Book Review: Ready Player One

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Wade Watts is a gunter.  That’s short for “Easter egg hunter,” which has nothing to do with the holiday.  Born into grinding poverty as the child of refugees in the energy-starved dystopian future, Wade was orphaned at an early age and put into the hands of a neglectful aunt living in a skyscraper trailer park/junk heap.  Gifted at repairing discarded and broken hardware, Wade’s one chance at getting out of this hardscrabble life is winning a contest.

Ready Player One

It seems that the billionaire creator of OASIS, the virtual reality that nearly everyone in the world uses for games, business and school, set up a game before his death.  James Donovan Halliday (Anorak on the internet) had a massive obsession with the pop culture of the 1980s, the decade he’d been a teen in.  The first person to solve a series of puzzles and complete tasks based on Eighties trivia, movies, games and music will inherit Halliday’s company and all its wealth.

Thus it is that Wade and his fellow gunters have also developed an obsession with the Eighties, as they scramble to be the first to find the Easter egg that will make its owner incredibly rich.  However, in five years no one has managed to pass the first gate.  Until, of course,  Wade stumbles across an obvious in retrospect clue.

In a bit of a surprise twist, he’s not the first to do so, but manages to be the first to accomplish the associated challenge.  The game shifts into overdrive as Wade (or rather his OASIS codename Parzival) becomes an overnight celebrity and target.  To win the contest he’s going to need more than a command of Monty Python jokes!  He may even need to go…outside.

This book reads like a young adult cyberpunk novel…written for geeky forty-somethings.  I’m a bit older than that, but still managed to get most of the references due to having been very geeky during the 1980s.  One of the notes that makes it obvious this is a book for grownups is that our protagonist gets a day job to pay his bills so he can devote time to being a gunter.

The main villains of the story are the IOI corporation and its Oology Division.  IOI wants the cash cow that is OASIS, and to make it “pay to play”, shutting out poor people like Wade and the others who live in the Stacks.  (They’ve already managed to get laws passed to legalize indentured servitude.)  IOI is fully willing to use its monetary and manpower resources to gain unfair advantage over ordinary gunters, and Wade soon discovers just how far the corporation will go to have its way.

Wade starts the story already gifted in the skills and knowledge he’ll need to accomplish his goal…except interpersonal relationship skills.  His background has made Parzival a paranoid solo operator, and over the course of the novel he must learn to build bonds of friendship with the other elite gunters he meets.  A common theme is that all of these people only know each other from virtual reality, and their avatars conceal (or reveal) important information about their true selves.

Though we wouldn’t have a story without it, I can’t help feeling that if Mr. Halliday had found some way of getting people to work on solving the “real world” problems of the dystopian future as hard as they were trying to perfectly recreate the 1980s in cyberspace, things wouldn’t be nearly as bad for Wade and others.  At least one of the gunters, Art3mis, does intend to use the money to try to fix things.

Apparently future society has stagnated or regressed on certain civil issues, back to the Nineties or so.  There’s also references to offpage sex.  It should be okay for junior high readers on up, but the heavy emphasis on things that were cool back in their parents’ time might be off-putting.

Recommended primarily to geeky forty-somethings, with some overlap for geeks on either side of “80s kids”.

Book Review: Minnesota Vice

Book Review: Minnesota Vice by Ellen & Mary Kuhfeld

As I have mentioned before, Minnesota has many fine mystery and crime writers.  Mary Kuhfeld is probably best known under the pen name Monica Ferris, under which she has written nineteen Betsy Devonshire Needlework Mysteries.  (Thus the subtitle “Monica Ferris Presents” for these self-published books.)  Ellen Kuhfeld is also an experienced mystery writer, and they collaborated on several stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the 1980s.

Minnesota Vice

Of the ten stories in this collection, the first six are collaborations, and the first four are set in Hedeby, Minnesota, a largish town in the fictitious Hedeby County.  The police detective team of Jack Hafner and Thor Nygaard is introduced in “An Ill Wind.”  A sudden blizzard snows in the town, making Hafner and Nygaard the only officers able to respond to a report of murder.  With all the outdoor clues buried under new-fallen snow, how will the detectives figure out which of the obvious suspects is guilty?

