Why James McAvoy is a God (or at least one of the Endless): Neil Gaiman – The Sandman (Audible Original)

So here’s a little confession. I read the first three volumes of The Sandman ages ago and then never continued. I believe it was because at the time, I was still a student and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on books, let alone pretty expensive graphic novels. But now that I’m all grown up I want to dive back into this amazing universe and I needed a refresher. What better way than to relive the first three volumes as an audiobook?

THE SANDMAN (Vol. 1 – Vol. 3)
by Neil Gaiman & Dirk Maggs

Published: Audible, 2020
Audiobook: 10 hours 54 minutes
Series: The Sandman Audio #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: June 1920. The office of the senior curator of the Royal Museum.

Hailed by the Los Angeles Times Magazine as “the greatest epic in the history of comic books”, The Sandman changed the game with its dark, literary world of fantasy and horror – creating a global, cultural phenomenon in the process. At long last, Audible and DC present the first-ever audio production of the New York Times best-selling series written by acclaimed storyteller Neil Gaiman (who also serves as co-executive producer). Adapted and directed by multi-award-winner (and frequent Gaiman collaborator) Dirk Maggs, and performed by an ensemble cast with James McAvoy (It, Parts One and Two, X-Men: First Class, Split) in the title role, this first installment of a multi-part original audio series will transport you to a world that re-writes the rules of audio entertainment the way that The Sandman originally re-defined the graphic novel.

When The Sandman, also known as Lord Morpheus – the immortal king of dreams, stories and the imagination – is pulled from his realm and imprisoned on Earth by a nefarious cult, he languishes for decades before finally escaping. Once free, he must retrieve the three “tools” that will restore his power and help him to rebuild his dominion, which has deteriorated in his absence. As the multi-threaded story unspools, The Sandman descends into Hell to confront Lucifer (Michael Sheen), chases rogue nightmares who have escaped his realm, and crosses paths with an array of characters from DC comic books, ancient myths, and real-world history, including: Inmates of Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum, Doctor Destiny, the muse Calliope, the three Fates, William Shakespeare (Arthur Darvill), and many more.

A powerhouse supporting cast helps translate this masterwork into a sonic experience worthy of its legacy, including Riz Ahmed, Kat Dennings, Taron Egerton, Samantha Morton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis, and more. Setting the stage for their performance is an unprecedented cinematic soundscape featuring an original musical score by British Academy Award winner James Hannigan. Fans will especially revel in a new twist for the audio adaptation: Neil Gaiman himself serves as the narrator. Follow him as he leads listeners along a winding path of myths, imagination and, often, terror. Even in your wildest dreams, you’ve never heard anything like this.

I didn’t expect to love this as much as I did but I want to say right away that I wouldn’t recommend this audiobook to people who have never read the comics before. It’s been a very long time for me but I did remember the most important bits as well as some characters and subplots. And that helped enormously with keeping the plot lines straight, remembering which character was related to whom and how that fits into the greater timeline and so on. Going in with no prior knowledge is not something I would do!

So, now that’s out of the way, if you have read the comic books – the first three have been adapted here – then chances are you’ll be as impressed as I was that comic books can actually make good audiobooks. It seems strange that a medium which relies so much on the visual aspect could translate to audible content so well. With Neil Gaiman as the narrator, images are still being drawn in a way, except in your mind instead of on the page. And while it’s definitely a very different experience from reading the books, it was in no way a lesser one.

