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 By all accounts, Gaiman intended to write a short unpublished story, then a short published story, then a novella, then a full novel.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.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

June 1, 2013 at 09:19 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror, Literature) (, , )




The chief and noticeable feature in Frankenstein is the peculiarly direct route that Shelley takes from the beginning to the end. With the possible exception of the brief Shetland adventure, both the eponymous doctor and his creation turn neither to the left nor to the right on their individual paths; but pursue each other without hindrance or pause from one fixed point to the next.

The monster, therefore, sets its mind upon one thing, which is sought until it is achieved or until it is forever out of reach. The doctor, likewise. This straight highway of a narrative leads to very few surprises for the reader, and the impending doom of tragedy is lessened by its visibility–and simultaneously heightened by its inevitability. For this reason above others, the book has a tendency to drag its feet. Any attempt by Shelley to create suspense is largely futile–and she seems to recognise this, and aims at pathos rather than tension.

” I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy, and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm.”


Stylistically, Frankenstein is not a displeasing work. For all its gothic legacy, it reads generally like any of its contemporary works of literature, with the only distinction being that the tragedies mourned and the victories celebrated have a supernatural patina to them. It is not a very atmospheric book, nor is the monstrous horror of the grinning demoniac particularly prominent. A lengthy monologue by the creature is presented in much the same way it would have been had its narrator been a normal human, and besides a few physical descriptions of his diabolical aspect, the creature is remarkably unremarkable.

This is a book with a very strong concept, whose author under no circumstances allows the story to get in the way of that concept. It is not possible to find any grave flaws with the writing, but it is almost as difficult to find a great deal of beauty in it. The book is unlikely to conjure up any very strong emotions in its readers, and must rely instead on its competency and its novelty. This might well be a classic book, but it perhaps deserves to be called good literature, not great.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Great Apes, by Will Self

June 6, 2012 at 06:51 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )


Will Self is a frighteningly intelligent man who takes a perverse delight in doing disgusting things to beautiful words. Great Apes is one of those books that begins with a clever or original idea (although honestly, not all that original) and works behind it as under a mask to make the initial premise the unwilling slave of a certain conceit of style, or flavour. This book is all atmosphere and very little substance, and all commentary and very little story. It is difficult to tell whether Will Self is unutterably pleased with himself for being so blamed clever all the time, or if he is adopting such a persona in order to laugh at it. It is not really very important which.

The central idea is that human beings are as noble and arrogant as any batch of greasy apes happen to be; and again and again this is piled on with a trowel in much the same way as Orson Scott Card in Lovelock. There is not much more than this, and what might have been an excellent display of Self’s ample wit and silver tongue is instead contorted into a tiresome sneer at humanity.

“Then their tongues slid over and under, pink shrews blindly questing.”

-Great Apes

As might be expected, Will Self writes with a deucedly elegant pen, and weighs and portions his words like an apothecary, or a lover, dosing the reader meticulously with impeccably crafted language, placing each jot and tittle with immaculate care: and using them to paint an ugly and cheap picture of cartoonish horror. There lies the greatest disappointment with this book. It might have been excellent. Instead, it is like the genius in the class who insists on clowning around in every lesson, turning in every assignment late, and with more of an eye towards upsetting the teacher than proving his worth.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Shades of Grey, by Michael Cargill

May 30, 2012 at 12:00 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , )


Shades of Grey is a brief and distractingly violent collection of short stories, including one rather good but frustratingly truncated espionage story, a bland wartime correspondence and a rather ghastly horror story. It will be clear to any reader that Cargill is not an experienced writer, and as such although some of his premises and starting points hold a certain attraction, he simply is unable to keep them afloat, and they quickly begin to drag.

“There was no official state of war declared, and strictly speaking he wasn’t part of any official military or intelligence organisation. He worked for the Guv’nor.”

-Shades of Grey

The best of a beginner’s lot is the story the anthology is named for, the spy story. In it, Cargill experiments with a little stream-of-consciousness, some character development, and gratuitous violence. Speaking plainly, if something can be considered gratuitous (either in its violence, its sexuality, its language or any other content) then it is shocking for the sake of being shocking, and of no further use on that front. On the other hand, Cargill’s attempts to build his characters do not fall completely flat, and the chief criticism to be levelled here is that he is a little clumsy and heavy-handed in doing so.

A bold attempt prematurely published, and an interesting insight into the development of a young author, but it would be difficult to describe this book as entertaining, and harder still to describe it as especially meaningful. In its favour, it’s almost certainly better than the similarly-named series by E.L. James.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

May 16, 2012 at 11:34 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Horror, Literature, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , , )


Whatever creature or vermin Gregor Samsa was truly transformed into in this dark and dragging novel, the stamina demonstrated by Kafka in pinning the entire story so claustrophobically inside the one location, in stolidly sticking with his sole absurd obsession and subject, was both an impressive feat and also a painful conceit. Just as Samsa’s nameless father dreads the room, so the reader grows to dread the pages of the book that offers little relief from the initial terrific premise.

