A Review of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

This is apparently my 55th review on this blog. I probably should have made a bigger deal of #50, but I wasn’t paying attention and it slipped past unnoticed. (It was “Lost Lake” by Sarah Addison Allen, in case you were wondering.)

I have procrastinated in writing this review. I wanted to like this book more than I did, because I like Neil Gaiman.

Actually, I think Neil Gaiman is a really excellent specimen of a human being, a great author, a very creative mind. He’s good people.

That’s why I feel uncomfortable saying that I was not entirely impressed by this book.

cover art image courtesy of goodreads.com

There’s nothing wrong with “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”  I enjoyed a lot of the elements, but together, they just didn’t make a final product that satisfied me.

This book confused me. The narration comes from a man at two different stages of his life-in his forties, and at seven. When the younger self is narrating, it isn’t fully the perspective of a child that the reader is given. There is more maturity than one would get from a little boy, so it would seem to be the adult’s memories of the child’s experiences.

To be honest, whether or not the adult truly remembers the events from his childhood is perplexing. His memory is unreliable, and that complicated the story for me. Perhaps that was intentional. It was certainly interesting.

When tragedy struck in the boy’s life, he discovered that there was more to the world than he had previously been aware of. He became acquainted with a family living down the street from him, three generations of women, who seemed to have supernatural characteristics and abilities.

The events following the tragedy became intense quite quickly, and there was clearly magic afoot, but the rules and boundaries of the universe Mr. Gaiman has created in this story are unclear.

An otherworldly force broke free of its holds and introduced itself into the boy’s life as a human woman, and only he and the neighboring family of Hempstock women, the youngest of which is an 11-year-old named Lettie, were aware that the woman was not what she was representing herself as.

The woman who wasn’t human called herself Ursula and managed to get herself installed into the boy’s family as a babysitter/nanny for him and his sister. He knew she was a threat, and he was terrified of her as she began to take over various parts of his life, including seducing his father.

This book is difficult to review. I am having a difficult time describing the plot, because I never felt entirely certain of what was going on.

It’s possible that the confusion was carefully crafted by the author, given the fact that the narrator was seven years old and frightened, unable to understand the full scope of the situation he was in.

I didn’t find it to be a successfully told story, either way. As I said before, the narration did not seem to be the authentic voice of a 7-year-old, but neither did it seem to come from a fully-grown man in his forties.

Sometimes a book with a child narrator is structured in such a way as to give the reader more information about events and circumstances than the narrator himself has, and I think that would have been helpful in this case.

For me, not being able to piece together what was or was not possible in the world of this book was frustrating, rather than mysterious and intriguing.

This is a complaint that I have made about other fantasy books — I want the author to make the rules clear. If there is magic, I want to know how it works, who can use it, why it’s there.

According to the acknowledgements at the end of the book, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” was originally intended to be a short story. That makes sense to me. It has more of a short story feel than a novel, but in gaining length, it wandered into a fuzzy in-between territory that felt awkward.

I think this book needed expansion. There was nothing about it that I actually disliked, but there were pieces missing, pieces that I felt were needed to make a coherent picture. I wanted more than what was there.

I wanted to get to know the Hempstock women better. I wanted to better understand the parallel worlds that seemed to exist, and the creatures that had the ability to cross the boundaries.

I felt teased by elements that hinted of a very good story that was slightly out of reach. I felt unfulfilled.

I feel bad about writing an unfavorable review simply because I wanted more of what was already there.

I wish I could have written a better review, one with a little more clarity, but I did the best I could with such muddled feelings about the book.

I can say with certainty that I will be reading more from Mr. Gaiman, because even though this particular story didn’t work for me, I think he is talented and intelligent, and I am interested in what else he has to offer.

 

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A Review of “Survivor” by Chuck Palahniuk

When you read more than one book by a single author, it’s somewhat inevitable that you will end up comparing the books to each other. In most cases, I end up comparing everything by that author to the first book of theirs that I read.

Chuck Palahniuk will never be able to escape “Fight Club.” I know I’m not the only reader to hold all of his other books up against the high standard he set with his debut novel.

He has written quite a few books since his first, and I have not read even close to all of them. The ones I have read in the past are “Choke,” “Lullaby,” and “Invisible Monsters.”

