During eighth grade my literature teacher had us keep a chart of all the books we read over the course of the year. Most students had the mandatory ones for class and a few had some extras. The idea was she would keep them and if you requested give them to you when you graduated high school. I went through three or four pages. I read a lot.
A few years ago I decided I should start reading more since I had slacked off a lot since moving away from home. So I began keeping track of what books I read and how many pages they were.
This is my list from 2014 (doesn’t read well on mobile):
by Terry Pratchett
Tuesdays With Morrie
by Mitch Albom
by Stephen King
The Black Company
by Glen Cook
by Veronica Roth
by Joe Hill
by Terry Pratchett
On Basilisk Station
by David Weber
by Cherie Priest
The Honor Of The Queen
by David Weber
by Glen Cook
The White Rose
by Glen Cook
by Stephen R. Lawhead
by Stephen King
by Stephen R. Lawhead
by Robert Galbraith
The Old Man And The Sea
by Ernest Hemingway
Salt: A World History
by Mark Kurlansky
Murder On The Orient Express
by Agatha Christie
by Cherie Priest
by Gillian Flynn
The Shining Girls
by Lauren Beukes
by Lauren Beukes
by Malcolm Gladwell
by Gillian Flynn
The Slow Regard Of Silent Things
by Patrick Rothfuss
A Farewell To Arms
by Ernest Hemingway
by Stephen King
Before I read The Ocean At The End Of The Lane I had never read anything by Neil Gaiman despite knowing his work and telling myself “you should read that.” American Gods is the definitive work of his I had been telling myself to read for years.
A dominant catalyst in my desire to read American Gods comes from the table-top RPG Scion, which cites American Gods as a major influence. I have always had a fascination with Norse mythology along with sagas, legends and folklore in general so combine that with a pen and paper RPG emphasizing storytelling and I was on board.
American Gods hung around in the back of my mind for several years after that as Scion wound up in a box somewhere that December when I shipped for Navy boot camp. Once I read The Ocean At The End Of The Lane though, reading American Gods shot up toward the top of my list. I finished it in October 2013 but in my almost signature manner I haven’t written about it until now.
First things first I read the “Author’s Preferred Text” which Neil explains is the original, untrimmed version of American Gods (it was cut down before it won approximately all the awards and sold over a million copies) combined with the original edited version and the original printed version. Mix and match them together and you get the version I read.
The basic premise of American Gods is that every deity in the world, whether it’s Egyptian gods, Norse gods, the loa, Native American spirit guides and so on and so forth, existed because they were believed in. Think of belief as an energy source, the more believers you have the more powerful you are. The inverse is true as well, once you have been forgotten you cease to exist.
It gets more complicated than that. Different parts of the world have their own variations of the gods. This story, if you hadn’t guessed, focuses on the American versions.
The over-arching plot is a war brewing between the new and the old. Old gods being Norse gods, Egyptian gods etc and the new gods being ideas personified, such as The Technical Boy (computers and the Internet), Media and the Black Hats (stemming from America’s obsession with government conspiracy etc).
The novel explores a man named Shadow’s role in the upcoming conflict and follows him as he works with and encounters various gods, old and new, all over America.
American Gods is an underrated book that more people should read. I myself should have read it earlier. After finishing I concluded it deserves every award it received, even though they were convoluted in and of themselves: it won the Nebula and Hugo (mostly science fiction awards), the Bram Stoker Award for horror, and the Locus Award for fantasy.
I am just as perplexed as the awards when it comes to labeling American Gods.
Other than to name it a damn fine read.
After I had finished reading The Lies Of Locke Lamora I dove straight into Red Seas Under Red Skies. I couldn’t put off adventuring with Locke and Jean despite other books to read and games to play. Scott Lynch seems to continue his rhythm from the first book, despite the story picking up two years after the conclusion of Lies.