It is a curious thing that when reading works of literature like this, even novice readers are expected to glean some meaning from the story (in contrast to the scorn that would be readily available for any reader trying to analyse a pulp novel, for instance). This sort of expectation can easily grow tiresome, and distracting. A first question ought not be “what was it about”, but “was it any good”. After all, newspapers are about some very interesting things, but are seldom any good. And The Metamorphosis? Certainly it had little of the breadth that The Trial offered, nor did it even offer the reader as much in the way of sympathy or false hope; but authors should hardly be compared only to themselves, and it would not be wise to compare this book too closely with any of his other books.

“Must the manager himself come, and in the process must it be demonstrated to the entire innocent family that the investigation of this suspicious circumstance could be entrusted only to the intelligence of the manager?”

-The Metamorphosis

Perhaps the real triumph of this book is that it is truly never dull, in spite of its inertia. Although it is not long, it is darkly brooding and fixed in one place, and the characters flow through the story like sand through an hourglass, once gone never to return. There is little that is familiar or gripping, except for the pen of Kafka himself (and of course his capable translators). This book is filled with entertaining and delightful interior monologues, which act beautifully as a showcase for Kafka’s poetic side, as well as his true acquaintance with the hopes and private turmoil of his hero. It might be said that this is a very good book, if not a very good story. Certainly worth reading, and fortunately not very difficult to manage. Kafka’s prose is its own reward, and his bleakness its own punishment.

Permalink 2 Comments

Land of Mist and Snow, by Debra Doyle

March 30, 2011 at 12:44 (Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )


The most interesting part of this mostly bleak novel was the decision to completely abandon omniscient third person narration with, if the reader needed to know something important to the story (or not, as the case occasionally was), attention being directed to another narrative. At times it seemed like at least six different characters were trying to tell the story. The bold choices in narrative are really the only thing to draw a prospective reader, and to her credit Doyle does a passable job at keeping things straight, although the legion of narrators ended up as interesting, mostly distracting, and mostly distracting (sic). This book claims to be an “alternate history”, which is about as accurate as calling The Flintstones alternate history, and such dishonesty will hardly endear Doyle to readers who took this boast seriously. Extremely patient historians aside, this book can only really appeal to the readers of rather pedantic and simple ghost stories, and to lovers of a very specific niche of naval memoranda – by which is meant people who are very concerned with what certain types of ropes are called

Permalink Leave a Comment

Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

February 15, 2011 at 13:52 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror, Science Fiction) (, , , , )


There is very little to criticise in Ubik. Philip K. Dick begins with a smattering of science fiction ideas that most writers would give their index fingers to possess: flawlessly imagined commercialisation of all sorts of rival telepathies, futuristic terrorism, terrifically rendered post-death experiences with incredible postulations into cryogenics. He takes this rich platter, and uses every piece of it as window dressing for a dizzying plunge into the depths of the soul, with a terrifying nightmare half-life of parasitic existence. He manages to do all of this while writing a thrilling and exciting murder mystery and a realistic and engaging historical fiction.

There is a large ensemble cast of characters, and the only one the reader is really given time to explore is Joe Chip: but the shadowy and shallow shapes each remain vaguely mysterious and utterly suspicious throughout the story, ebbing and flowing marvellously in a perfect mimicry of the dream world’s own fluctuating construct. It is a shame that readers are not given time to make heavier investments in these characters, and it is a shame that the savagely brilliant science fiction of Philip K. Dick does not lend itself to further study (what he might have done with the throwaway war between the Runciter and Hollis corporations and their telepaths!). But like a bronze casting, the exquisitely-carved mold is chipped away and discarded only to reveal the true work of art. Ubik has everything: the glimmering fantasy of the future, the mystical blurring between technology and the soul of man, the authority of historical fiction and suspense; sheer bloody-minded suspense and terror that culminate in the metaphysical ambiguity that this master author manages so well.

Permalink 1 Comment

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

January 7, 2011 at 21:15 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Horror, Mediocre Books) (, , , )


This book was creepy and entirely disagreeable, and every human impulse of the reader bellows simultaneously that the author is utterly and totally wrong. These are boys, Golding! What’s wrong with you?

Needless to say, the ability to provoke such disgust and loathing, not to say outraged denial, is at once uncanny and impressive. There is nothing shocking in this book – except perhaps an absence of sexual content. Only proof that William Golding knew what he was writing about, and set about to meticulously and lovingly crucify his sole personification of purity, by the barbarian horde that turns inevitably to devour itself – only interrupted by the friendly and bemused face of civilisation dipping its head into the abyss of the collective human id.

That does not mean that it is the sort of book into which one ought to regularly plunge. Like a detective tasting poison, and spitting, this story is repugnant and ugly, and mournful in a wonderful way, and should be sampled and shelved.

Permalink 2 Comments