Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on February 3, 2015, and is available to pre-order on Amazon.
There are still things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them, whether it’s on the web or the word or in the world. They never get easier, never stop my heart from trip-trapping, never let me escape, this time, unscathed. But they teach me things, and they open my eyes, and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change. 
There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you.
Many of those stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.
Writers being introspective about their writing is pure magic, which is why Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances is a must read, if only for its twenty page introduction. Gaiman writes about how this short story collection came into being, muses on how you need fiction to reveal hard truths to you and to see the world for what it is, and then he generously gives you some back-story on each story.
These are stories that are vivid and evocative and will make you think, for long hours after. The Thing About Cassandra is about a made-up girlfriend, a haunting story that could make you lonely and nostalgic and wonder if reality really is more than hazy wisps of memories. The Sleeper and the Spindle, which was first published as an illustrated fairy tale, is a rich retelling of Sleeping Beauty with a fabulously feminist twist. Down to A Sunless Sea is a short read, but one so filled with defeatist grief that it left me shuddering, and Gaiman’s trigger warning finally made sense. Here are things you don’t want to read about, that can and will horrify you, that are better left unread, that you therefore must read.
Often when I read short stories, I feel like it’s a lifetime badly crammed into a few pages. Every carefully chosen word goes against every haphazard detail of real life. Yet, the way short story plots easily twist and spin also seems unreal. Perhaps there is an art of reading a short story I should learn, a way to add credibility to this package of unreliable oddity bursting at its seams. Jerusalem is a story that could suffer from disconnectedness. It’s not traditional, and reads like something by A. S. Byatt. I think it survives because of its ending, which is refreshingly clear, practical. The story is about love and faith. It’s about unconditional acceptance too. It had something of a hold on me, specially, because the way it is written reassured me there’s more than garbled symbolism to “literary” fiction. 
The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury is a gem, incomparable in its desperate persistence. It’s about a man confronting a gradual loss of memory, of words, and ideas, and it’s an urgent plea to the world to remember the writer who showed us the power of books.

In The Truth Is A Cave in the Black Mountains, Gaiman has taken fairy tale tropes like heroes, quests and lost fathers and put a spin on them. This is a bleak Dickensian tale of cold vengeance. It’s an intriguing story. As is Kether to Malkuth, a delicately woven tale about an old duke and his search of meaning. These are what I know and love Gaiman for, the dire but charming fantasies.
Orange is a story written in the form of answers to a questionnaire. It’s a highly experimental structure and a dark absurd story. A girl answers a top-secret-government-business-sounding questionnaire, detailing an incident where her sister apparently turned into a giant orange blob of light. You don’t know the questions, which would make this an interesting book club read. It would be endlessly fascinating to see every reader fill in the blanks constructing her own unique versions of the events.
Other favourites of the collection: Feminine Endings – a chilling love letter written by a man who poses as a statue, Adventure Story – a quirky whimsical tale that will appeal to everyone with a mother, Click-Clack the Rattlebag – a disconcertingly simple horror tale, and And Weep, Like Alexander, a moral story like no other. It’s a treat to revisit the Doctor and Amy in Nothing O’Clock, and the occasional poem comes as a welcome change. 
But for all the great stories, Trigger Warning is a mixed bag. Sometimes Gaiman’s writing seems so pointless, you have to remind yourself it’s probably not and sieve the text for deeper implications. Not every story in this collection makes me call him, with full conviction, a good writer. Some stories have lost their way, some require too much effort from the reader and others are grand attempts that have ended up, for lack of a better word, flimsy. 
The charm of this collection, which you may call haphazard in style and genre, lies in its variety: it is deliciously eclectic. And that’s the thing about Neil Gaiman: you just cannot nail down his style. He’s the king of unpredictable. There are stories in this collection, fables steeped in mythology, which seem very typically Gaiman until, one unique tale pops up that leaves you stunned and somehow devastated, because you had only just begun to believe that you knew him. 
So, I would recommend this book to those who have read Gaiman, have already once been caught unaware by his genius and are eager for more. Trigger Warning is a must read for fans. It’s probably not the best place to start for curious first-time explorers of his works.

Re-reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman

My plan was to finish reading this during the R.I.P. Challenge, but these days I suffer from no time. It took me over a month to read the book, but what a month.

“Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.” 
Summary: Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.
My thoughts: When I first read American Gods, it was all new to me. The word I
used to describe the book was fascinating. That’s not the right word to
describe the book. Gaiman is fascinating. As are The Graveyard Book, Coraline,
Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. American Gods is disturbing, strange, real and not fascinating. I did
like the book then, but not as I should have, because it is a book that would
not make complete sense if it were new to you, or you new to it.

Some would say Gaiman’s writing is an acquired taste – but I don’t
agree with that either. Though loaded with allusions in this book, his writing style is basically direct. His snippets of insight into people and places are universally relatable. But a reader of American Gods should have a knowledge of mythology and
appreciation of storytelling. You can’t afford to be world-weary, rather be world-wise. You cannot be hesitant in your approach to
it and you cannot expect to fall in love with it. American Gods shouldn’t be
your first taste of its genre of dark, bleak humour and whatever you call it. It is a book better read slowly than devoured and best enjoyed on a
second or third reading.

The old gods in American Gods are delightful. Wednesday (think Woden’s Day) is your typical high-minded deity: cruel, careless and vindictive, not to mention, nosy. He loves his power and his care for people holds only so far as it is reciprocated. The old gods are only impressions of their original versions worshipped across the world, carried to the shores of America through half-remembered tales and customs of their native people. So they all have a bit of America in them, from their people slowly merging with the new world. Wednesday, Low-key, Nancy, Jacquel and Ibis, for instance, make wonderful retold approaches to the old Norse and African biggies. And there are so many smaller gods, smaller myths, every character has a purpose (a counterpart) and I can’t even imagine what treasure chests of knowledge Gaiman’s mind must hold. The new Gods are, well, they are perfect mirrors of the new world, not altogether pleasant.
But more than the gods, American Gods is about people. American Gods is about belief, and how limiting it could be. It also attempts to show the power of stories. Stories are alive, they change as the tellers grow, and the world changes too. Gaiman tells us some of these stories, some old tales of the gods who then travelled across the world with their believers. It’s when it talks about belief and stories that American Gods reminds me of Terry Pratchett and his books that do an infinitely better job portraying the ideas – like Small Gods and Hogfather, and even Good Omens for that matter.

“This is the only country in the world,” said Wednesday, into the stillness, “that worries about what it is.”

“The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.” 

American Gods is a nostalgic look at America, which is a character all by itself. The mixing of religions and the alienation, the insiders and the misfits, the otherworldliness, the disconnectedness in geography and culture, everything that comes under Americana, is built with mastery. It is about the absurd beauty of myths, about nightmares and dreams taking flesh and blood form, about the horrors that unarguably pour out of our own minds. It deals with death in a manner no book I have ever read has. The book is cold and blunt and emotional at the same time. It’s very essence lies in its secrets; it has more than one thing to say and you can be never be quite sure of them all. It is perfect, almost.
Why? Ok, the thing that makes me not like American Gods is that it is too commercialized, sensationalized. The subtlety that Gaiman is capable of is absent. It isn’t simply the
emphasis on “anything can happen” that makes Gaiman put it all out there – the loud, brazen, dirty seems at times like a
deliberate genre-defining kind of addition, and that’s where American Gods gets on
my nerves. It reads attention-seeking in parts, and by extension, dishonest. The climax,
as with so many books of this great a scope, is a little disappointing. Not
because it isn’t a resolution I wanted, it is. But the writing loses its
lucidity, its clarity towards the end and the finale is a rushed affair.

I’ve been told I should read his novella The Monarch of the Glen, from Fragile Things, to get closure for Shadow. Maybe I will. Meanwhile, now that I am done ranting, I would love to know what you make of this book. Some books are meant to be reread. Do you agree?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home for a funeral. When he visits the Hempstocks’ farmhouse at the end of the lane and sits at the pond, the smudged memories of his childhood become clear and he knows that the pond is, in fact, an ocean; and he remembers Lettie Hempstock, the girl who promised to protect him to the very end. Memories of dark creatures and immortal women buried in his mind for forty years surface. The narrator recollects the nightmarish events that followed when a man committed suicide in his father’s car. We see a scary, strange world on the brink of reality through the eyes of a helpless little boy.
This wasn’t like American Gods, which in all honesty, isn’t my favourite book by Gaiman. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is like Coraline; simple, haunting, eerily charming, something which lingers on your mind long after you’re done with it. It’s about childhood, the horrors of growing up. The writing is vivid, like The Graveyard Book; but this is not a book for children, it’s mature and bitingly honest. And despite the absurd and the dark, it is still somehow happy.  And brilliant.
“I do not miss childhood, but I do miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from the things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”
Is that enough of a review? Because the fact is, I haven’t been able to come up with much else in the entire week that this post has been sitting in my drafts, collecting virtual dust. What else could I say? It’s a tiny story with an immense scope. Read it.

