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Neil Gaiman

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Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year: 2008

On the off chance that someone would ask me who my favourite author is, there have been a long period in my life when Neil Gaiman would have been an accurate (almost obvious) answer. I’ve never been a person prone to idolising other people, but Neil Gaiman is probably the only author to have come close.

I’ve read almost everything Neil Gaiman has published (and most of it has been reviewed on this website, have a look here) and I’ve seldom been disappointed. Therefore, I’m a bit sad to tell you that I did not find his latest novel, The Graveyard Book, to be even close to some of his earlier novels. It isn’t abysmally bad or anything, it’s just very disappointing.

The basic idea is interesting, however: an assassin is sent to kill an entire family, but the most important target, the baby boy, escapes and makes his way to a nearby graveyard, where he is taken in by the ghosts and protected against his pursuer. The child is raised by the late Mr. and Mrs. Owens, and protected by a shadowy figure called Silas. The boy is called Nobody, or Bod, and the narrative goes on to cover how he grows up among tombstones and crypts. In the background, the original story with the assassin also continues, because the man who killed Bod’s family did not complete his job and is still looking for the last victim.

As in all his other books, in the Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman lets his imagination flow, and although the various episodes are not as brilliant as some of the others he has written, they are still entertaining. There are  quite a few good adventures to find in a graveyard for a curious kid. The problem is that this book feels like a TV series, with each chapter having an independent plot, which is almost completely detached from the wider perspective.  Bod explores the Graveyard and grows up, but there is hardly any coherence in the sense that earlier episodes are necessary or prerequisites for later ones. There is the with the murderer in the background, but in my opinion, Gaiman lets it lie dormant for far too long before he really sets things in motion.

To be honest, I’m quite disappointed with this book and I can’t even give it three snails. The ideas are okay and the writing style is good, but it simply isn’t on par with Gaiman’s earlier performance. I still consider him to be one of my favourite authors, mostly because of Sandman, Coraline, Neverwhere and Stardust, but more recently, he’s been drifting farther and farther away from that idol status he was once close to ascend to. Before reading the Graveyard Book, I thought that Anansi Boys was a deviating low-water mark, but now I’m starting to doubt. Is the ability to write fiction that holds me spellbound, which I thought infallible in him, finally starting to fade? Neil Gaiman is still one of my favourite authors, but it would be a lie to say that I admire him as much as I did before.

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Title: Coraline
Directed by:
Henry Selick
Written by:
Henry Selick, Neil Gaiman
Year: 2009

Watching film adaptations of beloved books is of course dangerous, because most people, including me, are a least a little bit afraid that the director will desecrate the original concept and replace the imagined world with something defined, specific and boring. Even though I haven’t yet watched the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy his imagination projected onto the silver screen before, in the form of Mirrormask. Even though Henry Selick didn’t do as good a job as Dave McKean, Coraline was still above my expectations.

The story is quite simple: A young girl, Coraline, moves with her parents to an odd old house in the middle of nowhere, with few but strange neighbours: a weird boy and his even weirder cat, the crazy acrobat Mr. Bobinsky, and the senile ladies Miss Spink and Miss. Forcible dreaming their way to past glories on the stage. Coraline soon finds a hidden passage which leads to a mirror version of reality called the Other World, where her Other Mother and her Other Father are awfully nice to her and do whatever they can to make her stay. However, all that glitters isn’t gold.

There are quite a few changes from the book, but most of them I accept without a moments hesitation (although I must say it’s a pity the mice were almost completely left out, their song is probably one of my favourite parts in the novel). In fact, the film starts out exceptionally well and it felt like a possible jackpot was on the way. The introduction of the setting, the characters and the first impressions are simply stunning. However, the story and the film deteriorates towards the end, especially when the plot boils down to the computer game syndrome of finding the yellow, red and blue key card to open the doors leading up to the final boss. Not very Gaimanesque and not very interesting at all, frankly.

What about the directing and the technique, then? Coraline is animated in a way I really like. The director makes use of this fact a lot and manage to convey the same feeling I had when I read the book, at least for the first part. In Coraline, I discover a lot of very small but effective tricks and techniques which add to the overall atmosphere, which could be said to be the source of both the book’s and the film’s greatness.

Still, all things added up, the book is better, mostly because of the plot in the latter half of the film. If it would have ended on the same note as it started, this film would have been wonderful, perhaps even more wonderful than the book. As it is now, it’s still very good, but leaves the feeling that it could have been done better. Four snails to Coraline.

