she uses her fox Charm and shapeshifting, along with her natural quick wits and resourcefulness, to get herself in and out of sticky situations, but she takes responsibility (for the most part) for her bad decisions, and her loyalty to her beloved brother keeps her going when things seem most impossible. 

The world-building is excellent, too.  I’m not physicist or rocket scientist of any sort, but the mechanisms of the ships’ transportation feel plausible to me, and the limitations on the use of a Gate to jump from one sector to another make sense both physically and dramatically.  One aspect I like in this universe is the concept of “gi”, the life force that animates humans and machines, which engineers and doctors pay attention to in order to make people and ships work properly.  

Ghosts, powerful artifacts, foxes with magic, shapeshifting, dragons causing weather, goblins creating food out of nothing, space battles, family loyalties and secrets, and characters binary and nonbinary, adventure, danger and a satisfying ending: what’s not to love?  Since it’s a YA book (here in The Field Library, we have it in the children’s room), it’s a short book and a fast read, which makes it even better. Want to read what Locus determined was the best YA Speculative Fiction book of the year?  Check out Dragon Pearl.

TIME TRAVELING THROUGH YOUR OWN LIFE: OONA OUT OF ORDER

As anyone who’s been reading this blog knows, I’m especially fond of books about time travel (mostly fiction, but the occasional nonfiction as well), so when I saw Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore, of course I had to read it, and what a fun puzzle of a book it is!

The concept is unique: Oona is a woman whose birthday is on January 1.  Starting with her 19th birthday, every January 1 she jumps to a different year in her life.  Inside, her consciousness is chronological: she’s 19, then 20, then 21 and so on.  But outside, she might be 50 (while she’s 20 on the inside), then 30, then 40, then 21.  After she turns 19, there is never (as far as we know) a time when her consciousness and her body are the same age.

She tries to prepare herself for these jumps.  As a year comes to an end, she leaves herself a note explaining what’s going on, who she’s supposed to know, what’s going on in her life, to ease the transition.  It doesn’t always work: her notes aren’t always as detailed as they should be, or she doesn’t read them in time, or at least on one occasion, she accidentally burns up a critical part of the note. Sometimes she disregards what her future self tells her, sometimes she tries to follow her own advice and doesn’t quite manage.

Oona is financially secure, because (classic time traveler stuff!) she knows what stocks will turn out to be valuable, and when they should be sold or purchased.  She keeps a binder with that information and updates it every year. 

 It’s good she’s financially secure, because the rest of her life is fairly chaotic.  The two people who are constants throughout her time-jumping life are her mother, Madeline, who knows what’s going on with Oona and who provides her with comfort and consistency, and Kenzie, a young man living in her house who meets her on her first jump and brings her up to speed on 2017 culture (she jumped from 1982, so there are a lot of changes in the world around her), and even Kenzie isn’t there on all her jumps (he’s that much younger than she that on some of her jumps he’s still in elementary school).  

The whole concept is fascinating, bringing up not only the usual time travel questions (can you change your future by changing your past? Can you even change your past?) but some unique ones for the situation (what’s it like to live a year at a time, knowing that at the end of the year you’re going to be living a completely different life? When you know how a relationship is going to end, can you actually throw yourself into the beginning of it?).  

The book only takes us through a few years of Oona’s unique life, so we don’t see, except in glimpses from her letters to herself, what a more mature Oona will be like.  We do get to see how a woman in her 20’s internally deals with being in her 40’s and 20’s and even 50’s externally (and here I have to say that the author seems to understand being 30 and 40 better than being 50; we’re not totally decrepit and falling apart at 50, as I can attest from personal experience!), and on the whole she deals with the tragedies and the complications of her life reasonably well.   Oona gets married (and divorced), loses the love of her life, deals with her mother’s final illness and death (knowing, however, that in the next year she may very well jump to a time when her mother is still alive and well, which changes the nature of grief).  She wastes a year in dissipation and drugs, she travels, learns to play the guitar (which is kind of amusing when a seemingly younger Oona is more skilled at the guitar than her older self as a result of her having learned it when she was older and then spent the next year much younger)(this is the kind of thing that makes the book complicated), learns how to deal with heartache, how to deal with good and bad fortune.  If she doesn’t quite have it all together by the end of the book, you can feel confident that eventually she will.

