Friday, March 7, 2014

Mini-reviews - Classics Club Special

I joined Classics Club in February 2013, and uploaded my list of a 100 classic books I hope to read. A year and one month has passed and I figured it's a good idea to see how I've been doing in that front.
I've read 21 books out of my 100! Which I'm perfectly happy with. So far I have written about 16 books. I was very firm about my classic books, meaning that I was willing to mini-review other books, but wanted to make a separate post for all my classics. However, I am going to type a mini-review edition of five classics that I have, and have had for quite a bit, on my shelf.  
C_Club #17 - The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera - 5/5
I read this book last year, and it's one of my all time favourite. The first time I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being was in high school, and now, after the re-read, I love it even more. That book also started my slight obsession with Prague, which finally culminated last summer, when I got to visit this marvellous city for the first time (there's a scene in the beginning of the book where one of the main characters, Tereza, walks around in Prague with a copy of Anna Karenina casually under her arm; I find both characters, Tereza and Anna, equally intriguing). I wrote a little bit about why I love this book in my TOP5 Best Books 2013 post.
C_Club #18 - North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell - 4/5
Fortunately or unfortunately, this was not my first Gaskell novel - I read and enjoyed Cranford back in December. So it's safe to say I expected to like North and South, and I did. Taking a peek into life in an industrialist town was interesting, and I liked that Margaret Hale was not portrayed as some stiff upper class person unable to think change. John Thornton is, I think, one of the better male protagonists, he did have some hilarious lines -- "I am a man. I claim the right of expressing my feelings."
C_Club #19 - Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol - 4/5
A man named Chichikov goes around in Russia and attempts to buy dead souls. This is a heavy criticism on Russian politics and Russian people, but its told in a surprisingly humorous manner (trust me, I was more than ready to face some more angst of tortured Russian souls). Especially Chichikov's meetings with people he sees in the countryside are very funny.
A fun fact: in Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief, we meet gogols. Since I read these two books close to another, it was not exactly difficult to draw instant connection. Gogols are entities that can be cloned and transferred between bodies, so they are kind of dead souls. I proper book-geeked out, because book nerds love such pointless tidbits.  

C_Club #20 - The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver 4/5
Another very solid book from Kingsolver, I am quite sure I will read her other books too (I read and rather enjoyed Flight Behavior last May). Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to a Baptist mission to Belgian Congo in 1959. The book is highly thought provoking (who has the right to assume that things, which we believe in and which suit us, work the same way for everyone else?) and I liked it because I learned so much about this time period in Africa, which I was not aware of before - perks of historical fiction. The book is told through five different POVs, which I always like; in this case all the voices were very different and distinguishable. The reason why I didn't give The Poisonwood Bible maximum points is that the characters at times felt too stretched out, exaggerated - for example Rachel was totally believable as your typical door-slamming can't-see-further-from-my-own-tip-of-nose teenager, but I found it hard to believe that even at the age of 40, pretty much nothing had changed in her attitudes. But maybe there are such people in this world...
One thing I cannot stop thinking about is the translation of this book. I know it has been translated into many foreign languages, and one of the characters Adah speaks a lot in palindromes - how do you translate a palindrome so that neither its meaning nor its shape changes? It's impossible! I am so curious. My guess is they probably made up different palindromes with as similar meaning as possible.

C_Club #21 - Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut - 2/5
I didn't like this book. *sad face* I just didn't like it. I can sense its huge literary merit and the importance of the ideas it carries but I just didn't connect with Vonnegut's writing at all. Which is a shame - I so wanted to like his stuff.
Guys! I'm almost caught up with all my reviews - don't remember when that last happened. Now I only have John Green's The Fault in Our Stars to write about, and that's gonna be a toughie :p, and also Packing for Mars by Mary Roach for year 2014 TBR Challenge.

PS. The Women's Prize (Bailey's Prize this year) longlist was just announced last night - have you already seen it? Click me. Exicing stuff. I'll make a post on Women's Prize and write how the last year's project went for me.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Mini-reviews #5

Apparently I read a lot faster than I review, so here notes on some long overdue books. It is a coincidence that they all fall under fantasy or science fiction genre.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi - 5/5
"John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joiced the army." -- You pretty much cannot go wrong with a book that starts like that. Once your biological clock hits 75, you are welcome to join Colonial Defence Force, organisation established in the space, investigating and encountering alien civilizations in space. The trick? You can never return to Earth. Then again, you *are* 75 years old. Time to see new places, meet new species! John Perry joins the CDF, and what ensues is hilarious story of 75+-year olds (only in a bit of a tweaked form) battling in the space with all kinds of different life forms. For example, there's a planet full of hostile goo. Yep.
A fast paced, hilariously funny militaristic space opera. Nice change to all the teenage heroes and child battle commandors.

