Neil Gaiman has always been one of those authors who makes me feel that it would be really fun, but slightly scary and intimidating, to spend some tim...moreNeil Gaiman has always been one of those authors who makes me feel that it would be really fun, but slightly scary and intimidating, to spend some time, maybe a day, or a couple of hours, inside of his head, making my way through the vast world of his imagination. Reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a lot like getting my wish granted; the sinister charm, childlike wonder accompanied by the dreaded shadow of impending adulthood, and the magic so heavily associated with his works are all present in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Within the charm, ecstasy, and magic, you’ll find a sort of cautionary tale which can leave you feeling depressed, but push you in a direction to make some choices to alleviate said depression, if you take the initiative.
In a literary style that you will also find in famous tales such as The Arabian Nights, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales, this book functions as a sort of “framed story”, or a “story within a story”, with the frame being a sullen, depressed, middle-aged English man leading a rather garden-variety life, returning to a childhood home in order to attend a funeral. He wanders over to his childhood home, since demolished to make way for tract housing, and is drawn to Hempstock Farm, a place which was the cornerstone of many strange occurrences in the man’s childhood that all come flooding back to him as he reminisces. It’s in his memory that the “true” story occurs, and what a story it is!
Gaiman fans will be reminded of Coraline, a veddy veddy typically British home (this time a farm house, rather than a flat) being the site of a variety of spooky, supernatural occurrences, with the focal point of the fright being, like the Other Mother of Coraline, a female adult authority figure who exercises frightening control not only over the young boy, but his entire family and his community. The only sanctuary is Hempstock Farm, which is also connected to how the sinister being arrived in the boy’s world in the first place, but is also his only chance at sending the force back from whence it came.
I could spend all day talking about the Hempstock women. There’s Old Mrs. Hempstock, old enough to remember when the moon first came into being, Younger Mrs. Hempstock, her daughter, and Lettie Hempstock, the granddaughter/daughter, who is friends with our boy narrator and shows him around not only the world of her farm, but worlds that exist beyond it. Lettie is brave, calm, resourceful, adventurous, and is the true “heart” of the novel. We ordinary mortals, through the eyes of our bland, unremarkable, somewhat sullen narrator, get a privileged view of these remarkable, supernatural women. Everything is more sumptuous, more interesting, more real and yet not, on Hempstock Farm. One of the ways this truly came through to me, as a big foodie, was the descriptions of food at Hempstock Farm. Warm milk and cream fresh from the cows, honeycomb lumps, whole feasts of warm, savoury, delicious, filling foods which left me wanting more and more. Simple country fare, but nectar and ambrosia as well, reflecting the larger nature of the Hempstock women as these supernatural beings who nonetheless carry on lives as simple English country farmers.
The exact nature and purpose (if there is one) of the Hempstocks is never explained fully, and it’s said that there are male Hempstocks as well, but they are prone to flightiness and often go out in the world, meaning that there are also part-Hempstock mortal children running about, a concept which delighted me. Without spoiling the book, it is through one of the Hempstocks that the boy learns just how precious his life can be, and what a gift it truly is, which he should not ever waste or let be spent on the dull and unfulfilling. We leave the story there, returning to the frame, and see him, unhappy, with not much to show for his life. In light of what we just learned about the price that was paid for his life to be what it was, it takes on a depressing tone, I was almost tempted to not finish.
