Fabulous short treats: A trio of mini-reviews!

These three books delighted me in different ways, so I thought I’d write up a quick post with thoughts on all three.

Title: The Beautifull Cassandra
Author: Jane Austen
Illustrated by: Leon Steinmetz
Release date for this edition: September 11, 2018
Length: 72 pages

Have you read any of Jane Austen’s early writings, collected as her Juvenilia? I hadn’t… but then my daughter sent me this gorgeous edition of The Beautifull Cassandra, a story Austen wrote when she was just twelve years old. It’s a total treat. The story itself is told in 12 chapters, each only a few lines long, with under 500 words in all. The illustrations here are lovely and perfect, and I adored this book so much!

If you’re looking for an unusual gift for an Austen lover, this would make a great choice!


Title: Snow, Glass, Apples
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by: Colleen Doran
Release date: August 20, 2019
Length: 64 pages

I have loved the disturbing short story Snow, Glass, Apples every since reading it in Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors collection, so when I heard that an illustrated version was being released this year, I just had to have it.


The story is as powerful as ever — taking the fairy tale of Snow White and turning it upside down and inside out. It’s gruesome and scary and disturbing, and gives me a chill right down to my bones.

Add to the power of the story the absolutely stunning illustrations by Colleen Doran… and you have a book that is both beautiful and deeply frightening from start to end.


Title: Galatea
Author: Madeline Miller
Release date: 2013
Length: 37 pages

After reading and loving both The Song of Achilles and Circe, I knew I had to try this earlier short work by Madeline Miller. As with her other books, the author starts with a premise out of Greek mythology: The sculptor Pygmalion creates a sculpture of a woman so incredibly beautiful that he falls in love with her, and begs the goddess Aphrodite to bring her to life so he can marry her.

In Galatea, we learn what happens next. Sure, Pygmalion got the woman of his dreams — but how does she feel about it? What’s it like to be so completely beholden to your creator, a man who only wants you in still, silent perfection? This story is strange and disturbing, and not easy to put from your mind once you’re done reading. Highly recommended.

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Most Anticipated Releases of the Second Half of 2019.

I’m so excited for all of these… as you could probably tell if you took a peek at my pre-order list. A lot of these books are sequels or parts of series, and that’s just fine with me. Here are my top ten anticipated books — see the list below for release dates.

  1. The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell (release date 8/6/2019)
  2. Reticence (The Custard Protocol, #4) by Gail Carriger (release date 8/6/2019)
  3. Snow, Glass, Apple by Neil Gaiman (release date 8/20/2019)
  4. The Institute by Stephen King (release date 9/10/2019)
  5. The Testaments (The Handmaid’s Tale, #2) by Margaret Atwood (release date 9/10/2019)
  6. Wayward Son (Carry On, #2) by Rainbow Rowell (release date 9/24/2019)
  7. The Unkindest Tide (October Daye, #13) by Seanan McGuire (release date 9/3/2019)
  8. The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2) by Philip Pullman (release date 10/3/2019)
  9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (illustrated edition) by J. K. Rowling (release date 10/8/2019)
  10. Malorie (Bird Box, #2) by Josh Malerman (release date 12/3/2019)

Are you planning to read any of these? What books are you dying to read in the 2nd half of 2019? Please share your links!





Top Ten Tuesday: A Selection of Favorite Fantasy Books and Series


Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Books From My Favorite Genre. I bounce between genres quite a bit, but thought I’d focus here on fantasy. My list includes stand-alones as well as series, and because I’m sticking to just 10, I ended up not including three that pretty much go without saying: of course I love the Narnia, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Lord of the Rings books! (See? I managed to mention them after all!)

My top ten, in no particular order:

  • The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
  • Codex Alera (series) by Jim Butcher
  • The Immortals (series) (standing in for ALL Tortall books) by Tamora Pierce (review)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (review)
  • The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (series) by Patricia C. Wrede (review)
  • Wayward Children (series) by Seanan McGuire (review)
  • The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King (review)
  • The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner (review)
  • His Dark Materials (series) by Philip Pullman
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman

What genre did you pick this week? If you wrote a TTT post this week, please share your link!

