Monday 24 June 2013

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

For several years now, I've had a troubling vision of a future where the physical world is entirely forsaken in favour of twenty-four-hour internet. Where there are no shops, only online shopping, no human interaction but continual tweeting, no social gatherings but Facebook events. Where relationship status updates carry more weight that marriage certificates, and where couples don't even need to be in the same country. Instead of living life, we livetweet, and instead of seeing the world, we photograph it and post it on Instagram. We shun the friends we are with, while exchanging tweets on our smartphones with someone the other side of the world. And as I write this, I wonder how much of this is prediction and how much observation. I'm certainly as guilty as anyone else. The other day I could not be bothered to cook, so I ordered pizza without any human contact except, briefly, with the delivery boy. To this geeky, socially awkward blogger who loves escapism, there is a certain appeal to such a lifestyle, yet its very appeal sets off warning bells in my head. How long before we routinely upload our brains into the internet?

With Ready Player One, Ernest Cline makes a far better job of portraying such a world than I possibly could. In the not-too-distance future, the internet has been swallowed up by a massive, sprawling virtual reality called the OASIS. More than just a video game, the OASIS spans universes, with planets, books, virtual schools and workplaces, shops and restaurants, and of course games galore. Users have an avatar to traverse the OASIS, with headsets and gloves that allow them to experience the virtual worlds as though physically present. A few years before the novel begins, James Halliday, the OASIS' designer died without an heir, and his multi-billion dollar fortune has been left to whoever is first to unravel the clues hidden within the virtual worlds. For a long time, the clues yielded no results, and by many the "Easter egg hunt" has been dismissed as a hoax. Until eighteen-year-old Wade Watts stumbles upon the first key...

 I've never been much of a gamer, and so it took me a long time to be persuaded to read this book that has had such rave reviews. I needn't have worried: it was wonderful. Both the story and the world of the OASIS were utterly engrossing, and I would forget that I was reading about a kid sitting in the remains of a car in a junkyard, plugged into his computer. The OASIS seems more real than Wade's reality, which is in a sad state of being: overpopulated with all the world's resources running low. There's no real future for a kid who lives in a stacked trailer park. No wonder he finds refuge plugged into the internet, where he can be whoever he wants. Problems in the OASIS seem to affect Wade more than real-world catastrophe, and at times it would take me a moment to get reality and OASIS untangled. The OASIS, a computer programme made entirely of 0s and 1s, is as convincing a setting as any.

One of my favourite things in fiction is a good treasure hunt; not that I'm ever any good at solving the clues, but I enjoy watching the characters work them out. The hunt for Halliday's fortune lies in geek culture, especially from the 1980s: in science fiction, early computer games and cult movies. Though many of the references passed me by, many more made me smile - Firefly, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Discworld, Star Trek, Doctor Who... all these are name-dropped, and I had a big goofy grin all over my face through the final test. (Clue: he's using coconuts!)

Ready Player One is as thrilling as the best computer games, with enough real-world peril to keep the reader really caring. Solving the clues is more than just about winning the money: once the first key is uncovered, the big corporations get involved, their ultimate goal to privatise the OASIS. This is not just a case of Yahoo buying Tumblr, or even Amazon taking over Goodreads. For underprivileged kids like Wade, the OASIS is what makes life worthwhile. And the corporation plays nasty. Wade and the other competitors pose a threat to their ruthless ambitions, and must be stopped by any means.

I could not get enough of this novel, and it came as a real shock to reach the end. An outstanding science fiction novel: engrossing, geeky and a lot of fun. I wanted to eat that book.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

Not since the last installment in the Harry Potter series have I been so excited about a new book as in the run-up to Neil Gaiman's latest book - his first adult novel in eight years, and the first since I became a fan. But when it arrived in the shop where I worked, nearly a week before it was allowed to be put on sale, I didn't peek. Confession: I love to peek inside embargoed books, to know what the first sentence is before anyone else. But not this one. This one was too dangerous. Open this one, and I knew I'd be good for nothing, and besides, I wanted to read it properly, at leisure and in comfort, not stolen glances while hiding in a stockroom. As luck would have it, the publication date fell on my day off, so, as I did so many years ago, I set my alarm and got up early for the sole purpose of buying this book.

