BookBin2010: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I veered quite a distance from my last read, this time heading back in time to 1940s, post-WWII Europe to enjoy some time with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

That’s a mouthful of a title, innit? This was a recommended read that I cracked open on Monday and finished last night. Very quick read, but also very interesting. Being the ever-clueless student of slightly America-centric history classes that I am, I was completely in the dark as to any Nazi occupation within the English Channel. I’m also actually kind of embarrassed to even write that. So to read a fictional account of people’s survival during such an occupation was both informative and, thanks to authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, enjoyable.

The first thing that struck me about this novel is its epistolary format. Perhaps it’s because I tend to gravitate more toward literary genres that don’t rely on letter writing as a means of narration (we prefer to call them “Captain’s Logs,” thank you), but I have the distinct impression that this is a style of storytelling that is on the road to extinction. True, there are still epistolary novels coming out (Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Harrison Solow’s upcoming Felicity and Barbara Pym immediately come to mind), but I suppose habit-forming pastimes like texting and Twitter are bringing to a halt even regular e-mail correspondence. It was wonderful, therefore, to find a throwback to this once popular literary style.

Anyway, so this particular novel is told from multiple perspectives, relayed to readers via a collection of letters and telegrams collected from all the major players and pieced together to give us a fuller view of the unfolding action. The primary voice, I suppose you could call her, is Juliet Ashton, a writer who receives a letter from someone who introduces himself as a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. As anyone would be expected to, Ashton immediately questions what precisely this society is…as well as what, pray tell, is a potato peel pie.

The answers she receives in return are the heart of the novel, as various members of the society write her to tell the tale of their survival during the occupation of Guernsey, thanks to a quick-witted and feisty resident named Elizabeth, whose lie “founded” the society. Ashton quickly grows quite fond of all the Guernsey residents who write her, as admittedly so did I, and soon she finds herself visiting them to learn even more. Shaffer and Barrows do a wonderful job of weaving a colorful and captivating tale from the myriad threads offered by society members, Ashton, and her friends. There were a few aspects of the story that I found a trifle uninteresting, but that’s because I’m not much for period-piece tales of wooing, which factors only slightly into the overall story.

How much of this book is rooted in truth I’m still discovering. I have started reading more about the occupation of the Channel islands (woots to my visitor from the island of Jersey, by the way!), and, again, am slightly embarrassed that I had no idea this even happened. So kudos to Shaffer and Barrows for introducing this silly American to a part of history to which I had been previously oblivious…and for doing it in such an engaging way.

Final Verdict: This was an enjoyable, informative, and incredibly quick read, but I don’t foresee adding this one to my collection any time soon. However, if you’re interested in a mini WWII history lesson presented by delightfully imaginary people, then you should check out this book.

BookBin2010: The Killing Joke

I feel slightly guilty posting The Killing Joke as a BookBin entry, considering the fact that it’s just a single issue comic book…nothing long like some of Alan Moore’s other works that have found their way to the lair, like Watchmen or V for Vendetta. Then again, I did say at the end of my post about V for Vendetta that I wanted to read this one next. So, there you go.

This time around, though, I’m going to have to say that the main draw of this story wasn’t Moore’s writing. Instead, it is the hands-down amazing artwork of Brian Bolland. Right from the very first panel of this comic book, I was in love with Bolland’s dark artistic stylings. He offers clean lines, gorgeous details, and a wicked sense of how to make even the mundane sinister. If you are a fan of graphic media, you need to witness Bolland’s visual take on the great batty god of DC Comics and his vile, vituperative, villainous foe, the Joker.

One word of caution: Apparently, the recently released 20th anniversary edition of this comic is the one you should seek out, rather than the original 1988 release. From what I’ve read, that release has some funky coloring that Bolland corrected for the anniversary edition. I’ve read some complaints about the color change from comic book purists who preferred the original, old school colors, but I have to say, the coloring in the anniversary edition is beautiful and very complementary to the artwork and the story.

As for the story itself…meh. Maybe I had that reaction because I read the book while extremely tired, but I didn’t really feel any sort of wow factor from this possible origin story for the Joker. I liked the dark undercurrent of the story, always roiling right at the surface. I also liked this dark take on the Joker. As someone who grew up thinking of this character as only the buffoonish Cesar Romero portrayal from the awesome Adam West show, I liked seeing this character in a far more successfully sinister light (I say successfully here because I really didn’t think the Heath Ledger portrayal of Joker as psychotic villain was successful at all…sorry).

