Review of Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor

January 25, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Cover for Jack London: An American Life by Earle LaborJack London: An American Life
By Earle Labor; Read by Michael Prichard
16 hours 50 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Media
Published: 2013
Themes: / biography / writing / politics / literature

As Earle Labor notes in his preface to this comprehensive biography, Jack London is a man who, nearly a century after his death, still looms large in the American imagination. Labor seeks to illuminate, or in some cases even dispel, some of the myths surrounding this literary genius (e.g. London was an alcoholic, London was a badass, London committed suicide). Labor also sets himself the task of reconciling London the rugged individualist with London the ardent socialist. With these lofty aims set forth, Jack London: An American Life might have become a programmatic attack, or defense, of London’s life and work. But this book is biography at its best: rich in its description and reliant on primary sources whenever possible not only to dole out facts but to lend an air of local color. The subtitle An American Life is thus appropriate, since the reader is treated to a glimpse into not just the life of Jack London, but into the America (parts of it, at any rate) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Unlike some modern biographies that attempt literary flourishes by beginning in medias res and then backtracking, or otherwise play with chronology or other tropes to heighten the narrative power, Labor’s work doesn’t pull any punches. It is a biography from start to finish, and only delves beyond London’s birth in an effort to shed some light on his less-than-Rockwellian parentage and upbringing. The biography then marches chronologically right up until the days of London’s final illness and death–which at only age 40 came much too soon. While at points this made for tedious reading–I felt I was stuck in the South Sea doldrums right along with London and crew–it left me with a sense of completion lacking in shorter or less thorough biographies. I really feel like I know London’s story from cradle to grave. Though not written for a scholarly audience by any means, the tight focus on London’s immediate life and surrounding does mean the reader should have some knowledge of turn-of-the-century world events. Labor does not deviate from the story, for example, to explain the origins of the Russo-Japanese War or the Mexican Revolution, which both figure into London’s life as a reporter.

This work might just as easily have been subtitled “American Lives”, since Jack London was not only a journalist but also an oyster pirate, a gold miner, a hobo, a convict, a captain, and a rancher, not to mention world-class writer. And Jack London is a prime specimen of the adage “write what you know.” After his time as a gold miner in the Great White North, he cranked out Klondike stories; after his stint reporting boxing matches, he tried his hand at writing a story about a prize match; and during his cruise in the Pacific, he wrote moving pieces about Hawaii and the South Sea, most notably Ko’olau the Leper. As a reader fascinated with wordcraft and the writing process, I found Labor’s observations on London’s writing life particularly insightful. Sadly (for me, at any rate), any sort of deeper criticism (in the scholarly sense of the word) of London’s writings or their far-reaching influence is beyond the scope of this biography. We do not learn whether Ernest Hemingway read London’s anti-bullfighting story The Madness of John Harned, for instance, nor do we discover whether his socialist writings had any impact during the Red Scare not long after his death. The lack of these literary insights isn’t so much a problem with the book as it is a casualty of its tight biographical focus. Most casual readers who don’t go in for literary trivia will probably actually be grateful for its absence.

What makes Jack London: An American Life such a joy to read is its frequent inclusion of source material, much of it written either by London himself or by his precocious and stalwart second wife Charmian. Labor weaves these glittering strands into the narrative’s tapestry so seamlessly that, at least to the audiobook listener, it’s occasionally difficult to ascertain where London’s words leave off and Labor’s prose picks up again. This is partly due to Labor’s own skill as a writer in his own right, and perhaps some of the literary prowess of his subject rubbed off on him as well. The strength of the biography’s prose easily buoys the text along through the book’s occasional slow spot. Michael Prichard’s narration complements the text well, and his accentuation and intonation of quoted text helps mitigate the aforementioned problem of distinguishing quoted material from Labor’s own pen. The few “mistakes” I noticed in the narration are more a matter of usage or stylistic debate than actual shortcomings. Overall, the audio presentation never detracted from, and in some ways added to, the power of the written work.

