Category Archives: 4.5 stars

Noumenon – Marina J. Lostetter

Review (Amazon): 

In 2088, humankind is at last ready to explore beyond Earth’s solar system. But one uncertainty remains: Where do we go?

Astrophysicist Reggie Straifer has an idea. He’s discovered an anomalous star that appears to defy the laws of physics, and proposes the creation of a deep-space mission to find out whether the star is a weird natural phenomenon, or something manufactured.

The journey will take eons. In order to maintain the genetic talent of the original crew, humankind’s greatest ambition—to explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy— is undertaken by clones. But a clone is not a perfect copy, and each new generation has its own quirks, desires, and neuroses. As the centuries fly by, the society living aboard the nine ships (designated Convoy Seven) changes and evolves, but their mission remains the same: to reach Reggie’s mysterious star and explore its origins—and implications.

A mosaic novel of discovery, Noumenon—in a series of vignettes—examines the dedication, adventure, growth, and fear of having your entire world consist of nine ships in the vacuum of space. The men and women, and even the AI, must learn to work and live together in harmony, as their original DNA is continuously replicated and they are born again and again into a thousand new lives. With the stars their home and the unknown their destination, they are on a voyage of many lifetimes—an odyssey to understand what lies beyond the limits of human knowledge and imagination.

My Review (spoilers, duh):

In a Nutshell: creative and amazing

This book is broken into two main parts – Resistance and Resilience, and within those parts, it’s broken into sections which jump ahead many years. It works really well with the story, but it is a bit unusual. I am going to detail it out pretty thoroughly so really, you should take my word and just read it because it’s awesome. The book has a sequel scheduled, and I know it will be a little while, so at that point, I want to have this to refer back to!!

The book begins in 2088 with Reggie, a PhD student who has discovered an unusual star, like it’s encrusted with something, and he is about to give a presentation to convince people that they should invest in getting a shuttle there to research it. The presentation goes well, mainly with the speculation that whatever is surrounding it was built, not naturally created, so the mission gets funded and is a go! During the party Reggie has to celebrate his mission, Noumenon, being a success, he meets a beautiful woman named Abigail and they hit it off.

2097: Noumenon’s team has assembled. Reggie, and his mentor Dr. McCloud (who pushed him to go to the summit in the first place) meet with the team. McCloud asks Reggie why he still hasn’t proposed to Abigail – it’s the mission. Everything was on hold because Reggie might have gone, but they have done their selection and he’s not on the list. We meet Nakamura Akane, the head of the ship design team, Donald Matheson, the head of the social systems (who hates Reggie’s implant “C” as obsolete and too chatty although Reggie has quite the attachment to her), and Dr. Sachta Dhiri, the head of strategy. They plan to have 9 ships with over a million people. How will they find that many volunteers? Matheson suggests clones. They choose a group of 100,000 people based on their skills and psychological strength to go, and those people continue to get remade every other life cycle (so people never end up with themselves) as the mission lasts.

2099: Reggie meets Jamal, who he introduces to C. Jamal also believes that C is a good, robust AI, and Reggie easily convinces him to build C to go along Noumenon, and he wants Jamal to go as well.

2124: The convoy is preparing for lift off. Reggie goes to Iceland with Dr. McCloud to see them off. They meet I.C.C. (new C) and Reggie uploads C’s memories to it without anyone knowing. All the ships have names – Mira is the one they live on, Eden is their small forest, and Bottomless is their storage ship, among others. We learn that although Reggie himself isn’t boarding the spaceship, his genes made the list to be a future clone.

2125: The convoy deploys with Reggie watching. He has incredible mixed feeling about being left behind. We switch over to the people on the convoy, and we’re quickly introduced to Nika and Margarita. Donald Matheson has been nicknamed “Father” and another of the heads becomes Mother. Father and Mother have worked with those selected for many years prior to deployment while in Iceland, and are both aboard the ships for the long haul. Everyone has their own job. Margarita is in charge of communicating back to earth, while Nika is an archivist. Cabins are divided between singles, doubles (if you got married), and quadruples (if you get married, you commit to raising two clones). Once the convoy has taken off, and everyone has a little time to get situated, there’s a huge blowout party!

The party is a huge celebration, and everyone is having a blast until Captain Mahler arrives with a shrill whistle, reminding everyone that the party was over, they had responsibilities, and they were to clean up and be ready for work the following morning.

