Archive for July, 2013

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There is only really one word to describe this book.

Perfect.

Absolutely and undoubtedly, a perfect book.

Powerful, moving, honest.

A true book.

A summary of the plot here will not serve to convey its power. Go out and read this book.

In my own small way, however, here goes. The adult narrator returns to his old childhood home for one of his parents’ funeral, visits his neighbour’s farm and recalls his experiences as a seven-year old child. And, as you would expect of Gaiman, those experiences are dark, dangerous and otherworldly. His lodger’s suicide leads him to the Hemstock farm which seems itself to be part of an otherworld or an old world or a pre-reality world. Other remnants of the old world are embedded in the fabric of the farm which find their way through the narrator into the ‘real’ world. The remainder of the book revolves around the Hemstocks’ attempts to banish the remnant back to where it came from.

The Hemstocks – Lettie, her mother Ginnie and old Mrs Hemstock – seem to owe much to (or be a strange hybrid of) both a witches’ coven of maiden, mother and crone and Doctor Who. The sympathy Lettie shows the remnant, the offer to return her home before destroying her, even some of the cadences of her speech all seem to owe a debt to Gaiman’s involvement with Doctor Who. Tasting a coin to determine its age from the layout of its electrons was very Doctor Who!

Having grown up myself as a reader on the Kent-Sussex border to professional parents and having spent most of my weekends on my grandmother’s farm – on which my grandmother also lived in a caravan – the situation that Gaiman creates was very authentic and credible. The taste and texture and smell of milk drawn straight from the cow and of porridge made from it and of early morning milkings leapt from the page. The setting breathed in a way that the more stylised settings of Coraline, The Graveyard Book and Stardust – all brilliant books in their own right – and even The Doctor’s Wife and Nightmare in Silver didn’t.

It was authentic.

And the horror beneath it is all the more horrific because of that authenticity.

And there is horror here. Monsters are there to be banished. Not entirely malign but monstrous and horrific.

The most disturbing elements though, as often with Gaiman, come through the less monstrous and more familiar elements: the housekeeper who wasn’t quite what she seemed and violated the sanctity of the family; the father who tried to drown his son in the bath in possibly the most horrific and chilling scene I have ever read in a book.

These scenes are uncanny – unheimliche – in that the familiar and homely and familial becomes other. In Coraline, the other and the unheimliche was relatively safe behind a door which could be locked. In The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, the child himself becomes the door and it is his own home (his own Heim) that becomes unheimliche. His home – his place of sanctuary, his inviolable domain, his sense of family and of identity – is turned into a prison.

At its heart, in my opinion, this book is about childhood. The terrors of childhood but also its value. And the value of not knowing things and of play. Lettie Hemstock tells us that she

“used to know everything.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Everybody did. I told you. It’s nothing special knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play.”
“To play what?”
“This,” she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars”

That – and the glorious epigraph by the late lamented Maurice Sendak that “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew them. It would scare them” – puts me in mind of a conversation I once had with a fellow teacher about our children both being scared of monsters at night. “I just told them,” said the other teacher, a science teacher, “that there’s no such thing as monsters and they were being silly.” Myself, as an English teacher, I grabbed a plastic sword, leapt under the bed and slashed through the wardrobe to kill the monsters threatening my son!

Anyway, I digress.

This is a fantastic book. Everything is spot on. Everything is authentic. It is horrific, beautiful, mythic and true.

I really cannot praise this gem of a book enough!

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What is it with Neil Gaiman and mothers?

I am in the midst of listening to the wonderful The Ocean at the End of the Lane – personally, I think that this book is going to be a clear favourite from Gaiman who is already one of my favourite authors! – read by Gaiman himself.

Thus far, our narrator (does he have a name? I can’t recall it) has returned to his childhood home for a funeral (whose? His mother’s or father’s?) and has started to recall (and recount) his experiences when he was seven with Lettie Hempstock of Hempstock farm.

In very brief summary, therefore, the narrator’s parents have had to let out his room to, amongst other people, an Opal Miner who ran over a cat and also stole the narrator’s father’s car to commit suicide in.

It appears that something vast, ancient and primal was awakened by the opal miner’s death and decided to make everyone happy by giving them money. So coins are flung at people, forced down their throats in their dreams and money appears mysteriously in wives’ purses when their husbands dream of them prostituting themselves leading to somewhat “difficult” breakfast conversations.

Already echoes of other Gaiman tales reverberate around just that summary: Coraline‘s Other Mother, whose motives for wanting to keep Coraline are as ambiguous as this creature’s; the blurring of the boundaries between dreams, fantasy and reality which parallel Sandman; and the existence of another primal, dangerous and mysterious world beneath or alongside our own is typical Gaiman recalling American Gods, Neverwhere, Stardust and Coraline.

