Giving audiobooks a try (again)

I’ve tried to get into audiobooks in the past, but never found them enjoyable.

That changed earlier this summer ahead of our epic road trip to Wyoming to see the total solar eclipse (oh hey, I never wrote about that experience). I saw an offer for new Audible memberships that sounded like a pretty good deal, so I jumped on it.

The first book I ended up download was The Power Broker, which ended up totaling over 60 hours of audio! And you know what?

It. Was. Awesome.

I think I’ve finally found out why I could never get into audiobooks in the past. It’s because I listened to them at normal 1x speed. The narrators read the stories so so so slow. If I speed things up to 1.5x or 1.75x, it sounds much more interesting to me and I find that I’m able to keep focus.

Plus, it turns a 66 hour story into a 50 hour story. Saves time (for more audiobooks). I really recommend it. It’s been a nice break from listening to my standard array of podcasts, which have focused on depressing news as of late.

Since I subscribed in August, I’ve now listened to:

And I’m currently working through Washington (41 hours) by Ron Chernow (he wrote the recently popular biography about Alexander Hamilton, which the musical is based on).

Review: City of Thieves

City of Thieves

Historical fiction and World War II are two subjects that I love reading about. Even better when they’re combined, in my opinion. I just finished City of Thieves by David Benioff and it’s one of my favorite books that I’ve read in awhile.

It follows the antics of two teenage Russian boys during the siege of Leningrad in the early 1940’s. After the boys are caught breaking the law and thrown in prison, they are given reprieve by a local military commander. Find a dozen eggs in 5 days and their lives will be spared.

From then on, both hilarity and catastrophe ensue. It’s full of (mis)adventure, humor, and even has some deep reflections on what it means to be alive. There were parts where I laughed out loud and other parts that nearly brought a tear to my eye.

For anyone who’s a fan of historical fiction, especially when set in World War II, I highly recommend this book. It’s great. And at 260 pages, you can get through it really quick.

Review: Zoo

Zoo
Zoo by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Let me start off by saying that the premise of “Zoo” sounds like a very promising story. It’s a techno-thriller set in the present day and explores a mystery illness suddenly spreading around the world that is causing all sorts of mammals to inexplicably attack humans on sight (and smell). From domesticated pets to wild animals, we’ve suddenly become nature’s favorite snack.

In reality, this book should probably be named, “50 Shades of Prey.” The writing style leaves quite a bit to be desired. The story alternates between poorly written third person narratives describing various animals attacking humans and tortuous first-person accounts from a “scientist” named Oz — an arrogant manic drop-out with ADHD from Colombia University who you would probably find calling into Art Bell’s Coast to Coast each week. Oh, he also has an insane chimpanzee for a pet.

Anyway, the story opens with two lions from the LA Zoo attacking their keeper (whom they’ve been familiar with for years) and escaping into the urban jungle known as Los Angeles and generally wrecking some major havoc.

From there, we meet Oz, a self-proclaimed pioneer of a little-known theory called HAC — human-animal conflict. For roughly the last 10 or so years, he’s been tracking every instance of animal attacks on humans and is the only one who notices a disturbing trend: they’ve been increasing exponentially!

It probably doesn’t help that his main / preferred companion is a chimp and he is a chronic homebody. (Interestingly enough, he still manages to have a girlfriend or two in the book.) Coupled with his caustic attitude toward other scientists who looked down upon him (and the constant snarky quips and comments he shares throughout the book), I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would have a hard time believing him.

Anyway, all of this leads to an interesting thought experiment: What happens when rats, bats, dogs, and dolphins (all lead by a single chimpanzee) take over the world and potentially lead to the fall of human civilization as we know it, while our only savior is a crazy introvert who knew this was going to happen all along?

Let’s just say that I really wanted to like this book. The concept had a lot of potential. Sadly, I found myself wanting to get through this book just so I could get done with it and move onto the next thing on my reading list. The parts describing the animal attacks tried to emulate a Stephen King horror novel while the first-person accounts with Oz were just downright torture to read.

