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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5 Books of 2017 that Influenced Me Greatly

It’s that year-in-review time of year. To clarify: these are the books published in 2017 that most profoundly influenced my thinking. I clarify because I’ll probably do a list of books that I read in 2017 but that were published in previous years.

5.) Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman: Gaiman’s take on classic tales of Norse Mythology shows that one can bring great value with a fresh look at old art. However, beyond the “steal like an artist” sentiment of not getting locked into building something brand new, these stories show the Norse to be exceptional storytellers. All ancient cultures had a mythology, but not all of them were equal in producing stories that are timeless and work across cultures.

 

4.) The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston: This book taught me two things: First, that there is still much to be discovered right on terra firma. We talk as though the only new vistas of knowledge are to be found in space or places like the Mariana Trench, but the days of terrestrial discovery are not past. Second, there is a lesson of common fates of humanity across time. A lot of this book is about a parasitic disease that infected several of the expeditionary team, as well as speculation about how the same disease might have influenced the civilization that abandoned the titularly referenced city.

 

3.) The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur: Kaur’s books combine poetry and art. Both are crude but heartfelt and evocative. Both of Kaur’s books have struck a chord with readers, and that resonance seems to be about the candid and bold nature of her art.

 

2.) Behave by Robert Sapolsky: Sapolsky tells readers that one can’t look at something as complex and bewildering as human behavior through the lens of any one academic discipline and get a complete and satisfying picture. Sapolsky considers the best and worst human behaviors through the lenses of biology, neuroscience, endocrinology, human evolution, and more.

 

1.) Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal: The authors of this book examine the various ways people achieve what they call ecstasis. Ecstasis is a state of mind in which one loses one’s sense of self, and all the muddling factors that go with the self, such as self-criticism, fear of failure, and the feeling of working against everyone and everything else.

BOOK REVIEW: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Norse MythologyNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is the telling of a select group of Norse myths with the signature humor and down-to-earth prose of Neil Gaiman. It’s a fascinating collection of stories and is well-ordered so that the reader is often familiar with references to past events from earlier stories.

 

After an introduction that explains how Gaiman first became interested in Norse mythology both through the comics and then actual mythologies, there are a couple of chapters that largely provide background before delving into the chosen Norse myths in great detail. One of these chapters gives extended “bios”—if you will—for three of the most prominent characters: Odin, Thor, and Loki. Then there are a couple of chapters that both convey the timeline and of the spatial dimensions of the nine realms of the world the Norse created.

 

There is a brief story of how Odin lost his eye in the pursuit of wisdom that’s entitled “Mimir’s Head and Odin’s Eye.”

 

It’s from this point on that the stories are substantial and complete. The first of these stories is entitled “The Treasures of the Gods” and it’s about of how Loki created a competition among dwarf master craftsman. Loki does this in order to keep Thor from beating him with Mjöllnir after the god of mischief stole the hair of Thor’s wife, Sif (one of the items to be judged by the gods was stipulated to be a set of hair that would reattach and be as beautiful as Sif’s original hair.) The competition was Loki’s way of using a clever ploy to make the fix without it costing him anything and while at least sticking it to the dwarfs a little. The story is also well positioned as some of the items that are gifted to the gods in the competition are seen repeatedly in later stories. Loki creating mischief is a recurring theme not only in Norse mythology, but in this collection of myths specifically as they make for some particularly humorous tales.

 

“The Master Builder” is about a builder who shows up right as the Asgardians need a wall built. He claims that he can build it improbably quickly in exchange for the sun, the mood, and the hand of Freya (the most beautiful Norse goddess) in marriage. While all the other gods consider the price too high—not the least of whom being Freya—Loki convinces them that it’s an impossible task and that they can get free foundations if they give the builder a set timeline (a fraction of what he stated) and set another limitation or two. When they are on the verge of losing, the gods—suspecting the builder isn’t what he appears—agree to cheat.

 

“The Children of Loki” concerns a second family that Loki that is kept secret from the Asgardians. The three are an odd bunch: a girl who is half beauty / half corpse, the creature that becomes the Midgard serpent, and Fenrir wolf. Most of the story deals with the wolf child and the fact that they will only release the creature if they know that they can later bind it, but its strength is such that it seems to be able to break any binding. This story also explains why the Norse god Tyr has only one hand.

