Book Review: The Graveyard Book

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THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman was recommended to me last Christmas by an individual that I thought least likely to ever recommend any type of fantasy literature. That person raved and raved about it and then went on to teach me a lesson in stereotypes by outlining their other favorite fantasy novels, but I started with Neil Gaiman’s phenomenal novel, The Graveyard Book.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK BY NEIL GAIMAN

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK BY NEIL GAIMAN

I have to admit that this was my first ever Gaiman novel, though I knew the author’s name because I saw the movie version of STARDUST some years ago. I enjoyed STARDUST and promised myself that I would one day read the book, but while I never made the time for that I squeezed in the episode of DOCTOR WHO written by Gaiman, “THE DOCTOR’S WIFE”, and I was very impressed. Since then, I’ve had a strange fringe-relationship with Gaiman where I’m familiar-ish with the author despite never having technically ‘read‘ a word of his writing. When The Graveyard Book came to me so highly recommended from a person that I deeply respect, I picked it up without a moment’s delay.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is, perhaps, one of the most difficult books to adequately review that I’ve ever encountered. It is one of those rare novels that examines the most valuable question that anyone has ever asked: what’s the purpose of life? The novel follows Bod Owens, a toddler who has escaped a dark fate and is taken in, quite literally, by the nearby graveyard and the phantoms that inhabit it. Its ghosts and tombs and natural beauty become the little boy’s home and there he grows up, all the while learning more about the world he must be protected from, until the day when the dangers of his past catch up with him.

But do you want to know the truth? That might be what this book is about, but really it’s not about that at all. Gaiman is telling a personal, intimate story in this book. Not about himself, not necessarily, but certainly about everyone. This is a story about death, about growing up and growing old, and about Life.

I’ve read some of the most stirring passages that I’ve ever encountered in my career as a reader within this novel. I love that it’s a children’s book that is still so dangerously adult. I love that I honestly wanted to cry at the end of this book—not manly, crocodile tears but little kid tears.

That, I think, is what The Graveyard Book is about.

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Book Review: The Affinity Bridge

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The Affinity Bridge, by George Mann, was another one in the pile of books that I purchased as a birthday gift to myself. I know they say to never judge a book by it’s cover, but Mann’s cover certainly didn’t dissuade me from purchasing his novel. I am a fan of anything that flies in literature—private planes, jumbo jets, airships—for the practical utility they offer. So fast! So convenient! Mann’s cover then, an enormous airship above Victorian-Era London, sang to me in several ways.

Newbury and Hobbes, the novel’s protagonists, are academics; researchers employed by the British Museum as a cover for their other job as Crown investigators for Queen Victoria. In this fictional steampunk England, Sir Maurice Newbury (think Holmes!) and his assistant Veronica Hobbes (elementary, dear Watson!) are attempting to solve the riddle of a string of murders when an airship crash in London diverts their attention elsewhere. What follows is a brisk story of industrial intrigue, precision investigations, and appropriately romping action.

One of my more marked appreciations for this novel is perhaps the one that is most forward-thinking: Mann spins the trope of the helpless, witless assistant on its head. When it comes to endangered protagonists, I would argue that Hobbes does more of the saving than being saved; and true, Hobbes bumps into sexism on occasion, but Newbury insists on treating her as a fully capable equal. And, repeatedly, he is proven right when Hobbes is daringly more functional than he on occasion!

Beyond that, the plot isn’t terribly thick. Queen Victoria is strangely interested in a civilian airship crash; paupers are being murdered by a “glowing policeman” and the two main characters have private matters to contend with along the way but Mann’s triumph here is the creation of a gripping alternate 1901 London. A London where technological revolution has placed clockwork men on the streets and airships high above. In a very noticeable way London 1901 is the third protagonist of this novel and any reader who appreciates a good detective story and Victorian-London to boot are certain to enjoy themselves.

The novel’s cover declares itself to be “A Newbury and Hobbes Investigation” which, if intuition serves, would indicate that there are more on the way. And, if that isn’t enough, Mann sets the stage for future work with a phenomenal epilogue! Here’s to more “investigations!”

UPDATE: A quick jaunt around George Mann’s blog reveals that, in fact, there are multiple sequels  to THE AFFINITY BRIDGE (which was published in 2009—where have I been?!) which I must now, delightedly, purchase!

Book Review: A Thousand Perfect Things

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When a novel like A Thousand Perfect Things comes along, it behooves readers to stop and take notice. Kay Kenyon’s self-described first foray into fantasy isn’t simply an alternate-world take on Anglo-Indian relations, it’s a literary triumph that stands upon a dozen universal themes to reach its obscenely successful heights.

At the heart of this book is the theme of duality, explored in the dichotomies of magic and science, white and brown, good and evil. The novel’s central protagonist, Astoria Harding is the apprentice to the age’s most accomplished botanist—who also happens to be her grandfather. When he dies of an unexpected sickness, Astoria and her family leave their homeland country of Anglica and take up residence in the spiritual and untamed country of Bharata.

