ready player one (ernest cline)

Ready Player One


Genre: Fiction, Dystopian Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

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Image via: Amazon

 

Yes, I realize this book is more than five years old, but I was a little slow on the uptake, and I’d like to argue that what makes it so dang appealing is its relevance to the world right now. What do I mean by that? Virtual Reality (or VR) is currently the hot new thing, in case you weren’t bombarded by Samsung’s VR commercials all Christmas long, and for good reason—if you haven’t yet, befriend somebody with VR goggles and a playstation or other VR-functional console, and you’ll see what I mean soon enough. Today’s VR technology provides us with what seems like an entirely new world contained in a pair of goggles, and it’s not at all difficult to make the leap between today’s VR systems and Ernest Cline’s complex virtual society (the OASIS).

The novel follows Wade Watts, a sad, lonely teenager who spends nearly all of his time logged into the OASIS (including school, which I think is a very real possibility for our future education models). Strapped for (real) cash, he can’t do much to explore the virtual worlds, but all of that changes when he (and the billions of other OASIS users) begins to search for an easter egg in the OASIS, planted by its now-deceased founder. The prize for its discovery? Oh, just the bajillions of bucks and the keys to the corporation that owns the OASIS. No biggie. Obviously that type of money means lots of competition, lots of drama, the potential for life-or-death situations, and so forth.

Long story short, it’s a fun read, and for the most part, it’s pretty easy to get sucked into the drama as people virtually race to compete for the prize. I’m also very appreciative of the dystopia that Ernest Cline created—sure, it has its own problems (poverty, starvation, etc.), but unlike many other dystopian novels of recent years, the books’ characters aren’t a bunch of gun-wielding cannibals wandering through cities. Instead, Cline presents a not-too-distant future that seems entirely plausible, one in which the virtual world becomes an escape upon which we rely more and more heavily.

Granted, there are some weak points in the novel. Some parts are a little too neat, in my opinion (particularly when–SPOILER ALERT-Wade goes from a nerdy, overweight teenager to a crazy intense guy with a shaved head and a six-pack. But whatever). At times, the novel feels less like a story and more like a platform for Ernest Cline to share his alarmingly immense library of ’80s knowledge/geeky references. Additionally, the whole romantic plot between Wade and his online crush is every bit as cliché as you’d expect. So why keep reading? I just love the OASIS and Cline’s ability to imagine an all-too-real future. If you’re willing to overlook the hackneyed bits and pieces—and the pages upon pages of ’80s references—it’s a fun ride, and it’s well worth your time. Not to mention, you need to read it before you see its film adaptation, which hits screens in 2018!

Verdict: Lit

ready player one (ernest cline)

trainwreck (sady doyle)

Trainwreck
Genre: Nonfiction, Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies

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When you think of the word “trainwreck,” who comes to mind? Amy Winehouse? Lindsay Lohan? Britney Spears? A woman, right? A famous one who had some noteworthy fall from grace, which the paparazzi and media outlets graciously shared with the world? That’s the premise of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why in a nutshell—we all know and recognize these women (because, according to Doyle’s logic, and I agree, the “trainwreck” is almost always female) and what the “trainwreck” label implies. We treat them as examples of where women can go wrong, as road-maps for how other women can avoid similar damning missteps.

And so, Doyle takes us on a journey from Charlotte Brontë and Mary Wollstonecraft to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. And it’s both informative and fascinating. I had no idea that Charlotte Brontë, for instance, obsessively wrote letters for her former employer, and I knew very little of Billie Holiday’s backstory. I even learned new information about Britney Spears—whom I watched skyrocket into global stardom and later, into a laughingstock, over the course of my adolescence. Doyle writes compellingly, weaving  “case studies” into larger conversations about how we view women on a broader scale.

I must admit that the book does get repetitive at times, especially when Doyle essentially makes the same point ~10 different times over the course of a chapter. You can tell she’s well-educated and well-spoken, but she’s essentially trying to rephrase cultural studies theories so that even people who exclusively read gossip mags will still appreciate her argument. And speaking of that argument, it’s deceptively complex and therefore hard to follow at times. This is especially true when she compares people like Mary Wollstonecraft and Paris Hilton. True, they’re both flawed women who were attacked for their sexuality (whether the accusations were true is irrelevant), but are they really comparable?

