Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Pages: 374

Goodreads link

My rating: 5/5

This was one of those times when I wanted to read the book before I saw the film, and since Ernest Cline is a self-confessed uber-geek, I felt like I was in safe hands with this one. Even from the first page, I knew I had found a book nestled very deeply within my comfort zone. Within these pages, I was among friends.

And, boy, do I know feel like a total geek wannabe. I love books, games and films, but I now realise I am several hundred levels away from being able to call myself a true geek. I’m not going to tell you what year I was born, but I don’t remember the eighties. Yet since reading Ready Player One, I feel like I was there, in the infancy of true consumer gaming. The whole book is a neon tapestry of geeky knowledge woven with extra geeky knowledge, with an extra sprinkling of geeky knowledge for good measure. And the best part is that Cline’s encyclopaedia of eighties geek culture is delivered in an unnervingly prophetic dystopian – only one of my favourite genres. I keep going on at people that virtual reality is the future of our society, in a world that is overcrowded and drained of resources. Cline’s bleak near future satisfies my predictions and provides a jolly good story to boot.

There’s plenty of world-building, which I can rarely get enough of, but it’s done in such a thorough way that it’s hard to poke holes in it. This is why geeks should write books. They are very hole-aware because a robust world is the only satisfying one. To be honest, as I was reading Ready Player One, I really struggled to like the POV character, Wade. At times, he gets a bit bogged down in self-pity and has a whiff of the cowardy custard about him, but he does improve, and now that I think about it, he’s just exhibiting the same insecurities that a lot of us loner-geek types can’t shake (I am definitely included in that category). So really, he’s an archetype geek, and I can’t criticise that. Who wants a perfect hero after all? There’s nowhere to go with that.

I have to say, I was totally gripped by this book. It was the kind of book that I made time for during my day. It’s a real escape-and-immerse novel that’s as robust as any decent massive open-world game. It’s a pure, unashamed geek-fest, written for geeks, by a geek. If you’re a geek, you’ll love it. If you’re not (or you’re a wannabe like me), you’ll be really impressed by it. And I think that’s probably my key descriptor for Ready Player One: it’s impressive. I am impressed.

Now, have I said ‘geek’ too many times?

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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Title: Norse Mythology

Author: Neil Gaiman

Pages: 304

Goodreads link

My rating: 5/5

I’m a huge fan of old stories from bygone civilisations. There’s a lot of information to be gathered about old peoples from artefacts, architecture and old bones, but I think that stories really give an deep insight into the psyche of those who came before. When you read something like Beowulf or The Metamorphoses or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’re really investigating the human condition and psychology of the time these works come from. I’m not much of a history buff, but I am a psychology buff and a student of human thought and behaviour, so these stories have great appeal for me.

I’d had Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology on my reading list for quite some time, but somehow couldn’t get around to actually obtaining a copy. But then two fortuitous events collided: my birthday and the release of the new God of War game. I wanted to brush up on my norse mythology before playing the game, and it just so happened that my mum bought me this book for my birthday. So I got straight on it!

Neil Gaiman is, of course, a very accomplished writer, but what really impressed me about this book was the careful research and curation that has gone into it. Gaiman has done all the hard work, poring through the various sources of Norse history and mythology to extract and stitch together a string of tales that are both fascinating and amusing, just as a fireside story should be. If you’ve ever read the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda, you’ll know it can be a bit treacly to read, perhaps something to do with the translations, but this is a book that caters to the modern reader. It reads easily and flows nicely like a book of collected stories, only the stories all relate to each other. The order of the tales is such that it takes you on a mythological journey from the Norse version of the creation, and the birth of the gods, all the way to Ragnarok, and the death of the gods (I just love that the Norse predicted the downfall of their own gods!). So although it’s a collection of individual stories, they all blend together into an overarching narrative, which makes it a satisfying experience as a book.

Oh, and forget what you think you know about Thor and Odin from the MCU, these guys were proper jerks! In fact, almost all the gods that feature have some serious personality flaws, particularly anger management issues. But I think herein lies the insight into Norse life. The gods were harsh and indiscriminate in their wrath because the Norse people’s environment was harsh and indiscriminate. It was a dangerous place to live and a dangerous time to live in, and death was meted out just as indiscriminately as the gods meted it out. The gods dealt in treachery and war and deceit and greed, all of which were a reality to the people who created them.

