Stories

Stories is a short story collection edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, a collection of stories with not much in common except that they actually have a story (unlike certain high literary short stories which often seem to me to be more of case of showing how impressively the author can string words together).

It took me a while to read this collection; not because it was a struggle, quite the opposite in fact, there were many stories in the collection that felt so good that once I read them, even though I had time to read more I didn’t want to, I wanted to give that particular story time to digest and ruminate and sink in first. Stories is a collection of mostly highly memorable stories. There were very few stories I didn’t like and a lot of stories I absolutely loved. A lot of the stories were stories with twists and as I don’t want to give anything away I will try not to, so I won’t go into too much detail.

The collection opens with a bang with the wonderful Blood by Roddy Doyle, now I’ve seen or read quite a few interviews with Gaiman talking about the premise behind this collection and he has often described it as telling stories as if that story had never been told before, so for example telling a vampire story, such as Doyle’s Blood, as if there was no such thing as a vampire story before and that worked so well, the domesticity of the whole set up was wonderful and Blood was one of my favourite stories in the collection.

Fossil-Figures by Joyce Carol Oates was one of the stories in the collection that took me a while to warm to, about two brothers, it was the ending which really sparked for me.

Wildfire in Manhattan by Joanne Harris is quite a Gaimanesque story and is about ancient gods living in the modern world. I did quite like this but the similarity to Gaiman’s work (although Gaiman is by no means the only author to have written about ancient gods in the modern world) meant this story lacked the spark of originality that many of the other stories in the collection had.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is Neil Gaiman‘s novella and is a period piece set in the Scottish Highlands and is as brilliant as you’d expect it to be. This is Gaiman doing very mythic again.

Unbelief by Michael Marshall Smith is one of the few stories I didn’t like, about a hitman sent to kill someone, I may be being thick but I just did not get the ending.

The Stars are Falling by Joe R. Lansdale tells the tale of a soldier, long thought dead, coming home from the war, in a scenario you can imagine truly happening.

Juvenal Nyx by Walter Mosley is another vampire story, this time slightly more conventional that Doyle’s Blood, but still a good read nevertheless.

The Knife by Richard Adams felt a bit short and more like describing an event rather than a story.

Weights and Measures by Jodi Picoult tells the story of parents loosing their child and it is not a domestic tale as you may imagine.

Goblin Lake by Michael Swanwick is in the form of an old fashioned fairytale but not wanting to give anything away,it  is very thought provoking.

Mallon the Guru by Peter Straub, I did not like, it was a perfectly fine short story but it felt like it didn’t fit into the criteria of the collection, as Gaiman wrote in the introduction

. . . and then what happened?*

In Mallon the Guru nothing much did happen, which made it seem an odd story for the book.

Catch and Release by Lawrence Block was one of my favourite stories and ooh I can’t say too much about why I particularly liked it but it’s about a serial killer whose decided to get his kicks by just picking up victims and then letting them go. But Block is a master at one of my favourite techniques of not telegraphing when something is about to happen, which makes what then happens more shocking and surprising, specially when the text continues in such a matter of fact way.

Polka Dots and Moonbeams by Jeffrey Ford is a slightly weird 50s (I think) style story set in the slightly seedy but glamorous US. It weirdly, like Lansdale’s story, also features falling stars.

Loser by Chuck Palahniuk is set on a game show in first person and is written in such a brilliant way that you feel like you’re on that game show and it is not a pleasant experience, so it’s a relatively uncomfortable read for so successfully evoking those emotions.

Samantha’s Diary by Diana Wynne Jones is almost teen fiction; it’s the diary of a young woman in the future who is getting wooed in the most unsuitable but rather funny way.

Land of the Lost by Stewart O’Nan is about a woman looking for the burial site of a child murder victim and is, as you would expect, rather poignant and sad.

Leif in the Wind by Gene Wolfe is pure sci-fi, with a take on the old story of what happens if astronauts bring home something from their explorations unintentionally.

Unwell by Carolyn Parkhurst is a tale of two old biddy sisters still competing over love and is another one of the stories with an excellent ending.

A Life in Fictions is written by the newcomer Kat Howard and it is excellent, another quite claustrophobic to read story (like Palahniuk’s), Howard really gets you into the head of the main character who has the unfortunate problem of being written into stories and when the story is being written she disappears.