Despite the marketing of Ocean as an adult novel, it is more Graveyard Book than American Gods in tone, with its youthful protagonist and comforting haven of trustworthy adults - although not all adults are in the least bit comforting. It is also reminiscent of Gaiman's short stories, being told in the first person in a confidential, personal manner. Ocean is simply written, without a word wasted. Gaiman makes you feel, not with emotive language, but by writing matter-of-factly of truths that speak to the inner fabric of one's being. The child's-eye view makes everyday disasters monstrous, unendurable, while taking adult tragedies, and the magic and horror of the fantasy novel, pretty much in its stride. Adult understanding is combined with a child's keen but innocent perception, and that underlying darkness is what makes it a book primarily for grown-ups rather than children.

Although Gaiman uses some of his trademark horror elements in Ocean - maggots and decay, monsters and flapping things - the terror I felt in some parts of the novel came from the helplessness of a child in an adult's world. Think of Professor Umbridge in Harry Potter, and that gives a sense of the oppressiveness of the villain. But this is countered by the cosiness of the Hempstocks' farm, a place of utter certainty, trust and safety - if slightly off-kilter. The fantastical plot is secondary to the humanity, compassion and the truths that you can't quite grasp and yet recognise deep within yourself as Gaiman spins his tale. It's a short novel - less than 250 pages, but the world is fully-formed. Not just the house and the lane, which I understand to be based upon Gaiman's own childhood home, but we get to peep at a world beyond the everyday, tantalising hints of a universe that seems to have a life outside the book.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about childhood and magic, about identity, the mysterious and tricky power of memory, and about surviving in a messy world. It is utterly beautiful, and I'm sad to have reached the end. I'll never get to read it for the first time again. And yet, this seems to be a book which will grow and grow on every reading. Let's test that theory.

I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were.
"I'm going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world." She thought for a moment. Then she smiled. "Except for Granny, of course."
"You don't pass or fail at being a person, dear."

Tuesday 11 June 2013

What I Did On My Summer Holiday by Katie (aged twenty-mumble and a bit.)

Fifteen years ago, I went on a year 7 school field trip to the Peak District, and this year my best friend and I decided to return, as, erm, responsible adults, to visit some of the same places without an itinerary set by the teachers. Our base was Matlock, being easily accessible by train, and we found a wonderful Bed and Breakfast called Sheriff Lodge. (If you are looking for a B&B in Derbyshire, I highly recommend this one - the owners are friendly, the bedrooms cute and cosy, and the breakfasts delicious, catering for vegetarians and people with gluten intolerances, and having a good selection of food for people, such as Judith, who are both.)

We arrived last Tuesday, and Wednesday was spent at the Heights of Abraham, a country resort about a mile or two down the road. One reaches the top of the hill by travelling in an alpine-style cable car. Once at the top, there are guided tours into disused mines, and with the damp, the dark and the glittering of the walls, I couldn't help thinking of the Fellowship of the Ring entering the Mines of Moria. Thankfully we found no orcs, skeletons or balrogs while underground. Afterwards, we deviated from the main path, scrambled up a hill away from the main resort to have our picnic.

Thursday we visited Ellie's bookshop, where I went wild, buying a gorgeous notebook and seven books, which may have been a mistake, considering I had to carry them around with me for the rest of the day. Having just missed the bus to Chatsworth House, we ate ice cream by the river and I worked out that if we took a certain short cut, it would not be a much longer walk than the walk from the bus stop. It was a beautiful day, and we didn't much feel like taking two buses. Alas, we missed the very first turning, and ended up walking four miles along a busy road with no sidewalks, but plenty of nettles.

Still, we got there in the end, some time after three and after buying another ice cream, we decided to paddle in the Cascade, a watery staircase, before going into the house itself. There was a warning to supervise children as the Cascade was not designed for walking, and a bit slippery. Perhaps they should have added that grown ups ought to take care too. Judith decided to walk up the Cascade, but when she made the return journey, she ended up flat on her back. You'd think I'd have heeded her advice, but five minutes later, I ended up doing the exact same thing. We took our time walking around the grounds in soggy frocks, unwilling to drip all over "Pemberley." We made it inside just before last entry, and were followed around by staff closing all the doors behind us.

