Tag Archives: Britain

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Anansi Boys, the sequel to American Gods, has a decidedly different feel to it compared to its predecessor.  While American Gods had the feeling of a sweeping epic, Anansi Boys is the story of one particular young man.  This just goes to showcase the talent that Neil Gaiman possesses, because both books are exceptionally well-written.

Fat Charlie Nancy is our hapless protagonist, shifting as life forces him to move.  He gets bossed around at work.  His fiancée, Rosie, refuses to sleep with him until after they’re married.  The one aspect of his life that causes him the most trouble, however, is his father.  He spent most of his childhood being tricked, and, understandably, enjoyed the fact that his mother moved the two of them to England when he was a child, while his father stayed behind in Florida.

The real adventure starts when Fat Charlie’s father dies.  It is then that he learns that his father was a god — Anansi, the spider god — and also that he has a brother.  When, in an idle impulse, Fat Charlie asks a spider to bring his brother to him, his problems really start.  His brother, Spider, is everything Fat Charlie isn’t — confident, self-assured, and charming.  Spider also ends up in love with Rosie.  Fat Charlie’s frustration with his brother boils over, and his anger leads him to make a dangerous decision with unforeseen consequences.

Most likely the best thing about both Anansi Boys and American Gods is their use of traditional mythological characters while maintaining a realistic modern sensibility.  I’ve read books where the author has taken a mythological or religious theme and placed it in the modern day and made it cloying or cutesy; Anansi Boys is never either of those.  Rather, Gaiman’s novel has a sharpness to it that creates a sense of believability that is uncommon in books with fantastical components.

Another wonderful aspect of Gaiman’s writing is the lightness of it.  Even when characters are in peril and the pacing is fast, Gaiman’s prose is supple and flowing.  His use of humor is also quite smooth and rather dry, which goes well with the overall tone and subject of the book.

My only quibble is the ending, which I found a bit too neat.  That might just be me, thinking ahead to future books, but I would have liked a little more ambiguity in the final results of Fat Charlie’s story.  I also would have liked a stronger development of Fat Charlie’s boss, Grahame Coats, and his relationship to Tiger.  Until very close to the end, Gaiman didn’t discuss a direct relationship between the two; while this might have been because he wanted to create a surprise factor, it isn’t too terribly difficult to imagine, and I think the story might be more interesting if there were a more defined partnership between the two.

Overall, Anansi Boys is well worth the read, especially for its interesting take on magical realism and Gaiman’s strong writing.  The gods may be based on African ones, but the story belongs to us all.  Let’s take advantage of that.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it.  I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.

There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives.  She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel.  Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life.  Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will.  Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.

Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined.  Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications.  I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it.  Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology.  Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together.  I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.

The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted.  Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events.  The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.

But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself.  She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do.  She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar.  Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth.  More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child.  Lyra is not that, and will never be that.  She is, however, a remarkable child.  Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring.  Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.  They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later.  After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

There aren’t many epistolary novels around — the only one I can remember having read is Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, and that’s intended for children.  I think the plot of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was served well by the structure.  The nature of the story almost requires the input from many of the characters, and the idea of using letters to tell the story is a fresh way to go about this.  It made for a refreshing reading experience.

My favorite part of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the story of the German occupation of the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands.  I had no idea that any part of Great Britain was ever taken over by Nazi forces during World War II.  I found the story of the islanders compelling, and I believe it was made more so by the piecemeal way I had to put the story together.  The letters allowed me some of the history, but not all of it, and not all at once.  It’s a feeling that simulates, in a way, the way it might feel like to be in a war — never knowing exactly what had happened, getting the information you do get from all sorts of sources, some more reliable than others, and having to make the connections yourself as to what exactly did go down.  I absolutely love this part of the book.

I also like the characters.  Juliet, our heroine, is a cheerful and intensely curious woman.  The islanders are all diverse, but also have a cohesiveness to them that makes them realistic.  Juliet’s publisher, Sidney, and his sister are also present, but mainly as a device to allow Juliet to tell her story — they aren’t fully present, but I still like them.

My only issue with this book is that it is a pretty predictable romance — Juliet has a checkered past with romance.  Juliet is wooed by a man she’s not sure she loves.  Juliet runs away and finds a more suitable love interest.  I’ve read it before.  More interesting to me was the love story between a dead islander, Elizabeth, and a Nazi officer.  That story, I feel, should be the center of the book, because it’s so much more compelling.  I found myself not really caring about Juliet’s love life and, instead, wishing that things had turned out differently for Elizabeth.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is, overall, a sweet book with a unique story.  I don’t think it likely that a similar book will be written soon, and that’s a good thing.  Some stories deserve to stand on their own.

Rating: 4/5.

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Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? by Tom Holt

Tom Holt’s Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? is a silly caper story involving a hidden cache of Norsemen, an archaeology graduate student, and their journey together through Britain while trying not to gather too much attention — and failing.  It’s a story that reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld books, which means that it was an entertaining read involving quirky characters and a kooky plot.  This is a good thing.

