The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

A boy lives in the country side with his parents and little sister, a typical family. They live a quiet, peaceful life. That is, until the boy becomes friends with the girl, Lettie, at the end of the lane, a girl whose family is anything but typical.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is another marvelous story by Neil Gaiman. He effortlessly weaves the almost mundane rural life of a little boy with cosmic events and characters that boggle imagination. While we never really learn more than the boy does about the cosmos beyond the glimpses he gets through his friendship with his neighbor, Gaiman teases a vast and complex world in which there are many forces struggling for control, for dominion. The boy’s struggles, all too threatening to his life, are mirrored against those of almost a planetary scale, with the nature of reality in the balance. Never are the boy’s struggles minimized but there is always the threat of something even bigger coming, with the power to destroy not only the boy, but everything.

As has been said, any science advanced enough will appear like magic to those unfamiliar with it. Thus, Lettie and her mother and grandmother don’t practice magic, per se, but talk about neutrons and electrons and come across as knowing more about how the world works than average people, though this is only briefly touched on, teased so to speak.

Some of the characters Gaiman introduces are only given a brief introduction, even if they are all important to the story. This story left me wanting to know more, about the history of these characters and their future stories. Hopefully, this is a world that Gaiman revisits in a future book.

 

Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse

NBA Hall of Famer, political activist, and now accomplished author. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can do it all. With Anna Waterhouse, he takes us on an adventure starring that other Holmes brother, Mycroft. In the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Mycroft is the older brother of Sherlock, mysteriously working for the government. He has powers of observation and deduction maybe even greater than his brother’s, but being out of shape, he prefers to work behind the scenes in the service of Her Majesty’s government.

In this novel, entitled, fittingly, Mycroft Holmes, Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse tell the tale of a younger Mycroft, at at time when Sherlock is still a student and Mycroft has just begun working for the government. However, he is soon pulled into a larger adventure spanning half the globe that takes him to the original home of his fiancée and, coincidentally, his best friend Cyrus Douglas: Port of Spain. He and Cyrus uncover an international plot to… well, that would be spoiling it.

Mycroft’s friend Cyrus is the descendant of slaves. This lets Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse explore the social context of the time (the later half of the 1800s) and, in particular, race relations both in England and in colonies such as Trinidad. It isn’t forced, but occurs naturally, in the way that Cyrus is forced, by context, to interact with others. This kind of social commentary is something that isn’t really present in Doyle’s original Sherlock stories, and helps distinguish this novel from the original inspiration, in a good way.

The story starts off a little slow, with lots of background and setting the stage for the later half of the novel. But, then it quickly escalates, with lots of action and intrigue. Mycroft Holmes is an overall fine addition to Holmesian literature.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the most famous people of his time, the fame garnered through the adventures of his fictional detective Sherlock Holmes even leading to knighthood. As a consequence, he led a life almost as interesting as his creation. In Arthur & George, Julian Barnes explores that life, particularly in the context of how it crossed paths with one George Edalji, the son of a vicar who also happened to be of Indian descent.

George is a normal, quiet, if odd, boy, who grows up in rural England. He perseveres against his bad eye sight and overall reserved character to eventually become a solicitor or lawyer. However, as George’s life becomes complicated, Arthur is eventually drawn in as a real life manifestation of his creation Sherlock to solve the mystery of George’s trouble.

The novel, while fictionalized, is based on true events in which George and his family are the targets of local persecution. While it is never stated why, there are hints that their Indian heritage makes them outcasts in rural England, though George himself never accepts this to be the case.

In the lead up to their lives crossing paths, Arthur has his own life, full of adventures and romance. Particularly engrossing is his relationship with his wife, especially after she becomes ill. I won’t spoil it here, but the inner conflicts that Arthur endures go a long way to showing the nature of his character. This is where Arthur & George shines, in the development of these two characters, Arthur and George, delving deep into their psych and their motivations. There is no big international scandal or reality-destroying threat on the horizon, just the deep insight into the lives of two men who briefly cross.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Lots of things define the 80s, and for those of us who grew up then, we each have our own things we identify with. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, is a celebration of all of the cultural phenomena that we grew up with.

