Paula Guran (Ed.) Witches: Wicked, Wild and Wonderful – Review

Witches: Wicked, Wild & Wonderful (Paperback)

“Don’t get in a witch’s path. Especially if you are the weaker witch. If you do, be prepared to face her.” – “Bloodlines” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Witches are represented in different ways throughout cultures. In this anthology they take various forms – powerful women, young, old, poor, influential, timid, rich, classic fairy tale hags etc. Even though Witches: Wicked, Wild and Wonderful contains stories of many different themes, they all come to one central character that is wickedly passionate about something they love. Ultimately their actions are seen as good or evil. Is it enough though to label them “white” or “black” witches?

Witches mostly are seen as strong, perhaps a bit aloof and wicked women. However, in this anthology they are presented as humans with as many powers as insecurities. “Bloodlines” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia tells the story of a young girl who not only doubts her skills and appearance but also the possibility of being a real witch like other women in her family. This story of a growing up witch, who doesn’t know what she is capable of, is full of adolescent insecurities and raw, uncontrollable power still to be tamed.

Another of my favourite stories is “The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder about a witch, Jessamyne, on the way to the retirement home who seemingly sacrificed her magic for the man she loved. Her sober analysis of what she has lost is either going to make her more bitter or free. Demeter Alcmedi in “Marlboros and Magic” by Linda Robertson also rebels against strict rules of living amongst people who simply adhere to the order of life in the Woodhaven Retirement Community. The consequences are hilarious.

One of the recurring themes is witches in love – love in many shapes and forms. Sometimes love is manifested in the form of love of humans in general, and sometimes it’s a poignant and deep adoration of someone the witch has lost their heart to. “The Ground Whereon She Stands” by Leah Bobet pictures a shy witch who, not knowing how to get closer to the person she loves, enchants them with a truly flourishing spell. Ceren, a young witch in “Skin Deep” by Richard Parks struggles to understand her feelings and actions which consequently forces her to decide what is important in her life.

At the same time, love for a child might be one of the strongest, unconditional manifestations of love – yet at the same time most tragic and misunderstood. “The World Is Cruel, My Daughter” by Cory Skerry is one of the gems in this anthology. It’s a re-told tale of “Rapunzel” – the story of a manic over-protective mother and the disastrous relationship with her daughter. It’s one of the darkest in this anthology, and is written with great skill and a great dose of murkiness. At the same time, another dark tale of the parents-children relationship, “Catskin” by Kelly Link, is amiably surreal and creepy.

Witches try to blend in but communities are full of nosey busybodies ready to share someone else’s secrets. What happens when a beautiful house appears on the street out of the blue? “Walpurgis Afternoon” by Delia Sherman tells a story of a suburban community magically transformed by two girls. Stories like “Basement Magic” by Ellen Klages, “Afterward” by Don Webb, “Poor Little Saturday” by Madeleine L’Engle and “Magic Carpets” by Lesley What are more sinister and lead to somewhat tragic consequences.

Stories about witches are very often haunting and atmospheric – with the magical ambiance embedded in the very worlds they are set in. “The Cold Blacksmith” by Elizabeth Bear resonates with charm of Scandinavian myths where a task of mending a broken heart might be a real challenge. Tanith Lee created a mesmerising exotic tale of illusions and transformations in “Mirage and Magia”. However, it was the spin on the classic tale of “Hansel and Gretel” that freaked me out. This horror version by Margo Lanagan titled “The Goosle” is full of stomach wrenching descriptions and horror with which the author spun the story. It is truly terrifying.

“The Witch’s Headstone” by Neil Gaiman is a lovely story of a boy befriending a ghost of a witch, but those who read “The Graveyard Book” will know it, as it’s actually chapter four in the book. Also “The Way Wind” by Andre Norton is set in the world of her Witch World universe which might be familiar to readers of her books.

