Thoughts on The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap SeatsNeil Gaiman is one of those authors whose fiction has a distinct style. You can point to something he wrote and say with confidence, Neil Gaiman wrote that. It’s in the names he chooses, the subjects he writes about, the stories he weaves, and the language he uses as the strands to do so. After having read and loved many of his novels (Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, and Stardust are some of these), and hearing his incredible speech titled Make Good Art, I was very excited to read his book of collected non-fiction, The View from the Cheap Seats.

The book is comprised of magazine articles, essays, speeches for various occasions, and book introductions which are grouped together in an order that generally flows from subject to subject. Some pieces are short, others are quite long, and some of them seem to overlap each other slightly. He writes about everything from his own fiction, authors he admires, his career in comic book writing, the internet, music, films, mythology, and his childhood.

Beginning with the dedication – “For Ash, who’s new, for when he is grown. These were some of the things your father loved and said and cared about and believed, a long time ago.” – I loved this book. It is filled with the wisdom and insights of a man who has dedicated his life to telling stories. From a young boy reading his way through the children’s section of the library, to the young man who discovered and devoured the science fiction genre and comic books, to the young journalist, to the comic book writer and finally the award-winning novelist he is today. This book is all at once a reader’s guide to great fiction, a quasi-memoir, a conversation about what makes a book great, but most of all it is a love letter to story telling and literature. Neil Gaiman is one of the great authors of our time (in my opinion), and getting to see the inside of his brain in this book was such a treat.

Right off the bat we are confronted with discussions about the importance of literacy, libraries, and the freedom to read whatever you feel compelled to read. Reading teaches you how to think, it exercises your imagination, and it teaches us that anything is possible. According to Neil, a child should never be forbidden to read a book, even if it is not necessarily what you want them to be reading. He says every book is a gateway drug into the next book, and eventually they will probably stumble onto things you do feel more comfortable with, while all along learning about themselves and the world.

I loved his discussions about what makes a genre a genre, and another piece on what the difference is between a children’s book and a book for adults. He comes at these questions from a place of pure curiosity, taking the questions down to their fundamentals and building up from there. Truly, what is the difference between a book for children and a book for adults? It is not easy to point to one criteria that makes the difference, is it?

There is a good chunk in the middle of the book to do with comics; how he read and collected them as a kid to his eventual career writing them, working with different artists, as well as reviews and introductions for them. I myself have never read comics or graphic novels at all, and while this was not my favorite section of the book, I still feel like I came away from it having learned a lot about them, and harboring a new curiosity to find one of the ones discussed to see what I might think of it.

Neil, like me (and you, I presume), is a lover of fiction. He shares the names of works and writers who have inspired him, books that helped shape him, and the stories of how he came upon them in the first place. His introductions offer new perspectives on works you may have read before, and have definitely sparked my interest in some books I’ve never heard of. His recommendations span throughout many genres including children’s, science fiction, horror, and classics so you’re bound to find something you’ll love as well as something that may be out of your comfort zone.

The one thing that surprised me the most about this collection was how much Neil Gaiman has done. He has been involved with magazines, newspapers, collaboration fiction, short stories, children’s books, novels, comics, as well as being the speaker at any number of conventions and events, he’s been asked to write about books in all different types of genres, as well as writing for music albums, film scripts, and essays. What hasn’t the man done? He has a curious mind, and is a true believer in art and creativity. He understands the impact one good book can have on a person, and more importantly, he wants everyone to be able to feel that incredible feeling.

If I’ve come away from this book with only one thing, it’s that I love Neil Gaiman. I already knew it, but I saw so many more facets of the man through this book, and it’s made me love him all the more. I highly recommend it for any reader.

E.

