Book Review: The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected non-fiction, by Neil Gaiman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_view_from_the_cheap_seatsYou just know that any author who begins a collection with a piece about the importance of libraries has his or her head firmly screwed on. So it is with Neil Gaiman, my new superhero.

Actually, the very first piece in this fabulous collection is his credo, and I just have to quote the last sentences, “ I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win. Because the ideas are invisible, and they linger, and sometimes they can even be true”.

This wide-ranging collection is divided into ten sections, ranging from personal beliefs and opinions through friends, the art of science fiction writing, how comics work, opinions on music – and all written so that they engage you right away. Even the non sci-fi readers (like me) may be inspired to return to some of the classics of sci-fi to see if our experience stacks up against Gaiman’s. I now have an enormous reading list of things I “really ought to have read” but somehow either did not get around to, or dismissed out of hand!

Neil Gaiman always makes you think – whether it’s his fiction or his non-fiction is immaterial really. A comment at the end of a piece about Charlie Hebdo and the PEN awards is a quote from the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo: “Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images, can be shocking. Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not”. It would appear that many people out there either don’t know this, or have forgotten. To be reminded is essential.

On a lighter note, a comment about the nature of writing fiction has stuck with me also. To paraphrase – the story itself is not complete until you, the reader, have read it. The writer provides the framework, and of course the narrative, but how each reader interprets that and makes it their own version is what gives life to the story. That makes story even more powerful, I think.

I am going to buy this book, as it is such a great collection. This is definitely the current top of my non-fiction reading list – it just pushed Etgar Keret’s memoir down a notch, and that was hard to do!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-fiction
by Neil Gaiman
Published by Headline
ISBN 9781472208019

Cornelia Funke: Reckless, Fearless, Heartless, with Jo Randerson

corneliaBefore I delve into another session, I just want to say how lucky I feel to know so many children’s authors and brilliant people involved in working on behalf of children. These people are my people. They care deeply about children, and they work tirelessly – writing, teaching or providing gateways to books for children. They deserve a standing ovation for what they do, and it was a real privilege to be in the audience to see Cornelia Funke speaking about her life as a writer.

Funke started out as a social worker for disadvantaged children, as a way of rebelling from her parents (who wanted her to study art) to do something that she saw as much more necessary than art. She realised you can’t betray your talent, when she noticed herself drawing a lot with these children who she was helping. Ultimately, she became an illustrator, then started writing her own books when she didn’t like those the publishers supplied. Her books are now so popular she is able to fund organisations for the socially disadvantaged.

“Your mistakes will teach you – don’t ever let people tell you to take the straight road. Take the crooked road.”

Funke firmly believes that there is a story for everybody. She loves to find stories that she can write both for book-eaters like herself, as well as for those who “hate to read.” She was told a story by a teacher about a boy who stole his copy of Ghosthunters, then hid behind a bush at lunchtime to keep reading it. She says, “It is much more difficult to condense a book.” You need to do this to engage reluctant readers.

ghosthuntersChair Jo Randerson started a conversation about the inner child by quoting Maurice Sendak: “The child that I was didn’t grow into the adult that I am, but the child is still alive.”

“Until they are 10-11 , a child is still a shape-shifter,” says Cornelia. “I like to say I write for children, but I let grown-ups read it as well.” We are too restricted as adults. Children still ask the big questions. The older we get, the more we hide from these questions. She herself never has trouble with keeping her inner child. Her kids say she has the mental age of five.

Funke has an incredible awareness of children’s psyche when contemplating darkness – many are fascinated by skeletons, for instance. “It’s much scarier for the child when they notice the lie. It is when you hide things that children get scared by what you are not saying.” You have to be sensitive of when your child is ready for their awareness of the world – don’t put them in front of a war report at 5 years old. A book is a way to introduce things gently – children close the book when it gets too bad. “A book is a place where we can practice the dark side of life.”

