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Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book

December 8, 2008

153. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Dave McKean (2008)

Length: 312 pages

Genre: Young Adult; Horror/Fantasy

Started: 04 December 2008
Finished: 07 December 2008

Little boy: family
murdered, raised by ghosts, must learn
how to be alive.

(I just realize that I must mush-mouth “family”; I’m pretty sure it should have three syllables, but I always just pronounce it “fam-ly”, so I stand by my haiku on the basis of usage if not technical correctness. :)

Summary: Bod Owens (short for Nobody) has lived in the graveyard for as long as he can remember. His family was murdered when he was very little, and when he toddled into the graveyard (away from his would-be killer), the ghosts decide to take him in, protect him, and raise him. And so he grows up amongst the ghosts, learning to read from the letters on the various tombstones, learning history from those who lived through it, and learning graveyard skills such as Fading and Haunting. But, as much as he loves his home and his companions, he is a boy surrounded by the Dead, and eventually he will have to learn to face the world of the Living: a world where his ghostly protectors cannot keep him safe from the man who means to kill Bod and finish the job he began many years ago.

Review: Another book that it seems like most people LOVED, and I only liked. Although, to be fair, it’s pretty much in keeping with how I feel about Gaiman’s books in general. I know that are a lot of people out there that absolutely love everything he puts out, but personally, while I find his books reliably enjoyable, they never really blow me out of the water (with the exception of Stardust, which I did Capital-L Love.) I think in large part because while Gaiman’s an excellent storyteller, his imagination and storytelling quickly outstrip his world-building skills. He can create these super-imaginative, fantastical, creepy, bizarre situations, but they always feel a little superficial to me – the deeper metaphysics, backstory, or underlying structure usually seems as though it’s been overlooked. For people willing to take the story at face value, this is not a problem – the stories themselves are wonderful. But for people who read a story and always want to know “Why?”, Gaiman’s books are rarely 100% satisfying.

Because of all of the rave reviews, I was hoping that The Graveyard Book would be an exception to this pattern, but ’twas not to be. As a coming of age story, it was wonderful; Bod is pretty lovable, the cast of characters that surround him are colorful and add some interesting twists, and the message of the story is poignant and well-earned. As a horror/fantasy story, it’s also effective – Gaiman can write creepy like no one’s business, and I got the shivers more than once. But, when it came time to explain the backstory, I felt like things got a little hazier. Explanations about why Bod’s family was killed, who Silas is, what the Honor Guard is, etc., are given quickly and not (in my mind) particularly satisfactorily. Even so, the rest of the book is entirely entertaining, and I did quite enjoy reading it. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Solidly entertaining, and appropriately creepy and surprisingly sweet by turns, but it didn’t quite knock my socks off.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: RobAroundBooks, Thoughts of Joy, Average Girl Reads, SomeReads, The Hidden Side of a Leaf, Bart’s Bookshelf, The Book Zombie, Fizzy Thoughts, Things Mean a Lot, Stuff as Dreams are Made On, Nothing of Importance, Sophisticated Dorkiness,, The Bluestocking Society, Stainless Steel Droppings (WHEW!)
Did I miss your review? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2008 2:20 am

    Glad to read this one since it’s one of my next reads. I’ve never yet read a Gaiman book, so maybe I’ll love it…who knows?

  2. December 8, 2008 10:35 am

    I have similar feelings about Neil Gaiman’s writing. I definitely enjoy it, but not enough to rush out and get my hands on whatever he puts out the second it appears. This one does sound interesting though.

    If you Loved Stardust but read Gaiman’s prose-only novel, then I strongly recommend seeking out the illustrated storybook version, as it was originally conceived in collaboration with Charles Vess.

  3. December 8, 2008 10:41 am

    Michele – Oh, I’ll be interested to see how a Gaiman newbie reacts to this book.

    Laura – I actually listened to Gaiman read the audiobook version of Stardust – he’s an excellent narrator, which is not true for all authors. The illustrated version has been on my wishlist since I finished the audiobook – I’ve given several copies of it as presents, but never kept one for myself! Also, my local Borders doesn’t carry it, so I can’t just go impulse-buy it. :(

  4. December 8, 2008 11:18 am

    I usually don’t like horror books, but this one looks really good to me. Thanks for the review.

