As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?”
Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this column, Neil Gaiman leads me down a winding path.
Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Morrow. 2013. 192p. ISBN 9780062255655. $25.99.
Set in one of those special places in England where two worlds meet (such as wardrobes and rabbit holes), Gaiman’s first novel for adults since Anansi Boys (2005) is a luminous tale of bravery, loyalty, magic, and memory. The protagonist, unnamed throughout the story, returns home for a funeral and wanders away from its mournful proceedings back to the landscape of his old family home and back further to the memory of a dark adventure he once experienced involving witches, hunger birds, and frightening beings without real form. This modern fairy tale, which seems at once as old as time and freshly conjured, is finely crafted in lush, glorious prose as enchanting as the tale itself. The story unfolds quickly, its pace rapid owing to both the high stakes Gaiman introduces and the tale’s relative brevity, but it feels expansive as well, as if the reader has stepped out of time along with the protagonist. Deeply descriptive and evocative, Gaiman’s tale vividly evokes family farms and hedgerows, briar thickets and trees with branches made for reading, magical creatures hungry for their prey, and two beautifully drawn children of astonishing fortitude. Transporting, lyrical, and otherworldly, Gaiman’s modern take on fairy tales and their forms, of childhood and its costs, is also elegiac, reverberating, and ingenious.
Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus. Anchor: Doubleday. 2012. 528p. ISBN 9780307744432. pap. $15.
With splendidly lush prose, a focus on evocative descriptions, and a strong otherworldly tone, Morgenstern’s magician’s duel set within the glorious Le Cirque des Rêves, the Circus of Dreams, makes for great next reading. In a tale as dark and spellbinding as Gaiman’s, with high stakes that are cleverly reconciled, two magicians are drawn into a deadly game neither wants, pawns to masters they must thwart if both are to survive. Prospero the Enchanter enters his daughter, Celia, into the ageless game, turning her childhood into harsh lessons in magic. The mysterious Mr. A.H. picks the orphan Marco as his contestant. When Celia and Marco finally meet, nothing goes as anticipated, and the two hatch very different plans for the game’s final move. Morgenstern’s modern fairy tale should please Gaiman fans looking for another imaginative, lyrical, and sweeping fantasy.
Clarke, Susanna. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. Bloomsbury. 2007. 256p. ISBN. 9781596913837. pap. $15.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane began as a short story, and the markings of that shorter form still echo within it, particularly in its wonderful ending. Readers looking for short stories that are elegantly constructed, brilliantly written, and full of charm, magic, and a sly sensibility might enjoy Clarke’s exploration of fairy-tale characters and themes as reimagined in various settings. There is a new version of Rumpelstiltskin in which a wife of a tiresome man must trick not only a fairy and her husband but a gathering of city scholars as well; a story of three women magicians who outwit and out-magic an arrogant and unprepared visitor who largely believes he knows magic better and is prepared to offer bon wits about its powers. In yet more stories, the Duke of Wellington, Mary, Queen of Scots, and a scholar turned clergyman appear. Like Gaiman’s, Clarke’s work hums with power and play, and both authors clearly understand the many, and extraordinarily wonderful, uses of enchantment.
Connolly, John. The Book of Lost Things. Washington Square. 2007. 480p. ISBN 9780743298902. pap. $16.
Gaiman’s tale of passages and childhood can also be paired with Connolly’s splendid blend of fantasy, coming of age, and fairy tale. Matching Gaiman’s work for its attentions to pacing, description, and language and also featuring a young boy of remarkable fortitude, Connolly’s novel explores the costs of growing up, the treacherous path that that journey can follow, and the consequences of choices made along the way. Set in England during World War II, it is the story of David, a young boy dealing with the death of his mother, his father’s rapid remarriage, and the arrival of a new baby. Cast adrift in grief and anger, David wanders away from this new family and crosses the border between his world and a kingdom of elsewhere. There, a woodsman lives in a fortified cottage with walls lined with spikes; a sorceress lures men to their deaths; wolf-men hunt and plot to overthrow the king; and the Crooked Man stalks David, determined to claim the boy’s life as his own.
