Review: How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date read: February 20 to 21, 2014
Read count: 1

This short story is exactly what the title says it’s about: talking to girls at a party. What sets it apart from other how-to-pick-up-girls guides is it doesn’t show how to pick up girls because it’s actually a story, and the girls are not like other girls. And by that, I don’t mean they’re not like other girls (click for further explanation).

As far as Gaiman short stories go, I like this one about as much as the others. It’s funny, smart, and unusual, like its forerunners. What’s different here is its purposefully stumbling awkward humor.

The year is 1970-something and the place is somewhere in the UK. Vic and Enn are two teenage boys experiencing a teenage rite of passage; they’re invited to a party and they’re determined to interact with girls. However, Enn is inexperienced and has no idea what to expect. So naturally he comes off as awkward and self-conscious (and hilarious but in that secondhand embarrassment kind of way). Vic, on the other hand, is a bit more of a smooth operator.

The girls are portrayed as exchange students, and the boys don’t doubt that for a minute because, like it’s been established, they’re inexperienced, but we, as more experienced worldly readers, know better. We pick up on the nuances and various moments between Enn and Vic and the girls that don’t seem quite right because they’re more awkward than the usual teenage awkwardness.

Half of the fun of this story is in the boys trying to figure out how to talk to these girls all the while figuring out they’re not like other girls. Literally.

Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date read: February 01 to 10, 2012
Read count: 1

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* * * * some spoilers below * * * *

This was my first full-length Gaiman novel, and it was OK. Well, it started out OK, then became interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying near the end. I think I was expecting a… better ending, something that’s more in line with Gaiman’s short stories but on a grander scale.

With all the hype surrounding this book, I originally thought there was something in it that’s widely appealing, other than Gaiman’s prose and fantastical yarns. I really thought I’d be blown away by this book because his short stories were so well done. Maybe I set the standards too high and became disappointed when the story turned out to be just OK overall. Maybe a little better than OK, maybe ‘s all right. I’m glad for the experience now that I know what a Gaiman novel is like, but still… I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

The hook is certainly interesting and reels you into the story, a mythological yarn set in contemporary times, but it suffers from having an aimless main character at the center of all this fantastical chaos. Shadow Moon (yes, you read that correctly) floats aimlessly along, unattached to various unsettling things happening around him. For a guy who just learned that mythical gods exist, he took it pretty well. Then again, he just finished a stint in prison. Then again, if only he’s a little bit sharper, a little more alert, he might have sensed something not quite right or worse that he’s a pawn in a cosmic con. If only. I fail to see the point of setting up a powerful story with a desensitized main character. He not only slowed the plot down, but made most of the resolution pointless in the end. But perhaps that’s the point of it all?

The prose is impressive though. Gaiman definitely knows how to keep the narration from becoming dull or slowing down. The thing is Gaiman can write great prose–there’s no denying that. But does he pull the story together at the end? I don’t think so, this time. I enjoyed the read all the way up until the tables were turned and the final confrontation was set on a carousel. It was as if Gaiman hacked off whatever original plans he had for the ending and replaced it with a family-friendly version suitable for readers of all ages. Everything in the story was fine until the end; a familiar theme in most Gaiman books, as I’ve come to learn.

Review: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: August 16 to October 22, 2013
Read count: 1

If British humor, especially British apocalyptic humor, is not something you enjoy, then look elsewhere.

I like the concept, I like the writing, and I like the story overall; however there were certain time periods that dragged on for a couple chapters too long and a couple subplots that stayed past their welcome. The characters were fun though, and the dialogue was clever, witty (without being punny), and hilarious at times (again, without being punny). All of these things appeal to me because I enjoy British humor and a chatty meandering narration. If neither of these things interest you, then I would imagine you’d have a hard time getting through this book.

That’s also to say I had a hard time getting through this book (notice the date read) even though I liked almost everything about it. The sequences following the opening “baby switching debacle” were most difficult for me. I found Adam’s formative years to be quite a drag, not because this subplot was poorly written or too British for my understanding, but because I just don’t like reading about overly precocious children in general and often find many of stories about clever children to be a bore, regardless of the strength of prose or story. Once I got through Adam’s childhood and adolescent years, the story picked up speed and I couldn’t wait to get to “the end of times.” And what a ride that way.

This book is the first Neil Gaiman book that does not have a disappointing ending, imo. I think Terry Pratchett must have helped a lot on this front.

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Still as good and as satisfying as I remembered.

It’s not often I say this, but the audiobook is really good and a joy to listen to. The narrator, Martin Jarvis, really gets much of the book’s humor and you can tell he fully embraced its zany, over-the-top-ness, so listening to him read was almost like watching the book come to life. And I really like the way he portrayed Crowley and Aziraphale, esp during their mad sprint to stop the apocalypse.