Margarita arrives at her job, and although she was supposed to send the first message back to Earth, one from her contact, Saul, is already awaiting her. It asks “How are you?”. On Earth, in face-to-face communication, Saul is at best socially awkward, but Margarita soon learns that he is very social, and is always curious how she is doing. He doesn’t just care about the facts, but also the personal details, which both his life and hers are growing more interesting. At only about 6 months into the mission, already over 4 years had happened on Earth. Saul was married and had a son. Margarita started to think more about the “How are you?” question. She wasn’t the only one who was depressed. Suicides began happening on the ship, the first one being Nika’s biological cousin. Margarita continues to report back to Saul, more personally now which helps her, and after a few more suicides, she went to see the captain. The captain informs her that the original planning for the trip assumed that there would be suicides – expected them even. But no one expected them to happen so early in the mission as they expected them to start happening after the government had formed. A few suicides continued after the elections, but they dwindled away. Margarita was married, and was assigned a son–Reginald Straifer II. She sends Saul a last message to tell him, as Saul is in his 70s now and retiring. He’s replaced with someone Margarita has never met.

January 3, 2415 (30 years PLD – Post Launch Day):

We meet 8 year old Jamal III, who is about to get a sibling who happens to be a sister despite him REALLY wanting a brother. When he leaves school, he learns that his parents waited until the following day so that he could go with them and not have to miss school, so he visits his friend Diego instead. Diego is Jamal’s grandfather’s friend, but he’s more fun. Diego tells Jamal about how he had a sister; she was born the old fashioned way, and that Jamal needs to learn about prejudice because it’s not his sister’s fault that she is a girl. Diego talks about his life before leaving Earth, how he met Jamal 1 before they left, and how everyone needs to work together for this community. (Diego is great.)

When Jamal goes with his parents to pick up his sister, he remembers to ask what Diego wanted him to find out – what is the baby’s number. The adults start discussing how Diego must be close, much closer than Jamal’s grandfather. They watch the new baby, Nakamura Akane, be born, and head back to their ship. The next day, Jamal meets up with Diego, and tells him that having a sister isn’t that bad. He tells Diego the number, and then they head to Eden so that Diego can explain to Jamal that their ship is a closed system. For every baby born, an elderly person has to “retire”. There’s not enough supplies to not maintain that balance. Diego understands this, and he believes solely in it and in the mission. Jamal does not. He decides to find Jamal II (2 clone cycles ahead of him) to ask his opinion. Jamal II also believes in the mission. When the day comes for Diego to retire, he smuggles onto the shuttle to that ship and tries to stop the procedure. Diego definitively tells him that it is time to say good bye, and is retired. Jamal is in the biggest trouble of his life, and he turns to I.C.C. as his friend.

October 19, 48 PLD (2589 CE)

Still with Jamal III, 18 years later, Captain Mahler is inquiring why I.C.C. is having issues. A banner flashed saying “Remember clouds. Remember sand.” And neither I.C.C. nor Jamal know where it came from. I.C.C. turns on her full consciousness to try to deduce what is going on. She tracks down some people who witnessed the display, and tries to gauge their reactions to the messages, as they continue with “Remember ice cream trucks.” and “Remember holiday breaks.” I.C.C. thinks that there is something malicious going on, so she continues to turn on her full consciousness to spy on various crew members. She pieces together that the psychiatrist, Dr. Evita, was the connection between the crew members who had turned off the messages, and I.C.C. decides to tell this to Jamal…but Jamal is also one of Dr. Evita’s patients. He is who overrode I.C.C. in the first place to send the messages, and he tells her their plan – they intend to uprise to turn the convoy around to head back to Earth, all because of Diego and him being retired, in Jamal’s mind, too soon. The uprising happens, and there’s nothing I.C.C. can do to stop it. Jamal and his gang tell the governing officials that they are to turn the plane around, and when they say that they need more time, Jamal switches off the air into their room – the same room his sister is in too. Luckily I.C.C. has one last trick up her sleeve, and shorts herself out. When she comes back online, she learns from Margarita that the revolt lasted for a week, during which time Jamal was trampled, and none of the ringleaders were ever allowed to be reborn again. It’s Margarita’s retirement day, and she, like Diego, believes in the mission, and is happy I.C.C. is back online for her new version.

May 22, 98 PLD (3075 CE)

Captain Reginald Straifer IV is about to come out of SD travel and see LQ Pyx for what it is. He and Margarita discuss what the general mood will be and discuss the various messages that have been prepared for Earth. It’s been 100 earth years (10 convoy years) since they last received a message in return. There are many reasons that Straifer can think of as to why this may have happened, and coupled with the uncertainty of what they may or may not find at the star, there are a lot of pretty depressing ideas. Straifer rewatches the speech that his original gave on Earth so many years ago kicking off the project, and we learn that it was not supposed to be Straifer who was captain when they reached LQ Pyx; it was supposed to have been Mahler III, but he committed suicide and therefore eliminated his line forever.

