Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Wow.  Now this was a fantastic book.  From the beginning, I could not wait to get back to the book, from whatever it was that was tearing me away from it--friends, family, vacation... Must... Read... Book....

I keep picking up books hoping that they'll actually transport me elsewhere -- take me to the land of the book and not left on my couch reading a book.  Where others have failed, Cline succeeded.

This book takes place in the the not-too-distant future, after the "Great Recession" has left the world a bleeding dump of what it was in the (now) past.  Trailer Parks have been built up into stacks, with RVs and mobile homes being stacked 15-20 homes high, most people have abandoned their vehicles because of the prohibitive cost of gasoline, food is a scarce resource, and fossil fuels have been burned up, leaving energy itself endangered.

Yet, there is OASIS.  Originally designed as an "MMA" (multiple player video game), the OASIS quickly became a virtual reality for almost everyone in the world, with people "plugging in" as often and for as long as they could.  The creator of the OASIS - Jim Halliday - dies, leaving behind his fortune to whoever wins "the game" -- whoever collects the 3 keys and passes the 3 gates first.  For the next five years, no one finds even the first key... but then, it's on....

Yeah it's hard to describe.  I'm not a gamer and didn't play most of the games mentioned in the book (of course I played pac man).  Halliday was born almost a decade before I was, so all of his nostalgia kind of just missed me.  I have seen several of the movies mentioned... but then again, there were a slew that I had not.  This book is not just nostalgia-crack and it's definitely not just for gamers.

The brilliance of this book is that it's set in the not-too-distant future, realistic in many ways, with a quality of virtual reality that is probably just around the corner from today... so it's almost not even sci-fi or fantasy.  Yet through OASIS, the participant can do just about anything--visit planets described in books, be a wizard or a fairy, actually play a character in a movie, even go to school--anything someone can think of aside from the necessary bodily functions... of course, all for a cost (actual money).  So, at the beginning of the book, the main character, Wade Watts, doesn't have access to anything.  Essentially, just some kiddie video games, the public library, and school.  But he's smart, resourceful, and willing to devote serious amounts of time to the game.

But the brilliance of this book is the relatability -- Wade Watts is some shy, dorky kid, who is insecure and only able to come out of his shell behind the safety of the virtual reality lens.  But somehow this shy, dorky, insecure kid is the hero of the book, and somehow you believe it and root for it.  And somehow maybe it feels a little bit like you.

But the brilliance of this book is that it abounds with descriptions of games and movies that at least some of its readers (e.g., me) have never played, seen, or even heard of, and yet it's so. freaking. fascinating.  I just ate it all up.

But the brilliance of this book is that, when I wasn't reading... I started to almost believe that some of what was happening in the book (the "future" stuff) was possible, happening, present.

So yeah, I absolutely loved this book.  I always hope to read a book that takes me there and makes me believe that it's real, and makes me feel connected to the characters, and makes me actually care about the outcome.  And here it was.  Willy Wonka really did meet the Matrix here.

I *really* hope there's a movie someday!
FIVE out of five stars.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

Review based on ARC.

This is one of those books that was entertaining, informative, and infuriating.  Piper Kerman wrote a memoir that reads almost like a diary.  This is both a compliment and a criticism.  The problem with the non-diary-diary format is that it was scattered, unfocused, and anecdotal.  The good thing about the non-diary-diary format, however, is that it was interesting, personal, and present.

So, the story.  Kerman makes massively stupid and selfish decisions in her young life, as young ladies are wont to do, and years later, she begins to pay for it.  a little.  Her involvement in large-scale drug trafficking ultimately lands her in inside a minimum security federal prison, which she proceeds to detail in a manner that is, at turns, entertaining and lecturing.  There's not really much more to the plot:  she learns about being in prison, she learns about the people there, she learns about the impact of her actions.  Thus, a memoir.

