M is for Magic (CBR7 #53)

My adventures in short story reading continue, and I’ve reached the point where I’m convinced they aren’t for me. Not even the glorious, melodious Neil Gaiman reading his own collection, M is for Magic, to me could do the trick. I appear to be broken in some way.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good stories in this collection. There are several that are quite good, just not good enough to round the collections overall rating up from a 3 star. The stories in this collection rely heavily on source material and don’t often grow beyond them. Sometimes a great idea doesn’t need to, the riff is enough. But sometimes the reader is left wanting. There are eleven stories contained in M is for Magic (all previously published elsewhere) and they span Gaiman’s career from the 1980s to the 2000s. Let’s discuss:

“The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds” – is a strong start to the series, a hardboiled whodunit featuring storybook characters. The best kind of riff.

“Troll Bridge” – tale of growing up and making choices, some of which lead to the troll bridge. I enjoyed the beginning of this one, but the end petered out for me.

“Don’t Ask Jack” – a story with no point. Moody and atmospheric, but leading nowhere.

“How to Sell the Ponti Bridge” – is a story of a con-man telling other con-men his greatest caper. It is one of Gaiman’s earliest works, and it age shows. There are lots of meandering bits which took away from the overall effect.

“October in the Chair”- an interesting idea, but with a slightly lackluster payoff. What if the months of the year were people who gathered around a fire to tell tales of their experiences? Gaiman excels at building out the personalities of each month, and the story October shares has its moments, but it just didn’t hold my attention.

“Chivalry” – this one was just a kooky bit of fun. A widowed woman finds the Holy Grail at a shop and brings it home. But, Galahad needs to retrieve the Grail and attempts to offer her all sorts of things in exchange. Probably my favorite of the collection.

“The Price” – another very good story. The pacing of this one is perhaps its greatest strength. A cat protects a family – so simple yet expertly executed.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”  This one was so strange. Girls are aliens, literally.

“Sunbird” I was not as impressed with this one since I put the pieces together very quickly and just waited for the end to arrive. Your mileage may vary.

“The Witch’s Headstone” was too long. TOO LONG. I mean sure, it was very entertaining. But did I mention that it was too long?

“Instructions” was short and sweet.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

American Gods (CBR7 #6)

I’ve read a couple of Neil Gaiman works before. I loved Ocean and the End of the Lane and had mostly good feelings about Neverwhere and that book, and its protagonist Richard Mayhew, has grown on me over time. (In fact, I suggest reading my friend Ale’s review from this year to get a better take on the book without the depression funk I was in in 2013). Late last year I saw badkittyuno’s review of American Gods and decided that it would be my Gaiman read for the new year.  As a bonus, she had listened to the tenth anniversary edition full cast audiobook and raved about it. I wanted to expand my bookish horizons into the land of audiobook (I’d had some rough starts up to this point with the genre) and decided that this would be a great plan.

With those decisions made I got myself a copy on Audible and set about going on a road trip with Shadow on my way to and from work in January.  It took over three weeks to listen to this story, because Gaiman’s preferred text which makes up the tenth anniversary edition, is 12,000 words longer than the original and is over 600 pages in print. In audio form it was 19 and a half hours long. Initially I thought, “Oh god, I’ve made a terrible mistake” and then I listened to the sultry tones of Neil Gaiman’s introduction and thought “I think this may work out just fine.”

The entire time I listened to this story I was caught up in the unfolding drama. The basic story of American Gods circulates around our man Shadow. Shadow is finishing up a three year stint in jail but just days before his release, Shadow’s wife and best friend are killed in a car accident. With his life in pieces (and strange circumstances looming) Shadow accepts a job as a driver, bodyguard of sorts, and errand boy from a strange man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. The job takes Shadow on a dark and strange road trip and introduces him to a host of eccentric characters and a looming war amongst beings he would not have previously believed existed.

But what of the story beyond the plot? What was the meaning here? In my previous experience with Neil Gaiman there is ALWAYS more than what you see at the surface, but I couldn’t seem to put my finger on it. I actually think the audio experience might be part of the reason that I wasn’t making the bigger connections. I knew, for example, who my favorite character was (Sam the hitchhiker, without a doubt), I knew who I was most pleased to see show up on the page (Mr. Nancy/Anansi), which characters I couldn’t figure out (the Zorya Sisters) and that I was happy to be in the company of Shadow because he always seemed to just roll with the crazy punches. But was that all? No, but I didn’t piece it together until the author literally told me at the end of the audiobook.

In the appendix of the novel, Gaiman answers the question of how he as a Brit can write a book about American myths and the American soul. As he goes about talking about how foolish it might seem, he explains that when he wrote Sandman he created an imaginary America. Then after he moved to America he realized his ‘America’ was wholly fictional and the real one is more interesting. So in many ways American Gods chronicles the immigrant experience, both in its historic scale and its personal one.

We’re left with musings on the mythic America, a country that refuses to be completely known. And we’re given a character in Shadow who is much the same way. There is still much we don’t know about Shadow given the time we’ve spent with him, but maybe that’s the point after all.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (CBR5 #27)

I’ve started and stopped this review several times. I wanted to pull The Ocean at the End of the Lane apart and put it back together again, because to a certain extent that’s what the book felt like it did to my brain. And I wanted to be able to express that to you – what the moving around of the landscape in my mind to make room for the story of a boy fighting his boyhood foes, and his adulthood ones too, felt like.

I want to talk about how an unnamed narrator can feel like he has a name, and that it’s right on the tip of your tongue, and if you just go back to the book and look it up surely it will be there. And how the world in the novel is so very like the one we’re existing in, with a few fantastical and mythological quirks added in, and what that means to a reader who is not generally a fantasy reader.

Or how you found yourself debating back and forth with yourself whether the Hempstocks were the mother, the maiden and the crone, or if they were the three fates, or if they were simply creatures from another time who were sent to protect our young world, and by default our young protagonist when he finds himself in trouble.

Or perhaps we can talk about the overarching themes of the death of a parent or what it means to become an adult, and if we do. Or if we are simply walking around in adult suits and in some ways forever remain the children we once were.

Or maybe you’d rather have a chat about memory, and what that means. And how we are doomed to forget the things we’d most like to remember. And that we are likely to be haunted by the things we cannot forget, and wish that we could.

Or I could share with you my favorite quote from the book (“You were her way here, and it’s a dangerous thing to be a door.”), and we could discuss how it relates to Neverwhere and have a discussion about how the transitions in our lives can define us more than the times in between, because that’s when we’re under stress and who we really are comes to the surface.

Or not.

If you want a summary of the plot, you can head over to Goodreads, and if you want some more in depth analysis you can visit The Faintest Inklings post on Pajiba, but I think for now, I’m done wrestling with how to talk to you about this book.

Just go read it, won’t you?

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.