Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

December Minis: A Library, A Bazaar, and Earthquakes

Yup, it's that time again.  More mini-reviews!  I am enjoying this format for the time being, and I hope you all are too.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
Crown, 2015
borrowed from the library

While this book doesn't seem to be super widely-known, several bloggers that I love and respect were singing its praises, so I had to check it out.  That said, I was a little nervous, because many reviews mentioned "magical realism" and "fantasy", two genres with which I haven't had much luck.  But, I gave it a go.

Quick synopsis: Carolyn and a dozen other children were "adopted" long ago by the mysterious Father.  Each child was taught one category of Father's knowledge over the years.  Now, it's 20 years later, and Father has disappeared.  Carolyn & co now have to fight to see who has the power (and the knowledge) to take Father's place.

You guys, THIS BOOK IS AMAZING.  Yup, it's full of fantasy and magical realism and things you would never believe in real life, but Hawkins wrote it so well that it DOES NOT MATTER.  It is horrifying and hilarious and mysterious at the same time.  The story unravels in such a way that there is always another piece of information you need, that you can't put down the book for, and as such you will indeed never put down the freaking book.  Full disclosure: I did not love the ending (it was less explosive than the rest of the novel, and as such felt unfitting), but I still recommend it.  Highly.  (As long as you can take some gore.  A lot of gore, actually.)

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
Scribner, 2015
borrowed from the library

It's been a while since I ran out and read the latest King release, but I knew that a new collection of his short stories was a good excuse to do it.  My love of SK began with his short stories.  Where his novels, while often excellent, can enter the territory of being overly verbose, his short stories are more concise, hitting readers hard and fast right between the eyes.

This collection is no exception.  While not every story worked for me ("The Bone Church" was one--more of a poem, and an odd one at that), I was wow'ed by the majority of them.  I know many people hear Stephen King and immediately think horror, but that is not the overarching theme here.  (Though some are certainly horrific..."Mile 81" comes to mind immediately. Avoid if you're queasy, or if you dislike children in distress.)  Instead, I'd say there is a general sense of unease in each of these stories.  Questions of morality, of good conscience, of what it means to be just.  You are left feeling disturbed, rather than scared.  And if the stories aren't enough, the book is made even more amazing by the notes King has left before the start of each one, giving you the background on what inspired it and how he wrote it.  Is there anything better than a Stephen King introduction?  And now you get 21 of them.  Winner winner, chicken dinner.  A great read for die-hard King fans and newbie SK followers alike.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 2013
borrowed from the library
The latest pick for my MOMS Club book club.  Discussion is this Sunday, and I think it's fair to say there'll be a lot to discuss!  Basic premise: Kate and Vi are twins who were born with psychic abilities.  As they get older, Kate distances herself from these "senses", while Vi embraces and hones them over time.  Now in their 30's and living in St. Louis, Vi predicts very publicly that a disastrous earthquake will soon hit the city, throwing Vi, and Kate, into the spotlight.  Kate is forced to reconsider her own abilities, as well as her roles as sister, daughter, wife, and mother.

I am a Sittenfeld fan (Prep and American Wife are truly excellent reads, if you haven't gotten to them already).  That said, the novel started out very slowly for me, and I felt like the narrative was wordy and jumpy for no discernible reason.  Plus, I found Kate to be positively grating.  She's weak, whiny, impulsive, dispassionate, and seems to be just going through the motions in what boils down to a very comfortable life.  (It could also be that I hate the picture she portrays of stay-at-home moms.  She makes us look ridiculous.)

However, Kate finally does something so outrageously stupid that it makes the last quarter of the novel completely un-put-down-able.  I ATE IT UP.  So I'm not sure if I should love this book because I was so entirely enraptured by it for the second half, or if I should dislike it because the protagonist is godawful and it's her ridiculous godawful mistakes that make the second half of the book worth reading.  I don't know.  I guess I need to discuss that at book club.  :)

What did you read so far this month?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman


Title: Trigger Warning
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: February 3, 2015
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

In this new anthology, Neil Gaiman pierces the veil of reality to reveal the enigmatic, shadowy world that lies beneath. Trigger Warning includes previously published pieces of short fiction--stories, verse, and a very special Doctor Who story that was written for the fiftieth anniversary of the beloved series in 2013--as well "Black Dog," a new tale that revisits the world of American Gods, exclusive to this collection.

