Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

norse-mythologyPerhaps the most striking thing about Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – amazing cover and jacket aside – is that it reads like a Neil Gaiman novel. Indeed, it could possibly fit in as an extended prologue to American Gods. So how is it that an author of comic books, children’s books and the occasional adult novel turn existing myths – from a culture not his own – into something personal and inclusive to all?
Norse Mythology is Gaiman’s interpretation of classic Norse myths, inspired by his personal interest. This stems from Gaiman’s love of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Thor which Gaiman read as a child. So -what we have here is a relatively short retelling – and not a re-imagining – in a series of 16 tales from the dawn of creation to Ragnarok – the Norse end-of-times. You can read each tale in isolation, or taken as a complete piece there is a rough structure, as we’re introduced to all the favourites (Odin, Thor, Loki, Frigg, Baldur, Heimdall, giants, dwarfs and all the rest) and how they came to be the characters that some might know and love.
Is it a novel? I don’t think so. A collection of tales. Certainly. Anyway, the book of stories opens at the beginning of course. We learn how the nine realms and other classic locations (Asgard, Hel, Midgard, Valhallah, and the rest) came into being. We learn of the World Tree – Yggdrasil and the first gods (Buri and Borr) and how it led to Odin becoming the All-father. There are stories of the tribalism between races: Aesir (wise Odin, mighty Thor, beautiful Baldur, etc.), Vanir (Godess of love, Freyr for example, who everyone seems to want to wed), Asynjur (Frigg and Nanna amongst others), the frost giants, other giants, including one who own enormous beer-brewing cauldrons (Hymir), norns, dark and light elves, and creatures such as the giant wolf (Fenrir) who is also the son of Loki (and his other offspring, including Hel, and the world serpent Jörmungandr). It’s amazing how many children these gods have!
And of course we’re introduced to the first humans, created by the gods, Ask and Embla.
So why are they so readable and why has Gaiman made these his own. I’m not familiar with the detail of Norse mythology. I know a little from my younger days and a little more from the Marvel comic book universe. I don’t know how accurate Gaiman’s depiction of the characters or the events are. I’d hazard a guess at them being spot on! But Gaiman’s gods are fallible, human, lusty, lucky, vain, inconsequential, foolish, dumb, brave and mostly fortunate. They make rubbish choices when it comes to life and love. The story of The treasures of the gods tells of how Odin got his arm ring and Thor got his hammer for example, but these gifts are undeserved. Meanwhile, The Death of Balder has a ridiculous plot point. But Gaiman doesn’t try to re-write it. You get a real sense of these characters. Not necessarily as Gods, but as us; prone to error and goodness and, well, being human. Not all the stories are so black and white, hero and villain.
So Gaiman’s re-telling is really the story of how the Norse Gods came by their godly powers. Almost a comic book origin story. It is little different from the Marvel universe . . . give ordinary people powers or tools to make them godlike and they become corrupt. It’s a combination of the humanity Gaimen instils in the characters and his ever-readable, brilliant prose style that makes you feel like this is a fresh and original telling. Witness:
There were things Thor did when something went wrong. The first thing he did was ask himself if what had happened was Loki’s fault. Thor pondered. He did not believe that even Loki would have dared to steal his hammer. So he did the next thing he did when something went wrong, and he went to Loki for advice.
And:
“How terrible. How Sad. You have killed my brother,” said Loki. But he did not sound sad. He did not sound sad at all.
This writing has wit and quirkiness and charm. As exemplified above, brevity is perhaps the key. There aren’t long arduous passages of description. This book is the art of storytelling. There’s no criticism of the characters’ actions, nor preaching about the outcomes. Gaiman writes all the right words in all the right places.
Gaiman tells his tales of Norse Gods we can in someway relate to. That is what makes this a terrific book. You don’t need to be a scholar of any mythology, or even a fan of Gaiman’s previous work, to find something here. There are battles and romances, gods die and are reborn, there are lessons and adventures and fun to be had.