Audiobooks vs. ‘the Real Thing’

I never did like the idea of listening to books. At the risk of sounding kind of poetic, let me just say, I like the process that goes on in my head when I read – letting the words sink in, hearing them in my own voice inside my head. Going back and reading that last line and understanding it better, knowing what happens next. It’s a great experience. And something I get to enjoy without having to meet/talk or listen to other people.

Being read aloud to was fun only till I couldn’t read myself, and the one reading to me was my grandmother. When someone reads aloud to you; they are interpreting the lines in their own style. They might not pause just right or chuckle at the right time. As a reader, I like the freedom the author gives me in a book; the chance to use my own imagination. I’d rather not have a narrator steal that from me.

On the other hand; there are those practical, non-poetic advantages of an audiobook. You can read it while driving, while standing in queues, when you’re forced to go shopping with your friends. An audiobook can come in quite handy when you’re at a family function, gloomily listening to your relatives gossip. Which is why I decided to skip the skepticism and actually listen to an audiobook first. I chose to ‘read’ Mirrormask by Neil Gaiman, narrated quite nicely by Stephanie Leonidas.

Would I have liked it more had I actually read it? Probably not.
Mirrormask was a beautiful book, very imaginative and it had the kind of story that works better as a movie, anyway. The narration was great, and since you do not require too much concentration for a fantasy story like that, I’d say an audiobook worked quite well.

Does this mean I now like audiobooks? Not really.
There are a thousand things that could go wrong – one of the worst being an incompetent narrator. Another thing I’d hate is if the book were abridged – even by a sentence.
I also think the first person perspective played a big part in making Mirrormask good. One point of view, one voice. When there are too many dialogues and too many characters; each with a different voice, I would find it very distracting to have to figure out who is speaking every time. If one person pretends to be seven different characters with seven different voices; don’t even get me started on how wrong that could go.

Listening to an audiobook is like watching a movie without the video and reading a book, without the, well, pages – neither of which I’d be particularly eager spend money on!

Mr. Nancy (American Gods)

Someone asked me which my favourite Neil Gaiman book was and I immediately thought of an old man wearing yellow gloves, with a wheezing, cackling laugh and a faint West Indian-ish twang in his voice. Anansi Boys. I am re-reading it right now.

We all know Anansi as the trickster Spider-god brought to America by the African slaves. I first ‘met’ Mr. Nancy in his checkered suit, smoking a thin cigar in Gaiman’s earthbound-deities novel American Gods. And then in Anansi Boys, as the father of Fat Charlie Nancy, the one who spends his entire life chasing women, embarrassing his son, Fat Charlie, and then drops dead on a karaoke stage following a particularly hilarious performance.

Mr. Nancy, the humorous story teller, doesn’t have much stage time in American Gods, but he does have a strong presence. He is fun, and relaxed and has the best lines.

“They don’t look very friendly,” said Nancy. “A story’s a good way of gettin’ someone on your side. And you don’t have a bard to sing to them.”

As for Anansi, well… (I couldn’t say it better if I tried)

“Olden days, all the animals wanted to have stories named after them, back in the days when the songs that sung the world were still being sung, back when they were still singing the sky and the rainbow and the ocean. It was in those days when animals were people as well as animals that Anansi the spider tricked all of them, especially Tiger, because he wanted all the stories named after him.

Stories are like spiders, with all their long legs, and stories are like spiderwebs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look so pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew, and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each.

What’s that? You want to know if Anansi looked like a spider? Sure he did, except when he looked like a man.

No, he never changed his shape. It’s just a matter of how you tell the story. That’s all.”

The increasing gossip about the American Gods HBO series is making me wonder who they will cast as Mr. Nancy. And despite the numerous online votes for Morgan Freeman, I just don’t see him pull off an Anansi. Speaking of which, I am really looking forward to this series, if there is going to be one, for a lot of the other awesome characters like Laura, Low-key, Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis and Sam Black Crow.

