Book Review: Gaiman’s NORSE MYTHOLOGY brings new life

I love reading mythology, and especially the Norse myths. I was first introduced to them as part of a world mythology book I read as a kid. The intricacies of fantasy universes like Redwall and Middle Earth would each serve as a form of mythos for me, providing me with clear moral codes and heroes and beings of immense power to admire and emulate.

A few years ago, I read The Norse Myths, a collection of the mythos collected by Kevin Crossley-Holland, pulling primarily from Snorri Sturluson’s recordings of them in 13th-century Iceland. This annotated compendium exposed me to a much more academic view of mythology, which was just as enthralling as the children’s stories I’d read previously.

This is all to say that Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is not my first pass at these stories, and it will certainly not be my last. Even still, I cannot emphasize how much pleasure I took from this particular telling

I listened to the audiobook version of this, and I don’t know how anyone can read Gaiman any other way. He is a master storyteller as both a writer and a narrator, and his inflection, his voices, and his enthusiasm for the story enliven everything he narrates. Listening to Gaiman tell a story is like someone lighting a candle in pitch black that illuminates the book in your mind for the first time.

Gaiman presents the Norse myths in a style that is remarkably accessible to the modern reader but does not detract in any way from the power, the wonder, and the downright strangeness of these stories. His chapters are renamed as well to appeal to a modern audience. Rather than regaling us in epic-style prose in “The Lay of Thrym”, Gaiman instead recounts a fireside tale of “Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants”, which he describes with a nod both to the hilarity and the foreshadowed danger of Thor allowing Loki to dress him as the goddess Freya in order to trick the powerful giant Thrym.

As is expected with any Gaiman story, the dialogue is punchy and entertaining, and his dry sense of humor permeates both the absurdity and the fatalism of the Norse myths.

By the time the reader reaches “The Last Days of Loki” and “Ragnarok”, the weight of the end times lends greater meaning to Gaiman’s words, and to the hopefulness with which he describes what comes after the end times.

I thoroughly enjoyed this listen and will absolutely be listening to it again… perhaps on a road trip with my kids as part of their introduction to the Norse myths.

Steve D

Book Review: EXIT WEST and relatable worlds

Exit West has been in my Audible library for at least over a year — when Audible used to make their Originals content available as part of a monthly selection.

I picked it up and sort of forgot about it, buried at the bottom of my Not Started list. I finally decided to give it a shot.

I ended up enjoying Exit West much more than I had anticipated when I first started. Mohsin Hamid’s narrative starts off slowly, the first couple chapters introducing the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, in terms of their relationships, families, and how they were raised in a predominantly conservative Muslim society.

What’s interesting is that Hamid never names the country in which Saeed and Nadia live, and the particulars of the political conflict that upends their lives is inconsequential. Hamid chooses to focus on how it impacts them to tell a story that could apply to any two people, from any society, at any time in human history.

This is reinforced in the structure of the story. Hamid uses a methodical narrative style to capture vignettes of the lives of his characters. He then extends this to nameless characters we meet only once, snapshots of people’s lives who on the surface have no relation to the protagonists but whose shared experiences enliven the story.

Hamid presents a fictional future that likely already exists in some countries and will be more widespread over the coming decades. As the political conflict quickly turns to civil war around them, Saeed and Nadia are forced to hide out in their own homes before making the heart-wrenching decision to escape through one of the many doors that transports people from one life to another.

This is a world in which human societies are more divided but also more interconnected, where large groups of migrants have to eke out their existence in new places, fundamentally reshaping the identity of the places they come to inhabit, as well as themselves.

Saeed and Nadia try to hold their fraying relationship together among this emotional tumult, and their bond becomes the strongest force holding the narrative itself together.

Speaking of the audiobook version, Hamid’s narration is steady, and emotional notes come not in his inflection, but in the meaning and rhythm of his words.

I’m pleased to find two other stories by Hamid available on Audible, and regret not listening to him sooner.

Steve D

Book Review: SUPER BLACK and the cultural imprint of black superheroes

I picked up Super Black: American Pop CUlture and Black Superheroes by Adilifu Nama on Audible recently, and really enjoyed the information and lessons Nama presented.

Nama’s central theme is that black superheroes are more than tokenism brought to the comics page, which is how they are often talked about or analyzed. Instead, Nama explores how black superheroes have engaged in or even shaped the narrative of race and racial identity in American culture.

I was immediately impressed with Nama’s academic approach to this effort. He spends the first chapter laying out his thesis, his methodology, and refuting the arguments of previous analyses. He also is shy in criticisms of specific comics or stories for their over-reliance on stereotypes and insincere storytelling. It is not difficult to tell that he is a fan of comics, and he even mentions the effect that comics had on him as a boy, but he also wants to provide a considered analysis, and he does.

Nama looks at each of the most prominent black superheroes, as well as a few who made a particular mark on the discussion of racial issues.

