Just Giblets

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 1 & 2

8th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 1 & 2

My top books read in 2013 is topped by an old favorite and a new debut.  Helen Wacker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is a powerfully gorgeous fantasy novel disguised as historical fiction.  Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is gorgeous, Gaiman-fantasy at its best.  A couple of really great books.

The Golem and the Jinni#2 - The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wacker

I find it interesting how wrapping a fantasy in historical fiction allows a novel to transcend genre and suddenly appeal to a wider audience. It’s a neat trick that worked for Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and if there’s any justice it will work for Helene Wecker’s lovely and highly original The Golem and the Jinni.

The setting is the oh-so appealing turn-of-the (20th) century New York City, and the protagonists are, surprisingly enough, a golem called Chava, and a Jinni called Ahmad. Both find themselves in a difficult situation with no one who truly understands their respective plights. Chava was created to serve as a wife for a Polish peasant. Despite admonitions to the contrary, the peasant awakens Chava on the journey from Europe to America, then promptly dies of a massive heart attack. The golem is suddenly alive, but without a master, and while she possesses nearly limitless strength and endurance in her body made of clay, her strange ability to sense the desires of those around her threatens to drive her mad.

In traditional jinni style, Ahmad finds himself in Arbeely’s shop after the young man begins work on a copper flask. Ahmad has been trapped in said flask for centuries, but his release only adds to his torment, for on his wrist is an iron cuff that traps him in human form, and prevents him from accessing the full range of his fiery powers. His memories of how he found himself trapped thus have been wiped clean.

Eventually, the woman of earth and the man of fire meet and form a grudging friendship. Wecker develops their relationship beautifully, and it is the interplay between Chava and Ahmad that scores the highest points with me. In fact, Chava is a fascinating character, and while archetypal, she is also refreshing and delightful to root for as the novel’s main heroine. Wecker also uses the Jewish and Syrian communities to strong effect, adding a rich cultural element to the fantastic story.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane#1 - The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is just the master of telling archetypal stories involving childhood, magic, evil, myth, and the world. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home in rural England and stumbles across a farmhouse at the end of the lane that sparks certain memories that he didn’t know he had. These memories spin back forty years to a terrifying time when something dark and menacing was almost turned loose on the world thanks to his fears.

Gaiman has such a talent for straddling the line between that type of fantasy the instills wonder and delight and a dark horror that works on all ages.  He taps into the terrifying things that scare both adults and children.  The monstrous caretaker in this novel taps into many of the fears we have both as isolated children and as worried parents.  Gaiman’s creativity and imagination is vivid and powerful, tapping into something we all feel from our youth, and he imbues real menace into his stories that somehow still manage to work for both kids and adults.

posted in 2013, Books, Fantasy, Year-end lists | at 7:21 am | 0 Comments
4th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 9 & 10

As we dip into the top 10, we’ve got the last book I read this year, and the oldest book I read this year.  James Scott’s debut novel was harrowing and emotionally wrenching.  It would have been even higher on the list except that the ending, while appropriate, seemed a little rushed.  Charles de Lint is a writer of urban fantasy who has been publishing novels for thirty years.  I’ve always meant to read one of his books, and I finally did so, a book that he published in 2003.

The Kept#10 – The Kept by James Scott

James Scott has crafted a harsh tale of life in upstate New York in the late 1800′s. Elspeth works as a midwife, often on the road helping women give birth across the State of New York. At home, her husband Jorah, tends to their six children until the day Elspeth returns home after weeks away to find her family recently gunned down and left for dead. All that is save for her 12-year-old son Caleb, hidden from the massacre, yet traumatized by the violent events, Caleb and his mother must face harsh weather, serious wounds, damaging secrets and an unforgiving world as they seek revenge on the men who destroyed their lives. Both protagonists carry secrets  that manifest in a guilt that nearly causes them to make ill-fated decisions.  In fact, nearly all of the main characters  harbor anxiety producing secrets, and as any good reader of stories knows, those secrets are bound to come out.
Scott weaves an intricate tale that touches on so many issues, while keeping the story of a mother and her son at the core. The bleak landscape both without and within make for somber reading, but it’s well worth the effort to walk some miles in these tragic characters’ shoes.

Spirits in the Wires#9 – Spirits in the Wires by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is a prolific writer of fantasy whose books often deal with spirits, faeries, worlds just beyond our perception where all matter of magical folks live. In this novel from 2003 he posits that the world wide web has evolved into one such world where spirits have taken up residence alongside our own world as well as the Borderlands and the Otherworlds where hobs, pixies, goblins, faeries, hellhounds and other such beings lurk.

