Book Review: The Sleeper And The Spindle

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Illustration: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 10 and up (So long as readers are familiar with the likes of Grimm’s fairy tales and know that things can get ugly.  Previous knowledge of the original Sleeping Beauty/Snow White stories will help.)

The Sleeper and The Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a stunning new fairy-tale picture book for Young Adults.  Or, rather than a picture book, perhaps I’ll call it an illuminated story.  The tale is dark and the pictures more so.  I was thoroughly entranced for the twenty minutes it took me to read Gaiman’s words and examine all the neat little details in Chris Riddell’s pen drawings.  Though the story is simply told, much like Gaiman’s earlier fairy-tale novel Stardust, the traditional style highlights the plot’s unique surprises and occasional shining side-remarks.

The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty.  Names are in sort supply in this telling.

Two kingdoms lie on either sides of an impassable mountain.  They share a border but nobody can get across to visit.  Three dwarfs burrow underneath, though, in order to get their Queen the finest silks in Dorimar.  The Queen is going to be married soon.

It seemed both unlikely and extremely final.  She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman.  It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices.

But the dwarfs don’t come back to Kanselaire with gifts of silk.  They come back with terrifying news: a sleeping sickness is taking over the land and is moving ever-closer to their own realm!  The Queen (who once slept a year under these particular dwarfs’ care and came out of it just fine) postpones her wedding, dons a mail shirt, grabs her sword, and leads the dwarfs on a quest to wake the sleeping princess, up in her tower guarded by thorns.

The way is sometimes dark: they travel underground.  It is sometimes frightening: cobwebby sleepwalkers move through a town like zombies.  And their quest is not quite what it seems.  The Queen kisses the Princess to wake her up, and that’s nothing compared to the real twist that follows.  Neil Gaiman’s description of evil stepmothers and youth-hungry enchantresses is spot on when the Queen confronts that evil fairy (or was she a witch or an enchantress? The folks at the inn can’t quite agree) who used the prick of a spindle to put the whole kingdom to sleep.  The Queen is young and she is brave, but her own past experiences with such cruel sorts makes her adventure in the tower more powerful than a mere rescue attempt.  The Sleeper And The Spindle isn’t a love story. Though it is short the tale followed a path just between familiar archetypes and new visions to feel full and satisfying.

Chris Riddell’s drawings are equal measures disturbing and beautiful.  They’re certainly phenomenal, and must have taken a great deal of work.  Mostly black and white with little highlights of gold, they contain skulls and thorns a’plenty, but also faces that seem delightfully alive even when the figure is fast asleep.  The Queen is lovely with her raven-black hair, and I adored the dwarfs’ innovative hats. If this is the sort of world in which fairy-tales happen, then I can easily understand why beauty, darkness, and grotesque wickedness are so important.  I can’t imagine the story being read without the illustrations, or the pictures without their accompanying tale.  They just fit together so nicely into the sort of book you want to own for centuries.

(Teenagers who enjoy The Sleeper And The Spindle might also like Donna Jo Napoli’s new YA novel Dark Shimmer, which has elements of Snow White and takes place in medieval Italy.  Fearless younger readers should also check out Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti.)

3 New Books I Recommend This Month

Happy February! I hope you all have tolerable months, or that at least all your troubles will be confined to the mere 27 days left stretching ahead of us, and thus over soon.

“February is the shortest month of the year, so if you are having a miserable month, try to schedule it for February.” – Lemony Snicket

There are a ton of exciting books on the horizon for this spring, and I can’t wait to see them on the shelves at my bookshop.  Prepare yourselves to have hardcovers lobbed at your heads.  (Can we really count February as early spring?  It’s more the depths of an unfeeling, cheerless winter, just with blessed daylight past four in the afternoon.  Whenever the sun can get through the gathering snowclouds…)   I get so focused on new and wonderful children’s books every season, sometimes I feel like the books for grown-ups don’t get nearly enough celebration.  So here are three non-children’s books that will be released into the world this month, and I’ll be recommending them right and left.  Loading them into cannons and aiming at likely readers.  I’ll volley  them at certain teens, too, because age barriers are for the unimaginative.  And anyway, each of these books feature young people in some context or another, struggling against forgetful families; ocean storms; or chess pieces made from butter.

