fantasy

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

 

WIN_20140607_145510WARNING: Mild, non-specific spoilers

I’m a bit late getting onto Neil Gaiman’s latest offering. A slim 178-page novel published in June 2013, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a melancholy tale of a man who returns to his childhood neighbourhood and becomes swallowed in memories of eerie events that took place forty years ago. The book has been well-received by critics and readers alike.

Is Ocean a fantasy novel? It certainly has fantasy elements, but I’d probably describe it as a work of magical realism. Is it an adult’s book or a children’s book? I believe the target audience was adult, but the way it reads certainly puts me in mind of two of Gaiman’s works aimed at younger audiences, Coraline and The Graveyard Book. According to Gaiman, Ocean grew out of a short story into a deeper and more complex tale.

The protagonist reflects on events that are haunting and sinister, and the line between fact and fantasy is persistently blurry. That everything is seen through the eyes of a child adds a layer of poignancy and powerlessness. There is a villain, who is villainous in both real-world and fantastical ways. There are the three remarkable women who live at the end of the lane, who are practical and yet powerful in indescribable ways.

Gaiman’s voice is that of a child; the prose is unembellished and he writes with simplicity, creating an air of spookiness and letting the events drive the story. He fills the reader with a curious blend of horror and beauty.

I think what made this book were the small touches: the details that remind you of being a child. The loss of a comic book; the pure joy of a delicious meal; the dread of shadows in the night. What I didn’t like about it was the ambiguity and the lack of resolution. Now, don’t get me wrong. Most of the time I relish the beauty of ambiguity, but this time, there wasn’t enough resolution to satisfy me. What of the conflict between the narrator and his father? What of his absent mother and annoying sister? Is it implied that everyone just sort of fades away into adulthood and later life? And maybe I’m missing something, but whose funeral is he attending?!?

Better to approach this book as a short story, I think. No character really changes all that much. It is a chilling and elegant tale, a slice of the past, an unsettling blend of fantasy and reality.

The Queen’s Thief series – Megan Whalen Turner

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Time for a speedy book review!

In my opinion, this is one of the best YA fantasy series out there. I hunted down the first book in the series, The Thief, as soon as I heard the premise.

The most powerful advisor to the King of Sounis is the magus. He’s not a wizard, he’s a scholar, an aging soldier, not a thief. When he needs something stolen, he pulls a young thief from the King’s prison to do the job for him.

Gen is a thief and proud of it. When his bragging lands him behind bars he has one chance to win his freedom– journey to a neighboring kingdom with the magus, find a legendary stone called Hamiathes’s Gift and steal it.

The magus has plans for his King and his country. Gen has plans of his own.

The things that set these novels apart, for me, are:

  • The pseudo-Byzantine atmosphere of Gen’s world, and the Greek-inspired mythology. The names are evocative of a classic period: Sounis, Sophos, Ambiades, Attolia, Hamaithes, Hephestia.
  • Turner’s restrained and elegant style of writing. She uses point of view and omission very craftily, and constantly keeps the reader guessing as to characters’ true motives. I felt that she was conveying so much through the spaces, the silences, and the words that weren’t said. I enjoyed her writing a lot.
  • The characters. They say the characters make a story work, so if you’re looking for a tale with thought-out characters that will fascinate you and make you believe they really existed, in some other world, in some other time…then look no further.
  • The beautiful cover art. So pretty.

Turner writes patiently and with attention to detail. Some have complained that the first book takes a long time to get going, and if you prefer faster-paced books, you may struggle through the first half of The Thief. But I encourage you to persevere, because it’s worth it. The second  book, The Queen of Attolia, is probably the most popular book and has somewhat faster pacing.

The Queen’s Thief series creates a unique world that you can really get lost in. These books had me hopping in bed early every night, excited to find out what would happen next. The plot is both subtle and thrilling, with adventures through the wilderness, fights and capers, political intrigue, wit, inventive myths and even a bit of romance. What more could you ask for?

2012-2013: Summer Reading List: Part Three – Wells, Gaiman, Stroud

1. The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

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Why not kick off Part 3 with a classic?

