1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
I first heard about this book in an issue of Entertainment Weekly that I read a few years ago. It then serendipitously resurfaced on the 2012 YALSA Best of the Best list, which is the basis of a reading challenge that Sheree and I were tackling. Spurred forth by equal parts fate, curiosity, and competitive spirit, I checked a copy out on le Kindle. And then I read it. This is what happened.
A MMORPG called OASIS has evolved into a fully interactive virtual universe. People work, play, socialize, and attend school within the confines of this online program. As a result, the real world has turned to crap. Nobody leaves their homes, and I imagine the smell that permeates Hastur’s Games and Hobbies is pretty much everywhere. Upon the death of James Halliday, the CEO of the OASIS company, a mysterious competition presents itself to all users. If a user is able to find three keys that have been scattered throughout the vast online expanse of OASIS–and complete their subsequent challenges–they inherit Halliday’s company along with his billions of dollars. The only clue is a document called Anorak’s Almanac which contains all of Halliday’s thoughts and ruminations on the popular culture of the 1980’s. As such, films such as Real Genius and War Games become scripture, and games for the Atari 2600 become legend. Teenager and ’80’s wunderkind Wade Watts believes he has what it takes to solve this challenge. Along the way, he encounters other agoraphobes who are also hunting for this Easter egg to end all Easter eggs.
Originality is what makes this book readable. The idea of a virtual world where I could visit an entire planet dedicated to Full House and plug Danny Tanner in the head with a plasma rifle is immensely appealing. Cline’s manic, ADD soaked world is definitely a place worth wasting one’s entire life. The nostalgia of the 1980’s is everywhere in the novel, and it made me miss the days of the original NES and good horror movies.
I believe that sometimes, a writer has an idea that surpasses his/her ability to write. This book is a good example of that phenomenon. Full props to Mr. Cline for going for it, but there were several moments when I felt like I was reading a rough draft rather than a complete book.
If you consider yourself a geek and you have a fondness for ’80’s pop culture, you’ll enjoy reading this book. Just don’t get too hung up on the cringe-worthy dialogue. Rating: B+
2. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Summary from Goodreads:
In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen. With shades of Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, and The Thousand and One Nights, Alif the Unseen is a tour de force debut—a sophisticated melting pot of ideas, philosophy, religion, technology and spirituality smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner.
I loved this book! It was a strange mix of elements that probably shouldn’t have worked together, but definitely did. It reminded me of Neverwhere by Neal Gaiman mixed with Ready Player One set in the Middle East… or something like that. Technology, magic, religion, Middle Eastern culture–I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it. Totally awesome.
I think it’s safe to say that I haven’t ever read a book like this. At points, I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but the Middle Eastern setting and mythology were both fascinating. Plus, the idea of pulling mysticism and technology together was very nicely done. Great book for anyone who wants likable characters to take them through a bit of a mindfudge. Rating: A-
3. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Summary from Goodreads:
A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore
With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.
I really, really enjoyed this one. As I think about it, it’s not without flaws: the characterization sometimes seems a bit thin, the ending is too abrupt… But I really didn’t care so much, because it was fun and clever and bookishly nerdy, which I obviously love. And while I’m a little sick of first person narration, it didn’t bother me in this one because the main character was just so likable. The most fun book I read last year. This book is a win.
The latest in a slew of books I’ve read about the secret lives of computer programmers, I might have enjoyed Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore the most. It shared many of the things I liked about Alif the Unseen–a romantic perspective on books, shady conspiracies and likable nerdy characters. A Murakami comparison might be a bit of a stretch–I found Sloan’s writing to be more similar to a Dan Brown puzzler, other than the fact that he lacks Brown’s pretension and self-love. It was fun to piece together this global mystery that the characters approach as a real-life campaign of Dungeons and Dragons. Yet another novel that makes me wish I was better with computers. And numbers in general. Rating: A-