Some witches choose to be protectors of people like Diana in “Nightside” by Mercedes Lackey and Marla Mason in “Ill Met in Ulthar” by T.A. Pratt. What I liked in both of them is that their two central characters are strong, confident urban guardians who love kicking evil’s ass. Others just experiment and toy with magic which leads to mixed conclusions. Girls in “Lessons with Miss Gray” by Theodora Goss decide to pursue magic, which helps them find out the truth about themselves. In a similar manner, Boris tries to discover who he really is when, by means of help from the legendary Baba Yaga, he discovers he might not be the failure he thinks he is. “Boris Chernevsky’s Hands” by Jane Yolen is a nostalgic revival of the Russian folklore icon. “The Robbery” by Cynthia Ward shows what might happen when in the face of helpless mutiny against an unpunished local burglar, the main character decides to try knots magic used by fishermen like her dad and grandpa, with surprising results.

As much as I like most of the stories in this anthology, as they cover such a wide range of themes and representations of witches, the true gem in this anthology is Ursula K. Le Guin’s very first story published in 1962 titled “April in Paris”. It’s a poignant story of passion, accidental time travel, friendship, love and power of loneliness. It’s a superb little story which brings people from different worlds together and saves them from despair of poverty and solitude. “April in Paris” was a marvellous debut story of such a great writer.

I love reading anthologies, as I come across writers I have not read before and little gems like the story of “April in Paris” which I didn’t know about. Witches: Wicked, Wild and Wonderful is full of stories from which each reader might find something they will love. I must admit I am not overly keen on all the stories in this anthology, but the majority of them are great and bring lots of quirky magic tales for those who, like me, love books about witches.

Author: Edited by Paula Guran

Title: Witches: Wicked, Wild and Wonderful

Publisher: Prime Books

Format: Kindle Edition

Published: March 13th 2012

Review originally published on Fantasy-Faction website.

Snorri Kristjansson Swords of Good Men – Review

Swords of Good Men - The Valhalla Saga 1 (Paperback)

Death was never as glorious in real life as in the songs, he mused. There was nothing heroic about it, really. You were just alive, and then you were blood and meat and bones in a slightly different order.

Ulfar Thormodsson is ready to go back home after two years in exile with his cousin Geiri. The last stage of their journey takes them to Stenvik, which is where their adventure really begins, contrary to their plans. Stenvik might be just a small place, but it is inhabited by a few legendary warriors. As life goes on in Stenvik, a storm is brewing not so far away, but no one in the settlement realises that soon, Stenvik is going to be the stage of the tug-of-war between the old gods and the new one.

There are three parts in this power game – King Olav and his ever growing army of misfits on the way to spread Christianity and the teachings of White Jesus, an assembly of legendary chieftains with their small armies, and Stenvik. Even though there are a lot of characters, and it might seem that there are no leading ones, all of them are very well written. They have their place in the story and none of them seems flat or as if they were written just for the body count. Just because the characterisation is so vivid, the story is very dynamic.

Apart from Ulfar, Audun Arinbjarnarson is one of the most intriguing characters – there’s so much more to him than his role of the blacksmith of Stenvik. It turns out even the most powerful warriors have their secrets. I need to mention a group of Berserkers – warriors with very fierce tempers for whom fighting is like anger management. They were utterly fascinating. Unfortunately, there are not many female characters. There are a couple of them which are vital to the story, but maybe because of the way the book is written they do not take much part in it. Thora is a really cool, badass warrior and Skuld, an enigmatic leader behind the force of one of the powers.

All the battles are epic and really bloody. Some brawls and battles are very graphic, but we are talking here about Vikings, so it can be expected. Snorri’s language flawlessly moves from small battles to the big ones without it all becoming just one book of carnage. He has a flair for killing off the characters and what I like in his writing is his matter-of-factly way of moving on.

What I loved about the book, apart from the total Viking havoc, was the way the author portrayed life in Stenvik. He was able to write such an engrossing account of the life in the settlement. Stenvik is full of warriors where over-ambitious testosterone levels of locals and visitors alike are kept in check by Harald – the village fist mercenary. Besides battle business, there is a more pragmatic view of Stenvik – the view of what it’s like to live in a community of raiders. With the gradual introduction to Christianity, some people are torn between the new god and those, like Odin, Freya, Thor and Loki, whom they used to worship – perhaps even debating what their role in life might be and how it relates to their belief system. Where most unusual friendships, awkward alliances and grave enemies are formed, Swords of Good Men has both puppets and their masters – some are mere zealous humans, others are more sinister and even supernatural. There are not many elements of fantasy in the book and those few that are, are subtly woven into the story.

