Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I know I'm late to the game with this one, even though it's a book right up my alley, but I made it eventually and the trip was worth it.

Ready Player One was exactly what I expected it to be - a book for children of the 80's and 90's who really grew up around the digital revolution. I never stopped identifying with the references throughout the book as well as call to game. I'll admit it right now, I played World of Warcraft for a time and while I wouldn't call myself a serious gamer, I used to get excited when I'd be left alone in my apartment so I could settle in and game with no distractions. So, I get it and reconnecting with that side of myself through the adventures in this book was, "most excellent."

But this book is more than just an homage to the birth of gaming and the love of its players, it represents a struggle that is very real - the powerful controlling the masses vs the every man rising above the corrupt power. The battle to gain control of the OASIS, which has been left up for grabs by its eccentric, deceased creator, has put individual gamers or Gunters at war against the Sixers, members of a corrupt company that wants to monetize this virtual world where most people truly come alive. The battle is action-packed and dangerous with the highest stakes possible. If the Sixers win, the OASIS will no longer be available to everyone. You cheer for the five gunters who have managed to make progress in the quest to win control of the OASIS. Three keys and three gates are all that stand between them and winning control. You hate the Sixers who are cheating their way through the quest as much as possible, using their own army of avatars to try and win the game. It really does become a battle to the death.

With so much more made possible having this battle take place in the virtual world, the surprises don't stop and a somewhat common plot is taken through new twists and turns for an entertaining ride. I had a lot of fun reading this book and nerding out in my own way. A great read for lovers of 80's pop culture and all things video game.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Moveable Feast: Life Changing Food Encounters Around the World by Don George, Lonely Planet

I needed something I could read in small, digestible bites (pun intended) and what better than a collection of essays focusing on food and travel? Of course, most of the life-changing experiences in food written about here will never be something my picky palette will encounter, but each story was emotional and to-the-point, and compact. It felt like I was reading a full story each night with no obligation to recall any previous details. My brain needed that. It has been overloaded lately.

The most touching and consistent aspect of these stories was the idea of food as a symbol of hospitality. The willingness of people to offer up their best food, in some of the poorest parts of the world, to complete strangers and foreigners speaks to the kind heart of humanity (which is sometimes hard to see these days.) Being able to feed guests and make them feel special through food is a rite some cultures will not be denied and that very idea brought me into these crazy stories of eating the strangest food (strange being defined here by someone raised on pizza and grilled chicken.)

Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern make appearances in this collection as well as other illustrious food and travel writers, but their celebrity only serves to grant them access to their experiences or at least motivate them to travel off the beaten path. You don't feel like you're reading something from an "expert" but rather it's just a story of an experience from an Average Joe who happens to have an adventurous spirit.

This was a nice break from novels and made-up worlds, and alternate realities. Compilations area always great when you need a break from a story that takes hundreds of pages to complete and I highly recommend finding one that fits into your own interests if you are looking for a little break from best sellers and whatnot too.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

Another trilogy complete. I was very excited to see where this one would end up and am only slightly disappointed with the conclusion. Overall, this book lacked the intensity of the other two, a trait of the books, I'd come to expect.

Looking back, I've been working through this trilogy since 2011 which explains why some details were a little hazy to me this time around. Grossman teases certain facts out enough to jog your memory a bit on any events he references from the previous books, but it might have been beneficial for me to have done some rereading before starting this book just to be current on everything. Regardless, I made it through just fine; only slightly disappointed as I've said.

In this book, the magical world of Fillory, which our hero, Quentin Coldwater, has been kicked out of, is dying. Quentin is back in our world as sort of a wandering soul, grasping at whatever he can to root himself back in magic. He temporarily returns to Brakebills, the college he learned magic from, but when that goes sour, he becomes a magical hand for hire. Unknowingly, his first hired job draws him back into the plight of Fillory.

Everything comes together with the casting of a very powerful spell, an old journal, and the reuniting of friends. You want it to be a complex and intense story, but mostly it falls short. Yes, there is one awesome battle scene, complete with a flying pool table, and one encounter with a supernaturally magical being that gave me the chills, but overall, the plot felt thin. The ending comes on very quickly and without much fanfare with Grossman using a pretty pivotal character, in my opinion, as a means to explain everything at the last minute. A little weak if you ask me. But, overall, I liked this trilogy a lot. It's the darker version of a Narnian world - where magic exists beside the world we know, but here most beings aren't too nice. There's no sense of utopia here, no supreme, infallible being and I really like this take on the environment. I just wish there was some additional, compelling element to this final book, a grand send-off instead of just a quiet departure.

Check out my reviews of the first two books in this trilogy:

Friday, July 17, 2015

Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States by Bill Bryson

There's no point, really, in reviewing this book in a traditional sense. It's only going to appeal to a small group of readers including: Bryson fans, History buffs, and Linguistic lovers, so, if you don't fall into any of these categories, you might want to skip this entry.

