The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

It was a pleasure to read Neil Gaiman’s . The winner of the 2013 National Book Awards Book of the Year and New York Times Number one best seller became an immediate classic in the fantasy genre. Gaiman has always been wonderful with his writing. His novels re91E3iOgMa6L._SL1500_ad like a complex stream of consciousness from the innermost thoughts of a living Peter Pan, a man who has figuratively never grown up.

 personifies that perspective literally. The novel follows an unnamed first person narrator who, in his forties, decides to escape from the solemnity of a funeral to visit his childhood home and the home of a childhood friend of his, Lettie Hempstock, who is apparently living in Australia. Snippets of the protagonist’s memory leak through into his mind and as he nears a small duck pond near Lettie’s house he remembers his story in its entirety. The Ocean, as Lettie dubs the duck pond, holds far more than just water.

As a child the protagonist is unhappy, yet finds escape in his older friend, Lettie. After an opal miner lodging with them breaks into his father’s car and commits suicide in it, opening a door to another world outside the boy’s house. Lettie sets out to seal the hole but a creature gets through and wreaks havoc on the boy’s life while attempting to please everyone else. The novel is purely magical. The writing is enchanting and the style is innocent. All too often you feel that the protagonist as a child lives in between two worlds, neither of which he can understand. The result of which is what Gaiman sets out for: “I hope, at its heart, it’s a novel about survival.”

There really isn’t much in a negative light that I can say about Ocean. The characterisation is as deep as Lettie’s ocean and the storyline weaves in and out of the supernatural and the harrowingly realistic. It plays with themes of life and magic in a magic realist universe and does so exceedingly well. An awoken supernatural being which is only known as what she really is to the protagonist plays with both her demonic nature and delves into the weakness of the human will. In the form of Ursula Monkton, the boy and his sister’s live in nanny and governess, she is a perfectly dissolved solution of seduction, malice and the paranormal. The boy’s parents are the typical bewildered adults, akin to those of the Lewisian universe, who don’t have the imagination to know what is really going on in their own child’s life. The story as a whole is a re-reader and one I am sure you can get more out of every time you read it. It’s a comfortable narrative, one which you can pick up, put down, really think about and overall enjoy.

Firestarter by Stephen King

Firestarter is Stephen King’s ninth published novel and has generally been lauded as one of his middle ground novels from his extensive canon. The novel was nominated for the British Fantasy award in 1981 but lost out to Ramsay Campbell’s To Wake the Dead.

Firestarter is actually my first exploration into King’s work. So with a mind unclouded from previous fandom for his work (or hatred of if the case may have been) I leapt into the novel not really knowing what to expect. Five hundred and sixty-six pages later I got up, dusted myself off, wholly satisfied.

9780141341934King’s style is everything the people say it is. His power with words is akin to a steel vice. It holds you and won’t let go until the inevitable and violent climax. Firestarter tells the story of Charlie and her father Andy McGee, the unfortunate victims of an underhand government experiment gone wrong. Andy and his wife were test subjects for a mysterious and illicit drug known as Lot 6. The taking of which imbued the two of them with psi powers. The novel begins in medias res after the murder of Andy’s wife while he and Charlie are on the run.

Andy is a mind suppressor who uses what he calls ‘the push’ to actively alter the thoughts of his targets, for example, he convinces a mystified cab driver a one dollar bill is a five hundred. Charlie is a pyrokinetic; a term coined by Stephen King for this novel. It is a specific branch of telekinesis (the power to move objects with one’s mind) which concentrates energy into the spontaneous heating of particles in the air, causing flames. Charlie is sought by the agents who administered the drug to her parents, the most threatening of whom is a wonderful ‘good cop’ American Indian man John Rainbird. Rainbird is pure danger personified and will stop at nothing to keep Charlie and her father under wraps. Charlie is a potent weapon. Her power can create a spot heat of thirty thousand degrees Fahrenheit and for that the government want to contain her before her story can get out into the public eye.

