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Archive for the ‘2015 Reading Challenge’ Category

In the late eighties, I worked after school at a fast food joint. My co-workers and I would play ‘name that song’ – the first to name the song and the performer currently playing on the radio won the kudos. I was pretty bad at it; the man I married, an audio engineer, would have nailed it every time – and been able to tell you the year the song was released.

If you’re Generation X and enjoyed playing name that song, you’d probably get into Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. An epic love letter to the audio-visual aspects of eighties culture – music, film, video games – it also happens to come with a pretty decent story. The ‘place that reference’ game kept me reading through the earlier chapters and then when the story really picked up the pace, I was reading into the early hours of the morning to finish the book.

Ready Player One isn’t a book I would normally pick up, and I’ve been trying to work out why. Really, I’m it’s target audience: a Gen X gamer who loves D&D. But the title didn’t grab me – I get the reference, but video games were not a big part of my life until the release of the first Dragon Age title. (Disclaimer: I do remember spending no small amount of hours in the eighties playing Faery Tale and Zork on my best friend’s Amiga 1000). But the title seems more likely to speak to my male friends on the same era who spent hours on Galaga or in Timezone (the game arcade that used to grace Fremantle’s cappuccino strip).

Luckily I subscribe to a monthly subscription box (Lootcrate) filled with geeky surprises each month – and a couple of months ago, Ready Player One was included as a paperback. The story was bit slow to reel me in but once it moved beyond an homage to the eighties and started to engage me with the characters, I was turning the pages and desperate to find how the contest ended. The last few chapters did feel rushed, but overall it was a very satisfying read. I look forward to Cline’s next release.

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Two books for this challenge. Or… at least one and a half. See, I can’t put hand to heart and said I read all of Frankenstein Unbound (Brian Aldiss). I skipped through pretty much everything that has the main character (and occasionally other characters) pontificating on the nature of mankind. I’m not sure if the intent of this novel was to replicate Victorian-era writing style, or maybe it’s just that I’m used to more modern styles of writing. I found the characterisation of pretty much everybody hard to swallow (with the exception of Byron) and the premise of timeslips to be faintly ludicrous (speaking as someone with only a tenuous grasp on physics).

I’d started Frankenstein Unbound thinking I could also use it for the trilogy challenge (there are two sequels, Dracula Unbound and Moreau’s Other Island) but … no.

So I though I would give the novels of 1973 another go and picked up Ben Bova’s short story collection, Forward in Time. This is probably a bit of a cheat as the stories themselves were published prior to 1973, but I already have another book lined up for the book of short stories challenge so this will have to do. Bova’s short stories were engaging and I really liked the three Kinsman stories, especially the different facets of Kinsman that are shown in the stories as he grows older. The collection is a little dated, but I think the idea to arrange the stories in their chronological order – not of publication, but of how far in the future each story is set – is inspired. My favourite stories were probably The Weathermakers and The Perfect Warrior, both in the latter half of the book. Their subject matter seemed broader, or perhaps that is was just we are already well past the future envisioned by Bova in the earlier stories.

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Despite what it sounds like, this is NOT a pre-school kids book. Quite the opposite.

This PopSugar challenge led me to discover the e-book lending services from my local library. I didn’t want to buy a book; it seemed like too big a risk to fork out cash for a book just based on its cover design. So I finally downloaded the Overdrive app, found my dusty library card and set up the account.

Wow. All those e-books, for free? Sign me up. This is going to be huge help to completing this challenge.

Even better, the browsing structure means that on the first screen all I can see are the book covers and the book titles. Normally this would be annoying – it’s a pain to have to click through to read the blurb – but for the purposes of this exercise, it’s ideal. I skim through the fantasy and science fiction section, and straight away there is a book with a very striking cover image.

I don’t know anything else about this book. Never heard of it, never heard of the author, Kieran Shea… but I like the title, the font, the pulp fiction style of the cover. Sold. I borrow it.

Then I read the blurb. Uh oh. I’m pretty relieved I didn’t pay for this book, because the blurb – and the chapter headings – are making it sound sleazy and cheesy. Seems to be a lot of mentions of ‘boywhores’, the main character is a brothel owner and the setting is described as a ‘manufactured tropical resort archipelago known for its sex and simulated violence’. Although I do read and enjoy books that are graphic in both sex and violence, I’m thinking this might a bit lurid for my tastes.

The PopSugar reading challenge has a category called ‘a book you can finish in one day’. Not sure how many pages Koko takes a holiday runs to in the paperback, but I finished it in a few hours. I was pulled along the pace of the action, the awesome world building and that the story, while definitely pulp fiction style, wasn’t over the top. There was plenty of bloody violence and very little sex, a touch of romance, and a lot of thrills cyberpunk -style.

I did have one small issue with the novel, which echoes the comments made in a review by PopInsomniacs. One of the key characters suffers from a mental illness that I imagine is intended to be akin to depression (it being called depressus and all). And I agree with the reviewers that I found Koko’s go-get-em-tiger, just-snap-out-of-it pep talk was a bit off, even if it does become clear in later novels that depressus is a more engineered condition.

While I’d toss it in the cyberpunk pile, Koko takes a holiday was less gritty and dark than other books I’ve read in the genre, such as Snow Crash or Neuromancer. Maybe it’s just that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, that there are moments of light humour and the world Shea constructs is pretty colourful. The ending positively screams a sequel and I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

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This is the last item on the Popsugar 2015 Reading Challenge, but the one I started with. The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin. I didn’t post it first, because it was such a disappointing read. I guess a challenge to read a book you abandoned is probably not going to end well in most cases.

In 2011, I visited Mullumba Creek Falls in Bermagui, a site sacred to the Yuin people of the south coast of New South Wales. It was the first time I had visited a sacred site in Australia. I’m an atheist, but the natural beauty of the place made me think that this is must what some people feel when they enter a holy building. A sense of deep spiritual contentment, of communion, of feeling one with something larger than oneself. A connection with forty thousand years of human history.

I left Bermagui wanting to know more about the culture and landscape of Aboriginal Australia. And then I heard a story on the song lines on Radio National, and I was immediately attracted to the concept. Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines was the first book I came across that seemed to cover the subject, so I bought it.

Thirty pages later, it was left to gather dust. I think I expected more of an academic discussion of the Songlines; instead I was reading the fictionalised story of an Englishman in Australia, wandering the red centre and relating the anecdotes from his journey. The language occasionally used in the telling was a bit jarring to my ears, although no different perhaps to the casual racism I heard often in my childhood in 1980s Western Australia.

So with grim determination I returned to The Songlines, this time at least clear that the book I was picking up was more travelogue than anthropological – or ethnological – or ethological – or ethnographical! memoir. And I did enjoy it more than the last time. The first section of the book – while rambling and often condescending in tone – dipped occasionally enough into interesting territory to keep me engaged. But as non-fiction it didn’t have the content I wanted, and as fiction it didn’t have the story I wanted. The fragmented structure meant it was all to easy to put down – and most of the time it was only a sense of obligation that made me pick it back up.

Bolstered by reading of other reviews, I was prepared for the forty odd pages in the middle of the book which consisted entirely of excerpts from travel notebooks. Like my own notebooks, I was fascinated by a few entries, interested in some, read most of the rest out of duty and skipped a few altogether.

Yes, Songlines has inspired me to learn more about Central Australia and Aboriginal culture – but because of what it lacks rather than what it offers.

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