Sep 282014
 

We have hit a critical period in the online gaming community, which happens to overlap with a similar discussion going on within the internet community and even the world at large. That conversation is about the rights of female gamers and members of online communities to feel safe and comfortable with their fellow gamers. We have increasingly seen “battle lines” drawn, with videos such as the ones by Anita Sarkeesian calling for equal rights to be then viciously attacked online; with female celebrities accounts broken into and nude photos released; and finally with the Emma Watson United Nations address last week calling for men and women to stand up for equality. There has been no better time to examine where we are and where we would like to see our community go. There is a vocal minority of men online who are fighting these changes, and who are feeling attacked in turn, and we need to understand that we are in this together, regardless of sex, and together we can improve and grow this hobby.

The fact of the matter is, roughly half of all gamers and internet users are women (surprise, right?). For so long gaming has been seen as a male-dominated hobby, and maybe in it’s infancy it was, but the facts no longer support a male-dominated scene. In spite of this, many if not most female gamers have given voice to many sexist practices and deep-seated biases still visibly present. This is seen in real life as well, but most acutely from the gaming sector. The anonymity of the internet and most online lobbies creates an atmosphere where it is easy to look down upon, be dismissive, or even angry at, a perceived minority. I think that it is likely a majority of male gamers have witnessed this happening, and would be willing to admit it is a problem and would like to see change, but don’t know what to do or even think it’s being “overblown”. There is also a very vocal group of male gamers who fight against calls for equality, saying it is merely feminist attacks on men, and tend to become increasingly hostile with any and all recommendations for change.

Of course some of what we hear is extreme, from both sides. What should be very clear however, is a majority of female gamers have seen or experienced this sort of behavior, some many times over. I know that I have heard accounts from friends of treatment they have received, or how a specific games portrayal of a female character was poor or even insulting. This is often exacerbated by long-standing sexist practices women start seeing from childhood. Drawing lines in the sand and pointing fingers is simply causing each to grow farther and farther apart. We have to be able to take these accounts seriously, and have to be willing to see what we can do to help fix them. All this takes is respect and understanding, accepting that there could be a problem and be willing to listen to alternatives, and standing up to those who are creating the problems. This can lead to more inclusive, and realistic, gaming experiences and communities, which is in everyone’s interests.

Of course this is all coming at a crucial transitional period for male gamers as well. Our generation has started questioning what traditional ideas of masculinity and “maleness” actually are. Gaming is central to this discussion, as it is only recently becoming more accepted that gaming is a healthy and fulfilling hobby for adults as well as children, while many still scoff at such an idea and look down upon our hobby. With all the changes men are facing, it can be extremely easy to be dismissive when viewing problems faced by women, as we are already defensive about gaming in general. Just remember, we are all facing problems and overcoming hurdles, and we can get through them faster by helping one another with our problems. Gamers have more in common with other gamers, male or female, and we have to understand that fighting amongst ourselves only weakens our position to the “traditional” world view. Gaming moves incredibly fast, and it’s time we agree that there is no place for hatred, bigotry, sexism, racism, or any other -ism in such an important aspect of our lives. For gaming to grow and gain mainstream acceptance, we have to fight against these ideas and fight for equality, for every gamer and every person.

I know for many of you this will be preaching to the choir. For the others, who will be apt to say that I have been “taken in” or am overblowing the issues, please reconsider the accounts of your friends and family, and examine your own behaviour. We can only move forward by admitting that we may have to change and accept other groups, no matter how hard that may seem to be. If men and women together can fight for equality and understand one anothers troubles and differences, we can create a lasting community that is filled with realistic and relatable characters, and maybe learn something about ourselves in the process.

 

Sep 272014
 
HFS

“…if not now, then when?”, asked Emma Watson, in a speech she gave at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City last Saturday. Surely, the quote is one that many of us have heard in our lives, one that is meant to foster courage in the face of fear and uncertainty, to prompt a feeling of personal responsibility when presented with an imposing task. Watson, the UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, introduced the quote near the end of her speech, when she admitted that she had been quite nervous prior to her speech.

And why shouldn’t she be nervous? As a graduate of an International Relations program, the prospect of giving a speech at the UN is simultaneously exciting and incredibly intimidating one. But, in such a situation, my nervousness would stem only from the pressure I placed on myself, whereas Watson was likely nervous for additional, more serious reasons. She was introducing a UN campaign called HeForShe - “A Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality,” and if you have already read Mystie’s and/or Cassi’s posts on TLo42, or, really, if you have been following the news at all for the past few weeks, then you know that it is a frightening time for women. Hackers recently stole and released personal, nude photos of several prominent female celebrities; Anita Sarkeesian was forced from her home after receiving death threats for, well, doing nothing wrong at all (I refuse to craft a sentence that even begins to describe a “rationale” for these threats); several of Sarkeesian’s supporters have been similarly targeted. And, of course, this does not even include the sexual abuse and discrimination women continue to experience on a daily basis. Plain and simple, women are, at the very least, not afforded the same opportunities as men anywhere in the world. At worst, they are explicitly denied basic human rights. Sadly, as Watson noted in her speech, “No country in the world can yet say that they achieved gender equality.” Indeed, Watson’s deeds did not go unpunished. She, too, was threatened with a leak of personal nude photos (and, no, the fact that the stunt may have been fake does not diminish the meaning of the underlying threat).