Also, just let me get this out of the way before I explode: James McAvoy is SUCH A FANTASTIC ACTOR! I know, I know, lots of great actors out there and lots of them do voice acting, blablabla. But the reason I’m so taken with McAvoy’s portrayal of Morpheus is that I remember him as the lead role in another Neil Gaiman audioplay, done by the BBC. Neverwhere (extremely highly recommend, btw) was a brilliant audioplay in which McAvoy played the slightly lost but good-hearted protagonist who stumbles into a magical London beneath the London we know. I have listened to that audioplay many times and so McAvoy’s voice kind of belonged to Richard Mayhew in my brain. I was worried that suddenly hearing him as Morpheus wouldn’t work for me. I was very wrong!
Not only does he change his voice enough for the characters to sound completely distinct, but everything about the way he delivers lines is different too. Morpheus’ way of talking has a certain cadence to it, a gravity that reflects his nature as an Endless. I realize it’s their job and all but I still can’t get over how well certain actors can slip into different roles and appear as completely different people, especially when they do it with nothing but their voice. So. James McAvoy: Voice God!As for the story itself, I won’t go into a lot of detail here. It starts out with a group of power-hungry men trying to capture Death and thus, ensuring eternal, or at least prolonged, life for themselves. Instead of Death, however, they find themselves with a disgruntled Dream on their hands whom they keep captive for many decades. With Morpheus stuck in his prison and nobody else to do his job, a series of events is set into motion that will ripple out for many years to come.
So Morpheus is trying to break out of his prison and set the world right again. That means finding some important objects, punishing the creatures who’ve been doing mischief while he was gone, and righting wrongs wherever possible.
After that, it isn’t so much Morpheus that we follow but we rather jump around following a cast of other characters who – in some way or another – are connected to Morpheus. It could be someone who has suffered from Morpheus imprisonment, someone who threatenes the Dream realm, someone who is simply in a certain place at the right time… I don’t want to spoil any of the episodes for you but be warned that the audiobook, just like the comics, does feel episodic. There are some longer plots that carry on through several episodes but generally, you can enjoy this one chapter at a time and get a well-rounded little story.

The intertwining stories can get confusing at times and although the voice actors do a brilliant job, it wasn’t always easy to keep them apart. I also admit that I didn’t even recognize many of the famous voices in this production. I know what Taron Egerton sounds like normally, as well as Michael Sheen, Samantha Morton and Andy Serkis – I’ve seen movies with them and I should recognize their voices. But I guess that’s another sign of them being really good actors who can change their voice just enough for the not-overly-attentive listener to not notice who they are.
I will be listening to the next instalment as well when it comes out, although I definitely plan to read the comic books first. At certain times during the audiobook I was glad that I had an image in my head of what Morpheus looks like. I mean, him and Death are both striking characters with a very distinctive look. Hearing a description just isn’t the same as seeing it on the page. So, I’ll get myself the next three issues as soon as I can and then I’ll look forward to both the next part in the audiobook series (if indeed they make another one) as well as the TV show!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

 

A Gorgeous, Creepy Graphic Story: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples

A few years ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s short story Snow, Glass, Apples and was completely blown away. It takes the Snow White fairy tale, tells it from the point of view of the evil (?) stepmother and turns it on its head in a unique, original way.

SNOW, GLASS, APPLES
by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Published by: Dark Horse, 2019
Hardcover: 64 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First line: I do not know what manner of thing she is.

A chilling fantasy retelling of the Snow White fairy tale by New York Times bestselling creators Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran!
A not-so-evil queen is terrified of her monstrous stepdaughter and determined to repel this creature and save her kingdom from a world where happy endings aren’t so happily ever after.
From the Hugo, Bram Stoker, Locus, World Fantasy, Nebula award-winning, and New York Timesbestselling writer Neil Gaiman (American Gods) comes this graphic novel adaptation by Colleen Doran (Troll Bridge)!

This is the story of a young woman who fell in love with a king. This king has a daughter, a young girl with hair as black as ebony, skin white as snow, and lips red as blood. You know how it goes. Except there is something off about this particular Snow White. I don’t think it’s a spoiler but just to be safe, I won’t tell you what’s up with Snow White. Let’s just say, she’s not the fairy tale princess you’d expect. And the evil queen is actually doing her best to protect her kingdom. Apples are involved as well as a super creepy twist on the prince who wakes up Snow White with a kiss. But that’s all best discovered for yourselves.

There are several things that made this story work so well for me. On the one hand, the way Gaiman incorporates all the beats of the original fairy tale into a story that is essentially the opposite of the Grimms’ tale. On the other hand, the art itself. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I can hardly express how much I adored Colleen Doran’s drawing style. Inspired by Harry Clarke, the art is luscious and detailed and there’s plenty to discover. So I read this first for the story itself, following along where the author led me, and then went right back again just to look at the art on each page.

