Friday, 26 February 2016

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Dystopia 5)

This book is in SBR's
2016 Top Ten Reads

Publication date: 16th August 2011
Published by: Crown Publishers
Genre: Science Fiction / Dystopia
Read in 2013. re-read in 2014 and 2016

Publisher's synopsis
In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenager Wade Watts really feels alive is when he is jacked into the virtual utopia known as the  OASIS. Wade has devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world's digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator's obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade is going to survive, he will have to win — and confront the real world he has always been so desperate to escape.

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

My Review 
The premise of Ready Player One is interesting and I found it to be a very compelling read.  Like the OASIS, I found myself completely immersed in it.  It is fabulous escapism.

Although I never experienced the anxiety or sense of dread that proper Dystopia provide, it does have subtle nods to this sci-fi sub-genre, demonstrated by the contrast  between the (Dystopian) real world and the (Utopian) virtual one.  I did reflect on how sad a situation the main characters were in, that is,  only able to interact with others and enjoy life in the virtual world, while being completely isolated and alone in the real one.  The platonic and romantic relationships they have formed are with people they have never met in real life, calling into question whether they really know their friends/loved-ones.

RP1 reads like a debut to me, in the sense that there is room for improvement in the writing.  (Bearing in mind that I cannot read my own first novel without wincing at certain passages).  The narrative is cluncky in places, and Wade spends too much time explaining stuff to we readers unnecessarily.  I found the romantic plot in particular poorly executed - parts of it are a bit cringe-worthy.  With regard to the main characters (that is, the high 5: Wade/Parzival, Ar3mis, Aech, Daito and Shoto), some effort was made on the part of the author to be inclusive (in terms of gender, race and nationality) - which was refreshing - but the execution is rather clumsy and wince-inducing in parts.  I will refrain from providing examples as they are plot-spoilers.

Be warned: Wade and his companions become the 'High 5' because they are super geeks when it comes to gaming and all things related to JD Halliday (the creator of the OASIS). [One would have to be a super geek to stand a chance of winning the competition.] If you find the world of gaming and/or 1980s pop culture nauseating, you may have a problem with the relentless references and the 'attention to detail' of these topics throughout the novel.  On the other hand, if you can appreciate the references, like me, you'll probably love it.

I have now read Ready Player One three times.  Basically, it has become my go-to-novel when I want to escape.  (For example, it is ideal for illness/post-operative recovery periods or if you have a fear of flying and have to take a long haul flight.)

As you may know, I don't issue ratings and this book is an example of why that is the case.  It is by no means perfect, and yet, for me, it deserves more than the max 5 stars.  Highly recommended.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (Dystopia 4)

**This book was included on 
SBRs Top 10 Best Reads of 2015**

Publication date: 15th January 2001
Published by: Corgi
Genre: Sci-Fi/Dystopia (YA)

Publisher's synopsis
Two young people are forced to make a stand in this thought-provoking look at racism and prejudice in an alternate society.

Sephy is a Cross -- a member of the dark-skinned ruling class. Callum is a Nought -- a “colourless” member of the underclass who were once slaves to the Crosses. The two have been friends since early childhood, but that’s as far as it can go. In their world, Noughts and Crosses simply don’t mix. Against a background of prejudice and distrust, intensely highlighted by violent terrorist activity, a romance builds between Sephy and Callum -- a romance that is to lead both of them into terrible danger. Can they possibly find a way to be together?

My Review
This novel has been on my 'to read' pile for quite some time.  It has won quite a few awards in the UK and the author, Malorie Blackman, has an OBE and is the current Children's Laureate (2013-2015) - all rightly deserved in my opinion.

What I liked about it

Noughts and Crosses is a very compelling read. I was absolutely hooked from start to finish. Although it reads like a book for teenagers, the subject matter is such that it transcends easily to adult readers.

