Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ready Player One, Best Book of 2011?

Amazon publishes a list of the best books of the month (and eventually compiles that into a best books of the year list.) I'm pretty sure this is where I first found Ready Player One, which came out last year. I had it on my wish list for a while and eventually found out that the NY Public Library carried the kindle edition. I still didn't act on moving it from my wish list to my request list until my good friend, Eric, raved about it on facebook.

I loved this book.

Seriously, loved, loved, loved it. I loved it so much that I started writing this before I even finished the book... I was about 25% in when I started reviewing it. Now that I'm done, I have lots to say about it.

Ready Player One starts out with the protagonist, Wade, telling the readers about his world. It's the 2040s and the world has fallen apart. Cities are over-crowded, many destroyed by nuclear bombs. The environment has gone to hell so the weather patterns are crazy. People are poor and hungry and living in squalor. The one place everyone turns to for comfort is OASIS, an online universe where people can log on and forget about the real world. OASIS was invented by James Halliday, who was basically the Steve Jobs of his generation. A computer savant, Halliday started as an inventor of video games before creating OASIS, the massive multiplayer simulation game. When the book starts off, Halliday has just died and his will is revealed in a video. Hidden in OASIS are three keys (one copper, one jade and one crystal), which unlock three gates. Whoever finds all three keys and gates will inherit Halliday's massive fortune.

This sets the whole world into a fervor to find the treasure, called Halliday's Egg, a reference to "Easter Eggs" or hidden elements in video games or tv shows. People searching for the keys are called "Egg Hunters", which quickly evolves into "gunters". In the first chapter (or maybe it's the prologue), Wade sets all of this up and then says that it takes five years before a 17 year old finds the first key, which is, of course, him. Wade lives in Oklahoma City in the stacks, a trailer park created from stacks of RVs piled on top of one another. Both of his parents are dead so he lives with his aunt who he does not like. Because he has no money, he is stuck living in the stacks, but also he is unable to move his online avatar, Parzival (an alternative spelling to Percival, the knight who found the Holy Grail) beyond the public school "planet" in OASIS that he attends. He spends much of his time in an old van, hidden from the world, in OASIS. His only friend is another avatar named Aech (pronounced like the letter "H"). The two of them are obsessed with 1980s pop culture (video games, music, movies, TV shows), because Halliday also was. In his will, Halliday made public a book called Anorak's Almanac (Anorak was the name of Halliday's avatar), which contains Halliday's essays and rambling thoughts on all of his favorite things, namely 1980s pop culture.

Five years into the hunt, Wade stumbles onto the first key (like I said earlier, this isn't a spoiler since it's in the very first chapter). Suddenly a scoreboard appeared on Halliday's website with Wade's name at the top. Actually, the scoreboard was there before but the top ten spots all had Halliday's initials next to them. This propels Wade's avatar into the limelight. He meets a famous female blogger named Art3mis, who later appears on the scoreboard, as do two other gunters, Daito and Shoto.

Through his avatar, Wade is offered a bunch of sponsorships, which he takes, allowing him to make money in real life and move away from the stacks, and therefore focus entirely on the hunt. However, another group is also on the hunt. The IOI (Innovative Online Industries), led by Nolon Sorrento, also wants a piece of the action, because not only does the winner get Halliday's fortune, they also get control of OASIS. The IOI and their gunters (the Sixers, because all of their employee IDs begin with the number six) have tons of resources and are desperate for control of OASIS since they want to start charging a fee to use it. Most gunters despise the IOI and the Sixers, but they could win because of all the help they are able to hire to solve the game.

And that's all I'm saying about the plot. Suffice it to say, the hunt heats up quickly, as does Wade's online relationship with Art3mis. The story is fast paced and fun. I'm not someone who spends tons of time on the computer, but imagine being able to visit a planet online that is based on Lord of the Rings or to go to the Star Wars or Star Trek universes or be in an 80s movie like Back to the Future. It's every geek's dream. At one point, once Wade has money, he [or rather Cline, the author] spends way too much time describing his new, state of the art, tech. I skimmed most of that but overall the characters were likable, the stakes were intense and the pop culture references made me laugh.

If you're into 80s pop culture or nerdy things like video games, sci fi movies and Monty Python, you will get a kick out of this book. Harry Knowles from Ain't It Cool even called it "the most awesome 80's geek novel ever written," even if it does take place in the future. When writing this I actually learned that Ernest Cline did the screenplay for Fanboys, a movie that I enjoyed. And apparently Ready Player One got picked up as a movie and Cline is going to write the screen play. I can't wait!

Buy it at amazon and bn.com.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art

  I've read most of Christopher Moore's books, starting around 2007 when my husband lent me Lamb, a fictionalized version of Jesus' "missing years" (he is mentioned in the Bible as a 12 year old and then as a 30 year old and there are no records of what happened in between). I loves Moore's zany brand of humor and silliness. Some of his books stand alone, while others feature the same characters, often in a small town called Pine Cove, which I think is in California.
His last couple books have been a bit different. Fool was about King Lear's jester, and his adventures through Shakespeare's book. Sacre Bleu was also very different. Like Lamb, it can be considered historical fiction. Although Moore takes a lot of liberty with history, I was really surprised by the amount of research that went into this book. He posted chapter guides through facebook and wrote a lengthy note at the end of the book about what was true from his novel.
Initially, I couldn't quite figure out what direction the book was going in, but eventually everything fell into place. The plot follows a baker/inspiring painter named Lucien who lives in the Montmartre section of Paris during the late 1800s. He is friends with several famous painters from Renoir to Toulouse-Lautrec, who is one of the main characters of the story. The book moves back and forth in time between several painters and their interactions with a mysterious Colorman, who sells paints, especially the famous Sacre Bleu, or sacred blue. The book opens with Van Gogh's death, setting the scene for a possible mystery, rather than the suicide that is traditionally associated with Van Gogh. 