The city of Camorr and the beginnings of the Gentlemen Bastards were explored in the first book. Red Seas Under Red Skies picks up in the city of Tal Verrar on the Sea of Brass, which was only mentioned in passing during the first book, and their capers in the city are already in full swing. The book follows a similar pattern to The Lies Of Locke Lamora, in which chapters alternate between present and the past. In this case the past chapters describe Locke and Jean’s arrival in Tal Verrar and pieces of their scheme.
The two esteemed thieves are executing their most daring, and thought to be impossible, heist yet by targeting the Sinspire, Tal Verrar’s most illustrious gambling house. The comparisons to Ocean’s Eleven are prominent here seeing as there is much ado about the casino’s vault and the ruthlessness of Requin, the Sinspire’s owner.
Despite being titled Red Seas Under Red Skies most of the beginning of the book doesn’t have much to do with ships. It isn’t until their plans end up disrupted and sent veering off course do they find themselves out on the open seas. Two inexperienced city thieves out on the sea ends up being quite the adventure, and only gets better once they really leap from the pan into the fire.
Overall Red Seas Under Red Skies starts off slow, with many of it’s “past” sequences falling flat until their significance is played upon much later in the story. Plus the camaraderie from the first book isn’t there until Locke and Jean are on the Sea of Brass, where many of the supporting characters are found aboard the various pirate ships.
One of Lynch’s strongest talents is in full swing here as his penchant for world building is present throughout. The setting isn’t just some backdrop thrown up so Locke and Jean can run (or sail, in this case) around during their adventures. Time and effort are expended in establishing a realistic feeling to a fantasy setting, with many details sprinkled throughout the narrative to tie it all together. It’s the sort of setting where I could read any story written by Lynch, even if it didn’t feature the titular Gentlemen Bastards, and would still enjoy it and it would feel comfortable and familiar.
Places are mentioned in passing that become focal points much later. In The Lies of Locke Lamora, Tal Verrar is mentioned in during discussions involving sailing and trade routes. In this story it becomes one of the central locations of the story, and given the same treatment as Camorr in establishing its role in the history and dynamics of Scott Lynch’s world. While Camorr is much more detailed, Tal Verrar isn’t just given a name and few quirks. The Verrari are unique in their distinction, not being “Camorri” people thrown into a city called something else. The people and culture of Tal Verrar feel different when you read about them, something many author’s haven’t got a knack for. Lynch has built this world and loves telling his stories in it, and it shows throughout.
Of course the story didn’t end the way I expected it to. I think that will be a pattern in the rest of the series but I don’t want it to become too common place. Otherwise Lynch may find himself subjected to similar views held during M. Night Shyamalan films. If you write a dramatic twist at the end of every story they begin to lose significance. It was brilliant in the Lies of Locke Lamora, and well done in the second. I am hoping it won’t continue in The Republic Of Thieves, which I am reading now, but if it does I can always hope he makes it a great one.
I first heard about The Lies Of Locke Lamora from TV Tropes (more on that later) under the entry for Magnificent Bastards. From there I read the brief description and I was sold. Due to the mysterious nature of time a year went by before I even remembered to pick it up.
Waiting even a year was a mistake, not to mention that I could have read this book seven years ago when it was first published in 2006. I have to borrow parts of TV Trope’s basic description of the plot since it was what piqued my interest in the first place: The Lies Of Locke Lamora is similar to Ocean’s Eleven/The Italian Job set in a fantasy variation of Venice, with a bit of The Godfather thrown in.
If you’re a fan of the lovable rogues and their capers in those stories, then the gang of thieves and con men in The Lies Of Locke Lamora will appeal to you.
Scott Lynch has created a fantastic variation of Venice called Camorr, a rich cesspool of villainy and despots ruled over (in some cases literally from massive magical crystal towers) by a noble class just as corrupt. The Capa of Camorr, Barsavi, serves as the king of the cut-throats and cut-purses, while Duke Nicovante rules the upper class. Between them is the Secret Peace: the city guards will often turn a blind eye toward organized crime as long the nobility of Camorr are off limits.
