“How To Talk To Girls At Parties” by Neil Gaiman (2016)

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“‘Come on,’ said Vic. ‘It’ll be great.'”

This is just a quick one here for a very short book. I’d read the short story of this in Neil Gaiman’s 2006 collection Fragile Things already, but it was oddly memorable and I was intrigued by this visual retelling.

It’s the 1970s, and two teenagers, Enn and Vic, are on their way to a party. Enn doesn’t want to go because he’s crap with girls, and Vic does because he’s a natural when it comes to pulling. When they arrive, Enn is swiftly abandoned because Vic has gone off with Stella. Deciding to follow his friend’s lead, however, he begins talking to a few of the girls. Unfortunately, they’re not quite the girls that the boys were expecting…

Short but incredibly engaging, the plot is snappy and Enn a likeable protagonist. On a personal note, I have a bit of a thing for women who look like they know when the universe is going to end (i.e. Natalie Dormer), or could kick my arse (i.e. Natalie Dormer), and the book is full of them. As is often the case with Gaiman, you can’t ever be really sure what’s real and what isn’t, and no proper explanations are given related to what happened at the party.

Similarly, it is in keeping with his themes of magic realism, the unknown, and normal people getting caught up in really weird scenarios. Plus the illustrations are utterly charming and beautiful, penned by twin artists Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. I’m unfamiliar with their work, but they have a beautiful style and the characters jump off the page and beckon you to join them. A really joyous, if creepy, read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (1990)

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good-omens“It was a nice day.”

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Now there’s a team and a half. Although I’ve devoured most of Gaiman’s work, I’ve only read a few Pratchett novels and never been especially taken by them. I’ve discussed this before. As such, embarking on this book that is continually held up as one of the best and funniest of the nineties was done with trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried so much. Here’s the situation…

Eleven years before the main story starts, Crowley, a angel-now-demon who “didn’t so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards” has an important job to do involving the Antichrist. It’s not a job he wants to be doing, mind, but you don’t argue with the big boys downstairs. Once the kid has grown up a bit, there are rumblings. Crowley and Aziraphale, an angel and part-time bookseller, realise that the end of the world is due this Saturday and neither of them particularly want it to happen. They’ve come to like Earth and it’s many trinkets. They decide to try and stop it.

Elsewhere, the four Bikers of the Apocalypse have received a message to gather. A young man called Newt Pulsifer gets gainful employment as a witchfinder, only to befriend one a short while later. She’s Anathema Device and has been for years studying the only book that means anything to her: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Anathema is the distant descendant of Agnes and has noticed that the prophecies go no further than this coming Saturday. Add to the mix a Satanic hellhound who discovers he’d rather roll in cow shit than do evil, a bogus medium who does extras on Thursdays, two other demons who are trying to make life worse for Crowley, and a former Satanist nun, and things are about to become more complicated than algebraic long division.

And everyone’s lost track of where the Antichrist even is…

That plot summary feels short for what’s actually going on in this book, but it’s one of those ones that is best read in full. So much happens and in such a short space of time that you find yourself tearing through the pages, desperate to find out how it’s all going to get sorted out. It’s immensely funny, and I really mean that. Some books start out funny but then tail off towards the middle and lose it by the end. This one is full of throwaway gags, stupid imagery, witty asides and the most beautiful surrealism. Frankly, I’m jealous. The concepts packed into here are amazing and I’m in awe of them, as well as being pissed off that I will never be this good and wish I’d come up with some of these ideas first.

The main characters arguably are Crowley and Arizaphale, and I adore them both. Crowley may be a demon, but there’s a hint of angel in him somewhere, and while Arizaphale may be an angel, there’s a sliver of darkness in him. Crowley in particular seems keen to cause havoc wherever he goes, simply because that’s what demons do. He drives a beautiful Bentley which only keeps running because he wills it to, and has much to say about the fact that all cassette tapes left in cars for more than two weeks turn into Best of Queen albums. (It’s that sort of insanity I love – it’s nonsense, and yet it feels like that it could be real.)