Let the Past Begin by Jonathan Carroll is a bit of a weird story, as I write this blog post, I have Stories open in front of me and when I look at this particular story I can remember I enjoyed reading it and I remember it’s about two potential fathers of a woman’s baby but that’s about it (other than the story being a bit weird). So obviously the least memorable story of the collection.

The Therapist by Jeffrey Deaver was brilliant, I absolutely loved it, utilising the technique of telling the same story from different viewpoints you’re really wondering who the nut job is in the story, well until . . .

Parallel Lines by Tim Powers is another story looking at the relationship between two old sisters, but this time with a bit of a supernatural twist.

The Cult of the Nose by Al Sarrantonio is another story where you’re questioning whose viewpoint is the right one. I love stories like that.

Human Intelligence by Kurt Anderson is a really sweet (in a way) story about a long abandoned spy. I liked this one to.

Stories by Michael Moorcock took a while to get into, it reads very much like a personal history of a group of friends and all the names and dates get a bit boring after a while but you still keep reading to find out what happened to a rather unlikeable character.

The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand was quite a sweet story about a group of friends trying to recreate a film for a dying friend.

The

Devil on

the Staircase

by Joe Hill was written

primarily like this and was a

story set at some point in Italy’s

history in a mountainous region where

the hills were covered in stairs. I’d love to

know whether those stairs really existed / do

exist.

The

story itself

is another one of

the almost hypnotic

examples littering Stories

where you almost feel like you’re there.

So in summary, as someone who is not normally a fan of the short story, this is a brilliant collection of diverse stories where most of them fit the brief of actually telling a story, not just showing off with words. Stories is like a condensed writers’ lesson in who many different, showing how many techniques there are to telling a story and I particularly valued the stories where there were unreliable narrators or narrators that bought you into their world so closely and so efficiently it felt almost claustrophobic. I even felt I learnt something from the introduction alone,  ‘. . . and then what happened?’ is a motto for any writer to go by.

* (A phrase I so want to embroider on something).

Instructions

I don’t often review picture books here; maybe I should, there’s a constant danger of book related avalanche in the kids’ bedroom but Neil Gaiman’s Instructions wasn’t really bought for them, it was bought for me and Mr. Lacer. We have a tendency to read anything by Mr. Gaiman and thanks to his rapid rate of work and his large back catalogue, it’ll be a while before we run out of stuff to read (so far we’ve read all his novels and short story collections, we’ve read some of his comics but not Sandman and this is his first picture book we’ve got our hands on – I’m desperate to read The Wolves in the Walls).

Instructions, is well, a set of instructions for a character about to go on a journey, it is beautifully written in Gaiman’s very distinctive voice and features several things he’s featured in his work before; such as the ferryman and the twelve months around the camp fire. The art work by Charles Vess is beautiful to, the sort of pictures you can look at and find new detail in, time and time again. I particularly liked this page, a case of spot the fairy tale.

Boy Lacer (who at least sat and listened to the story, Girl Lacer took one look and refused to), was so transfixed by the little demons featured on one page fairly early on in the book, took the rest of the story to be the main character trying to escape from the demons and he seemed to be expecting the demons to pop up again at each page turn.

So, in summary Instructions is really a picture book for adults, I think there is a lot to put off the average child, as this book has quite an old fashioned feel compared to the brightly coloured, bold picture books that most children are brought up on these days. Instructions belongs to the category of picture books that (some) parents buy for their children feeling that their children should like it, when really there’s not much chance. However, I can imagine certain children would love this book; highly imaginative types that would be transfixed by the detail in the artwork and plan their own journeys over the map inside the front cover. So, really know the child you’re buying this for, if you are thinking of buying this for a kid or if you’re a Neil Gaiman fan, just buy it anyway.

Pandaemonium (Audiobook)

Warning: I’m about to gush over another audiobook

I’m using my Audible account to catch up with books I want to read, but haven’t quite got round to yet and Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre was high up there on that list. I love Christopher Brookmyre books, he’s one of the few authors where I make a point of reading all their work but I was a little disappointed by his last book, A Snowball in Hell, it wasn’t as funny as his others, however Brookmyre principally is not a comedy writer, he’s also a lot more than a thriller writer to, in fact I’m not quite sure what he is, but he’s brilliant and from listening to Pandaemonium, he’s improving his game all the time.