As I hinted earlier, the only real problem with Jack London: An American Life is that there isn’t enough of it. Earle Labor, curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana, clearly has a lot to say about London, and in fact has written other works about the literary giant. As with any great biography, this book is a springboard inviting readers to further exploration, which in this case means, above all, reading Jack London’s own work. Through his own powerful words, and through the able stewardship of scholars like Labor, Jack London continues to blaze a literary trail almost a hundred years after his passing.

An NPR piece on this new biography features not only snippets of an interview with Earle Labor, but also a wax cylinder recording of Jack London himself.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister E. McGrath

January 2, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Cover of C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister E. McGrath

C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius and Reluctant Prophet
By Alister E. McGrath; Read by Robin Sachs
13 hours 56 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Oasis Audio
Published: 2013
Themes: / biography / religion / fantasy / medieval literature

Before setting out on this review, I must apologize for the liberal use of the first-person pronoun, which I normally use sparingly. This book intersects my personal and professional interests at several points, so I’m not even going to attempt an objective, impartial review, if such a thing is even possible. I am, as Lewis was, a student of medieval literature, though I can only dream of reaching his depth of knowledge and scope of imagination in this field. Furthermore, I undertook part of my studies at Oxford University, which was home to Lewis for much of his life. The City of Dreaming Spires, as Matthew Arnold called it, exerted a profound influence on Lewis’s life and work, and having walked its winding cobbled streets and ancient quadrangles it’s easy to understand why. Last, but certainly not least, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia had a profound impact on my intellectual and imaginative development as a child. In this I suspect I’m not alone, and I hope this review will encourage readers to learn more about the life and mind behind one of the wellsprings of modern fantasy.

Before discussing the biography itself, I should say something of its author. Though currently Professor of Theology at King’s College, London, McGrath’s previous post was in Oxford, where I had heard his name spoken with a great deal of respect while I was there. The biography lists ever so slightly in the direction of Christianity, reflecting its author’s background in theology and apologetics, but on the whole it’s a balanced work firmly grounded in scholarly research of Lewis’s works and correspondence. The biography, of course, deals extensively with Lewis’s religious and spiritual development so central in his life and work, but the work by no means white-washes Lewis’s life or even his faith. This audio recording is preceded by an interview with McGrath, whose calm, measured voice assures us as listeners that we’re chosen a trustworthy guide down the path of Lewis’s life.

Like most biographers, McGrath takes a strictly chronological approach, with very few detours either to backtrack or to foreshadow. The narrative takes us through Lewis’s birth and childhood in Northern Ireland, through his lengthy tenure at Osxford University, to his final years as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge. The biography strikes a delicate balance between Lewis’s rich inner life as reflected in his writings and his sometimes tumultuous outer. In the former case, McGrath devotes considerable space to Lewis’s conversion experience and subsequent development of his spirituality. As an academic, I was also pleased that Lewis’s scholarly works, notably on Edmund Spender’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost, receive some attention. In regards to Lewis’s personal life, the biography charts Lewis’s many professional disappointments resulting from his popular religious work and the rift that formed between Lewis and other Oxford academics. Lewis’s relationships also receive some attention, in particular his long-running peculiar arrangement with the older Mrs. Moore and his controversial marriage to Joy Davidman. Of course, there is significant interplay between Lewis’s inner and outer lives, and McGrath expertly weaves these strands together to illustrate how one sometimes influenced the other. The book concludes by reflecting on the rise of Lewis’s reputation in various circles, religious and popular, after his death in 1963.

Two whole chapters are dedicated to Lewis’s development of The Chronicles of Narnia. McGrath packs a lot of material into these relatively few pages, from Narnia’s inception in Lewis’s mind, to the debate over the proper reading order of the books (Lewis’s ordering, order of publication, or internal chronology), to the works’ modern reception, especially Philip Pullman’s criticism. This section also manages to delve a little deeper, too, highlighting the philosophical and theological underpinnings of this imaginative, not imaginary, world. McGrath deals with the question of whether Narnia is an allegory, and also links the work to Plato’s Republic and the allegory of shadows in the cave. Obviously this is a lot of topics to cram into so little space, and I would have liked a more thorough treatment, but to be fair this is a biography, not a work of literary criticism. McGrath has promised a fuller, more scholarly edition of this book in the near future, which will likely feature copious footnotes providing a wonderful paper trail for the Narnia enthusiast eager to learn more. SFFaudio readers should also note that Lewis’s lesser-known Space Trilogy also receives brief treatment in this biography.