Swords of Good Men is written in a very riveting way – there are a lot of points of view. Some readers might find it disjointed and distracting, especially that there are a lot of characters introduced from the very beginning. However, I found it surprisingly refreshing. It definitely suits the plot where sudden changes of perspective are like bursts of chaotic energy which I found invigorating. It almost works like sudden changes of scenes in the films where there’s a lot of action happening and the story cannot be presented only from one angle. I think Swords of Good Men could be a great film.

Snorri’s writing is very engaging – very vibrant and realistic. It is an action filled book with a heart stopping plot and adrenaline fuelled battle scenes. Swords of Good Men is Snorri Kristjansson’s debut, but it’s so well written that it is hard to believe. I’m ready to read the next book in the Valhalla Saga: Blood Will Follow. All readers that love this kind of action packed books go and get your copy – you won’t regret it. Happy reading!

Author: Snorri Kristjansson

Title: Swords of Good Men

Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Format: Hardback

Published: August 1, 2013 (UK)

Review originally published on Fantasy-Faction website.

Neil Gaiman The Truth is a Cave i the Black Mountains – Review

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains (Hardback)

This is a review of the book and the performance which took place on 6th July 2014 in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh.

When I was a little girl I loved dark stories – like fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers or ghost stories for example. Either read in the darkness of my bedroom with a torch under my duvet, so I would not wake up my younger brother, or told during camping trips with everyone sitting around the fire. It did not matter if they were read or told, but I swear all of a sudden curtains would cast strange shadows or trees would assume ghoulish shapes. I’m not entirely sure if I was terrified, to a certain degree perhaps, or if I loved the supernatural, as that was something which was supposed to be out of this world. My imagination was alive with stories I read and listened to, and that’s the experience I always welcomed. I still do.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman is a story about two men who embark on a journey through the murky Scottish landscape. Both of them carry darkness in their hearts and this journey will test them even further. It’s not a simple journey to claim a legendary treasure but one of discovery of the darkest truth.

This picture novelette is poignant and rich – it grasps the reader’s attention from the very first line. The melancholy of the main protagonist is palpable and captivating like the raw beauty of Scotland depicted by Eddie Campbell’s illustrations. Neil Gaiman set the story on the Isle of Skye – one of the most breathtaking places in Scotland. The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains touches on Jacobite times and the friction between the clans – though being in the background of the book, they add the evocative character to it.

The book contains everything I love about dark stories. The craggy, stormy and windy Scottish countryside is as unpredictable and treacherous as the morals and intentions of the main characters. It’s a superbly told story of loss, greed, love and fate and has all the things of an enchanting folklore story. The storytelling language it is written in and the stunning illustrations create an unforgettably haunting book, which is only a very short story, but will stay with you for a long time. Shakespeare’s Macbethcomes to mind here – another Scottish tale filled with darkness to the very core, and as much as there might be an element of fate, it all unfolds in an unpredictable way and that is how a great and thought-provoking story stays with the reader to trick their mind with shadows.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a picture book, but it’s not how the story began. It was initially read on the stage of The Sydney Opera House in 2010 with the accompaniment of paintings by Eddie Campbell and the music by the FourPlay String Quartet. As it was a huge success, it was decided that the story would go on tour. As it happens, one of the performances, the very last one, was in Scotland. On 6th July 2014 The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains was performed in Edinburgh in the Usher Hall.

The event started with the music set by the very talented FourPlay String Quartet and then Neil Gaiman walked on stage and started his part of the performance with something he is simply the best at. He read stories to us. Neil started with the “October Tale” from the Calendar of Tales – the story of how a Djinn struggles to do what they are meant to do – grant wishes. It is a short and sweet tale of love and happiness in unexpected circumstances. “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” was read next. It is a very moving tribute to one of the best writers. What could possibly top the storytelling? Well…Neil started singing and let me tell you, you just have to hear that for yourself one day – the song “I Googled You” was really funny.