This reality is why another quote Emma Watson used in her speech is so important to me: “Statesman Edmund Burke said all that is need for the forces of evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.” All I have to do to allow the denial of human rights to women to continue is to do nothing. Combined with her questions of “If not me, then who?” and “If not now, then when?”, the quote has provided an incredibly strong motivator for myself and men around the world to take this opportunity to speak out, stand up, and offer our support in the fight to secure an equal future for men and women alike.

There can no longer be any question as to who this issue affects or involves, either. Watson extended what she called a formal invitation to men to participate in the conversation, explaining that “men don’t have the benefits of equality, either.” And while I’m not personally inclined to complain about the male sex lacking in equality in the face of recent events, I’d be flat-out lying if I said that I hadn’t taken notice of the cultural norms affecting men, as well: we are supposed to be strong – even aggressive – and keep our emotions in check, to mention only a small subset of the cultural pressures men face. And as Watson so rightfully said, this has an immediate consequence of shaping the norms that affect women.

In the past, I struggled with identifying the best way to get involved and show my support for women’s rights, other than to continually try to participate in conversations that make me consider the topic on a regular basis; thanks to my wife and the wonderful friends we have that make up TLo42, these conversations usually crop up often enough to meet that requirement. But I recently realized that the current climate in gaming and the world in general, as caustic as it may be, demands only the simplest action as a first step – and I’ll leave it to Slate writer Phil Plait to put it in words (emphasis mine):

This isn’t about [loathsome knuckle-dragging Men’s Rights Advocates and their ilk]. It’s about women, and men supporting them. It’s about all of us. And doing this isn’t white-knighting, it isn’t mansplaining, and it isn’t weak, or unmanly. It is, quite simply, doing what’s right and standing up for others.

I have no claim to solutions for these problems; I cannot hope to know how to stop the hatred and violence and oppression and othering of women on the Internet and in the world.

But I know how to stand up for my friends. I know how to write, and how to make myself heard. And I can hope that other men will do this as well, because while I don’t know the whole solution, I know a part of it, a significant part of it, is just showing that we are listening, that we care, and we want to help.

And that’s why I stand with Emma Watson.

I, too, intend to do what’s right. I, too, am going to stand up for others. I, too, stand with Emma Watson. And Anita Sarkeesian. And women everywhere. And I stand with the 148, 137 other men who have already visited heforshe.org (at the time of my commitment) and resolved to support them. That’s one of the most beautiful things about HeForShe: it’s so simple. So, my fellow men and boys, make yourself heard, be counted as a HeForShe, as I have:

HeForShe

 

The fight will go on, probably, sadly, for years to come. But this is where we make our initial stand. Click the picture above to head over to heforshe.org. Because, if not you, then who? If not now, then when?

Sep 262014
 

When news first broke of the massive amounts of celebrity nude photos leaked, a friend made an interesting point to me:

If this had happened even just a few years ago, all that would have happened is everyone would have brushed it off. Some would have snached up tabloids in line at the grocery store and really no one would have thought twice about it. Now we’re discussing violation of privacy and women’s rights.

What’s changed?

Recently, video games had a really, really tough week. Anita Sarkeesian – creator of the blog Feminist Frequency and a video series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, released a video discussing the use of of woman–and violence against women–as backgrounds or plot drivers in video games. For this she was was abused online, threatened and forced out of her home by said threats. Along the same lines, many video game developers, writers and various people in the industry were and are facing similar treatment.

But why are we talking about this now?

Haven’t video games have always been like this? Isn’t this what makes media what it is? Why should we change something that has worked for years?

The short answer, of course, is because I think we can do better than that.

There has been a lot of talk about whether Sarkeesian and others were right or wrong in their arguments, whether sexsism in video games or media exists, whether this abuse is a real issue, is being overblown, or worse – threats against these women are being faked. (update, in this case I don’t mean threats like releasing nude photos are faked, because apparently in that case they were, but people expletive twitter attacks were faked or photoshopped.)

Yet the positive side to all this and what’s important and what’s different from those few years ago is that we’re talking about this. People are standing up and saying we can do better than this.

Not only do I feel this is important for the progression of woman in the field of video games or the media, but for the actual mediums as well. It’s easy to make the argument that we get video games that uses classic tropes that are just fine using classic video game tropes. But by thinking outside the box and challenging the status quo, maybe we can get a better video game.

But change is difficult, and to make this change, we’re going to have to go through a lot more push back and a lot more trolls. In an article regarding this topic, in an opinion article by polygon, writer Chris Plante points out:

“One side [of this argument] has folded its arms, slumped its shoulders while pouting like an obstinate child that has learned they are getting a little brother or sister but wants to remain the singular focus of their parents’ affection.”

There will probably always be the argument that this isn’t really an issue. That without these women tropes in video games the storylines wouldn’t be the same (who will the hero save if not the damsel in distress?). That women should just deal with it, because that’s life.

But why not do better? We can say forget that and make a better story line. We can find a better way to promote our case than through the the promise of naked women.

All of this will be better if nothing else because it challenges us to not be lazy. To think outside the box instead of falling back on these tropes because they’ve been done before, because they’re easy.

Whether or not you agree with Anita, Emma Watson or others trying to change things and their opinions, you should be supporting the idea of trying to raise the bar.

