Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book Review: Coraline

I must admit that the only other book by Neil Gaiman that I’ve read is The Graveyard Book, but I enjoyed that Newbery-winning novel so much that I wanted to check out some of his other work. Coraline, being his other children’s novel, popped out at me and I ordered a copy.

I have to say that as I read through the first fifty pages or so, I found myself feeling a little disappointed. The story is cute enough, but prose is more sparse and in my opinion, isn’t as clever as The Graveyard Book. One of my favorite aspects of that novel is that Gaiman often cleverly identifies the cemetary residents by their full tombstone inscriptions ("Miss Letitia Borrows, Spinster of this Parish, Who Did No Harm to No Man all the Dais of Her Life. Reader, Can You Say Lykewise?" for example). It’s little touches like that which help to make The Graveyard Book such an entertaining read. The prose of Coraline lacks that sense of unique whimsy.

The plot itself is quite whimsical, though; I felt at first as though I were reading another version of Alice in Wonderland – there’s even a talking feline, just like the Chesire Cat. Children will love all the strange creatures, as evidenced by the fact that this was a Children's Choice Award-winner in 2003. But while I enjoy Lewis Carroll well enough, a bastardized version of Alice didn’t appeal to my mood too much at the moment that I began reading Coraline. Gaiman’s version begins very similarly as Carroll's – but instead of going down the rabbit hole, Coraline opens a door that supposedly leads from her family’s flat into the empty flat next door and finds that it is a portal to a mirror universe. There, everything is a little distorted and a little bit more fantastic than in Coraline’s real world. This could be a great story concept in theory, but I wasn’t too keen on the performance that Miss Spink and Miss Forcible put on for the horde of dogs, who are eagerly wriggling and impatient to escape from their seats. Everything in that scene seems a little too contrived for my tastes – although it could have been my mood.

Even so, I found other aspects of Gaiman’s mirror universe to be interesting enough to keep reading. When she first walks through the passageway, Coraline discovers her “other mother” and “other father” living in a flat nearly identical to her own home. Nearly identical, but not quite. Coraline’s “other parents” have prepared everything in their flat so that the meals, toys and activities are geared toward pleasing and a entertaining child. Coraline’s other mother and father apparently want to adopt her for their own (there isn’t “an other” Coraline”) and are willing to give Coraline anything she would like that would make her happy. Or at least anything that they think will make her happy – anything that would please an average child.

But apparently Coraline isn’t your average child. She has some spunk, which will please readers – and she buys in to a moral that will please parents as well. She makes a rather tiresome, didactic-sounding speech, informing her other Mother: “I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything.” In moments like these, Coraline seems a little bit too cookie-cutter to be a fully satisfying character.

But ultimately, I’m willing to forgive the more trite aspect(s) of her character because once the mirror world is revealed to be essentially a Spider’s web, the story takes a more interesting turn. Welcome to Alice in Wonderland meets The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Coraline discovers that her “other mother” has tried to lure other children into her home before, and ultimately, these poor kids have been locked in the closet until they withered away. All that’s left of them are faint wisps of their souls – but Coraline is determined that she will not meet the same fate. As I said, she’s spunky. With the help of the talking cat, she challenges her other mother in order to try to win her escape and off she goes on a treasure hunt.

Ultimately, while Gaiman’s novel is something of a mish-mash of children’s literature tropes, they are combined in such a way that Coraline is both a cute and creepy novel, entertaining although not quite as absorbing as it could be. It’s an interesting precursor to The Graveyard Book and also stands on its own fairly well, but still isn’t as masterful as Gaiman’s Newbery winner. Even so, it’s enjoyable and worth reading – even more so for children and now I'm fairly curious to see the movie.

This post participates in the Weekly Geeks Reading Challenge for February 20, 2011.

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