But I did, and I put down the book with a greater resolution to get more out of my life, create, and make it worthwhile. When I first finished this book, before I had fully formed my thoughts, I compared the experience of reading it to my various experimentations with MDMA. It starts off simple enough, then you are pulled into something incredible, euphoric, and perception-altering, which has to end eventually, alas, leaving you with the comedown, which can be disorienting, depressing, and leave you with a lot of questions about yourself, your life, and where you belong in the grand scheme of it all. I stand by that comparison. Approach The Ocean at the End of the Lane with a preparation to be amazed, but also to not let the amazement go away once you’ve put the book down. That’s not what the intention is here. There’s something in here that will call you to create and keep up the marvel once the story’s finished.(less)
What a perfect book for a young twentysomething to read! Murakami has come up with something of a tragic lovesong- both for the three characters who a...moreWhat a perfect book for a young twentysomething to read! Murakami has come up with something of a tragic lovesong- both for the three characters who are left emotionally and physically listless for lack of a love connection, and for those poor souls who glide through life silently and with minimal fuss and impact. The title refers to a joke between the characters Miu and Sumire over a mistranslation and mispronunciation of a literary term, but it is also a not-so-subtle reminder of the sad fates of the three main characters, who meet and pass by each other, but can't stop fate from moving them away from each other's trajectories all too quickly. The three characters, K, Sumire, and Miu, are classic Murakami. A spontaneous, somewhat manic, impulsive young twentysomething who loves classical music, and was even named for a Mozart piece? that's Sumire. A mysterious, sophisticated older woman who dazzles with unrevealed secrets and a glamorous yet hollow existence? Miu. An enigmatic narrator through whom we slowly discover the other characters, in particular, the female ones? K hits that mark. Not that there's anything wrong with that of course. One of the pleasures of reading a Murakami novel is that you will immediately recognize the experience of reading one, and more overt examples, like the love of Jazz and classic rock, the Europhilia, and the strange significance of telephones, help plug you into the larger Murakami-land of mystery, eroticism, and mentioned but un-elaborated-upon alternate worlds. Sputnik Sweetheart delivers on all of these fronts.
For some bizarre and disappointing reason, this book is known as Revenge in the U.S, rather than its delightful original title, which comes from this...moreFor some bizarre and disappointing reason, this book is known as Revenge in the U.S, rather than its delightful original title, which comes from this quote in The Duchess of Malfi: “We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and banded which way please them.” A strangely appropriate and ironic title for a modern-day adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, which centres on the way one man realizes how little control he has over his destiny, but then forcefully reclaims it.
The story is a direct face-lift of Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel, set in England from 1980 to the early 2000s. Names have been given a punny facelift (Mercedes becomes Portia, get it?) or been switched into an anagram (Edmond Dantès is now Edward “Ned” Maddstone) Now, instead of being arrested on suspicions of being loyal to Napoleon, our hero is instead tangled up in an intricate IRA plot after falling victim to a promise made to a dying schoolteacher and a mean-spirited classmates’ prank. The island fortress is still there, but instead of a mad priest called abbé, we have the elderly, brilliant “Babe”, who secretly teaches Ned the ways of chess, backgammon, languages, philosophy, and literature. The interactions between Babe and Ned are the most enjoyable parts of the book; it’s almost like having an intimate mentor-to-pupil conversation with Fry himself, since Babe seems almost close to an Author Avatar in his witty turn-of-phrase, rich depth of knowledge, and wry observations of the world. This primes him for his eventual escape and revenge, aided by Babe’s knowledge of the passcode and account number of a well-endowed Swiss bank account.
Even though the story, save for the locations and times, is not Fry’s original work, he manages to make them his own through his writing style. For a man of his age, he certainly manages to capture the emotions and expressions of teenagers with crystal clarity: The diary of Ashley Barson-Garland, one of the masterminds of Ned’s fall from grace, reads like it could have been the Livejournal of a particularly arrogant fifteen-year old would-be intellectual. The love letters between Portia and Ned have all the saccharine quality of letters I remember writing to my boyfriend when I was a teenager rushed into hormonal overdrive. There are many different voices in The Stars’ Tennis Balls, but the shift isn’t at all jarring or distracting, it allows for deeper immersion into the story and encourages the reader to question whether Ned, re-entering society as Simon Cotter (“Monte Cristo” in anagram form) is right in taking his revenge.