After the brief interval, the thing that every one of us was waiting for commenced: The Truth is a Cave in the Back Mountains. As the FourPlay String Quartet started playing and the Usher Hall filled with music, Neil started reading the story and on the screen there were pictures of the paintings by Eddie Campbell. The combination of the music, storytelling and the art was magical. The compelling story of the formidable darkness of human hearts and the coarse, yet so irresistibly alluring setting created a tale of lurking shadows and apprehensible gloom.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains presented in this audio-visual way gripped the audience and made us a part of this fairytale. It is a proper grim tale, where it might not be easy to see who is the real hero or a villain. Neil Gaiman produced another terrific story to haunt and bewitch us. The illustrations by Eddie Campbell are marvellous and reflect the Scottish landscape and give it such an astonishing character in a way that only someone familiar with it could.

The whole performance, by which I mean Neil, Eddie and the FourPlay, was magnificent. It was finished with Neil singing “Psycho” (originally by Leon Payne).

This is the magic of the dark tales I mentioned at the beginning. I fell in love with such tales when I was a child and I can honestly say that it doesn’t matter how old anyone is – these stories are for everyone. There is something irresistible about dark folklore stories – I think it might be the unusual way of blending reality and fantasy together. The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a book which can be read and re-read many times – not only for the story, but also for the pictures.

Author: Neil Gaiman

Title: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

Publisher: Headline (UK)

Format: Hardback

Published: June 17, 2014 (UK)

Review originally published on Fantasy-Faction website.

Sarah Pinborough Murder – Review

Murder (Paperback)

Years after the horrors of Jack the Ripper and the Torso Killer which terrorised London, not everyone has forgotten about the Upir. Doctor Thomas Bond might have found some peace after Upir stopped lurking in the shadows and started enjoying life in the company of Juliana Harrington, but he is aware that Upir’s terrors are not completely gone. The comfort of friendship with Juliana doesn’t let him forget about what happened. The young son of Juliana and her late husband James reminds Dr. Bond of the blood, dread and the peculiar alliances forged to fight the evil that Harrington brought back from his travels. The sudden arrival of Edward Kane, the late Harrington’s friend from America, changes almost everything for Dr. Bond and brings out the darkness he tried to escape from.

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough is the first book in the Mayhem series and it tells the story of Jack the Ripper and the Torso Killer. Murder continues with the darkness of all the blood and terror that the Upirlegacy left behind, but on a much bleaker level. Dr. Bond used to struggle with his demons but what he is about to face might be more powerful than even he can fight.

When I was reading Mayhem, I thought it was awesome. As I turned the pages, faster and faster, it terrified me and kept me reading to see what more evil can hide in the shadows of the opium clouded London. That changed a little bit when I started reading Murder. The sinister became the wicked. The plot revolves around the issue of new murders which somewhat resemble the Ripper’s ones and a shocking case of dead babies being found in the Thames. Murder is deeply dark, intelligent and exquisitely gruesome.

I really like the characters in Murder – as the plot evolves and the points of view change, it’s great to see the different aspects of it from behind the shoulders of those who in turn show us what they experience. Dr. Thomas Bond might be a professional and respected doctor, but he is also human. His humanity takes him on a journey of jealously, fear, love and madness, and tests his will power to the very limits. Seeing such a strong person struggling made me feel a heart breaking sympathy towards his utmost efforts to find a solution and solve the mystery of the wicked crimes. As much as he wants to hide it, the evil creeps closer and closer to his doorstep. Would the comeback of his past vices help? He is being taken apart by insanity, and as Dr. Bond mentions Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the comparison is strikingly uncanny. What does the Upir really represent and want? The very image of it, which so nonchalantly pops out from the pages of Murder, was enough to make me want to sleep with the light on for at least two days.

Murder is written with brilliant skill. Not only the nerve wrecking story keeps you reading but also the amazing and vibrant portrayal of Victorian London with the tangible gaps in the layers of society and between the innocent and the evil. Sarah Pinborough has written another superb book which from the beginning to the end keeps the reader on the proverbial edge of their seat.

It was so engrossing for me that when I closed the book after hours of reading, I realised that I was thirsty, stiff from sitting in one position and utterly stunned. I didn’t realise so much time had passed and all I did that day was just read Murder. It was totally worth it and I’d recommend it to everyone; fans of horror or not, this book is so multilayered and complex that the blood spilled on the pages just naturally flows from chapter to chapter and the adrenaline urges you to read on. Murder is a poignant and unputdownable novel of the darkness of humanity and haunting malevolence with an exquisite dose of horror and supernatural.