What works is Kerman's tone, most of the time.  She takes an equally amusing and reverent tone in describing her prison-mates and describes heartbreaking, enraging, and amusing stories alike.  Kerman's own appearance and naivety land her, fortunately, friends with some of the more powerful women in the prison and, to hear Kerman tell it, she herself ends up being one of the most popular prisoners to ever grace Danbury's walls (this is a literal exaggeration of the tone that many of the anecdotes presented -- she never, of course, ever states anything quite so ludicrous).

Kerman flits between anecdotes, grant philosophical rants, political lectures, and summaries, which unorganized presentation was, at many points, annoying and disrupted the flow of the tale.  However, Kerman's voice was consistent throughout these variances, making the sudden switches more tolerable to read.

Kerman mentions in passing that her year had its rough moments... but aside from dealing with her Grandmother's illness, stays far on the surface of these times.  Which leads the reader to believe that her time in Danbury wasn't so bad--that maybe she was just a "whiney privileged white girl."  In reality, there were probably times when it was terrible for *her* (and not just one of the other girls there), and maybe she didn't want to relive those in her memoir.  Or maybe she didn't want to be too depressing for her readers.  Or maybe just being incapable of leaving the walls for such an extended period of time was rough.  She managed to remain a picky eater, looked years younger after LEAVING prison, worked out, got a lot of daytime, watched movies, had friends.... yeah, I know a lot of girls who'd kill for her crappy year.   But, as I say, maybe there was some stuff under the surface that she didn't divulge.

All in all, the book gets THREE AND A HALF stars (bumped to 4 on non-half-star sites for its importance) because Kerman tells a good story and creates a few vivid characters (though a few others are glaringly 2-dimensional), and because the story she is telling and the impact it has had and can have is important.  Important!  For any person who knows no-one who has been to jail or prison (even a "swanky" minimum security prison like Danbury), or anyone who thinks that prisoners cannot be rehabilitated and/or do not have any good in them, this book is a MUST.

For the rest of us who've had harder lives, I say go ahead and read it if it sounds interesting.  It certainly is not a bad book and, even though it's a bit disorganized, it tells an interesting story.

**side note: I am both interested in watching the tv show to see some of the characters come to life, and adamantly opposed in case my fears that it has created caricatures of very real people's lives, pain, and struggles are justified.

The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

I was more than 2/3 done with this book, when I sat down at the dining room table and described the whole thing to my sister.  In about 10 minutes.  The way I described it, both of us agreed that it sounded very interesting.  And it was.  interesting. but it wasn't thrilling. exciting. moving.

I tend to stay away from spoilers in reviews because I feel like... reviews with spoilers (or comprised largely of spoilers and not much else) are only devices to, effectually, "preach to the choir" (or find out if the choir agrees with you).  So with that in mind, let me tell you what I liked, with an understanding that I'm treading delicately so as not to spoil the many twists and turns and discoveries that make this book worth reading.

The book is well written, there's no question about that.  Palma managed to write an essentially historical fiction, that just happened to include discussions about and discoveries involving time travel.  Sort of.  And it's that "sort of" that was probably most frustrating to me.  The novel was more historical fiction (i.e., more history) than I had really signed up for, and is probably more time travel than the typical historical fiction reader signs up for.  Don't get me wrong, I can get behind a good historical fiction novel with the best of 'em, it just wasn't what I was expecting with a book called the Map of Time, described as this one was, and reviewed as this one was.  I wanted to travel through time... and quickly!  Alas, that is not the path of this book.

And yet.  As I said, Palma wrote a good book.  There is a lot of setting, character development, and background.  And not as much action and plot-movement.  But the setting, the character development, and the background were very well crafted.  Palma made me not only purchase several HG Wells books after I finished the Map of Time, but I also researched Wells a bit and even continued to look into certain aspects of his life/works weeks after having finished the Map of Time.  I also found myself researching the existence of other characters or events described in the book, to find out how much of what Palma wrote about was accurate, based in history, or just completely made up.  Any book that makes me do extra research is an interesting book.