“Allergic to Death” takes place in a warmer season, as a man with lethal allergies apparently decides to take a walk in a pollen-laden garden.  Simple enough, but one of the relatives insists on a cremation before an autopsy can be ordered.  Honoring the wishes of the deceased, or covering up something more sinister?

“The Scales of Justice” concerns a traveling salesman who gets caught cheating at poker.  Since the game itself was unlawful, the man can’t be arrested.  Nygaard decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  This story will be funnier if you’re familiar with Norwegian-American customs.

In “Night Light”, there’s a UFO, leading to suspicions that a murder and disappearance may have alien involvement.  This is Hafner and Nygaard’s toughest case yet!

“Timely Psychiatric Intervention” features a government think tank that actually has a counselor handy to head off any of their scientists going mad.  But the nature of McCain’s project may make Dr. Bach’s repeated attempts to help him moot.

In “A Specialist in Dragons”, Baron Halfdan’s daughter has been abducted by a dragon.  He seeks the help of his local wizard, Wulfstan.  Unfortunately, Wulfstan’s not up to the task of tracking a dragon, and a series of increasingly expensive specialists needs to be called in.  Can Halla be rescued before the Baron runs out of gold?

The next four stories are solo efforts by Ellen Kuhfeld.  “The Old Shell Game” concerns a museum curator that notices a valuable fossil has gone missing.  It’s not anywhere on the grounds,  but it’s impossible for this large item to have left the premises without being seen.  How did it vanish?

“Thorolf and the Peacock” stars a Viking merchant (who is also the star of Ellen Kuhfeld’s book, Secret Murder) who is insulted by a flamboyant trader.  Thorolf decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  (In a slightly different manner than in “The Scales of Justice.”)

The next two stories were printed in speculative fiction magazines in the 2000s.  “Dances with Werewolves” has the investigative team of Scott & Scott hired to determine if a man’s new girlfriend is a Were.  This one contains a twist genre-savvy readers will spot quickly.

“Cycles of Violence” is a sequel to that tale, in which Bjorn the bartender must deal with a Wendigo invasion.  It’s easier to do that when you’re a werebear!

The bane of self-published works, there are a few typos, including an error in the table of contents.

As a hodgepodge of previously un-reprinted stories, this volume may not satisfy mystery purists (even though most of them were printed in a mystery genre magazine.)  That said, these are fun stories of which I liked “Allergic to Death” best.  I felt “Dances with Werewolves” was the weakest, probably because I spotted the twist far too early.

Recommended to Minnesotans (especially mystery fans) and fans of the Monica Ferris books.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the authors to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

 

 

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Manga Review: Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 3

Manga Review: Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 3 by Jiro Kuwata

Quick recap:  The 1960s Batman television show was popular in Japan as well, and a tie-in manga was done by 8-Man creator Jiro Kuwata.  It was not based on the show as such, but on the Batman comic books of the time, so had a slightly more serious tone.  This is the final volume of the translated collection.

Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 3

We open with Batman and Robin battling the Planet King, a character who uses superscience gadgets based on properties of the planets of our solar system.  The Mercury suit projects heat, the Jupiter suit can make objects giant-sized and so forth.  There’s a double fake-out as to the identity of the Planet King, and a motive for his rampage that seems better suited to a Superman comic.

Then there’s a story about three escaped criminals using remote-controlled robots to commit robberies.  This one has a “electricity does not work that way” moment that took me out of the story.

This is followed by a Clayface story that chronologically happens before the story in the second volume, which may have confused some readers at the time.

The next story is about a series of robberies committed by criminals in cosplay outfits as part of a contest.  Some highlights include Batman disguised as a criminal disguised as Batman, a functionally illiterate crook faced with writing a name, and one contestant’s attempt to rig the contest being foiled by criminals’ congenital inability to follow the rules.  In many ways the best story in this volume.

After that, we have a story of Catman, whose cloak supposedly gives him nine lives.  (No mention of Catwoman, alas.)  His Japanese costume is much cooler looking than the American version.

Then a somewhat longer story about a “ghost” who initially looks like Robin, then Batman, and finally gives up the disguise to be his own character.  The main difficulty the Dynamic Duo faces here is that the Phantom Batman can hit them, but not vice-versa.