 

“Freya’s Unusual Wedding” This story revisits the idea of someone trying to negotiate Freya’s hand in marriage. Freya proves unwilling to take one for the team in order to fix the problems of other gods—in this case Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, has gone missing and the thief says he will give it back as a wedding gift. This time it is Heimdall—rather than Loki—who hatches a clever plot that will save the day.

 

“The Mead of Poets” This story revolves around a god of wisdom named Kvasir who comes into being after a strange treaty agreement between the Aesir and the Vanirs. Kvasir is killed and his blood is used to brew mead that is said to give imbibers the ability to write great poetry. This time it is Odin who saves the day and retrieves the mead. It also offers a humorous explanation of from whence bad poetry comes.

 

“Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants” Thor travels with Loki, and—eventually—with a bondservant named Thialfi (how Thialfi comes to be with them is part of a prank that Loki pulls that is explained at the story’s beginning.) The three were each subjected to a competition to see whether they were worthy, and it appears they weren’t.

 

“The Apples of Immortality” This is another tale that begins with a traveling trio including Thor and Loki. When Loki gets himself into hot water, he agrees to hand over the Apples of Immortality, which go hand-in-hand with the goddess who oversees them, Idunn. Without Idunn’s apples the Asgardian gods age and die like humans. Loki first has to hatch a plot to surrender Idunn, and then he’s forced by the angry and aging gods to carry out a plan to get her back.

 

“The Story of Gerd and Frey” This is a love story in which the god Frey (brother to the aforementioned Freya) is smitten with a woman named Gerd. Frey promises his magical sword, capable of defeating any attack, to his manservant in order for him to ask for Gerd’s hand.

 

“Hymir and Thor’s Fishing Expedition” Thor needs to borrow the huge mead cauldron of a giant to make a massive banquet happen. Thor goes on a fishing trip to help grease the wheel with the giant, who is very attached to the cauldron. Thor shows both his legendary strength and dimwittedness, but ultimately wins a bet that will grant him ownership of the cauldron.

 

“The Death of Balder” Balder is one of the most beloved Norse gods, and he dies as the result of one of Loki’s vicious mischiefs. To call it a prank would seem to trivialize it, but that seems to be how Loki views these acts. When the overseer of the underworld (where the dead who didn’t die gloriously in battle go), Hel, agrees that she will release Balder if all the creatures of the world agree that he was beloved, Loki outdoes himself.

 

“The Last Days of Loki” Adding insults (literally) to the injury of having been responsible for the death of Balder, Loki heads off into exile, but is pursued by the Asgardian gods.

 

“Ragnarok: The Final Destiny of the Gods” Here we have a description of how the Asgardian end of days is to play out. The Norse gods aren’t immortal, but Ragnarok is the end of a cycle, but not the end of all existence.

 

As I mentioned, the first couple chapters offer more backstory than the extensive myths through the rest of the book. This works well as it gives the reader the necessary background in a readable and palatable fashion. Another nice feature is a glossary that includes all the named characters and major places mentioned throughout the book. The section of mini-bios at the front only covers Odin, Thor, and Loki, and so it’s beneficial to have a list of all the various other gods–a number of whom (e.g. Freya, Frigg, Heimdall, Tyr, etc.) play major roles in one or more of the stories.

 

I’d highly recommend this book. It’s extremely readable, humorous, and educational to boot.

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BOOK REVIEW: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and DisturbancesTrigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

“Trigger Warning” is a collection of 24 pieces of short fiction and poetry written by Neil Gaiman. If you know what a trigger warning is (I had to look it up) you may be thinking this collection is darker, edgier, and/or more risque than it really is. (For those who don’t want to look it up, a “trigger warning” is a blurb that intimates that a work has words or images that may induce a traumatic reaction.) However, these stories are Gaiman to the core, which means they are humorous, clever, and often quirky; but they are unlikely to throw one into catatonia or an apoplectic fit. The pieces include Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who stories, spin-offs from Sleeping Beauty and American Gods, as well as a few homages to other authors, including Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe, and William Blake.