Unnatural Creatures

Unnatural CreaturesShort story collections are an odd beast. Often they are a selection of disparate stories thrown together by a publisher for reasons such as best of the year compilations, or seasonal treats. Within a collection, there are usually stories that appeal to some but not all; some great and some average. So, when a book comes along with no apparent agenda called Unnatural Creatures and they are selected by Neil Gaiman, well, colour me curious.

What we have is a collection of new and old tales chosen by Gaiman and co-edited with Maria Dahvana Headley – best known for Queen of Kings. They also both contribute. The stories pretty much all fit together in terms of genre, despite them ranging from mythology to science fiction to horror. For these are stories of make-believe creatures; not necessarily monsters. Gaiman himself in the introduction alludes to the idea of a Museum of Unnatural History, which might house specimens found within this book. Gorgeous idea. The introduction suggests “a number of stories featuring unnatural creatures along with several other creatures who are either unlikely, impossible or do not exist at all’. Which sums it up nicely. As well as the theme, this collection has a narrative style. Old-fashioned story-telling. Make believe. Once upon a time in a land not so far away, but where magic is real.

The book itself is thoughtfully presented with each story accompanied by a few words from Gaiman informing the reader about the author and a short introduction. Each then begins with an appropriate illustration by Briony Morrow-Cribbs.

The stories then, briefly, are the tale of a mysterious plant-like creature from Gahan Wilson, which includes his oddly threatening illustrations. E. Lily Yu presents the reader with sentient bees and wasps. Frank R Stockton’s story, The Griffin and the Minor Canon, feels like the closest to traditional westernised mythology, while Nnedi Okorafor taps into Nigerian lore with Ozioma the Wicked, who is the girl who talks to snakes. Gaiman’s contribution is a wonderful story of the Sunbird and the infamous Epicurean Club. Next up is a tale of gods and dragons from Diana Wynne Jones: The Sage of Theare. Saki tells a tale of a boy and a beast…or is it? Meanwhile, the comically delightful story of the Cockatoucan comes from E Nesbit. Co-editor Headley’s contribution is Moveable Beast, an intriguing piece about a beast who can be found in a mini-forest. Larry Niven combines science fiction with the magical in The Flight of the Horse and fellow science fiction author Samuel R Delany presents Prismatica which is about a creature in a trunk and is a story of colour. Megan Kurahige is influenced again by this idea of Natural History museums with her story The Manticore, the Mermaid and Me. The longest work, and probably the most fun, is a story by Anthony Boucher called The Compleat Werewolf. Nalo Hopkinson presents more traditional mythology with The Smile on the Face based on the idea magical trees. Avram Davidson’s creature is perhaps the most unusual and intriguing of all. Read Or all the seas with oysters to see why. Finally, as Gaiman says, the concluding tale features the most ‘natural of unnatural creatures’ in Peter S Beagle’s Come Lady Death. So as you can see, a refreshingly diverse set of storytellers brought together under a common umbrella.

There is a good consistency of story-telling across all of these, but as in all collections, some stories stand out and others are weaker. Yu’s is perhaps the most forgettable, but only because in a menagerie of such wonders, cartographer wasps and anarchist bees are the least wonderful. Gaimen’s entry is enchanting; Boucher’s was the most enjoyable to read. Larry Niven’s mix of science fiction and myth really worked for me, and it was delightfully witty. However, my favourite story was Stockton’s take of the griffin. It made me smile, think about the way mythology is presented and made me want to read more of his work. Okorafor and Nesbit had a similar effect. Some people use short story collections as gateways into new writers and if anyone isn’t familiar with any of these, they should really check this collection out. There isn’t a moment of brilliance, but there’s nothing to disappoint too. A solidly enjoyable walk about the best of museums; that of the imagination.

All the authors in this collection have allowed their work to be used for free for the benefit of Dave Eggers’ literacy charity.

I don’t relate to reality: On the nature of a short story. Considerations after reading The Unreal and the Real by Ursula K Le Guin.