The final story has our heroes being captured by an alien dictator and forced into gladiatorial combat with representatives of three other planets for the Emperor’s amusement.  Naturally, Batman restores good government.  “Peace is the best option for everyone.”

There’s a short article about Mr. Kuwata’s adaptation process, and a list of which American issues he adapted.

This is very much an adaptation for elementary school boys, with little in the way of subtlety, and female characters kept to a minimum.  The art is often stiff and old-fashioned, and minor character faces are reused quite a bit.  Still, it’s fun adventure, and Kuwata often put an interesting spin on the original material.  Recommended for the intersection of Batman fans and manga fans.

Comic Book Review: Poseurs

Comic Book Review: Poseurs written by Deborah Vankin, art by Rick Mays

Jenna Berry is a Jewish-Cherokee teen living in a downmarket part of Los Angeles.  Her mother is a hard-drinking legal secretary who has been dating a string of pretty boys, and they’re always on the verge of poverty.  When Mom’s shoplifting costs Jenna her part-time job, Jenna needs a new way to make money so she can pursue her avocation of photography.

Poseurs

As it happens, Jenna’s got a look that makes her a good fit for a job as a party guest for rent, making Los Angeles events appear even more prestigious than they already are.  Jenna hasn’t quite mastered socialization, but she does make two new friends.  Pouri is a “parachute kid” from Taiwan who was sent to the United States for an education, but her guardian has bailed, and she prefers partying to studying.  Mac is a whitebread kid from suburbia with a habit of trying to create new slang; he’s a busboy, so works the same parties Jenna does, but at a lower payrate.

Parties are fun, but Pouri’s made some poor life choices, and now she’s getting threatening texts.  Also, it’s crunch time–she needs to pass her SATs or her parents will force her to come home to Taiwan for an arranged marriage.  Pouri comes up with a wacky plan, and then something goes drastically wrong.  Can Jenna save the day?

Deborah Vankin is a Los Angeles Times writer covering the culture beat, so presumably well-versed in the party scene.  This is her first young adult graphic novel (I see that it may also have been published under the title Insta-Life.)  Rick Mays is an experienced comic book artist, working in black and white here.

The theme of the story, as indicated by the title, is that the characters are pretending to be people they’re not, or projecting an image.  Even Mac is trying to seem more cool by spouting nonsensical slang.  Only when the characters start being more honest with themselves and each other does the plot resolve.

If anything, the depiction of the party scene seems a little sanitized.  Pouri drinks, but Jenna doesn’t, and there’s no other drugs, and no sex.  Presumably this is to stay in a “Teen” rating.  Senior high students should be okay, but parents of younger readers may want to talk to their kids about some of the behavior modeled by the protagonists.

This is a good first effort by Ms. Vankin, but the characterization is a bit thin, and there’s a bit too much fourth wall breakage, so future works by her should be better.  The art works very well with the subject matter.

 

Manga Review: Ranma 1/2

Manga Review: Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi

Soun Tendou, a widowed martial arts instructor in the Nerima suburb of Tokyo, has three daughters: gentle Kasumi, cunning Nabiki and fiery Akane.  They are surprised to learn one day that their father made an agreement with his old friend Genma Saotome to marry one of them to Genma’s son Ranma.   Akane is unimpressed with the old-fashioned idea of an arranged marriage, especially as it turns out Mr. Tendou has never actually seen Ranma and knows nothing about him.

Ranma 1/2 1-2

Imagine their surprise when a panda shows up at their door with a young girl in tow, who claims her name is Ranma Saotome!  Akane immediately takes to her fellow martial artist, who is endearingly shy.  However, when Akane walks in on Ranma in the bathtub, it turns out he’s male after all!   Also, the panda is actually Genma Saotome.  A  couple of months ago, the two of them fell into cursed pools in a training exercise gone horribly wrong.  As a result, they change forms when splashed with cold water, returning to normal when exposed to hot water.

Soun decides that the engagement is still on, so Kasumi and Nabiki immediately dump the arrangement on Akane.  Citing Akane’s difficulties with boys, Nabiki points out that Ranma is a girl some of the time.  Akane objects, and Ranma makes a rude remark that gets him hit with a table.