 

Without further ado, I’ll give a rundown of the included works:

 

1.) “Making a Chair”: This is a poem about writer’s block.

2.) “A Lunar Labyrinth”: An homage to Gene Wolfe’s work, “Solar Labyrinth.” This short story is about a maze that was destroyed, and that wasn’t to be walked on full moon nights.

3.) “The Thing About Cassandra”: This is among my favorite stories in the collection. What happens when your friends and family start bumping into the girl who you made up as a girlfriend back in school?

4.) “Down to a Sunless Sea”: This was written for a water-themed event. It’s about a person riding in a lifeboat down the Thames toward the sea.

5.) “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”: This one was inspired by an island off Scotland called Skye, but the story is fantasy with magic elements. A man strikes out in search of revenge and closing, regarding a daughter who he thought had run away. This is one of the most engaging pieces in the collection.

6.) “My Last Landlady”: This is a story, conveyed in poetic form, about a mean landlady.

7.) “Adventure Story”: In the Introduction, Gaiman calls this a companion piece to his novella “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” However, I didn’t make that connection, (and I’ve read that story.) At any rate, it’s a great story about an intriguing artifact left behind by a [deceased] father whose stories were always painfully dull. It’s told by a mother to a son who is incredulous that his, seemingly milquetoast, father lived through such a fascinating event.

8.) “Orange”: Like several of the pieces in this book, this one is unconventional / experimental. However, it’s creative, and it works. It consists of answers to a questionnaire, from which the reader pieces together the story. One doesn’t have the questions, but most of them are fairly clear from the context of the answer.

9.) “Calendar of Tales”: This is what it sounds like, 12 stories each matched to a month. It’s another of the unconventional and unusual pieces. Each story was spun from a tweet response to a question about a given month of the year.

10.) “The Case of Death and Honey”: Few characters in the public domain have spurred as many offshoot stories as Sherlock Holmes, and this is Gaiman’s entry in the pool. Holmes’s interest in bee-keeping is central to the story.

11.) “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”: An homage to Bradbury. If one forgets a person, did they ever exist?

12.) “Jerusalem”: This work was influenced both by a poem by William Blake and a trip the author took to said city. The story is about a couple of tourists and the unique mental illness associated with this locale.

13.) “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”: A scary bedtime story told by a child about a different kind of monster.

14.) “An Invocation of Incuriosity”: A story about one of the strange and colorful people one might meet at a flea market.

15.) “’And Weep, Like Alexander’”: A lighthearted story about an “un-inventor,” one who keeps you from having flying cars and all the other promised technology from sci-fi.

16.) “Nothing O’Clock”: This is a “Doctor Who” story. It’s not necessary to be familiar with the series (necessary backstory is provided), but it could make it more appealing—i.e. the inside joke effect.

17.) “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”: This is from “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” Palmer is a cabaret-punk singer/songwriter and Gaiman’s wife, and the aforementioned booklet consists of a series of photos of Palmer looking deceased with brief stories to go along. This is one of the stories that could stand alone. It’s a fairy tale of the adults-only variety.

18.) “The Return of the Thin White Duke”: Another fairy tale, this one about a Duke that strikes out on a quest for adventure in order to rescue a Queen who doesn’t need rescuing.

19.) “Feminine Endings”: A story about a human statue—by that I mean one of those people who deck themselves out and stand on a box in the town square in touristy places in many parts of the world.

20.) “Observing the Formalities”: A poem about one who doesn’t get invited.

21.) “The Sleeper and the Spindle”: A take on the story of “Sleeping Beauty,” but from a different point of view.

22.) “Witch Work”: This is another poem. I believe it’s the only one that’s not free verse. It’s about the life of a witch.

23.) “In Relig Odhrain”: This is a true story about a saint, written in free verse.

24.) “Black Dog”: This is a spin-off from the novel “American Gods” and it features that book’s protagonist, Shadow. You don’t need to have read that book, but you might have a greater affinity for the story if you have. It should also be noted that this is the one piece that is original to this collection, and it’s one of the most substantial pieces in the collection. i.e. it gives fans a reason to pick up the book even if they’ve read a lot of it from the original source.

