Review: Good Omens

Book: Good Omens

Author: Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

My Rating: 2/5 Stars

You know when all of your friends talk something up and then when you finally experience it, the reality is so much different than what had been conveyed that it kind of ruins it? That pretty much sums up my experience with Good Omens, an apocalyptic fiction novel by British authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. All of the praise on the inside cover hails this as supremely funny – the same praise my friends gave it – but for me it mostly fell flat. I might have liked it more if I didn’t go in with such high expectations, but here we are nonetheless.

Good Omens is a novel about the apocalypse, the battle between Heaven and Hell brought on by the birth of the Anti-Christ. The list of characters is incredibly long, but the novel is introduced as a story through the eyes of a demon and angel on Earth, Crowley and Aziraphale. Here the story shined, as the interactions between these two were the high points of the book. The humor they brought to the story was mostly the only humor I found in the entire novel, but it wasn’t enough to save an altogether dry story. The premise is essentially that these two realize they don’t want the world to end, so they begin to work against the mechanisms of the higher powers they serve to avoid the end of times. As they attempt this, many other characters are introduced; there are demons, angels, witch hunters, witches and many normal humans that make up the vast cast of this novel. One of my biggest complaints is that the authors did a poor job introducing each character. There was never any segue into a new POV and I had to eventually make a quick list of characters to keep things straight. Some important characters are brought up early on and then we don’t see them again until more than halfway through the novel. This made the read a bit confusing at times. I also strongly disliked the young Anti-Christ and his posy. Every time the novel switched to their part of the story I was yawning and had to force myself to keep reading. Overall, I found most of the characters to be very lackluster and boring.

Another big problem I had from this book was the pacing. When I started it, I was on 100% on board. I loved the banter between Aziraphale and Crowley as they participated in the bible story of Adam and Eve. After this opening scene, though, things really started to slow down and from here until the end of the book there were only a handful of sections that kept me fully engaged – mostly just the ones where Aziraphale and Crowley were the center pieces. One of my favorites was when they both got drunk and fell into deep conversation in the back of Aziraphale’s bookstore. Most of the book, though, was a bit of a slog for me. The first fifth of the novel covers events that took place years ago and then the rest covers events over the course of five days. Almost half of the entire novel covers a single day in time, but because of the vast amount of characters and threads that had to come together and be resolved, it took forever to get to the point. Overall, there were a couple sections that kept me engaged, but for the most part, reading this book was a chore.

Aside from all that I didn’t like about this book, there was some good things to find here. The premise was interesting and I think the story had a lot to say about the nature of good and evil. Like I mentioned before, the interactions between Crowley and Aziraphale were witty and funny and their characters were the saving grace of the book. The four horsemen of the apocalypse was another group of characters I found interesting and the events they were involved in were usually fairly engaging. There is a scene later in the novel where the four horsemen meet a group of Hell’s Angels and the two groups team up and ride together – this was hilarious and I wish there had been more humor like this. Lastly, I can appreciate the themes being touched upon in the novel – fighting against fate, good vs. evil and the innocence of childhood. Oh, and it was interesting how often the authors were able to work the word “ineffable” into a sentence. I didn’t know what it meant when I started the book, so at least I learned one thing from giving it a try.

Overall, Good Omens was a dud for me. I have struck out a couple times this year with Neil Gaiman, which is a shame because I really enjoyed American Gods and his retelling of old stories in Norse Mythology. Perhaps it’s time to give this author a break and return later. I haven’t given up, though, because I still hear so many good things from people I know. If you enjoy all of Gaiman’s novels I would assume you will enjoy this (I have never read anything else by Terry Pratchett so I can’t speak to that side of things). Perhaps I would have liked this more if I were British or had a stronger background in Christian teachings. Either way, this is not one I will be coming back to.

Ambiance and Reading

Last week I published a post about how the occasional alcoholic beverage can enhance the reading experience and this brought another thought to mind – what role does ambiance play in the reading process? Ambiance is something I spend a lot of time thinking about because it is important for my general happiness that a space feels a certain way. I enjoy the challenge of taking a room and turning it into a space where I can think, rest, read, entertain or any other number of things. As this applies to most things in my life, it obviously applies to reading as well.

First off, there are two different kinds of ambiance that I want to discuss. There are many situations where a natural ambiance is good enough to promote good thought in a reading space and then there are situations where a synthetic ambiance is something I strive for to recreate a space and make it into a place where I can dive into a book. Both of these can make reading more enjoyable and I think whether we think about it or not, everyone has a preferred “feeling” for a space where they choose to read.