They reach LQ Pyx and once they get everything in focus, they realize that the shell that surrounds the star…is man-made. It’s a mostly complete metal net of sorts. Still no reply from Earth regarding the incredible discovery. They discuss that they are also not receiving communications from whomever built the Dyson Sphere (which is a structure built around a star to passively gather energy), and they could be close-by, so they decide to open up their communications wavelengths further.

Six months later, they officially arrive. They have lots of speculations about the structure, but are excited to investigate it. The biggest question is – why isn’t the structure finished. Straifer seems to be getting more and more into his own head. We learn that after Mahler committed suicide, his widow remarried to Straifer. It seems to be plaguing him. When they are looking at the web, they keep going back to this section where there is a “seed” which seems to be at the middle of that portion of the web, and every night Straifer dreams of the seed, and it often has Mahler’s voice. When one of the probes returns, the pictures show a spaceship, and there’s a question as to whether that’s who is blocking the transmissions. Upon more research, it appears that not all of the web was constructed by the same individuals, or at least not all done at the same time. So what’s next? The original deployment allotted only a specific time to investigate LQ Pyx and then return to Earth with the results. Do they keep to the original plan, despite no news from Earth in years, or do they stay until they can complete the web?

They take a manned mission to the seed and find that one of the previous groups picked it apart fairly crudely to determine what was going on with it. As they are there, Straifer has an anxiety attack. He’s convinced there’s something wrong, and that they need to turn the ship around and get away from it. He goes so far as to tamper with the shuttle that is going to be heading back, but luckily I.C.C. alerts Nakamura to come stop him. He’s taken to the medical ship, where he dies – an aneurysm they suspect. Has the Seed claimed its first life?

February 9, 121 PLD (3088 CE)

The scientists finish collecting their samples of the mission as they were only allowed to stay for the allotted 20 years. I.C.C. is evolving, and has written a poem.

October 3, 121 PLD (3088 CE)

As the ships are transitioning into SD, something happens and part of Bottomless (the storage ship) is lost along with a bunch of crew members. They aren’t sure if SD travel can be used any more, so they proceed back at regular speed.

April 1, 161 PLD (3138 CE)

Something is different, even though it’s only 39 years later, and it takes a little bit to discover. Captain Mahler, the clone who was never re-cloned after his freak-out upon arrival at LQ Pyx is now the Warden, over a prison called The Pit developed out of the discontinued lines, aka “bad clones” who are used strictly for work details. This came out of … The problem is that the Warden and his prisoners don’t really fit into the system so they self-govern, and Mahler is abusing his power by killing prisoners. At the same time, we learn that Margarita (who is part of the governing board) and her former wife have sneakily reintroduced Jamal into society as their child Diego as they wanted general society to realize that the discontinueds do not belong in the Pit. This comes to a head when Mahler sees Diego and realizes he is the same as Rail who is in the Pit. Mahler approaches the board, but they refuse his request to allow him to check all the children who he believes to discontinued, so he hijacks a convoy that Diego is on. Margarita and her new wife hurry to find and protect some of the other children, and they learn that one of them is a clone of Mahler, who Margarita takes with her to the Pit. Margarita apologizes to Mahler for how this all turned out, but the convoy has sent a security team over as the feed of what is going on at  the pit is being distributed throughout the fleet by I.C.C. A battle ensues, and the Warden kills himself, both ending his suffering and stopping the purpose of the Pit.

May 28, 271 PLD (4101 CE)

Removing the Pit has made the crew take a handle of their fear and go back into SD, so they are quickly approaching Earth, and they are curious what they will find, since it’s been over a thousand Earth years since they’ve received any communication. What will they find when they return to Earth? The speculations that the book gives via discussions from the government board and how they might plan for such occurrences are all great possibilities for an ending to a book. Will they find anyone there? Is that why no communications? They have to wait to see. It’s no longer a homecoming, but more like a first contact.

When they finally do arrive, they see signs of life, but still, no response to any communications including the one that I.C.C. has been continually broadcasting since their arrival. They decide to wait for contact before fully landing, and give Earth 30 days to respond, and when they don’t, the convoy lands in Antarctica (a neutral zone). Shortly thereafter, they are approached by 6 humanoid figures, and they go out to meet them. Nika tries communication in multiple languages with no response and then reverts to sign language. All that occurs is that the 6 figures mimic her motions. Stopping to think about what to try next, the figures begin to run off, followed by the crew members. They are led down a long elevator, and the suspicion that the humanoids are indeed robots is confirmed when they power off upon arrival.