Summer 2017 TBR – & the 10 Books of Summer Challenge

I was in the middle of drafting a summer 2017 TBR post when I came across the 20 Books of Summer challenge hosted by 746books.com. What a happy coincidence! So instead of the conservative 5 books I was planning to list, why not double it and see if I can finish them all? Here are the books I plan to read for this challenge (June 1st – September 3rd)::

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Some books have a seasonal aura about them, and for me The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy screams summertime. I first read it in the summer of maybe 2010 – 2011 era? I remember it being short, light, and absolutely hilarious. I’m really looking forward to a refresher.

A Study in Scarlett by Arthur Conan Doyle

So far, the only Sherlock Holmes I’ve read is The Hound of the Baskervilles, and to be honest, I wasn’t really impressed. Last week I was searching through Audible looking on something to spend my credits on and I saw the complete Sherlock Holmes collection read by Stephen Fry. It’s nearly 63 hours long! The first piece in the series is A Study in Scarlett, and I hope to have it completed by the end of the summer.

Finders Keepers & End of Watch by Stephen King

While on maternity leave earlier this year, I read Mr. Mercedes, the first in a trilogy of psychological/crime thrillers by Stephen King. While I wouldn’t necessarily say I LOVED Mr. Mercedes – because seriously, Brady Heartfield is messed up – but it sure was a page turner, and I’ve borrowed the next two books in the series from a friend at work, so I want to make sure I get them read and returned. Besides, I love Stephen King and would love to make a bigger dent in his body of work.

 

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

This is the book I am currently reading as an audiobook. It is a non-fiction collection of Neil Gaiman’s speeches, essays, and articles. From what I’ve read so far, it’s superb. It is also narrated by the author, which makes it 100xs better.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I was not planning to start this novel anytime soon, but after posting my new Classics Club reading list I was convinced to start it immediately. This book is over 1,000 pages long, so it may throw a wrench into this challenge, but oh well. I’m only 10 pages in so far and I already feel like I’m going to love it!

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

This book has come highly recommended to me by a friend from work, so I added it to my audible list. I can usually crank out at least one audiobook a month at work so this one will probably be up next. By the synopsis I’m not fully entranced, but my friend sings nothing but praises, so we’ll see how it goes!

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

I’m shamed to admit I’ve never read this book. Lately I’ve been seeing it everywhere, and I think it’s about time to remedy that. It is also on my Classics Club Challenge list, and it’d be nice to knock out a few early to give myself a great start!

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I’ve been meaning to read this forever, and I have a feeling it’d be a great book to read in the summer (it’s about a road trip after all)…but I kind of want to leave this spot in the list open for any Steinbeck. I have a bindup copy of his seven short novels that I want to get through as well, so I’d be happy to read one of those instead. We’ll see what mood I’m in when we get to it :-)

The Fireman by Joe Hill

I originally read the first quarter of this book just after it was released, but for some reason I put it down and never picked it back up. I really want to finish it up! I read Horns a few years back and really enjoyed it, so I have high hopes for this one.

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

My first review in awhile! As I mentioned just before, we’ve moved recently, which has left precious little time for reading. The last few weeks though, I’ve been getting the itch to listen to audiobooks at work, I just never seemed to get to the library to pick any up. Until Tuesday.

First up from those selections, Her Fearful Symmetry. Audrey Niffenegger (how awesome is that last name, by the way?) is the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I enjoyed intensely, so I’ve naturally been wanting to read this book since it came out in 2009. Unfortunately, almost every review I read about it was negative, and so it continued to be pushed to the bottom of my priority list – And here we are four years later….

Audiobook Narrated by Bianca Amato

Audiobook Narrated by Bianca Amato

This book reminds me of a mix between The Thirteenth Tale (by Diane Setterfield) and The Blind Assassin (by Margaret Atwood), both of which I’ve been meaning to reread. If you’ve read either of those, you will have an idea of what the tone of this book is, and also the layout:: It’s a story within a story, within a story – and Niffenegger is talented enough, like Atwood (The Blind Assassin), to pull it off. I think maybe it got bad reader reviews at first because it’s not like The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is what the hyped up readers were expecting. It’s not better or worse – it’s just a different story.