The alternate, old world is – to my taste at least – more successful here than in other books. Whilst I recognise and respond to Gaiman’s own sensitivity to great and iconic liminal imagery of the wall or the door or of Door, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the path seems to be his image of choice. Not the rigid paths that adults follow but the paths which children explore and are signposted with the colours of nature. There is a fantastic paragraph as the narrator is seeking to slip out of the house which starts

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”

But back to the mother.

Our narrator is present when Lettie Hemstock (a timeless eleven year old maiden living with a mother and a crone in what one might call a coven) binds the creature. He is distracted momentarily and becomes infected with a worm. In his foot. And, inadvertently, he brings this worm back home.

After a beautifully visceral description of him trying to extract the worm and how it felt as the worm fought back clinging to the inside of his flesh, he flushes it down the drain. Schoolboy error! The next day, his mother receives a job offer and Ursula Monkton arrives to housekeep. Ursula Monkton whose clothes are the same colours as the flesh of the worm. Ursula Monkton who is idolised by his sister and who seduces his father. Ursula Monkton, his other mother, his surrogate mother, his (potentially) evil step mother.

The parallels thus far with Coraline are fairly clear.

I’ve always felt that Coraline epitomised the negotiations between children and their mothers: the real mother being distracted and distant; the other mother cloyingly possessive. There was a sense of growing up, of maturing, of a child recognising that her mother was a person as well as a mother. The other mother identified herself as nothing other than a mother and becomes horrific as a result.

Freudian interpretation of Coraline could run amok: the needles required to sew buttons into her eyes echo Oedipus’ violation of the mother-child relationship, perhaps Freud’s most iconic condition; the diminution and submission of the other father as symbolic of Coraline’s prime rival for her mother’s attention; the passage between the house and other house becoming increasingly moist and organic as the other mother’s desperation for Coraline grows until it becomes almost a birth canal.

The way I read it – and I am at heart a simple soul – is this: the mother, like all of us real-world parents, is juggling life, a career, a relationship and a child and Coraline misses the primal bond between mother and daughter. When I adopted my children, I was encouraged to read a book entitled The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. It is an exploration of the effect of the separation of mother and child in the adoption process, even in babies removed from the mother immediately on birth. There are echoes of that in Coraline: the daughter has realised that she is not the only thing in her mother’s life and that hurts.

When offered a form of that bond from the other mother she is, naturally, tempted but wise enough to see that to give in would be to surrender her identity as an individual and to become nothing more than an object, a part of another rather than her own person. She learns through the book to accept her mother as the distracted and divided person she is because that allows Coraline herself the space to grow.

Having just become a father, I can remember that at some point our mind set shifted from my wife being pregnant to my wife carrying our baby. At some point our baby came to be viewed as separate from, albeit contained within, my wife.

For a detailed exploration of the Freudian in Coraline, An Eye For an I is a good read!

And, yes, I do read things like this online! For fun!

I’m not sure yet how the surrogate mother will develop in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Nor how significant the different gender of the narrator will become. She’s certainly predatory. And the scene where she manipulates the father into nearly drowning his son in the bath was horrifying at a very different level to Coraline‘s gothic horror.

There is one very powerful word that I just came across in The Ocean at the End of the Lane: inviolable.

“My parents were a unit, inviolable. The future had suddenly become unknowable: anything could happen: the train of my life had jumped the rails and headed off across the fields”

Ursula Monkton violated the inviolable, his parents’ relationship. Actually, that’s wrong. Through Ursula Monkton, the father had violated the inviolable:

“I thought of my father, his arms around the housekeeper-who-wasn’t, kissing her neck…. I was scared by what it meant that my father was kissing the neck of Ursula Monkton, that his hands had lifted her midi skirt above her waist.” (my emphasis)

Is the sexual infidelity – the violation of the inviolable – a similarly cathartic experience to that which Coraline went through? Is the breaking of the family unit echoed in the breaking up of the family land and home?

Will the mother charge back to rescue her family?

And, whilst we’re on fathers, what is it with Gaiman and fathers who can’t cook? Coraline’s father concocts things from recipes rather than tins; the father here buys thick wholemeal bread and burns it when making toast.

Listening to this as an audiobook on the way to school, my stepson looked at me and smirked when that was read out!

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In education, there is a chap by the name of Dylan Wiliam who espouses the theory that one shouldn’t give grades out. Children look at their grade and either think “yeah, that’s good enough” or they think “I’m a failure and there’s no point in trying”. Dylan Wiliam tells us that we should just give advice with no grade attached.

Perhaps that’s why I tend not to give star ratings on my reviews.

