Monday, March 12, 2018

Ready Player One

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline

In the year 2045, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he's jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade's devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world's digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator's obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade's going to survive, he'll have to win—and confront the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.

My Reaction:
(This was a shared read with Donald.  We also listened to the 372 Pages We'll Never Get Back "podcast book club" from Rifftrax's Michael J. Nelson and Conor Lastowka.)

Let me preface this by saying that I was a child in the 80s (and a teen in the 90s)-- and what's more, I get the appeal of nostalgia.  (And yes, I am convinced that in the 80s-- and honestly, many other decades-- music was better, on average, than what I hear on the radio now.)

I'm also an unashamed consumer of many "nerdy" franchises.  (Not that anyone is ashamed of being a nerd/geek in the modern world.  At least some version of so-called "nerdiness" has been cool for quite some time, now.  It's all pretty mainstream...)

However, even with my nerdy 80's-kid cred, I felt no warm fuzzies while reading this book, and I'm amazed that it's so beloved.  (After Fifty Shades of Grey, I should've known better...)

Admittedly, I've never been much of a gamer, but I don't think it would've made much of a difference if I had been.  The problem is, pop culture references can only take you so far.  There needs to be something of substance to make a novel good, and this one is lacking.

The concept of the OASIS is interesting (though not exactly groundbreaking), but the characters were not as likeable as they're clearly supposed to be, the writing was rife with "telling, not showing", the numerous gods were falling over themselves to leap from their varied machines... Do I really need to go on?  It's all been detailed in other reviews.

Essentially, a glut of references to the nerd culture of the 80s (and sometimes 70s, 90s, etc.) is apparently supposed to be enough to sustain an entire novel.  Well, it's not.  It's not enough to make me love or even like the characters.  It's not enough to add drama or a sense of purpose.  It's not enough to make sense of this dystopian future where the world is a steaming pile of crap just a few years from GAME OVER-- which doesn't seem to stop people from living almost their entire lives hooked into some glittering digital utopia.  (Where is the food coming from?  The OASIS seems to run pretty smoothly, considering the energy crisis... Who's making all these "rigs" that everyone has?)

Ugh.  I just don't get this book's popularity, at all.  (And that's before I factor in the author's pompous atheist screed, creepy masturbation manifesto, and the unnecessary inclusion of "UberBetty".  Dude. Some stuff you really ought to just keep to yourself.)

It's just not good!

(Also, how does one categorize this?  Apart from some adult themes, it has a YA vibe, and the main characters are young adults, but most of the references-- the only possible reason to read this thing-- are clearly aimed at an older audience who would have been young adults/children/conscious in the 1980s.)

That said, I suspect that the movie-making professionals will manage to make the movie better than the book.  For one thing, it would be difficult not to improve upon the source material... For another, it seems likely that the story (such as it is) will work better on screen than in writing.  It should be much easier to stack up the layers of visual and audio references.  I'll probably see it, at some point, just out of curiosity.  Er, well, unless the reviews are awful...

Reading about someone playing "classic" video games and reciting movie dialogue line by tedious line was not enjoyable; let's see if Spielberg and co. can make watching it any more palatable.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hot Water

by P.G. Wodehouse

At French seaside Château Blissac, J. Wellington Gedge from California wants to go home. His larger richer wife wants him to be a Paris Ambassador, blackmails Senator Opal, publicly dry, with a letter to his bootlegger in her safe. Jewels attract criminals tough 'Soup' Slattery and 'Oily' Carlisle, who mourn female partners here unknown.

Amid confusion of assumed identities and one real undercover detective, 'Packy' Patrick Franklyn, rich ex-Yale footballer, wants Jane Opal to be happy. Jane's fiancé poor writer 'Egg' Blair Eggleston is touted by Packy's fiancée culture-lofty Lady Beatrice Bracken. Rakish 'Veek' Vicomte de Blissac returns for holiday festival where men drink, fight, and find love-- or at least reward from safe.

My Reaction:
First, this was a shared read with Donald.  Any time I read Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett, or Donald Westlake, it's almost certainly going to have been a "shared reading".  Some books are just much better when read aloud!

If you generally like Wodehouse, you'll like this book, too.  I wouldn't say it was one of my personal favorites (maybe a bit repetitive at times, too many American characters, lacking the typical English country house setting and the cozily familiar recurring characters), but it was still very good.

Hot Water is light and funny, with all the twisty plotting, witty humor, and charm you'd expect from the author.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Lord Peter

Lord Peter
by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is a collection of all the short stories concerning the cases of eccentric amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey.  

My Reaction:
(This was a shared read-aloud with Donald.  We skipped the essay and parody at the end.  Maybe some other time...)

On the whole, this collection of short-story mysteries was quite enjoyable!  As always, some of the short stories are better than others, but I don't think there were any without any redeemable qualities. I appreciate the old-fashioned charm of the setting (Britain between the wars), the quirkiness of the star detective, the cleverness in general, and the author's obvious respect for the intelligence of her reader.