Author: Sarah Pinborough

Title: Murder

Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Format: Hardback

Published: April 30, 2014 (UK)

Review originally published on Fantasy-Faction website.

Giving up the Ghost Play Review

Giving up the Ghost

Do you believe in ghosts? Most people would say no. Yet when you read ghost stories or watch horror films, you have that uneasy feeling, as if someone has been watching you but you can’t quite explain it. Ultimately, you become more open-minded, so to say. However, those who do believe in ghosts, try to attend many medium sessions to make contact with those they lost.

Carrie Clairvoyant (Claudette Baker-Park) is a self confessed celebrity medium who makes such contact between ghosts and humans possible. It is her gift. Or just a very good knack for the niche in the market. During one performance, one of her phantom guests arrives in less than ethereal apparel and she simply loses herself. At that point many things happen at once. Totally confused Carrie is forced to enlist the help of her estranged sister Mary (Mary-Jo Hastie).  Mary’s daughter, Jess (Alice Restrick) becomes very conflicted when faced with a nice young lad, knowing her mum would not only disapprove, but would also cast the devil incarnate away with her exorcism powers. At the same time, Dean (Jay Newton) faces his own battle of disbelief in coming back to life and falling in love with a girl who struggles to separate her feelings from what she was made to believe all her life.

Pic 1

Giving up the Ghost is a play exploring the limits of human beliefs or more precisely the boundaries people face and if they are able to either break them or always maintain their status quo. All the characters have a depth and complexity which are accentuated by the actors playing them. The relationship between Mary and Carrie is dynamic and both Mary-Jo and Claudette translate that conflicting energy into a gripping belief tag-of-war. Anna Blainey’s writing sketches out the background of this very constricting relationship and the actors fuel it professionally with vibrancy and their personal flair.

What I liked about Giving up the Ghost was the dark humour in the presence of the two young characters, Jess and Dean, who are influenced by Carrie’s and Mary’s points of view, but emerge as a couple of intriguing and strong counter-characters. Alice superbly plays this incredibly inquisitive and smart young girl alongside Jay who effectively captured the nature of a young, yet not exactly young, boy with the misunderstood personality of a youth rock star.

Giving up the Ghost questions good and evil in people and the constant human need for validation of their fears and beliefs. Also, it addresses the issue of the morality of giving people hope to get closure in their lives by means of séances, which are more for entertainment purposes than having any real and tangible consequence. Anna Blainey very skilfully depicted that whimsical and dilemmatic idea of pragmatism versus beliefs and how they might be understood by people in the context of mediumship and exorcism. Does it ultimately come to being just a business as any other one to provide a service for which there is a demand? Or maybe it’s just an evolution of human beliefs and their extent, where in the troubled world certain services might be acceptable as a remedy to counteract the reality.

Giving up the Ghost is funny and poignant. It’s simply great on many different levels – from a well written and well directed play, to brilliantly acted characters. The play was presented by Butterfly with a Bomb Productions on 21st and 22nd September 2014* at The Old Hairdressers, Renfield Lane Glasgow, which is a great venue for such a quirky play. The staging in the play was very simple and the props were minimal but expertly created by Philip Barratt, and the whole set was well planned and executed.

A good play is usually judged by the effect it has on its spectators. Well, Giving up the Ghost brought both lots of laughter and a secret tear here and there. Personally, I loved the humour, cynicism and the bittersweet language. I thoroughly enjoyed this second play from the Butterfly with a Bomb Productions and I look forward to seeing more from this team of talented writers and actors in the near future.

Pic 2

Giving up the Ghost (Butterfly with a Bomb Productions)

Written by: Anna Blainey

Directed by: Anna Blainey and Mary-Jo Hastie

Cast:

Carrie Clairvoyant – Claudette Baker-Park

Mary – Mary-Jo Hastie

Dean – Jay Newton

Jess – Alice Restrick

Crew:

Tech: Finn Townsley and Douglas Calder

Graphic design: Philip Barratt

@ButterflyBombCo

*The performance which was reviewed was on 21st September 2014 at 19:30. Duration: 90 mins.

