Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I don’t usually take a stab at reviewing books, I’d rather be reading them or writing them, however I just finished Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane a couple days ago and I really loved it. It’s a short book compared to his other adult novels and by far the simplest, in terms of story and world building. Rather than a detriment, it is used to advantage, however. The book has echoes of the children’s literature he’s been writing of late. As the narrator says towards the beginning, “I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” And Ocean captures this idea very well.ocean

It is condensed Gaiman, the very essence of the storyteller, trimmed down. This story seemed to be the most autobiographical amongst his published works. In the acknowledgements he thanks his family for being allowed to plunder his childhood. I was left with the feeling that most of what happened in the book may actually have happened in his childhood.

For me, who grew up a sort of awkward, bright young boy, it spoke directly to my childhood experience. It was a time of confusion and occasional melancholy as the people around me struggled to create meaning in their own lives. There was throughout the book themes of absence and loneliness. The parents were virtually never present for most of the book, only to occasionally pop in and create some degree of emotional upheaval or as in the bathtub scene, actual violence. Nevertheless, the main character is still a child who loves his mummy and daddy and who wants to be with them and his sister, safe and sound. At one point he says that he would like things to be the way they had been before.

But as he attempts to adapt to change, it’s  in the character of Lettie that he finds safety and with her family, the Hempstocks, which are a representation of a triune of female gods – the Maiden- in Lettie, the Mother – in Ginnie and the Crone – in Old Mrs. Hempstock. His friendship with Lettie gives him with the confidence and strength that he lacks in order to address the problem of Ursula Monkton, who is  a sort of interdimensional interloper who is determined to inject herself into the world of humans. Lettie is for him a great boon and he loves her like a best friend in the innocent and complete way that only children are capable, whether she’s 11 or 11 times 3 or 4000 years.

As with any Gaiman story, the end of the primary complication is not the end of the story. When the problem of Ursula is solved, a bigger problem springs up in the hunger birds that could mean his death. Lettie sacrifices herself to save his life and while she doesn’t die, she does have to go away. In this case, beneath ‘the ocean,’ a pond on the Hempstock property that is representative of the universe and creation – in order to heal and hopefully come back.

The protagonist returns every few years, with no memory of his previous visits, to check on her return and we the readers are left with a sense of the dying and resurrecting hero. The loss of Lettie is tragic but also hopeful, one day she may return, just as one day we as people may return to what she represents.

Gaiman’s personal mythology really shines through in this latest book and I’m left to wonder – for him what does Lettie represent? Is the loss of the Maiden representative of a loss of childhood? Of innocence? And is her status as not being dead, but away and healing, a hopeful sentiment that we as a society may bring our own child-self back?

At the end of the book, as the main character drives away he sees the moon in double, reflected in his rearview mirror. One image a full moon, the other as a half moon. In the symbolism of goddess worship there would be another moon on the opposite side that would mirror the other half (or in some cases quarter) moon. Also at the end, Ginnie is there and Old Mrs. Hempstock, but at times they blur and become one character, but they’re still missing their Lettie, their other third of the whole.

In all, this was a beautiful book, perfect in its simplicity and sure to secure Neil Gaiman’s already profound impact on the genre. It dips beyond storytelling and into mythology.  As modern writers, we are all standing in his shadow.

Morning Cuppa – 06/10/13 – RIP Iain Banks. Ocean at the End of the Lane! Join my journaling challenge!

As some of you may have noticed, I took the weekend off from the cuppa. My partner and I took a little weekend getaway in Vero Beach and got embarrassingly sun burnt. As a Florida resident for going on 8 years now, there’s really no excuse for it but it was one of those deceptive overcast days where you’re thinking, why would I need sunscreen today? Anyways, hope your week is shaping up well.

  • Iain Banks has passed away. Because of the vacation weekend, I”m only finding out about this now, via Neil Gaiman’s blog where he wrote an thoughtful and heartfelt response to Banks’s death.
  • Speaking of Gaiman, there’s a no-spoilers review of his The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Damien Walter, which begins with an interesting premise. Walter draws the distinction that with truly great SF, there’s an underlying element or theme that runs through an author’s work. With Tolkien it was his need to process the events of the first World War. With Gaiman, Walter sees a trend toward the father figure which is continued in this, his latest adult work. It seems like everyone I know on twitter has already read and raved about this book. If, like me, you’re one of the norms that don’t get advanced reader copies, it will be released on June 18.
  • Journaling. Do you do it? I once kept a journal for almost 5 solid years, between using a notebook and an online resource. Sometimes I wonder if I ended up with anything to show for it, other than a clearer understanding of myself. As my writing dance card is filling up (I’m beginning to blog for three different publications, maintain this one, and continue to work on my novels) I’m thinking it’s time to resurrect my journal as a place to play with ideas again and help me come up with blog and story ideas.
    So, starting this week and for thirty days, I’m going to attempt to journal once a day, every day. On July 11th, I’ll report back and assess whether it felt like a worthwhile use of my time. Care to join me?