In the case of Sarkeesian, it should be important to note that her video isn’t asking much of video games. She’s not saying video games shouldn’t touch these themes or they should stay away from them. She simply asks them to just take a step back and try to look at things a little more critically.

“Now–to be clear–I’m certainly not saying stories seriously examining the issues surrounding domestic or sexual violence are off limits for interactive media. However, if game makers do attempt to address these themes, they need to approach the topic with the subtly, gravity and respect that the subject deserves.”

So join us, let’s give this subject the respect it deserves.

Let’s raise the bar.

Let’s change the conversation.

Sep 222014
 

I was checking all my social media during my lunch today, ’cause that is what you do in 2014 and I came across this in my News Feed.

why would we even be surprised anymore?

why would we even be surprised anymore?

And I got mad. Not just irritated, or slightly perturbed, but enraged. Just yesterday I was sharing the beginning of this story: Emma Watson speaks out at the UN that feminism isn’t a dirty word and it’s for everyone. She has started a campaign entitled “HeForShe” encouraging men to take part of the fight. [It’s getting pretty heavy holding it up by ourselves over here.] I was impressed and proud that Emma had taken and put a very public face on an issue that we have been fighting over here in the Nerd World for way way too long.

And guess what happened. She got the same treatment (albeit fairly mild compared to some) that anyone speaking up against misogyny in gaming has gotten. They couldn’t attack her argument because their logic sounds a little like “Women shouldn’t talk. Just let us covet and hate women as much as we damn well please. Oh, and give us sex when we are nice to you/want it.” So, they attack her personally. For Emma Watson this first threat is to expose her (literally) in a way that makes anyone feel vulnerable. For Anita Sarkeesian (www.feministfrequency.com) it was exposing her in the way of ruining her anonymity on the web by threatening her home and the people she cares about.

And I’m fucking tired of it. I’m taking a stand. The League of 42 is taking a stand. This is no longer an issue that we can sit on the sidelines and let other people fight for us. This is getting to be a “You are with us or against us” issue because sitting around letting anyone attack Emma or Anita is letting them attack us. Letting them beat down the people who are fighting this fight for us.

According to “The Science of Happiness”, it takes 5 positive things to erase 1 negative one in your dealings with people. So, Anita, Emma, here’s hoping that the 5 of us standing with you silences 1 of the trolls you are fighting.

May 052014
 

The-Ocean-at-the-End-of-the-Lane-1

Ocean at the End of the Lane is a deeply engrossing tale from Neil Gaiman, very much in line with his previous works while also doing some new things. This really isn’t much of a novel, more of a novella/novel mix, but for that I was quite impressed at the depth he managed to achieve in such a short book. I definitely wish it could have been longer, so as to get a bit more on some of the secondary characters, but as it is a stylistic choice it’s pretty hard to fault that.

This story is told from the perspective of a child, and one of my favorite things about it is how well I think Gaiman managed to capture that and present events as a child might see them. After seeing and hearing some of the things he does through the course of the story, an adult very well would be inclined to try to find the trick, or dismiss it as false. He pretty blindly trusts in those he sees as authority figures (which , during the story, moves away from his parents and toward the Hempstocks). There is also the scene where his father sexes up the creepy Ursula. The narrator is attempting to escape her at the time, and witnesses the act, but very little thought is actually given to this act, which leaves of course a much greater significance with the reader.

Mystie brought this up as well, but one of the themes I found very interesting was the concept of the maiden, mother, and crone represented by the Hempstocks. Gaiman flipped this on itss head a bit, as generally this is a sad reference to the reproductive state of women. Gaiman takes this concept and makes it something more substantive and really centers his book around it. Gaiman is a master at this sort of mythology, as he loves to take what is a standard myth and twist it just enough to make it modern while still carrying the same meaning as it’s original. Mystie will probably expand a bit on this as well, but what happened to the “male” Hempstocks? Who are they?

This also ties in well with Lettie sacrificing herself for the narrator at the end, and how long she recovers, as he never “meets” her again in any corporeal form. The idea of “stealing” a death is pretty strong in many mythologies, and it’s a very interesting and strong concept here. What costs were truly incurred? Did she trade his life for her ability to manifest as a “human?” Will Letty only be able to return once the narrator has passed away? What kind of things might have been prevented if she was still alive?

This is a pretty important part to the ending, which while I loved most all of this book, the ending was my favorite (happens a lot with Gaiman’s books). Not only the intriguing ideas with Lettie saving his life, but with the fact that the narrator constantly returns to the farm through his life. His reason for coming back at the beginning was due to a funeral for a family member, but it’s never revealed who it is. Could be for a couple reasons, but I really think at this point that events just tend to align in his life to bring him back to the farm. The funeral at this point is secondary, even though it is obviously a major point in his life. Furthermore, it has happened several times, where some unknown event brings him back to the farm. Is Lettie’s control so great (and subtle)?

He forgets quite shortly about these events leading up to the end of his visit, as he has at each of his last meetings. Is this something the Hempstocks are doing to protect him? Is it due to his heart healing? How much does it point to events that we ourselves forget about our childhood experiences? It’s an interesting idea, and points out just how fleeting, and yet important, memories are.

For my review, I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

– Ben

 

Our latest choice in “The League of Books” was Neil Gaiman’s latest adult novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”. I had heard a lot of positive commentary about the novel on the interwebs, but I knew very little of the actual story going in.