Pullman, Philip. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. Viking. 2012. 400p. ISBN 9780670024971. $27.95.
The fairy tale, as Gaiman so grandly illustrates, never wears out its welcome and is adaptable to endless uses by endless authors. Taking up 50 stories gathered by the Brothers Grimm, Pullman adds his own sensibility and storytelling skills, rendering fresh retellings with some new additions, dexterous word craft, fiercely quick pacing, and a lovely lyrical sensibility. His vivid and vigorous style makes the tales jump off the page, causing such well-known stories as Snow White to seem new again. Deeply committed to his project, Pullman concludes each entry with notes on type, sources of variants, and brief insightful details on such topics as history, interpretation, and the implications of adaptations. This is a great collection to suggest to readers who are prompted by Gaiman (and Connolly) to revisit the fairy tales of their childhood.
Unnatural Creatures: Stories Selected by Neil Gaiman. HarperCollins. 2013. 462p. ed. by Neil Gaiman & Maria Dahvana Headley. ISBN 9780062236296. $17.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062236319.
Readers who appreciate Gaiman’s various creations in The Ocean at the End of the Lane will find many other amazing creatures—from bees to sunbirds to werewolves—in this collection of short stories gathered to support 826DC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children learn to write and to love writing. Gaiman and coeditor Maria Dahvana Headley have selected 16 stories from a wide range of contributors, including the cartoonist Gahan Wilson, Peter S. Beagle, Nnedi Okorafor, Anthony Boucher, Diana Wynne Jones, E. Lily Yu, and Gaiman himself. There is a plant from another dimension that remains frozen only so long as one keeps an eye on it; a griffin who teaches school and eats only twice a year; and Death, who has been invited to a ball. The stories range in length and tone, but each is a delight, be it silly, sad, or sinister.
Byatt, A.S. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. narrated by Harriet Walter. 4 CDs. library ed. unabridged. Brilliance Audio. 2012. ISBN 9781455852437. $54.97.
Gaiman is a wondrous audiobook narrator with flawless rhythm, vocal characterization, and gleefully expansive inflections that make listening to him read a pure joy. His fans may also enjoy Harriet Walter’s reading of A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, in which she retells the Norse myth about the end of the world by intercutting it with the story of a small child who is evacuated during World War II, leaving what is left of her family behind. Like Gaiman, Walter inhabits the novel and, with perfect timing and superb voice work, spins out the Norse tales, enveloping listeners in their enthralling grip and transporting them out of time to dwell among the gods as the world is destroyed. Walter also sensitively conjures the thoughts of the small child, a girl all but disconnected from the world save for her reading of the Norse myths, which aid in her struggles to make sense of her disorienting life and the unknowable fate of wartime Britain.
Cooper, Susan. Over Sea, Under Stone. narrated by Alex Jennings. 6 CDs. library ed. unabridged. Listening Library. 2007. ISBN 9780739361962. $34.
Audiobook fans might also want to consider Cooper’s magisterial “Dark Is Rising” series that begins with this story of three children—Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew—their uncle Merry; and their confrontation with the forces of evil on the coast of Cornwall. Reminiscent in tone and story line of the books Gaiman’s unnamed protagonist reads and models in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Cooper’s opening tale in this classic fantasy sequence for children pits Simon, Jane, and Barney against terrifying adults, and only through their bravery and intelligence do they triumph. Narrator Alex Jennings reads the novels with a wonderful drawl that evokes Gaiman’s own narrating style and also shares with him the brilliant ability to pace a sentence to draw out its emotional, mystical effect. His excellent vocal work makes each character sparkle while his obvious and joyful engagement with the story makes listening to him a pure pleasure.