Audiobook Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Trigger WarningI’ve said it a bazillion times already on my blog: I suck at short stories. My attention wanders. I get impatient. I feel as though I’m just serving time until I can get back to my “real” reading… meaning reading a full-length novel.

And yet — after attending a talk by Neil Gaiman last spring and coming home with a signed copy of his latest book, I felt compelled to actually READ Trigger Warning, instead of just sticking in on a shelf to be admired for its prettiness.

Trigger Warning is a story collection (or, as the cover states, a collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”). While I love Neil Gaiman’s writing, pretty much always and no matter what, my dreaded aversion to short stories was keeping me from starting Trigger Warning, until I finally had the brilliant idea of listening to the audiobook.


I listened to (almost) the entire audiobook of Trigger Warning during the past week, and I must admit that I really enjoyed it.

Of course, the fact that Neil Himself is the narrator does not hurt. Nope, not one bit.

Neil Gaiman is in fact a terrific, animated, nuanced narrator, and his reading of the stories is never dull. I loved the tiny inflections and emphases, the slight accents for different characters, and the pacing and delivery. And there’s an odd sense of rightness in hearing the author read his own book. He, of all people, should know which parts are meant to be spoken boldly, which to trail off, when to be quiet, and when to practically chant. The eerie stories were read eerily; the funny bits had laughter hiding in the tone of his voice. Simply marvelous.

As for the stories themselves, this is really a very mixed assortment. Most (all?) appeared elsewhere originally, whether in other anthologies or written for special projects or events. I’d read two stories previously, “Orange” and “The Thing About Cassandra”, and enjoyed them immensely here in spoken format.

Other standouts for me are “Down to a Sunless Sea”, a short but entirely chilling tale told by a mysterious woman one rainy day along a wharf. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” is a long, mythical-feeling piece involving a quest for gold, truth, and revenge, and I loved it. “A Calendar of Tales” grew out of a Twitter project, with a brief story for each month of the year. I especially loved the March tale, about the pirate Anne Bonny, and the wonderful October tale about a genie.

Weird, scary, funny, epic — the stories in Trigger Warning range from fairy tale to science fiction to horror, but all have a twist and a tone that make them surprising, entertaining, and captivating.

The only small irksome thing about the audiobook is that the description of the context for each story appears in the book’s introduction, and with an audiobook, there really isn’t a good, easy way to flip back and forth. I was glad I had the hard copy on hand so I could reference the intro again and again, and would suggest that if you’re going to listen to the audiobook, get your hands on a printed book or e-book so you can follow along.

Even if you’re — like me — not normally into story collections, it’s worth the time to give Trigger Warning a try, especially if you’re a Neil Gaiman fan. The audiobook definitely worked for me, and I’m so glad that I had the idea of listening to the stories rather than trying to force myself to concentrate on reading them in printed book form. An added bonus for me, based on my experience with Trigger Warning, is that I think I can use audiobook listening in the future to enjoy story collections that I might otherwise have skipped.

And even more than that, having now listened to Stardust and Trigger Warning, I’m super motivated to listen to even more by Neil Gaiman. I’ve been wanting to re-read The Graveyard Book for a while now, and I think audio might be just the ticket!


The details:

Title: Trigger Warning
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: February 3, 2015
Audiobook length: 11 hours, 1 minute
Printed book length: 310 pages
Genre: Stories
Source: Purchased (hard copy)/Library (audio download)

Thursday Quotables: Stardust


Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.


Stardust by Neil Gaiman
(published 1999 )

I’m listening to the audiobook of Stardust, narrated by Neil Himself, and it’s just a delight. It’s been many years since I first read Stardust, and I’d forgotten how sweet and funny and sly it can be — and also eerie and moody and dangerous. Here are but a few little selections that either gave me the chills or made me chuckle. And they all just sound so good when read out loud:

He summoned his children to his bedside and they came, the living and the dead of them, and they shivered in the cold granite halls. They gathered about his bed and waited respectfully, the living to his right side, the dead on his left.