The engagement stands, and the quarrelsome couple must learn to deal with each other while coping with other transformees, wacky martial artists, a love dodecahedron  and the continuing fallout of Genma and Soun’s terrible life choices.

This romantic martial arts comedy manga ran in Shonen Sunday from 1987-1996, and spawned an anime series, several movies and OAVs, and relatively recently a live-action TV film.  It (particularly the anime) was a gateway series for many American fans in the early 1990s.

Much of the comedy in the series comes from the fact that Ranma is a very macho young man, who is exaggeratedly masculine and often trapped in a short, busty girl’s body.   Raised in relative isolation by his none-too-socially-ept father, Ranma has heroic instincts but is rude and uncultured, often setting off Akane with unthinking insults.  Over the course of the series, Ranma learns how to use his female form to his advantage, but never fully reconciles himself to it or the social role it’s supposed to play.

Akane also struggles with social roles.  She’s very attractive (though you will need to take the story’s word for it) which has caused her problems with boys and other perverts, and exacerbated her hair-trigger temper.  She’s amazingly bad at most traditional feminine domestic skills, and her best strong point, her martial arts ability, is routinely overshadowed by Ranma and his opponents.  Since both the main characters are stubborn and cantankerous, even as they slowly fall in love they can’t admit it.

It should be noted here that most of the people in this series are jerks to one degree or another.  Much of the nonsense that drives Ranma and Akane apart even as they draw closer together could have been avoided if someone hadn’t decided to be a jerk at the wrong moment.   Even normally adorable Kasumi has her off moments.

Overall, the series is a lot of fun, with enjoyable art, funny jokes and silly characters.  And once in a while some tense action.  Like many long-runners, it sags some in the middle (the “introduce new wacky character” gimmick only works so many times) and the ending doesn’t really resolve anything.  But hey, it’s a comedy.

Given the premise, there’s quite a lot of nudity in the series; if your child is too young to be shown that girls have nipples, they’re too young to be reading this.  (One of the running jokes is that Ranma has no body modesty.)

More problematic is that “girls hitting boys that make them angry, even by accident, is hilarious” is driven into the ground in this series.  Akane is the worst offender, being the female lead, but most of the other girls are just as awful proportionate to their screen time.  Even by the 1990s, social attitudes were shifting, and by now it can make for some uncomfortable reading.  Also, some of the things Genma does to Ranma as “martial arts training” would get him arrested for child abuse, and the perverted old master Happosai is treated as an annoyance rather than a sexual offender.

The series does not so much deconstruct Japanese gender roles so much as poke them repeatedly with a sharp stick.

The anime is also good (and has a lot of nice music) but relies heavily on filler (episodes that are anime-only and often have continuity issues) and ends when Ranma’s long-lost mother shows up (about 2/3rds of the way through.)  Later season have poorer animation quality as production was moved to cheaper studios.

Viz originally brought Ranma 1/2 over using the flipped-artwork process to make it read left-to-right; between that and their then deliberately slow release of volumes, it took forever to come out in the U.S. (so the anime was a bigger influence on the fanfiction.)  It’s now being reprinted in the otaku-friendly right-to-left format, with each volume containing two of the Japanese volumes.

In Volume 1-2, the one to hand, the main characters are introduced.  Ranma is assigned to the same school as Akane, and we meet Dr. Tofuu (a practitioner of traditional Japanese medicine and Akane’s first crush) and Tatewaki Kunou, the belligerent and amorous upperclassman who’s done the most to cause Akane’s attitude towards boys.   Kunou starts a feud with male Ranma while falling in love with female Ranma (this does not stop him hitting on Akane, and Kunou never fully grasps that the two Ranmas are the same person.)

Just as it looks like Ranma and Akane’s relationship might be warming up, Ranma’s martial arts rival Ryouga appears.  Although he’s very strong, Ryouga has a terrible sense of direction, and is cursed to turn into a cute little piglet.  Ryouga blames Ranma for that last thing (for the wrong reasons)  and is bent on  revenge.  He also falls in love with Akane.  In this first story arc, Ryouga is a clear “heel” but eventually has the most positive character development of anyone in the series.

