Book Review: The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler

The Forbidden Library Cover
The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler

Synopsis from Goodreads:

When Alice’s father goes down in a shipwreck, she is sent to live with her uncle Geryon–an uncle she’s never heard of and knows nothing about. He lives in an enormous manor with a massive library that is off-limits to Alice. But then she meets a talking cat. And even for a rule-follower, when a talking cat sneaks you into a forbidden library and introduces you to an arrogant boy who dares you to open a book, it’s hard to resist. Especially if you’re a reader to begin with. Soon Alice finds herself INSIDE the book, and the only way out is to defeat the creature imprisoned within.

It seems her uncle is more than he says he is. But then so is Alice.

 

Much later, Alice would wonder what might have happened if she’d gone to bed when she was supposed to. (Page 1, Chapter 1)

This is the opening line in Django Wexler’s new middle grade fantasy, The Forbidden Library. The first in what will be a series of books, this sentence sets the tone for the rest of the story, which often keeps the reader wondering what’s going to happen next.

The Setting

Something that sets The Forbidden Library apart from many other modern middle grade fantasies I’ve read is the fact that it takes place in the past, during Hoover’s Presidential term in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. It was a daring move for a story aimed at a young contemporary audience that won’t readily identify with the period, especially when it comes to the lack of technology (they still use gas lamps.)

Wexler’s choice to set the story in the past appealed to me, however. I believe the magic books in Geryon’s library, as well as the vibrant characters and intriguing plot twists, are sufficient to hold a middle grader’s interest, and the time in which the story takes place might inspire children to buff up on their history.

The Characters

Our protagonist Alice, a precocious girl who likes to read, does well in school and strives always to be on her best behavior, serves as a role model for Wexler’s middle grade audience, especially when compared with other less savory characters, each of whom leave the reader to wonder by the end if there’s anyone poor Alice can trust.

Her companion as she explores the library in search of the fairy Vespidian, believed to be responsible for her father’s death at sea, is a talking cat named Ashes, a creature reminiscent of both the cat from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Being a fluent speaker of sarcasm, I could very much appreciate his wry and usually condescending tone toward Alice, and was often unable to suppress a smile. Yet, sometimes I also thought it was over the top. In one memorable exchange regarding Ashes’ views on the nature of death, I felt like I was watching the famous Dead Parrot skit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (pay particular attention to 2:35 – 2:50.)

All the characters were vividly described, and I found their behavior to be realistic. There were no heroes (save for Alice and her father), but aside from the fairy Vespidian or Mr. Black, there were no absolute villains either. Though some were obviously more dubious than others, every character exhibited both decent and not-so-decent qualities. They were believable for the same reason that Rowling’s characters in Harry Potter were believable: their humanity, with all of their flaws and imperfections.

There was so much subterfuge that during the course of my reading, I would think I’d figured out a character’s motivations, only to discover a few pages or a few chapters later that I was mistaken. By the end, I could only feel sorry for Alice, who’s been thrust into a dangerous game saturated with competing agendas and zealous self-interest.

One thing that impressed me about Alice’s character was her conscience. In her forced encounters inside prison books, worlds accessible only to Readers, in which dangerous creatures were imprisoned long ago, creatures that must be bested and consequently bound to the victorious Reader if the Reader is to survive the journey inside, Alice would first attempt to win through cool-headed reason and argument, and would only ever kill as a last resort, though killing was the normal course of action for every other Reader. And then, after she’d bound a creature to her will, she’d only ask it to do something dangerous when absolutely necessary, and would always do her best to avoid allowing it to experience pain, an attitude that was also at odds with the means by which the same creatures were employed by Geryon and the other Readers. It further cements Alice’s role as a hero and a model for children to look up to, teaching them that those in positions of great power should be the most humble and charitable of us all.

Reading as Magic.

What drives this particular fantasy is the conceit that books are special, that they literally contain magic, accessible only to a special class of people called Readers. Some are portal books, which transport Readers from one place to another. Others are prison books, which contain dangerous creatures that were locked away forever during their book’s creation.

The magic inherent to Reading is an allegory for the power of words, stories and the imagination. It allows both children and adults to approach something that’s ordinary and mundane on the surface from a different angle, from the vantage point of the extraordinary, so that reading is made exciting once more.

Writing and Style.

