Book 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 née 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.

Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's Son
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Orphan Master’s Son follows the life of Pak Jun Do, a young boy who lives in a North Korean orphanage with his father, the Orphan Master.

What ultimately transpires is a pretty gripping tale following the life of Jun Do as he grows up and lives life under the oppressive totalarian regime of Kim Jong Il. He ultimately joins to military and is assigned to tunnel duty — building tunnels for infiltration into South Korea. One day, he is visited by an officer and assigned a new task that will ultimately change his life, forever.

Some of my favorite chapters are written in an entertaining and light hearted manner — providing well timed, nice (almost comic) relief from some of the heavier parts of the book. They make you feel as if you’re listening to the latest daily propaganda dispatch from a nearby loudspeaker: “CITIZENS! Today is the Dear Leader’s birthday! Help us celebrate by DOUBLING your output quotas! Remember, it’s the only way to prevent a sneak attack by those imperialist aggressors!”

I don’t want to spoil much more of the story. There are twists and turns in the plot that will cause your jaw to drop. There are other parts that will potentially cause you to tear up. You really do feel as if someone peeled back a curtain, and you’re getting a genuine look inside North Korea.

This is a great book for any book club, as it has amazing potential for discussing fate versus free will, loyalty, love, fidelity, and courage. I often found myself laying awake at night, thinking about some of these central themes in the book.

My ultimate rating is 5 / 5 stars — I debated giving it 4 as I read along, but I think some of the deeper themes of the book, and the fact that it was so thought provoking, makes me belive it’s easily worth all 5 stars.

Forgive me for my hyperbole, but this was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read since The Kite Runner. I highly recommend it!

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Book Review: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I heard that Walter Isaacson was doing the Steve Jobs biography, I was quite excited about the potential. I loved his biographies on Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin (and his Henry Kissinger bio has been highly recommended). Needless to say, it was an instant pre-order.

The biography takes a look at the various parts of Steve’s life, from his upbringing as an adopted child, to his care free lifestyle and travels through India, to starting a company, getting kicked out, and then ultimately coming back.

Overall, the book was an interesting read and had some fascinating nuggets of information. But I found myself disappointed as I read further and further into the book. Isaacson had unprecedented access to Steve Jobs. I was really hoping that he could get inside his head, pick him apart, and come up with what made him tick, his thought processes, etc.

Unfortunately, he really didn’t. What we’re instead left with is a superficial look at Steve’s life in the first half of the book, and a look at Apple’s various product launches in the second half of the book. As I write this, news comes out today that Isaacson is planning an addendum to the Jobs biography in the future — adding more information and filling in some gaps.

Overall, the book was still an interesting read, and I think anyone who is a fan of technology will find it enjoyable. I just wish it was more fulfilling.

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Book 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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Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of SarajevoThe Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The “Cellist of Sarajevo” is a fictional account following the lives of four people struggling to survive during the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War of the early 1990’s. For those who don’t have much time devoted to reading, this book is a quick read.

The story itself is sometimes emotional, sometimes raw, and often depressing as it alternates between the lives of four characters (none of whom know each other) who struggle to survive. It begins when a Serbian mortar shell lands in the middle of a crowded market, killing 22 people and injuring scores more. A man living in an apartment near the market witnesses the explosion and subsequent deaths of many of his friends.

In the aftermath of this particularly gruesome attack, he vows to play Albinono’s Adagio in G Minor on his cello in the market, at the same spot and same time the shell exploded, for 22 days — one day for each person killed. (Why the story makes a big deal of the particular piece the cellist plays, I’m not sure — perhaps because it’s such a sad instrumental?)

Over the course of 22 days, the story shifts between 3 other characters, one who is a female sniper in the resistance (and confronts personal demons over the morality of her killings), an old man who became withdrawn and isolated because of the war (in order to protect himself from becoming too close to anyone else who might die), and a father who must make a dangerous trek every few days to provide food and water for his wife and children.

