The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

December 15, 2013 at 16:19 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror) (, , , )




The harshest and truest criticism that ought to be levelled at this book, is that it is a very good fairy tale. Few recent books can honestly be said to have made no mistakes, no one foot placed wrong; and yet be so palpably missing something. There are really very few causes for complaint. Gaiman is certainly over-fond of commas, and sprinkles them with a vexing prodigality through his book. The story recalls in a dim sort of way the work of Susanna Clarke (which is completely unsurprising, considering the connection between the two authors) but is entirely enterprising and thoroughly original.

It is, as noted above, a very good fairy tale. That ought to be enough, but any reader finishing this story will not be able to escape the feeling that this novel might easily have been seminal. It could have been Gaiman’s best, and the best fantasy in a decade, and a flawless work that would have other writers gnawing their own hair in envy. Instead, it is just very good.

Perhaps this has something to do with its haphazard and unintentional inception. By all accounts, Gaiman intended to write a short unpublished story, then a short published story, then a novella, then a full novel. As it is, it tallies up to be a rather brief novel, and it might be that there are details that could have been eased out onto unspoiled pages, deeper plots, deeper characters, a fuller tale.

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”

-The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Again, it must be emphasised: this is not a case of a story feeling half-baked, or of questions left unanswered, or of a rushed plot stapled together to meet a publisher’s deadline. This story is complete, and it is very good. Another way of looking at it might be the fierce regimentation of the various adventures and plots in the story. There is the funereal visit at the beginning, for instance. It arrives, there are some pleasing interior monologues, and once that part of the story is over the viewpoint and the flavour shift abruptly. Later, there is the crisis with Ursula and the Roald Dahlian imprisonment within one’s home–which is terrifically written and both thrilling, and tense and suspenseful–which is concluded, resolved, and finished.

Gaiman isolates these separate incidents from each other, and once one crisis or adventure or stream of thought is concluded, it does not really arise again. There is nothing to be said against his narration. His voice is crisp and clean, and it is melancholic without being morbid, youthful without being juvenile, dark without despondence. It seems rather that he might have returned to the draft a few times, and out of the neatly planted and segmented seeds of a story, cultivated a rich and flowing garden of an epic.

This is a story that readers will appreciate and remember, but not for all that long. It is not a story to change lives or inspire deep and permanent longing and wistful love, but it is a story that while it lasts is captivating.

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The Ordinary Knight and The Invisible Princess, by H.L. Burke

September 8, 2013 at 15:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , , )




The damnable thing about the publishing industry is that it is so terribly big. An unassailable bulwark against the flotsam and jetsam spewed up by the infinite depths of would-be writers, with the carefully-patrolled floodgates channelling the cream that has risen to the top of this morass into the grateful lap of the discerning reader. Of course, it goes without saying that dreadful nonsense and tiresome rubbish end up slipping past to join the real literature; but it is a truth seldom acknowledged that the faceless might of the publishing industry really has no ready way to capture the work of truly excellent authors who find themselves without established names or careers.

The Ordinary Knight is a self-published fantasy romance; a description liable to turn absolutely no heads and several stomachs. Surprisingly, it is absolutely terrific. Competently written and finely paced, it is a fairytale adventure whose only fault is its brevity, and a sweetly imagined fantasy world that is impressionistic and pristine. There is little in the story that is subtle or particularly subversive: no neckbreaking plot twists or philosophical challenges. Only a fine old-fashioned adventure tale, with echoes of the inimitable Kate DiCamillo, and a timeless quality such as only the best fantasy authors can manage, whose work appeals both to its intended childhood demographic, and also to adults grown wistful.

“‘Percy, I can’t go back. The fairies know how to get through the doors now. The tower isn’t safe anymore…I barely escaped.'”

-The Ordinary Knight

The story is driven far more by its characters than by exposition or a detailed description of the fantastic world in which they dwell, but there are tantalising glimpses of a sugarplum world that begs to be explored in further depth. Burke can be lavish in her set-pieces and is as obvious as a Roald Dahl in where her sympathies lie: the heroes are without exception paragons of virtue, yet manage the trick of being likeable at the same time. The dialogue is clear and occasionally witty, and the conclusion manages to be truly epic without losing the childlike atmosphere so carefully cultivated throughout.