Character Connection is a bookish meme hosted on The Introverted Reader.

Stardust on the road!

Starting with this poem, which I’d first read in a Diana Wynne Jones novel, I spent the better part of a fourteen hour journey reading another simply amazing book by Neil Gaiman; Stardust.

When I was reading Stardust, I was actually transported back to my childhood. It is a fairy tale for adults, and a great one at that!

“A philosopher once asked, “Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?”

Pointless, really…”Do the stars gaze back?” Now that’s a question.”

Stardust is a fantasy novel written by Neil Gaiman in 1998. It is quite different from his usual books, written in a more traditional fairy-tale-like style.

Stardust is the story of a young man named Tristan Thorn. He lives in Wall, a village situated on the border of our world and the realm of Faerie. The village is separated from Faerie by a long and high wall, which no one crosses. One day a distant star falls down to the earth, and Tristan Thorn sets out into Faerie to retrieve this star for the one he loves. But as fairy tales go, this adventure isn’t very easy, and Tristan Thorn certainly isn’t the only one looking for the star.

“It was a violet, and it chinkled and sang as he held it, making a noise similar to that produced by wetting a finger and rubbing it, gently, around a wineglass.”

I absolutely adored the way this tale was written. I was reminded of a quote from Stephen King’s On Writing – you must be able to describe things in a way that will cause your reading to prickle with recognition. I think Neil Gaiman does just that.

I liked getting to experience another one of Gaiman’s amazingly unique worlds. Faerie is nothing like you expect and everything that you want all at the same time! It is a wonderful play on all the cliches in fantasy. Not to mention, that subtle, makes-you-chuckle humour made this book all the more enjoyable. It’s another Gaiman novel that I’d recommend in a heartbeat!

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

“As a rule, Fat Charlie felt embarrassment in his teeth, and in the upper pit of his stomach. If something that even looked like it might be embarrassing was about to happen on his television screen Fat Charlie would leap up and turn it off. If that was not possible, say if other people were present, he would leave the room on some pretext and wait until the moment of embarrassment was sure to be over.”

Anansi Boys is a novel by Neil Gaiman. This is the story of Charles Nancy, son of Anansi. Despite being perfectly normal sized, he is known to all as Fat Charlie. 
Those of you, who have read American Gods know Mr. Nancy quite well; And, those of you, who haven’t read American Gods, should.

Rating: 4/5

“God is dead – meet the kids”

Summary: Fat Charlie hasn’t met his father in ages. When he finally agrees to invite his Dad to his wedding, he learns that he has, in fact, recently passed away. Fat Charlie reluctantly goes home to his father’s funeral, not knowing the chaos about to ensue in his life. Accidentally crashing and ruining someone else’s funeral is the least of his worries, because soon Fat Charlie learns not only that he has a brother he never knew about, but also that his father was Anansi, the Spider-god.

Soon, after getting kicked out of his own house and life by his brother Spider, Charlie realizes the full extent of his troubles. After some wonder, much magic and trickery and a load of family troubles, Fat Charlie finally begins to accept and understand his heritage and destiny.

My thoughts: I enjoyed this book. First of all, it is fun and funny. You just can’t help but chuckle after every two sentences. I loved the combination of dark humour and wit.

It is also very engaging. In a wonderfully mystical and slightly eccentric world, Gaiman has spun together a magical story, adding bits of mythology and folklore along the way. If you think about it, though, the plot is normal and the characters are like you and me, people you can actually relate to – they just happen to be gods too; that’s all. There is much more to the book than African legends and children’s stories – you learn about family and courage, and most of all, you learn that everyone has the power to rewrite their story.

This book is very different from American Gods. It is light hearted and much less complex. It may not be my favourite Neil Gaiman book, but it is definitely worth a read (and some re-reads!)

Writing about Writing about writing!

Hasn’t every writer written sometime or another, about writing itself. You know, like the art.

Like Elmore Leonard, for instance (whom I only know as the guy Stephen King called “the great American writer”), in his Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing:

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle (I wasn’t keen on reading it till I read the last word of the title. Do read the article!):

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”

I had to, too! In case you’re curious, it means “to affirm”!