Wexler has sarcasm and dry humor down to an art. From the way he features the lawyers and accountants who descend on Alice’s father’s estate like vultures the moment he’s lost at sea, to the way he playfully describes otherwise ordinary objects and sounds, I was blown away by how witty and clever the writing was. Just a heads up: if you don’t appreciate sarcastic humor, you probably won’t enjoy this book.

The story’s pace pairs well with the plot. When the reader should stop to take a look around, things slow down, and we’re presented with many fine details that paint a beautiful picture that make the world come alive. When the reader should feel tension and suspense, things speed up, so that the reader is caught up in the fervor of conflict and can’t put the book down until things are finally resolved. In either case, there was never a point where I felt that the story dragged, or where I felt that the story should have slowed down. Like the last bowl of porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it was just right.

I often found myself comparing various passages to poetry, and discovered that Wexler’s very creative when it comes to the use of simile. Below are some specific sentences that stood out to me:

…and after the accountants, like a Biblical plague building up to a big finish, came the lawyers. (Page 16, Chapter 2)

Again the silence, as though the conversation had fallen into a pot hole. (Page 35, Chapter 3)

The flame flickered weakly…, like a caged spirit. (Page 51, Chapter 5)

Each gust of wind brought a rush of whispering leaves, rising and falling like the sound of surf on a beach. (Page 71, Chapter 6)

Wexler also peppers in some great vocabulary words, just enough that it always comes off as natural and unobtrusive. As a lover of words, I could appreciate his approach, and I’m hopeful that kids will make the effort to look them up. Here are just a few of the words that I enjoyed: avuncular, plinth, hermitage, vanguard, tureen and scrupulous. I tried to write them all down, but I was so caught up in what I was reading that after the first few chapters I lost track.

Other Thoughts.

The books in The Forbidden Library reminded me a lot of the 1994 computer game Myst, which contained both “linking books,” which transported explorers from one world to another, and books in which people could be imprisoned. I also detected significant influences from Harry Potter — when Alice passes through the wall of the library just like Harry at King’s Cross Station — Coraline and Alice in Wonderland.

Wexler used the Swarm, Alice’s first bound entity, to come up with some creative solutions to otherwise difficult problems. In particular, I would watch out for how Alice approaches her final prison book’s adversary.

There’s a lot of foreshadowing, from the very first sentence to things that hint at events to come in future books. During Alice’s final confrontation, it’s strongly implied that she has a unique ability that I suspect will come into play again in either the next book or in one further down the road.

There were times when I was confused, or when I felt that something was not adequately explained. I thought, for example, that Alice’s encounter with her essence should have been expounded on. I found myself asking why the experience of gazing upon one’s own essence should be so painful, but only during the first time, and I never received a satisfactory answer. I was also unclear as to whether or not her father, who appeared to Alice in a dream, was really just a product of her subconscious mind or if her father had found some way to communicate with her.

I loved the transitions between the opening of a book, when Alice would start reading, and the beginning of Alice’s experience inside the book, both of which employed the same first sentences, linking the two together beautifully.

Finally, in exploring the nature of the creatures bound up inside prison books, some fascinating existential themes arise that will appeal to the story’s older audience.

Conclusion.

The Forbidden Library is an enjoyable, unique and well-written tale with a satisfying climactic ending that answers just enough questions to provide relief, but leaves enough mysteries unsolved that the reader will be left eagerly anticipating the next book in the series.

I enthusiastically recommend The Forbidden Library to children and adults, and give this one four out of five stars.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Does What You Do Matter?

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

If you’re like me, you probably stop to look around once in a while and wonder if your actions are noticed, if the decisions you make affect the world in any remotely measurable way. After all, you’re only one individual, just so much flotsam floating around in a boundless roiling sea of people who will never know your name.

When you try to help out a friend, when you give food to a homeless person, when you do anything at all to show the people around you that you care, have you really contributed to the health and well-being of the world? When you’re frustrated and you choose to take it out on others, when you steal a few dollars when you think no one’s looking, when you indulge in idle gossip or slander, are you really a significant part of the world’s problems? Does what you do matter, or are all of your deeds just statistical anomalies, a series of dead-end choices that are drowned out by the deafening noise of a densely populated world?

If you’re a celebrity or world leader, your role is obvious. You have a large sphere of influence, and your actions directly impact thousands or even millions of people. But if you’re just an average Joe, it’s easy to believe that what you do is meaningless, that however you choose to act, your deeds won’t ever touch the world in a significant way.