One website in particular, the Wordwood, seems to be home to a very powerful spirit, and when the site is attacked by a computer virus, the devastating effects are made manifest in our world in the disappearance of dozens, possibly hundreds of people. In fact, Christy Redding’s girlfriend, Saskia, disappears right before his eyes, her body pixellating into nothingness. Of course, Saskia isn’t a normal person. She was born of the web; a spirit cast out from the web to awaken fully cognizant with implanted memories but no actual experience in a human body.  Then there is Christiana, Christy’s shadow; all of the traits that Christy didn’t want at age seven that he cast off into his shadow. Christiana began life as everything Christy wasn’t: where Christy was male, Christiana was female; where Christy was cautious, Christiana was impetuous… etc.  After Saskia’s disappearance, Christy reaches out to a ragtag assortment of friends and allies to help him try to find her, little knowing that her best source of information would be his shadow, Christiana.

Spirits in the Wires is a rollicking adventure held on multiple fronts as a variety of fun and fascinating characters all do their part in helping the people who have disappeared. Some of his supporting characters come across as slightly stereotypical, but that might be the shorthand of the fact that many of these characters have appeared in other works that I haven’t read. de Lint handles the female characters particularly well, especially in their relationships with each other. At its heart, Spirits in the Wires is more internal story of where we come from and who we are. Saskia and Christiana struggle with their unconventional beginnings and ask whether that makes the any less human? By the end of the novel we will know the answer, but in de Lint’s skillful hands, how could they be anything but?

posted in 2012, Books, Fantasy, Year-end lists | at 11:06 am | 0 Comments
10th January 2013
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2012 – #’s 3 & 4

A debut novel and a collection of previously printed short stories — not what I was expecting for my third and fourth favorite books read in 2012!

Tell the Wolves I'm Home#4 – Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Carol Rifka Brunt has crafted a beautifully, sad, coming-of-age tale about fourteen-year-old June Elbus, her older sister Greta, and her Uncle Finn. Set in the early 1980′s, June’s world is rocked when her beloved Uncle dies of complications from AIDS. Recent changes in her relationship with Greta have made June believe that Finn was truly the only person to understand her. Enter the mysterious Toby, much maligned by the rest of her family, June finds in Toby a potential kindred spirit and someone from whom she can at the very least, learn more about Finn’s life.

Brunt masterfully negotiates the twists and turns of adolescence, while adding an additional layer of adult, emotional trauma in a story that is both powerful and incredibly moving. It also demonstrates just how far we’ve come as a society since the early 80′s, with regard to AIDS. Yet at the same time, some of the themes Brunt explores would still be scandalous in today’s world, which is a shame. This is a terrific debut novel, and I highly recommend it.

Wonders of the Invisible World#3 – Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia A. McKillip

I was thrilled when I found out there was a new Patricia McKillip book recently released; then mildly disappointed when I found out it was a collection of previously published short stories. Not that I had read any of the stories yet, but generally, I enjoy McKillip’s novels more than her short stories.

Much to my surprise, the stories in Wonders of the Invisible World were truly wonders, and rose to the heights of some of McKillip’s best writing. This gifted artist paints literary landscapes across my heart and mind whether the setting be Puritan New England, a mysterious village in the woods, or an underwater realm. She snaps characters to life with the turn of a phrase, a phrase that seems familiar in the fantasy context, yet is at once strikingly original.

There is a lot of water imagery in this collection, which delighted me. I can’t recall many of her novels featuring the magic of water, and she writes it beautifully. I would love to see an entire novel devoted to the characters and setting of ‘Knight of the Well,’ or ‘The Kelpie.’

McKillip doesn’t just stick with fantasy in this collection either, but dips her hand into science fiction, as with the time travelling researcher in the title story, ‘Wonders of the Invisible World.’

It was nice to see some of McKillip’s less seen humor creep into several of these stories. While her creation and depiction of fantasy realms is the strongest weapon in her literary arsenal, this collection shows off the prodigious talent in her juxtaposition of fantasy with the modern world. And as is now to be expected, her stellar command of language shines through in this magnificent collection.

posted in 2012, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Lists, Year-end lists | at 9:19 pm | 0 Comments
28th June 2008
by Michael

Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is a winner!