When the novel starts, our protagonist is a middle-aged man traveling between a funeral of someone close to him and the reception afterwards. He finds himself being drawn to this little farmhouse at the end of the lane that he grew up on. As he travels down the lane, he notes a few areas of events that were significant to him during his childhood, but he cannot seem to recall the importance of this farmhouse. It seems to be flitting around the edges of his brain, despite the fact that he is obviously drawn there. Once there, the memories flit closer and closer until he walks around back and is confronted by Lettie Hempstock’s “ocean”- then his brain opens up and dumps him into the year that he was 8.

The majority of the book is told from the perspective of our protagonist as a young child. I agree with Ben that Gaiman’s writing of a child protagonist is both believable and refreshing. There are certain truths that the child brain accepts that an adult brain would have trouble accepting and therefore be a very different type of protagonist. When confronted with a “magic” family that seems to be immortal, our narrator befriends them instantly. And when he asks Lettie, the youngest member of this family, how old she is and how long she has been that age, he accepts her answers readily, though they are not actual answers.

There is a lot of Ocean at the End of the Lane that is left unexplained, and though it is difficult when you wouldn’t mind a longer novel, Gaiman threads the line that enough is explained that the story is completely understandable and enough it left to your imagination that each person’s reading of the novel is slightly different. One of the main things left unexplained was the origin of the Hempstocks. When we meet them, there are three: a grandmother, a mother and a young girl. They mention that there were male Hempstocks, but they left to travel the world and there are members of their bloodline living all over. The imagery of the Hempstocks brought to mind The Fates to me: the old crone, the mother and the maiden. Therefore, for most the novel, I felt that the Hempstock’s were Gaiman’s version of the keepers of destiny and they worked to make sure that nothing from their “old world” bothered the humans in their new one. This theory fit with the climax that Lettie was able to change our narrator’s destiny, but had to replace it with her own and, I believe, that she will not be able to return until the death of our narrator.

The end of the novel raised almost more questions than it answered, which lends itself well to discussions among friends; Ben and I had a good time debating certain points. However, I agreed with a lot of what Gaiman did. The narrator had to forget to live a “normal” life but he can’t forget how important they were to him.

But, make sure to read this and discuss it with your friends. Why does the narrator forget every time he visits? How do you feel about Gaiman never mentioning whose funeral is it? Who do you think the Hempstocks really are? What exactly are the “fleas”?

Overall, I would give this book 4/5 stars.

–Mystie

Apr 042014
 

night broken

If you are a fan of urban fantasy and haven’t read Mercy Thompson, I am disappoint.

Source: replygif.net

The 8th installment of Mrs. Brigg’s Mercy Thompson was released on March 11th and has quickly taken its place as one of my favorites in this series. Despite the fact that I frequently had to fight from tearing it in half or throwing it across the room. But more on that later.

There are spoilers, ahead. If you have not read the novel, you better run out and get it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

 

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Alright, we are all set now? Good.

This installment starts with a normal Sunday morning at the Hauptman house, so of course there are werewolves everywhere. The phone rings and we are about to be introduced to the toughest enemy that Mercy and Adam have had to face so far: Christy, Adam’s ex-wife. And she needs their help. And to stay in their home.

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Needless to say, I knew this was going to be a rough one.

Christy has encountered a man who started as an interesting fling and ended up being a crazy stalker. And she is so afraid that she has run to the one person she knows can handle anything: Adam. Her ex-husband. Mercy’s new husband. Mercy is still walking on eggshells around the pack because of the whole “being a coyote shapeshifter” thing. And maybe some of the trouble that seems to follow her around. But… really. That’s hardly her fault.

As the story progresses, we begin to see how adept Christy is at managing (read:manipulating) people to where she subtly makes Mercy the “bad guy” while making most everyone in the pack bend over backwards to make her feel better. Every dinner is a chess match. And really, we know Mercy is much better with a blunt instrument. Like maybe a walking stick with a thirst for blood. Mercy comes out the loser in these engagements. Hence the aforementioned book throwing.

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The real “big bad” of the story is a volcano god from the Canary Islands. (There’s a sentence you don’t hear often.) The legend goes that he was so enamored by the sun that he stole her and kept her as his lover until she was freed and he has been searching for her ever since. And somehow he thinks she is Christy. Well, volcano god, there are a lot of things I would call Christy and “sun goddess” DEFINITELY does not make the top ten. But, I digress…

VOLCANO GOD. Right. Well, this is a nasty one. He is so far from home that he must take something with him as a power source: namely two giant beast dogs from hell. Which they have to defeat to take him out, of course.

One of the most interesting components of this story, in my opinion, was that we met Mercy’s half-brother, Gary Laughingdog. Who seems to have a slightly different reaction to Coyote than Mercy does. Namely, he hates him.

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I should probably be less amused by this. But I love Coyote. His sly, somewhat dark, sense of humor is fantastic. And his disregard for rules and playing by them. Except when it keeps the ones he loves safe.

Anyway, yada yada yada, the good guys win. But it comes with a price this time. Mercy dies. And even with a broken neck and being gnawed on by a giant demon dog from hell, Mercy saves the day.

Source: replygif.net and also those amazing blue eyes.

YOU GO, GIRL.

She turns the tide of the battle and manages to let Adam and the pack kill the other demon dog, sending Volcano God back to the Canary Islands. But we get to hear a little bit of the conversation as Mercy lapses in and out of consciousness and it does not sound good.