Natural ambiance is my favorite kind because it feels more real and comforting than the synthetic variety. Some of my favorite memories of reading have been outside and the feeling of peace and calm that this environment breeds is perfect for devouring a novel. When I was in Greece with friends this past summer, on the island of Mykonos, we stayed in a small AirBnb in the hills outside of the main towns and had a phenomenal view of the Aegean and the white towns nearby. The wind blew pleasantly at all times of the day and the sun shined warmly. We had a large patio outside of the small square living space and I would sit on the patio at the height of the day and read a book. The combination of the warm sun, the breeze blocking out noises from town and the beautiful view created a reading experience that I will never forget. Another example is from my younger years growing up in upstate NY. My parents live in a rural area on a small hill – the area where I grew up being in a large valley in the Finger Lakes region. I used to go to a small lake nearby in the summer and sit near the water with a good book. You could hear birds and frogs and the light sound of families enjoying the warm days. Those days were so relaxing that I often think of them in the heart of winter to try and warm my soul a bit.

Synthetic ambiance, while not as inspirational as being outside, can be a good way to make an indoor space more fitting for reading. I find that this helps my mood tremendously during the winter – something I learned through my understanding of the Danish word Hygge (translated loosely to coziness). When it is cold and gray outside and the sun sets at 5PM it is perfect to light a couple candles, grab a warm knit blanket and read under the light of a lamp. I find that while winter is definitely the most ideal time for me to hunker down and burn through my to-read pile, it is also the hardest time of the year for me to focus on reading because I struggle with seasonal depression. I notice it hit me around November every year when the skies start to stay gray day after day and the sun sets earlier in the day. However, with the right ambiance I can usually inspire myself enough to read a little each day. Probably my favorite example of perfect synthetic ambiance comes from my time living alone in my first apartment. I had a large living room and after suffering through my first winter I decided to make some changes to the space. By the time fall and winter rolled around for a second time I had established a nice space for reading and staying sane during the cold months of the year. The first rule for me is always scent – I personally find that earthy scents (sandalwood incense or pine candles are good examples) set the mood for me to enjoy a good book. The second rule is some light background noise. I picked up a record player during this time and when I wanted to read I would put on a jazz record on low volume to keep my brain from picking out and getting distracted by the sounds on the street outside. The third rule is lighting – I prefer to have a lamp or two lighting the space with vintage LED bulbs to give the room a nice warm glow. The final rule is warmth which I always find through the use of thick knit blankets because I keep my apartment pretty cool during the winter. With these things combined I find myself a lot more willing to sit down with a book even when I am feeling low.

Ambiance obviously plays a large role in my reading routine and helps me develop memories that I can often associate with books I have read in the past. Having these memories provides me with inspiration to keep reading even when I may not feel up to it. What role does ambiance play in your reading lifestyle?

Books and Booze

I have been reading since I was a child and as I have grown up, my reading habits have inevitably changed with the ebb and flow of my everyday life. When I was in grade school and had the summers off I would buy a book and binge it until 4AM because I could. In college I would read chapters between engineering problem sets to make sure I got through some books during a busy schedule. When I was working as a shift leader in my previous job I would bring in books to read on the off shifts when things got slow. No matter what the circumstances were, I have always managed to meld my lifestyle with my love for reading.

Perhaps the best addition to my literary lifestyle, though, has sprung up in the last five years. That would of course be the occasional addition of booze to my reading time. Whether it be a cocktail in a quiet café on a Saturday afternoon or a cold beer at five o’clock on a Wednesday, there is something magical about sipping on an adult beverage while devouring a novel.

Now, to be clear, I am not talking about reading after consuming 3 tequila shots on a Saturday night – maybe that’s okay for some people, but for me the words would definitely start to blur together and I would find myself ten pages from the last part I remember and have to back track. What I enjoy is that light buzz one gets from one or two drinks and how it helps you get lost in the pages just a little more easily. I love reading at all times of the day, but as someone who is ultra-sensitive to ambient noise and the distractions that come from being alive in 2019, a bit of a buzz helps hone my focus and block out that background noise.

In addition to the aforementioned aid to my focus, there is something romantic about reading a literary piece while sipping a glass of whiskey or gin. A lot of famous authors – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac – drank while writing and a lot of their works use alcohol as a catalyst for some of the adventures, thoughts and often mayhem that their characters experience. Many of these authors had an unhealthy relationship to booze – something I want to explore in a later post – but it cannot be denied that it played a large role in their writing process. As a result, I often feel a deeper connection to a piece when sipping pleasantly on a glass of something strong.

Whether it be sipping ouzo in Greece while reading a classic or hunkering down with a fun fantasy romp and a glass of Guinness in my apartment on a cold night, booze and books is one of favorite combinations. Do you like to occasionally mix alcohol and literature? Let me know in the comments below.

Review: Tales of the Jazz Age

Book: Tales of the Jazz Age

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

My relationship with Fitzgerald is complicated. Aside from The Great Gatsby, I couldn’t make it through any of his novels. I found them to be boring, I hated the characters and the writing was often times too elaborate for my tastes. His short stories, however, I find to be superbly written and entertaining, and Tales of the Jazz Age was no exception.

