Tag: neil gaiman

Feb 28 2017

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

With the recent resurgence of Marvel’s Thor movies, Norse mythology has become a renewed interest for many.

Neil Gaiman has held a fascination for Norse myths and legends for most of his life.  As a young boy he read a comic about the Norse god Thor.  Throughout his writing for most of his career, the theme of Norse mythology has been interwoven.  His comic Sandman uses Odin, Thor, and Loki in recurring roles and features several locations mentioned in Norse legend.  His novel American Gods also takes many elements of Norse mythology and places them in the present day.

In his latest book Norse Mythology, Gaiman goes to the core of the myths and tries to present them in an easily understandable, modernized manner.

Gaiman opens with the Nordic creation myth.  The myth states that before the beginning there were two worlds: the mist world and the fire world.  The mist world was called Niflheim and lay to the north.  The fire world lay to the south and was called Muspell.

The mist world was “colder than cold” while everything on the fire world glowed and burned.  “Muspell was light where Niflheim was gray,” Gaiman writes, and covered in “molten lava where the mist world was frozen.”

Between these two worlds was an empty and formless void called Gunnungagap.  Rivers from the mist world flowed into the void, eventually forming giant glaciers.  The glaciers in the north the glaciers were covered in fog and ice, but the embers and sparks from Muspell melted the ice in the south.  Eventually, life in the form of a person appeared in the waters and called itself Ymir who became the ancestor of all giants.  Out of the ice also came a cow named Audhumla who licked Buri, the ancestor of the gods, out of blocks of ice.

Ymir, who was neither male nor female, gave birth in it’s sleep to male and female giants one of whom married Buri.  Buri had a son called Bor who in turn had three sons:  Odin, Vili, and Ve.

The myth goes on to explain how Odin, Vili, and Ve grew into men, eventually creating other worlds and making people who Odin breathed life into – making him the all-father.

Further into Norse Mythology, Gaiman introduces the reader to other characters such us Sif (Thor’s wife) and Loki (Thor’s brother).  Many of the myths center around Loki causing trouble and Thor cleaning up his mess.  For instance, in The Treasures of the Gods, Sif wakes up with hair missing.  Thor immediately assumes that Loki is responsible because “…when something goes wrong, the first thing I was always think is it is Loki’s fault.  It saves a lot of time.”

When confronted, Loki admits to being responsible and says that he did it because he was drunk and it was funny.  What follows is a long and amusing tale of Loki nearly losing his head, accidentally getting Thor his hammer, and eventually, Sif regaining her hair.

Norse Mythology is like reading about your favorite dysfunctional family.  They are constantly at odds with each other but underneath is a tangible fondness.  Fans whose only previous exposure to Odin’s sons and the rest of the Norse gods is through the Marvel movies will find the same vexatious Loki and the same kind but slightly dense Thor.

Gaiman strips away overly complicated or flowery language and re-tells the myths in a straight forward easy to follow manner.  Well known for his characterization talents, Gaiman brings the ancient gods to life and allows the reader to believe, even if only for a moment, that the old myths are real.

Devoted fans of Gaiman will find familiar characters and themes in Norse MythologyAmerican Gods features both Odin and Loki disguised as Mr. Wednesday and Mr. World respectively.  Thor is mentioned in passing but does not feature in the main plot.

Odin, Thor, and Loki are also featured in Odd and the Frost Giants in which a young boy encounters an eagle, a bear, and a fox who turn out to be the ancient gods in disguise.

In addition, Gaiman’s comic Sandman: Seasons of Mists also features Thor, Odin, and Loki as well as a number of other characters drawn from different cultures including ancient Japanese and Egyptian mythology.

First time readers will likely enjoy Norse Mythology as it presents the stories with humor and makes them accessible to readers of different ages.  While there is some mention of sex, violence, and general mayhem, Norse Mythology is still appropriate for middle school age and older children.  Young children would likely find Odd and the Frost Giants a better introduction to Norse mythology, though both books are a good starting point for both adults and children.

