Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

It has been awhile since I reviewed a book. This is partly because it has been awhile since I last read a book. That is to say, a book besides Lord of the Flies, which I pore over constantly when planning lessons. I was in serious need of some literary variety in my life.

I recently got an iPhone, and like so many before me, I am greatly enjoying it. One of the first apps I downloaded was iBook. The app store was advertising it, and while I thought my phone was a bit small to read a book on, I downloaded it. I figured it was free, why not? Then the other day I had the sudden urge to read something new, something good. Since I now live on a small island, it now takes about half an hour to get to the nearest bookstore. It isn’t so much the distance as traffic and finding parking, a pain in the neck all around.

So what to read, and where to get it. I decided to poke around the iBook store, but the way they organize their books didn’t really lend itself to browsing (or at least not the way I was doing it, I should play with the app a bit more). Then I remembered that a friend (hi Mike!) had recently mentioned a book on twitter that sounded interesting. He described Ready Player One to me as “Dan Brown for geek fanboys,” which could mean a lot of things, but it sounded fun to me. The book was in the iBook library and I downloaded it, hoping that the small screen wouldn’t make me insane.

Reading a book on an iPhone wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I would certainly say it slowed me down a bit. It was harder to get immersed in the story when you had to turn the page every 20 seconds. But eventually my brain would get the rhythm, and it didn’t detract from the story.

Anyway, onto the actual review. As usual, spoilers will be written in white text so you can highlight and read them if you choose too. I will try to indicate if they are major or minor, in case you just want to be mildly spoiled.

Let me start with a brief plot summary – It is 2044 and the world is in seriously bad shape. This is your typical distopian future, fires in the street, poor living conditions, a beaten down populace, the haves are few and far between and they have everything, the have-nots are barely scraping by. Our hero is a have-not, albiet a resourceful one when it comes to his main hobby – a virtual world called Oasis. Oasis is a fully (depending on how much equipment you have) interactive virtual world. The sad, beaten down people of earth use it to escape the horrific real world; they go to school, work, carry on friendships and romances, battle for virtual money and status, and generally enjoy things reality can’t offer them. When the creator of Oasis died, he left behind a massive puzzle to be solved by players. The prize for solving this mystery is the “egg,” a symbol for unimaginable wealth and control over Oasis itself, everything that the creator of the game, James Halliday, left behind when he died. This leads to huge amounts of the population devoting themselves to solving this puzzle, the clues of which are deeply rooted in 80’s culture of all kinds. Our main character, Wade, devotes any time that isn’t taken up by virtual high school  to solving the puzzle that so many people have obsessed over. After the contest drags on for 5 years without anyone finding the first of three keys, some people lose interest. But not Wade, and not thousands of other “gunters” as they are called (egg hunters).

What’s bad – The author has a little bit of a wish-fulfillment issue going on. Since the story is immersed, literally, in technology, he occasionally dives off into long tangents about the cool and mostly imaginary technology on offer. Suits that allow you to physically feel what is happening in the real world? Fine. Boxes that release scents into the air so you can smell what you are seeing? Silly, especially when placed in a chapter that is devoted to describing how people can feel, smell, order food that really arrives at your apartment, blah blah blah… It is like the author made a list of everything you would need to make virtual reality as real as possible, then wrote about all of them. And no one told him to cut it down. Leave something to the imagination, not many people are sitting there thinking, “but what about smell!”

The writing itself also leaves something to be desired. The author’s desire to describe everything is related to bigger issues with “show don’t tell.” If Cline wants to tell you what something looks like or how someone feels, he just tells you. All too often there is no effort to integrate information into the story, instead it gets its own descriptive paragraph. Most of the time Cline has taken the time to describe something because it comes up later in the story, but he doesn’t seem to realize that its place in the story is description enough. Everything doesn’t need its own detailed introduction.

