Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.40 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.09 / 5.00

I read this book as part of a Read Along organized by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings as part of his R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII Challenge.

Nobody Owens was extremely fortunate to have been a very adventurous toddler.

On the night that the man Jack came to murder his entire family, Nobody had already escaped from his crib, by the cunning use of a stuffed bear, and was able to toddle out of the front door, which Jack had left open. Once outside he then had the great idea of tottering up the road towards the graveyard and was cute enough to tug on the heartstrings of the very dead Mrs Owens, who had never had children of her own. So, when the man Jack arrived to finish his job, he found nothing beyond the locked gate but the very disquieting figure of Silas, who persuaded him that the young boy had actually gone down the hill and was not in the graveyard at all.

As Nobody / Bod grows up in his new home, he learns about ghoul gates and ancient Celtic barrow mounds, befriending werewolves, witches and the many ghosts that inhabit his graveyard. He also makes human friends and enemies, but the shadow of the man Jack is always hovering in the background.

One can never accuse Neil Gaiman of being too light and fluffy in his writing. Although this is a book aimed at young adults or older children, it is very dark from the very beginning. The idea of a strange man creeping through a house murdering everyone that he finds is a very unsettling start to the story, but it grabs you and pulls you into the action straight away. I would say that after the first page I was hooked and knew that I would enjoy the rest of the journey. It was also very obvious that Mr Gaiman has honed his craft since he wrote Neverwhere over a decade earlier. I am never quite sure what makes certain writers language so appealing, but I can definitely recognize it when I read it.

Throughout the book we have the lovely twist of traditionally scary aspects of story telling, such as graveyards, ghosts, witches, werewolves and vampires, turned into the safe and dependable. It is the humans that are the evil and scary monsters, and their world is always a danger to the young Bod. He must hide himself and avoid drawing any attention to himself in order to keep the man Jack at bay. We are also left guessing about many details of this world, which is revealed slowly to us and leaves many questions unanswered. For example, we are never told where the story is set, although it is obviously somewhere in England. This air of mystery is a wonderful change from many books that overload the reader with details and exposition. We are told the bare minimum of what we need to know, just as children often prefer only the bare bones of a story rather than all those annoying little details. The lack of detail also gives us a feeling for how disconnected Bod is from our world.

Bod himself grows into a very brave and compassionate young man. We see him always thinking about what he knows and learns, applying his knowledge to his world and questioning others to expand his knowledge base. He is a staunch friend and feels protective of others, especially those who cannot protect themselves. He can be rather impulsive and gets himself into some very scary situations on a regular basis. However, this is mostly due to his ignorance of the world and his trusting nature rather than to a rash disregard for his own safety.

Of the supporting cast, I would like to make a special mention of Silas. He is probably a vampire, although this is never specifically stated, and has a sad and lonely life, being neither truly dead nor alive. He agrees to be Bod’s guardian because he is the only person who can leave the graveyard and interact with the humans to bring Bod food, clothes, etc, but he becomes more of a mentor and friend. Although he is slightly cool and impassive, we eventually see Silas risking his existence to protect Bod, but in a quiet way that remains out of sight and practically not mentioned. He is such a wonderful antidote to all the sparkly or sex-crazed vampires that populate urban fantasy and paranormal romance these days and he remains so tragically alone that I felt a great deal of affection for him.

I can imagine this being a great book to read to children because it has a nice rhythm, with Bod getting into terrible danger only to be returned to safety at the end of each chapter. I can also see children anticipating the dangers that exist before Bod realizes what they are, which makes the danger seem so much more controlled and escapable. However, the danger is not without real threat and, by the end of the book, one of Bod’s favorite people has been killed to protect him.

My only major criticism of the book was that it was far too short. I wanted to read more about Bod and his world and to learn more about his friends and their past lives. A sequel would be greatly appreciated, as would an animated version produced and directed by Tim Burton!

