Baby girl has decided that she’s in no rush to arrive, so I’ve been tearing through books to try to keep myself distracted from constantly obsessing over when she will decide to make her debut. This week’s books include a debut novel that has gotten a ton of good early hype and two books from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past (one a huge let-down, the other a strong and happy return).
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Published July 14, 2015
368 pages (hardcover)
Why I read it: I read, loved, and raved about Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One (you can read my review here). It is fun, dorky, and full of puzzles and ‘80s pop-culture references. Armada’s jacket blurb describes Cline’s follow-up as a “rollicking, surprising thriller, a classic coming-of-age adventure, and an alien invasion tale like nothing you’ve ever read before—one whose every page is infused with the pop-culture savvy that has helped make Ready Player One a phenomenon.” Well, that all sounds pretty darn good to me! Plus, it was an Indie Next List pick for August 2015, so it showed promise.
What it’s about: Like Wade Watts (Ready Player One’s likeable protagonist), Zack Lightman is a nerdy high school kid who spends hours every day playing his favorite video game. Armada is a flight-simulator game in which gamers are protecting the Earth from an attack by squidlike alien invaders, and, among the millions of Armada players worldwide, Zack ranks in the top ten.
Gaming runs in the family. Zack’s dad, who died in a freak accident at a sewage-treatment facility when he was just nineteen (and Zack was just a baby), was also way into video games. And he had a special interest in ‘80s sci-fi—especially of the alien-invasion variety. In fact, he was a little obsessive . . . to the point that Zack wonders if he might have been crazy. Among his dad’s old collection of alien movies and TV shows (carefully catalogued on VHS) and videogames, Zack found a journal that his father kept that outlined a detailed conspiracy theory, beginning in the early ‘60s. Zack’s dad believed that every videogame and alien movie/TV show (most notably Star Wars and the games like Space Invaders and Wing Commander, which it helped inspire) are part of a governmental effort to help prepare and train humankind for an inevitable alien invasion. The movies and videogames are based on actual knowledge of aliens and their technology.
Despite the “proof” included in his dad’s journal, Zack chalks the conspiracy theory up to paranoia (and maybe even psychosis). That is, until one day at school, when Zack notices a flying saucer streaking through the sky. And this isn’t just any flying saucer . . . it looks exactly like a Glaive Fighter, one of the ships that the enemy aliens pilot in Armada.
In a word: UGH. What a terrible, horrible disappointment. Look, I was expecting a certain level of nerdiness. Ready Player One is about a little gamer kid. It has tons of fanboy ‘80s references to movies and videogames, and it definitely has a sci-fi vibe (something that I’m not normally into at all). Nevertheless, it’s creative and quirky and clever. It’s quick and readable and lots of fun.
But this. This is next-level dorky. It’s so dorky, in fact, that it gets bogged down in its own dorkiness. Allow me to give you an example:
Ray also frequently coerced me into playing TF with him here at work, so my infantry drone skills were still sharp. This was essential, because in Terra Firma, the size and power of the drones you were allowed to control during each mission was based on your overall combat skill rating. Newbie players were only authorized to operate the smallest and cheapest combat drones in the EDA’s arsenal. Once you increased in rank and skill, you were allowed to pilot increasingly bigger and more advanced drones—Spartan hover tanks, Nautiloid attack submarines, Sentinels (ten-foot-tall super-ATHIDs with more firepower), and the EDA’s largest and most impressive weapon, the Titan Warmech—a giant humanoid robot that looked like something out of an old Japanese anime.
And it gets worse from there. Much, much worse:
The enemy Glaive Fighters had blaster turrets mounted on each of their wingtips that could rotate in any direction, giving them an almost unlimited field of fire. But my Interceptor’s plasma cannons (aka “sun guns”) needed to be in front of me if I was going to be able to hit it. My ship had a laser turret, however, that was able to fire in any direction, but unlike my sun guns, the turret used up a lot of power and had to be used sparingly.
I am not exaggerating when I say that there are pages and pages (and pages and pages) of this kind of blabber. It is atrocious. My eyes glazed over. I just couldn’t.
And I’m not alone! When I was about halfway through the book, I texted my younger stepbrother (who is FAR more of a gamer than I and, like me, loved Ready Player One and was super excited about this book). He’d only made it two-thirds of the way through the book before having to “take a break.” It was just too boring, he said.
On top of the boring factor, the book is poorly written and utterly predictable. It’s obvious. It’s cheesy. It’s not much fun. Yes, there are ‘80s pop-culture references sprinkled throughout the book . . . but not in the fun way employed in Ready Player One. Instead, these seem forced (like in a “This is my thing. I use a lot of ‘80s pop-culture references” kind of way). They’re not well-incorporated into the story—it feels more like random name drops. And, to top it all off, the characters are largely shallow and not very likeable.
My advice: read Ready Player One. And if you really like it, read it again and get excited for the upcoming movie (to be directed by Steven Spielberg). But steer clear of this one.