What I found really impressive was that the graphic novel works almost completely without the use of panels. Most pages are full-page artworks like the one above where smaller images blend into other small images. The way the pages are set up, however, makes the reading order totally intuitive. I always knew where the author, artist, and letterer wanted my eyes to go next. That’s something I didn’t expect at first glance, so now I am all the more impressed. I can’t explain why or how, but it works beautifully. And the pages are gorgeous to look at as complete pieces of art as well.

This is the kind of book you can read really quickly but it will stay with you long after you’re finished. Some lines in Gaiman’s story simply stick because they are so well written. With the graphic novel adaptation, the same thing goes for Doran’s images. I have read this book more than a week ago and yet I still vividly remember certain pictures. I had also forgotten just how dark the story goes at certain points and while it’s one thing to read about brutality, it’s quite another to see it depicted – even if it’s in an art style that’s not super realistic.

I should also mention that this is not a story for kids. When I say “twisted fairy tale” I don’t just mean that plot elements get twisted around. I mean actually twisted. There are dark scenes here, some truly disturbing things happen, and the ending is also not for the faint of heart. Although if you’ve read some fairy tales without the added sugar coating, you’ll know what you’re in for.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Pretty amazing!

Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk

I have been insanely busy lately, so this slim and heavily illustrated children’s book by Neil Gaiman came at the perfect time. Finally, I could sit down with a book and read it in one sitting without such annoying things as work interrupting me.
It was fun, it was silly, and I would have loved to have read this as a child.

fortunately the milkFORTUNATELY, THE MILK
by Neil Gaiman

Published by: Harper Collins, 2013
ISBN: 0062224077
Hardcover: 128 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence:  There was only or­ange juice in the fridge.

“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.”
“Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.”
Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

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When a motherless-for-the-weekend family find themselves in lack of any milk for their breakfast cereal and tea, one brave father steps outside to buy some at the corner shop. The children find that it takes him surprisingly long to return. What they don’t know, of course, is that their dad went on a wacky, time-travel adventure featuring dinosaurs, aliens, wumpires, and piranhas. The father’s absence is explained in full and reminded a bit of The Usual Suspects for kids.

This is clearly a children’s book. Not only is it full of illustrations and has fun with fonts, but it is also a very simple story that is probably as much fun being read to as reading for oneself. That said, I commend Neil Gaiman for putting so much time travel in this book. Sure, you never have to remember for longer than a few pages what time the protagonists have just left and when a second version of themselves suddenly show up to steal the milk – or give it back. But, being an adult, I scrutinized the logic behind Gaiman’s time travel (and don’t go telling me time travel can’t be logical in its own way) and it all holds up.

There are some wonderfully quirky bits, some parts that will be funnier to adults than to children, and – my favorite thing about the entire book – gorgeous illustrations. The UK and US editions of Fortunately, the Milk are illustrated by different artists. While you will find Chris Riddell’s wonderful art in the UK version (I loved his images in The Graveyard Book to bits!), the US version shows off Scottie Young’s amazing skill. His drawings are intricate and full of flourishes and twirly bits… I stared at them for minutes at a time.

fortunately the milk piranhas
Scottie Young’s characters are little more than stick figures with big heads on top, but their faces are expressive and wonderful and just fun – just look with how much love for detail the hair is drawn. The only thing that would make this an even better book would be full color illustrations.

Now that I got all of the praise out of the way, let me tell you what disappointed me a little. Neil Gaiman is a master of his craft. His books are atmospheric and dark, they cleverly play off genre tropes, they show us old things through a new lens. This, however, wasn’t any of that. I enjoyed it because of how it celebrates the joy of storytelling, of making things up, of going along with silly ideas that children suggest – all of these things are important to me, and the fact that a big name like Neil Gaiman can reach millions of people with it makes me happy. If your own children ever come up with a tale like this, don’t shut them up. Let them tell you about the stegosaurus in the hot air balloon!

But for all of that, it was maybe too simple, maybe a bit too predictable. I honestly can’t say if I feel that way because I am not the target age group or because I am a spoiled book brat. Having read such amazing children’s books as Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland novels or Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora Segunda books, I have come to expect more of children’s novels than a silly adventure with everything and the kitchen sink.

To me, children’s books truly show a writer’s talent. And an author who manages to write a children’s book that can entice both children and adults is a true genius. Neil Gaiman charmed me for an hour, but ultimately, the story will be gone from my memory very soon. The pictures… now, the pictures may stick around for quite a while longer.

