Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereA while back I got a great deal on an Audible membership, $7 for three months instead of $45. Winning! At the end of the three months I had credits to spend before I could cancel, and so into my collection went the radio adaptation of Neverwhere because Benedict Cumberbatch and because I couldn’t find it for free (legally) anywhere else.

I waffled about whether to listen to it immediately (see: Benedict Cumberbatch) or finally get around to reading this book, and I might still be waffling about it except that in a room full of my sister-in-law’s books, this one was sitting on top of a precarious pile, just waiting to be read. So I did.

It was… not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be American Gods-like, maybe, or, better, Good Omens-y, but it reminded me more of Stardust than anything else. It has that sort of slow, dreamy, fairy-tale quality to it, as well as some very obvious morals and dubious motives.

It’s not quite what I wanted, but I still liked it, for sure. I was drawn into the weird world of Richard Mayhew, your standard bumbling British fellow with terrible girlfriend and improbable lack of any social graces, and moreso of Door, your standard, uh, magical creature slash creator of portals to other worlds. As one is.

Richard, having done an exceptionally good deed, is punished for it because magic is rude like that and finds himself rather unmoored from reality, no longer welcome in our regular world and yet not welcome in the world of London Below, where things are magic and danger is lurking in every corner, especially for Door. But, having almost literally nothing to lose, he bumbles his way into Door’s quest for answers and revenge, and, probably not a spoiler, learns some stuff about himself along the way.

It is kind of an epically standard boy-meets-magic story, but of course Gaiman sells it with his writing, which is as ever poetic and darkly humorous and full of the tiniest and most important details. I hadn’t realized when reading it how early it falls in Gaiman’s writing career, so much earlier than almost anything of his I’ve read save Good Omens and Sandman that it’s hard to adequately judge this book on its own merits. I am definitely more inclined toward his more contemporary novels and stories, but I can see the bits and pieces in this novel that, twenty years later, make a Gaiman book a Gaiman book and that’s always a cool thing.

And, of course, now I’m ready to bust out my radio adaptation and see what can be done with this book with four hours and a bevy of amazing voices. I am looking forward to reporting back on that!

Recommendation: For fans of Gaiman and weird London-based fantasy stories.

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Weekend Shorts: Locke & Sandman

Last week I talked about bingeing on single issues on hoopla, but this week I’m going to talk about a couple of trades that I read and loved and probably the only thing stopping me from binge-reading the rest of the already completed series is that I wanted to come tell you all about them first. Darn you, internet persons!

Sandman, Vol. 1: “Preludes and Nocturnes”, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III
Sandman, Vol. 1Sandman has been on my list of comics to read for a very long time, even before I considered myself a “comics person”. And since the whole series is on hoopla, that’s totally going to happen. Eventually.

This first volume is interesting. It’s essentially the story of Dream, who is accidentally summoned instead of his sister, Death, by some less-than-great summoners. The first issue covers the bad things that happen when you trap the god of dreams in the mortal world — people who sleep forever, people who can no longer sleep — and what happens when that god gets out — revenge in the form of eternal waking. Remind me not to piss off a dream god, is what I’m saying.

The rest of the volume follows Dream as he recovers from his imprisonment and hunts down his stolen tools. This part is a little weirder, as Dream meets not only Cain and Abel but also John Constantine and weird demons and some Justice League people I don’t know and a weird crazy villain guy… There’s a lot going on.

I think my favorites of the issues are the first one, which sets everything up, and the sixth one, which pits a bunch of people against each other as their minds are controlled and which is quite well done in terms of story and art.

I wasn’t as super sold on this series as I’d hoped I’d be, but I recall from my initial interest in the series that the first volume isn’t necessarily the place to start so I’m pretty sure it’ll get better. I just need to find time to read nine more volumes!

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: “Welcome to Lovecraft”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key, Vol. 1This volume, on the other hand, was awesome sauce from beginning to end. I’m a sucker for a creepy murder story and also for a creepy supernatural story, and this is both!