(A note: the copies I read of Of Things Gone Astray and Get In Trouble were advanced reader’s editions, and some details may have changed before publication.)

thingsgoneastrayI read Of Things Gone Astray many months ago – before the Christmas craziness and in a much more peaceful frame of mind – so the magic of it has had some time to settle.  Several characters, seemingly with little to no connections to one another, wake up one morning to discover that they’ve lost something important to them.  Their sense of direction, or the keys on their piano, or the front of their house, or their connection with their child.  I think my little blurb for HarperCollins sums up my thoughts.  The book takes place in London, and oh boy do you wish you were in England as you read it.  Very charming, very thoughtful, and wonderfully strange; you need many cups of tea and a sunny armchair for this reading experience.

The elements of magical realism in Of Things Gone Astray are enchanting but mostly subdued.  It was fun to see how each different character tried to cope with the sudden, inexplicable losses.  Some get flustered.  Some turn into trees. Some bake cake in case of tea-time visitors. I’ll be recommending this book to people who don’t usually go for a touch of fantasy in their stories, as the all-too-feasible personal dilemmas that drive the intertwined plot appear in every recognizable corner of every day life.

I’ve been a fan of Kelly Link’s writing for a while.  Her collection Magic For Beginners delighted me beyond measure from the first story (“The Faery Handbag,” which is actually set in a thrift shop I used to frequent), and her stories for young adults in Pretty Monsters are pretty indeed.  And pretty twisted, too.  Get In Trouble will come out on February 10th, so get ready for some of the weirdest short stories to ever parade in front of your eyes.  And good luck turning your gaze away, because they’re mesmerizing in their oddity.

Short story collections are usually a little hit-or-miss in their quality, so naturally there are a few pieces in Get In Trouble that stand out as the best, and one or two with which I had trouble connecting.  A few of my favorites: “The Summer People,” opens the book and appealed instantly to my creepy-faery-story loving self, with its strange house and enticing illusions.  “Secret Identity” is a new twist on the Superhero genre, poking fun at themed conventions and involving the aforementioned butter chess set.  “Valley Of The Girls” features a cast of spoiled young people hanging out in the lavish pyramids, built early for their eventual afterlives.  Take Bret Easton Ellis’s reprehensible characters and stick them in futuristic ancient Egypt (yes I understand the paradox there), and you’ll get a taste of this opulent, satirically awkward, and inventive story.  “The New Boyfriend” was about teenaged girls and ghosts and secrets.  I would have read a whole novel based on that short story.  If Kelly Link and Maggie Stiefvater ever got together to collaborate, I feel like those unnerving events would come true just from sheer force of those ladies’ awesome powers. Finally, “Two Houses” is a layered cross-section of tales, each one so quick to drag you down you forget what brought you to such a scene in the first place.  Dreamlike; horrifying; tragic; and set in space, I’ve carried the after-effects of that story with me ever since I finished reading Get In Trouble.

There’s so much here that’s worth re-reading.  This collection might be a hard sell to people who don’t find themselves drawn to the wackier side of magical realism (unlike Of Things Gone Astray, which even staunch realists might enjoy), but I’m going to keep recommending it anyway.

source: goodreads

And now we’ve come to We Are Pirates.  This book has simultaneously ruined my year and entertained me to no end.  The premise sunk me into the pits of despair, but the writing perfectly put my own thoughts onto paper in sentences that were a damned joy to read.  This book is my sworn enemy, but I wish it had been around when I was a teenager, because it is exactly what I needed back then.

Here’s the dilemma: Daniel Handler has written a modern pirate story almost exactly like the modern pirate story I was writing.  The main character is a restless and disenchanted fourteen-year-old girl. Same.  The rag-tag crew of scallywags against the world steal a rigged-out ship and fail spectacularly to sail it into the distance. Same. Their chosen victims refuse to prepare to be boarded. Check mark in the ledger for stuff being the same.  Even the boots and coat our heroine Gwen sports during her life of small crimes are spot-on.  They quote from classic works of pirate fiction all over the place!  So many references, even, that I’m sure to have missed some.  I know that in the acknowledgements, Mr. Handler mentions Captain Blood and A High Wind In Jamaica specifically.  The latter of those is my bloody staff pick at the bookshop, by Jove!  My own 3/4 of a drafted novel is full of those very same references, trying to capture the very same sentiment. That sentiment being: Life is a mess and adults have no clue what they’re doing.  Piracy might be the only tolerable option.

I suppose there’s a sort of welcome commiseration to be found in the knowledge that one of my favorite authors dwells on the same anachronistic notions of violent, salty glory as me.  In a way, he has put teenaged Sarah’s troubles into words.  But only, if only, We Are Pirates had been released a decade ago, I might not have labored so hard on my own documentation of that same zeal for the old stories, and the craving for a knife in the hand and the wind at one’s back.

