Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman // in a land of myth, and a time of shiny book covers

Author: Neil Gaiman30809689
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: February 7th 2017
Category: short stories
Genre(s): fantasy, mythology
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: won
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.

In an arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants,  Gaiman stays true to the myths which envision the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, incredibly strong but perhaps not the wisest of gods; and Loki, son of a giant, blood brother to Odin and Asgard’s perpetual trickster. 

Through deft and witty prose emerge gods with fiercely competitive natures, a susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and a tendency to let passion ignite their actions. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, he must disguise himself to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir, the most sagacious of gods, is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people. Long inspired by ancient mythology, Gaiman brings to life a distant world for a brand new audience.

Neil Gaiman’s tongue-in-cheek retelling of the Norse myths announced itself with unsurprising bombast. The built-in thrill of this being the new Neil Gaiman project was used to full effect. It reached me in autumn with glossy confidence, some rather overzealous cover copy, and titled simply Norse Mythology, as if to declare well, this is it. The only one you need. Why on earth would we call it anything else?

And it is often brilliant. It’s a tremendously enjoyable book. The prose is distinctive, the tales are memorable, the pacing is clever. The mythology is rich, splayed across the pages like a hoard of jewels. It is vivid and varied. There are some fantastic story choices, each broken into bite-size short fiction-style pieces, which illustrate a wealth of long-ago myth and legend. There is loyalty, betrayal, injustice, punishment, reward and achievement. This is a veritable cacophony of courage and cowardice, magnificence and misadventure. And of course, these were once the beliefs, the foundation even, of entire peoples and societies. There is acknowledgement that what we know of them now is just a fraction of what has been lost, but there’s plenty of keep up with and get your teeth into.

The gods and goddesses of Asgard – Thor, Sif, Loki, Odin, Freya – are joined by allies and enemies alike. Many leap into life with distinctive flair and personality. They are given histories, as with the creation of the tree, Yggdrasil, on which the nine worlds rest; backstories, as with the recounting of how Odin lost his eye; families, as with Sif as Thor’s wife. I particularly liked tales in which lesser known gods played a starring role alongside more familiar figures. They’re not exactly real as characters (they’re very fond of superlatives, these gods) but that’s not the point. These are not tame gods. They are larger-than-life even in their imperfections. Several have fatal flaws. Some are just troublemakers. If you take them for what they are then you can experience this collection for what it is: lush, sweeping, flamboyant, brutal, ridiculous, entertaining.

Full of magical objects, strange creatures and dangerous quests, it has the unmistakable air of folktale – the bardic style, the recognisable characters, the stylised numbers – but wrapped in crisp white paper, a glittering cover and straightforward prose. It is at once both old-fashioned and modern. It takes liberal creative licence, but this isn’t supposed to be accurate summary or academic collection of Norse myths. It’s pure storytelling, crammed with detail but trimmed down so only the good bits are left. There are flashes of fantastic humour, too: “When something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is: it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

It’s a little light on the world-building (slightly ironic given that a sizeable chunk is dedicated to, you know, the actual building of worlds) and description. Some readers may find the style grating. It’s definitely more retelling than guide. I would’ve liked more on goddesses, or a longer work generally. And for a time, I couldn’t quite figure out who the audience was supposed to be. It’s simple enough to be shared with children, except for the gore. It’s too consistent for connoisseurs of the short story anthology. It’s too contained for audiences used to sprawling high fantasy. And then it clicked: this book doesn’t need a target age range or style, because its target audience is simply fans of Neil Gaiman. And why not? A man who is fiction’s favourite genre-hopping novelists, SFF’s favourite multi-talented medium-dextrous contributor and television’s go-to drama scriptwriter at once has his pick of the projects, and this isn’t a bad one to have chosen.

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Norse Mythology is exactly what it says on the tin: a retelling of myth and legend from one of literature’s most versatile writers. It’s lush, entertaining and brutal. t’s not the most earth-shaking or unprecedented of collections but it’s a very enjoyable read. 

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DECK THE HALLS WITH BELLS OF HOLLY (BOURNE): books to give as Christmas gifts this year

We all know the drill: it’s getting closer to Christmas, and you’re wondering if you can swap out the traditional novelty mug and socks for something a little more…conducive to your their book addiction. Or maybe you’re still doing the bookworm’s good work in trying to convince friends and family of the wonders of books in the first place (moment of silence for all those still struggling with this quest). Or maybe you don’t celebrate but just want an excuse to peruse the shelves for hours give birthday or seasonal presents anyway. But what to choose?! To shed some light on the matter, I thought I’d take you through some YA and kidlit perfect for that hard-to-please reader in your life…(even if it’s yourself)

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THE CONTEMPORARY CONTINGENT

Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne: I figured we should just get this out of the way first since it’s one of my favourite books to recommend and it’s kind of amazing. Heartfelt, raw and real, it’s the opening book in a trilogy about teens Evie, Lottie and Amber as they tackle friendship, feminism, and feeling less alone in the world. Focused on Evie, this book is also a great introduction to some of the best handling of mental health YA has to offer. It’s not always an easy read, but it’s chatty, accessible and honest. Fabulous.