But there was something…I don’t know. Something missing? Something off? Maybe it was the Barbara Gordon portion of the plot that really turned me off to the story. Definitely gave me an unhappy WTF feeling, that’s for sure. But this has been my complaint about all of the Moore-written graphic novels that I’ve read so far; there’s something that always rubs me the wrong way and leaves me feeling…meh. Again, though, this Joker is just awesomely cracked, and I believe that’s primarily thanks to how Bolland depicts him throughout the book.

Final Verdict: I don’t know that I would want this book for the story itself, but Bolland’s line work made up for the places where the story let me down. I’m not going to rush out and buy The Killing Joke (although I have already added it to my wish list), but I think that at some point it will probably become a part of my collection. So, yeah, it’s a keeper. Perhaps next I’ll try to find Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns…that should keep me busy until the July 6 release of Batwoman: Elegy.

BookBin2010/Flashback Friday: The Wizard of Oz

Ooh, another of those wacky combo specials at Casa de Loba! Haven’t done this since my Flashback Friday/Poster Pick combo for Poltergeist.

I hope it doesn’t feel like I’m letting the Emerald City take over all my silly special features here at the lair, especially considering the fact that my last Poster Pick was for the musical Wicked. But that was inspired by the fact that I was reading The Annotated Wizard of Oz: Centennial Edition at the time.

Honestly, it feels like I was reading this particular version of this story for a really long time. I do believe that this is the most thorough and definitive version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that’s available. It was almost like reading three books instead of just one. The first part of the book provides a brief history of the novel and its follow-up stories as well as how it went from book to musical to movie, and information on L. Frank Baum. There are more detailed biographies out there on Baum (in fact, I own one, which I have sadly yet to read), but this is a good solid introductory piece for those who’d like to know a little more about the man and his wonderful world before diving in to the actual story.

Of course, then we get to the heart…brains…and courage of it all. Not only does this version of the book present the story as it was originally printed, complete with W.W. Denslow’s absolutely gorgeous illustrations (see below), it also provides a plethora of annotations. I kid you not, there are like three pages on just the name “Dorothy.” Plus, the annotations are printed in what looks like a 6-point Times New Roman, which is a huge contrast to the story’s ginormous 14-point font. Oh, my eyes!

(FONT SNOBBERY, FTW!!)

To be honest, there were so many annotations that I found them a bit distracting after a while. So I ignored them for a first read-through and then went back and picked them up on the second sweep. Like I said, it felt like I was reading this book for a really long time.

So, what did I think of the original story, now that I’ve finally read it? I’m going to say something so shocking for a book geek, but I have to tell you, denizens, I think that, as lovely as the original story is, this is one of the few instances in which I prefer the movie to the book.

!!!

I know! Shocking! And, honestly? It’s for purely sentimental reasons. The 1939 movie version of this story was a perennial part of my childhood, one of the things that stands in my memory as something specially reserved as a ritual for my mom and me. My dad worked night shifts at that point, so he was never home for the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on television. So my mom would pop a bowl of popcorn just for us (and our little dog, too!) and we’d settle in for another trip to the Land of Oz. I loved this ritual for all its gloriously simple perfection.

Plus, the movie still remains magical, even more than 70 years later. Think about the creativity of the people who brought this world to the big screen pre-CGI! And the bravery! Don’t forget that Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Woodsman, nearly died because of all the aluminum powder he inhaled before they switched over to a paste for Jack Haley. And Margaret Hamilton was badly burned twice during her portrayal of the Wicked Witch: once by a pyrotechnic in her broom and once when the flame effect during her exit from Munchkinland triggered before the trap door elevator could pull her down. Her green copper-based makeup instantly caught fire, along with her costume, causing second- and third-degree burns to Hamilton’s face and arms.

(Okay, bizarre and completely superfluous tangential geek trivia: In one of her last performances as Elphaba in the Broadway production of Wicked, Idina Menzel broke a rib when she went to step onto a trap door elevator for a similar effect, only the trap had dropped away already. Not quite as dramatic as Hamilton’s injuries; however, this does provide further evidence that it’s not easy being green. Ba-dum-bum.)