But Mercy’s father is NOT Coyote. So he pays her a little visit and VOILA! no more broken neck. Man, it would be nice to have Coyote as my not-father.

So, we end with a not-dead Mercy, a banished big-bad and Christy is blue. Da-ba-di-da-ba-dye.

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All’s well that ends well… with a walking stick.

Overall: I really enjoy that Briggs doesn’t shy away from tough emotions. And there are several times that I was so angry that she would bring Christy into Mercy’s & Adam’s lives, but it was done reasonably and realistically. It never crossed that line into sitcom-y and to that end I was very impressed. I occasionally think that the mythology gets away from Briggs- we are constantly introducing and updating the mythos- but it never completely contradicts itself or gets boring (though a little difficult to follow). Mercy was definitely true to character this entire novel (but possibly a little more mature) and was everything I have come to love about the character. Her selflessness and need to protect those she loves are still her main traits. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

4/5 stars.

Apr 032014
 

DF05-DeathMasks-2003paperback

I was recently introduced to The Dresden Files series, by Jim Butcher, after hearing it mentioned several times watching the Day[9] Daily (show on Starcraft II, it’s pretty great). Mystie and I also went through his Codex Alera series early last year (another very good read!), and I am about halfway through the fifth book now. It has quickly become one of my favorite book series of all time, and I can’t wait to get further in, as each book seems even better than the last.

You may see a lot of posts regarding some of the similarities the series shares with the Harry Potter series. Dresden is a wizard, working in a modern-day Chicago as a private investigator, dealing with crazy, supernatural beings that are generally unknown to the public. This of course raises a good few difficulties for him, as there are few characters who are willing to take his career and abilities at face value, to say the very least. Oh and they share the same first name. However, from here the stories are quite different. The Dresden Files function as a well-crafted mix of mystery, fantasy, and light horror, told in a first-person perspective by Dresden.

Speaking of the perspective, it really is what makes these books shine. Harry is a fantastically interesting, hilarious, and sympathetic character. His asides to the reader and himself, as well as his banter with the secondary characters, is top-notch. It perfectly nails the idea that Harry is equally parts lucky and talented in his encounters with the villains (except for the rare times that he just kinda, well… kicks-ass). He isn’t some perfect, all-knowing wizard. He has flaws, many of them in fact, and we as readers get a very intimate portrayal of them all.

Honestly I have no problem recommending this to any fantasy fan. If you loved Harry Potter, I think this is the perfect step into more of an adult version of that type of story, even better if you like a good mystery. But it’s the character of Harry himself that makes this such an easy sell, as he is easily one of my favorite-written characters ever. I can’t wait to see where the series goes!

 Posted by at 1:07 am
Apr 012014
 

contact

For this edition of “The League of Books” we are trying a different format. After finishing the novel, Mystie posed questions for Ben to answer and Ben posed questions for Mystie to answer.

The responses are below: WARNING: SPOILERS.

Did you have any trouble or difficulty in identifying with Ellie as a main character due to her being a female? Did you feel she was well-written and/or realistic?

“No I didn’t have any difficulty identifying with Ellie as a main character. It’s actually a very refreshing change, and I thought Sagan did very well at making her a realistic character. I think there is a very real aspect of the book that addresses the fact that scientific fields tend to be male-dominated, and while obviously the reasons behind this are not really addressed, I think Sagan does a good job of showing Ellie as a positive example of why that is a problem. If not for that, I would think it’s kind of a shame that someone would have issues identifying with Ellie because of her sex. There are many other things that I think I had more trouble identifying with, based on her profession or maybe her relationship with her parents, both things that are pretty far from my sphere of experience. But those differences are some of the things I love about books, or video games, any sort of heavy-narrative driven plot. So getting a female perspective is an important part of that, but the more you see well-written female characters in both books and movies, and go away from some of the pre-conceived notions of what is “male” and what is “female,” the more you tend to see how small that particular difference actually is.”

—Ben

Contact is a very non-traditional science fiction book. What are some things you liked and disliked about this?

For a good portion of the book, it read like a realistic fiction novel; there was a lot of political intrigue and social commentary. A lot of this I really enjoyed, it made the more fantastical premise seem all that more attainable and brought a new credibility to the science that Sagan wrote about. However, I got bogged down in the middle of the book and found it hard to keep going as I was a little burned out on the realism of it all. When I read science fiction or fantasy, a lot of the reason that I am reading it is to get away from the normal- to enter a world that is full of wonder and might be a little less than realistic. When I finally got the to the science fiction section, I ate it up. But then it was over too fast. =(“

—Mystie

When you got to the end of the novel, did you remember that Ellie had driven herself to science with her self-teaching about pi? Did you like that everything sort of came full circle at the end?

“I have mixed feelings on this one. I thought it was very cool when the aliens introduced it during their meeting, but after that in the last few chapters when she was searching for that pattern, I kinda thought it had become a bit much. I think it would have been a very cool thing to just leave it as something the aliens had found, and left it open-ended and mysterious, maybe still end with Ellie searching for it. I think this still would have brought things full closure, while being very intriguing as well. As it was, I thought it was still a cool plot-device, but it was then wrapped up in kinda an awkward and rushed way, and didn’t feel very satisfying to me.”