Though built on academic bedrock, C.S. Lewis: A Life is written in a lively, accessible style. McGrath uses Lewis’s own words, or the words of his associates, when possible, which imbues the book with a sense of immediacy and authenticity to the work. I sometimes felt as though I were in the room with Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings as they discussed important religious, mythological, and literary matters. Like Lewis himself, McGrath also has a way of explaining complex intellectual and theological matters in a way that an average reader like me can understand. This is, in my view, the hallmark of any solid intellectual or literary biography. My only criticism of the book, and it’s a trifling one, is that McGrath hardly even alludes to any sexual relations between Lewis and Mrs. Moore, or later between Lewis and Joy Davidman, even though it’s obvious there was some sort of sexual element to these relationships. Perhaps McGrath found this matter distasteful, or thought the book’s Christian readers would. In any case, this omission is to me the one glaring lacuna in an otherwise thorough life story.

Robin Sachs’s stately narration lends the perfect air of British respectability to the audio edition. His pronunciation of some of the book’s more arcane linguistic and literary terms are, for the most part, spot on. As mentioned earlier, the inclusion of an interview with Alister McGrath, is a welcome addition, and provides additional insights into an already insightful work. Another minor quibble: I feel the interview should have been included at the end of the audiobook, rather than the beginning. I prefer to go into a book unbiased by the author’s later thoughts on the book. Again, though, this quibble is very minor. What does conclude the audiobook, however, is an amazing recording of Lewis at his deep-timbres lecturing finest.

There are certainly many other windows into the lives of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the other Inklings. Despite the influence of these authors on my own life, I have to admit I have not read most of these other works. So I’m very glad that one of the first I’ve read has proved to be such an enlightening and entertaining journey, (mostly) free from the partisanship and polarity that plague some biographies of relatively recent figures. I can’t think of many readers who wouldn’t benefit from or at least be entertained by Alister McGrath’s C.S. Lewis: A Life.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

October 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews, Uncategorized 

SFFaudio Review

Cover of Steelheart by Brandon SandersonSteelheart
By Brandon Sanderson; Read by Macleod Andrews
Audible Download – 12 Hours 14 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2013
Themes: / Dystopia / Apocalypse / Superheroes / Revenge

Brandon Sanderson, best-known for putting the finishing touches on Robert Jordan’s sprawling Wheel of Time series, has also crafted several fantasy epics of his own, including the Mistborn trilogy, Warbreaker, and the ambitious Stormlight Archive saga. Now, with Steelheart, he tries his hand at near-future dystopian fiction for young adults. Begin customary blurb. I don’t normally post the entire synopsis for a novel, but I feel this one encapsulates the themes and tone of the book rather neatly.

From the number-one New York Times best-selling author of the Mistborn Trilogy, Brandon Sanderson, comes the first book in a new, action-packed thrill ride of a series – Steelheart. Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.

But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.
Nobody fights the Epics…nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart – the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David’s father. For years, like the Reckoners, David’s been studying, and planning – and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He’s seen Steelheart bleed.

And he wants revenge.

How well does Sanderson make the transition from fantasy to science fiction? Unsurprisingly, spectacularly well. This is for several reasons. First, Sanderson is a professional writer par excellence. I may not like everything he writes, but I can’t deny that it’s all of the highest quality. Second, his elaborate, sometimes byzantine magic systems, with their complex rules, exceptions, and counter-exceptions, are more akin to science. To invert Arthur C. Clarke’s axiom, any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. Likewise, Sanderson’s complex magic systems are distinguishable from the impressive technologies of Steelheart in name only. The novel’s villains, the superhuman Epics, would be at home in many of his worlds. Finally, Sanderson has experience writing for a younger audience, so he knows how to shape a story to the tastes of youth.