Other Reviews I Recommend:

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Challenge of Ice and Fire: Week 29

A Feast for Crows: Samwell IV to the end of The Princess in the Tower (p. 863)

My previous posts on A Feast for Crows:   week 23   week 24   week 25   week 26   week 27   week 28

35. Samwell IV

Can we just have a moment’s silence to mark the passing of a wonderful and wise old man?

In the last Sam chapter we saw that Maester Aemon was very ill. At one hundred and two years old there was little chance that he would weather the storm, but I was hoping against hope that he would pull through. Alas, I was hoping in vain. I will miss him . . . sniff . . .

Fortunately, he lived long enough to hear Xhondo’s report of Daenerys and her dragons. He realizes that the prophecy had always been interpreted to mean that they were looking for a prince, but that dragons are asexual, and so the ‘prince’ could be a princess. He is desperate for Sam to talk to the archmaesters and convince them to send a maester to Daenerys to counsel her. I hope that Sam will succeed in fulfilling his last wish.

Gilly finally makes a man out of Sam, although he is riddled with guilt and shame afterwards. I found it very funny that the Summer Islanders gave him the option of having sex with Gilly or walking across the water to Oldtown. I can understand why the Brothers of the Night’s Watch swear not to have children, but it also seems very unreasonable for young men to be expected to remain celibate. Sam feels a failure for breaking his vows, but it has always been obvious that he had feelings for Gilly, so I hope he can forgive himself eventually. In a strange way I am proud of his uninhibited action, although the mention of the breast milk was more than a little disturbing.

36. Cersei VIII

Dear Mr Martin, PLEASE stop making me read chapters from Cersei’s POV, because they make me angry and potentially violent! Thanks, Sue.

Aurane Waters’ account of Ser Loras’ injuries on Dragonstone sound more like a joke than a reality. Is it possible for someone to survive so much injury only to be doused in boiling oil? Of course, Cersei shows great restraint by not actually dancing as she tells poor Margaery about her brother’s fate. Just when you think that you have seen her at her most uncaring and selfish, Cersei always manages to surprise you . . .

This week, Cersei’s Increasingly Bad Decisions include:

1. Ignoring the pleas of the merchants who have had their loans called in early by the Iron Bank and who are now refused further loans. This will not destroy the economy at all!

2. Insulting the representative of the High Septon (who she has just allowed to raise a huge army) because he wants to shut all the brothels, which she wants to keep open to support the economy. (See #1)

3. Complaining to Pycelle that it is just too bad that Lord Gyles has chosen this moment to finally die of consumption, even though she thinks that he is a useless waste of breath anyway. Of course threatening Pycelle will stop the man from dying . . .

4. Making her son, the King, really hate her for trying to suppress his right to rule and refusing to allow him to learn about ruling and the workings of the court. Surely the obvious choice would be to let him see how boring it is so that he will leave her to it.

5. Lady Tanda has died as a result of the injury that Cersei knew about, so now she needs her elder daughter to take the title . . . oh wait, that would be the woman that Cersei sent to Qyburn because she was annoying and disappointing . . . and now she is not exactly ‘whole’. Oopsie!

Cersei’s dream about the prophecy made by Maggy the Frog is interesting, mainly because we have heard hints about this prophecy before, so it is good to finally get the whole thing. It seems that the young Cersei was already pretty dreadful and I have a horrible suspicion that she had something to do with Melara’s death shortly afterwards. How dare the girl aspire to marry Jaime? It sounds like the prophecy has been very accurate so far, although I am a little surprised that Robert only produced sixteen children. I just hope that we do not have to wait for both Tommen and Myrcella to die before the ‘valonqar’ arrives to get rid of this thoroughly unpleasant woman. 

37. Brienne VII

Yay! The return of Gendry! I am very pleased to find that he is still very much alive. I loved Brienne’s reaction to meeting him, although it does make me wonder why nobody else has noticed how much he looks like the Baratheons. It strikes me as strange, because we know that Brienne is not exactly given to flights of fancy, indeed she is often shown to have very little imagination. Of course, one could argue that she might have spent a lot more time than most people staring at Renly and so was far more familiar with his appearance.