To stop whining on about my own misfortune: We Are Pirates is actually an adult book (mine will someday be for middle-schoolers) and deals with some other more mature themes than ransacking the “high seas” of San Francisco.   Half the book focuses on Gwen’s father, Phil Needle, who is having – if possible – an even harder time navigating the fraught waters of radio production, extra-marital affairs, and parenthood.  There’s that constant theme of grown-ups refusing to take young people seriously until it might be too late: a.k.a. my favorite subject for all fiction.

I don’t honestly know how many other people will react to We Are Pirates as enthusiastically as I did.  I ought to challenge Daniel Handler to a duel for sneaking thoughts out of my head while I was sleeping, but at the same time I was pleased as a pufferfish to read a story I could relate to so strongly. (Gwen’s chapters were far more interesting than Phil’s, to me.)  None the less, I feel it my duty as a fellow buccaneer to recommend We Are Pirates to people this February, in the hopes that at least now fewer customers might ask that tiresome question: “Why are you dressed as Charles II?” when I’m wearing my captain-y boots and coat on a Friday.  The answer should be obvious.

Finally, A Bonus Book I Haven’t Read Yet:

Neil Gaiman’s new collection of “short fictions and disturbances” is out this month.  I haven’t had a chance to look at a copy yet, but rest assured that any and all plans will be cancelled the first day I see it on the shelves.  If you have lunch plans with me that afternoon, or expect entertaining conversation in the evening, sorry but I’ll be reading.  And I’m not even that sorry, because if you’re friends with me, you’ll probably be reading too.

Thoughts on Some Stories in Rogues (ed. George R. R. Martin)

Earlier this week, I was hit with a fantasy craving.

I needed to read something completely engrossing, something with really cool magic and characters full of surprises.  But I didn’t know exactly where to start.  Should I try an author I’d never read before?  Should I return to an old favorite?  Did I want to read fantasy set in our world or another one entirely?

Luckily, there’s a solution to those questions.  An anthology!  And how convenient for me that an anthology has recently come out containing a huge selection of engrossing, magical, surprising stories.  Surely one or two of them would do the trick.

I got Rogues out of the library that very night.  I really like the concept of new stories about each author’s rogue-ish and mischievous characters.  They’re usually my favorites in Fantasy series, anyways.  I only read about five or six of the stories, and started a few others without continuing on, but there were a few I really enjoyed.

Obviously Neil Gaiman’s story, “How The Marquis Got His Coat Back”, was fun.  The Marquis de Carabas was easily my favorite character in Neverwhere, and his adventure was funny and twisty. It took us back to the underground and slightly sideways world from the novel, and even introduced us to the Marquis’ brother!  The story wasn’t a long one, but it was good to re-visit a character who I sort of consider an old friend. (**** 4 stars)

Michael Swanwick’s “Tawny Petticoats” had a sort of alternate wild-west feel to it. The setting was a futuristic New Orleans, with throwback fashions and some not-quite-human characters.  I’ve never read any of Swanwick’s fiction before, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying his story of con men and tricky ladies.  There was an interesting take on zombi-fication, which was a little freaky, and the villains weren’t very nice.  In fact, even the hustler protagonists weren’t exemplary citizens, but it was fun to root for them and see what would happen. (**** 4 stars)

“Now Showing”, by Connie Willis, was really incredibly strange. It was about college students in such a near future I felt it could be a peek into life ten years from now.  There wasn’t much magic to speak of in her story, aside from the enchantment caused by mysterious boys who make you want to listen to them even when they’re being cryptic assholes.  In the end I did like the story, even though I was making a really puzzled facial expression the whole time I read it.  I then recommended that one of my film-geek friends read it, because I knew she would like the cinematic theme and all the hidden movie references. (*** 3 stars)

As for “A Year And A Day In Old Theradane”,  it was my favorite story (of those I read) and another one by an author I’d never tried before.  How, exactly, have I made it through 23 and a half years without reading Scott Lynch?!?  This situation needs to be rectified ASAP, because I LOVED “A Year And A Day In Old Theradane.”  It was EXACTLY the sort of story I wanted to read, and nearly cured my fantasy craving all on its own.  The cast of characters was largely female – this deserves an extra huzzah in “high fantasy” literature, where that’s not always the case – and they were all so bloody cool!  