The glowing reception that The Ordinary Knight so richly deserves is offset and dimmed slightly by the second loosely-related story, The Invisible Princess. Much of the magic is lost in the sequel, and the pathos is laid on with a trowel, as moonstruck lovers bemoan in dreadful melodrama how utterly and hopelessly they yearn for each other. There is little fantastical, and almost no development, and the least said about it the better. It might be a perfectly acceptable straight romance novel, but it is emphatically not on the same level as its prequel, either in genre or in professionalism.

Nevertheless, this lapse is scarcely an excuse to smear the first of the two books. Read the first by all means, and proceed with the second only if you like that sort of thing. But for The Ordinary Knight to while away its days as just another unread vanity publication would be a travesty. An excellent book, a surprise success, and hopefully indicative of the sort of thing to come from this marvellously talented writer.

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Candide, by Voltaire

June 8, 2013 at 08:01 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Comedy, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Philosophy) (, , , )




Voltaire’s controversial masterpiece is an impressive chunk of book; none the less considering it is still able to provoke strong reactions two and a half centuries after its initial publication. That alone does not make it worthwhile or amazing: strong emotions can be conjured by simple things. But there is no denying its cleverness. Cursed cleverness sometimes, and seldom in the service of anything clearly noble or even clear. Voltaire’s mockery of altruism is as plain as the nose on one’s face, but his derision for any who might dare to read his tragicomedy so straightforwardly shows through in many places, leading astute readers to suspect that he is equally contemptuous of pessimists, who might nod sagely at his farcical series of mishaps while he laughs behind the backs of both.

“‘It is demonstrable,’ said he, ‘that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.'”


It is the great trick of snide writers to be able to sneer at any strong belief their readers hold, regardless of what that belief is. An excellent review (for which this review is at least partly an apologetic) makes the very salient point that Candide paints so black a picture of the worldview it seeks to emasculate that it becomes useless, and distorts everything into a caricature. But Voltaire’s clumsy straw man is a pastiche not only of altruism, but a cruel sketch of those who would themselves construct such straw men.

It is very unpleasant to be laughed at, and for that reason it is tempting to adopt the same distant aloofness and join Voltaire in his ivory tower. He is a misanthrope, and it is very difficult to see things from a misanthrope’s point of view without also joining him in his pathology. This can cause problems for readers unwilling to enter into conspiracy with the author. Several writers both modern and classic exhibit this same disagreeable trait of being unbearably clever (and sometimes even witty) without being at all likeable or honest: Joseph Heller, for instance; or Will Self.

There is a great deal of parable in Candide, and a hallmark of a parable is its licence to dispense with logical storyline (“and then, because it suits my purposes, an Ogre appeared in Grimsby”), dispense with a willing suspension of disbelief (“and just as her pursuers caught up to her, she grew great wings and took to the sky”), and dispense with solid characters (“once upon a time there was a wicked witch”). Because of this, if one is unwilling to enter into conspiracy against the public with Voltaire, there is very little in this book that will be at all interesting. Because of this, the author clearly expects shortcomings in his story to be forgiven at the behest of his message. One’s willingness to do this (or at least to feign it) will be directly proportional to one’s enjoyment (or at least tolerance) of this book.

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Peter and the Secret of Rundoon, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

March 31, 2013 at 17:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )


This book was a difficult one to rate. Ultimately, it was more exciting and action-packed than either of its predacessors. Unfortunately, even well-written action and adventure cannot compensate for a poor story, and in spite of a fast pace and some magnificent set-pieces, it was simply not as good.

There are some books that fall apart on one terrible issue that the author cannot get his head around: a devastatingly anticlimactic ending, or a limp and flat character inexplicably placed in the centre of everything. But Peter and the Secret of Rundoon dies a death of a thousand pinpricks. Popped seams and stretched plausibility from the earlier books — repairable mistakes left for a moment too long — combine to create an ultimately negative impression. Errors that ought to have been corrected by now, by a competent editor at least–or by an excellent writer–finally come of age and somewhat capsize this venture.

