Book Review – The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

WHAT’S PLAYING: Erykah Badu “Bag Lady”

This week’s book is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

ocean at the end of the lane

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

This book came to me at an opportune time. I had just lost my mother and was suffering through yet another bout of pneumonia—the same disease that killed my mom. To tell you the truth, I was in a very bad place. Then one day, a package arrived in the mail. I opened it and found this:

sigened ocean

A couple of years ago, I met Neil’s American editor, Jennifer Brehl, at a convention and developed a serious girl-crush on her. Lucky for me, she’s as kind as she is brilliant, and didn’t call security on me. Instead, we struck up a friendship over our shared love of books. When she heard about my troubles, she sent me the book pictured above, along with a copy of his Make Good Art speech. Both books now reside on a very special bookcase that no one but me is allowed to touch.

I am not kidding. Touch it, and I’ll beat you with a bag of oranges.

Gaiman is a master of creating worlds that are just a bit…off. I’ve read this deceptively short and simple book at least eight times, and it never fails to move me. It sinks its hooks into my soul and I’m left helpless, caught between wonder and terror.

And every time, I come away not quite sure where the mundane ends and the fantastic begins. 

Favorite Line/Image: “I saw the world I had walked since my birth, and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”

Bottom Line: Damn you, Neil Gaiman. You made me cry.

Coming up next: NOS4ATU by Joe Hill

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Book Review – The Innkeeper’s Song by Peter S. Beagle

WHAT’S PLAYING: Robbie RobertsonGhost Dance

the innkeeper's song

When three strange women (one black, one brown, one white) arrive at a wayside inn called The Gaff and Slasher, Karsh, the innkeeper, takes them in against his better judgment. Two of the women—Lal and Nyateneri—are searching for their former mentor, a powerful magician who has summoned them to save him from destruction and worse at the hands of his most powerful pupil, Arshadin. The third, Lukassa, is a village girl whom Lal resurrected after she drowned and whose childhood love, Tikat, pursues the three, intent on regaining her. When these blighted souls converge on the inn, life there is forever changed as powerful forces wage ungodly battle for possession of the magician’s soul.

I first came across The Innkeeper’s Song ten years ago, and it’s still one of my favorite fantasy novels. Beagle is a masterful stylist, his narrative full of wonderful, unexpected metaphors and fierce musicality. There is poetry in this book few writers can manage, full of things left unsaid and subtle inferences. All of this comes together to weave a compelling story that is impossible to put down.   

Told from various points of view, The Innkeeper’s Song is a multi-faceted fantasy, not just one tale, but several woven together seamlessly, flowing in and out of stream-of-consciousness. Hard to fathom, I know, but it works brilliantly because Beagle is a master of characterization. There is never any doubt who is talking, even when the differences are subtle.

In elegant yet simple prose, Beagle plumbs the nature of life, death and love by illuminating the shifting relationships among the various major and minor players (including an irascible shape-changing fox) who people this affecting tale.

 

Favorite Line/Image: My name is Karsh. I am not a bad man.

I am not a particularly good one, either, though honest enough in my trade. Nor am I at all brave—if I were, I would be some kind of soldier or sailor. And if I could write even such a song as that nonsense about those three women which someone has put my name to, why, then I would be a songwriter, a bard, since I would certainly be fit for nothing else. But what I am fit for is what I am, everything I am. Karsh the innkeeper. Fat Karsh.

They talk foolishness about me now, since those women were here. Since that song. Now I am all mystery, a man from nowhere; now I am indeed supposed to have been a soldier, to have traveled the world, seen terrible things, done terrible things, changed my name and my life to hide from my past. Foolishness. I am Karsh the innkeeper, like my father, like his father, and the only other country I have ever seen is the farmland around Sharan-Zek, where I was born. But I have lived here for almost forty years, and run the Gaff and Slasher for thirty, and they know that, every one of them. Foolishness.

Bottom Line: A fantasy masterpiece that has withstood the test of time, The Innkeeper’s Song is not to be missed.

