[Book Review] The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

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Reality can be scary as hell.

You can have zombies, vampires and werewolves living inside a magical forest or a medieval make-believe town. You can have ghosts possessing children and sending them down the stairs in an exorcism film. You can have crazy giant cyborgs destroying a city.

But nothing – nothing – is as scary as the fear reality can provoke. The reason children are so scared of monsters is the fact that they can imagine them inside their bedrooms, where they should be comfortable and safe, where the rules of the adult world should also apply.

Which is why The Ocean At The End Of The Lane (Neil Gaiman, paperback by Harper, 192 pages), like most other Gaiman’s works, gave me goose bumps all over. The book is written as to sound almost like an autobiography, leading us through the visit of an adult man to his hometown for a funeral and the half-forgotten story he remembers as he sees the pond at the back of a farm at the end of a road, a farm where he met Lettie Hempstock and lived a story too scary to be true.

The result is beautifully scary. The introduction of fantastical elements into a realistic story, when properly done, has the effect of making everything possible and nothing seemingly real. Gaiman has the very unique ability to turn every chapter into a child’s dream, every line into a faint smell long forgotten. This is quite possibly my favorite of his – fast, thrilling, colorful, yet dark, this book is childhood in words.

Speaking of words, the man is their ultimate master, perhaps a magical creature just like the ones he loves to write about: every line is gorgeous, every character shines, everything seems impossible to improve. It always takes me a while to finish his books because of the beauty of his writing; I feel compelled to reread every other bit again and again, like someone throwing wine from one side of the mouth to the other, until I have tasted his words in every way I can. I believe exquisite is the best word I can use. His writing is simply exquisite.

Good books, much like good music, can touch your heart’s strings without asking it for permission or letting it know in advance. And I imagine the feeling provoked by this book is so difficult to describe because of how indescribable the bliss of childhood itself is for every person and, therefore, for every reader. I could write thousands and thousands of words and would still not be able to explain why or how this book is so good, the same way you could write the best of autobiographies and would never reproduce your childhood’s magic

(Unless, of course, you happen to be Neil Gaiman. In which case, hi, Neil. You’re awesome.)

All I can say is please read this. It’s short, fast, beautiful and I bet you’ll be touched. This was quite possibly my favorite book of 2013 – and I dare say it’ll continue on my list of favorite books ever for a long time, especially as I read it again and again in a desperate attempt to keep living inside of it for a little bit.

“Adults follow paths. Children explore”. And Mr. Gaiman writes dreams.

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[Book Review] Ein Kater schwarz wie die Nacht

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 Losing a pet can be devastating, especially at young age. When Lukas, a six-year-old boy, gets a black cat as a birthday present, he can’t foresee the happiness or the pain his pet will bring.

Ein Kater schwarz wie die Nacht (Henning Mankell, German version printed by btv junior, 127 pages), released in English as The Cat Who Liked Rain, is a sweet book about the excitement of having a pet and the sorrow of watching it go. This is so remarkably the strongest point approached by this book it’s not even a spoiler to say that the cat disappears – it happens so early in the beginning of the book the reader wonders if the author couldn’t at least let poor Lukas have a tiny bit more fun with his pet.

The story is well written and readers will instantly fall in love with Munkel, a cat that, much like other cats, lives his life the way he wants to, but loves his owner very much. Lukas is also a very believable character: his insecurities and fantasies are very well told, as if the author could perfectly get inside a six-year-old’s head; his relationship with his older brother, Wirbel, and his parents is described in a very simple manner, which only makes it sound more real. The anxiety to go to school, the desperate search for Munkel, everything in this book is coherent and sweet, which is of the essence when one has children, perhaps the most critical readers there are, as an audience.

Even though the book is quite charming, I must say that I was left with the impression that the author spends perhaps too much time describing the search for Munkel. The cat disappears, as I said, right on the beginning of the book, and then it all becomes a seemingly endless searching-not-finding-searching-again plot. It became tiresome even for me (and I’m 22 years old), which only makes me wonder if it would keep children interested for long. Maybe the idea is to divide the reading through many days at bedtime, but I still can’t imagine a kid being happy with the same plot for very long. Lukas and Munkel are, however, good enough characters to make it all worth it and keep readers rooting for them until the very last page.

The end (don’t worry, I’m not spilling it out) does make up for the slow development. It’s both satisfying and believable. That is actually one of the greatest virtues of Henning Mankell’s book: in a time of otherworldly, magical, sometimes exaggerated children books, it’s nice to read something that is the simple story of a regular boy and his regular cat. No witches, no spells, no magical creatures. Just the bond between a kid and his pet.

As a side note, I must say that I read this in German as an attempt to finish my first book on the language, which I have been learning for the past four years. As a C1-level student, I found this to be a great read, both full of vocabulary I didn’t know and easy enough to allow me to deduce those words through the context. It was also great to be in touch with so many verbs in Präteritum, since most of what I read is written in Perfekt. I think anyone starting B1 would be able to read this, even if a dictionary is of the essence. It’s great practice!

I highly recommend this both to those learning German and (in whichever translation you prefer, since the book is actually Swedish) to all lovers of children books. We are in part, after all, still the kids we once were, with or without a sweet, black cat named Munkel.