37. ‘Armada’ by Ernest Cline

Last year I reviewed Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my hyped-up expectations. I found his follow-up novel at a used bookstore and decided to give this author another chance. Would I discover the same problems that I had with Cline’s first novel or would this prove to be the author’s salvation in my eyes? Sadly, it falls more into the first category. I struggled to finish this one, even stopping halfway through to the point of abandonment to read something else. Eventually I picked it back up but found the second half to be as unrewarding as the first. 

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Zack Lightman is your typical teenager. He spends his free time playing video games and watching science fiction movies. Sure he gets into trouble sometimes for his anger issues, but those are most likely caused by the death of his father when he was just a baby. Zack is a dreamer at heart and wishes that life could be more like the fantasy and science fiction worlds where he likes to spend most of his time. Then one day while daydreaming in class, he sees a giant spaceship up in the sky.

Not only does Zack see an alien craft, but this ship looks exactly like an enemy ship from his favorite video game, the hugely popular flight simulator game called Armada. In this game which has sold millions, players have to protect the Earth from hostile alien invaders. As it turns out, this game was designed to help prepare fighters for the real alien invasion that is on its way. Zack also learns that this goes way beyond Armada, as the government has been secretly developing all of those science fiction books, movies, and games to help find the best of the best to stop this alien invasion. Zack Lightman is finally getting his wish to be the hero he always dreamed of becoming!

You would think that I would have loved this book. As with Ready Player One, Cline references numerous science fiction books and movies from my youth. Obviously, this book is meant to be taken as a fun tribute to movies like Flight of the Navigator and The Last Starfighter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past the fact that the whole setup is so ridiculous. Not only is the premise predictable and cheesy but it’s badly written cheesy. Armada feels like a retread of Cline’ first novel, pages of exposition followed by pages of pop culture references. The whole thing feels like a piece of fan fiction rather than a serious novel.

As far as the plot goes, I grew bored with it quickly. There are a few surprise plot twists, but I used the term “surprise” loosely because I saw those plot points coming from miles away. I was hoping that there would be a true shocker, something that I hadn’t predicted. However, there is not as the book basically unfolds as I expected. It’s been some time since I finished this one as I like to take time to think about what I’ve read in order to process what I liked versus what I hated. I then started to question my reading tastes. Have I become (gasp) a book snob? Has my judgement been clouded from all the “higher” literature I’ve read?

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After careful consideration, my thoughts are that I would have hated this even back in the day. I love science fiction with a passion and always will for the rest of my life. This just wasn’t a good book for me. I don’t even know if I would call it a fair tribute to 80’s science fiction.

One of my major problems with Cline is that his books feel like there should be some type of introspection into why nerds like me are drawn into these fantastically created fictional worlds. The pop culture of the 80’s and 90’s was so important in my development as a person. I never feel like we get there with this author. Ready Player One felt totally lacking in this area. There was a moment where I thought Armada was going to hit me hard with some philosophical discussion but it never happened. Once again we manage to avoid going into any depth and instead just immerse into nostalgia. Sorry Ernest Cline. You’ve gotten me twice now. I must move on from you.

Overall, there were moments of fun mixed with some painfully mad dramatic moments.

“I’d spent my entire life overdosing on uncut escapism, willingly allowing fantasy to become my reality.”

 

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!

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35./36. ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and ‘Pinball, 1973’ by Haruki Murakami

My apologies for being a tad behind in the reviews department. What better way to make up for it than a Murakami double feature? I picked up this awesome double sided copy of his first two novels. Originally published in Japan in 1979 and 1980 respectively, these books have not been out of print until just a few years ago when Murakami decided to release them together. While not as defined as his later works, I did enjoy seeing the early development of one of my favorite authors. 

