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Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the LaneUnknown-1

by: Neil Gaiman

Harper/Collins New York, NY  2013

ISBN:978-0-06-225565-5

The latest novel from Neil Gaiman continues the theme of searching for identity common to MirrorMask, American Gods and many of his other works.  It has the same mythic scope and the ability to make us question the boundaries of our own reality.

The story is told in the first person and is written almost as a memoir.  The main character and narrator is back in his childhood haunting grounds “escaping” from a funeral.  He wanders back to an old friend’s farm and sits by the small pond she called her ocean.  The body of the story unfolds as he remembers back to his seventh year.

I was charmed by this book, even in its darker moments.  I too had a childhood landscape that was marked by pathways leading to “other” places and objects that appeared different than what I knew them to be.  The child in this story is led through the landscape by his new friend Lettie, who is eleven to his seven.  Lettie lives on the farm with her mother and grandmother where they have lived forever.  The farm is listed in the Domesday Book and occasionally Lettie makes a comment that leads the reader to wonder if forever isn’t literally descriptive.

Unlike American Gods, the mythology Gaiman draws upon isn’t laid out in neat pieces.  Unlike Mirror Mask it isn’t hidden away in the magic and mirrors of carnival entertainment.  These are the figures of the land and if you know the land, you know the stories.  Otherwise they are just those folks who’ve always been there, forever.  The things that become so familiar no one but the children ever look twice.

When we return in the tale to the day of the funeral the memories that have been reclaimed stay with our narrator, at least for a moment.  He recognizes the woman who greeted him, not as Lettie’s mother aged but rather as the Grandmother just as she always was.  He wonders if, when Lettie comes back to the farm, she will still be eleven.  It’s the question he asked her as a seven year old, not just how old was she but “How long have you been eleven?”

The dedication to this book is to Gaimen’s wife and performing artist Amanda Palmer.  The implication is that he wrote the book because she wanted to know something about his childhood.  Indeed Gaiman drew heavily on his childhood home and the country where he grew up.  He leave us to wonder how much of the mythic was a part of his childhood as well.  Especially since the main character is left with a scare where his heart was touched by the “other world” that would never quite heal over.

This too is mythic.  Those who wander into the realm of Fairy and who survive to find their way out often spend the rest of their lives searching for a means by which to return.  For Gaiman, clearly his means is in his writing.  Thankfully he seems willing to take some of the rest of us with him as he goes.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2013 in Fantasy, Memoir

 

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Necessity’s Child

Necessity’s ChildUnknown

Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

Baen Books Riverdale, NY  2013

ISBN: 978-1-4516-3887-5

I really enjoy the Liaden Universe stories.  These are multi-cultural, political intrigue, space operas.  The world is rich in character, deep in allusion and insightful in language development.  It’s not often that I get this tied up in serial novels.  As much as I hate to wait for the next installment I’m happy to dive back into the Machiavellian system of Liaden politics.

Most of the books in the series stand alone.  There are a number of editions compiled with the stories featuring one character or another.  The generational history of the Korval Clan has been laid out over the many years that Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have been writing together.

This book does have its own story.  But in the realm of the world of Liaden Necessity’s Child is not the best introduction.   The multitude of characters and references were overwhelming even to me at the start of the novel.  There is certainly a lot of “catching up” that isn’t done even as the scope of the clan is demonstrated.

The story is an interlude, an introduction to the next generation of Korval.  There are plot elements that hinge on at least some familiarity with the reason for Plan B and its subsequent fall out.  There are scenes that serve to allude to what those familiar with Korval will see as a brilliant mind for navigational calculation in young Syl Vor.  Melanti, a critical concept to the culture, is loosely demonstrated and never explained.  Even the impact of the conditioning Rys has suffered as an Agent of Change is largely dependent on having seen Val Con yos’Phelium go through it in an earlier novel.

