Jessica Miller’s Elizabeth and Zenobia Exemplifies Gothic MG

Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller

Elizabeth and Zenobia coverFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2017
Publisher: Amulet Books
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Middle grade gothic
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

When Elizabeth and her unusual and fearless friend Zenobia arrive at Witheringe House, peculiar things begin to happen.

Especially in the forbidden East Wing.

The flowers and vines of the wallpaper sometimes seem to be alive.

A mirror has a surface like the water of a pond.

And an old book tells a different story after midnight.

Zenobia is thrilled by the strangeness, but Elizabeth is not so bold…

Until she makes a mysterious and terrifying discovery.

Here is a spooky middle grade tale I can get behind! There is a countryside estate that’s been boarded up for some years, there is an overgrown garden and labyrinth, there is a distant father with a mysterious past. While the story doesn’t scare, not in the way of Coraline or The Nest, it uses a handful of gothic tropes to create its own tense and atmospheric moments. Miller writes well for this genre. Her descriptions aren’t too flowery, yet they are creative enough to set an evocative scene. What really brings the setting and story to life, however, are the delightful cast of characters.

Elizabeth and Zenobia play off each wonderfully. Miller gives each a distinct voice. If I described both girls, I might make them sound like caricatures, but they come across as believable young girls. Elizabeth makes for a unique protagonist in these kind of stories – she is not a daring and adventurous child. Zenobia is brash and bold; Elizabeth is scared of many things. Zenobia wants to contact the spirits she assumes inhabit Witheringe House; Elizabeth would rather not. And a similarity – Zenobia can only be seen Elizabeth; Elizabeth wishes her father would see her better. Zenobia’s eager tendency towards the gruesome also helps shape the darker tone of the story. They are the best of friends, and the story explores how they navigate that friendship when their personalities clash. While the plot takes some time to show itself, I found the daily interactions of Elizabeth and Zenobia in their creepy new home entertaining enough.

In addition to Elizabeth and Zenobia, there is a housekeeper whose ability to appear without warning greatly impresses Zenobia and serves as a running gag. There is a tutor who is not the antagonist of the story. And there are a few more characters that I’ll leave you to discover…

My primary criticism lies in the ending. I felt the story concluded abruptly. The mystery surrounding Zenobia never receives an explicit explanation. I like stories neatly wrapped up at the end, though I am coming to learn that’s not always necessary. Zenobia’s nature being revealed was never a promise of the main story line (though I crossed my toes hoping it would come up). The illustrations were not at all to my taste. I tried to be forgiving – “Maybe they’re meant to look like they’re drawn by a kid…” – but personally, I just think they’re bad. Edit (Oct. 13): I did not think to consider that the illustrations were not finalized in my ARC. (As a blogger who’s been reviewing ARCs for awhile, I am a little embarrassed…). Thank-you to the author for politely pointing this out to me. I have since purchased the book and am happy to report that the illustrations are much more tidy and refined, yet they still retain a quirky quality that’s very appropriate to the story and characters.

The Bottom Line:

A delightful tale of friendship between two very different young girls, Elizabeth and Zenobia is an example of Victorian Gothic middle grade fiction that other books could look up to.

Further Reading:

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Brief Thoughts: In The House on The Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods tells the story of a newly married couple who take up a lonely existence in the title’s mythical location.In this blank and barren plot, far from the world they’ve known, they mean to start a family. But every pregnancy fails, and as their grief swells, the husband – a hot-tempered and impatient fisherman and trapper – attempts to prove his dominion in other ways, emptying both the lake and the woods of their many beasts. As the years pass, the wife changes, too; her powerful voice sings new objects into being, including a threatening moon hung above their house, its doomed weight already slowly falling, bending the now star-less sky. (jacket description)