The book starts off with the horrible murder of a high school guidance counselor by a bright but very troubled student, flashing back and forth between the murder and the aftermath. The counselor’s family makes it out alive, but they decide to pack up all their stuff and move into the counselor’s childhood home, called Keyhouse, with his brother. As these things go, though, Keyhouse is not necessarily a safer place for the family — the house is full of secret places and mysterious keys and an apparition who seems to be running the whole show from the bottom of a well.

I love the way this book plays with its creepy elements, interspersing them perfectly with the mundane to make everything seem almost normal. I also love the characters; Hill does a great job of showing their love for each other even while they’re still a bickering family. And that chick in the well, well (HA), she’s veeery intriguing and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneAfter my disappointment with Touch of Frost, I looked through my giant work-based TBR pile to find something that I knew I was going to like. This tiny book tried to hide from me, but I grabbed it and dove in.

And loved it quite a bit. It is, as always, not quite like any other Gaiman book, but it is beautifully written and I enjoyed the reading experience as much as the story.

But the story is great, too. The main story (told as the remembrances of the protagonist grown up) is about a seven-year-old boy who finds himself involved in a strange and magical fight between a kind but slightly strange girl who live at the end of the lane and a demon-ish creature who comes to the boy’s world with the intention to be loved but a terrible sense of how to achieve that.

It could be a sweet fantasy story, but instead it is quite terrifying. There’s the obvious terror, like when our protagonist wakes up with a coin lodged in his throat or finds a worm hiding in his foot and removes it on his own or finds out that his parents are not as infallible as he might have hoped. But there’s also the stealthy terror of losing a parent’s trust or questioning your sanity, and they are equally as bad. This story may feature a child, but it is not a story to read to your children. I am not sure it is a story to read to adults. I am still a little creeped out.

There’s not much else I can say about this story — for me it is so much about the world and the atmosphere and the feelings that Gaiman creates that you should really just read it and experience it yourself and then come discuss feelings with me. That’s a totally normal thing to do.

Recommendation: For those who like creepy and sometimes a little bit gross and also terrifying, and those who want to be thankful for their uneventful childhoods.

Rating: 9/10

an RIP read

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

American GodsFinally! Finally, I have read through the entire American Gods canon. Backwards, of course, because that’s how I roll (that is not how I roll). First it was Anansi Boys, all the way back in 2009, and then “Monarch of the Glen” in… 2011?! Goodness, time flies.

Now it is American Gods and I must say that this is probably my favorite of the set, for many reasons, including a) I don’t really remember the other stories that well just now, b) but this is definitely a different story than the others, c) I’ve got some more Gaiman under my belt and have an idea of what’s going on here in general, and d) it’s really just an awesome book. How awesome? It has an epilogue, that I liked. Inconceivable!

Right, so, anyway, what is this book about, you ask? Well, basically what it says on the tin. There’s a fella called Shadow who finds himself in the employ of one Mr. Wednesday, whose stalking capabilities are second to none and who turns out to be a certain god who is interested in getting together the old gang of immigrant gods to fight against the new American gods (TV, computers, and the like) who are snuffing said old gods out. Of course, it’s not that easy, and so Shadow finds himself trying to avoid some shadowy and poorly code-named government agents (Mr. Wood? Mr. Town? Quite creative, those) while also trying to figure out what to do with his undead wife who just wants to love him with her cold, nonbeating heart. You know, the usual.

But most of the book isn’t really about that war of the gods plot so much as it is about introducing the various gods in their guises and disguises, whether it’s a star goddess or a folk hero or stereotypically drunk leprechaun. Gaiman obviously had a lot of fun putting the old gods into the modern day, and although some of them seem mysterious at first he doesn’t leave you hanging too long on their actual identities so that you can go Wikipedia the heck out of them — which makes me think, man, if only this book had been written a few years later it would have had some really strange and interesting gods.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like the ending when I saw it wrapping up a little too quickly, but after it played out I thought it was done quite well, that it made sense, and that I will definitely need to acquire my own copy of this book so I can go read it again and see how everything fits together. And the epilogue, seriously, someone needs to go inform all the other epilogue writers that this is how you do it — none of that “btw this is what happened with all those other things” and all of that “here’s a scene or two that takes place later that happens to tie up some loose ends, nbd”.

Now I have to go read the sequel stories again so that I can understand them better… maybe in two years?

