Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A couple of books by Neil Gaiman

I figured it was timely to read some Neil Gaiman books, considering The Graveyard Book just won the Newbery Medal for this year's most outstanding contribution to children's literature. He doesn't just write children's books, so I picked one of his novels for adults along with The Graveyard Book. First, I tried reading American Gods, but boy howdy there was enough sex in the first two pages to make me think it wouldn't get better past that. I returned that book and grabbed Anansi Boys. Much cleaner. Phew.

First I'll tell you about this book that was deemed super awesome by a committee of teachers and librarians. The Graveyard Book starts out pretty scary, with a family being murdered by a mysterious and lethal man, Jack, who is meticulous and methodical in his treacherous deed. Somehow, the toddler of the family manages to escape the house and venture his way over to the graveyard next door. The man Jack discovers the little boy's escape and follows him to the graveyard. The ghosts that inhabit the graveyard have taken the boy in and ask the caretaker, Silas, to give him protection. Jack is thwarted and the boy is safe.

The ghosts Mr. and Mrs. Owens are assigned as his adoptive parents and they give him the name Nobody, Bod for short. Since Bod has been given the protection of the graveyard, he can act sort of like a ghost, even if he isn't one. Each of the ghosts who live there contribute to Bod's education and Silas acts as a mentor and guardian. The ghosts cannot leave the graveyard, so Silas, in his special capacity as not-ghost-yet-not-mortal state can get the boy food and books and other needs. Bod is not safe to leave the graveyard since the man Jack is on the lookout for him, so he remains isolated, but at least surrounded by friends. For the most part.

I can see why this book won the Newbery. It reminds me of The Underneath, which I think won a Newbery Honor last year. Maybe those Newbery folks like the spooky stuff. That's okay by me. It's a bit too scary for my eight-year-old, what with the family being murdered at the beginning and her very low tolerance for scariness, so I think I'll wait a few more years to introduce it to her. Anyway, the plot is thick, the suspense intense, the characters entrancing, and the villain deliciously bad. One of the best parts of the book was how Bod dealt with the bullies during his short attempt at going to school. Here is Bod, dealing with ghouls and the man Jack and then snotty little girls. One of the girls insists on calling him Bob and for some reason that made me laugh every time. His curiosity and kindess, his devotion to the ghosts that raise him all make him so incredibly likeable. It helps that the adventures he has keeps the reader riveted.

Gaiman's Anansi Boys takes a different direction. Which is good. If you've read any African folk tales, you're familiar with the prankster Anansi, the Spider. Gaiman takes Anansi, along with the other creatures from those tales and puts them into modern day. "Fat Charlie" Nancy is a timid man who lives in London, but was born in the States. When his father dies in Florida, he goes to the funeral with much hesitation. His father was always embarrassing him and even his death in a karaoke bar is too embarrassing for Charlie to contemplate. After the funeral, he encounters the women who lived near Charlie when he was young and were friends to his father. They inform him that his father is the god Anansi and that he was a trickster, but with a good heart. They also warn him of his brother, Spider. Charlie thinks they're joking since he has no memory of a brother and goes home thinking everybody in Florida is nuts.

Charlie is engaged to Rosie, a delightful girl, but you gather that their love is tepid at best. Rosie's interested in Charlie because he's essentially a good guy and being engaged to him drives her mother nuts. Her mom is one of the best written characters in the book and every moment spent with her spindly, critical self is a treat. She's a hoot. When Charlie summons his brother on a lark, his brother is the fun-loving, popular, dynamic person Charlie has never been. And he wins Rosie's heart. Spider also has all the powers of his father that Charlie lacks and goes about turning Charlie's life upside down.

Another great character beside Rosie's mom is Charlie's employer, Grahame Coats. While Spider is impersonating Charlie, Spider discovers that Coats is embezzling from his clients, points out this fact to Coats, and inadvertantly starts a plot by Coats to implicate Charlie and disappear to the Caribbean with his riches. Coats is a sleeze characterized by his blatant overuse of cliches. Never before have cliches been so despicable.

The story sends the characters to the Caribbean, to the world of the African gods and all over Florida and London. Charlie is a bit of a weenie, but he starts to come into his own in defense of his love, Rosie. There's also a detective, Daisy, whose appearance suddenly has you rooting for her and Charlie's future instead of with Rosie. You cringe with Charlie as he remembers all the embarrassing things his father did to him growing up. Your mouth drops open with shock at what Grahame Coats is capable of doing. And you laugh out loud when Rosie's mother steps up to save the day. The image of her bony bum is seared into my mind. I'll leave you with that.

In all, I think Gaiman is worth reading again. He can weave a scary, suspenseful, interesting story, but have humor throughout. I laughed outloud several times reading Anansi Boys. I love to be scared and I love to laugh, so books that combine the two are a rare treat for me. I'll be on the lookout for Gaiman books in the future.


  1. I had the same experience with American Gods. Although I appreciate a book that lets you know up front that it is not for you. I hate getting really into a book only to have to turn smutty on me. (I'm looking at you Time Traveler's Wife.)

    I'm reading Fragile Things right now and really loving it. It's a bunch of his short stories, all different styles and genres. And I started to read The Graveyard Book but it was due back at the library and I couldn't renew it. (Dumb holds). I'll put it back on my list.

    Have you read Good Omens? Because it is, quite possibly, the Funniest Book Ever Written.

  2. On the holds list as of two seconds ago: Good Omens and Fragile Things. I'm giddy with the thought of reading the Funniest Book Ever Written. Giddy, I say.

    I have to admit that Time Traveler's Wife's level of smut did not stop me from reading it. Not one of my prouder moments. The story captured me and wouldn't let me go. But it won't be a repeat read, that's for sure. How's that for delayed repentance?

  3. I also read all of Time Traveler's Wife, despite the smut, because the story got me much too involved. It's also not a reread for me. I've never heard of Neil Gaiman before, and I'm looking forward to reading some of his stuff! I just finished Orson Scott Card's The Crystal City, which was kind of a let-down, so it's nice to hear from both of my well-read, tasteful reading friends that these are good books. I'll be putting in requests for those books asap.

  4. I just requested Good Omens and The Graveyard Book, and found out that he also wrote Stardust, which I loved as a movie. I requested that one as well. I noticed that Good Omens was co-written with Terry Pratchett, whose book the Wee Free Men was quite entertaining. I'm looking forward to all of those reads. While I wait for them to get to the desk at the library I'm reading Georgia Nicholson, of course.

  5. That's why the name Neil Gaiman was so familiar! I've heard mixed reviews about the book "Stardust", so I've been meaning to look into it myself. Rach, you'll have to share your thoughts! The "Stardust" story is so delightfully bizarre that I'm curious what else goes on in his head. Judging by this review, I've got some reading to do!