Coming up next: The Peculiar by Stephen Bachman

Book Review – Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by Andrew Shaffer

WHAT’S PLAYING: Bo Durham “High School Party” (Yep, it’s that kind of book.)

This week’s book is Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by Andrew Shaffer a.k.a. Fanny Merkin.

fifty shames

Young, arrogant tycoon Earl Grey seduces the naïve coed Anna Steal with his overpowering good looks and staggering amounts of money, but will she be able to get past his fifty shames, including shopping at Walmart on Saturdays, bondage with handcuffs, and his love of BDSM (Bards, Dragons, Sorcery, and Magick)? Or will his dark secrets and constant smirking drive her over the edge?

Fifty Shames of Earl Grey is a parody of E.L. James’s series, Fifty Shades of Grey. For those of you unfamiliar with FSOG, James’s book started off as Twilight fan fiction and morphed into a story about a captain of industry (Christian Grey) who lures an unsuspecting college co-ed named Anastasia Steele into the world of BDSM.

The good news is that you don’t need to read Fifty Shades of Grey to enjoy Fifty Shames of Earl Grey.

I seriously could not stop laughing at the barrage of one-liners, irreverent jokes, and hilarious Twilight references throughout the book. Shaffer’s writing is fast-paced, fresh, and entertaining. His ability to comment on the clichés of erotic and romantic literature without seeming pretentious is nothing short of brilliant. He creates a hysterical mood that shatters the illusion of romance by overusing clichéd words. The word “gaze” appears to be one of his favorites.

From his man crush on Tom Cruise to his propensity for wearing a silver thong with pink crocs, Earl’s antics are hilarious and entertaining, and Anna Steele is the perfect straight woman.

Let me be clear, this is not an erotic novel. The magick themed sex scene in which Earl Grey pulls multi-colored hankies and a dove out of Anna’s lady parts will have you giggling nonstop.

Shaffer hits all the right notes in this parody. Can’t wait to see what he does next.

Favorite Line: “Ew,” I say. “Was that supposed to be sexy?”

“It was supposed to be. My dirty talk doesn’t turn you on?”

I shake my head. “Sometimes. But comparing a woman’s vagina to a fish is unacceptable.”

“What if I said ‘goldfish’? Goldfish are colorful and uniquely beautiful. Like you, my dearest Anna.”

I shake my head again. “Just stop. No fish.”

“Okay, then what did you have in mind?”

“Drop the double entendres and let’s move on to another F-word.”

“Oh, Anna,” he says. “I thought you’d never ask. Food it is, then! Let’s go eat in the dining hall.”

It wasn’t the F-word I had in mind, of course (it was actually two F-words: friending and Facebook), but it works. I’m hungry. Plus, I don’t even have a Facebook account.

Bottom Line: Fifty Shames of Earl Grey is relentless and shameless, in a good way.

Coming up next: The Innkeeper’s Song by Peter S. Beagle

Book Review – The Siren by Tiffany Reisz

WHAT’S PLAYING: Pussycat DollsTainted Love

 

This week’s book is The Siren by Tiffany Reisz.

Notorious Nora Sutherlin is famous for her delicious works of erotica, each one more popular with readers than the last. But her latest manuscript is different—more serious, more personal—and she’s sure it’ll be her breakout book…if it ever sees the light of day. Zachary Easton holds Nora’s fate in his well-manicured hands. The demanding British editor agrees to handle the book on one condition: he wants complete control. Nora must rewrite the entire novel to his exacting standards—in six weeks—or it’s no deal. Nora’s grueling writing sessions with Zach are draining…and shockingly arousing. And a dangerous former lover has her wondering which is more torturous—staying away from him…or returning to his bed? Nora thought she knew everything about being pushed to your limits. But in a world where passion is pain, nothing is ever that simple.

Let me be clear, I’m not a huge fan of erotica. I tried to read Fifty Shades of Grey, but gave up after twenty pages. I know there are plenty of people who love the book, but I found it painfully bad. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the reason on of my kidneys recently decided to shut down. (That’s right, EL James! You killed my kidney!) I met Tiffany Reisz at the Chicago Spring Fling Writers Conference, and was so impressed by her speech that I just had to read The Siren despite my previous, kidney murdering experience.