Morning Cuppa – 05/07/13 – D&D! YOG’s Law! Book reviews!

The toothache saga continued last night. Half mad with pain, half drunk on scotch to kill it, I jumped right into watching Twin Peaks. Naturally, there are some things that feel really dated, but overall, it really holds up. David Lynch’s style has been a significant influence on my story telling.

  • Speaking of the fantastical, Peter Bebergal writes on Boing Boing about the late resurgence of old school rules D&D. He asks, is this renaissance, which has persisted for the last several years plus now, just a sort of zealous fundamentalism for a bygone era? Or does it originate from a desire to shed the rules that some argue have bogged down the game and made it feel little more than a video game with treasure dumps? For my part, I keep trying to push my gaming group towards more rules-light gaming with mixed results. They’re younger than I am and mostly grew up with 3.5 as their first gaming experience so I think it feels odd when I try to explain the fewer rules are better concept. 
  • Over on Neil Gaiman’s tumblr, he was asked:

    My most recent experience with the publishing world was with a small publishing house who claimed they liked my work but wouldn’t publish it unless I covered the expenses. I refused to since I couldn’t afford it, and I was surprised (and disappointed) to find out that most publishing houses do the same for new writers. Have you ever encountered this situation? What are your views on the matter?

    His response? YOG’s Law which is, to paraphrase, ‘money flows to the writer’. Not the other way around. I like that.

  • Tobias Buckell writes a thoughtful piece about book bloggers and reviewers and how by being reviewers, they change their experience of reading and are no longer quite the same thing as the less critical reader. The quote that was going around on Twitter yesterday was:

    A novel doesn’t excite readers because you took all the bad stuff out of it, it excites them because of all the good stuff that’s in it, regardless of the bad.

    It’s a good read, and he outlines the reasons that I’ve kept my distance from book reviews thus far.

Morning Cuppa – 04/16/13 – Neil Gaiman! Blogging! Nightshade!

My thoughts are with the city of Boston today, I hope for healing for them in this difficult time.

  • Neil Gaiman gave a speech that he said, “went down like a lead balloon” at the London Book Fair yesterday. He urged people in the book business, especially the major players to, “try everything. Make mistakes. Surprise ourselves. Try anything else. Fail. Fail better. And succeed in ways we never would have imagined a year or a week ago.”
    This is actually a common undercurrent in the publishing industry right now, I recently attended a conference for my day job that was very much about the concept of what’s been coined, “disruptive innovation”. The problem that I’ve seen is that while there are players like Gaiman who have the weight to throw around and say such daring things, the folks who actually hold the purse strings are from the same old guard who rely on conservative business models and depend on the whims of their investors or stakeholders. Ultimately, I think that the real disruption will come from those who aren’t power players. Smaller and newer organizations don’t have the same need to maintain their legacy products that established media brands do. Having said that, to again quote Gaiman, “anyone who tells you they know what’s coming, what things will be like in 10 years’ time, is simply lying to you.”
  • As a constant blogger, it’s challenging to stay fresh and engaging. For example, I do this Morning Cuppa post just about every day. Sometimes I wonder if having it on a daily basis leads to reader fatigue though. One of the trends that I’ve noticed is that on days where I have a unique blog post as well as my Morning Cuppa post, my traffic experiences a significant spike. I’ve played around with the idea of breaking up these posts into several posts and scheduling them to go up throughout the day but thusfar haven’t taken action on it. Also, I know that interviewing authors, writing about my own writing adventure, etc. have been great ways to bring new readers in. It’s always good however, to look at what you’re doing and try to decide if it could be improved upon. Tammy Sparks has 10 good suggestions for improving (or starting) your blog.
  • Michael Stackpole has reversed course and has posted on his blog that he will now be signing the new Nightshade/Skyhorse book deal. He cites that the new contract has been heavily amended from the original. While there are some concessions he had to make, he feels like some of the bigger problems he had with the original deal have been sufficiently addressed.

Morning Cuppa – 04/01/13 – JJ Abrams! Neil Gaiman! Announcements!!!!

It’s a morning full of blockbuster announcements at the cuppa, with all this great news, I’m heading into work soon to tender my resignation.

  • JJ Abrams, has FINALLY agreed to come and write a guest post on my blog (about time, Jaje!). Look for an exclusive announcement about the Star Trek/Star Wars crossover that’s being planned. One hint: how does Spock survive a Wookie attack?
  • Speaking of big announcements, Neil Gaiman will begin narrating my blog. Starting on April 22nd he’ll drop in every day to read the Morning Cuppa! He’s even agreed to read all the links that I send people off to from here! Thanks Gaim-ster!
  • I’ve saved the biggest news for last. One of my friends secretly submitted my manuscript of my first novel to a publisher who I can’t name yet and they’ve accepted it in unedited form! I got an email from them praising my experimental ‘raw’ style. We’re still working out the deets but I’ll be sure to post an update when I can!