 

I enjoyed this book. Gaiman is a masterful story-teller. Whether it’s one of conventional pieces based in established worlds (e.g. “Doctor Who” or that of Sherlock Holmes) or one of the off-the-wall, experimental pieces, these stories and poems are a pleasure to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected NonfictionThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Not every writer—not even many literary greats—could pull off a book like this. It’s a collection of random speeches, front matter from books (not his own), liner notes, and the occasional eulogy for individuals living and dead. While the book is organized into sections on topics like other authors, comic books, films, and music, it seems that organization derives organically from the topics on which Neil Gaiman is asked to comment–rather than a desire to tighten the book’s theme.

If you’re a Neil Gaiman fanboy/girl, you’ll need no excuse to read anything that he puts out (even though–if that is the case–you’ll probably have read much of this before in separate outings.) So the question is why the rest of us—who may enjoy Gaiman’s writing tremendously but who don’t qualify as fanboys / fangirls—should read this. The reason that it’s worth reading is that Neil Gaiman is funny, has a way of framing ideas that makes them thought-provoking and interesting, and frequently writes quotable bits of text that are essentially brain candy.

The book’s title comes from an essay on Gaiman’s experience attending the Oscars from the upper balcony. As mentioned, the book is divided into thematic sections–ten of them to be precise. The book starts with “Some Things I Believe,” which presents speeches on the virtue of reading, libraries, books, and bookstores. The next section discusses people he has known and worked with—largely writers and graphic artists. Then Gaiman offers thoughts on the nature of science fiction, again mostly through book forwards on seminal works from the genre. There is a section on films and Gaiman’s experience with them—several of his works have been made into films and many others have been considered. The next part is on comic books and the works and artists that influenced Gaiman. The next section bears the title “Introductions and Contradictions” and it offers introductions for various books (not Gaiman’s but those written for other writers.) There’s a musical section about a few recording artists including They Might be Giants, Lou Reed, and—of course—Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer. Next, Gaiman presents some introductions and forwards for works of fantasy. One section includes only a solitary entry–a commencement speech entitled “Make Good Art.” The final section is sort of a catchall of essays that includes the title piece and one on events in Syria.

I’d recommend this book for those who enjoy reading (or writing) in the genres for which Gaiman is known. His comments offer interesting insight, and you may learn about some books and authors that you’d never heard of before.

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BOOK REVIEW: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, WitchGood Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Nature or nurture? That’s the question at the core of this funny take on the coming of the apocalypse, written by two masters of humorous speculative fiction—the late Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The end of days is coming. What if the Antichrist responsible for seeing it through had been switched at the hospital and was raised as a normal kid? Would he be evil enough? If not, how would the apocalypse play out? After a chapter that shows the reader the mix up at the hospital, the bulk of the book takes place over a few days that are supposed to be the last few days of humanity.

There’s an extensive cast of characters including the “gang” of Adam the anti-Christ, the four horse-persons of the apocalypse, angels and demons, witches and witch-hunters, and other sundry characters. However, the characters that most carry the tone and message of the book are Crowley (a demon) and Aziraphale (an angel.) With these two, the authors inject some Taoism into an otherwise Biblical world. That is to say, pure evil and pure good are rarities; there’s always a bit of good amid the bad, and vice versa. Aziraphale can be grumpy, and Crowley’s proclivity to be mischievous has its limits. Being in similar positions, the two bond as low-level managers working for Coke and Pepsi might get on because they face similar demands and have similar complaints about management.

Running through the book are mentions of a book called, “The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.” This witch’s prophecies are quite unusual in that they are invariably correct, and yet are specific. That is, the prophecies aren’t “right” in the sense that astrologers are often “right” by making vague statements that offer no disprovable propositions. This might lead one to believe that the book would be a marvelous guide for making predictions. However, there is still the issue of having been written centuries ago. Items like automobiles and cellphones, that play a major role in life today, were unfathomable. Furthermore, it’s usually not clear who, exactly, a given prophecy applies to. In short, the medieval writing style results in the fact that the prophecies usually only make sense after the fact.

I’d recommend this book for readers of humorous speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman

Fortunately, the MilkFortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

It’s “The Usual Suspects” for kids, but with Gaiman’s humor and imagination. A father goes out to buy a carton of milk for his kids’ cereal. When he comes back after being long delinquent, he’s got a rather extraordinary explanation for why the short run to the corner c-store took so long.