The personal conflicts each character deals with, because of and in addition to the war make for a somber story. While the story is fictitious, it provides a seemingly accurate and compelling portrayal of what life was like under a sieged city; indiscriminate shelling, snipers picking off innocent people, government corruption, lack of aid, food, water, or information.

Another aspect I thought was particularly interesting was the author’s portrayal of the morbid sense of humor the citizens of Sarajevo adopted during the situation. Jokes such as “Oh, you don’t want coffee? Now I can take a shower [with the small pot of water]” or “Don’t worry, I think the sniper today is just a bad shot!” show how people cope and still try to make the best of an unfortunate situation.

The Cellist of Sarajevo struck a personal chord with me, thanks to having a few friends who lived in or around the Balkans during the actual war. Another friend worked with a humanitarian organization inside Sarajevo during the siege! Their vivid and intense accounts of life meshed well with what this story described.

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Book Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After only two days of reading, I have just finished the second book in the Hunger Games series, “Catching Fire.” The first book was an equally quick read and provided an interesting story set in a post apocalyptic American future. 

The second story continues where the first left off, with Katniss, the main protagonist, coping with the ramifications of her controversial and seemingly rebellious win in the Hunger Games. This win allowed her and her partner, Peeta (a pathetically sad  example of a man and a generally loathsome character), to survive — something unprecedented since there’s only supposed to be one winner (think of it as a gladiator style competition, but with kids).

Sadly, the first half of the book comprises of a woe-is-me story that wastes the reader’s time with almost nothing that advances the story. There’s hints of a rebellion in other districts and the government seems to know everything that Katniss does (even when she illegally hunts in the wilderness outside her district and kisses a childhood friend).

Which is all the more perplexing when she ventures back out into the woods and encounters refugees from another district talking of rebellion. It’s like she completely forgot about what happened in the opening pages of the story with regard to the President’s warning. 

Halfway through the book, the story takes a predictable turn and forces Katniss and Peeta back into the arena. Fantastic! We basically get to re-read book one all over again. There’s some slight differences. People seem to be more angry with the government and the tributes (gladiators) seem to bond prior to the games.

Once in the arena, the story dissolved into a poor tale of survival as Katniss and others grouped up to survive. She struggles with issues of trust, love, and survival — including trying to escape a fog that acts like a nerve agent, mutant killer monkeys, crazy talking birds, random tsunamis, and other assorted lethal traps. The whole time, Peeta worries over protecting Katniss, who can clearly handle him and anything else that comes her way. Like I said, we’re basically re-reading the first book, word for word.

The ending provides an abrupt, untidy, unsatisfying, yet completely predictable conclusion to the Games. A conspiracy among the other tributes to keep Katniss alive has been carried out all along, without Katniss (or the all knowing government) aware of it. The ending simply serves to setup book three. Great.

Sadly, I have no desire to read book three, yet I feel I must. It’s like how I started feeling about Lost — started off interesting, then get sloppy, but I’ve put all this time into it, so I must see how everything concludes.

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Book Review: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Roach has basically killed my desire to ever be an astronaut.

However, that’s not to say this book is bad. It’s actually a quick, very enjoyable, and entertaining read. But she tackles many of the less glamorous things astronauts must do or cope with — from having every second of their lives and missions pre-planned, to the difficulties involved in going to the restroom, or even eating the specialized food.

She walks us through the history of the space program while packing in quirky stories and mission transcripts (“Here’s another goddamn turd. What’s the matter with you guys?”), from its inception post World War II and sending monkeys into space to testing the effects of zero gravity environments on humans.

There were a number of times that I laughed out loud while reading this book on the bus or in a train and I noticed passengers sitting next to me would try to steal glances of the book I was reading. I can only imagine what kind of freak the person thought I was when they read something like, “Then along came Joseph Tash and his sea urchin splooge.”

Anyway, the book is a great read for anyone interested in the space program and presents the finer, less glamorous details in an amusing and fun to read manner.

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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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