Or for a lighter mood:

“I knowed a man in Paphlagonia who’d swallow a live snake every morning, when he got up. He used to say, he was certain of one thing, that nothing worse would happen to him all day. ‘Course they made him eat a bowlful of hairy centipedes before they hung him, so maybe that claim was a bit presumptive.”

One more bit of conversation:

Tristran thought for some moments, and then he said, “I come from the village of Wall, where there lives a young lady named Victoria Forester, who is without peer among women, and it is to her, and to her alone, that I have given my heart. Her face is– ”

“Usual complement of bits?” asked the little creature. “Eyes? Nose? Teeth? All the usual?”

“Of course.”

“Well then, you can skip that stuff,” said the little hairy man.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

A two-person review: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens 2I had the great fortune of attending a Neil Gaiman appearance two weeks ago, which occurred on the day of the late Terry Pratchett’s death. Hearing Neil Gaiman speak with great warmth and emotion about his long friendship with Terry Pratchett and their marvelous collaborations made me realize that I had to read Good Omens without further delay… and many people felt the same way, including my good friend Heidi.

Heidi is a real-life friend who is also one of my very favorite book people. She attended the Neil Gaiman event with me**, and  also just read Good Omens this past week. (Her second time; my first). I was going to get to work on a review of Good Omens, and then I saw Heidi’s Goodreads review, which is wonderful and really says it all.

**We even got a picture with Neil Gaiman! However… I think I look hideous and she looks great. Heidi is convinced that she looks hideous and I’m actually okay. End result? We’re not posting the picture.

With Heidi’s permission, I’m featuring her words on Good Omens as a guest review:

4751840Heidi‘s review

Mar 28, 15

This was my introduction to Neil Gaiman. I have a first edition hardback, thanks to my dad, who, browsing in a bookstore one day in 1990, picked it up and thought: “This is something my daughter would like.” He had no idea. He subsequently read it himself, and to this day nurses a crush on War.

This past March 12, the date on which you might remember Sir Terry Pratchett took one last walk with an old friend, I had the improbable good/bad luck to attend an evening of conversation with Neil Gaiman. It was clear Neil was tired, and sad, but he was there. He didn’t cancel, and he very gracefully took time to chat and pose for pics at the reception beforehand. He was exactly as charming and approachable as any fan could hope.*

The talk itself, with Gaiman’s close friend Michael Chabon acting as interviewer, was meant to support his new story collection Trigger Warning, but we were in for an unscheduled surprise when it turned into a sad, funny, moving eulogy for Sir Terry. Gaiman, as he does so well, told stories. He told us about how, as a young journalist, he met his early mentor and lifelong friend Terry Pratchett. He talked about long phone calls during their pre-Internet collaboration on Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. He told funny Terry stories. And he spoke proudly about Pratchett’s brave struggle with Alzheimer’s and his very public campaign for death with dignity.

And finally, he read from this book.Which is a round-about way of getting to why I decided to reread Good Omens when I have a giant stack of new books waiting for me. This book — the story of the coming of the Antichrist (a spunky boy called Adam who’s maybe a little too rebellious for the position), and of an angel and a demon who team up to thwart the Apocalypse because they kind of like things just as they are, thank you very much — is just as delightful as it was in 1990. And from here in 2015, it gains unexpected emotional heft as a Bradbury-esque fable of that not-so-long-gone time when kids actually went out to play and make trouble of a summer day. It’s still Douglas Adams-level silly, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and its influence on the fantasy genre is undeniable. And under the comic veneer is a keen study of human (and angelic and demonic) fallibility, and the joys and responsibilities of exercising our freewill. Upgraded from four to five stars. A classic.