This is not a book for people who like straightforward narratives. The author helps orient you by telling you at the beginning of each chapter what year it is, how old Oona is internally and externally, but still, things happen out of order. Half the fun of the book is seeing things completed and then seeing how they got that way, but not everybody feels comfortable jumping around in time.  If you’re the kind of person who wants things to be explained, this probably isn’t the book for you, either: nobody understands how or why this is happening to Oona, and you have to take it as a given.

However, if you’re into time travel as I am, and you want to check out a book that will at the very least open up new questions for you about your own life and how you would deal with a truly unique situation, check out Oona Out of Order.

MURDERBOT’S BACK, BIGGER AND BADDER THAN EVER: NETWORK EFFECT

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time knows how much I love Martha Wells’ Murderbot series.  I have been gleefully devouring each of the four novellas in the series as they came out, and raving about them to anyone who will listen (and some who won’t).  I’m not alone in my love for the SecBot who disabled its governor and would rather watch soap operas than kill things, but kills things when it has to do so. The series has won Hugo and Nebula and Locus awards. Those of us who read the first four novellas were hoping we would get another Murderbot story, and Wells has obliged us with a full length Murderbot novel, Network Effect.

You may be wondering if Murderbot’s mixture of cynicism and heart, sarcasm and action, could be sustained over the longer length of a novel.  Wonder no more.  Network Effect is as much fun as all of the novellas, and there is no sense of padding or struggle to fill the space.  In fact, the new book brings us two Murderbot narrators (three if you count the recordings from Murderbot’s therapy after its last adventure in Exit Strategy, which are included here for reasons that become clear late in the book) and yet another SecBot, which calls itself Three.  We also get reacquainted with ART from Artificial Condition, a character which is a perfect foil for Murderbot.

Is this a book you can read without having read the others?  Not really, but why wouldn’t you have read the first four books when I’ve been telling you how wonderful they are?

Murderbot is mostly just minding its business and keeping an eye on the family of its friend, Dr. Mensah, when it and several of its humans are kidnapped and pulled into a transport ship traveling through a wormhole.  The ship, the Perihelion, has itself been invaded by alien matter and humanoids who seem partially alien themselves.  Naturally Murderbot gets involved in saving its humans and dealing with ART and ART’s demands.  The plot is  convoluted (and involves, at one point, Murderbot’s making a copy of itself, so you have Murderbot 01 and Murderbot 02 and a perfectly charming and bizarre scene in which the two Murderbots are arguing with each other), with tons of action and danger, with evil corporations (even more evil than they are nowadays) and alien planets, seen through the eyes of our unique independent SecBot, who hides its heart under a shell of cynicism and sarcasm (ART is even better at this).  Murderbot may pretend it only wants to watch its serials in peace, but when its human friends are in danger, it’s ready to risk its own life to protect them.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the plot because I don’t want to spoil it.  Suffice it to say that Murderbot is in fine form here, and the satisfying plot leaves us with the hope, once again, that we’ll be treated to some more of Murderbot’s adventures.

Even though the library’s only allowing holds on our own materials, you can certainly put a hold on Network Effect (of COURSE I’ve ordered it for us), AND you can get a copy even faster via Overdrive.  So what are you waiting for?  Get Network Effect and return to the world of Murderbot for a great adventure.

CREEPIER THAN A CULT: THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS

A good “whodunnit” isn’t just for police procedurals or for private eye stories.  The question of who committed the crime and why can also be the focal point of a psychological domestic thriller, such as Lisa Jewell’s The Family Upstairs.  The heart of the book is the question of what, exactly, happened in the house in Cheyne Walk, London, the night three adults were found poisoned and a healthy baby was removed from the house by police, and Jewell skillfully plays with our expectations and suspicions before the final reveal.  It’s a fast read and an entertaining one, well worth checking out on Overdrive.

Libby Jones is a fairly ordinary 25 year old, living in London, working for a kitchen design place.  She was adopted, she doesn’t have a lot of money but she’s got a plan for how the rest of her life is going to work, until a letter from a solicitor upends everything she thought she knew about herself and her life.  She discovers that she is the sole heir to a mansion in London, a mansion whose history is kind of dark, and that her parents weren’t killed in a car accident as her adoptive parents told her, but were two of the adults found dead, presumably by suicide, in the house where she was found, which she has now inherited.