“The figure stepped into the torchlight. Again Molly fought back a scream. A long black moustache slashed across a familiar hatchet-thin face.

-Peter and the Secret of Rundoon

Molly has always been rather desperately pushed forward by the authors as a strong female character, usually comedically contrasted with Tinkerbell’s jealous sniping and grousing. She has never been a tiresome nag or a helpless idiot, but the feeling has always hung heavy that Tinkerbell is actually right, and that all of the jokes have contained a serious edge. Molly has several very uncomfortable and grown-up fights with several of the characters at a couple of different points, and this does an enormous amount of damage to the painstakingly cultivated character that Barry and Pearson nurtured over two other books.

The decision is finally made for the ghastly and mysterious Lord Ombra to come clean about his origins and his goals: which ultimately proves to be a disastrous choice. There is a bleak and surprisingly atheistic rant that comes out of nowhere, and the villains become considerably more prosaic and less impressive as a result. Indeed, the story loses much of the magic and fairytale beauty that it had managed to create in a surprisingly short time. Coupled with some bewilderingly anachronistic inventions that are shoehorned into the story seemingly to lazily patch plot holes, and any reader might be forgiven for wondering if the burst of enthusiasm with which this series began, has…run out of pixie dust?

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Peter and the Shadow Thieves, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

November 4, 2012 at 23:04 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )


The startling success enjoyed by Barry and Pearson in their striking debut, Peter and the Starcatchers is not, strictly speaking, quite so startling as to compell doubt in their ability to repeat it. As noted in the review of that book, they neither set out nor managed to write great and towering literature (in spite of very deliberately dangling their toes into that hazardous pool), but found themselves with a very successful and modest adventure story.

In the sequel, some dramatic improvements and some glaring pitfalls will immediately confront the reader. It will not take readers long to realise that there really is no plot in this book that has anything to do with Never Land or the Lost Boys. This is a Peter-and-Molly adventure, and neither James nor Captain Hook are to be invited. With this established, it would have been a wise decision for the authors to abandon pretense of telling a dual narrative, the second of which is anaemic, scatterbrained, and woefully neglected.

“In the distance lay London’s familiar landmarks–the Tower, Tower Bridge, Parliament–looking majestic even in the coal-clouded air. On the right lay the vast, busy complexity of the London docks, a forest of masts rising from hundreds of ships.”

-Peter and the Shadow Thieves

Perhaps a hidden blessing in the abortive second storyline is that Barry and Pearson do realise very quickly where their strengths lie. The tantalising threads of storyline strewn through the first book are taken up again with a vengeance, and both authors set about moulding a book that is not just an origin-story for Peter Pan, but a detailed and layered foundation on which to grow their own creation.

It must also be noted that a constant annoyance has leaked over from the first book, and even grown in proportion. The narrative voice seems more than a trifle rushed, as if the authors have enthusiasm and pluck, but a dearth of real penmanship. London, a city deftly and brilliantly sketched by a hundred authors and songwriters and poets, is muzzily construed at best, with a postcard reconstruction that conjures up exactly nothing. The street urchins are halfhearted, the scrapes and japes fizzle out almost as soon as they begin, and as the characters scurry hither and yon on various brief and unfulfilling quests, there is the distinct feeling that they too are trying to pick up the pieces of a dropped story.

But in the face of this frankly disappointing canvas upon which a good half of the book is played out, there are several reassuring notes. The authors build upon the main characters they had begun, and manage to do so while re-covering precisely the right amount of ground, and unveiling precisely the right amount of mystery to encourage reticent readers to warm to and even grow excited by them. The progression of the starcatcher tale is excellently paced, and it is difficult to accuse this book of dragging its feet.

An encouraging sequel to an impressive beginning, and one that largely improves on its predacessor. Mistakes were made, and this book is far from perfect. But it is enjoyable, and enjoyable is sometimes better than perfect.