I think it’s also interesting to note that the Norse version of hell, Helheim, is a frozen wasteland, which of course, was a very real and dangerous environment for the Norse. Meanwhile, the vision of hell that was created in the Middle East and Mediterranean is a fiery furnace, and of course, extreme heat and drought was a serious concern for those peoples. Each hell represents the extremes of climate, and the dangers and fears associated with them, relative to each group of people. This is purely my own speculation, of course, but I think it’s rather neat all the same, and again, it lends a certain insight into the minds of those we cannot question.

Personal ponderings aside, Norse Mythology is an excellent example of engaging writing nested in considerate curation. It’s got all the characters you’ve heard of, and then plenty more besides. There are lessons to be learnt (although I’d advise against Thor’s philosophy of just bashing everyone’s head in to solve all your problems!) and great insight to be had. I’d be surprised if anyone was disappointed by this book.

Review: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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Title: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)

Author: Philip Pullman

Pages: 464

Goodreads link

My rating: 5/5

As a big fan of His Dark Materials, I was so excited when this book came out. It is just wonderful to be back in the world of Dust and daemons, and a weighty tome of it too!

I don’t know what it is about Philip Pullman’s writing, but even though the subject matter can be pretty intense, I actually find it very soothing. I will often read the first couple of pages of Northern Lights as a self-soothing exercise. It’s the mental equivalent of relaxing into a comfy armchair by the fire on a dark rainy night. Perhaps it’s because it’s slightly old-fashioned in tone, but whatever it is, it really works for me.

Having said that, La Belle Sauvage has quite a different tone to His Dark Materials. Pullman doesn’t hold back on the dark stuff, but he steps it up another gear in this story. There’s swearing and rape and paedophilia and self-mutilation. He’s not afraid to challenge his young characters with the horrors of real life.

This story has that familiar Pullman arc of everything starting out making sense, okay the parameters of his world are a little different to ours, but it makes sense. And then suddenly he hits you with this Odyssean surreality; you plummet down a rabbit hole of extraordinary myths, those kinds of myths that try to teach you something about reality that is hard to accept. I spent the first part of this book luxuriating in the details, all the new information about the world that we didn’t get in HDM, and following the characters whose names only made a fleeting appearance in those first books. And then in the second part, it’s a real fire-up-the-brain exercise as stuff gets weird.

And just like HDM, not everything is explained. It’s both infuriating and exhilarating. I think this is the most intriguing quality, not having every question answered clearly. A lot is left up to the reader’s own interpretation. It’s like Pullman lays out before you a world and a set of characters and a scenario, and then he leaves you to decide on your own opinions about it all. He keeps his own opinion to himself and credits the reader with the intelligence to discover any truths. Now, that’s clever writing. And I can’t wait for the next one!

Review: PathFinder by Angie Sage

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Title: PathFinder

Author: Angie Sage

Pages: 460

Goodreads link

My rating: 5/5

My Angie Sage books occupy quite a bit of real estate on my bookshelves. I have ten in total, but they’re all hardbacks and really quite chunky books. And it is so worth having the hardback editions of both the Septimus Heap series and Sage’s newer TodHunter Moon series. Bloomsbury doesn’t publish the hardbacks in the UK (they did for the first few Septimus Heap books, but they then switched to the cheaper paperback option with, frankly, ghastly covers), so I get imported versions from the US published by Katherine Tegen Books. Thank you, America, for waving the flag for good-looking books! The hardbacks are aesthetically so satisfying to hold and read, and the aesthetic really does add to the experience of reading these books. The cover designs are made to look like old leather-bound, metal-cornered tomes that you need to brush the dust off, and the paper has a lovely tactile quality with frayed edges. It really suits the high-fantasy setting for these series and sets off the carefree, childhood-innocence indulgence of reading an Angie Sage book.