It is proper dystopia and, as such, is a rather tough read in places. Without wishing to give anything crucial away, I would say that I am glad the central story played out the way it did and with the outcome it did because, although it may be fiction, it is known that similar events have occurred in reality, and not that long ago.  Examples would be South Africa during the apatheid years, and the USA during the time of racial segregation - when the KKK actually had power and influence. Malorie Blackman has stayed true to what is real, rather than sugar coating the truth.

What I liked most was the way the very first scene of the book contrasts with the events that occur thereafter.  It is extremely powerful.

Room for improvement?
I found that, with the exception of Callum and Sephy, the characters were either on one side of the fence or the other, whereas, I think there would have been value in demonstrating some balance.  For example, having characters who were Crosses (the ruling class) who were sympathetic towards and supportive of the Noughts (the oppressed underclass). Sephy eludes to the existance of others at her boarding school (but their solution is to wait for the ruling generation to grow old and die before they step in and make changes!).  I think there would have been value in having prominant sympathetic Crosses pushing for change - even if they failed to make progress. It is important because if this imbalance were a reality Hitler and the Nazis probably would have won WWII, racial segregation in the US and apatheid in SA would still be a thing of the present.  We know that the wonderful thing about humanity is that there are good, honorable people present in all races - incredibly brave people willing to give their lives to stand against rascism or religous fanaticism, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.  So why aren't they represented in this book?

What I took issue with
Some parts read like the literary equivalent of melodrama.  By that I mean overly dramatic dialogue while you practically hear violins in the background; all because Malorie Blackman is determined to make you cry!  I felt my emotions were being manipulated, something I dislike intensely. (e.g. Lynette's story). Sally Green's Half Bad covers a similar topic and is equally hard-hitting - but absent of emotional manipulation.

My verdict
Despite what I consider to be it's flaws, I would say Noughts and Crosses is an essential read because it goes some way in demonstrating exactly why racism is bad and must not be tolerated. Right now around the globe there seems to be an escalation in hatred towards anyone 'different'.  May this book be a cautionary tale for young adults.

I would be cautious about the reading age for this book.  I don't think my 13-year old self would have coped very well with it, but I think my 15-year old self would have handled it just fine.


Friday, 12 February 2016

Half Wild by Sally Green (Dystopia 3)

**This book was included on 
SBRs Top 10 Best Reads of 2015**

Publication Date: 24 March 2014
Published By: Peguiun
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Dystopia (YA)

My Synopsis

This is the second book to the Half Bad trilogy.  If you haven't already done so, you can also read my review of the first book, Half Bad

Half Bad Spoiler Alert!  We know from book 1 that Nathan found Mercury and along with his new found friend, Gabriel, and Mercury's apprentice, Rose, is forced to steal the 'Fairborn' (a powerful dagger) from the hunters guarding it.  In the attempt, Rose is killed, Nathan is badly injured and Gabriel has to distract the hunters, drawing them away from Nathan in order to save his life. 

The second instalment begins with Nathan in woodlands, having recently woken. The sound of static noise is loud and constant.  He feels disorientated and so it takes him some time to understand where the noise is coming from, where he is and what is going on around him.  It takes him some ime to become himself and only by keeping himself calm and his thoughts positive.  We discover that, now that he is a witch, his 'gift' has manifested and keeping calm and positive is his way of learing to control it.

Nathan is doubful that his best friend Gabriel managed to escape the hunters.  It is more likely that he died trying to save him, but he goes to the place where they agreed to meet should they both survive and waits.  Just when he is about to give up, he discovers that someone else has found the meeting place.  But is it friend or foe?

My Review

In the first chapter of this book Nathan has experienced his magical gift for the first time and the readers are shown just how challenging it is for him to get a handle of it.

Sally Green is skilled at evoking the power of the emotions the characters experience in this book.   This made the relationships intriguing, particularly the extreme love and hate that exists between different family members. Also, after so much cruelty it is hard not to tear up when Nathan begins to experience randam acts of kindness (such as the help he gets from Nikita/Ellen).