Sorry, back on track. There’s something about this movie that is so special and so (der!) wonderful. The music, the dancing, the costumes, the set pieces, the flying monkeys! Each actor was so well-suited to their role that it seems almost sacrilegious to try to imagine anyone else ever playing these characters. Also, for me, this is Judy Garland’s defining role (but also the role that landed her on the path to an untimely and unfortunate end, thanks in part to MGM introducing her to the Wonderful Wizard of Amphetamines). Her rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is one of the most heartbreaking moments ever committed to film. Just thinking about it now gets me a little verklempt.

And Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch! True talent is when you’re only 5 feet tall and your character is on-screen for barely more than 10 minutes, but you’re still voted the fourth most frightening villain in movie history by the American Film Institute. She might have gotten even higher had it not been for that unfortunate run-in later on with that damnable pink bunny…

Of course, all this movie praise doesn’t mean that I don’t think the book is worth reading. There are, in fact, multiple and significant differences between the book and the movie, which gives us two similar-yet-different ways to experience this delightful fairytale. At the moment, I can only think of one other book/movie combo, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner, that provides an equally successful same-but-different experience.

Another bonus from finally reading the original story? I love inside information, and now that I have read Baum’s story and seen Denslow’s original illustrations, I feel like I’m now privy to some great jokes that I didn’t get until now. I’m referring to all the references that Gregory Maguire made to the original text in his book Wicked, as well as props and costumes in the musical that were directly inspired by Denslow’s art. There were a couple of moments in particular in which I had to explain the extra-large smile of recognition I had on my face whilst reading the story or looking at the artwork.

Final Verdict: I definitely would like to add this book to my collection, snuggled right there on the shelf with my aforementioned Baum biography, my Wicked Grimmerie, and my copies of Wicked and Son of a Witch. As for the movie? The three-disc release from 2005 is already in my collection, and I have to admit that the recent 70th anniversary release was almost enough to finally get me to buy that Bluray player. Almost. Maybe when I hit that big lottery payoff and I can get the HDTV, too. Until then, I just might put on my pointy black witch’s hat and settle down this evening with a bowl of popcorn…follow the yellow brick road and see where it leads me.

BookBin2010: The Android’s Dream

Ooh, no time loss on this latest BookBin posting since I just finished this book last night. Loba’s on the ball this afternoon! Either that or she’s suffering a horrible bout of work-related procrastination…and has decided to channel Bob Dole and speak about herself in the third person. Loba is quirky like that sometimes.

So, John Scalzi is one of those sci-fi writers I’ve known about for quite some time but have never given a try…until now. Oh, I’m so very glad I finally gave him a go, because I think The Android’s Dream is possibly the most fun I’ve had with a modern sci-fi story since I read Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God last year.

Let’s start with the title. Getting a familiar tingle in your sci-fi nodule from the name of the book, combined with images of sheep? You should be. I’d love to explain to you what it’s all about, Alfie, but I’d hate to spoil the surprise or the accompanying goofy grin you’ll probably experience when you finally come to the explanation. It’s a good one though, denizens. Good and geeky.

That’s the perfect summation of this entire story, really. Good geeky fun. I was a bit worried at first. The opening of the book is rather puerile, depending upon an extended fart joke to get things started. After reading that, I honestly contemplated switching over to one of my other library books rather than wade in any further. I’m so glad that I chose to stick with Scalzi. Minus a stinker of a first chapter (haha), the novel is equal parts entertaining, silly, exciting, and satisfying. There’s political intrigue, intergalactic warfare, spying, religious tomfoolery, and a tad bit of cross-species sex that’s slightly off-putting but integral to the story nonetheless.

Also, either Ron Moore read The Android’s Dream prior to cooking up Crapica Caprica or else he needs to read it for some pointers. Scalzi’s depiction of human consciousness transferred into a purely technological existence is pitch perfect as well as succinct…two things that the rather off-key and long-winded Caprica could definitely use (not that I care either way…the dancing Zoe Cylon moment was such an affront to my nerdness that I baled after that episode and haven’t regretted the decision for one micron).

