Posts Tagged ‘ Neil Gaiman ’

Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk (Book Review)

Fortunately, the Milk cover

Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk

2013 is apparently Neil Gaiman’s year of short books. In addition to the children’s book Chu’s Day and adult book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he also published the young reader’s novel Fortunately, the Milk. It’s a light, farcical story without the depth or elaborate structure that Gaiman often puts into his books. However, like most Gaiman novels, it’s exactly the length and style that it’s supposed to be, without regard for industry expectations.

Fortunately is the story of a father who goes off to the store to pick up milk for his children’s breakfast, and takes longer than expected to return. The kids accuse him of absent-mindedly talking to neighbors for too long, but he responds with a story of the time-and-space-spanning adventure he got sucked into. Fortunately, he managed to keep the milk safe every step of the way, and even saved the day before returning home with his shopping mission accomplished.

It’s a fast-moving romp, with scenes and characters changing constantly. It’s supposed to be an improvised shaggy dog tale, and the plot structure is pretty loose. The situations are funny, though. For adults, this captures the feel of a silly parent playing around with jokes that go just above their children’s heads. For kids, these ideas are just unusual enough to capture the imagination and become inside jokes or fodder for new stories.

It’s also filled with whimsical illustrations by Skottie Young. They have the same silly, sketchy feeling that the writing does, and it’s hard for me to imagine this book without his contribution. (It seems like Gaiman must have planned this with Young in mind. But since the British edition of this has a different artist, apparently that’s not true. I’m very curious to hear how the art works in that book.) The font of the book also changes to bold, hand-drawn lettering at certain points to emphasize action. That helps tie everything together, actually. Though this is nothing like the classic comic book mix of text and pictures, the two combine into one reading experience.

Yes, Fortunately, the Milk is a short book. (Thanks to those illustrations taking up space, it takes maybe a half hour for an adult to read.) But it was very fun for me, and it’s easy to imagine this being thrilling for the right child. It’s not a classic book, or even Gaiman’s best of the year, but it’s one I can recommend strongly.

Grade: B+

 
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Thoughts about Neil Gaiman’s Wayward Manor, and General Storytelling in Games

By now, you’ve surely heard last week’s announcement that Neil Gaiman is working on a video game named Wayward Manor. As he puts it, “I’m a storyteller. What I tend to do is try and find the right medium to tell the right story.” That’s worth a lot of attention on its own, because historically, games have not been known for very good writing. Most gamers love the idea that there are things that make their medium right for stories, but there isn’t a lot of evidence yet to demonstrate that. I have to wonder how this new project is going to work out, myself: I love adventure games, and I love Gaiman’s sensibilities, so I expect to like this game. (Though admittedly, I had similar thoughts about Starship Titanic.) But, even though Gaiman has excelled in many different genres and mediums, I don’t know whether he appreciates the unique challenges of storytelling in a game.

Most stories in games have been static. When you reach a certain point, you see the same cut-scene that every other player does. Maybe there are slight variations, or a few different endings available, but none of that impacts on the gameplay or overall experience. If there’s no interaction, and they only meaningful way for the player to impact the events is to die and restart, then how is that really “part of the game” instead of a split up movie or novel? (And if your answer is that it wouldn’t be very good as a stand-alone movie, then is it really any good in the game either?)

The other problem is pacing. Traditional stories are meant to be read in a way controlled by the author. Games are meant to give the player a challenge that they may not be able to overcome for a while, if ever. I mean, I’ve never made it to the last cut-scene in Ms. PacMan. That’s not a big deal because I didn’t care about the story, but I sure would be upset if I couldn’t unlock the last third of American Gods. The specific genre that Gaiman is writing for is especially notorious for this, because each puzzle in an adventure game will stump some people for longer than others. If you are moving through the game quickly, but then you get stuck for three days on a puzzle right at an interesting part of the story, then it probably won’t seem as interesting once it resumes. The easy way to prevent this is to make sure that each puzzle happens in between concrete chapters of the story, but then we’re back to this being a serialization that feels separate from the game itself.

I’ll admit that I haven’t kept up with most recent games, so I can’t comment on the ways that they are trying to overcome this. I also haven’t been very active in the interactive fiction community, whose main focus is on the literary potential of games. But these are the three major approaches that I can come up with:

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On Authors and Delays

This video from Comic-Con has been making the rounds this week: Paul & Storm start singing “Write Like the Wind”, their song asking George R.R. Martin to hurry up with his next book, when Martin comes on stage and angrily attacks them. It’s obviously staged, but has still struck a chord with lots of people.

It’s time for me to speak up, because I think the conversation is getting one-sided. The common point of view now is Neil Gaiman’s statement that “George R R. Martin is not your bitch“. And, yes, that’s true as far as it goes. The (few) people who are personally attacking Martin are offensive and wrong. However, I think this statement is usually being used to set up a straw man. It’s perfectly possible to be frustrated with a series’ delays without acting entitled.

The question that Gaiman was replying to wasn’t really that strong at all. Someone asked whether or not it was realistic to feel that Martin was “letting him down”. My answer: Hell yes it’s ok to feel let down! The fundamental assumption of my blog is that people have a right to feel any arbitrary way they want about works of culture, and that emotional responses are good. No matter how disappointed I may be in a work, I don’t personally judge the creators for it. But I have every right to feel good or bad about my reaction to the work, and to make it known.

