California by Edan Lepucki

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Title: California
Author: Edan Lepucki
Publisher: Little, Brown
Release Date: 2014
Rating: 2/5

The world, as we know it, has ended. Society has more or less collapsed, natural disasters have killed off thousands or maybe millions, the rich have fortified themselves in luxury cities for those who can pay, and some people go into the vast wilderness to try their luck away from the crumbling cities. Frida and Cal are two such people. Living in complete solitude, they try to make due with what little they managed to bring from L.A. and whatever they can grow, forage etc. Cal loves it, Frida not so much. When Frida suspects that she’s become pregnant, they set out in search of a settlement. Then it all becomes a game of trying to guess what’s going on, what’s been going on and who’s shady or not. It’s less exciting than it sounds.

I’m up for anything post-apocalyptic and California started out promising, with a lot of “hmm, what happened there?” to keep me reading. Unfortunately, the answer was often “meh, not very much.” Lepucky has good ideas for sure, but the execution is so-so and the drama simply not dramatic enough. I was promised shocks and shades of 1984 and The Road. Those comparisons almost make me want to start throwing punches. Ok, the mood started out great and eerie, the same with the setting and the potential for being unsettling or even creepy. But it doesn’t last for long. As soon as Cal and Frida goes in search of other people, that’s it, it’s all down hill from there. Not that I mind the storyline so much, and there were some pretty good elements, but the twists weren’t twisty and the creepiness wore off quick. One critic said that what makes Lepucki’s vision unsettling is its total plausibility. And I agree. Reality can indeed be bland.

Am I sounding a bit harsh? Maybe. And I guess I can forgive someone for not writing the scariest book of all time – scary books are insane scarce. I suppose I can also forgive someone for not producing big gasps with their twists. It’s not an easy thing to do and this is a debut novel. But what I have a very hard time with is lack of subtlety. Every emotional change in the characters, every opinion and thought is spelled out. If you’re not in the head of a certain character, that character will no doubt say exactly how they’re feeling out loud. Almost to the point of “grr, I am very angry now!” or “you are feeling this way right now, aren’t you?” “yes.” It annoyed me to no end. If you can’t make emotions and states of mind come across without expression them directly, well, you’re not a very good writer in my book. This is my main complaint about California and it is a fairly big one. If you don’t mind not having to gauge any situation or relationship between characters yourself, then you might not find is as bothersome as I did. But I prefer subtlety.

Bottom line, good ideas poorly executed.

 

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

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Title: Wise Blood
Author: Flannery O’Connor
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Release Date: 1952
Rating: 5/5

Flannery O’Connor died at the age of 39 after publishing only two novels and 32 short stories. Wise Blood is the first of those novels and it’s Southern Gothic at its finest. What a shame she didn’t have more time.

“I preach the Church without Christ”…” where the lame don’t walk, the blind don’t see, and the dead stay dead!”

Wise Blood is a strange little book, but it has everything a Southern Gothic story needs; violence, religious fanatisism and grotesque characters. It’s grim, bleak and often absurdly funny. Simultaneously depressing and hilarious, a rare feat. Unlike most books I’ve read in this genre, I find that the characters in Wise Blood have little to no redemptive features. It seems that they’re not supposed to be realistic characters, but more a study in the way characters can work in fiction. That doesn’t make for a less interesting and entertaining read.

We have Hazel Motes, a war vet waging his own private war against a “blind” preacher with a degenerate daughter. He’s given up on the Christian truth and decides to start his own church, The Church Without Christ, to preach the opposite. In his anti-religion (and anti-sin, anti-soul, anti-redemption) campaign, he ends up engulfed by religion and images of Christ. His attempts to reject religion seem to have the opposite effect. He’s certain a new Jesus will emerge and that he is a prophet. He’s unsympathetic and unkind, but has lines that almost rival Joseph Heller in absurdity. I chuckled more than once.

Then there’s Enoch Emory, an 18-year-old zoo-keeper who hates animals, was thrown out of his house, has no friends and is obsessed by a mummified corpse in the local museum. He’s a despicable character too, but it’s hard not to be interested in someone who only does what his wise blood tells him, even if that is attempting to force about the Second Coming of Christ or putting on a gorilla costume. Arguably, Cormac McCarthy has based a few characters on Enoch.

“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

Within a very short space of time, O’Connor deals with some pretty big issues; faith, heresy, redemption (maybe not so much) and modernity – what the hell does it all mean? She does it with a steady hand and a tongue in her cheek. The narrative, like the characters, is disconnected. The language is sharp and on point, with dialogue written in the vernacular – something I just can’t get enoug of. I’m sure someone could show a straight line from Faulkner to O’Connor to McCarthy. The latter is obviously heavily influenced by the previous two. I’m a big fan of McCarthy, but I have a feeling O’Connor may just be his equal, if not more than that.