Once they reach the lower level, they find a huge underground city in the warmth of the geothermal. They begin seeing humans, but none will respond to them. They look frustrated and confused, and no one can understand why. They are led to an unusual room where the new robot escorts awaken a man who struggles to speak to them in a sort of code of abbreviations. None of the crew members can decipher it. They’re a bit creeped out about the situation so they go to leave the way they came when they meet Ephenza, the first person who can speak to them!

January 27, 4136 CE

We’re introduced to Esperanza Straifer – the daughter of Nika and Reggie Straifer. In the olden, on-ship days, they would have never been allowed to have a child as they were of different classes, and they weren’t allowed a clone. They had to have a baby the “old fashioned way”.  Esperanza is brilliant, but belligerent about life, partly due to ridicule she (believed she) experienced as a result of her parents and partly due to having to live up to her mother. She has been given implants similarly to the other Earth people so that she can communicate with them–a similar career as her mother had.

In the 35 years since landing, there’s been seemingly no progress on integration. Those from the ship are still considered outsiders, and the residents can’t be bothered by them. When Esper returns to the ship, there’s a message waiting for her, and she is surprised to learn that there was an agreement about the lease (of the land where the ships were parked) that she hadn’t been privy to. It turns out the board went over her head, and they thought she’d be happy since she seems to hate her job, and really, everything, but she isn’t. We learn that Earth likes having them there because they have the capability to grow lots of luxury items.

They instate another person to take over her role as ambassador to Earth, and it’s suggested that when they leave Earth (since even after years of trying, they aren’t integrating properly), maybe she should stay. She’s one of the few who has had successful implants (most can’t handle them) and she hates the way that she’s been treated. As she’s packing up to move out of her office, she gets a visit from her half-sister Caznal (after Esper’s father died, her mother married Ephenza, Caznal’s father). Caznal alerts Esper that there is something more going on, and she should not accept the loss of her job so willingly. I.C.C. backs up the suggestion that there is something more going on, and the board has consciously kept Esper in the dark about it.

Caznal begins to tell Esper that she has figured out the purpose of the Nest. It is full of hydrogen and she believes that it has the capability of pressurizing at such a high pressure that it can turn the hydrogen into a metallic state creating a circuit. However, when Caznal presented this data to the board in hopes of being allowed to study the seed to figure out how the ship’s computer, she was taken off the project. She knows that they believe her, but as she is an Earthling, not from Ship City, they don’t want her to know that they want to track down the creators of the Nest and make contact. Earth is too comfortable in their ways now to want change, and the concern from Ship City is that if Earth knows what they are doing, Earth will take away and destroy the Nest and not allow them to leave.

Negotiations begin without Esper, and everyone is excited to hear that Earth is agreeing to let them leave. Esper tracks down the full details of the negotiations and is shocked to find out that part of the negotiation was that Earth was to terminate I.C.C. She attends the board meeting to tell them how upset she is that they are agreeing to these terms when I.C.C. was the only thing to save them multiple times throughout their journey. Then to make the point even more cynical, she points out that if Earth thinks that I.C.C. is too outdated to make the trip, why wouldn’t they also think that the crew itself is too? It turns out that Esper is correct.

All the board and all the crew are subpoenaed for their genetic material so that Earth can determine if they are the correct people to go. Years go by as Earth has decided that the trip will necessitate 3 additional ships. Esper meets another janitor (her new job) named Lawrence, and is pregnant with twins. She goes to see her friend Toya who is still involved in board decisions when she realizes that Earth doesn’t want I.C.C. because they think it’s outdated. She realizes that Earth wants to keep I.C.C. because the knowledge of making fully artificial intelligence was lost long ago, and they realize that they need to stop Earth from taking the AI.

They fake a fire in which I.C.C. and Esper and Lawrence die (which means that they will not be able to go on the mission and will have to stay on Earth – a penalty that Esper is willing to take). Earth teams come in to salvage what they can, but they determine that I.C.C. is of no use without the main server which was destroyed.

A year later, January 19, 4148, a little over 2 millennia after the original voyage, the ships depart. Esper, Lawrence, and their two fraternal twins are there to watch, but the reader learns that the twins’ DNA was selected for the mission. Three hundred Earth years later, the book cuts to Toya introducing herself to the 20-something year old twins the day before her retirement and telling them that the ship owes everything to their biological parents.

