"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series

the first two books of elsewhere

First, I would like to say that I am going to go on what seems like a bit of a tangent about the jacket copy on books before telling you that I really did like the first two volumes of The Books of Elsewhere and that I am looking forward to the next volume. Thank you.

The Books of Elsewhere : The Shadows (volume one) by Jacqueline West

Illustrated by Poly Bernatene

Dial books for Young Readers (Penguin), 2010.

hardcover, 241.

When eleven-year-old Olive moves into the crumbling old mansion on Linden Street, she’s right to think there’s something weird about the place, especially the walls covered in creepy antique paintings. But when she finds a pair of old-fashioned glasses in a dusty drawer, she discovers the most peculiar thing yet. She can travel inside these paintings to Elsewhere, a world that’s strangely quiet . . . and eerily sinister. Olive soon finds that Elsewhere has secrets to hide–and the most annoying of them is Morton, a small boy with a big temper. As he and Olive form an uneasy alliance, Olive finds herself caught in a plan darker and more dangerous than she could have imagined, confronting a power that wants to be rid of her by any means necessary. It’s up to her to save the house from the shadows, before the lights go out for good.

For fans of Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman comes a tale at turns haunting, moving, and darkly funny. ~jacket copy.

I had seen Jacqueline West’s The Books of Elsewhere : The Shadows everywhere when it was first released, but lost it in the ToBeRead pile until seeing the second book’s appearance. The wonderful blog “Shelf Elf” was the one to convince me to add this juvenile fiction to my list with her caution in mind: West’s story had become all to easily mixed-up in the indelible ink of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

At the moment, I think the main reason this book is being compared to Coraline is because they both share many plot points: an odd child with indifferent, busy parents moves into a creaky old house, girl discovers she can access an alternate world inside the house, evil force is out to get her, she has to save the day, and talking cats. When you look at that list of similarities, it’s no wonder that I was constantly waiting to be dazzled as I was when I read Coraline. Perhaps I kept on forgetting that I wasn’t reading Coraline?

While I didn’t have too much issue confusing the two, likely due to having been instructed to adjust my expectations by “Shelf Elf’s” very helpful review,* I echo the caution. Do not take the “For fans of” suggestion as an elevatory remark. I agree with “Shelf Elf” in that “I don’t think you can put [The Books of Elsewhere : The Shadows] in the same category as Gaiman’s stories.” That isn’t to say either of us think West’s book is awful, it just is not as good as Gaiman.

As for “fans of Roald Dahl,” that was the reference that confused me more. Perhaps I haven’t read enough Dahl, so I asked the resident Dahl fanatic–newly-11-year-old Natalya aka the daughter. She begins by saying, “It has to be Funny.” “Any funny book is Dahlesque?” I challenge. “Whimsical, then,” she growled. She asserts that even when Dahl is more serious, like in Matilda, there is a sense of Whimsy that is Dahlesque. Two primary keys of Dahlesque N insists on are: Wit and Whimsy. So I wasn’t mistaken.

I found The Shadows to be a charming read. There is a sense of humor that would near whimsy just as the darker elements would near all-out-creepiness–both fall just short of the mark. Without the expectation that The Shadows is “for Roald Dahl or Neil Gaiman fans,” the “just short” causes no harm. This is just one of those occasions where the jacket copy’s enthusiasm has the potential to devastate the story. Some names carry a lot of weight and West’s Books of Elsewhere are not quite ready for them yet.

What The Books of Elsewhere are ready for are those young fans of stories with haunted houses, dangerous magic, intrepid young heroines, and talking cats. I tore through the pages as Olive found herself in one tense situation after another. West keeps a nerve-wracking suspense-building pace, taking unexpected but nicely plotted turns straight into a thrilling ending. Her similes are fantastic, her way with describing the setting is beautifully done. The Shadows is a well-written book.

Olive is wonderfully realized, a bit lonely, dangerously curious, and daring. Her parents are stinking adorable, and though oblivious, not completely absent (only when convenient). The cats are perfectly introduced, that we are able to be suspicious of them when appropriate is deftly handled, as are the mysteries as they unfold and complicate the story line.

The House is given its own sense of ‘living and breathing’ which is an ever appreciative creep-factor. And the use of the uncanny should produce some shivers–the painting people–Morton. I wasn’t as disturbed by the idea as the novel would have it, as Olive experienced it. The smooth, paint-stroked skin, the warm hands but lack of heart-beat–if they had been mannequins? I guess I was horrified with the idea of becoming trapped, of being watched, of being hunted… I know I felt dread at several turns–felt the impulse to curse Olive for her stupidity. Did I feel a haunting, a terror? I was worried as to what menace would prevail?  The Shadows was suspenseful, but I am really unsure of what held the novel back from being truly scary. It had so many elements. Perhaps it was my age?

The Shadows was not scary [for me] but it was an entertaining read and I can easily recommend it. I didn’t find it “haunting” or “moving,” but it was “funny” at turns–cute–[oh, man]–and sweet. I was ready to inhale the following volume Spellbound.

The Books of Elsewhere : Spellboud (volume 2) by Jacqueline West

Illustrated by Poly Bernatene

Dial books for Young Readers (Penguin), 2011.

hardcover, 304 pages

Olive could not just leave well enough alone–her curiosity insatiable. And she may have an idea as to how to help Morton become a real boy again and get out of Elsewhere–at least, she’s looking for ideas. If only the cats were not keeping more secrets from her.

A neighbor’s odd grandson Rutherford redeems his interruption with a great idea: surely the witches who lived in the house before the Dunwoodys had a grimoire–a spellbook! Olive begins her hunt and it becomes unclear who is hunting whom as the book seems to be calling to her. With a fascination that reads not unlike the precious of Lord of the Rings, Olive becomes obsessed. Will she be able to come to her senses before it’s too late–before she does something they’ll all regret?

Olive’s attraction to Adventure marks the first volume in The Books of Elsewhere : The Shadows. In this sequel Spellbound, it is Magic’s overwhelming appeal. Ever present is Olive’s curiosity: she gets a hint of intrigue and she needs to find the answer. And lastly, there is the problem with Morton, with whom her difficult relationship continues–a troubled friendship that slowly warms in affection. I really like Morton.

The cats, one of the best features of The Shadows, get better and better. West has a way with her characters and settings that showcase a talent for characterization and strong description. The author shows a steady hand as she follows the first volume with the craftmanship that attracted the reader to the series in the first place. There are a few new characters and some illuminating and disturbing revelations of past ones. And Spellbound provides more creepiness (the precious) and more of a cliff-hanger ending. When is the next installment?

***********

a note on the Illustrations. Poly Bernatene does well with the atmospheric and is a huge credit to the story; they are a wonderful companion in storytelling. And, oh, my, you should look at his work!

*Shelf Elf’s review.

Books of Elsewhere website.