Cover Art for Neil Gaiman\'s The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book is Neil Gaiman’s latest work for children coming out in September. Now I don’t remember what it was like to be 10 or 11, but his man in his forties loved this novel. No one writes books with appeal to all ages as well as Neil Gaiman. Borrowing a concept from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which tells the story of an orphan raised in the jungle, The Graveyard Book features a toddler who wanders out of the house and into the graveyard after his family is brutally murdered, and is raised by the spirits and others beings who live there.

Young Bod (short for Nobody) is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, a kindly couple who died childless, and watched over by Silas, a mysterious and powerful being who is neither alive nor dead. Bod learns the secrets of the graveyard, and things no living beings know. As he grows up, he begins to encounter the living from time to time, and a curiosity is sparked. All the while, Jack, the man who murdered his family, is hoping to correct his failure by finding and finishing of Bod as well.

Gaiman populates The Graveyard Book with all the sorts of mystical and fantastic creatures he is known for. Silas’ wonderful, Eastern European substitute guardian Miss Luprescu is surely my favorite, but from ghouls to witches and other denizens of the dead, there is something to astound and capture everyone’s imagination. Watch for this one when it’s published in September.

Me and Neil Gaiman at a HarperCollins PartyOf course, friends of mine will know I’ve got a long-standing admiration for Mr. Gaiman, and about a month ago, while attending BookExpo America in Los Angeles, I was able to meet and hang out with Mr. Gaiman not once, but twice!  The second time I even was so bold as to ask to have my picture taken with him.  It was a geeky thing to do, and I’m smiling way too hard in the photo, but at least I hvae it.  I’ve been reading Neil’s work since the 80′s when he broke into comics at DC with the Black Orchid miniseries.  Shortly after that Neil began what has become arguably his most popular work, The Sandman.  His work as a novelist began with the riotously fun Good Omens, co-written by Terry Pratchett.  He has since hit the NYT bestsellers’ list on his own with the titles American Gods and The Anansi Boys.   He has done screenplay work for such films as PRINCESS MONONOKE, MIRRORMASK, and BEOWULF.  His young adult novel Coraline has been adapted for the screen and is due out later this year.

posted in Authors, Books, Comics, Fantasy, Favorites, Reviews | at 8:49 am | 1 Comment
16th September 2007
by Michael

Austin Grossman Does Superheroes Right

Soon I Will Be InvincibleWith the success of such movies as SPIDER-MAN, BATMAN, and THE X-MEN, and television shows such as “Heroes” and “So You Want To Be a Superhero,” it’s no surprise that an influx of novels about superheroes has appeared, much to this comic book geek’s delight. The first of the genre that I have embraced is Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible. Grossman is clearly familiar with the superhero world in comics, and he uses that world as the setting for his novel. There are two points-of-view in Invincible, bouncing back and forth between the villainous Dr. Impossible, and the newest member of the crime-stopping Champions, Fatale.

Grossman does a great job getting into Dr. Impossible’s head. After coming so close to conquering the world so many times, sent to prison, escaping, and repeating the cycle again and again, it’s interesting to see what motivates this super-genius to keep going. It seems that super-villainy is just hard-wired into his head. He’s got one more idea up his sleeve, and when the opportunity presents itself, he does the expected: busts our of prison, rebuilds his weapons and tries to take over the world.

Having disbanded a few years ago, the Champions come together again due to the mysterious disappearance of the best and brightest of their members, CoreFire. He was the most powerful of them all, unbeatable and charismatic, so when he seems to be missing for real, the Champions, Blackwolf – the Ultimate Crimefighter; Damsel – First Lady of Power; Elphin – Warrior Princess; Feral – Savage Street Fighter; Mister Mystic – Man of Mystery; and Rainbow Triumph – Teen Idol with an Attitude, feel duty bound to reunite and solve the mystery. To their ranks, they add a couple of newcomers; Lily, a mysterious, superpowered outcast from the future, and Fatale – the Next Generation of Warfare. It’s understandable that Grossman choses Fatale to be the readers’ entry into the superhero world. She’s new to the game, having received her powers after a freak accident destroyed most of her body and being transformed by new technology into a cyborg agent. Fatale is thrust into the glamorous world of the superhero elite all the while feeling she must constantly prove herself just to stand among them.