*In case anyone is interested in what happened when I had my chance to chat with Neil-freaking-Gaiman, I have to admit I was a little star-struck. I managed to blurt out how much I loved his screenplay for the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife.” In it, the TARDIS is enabled to manifest in a human body, and for the first time actually “meet” the Doctor. There’s a moment, after she’s been embodied for a while, she points out how humans are rather like a TARDIS — much bigger on the inside. Neil’s eyes — I swear — actually twinkled, and he replied: “Yes . . . that was one of those moments when I thought — yes, I’ve done something clever right there.” That episode won the 2011 Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation and the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.

Heidi is an amazing reader and writer, and is a horror aficionado too — so if you’re looking for great reviews and recommendations, you should check her out on Goodreads!

My thoughts:

I’m not sure what I can say to add to Heidi’s words. I’m annoyed with myself for waiting so long to read Good Omens, when it was clear to me all along that I’d be sure to love this book. All the folks who say that Good Omens will appeal to Douglas Adams fans are entirely correct. There’s humor to be found in the bleakest of circumstances (like, oh, the end of the world), and Gaiman and Pratchett manage to keep Good Omens clever and funny even when it’s raining fish, Atlantis rises from the depths, and the Four Horsemen are abroad in the land, on motorcycles this time but utterly bad to the bone.

How can you not love a book in which Famine amuses himself in the 20th century by creating a calorie-less diet craze? Or where an angel and demon agree that the world is pretty okay, and that the true problem is nasty humans, not the temptations of hell? Throw in a vast assortment of characters, including a gang of four children known collectively as the Them (one of whom is also the Antichrist), a Hellhound who’s mostly a cuddly mutt, witchfinders, satanic nuns, and a very important delivery man, and you’ve got a book that’s just a pure joy to read.

I’ll wind up with a few random quotes and passages that made me chuckle:

It’s like you said the other day,” said Adam. “You grow up readin’ about pirates and cowboys and spacemen and stuff, and jus’ when  you think the world’s all full of amazin’ things, they tell you it’s really all dead whales and chopped-down forests and nuclear waste hangin’ about for millions of years. ‘Snot worth growin’ up for, if you ask my opinion.”

cropped-flourish-31609_12801.pngThe kraken stirs. And ten billion sushi dinners cry out for vengeance.

cropped-flourish-31609_12801.png“Oh, come on. Be sensible,” said Aziraphale, doubtfully.

“That’s not good advice,” said Crowley. “That’s not good advice at all. If you sit down and think about it sensibly, you come up with some very funny ideas. Like: why make people inquisitive, and then put some forbidden fruit where they can see it with a big neon finger flashing on and off saying ‘THIS IS IT!’?”

“I don’t remember any neon.”

cropped-flourish-31609_12801.pngSome police forces would believe anything. Not the Metropolitan police, though. The Met was the hardest, most cynically pragmatic, most stubbornly down-to-earth police force in Britain.

It would take a lot to faze a copper from the Met.

It would take, for example, a huge, battered car that was nothing more nor less than a fireball, a blazing, roaring, twisted metal lemon from Hell, driven by a grinning lunatic in sunglasses, sitting amid the flames, trailing thick black smoke, coming straight at them through the lashing rain and wind at eighty miles per hour.

That would do it every time.

If you’ve grinned a bit reading these passages, there’s nothing to do but rush right out and get a copy of Good Omens. It’s amazing. Enjoy!


The details:

Title: Good Omens
Author: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Various editions
Publication date: 1990
Length: 367 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Borrowed (stolen) from my daughter’s bookshelf

Thursday Quotables: Good Omens


Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

Good Omens 2

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
(published 1990)

I have no idea why it’s taken me so long to finally read Good Omens, but after attending a Neil Gaiman appearance (video here) on the day of Terry Pratchett’s passing, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer.

As the blurb on the cover says: “The Apocalypse has never been funnier.” I’m only about halfway through the book, but I’m loving it. Here are a few reasons why:

Crowley thumped the wheel. Everything had been going so well, he’d had it really under his thumb these few centuries. That’s how it goes, you think you’re on top of the world, and suddenly they spring Armageddon on you. The Great War, the Last Battle. Heaven versus Hell, three rounds, one Fall, no submission. And that’d be that. No more world. That’s what the end of the world meant. No more world. Just endless Heaven or, depending who won, endless Hell. Crowley didn’t know which was worse.

