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26th July
2009
written by Steph

As many of you know, I stressed out over which books to take on our honeymoon vacation (I know I’m not alone in this panic that sets in when there’s an impending trip and limited space for books).  In retrospect, I need not have worried so much, as Tony & I hardly got any reading done while we were away.  I did, however, manage to squeeze in Neil Gaiman’s latest book, The Graveyard Book on the way back home in the car.  Being short of audiobooks, and not being one to get carsick, I actually read the entire thing aloud to keep Tony entertained as he drove us back from Savannah to Nashville (about an 8-hour trip).  This turned out to be a great selection for reading in the car as it was not too complicated but sufficiently action-packed to keep our attention and to keep me reading the entire time. The basic premise of the book is that when he was a baby, a stranger killed the rest of Nobody (Bod) Owens’s family.  Bod makes it to the local graveyard where the undead inhabitants agree to care for him until he is old enough to do so for himself.  In the graveyard Bod will have protection from his would-be killer, and also has restricted powers that are often limited to the graveyard’s ghostly inhabitants.  So Bod grows up in the graveyard, with two ghosts for parents, and the bulk of the novel focuses on his misadventures as he transitions from baby to boy to young man.  As the novel progresses, Bod becomes obsessed with life beyond the graveyard.  Specifically Bod wants to find the man who wanted to kill him all those years ago, before that man finds him.  Bod knows he’s still out there waiting, and only hopes that with the power of the graveyard on his side, Bod just might prevail. In the past I’ve had a conflicted relationship with Neil Gaiman.  I read Stardust around the same time the movie came out and loathed both wholeheartedly, and was quite willing to cut Gaiman from my literary life.  But then Coraline came out, and we decided to chance that movie, and liked it a good deal more.  With The Graveyard Book, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was happy to find it was more Coraline than Stardust.  I think I like Gaiman best when he’s being kind of spooky; Tony really liked the spin Gaiman puts on well-known mythic creatures like werewolves and vampires in this book.  It does always confuse me somewhat that his books are aimed at children because they seem almost too scary for young readers, but I suppose the scary elements in this book were not dissimilar from those contained within even the early Harry Potter books (more on this later).  So chalk that up to me being naive.  Still, even apart from the content, I wondered about some of the language Gaiman peppers throughout his book; there’s a lot of vocabulary that I simply don’t think young readers will get.  I definitely came across words that I learned in university when studying for my GREs, and I’m not sure that even the most precocious 8-year old knows words like, well, precocious for one!  I’m not saying children’s writers need to dumb down their writing, but there were an awful lot of three- and four-syllable words throughout the book, which Tony and I both thought was a tad odd.  But hey, we don’t have kids, so even if some of this stuff would go over the heads of a younger audience, we still enjoyed it.  The writing is generally quite witty and spirited, though I would still maintain that overall Gaiman is a great storyteller but just an average writer. As for the story itself, as I said, it captured our attention for the bulk of our car ride, and we would discuss what was likely to happen at gas stops and pee breaks.  Throughout the novel, we couldn’t help but notice many striking parallels between The Graveyard Book and the Harry Potter novels, beginning with the murder of Bod’s family (and the motivation for it) but certainly not ending there.  While this didn’t exactly detract from our enjoyment, I can’t honestly say that this book one ups the Potter books in any real way.  The elements that are found in both books are done better in the Potter books, in my opinion, but that’s not to say The Graveyard Book is wholly derivative because it isn’t.  We both felt that the beginning of the book was stronger than the end, that when many of the plot points were resolved, they were done so in sort of an offhand way (e.g., the motivation for the murder of Bod’s parents, the lack of insight into the Convocation, how Scarlett is dealt with…) that left us feeling unsatisfied.  Mostly it felt like Gaiman had to wrap everything up as quickly as possible, when it really might have been more rewarding to parse Bod’s story into multiple volumes… but perhaps then the similarities to Harry Potter would have been too great.  Still, I wish Gaiman had spent more time developing the backstory for the readers even if it was all clear in his own mind.  Despite these setbacks, I did choke up and began to cry while reading the last few pages of the book, so I clearly wasn’t immune to the book’s charms.  Or maybe I’m just a softie (we’ve already established that I’m naïve, after all).  For what it was, we felt this was a worthwhile and fun read.  I figure it’s only a matter of time because this book gets optioned as a film, and when it does, I think Tony & I will probably see it.  The ending is sufficiently open-ended that it's entirely possible Gaiman could continue Bod's adventures in the future, and I think I'd be up for a second round if he were.  As for Gaiman himself, while he still fails to completely rock my world, I’m willing to try more from him in the future.  Any suggestions? Rating: 4 out of 5

15 Comments

  1. 07/27/2009

    I have not yet read any Gaiman, but I do want to give this a try. I’ve heard it compared to The Jungle Book, which I enjoyed, and while I don’t like “spooky” books of any kind, I’m hoping that it’s tame enough. It sounds like it mostly is.

