Sunday, February 26, 2017

Book Review: Ready Player One - Highly Recommend

I've been meaning to get around to this book, Ready Player One, ever since it was placed on my book club's selection list last year. Unfortunately, the month of this discussion I was out of town. Plus, at the time, the hold list was quite lengthy. This time around, I was able to snag it in audio form and was really glad I did. The miles on my treadmill fell away as I walked, thoroughly engrossed in the action of the tale.

Classic writing advice is to write about what you love. Ernest Cline has clearly done that. We enter the environment of gaming with an intensity only a techie could establish. The world of this book comes to life like putting on a pair of virtual reality goggles and seeing something new.

Wade Watts spends most of his time avoiding reality by living through his avatar in the OASIS, a virtual reality system created by a man named James Halliday. In the spirit of gaming, when Halliday dies, he leaves behind a quest for the masses, a set of obstacles to push through in order to acquire three special keys and unlock the ultimate Easter Egg (the entirety of his inheritance). Wade joins the multitudes attempting to ferret out the puzzles Halliday left behind. All of these puzzles circle around pop culture from the 80's and gaming technology throughout history. But, Wade has studied hard and is pretty good at the games. When he lands in the top five, he begins to realize that not only is he competing against hoards of people, but that many of these people would do anything to take him out of the game.

I loved this book so much that I began to talk it up to my ten-year-old son (a boy who loves to tackle lengthy novels). But, then I had to retract that suggestion or put the book on hold for at least a few years. Even though the main character is a teenager and Sean often reads intense books about teens (like The Hunger Games series or The Maze Runner series), it still contained some mild sexual references that I would feel too uncomfortable putting in the hands of a ten-year-old reader (seriously, was that necessary). Plus, he is likely to miss out on the thrill of the numerous 80's references and computer history details. I found those quite interesting, having lived my teen years in that time period.

I never felt bogged down by the details of the story and was quite caught up in the plot development of the tale. You have your classic foe and your loveable hero (note: some of the characters were a bit too predictable). Plus, there's a bit of romance thrown into the mix. Even if you're not a big fan of computer gaming, this novel is sure to appeal based on the perfect plotting pace alone. Every chapter introduces a new obstacle and Wade fights through in remarkable ways. I highly recommend this book to teens and adults alike (just not children).

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Book Review - A Man Called Ove - Highly Recommend

This book will definitely make it on my best-reads-of-the-year list at the end of 2017! I'm not surprised at all that it quickly became an international bestseller. I agree wholeheartedly with all of the endorsements on the back cover:

"If there was an award for 'Most Charming Book of the Year,' this first novel ... would win hands down." - Booklist

"[A] crowd-pleaser that serves up laughs to accompany a thoughtful reflection on loss and love." - Publishers Weekly

"There are characters who amuse us, and stories that touch us. But this character and his story do even more: A Man Called Ove makes us think about who we are and how we want to live our lives.... Frederick Backman packs a lifetime's worth of hilarity and heartbreak into this novel. Even the most crusty curmudgeon will love Ove!" - Lois Leveen

Ove is facing several challenges (loss of, first, his wife, then his job) on the day his new neighbors back their trailer into his mailbox. He cannot believe they could possibly be so incompetent and tells them as much. But this young couple with their two daughters insert themselves into Ove's life at this perilous time and keep him going in a way he never anticipated.

I was swept into the tale from the very start as Ove enters a computer store seeking assistance in facing the technological opportunities surrounding him. He is overwhelmed with the newfangled toys and nonplussed by the assistant who seems incapable of providing help and more intent upon getting to his lunch break than in assisting Ove. His character begins to shine through and worm his way into the reader's heart. As each chapter progresses, you get more of a picture of this crusty old man (although, being in my fifties, it seemed 59 was a young age to be calling him a crusty old man).

The author delightfully manages to sweep you back and forth between tears of sadness and tears of laughter. In the midst of painting the heartbreaking tale of a man who misses his wife and just wants to be with her again, you find yourself giggling at the interruptions to his plans, at his good heart, and at his unique perspective on life. You begin to understand what makes him tick and why he is needed in his community.

At one point Ove finds himself driving a load of neighbors home from the hospital (a real sacrifice on his part of both his time and his offering of his beloved car). I had to laugh out loud as the author writes, "Ove looks at the group assembled around him, as if he's been kidnapped and taken to a parallel universe. For a moment he thinks about swerving off the road, until he realizes that the worst-case scenario would be that they all accompanied him into the afterlife. After this insight, he reduces his speed and increases the gap significantly between his car and the one in front."