The only thing that I still quibble about is the ending. Seems somewhat lacking considering this is a story about the end of the world and all. I just wish there’d been more to the inevitable showdown, instead of an ending that leaves room for a possible–wishful?–sequel.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date read: August 01 to 04, 2013
Read count: 1

Critics say Gaiman returned to his roots with this book, to personal matters that inspired him to write Coraline and The Graveyard Book, and that’s why it’s so good. And I agree. When he touches on things that touched him personally, he can work literary magic. What makes this story work is the fact that it stays with the reader. The tone/atmosphere doesn’t seem like much when you’re reading along, but just wait until you close the book. It’s a kind of creepiness that permeates over time and gets creepier every time you think back on it (especially if you know firsthand what it’s like to grow up in a haunted house).

Overall, this is a nice, cold, dreamy story to enjoy when you’re house-sitting alone at an old rickety country cottage in the middle of nowhere where the nearest neighbor can’t be seen from the property. Highly recommended for nights when the power goes out and you have to read by flashlight or, even better, flickering candlelight.

Gaiman’s prose is great, as always. It’s lovely, spine-tingling, and so smooth. Prose is the best part of Gaiman stories, for me. If I didn’t care so much for story and storytelling, I’d read Gaiman back-to-back and just enjoy his syntax.

What keeps this book from a 5-star rating is a recurring problem I have with Gaiman stories—the ending seems unsatisfactory. Something still feels missing in the way which he wraps up events in his stories. I’ve been told that it’s me, that I expect way too much and that his stories are fine. But that’s just it. They should be more than fine. Gaiman is a great prose writer. It’s only natural that I expect him to crank out satisfying, if not great, endings because I know he can do it.

These book-review pangs seem to be author-specific. Let’s hope not though.

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Just finished the sample chapter and I can already tell this book will give me book-review pangs.

Like previous Gaiman books I’ve read, this one is very well-written to the point of establishing literary beauty. Sentences flow right into one another and string together a haunting ghostly fairy-tale-like narrative that keeps the pages turning. All very fascinating to witness. But does this story have substance? Or is the point of the beautifully structured writing to pan your attention away from a lightweight story? I don’t know at this point, but I get the feeling that this story isn’t… ocean-deep.

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* There’s a Liza Hempstock in Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Makes me wonder if there will be a significant connection.

[ETA] Liza is the Hempstock’s ancestor. She’s rumored to be a witch and was drowned and burned for it.

** Book-review pangs are a series of confused emotions I have about a single book that render me completely undecided.

Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: June 15 to 17, 2013
Read count: 1

There’s a boy who lives in a graveyard, and he’s called Nobody Owens, affectionately “Bod” for short. The story starts at night with the massacre of his family, quite a gruesome beginning for a children’s book but fitting for a child who goes on to live among the dead. He alone miraculously escapes death and wonders into the graveyard down the street, where he is adopted by a kindly pair of spirits and raised by the whole dearly departed community.

Despite his tragic beginning, Bod turns out to be a well-adjusted child. He encounters and befriends all sorts of otherworldly creatures, and they all teach him important lessons which he uses later in life. Throughout his childhood, he has a fairly pleasant existence. The dead often warn him against leaving the safety of the graveyard, but you know children… they tend to become curious as they grow.

While all this is going on, the murder/assassin still searches for the boy. He’s still on a mission to end what he started all those years ago.

Like most children’s books I’ve come across in recent years, particularly A Monster Calls, this is a book for adults written in the style of children’s literature. This is probably not a book for children. Probably. Well… I’m sure children would like it and find the graveyard aspects fascinating. I just don’t think they’d appreciate it as much as an older reader, who has read across genres and understands classic scary-story tropes, would.

 

When it comes to Neil Gaiman books, I haven’t had the best track record and all of my reading experiences have been the same. They’d start out interesting, then become great once the stories gets going, but somehow wind up being mediocre near the end and then fizzle out at the end.

Gaiman is a great writer and an even greater storyteller. I’ve attended a couple of his readings and loved the passages he picked to read, but somehow I’m always let down by his stories. Or, more accurately, his endings. It’s unsettling because I want to like them–they’re great stories. Moreover, I think he has found that unique balance between literary fiction and magical realism that appeal to so many readers, that so many authors are still searching for. But the endings… just don’t work for me.

So I went into The Graveyard Book with some hesitation. Since it’s a children’s book, I expected it to be shorter and simpler than his other works. It’s certainly shorter, but no less simpler than the others or any text that deals with the great divide between life and death. I see this story as written with a child’s perspective in mind while accompanied by a grown-up narration, and the result is you get an terribly precocious child whose mind processes disturbing information at an unusually serene (read: not dysfunctional) rate. He’s still a child though, still prone to childish impulses and flight of fantasy, yet he’s far too “grown up” for his age.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the story, which I did. It’s a well written story with a tight plot and great ending.