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”.

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Comic Book Review: Teen Titans Earth One Volume One

Comic Book Review: Teen Titans Earth One Volume One written by Jeff Lemire, pencils by Terry Dodson, inks by Rachel Dodson & Cam Smith

The Teen Titans began as a club for the kid sidekicks of various DC Comics superheroes, with an attempt to address “youth issues” while the characters were very much establishment types.  Over the course of time, the group added new members who were created especially for the series and broadened its appeal for modest success.

Teen Titans Earth One Volume One

In 1980, writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez updated the series as the New Teen Titans with several new characters and making most of them  college-age.  This version became immensely popular due to superior art and plotting.  It’s also the version that this re-imagining draws upon the most.  The “Earth-One” books take place in the present day of a world that hasn’t had superheroes before, so only the characters who weren’t created as sidekicks are included.

Navajo teen Raven has been having visions, confusing images of a crashed spaceship, and of other teenagers who are somehow connected to it.  The other main characters, Tara, Victor, Garfield, and Joseph, are currently living in Monument, Oregon and it’s the first day of school.  Each of them has their own difficulties, with their family or with their peer group.  Each of them also is beginning to have strange things happen to them.

Tara’s mother Rita is not at all happy about what’s going on, but with her alcoholism, Tara can’t trust the woman.  Victor’s mother, Elinore Stone, is much happier–she’s been waiting for her son to develop for ages.  She’s creepily thrilled, which makes Victor even more afraid.

Elinore and the other adults have their own problems.  It seems that the kids weren’t supposed to be developing their powers in such an uncontrolled way, and the survivor of that spaceship is becoming more powerful by the minute.  Their secret sponsor is about to pull the plug unless they can get “Starfire” subdued.

The theme of young people being lied to and betrayed by their elders is a familiar one, but is decently handled here.  Those familiar with the previous versions of the team will notice some shout-outs, but new readers should not have any difficulty following the story.

The art is decent, and there is plenty of room for sequels.  It’s not very much like the animated Teen Titans series, so I am not sure how much crossover fandom there will be.

Recommended primarily for comics fans who don’t want to deal with a lot of the previous continuity.

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic edited by David Sklar & Sarah Avery

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

This fantasy anthology has a dual theme, as indicated by its title; magic as transaction, and magic while traveling.  The former theme brings to mind the classic Faustian bargain story, and the preface mentions that the editors got a bushel full of them, only a few making the cut.

There are eighteen stories, nine for each theme, divided into groups of three by subtheme, such as “Bad Roads.”  Most of the stories are new, but some have been previously printed.  Some standouts include:

  • “Ghost Diamonds” by Scott Hungerford.  A woman and her niece discover that compressing  crematorium ashes into a diamond allows calling the ghost of the deceased.  But they aren’t the only ones who have made this discovery, and someone’s been switching the ghost diamonds with fakes.  But why?
  • “Across the Darien Gap” by Daniel Braum.   A guide attempts to take a hunted woman through the rain forest between Central and South America.  His two-dimensional thinking may doom them.  This one has been made into an episode of Psuedopod, a horror podcast, and is now being lengthened into a book.
  • “Only a Week” by Joyce Chng.  This one might actually be science fiction, set in a futuristic Chinatown.  A courtesan seeks to regain her youthful beauty, but the medicine has side effects and can be taken only for one week….
  • “And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear.  A courier must cross the postapocalyptic Southwest to deliver vital supplies.  But a deal she made years ago is coming due.  Can Harrie finish her delivery with the devil himself in the way?

There’s a good diversity of protagonists, and both happy and sad endings.  A couple of stories are perhaps a little too cliche, but the quality is generally good.

Unlike many small press books I’ve read lately, the proofreading is excellent.

I would recommend this book to fantasy fans in general, and modern fantasy fans in particular.

Book Review: Wounded Tiger

Book Review: Wounded Tiger by T. Martin Bennett

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Wounded Tiger

Mitsuo Fuchida was the flight leader in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Jacob DeShazer was a bombardier who participated in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.  The Covell family were missionaries.  This book weaves together their stories.  The author bills this as “a nonfiction novel,” recreating conversations and thoughts as much as possible from the real life records and memories of those involved.

As a top pilot for the Japanese Navy, and later a leading officer, Fuchida participated in many important events of the Pacific Theater of World War Two.   But the reason this book is about him is that after the war, he learned of a Christian’s forgiveness and service even though she had every reason to seek vengeance instead.  Fuchida was shocked and intrigued by this news, and eventually converted to Christianity.

Jake DeShazer spent most of the war in Japanese prisoner of war camps after the raid on Tokyo.  He was severely mistreated and some of his fellow prisoners were killed.  But in the darkness of his cell, the Bible came to Jake and he fully embraced religion, Christ’s words of forgiveness and mercy.

The Covells were missionaries in Japan until the government made that unhealthy, then moved to the Philippines to teach, while their daughter Peggy went to college in America.  When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, they eventually hunted down and killed the older Covells as supposed spies.  But Peggy did not let this crush her or her faith, and worked to help Japanese POWs, the news of which eventually reached Fuchida.

The author originally wrote this material as a screenplay, and this shows in the very short chapters, and scene-setting date and place “intertitles.”   There are scattered footnotes explaining some foreign words (or in some cases revealing the Japanese phrase translated in the text.)  They’re inconsistently used, and i spotted a couple of typos.

