BOOK REVIEW: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book begins with a family being murdered by Jack, a cold-hearted killer – a family all save the infant. It’s readily apparent that this isn’t a random violent crime. For one thing, the fiend is far more concerned with finding the baby so as to complete his treacherous task than he is with absconding with loot or reveling in carnage. We don’t know why the family is killed or how a baby could possibly be a worthy target for an assassin, but it’s a mystery that will play out over the course of the book. What we do know is that the boy, Bod – short for Nobody [Owens] – crawled from his crib, out of the house, and into a graveyard that night and that he was taken in by the dead [and a vampiric guardian named Silas] and granted free access to the graveyard.

While the plot is about a killer on the loose intent on murdering Bod, a lot of the book deals with the boy’s challenges as the one living human among a community of the dead. Silas and his adoptive – if deceased – parents, the Owenses, are reluctant to let the boy out of the graveyard because they know he is in danger and they can protect him there were a different set of rules apply, but he has a desire to experience the world. An abortive experiment with going to school fails because Bod sticks up for bullied kids and can’t help but employ some of the skills he’s acquired as a denizen of the graveyard. In the graveyard, he is a living person among the dead, but he is no less the outsider among the living.

This is written for a young audience, and is therefore highly readable while avoiding all the gore that one might expect of a book that begins in murder. Gaiman masterfully creates the ghoulishness and suspense without being horror, per se. I’d recommend this book for readers of low (intrusion) fantasy works.

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BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Strange: Way of the Weird, Vol. 1 by Jason Aaron

Doctor Strange, Vol. 1: The Way of the WeirdDoctor Strange, Vol. 1: The Way of the Weird by Jason Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the first arc of a multi-arc story. The Volume consists of “Doctor Strange” (2015), #1-5.

Something even more mysterious and odd than usual is afoot. An unprecedented number of trans-dimensional beings have taken up residence on Earth. Magic begins to go on the fritz. The Sorcerer Supreme of other dimensions are being executed. A mysterious enemy, with powers based in technology, threatens the very existence of magic–not only in our universe, but throughout the multiverse. Magicians are constantly under attack in the world of Doctor Strange, but in this case the killing of magicians is just collateral damage in a battle of bigger stakes.

A new character, Zelma Stanton, is introduced. She’s a young librarian who seeks out the help of Doctor Strange because she has grown a nefarious looking toothy maw at the top of her skull—some kind of previously unseen mind maggot. In treating her for said maggots, the wild and weird creatures are set loose upon Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. Doctor Strange hires Stanton to reorganize his library. She provides a straight-man of sorts, a muggle’s eye reaction to the weird world of Doctor Strange.

The theme of this story is that there’s always a cost associated with the use of magic. This idea (which, stated differently, is also the central premise of economics—i.e. no free lunches) is an important rule for any literary world containing magic, because free lunches drain all tension from a story. In this case, it’s not just a principle sitting the background, its ramifications are explicit.

I enjoyed this book. I found the story premise intriguing and the dialogue well-written. The artwork was easy to follow and suitable strange. The art was imaginative. It can’t be easy to convey weirdness on a grand scale, but Chris Bachalo seemed to make it work.

I’d recommend this book for fans of Doctor Strange and others who like fantastical fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Neverwhere taps into a reader’s imagination and the fantasy that beyond closed doors and locked grates, beyond the prying eyes of common men, lies something magical—not just the mundane sewers and conduits our rational mind tells us exist there. This magical world is “London Below,” and–to a lesser extent–rooftop London. It’s a world that exists below the workaday London that we know. It’s a London of angels and cutthroats, witches and warriors. It’s a London trapped in time, but unconstrained by the laws of physics or men as we know them.

The lead character is Richard Mayhew, a perfectly normal resident of London Above. He has a fine—if boring—job in the business world, and a fiancé isn’t right for him, but who he believes is close enough for an imperfect world by virtue of her being pretty, smart, and capable.

Mayhew is living an ordinary and comfortable life until he and his girlfriend come across an injured young woman on the street. While his fiancé, Jessica, steps over the girl because the couple are on their way to meet Jessica’s VIP boss, Richard refuses to leave the girl. The injured girl is a resident of London Below, and had collapsed to the sidewalk after escaping from the two London Below master assassins who killed her family. It turns out the girl, Door, is from a family whose magical gift is the ability to open doors—even doors that are locked, sealed, or that no one even recognizes the existence of. As no good deed goes unpunished, Richard’s assistance of Door pulls him into the world of London Below, and he soon finds that he’s almost invisible to the residents of London Above and that he’s been forgotten by Jessica, his friends, and his coworkers.

The rest of the book is a hero’s quest in which Door is trying to discover who ordered the assassination of her family and why, and Richard is trying to find out whether (and, if so, how) he can get back his life in London Above. Because the fates of Richard and Door are intertwined, they travel together along with a bodyguard named Hunter and a Marquis / conman in the debt of Door’s father named the Marquis de Carabas.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s highly readable and the reader will be drawn to the fate of the characters. It has that page-turner quality. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who reads fantasy / speculative fiction–or who doesn’t but is willing to give it a try.

