Robyn Reviews: Under the Whispering Door

‘Under the Whispering Door’ is a comedic fantasy novel about death, grief, found family, and the importance of living life to the fullest. With a mixture of laugh out loud and heartwarming moments, it’s an enjoyable read – but also a superficial one that struggles to reach the depths it strives for. This is a good, gentle story after a long day, but not one likely to linger.

Wallace Price has dedicated his entire life to his company – and even then, he’s not the sort of boss you’d buy a Christmas card for. He’s outraged to find only four attendees at his own funeral – one of them his ex-wife who spends most of the ceremony talking about what an asshole he was, and one of them the Reaper ready to escort him to the afterlife. However, rather than taking him straight to the Beyond, the Reaper instead takes Wallace to a very peculiar tea shop. There, a ferryman named Hugo serves tea and cake to all who need it – including lonely souls coming to terms with things they missed in life. With Hugo’s help, Wallace starts to adjust to his death – and makes some startling realisations about his life. However, the tea shop is only a stop on the journey, not a final destination – and as deadline day nears, Wallace starts to realise he isn’t ready to move on.

At the start of the book, Wallace is a horrible person. He only cares about his company’s profit margin – not its employees. He has no real friends, an ex-wife he certainly isn’t on speaking terms with, and so little to do that he spends his entire life at work. However, the longer he spends with Hugo and his ragtag band at the tea shop – Mei, the newly qualified Reaper, Nelson, the ghost who refuses to cross over and leave his grandson, and Apollo, the adorable ghost dog – the more regrets Wallace starts to have. His distaste at their inability to bring him back to life turns to grudging respect, and finally to true friendship – and it turns out Wallace Price has a heart after all. The change is sweet, but it also happens surprisingly quickly, not feeling entirely authentic. It’s hard to match the caricaturic villain Wallace is at the start of the book with the reasonably nice guy he’s become by the middle. The message that everyone can change for the better is lovely, but there isn’t quite enough nuance to carry it off.

Mei, Hugo, and Nelson, on the other hand, are all great characters. Mei is a spitfire, full of energy and determination and unwilling to take insolence from anyone – especially not the dead. Hugo is a calm, soothing presence with a lot of wisdom – but he’s also a bit blind to what’s in front of him, and as the story unfolds it’s clear that he’s almost as lonely as Wallace is. Nelson has a wicked sense of humour, but also an uncanny knowledge of human nature and a deep love for his family. Their little family is incredible, and together with Apollo it’s easy to see why Wallace wouldn’t want to leave.

The romance is choreographed from relatively early on and more subtly written than a lot of the rest of the book. I would argue that this isn’t really the sort of book that needs a romantic subplot, but it’s a sweet relationship and it’s always lovely reading about gay couples getting a happy ending.

Stories with an underlying message are difficult to write without coming across as preachy, and while ‘Under the Whispering Door’ just about manages to avoid this, the sacrifice is a book that feels a bit twee. It’s a little too syrupy sweet and optimistic. There are darker passages – this is a story about death, and there are several subplots about grief including the death of a child and suicide – but some of their impact is lost because of the overarching sunshine-and-rainbows feel. Its a difficult balance, and some will probably love the optimism, but personally I was looking for a bit more depth and acknowledgement of just what a black pit grief can be.

One area TJ Klune is particularly strong at is humour – I regularly found myself laughing out loud while reading this. Admittedly, some of the jokes are a bit crass, but it’s hard not to laugh anyway. If you’re a fan of sitcoms, this would definitely be a book for you.

Overall, ‘Under the Whispering Door’ is a solid read but not one that I found spectacular. Fans of books with messages, sitcoms, and happy stories will likely love it, but for those looking for a more nuanced tale there are better options (like ‘A Man Called Ove‘) out there.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Tor
US hardback: 21st September 2021 / UK hardback: 28th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: Threadneedle

‘Threadneedle’ is a hard book to categorise. Part urban fantasy, part young adult contemporary, and part a dark and harrowing tale of abuse, it’s not an easy book to read. At nearly 600 pages, it’s a complex book, and Thomas has packed it full of great ideas and creativity – but unfortunately, they didn’t mesh well for me, and I found the darker elements hugely affected by enjoyment of the story. I’m sure many readers will love this, but it wasn’t for me.