The title is a little misleading (and very long) since this is not a dictionary with word origins and histories, but rather it's a selective history of the U.S. focused on significant events and time periods and the words that evolved as a result. You learn how new words came about but also how preexisting words had their meanings changed by circumstance. It's just an awesome book, plain and simple (I fall into the Linguistic Lover category.)

I ended up reading the book in small bursts between mostly fiction and this would be my only suggestion for other readers. It helped me stay very interested in the book as a whole to take a little breaks and not overwhelm myself with the information. Too much of a good thing after all can be overkill.

The way Bryson shares information is as appealing as the information itself. He talks about everything with such a casual tone and never feels compelled to tell you everything. He makes his points, finds what's interesting and leaves the reader more educated than when they started the book on whatever topic he's covering. And you want to tell other people about what you're learning! Bryson makes me happy because I know I'm going to enjoy reading one of his books before I even crack the cover open. 

Language is an ever-changing entity. New words are constantly worming their way into everyday vernacular, old words are being redefined and reintroduced, and new terms and phrases are constantly emerging. I think about terms like social media or how people can now "tweet" something and it blows my mind that what meant nothing just a few years ago are now terms commonly understood by everyone.

Language is amazing and I loved learning more about its history, especially within the confines of something already familiar - the history of the United States.

Other Bill Bryson books reviewed in this blog:

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

I have stuck with this series for a long time now. I have actually read just about every book Fforde has written, but my gateway book was the first in this series about Thursday Next. The first book, The Eyre Affair, was brilliant and literary and perfect for us lovers of the classics. It was the reality Fforde created for Literary Detective Thursday Next coupled with the literature itself coming alive that got my attention and made this series a favorite.

I still love Thursday. She has been through a lot over the course of this series (and it isn't over yet,) but while this latest book was jam-packed with adventure, the literary side was sadly absent.

No longer a detective, Thursday now heads up the library in Swindon, her home. It's a huge honor and a surprisingly dangerous post. Eventually, she gets sucked into a plot by the evil Goliath Corporation who's beginning to destroy specific pages from old, seemingly unpopular books. There's a bigger twist at work here, but in the midst of figuring it out, Thursday must help prevent her son, Friday, from committing murder and help redirect a smiting from the Global Standard Deity in the center of town.

It's a busy week (yes, this happens in just a single week) full of improbability, mathematics, nonsense, and complicated "what if" scenarios  resulting from the disbanding of the Chronoguard who were able to time travel until it was discovered time travel won't actually be possible. But, with everything going on in the real world, the book world is only an abstract character and nobody from the literary world, no well-known characters from universally loved books, make an appearance at all. If left me a little wanting when I finished the book.

Still very smartly written and vastly entertaining, the book was a good read and the series remains one of my all-time favorites. It was just a bit of a downer as far as my expectations, so be prepared if you've been reading this series from the start.

The complete series of Thursday Next books is, in order:

  • The Eyre Affair
  • Lost in a Good Book
  • The Well of Lost Plots
  • Something Rotten
  • First Among Sequels
  • One of Our Thursdays is Missing (which I've reviewed here)
Fforde also has three other series he works on in different intervals that are all very unique and interesting. 
  • Nursery Crime Series
  • Shades of Grey Series (note there are not 50 shades here)
  • Last Dragonslayer Series

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

It has been a long time since I've read a book that takes place solely in reality. No alternate, distopian futures, no supernatural creatures, no fairy tales come to life - just people doing nothing more than living. This simple act though is complicated enough and Wolitzer easily takes us through the maze of going from adolescent to middle-aged through the lives of a small group of friends who, of course, came together at summer camp. The great equalizer - summer camp - where you're all the same as long as you're there. And, if the bonds are strong enough, what makes you different once you're back on the outside isn't enough to break the friendship apart. I'm a camp girl myself and just have to note it's an amazingly strong bond - camper to camper, camper to staffer - doesn't matter. You are there together so you're connected and it was great to see this as a universal truth through this book.

The lives of a small group of friends, each with their own complicated histories, meet at camp in 1974 as clueless teens who think they have it all figured out. Ash and Goodman are the gorgeous, high-society siblings. Julie or Jules as she becomes by the end of that first summer is essentially an outsider at this creative arts camp, yet finds her way into this tight group of friends. Ethan Figman, whose attraction lies with this talent as an animator and not his physical appearance knows what he wants out of life and is just talented enough to get it. Jonah is the child of a famous folk singer who is holding on to a bitter dose of reality slapped across him early on in life. And finally, Cathy Kiplinger the one member whose body just doesn't align with her dancing talent. They all come together in a tepee at Spirit-in-the-Woods and so begins their stories and the inherent connection they'll all have to each other.