Series are tricky things. The individual installments affect each other, and a new one can change how we see the earlier bits. If you’ve never had an old story retroactively ruined (or saved) by a sequel, then you read very differently than I do. And a book that leaves plot threads dangling would normally be bad, unless you buy into the promise that they will be resolved later. If we aren’t enjoying the work in a vacuum, then those external factors can change it later. (I’m not touching on the balance between timeliness and quality here. Yes, sometimes it’s best in the long run to make fans wait while you make a story right. It’s a fine line to walk, and I’ve seen plenty of successes and failures both ways.)

Authors want us to buy into the promise of the ongoing story. As Gaiman says in his article, almost no one can afford to write an entire series ahead of time and only publish it after it’s complete. But the reason consumers are willing to buy the story before the final installment is complete is because they trust the author to work on it, and their experience will be an open and ongoing thing in the meantime. The claim that “if you enjoyed the work at the time, you have no right to complain now” is a fundamental betrayal of the way series are supposed to work. If authors really believe that, then the only rational response is for people to wait until the series is finished before risking any money on it. And if everyone waits, of course, it would destroy the industry.

We need to accept a middle ground between “authors should slave away for the fans” and “it’s selfish for readers to let delays impact their experience”. The new era of crowdfunding and social media is teaching us a lot about the contract between creators and their fans, and it should be relevant even to existing publishing systems. People support the creators that they like in order to see new works from them, and creators need to respect that trust. There’s no contract in place, of course, but the fans are taking it on good faith that the author will try. It turn, fans need to show good faith when unexpected events get in the way. Fortunately, transparent Kickstarters are helping to teach everyone about all the things that can delay projects. Good reasons typically earn forgiveness. Taking on side projects or saying “sorry, I had no idea what I was getting into when I took your money” typically does not.

In the end, fans have every right to make inferences like “the author will make it a priority to continue his best-selling series”, and every right to complain when delays are justifiably hurting their enjoyment of the books. George R.R. Martin is not our bitch, but we’re not his trust fund, either.

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Book Review)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane cover

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a surprising book. It’s Neil Gaiman’s first adult novel in years, but it actually feels reminiscent of his younger stories. Coraline makes the best comparison: A young child stumbles into a world beyond his own and faces a magical being that threatens him through his family ties. The story moves along with comfortable fairy tale logic, and no one who is familiar with Gaiman’s influences will be surprised by the way the plot unfolds. The half-explained cosmology is intriguing, though. Being a Gaiman story, the writing has a slightly lyrical, twee sensibility, and it’s simple enough to fit the child protagonist, but it always makes the story’s otherworldly logic seem perfectly natural.

Ocean is an adult novel, though, and not just because of the slightly gruesome death early on. It’s told from memory by the adult narrator, and he understands some things that had gone over his head at the time. One theme of the novel is the different perspectives of children and adults. It opens with a quote from Maurice Sendak saying that children know terrible things that would scare adults, and the story seems built around that. The narrator can’t tell the people around him what’s going on, but shoulders the responsibility with a strength that few adults remember. Gaiman does appreciate that aspect of youth, and again, that makes it seem pretty comfortable to its readers. It’s a metaphor for childhood, and we understand what’s going on even though adults aren’t supposed to. We’re in control of the story, right?

But that’s why I introduced Ocean as a surprising book. Things slowly but surely go off the rails for us, even as the fairy tale heads towards its predictable happy ending. The magical threat is a childish horror that wasn’t supposed to scare us after all – there are other surprises here that the kid doesn’t even notice but that did unsettle me.

At the end, we’re treated to a discussion of what it all meant, and it turns out that simple fairy tale logic doesn’t translate to simple answers. We’re left to draw our own conclusions about life’s meaning and value, and how childhood experiences define us as adults.

Like Gaiman’s best stories, Ocean is a slow-building book that doesn’t seem too impressive until all the pieces start to fall together. In this case, the real payoff is in your thoughts for the days after you finish. It’s a very quick read, though, so you can expect that to happen right away. I finished it two weeks ago, and I can say that the haunting thoughts about life faded after only a few days. The book is still there as a faded memory, though, and one that tugs at me. I hardly ever re-read books, but I’m expecting to come back to this one in a few months. Much like the narrator, I need to see what turns up when I reexamine the memories.

Grade: A-

 

The Year In Books (Part 1)

For the past several years, I’ve read a lot fewer books than I used to. Most people blame this on a lack of time, but my undoing was comic books. Comics come out on a weekly schedule, each one updating something from the last month. The system is set up to make sure that you keep up on them, while it’s easy to put off a novel for a while, since it will still be on the shelves months, if not years, later.

I realized how bad this had gotten a year ago, when my birthday and Christmas presents included almost 20 books, but I’d only read about 5 all year. I decided to make more of an effort on novels for the year.

In the end, I read 19 books in 2010. It’s not an incredible number, especially since several of them were novellas or children’s books. Considering that I did it without dropping back on my comics reading, though, I’m happy. This year I’m planning on 25-30.

Rather than going back and doing full articles on things I read in the past, here are capsule reviews. It’s still pretty long, so I’ve split it into two parts. The books I read in the first half of the year are below, and I’ll follow up with part two in a couple days. Continue reading