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Love May Fail
June 16, 2015
416 pages (hardcover)
Why I read it: I really enjoyed Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook (the book from which the movie of the same name is adapted). His last book, The Good Luck of Right Now, was disappointing (it read like a sad copycat of The Silver Linings Playbook), but I still had high hopes for his new release, which was an Indie Next List selection for July 2015.
What it’s about: The book opens with Portia Kane hiding in the bedroom closet at her palatial mansion in Tampa. She is wasted on her husband’s Hennessey, has grossly defiled his humidor of illegal Cuban cigars, and holds his loaded Colt 45. He is a disgusting pig, who made his millions preying on young college girls and convincing them to be in his trashy porn, and she is waiting for his imminent arrival with his latest conquest, so she can shoot them both.
But, when her husband finally arrives in their marital bed with a vapid (but gorgeous) teenager who looks just like Khaleesi from Game of Thrones, Portia loses her nerve. She leaves Ken and heads back to her childhood home in South Jersey . . . where her fat, mentally unstable, hoarder mother has maintained her high school bedroom like a museum.
Soon, Portia realizes that this is the beginning of a life-altering quest. It is a quest that involves some unique and bizarrely connected characters, including a vodka-loving nun, a recovering junkie, the six-year-old lead singer of a Bon Jovi cover band, a dog named Albert Camus, and her very favorite high school English teacher (a man named Mr. Vernon, who has suffered an unspeakable tragedy and whom Portia is intent on saving).
Matthew Quick is back, y’all! Hooray and hurrah!! This book has all of the characteristics that I loved in The Silver Linings Playbook. It is charming and sweet and optimistic. It is filled with quirky (but highly unstable and, thus, often extremely entertaining) characters. It is light and fun, so it reads very, very quickly, but it is not just empty fluff—it has a very strong positive message.
This book is a little more extreme and a little less believable than The Silver Linings Playbook. There are loads of unlikely coincidences and unusual circumstances. A lot of things turn out way better than they should (or realistically would). But if you can suspend belief a little bit, it’s an enjoyable read.
And, to top it off, the book truly celebrates the power of excellent teachers and the long-lasting impact they can have on their students’ lives. As a former teacher, I can definitely get behind that.
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Kitchens of the Great Midwest
J. Ryan Straddle
Published July 28, 2015
325 pages (ARC e-book)
Why I read it: This was an Indie Next pick for August, an Amazon Best Book of the Month for August, the #1 LibraryReads List selection for July, and a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Pick. The hype was real, y’all.
What it’s about: Generally speaking, this book is about the life (from birth to young adulthood) of a woman named Eva Thorvald, who has an insanely ridiculous palate. But the book’s focus is more on the people who influenced Eva’s life than it is about Eva herself.
Each chapter introduces you to a different person from Eva’s life. The first is about Lars Thorvald, Eva’s dad. It highlights his passion for food, his devotion to Eva, and his desire to teach Eva everything he can about food and ingredients (before he gets a lesson in newborn culinary habits from the OB, Lars drafts a menu for Eva’s first months of life. Week one includes: “Homemade guacamole,” “Puréed beets (Lutz green leaf),” and “Olive tapenade (maybe with puréed Cerignola olives? Ask Sherry Dubcek about the best kind of olives for a newborn.”)).
There’s a chapter about her cousin, Braque, a Type-A softball player at Northwestern, who helps Eva devise a get-rich-quick scheme that involves gambling with people in bars and restaurants about the spicy foods Eva, as an eleven-year-old, is capable of consuming. There’s a chapter about Will Prager, a short-lived high school boyfriend, who takes her on her first date to a fancy restaurant, during which she secures her first restaurant job. Through these character studies, you learn a little about Eva and how she became the person (and hugely successful chef) that she is in adulthood.
Stylistically and conceptually, the book is fun, but it’s not consistent. The first half of the book (roughly) and the last chapter are great. These parts of the book are about other people, but you learn a lot about Eva in the process. In a few of the chapters in the last half of the book (especially “Venison” and “Bars”), however, the characters become more peripheral to Eva’s life, and Eva becomes more of an afterthought. When this happens, the book loses focus and becomes too meandering.
Nevertheless, this is fun foodie fluff. It is definitely aimed at people who post more pictures of food than of people on Facebook and Instagram, read culinary magazines like Bon Appétit (or even Lucky Peach) religiously, love Netflix’s documentary mini-series Chef’s Table, and idolize Thomas Keller. There is a lot of foodie talk (the tastiest types of heirloom tomatoes, how to cultivate the spiciest peppers, when to pick corn for the sweetest and best flavor, where to catch the most delicious walleye . . .). There are even loads of recipes (although, compared to the foodie talk and Eva’s penchant for the best/tastiest ingredients and most amazing preparations, most of them seem a tad too pedestrian). If you’re into food (like really into food), this is worth a quick read.
DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of Kitchens of the Great Midwest from the publisher, PENGUIN GROUP Viking, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.