Other works readers may want to investigate include Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, or D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths (previously titled Norse Gods and Giants).  While Trigger Warning does not center around any specific mythology or culture, it retains a fairy tale feel and many of the stories could easily be adaptations of cultural legends.  Trigger Warning and Norse Mythology also share the same conversational tone that is so quintessential to Gaiman’s work.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths is aimed at young children and will be a welcome addition to fans of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.  Filled with full page color illustrations, D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths overlaps significantly with Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.  Both tell of the theft of Thor’s hammer, the story of Balder, and the Norse creation story.  Adults who grew up on D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths will find nostalgic pleasure in D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and may enjoy sharing it with their own children.

Other books readers may enjoy include Rick Riordan’s new series Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard.  Though less faithful to the original mythology, Riordan manages to create a world of adventure and excitement that will intrigue readers of all ages.

At just over 300 pages Norse Mythology is an easy afternoon read that will leave readers eager to learn more of Nordic culture and myths.

Rating: 

 

 

Jun 21 2016

Review: The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Over the course of his career, Neil Gaiman has written a number of essays, introductions, and speeches.  The View from the Cheap Seats pulls together over sixty of these pieces in one place for the first time.

For veteran fans of Gaiman, many of these writings will revisit previously seen works.  For newer fans, The View from the Cheap Seats is a rare and quite interesting look into the mind of one of the greatest modern writers.

The book’s preface sets the tone the collection with Gaiman’s personal credo: a very brief summary of the basic tenants by which he lives his life and which influence his writings.

Many of Gaiman’s beliefs seem self-evident: killing or maiming others to suppress ideas doesn’t work.  Neither does attempting to control the ideas or thoughts of others.  Gaiman argues that ideas in and of themselves are neither good nor bad – they simply exist and members of society should be free to express those ideas no matter how vile or reprehensible they seem to others.  Rather, Gaiman states, it is up to each person to counter and persuade those representing the vile and reprehensible over to their side.

From there, Gaiman jumps into a speech on the importance of libraries that he gave in 2013 for the Reading Agency, a U.K. charity whose mission is to help people become more confident readers. Gaiman admits that, as an author, he is biased towards libraries.  He also gives the reader a small insight into how libraries and librarians shaped his path when he was a child.  During the summer months, his parents dropped him at the library on their way to work and picked him up on their way home.  There he worked his way through the card catalogue looking for books on vampires, witches, detectives, and other wonders.  After he had finished with the children’s library, he began on the adult books.  During this process, the librarians nurtured his love of reading by teaching him about interlibrary loans and steering him toward other books he might enjoy.

Touching on his personal credo from the opening of the book, Gaiman later talks about Charlie Hebdo and the PEN literary gala.  Since six tables had pulled out of hosting tables and so Gaiman was asked if he would step in to host one.  He agreed and what follows is a deeply personal and touching moment between him and his wife, Amanda Palmer.  Palmer tells him he is doing the right thing and then asks “Will you wear a bullet proof vest?”  Gaiman argues that security will be tight and tries to assuage her fears by assuring her a vest will not be necessary.

“But you should wear a vest anyway.” Palmer argues.  “Remember, I’m pregnant, and our child will need a father more than a martyr.”  In the end, Gaiman does not wear the vest, but the exchange is a startling reminder of the power of ideas and words.  Comics and cartoons can viscerally offend, Gaiman argues, but that does not mean they should not be defended.  In closing, he quotes the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo “Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images can be shocking.  Being shocked is part of democratic debate.  Being shot is not.”

The View from the Cheap Seats is an odd mixture in both quality and subject matter.  Some of the writings are deeply personal, giving the reader a rare and intimate view into the writer’s childhood, school life, and very early career.  Gaiman shares his personal insecurities in interviewing authors he has long admired and reveals the origins of his friendships with figures such as Tori Amos, and Terry Pratchett.  Included among these is a moving tribute to Douglas Adams.