Love Song by Sophia Bennett: Love Song is warm, feel-good and so well-written. It’s about unexpected allegiances, fractured friendships, new experiences, good food, great songs and of course, a boyband. (If you’re not aware of the #boybandlit phenomenon, check out this post for all the details). i don’t even have the words to describe how fantastic it is, only that it’s one of Sophia Bennett’s best books. It’s full of drama, gorgeously tender moments (I personally love the scene where Jamie sings to heroine Nina’s sister Ariel) and, of course, music.

London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning: this is a book I’ll be giving as a gift this year, because it is brilliant. Fun, fresh, fast and full of joy, it’s a dizzying whirlwind of a book, pulling you in from start to finish. You can read my full (and much more eloquent) review here for more on its fierce female characters, grumpy French boys and glorious sense of humour.

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SCI-FI THAT’S NOT STAR WARS

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: adult fiction! OH MY BLOG?! A rare sight indeed. But then The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is exceptional in many ways: a refreshing, episodic, detailed, diverse, non-dystopian space opera, it is sci-fi filled with colourful characters, rich cultures, thematic exploration and of course the occasional raising of stakes. Perfect for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a little more drama thrown in. Another one I’ll be giving as a gift this Christmas.

The Last Beginning by Lauren James: Time travel! Starcrossed romance! Knitting! This is the story of Clove, a teenager investigating the sudden disappearance of two scientists, Katherine Finchley and Matt Galloway sixteen years before. There are multiple timelines, cool secondary characters in the shape of ex-hacker Tom and snarky computer Spart, and epistolary additions like letters, emails, extracts, doodles, transcripts and powerpoints which keep book both visual and interesting. Although it is a sequel so you should probably pick up its predecessor The Next Together as well. (You can read my reviews for both books here.)

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner: you know the upcoming Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt movie, Passengers? This is a little bit like that, except YA got it first and oh, the luxury spaceliner in question has just crashlanded from hyperspace onto a nearby planet. Apparently alone, teenagers Lilac – wealthy, privileged, whip-smart – and Tarver – a cynical war hero who came from nothing and, when Icarus crashes, apparently still has nothing – must rely on each other for their very survival. It’s alternately narrated, has an epic romance, and is just generally FULL of feels.

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FIERCE HIGH FANTASY

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi: a lush, lyrical take on mythology and royalty, The Star-Touched Queen is fantasy of a slower kind. It dials things down a notch when it comes to pace and plot, but if you’re looking for world-building and a game of choice and chance that becomes steadily deadlier, then this diverse NYT bestseller may be for you.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: another technically-adult book, this is classy, classic fantasy, full of magical Londons and many-sided coats. Cut-throat almost-pirate Lila Bard steals something dangerous from Kell, brother of the prince of Red London, without realizing he’s an Antari – someone born with the ability to travel between worlds otherwise cut off from each other. Throw in waiting enemies, treacherous deceptions and poisoned power, and it’s a rich, compact opener to a trilogy.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas: Throne of Glass is the ULTIMATE high fantasy series in recent YA. If you (or the person you’re buying for) love vast, sprawling sagas with thrilling quests, deadly secrets and just a dash of magic, and you haven’t read it yet, then you need to get on that STAT. Now’s the perfect time to get started, too, as the final book in the series releases next year (though I’m going to include the cover for the third book here because it’s fab).

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and finally: FICTION FOR THOSE PESKY KIDS

Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone: a more recent release, this is a short story collection featuring contributions from award-winning children’s authors like Emma Carroll, Michelle Magorian, Piers Torday, Lauren St. John and Katherine Woodfine. And it it’s a book with a Christmassy winter theme! Its varied, vivid stories should have something for everyone and would make a great gift for eager young readers this year.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell: elegant, extraordinary and full of adventure, Rooftoppers is already being considered a classic of children’s literature, and it was only released three years ago. If you haven’t read it yet, then I urge you to pick this one up, as it’s such a great book. It sees heroine Sophie escape to Paris as she searches for her long-lost mother with only the information contained on the cello case she was found in as a baby to go on, and recounts her acquaintance with the rooftoppers, street urchins who live beneath the night sky. There’s a magical quality to the book even though it isn’t strictly magical, and Rundell’s prose has moments of pure brilliance.

Never Evers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison: ideal for readers nearing YA but with one foot still in middle grade fiction, this is a tale of early teen chaos and bashful charm. Never Evers has all the drama and disaster of classic light-hearted teen fiction – think Louise Rennison or Karen McCombie – with the added pandemonium of a school trip and ski slopes. It’s a landslide (or should that be avalanche?) of shenanigans: snow sport disasters, failed flirtations, new friendships, hidden ballet, igloo building, French popstars… oh, and the smuggling of a live hamster across several international borders. It’s mayhem, misunderstandings and mischief – and full of snow, too!

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So there you have it: your guide to YA and children’s books ideal for gift-giving this Christmas! (Or just for treating yourself). What’s the best book you’ve ever been given – or the worst?! Are your favourites among these recommendations?

