Early summer reads: short reviews

I shouldn’t complain that life has been full of holidays and social events and lovely weather to be enjoyed (and work), and to be honest it hasn’t slowed down my reading particularly. But it does mean I am woefully behind on reviews, so here are some brief thoughts on recent reads.

the sandman vol 2The Sandman Vol. 2 The Doll’s House
by Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III

How to explain The Sandman? It’s a whole mythology where Death and Dream and Desire and several others are immortal non-human siblings, sharing or sometimes squabbling over their power/responsibility. This review contains some minor spoilers of the first volume.

Dream, or Morpheus, has recently awoken from his entrapment by a magicians’ circle to find the Dreaming in chaos. While setting it all to rights, he senses that there is a Dream Vortex in the shape of a young woman, Rose Walker. She is trying to put her family back together, unaware of the danger that surrounds her or of Dream trailing her closely. Rose is a fantastic character and there are some wonderful comic touches here, such as the serial killers’ convention. But really it’s the combination of gorgeous art (with wonderful covers by long-time Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean) and writing that make this a great book.

“It seemed like the late autumn wind blew them in that night, spinning and dizzying from the four corners of the world. It was a bitch wind, knife-sharp and cutting, and it blew bad and cold. And they came with it, scurrying and skittering, like yellow leaves and old newspapers, from a thousand places and from nowhere at all. They came in their suits and their tee shirts, carrying rucksacks and suitcases and plastic bags, muttering and humming and silent as the night.”

Continue reading “Early summer reads: short reviews”

Summer reads in brief

Sneaking this in while the weather’s warm enough to pretend that it’s still summer, even if it is September. Thunderstorms are summery, right?

Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors
by Neil Gaiman

This is a truly eclectic short story collection. There are tales told in poetry, in screenplay format, in one page or 30 pages. There’s comedy, reality, fantasy, science fiction, erotica; sometimes all five at once. There were stories that stunned me (“Changes”, “Babycakes”), stories that I loved unreservedly (“The wedding present”, “The goldfish pool and other stories”) and stories that were less lovable but perhaps more surprising in their inventiveness. There were stories that felt like familiar Gaiman fare, such as the stray cat that fights every night to protect its adopted family (“The price”) or a retelling of “Snow White” from the perspective of the stepmother (“Snow, glass, apples”), but there were also stories that felt very far from my previous experience of Gaiman and it gave me new love for the man discovering his wider talents.

“Memory is the great deceiver. Perhaps there are some individuals whose memories act like tape recordings, daily records of their lives complete in every detail, but I am not one of them. My memory is a patchwork of occurrences, of discontinuous events roughly sewn together: The parts I remember, I remember precisely, whilst other sections seem to have vanished completely.”

First published 1999 by Headline.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

A Stainless Steel Rat is Born
by Harry Harrison

A month or so ago, I had just read two very serious books indeed and badly needed some light-hearted fun, so Tim recommended this by his favourite writer. It’s a boyish adventure – it’s in the future, in space. The young main character, Jim diGriz, decides that he is going to be a master criminal. This creates many a situation where he has to survive on his wits and make use of his slightly unbelievable level of skill at everything. Only once or twice is he caught out by the naivety of youth, which makes him a tad irritating. However, the book is touching in the right moments and thrilling in the right moments. So overall, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Published 1985 by Random House.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

A Tiny Bit Marvellous
by Dawn French

This was another fun romp, although about as different from the Stainless Steel Rat as you could get. Though I dislike the term, this is solidly chick lit: it’s funny (as you might expect from Dawn French), easy and quick to read but not particularly deep or moving. It’s the story of a nuclear family – mum, dad and two teenage children. It didn’t help that I disliked most of the characters. Mo (the mother) is cold. Dora (the daughter) is the epitome of brat. Peter/Oscar (the son) is a complete drama queen, but it’s nice that there’s a gay character where it’s not a big deal to anyone that he’s gay. And the dad, well he’s barely a character at all. A plot twist near the end is fairly unbelievable. However, before that point it’s mostly pretty believable, and readable despite some irritating turns of phrase.

Published 2010 by Penguin.