What’s fine – 80’s 80’s 80’s! Any connoisseur of 80’s culture is going to enjoy this book. The sheer number of movies, videogames, bands, songs, actors, pop culture icons, etc. that are mentioned in this novel is staggering. Me, I’ve never been overly into the 80’s. I was seven when the 90’s came along, and even then I’m really more of an aughts girl when it comes to music, movies, and gaming culture. I did enjoy some of the name checks, like Wil Wheaton, but I can see how someone who is more into the 80’s would get more out of the book in general. In order to “win” the game and collect all the keys, gunters have to be encyclopedias of knowledge about the 80’s, a decade James Halliday was obsessed with. Puzzles include things like (minor spoiler) reciting entire movies and successfully playing through Pac Man without making a single mistake, and only the most obsessed will survive.

Another mention for wish-fulfillment for the “fine” catagory. What annoyed me about some of the other wish-fulfillment was that it was too much “listing” and not enough story. But there is another, romantic comedy-esque style that also shows up. (Minor spoilers to follow). Our protagonist starts off the novel looking like what one might expect someone who spends all their time in a virtual world to look like. He’s spotty, pale, and overweight. But after suffering a soul-crushing setback, Wade downloads a program that forces him to exercise in the real world before he is allowed to play in the virtual one. Thus our chubby nerd transforms into six-packed hero, just in time to do something that demonstrates his willingness to leave the virtual world and kick ass in the real one. This is the kind of wish fulfillment I don’t mind. The authorial urge to take an ugly duckling and swan him up a little is strong, if not original. Taking care of ones’ self physically is a tried and true sign of growth in fiction, so I’ll give the author a partial pass for leaning a bit too much on the “training montage” school of character development.

But also, let’s face it, it undermines his “it’s not what’s on the inside that counts” message a bit.

Another thing I’d have to put in the “fine” catagory is the ending. After working our way through this book of incredibly complex puzzles and epic battles, the story seems to end quite suddenly. But perhaps that was just me. Also, (major spoiler) the big red button that destroys the entire online world? Mmm, not sure what to make of that. Clearly the message is that part of the reason humanity is going down the tubes is because everyone spends all their spare time in a virtual world where they can be and do anything they like. Wade will presumably be pressing that button at some point, thus forcing humanity to face what they’ve done to the real world and work on solutions to the disaster that is Earth. But if you are going to introduce a major button like that, wouldn’t that fall under the Chekov’s gun rule? For those who are unfamiliar, the rule basically means that one shouldn’t put a gun on stage if it isn’t going to go off at some point later in the story. Can we not even get a quick conversation where Wade and the virtual Halliday discuss the pros and cons of the button? No? Just going to throw it in there, say “you might want to push this at some point, up to you, moving on”? Ok… If the author writes a sequel that features the button, I officially retract my complaint. Spoiler over.

The good – This is a really engaging story. I think the comparison to Dan Brown is fair – the writing is weak (better than Brown’s, but still weak) but the plot is really, really fun. James Halliday and his cohorts were clearly based partly on real world characters like Jobs, Wozniaki, and Gates. I think Cline has a strong grasp on human nature that shows in his character development. The main characters tend to be a tad overdramatic, but then again, they are teenagers. I wouldn’t say their drama queen tendencies aren’t a fair representation of your average 18 year old.

I really enjoyed learning about some neat pop culture history. As I mentioned before, the book is awash in 80’s nostalgia. While I couldn’t always relate to the obsession, it was interesting to learn more about the Atari, or hear a story about the man, John Draper, who discovered you could make free long distance calls by blowing a penny whistle a particular way.

I also found myself in the rather unique position if being midway through this book when Steven Jobs passed away. Suddenly, the anecdotes in the book were showing up in articles about Jobs’ actual life. One article in particular, on Slate.com, mentions what a large impact John Draper and his whistle had on Jobs and Wozniaki in their youth – inspiring their first foray into the technology business (You can find the article here). My first computer was an Apple, my current computer is an Apple, and I was reading Ready Player Oneon my iPhone. The sadly premature death of Steve Jobs lends the book an air of poignancy I’m not sure it would have had otherwise.