Originally published in 1922, this vintage edition contains 11 short works that tell stories ranging the full spectrum of human emotion. They explore the mundane and the extraordinary and almost every single one was a great read.

The Jelly-Bean – A slow start to the collection, the short story tells that tale of a Southern man nicknamed “The Jelly-Bean” (real name Jim Powell) due to his lazy and dimwitted tendencies. Powell gets invited to a party and here he gains the attention of a free-spirited, upper class woman whom he fancies. Throughout the night they drink together and gamble together and she takes a liking to him. His dreams, however, are shattered when the next day he finds out she married the boring businessman who had been suiting her. What’s the point? Jim was prepared to change who he was for the love a woman from a different world, but in the end she did what society expected of her and broke his heart in the process. Not everyone gets a happy ending. The interesting part of this one is that Zelda co-wrote it with her husband, in particular the bits about crap shooting.

The Camel’s Back – A very humorous tale about a man who proposes to his longtime girlfriend, and then proceeds to get rip roaring drunk after she declines the proposal. As the story progresses he ends up as the front end in a camel costume and shows up at a party where, lo and behold, his now ex-girlfriend is having a great time. Hilarity ensues. I think the message here is that alcohol can lead to bad judgment. I didn’t need that reminder, but the story was a good time.

May Day – One of the more complex stories in the collection, this one tells multiple inter-twining tales that touched on ideas that I felt were still relevant today. Clashing political ideologies, soldiers’ trouble reintegrating into society, lost innocence, alcohol abuse and false friendships. Fitzgerald says he was trying to capture “the general hysteria of that spring which inaugurated the Age of Jazz” and I felt he was successful in this pursuit. The story was interesting and engaging and again, I was able to draw many similes with today’s problems. I would strongly recommend this one.

Porcelain and Pink – A one act play about a woman taking a bath. I’m sure it ruffled the feathers of some of the more religious and prude of the time. Comical, witty and classic Fitzgerald.

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz – More of a fun fiction than some of Fitzgerald’s other stories, this one follows a young Southern gent as he is brought to the home of a classmate. Upon arrival he is introduced to extravagance he has never even heard of and discovers the mountain the family owns is one large diamond, kept secret from the government and general public by imprisoning anyone who gets close to finding their secret. Good times (read: death and fear) follow as the secret is threatened once again and this young Southerner tries to escape with his life. Well written and pretty funny – one of the best stories in the collection.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Let me preface this by saying I never seen the film adaptation of this story, but knew the general premise going in. I was pleasantly surprised to absolutely love this story about a man who is born into old age and ages in reverse. Seeing life through his eyes as he gets younger and younger was an interesting commentary on what it means to live a meaningful life and what it means to be happy. The ending was both fitting and terrifying as he slowly forgets himself into the simple joys of childhood. A quintessential Fitzgerald story and probably my favorite in the entire collection.

Tarquin of Cheapside – A very short, confusing piece of “poetry”. The one piece in the collection I really didn’t like. I couldn’t tell you what it was about if I tried.

“O Russert Witch!” – My second favorite story in the collection behind Benjamin Button, this one tells the story of a man who works at a book shop and lives in a small apartment by himself. He is essentially a stand in for everyone who wants more out of life but is too afraid to do anything about it. At various points in his life, the man interacts with a mysterious woman and the story is told mostly through these various interactions, which span young adulthood into old age. His attraction to this girl, but fear of approaching her, represents his general approach to life. In the end he realizes the truth about the woman and who she is, which leaves him feeling regret over his life’s choices. He chose an easy, boring existence over passion and excitement and as it closes he realizes it is too late to do anything about it. Typical Lost Generation themes of regret, living life to the fullest and false illusions of happiness.

The Lees of Happiness – A story about a writer and dancer who get married and move to the countryside. After enjoying life for a short bit, the man has a stroke and is left a vegetable. The woman then spends the next few decade caring for him alone in their large country house. When he passes, she is left without purpose and eventually decides to open the house up as a boarding house. There was some commentary here about life’s purpose, regret and loss. It was a little boring, but worth the read.

Mr. Icky – An old man is abandoned by his ungrateful children in this short piece. It was okay.

Jemina, The Mountain Girl – A funny story about two warring clans of bootleg distillers in the mountains. Action packed along with humorously written mountain accents. It was an interesting choice for the end of the collection, but I enjoyed it well enough.

Overall, the majority of stories here were memorable and I took a lot away from this read. Everything I love about reading stories by Lost Generation authors is on display here – regret, loss, love and the purpose/meaning of life. Fitzgerald again proves himself a master of short fiction and I highly recommend this collection for fans of his work. As a final note, the cover of this edition is beautifully bound and I love the simple cover art.