Source: Bought secondhand from a charity shop.

Nothing said in that language can be a lie

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman

It’s not often I read a book within 24 hours of buying it but the combination of circumstances and it being a darned good read meant on this occasion I did just that. As I mentioned on Sunday, I was lucky enough to attend a “pre-launch event” for this book on Friday and got my 30 seconds with Neil Gaiman himself, during which I, as always, failed to have anything interesting to say. By Saturday lunchtime I was reading the last page and wishing the book could have been twice as long.

There’s a sweet story behind this book, and also a very sad one (two different stories, that is). Gaiman’s wife went away for a few months last year on a tour of Australia and he missed her, so he decided to write her a short story as a kind of love letter. Not that it’s a romantic story, but it is a personal one, with a character heavily based on 7-year-old Neil and a setting heavily based on his childhood home and beginning with an incident that really did happen to his family when he was 7 years old, though his parents didn’t tell him about it at the time. Except this isn’t a short story, because he kept on writing and ended up with a novel. Which I think all Gaiman fans will be grateful for.

The un-named 7-year-old boy at the centre of this story is bookish and friendless, which is fine by him as he has his books. But the sudden and shocking death of the family’s lodger unleashes something terrible and powerful that only the three women who live in the farm at the end of the lane can possibly defend against. These are the Hempstocks – Lettie, who is 11 and has been 11 for a very long time; Young Mrs Hempstock and Old Mrs Hempstock. They resist the word “magic” but there is definitely something magical, or even mythical, about them.

“It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn’t very big. Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country. Her mother said Lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk. Old Mrs Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country. She said the really old country had blown up.”

This is quite a dark story, in a fairy tale kind of way. And it gets genuinely frightening in places, as well as being happy and sad and wistful and of course funny. It touches on the different ways in which children and adults see the world, with children both missing certain things through lack of understanding but also seeing more through curiosity and not having yet built up that blasé acceptance of how things are that can blind us adults to possibility.

“I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real…nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything.”

Gaiman said on Friday that he felt writing this that he was creating a myth rather than a novel and that makes a lot of sense. He also said that the Hempstocks have been characters in his head since his childhood and this book certainly doesn’t clarify who or what they are, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they turn up again.

Published 2013 by Headline.

Source: Bought from Topping & Co at their author event on 14 June.

Spring reads in brief

Predictably, having dared to enjoy just a smudge of the lovely weather we had before everything turned to rain, my lupus is flaring and my brain is therefore fried. So rather than write pages on each book I have enjoyed lately, I will just crib together my notes into something hopefully coherent.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
or the Murder at Road Hill House

by Kate Summerscale

So when I first heard about this title somehow I didn’t realise it was non-fiction – and it reads like it. My own fault, I know, but even as historical non-fiction goes it is not stylishly written. It is however, very very interesting and absorbing. It recounts the case of the murder of an infant son at an English country home in 1860 and the ensuing investigation by Detective Inspector Whicher, one of the original police detectives when Scotland Yard was founded. Although the style was dry, I couldn’t forget that it was the story of a real-life murder and therefore found it very eerie and unsettling – I couldn’t read it last thing at night after having difficulty sleeping the first night I did that! What I really liked was the background of detective fiction versus real police detectives – I found it fascinating that they emerged together, each learning from other, and could happily have had more of that. It was, however, a bit repetitive – a character might have been introduced just a few pages before and at their next mention would again get a full explanation of who they are. But for all its faults, this was a compelling read. I didn’t want to put it down and easily got into the habit of reading after work rather than watching TV.

“The family story that Whicher pieced together at Road Hill House suggested that Saville’s death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment. The detective stories that the case engendered, beginning with The Moonstone in 1868, took this lesson. All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets, and to keep them they lie, dissemble, evade the interrogations of the investigator. Everyone seems guilty because everyone has something to hide. For most of them, though, the secret is not murder. This is the trick on which detective fiction turns.”