  5. December 8, 2008 11:24 am

    bermudaonion – It’s really only slightly horror-y. Yes, there’s a creepy dude with some supernatural powers looking to kill Bod, and yes, he’s surrounded by ghosts, but it’s more of a coming-of-age book set in a horror/fantasy context.

  6. December 8, 2008 11:44 am

    Have you ever heard Neil Gaimen read one of his books? It puts a whole different twist on the story! His voice is wonderful and he is expressive in an “odd” sort of way. Really, IMHO, makes his stories so much better! I listened and watched him read The Graveyard Book on Mouse Circus and it is wonderful!

  7. December 8, 2008 12:00 pm

    I, too, feel this way about Gaiman’s books. They are all well written and good stories, but they just aren’t my favorites. I’ve added your link to my review.

  8. December 8, 2008 3:31 pm

    “The deeper metaphysics, backstory, or underlying structure usually seems as though it’s been overlooked. For people willing to take the story at face value, this is not a problem – the stories themselves are wonderful. But for people who read a story and always want to know “Why?”, Gaiman’s books are rarely 100% satisfying.”

    I’ve been seeing a lot of people say this lately, and one day I want to write a very long post on my blog explaining while I wholeheartedly disagree :P Which isn’t to say you aren’t all more than entitled to feel this way, of course.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it still, and I love the haiku!

  9. December 8, 2008 3:45 pm

    Linda F. – I’ve actually listened to Gaiman read Coraline, Stardust, and Fragile Things. He really is a great narrator, isn’t he?

    Jessica – It’s good to know there’s another Gaiman-enjoyer-but-not-rabid-fan out there.

    Nymeth – I think you did a nice job refuting this point in your Graveyard Book review – how it’s better to leave your readers wanting more. And there’s certainly a place for bizarre, imaginative, or spooky stories that are just stories. With Gaiman, though, it sometimes feels like he’s adding in creepy stuff just to be creepy (or imaginative stuff just to be imaginative, etc.), without thinking too much about how it fits into the world he’s creating, or why it would (or wouldn’t) be there.

    I think I noticed it first with Coraline: it just kind of ended, without ever explaining what the Other Mother was, what her motivations were, what was the deal with the rats, the tunnel, etc., etc. Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for it – so any time there’s a hint of an explanation being glossed over, a little red flag goes up.

    Maybe it’s a case of you thinking “too short; I wish there were more!”, and me thinking “too short; feels like a critical piece got left out!”?

  10. December 8, 2008 5:01 pm

    I really enjoyed your review, I’ve read most of Gaiman’s books and liked them but Graveyard Book was my favorite.

    I can totally see your point about backstory though, because upon finishing this, one of my first thoughts was how cool it would be to have a book explaining about Silas and the Honor Society. So I can say that aspect wasn’t fleshed out enough for me.

  11. December 8, 2008 5:35 pm

    I started watching Gaiman read this during the Read-a-Thon, didn’t finish, went out and bought a copy, and still haven’t read it! I really need to get on that, because I loved what I heard and I’m a big Gaiman fanatic. :)

  12. December 8, 2008 7:13 pm

    Great review. I want to read this one. I enjoyed Coraline. Thanks for the honest review :)

  13. December 8, 2008 7:57 pm

    I liked your haiku review. It made it very clear what the book is about. I’m not into horror, so I hadn’t read any other reviews of this book yet.

  14. December 8, 2008 9:16 pm

    I don’t *love* Gaiman, but I had hopes for this one. I think I’ll still read this one, but I’m not rushing out to get it. I hate to say that I just don’t get what all the hype is about. :( I hate when I’m out of the loop with stuff like this.

  15. December 9, 2008 12:05 am

    This is on my theoretical “Hopefully I get to read this one before the year ends” list. Theoretical because everytime I feel like coming up with list of books I want to finish I am always overwhelmed.

    But this is a lovely review of the book I’ve yet to read. While I’m a Gaiman fan myself I understand the sentiments you expressed. But mostly I do that when faced with a book set outside the realm of the otherworldly :)

  16. December 9, 2008 9:45 am

    Joanne – That would be a cool book – Silas was my favorite character! As is, though, the first scene with just the Honor Guard came so out of left field that I had to flip back and forth to be sure my edition wasn’t missing any pages.

    Jessi – For sure! It really shouldn’t take long, especially if you’re already partway through it.

    bookworm – If you liked Coraline, I’d say it’s a good bet that you’ll like The Graveyard Book as well. They’re fairly similar, although Coraline‘s a little creepier and TGB has a little more heart.

