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Genre: adventure

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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When The Ocean at the End of the Lane came out in 2013, I thought it was a fine book.  I am a long time fan of Neil Gaiman’s work, which blends mythology with contemporary stories in a fine example of modern magic realism.  I like magic realism a lot, so this isn’t a very hard sell for me at all.  So when my book club voted in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I said…sure, why not.  I’d better reread it, I thought, and since it is a short book, I left it for a few days before we were due to meet so that it would be fresh in my mind.

But sometimes, when you go and read a book that you read a long time ago, you find that it is different.  And so, in my second reading of novel, no one was more surprised than me to discover that the book gutted me.  I read it slowly, pausing to re-read a passage or twist my tongue over a phrase in the book.  Sometimes it is just that when you know the ending of a book that you read it differently.  And other times, it is because you’ve changed.  Your life has changed.  In 2013, I admired the beauty of the novel, particularly in the passages where Gaiman wrote about his father, who had just passed away.  I read the second chapter and paused, because it had only been a few years since I had lost my mother, and lingered over the passages of an adult child who has become lop-sided, because their frame of the universe has just been stripped away.

I slowed the car as I saw the new house.  It would always be the new house in my head.  I pulled up into the driveway, observing the way they had built out on the mid-seventies architecture.  I had forgotten that the bricks of the house were chocolate-brown.  The new people had made my mother’s tiny balcony into a two-story sunroom.  I stared at the house, remembering less than I had expected about my teenage years: no good times, no bad times.  I’d lived in that place, for a while, as a teenager.  It didn’t seem to be any part of who I was now.

I backed the car out of the driveway.

What I did not see until 2016 was the beauty of the rest of the book.  A boy, a nameless boy, lives in a large and rambling old house in rural England.  His father’s business is failing and, to keep money coming in, the family begins letting out rooms.  One of these lodgers is an aggressive opal miner from South Africa, who runs over the boy’s cat on his way to the house.  The next night, he steals the family’s car and drives it to the end of the road and kills himself.  When the car is discovered, with the body in it, the boy is sent to the neighboring Hempstock farmhouse while his father calls the police.

Any fan of mythology will immediately recognize the Mother, Maiden and Crone in the Hempstocks.  Lettie Hempstock appears as an 11 year old girl and takes in the boy and makes a friend of him.  Her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, keep an eye on the farm and fields as they have always done.  It doesn’t take them long to notice that an ancient creature was wakened with the lodger’s suicide.

The Hempstocks are magical, but they are of the old and wild magic of the ancient stories.  When Lettie takes him with her to go banish the creature that the miner’s death awakened, the boy is drawn into a dangerous world of primeval monsters, with only the Hempstocks at the end of the lane to protect him.

The plot sounds something like any fantasy journey novel, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane reads differently, largely because Gaiman writes with a Hemingwayesque simplicity.  He throws in zingers that feel incredibly true and familiar, particularly for those of us that feel a kinship with the lost and lonely boy.

Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.

There was a table laid with jellies and trifles, with a party hat beside each place, and a birthday cake with seven candles on it in the center of the table.  The cake had a book drawn on it, in icing.  My mother, who had organized the party, told me that the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a birthday cake before, and that mostly for boys it was footballs or spaceships.  I was their first book.

I kept stopping to admire Gaiman’s paragraphs, because his writing is so elegant.  The story itself is simple — it is the tale of a boy on an adventure that takes him no further than the end of the road that he lives on.  His world is a child’s world, small and intense in detail.  The protagonist’s voice is so good, rarely slipping out of the understanding of a seven-year-old and it feels very, very real.

I was shivering convulsively and I was wet through and I was cold, very cold.  It felt like all my heat had been stolen.  The wet clothes clung to my flesh and dripped cold water onto the floor.  With every step I took my sandals made comical squelching noises, and water oozed from the little diamond-shaped holes on the top of the sandals.

When the biggest monster of the story appears, she appears as the boy’s nanny.  As such characters usually are, she’s entrancing to the boy’s parents and sister, but terrible to the boy.  The unfairness of his treatment grates, particularly as she becomes more and more threatening to the boy’s survival.

“Everybody wants money,” she said, as if it were self-evident.  “It makes them happy.  It will make you happy, if you let it.”  We had come out by the heap of grass clippings, behind the circle of green grass that we called the fairy ring: sometimes, when the weather was wet, it filled with vivid yellow toadstools.

“Now,” she said.  “Go to your room.”

I ran from her–ran as fast as I could, across the fairy ring, up the lawn, past the rosebushes, past the coal shed and into the house.

Ursula Monkton was standing just inside the back door of the house to welcome me in, although she could not have got past me.  I would have seen.  Her hair was perfect, and her lipstick seemed freshly applied.

And then it gets worse.  And then better, because the boy has made a friend in Lettie Hempstock.  The Hempstocks are entrancing, as old as the earth itself, and their ways are straight out of a thousand fairy tales.  The Hempstock farm is a place that you can’t help but want to visit, with it’s roaring wall-sized kitchen fireplace and good-smelling stews and roasted carrots.