The problem with this belief is that it’s born of a limited vision. You can only sense what stands immediately before you, and unless you can witness the impact your choices have on the rest of the world, you’re going to dismiss the things you do as insignificant. This narrow perception blinds you to the bigger picture and makes it impossible for you to understand how connected you are to everyone else, to how much good and how much evil you’re capable of inflicting on the world through the simple act of making choices, which on the surface appear mundane and insignificant.

In reality, everything you do has vast far-reaching consequences, not just for your immediate family and friends, but for your whole community, your nation, even the world. The things you do aren’t isolated events. Your choices influence others. On a normal day, you might only interact with ten people, but all ten of those people will interact with  others, and each of those will interact with yet others. Like the surface of a lake when it’s disturbed, your actions ripple outward, propagating through the social layers of the world, their reach magnified with distance.

A rude gesture is like a match applied to dry kindling; it seems so trivial, until the fire spreads, consuming the world, leaving those who’ve lost everything in its wake to wonder how the fire could have been started in the first place.

An act of love, on the other hand, sparks a different kind of fire, one that has its genesis in a smile, a hug, or a word of encouragement, one that consumes hearts, until the world is a conflagration of kindness, empathy and compassion.

Most of us dream about changing the world, about making the world better. It’s only when faced with the apparent worthlessness of our existence that we become jaded, that we give up on our dream because we can’t see any reasonable way to achieve it.

Our dream of a better world can be realized. But to make it happen, we must first extend our vision beyond what we can see with our eyes. We must be capable of comprehending the far-reaching consequences of our actions. We might not be able to see how those outside our spheres of influence will be affected, but we can use our imagination to paint a larger picture, to see how the things we do might grow and spread beyond our local communities.

Reading fiction is one way to accomplish this. Fiction lets us witness firsthand not only the actions of individuals, but all the many ways in which those actions affect others. It’s a fantastic mental exercise that breeds a profound awareness of the human condition. There’s a reason we’ve been telling stories for millennia.

While it’s important to recognize our individuality and to value the many ways in which we’re unique, it’s equally important to recognize that we’re not just a loosely bound collection of disconnected beings, but a societal organism whose body is the composition of the entire human population. What happens to one part of the body affects the others. Evil deeds spread like cancer, until they metastasize and begin to destroy. Good deeds, on the other hand, are healing forces, which fight the malignant tumors even as they sustain and uplift everything else, rejuvenating the world.

Understanding that your actions do in fact leave a lasting impression on the planet, you shouldn’t ask yourself if what you do matters. Instead, you should decide if you desire to be a part of the cancer or a part of the cure.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Steady As She Goes

“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Ludolf Backhuysen, 1695.

Writing and I have had a tumultuous relationship, and throughout the course of our affair, I’ve had the tendency to oscillate between emotional extremes. One moment, I’ll obsess over something I’ve just written, convinced in the most private chambers of my heart that I’m the next William Shakespeare. The next, I’ll regard whatever project I happen to be working on with contempt, convinced I’m nothing but a fraud, that it’s only a matter of time before the world sees me for the hack I truly am and it’s all over.

It turns out that many writers, as well as artists of every other discipline, exhibit this curious emotional duality. We love our projects, our children of the mind, with all of their many quirks and imperfections, and for a time we have eyes only for their potential. But then we scrutinize them more closely, become increasingly sensitive to their flaws, magnified so that they blot out everything else, and soon we wonder how we could have ever considered our work “good.”

Either extreme left unchecked will wreak havoc on an artist’s creative aspirations, and could even shipwreck them altogether. Excess pride leads toward stagnation and a refusal to acknowledge thoughtful criticism, for how can one perfect something if, in their eyes, it’s already perfect? On the opposite end of the spectrum, excess despair leaves one feeling as if there’s no point, that they might as well give up while they’re still ahead.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that emotions are fickle, that there’s no logical reason for why one moment you should feel one thing and the next something else entirely. Amidst the billowing gale of conflicting desires, passions and the ever-shifting perceptions of my artistic value, I’ve realized that in the end, how I feel is really rather pointless. All that matters is whether or not I write.

When I’m feeling haughty, high and mighty, I acknowledge the emotion, set it aside and continue writing. When I’m feeling dejected, depressed and full of despair, I acknowledge the emotion, set it aside and continue writing. I write, I write and I write. I write through the good feelings. I write through the bad. The willful choice to act regardless of this transient passion or that becomes a moderating force, a lighthouse that illumines the way forward in a dark and unstable sea. I have no control over how I feel. But I do have control over how I act in spite of how I feel.

