book review: the ocean at the end of the lane

The Ocean At The End of The Lane is Neil Gaiman’s latest book for adults, but it reminded me much more of Coraline or The Graveyard Book than American Gods.

Part of that is because of its small scale. There’s an author whose father has died and on his visit home for the funeral he stops by a neighbour’s farm. This prompts recollection of the story of the opal miner who was their lodger when he was seven, which is a story he’d forgotten. The story involves a creature giving people money and seducing his father so that he will never be able to get help.

I liked the story, it was beautiful and Gaimany. I kind of feel bad for saying it but I’d hoped for something more substantial.

book review: flight from neveryon

Reading a Samuel R. Delany book is something I do very slowly. I’ve learned it’s necessary to really think about what’s on the page to appreciate his work. I don’t know if I got that when I first read Dhalgren a decade ago, but I’ve got it down now.

Flight From Nevèrÿon is Delany’s third and final sword & sorcery book. There are three parts to the book. The first is about a young smuggler who collects stories of Gorgik the Liberator. He has a sexual encounter with a man who might be Gorgik’s companion. He meets more people who might be Gorgik or know Gorgik and all of them disappoint as new versions of stories get recreated in the smuggler’s mind. It’s very much a story about shifting perception. Then there’s the Mummer’s Tale, which is also about making up stories and performing them and the ways the subjects of those stories are represented.

But the big thing about this book is the story of Nevèrÿon mixed with the story of AIDS in New York in the early 1980s and the story of creating this story. There’s a plague in Nevèrÿon and a plague in New York and no one knows what is happening. The numbered sections fragment everything into this multifaceted beast of a story that seems like it could have no possible ending. It’s very different from most sword & sorcery.

I’d have to think much more carefully about it to be able to do the book justice in my own analysis/response, but for now I’ll just say it does reward slow reading. If you have the time, it’s a great book about power and sex and story.

book review: dark eden

Chris Beckett’s book Dark Eden felt like it was going to be a lot like The Knife of Never Letting Go when it began. It’s about a small community called Family on a planet with no sun, but warmth comes from the trees that extrude from the ground. They struggle through their lives trying to gather enough food to keep them going another day. Every AnyVirsry they tell stories of Hitler and Jesus fighting over the Juice, and the three companions who came and settled Eden from Earth in their Veekle, and how if they stay right by the Circle when the ones who left for help return from Earth they’ll be able to get them.

Family has been waiting for the people to return from Earth for 160-ish years.

The story begins with 15-year-old (though they don’t naturally talk in terms of years or days, not having a sun, but wombtimes and wakings) John Redlantern asking why they do things the same way they’ve always done them. Why don’t they try to do something new? The rest of the book is about what happens when John Redlantern tries to do something new. Which is cool and the stuff of many an adventure tale. That’s not where Dark Eden stops though.

What makes the book great is that it really gets into what an asshole John Redlantern is, and how he manipulates people, and how that’s a part of the myth he’s creating for himself. It’s done by giving chapters to a number of other characters, some of whom are more aware of the importance of things than others. The moral ambiguity of everything in this book makes almost everyone sympathetic. John Redlantern is the kind of quintessential frontier-pushing explorer, and this story doesn’t just hold that up as a model of what people should be, but how that can break people. Killing a person was unheard of on New Eden, and they had no word for rape.

The other thing I love about the book is how it tries to avoid imposing 21st century Western moral scruples on things. Everybody has sex with everybody, and there are loads of batfaced and clawfooted people resulting from 160 years of breeding from the two people who started human life on New Eden. Sex is really interesting and eventually when things get more tense in Family you can see the germs of patriarchy and sexual control of women start to arise. There’s an incident where a character is almost raped and the way they dance around giving that act of violence a name is so intriguing.

All in all, it’s a great book and also has things to say about how we build the stories of a society and how we use the stories as well. If you’re interested in science fiction you should really give this a try.

book review: a monster calls

I made the mistake of reading the last third of Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls out in a park on a sunny day. This was a mistake because the book is so sad I was sitting there sniffling and holding back tears in the midst of happy people in the sun looking at boats and such. If you read it on a rainy day you will feel much more in tune with the world.

A Monster Calls is about a monster who comes and visits Conor, who’s been having terrible nightmares. The monster tells him the monster will tell Conor three stories and then Conor will have to tell the monster one, and in this way the monster will help the boy.

Put like that it kind of sounds like a cool little fable kind of thing. But it’s actually a story about how death and love and cancer and everything in the universe is just not fair at all. It isn’t a fantasy story; it’s a coping with reality story.

It is so good.

book review: prince of persia

I’ve actually reviewed A.B. Sina’s Prince of Persia comic before and it was on the basis of that memory I suggested it for our YA reading circle on Comics and Videogames. We read Scott Pilgrim, Level Up, Kimmie66 (which it appears I’ve never reviewed) and Prince of Persia and discussed them for class. It was good discussion each week, lots of fun. Sitting around for 40 minutes and talking about the shit we’ve read is pretty much my idea of a good time.

Anyway, this time I didn’t like Prince of Persia so much. It felt to me like the two storylines (taking place centuries apart) were just covering up for and over-complexifying two bog-standard royalty narratives. The characters didn’t seem very fleshed out, relying on the reader to fill everything in.

That said, the book is still beautiful. One of my favourite visual motifs is how Ferdos (the princ in the ruins) told Shirin stories and those stories were illustrated like old Persian paintings, with the borders and lack of perspective and everything. The colours were rich and not garish, which allowed the mystical peacock to really stand out.

So I still liked the book, but it wasn’t quite the book I’d remembered when I pitched it for the group. I’d be a bit more careful about recommending it in the future, especially to someone who just wants a Prince of Persia book because they want something similar to the videogame (which really, this isn’t).

book review: whatever happened to the caped crusader?

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is Neil Gaiman’s story about the funeral of Batman. It came out at a time when Batman had been “killed,” but this story, because it is a Neil Gaiman story, is full of stories.

Everyone talks about how Batman died, his allies, his enemies, and they’re all different. Batman himself narrates the tale from a confused ghost-like vantage point. “How can all the stories be true?” he asks. And really, this is one of the big meta-questions of superhero comics. So much happens to these characters it seems insane that they could survive them all without going insane.

The other parts included in this volume are some old Neil Gaiman Batman stories, which, well, whatever. I did like Batman and Joker hanging out in the green room before their pages, but they did feel like filler, extraneous to the idea I wanted to think harder on. But you need to feel you got your money’s worth I suppose.

book review: the cyberiad

I love Stanislaw Lem stories. The Cyberiad is filled with stories about these two rival constructors Trurl and Klapaucius and the amazing things they invent and the troubles they get into. The stories read like fairy tales because of the surfeit of kings of planets who demand things and then won’t pay and then everybody gets into a huge huff and things sort of work themselves out. My favourite story was about the Pirate with a PhD, who wanted all of the constructors’ knowledge and they were horrified because “We’re so smart and full of knowledge that’ll take forever!” Almost everything is solved by building a clever robot, or a dumb robot in a clever way. Great stuff.