Book 52 of 52(!): "Ready Player One" and "Armada", by Ernest Cline

Finally, the end of my year!  52 books done – one a week!  And to wrap things up, I’m finishing with one of the most critically acclaimed and bestselling novels of last year – and its more recent sequel, just for good measure.

Both of these books, “Ready Player One” and “Armada”, are built around a science fiction premise, but mainly are homages to all things eighties, with tons of references to pop culture, video games, movies, television shows, songs, and more.  Here’s a brief summary of each:

In “Ready Player One”, it’s the future, and the world’s gone to hell.  Most people escape into the OASIS, a virtual reality where there are almost no limits on what you can do.  The billionaire founder of OASIS died a decade previously, and left his fortune hidden as an “easter egg” somewhere in OASIS.  The protagonist decides to find this easter egg – but he’ll have to hurry, since an evil corporation bent on monetizing OASIS is also after the egg!

In “Armada”, the main character is amazed to see a spaceship hovering over his school – and not just any spaceship, but one of the ships from his favorite online game! As it turns out, this online game has been created by the government, secretly training people all over the world to fight the oncoming alien hordes!  It’s a situation straight out of a bad B-movie – and, in fact, it seems a little too contrived…

Both of the books are great, with one glaring flaw – others have pointed out that, while Cline excels at many aspects of writing, his female characters are flat and exist basically so the male leads can have someone to flirt with.  At some points, it almost feels like a fan fiction for men to indulge in their “damsel in distress” fantasies.

But despite that single weak point, the rest of the story is great, the references are EVERYWHERE, and the books definitely have a solid, strong plotline.  I’m glad I read them!

And now, on to 2016!

Time to read: 2-3 hours each.

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Book 51 of 52: "The $64 Tomato" by William Alexander

Author’s note: this is the last Monday of the year – shouldn’t this be book 52?  Strange.  I’ll do one more book this week, then.

Gardening.  No, not gardening, farming.  It always feels like a great hobby, the purest way to give back to Nature, create the freshest and healthiest food, and save money on a grocery bill.  What could be better than growing your own fruits and vegetables, with nothing but sunlight, soil, and water, and eating them all year round?

This, at least, is how William Alexander feels at the beginning of his book, and I have to say that I echo his sentiment.  However, as he soon discovers when he actually purchases some farmland and starts growing, Nature has other plans.
Well, he doesn’t buy a farm.  He buys a house on a huge plot of land, and decides to become a “gentleman farmer.”  Still, a noble goal.  However, as we follow along with Alexander’s (mis)adventures, we find out how synthetic pesticides are a bleak necessity, just how much work goes into producing even a simple tomato.

Deer.  Bugs.  Storms.  Watering.  A million little curses, all of them conspiring against a farmer.  “The $64 Tomato” is hilariously funny in some parts, but it also leaves me with a newfound respect for farmers, for the struggle they must face every time they try and earn food from Nature.

Time to read: 1.5 hours.

Book 49 of 52: "Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon" by Mark Hodder

I think I’m getting my fill of steampunk fantasy this year!

For anyone who’s been following along, I’ve been reading all of Mark Hodder’s Burton & Swinbourne series, although I haven’t read them in order.  The true order is:

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi
The Return of the Discontinued Man
The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats

I, however, have read them in the following order: 5-2-1-3-6.  I haven’t found book 4 yet.

This makes things confusing…
Still, this book is just as good as the others – although be ready for a complex, multi-faceted plot that can be very tough to follow at times.  In Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, for example, the beginning of each chapter takes place forty-some odd years in the future, which can be jarring, since it’s the same characters.  In essence, each chapter starts with a flash-forward, and then jumps “back” to the present.

Sound confusing?

Still, it all does come together at the end, wrapping up all the threads, but leaving the final ending open and ambiguous.  If you want to be surprised, don’t read on!

SPOILERS FOLLOW
The whole series started off with the history “fracturing”, thanks to interference from a time traveler, Edward Oxford.  This man jumped backwards in time from the future, and accidentally killed the child Queen Victoria in the past.  This split off the time stream.

To fix this, Edward tried jumping back a couple more times, trying to run into himself and stop his past self from interfering (and thus keeping the Queen alive).  He doesn’t succeed, but further mucks things up.