Unfortunately though, the ending feels too rushed, and full satisfaction for Ned’s triumph and vengeance is never achieved. Revenge can’t be taken in haste, but it concludes very rapidly. Maybe that’s better for the world of this modern day Monte Cristo, the world of hackings, cell-phones, and live TV, but it could have lasted longer and had more slow, deliberate blows to the enemies. One other quibble is equally the fault of the source material: We’re aware that we’re supposed to enjoy the revenge, but with a bitterness to it, a question of, “is this really right?” But Ned’s targets for revenge become, by the end, so cartoonishly wicked and depraved, that any chance for sympathy or a bit of reflection on their lives before Ned re-enters them with a hunger for his brand of justice, evaporates completely.
I won’t begrudge a lack of perfection though. As it is, it’s fun, merry, and a delight to read, I finished it in one afternoon. It’s certainly a more rewarding journey than watching a silly film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, none of which are satisfactory, in my opinion.(less)
The Sigh is Marjane Satrapi's answer to Beauty and the Beast and other fairy tales which permeate our culture. It's the story of Rose, the youngest of...moreThe Sigh is Marjane Satrapi's answer to Beauty and the Beast and other fairy tales which permeate our culture. It's the story of Rose, the youngest of three daughters of a merchant, who requests a bean seed from her father when he returns from the market, a request he's unable to fulfil, which leads to her uttering the titular sigh, which ends up being a call to a physical manifestation of the Sigh, named Ah. The Sigh has come to give Rose the bean seed, and the father promises anything in return for this gesture of magnanimosity. We all know how fairy tales like this go, and Ah the Sigh returns a year later to take Rose away to his kingdom. She finds herself given a world of pleasures, and doesn't want for anything, except a chance to visit her family once again. They manage to plant the seeds of doubt, curiosity, and suspicion in the mind of Rose, and she, in the tradition of Psyche and Pandora, peers into places she hadn't before, and finds herself in love with the Prince of this Kingdom of Sighs, and has love to complete her life. But curiosity once again throws Rose's life off balance when she ends up accidentally killing her Prince, and must go through various slave markets and on fantastic adventures in order to recover what was lost. This isn't really a graphic novel like Satrapi's other works, such as Persepolis and Chicken with Plums, it's more of a children's book than anything, and I missed some of the more mature humour and emotional turmoil present in her other works. It's a good twist and remix on classic fairy tales, and Rose is a proactive, intelligent, resourceful girl, not unlike Princess Elizabeth in The Paper Bag Princess. If I have children, I'd definitely enjoy reading this to them. As an adult reading it on my own, I wasn't blown away by it and didn't attain any profound life lessons from it, but who says you always need to be? (less)
This novel greatly reminded me of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, another novel dealing with a "fish out of water" Westerner in new territory,...moreThis novel greatly reminded me of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, another novel dealing with a "fish out of water" Westerner in new territory, learning the social customs of the land, and befriending am intriguing native woman who is an outsider in some way. I wonder just how common that is in literature, now that I think about it. Like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, this novel is also very thorough on its background research and has a grounding in some medical history as well (Kalla is a medical doctor who practices in Vancouver) But the two eras that these novels deal with couldn't be any more different, and the circumstances of the main protagonists are as far apart as stars in the sky, with one set firmly in the promising, uncertain world of Tokugawa Japan, the other in equally uncertain Shanghai partitioned and approaching a brutal beating by the coming of WWII. The hero of our story here is Herr Dokter Franz Adler, an Austrian Jew who is so removed from his faith and heritage that the only common trait him and Judaism seem to share is a distaste for both liars and working on Saturdays. But his secularism matters not to the Nazis, for whom, a Jew is a Jew, just ask Primo Levi. After seeing his poor brother murdered in cold blood a few days before Kristallnacht, Doctor Adler resolves to remove himself, his daughter with cerebral palsy, and his freshly widowed sister-in-law out of Austria. But where to go? Countries all across the world are turning Jewish Germans and Austrians away, leaving very few viable choices. Franz settles on Shanghai, bringing along his daughter, his sister-in-law, and