The arrival of Biter is not good news at all. Brienne seems to be winning their fight, and even drives her sword right through him, but he does not want to die so easily. His brutal strength and attempts to maim and eat her, even though he must realize that he is dying, are beyond scary and very unpleasant. We are left with the image of a sword-like tongue appearing from his mouth. I can only hope that Ser Hyle has come to Brienne’s rescue: after all, he did just offer to marry her for her father’s title and lands because he is such a generous soul.

38. Jaime VI

It seems that the Late Lord Walder Frey did not have many genes for intelligence to pass on to his multitude of offspring. Lord Emmon wants Riverrun taken without damaging it and Ser Ryman keeps threatening to hang Edmure but never does. No wonder Jaime feels like he is surrounded by useless idiots! They are possibly the worst possible allies, because everybody hates them.

In some ways I feel sorry for Jaime here, because he is trying to honor his vow to Catelyn, but nobody will believe that he will keep his word. Of course, he is used to this, but it makes him a poor choice for the person to negotiate with The Blackfish: yet another of Cersei’s Increasingly Bad Decisions. But then, I am not sure that there is anyone that Ser Brynden would trust at this point. Their barbed banter is rather witty, but ultimately pointless, as neither man can change his position. As a side note, I found it strange that Brynden believed Catelyn’s assessment of Jon, and so thought that he had been made commander due to Tywin’s influence.

Although Jaime releases Edmure and promises safety for both him and the pregnant Roslin, I am not sure that he will be allowed to keep that vow. I also think that it is highly unlikely that Edmure will persuade his uncle to surrender, but he is the true Lord of Riverrun, so Brynden may have to do as he is told. Somehow, I doubt that we will see The Blackfish on the Wall any time soon. However, I imagine that Edmure will surrender at the first opportunity: we have already seen that he is not the most courageous of men. I am uncertain of why he is so appalled by the singer that Jaime leaves him with. I can understand why he would not want to hear the Rains of Castamere, but it seems to be the man himself that he fears.

39. Cersei IX

Yet more Cersei: Mr Martin, you are torturing me!

Normally I do not feel much sorrow for Pycelle, but in this case I do feel that Cersei is being unnecessarily harsh with the old man. We have heard Ser Gyles coughing ever since we first encountered him in A Games of Thrones, so it was only a matter of time before his health gave out. By accusing him of killing Ser Gyles for Margaery, Cersei inadvertently uncovers some of the proof she needs to accuse the young Queen of adultery, but this is purely by lucky chance, and Pycelle might have had no useful information to offer her. I do wonder if moon tea is ever used to treat anything other than pregnancy. Pycelle is cut off as he is about to say what she needed it for, and I doubt that he would be so willing to admit to giving the girl a contraceptive. I wonder if he has been using it to treat her for irregular periods or painful cramps, just as the oral contraceptive is sometimes used in modern medicine. This would actually fit much better with his reaction.

Once she has this bit of information, Cersei swerves onto a path of total madness. She has the poor Blue Bard tortured most horribly until he has learnt what she wants him to confess, and then demands that Osney Kettleblack also confess to the High Septon that he has been having sex with Margaery. She even allows him to have sex with her to seal the deal.

I hope and pray that this plot with backfire on Cersei, and that she gets the just deserts of all her atrocious behavior and appalling judgment. I am not sure that Margaery is totally innocent, but she cannot be as poisonous as Cersei: at least, I hope not for Tommen’s sake.

40. The Princess In The Tower

One last chapter from Arianne’s POV.

If anything proves Prince Doran’s strength of character and understanding of human psychology, it is the way that he breaks his daughter’s will be allowing her to stew in her own juices in the highest cell of the Spear Tower. Separated from human contact and bored out of her mind, Arianne has little to do but to think about what she has done, putting her in a much more receptive frame of mind when he finally speaks with her.