But don’t let the YA moniker fool you; Steelheart is a deeply emotional, nuanced, and grown-up book. Only its pared-down vocabulary, simple structure, and quick pacing belie its target audience. The stakes are high. I would compare the book’s overall feel to the last few Harry Potter books. Both feature a rag-tag group of misfits fighting against unimaginable power, impossible odds, and the darkest corners of human nature. Yes, the supervillainous Epics, like most supervillains, are a cipher for the worst human qualities: arroagance, anger, deception, and hate.Any young reader who thoughtfully finishes this book will be forced to confront very grown-up questions of right and wrong, friendship, loyalty, faith, and revenge. These themes might be more boldly drawn than they would be in a work for adults, but they’re not so boldly drawn as to stray into the dangerous realm of caricature or didactic.

I have only one minor but frequently recurring complaint about Steelheart. As a disciple of Robert Jordan, Sanderson likes to use elements from the world as curses and expletives. So, the characters are frequently heard to exclaim “Calamity!” after the red comet hovering in the sky. “Sparks!” is another oft-repeated expletive. In my view, Battlestar Galactica‘s “frak” is the only expletive to pull the effect off convincingly. In Sanderson’s works, as in Jordan’s, the device feels contrived, and jolts me right out of the narrative. The only thing that makes this offense remotely excusable is that the book is intended for the innocent eyes and ears of younger readers, but I still think Sanderson could have found a better way.

Macleod Andrews makes Steelheart a joy to listen to. He flows effortlessly from the youthful voice of protagonist David, to the gruff voice of the Prof, leader of the Reckoners, to the booming voice of Steelheart himself. Some audiobook connoisseurs might find his narration a tad melodramatic, but I can imagine younger readers reveling in Anderson’s adrenaline-fueled rendition of the action scenes. He also lends a light air of levity where it’s appropriate, counterbalancing the novel’s dark themes and bleak setting.

Steelheart is the first novel in a projected series, but Brandon Sanderson’s a busy guy with about a dozen anvil-sized irons in the fire at any given point in time. So I don’t know when a sequel will be forthcoming. While Steelheart neatly wraps up the main questions raised in the book’s early chapters, it still leaves plenty of room for exploration. What is Calamity? Was it really responsible for the rise of the Epics? What’s happening elsewhere in this wide, newly-devastated world. I can’t wait to find out.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

September 30, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Book Cover for The Golem and the JinniThe Golem and the Jinni
By Helene Wecker; Read by George Guidall
Audible Download – 19 Hours 43 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Harper Audio
Published: 2013
Themes: / Magical Realism / Contemporary Fantasy / Judaism / Immigration / Reincarnation

Every year brings new books. Some are sequels, new entries in beloved series, like favorite vacation spots we return to again and again. Others are new works by a proven author, a trusted tour guide taking us to someplace new. Still others are entirely new works by unknown authors who have received praise from the critics or the publisher’s marketing juggernaut, like learning that Costa Rica is the new cool place to visit. But every now and then, I stumble upon a new novel completely by chance, as if turning down the wrong alley in a crowded city and finding a new gem. Last year that novel was Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookshop. This year, it’s Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni.

Let’s start with the official blurb:

Helene Wecker’s dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who appear mysteriously in 1899 New York. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York Harbor. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.

But a bit of cover copy can’t begin to capture the wonder of Wecker’s world. In theme and tone the novel sits squarely between contemporary fantasy in the vein of American Gods on the one hand and the subtle magical realism of books like Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude on the other. The scope is too intimate and the characters’ aims too prosaic for the novel to fall in line with contemporary or urban fantasy. Yet it’s also too relentlessly magical to keep company with literary fiction only spiced sparingly with magic. I say it sits between these two genres, but in another way it encompasses both at once. It’s both an incredibly human story and an entirely alien one. Yet the human and the mythical coexist comfortably on the streets of 19th-century New York City: they flirt, they fight, they even fall in love.