The story is a relatively typical action narrative but it still keeps your attention and keeps you wanting to continue to the end. King’s writing is flawless and believable despite the outlandish situation. The characters seem to hold humanity to them which you all too often don’t find within a thriller. Not one of them is what one could call a plot device. Each has their own story, problems and must overcome or succumb to them. It makes for a fascinating ride and has certainly convinced me of King’s ability as a writer. And if this is only average for his style, then what am I missing out on?

Your Brother’s Blood by David Towsey

Firstly, a note, it’s been Christmas and despite me finishing reading this book long before it, various commitments have meant that I’ve not written this until now, but here it is, as my first review of 2014!

Now then, there will be no bias in this review, I promise. I can guarantee as I am no longer being tutored by the author’s partner. Moving swiftly on. Your Brother’s Blood is a zombie western, which is a genre I have not read before, and neither have I read either of its component parts to any great length. So as a novice to the western genre and the zombie genre I felt a mixture of the two would be a suitable introduction to both. Thankfully, I wasn’t let down. Your Brother’s Blood is a fine example of fantasy fiction.

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One of the key points in this novel is religion. The concept of the novel follows Thomas McDermott, a Walkin’ as he travels back as a zombie from a flame scorched battlefield to his home town of Barkley, before escaping the town with his young daughter. Barkley is a pseudo-religious community. I use pseudo as I feel they are members of a pseudo-Christian faith. They are like a rather unhealthy sect which has taken biblical scripture in the wrong way and imposed too many limitations on it. They advocate the banning of forms of artistic expression for example. I wouldn’t say the book is anti-Christian but nor is it particularly pro. There is a sense of religion having a potential for evil, yet this particular religion – though bound in Christianity – cannot be described as anything less. Christianity certainly has its shortcomings, and this novel highlights the more extreme ones. Yet despite almost every name in the novel being taken from the Bible, and there being sideways references to Christianity it would appear that the author never intended it as a direct representation of Christianity. The Bible is ‘The Good Book’ and God is ‘The Good Lord;’ they are colloquialisms which have now become gospel, however neither The Bible nor God are directly mentioned by name. To me it seems as if this is as much a critique of religion as it is to sects and importantly a warning against religious brainwashing.

The novel is perhaps a little slow to start and the perspective changes a lot. As a result it is hard to keep track of all of the characters and plot trails which are rapidly introduced in the first section. It makes for a confusing first few hundred pages. However, the plot carries you through these first hundred pages or so with enough intrigue and momentum that you find yourself ingrained within the story. Towsey’s atmosphere is excellent, the characters are very believable and have clearly been thought about extensively. Each character is a personality in their own way – not one of them smacks of filler or plot device. The meat of the novel begins a third of the way through.

The atmosphere again is added to by the use of alternate named animals (horses are ‘shaggies’ etc.) and slight anachronisms of day-to-day human life as we know it. The bleak badlands scenery and the dust comes to life on the page. It makes a very pleasing picture. However, the setting feels very foreign, and despite this not inherently being a bad thing, I do find it errs on the side of alienation sometimes. Akin to NADSAT in A Clockwork Orange, yet not as developed. The alternate names for animals, I felt, needed more attention as there is a fine line between dropping in a few unknown words and phrases and letting the reader work it out for themselves and confusing them entirely. I feel it should be all or nothing, in a novel set in two hundred and fifty years it seems implausible that language wouldn’t change, yet I think that it hasn’t changed enough. When forced to work out what ‘shaggies’ ‘under-mutton’ and ‘red winks’ are, I feel they should play a more prominent part of the text – or at least, the concept of working out language should. They were an interesting idea but they were somewhat brushed past – there was a lot which could be done with language which I felt wasn’t done.

Overall, the novel is certainly an interesting one. It’s part of a trilogy, so the ending isn’t quite the ending of a standalone text, yet it doesn’t leave you feeling unfulfilled by any means. It’s an interesting read, and excellent in the way of transporting you to the town of Barkley. Just the right amount of thrill and suspense, intertwined with complex religious sensibilities, moral values and amoral values. I’ll be interested to see what happens next.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

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As melancholy as he looks, when depicted on the cover of the 2008 Penguin edition of The Day of the Triffids, Bill Masen is one of the most brazen characters I have seen portrayed in writing. John Wyndham’s best known novel certainly deserves the recognition that is has achieved, and the characterisation is one of its major strengths.