The romantic love is (almost) completely absent of fluff.  Okay, yes, there is the 'obligatory' YA love triangle, but at least it's not a 'typical' one.

All the way along there is a hint that someone close to him may not be what they seem and that Nathan will be betrayed and I found myself speculating the outcome in that regard.  Turns out I was wrong (the plot unfolds in an unpredictable way).

I would say that this story is not as dark as the previous one.  Half Bad reads like proper dystopia (i.e, it is difficult not to feel a sense of anxiety for the protagonist and anticipate dread all the way through), whereas Half Wild has been softend to read more like most of the popular YA dystopian novels out there that are - quite frankly - dystopia light (and in some cases dystopia absent).  Having said that, this did not take away my enjoyment.

I should confess that I did not read this but instead listened to the audio version. This is important to declare for 2 reasons. (1) Reading the reviews of others I noticed that some readers expressed irritation because of the format of the first part of the book. (The author has attempted to emphasise the importance of static noise for Nathan, which is difficult to achieve in text form.) The audio version provides the real thing instead. (2) For me, part of the enjoyment was down to the narration by Carl Prekopp, who has done an exceptional job, adding value to this series. Clich here to check out a sample.

For me, the Half Bad series is among the very best that is on offer in YA fantasy/dystopian fiction


Friday, 5 February 2016

Shift by Hugh Howey (Dystopia 2)

Publication date: 27 January 2013
Published by: Broad Reach
Genre: Sci-fi / Dystopia
Read in 2014

Shift is the sequel to the New York Times bestselling WOOL series. It combines the three Silo-focused books creating an omnibus edition.

My synopsis
The novel starts in a time that resembles present day and focuses on a US politician who has been assigned a special project.  He is required to apply his previous profession as an architect to design a very unique building.  The specification is to design a building like a skyscraper but in reverse (a core-scraper - as in the earth's core).  Donald creates the Silo, a building with over 100 levels underground.  

Donald is part of a team who creates a multitude of these Silos in preparation of a time when humanity will no longer be able to survive on the earth's surface.  Although there is some understanding of this, it is vague and unclear what and why.  Anna is another team member working on the project and her father is a powerful man leading the entire operation.  He is involved with nanotechnology, which he uses as a form cosmetic surgery and to prolong his life.  Donald soon discovers that this nano technology will play a key part in what is yet to come - as will he...

My review
Shift is quite different from WOOL.  The latter was like a literary version of a good DVD box set in that each instalment would end on a cliffhanger that kept you addicted.   Shift is not like that. It is more like the literary verison of the movie Inception (mind boggling stuff that may require mulitiple reads to come to grips with - certainly for me in any case). This one reads more like a continuous narrative and lacks the rollercoster feel of the first book.  It is structured so events are occurring over long periods of time.  This is because the nano technology allows humans to remain in stasis indefinitely, and most people in Silo 1 are kept that way.  A chosen few are woken up intermittently over periods in times (decades) and each time is know as a 'Shift'.  Donald becomes one of them.On his first shift his memory is fuzzy and everything is a mystery.  With each shift things become clearer and Donald discovers the awful truth; the magnitude of what has occurred to humanity, the purpose of Silo 1 with its shifts and how it relates to all the other Silos.

When it is not focusing on Donald, Shift takes the reader to other characters existing in other Silos.  What this serves to do is to give some insight into how WOOL came about (a prequal of sorts), and how the characters in the first book ended up where they did.

Shift reads like a proper Dystopian novel, fully evoking bleakness, misery and dread.  As such, it is a rather uncomfortable read.  I did not enjoy it as much as WOOL (which is also a proper Dystopian novel), but liked it enough to read the final instalment DUST, which I would say is closer to WOOL in style, and therefore a better read. I would definitely like to revisit the trilogy in the future.