Monday, August 22, 2011

Review: Ready Player One

When I first heard about the upcoming Ready Player One, I was excited but hesitant. A story that is based around nostalgia for a certain time period (here, the 1980s) can be tricky. Things can go either very well or very poorly.

I was barely a chapter in, though, when I realized that author Ernest Cline had everything under control. Ready Player One grabbed me and didn't let go, and the 80's nostalgia was both integral to the plot and perfectly handled.

The story itself is not a new concept: a super-rich guy dies and leaves clues within his creation that could lead the intrepid to his fortune. The Westing Game, a childhood favorite of mine, features the exact same story (more 80's nostalgia, perhaps?). What is unique is the setting - OASIS (the internet turned virtual reality world) - and the rules of the world that govern "game play" and the search for the fortune itself.

Our faithful narrator is Wade (gamer tag Parzival), a high school student who devotes all of his time to hunting for famed OASIS creator (and recluse) James Halliday's fortune. Born decades after the 1980's, this kid spends all of his time obsessively watching movies and TV shows and playing video games that would probably have been considered passe if Halliday hadn't built his contest around them. Instead, after deciphering a clue that has remained unsolved for 5 years, Parzival suddenly finds himself among the most elite players in the world.

Parzival is wickedly smart, pulling connections between references out of his mind with astonishing regularity. But where he falters is with personal communication. There is, of course, a message here - as we increasingly spend our time online, our inter-personal relationships can suffer. But for Z (as his friends call him), determining who is actually your friend when you're all fighting for control of billions of dollars is harder than it may seem.

Do you need to be as well-versed in the 1980s as the characters to enjoy this book? No, not at all. I was born at the beginning of the 80s, and I know I'm even too young to fully understand many of the references. But that doesn't detract from the book at all. The details make the book more enjoyable, sure (I laughed out loud at the bit about how Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton were co-presidents of OASIS), but they're not going to hold someone back from loving the fast-paced adventure, sharp humor, and surprisingly well-formed characters (considering the characters are themselves a shadow of their real life counterparts).

If I could give this book 6 stars, I would. Maybe it's time to rethink how I grant stars? 5/5 stars

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Magician King

I could not have been more excited to hear that Lev Grossman was following up his amazing book The Magicians only two years later with The Magician King. I remember devouring The Magicians, which at the time I likened to an adult version of Harry Potter, at breakneck speeds. So getting my hands on a copy (well, virtually, and that's a whole 'nother story) of The Magician King was a priority.

First, I should say that I regret not re-reading The Magicians. Grossman jumps right into the story with no real refresher to speak of. I felt myself struggling to remember exactly what had happened to characters in the first book when the events were alluded to here.

Overall, I loved the Magician King and the way it continued this imaginative story arc. Is much of this book (hell, the series) cribbed from classic children's literature? Absolutely. This book reeks of the Chronicles of Narnia, mostly The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, just like the first book was obviously influenced by Harry Potter. And while I found this a bit grating at times (I get it! Two kings and two queens, just like Narnia! Wise talking animals! A ship sailing into uncharted waters!), for the most part, this book works precisely because we all know the stories they're alluding to. However, I ended up enjoying the parts that felt familiar but weren't the most. (Here I mean the fable of the quest for the seven keys of Fillory, which the main plot revolves around.)

The story follows two paths: Quentin, king of Fillory, ventures out on a quest (ostensibly to collect taxes from a far-off province) and learns what it means to be a hero, and a flashback to Julia, a magic school reject, becoming a hedge witch and then so, so much more. At first, I found the two narratives jarring - why should I care about Julia's past when Quentin is obviously the one we care about? But as Quentin's quest progresses, the parallels with Julia's quest to become skilled in magic become obvious. The idea of humility versus hubris in a hero comes up repeatedly, but not in a way that is obtrusive or annoying.

Obviously, it's a bit silly to review a sequel here without having reviewed the original book. Like I said, it's been a while since I read it, but I can't recommend it enough (even having forgotten most of everything). Trust me, read The Magicians - you won't want to wait to dive right into The Magician King.