The author expresses the old man's struggle with the idea of taking pills to end his life: "[Ove] has never liked the feeling of losing control. He's come to realize over the years that it's this very feeling that normal folk like and strive for, but as far as Ove is concerned only a complete bloody airhead could find loss of control a state worth aiming for."

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I will rave about it to anyone who will listen. It has such depth and such humor simultaneously. I wept at the ending. The author brings the tale full circle in a satisfying way and the reader is left with a longing to find a community just like Ove's and play whatever role life intends. It also makes you stop and think that the next grumpy person you encounter has a whole life-story behind them and a value you often cannot easily comprehend.

I discovered this trailer for the movie based upon the book. I might just have to give it a try. If nothing else, the trailer helped me understand the Swedish pronunciation of the main character's name (something I struggled with through the whole book, thinking "do you say it o-vay or ove, like rhyming with glove?) - it is pronounced oo-vay. I almost wish it actually was pronounced the second way because I love Ove!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Book Review: The Silent Governess

While I wasn't seeking Christian historical fiction, I somehow happened upon Julie Klassen's fine novel, The Silent Governess. With an intriguing title and a captivating cover, this novel sucks the reader into a story of Regency England. Questions arise from the very cover and pull the reader in. How can a silent person effectively teach children? Why is she silent? Will there be romance for this attractive young woman?

After hitting a would-be-attacker over the head, Olivia Keene has taken flight. When she stumbles upon an elegant manor house and overhears a dangerous secret, the lord of the manor can do little else but offer her a job as governess in order to keep tabs on this woman who holds the dynamite of truth in her hands. Secrets abound and threaten to undo several individuals.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit. The characters were interesting and varied. The plot moved at an adequate pace. It didn't come off as preachy, yet demonstrated the consequences of sinful choices and human frailty. I would say that it seemed like every time you turned around a young man was behaving with indiscretion, but I can overlook that. I appreciated the inclusion of snippets from various books about the role of the governess (at the outset of each chapter). Indeed, life as a governess, presented plenty of challenges. I would happily read another book, set in this time period, by this author.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Book Review: Girl in Translation

When you find a blog you instantly relate to, you know you've met a kindred soul and often that means that the books they review favorably will be books you enjoy, as well. Thus, when my friend Catherine, who writes at A Spirited Mind, wrote up her end-of-year favorites, I not only scanned for 2016, but also for the past six years. I'm so glad I did because it led to this gem of a book, Girl in Translation. Catherine reviewed it on her blog six years ago and said she rarely cries at books, but this one brought her to tears. While I wasn't tugged to the point of tears (possibly because I listened in audio form), I would agree that it was a well-executed and intensely compelling book.

Author Jean Kwok probably drew from first-hand experience to tell the story of Kimberly Chang, a young immigrant girl from Hong Kong. Like Kimberly, Kwok immigrated to Brooklyn, worked in a sweatshop, and ended up in an Ivy League school. So often personal pain becomes gold when it is spun into fiction. Readers follow Kimberly's struggles to fit in with limited language skills, a deplorable living situation, and the standard challenges of balancing two cultures. Thanks to a knack for school, Kimberly manages to rise above the insurmountable obstacles, but not without a few bumps and some heartache along the way.

I enjoyed this book for many of the same reasons Catherine outlines in her review. The level of description is enough to pull you into the story without overloading on minute details. The characters are well-drawn and the plot well-paced. Best of all, I appreciated how Kwok brought Kimberly to a cross-roads (a point where I feared the story would veer down a path I couldn't bear to follow) and followed her choice to reveal both the benefits and drawbacks of her chosen path. You certainly couldn't tell that this was a debut effort. The author skillfully presents a story of cross-cultural experience accessible to all readers.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Book Review: Ink and Bone

What a gorgeous cover and fabulous premise! Imagine a world where a supreme library controls all the knowledge of the ages and it is illegal to own a book. Horror of horrors! Since knowledge is power, you are not allowed to access that without permission and strict controls in place. Of course, that would lead to book smuggling and a voracious appetite for the forbidden. I loved the idea behind The Great Library series. I just didn't love the book as much as I expected.

Booklist declared Ink and Bone "A thrill-a-minute adventure" and said it mirrors "the excitement and bitterness of The Hunger Games" and "the psychological elements of the Harry Potter books." Well, I can't say I was hooked in fully from the start. For me, it took quite a while to get engrossed to the point where I forgot that I was reading, but I did feel more compelled mid-way through the book.

