Review — Neverwhere

Neverwhere

By Neil Gaiman

HarperTorch

ISBN: 0380789019

4.75 stars

There are some authors you know will always cheer you up especially when you’ve had a rough day. Neil Gaiman is one of those authors. When I’ve had a day I want to forget, I know I can count on him to take me somewhere else with his words.

Neverwhere, sadly, has languished on my list for a long time, and at one point, I thought I might have read it. I was indeed wrong about that. While in my favorite bookstore one night, I gave in and bought it. I was so glad I did too.

Richard Mayhew leads a normal, rather boring life. He works in an ordinary corporate job filing reports and is engaged to a beautiful woman who slightly intimidates him. But he’s sure it’s the life he wants. It’s ordinary and normal; what everyone wants. On his way to dinner with his fiancée, he stops to aid a girl bleeding on the street. Knowing he can’t leave the girl hemorrhaging on a London sidewalk, he decides to help her and walks away from his ordinary and normal life. He finds out the London he’s been living in has a whole other side, one that feeds off of the unbelievable and a world he can’t quite understand. It’s where Richard finds himself and he’s able to let go of everything he thought he wanted and embrace a new life.

Oh, where to begin. The idea of a London underground is fascinating and Gaiman does a fantastic job making it real. The subway stops, the markets, and even the creatures. There’s something amazing about being able to slip into this world, much like good ol’ reliable Richard Mayhew, and through him be amazed. My favorite part is when he’s no longer stunned by everything and even starts to see connections and rationalizations for how things work. It changes him and for the better I thought. The new Richard wasn’t so invisible anymore. He was, well, whole — something he wasn’t before.

When I picked this book up I was in a slight reading lull. Nothing good, nothing bad; just sort of meh about the books I was reading. I wanted new, exciting and I’m sorry I didn’t look to my old favorites quicker. When I spied this on the shelf I knew it would be perfect. American Gods will soon be purchased for my reading enjoyment and probably a few more in the Sandman series. Oh, holidays, I can’t wait for you this year.

Kraken: An Anatomy

Kraken: An Anatomy

By China Mieville

Ballentine Books

eISBN: 978-0-345-52185-9

4 stars

Billy Harrow is boring and nothing much happens in his life.  He’s a curator at London’s Natural History museum and has an uncanny ability to make creatures look alive in formaldehyde.  Giving a tour one day to a small group of people, a normal occurrence that comes with the job, he finds the museum’s most famous exhibit, a giant squid, missing.  The cops are called, interviews granted, and no leads emerge.  Billy goes home and tells two friends about the missing squid, or squidnapping if you will, and his odd day.  What follows is a strange tale of squid worshippers, encounters with Londonmancers who predict the city’s future, magicians, gods, familiars, gunfarmers, chaos Nazis, and Star Trek fanatics.

I’m at a loss as to how to describe this book.  In genre terms, it’s fantasy.  It’s a caper of sorts, but it’s really not.  It’s a mystery, but it’s not exactly.  There’s so much going on in this book that I feel that if I talk only about one portion, then I wouldn’t be doing it justice.  On the other hand, if I don’t tell you about it all, then I won’t make it come alive.

My first experience with Mieville’s writing was The City & The City.  It’s a dark, detective, police procedural and even though it wasn’t my regular reading, I enjoyed it.  I thought this would be somewhat the same but it’s not at all.  It’s funny, witty, strange, downright weird, and chaotic in parts.  He takes you to the story’s abyss and pulls you back in.  (Oh, come on, I couldn’t resist.)  There’s a long list of characters that range from the most bland to the oddest of people and one who actually is what his name suggests — a tattoo.  He talks by moving around on a man’s back, slightly creepy but very effective.  There’s a god who flits back and forth into stone statues and the odd Star Trek figurine trying to help Billy track down the stolen squid and at the same time he’s also trying to put down a strike by familiars.  Then there are soothsayers who cut holes in the skin of the city (the asphalt serves as the city’s skin) to read its guts and predict the future.  There are otherworldly hit men and a police force that deals in the supernatural.

Here’s the hard part about this review — I enjoyed this book.  A lot.  Thanks to this book, there are many new words that I want to incorporate into my vocabulary — Google-fu, Krakenists (people who worship the Kraken god), and squipnapping to name three.  Although, admittedly, squidnapping is going to be much harder to slip in during normal conversation.  It amused me, made me think of paperback thriller books you can buy at the grocery store, and made me add Mieville to my list of must-read authors but the books itself is impossible for me describe.

What I can say is that Mieville is a master story-teller able to incorporate a wide range of pop culture along with numerous religious arguments you never really knew you’d find yourself thinking about while reading a book about a giant squid that has been kidnapped.

I spent several days ruminating over this review and I still don’t think I’ve provided anything useful.  It’s strange book but a good mix of everything.  It’s fantasy (the story takes place in an alternate London) but offers so much more.

Here’s what I will say to wrap this up and staunch the bit of a love fest I have going on — if you’re looking for something completely out of the ordinary, try this one.  It won’t disappoint, just make sure you go in with an open mind and a good bit of, “Oh, OK, that’s where we’re going with this.  Then lead on,” attitude.

Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable Creatures

By Tracy Chevalier

Dutton

ISBN: 978-0525951452

4 stars

Elizabeth Philpot and her sisters, Louise and Margaret, are in need of a new home now that their brother is being married. With no marriageable prospects — the Philpot sisters are not known for their beauty — they take a tour of possible new homes and come to find they like Lyme Regis, a small coastal town known for its fossils. The town slowly becomes home to the sisters, especially Elizabeth who finds she has a passion for fossils. During her walks on the beach, she befriends Mary Anning, a local resident and fossil hunter.

One day, Mary comes upon a strange set of bones that she believes to be a crocodile. The skeleton turns out to be a complete ichthyosaurus skeleton, a creature unknown to science at the time. Mary’s find sets off a bomb in the science world and it becomes a boon for her. The Annings are a poor family but the discovery of the ichie, as Mary likes to call the ichthyosaurus, brings in a little money for the family and she begins to spend more time on the beach taking other collectors and hunters out and showing them what to look for.

During this time, Mary and Elizabeth find their lives colliding, oddly enough, over a man. Elizabeth, ever the one to voice an opinion, tells Mary what she knows will happen with this man but Mary refuses to listen hoping that the creatures she finds will not only change her family’s fortunes but also her own. When things go badly, the women stop speaking but it is Elizabeth, stubborn to the core, that fights for Mary when most needed.

Elizabeth and Mary are endearing. Elizabeth is cold, harsh, and way too outspoken for a woman at the time (around 1810) which sometimes gets her in trouble. She takes a minute to grow on you, but once she does, you’re infinitely grateful for her forwardness and willingness to stand up for what she thinks is right. Mary on the other hand is too trusting and you wish she wouldn’t be.

While the book is about Mary’s fossil discoveries of previously unknown sea creatures, the ichthyosaurus and the plesiosaurus, and the ways in which her discoveries changed the scientific community and brought about a discussion of the theory of extinction, the book really is about the friendship these two women forge. Elizabeth is an educated spinster from London with no prospects for marriage and Mary is a poor, uneducated girl from the seaside town of Lyme Regis who hunts for fossils on the beach to sell to tourists. Other than the fossils they both love and obsessively hunt, the two have little in common. You get to watch both grow and challenge the men who want to tell them how to act and what to think. It’s a wonderful read and I recommend it.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above is a summary of my review, which can be read in full here. The book was provided to me by the publisher for The Book Reporter review.