—Ben

What was your favorite part/passage of the book? Why?

“I think that this will probably be the same passage for a lot of people, but the traveling that The Five did when they entered The Machine would be my favorite part. I think that the idea of this “Subway Station” in the sky gave the chance for Sagan to write these extremely skeptical scientists staring around wide-eyed, like children at their first amusement park. And the feeling that humans are “children” in a galactic sense as this “Subway Station” that is easy for these races to manipulate is so far out of our range that humans could not understand it while they were building it.”

—Mystie

Did you enjoy the ending of the book? Did you feel fulfilled in the conclusion of the story or were you wanting more?

“In the actual conclusion I will say I was not completely satisfied with where it went. I liked that the travelers were not really believed, and that there was still work to be done to get there, slowly (would have been too easy for everyone to believe and change right away). But it just wrapped up too easily, and I was a little disappointed in that. The revelation concerning Ellie’s father in particular just was poorly done in my opinion, as it really seemed to carry little weight. However, the parts leading up to the conclusion, basically their entire voyage, I thought was excellent, and probably my favorite part of the book (maaybe the introduction beats it out). “

—Ben

What do you think Sagan had in mind by the “higher intelligence” implied at the ending of the book?

“To me, the message felt like “science and God are not all that different”. Which would fit with the rest of the theme of the book, which felt a lot like “we are all Earthlings”. We need to rid ourselves of bigotry and hate to rise above our differences and become the kind of human race we would be proud to show off to the rest of the Universe. The impression that I got from this book was that there was a moral message inside this incredibly interesting story: that humans are not that different from one another and we should be bound together by our belief in something larger than ourselves. And he does this in a realistic manner in the story; countries do not automatically drop arms and embrace one another but as they are bound together in their goal of building The Machine, the stockpiles of nuclear weapons diminishes and wars are not started as countries need each other to complete their goal.”

—Mystie

There aren’t too many relationships that Ellie has in the book. And the ones that she does have are fairly shallow. Did you believe her relationship with der Heer? Did you find it emotionally satisfying?

“I liked the idea of what (at least what I think) he was going for with this relationship. der Heer seems all politics, he is very concerned about his reputation and wants to basically become a successful politician. Ellie is all business, couldn’t care less about her reputation and is mostly trying to increase her and others understanding. For a brief time at the beginning of their relationship, these are aligned and they can get along and have a decent relationship, but it doesn’t last. I like that Sagan was not going for a “perfect romance,” and tried to show something that just wasn’t gonna work. But I don’t think he pulled that off very well, as there wasn’t really a clean break through the rest of the book. Ken just mostly ignores her, and even kinda looks the other way as others criticize her. There doesn’t seem to be much of a reaction from Ellie on a lot of this. I think some of that was Ellie was definitely emotionally distant from most of the characters, but I just think this was awkwardly done overall, he could have done a better job of showing it one way or another, instead of just coming across as indecisive.”

—Ben

Why do you think Sagan had the travelers return without any proof?

“This would agree with my answer above. The idea that “faith: believing in something you can’t prove” is necessary in both religion and scientific discovery. I felt that Sagan had/has great respect for religions and that he is simply offering the idea that maybe science and religion can exist together. There is also the feeling of “not yet”. Humans are not quite ready to be part of something larger than themselves until they can unite and become HUMAN rather than Chinese or American or Brazilian. I did not get the impression that the “aliens” were trying to cause the damage that they did by allowing The Five to come back without proof; they just made the decision that humanity was not ready to be a hub on the “Subway Station”; either the damage that they would cause or the damage that an alien nation could cause to the Earth without the ability to fight back.”

—Mystie

OVERALL, HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO THE MOVIE?

“Ha, this is an interesting one, and I’ll try to avoid any spoilers of the movie since you haven’t seen it. Maybe part of this was seeing movie before reading the book, but it was incredibly noticeable what they changed and why they did it to fit a movie. I’m not sure if thats a good or bad thing, but for the most part I think the changes were very transparent, in terms of the reasoning behind them. I actually really like the movie as well, it helps that I can understand what all they did, but I think they did a good job at getting some of the major themes of the novel itself. And one of those themes that the movie holds, and perhaps even highlights, is one that can’t have been a very popular “hollywood” move, and so I applaud them for that.”

—Ben

Jan 132014
 

Hello! Welcome to the first edition of “The League of Books” book club. For our first novel, we picked an epic fantasy novel by Mercedes Lackey, “Arrows of the Queen”. This novel was first published in 1987 and is the beginning of the Valdemar series of books. We know that it is a fan favorite, so we had to check it out. Neither Ben nor I (Mystie) had read it before, though Ben had read other books by Lackey. We broke “Arrows of the Queen” into three sections (4 chapters each) in order to give a more comprehensive overview of the book instead of simply focusing on our reaction to the ending of the book.