The legend of the Thorn of Camorr, a mythical figured rumored to be a champion of the poor by robbing from the rich, flies in the face of this secret peace. Whether or not the Thorn exists, and what he is capable of, is subject to much debate, and as is par for the course, much exaggeration.
Camorr is built on the ruins of ancient city created by a people known only as Eldren, leaving behind magical glass-like structures known as Elderglass. Not much is known about these Eldren other than the structures they left behind. Also, the city is so vast and well established that reading The Lies Of Locke Lamora without checking the map of Camorr can get confusing.
What I love the most about The Lies Of Locke Lamora is that it doesn’t try to hide behind “PG-13” notions of what these men do. The humor can be crude, the characters cruder and their actions sometimes despicable. Lynch recognizes that thieves and con men are not innocent people, nor is the business conduct without significant risks. He recognizes that, addresses it head on, and you still love the Gentlemen Bastards all the same.
Each chapter alternates between present day Locke Lamora and his childhood when he was being raised and trained by his mentor, Chains. This dichotomy often will take aspects of what Locke and his crew are doing in the present day and show how they learned to do it, or show lessons that would perhaps help them later on in the book. As the plot begins to pick up this format is abandoned in favor of moving full steam ahead with the plot line. This is a wise choice on Lynch’s part for there is no need to derail the plot with backstory once it has hit its stride.
Also the final act flies in the face of every expectation I had going in. About a third of the way through the book I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the direction the story would go. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I love that. Between the charming cast of characters, a rich world with a deep backstory filled with unexplained mysteries, and an exciting and humorous plot The Lies Of Locke Lamora is a refreshing take on fantasy and storytelling in general.
I should have read it earlier but I would be worse off if I had not read it at all. Better late than never.
I have not read anything by Neil Gaiman before, despite my best efforts to read American Gods. He’s one of the authors that I have always told myself “You should read that book.” but just never get around to it. My years long bout of horrible judgement ended on Sunday night.
A few weeks ago I had seen The Ocean At The End Of The Lane on the new books shelf at Barnes and Noble and glanced at it, again stating “I should read that, it’s Neil Gaiman.” I didn’t buy it. This past Saturday I went to Barnes and Noble again to peruse books. I often wander around bookstores when I’m looking to get out of the apartment. I saw The Ocean At The End Of The Lane again and this time I decided to take the leap. I bought it based on the title and author alone.
Sunday evening I decided to read a few chapters. The book isn’t long, 181 pages, so I figured I’d start it and read a chapter or two a day and I’d be done in a week or so. That didn’t happen. I went in with a goal but that plan was thrown out the window by the end of the first chapter.
This is the first book I’ve read in two years that I read from start to finish in one sitting. When I decide that any previous plans are being discarded in favor of reading the day away book length becomes irrelevant. The previous book I read cover to cover, The Name Of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, checks in at a door-stopping 662 pages. I was on vacation for that one.
I can’t quite put my finger on what drew me into The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. Part of me thinks it is abrupt manner of Neil’s writing, plus I like what perspective tricks can be played while using a first-person narrative. The story doesn’t reveal things I would have thought vital before I read it, but having finished the story I would call that part of the charm. The protagonist’s name is never stated nor is his family’s names. They’re referred to only as his mother, father and sister.
There are a few hints that point to the narrator’s name being George, such as his father calling him “Handsome George” and Ursula calling him “pudding-and-pie”, a reference to a British nursery rhyme. The only significant characters whose names are stated outright are supernatural: Ursula Monkton, Lettie Hempstock and her mother Ginnie and the eldest of the Hempstocks is only known as Old Mrs. Hempstock. The only other name I remember is Callie Anders, the fair-haired girl who lived down the lane from George as a boy and shared kissed with when he was sixteen.
