Tag Archives: fantasy

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock.”

o-OCEAN-AT-THE-END-OF-THE-LANE-facebookOne of the first novels I read this year was Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Wonderful, wonderful book. The day I finished it, I wrote, “I know it’s only January, but I can’t imagine reading another novel this year that’s half as magical as this one.”

We now approach the end of March and I stand by my prediction. Like N.D. Wilson and the late Sir Terry Pratchett, Gaiman is one of a handful of contemporary fiction writers I feel it my solemn duty to recommend to everyone I meet.  (On that note, if you’re looking for somewhere to start, pick up Coraline. You can’t go wrong with it.)

And while it’s a popular style of compliment among reviewers to call this or that novel “like nothing I’ve ever read before,” I can’t say this of Ocean. It would be untrue, and further, it would be damning it with faint praise. It is because I have read something like it before that Ocean is such a formidable bit of storytelling.

Gaiman is no hack – the very idea is farcical. But he is carrying on a tradition, and the mantle of writers like C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander looks rather splendid draped across his shoulders. I can’t help but think they would be chuffed to see it worn so well.

In Ocean‘s opening pages, our protagonist (nameless throughout the story) declares his affection for the myths of old: “They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”

How fitting that Gaiman’s own story should achieve this very quality. Did you ever stand in your pajamas under a full moon, no shoes, just your naked feet touching the ground? Ocean is like that: a perfect marriage of the tangible and the transcendent. In a word, timeless.

Thank God, the fairy tale lives.

Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog

Just what is To Say Nothing of the Dog?

First, it’s a book by Connie Willis. Second, it’s what you get when you cross the time-traveling science fiction of H.G. Wells with the cleverness and humor of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s quite a hybrid, but it works from beginning to end.

The year is 2057. Lady Schrapnell – a rich and imperious old dowager – has invaded Oxford University’s time travel research project, promising to provide funds for it if they assist her in restoring Coventry Cathedral, a grand old building destroyed by a Nazi air raid way back in 1940. She bullies almost everyone into the program, forcing them to make “jumps” back in time to locate particular items.

Enter Ned Henry, a 21st century Oxford history student. When too many jumps leave him suffering from a severe case of time lag, a relaxing trip back to Victorian England seems like the perfect remedy. His mistake. Complexities like missing cats, incongruities in the time continuum, and love at first sight make Ned’s “holiday” anything but peaceful. To say nothing of the way an extraordinarily hideous bit of Victorian art can alter the flow of history.

Willis’ book derives its title from the subtitle of Jerome K. Jerome’s comedic classic Three Men in a Boat. A particularly funny scene involves Ned Henry catching sight of Jerome and his two friends in – you guessed it – a boat. After much excitement and a futile effort to explain what is happening to his Victorian friends, Ned realizes that

if [the three men] were just now on their way upriver, Three Men in a Boat must not have been written yet. I hoped when it came out, Terence wouldn’t read the copyright page.

The literary allusions don’t stop there, either. Nods to geniuses of the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle abound, adding even more fun and humor to the story.

The characters are delightful. Ned Henry is a likable everyman-type hero who finds himself caught up in a whirlwind of crazy events, dashing to pieces any hopes he had of getting some good R and R. Verity Kindle is a sweet and sometimes impetuous heroine, and you can’t help hoping she and Ned will get together in the end. The cast of sub-characters, including a hapless bull dog named Cyril, is equally well-conceived, and each one serves a unique purpose in Willis’ comedy of errors (and manners).

As far as content goes, there’s little to be concerned about. Foul language is used very infrequently, and when it does occur “damn” and “bloody hell” is as bad as it gets. A few mildly suggestive remarks are made; and in one scene, Ned learns that his Victorian friends have a marked aversion to openly discussing “the facts of life”. (The scene is actually quite tasteful and written in a humorous, lighthearted way).

So, if you’re looking for hysterical comedy with a serious edge, pick up To Say Nothing of the Dog. It is, simply put, brilliant. I’m sure I’ll be picking it up again very soon to enjoy a second romp through Willis’ fantastical tale.

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Ray Bradbury has a capacity for storytelling that I’ve seldom seen matched by any other writer. The sheer power he wields as a word-artist never ceases to amaze me. Could I choose but one fiction author to grace my bookshelves, he would be a top contender. That’s high praise, but it’s well-deserved. And if you’ve never read a Bradbury book, you don’t know what your missing.

Two of Bradbury’s books have made it into my reviews thus far. Now I’ll add a third.

Something Wicked This Way Comes has a grim and somewhat menacing title, which is completely appropriate considering the nature of the story…

Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade – both age 13 – are fast friends. But their friendship is tested when a strange and sinister traveling carnival arrives in their quiet Midwestern town one October, flaunting the seductive promise of dreams fulfilled and youth regained.

Heading this carnival is “Mr. Dark”, a sinister being with a multiplicity of tattoos all over his body – one tattoo for each soul ensnared. Countering this malevolent presence is that of Will’s father, Charles Halloway, a quiet but courageous man who must be wary of his own secret desire to be young again.

Something Wicked is a compelling tale of good and evil, of friendship, fear, and ultimately, hope. The characters, as typical of a Bradbury story, are unique and well-drawn; by the end of the story, I felt I knew each one personally.

“Mr. Dark” is one of the creepiest, most tangible villains I’ve encountered in literature, and his minions (particularly the Dust Witch) made my flesh crawl. At the very beginning of the book, Bradbury quotes Proverbs 4:16-17, “For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall. For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence.” Believe me, the description fits. Perfectly.

Then there’s the prose, captivating prose, also typical of Bradbury. It captures, and takes advantage of, every facet of the story. Consider the following description:

At dawn, a juggernaut of thunder wheeled over the stony heavens in a spark-throwing tumult. Rain fell softly on town cupolas, chuckled from rainspouts, and spoke in strange subterranean tongues beneath the windows where Jim and Will knew fitful dreams, slipping out of one, trying another for size, but finding all cut from the same dark, mouldered cloth.

Magnificent, no?

Another aspect I greatly appreciated about Bradbury’s story was its brilliant depiction of man’s willingness to part with his soul in exchange for earthly pleasures – pleasures that ultimately ensnare, no matter how desirable they appear from a distance. A man may pursue these pleasures, but he will only pursue them “till a dart strike through his liver; as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life” (Proverbs 22:23).

However, before you walk away thinking that I give this book my unqualified recommendation, I must say there is one aspect of this book that I did not appreciate and, in fact, greatly disagree with. You see, in Bradbury’s story God is not the savior of man; man is the savior of man. God is not the answer to evil; man has the power to overcome evil by himself.

Such man-based salvation is, from a biblical perspective, laughable. Those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb know the truth: “Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalm 53:3).

Bearing this in mind, I do think this is a book that can and should be read by discerning Christians. Apart from the humanism, there is a wealth of other thought-provoking material that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.