I may not have been posting, but I have been reading. I suppose it’s only fair to report back to those who still check my blog for signs of intelligent life. I’m coming to you with 2 hits and 2 misses, all in the realm of fiction, but the similarities end there. Let’s get cracking.
Hit: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
In terms of literary super-stars few have as devoted a following as Neil Gaiman, and for this I love him. He is a spokesperson for reading, writing, and bookstores. People flock to him and his work with an enthusiasm that is refreshing to see in a time when so many other forms of entertainment are available. Do I number myself among his fans? No. I am an appreciator but do not have the proper knowledge or love of his work to truly be a Gaiman devotee. I read Coraline and The Graveyard Book, and thought them fine. I love his picture book, The Wolves in the Walls, and the satiric—or is it satanic?—Good Omens, which he wrote with Terry Pratchett; but I have never read a Sandman story or American Gods. I was nevertheless intrigued by the sound of his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was getting rave reviews. When a good friend told me she’d adored the book and thought I’d like it too, it was decided. I took myself off the library’s waiting list and made the trek to the Magic Tree Bookstore—because you’ve got to support your local, independent bookstores, even when local means an hour train ride.
When I finally held The Ocean at the End of the Lane in my hands, I was surprised by how slim the book was—at 178 pages, it was more of a novella, really. It begins with a Maurice Sendak quote, “I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them,” which sets the tone of Gaiman’s story perfectly, as it is one of remembered childhood events and of dark things and of magic.
The book’s narrator, a middle-aged man, returns home for a funeral and reflects on a forgotten, strange friendship he had with the girl down the lane. He thinks back to a time when he was seven, when a missing car and opal miner lead him to the Hempstock Farm, and an eleven-year-old girl named Lettie. Life on Hempstock Farm was antiquated and the women who lived there seemed not only to exist outside of time but outside of this world. Different laws operated there—as if it were something out of folklore rather than a neighboring plot of land in Sussex. Here Lettie describes it to the narrator:
“’Hempstock Farm stretches a very long way. We brought a lot of this with us from the old country, when we came here. The farm came with us, and brought things with it when it came. Gran calls them fleas.’
I did not know where we were, but I could not believe we were still on the Hempstocks’ land, no more than I believed we were in the world I had grown up in.” (40)
When one of the “fleas” begins causing trouble in the neighborhood and in the narrator’s family, he and Lettie face great dangers to send it home and return life to normal.
Gaiman has written a haunting, somewhat sinister story in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, like the Grimm fairy tales where birds still peck your eyes out. I can’t say loved it yet, but something about it got under my skin and wouldn’t let me put it down, and I have the distinct impression that I will pick it up many more times. This book lets you see what a natural storyteller Gaiman is. It is immediately compelling and shrouded in a mystery and magic that whisper at you to keep reading, just a few more pages, until there are no more pages left to read. I haven’t lost myself in a book the way I did with Ocean in a long time.
At one point, the boy narrator says,
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” (page 53)
I think this applies perfectly to The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as well. It’s not quite a fairy tale and definitely not a children’s book—but it is an excellent story, something likely to resonate with readers drawn to myths and folklore, and with those who recognize that childhood is not without its dark side.
If you’re still not convinced that this book is for you, take a moment to read Amanda Palmer’s blog post on it–she’s a musician and his wife, by the way. I love that she admits to not being a Neil Gaiman expert, that she hasn’t read everything he’s written. However, she does believe in this book:
the first thing i need to tell you is that neil’s new book is absolutely fucking amazing. he’s really proud of it, and so am i.
but not just because it’s good. it is good.
it’s unlike anything i’ve ever read…it’s an explosive combination of dark and light, and it’s incredibly intimate.
and the most important thing i can tell you (that maybe neil can’t) is that it was hard for him to write, and while he’s insanely excited for its release and is showing the rah-rah enthusiasm of a book release….it’s also scary for him to put out into the world.
he doesn’t usually write things that are so personal.
Perhaps it’s the elements of truth woven into that narrative that make so enthralling. But, if you’re in the market for a good story, don’t hesitate. Just go find a copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane as quickly as you can.
Miss: Joyland by Stephen King
I absolutely got this book for the cover. I mean, look at it: an old-school pulp with a sexy girl in front of an old amusement park. It’s spectacular! It came out this summer, straight to paperback, and was billed as a mystery with a bit of romance and the supernatural thrown in. Point of fact, that’s exactly what it was, but unsatisfactorily so. I didn’t go into this with high expectations, but I wanted more from it—more action, more mystery, more excitement. Instead, it was dull. There was too much wallowing in a failed romance and too much “setting the scene” for me to care when things finally started happening. The mystery of the park’s truly haunted, haunted house might have been cool if the main character had been allowed to do the sleuthing. Instead, that task is outsourced to a character in a different state and we are handed a manila envelop of evidence. Only then do things begin to pick up, but it’s too little too late. There’s also the figure of the too-wise-for-his-years kid with psychic abilities who reads like a cliché and is in no way believable, even in the realm of fictive, precocious children.
My advice to you is to take a moment to admire Joyland’s cover, for it is the best part of the book by far.
Hit: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Audiobook read by Claire Danes
I’m always amazed by the ability of SciFi writers to seemingly see into the future, whether this is in terms of inventions or the functioning of society. As this is a classic, I won’t spend too much time going over its plot. Essentially, democracy in the United States has collapsed and we are given one woman’s experience living in the new ruling state that emerges.
It is a powerful story and Danes does it justice in her reading. I love how Atwood throws the reader into the middle of things, giving bits of information until a complete picture forms. This narrative technique mirrors much of the confusion the narrator herself feels as she struggles to make sense of this new world and her role in it. The reader’s emotional investment in the story grows as the plot unfurls. Atwood gives you plenty to think about and presents her tale in a truly interesting way has easily withstood the test of time.
Miss: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart
I’ve had mixed success with Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society series. I liked the first two and couldn’t get into the third. Still, when I saw he had a new one out, I thought, what the heck? It’s worth a shot.
The first three books focus on children attending Mr. Benedict’s school and are filled with quirk, mystery, and adventure. This book follows the same formula; however, it gives us Mr. Benedict’s story, taking us back to when he was simply Nicholas Benedict, 9-year-old, narcoleptic orphan. It begins with his arrival at a children’s home, where he quickly learns that there is a treasure rumored to be hidden on the grounds. Nicholas spends his time trying to find the treasure and to avoid the orphanage’s bullies, the Spiders, who are determined to make his life miserable.
The book starts off well enough but quickly becomes monotonous. Nicholas sneaks out at night to search for clues, always in danger of falling asleep and being caught due to his narcolepsy. Sometimes he is joined by a friend or two. Then during the day he must avoid the Spiders. Avoid Spiders by day. Sleuth at night. Really, this is the bulk of the book. A good 150-200 pages could have been edited out and the novel would have been much better for it. However, as those pages made the cut this book becomes a boring chore rather than a fun mystery. Save yourself the time and go read a Wildwood book instead.