Writing My Life

Now and Then


… it’s about THAT setting, part 3 …

This is a final look at how setting can become one of a book’s characters – sort of. Part 1 examined  The Given Day by Dennis LeHane and part 2 reviewed The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. The first book is historical fiction, and the second is non-fiction. I found that time and place was so influential in these 2 books, as well as the one I’m writing about today, that I connected with the setting as much as I did with the characters. I know this happens often, but inadvertently choosing three books in a row with this commonality grabbed my attention, and I decided to write a little about each one. I guess the experience reinforced the importance of placing or finding a story in the near-perfect place is critical.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere is written by Neil Gaiman, an “out-there” British writer who pens books for children, adolescents, and adults. Bazaar as his writing might be for some,  The Graveyard Book won the 2009 Newbery Award, which is “awarded each year by the Association for Library Service to Children to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Another one of his popular children books is Coraline, which was made into a movie that received Academy Award nominations. Anyway, I’ve always thought of him as a Tim Burton type that appeals to some but not all.

Because I’m not a big fantasy fan, I’ve never read any of his books, but I enjoyed the movie  Stardust, based upon one of his novels. I guess that’s why I picked Neverwhere off the library shelves. Neverwhere is particularly interesting because readers can check out or buy a traditional novel, a graphic novel, or an audio book that is the “author’s preferred text.”  I listened to the audio-book and am on the waiting list to check out the novel because I want to find the differences between Neil’s audio version – which he narrates beautifully – and the “editor’s” version. My guess is that the audio book includes more cussing. I did look over the Amazon peek-a-boo version of the graphic novel, and saw that published pages followed the story with VERY scary pictures and without Gaiman’s skilled narrative. That’s one thing I miss in graphic novels – the great descriptions of characters and setting.

Published in 1996, this novel, like most if not all of Gaiman’s works, is a fantasy … for adult readers. I found Gaiman’s writing is so good that even a non-fantasy fan enjoys the ride. His characters are intriguing and the plots are fun, if not always easy, to follow. Much like the mazes he inserted in Neverwhere. The book’s main  setting is a parallel universe/city of London, and as the main character Richard Mayhew winds his way through this landing place of all things lost, he embarks upon the hero’s quest to find his way home and help and be helped along the way. He and his companion Door, the survivor of a deadly attack against her family, encounter a mishmash of historical LondonS, dating back to the city’s origins. Because of the challenges of each era, London’s history blesses and curses their adventures.

The upside-down world filled with rats, garbage, and discarded belongings as well as people who have fallen through the cracks, reminded me of the LandFILL of Oz  If Oz was inspired by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (a.k.a. The White City), this London was more like the REAL Chicago of that time – dark, dank, and dirty! Gaiman’s characters even make references to Dorothy and her companions’ journey to find the wizard. Mayhew and his friends, however, are searching for an angel called Islington. Because this world is topsy-turvy, the Christ-figure is the despicable Marquis de Carabas, and the arch-villain is the angel.

The titles of both Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book refer to the stories’ settings, but at least in Neverwhere, place is such a large part of the action and outcome that it goes beyond mere setting. It assumes a personality like all the other characters, a complex personality made up of traits both good and bad, strong and weak, ugly and beautiful.


… it’s all about the setting …

I recently completed 3 books where the setting was as much a character as the protagonists and the antagonists. In fact, the cities operated as both PRO- and ANtagonists, too. Another interesting observation is that these books were 3 totally different genres: historical fiction, non-fiction, and fantasy.  (And yes, while not  CREATING “characters”, non-fiction authors do EXPOSE heroes and villains.)

I have worked on this entry for over 2 weeks, and as a result, it has grown and grown in length. I’m not sure why I am so attached to this idea of commenting upon the settings of 3 books, but I feel compelled to finish it. (You would think I was turning it in for a grade or something.) Because of the LENGTHS I have gone to in creating these posts, however, I decided to separate them into 3 separate entries.

The 3 books are The Given Day; The Devil in the White City; and Neverwhere. Don’t think because I am writing about these titles that I am recommending them. I always hesitate to suggest books because my taste is all over the place. Sometimes I think it is SO non-discriminating that I have no taste. Now I don’t care for romance novels at all; and I don’t like poorly written works, but I do enjoy a good page-turning best seller even though it may lack the craftsmanship of more gifted authors. Once in a while, I’ll tolerate LANGUAGE if the other words are well crafted – I guess that’s why I hesitate to recommend 2 of these 3 cussed books. Reading about serial killers is not usually my preference either, but one of the 3 stars such a demon. Anyway, please read at your own risk and don’t tell ANYONE that I recommended that you check them out!

The Given Day

The historical fiction novel is The Given Day by Dennis LeHane. (Don’t in any way confuse this author with Tim LaHaye who writes the Left Behind series. No, no, no. Dennis wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island, and a bunch more that have been “movie-ized.” If you read excerpts from the link to Amazon, be warned. Profanity is included. )

The Given Day takes place in Boston near the end of World War I or The Great War or The War to End All Wars. Anyway, this incredibly researched novel details that time period so well that whenever I listened to a segment, I felt like my little PT Cruiser changed into a time machine, and I was right there.

Danny Coughlin is the main character, a Boston policeman of Irish decent caught in the thick of a city of immigrants seeking the American dream but finding poverty, discrimination, and violence instead. Boston was dubbed the second Athens, but like a sepulcher, its white and shining exterior disguises a corrupted interior. Danny’s police captain father and the evil Eddie McKenna are part of the corruption, but Danny makes his own way.

Living barely above the poverty line, Danny and his brotherhood of policeman tackle the Spanish Influenza of 1918 that took the lives of 1000 Bostonians. They also faced Italian terrorists and Bolshevik dissidents. The most challenging obstacle, however, was standing up to city government via the policemen strike of 1919.

While readers follow the characters from one page to another, they learn dozens of fascinating details about Boston’s Irish, Italian, and African-American history. Readers are also introduced to more than these ethnic cultures, they see South Boston as it existed for the middle class Irish and the Irish factory workers. Readers walk the streets with the flatfoots of Italian Boston and visit its tenements and markets. LeHane’s researched details uncover a post-war city rocking with tension created by political corruption, cultural prejudice, civil unrest, and industrial abuses. Boston’s charged atmosphere exposed poor leaders’ short-sited choices and courageous citizens’ brave choices that cost them everything but paved a smoother way for others.

If it weren’t for the HARSH language, I’d declare this as the best book I’ve picked up in a long time, but LeHane’s love affair with profanity prevents that endorsement. Nevertheless, his fascinating characters, his meticulous historical research, and his plot development pulled me in. I just couldn’t leave Boston until Danny and Nora left, too.