Trigger Warning explores the masks we all wear and the people we are beneath them to reveal our vulnerabilities and our truest selves. Here is a rich cornucopia of horror and ghosts stories, science fiction and fairy tales, fabulism and poetry that explore the realm of experience and emotion. In "Adventure Story"--a thematic companion to The Ocean at the End of the Lane--Gaiman ponders death and the way people take their stories with them when they die. His social media experience "A Calendar of Tales" are short takes inspired by replies to fan tweets about the months of the year--stories of pirates and the March winds, an igloo made of books, and a Mother's Day card that portends disturbances in the universe. Gaiman offers his own ingenious spin on Sherlock Holmes in his award-nominated mystery tale "The Case of Death and Honey". And "Click-Clack the Rattlebag" explains the creaks and clatter we hear when we're all alone in the darkness.


My Review:

When I saw this on the Recent Releases shelf at my library, I figured I could not go wrong with a collection of Neil Gaiman short stories.  My attention span has been so limited lately that some short fiction sounded perfect, and my two forays into Gaiman's work thus far have been positive.

Unfortunately, this one fell into the so-so category for me.  I KNOW.  I'm just as surprised as you are.

Even so, there were a lot of great things about this collection, because it IS Neil Gaiman.  All of his stories are subtly unsettling, a writing tactic that I came to love in Neverwhere.  He skips the obvious, sometimes gory, horror of a Stephen King novel, and instead leaves you with a vague chill in your bones at the end of each tale.  That certainly did not disappoint.

And some of the individual stories were pretty great, all on their own.  "The Thing About Cassandra," "A Calendar of Tales," and "A Lunar Labyrinth" were my favorites, all excellent stand-alone stories that left me with much to ponder afterwards.  I also loved Gaiman's introduction to the collection--he explains his thought process behind each story (helpful for me as a reader), and also makes some really spot-on points about whether or not books should include "trigger warnings" to warn readers of possibly-sensitive material.

That said, there were two main reasons why I felt lukewarm on this book.  First (and Gaiman does acknowledge this in the introduction), the genre of the stories jumps around way too much for my liking.  There's horror, sci-fi, fairy tale retellings, a Doctor Who-based story...some prose, some poetry...they are all so vastly different.  This is the first short story collection I've read that jumps around so much in genre, and it made for a very choppy reading experience for me.  Though the tone was fairly similar between stories, I would have liked a little more continuity in the genres as well.

The second issue I had is that so many of the stories require previous knowledge of other stories.  As I mentioned, there is a Doctor Who story (which I actually liked more than I thought I would, though I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I'd ever seen the show), a Sherlock Holmes tale, two stories that are based on Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, respectively (I had to brush up on my fairy tales to understand them), and a story related to American Gods, a Gaiman novel that I've not read yet (so I don't think I fully appreciated the story).  Again, this made for a very choppy reading experience as I was constantly Googling information about these other sources in order to understand the story at hand.

Overall, if you're a Gaiman fan to begin with, and have good background on the original tales he spins off from, then this book is likely a win for you.  But otherwise, I think Trigger Warning has the potential to be a rougher read than what you may expect from short fiction.

Have any other Neil Gaiman fans read this one yet?  What did you think?
And can anyone tell me what the draw is to Doctor Who?  Because seriously, fans of that show are HARDCORE.  This was my first experience with a TARDIS.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

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


Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark. 


My Review:

Why is it that I am generally not a fantasy-genre fan, and yet I continue to love Neil Gaiman?  DISCUSS.