Review: All the Names They Used for God

Book: All the Names They Used for God

Author: Anjali Sachdeva

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Anjali Sachdeva’s debut short story collection, All the Names They Used for God, is a diverse and outstanding collection of nine stories that range from mystical realism to speculative science fiction. While these stories cover a broad range of topics, I felt they all fit appropriately into this volume and they were all standouts. Sachdeva, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who has taught writing at a variety of colleges, is an excellent storyteller and her writing style really left me feeling engaged and entranced.

The World by Night – A strong opener, this short told the story of a half-blind woman living on the frontier of early America. When her husband leaves to find work, she is left feeling lonely and sad, but quickly discovers a cave entrance on her land and begins to venture into the cave system. She feels alive in the caves as her lack of perfect sight is made up for by an enhanced sense of touch and smell. The ending was phenomenal and overall this was a story about lost dreams, the fragility of relationships and how we search for purpose wherever we can. A beautiful story that almost felt like a dream; hope and hopelessness are both found here.

Glass-Lung – Probably my least favorite story in the collection, this one is about an immigrant steel worker who is raising a daughter by himself. Things are going well until an accident at work leaves him permanently disabled. It was my least favorite because the plot was a little dull, but Sachdeva still touches on some interesting themes here. As someone who spent four years working in a factory and hearing stories of people getting seriously hurt, I felt this man’s pain at losing everything and going from someone who takes care of his daughter to having her take care of him. The idea of one’s life purpose is a strong theme here and is explored through the lens of the main character, his daughter and the man she falls in love with (an archaeologist trying to make a name for himself). This story also addresses the ideas of love, loss and again that clash of hope vs hopelessness.

Logging Lake – An interesting commentary on modern relationships, this story tells the tale of Robert, a man recently left by his long time girlfriend who decided she wanted more out of life than him. After wallowing in sadness, he meets an adventurous woman named Terri and she invites him on a poorly planned backpacking trip in the Washington wilderness. I really liked this one because I felt it was an accurate portrayal of one of the biggest problems people come across in relationships – that difference in opinion as to the purpose of life. After the breakup Robert tries to reinvent himself and here Sachdeva brings to light the idea that sometimes we need to just accept who we are because changing ourselves for others usually won’t make us any happier. As the story progresses there is a beautiful meshing of magical realism and then in the end Sachdeva asks the reader to decide what defines happiness and a healthy relationship. Did Robert find it or is it all an illusion?

Killer of Kings – I didn’t know who John Milton was before I read this story. It is about an old poet who has lost his sight and an angel visits him to help him write his masterpiece – Milton’s Paradise Lost. As I read this I was a bit confused as to the point, but after reading up on Milton and his work it made a lot more sense. I enjoyed reading her take on Milton’s development from childhood to adulthood and how his work as a writer was an important tool in political revolt. The culmination of his work with the angel leads to an interesting ending which, considering the content of Paradise Lost, was very fitting.

All the Names for God – The story which gives the collection its name is based on the true life tragedy that saw a group of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The fictionalized plot follows two of these girls through their slavery and into forced marriages with their abductors. As the plot progresses it begins to intertwine with magic and it is revealed that the two girls have found a way to free themselves and ultimately get revenge on the men who took away so many years of their lives. This one was obviously strongly centered around loss and how people cope with tragedy. The magical twist was interesting.

Robert Greenman and the Mermaid – In my opinion, this was one of the best stories in the collection. A New England fisherman named Robert is by all accounts happy. He has a wife who he is very much in love with, he has managed to stay away from the bottle and he enjoys his work even though it is providing diminishing returns. On one fateful voyage into the sea Robert spots a mermaid and suddenly life loses its luster and he quickly spirals into depression when not near the mermaid. Touching on themes of unhealthy emotional attachment, the human psyche and life/death, this one was one of the most memorable for me.

Anything You Might Want – A story about a man indebted to a Montana magnate and the magnate’s daughter (the protagonist). When the two fall in love and run away together, things quickly crumble and the woman is left to fend for herself in rural Florida. She quickly finds a place for herself in that society and establishes a life there, only to find herself face-to-face again with the man who left her. While there was nothing thematically special here (grass is greener, passionate love never lasts, don’t rely on other for happiness, etc…) the characters were well written and I stayed engaged in the story until the end. I liked the way it all wrapped up.

Manus – What if large fungal blobs invaded Earth and left things pretty much the same, but demanded that everyone replace their hands with metal appendages – aptly nicknamed ‘forks’? This was an interesting take on the typical alien invasion trope and brought up an interesting commentary on rebellion, loss, and again hope. Above all, this story was about fighting oppression and for that reason alone I liked it. The ending was strange and I honestly had to reread the last couple pages to make sure I understood it correctly. In the end it left me wondering if the form of rebellion humans have adapted here is worth the loss? Is it actually preferable to simply losing your hands? I think the answer will depend on your view of totalitarianism, but this story certainly left me thinking.