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Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are actually the first two parts of a loose trilogy finished with A Wild Sheep Chase in 1989. I wouldn’t think of these novels as part of the same series though because they basically have very little connection to each other. Wind virtually lacks any plot whatsoever, it almost feels like more about Murakami’s philosophical musings on life. It is also very straight forward lacking any of the magical realism that is commonplace in one of his works. The introduction was actually my favorite part as Murakami talks about the path that led him to become a writer so late in life (he had an epiphany at a baseball game). Prior to become a world renowned wordsmith, the author of some of my all time favorite books was the owner of a jazz club. Music is so important to Murakami (as is food), and these passions are very much used in his writing. I thought it was interesting that Murakami decided to write Wind in English, a language where he was not comfortable, in order to develop his sparse style that would become his trademark.

The only real connection between these books is the presence of an unnamed narrator along with his friend known as the Rat. Wind is a very sketchy outline of the thoughts of this unnamed narrator, a student who spends a lot of time in a place called J’s bar with the Rat, and his feelings about previous relationships. Despite it’s disjointed nature, a Murakami completest should read this one.

“All things pass. None of us can manage to hold on to anything. In that way, we live our lives.”

In Pinball, 1973, the narrator is attempting to track down a particular type of spaceship pinball machine he used to be obsessed with during his teens. Meanwhile, the Rat is still languishing in J’s bar but we get some insight into his life during alternating sections. This second novel is noticeably more confident and has a stronger structure compared with Wind, demonstrating how quickly Murakami’s narrative style was developing.

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Despite being his first novels, I wouldn’t recommend these to a Murakami newcomer. His established classics such as Norwegian Wood or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are better introductions to his novels. Both Wind and Pinball read like long writing exercises, which is probably why Murakami hesitated on releasing them again. However, while these short novels will appeal the most to hardcore fans who are interested in the early development of Murakami’s surrealistic style, they are quite accessible and are still quite contemporary. The whispers of Murakami’s distinct style are heard with Pinball making that clear just a little bit louder.

“Sometimes I feel like a caretaker of a museum — a huge, empty museum where no one ever comes, and I’m watching over it for no one but myself.” 

 

Have you read these books or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

 

34. ‘The Lottery and Other Stories’ by Shirley Jackson

While on vacation, I decided to take with me this collection of short stories by the incomparable Shirley Jackson. Since reviewing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I have been wanting to read more of her work. I would name “The Lottery” as my all-time favorite short story in high school. It was so deliciously creepy and twisted. While I was expecting the remaining stories to be of that same vein, I was surprised to learn that they were very different. 

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Let’s start with the title story, which actually doesn’t turn up until the end. It fits my definition of a true horror story in that it demonstrates the cruelty of human beings. Also, it was my first experience as a youngster with the classic “twist” ending which I have grown to love as an adult. I think it goes without saying that this story was such a huge influence on various tales of dystopian fiction.

Jackson crafts this story extremely well. The horrible ending is foreshadowed very early, so it is worth going back for a reread to pick up all those subtle clues. It’s interesting to think about how much controversy Jackson raised over the publication of this story, which might be considered fairly tame compared with today’s fiction.

However, “The Lottery” stands out from the other stories in this collection which I wouldn’t call “horror” in the true sense of the word. Then again those that read my blog know that I’m so over “genre” labels. The stories are good and well written with lots of disturbing elements. Jackson suffered from both mental illness as well as feeling like an outcast in society, and she manages to translate her life into her fiction quite flawlessly. Some of the stories feel like true slice of life tales while others are quite disconcerting.

I thought I would talk about some of my favorites in this collection, starting with the more disturbing tales. A woman desperately searches for her fiance who may or may not be real in “The Daemon Lover.” The fiance’s name James Harris reappears in several of Jackson’s stories. Based on a Scottish ballad, the name “James Harris” symbolizes the devil. Jackson uses different versions of this character to illustrate the devastating affects men can have on women particularly psychologically. In “The Witch,” a simple story told by a stranger on a train takes a sadistic turn. In “The Renegade”, various methods to “cure” a dog of her chicken-killing tendencies are discussed, some of them right out of a medieval torturer’s manual. By far my favorite of the collection is “The Tooth” where a woman with a horrible toothache takes a bus ride to the dentist and undergoes a surreal transformation. I loved this story as it reminded me of some of my favorite authors of the bizarre like Haruki Murakami. Many of the stories deal with the fragility of women in society and how threats from within can lead to being pushed to the brink of sanity.