I’m sensing that my hesitation to fully accept her comparisons demonstrates the book’s larger point: we are all women, all flawed, all “trainwrecks” as a result, and we really only judge people like Britney and Whitney because society tells us to, and probably because we can’t help but engage in a bit of schadenfreude. Maybe, then, my inability to fully appreciate her choice to find common ground between such famous figures demonstrates my inability to remove myself from this mode of thinking. At the very least, the book has forced me to pause when somebody mentions an actress and I find myself thinking, “Ugh, I don’t like her” without any logical explanation to justify my reaction. It’s a start.

So, I stand by the “lit” verdict, despite feeling like somebody else could have done a better job of writing this book. At the very least, if you read it, you’re pretty much guaranteed to learn something, and sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.

Verdict: Lit

trainwreck (sady doyle)

the wonder (emma donoghue)

The Wonder
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Religious Fiction?

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Every year, I pull together a list of things I might like for Christmas, and every year, that list includes at least three books. This year, I completely forgot that I included The Wonder on that list, but luckily nobody purchased it for me before I downloaded the eBook from our local library and tore through it. Whoops! Seriously though, how did I only recently learn about the brilliance of library eBooks? I get the appeal of purchasing tangible copies of books and all, but if you’re already planning on reading a book on your Kindle for convenience’s sake, why not check it out from the library and save yourself some money? This is coming from somebody who seriously cannot get enough of the library eBook situation, in case you didn’t notice. I’m unclear on whether this is a special feature at our public library or something in libraries across the country, but either way, if it’s available to you, TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT.

So yes, long story short, that’s how I found myself staying up past my bedtime as I read chapter after chapter of The Wonder. And there’s a reason this book secured a coveted spot on my reading list: Emma Donoghue is a pretty impressive lady. She has a PhD, for starters, but she’s better known as the mastermind behind the brilliant novel Room. I’ve yet to actually read it (I know, I know—I’m a bad bibliophile!), but I did watch and love and cry during the Oscar-winning film adaptation. Which is amazing. Seriously. Watch it if you have the chance. Or even better, be a good bibliophile (unlike me) and read the book first and watch the movie and then report back with all of your observations!…This is clearly going to be a rambling sort of blog post, but suffice to say that I’d wanted to read Emma Donoghue’s works for awhile, and this novel’s plot—a nurse investigating the authenticity of a young Irish girl’s claim that she hasn’t eaten in months—was super intriguing. So I powered up my Kindle and jumped right in.

If we’re being honest, I wasn’t immediately sold. I’m not sure if it’s because I had too high of expectations or if I found the writing a bit, well, pretentious. Whatever the reason, I spent the first few chapters alternating between almost giving up and feeling like a jerk for wanting to abandon the book because I felt the author (not the character) seemed pretentious. So I gave it a few more chapters, and that was the right decision because slowly, slowly, I found myself falling into Emma Donoghue‘s story.

Lib, the narrator, is an outsider visiting Anna O’Donnell’s small Irish hometown, and so her observations about the family and town seem, at times, quite judgmental. But I guess that’s the point. She’s doubtful about the authenticity of Anna’s claims (that she, spoiler alert, survives on “manna” from heaven), and she does her best to convince her readers of the absolute ridiculousness of the situation. Though I didn’t ever fully warm up to Lib, I did warm up to the story she weaves, and within a few chapters, I could appreciate why this mystery (Has Anna actually fasted for the past four months? If so, how? If not, how is she secretly eating?) would be worth exploring.

Either way, I kept at it, and I found myself so caught up in Emma Donoghue’s story that when she hit with the climactic moments in the final few chapters (and yes, there are a few of them), it was like a punch to the gut. I was completely taken aback by the story’s twists. In other words, it felt a bit like a cleverly written thriller novel under the guise of highbrow literature. The best of both worlds, I’d argue.