Probably one of the best skills and highest compliments an author can receive (/have), is to be consistent, something I’ve found Audrey Niffenegger to be in her full length novels so far. The storytelling is definitely there. She has ‘proven’ herself to me with this book, and now I’m not only a fan of the books themselves, but the mind matter they were created from, Audrey herself.

All the blurbs you will find about this book are very vague, and now I can see why. This is the type of book you have to discover on your own. There are layers to peel away, a little bit at a time. The limited knowledge beforehand is an opportunity of discovery not often available in today’s reading environment. Savor it.

Characters in this novel felt real. Real in the sense that some of them were likable, some I was indifferent to, and others I didn’t like so much, but not because they were constructed to be disliked…it’s hard to explain. ‘Real’ is the best descriptor I am capable of at the moment – and it’s times like these one realizes how grossly overused terms like that really are.

Imagine your neighbor. He’s not a bad person, but he has flaws – flaws that he has adapted to and effect things in his life, on a large and small scale. It’s almost like Niffenegger isn’t inventing these people, she’s just capturing them, and putting them to paper. Combining these captured personalities create real situations that they react to in real ways. Ironically, the only two characters I felt weren’t created so beautifully as the others are the two active ‘main characters’ in the story, The Mirror Twins who inherit their aunt’s estate.

Note: Martin and Marika are my two favorite characters, by far (though technically they’re ‘extras’). Also, Jack.

There is romance in this story, what I would think of as ‘real’ romance – in other words, not ‘falling in love’ romance but ‘loved each other for years’ romance. How many times can I say romance in one sentence? Many of the characters in this story are older, between 35 and 90 (haha). They have almost all found their life mates and are settled with one another. I imagine they all look like they belong together by now, you know? How people who are together for a long time sort of morph into one another? That’s how I imagine many of the characters in this book to be.

My only complaint about this book is basically the main plot. Not all of it, but the whole climax story bugged me. The twins were just written a little bit too immature for my taste. Then again they are 21, and now that I’m older than 21, that age does seem a little immature – but within reason, come on. I can also see that because they’re twins and do everything together, they are a little bit handicapped from many ‘growing up’ milestones, so perhaps that’s what Niffenegger was trying to accomplish.

Since I listened to this book in audio format, it’s more difficult for me to honestly assess the writing. It sounded good…I can really only remember one hiccup, where a short scene, while well written, sort of seemed jammed in…like it didn’t fit there, or really anywhere, but the information in it was needed as background and for the readers to understand some character tension. I think it could have probably been re-written in a more successful way…it was probably a case where the author just didn’t want to cut it because it was so well written. I don’t blame her. Eh, it was one scene. Perhaps two pages, it’s forgivable.

Now the narration. Bianca Amato of course introduced herself on the first track, and immediately I remembered her name from something else I’d read, but I couldn’t put my finger on it for several minutes of reading. Then I had it – The Lady of the Rivers, by Phillipa Gregory was narrated by Bianca Amato – and I LOVED that book, halfway because of the narration. That is to say, I also loved her narration in this book, but I have to admit it was less successful here. I was able to tell in many places where a new track began because of a forcefulness in her voice that naturally fades when reading aloud. There were also <i>a lot</i> of voices to do in this book, often without ‘he said/she said’, just directly switching out, like this::

“What is the meaning of life?”

“The meaning of life? How should I know.”

“I thought you’d been pondering the question for days.”

“Yes, well…”

“and you’ve come up with nothing?”

“So far”

(Not from the book, BTW, just came out of my brain)

Dialogue like that can get very tricky when reading aloud and still seeming natural, try it. Generally though, great job. She has a very expressive and comforting voice. It’s very easy to follow and understand, I will keep one eye out for her name as I peruse the shelves in the future. Perhaps I’ll google her ‘voice’ography.