Bharata seethes under the yolk of Anglican oppression, and despises the marvel that is the Bridge that connects the two countries. Astoria seeks the legendary golden lotus in hopes of joining the ranks of famed scientist but her journey leads her into the arms of mutiny—both internal and external.

Kenyon is victorious in establishing a world that, while somewhat familiar to our own, is different enough that we readers remain entranced. Astoria’s exploration of many challenging questions—who am I? What am I meant to be? Can I change my fate?—leads to as many challenging answers.

This is a novel that celebrates the many; and not the few. It venerates the notion that there are many paths through life and that anyone seeking only one is doomed to fail.

It is my recommendation to anyone seeking quality, fascinating, and transformative literature that this book land at the very top of your list. A Thousand Perfect Things is a novel whose ending is one of sweet sorrow—we are saddened to part, but glad for the dalliance.

Review: The Hunger Games

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It’s safe to say that I’m extremely late in jumping on this bandwagon. When The Hunger Games splashed onto the scene a few months ago, I was largely indifferent to the stirring of pop culture’s newest poster child. Having finished the novel after little more than three days of sparse reading, I feel that I have a well-defined idea of what the novel accomplishes, where it falls short, and some of the motivation behind the mania.

I address this portion of review to the few, if any, remaining readers who have yet hunker down with The Hunger Games. Narrated by Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who volunteers to replace her sister in the gladiatorial competition that is the book’s namesake, the story is told in the present-tense through a first-person point of view. Set in something of a post-apocalyptic North America that has reorganized itself into 13 districts set around an elite Capitol, the competition is a yearly reminder of the failed rebellion against the Capital some 74 years past. This is the first hint at the compelling backstory behind the book: the shared history and misery of the twelve remaining districts. Everyone lives in near squalor and poverty in District 12, from which Katniss and the baker’s son Peeta are selected to represent.

Collins offers up a hodgepodge of supporting characters upon the departure from District 12. She depicts the drudgery of life in a district in sharp contrast to life in the richly colored society of the Capitol. Really, the two most compelling characters are Katniss and Peeta because the novel comes to life as they struggle with their feelings towards each other. These two characters, bound by the common cause of survival, nevertheless operate on two completely different frequencies throughout most of the novel. Frankly, it’s fascinating and engrossing to be inside of Katniss’ head and realize that she is simultaneously the smartest and most oblivious person in the games. Otherwise, I’m not a huge fan of the first-person perspective because I find it jarring and overly-pandering. Too much telling and not enough showing. There’s a lot of that here in The Hunger Games since Katniss often recites the history of Panem, using her own knowledge to fuel exposition. Collins shines at the memories that Katniss retells to the readers, therein pulling off stunning character development.

The Hunger Games is an inventive novel that is both exciting and thoughtful. Collins uses the Gamemakers, who are the ambiguous designers behind the atrocities in the arena, to create an amorphous environment that challenges the combatants. She touches on everything from class divides, to mortality, and family. And she does it so well within the confines of a young adult novel she deserves every ounce of credit she’s getting.

But if I had to pick a reason that The Hunger Games resonated with me, I can sum it up in two words: Katniss Everdeen.

In a world where the likes of Twilight, the Jersey Shore, and that endless string of Nicholas Sparks novels-turned-movies are reducing women to gender caricatures (dainty, indecisive, always on the prowl for sparkly boyfriends); Katniss Everdeen is a break from the mold that audiences desperately needed. She’s a no-nonsense warrior who’s a master at her craft, dedicated to her family, and unwilling to needlessly sacrifice her humanity.

As an older brother of no less than three sisters, I’d rather have my sisters addicted to the adventures of Katniss than Bella. Is Katniss the perfect hero? No. Does Collins still play up the angst and drama to string us along? Yes. Do we finish The Hunger Games feeling less certain about our understanding of her than ever before? Of course, this is obviously book one in a trilogy. What it boils down to is that Katniss is a character I can respect, perhaps the most respectable feminine character in current pop-culture circulation. That, my friends, is what makes The Hunger Games and Suzanne Collins worthy of such outstanding media notice.

Is The Hunger Games a triumph of English literature? No, not by a long shot. But it is a captivating story with a relatable protagonist that is set in a world that’s not altogether unlikely (if you’re judging by present standards). I found the blood and gore sufficient for the novel, but if it left you feeling undercut then you might want to check out Battle Royale, the Japanese movie of which The Hunger Games feels like something of a spiritual, if American, successor.

My final word on the novel is that, without a doubt, it is worth the read if you can spare the time. If you can’t, I don’t imagine that you’re missing a huge literary movement, but you are missing out on the most exciting phenomenon since Harry Potter. I applaud Suzanne Collins on an impressive world, a fascinating cast of characters, and pulling off the enormous feat of leaving me only minutes away from stealing my sister’s copy of the sequel, Catching Fire.