I read in a Gaiman’s new nonfiction collection, “The View from the Cheap Seats,” (due out May 31, 2016) that even he got grief for writing a children’s book in which the lead isn’t a child. But, he’s Neil Gaiman; so they wisely published it anyway. While the book is aimed at the children’s market, there’s enough humor and absurd happenings to keep an adult reading. So the risky choice of protagonist may prove useful. It certainly helps Gaiman’s argument against narrow definitions of children’s versus adult books (also discussed in detail “The View from the Cheap Seats.”)

Apropos of a youth market book, it’s only about 140 pages, but that’s with extensive illustrations (on almost every page, and many are full-page) and large font. Chris Riddell’s black and white drawings match the whimsicality of the text well.

I’d recommend the book for anyone who reads kid’s books (whether they’re a kid or not.)

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BOOK REVIEW: 999 ed. by Al Sarrantonio

999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense by Al Sarrantonio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

999 is a collection of 28 short stories and one novella that are all in the genre of horror and dark suspense. The collection includes some superstar authors such as Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, and David Morrell, but all of the authors are established writers and most will be familiar to readers in this genre.

I won’t go into each story in-depth, but will list and briefly describe each. A few of the stories stuck with me, while others were quite forgettable—so I’ll point out which were which. Your results may vary.

1.) “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue” by Kim Newman: This is a Cold War Zombie story. It was intriguing.
2.) “The Ruins of Contracoeur” by Joyce Carol Oates: The family of a disgraced Judge move to a remote area to stay out of the limelight, and faceless monster sightings ensue. How bad could a Joyce Carol Oates’ story be? It’s solid and well-written. It wasn’t among my favorites.
3.) “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Thomas M. Disch: An “inanimate” stuffed owl and plush-toy cat converse about their wicked, spouse-abusing owner. Creepy, but not one of the strongest entries. The stories in this collection range from realism to far-fetched speculative fiction. This work is toward the latter end of the spectrum.
4.) “The Road Virus Heads North” by Stephen King: A mutating “killer” picture is obtained at a yard sale. This is among the stronger stories.
5.) “Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story” by Neil Gaiman: About a collector of the “exotic.” While Gaiman is my favorite author of this bunch, I can’t say this is story was among my favorites of the collection. I will say that it has some of the cleverest wording of any of the stories (as one would expect of Gaiman), but maybe that humor works at right-angles to the story. You decide.
6.) “Growing Things” by T.E.D. Klein: About a husband / Mr. Fixit and his following of advice columns on a growth. This is a short piece, but not among the more memorable stories. It’s innovative, but not the least bit intense.
7.) “Good Friday” by F. Paul Wilson: A vampire story set in a convent. A good story, but obviously not particularly innovative. However, if you like the idea of nuns battling vampires, here’s your story.
8.) “Excerpts from the Records of the New Zodiac and the Diaries of Henry Watson Fairfax” by Chet Williamson: A swanky dinner club that rotates hosts and each host tries to outdo the last in the presentation of “exotic delicacies.”
9.) “An Exaltation of Termagants” by Eric Van Lustbader: I’ll have to be honest; this was the least memorable of these stories. When I flipped back through to write this review, I found that I’d completely forgotten the piece. I think its lack of memorableness speaks for itself. It’s about an unappealing man and his sucky life that’s tied to his poor relationships with women. I think the problem is two-fold. First, it’s one of the longer stories in the collection. Second, unlike Joe R. Lansdale’s “Mad Dog Summer,” it’s a long short story without memorable characters or a taut story arc. In short, if you’re going to go long, you’ve got to give us characters we can either love or despise, and you’ve got to give us a pace that keeps us intrigued. This story does neither. I know it’s all subjective, but I think this collection without this story would be improved.
10.) “Itinerary” by Tim Powers: A mysterious caller asks the protagonist to tell an unknown woman caller that said caller “just left” in response to her inquiry. From there the story meanders into personal tragedy before bringing it all back together in the end. It was so-so. I liked the premise, but it didn’t have that x-factor in execution.