That being said—and I’m sure this was, in part, the point—it doesn’t paint a super flattering picture of Catholicism. It explores Catholic guilt and hypocrisy, of the Catholic community’s (potentially misguided) faith in their priests, of the risks of blind faith. As someone with Catholic family members who already regularly struggles with these issues, it was interesting to see them in a long-ago setting in a community where Catholicism was the absolute focus in everyone’s life.

So, with that in mind, this is one of those books that could go either way. It’s no question for me, at least, that the novel earned a solid “lit” vote because of the last five or six chapters. However, I totally recognize all of the turnoffs that would discourage someone from reading it (ranging from Emma Donoghue’s writing style to its portrayal of Catholics), and because of those features, I totally understand why someone wouldn’t enjoy the book. If I could rate this with something other than “good” or “bad,” I’d probably put it “above average” but not “great,” certainly not the “masterpiece” it’s been called. Take my review with a grain of salt, then, and if you do choose to power up your Kindle and check it out of your local library, let me know what you think!

Verdict: Lit

the wonder (emma donoghue)

the wolf road (beth lewis)

The Wolf Road
Genre: Dystopian Literature, Fiction

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To be honest, I didn’t plan on reading The Wolf Road. I mean for starters, I didn’t fully appreciate how much reading I’d really be doing in grad school, but once I learned (and trust me, I had no choice but learn it quickly), I felt guilty wasting any of my precious free time with “fun” reading. For the sake of my sanity, though, I decided to treat myself to some pleasure reading over Thanksgiving break, which was all fine and dandy except I never bothered to pack a novel. Luckily, my husband is possibly even more of a book nerd than I am (which is saying something, as I am exclusively studying literature in grad school), and he had already checked out not one, not two, but three books from our city’s library and was gracious enough to loan one to me. So long story short, that’s how I ended up falling in love with this book. By accident. The best kind of accident.

I mean it’s obvious, then, that this book is a major “lit” for me. To be fair, though, I wasn’t initially sure. Within the first few pages, I realized a) I was dependent upon a first-person narrator with a very distinct voice (I’m not always a fan of that type of storytelling) and b) I already knew the ending. I mean that’s not because I’m a book-reading genius or because the book recycled a stale, overused plot, but rather because the novel opens with the closing scene. Granted, not the closing scene, but a scene that is rehashed in the last few chapters. And it was good. Super weird, definitely dark, but good. Oh, and it’s totally a dystopian novel, and if you can’t tell, I’m super into that genre.

So I kept reading. And the more I read, the more I became a bit obsessed with Elka, the story’s protagonist. At first, it was an unstable trust, a dependency on Elka to tell her story from her (obviously one-sided) point of view. But as I continued reading, I realized how necessary it was that Beth Lewis choose a first-person narration. The story itself is pretty crazy and out there, but Elka might be unlike any other character I’ve ever read in literature, and I wanted to know what she was thinking. Sure, we’ve seen a few young, independent, knife-throwing, bad-ass female protagonists in a number of dystopian novels (including my current read, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven), but Elka is something special. She’s openly flawed, openly biased, and completely unwilling to really examine her past in fear of what it contains. The climactic scenes are physical confrontations with the “bad guys,” sure, but also moments when Elka finally rediscovers  aspects of her childhood relationship to Trapper (“Bad Guy #1”). In a sense, the reader has no choice but to accept her shifting, unreliable versions of events until Elka herself learns the truth. So as I read, I had the pleasure of joining Elka in her revelations, her journeys but also her discoveries inward. Plus, there’s the added bonus of reading a post-apocalyptic novel from the first-person perspective of someone who finds certain bizarre features of the world entirely normal.

I mean, there are definitely some fantastical elements aside from the novel’s dystopian setting. Elka strikes up a relationship with a wolf pup, for example, and conveniently saves the day in multiple crazy situations, and on occasion, she seems perhaps a little too badass, a little too capable. But with Beth Lewis’s writing, you can’t help but accept the unbelievable moments without question, because you recognize that it’s a worthwhile sacrifice to follow Elka through her story.

I’m beginning to realize how, assuming they have writing talent and a creative idea to work with, literary agents might be the best authors (Jandy Nelson is another fave). They know what readers like, and they know how to shape and edit their writing accordingly. Oh, and they have access to the publishing world, which must be quite convenient. At the very least, I’ll keep an eye out for other agents-turned-authors, as they haven’t disappointed me yet!