All her life, Anna has been warned of the dangers of magic. Magic killed her parents when she was just a baby, leaving her to be raised by her aunt – a member of a strict order known as the Binders, who believe magic is a sin to be locked away. Anna only has one year left before her magic will be bound. However, Anna’s carefully planned life is thrown into turmoil when her mum’s old friend Selene returns to town, bringing her daughter Effie – a rebellious New Yorker due to spend her last two years attending Anna’s strict school – and Effie’s mysterious friend Attis. With Effie and Attis throwing the school social order into disarray, Anna finds herself rethinking truths she’s believed all her life – and whether she really wants her magic to be bound after all.

The book’s actual blurb only talks about magic, but the majority of this book is a young adult contemporary about Anna’s life at school. Magic is a secret from the wider world, so Anna’s chief concerns are staying under the radar of the school bullies, getting the grades she needs for medical school – and keeping her magic hidden. I read plenty of young adult contemporary, so I didn’t mind being thrown into one, but it wasn’t what I expected when I picked up the book. Anna’s school is reminiscent of every TV show boarding school, with clear social cliques and a constant mean undercurrent. Anna has survived so far by being Nobody – not reacting to the bullies, and generally remaining so quiet and anonymous she’s not seen as important enough to even tease. The way Effie’s arrival affects this is one of the best parts of the book – it’s great to see Anna come out of her shell, and the eclectic group of friends she makes are fun to read about. However, they fall just a little too far on the side of a TV show caricature to be believable. One in particular is a passionate Christian, very devout and studious – but this is written in a very two-dimensional way, and her character changes so much throughout the book it almost creates whiplash.

Anna is actually an excellent character. She’s lived a horrendous life, and is terrified of magic – and stepping a toe out of line – but she’s actually a passionate, smart girl who cares a lot about others and has a surprisingly intuitive grasp of new concepts. She also loves music, and it’s the scenes where she plays the piano that her character really shines through. Anna struggles to trust anyone else, and she’s been taught to be quiet and passive – reverting to this automatically in times of stress – but the way she develops through the novel as she’s given a bit of freedom is amazing to read about. Her character arc is a shining light and a reason why, despite my reservations, I’d still recommend this novel to many people.

One of the underlying themes of the novel is love, and its many iterations. Anna has always been told that love, along with magic, was responsible for the death of her parents, and told to avoid it at all costs. Her relationship with her aunt is twisted and abusive, but Anna still loves her – her aunt is her only surviving family, and she claims everything she does is for Anna’s protection. Anna, at sixteen, is also starting to explore romance – and this again is very well written. With little frame of reference. she doesn’t fully understand her own feelings – but Thomas writes them in such a way that the reader gets hints before Anna even knows herself. Finally, there’s platonic love, with Anna making friends for the first time in her life. Her friendships aren’t all healthy, but the way she discovers and explores boundaries and standing up for herself within them is great to read.

I feel it’s very important that readers going into this book know about the abusive content. Anna experiences mental, emotional, and physical abuse, her aunt keeping her under complete control. Anna also experiences abuse from the other Binders – mostly emotional, but some physical as well. This is incredibly harrowing to read. I usually enjoy darker stories, but something about this one got under my skin. Books about abuse are essential – it’s important for people to be aware of its impacts, and to give survivors space to explore their experiences – but the abuse here is stark and insidious with the way it impacts every aspect of Anna’s life, and could potentially be very triggering. It also makes it very hard to definitively classify this as a young adult or adult book. The school aspects are exceptionally young adult, but many teenagers will likely find the abuse scenes very difficult to process.

The magic system is very creative. I won’t give too much detail to avoid spoilers, but the scenes of the characters discovering magic and experimenting with spells and potions are another highlight. Some of the magic can feel too easy, but Anna herself struggles, another facet which allows the reader to connect to her. Anna’s aunt’s magic is also very interesting – very different to the other magic seen in the book, and possibly deserving of another book all on its own. I will say that the magic aspects can feel very told rather than shown, with information sometimes thrown at the reader rather than unfolding organically, but in a book with so much else packed in there possibly wasn’t space to impart it in any other way,

Overall, I personally feel this book tries to do too much and loses some of its impact. I also feel it suffers from the blurb not really summing up the book’s content, leading to a surprise which can alienate readers. With adequate warning of the darker content, this is a book that plenty will enjoy – the creativity is undeniable, and Anna’s character arc is excellent – but, unfortunately, it wasn’t for me. Recommended for fans of young adult and adult fiction who enjoy creative magic systems, coming of age stories, and stories full of darker elements.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperVoyager for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 27th May 2021