We follow her as she processes her grief for Ser Arys, for whom she appears to have had real feelings. I had assumed that she had simply seduced him to gain control over him, but she genuinely regrets his death and misses him. She also moves through periods of anger and fear, tortured by not knowing what has happened to her friends and Myrcella, who was horribly injured by the Darkstar’s attack.

When he finally calls for her, Doran does not rant and rave at her. Instead, he shows how deeply disappointed and hurt he is by her actions. He is concerned about how they will avoid war with the Iron Throne now that Myrcella has been mutilated: her wound has left her with only one ear and a huge scar. He admits that Dorne is not strong enough for the war, and that he must find a way to explain what happened to the little princess that will hide Arianne’s role in the incident. Arianne believes that she can convince the little girl to go along with the story that the Darkstar was the only one at fault, but Dorne’s survival may rest upon Myrcella’s ability to lie convincingly.

When she finally confronts him about his intentions to pass Dorne to her younger brother Quentyn, Doran finally reveals that she had been secretly promised to Viserys many years ago. This explains all the doddering, old suitors that she had rejected over the years: these were not a way to insult her, but a display of attempting to marry her off. His reasons for not telling her seem sound, although they have allowed her pride to be wounded and that festering wound was the primary reason for her treasonous actions. It seems that Quentyn is in Essos, as Arianne had heard, but he is not trying to raze an army to depose her: he is attempting to re-establish Dorne’s link with the Targaryens.

My estimation for Doran Martell has leapt up. Not only does he suffer from intense physical pain with a great deal of stoicism, but also he has nursed his anger and need for revenge in a wonderfully quiet way ever since Elia was killed. We see the great grief that her death caused him in his attempts to destroy everything that Tywin held dear before claiming the man’s life. He regrets that Tyrion beat him to the deathblow, but he takes a grim satisfaction in the patricide, seeing it as a just reward for Tywin’s terrible treatment of his own son. He may not have been the vigorous type of warrior that we saw in the Red Viper, but he has been the spider in the dark, plotting revenge over the long term, and playing the Game of Thrones with great skill. I hope that Arianne will forgive him for not confiding in her earlier and throw all her support behind him.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sue's Saturday Suggestions #19

Interesting Books

(Descriptions from Goodreads)

Rootless by Chris Howard, review at Into the Hall of Books

17-year-old Banyan is a tree builder. Using scrap metal and salvaged junk, he creates forests for rich patrons who seek a reprieve from the desolate landscape. Although Banyan's never seen a real tree—they were destroyed more than a century ago—his father used to tell him stories about the Old World. But that was before his father was taken . . .

Everything changes when Banyan meets a woman with a strange tattoo—a clue to the whereabouts of the last living trees on earth, and he sets off across a wasteland from which few return. Those who make it past the pirates and poachers can't escape the locusts—the locusts that now feed on human flesh.

But Banyan isn't the only one looking for the trees, and he's running out of time. Unsure of whom to trust, he's forced to make an uneasy alliance with Alpha, an alluring, dangerous pirate with an agenda of her own. As they race towards a promised land that might only be a myth, Banyan makes shocking discoveries about his family, his past, and how far people will go to bring back the trees.

Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia A. McKillip, review at Fantasy Cafe

Stylistically rooted in fairy tale and mythology, imperceptible landscapes are explored in these opulent stories from a beloved fantasy icon. There are princesses dancing with dead suitors, a knight in love with an official of exotic lineage, and fortune’s fool stealing into the present instead of the future. In one mesmerizing tale, a time-traveling angel is forbidden to intervene in Cotton Mather’s religious ravings, while another narrative finds a wizard seduced in his youth by the Faerie Queen and returning the treasure that is rightfully hers. Bewitching, bittersweet, and deeply intoxicating, this collection draws elements from the fables of history and re-creates them in startlingly magical ways.

