Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Audiobook – I could recommend the book version of this title, but I won’t.  Don’t get me wrong, the paper version of Norse Mythology is not in any way bad; it’s beautifully written, lyrical and fascinating, every bit what you’d expect of America’s leading myth-drenched fantasy writer retelling the tales of his favorite pantheon.  But a large part of the charm of the book is its essentially aural nature.  This is a text that is written to be heard, prose as hyper-aware of its cadence and meter as any poetry, and the voice it’s written for is the author’s own.  So do yourself a favor and borrow the audiobook version instead of the paper book for the full Neil Gaiman experience–unless, and only unless, you plan to read it aloud yourself to a very lucky loved one.

As a book, Norse Mythology does exactly what it says on the cover: it retells sixteen of the most important myths from the Norse tradition.  As a kid I devoured every scrap of Greco-Roman mythology I could get my hands on and had a fair grounding in the Egyptians, but the Norse myths were somehow more intimidating, hedged in with unpronounceable names and grim doomesday scenarios.  This is the book I wish I’d had then–once again, especially with the audio version to make those names a little less scary.  I’d be most eager to hand this book to anyone looking for a basic grounding in the subject, but the writing is so lovely that I think it’d be enjoyable even for a reader already familiar.  Accessible and timeless, it’s a book destined to preserve its popularity for many years to come.

P.S. Gaiman’s breakout mythological hit, American Gods, is premiering as a TV show on April 30, so if you haven’t had the utter delight of reading that novel, now is the perfect time!

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess MMovie – This animated feature film was the highest-grossing Japanese film of its time. The director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), sometimes described as the Japanese Walt Disney, is a pioneer of anime. In this epic adventure set in pre-industrial Japan a young prince incurs a life-threatening curse and sets off to find a cure. He becomes a central figure in a war between man and nature when a mining clan battles a variety of forest gods led by Princess Mononoke, a young woman raised by wolves. This film portrays mythology and surreal characters that are uniquely Japanese.

The viewer definitely picks up on the anxiety of the Japanese about the diminishing of their natural environment.  Although there is beautifully painted animation, it also contains some violence and it is not a story for young children. I appreciate that the characters and the social issues addressed in the film are complex and thoughtfully presented. A budding romance develops between the Prince and Princess Mononoke, but they often place duty above their personal relationship. This English version of the film was adapted by Neil Gaiman (Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane)  and it is voiced by actors that include Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop

written redBook – In Written in Red Anne Bishop introduces a world where humans are perceived primarily as prey by the “Others”, a variety of earthy creatures spanning folklore descriptions from shape-shifters to furies. In this urban fantasy the Others have the power, but they allow human communities to exist because of the interesting products humans produce. A few marketplace communities that are operated by the Others exist where humans and the Others mingle very tentatively, and Meg Corbyn finds sanctuary in one such community when she is hired as a Human Liaison for the Lakeside Courtyard business district. Yet, is she technically human? And from what does she require sanctuary? The entities populating the Lakeside Courtyard find themselves taking a keen interest in their new liaison and must decide whether she is worth their protection. Meg’s process of settling into her new community is told with an amount of domestic detail that makes this a cozy read at times. Suspense builds when Meg’s hiding place is discovered and the human world breaches the Courtyard walls.

Stories Of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

stories of your lifeBook – I don’t make a lot of universal recommendations, but I’ll make one now: if you like science fiction, read Ted Chiang. Short stories can be a difficult form for SF, because SF is all about ideas, and how many ideas can you cram into ten pages? The answer appears to be a lot, if you’re good enough. And Chiang is really good. In twenty-four years he’s produced only fourteen stories, but each one of those is a polished gem.

“Tower of Babylon” follows one man’s ascent through the celestial spheres and into heaven. The multiple-award-winning “Hell is the Absence of God” describes a universe where miracles, angelic visitations, and proof of hell are daily occurrences. “Seventy-Two Letters” combines science, biology, and the legend of the golem in unexpected ways. Each single story is incredible, and incredibly different from the others. And lucky for us, Chiang has continued writing since the publication of his only collection to date. The Lifecycle of Software Objects won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2010, and his latest story, “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” is available online from Subterranean Press.