Neil Gaiman is, as always, the master storyteller. When the story calls for humor, it is genuinely funny. When it’s time to be scary, it creates shivers. The storytelling was good enough that I was willing to overlook an ending that—in less capable hands—would have felt flat and too easy.

I didn’t realize that Neverwhere was based on a BBC miniseries. In other words, for a change the book is based on the movie rather than the other way round. However, the book does concisely but vividly portray setting—a task that one might imagine being easier having gone in this developmental direction. And, of course, setting is extremely important in this book. The distinct feel of London Below, London Above, and Rooftop London must be conveyed.

Here is a link to a piece of said BBC miniseries:

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BOOK REVIEW: The Strain, Vol. 1 by David Lapham et. al.

The Strain Volume 1The Strain Volume 1 by David Lapham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I sometimes wonder what Bram Stoker would think about the fact that his work spurred an entire industry of copy-cats. Everybody thinks that they can make an interesting and novel contribution to this vampiric genre. In very few cases, see: Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, they are correct. However, even though most of these works don’t take us into uncharted territory, they can still be entertaining. In fact, some of the versions that stay true to the concept seem more entertaining than others that moved into new territory but are patently stupid. I’m speaking, of course, of Twilight and other vampire-as-romance books that feed a widespread malady of the age afflicting teenage girls and, sadly, middle-aged women. I think The Strain, Volume 1 makes for an interesting and entertaining modern-day vampire story, without being particularly brilliant or groundbreaking.

The Strain, Volume 1 is the first installment of a graphic novel adaptation of the novel written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. The Introduction states that the graphic novel isn’t meant to precisely mirror del Toro and Hogan’s prose novel. I haven’t read the del Toro / Hogan book, but the synopsis indicates that at least the beginning and the characters are largely the same. I can’t comment as to how much the two works differ in detail, and whether the authors of the first book emphasized the difference so as to encourage readers to pick up both books (instead of cannibalizing each other), versus because the works are truly substantively different.

The inciting incident, apparently for the novel as well as the comic, occurs when a commercial jet liner lands in New York, coming to a stop and going out of contact with the tower. It turns out that all but three of the individuals on the plane are dead.

The graphic novel weaves together the story from two perspectives. First, the lead in the story is Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, a Center for Disease Control (CDC) employee who heads a rapid response team. As circumstances somehow indicate that this event involves a biological or toxic substance—though they have no ability to see into the plane, Goodweather’s team is called to investigate. (How they concluded with such high certainty that it was a substance in CDC’s bailiwick and not smoke inhalation or a terrorist hijacking is beyond me. But the CDC team enters on the heels of SWAT, and with operational control.) However, it’s a graphic novel with limited page constraints, so I didn’t grade too harshly on this particular type of credulity stretcher.

Second, the graphic novel begins with a vignette from the point of view of Abraham Setrakian who is a holocaust survivor and former Vampire hunter. Setrakian knows what is going on from his experience in the old world. It’s this odd couple pairing of an old man who knows an unbelievable truth and a scientist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural that makes this work interesting. The latter anchors the work in the world as we know it, but the former adds an element of mystery and charm. These mixed atmospherics are where this work really excels. The two men end up teaming up to fight a threat that will spread with unchecked fury unless they do something about it.

Unlike the hunky Vampires of Twilight fame, the vampires in Lapham’s work are meant to be as repulsive as possible. They have six-foot tongues with stingers by which they take their blood meals, and the giant slobbery maws necessary to accommodate such an appendage. Instead of having a new twist on the Vampire story, this work attempts to create value added in part by putting the horror back into Vampires in a big way (also, through skillful atmospherics.)

It should also be noted that this isn’t a work for young kids. That should go without saying, I know. Freak-show parents who reason that it’s only violence, and who have no problem with their child seeing someone take a shotgun blast to the chest, but who’ll write a death threat to networks, publishers, or congressmen if said shotgun blast exposes a nipple should be forewarned that the work has a short but sexually graphic section in it—in addition to all the stakings and proboscis stabbings.

This was an entertaining enough horror-genre take on the Vampire. Scientists may find it a bit ridiculous that their comic book counterparts go about their jobs sticking their hands in unknown substances found at the site of the mysterious deaths of almost 200 people. However, despite some credulity challenges, the book creates an interesting atmosphere for a vampire story.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, The Ocean at the End of the Lane takes place in a world in which the supernatural and spectacular lay camouflaged amid the most mundane of settings. The story is about a boy’s interaction with a tri-generational household of women who I’ll—controversially—call “good witches.” The characters explicitly gainsay the title of “witch,” but for lack of any better term with which to describe these ladies other than “a trio of females with supernatural abilities and benevolent purpose,” I’ll call them good witches.

In particular the boy befriends the youngest good witch, a girl who physically appears not much older than he, but whom he comes to realize seems much older. It’s the girl who refers to the pond on her family homestead as the “Ocean.” The girl introduces the unnamed boyish male lead to a supernatural parallel universe, but—in doing so—unwittingly gets the boy tangled up in peril. The boy tracks a portal into his world through which a malevolent creature can slip through. The shape-shifting creature becomes his nanny. However, he is the only one in his family who can recognize the creature’s true nature, and it will do anything to keep the boy from ruining its new gig.