Unreal and RealI like Le Guin. I do. I’m no fan, though. In fact, I’ve only read the obvious novels previous to reading this collection. I really enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness for both its world-building and characters. I found The Dispossessed to be ok. Technically good but it left me a little wanting. Can’t put my figure on it. So with that, I set out to read The Unreal and the Real Volume One: Where on Earth, Selected Stories of Ursula K Le Guin. Le Guin introduces the collection by saying she selected these particular stories herself. She also says this isn’t her favourite form of presenting a story. As the title suggests, these are set on Earth. Maybe not all of them are our Earth, but close enough. So these aren’t her science fiction tales. These range from realist to magical realism with a hint of dream and fantasy thrown in.

There are many ways to tell a story. There are many thoughts to what a story actually is. To me, it is a narrative that takes the reader from one point to another via a character or characters. A story is primarily to entertain with a strong secondary raison d’être to inform. It is generally accepted that most stories consist of extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances or the reverse, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. For the most part, it seems to me that this collection fails to entertain as it consists mostly of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

I love a short story. I don’t read enough of them to be honest, and I try to write them on occasion. I believe, however, that they should fulfil the job of any tale, which is to have a beginning, middle and end, and yes, not necessarily in that order.

Endings. Interesting creatures. A Cambrian Explosion of evolution has defined the story ending as almost indefinable. Which is fine. I love an ambiguous ending or an unreliable narrator. The conclusion to a short can be the birth of something bigger or the death of hope. Personal preference leads me to look for darkness, unease, bleakness and doubt. But I want to see what I’m looking for. And I certainly don’t expect and want a happily ever after to what I read. What I do need is the satisfaction of understanding the point of the story. When researching this piece I found something that Ali Smith said in a 2010 interview, which makes sense to me:

“The thing about the story form is that it is completely wide open. Its end is never an end, it’s always some kind of middle or beginning. It just is. It doesn’t trace an arc in the way that a novel does. It’s a different kind of journey.”

But to me, the end of a short story should be clear. It might be the first step on a new path, but that path shouldn’t need hunting for.

I recently read a collection of short stories edited and chosen by Neil Gaiman. Each of the stories introduced the main characters and the world with efficiency and clarity. They took the reader on a short journey during which the reader learned something about the characters and the world they lived in, the imagination was fired and in almost all cases, a little light was shed on the nature of humanity. Each concluded with a satisfying full stop. In some cases, I was intrigued enough to wonder what happened beyond that point, as I am with any length tale, but mostly I felt it was a tale well travelled and the destination – whatever that place looked and felt like – was reached. So to me, a short story should be a way in to a wider world, whether it has been written about or not.

In this collection, the ‘realist’ stories aren’t just ineffective, but are plain dull. Technically, Le Guin writes beautifully, with well crafted sentences and well realised fine detail. However, in the first few stories, I just wasn’t hooked in. I couldn’t care less about the characters and their lives. I was bored. I don’t expect to be bored when I reading a technically well written story. This is a confusing dichotomy. How can good sentences make a bad story? I had to read passages more than once because I’d drifted away, and I still wasn’t sure what was happening. Or I didn’t see the point. Or I just didn’t care what was happening to the characters. Maybe it was the characters. Not interested. Is that my fault, or Le Guin’s? I tried to care about them or at least be interested in them, but now I couldn’t care less. In the entire collection, only one story worked for me and while yes it was the most fantastical, it was also the most coherent: Buffalo Girls, Won’t You Come Out Tonight. Simple, effective, beautifully told, meaningful, conclusive. Nowhere near the best short I’ve ever read but miles better than everything else in the collection. Others had moments of quality and imagination which I liked, but mostly I found this book an exercise in style over substance. There are a couple of pieces towards the end which feature short character vignettes, which show how well Le Guin can switch character voice and still build a coherent world. She understands, more than most, the importance of detail and she is versed in many a style, from fairy tale to historical tale. But I just didn’t understand the point of the stories. In fact, I’m not sure most of them were stories. Essays, exercises, random thoughts? But maybe I’m not smart enough. Maybe I don’t relate to reality.

