Posts Tagged ‘Neil Gaiman’

This is the first of my reviews of this year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal nominees. Well, my second. Patrick Ness’ More Than This I read back in August – see here for my review – six months before the shortlist was announced. And to be honest, it will take some beating!

Anyway, this is my first knowing CILIP Carnegie read. 

And I must say I enjoyed it thoroughly! I don’t think it’s a winner but a great read. I mean, fairytales, wolves, witches, werepeople, cross dressing. And a slightly underused hen. What’s not to like? 

   Fairytales and mythology have continued to inspire writers and are enjoying a revival with Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Susanna Clarke, Helene Wecker, Ali Smith, Ali Shaw, Erin Morgenstern and the ubiquitous Disney – who would watch Frozen when you could read The Girl With Glass Feet? So, in this environment, expectations are high for Tinder. Heady company, Ms Gardner!

And the opening lines do not disappoint. 

Once in a time of war, when I was a soldier in the Imperial Army, I saw Death walking. He wore upon his skull a withered crown of white bone twisted with green hawthorn. His skeleton was shrouded with a tattered cloak of gold and, in his wake, stood the ghosts of my comrades newly plucked, half-lived, from life. Many I knew by name. 

  Based on the first fairy tale Hans Christian Anderson’s wrote, The Tinderbox, Tinder‘s narrator is Otto Hundebiss, a common soldier drafted into the Imperial Army during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. Following the slaughter of his compatriots, Otto drifts into a fairytale world of hidden castles, unruly princesses and fearsome werewolves. Following the structure of the original take, Otto has to face three trials in order to retrieve a mysterious tinderbox, keeping the riches he finds there. Instead of returning it to its owner, he keeps the tinderbox, causing her to be killed. In a nearby town, he discovers that the tinderbox grants him the power to summon monstrous werewolves. 

The language of the novel maintains the sparseness and occasional lyricism of the classic fairytale. There’s not the depth of character or psychology you might expect: Otto never becomes more than a cipher for the traumatised child soldier, the common man struggling against social inequalities, or sexual maturing. He doesn’t work as a character, even though Gardner does toss us flashbacks to the horrors that Otto has experienced. But that’s all okay because this is, at the end of the day, a fairy tale. 

The illustrations in the book by David Roberts are also worth a mention: they are gorgeous! Simply gorgeous. Stylised and unreal but gorgeous. 

   

 The novel certainly holds the imagination with the quality of an hallucination or a dream and a similar logic. Gardner has said that the novel was inspired by the experiences of returned soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and of child soldiers in Rwanda as well as the Thirty Years War. For me, these real world parallels were mere echoes – although parents may want to exercise caution as the fate of Otto’s sister becomes clear as well as the fate of the daughter of a neighbouring farm. It is perhaps here that the more modern conflicts and our outrage at the use of rape as a weapon of war become most patent. 

Woohoo my first finished novel of 2015 and a start to my Reading Challenge!

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This book was not what I expected. There was something very evocative and intriguing about both the title and cover – as well as the photographs inside. Almost all of which, according to the note appended to the novel, are genuine and authentic found photographs. I was expecting something haunting and thought provoking and this … wasn’t.

Now, I fully accept that my dissatisfaction with this book is probably in part because I misjudged the audience for it. But I think Ransom Riggs may have done the same. I had expected this to be an adult book and it’s not. Hence disappointment. But here’s the thing: as any cursory review of my blog will reveal, I have no problem with Young Adult books. I love Young Adult books and see no reason why they shouldn’t be included in the Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prizes. I mean, look at just three: My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Anything by Patrick Ness. Sublime.

So, the shift in gear in my expectation from Adult to Young Adult was not the source of my problem. It just wasn’t hugely good.

Here’s the premise: Jacob Portman was brought up on his grandfather’s tales of monsters and children with strange powers. He believed these to be fairytales or repressed memories of Nazi oppression until he nearly witnessed one of these monsters murdering his grandfather. A series of clues lead to an island off Wales where his grandfathers fairytales suddenly prove themselves true.

There are echoes here of the X-Men’s School For Gifted Children, of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts… It’s all a little familiar. A little derivative.

I also had a problem with the narrative voice. It is a first person narrative from the point of view of a teenager. And the language just wasn’t right for that voice. Some very long, tortuously clumsy sentences such as

I was following my dad into our suspiciously dark living room as he muttered things like “What a shame we didn’t plan anything for your birthday” and “Oh well, there’s always next year,” when all the lights flooded on to reveal streamers, balloons, and a motley assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins I rarely spoke to – anyone my mother could cajole into attending – and Rick, whom I was surprised to see lingering near the punch bowl, looking comically out of place in a studded leather jacket.