So essentially what I’m saying is this: If you’re struggling to find a good novel and you’re willing to tough it out with a totally bizarre narrative voice, give this one a chance. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Verdict: Lit

the wolf road (beth lewis)

the heart goes last (margaret atwood)

The Heart Goes Last: A Novel
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Dystopian Literature, Science Fiction

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The short of it:

The Heart Goes Last: A Novel is disturbing. It’s a good read, of course (it’s Margaret Atwood we’re talking about!), but still disturbing. If you’ve never read Margaret Atwood’s works before, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. Granted, it does raise some serious questions about the current state of things (as do almost all of her novels).

For example: What do we truly value? How often do “we” (the collective “we” here, but definitely on a personal level as well) seek wealth, even via shady ethics? Which freedoms (freedom from poverty, freedom to choose) do we place above others? (And my favorite…) Is our world on an inevitable path toward self-induced calamity?

That being said, I personally feel that overall, the book wasn’t that great.

(I also firmly believe that  The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s most exceptional work story-wise, and an especially good read for newbies. Like The Heart Goes Last, The Handmaid’s Tale is easy to read, thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly alarming, and a little bit (OK a lot) dark. But simply put, Atwood does it better in her earlier work. But that’s just like my opinion, man. Check out the About page and see why I totally love it when you share your opinion, and I want you to comment about why you feel that way. Then we can discuss and learn from one another! Yay subjectivity! And literature! And conversation!)

So OK, The Heart Goes Last isn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale? It’s not as good? Let me explain. The Heart Goes Last is also easy to read, entertaining, alarming, and dark, for sure. It’s just not as captivating. I wasn’t as invested in Charmaine and Stan’s marriage, their challenges in the near-future dystopia (Atwood’s specialty!) of Consilience as, say, Offred’s (the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale) story, Toby’s (from The Year of the Flood), or even that of the unnamed protagonist in one of Atwood’s earliest books, Surfacing.

So, back to Margaret Atwood in general. She’s the queen of speculative fiction, the one writer who manages, in almost all of her novels—granted, I haven’t read them all, so if this isn’t true for one or two, let me know!—to feature at least one vulnerable female protagonist who later reveals herself to be somewhat of a bad-ass. Or at the very least, a seemingly one-dimensional female character who eventually reveals her more complex, multifaceted humanity (which includes being somewhat of a bad-ass).

In the case of The Heart Goes Last, Charmaine is this character, an intriguing, imperfect woman and half of an intriguing, imperfect marriage. We follow Charmaine as she struggles through an especially disturbing future in which the majority of the United States population falls into poverty and is forced into desperate situations they’d otherwise never consider. Eventually, Charmaine and her husband Stan find solace in Positron (and its seemingly perfect town of Consilience)—a social experiment that promises basic necessities and even luxuries.

Of course, everything comes at a price, and in this case, Consilience residents must literally “serve” time as working prisoners to “earn” time as members of the Consilience community. Not to give too much away, but in true Margaret Atwood form, everything goes to hell in a handbasket when sex, deception, and sacrifice are thrown into the mix.

But let me be clear: This book isn’t a trade paperback. As always, Atwood adroitly raises questions about freedom (and at what point we’re willing to sacrifice personal liberties), the secrets we keep from loved ones, and the dangers of willful ignorance. She addresses poverty and politics and all of those fun topics. And she does it so well that it really seems like Consilience could be real.

So why not give it two thumbs up? Like I said earlier, I just couldn’t ever get invested in the characters. I don’t think it was just because Atwood revealed their somewhat alarming flaws. I think it’s more that their  marriage (Charmaine and Stan, together forever) functions as the story’s crux. Anything Charmaine does, she doesn’t simply do herself, but she also does to Stan, however indirectly. And I couldn’t ever really get invested in their relationship, so I never fully appreciated their actions’ impact on a grander scale.