The pictures were taken by Duncan Holmes and are used with the permission from Butterfly with a Bomb Productions.

 

Charlaine Harris & Christopher Golden Cemetery Girl Book One: The Pretenders – Review

IMG_20131228_121534

I need to, guiltily, admit I sometimes judge books by their covers. When I saw the cover of this one on the Jo Fletcher Books website I knew I had to read it. Then it dawned on me who wrote it and I was already impatient to read it. I am a fan of Charlaine Harris and I know Christopher Golden’s work too – a brilliant duo to create a new graphic novel. Just to add a cherry on top, Don Kramer is the illustrator. I was lucky to win one of the Christmas goodie bags from Jo Fletcher Books and when I received it and saw that it was in the bag, I was over the moon.

Book One in the Cemetery Girl trilogy, titled The Pretenders, is dark and compelling. A young girl is dumped and left for dead on the grounds of Dunhill Cemetery. When she comes round, she has no recollection of who she is and who wanted her dead and why. In the process of trying to survive, as that is the only thing she can do at the moment, she assumes a name taken from the names on the tomb headstones. This way a new heroine is born – Calexa Rose Dunhill. Not knowing what she can do with her life, she just lives from day to day. Until one day something horrifying happens on the grounds of her new ‘home’ and this way she starts realising what purpose her new life might serve. Calexa can see spirits of the dead. But she is not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. In Book One: The Pretenders she helps to serve justice in the case of a missing girl who was murdered and finds friends and allies in unlikely circumstances.

Cemetery Girl is a poignant story of a young girl who is left completely alone and afraid of her own voice. Other characters in the book are also very fascinating – like Mr Kelner and Lucinda whose empathy and unbiased kindness towards Calexa are captivating. I was really taken by the story. It is only a short graphic novel, but the story is well written and the illustrations are stunning.

Apart from the story itself and the wonderful illustrations, I love the transformation of the main character. It’s as if Calexa is reborn as a heroine with a new role to fulfil to guide her on the way to find out what really happened to her. Her fear of not knowing who she is is gradually overshadowed by her embracing the new identity. She makes a perfect heroine with a mysterious past and abilities she still has to explore and develop. There are little bits of quirky humour in it too. Calexa gate crashes all possible funerals. It might be that it’s the only human contact, in the open, she is ready to allow at the moment or it’s a part of her new role as a protector of the cemetery.

I think Book One: The Pretenders of this new trilogy is great and I look forward to following the story of the Cemetery Girl. The trilogy has a brilliant start and I am really curious what Calexa is going to learn about her own past and why she was left to die like that. Both Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden have written a lot of intriguing supernatural characters – for example I can see little bits of Charlaine Harris’s Harper Connelly in it and Christopher Golden’s Buffy.

I like it a lot and anyone who likes a good story and amazing illustrations, then Cemetery Girl Book One: The Pretenders is for you. Read it and enjoy the peculiar atmosphere in it.

A big thank you to Jo Fletcher Books for sending me this book:-)

 

Author: Charlaine Harris, Christopher Golden

Illustrations: Don Kramer

Title: Cemetery Girl Book One: The Pretenders

Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Format: Hardback, 120 pages

Published: 02/01/2014

ISBN: 9780857389084

Necropolis Glasgow

Neil Gaiman Ocean at the End of the Lane – Review

Ocean at the End of the Lane

Even though the easiest thing to distract a child, from pretty much anything, is to offer them ice-cream, being a child can be very terrifying. Let’s face it, most of the things that happened are long forgotten or rather repressed. So what do we really remember about our childhood when we look back?

I was very excited when Neil Gaiman published a new book for adults. I didn’t know what to expect. He had mentioned in one of his interviews, before the publication, that The Ocean at the End of the Lane was never supposed to be a full length novel, but a short story for his wife. Also, it was a twist on his childhood memories – not an autobiography, but the world seen through the eyes of a young Neil Gaiman.

The main character, a bookish boy with no friends, gets caught in a crossfire between his childlike imagination and curiosity, and the oppressing world of adults. Having an annoying sister is difficult, but losing his own room and having to share one with her when their parents rent out his to a lodger is a nightmare. South African opal miner brings disaster to the family from day one. Adults don’t seem to understand that pets can’t be easily replaced and the philosophy of ‘a cat for a cat’ doesn’t work. It is not the same cat! Books are the only friends of the main character. Not a single person turned up for his birthday – I loved the nostalgic description of the unattended party with a birthday cake with a book on it. Only bookworms might understand how unlikely it was to have friends when most of the time was spent befriending fictional characters.