Everyone starts off at the same spot - optimistic for the future - yet everyone's life turns out a little bit differently than the rest. Subsequent events test loyalties and try to dive wedges between friends that never succeed in making a clean break. A few characters grow up and stick with their passion for the arts while other face the harsh reality that you need talent to succeed so go on to less artistic careers. Through all the stuff that makes up growing up, love, heartbreak, marriage, kids, trauma, betrayal, death, success, and failure our characters connect to lean on each other constantly showing what it means to be a friend for life.

The Interestings is simply a wonderful story. Time passes fluidly as Wolitzer moves around between characters' stories. Telling it in the third person keeps the tone even as the action shifts and really lets you connect on some level with everyone. Whether you like them or not (and you won't like everyone) nobody's life is stale nor does anything that happen feel improbable. It's not easy to get a good dose of reality in fiction, but here it is between the pages of this colorful cover.

I loved this book. It's a great summer read - it's a great anytime read, but people just seem to have more time to read in the summer and you're not going to want to put this book down. I finished it feeling like I was given a complete story to experience and I closed the book at the end satisfied.

Friday, June 5, 2015

There is No Age Gap Where Reading is Concerned

The most amazing thing has happened. My 15-month-old son has discovered books. It's not just the passing notice where he picks one up, messes with it for a second, then puts it down (which is how he treats almost all other toys,) but rather a genuine interest. He already has favorites. He will pick out books to read before naps and bedtime. It's as if the love of reading that's so prominent in my family has trickled down to him intrinsically. He's a reader before he can actually read.

There's nothing better than reading a book with your kids. It doesn't matter what you read, I get as much joy reading Otis to my son and The Book with No Pictures to my daughter (she's five) as I do curling up before bed and reading a book of my own. That's the great thing about connecting with someone through reading - the book isn't what matters, it's the act of reading that has the impact.

Passing on not only the love of reading but the books that made an impact on me as a child has been a wonderful experience thus far and it's only going to get better. My daughter has my own copies of some of my childhood favorites, The Aristocats and The Rescuers and brand new copies of titles that made me smile each time I pick them up like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Stone Soup. My son will inherit these books eventually, but in the meantime, his board book copy of The Napping House is especially fun to read to him when he lets me.

I'm so proud to say we're a reading family and that the written word, whether it's a book, magazine, eBook, or comic holds great value with each of us. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby

Yes, it's very strange to write a book review on a book that's full of book reviews, but Nick does so much more than just review books here. I should take a note from his style. More than just a review, he talks about where he is when he's reading, how he relates to the subject matter, what he thinks of the people who will read his reviews. It's stylistically, a fun read. I was hoping it would inspire me to add more titles to my "to read" list, but most of the books in this collection of reviews are non-fiction and I'm trying to get back into fiction for a bit what with summer coming up. 

Nick starts each column (this is a collection of columns) with a list of the books he bought that month and what he actually read. It amazes me he has so much time to read! There is just no way I could read four books in one month anymore, if I ever was able. The beautiful 10-15 minutes a night I get to read before bed are usually clouded by my droopy eyes as I fight to stay awake. It's the thing I miss the most right now in the young stages of parenthood. 

For Mother's Day yesterday, my family let me go to the bookstore and buy a book which I'm planning on reading next. I walked through the shelves trying not to look to hard for what to buy. I didn't want to find too many choices and get too excited about books that will just sit around for who knows how long until I have time to get to them. Don't get me wrong, I'm okay with trading in my reading time for the time I spend reading to the kids. Developing their passion for reading right now is more important than indulging in my own, and buying new books for them to enjoy is just as satisfying as finding something for myself. So, I ended up leaving the bookstore with one book for me, The Interestings, and two book for Olivia - the sequel to Cat in the Hat and a book about a young, female, engineer. 

Going back to More Baths though. It was an okay read overall. It's one of a series of collected columns from Hornby so I might have enjoyed a different book more, but this is the first one I came upon. I like him though as a writer so it was interesting to get inside his head through the books he's reading. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

An exciting, mythical book, mixing together magical creatures and New York city as it grew and developed into the city it is today, The Golem and the Jinni combines characters from both Jewish and Arabic tales and places them in an environment anyone can relate to, takes mythical creatures and levels the playing field by making them immigrants just like so many others. 

The biggest surprise comes toward the end of the story (which I won’t spoil) as we learn how these two creatures are connected and begin to see them as surprisingly human despite their challenges to fit into the world around them. We also see the power the everyday man and woman can have in believe the mystical, in protecting the mystical, even to their detriment.

