journal. It’s not often that I find myself in a position in which I am entirely envious of an author’s work. Frequently, I’ll notice a sentence that gives me a good shiver down my spine, a character arc that makes my chest swell, a point-of-view decision that worked out better than anticipated. These are nit-picky choices that only fellow writers pay attention to. These are the things that every author fears- the readers that are so avid they notice every tiny failing of that little baby you call your novel. The grammar errors are like blemishes on the end of a nose, the faulty magic or logic are like warts and moles, the not-quite-developed love story are big unruly birthmarks, and the plot holes are like cackling laughs or crooked teeth.
I learned way back in middle school and high school (freshman year) all about editing. After taking the ACT for the first time required by the state in seventh grade (with an attached career portion? why we have to decide at age 13 what we have to be when we grow up is beyond me), I realized I had a knack for grammar and editing. I’d not missed a single grammar question, and the test suggested I become an editor.
Therefore, little-miss E. H. Taylor, despite having left behind hopes of becoming an editor, is quite the nit-picker. I read way too much, and my best friends always joke at the fact I’m very stingy with my five stars.
So it’s not frequently a book sparks something in me that gives me that same chest-swelling feeling of my childhood. It’s like walking into a familiar place, the smell of the cleaner they use in the water pools at Disney World, the taste or look of a pecan hanging on the tree just like my grandma’s back yard, the sound of one of those songs contained on the mixtape disc of a mashup of all my uncles favorite songs just for me. Reader, it’s a memory. It’s some weird feeling of connection to some mind across the world that thinks just like you.
I’ve come to realize lots about reading and why it love it so dearly. I’ve been through some dark times in my mental health journey (and darkness still), but reading, it’s been scientifically proven, relaxes me. It helps me put on the skin and identity of another character like a coat, and I can dream. Reader, it’s like dress up as a child. It’s like running rampant around my childhood back yard, pretending I’d sprouted wings and could somehow rocket myself across the pond to the other shore. It’s pretending there’s mermaids in the sea, pretending I’d open my wardrobe and into another world I’d walk. It’s praying the day you turn thirteen your real-life-long-lost parents will arrive, tell you you’re heir to some mysterious kingdom (I love my parents so this is a strange one I must admit). It’s dreaming of your fairy godmother after you’ve attended too many parties where you’ve only played the role of a wallflower.
Good books are the books that keep us dreaming long after we’ve turned the last page.
Which brings me to my point. What books are so good, they remind me of that feeling? What books make me remember that vivid imagination that still pulls from me in the moments before sleep, the quiet moments descending a staircase, the walks down empty hallways? What books remind me of that spark of creation, blazing so furious in my blood I’ve no doubt my God put it there just to remind me of Himself?
Well, Reader, what a loaded question! I’ll try my best to answer.
Most recently, it was Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I hadn’t anticipated falling in love with it so, but isn’t that what makes them your favorites? I brought it in my bag of books to the beach this year, and thanks to CO-VID, I spent most of my time in the dusty house reading. I let my baby brother, Noah (only he’s not a baby anymore), select which book I read next, and I, to be honest, had forgotten all about this book at the bottom of my bag.
I’d purchased it because it reminded me of my own manuscript “Blue Ridge,” which involves a certain Door Between Worlds (in all capital letters as Mrs. Harrow would prefer, I think) completely inspired by C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe, I cannot lie. It’s what gets the characters to and from different realms, and it’s all I dreamed for as a child. So, I bought this one thinking it might satiate my feelings.
And it did not disappoint. It only took one chapter, and I knew I was going to love it. Harrow has a voice that sounds similar to my own. Do you ever notice that? When reading something of someone else it sounds nearly entirely like your own? It’s a kindred spirit thing, I think. A friend and I got our papers mixed up once in high school only to get home and finally realize they weren’t the same. I got the same feeling here.
Some people hate the “fourth-wall breaking” of some novels. Which, I don’t think would be your case, Reader because (oops! I said Reader again, didn’t I?) well, you catch my drift. It’s the acknowledgement of a reader that makes the book so unique. It’s the constant mentioning of punctucation and capitalization. Goodness, it’s like Hawthorne, being so excited and thrilled with himself about his dadgum rosebush symbol he just had to tell all about it for three paragraphs! Reader, things I notice are these details. Not just because I’m an editor at heart but because it’s how I write. Names have meaning, everything’s a symbol, and capitalized words are characters of their own.
But I’m blabbering, so I’ll get on with my little blurb: the book follows a January Scaller, a unique girl to say the least. She’s the ward of a prestigious Mr. Locke, an older man who works under a Society (capital “S” like a snake that’s strong and important, a viper) that collects artifacts and objects of history. It’s January’s father that goes on trips to find these things, leaving his little girl behind to grow quickly before his eyes. So much so that Locke becomes more her father than her own, shaping her into a docile young lady who does his bidding.