You can't go on holiday in the Peak District without at least one hilltop walk, so on Thursday, after visiting Ellie once more, we took the bus up to Calver, before making our way to the designated starting point: Curbar Gap car park. Again, this was about a mile from the bus stop. Fine. What the walking guide neglected to tell us was that it was about a mile up a very steep hill road. For us non-drivers, getting to the starting point was the hardest part of this walk. It was worth it, though - a proper scramble across a varied terrain: rocky cliffs, fields, woodland and streams, in a six-mile round trip across White Edge, Froggatt Edge and Curbar Edge - a walk I had not done when I was twelve and thought walking was boring. Alas, the pub which marked the half-way point was closed when we reached it. It was a scorching day, but with a cool breeze that made it bearable. At the bottom of the hill, we stopped off for Pimms, before returning to Matlock to have takeaways in the park.


What I read:

The Magician's Nephew is a forgotten favourite in CS Lewis's Narnia series. I don't read it as often as The Silver Chair and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but when I do, I love it: the magic of the Wood between the Worlds, the gloom of Charn, the dead world, home to Jadis, the White Witch, and the beauty of the new Narnia. Even Polly's hideout in the attic is an exciting place, with plenty to explore and adventures to find without going out of one's front door. I'd love to see this one made into a film, but only if done well.

Never The Bride by Paul Magrs is the story of Brenda, a middle-aged bed-and-breakfast owner based in Whitby, who alongside her friend Effie, is drawn into investigating the weird goings-on in her town. But are any of the dodgy shenanigans she uncovers as strange as her own past? Never The Bride is simultaneously light and dark: gothic and macabre in places, but an easy and comic read, packed full of references to cult classic literature. The setting of Whitby has its own, very specific, literary heritage, which helps to shape the mood of the novel alongside the Christmas Hotel, the sinister beauty salon and the pie and peas evenings for the local pensioners. I took my time getting into the book, but as soon as I'd figured out Brenda's mystery, I knew it was going to be brilliant! The title is relevant to the story, but not in the way you might expect. There's very little of the mushy stuff to be found here.
A cross between Alexander McCall Smith, Ben Aaronovitch and... spoilers! You'll have to read it yourself to find out more. I was very pleased to discover there are other books about Brenda and Effie.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst was one of the many books I bought at Ellie's shop. The book follows Nick Guest, a young, optimistic gay man living with the ridiculously rich family of a university friend in the mid-1980s. I could not help but be reminded of Brideshead Revisited, contrasting Nick's idealism with the cynical world of fame, wealth and Thatcherism that he finds himself in. In many ways it feels far removed from the 80s as I think of them, and you can't ignore the shadow that hangs over Nick, his lovers and friends. A pensive, literary novel, heartbreakingly sad and yet beautiful in surprising places.

What I've Watched:

Last Monday, the day before we travelled up to Matlock, Judith and I went to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at Southampton's Mayflower Theatre. It was so much fun: packed full with classic disco songs, outrageous one-liners and ridiculous costumes. I had a big goofy grin all over my face the whole time.

My new favourite TV show is The Returned, (Original title Les Revenants, in other countries, Rebound) which is a French thriller exploring the effects on a small mountain town when the dead start coming back to life. Only one episode has been shown in the UK so far, but I can't wait for the next one. The main focus was on the family of Camille, a teenager killed in a coach accident four years previously, who just walked home as if nothing had happened, and helped herself to something out of the fridge. There is something unnerving about these people, seemingly unchanged, but all hungry, and none can sleep. They seem harmless, no flesh-eating zombies here, but it is the effect on their loved ones that is telling. How would you act if the dead came back to life? M. Costa's response to his dead wife is heartbreaking and horrifying. Adele's late boyfriend (or so we infer) comes after her, but now she is married with a child, a teacher at the high school or college, and her terrified cry of "It's happening again!" hints that perhaps these "revenants" might be revealed to be more dangerous than they appear. Far more than a zombie horror, this is a character study, a slow-building suspense, and possibly a crime drama as well as a tale of the supernatural, with beautiful cinematography and an atmospheric soundtrack. Don't be intimidated by the subtitles: if it continues as it began The Returned promises to be one of the best dramas of the year.
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