This was another heist story of sorts, with lots of entertaining plans and slapstick failures while the fatal clock runs down.  The main character and her old crew have sworn off crime after being granted clemency, but they’re getting restless in their retirement.  When a wizard battle shatters the serenity of Therandane by causing huge creatures to fall from the sky and into their favorite bar, Amarelle goes and gets herself in trouble.  She and her friends have a year and a day to steal an entire street, or an extravagant and powerful woman will ruin them completely.  The magic in this story was unique (enchanted mixed drinks, anyone?), the setting was vivid, and I felt like I’d known these characters for years.  Next time I want to read some good old fashioned grown-up Fantasy — with creates characters so lively they might walk off the page, and a touch of humor to even the most dire circumstances –I’m absolutely going to try Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. (***** 5 stars)

I didn’t get a chance to read about half the stories, but there are a few which caught my eye that I’ll surely try to read during my next visit to the library.  Some others failed to capture my attention, but the beauty of an anthology is that you can just move one and find something more appealing.  I’m not sure that every author gave the roguery prerequisite an equal amount of consideration, but whatever.  The stories I read were pretty good, I now have some new authors to read who might soon become favorites, and the fantasy craving was assuaged.  So Rogues is worth checking out, for fantasy fans, whether you’re familiar with these authors or not.

(These thoughts were originally posted within a longer fantasy rant at my blog.)

Archived Review: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

(I originally wrote this little review for a magazine at my University, back in Feb 2012.  I’m cross posting it here because I’ve been thinking about fairy tales a lot, lately, and seriously recommend this collection.  It’s still in print, too, unlike some of my other favorite anthologies.)

source: indiebound

I was a little wary when I opened the provocatively-named anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me; a collection of “forty new fairy tales” compiled by Kate Bernheimer. Re-told, re-imagined and modernized fairy tales have become wildly popular lately- and I’ve left many a cinema and shut many a book feeling disappointed. Too often the director or writer makes an easy interpretation by amping up the sex and violence while just barely clinging to the bones of the fairy tale – at that point, why not just write an entirely new story? At other times I can barely spot a difference from the original folk tale besides a shifted point of view. After a while the poor, misunderstood wicked step mother’s perspective gets pretty old. So I didn’t let my hopes get too high when I began reading My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the collection’s major virtues is the sheer variety of authors who re-worked fairy tales and myths into their own style of story; greats of the genre like Neil Gaiman are filed among newer writers I’d never heard of, and even authors not always associated with fantasy – Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, for example – contribute to make the anthology wonderfully well-rounded. In her quest to present fairy tales as legitimate inspiration for quality literature, Bernheimer solicited pieces from authors “whose work had suggested ‘fairy tale’… whether in obvious or subtle ways.” She isn’t kidding about that.

Some of the stories were ridiculously fantastical, some verged on sci fi, while others had only the slightest hint of fairy tale hidden within the writing. The selection covers a whole spectrum but each story stands out as a shining example of its kind. In a way this extreme variety could seem jarring; Timothy Schaffert’s trippy and disturbing “The Mermaid in the Tree” preceded a story by Katharine Vaz which contained absolutely no magic and read like a realistic literary examination of a relationship. Staggeringly different in tone, the fact that both stories were based on “The Little Mermaid” surprised me. The stylistic disconnect between stories proved to be a good thing, though, as 533 pages of only a few writers’ voices would have been boring at best and irritating enough that some stories would go entirely unread. Instead we have forty new fairy tales told in forty unique styles, and something can be found within the anthology for every reader.

I would recommend My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me to anyone with an interest in fairy tales, be it a residual love for the colorful films of one’s childhood or a growing fascination with folk tales and legends. It’s the sort of book you can read on the bus without fearing the judgmental glances of scholarly sorts (though they shouldn’t judge at all because at least you’re reading, right?). Kate Bernheimer has succeeded in convincing me, for one, that fairy tales can be fodder for serious literature as well as entertaining fluff, they just have to be wrought by the most capable hands in the business. I’m pleased and relieved to say that this is one book that I closed with regret rather than disappointment. I was sorry to reach the end and I hope to see similar endeavors on shelves in the future.

Overall: **** (4 stars)

13 Favorite Books For 2013

…And then it was the last day of 2013, which was a surprise for everyone involved in the passage of time, and they stared at their calenders and the sky in horrified incomprehension.  Last time I checked, I was lying outside reading W.B. Yeats to some barn cats who didn’t seem to like poetry very much.  Now the year’s over and I’m confused.  But, I suppose that’s what happens when you live on a bit of rock hurtling around a star at a rate which can be measured in four seasons carved into twelve months.   To bid 2013 adieu, and to remind myself what the heck I read this year, I’ve listed my three favorite novels from the age-ranges I read most, and then the three books I’m most determined to read as 2014 begins.  Plus one, because I’m the captain of this here literary vessel and I like to play favorites.  These books weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just happened to read them this year.  Some of them are old, and I can’t understand how it took me so long to read them.  Others haven’t been officially released yet, but made their way onto my list after the ARC shelf fell victim to one of my many plundering rampages.  I read an awful lot of books this year, but these thirteen deserve extra love for being the most exciting; charming; scary; funny; moving; or memorable stories to cross my path.