Scattered throughout the book are paintings by these famous artists. I recognized many of the works, even though I know very little about art. Most of the artists who make appearances were also familiar, although again, I knew their names more than anything they actually did. Because art isn't really my thing, I didn't think I would enjoy this book, but I was pleasantly surprised. Moore's trademark humor was present on every page and the story itself was a very engaging look at color, art and muses. 

I don't want to give away any more, but suffice it to say, I loved this, and I definitely recommend it, whether or not you've experienced a Christopher Moore book before this. If you read Sacre Bleu and like it, check out his other novels. I promise they are all funny and even when the premise seems utterly ridiculous, you can always take something worthwhile from reading them! 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Winter Sea


The Winter Sea was one of my library books. It took me a little bit to get into as the characters were not initially compelling and it's on the longer side. The book follows Carrie McClelland, a historical fiction writer, who is writing a book about a failed Jacobite invasion of Scotland in 1708. I don't know much about the Jacobites (who wanted to put King James Stewart on the throne of England over William and Mary and later Mary's sister, Anne; essentially people opposed the Hanover family) or about Scottish history in general, but the books explains enough that I didn't feel lost.

So Carrie goes to Scotland to see her publisher and on the way, spots a castle by the sea. She is drawn to it and rather than returning to France where she had been writing the book, she takes a cottage in this small town by the sea where she feels inspired. She decides to write her book from the perspective of a fictional woman named Sophie, inspired by one of her own ancestors, rather than from the perspective of Nathaniel Hooke, an Irish man who was heavily involved in plotting to return the Stewarts to the throne of England.

In Scotland, Carrie meets Jimmy Keith (who has a very Scottish accent) and his two sons, Graham (a historian) and Stuart (a ladies man who does some kind of tech work). A romantic triangle develops as Carrie works. At the same time, she is increasingly lost in her writing and comes to discover that elements of her story seem to be true to history. She develops something that the book refers to as "genetic memory", meaning that she has inherited the memory of her real ancestor, Sophia, which is literally becoming the foundation of her novel.

The novel switches back and forth between Carrie's story and Sophia's. At first Sophia's is a little boring but since Carrie doesn't do a whole lot beyond write and have instant love connections with one of the guys, Sophia's story becomes much more interesting. She also develops a love story with a man who is quite a bit like Carrie's love interest.

The biggest problem with the story is that neither Carrie nor Sophia are particularly interesting. More happens to Sophie, so her plot is more compelling, but it's not really clear why men are so drawn to the two of them. Carrie is just a little too boring. You have the feeling that she writes cheesy, girlie historical fiction... you know, like The Winter Sea. It doesn't seem like she'd write a story with a male protagonist.

Besides that, the premise is a little ridiculous with the whole "genetic memory" thing. It sounds like a cool idea but again, I felt like the novel itself just wasn't that great. Also there's a twist at the end for other stories. Sophia's was really obvious and I guessed it pretty quickly. Carrie's was a bit incestuous. You'll see if you read it.

I did get a bit sucked into Sophia's story but overall I felt sort of blah about this book. I don't think I'd seek out Kearsley's other novels, but if you like historical fiction you might be into this. I'd recommend the Philippa Gregory books over these because the characters seem so much more interesting.

Buy The Winter Sea at amazon and barnes and noble.

City of Thieves

Over spring break, I read more graphic novels than books, but I did finish City of Thieves, by David Benioff. My co-worker Luke recommended it. Apparently he loved it so much that for one Christmas, he gave it to a bunch of friends and family members. Turned out I had it on my kindle anyway after borrowing it from a friend.

David Benioff, it turns out, is married to the actress Amanda Peet and more importantly, he is the show runner of HBO's Game of Thrones. So clearly I was hooked from the beginning.

City of Thieves starts with a fictional author, David Benioff, interviewing his grandfather about his experiences during World War II in Russia. At the end of the conversation the author tries to ask some follow up questions, but his grandfather simply says, "you're a writer, make it up." So it's unclear how much of the book is actually true.

The main character is Lev Beniov, who is seventeen years old during the German attempt to invade Russia. It's 1942, in Leningrad, during the winter. Lev's father is dead and his mother fled the city before the German siege with his sister, so essentially he's alone, with a couple friends, in the apartment building where he grew up. One night, they spot a parachuting German soldier landing on the street. Turns out the man is dead, but Lev is caught looting the man's body and is brought to a prison, where he meets Kolya, an apparent deserter from the Russian army.

The two men are brought before a Russian military leader who promises to let them go free (with ration cards) if they simply find him a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. What follows is a thrilling, heartbreaking and funny story. Lev and Kolya trek outside the city and come across a variety of different adventures, mostly tragic, and people, from cannibals to courtesans in their search for the eggs. Lev is shy, while Kolya is brash - a confident ladies' man. They form a tight bond over the course of the novel as they try desperately to win their freedom.

The story has a sad ending initially but then a lovely postscript. It's a great book - "funny, sad and thrilling", as the article below puts it. I highly recommend it!

Entertainment Weekly did a great article when the book first came out in 2008. 

Buy City of Thieves at amazon.com and bn.com.

Falling Behind

Hi everyone!

Clearly I am super far behind on posting book reviews. I blame it on spring break. The internet service at my parents' house is pretty bad so I never got to log on and catch up. I've read a few books and almost all of The Walking Dead comics since then and I promise I will post reviews really soon!