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Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

September 2, 2012 at 13:37 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )


Sometimes, large shoes can be filled. This is a difficult thing to do, and even authors with famous names or literary renown fall spectacularly and catastrophically short of the mark, when trying to pick up the pen of a more gifted man or woman. Neither Barry nor Pearson are novice authors, but nor could it be said that either of them are burdened with a tremendous amount of experience in children’s literature (which is harder to write than many people expect, and all the more awful when it is done badly). In Peter and the Starcatchers the authors choose an especially difficult subject, being as it is a story that has been recast and reimagined countless times by dozens of storytellers throughout the course of a century. The prospect of borrowing from other adaptations or traditions, or the wilder temptation to take the story in a totally unexpected and erratic direction, must have been frightfully difficult to resist.

“‘What’s Never Land?’ said a boynamed Prentiss, who was fairly new to the orphanage and thus did not see the fist until it hit his ear.”

-Peter and the Starcatchers

As it is, this first book has some rough edges. Barry and Pearson aim staunchly for the centre of the old adventuring tradition, and if they do not score a perfect bull’s eye, then at least they score close enough to conjure up the magic of the classics they seek to emulate. Their writing is not beautiful, and they do not demonstrate the ability to clutch a reader’s heartstrings, to cause hands to slip nerveless on pages, or a wistful sigh to punctuate the turning of the final page. But if the reader remembers that this is a tribute and an addendum to the original story and not a displacement, if the reader begins this book in a spirit of adventure and a willingness to be thrilled, then it is a very rewarding experience indeed.

There are some characters who will grow tiresome, and there are a few damp squibs, where the story builds up to a rollicking climax only to back off half apologetically and try again, but for a reader willing to forgive occasional lapses, and who is willing to become as excited by the story as the authors clearly are, then this is a book to stay up all night reading.

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George’s Marvellous Medicine, by Roald Dahl

February 2, 2012 at 01:49 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Comedy, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , )


One of Roald Dahl’s shortest children’s books, this can hardly be described as a complex story. Like many of his classics, the accusation could be very fairly made that he planned poorly, and relied on his peerless descriptive prowess to see him through; that he made things up as he went along, and truncated storylines when he ran out of ideas.

This book is split into three parts: the description of a dreadful life that Dahl did so well as to become a staple in subsequent children’s literature, a fabulous exploration of the medicine’s manifold and imaginitive ingredients, and then finally (and most confusingly) a series of descriptions about the medicine’s effects.

The first two parts are performed (if not masterfully) then to satisfaction. George’s life is not so magnificently written as Charlie Bucket’s or James Trotter’s, but it is classic Dahl. The creation of the potion is not so pregnant with excitement and magic as Danny and his father scraping together the ingredients for downing a flock of pheasants, but there is the same lyrical madness as some of Dahl’s poetry, and it makes for fun reading. Even the ending, the final part of the book, is not all bad. It is simply not Dahl’s best work. He seems unable or unwilling to finish a thought, and consequences (when they do happen) happen all in a rush and a tumble, and are a little anticlimactic in nature.

“The old hag opened her small wrinkled mouth, showing disgusting pale brown teeth.”

-George’s Marvellous Medicine

Attention must also be given to Roald Dahl’s description of George’s grandmother. Never one to censor his bile, it would be foolish to expect this writer who made his name writing violent and graphic stories to shirk his duty here. But the descriptions of the old hag are a little sharper and a little more bitter than in some of the other books. There is a little less fantasy and a slightly more disturbing result, and combined with the much weaker story, these problems aggregate to leave us with a wry and entertaining but ultimately unpalatable story.

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Mirror Mirror, by Gregory Maguire

April 27, 2011 at 22:23 (Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )


Maguire promises a lot and delivers little. Historical fiction blended with the recasting of a classic fairytale might seem like unlimited license for creativity and a surety against failure, but Maguire made several extremely poor mistakes, and his most creative moments leave the reader hungry for more and feeling rather cheated. This book is either much too long or much too short. We have the spectacle of several interesting and engaging characters, each with their own storylines, and in some cases individual races or creatures. None of them are adequately developed.