Fortunately for me (and probably for you too), it’s a relatively mindless and quick read. I struggled with whether to give this two stars or three stars. The entire story started to unravel and grow more ridiculous toward the end (kind of like this review). Ultimately, I decided to give it 2 stars.

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Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Part sci-fi, part fantasy, and part adventure, Ready Player One is a fun read for anyone who is nerdy, plays video games, and grew up in the 80’s (and loved it). Some parts simply feel as if you’re watching someone else play a video game (we know how boring that can be), but others are action packed and deep enough to make you think. Read on for the rest of the review!

Ready Player One is the first book written by Ernest Cline. Published in 2011, it takes a look at an American dystopia in the near future (the story takes place around 2040). It’s a strange America – an America where abject poverty is prevalent on every street corner, but everyone still has access to the Internet.

More specifically, they have access to a virtual world called OASIS, which has replaced the Internet. OASIS is a fusion of Second Life, The Matrix, Avatar, World of Warcraft, Tron, and a number of other video games and movies. It’s a world where people go to escape the tedium and toil of everyday life, buy goods (both real and virtual), meet new people, and even learn and study.

The story follows our hero, Wade Watts, an overweight, nerdy kid only 18-years of age and living inside a slum nĂ©e trailer park in Oklahoma City. Socially awkward, he’s extraordinarily gifted with computers and feels most comfortable inside OASIS.

Ready Player One is told from Wade’s point of view. He begins the story by recounting where he was when he found out that James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, had passed away. Halliday was both reclusive and eccentric, and spent nearly his entire life creating, maintaining, and adding to OASIS. One can’t help but think of Steve Wozniak when Wade describes Halliday’s mannerisms. (We later find that Halliday had a ruthless and smart business partner throughout his life – it’s almost an interesting parable for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.)

Halliday had no heirs for his massive fortune. Instead, he only left behind video instructions detailing what should be done with estate. All one had to do to inherit his riches was to find and complete a series of Easter Eggs that he had hidden throughout Oasis. That was it!

Wade continues the story, explaining that this was no easy task. Halliday had left behind no clues about where his Easter Eggs may have been hidden among the tens of thousands of worlds inside OASIS.

Wade, and the thousands of others hoping to solve Halliday’s puzzle, were known as “Gunters” (a portmanteau of “egg hunters”). They began to focus on every aspect of Halliday’s life, particularly the 1980’s – a period that Halliday was especially obsessed with during his life. From here, the book descends into a virtual tour of pop culture from the 80’s. Quotes from Monty Python, songs by Rush, and arcade games such as Pacman, Tempest, and more. For anyone reading who both grew up during the 80’s and considered themselves well versed in its culture and history, the book will provide a ton of enjoyment.

Along the way, Wade and his friends will encounter rival Gunters and evil corporations bent on gaining control of Halliday’s fortune (as well as control of OASIS). Some parts are cheesy (e.g., some of the fights and battles) and others are rather thought provoking (e.g., when Wade confesses that he’s falling in love with an avatar/player that he’s never met in person – it reminded me of the movie Catfish).

Many of the themes in the book – such as those related to virtual goods, the digital economy, and even net neutrality – are especially relevant to today’s connected world. While I don’t particularly agree with the author’s vision of the future, I definitely appreciate many of the underlying themes.

Overall, I found this book to be fairly enjoyable. Some parts were slow and longer than necessary, but Wade was always a class act throughout the story. So, do nice guys really finish last? Find out! 🙂

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Popularity of dystopian books

Dystopian books

According to Goodreads, books about dystopian societies are as popular as they’ve ever been in at least 50 years. Apparently, the popularity of books with dystopian themes correlate fairly well to times of strife and conflict.

Dystopian fiction is more popular than it has been in more than 50 years. Whether it’s the result of political turmoil, global financial crises, or other anxieties, readers are craving books about ruthless governments and terrifying worlds. The new breed of dystopian novels combines classic dystopian themes of cruel governments and violent, restrictive worlds with a few new twists—badass heroines and romance.

Click through to Goodreads to check out the rest of the chart.