Warning: Ahead There Be Spoilers
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a dark fantasy take on a coming of age story. George is a child who lives and breathes in the worlds of books and comics, much to his rugby playing and car loving dad’s chagrin. Even his younger sister teases him, and she’s only five. No one came to his seventh birthday party despite his invitations. The story is framed as a middle-aged narrator visits the home of his past and relives the events around his seventh birthday, when he met Lettie Hempstock and has a run in with the supernatural.
Old Mrs. Hempstock is implied to be older than the current universe, and that she’ll be around for the next one as well. Ginnie and Lettie are her family and they just, are. It is never stated what the Hempstocks are beyond just that, the Hempstocks. They are. There is a lot of Biblical allusion in that statement, given that God is also referred to as I Am.
George’s normal life is disrupted when his bedroom is rented out to help his parent’s struggling finances. A taxi dropping off a guest using the room, only called the opal miner, runs over George’s kitten, Fluffy. It’s this incident that seems to touch off the story as a few days later the opal miner steals the family car, drives it further down the lane and pipes the exhaust inside to commit suicide. The way Neil writes this chapter, the discovery of the car being missing, strikes a chord with me.
Emphasis is placed on inconsequential things such as burnt toast, highlighting that the narrator is a child. Lettie and the rest of the Hempstocks are introduced in this chapter, as George’s father deals with the police they take care of the boy at their farmhouse. The first hints of the supernatural at given here as the Hempstock women know things they would have know way of knowing, and it is implied they can see, or at least have a sense, of the future. This is my favorite chapter, because the imagery Neil uses is so powerful that it paints a clear, unadulterated picture.
The rest of the story unfolds as the Hempstocks deal with what Old Mrs. Hempstock calls fleas, eldritch creatures that would feel at home in an Lovecraftian tale. George is taken along for the ride because Lettie brings him along, despite her better judgement. This particular flea is known as Skarthach of the Keep (a name revealed well after her character reveal) is described only as a mass of rotting fabric and wood, similar to the sails of a ship. Fleas are not of this creation and only do what is in their nature, often not for the betterment of their surroundings. One, referred to as during Cromwell’s time appeared as a horse-sized toad who made people lonely and another during Red Rufus’s time who made people’s dreams come true.
Fleas seem to feed off the emotions of humans, but they also attract far more intrusive beings known only as cleaners or the hunger birds. Neither good nor evil the hunger birds serve their purpose, and that is to clean existence of fleas. They do so by eating them. It is the cleaners that Old Mrs. Hempstock does not like dealing with, hence why she shoos away fleas whenever they show up on Earth. In dealing with their current flea Lettie attempts to bind her, so that her influence (giving everyone money) will no longer bleed over into creation. Instead she latches onto George and travels home with him as a worm inside his foot that he later discovers and pulls out.
From there she takes on a human form, Ursula Monkton, and evokes every child’s nightmare: a sitter from hell (or from elsewhere in this case). She begins to string the family under her will through her cooking and begins to exert her influence over his father. George does not like her and attempts to escape but she seems to know his every move and heads him off. Later she coerces his father in attempting to drown him in the bathtub. After George has been locked in his bedroom, he draws inspiration from his storybook heroes and escapes down the drain pipe,. George witnesses the extra-marital activity of his father with Ursula but does not understand what they are doing, instead focused on the fact that Ursula has her concerns elsewhere.
Lettie and the Hempstocks rescue George from his predicament as Ursula chases him across the fields that run alongside the lane. Their resourcefulness and unwillingness to place common folk in tricky situations plays a part in how they decide to handle the flea. In this case Lettie decides to call on the cleaners to remove her for them. In the end Lettie sacrifices herself, after a fashion, to save George as the hunger birds decide to tear him apart to get at the last part of the flea’s pathway home, which she hid inside his heart. It is revealed that George visits the Hempstock farm from time to time later in life at Lettie’s request, so she can see whether it was worth it. The narrator forgets these visits, and what happened during his childhood, soon after.