I’m also not the only reader to notice a certain feel that runs through Mr. Palahniuk’s books, even without having read them all. They are not all the same, as some people claim, but there is a good chance that, having read one Palahniuk book, you would recognize another without knowing the author ahead of time.

It has been a while since I read a book by Mr. Palahniuk–several years, I’m sure. I’m a little hazy on the details, but my impression is that “Survivor” is closer to “Fight Club” than the others, with the possible exception of “Choke.” There are some strong similarities in the personalities of the main characters, and the general feeling of nihilism in the narrative.

“Survivor” is a jarring book. It is unsettling. There are a lot of people in the world who simply would not enjoy it. It’s not going to leave anyone with a pleasant glow.

Though at times it feels as though he is beating a dead horse, Mr. Palahniuk has made edginess into an art form. If you find yourself laughing while reading “Survivor,” you’re probably going to feel instantly uncomfortable about having done so.

Internet etiquette dictates that I issue a content warning for certain upsetting subjects, so at this point, I’ll say that I’m going to mention suicide soon, as it is one of the main themes of the book.

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In “Survivor,” the narrator and questionable protagonist is a young man called Tender Branson, one of the few remaining members of a religious cult, the “Creedish,” with Amish-like tendencies. He was living in the “outside world” when he learned that the majority of the cult’s membership committed group suicide to avoid complications with law enforcement.

As non-resident Creedish folks learn about the core group’s deaths, their numbers begin to drop off, as they succumb to the cult’s religious teachings about suicide. The so-called survivors of the Creedish are assigned case workers by the government in an attempt to stop them from killing themselves.

Tender Branson is living a relatively quiet life cleaning the houses of affluent people, meeting with his caseworker as she continually diagnoses and treats him for mental disorders he may or may not have. He is not open with her about his true feelings, so she has no real information to go on. If he was honest with her, she could have had a field day working through all his issues.

The book does not adhere to a neat timeline, and begins at the end of the main character’s life. The story opens with him on a plane that he has hijacked, with all the passengers gone and the pilot about to parachute himself to assumed safety. Tender is telling his tale to the black box on the plane, waiting for the engines to fail and for the plane to fall to its destruction with him inside.

After beginning at the end, Tender brings the reader (or whoever is listening to the black box) back to an earlier moment in his life, though not really a coherent starting point.

It quickly becomes clear that to spice up his otherwise dull existence, and for other, more complicated emotional reasons, the narrator has posted his personal phone number publicly under the false pretense of being a suicide hotline. Speaking to people who are in a crisis has become a form of entertainment for him, as is his process of deciding exactly what to say to the distraught callers.

Just shy of halfway through the book, the gears change. (It’s difficult to tell exactly how far into the book anything happens, because of the gimmicky way the pages are numbered in reverse.)

In the midst of a messy situation involving the death of his caseworker, Tender finds himself in the center of a media buzz, being contacted by a publicity agent, as it has become public knowledge that he is the last surviving member of the Creedish cult.

The world now wants to see more of Tender, and his agent takes the reins, molding him into a tv-friendly persona, coaching him, drugging him, doing what it takes to get him ready for life as a messianic public figure.

At this point, the story went a little off the rails, in my opinion. The narrator fully acknowledges that he simply wants someone, anyone, to tell him what to do, so that he doesn’t have to think for himself. I found that that made for an uninteresting character. He had already been sorely lacking in humanity, but in becoming famous, he also becomes little more than an empty shell.

“Survivor” contains quite a lot of sharp social commentary, which is smart and darkly amusing, but eventually each additional biting remark begins to feel like it’s being shoved in my face. A certain amount of satire is refreshing and eye-opening, but after a while, it seems as though Mr. Palahniuk believes that a reader needs to be continually shocked and/or disillusioned to remain engaged.

Overall, this was an entertaining book, but I don’t think I’d read it again. I own a copy of “Fight Club,” have read it more than once, and would happily read it again. I think I’d read “Choke” again, as well, but this one felt a bit as though the author was trying too hard.

It did have a fair amount of competent writing, black humor, and smart observation. I would recommend it to someone who feels the need to be shaken up some, but if you haven’t already, my advice is to read “Fight Club” first.

 

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Tracks by Robyn Davidson

I’m out of the habit of reviewing, so my next few reviews may be short ones.