Lettie’s mother was already hauling a tin bath from beneath the kitchen table, and filling it with steaming water from the enormous black kettle that hung above the fireplace.  Pots of cold water were added until she pronounced it the perfect temperature.

“Right.  In you go,” said Old Mrs. Hempstock.  “Spit-spot.”

I looked at her, horrified.  Was I going to have to undress in front of people I didn’t know?

The Hempstocks remind us that a world that is filled with evil must also be filled with love.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple story, but a beautiful story, in the way that only simple stories can be. I highly recommend that you read it through, then turn around and read it again.

I’ll meet you at the end.

  • Publisher:William Morrow and Company
  • Publish Date: June 18, 2013
  • Hardcover: 178 pages
  • ISBN: 9780062255655
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: adventure, fantasy, fiction, magic realism
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The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti


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The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti, is my running favorite out of all the books I’ve read this year.  It is the sort of adventure that picks the reader up, introduces her to a broad spectrum of memorable characters, then races towards a creative and surprising conclusion.  Throughout the adventure, Tinti also plays with the idea of morality — her good thief is a twelve-year-old orphan that is brought into a world of petty criminals and asked to do things that repeatedly test the morality of his religious upbringing.  As Ren observes the bizarre workings of the adult world around him, he must decide where his own moral compass lies.  Is it wrong to steal, if stealing feeds you?  It is wrong to lie, if lying can save your life?

When the novel opens, Ren introduces us to the harsh world of the monastery that serves as his home.  Although he has no parents, he has found some love in his friendships with the unlucky twins Brom and Ichy and with his relationships with the priests who raise the boys at the orphanage.  Still, he longs for a family, as well as the answer to the questions of his origins.  And, perhaps most curious at all, how did he lose his hand?

When Benjamin Nab arrives at St. Anthony’s and adopts him as his long-lost brother, Ren thinks he’s going to finally have some answers to his questions.  But it quickly becomes apparent that Benjamin is a talented liar and shyster, who is dedicated to teaching Ren how to survive, at any cost.

“Don’t be a fool,” said Benjamin.  “I’ve never been to India.”  He bunched one of the blankets behind his head.  “You better get some rest.  We’ve got to be up in an hour or two.”

The boy took a step back.  “But you said–“he began.

“I know what I said.  Didn’t you listen?  What did I tell you before we went inside?”

“You told me not to say anything.”

“And what else?”

“To learn.”

“We needed a place to sleep.  And now we have it.  I told them what they wanted to hear so they’d give it to us.  It’s as simple as that.”

Charming and quick-witted, Benjamin shows Ren how easily people are manipulated, but also the cost that comes from doing so.  Benjamin, Ren and their partner Tom make their way to North Umbrage, where they become involved in stealing bodies for a local doctor — a vastly more profitable enterprise than the petty thievery that they’d been surviving on.  They rent rooms from a Mrs. Sands, a youthful widow with a hearing problem, who quickly steps as the mother that Ren longed for.  But her world is just as mystical as the other adults in Ren’s life, and her house is filled with mousetrap girls, a mysterious nightly visitor and stories of a drowned boy that give Ren more questions than answers.  When the hired thugs of the local robber baron discover their nocturnal activities, Ren and his friends finally face very real consequences for their crimes — and Ren discovers that getting what you’ve wished for is not always what you need.

The frogs were out.  Earlier it had rained, and now as the wagon passed the marshes in the dark, there was a chorus of syncopated croaking.  Benjamin sat in the driver’s seat, a lantern balanced on the floor.  Tom was beside him and Dolly and the boys were in the back, clinging to the sides as they bounced over holes in the rocky path.  The horse strained through the night against the weight of them all.  Every half-mile she stopped, as if she had given up completely.  Benjamin flicked the whip, and the mare trudged on.

“Where are we going?” Ichy whispered.

Ren glanced at Benjamin and Tom, their shoulders hunched together in the darkness.  “Fishing,” he said.

It is this sense of the mystical crossed with the mundane ordinariness of day-to-day life that makes Tinti’s storytelling so enjoyable.  She captures the setting well, using the picturesque backgrounds of early rural New England to create a world where her outlandish characters seem right at home.  Ren’s earnestness is delightful, as he comes to love the scoundrels that he’s fallen in with as the family that he never had.   Equal parts coming-of-age story and adventure novel, The Good Thief is a book that is hard to put down.

  • Publisher: The Dial Press
  • Publish Date: August 26, 2008
  • Hardcover: 327 pages
  • ISBN: 0385337450
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: adventure, fiction, historical fiction
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Dracula by Bram Stoker


Dracamer99 Perhaps it is the cold that I have been harboring all week, but there was something just delicious about curling up with the freakishly successful Dracula while I was ill.  It might surprise a modern audience to learn that Dracula was written by a pulp novelist and theater manager who specialized in churning out penny dreadfuls.  Likewise, it might be surprising to learn that it far from the first vampire novel, but its success and the sophistication of the storytelling has made it the pinnacle of the genre.  Even the literary noteworthy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker to express his admiration for the blood-curling nature of the story, while its more general popularity has made Count Dracula a household name — and a synonym for vampire — for over a century.