While the book is an entertaining read, and I do recommend it, I think the problem with using Fatale as one of our narrators is that when the finale arrives, and she is not a part of it, the reader is left on the outside looking in, when it would have been nice to have our point of view in the midst of the action. It’s like being sidelined for the big finish, and it’s a little distracting. Still, Grossman’s world is certainly representative of our own if it were populated by men and women with extraordinary powers.

posted in 2007, Books, Comics, Fantasy | at 3:45 pm | 0 Comments
26th August 2007
by Michael

Gaiman Spins a Dark Fantasy for Kids

CoralineMy reading theme for vacation last week was catching up with books being adapted into films. Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy for youth is called Coraline, and it tells the tale of a girl who stumbles upon a terrifying nightmare world right next to her own in the last couple of weeks of summer vacation. Think back to your childhood; think back on your summer vacation. For many, the last couple of weeks in August herald a transition time. The summer is starting to get a little boring, and while your mind was once occupied with exploring, playing, dreaming, now thoughts turn excitedly toward school. Such is the case with Coraline. Her parents don’t have time to keep her entertained, and while the eccentric tenants who live in the other parts of her building provide curious diversions, they aren’t quite enough. One day Coraline discovers that the door in the study which usually opens to a blank brick wall now opens to a long, dark tunnel. What else is there to do in the dog days of summer but explore the tunnel?

What Coraline finds is a strange world where her other-mother and other-father live. The eccentric tenants are represented as well, as is the aloof, black cat that lives out in the yard. The people are interesting, but a little off-kilter, and instead of eyes, black buttons stare unblinkingly form their faces. For the better part of a day, Coraline enjoys exploring this new, strange world, but when it comes time to leave, Gaiman’s fable takes a decidedly dark turn. In the days leading up to school, Coraline must fight for her soul, the souls of the children who have come before her and the lives and souls of her parents.

Gaiman spins a tale reminiscent of the fairy tales of youth. There is something safe and comforting about them even as the plucky heroine faces chilling and very-real danger. Here’s hoping Coraline makes for a good film-adaptation, and since it is animated, the visuals will surely have a huge impact on its success. The film is currently in post-production and is scheduled for release next year. It will feature the voice of Dakota Fanning as Coraline, Teri Hatcher as her mother (and her other-mother), and the brilliant Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as two of the neighbors. This is a quick read, and I highly recommend it.

posted in Books, Fantasy, Movies | at 9:03 pm | 0 Comments
3rd August 2007
by Michael

Engrossing Fantasy of the Highest Caliber

Shriek: an afterwordWhenever I am going to meet an author I try to read some of their work beforehand. At ALA this year I attended a dinner with Jeff VanderMeer, and on the plane to DC I started reading his latest fantasy novel Shriek: An Afterword. I only made it through the first 100 pages of so before meeting him, but I could tell there was quite a bit of talent in the man.

Shriek: An Afterword is of that fantasy genre that I don’t often read: alternative histories that may or may not be earth. It is also a biography of sorts of the Shriek siblings, Duncan written by his older sisterS Janice. Likewise it is a “biography” of their strange city, Ambergris. In Shriek, Janice is looking back on her life and writing an afterword for one of her historian/writer brother’s books. The Shriek’s lives were marked by the sudden death of their father after receiving the announcement that he had won a prestigious literary award, when they were children. Is this event the one that started Duncan down the path of an obsessive historian with radical theories perhaps too outlandish for others to fathom? And is this why Janice longs for recognition even while self-destructively indulging in every pleasure imaginable? The Shrieks eventually become fixtures in Ambergris’ culture, both reaching populist heights and tragic lows.

The river-city of Ambergris itself is perhaps the most potent character in the novel. Think of a grand, decaying New Orleans, complete with an underground city of quasi mushroom dwellers known as Gray Caps and you might get a sense of what Ambergris holds. Duncan’s obsession focuses on the Gray Caps and his first work, Cinsorium: Dispelling the Myths of the Gray Caps becomes a best-seller. During his research, Duncan uncovered hints of dark secrets connecting the Gray Caps to an horrific event that nearly destroyed the city years back. He also picked up a bizarre fungal condition that remained with him for the rest of his life. Janice unspools the pair’s story with tantalizing hints of their fate, augmented by notes from her brother, sometimes reinforcing, sometimes contradicting what she writes. It is a fascinating and compelling addition to the city’s lore.

VanderMeer has created a masterfully detailed, complex, fantastical novel, so utterly and darkly creative. The voices of Janice and Duncan are unique and true, revealing their all-too human flaws even while endearing them to the reader. Shriek: an afterword calls to mind Mary Gentle’s glorious White Crow novels, Rats & Gargoyles and Architecture of Desire in its gloriously giddy sense of the historical and the fantastic. This was one absorbing and entertaining read.

posted in Books, Fantasy | at 6:15 am | 0 Comments
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