If you’re an artist of any stripe, do what you love to do. Do you believe that you’re invincible, that you and the vision you carry around inside your head have the capacity to transform the world? Recognize the feeling, let it go and make art. Do you believe that you’re a hack, that you have nothing of value to share with the world and that you might as well not even try? Recognize the feeling, let it go and make art.

Emotions will come and emotions will go. Like the explosive gusts of a hurricane or a typhoon, they’ll buffet you from every side, threaten to bowl you over where you stand. Fine. Let them come. Do what you love to do anyway. Stand your ground.

Do what you were made to do, always do what you were made to do, and even in the midst of chaos, you’ll find peace.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

California Bookstore Day, 2014 (and How I Came To Acquire a Standalone Copy of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper & The Spindle”)

Bookstore Day, 2014

What is Bookstore Day?

Bookstore Day was a state-wide celebration that took place in California on Saturday, May 3, 2014 to honor the relationship between readers and the independent bookstores who support them. 93 shops participated, hosting various events such as readings and author signings. Special books and other items were sold in limited quantities, merchandise that was only available on that day and from those sellers.

I heard about this the day before it happened on Twitter, and decided that I had to be a part of it. I went online, found two indie bookstores that were relatively close and set out on a quest for literary adventure. This is where my tale begins.

Mysterious Galaxy

My first stop was Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA.

Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA
Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA

I arrived at 10:40am, twenty minutes before the store opened. Because of Bookstore Day (along with the limited edition copy of Neil Gaiman’s short story The Sleeper & The Spindle to be had inside), I was anxiously anticipating hordes of book-hunting vikings, and braced myself to do battle with traffic and long lines. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I arrived to plenty of parking, and doubly surprised to discover that there was no wait outside the front door.

Though the store itself hadn’t opened yet, there was an attached coffee shop that was already doing business, so I went inside and bought a cup of peppermint tea to pass the time.

I asked if I could take it with me into the store, and they told me I could carry it wherever I went as long as it remained inside the building. I thought that an odd answer, until they gave me my drink in a clay mug. What does it say about the world we live in that I would be confounded by a non-disposable cup?

Peppermint Tea
My peppermint tea

Tea in hand, I sat down at a long wooden table and pulled out my notebook to do some freewriting, resolved to enjoy the atmosphere. I let my eyes meander about the room, and observed that there were enough people present to make me feel that I was a part of something special, but not so many that they began to feel like a crowd. I was anxious to see the treasures that awaited (and thus sipped my tea with perhaps a bit more enthusiasm than was strictly proper), but because I wasn’t competing with a bunch of other strangers for floor space, I never once felt that I had to spring from my seat and fly like a bat out of hell the moment they opened.

When the gate that separated the coffee shop from the rest of the building was finally pulled back, I polished off the remainder of my peppermint tea and set off to explore.

Inside Mysterious Galaxy.
Inside Mysterious Galaxy shortly after they opened

As soon as I walked inside, a nice gentleman from behind the counter approached and asked if there was anything he could do to help me.

“No thanks. Just looking around,” I replied. Then, remembering one of the reasons I’d decided to make the trip, I amended my answer and asked if he could get me a copy of The The Sleeper & The Spindle. I would have waited until I was ready to check out, but despite the lack of a crowd, I still had the irrational fear that it would sell out before I had the chance to buy it.

He dashed off to retrieve it, and a moment later I was holding on to something unspeakably beautiful. I thanked him, and before he left to help other customers, he told me to let him know if there was anything else he could do. It was the kind of prompt and enthusiastic service that you just won’t find at a large corporate chain like Barnes & Noble.

"The Serpent of Venice," by Christopher Moore.
“The Serpent of Venice,” by Christopher Moore

I discovered lots of interesting books as I walked around. They were all titles you could find online, of course; I didn’t notice anything that was obviously independently published or put out by a local press. But it was good just to be inside a bookstore again, to discover new stories the old fashioned way, by perusing shelves, waiting for something random to catch my eye and demand a closer look.

Among the interesting titles I encountered were The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore; William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, episodes four and five, by Ian Doescher (real Shakespearean plays, written in iambic pentameter!); and The Onion Book of Knowledge (from America’s “finest news source.”)