At the same time we’re following Libby’s experiences in facing her unexpected past, we’re also given two other storylines.  One involves a woman with two children, living on the fringes of French society after she left an abusive marriage. She’s homeless, her background is shady, she supports herself and her children by playing the violin for tourists, and she is clearly just barely hanging on.  She finds out that Libby has turned 25, the age when she’s to inherit the house, and from then on the woman is scheming to meet up with Libby.  We don’t know why she’s so interested, but what we’re learning about the family that lived in that house gives us reason to feel suspicious of her knowledge and her intentions.

The other story we’re following is being narrated by the son of the dead couple, Henry.  We don’t know where he is or whether he’s even still alive or this is a document he prepared in the past and left for someone to find in the present. He’s telling the story of what happened back in the 1980’s, how the family was gradually infiltrated by a group of strange people, including David, a sinister cult leader type and his family.  Over time, Henry describes how David dominated all the other adults and turned the house into a sort of prison compound from which none of the children were allowed to leave or be seen by the outside world.  Henry’s narrative is filled with foreboding and dread, and gives us just enough information to tie in with what Libby is finding out in the present.

Naturally all three of these storylines are going to come together by the climax of the book, but not in the way you would expect.  Libby has allies, a coworker and the reporter who first wrote up the story of the mansion and who is more than happy to follow up with the one known survivor, but she also has reasons to feel she’s being followed, spied on, and manipulated by people she might or might not know. There’s murder, abuse, and all kinds of ugly things in the past and in the present, but all the ends are tied up in a way that makes sense and is, for the most part, satisfying.

Spend some time with some creepy people, both in the past and in the present, but also with some characters you’re going to like and root for, in this engaging and suspenseful book.

A WORLD OF INTERLOCKING STORIES: THE STARLESS SEA

As I’ve said before, no judgment on how your reading life is going in this time of uncertainty and pandemic.  If you barely have the mental capacity to read board books, that’s okay.  If you want to lose yourself in intricate worlds that have very little to do with this one (a little escapism), that’s also okay.  If you’re in that latter category, boy, do I have a book for you!  It’s a novel about books and lovers of books and stories and guardians of stories.  It’s intricately plotted, one ongoing story interspersed with a multitude of other stories, all of which turn out to have something to do with the main story, which also has something to do with those stories.  It’s The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern, and it is utterly engrossing, like stepping into a different world that sometimes connects in startling ways with our world.

Erin Morgenstern previously wrote The Night Circus, and if you haven’t read that, stop reading this  review immediately and rush to read it, a Romeo and Juliet story with competing wizards, a magical circus that appears in places only at night and with no warning, and gorgeous, lush language and images. When a book is that good, I’m even more excited to find something else written by the author, in hopes the author’s magic extends to more than one book.  In this case, Morgenstern’s magic certainly goes beyond just the wonders of The Night Circus.

The central character is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student at a university in Vermont, who’s working on his thesis about games.  His mother is a fortune teller (a fact that becomes important at various points in the book).  One day he takes a strange book out of the university library, one that has no barcode and doesn’t seem to belong to any library, and as he starts reading it, he finds a story about a particular incident in his life when he was much younger and saw a door drawn on a wall but wasn’t brave enough to try to open it.  He has never told anyone about that incident and wasn’t sure he remembered it himself, so finding it described so perfectly in a book that was written before he was born freaks him out, as it would just about anyone with an imagination.

He starts trying to find out more about the book, how it came to the library, how it came to him in particular, and one thing leads mysteriously to another.  His path takes him first to a costume party in Manhattan where he meets various strange people who will prove very important in his ongoing quest,  and from there to a strange and beautiful underworld inhabited by cats and bees and strange, possibly immortal, beings.  He reads stories and then meets characters in those stories; he’s pursued by a secret society with sinister intentions toward him and toward the underworld, he meets and loses people he cares about,  all in pursuit of the Starless Sea which seems to be the heart of the world.