The entire thing starts with the discovery of a Norse ship uncovered by a construction crew in Scotland.  A rather naive grad student, Hildy Frederiksen, is sent to check it out.  She’s excited to see that the boat is a complete specimen, goes back to her hotel, and then gets the urge to return to the mound.  Once there, she discovers the crew of the boat awake and walking around, which they most certainly should not be doing, having been buried there for twelve hundred years.

The crew really is a well-honed battle group whose slumber has been in place merely until the time is right to prevent a particularly bad person from doing … well, something particularly bad.  Hildy takes on the responsibility of finding food and clothing for the men, as well as shuttling them around and getting them acquainted with the modern world.  This last task, surprisingly, isn’t as hard as it would seem.  The Norsemen take modern technology in stride, thinking it the same as their magic; most likely it is, seeing as they have brooches they connect to electrically-charged chthonic spirits to make things happen.

Mixed in here is the story of Danny Bennett, a fluff-piece reporter who earnestly wishes to write something more substantial.  He stumbles on the Norse gentlemen, and his future gets entwined with theirs.  Also making an appearance is the enemy’s guy Friday, whose experiences help to fill in a little back story (and provides for some nail-biting).

I think this book is really quite good.  The writing is light, pulling just short of treating the plot as inconsequential.  Holt manages to give us a full story with some endearing characters experiencing something very surreal without it feeling like a fairy tale, which is nice.  The end feels as realistic as possible for a fantasy tale; things aren’t perfect, but they turn up good at the end.

A couple of things were a little off with the book, though.  I didn’t quite get why we needed the chthonic spirits (other than to give the plot something to turn on).  If they’re basically little living batteries, why can’t they use batteries when they discover them missing?  They managed to do that with the other brooch, so that was a little confusing.

I also felt like the book was a little light on substance.  It’s one thing to have a breezy feel.  It’s quite another to whisk the reader by points before they get a chance to sink in.  A slightly slower pace would have made Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? a little better.

The last problem I have with the book is that, without an interest in Norse history and literature, you might be a little lost during some sections of the book.  Sure, the person might know “Viking”, but I’m not sure how many know the mythology, the Eddas, and the sagas well enough to pull out some of the more interesting bits of the story.

Overall, though, Holt put together a delightfully humorous story about Norsemen in modern-day Britain.  This makes him okay in my book.

Rating: 4/5.

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders appears, on first glance, to be a standard piece of historical fiction geared toward women.  It features a strong heroine.  It spends a lot of its time dealing with tasks that are traditionally considered to be those of women: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, tending to the sick.  There’s some romance.  There’s the always-popular witch hunt when people become ill.  Yet to dismiss this book as simply another piece of historical fiction is to miss the extraordinary storytelling Brooks displays here.

Year of Wonders tells the story of a small English mining town beset by plague.  Anna Frith, our heroine, is a young wife and mother who escaped an abusive childhood home to find a short amount of happiness with Sam before her husband is killed in a mining accident, leaving her with two young boys.  She later takes in a lodger to make ends meet, who turns out to be carrying the plague.  Soon, her boys are both gone, and the village is taken in a wave of disease no one can stop.  The village, spurred by their minister, Michael Mompellion, takes the drastic step of sealing themselves off from the world, to avoid the spread of the disease.

A pretty standard story, after all.  I’ve heard it told before.  What makes Year of Wonders unique in a crowded field is Brooks’ gift for character development.  Anna is a full-rounded person, with a quickness of mind and a caring heart.  Yet she also takes some questionable actions, such as allowing her father to suffer when he is convicted of stealing from an ill man.  In other words, she’s human.  It’s interesting to be in her head and to see the events in the village unfold before her eyes.

Many of the other female characters are the same way.  Anys, the town’s younger healing woman, is brusque, yet, through her actions, Brooks indicates that she cares about the people she treats.  Elinor Mompellion, Michael Mompellion’s wife, is mild and gentle, but not without her secrets.  Brooks excels at showing us women in their entirety, which is better than most writers can manage.

Brooks’ word choice and description is wonderful, as well.  Her writing has a tone that is approachable, for the most part, but also contains vocabulary and phrasing that indicate to the reader the book is about a different time and a different place.

My main problem with Year of Wonders is in the development of some of the male characters.  Some fell a little flat.  I suppose they really aren’t the focus of the book, but it would be nice if they were their own people.  The only one I found compelling for a good amount of the book was Mr. Mompellion, but by the end of the book, I had little interest in him.  It’s too bad.  Their actions might have been more interesting if we knew about them as we went along, instead of afterward, like the childhood of Anna’s father, or not at all, such as her dead husband, Sam.

On the whole, though, Year of Wonders is a very good historical novel.  It felt well-thought-out, smooth, and realistic.  Those three things go quite a ways to making a book a worthy read, which this definitely is.

Rating: 4/5

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