Funke receives very touching letters from soldiers, dying children. She says “As writers and artists, we create shelter, because we all need it – but from this shelter, you need to hear the storm. You should always know that it is there. Every person has to face the storm at some point. Cruelty, darkness, grief, is all part of the human experience.”

pans labyrinthFunke’s favourite movie is Pan’s Labyrinth, because it explains fascism so brilliantly. “Fantasy is just a mirror – it is a very powerful way of talking about our world.” Her favourite fantasy book is The Once and Future King, by T. H. White. She added later, “If you can’t create your own fantasy, it makes it very difficult to change your reality.”

Funke is now writing the book of Pan’s Labyrinth. She is unpacking this compressed format into a bigger format – and this is the first time she has done this in English. She will need to translate it herself into German afterwards. She is keeping all of the dialogue because it is so brilliant, and simply adding the monologue.

Funke has had nine books made into movies: “You give them a flying carpet, and they hand you back an envelope.” She wanted more from this experience, so she went to Mirada, and asked them to help her allow kids to go to Mirrorworld. What they came out with was something called ‘a breathing book.’ She has also now created a breathing book out of Dragon Rider, and fell so much in love with the process that she wrote a whole novel during the process. “I am simply changing up the form – it is a new type of collaboration, with a new dialogue. I see it as a type of travel guide into a new world.”

While Funke loves technology, she is concerned that children no longer get to experience nature. Children need nature to be familiar to them. But Funke sees the development of technology as the only way to save the planet. The technologies scientists are still discovering are teaching us more about the world, which gives her hope.

The way Funke spoke about Inkworld being the same place as Mirrorworld, but 500 years earlier, made me think of Elizabeth Knox and her imaginary games and how they influence her diverse writing. Here is my review about Knox’s session last Writer’s Week.


There was a great amount of time for questions with this session, one that begun the questions was about how countries she has featured in books have coped with the tourism brought by these. Funke says that Venice, Salzburg Cathedral have both embraced it – but these are just small places. She is not sure how the whole country of New Zealand should live up to Middle Earth, but she hopes that in the future, our tourism industry will start paying attention to our unique taonga (my word), and displaying this on the walls in the airport instead of making us Disneyland.

Funke was asked how she has written through sadness in her life. She said: “We all lose so many things in our life. Sadness doesn’t contradict creativity, in fact it helps it. We all have to learn to embrace these times – I never feel unfocused when I am in pain or upset. We never learn better or faster. I am only vibrant and happy because I have been through darkness. The only thing is if you start hiding from the pain, that’s when it becomes very dangerous.” It makes it much harder when it finds you. She says “the most dangerous thing is comfort and security.”

This session made everybody in the audience think, about fantasy and its connection with reality, and about how darkness leads to lightness.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

Cornelia Funke: Reckless, Fearless, Heartless, with Jo Randerson
2pm, The Embassy, 13 March 2016

Cool quotes I couldn’t fit into my review:
“Neil Gaiman is as exciting as you think he is. I think he’s not human, by the way. I think he is an elf.”

Her advice for those who have never written before: “Start with a one-page short story and make it better.”

And good news for Inkworld fans: Funke is writing a book called The Colour of Revenge, which is a sequel to the ‘Ink’ series. There was an audible gasp at this.

Book Review: Hansel and Gretel, by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Available at bookstores nationwide.

cv_hansel_and_gretel_gaimanWhen I was young, maybe 6 or 7, I had an edition of Hansel & Gretel, which I enjoyed reading and re-reading, despite how much it scared me. I wasn’t, and still am not, somebody who enjoyed being scared by books, but this one in particular was given added appeal by the fact that my dad hid it on the top shelf in my closet.

Hansel & Gretel has been told countless times, by countless authors and translators. Neil Gaiman is a master of the macabre, and his version is as creepy and disturbing as you might suspect.

Commonly in this tale, the boy and girl are left by their father in the deep dark woods at the behest of the traditional evil stepmother. Gaiman’s version sees their true mother instigating the act of abandonment – which is what occurred in the original Grimm’s tale. While there is always a short backstory about why the act of abandonment comes to pass, I don’t think I have read an edition that places you in the parents’ footsteps so closely. You can almost, but not quite, sympathise with them as they make the decision to put their children at the mercy of creatures of the wood, as they have not enough food to feed the whole family, due to widespread war and famine.