Favorite Children’s Books

photo(1)

I only just finished reading The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson, and it doesn’t come out until next Spring, but I seriously loved it.  Great for fans of middle grade adventure, The Mark of the Dragonfly has a little steam-punk which doesn’t get all wound up in the inner working of the fiction’s own mechanisms, but also some great storytelling and a really cool train.  You can read my review here, and make sure to read the book in March.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell was probably my most recommended children’s book at the shop this summer; we still have to get a new shipment in every few weeks because I can’t stop forcing it into the hands of every parent who doesn’t know what to get their voracious-but-sensitive readers and every kid who doesn’t know what to read next but is getting bored of the same old routine.   It’s a beautiful, quiet, and mischievous book with a subtle sense of humor and gorgeous scenery.  I love a bittersweet story now and then, and when that takes place on the Rooftops of Paris I can’t help being swept away.  It should come as no surprise that nearly everyone who had my recommendation inflicted upon them ended up falling in love with Rundell’s nostalgic tone and captivating characters.  You can read my review of Rooftoppers here.

Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk was a ridiculous, fun, and very very British adventure for younger readers and/or their parents.  It’s exactly the sort of thing I would have loved to have read aloud to me when I was a wee terror, and the illustrations are glorious.  I guess Gaiman got tired of stories in which the parents are always absent or dead or useless, so he wrote this jolly jaunt in which a dad has many a harrowing experience in an attempt to get some milk for his kids.  Dinosaurs, pirates, volcanoes, temporal portals through space… it’s a story full of things kids like.  And, it being Neil Gaiman and his writing wizardry, many of the parents to whom I’ve recommended Fortunately, The Milk have been so very glad that they won’t be bored nigh unto tears during that night’s bedtime reading.  Think Douglas Adams meets Eddie Izzard meets Coraline.  I never reviewed Fortunately, The Milk after it came out this summer, but it’s a great new children’s book and you should have bought it for Christmas/Hanukkah/assorted Yuletide gift-givings.  Shame on you if you didn’t.

Favorite Young Adult Books

One of the first books I read in 2013 was Long Lankin by Lindsay Barraclough.  Nothing like getting the socks scared off you to start a year off right.  I can now safely say that it’s the best horror story I read all year.  The main characters may be only children, but the atmosphere is so dark and the monster is so chilling that it’s definitely for teenaged readers.  I loved that it was based on a great old-timey English ballad full of grisly murder and wickedness.  Here’s my review, from the beginning of the year.

I liked The Raven Boys when I read it back in 2012, but the sequel blew me away.  That so rarely happens, but somehow Maggie Stiefvater has managed to defy my expectations over and over again.  I should just give up having expectations all together.  The Dream Thieves brought the return of Blue and the Raven Boys — one of the best character ensembles in YA fiction today, if you ask me — and threw them together with a heavy dollop of tarot references, dream-drug addictions, mysterious hit men, and the ever-present witty banter which made me love the first book so much. The night I spent reading the sequel to The Raven Boys was one of the more entertaining nights of my year.  You can read my review of The Dream Thieves here.

I think that The Diviners is an appropriate addition to this list, not only because it rocked my freakin’ world but because it deals with New Years celebrations, swinging 1920s parties, and all sorts of revelry even while a terrifying evil is awakening under New York City.  I don’t have a review of The Diviners, because I read it right before I went on holiday, but I absolutely tore through Libba Bray’s hefty book to find out what was going to happen.  Her characters are even better than the plot; and that’s saying something, because an occult-horror-mystery set in flapper Manhattan is exactly my cup of tea (or gin).  The main character was feisty, but the supporting cast really gave an excellent taste of how the time period was for party people new to the city, for young artistic souls stuck in Harlem, and for everyone trying to carve a space out for themselves in such a volatile era.  I’m annoyed that the book ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, but I got so engrossed in the writing and the story that I can’t wait for a sequel.  The Diviners was maybe the most fun book I read all year, even though it’s made me officially terrified of ouija boards and empty houses.

