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: The Extraordinaries

The Extraordinaries is a fun, modern YA fantasy – funny and heartwarming in places and serious in others. The characters are cute, the LGBT representation fantastic, and I suspect modern teenagers will enjoy it. The story and setting are unoriginal – I predicted every single plot twist miles before it happened, and I’ve read several similar books before – but that doesn’t prevent it being a good read.

The main character, Nick, is sixteen and just entering Junior Year of High School in Nova City – very similar to any city in the US, except there are superheroes, known as Extraordinaries. Nick is a fan. In fact, he’s such a big fan of the city’s Extraordinary – known as Shadow Storm – that he spends his time writing self-insert fanfiction and owns a pillow with Shadow Storm’s face on it. Nick dreams of being rescued by his idol and subsequently joining him on his adventures to save the city. Of course, that’s not precisely what happens.

Nick is a sweet, naive, oblivious sixteen-year-old. He also has ADHD – this is exceptionally well written and one of the highlights of the book. With his well-known superhero crush and constant stream of random thoughts, he isn’t the most popular guy in school – but he has his own tight-knit group of friends. His relationships with them were brilliant and another strength, even if Jazz and Gibby felt more like caricatures than characters at times. LGBT rep is always brilliant, but the butch can-kick-your-ass girl and her head-cheerleader girlfriend was almost too cliché.

Seth, Nick’s best friend since they met on the swings ten years ago, is equally adorable. Orphaned at a young age in a train crash, Seth has always been a strange, chubby kid who struggled to make friends – but in him, Nick found the patient listener he needed, and Seth found the human connection he craved. I loved them – their relationship was often painfully awkward, and both of them are ridiculously oblivious, but it was pure and adorable. The reactions of everyone else around them were also perfect – their disbelief and frustration matched mine as I was reading perfectly.

Owen, Nick’s sort-of-ex and now sort-of-friend, had the potential to be an interesting character, but too much was left a mystery. I never quite knew what to think. Hopefully future books will develop him further – his arc in this didn’t feel complete.

The setting was a completely standard US city, plus superheroes, giving a thoroughly contemporary feel – except perhaps for the highly limited number of news channels, and the way everyone watched them instead of Netflix. Why the superheroes were left to continue unchecked was never explained, nor why they existed – or how. For what is essentially a YA fantasy romance, this doesn’t matter too much, but I would have liked a little more explanation.

Overall, this is a solid enough read. It’s great fun, with laugh out loud moments, and the characters are adorable – but the story is predictable, and characters just the wrong side of cliché. With the exception of Nick and Seth – who were themselves clichés – none of them were expounded on enough to take them into 3D territory, which left the novel a little lacking. But for younger teenagers, this will likely be a story to love.

 

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 14 July 2020