Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Neil Gaiman has been referred to as a "rockstar of the literary world". People call his stories "remarkable". If you've spent much time perusing the fantasy section of your local bookstore or Amazon.com you're sure to have come across at least a few of his titles.

I decided to sample one of his books a few years back with his well-reviewed American Gods. But it didn't work out so well. I was working as a pizza delivery driver at the time, and I was pretty fond of listening to books on tape during my deliveries.

The trouble with listening to audiobooks while delivering pizza is that there are too many interruptions that get in the way of listening to the book- you know, the whole part about giving the pizza to the customer.

American Gods
is a novel that demands a reader's attention- a lot more attention than I was able to give while trying to locate the homes of hungry pizza eaters in North Ogden. I couldn't follow what was going on well enough to really get interested in it.

Also, American Gods is marketed as a fantasy novel, but the fantasy genre is an enormous place with room for all kinds of subgenres and sub-subgenres, and at the time I had a hankering for standard "high fantasy" fantasy. High fantasy American Gods is not.

So I stopped reading, er, listening to it.

But I kept hearing good things about Mr. Gaiman's stories. And I watched Mirror Mask and liked it. And I watched Stardust and loved that. And I kept hearing more good things about Gaiman. Until one day I read a bucket-load of great reviews about Gaiman's newest young adult book, The Graveyard Book. It seemed like everyone who had anything to say about the book couldn't help falling all over themselves to heap praises on it. So I decided I had to go out and buy a copy.

I stopped at Barnes & Noble on the way home from work one day and went straight to the children's section where I knew I could find a copy. Except they didn't have one. They were all out. But sitting right next to where The Graveyard Book should have been was a copy of Gaiman's young adult novella Coraline. I remembered hearing good things about that book too, so I bought it instead.

Some people have compared Coraline to the story of Alice in Wonderland, and I guess it's a comparison that works, to an extent. I'm really not qualified to talk much about Alice in Wonderland, since my only exposure to it is by way of the Disney animated version. But where Alice's wonderland is strange and unusual, the world that Coraline discovers is sinister and creepy and populated with many characters who do not want good things to happen to Coraline, or to anyone else but themselves for that matter.

But it's a small world, both in terms of physical size and, more importantly, in the amount that we, as readers, are permitted to explore it, learn about it, live in it. Not that I would actually want to live in that world- it's a miserable place. But isn't that why we read fantasy- to discover new places and imagine what the world would be like if the natural order of things were a little, or a lot, different?

Some readers have said they became enamored with the protagonist's personality. They thought Coraline was plucky and determined and they liked her for it. While there's no question that the story couldn't have been the story it was without her possessing those qualities, it felt unrealistic to me for a ten year old girl to show so much resolve and fearlessness when faced with the kind of danger that Coraline encounters. Then again, I haven't known that many ten year old girls, and the ones I have known have never been forced to risk their lives in order to save the lives of those they love.

I can't help comparing this book to the other young adult novels I've read recently. In doing so there's no question that this one left more of an impression on me than any of the others. I think that's because of the primal reactions I repeatedly had while reading the story. Did I love it? No- the story was too simplistic and the main character was too hard to sympathize with. Should you read it? Sure, if you're inclined to. If not, skip it. Will your kids like it? Seems pretty likely. But I must warn you- even though it's not violent or gory, it is without question very creepy. So don't blame me if they wake you up in the middle of the night because of scary dreams.