But sometimes, just sometimes, a star rating might be useful. Having read Deadline immediately on top of finishing Feed, a nice clear and visual indication that I didn’t like this one as much as the first could be useful.

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Okay, so this is book two of the Newsflesh trilogy in a post-zombie apocalypse world. The dead rose. The living shot them. Our heroes are the same team of intrepid bloggers that we followed in Feed. Link here to my review of that one.

Well, almost the same team.

Well 33.3% of them. No spoiler alert here. I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you’ll have read Feed already. Georgia Mason, our first person narrator, and Buffy the tech-geek died in book one. I applaud that. It’s a brave move and unexpected – rule one of a first person narrative is almost that your narrator has to live! Georgia’s final blog post in Feed, as the Kellis-Amberlee zombie virus took over her body and her brother Shaun held a gun to her spine, was effective and moving.

But it left Grant with a problem. Shaun Mason, Georgia’s adopted brother and an adrenaline junkie Irwin and, to be honest, a bit of a prat, took over the team and narration.

And he really wasn’t up to the job.

Various beta-characters that had been mentioned in Feed re-appear in Deadline as the new team. But the team was pointless. Georgia had been driven, the political campaign in Feed had given direction. Shaun’s team appeared to drift somewhat aimlessly from one disaster to another. But maybe that was the point, to emphasise the enormity of the loss.

And he hears voices in his head.

Well, one voice. Georgia’s.

He is self-diagnosed as ‘crazy’ and repeatedly referencing the fact that he talks to her and how others reacted to it became… tiresome. And continually threatening to punch people or walls was… tedious.

The plot – which I had praised in Feed – has become razor thin. A minor doctor from the CDC who we’d met briefly in Feed arrives at Shaun’s home / office with sensitive information. People with a form of the zombie virus which affected only a certain organ, such as the eyes, were dying more frequently than people without these so-called reservoir conditions.

Almost immediately, zombies appear on the roof of the building and an air strike wipes out that section of the city. Obviously, our heroes escape and re-group at the fortified home of one of their fiction writers – because all writers of doggerel and aficionados of George Romero zombie movies are also the heir to mega-fortunes.

Various road trips ensue. To an underground zombie virus laboratory. To the increasingly shady CDC. Twice.

More clunky plot devices are rammed at us.

More statistics are uncovered remarkably easily.

Zombies are used as weapons to try to thwart our increasingly unplucky and occasionally downright annoying heroes.

An awkward love moment happens for no real reason whatsoever.

The strength of Feed‘s drive and shape is lost here, although it remains a fairly taut conspiracy thriller. The credibility of the world created by Grant does wear a little thin here. The blogosphere becomes nothing more than background noise: under Shaun’s narration, it is little more than a revenge novel. Shaun’s time on the successful presidential campaign and the fact that his friend has become vice-president was sidelined. The fact that there may be organisations that would seek to benefit from a zombie-based opportunity and the fears it engendered I get… but I’m not so sure that releasing zombies into city blocks in order to level the area to kill a renegade scientist and a couple of journalists seems a rather blunt and ineffectual assassination technique.

I’d also have liked more on the statistics and more on the epidemiology. Another weakness in Shaun’s narration was that he didn’t understand the science and we were reliant on rather artificial and clunky dialogue to explain it. Which was a shame: Grant seems to have put a lot of effort into devising a credible viral pathway to zombiehood … and I’d have liked more.

And more on the evidence that was found that showed the extent of the corruption and manipulation of the reservoir conditions.

For a book revolving around bloggers and containing excerpts from their blogs both published and unpublished, I wanted to see this evidence first hand. As bloggers, I would have thought Shaun would have put the original figures online – or at least in an unpublished blog or secure server – alongside the interpretation. And it wouldn’t have been a huge effort for Mason to have mocked that up for us, his reader. Ideally colour coded. With graphs.

Overall, I do feel slightly disappointed. I have some faith that Mason will be able to bring things back together. The repeated reference to Georgia’s retinal KA in Feed makes more sense as one of the reservoir conditions brought up in Deadline. I’m hoping President Ryman and Shaun’s hearing and seeing the dead Georgia will all be knitted together in book 3. As well as Dr Abbey.

Clearly, in the world of the undead, death may not be the end of Georgia Mason.

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I’m a sensitive soul, me.

I like books and words; I wear my heart on my sleeve. I cringe at the sight of gore and blood.

So why have I been immersing myself in gore recently? The Passage and The Twelve by Justin Cronin and now Feed, book one of the Newsflesh Trilogy by Mira Grant.

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Zombies are the new vampires with World War Z hitting the cinemas and this book’s been kicking about in my ‘mildly intrigued’ sub-pile of my ‘to-be-read’ lists on my e-reader.