We follow Bill Masen through the streets of London and beyond in the aftermath of a global disaster where a glowing meteor-filled sky rendered all but a few people blind. Bill, naturally, is one of these people. He meets estranged chick-lit novelist Josella and together they seek out refuge. All the while, Triffids, tripodal walking plants with fatal stings on top of thick stems round up the blinded humans and mercilessly slaughter them. One thing I might add is the odd choice of title: The Day of the Triffids. There is of course a significant day, but that causes mass blindness. The triffids themselves eke into the novel gradually before becoming an outright plague. Most of the characters, the obviously intuitive Bill Masen excluded, seem to have no idea about how dangerous the triffids are. It leads to a trust relationship being formed between reader and protagonist. Bill Masen is apparently the most knowledgeable man in the country and everything he says becomes almost gospel to the reader, particularly when it is disregarded by his fellow characters.

The Day of the Triffids is a classic cozy catastrophe, where the protagonists rarely find themselves in any real danger, either through luck, strength or intelligence – they always seem to pull through uninjured. Regardless, the novel cannot be called anything but classic. It is one of the most renowned science fiction stories that has ever been written. Wyndham, despite not putting his protagonists in direct peril, certainly works hard to build an effective and absorbing atmosphere. The situation seems oddly believable and the solutions to problems equally so. It’s obvious a lot of thought has been put into this vision of catastrophe. Unfortunately its civility also holds it back. A cozy catastrophe is so much less than a tragic incident. There is no real loss, pain or grief saving the brutal murder of Josella’s entire family, which she seems to be over within a day or two. Where the atmosphere, build up and situation seem so realistic, the characters seem almost overly headstrong considering it. The blind are often depicted as suicidal, but the sighted ones are hardened to the entire affair. While Bill is inherently affected by this tragedy, he rarely gives himself time for reflection, there is always a plan in his head and survival is a key part of that plan. He’s an inspiring character and cares when he needs to care, but it is quickly established that for the blinded masses, there is only so much a man can do.

Wyndham also is inexplicably anti-American. There is an attitude among some of the characters that there will be Americans coming to save the day – published, as this was, ten years after The Second World War. However these characters are usually and immediately rebutted. There is an overbearing sense of British ‘pluck,’ but I think it almost goes too far. The triffids are creepy if a little comical but I feel a little more fear wouldn’t hurt.

It’s a book everyone should read, yes, but in twenty years or so I think it’ll be past its prime. Bill Masen is a fascinating character and certainly a ‘leader,’ yet catastrophe fiction now often takes a far more bleak view on life and I doubt Bill would fit so nicely in it.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

First, an apology – a lot of life has happened in between this post and my last and as such I haven’t really kept my more regular posts promise up so far… But honestly that’s not been because I’ve not been reading, it’s just I’ve not finished reading anything until this morning, so here is a long belated post!

Audrey Niffenegger has a skill which I envy. She made an incredibly convincing storyline out of a normal character with a unique ability. The realism of it all is what really inspires me. Henry DeTamble is a time traveller. Not a voluntary time traveller but quite the opposite. Henry has a disorder which causes him to be temporally displaced into points of (usually) his own timeline, for example he meets his wife first when she is six and he is in his thirties. The novel follows him and his relationship with Clare, the six year old future wife. Henry and Clare have a unique relationship as you can probably imagine; Henry meets Clare for the first time when he is twenty-eight. Simultaneously this is, from Henry’s perspective, at least eight years before Clare meets Henry for the first time and from Clare’s perspective it is fourteen years later.

It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? But honestly, it’s not. Niffenegger helpfully signposts each section with a date, followed by how old Henry and Clare are.

“Friday, September 23, 1977 (Henry is 36, Clare is 6)”

A simple technique but it clears up the writing which would be impossible to follow without it. It also gives scope for hinting to the reader what will happen and whether Henry is time travelling when it happens – Henry in the present is always eight years older than Clare. The hints are subtle: (Henry is 15, and 15) when a fifteen year old Henry visits himself, but you have to read to find out how, where and when.