Years ago, I read an abridged version of the Time Machine without realising it was an abridged version until I finished it and thought, that was really short. (Hey, I’m clever.)

To be honest, the complete text didn’t add a whole lot more. It’s a short book; my copy was just over a hundred pages. Wells’s story is an elegantly penned tale about a mysterious scientist, referred to only as ‘the Time Traveller’, who regales his disbelieving peers with a story of his voyage into the far distant future.

The Time Machine has a decidedly steampunk feel, particularly with all the levers and clockwork machinery (the machine itself is ‘squat, ugly, and askew, a thing of brass, ebony, ivory and translucent glimmering quartz’), and that I enjoyed. The scope of Wells’s narrative is also impressive–his protagonist travels 500,000 years into the future to discover that mankind has devolved into two very different species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. He then goes further still, to witness the fate of the dying Earth. Wells’ ideas are so far-fetched that I struggled to find them even remotely believable, though I supposed believability isn’t at all the point of the story.

Wells’s writing puts me somewhat in mind of C.S. Lewis in this instant: eloquent, not overly fanciful, as easy to follow as a bobbing tide. I liked the choice of using a nameless point of view character, listening to the Time Traveller’s story. The ending is also a treat.

2. The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

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A very enjoyable Gaiman read. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to TGB. I can’t say much more about this book that hasn’t already been said. It’s written for children and that definitely shows, but that’s not to say there isn’t plenty for us full-grown kids to sink our teeth into.

Nobody Owens is an immensely likeable protagonist, and Silas, the witch-girl Liz, Bod’s adoptive parents and Miss Lupescu are all equally fun to encounter. Divided into eight parts that function as short stories to create a chronological novel, The Graveyard Book is well-paced and is a balanced mixture of adventure and poignancy. Favourite parts include Bod’s escape from the greedy pawn-shop owner with Liz’s help, and Scarlett and Bod’s exploration of the Sleer’s cave.

Gaiman’s play on names is quite delightful and his prose is as lively as ever. A surprisingly fun read, despite the fact that the opening scenes involve the attempted murder of a baby o_O

3. The Ring of Solomon – Jonathan Stroud

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As I am a huge fan of the Bartimaeus trilogy, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I got around to reading the sequel–or rather, the prequel.

In Ring of Solomon, we are transported into a pseudo-Biblical period Jerusalem overrun by magicians and spirits. A slightly younger Bartimaeus is a slave of one of King Solomon’s many magicians. Solomon himself rules Israel and surrounding submissive kingdoms with the help of an Uberly Powerful Ring that can raise armies of demons at a single touch.

Bartimaeus’s wit is by no means diminished, and his POV chapters are a romp. Asmira, the female protagonist and a super loyal member of the Queen of Sheba’s guard, on a suicidal mission to kill Solomon, provides the more boring half of the book. For most of the story she isn’t much more than a one-dimensional, annoying character with zero sense of humour. I was somewhat disappointed.

The reappearance of Farquarl and the rapport between Farquarl and Bartimaeus are a hoot, and the character of Solomon is unexpectedly intriguing. I thought this book would be uniformly predictable but I was proven wrong. Though Ring of Solomon doesn’t have the scope of the original trilogy, Stroud has not lost his ability to tell an awesome tale (moreover, he actually does action scenes well, which is a rare talent in my opinion). If we’re in luck there’ll be lots more Barty adventures to come.

PS. Can someone please make this into a movie, stat?!?

As summer’s coming to an end in my corner of the world, that brings my reading list to a close. Hope you enjoyed the science fiction flavour this year and maybe discovered something that you’d like to read or re-read. Do stay tuned for many more reads throughout 2013 :)

2012-2013 Summer Reading List: Part Two – Dick, Moorcock, Howey

Part Two of my Summer Reading List has unintentionally given me a title that in turn gives me the giggles. Immaturity aside, on to the reviews!

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

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This is a funny little book with a funny long title. I think I fell in love with the title, first, which bumped it up on my to-read list. And I love how as you read the book the title begins to make the most perfect, lucid sense.