It’s been a while since I read the Septimus Heap books, and I was so well rewarded for jumping back into Angie Sage’s fantastical, magical world with PathFinder. One of the best aspects is actually just meeting all these wonderful characters again, now slightly older. Marcia with her infamous purple python shoes, Jenna the down-to-earth queen and, of course, Septimus, now the Extraordinary Wizard. And now we get a bunch of new characters to boot, and they don’t disappoint. Angie Sage has a wonderful talent for characterisation, to the extent that you know exactly who an old character is in PathFinder before their name is even mentioned. And I was squeaking with joy when the form-shifting cat Ullr made his appearance again. A ginger cat that turns into a panther at night? Yes, please!

The story of PathFinder certainly doesn’t suffer from Second Album Syndrome. It stands right alongside any of the Septimus Heap books for its originality, engagement and quirkiness. Despite the old characters, the plot is completely new, with yet another fascinating bit of Magick going on. Tod is an interesting and complex character with a engaging point of view to witness the story through. Even though she doesn’t have the Magickal skills of Septimus or Marcia, she’s loyal and courageous and an all-round marvellous new heroine. There’s a real sense of mystery in her past and, in fact, in the whole book. It really feels like this story is heading somewhere I don’t want to miss out on.

Of course, I’m not going to mention an Angie Sage book without also mentioning the incredibly talented Mark Zug, who peppers Sage’s books with delicious pencil drawings. These are not the kind of sketches you quickly skip over, even if you did just end a chapter on a cliffhanger. These are the kind of pencil drawings you ooh and aah over, and scrutinise for every detail. I wish more books had this kind of fine drawing in them; they just make the whole experience far richer, as if it has another dimension. It all adds to the visual sophistication of the book, which in turn enhances the natural sophistication of the story and its characters.

It is always a genuine treat to read an Angie Sage book, and PathFinder really delivers as the first book in the TodHunter Moon series. It’s what I would call a hot-chocolate read, the kind with whipped cream, marshmallows and a chocolate flake stuck in for good measure. I get from PathFinder, and all of Angie Sage’s books, the same sensation I get when someone places in front of me a hot chocolate with all the trimmings. Only, the books last a lot longer!

Review: A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas

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Title: A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns and Roses #3)

Author: Sarah J. Maas

Pages: 699

Goodreads link

My rating: 5/5

I’ve been a fan of Sarah J. Maas for a while now, ever since I read Throne of Glass back when that was fresh onto bookshop shelves. Her books just press buttons for me that only the likes of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and other real bookshelf treasures press for me. Books that I become completely entangled in emotionally, that take me entirely out of reality and into a world that thrills me to inhabit. And I don’t know how she crams so much plot and character and world into such reasonably sized books. I remember turning A Court of Thorns and Roses over in my hands after I first read it and being completely confounded by its TARDIS-esque proportions. Just how?

Incidentally, I acquired A Court of Thorns and Roses at MCM Comic Con 2015 when I got it and The Assassin’s Blade signed by Sarah J. Maas is actual person. I was wearing an Assassin’s Creed outfit at the time, which she recognised immediately. Fangirl moment!

A Court of Wings and Ruin is by no means an exception to the button-pressing phenomenon. In fact, none of her books are an exception. Sarah J. Maas just knows how to write appealing but realistic heroines. Like the rest of us, Feyre is capable of making catastrophic mistakes and being immature and impetuous, but on the other hand, she is also capable of exceptional strength and courage and wisdom – things we are also capable of.

I get very worried about YA with a heavy romantic element because it can very easily be unrealistic in quite a dangerous way. But Sarah J. Maas manages to depict romance that is both swoonworthy but also places the female in a very strong, modern role. Her romance is aspirational, not fantastical.

In this third outing for Feyre, we delve even deeper into the world of Prythian (which looks suspiciously like Britain on the map page!). It’s actually quite a political episode, which does make it a little tedious at times, especially if you’re quite a non-political person like me. However, we do get to know more about the other kingdoms and the personalities that rule over them, which is what I’ve been waiting for in this series. And actually it works really well at the end when all these political threads are tied together.

The ending is really what makes this book, and it’s a full-circle type of ending that makes the conclusion of this episode of Feyre’s life pleasingly satisfactory. I’ve just got a bit of foreboding that the next episode, which we’ve been promised at the end of this book despite it being a nice conclusion, will be a happy-not-so-happy family episode. I’m so not into that, but we’ll have to wait and see. Knowing Sarah, she’ll still have me wanting more, even if it is filled with post-hero bratty children!