Another thing I really enjoyed about the book was the twist it took about three quarters of the way through. I was genuinely surprised (major spoiler) not only that Wade was dragged out of his apartment by the evil corporation he’s been battling, but that he’d carefully planned the whole thing to gain special access to their system and save his friends. It was a level of badassery I hadn’t expected from Wade, and a pleasant break from the near constant immersion in the virtual world. Glimpses of the real world are sprinkled throughout the book. Wade’s rare forays outside are quite engaging. Cline doesn’t engage in over-description when Wade is outside Oasis, and this is a very good thing. Because the reader has spent so much time thinking about the 80’s, most of us are probably picturing some cross between Blade Runner and Back to the Future II (the ugly future, not the shiny one) anyway. The jarring differences between Wade’s real life and his virtual one make for some of the most interesting moments in the book.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book to pretty much anyone. Especially since most people my age have an undying affection for things like The Breakfast Club (when it comes to 80’s movies I’ll take Aliens over John Hughes every time, sorry!). I’m a little surprised this book isn’t listed as a young adult novel. The themes and writing seem very YA to me. Cline has included a lot of really dark themes here – murder, terrorism, evil corporations, suicide, a distopian future, racism, sexism, homophobia, and on and on… But when it comes down to it, the book can’t help being fairly gleeful and happy. This may be due to how much fun the author is clearly having with his subject. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the tone of the book did mean that I never once (spoiler) had the least doubt that everything was going to work out just fine. There was just no way that Art3mis was going to get murdered or the corporation was going to gain control over the egg. It just wasn’t going to happen. Nothing wrong with an upbeat tone, but it didn’t really lend itself to suspense. 

Here ends my rambling review. As usual, my attempt to put things into good, bad, and fine categories just meant I put everything all over the place anyway. But hopefully I got my point across. If you haven’t read it, I definitely recommend it. And go into it expecting what is basically YA that is a billion times better than Twilight, but not on the level of something like Hunger Games or A Wrinkle in Time.

Edit: I should probably mention that I am often mildly annoyed by books written in the first person. I think it is tough for a lot of writers to write a solid protagonist without the “I did this, I did that, this is how I feel, me me me” making the character seem a lot more self obsessed than they are actually meant to be. But this is a personal preference and might not bother other people at all.


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I haven’t written a book review for awhile, so I thought I’d share a little bit about what I’m reading these days.

I should start by saying that I finally took the time to step into a weird little shop down the road from me. The window is packed full of records, so I never really took the time to look more closely. Records are interesting and all, but not a hobby of mine. It wasn’t until I spotted the name of the shop, Diskovery (another reason I thought it was just music) on mysecretBoston.com that I came to learn that it was a used bookstore as well. I have been complaining lately about the lack of bookstores in my area, so I was a touch chagrined to learn that there has been one only a few blocks away for almost two years without me realizing it.

The place is delightful and odd. First of all, there are cats draped about the place. As in real, live cats. They are quite friendly as far as I can tell. Another interesting feature is the almost total lack of organization. This is not the place to go if you have your heart set on one particular book. Aside from being loosely arranged by genre (and a loose definition of the word genre) there is no alphabetizing whatsoever.

There is, for example, a section devoted to books that have been made into movies (I snagged a few photos with my phone while I was browsing today) –

This is what I mean by a loose definition of genre. It was in this section that I snagged a copy of Jane Austen’s Emma. I don’t own my own copies of any Austen books since I’d read them after taking them out of libraries. But while I found Emma in the “books that became movies” section, I found P&P, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility in a different section entirely (one which I guess could be loosely termed “classics”?). Those books have been made into movies as well, but… Well you see what I’m saying. Chaos!

The other interesting quirk of this place is that the books are layered. Meaning that most shelves have two rows of books. If you are feeling determined, you have to move the front stack in order to see what is behind it. Sometimes you will catch a glimpse of something interesting (The Spy Who Hated Fudge? What is that all about) and then you have to decide if it is worth possibly meeting your death under a pile of old books while you play Jenga in an attempt to investigate. Visual aid –

Incidentally, I kept pulling my phone out of my purse to take pictures, and I was a little worried the proprietor would think I was slipping books into my bag. But she seemed unconcerned about what I was doing rustling around in the stacks. It would be incredibly easy to steal from this place, there are no security measures whatsoever. But one would have to be an asshole of epic proportions since a) the lady who runs it is so darn nice and b) you can buy 8 books for 12 bucks, which I did today.