Dick’s vision of a post-apocalyptic future is stifling in its desolation. Earth has been ravaged by some sort of nuclear war, the detritus of which will gradually turn any terran-bound human into an imbecile. To escape the fallout, all but a few humans have fled to other planets. It’s an interesting backdrop to explore the social, moral and economic implications of android technology in human society.

If you’ve seen Blade Runner, you know the story. Rick Deckard, a middle-aged bounty hunter, is tasked with destroying six runaway Nexus-6 (ie, top of the range) androids. As he hunts down and kills the androids, who are remarkably human in almost every aspect, Deckard has to come to terms with what qualities separate humans from androids and ends up questioning his own humanity (and lack of empathy…).

It’s a short book; the plot is far from complex. What really struck me about DADOES were the elements of Dick’s bleak world. The mood organ, the consumerist social stratification based around owning increasingly rare animals, the creepy empathy box and the religion of Mercerism, the shallowness of Buster Friendly’s TV show (which put me in mind of the message of Fahrenheit 451) — these were never fully explained, preached about or used more than as an unsettling backdrop for the action. Which made their inclusion more profound and thought-provoking.

I think everyone will get a different message from this book. There are probably a hundred thoughts I could expand upon, but I won’t ramble. The main thing I learnt is that, on paper, androids are ridiculously easy to kill. At least Harrison Ford got beat up a bit before he succeeded.

2. Blood: A Southern Fantasy – Michael Moorcock

moorcock blood

moorcock

Not only have I heard Michael Moorcock’s name raised on the winds of many science-fiction/fantasy circles with great respect, his Wikipedia page is fascinating and Neil Gaiman cites him as an early influence. So I knew I had to get around to reading his stuff. I bought a whole stack of his books at a criminal price off a second-hand book store online. Unfortunately they didn’t have any Elric of Melnibone, so I picked Blood at random and plunged right in.

Blood is the first in a trilogy. I’ll try to describe the plot. It’s a delirious romantic-adventure set in an alternate southern America where the world is being torn apart by the appearance of “colour spots” — portals, or leaks, of pure wild paranormal energy. It follows four main characters with gloriously luscious names (Jack Karaquazian, Colinda Dovero, Sam Oakenhurst and the Rose — who is actually half human, half flora) who are jugaderos, or gamblers, by profession and by soul. They gamble their livelihoods on a strange supernatural game that involves creating and destroying worlds in other dimensions. Interspersed in all this are chapters set in the Second Ether, an alternate level of reality where a war is being waged in its formless seas between the Chaos Engineers and the Singularity.

When I said ‘delirious,’ I wasn’t kidding.

The calibre of Moorcock’s prose blows my hat off (well, it would, if I wore a hat). He’s really good. Somehow, despite being utterly befuddled, he kept me reading and reading. I was lost but I didn’t feel lost. This book is packed with fantastical ideas of a frightening complexity (multiple dimensions, inhabiting another persona) and yet somehow he manages it without totally losing the reader.

I felt like this book was a bit of a colour spot in itself — pure, unbridled exploration of the fantasy genre, pushing the boundaries of storytelling and of the reader. I’m not sure whether I enjoyed this book, and I don’t think it was the best introduction to Moorcock. I’ll see if I can hunt down an Elric. Perhaps that will offer something a tad more traditional. I’m still not sure exactly what I read in Blood.

3. Wool Omnibus (Books 1-5) – Hugh Howey

wool cover

Hugh Howey. Hugh, Hugh, Hugh. The success story. The one who hit it big. Just like that. All of us aspiring writers are insanely jealous of you, and rightly so.

In 2011, Howey self-published a short story called “Wool” through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing System. I think he priced it at a few dollars. It got so popular that readers demanded more. From there he wrote Wool Books 1-7, all set in the same post-apocalyptic universe, and is working on 8 and 9. He recently signed a very lucrative book deal with Simon & Schuster while maintaining his rights to his work. Oh, and did I mention that Twentieth Century Fox has bought the film rights?

Wool Omnibus is a collected publication of Books 1-5 in the series. Book 1 is the original short story; 2-5 are much longer and form the continuous substance of the novel, with a couple of character POV shifts.

