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 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!