He takes this a step further by examining other genres of media to discuss how black superheroes, at their best, have presented an encouraging image of Afro-Futurism, and often led the way in bringing those themes to the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Even for someone without a deep knowledge of comics lore or history, this book is an engaging review of the most prominent Black superheroes and their depictions over the decades. Analyses of Black Panther, John Stewart’s Green Lantern, Power Man / Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Brother Voodoo, the Falcon, and Storm jumped out to me. Nama also discusses a run of Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern and the Green Arrow, which managed to touch on social justice issues in America in the 70s, not long before John Stewart debuted as the Green Lantern.

Nama then spends some time examining the superhero status that Barack Obama attained in the American psyche in the run-up to his election in 2008.

I really enjoyed this book and will definitely be looking for some of the comic arcs that Nama discusses to better understand these stories.

Looking Forward

Super Black was originally published in 2011, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just getting started — really before “MCU” became a widely understood pop culture term. I am curious how Nama would examine the growing on-screen prevalence of black superheroes since then.

Black Panther became one of the MCU’s most iconic characters almost overnight when that movie debuted in 2018. Before that, both Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie had supporting character roles in various films, as War Machine and the Falcon, respectively.

And now Marvel presents us with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a limited series that earnestly shines a light on racial injustice in America and wrestles with the notion of a man being both black and Captain America in 21st-century America.

I think it’s easy to be cynical about a huge corporation owned by an even huger corporation trying to convince viewers that they care about social justice, but the fact is that Black Panther (and it’s upcoming sequel) and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are stories about black superheroes with strong themes of Afro-Futurism (especially in Black Panther) told by black directors and writers. That’s not nothing, at least in my view.

I’d still like to hear what Nama thinks about those stories of significant black superhero figures though.

Steve D

Book Review: CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT, and middle-book syndrome

I just finished reading Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I’ve already mentioned this book a couple times in recent posts, mostly because it took me longer than I expected to get through it. And not in a good way.

Ten books into this series, I’ve run into more than a couple of stretches where there doesn’t seem to be any real narrative movement, and the characters’ insistence on running in place when there’s a path laid out for them has been frustrating.

This book, however, was the hardest installment of this series for me to get through. Rather than running in place, or even building up to something, the characters in this book just did nothing.

There were a lot of conversations, a lot of plans being made without any details as to what they were, or even what they were aiming to achieve, and a lot of schemes.

Always with the schemes in these books.

Schemes within schemes that are so convoluted, so tepidly hinted at by the POV character of the moment, that the reader can’t possibly have any real clue of what’s really happening. There are so many characters now in this series, and they all have their perfect little plans laid out and ready to spring, except the reader has no idea what any of them are, and there are 200 of them!

Ugh.

So, yeah, this book took me some time to get through. I was simply not interested in most of what was happening. I read the last third of this book in fits and starts just trying to get to the end.

The structure of the chapters was at first intriguing to me. The book is structured in such a way that you follow one particular character or set of characters for several chapters in a row before abruptly pivoting to another character. I think this would have been an effective mechanism to develop specific character arcs if most of the chapters didn’t feel like filler content.

Without getting into details, I was particularly interested in both Elayne’s and Mat’s narratives in this book, but I haven’t heard from Elayne since the first third, and Mat’s story took an unexpected if interesting turn at the end.

All of this is to say that I’m happy to be done with this book, and I’m taking a break before getting into book 11.

Jordan has always toed the line between being just vague enough while building suspense. This story did not build anything. The last few chapters are interesting and definitely set up for book 11, but they do not make up for the 700+ pages of what felt like filler content.

Steve D

Book Review: THOR: GOD OF THUNDER, VOLUMES 1 and 2

With Thor: Love and Thunder due to hit theaters (or streaming services?) in 2022, I felt compelled to follow the comic arc that inspired this particular film, as well as Taika Waititi’s previous installment in this MCU franchise, Thor: Ragnarok.

I first looked to the early 2010s Thor comics, The Mighty Thor, in which Jane Foster takes up the mantle hammer of the God of Thunder. After doing a bit more research, though, I realized that Jason Aaron, the writer of The Mighty Thor, also wrote the Thor comics leading up to Jane Foster’s transformation.

Thor: God of Thunder, Volume 1: The God Butcher, book review, comics

So I decided to read Aaron’s entire run. That’s where Thor: God of Thunder comes in. Volume 1 of this series, The God Butcher, is a bit of an introduction to Thor, as well as to Gorr the God Butcher, who is to be the villain in Love and Thunder.

I found this to be a really exciting narrative with interesting jumps between past, present, and future Thor as he battles the God Butcher across the millennia.

We see the brash young God of Thunder, not yet worthy to wield Mjolnir, juxtaposed with Thor the Avenger, who bears the weight of centuries of responsibility on his shoulders, against Thor the King of Asgard, a grizzled aging god. I really enjoyed how closely this character evolution is mimicked by the MCU films.

The second volume of this series, Godbomb, continues the story of Thor(s) fighting Gorr the God Butcher across time, a thrilling and surprisingly uplifting ending to the God Butcher saga. I’m usually not into time travel plots, but seeing the three Thors battle together was pretty awesome.