Niffenegger also deals very well with remarkably stressful situations, there are a lot of problems in the life of a man who suddenly vanishes and turns up naked, years away from where he left. He has to get through stressful times, such as his wedding, and sometimes very dark, weighty issues such as excessive contact with medicines of various different kinds, being arrested several times, miscarriage, pain, loss. When you think, you can agree – these are likely issues for a man with this disorder. That’s why the concept works so well, because the author has covered all the bases. She leaves no stone unturned and it paints the world beautifully.

Let me say once and for all I thought this book was great. Unfortunately was is the operative word. Niffenegger builds her characters seamlessly. She has mastered the technique of revealing parts of their lives at the exact moment they need to be revealed. There are plenty of surprises even though one of the characters is the definition of ‘spoiler.’ The problem I find is that this eventually catches up with the novel. The spoilers Henry keeps wittingly revealing to himself are also revealed to the reader. The end of the novel is foretold a good three quarters of the way through the book and it takes all the lustre out of it.

The end is the problem I have with this book. Everything is indeed well set up, the characters seem real, the situation seems real. It’s a stellar example of magic realism/science fiction. As you get to know the characters you begin to understand how they think. Niffeneger uses first person from both Clare and Henry so the reader gets in both of their heads. They are very deep characters. But the story’s end just doesn’t quite fit. I won’t spoil it (like Henry does), you’ll have to read it for yourself if you want to really know what I’m on about. What I will say is that as you would expect of a couple who marry, they eventually have a child. A girl, Alba. Alba is a wonderful character but I feel she is no made enough of. She appears quite late on (Henry is 38) or there abouts. She isn’t the protagonist but she does time travel. But we never find out where or when she goes. She just exists in the background as a small ray of hope amidst a dark world. But I feel that’s not enough for her. The other issue I have is with the events of the end. I don’t want to say they seem unrealistic, they just seem like they’ve been placed there to end the story. They don’t really fit and there’s no real explanation for it. The reader knows what will happen at the end but it leaves you with a feeling that you’ve been let down gently while the characters push what really happens under the rug to let it sit there forever.

I’d still recommend reading it, it’s truly fantastic. It’s not perfect, but it’s fantastic. The only thing I felt could have been better was the end but I honestly would say that it doesn’t matter. The whole book is an experience, and the concept and depth of character ensures that experience is interesting, exciting, tragic, funny and overall very enjoyable.

Kalashnikov for Shoes and three other stories – my reviews of the Writing West Midlands Short Story Competition 2013

So I was browsing the archives of the Writing West Midlands website this morning and I came across a few competition entries from earlier this year. there was a competition word limit of 1800 words and a theme of ‘travel’ so I thought I’d check out all of the available stories and post my thoughts of them here.

NB: If the links don’t work, here’s a link to the competition page

Kalashnikov for Shoes by Hilary McGrath

This was a frankly astonishing portrait in so few words. Kalashnikov for Shoes tussles with the ever difficult topic of refugees escaping an oppressive and war-torn homeland in search of a better future for themselves. McGrath manages to encapsulate her characters’ emotions perfectly, the hardships of crossing a border under the cover of darkness. Led by the suitably rugged Khalid – a family edges closer to an unnamed border. Shiro, his grandparents, aunt and cousins are at their last wisp of life. Where the most basic items are precious. The piece takes its title from Shiro’s loss of shoes, and a false promise made by a traveller they meet. He would trade shoes for a kalashnikov. The piece itself not only encapsulates the mood and strife of the family but it reflects in that of an entire country. Shiro is urged to join the fight against the government, but at eighteen his sights seem more set on rebuilding his broken country after war is said and done. The third person narrative only emphasises the distance of the Western reader. McGrath is a worthy winner in this competition.