 


 

Afterthought: Le Guin’s collection is not for me at all. That much is clear. I do like magic realism and have enjoyed Borges, Bulgakov, Rushdie for example. It is not the theme but the stories. However, in the old adage that you should leave the reader wanting more, Le Guin has succeeded. I want to read her next collection to see how I feel about those.

End of term report: 2013, or The books I read in an arbituary time period.

Good year, I think. In that I was quite disappointed by most of what I read in the first part of 2013, but I’ve read some cracking books since.

So, what words have reflected light into my eyes this year?

Non-fiction up first, and not much read, I’m annoyed to say. I’ve been so engrossed in fiction and reviews, I’ve let the non-fic slip a bit (in no particular order):The Storytelling Animal

  • Heretics by Will Stor
  • The storytelling animal by Jonathan Gottschall
  • Nightmare movies by Kim Newman
  • The science of monsters by Matt Kaplan
  • Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
  • Peter Cushing: a life in film by David Miller
  • How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world by Francis Ween
  • Monkeys with typewriters by Scarlet Thomas

8. Sheesh! Mind you, it took ages to read Nightmare Movies. I also read and reviewed the coffee table book Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions which was a study of the works of Guillermo del Toro. Plus I read a whole bunch of comics and graphic novels…

Since the summer, I’ve also not read any more short stories. So this year only saw The Peacock Cloak and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, as mentioned in my half-term report. Shocker!

So, now for fiction and here are my top 5 books that I read in 2013:

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

17976979I found the writing so evocative and the story so enthralling, that I wanted it to be much longer. I also loved the ambiguity. Is it a ghost story? I remember the summer of ’76 (just) and so for me, this was a wonderful tale full of reminiscences and potential.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsI kept wanting to read this long after I’d finished it, which highlights just how good the writing is. The story of Kirby is so utterly engaging, and Beukes is such a good storyteller. I loved how the time-travel elements were never explicit. I often find books that bring in new characters every few chapters to be very annoying, but Beukes’ writing to appealing to me, I lapped the new characters up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil GaimanA magical adventure with darkness and light and Gaiman’s awesome ability to scare and delight and awaken the child within. Can we have  longer book next time though, Neil?

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The AdjacentSuch an intriguing work of imagination and deliberate uncertainness. What this book is, what it is about and what it all means against Priest’s earlier work is open to much debate and interpretation. But in the end, it is the characters and his writing that keeps you wanting to read more and more.

Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconA book about words and their power. Genius. Some great writing and interesting characters. I loved how the clues in the different timelines eventually came together in the reveal, and I’m pleased that Barry never gave away the bareword.

What I loved in particular about these five books is something I think genre fiction has been guilty of shying away from: breaking the rules. Beukes is writing a time-travel story that’s not science fiction. Joyce has produced a historical fiction that may or may not be a ghost story. I’m not sure what I tag Lexicon with. Urban fantasy? Supernatural? Certainly not science fiction. And while The Adjacent is SF, it’s not like anything you’ll have read (his other work outstanding). Only Gaiman’s work can be said to be traditional genre fiction, and even that could be seen as being about telling stories and hence a bit meta. These books that have defied genre and categorisation. These books that have teased and suggested they might be one thing before turning out to be something else. These books (and some others, see below) have surprised me. Thanks, books.

So, next 5 in my list are:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

With the exceptions of Heller’s novel, which is pure post-apocalyptic fiction, along the lines of The Road, and The Method, which is classic dystopia, these other books mess with genre convention to some degree or other. Pinborough writes police procedural as urban fantasy. Wilson blends eastern mythology and science fiction. I’m not sure what Strange Bodies is. Victorian mad scientist and eastern European crime combined with literary detective. Whatever. Books I thoroughly enjoyed.