Well, Hell was worse, of course, by definition. but Crowly remembered what Heaven was like, and it had quite a few things in common with Hell. You couldn’t get a decent drink in either of them, for a start. And the boredom you got in Heaven was almost as bad as the excitement you got in Hell.


Two of them lurked in the ruined graveyard. Two shadowy figures, one hunched and squat, the other lean and menacing, both of them Olympic-grade lurkers. If Bruce Springsteen had ever recorded “Born to Lurk,” these two would have been on the album cover. They had been lurking in the fog for an hour now, but they had been pacing themselves and could lurk for the rest of the night if necessary, with still enough sullen menace left for a final burst of lurking around dawn.

One more:

Pepper’s given first names were Pippin Galadriel Moonchild. She had been given them in a naming ceremony in a muddy valley field that contained three sheep and a number of leaky polythene teepees. Her mother had chosen the Welsh valley of Pant-y-Gyrdl as the ideal site to Return to Nature. (Six months later, sick of the rain, the mosquitoes, the men, the tent-trampling sheep who ate first the whole commune’s marijuana crop and then its antique minibus, and by now beginning to glimpse why almost the entire drive of human history has been an attempt to get as far away from Nature as possible, Pepper’s mother returned to Pepper’s surprised grandparents in Tadfield, bought a bra, and enrolled in a sociology course with a deep sigh of relief.)

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Flashback Friday: Stardust

ffbutton2Flashback Friday is a weekly tradition started here at Bookshelf Fantasies, focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves. If you’d like to join in, just pick a book published at least five years ago, post your Flashback Friday pick on your blog, and let us all know about that special book from your reading past and why it matters to you. Don’t forget to link up!

My Flashback Friday pick this week:


Stardust by Neil Gaiman
(published 1999)

Synopsis (Goodreads):

In the sleepy English countryside at the dawn of the Victorian Era, life moves at a leisurely pace in the tiny town of Wall–a secluded hamlet so named for an imposing stone barrier that surrounds a fertile grassland. Armed sentries guard the sole gap in the bulwark to keep the inquisitive from wandering through, relaxing their vigil only once every nine years, when a market fair unlike any other in the world of men comes to the meadow. Here in Wall, young Tristran Thorn has lost his heart to beautiful Victoria Forester. But Victoria is cold and distant–as distant, in fact, as the star she and Tristran see fall from the sky on a crisp October evening. For the coveted prize of Victoria’s hand, Tristran vows to retrieve the fallen star and deliver it to his beloved. It is an oath that sends the lovelorn swain over the ancient wall, and propels him into a world that is strange beyond imagining.

But Tristran is not the only one seeking the heavenly jewel. There are those for whom it promises youth and beauty, the key to a kingdom, and the rejuvenation of dark, dormant magics. And a lad compelled by love will have to keep his wits about him to succeed and survive in this secret place where fallen stars come in many guises–and where quests have a way of branching off in unexpected directions, even turning back upon themselves in space and in time.

Neil Gaiman works his unique literary magic in new and dazzling ways in “Stardust, a novel that will shine in the heart and memory far beyond the turning of its final page.

I consider Stardust a modern classic — a dreamy fairy tale with touches of witchy evil, struggles for a throne, and flying pirates! As far as I remember, Stardust was my very first Neil Gaiman book, and I love the fact that it’s perfect for adults but really accessible for kids too.

Stardust is also one of the rare cases where a great books is adapted into a pretty terrific movie… but still, if you’ve only seen the movie, read the book! It’s fun, it’s romantic, it’s exciting, and totally enchanting.

PS – In case you need encouragement to see the movie… how about these magic words? Henry Cavill. The guy who plays Prince Caspian. Are you convinced yet? 🙂

What flashback book is on your mind this week?