I watched the recent film adaptation of “Tracks” before I read the book, even though I already had a copy of the 2012 edition (with new postscript).

cover image courtesy of GoodReads.com

I try very hard not to be negative when I review books. Writing is hard. Writing a book is even harder. Everyone who manages to publish a book has done something admirable and worthy of respect.

With that said, some books are better than others, and some author-narrators are simply more likable and relatable than others.

If you read any other reviews of “Tracks,” you will likely come across the question, “why??”

This is one of the main issues with the book and the story. This is not a novel, so there can be no plot holes, but a memoir of a journey with no explanation of the reasons the journey was taken is a bit confusing.

Ms. Davidson undertook a huge challenge, and she maintained a high level of integrity in regards to her original intentions of the trip and how the trip actually played out. She had to make some sacrifices for financing and safety, but ultimately, she did what she set out to do–walk across the Australian desert with four camels and a dog. It’s really quite impressive. It took a great deal of fortitude.

It’s simply hard to understand exactly why she did it.

Fortunately, even without the underlying reason, Ms. Davidson’s account of her adventure is exciting, enthralling, and memorable. Her writing is clear and compelling, skillful and mature.

There is a major issue I have with this book, which is a personal response, directly related to the beliefs and values I bring to the table when I read any book. We all read through our own filters of experience and personality.

The author claims to treat her camels “like glass,” to spoil them and coddle them. She expresses adoration for them, and recognizes humanlike traits in their behavior. She does, however, beat them. At times, it’s merciless and completely out of control.

She acknowledges that she loses it sometimes when she disciplines or punishes them, and then feels remorse, but that doesn’t undo or excuse the abuse.

The task she set for these animals was arduous. She had them heavily laden with all her necessary belongings, and brought them through territory that had inadequate food and water. Her camels lost considerable weight during the trek, especially the one who was nursing her baby during the journey.

Ms. Davidson attempted to stop the baby from nursing once she had determined that it was too old to need its mothers milk, because the mother was allowing herself to waste away in order to feed her offspring.

This seemed unnecessarily cruel to me. To bring a nursing mother and her baby on the journey appeared impractical to me, and the author would not have needed to prevent the mother from weaning on her own schedule if she had not demanded so much from the animals and found that it was taking too hard a toll on the mother camel.

Ultimately, the lack of stated reason for such an immense undertaking was problematic for me because of the stress on the camels. Ms. Davidson “broke” feral camels, piled them high with food and personal items, half-starved them, and worked them to exhaustion, for what?

Simply to satisfy some angsty urge–a very middle-class white urge, if I might add–that she won’t even divulge in her detailed account of the experience.

Not only that, but she killed several bull camels that she encountered while out in the desert, fearing for her safety. If she hadn’t taken it upon herself to be out there on her own for no logical reason, she would not have needed to end those lives. It was a complete waste, necessary only as a result of her self-serving escapade.

Putting all that aside, as much as possible, Ms. Davidson does display a very strong empathy for the displaced black aboriginal people of Australia, and brings a great deal of attention to their status and treatment.

With all things considered, this aspect of the book makes it worth reading. I learned quite a bit about the culture and history.

I want to repeat and emphasize that this was a well-written and absorbing memoir, with good information and food for thought. I simply could not feel much compassion for or interest in the author herself.

In my opinion, the film paints a much more palatable picture of Ms. Davidson, though still exposing some of her shortcomings.

For the cultural backdrop and political history, I recommend the book. For the story itself, the travel and adventure aspect of the thing, I recommend the movie.

image source: heyuguys.com

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A Review of “The Boston Girl”

I just finished reading Anita Diamant‘s newest novel, “The Boston Girl.”

cover image courtesy of author’s website

The book’s main character, Addie Baum, tells the story of her life to her granddaughter, who is interviewing her about ‘how she got to be the woman she is today.’

The narrator’s life story begins in 1915 and moves through sequential years up until 1931, when she begins summing up the rest of her life.

Addie’s young adult life is not terribly different from a modern girl’s life, full of romantic disappointment, fierce friendship, an unrewarding relationship with her parents, tragedy, various jobs, and ultimately a lasting love.

The cultural rules have changed somewhat, and the dress code, but the story of a woman finding her own way in life is a timeless one.