Recommendation: Do recommend. For lovers of mythology, America, and Neil Gaiman.

Rating: 9/10

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good OmensHee. Teehee. Hehehehehe.

This book, it is delightful. I was hooked from the prologue, which begins with “It was a nice day,” ends with, “It was going to be a dark and stormy night,” and has many humorous sentences in between. By a few pages later, I was texting the friend who had recommended it to me, saying, “I am on page 12 of Good Omens and I may already be in love with it.”

And love it I do. It reminded me very much of the only other Terry Pratchett I’ve read (which was also amazing), but it still felt fairly Gaiman-y to me even though I can’t for the life of me think of a purely funny thing that I’ve read of Gaiman’s. Maybe it’s the pacing of the story that does it? I don’t know. It’s not important.

What’s important is that this book is a, uh, let’s say a divine comedy of errors? Because the two main protagonist-types are Crowley and Aziraphale, the former the apocryphal serpent of Eden and the latter Eden’s angel guardian. One fights for the evil side, one for the good, but both of them spend a lot of time hanging out on Earth, so when the evil side gives humans eleven years to enjoy their universe Aziraphale and Crowley find themselves working together to see if they can’t maybe postpone that end of the world thing a little while.

Their plan is to keep an eye on the Antichrist and get him to make appropriate world-saving decisions, but of course it turns out that they’re keeping an eye on the wrong kid and with just a few days left in the world they have to go find the right one. Others are looking for the child, too, including the Four “Apocalyptic Horsepersons” and an occultist following the predictions left by her always-correct-even-if-you-don’t-know-it-until-later ancestor.

Although there is this plotline — Save the Antichrist, Save the World — most of the story dances around it, focusing instead on how the different characters interact with each other, what the meanings of “good” and “evil” really are, and how our human world came to be so immensely screwed up. And as I may have mentioned, it’s really all about the writing, and passages like the following:

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

The ending goes on a bit long, and it takes rather a lot of contrivance to get there (but how else would you?), but I was still quite satisfied and mostly I plan to remember those delightful parts anyway.

Although I read about half of it in print, I did end up listening to the whole thing on a quick road trip, and I can say that the audiobook narrator is a perfect fit for the book. Martin Jarvis has a lot of fun making up voices for the large number of characters and imbues them with the incredulity required to live in this very strange universe. If you need a good listen, check this out.

Recommendation: For lovers of Gaiman, Pratchett, Fforde, and other fine masters of British humor, or really just anyone who needs a laugh.

Rating: 9/10

A Study in Sherlock, ed. by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger

A Study in SherlockI may have mentioned before that I quite adore all things Sherlock, from books to movies to old computer games that I remember my dad playing when I was a kid. He may be a prat, but he’s just so smart and therefore so cool to me.

I’ve never really gotten into non-Doyle Sherlock books, for whatever reason, and even though I’ll watch any of the film and television adaptations I can get my hands on. Maybe I just have lower expectations for films (or maybe the new BBC version is the most amazing thing ever)? Whatever, the point is that I can’t even remember reading any non-Doyle Holmes before falling in love with “A Study in Emerald” during the Fragile Things readalong last fall. So good, and I don’t even know Lovecraft! So when I saw this collection of stories inspired by Sherlock and Doyle, and also saw that it had a second Neil Gaiman Holmes story in it, I was like, yoink!

And then I remembered what I dislike so much about short story collections, which is that they always contain super awesome fantastic stories and also stories where I think to myself and to others, someone got paid to write this crap?

There is such a piece of crap early on in the book that I read, and stared at, and wondered if maybe I shouldn’t keep reading if all the stories were going to be like that, and then I remembered I was reading it on an airplane and I might as well keep going. Thank goodness for airplanes.

I’m not going to call out the stories I hated, because there were plenty that were awesome and thus deserve my words more. In order of appearance:

“You’d Better Go in Disguise”, by Alan Bradley
Of course the creator of Flavia de Luce is going to get a place on this list. It’s practically fate. Bradley presents the opening story of the collection and it gets quite to the heart of the matter — we meet a mysterious man who meets a mysterious man and they get to profiling people in the park for fun and perhaps profit, and the reader wonders whether one of these men might be Holmes, of course, and what the point of this conversation might be, and it is all very intriguing and delightful.