Published 2008 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

The Books of Magic
story by Neil Gaiman
art by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson

Tim has spent years recommending this to me and I finally gave in. This trade paperback is a compilation of the mini series of comics that Gaiman wrote that turned into an ongoing series with other writers at the helm. I think we have the first few of those as single issues in the library. But I digress. In the mini series we meet teenage boy Timothy Hunter who is told by a group of strange men that he has the potential to become the world’s most powerful wizard, and does he want to know more? The four strangers take it in turn to introduce Tim to the various forms that magic takes, from performance artists in San Francisco to faerieland and even time travel. It is a beautiful book with fantastic characters but it left me with a similar feeling to the first volume of Sandman – where was the story? I suppose because it’s the set-up for a longer project, nothing is really resolved, everything is just introduced, but the longer series isn’t Gaiman so I am torn now as to whether I want to carry on.

“[We must] show him what magic truly is, and what it was, and what it may become. It is up to the four of us to ensure that he chooses his path correctly. Are we all in agreement? Doctor Occult?”
“I agree. I will show him the Far Lands.”
“Mister E?”
“If you are too soft to dispose of him, then I suppose you must educate him. If he gets that far then I will take him to the end.”
“Yeah, fair enough. I’ll give him the grand tour, introduce him to the runners, give him an idea of the starting price…Just what the world’s been waiting for. The charge of the trenchcoat brigade.
“I heard that, John Constantine.”

First published as single issues 1990–1991 by DC Comics. This compilation published 2001.

Source: I bought it from Excelsior! comic bookshop in Bristol.

Claudine and Annie
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

This is the last in the series about Claudine and, oddly, not only is it the first to not be narrated by Claudine, but she’s not even the main character. This book is narrated by new character Annie, a young, closeted Parisian woman whose husband has left on a long voyage and who gradually starts to disobey her husband’s orders as she makes the most of Parisian society, including strengthening her friendship with a certain Claudine. Though Annie is interesting enough, I was disappointed to find that this is barely even a Claudine book at all. Claudine is now so happy and settled in her life that the most interesting thing about her is her effect on other people, so it does make sense, but it still wasn’t the same, and in some ways seemed a blatant method of depicting another fall from innocence. This novel doesn’t veer into soft porn like the previous ones but it would certainly have been risque for its time in the descriptions of relationships. The characters are all wonderful, I just would have liked more Claudine.

“He has gone! He has gone! I keep saying these words to myself; now I am writing them down on paper to find out if they are true and if they are going to hurt me…I am afraid to move, to breathe, to live. A husband ought not to leave his wife – not when it is this particular husband and this particular wife.”

Claudine s’en va first published 1903.
This translation first published 1962 by Secker & Warburg. Reissued by Penguin.

Source: I bought it from a secondhand bookshop.

See also: my reviews of Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris and Claudine Married.

Nightmares sneak out into the daylight

The Sandman

The Sandman Vol. 1 Preludes & Nocturnes
by Neil Gaiman (writer), Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III (artists)

I have been told so many times that I should read The Sandman that I just assumed it would be wonderful. It’s Neil Gaiman, it’s a highly acclaimed comic-book series, it’s about dreams and nightmares – it sounded perfect. And it is pretty good, but I think my expectations were too high.

This is the first of 12 volumes, republishing the full original run of The Sandman. The artwork is beautiful in a dark, gothic style. The concept is fascinating and open-ended. Quite simply, the Sandman is the lord of the world of dreams, both good and bad. He can move in and out of the real world, magical realms and dreams themselves.

This volume has a clear complete storyline – in 1916 a magic circle tries to summon Death and instead gets the Sandman, whom they imprison for many decades. This has a terrible effect on the world – with no-one controlling the dream world, some people go mad, others just stay asleep for years. The Sandman must escape and regain control, but it won’t be an easy task.

“Daniel Bustamonte returns to his best dream. But this time the clouds are flimsy, frail, less real. And then the clouds aren’t there at all. Too scared to sleep, he sobs to keep himself awake until dawn.”

“Stefan’s case is new to the doctors. They thought they’d seen every form of shellshock. How long can a boy go without sleeping? When do the nightmares sneak out into the daylight? The morphine is proving useless. It’s sad.”