Pleiades – Two scientists decide to create septuplets through in vitro fertilization – one egg that would become seven baby girls. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, but this one was definitely the most heartbreaking of the collection. This one touches heavily on tragic loss, familial bonds, our will to live and humanity’s sometimes irresponsible use of science. A powerful story and a great ending to the collection. One of my favorites and one that will stick with me.

Overall, I really really enjoyed this collection. A lot of reviewers have stated that the stories didn’t fit together in one volume, but I think the thing that ties them all together is that battle between hope and hopelessness which was a major theme in every story. Sure, Sachdeva touches on a lot of other themes and the stories are all different, but that is what makes a good story collection in my opinion. Let me know what your thoughts are below!

Review: Smoke and Mirrors – Short Fictions and Illusions

Book: Smoke and Mirrors – Short Fictions and Illusions

Author: Neil Gaiman

My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Recommended for: Die hard Neil Gaiman Fans

Reading this book was like sticking my hand into a large jar of loose change. Most of the time you are going to pull out a penny or a nickel, but every once in a while you find that holy grail – the elusive quarter.

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions is a short story collection by British author Neil Gaiman. Within its pages are 31 short stories written throughout Mr. Gaiman’s career. There is a good deal of variety between the stories, which range from poetry to micro-fiction to your standard length short story, and they all seemed to fit into this aptly named collection. That being said, my overall impressions can be summed up in one word…meh.

As a reader, I love short stories because I feel they give an author the chance to showcase their abilities in a way that differs drastically from a novel. All of my favorite authors are ones who can not only write engaging novels, but also short stories that entrap my attention and leave me wanting more. Sometimes life is moving a bit too quickly to find the time to sit down and enjoy a full length novel, so having the option to dive into a collection of shorter works and make my way through them one at a time is a nice option. Some authors (such as a personal favorite – Ray Bradbury) embrace the short story and come up with masterfully written sagas that blend together to tell an overarching narrative (The Illustrated Man) while some, like Mr. Gaiman, prefer to write stories that mostly stand apart. I enjoy both equally, but like I said above, a great number of these were duds, pennies in a jar full of change.

Minor spoilers to follow as I give small summaries for most of the stories in the collection, along with my thoughts.

Reading the Entrails – Not for me. Gaiman’s poetic style is not one I enjoy reading.

The Wedding Present – This was included with Gaiman’s introduction and was somewhat interesting. A couple gets a novel as a wedding present and each time they open it the story has changed. It kept me engaged, but it wasn’t anything special.

Chivalry – One knight’s search for the Holy Grail in modern UK leads him to an old woman’s mantle. Originally written for a children’s story collection and it shows. It was boring.

 Nicholas Was… – The first piece I really liked! A dark twist on Christmas and I think the first time I have ever seen micro fiction in a published work. I liked it a lot.

The Price – A story about a cat who protects a home from a demon. This was one of the better crafted stories in the collection and was one of my favorites. I don’t even like cats, but this was definitely one of the top three for me.

Troll Bridge – I actually read this one first when deciding whether or not to buy this collection in the bookstore. A child meets a troll under a bridge and then again and again as he grows up. The ending was fitting. One of the better stories in my opinion.

Don’t Ask Jack – This one was really boring. I suppose it was supposed to be a chilling tale of a Jack-in-the-Box, but I honestly don’t even remember what happens.

The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories – A story about a writer’s disillusioned journey to Hollywood and the hotel attendant he meets while he is there. Another hit for me, this one was a bit longer and it was entertaining throughout. I loved the way he portrays Hollywood.

The White Road – More narrative poetry – didn’t make it past the first page.

Queen of Knives – I actually finished this narrative poem, but overall it was meh.

Changes – Interesting concept. A new cancer drug has unintentional side effects when it is discovered it can allow people to change gender on a whim. I liked the dialogue it raises on the ethics of pharmaceuticals and the questions of gender in society. Execution felt like it could have been better, though.

The Daughter of Owls – Rape in olden-times. Not for me.

Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar – I kept thinking it would get better, but in the end I don’t really know what this one was about.

Virus – A short piece on video game addiction. It was also very MEH.

Looking for the Girl – I like stories where the main character goes through their life, but there is always that one constant they come back to. Here it was a girl the main character saw in a dirty mag one day. It was well written and entertaining.

Only the End of the World Again – Cult of Cthulhu tries to sacrifice a werewolf to revive the fallen God. Werewolves and ancient gods – what’s not to like?

Bay Wolf – The werewolf character returns in a different story to kill a monster terrorizing Venice Beach. This one was funny and well written. Two thumbs up.

We Can Get Them For You Wholesale – An entirely average guy finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him and finds an ad for an assassination company to kill her lover. As a man who can never turn down a good offer or a sale, he finds himself in a precarious position when the company rep offers him a deal on multiple hits…This one was funny and I liked the concept, but it kind of peters out as it ends.

One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock – I don’t know who Michael Moorcock Elric is so this one wasn’t my cup of tea.