4/5 stars

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Geek Wisdom

When I first heard about Geek Wisdom, edited by Stephen Segal, I was more than a little skeptic. As a self-proclaimed Nerd and Geek (by my definitions, nerd = passionate about academic subjects and geek = passionate about pop cultural subjects), I've seen how geekery has become widely accepted over the past few years. Often, that means it is co-opted by brands and companies that have no idea what being geeky actually means. So I figured this quirky little sampler of quotes wouldn't necessarily mean all that much to real geeks.

Man, was I wrong. There is so much truth in this book. Each page features a quote or two from famous geek texts (ranging from Shakespeare to internet memes, with plenty of television, movies, and novels in among the mix) along with a brief discussion of why this is important to the hordes of geeks out there or what it has to say about how we geeks see our world.

That's not to say that every single brief essay in this book works. With some quotes, the author's barely touch upon the quote itself and deal with another matter entirely. The best of the essays, though, (and I'll say the majority of the essays are among the best) really touch the heart of the quote in question, distilling the ideas that geeks feel in their hearts, even if the mind can't explain it so succinctly.

For example, the first quote in the book is "With great power comes great responsibility," written by the great Stan Lee. This has become one of the tenants of geekdom (closely followed, I would think, by Wil Wheaton's "Don't be a dick"). And really, it's something we all understand without too much thought. But the authors of the book point out how this affected not just Spiderman, but also George Washington, King David, Albert Einstein, and Franklin Roosevelt (and that Paris Hilton has somehow not come to understand it at all).

Even if you don't care about the discussion, this is a great collection of geeky quotes. I kept saying to myself that a particular quote was my favorite quote, but then I'd turn the page and find one I liked even more. I just have so much love for this book! It really is the perfect gift for any geeks in your life (in fact, I'm thinking I should just buy a box to have on hand as ready-made gifts).

5/5 stars

Monday, August 1, 2011

YA Book Club: Going Bovine

Welcome to the inaugural Consider the Daffodil YA Book Club, featuring the funny and thought-provoking Going Bovine by Libba Bray. I know that some of the people who are reading this are a bit behind, but I wanted to post this anyway for those of you I don't know in real life who may have already finished the book.


Going Bovine is definitely not everyone's cup of tea. It's a weird fantasy adventure, a mash-up of Percy Jackson and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that talks about physics, obscure diseases, Don Quixote, drag queens, jazz music, religious cults, reality TV, and Norse mythology. It's got a male protagonist who is such an apathetic loser, he can be hard to relate to. And most importantly, it looks death right in the face. This book shouldn't work.

And yet it does (at least for some people, and I count myself among them). Going Bovine allows teens (and everyone else, of course) to get right up into the heart of impending doom (be it our main character Cameron's life or the End of the Universe as we know it) from the safety of a bunch of words on pages.

To be frank, while I was reading the book, I loved little bits but felt overall that it dragged. There were just a few too many set pieces (CESSNAB, PUTOpia, the YA beach house among them). They all felt a little bit like the Las Vegas hotel of the Lotus Eaters in the first Percy Jackson book - yes, I see what you're doing there, but let's move things alone now, please, there's story I want to get to. That having been said, the key elements of the story - much of the discussion below - has really stuck with me, and I think Bray does a good job at confronting mortality within the context of humor and adventure. (She also manages to give an interview in a cow suit quite well.)

I'm not going to summarize the book, although you should feel free to summarize any bits you see fit. I'll post the questions first, then chime in later with my own comments. I really want to hear what you have to say! Feel free to add any of your own questions as well. Spoilers from here on out.

1)For such a funny book, Going Bovine hits on some really big questions (Questions, even). Do you think this balance worked?

2) Why is Cameron's childhood trip to Disney World and his subsequent near-drowning the happiest day of his life?

3)What's up with the snow globes and the United Snow Globe Wholesalers?

4)Did Cameron actually go on this wild adventure? Or was he in his hospital bed the whole time?

5)The "one true thing" Cam learned on his travels, as he tells Dr. X, is that "to live is to love, to love is to live." What do you make of that? How did he come to realize the truth in this Great Tremelo song that he had previously listened to only ironically?

6)The obligatory casting question: Who would you cast in Going Bovine: The Movie? (Cameron and Dulcie probably being the easiest to cast).