Dracula is an epistolary novel, which incorporates the emerging technology of the late 19th century as its characters experiment with phonograph recordings and typewriters to tell their story.  This sense of the changing modern world is a major theme of the novel, and it is interesting to get a contemporary Victorian reaction to emerging technology.  At the heart of the story is Count Dracula, who is made horrific through his intelligence and cunning as much as by his murderous means of eternal life.  The novel quickly becomes a race between the five heroes and the Count as he puts into action his schemes to move to a more populated and modern country than his rural Transylvania.  Although being a member of what Stoker calls the Un-Dead, the Count’s humanity still lingers, although he remains an unambiguous monster with few redeeming qualities.  It is this combination of cold intelligence and monstrosity that has allowed Dracula to linger so vividly in the popular imagination for so long.  We never do discover how Count Dracula first became a vampire, but we quickly learn about vampirism and its dangers to a populated city through his attacks on the beautiful and pure-hearted Lucy Westenra.

Those who have seen the 1992 movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula might be somewhat surprised to hear me describe Lucy Westenra as pure-hearted.  Francis Coppola’s vision of Dracula is astonishingly sexualized (or as I like to say, HBO-ified) compared to the original novel.  Although Stoker was a contemporary of Freud’s and it is reasonable to believe that he was familiar with Freud’s psychological work into sexuality, the novel is actually much more interesting for its inspection of the Victorian understanding of the complexities of the psychiatry of criminal minds.  At the heart of the novel is the lunatic asylum, where Dr. Seward records his case notes about his patient Renfield, who has been eating flies and spiders and ranting about the ability of blood consumption to lead to everlasting life.  The reader, who is already aware of Jonathan Harker’s terrifying stay at Castle Dracula, enjoys the irony of understanding the sanity of the mad man, while Dr. Seward struggles to put his ravings about vampirism into modern medical language.  Once the vampiric attacks on Lucy Westenra begin, the tension raises as we understand precisely what is happening to her, but like her doctors, are helpless to interfere.  The novel is filled with enjoyable winks to the reader as we watch the heroes go through their journey and try to figure out what we already know.  In one of the newspaper excerpts in the novel, Stoker writes:

“There is, however, possibly a serious side to the question, for some of the children, indeed all who have been missed at night, have been slightly torn or wounded in the throat. The wounds seem such as might be made by a rat or a small dog, and although of not much importance individually, would tend to show that whatever animal inflicts them has a system or method of its own. The police of the division have been instructed to keep a sharp look-out for straying children, especially when very young, in and around Hampstead Heath, and for any stray dog which may be about.”

We, of course, understand that there is a vampire on the loose — at this point in the story, we even know who the vampire is, but these small ironies engage us as readers and keep the pages turning.

As in the modern cinematic culture around the Dracula story, Van Helsing quickly steals the show as the brilliant and eccentric foreigner that remains a few steps ahead of his companions.  His eccentricity mainly comes out in his forgetfulness that his patients and companions are people with emotional attachment to the events in the story — he becomes so hyperfocused on stamping out the problem of vampirism that he has delightful slips in compassion such as this one:

“Yes and no. I want to operate, but not as you think. Let me tell you now, but not a word to another. I want to cut off her head and take out her heart. Ah! you a surgeon, and so shocked! You, whom I have seen with no tremble of hand or heart, do operations of life and death that make the rest shudder. Oh, but I must not forget, my dear friend John, that you loved her; and I have not forgotten it, for it is I that shall operate, and you must only help.”

In Van Helsing, we discover the character that is most like the Count — he is a true adversary in cunning and intelligence.  Yet, unlike the Count, Van Helsing does care about those around him.  It is his devotion and love for his companions, combined with bravery and kindness,  which makes us care about his fight to remove evil from the world.

Perhaps the best part of Stoker’s writing is that all of his characters jump off of the page, often because of their language.  Although all dialog is being repeated to us by the characters themselves, we hear Van Helsing’s Dutch roots, Quincey’s American slang, Lord Arthur’s upper-class upbringing and Dr. Seward’s medical training.  Epistolary novels can easily become boring as the letter writers report what happened in past tense, but Stoker keeps it fresh by getting his characters’ words on the page.  It requires a small suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but brings the novel to life.  As an Irish immigrant in London, with extensive experience as a theater manager, Stoker must have had a great delight in dialect.  It does a great service to the novel.

Modern horror lovers will no doubt find the lack of gore in Dracula to be quite tame compared to the graphic descriptions of the likes of Stephen King, but I found it charming.  The novel is no less suspenseful for all that it lacks a modern insouciance to violence — and reading it late at night gave me more than one fit of anxiety and restless sleep.  As with all things to do with the famous Count Dracula…..read at your own risk.  But do read it.

 

  • Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
  • Publish Date: 1897
  • Paperback: 488 pages
  • ISBN: 0393970124
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: adventure, classics, gothic, horror
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