What was it that intrigued me? It’s hard to say: the cover was pretty cool; I liked the ambiguity of the title referring to the appetite of the zombies and to the blogging news feeds that the book revolves around. Moreover, though, the biggest intrigue derived here (as it did with Brooks’ World War Z) from a single question:

“What on earth do you do with zombies once you’ve got them?”

Now, I don’t mean that in a survivalist sever-the-brain-stem kind of way.

Narratively, what do you do with zombies once the visceral reveal has happened? There’s no suave temptation that drips from the pores of every non-Twilight vampire; there’s no cunning intelligence; there’s no eternal conflict between the animal and civilised, the id and the superego, epitomised by the werewolf or Jekyll and Hyde. Once you have revealed your zombie and the audience has received it’s visceral thrill or shock, they’re actually a pretty rubbish antagonist. By definition.

Max Brooks ramped up the tension by scale and the sheer weight of numbers.

Grant doesn’t.

Unlike Brooks, Feed shows little interest in rise of the zombies. It’s events take place a generation post-Rising. The dead rose. The living adapted. Life continued.

The skill in this novel is in the imagining of how our world might adapt to cope with a threat such as zombies. How would behaviours change? How would politics alter? How would the media mutate itself? What variations would creep into our lives if something horrific occurred? How would terror of the living dead be responded to? Or be taken advantage of?

Is it too great a leap to see parallels between the post-zombie world, populated by people whose fears lead them to isolate themselves and exclude anyone else, with a world coming to terms with a War on Terror? Or a world in the grip of a fear of the incurable AIDS virus?

The rise of the blogger is the key feature of Grant’s world: where traditional print media failed to respond to the rise of the undead, blogs recognised, recorded and reported on it thereby lifting their status to that of ‘true’ journalism. Again, the parallels with The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and a whole host of other ‘grass roots’ movements connecting through Twitter and the blogosphere feels credible. In Grant’s world, bloggers are divided into three categories: newsies such as the first-person narrator Georgia Mason, who report on the news; Irwins, such as her adoptive brother Shaun, who record their field exploits and encounters with the undead for entertainment value as much as education; and fictionals such as the Masons’ partner Buffy who appear to write rather poor doggerel to make us all feel better. Oh and Buffy is also a whizzy techno-geek. This little trio has it all therefore: a driven and ethical reporter backed up by her action-hero brother and nerd friend. And they drive around in a van. Solving mysteries.

I did spend half the book expecting Shaggy and Scooby-Doo to arrive!

The trio manage to secure a job reporting on the campaign of a Senator Ryman in the American Primaries and then Presidential elections. Shady things happen. Tragedies unveil themselves. A conspiracy is uncovered.

I am generally a little slapdash with spoiler alerts: it is possible to enjoy a journey even if you already know the destination. Especially if the journey is a good one with nice scenery. With books, I’m more interested in the characters and writing than I am with plot and events. But here, I am going to tread carefully: there are events in the book which do warrant coming to fresh and being ambushed by.

It’s not the uncovering of the conspiracy: Grant red flags the culprit pretty obviously!

And let’s face it, the writing here is not great literary prose that has much merit in its own right. To continue the journey metaphor, it’s like driving through the flat fenlands of Norfolk. Pretty flat. Nor do the characters work terribly well for me: they are pretty two-dimensional at times with the exception of George, our narrator.

So I’m going to let you enjoy the few way markers you come across without spoiling them!

So, to return to my question: what do you do with a zombie? Grant’s answer seems to be, very broadly, ‘get over it’. This is a book set in a world in which zombies live… No… Inhabit… No … Exist? But it is not a zombie book: our antagonist is not a zombie; there are perhaps two or three zombie attacks seen in the book. It is, essentially a political thriller. With a handful of zombies.

One thing I did like – and which I suspect might have put other readers off – is the nature of the virus that gave rise to the zombie plague. Apparently Grant objected to the “It’s a virus” plot device (a devil ex machina?) to explain zombies and we are treated to a fair amount of detail about the mechanics and vectors involved. I liked that part. It was, again, credible.

In short then… The good points were: some interesting world building with a fair amount of social parallels – enough to start you thinking; a string sense of the mechanics of the virus; a playful reverence of existing zombie lore and movies; decent, if slightly two dimensional, characters; some strong plot twists and pretty decent and contemplative pacing (I’m afraid the somewhat frenetic pacing of some plot-driven novels gives me a headache!)

Bad points included: competent but uninspiring writing; a lack of depth to many characters; a slightly obvious villain (though, as book one of three, I suspect this will develop); and, in my electronic version for reasons I cannot fathom, an absence of apostrophes and speech marks. In a writing style that often interposes lengthy narrative into dialogue before returning to speech mid paragraph, that became really annoying really quickly.

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