There’s no bibliography as such, but the acknowledgements do mention published works of people the author consulted.

As the majority of this story takes place during a war, there is some disturbing subject matter, particularly in Jake’s prison experiences and the chapters on Hiroshima.  As a result, I recommend parents review the book before giving it to junior high or younger teens to read.  The book also touches on racism between the Japanese and Americans, which was exacerbated by the run-up to the war.

Real life is messier than we like, and some sins are more difficult to make a good story out of than others.  Fuchida’s long-term marital infidelity is only mentioned in the chapter in which he ends it, which means that his mistress and their child are shuffled off the stage immediately after we learn they exist, with no explanation of how this happened or what became of them.  One suspects that if the movie ever gets made, this is one of the scenes that will be cut.

The writing is okay, but some of the dialogue looks a bit “cleaned up” from how soldiers and sailors normally talk.

I’d recommend this book to World War Two buffs interested in the Japanese side of the conflict, and those interested in reading the life stories of Christian converts.

Book Review: The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

Book Review: The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Strycker

Disclaimer:  I received this book from the publisher as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  I received an Advance Reading Copy and there may be changes in the final edition.

The Thing with Feathers

As the title states, this is a book about the behavior of birds.  Mr. Strycker is a field researcher with a specialty in birds, so most of the chapters have stories of his personal experiences with the type of birds mentioned.  Each chapter covers a different type of bird and an interesting topic about it, from the ability of homing pigeons to find their way, through the pecking order of chickens to albatross monogamy.

Some of the topics will be familiar to anyone who paid attention in biology class, but others have up to the year research with new implications.   For example, the chapter on starlings explains how mathematics, physics and computer modeling have advanced our knowledge of flock behavior.  Many of the chapters do tie back into possible ties or comparisons to human behavior and biology.

It’s fascinating stuff, and is written in a casual, easy to read style.  The book should be suitable for bright junior high students on up to non-ornithologist adults who enjoy watching or reading about birds.  However,  the casual style carries over to the end notes, and there is no index.  Serious ornithology students will want to dig for more rigorously cited works to please their professors.  Each topic has a bird drawing by Janet Hansen.

Please be advised that this book does cover biological functions of birds and nature red in tooth and claw, so may not be suitable for sensitive children.

I recommend this book to bird lovers and science-minded readers.

Book Review: Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington: Adventure, History, and Legend on the Long – Distance Trail

Book Review: Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington: Adventure, History, and Legend on the Long – Distance Trail edited by Rees Hughes and Corey Lewis

Disclaimer: I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the assumption that I would write a review.

Pacific Crest Trailside ReaderThis anthology is a collection of short stories and essays regarding the Oregon and Washington legs of the Pacific Crest Trail, and there is a companion volume covering the California leg. Most of the pieces are true stories of hiking the long trail, but there are a couple of Coyote tales and some historical notes, as well as an essay on Mount St. Helens (not on the trail but visible from it) by Ursula K. LeGuin.

The stories take up only a few pages apiece, which makes it excellent reading for times when you only have a short minute or two to spare. There’s a strong unity of themes, and if you’re bored by tales of the great outdoors, this may not be the book for you.

I’d highly recommend this book to hikers, outdoorsy types and armchair adventurers; it might also do well for young adult readers and students who are taking related courses

Book Review: USA Noir

Book Review: USA Noir edited by Johnny Temple

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This was an Advanced Reading Copy, and small changes may be made in the final product.

USA Noir

“Noir”, here, is short for noir fiction, a form of hard-boiled crime fiction by analogy with the cinematic film noir.  Noir fiction tends to focus on the seedier side of life, filled with petty criminals, people driven to extremes by circumstance, and bittersweet at best resolutions.  Akashic Books has been putting out anthologies of noir short stories grouped by location since 2004, and this is a “best of” collection.

The stories are grouped by themes such as “True Grit” and “Under the Influence”, and range across the continental United States.  (Yes, that includes the Twin Cities.)  Most are contemporary (one has Google Maps as a plot point) but there are a couple of period pieces set in the 1940s and Fifties.

Some standout stories include: “Animal Rescue” by Dennis Lehane (a man finds an abandoned puppy, and decides to keep it),  “Run Kiss Daddy” by Joyce Carol Oates (a man does not want to upset his new family), “Mastermind” by Reed Farrell Coleman (a dumb crook comes up with the perfect crime), “Loot” by Julie Smith (various people try to cash in on Hurricane Katrina), “Helper” by Joseph Bruchac (revenge comes looking for Indian Charlie, but he’s no pushover) and “Feeding Frenzy” by Tim Broderick (in comic book format, a Wall Street firm has lost a big contract, and the employees search for someone to blame.)

Thirty-seven stories in total, 500+ pages of entertainment.   There’s also a list of the other stories in the volumes these were reprinted from, and a list of awards the series has garnered.

If the genre is not warning enough, I should mention that sordid violence is common in these stories, and some may be triggery.

Overall, the stories are of good quality, and represent an excellent cross-section of today’s noir writers.    It’s good value for money.

Update:  “Animal Rescue” was turned into the 2014 movie “The Drop” starring Tom Hardy; here’s the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iy_ogNiryZ8

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