October 29, 2009

The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman

The Wolves in the Walls is Neil Gaiman's second picture book, and it's full of all the things that people read Neil Gaiman for - it's darkly imaginative, charming and a little bit unsettling in an oddly breezy way. It's wonderfully illustrated in a sort of collage / mixed media form by Dave McKean, whose work effectively reflects the aesthetic of Neil Gaiman's prose. The first time I read The Wolves in the Walls, I gobbled it up and smiled. The second time however, when I started to really look at it, I was disappointed. This is not because Gaiman's story did not hold up - it did. In fact, the second reading impressed me insofar as Gaiman's ability to tap into the darker corners of childhood fear. What disappointed me, in the end, was the execution. Let me explain.

The Wolves in the Walls is loooong by picture book standards - over 2000 words, when the average is about 700. This is not necessarily a problem if the writing is tight, clear and efficient. If the writing isn't tight, clear and efficient, the length of the book works against you, so that by the end of it, the reader has ended up having a pretty muddy read. It isn't enough that the prose be tight and clear - the story itself can't have any fat, no areas or episodes or moments that don't drive the narrative forward or in some way feed the rhythm of the book. This is where The Wolves in the Walls disappoints.

The basic concept - that a little girl named Lucy hears wolves in the walls and her family doesn't believe her - is awesome, especially because it turns out that Lucy's right. The beginning starts out slowly, but that's not a bad thing as it built up a sort of mild, creepy suspense. But when the slowness continues through the entire of the story it doesn't work so well - there's little sense of disaster when the wolves do come out of the walls, and little sense of climax when the family reclaims their house. The high stakes and suspense are all muffled under cluttered prose and Lucy's overly talkative family. One severe edit would have done the trick, but without it, The Wolves in the Walls is only half of what it could have been.

I find this with a lot of Neil Gaiman's work. He's brilliant and I love the way his brain works and so desperately want to whole-heartedly gobble up everything he writes, but he's undisciplined. The only reason The Wolves in the Walls got published without the edit it deserved is because Neil Gaiman's name would make it sell. If his craft were as developed as his conceptions, he would be amazing, but it rarely is, so I always end up feeling teased by the book's potential. And that's how I feel about The Wolves in the Walls - it's so damn close I could smell the smoke, but no cigar in the end. :(

October 7, 2009

Dust and Shadow by Lindsey Faye

The full title of Lindsey Faye's debut novel is Dust and Shadow, An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson. Let me just say that, generally speaking, I feel that there is very little ground left untrampled regarding Jack the Ripper. Let me also say that I tend to dislike it when modern authors "discover" new, never-before-published episodes in the case chronicles of Sherlock Holmes. They are invariably gimmicky disappointments at best and, at worst, ill-disguised attempts to cash in on the enduring popularity of Conan Doyle's brilliant anti-hero. That said, Faye puts all other Sherlockian sharecroppers to shame. Seriously, Dust and Shadow is great.

To begin with, Faye obviously researched the hell out of this book. Her grasp on the Ripper killings was thorough and her familiarity with Victorian London, from Whitehall to Whitechapel, was complete. From the ease with which she made use of Victorian working class slang to the quality of the noxious London fogs, Faye knew her stuff. But best of all, she obviously knew Holmes. This is the only time I've read a non-canon Holmes and forgotten that Arthur Conan Doyle hadn't written it. Every choice in diction and syntax, every bit of characterization, both major and minor, were spot on imitations of Dr. John Watson's biographical "tone." There wasn't a false note in the thing, and believe me, I was looking for one.

Better still, Lindsey Faye posits a solution to the Ripper killings that not only explains who the killer was and how he managed to avoid capture, but why the identity of the killer was never revealed, if indeed it was ever known. The solution fits very neatly into the logic of Holmes's world, making it seem that it could never have happened any other way. Of course the fictional Sherlock Holmes successfully investigated the real life Ripper killings - why shouldn't he have?

All in all, I tore through Dust and Shadow. At first it was simply because I was kind of shocked by how good it was, but very quickly, the mystery pulled me in, as any good mystery should, and I ended up gobbling up page after page just for the pleasure of finding out who-done-it (the answer, let me tell you, is perfectly logical, but oddly chilling - something I was also not expecting). I can't recommend Dust and Shadow enough. If you like Sherlock Holmes, or Jack the Ripper or Victorian suspense, definitely pick it up. It really is a treat.