His story, mysterious and appealing as it is, is only one of the many interspersed in the book, some of which are supposedly in books other people are reading and carrying around with them (and may I just say here that the love the characters have for particular books warms my heart? These people are not just devoted readers, but true bibliophiles).  They read like fairy tales, or fragments of fairy tales, where the sun and moon meet together at a particular inn every so often, where owl kings rule and are killed by magic swords, where people meet in a room outside time and because they’re on different timelines they often go years between seeing and talking to each other, and the like.  There’s a series of entries from a notebook kept by one of the characters, describing her attempts to find Zachary after he disappears (we know what happened to him, in the underworld, but she doesn’t, though she finds some pretty strange stuff in her search). There isn’t a missing piece, or an extraneous detail, though you have to pay attention to remember who some of the characters from the early stories are, especially when those characters show up in the flesh in Zachary’s story.

The language is lush and delightful, the descriptions inventive and beautiful, and throughout it all I couldn’t help admiring Morgenstern’s wild and generous imagination.  If you’ve read The Night Circus, you know what to expect.  If not, well, it’s quite a ride.

This is not a book to read if you can’t concentrate, if you can’t keep track of a number of plotlines and timelines, but if you’re ready to read something that creates and pulls you into a whole world of danger and wonder, you owe it to yourself to check out The Starless Sea.

A BOOK FOR ALL AGES AND THEN SOME: THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

In the course of wandering through the wilds of Overdrive at the Westchester Library System (which I was doing to find books for book groups, not just to find more stuff for me to read, I might add), I was overjoyed to discover one of my all time favorite books in the world available on Overdrive.  In keeping with my current policy of only reviewing books that are available to people through our online services, I am delighted to be able to recommend The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, as a terrific book to read, or even to read aloud.

Lots of books purport to be for all ages, but the ones that make good on the claim are ones that are entertaining enough for young readers but have some extra depth or attractions that keep older readers interested as well, and The Phantom Tollbooth, with its terrific puns, entertaining characters and sly use of language, is a great example of how it’s done. I fell in love with the book when I was young, and then read it frequently to my daughter,  to the point where both of us can use phrases and concepts from the book as touchstones even today.

The story is simple enough: Milo is a boy who’s bored with everything and doesn’t seem to take an interest in anything until one day a toy car and a do-it-yourself tollbooth appear in his house, together with a map to the Lands Beyond, none of which he’s ever heard of.  He drives the little car past the toy tollbooth and finds himself in a different world altogether, and that’s where the fun begins. After joining up with a couple of boon companions (Tock, a watchdog who ticks instead of tocking, and — my favorite character — the Humbug), Milo finds himself traveling through the Kingdom of Wisdom, from Dictionopolis (the land of words) to Digitopolis (the land of numbers) to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason and restore sense to the kingdom.  Sounds like any other generic quest book?  It most certainly isn’t.

Half the fun of the book is meeting the various characters along the way, from the Whether Man in the area of Expectations (which you have to get beyond), to the various Ministers in Dictionopolis (The Duke of Definition, the Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, the Count of Connotation and the Undersecretary of Understanding), to Alec Bings, who sees through things, to Officer Short Shrift, to (another of my favorite characters) Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord and his assistant, the Awful Dynne, to the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, the Terrible Trivium and the Gelatinous Giant.  You can get a hint of what kind of characters they are from their names alone, and they either help or try to stop Milo and his companions along the way.

The puns are great, too, and they’re all over the place without being obtrusive, because the whole point of the book (one of the points of the book) is to turn ordinary phrases and concepts into something much more vivid and funny.  For instance, there’s a wagon the characters get into that doesn’t have any engine: “‘Be very quiet,’ advised the duke, ‘for it goes without saying.’”  There’s Conclusions, an island you can only reach by jumping to it (and you can only get back to the mainland by swimming through the Sea of Knowledge, but don’t worry, because “you can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and still come out completely dry.  Most people do.”).

Over the course of his journey, and over the course of the book, Milo comes alive, discovering all the fascinating things that have been around him all the time, which is, I suppose, the moral of the book, but it is one of the least heavy handed morals you’ll find in literature. You could call The Phantom Tollbooth a book about how to take interest in the world, or you could call it what it is: a playful classic that’s funny and memorable, that really is a great book for all ages.