Hmm. All digressions aside, Scalzi slammed this one out of the galactic park. Minus requiring a little bit of editing for length (look who’s talking, right?), The Android’s Dream is well-paced and fun, with lots of different genre flavors all wrapped up in the pretty, shiny wrapper of science fiction.

Final Verdict: All the library seems to be doing for me lately is adding to my already ridiculously long book wishlist. Add another to the pile! The Android’s Dream is awesome and well worth another visit!

BookBin2010: Fragile Things

I actually finished this book about 2 weeks ago, but I was too lazy to post it here for some reason. I’m not really sure why, since obviously I haven’t been a blog slacker in general. It’s also not because of a lack of enthusiasm for this novel. Quite the contrary, to be honest. Unlike my last experience with Gaiman, this time I was thoroughly engrossed by what I was reading.

Fragile Things is a collection of Gaiman’s short stories and poetry, all well-written, well-conceived, thoroughly British (even when pretending to be American), and thoroughly enjoyable. There’s something so delightfully concentrated about tales told in the short-story format. Plus, this is the perfect sorbet for those who like a little variety in their reading matter, especially if you typically tackle tightly packed tomes brimming over with lots of brain-stretching information and ideas. Pick up this collection and fall into all variety of worlds, each one dark but different, sometimes humorous, tragic, but more often than not a bit on the creepy side.

True, there is a bit of an uneven gait to this collection, but I think that’s more the fault of the range of stories. This was Gaiman gathering together works that he had written for all variety of outlets, including other short story collections and contests as well as a story he wrote for The Matrix universe and vignettes he wrote for his BFF, Tori Amos.

[Seriously, that has to be one of the strangest friendships in the history of the world. I’d love to be the fly on the wall of one of those get-togethers. Of course, their distinctive strangeness could all be for show for the public, and IRL they could be the most boring, non-unique people ever. I highly doubt that, but, hey, it could happen.]

Other stories include a tale featuring Shadow, a character from Gaiman’s novel American Gods, a tale about vampirism that’s even creepier than most, a couple of cautionary tales directed toward childhood and teendom, as well as a story about a “Sunbird” that he wrote as a birthday present for one of his daughters. It’s quite a mix-up of tales that don’t necessarily dove-tail in any particular way, which might put off some readers. However, if you’re looking for some quick and easy (although most definitely not “light”) reads that fit your dark and quirky reading tastes, then you might want to give this collection a try. I’m positive anyone who is a Gaiman fan will find something inside suited to their liking.

Final Verdict: This is another one of those damned library books, so I don’t get the option of keeping this one…which I most definitely would if it was mine. Thank goodness for wishlists to keep tabs on those books that simply must become a permanent part of the Loba Library.

BookBin2010: Women Writing Science Fiction as Men

I finished this book a few weeks ago but completely forgot to talk about it here. Where did I remember to talk about it? That’s for Loba to know and you to figure out.

This was a delightful find that I stumbled upon while perusing the sci-fi section of the local library. Yes, I know that I said I was going to make this year all about reading my own books. But…it’s the library. And there are so many books there. And they know my name, and they call out to me when I haven’t visited them in a while.

So, Women Writing Science Fiction as Men might sound like the most boring title imaginable for an anthology…and really, it is pretty damned boring. But that should in no way reflect poorly on the anthology itself. Edited by Mike Resnick, this collection of 16 short stories, all written by women authors, is a fascinating exercise in creativity as well as an interesting commentary on gender relations, particularly within a genre that continues to be so intrinsically male-oriented (minus sad attempts at luring women in with “space drama” a la Caprica, which now officially feels more like betrayal than entertainment).

The crux of this anthology’s challenge was this: The women who wrote the short stories had to present a sci-fi story from the perspective of a male character. And the male character had to be so decidedly male as to be irreplaceable by a female protagonist. So no gender-generic storytelling here.

Were the women who accepted this challenge successful? Well, it was definitely a mixed bag of success and failure. And even those who succeeded did so in such a way that was either completely spoofing the challenge or was somewhat foggy on the whole “male-only perspective” requirement. In fact, one writer presented a story that was narrated by a woman. I’m still not sure as to how that one slipped by, but it did.

