Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

My Year In Books: Best Reads of 2014

It’s that time of year again: the last day before New Year. As with last year, it’s time to look back and consider the books I’ve read.

This post will deal with my favourite reads this year. Worst reads (of which there weren’t that many!) will come later – follow this link to see them! So this is, I suppose, like the Booker Prize… Except that there’s no money on offer… And that these are books read in rather than published in the last year.

So not very much like the Man Booker at all really! Although there will be some overlapping books.

Right let’s aim for a top five.

#5 The Golem and The Djinni by Helene Wecker was actually my first read of the year! Beautiful depictions of immigrant cultures to New York and compelling on many levels: sociological, fantastical, personal and a rollicking good plot!

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#4 Room by Emma Donoghue. A powerful and poignant story of a mother and child brought up in the most appalling situation as captives. Donoghue said she wanted to create that story at a distance from the horror and terror of the kidnapping when rituals had been established and tedium set in. And the most beautifully realised child’s voice I’ve read.

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#3 Harvest by Jim Crace which was a Man Booker nominee in 2013 – as Room was in 2010. An absolutely astounding evocation of a moment in time and a wonderfully breathy summery feel to it which makes it wonderful to recall in this grey weather.

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#2 The History Of The Rain by Niall Williams.

I really did love this book, a Man Booker longlist nominee. I loved the poetry of the language, the literariness of it, the humour and humanity.

Just absolutely wonderful.

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#1 The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton.

I only came upon this book and Catton because of her Booker-winning The Luminaries which was also wonderful. But for me The Rehearsal was sublime. It was coruscating and complex and writhed like a snake under the reader’s eyes. Exquisitely discomforting.

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Ahhh… But now I’m already worrying about this list. Am I happy with the order? Should The Luminaries have been included? What of all the other books that were great but I’ve not included.

So a handful of honourable mentions, perhaps?

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Good Omens by Messrs Pratchett and Gaiman

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage

I came across Murakami’s writing through 1Q84, his iconic alternative universe exploration of Tengo and Aomame. In all honesty, I “discovered” it through Audible.com for one reason: it was many hours in length and, for one credit, really good value!

And then I got swept up in this strange unsettling and unsettled narrative. It was like stepping into someone else’s dream! Familiar yet alien; recognisable yet surreal.

And, thanks to Aomame’s description of her name and the differences between Aomame and Edamame, I seem to remember getting a University Challenge question right.

So any way, after picking up Norweigan Wood , The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka On The Shore, Murakami has become one of those writers for whom a new novel is an event. There are a few novelists that have this effect: China Miéville, Hilary Mantel, Neil Gaiman….

So my picking up the wonderfully entitled Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage was always going to be exciting.

IMG_5225.JPG So, imagine my delight and pleasure that, as well as the book itself, there were stickers inside the front cover.

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IMG_5227.JPG Stickers!

Yes, stickers.

It’s perhaps 30 years since I had stickers inside the front cover of a book!

This must rank alongside such classics as Dress-Up Barbie and Design A Dinosaur World!

The blurb to this book reads as follows:

Tsukuru Tazaki had four best friends at school. By chance, all their names contained a color. The two boys were called Akamatsu, meaning ‘red pine’, and Oumi, ‘blue sea’, while the girls’ names were Shirane, ‘white root’, and Kurono, ‘black field’ Tazaki was the only last name with no color in it.

One day Tsukuru Tazaki’s friends announced that they didn’t want to see him, or talk to him, ever again.

Since that day Tsukuru has been floating through life, unable to form intimate connections with anyone. But then he meets Sara, who tells him that the time has come to find out what happened all those years ago.

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There’s an obvious geographical connection with Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being but there also seems to be a thematic parallel: the drifting, loneliness, a drift towards suicide.

Anyway, I’m going to stop gabbling now, bring that delicious sensual moment of teasing before I begin the book to an end.