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Title: Smoke and Mirrors
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year: 1998

Neil Gaiman is previously known to me as the author of a couple of truly excellent novels (Coraline, Stardust and Neverwhere), along with one of my favourite works of fiction, The Sandman. With such a track record, it’s exceedingly difficult to live up to expectations, and, admittedly, this is what Neil Gaiman fails with in this collection of short stories. I imagined that his style should be perfect for short stories, but so far I’m not convinced.

The level is uneven throughout Smoke and Mirrors. Some stories really stand out as being brilliant, but most of them are rather dull, leaving me wondering if that was supposed to be it. He also focuses way too much on sex, especially in some short stories where it doesn’t make any sense. In his other works, he isn’t afraid of explicitly describing intimacy, but it always feels like a part of the story, which isn’t the case here.He also experiments a lot with unconventional line breaks, which to me seems completey irrational and only manages to make me irritated.

Still, it’s Neil Gaiman, and even if everything he touches doesn’t turn into gold, he can still write like a god. The good short stories are really good, even if it isn’t enough to pull the rest of them up to a level where I would say it’s worthwhile to read the book. However, since it’s a collection of short stories, reading just a few short stories should be perfect. Here are the short stories I recommend: Chivalry, Troll Bridge, Desert Wind, Babycakes, Murder Mysteries and, finally Snow, Glass, Apples.

But, hey, aren’t there roughly thirty short stories in Smoke and Mirrors? Yes, there are, but the rest of them are either mediocre or outright bad. The fact that I give the entire collection two and a half snails should be taken as a sign of the brilliance of the few short stories I liked. If you can, please have a look at these, but stay away from the rest and read something else by Neil Gaiman instead.

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Two of my friends spend a lot of time and money on comics, which is why this item was introduced on my 101-in-1001 list in the first place. Since they have somewhat the same criteria as I have for quality, I felt that comics was a literary domain I had almost no knowledge about and needed to educate myself about. By reading ten comics they recommended, I hoped to gain more insight. Therefore, the list below of what I have read is not pickings of my own, but rather that of my friends’, although based on my preferences and comments on previously borrowed volumes.

1. The Sandman (4.5/5 on average)
2. Hellboy (3/5)
3. Watchmen (2.5/5)
4. The Authority (3/5 on average)
5. WE3 (4.5/5)
6. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (3,5/5)
7. Sleeper – Out in the Cold (4/5)
8. The Books of Magic (4/5)
9. Kid Eternity (3,5/5)
10. The Filth (4/5)

As you can see, the list is a mixed bag in terms of grades, but with a few exceptions, I have liked what I have read. As I guessed after reading The Sandman, no comic has come close to its brilliance and I still doubt that any will (please take into consideration that the 4.5 average is over ten volumes, which is incredible, given that I dislike long series). Still, few of the others have been a disappointment; most of them have indeed been very good.

I consider this goal accomplished; I feel more educated about comics. Although the list above is a bit Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman biased, I think that is something positive. Morrison seems to write things I like and Neil Gaiman was one of my favourite authors before I read The Sandman. Anyway, I will not hesitate to read more comics, especially since I have such nice friends at hand to lend me some.

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Title: The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Gold Fish
Author: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Dave McKean
Year: 1997

Although published the other way around, I read this book after reading The Wolves in the Walls, also written by Neil Gaiman, and with artwork by Dave McKean. Since the two works are fairly similar (intended audience, appearance, style, language, etcetera), I will focus this short review on what makes them different and why I have decided to give only three and a half snails to The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Gold Fish.

Although containing most of what was made the next book good, this book lacks the feeling of wonder I normally associate with Gaiman. The story is still charming and I like many of the elements in it (otherwise I would not have given it three and a half snails), but it fails to engage my imagination. My recommendation is to read the The Wolves in the Walls first, and then, should you enjoy the medium and the story, do not hesitate to read this one as well. After all, neither of these publications requires much time, so enjoyment per time is still pretty high.

