Review: The Gates by John Connolly (Samuel Johnson #1)

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: October 31 to November 11, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: Steph from Bookish
Recommended for: fans of Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams

♫ Can’t feel my face when I’m with you ♫

Or, you know, an hour after shoveling the driveway and sidewalk in 15° weather with 3° windchill. Good times.

I am blessedly snowed in today and too comfortable to leave the vicinity of my plushy sofa, not after that “grueling” hour outside. Normally I’d read (of course) but the ereader needs a chargin’ and I’ve been neglecting this blog for too long. Apologies for the unplanned hiatus. Part of the reason is real life; I write every day, not about fun things like books, but about annual predictions and other abstract things. So whenever I sit down to write, it feels like work, even when I write about fun things like books. The other part of the reason is I read much faster than I write, oftentimes jumping from one book to the next without a break. Breaks, even short ones, tend to lead to reading slumps for me, so by not stopping, I’ve been able to plow through a great many books in the last couple of months which I will compile in a “catching up” post later.

For now, this book, this charming little book, deserves some attention because it’s pretty damn good. It’s been a couple of months since I read it and it still makes me laugh.

I first encountered John Connolly when I read The Book of Lost Things and loved it. He has a way with words and a lovely, captivating way of weaving darkness into his writing. The story is a fairy tale as fairy tales are meant to be told. It’s chilling, beautiful, and memorable. I expected The Gates to be similar, but to my surprise, it’s a lighthearted hilarious romp through a sleepy town in rural England.

The plot is simple but you’ll have to take it for what it is and not ask too many questions–amateur Satanists accidentally open a portal to hell and a few hellish creatures escape to clear the way for the Great Malevolence; unfortunately for them, precocious 11-year-old Samuel Johnson foils their plans again and again; it’s then up to him, his dachshund sidekick, and a couple of friends to save the world. The writing is a riot, especially the narration and footnotes, almost every page had me laughing out loud. And the characters, main and secondary alike, are endearing.

Although this book was written for a younger (middle-grade) audience, it could be a hit with older readers too. The unnamed narrator is witty and charming and only occasionally patronizing, but that’s for the benefit of older readers. I’m sure much of what they find hilarious would fly over the heads of most middle-grade readers, such as references to debauchery within the Church during the Dark Ages. Another thing I like about the narration is its uniquely British way of telling the story, that occasionally breaks the fourth wall, though not enough to take you of the story. For instance, the way in which the narrator explains natural science, the universe, and the inner workings of CERN is all factually correct but hilariously summed up.

The best thing about this book, though, is its re-readability. I will never tire of John Connolly’s sense of humor.

Rather than continuing to tell you about how great the writing is, I’ll just leave these choice passages here.

Demons

He had never really speculated about this before, since demons came in all shapes and sizes. Indeed, some of them came in more than one shape or size all by themselves, such as O’Dear, the Demon of People Who Look in Mirrors and Think They’re Overweight, and his twin, O’Really, the Demon of People Who Look in Mirrors and Think They’re Slim When They’re Not.

Nurd, the Scourge of Five Deities

The title “Scourge of Five Deities,” which Nurd had come up with all by himself, was technically true: Nurd had been something of a bother to five different demonic entities, but they were relatively minor ones: Schwell, the Demon of Uncomfortable Shoes; Ick, the Demon of Unpleasant Things Discovered in Plug Holes During Cleaning; Graham, the Demon of Stale Biscuits and Crackers; Mavis, the Demon of Inappropriate Names for Men; and last, and quite possibly least, Erics’, the Demon of Bad Punctuation.

[···]

“You know, there’s a demon who looks after the little bit of toothpaste that you can’t squeeze out of the end of the tube, even though you know it’s there and there’s no other toothpaste in the house. There’s even a demon of shyness, or there’s supposed to be. Nobody’s ever seen him, so it’s hard to know for sure.”

[···]

There was a wail, then a splash, followed by a long, smelly silence. Finally, Nurd’s voice spoke from the darkness.