The book was engrossing and very well written. While I did not find myself as interested in the narrator herself as I was in some of the supporting characters, I was invested in the story and continued to want to know what would happen next. Watching Addie defy the roles her parents, as well as the rest of society, wanted her to fit into, and discover how to make her own happiness, was gratifying.

Her friendships with a group of girls, a library group, called the Saturday Club, encompass a large part of the story. These relationships were probably the biggest influence on Addie’s life, helping to form her into the woman she would later become.

This book, in part, is a story about the connections between women, and their indefatigable strength in supporting one another through hardships and success. The girls from the Saturday club were likely the most important people in Addie’s world, and they remained with her into old age.

This theme of camaraderie among women brings to mind Diamant’s other well-loved work, “The Red Tent,” which was the first book of hers that I read, and which I deeply enjoyed.

“The Boston Girl” was not as satisfying as “The Red Tent,” but it was a fondly drawn portrait of a New England city and a lovely tribute to female bonding.

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A Review of The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris

Many authors who have written multiple books are recognizable not just by their style, but by common themes that reappear in each novel.

Given that Jenny Colgan has written so very many books, I expected to find at least a little recycling. Thus, I was surprised by the uniqueness of “The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris.”

 

cover art courtesy of Goodreads.com

I had anticipated that it would not be too terribly different from “Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe” — similar characters, similar romantic circumstances, similarly based around food, but set in a different country.

I was looking forward to a book filled with all the things I imagine France and Paris to be, and I was not disappointed. The cultural setting is more predominant than the geographical, but both are given more than adequate attention, without detracting from the narrative.

This is a story about food and love, yes. There are people who don’t know that they are right for each other, and people who do know that they are right for each other. It is so much more than that, however.

There is a rather wide cast of characters, but each one is given as full a personality as their importance to the plot allows and/or dictates.

There is a personal growth and increasing sense of confidence in the main character that is satisfying to witness. She is likable, she is relatable, and she has a respectable moral compass.

There are mishaps, there is sex (they are, after all, in France), and there is humor, but it is applied judiciously and does not cheapen the book.

The secondary main character’s own tale is bittersweet. The happy parts are absolutely luscious, and though we know all along that hers is ultimately going to be a sad story, it is handled with grace and tenderness, and it ends up being somehow gratifying.

Jenny Colgan is a much better writer than one might think, given her genre and subject material. Her stories seem simple enough at first glance, like fluff, but (and I may have said this about the last book of hers that I read) there is an unexpected complexity and richness in her storytelling.

I truly enjoyed “The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris.” There was a great deal of sheer pleasure in it for me, with all the people going around being French, speaking French, eating like French people… that sort of thing.

I also found myself quite involved in the plot — really invested in the characters, and curious to know what they would do next — because it wasn’t formulaic, not at all.

I don’t have anything critical to say about this book. It didn’t blow me away, but it was honestly very good. I’m going to read more from this author, and I believe I’m going to enjoy myself doing it.

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A review of “Lost Lake”

If you’ve been keeping up with my reviews, you know I’ve been reading all the Sarah Addison Allen books I can get my hands on. I suppose I’ve been chasing that first high that I got from “Garden Spells.”

I’ve enjoyed her later works, but they’ve not had the same charm for me. Her most recent novel is the one I just finished. I think I’m all caught up at this point.

I really don’t like saying this about any book, but “Lost Lake” was a little bit of a let-down for me.

image courtesy of author’s website

The first thing that got under my skin was the lack of editing. This was the first edition hardcover, and it should have been tidied up better.

The phrase “could care less” was used. This is a pet peeve of mine. There is quite a bit of controversy over it, and I am in the “couldn’t care less” camp.

Regardless of which one you think is right, the fact that it’s such a bone of contention among readers and writers, and that people like myself are so snobbish about it, well, that would steer me away from using it.

There were a few spelling errors in the book, as well. One of these really bothered me, as it indicated a lack of understanding of the actual meaning of the word.  A blond child was described as a “toe-headed girl.”

altered image courtesy of Flickr user Ben Andreas Harding

altered image courtesy of Flickr user Alejandro C.

That’s just silly. Towheaded is the word you were looking for. I know I’m nitpicking (which is an unpleasant metaphor), but these are avoidable mistakes, and they detract from my enjoyment of a book.

While I’m being fussy, I’d like to say one thing about Ms. Allen’s style that has bothered me from the very first book — I strongly, strongly dislike sentence fragments.