Most of Jackson’s stories, such as the ones mentioned above, are often concerned with the fragility of the positions, statuses, and environments that have been created in society particularly with women. One of my favorites called “Flower Garden” is a great story about how we are misguided by the wants of society over our own individual values. “Elizabeth” deals with an aging executive secretary feeling threatened by the hiring of a much younger woman. Jackson has some rather dire thoughts regarding the future of society, which is reflected in the first short story called “The Intoxicated.” It’s a very short story, but it delivers a huge punch in regards to the degradation of the world. Another very short one, “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” is charming but contains some cold truths regarding civilization underneath. Basically, you can choose any of the stories at random and find a dark allegory to society in Jackson’s time.

Although published in the late 1940s, I think these stories still stand on their own today. There is a sense that the fragile world one has created could so easily be destroyed one person or one simple act. Think of our world today, not just in the greater context of huge political events, but of our own delicate lives that we try so hard to protect. Another thing I noticed while reading Jackson’s fiction is that she often leaves the ending quite ambiguous. Perhaps “ending” is too strong a word because her stories don’t necessarily end but just sort of stop. We are left wondering. Not only do I think this style works, but I find it quite brilliant.

I’m now on a mission to read more by this extraordinary and underappreciated author.

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Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

 

33. ‘Jane Austen and Her Times, 1775-1817’ by G.E. Mitton

Recently I’ve been embracing my obsession with Miss Jane Austen through forming my own challenge for Austen in August. Something else I’ve been trying to accomplish is to read more nonfiction. Jane Austen and Her Times, 175-1817 has been sitting on my shelves for years, so I thought this would be a great occasion to finally read it. I thought it would help give me further insight into Austen’s writings and lead me to an even stronger appreciation of her work. While it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I did find plenty of useful background information about the time period she lived in. 

 

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G.E. Mitton with her husband J.G. Scott (Credit: Wikipedia)

First, let’s talk about the author. Geraldine Edith Mitton (1868-1955) was an English novelist, biographer, and editor. She co-wrote several novels set in Burma with her husband Sir George Scott in addition to penning his biography. A true fan of Jane Austen, she published this book about her life and historical background in 1905. I was impressed with the amount of detail Mitton included in this work. History is not my strong point, but I learned a lot more about the historical context and culture of England during Austen’s life.

“Her stories are as fresh and real as the day they were written, her characters might be introduced to us in the flesh anytime, and, with the exception of a certain quaintness of eighteenth-century flavoring, there is nothing to bring before us the striking difference between their environment and our own.”

This was an interesting revelation for I never considered just how often people made the mistake of placing the era when Austen’s novels were written. According to Mitton, many believed her to be a contemporary of writers like Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot. Austen’s keen insights into human behaviors and foibles truly make her timeless.

One of my goals for reading this book was to better understand the person behind these novels. Little is actually known about Austen herself, outside of the places she lived during her all too short lifetime. Most of what is known can be found in her letters to family. Mitton spends a lot of time covering the history and culture of Austen’s time interspersed with excerpts from some of her letters and passages from her novels. For examples, there’s a chapter devoted to dress and fashion, a chapter on travel, one on contemporary writers of the time. Throughout the book, there are illustrations highlighting relevant people and settings. It was interesting learning about some of the major events surrounding Austen such as the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, but little of these historical events actually find themselves into the pages of Austen’s writings.

Some chapters in this book were interesting, while others bored me a bit. I don’t really this of this as a biography, but more a nonfiction account of the world during Austen’s time. The areas that most interested me were in regards to her actual novels. Also, this was written more than a century ago, so this might not be the most up-to-date reference guide. However, it did appear well researched. 

