Monday, March 27, 2017

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Reviewed by Rita

OASIS is a massive multiplayer online game that has become part of the daily lives of most everyone on Earth in the year 2040. The eccentric creator of OASIS, James Halliday, has died leaving behind a video message to the world that he has hidden an Easter egg in the virtual utopia and the first person to find it will inherit his multibillion dollar fortune and control of OASIS. He ends the video with a riddle to begin the contest:

Three hidden keys open three hidden gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skills to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits

The quest for Halliday’s fortune quickly becomes a global obsession. Weeks pass with no one finding even the first of the three keys.  Then months pass, and then years. Interest in the hunt wanes and Halliday’s estate becomes little more than urban legend. Finally, after five years, the first key is finally found.   

The finder is Wade Watts, an eighteen year old high school student living in Oklahoma City, With the first gate unlocked, the search for Halliday’s treasure is renewed—and search for Wade is beginning. The biggest threat to Wade comes from Innovative Online Industries, the world’s largest internet provider, which wants control of OASIS for themselves and intend for Wade to help them find it, whether he wants to or not.  

Halliday was obsessed with 1980’s pop culture so the book contains a multitude of references to 80’s video games, movies, music, TV shows, and fads. As a child of the eighties this was one of the initial draws for me, however, there were points in the book where the abundance of pop culture references seemed a little superfluous. 

I was surprised to find after reading that this was Ernest Cline’s debut novel. His writing drew me in from the very first page and held my attention throughout. There was plenty of action and interesting characters to keep the plot moving forward. While this novel is classified as science fiction, it’s not hard to imagine the world being as Cline describes in the not too distant future. People have jobs, attend school, even meet and marry inside the virtual world without any real world contact. I feel like this book is more than just an entertaining sci-fi fantasy, it’s also a cautionary tale of what could become of humanity if we are not careful.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths

Reviewed by Jeanne

When Ruth’s Druid friend Cathbad sees what appears to be a woman wearing a blue cloak standing beside a tombstone in the moonlight, he wonders if he is seeing a real woman or an apparition.  After all, the town of Little Walsingham is known for visions of religious figures, especially the Virgin Mary.  But when a woman’s body is found in a nearby ditch, it seems that he may have been among the last to see the victim alive.
Meanwhile, a former colleague has contacted Ruth about some troubling letters she has received. Hilary is now an Anglican priest and is on her way to a conference in Little Walsingham.  If there’s anything Ruth has learned, it’s not to ignore coincidences, so it’s with some trepidation that she arranges a meeting.

Of course, DCI Harry Nelson is the officer in charge, and he is not pleased at having Ruth and Cathbad involved in yet another investigation.

This is the eighth in the popular Ruth Galloway Mystery series. Griffiths has created a marvelous cast of characters with complex relationships; to try to explain them all would make it sound like a soap opera, but it’s not.  For the uninitiated, Ruth is a forensic archaeologist at the local university who has worked with the police on several cases, so most of the cases have a strong historical component.  Many also delve into the realm of folklore, which is something I particularly enjoy.  There is sometimes a whiff of otherworldly elements or superstition, but there is no real magical intervention in the stories. 

I do enjoy the plots, but the main draw for me is the aforementioned cast of characters.  Ruth, for example, is a teacher but more a working archaeologist.  She’s no good at the politics of academia, bad at small talk at parties, and frequently feels out of place.  She’s untidy, a bit overweight, definitely unfashionable, and yet she’s comfortable with herself.  Oh, she may think she should lose a few pounds, but she doesn’t obsess over it or feel compelled to try to change in order to fit in. I find that very refreshing. 

Because of the character development, however, this is a series best read in order. The first book is The Crossing Places

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Nevermore: Balkans, Bosnia, Obama, Sally Ride, Gorky Park, and More

Reported by Jeanne

Two books from previous meetings were brought up again but by new readers.  Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail by Jonathan Chait was called “marvelous” by our member who said that Chait made a good case that Obama’s presidency will be viewed as a success by historians. 

The second book, Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan was also praised by a new reader.  Kaplan divides the book by country, visiting Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece.  While there is some personal perspective—Kaplan worked there as a journalist in the 1980s—most of the book is devoted to the history and culture of the region, giving the origins of some of the modern conflicts whose roots extend back for centuries .  Although the book came out originally in 1993, our reader found it timely and informative.  

The Bosnia List by Kenan Trebincevic is a personal memoir of the Balkans.  At age eleven, Kenan’s life was suddenly turned upside down when the ethnic cleansing began.  His father and brother were sent to a concentration camp, former friends turned on them, and the family was forced to flee the country simply for being Muslim. Some twenty years later, he reluctantly returns toYugoslavia at the behest of his aging father who wants to see his homeland once again.  Kenan wants to reconnect with some people, but he also wants to confront those who turned against his family.  Our reader found it to be a difficult but ultimately hopeful book about the resilience of the human spirit.

Next up was Sally Ride by Lynn Sherr.  This biography of the first American woman astronaut was deemed quite good by our reader, but she wished that there had been a timeline included.  She also felt that the author didn’t do a good job of explaining Ride’s love of physics, but did show how Ride compartmentalized her life.  She kept much of her life private, even as she worked tirelessly to encourage opportunities for girls and women in science. 

A second biography concerned a lesser known individual but is a book our reviewer felt everyone should read.  The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is the story of a brilliant young black man who went from living in a New Jersey ghetto to studying molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale.  His hardworking mother had struggled to secure a better life for her son, enrolling him in private school while his drug-dealer father was incarcerated for murder. Robert was a top student who worked in the dining hall but who supplemented his income by dealing drugs which led to his untimely death at age 30.  The book was written by Jeff Hobbs, Peace’s college roommate who sought to reconcile the two worlds that his friend inhabited. Our reader felt this was a powerful book and deserving of the many awards it earned.

Two novels were up next, championed by different readers.  The first was a new title, A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline, author of the best-selling Orphan Train.  Kline imagines the life of Christina Olson, a handicapped woman who inspired Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christine’s World. Olson suffered from a genetic disease which made mobility difficult. Although she often had to crawl, she was able to run the family farm. The story begins in the 1940s, when Olson views the painting, then moves back and forth in time to tell her story.  The book is emotionally moving and evocative, causing our reader to recommended it highly.

1981’s Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith is set in Moscow during the Soviet era, when detective Arkady Renko finds several corpses in Gorky Park.  The bodies have been disfigured to make identification difficult, but Renko is determined to see justice done. Our reader said it wasn’t profound but it was quite the page turner.