In particular is a scene where Syl Vor’s math tutor pushes him to solving a problem and then demands a proof. His mother fires the tutor and offers to take on his instruction herself until a replacement can be found.  She says, “And I will look forward to learning from you, my son.”  The suspicion is that Syl Vor’s answers were confounding the tutor and she was pushing him to find the error where her own comprehension failed.  In review Syl Vor’s mother recognizes brilliance and sees that she too has something to learn from Syl Vor.  But none of that is clear save that I have read so much of the work in the series.

There are many questions left about the underworld (that’s literal) culture being introduced in this novel.  The relationship that they have with the Liaden is hinted at, but not clarified in any way.  The way that the Bedel hold to their clan is reminiscent of both the Romany and the Liaden.  Where the Korval line’s psychic strength comes from their Irish roots (and their relationship to the tree, another thing shown but not to any furthering of the story) the Bedel may have their roots in the Baltics or even in Asia Minor.

As an introduction to a character who promises to expand the Koval empire, this book is a gem.  As an introduction to the world of the Liaden Universe it is a total flop.  If you are intrigued I highly recommend looking at some of the older material or one of the compilations.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2013 in Science Fiction

 

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The John Carlos Story

UnknownThe John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World

by John Carlos with Dave Zirin

Forward by Cornel West

Haymarket Books Chicago, IL 2011

ISBN:978-1-60846-127-1

I am not a big sports fan.  I don’t remember the Olympic games from 1968.  If we even had a TV in the house that summer we were probably camping during the Olympics.  Dad probably listened to them on the transistor radio he kept plugged into his ear.

1968 Olympics

1968 Olympics

I do remember the photograph.  I do remember the political atmosphere.  I remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being shot and Bobby Kennedy and the protests across the globe against apartheid and for civil rights.  I remember that what the papers, the news media were saying didn’t make sense but I had no alternative context.

I was little, my understanding of events was at a grade school level.  My parents were politically active so I had a more rounded education and experience with these matters than most of my white, suburban classmates.  Even back then I had direct experience with the difference between intention and motivation for an action and the media’s take on those same actions.

I called the library and asked what is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir.  It took them a while to come up with an answer.  Something about the entire scope of a life and chronological order make it biographical where reminiscence or the story of a single event falls into the memoir category.

This book is classified as neither an autobiography or a memoir.  It is considered to be a biography, presumably because the majority of actually writing is by Dave Zirin.  However it reads as though it is a memoir, with chronology and lifetime scope, in the voice of John Carlos.  It’s written in first person.  The stories come from a personal angle rather than a “historical” one.

This is not a book about the 1968 Olympics, although that event is clearly central.  This is a book about standing up and (to paraphrase Carlos quoting MLK) “Speak for those that can’t and those that won’t speak for themselves.”  Those words, according to John Carlos, gave him a center for his life and judging from the book they carried him far beyond the 1968 games.

The fact that the afterword, written by Dave Zirin, talks about the continued impact and importance of coming together and speaking out for what is right.  He talks about Wisconsin and Governor Walker.  He talks about  Arizona and immigration.  He talks about LGBT marriage equality.  He talks about workers rights in Egypt.  He says, “It’s not every athlete who acts like their life’s ambition off the court is to be featured on MTV Cribs.”  He says, “Since athletes are role models…….it’s worth asking the question: what are they modeling?”

John Carlos gives credit along the way to many athletes who stood up both before and after he and Tommie Smith and Peter Norman.   He talks about speaking with Jesse Owens, and accusing him of not doing enough in Hitler’s Berlin.  He talks about the support he got from Jackie Robinson and how, unlike Jackie, at least he had the support of his team.  He mentions George Forman, Kareem Abdul Jabar, and Rosie Grier.

It’s also helpful that the small and ubiquitous acts of oppression in the world are simply laid out as a given.  This piece is carefully written to convey passion rather than anger.  It is a hopeful and painful read because he makes you understand why this struggle is so important and necessary.  He also makes clear that what happened in 1968 is a piece of our country’s history that many people have worked hard to gloss over.