Cold Colors – More poetry so I inevitably didn’t enjoy it.

The Sweeper of Dreams – Who cleans up your dreams when you wake so you can go about your day as a functional human? What happens if he stops cleaning up your dreams? This one was short, but I wish it had been longer. An interesting concept.

Foreign Parts – For someone with minor hypochondria this was a nightmare to read. I don’t need stories about STDs in my life.

Vampire Sestina – Even more poetry.

Mouse – Another one that I finished without really grasping if there was a point to it all. Boring.

The Sea Change – I wish I had known how much poetry was in this collection and how much his poetic prose bores me.

When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, age 11¼ – Yawn.

Desert Wind – A poem about a man who sees a mirage in the desert. The only poem I really enjoyed in the collection.

Tastings – Erotic fiction is not for me, so this was not one I enjoyed.

Babycakes – I liked it. Title says it all.

Murder Mysteries – A story within a story of the first murder in Heaven. This was well crafted and entertaining.

Snow, Glass, Apples – A twist on Snow White. Another top three for me and a good selection for the closing piece. At least I will remember this one when I think back to this collection.

If you bothered to read through all of those then you will see I liked about half of the stories in this collection. Mr. Gaiman writes killer novels and is an amazing storyteller, but this one just fell flat for me. I have heard good things about Fragile Things so maybe I will give that a try some day. Unless you are a die hard Neil Gaiman fan, I would recommend passing on this one.

Review: Cat’s Cradle

Book: Cat’s Cradle

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Fans of fun, thought provoking novels, those going through an existential crisis, anyone who likes the idea of challenging science and/religion, fans of other Vonnegut works as this is often called his best.

It seems like a lot of people read this book in high school – it certainly would have been an easy classic to digest as a high schooler compared to some of the thicker tomes we were forced to read. I, unfortunately, was never introduced to Kurt Vonnegut in my younger years and it wasn’t until I read Slaughterhouse Five last year that I knew anything about his works. It’s a shame too, because Vonnegut does a marvelous job keeping me entertained while also making me question some of the things I would have considered staunch beliefs. This was no different in his novel Cat’s Cradle, a 127 chapter novel about the end of the world.

The plot follows the story of a man named Jonah as he collects material for a book called The Day the World Ended, “an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan”. The story starts with him collecting material on a fictional father of the atom bomb, Dr. Felix Hoenikker. You see, Dr. Hoenikker had long since passed away, so Jonah contacts his three children in hopes of getting material for his book. In the process, he discovers that Dr. Hoenikker had also invented an isotope of water called Ice-Nine that is capable of destroying all life on Earth. Soon Jonah finds himself on the island of San Lorenzo with the three Hoenikker children and a host of other ridiculous characters and the events that follow lead to the death of almost all life on Earth. Ironic, as his journey started while writing a book called The Day the World Ended. Then again, with Vonnegut, irony is the name of the game.

Above all, this book was ridiculous and fun to read. As I mentioned, it consists of 127 chapter and yet the book itself is less than 300 pages long. This makes it very digestible and easy to read – which, I assume, is why it is a favorite for high school classrooms. Vonnegut has a way of making a novel entertaining and funny while simultaneously making the reader think about serious questions and issues.

One of the main themes here is that life is essentially without purpose and therefore, humankind has seen fit to try and give life some kind of meaning. As a result, some people turn to religion while others turn to science. Both have their problems and Vonnegut’s overall point is that it is ridiculous to try and give meaning to life.

Science, while providing countless benefits to society such as modern medicine, has also given the world the atom bomb and other terrible ways to kill and oppress people. Science and the search for truth without pause is a dangerous force that we often use without nary a thought for the side effects. Combine this search for truth – personified in Felix Hoenikker, a brilliant scientist who viewed his work on the atom bomb in the same way he might have viewed the discovery of a new kind of ultra-efficient toothpaste – with the military industrial complex and you have a recipe for disaster (ice-nine). Reckless abandon in scientific pursuits can have devastating results for humanity.

The fictional religion of Cat’s Cradle, Bokononism, is a religion based on lies. When Bokonon, the prophet of said religion, arrived on the island of San Lorenzo he saw the people there had no hope for a better existence so he created this religion to give them some shred of hope. The religion itself is all lies, as it states, and while everyone on the island practices Bokononism and accepts the fallacy of it, they still derive some shred of hope from believing in it. This is Vonnegut’s way of showing the ridiculous nature of all religion, and the teachings of Bokonon poke fun at many real religions practiced throughout the world. Throughout the book, Bokononism is used as satirical humor to dismantle the idea of religion, culminating in a very fitting ending for its followers. This was perhaps my favorite part of the whole book.