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday fun:

  • Grab the Flashback Friday button
  • Post your own Flashback Friday entry on your blog (and mention Bookshelf Fantasies as the host of the meme, if you please!)
  • Leave your link in the comments below
  • Check out other FF posts… and discover some terrific hidden gems to add to your TBR piles!


Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

The Monday Agenda 7/8/2013

MondayAgendaNot a lofty, ambitious to-be-read list consisting of 100+ book titles. Just a simple plan for the upcoming week — what I’m reading now, what I plan to read next, and what I’m hoping to squeeze in among the nooks and crannies.

I’m back, busily bustling through bunches of books (and amusing myself with alliteration, it would seem).

How did I do with last week’s agenda?

This is really a two-week check-in, since I was away (on a lovely vacation, thanks for asking!) and skipped a week of blogging. Here’s what I’ve read since my last update:

Vacation books:

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde: Done! Loved it. My review is here.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Done! My review is here.

A Small Death in the Great Glen by A. D. Scott: Done! My review is here.

Post-vacation reading:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: Done! Beautiful book. My review is here.

Saga, volumes 1 and 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples: Amazing new graphic novel series from the author of Y: The Last Man, one of my favorites. I loved the two volumes of Saga, and can’t wait to read more.

Fresh Catch:

Well, I was away, after all, so the fresh catch collection is on the smallish side:

Saga, Volume 2When You Were HereThe Girl You Left BehindOpenly Straight

Yes, I did read Saga, volume 2 already, the second it reached my hot little hands! The other books are from a giveaway (When You Were Here — thank you, Perpetual Page-Turner!) and two ARCs that were just approved. Looking forward to all of them!

What’s on my reading agenda for the coming week?

I’ve just started Joyland by Stephen King, and I’m hooked!

Next up, one of my pending review copies, either Mist by Susan Krinard or The Book of Secrets by Elizabeth Joy Arnold.

Mist (Mist, #1)The Book of Secrets: A Novel

Plus, I’d really love to get to more of the books on my summer TBR list!

My kiddo is safely home from an “awesome” time at summer camp, and ready to resume our nightly reading tradition. We’re continuing our Narnia quest, and will be starting The Voyage of the Dawn Treader this week. Four books down, three to go!

boy1So many book, so little time…

That’s my agenda. What’s yours? Add your comments to share your bookish agenda for the week.

Book Review: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Book Review: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This sad, sweet book is a reflective look back at childhood, a meditation on innocence and trust, and a sorrowful examination of what is lost in the process of growing up.

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the unnamed narrator, middle-aged and giving off a sad-sack vibe, returns to his childhood town for the funeral of one of his parents. Needing escape from the formalities and niceties involved in the official mourning process, he drives off toward the site of his ramshackle boyhood home, now a sparkling new housing subdivision, and then is drawn further down the lane. As he travels down the rough country road, memories start to spark — memories of a girl named Lettie, who befriended him at age seven and since moved away. To Australia, perhaps? He’s not sure, but upon arrival at Lettie’s family farm, memories of a pond (that she called an ocean) resurface, and soon, an entire hidden chapter from his childhood comes back to him.

There’s a sorrow that permeates the childhood memories, even before the main events of the story begin. The boy has a nice home and pleasant parents, but is a loner, constantly immersed in books and without any friends. The action kicks off after the boy’s lonely 7th birthday, for which his mother prepares a lovely party and invites the boys from school — but no one comes, which doesn’t surprise the boy:

They were not my friends, after all. They were just the people I went to school with.

This small, sad incident sets the tone for one of the book’s themes. Part of childhood and growing up is coming to understand that parents can’t always protect us from the bad stuff. Life is hard, and loving parents are not infallible. Much as they try, parents can’t keep out the disappointments and harshness that intrude from outside the walls of home.

Moving from the sadness of the failed birthday party, a different sort of world is quickly revealed. There’s an elemental sort of magic involved, and horrible creatures too. The boy’s life and family are threatened by what appears to be an unstoppable evil, masquerading as something lovely and lovable. The world itself seems to be at risk, and great sacrifice and bravery are required. We see it all through the eyes of a man remembering what it felt like to be a child, to be powerless and scared, and to have to carry on anyway.

