Tag Archives: neil gaiman

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.

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I Hope You Make Mistakes

A word from Neil Gaiman to help ring in 2014:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Writers

I wrote a few weeks ago about the importance of writing badly. Lo and behold, shortly thereafter I happen to see this clip on Twitter. And it’s pure gold.

“Most people who want to be writers, it never occurs to them the only way you actually do it is by writing. All writers have this vague hope that the elves will come in the night and finish any stories for you, and they won’t. It’s only you. So you have to write, you have to finish things, you have to get them made, you have to start new things, and that’s really the secret. You put one word after another, like putting bricks onto a wall, and sooner or later you look and you’ve managed to build the palace of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria… out of matchsticks.”

Book Review: Good Omens

GoodOmensCoverI say, old chap, did you hear the news? The world’s going to end on Saturday. Next Saturday. Just before dinner.

All this according to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, a ponderous tome which happens to be “the world’s only completely accurate book of prophecies written in 1655.” Armageddon is almost here and the hosts of Heaven and Hell are gathering. The Divine Plan is coming along splendidly… except for two itsy-bitsy problems.

First: a fastidious angel named Aziraphale and his pleasure-loving demon buddy Crowley aren’t actually looking forward to the apocalypse. In fact, they’re on a mission to stop it.

Second: a bunch of Satanic nuns have misplaced the baby Antichrist.

*cough*

Okay, so maybe the Divine Plan isn’t coming along so splendidly after all.

I’ve been a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series for a few years now. Barring the inimitable P.G. Wodehouse, no writer in the English language has been responsible for more belly laughs on my part than he. More recently, I’ve come to love Neil Gaiman’s work. Just read Coraline and you’ll see why.

All that to say: I couldn’t just ignore a book written by Pratchet and Gaiman. That would be like ignoring a plateful of pie and… more pie. Or ignoring a movie with the Governator and the Italian Stallion.

Well, I could ignore the last one actually. But still. You get the idea.

Good Omens isn’t just about the world gone wrong (as most apocalyptic fiction is). It’s about the apocalypse gone wrong. And with Pratchett and Gaiman running the show, the whole thing is predictably insane. And predictably hilarious.

A lot of it, anyway.

I love madcap and thoroughly British humor. Always have. And Good Omens has some cracking good laughs. If you can listen to the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse talk business with each other and not bust a gut, there’s something very wrong with you.

But interspersed with the hilarious is other stuff that’s about as funny as hell. By which I mean, not very.

I can see the fingers pointing my way now. “Look, look! Another Christian who doesn’t have a sense of humor! Another Christian too pious to laugh at religious jokes! Another Christian who takes himself too seriously!”

With regard to the first charge, that I have no sense of humor, the answer is quite simple: I do. It just has boundaries. With regard to the second, I don’t mind jokes about religion, but I do expect the jokes to be good ones. With regard to the third, I try not to ever ever ever take myself very seriously at all. Why should I? I am human, ergo I am absurd, ergo you may aim your satirical peashooter at me all day long and I will laugh right along with you.

But watch it when you start aiming at things above your head. Like God, for instance.

That explanation probably won’t clear me of anything, but hey, I didn’t really expect it to. Christians throughout the ages have been known for taking seriously what others take lightly, and for taking lightly what others take seriously. I’m in good company.

The wisecracking about heaven and hell and humanity and angels and demons and God and the Devil – most of it is really just a childish (and strangely self-important) attempt at making fun of Christianity. I’ve seen the book called “thought-provoking” by a number of reviewers, but I must confess the only thought it provoked in me was that Messrs. Pratchett and Gaiman really don’t know much about the faith they so gleefully deride.

Good Omens, as a comedy, sets out to make ridiculous that which is not; to trifle with many things which should be left alone; and to encourage a troubling flippancy toward some very serious ideas. And of course, you have to love a book that presents God as a petulant deity with an overeager desire to wipe out mankind. Never mind that business on the cross two thousand years ago, with His Son and all.

If this review were a short, a very short, letter, it would probably go like this:

Dear Mr. Pratchett and Mr. Gaiman,

Y'all are great writers and funny chaps. 
But you suck at theology. Like, seriously.

Sincerely,
this guy

Book Review: Coraline

200px-Coraline“Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house…”

When young Coraline Jones finds a mysterious passageway in her family’s home, she crawls into a world exactly like her own – only better. Here, nobody says her name wrong (“It’s Coraline, not Caroline”), the toys are marvelous, her bedroom is delightfully pink and green, and the food is actually edible (unlike her father’s “recipes”).

But of course, there’s a catch.

Her parents in this alternate world look exactly like her real parents, but with shiny black button eyes and ghastly paper-white skin and a fervent desire to keep Coraline on their side of the door. Coraline can have everything she’s ever wanted – so long as she’s willing to allow her own eyes to be replaced with buttons.

Did I mention this couple is just a tad bit creepy?

Clearly, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline isn’t your typical Disneyfied fairy tale. It’s dark, whimsical, sinister, smart, and funny – frequently all at once. You will recall it was Lewis who once said that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” If this is true (as I believe it is), then Coraline is a very good children’s story indeed.

I haven’t read any of his other novels, but judging from this one, Gaiman is a firm believer in the “short and sweet” method of writing. His style is spare yet colorful, fraught with crisp dialogue and fantastically bizarre images that flicker out of the gloom like candles in a haunted house. It is precisely this restraint that keeps the story from becoming overly dreary or morbid, while still maintaining a keenly creepy edge.

Like all the best fairy tales, this one isn’t without a moral or two tucked slyly up its sleeve. Be careful what you wish for is one; be thankful for what you have, however imperfect it may be is another.

The world on the other side of the door looks like a lot more fun than the one on this side; but like a child’s version of the Matrix, its “betterness” is merely illusory. When the curtain is pulled back, and the masks come off, we see monsters have been running the show all along.

Coraline sighed. “You really don’t understand, do you?” she said. “I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”

It seems getting everything you want can be an exceedingly ugly business after all. Who’d’ve thought?