Read The Golem and The Djinni If You Liked

This is my first blog post and my first book of 2014 and, do far, it’s a gorgeous and haunting book! It’s the story of two beings out of time: Chava, a Golem woken up in the middle of the Atlantic en route to America in the 1800s; and Ahmad, a Djinni trapped for perhaps a thousand years in a lamp and released in New York at the same time. There is a wealth of transformation so far with the novel as the useless becomes useful, the old becomes renovated, history becomes myth and I suspect that will be the metaphor at the heart of the book. Chava herself of made of clay and therefore malleable; Ahmad, as a djinn is a creature of winds and fire and therefore equally protean. Both Chava and Ahmad have, however, become fixed in human form which I suspect is more significant than a mere plot device! Even their names are imposed on them by others in an attempt to transform them.

Interwoven with these two eponymous stories are others: those of the craftsman who made the Golem, a doctor whose encounters with a djinn have affected him, the rabbi who took the Golem in. Admittedly I’m only 100 pages in but it really is a gorgeous novel!

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If you enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, you might like the mythologies mixing in the melting pot of Nineteenth Century New York and the exploration of immigrant and outsider communities adjusting to a new life.

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The mix of acutely felt and sensed historical fiction and the fairy tale or mythological elements might appeal if you enjoyed either Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

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Ghul and Ghoul

I had started reading The Golem and the Djinni as an end of year treat to myself and so far absolutely loving it! Only two chapters in but loving both the Golem and the Djinni! A few rather Frankensteinesque moments I. The creation of the female golem. Brilliant!

But the Djinni reminds us that he is only one of many djinn creatures including the ifrit (familiar to any player of Final Fantasy and star of a rather tender body-exchange gay sexual encounter in Gaiman’s American Gods)

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I was intrigued. I had never heard if a ghul save for Batman’s Ra’s al-Ghul. The book describes the ghul as

loathsome and flesh-eating

which did wonder whether there was a connection between the ghul and ghouls beyond mere phonological similarity.

And there is: ghouls which have somehow always struck me as a particularly British and somewhat archaic synonym for ghost is actually a bastardised image of an Arabian shape-shifting desert demon.

Who knew?

Well, the writers at DCC Comics presumably!

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2013 in Books

2013 drags itself damply and limply to an end this week. Unlike Dr Who, whose Matt Smith incarnation went out on Christmas Day with a bang, the final days of 2013 remind me of the lines from Eliot

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Anyway, I thought that I would bring the year to a close with a review of 2013 in books. And, to preface, this is books read by me in 2013 rather than written in 2013. There are still some 2013 books I’ve not got round to reading yet: The Luminaries and Jim Crace’s Harvest among them.

So. Here goes.

Top of my list is the Man Booker shortlisted A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

20131228-074227.jpg Utterly compelling and intriguing narrative voices, engaging characters, thoughtful, thought provoking and haunting. It is a book about reading and the relationship between reader and writer and genuinely made me think. And as my family and students will tell you, I try to avoid that if necessary! My somewhat gushing review is here as is a link to what happens when you gush too much about your book, here.

Second place on this wholly subjective list would go to Neil Gaiman whose beautiful Ocean At The End Of The Lane was powerful, touching, mythic and domestic all at the same time.

20131228-074349.jpg And a rollicking good read! Again, my review of it is here.

And at number three, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

20131228-075235.jpg Unexpected, tender, utterly humane. Simply a genuinely lovely book about an ordinary man and his ability to simple journey to say goodbye to an old friend who is dying. There were so many ways this could have become cloying or sentimental or just go wrong… but Rachel Joyce judged everything perfectly! Another link to my review.

Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet certainly needs a mention. As I do this I question whether ranking them has value… Maybe just my top ten. I also realised that February was a great month for my reading!

20131228-080537.jpg I loved this book: again it was remarkably tender and quiet and personal and with a remarkable sensitivity to light. The descriptions were gorgeous – especially of the glass feet themselves. Yes it is that literal a title! My review of this modern fairy tale is here.

I think The Woman in Black by Susan Hill needs a mention too. A great book with a cracking plot and so consciously crafted by Hill’s own apparent delight in the gothic. It has been an ideal book to teach simply because of that conscious crafting of language. And also genuinely chilling and creepy. Some notes on it can be found here and here.

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The film adaptation of The Woman In Black was, however, a massive disappointment… which leads me onto another of my books of 2013 which also had a really bad film: World War Z by Max Brooks.