  • The cover, description, and strong of praise of this book drew me to it. The back of the book includes quotes such as “The story’s ferocity is matched by Matt Bell’s glorious sentences: sinuous and darkly magical, they are taproots of the strange.” and “This book, which will grip you in an otherworldly trance, reads like something divined from tea leaves or translated from a charcoal cipher on a cave wall”. Unfortunately, I didn’t get those feelings. The book fell short for me, though I can see where it would appeal to some. Not quite my type of mystical prose, though.
  • The third page lets you know what you’re actually getting into. I read the paragraph quoted below, thought “Whoa wait did that actually just happen?” and had to go back to reread it. At that point I had to take a 24 hour break to reset my expectations for this book (despite all the clues, I thought it was going to be more like Gaiman or Valente).
    • Then no kiss at all, but something else, some compulsion that even then I knew was wrong but could not help, so strong was my sadness, so sudden my desire: Into my body I partook what my wife’s had rejected, and while she buried her face in the red ruin of our blankets I swallowed it whole – its ghost and its flesh small enough to have in my fist like an extra finger, to fit into my mouth like an extra tongue, to fit slide farther in without the use of teeth – and I imagined perhaps that I would succeed where she had failed, that my want for family could again give our child some home, some better body within which to grow. (6)

  • When I tried to describe this scene to my Mom, I realized it sounds a lot crazier than it reads – “This guy eats his miscarried child and then he calls it the fingerling and it gives him bad ideas.” (Her response: “I don’t want to hear anymore about that book.”). The prose is, in some sense, very poetic. There’s a lot of dancing around actual actions.
  • I felt a bit squirmy awkward at the beginning that the man is already so opposed to his wife. I hoped to their relationship when it was fresh and loving. The man is an unlikable character (which is usually neither here nor there but he was the dominant character out of just a few and I didn’t enjoy spending so much time in his head). I couldn’t get over his attitude towards his wife.
  • “I dug more holes, and because I could not dig a hole without wanting for something to put in it, for the first time I began to kill what I did not intend to use: In one hole I buried a muskrat and in another a rabbit and in another a wrench-necked goose, caught by my own hands after it squawked me away from its clutch of goslings, themselves doomed beneath my frustrated heels” (43).

  • I seriously considered giving up around the halfway point. The man and the fingerling and their actions were beginning to bore me. Somehow, I persevered.
  • I wondered how the story could fill a whole novel. I certainly got a short story/novella vibe from it. I still wondered that by the end.
  • The atmosphere (and the endless cottage) brought to mind House of Leaves at times.
  • The Bottom Line: Two stars for the prose that kept me reading (also driven by my curiosity of whether something more was going to happen), but I really should have DNF’d at that halfway point.

Family Reads: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

 Welcome to Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live around the last Sunday of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

Reno: Sister’s pick this month is House of Leaves, a chunkster that’s been on my TBR list since July 2012. It’s difficult to motivate me to read lengthy novels. Sister gave me plenty of notice for this one, so I read a little bit each day through December, occasionally blazing through intense or sparsely filled passages.

Sister: I saw this book on the shelf at work and flipped through it. It looked really neat and weird, which I thought might make it interesting. I asked some people at work about it and they encouraged me to read it.

Sister gives this book 3.5 stars; I give it 4 stars.  You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (though we do avoid spoilers below). This post takes a different format than previous posts, because I didn’t realize I wasn’t recording until halfway through our discussion =.= Here’s our discussion on the structure of the book and the layering of stories.

No room in the house exceeds a length of twenty-five feet, let alone fifty feet, let alone fifty-six and a half feet, and yet Chad and Daisy’s voices are echoing, each call responding with an entirely separate answer. (57)