When the opal miner departs, the boy finds a friend in a remarkable girl who lives in a nearby farm. Sudden changes caused by unexpected events push the two children closer together. Less than convenient circumstances prove to be a very good opportunity to cement the friendship and stand together to face the unknown danger. I love Gaiman’s effortless way of merging different worlds. The boy and Lettie Hempstock, his new best friend – his only friend, find themselves surrounded by strange creatures that inhabit the world’s dimensions which are not accessible without magic, or maybe they were always there and no one knew. But who is his friend really? Lettie seems to be older than she looks. She knows far more than a little girl should and she claims that the pond behind the farm is her ocean. Her mum and granny remember things nobody else can from absolutely ages ago.

During one of their adventures something happened and everything changed. The vacant lodger place was taken immediately by the mysterious Ursula Monkton. She proves to be sickly sweet – simply too sweet to be real – and she has everybody under her thumb except the boy. Strange things keep happening and only he can see the difference. He faces utter betrayal from his family and an unimaginable fear of imminent violence and danger ready to be served as punishment for his disobedience. Being a child is like being a drop of water in the ocean – everything around is huge, magnified and intensified. Parents are scary big people with no imagination, who must have the last word in every argument. Even the smallest shadows can induce the most gruesome night terrors. As if he wasn’t scared enough already, the main character finds out that he holds a vital key to everything that changed – he might have to die to put everything back together the way it should be.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is full of juvenile melancholy and terrifying darkness. Darkness as we know from dreadful fairy tales. Those that would leave you terrorised for days.

The darkness was stirred and things that ripped the veil between the worlds endangered the existence of the planet and lives of everybody. The creation of the world described by Gaiman is simply amazing. The wonderfully beautiful and dangerous creatures, called varmints, can either restore order or devour the world as we know it. Lettie and the boy keep fighting but fear and destruction can unexpectedly make people over cowardly or brave. In the spur of a moment, one action leads to terrifying consequences. The friendship is tested by the utmost sacrifice that leaves you with a tear or two rolling lonely down your cheek to avenge the hero.

Gaiman describes what his childhood was like through the eyes of this little boy who one summer gained so much and lost even more. This compelling story threw me back to my childhood and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to tackle what I faced. Things which are best left untouched, but things nevertheless that make you the person you are through this incredible journey from curious childhood, through darkness, to an adulthood full of uncertainty, regret and unfulfilled expectations.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an extraordinary book that tackles the transition between the world seen by a child to the world of an adult. Neil Gaiman discussed this book and the importance of childhood memories with psychologist and writer, Charles Fernyhough, during their event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August this year. They talked about the intricate way how memories are either forgotten or repressed during the process of growing up but how they can be triggered and revived by certain feelings, smells etc. Also, how important they might be.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a brilliant book full of superb fantasy, Gaiman-style, with a compelling story of ultimate sacrifice and growing up to be who one wants to be despite, sometimes unreasonable, expectations of the world. I love the language and sheer honesty with which the story is relayed. I found myself thinking about my own childhood for a long time after I finished the book. The characters are outstanding. Immortal inhabitants of the Hempstock farm are astonishing and incredibly fascinating. I need to admit I adore varmints, the hunger birds. The book brought Chagall paintings and Poe’s writing to my mind – the hazy style of mystery and dread – as if it could have just been a dream. It was a very different book to other ones written by Neil Gaiman – maybe because of the very personal touch to the story. However, I absolutely adored the book because of the story itself and because of the brilliant characters and atmosphere that was both delightful and terrifying or simply delightfully terrifying – just the way Gaiman conjures the wor(l)ds.

I would recommend the book not only to fans of Neil Gaiman but to anybody who would like a magical journey back in time to when life was much simpler, yet more complicated.

Author: Neil Gaiman

Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Publisher: Headline Review

Format: Hardback, 256 pages

Published: 18/06/2013

ISBN: 9781472200310 (Hardback)