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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Unleashing the Book Dragon

WHAT’S PLAYING: Prince “Guitar”

Last week, a couple of friends came over for dinner to celebrate the removal of my braces. Liquor was flowing freely and everyone seemed to be having a good time. That is, until I glanced across the room and saw one my friends reaching for my signed copy of American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Now, I’m not one for spontaneous action. In fact, I tend to overthink things. But one look at my friend’s greasy, pizza-sauce covered fingers reaching for one of my favorite possessions….

Well, to put it mildly, I went apeshit.

I don’t know what scared my friend more, the primal roar that emerged from my throat or the sight of me charging across the room with murder in my eyes. Either way, he backed away from the bookshelf with both hands in the air.

Unfortunately, I was moving too fast to stop.

In my defense, it was signed. By Neil frickin’ Gaiman. Later I found out that he was actually reaching for my signed copy of Snuff by Terry Pratchett.

I damn near threw him off the balcony.

I’ve always been something of a hoarder when it comes to books. I can’t help it. Being surrounded by books makes me feel calm and safe—which is odd since my house is a firetrap in the making. Good books, bad ones, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, all have places in my library.

Lately though, I’ve gone from simple hoarder to full on psycho book dragon. For every signed book I have, I have another unsigned “reading” copy. When my book collection outgrows my current living arrangements, I simply move to a bigger place. I keep my signed copies prominently displayed, and have been known to just sit there and stare at them with an intense pleasure that anyone but a true bibliophile would find a little creepy. And—as my unfortunate friend discovered—I will physically attack someone if I feel my books are being threatened.

The good news is that my friend forgave my little outburst and we can laugh about it now.

But the next time he decides to reach for one of my books, I won’t be so gentle.

Book a Week Challenge (Double Edition) – Book 10

WHAT’S PLAYING: The Artist Formerly Known as Prince “P Control”

The first book for this week is Butcher Bird by Richard Kadrey.

Spyder Lee is a tattoo artist living the good life in San Francisco until one night a pissed-off demon tries to bite off his head, and he’s saved by a mysterious, blind swordswoman calling herself Shrike. The next day, Spyder discovers that he can see the world as it really is: full of angels, demons, monsters and monster-hunters; a world full of black magic and mysteries. He soon runs afoul of the Black Clerks—infinitely old and powerful beings tasked with keeping the worlds in balance—who seem to have their own agenda and plans for Spyder. Caught in the conflict between the Clerks and other forces he doesn’t fully understand, Spyder tags along with Shrike on a quest to find a magical book that he hopes will restore his ignorance. Their journey will take them from deserts to lush palaces, and even to the heart of Hell itself.

When I first picked up this book, I was struck by how similar it was to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: a regular guy gets tangled up with a mysterious girl and winds up going on a quest to some far off land full of magic and wonder.

That’s where the similarities end. While Gaiman’s book had a gothic, almost dreamy feel, Butcher Bird is all in your face with sharp details and wicked imagery. It’s Neverwhere on crank, played out on the streets of San Francisco and the bowels of Hell. None of your polite English refinement here. This is bold, brash, and profane as hell.

With its high body count, pervasive profanity and…unorthodox religious views, this is not a book for those with fine sensibilities or weak stomachs.  

Favorite Line/Image/Character: I never thought I’d say this, but Lucifer is awesome! Kadrey did an excellent job of portraying him as a flawed, but ultimately sympathetic character, which is no mean feat when it comes to the Prince of Darkness. Noble, wise, and loyal, he’s very different from the stories I learned in Bible study. Though the pride that ultimately resulted in his downfall is still there, front and center.

But, to quote another favorite character, Lulu: “Steve McQueen fucked Superman and they had a baby.”

That pretty much sums him up.

What I Learned: Make every story your own. As I said before, this isn’t the most original premise for a novel. In fact, it’s probably one of the oldest and most used concepts in the history of story telling. But somehow, Kadrey managed to take a tired, old idea and breathe exciting new life into it. I literally couldn’t put this book down until it was finished.

Bottom Line: Highly recommended. To quote William Gibson: “The man is mad, in every best way.”

Book a Week Challenge (Double Edition) – Book 8

WHAT’S PLAYING: Colbie Callait “I Never Told You”

My little bout with pneumonia has put me behind in my reading. So, for the next two weeks, I’ll be reviewing two books instead of the usual one.

The first book for this week is Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.

While rushing to a dinner engagement with his ambitious fiancée, Richard Mayhew stumbles over an injured girl on the sidewalk and decides to help. This act of kindness irrevocably changes his life. Through the mysterious Lady Door, Richard discovers London Below, a thriving world that lies beneath the mundane reality of our everyday lives. After his encounter with Lady Door, Richard discovers that he has become invisible to his friends, colleagues, even his erstwhile fiancée. His only hope of staying alive long enough to return home lies with the Lady Door in the fantastical land of London Below.