All in all, however, this is an intriguing anthology. True, the tongue-in-cheek takes on the challenge were sometimes a bit too goofy or stereotypical in presentation, but even some of those were funny enough to be forgiven their male caricatures. Plus, several of the stories were serious attempts at tackling this challenge, and they were the ones that shone brightest among the mix. Although even those beg the question, did the women writers truly succeed at writing believably from the male perspective? Or did they simply succeed at writing as women perceive men to behave? I’d love to hear from men who read this anthology and find out what they think of these writers and their attempts at capturing the essence of “maleness” in their stories.

Final Verdict: True, this was a library book that I had to return once I was finished with it, but the first thing I did once I got home was find a copy for myself at Amazon Marketplace. Found one for 98 cents. W00ts. I also discovered that there is another anthology edited by Resnick called Men Writing Science Fiction as Women. I was pleased enough with the first anthology that I checked out the description of this one on a whim. I was sold the instant I read that Robert J. Sawyer and David Gerrold were two of the contributors, and I bought a copy of this through Marketplace as well. Was there some kind of subliminal message to be learned that the price for a used copy of this book was 25 percent more than the anthology by the women writers? Nah…

BookBin2010: The Dispossessed

Finally. This, ladies and gentlemen, has been the bane of my reading existence for the better part of a month. And it has brought me down quite a few pegs in regard to my literary prowess. See, this is another one of those science fiction books. Not sci-fi. Oh no. Ain’t no shootin’ or beamin’ or Bajorans or Vulcans in this here book. This is hard-core nerdity of the fiercest variety. The kind that really makes you think.

Think there’s gotta be something wrong with my brain because I’m just not getting into this this book or comprehending what it’s trying to say to me. And that kind of realization doesn’t do much for one’s spirit…or self-esteem.

Truth be told, as the old saying goes, “There is no new thing under the sun.” Ursula LeGuin does not tackle anything new in her novel The Dispossessed. Her novel broaches popular sci-fi examinations of religion, societal constructs, economic systems and their varied successes and failings, sexual freedoms and mores, philosophy, socioeconomic status…the whole nine utopia vs. dystopia yards. Although it wasn’t a truly black-or-white, right-or-wrong comparison. LeGuin provides insight into the promise and pitfalls of both sides, and makes quite a compelling argument both ways. True, the bias does seem to be toward leaving behind the more capitalistic mindsets for a more “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” attitude. But neither side is completely perfect.

The way in which LeGuin tackles these topics is wherein the strength and complexity of this novel resides. If you are looking for something light, a quick beach read or something to distract you as you ride to work in the mornings, then this is probably not the book you want. This is the book that you settle down to read, knowing that you need to give it 1,000-percent of your attention. And even then, you might have to read a passage more than once, to let it completely sink in.

Short and simple: It’s the kind of book that demands a lot from you because it gives you a lot to contemplate. You simply have to be in the proper frame of mind to want to receive what it has to give.

Truth be told, I was very rarely in the proper frame of mind for this story. It wasn’t until I was about three-quarters of the way through the book before things finally started to fall into place and I was able to jump into the story more easily. Prior to this point, each session was somewhat excruciating. Perhaps I’ve allowed my focus to wane a bit too much when it comes to meatier novels, but I found myself fighting the thought of settling into this book each night. That’s not a good place to be when approaching any kind of book. However, I am glad that I persevered. Plus, one of my favorite Star Trek characters shares his name with one of the central characters in this novel: Odo. Ironically, Odo in this novel is an anarchist. Quite the contrast to DS9’s Odo (I’m sure Quark would have preferred LeGuin’s Odo to his shape-shifting nemesis).

Final Verdict: This isn’t my book, so keep or donate isn’t an option. It goes back to its original owner. I can say this, though: This isn’t going on my wish list. Although I did finally start getting it toward the end, and although I do believe that this is the type of book that you need to read more than once, especially at different parts in your life, I simply cannot fathom putting myself through this literary endurance test again. Maybe much later down the road. But not now. Not for a very long time.

BookBin2010: The Complete Far Side

As I’m sure you’ve deduced, I’ve had a bit of free time on my hands as of late. So I spent two days reading The Complete Far Side: 1980-1994, which I received for my last birthday. Obviously, this wasn’t ever a read that I was considering culling from the book herd. It’s just, I needed something light to balance the very heavy, very “don’t you feel stupid because it’s taking you so long to read me” book that I’ve been slogging through for the better part of a month now.