Once again, there wasn’t a laugh out loud, split your sides moment in this book either, although plenty of wry moments, but I can see where he’s going with that now, for a start having a laugh out loud, split your sides moment in a book featuring deep philosophical discussions on the nature of religion, quantum physics, the nature of responsibility and the effect of a teen killing, growing up as a teenager and at the end, an absolute blood bath, may not have been totally appropriate.

Christopher Brookmyre is like Dan Brown souped up on speed and an intelligence implant; tackling one of Brown’s favourite topics in this book, the Catholic Church, Brookmyre has us following a group of teenagers and their teachers on a retreat in the Scottish Highlands, to recover from a brutal killing in their school. He also takes us into a secret underground base, where there is an unusual anomaly which has made the MOD reach for the Vatican on their speed dial. You can guess where the teenagers are staying; above the underground base.

There is a vast cast of characters and Brookmyre in particular portrays the teenagers very very well, which in comparison with the adult characters, makes the adult characters a little more indistinct, but only because the teenagers are written so well. My only criticism of the teenagers is that they seem to be extremely intelligent teenagers, who despite obviously being sex, drink and video gamed obsessed, alongside mucking around in class, must have been paying attention somewhere. Brookmyre writes the teenage girls in particular extremely well, with their multitudes of insecurities. Each teenager character is well rounded and distinct from the other teenagers, even to an extent when I reached a point where we were with two female characters and I sat there listening and I thought about one of the girls, “I bet she reads Neil Gaiman” and a few minutes later, the character pulls out a copy of Sandman from her bag and uses it to make a pertinent plot point.

Down in the secret base there is a battle between the scientists, the military and the Vatican. There are some good parts here to, I particularly liked one of the character’s ponderings about hell on earth, where at several points he wonders whether he actually died during an accident months ago and failed to realise it and instead hell has come to him. An idea echoed by the teenagers a little later in the book.

There is lots of talk of parallel universes, alternate time lines and dark matter, which I lapped up with enthusiasm. I always like it when my fiction reading / listening, coincides with some non-fiction reading / watching, as I’m also in the middle of reading Michael Brooks 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense and he talks about dark matter a lot in that.

The latter half of the book is very violent, as the daemons that having been coming through the anomaly make their appearance. I loved how the violence was very sudden. You see it on TV and with a lot of writers, if something is going to happen, you get the build up, the anticipation, if it’s TV, the creepy music and that can be great for building anticipation, but with Brookmyre it was so sudden and unexpected (even though you had an obvious idea that the daemons were going to appear at some point), so almost matter of fact, it made it a lot more shocking. There are scenes with characters talking to each, seemingly safe, you think they’re safe, they look as if they’re playing out completely different plot points altogether and then mid sentence someone gets a knife in the throat.

There are some really thought provoking discussions in this book about the battle between religion and science and how we create what we perceive and how our behaviour can affect others, a really good book.

On a final note, this audiobook was narrated by Kenny Blyth, another skilful narrator to add to my personal list of favourite narrators.

Highlights of 2009

Here’s some highlights of 2009.

Family Highlight

Boy Lacer starting nursery, I always knew that place would be good for him and it is incredibly pleasing to see how right that was. Within a week he was climbing climbing frames, they got him washing hands and they were / are just so all round brilliant with him.

As I wrote in my highlights of 2007 post and my highlights of 2008 post, I would kind of like to dump the pushchair but that hasn’t happened yet and we have had to go for a special needs pushchair but Boy Lacer does walk to school occasionally without it and on those moments I do often realise that pushchairs are good things, he’ll get there in his own time (often literally).

Personal highlight

Finishing the first draft of my novel!

Book highlight(s)

I can once again give you my incredibly nerdy personal book stats; this year I read / listened to 37 books (down 5 from last year, bad me), broken down that was 17 adult fiction (-17 down from last year), 2 audio books (I’ve got into audio books just this year, so none last year), 14 children’s fiction (+6 last year), 1 graphic novel (+1 from last year), 2 books of short stories and 1 non-fiction (-6 last year). I did not read as much as I wanted to this year, particularly towards the end of the year I’ve had a run of bad books and I am always loath not to finish a book which tends to mean I just don’t read at all. But there have been plenty of book highlights.

