book review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale was a book that I found hard to put down.  The characters were interesting, the plot was creative, and the writing was a mix of mythology and fantasy.  The book addressed Russian fairy tales, but it in itself was a fairy tale.  The writing style had a slight dream-like quality to it that is somewhat reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s books, and yet it felt unique.  Katherine Arden did a magnificent job of spinning her world.  It was hard to tear myself away from her world.

The basic plot is that the main character, Vasilisa (Vasya), uses her special ability to see spirits to try to save her people.  Vasya’s mother dies giving birth to her and she gets a stepmother (Anna) who, while able to see the spirits, fears them.  The differences in their reactions to the same ability defines their personalities and their lives.  Vasilisa accepts her ability, talks to the spirits and befriends them while Anna shrieks and faints and tries to get rid of the spirits.  There is a bit of a clash between the old world versus the new.  The “new” is represented by Christianity and the “old” is represented by the old spirits.  The book doesn’t say that one is better than the other, but it does say that ignoring one for the sake of the other may have unintended consequences.  This is evident in the priest that comes to live in Vasya’s village and what happens to him towards the end of the book.  Maybe the author is trying to say that the old ways are part of our heritage, part of what makes us and therefore abandoning them is a bad idea?

Even if you don’t get any message from the book, the characters themselves, whether they were main characters or minor characters (other members of Vasya’s family), were interesting and well-developed.  The book itself was a pleasure to read just for the sake of reading.

The only people I would hesitate to recommend this book to would be ultra conservative Christians, just because they may be offended that the book deals with old spirits.  If you don’t mind that and can just appreciate a work of fiction, you should definitely read this book.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary e-copy of this book to preview in exchange for my honest review from NetGalley.  This book will be published January 10, 2017.


book review: The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction

The View from the Cheap Seats is a collection of speeches, book introductions, etc., by Neil Gaiman.  As you may already know, I have pretty much read everything I can get my hands on by Neil Gaiman, even some of his Sandman graphic novels and children’s books, all of which I have yet to review (Odd and the Frost Giants was a good one, but I wasn’t too thrilled with Fortunately the Milk).

I have a confession to make.  I usually skip the introductions to books – mostly because they’re boring, but also because I would like to form my own opinions and ideas about a book before reading what others have to say about it.  If I really enjoyed the book, sometimes I go back to read the introduction, but most of the time, I never read them.  I wasn’t expecting to like this book when I found out that it included many book introductions, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Neil Gaiman has some pretty interesting things to say about books, reading, authors, music, people, and life in general.  The parts that I found most interesting were his views on reading (he believes there is no such thing as a “good” type of book to read – a good book is pretty much any book that you enjoy or get something out of) and his personal stories of his interactions with different authors.  He’s had quite a life.  His narratives are well written, but they have a casual style to them as well.  You can imagine having a cup of coffee or tea with him and chatting about the things he’s written about.  You can see the bits of sarcasm, some outright fantastic tales, and his passion for storytelling come out in his works of nonfiction.  It’s a personal style of writing that I find appealing.

Be warned that if you read this book, you’re going to end up having a list of probably 30+ books that you will want to read.  He talks about books that have influenced his writing (he is a voracious reader) and is so sincere in his praise that it is hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm.  There are some that many readers will have heard such as books by Stephen King and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams, but there were many I had never heard of.  (FYI, I bought Votan and Other Novels and am reading it now.)

If you ever need a book recommendation, this is the book to consult.

Book reviews: Neil Gaiman

I have been reading quite a bit of Neil Gaiman’s works lately so I thought I’d do one post for several of the books.  In addition to the three books I’ve reviewed previously (Coraline, Neverwhere, and American Gods), I have read Anansi Boys, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and The Graveyard Book.  Anansi Boys is about siblings whose father was a spider god. Separated at birth, one of the boys takes after his father, both wielding powers and with a penchant for being a playboy.  The other is a typical person without any powers who has memories of being tricked and embarrassed by his father.  When the two siblings meet, there is rivalry between them, and there are outside forces that are out to harm them in order to get revenge for the things their father had done.  The book has similar themes to Gaiman’s other works – an average person thrown into extraordinary circumstances, forced to deal with supernatural forces and beings.  At the heart of this story is what true power is and knowing yourself enough to know that true power lies within.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is perhaps my favorite book of all the Gaiman books I have read (it’s a pretty close call between this one and American Gods).  This book has a dream like quality and, as a reader, it’s hard to know what is really happening.  The book drifts between the present and the past.  A man remembers his friendship with a household of supernatural beings and how the girl in the household disappeared after helping him.  He revisits the house and meets the mom and grandmother, both unchanged.  There is a little twist at the end of the book, but I don’t want to give anything away.  It is beautifully written.  If you are only going to read one Neil Gaiman book, I would recommend reading this one.

The Graveyard Book is about a baby whose family is murdered.  The baby accidentally crawled off just before the murders took place so he ends up being the only survivor.  He is adopted by a group of ghosts other supernatural beings at a graveyard.  He is granted limited powers while he is in the graveyard and grows up under the tutelage of a motley crew of ghosts, a witch, a vampire, and a werewolf.  It is a sweet book (despite the name) about acceptance and being different.  It reminds us that, no matter what we do in life, we will all end up dead so we should make the most of our lives.  It also questions what is good and what is bad, who is good, who is bad.

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

As you can tell from my last 3 reviews, I’m on a bit of a Neil Gaiman kick.  American Gods is, on the surface, a story about a man (Shadow) who encounters different gods.  Some of the gods are old gods from mythology that we are familiar with – Odin, Horus, Bast, etc., – and some of them are ones that Gaiman has created (the god of television, technology).

