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The Graveyard Book

Thursday October 16, 2008 in books read 2008 | neil gaiman

Neil Gaiman is my favourite writer of short stories. His novels are great too, but there’s just something spellbinding about his shorter pieces. The collection Fragile Things was possibly the best book I read last year and certainly one of the best and most memorable books of ghost stories I’ve ever read. The Graveyard Book is his latest work of fiction, and although aimed at a younger readership it still bears Gaiman’s refreshing flair as a gifted writer of supernatural tales.

The Graveyard Book is about a lost child raised by ghosts in an old graveyard, now fallen into overgrown disuse. It’s a simple idea, and its possibly been used before, but only a writer of Gaiman’s class can use it so well. He lets his imagination run with the concept, both through the eyes of the child in question, Nobody Owens (Bod), and through inviting his reader to become immersed in the story. The setting he creates is wonderful, the collapsed and crumbling headstones, the old crypt, the unconsecrated ground, and the ghosts themselves who range from the comic to the creepy. Most of all Gaiman has a wonderful way with words: at one point Bod pauses in conversation to run his fingers over a moss-covered grave, so simply and in so few words reminding the reader they are in the midst of an incredible ghost story.

I’ve mentioned my love for Gaiman’s short stories, and the best parts of The Graveyard Book read like self-contained tales in their own right. Typically for Gaiman, he reveals some of the craft that went into this book in the closing acknowledgments, explaining that he started with the fourth chapter and then later constructed the rest of the book around it. This, The Witch’s Headstone, is a brilliant passage, where Bod encounters and befriends the ghost of a medieval witch. Similarly, another chapter stands out in its own right where Bod plays with a young girl who perceives him as an imaginary friend, only to be found amongst the graves, a friend who’ll fade with memory. Like Gaiman’s best work, it is very touching.

I loved this book throughout, although at times it does feel that Gaiman has strained to wrap a plot around his wonderful prose. I can understand this, as a book aimed at younger readers must appear to be going somewhere, and I may be cynical when I draw comparisons with Harry Potter. But they are there. The child in danger after his parents are murdered, the protection of magic and secrecy, the Dumbledore role as personified by Bod’s guardian Silas. Like Harry, Bod is perceived as a misfit in the “real world”, and like Rowling, Gaiman has a clever line in humour when he portrays those in the magical world who choose to teach and steer our hero.

However, Gaiman has an advantage over J.K. Rowling in that his other fiction is far more varied. Whilst she is yet to branch out from Hogwarts, Gaiman can point his newer readers in the direction of his darker fiction. Passages in The Graveyard Book, in particular Bod’s encounter with the deadly ghouls, recalls the dark and crazy humour of Anansi Boys and American Gods. Most of the readers of The Graveyard Book aren’t quite ready for this very adult stuff, but Gaiman can do that rather wonderful thing in children’s fiction – suggest that there are very broad, challenging and exciting horizons for the reader yet to come.

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Smoke and Mirrors

Thursday November 8, 2007 in books read 2007 | neil gaiman

My heart began to pound in my chest, to pound so hard that it hurt. I hoped it could not see me, that, in a dark house, behind window glass, I was hidden.
The figure flickered and changed as it walked up the drive. One moment it was dark, bull-like, minotaurish, the next it was slim and female, and the next it was a cat itself, a scarred, huge gra-green wildcat, its face contorted with hate.

Where Fragile Things was about ghosts and faeries, the opening few stories of Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors are more concerned with trickery and magic; the title refers to stage illusionists and their craft. Tarot cards are featured, as are magicians and their victims; Queen of Knives features the young Gaiman witnessing the very strange disappearance of his grandmother in a feat of stage wizardry. The later stories in the collection move towards a preoccupation with sexual encounters, and Gaiman also moves away from the supernatural to experiment with Raymond Carverish short pieces; brief, sometimes inconsequential, but often with the power to still disturb.

Neil Gaiman: Smoke and Mirrors

Then there’s Jonathan Ross. I knew that Neil Gaiman is a friend of the talk show host; they appeared together in Ross’s recent documentary about the Spiderman comic artist Steve Ditko and Ross’s wife has written the screenplay for the movie adaptation of Stardust. So it was no complete surprise to find the Ross couple featuring in a tale called The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch. Here, the circus masquerading as a horror show receives the Gaiman treatment.

I’m not really a fan of Ross, so his presence in the story is just a little too sickly for me, and where I was slightly disappointed with Smoke and Mirrors was with the high humour quotient. This collection has more comic tales than the more recent Fragile Things. We Can Get Them You Wholesale, about what happens when you wish for just a little too much, didn’t do very much for me and neither did Chivalry, concerning a very unusual charity shop.

Gaiman features far more autobiographical stories in this collection. As well as the Jonathan Ross adventure, we hear a lot about his experiences in Hollywood, up against the madness there as he attempts to deliver sane film scripts. Very good is The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories, which finds Gaiman staying in the hotel where John Belushi died, befriending an ancient gardener and musing upon the film stars of the past. Oh yes, and fish. Highly recommended.