This is why I love to read.

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it”

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (audiobook)

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Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Publisher: Random House UK, streamed on Storytel.dk
Read by Wil Wheaton
Release Date: 2012
Rating: 3/5

In the year 2044 the world’s resources have been all but depleted, unemployment is at an all-time high and the poverty-stricken masses live in towers of mobile homes and trailers stacked into dangerous skyscrapers. In one such trailer lives teenager Wade with his less-than-loving aunt. Like most other people, Wade spends pretty much his entire life in a global virtual reality known as the OASIS. The creator of the OASIS, the late James Halliday, had concealed an easter-egg somewhere inside one of the thousands of worlds in this virtual utopia. The finder of the treasure will inherit Halliday’s vast fortune and become the owner of the OASIS. Like thousands of other people around the world, Wade is a “gunter” – egg-hunter – and spends all of his free time chasing Halliday’s clues and working through an immense library of 70’s and 80’s tv-shows, movies, games, music and books, everything Halliday loved, in the hopes of attaining the knowledge required to reach the egg. Wade has no social life outside of the OASIS and online it is limited to a few friends and acquaintances, fellow gunters Aech, his best friend and Art3mis, his crush. Of course, he has no idea who they are in real life, just like they only know him as his avatar Parzival and not as the endearing but awkward and overweight teenage nerd he really is. But Parzival, Aech and the other gunters aren’t the only ones going for the grand prize. The evil multinational corporation Innovative Online Industries, headed by Sorrento, will stop at nothing to take control of the OASIS and turn it into a profit machine, going against everything Halliday believed in.

“It’s chick flick disguised as a sword-and-sorcery picture. The only genre film with less balls is probably… freakin’ Legend. Anyone who actually enjoys Ladyhawke is a bona fide USDA-choice pussy!”

Basically, Ready Player One is a virtual treasure hunt, good vs evil, a race against time etc. stuffed to the brim with pop-culture references.  While the premise seems interesting, the real-life setting could have done with some elaboration. The story itself is pretty straight-forward, offering very little in the way of surprises or twists. Not the most intense fictional treasure hunt I’ve ever witnessed. Not that I’ve been to any real ones either. But I did enjoy the fact that this was more of a mental and knowledge based hunt as opposed to physical. Having been a gamer for years and a fan of Monty Python and 80’s music, I found the pop culture to be fairly enjoyable too. The book contains loads of trivia on retro video games, comic books, tv-shows from the 70’s and 80’s etc. But it does get to a point where it starts to be a bit overwhelming. I do wish Cline would have spend a little more time on the setting and a little less on the Ladyhawk discussions, but I also understand that he has to elaborate at least somewhat on the bands, games and superheroes that are so central to the egg hunt. After all, the book has been categorized in the Young Adult genre, and I doubt a great many people in this age group would fully appreciate all the references if they weren’t explained to them. Unless they were as obsessed with the 70’s and 80’s as James Halliday. I can’t help but think that readers (and gamers) in their 30’s and 40’s would appreciate the Atari and Rush trivia more.

Another thing that makes me wonder about this book’s target audience is the dialog. For me, the dialog is this book’s major weak point and it’s a complaint I often have with books aimed mainly at teens+. There isn’t a single conversation in this book that didn’t make me annoyed with the teenage slang and behavior of the people involved. Even the adult bad-guy, head of a multinational corporation, seems like a teenager mimicking a movie villain. And the conversations between the books actual teenagers were even worse. I know they’re gamers, but I cannot hear the words “suxor”, “poseur” or “lamer” without cringing. It felt a bit like a parody on geek culture, but I cannot completely rule out that I’ve just gotten old. I know for sure I’ve gotten old, as I constantly felt like slapping the obnoxious love-sick teenagers as they flirt and dance (online).

Overall, it feels like Cline wrote a YA book but hoped it would reach a bigger crowd. Judging by the popularity, maybe he did. And whether or not you get all of the movie quotes or game references, Ready Player One is entertaining and original. I would recommend it to any video game geek, but probably not to anyone else.

“Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.”

Word has it that Spielberg is directing the movie version of Ready Player One. I’m very interested to see how they’ll make a live-action movie out of a book about games and movies set inside a virtual reality.

A small note on the audiobook
Wil Wheaton does a very good job reading the book. His voice is not at all monotonous and he does a pretty good teenage gamer nerd. I’m sure Wil was a very deliberate choice. Not only is he a well-known sci-fi and comic book fan, and Star Trek actor, there is also a small but enjoyable Wil Wheaton easter-egg in the book for you to go find (or you can just google it).