An elderly Caznal meets with a young Jamal to continue studying the Nest, and they realize that the aliens who created it could control the hydrogen circuit with their bodies allowing them to biologically manipulate their gravitational field. Jamal initially is upset thinking that means that they will never figure out the Nest, but Caznal and I.C.C. are not so easily deterred. They believe that they can create something to bridge the gap and allow humans to do the same. It will take a lot of time and many years of research, but what do they have if not time?

Verdict: 4.5 stars

This book is one of the best books I have read in recent times, and I have recommended it to multiple people who have all really liked it as well. It’s still enough science to be sci-fi, but with a really incredibly interesting people story to go with it. I can’t wait for the sequel.


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Filed under 4.5 stars, Book Review

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Review (Amazon): An unflinching, darkly funny, and deeply moving story of a boy, his seriously ill mother, and an unexpected monstrous visitor.

At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting– he’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments. The monster in his backyard is different. It’s ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth. From the final idea of award-winning author Siobhan Dowd– whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself– Patrick Ness has spun a haunting and darkly funny novel of mischief, loss, and monsters both real and imagined.

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: Emotional

This was my book pick for 2016 for “book into movie”. However the movie release continued to get pushed back so we switched it with our book swap and did it as the last book of 2016. I also loaned the book out so I needed to get it back before finishing the review which is why it’s a few months late. Oops.

First, if you get this book, be sure you get the one with pictures. Seriously though, it is worth it. The book is touted as a children’s book but it is actually fairly dark and is about serious issues. I don’t think a single person in my book club finished the book with dry eyes.

Conor keeps having this nightmare about a monster. He wakes up but keeps hearing his name whispered. And when he looks out his window, he sees the giant yew tree that is planted in the church cemetery beside their house turn into a giant monster. It comes up to Conor’s window, but he’s not scared of the monster.

When he gets up in the morning, he thinks it was just his nightmare again like it always is, but when he steps out of bed, his whole room is covered with yew leaves. He sweeps them up and hides them in the trash as he’s getting ready. His mom -er- mum comes down and we realize that something’s wrong with her. She’s in a new round of treatments. And she tells Conor that his grandma is going to come stay with them because a kid of 13 shouldn’t have to take care of everything.

At school, he’s bullied by the teacher’s pet Harry. It started right around the time Conor’s mum was diagnosed. Not immediately, but afterwards. When he started having the nightmare with the screaming and falling. The bullying continues and this time, Conor’s friend Lily steps up for him, telling the teacher that they were making fun of Conor’s mother, but he denies it and she gets detention. When Conor’s mother was first diagnosed, she called Lily’s mother, who told Lily and then eventually everyone knew. And they started treating him differently.

When he gets home from school, the yew tree is just a tree. But in the middle of the night, it visits him again. Always at 12:07. This time he tells Conor to come outside and that he will tell him 3 stories. And at the end, Conor will tell the monster a story of his own–the truth, his truth. Conor thinks this is about the stupidest thing for a monster to do, but he’s also scared to tell his story.

Conor’s grandma arrives and she’s a bit…cold. Everything about her irritates Conor. She tells Conor that he can come live with her, but he angrily denies that there will be a need for that.

The monster arrives that night again at 12:07 for the first story. Long ago, a kingdom was on that very land. The king remarries a young bride, but then he suddenly grows ill and dies. His son is still too young so the queen rules alone, and rumors start that she is a witch and she killed the king with magic powers. As the prince grows closer to the throne, the queen has grown fond of ruling and tries to entice the prince to marry her. Alas, he has fallen in love with a farm girl, and one night, he and his love run away. They fall asleep under the (same) yew tree, and when the prince awakes, the princess is dead. The prince races back to the kingdom telling everyone that the queen has murdered his bride. The villagers break into the castle to get the queen who is to be burned alive. BUT it turns out that it was not the queen. It was the prince. He sacrificed his beloved to rid the kingdom of the queen who was actually a witch. The yew tree knew what had happened, and before the villagers could burn the queen at the stake, he saves her and transports her to another land where she could do no harm. The prince ruled til the end of his days and was much loved.

Conor is enraged! What does the yew monster mean that the prince killed his own bride. Surely the villagers would have believed him without such drastic measures. And why would the yew monster save the evil queen!? She was bad. No one was the good guy in the story.