Favorite Adult Books

I had grabbed The Round House from the library because I had a sunny weekend off and had heard great things about Louise Erdrich’s writing.  What I had intended to be a relaxed few days reading turned into a very intense day of reading this book and doing nothing else.  It was way more gripping than I’d expected and the story got into my bones and wouldn’t leave.  I loved the narrative voice of a young teenaged boy on the Obijwe reservation, and his family was so interesting and real, but the story itself just ate away at my heart.  It could have been written as a straight mystery – young boy needs to find out who attacked his mother – but it’s what the characters choose to do with that knowledge as they approach it which really makes this book stand out in my mind.  I recommend it as often as possible at my bookshop, now, and am so glad I read it this year.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was another book which I didn’t expect to be infect by so quickly.  I tried to read it a few years ago while I was still in University, but all that academia was a little too close to home.  This year, though, I got so sucked into the book that I had to write a whole post about literary hangovers just to get my mindset out of the pages.  I know that The Secret History isn’t even from this decade, let alone 2013, but I’m shocked that it took me so long to read it and definitely consider the two days I spent snapping at anyone who tried to interrupt my reading days well spent.

If it’s a bad thing that I didn’t read The Secret History in its proper decade, then oops indeed because A High Wind In Jamaica was written in 1929.  I started listening to the audiobook of this should-be-classic last fall, but only finally sat down and read the whole thing this year, so that totally counts.  It should be obvious why Righard Hughes’ seafaring adventure is on my top list for the year; it’s about children behaving violently in the company of laughable pirates.  It’s hard to describe this book, because it encompasses two very keen interest of mine: namely, pirates and youngsters with questionable morals.  Hughes does a bloody fantastic job of examining the weird little worlds which live inside the brains of children, and their accidental callousness is softened by the scope of their imagination and his ability to invoke the concerns which only troubled us when we were single digits of age.  The pirates themselves are comical but deeper characters than they might seem at first, and the travel/adventure parts of the book are pretty thrilling.  All around, I loved this book, and intend to read it annually from now on.

My Absolute Most Favoritest Book Read In 2013

How did I love this book? I would try to poetically count the ways, but I’m bad at math and don’t much care to learn about infinite numbers just to express how imperative it is that you BUY THE BASIC EIGHT RIGHT THIS VERY MOMENT AND READ IT! Here’s my review.  This was — hands down (and croquet mallets on the bloody grass) — the most marvelous reading experience I’ve had all year.  I laughed nonstop at Daniel Handler’s wry and blistering writing style.  I banged my fists on the breakfast table in triumph, and hid behind my hair in disgust, and nearly threw the book across the room a few times.  Like a funnier The Secret History with less-realistic characters but a more colorful view of life, The Basic Eight is what we should all have been reading as older teenagers.  Of the three High School books which I read during my week of nostalgia in the summer, this book easily came out on top.  But now, on the last night of the year, I can declare it the victor victorious!  Daniel Handler, please never stop being you.  Or at least delay the inevitable stop as long as you have words to write.  In between the Lemony Snicket books which defined my youth and the hilarious weirdness he talks about to grown-ups, I find life a little easier to bear when reading his books.

Three Books To Read ASAP in 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, because I have heard nothing but glowing reviews of it, nearly incomprehensible with excitement.  Some booknerd friends I trust say that it’s even better than The Secret History, and I love the sound of the plot.  I don’t know much about art, but I didn’t know much about Greek either, and maybe I’ll learn something.  Now that I’ll have a few days off in a row now and then – fare the well, holiday shopping season! – I’ll have to devote a weekend to this tome as soon as I can lay my hands on a copy.  The problem with recommending a book over and over is that soon enough it flies right off the shelf entirely.

I bought Boston Jacky while I was in Bar Harbor over the summer, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Despite the fact that I’ve missed several books in the middle of L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series, I think I’ll read this new installment as soon as possible.  It’s been far too long since I hung out with the lively and loveable Jacky Faber, and since this one takes place so near my current location it would be a shame to wait until to summer to read it, no matter my traditions of reading pirate books in the summer and other books in the winter.  I’m a pirate captain meself, and I can break tradition if I damn well please.

And, finally, I’ve had The Master And Margarita on my bookshelf since high school and I’ve yet to read the bloody thing!  I don’t know much about it, but I know it has occult weirdness, a talking cat, and diabolical themes in a Russian setting.  It’s about damn time I tackled this book.  And, now that I don’t have essays to write or medieval Scottish verse to translate, I’ve really got no excuse to let another year go by without finally understanding why I bought the book in the first place.

It seems I ended this on a series of New Years resolutions, which works for me, I guess.  It’s been quite a year, tossed around on an endless sea of book choices and not enough time to read everything.  But I’m glad with what I chose to attack, and these are some excellent favorites to stand beside with fierce loyalty and many huzzahs.  Happy reading in 2014, me hearties.  Onward into the fog ahead!