I guess I should first clarify that this novel is not easily placed into one genre.  Fantasy seems closest to the mark, but perhaps magical realism?  A fable?  A tad bit of horror?  So maybe one reason that I enjoyed this book is because it flies in the face of the very IDEA of genres.  It's got a bit of everything, and Gaiman manages to meld it all together masterfully.

I love how this book begins as a middle-aged man's reminiscence about his childhood, and then creeps, almost imperceptibly, into a story that is rather disturbing and at times, horrific.  I felt similarly about Coraline and Neverwhere.  I hate to make broad generalizations about Neil Gaiman's work when I've only read 3 novels so far, but based on that limited repertoire, I'd say he has a knack for probing the (potentially frightening) forces that make our world tick.  While you're innocently working at your job, or sitting in Starbucks, or reading a book on your couch...who (or what) is out there, allowing our world to exist?  Are they good, or evil?  Do they even LIKE us?  The Ocean at the End of the Lane will leave you wondering about that.  A lot.

I was also drawn to the way this book often sets up children vs adults scenarios, and the power that the child characters wield (even when they don't think that they do).  This idea of there being strength in the innocence of childhood (especially in the face of evil) has always been an interesting theme for me, and is seen quite a lot in Stephen King's work too.  In the case of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the young main character's POV also lends a more unfiltered view to the story than anything an old, "jaded" adult could have provided, which makes the end result that much more powerful.

Notice how I didn't delve into many plot specifics here?  I don't want to spoil anything for you.  But trust me--the broader points (like the way the tone so gradually shifts, and the deeper meaning behind the plot action) are what will stick with you anyway.  Yes, the story is great, but it's the story-behind-the-story that's going to leave this one rolling around in your brain for a while.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Neil Gaiman on his websiteTwitter, and Facebook.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle



Title: A Wrinkle In Time
Author: Madeleine L'Engle
Original Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Original Publication Date: January 1962
Source: won from Shannon at Giraffe Days

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger. 

"Wild nights are my glory," the unearthly stranger told them. "I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract".

Meg's father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?


My Review:

Remember Banned Book Week not so long ago?  During that celebration, I won a giveaway hosted by Shannon over at Giraffe Days.  She was giving away one banned book of the winner's choice.  I couldn't decide, so I sent Shannon a list of 3 finalists and asked her to surprise me with one.  So you know what she did?  She sent me ALL THREE.  Like a BOSS.  And A Wrinkle In Time was one of them.  (The other two are The Color Purple and Flowers for Algernon...reviews to come!)

In the end, moral of the story?  Shannon is awesome, and so is this book.

I know I'm probably, at the age of 29, the last person in my generation to read this.  Which makes me sad, because I wish I could have experienced A Wrinkle In Time at the age of 10!  Remembering my love for Matilda, The Phantom Tollbooth, and the like, I know this would have made an impression on my little brain.  But instead, I enjoyed it as an adult, and that will have to be enough.  Fantasy is not my preferred genre nowadays, but I think middle-grade fantasy has a lot more to offer, because it's written to an audience that can appreciate it with more innocent eyes.

What did I love about this book the most?  The deeper meanings!  There are so many, and they made it pretty clear why this book is often taught in schools.  Good wins over evil.  You can get help from others, but sometimes you have to do things yourself--even if they're hard.  Freedom requires more choices and effort, but is better than settling for conformity:

"'You mean you're comparing our lives to a sonnet?  A strict form, but freedom within it?'
'Yes,' Mrs. Whatsit said.  'You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.  What you say is completely up to you.'"

As a whole, the book is allegorical without feeling overly preachy.

The sci-fi aspects of it were a tad confusing, so I could see that being a little hard for kids to get through.  But the idea of "tessering" (the method of time-travel used in the book) is explained easily enough that the other information (about first, second, third, fourth, and fifth dimensions...phew) doesn't need to be understood well in order to follow the plot.

