BOOK REVIEWS

The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Reader showcases Gaiman’s range as an author. Gaiman moves between genres and tones like no other. From funny fairy-talesque stories to more ambiguous narratives with dystopian or horror elements. While I have read most of his novels and a few of his novellas I hadn’t really ‘sunk’ my teeth in his short stories. The ones that appear in this collection have been selected by his own fans, and are presented in chronological order. While it was interesting to see the way his writing developed I did not prefer his newer stuff to his older one. In fact, some of my favorite of his stories are the ones from the 80s and 90s. Even then his writing demonstrates both humor and creativity. Some of the stories collected here read like morality tales while others offer more perplexing messages. Many of his stories revolve around the act of storytelling or have a story-within-story structure. At times he retells old classics, such as Sleeping Beauty, while other times he offers his own take on Cthulhu, Sherlock Holmes, and even Doctor Who. A few favorites of mine were: ‘Chivalry’, ‘Murder Mysteries’, ‘The Goldfish and Other Stories’, ‘The Wedding Present’, and ‘October in the Chair’. If you are a Gaiman fan and, like me, have not read many of his short stories you should definitely consider picking this collection up.


my rating:
★★★★☆

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman — book review

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“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

It isn’t surprising that American Gods is regarded as one of the genre-bending novels of all time.
Over the course of 500 pages Neil Gaiman deftly blends together fantasy, sci-fi, horror, noir, myths, history, theology, as well as physical, spiritual, and emotional road-trip. The end result is an incredibly imaginative novel, on that is quite unlike anything else I’ve read.

In the preface to the tenth anniversary edition Gaiman describes his novel as ‘meandering’: “I wanted it to be a number of things. I wanted to write a book that was big and odd and meandering, and I did and it was.” It is indeed meandering, wonderfully so. Gaiman’s consistently entertaining storytelling more than makes up for it. Also, given how many different storylines and characters there are in American Gods, it’s safe to say that I was never bored.

“We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness.”

Summarising this novel isn’t easy. The first time I read it I didn’t know much about it so I found myself experiencing a lot of ‘what the f*ck is going’ moments. This second time, even if I knew what was coming and where Shadow’s story was headed, I still managed to get lost in Gaiman’s heady prose.
The novel’s protagonist, Shadow, gets out of prison and is hired by the mysterious and relentlessly charismatic Mr. Wednesday. We soon realise that Shadow’s new boss is an endlessly scheming conman, and not quite human.

What follows is an epic journey in which Shadow meets many disgruntled and modernity weary gods and deities, some of whom share snippets of their history or lore with Shadow, while others remain far more unknowable. Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters recounting their arrival to America. From heroic battles and bloody sacrifices to tales of worship and faith that span centuries and cultures, these sections were thoroughly interesting.

Over the course of his road trip Shadow comes across a lot of weird stuff. We have the sense that these encounters are leading to something far more big. Yet, Gaiman keeps his cards close to his chest, and it is only after many many pages that we start to understand where the story is leading Shadow, and us, towards.
There are plenty of things that will keep us engaged in Shadow’s story. A dead wife, coin tricks, cons, sex (with divine beings…so things get pretty freaky), some horrific scenes (of slavery, of war, of death), satire, a small town which gives some serious Twin Peaks vibe, a hubbub of different cultures and voices…and so much more. There is also an ongoing juxtaposition between the past and present, ancient customs and modernity, old lore and modern believes which provided some serious food for thought.

Gaiman presents us with a narrative that is wickedly funny, frequently mischievous, and always brimming with energy. I loved the way he writes about myths and how distinctive and morally ambiguous his characters are. As interesting and beguiling as the various gods and deities are, once again I found myself caring the most for Shadow.
Gaiman’s dialogues and scenes too are memorable and compelling. And while his narrative does wander into obscure and mystical terrains, it always held my undivided attention.
American Gods gives its readers a bonanza of flavours. It is funny, moving, clever, and constantly surprising.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor — book review

51vdoCLo6NL.jpgStrange the Dreamer is a wonderfully imaginative novel. Meditations and discussions on storytelling, dreams, and myths are not only embedded in the narrative but shape the very way in which the two main characters view their world and themselves.

“Lazlo owned nothing, not one single thing, but from the first, the stories felt like his own hoard of gold.”

It feels strange to like a book I initially gave up on.Usually<, I don’ give book second chances. I first tried reading Strange the Dreamer two years ago and…it’s safe to say—or write—that I was less than impressed. I tried reading one or two chapters but disliked Laini Taylor’s flowery metaphors. This time round, for some reason or other, I really appreciated Taylor’s prose. Maybe I should start giving more books second chances…

