Don’t talk to me about Goodreads. I know you weren’t but even so, don’t.
Goodreads is clunky, unintuitive, unfunctional and whatever algorithms it is using they need to go wherever algorithms go to die. Worst of all (in my opinion) it is owned by Amazon. So where to go if you want book tech and recommendations but don’t want clunk and junk?
The UK based site The StoryGraph was founded by tech entrepreneur Nadia Odunayo and currently has a membership of almost 70,000. It is free to join, you can transfer your Goodreads library over if you want to and also fill out the StoryGraph questionnaire about your own reading preferences which is quite detailed and which will (in my opinion) result in accurate recommendations for your next read. There are communities and reading challenges and the whole thing feels much more thought through.
Creating a site from scratch like this must be a lot of work. Especially if you consult members for input which StoryGraph is doing. Here is an extract from Nadia’s newsletter:
“— there is a growing list of things to do, especially as our user base keeps on rising (we’re almost at 70k!) and, for us to build a successful product, we have to continually gather feedback and be prepared to completely shift the vision and our offering.”
I love that word ‘vision’. While it is wonderful to have apt and accurate recommendations based on preferences, that also discourages us from trying anything new. I can be conservative in my reading I know.
One way to encourage people to read outside their comfort zone is through the idea of challenges. The StoryGraph has excellent reading challenges, including this one I have joined up to, The Read Harder Challenge (hosted by Book Riot). There are 24 categories in total and I list just a few of them below:
read a YA non fiction book
read a mystery where the vicim is not a woman
read a graphic memoir
read a book about climate change
read a play by an author of colour
read a doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman
This last category ( read a doorstopper of 500 pages plus by a woman) is the one that I have so far engaged with. One of the site’s members had added to the list of possible choices for this category a book by Erin Morgenstern called The Starless Sea (Harvill Secker) 2019. What a great title! This sounded like my perfect holiday read I thought so I downloaded it. This is what I found.
Genre: Fiction Fantasy
Here is an extract from the publisher’s description:
“Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues–a bee, a key, and a sword–that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library, hidden far below the surface of the earth.
What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians–it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also those who are intent on its destruction.”
So far so romantic.
A hidden library? Bring it on!
This is a tale less of magic (referred to somewhat self consciously as the ‘m’ word by one of the characters) than of a place where the rules differ to our own. For most of us the sea is somewhere to live next to – should we be lucky enough – and the sea consists of water which is drawn back and forth by the waxing and waning moon. A sea for most of us is made of water with a fair amount of salt thrown in for good measure.
The Starless Sea however lies beneath our feet and consists not of water but honey. When one of the characters falls into it from a great height and ends up covered in honey – which would surely not be a very nice way to go – somehow a book he was carrying in his pocket is just fine. And can anyone tell me how there are currents and waves in a sea made of honey? And why, as a guardian reviewer sensibly asked, is it not full of dead flies?
The Starless Sea is beautifully written book in many ways and I did enjoy it. But it is an unwritten rule of fantasy that whatever beguiling world the author creates – and this is a beguiling world be in no doubt – things have to make sense at some level against our parameters for the real world. What other hooks do we have to hang a narrative on if not those of our own experience? If the writer wants to change this, in other words to create something which makes no sense outside of our known experience – they had better be good. They had better be Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear good.
This mysterious world is accessed through painted doors which appear in various cities and places in the real world including the one our intrepid hero is led to in Central Park.
Down there things are very different. There are a few guardians and acolytes dressed in robes, trying to hold things together. There is a mysterious person called The Keeper who seems to be in charge – as much as anyone is – and a baby, raised on benign neglect, called Eleanor. There is a single moment during the story where this girl lies about her name to someone she is trying to impress – tells him her name is Lenore because she thinks it sounds good and no-one will know the difference or care. I found this to be one of the few moments of emotional truth in the whole book.
Down there are columns, lakes, strange works of art, ruins and chamber after chamber of books. Gothic elements certainly, and I would say some influence of Peake’s Gormenghast: the library and the death owls. But no Steerpike – no real manipulator, no ready access to the three poisons of greed, anger and foolishness. Morgenstern gives us a much nicer world than Peake ever did, where food and drink is produced by unseen hands in an unseen kitchen and arrives via a dumb waiter and (Potter style) even broken spectacles are replaced.
There are some lovely stand-alone fairytales woven in and out of the main saga – I particularly liked the one about the moon and the innkeeper. These vignettes were the most successful aspects of the book I felt. There is also a Byron-esque character called Dorian who is a shape shifter, albeit quite an appealing one. I regretted that he did not have more page time for himself. On the other hand the ‘baddie’ I felt was cardboard flat as a character.
And yes, I remember Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the name, because just about every chapter starts with him until both he and his name were driving me crazy. He was convincing enough as a student in Vermont which is where he begins – but as a sword toting hero? No. Not really. I did not see enough or any character development to make me believe in that.