neil gaiman

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.

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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 :)

How to read Neil Gaiman

neilgaiman

Even if you’re not a huge fan of fantasy and science fiction, you may have heard the name Neil Gaiman floating around in the stratosphere. Often lauded as the rockstar of modern fantasy, Gaiman has become something of a cult phenomenon. His works include the acclaimed Sandman series of graphic novels; Hugo Award-winning novels American Gods, Coraline and The Graveyard Book; and Stardust, which has been adapted into a Hollywood movie. He has also collaborated with Alan Moore, Stephen Moffat, Terry Pratchett and other artistic masterminds.

For someone who wants to start reading Gaiman, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Short story anthology, graphic novel or a chunky 500 page book? Of course, a large part of it depends on your personal preference. But just in case you need a little guidance, here’s my how-to of reading Neil Gaiman.

There are three ways you can start off. Firstly, if you’re a fan of adventure, grab a copy of Neverwhere. It’s about on ordinary Scotsman named Richard Mayhew who stumbles into the bizarre, magical world of London Below–where there really is an Angel Islington, an Earl’s Court and a whole monastery of Black Friars.

If you’re a bit more of a romantic, I recommend beginning with Stardust. It’s a fairytale type story with witches, conniving princes, Babylon candles and true love. Probably Gaiman’s sweetest and least threatening novel, and a good way to get a first taste of his writing style.

Finally, if you’re already an avid graphic novel consumer, by all means go and find a charitable friend who owns all ten volumes of Sandman. Unfortunately graphic novels burn a real hole in your hip pocket: I actually managed to get the entire Sandman series through my local library–an under-regarded resource. Although Sandman was first published in 1989, it remains highly recommended in the graphic novel world. The protagonist of the series is a powerful being named Morpheus, the ruler of dreams. But numerous other stories and characters, ordinary and mythological, intertwine with his adventures (the Egyptian goddess, Bast, Cain and Abel, Loki and Odin, Beelzebub, Lucifer and a host of Shakespearean characters, just to name a few). Sandman is a remarkable venture into a dark, fantastical wonderland.

From here, get a copy of Good Omens, a collaboration between Gaiman and Terry Pratchett of Discworld fame: an imaginative, humorous romp into the Apocalypse, told from the point of view of two unlikely friends: a demon named Crowley, and a an angel named Aziraphale, who have both taken an unforgiveable liking to humanity. A dramatic series of events is set in motion when it comes time for the rise of the Antichrist…who, unexpectedly, turns out to be a boy named Adam Young.

Then try Gaiman’s children’s offerings. Coraline (which has been made into an animated movie) and The Graveyard Book are easy-to-tackle novellas with quirky, interesting storylines.

Now you can finally open that brick of a book, American Gods. Tackling American Gods from the first may be difficult: some find it meandering, collapsing and slow. Others however find themselves completely immersed in the American mythos that Gaiman creates…a battle between the “old” American gods brought over from other continents (Odin, Eostre/Easter, Thoth and Anubis, Horus and Bast, the Zorya, Anansi), and the “new” gods now rising to power on the tide of modernity (Media, Internet, technology and transport).

Anansi Boys is a spin-off from American Gods. The death of the flamboyant Mr. Nancy brings together his two estranged sons, Fat Charlie and Spider, who then embark on their own bizarre adventures.

Finally, his short story anthologies are a gem. Read Smoke & Mirrors, and then Fragile Things. Gaiman’s mind is a strange place, and his “short fictions and wonders” are often dark, curious and unexpectedly twisted. Often they require a second or third reading. Nevertheless, his offerings are always acutely challenging and unique. A delight and surprise to read, like peeking behind a curtain into a creepy other world.

After all that, if you still can’t get enough of Neil, go watch the recent Doctor Who episode entitled The Doctor’s Wife…or hunt down an ancient VHS tape of BBC’s Neverwhere. If anything, it’ll make you chuckle.

That’s it! I hope you enjoyed this guide (: It wasn’t supposed to be a complete bibliography of Gaiman’s works; only a degustation. Let me know what you think of my recommendations, or if you tackled his books in a different order and it really worked for you!

Now baby don’t you stop it, stop it

I arrived home late last night (with, I might add, a very happy stomach; Victor’s mum should be on Iron Chef!) to find a package waiting for me. A cardboard package that bore the marks of a long and dangerous journey, halfway across the known world, across oceans charted and uncharted. I tore into its brown, sticky-taped shell with ferocious glee to unwrap the following four glossy, crisp items. I inhaled their glorious scent like a mad woman…

Thanks to Mister Christopher, I have been seduced by the Book Depository. One more delivery on the way! It was a nice surprise to end a long and somewhat frustrating day, anyway…=)

A quick rundown:

Stardust – A bumbling London country boy goes to retrieve a fallen star in order to win the love of the village hottie. Things became complicated when the star turns out to have a life of her own. Also insert three witches who want to eat the heart of the star in order to remain immortal. This has been made into a movie adaptation starring Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Ben Barnes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais, Rupert Everett and Robert De Niro. It is slightly inferior to the book.

Neverwhere – Richard Mayhew is an English businessman with a truly horrid fiancée, whose reality blurs when he is dragged into the adventures of London Below: a realm beneath the city populated by strange characters including the Angel Islington, a sly Marquis, a little girl with powers called Door, a female Hunter, and a menagerie of rat-people. This is a great read. Not to be confused with Michael Jackson’s Neverland.

Fragile Things – Another short story collection by the a concocter of the twisted and unpredictable. Haven’t read this yet!

Never Let Me Go – Ishiguro is a Japanese-born, English-educated writer. I’ve heard that his novels are more British than Japanese in style, whatever that means to you. Never Let Me Go was recently made into a film starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. This will be the first of his works I’ve read.

In terms of real life, exam preparation is progressing slowly but surely, and I have another day off from the hospital tomorrow, so expect plenty of studious productivity another blog post! All the best to those of you who also have exams. I feel your pain. Let this ridiculous picture pull you out of your funk:

And finally, a little something for the fanboys/girls out there. I’m not a gamer, given that I lack the skills and coordination required to press buttons in the correct sequence (that also precludes a career as a forklift driver, accordion player and intimate lover) but I can appreciate an AWESOME TRAILER. Thanks Victor for keeping me up to date with everything in the galaxy far, far away…even though you don’t understand my jedi knight fetish.

Until tomorrow!

Squishes and kisses,

Grace

UPCOMING POSTS:
A SPOT OF SELF-DISCOVERY
WHY NICE GUYS FINISH LAST