So, the books are getting bigger, and the kids are getting older. It was decent book - nice world building as usual, some funny stuff, some teenage angst starts peeking from behind the curtain... However, I often founds myself thinking that this book feels like a bit of a filler. Though given the concept of these books there is really not much to fill? But some of it felt like really dragged out, especially the beginning. Still, all these books are still very enjoyable, I'm looking forward to the next brick.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black - 3.5/5
Even though I have near zero interest towards vampire-related things, I quite liked the concept of this particular vampire story. The characters were pretty decent, Tana didn't get on my nerves and vampire Gavriel had some interesting features about him. Social media plays a great role in this world of Coldtowns, which I also found interesting.

The Curse of Europa by Brian P. Kayser - 3/5
I found this short novel in Kindle store (I don't think it's even available in physical form) and on a whim decided to give it a go. A crew of astronauts fly to one of Jupiter's moon's, Europa, to seek for signs of life on and under its icy cold surface. However, the moon Europa is supposed to have a curse, and weird things start happening... *dun dun dun*
I don't read chick lit, but I imagine if there was a time and need for something chick lit-ish, meaning nice and easy for your brain but still in some way satisfying reading experience, books like this is what I would turn to. I was happily reading away - Kayser does decent job describing the moon and the space and generally ... describing, however, as soon as a dialogue appears, things get really bad. Conversations among people in this book are really awkward, especially those between the female and male astronaut, who have a litl bit of something going on, if you know what I mean. Oh boy. It kinda felt like back in elementary school at times. However! I did enjoy the story overall and bad dialogue became a part of it in the end. Definitely a different kind of experience.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi - 3/5
Oh, maaaan. This book. It's like an extraterrestrial explosion in your head - it's mind blowing, colourful and very exciting, only after the explosion the broken pieces lie around everywhere, and it's not that easy to pick them all up, and set them back into place. That's pretty much how I felt when reading this book. It is a very unique science fiction piece by a Finnish author with an unpronouncable (*chuckles*) name. I appreciate all the ideas Rajaniemi tried to put into this book and I tip my imaginary space helmet hat to him, because I admire adventurous authors who have courage to take risks, but maybe it just wasn't the right book at the right time for me.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ready Player One (+ my brief gaming history)

I was born in 1982.

I have been playing computer games since 1990-ish. I played Street Fighter (1987) and Super Mario (1985) with my brother on Nintendo console when I was a wee little girl. I favourite computer games used to be the classic FPS (first person shooter) games such as Doom (1993), Quake (1996) and Wolfenstein 3D (1992) (the latter one was my fav). Very violent games for a little girl - might explain some character developments in later life - just kidding :p

I have been playing MMOs since 2009 - The Lord of the Rings Online, nowadays Dungeons and Dragons Online (I've never tried, nor do I intend to try, World of Warcraft). Oh, there was also short visit to Guild Wars, but really - quite short.

This book was written for me.

Let's start this off with my very own soundtrack pick for this book. It was pretty much one of the first things that hopped into my mind when reading Ready Player One:

The absolute pinnacle of my nerd life has probably been the period in the beginning of 2000s when I was obsessed with "a single-player roguelike video game" called NetHack (original release date 1987). Here's a little example of a typical dungeon level in NetHack:

Graphics are for wimps.

Yes, I do realise this is about as nerd as you get... I completed the game several times, mostly with my favourite class valkyrie. Completing this game was not easy and took a lot of time and dedication. Most of my male gamer friends of the time were genuinely surprised that I had even done that. Clearly, it was too nerdy for even their taste :p Around the same time I also played MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon/Domain/Dimension), which are/were basically like MMOs without graphics. Around that time I also had my brief but passionate affair with The Legend of Zelda (1986). These were the glorious days, I tell you.
I know many people appreciate Ready Player One mainly because of its tons and tons of 1980ties' pop-culture references, and although I do love me some music (I was quite a bit into Def Leppard, Bryan Adams and other weird stuff when younger; "Canadian rock band Rush" is one of my very favourites even today, though imo labelling that one simply "rock band" does it disservice), movies and TV-series from this era (not fashion though - definitely not the fashion), the main reason I loved this book was everything related to virtual reality and games.
Wolfeinstein 3D. Graphics for awesome! back then.
The book is set in a dystopian world of year 2044. The Real World has pretty much collapsed (the scene where the main character takes a bus - which has basically become a moving fortress with protective plates all over and equipped with six heavily armed guards was very eerie) and the whole population spends majority of the time in OASIS, a virtual life-like reality. I won't talk about synopsis as for me it is just the background to the rest of the awesomeness of this book. The book is littered with all kinds of references to the pop-culture and video games from 1980ties and its greatest value clearly lies in reader's ability to recognise and relate to as many of these things as possible.
This book is clever. * ** ***(See the notes in the bottom for some examples.) I noticed so many things. I think it'll take a few re-reads to notice everything because the plot is interesting enough to make you want to read fast just to find out how the competition will go.
Over the years, as I have formed friendships in virtual realities with nothing but my avatar to represent myself to other people, I've thought a lot about the conflict that is somewhat central in this book: how adequate of representation can your virtual avatar be of your real self? We see Wade/Parzival in how he comes off in OASIS, and we see him also as he is in Real Life - a slightly overweight, lonely, antisocial boy. I am not sure how good representation it is of the general population playing games out there right now (people I know on more closer levels are nothing like the stereotype), but the stereotype of The Gamer is definitely out there.
The Lord of the Rings Online: Shire.

