The Midnight Library

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Nora is going through a rough patch in life. She is fired from her job, she has a bad relationship with her brother, her cat died, her depression is worsening, and no one appears to even need her. She also has a long list of regrets that she has never come to terms with. So, one night she decides to end it all and attempts suicide. But she doesn’t die. Instead, she wakes up in the Midnight Library, surrounded by books that contain the lives she could have lived if she made different choices. Nora can choose any of the books on the shelves, and once she begins to read a book, she is transported into another life. In some lives she is famous and in others she is worse off than in her root life. Nora can ultimately choose to continue in existing in any life she chooses as long as it is the one perfectly suited to her, but is any life truly perfect?

I loved this book, but I wouldn’t recommend it to readers currently struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts. While it does have a hopeful ending, it can bring up some dark thoughts along the way. For instance, I consider my life and mental health to be quite stable right now, but I have struggled with depression, suicidal ideation, and anxiety a lot in my life. Reading this book reminded me of many dark times. Although this is my first time reading from this author (and I don’t know much about him), I think it is clear that he has a very good understanding of how depression feels, which makes Nora a very realistic and relatable character, but it could disturb some readers.

Having read some book with a similar theme, I guessed where the ending was going, but it is the journey that matters. I enjoyed seeing Nora’s possible lives, and it of course made me wonder how my own life would be if I made slightly different decisions. The book makes the reader reflect a lot, so my enjoyment did not only come from the text itself but also the way the book made me think about my life. Nora learns some hard lessons through her journey through her lives, and she sees the good in bad in herself, her choices, and in other people. It is a really beautiful and heartfelt story that was difficult to put down. I mourned and celebrated alongside Nora’s losses, accomplishments, and discoveries.

Speaking of Nora, she is a great character. She is well developed and shows growth over the course of the novel, but as the reader I found it easy to sort of insert myself into the story as I reflected on the choices I would have made in my own life. It was a delicate balance, but I thought it was done well. It was also fun to see Nora’s friends and family through her different lives. These different perspectives made it easier for Nora (and the reader) to see different aspects of their personalities as well as their flaws and redeeming qualities. So, even if her brother was cruel in one life, she saw reasons for his actions in another life, and piecing the iterations of him together gave Nora and the reader a clearer picture of who he really was, which I thought was a brilliant way of creating character development.

I gave The Midnight Library five out five stars because I can’t fault it. I related to it so much and it gave me so much to think about. It made me laugh, cry, and think. I can’t ask for much more than that from a book. So, as long as you can handle the conversations on mental health, I would recommend it to just about anyone. It made me appreciate the life I am living a bit more than I did before.

Once Upon a River

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This will be a short review, but it’s just because I am writing this on Friday at midnight. I still enjoyed the book quite a bit, even if it took me about a month to finish.

So, I read, reviewed, and enjoyed Diane Setterfield’s other book, The Thirteenth Tale, a while ago. Both books are similar in that they have a very dreamy, fairy tale-eques feel with a plot that leaves some open ends and is more about the journey than the destination.

A dead little girl and an injured man are brought to an inn that is known for its storytellers one night in the middle of winter. The patrons are surprised to see such a sight, and though they are used to tall tales, they are even more surprised by what happens next. Miraculously, the little girl appears to come back from the dead, and by the end of the night there are many more questions than answers. The most important questions are who the little girl is and where she came from. Three different families claim that she is theirs, but the little girl cannot answers questions herself.

I think Setterfield really excels in portraying the fairy tale atmosphere as well as in her characterization. There’s a dreamy, on-the-edge-of-reality feel to the entire novel. And I like that some aspects of the plot are left up to the reader’s interpretation. This book perhaps isn’t for people who like clear cut explanations in their plot lines. Also, since there are a lot of characters and separate storylines, you have to be okay with not quite knowing where the plot is going at the start. We are introduced to several different families and their pasts near the beginning. The characters feel well rounded and realistic, but at some points I was wondering how it all tied together. So, you have to be okay with going with the flow and trusting the author will tie the plot lines together. And eventually she does in a way that I felt was satisfying.

To me, the novel felt like taking a ride along a winding river– you take it slow, enjoy the scenery, and you just float along enjoying the experience. Then eventually the river merges with other tributaries and they all come together into the main body of water– of the main thread of the plot. So, if that doesn’t sound like fun, then maybe the book isn’t your thing. There’s some pretty writing and descriptions, which again, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a book that feels cozy somehow. There’s also a common theme of the power that a person’s story can have and the way that different people interpret events can lead to unique perspectives of the same events.

It’s a really brilliant bit of escapism. I would say that it is definitely my kind of novel, similar to something like The Snow Child or The Night Tiger, so I gave it a solid four out of five stars.

The Gloaming

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In the fall I like to read Gothic tales and historical fiction– things that are a little gloomy and brooding. The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan fits this mood as well. If you recall my review of The Gracekeepers by the same author, The Gloaming is supposed to be a “spiritual prequel,” though it has little to do with her other novel, and you do not need to have read The Gracekeepers to understand or enjoy The Gloaming.