This book is everything Fifty Shades wasn’t: funny, touching, sexy, and most importantly, well written.

Let’s start with what this book is not. It is not a romance. At least, not in the traditional sense of the word. There are no happily-ever-afters and the course of true love most certainly does not run smoothly. In fact, I would liken this book to the emotional equivalent of being hit in the back of the throat with a claw hammer. You will laugh. You will cry. You will most certainly flinch.

The Siren reminds me of an old sparring partner. Stepping into the ring with him was like stepping into a maelstrom of vicious kicks and punches that seemed to come from everywhere at once. More often than not, I found myself flat on the mat, wondering what the hell happened.

Despite the emotional turmoil, I couldn’t put this book down. Reisz’s raw, vivid prose, sardonic wit, complex characters, and intricate plotting held me captive until the very last page. I was so taken with this book that I commissioned a Choctaw/Braille copy for my mother, and plan to do the same with the next book in the series.

This book is not about sex, though there is plenty of sex in it. It’s about love, respect, and pushing boundaries.

Provocative and disturbing, with scorching hot BDSM scenes, The Siren is everything erotica is meant to be.

 

Favorite Line/Image: “Master Griffin Fiske, meet my editor, Zachary Easton,” she introduced them.

“A pleasure to meet you.” Zach reached forward to shake Griffin’s hand. But Griffin kissed the center of his palm instead. Zach yanked his hand back.

“He’s gorgeous, Nora. Hot accent, too. Fucked him yet?”

Nora shrugged. “Just a blow job.”

Zach had the sudden urge to throttle Nora.

“Blow job on a British guy?” Griffin asked with some concern. “You’re a braver bitch than I. No offense,” Griffin said, turning to Zach. “I have a foreskin phobia.”

“Zach’s Jewish.”

Griffin nodded his approval. “Mazel tov.”

 

Bottom Line: This book will haunt you long after you’ve put it down.

 

Coming up next: Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by Andrew Shaffer

Book Review — A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly

WHAT’S PLAYING: Hugh Laurie “Ain’t Necessarily So”

This week’s book is A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly.

When beautiful and ruthless octoroon Angelique Crozat is found strangled to death in the midst of an opulent Mardi Gras costume ball, dark-skinned Benjamin January—physician, music teacher, and son of a former slave—soon finds himself the prime suspect in her murder. With his freedom and life at stake, January sets out to find the real killer. His quest will take him from the opulent mansions of rich white planters to the huts of voodoo-worshipping slaves, and through the dark streets of 1833 New Orleans in search of a murderer who is poised to strike again.

I’ve been a fan of Barbara Hambly since I read Dragonsbane. One of the things I admired most about her writing is her methodical attention to detail. A Free Man of Color is no exception. Hambly focuses on the delicate, twilit world of 1830’s New Orleans, managing to capture the city’s exotic strangeness, while maintaining an absolute sense of physical reality. The landed aristocracy and their colored mistresses celebrate Mardi Gras, completely oblivious to the squalor surrounding them. The period detail—fashion, food, manners, music, and voodoo—is rich and decadent, full of sights, textures, sounds and tastes of the city.

The prose is a bit clunky at times (“crimson with rage”, etc.), but Benjamin January shines as a good man in a bad situation, trying to do what is right in a society that classifies people according to an intricate scale of color and bloodline from mulatto to octoroon and everything in between.

Favorite Line/Image: “Phrasie, don’t be a fool.” Livia thrust herself into the fray, slapped Euphrasie loudly on her plump cheek.

Euphrasie fell back, opening her mouth to scream, and Livia picked up the water pitcher from the sideboard. “You scream and I dump this over you.”

Clisson, Odile, and Agnes Pellicot promptly retreated to the doorway, hands pressing their mountains of petticoats back for safety. January reflected that they’d all known his mother for thirty years.