This is a technique that many authors use for some sort of dramatic effect. I think it’s preferable for one’s words to have their own impact without having to resort to splitting up a sentence with a full stop, and in some cases even a carriage return. It smacks of laziness. There are ways to make your point while staying within the realm of traditional syntax.

I get frustrated. I expect more from authors, especially ones with multiple published novels under their belts. Sometimes I just can’t overcome the urge to address these things.

Despite the technical stuff, and the recurring reluctant romance themes in her stories, Sarah Addison Allen has a very unique imagination a great deal of creativity.

The magical happenings and gifts people have in her novels are fresh and new ideas, which makes the stories so fun — but the fun part in this one is rather dampened.

“Lost Lake” started out with so much bereavement. There are characters who have died before the story even began. As more living characters are introduced, they all seem to have such sad memories.

There is a melancholy note that lingers among all the other events, like a piano key that sticks and continues to sound its tone through the rest of the song. Eventually, it seems out of place, but it persists; it somewhat spoils the overall effect of the piece.

The magic in this book lacks the mischief, the twinkle-in-the-eye of the author’s other works. Many of the metaphors-made-real seem based in grief, loss, or guilt.

Ultimately, we get our happy ending. The way the conflict was overcome surprised me, but even though it was a selfless and admirable act, I could see it having consequences later on, which weren’t really addressed.

Most of the loose ends were tied up, however, and nearly everyone experienced happy endings and hopeful beginnings.

Then, for some reason, the author wrapped things up with a return to a kind of wistfulness — the prospect of a sad conclusion for one of the characters.

Honestly, I felt that Ms. Allen could easily have given the characters what they had always wanted without adding any further sacrifice or grief on top of what they had each already endured.

The ending, at least, could have been switched with something else, moved up a few paragraphs perhaps, so as to end the book on a more hopeful and satisfying note.

This book has been well-reviewed by quite a few other people, so maybe my experience of it had more to do with what I brought to the table. While it was a good story, with a handful of interesting characters, it simply did not live up to my expectations.

However, the reason I had high expectations is due to how much I enjoyed Sarah Addison Allen’s other novels. Even though I found some fault in the details, there is something about the author’s manner of storytelling that appeals to me.

If and when she releases another book, I will gladly read it.

 

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A review of “Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe”

I did not know when I first picked up a Jenny Colgan novel that she has written over 15 books, and apparently also writes under more than one pseudonym. I’ll admit that I was less inclined to take her work seriously when I discovered how prolific she is.

I know that’s not fair, and I can think of several authors offhand who have written more than that and whose work I take seriously. I think it was a combination of the profusion of novels combined with the sheer amount of pink that gave me somewhat low expectations.

I knew this was going to be chick-lit. There were numerous clues, including the short blurb from Sophie Kinsella on the cover. I was looking for something a little light and airy after the last few things I’ve read.

I would be hard-pressed to think of anything more light and airy than a paperback with an entirely pink cover, which is a story about a cupcake bakery, and which claims to be a novel with recipes.

cover art courtesy of Goodreads.com

The book did appear to be thicker than I typically expect from a chick-lit novel, but I didn’t give that too much thought. I figured it would be light reading, and that I would breeze through it. That was more or less the case.

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe” has a lot more depth and substance than I would have guessed, however. There are quite a few players in this story, and many of them are well fleshed-out.

The supporting characters aren’t just two-dimensional props for the lead. The reader gets to peek into each of their lives and thoughts, and their struggles are not trite or predictable. There is more complexity in this novel than is initially apparent.

There were times when I thought the author’s strong opinions came through rather transparently, and that could be a bit off-putting. Overall, however, it was a quite satisfying read.

I felt confident, given the genre, that it would all end happily, but I often found myself not at all certain just exactly how things would play out. I like that in a book. I like having my expectations surpassed, as well.

I don’t feel at all guilty for having read this. That’s an outcome I can’t always claim to have after reading chick-lit. It is cheeky, lighthearted, and a touch frisky, but it is also a book I can feel good about recommending to other ladies.

I have another of Ms. Colgan’s books checked out from the library. While I won’t be reading it right away, because I’ve learned that things get all muddled up when I do that, I am looking forward to it. If it’s as good as “Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe,” I will likely review that one, as well.

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