Archive for the ‘Oscar’ Category

Staff Review: Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Reviewed by Oscar

In the world of fiction, there exists a certain intangible chasm between what is generally known as ‘genre fiction’ and ‘general’ or even ‘literary fiction’. Many readers expect certain things from the one that they don’t from the other; it is a distinction useful for pigeonholing books, especially for those who prefer one kind of story over the other.

Genre fiction is looked down upon by some as not serious, trivial, lowbrow, but loved by many for its occasional display of imagination, its familiar plot structures, and accessibility. At the other side of the spectrum, literature, so called, also ranges from creative genius to derivative drivel, from the genuinely touching to the sentimental. For true lovers of fiction, then, the distinction between these different pigeonholes can at times come across as artificial and misleading, if not wholly useless.

This is one of the main reasons behind the specific set up of Stories, an anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. They’ve selected a little over two dozen tales for this volume that somehow seek to build bridges between aforementioned kinds of fiction. Their ideal, it appears, is to show that stories told well are just good stories, regardless of whether or not there is any element of the fantastic or grotesque in it. This is a sentiment with which I agree strongly, finding enjoyment in classic literature and modern imaginative fiction alike.

The anthology, however, only mildly supports its own argument. Some of these stories sadly are not able to transcend themselves, remaining bogged down in spiceless fantasy, common manslaughter, or cheesy sentimentality. Thankfully, there are quite a few stories in here that do live up to my expectations, and some examples follow here.

Joyce Carol Oates’s “Fossil Figures” is a vivid and touching tale about two twins, one strong, one weak, and entwined in a lifelong struggle. Neil Gaiman himself is up to steam with “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains”, a timeless folklore-tinged tale of revenge. Joe Lansdale’s “The Stars Are Falling” is a beautiful story on war, love, and death, set on the American frontier. “Goblin Lake” by Michael Swanwick is an entertaining meta-fairytale about the nature of fiction. Diana Wynne Jones’s contribution is a funny tale about The Twelve Days of Christmas actually happening to someone. A pity about the abrupt ending. .. Gene Wolfe’s “Leif in the Wind” is classic sci-fi, but with beautiful poetic imagery. Elizabeth Hand’s “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” is beautiful and quirky, a story about friendship and hope, centered around the restaging of an early attempt of machinary flight. Joe Hill’s “The Devil on the Staircase”, finally, is a typographically interesting tale about love and murder, with strong mythological undertones.

So, while the anthology might have benefited from a little sterner editing and selection to really prove a point, there’s still enough good stuff in here to entertain and inspire. Recommended for all kinds of readers who fancy a peek over the horizon.

Staff Review: Wilson by Daniel Clowes

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Reviewed by Oscar

Wilson is pretty much a big old loser. He’s single, lonely, bitter, sarcastic, inappropriate. People generally feel awkward around him, when he gets the chance to go near them, that is. He’s also the tragi-comic anti-hero of this new graphic novel, named after him, of course.

Daniel Clowes, whom you might know from earlier works such as the classic Ghost World (also adapted into a successful film starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johannson), is perfectly at home in describing some of the funnier and more touching moments in Wilson’s life. The novel is divided into traditional one-page comic strips, utilising both more stylised comic styles and slightly more realistic ones.

The power of Clowes’s comics lies in the familiarity and verisimilitude of his characters and situations, and the sarcastic, sometimes bleak outlook on life that seeps through it all. Ghost World focused on two teenage girls who criticised and rejected (or at least tried to) the hypocrite and revolting side of life. Wilson however, is what happens when you see all of the negative sides of life, but are somehow unable or unwilling to do anything about it, or deal with it in a constructive way. And, in a sad way, that’s funny.

Wilson is the kind of guy who asks a stranger what kind of job he has, only to tell him or her that it sucks. The kind who rarely truly listens to what others are saying, because he thinks it’s probably drivel anyway. The kind who sends a box of dog poo to his in-laws.

Despite the obvious flaws, there is something recognisable and touching in Wilson’s life. That nagging feeling that he could be a so much better person, if only he tried a little harder. This is what makes Wilson a short but successful graphic novel; its star character is believable as a person, but he is also an image of a side that many of us possess. Clowes shows us in the best possible way – with humour - that we should watch out for him, and try to rise above the disappointments of life.