When I read the synopsis and the novel’s first few chapters, I was afraid The Golem and the Jinni would devolve into a thinly veiled commentary on the plight of New World immigrants or, worse, an anachronistic attack on Middle East cultures clashing in the United States. Fortunately, Wecker indulges in the former only sparingly and the latter not at all. Like most good literature, the book describes rather than proscribes. The poverty of the Jewish Quarter and Little Syria alike, where the respective mythical creatures take up residence, speaks for itself. Historical context and modern analogues are there to find if you dig for them, but ultimately Wecker is telling a story, a story of two beings entirely different in nature, one of Earth and one of Fire, who meet in the unlikeliest of places.

And yes, they do meet, but not until many hours into the audiobook. The novel takes a leisurely pace, but that doesn’t make it any less irresistably compeling. The narrative strikes that perfect balance between plot and characterization, both feeding off of and into one another. With a novel of this length there are the inevitable brief dry spells, but in those rare cases the strength of Wecker’s prose and the beauty of the world she has conjured carry the listener through. The book’s final chapters also felt a bit hurried, as endings often tend to be, but a lovely epilogue allows the listener to linger in the world a little longer and say goodbye to its charming cast of characters, human and otherwise.

I mentioned American Gods earlier, and it’s difficult not to think of Neil Gaiman’s masterwork when reading The Golem and the Jinni, since both novels tell the story of what happens when profoundly magical beings come to this profoundly un-magical land of America. As an audiobook listener, the similarities were all the more difficult to ignore because George Guidall lends his considerable voice talent to both works. His unhurried, understated narration fits the novel’s tone perfectly, and his voice moves mercurially from the demure speech of Chava the Golem to the taut clip of Ahmad the Jinni. It’s hard to imagine a better narrator for bringing this story to life.

I deeply hope this is but the first of many wondrous works to issue forth from the pen, or keyboard, of Helene Wecker. Rarely does a book’s world or characters captivate me so completely. If you’re looking for the next great work of contemporary fantasy, magical realism, or just plain old fiction, look no further.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Listen to the first five chapters of Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart

August 28, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: New Releases 

SFFaudio Online Audio

Cover Art for Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart
By Brandon Sanderson; Read by Macleod Andrews
[EXCERPT] – 1 hour 31 minutes
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2013
Themes: dystopia / superheroes / revenge

Audible has made available the first five chapters of Brandon Sanderson’s forthcoming YA dystopian novel Steelheart for free. The novel will be released September 24.

A red star-like object called Calamity appears in our night’s sky. A year later, certain individuals begin developing supernatural powers and come to be known as Epics. A decade or so later, chaos reigns as the Epics turn our world into their personal playground–and battleground. The novel’s prologue flashes back ten years from the main events to a time when the world was still relatively whole. In an unsettling scene, the titular villain is introduced and grounds for a vendetta are established. The remainder of the excerpt follows the main character, whose name we don’t learn, along his first steps on the path of revenge as he courts the resistance movement known as the Reckoners.

Like many readers, I first heard the name Brandon Sanderson in connection with the Wheel of Time series. Having abandoned that bloated series long ago, I never read his contribution, but I did read and enjoy Elantris, the Mistborn trilogy, and Warbreaker. A few chapters into his gargantuan The Way of Kings, however, I realized I was experiencing Sanderson fatigue. Each of his books or series is best known for its wildly inventive magical system, but I felt like I was reading the same two or three character types with the same motivations battling the same circumstances over and over again.

Judging from the opening chapters, Steelheart shows all the signature strengths of the young writer while shedding the overwrought plotting and characters that plague some of his other work. The novel’s categorization as a YA novel, I think, accounts for a lot of the tight focus on action. The near future dystopian setting also shatters Sanderson’s fantasy mold–The Alloy of Law only cracked it. Of course, the world still bears Sanderson’s unmistakable imaginative stamp. Macleod Andrews’s lively narration also fits the fast pace of the novel quite well, though he’s also capable of rendering the few human, emotional moments expertly as well.