an eccentric, delightful, tragically underused character called Ernst, a gay artist who has as much to run from in Austria as the Adlers. Shanghai is a new, boisterous, and interesting city, with new and interesting people, such as Simon, an American who is lending his time and hard work towards settling Jewish refugees, and Sunny, a Eurasian (What we in Hawaii would call Hapa, half white and half Chinese) nurse who was denied entrance into proper medical school by the casual sexism of the time, and many others. It's Sunny who plays a central role to Dr. Adler's transition to Shanghai, his "Miss Aibagawa", who is simultaneously intriguing and yet accessible, but never falls prey to racist stereotyping. She is strong-willed, interesting, and a great character who really deserved her own series. I was worried she would fall into the primary role of being a love interest of the good Doctor, but she remained interesting, independent, and multifaceted. As a hapa character, it's pretty interesting that she'd bond well to Dr. Adler, who is also something of an outsider within both communities, a stranger in a strange land and a secular Jew with a non-Jewish wife in his past. The story as it progresses is basically a refreshment of the usual in Holocaust literature, avoiding the Nazis as their power and influence spreads, discovering that the uniform you wear isn't necessarily the best indicator of the virtue and personal character of the person wearing it, and a stern lesson on the dangers of apathy and disregard for others. But with the new setting, I didn't mind terribly, I obviously read a lot of Holocaust literature, and there are millions of stories and perspectives to gain from each one. I was quite glad to have read this one, in light of having finished a course on War and Peace in East Asia and noticing the care to detail on parts of the Pacific Theatre, such as Manchukuo and Shanghai's partitioning between multiple powers. The history of Shanghai's once-vibrant Jewish community was a treat to glimpse in this book, and the story is solid, if predictable. The characters won't stay with you forever, but while you travel with them in the story, you definitely enjoy the journey. (less)
Reading The Magicians is a curious experience for someone of my generation, who was raised on a steady diet of Harry Potter with some Narnia, Alice, a...moreReading The Magicians is a curious experience for someone of my generation, who was raised on a steady diet of Harry Potter with some Narnia, Alice, and other luminaries of the magical fantasy literary canon sprinkled in. In an appropriate simile, it's a bit like ingesting a bezoar; you feel violently ill at some points, and the feeling is akin to vomiting, but after it's all done with, the cleansing catharsis one feels is unparalleled. I'm not grasping at straws here, Grossman is very aware that with a book about a magical school in this day and age, he's entering territory saturated with Harry's presence. He even jokes about it a few times, with one professor of the magical school noting that this was not the type of magic where one could wave a wand and recite made-up Latin in order to get results, and it's fairly obvious that Quentin, our protagonist, has read the books. This makes him highly relatable, he is not unlike the people who are going to pick up The Magicians: bored, intelligent, perceptive young adults who crave something to relieve the mundane monotony of their existence. His creation by Grossman is equal parts Harry, Edmund Pevensie, Ariel the Mermaid, Jonathan Strange, and Ender Wiggin. The book functions as a deconstruction of these other works, as a coming of age story, and as an answer to the probing questions surrounding fantasy that are not family-friendly or redeeming enough for the likes of good-hearted fantasy or whimsical Christian allegories. Ennui, hedonism, sexual frustration, and the most painful parts of realizing adulthood are all examined here in excruciating detail. It leaves you, should you be one of the Hogwarts graduates, with a sense of lingering anxiety and the desire to examine yourself and the type of person you've become more deeply than ever before. This is quite the feat for such a simple story, it's deceptively nondescript on the surface, with Quentin learning that he's been selected to try for an exam into a magic academy. Quentin passes, and finds himself in Brakebills, a magic academy nestled somewhere in the belly of New York, inaccessible unless you know where to look and what to look for. The magic lessons here are emotionally, intellectually, and physically gruelling, involving forays into obscure, dead languages, physics, and other, more esoteric studies. It's certainly not what he expected after a steady childhood of Fillory, a series of magic books set in a world not unlike Narnia, but it gives him a buzz he was lacking in his depressingly ordinary overachiever's life in Brooklyn. Quentin's ecstasy over magical