    Alyce – I classified it as Horror because I didn’t really know where else to put a book with so many ghosts, but it’s not really Horror-horror… which I rarely read either.

    Trish – It’s still a good book, just not as socks-knocking for me as it was for others. Maybe it’ll be better if you do wait until some of the hype blows over, and you can go into it with fewer expectations?

    Lightheaded – Hmmm, your comment made me think. I wonder if my issues with Gaiman’s worldbuilding come because so many of his books involve the intersection of a creepy/fantastical otherworld with the regular world. The more his books are set entirely in the otherworld (like Stardust), the less of a problem I have with him tossing in more elements without explanation, since, hey, we’re already in fantasy-land. But the more his books are rooted in the real world, the more I have to suspend my disbelief about the fantasy elements interacting with reality, and the more explanation/backstory I need to make me buy it – to smooth over the seams, as it were. I think we might be on to something here. :)

    In any case, I hope you get the chance to read it either before the year ends, or soon after New Years!

  17. December 9, 2008 5:25 pm

    I’ve been saying this since it came out, but I will read this darn thing! Um, eventually…

  18. December 10, 2008 1:35 pm

    Fyrefly, I understand your point better now. What I hear more often is that his books lack depth in an emotional sense, or when it comes to “meaningfulness”, which really isn’t how I feel about them. But about the worldbuilding, I certainly see what you’re saying, and I think you’re right that the difference is in how I respond to it.

    Neverwhere is another good example of this. There are so many things in the book that are only hinted at. And again, it’s a book about the intersection of the fantastic with ordinary life. But for me, that very vagueness is a part of what makes it work.

    The lack of explanations actually helps me feel that the world is more real, not less. Because I get the sense that there is so much behind it that we’re not seeing, but that works in invisible ways. I get the impression that there’s so much more that could be explored, and for me it’s not a bad thing that it isn’t. It makes me feel that the world carries on existing when I close the book, in an Inkheart sort of way :P

    But this is something that readers are bound to respond to differently, and I really understand your position as well. I wonder if he does this in his books deliberately because he himself as a reader responded positively to this sort of vagueness.

    Anyway…this is something I really enjoy discussing and thinking about, so thank you for bringing it up.

  19. December 10, 2008 10:07 pm

    I find myself agreeing with Nymeth when it comes to how I respond to Neil Gaiman’s stories. I’m one of those people who absolutely love everything I’ve read by him, I’m afraid. But I also think that in comparison to his other works, The Graveyard Book is far from my favourite. I love it as a great children’s / YA fantasy, but as a Neil Gaiman novel… it’s just good without being one of the great ones. Interestingly, while you mentioned Stardust as being the one you liked the most, it’s one of my least favourite Gaiman novels. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t love it, but it never captured my attention the way Neverwhere did.

    Btw, I enjoyed your review & haiku!

  20. December 12, 2008 12:36 pm

    Uh, glad to be of help Fyrefly :)

  21. December 16, 2008 11:17 am

    Ladytink – One of the nice things about books is that they don’t expire if we can’t get to them right away!

    Nymeth – Interesting discussion! I think that the reason that vagueness about worldbuilding irritates me is that I’m a scientist by nature and by training. One way of looking at it is to say that my job is to figure out the rules by which the world works (albeit a very small little subset of the world), and so in my fiction, I want the fictional world also to work according to a set of rules. It’s fine if all of the rules are not laid out right away, or ever, but I want to have a sense that there are structures underlying the story.

    One of the elements of high praise that I give to a fantasy novel is that it has an internally-consistent magic system and/or theology. (The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson takes this to an extreme – I can’t think of a better-thought-out and more logical universe and magic system – but there are plenty of examples.) I don’t need to know why the magic works the way it does, but I do need to understand how the magic works, and it needs to keep working the same way throughout.

    Gaiman’s stories are wonderful as stories, but as soon as I turn the scientist side of my brain loose on them, it starts finding questions that the stories can’t answer. Different strokes, eh?

    marienko – No need to apologize for being a Gaiman fanatic – I’ve got authors that I absolutely love that other people are ambivalent about or even actively dislike – and besides, I can at least understand what all the fuss over Gaiman’s writing is about, even if I don’t always feel it myself. :)

    Lightheaded – Always appreciated! :)


  1. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman | Books of Mee
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