I ultimately decided on William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, as well as my one-of-a-kind Neil Gaiman book, and headed toward the register to pay. I thought that that would be the end of my experience, but there was one surprise left.

Second installment to "William Shakespeare's Star Wars," by Ian Doescher.
Second installment to “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars,” by Ian Doescher

When I’d handed the cashier my credit card and was waiting for a receipt, the man pointed to a rack of books and informed me that I could pick one out for free in celebration of Bookstore Day. There weren’t a lot of items to choose from, but I did stumble across a hardcover copy of Will in Scarlet, by Mathew Cody, a retelling of the classic legend of Robin Hood. I thought, “why not,” and wound up exiting the store toting an extra book to read.

My whole experience was fraught with friendliness and smiles, and I left resolved to return as soon as I was in the market for more physical books, even if it meant that I’d have to drive thirty minutes out of the way to get there. The service, as well as the knowledge that I could be a part of a community instead of just another tick on a corporate ledger, was worth the extra effort.

{Pages}

Next in my tour was {Pages}, also located in Redondo Beach.

{Pages} A Bookstire, Redondo Beach, CA.
{Pages}, Redondo Beach, CA

{Pages} is a tiny street-side store backed up against the coast. Parking here was limited to what you could find on the street, and as anyone from Southern California knows, you have about as much luck parking on the street at the beach as you do winning the lottery. Nevertheless, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I was strolling along a narrow road stacked from one end to the other with small independent shops, and was soon standing outside my destination.

Inside {Pages} A Bookstore
Inside {Pages}

{Pages} was smaller than Mysterious Galaxy, but that only made the shop feel cozy and inviting. By the time I’d gotten there, there wasn’t much of a crowd, but one of the workers informed me that there’d been a line that’d snaked outside the shop before they’d opened, and that they’d sold out of Neil Gaiman’s short story in their first half hour. Good thing I’d purchased my own copy at Mysterious Galaxy first!

I don’t have too much to report about {Pages} that I haven’t already said about Mysterious Galaxy, and I’d imagine that most of the same would apply to any good indie bookstore. I received prompt and cheerful service and had an overall experience that was very positive.

I wound up purchasing a hardcover copy of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman, even though I was planning to spend less money by buying the e-book instead, because I wanted to support {Pages}.

After checking out, I returned to my car, noting that I’d left five minutes on the meter for the person behind me (there was no end to my generosity that day), and embarked on the journey home with a newfound awareness of all the options available to me whenever I might feel like going to a bookstore instead of purchasing e-books online.

Some Final Thoughts

"The Sleeper & The Spindle," by Neil Gaiman.
My copy of “The Sleeper & The Spindle,” by Neil Gaiman. Are you jealous? 😉

Bookstore day was a great way for me to discover the thriving community of indie bookstores in my area. Until hearing about the event, I’d always assumed that they were a dying breed and that there weren’t very many places left to go unless you were willing to visit one of the many Barnes & Noble replicants. Once I examined the event’s website, I realized just how many open shops were within driving distance, not just in Redondo Beach, but also in San Diego, Pasadena, Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Santa Monica. It was a great introduction to indie bookstore culture, and I hope that Bookstore Day will become an annual event that spreads beyond the borders of California.

I am and always will be a fan of online outlets like Amazon. Big business with a strong online presence fills a critical niche. But indie bookstores are also an important part of the literary ecosystem. I believe in a healthy balance between big and small business. I’ll always rely on Amazon for my e-books and for purchasing titles that I can’t find at a brick and mortar store. But when I’m in the market for a physical book, I think I’m going to make more of an effort to shop locally. There’s a whole social experience that’s missed online, especially when the seller is a small independent business as opposed to a large corporate entity. It’s nice to walk into a store and chat with a friendly face, and the warm relationships that blossom between local vendors and their regular customers is priceless.

It’s with a heavy heart that I report I was unable to stay for any of the events hosted by the bookstores. I thought about returning to Mysterious Galaxy in the afternoon, and maybe even driving out to Pasadena to check out some more stores, but the demands of the day got the better of me and I was forced to stay home. Fortunately, I’ve discovered through social media and the stores’ websites that there will be other events to look forward to. So I’ll just have to use my regret as motivation to check out more of what’s going on in the future.

I’ve got a lot more exploring to do; there are so many stores left that I wasn’t able to see. Here’s hoping for more positive experiences, and that public awareness of independent booksellers and their contributions to the world of literature will continue to grow and thrive long into the next century.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.