Jess Brightwell is a runner for his father, smuggling illegal books to wealthy clients. His older brother lost his life in this job and Jess jumps at the chance to get out of it when his father sends him to train for the Library's service. Of course, the family hopes he will serve as a spy for them. But, Jess has his own personal reasons for wanting to work for the Library. He loves books. He cannot stand to see them fall into the wrong hands.

Training is more daunting than Jess imagined. He and his fellow postulates must learn under the tutelage of the strict and almost vindictive Scholar Wolfe. Yet even the training failed to fully entice me. I was finally hooked when the postulates are forced to follow Scholar Wolfe into a war zone to retrieve some rare books. Then, the action picked up and I ended the book with more desire to follow the series.

Perhaps it was more of a timing issue. I might not have been engrossed by any YA book since my mind is still churning over the first draft of a women's novel I completed only days ago. Still, most bibliophiles would find this premise enticing enough to bite and the action does pick up the further you get into the story. I'm pretty sure, I'll seek out the second book, Paper and Fire, at some point, just maybe not in the immediate future. For a more eloquent expression of my exact sentiments about the book, clearly articulated by an Amazon reviewer named Sarah, click here. She captured my intense desire to love the book and my regret over my initial disengagement.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Gotta Love a Deal Like That!

It's the little things in life that thrill me - especially a great score on over-the-top savings. This used to be the kind of thing I would call my mother with, to share the thrill of the conquest (after all, she's the one who nurtured this compulsion into being). Alas, with her dementia diagnosis, I no longer have a comrade in cahoots to share with. So, I'm spilling it here.

This is what I brought home from Kroger today - a pint of ice cream, jar of peanut butter, jar of pasta sauce, protein bar, chocolate bar, and grapes - for the low, low price of ninety cents! Yes, you read that correctly. Less than a dollar! (This is thanks to two of the Kroger Free Friday items and two free items with a preferred customer coupon, paired with a $2 off coupon I received when I picked up my husband's last prescription at their pharmacy.) They're practically paying me to shop there - ha!

A 93% savings! Ha! I had planned to drive through Steak-n-Shake for their half price happy hour shakes, but instead, I spent less than half of what that would have cost and ate half the pint of ice cream. My tummy is happy! My wallet is happier still!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes

I immediately declared this book "a fascinating read" but, after I'd gotten further into it, wished I could retract my enthusiastic recommendations. The beginning of Mrs. Sherlock Holmes was truly intriguing as the story of this tireless female detective was introduced. I was fascinated by the missing person case of Ruth Cruger, who disappeared off the New York streets in February of 1917. However, the further I read, the more the background information, weaving in and out of the story of Ruth Cruger in order to highlight the career of Grace Humiston, somewhat muddied the waters. Sadly, the book became more difficult to follow and a bit less compelling.

I think I would have preferred a book focused exclusively on the Cruger case, instead of bringing in various other cases and widening the scope to reveal the detective prowess of Grace Humiston. Alas, it would have been titled differently and would have, indeed, been a very different book. I appreciate the historical digging this author did to uncover the story of the first female U.S. district attorney and the first female detective to work with the New York Police Department. All in all, it still tapped my curiosity, just wish it had held my enthusiastic interest throughout the tale instead of losing it in a jumbled mess of details and separate cases.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Book Review: The Way of the Writer

I try to stay on top of the writing books my library acquires. This recent acquisition, The Way of the Writer, was written by an African American writer whose works I've never read. However, I would like to think that the race placed before the word "writer" could be eliminated and simply refer to him as a writer who is an African American. This concept is often presented when thinking about Christian writers - do they attempt to be a writer whose work is identified because of their religious affiliations or is their work identified because of their excellence in writing, with a side nod to their belief system? I wanted to read a book about writing where the emphasis was on the writing and not on the race or background of the writer, or on his grand accomplishments in that endeavor. Alas, the focus was more on self than on writing. Nonetheless, I was able to glean some bits of worthy observation and instruction.

I was especially encouraged by a remark made early in the book about the process of acquiring writing skills. Johnson wrote six novels before he wrote his debut novel. He observes, "authors should not publish their first novels. Writers ... should keep in mind that not being published is not failure." I would have to agree. The first novel I completed was most certainly not the best novel I have written, and perhaps I will not achieve publication until I have a manuscript that is entirely worthy.