When Conor gets up in the morning, there’s a foot tall sapling growing out of his bedroom floor. He gets a knife and cuts out the tree. His day at school is more of the same. Lily apologizes because he deserves special treatment. Harry bullies him. The teachers pity him. And then he comes home to his grandmother who tells him that his father is coming to visit from America. He never sees his father. Why’s he coming? His mum is going back to the hospital but she assures him she’s going to be fine.

When his mum goes to the hospital, he goes to stay with his grandma. The yew tree doesn’t visit him for a few days. Maybe it doesn’t know where he is. His dad arrives because his mum asked him to. But he won’t say why. And Conor isn’t coming to live with him because his place in America is small and his wife is (paraphrasing) terrible. And he can’t stay long because Americans don’t get much vacation (preach!) so by the time Conor is done hanging out with him, he’s just so mad. He’s so mad, he destroys his grandma’s heirloom clock and the time is stuck, of course, at 12:07 so the yew monster appears for story #2.

Over a hundred years ago, the country had become industrialized. But there are still some who are clinging to the past, in particular, the apothecary. He made ancient medicines from trees and berries and plants. But as society changed, people started using him less, and he grew bitter. The parson (of the church beside Conor’s home) had two daughters who he loved very much. The apothecary asked the parson if he could cut down the ancient yew tree for his medicines and the parson said no. In fact, he went so far as to preach against the apothecary and turn the townspeople against him. But then one day, his daughters fell sick, but no modern doctor could help. The parson swallows his pride and asks the apothecary. The apothecary asks why he should help the parson. The parson says he will give up the yew tree. He will send all his parishioners to the apothecary. He will give up everything he believes to cure his daughters. And so, the apothecary tells him that there is nothing that he can do to help the parson, and that night, both his daughters die. And that night, the yew monster tears the parson’s house from its foundation.

Conor is furious! The parson’s house! But the apothecary is the bad one. He let the children die. No, the yew monster says. The parson was selfish and cared only about himself. He should have given up the yew tree from the beginning.

Conor and the monster begin tearing down the parson’s house in the story, but once the story is over, Conor realizes he has completely destroyed his grandmother’s home. When he realizes what he has done, he’s in shock, and then his grandmother pulls into the driveway. When she sees what he has done, she screams. But she’s not mad. She comes through the room and knocks the only remaining upright thing down.

No one yells at him. He goes through school and no one really talks to him. He doesn’t even get his beating from Harry. It’s like he’s invisible. He goes to visit his mum in the hospital, and she tells him they are going to try one more thing–medicine made from the yew tree.

His dad has to leave but before he goes, he tries to tell Conor that his mum is very very sick and the medicine is probably not going to work. Stories don’t always have happy endings. Conor has learned this from the yew monster, but he still thinks that the situation is too coincidental for the medicine not to work. When the yew monster appears that night, Conor asks him if he will heal his mum. The monster say “If your mother can be healed, then the yew tree will do it” The monster leaves without a story.

At school the next day, he gets cornered by Harry and his friends. But instead of beating him up, Harry tells Conor, “I know longer see you” and walks past him. It’s 12:06. The yew monster appears for the 3rd tale.

There once was an invisible man. Not really invisible, but it was just that people had gotten used to not seeing him. And so he decides that he will make them see him. Conor asks how–by calling for a monster! And he reaches his giant monster hand out and knocks Harry across the floor. The monster pummels Harry, and at the end, the headmistress calls Conor to the office. The entire cafeteria saw Conor completely attack Harry. Like usual, he’s not being punished. The entire school now sees him, but he’s more alone than ever.

A few days pass. He doesn’t see the monster. He does make up with Lily, but just at that moment, his grandma appears at school. His mum’s treatment isn’t working. Conor is furious and tells his grandma that he has to go back to his home, the one with the yew tree. She is confused, but she agrees, and she drops him off and then heads back to the hospital. There Conor confronts the yew monster about why he didn’t heal his mother. The monster says it’s time for Conor’s story, and suddenly they are in his nightmare. The one he doesn’t tell anyone about.

He’s in a forest clearing and on one side, there’s a cliff. His mum is standing near the cliff edge, and he yells that she needs to get out of there. She doesn’t listen despite his pleas. A cloud which turns into two large fists raises over the cliff and grab her and pull her over the edge. Conor runs toward her and catches her just as she falls over. She begs him to hold on, but she’s slipping. She’s getting heavier, and the monster appears to tell him that it’s time for the fourth tale. Conor wants him to help, but the yew monster tells him that it’s time for the truth, and his mother falls from his grasp.

But that’s not the end. The monster says he must tell the truth. That he had let her go. Conor argues that he didn’t, but the monster says he cannot leave until he admits it, and finally he does. The monster asks why, and Conor says that he just wants it all to be over.

They leave the nightmare and are back at his house. Conor is devastated that he has said such a horrible thing about his mum who he loves so much. But the monster says that it is just a thought. It wasn’t an action. Conor is exhausted and falls asleep under the yew.

He awakes to his grandmother screaming, trying to find him. When she finally does, they race back to the hospital. On the way, she tells Conor that she knows that they haven’t always gotten along very well, but she tells him that they do have one thing in common. They both love his mum.

They arrive to the hospital in time, and the monster is there too. It’s close to midnight. The monster tells Conor to speak the truth. He tells his mother “I don’t want you to go” and she tells him that she knows. He puts his arm around her and when 12:07 arrives, he knows that he can finally let her go.

Verdict: 4.5 stars

This book is really special. It’s imaginative. It’s happy, funny, sad. The characters are all so incredibly believable. I would recommend this book to everyone from about late junior high on. Yes, it has pictures. No it’s not for children. I absolutely loved it.




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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North


Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. “I nearly missed you, Doctor August,” she says. “I need to send a message.”

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

My review (major spoilers!):

Executive summary: creative

This book is SO good. I thought it was really creative, and I hope that this author puts out more stuff (Claire North is a pen name for Catherine Webb).

As you can probably guess from the title, there’s a reason why Harry August has had 15 lives. He cannot die. Every time he lives out his life, he is reborn into the exact same situation where he began with all the memories from his previous lives. His biological father raped (coerced?) his mother and Harry was born in the women’s bathroom of a train station in Northern England. His mother died during childbirth. Each life, Harry ended up being adopted by some close relatives who could not have children, and in general treated Harry just fine.

During his fourth life, he realizes that there are others like him (unfortunately too late) and upon starting life #5, The Cronus Club (made up of other ouroborons like Harry) begin to take him out of each of his lives early under the guise of special scholarships and the like so that his 100+ year old mind doesn’t have to sit through middle school over and over again. The Cronus Club operates in a sort of pay it forward type of way in that a scholarship fund of sorts is set up (they do a lot of betting on horses and the like since they know who will win) and older members are responsible for pulling out new members at the correct age when they are reborn.

Throughout lives 5-11, Harry learns and learns and learns. He travels, learns seemingly every language there is, and meets a variety of other oudoboron. They all spend their lives differently. Some prefer to engage in very risky behavior like fighting in wars. Others prefer to maximize their fun since there’s no consequences. Harry in general is fairly straight laced. He loves to learn. Sometimes he marries, other times he doesn’t. He typically lands in some sort of science-related field.

Nearing his “death” at life number 11, he is visited by a young oudoboron (he always dies for a similar reason at approximately the same time, but the only thing that is always exactly the same in every life is his birth) who passes along a message. “The world is ending, as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”

He doesn’t really think too much of it because really, what does that mean? So he spends his twelfth life doing a lot of research. And he finds that technology is indeed speeding up. Following some leads to Russia, he finds a man who he had met in life #5 when he was a professor. The man, during that life, was a student named Vincent Rankis, who had big ideas even then and even bigger ideas now. Scientific curiosity convinces Harry  to join Vincent on his mission to develop a quantum mirror–something which would allow comprehension of the entire universe.  During this time, he discovers that Vincent is a mnemonic, a oudoboron who never forgets (this is quite rare as most of the others eventually begin to forget their early lives). It turns out that Harry, too, is a mnemonic, but he does not reveal this detail to Vincent.

Eventually Harry realizes that he and Vincent are the cause of the message that he received at his death bed. He decides to take a few days away from the lab (he hasn’t left in 10 years) and finds the Leningrad Cronus Club is gone. He tracks down the tomb of the one woman from there who he knew, and finds a cryptic message saying that her death was violent and unexpected (members of the Cronus Club always left messages and clues for each other throughout time). Harry knows in his mind who was behind this (Vincent) and is conflicted as to what to do. He decides to return, and Vincent confirms the suspicion. He doesn’t like the Cronus Clubs because in his mind, they don’t do anything new or different, just live the same lives over and over.

Harry decides to flee, but Vincent foils it. He restrains Harry and questions and tortures him about his point of origin. (The only way to truly kill a oudoboron is to prevent them from being born, and the only way that you can do that is to know where the person is born and who his/her mother is.) Harry refuses to give in. He convinces the main torturer to bring him poison, and Harry manages to take enough to not be able to recover. In his slow death, Vincent decides to perform a Forgetting on Harry. (This is an uncommon thing performed on oudoborons when they have had a particularly traumatizing event.) When he awakes, he realizes that the treatment didn’t work, but it doesn’t matter, Vincent has him killed.