We noticed a common theme of ‘beyond the realm of the known’ between Sister’s picks – Annihilation, The Wake, and House of Leaves – for Family Reads. Our discussion depend heavily on asking why? without providing many answers! House of Leaves overwhelmed us in this sense. We both enjoyed the story lines of Johnny and the Navidsons, but quickly realized as our discussion progressed that one could ask why? about nearly every aspect of the book and not come to any solid conclusions. Our why? questions about House of Leaves took a different direction that our why? questions with Annihilation and The Wake. Previously, we asked why? about in-story situations, characters, explanations, etc., and we filled in some answers with our own theories. With House of Leaves, we found ourselves wondering “Why would the author do this or that?” With an experimental novel, it’s hard not to ask yourself that question. Sometimes the answer appears easy (ex. the disorienting layouts convey a hint of what it’s like to be in the dark room) while other answers would take more thought than we were willing to put in on a Sunday night (ex. what does the index add to the story?). We wondered whether Danielewski had a purpose to every choice he made, or whether some things he just threw in to mess with the reader or (to put it more politely) allow the reader to build on and interpret in their own way, giving them a chance to own the story and make it uniquely relative to them. Some other features we wondered about: the pause buttons, the Yggdrasil page, the missing Reston and Last Interviews, the note ‘This is not for you’. The layering of the book itself astonished us. You’ve got the Navidson videos, Zampano’s commentary (and commentaries of numerous others), Johnny’s commentary, and Johnny’s life story. Danielewski created all of those together. Impressive!

One of the bigger questions we considered was why did Zampano write The Navidson Record, and why did Johnny add his own story to it, making it public for all to read. Did Zampano actually have access to these videos that Johnny could find no evidence of? Did he know the Navidsons? (Sister theorizes that the Navidsons might have been relations of Zampano’s.) I have a tough imagining that the Navidson’s aren’t real, but I also have a tough time imagining that Zampano didn’t make the whole thing up. The fact that we know relatively little about Zampano (compared to the Navidsons or Johnny) makes it even more difficult to distinguish what might have been true or real. Zampano and Johnny are both unreliable narrators, so you can’t really pin anything down with certainty. (Then I wondered, in what way would the reader benefit from being able to define what is true or not in the context of the book? A question beyond our ability to answer!)

Sis agrees with those who consider it a love story. She also felt that Johnny’s story was the main story, but that both stories need each other to work. I loved the Navidson’s story most, but for the creepy bits rather than the ‘love story’ bits. I would have enjoyed reading that even without Johnny’s additions (though I also loved Johnny’s character and voice).

We found this book a little overwhelming to discuss, though we enjoyed the story and its surface layers (I particularly liked how Zampano wrote in a pseudo-academic style, still delivering intense and shocking moments). There’s so much going on! With Annihilation, we had a nice little list of things we wanted answers to. With House of Leaves, you could spiral off your discussion into infinite discussions. We barely scrapped the surface. I wonder if Danielewski has given any interviews about House of Leaves. I’d be interested in hearing what he has to say about the whole thing, but I also like the idea of leaving it a totally self-contained work. Have you read House of Leaves? Does it intrigue you or does it just look weird? If you’ve written a Family Reads post this month, add your link here.

RIPX Wrap Up

Huh, it’s November now? I definitely fell short on this challenge, with my reading habits suffering through October. I did read one of my RIP selections during the Read-a-thon – Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow, the only book I read that I had originally selected for the challenge. I thought I would certainly have read The Fall of the House of Usher during the Read-a-thon, but I conked out much earlier than I anticipated. I plan to tackle it this week. I don’t think I’ll get to The Bird’s Nest this year… I tried to read the Library of Souls preview, but it didn’t catch my interest me. The Nest exceeded my expectations, though, so that makes up for something, I think! To wrap up, here are my two cents on Skary Childrin.

  • Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow by Katy Towell
  • Rating: ★★
  • This book has been on my shelf for years…it’s an odd shape with an odd quality. I don’t like the title much. The illustrations seem like fan art. But, I held onto it all these years because I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its design…even though I don’t believe that aphorism, I elected to follow it because I loved Towell’s YouTube videos. I recommend those videos over this book. Here is my favourite:
  • Another book for the pile of potentially creepy middle grade reads that have disappointed me. I’m starting to realize I may just be very particular when it comes to these kind of books. Although, I don’t think that’s the case with this one. The characters and plot fall flat, and the prose is not very exciting either. Adelaide, Maggie and Beatrice have slivers of promise within them, but not enough to be compelling. Mostly this book feels like a mishmash of weak ideas that were done better elsewhere.