But we’ll get to that book soon enough. I hope.

Back to The Far Side. There are only four comics that I have ever collected in book form: Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Liberty Meadows, and Peanuts. Liberty Meadows is part of this list because I have a massive case of fangirl lust for Frank Cho. I think he is a master of his craft and the comics page has been that much duller since it lost his enviable artistic presence. Yeah, his humor is a bit blue for the family funnies, but it almost always made me laugh. Cho now draws for Marvel Comics, which makes him even more awesome in my eyes, but I definitely miss the gang at Liberty Meadows. Plus, I’m still waiting for the final collection to be released so that I can complete my set (yeah, I do know how nerdy that sounded).

As for the others, well, of course Peanuts is in there because it has always been such a huge part of my life. Charles Schulz did a wonderful thing with Snoopy and the gang, although his shtick did wear a bit thin throughout probably the final decade of the strip. Still, it’s a classic.

So is Bill Watterson’s offering. Calvin and his stuffed tiger never failed to make me think, make me laugh, make me look forward to the next day’s adventure. This is one of the most perfect cartoons, made even more so by the fact that Watterson didn’t overstay his welcome at all. He definitely left his fans wanting for more. He was, for all intents and purposes, the anti-Schulz. Whereas Chuck was willing to sell the Peanuts imagery to anyone who wanted to pay for it, Watterson refused to let anyone turn his creation into the same marketing bonanza. I have such utter respect for him for that.

Finally, then, I come to the point. Literally. Gary Larson and his bizarre one-panel world of The Far Side. He’s pretty much in the middle of the Watterson-Schulz marketing spectrum. His comics aren’t everywhere, but you can still find them on calendars, mugs, and T-shirts (I still happily wear my “You’re sick, Jessy! Sick, sick, sick!” T-shirt).

I love Larson for his decidedly FAR left of center take on life. Within the confines of that one little comic panel, we saw daily the depths of his creativity, his silliness, and quite possibly his slow mental decline. But each one was funny. Okay, perhaps there were a few that might have been funny if I’d understood them. But for the most part, they always made me laugh. Some made me laugh so hard, I may have snorted. I’m not telling you which ones though.

The complete collection is a MASSIVE tome: a two-volume set that, together, is more than 1,200 pages of Larson. The artist even calls this set an “18-pound hernia giver.” I don’t know if that’s truly how much this set weighs, but I can tell you that lifting it daily for only a few months will help you significantly in your quest to no longer need anyone’s assistance in opening those stubborn pickle jars in your fridge.

If you are missing your Larson fix, you need this collection. Every single Far Side comic, including those that have never before appeared in previous books and those comics that have only appeared in books, are included in this collection. Also included are introductory pieces from Larson at the beginning of every year’s worth of comics. Cute little stories either about his childhood, his artistic influences, or just random ramblings that still somehow tangentially relate to his comics.

Plus, scattered throughout the comics are letters received by Larson, Universal Press Syndicate, or newspapers that ran the comic throughout the Far Side years. Some of them are from people who don’t get a particular strip and are asking for an explanation. Some are from people who have names that are the same as a Far Side resident. Many are from detractors, people asking their papers to stop running the strip. Most often, these people are rabid fundamentalists taking offense at Larson’s latest take on religion.

Why is it that the religious are such a decidedly humorless group, yet they’ve spawned some of the funniest people? I mean, come on…Jimmy Swaggert’s “I have sinned” speech is one to rival the comic masters! Especially when he was found with the same hooker a week later. Gold.

Anyway, bottom line is that Larson remains one of my all-time favorite comic artists. His world was always bizarre, always provocative, and always fun. Now if they would just release a DVD of the one Halloween special that Larson made for television, I’d be a major happy Far Side camper.

BookBin2010: Neverwhere

A little late on posting this one. I actually finished this book almost a week ago, and I started writing this review around the same time. I don’t know why I’ve had such a block when it comes to finishing it though.

So, Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman’s 1996 story of the events that take place in “London Below.” Apparently, this was a companion piece to a television series of the same name, released by the BBC. I’ve never seen it, obviously, since I didn’t even know it existed until about 5 minutes ago when I saw the DVDs on Amazon.com.