Adult fiction favourite

My adult fiction favourite goes to Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, I loved that one. I also particularly enjoyed the rest of the Shardlake series, which I read at the beginning of the year.

Children’s fiction favourite

I have read some really good children’s books this year but my absolute favourite goes to Charlie Higson’s The Enemy, which had me hooked literally from the supermarket conveyor belt. Honourable mentions go to anything I’ve read this year by Eoin Colfer and Anthony Horowitz.

Cook book highlight

For this I can’t chose between Fay’s Family Food and River Cottage Everyday, both really usable, family friendly books.

Film / DVD highlight

Another one for Neil Gaiman, the adaptation of his book Coraline was amazing. I also (although I never actually blogged about it) thought the film Moon was fantastic, really clever and ‘proper’ original sci-fi.

TV highlight

Nope, I’m not going to say Doctor Who, because although largely fantastic, it was not consistently fantastic. What has been consistently fantastic was Torchwood: Children of the Earth, for telly so gripping and so real life scary (come on, don’t you just think real life politicians would behave that way?) and for Merlin for fantastic characterisation with great individual storylines yet an intensely building over riding story arc, that just makes me want to write stories that are half as good as the way Merlin is written for TV.

Happy New Year everyone!

Fragile Things

fragile thingsMore readings from Mr. Lacer’s book pile, although of course I’d have gone and brought it eventually if he hadn’t.

Fragile Things is another one of Neil Gaiman’s short story collections and I think this one is even better than Smoke and Mirrors. Now I’m not normally a great fan of short story collections, as I think they can often be an excuse for the author to go ‘look how clever I am’ but Neil Gaiman can always write a good proper story, long or short. There are lots of stories from Fragile Things that I think I can say are favourites of mine; October in the Chair, which is sort of two stories in one and features the nice idea of anthropomorphised months of the year sitting around telling each other stories. Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire is fantastic, a topsy turvy tale of a tortured writer in a gothic world trying to write gothic realism and then realises that maybe he should try some fantasy. The Flints of Memory Lane, a reportedly real ghost story. And whereas Closing Time is  a spooky London-ey ghost story, that captures story telling perfectly, Bitter Grounds capture’s Gaiman’s other ability to capture the surreal elements of journeying across America. Other People is literally a clever and hellish Moebius story. Keepsakes and Treasures is Gaiman back on this side of the pond introducing one of Gaiman’s trademark sinister characters, Mr. Alice, that later pops up in the American Gods novella, The Monarch of the Glen, at the end of the book. Harlequin Valentine is another slice of Americana, written again in Gaiman’s hypnotic prose. The Problem of Susan talks about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and is one of those short stories you find yourself thinking about days after reading it. Sunbird is a fantastic story featuring a group of people who’ve eaten almost everything. And finally The Monarch of the Glen, the American Gods novella, which I thought was brilliant to, making me remember exactly how much I loved American Gods, reintroducing the character Shadow, this time he’s in rural Scotland, a place which from how I’ve read Gaiman write about it elsewhere, he loves and is fascinated by. The Monarch of the Glen opens a little like a Christopher Brookmyre novel, you know, Scottish wilderness, weird locals, big old house, big party, people getting shipped in, you know it’s going to end in murder and mayhem. Except of course Gaiman introduces a mythical element to it, introducing two mythical characters (I won’t say which ones, don’t want to spoil the surprise, but he’s dealt with them before).

So, all in all, a brilliant book and with a high concentration of ghost stories and spooky goings on, great for the lead up to Halloween to!

Stardust

Stardust

Mr. Lacer actually brought this one (he’s developing a dangerous book buying habit ;) ), he was reading Gaiman’s Fragile Things at the time (also another one of his purchases) and Stardust was the last of the Gaiman books with the nice Headline covers that we didn’t have. He handed me Stardust, “You’ll read this before I finish Fragile Things”; I’m a far quicker reader than him and Stardust is only a short book (at around 190 pages), however, I am shocked to say, this has taken me ages to read and poor Mr. Lacer finished Fragile Things ages ago and he’s been consequently waiting for me to finish.