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Title: Odd and the Frost Giants
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year: 2008

Neil Gaiman is incredible in that he never writes anything that is even remotely reminiscent of something bad, regardless of if he writes for children or for adults, if he writes novels, short stories or comics. Odd and the Frost Giants is a lightweight book, clearly intended for children, presenting a short and to-the-point story about the not quite ordinary boy Odd and his encounters with Norse mythology. Odd lives in a viking village in Norway, to which spring refuses to come. Odd leaves his home, and while wandering in the woods and hills, he encounters three magnificent creatures: a bear (Thor), an eagle (Odin) and a fox (Loki). These gods have been ousted from their home of Asgard by a devious Frost Giant, and Odd sets out to help them and set things straight.

Of Neil Gaiman’s earlier works, I think Stardust comes closest to Odd and the Frost Giants, but admittedly, the two books are not very similar. In my opinion, Stardust has much more to offer the adult reader than has this book. That is not to say that I did not enjoy Odd and the Frost Giants, but it is to say that it is far from the masterpiece I consider Stardust to be. Still, I like Neil Gaiman’s way of writing. He always manages to put a unique touch to everything he writes that makes it Neil Gaiman, and thus, something I enjoy immensely. Although I do not recommend Odd and the Frost Giants in general, I would say it is an excellent introduction to the author for young readers.

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Title: The Wolves in the Walls
Author: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Dave McKean
Year: 2003

If I were to choose one favourite author as of this moment, it would probably be Neil Gaiman, not because The Wolves in the Walls is extraordinarily good, but because he has yet to make me disappointed. His average level is way above that of most authors I know, and, at his best, his absolutely brilliant. The Wolves in the Walls is an illustrated children’s book. Compared to Stardust and Coraline, which can also be said to suit a younger audience as well an adult one, The Wolves in the Walls has the genuine feeling of a book for children.

This, however, does not make it unsuitable for adults. Instead, I can find several merits of this short and highly graphical experience. The story itself is entertaining, witty and excellently executed. It is, of course, fairly simple and to the point, but this does not blunt the point I am trying to make. I have mixed feelings about the illustrations, which are at times perfect in every way, but are at other times fail to catch my admiration.

What is so beautiful about The Wolves in the Walls is that it is so short. It takes ten minutes to read, at the outside, so if you have the opportunity to borrow this book, let no doubt cloud your mind. I am not sure that I think it is worth the money it would cost to buy it, though, but it is more than definitely worth the time. Four snails to mister Gaiman.

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The Books of Magic

Title: The Books of Magic
Author: Neil Gaiman
Artist: John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, Paul Johnson
Year: 1990-1991

Trying to read as much by Neil Gaiman as possible, I have at last taken time to read The Books of Magic. Perhaps I make it sound like that was a major challenge, but in fact, the opposite is true. The four volumes are fairly slim and did not require much time to read. As usual, the quality of the narrative is high (although not as high as in many other works by Gaiman, The Sandman comes to mind). However, The Books of Magic are superior to other graphic novels I have read by Gaiman in that the illustrations themselves are much better.

Reading the first volume, it is not difficult to see why there has been a certain amount of fuss about the fact that Harry Potter seems to be very similar to Timothy Hunter (the main character in The Books of Magic, published long before Harry Potter). He is a teenager with a somewhat troublesome family situation, he has a scar on his forehead, an owl and he is introduced to magic. Sounds familiar? Well, it is not, really. As Gaiman himself has said, there might be superficial similarities, but deeper down, little likeness remains, if any.

The Books of Magic is subdivided into four parts, three of them introducing a separate realm through which Timothy travels with a guide (the first volume is used for introductory purposes), his quest being to discover magic and choose whether he wants part of it or not. His visits to the past, to The Land of Summer’s Twilight (Faerie) and the future are all excellently narrated and illustrated. The concepts and ideas they present are marvellous and original in many ways and this is indeed the focus of the story.

What I find a bit disappointing is that the story is relatively weak. Rather than containing a brilliant plot, this is a tour de force of weird graphics and wonderful narration. This is sufficient to reach a level of “excellent” (four snails), but I have come to expect true masterpieces whenever I come across something touched by Gaiman, so therefore, I am still not quite as enthusiastic about The Books of Magic as I could have been.

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Title: MirrorMask
Directed by:
Dave McKean
Written by:
Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean
Year: 2005

Few people in the world come close earning the admiration I feel for Neil Gaiman. He has written numerous novels and comic books which number among the best pieces of fiction that I know of. Therefore, it is not surprising that he manages to create something extraordinary in MirrorMask, together with Dave McKean, who seems to be able to vitalise their common creativity and make a truly unique experience.