Euphrasie, too, wisely forbore to scream.

Bottom Line: A sharp portrait of curiously nuanced class divisions.

Coming up next: The Siren by Tiffany Reisz

Book Review – My Own Worst Frenemy by Kimberly Reid

WHAT’S PLAYING: Rihanna “Cheers (Drink to That)

This week’s book is My Own Worst Frenemy by Kimberly Reid.

Chanti Evans is not looking forward to starting school in the fall. While all of her friends will be together at North High, she’ll be stuck at Langdon Prep—a private school for the insanely rich—as one of three scholarship students. Chanti’s used to flying under the radar and keeping secrets. Her mother, Lana, is a vice cop, and in a neighborhood where cops are considered only one step above cockroaches, it’s safer to keep her mother’s real occupation under wraps. When a rash of thefts hit Langdon Prep, the new kids catch the blame. Chanti didn’t do it, and she knows the other two scholarship students didn’t either. Then the thefts get bigger and Chanti figures the only way to prove her innocence is to find the real thief herself.

Chanti is a likable and compelling character. Like Nancy Drew for the next generation, she is smart, smooth, and sassy, a sleuth with style and snap. She has a great sense of humor and enough flaws and doubts to keep her relatable. I couldn’t help but like her.

The other characters aren’t quite as well-developed. Some of them are even a bit stereotypical, from the rich mean girl and snobby headmistress to the drug-addled jock. Also, the frequent flashbacks threw me off.

Still, this was a fun little mystery, well paced and full of surprises. Reid does a superb job describing the environment, and Chanti’s smart and sassy voice will keep me coming back for more.

Favorite Line/Image: I keep it to myself because that’s one of the things I do well, hold on to other people’s business. You never know when you might need it.

Information is negotiable, like currency.

Bottom Line: This clever mystery with a biting look at class and privilege is a breath of fresh air and a great work of urban fiction that will undoubtedly appeal to mystery fans.

Coming Up Next: A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly

Book Review – Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

WHAT’S PLAYING: Janet Jackson featuring Nelly “Call on Me”

This week’s book is Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett.

Everybody wants more time, but one man is about to stop it for good by constructing the world’s first truly accurate clock. The Auditors—spirits who, like Accountants from Hell, try to keep the Universe in order—have decided their task would be much easier if time would just stop. Then they could sort everything out and it would stay that way. So, they hatch a plan to commission the Perfect Clock. It falls to History Monk Lu-Tze and his apprentice Lobsang Ludd to find the timepiece and stop it before it starts. Because if the Perfect Clock starts ticking, Time as we know it will stop. And that’s when the real trouble will begin.

This is one of the darker, more satirical Discworld novels. I’ve been looking forward to revisiting the Monks of History ever since they first appeared in Small Gods. But, the monks aren’t the only familiar faces. Two of my favorite characters, Death and Susan Sto Helit feature heavily. Nanny Ogg has a cameo as Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Not to mention the supporting cast of heroes, villains, yetis, martial artists. And we mustn’t forget the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse (who left before they became famous).

A superb send-up of science and philosophy, religion and death, Thief of Time provides the perfect opportunity to kick back and unwind.

 

Favorite Line/Image:  Jeremy was completely baffled as to his next move. He’d never been very good at talking to people, and this, apart from Lady LeJean and a wrangle with Mr. Soak over an unwanted cheese, was the longest conversation he’d had for a year. Perhaps it was because it was hard to think of Igor as coming under the heading of people. Up until now, Jeremy’s definition of “people” had not included anyone with more stitches than a handbag.

“I’m not sure I’ve got any work for you, though,” he said. “I’ve got a new commission, but I’m not sure how…anyway, I’m not insane!”

“That’th not compulthory, thur.”

“I’ve actually got a piece of paper that says I’m not, you know.”

“Well done, thur.”

“Not many people have one of those!”

“Very true, thur.”

 

Bottom Line:  Don’t put off until tomorrow what you could do today. Read Thief of Time.

 

Coming Up Next: My Own Worst Frenemy by Kimberly Reid