Two things about this book piqued my interest and made the read very exciting and interesting. Firstly, it was seeing how the author had these characters live. Chava, the Golem, loses her master on the passage to America and is left to assimilate into bustling city of New York only a few days old, missing an essential part of her being. She luckily befriends a Rabbi who helps her along and finds her place despite the challenge of keeping her emotions in check. Ahmad, the Jinni, emerges from 1,000 years imprisoned with no memory of how he got there. His talents working with metals gets him a job and secures him a place, but he’s restless and struggles with accepting the people around him and his equals rather than inferior beings.

Then, the two creatures meet and realize they aren’t alone in the world as being “special.” It changes everything and a relationship forms, binding them together because they are the only ones who understand the other, truly. When the villain arises to challenge their ways of life and their feelings for each other, they must react against the natures imposed on them, battling between who they’ve become in this new world and what they were created for/turned into. It’s an exciting battle between self and others that ends in an optimistic and satisfying way. You know that Chava and Ahmad have more than one lifetime to get it right anf figure out how to find happiness, and you’re rooting for them.

The second aspect of this book that was so exciting was the mysticism. It’s what drew me to the book before I even started reading it. How could a Jinni and a Golem actually live, undetected, in a bustling city like New York? There are eyes everywhere, people watching from all corners, noticing what’s usual and different and drawing it out. The very idea was so unique and unusual. Beyond that, how would the author bring together a desert-­dwelling genie and a mud-­made protector? Of course, they’d come together as any human couple, to talk and get to know each other. To share their own feelings, fears, and hopes for their lives. To find a soul mate to be brutally honest with. It’s the ideal of a relationship and proof that two like-­minded beings can find solace in each other if they’re willing to build a real friendship. I love the way the author brings together her two characters and keeps them fighting for each other throughout the whole story. I love the way the people they befriend throughout the story stay connected to them. These are two powerful creatures, scary to most who hear the tales of others like them, yet genuine enough to be trusted and cared for by the people who meet them. The dynamic is so powerful.

Books that combine the mythic with the real can struggle at times to keep things in perspective. Getting caught up in the magic can make the real backdrop it all takes place in feel artificial, but not here. You finish the book feeling like you could run into these characters, now, after all this time, living their lives in New York, simply blending in. And you feel hope, which is a wonderful way to wrap up a great read.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan

It has been a 10-book journey with Percy Jackson, the demigods of modern time, and the gods of Olympus. I've been with them the whole way, first as they saved the world from Kronos and then as they defeated Gaea. It has been a long ride, but so much fun. The good thing about it being a 10-book experience is that I feel satiated with the series ending. I don't need another book to add any more to the shape of the characters. This ending feels right and I can let everyone go on to live the rest of their (fictional) lives without intruding further. 

The final book in Riordan's second series involving mythological Greek goods puts Roman and Greek demigods on the brink of civil war as Gaea rises to destroy everything. The gods aren't any help as each wars within themselves between their Greek persona and their Roman. As long as the demigods are against each other, Gaea will rise unopposed and win. It's up to two groups of demigods who were able to look past their heritage to come together - to become a family. One team sails to Athens to try and stop Gaea from rising even though it has been prophesied that their blood will aid in her ascension. The other rushes to the front lines of battle at Camp Half Blood, a gigantic statue of Athena in tow, the only thing that can stop war from breaking out. It takes the skills and talents of both Greeks and Romans working together to win the day.

As big as the story is on one level - the world ending, large groups of people going to war, traveling around the world, etc. You're only following a few main characters so you really feel like you're a part of the action. And although I sometimes had trouble remembering who was who as far as back-story went, Riordan does a great job of jogging the reader's memory as he goes along with the story. There wasn't anyone I didn't like as far as the good guys go and they were all very different in personality. I hated the bad guys, cheered for the good, and was properly annoyed by the gods' inability to get themselves together. The action-packed final chapter definitely delivered, and after such a long investment, it was a refreshing change to not be disappointed at the end (see Hunger Games.)

Action-packed as all these books are, there's never really a dull moment in the story. Even when a character is taking a minute to reflect or process some new knowledge, there is so much coming on the horizon, you, the reader, don't really get to take a breath. I like that in a book. I appreciate how hard it really is to come up with so much and not make it feel forced. It doesn't feel forced in this book. Things have to happen fast, time is running out.

This is the longest I've stayed with one character in a series that I can recall. I more often go for the trilogy - keeping it short and sweet, but this has been worth the investment. I know these are YA novels and I know the movies of the first two Percy Jackson books may leave something to be desired, but the books are just great reads overall. They're fun and powerful at the same time, focusing on bigger issues of friendship, finding your place in the world, figuring out who you are as a person and being okay with that person, accepting differences in others, and finding strength when life throws you those crazy curve balls. I would definitely recommend these books to the YA reader's out there, regardless of your actual age. It may take some time to get through them all, but it's worth it.