11.) “Catfish Gal Blues” by Nancy A. Collins: A river catfish mermaid story. This was a weird but highly memorable story.
12.) “The Entertainment” by Ramsey Campbell: Man thinks he’s checked into a hotel, but it’s really some sort of asylum. Not the most memorable, but not the least either.
13.) “ICU” by Edward Lee: Man awakes in an ICU, and is informed that he’s a gangster involved in pedophilia and other hardcore taboo pornography. Vivid and well-crafted.
14.) “The Grave” by P.D. Cacek: A young woman with a horrible mother discovers a grave in the woods that she’s never seen before. This one is eery and visceral.
15.) “The Shadow, The Darkness” by Thomas Ligotti: About a tour group promised “the ultimate physical-metaphysical excursion.” This paranormal story is just OK.
16.) “Knocking” by Rick Hautala: Remember Y2K? It was the idea that the entirety of the world of computing would come to a screeching halt because their little (inadequately programmed) computer minds would be blown by a date starting in “20?” This story is based on that notion.
17.) “Rio Grande Gothic” by David Morrell: A cop keeps finding shoes left in the same section of road, and eventually begins to wonder if someone isn’t trying to tell him something. This story does a good job of capturing one’s curiosity and keeping one’s attention.
18.) “Des Saucisses, Sans Doute” by Peter Schneider: This is one of the shorter stories in the book, and it’s also an almost absurdist dark piece. You may laugh or you may vomit, either way the writer had an effect.
19.) “Angie” by Ed Gorman: This story is white-trash gothic. It’s about a couple that are “stuck” with this kid, and are concerned that the child has learned their dirty, little secret and will turn them in. It was one of the stories that stuck with me most intensely. The unlikable character development is exceptional.
20.) “The Ropy Thing” by Al Sarrantonio: A couple of kids in a neighborhood assaulted by a thing that is… well, ropy (rope-like.) Not one of the better pieces, but it has the virtue of being short.
21.) “The Tree is My Hat” by Gene Wolfe: A man befriends an outcast on island in the South Pacific. It’s a solid piece.
22.) “Styx and Bones” by Edward Bryant: A cheating man comes down with a mysterious ailment. This is a well-executed story.
23.) “Hemophage” by Steven Spruill: Another vampire story, this one set inside a detective story.
24.) “The Book of Irrational Numbers” by Michael Marshall Smith: It’s about a guy from Roanoke, Virginia who is obsessed with numbers. As there aren’t many math short stories, if you are a big fan of math fiction you may find this interesting. The writing style is fun. If you aren’t a math fan, you may lose the story.
25.) “Mad Dog Summer” by Joe R. Lansdale: A man recounts a story of murder from his youth living in a rural community. This is one of the strongest stories in the collection. It’s also one of the longest, but the author does an outstanding job of keeping one’s attention throughout.
26.) “The Theatre” by Bentley Little: A clerk at a bookstore ventures into a forbidden floor above the store to find a creepy theater that will change his life. It’s a good, creepy story.
27.) “Rehersals” by Thomas F. Monteleone: I don’t know that I would have put this in the same genre as the other stories, but it’s an excellent story—and so I can see why the editor was eager to include it. It is speculative fiction, as opposed to being realist, but I wouldn’t count it as either horror or suspense. It’s about a man handling props in a community theater who is given glimpses into what his life could have been like if he’d stood up to his abusive father. It’s one of the best stories in the collection.
28.) “Darkness” by Dennis L. McKiernan: A man moves into a beautiful house willed to him by an eccentric uncle. The problem is that the lights in the house are so bright as to be an assault on the eyes—leaving not a shadow or dark space in the house. The lights are wired to be either all on or all off. It doesn’t occur to the nephew that the lights might be that way for a reason.
29.) “Elsewhere” by William Peter Blatty: This is the longest piece–a novella / very short novel and not a short story. It’s about a realtor who’s trying to sell a house that’s haunted. She brings together a writer and a couple “experts on the paranormal” to debunk the haunting so that the house will become salable. But everything is not as it appears.

This is a good collection of stories. Some are better than others, but the best are extraordinary. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who likes horror, dark suspense, or the macabre. Within that genre, it’s an eclectic mix of stories in form, substance, and style.

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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 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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