RATING: 7/10  –  Very good

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Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This was underwhelming. Not only has this book been hailed as Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys, it has also received ridiculous amounts of press during the last months. Even people like Neil Gaiman aren’t immune to being overhyped. I consider myself a fan of his work, but despite his fame and renown, I am still aware that even a great author can sometimes produce a mediocre novel.

ocean at the end of the laneTHE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE
by Neil Gaiman

Published by: William Morrow, 2013
ISBN: 0062255657
Hardcover: 181 pages

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm.

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

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When our nameless protagonist and narrator first returns to the pond behind his childhood friend’s house, we are first forced to learn about his incredibly boring, mediocre life. I was worried that the entire book would continue along those lines but, thank Neil, the narrator slowly startes to remember certain evens that occured when he was seven years old and had just met the girl named Lettie Hempstock. It was around the time his cat got run over by a man who was later found dead near Lettie’s house… Once we read the childhood memories and the strange things that happened to the protagonist as a boy, the story starts to kick off. The monsters were suitable scary and wonderfully strange. In Ursula, Neil has created a truly terrifying thing that manipulates its way into the family and leaves the protagonist almost completely helpless, at her mercy. It was these moments that were the strongest and most adult ones in the book and the author does a fantastic job of capturing that feeling only a child can know, that feeling of knowing you are right and equally knowing that nobody will believe you. When he seems to be trapped in Ursula’s powers, he can only watch her take over his family more and more.

Not every book that features a child protagonist is automatically a children’s book. But this is sold as an adult novel and it just isn’t. I would consider neither the tone, themes, language, nor even the scary bits particularly adult in nature. It is not as creepy as Coraline, not nearly as deep and moving as The Graveyard Book, and the one thing that I kept coming back to was that it read more like a stretched-out short story. In the acknoweldgements, Neil Gaiman admits that it started out as just that – if I had any say in it, it would have remained a short story. Because the plot is very, very thin, the story straight-forward and simple. Bad comes into the world and has to be kicked out again somehow. And then there’s (what I’m guessing is supposed to be) a twist at the end that reminded me very much of Coraline.

ocean at the end of the lane 1And that’s another thing. I am so sad that, at least in this book, Neil Gaiman has nothing new to show us. Every little thing that I considered good and interesting about this story, has been there before in one of Neil’s other books – and usually done better. The hunger birds, the mysterious people who seem to use magic but don’t bother explaining themselves. The protagonist who is incredibly gullible and just does what he is told. Even the name Hempstock (maybe even the family) has appeared in The Graveyard Book. It would have been nice to get at least one shiny, new Neil Gaiman thing – that’s what I had been looking forward to.

To be fair, there is a budding exploration of certain themes, such as the importance of money to humans, that would have been intriguing to follow. But these themes are merely scratched at and then dropped completely. The other theme would probably be the protagonist’s coming-of-age but I would also dispute that he does. He is a strange character, one that gets fleshed out and becomes three-dimensional in the quieter chapters, when he thinks about books and his kitten – only to lose all personality as soon as other characters show up. From convincing little boy to cardboard stand-in.

There were a few things I liked about the book, most of all the abovementioned Ursula-the-housekeeper, who could have sprung straight from a nightmare. But also little paragraphs, here or there, where Neil managed to uncover a truth about the world and touch me with his writing, like this comparison between adults and children.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.

And, of course, I have to be honest and admit that – had this been my first Gaiman novel – I would have been quite impressed with the weird nature of his monsters. They are never just giant spiders or ghosts under the bed. They are strange and old and have agendas of their own. Whenever the monsters took center stage, I was all in, I sucked up the words and was terrified at how lightly the protagonist took some of the mysterious things happening to him. That worm-thingy, and Ursula, did their job well and creeped me out in an enjoyable this-is-only-a-story-worms-can’t-really-do-that-can-they way.