Another picture, to demonstrate the vibe of the place –

I took this last one sitting on the floor in the crime section. Mystery seems to be vaguely divided between the more traditional mystery novels, Agatha Christie and the like, and other kinds of crime like spy novels and noir. I spent my time there today chilling among the more traditional mysteries, where earlier in the week I’d come across an old favorite, Shroud for a Nightengale by P.D. James. I also found another novel by James, The Murder Room, and decided to give it a try.

P.D. James, who is a British writer, is around 90 years old at the moment. She is quite famous, perhaps a bit more so in England than here, for her detective novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh. She’s written 14 novels about that particular police officer, as well as a few others with different protagonists. Though her books are more modern, it would be fair to say that she is influenced a bit by Agatha Christie and a great deal by Dorothy Sayers, a favorite of mine and apparently hers. She also wrote the book The Children of Men, which many people probably remember as a film that came out a few years ago starring Clive Owen.

The Murder Room is over 100 pages in before the first murder even happens. This is fairly typical of James, who is rarely sparing with character development. It does get a bit tiring at times, especially with recurring characters like Kate Miskin. While James clearly wants to keep Dalgliesh a bit more mysterious and thus reveals a bit less about what he is thinking, we are frequently treated to Kate’s innermost thoughts and feelings. At a certain point, you kind of want to tell her to join match.com and stop obsessing about everything. Even though Kate isn’t overused in this particular novel, her inner monologue can still be an overshare.

Once the murders begin, things don’t exactly get off to a rollicking start. There are a plethora of suspects and not much to narrow them down. There is one character in particular whom I dearly loved, the serene, 60 year old Tally. James is quite good at making you feel what her characters are feeling and really understand them, which may also be why it can be hard to listen to Kate’s darker, sadder thoughts.

It isn’t until another death, many, many pages later that things get going a little more quickly. The novel is very, very slow paced. Did we really have to go along with two of the detectives to question the man who serviced the victim’s car? Yes, not because it furthered the plot but because it further unpacked the relationship between those two detectives. P.D. James will include these moments because they fit into the larger story of the relationships between recurring characters over 14 novels. It might not mean much to someone who is reading James for the first and last time, but even so, it isn’t boring.

If I have a complaint about James, it is her endings. In this particular novel, despite our villain having several excellent motives (along with many other people), James feels compelled to throw another one in there. A wrong from many, many years ago that is casually mentioned during a confessional moment at the end and never really elucidated upon. It doesn’t hurt the story, but it is completely unnecessary. In two of her other novels, James gives intricate secret Nazi backstories to characters that end up being the impetus behind the crimes (though these secret Nazis aren’t necessarily the murderers themselves). Granted, the idea seems to be that we get information at generally the same time Dalgliesh gets it, which is a very valid way of telling the story. My complaint is that in some of her books it can be overly clever and not always necessary. And if you are going to come up with these crazy backstories, why not let it come up somehow in the investigation or even hinted at? In this case, we are flat out told by the killer at the end. One could argue that there is some pretty heavy foreshadowing which adds some depth, but not quite enough for me.

Spoiler ahead. It doesn’t give away the killer at all, but it does give away a victim (who is easy to guess early in the novel anyway) and the silly extra reason the killer did it.  Highlight the white text to see it  –

The first victim, a psychiatrist, failed to hurry to see a patient 12 years ago and that patient committed suicide. That person was dearly loved by the killer, so the killer decided to wait over a decade and then brutally murder the guy, partially driven by the collection of other perfectly good motives that have popped up since then. So not necessary to throw in a 3 sentence add-on about a 12 year old suicide! 

So P.D. has a bit of a weakness for overdoing it. Overall, this is not her best Dalgliesh novel by a long shot. It was definitely not a “can’t put it down” book, in fact I put it down a few times when I found I just wasn’t getting sucked in. That said, I did enjoy it. The whole series is really very good and I plan to read all 14 of the books featuring Dalgliesh. I believe I’ve read about 5 now, with Death in Holy Orders being by far my favorite. Death in Holy Orders very much echoes Dorothy Sayers novel, Gaudy Night, which is one of my favorite novels.

If I were to randomly invent a star system for my book reviews, this one would get a 3 1/2 out of 5.

Edit: I just realized that my post title kind of makes it look like the bookstore is called The Murder Room. Which would be a fun, if confusing, name for a bookstore.

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