This is the story of Richard Mayhew, a rather unassuming young man who leaves his home in Scotland to move to jolly old Londontown to seek his fortune. He finds a job he doesn’t like all that much and a girlfriend who doesn’t really like him all that much. Otherwise, his is a life less extraordinary. Until the day he stumbles (literally) upon a mysterious young woman named Door, badly injured and in need of help.

Ever hear the saying “No good deed goes unpunished”? Richard learns the true extent of this phrase after he takes Door back to his apartment and tends to her injuries. See, she’s from London Below, a strange realm that exists beneath London as we know it. Most of the time, those from this realm can pass among the people of London Above without being noticed. The fact that Richard can see Door is a blessing to her, but definitely a curse to him. Suddenly, he begins to attract more and more attention from residents of London Below, including a pair of the creepiest assassins in the history of creepy. Even worse, his existence in London Above becomes increasingly tenuous. His girlfriend has forgotten him, his job shows no records of him, his friends don’t even acknowledge him.

What to do? Go Below. Help Door discover who killed her family and why, dodge the assassins Croup and Vandemar, get drunk with an angel, flirt with Hunter, and maybe just maybe figure out how to get back to the life he once knew in London Above.

This is where Gaiman truly shines, creating a fantastical world of sights, sounds, and extraordinary characters. The journey our heroes must travel is rather Ozian by way of Edward Gorey, and the richness of Gaiman’s world is both thorough and stunning. All that aside, there was something about the story itself that never really reeled me in. I never felt enraptured. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the story. There are elements to this tale that I absolutely loved. Holistically, however, I felt that it was a pretty run-of-the-mill tale embedded into another of Gaiman’s wonderfully imagined worlds.

Final Verdict: I have a surprising degree of ambiguity about whether or not I want to hold on to this book (which actually tips the scales in favor of letting it go). It was a present, but it was purchased because I asked for it, not because someone thought I might like it. And while I do love Neil Gaiman and I did think this was a relatively enjoyable read, I’m hard-pressed to think of any occasion in which I’d want to go back and read this one again. So, I suppose that means I’m releasing it keeping it releasing it. This is definitely a book that I would recommend to those who are fans of fantasy tales, especially those written by someone as talented as Gaiman. However, I would recommend borrowing this one from the library or picking it up for cheap at a used book store or thrift store. Hey, one in my area will be selling a practically unused copy soon enough 😉

BookBin2010: The Madonnas of Leningrad

Finally, my first finished book of 2010. And the beginning of another alliterative feature here at the lair. I really need to stop doing that…I’m going to become the George Lucas of the blogging world with that one-trick pony. Although now I’m rhyming with my alliteration. Wee!

Debra Dean entered the literary scene with this debut novel, 2007’s The Madonnas of Leningrad. The beauty of this novel is twofold. First, Dean is enviably skilled at writing. She wields words with precision and flourish, providing us with a touching and complexly crafted tale. Second is her ability to balance somewhat daunting juxtapositions of war and art, reality and the hazy illusions that remain when memory fails.

The protagonist of the novel is Marina Buriakov. In current time, she is an 82-year-old Russian woman preparing to attend her granddaughter’s wedding. The story, however, is not linear, shifting with sometimes discordant fluidity between the now and a past in which she was a docent at the Hermitage Museum during the siege of Leningrad. The muddle and confusion is caused by the fact that Marina is beginning to slip ever deeper into the maelstrom of Alzheimer’s.

It’s Dean’s eloquence in balancing the shifting of this story that captivated me. At first, the shifting would be separated by chapters, alternating between the now and the past of Marina’s life. But as the book progressed, those worlds meshed, clashed, overlapped, canceled out, and contradicted each other. But, whether through the ravages of the siege or the ravaging of Marina’s memory, there was always beauty in the telling. To be able to still find such things, even in light of horrible events such as war or Alzheimer’s…like I said, that’s an enviable skill.

Final Verdict: This book actually doesn’t belong to me, so I’m not going to be able to keep it. However, I have added it to my list of books to purchase. Dean is a master of language, and this is one of the most beautiful debut novels I can ever remember reading. It’s worth owning simply for the pleasure of being able to revisit the eloquence of Dean’s prose.