Eventually, our hero, Richard Francis Burton, realizes just what happened, and he realizes that it’s his job to go back to the time/date of the assassination and “close the loop”, so to say.  He has to stop Edward Oxford from killing the queen, erasing his own existence as time snaps back to the right path.

So back he goes, steadies his rifle, and takes a shot…

…and instead of hitting Edward, he kills Queen Victoria.

That’s right.  This entire loop wasn’t caused by Edward at all, but by Burton himself.  His interference in the past created his own alternate self, which went on several adventures, only to eventually be sent back to create its own timeline.

Confusing, no?

Time to read: 4.5 hours.  These steampunk books can get very heavy and dense.

Book 48 of 52: "Overwhelmed" by Brigid Schulte

Ever feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything on your checklist?  Have you considered giving up on your checklist, because you’ll never finish it?  Heck, do you ever feel like your to-do list is growing faster than you can cross things off?

I know I’ve felt this way before.  So when I saw the cover of Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed, I hoped that I might find some answers inside.  How can I avoid that crushing mental exhaustion of always feeling, well, overwhelmed?
As it turns out, this book might not have been targeted for me.  Rather, the vast majority of the book focused less on just why we’re so overwhelmed, and instead looked at how one specific group – mothers – are overwhelmed.

I am many things, but I’m not a parent (unless a cat counts).  So many of the complaints, such as how I should be angry at my daycare, annoyed at all the after school activities of my child, or worried about getting my kid into the right preschool, didn’t really apply.

In the end, the message of the book is… overwhelm is basically here to stay.  You can either let go and pursue fewer activities, or suffer the overwhelm.  Those appear to be the main couple of options.  A little depressing.

Oh, wait – or you could move to Denmark, where apparently everything is perfect.  Go figure.

I liked the first third of this book, talking about all the overwhelm, but I feel like it dropped off a bit towards the end – there were no good conclusions, more a sort of open handed, empty palm gesture.  “Here’s how things are – sorry about it.”

Maybe Mrs. Schulte felt too overwhelmed to give the book a good, final ending.

Time to read: About 5 hours.

Book 47 of 52: "The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack" by Mark Hodder

This book is Mark Hodder’s sequel to “The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man,” which I read last week.  Adventurers Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne are back, this time facing down a rogue time traveler!

This is where the fact that I’ve accidentally read a future book in this series comes back to bite me.  While I don’t remember all the details, I do have some idea what’s going to happen to Edward Oxford, our time traveler from the future, and it’s sometimes a little tough to read his doomed story.  Of course, Hodder makes it pretty clear that the poor fellow’s doomed from the start, so it doesn’t totally overshadow the story.
In reading this book, plus previous steampunk adventures, I’ve come to recognize that, for a story to be steampunk, it needs several elements:

1. It must be set in Victorian England.
2. It must feature at least a couple real-life famous individuals from history as characters, whether those be authors (H.G. Wells), scientists (Darwin, Galton), inventors (Babbage), or other famous folks.
3. There must be some advancement of technology, often using ridiculous principles that were only disproven later (the idea of the ether, clockwork contrivances, strange genetic breeding, etc.).

Mark Hodder certainly succeeds in hitting all three of these criteria!

On one hand, steampunk can be fun to read because it’s a new spin on science fiction – but still within a set universe that I’ve come to know at least somewhat well.  But on the other hand, it’s sometimes frustrating to read about these characters, with nothing more than cogs and springs, accomplishing things that we still cannot do, with all of our advanced technology, today.

It’s certainly an escape from our world, at least!

Time to read: 5 hours.

Book 46 of 52: "The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man" by Mark Hodder

Steampunk and more steampunk!  I seem to have gotten myself hooked on a new genre, but I swear it’s not my fault – someone keeps on putting books with such catchy, appealing covers out in the library for me to check out!

Mark Hodder certainly does Steampunk well.  His books follow two individuals – the brave, strong Sir Francis Burton and the wiry little poet Algernon Swinbourne – but these two characters are accompanied by a whole host of other historical figures, including H.G. Wells, Charles Babbage, the great scientists Darwin and Galton, Detective Inspector Trounce, and others.  The characters ride in crazy mechanical contraptions, breed strange and curious monsters, and face down mediums, monstrosities, and all manner of clockwork – classic steampunk tropes everywhere.
If there’s one thing that’s clear about Hodder’s writing, it’s that the man never takes a rest – and neither do his characters!  They plunge from adventure to adventure with barely enough time to bandage their wounds before tackling another monster.  Reading these books feels a bit like watching a Michael Bay movie – there’s guaranteed to be action around every corner!