I’m glad I read these two volumes together, because volume 2 is a direct sequel to volume 1. Across both volumes, the artwork is vivid and dynamic. I found myself flipping back and forth to catch details in the illustrations I may have missed on first reading.

Following on this time-jumping quest, I’m looking forward to seeing where Thor the Avenger, the proper Thor of this arc, goes next. This being my first read of any Thor comic, I don’t really know what to expect. I’m just pleased to see that Aaron has contributed more than a dozen volumes of comics to Thor’s lore in recent years. They should keep me occupied until Love and Thunder comes out.

Steve D

Book Review: STARDUST, a perfect fairy tale for adults

Stardust by Neil Gaiman, cover illustration, fantasy, fairy tale story, short stories

Stardust is the first book I’ve read by Neil Gaiman, and hearing the Audible version that he narrates was a real treat. Gaiman is one of those authors who I’ve seen a lot of references to online, but I could not have named one of his stories. Now I’m kicking myself for never looking up his work before.

Stardust is an incredibly enjoyable story in an authentic setting. The typical English village of Wall where the story begins feels completely mundane in the best possible way, from the little farmhouses that sit on its outskirts to the tavern where the locals pass gossip and the general store where they place their orders for the proprietor to pick up in the nearest large town.

Sitting just outside the village, however, is a stone wall with a gap in it, which is always guarded by two of the villagers, and which the residents of Wall are not allowed to pass through. Through this gap every nine years comes a market of bizarre beings from the land of Faerie, the land beyond the wall. Tristan Thorn, a young lad from Wall, one day decides that he must journey into Faerie to find a fallen star.

Thus begins Tristan’s journey with an intriguing cast of characters and intricate plot building. Even though there is not a ton of world-building or exposition, the world around Tristan feels like it’s full of history, both everyday and fantastical. Every character speaks and acts with such quirks that you can’t help but think that there are unique stories behind each of them — an incredible example of the writers’ adage that each character is the hero of their own story.

The plot was compelling and the arc of the characters felt very natural. Tristan was quite a savvy protagonist, especially for a teenager who had never left his village before, but I think this is established well enough early in the story that it doesn’t feel out of place.

Gaiman is a wonderful narrator whose cadence enhanced the listening experience, more so because he narrates it in the style in which he intended it to sound. The voices he creates for each character are distinct enough while keeping the listener immersed in the story.

I already have a couple more Gaiman stories queued up on Audible, including his telling of Norse Mythology, which — come on. How can I not read that?

Steve D

Book Review: MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING, by Viktor E. Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, book cover, book review

I picked up Man’s Search for Meaning on Audible at the recommendation of a friend. I had heard of this work and Frankl before, but I didn’t really know anything about him, or about why he wrote this book.

I gravitate towards books about the big questions and especially existentialism, so this seemed right up my alley. (You will recall I just recently finished a Stephen Hawking intro to cosmology and quantum physics.)

Man’s Search for Meaning ended up being completely not what I expected and also much more gratifying than I had hoped. This post is less a review than a brief look at how Frankl’s book impacted my own perspective on meaning and existence. Continue reading “Book Review: MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING, by Viktor E. Frankl”

Book Review: THE GRAND DESIGN and thinking about the cosmos

I recently finished listening to The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow on Audible. This is one of those books that had appeared in my recommendations, and it seemed like an accessible introduction to physics, cosmology, and quantum theory. Continue reading “Book Review: THE GRAND DESIGN and thinking about the cosmos”

Book Review: THE SAGE, THE SWORDSMAN, AND THE SCHOLARS opens a new fantasy world

The Sage, the Swordsman, and the Scholars, Trials of the Middle Kingdom #1 cover illustration, Pierre Dimaculangan, fantasy, historical fantasy, epic, novelI picked up The Sage, the Swordsman, and the Scholars, Trials of the Middle Kingdom I at Awesome Con 2019, where I met the author. I had seen a banner much like the cover illustration hanging over the tables a couple rows away from my own, and I just had to check out the book.

Pierre Dimaculangan was really friendly, and his passion for his work was immediately apparent.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book since then, and I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get to. Still, it was well worth it. Continue reading “Book Review: THE SAGE, THE SWORDSMAN, AND THE SCHOLARS opens a new fantasy world”

#Review: THE RUIN, Dervla McTiernan, a strong detective mystery

The Ruin, Dervla McTiernan, Cormac Reilly #1, mystery, detective, novel

I just finished listening to The Ruin on Audible, and I’m hooked on the series.

I came to this novel length opener to the Cormac Reilly series after coming across McTiernan’s short stories: “The Sisters” and “The Roommate”.

I had enjoyed McTiernan’s writing style, her characters, and Aoife McMahon’s narration, the quality of which cannot be overstated, so I wanted to give one of McTiernan’s full-length novels a try.

Continue reading “#Review: THE RUIN, Dervla McTiernan, a strong detective mystery”