More than anything, this book is about human purpose. This is shown most prevalently through the story of the three Hoenikker children. Each of them possesses a small fragment of the world’s only sample of ice-nine. As they each search for purpose and meaning, whether that be through love, family or a successful career, they make stupid decisions that result in some of the great world powers gaining access to fragments of ice-nine. This inevitably spirals into a conclusion where ice-nine destroys the world. Funny how that works, huh?

Cat’s Cradle is a really fun and thought provoking read that I think everyone should tackle at some point. Old or young, the messages here are hidden behind layers of satirical humor and irony, but they aren’t hard to decipher. Let me know your own thoughts below!

“What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experiences of the Past Million Years?”


Review: A Farewell to Arms

Book: A Farewell to Arms

Author: Ernest Hemingway

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys books with beautiful imagery, endings that make you think, deadpan humor and fans of other Hemingway books (especially For Whom the Bell Tolls).

A Farewell to Arms is a novel by Ernest Hemingway about American expatriate Frederic Henry serving in the Italian army during World War I. As an ambulance driver, Henry witnesses the atrocities of war on the front, but he also meets an English nurse, Ms. Catherine Barkley, and they fall in love. The story alternates between the war and their love story, culminating in an ending which made me question my feelings and thoughts on the entire novel.

I started this book a couple years ago and couldn’t finish it despite Hemingway being one of my favorite authors at the time. Fast forward to September 2019 and it was still sitting on my shelf, so as I packed my bags for my recent trip to Greece and the Cycladic Islands I threw it in. I read a good chunk of this book while drinking Ouzo and taking in the beautiful Greek Islands – which was fitting because the part of this novel I enjoyed the most was the beautiful imagery. From the war torn Italian countryside to the spectacular Swiss Alps, I felt myself immersed in the settings as they were laid out.

Hemingway’s descriptions of the horrors of war and its impact on the minds of those in its midst was well done as well. His writing style perfectly suits this part of the book and reading about Henry’s time at the front was one of the most moving aspects of the novel. He even manages to throw in a bit of humor which I always appreciate. One of my favorite scenes was after Henry was wounded and his friend Rinaldi visits him in the hospital to tell him they are giving him a medal.

“They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?”

“No,” I said. “I was blown up while eating cheese.”

Hemingway’s deadpan writing style fits perfectly with this type of humor and is one of the reasons I enjoy his novels. I know from experience, though, that deadpan humor is not for everyone.

Most of the characters were very well written. Henry himself writes of war as a journalist – something typical of Hemingway protagonists due to his own experiences writing during various wars. His descriptions of the events were well detailed and helped me put myself in his shoes. Many of the secondary characters were likeable and often times had the best lines of dialogue. Rinaldi and the other ambulance drives were some of my favorites.

Catherine Barkley, on the other hand, was a terribly written character. Her dialogue was unbelievable and often times annoying. Her interactions with Henry usually felt fake and hollow and I was not at all interested in their love story. Never in my life have I heard anyone ask their partner so frequently if they love them. Since this is such a major part of the novel I almost gave this book three stars, but after some reflection I decided this may not be warranted. It is possible that Hemingway wrote Ms. Barkley’s character this way on purpose to reflect how hollow their relationship actually was. I don’t believe Henry ever truly loved her and I think since we are seeing things through his eyes it may have been intentional to show their relationship in such an unbelievable fashion. Maybe that’s true, or maybe I just don’t want to admit that I so strongly disliked a Hemingway classic. Either way, I will stick with my own theory on this one.

The ending, without spoiling it, is pretty well known at this point. We see similar themes crop up in several movies and other forms of pop-culture, but luckily (or maybe not?) for me I did not know how things were going to end for Frederic and Catherine. The ending, which I read on an 11 hour flight back to the states, really shook me emotionally. I suppose that is one of the reasons this book is so well known, but for me it almost broke the rest of the novel. It was only after reflection, which I discussed earlier, that everything came into place for me and I could feel like I was done with A Farewell to Arms.

In all, this book really made me think. There was a lot about it that I loved, but also a number of things that made me stop and question its place as one of Hemingway’s best works. If you enjoy Hemingway, I would recommend giving it a try. The imagery is beautiful and many of the characters are written very well. I think the love story leaves a lot open to interpretation. If you have read this one already, let me know your thoughts below!

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Review: Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will

Book: Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will

Author: Judith Schalansky

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys history, especially maritime history or anything niche. Also recommended for anyone who enjoys travel, spooky stories and learning about cultures and environments of far off islands.

I am in the middle of two novels when my roommate comes home and I see this book on the table. It turns out it is for their world building class and I am instantly intrigued. I tell them to let me know when they finish it thinking I have a week or so, but then they hand it to me the next day. Pushing the other two books aside, I devour this one in less than 24 hours. Few books allow you to travel to remote places on Earth so easily. Few books have tried in this way. The illustrations captivated me and the stories transported me to the shores of fifty different islands in Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, by Judith Schalansky.