“Snow White” de Nevada (a cute choice for a name) is barely explored at all, despite being the main character. Brilliantly interesting characters such as Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia are barely touched upon, and Maguire’s bizarre dwarf creatures are superficially discussed at best. There is no sense of mythology, no sense of magic, no sense of historical intrigue. Maguire ought to have been satisfied with writing a Grimm’s style short story, or else should have been prepared to put considerably more effort into developing his creation, paying due attention to Italian history (which is rather superficially explored) and crafting a fantasy worthy of the reader’s investment. As it is, he has given us a very pretty concept that unfortunately has little or no depth at all.

Finally, the writer’s preoccupation with the sex of his characters is disturbing and offputting to say the least. That sort of thing might be expected from the legendarily lecherous Borgias, but their excesses somehow taint every single one of his distrubingly nymphomaniacal characters. This is a seven-year-old Snow White, for pity’s sake! Next time, we could do to leave Sigmund Fraud locked well away, please.

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The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

April 10, 2011 at 12:31 (Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )


Due care should be taken when reading this book. It is a marked departure from the first book of the series, in style, content, substance and feel. Most positively, Rothfuss continues his able characterisation of Kvothe and the manifold denizens of his vivid world; he manages to avoid repeating himself unduly (which is no mean feat, considering these books’ lengths!) and builds substantially on his other creations. Whereas he had first gone to painstaking efforts to colour every jot and tittle of Tarbean and the University, and to lovingly explore his different incarnations of magic, here he demonstrates that, no: he had not yet written everything that could be written about these inventions, and he writes passionately enough to keep his storytelling fresh. Also weighing heavily in this book’s favour is a thankfully improved standard of copy-editing. No haphazard mistakes or clumsy phrasing to detract from a clever and sophisticated story.

Unfortunately, The Wise Man’s Fear has somewhat lost its reserve; its gentleness and the sense of propriety that lent its predacessor such grace and beauty. Needless prudery is one thing, but the extent to which Rothfuss feels it necessary to delve into more graphic aspects of his world ends up damaging something fundamental in his writing, and altering the whole flavour of the book. Additionally, where most of his creations still feel new and freshly original, the Daoism of his Ademre race is laid on with a rather too thick trowel, which is both distracting and eventually, feels somewhat arrogant.

Also missing is his remarkable ability to borrow the pen of Tolkien and write that rarest and most beautiful of the gems of fantasy: true legend. The Lay of Felurian might have begun to approach the majestic, had it not been a largely sordid romp. The ever-elusive quest for the Amyr and the stunningly-portrayed appearance of the Cthaeh certainly are the best taste of grand and proud writing, and are sadly relegated to background roles. Instead of these shimmering themes, the more prosaic and–dare it be said?–exhausted aspects of the story are drawn out to their uttermost extent: long, dull valleys between the occasional (far too occasional) shimmering peaks. Having promised much, Rothfuss delivers; but only in his expansion of what is already in place. There are very few sparks of revelation in The Wise Man’s Fear, and some of the fire of his writing appears to have dimmed.

Related review:
The Name of the Wind

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Matchless, by Gregory Maguire

March 13, 2011 at 15:20 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )


The discerning reader will expect to find the Gregory Maguire whose taste seems to be that of bitter blackness with a cloyingly sweet moral of good things ultimately happening to those who suffer deservingly. In a sense, this book is straight out of his particular mould, with the exception of the black bitterness. The story of the match girl in the snow is told with Andersen’s pathos, but without the latent sexuality or gleeful twisting that so dampens Maguire’s other stories.

Maguire’s own innovations are not unwelcome, though nor are they particularly revolutionary. The whole story is rather simple, and it is a bit of a blessing that the background of the story is added with a light hand. This is rather an example of a careful touch-up of a beloved old antique story, than of plastering it over with something new and bright and gaudy. It might be claimed that the happy ending is too unfogivable a deviation from either Maguire’s or Andersen’s styles, but it shows welcome flexibility from the former and is entirely consistent with Andersen’s tragedies, many of which are written with the promise of good things to come, if not in this world then in the next. And the fact that Gregory Maguire has managed to incorporate this theme without making it pithy is certainly welcome.

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