All Hallow’s Read Suggestions: YA and Children’s Books

I’ve got excuses for the scarcity of reviews this month, and they’re waiting at the end of this list.  But first, here are some random books amongst the dozens which I’ve been recommending to young readers as Halloween approaches.  I encourage all of you to participate in Neil Gaiman’s invented holiday known as All Hallow’s Read, which we celebrate by making presents of books which scared us; or creeped us out; or made us tiptoe up the stairs a little faster with a chill on the backs of our necks.  Give those books to friends of yours who should share your fear.

——————————————

Some of the books I’ve chosen truly terrified me, while others had a great spooky atmosphere without actually causing nightmares.  There’s a Hallowe’en book out there for anyone who enjoys the holiday, no matter how brave they feel in the darkness.

1. The Graveyard Book and Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

The editions with illustrations by Dave McKean are the best.  Wonderfully spooky stories for middle grade readers and above.  Coraline has been a classic for ages.  It has a black cat, a mysterious old house, a scary parallel world, monstrous grown ups, a mouse circus, and the terrifying threat of having buttons sewn on as eyes.  The Graveyard Book is Gaiman’s retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book but it’s set in a graveyard with ghosts and vampires raising the young hero as opposed to animals.  It’s one of my favorite books to recommend to children who can handle a bit of gloom; there’s a reason it won the Newbury Award, people!  I will say that the opening scene of The Graveyard Book is really grisly and disturbing, but if you can get past the first chilling chapter you’re in for one of the most atmospheric and well-told ghost stories published in the past decade.

2. Constable and Toop by Gareth P Jones

An old-fashioned style of ghost adventure book which came out earlier this month, Constable and Toop reminded me of the books by Eva Ibbotsen I used to really like as a child.  It’s spooky and charming, starring likable heroes who have to combat darkness with tenacity and luck.  Sam Toop’s dad is an undertaker with a mysterious past, and young Sam hangs around a lot of dead folk.  It’s not just corpses who demand his attention, though; Sam can see ghosts and they’re desperate for his help because something’s going terribly wrong with the haunted houses in London.  Constable and Toop is a dark Victorian adventure through London with enough violence to be scary without turning into an absolute gore-fest.

If you liked Constable and Toop, go find old copies of  Eva Ibbotson’s Dial-A-Ghost and Which Witch?  I like them even better.

3. Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough

I’ve already written a review of Long Lankin, which you can read here.  It’s properly terrifying, exactly the sort of horror story which haunts my nightmares and makes my blood run cold.  Even though the main characters are young children, this is definitely a book for teenagers – the plot is inspired by a disturbing English folksong about horrific murders, and there plot is dark and twisted.  The atmosphere of a decaying English estate in the 1950s with something evil lurking just out of sight is so chilling and vivid.  Even though Long Lankin doesn’t actually take place near Halloween it’s the perfect book for someone who wants to stay up all night quaking with nerves, but who isn’t necessarily keen on big splashy gore and nonstop action.  This is the eeriest book I’ve read in ages, and if you’re looking to give an All Hallow’s Read gift to someone who really wants (or deserves) to be scared, this is a good choice.

4. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

This is another one I’ve already reviewed.  Really creepy found photos are combined with a dark and mysterious plot to make a unique sort of YA horror novel.  I think the first half of the book is a little more Halloween-y than the second, and in my review I explain why I was disappointed with the story’s direction, but it’s got really uncanny photographs of ghostly children and some great scary scenes.  I would give this one to teenagers who like to find weird objects in thrift shops and make up scary stories about them trying to gross each other out.

5.  The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff.

Not only does The Replacement have a great Halloween party scene with some dead girls dressed up as themselves to hide amongst the living, it’s also a great example of how a small-scale YA horror novel can be just as gripping as one in which the whole world is at stake, as long as it’s written by the right author.  I loved Brenna Yovanoff’s take on the changeling myth – I mean, can we talk about how the cover alone shouts “hey, Sarah, read me right now!”?  Her story about a changeling boy trying to protect his town from the monstrous faery-creatures who influence the area is scary, entertaining, and somehow very moving, too.

Since I’m the sort of person who spends Halloween midnights waiting for faeries at crossroads, I really enjoyed this book and thought that the teenage angst and moral dilemmas worked very well against such a sinister background.

6. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury is always a great bet, and I actually gave this book to a friend on the first All Hallow’s Read after Gaiman declared it a holiday.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is technically a YA/children’s book, but adult Bradbury fans usually love it, too.

I think this passage from the book sums up the tone of writing and easily explains why it’s a great Halloween read:

“For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ’s birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring, or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenxy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles-breaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.”  (source of quote, because I can’t find my copy of the book.)