John Grisham keeps it (a bit too) simple. He tells young ambitious budding writers to write a page a day as a hobby, for starters! Does it work? You wish. I have done that since I was like three. Have you ever seen me write anything even remotely resembling awesome crime fiction? Sigh.

After reading a bunch of other rules by a bunch of other famous writers, I felt like I had accidentally stepped into the world of the ever useful self-help books. Of course, then I read what Neil Gaiman had to say:

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

This was the least helpful (i.e You don’t get the kind of help from this that you naturally begin to expect in the world of self-help books – even though that help isn’t really help, but you just don’t realize this while you’re still in that world!) and the most helpful (i.e It brought me back from the world of self-help books to the normal world, where it is actually the ‘self’ that helps the ‘self’!) So, this, as far as I am concerned, makes the most sense. What about you?

Need a Cliffs Notes version to make some sense of this seemingly random ramble? Want to be a writer?

Writing is a good place to start. Off you go!

Unless, of course, you still have that little spark left in you, that tells you there might just be something you left out. Like a secret ingredient that will make you an awesome writer, or something. In that case, do what I’m doing, though I’m not doing it for that reason. *vehemently shakes head*

Reading “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King. An autobiography and writing guide, which might as well end up on my “Favourite Books Ever” list!

Teaser Tuesday #5

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

  • I am almost done with American Gods by Neil Gaiman and I am already recommending it to any person who cares to listen. I won’t go on to give a review till I’m done with the book; and in any case most fantasy fans must have already read it. The remnants of the gods of the old world are fading away as people’s belief wanes, to be replaced by the new gods of today’s world. But they won’t give up easy. Beneath the every day troubles of the mortals a real war is taking shape. And Shadow, right after being released from prison, seems to have stumbled his way right into the middle of it.

    I couldn’t even put the fascinating book down, till right now, to write this post. Here are my teasers (hardly two sentences, but what the hell):

    “Odin’s Wain, they call it. And the Great Bear. Where we come from, we believe that is a, a thing, a, not a god, but like a god, a bad thing, chained up in those stars. If it escapes, it will eat the whole of everything. And there are three sisters who must watch the sky, all the day, all the night. If he escapes, the thing in the stars, the world is over. Pf!, like that.”
    “My mom used to say, ‘Life isn’t fair,’ ” said Shadow.

    “Of course she did,” said Wednesday. “It’s one of those things that moms say, right up there with ‘If all your friends jumped off a cliff would you do it too?’

    Good Omens – Book Review

    It is time for yet another book review! The book in question is Good Omens (The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch) by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

    The world is going to end soon; next Saturday, to be precise, right after tea! Anathema Device is a witch. Newton Pulsifer is a witch hunter. They team up to stop the Apocalypse that the seventeenth century prophetess, Agnes Nutter has predicted in her Nice and Accurate Prophecies (where nice means precise). And they aren’t the only ones.

    Crowley the demon and Aziraphale the angel, are representatives of Good and Evil stationed on the earth. As the End-of-Times is nearing, they seem to be in a bit of a mess. Not only have the managed to develop a liking for the earth, but they have also lost the one who is supposed to bring about the Armageddon – the Antichrist (who is an entirely different 11 year old boy from the one they thought was the actual son of Satan!)

    While a whole lot of people, including the Four Horsemen (Bikers) of the Apocalypse are out to track the Antichrist, somewhere an 11 year old boy is naively using powers he doesn’t know he possesses to change the world according to his will.

    Before you know it, you are transported into a zany, faced-paced, indescribably awesome world, full of characters so surreal; they might as well walk right out of the book. Who knew the Apocalypse would be so funny!

    Aziraphale stared out at the rushing hedgerows.
    “It all seems so peaceful,” he said. “How do you think it will happen?”
    “Well, thermonuclear extinction has always been very popular. Although I must say the big boys are being quite polite to each other at the moment.” said Crowley.
    “Asteroid strike?” said Aziraphale. “Quite the fashion these days, I understand. Strike into the Indian Ocean, great big cloud of dust and vapor, goodbye all higher life forms.”
    “Wow,” said Crowley.
    “Doesn’t bear thinking about it, does it,” said Aziraphale gloomily.
    “All the higher life forms scythed away, just like that.”
    “Nothing but dust and fundamentalists.”
    “That was nasty.”
    “Sorry. Couldn’t resist it.”

    The book is ‘ineffable’. That’s what it is.