Although I was surprised to find a higher number of stories that didn’t gel with me than expected, Smoke and Mirrors still has its gems. It’s like crazy paving; wild and varied and another example of Neil Gaiman’s fevered and incomparable imagination. For me, I still like the straight ghost stories, something he can do with aplomb. The Price features Gaiman again, this time protected by a black cat who sits outside the family home and who is discovered horribly injured and mauled every morning. Removing the cat to the safety of the basement, the Gaiman family are suddenly beseiged by bad luck. Well again, the cat returns to the outside. The good luck returns, but once again the cat receives injuries. Then the writer decides to do some detective work… with worrying consequences. A really great story.

Also worth mentioning is The Wedding Present, which Gaiman wrote for some newlywed friends as a gift but decided not to give it to them. Fantastic, although I can understand why he held it back. And then there’s Troll Bridge, which is an outstanding and adult take on the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale. Quite brilliant this one too.

Smoke and Mirrors has its hits and misses, but Neil Gaiman’s hits are always superb. The Price is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. As a cat lover (and especially black ones), it’s the best cat story I’ve ever read. So worth a look.


Anansi Boys

Sunday October 28, 2007 in books read 2007 | neil gaiman

Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their own song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their songs instead.

Recently I’ve become a fan of Neil Gaiman. His short story collection Fragile Things is a contender for my book of the year and I’ve been subscribing to Neil Gaiman’s Journal, one of the best author blogs I’ve seen. Anansi Boys is the first of his full length novels I’ve had the pleasure to read.

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys

Gaiman in a writer with a distinct style of his own, inventing a world that is always magical and imaginative, and one with a slightly dark edge to it. Anansi Boys follows the adventures of one Fat Charlie who, following his father’s death, foolishly opens the door to his life to Spider, the mysterious brother he never knew he had. Spider proves to be a sibling of nightmarish proportions, bringing annoying aspects of his magical abilities with him. He moves a whole alternative world into Charlie’s spare room and seduces his girlfriend. Just for starters.

Anansi Boys moves between London, Florida and The Caribbean as well as stopping off in other uncharted territories, namely ones invented by the apparently limitless mind of Gaiman. I’ve said this before, but his writing reminds me a lot of Susanna Clarke, who brought us Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. He has a similar knack of using the well worn trick of magic in a highly original way. I’m thinking here of the scene where Charlie hails a taxi to take him just a few streets home. The magic weaved by Spider prevents his driver from taking him home, getting more a more lost in just a handful of streets. And Gaiman provides also a very well written scene from the point of view of a ghost.

There are many joys in Anansi Boys. Luckily for me, Neil Gaiman is a highly prolific author, so I’ll be moving on next to Smoke and Mirrors. Can’t wait…

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Fragile Things

Tuesday October 16, 2007 in books read 2007 | neil gaiman

The imp grinned down at me from the wooden door, a vivid splash of crimson in the grey gloaming.
I walked around to the side of the playhouse and peered through all the windows, one by one, into the dark and empty room. Nothing moved in there. I wondered if the other three were inside hiding from me, pressed against the wall, trying their damnedest to stifle their giggles. I wondered if it was a big-boy game.
I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell.
I stood there in the courtyard of the playhouse, while the sky got darker, just waiting. The moon rose after a while, a big autumn moon the colour of honey.
And then, after a while, the door opened, and nothing came out.

Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things is a collection of short stories and poems. It is about dreams, fairy tales, children’s games, urban myths and monsters. It celebrates the art of a good story told well, something that Gaiman shines in as a true artist of the ghost story.

Neil Gaiman: Fragile Things

In 26 brilliant parts, this book is almost beyond a review. Subjects include a homage to Conan Doyle with shades of H.P.Lovecraft, a Matrix style sci-fi tale and instructions on what to do if you just happen to find yourself trapped in a fairy tale. And three of the tales were the best short stories I have read in years…

October in the Chair is a tale within a tale. It’s excellently told, and even though it has loose edges this is what can be attractive about Gaiman. He’s unafraid in presenting fragments, stories that are even more chilling in their inconclusiveness. Real scares are not as neatly formed as a comfortable short story. In this story the months of the year take turns in relating ghostly tales. They take a while to settle down, discuss the odd urban myth before a story about a lonely child … and the dearly departed. Fantasy is expertly weaved into this chilling tale, and Gaiman manages to also weave what appears familiar with the truly original.

There are some similarities between this story and Closing Time, from where the opening quote is taken. Visitors to an after hours drinking den in the West End of London again settle into urban legends – one neatly echoing the story from October in the Chair – before embarking on an account of a boys game of dare that becomes mysteriously open ended. It’s effective enough, but Gaiman skillfully stitches on a particularly nightmarish conclusion that keeps just enough back from the reader to truly disturb. He also continues to excel in his Chinese boxes method of storytelling.

Closing Time stayed with me a long time after I’d put Fragile Things down, but my favourite may turn out to be the brilliant Feeders and Eaters, about a particularly hungry tenant in a lodging house, where Gaiman isn’t afraid at all to worry and haunt his reader. The ending made me want to snuggle into my armchair just a little bit more. Then again, I may develop other favourites such as The Monarch of the Glen, about a loner visiting Scotland who foolishly agrees to some unusual overtime…

Fragile Things is such a rich collection that it asks to be read again to be fully appreciated, and Gaiman is a writer that demands to be read full stop. He’s a master that carries the macabre tradition of Ray Bradbury, and comes across as the mischevous twin of Susanna Clarke. Read him – especially as it’s nearly Hallowe’en. My only worry is that Hollywood already has its clutches on Neil Gaiman – I just want him to continue with the short stories that he writes so brilliantly.

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