(If you liked this – I hear Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree is great but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Any opinions?)

7. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

This is another new book which came out in October, and one by a favorite YA author of mine.  You can read my full review here.

Vicious vampires + a believable heroine + snappy one-liners + the coolest explanation of vampirism in YA fiction right now (oh dear I hate temperature puns) = an excellent addition to the growing vampire mythology.  This book is grisly and violent.  If you really want to get into the spirit of things, read it right before you go to a Halloween party.  Just don’t freak out if, when you wake up from your drunken haze, all the other party goers have had their blood sucked dry.

8. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

Read my original review of this book here.

Again, this YA horror novel is not necessarily Halloween themed, but it’s so densely atmospheric and dark that October’s the perfect time to read it.  Wooding’s book takes place in Victorian London, but unlike Constable and Toop, this one is relentlessly frightening and meant for teenagers rather than middle grade readers.  It contains great villains, complex musings about the nature of evil, the terrors of bedlam, and plenty of fog.  Give it to steampunk readers looking for a break from the gadgets, and old fashioned goths who aren’t afraid of monsters hovering above one’s bed at night.  (This book made me scream out loud in my sleep two nights in a row when I first read it as a freshman in high school.)

9. The Tailypo

I will never forget the first time I heard this story read allowed in my elementary school library class.  It’s about a hermit who cuts off a creature’s tail, and then the creature stalks him repeating “I’m coming to find my tailypo” until it finally eats the hunter and his dogs on a dark night.  The stuff of my earliest nightmares.

————————–

Apologies and excuses:

This has been a very busy October for yer dedicated Captain o’ these pages, what with my escapades at The Boston Book Festival and various nerdy adventures on land  and by the sea.  My moments of freedom have been few and far between, and while I’ve read at least ten books since finishing Rooftoppers I haven’t yet managed to write a half-decent review.  There’s quite a tempest loomin’ on the horizon of my bookish future as well, as the holiday season is approaching, so the good ship Bookshop has been battening down the hatches for the busiest months of the year.  My reviewing energy may dampen a little in the near future, but never fear.  Neither hell nor high water, nor indeed a plague of paper cuts from wrapping paper, can keep me away from saying stuff about books for long.

Anticipating Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

So, like nearly every other nerd in book-land, I am having trouble containing my excitement for Neil Gaiman’s new adult novel, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, which comes out on June 18th.  No one’s let on exactly what the plot is, but I’m happy about that because I want to dive into those pages with no preconceived notions and just let Gaiman do his stuff.  Most interviews have been vague enough to drum up interest without spoiling anything, much to my happiness, and I think that Gaiman is very conscious of his huge fan base’s desire to be newly enchanted.

Source: goodreads.com

He recently mentioned this Star Tribune review on facebook, and said, “I think this is my favourite review so far. It does not talk about the plot, it talks about the book.”  If this review is at all accurate – and I imagine it is – then June 18th needs to be here right freakin’ now!

“Move closer and you’ll notice folkloric grace notes: An unnamed narrator learns the importance of naming, familiar nursery rhymes are reconsidered and made mythic. Magic comes slowly into the story, and it arrives as easily as breathing. When a perfectly sensible character says that she remembers when the moon was made, you will believe her. You won’t actually have a choice.”

—From Startribune.com’s review of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane.

Now I am even more excited to read the book, because what they’ve described is my favorite kind of magic.  Small, fatally important rules and traditions which have lived inside of us for centuries: that sort of power impresses me more than any grand summoning of a demon or tempest.  If Gaiman has indeed written about a form of magic so naturally inherent to his story that it sneaks up on us without drawing attention to itself (and I’m sure he has because he can do just about anything), then The Ocean At The End Of The Lane might even replace American Gods and Good Omens at the top of my food chain of books.

I guess as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more desperate to find magic in the real world to keep my hope alive, and that’s why folklore and superstition have been occupying my mind more than “high” fantasy these past few years.   The smallest shifts in our world, the secret of my name, the truths other people might be hiding: these have been magical since ancient times and they’re just as magical now.  I’m so glad that authors like Jane Yolen and Charles De Lint have kept those stories alive, and unbearably excited that Neil Gaiman has added those elements into his new novel for adults.  There is hope where there is magic, and there is magic while Neil Gaiman exists!

Thoughts, anyone?  Are you excited about The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, or do you think it’s being over-hyped?  

Are you going to see Gaiman at one point on his signing tour for the book?  (Did you think I wrote “singing” tour, there, instead of “signing”?  He actually has a great voice.)

Do you prefer small-scale magic or big, dramatic fantasy?