Ocean is, simply put, quite beautiful. It’s also, in parts, just terrifying. I was reminded in some ways of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. As with the Other Mother in Coraline, the boy in Ocean finds himself at the mercy of a parent who suddenly becomes “other”. Is there anything scarier than seeing one’s ultimate source of safety and love turn into a source of menace and actual danger? The writing here is magnificent, so that as a reader, I could feel the terror of facing harm at the hands of the person who should be a protector.

With his home no longer safe, the boy seeks protection from the Hempstock women, a trio who appear to be a grandmother, mother, and daughter — but who are in reality forces of nature, timeless and powerful, seemingly an eternal type of earth mothers. They have a gentleness about them that partners with their fierce protection of the boy and his world. They are fearless, facing down the “critters” that don’t belong, and carefully snipping time and events to remove the bad parts and make it all work out as it should. The Hempstock women have a purity and earthiness about them, living on their old-fashioned farm, where they drink milk fresh from the cow and eat rough, homemade bread. Even their food and clothes portray them as people out of time, embracing nature and simplicity, separate from the modern world around them.

Again, a Coraline reminder — as menacing creatures rip shreds of the world away, leaving an awful nothingness in those places, I was reminded of Coraline’s attempt to run away from the Other house and finding a world dissolving around the margins. Reality is less firm than we might think, apparently, and when the vast void shows through, it’s horrible to behold.

The narrator of Ocean contemplates sacrifice and its burden — and while it’s specific to the events of the story, it could also apply to the burden all of us might feel growing up aware of what our own parents’ sacrificed in order to give us a better life:

A flash of resentment. It’s hard enough being alive, trying to survive in the world and find your place in it, to do the things you need to do to get by, without wondering if the thing you just did, whatever it was, was worth someone having… if not died, then having given up her life. It wasn’t fair.

On the surface, the narrator is a typical middle-aged adult, beaten down by a life with mixed successes and failures, in which he’s made art, but has also had a challenging personal life and only occasional happiness. Somewhere lurking within him is a secret knowledge of a hidden reality, mostly lost to him but resurfacing on his occasional visits to the Hempstock farm. He represents, in many ways, any adult who has lost touch with childhood belief and imagination, who finds a hint of it resparked by revisiting its source — perhaps a certain place or a book or a favorite toy — and suddenly remembering the joy and pleasure of a child’s view of the world:

I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth… [P]erhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock.

At under 200 pages, Ocean is a spare, compact, poetic book, with a purity of language. The writing is elegant and simple; not a word is wasted, and there’s not a thing missing. Ocean is marketed as a book for adults, but despite the terror of certain parts, I think there’s an ageless appeal to it as well, so that it might also work for older children — although I don’t think they’d appreciate the bittersweet element of childhood remembered from a distance, which adds such beauty and sadness to the book.

This review is already longer than I’d intended, yet I don’t feel I can really do justice to this book. I wonder: Did I really understand it? Did I miss something important the author was trying to convey? Is the meaning I found here at all in line with the author’s intentions? I have no idea.

And yet…

In reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I found myself both shaken by the boy’s fear and moved by his innocent sense of trust and belief. Even when his parents fail him, the boy has an unshakeable belief in the power of simply holding the hand of someone he trusts, and it’s quite wonderful to behold.

There’s an aching beauty throughout, and something so incredibly sad in the figure of the man drawn back to the Hempstock pond at key moments of his life. Like all adults, he faces daunting questions: Did I measure up? Did I do with my life what I should have done? Was my life worth it? He doesn’t find easy answers, but his pilgrimages to the past seem to bring him peace at key times.

Ocean is a deep, lovely, contemplative work. I imagine that I’ll want to revisit this book repeatedly, to pull apart and tease out all its themes and all it has to offer. Neil Gaiman writes beautifully, with an enchantment to his words that’s an experience in and of itself. I leave you with a magical moment:

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.

Read The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a unique experience, and one of the most beautifully crafted works I’ve read in a long time.