I was a little surprised at the religious undertones throughout the book, especially because it is taught so widely in schools.  However, I wouldn't say this is a strictly Christian novel.  Yes, there are a few quoted Bible verses, and some of the characters are clearly meant to represent the devil, or angels, or maybe even God, but it's written in a way that I think other religions could easily input their own belief systems within the lessons of the text.  I think it teaches you to have faith and love--but it doesn't tell you that there is one right way to do that.  AWIT has often been banned for being too religious, or (on the flip side) anti-Christian, and I think it's silly to pin the book that way when what's it really teaching kids is to be NICE to each other and BELIEVE in themselves.  I don't think that's very threatening, do you?

One final note, about the characters.  Meg, the main character, is pretty great, but her younger brother Charles Wallace is awesome.  I want to take that kid home and just hug him.  Or maybe name my second-born after him, I don't know.  Either way, he is a very precocious little five-year-old, and his dialogue was so much fun to read.  Definitely going on my list of all-time favorite literary characters.

So, overall, A Wrinkle In Time gets a big thumbs-up from me.  It's truly timeless--nothing in the book let on to the fact that it was written 50 years ago.  It manages to be entertaining, fantastical, and thoughtful at the same time.  I wish Small Fry was old enough to read it now, but you can bet I'll be putting it in his hands in about 9 years or so.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman


Title: Coraline
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: August 4, 2002
Source: received from Cass in the All Hallow's Read book swap!

Plot Summary from Goodreads:


Coraline's often wondered what's behind the locked door in the drawing room. It reveals only a brick wall when she finally opens it, but when she tries again later, a passageway mysteriously appears. Coraline is surprised to find a flat decorated exactly like her own, but strangely different. And when she finds her "other" parents in this alternate world, they are much more interesting despite their creepy black button eyes. When they make it clear, however, that they want to make her theirs forever, Coraline begins a nightmarish game to rescue her real parents and three children imprisoned in a mirror. With only a bored-through stone and an aloof cat to help, Coraline confronts this harrowing task of escaping these monstrous creatures.


My Review:

When I was filling out my preferences for the All Hallow's Read swap (courtesy of My Friend Amy's blog), I had a hard time summing up what type of book I preferred.  I love Stephen King, but I've read a ton of it.  Some crime thrillers are great for me, but others fall terribly flat.  I've read 1 Neil Gaiman novel, want to try more, but not sure what.

Well, turns out that lucky me was paired with Cass from Bonjour, Cass!, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of Coraline in my mailbox.  New-to-me Gaiman, but a middle-grade novella--very different from my previously-read (and loved) Neverwhere.  Plus, I haven't seen the movie, so the plot was entirely unknown to me.  I was intrigued!

Coraline is a short read, but it instantly transported me back to fifth grade, when I adored Roald Dahl's Matilda (and probably re-read it 10 times that year alone).  If you've read both books, you might think that's an odd comparison, but I actually see many similarities.  Two young, brave heroines, using their fantastical worlds to their advantage to outsmart the wily adults that rival them.  No wonder my long-repressed fifth-grade-self was awakened!  I think Matilda and Coraline would get along quite well, in fact.  And have many stories to share.  (Plus, they're both Brits, so hometown advantage.)

However, the obvious difference between these two books is the scare factor.  While Matilda does have its moments (that Miss Trunchbull was a bear), Coraline is written with the Gaiman creepiness that I easily recognized from the adult-focused Neverwhere--and actually, there were several plot points that seemed to mirror things I read in the adult novel.  For example, the corridor between Coraline's flat and "other mother's" flat reminded me very much of the Night's Bridge in Neverwhere.  And the constant appearance of rats = Neverwhere's Rat Speakers.

Gaiman does not set out to ruin our children's psyches though.  In Coraline, there is less full-on fright, and more of an underlying sense of creepiness.  An uneasy atmosphere, created through the disconcerting imagery he provides.  The black button eyes?  The long-nailed white hands?  The quiet-but-always-watching rats?  None of these things are downright terrifying on their own (okay, maybe the eyes.  That was creepy), but taken all together, they provide just enough discomfort to make your spine tingle.