In this story the two sides are headed towards an epic battle to see who will come out on top.  You could view it as the battle between the old world and the new world.  Our world has changed so rapidly with all of our technological advances that there’s a clash between the values that our ancestors brought with them to America and the values that we are developing in today’s wired society.

This is at the heart of what the book is about – it’s about America.  The proverbial melting pot, in this case, consists of gods and how we worship.  Fading, and almost forgotten, are the old gods who required sacrifices while the new gods gain power.

Shadow is asked to pick sides.  At times, both sides seem to be harming him.  At times the book is disturbing (sacrifices), but it has Gaiman’s recurring theme of alternate or between-worlds.  While there was no above or below world, Shadow does, at one point, travel to an in between where most people can’t see him.

Coins are another theme in this book.  Shadow likes to do tricks with coins.  He constantly performs coin tricks throughout the book.  He also receives special coins – first a gold one and then a silver one.  The coin tricks are symbolic of how the gods deal people and with each other.  Gaiman mentions several times that Shadow has to palm the coins and draw attention away the hand with the coins.  Wednesday does the same thing in his money scams.  He does it at a convenience store and ends up not paying for gas.  He does it at restaurants.  He also describes more ruses that follow the same principle to Shadow.

Spoiler warning – don’t read the next part if you haven’t read the book.

In the end, the reader learns that it’s all a false dichotomy.  It’s never a clear cut either/or situation.  It’s up to us to choose the third option.  We don’t need to forget about our past to adapt to our present or our future..

Book review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

As promised earlier, here is a review of an adult book called Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.  It’s a fantasy fiction book that has great characters and an engaging storyline.  I’m really enjoying Neil Gaiman.  He has such imaginative stories.  It’s not your typical magicians and dragons fantasy fiction book.

Similar to Coraline, this book involves the protagonist (Richard Mayhew) being transported to a parallel universe.  This universe is place that is described as being the “cracks” and “forgotten areas” from our world.  For example, the London fog/mist has mostly disappeared due to better laws about emissions, but in alternate world, they still get the occasional fog/mist.  Once transported to this world, people from London Above (real/normal world) don’t always see or recognize you.  I really liked how this was done in the book – it’s almost as if people are forgotten in London Above once they become a part of the parallel universe.

The characters are great.  Richard Mayhew is a very normal person, not very capable, but basically has a good heart and manages to get by.  There’s also a bodyguard called Hunter, a girl named Door (who can open doors), the Marquis of Carabas (the roguish, likable character), an angel, two pretty darn sadistic bad guys, and some mysterious dangerous beasts & other dangers that aren’t always named.

The book was well written and it was incredibly imaginative.

After reading the book, I found that it had been made into a television series (or maybe it was written for television first?).  I’ll have to see if I can get a copy of it.

Book Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I remember seeing the movie, Coraline, years ago and thinking it was an odd, creepy movie and probably not really a children’s movie.  I don’t know why it gave me the creeps exactly.  I’m not much of a horror movie fan nowadays, but I used to love horror movies and was pretty fearless.

I wanted to revisit the story to see if it was just as creepy and weird.  The book did not disappoint.  It starts out innocently enough – a girl who is bored with older neighbors who are odd but harmless enough.  Then you get whiffs of the weirdness about to come – the tea leaves warning of danger, the mice warning her not to go through the door.

Spoiler alert – don’t read this next part if you don’t want to know about what happens in the story.  Coraline, of course, goes through the door (the door between her house and the empty house next door – her mom told her that there is a brick wall there so there is nothing to explore) because who is going to believe a old guy who talks to mice and passes on messages for mice?  She finds a sort of alternate universe where everything looks just as it does in her own house, but the people have buttons instead of eyes.  She calls the people the “other” people so her mom is her “other mom.”  Coraline gets creeped out by this other world and runs back to her own home.  Unfortunately, her parents disappeared and she has worked out that the other mom somehow kidnapped her parents so she has to go back to the other world.  The other mom takes the key to the door between the two worlds from Coraline.  The only other creature who seems to be able to freely travel between the two worlds is a black cat who can talk in the other world.  The cat is haughty but ends up being Coraline’s friend.  Later, the other mom locks Coraline up for being disobedient.

It is in this locked room that Coraline meets the shells of other children who have been caught by the other mom.  The children tell Coraline to run away but when they learn that she can’t until she finds her parents, they ask for her help in locating their souls so they can be free of the other mom.  Coraline makes a deal with the other mom – if she can find all 3 souls of the trapped children and her parents, the other mom has to let them all go.  If she can’t, she agrees to stay with the other mom and be obedient.  The other mom swears on her right hand that she will let Coraline and the others go.  With the help of a charm from one of the neighbors and the black cat, Coraline is able to find the 3 lost souls and figures out where her parents are hidden.  Unfortunately, the other mom has no intention of keeping her word to let them all go.  Coraline then has to trick the other mom into opening the door between the other world and her home.  She then throws the black cat at the other mom in order to makes it home with everyone safe and sound.

Or not.  Since the other mom swore on her right hand, the hand becomes unattached and travels to Coraline’s world to try to get the key.  Coraline throws both the key into a well and when the hand goes after it, she boards up the top of the well so that it can’t escape.

My version of the book had a Q&A session with the author.  In it, he says that there was a door like that in an old house that he lived in growing up.  He also spent quite a few rainy summer days reading the Narnia series (so there’s the whole door leading to a different world motif).

It was a short story (it’s supposed to be a children’s story) and an easy read.  I really liked this story – It wasn’t full of gory, bloody entrails or anything – it had the right amount of creep factor.  I think that many young children would get scared, but the ones who are 12+ would probably enjoy it … or adults.  It’s appropriate for Halloween .. and the movie was very well done so I would recommend that as well.

I’m going to try one of his adult books next.