20131228-085920.jpg The book is your standard zombie-fare: for unknown reasons, the dead rise and kill and convert much of humanity before the human race makes a stand. What I enjoyed about it – and what was taken out of the film – was the multitude of voices and stories which took an unmanageably large global narrative and reduced it down to domestic individual stories. My original blog, follow the link.

And 2013 was a good year for the undead for me: Justin Cronin’s first two books of The Passage trilogy were a powerfully and occasionally lyrical post-apocalyptic vampiric vision with one massively evocative protagonist, Amy Harper Bellafonte. The US military discover a virus capable of imbuing great strength and healing and predictably attempt to create a super soldier serum which in fact creates vampires who – somewhat inevitably – take over the world. My review of The Passage is here and the slightly less satisfying The Twelve is here.

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To continue I do want to include the Man Booker shortlisted Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín.

20131228-093945.jpg. This is a hauntingly sad novel of the gospel story of Christ from the point of view of his mother trying to deal with the crushing fact of his death. I just wish I’d read this without having seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian! My review is here.

Finally, I’ll mention Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett just because it is by Terry Pratchett and therefore a ways going to be a great big fun read! My review of this is here.

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And what will be my first books of 2014?

Well, I’ve just bought The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

20131228-100005.jpg The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

20131228-100058.jpg and The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison

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Maurice Sendak RIP

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It is with genuine sadness that I learn of Maurice Sendak’s death today. This man will have the status of icon, myth, legend and inspiration for all time.

I feel it wouldn’t be right, as a reader, not to mark his life in some way. He was the one man whose story, Where The Wild Things Are has stayed with me throughout my life. I remember my mother reading it to me; it was the first book I ever read alone; I remember having to draw the Wild Things in an art lesson at school when I was 10; it was the first book I bought to read to my adopted son and daughter; it was subsequently eaten by my son but quickly replaced; I have taught it in A level English classes and at GCSE.

I do not know enough about Sendak to write an obituary and there will be countless. The first (perhaps) is here

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/09/books/maurice-sendak-childrens-author-dies-at-83.html

What I can do is explore what Sendak means to me and what he woke in me.

He taught me that language is alive and resonant and beautiful and playful and true. His line that Max “sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year” is still one of my favourite lines in all writing! The way the sentence moves from the literal to to symbolic; the interplay of movement through time and space – “in and out of weeks” – is controlled, simple, elegant and just sublime. It is language at its best and reminds us that beauty, depth, poignancy and truth are not limited to long, pretentious, showy language.

Another thing he was the first to teach me was that the creatures and shapes that peopled the inside of my head – and I assume others’ – were valid and real and true in a way that transcended the mundane truths of our banal world. They were parts of me. Contradictory, antagonistic, childish, irritating, unruly, scary and – in it’s richest sense – wild but all parts of me.

He taught me that no one can limit or control human and my own imagination. The limitlessness of the Max sent to his room in which

That very night … a forest grew and grew- and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by

. Yes I know it’s “just” a kids’ book but Max in his room is Mandela on Robbins Island, is every wage slave, is every oppressed individual or group or race. Mandela in fact said, of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that it was the book that caused the “prison walls fall down”. Sound familiar? And the vastness of our human imagination: unbounded even by the ocean.

Yet despite his unbounded oceanic imagination, Max returns home to “be where someone loved him best of all” and through this I learnt that we cannot exist in our imagination alone. And as a parent, trying to discipline an unruly (book eating) wild thing of my own, I learnt that discipline does not stop the child loving and feeling loved “best of all” however much he may be screaming that he hates me!

Through Sendak, I learnt that love can be so possessive it becomes destructive. When he leaves, the Wild Things howl “Oh please don’t go- we’ll eat you up- we love you so!”. Watching Jeremy Kyle or recalling the disputes I got involved in as a barrister, other people would have benefitted from learning that too.

I learnt through Sendak that the label of “children’s” or “young adult” books is patronising. I recall Patrick Ness’ sublime A Monster Calls and I wonder about the debt Ness owes Sendak; I read Neil Gaiman and China Miéville and Sendak seems to echo through them. I have no idea whether these people have read or valued Sendak but I hear Max’s spirit in them.

So, Maurice Sendak, dead today at the age of 83, I thank you! You have in a very real sense made me who I am today. And I like who I am!

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