MODERN DAY GOTHIC: THE TURN OF THE KEY

How can you write a good Gothic novel in the 21st century?  A classic Gothic novel requires elements of the supernatural, the strange, the terrifying.  A Gothic novel tends to have a naive female protagonist, placed in an isolated setting, surrounded by dread and unexplained but deeply worrisome, inexplicable, scary occurrences.  How can you have those things in an era with the internet and ubiquitous cell phones, where naive young women are much harder to find and believe?

The way you do it is the way Ruth Ware did in The Turn of the Key, a masterful modern Gothic novel: you create a hybrid of Victorian and modern, much like the setting for the book, an old Victorian mansion in the isolated highlands of Scotland, which has been upgraded with many computerized “smart” appliances, and you let the creepier aspects of the modern world reinforce the creepy, haunted aspects of the classic Victorian sensibility.

Rowan, our protagonist, is in jail awaiting trial for the murder of a child in her charge, at the outset of the book.  She’s writing to a barrister, begging him to represent her.  She knows she’s notorious, the crime is horrible and everybody believes she’s guilty, and even arguing that she’s not guilty doesn’t get her very far because everyone she meets in prison claims to be not guilty.  She writes the particulars of the events that led up to her arrest, in the hopes of persuading him to take her case, and that’s the structure of the book.  After the first chapter, you pretty much forget you’re reading what’s supposed to be a letter (though there are a couple of other letters at the very end of the book, bringing us back to the structure again), and become absorbed in Rowan’s world and her story.  The suspense is really well done.  Because of the way the book begins, you know that by the end, one of the three children (four if you count the teenager) is going to die, and that the death is going to be in circumstances that point to Rowan. So as you meet the characters, you keep wondering who the victim is going to be and how this is going to play out.  It’s a classic example of Alfred Hitchcock’s illustration of suspense as compared to shock.

Rowan answers an online ad for a nanny, even though she wasn’t looking for a new job, already having one at a day care center in London.  The ad seems too good to be true: the family needs a live-in nanny and will pay a truly outrageous salary for a nanny who will stay with them.  We don’t need to have Rowan, in hindsight, pointing out that a salary that good is a danger sign; just knowing how out of line it is makes the reader suspicious, as we should be.

When Rowan interviews with Sandra, the mother of the three young children, at Heatherbrae in Scotland (isolated from everybody she knows, an important element of a good Gothic), she discovers that there had been a few nannies in the recent past, but none of them stayed for very long.  There are rumors the house is haunted, and the behavior of Maddie, the older of the girls, suggests that something is very wrong around here.  Ellie, her little sister, seems to be under Maddie’s thumb, and joins her, at least initially, in making things hard for Rowan. There’s also a housekeeper who clearly resents Rowan and fills the role of every sinister housekeeper you’ve ever seen in books and movies (think Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, but with a Scottish accent).

The parents hire Rowan and then immediately leave on a business trip, before Rowan’s even gotten a chance to get familiar with the girls or the area.  But Sandra’s planned for that, not only leaving Rowan an instruction book any helicopter parent would admire, but having most of the house set up with recording devices and wireless communication.  Rowan gets the worst of both worlds: left almost entirely to her own devices in terms of figuring out what’s going on and how to take care of the girls, but feeling always under surveillance, with the possibility that Sandra might call her at any moment and check up on her.

There are all kinds of things to worry about, too: the inexplicable and terrifying sounds of someone walking around above Rowan’s room, when there is, as far as she knows, no one else in the house and no room above hers, the poison garden, the stories about murdered children connected to the house.  And that’s before Rhiannon, the spoiled and difficult teenage daughter, returns home from school to defy Rowan and make things more complicated for her.

This is a book filled with atmosphere and dread, as a good Gothic should be.  It’s a page-turner, and it seems just about everyone in it has secrets they’re keeping from you, even Rowan herself.  Ware does an excellent job, keeping you in Rowan’s head and making her sympathetic even as you know from the outset that she’s going to be charged with murdering one of the girls you’re also getting to know (who’s it going to be? The baby, Petra?  Ellie?  Maddie? Rhiannon?).

I wouldn’t dream of giving away the ending, except to say that the mystery is resolved, and that the author plays fair with you.

For a good, fun, creepy read, you could hardly do better than The Turn of the Key.