In many ways Strange the Dreamer adheres to many conventions of the fantasy genre…we have our orphan hero, those who are considered ‘different’ (in this case they also happen to have blue skin), a wannabe Draco Malfoy sort of bully, a quest, two star-crossed lovers…yet, much of the lore and imagery within the narrative of Strange the Dreamer struck me as undeniably unique.
The worldbuilding is simply stunning. The lands and cities within Strange the Dreamer are given vivid and in-depth descriptions. Weep plays a central role within this narrative. We learn, alongside our hero, of its environment, history, language, and customs. This information is spread throughout the course of the novel, so that Weep always retains its fascinating and mysterious appeal.
The two main characters are very compelling. Although Lazlo Strange might appear as the ‘usual’ orphaned fantasy protagonist, he possesses many characteristics that set him apart. His kindness and genuine thirst for knowledge will make readers all the more involved in his quest for Weep.
Sarai—whose powers are both a gift and a curse—provides us with a different point of view. The interactions between Lazlo and Sarai were extremely sweet. While their instant ‘connection’ might ring ‘insta-love’ bells, it did not come across as forced. In spite of their different positions and backgrounds they are both lonely.
Taylor has a beautiful way with words. Her prose has a captivating rhythm that calls to mind storytelling. Her vibrant descriptions add a richness to the characters’ background and there are plenty of luscious phrases sprinkled throughout her text.
My only criticisms are towards the secondary characters (who seemed a bit one dimensional) and the occasionally heavy-handed aesthetics (we do not need to be constantly reminded of how our main characters’ look).
Still, I’m glad I gave this book a second chance! The storyline was intriguing, its discussions on and dynamics between divinities and humans were compelling, and the two main characters are extremely likeable.

 

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to four)

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The Oracle of Cumae by Melissa Hardy — book review

Untitled drawing.jpg“I listened as Sibylla told me for the third or fourth or fifth time, about something that happened to her a thousand years ago and that might have been funny then, but, clearly, you had to have been there.”

The Oracle of Cumae is a humorous tale that might appeal to readers who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown series, or even books by Rick Riordan. While I enjoyed how witty and playful the narrative could be I was also aware of the various mistakes punctuating the novel.

“Actually, I’m rather hoping for Purgatory.”
“Impossible. Suicides go to Hell. Everyone knows that!”
“I’m hoping to negotiate my position.”

The story is a fun romp that has plenty of comical moments and diverting scenarios. The title character is portrayed in a refreshing way and I do think that the narrative should have focused more on her rather than the people from Mariuccia Umbellino’s youth. There are amusing running gags which create a sense of familiarity between the readers and the story, such as when Mariuccia or her family explain to outsiders that their local pastor is blind, illiterate, and can’t speak Latin:

“He can’t read?” the Prior exclaimed. “How can he say Mass?”
“He acts it out,” said Papa.
“It’s very entertaining,” Mama added. “The children love it.”

The humour is the biggest strength of the story. There are some brilliant back and forths which really complemented the setting and emphasised the characters’ various eccentricities. At times the humour could be quite silly and light:

“Look!” Cesare cried. “He smiled! His very first smile!”
“Actually I am told that babies don’t really smile until about the age of two months,” said Pellicola drily. “It’s probably just gas.”

And in other occasions it could become closer to that of a black comedy:

“Don’t ask me. You know full well that I was an only child. ”
“As was I,” reflected Dr. Pellicola a little dreamily. “No, wait. There was a sister, but she ate something in the garden and died. Belladonna, I believe it was. I think I put her up to it, but, as I was only four at the time, I was forgiven. Even then I was fascinated by medicinal herbs!”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this zestful narrative style. There was a vivacious energy underlining each of the various characters’ interactions which made the story all the more engaging. It was fun to see how Melissa Hardy applies a modern humour to a historical setting.

“I tell you what. Go commit your sin. Come back next Wednesday at this time. Confess, and I’ll absolve you. That’s the way the system works. Now, if you are quite through…?”

Hardy also makes interesting references to a lot of historical anecdotes and places, incorporating certain historical events and locations into her tale (such as the mummies of the Chiesa dei Morti).
The story itself wouldn’t hold up without this abundance of humour as it is what brings the characters into focus. The storyline could have had been more clear-cut and with a more satisfactory inclusion of the oracle. I would have preferred following Mariuccia during her a larger chunk of her life rather than having the narrative focusing on a year or two when she was a teenager. More could have been made of the story as it had a lot of potentially interesting elements, it seems however that much of the narrative stems from a not fully sketched out idea.

There were also a lot of mistakes and inaccuracies which detracted from my overall enjoyment of this book.
➜ The story opens in Italy during the late 19th century (1896 to be precise) and Mariuccia Umbellino, who has just turned ninety nine, calls a priest in order to confess some of her secrets. Although she says that she worked for Bacigalupo & Sons for fifty years (“The business that I preserved and built upon for fifty years”) implying that she must have started working for this company before the 1850s, the narrative later states that Bacigalupo & Sons was founded in the “early nineteen hundreds”, a period of time that is often used to refer to the early 1900s as opposed to the early 1800s.
➜While I don’t have a problem with writers outside of Italy writing about Italy or setting their book in Italy I do get frustrated by the lack of research that some of these authors pay to the Italian language. Google is quite a handy tool and it isn’t difficult to double check the Italian equivalent to certain English terms. Often English-speaking authors will throw untranslated Italian words into their narratives as a way of making their story more believable and quaint. Time and again these authors will use Mama and Papa when referring to Italian characters’ mothers and fathers. Yet, Mama and Papa have no place in the Italian dictionary. They belong to British shows like Downton Abbey. Italians use Mamma and Papà. In Italian Papa means Pope. Not the same as Papà. I actually looked up online a historical dictionary ( http://www.bdcrusca.it/scaffale.asp ) to double-check the period’s terms for Dad and Mum and it turns out that Mariuccia would have used Mamma for Mum and Babbo or Padre for her father.
➜There other Italian words that are misspelled such as ‘schiffo’ instead of ‘schifo’; ‘respetto’ instead of ‘rispetto’; and ‘fritti mistos’ should have been ‘fritti misti’.