  2. 07/27/2009

    Gaiman does mention The Jungle Book in his acknowledgments, and I guess I can see how the influences are there/how The Graveyard Book is a riff on that story.
    It’s spooky for kids, but you will not be scared, since I know you have read the Harry Potter books. Nothing worse than what happens in those happens here.

  3. i’ve been seeing gaiman all over the place, but have yet to pick up anything of his. your review is thorough and i’m not sure if i’m going to rush into one of his books–my leaning tower of TBRs is teetering precariously. 🙂 welcome back from the honeymoon and belated congrats on the wedding!

  4. 07/28/2009

    You’re right, he’s a great storyteller but only an average writer, which is why he isn’t one of my favourite authors that I drool over, but I would read anything by him any day, just for fun. I recommend Neverwhere, which has the same feel as Graveyard, not Stardust. Neverwhere is a teeny tiny bit for older readers than Graveyard (only 1 to 2 years, though, lol). I’ve Fragile Things on the tbr, short stories, which is supposed to be really good. We’ll find out.

  5. 07/28/2009

    @ nat: I haven’t felt like Gaiman has changed my life. As Claire says below, his stories can be a good lark, but they always fall a little short for me. I don’t think you need to rush out and read him if you’ve other things to occupy you! And thanks for the well wishes!
     
    @ Claire: Thanks for the rec on Neverwhere. Is that one a graphic novel? I know he has at least one of those bouncing about out there. I think my friend Laura read Fragile Things and said it was good and creepy!

  6. 07/28/2009

    I am not too crazy about Gaiman. Everyone seems to adore everything he does, but when I read one of his books, I just didn’t feel it. I read American Gods, and while it was ok, I just wasn’t totally engaged. It was a great premise, but I didn’t think it was particularly well written or as interesting as I had expected it to be. I haven’t read anything by Gaiman since, although I have heard plenty of positive things about The Graveyard Book. I have toyed with the idea of reading Coraline (and even bought it for my kids) but haven’t actually committed to it yet. It’s interesting to read a differing opinion of Gaiman’s work because he seems to be a literary golden boy right now.

  7. 07/29/2009

    @ zibilee: Yeah, as my mom would say, Gaiman just doesn’t really blow the wind up my skirt. There’s nothing wrong with his stories but I never feel they’re as magical as I’ve been led to believe they will be. I tend to find his stuff diverting, but not necessarily earth-shattering.

  8. 07/30/2009

    I like Gaiman best when he’s working in offbeat formats: graphic novels, for instance, or short fiction, or kid’s books. I really, really liked Coraline. (I also liked American Gods, but mostly because I was really taken with the Egyptian gods living in Cairo, Illinois.) Fragile Things is slightly hit or miss, but mostly hit. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head saying that he’s a great storyteller but only an average writer, though. That’s a really good analysis. You are totally suckered by the plot but not wrapped up by the writing in any significant-enough way.

  9. 07/31/2009

    Thanks for the suggestions! I do think I’ll read more Gaiman, and both American Gods and Fragile Things sound like they could be fun. I think Gaiman is wildly creative, and I just wish he were a stronger writer. I think I’d be a lot more enamored with him if he were!

  10. 07/31/2009

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  11. 10/12/2009

    I thought the murder-scene at the beginning was far spookier than the first chapters in Harry Pottter. But good point about someone being able to handle the Voldemort murder theme being able to handle this too. I did think Gaiman was lighter in some respects, which is ironic, I think, since it took place in a graveyard!!

  12. 10/13/2009

    @ Rebecca: Definitely the opening scenes were scarier in this one than in the Potter books, since those kick off after the murder of Harry’s parents… and perhaps there is something intrinsically scarier about a man wielding a knife rather than one wielding a wand! Overall, I agree with you though that this book felt a bit lighter than the Harry Potter books, perhaps because there wasn’t the time to develop everything as much as Gaiman might have liked (after all, the Harry Potter books are LONG!).

  13. 10/15/2009

    I don’t think Gaiman WANTED it to be scary. I think it was just as he wanted it, and he had plenty of time to develop it as he wanted. It’s just DIFFERENT from the Harry Potter books.

  14. 10/15/2009

    @ Rebecca: I am sure you are right about the tone, but I can’t help but wonder if the book really was everything Gaiman hoped it would be. Elements of it really did feel rushed, or certain elements got dropped never to be discussed again, and I found that frustrating. I think if Gaiman had either had a longer book or more books to explore certain ideas, it would have been stronger for me. But maybe it is as you say and he was perfectly happy with the final product. Perhaps it was just me who wasn’t entirely won over! 😀

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