Part 1 (Chapters 1-4)

Talia is a young 13 year female in a very drab and serious household- we enter the story as she is carding wool and reading a tale about Heralds and their Companions- a world to which she desperately wants to belong. It seems that Talia does not fit into her family’s idea of how a woman should behave, which includes illiteracy, submissiveness and obedience.   She, at 13, is to be married off. Talia escapes while the mothers are arguing and hides out in a small cavern she has found on the side of a hill. During this time, she daydreams about being found by a Herald and a Companion and then hears hoof beats, falls out of the hole and is found by a Companion. This seems a little too easy and a little quick to me as a reader, that Talia doesn’t have any sort of struggle or challenge that we read about before her life is swept into this magical tale. I am also not a huge fan, most of the time, of knowing major plot points that the main character is unaware of and knowing the entire ride to the Collegium that Talia was to be a Herald and having her continually wonder what was happening to her was a little overdone for my tastes, but I very much enjoyed the descriptions of the towns that she visited and the people that she met. Having Talia afraid of men, due to her authoritarian patriarchal upbringing, was a very interesting and much needed psychological element that elevated the story, to me. Talia, as a small and abused 13-year old would have emotional baggage, and I was very glad that it was included-though it does not remain consistent.

Talia and the Companion travel together and despite all of the evidence in front of her face, Talia stubbornly clings to the idea that she is “returning” the Companion and that he is not as smart and capable as she is making him out to be. In this chapter we see a lot of “it seems that this is too good to be true” thinking from Talia and outright refusal that she could be Chosen and that this Companion could be having her accompany him for a reason. We also start to learn about the Kingdom that Talia is a part of and it seems that everyone lives a much happier and more colorful existence than the “Holderkin”- they wear bright colors and are very loud and expressive people. The juxtaposition between Talia’s home life and the life that she sees in the kingdom polarizes the two worlds- one seems good and the other “evil”.

While traveling, Talia encounters a female guard and she is very taken aback, but accepts it fairly readily, after all “there were women as Heralds who held equal position as men”. One of my reservations about this is that Talia accepts things that go against everything she has ever learned very easily and quickly and seems to have no difficulty changing her mindset. The guard takes Talia into hand very quickly and understands exactly what she needs and what she won’t say, gets her fed and cleaned up and back on her way- this seems almost too easy. Once Talia enters the Collegium (taken there by Rolan) she is sent into a waiting room and approached by a very young girl. Almost out of place with her shy and scared character, Talia immediately puts this “little” in her place and treats her very firmly, even after learning that this young girl is the heir to the throne- though Talia’s reaction to this may be explained by information learned later in the book. Talia is fetched by the Dean of the Collegium, who is extremely perceptive and can tell immediately that Talia is very uncomfortable with men and adjusts her schedule and teachers in his mind as they walk. However, as mentioned above, we get the following reaction from Talia, “the wary unease she usually felt around men evaporated when she saw him”.

— Mystie

I absolutely agree with a lot that has been said about the first section of the book. There is a lot that I really enjoyed reading, mostly the sections that Talia was alone and traveling with just her new, and unknown, companion. She gets a chance to leave the borderlands and starts to see a whole new world opening up before her eyes, meeting several people along the road who serve as a stark contrast to the type of people she is used to. It also doesn’t really setup any sort of “save the world” scenario at first, it is focused on real problems that Talia is personally going through as a person, which is really where I think the strengths of the novel were. However, like you say, a lot of this is simply too convenient or “easy” for her. We get hardly a hint of what her life is like amongst her family (it is pretty poor), and honestly I could have used more setup here before she finds her companion Rolan. For example, where is it that she learned to read and fell in love with books and reading, something that was heavily discouraged by the rest of her family?
This ease at which she transitions carries through into her journey and on to the collegium. We get this entirely stark difference between the holders and the rest of the country, and even in the collegium, we find that she somehow innately knows to trust many of the men she meets even though it has been expressed that she had once been extremely uncomfortable around men and even people in general. Her initial encounter with the heir also stuck in my mind as rather odd, as she seems to be able to deal very well with a small girl demanding her to kneel as she is royalty (something she is sure to never have encountered before). Is this a sign of budding powers and her connection to her companion? Maybe, but again it is almost an instantaneous change that she comes upon, with very little difficulty, which I found less than convincing. I do very much enjoy the tale that Lackey is telling here, Talia and the people she is meeting are all very compelling, but things just seem to be falling into place too neatly.

— Ben

Part 2 (Chapters 5-8)

The middle section of this book was my favorite of the entire book overall. We see Talia start to settle into her new life, meet new classmates and teachers, and even gain some friends. I think the characters that Lackey has created are definitely one of the strengths of the novel, and especially their relationships to Talia are all intriguing and fun, and I found myself wishing that there had been more focus on her actual education. I was especially fond of the bond she forms with aging herald Jadus, during the holidays as the rest of the students have left, as the two almost come to each other’s rescue and each goes through a major turning point, with Talia losing some of her previous inhibitions and Jadus regaining his desire to rejoin society and his peers at the collegium.

This middle section is also where we start to get an idea of some of the darker aspects of life in the capital and the threats facing the Queen. These include the “blue” students, highborn pupils who didn’t fit into any of the colleges but are brought in basically on their bloodlines, and are suspects in the murder of the herald who held Talia’s position prior to her choosing. A group of these students begin to pick on, and even attempt to murder, Talia. Again, my only issue with this seems to be a common one; the line between good and evil in the book is extremely clear, as characters seem to either be the nicest person imaginable, or the cruelest, willing to do anything to further themselves. I would not mind a little more “grey.” Faults aside, I still found myself blazing through this section very quickly, and Lackey seems to be at her strongest when we are exploring Talia’s day-to-day life, schooling, and relationships. It falls a little flatter with some of the grand schemes and plots, but still a very enjoyable read to this point.