First off, the book itself is beautiful. I love the material they used to bind it and cover it – it feels textured like rubber which adds a feeling that you are holding some king of outing manual. The color is bright orange and other than the title and author there sits two small islands amidst that sea of orange. The cover itself imbues one with a feeling of isolation that will only grow with each story as you dive into the pages.

The stories are split up by the oceans the islands are found in – Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, Antarctic, Pacific – and each new ocean spread comes with an intro page showing the entire ocean and surrounding region, along with the locations of all of the islands you are about to read about. I found this useful as I flipped back and forth to get a rough idea of where in the world each island was. The stories themselves are all framed the same way. Each island had 4 pages, the first of which shows the islands size, number of inhabitants, and a timeline of important island history. The second page is a detailed map of the entire island and then the last two pages are the stories themselves. The entire piece is a little over 200 pages, but because half of the pages are ones you will only glance at the read is pretty quick. I can see some people taking longer as they put the island’s geography to memory before readying the stories, but that wasn’t me so it was a short read.

The stories themselves were so intriguing to dig into. Most of them have a sinister side to them, whether it be exploitation, environmental destruction, loss of life or just sad tales of people trying to survive on small patches of land in an immense ocean. Some others certainly left me with a feeling of isolation and other were really heartwarming. The manner of storytelling is interesting in that the author used a pile of research material to learn as much as she could on each island and then told an important story to that island’s history through small connected snippets or a journal entry. As she states in her introduction, the facts everything is based on are real, but the stories are one person’s interpretations of how events may have unfolded. It is actually pretty cool how little goes into a lot of these stories, yet I left most of them feeling something and I often whipped out my phone to do a little additional research of my own.

In all, I had a blast reading Pocket Atlas. If you enjoy spooky stories, maritime history or just niche history in general I think this is a really cool little novel. Give it a read and let me know what your thoughts are!

Review: Short Stories of The Founding

Book: The Short Stories within The Founding Omnibus

Author: Dan Abnett

My Rating: 4/5 Stars for all 3

As I make my way back through the Gaunt’s Ghosts series I am doing so with the new omnibus editions. I recently posted my review of the first three books in the series which made up the first omnibus volume titled The Founding. This tome also contained three short stories and I would like to quickly review each before moving on to the next volume, The Saint.

A Ghost Return is the opening piece for the omnibus and gives a little backstory to Gaunt before he became Colonel-Commissar of the Tanith regiment. Here we see him as a new commissar serving with his original regiment, the Hyrkans, during the early stages of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade. The plot follows Gaunt and a squad of Hyrkans as they travel deep underneath a hive city to discover a supposed shrine to Saint Sabbat herself – a site that would be very valuable to Warmaster Slaydo if proven credible. Coming in having already read most of the series, I can’t say how well this would hold up as an opener to a newcomer, but I really liked this short introduction to Gaunt. It gives the reader a good understanding of what kind of leader he is and what kind of man he is on the battlefield. It has a good sense of mystery and some action to keep things moving forward. Overall, I felt this was a very well balanced opener to the series for the length of the piece.

Of Their Lives in the Ruins of Their Cities sits nicely in between ­First and Only and Ghostmaker as the second short story of the omnibus. It tells the story of one of Gaunt’s early actions with the Tanith First and Only on the planet of Voltemand. Gaunt leads a small scouting party of Ghosts into a no-man’s land and is ambushed by enemy forces. The troopers around him still seethe with resentment for his decision to abandon Tanith to its fate and not allow them to die in its defense. Now they must decide whether to leave him out to dry and possibly fall to the enemy themselves as a result, or band together and follow their charismatic Colonel-Commissar to victory. The reader is given a look into Gaunt’s psyche as he is haunted by his past and we also meet many characters that go on to become core Tanith soldiers to the series’ later novels. The story was action packed per Abnett’s typical style, this time showing the Ghosts learning to fight as a unit in one of their first engagements. This is a solid addition to the series and I highly recommend to anyone reading along.  

In Remembrance closes this omnibus and the first arc of the story of Gaunt’s Ghosts. It is told through the POV of an artist commissioned by a Vervunhive noble house to commemorate the war that took place in the novel Necropolis. The artist was explicitly told to represent the regiment that was so pivotal to the hive’s victory, the Tanith First and Only. As the sculptor spends time with the Ghosts in the dead hive city he is given a glimpse into what the victory cost the people of the city and the soldiers who survived the defense. As he accompanies a squad of Ghosts into the dead city on a run to clear an area of potential resistance still dug in, he is subjected to the horrors of battle. The story ends with him describing the statue he ends up erecting outside of the dead hive city and how he inevitably couldn’t fully capture his feelings from that day. In Remembrance was very humanistic compared to other Gaunt’s Ghosts novels and focusses on how the surroundings and events impact this non-combatant through whose eyes we see the events unfold. It was a very fitting end to the omnibus and I felt it was a great wrap up to Necropolis specifically.