“If you do not eat,” said his wife, “then you will not be able to swing an axe. And if you cannot cut down a tree, or haul the wood into the town, then we all starve and die. Two dead are better than four dead. That is mathematics, and it is logic.”

Hansel is a smart kid, taking white stones on their walk in the woods when overhearing the first plan, thus successfully getting them back to their home alive. This forces the father to abandon the children the first time without warning, so the children are left with breadcrumbs, which are duly eaten by animals, thus losing the children in the woods and enabling the dark witch to lure them in with her sweet gingerbread house, a warning to all children that if things seem too good to be true, they are.

The dark illustrations of this book are unsettlingly beautiful, rough and brisk and dangerous-looking. Lorenzo Mattotti is welcoming you into the woods with the least inviting of sketches – there is no fear that an unwitting preschooler would open these pages, unless they were made of stern stuff. Even the gingerbread house is gothic, rather than appealing – though the use of light around Hansel & Gretel’s images on this spread make it clear how they perceive the house. The pages of story alternating with pages of illustration is unusual for a fairytale perception, but the tone is constant and appropriate.

This is a masterful rendition of a favourite Grimm tale, and I am looking forward to hiding it from my own children, encouraging the appeal of the dark for them as they grow.

By Sarah Forster

Hansel and Gretel
by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408861981

Book Review: The Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell

Available in bookstores nationwide.
This is what a book should be. Everything about this book, from the look of it, to the feel of it, to the tale inside and the illustrations, are utterly magical. This is, hands-down, the best retelling of a classic story I have ever read.

The Sleeper and the Spindle opens with the dwarves, heading through the mountains to get silk for their Queen’s wedding gown. They get to the other side of them, only to find a bar full of people who have run as far as they could come, from the sleeping sickness. Nobody has died, and nobody is sick per se – they have all simply fallen asleep as they were, in a circle gradually extending at an ever-quickening rate. Milking cows and their milkmaids, trolls and bats in their caves – every living thing seems to have succumbed (upon first glance). But the dwarves are immune, so they are able to carry their tale back to the Queen.

I will leave you to work out who our fairytale Queen is, and leave indeed the story to be read without saddling you with many further details. There is a mission, a darkened castle covered in roses, and a bit of a zombie apocalypse. And all is not what it seems.
Gaiman is utterly deserving of his prize-winning status. I don’t think there are many storytellers that rival him, certainly not in the realm of gothic fiction. He, working no doubt with a top editor, knows where to go and where to stop with his details, and Chris Riddell’s skill as an illustrator rivals his skill as a writer.

The illustrations are whimsical and wild, carrying an air of melodrama through with the skull motif throughout. His grim roses and peonies, his sleepers both serene and ridiculous, carry the tale through without a beat skipped.

Thank you to the publishers for bringing us this beautiful work. I look forward to sharing it with my children. This is one of my books of the year.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Sleeper and the Spindle
by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408859643

Book Review: The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Imagine a library where, if you begin reading a cv_the_forbidden_librarycertain book, you step right into the world that book is describing. Imagine, if you will, a library which boast talking cats, demons, fairies of the wicked and peculiar kind, a mysterious and generally unseen uncle. Imagine being someone who has the ability to get right into the story, physically.

That person is Alice and she is a Reader, although she does not know this.

Shortly before her father disappears, Alice overhears a conversation between an evil fairy and her father. Immediately thereafter she is sent to stay with her uncle Jerry, whom she has never met. He owns a remarkable and mysterious and enormous library and Alice – by accident – discovers that it holds tremendous power in its volumes.

Django Wexler has an amazing imagination, and although the story is far-fetched, it is of course fantasy so pretty much anything goes.

I found the book fun, quirky, and quite well-written, although the characterisation could be more developed.

I think younger readers who enjoy Neil Gaiman and maybe Phillip Pullman will find this an interesting diversion.

Apparently there are to be further stories about Alice and her adventures as a reader. I am keen to hear what young readers think of this book, and whether they’d like more.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Forbidden Library
by Django Wexler
Published by Random House
ISBN 9780857532886