Wow. That’s nearly 100 words. Including an Oxford comma. And a whom.

It is just clumsy and typical of a tendency towards over long sentences and oddly formal language. Riggs just doesn’t seem very good at voices and I wish his editor had picked up the phone and said “Ever thought of the third person?” Here’s another e ample which jarred with me. It’s from the finale after a life-and-death battle

“When we leave here, this loop will close behind us. It’s possible you may never be able to return to the time you came from. At least not easily.”
“There’s nothing for me there,” I said quickly. “Even if I could go back, I’m not sure I’d want to.”

I’m sorry! What? His mum, whom he left in America? His dad, who brought him to the Welsh island in the first place being stranded alone with the horror of having somehow lost his son?

No voice and character are not Riggs’ strength! There was almost nothing to distinguish any of the peculiar children save for their power. And the fact that Jacob hooks up with his grandfather’s ex-girlfriend. As you do.

Don’t even get me started on Miss Peregrine’s interminable info dump exposition about peculiar children, ymbrynes and time loops.

Putting all that to one side, though, the conclusion had promise. Escaping from time loop to time loop allowing for a myriad of different historical and geographical world’s to be explored. Again, it’s nothing shatteringly novel – the anomalies in BBC’s Primeval spring to mind – but promising. This was Riggs’ debut novel and I may be persuaded to delve into the sequel Hollow City. Maybe.

Anyway I shall conclude with a selection of the photographs which litter the book. They are undoubtedly cool even if they lack the power of the illustrations in Ness’ A Monster Calls. I wonder how much of the planning of the story derived from the necessity to shoehorn in these pictures….

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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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It is with genuine sadness that I learn of Maurice Sendak’s death today. This man will have the status of icon, myth, legend and inspiration for all time.

I feel it wouldn’t be right, as a reader, not to mark his life in some way. He was the one man whose story, Where The Wild Things Are has stayed with me throughout my life. I remember my mother reading it to me; it was the first book I ever read alone; I remember having to draw the Wild Things in an art lesson at school when I was 10; it was the first book I bought to read to my adopted son and daughter; it was subsequently eaten by my son but quickly replaced; I have taught it in A level English classes and at GCSE.

I do not know enough about Sendak to write an obituary and there will be countless. The first (perhaps) is here

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/09/books/maurice-sendak-childrens-author-dies-at-83.html

What I can do is explore what Sendak means to me and what he woke in me.

He taught me that language is alive and resonant and beautiful and playful and true. His line that Max “sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year” is still one of my favourite lines in all writing! The way the sentence moves from the literal to to symbolic; the interplay of movement through time and space – “in and out of weeks” – is controlled, simple, elegant and just sublime. It is language at its best and reminds us that beauty, depth, poignancy and truth are not limited to long, pretentious, showy language.

Another thing he was the first to teach me was that the creatures and shapes that peopled the inside of my head – and I assume others’ – were valid and real and true in a way that transcended the mundane truths of our banal world. They were parts of me. Contradictory, antagonistic, childish, irritating, unruly, scary and – in it’s richest sense – wild but all parts of me.

He taught me that no one can limit or control human and my own imagination. The limitlessness of the Max sent to his room in which

That very night … a forest grew and grew- and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by

. Yes I know it’s “just” a kids’ book but Max in his room is Mandela on Robbins Island, is every wage slave, is every oppressed individual or group or race. Mandela in fact said, of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that it was the book that caused the “prison walls fall down”. Sound familiar? And the vastness of our human imagination: unbounded even by the ocean.

Yet despite his unbounded oceanic imagination, Max returns home to “be where someone loved him best of all” and through this I learnt that we cannot exist in our imagination alone. And as a parent, trying to discipline an unruly (book eating) wild thing of my own, I learnt that discipline does not stop the child loving and feeling loved “best of all” however much he may be screaming that he hates me!

Through Sendak, I learnt that love can be so possessive it becomes destructive. When he leaves, the Wild Things howl “Oh please don’t go- we’ll eat you up- we love you so!”. Watching Jeremy Kyle or recalling the disputes I got involved in as a barrister, other people would have benefitted from learning that too.

I learnt through Sendak that the label of “children’s” or “young adult” books is patronising. I recall Patrick Ness’ sublime A Monster Calls and I wonder about the debt Ness owes Sendak; I read Neil Gaiman and China Miéville and Sendak seems to echo through them. I have no idea whether these people have read or valued Sendak but I hear Max’s spirit in them.

So, Maurice Sendak, dead today at the age of 83, I thank you! You have in a very real sense made me who I am today. And I like who I am!

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