This is the kind of book that sticks around in your head after you’ve finished it, plots and motivations circling your mind during the blank moments in your day until you fill it up again with the next book and new characters. I’m already looking forward to the next time I get to read it.

Stardust, Neil Gaiman – An Audiobook & Movie Review

My favorite thing about (most) Neil Gaiman audiobooks is that they’re narrated by the author. The only one I’ve heard that wasn’t is Anansi Boys, but I really liked that narrator (Lenny Henry) as well. I highly recommend checking if your local library has any of Gaiman’s self-narrated novels – read them while you commute! They’re effortless and ever so pleasant!

Now about Stardust: I bought the movie adaptation of Stardust (Released in 2007) several long years ago now in a $5 movie bin – and LOVED it. It was probably a year later before I’d even heard of Neil Gaiman (around the same time I discovered Goodreads), and a little after that before I connected that the movie Stardust was actually based on a novel of his. I liked the movie so much that I’ve been putting off reading the novel ever since.

Stardust Audiobook Cover

Stardust Audiobook Cover

There is a short (20 minute?) interview of the author at the end of the audiobook where I found out that Stardust was first published as a graphic novel. This intrigues me, I’d love to flip through a copy someday. He talks about how the story has been tweaked since then and how it came to be published in a novel form (this is all before the movie went into production). It seems Stardust was the first audiobook Gaiman recorded himself, which he apparently enjoyed because I’ve listened to Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book read by him already, and enjoyed them both very much :-) I thought the interview was a very good addition to the ending of the audiobook. Many of the questions were not just run-of-the-mill, and seemed very relevant to Gaiman as an author.

So first, the narration: I could tell by listening that this was at least an early attempt at narrating for Neil, I could hear where some of the narration was cut and they started a new clip (they faded it a bit – why?). It didn’t take away from the story, but it was noticeable in some places. As always, listening to the story went very smoothly. Neil’s voice is so relaxing; he has a great accent, but he also has a way of talking almost slowly, it’s like he takes care with each sentence, chewing each word – he’s a phenomenal story teller and a great reader.

I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t seen the movie when I write up this ‘review’ of the novel itself. As I listened I was almost constantly reverting back to the movie and noticing differences.

Stardust Movie Cover

Stardust Movie Cover

The movie captured me very early on. It’s about a ‘parallel’ world of magic with only one entrance from our world: in a gap in an old stone wall in the small English village so named: ‘Wall’. It is set sometime in the late 1800s/early 1900s? The gap in the wall is guarded at all times by someone from the village, and no one really knows what exists on the other side of it (this differs a little bit in the novel) – no one is allowed to cross it. A young man named Dunstan Thorn does, however, slip past and into a strange magical market just on the other side. He meets a beautiful young woman at a shop stall selling flowers, to which she sells him one for the price of a kiss. He finds out she is a slave/servant of the stall owner, who is away at the moment, and she cuts off part of the magical chain that binds her and gives it to Dunstan, which he also keeps (again, difference from the novel) – and they hightail it to the wagon behind her to get it on. Dunstan returns to Wall after his dalliance with only the small flower and the length of magical chain to remember his mistress by…until 9 months later, when a baby basket is pushed through the gap in the wall with his name on it: baby Tristan Thorn.

Fast forward nearly twenty years – and Tristan is now the young man we follow in the story. He promises a beautiful girl from the village that he will fetch her a falling star to win her hand in marriage, and crosses the wall to do so. His father had given him the two trinkets he had from his short trip over the wall, and a small black candle that was in the baby basket he was ‘delivered’ in. The candle is magic. All Tristan had to do was the light it and think of where he wanted to go. He was supposed to be thinking if his mother, to meet her, but Victoria (the beautiful girl) slipped into his mind just as the candle activated and he was transported straight to the fallen star. Of course, over the wall the ‘star’ is not a meteor – that is, a hunk of fused metals and ‘alien’ matter – she is instead, a beautiful woman, played by Claire Daines.