I have listed these titles in earlier SSS posts: check out my SSS Books Page for links to more reviews

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis, review at Fantasy Faction

Blood’s Pride by Evie Manieri, review at A Fantastical Librarian

The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins, review at A Fantastical Librarian

Full Blooded by Amanda Carlson, review at Bastard Books

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making by Catherynne M Valente, review at Janicu’s Book Blog

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff, review at The Midnight Garden

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

My Rating: 4.0 / 5.0

AmazonRating: 3.60 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.45 / 5.00

I read this book as part of a Read Along organized by The Estella Society as part of the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII Challenge at Stainless Steel Droppings.

Hundreds Hall is just outside the small town of Lidcote in Warwickshire, England. When he was a young boy, Dr Faraday caught a rare glimpse of the splendor inside, something that he would never normally see because he was the son of one of the maids. He became entranced by the house and its occupants, the Ayres family. Many years later, World War II has been cruel to the landed gentry and Hundreds is now in rapid decline. Now one of the local doctors, Faraday is called to the Hall to see a sick maid, and is horrified by the state of the house and its grounds.

As he becomes a trusted friend of the family, he is present when a very strange event occurs, injuring the daughter of the local nouveaux riches. While he can find perfectly normal reasons to explain away this tragic accident, it becomes increasingly obvious that otherworldly forces are acting upon the Hall and its inhabitants.

This is the first time I have read one of Sarah Waters’ books, but I can understand why it was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. The writing is excellent and evocative, recreating the social climate in the period just after World War II very well. We forget now that the War brought a huge change in the social structure of Great Britain. The landed classes could no longer maintain their lifestyle because of stringent tax reforms introduced by the post-War labor government, but also because the working class were no longer happy to take live-in employment with the associated minimal freedom. So, robbed of both their servants and the money required to maintain their estates, many families sold off their land for housing developments or opened their homes and / or grounds for the newly mobile public.

The first quarter or third of the book is used to introduce the main players in our story. Dr Faraday is a rather adventurous, forward-thinking man of science, willing to try new techniques and apply new knowledge. However, he is barely making a living, because so many of the locals do not trust a doctor from a working class background and prefer to use one of his competitors, and also because he has so much debt from his long years of training. He has no true place in society because he is rejected by both classes: the working class think he has risen above his station whilst the landed class see him as an upstart. He is intensely lonely.

The Ayres are also social outcasts, but in their case it is because they cannot continue their role in local life. They are reduced to employing only one maid and a part-time cook and can barely heat the Hall through the winter. The building is slowly collapsing around them and the grounds are a mess. Even their farm is falling behind the times because they cannot afford to install the electric milking machines needed for them to sell their milk. Mrs Ayres tries to maintain an air of gentility, although she is still grieving the deaths of her husband and her young daughter, Susan, almost thirty years ago. Caroline Ayres is not pretty enough to attract a wealthy husband and has spent the last few years nursing her brother Roderick, who was horribly disfigured by begin burnt during the war. Caroline yearns desperately to be free of the Hall and to lead her own life, while Roderick is consumed with the responsibility of being the man of the house, trying to keep the family afloat financially. When we first meet them the Ayres are just about keeping things together, but this is a fragile illusion.

Of course, there is an event that causes the family members to begin to unravel, each becoming increasingly obsessed with their own particular demons. This leads both Mrs Ayres and Caroline to become more dependent upon Dr Faraday, a role that he relishes. However, his insistence upon rational explanations for all the things that they experience actually makes matters worse and leads to the most tragic outcome imaginable. This makes him a very unreliable narrator, and by the end of the book I found him really rather unpleasant and selfish in his persistent need to maintain the lie that nothing was wrong at the Hall. His desire to keep his position as a friend of the family was horribly tangled with his need for acceptance and he became blind to anything that would allow the future to deviate from his vision. In many ways he is the ‘Little Stranger’ of the title, insinuating himself into the family and the bringing nothing but grief and horror.   

The horror itself is very well done. The dilapidated house is almost cliché, with its squeaky doors and flapping curtains, but the writing is so good that the atmosphere is entirely believable and very chilling. The supernatural elements are kept to a minimum and yet there are touches that will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. However, many of the most horrific things are done by real, living people, and they will make you very uncomfortable as well.

Other Reviews I Recommend:

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