A bit more about Coraline herself.  What a precocious and amusing character!  Some of her interactions with her parents made me laugh quite a bit:
"'I didn't think you played with your dolls anymore,' said Mrs. Jones.
'I don't,' admitted Coraline.  'They're protective coloration.'
'Well, be back in time for lunch,' said her mother." (p 153)

And much like the hero-children I mentioned in Stephen King novels, her young innocence and wisdom are what lead her to triumph over her more senior foes.  (Page 20: "Coraline wondered why so few of the adults she had met made any sense.  She sometimes wondered who they thought they were talking to."  Parents just don't understand, y'all.)

I've nearly gone on here as long as the novella itself.  Can you tell I enjoyed it?  This was truly a book that transported me, mentally, back to my elementary- and middle-school reading years.  It is perfectly creepy enough for Halloween, and the eerie feel of Gaiman's other work shines through.  But Coraline's personality adds a lightness that makes this perfect for younger readers. 

(They might still have nightmares about the black button eyes though.  I'm not making any guarantees there.  Yick.)

Check out some other reviews of Coraline:
On A Book Bender
Reading Lark
The Cheap Reader
On The Wings of Books

What recent reads remind you of your childhood favorites?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Title: Neverwhere
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: BBC Books
Release Date: September 16, 1996
Source: bought it for my Kindle via Amazon

Here's the plot summary from Goodreads:
"When Richard Mayhew stops one day to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London pavement, his life is forever altered, for he finds himself propelled into an alternative reality that exists in a subterranean labyrinth of sewer canals and abandoned subway stations. He has fallen through the cracks of reality and has landed somewhere different, somewhere that is Neverwhere."

My Review:
First of all, I have to say I was a bit intimidated to read this novel.  The ladies from my online book club found out that I had never read any Neil Gaiman, and immediately took to arms with cries of, "GET THEE TO THE GAIMAN!"  And so, after many months of agonizing over which to begin with, I picked up Neverwhere.
I was a tad skeptical at first.  Fantasy novels are not one of my top genres, and generally only work well for me if the author does a downright AMAZING job of making the fantastical world "believeable", on some level.  But guess what--Neil Gaiman does this in spades.  Richard, the main character, falls from London Above (our real-world, Olympics-hosting London) to London Below, a seedy, horror-filled underworld-London where all the people and things that have "fallen through the cracks" over time end up.  London Below is described in such a way that it is extremely detailed, but not at all overdone.  I think this is partially because the concise and sometimes depressing descriptions of London Above mirror the way London Below was described...thus making it easy to mentally leap from one to the other.  Anyway, I believed it.  I fell into it right along with Richard and I didn't look back.  Gaiman makes that transition so seamless, you don't have the time (or the desire) to question it.
The characters were also very well done; again, distinctive and quirky (and surprisingly human...even when they're not) without being over-the-top.  I'd have to say my favorites were the baddest of the bad guys, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar.  Never before have I encountered villians that both gave me nightmares (true story), and at the same time hit me with hilarious one-liners throughout the entire book.  But Richard is also a wonderful protagonist, mostly because he keeps such an "average-Joe-ness" about him even after his craziest of encounters with London Below.
I do find it funny that this book is actually the companion to what was originally a British TV mini-series, because as I was reading it, all I could think was, "Oh, I hope no one tries to make this into a movie.  No one could do this justice on screen, BLASPHEMY!"  Apparently, the BBC made Gaiman leave some things out of the TV series, hence the novel.  But I'm afraid to watch the series because I already so enjoy the world of London Below as it exists, safely in my head.
Overall?  Creepy, funny, and oddly believeable.  Well played, Neil Gaiman.  I'm late to the game, but you have a new fan.  I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys the fright and occasional fantasy bent of Stephen King, but is twisted enough to want a laugh at the same time.  (I'm not afraid to put myself in that category.)
 
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