It is, of course, 100% true that you can modify your personality behind your avatar in the game. It doesn't mean you are necessarily lying (though plenty of people do, of course) - you are just prone to hiding the things that are maybe less pleasant about yourself and your life. Things that were not so easy to hide if you were to communicate with those people outside the virtual world. It's natural, everyone wants to look their best, but nevertheless, it is still not a true representation of yourself, and I think whenever forming any kind of deeper relationships in virtual world (it also means general chat rooms and such), it's something everyone should keep in mind. It's good to take everything with a grain of salt, basically.
Back to the book though - at times the border between the reality and the virtual reality became very vague. It felt Inception-isque, if you please. I had to track back several mental steps at some point when Wade was playing a game inside a game. I don't know how Ernest Cline did it, but it was very well done.

I think what makes this book so good for such a wide audience is that it speaks to so many people, although maybe on a bit different levels. If you are someone who loves dystopian lit, you'll enjoy this book. If you are into pop-culture in general (and specifically into pop-culture of the era described in the book), you'll enjoy it even more. If you are a gamer and especially if you are a gamer with experience of having avatars in virtual multi-user worlds, you probably can relate the most to this book. And you don't have to recognise every single reference in the book (is that even possible?) - but I think it's likely that the more you do, the more enjoyable the story is.

One thing to keep in mind though is - don't take this book too seriously. There might have been a few times where I was "Is this really possible...", but it doesn't matter. If you are an IT-expert, you might cringe at some points, but it doesn't matter. This book is about something else completely. Just read it, and have lots of fun while doing it.

Highly recommended!

* Wade/Parzival keeps showing off the Scoreboard  to the readers quite regularly as long as his name is displayed in the top there. But as soon as Sixers get the edge and fill the TOP10 of the Scoreboard, he stops publishing it altogether in his narrative. I felt it was a very clever way to illustrate the whole notion of "On Internet, you can show off your best face, and attempt to hide things that are not that pleasant".

** I'd already decided what I was going to do when it happened. First, I would choose one of the kids in my official fan club, someone with no money and a first-level newbie avatar, and give her every item I owned. -- Whether consciously or sub-consciously, Wade/Parzival uses "her" in this sentence. In MMOs, since the female population has been, at least so far, considerably scarcer than male population, it is very common that males show favouritism towards females (or characters they believe are females). Help them do quests, give them free items. I am not completely sure if Cline had that in mind in that section, but I sure made the connection.

***42 is probably one of the more famous and significant numbers out there and I noticed it being used also in this book - Wade's apartment is on 42nd floor, later on his hab-unit is numbered 42G. Interestingly, the Japanese gamer Daito lived on 43rd floor - a coincidence? There might have been more of such references that I just didn't catch all at once.
One of the recent screenshots from Dungeons and Dragons Online: we have come a long way since the days
of NetHack.

If you'd like to read some more coherent reviews that actually focus on the book (:p) check out those that I have read and liked:

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Closing the lid of February - 5 books, 1 story, 3 movies

February is over. The month mostly sucked big time, so I'm glad it's kinda socially acceptable to start waiting for spring now.
Due to bad stuff that happened in the beginning of the month, I only managed to finish 5 books and read one story. (In hindsight, Olympics might have had something to do with it as well. I love Olympics.)
* Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut - 2/5
* The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss - 3/5
* Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson - 4/5
* Old Man's War by John Scalzi - 5/5
* The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - 2/5
* Story: The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft - 4/5
Obviously, not the greatest reading month - only one five-star book, which was a random pick from my Sci-fi reading list and which I bought for my Kindle. The book was absolutely fantastic, review to come.
We watched three movies:

* Vacation (1983) - don't ask. There is no other reason for watching this movie than some inside jokes on the name of "Griswold". It was a good entertainment for the time when you are utterly sad, though.
* Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) - I don't think I'm going to be a fangirl for these movies. I liked first two ones well, but from thereon, it has been pretty "meh" experience. Not sure what's wrong with me.
* Reign of Fire (2002) - one of my old favourites, a completely different take on dragons. Also worth saying that Matthew McConaughey is not that annoying in this one.
Happy March!