It’s easy to see what made Wool such a hit. It’s the characters. Lovable/relatable qualities + difficult circumstances = readers rooting for them with all their hearts. I like his decision to spend a whole segment on the tentatively blossoming romance between two sixty-something-year-olds. I like his feisty female mechanic-sheriff, Juliette. Who wouldn’t?

Howey’s writing style isn’t amazing but it’s unpretentious and because of that it works. The setting is well-researched and he has surprising twists in all the right places. The mystery of the subterranean silos — excellent. The poorly thought-out battle between the down-deeps and IT? Terrible — why and how did they think that violence would solve things? That bit was rushed and didn’t convince me at all.

Nevertheless, overall, a worthy work of science-fiction that focuses as heavily on characters as it does on plot. Jealous as I am, I recommend it. The only other thing I can gripe about is that the names are all so bland. Is everyone white and English? Surely in the future you’d see some multiculturalism in the silo? Or did all the countries segregate in the wake of the war? EXPLANATION PLEASE. It reminds me of the stories I wrote in primary school when my characters were Smith and Jones and Black. Even though I am Asian.

Wool

Stay Tuned for Part III: The Time Machine, The Graveyard Book, The Ring of Solomon, Puberty Blues…

2012-2013 Summer Reading List: Part One – Bradbury, Asimov, Mieville

So I thought I’d carry on my one-year-long tradition of reviewing the books I’ve read over the summer. Last year, while travelling around Malaysia, Hong Kong and Samoa, I read my first China Mieville and Chuck Palahniuk, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mothertwo books on the brain (Ramachandran and John Medina), the delightful Wicked by Gregory Maguire, and the disturbing  Bell Jar Sylvia Plath. A haphazard book selection at best. This year, I believe my summer reading theme was a little more cohesive…! Stay tuned for Parts Two and Three.

1. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

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After discovering the magic of The Martian Chronicles I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Bradbury’s most famous work. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns; Montag is the Guy (quite literally, heh heh) whose job it is to burn books. He’s a firefighter. In this dystopian future America, firefighters no longer put out fires — they start them. Emergency calls to the station send firefighters charging out to houses where residents are harbouring those illegal tomes of pure evil: books. These dissentious, madness-spreading texts are quickly lit on fire and charred to dust, sometimes along with the house and its occupants. Yikes.

Bradbury said that contrary to wide review, his is not a story about censorship. It is by his intentions “a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.” The characters who watch TV in the novel, particularly Montag’s wife, are frightening in their addiction. Their attachment to invented characters and meaningless game shows resonates sickeningly with the modern reader.

An elegant, short novel. I wish it were longer; I closed the book feeling like Bradbury had only scratched the surface of his themes.

PS. Did you know that Bradbury pounded out Fahrenheit in the basement of a library on a rented typewriter, under pressure? I guess when you gotta write, it can really make you write well.

PPS. Extra points if you can figure out where else you can find the names Montag and Faber.

2. I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

i robot

Have you seen the movie? Whether you have or not, GO READ THIS BOOK. It’s almost completely different from the movie and 100x better. I know people always say the book is better than the movie, but this time it’s exponentially more so. I, Robot was a decent movie; the book is a mind-blower.

A collection of nine connected short stories, roughly continuous, featuring recurring characters who are almost as fascinating as the robots that form the crux of the book’s intrigue. The stories are told by Dr. Susan Calvin, a psychologist who studies the robots’ minds, to a reporter, some time in the 21st century. Most of the stories revolve around morality: the moral code of robots and the moral code of humans.

After I got used to Asimov’s extremely simple, straightforward style of writing, the narrator’s voice sank into the background and allowed the plot to take centre stage. The best parts of I, Robot are definitely the many mysteries. How do we prove that a rising world leader is a human and not a robot without violating his rights? How do we find a robot with murderous intent hiding in a crowd of hundreds of other nearly identical robots? Oh my goodness, Asimov! You had me on the edge of my seat!!!

After you’ve read it you’ll never forget the Three Laws of Robots. Also, you could pick up the sequal, Robots and Empire, which is a continuous novel with a more traditional, adventure-type plot. On my to-read list.