Unfortunately, I started reading this series out of order.  This book is the first, but I read “The Return of the Discontinued Man”, book 4, before this one, so I have a little advance insight into what fates may befall some of the characters.  Still, the writing is good, the plot is tight, and the action is definitely intense.

Time to read: 4 hours or so.

Book 45 of 52: "When to Rob a Bank" by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

I’ve always been a fan of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.  For anyone who doesn’t recognize the names, these two economists are the authors of Freakonomics, along with its direct sequel (SuperFreakonomics) and a book on their methods (Think Like a Freak).  These books aim to apply economics reasoning to many questions we face, often with surprising results.

For example, in one of their books, the authors asked whether drunk walking or drunk driving is more dangerous.  Despite what we might assume, they showed that on a per-mile basis, it’s actually more dangerous to walk drunk than to drive!  And although this conclusion seems incorrect at first, the actual evidence and statistics support it.
Levitt and Dubner also run a blog, where they regularly update with many shorter stories and observations.  Now, in “When to Rob a Bank”, they’ve compiled their blog posts into a new book, loosely organized by category of post.

On one hand, this isn’t a book – not really.  It really does feel like reading a blog; the posts are only loosely connected to each other, and it’s more like a collection of little essays than a true story with a coherent narrative.

But on the other hand, all these little factoid tidbits are just so interesting that it’s hard to stop and put the book down!

I’m always going to be a sucker for applied data, and Levitt and Dubner do a great job of presenting complex questions in an easy-to-understand framework.  While their books sometimes feel a little fluffy (this only took a couple hours to read), they’re still enjoyable enough for me to always snag them off a library shelf.

Time to read: 2 hours.

Book 44 of 52: "The Map of Chaos" by Felix J. Palma

It’s book 3 of the Map trilogy!  Book 1 was the Map of the Sky, book 2 was the Map of Time, and now we’re back for one last wild ride with book 3, the Map of Chaos!

This third installment is definitely a good bit more complex than the previous two, but the plot is also more refined.  Our protagonist is once again Gilliam Murray (or is it Montgomery Gilmore?), the man who, in the last couple of books, has mucked about with time travel, fallen in love, and even helped fight off Martians.  We also get a return of our angry, irascible little hero H. G. Wells, once again dragged into the mix against his will.
Confession: I’m currently reading another steampunk fantasy series (Mark Hodder’s Burton & Swinbourne adventures), and it’s tough not to make comparisons between the two.  On one hand, Palma’s trilogy is a bit lighter and less dense – which makes it easier to read, but a little more fluffy.  There are most definitely fewer total characters, although that can make it easier to track.

It’s a good read, and a good conclusion – but it’s worth reading all 3 of these books together, without much break between them, or details are sure to be forgotten.

Time to read: 4-5 hours.

Book 43 of 52: "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman

On the home stretch!  Fewer than 10 more books to complete my 52-book challenge!  A book a week for the entire year!

And I’m proud to include Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” on that list.

Gaiman is known for dark and compelling fantasy; I’ve read “American Gods” by him, and found it wonderfully disquieting and haunting.  “Neverwhere” is much the same, in which our narrator stumbles on an entire world beneath our own, full of hidden passages, magic, impossible twists in time and space, and dark monsters and wondrous beings, sometimes in the very same person.
In “Neverwhere”, our protagonist, Richard, inadvertently stumbles into this “other world” when he stops to help an injured girl in the street.  The book is one of Gaiman’s first, and the roughness does show a bit, but it’s still astounding.

One of the signs of a good novel, I believe, is that there are many threads left unanswered.  Not in the story, but little side passages that beckon for more explanation.  In “Neverwhere,” for example, one merchant hawks dreams for sale, calling out to passers-by.

What do these purchased dreams do?  We never know, and it’s not a part of the story.  But now I want to know more, and I’m left wondering!

That’s the sign of a good, compelling story.

Time to read: 2.5 hours, while sitting in Durango, CO.