As usual, Gaiman proves himself a master at creating the weird and wondrous, with characters ranging from the benign to the stunningly evil. Each one is drawn with the same luxuriant attention to detail, while still leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination.

To my mind what really proves Gaiman’s effectiveness as an author in these pages is how easy he makes it to believe in the existence of this other world beneath our feet. Where do the people go who have slipped between the cracks in our society? Adding to the believability of the situation is Gaiman’s refusal to romanticize people or their circumstances. London Below is no paradise. There is starvation, famine, and crime down there just as much as there is above ground

My only issue with this novel has to do with Richard’s attitude. He follows Door around like a lost puppy, begging her to let him come with them – which makes a hell of a lot of sense, seeing as how it’s his best chance of survival – and then he turns into a bit of whiny jerk. For example, when she tells him that they’re going to see an angel, he insists that there’s no such thing as angels. I don’t know about you, but if my only chance of survival lay with a group of people who believed in angels, I’d sing Hosanna until the cows came home and keep any snarky comments to myself.

Favorite Line/Image: Mr. Croup was in a cold fury. He was walking twice as fast as Mr. Vandemar, circling him, and almost dancing in his anger. At times, as if unable to contain the rage inside, Mr. Croup would fling himself at the hospital wall, physically attack it with his fists and feet, as if it were a poor substitute for a real person. Mr. Vandemar, on the other hand, simply walked. It was too consistent, too steady and inexorable a walk to be described as a stroll: Death walked like Mr. Vandemar.

What I learned: The great thing about this book is that it speaks to something deep within human nature. We all crave identity. As Richard discovers, when you are no longer given recognitions status unless you are self-assured and aware, you can quickly become lost.

Bottom line: Neverwhere is a wonderful adventure story about a journey through a vast underground world full of wonders and horrors. It is also about the same journey we each can choose to make through our own world of wonder and horrors that lies within us. Enjoy it for the story, and think about it for yourself.

My Book a Week Challenge – Week 7

WHAT’S PLAYING: Dashboard ConfessionalVindicated

This week’s book is “Everything is Broken” by John Shirley.

When twenty-year-old Russ arrives in the northern California town of Freedom to visit his dad, he finds a town cut off from state and federal government. Thanks to the local mayor’s ideas of “decentralization,” Freedom enjoys minimal public services including medical care and law enforcement. Before Russ can get to know much about the town and its people – including an interesting young woman named Pendra – a massive tsunami strikes the West Coast, killing most of the town’s inhabitants and leaving Freedom helpless to combat the wave of human brutality that soon follows. A local gangster, Dickie Rockwell, has plans for Freedom and they include the town’s increasingly unhinged mayor and a lot of killing. Now, it’s up to Russ, his father, Pendra, and the other townsfolk to find the strength to survive and find real freedom.

On his website, John Shirley describes this book as a “thriller and political allegory,” but it’s so much more than that. In just a few hundred pages, this book manages to shock, frighten, and enrage, all while making the reader think. What struck me most about this book was Shirley’s powerful use of imagery, both during the tsunami and in the aftermath. He has this unique ability to observe people, places, and events and then distill them down to their purest, most basic forms.

Word of caution: packed with action, violence, and depravity in its purest form, this book is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Seriously, after I finished reading it, my first instinct was to go out and buy a whole bunch of guns. Then, I remembered how clumsy and absent-minded I am and decided against it. (But I still sleep with a switchblade under my pillow…just in case.)

Bottom line: A different kind of disaster novel. One well worth reading.

Favorite Line/Image (WARNING – disturbing imagery): “A little later: A gasping, semiconscious young woman trapped in her slime-swamped Audi, mud up to her neck. People digging her out. Finding that her belly was sheared open by a big shard of metal from the car door, mud crammed up inside her, she hadn’t lived long after they’d dug her out. Russ had made the mistake of letting her get a grip on his hand as she lay dying. Just couldn’t bring himself to break the grip. Had to watch her die.”

What I learned: Details matter. The line above isn’t really my favorite, but it’s one of the many images that kept repeating in my head long after I’d put the book down. I think what makes this book so compelling is Shirley’s exquisite attention to detail, even in the midst of huge events like the tsunami. He knows which details to include and which to leave out. This makes for a realistic experience without overwhelming the reader with information.

Coming up next week: “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman.

The First Ten of Fifty-Two Books for 2012

WHAT’S PLAYING: Lil Wayne “How to Love”

So, last week I decided to read a book a week for an entire year. It’s not really about the number; it’s about reconnecting with one of the most important things in my life: reading.

That being said, I’m having a hard time getting started. The idea of reading fifty-two books is ambitious to say the least. At the same time, fifty-two is a paltry number compared to all the novels I want to read.