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On The Other Side by Carrie Hope Fletcher // sweet, saccharine sort-of magical fiction

Author: Carrie Hope Fletcher
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Publisher:
Little, Brown/Sphere
Publication date: 14 July 2016
Category: adult fiction
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Genre: contemporary, magical realism, chick lit
Source: Lend
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Evie Snow has lived a long, good life. Full of optimism and not without sacrifice, she’s had eighty-two years to find her place in the world. When it comes to finding her place in the next, however, there’s an unexpected complication. 

Evie’s reached the door of her own private heaven, but it won’t open.

To open the door, Evie will have to unburden her soul of the secrets weighing it down – secrets she’s kept for over fifty years. Transformed into her twenty-seven-year-old self, Evie’s journey of a lifetime will see her revisit events and people she thought she’d lost forever – and come face-to-face with a love she thought she’d left behind long ago.

Before her days were filled with the sounds of children, grandchildren and a constant, humming ache for something that could never be, there was only one sound she wanted to hear: the sweet melody of a violin. Back then, she imagined a different future. Before, there was Vincent.

On The Other Side is charming, easy-to-read stuff. It has a remarkably similar plot device premise to Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessy (reviewed here last week and also released on 14th July, though I read the ARC in May) – they’re both narrated by characters who are technically ghosts completing tasks related to their old life – but that’s where the similarities end. Where Nothing Tastes as Good is dark, snarky and focuses on the struggles facing teen girls, On The Other Side is cheerful, romance-focused reading with the occasional serious undertone.

Vincent Winters is Evie Snow’s lost love, her what-might-have-been, her once-upon-a-time, but as complications unfurl, it’s evident that there’s more to the reason Evie Snow married a man named Summers instead. It’s a saccharine sweet, if idealised, romance, which sweeps the rest of the plot into its embrace. In terms of content, it’s all very PG; while released as an adult book, On The Other Side’s straightforward style, short chapters and character-driven plot make it clear the aim is to appeal to a wide audience.

Fletcher is known as one of the brighter, more sincere faces of generation YouTube, but On the Other Side also bears the hallmarks of her day job (as the West End’s Éponine and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Truly Scrumptious), if not literally then subtly, because, first things first, the story is there. Live theatre, particularly musical theatre, regularly seeks to make the impossible plausible, whether it’s singing a rebellion, flying a magic car, quintet-ing a gang war, defying gravity, the entirety of Cats, giving America’s favourite fighting Frenchman the fastest rap in living memory or just throwing fairytales at the stage to see what sticks. Musicals are aware that you’ve already suspended your disbelief by committing to a story where even ordinary information is delivered with synchronised key changes and the occasional good old-fashioned mid-sentence falsetto. This is the kind of suspend-your-disbelief story background Fletcher is coming from as she draws on magical realism – from semi-magical birds to talking heart trees – and gives this novel a feeling of wistful unreality.

If it’s the promise of dipping into Evie’e past that has you intrigued, then you should know that even going back fifty-five years, this book isn’t set in any distinctive era. There’s a sense that it’s meant to be quirky or disconcerting, but it’s a tricky idea to pull off, and  in this case leaves the reader only with the sense that it was perhaps simply more convenient not to have this summer release (cleverly timed to coincide with the start of the school holidays) held up by months of historical research. The placement of relics like sexism and arranged marriage alongside modern conveniences like mobile phones and skinny jeans seem out of place, off-kilter. It’s a shame too, as I love history, including historical fiction and drama. I was looking forward to a book with the good-cheer-in-tough-times feel of Call the Midwife or maybe the snazzier sixties-in-Australia equivalent Lovechild. On The Other Side misses an opportunity for richer storytelling here.

Evie is an easy heroine to like. There’s perhaps an element of self-insert fiction here (Evie has blonde curly hair, brown eyes, an emerald-green coat and a noticeably hopeful outlook) but it’s pretty harmless. The book’s secondary characters don’t leap from the page; overlong character descriptions do little more than introduce cardboard cut-outs from which sage advice, monotonous dialogue or unexplained villainy will leak. There is however welcome LGBTQIA+ representation (specifically bi and pan rep).

Unfortunately, the writing style isn’t as polished as it should be. It’s full of excessive adverbs, vocal clichés, unnecessary repetition, and tell in place of show. It’s heavy-handed and like many débuts indicates an author who hasn’t yet learned that it’s sometimes better to leave a few details to the imagination than rush it all out into two pages. You know that writing style you had when you were just starting out and your idea was good, but everything still came out in stiff dialogue and great lumps of exposition, single-spaced Arial size 12, one long run-on explanation from start to finish? And that writing style was totally fine, because you were learning as you went along and almost everyone falls into the tropes and traps of early aspiring fiction anyway. That’s essentially what you’ll find in On The Other Side, and to a well-read audience it will be particularly distracting. It’s the writing style of someone who has potential, but is still telling the story the way their early-writer self would. If it’s well-developed, make-your-eyes-widen-with-awe prose you’re after, you won’t find it here – yet.

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Simple, straightforward and saccharine sweet, On the Other Side is a charming, if uneven, fiction début. It’s warm and well-meaning, though a solid premise gives way to a style that needs a lot of work.

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