Monday, 15 October 2012

Book #85 Ready, Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready, Player One

As regular viewers of my blog will have noted, I've been having a tough time with the books I've read lately. Out of the last six or seven books I've read, I've failed to finish one, found two seriously underwhelming, and outright disliked three. It's become dispiriting.

Therefore I could literally kneel down and kiss the feet of Ernest Cline, because I adored Ready, Player One , I loved every single page of it, and I powered through it over a matter of hours, I can't think of a single thing I didn't love about this book, it's both a thrill to write about and a massive sigh of relief.

Ready, Player One takes place in the none too distant future the earth is over populated, resources are depleting, there's a Global Energy Crisis. In the midst of this James Halliday; eccentric billionaire computer inventor of the universally used OASIS virtual reality computer universe, dies leaving his fortune to the person who can solve the Easter Egg puzzle he has encoded within the vast system.  

Years pass, and the unsolved Easter Egg becomes an urban legend, but many computer geeks still hunt it. They are up against "The Sixers" employees of the dreaded IOI corporation hunting professionally for the egg in order to take control of Hallidays fortune, and the OASIS system, and turn it into a corporate entity.

The genius of Ready, Player One is that while set in a future world within a kind of MMORPG that does not yet exist, the billionaire Halliday was a child of the 80s and the key to the Easter Egg is knowing enough about 80s gaming, films and pop culture  to be able to crack his codes.

So rather than a bunch of meaningless references to things that don't exist in the minds of the reader, Ready Player One is grounded within actual history, it's one long nostalgia trip, particularly for people of my generation.

Our heroes Parzival, Aech and Art3mis live in the 2040's but need to know as much as they can about subjects like the Atari and all its games, the Commodore 64, the films of John Hughes, the music of the period, the developing reflection of computing within popular culture, and they do, because they study it as if it were a religion.

The research in this novel is mindblowingly meticulous, rich and detailed on every level from the years certain games were released to the names of their programmers, no detail is too minor. It makes for an authentic, dazzling experience. It is the nerds dream novel, and there will be many a nerdgasm had over it and much envy from those who share these obsessions and who will wish they had written it. It is a Herculean effort in terms of factual clarity.

As a minor scale nerd, I too gave little jumps of joy when certain obscure references were made and I understood them. For example when "Setec Astronomy" is used as a password and not explained I knew that it came from the 1992 Robert Redford film Sneakers about a group of off the grid hackers and was an anagram found via Scrabble tiles for "Too Many Secrets"  I loved that film, I saw it more than once.

In addition to this rich detail, our characters are great, and uniformly easy to care about, and our baddies, faceless grunts working behind a smarm bucket called Sorrento easy to hate, which means that you root for outcomes and you get excited by developments as well as getting off on all the retro goodness.

I cannot speak highly enough of this novel, I thought it was awesome. If you too were a child of the 80s and you played arcade games and you had an Atari or an Acorn or a Spectrum and you watched these films and you listened to these bands, or watched these shows I think you will love it too. Naturally there's a slightly skewed bias towards American culture, but it really doesn't have a negative effect on the book as a whole. Yes, the outcome is always obvious, it's a hero's journey tale after all, but don't let the inevitable destination spoil the thrill of the journey!

This book is epic. 10/10

Turbulence by Samit Basu


On paper, Turbulence by Samit Basu, seems to be directly aimed at me as its target market. Superheroes? I'm there. Ordinary people acquiring super powers? Again up my alley. Similar to the NBC series Heroes? Go on then.

A group of people are on a flight from London to New Delhi - they all have strange dreams, fantasies of who they could be, and when they wake up they have acquired a power which correlates to their fantasy, so Vir the pilot can fly, Uzma the wannabee actress is irresistible to those around her, Aman the computer geek can mentally hack into any computer, the journalist gets premonitions about newsworthy events and so on...

The trouble arises with the structure, we meet our heroes shortly after powers have been acquired and to my mind the huge opportunity of an origin story is missed the chance to build up the scene of all these people before the flight and boarding it, dreaming and disembarking. A chance to build wonder, and mystique. It all seems a bit disjointed somehow.

Additionally the powers they possess are either bog standard (human flight) or a bit naff in terms of their capacity for dramatic impact (mental internet, the power of allurement) And the guy who can control the temperature with his stomach, what's that all about? Useless!