Recommended to me by both my brother-in-law and a friend, Ready Player One is the type of frollicking read that I couldn’t put down. The basic premise is that, in a world that has declined and in which there are either the haves or have-nots, the only escape most people have is a virtual reality game environment that is a supped-up mash-up between Facebook and MMORPGs. Everything is done through VR, including schooling. However, the creator of this technology and this world, upon his death, initiates a quest for control of the world and his real-life fortune.

It turns out that this guy, this uber-Bill Gates character, was also a fanatic of 80s culture, being the decade he grew up in. So, his world and his quest are built around references to Atari games, Dungeons and Dragons, and John Hughes movies. Everyone who wants to solve the quest and win the fortune immerse themselves into 80s culture, memorizing plots and dialogs of movies such as WarGames. Any child of the 80s can’t help but revel in all of the references to everything we grew up with. Adding to that a riveting plot and a rich world full of fascinating characters, Cline has created a roller coaster of a book that is part wish fulfillment and part action-packed thriller, with the action taking place both in the real and virtual worlds he has created.

The idea of virtual schooling is both exciting and troubling. Of course, there is very little real-world interaction in the virtual school, but, at the same time, the students learn by standing “on the volcanic surface of Io while our teacher explained how the moon had originally formed.” I’m sure our own society will move in this direction, it is only a matter of how far.

My own 80s childhood was more defined by role playing games and computer games than with movies, though I was a fan of movies like Ladyhawke, WarGames, Red Dawn, and The Last Starfighter. Though, my RPG system of choice was Rolemaster. I was the quintessential 80s nerd/geek.

Ready Player One is a celebration of the 80s, the decade when computers began to become ubiquitous and popular culture brands began permeating every day life. At the same time, it places a lens on how popular culture defines and molds us, and thus provides some introspection on the relationship between the media, of all forms, and our own lives. As technology becomes ever more pervasive, newer generations will have to synthesize these different worlds even more than we did, in ways we can only imagine. Ready Player One, in some sense, prepares the way, showing what that world might look like.

The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

19161852You can tell a book is a real page turner when you get through most of it on an international flight. You can tell that the series is even better when you read the sequel on the return flight. That’s how good The Fifth Season and its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, are.

N. K. Jemisin has created a unique world in which the perils of the characters are trumped only by the perils of the planet they inhabit. The Stillness, as the world is known, is anything but. Constantly racked by earthquakes and volcanoes, the inhabitants of this world have learned to survive in the so-called “fifth season”, when weather patterns, food production, and the very survival of humans is disrupted. Against this backdrop exist a set of humans who have the power to control, at least to some degree, these tremors. For this, they are feared and controlled.

Jemisin’s world is almost as much as a living, breathing entity as her human characters, but not quite. Her human characters are simply outstanding, with a depth that goes beyond typical “non-player character” levels of superficialness and delves deep into what makes them tick. Good guys are shown to be cruel and bad guys are given a deeper side that evokes some sympathy for their actions. This is a world that is not black and white in any sense. Rather it is a world of grey burning in fire.

26228034Through this world, Jemisin explores complex social questions with a depth and a bluntness that is captivating. She explores questions of social standing, of slavery, of discrimination and persecution, in a way that adds to her story. At one point in The Obelisk Gate, a community is deciding who gets to stay and who should be forced to go, all based on how they were born. The protagonist disrupts the proceedings with the declaration: “No voting on who gets to be people.”

The world that Jemisin has created is complex, not only in the way that it is constantly under threat of another massive earthquake, but also in how the humans have responded to their circumstances. She delves into how people treat other people as well as how people treat their planet: “Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.” Ultimately, “there is a not-insubstantial chance that life will win its war, and destroy the Earth.”

Finally, Jemisin’s characters warrant a few more words. Both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate follow an interesting narrative in which three different character arcs are developed in parallel as the story evolves. Not much more can be said without giving away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that this leads to a very interesting narrative structure that keeps the story moving along without revealing too much at once.

Overall, as one might guess, I really enjoyed these two books and highly anticipate the third and final one in the series. Jemisin has created a rich world with a long and detailed history that directly impacts the story. How she resolves it all, how her characters survive what is coming, are questions that I am really looking forward to seeing answered.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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