The good witches become the boy’s protectors, and powerful protectors they are. But they aren’t omnipotent, and the forces arrayed against them are formidable as well. Among the morals of the story are that the more powerful enemy of one’s enemy is not only not necessarily one’s friend, but may spell one’s doom. The book also speaks to the rashness of youth running headlong into trouble, and the value of wisdom and experience to find solutions.

This book is short and highly readable. It’s appropriate for young adult readers, but can be enjoyed by adult readers as well. The ending is slightly too deus ex machina for my taste, but overall it’s an intriguing book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Color of Magic by Terry Prachett

The Color of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Color of Magic is a hero’s journey tale done in comedic fashion. It’s the first book in Prachett’s disc world series. An incompetent wizard, Rincewind, becomes the guide to a goofy but wealthy tourist named Twoflower. However, as it happens the events that confront these two on their journey are part of a game being played between gods. I loved the humor, liked the story, but wasn’t a fan of the organization of the book.

I should admit up front that fantasy is–hands down–my least favorite genre, and I can’t say that view didn’t jaundice my perception of this book. However, it’s a testament to Pratchett’s humor and readability that I continued reading it.

What is my beef with fantasy in general? First, once one introduces magic, how does one maintain tension in an environment in which anything can happen effortlessly? Obviously, fantasy fans find plenty of tension to keep them reading, but I just don’t get it personally. I know that one retort is that the same could be said of other speculative fiction genres. To the degree that is true, I also don’t care for those other genres so much either. However, sci-fi (for example) has a basis for constraints that can be widely agreed upon. Second, the appeal of feudal society for setting perplexes me. I guess there is a certain romance to these periods for fans (perhaps because they imagine themselves in the statistically-unlikely role of king or knight as opposed to the much more likely position of serfdom, but whatever), but I see this type of society as backward and unsustainable (a ten millennia old kingdom maybe possible in a world of magic, but not in a world as we know it.)

I know fantasy fans will be able to come up with examples of how their favorite authors avoid both of the pet peeves mentioned. In truth, Pratchett does a good job of negating these pitfalls. With respect to the magic problem, he makes the protagonist wizard really inept and, therefore, easily in situations over his head. Simply put, he makes his lead weak relative to those confronting him. With respect to the setting issue, Pratchett creates an entirely different kind of world, the disc world. This is not Charlemagne’s Europe with wizards.

Prachett is often compared to Douglas Adams. In fact, if you Google “the Douglas Adams of fantasy,” you are sure to pull sites pertaining to Pratchett. One can see the same type of absurdist humor in Prachett’s work. Here’s a compilation of a few of my favorite lines:

“Being Ymor’s right-hand man was like being gently flogged to death with scented bootlaces.”

“No, what he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.”

“Yah. I outnumber you one to two.”

“He wondered what kind of life it would be, having to keep swimming all the time to stay exactly in the same place. Pretty similar to his own, he decided.”

“But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.”

“Your affected air of craven cowardness does not fool me.”

Pratchett appeals to the downtrodden in all of us. This can best be gleaned from the tale of Goldeneyes Silverhand Dactylos. Dactylos is a superb craftsman who is blinded, has his hand cut off, and suffers ever greater indignities because the Emir wants him to never again produce anything as lovely. It’s like the myth about Shah Jahan having the hands cut off Taj Mahal craftsman, except Pratchett’s Emir keeps asking the same man of increasing handicaps back to construct ever greater marvels of engineering.

The book is arranged in just four chapters. This is a bit of an oddity for commercial fiction, and I don’t really care for the sparse employment of breaking points in this book. Again, if I was enough of a fan of fantasy to read this in a single sitting (or even a few sittings) I would likely not find this to be an issue. However, I read it over time and interspersed with many other books (a lot of which were more captivating to me personally.) This might seem like a ridiculously nit-picky point, but for those of us who have a lot of reading up in the air at once, being able to readily put a book down and pick it up seamlessly later without losing the story is of great benefit.

If you like humor, this book will appeal to you. If you like fantasy, I suspect you’ll doubly like it–as long as you have a sense of humor. If you don’t like either, this book will not be for you.

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BOOK REVIEW: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Grahame-Smith

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this alternative-history / paranormal novel, Abraham Lincoln is re-invented as a man who experiences great tragedy at the hands of vampires and then devotes his life to hunting them- a battle which culminates in the Civil War. In the Civil War of this book, slaves are not just valued as plantation labor but also as vampire food.

Grahame-Smith’s book is written in the mold of Bram Stoker’s, as a series of journal entries, letters, and missives.This helps to give it a feel of authenticity as that seemed to be a common device in the late 19th century.

Lincoln comes into contact with a number of contemporaries, some vampire but most humans knowledgeable about vampires– such as Edgar Allen Poe.

The perspective jumps can be a bit confusion, but all-in-all it is entertaining.

A movie was made about this book, which I haven’t seen.

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