By far the greatest and for me fatal flaw of this piece is the dialogue. It's dialogue heavy, and the dialogue is extremely poor and weak, cringe inducing even. "Hey! we're like the X Men!"
When the writing switches to prose or private thoughts it isn't so bad, but it isn't long before you're hit in the face with yet more cliched conversation of the most contrived, artificial kind. A masterclass in how not to write a cheesy, one star action film that flops at the box office.

I gave this book up at around the 100 page mark, persuaded myself to give it a second go, and quit for the second and final time at around page 140, which is why there's no number present on my count towards 100.

 I just found the excessive, and dire, dialogue too much to bear. This is why Turbulence doesn't have a number by its name as it's classed as "Failure To Finish"

Of the 10 Amazon reviews present for this novel, 9 give it 5 stars something that genuinely baffles me, as it is so marred by its flaw as to not even succeed as a genre piece of fluff.

Can't really mark it out of 10 seeing as I failed to finish.

Book #84 Diary Of A Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith

Diary Of A Nobody

Diary Of A Nobody is the private diary of one Charles Pooter, an ordinary anonymous clerk, chronicling his everyman middle class life in which he gets frustrated with tradesmen and servants, is embarrassed by his son, pleased with his own jokes and goes through ups and downs with his friends Cumming and Gowing who are always coming and going.

The novel is often amusing and diverting but is neither as laugh out loud hilarious or as amazing as I expected. A portrait of the cringeworthy incidents in the small life of the unremarkable ordinary person, it was a massive hit in its day, as people identified with the day to day annoyances of running a household made humorous and as a piece of schadenfreude.

The fact that the Grossmith's wrote it as one voice is remarkable because it flows as if it were one writer. Ultimately, I thought it was OK, and it passed an afternoon for me, but the funniest or best book ever?

Not really.   

It's passed out of copyright now so it's free on Kindle, so you may as well give it a go if you've got one!


Sunday, 7 October 2012

Book #83 Hearts And Minds by Amanda Craig

Hearts And Minds

Hearts and Minds begins with a body being dumped into a river, so one expects it to be a crime novel but I wasn't far into the novel before I realised that it was a novel about immigration and specifically the immigration population of London. We are introduced to lawyer Polly, the descendant of 1930's Jewish emigrĂ©s with an American ex, South African teacher Ian, American PA Katie, Ukranian prostitute Anna, a victim of human trafficking, and Job a Zimbabwian taxi driver who works for Tariq, a Pakistani. So, a huge exercise in "box ticking" as many "types" of immigrant in the UK as possible.

It's a novel apparently about the changing face of London, yet it's clearly a polemic in every way. It's clearly designed to bash its readers about the head with the position that to in any way believe that Britain faces a "problem" with immigration makes you IGNORANT AND A RACIST. Polly practically has an apoplexy of self righteousness when Hemani, herself of immigrant stock has the audacity to suggest as much.

Polly is a human rights lawyer for asylum seekers and naturally everyone she represents is a clear cut case of need for right to remain, the schoolboy without nation or family, heroic Job, and the woman who has suffered degrading abuse. No Abu Hamza's for Polly. It's about as subtle as a brick in terms of shouting "don't you see??? if they didn't need to come they wouldn't!!!"

The thing is, by and large I agree with this notion, and also again with the ENTIRELY unsubtle point that no-one takes issue with white South African, American and Australian immigrants because "that's ok" but it's hard not to feel utterly, utterly patronised by Craig on this. If ever there was an opinion rammed down your throat, it's in this novel and even in this case, where it mirrors my own, it's quite sickening and also completely unbalanced.

In addition there are massive character issues, Polly, for all her bleeding heart save the world lawyer crusading pays an illegal much less than Job Seekers Allowance to be her general skivvy at home, and though she acknowledges the irony herself, and wrings her hands over it, it doesn't make her any less of a hypocrite for all her self righteous indignation at what she interprets as xenophobia.

Katie works at a magazine which I interpreted to be not dissimilar to Private Eye, everyone surrounding Katie are called things like Jocasta and Quentin, they are all wealthy yah Hampstead connected. They barely come off the page as people just floating empty drawings of a stereotype.

Ian is an English teacher, but he teaches at a comp in Hackney so naturally he can't wait to get out just as soon as he possibly can. Naturally the school is a hell hole, the playground is full of Bangladeshi and Somali gangs, there are no textbooks and none of them can be bothered etc. It's a total cliche of an "inner city comprehensive school" of which I believe there are many good ones in London. John O'Farrell recently wrote a piece about the one his kids go to in The Guardian. It comes off as Craig's own prejudice, so on the one hand she sanctimoniously preaches about the importance of immigrants to this country, but God Forbid their children be educated alongside hers.