In the end, I am left disappointed, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed certain chapters of this little book very much. I have a suspicion that those were the chapters that made up the original short story…

THE GOOD: Great monsters, creepy scenes, the occasional beautiful line.
THE BAD: A rehash of old ideas, a plot that felt forcibly spread out, a strange sometimes-real, sometimes-bland protagonist.
THE VERDICT: If you’re a fan of Neil’s work, you will read this anyway. If you’ve never read anything by him, you may like it a lot more than I did (not knowing that all the ideas have been used in his prior novels already). And if you’re looking for a quick read, pick this up, sure, why not? If it hadn’t been so short, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

RATING: 6/10 – Okay

Neil Gaiman – American Gods

I waited a long time to pick this novel up. As a long-time Gaiman fan and a (mostly) fan of Hugo winners, I honestly can’t say why. When I did pick it up, it delivered exactly what I expected from a good Gaiman book. But it was also so much more. No wonder, he was showered with rave reviews about this particular novel. No wonder, everyone wanted to give him awards. It is a truly great novel with such a dense atmosphere that I felt as if I were crawling into another world whenever I opened its pages…

AMERICAN GODS
by Neil Gaiman

Published: Headline Review, 2005 (2001)
ISBN:0755322819
Pages: 632
Copy: paperback

My rating: 8/10
Goodreads rating: 4,09/5

First sentence: Shadow had done three years in prison.

Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife Laura dies in a mysterious car crash, in apparently adulterous circumstances. Dazed, Shadow travels home, only to encounter the bizarre Mr. Wednesday claiming to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.

Rougly put, this book is a road trip through a world inhabited by gods, carried to America by immigrants, many years ago. In detail, Neil Gaiman offers his readers much more and as any fans of his writing will know, he delivers his own particular brand of weird. Our very Gaimanianly named protagonist Shadow agrees to accept the job that strange Mr. Wednesday offers him. He realizes very soon that his old man is more than meets the eye. Together, the travel through America (the US, that is), meet all sorts of strange creatures and, yes, gods, solve mysteries along the way and, by the way, save the world.

For readers who are comfortable with a bit of mythology, and not only Greek, mind you, this book is a cavalcade of fun. There are hints and remarks and references to all sorts of gods, demi-gods, godlings and allegorical deity-like creatures. I’m sure I missed a ton of references but the ones I got made this a lot of fun to read, just on that first level. We get Greek, Norse, Indian gods, African legends, Irish deities and everything else that could have come to America with the people believing in these gods. It is fascinating enough that mixing all these worlds, these complex systems of belief, works so well and it just shows one more time Neil Gaiman’s talent as a writer.

You see, I was already taken with the book. And I haven’t even talked about the plot or characters yet. It took a long time for the story to become somewhat more linear and to form a clear path. We are thrown into a story that meets us with confusion and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Discovering some of that sense through the plot, was another fun andventure. While certain bits felt episodic, I was never bored. Something always happens and usually, that something is profoundly weird. There are flashbacks (these “Coming to America” bits were a highlight in and of themselves), side plots, recurring characters and even some humor.

I enjoyed this read immensely. I wouldn’t have wanted to read it in one sitting because taking breaks, letting it all sink in, and mulling it over a little, turned this book into my own private little TV-series-inside-my-head. Over time, I grew to like the characters a lot, especially Shadow, despite his not saying very much. Gaiman has written a fantastic book, filled to the brim with mythology, amazing characters and surprisingly good descriptions of gods and landscapes. He breathed life into this fictional America and took his readers on this roadtrip from his brilliant mind.

An appropriately climactic and well-rounded ending with some revelations waiting for me, turned this from a very good into an excellent book. And even the acknowledgmenet section made me giggle a couple of times.

THE GOOD: The coolest kind of mythology, a convoluted but killer plot and characters that feel intensely alive – even the dead ones.
THE BAD: The confusing start may put readers off, as might Gaiman’s brand of weird (if you’re new to him).
THE VERDICT: Another masterwork by Neil Gaiman that deserves its Hugo and its Nebula awards and that I can’t wait to re-read before the HBO series gets made.

RATING: 8/10 Excellent

Read an excerpt on Neil Gaiman’s homepage.

TV ADAPTATION:

The book is being adapted into a 6-season HBO TV series by the author himself. Having been a huge HBO fan for years and years (remember Rome? *sigh*), I trust them and Neil Gaiman fully with the job of turning this awesome book into an awesome TV show. As there have been no announcements concerning a cast or actual shooting of the first season, I guess we’ll have to be patient for a few more years.

So tell me: How excited are you about the series?

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