    Review: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

    Author: Kenneth Oppel 
    Title: The Nest 
    Format/Source: Hardcover/Purchased
    Published: September 2015
    Publisher: HarperCollins
    Length: 244 pages
    Genre: Middle grade gothic
    Why I Read: Good creative team, intriguing plot, sister recommended
    Read If You: Like creepy fairy tales, spooky stories, Coraline, etc.
    Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
    Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

    This book kind of fell into my lap. I only added it to my TBR on 30 September. My sister talked a bit about it on the weekend. I wasn’t feeling any of the spooky books I planned to read, even though I want to read stuff that fits that mood. Suddenly I felt like I really needed to read this book, so I had my sister pick it up from work yesterday and I finished it this morning. Considering I have reading scheduled until the end of the year, this shows you just how much of a mood reader I can be. Thankfully, The Nest fits solidly in the realm of the RIP Challenge, becoming my first read for the challenge. I enjoyed The Boundless earlier this year, and Silverwing when I was young, but this surpasses anything Oppel wrote previously. I never would have expected such a satisfyingly eerie story from him.

    If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to know right away whether this book stands up to the claims that it’s a “haunting gothic tale for fans of Coraline” (skip this paragraph if you don’t really care). Normally I would not compare one book to another so closely in a review. However. I have been looking for a Coraline successor for years. I have read many books that purport to be spooky or creepy or eerie but come nowhere close. The Nest captures that feeling I found in Coraline. Some readers will forever say “It’s good, but it’s not as good as Coraline…” I acknowledge that The Nest is somewhat of a different story than Coraline. Regardless, I still recommend it to fans of Coraline. I think the book will appeal to Gaiman fans, as long as they aren’t too dead-set on finding a perfect spiritual successor to Coraline in this book. I hope future readers will come to love this story for itself, and not for the ways in which it is like Coraline! 

    There was something wrong with the baby, but no one knew what. Not us, not the doctors. After a week in the hospital, Mom and Dad were allowed to bring the baby home, but almost every day they had to go back fro more tests. Whenever Mom and Dad returned, there were new bits of information, new theories. (1)

    The Nest is a creepy fairy tale, a changeling story presented in dreamy eerie prose, peppered with melancholic moments and stinging moments. More than once did I make an anxious sound while reading. Oppel carefully portrays a believable family, living alongside a couple of darkly fantastical characters. Steven makes a great protagonist (I appreciated the portrayal of his anxiety/OCD – it’s never named) and the Queen a nasty villain. The dialogues between the two stand out as one of the highlights of the story. This isn’t the kind of story where the frightening ‘fantasy’ bits play a subpar role (I’m looking at you, Doll Bones). This story is all about Steven and his encounter with the wasps. The prose is just what I like for this kind of tale – sparse yet pointed and clear, creating (at least for me) a dream-like impression that makes the story feel truly otherworldly, especially when paired with a limited first-person narrative. One word that might describe The Nest is balanced. It’s got just the right amount of characters and dialogue, realistic bits and terrifying bits, all at a good pace with good prose.

    Nicole was the one who was always all over the baby. She loved the baby. To her the baby just meant this wonderful happy new thing in her life. She said once, not long after the baby had come home, “Just let me bask in his glory!” It always made me feel mean when I watched Nicole with the baby. Because when I looked at him, I saw all the things that were supposed to be wrong with him; and I saw Mom looking tired and worried; and I saw Dad staring out the window, sometimes just into the distance, sometimes at our driveway, where the car was. (113-4)

    The Nest is also a physically striking object, highlighting all the reasons I love a solid book. A handful of subtle yet stark illustrations by one of my favourite illustrator/authors, Jon Klassen, add a subtle boost of the creepy to Oppel’s prose. I found the illustrations less integral to the story than Dave McKean’s for Coraline, but they definitely add another welcome dimension to the tale. The book itself is also well-designed. I liked the soft pages and the typeface (which is just Baskerville, but anyhow.) This book has a glossy dust jacket with clear spaces poking through to the hardcover itself. Here are some photos to supplement my lacklustre description:

    The Bottom Line: Not something I would have expected from Oppel, yet one of my favourite reads this year. A great collaboration with Jon Klassen. If you want something that embraces the spirit of Coraline and truly creepy middle grade tales, look no further.

    Further Reading: