Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

  “Continue your quest by taking the test. Yes, but what test? What test was I supposed to take? The Kobayashi Maru? The Pepsi Challenge? Could the clue have been any more vague?

Ready Player One is an 80s geek child’s dream book. If you love Atari, pop culture, 80s movies and music, then you will love the hours of geeking out this book provides. The story opens in the not so distant future where global warming has increased exponentially and the recession has deepened into a depression, making it a bleak and poverty ridden place to exist. Thankfully, there is an alternative, a Virtual Reality world called OASIS created by a very talented game designer named James Halliday. OASIS provides a whole universe where education is free, entertainment abounds, thousands of worlds exist for gamers to explore, quests to beat and even the ability to build and live in homes there. Everyone on earth buys a pair of gloves, a visor and plugs in to this virtual world to ignore the decay and destruction of earth. Halliday, already rich, becomes the richest man on the planet. When Halliday dies, he leaves behind no heirs, so he makes a video which introduces a grand game. The game starts with a riddle, which leads to the first of three keys. Each key will open gates that have challenges the searcher must beat. The entire quest ends in finding an egg which gives the winner Halliday’s entire fortune and control of OASIS.

Since Halliday was an 80s teen and a gamer, all the challenges have to do with 80s music, video games, pop culture or gaming. The world becomes obsessed with that decade and an 80s revival occurs as everyone studies up to find the first key. Years pass, no one find anything, the hunt dies down except for the hardcore egg hunters, ‘gunters’ for short. Here is where our hero comes into the picture. A young man in high school, exceptionally smart (and geeky) living in a trailer park with his abusive aunt in one of the many slums on earth. He has been studying and searching for the first key for five years with the rest of the world, but then, suddenly, he actually finds it. And now, the adventure begins.

I admit, as a 80s baby I have always loved the 80s. It is my belief that all us 80s children miss the 80s and everyone who wasn’t born in the 80s, just wishes they were. The fashionable socks, the ridiculous hair styles, the jammin’ tunes and most of all.. the awesome movie montages. Growing up with The Goblin King, Ferris Buller, Claire Standish, Marty McFly, Peter Venkman, Atreyu, The Three Amigos, Tootsie, The Terminator, E.T., The Dread Pirate Roberts, Indiana Jones, Officer John McClane and so many more made me a hardcore lover of all things 80s. As I got older, my love of 80s movies morphed into an all compassing love of the decade to include original Atari games and 80s jams. My little sister still gives me weird looks when Tears for Fears blasts out of my iPod, but then, she was born in 1987 and never embraced that decade as I felt she rightfully should.

This book, for me, was page after page of just plain fun. Who doesn’t want to experience a world where you can buy and restore a DeLorean? Model your home after those in the classic 80s tv shows? Experience your favorite Atari games from inside the game itself?

Not only is this book brain candy for anyone who is a geek, but the story itself is fast paced and engaging. I was fully invested in the characters, the game, OASIS and every moment of every plot twist. Regardless of whether you are an 80s fanatic wearing high tops, a trench coat and holding your boom box outside of your girlfriends room to play ‘In Your Eyes’, or just someone who loves books, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this adventure.

But I do recommend wearing high tops anyway, they’re just so darn stylish.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

“The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of cold. The sun disappears completely beyond the horizon, and the remaining luminosity shifts from dusk to twilight. The people around you are growing restless from waiting, a sea of shuffling feet, murmuring about abandoning the endeavor in search of somewhere warmer to pass the evening. You yourself are debating departing when it happens.”

The Night Circus is, in a word, enchanting. I started this book over coffee yesterday morning and throughout my day whenever I had an appointment or a chore, all I could think was “When do I get to go back to reading The Night Circus?”

Le Cirque des Reves is a black and white circus that appears suddenly and leaves just as silently. It opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. It is filled with circular paths that lead to circular tents, each of which invite you to see an astounding environment, performer or experience. There is the ice garden, a whole crystalline world made of sculpted frozen water, from the petals of the roses to the benches at the fountain. There are the acrobats who twirl and twist in ways no human thought possible, the statues which are real people moving so slowly you can’t actually see it, the fire eaters and the fortune teller. The tents are filled with memories, mazes, magic and dreams. All of which are constantly growing, changing and new tents full of new marvels are always appearing.

The Night Circus could not exist without two people who are central to its life and this story. Celia, the Illusionist, uses her real magical abilities to put on a show as one of the acts in the circus. Marco, the proprietor’s assistant, is another magician who manipulates aspects of the circus from the outside world. Celia and Marco both grew up with rivaling teachers, they learned their magic in different ways, through pain and heartbreak for one, through books and loneliness for the other. Their whole lives they were being prepared to compete with each other in a chosen venue to prove which method was stronger. What we learn quickly is that this chosen venue is The Night Circus and though its entire existence is beautiful and wondrous, it is also a very serious and dangerous game.

What stands out in this book is not so much the characters or the plot, though both are quite engaging, but the circus itself. I could not help but wish with every tent that was visited, every amazing new aspect of this world unveiled, that there would always be more. It is completely mesmerizing.

Everything from the food “Apples dipped in caramel so dark they appeared almost blackened but remained light and crisp and sweet. Chocolate bats with impossibly delicate wings. The most delicious cider Bailey had ever tasted.

To each new act we encounter “But the figure on this platform does not move. Bailey almost thinks it is a statue, dressed in a white gown edged in matching fur that cascades beyond the platform to the ground. Her hair and skin, even her eyelashes, are an icy white. But she moves. Very, very slowly. So slowly Bailey cannot pinpoint exact motions, only slight changes. Soft flakes of iridescent snow float to the ground, falling from her like leaves from a tree.

It would be hard to explain this book further, as there are multiple storylines that twist and turn around Marco and Celia, much like the black and white paths around the tents they create. The characters that inhabit their world each add something different, whether it be sadness, magnificence or comfort as soothing as hot chocolate on a dark rainy night.

As I turned the last page of this book, I was delighted and then suddenly, overwhelmed by a deep feeling of melancholy. I realized that though I can visit Le Cirque des Reves in the pages of this book for years to come, I will never actually get to see the mysteries of The Night Circus. And for that, I will always feel a profound regret that such wondrous place doesn’t actually exist.

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

“For example, I myself do not care for the nitwit twangy platitudes and silly hats of country-western– and this despite the Garth Brooks always on rotation in Groot’s vehicle– but I’d suffer welts and lesions without certain R&B singers and, say, David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust. Who does not require Bruce Springsteen– they don’t call him the Boss for nothing– snarling about a road called Thunder and how to get where it goes? Or Dylan gargling, bring’ it all back home? Neil Young and his thrasher? But my cellmate: the mutant nearly had a conniption when I’d tune our radio to the folk station to sing along with love-torn acoustic guitars. You tell me: what kind of person doesn’t appreciate a salty piano ballad with lyrics sung through smoke? Precisely my point: a mutated one.”

If ever a book deserved the term ‘whirlwind’, this book is it. Charles Homar, a memoir columnist, writes about his life as he experiences it week by week. Lately, his life has been a little more hectic than average. His bride-to-be Gillian Lee has ditched their life together and run away with a seaman to fulfill her lifelong dream; to capture a living Giant Squid. Homar comes home to an empty closet and a broken heart. In a quest to win back Gillian and prove his mettle, Homar flings himself headfirst into various strange and mythical expeditions. He hunts Bigfoot, helps a friend discover whether Aliens exist, meets a professional bodybuilder (and sex slaves, whom it is pointed out, engage in such things for fun as they both have college degrees) and then ends up in Boston with ghost hunters.

This novel explores a lot of ideas. Whether or not memoirs are truth, American excess, our belief in the unknown and even modern struggles in love. Gillian leaves Charles to hunt the squid because she doesn’t want to spend her life wishing she had pursued her own dreams. Charles’ weekly memoirs of his odyssey to win her back are off the wall fun from a ridiculously skewed point of view. There were times when I severely disliked Charles and other times when I loved him. The characters in the book question what he wrote about them in his memoirs, which helps to balance out our complete immersion in his world.

“I knew this vulgarian was a colossus of a gent whose voice and testicular presence could hush the human flotsam in any riled-up room.”

I admit when I started reading, the language caught me off guard. The narrator speaks as if a thousand synonyms are whirling around in his head just to shoot out in every sentence, taking the listener unawares. Once I got used to how he spoke, Busy Monsters was hard to put down. Maybe I’m just a sucker for so many interesting phrases but I really enjoyed how Charles describes everything with inventiveness and imagery.

“And so I let Gililan stroll away that night, a dark cavern beneath my breastplate, all the bats slapping their wings wildly.”

I’m not sure if this comes naturally to Mr. Giraldi, or if he spent many a night curled up with a thesaurus and a flashlight, but I was highly entertained either way.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Knowing, above all, that I would come looking, and find what he had left for me, all that remained of The Jungle Book in the pocket of his doctor’s coat, that folder-up, yellowed page torn from the back of the book, with a bristle of thick, coarse hairs clenced inside. Galina, says my grandfather’s handwriting, above and below a child’s drawing of the tiger, who is curved like the blade of a scimitar across the page. Galina, it says, and that is how I know to find him again, in Galina, in the story he hadn’t told me but perhaps wished he had.

It is hard to describe The Tiger’s Wife, as it feels like so many books in one. It is a book about storytelling and the role in plays in our lives, our histories and our families. It is a book about a young doctor named Natalia Stefanovic who travels across a border to help young children with medicine at an orphanage. It is a book about the aftermath of civil war and how it shapes the lives of people, even those the war barely touches. It is a book about a deathless man, a tiger, a wife, a group of mysterious people digging in a vineyard, a country scarred by war and a young lady losing her beloved Grandfather. It is a story about magic, myth and the power of superstition.

Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” she says, “the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life — of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University.

Obreht is a beautiful writer who transitions effortlessly between multiple narratives, the past, the present and the fable, slowly winding them into one, thread by thread. The end result is a book to be remembered and cherished. Her graceful writing uses the stories told throughout Stefanovic’s life by her Grandfather to reveal the hopes, dreams and realities of the people around her and the communities that formed the fables themselves. We are kept enraptured by mystery, horror, magic, breathtaking beauty and the elegance of the writing itself.

This book is an astounding debut for such a young author. I believe it will be considered one of the best books of 2011, if not by the world then definitely by myself. I am sure we have many books to read by this author and I can’t wait for her next one.

I was extremely pleased to get a couple books signed by Obreht this week when she came to Austin to talk about her book. And because I loved it so much I not only got one signed for me, but I got one signed to give away to a lucky follower of my bookish ramblings! Comment on this post and you will be entered to win this gem of a book. (In addition please note if you follow this blog and/or myself on Twitter for extra entries into the giveaway)