And she hides behind him. Her father is of very dark complexion ( I imagined him as Indian or Native American), and January has a darker complexion also. She’s mixed race, but in 1900’s America, that still meant you’re colored. It’s certainly something that added to the book’s theme, and the setting and time place only add to the luster of the novel. Harrow is a historian of sorts, and wields her knowledge of history as a magic wand of sorts, embellishing the time frame and weaving history into the story. It’s her commentary on modernity that builds theme and makes me question historical issues of today’s world -troubles that have lasted always in this broken world of ours.
It’s books like these that make me what to take the haphazard advice of people who suggest I teach high school English. I’d definitely teach this book. Only the IB and AP Lit kids and English Majors and Minors will catch my drift when I say this book is a literary device fan-fest. With the stories inside, Harrow offers both the almost-YA-sounding voice of seventeen year old January and the alternate book inside written in the voice of deep academia (both voices I’m familiar writing in as I have a biology minor yet I love creative writing). The novel can be viewed by limitless lenses (my favorite- history), and that being said, each student takes away something new and different. Reader, it’s magnificent.
I’ll speak once more about the protagonist’s uniqueness before describing its magical plot. January is unique in that way that every student can relate. She’s raised in the lap of luxury, yet she’s not white and therefore doesn’t perfectly fit. There’s a scene where she finds herself alone on a train and it forced to the back of the car after the condescending glare of a train conductor, there’s a scene where she’s at a society party and is praised for being so unlike the “savage” people the whites love to oppress. Reader, we’re all privileged in some way. We all face our own trials. Though I have never been mistreated because of the color of my skin, I have faced my own trials due to the middle class status of my family (currently, the fear I won’t be able to afford grad school). Some students can relate to being discriminated against based on their color. Some students can relate to being humbled from their wealth. As a protagonist, January offers freely a step into her shoes, which just so happen to be one-size-fits-just-about-all.
Gripping, never once was I bored. We follow January on her journey to adulthood, reading stories within her story, reading about the Door she found at seven and the seed of dreaming that was planted from that point on, so deeply rooted that even Locke’s coaxing can’t keep it hidden. She’s just like all of us readers, too stubborn to forget the imagination the world longs to beat out of us.
In this magical world in which Doors are everywhere and upon being opened they bring unconditional change, January grows up and her faith in Doors allows her to be the key. January reminds me of me. She’s all the dreamer as I, and in her story, I found myself. This, dear Reader (see that capital “R” so like a reader poised with his hand on the book, turning pages?), is what reading’s all about. Ten Thousand Doors of January reminded me of my love of fantasy, and in a world in which all the stories are the same, formulaic and just-for-money, it reminds me that the most important part of any story is putting you inside it.
Reader, it reminds me of the moments I’d opened my closet, tumbling toward the back in hopes that one day, I’d push hard enough to another world on the other side.
I laughed. I cried. I smiled the grandest smile whilst turning that last page. Parts I’d sneak out to the porch despite the heat and read aloud to myself, eager like I was as a child to taste those words on my tongue. My mom found me dramatically reading to myself, and after I apologized, face blushed tomato red from my ever-present embarrassment, she just giggled, saying, “I was just watching my little girl.”
(Are you misty? Because, Reader, I’m misty.)
Therefore, whimsical and divine, so rich you’ll have to down a glass of milk afterward, Ten Thousand Doors of January has been one of my favorite books yet of 2020. Keep dreaming, keep chasing. Reader, this book is for those who don’t fit in, for those still searching for their perfect world or striving to make their own a home. It’s a tale of family, of finally making up, of finding those familiar faces after years of thinking you’d never see them again. It’s that childhood imagination you feel, yet finally Harrow has put it to words for you. Magical, vivid, Reader, it’s a treat.
What other books have I given five stars? What other books make me tremble with envy that I didn’t write them first? Well, I’ll name a few for you at a list below, and I’ll offer you a chance to browse some of the short stories I’ve written (not perfect, just a hobby of mine).
Thanks for the read, dear, and happy reading!
The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow
A Winter’s Promise – Christelle Dabos (translated by: Hildegarde Serle) (a unique French YA novel about a girl who can walk through mirrors)
A Curse So Dark and Lonely – Brigid Kemmerer (a good one about a protagonist with cerebral palsy)
Willa of The Wood – Robert Beatty (MG novel about a wood sprite in the woods of NC. I sobbed)
The Traitors Kiss – Erin Beaty (matchmaker and Mulan all wrapped up into a cute romance that didn’t make me gag but rather swoon)
The Cruel Prince – Holly Black (faerietale in which a human girl attempts defying odds)