The Ross family lives in a very large, pink house on an island where people turn to stone instead of dying. In the Ross family we have Peter and Signe and their children, Islay, Mara, and Bee. As with any family, people change, grow, and go away in one way or another. Islay and Mara are both becoming young women, and they must decide whether to stay on their island or find a home elsewhere. The novel includes themes of grief, romantic and familial love, fairy tales, and growing up to name a few. We follow Mara, Islay, and their family throughout a few years of hardship and acceptance.

The Gloaming is a melancholy little novel. Kirsty Logan’s writing is always beautifully descriptive and lyrical but not over written. Her descriptions have an economy to them, and she easily sets the tone of a scene in a few well-chosen sentences. The writing is easily one of the strongest parts of The Gloaming, but that is up to personal taste to some extent. I also enjoyed the characters. I especially liked how Peter and Signe’s relationship was portrayed almost mythically in the beginning of the novel, but as time goes on, the reader learns more about the reality of their relationship’s beginning and a more realistic story unfolds. Mara and Islay both grow up and change in ways that may be surprising but are realistic given their circumstances.

I enjoyed the experience of reading The Gloaming, but the atmosphere and interest in the characters wasn’t quite enough for me. I wish there had been more of a plot. An event tests the family’s bond, which is the catalyst for the novel, but from there it withers out. There’s a love story, some family drama, and of course some death, but there is a lack of direction or urgency. There’s a slight threat in that people turn to stone instead of die on the island, and there’s something about a bridge connecting the island to the mainland, but not much really happens with that until the abrupt ending.

It’s a very character driven novel, and that’s fine for some people, but even I wanted a little more plot to guide the narrative. There are also many flashbacks that slow the pace even more, though they do add a lot to the character development. However, I do wish that some parts of the characters’ lives were shown in more depth. For example, I wanted to see where Islay and Mara went when they parted ways. The ending was also a bit disappointing. It is open ended, but a major event suddenly solves some of the potential plot lines (like the bridge), which felt a little unsatisfying.

This is a novel for people who enjoy fairy tale influences but don’t need a solid plot. If you enjoy character driven novels that are a little dreamy, a little gloomy, this might be perfect for you. For me, it was about a 3.5 out of 5 star read. Enjoyably moody and thoughtful but lacking a little in the plot area.

Big Fish

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Big Fish is my favorite movie. I actually wrote two papers in college about the movie. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty passionate about the story. And, well, it never fails to make me cry like a baby at the end. I knew that one day I would have to read the book, just to compare the two. For once, the movie is much, much better than the book.

Edward Bloom is dying. His son, William, tries to make a lasting connection with his father before he passes, but Edward cannot seem to tell his son his true life story. Edward has always been a grandiose storyteller, but William can’t take it any more. Edward’s stories, while fun, leave William with very little real information about who his father was. As Edward fades away from sickness, William desperately tries to understand his often-absent father.

I can’t help but compare the book and the movie, but I know that those who have not read or seen either will be a bit lost. So, apologies in advance. The book has many small chapters. Each small chapter tells a short story about Edward Bloom’s life. The stories are usually over the top and bordering on fantasy, but you can sense a grain of truth in each one. In between a few of the stories, we have sections in the present when Edward is on his death bed. During these present-day sections, William and his mother try to talk to Edward, but Edward has a lot of trouble opening up about who he really was.

The problem is that these short, magical stories just don’t feel cohesive. Characters and places come and go without any impact on Edwards’s overall narrative. The grains of truth do not connect or give much detail about what really happened. The book is much more open-ended, which feels unsatisfying. In the novel, Edward holds tight to his secrets and the moral of the story is a little muddled. The movie succeeds by filling in some of these blanks. For example, book-Edward befriends a giant, but we never hear from the giant again after his short story. Movie-Edward’s giant friend pops up here and there to help Edward on his life journey. The events and characters simply do not have as much development in the book. The stories feel isolated and lack the heartfelt, romantic, and fun moments portrayed in the movie. By the end of the movie, there is a sense of closure for the audience and for Edward’s son, William. The book lacks this, in my opinion.

Both the book and movie are an extended allegory about life, death, truth, and fiction, but the movie just executes it all more smoothly. I could not connect to book-Edward. He was portrayed as someone everyone likes, but his charm did not translate on the page. Movie-Edward is a charmer, but he is also more fallible. He is a bit of an ambitious underdog, while book-Edward never has much trouble getting what he wants. The book portrays Edward’s life a bit more realistically than the movie, but somehow, the movie feels more authentic.

If I say any more, I will probably spoil both the book and the movie. My recommendation? Watch the movie. Then, if you are still curious, read the book for a different perspective. In my opinion, the screenwriter for Big Fish took a good idea and made it into a great movie. For me, Big Fish the movie is a solid 5/5 stars. Big Fish the novel? Maybe three out of five, but only because I love the story itself so much.