Other elements of the book are as ungainly as their titles suggest, such as “A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at PROCON, April 1997.”  As a reader and a reviewer that particular entry was a head scratcher.  Even in the seemingly banal, however, Gaiman manages to shine by offering an intriguing look into the publishing industry just before the Internet exploded and changed everything.

Throughout the book are numerous personal anecdotes of people famous and otherwise with whom Gaiman has formed close relationships over the course of his career.  Few though are as touching as the tribute to his wife’s late surrogate father, Anthony.

Intertwining themes of living and dying, Gaiman reveals the path of his relationship with Palmer and by extension, Anthony.  Ironically, Gaiman and Palmer meet as a result of her commissioning Gaiman to write a handful of stories and poems for her album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?”  During their first date, she introduces Gaiman to Anthony who proclaims that he thinks Gaiman would make a good boyfriend.  Despite not yet realizing Anthony’s importance to Palmer, Gaiman is nonetheless pleased.  Anthony soon becomes not simply Palmer’s close friend but a trusted confidant and counsel to Gaiman.  Then, approximately six months after Gaiman and Palmer are married, Anthony is diagnosed with leukemia.  In the midst of this, two other of Gaiman and Palmer’s friends die unexpectedly.  Finally, the news is delivered that Anthony is in remission.  Sadly, however, a post-script reveals that Anthony in fact died from leukemia in June of 2015.  What is not revealed in the piece, but is of importance, is that three months later, Palmer gave birth to a son, named Anthony in honor of their dear friend.

Fans of Gaiman’s previous works will find themselves enthralled with The View from the Cheap Seats.  Gaiman has long had a reputation for being open and accessible to fans.  The View from the Cheap Seats, however, offers a deeper, more intimate look at Gaiman’s early life and career.  One can easily imagine from his prose a serious and quiet little Neil Gaiman stuffed into the corner of his local library.

Those previously unfamiliar with Gaiman should enjoy his conversational style and dry humor.  Gaiman is that rare mixture of both famous and unassuming.  It is clear from his writing and the stories he relates that he is exactly as he seems: a somewhat befuddled English bloke who likes to tell stories.

 

Rating: 

May 10 2016

Review: Books to TV shows

Having previously done a review on books made into movies, I decided this month to tackle books or book series that are currently in development of or in the midst of their first television season.

Shannara by Terry Brooks begins with the The Sword of Shannara and currently continues through The Darkling Child.  Brooks’ primary work has been the Shannara series, but he is also well known for the Magic Kingdom at Landover series.

The Shannara series takes place on Earth, approximately 2000 years after a great nuclear holocaust has destroyed most of the planet.  Over the years following The Great Wars, mankind evolves into four distinct races:  Men, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Trolls.  In addition, Elves have emerged after centuries of hiding.

The television series begins with characters and events of the second book in the series, The Elfstones of Shannara.  The novel introduces the reader to Wil Ohmsford, (grandson of Shea, the main character in the first novel)   Wil inherits the Elfstones and through the instruction of the druid Allanon teams up with Amberle Elessedil, (granddaughter of the King of the Elves) and  Eretia, a Rover (a race of humans who live as gypsies).

Together the three, accompanied by Allanon, embark on a quest to save the Elcryss, a magical tree which keeps the Demons locked away from the Four Lands.

Brooks has long been a favorite of fantasy lovers, and the Shannara series makes it clear why.  Long compared to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, Shannara pulls the reader into a world that is every bit as compelling as Middle Earth without the over verbosity for which Tolkien’s work is known.  Readers who enjoy the Shanarra series may also enjoy the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind or The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.

