“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library

Genre: Literary/Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pub. Date: Feb. 11, 2021

For someone who loves to read in the wee hours of the morning, how could I not want to read a book with the title, “The Midnight Library?” The novel did not disappoint. It reminded me of the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The book is marketed as literary/women’s fiction.  This reviewer did not think it was either. It is more of a fantasy and feel-good read. The fact that this is a heartwarming tale is interesting because the novel begins with a young woman who has just overdosed on purpose. She wakes up to find herself not in heaven or hell but an immensely large magical library.  Did I mention that she is an avid reader and spent most of her childhood in a library?  Yes, there is a connection. It turns out that this library is the place people go when they find themselves dangling between life and death and not entirely sure about which way to go. I get that a religious person would take issue with this concept. However, if you believe in quantum physics and that we live in multiple universes at the same time you will be thrilled to know that there are other believers out there.  There is even mention of Schrödinger’s cat. It is okay if you never heard of the cat it will be explained to you.

In this magical library, our protagonist meets a kindly librarian who shows her her very own “book of regrets.” We all have them. Now here comes the fantasy. She jumps into each life where she could make a different choice than she did before and that would lead her to a happier existence. In one life, she is a rock star, in another, she is an Olympic Swimmer. In yet another, she is a happily married wife and mother. Still, she doesn’t care to live any of these better lives because it becomes clear that she doesn’t know what she wants. At first reading her alternate lives were fun. Who hasn’t wished they could jump into another life? But, after a while, it becomes tedious to read one after another. I would have been happier with fewer lives. Still, the author manages to keep the story fun because when entering a new life she knows nothing of this life. But, everyone knows her.  She must look for herself online, read her social media accounts, to know who she exactly is in this particular life, which creates humorous dialogue as we observe her winging it.

The author seems to be saying that the universe is full of infinite possibilities, but the story here remains tightly focused on the life of a single woman and all her might-have-been lives. Once you finish the book, or probably before, the moral of the story becomes obvious.  “Oh, Auntie Em – there’s no place like home!” My only real issue in this tale was thinking about people who lost someone to suicide.  How painful it could be reading this fantasy and wishing that their loved one could have also time-traveled to come back to life. Overall, it is clear that Haig pushes her readers to ponder his or her own book of regrets, and make us wonder what we can do to keep from making the same mistakes again. He gets his point across very well.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review

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“Four Dogs and Their Tales” by Marcella Bursey Brooks

Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Matchstick LiteraryFour Dogs and Their Tales
Pub. Date: Dec. 13, 2012

Mini-Review

This certainly isn’t the first nor will it be the last novel written from a dog’s point of view. However, it may be the first one that takes on the sport of competition in Dog Agility. The initial and most interesting of the dogs that we meet runs away from his abusive owner.  He becomes a street dog and is not particularly trusting. Eventually, he is won over and taken in by a kind woman. The other three are well-loved dogs each with their own unique personality.  All four dogs and their families become friends.  We follow them on their journey to become show dogs and beyond.  The dogs speak to each other as if they were human. At one point in the story, the author ups the fantasy when the humans and the dogs can actually talk and understand each other.  Unfortunately, it comes late in the novel and is written clumsily with none of the finesse of “The Story of Doctor Doolittle.”  I did not care for this novel.  At it’s best, the writing is sophomoric.  I wonder with a good editor, cutting out most of the endless and tedious competition scenes, plus changing the genre, then possibly “Four Dogs” has the makings of a good children book.

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“The Shifts” by Mike Nees

Genre:           Literary Speculative FictionMike's story
Publisher:    Typehouse Literary Magazine
Pub. Date:    February 2019

I want to start this review by sharing that the author, Mike Nees, is my son.  I promise you that will not influence my critique.   Mike has critiqued much of my own writing and he is fond of telling me not to heap praise on an author just because I know him, as this may harm his growth in the long run.  He likes to tell me that my reviews often need to show more teeth.  With that said, I will share that I am not always fond of Mike’s stories or even his novel.  He writes in a genre I have never been able to put my finger on—A bit of magical realism in a dystopian setting with a strong dash of speculative fiction.  Or, what he simply calls, “Mike’s crazy stuff.”  Often his work is over the head of my non-speculative thinking brain.  But just because I am not of fan of his preferred genres doesn’t mean I do not appreciate good storytelling.  As a book reviewer, I simply consume too much literature not to be aware of when I am reading good writing.  This short story is written with a skilled hand.  Glad to know the English Lit degree paid off.

“The Shifts” is an entertaining short that carries a moral message.  The title’s name is referring to factory work.  The jobs are “a miracle” for the poor.  Everyone fit will have work (…) twelve hours of pay, twelve minutes of work.  The tale reads like a black-and-white (think “The Twilight Zone,”) mix of sci-fi, supernatural fantasy, and horror.  There is also a strong dose of family drama, asking the question: Just what would you do for your child?  For me, this is the real catch in the story.  It touched my mother’s heart.  The characters are unnamed, living in a village in an unmentioned location.  (The author does write of a Boujaad rug, if that is a hint, I am not sure).  This all gives the feel that you are somewhere in the Fourth Dimension.  The author does let the reader know that his male protagonist is narrating his life story to his son.  Sadly, even living in another dimension no one can afford their medical bills.  Mike does a great job in showing corporate greed. Does “Shifts” read as good as Rod Serling’s best?  The answer is no.  Sterling’s episode “It’s a Good Life” is based on the 1953 short story written by Jerome  Bixby.  That short is so wonderful because it cleverly explains more on why those in power often have no moral compass.  Still, “Shifts” is a merciless-creepy-good short that explores the tensions of society.  Due to the author’s mixing of the genres, I recommend this story to those who enjoy speculative fiction, and to those who do not.   The tale even has an ending with a twist that this reviewer didn’t guess.

Open link to purchase “The Shifts”

About the author:

Mike Nees is a case manager for people living with HIV in Atlantic City. He hosts the city’s Story Slam series and has a BA in Creative Writing from Stockton University. His work has appeared in Matchbook Literary Magazine and HazMat Literary Review.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) short story from the author at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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