So to make things easier, I’ve narrowed the list down to the first ten. I’ll be posting reviews on each one, depending on when I finish them. Some of these I have read before and want to revisit. Others are new additions to my ever-expanding library. But they all have one thing in common: masters of the craft wrote them, people I hope to emulate in my own writing some day. (And please, remember that I’m reading these books as a consumer. Not a critic.)

1.Witches Abroadby Terry Pratchett

Bet you saw that one coming. This is one of my favorite Discworld novels, and I can’t think of a better way to kick off the New Year.

2.The Enchantress of Florenceby Salman Rushdie

This is a new addition. I’ve heard great things about it, and I’m a huge fan of his writing. I can’t wait to read it.

3. “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden

Lyrical prose, haunting imagery, and a strong protagonist. Toss in an epic love story set amidst World War II, and you have a book worth revisiting.

4.The Handmaid’s Taleby Margaret Atwood

No reading list would be complete without this unnervingly realistic portrayal of a dystopian future.

5.Poison Studyby Maria V. Snyder

A friend of mine recommended this one. I don’t usually go in for fantasy-romance novels, but she insisted I give it a try.

6. “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman

I grew up watching the movie. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the book was so much better.

7.Everything is Broken” by John Shirley

Another favorite author — not to mention a kick ass mentor – this is John Shirley’s latest. It’s scheduled for release on January 24. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.

8. “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

I am ashamed to admit that – while I am a rabid Neil Gaiman fan – I have yet to read this one. An oversight I intend to remedy soon.

9. Luka and the Fire of Life” by Salman Rushdie

The first repeat on my list, but not the last. I picked this one because I wanted a kid’s book on the list, though from what I hear, this book is so much more than that.

10. “Butcher Bird” by Richard Kadrey

Tattoos and demons and witches, oh my! An excellent choice to round out the list. (Plus, I’m kind of digging the ink.)

And there you have it. The first ten of my fifty-two books. What about you? What’s on your must read list for 2012? (If you have any recommendations, I’m open to suggestions.)

I’ll be honest. I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull this one off, but no matter how many books I read – fifty or five – the important thing is that I’ll be reading.

Best New Year’s ever!

Recharge Your Writing

WHAT’S PLAYING: Elvis PresleyPolk Salad Annie

The Outage is almost over, and it’s been a hell of a month. Between insane work hours and class, I haven’t had much spare time. I spent most of my days off cleaning, shopping and doing laundry. Worse, the stress was taking a toll on my writing. Instead of churning out 5 or 10 pages a night, I was lucky if I wrote 5 or 10 words. Even the quality of my writing suffered, and try as I might, I couldn’t make it better. Frustrated by my lack of skill, I usually wound up deleting the few precious words over which I had spent the last few hours sweating.

When it came down to it, I just didn’t want to write. It wasn’t fun anymore.

Then something happened that changed everything. A massive snowstorm swept over New England, dropping up to 24 inches of snow in one night. The drive into work usually takes about 40 minutes, 35 if there aren’t any cops around. That night, it took three and a half hours – one of which was spent waiting while emergency crews cleared away downed trees, power lines, and cars in various states of distress – and I didn’t even make it to work. Instead, I found myself stranded at a bed and breakfast roughly ten miles away.

Here’s a picture taken the next morning:

After the roads were clear, I drove home only to find that I had no electricity. That meant no laundry, no classes, and no writing. After a few minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I got into a pair of my fuzziest flannel pajamas, jumped into bed and started reading. Soon, I was lost in a Discworld novel, not caring that I was out of milk or that my closet looked as though it belonged on an episode of “Hoarders”. I didn’t think about all the things I should have been doing. I just read.

When the power came back on a few hours later, I kept on reading, only stopping for a hot shower and a fresh pair of pjs. As soon as I had finished Sir Pratchett’s book, I reached for another favorite by Neil Gaiman. That snow day was one of the best I’ve had in a long time.

Needless to say, my shopping and laundry never did get done, and my house remained a mess. What did happen was my passion for writing came back. I felt renewed. I plopped down in front of my computer and wrote for the next six hours. I’d forgotten what it felt like to create entire worlds and fill them with flawed, interesting people. Reading books by people who have mastered the craft brought it all back. All I could think was, “I want to do that too.”

The fact that I will probably never be as good a writer as Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman or John Shirley or Patrick Rothfuss or hundreds of others doesn’t matter. What matters is that writers like them inspire people like me to create and dream. Their words have seen me through poverty, illness and heartbreak. What about you? What do you turn to when your passion for writing, for life, diminishes? Movies? Music? Books? Poetry? Who is your go-to muse?

Who or what you turn to isn’t important. The next time you feel blocked: you’re out of ideas or the words just won’t come, step away from the computer and visit with your muse. If you’re anything like me, you’ll come away with a renewed sense of purpose and awe that’s all consuming.

Just don’t wait for a snow day to do it.