So it's worth reading.  But the plot? let's see, how to describe without spoiling.... There are two primary stories that are told, largely separately, that are connected by the famous Mr. Wells, and perhaps by other, tenuous threads that are interesting but not the meat of the sandwich.  In the first, an incredibly depressed young man sets about to end his life, much to the dismay of his nearly identical cousin.  Palma starts there, but then backtracks to provide the reason, the characters, the emotion behind such a decision.  And, ultimately, of course, H.G. Wells becomes involved.  But to say more about that line is to spoil some of the many surprises.  The Second story centers around an allegedly charming, but notably disgruntled young lady who wants more out of life than just falling in love with one of the duds available to her.  Needless to say, H.G. Wells also becomes enmeshed in her story.  Then there are the many side stories, back stories, and peripheral stories, each of which is complete and satisfying, yet not so plentiful or involved so as to detract from the main stories.  I know.  Not as much "so what's it about" as you'd like.  But, as I said above, I cannot spoil a good story.

At the end of the day, the book was really good, but not great.  It was very well written, intriguing, and well told.  But I didn't escape completely into it.  I didn't forget who I was while I was reading it.  I just read it.  Enjoyed it.  And passed it on.

Overall, FOUR out of five stars.
Recommended for people who like historical fiction w/ a touch of time travel... or time travel, supported by a heavy base of historical fiction.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Review based on ARC

I've started this review, scratched it, thought about it, re-started...

It's a difficult review for me because I felt so strongly about the mediocrity of the book.  It's definitely not bad.  It's not badly written, it's not badly plotted, it's not badly character driven... but it's not good either.  I was very disappointed only because what I had read going in led me to believe this would be something special.  I was very excited to be picked for this book, but unfortunately the excitement ended then.

What's good:  the book is a very quick read, and there are characters or moments where you really care.  The mystery-aspect of the book is intriguing and I definitely needed to know "what next."  It was easy to read the prose, and I flew through the pages quickly.

What's not:  the book is altogether unconvincing.  It is unconvincing as a history novel, it is unconvincing as a love story, and it is unconvincing as a tale about the bonds of family.  The book is written in letters primarily between "Sue" and Davey and between Margaret and Mother.  The "voices" of each of the characters, however, were not distinct from each other (or, not enough to matter).  The only way you got a sense of things was in the narrators' description of someone else -- i.e., I didn't learn as much about _____'s personality from their OWN letter as I did from a letter by someone else writing about _____.  It was only by descriptions of others that personalities emerged.

Also, the letters employed overly-obvious and unrealistic conversation -- i.e., if my sister were to call me and I said "oh! hello big sister who lives in Chicago! It's so nice to hear from you again after just a week!"  No one talks like that.  There were several moments like that in the book, where there was over-explanation and no subtlety.

Additionally, the complete lack of self-awareness of ALL of the writers, combined with the complete obliviousness of each of the characters was infuriating and not particularly believable.  Perhaps a character or two in a situation would have that complete lack of self-awareness or awareness of others... but every single character? Oh, of course with the exception of the all-wise grandmother/mother or the good-for-nuthin' brother, who play disappointingly minor roles.

What I disliked the most, however, is something that probably won't bother as many people as it did me.  [SPOILER (highlight)] The infidelity with no apologies, excusing the behavior with self-righteous, childish "I want it" mentality.  It felt like the author was living out an internal fantasy.  [END SPOILER]

All in all... it was disappointing, but it had a bit of intrigue.  As I said, there were aspects of the book that I cared about; it was a quick read; there were minor portions of the familial relationships that were interesting; and it was not a flop.

So, THREE of five stars.  Recommended for people who particularly enjoy long-distance romances and historical romances.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Divergent by Veronica Roth?

I have been staying a bit away from books that are alleged to be the "NEXT_______!!!!!" (fill in with Harry Potter, Hunger Games, etc.)

But I just read a little blurb on a BuzzFeed Article that made me raise my eyebrows:  "This will be the next Hunger Games, mark my words. A dystopian society with five factions and a courageous teen ready to change the future. Tris is the kind of protagonist you really want to root for, and there are no love triangles! You will not be able to put this trilogy down."


no love triangle?

Sign me up!

Just added to my library hold list :)