studies wears off though, even after (or perhaps because of) how intensive Grossman's type of magic is, and he finds himself falling into the specific misery of boredom and dissatisfaction once again. Magic had not solved his problems, but the way this old chestnut is presented to us is quite refreshing, so I don't mind learning that lesson over again. The path which this dissatisfaction and the choices Quentin and the other characters make is interesting and difficult to swallow; it's too much to encompass in a single review. It doesn't stop with Quentin though, there's an entire universe of Grossman's making coming together in this book which I hope the sequel will touch more upon. Within this universe are some of the most human, and therefore the most interesting, characters to come into existence. The Magicians isn't what I'd call a pleasurable read, nor is it an escapist's read. It's gritty, melancholy, and cerebral, and you'll be left with both an aversion to anything indulgent and the desire for a good stiff drink. It's worth the painful journey, but taking many pit stops along the way to absorb what's being read is highly recommended, along with the warning that a magical journey isn't always one of joy, and an adventure isn't always the good romp one may think.(less)
Voices is a pleasure to read. It's beautifully written, the characters are fascinating, and the world they inhabit sucks you in, to the point where it...moreVoices is a pleasure to read. It's beautifully written, the characters are fascinating, and the world they inhabit sucks you in, to the point where it's almost painful to put it down once the ending comes. And what a world it is! LeGuin has always had a talent for making her own worlds, and Voices (part of a trilogy) has allowed her to flex her imaginative muscles to full capacity. There are unique places and peoples and species here, but none of it feels like she's showing off, rather, it's as if you always knew this world existed, but just were not paying attention. The story is strong as well, and rather perfect for Banned Books Week. In this world, the conquering Alds have taken away the books of the local populace. Rather than being burned (Fire is sacred to the Alds, it would be improper to use it to dispose of sorcery/demon work) they are buried in the sea or the mud. But the books have a secret power, and the protagonist of the story unknowingly holds the key to it from the very beginning. It takes the coaxing of a Storyteller/public orator, her literate mentor, and the collapse of Ald rule for her to discover it, but when she does, the message is that even in books, the messages aren't always spelled out clearly. That's what I loved most about Voices, the magic element. It wasn't a matter of saying Spell A to get Wish B or perform Task X. The magic often ended up creating more questions than answers, and that's the beauty of Voices itself: It's meant not to offer clear-cut answers. It's meant to provoke thought in the reader. There are two other books to accompany Voices, which I am grateful for. I can't just leave behind what's been created here. There was a spark of creation in it that's unparalleled. (less)
I read a lot of fiction about WWII, but I rarely get the chance to read stories about how things were for American civilians during the war, compared...moreI read a lot of fiction about WWII, but I rarely get the chance to read stories about how things were for American civilians during the war, compared to the European theatre and the Pacific-Asia area. I believe the last one I read dealing with American civilians was the YA novel, Under The Blood Red Sun, when I was 14. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was a gift from a friend of mine, since she knew I was studying Japanese and thought I would find it interesting. It was a timely gift, for soon after, I was invited to do some historical coverage of a local internment camp in my college town, which was used for Ukrainians in WWI, and Japanese in WWII. I love those moments of serendipitous literature. The novel, like many others written recently (Water for Elephants for example) has a fluid structure of time, going back and forth between the 1940s and the present (Well, 1980s about) in Seattle, chronicling the life of Henry Lee, who was a young Chinese boy at a school that was about 98% white, with him and a young Japanese girl named Keiko being the exceptions. They're treated the way one would expect, with buck-toothed slant-eyed faces pulled at them, named called, and Henry being forced by his father to wear an "I am Chinese" pin on his jacket in light of increasing anti-Japanese sentiment. The present meanwhile, deals with some hidden treasures at the Panama hotel, a crumbling landmark that merged Chinatown and Nihonmachi (Japantown) and housed some treasures of the families interned. The past and the present begin to intersect with this discovery, and they lead the older Henry to reminisce and track