My favourite characters though are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. who are now the Four Bikers. War, Famine, and Pollution (who replaced Pestilence when he resigned after getting pissed off about the advent of penicillin) are fully fleshed out. Death remains Death, though speaks in the same manner and seems to share a similar appearance to the Death of the Discworld novels. Pollution is a young man who leaves mess in his wake; everything he touches breaks, leaks or becomes toxic. Famine is a food scientist and dietitian who has basically worked out how to produce food that has zero nutritional value (his fast food fries have never even seen a potato) and peddles diet plans that cause people to waste away. He’s incredibly famous among the celebrity world. War is a stunningly beautiful war correspondent who always seems to be in the right place just before the action kicks off. I am in love with War, continuing my obsession with redheads and women who look like they could kill me.

If you’re a fan of Pratchett or Gaiman, come and nestle among these pages. They are magicians, and putting them together creates something particularly wonderful. Indeed, this could be the book that turns me into a Pratchett fan. Perhaps I shall return to the Discworld after all. What an utterly charming, hilarious and at times deeply poignant novel.

“The Ocean At The End Of The Lane” by Neil Gaiman (2013)

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Bring your trunks!

Bring your trunks!

“It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm.”

I’ve been contemplating joining a writer’s group for a while, if only to discuss ideas and get feedback on work in progress, but finding one locally has been a challenge. As it happens, however, I will be able to attend one nearby next week, one that is frequented by two good friends of mine. It then transpired that every other meeting is dedicated to a certain book, meaning the group is both a writer’s group and a book club. The meeting I’m attending – yep, book club. Had I read the book? No.

So, here we are. Neil Gaiman.

The paperback was cheaper than the hardback, but it only came out yesterday (yes, I’ve read this in two days) so I had to wait for it. That’s actually part of the reason I then got to finish Jane Eyre – to have something to potter through until it arrived. Gaiman is an author I love, and while I knew that this book had had great reviews and been universally applauded, I was in no real hurry to get hold of it – until circumstances changed, obviously. So, am I just going to join the masses and say what a great book this is? Yeah, pretty much.

The book opens with the nameless narrator escaping a funeral and heading down to the place his childhood house was. He continues down the lane and finds the farmhouse that sits at the end of it, and begins to wonder if the young girl he knew back when he was seven, Lettie Hempstock, is still there. He instead finds an old woman and he asks to go and see the pond in the back garden, a pond that Lettie claimed was an ocean. As he remembers this, he recalls that Lettie said she – along with her mother and grandmother – arrived from across this ocean, and then more and more memories begin to pour from him…

The narrative flies back forty-odd years to when the narrator was seven years old, and tells the story of how he met Lettie Hempstock, a curious girl who was apparently eleven, but had been for a very long time. His story begins to unfold, talking about his kitten, and the opal miner, and then the visit to Lettie’s house, where she introduces him to a world unlike any he’s ever known. While doing battle with a strange creature from another universe, something happens and he returns with a hole in his foot. There’s something inside that hole, and pulling it out won’t end the horror. That’s when Ursula Monkton turns up, and everything for the narrator begins to go wrong.

As magical as we’ve come to expect from Gaiman, he takes the fantastical and makes it almost mundane. He appreciates that children are far more accepting of things than adults are – the narrator notes that most of the time he tells the truth, people think he’s lying, so why would they believe that his nanny is a creature from another space and time – and more willing to take things in their stride, unaware of their own morality. Everyone thinks they’re immortal at seven.

Predominately, however, it is a book about memory. Memory continually fluctuates, changing depending on what else happens in our lives. As Old Mrs Hempstock says, you’ll never get two people to agree about anything, not entirely. The magical women in the old farmhouse at the end of the lane – Lettie, Ginnie and Old Mrs Hempstock – are wonderful creatures, a tad menacing given that their powers are totally unexplained, but they have nothing but affection for the narrator and are only really seen to use their powers for good, despite them being capable of things few could imagine, such as summoning creatures from other places, and stitching and sewing time to remove bad patches.