— Ben

Again, a lot of agreement between us on the major points. However, I think it bothered me more that we never learn anything about the larger plots going on in the Kingdom. We are given hints and nudges, but it is never actually explained why the Prince wanted the throne and why the plot is continuing after he was dealt with. I intensely agree that we seem to split the world into black and white and if they are evil, then that is the reason that they do bad things. It does seem to be a stretch that these children (as they are teens from the Blues) are so willing to murder a young girl who has done nothing to them and seem to do so only because they are told to by people we never see or know anything about.

However, Lackey does excel at building the small relationships between her characters and the interactions between Talia and Jadus, the servants and her fellow Heralds. She befriends and immediately puts at ease everyone that she meets.

— Mystie

 

Third Section (Chapter 9 – End)

What I enjoyed most about this section is that Talia started to really take control of her own actions and be the protagonist in her own story. She starts to find plots and begins to unravel them, with the aid of her friend Skif. We also see that her powers, that we were led to believe were part of her being the Queen’s Own, are actually part of her “Gift”. She has a strong sense of empathy- which leads her to seek out and aid people who are having a lot of emotional trouble. I really enjoy that we are fleshing out Talia’s character and giving her these abilities- but occasionally it seems that Talia can do no wrong. She is a great friend to everyone and fixes all of these problems and takes care of the Heir and turns her into a respectable child and … and … and. I feel that Talia doesn’t have a major flaw and I worry about the reader being able to relate to her.

At the beginning of Chapter 11, it has been three years. With the strength of Lackey’s writing on the day to day life of Talia’s training, I would have liked to have more of this fleshed out. I feel that, though three years have passed, the relationships between Talia and the rest of the characters have not moved forward much, if at all. She has had no problems with any plots for her life and there have been no additions to her close friend circle. Despite this, chapters 11 and 12 are extremely interesting and I think the final conflict in the book is perhaps my favorite part, despite the darkness and death of a close friend. It really stretches the story and makes the hazards of being a Herald much more realistic and believable- up until this point it has seemed that being a Herald is all easy and wonderful, at least for Talia.

All in all, this was a fun and quick read. I will definitely pick up the sequels and give those a read. After all, I have to figure out whether Ben or I are right about the love interest. 3.5/5 stars.

— Mystie

I’m a bit split on the last 4 chapters of the book. The last two chapters were great, as Mystie said we really start to see Talia start coming into her abilities and we start to get an idea of where the series as a whole is going to go. I thought the final conflict, and what came immediately after, was fantastic, it really raised the stakes for all of the characters while also really pulling in the reader to the story and plight of the heralds and Queen. I definitely agree that up to this point it almost seemed too safe, considering how much time Lackey spends telling us what a dangerous profession being a herald is.

I was not a big fan of the two chapters preceding this section though. It almost felt like an extended epilogue, as it wrapped up several plotlines from earlier, and basically rushed through several years of Talia’s training and life at the collegium. I think it really threw the pacing off, and I wish a lot of what she rushed through could have been a bit more fleshed out here, and that is just too bad considering how good the last two chapters were.

I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next books in the series, all faults aside, because this really was a fun read. And I am obviously right about the inevitable love interest. Obviously. However, I do agree with Mystie on the overall score, 3.5/5.

—Ben

 

Let us know what you thought in the comments below!

Jan 012014
 

Best New Book of a Series

Dance with Dragons: Paperback
My favorite series has finally released book 5 in paperback, giving a great excuse to reread this epic story.
— Matt

Tempt the Stars (Cassie Palmer Novel #6) by Karen Chance
Tempt the Stars was a sequel that I was awaiting anxiously for and I was not disappointed (except by the fact that it wasn’t longer). The Cassie Palmer series is an urban fantasy series where vampires, werewolves, djinns, mages and clairvoyants interact. Cassie is one of the latter. In fact, at this point she is the Pythia (the chief clairvoyant) and is in a strong position of power in the magical community- but one that she doesn’t want, necessarily. Cassie Palmer is one of my favorite types of heroines: she does what needs to be done even if she doesn’t want to get out of bed that day. She makes sure that she does what she feel is morally right and doesn’t hesitate to put her own butt in danger to help out any one of her friends. If you enjoy urban fantasy, I recommend picking up this series.
—Mystie

Best New Book

And the Mountains Echoed (by Khaled Hosseini)
Due to my rather outrageous “to-read” list, I think this may have been the only book published in 2013 I managed to get to this year. So that definitely makes coming up with the title for this spot quite a bit easier, but I am a big fan of the first two books by Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns), and his third offering proved to be just as much of a joy to read, absolutely engaging until the last page, while bringing a perspective many people are sometimes unable or unwilling to see.
I think the major strength of any of Hosseini’s novels are his characters. Each is remarkably complex, deep, and unbelievably real, all while facing some of the most difficult hardships humanity has known. The first two books focused strongly on one or two characters, but Mountains takes a different approach by introducing nine characters who each have their own chapter, fragmenting the narrative but providing an overarching connection between them all and the events that occur in their lives. This fragmentation can make the story a little difficult to follow at times, and I think overall I prefer the style of the first two, but at the end of the day this novel is all about the characters and their connection to each other and to the reader, and in this regard, Hosseini has outdone even his previous two books.
— Ben

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars
The greatest story of all time now has its first installment told in true Shakespearean style.
— Matt