Review: The Book Thief

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

We picked this book for our most recent edition of book club and I was initially excited about it. Everyone I know has been raving about it and reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads have been very favorable. Besides, historical fiction set in World War II? Sweet, let’s do it!

quick. what do you see? a random piece of bold text that doesn’t make sense? does this seem confusing and out of context? me too. imagine seeing something like this over and over again…

I quickly found the narrator annoying, and his constant intrusion into the story was really distracting. The writing style left a lot to be desired as parts of the story seemed to start and stop at random, often with a bold sentence or two that was completely out of context. It felt like right as our train got underway and things would get interesting, the narrator would derail us. Sometimes it was a bold sentence, other times it was a list.

activities. these are things I could have been doing instead of reading this book.

1. Clipping my nails.

2. Reading a better story.

3. Give up reading books for Lent.

average. sorry, allow me to explain.

Maybe the abrupt writing style was there to try and make this story more compelling than it actually was. Between these random fits of starting and stopping, there is a distinctly average story. I never found myself really attached to any of the characters.

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Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alright, you may strip away my geek badge. When I started reading this book, I actually didn’t know this is what the movie “Blade Runner” was based on. As I started reading, there were many elements where I thought, “this sounds *really* familiar — too familiar!”

So, I did some further research, and what do you know!

Interestingly enough, I really enjoyed this book. Which surprises me, because I actually don’t enjoy the Blade Runner movie very much (strike two against my geek badge?).

Perhaps it was because the story in the book takes place in San Francisco, and it’s easy to relate, since I live here. The post-apocalyptic, dystopian theme also seems to tie in with various media I’ve been consuming recently (purely coincidental, I’m sure): Hunger Games, Book of Eli, Fallout 3, etc.

Anyway, the story takes place in the not too distant future, after a World War decimates much of planet Earth — forcing large parts of the population to emigrate to Mars. To incentivize people to leave Earth, settlers were given their own personal android servants (which were becoming disturbingly similar to humans).

For one reason or another, these androids would sometimes attempt to escape Mars and return to Earth. This is apparently a bad thing. So, various governments and agencies on Earth hired bounty hunters to specifically and discretely eliminate the unwelcome android immigrants.

The story follows the trails and tribulations of one bounty hunter in San Francisco, who is obsessed with the thought of owning a real animal (which is a status symbol in the not-too-distant future). Based on whether or not he kills an android, he gets a bounty, which he’s been saving up to eventually buy an animal.

It’s an entertaining read that examines the morality of creating and taking away artificial life forms, empathetic responses to various situations, and the philosophical debate of fate vs. free will.

It was a quick read (took about 2.5 days for me to get through), highly entertaining, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of science fiction. One thing: just, watch, out, for, Philip K. Dick’s, use, of, commas.

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Review: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our DecisionsPredictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dan Ariely writes in a pretty simple and straightforward manner about how ridiculous we act when it comes to economic decisions. It’s full of many examples and experiments (you get the feeling that students at MIT are unwittingly subjected to sociology experiments every single day) on how people will act regarding certain conditions (e.g., giving away something free vs. something cheap, paying for labor from friends vs. giving gifts).

In the short time since I’ve read it, I’ve already thought about many of the habits I do every day — should I really be purchasing this coffee and bagel every day? And why do I do that in the first place.

Anyway, it’s a pretty enlightening read into why we humans make certain decisions and how we can try to change things for the better.

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Contrasting an American Life

Last year, I read Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography on Albert Einstein, titled, “Einstein: His Life and Universe.”

Earlier today, I decided to look for more work by Isaacson and found that he wrote another great biography, this time about Benjamin Franklin. The book was titled, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.”

franklin_american_life.png

The tagline, “an American life,” struck a chord with me because it sounded so familiar. Where else have I heard that term recently? Ah yes.

palin_american_life.png

Seriously? It’s kind of insulting and sad that these books share the same tagline. Here are a few differences between the subjects of each book.

  • One book is about a great person, who had a profound effect on the founding of our country. The other is about someone trying to inadvertantly destroy it.
  • One book is about an inventor, intellect, and scientist. The other is about someone who despises those descriptions and the people behind them.
  • One book is about is about someone who strived to persevere in all facets of life. The other is about someone who perpetually quits when things get too tough.
  • One book is about a great American. The other is not.