When writing about a different culture to your own writers and their editors should ensure that they are at least using the correct words (if they insist on implementing untranslated terms) and names (many of the names in this story seemed odd but given that this is ‘historical’ I was willing to look past them).

In spite of these irritating mistakes, I was entertained by this novel and I’m looking forward to read more by this author.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — book review

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In spite of the beautiful attention that Gods of Jade and Shadow pays to the function of myths and deities in our everyday lives…this turned out to be an unexpectedly juvenile read…

The swift storytelling found in Gods of Jade and Shadow might not appeal to those readers who prefer slower and more in depth narratives such as The Song of Achilles. Here there is a focus on the action or better yet on the quest undertaken by our protagonist. Scenes rarely featured the same backdrop since the various characters keep moving from one location to another which in turn leads to underdeveloped settings. The various places and characters-human and non-encountered by our protagonist(s) are often breezed through so that they have little time to leave an impression on the reader. Having finished this book a few days ago I recall not one of the characters that Casiopea and Hun-Kamé encounter…which isn’t a good sign.

The story is predictable and follows a repetitive pattern in which our cinderella-like main character Casiopea unwilling joins a former god, Hun-Kamé, who will be able to regain his rightful role as ruler of Xibalbla only after he finds certain ‘items’ (which are conveniently stored in places he knows of and that are fairly easy to reach). The story in its simplicity seems more fitting in a middle-grade novel rather than an adult one, and in fact, I would have actually preferred it if this book had been clearly aimed at a younger audience.
Another criticism I have is that it should have been more decisive in its tone, darker as Valente’s Deathless, or as tantalisingly ingenious as Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series, or even as satirical and fun as Zen Cho‘s Sorcerer Royal duology. But the tone in Gods of Jade and Shadow remained rather inconsistent, which is a pity since there are many occasions where Moreno-Garcia’s writing style does really echo that of a skilled storyteller. The narration at times evoked that of a fairytale yet in certain instances this omniscient narrative seemed rather simplistic and often reached clichéd conjectures.

The setting only comes into focus when the narrative explicitly addresses some of the trends of the twenties…mentioning a couple of times the popular dances and haircuts from this period does not render the time in question. At times it did so by literally blurting out these trends on the page:

Mexico City in the 1920s was all about the United States, reproducing its women, its dances, its fast pace. Charleston! The bob cut! Ford Cars!”

I wanted more of the vernacular (which I know is difficult since the characters are not speaking in English but I’m sure that there are differences between contemporary Yucatec Maya and the one spoken in the 20s). The story could have easily had a modern setting as the only thing that truly emerges from this historical setting is that our protagonist as a woman has little control over her life.
Another thing that detracted from my overall enjoyment of this story was the over use of exclamation marks (“It was not possible. He was ruler of Xibalbla now! Nothing could change this, nothing could ruin his plans.”) or when the narrative used expressions such as ‘oh dear‘ (“That might be a relief, since she did not understand what they were supposed to do in the city, and oh dear, she wasn’t ready for any of this.”).

Perhaps this was done to lend immediacy to the events narrated or to give urgency to certain moments or thoughts but it seemed a bit contrived and was not handled all that well.
As the story focuses on the quest, the characters seemed rather flaky. Casiopea was the typical heroine of certain YA fiction, she is kind and just yet has endured many wrongs (alienated from the rest of her family, made to their bidding, etc…). Much was made of her ‘temper‘ so much so that I kept excepting a trace of it but found none. I’m not sure why her will was emphasised so much, and in often such cheesy lines:

She was wilful, daggers hidden beneath her muttered yeses, her eyes fixing on him, slick as oil.

The romance was unnecessary and ‘blossomed’ out of nowhere. It made a potentially interesting character into a love interest, turning yet another dark and powerful death god into little more than eye-candy.
In spite of all these flaws I still enjoyed those passages which solely focused on reiterating Mayan mythology. It was in those moments that the narrative really brought into focus the events and figures it spoke of. And there were certain descriptions that had a nice rhythm but these were far too few.

There was the slim veneer of civilty to his actions. He spoke unpleasantries, but in the tone of a gentleman.

Overall, I’m not sure I do recommend this one.
Cho’s fantasy-romp series (Sorcerer to the Crown & The True Queen) offers a similar type of fast-paced storytelling but with much more historical detail, while N.K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season creates a much more complex and compelling narrative that addresses dynamics between humans and divine beings.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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