As a non-sports fan I had no trouble with this book.  At its heart it is not a sports story, it is a human story told with a sports perspective.  It is a journey through history past and present.  It is enlightening and hopeful.  There is no question that we continue as a people to struggle with these issues.  John Carlos’ philosophy seems to feel that the struggle is worth it.  He makes a good case.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2013 in Memoir, Non-fiction

 

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Unnatural Creatures

Unnatural Creaturesunnatural creaturees

Stories Selected by Neil Gaiman

HarperCollins New York, NY  2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-223629-6

This is technically an anthology, a collection of short stories from all kinds of different authors.  What makes it interesting is that most of the stories were collected for the piece.  There are a few though either written for the collection or at least published here for the first time.

The contributors are as varied as E. Nesbit (story first published in 1900 and known for her children’s fiction), Larry Niven (story first published in 1969 and known for science fiction), and Gahan Wilson (story first published in 1972 and known as a cartoonist/ illustrator).  The oldest piece in the collection was originally published in 1885 by Frank Stockton, known for his fable The Lady or the Tiger.  If you know the fable that gives you a sense of the tone of the collection.

This book is classified as teen fiction.  That seems appropriate in the sense that the stories are neither gory nor particularly sexual in content.  They do, however, all have a dark edge.  Many of them would find themselves comfortable in the world of television’s Grimm.

As a reader, I found the variety in this collection delightful.  Some of these stories I recognize, having read them in other places, but many were new to me.  Even those I knew brought a smile to my face as I read them again.  These are talented writers in a very open genre.

Neil Gaiman is a frequent traveler to the strange worlds of fantasy fiction.  He brings his British sensibilities to his choices as well as his literary understanding.  It is rather amazing that this hodgepodge of stories fits together so neatly, but it works.  The ubiquitous introductions to each story are very short and tend to reflect the style of writing in the story to come.  This genius is part of what makes Neil Gaiman the perfect editor of this collection.

If you are an aficionado of the old style fairy tales; If you prefer your Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the original format rather than in the Disney version then you will very much enjoy this book.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2013 in Fantasy, Fiction, Teen Fiction

 

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Whiskey Beach

Whiskey BeachUnknown-1

by Nora Roberts

Penguin Group New York, NY  2013

ISBN: 978-0-399-15989-3

Nora Roberts is one of my guilty pleasures.  She’s a prolific writer both in the romance genre and also as mystery writer J. D. Robb.  I like her writing because she has a strong sense of place.  She paints vivid, but not tedious, images of the houses and the towns her characters move through.  She also tends to write characters with interesting careers, and whose jobs (or at least job skills) actually play into the story line.

Her recent works seem to be drawing the two genres closer together and Whiskey Beach is no exception.  This is a story that opens on a murder.  We don’t see the scene (which we would in the mystery genre).  Instead we have the poor man, widower of the victim, who after a year is finally ready to start putting his life back together.  His career arc, from lawyer to writer, mirrors Robert’s own.

According to her bio, she started work as a legal secretary.  Her time in the legal system clearly informs her materials as she writes about lawyers, policemen, and private detectives.  She gives most of her characters a moment in the first person, so we get a feel for not only how they come off to the world, but what motivates them.  In this novel even her least sympathetic character has strong reasons for behaving as badly as he does.

I will admit to also appreciating the fact that Roberts writes with a “witchy” point of view.  She has done works bordering on fantasy where magic is real and dramatic.  She’s also done thematically works where magic is a family sense of knowing and a way of worshiping the Earth from where we come.  Mostly though, her female characters tend to be a little “new age”, interested in the properties of crystals and herbs, and into funky jewelry.  The woman in this story, a part time massage therapist, yoga instructor, house keeper and waitress, is very much in this vein.

Romance novels as a rule are simply escapist fiction.  They are perfect for long plane rides and rainy days.  Memorial Day weekend was a great excuse to indulge and Whiskey Beach definitely satisfied.  The sex scenes are there (they moved the bed!) but I was neither paging through the bad story to get to them or avoiding them entirely to get back to the story.  Writing well in this genre is truly a craft and Nora Roberts is a master.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2013 in Fiction, Romance

 

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