I’m tempted to comment further on the excerpt, but I don’t want to spoil the experience. At an hour and a half, it really is worth a listen, even if you’re normally not a fan of dystopias or YA fiction.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

August 25, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Cover for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanThe Ocean at the End of the Lane
By Neil Gaiman; Read by Neil Gaiman
Audible Download – 5 Hours 48 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Harper Audio
Published: 2013
Themes: / Supernatural / Metaphysics / Parallel Universe/ Young Adult

When I learned a year or so ago of Neil Gaiman’s first novel for adults since 2005’s Anansi Boys, I was thrilled. Sure, that last novel didn’t do much for me, nor did most of his subsequent writing for children, but I’m a lifetime Gaimanophile–I’ll read pretty much anything the British expatriate puts out. This is because he established such a solid early track record for me with NeverwhereStardust, and especially American Gods.

Enter The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a whimsically evocative title that itself encapsulates much of what I love about Gaiman. The tale is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, looking back on a defining period in his childhood. The young boy, whose name we never learn, witnesses a suicide that unleashes some strange, powerful cosmic forces in rural Sussex, where the novel takes place. The child is aided in the conflict by the enigmatic and archetypal Hempstock family. Bizarre events ensue.

As with any Neil Gaiman work, the writing is top-notch. Description, dialog, and action all shimmer off the page. When shit gets weird, pardon my French, the events are still grounded in vivid, expressive language that makes it feel as though we might encounter them in our own backyards. The characters, particularly the Hempstock trio, also deserve high praise. To me they evoke the best traits of Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. In the descrepancy of their age (at least their apparent age), they also allude to the Fates of Greek mythology or the Norns of the Old Norse cosmos.

If I had never read a Gaiman novel before, I may have written an unbridled encomium for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as indeed most high-profile book critics and publishing reviews seem to have done. The problem is that I’ve read this Neil Gaiman book before. I’ve read parts of it in Stardust and found splinters of it in his short stories. And from plot to tone to motifs, many elements of the novel have appeared in Gaiman’s fiction for children and young adults.

This perhaps is my biggest qualm with the book. When the book was announced and I read the phrase “first novel for adults,” visions of the deep, nuanced character development of American Gods, or at least the slightly grimier, lived-in setting of Neverwhere, danced through my head. With the exception of a suicide early on, though, I challenge you to find much in Ocean that couldn’t be digested by high school readers. To be fair, marketing may be more at fault than Gaiman himself, but the result is the same. I came away from the book feeling as though I had been duped.

The plot also feels rather thin, “like butter scraped over too mcuh bread” as Bilbo famously said. The story begins with promise: cosmic powers in conflict with nothing less than reality at stake. But the stakes are never really raised, at least not for the world at large. Sure, the main characters undergo their own crises and transformations requisite in good literature, but the scope of the threat is never fully illustrated. Part of my objections to the novel’s plotting may come down to personal taste, but at least some of them, I think, are justified.

In a Tor.com article, Leah Schnelbach recounts that, at an event, Gaiman explained that the story was originall intended as a novella.

I told my publishers there was a novella on the way, but then I did a word count at the end, and realized I just wrote a novel by accident! […] It wasn’t plotted. Things kept taking me by surprise. It’s not making things up, it’s getting into what did actually happen.

Gaiman’s approach to the creative process is beautiful, but in the case of Ocean, it just doesn’t work. I might have enjoyed this story in a Gaiman collection, but by the end of a full-length novel edition I confess I was weary.

In the usual “crap sandwich” style of my reviews, I will conclude with more praise. I “read” this book in audio form, narrated by Gaiman himself. Most authors lack the voice acting chops to narrate their own work, though many still try, but Gaiman’s mellifluous rhythms and upturned sentence endings fit the charming, surreal tone of this novel particularly well. With the possible exception of Stardust, the audio edition of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is perhaps the finest specimen of the author’s narration you’ll find. Oh, except for his reading of his poem “Instructions”.

My dissatisfaction with The Ocean at the End of the Lane has not caused me to lose faith in Neil Gaiman’s work. I simply hope that, as he did in his early career, he finds ways to reinvent himself and push the boundaries of his nearly boundless imagination.

Posted by Seth Wilson

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