“Jane Austen seized on qualities which are frequently found in human nature, and developed them with such fidelity that nearly all of us feel that we have at one time or another met a Miss Bates or a Mrs. Norris…it is this which makes the appeal to all humanity.”

I think I would have loved it had Mitton done more in-depth character studies in Austen’s novels (recommendations always welcome). Austen had such a gift for developing these memorable characters that really are personalities that exist today.

Another area that I wish the author had touched more on was an examination of Austen’s early works as well as her incomplete final novel. Although Sandition was touched on, I would love to read more on this favorite of mine.

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illustration example from this book

Although more modern nonfiction accounts of Austen exist, this was still worth the read to gain a better understanding of the society that author lived in. It was so rewarding to complete this as I accomplished my Austen goal for the year!

“If, as has been said, happiness on earth demands someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for, she had all these, and much more.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

 

32. ‘The Variable Man’ by Philip K. Dick

Lately, I’ve been wanting to read more science fiction. What better way to embrace my obsession with turning to one of the greatest writers of the genre. Ever since reading his masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? last year, I’ve been wanting to experience more by Philip K. Dick. I downloaded this novella for free along with a few other of his shorter works. The Variable Man was a fun little story that I managed to finish in a day.

In the year 2136, the Terran system is desperately trying to escape the tyrannical clutches of the corrupt Centaurian Empire. For years, Terra has been at war with the Centaurians. However, there hasn’t actually been a shot fired in decades. The Terran scientists are constantly developing new advancements in weapons to pull the war into their favor. However for every development, the Centaurians manage to counter with advancements in their defensive systems. This has led to a stalemate where the two empires have sat frozen. With each new development, computers are used to predict the outcome of war. The Terrans patiently wait for the day when the odds swing high enough in their favor so they can attack the power base of Proxima Centauri.

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It all seems rather hopeless until two major events occur. Terran scientists have been working on Icarus, a mega-bomb that can travel faster than light so as to be undetected by the Centaurians. As the scientists work to perfect the bomb, something extraordinary happens. A time bubble being used for research purposes is brought back to the present, returning with an unexpected passenger. Thomas Cole, a man with a gift to repair anything, has time traveled from the year 1913. His sudden arrival has thrown all the computer predictions off. Cole may be the variable that is humanity’s salvation or its complete annihilation.

The first thing that struck me while reading The Variable Man was the world-building Dick manages to put into so few pages. There is a sense of tension throughout the book despite the fact that the fighting itself only occurs over a few sentences. I think this points to how the mere idea of war can be a frightening concept. This is no small feat considering we actually never see one of the Centaurians at all. Their very idea and the oppression that they instill upon the Terrans is felt. We learn very little about their empire, other than being old and corrupt. Perhaps, we would see a completely different side had their been a section from the point-of-view of the Centaurians. Dick manages to place a few touches here and there to flesh out this dystopian world.

Another aspect that I enjoyed was the idea of natural ability versus specialized knowledge. Cole is an uneducated man who simply relies on his gift of being able to repair anything. His natural affinity for machines gives him skills that the people of the future lack. In the book, it is explained that too much emphasis is placed on someone learning one specific specialization. You can be working side by side with someone and have no understanding as to that job or function. I wonder if Dick was writing a commentary on the dangers of being told what to learn. Personally, I’m a huge believer in interdisciplinary learning. This might explain why the Terrans struggled for so many years as each person sticks to their own field without any understanding of others.

It was interesting how the Terrans relied on computer predictions to decide their next course of action. The arrival of Thomas Cole represented the wild card factor. Human beings are essentially unpredictable beings. No technology will ever become advanced enough to fully predict our actions. The ending was great, truly fitting. Without giving it completely away, let’s just say that war wasn’t necessarily the answer after all.

This was a short read that reminded me of old school science fiction. It can be finished in one sitting and is well worth the time. I’m excited to read more Philip K. Dick soon!

“He fixed things—clocks, refrigerators, vidsenders and destinies.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!