While the story is fantasy, the supernatural elements serve as a parallel to childhood perceptions of adults. The going-ons of adults are a great mystery to children, who cannot fathom why these all powerful people behave the way they do. Adults are people who should not cry, who can do anything they want and who exert great control over their life. Neil takes this one step further and pushes the “all-powerful mysterious adults” into creations of supernatural power.
Ursula Monkton serves as a prime example of the fear of an adult that children can possess. She is an abomination, an evil monster who tries to control the narrator’s life for her own nefarious purposes. While her motives are supernatural you could strip away the fantasy and Ursula would still be much the same terrifying figure to a child. It’s this quality that makes her a remarkable antagonist: you can remove her most terrifying elements, her other world powers and motives, and she is still a shiver-inducing character. That’s powerful.
It also shows the other side of that coin: adults do not feel all powerful and much like “adults”. One passage, during an exchange between the narrator and Lettie shows this dichotomy. The narrator is a child of seven, where as Lettie is a girl who looks eleven but is in truth much older:
"People should be scared of Ursula Monkton." "P'raps. What do you think Ursula Monkton is scared of?" "Dunno. Why do you think she's scared of anything? She's a grown-up, isn't she? Grown-ups and monsters aren't scared of things." "Oh, monsters are scared." said Lettie. "That's why they're monsters. And as for grown-ups ... I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world. ... Except for Granny, of course” (112).
While the story is short there is so much packed into each sentence that it does not feel as brief as it is. There isn’t frivolous prose or nor does Neil run on errant tangents. This is a novel that from the moment I finished it I could see myself reading it again and again. Both for its brevity and for how much of a thrilling, exceptional tale is spun during that short span.
It is worth the time.
A few days ago I finished reading The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith. I was not among those who read it before JK Rowling was outed as the author behind the novel, but I did snap it up the moment the story of her pseudonym broke.
I had been itching for a good crime series to read but jumping into an established series can be daunting. Just ask anyone who is trying to catch up to Game of Thrones by plowing into A Song of Ice and Fire. That left The Cuckoo’s Calling to serve as a double bonus for me: not only was it by JK Rowling, one of my favorite authors, but it was also the start of a mystery series focused around a private detective.
At this point I’m not convinced there isn’t a genre Rowling can’t write since the power of her writing transcends genre, though I am waiting for the day she tackles science-fiction. Her characters are what makes her novels so compelling, they’re what make Harry Potter as great as it is. The same is still true with The Cuckoo’s Calling, featuring Cormoran Strike as a down on his luck private investigator providing a believable hero. Supporting characters are not left out either, as they are a well developed and diverse bunch, providing a colorful background cast to showcase Strike.
While the story is slow to begin, this is made up for by Rowling’s wonderful character establishment. The supporting characters are numerous, and each are given their own moment in the spotlight. Much of this is provided as a series of interviews with Strike as he investigates the suspicious death of a supermodel, at the behest of her brother, months after the police had declared her fall from her second floor condo a suicide. Notable mention goes to his temporary assistant Robin (the Batman joke is referenced by Strike himself) who serves as the surrogate for the reader.
Once the plot begins moving forward, picking up speed about 2/3 of the way through, the reader begins to see glimpses of Strike’s investigative brilliance. Once the conclusion has rolled around it becomes clear that Cormoran Strike was one step ahead the whole time, ahead of both the villain and Robin, and by proxy, the reader.
The only gripe I have with The Cuckoo’s Calling does not stem from the story itself. Instead it lies with the way JK Rowling writes. She has a love affair with adverbs, making her novels far more descriptive than need be. I can’t fault her that much in this regard given that she began writing for children and is only now transitioning to writing for adults so some of the over description should expected, but as someone who detests adverbs they jump off the page at me.
Overall I was impressed with The Cuckoo’s Calling, and I would say it was an improvement over The Casual Vacancy. Given that a sequel has already been slated for publication in 2014 I expect a bright future for Robert Galbraith and Cormoran Strike. I am looking forward to more.