Staff Review: Instructions by Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Reviewed by Oscar

One of the things that makes Neil Gaiman a relatively unique – and popular – writer is his subtle incorporation of mythological and fairy tale motifs in his fiction. One of my favourite stories in this respect is Instructions, a piece that appeared before in short story collections like M Is for Magic and Fragile Things. It’s great news then, that this little tale has now been published separately with wonderful illustrations by Charles Vess, who’s worked with Gaiman before on works like Stardust and the Sandman classic A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Instructions, as the title suggests, is a fairy tale written in the imperative. “You”, as a reader/adventurer – represented in the illustrations by Puss in Boots – are instructed to follow certain guidelines and bits of advice, in order to bring the tale to a satisfactory end. Examples include:

[W]alk down the path.


Inside [the castle] are three princesses. / Do not trust the youngest. / Walk on.


Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going.

Compared to your usual fairy tale, Instructions is stripped bare of any narrative flesh, so to speak. What remains are the motifs and symbols that actually give a fairy tale its resonating meaning, and that’s why this story is so successful. Presented in this way, the instructions read almost like a poem in which every line counts. The tale also lays bare the relevance – albeit somewhat mystic – these symbols have for everyday life. In the end, the road is open:

And then go home.

Or make a home.

Or rest.

Charles Vess’ lovely illustrations accompany this tale beautifully; his works recall that of classic fairy tale illustrators like Arthur Rackham, though the drawing seem geared a bit more to a younger audience here, with soft colours and lines, broad strokes. In some ways, a far cry from the sometimes quite realistic bloodiness that can be seen in Stardust.

Altogether this is a lovely short work that will delight children and adults alike. Especially recommended for everyone who knows fairy tales are fascinating works for all ages.

Staff Review: Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Reviewed by Oscar

Imaginative fiction tends to run in currents, with different fashions rising and falling all the time. Post-apocalyptic fantasy has been one of the more tenacious variants, often spicing up the blasted landscape with some zombies and/or mutants to pester the few humans the remain alive. Metro 2033, the debut novel by Russian writer Dmitry Glukhovsky, is definitely part of this tradition, but it finds a certain appeal through the introduction of some original elements and atmospheres into the mix.

The title of the book refers to its setting: the Moscow Metro system in the year 2033, after mankind has nearly wiped itself out in a nuclear war. It seems that over two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cold War fears haven’t left the world yet, perhaps with good reason. The Muscovite survivors of this contemporary holocaust have taken refuge in the subway system, which doubles as a nuclear shelter. People have settled into the various stations, which are now small villages, each with its own government, atmosphere, rules, and political ideals.

Thrown into it all is Artyom, a young man who ends up travelling through a large part of the Metro system to save it from invasion by the aptly named Dark Ones, mutated creatures who live on the surface, a place now deadly to humans in a plethora of ways. On his way, he meets a broad range of people, some friendly, some hostile, but all products of the different ways in which people deal with crisis and a harsh life. Most inspiring to Artyom are the cool-headed stalkers, seasoned explorers and warriors who alone dare to travel to the surface in search of rare supplies.

Throughout the novel, an atmosphere of dread and suspense is maintained, and it doesn’t indulge in bouts of unnecessary violence and gore, though some of the hostile forces Artyom encounters on his journey are quite gruesome. However, the plot itself is not totally satisfying, jumping from place to place without any clear goal for the protagonist beyond survival and ’saving his home’. At the very end, this seems to be twisted around in many ways in a very sudden, enigmatic and dreamlike ending that I’m not yet sure what to make of.

Character descriptions aren’t always satisfying or clear either; it’s as if Artyom just isn’t really interested in what goes on around him or in other people’s heads. He never makes any friends apart from his stepfather, whom he leaves at the start of the story, nor does he have many constant companions. Even more disappointing was the glaring absence of women in any role that could be considered more than minor. Apparently Artyom wasn’t interested in them either.

The true protagonist of the book, though, is the Metro itself. This is the area where the novel shines and shows its true potential. As a setting for adventures, the gritty subway network with its little village stations, political factions (communists, capitalists, fascists, independents, mutants, cults), and oppressive atmosphere is perfect. No surprise then, that a video game has already been made, that roughly retells the story of this novel in the form of a first person shooter. Even better though would be more games and stories, focusing on the potential of (interactively) exploring the Metro and its political and social peculiarities. The recent terrorist attacks on Lubyanka and Park Kultury stations have reminded us that the Metro system is more than just a network of transit, it is also in a very real sense the veins of a city, a place with a special meaning.

Weak points aside then, Metro 2033 is a very entertaining novel, containing enough action and suspense to please during a casual read, but also a lot of inspiration in terms of setting. After finishing the book, it isn’t so much the story that sticks in your memory, but the geography and setting of the Metro, and what more stories could be told there.

What we’re reading: Amsterdam Edition

Thursday, March 25th, 2010