The Life of Philip McAvoy by Ken Elkes

This short story was particularly unique one. Beginning with the trauma of witnessing a man jump in front of a train. Elkes’ unnamed protagonist and another shaking witness sit down and smoke – before giving Philip McAvoy a life of his own. Elkes’ writing stays very close to his narrator. The unnamed protagonist hides a lot of herself from the reader – which enhances the story through dulling the readers’ senses to a severe trauma in both the protagonist’s and Robert’s lives. It can’t be said that this story is powerful, moving and emotional in the same way that McGrath’s entry is, but it is moving in a different way. Elkes opts for a message of simplicity. The microcosm of an inner city couple witnessing a suicide in comparison to the macrocosm of a family which represents the plight of a country. But Elkes’ simplicity works well, the characters seem dead; but are dead in the way that their emotions have been squandered – dead through expert charactersation – not lack of characterisation. All in all I find it to be an interesting story and a silent reflection on the human psyche.

Twenty Miles South by Garrie Fletcher

A short journey encapsulated perfectly by its first line: “Danny was surprised that more people didn’t steal pensioners, it was easy; if a kid like him could do it anyone could.” There is a vague tongue-in-cheek humour to this piece which pairs with the subject perfectly. Danny has spirited a pensioner away from a nursing home and is attempting to take him on what appears to be an exciting, yet elicit day out. The characters bounce off each other well – particularly as most of their emotion is displayed through dialogue. We get glimpses of Danny’s past relationships; a past which has driven him to his reckless nature of the present snapshot we see in the piece. The work moves quickly; it’s not often an 1800 word story can legitimately include a police car chase either. It’s an impressive piece but perhaps lacks the emotive qualities of the previous two.

Light Sensitive by Ed Briggs

When I first read this piece I’ll admit to not really paying enough attention – but I felt it worthy of a second reading and found quite an intuitive piece lurking beneath the surface. I myself am particularly fond of the ‘reflecting on life whilst on a train’ motif – which Briggs uses to great effect. There is the inevitable clash of personal and public. A passenger must interact with their fellow passengers – verbally, mentally through observation alone. This piece captures that moment perfectly for me. Brigg’s protagonist – referred to in the third person as “He” allows the reader to position themselves in the train along with his passengers. This piece is another exercise in simplicity, but Briggs has built up more of a back story. His unwitting protagonist seems to reveal more of himself than he really wants to. ‘His’ life can be gleaned from his thoughts and actions and reactions. Making him one of the most interesting characters in any of the stories. This story was perhaps an honourable mention – perhaps a forth or joint third place. I personally feel it deserves at least second.

C by Tom McCarthy

There are certain books where modernism is pushed too far (if you read my blog, you’ll know which), then there are some which in my opinion hit the proverbial nail right on the head. C is that. I’ll admit to liking McCarthy after reading his first novel Remainder; his style is unique, but interesting. He explores his readers’ psyches almost as much as his characters’ through a complex and evocative vocabulary. His words challenge your perception of what is and isn’t real or acceptable in ways that other writers never could.
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C is McCarthy’s third novel and received generally mixed reviews upon release, but was nonetheless shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker award. The story follows the life of Serge Carrefax; an electric character ‘born to the sound of one of the very first experimental wireless stations.’ The novel mirrors this electricity, it’s short, intense and indeed “shocking.” Serge’s life however brief is extraordinarily complex: his father – a professor for deaf children and wireless radio enthusiast aligns his son with a motif of signals and static. There is a sense that there is a constant flowing energy following Serge through the pages. McCarthy explores an array of settings in which Serge flies through, leaving an impression but never staying in for too long. This of course gives the book some much needed variation – from his home life, through the first world war to the drug addled London of the roaring Twenties and finally to Egypt. Throughout, Serge’s fixations grow, he moves from his place as a curious child, experimenting with his sister’s chemistry set, to experimenting with drugs and eventually moving to his element as a ‘Pylon Man’ in Egypt.

C in essence is a book which is a character in itself. Serge carries the novel, it’s his personal development which the reader will follow. This counts towards the novel in many respects. A character driven novel is an excellent concept, and when well executed it becomes an excellent novel. C, or more specifically the character of Serge makes a discordant plot line, indeed, less of a plot ‘line’ than a plot ‘scribble,’ connect in ways you wouldn’t initially see. there is a communication between each of the sections – the hard ‘C’ and the soft ‘C’ seem to represent the two sides of Serge with the clicking and hissing static of a signal which is lost to the air.