My favorite part of the entire book was a section Johnson included on opening sentences. He presented a list selected by the editors of the American Book Review of the hundred best first lines for novels. While I didn't agree that all of them were stupendous, there were definitely some rich and powerful lines. Of course, I appreciated Dickens's first line from A Tale of Two Cities. Moreover, who wouldn't be captured by the line "Mother died today." (Camus's - The Stranger) Then there's C.S. Lewis's excellent first line in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." Or Walker's first line in The Color Purple: "You better not never tell nobody but God." The first lines in Eugenides's Middlesex and Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups actually made me want to pick up their novels without knowing anything more about them. I was amused to see the first line from Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa, a book I checked out when I first heard of it, over a decade ago, simply because he restricted his writing so that every word in the first chapter begins with the letter a, and subsequent chapters only allow the addition of words starting with a and b, then a, b, and c, etc. (I had to show that first line to my boys and tell them of that unique book.)

When speaking of plot, Johnson urges writers to identify their protagonist's deepest social fear. I believe this is the very best advice he imparted. I intend to think long and hard about what is my protagonist's greatest fear, and also, what is my own.

In another chapter, Johnson identified what he calls the "alpha narrative." This is a work where "one never has the feeling that a writer is trying to tell a story. We aren't even aware of the writer, only of the compelling world he (or she) has delivered to us." My sentiments exactly. The very best narratives are the ones you get so caught up in that you are oblivious to word choice, style, plotting, etc. - all those things writers should work at to the point that they appear seamless.

Again in speaking of the great task of sculpting the final product, Johnson writes:

"When writing well, one works very hard at creating a musical variety in sentence length, in sentence forms, and throughout a paragraph; at chopping away waste; at harmoniously blending the final sentence of one paragraph with the first sentence of the next through rhythm and rhetorical techniques; at revising until a sentence surprises and is no longer recognizable as its first-draft incarnation. These are not things most readers ... will see, nor should they, for craft should be experienced the way we do our spectacles ... as something that enables us to see while not calling attention to itself."

My biggest complaint about this writing book falls along the lines of the tail-end of this very thought. A really great book about writing would be one that teaches a writer the craft without calling attention to the teacher. Yet, this book, repeatedly emphasized the author's own personal accomplishments and abilities instead of focusing entirely on what he was trying to teach, the art of writing well. Indeed, I think he only included that list I so enjoyed because it referenced a first line from one of his own books, Middle Passage. Whenever a writer attempts to teach someone how to do what they do, I'm sure it is inevitable that they fall back on their own examples. This book felt like it was more memoir than lesson book on the craft of storytelling. Indeed, even Stephen King's book, On Writing, feels a good deal like a memoir. Still, I'm more liable to recommend King's book about writing than I am to recommend this one, sadly.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Book Review: The Secret Keepers

Had I known The Secret Keepers was over 500 pages long, I probably wouldn't have requested it (I was enticed by the pitch paragraph on the library's website page of newest acquisitions). I'm not opposed to lengthy books, but I tend to doubt the author will be able to carry off the required intensity in a tween book to keep the reader reading. Then again, this author is well-known for his Mysterious Benedict Society series (a series I've never attempted). I read the book in four big chunks of time and kept turning pages despite the length.

Eleven-year-old Reuben lives in New Umbra with his widowed mother. It is a town full of mystery, ruled by the powerful and unknown entity called "The Smoke." This alleged ghost/monster works through The Counselor to police the city with henchmen, known as The Directions. When Reuben finds an antique watch, he cannot begin to understand the world of trouble it will bring him. The watch possesses a magical property and The Smoke is desperate to get his hands on it. Reuben must unravel the secret of the watch and decide what to do with it, while trying to keep it out of the hands of the tyrannical leader.

I cannot say I will recommend this book to my youngest to attempt to read (even though he is usually quite drawn to lengthy books). While it was entertaining, much of it felt unbelievable. For instance, at the very beginning of the story, Reuben acquires the watch after wedging himself between two walls and walking with his hands and feet up the side of the buildings for three stories, then swinging himself gracefully onto a ledge at this height. Hmm. The watch renders him invisible, but at the same time also renders him blind. Yet, he is seemingly able to maneuver around everywhere he desires to go, despite this lack of sight. Hmm. He enters a cave at a dangerous time and yet is whisked away from danger by his tiny female friend, Penny. Shwew!

It wasn't a bad read. It was clean. It was, indeed, full of secrets and traps and legends and danger. I was truly caught up in the story. The children triumph despite obstacles. Yet, somehow, I just ended with a ho-hum feeling for the book.