Ranma and Ryouga have reached something of a stalemate when a new challenger appears, Kodachi Kunou (sister of Tatewaki), who is a mistress of Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics and plays very dirty.   After she cripples the Fuurinkan High gymnastics team, Akane is called in to save their honor.  Too bad she doesn’t know anything about rhythmic gymnastics!  A teacher appears, but Kodachi is determined to end the match before it begins….

Highly recommended to fans of Inu-Yasha and those with an interest in poking fun at gender roles.

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Economics can be a deadly dull subject, at least when dominated by stuffed shirts talking about trade deficits, returns on annuities or fiat currency.  But the basics of economic theory can be used to learn useful or amusing things about the world.  With a large enough set of valid data, you can tease out fascinating conclusions, such as the answer to the question “is there cheating in professional sumo wrestling?”  (Probably, or some really amazing and highly consistent coincidences.)

Freakonomics

This book, as the front cover, back cover and several pages at the front remind us, was a New York Times bestseller and all-round phenomenon back in 2005.  (I wonder if there’s some sort of data available on whether having eleven pages of praise for the book before you even get to the title page is a good investment; I skipped right over it.)  It talks about such concepts as positive and negative incentives, regression analysis and information inequality as they relate to cheating schoolteachers, crime rates, baby names and other offbeat subjects.

Perhaps the most controversial subject covered is the notion that legalized abortion led to a massive drop in crime rates in the United States.  The evidence seems sound, but as the authors remind us, the data only shows us what is there, not what should be there.  The same results might have been achievable by other, less painful means.

There are some major changes to this edition of Freakonomics; the chapter  with the story of how the Klu Klux Klan was beaten back had to be heavily revised when one of the sources was revealed to have been exaggerating his role.  There are also several newspaper articles covering subjects that only got a passing mention in the main text, plus the one that got Mr. Dubner interested in covering Mr. Levitt’s research in the first place.  The advertised “Author Q & A” is rather flippant, and more of an advertisement for their next book, Super Freakonomics.

As a semi-scholarly book, there are footnotes, and an index, as well as a list of baby names you might want to consider.

I found this an interesting book with some thought-provoking insights, though some of the conclusions seem a bit iffy.  Recommended to just about everyone, but especially those who’d like to know more about the less stuffy side of economics.

Book Review: Weird Golf: 18 Tales of Fantastic, Horrific, Scientifically Impossible, and Morally Reprehensible Golf

Book Review: Weird Golf: 18 Tales of Fantastic, Horrific, Scientifically Impossible, and Morally Reprehensible Golf by Dave Donelson

Disclosure: I received this book through a Firstreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.

Weird Golf

To make where I’m coming from clearer, I’m not a sports fan, and in specific not a golf fan. I’ve played just enough golf to know the game doesn’t appeal to me as a player, and I don’t believe I have ever watched an entire match on TV. However, I’m a big fan of “strange sports stories” which blend a real-life sport with fantastic elements.

As you might gather, this is a single-author anthology which is exclusively about golf. Thus, the changes are rung by introducing different unusual elements, not all impossible. It’s double-spaced for easy reading.

The best single story is “Grand Slam”, where a veteran golf writer (much like the author) realizes there’s something more unusual than most about an up and coming golfer. The ending’s very predictable, but the research is good.

Mr. Donelson appears to have been his own editor/proofreader, as there are a couple of “relies on spellchecker” errors.

And then there is the story “Superhero Grudge Match”, in which Superman and Batman compete to join a pro-am golf tournament. I was very surprised to not see a fanfic disclaimer, or an indication that Mr. Donelson got permission to use the characters for his book.

It really felt like the writer hadn’t done the research on the comic book characters nearly as well as he’d researched Pebble Beach. The story references some current events that might have made the business pages, but the Batman and Robin combo used were clearly the ones from the 1960s TV series. The characterizations are closest to the Silver Age “World’s Finest” comic books, in which Superman, Batman or both suddenly start acting dickishly for reasons given at the end of the story. Except that this time they’re dickish for the sole purpose of winning a golf game.

Notably, though both heroes end up cheating during the match, neither of them uses the skills/powers that would allow them to be freakishly good at golf. As a comic book fanfic reader, I have to say it’s not very good.

I would only recommend this book to people looking for a gift their golf-mad relative probably doesn’t have already. It’s a light read, suitable for rainy days and waiting for tee times.

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