MirrorMask is about a young girl, Helena, in a family of circus entertainers, who dreams herself away from everyday life through her marvellous paintings. After a quarrel between her parents, her mother falls ill and Helena is convinced that it is her fault. After falling asleep, she finds herself in a world eerily similar to her own drawings, a world torn apart by a war between the white and the black queen. Helena and her sidekick Valentine need to find the mirrormask, which will save the white queen and her kingdom.

It is indeed very rare that a film can survive on only being visually magnificent, but this is true for MirrorMask. I dare to say that it is the most fantastic visual tour de force I have ever experienced on the screen. Weird surrealism is mixed with fantastic concepts, all expertly executed in a way that makes me shiver with pleasure. In many ways, it feels like the more delirious parts of The Sandman.

Added to this, the basic concept of the film is also brilliant, although I think it lacks in execution. The storyline is a bit too straightforward and lacks the ingenuity of the aspects covered in the previous paragraph. I would not go as far as saying that it is bad, because I think that there is some merit in not miring in a complicated plot. If the plot were simple, but with a uniqueness on par with that of the graphics, this film would probably be one of my all-time favourites.

I hesitate before recommending this film. I think it is absolutely brilliant and worth watching only for the visual experience. Even if there were no story at all, no characters and no sound, I would still find it worthwhile. However, the film is surreal in a way I think many people find too strange. Usually, when other people think films are strange, I tend to like them, but I do not think it works the other way around. That being said, I still have to recommend MirrorMask, because it truly is a masterpiece.

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The last couple of weeks I have been lazy or busy, depending on how one choose to regard it, which has had the effect of my not updating the 101 in 1001 for a while. Instead of posting a load of separate accounts of the various tasks, I have decided to deal with them jointly in a single post.

Bad news first. Or rather, challenging news first. I just browsed through the list and realised I have a long way to go. Sure, I have been able to complete some demanding tasks (like swimming 10 000 metres, for instance), but with a year and a half remaining of the 1001 days, I still have 84 tasks to go. Challenging indeed. I decide not to call it bad news, since I still think it is possible to accomplish everything I have set out for. However, I will have to develelop a much more aggressive attitude towards achieving my goal.

Then some good news. There are some tasks on the list I have finished, but not written about:

– Have read a total of 10 books by Philip K. Dick: Few authors fascinate me in the same way as Philip K. Dick. His books often surreal, bizarre and philosophical. They are always expertly written. His mind works in a way truly original and produces ideas which lie far beyond anything I myself would have come up with. Novels written by him are not always spot on, but they are always worthwhile.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
2. The Man in the High Castle
3. A Scanner Darkly
4. Ubik
5. Galactic Pot-healer
6. Martian Time-Slip<
7. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
8. A Maze of Death
9. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
10. The Father-thing

– Have read a total of 5 books by Ray Bradbury: I have actually read more than five books and all of them have been reviewed. The best of Ray Bradbury is extremely good, but the problem is that there are too many mediocre stories that pull down the average quite a bit. Here are the books.

1. Fahrenheit 451
2. The Day it Rained Forever
3. S is for Space
4. Something Wicked This Way Comes
5. From the Dust Returned

– Have read a total of 5 books by Neil Gaiman: Not including The Sandman (comic), I have read more than five books by Neil Gaiman (with The Sandman it becomes sixteen). In recent years, Neil Gaiman has ascended to the position of being one of my two favourite authors, equalled only by Philip K. Dick. Here are the five first books:

1. American Gods
2. Coraline
3. Good Omens
4. Stardust
5. Neverwhere

– Finish my freelancing praject “Tornet mot stjärnorna”: It took roughly 150 hours of writing to accomplish this, not including time not spent with pen and paper (i.e. thinking, dreaming and talking about it). Although there are still mechanical things left (correcting errors reported by proof readers), I consider this project done.

– Learn to sleep comfortably on my back: This is a somewhat old task as well, since I finished it last autumn. I cannot say that I sleep as comfortably on my back as I do in other positions, but I can do it when I want to.

– Make someone change from Qwerty to Dvorak: I accomplished this some time ago when a friend of mine, Gastono, changed from Qwerty to Dvorak. To my knowledge, he seems satisfied with the change.

Hopefully, these insights into this project will help me to finish it and hopefully it will also lead to more activity online regarding the 101 in 1001. Wish me good luck and I will probably be seeing you soon again!

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