It said, somewhat unhappily, “I appear to be covered in poo.”

Mrs. Abernathy

“I can make it so that you simply fall asleep and never wake up again. But if I choose, I can ensure instead that you never sleep again, and that every moment of your wretched existence is spent in searing agony, gasping for breath and begging for the pain to stop!”

“It sounds like gym class,” said Samuel, with considerable feeling.

The verger and the vicar

“What do we do now?” asked the verger.

“We’ll call the police,” said the vicar.

“And what’ll we tell them?”

“That the church is under siege from gargoyles,” said the vicar, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Right,” said the verger. “That’ll work.”

[···]

“Mr. Berkeley,” said the vicar patiently, “in case you haven’t noticed, the dead have arisen, there are gargoyles bouncing around on the church lawn, and we have been insulted by a stone monk. Under those circumstances, [the deceased] Bishop Bernard’s conversational skills are unremarkable.”

Biddlecombe’s finest

Biddlecombe’s police station was a small building set in a field on the outskirts of the town. It had replaced an older building on the main street that had become infested with rats, and which was now a chip shop that nobody frequented unless they were very drunk, or very hungry, or rats visiting their relatives.

[···]

“We’re going to put a stop to it, Constable,” said Sergeant Rowan, with the kind of assurance that had kept the British empire running for a lot longer than it probably should have.

[···]

Two members of the Biddlecombe First XV rugby team had been swallowed up during evening training when, somewhat against the laws of nature and, for that matter, rugby, a pair of fins had erupted from the ground and the unfortunate players were dragged beneath it by what very much resembled sharks armed with webbed claws for digging. The rest of the team had promptly harpooned the monsters with the corner flags.

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Review: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: June 16 to 22, 2014
Read Count: 1
Recommended for: connoisseurs of dark fantasy

A children’s book not suitable for children should be a tagline somewhere on the cover because it’s necessary.

That aside, I really like this book and John Connolly’s writing. Fairy tale retelling is one of those things I stay away from because in general these stories are either not well conveyed or they don’t bring anything new to a classic narrative or they rely too much on the existing tale and world to carry the book. Also, I find many retellings boring and predictable, not because I already know how they end, but because the writers fail to bring in new or unique perspectives to keep the tales fresh and interesting. The Book of Lost Things is different in that regard, and I think it has a lot to do with Connolly being aware of and having control over the dark subject matter in which he chose to take on.

What to expect in varying degrees: abuse, neglect, isolation, jealousy, betrayal, manipulation, despair, deadly consequences, the pains of growing up, and of course cannibalism, to keep with fairy tale traditions.

Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for a chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David’s mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.

The story takes place during the bombing of London. David and his parents live under the threat of war, but being a fairly young child he isn’t yet aware of the situation. He’s only aware of his present surrounding and his gravely ill mother who soon succumbs to her illness. After her passing, his father begins seeing a woman named Rose. Some time passes and they have a child, Georgie, and David and his father move into Rose’s estate outside of London to escape the bombing.

Things get worse for David after moving in as he and Rose don’t get along, he can’t stand the baby Georgie, he and his father also don’t get along and begin to drift a part, and on top of all that, he’s still struggling with his mother’s death. Not long after settling into his new bedroom, he begins hearing her voice calling him to the sunken garden out in the back of the estate, and he follows the voice a few times but finds nothing there. One night after a fight with Rose and his father, David escapes the house and makes his way into the sunken garden to be alone only to find himself in another world, trapped in a place where nightmares come to life. He must find a way to return to his world, but first he must embark on a long journey through the land of living nightmares–Elsewhere–in search of The Book of Lost Things to help him get back.

The premise is so similar to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that I’m sure many people have bought this book for a child thinking it’s basically an updated version of C.S. Lewis’ beloved tale. It’s not. If you’re thinking about getting this book as a gift (for a child), I suggest you read it yourself first. Instead of judging it by the lovely but misleading cover art and brief summary, experience the story for yourself.

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