 

Rating: 


The Magicians by Lev Grossman has been frequently described as “Harry Potter for grown-ups.”  The novel centers around Quentin Coldwater, a high school senior from Brooklyn.  Quentin has long been obsessed with a series of books about a group of children who discover a Narnia-like land called Fillory.  On the day of his admissions interview to Princeton, Quentin is instead evaluated for and admitted to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.  Here he becomes engrossed in learning magic and in the fight against a mythical enemy called “The Beast”.

There are significant changes from the books to the television series, including aging Quentin and the other characters from high school seniors to adults in their mid-20’s embarking on graduate school.  In addition, in the television adaptation, more emphasis is placed on Quentin’s depression.  In the opening of the television series, he is shown being released from a mental hospital. None of that occurs in the books where he is portrayed as simply being more aloof or disaffected than his peers.

The Magicians is at times a brilliant piece of parody, acknowledging and perhaps mildly poking fun at similar books such as the Harry Potter series and The Chronicles of Narnia.  At other times it drags slightly with the characters appearing overly negative or cynical.  These issues are easily overlooked, however, against Grossman’s excellent use of dialogue and characterization.

Readers who grew up on Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia may find themselves drawn to The Magicians based on the obvious similarities, and indeed, it would be easy to dismiss The Magicians as a Harry Potter or Narnia rip off without deeper investigation, but readers will quickly realize that Grossman has created a darker, more grown-up world which acknowledges the fantasy of the other worlds but which also recognizes that being magical does not guarantee greatness.

Readers may also enjoy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke or Soon I Will Be Invincible by Lev Grossman’s brother Austin Grossman.

 

Rating: 


American Gods by Neil Gaiman centers around the idea that the ancient stories of gods and mythological creatures are real.  Since people have stopped believing in them, they have faded into obscurity having been replaced by new gods of technology, drugs, and celebrity.

The novel opens with Shadow, a convict who, days before he is due to be released on parole, receives word that his wife and his best friend have been killed in a car accident.  Consumed by grief, Shadow takes a job as a bodyguard for the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who appears to know a great deal about Shadow’s life without having been told.  Soon they embark on a journey across America where Shadow learns the truth about all the gods, old and new.

Gaiman is an established author known for books such as Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and the acclaimed graphic novel Sandman.  In addition to American Gods, Gaiman’s Sandman spin-off, Lucifer has also been made into a current Fox TV show.

Gaiman shines throughout all of his writing and American Gods is no exception.  From the easily imaginable physical descriptions, to Gaiman’s solid use of dialogue, readers will be drawn into the world of American Gods and Shadow’s life.  As with many of Gaiman’s previous novels, American Gods draws on the idea that ancient legends and fairy tales have a foundation in reality.

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane Gaiman created a world in which fairies co-exist with mortals.  In Lucifer, Satan  has become bored with ruling Hell and has instead taken up residence in Los Angeles as the owner of a piano bar.  In American Gods a world is imagined in which the gods of Norse, Greek, and other cultures co-exist with mortals.

Readers starting with American Gods should investigate Gaiman’s other works such as Coraline, Neverwhere, or Good Omens (co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett).  Readers familiar with Gaiman’s work may also want to consider John Dies at the End by David Wong or The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams.

Each of these novels provides a good foundation for their TV adaptations, and readers should find something to enjoy in all of them.

 

Rating: 

Apr 28 2015

Review: Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman

As I was planning this column, I began thinking about the concept of fairy tales – not fairy tales in the Hollywood Disney sense, but rather fairy tales as a learning tool, an instruction that the good guys do not always win.  With that in mind, I chose two recent books by Neil Gaiman, whom I consider a master at telling modern fairy tales.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman is the third collection of the author’s short fiction.

The titular concept stems from the phrase which is often used to warn readers or viewers of potentially disturbing or graphic material.  Gaiman developed the idea after seeing numerous uses of the phrase online.  He wondered if at some point it would be applied to his own works and whether or not it should be.  Finally, he decided he should be the one to do it first.

Each story has appeared previously in various anthologies or collected works.  Trigger Warning, however, collects them all together for the first time into a single cohesive theme.

