THE NORSE MYTHS, VIA NEIL GAIMAN

 

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It should be no secret to anyone who knows me or anyone who’s read this blog that I am a HUGE fan of Neil Gaiman, the brilliant writer of fantasy and the creator of the extraordinary Sandman series of graphic novels (if you have not read Sandman and have any interest in graphic novels, stop right here and run, don’t walk, to get your hands on the series; you’ll thank me for this).  One of the areas in which he’s long been interested is the Norse myths (though he’s also interested in Greek/Roman myths and fairy tales and Shakespeare and lots of other things), which you could tell, not only from the Sandman series but from his Hugo award winning book American Gods (Mr. Wednesday, anyone?), and so it is with great joy that I announce that Neil Gaiman has just published a new book called Norse Mythology, and it’s available right here at the Field Library.

 

For those who are unfamiliar with Norse mythology, as compared to the more commonly known Greek/Roman mythology, or whose knowledge of Norse Mythology comes from the Marvel movies about Thor, Gaiman’s book is a great place to acquaint yourself with a universe of giants and dwarves, deities, battles and prophecies, and the great battle of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the birth of a new universe.  Meet Odin the All-Seeing, meet Thor, Odin’s son, very strong but not necessarily the brightest of gods, and meet Loki, son of giants, a master manipulator and trickster, among other famous and infamous characters, and follow the arc of the gods from the beginning of the world to their inevitable end.  And the fact that it’s all told by Neil Gaiman, in his inimitable voice with his novelistic brilliance and wit, just makes it more fun.  

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UNIVERSAL HARVESTER — BUT OF WHAT?

What if you took a dull, relatively simple job to earn some money and get yourself away from your painful home situation, and then you discovered that this dull, simple job was opening you up to a truly disturbing mystery?  That’s the premise of Universal Harvester by John Darnielle.

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Jeremy, our protagonist, lives in a small town in Iowa, and he’s working at the local Video Hut (remember when people watched videos?  Remember when you would go to the video store to rent a video for the night?).  The business is under serious threat from the nearby Blockbuster video store (remember when Blockbuster was a big deal?), but Jeremy still has his set of regular customers, and it’s mostly a quiet, relaxing job, outside of the afternoon rush, so he’s content. It gets him out of the house he shares with his father, and the memories of his mother’s death in a car accident six years before.

 

Things get a little strange when a customer returns a particular video and complains that there’s something wrong with it, and not the usual “it’s skipping,” or “it’s sticking” or “it won’t play right.”  No, the complaint is that there’s something else on the tape besides the movie.  Which would be odd enough by itself, but which becomes stranger when yet another customer, with another movie, comes in with the same complaint about something else being on the tape.  This time Jeremy watches the tape, and, sure enough, there IS something else on the tape.  In the middle of the movie, the screen goes blank and then there’s a black and white scene shot inside a barn, the only soundtrack the sound of someone breathing faintly.  There’s nothing overtly sinister about the scene, and yet there’s something that unsettles Jeremy enough to make him watch this scene over and over. He investigates the other tape, and there’s an interruption on that tape as well, not the same scene but clearly one shot by the same person, in the same barn.  And Jeremy thinks he recognizes that barn as one on the outskirts of town.

 

And now Jeremy can’t ignore what he’s seen, can’t forget the odd familiarity of the setting of the scenes and the strangeness of their being inserted into VHS rental tapes.  Now he has to investigate more deeply, and his familiar, even boring, world turns into a strange and foreboding place filled with mysteries that might be better off left alone.  

 

MURDER IN A LOCKED SPACESHIP: SIX WAKES

One of the things science fiction does very well is to take the conventions of another genre and turn them around or twist them a little so you see them in a completely new light. One example of this is Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, which takes the classic whodunit format of a locked room murder mystery and, by moving it onto a spaceship, upends all our expectations of how to solve a murder.

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Let’s start with clones, because this is where the book starts. Our protagonist, Maria Arena, wakes up in her cloning vat, streaked with blood.  She has no memory of her death or anything that happened before she woke up as this clone of the original Maria Arena.  This is a unique experience for her.  Usually when the clone awakes to her new life, the thing she remembers most clearly is the moment of her death in the last life.

 

There are seven crew members, and they take turns narrating the book, but all of them have secrets, all of them have great gaps in their memories, so all of them are unreliable narrators (always a fun literary device to keep readers guessing).  The characters themselves aren’t even sure of their innocence or guilt, and while they’re trying to figure out which one of them is the murderer, they discover that the ship itself is malfunctioning and there may no longer be the technology to recreate them as clones.

 

There’s a lot going on here, not just the mystery, which is suitably twisty and intricate, but also the deeper issues of what makes us human, how technology changes us and remakes our institutions and culture.  For a wild ride for mystery and science fiction fans, and people who are just curious, you could hardly do better than to pick up Six Wakes.

WHICH 2016 DO YOU WANT: ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS

I admit it, I’m a sucker for time travel books (this should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following the blog or talking to me on the Circulation Desk), and I’m delighted to announce we have a doozy of a time travel book coming to the Field Library on February 7.

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It’s called All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai, and it takes place in 2016.  Well, actually, it takes place in two different 2016’s, and thereby hangs a tale.

 

In what our protagonist, Tom Barren, believes to be the “normal” world, 2016 looks a lot like the ideal future people were envisioning in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Flying cars? We have them. Moon bases where people live? Yup. Moving sidewalks?  All over the place.  All that wonderful, optimistic thinking about technology and human progress has come true and the world in 2016 is a fascinating place, except that Tom can’t seem to find his bearings there.  He knows he should be happy but somehow this world just doesn’t seem to work for him.

 

And then comes a time travel accident which sends him into OUR 2016, and throws the whole flow of the universe out of whack.  To someone from Tom’s version of 2016, our world is horrifying, a dystopian wreck, a nightmare.

 

At least at first it seems that way to him. But then Tom discovers what the alternate Tom, the one living in this 2016, is like and how his life is different, and maybe better. His family, his career, maybe even his soul mate, are all wonderfully strange and appealing in this version of reality, and he finds himself liking aspects of our “dystopian” world.

 

Of course the dilemma then is whether he should try to fix reality and bring back the utopian 2016 he came from, or whether he should let the universe alone and try to make a life for himself in this reality.  As dilemmas to carry a novel go, this is one of the more intriguing ones, and I, for one, want to see the other 2016 and see how Tom resolves his dilemma.