Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

“I’d watch out for doors, if I were you.”
-The Old Woman, Neverwhere

This column’s theme: Watch out for doors: stories where what’s on the other side of the knob is someplace very different indeed.

The concept of “doors to elsewhere” seems to be having a bit of a renaissance these days. While it’s been a staple of fiction forever, the women who authored these three books present some interesting twists on the unnatural nature of the doors themselves, as well as what’s on the other side, and why one might want to go there. If you were a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, you’ll want to consider the following.

So if you like:
Alternate worlds
Secret societies
Getting back to where you once belonged

You might like

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

Overview

A young woman in 1900’s America discovers her father’s global expeditions may have something to do with gateways to other worlds when somebody slips her a book on the subject.

Sample passage

It was like an earthquake that didn’t disturb a single blade of grass, an eclipse that didn’t cast a single shadow, a vast but invisible change. A sudden breeze plucked the edge of the diary. It smelled of salt and warm stone and a dozen faraway scents that did not belong in a scrubby field beside the Mississippi.

I tucked my diary back in my skirts and stood. My legs shivered beneath me like birch trees in the wind, shaking with exhaustion, but I ignored them because the Door seemed to be murmuring in a soft, clattering language made of wood rot and peeling paint. I reached toward it again, hesitated, and then—

I opened the Door, and stepped through.

I wasn’t anywhere at all. An echoing in-betweenness pressed against my eardrums, as if I’d swum to the bottom of a vast lake. My reaching hand disappeared into the emptiness; my boot swung in an arc that never ended.

I call that in-between place the threshold now (Threshold, the line of the T splitting two empty spaces). Thresholds are dangerous places, neither here nor there, and walking across one is like stepping off the edge of a cliff in the naive faith that you’ll sprout wings halfway down. You can’t hesitate, or doubt. You can’t fear the in-between.

My foot landed on the other side of the door. The cedar and sunlight smell was replaced by a coppery taste in my mouth. I opened my eyes.

It was a world made of salt water and stone. I stood on a high bluff surrounded on all sides by an endless silver sea. Far below me, cupped by the curving shore of the island like a pebble in a palm, was a city.

Takeaway

In terms of style and subject, this book is reminiscent of both Gaiman and Morgenstern’s works, while definitely being its own thing. While the writing is excellent, the book does take a while to really get going, laying down a lot of background that eventually drives the plot forward. Honestly I was about 20% in to it and wondering if it really was going to go anywhere before it finally took off. I’d see this pacing issue as more of a ‘first novel’ problem than any comment on Harrow’s ability to deliver a good story. With that lead in, it’s difficult to say much that doesn’t give away the start of the book, because when the interesting stuff starts, it’s pretty compelling. After picking it up and putting it down over the course of a week, I finished the last third in one sitting.

Or if you like:

Urban Fantasy
Fairy tales with a darker twist
Books as plot devices
Pop culture aware characters

You might like

The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert

Overview

Alice Proserpine’s grandmother authored a book of dark fairy tales that may not have been entirely fiction. That, along with the ‘bad luck’ that her mother is trying to stay one step ahead of has finally caught up with teenaged Alice…

Sample passage

We tried to wait out a full school year in an LA guesthouse Ella rented from an earnest hippie with a trust fund, but four months in the woman’s husband started suffering from symptoms of chronic fatigue. After Ella moved to the main house to help out, the ceiling fell in over the master bedroom, and the hippie sleepwalked into the swimming pool. We didn’t want to start a death count, so we’d moved along.

When we traveled I kept an eagle eye on the cars behind us, like bad luck could take human form and trail you in a minivan. But bad luck was sneakier than that. You couldn’t outsmart it, you could only keep going when it had you in its sights.

After Althea died, we stopped moving. Ella surprised me with a key to a place in Brooklyn, and we moved in with our pitiful store of stuff. The weeks ticked by, then the months. I remained vigilant, but our suitcases stayed under the bed. The light in our apartment was all the colors of metal—blinding platinum in the morning, gold in the afternoon, bronze from streetlights at night. I could watch the light roll and change over our walls for hours. It was mine.

But I still saw the shadow of the bad luck: a woman who trailed me through a used bookstore, whispered something obscene in my ear as she picked my phone from my pocket. Streetlights winking out over my head, one by one, as I walked down the street after midnight. The same busker showing up with his guitar on every train I rode for a week, singing “Go Ask Alice” in his spooky tenor.

“Pfft,” Ella had said. “That’s not bad luck, that’s New York.”

Takeaway

The thing that really jumped out at me from the first few pages of this book was how good the writing was. Sentences like:
“Ella jumped on the fallen bike, screaming at the top of her lungs as she sped after the car. Bleeding in three places, I watched her go, glad she knew I’d rather have retribution than comfort.”
…give the reader a deeper understanding of her characters and make them feel like people you know (or should know) Combine that with the slow reveal of what she and her mother are running from, and why, and you’ve got a solid page turner with some unexpected twists, that was another stay-up-late-to-finish-it book. While the ending struck me as a bit abrupt, The Hazel Wood is the first book in a trilogy, so I’d imagine it flows better into the second book, which is available now with the third being published later this year.

Or if you like:

The Neil Gaiman take on fairy tales
Books. Lots of books.
William Goldman’s The Princess Bride

You might like

The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern

Overview

A game designer and son of a fortune teller gets pulled into a battle for a library where the line between stories and reality is tough to find, if it can be found at all.

Sample passage

There is a pirate in the basement.

(The pirate is a metaphor but also still a person.)

(The basement could rightly be considered a dungeon.)

The pirate was placed here for numerous acts of a piratey nature considered criminal enough for punishment by those non-pirates who decide such things.

Someone said to throw away the key, but the key rests on a tarnished ring on a hook that hangs on the wall nearby.

(Close enough to see from behind the bars. Freedom kept in sight but out of reach, left as a reminder to the prisoner. No one remembers that now on the key side of the bars. The careful psychological design forgotten, distilled into habit and convenience.)

(The pirate realizes this but withholds comment.)

The guard sits in a chair by the door and reads crime serials on faded paper, wishing he were an idealized, fictional version of himself. Wondering if the difference between pirates and thieves is a matter of boats and hats.

Takeaway

After three plus years of writing this column, it is always a good sign for a book when I can lift the Sample passage section from the first page. It means the author has put the best way to draw you in right up front, and that they know what they’re doing.
That said, The Starless Sea was one of those books I kept around for when I’d hit a string of not-so-great books and wanted to read something new that was going to be interesting and capable of dropping the occasional turn of phrase that would make me stop and read it again to marvel at how well crafted those words were.

The Starless Sea did not disappoint.

The first two acts weave parallel threads and one-off stories in a way that enhances the narrative and draws the reader further in to a fantastical world. This is not an easy feat to accomplish, and Morgenstern does it brilliantly, proving that her first novel, The Night Circus was all skill and no luck. The third act suffers in comparison to the first two, as the big reveal, while it makes sense, hit a personal pet peeve, with an ending I felt was okay, and suffered in comparison to how extraordinary the plot had been up to that point. That said, have I mentioned the writing? Because I think it needs to be mentioned again, as it’s that good. If you’ve liked any of the books in the ‘If you like’ section above, you won’t want to miss this one.;

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

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