This is only the main plot – there are many sub-plots woven through and around the story that make it complex and magical. There are Unicorns, Witch Queens, Grand Kingdoms, and Ghosts; Pirates, Ancient Runes, Carriages, and Curses. This is an amazing fairy tale adventure for an adult audience, and a beautiful and classic coming if age story with a hint of romance infused.

Now that I’ve read the book, I appreciate more about the movie. They had some incredible actors, first of all: Michelle Pfieiffer, Robert DiNero, Claire Daines, and Charlie Cox. There were appearances by Ricky Gervais, Ian McKellan narrated, and Sienna Miller, who plays the lovely Victoria Forrester.

I found a few movie stills when I searched for the movie cover, so I will include some of them here::

Michelle Pfeiffer's character, the Witch Queen and Ditchwater Sal

Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, the Witch Queen and Ditchwater Sal.

Ricky Gervais' 'cameo' roll as a merchant - he's brilliant.

Ricky Gervais’ ‘cameo’ roll as a merchant – he’s brilliant.

I loved the movie, in short. I’ve recommended many people watch it, and lent it to several friends and family members. I can’t believe it was only $5!

Because of my high opinion of the movie, I had very specific and grand expectations for the novel – and yet, I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect (it is Neil Gaiman, after all). One thing is for sure, there are many amazing covers for this novel. Here are two of my favorites::

Stardust 1

Stardust 2

I’ve read quite a few Neil Gaiman novels now, and I feel like I’ve definitely got a hold on his style. Although all of his novels are very different, they are all a little bit the same. This is one of his early(er) works, so perhaps that was part of it, but I just wasn’t blown away by the story. Perhaps it’s the same reason I wasn’t blown away by The Princess Bride book – the movies just blow them out of the water – they’re both amazing.

In a way I think the movie solved some of the conflicts more easily and more gracefully than the book does. The minor characters are much more well rounded in the movie adaptation as well (sorry Neil!). One example of the consolidation of characters and plot points: The Little Hairy Man. (Note: All that I’m about to explain happens in the first quarter of the book, so I don’t count them as spoilers, but you might).

Gaiman wrote a character called the Little Hairy Man. Tristan meets him once he crosses the gap in the wall to find his fallen star. This is where Tristan in the novel acquires the light-travel candle and the length of magical chain he uses to bring the star along back with him (along with a few other useful things, like clothes). In the movie, Tristan’s father, Dunstan, gives Tristan these two essential things before he goes on his adventure. This is the time when he tells Tristan that his mother is from across the wall, and that she provided the candle for him to come and see her when he was able to. The second version makes more sense to me – logically. Why would the little hairy man provide Tristan with the candle and chain, really? They are both extremely valuable. And what better time for Tristan’s father to tell him about his mother (in the book, Tristan thinks that Dunstan’s wife is his mother, and he has a sister. In the movie his father is still a bachelor…it doesn’t explain what Tristan knows of his mother before this).

Besides the small changes like that made by the movie, the rest of it must have been really simple to make, because Gaiman portrayed them so completely and wonderfully in the book – they just had to build the sets and adorn costumes to make the story come to life, the magic was already there.

This and the aforementioned Princess Bride are my two biggest book to movie complaints. I kick myself in both cases for not reading the book first. In both cases, the books were such a perfect outlines for the movies, there was little room for failure, only enhancement, and that they did in both cases very well. I know the book has magic of it’s own, but it was overshadowed by the movie for me, since I’d watched it first. It was almost like the book was an emptier shell of the movie plot. I am sad that that happened :-(

That being said, I LOVE fairy tales and especially ‘grown-up’ fairy tales – if you haven’t read or seen the movie of Stardust (or Princess Bride for that matter), please do. But if you want to read the book at any point, do it first, I’m telling you!

Thanks for reading guys,
See you next time.
-Emma