“Unity Kinkaid finds it harder and harder to stay awake. She now sleeps for almost 20 hours a day. She used to dream; to shift in her sleep, muttering and sighing, locked in half-remembered fantasies. Now she lies unmoving, breath shallow and silent, lost to the world. Unity sleeps.”

I liked the concept, I liked the story and the artwork, I like that it’s dark (even a bit grisly in places) but…I’m not sure exactly what was wrong but it didn’t grab me. The stuff about the world going mad without the Sandman was brilliant but over a little too quickly, I felt a lot more could have been made of it. And there was surprisingly little of the dream world depicted, but I’m sure that’s still to come. Only, I’m not all that bothered about reading the remaining volumes.

Maybe I was in the wrong mood. Maybe I should treat it as much as a work of art as a work of fiction. I’m not sure. I had half a plan to try The Books of Magic next. Perhaps I should lower my expectations first?

First published as The Sandman issues 1–8, 1988–1989, by DC Comics.
This edition published 2010 by Vertigo, DC Comics.

Source: I bought this from my local comic-book shop.

The line between life and death

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman

Yet again looking for a quick, undemanding read, I picked up another of Gaiman’s children’s books. Once again I was reminded that not all children’s books work as easy adult reads.

Gaiman’s prose is beautiful, expertly bringing to life each scene. The story is original, with lots of twists and turns. The characters tread a fine line between over-the-top grotesque and real-life normality; definitely believable. But somehow…I wasn’t kept interested.

The story is that of Bod (short for Nobody), a boy who is raised in a graveyard after his family are murdered. The ghostly inhabitants of the graveyard club together to provide him with education and support, but his main guardian is Silas, not a ghost but some other creature who is neither alive nor dead. Bod is discouraged from leaving the graveyard because Silas is convinced that the man who killed his family still wants Bod dead.

The book opens brilliantly with the murder of Bod’s family, from the perspective of the killer. The pages are illustrated evocatively by Dave McKean and I genuinely thought from that first chapter that I would love this book. Certainly I love that this is a children’s book unafraid to talk about death – murder even – and from the interesting perspective of having ghosts be, for the most part, friendly or at least benign creatures. I also like that not every mystery raised is solved.

However, whether it was too vague an overarching story (each chapter is a separate adventure, a year or two after the last one) or something else, I wasn’t engrossed. Maybe I’ll switch back to Gaiman’s adult books now.

Published 2008 by Bloomsbury.

See also reviews from Col Reads, Farm Lane Books Blog and Girls Gone Reading.

Don’t open that door

by Neil Gaiman

This is one of that excellent trend of children’s books that don’t shy away from being scary or gruesome because, well, children like that kind of thing. I did. Far more so than I do now.

Coraline is a young girl who moves, with her parents, to a flat in a big old house one summer. Her parents rarely have time to spend with her and as the long holiday drags on she gets increasingly bored of rainy days with nothing to do and starts exploring the house and grounds until the only thing left is whatever’s behind the mysterious door in the drawing room. Despite cryptic warnings from the neighbours, Coraline finds a way to unlock the door and her ghostly adventures in a strange new world begin.

The story is excellent and the characters brilliant, either ghoulish or eccentric apart from Coraline herself, in that slightly exaggerated manner that makes sense in children’s books. The other world is cleverly imagined, starting off as a bright, attractive place and gradually becoming stranger and scarier. Coraline is a strong heroine who learns to appreciate her slightly absent parents and to solve problems for herself. The language is very simple, in fact possibly simpler than is strictly necessary. It reads like a children’s book and as an adult I found the language a little offputting. Clearly I am not the target audience but I do think perhaps Gaiman has tried too hard to distinguish this from his more adult fiction.

However, I did enjoy it. I genuinely flinched at the scarier moments and laughed out loud at some lines. I loved the downstairs neighbours, two retired actresses whose talk of treading the boards and famous Shakespeare quotes make no sense to Coraline but might to a well read (or read to) child. The main villain is chilling and original and described well enough to picture – the illustrations by Dave McKean help, of course. I would not hesitate to recommend this for a child but not necessarily to an adult.

First published 2002 by Bloomsbury.