Of the novels, we've only read Whose Body? so far, and I hesitate to admit that it didn't make as positive of an impression as these short stories did.  (Maybe it was bad timing and deserves a re-read...)  However, I'm optimistic about the rest of the series and certainly look forward to reading more about Peter Wimsey in years to come.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Inimitable Jeeves

The Inimitable Jeeves
by P.G. Wodehouse

Bertie and Jeeves do their best to help, and occasionally hinder, love-struck Bingo Little as he falls head over heels and back again. Honoria Glossop, Mabel the waitress, and gold-toothed revolutionary Charlotte Corday Rowbotham are just a few of the women to cast their spells over Bingo. Meanwhile Bertie must keep the quick-tempered, aspiring actor Bassington-Bassington from the stage at Aunt Agatha's fiery behest, deal with the energetic Claude and Eustace, and win on the girls' Egg and Spoon Race and money lost to the Great Sermon Handicap! Luckily, of course, there is Jeeves: intelligent, loyal, and capable of extricating Bertie from the tightest of tight spots.

My Reaction:
This is a shared read and a re-read. Donald and I have read this together once before-- though to be honest, most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories blur together in my memory, and I have trouble telling one from another. Fortunately, that doesn't matter. Neither repetitive plots and "motifs" nor re-readings can dull the luster of Wodehousian wit.

Rather than a true novel, this is a set of short stories; there's no long-arc plot to speak of, but each "episode" is enjoyable and cozily, comfortably easy to get into. There are even recurring characters (beyond Jeeves and Wooster themselves, who are of course in every story), which helps it feel like an almost-novel.

While this is probably not the very best Jeeves book (or the best introduction to the series of novels and short stories), it's undeniably a fun, happy read.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Potted and Pruned

Potted and Pruned: Living a Gardening Life
by Carol Michel

Carol Michel, author of the award-winning blog May Dreams Gardens, has penned a delightful book of gardening stories recounting her years speed weeding, scolding plants for their poor manners, experiencing the magic of a clover lawn, searching for elusive "rare in cultivation" plants, narrowly avoiding tussles in the garden center, formally evicting drought from her garden, and offering advice for those new to gardening. 
Is it possible to be utterly charming and wickedly funny at the same time? Yes, and avid gardeners will find themselves nodding along and laughing out loud as they turn the pages, recognizing their own quirks reflected back to them in Michel's words. Whether it's the chapter about the four phases of houseplant care or the gardener's unique interpretations of time, measurements, and quantities, one can't help but point and say, "That's me!" and then read a snippet or paragraph aloud to one's friend or significant other. 
Through 36 light-hearted essays, readers are treated to a glimpse behind the gate at May Dreams Gardens and the philosophies and musings of its caretaker. There's take-home wisdom for gardeners new and experienced between the pages.

My Reaction:
This isn't primarily a book of gardening advice and instruction (though there are some useful tips, here and there), but rather a friendly conversation from one gardener to another about the highs and lows of coaxing plants to grow where we want them. Anyone who gardens and spends a fair amount of time thinking, talking, or day-dreaming about gardening will recognize him- or herself in these essays. It's an inside joke. It's vegetable soup for the gardener's soul.

Certain essays appealed to me more than others, of course, and I wish the book had been longer-- but the good news is that if you enjoy these essays, the author has a gardening blog with a whole blog archive to read through.

Random Tidbits:
--"Now the idea of completely getting rid of the ditch lilies in my garden, as much of a nuisance as they are, seems to me like getting rid of a cherished family memory. So I keep them and contain them as best I can."

I think most of us who grow orange daylilies feel pretty much like that about them... They're more family mementos than plants!

--"The vegetable garden also tells stories of family gatherings where okra and eggplant picked that same day were then battered and fried and served at suppertime. When I'm out in my vegetable garden, I still hear the congenial arguments among my uncles about whether tomatoes should be sugared or salted."

--"I begin flinging mulch from one bed to another and hope by some miracle it will actually cause now full-grown weeds to wither and die while the plants I planted will flourish.  Since this is rarely the case, I drag out a variety of weeding tools and begin the battle."

...That sounds (all too) familiar!

--"However, every gardener knows or soon learns that stolen seeds, cuttings, or even plants will not grow in the thief's garden."

That's funny, because I've heard the exact opposite-- namely, that "stolen" seeds and cuttings grow best. It's probably related to the belief that you shouldn't say "thank you" when someone gives you a plant or a cutting, because if you do, the plant won't grow. That said, I wouldn't dream of stealing plants from a private garden-- or even taking cuttings without permission.  Plants that have clearly been abandoned or thrown away, on the other hand, seem like "fair game" (though of course it depends on the circumstances).

--"Then one day, it happens. Motivation disappears. It's hot. There are mosquitoes. Motivation doesn't like heat and mosquitoes. Motivation gets discouraged, too, because not everything turned out as we thought it would. Motivation likes pretty flowers, but runs and hides at the sight of weeds."

--"Every gardener, at some point, should learn when it is appropriate to scream in the garden and when it is better to cuss."

--This book taught me about the Pomodoro Technique (not sure I'll use it, but it's interesting).