From the lightest to the most terrifying, Gaiman creates a world of unconventional and sometimes whimsical fairy tales for adults.  In keeping with his own theme, Gaiman cautions readers in the forward:  “Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them.  Consider yourself warned.”

Gaiman’s collection starts out simply enough in “Making a Chair”.  In the simple prose about struggling through a creative block, Gaiman muses as to whether or not building a book should come with the same sort of warnings a chair does.  “Do not use as a stool or stepladder.  Failure to follow these warnings can result in serious injury.”

In many ways, the story comes across as a mockery of the idea of trigger warnings.  Gaiman subscribes to the Aristotle way of thinking.  Aristotle believed that seeing horrors committed on stage would allow people to experience those horrors and the feelings they evoke in a safe environment and would keep them from acting out their urges on society.  Gaiman takes a similar approach.  He purports that the things which shock or disturb, are the things which most make us think and grow.  With that in mind, it does appear at times that Gaiman is making a particular effort to disturb the reader.  Such is the case in “Down to a Sunless Sea” in which an old woman wears a bone from her dead son as a necklace and in the end reveals a terrible secret.

“Orange”, written completely in questionnaire form, is a brilliant cautionary tale about becoming addicted to tanning lotion.  While many of the answers will illicit a chuckle, there is an underlying sinisterness to the tone, and readers will be longing for Gaiman to fill in the gaps.

“Click-Clack the Rattlebag” begins innocuously enough with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s little brother for the first time.  The little boy takes an immediate liking to the boyfriend and asks to be told a story.  Specifically, a click-clack the rattlebag story.  As the story unfolds the boyfriend learns all about the click-clack rattle bag and the reader is left with an ending that will leave even the adults checking under the bed at night.

Gaiman also lets loose his fanboy side.  “The Case of Death and Honey” follows Sherlock Holmes into retirement and reveals the true reason Holmes took up bee-keeping in his retirement.  “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” was written as a present for Bradbury’s 90th birthday.  It is a poignant tale of loss, and Gaiman writes it with such sadness and eloquence that one can’t help but mourn the loss of things forgotten.  Finally, “Nothing O’Clock” delves into the world of Doctor Who.  Gaiman is well known for having written two episodes of Doctor Who and one can see hints of those stories in “Nothing O’Clock.”

 

Rating: 


Hansel and Gretel, Gaiman’s most recent book for children, makes a fine companion piece to Trigger Warning.  A re-telling of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel takes a similar approach to Trigger Warning in that Gaiman thinks children should be exposed to dark things, stating “…if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”  He then adds “…it is really important to show dark things to kids—and in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back. Tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that.”

One notable change in Gaiman’s version from the more recent editions is that Gaiman takes care to preserve one of the more controversial elements of the Grimm Brother’s version:  the mother.  At some point in the mid 19th century, the female antagonist transitioned from biological mother to step-mother.  Gaiman restores the original version, allowing the story to take on a macabre overtone.

Gaiman’s witch is also a more sinister character than later tellings.  In the modern tellings the witch comes across as a deranged caricature – a demented hag who perhaps is not fully cognizant of the fact that she is eating children.  In Gaiman’s version, the witch is instead simply a bitter, dragged down old woman who happens to have a taste for human flesh.

Illustrations by Lorenzo Mattoti enhance the creep factor of the fairy tale. Initially the black and white ink sketches appear haphazard and non-cohesive.  Upon further inspection, however, the reader sees the subtle features of the main characters as they are lost in the forest or as Hansel sits in jail waiting his execution.  Rather than detract, these illustrations evoke a sense of heaviness and even dread in the reader.  Patches of white are used sparsely until the final Happily Ever After where the white fills nearly the entire page, deftly filling the reader with a sense of joy and victory.

Though perhaps not recommended bedtime reading, at least not for the easily frightened, Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel will easily become new favorites for fans, young and old, of Gaiman’s work.

 

Rating: 

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