To be honest, unlike in every other Atwood book I’ve read, I found myself rooting for the male protagonist instead of the female. Maybe that was Atwood’s intention with The Heart Goes Last, or maybe I’ve just been spoiled by her other works, but for whatever reason, Charmaine just really annoyed me (pissed me off, even).

Charmaine’s irritating nature, coupled with multitudes of totally ridiculous moments (a woman falling for—and having sex with—a stuffed animal, for instance), kept me from truly loving the book. With that in mind, I am giving The Heart Goes Last the verdict below, with the stipulation that Atwood does Atwood soooo well in her other novels (and I highly recommend checking out The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, Surfacing and pretty much anything else she’s written).

Verdict: Miss

the heart goes last (margaret atwood)

i’ll give you the sun (jandy nelson)


I’ll Give You the Sun
Genre: Young Adult Fiction


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I had high hopes for I’ll Give You the Sun. In part, it’s because I received the book (a delicious hardcover with a spectacular cover design—I mean seriously, just look at it) as a Christmas present, courtesy of my husband. And he has a pretty impeccable track record for gifting me with Young Adult novels written by authors previously unknown to me. (Thank you, Billy, for exposing me to the likes of Rainbow Rowell and Sabaa Tahir.)

So when I ripped the paper from I’ll Give You the Sun, I was relatively confident that I was in for a treat. It doesn’t hurt that the book is a Printz award winner and New York Times bestseller, among its other accolades. Back in 2010, author Jandy Nelson, a former literary agent, published The Sky Is Everywhere, another Young Adult novel that garnered its fair share of attention.

But considering that I’m saving The Sky is Everywhere for a rainy day (after which point I’ll probably cry because I won’t have another new Jandy Nelson brainchild waiting on my nightstand, at least for the foreseeable future), I’ll Give You the Sun is currently my favorite Young Adult novel. Like, ever.

And yes, I have read John Green’s greatest hits (I’ve been a loyal fan ever since I inhaled the excellence that is An Abundance of Katherines back in 2008. And yes, I remember when I read it. I even remember the high school class in which I claimed a back row seat and partially hid the book under my desk, unable to tear my eyes away). And Rainbow Rowell’s. And Laurie Halse Anderson’s. And the works of J.K. Rowling and Lois Lowry and Christopher Paolini and Jay Asher and Lauren Oliver and all of the other mindbogglingly talented kings and queens of YA fiction. It’s seriously that good.

For starters, we have one of my favorite things ever: teenage angst, with a side of that deliciously complex rivalry that you find with almost every pair of siblings—but in this case, it’s an amplified twin version. Coupled with a family tragedy and a sprinkling of the supernatural, and this one was a guaranteed winner in my book (pun very much intended).

But then Jandy Nelson had to take it a step further. In voicing the story from both Jude and Noah’s perspectives (you guessed it, they’re the twin protagonists) and temporarily disorienting the reader with the whole chronological storytelling thing (Noah’s stories occur before the family tragedy, Jude’s are after, but the story jumps between years and voices, building to a powerful climax), Jandy flexes her storytelling muscles and simultaneously offers a unique reading experience.

I was also impressed with the LGBT current that runs throughout the book. In today’s world, it’s a treat to read a book that carefully explores (read: is not cartoonish or unrealistic about) the complex challenge of discovering your sexuality—and especially, homosexuality—and determining how it fits into life as you know it.

The entire novel also offers some serious lessons in the artistic process. Seriously. Though I won’t pretend to be an art expert by any means, I feel like I now can recognize and appreciate art terminology (not to mention the overwhelming complexity of sculpting, if I weren’t totally intimidated by that in the first place) a little more than I did when I started the book.

In case you can’t tell, this book has me fangirling. Hard. I texted people when I finished it, begging them to visit their local library and snap it up. I volunteered to send my precious copy to my best friend, so she could read it and we could jointly analyze each of Jandy Nelson’s perfectly crafted, absolutely breathtaking sentences. It’s my greatest hope that I can share its excellence with the world, so that friends and random internet strangers alike can bask in its sunlight. Ms. Nelson, thank you. Your novel was a work of art, a gift I definitely didn’t deserve, but I’ll take it all the same.

Verdict: Lit (obviously)

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i’ll give you the sun (jandy nelson)