I also read two of my favourite books again this year: Vurt by Jeff Noon, and while lying on a beach, American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Ok, so now we’re onto some honourable mentions just outside my top 10:

  • Hang Wire by Adam Christopher – another surprising genre-defying novelJasper Fforde
  • Beauty by Sarah Pinborough – great fun, alongside Poison
  • The Woman Who Died Alot by Jasper Fforde – a return to form!
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod – consistently great sf
  • NOS4R2 by Joe Hill – his best work yet, reminiscent of his Dad’s early work.
  • Dark Eden by Chris Becket – decent sf
  • Poison by Sarah Pinborough
  • The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough – more crime based urban fantasy
  • The Good Fairies of New York by Mark Millar – Millar’s work is always fun, and this is no exception

And so to the rest, and in no particular order now, oh all right, from best of the rest to the worst:

At first glance, it looks like I’ve read a lot from female authors this year. However, Sarah Pinborough features heavily (as she’s only a recent discovery) and only 1 of my top 5 are women authors. I looked into all the books I’ve read, and only 30% of my favourite authors are women, which is annoying. On the other hand, I’m not going to just like an author because of their gender designation.

Putting the fiction I’ve read in the broadest possible categories then, this year has consisted of 14 science fiction novels, 2 horror and 22 fantasy. A closer look, however, shows clearly that the best books I’ve read this year defy specific characterisation. And I love that!

The totally honest and pointless adventures of an NaNoWriMo effort: Day 1

Day 1: 25 October 2013

(c) NaNoWriMo
(c) NaNoWriMo

So I figured I’d need to do some prep work. I’d signed up to NaNoWriMo 2013 with no idea what to do. Not strictly true. I’m working on a short story at the moment which is set to become part of a collection, called Monsters. However, due to a lot of other writing commitments, and work of course, this has been on a bit of a back-burner. I have no idea why I signed up, as I’m almost certain I won’t have the time to write 50,000 words in November. But I’ve already started Monsters and I want to take my time over it and it will be way longer than 50,000 words anyway, so that wasn’t the path to follow.

Once I signed up, I started mulling over the kind of thing that would work without that much preparation and without that much time given over to it. I kept thinking of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, and to a lesser extent, of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. These are both short but highly effective works of fiction. Simple stories with a deeper meaning using beautiful language.

Stop right there! No, I’m not at all thinking I can write anything like those two wonderful books. But what I can do is write a short, creepy, affecting novel. At least I hope I can.

I have a first line buzzing in my head – which to be honest, is one that’ been there a while, and I might have even used it before in an abortive attempt to write something else. But I like it and I’m going to use it.

Luckily, I was off work yesterday (Fri 25 Oct) so I took myself and my notebook off to my favourite cafe to plot and plan over an awesome cooked breakfast and refills of coffee – yes I know I’m living the cliche. Get over it. I’m now typing with jazz music in the background. Live with it already.

When I was walking to the cafe I saw a woman in the street waving goodbye to someone. I couldn’t see who she was waving to. So that was my opening scene, writing itself. I decided to divert from the cafe for half an hour to walk along the beach. I had to procrastinate. What was in my head?

Being a big fan of Twitter has its downsides. Everyone knows Twitter is a place for ranting and rowing, trolls and Twitterstorms (is that in the dictionary yet? Should be). But what I find anyone more than anything is that people presume to speak for one group or another. Just because you’re a famous open-rights campaigner or feminist, your opinion doesn’t mean the same as someone elses. And more importantly, your opinion isn’t fact. Even if your one of the biggest and/or most respected voices in your shouting arena. No-one speaks for me. No-one has the right and no-one should have that presumption. But people do. If I say I like a book and you like the same book, it doesn’t give you the right to think you know me.

So, there is a theme and an opening scene. By now I was in the cafe and the breakfast was ordered. It was a particularly warm autumn day and the cafe was full, so I took the only vacant table and tried to cool myself

down for a second. I thumbed through my notebook at previous ideas and

lines I’ve had. I then wrote down ‘The Inherent Loneliness of the Human Mind’

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and the word ‘horror’. And I was off. A couple of pages later and I have a rough plot, a couple of opening scenes, some subtext and a potential ending to aim towards.

Now I’ve got other stuff to do but I’ve now got just a few days to come up with some characters and names. And then, who knows…