down that which he lost in the war. As someone who grew up in Hawaii, I am familiar with the story of the Japanese internment. I even had neighbours who were interned. So this was nothing new to me in terms of historical content, though I have read precious few fiction on the subject. What makes Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet unique though, is the perspective it takes, the characters, and the structure of the novel which shows that after the war, people's lives did carry on. Using Henry as narrators gives a unique insight, since he is not interned himself, but is personally impacted by the racism and anti-Japanese sentiment of the era, and makes every effort to soften the blow for Keiko and her family. Henry, Keiko, and the other characters, from the friendly jazz man to the lunch lady who helps in her own way, there are lots of surprises and defied stereotypes throughout, making a thoroughly enjoyable read. It's not the best book about WWII ever, but I am glad it was written. I must seek out more fiction on the internment. (less)
I've always had a curious affinity for so-called nonhuman beings. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Edward Scissorhands, and others like them...moreI've always had a curious affinity for so-called nonhuman beings. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Edward Scissorhands, and others like them felt more curiously real to me than their flesh and blood counterparts. And now, joining that elite group is Mattie, the automaton protagonist of The Alchemy of Stone. Through Mattie, we're offered a variety of food for thought on the nature of life and death, culture and exploitation, and the nature of change and transience. Mattie is an automaton alchemist, created by a Mechanic, Loharri, and is emancipated, but in name only. She still depends on her master to wind her, and he traps her to him in ways even she is unaware of. It is mechanical indentured servitude, essentially. Mattie is unique among automatons in that she is aware of the indignity of this, and longs for freedom and independence. She has the capacity to feel pain and pleasure, and seems to develop th ability to feel love and hatred. She loathes her binding to Loharri, hates him for confining her, and develops friendships and even experiences infatuation and love. Even as I was fascinated by Mattie, I was equally intrigued by the world she inhabited, which consists of equal parts steampunk, politics, and magic. The society she inhabits is deeply socially stratified, with Courtiers, Alchemists, and Mechanics upon the top tier, with the courtiers cloying and partying with the Duke, and the Alchemists and Mechanics trading sour political jabs as each vies for control of society and respect of the people. Existing in the same city but a separate world from these three are the gargoyles who created the city out of stone without so much as a chisel or hammer, who long for freedom from stone, and seek out Mattie's alchemy to deliver on this. There are also the miners and hideous "spiders" who make the city's prosperity possible through their labour and suffering, the enigmatic stone monks, "Easterners" who seek their fortune in the city but find only discrimination and mistrust, and the unique Soul Smoker, blinded and eternally alone, save for the souls which inhabit his body after he smokes them in through his opium pipe. The social inequality experienced by Mattie, the Easterners, the Soul Smoker, and the power held over them by figures like Loharri does not go unnoticed by the reader. It is these inequalities which eventually topple the city as Mattie knows it, and her struggle for freedom remains poignant and understated until the very end. Ekaterina Sedia is a Russian born author, and if you scratched the surface of the faux-Victorian fantasy world, there's more than a hint of CCCP and Czarist likeness to the city and the way it operates, with its pyramid of classes and the near-fanatical fixation on progress and improvement the Mechanics possess. I liked the concept, the city, and Mattie so much, I wished that I could have gotten into the book overall. But a few things prevented me from truly loving The Alchemy of Stone. I was saddened that we only got a cursory glance towards the middle and end of the lives of the spiders and miners who were leading the end to the ducal leadership. I longed for a more in-depth look at the nature of Mattie's free will, and I ached for a closer look at characters like Sebastian. Most of all, I think I wanted the story to be more tightly knit. It does bite off a mouthful, but a few of the themes explored, such as Mattie's "humanity", her kinship with the Soul Smoker, the fact that the society Mattie previously knew was built upon exploitation and the robbing of others' happiness, and Loharri's shared past with the Soul Smoker and his motivations behind creating Mattie, and making her intelligent and wilful, deserved more page space. (less)