“The Startling Events in the Electrified City”, by Tom Perry
This might be my favorite of all of these stories, as it recasts the assassination of President McKinley as a case for our favorite detectives, one that was put away in a box for many years until the characters involved were long gone. I don’t know terribly much about McKinley’s assassination outside of what I learned from Sarah Vowell, but the interesting circumstances presented by the story — the World’s Fair, other assassination attempts, weird Italians — have me searching the internet for more info.

“The Mysterious Case of the Unwritten Short Story”, by Colin Cotterill
I was sure this was going to be one of the stories I would hate when I started reading it. It’s in a pseudo-graphic-novel style and is super meta, with the author explaining how he came to write this story (and confusing Laurie King with Larry King) and then telling the story he is trying to write but interrupting with complaints about how much effort it takes to appease the nitpickers in the audience and it all seems so whatever except then he does actually finish the story he’s writing and it’s kind of adorable and amusing. Cotterill wins this time.

“The Last of Sheila-Locke Holmes”, by Laura Lippman
This is a sweet and sad story that I think everyone can relate to. It starts off all happy-like with our hero Sheila being a detective like Holmes or Harriet the Spy (but definitely not Nancy Drew, who’s totally stuck up), and it’s all fun and games until Sheila uncovers a secret that she doesn’t like or really understand.

“The Adventure of the Concert Pianist”, by Margaret Moran
Look, I just really like Mrs. Hudson, who narrates the heck out of this story, in which she and Dr. Watson team up during Holmes’s dead period to solve a case of poisoning. I would like this kind of story to show up in the next season of Sherlock, if they haven’t already written all those episodes.

Recommendation: Definitely check out at least a few of the stories, if you like Sherlock and things based on Sherlock.

Rating: 7/10

Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman

Yeah, I know we’ve been through all these stories together already (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), but I want to have a nice little place where I can summarize my thoughts, so bear with me here!

First note: I’ve read a few short story collections in my time, but only a few, and with this read-along I think I’ve figured out why — short stories are meant to be read on their own, not all at once. It’s just more cost-effective to lump them into a big book and call it a day. For most of the read-along I listened to one story a day, four days a week, and it worked amazingly better to have that 24-hour period to think about the story before moving on than it ever had to mainline a whole book of them. I am going to follow this slow-reading practice in the future, for sure.

Second note: I read each of these stories twice, once with my ears and once with my eyes, generally in that order. This turned out to be a pretty good practice, especially with Gaiman narrating his own stories, because some of the stories and the poems in general were much better when I could hear the cadence and the word patterns that Gaiman had written in, and others were better when I could see how he formatted them or see the sentences to parse them correctly. And of course, the second time around I could get a better appreciation for the story as a whole since I already knew how it ended. That worked out really well for writing up the stories every week, but I probably won’t do that in the future unless I know I’m going to discuss the stories!

Third note: I don’t usually read story collections that are comprised of such very different stories, and it was really just amazing to me how large the gap was between the stories I loved and the stories I disloved. I don’t think there were any I absolutely hated, but there are a few I don’t need to ever think about again, and also there are a few that I would like to have metaphorically tattooed to my body so I could read them every day. It also intrigued me to see that the kind of stories Neil Gaiman writes are not always the kind of stories I think that Neil Gaiman would know how to write. I like that Gaiman is willing to write things that are so outside of the pattern of his popular stuff and just let you like it or not.

Okay, I think that covers it! I hope you guys that did the read-along with me enjoyed the experience as much as I did, and I hope that those of you who didn’t are at least moderately interested in picking up this collection, because there really are some fabulous stories. I think my Top Five list would be, in rough order, “Goliath,” “Sunbird,” “A Study in Emerald,” “Feeders and Eaters,” and “October in the Chair. I think. Care to share yours?

Recommendation: Fantastic reading, a must for Gaiman-lovers and a should for people who like their stories short and a little fantastic.

Rating: Oh, gosh. I’m going to just throw out the stories I disloved and call this a 9/10.
(RIP Challenge)