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3. Kraken – China Mieville

Mieville's covers are damn enviable.

Mieville’s covers are damn enviable.

Well, goodness me. I can’t believe it’s taken me an entire year to get around to my next Mieville book. Time does fly. Tut tut.

Kraken is a book, unsurprisingly, about a Kraken. What is surprising is that it takes about three-quarters of this hefty volume to actually encounter his glorious squiddishness. The blurb sounded promising. Ordinary bumbling 30-something museum curator, of the slightly-geeky sort, gets sucked into a London underground of spells, really really wacky religious cults, creepy assassins that will swallow you like a snake, and more gods than the Greek and Hindu pantheons put together.

Unfortunately I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped. Mieville’s writing is bizarre and fantastic as usual but his pacing was slow and the plot felt messy. A lot of the time I felt lost in all the allusions, slangs, swearing and subtly hinted references. Some of the cults and spells were wonderfully creative (the Londonmancers reading the entrails of the city) but some of it went over my poor little head.

The denouement was also a bit of a let down. The City and the City was a tighter, more restrained and more rewarding story. Kraken is weird and wonderful but I’m not sure it was worth 500 pages of my time. Perhaps it would have been better as a 300 page book. Nevertheless, Mieville’s writing is still amazing and I’ll keep reading his stuff.

To come in Part Two: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blood: A Southern Fantasy, Wool, The Time Machine…

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

I feel like this is a difficult book to review.

For one thing, it’s science fiction, and I haven’t read enough science fiction to be even a moderately insightful reviewer. Neither have I sampled the other books from Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series, although I would be keen to after reading Left Hand.

For another thing, Le Guin, as usual, tackles themes that are fascinating and complex. There are a whole heap of ideas in this book: sexuality and its relation to politics, civilisation, misunderstandings and miscommunication.

I shall do my best.

The Left Hand of Darkness is about the people of the planet Gethen. The Gethenians are androgynous beings, neither male nor female. Once a month they enter kemmer, which is something like estrus, when they acquire secondary sexual characteristics and a strong desire to hop in bed with the nearest moving person. This has a lot of implications for how society works. For one thing, though they have more than one nation (Karhide, a monarchy, and Orgoreyn, a bureaucracy), they’ve never had a war.

The story is told chiefly from the POV of Genly Ai, an alien to Gethen. Genly is an envoy sent by the Ekumen, an associative body maintaining links between the 83 planets known to be inhabited by human beings (in all their genetic variation). Genly’s job is to convince the Gethenians to join the Ekumen’s alliance.

Genly, being fully a male, struggles with their androgynous nature and their rapidly shifting politics. The story moves swiftly, with twists of betrayal, exile and imprisonment. The culmination of the book is a desperate journey across a beautiful, deadly, subzero wasteland wherein at last he reaches a sort of understanding with one of the Gethenians.

Themes of duality permeate Le Guin’s novel. Yin and yang, male and female, hot and cold, light and dark. In her introduction she talks about how science fiction is a thought experiment: not to indulge the whims of the author in creating fantasy universes, but to hold a mirror up to our own world, to illuminate reality. In Left Hand of Darkness, this is certainly the case. I particularly enjoyed the chapter where a reflection on Earth’s (Terra’s) society is articulated…there were a lot of interesting points about how sex influences all our interactions–in the workplace, in the street. What’s the first question you ask a pregnant women? Whether you are a boy or a girl is arguably the most defining characteristic in your life.

I can’t say much more. It’s a complex book but the pace is quick. Le Guin doesn’t waste time on useless descriptions. The alternating chapters with Gethenian myths and reports from other ambassadors add an interesting depth.

Rating…

I gave this book a 6/10, possibly because of my lack of engagement (I didn’t have the mental energy at the time to fully immerse myself in the book) and also because Le Guin’s summary style of writing, though excellent, isn’t my favourite.

BUT, this book has won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and got loads of high praise from reputable sources. So. Recommended if you want a relatively short and thought-provoking read!

PS. I just found out that this was written in 1969! Holy moly, Ursula!

This post relates to goal #5: Read and review at least one book per month (14/32)