There are some wonderful moments, and some deeply disturbing ones. A scene that sticks out is when the narrator dreams that he’s choking on something, only to wake up and find a shilling in his throat. He begins to doubt what is real and what isn’t. He’s not afraid to ask questions, even if he doesn’t always get answers from them.

The ending is, without question, a little surprising, but it absolutely works and Gaiman has once again done truly marvellous things with that powerhouse he calls an imagination. It’s a quick read, but it’s beautiful and might make you think about how clearly you remember some things from your youth…

“Fragile Things” by Neil Gaiman (2006)

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fragile things

Short Fictions & Wonders

“Let me tell you a story. No, wait, one’s not enough. I’ll  begin again…”

Neil Gaiman is a genius and someone definitely worth dedicating even a little bit of time to. You might think you haven’t heard of him, but I assure you, you’ve probably brushed up against him at some point. He wrote the original books that inspired the amazing films Coraline and Stardust, he penned an episode of Doctor Who (called “The Doctor’s Wife”) and has a second episode coming up in the next series, and is responsible for such incredible novels as American Gods and Neverwhere.

He also appears to be unaware of the function of – or perhaps even the existence of – combs.

Anyway, Fragile Things is a stunning collection of short stories and poems from this master of the strange. You already knew that this was going to be a positive review, and that’s mostly because Gaiman can do very little wrong in my eyes. These “short fictions and wonders” are delightfully dark and twisty, and twisted, and so many of them seem to run like a Mobius strip, ending where they began and beginning where they ended. Everything in life is a circle and these stories are particularly good examples of that as situations repeat themselves again and again in wonderfully macarbe scenarios.

Gaiman’s use of language is spectacular and he is a man who can say a lot with very little, always able to make the reader understand what he means immediately. He is capable of writing in a variety of genres (these stories have various shifts along the lines of believability, although I think all of them contain the supernatural in one way or another) and every time he is completely gripping. If I let myself go on, I’m just going to crawl up inside him, so instead, I’m going to pick out some of my favourite stories from the collection and comment on those.

“A Study in Emerald”
I am not a Sherlock Holmes fan by any real stretch, that is, not of the original books. The BBC series is mighty fine, but I tried reading A Study in Scarlet and I couldn’t get on with it. In this version of events, Gaiman takes the basic plot of that novel and twists it into a darkly alternate United Kingdom where the the Lovecraftian Old Gods have taken over the country and our heroes are now working for the slimy and alien Queen Victoria. It uses many of the same tricks and even text of the original novel, but turns it on its head for a very surprisingly finale.

“Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”
A mouthful of a title, for some very clever food for thought. Again, you aren’t entirely sure what’s going on as a writer struggles to pen his latest novel, aiming for it to be a realistic slice of life piece that will be remembered through the ages, but he keeps popping in jokes, dissolving bodies and a mention of “this night of all nights”. It’s only when a talking raven suggests that he try writing fantasy that things begin to pick up…

“Other People”
A sick and stunning look at what may be waiting for us in the afterlife, and a suggestion that physical torture is by far the preferred option between that or mental torture.

“The Problem of Susan”
Like the Sherlock Holmes tale, this one looks at The Chronicles of Narnia and tells us what happened to Susan after all the events of her young life. It seems that things were never the same again for her, but there’s still an old applewood wardrobe in her spare room. There”s a certain ambiguity over the whole thing, but only if you choose to put it there.

“Instructions”
A poem that gives instructions on what to do if you find yourself inside a fairy tale. Nothing more, nothing less.

There’s also a genuine ghost story, a poem about fairies, how the story of Aladdin came to exist and even a short story hidden inside the introduction. The final story is one for the lovers of American Gods, set two years after the events of that novel and seeing Shadow now holed up in Scotland facing a very bizarre proposition.

Like everything Gaiman does, a masterpiece, from the king of the creepy.