30 Day Book Challenge #2: Day 01 – Best book you read this last year

I have to admit that sadly I haven’t read anywhere near as much as I would have liked this year. Though I started maybe thirty books, I’ve only actually finished about half of that, although I may zoom through a few more when I’ve finished work for the year. The major downside of this is that there are less books to choose from, although I have definitely read a number of memorable books as the year has gone on.

The two books that come to mind are remarkably different – Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I loved Murakami’s work because it was so brutal, confronting and honest. His novel was so upsetting but incredibly beautiful at the same time, with a startling relevance lurking beneath its surface. His writing really took my breath away and by the time I had finished the novel I was lying there stunned and unable to do anything else for a while. The first novel I finished this year, it has haunted my thoughts this whole time and will probably continue to do so for many years.

NeverwhereBut there was something about Gaiman’s Neverwhere that not only drew me in more at the time, but which has had a lasting influence on me throughout all of 2013. Maybe it was because I read this only a few months after I had visited London, and the setting of the London Underground intrigued me beyond belief. I have since spent time looking into the world below that amazing city, even blogging on it once or twice, and the whole concept of worlds below worlds has come to interest me even more than it already had (and as a historian and history teacher that kind of thing is pretty fascinating to me).

It was more than just setting that made Gaiman’s novel so memorable for me, of course. His writing was brilliant, quirky and intelligent, and the story and characters were so imaginative, so magical and yet quite dark and deceptive – I really was just swept away in it all. The creativity behind such a story is just immense, and makes many similar novels pale in comparison. There’s a reason why Neil Gaiman has become such a respected and beloved force in the writing world today, and this novel, though one of his older works, is a good reminder of why he is so successful.

If you haven’t read Neverwhere before, I urge you to do so regardless of what genre you normally read. It defies both genre and expectations and you simply won’t be able to put it down.

What are your thoughts on Neverwhere, or Neil Gaiman in general?

What’s your favourite book from this last year?

Ghost Stations of the London Underground

About a year ago, I did two things in quick succession – I went to London (after not visiting England since I left at the age of 4, some 23 years ago), and then pretty quickly afterwards I read Neverwhere, a Neil Gaiman novel set in a fictionalised London Underground, using some of the shut down stations for its inspiration (among other things).

Ever since then, I’ve been really fascinated by the whole concept of all these shut down stations, and am slowly learning just how many have been shut down, for what reasons, and what has become of them. Earlier today I discovered some articles on the extremely interesting londonist.com that looked into this very topic, and found this amazing picture:

Created by Dylan Maryk, this tube station map is labelled only with tube stations which no longer exist - time capsules of the era in which they were used. For more information on it, visit http://londonist.com/2013/06/alternative-tube-maps-ghost-stations-on-the-london-underground.php

Click to see the full size. Created by Dylan Maryk, this tube station map is labelled only with tube stations which no longer exist – time capsules of the era in which they were used. For more information on it, visit http://londonist.com/2013/06/alternative-tube-maps-ghost-stations-on-the-london-underground.php which is also where I found this image.

Pretty impressive, huh?

Many of these old tube stations are now bricked off and difficult to access, looking perhaps a little like this inside:

I also found this page – http://londonist.com/2011/02/what-shall-we-do-with-the-old-tube-station.php – to be quite interesting, as it looks at a few different stations and what they have become since they closed down. I’d love to go to some of these places and visit them, see if it is easy to recognise the station architecture still.

London UnderMy interest in what lies beneath London will only grow though, and one book that has caught my interest is Peter Ackroyd’s London Under. This book looks at not just the tube stations but all the history lying underneath the great city, from Roman amphitheatres to Victorian sewers, Bronze Age trackways, the monastery of Whitefriars and so much more. I haven’t yet got my hands on this one, but when I do I suspect I’ll gobble it up in a single sitting.

It’s really no wonder that so many stories can and do come from the London Underground, with so much history there. When I think of how many other cities around the world must have their own stories to tell…it makes me yearn to put on both my historian and writer caps, and start seeing these things with my own eyes!

What stories do you know of the London Underground? What about any cities where you live – do they have their own hidden pasts?

Neverwhere: the lure of Neil Gaiman’s mesmerising ‘London Below’

For quite a while I’ve been saying I want to read more novels by Neil Gaiman. I read Stardust at some point last year and was swept away by it, but then I became distracted, as you do, by various other also amazing authors and books. Then, a couple of months ago maybe, I noticed a lot of Gaiman’s books were cheap where I usually buy my books, and I immediately ordered the rest of his novels, as well as his short story collections.

NeverwhereFaced then with the decision of where to begin, I was drawn to Neverwhere, his quirky fantasy set in “London Below”, a city beneath a city. Perhaps it was my recent visit to London (which is a big thing when your closest city normally is Sydney), perhaps it was simply the idea of a whole secret dwelling place underground that most people could never even dream of, but something grabbed me about the idea.

The whole concept is that London Below is where the people who have “fallen between the cracks” in society go. These people, when they do walk London Above, are not even seen by most Londoners (who are too busy in their lives to notice such insignificance). But London Below has more than this, teeming with huge dangerous monsters, angels, knights, jesters, talking rats, murderers, assassins and personalities galore. And when Richard Mayhew, a young businessman plodding away through his seemingly average life, stops to help out someone in need, he finds himself inexorably pulled into this world below his own, where he is drawn into an increasingly intricate story involving murder, revenge, mystery and deceit.

There is so much to love about the way Gaiman has written this book. The descriptions of the various parts of London Below is brilliant, and has been informed by research – indeed Gaiman wandered down into the sewers to gain some understanding of how they looked, smelt, and were connected to one another (he was so impressed by them that he changed the perceptions one of his characters had of them). Many of the places are based on old unused Underground stations from the tube system, and many more are based on stations that are used, as he twists the meaning of the place names – in many cases interpreting them literally. There are places like the Floating Market, a market which moves around from place to place, only opening at night and only for the people of London Below, and the story returns to the bizarre stalls of this place more than once throughout the novel.

Then there are the brilliant characters. You do spend the majority of the story feeling sorry for Richard, but without him becoming too whiny (which is always a risk with such protagonists). Door is clever and cunning, and often is the most impressive at the most pivotal moments of the story, indicating an intelligence and forethought that is quite charming. Then there are characters like Hunter, and the Marquis de Carabas, both of whom are well developed yet are surrounded with a certain amount of mystery until the end of the story. And of course there are the bad guys, in particular the gruesome Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar, both of whom, with their nightmarish tendencies, put your average bad guys to shame.

A book that is full of imagination and yet feels somewhat familiar, I could recommend this to anybody and everybody – Gaiman appeals to my adult imagination in the same way Roald Dahl appealed to my childhood imagination (and that is a pretty big call coming from me). Gaiman is a genius and a master storyteller, and I simply cannot wait to go and dive into one of his other novels.

Have you read Neverwhere, or any other novel by Neil Gaiman? What are your thoughts?