Likewise, a cliched portrayal of the NHS where patients lie ignored in their own filth, & visitors have to feed their own family members, yet at the back she thanks the doctors who saved her life, she must have been lucky enough to pay, just like Ian. I have never, ever, seen this nightmare NHS the tabloids scream about.

In the end as all the strands and connections come together, writing skill is shown in her ability to tie up all loose ends, but everything is so dreadfully over coincidental and therefore entirely unlikely.

Craig recently wrote a jaw dropping piece for the Guardian following the death of Maeve Binchy in which she pretty much stated that Maeve Binchy could never understand the full spectrum of human emotion because she had never been a mother. And of course Binchy was prolific because again she had never been a mother.

I venture to say that in return this is the wrong kind of book for her to presume to be the voice of, I know she isn't Polly but it's hard not to think of her as exactly that. A South African immigrant she may be, but it's easy to sit in your middle class Cambridge educated Ivory Tower and lecture other people about how society ought to be in an ideal world; from a position of great privilege and disconnection from the day to day realities faced by the poor, the desperate and the dispossessed.

In a word : Condescending         4/10

This is 3 books in a row now with the exception of the short interlude of The Art Of War that have been absolute wank, please God let me have a run of good ones now, I've done my penance.

Book #82 The Art Of War by Sun Tzu

The Art Of War

The Art Of War by ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu is a treatise on military strategy. I bought it for a friend of mine years ago, but never read it myself. Then, it was referenced on Breaking Bad and I thought I'd give it a whirl. At only 70 pages long it's a fairly quick read, but it is packed full of truisms that apply even outside of a war if one finds oneself in a contentious situation. I read this on the Kindle but I really think this is one that needs owning as a paperback, because it contains words of philosophical wisdom I'm sure I will come back to again and again. 9/10

Friday, 5 October 2012

Book #81 The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

The Casual Vacancy

When I heard that JK Rowling was bringing out an adult book, my thought was that people would doubtless find means to criticise it how ever good it was, the usual kind of British behaviour of taking someone successful and taking them down a peg or two by letting them know that they can't be good at everything.

With this in mind, I wanted The Casual Vacancy to be great, I wanted her to be able to move on from Harry Potter, I wanted to be supportive of her book, but having read it, I just can't be.

The story of an election for a council seat left vacant by a death; the characters are less that by definition than they are caricatures, walking Daily Mail cliches, the woman who resents the Asian doctor wearing a sari and won't speak to her lesbian child, the domestic violence husband, the disapproving NIMBY response to the council estate encroaching on the Village school catchement. The one guy who managed to rise "despite his background" and is seen as a bleeding heart. The fact that a character being from a Council Estate is automatically synonymous with drug taking, drug dealing, being the school problem child, trying for a baby to get your own house, incest, and social worker involvement. It's all so Daily Mail editorial extreme on the one side and on the other "middle class stereotype" characters that only exist in the minds of people who generalise "typical Daily Mail readers" it's all so hackneyed and unoriginal. JK seems to be using her characters to sneer at "middle class" sorts who have that opinion, yet her council estate based characters live up to every one of the prejudices they hold.

The inclusion of swearing and sex often feels forced and only there to state "hey, look everybody, this isn't Harry Potter' I'm not writing Harry Potter anymore! Frequently it just feels surplus.

As has been stated, whilst the adult characters are embarrassingly cliched, and the general writing itself not particularly high quality (at the beginning of the second section, I felt like it was an alternative opening to the novel that she had rejected) there is an interesting story to be found among the towns teenagers but they too are tainted with the cliches of their parents. The Indian child just isn't living up to her mothers perfectionist expectations, the son of the domestic violence couple just wants to stand up to his violent father.

Amongst all this "been here, read that" familiarity lie two characters who actually have an interesting story to tell... Colin Wall and his adoptive son Fats, but not enough is explained about what Colin's unusual psychological problems are  - there's a whole novel to be found in there, and I think it would be a sight better than much of the banality on display here.

I did like the last 40 pages or so, but that's simply not enough to warrant calling the book "good" I found that through most of it I was splitting it up into chunks "read X amount of pages in this sitting" just so I could finish it, because I didn't have the automatic desire created by enjoyment spurring me on but I wanted to treat it fairly and read the whole thing.

90% terrible and a genuine struggle 4/10