Now, normally I adore books by Neil Gaiman and will devour them, 190 pages, pah, that’d take me 2 days max, because when I find a book I like, I make time to read it, Stardust on the otherhand, well, it was beautifully and evocatively written, literally dripping with gorgeousness, just a mere sentence transporting you to the land of Faerie, but plot? A little lacking compared to Gaiman’s other books I love, like Neverwhere, Coraline, American Gods, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, heck all of them! In Gaiman’s defence, I don’t think he was aiming for much plot here, don’t get me wrong, there was plot, but it was quite ‘traditional’, which is what I think he must have been going for. Stardust is a very traditional fairy story, telling the tale of Tristran, from the village of Wall, he crosses over to Faerie to find a fallen star. There’s witches, feuding Lords and other strange miscellanous creatures. Gaiman brings everything to life with his normal skill at writing, in fact I think he surpasses himself here, evoking everything from the mundane of the weather, with brilliant lines like

The rain began at dawn, abruptly, as if the sky had turned to water,

and

Dusk seemed to have started at dawn that day,

to lines describing the people Tristran meets (you’ll forgive me for only specifically remembering the lines about the weather, I have a soft spot for well described weather – I’m so English). I also really liked the idea of the village of Wall, a village in our day to day reality, yet close enough to Faerie, that strange things happen if the wind blows the wrong way, I liked the whole borderline-ness of it all.

So, for reading the majority of the book, I’d read a few pages, think “Well this is all very nice, stunningly written,” and then go and put the book down and do something else. The story does pick up however towards the end. So to anyone who’s just read Stardust and have based their opinions of Gaiman’s work on just that, I’d say read another one, like maybe Neverwhere or The Graveyard Book, for a taste of his more ‘English’ works and American Gods for a taste of his more ‘American work’, to get a better idea about what Gaiman normally writes.

Finally, as usual with (at least the Headline editions), there is some nice extra material with this book; an author interview and a prologue for a book Gaiman hasn’t written called Wall. Stardust, it turns out, is sort of a prequel for a book that never was. Whereas Stardust is set in the Victorian era, Wall is a modern day story, set in the same village as Tristran came from, featuring a 40 something romantic novelist who’s books are read by characters in American Gods. As someone who is interested in writing, I love those extra little details about the author, Gaiman obviously has these massive complex worlds going on in his head and we’ve only seen glimpses of them so far in his books. And as much as Stardust is not my most favourite book of his, by far, I do hope he write’s his Wall.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

batmanMr. Lacer’s birthday present from me was rather late this year, but in my defence they’ve only just released this, and I knew this was worth waiting for. Both me and Mr. Lacer are massive fans of Neil Gaiman (in fact, hold the front pages, Mr. Lacer recently shocked me by actually going out and buying a book, all by himself, bless, he only normally buys Terry Pratchett and even then he hopes someone else will buy it for him, he normally just reads a select few of my cast me downs, namely anything by Neil Gaiman and Dexter, but he got tired of waiting for me to buy Gaiman’s Fragile Things, so he brought it, he would have brought Stardust to, but it didn’t have the right cover . . .), anyway, me and Mr. Lacer are big fans of Neil Gaiman, we both read his blog, so off course we knew that he’d been asked to write the final Batman, we didn’t go as far as getting the comic when it came out but I was rather pleased to find out that it was coming out later as a book.

So, Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is a lovely, shiny, hardbacked copy of parts 1 and 2 of the final story, illustrated by Andy Kubert. It also includes a further three Batman stories, also written by Gaiman; A Black and White World, Pavane and Original Sins, which has When is a Door? within that story. This was my first experience of any of Gaiman’s comic writing, it feels sort of wrong that I’m not breaking my teeth on Sandman first, the series he’s most famed on, but the price of those books (although understandable, they’re big books, puts me off), so some Batman was a good start. I really liked Whatever Happened?, it looked at how all the people in Batman’s life saw him and how death wasn’t necessarily big, it can happen with the small things to, like being shot trying to stop in a street robbery or drowning in an attempt to save a child, (which of course in real life, to real people, those things would be epic but when you’re Batman and you’re used to being inches away from death from god knows what, they’re little).

Out of the other stories, I really liked A Black and White World, an interesting take on comics, were the Batman and the Joker are behind the scenes of the comic in the green room, practising their lines. The other two stories didn’t really feature Batman at all, concentrating instead on the villains and how they effected other people.

Now, I just have to wait for Mr. Lacer to finish Fragile Things, it could be a while . . .