When Harry awakes in life #13, he still remembers everything from the previous lives. And he knows that he needs to find Vincent. At six, he sends a letter, as he always does, to the London Cronus Club to save him, but no one appears. He sneaks away to find that the London Cronus Club no longer exists. Eventually when he is older, he finds out that the Cronus Club ceased to exist in 1909 due to lack of new members. Harry suspects that Victor had done a mass forgetting and heads to Vienna and proves it. He becomes a professional criminal both trying to trace Vincent and also trying to glean any information from remaining Cronus Clubs. Eventually he finds one in Beijing and learns that the forgettings began in 1965 and the pre-birth killings started no earlier than 1896 and accelerated in 1931 (presumably when Vincent can help) which gives him a good timeline to find Vincent. The Beijing Club provides a name of the original person and Harry sets off. When he finds her, he is devastated to find the woman who originally saved him so many lives ago. He initiates a forgetting on her, but never encounters Vincent. It will have to wait until life #14.

In life #14, technology is so far advanced in this life, he knows that the Vincent has been hard at work for the last few years. He makes an ally with an oudoboron whose live begins a few decades before his to help carry out the mission of stopping Vincent. Harry randomly meets Vincent at a colleague’s house, and must pretend not to know him (he should have forgotten). Vincent eventually contacts Harry and begins to get Harry to work for him. Harry does to learn about Vincent’s past. Harry is good at pretending not to remember even during particularly difficult time when Vincent marries Jenny–one of Harry’s wives from a  former life (and the one who he loved the most and told his secret to…and then she left him.) Harry dies earlier in this life, and before he dies, Vincent performs another forgetting. Again, it does not work.

His two other oudoboron acquaintances help him early in life #15 knowing that Vincent must be stopped. They suggest a forgetting but Harry knows it won’t work. So they begin on a plan. At sixteen, Vincent finds Harry at school, and it’s then obvious that Harry is being tracked until he eventually bumps into Vincent again in 1941 during the war. Again Harry pretends that the forgetting has worked, and again Vincent keeps Harry close, having him help with the research. Vincent is very close this time to completing his quantum mirror. Luckily Harry sabotages him from completing it despite his knowledge. Harry and Vincent both begin to die from radiation poisoning from being too close to the mirror for too long. Harry is dying more quickly and as he is dying, Vincent tells him everything. He tells his mother’s name, when he was born, and Harry has already figured out where he was born. Vincent performs yet another forgetting, and yet again it does not work. He checks himself out of the hospital, contacts his allies, and writes Vincent a letter. The game is over.

Verdict: 4.5 Stars

I thought this book was awesome. It’s a creative story set in a really great time period of modern history (which is important because it’s relived over and over). There are few stories that seem not to follow a predictable idea, and this was one. It integrated science and mystery with human drama. (Particularly in the last few lives, Harry struggled with being friends with Vincent while also knowing that he had to destroy him.) There were also sociological bits such as the fact that Harry continued to kill a serial killer in every life (even before the man had made his first kill). It was fascinating and I would definitely recommend it.

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Marie Kondo

  Summary (Amazon):  Despite constant efforts to declutter your home, do papers still accumulate like snowdrifts and clothes pile up like a tangled mess of noodles?

Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo takes tidying to a whole new level, promising that if you properly simplify and organize your home once, you’ll never have to do it again. Most methods advocate a room-by-room or little-by-little approach, which doom you to pick away at your piles of stuff forever. The KonMari Method, with its revolutionary category-by-category system, leads to lasting results. In fact, none of Kondo’s clients have lapsed (and she still has a three-month waiting list).

With detailed guidance for determining which items in your house “spark joy” (and which don’t), this international bestseller featuring Tokyo’s newest lifestyle phenomenon will help you clear your clutter and enjoy the unique magic of a tidy home—and the calm, motivated mindset it can inspire.

My Review (spoilers?):

Executive Summary: inspiring

So I am fairly certain that this will be a first for me. I do not think I’ve ever reviewed a self-help book before! My plan is to summarize the point of the book and once I finally start implementing it, I’ll post an update. (I mean, how will you know if it’s worth it fully if you don’t know whether it actually helps!?)

I’m not sure where I first heard about this book but it has a near-perfect review on Amazon, and after the frustration after packing and unpacking for our move this year, I was ready to de-clutter EVERYTHING.

The Japanese author, Marie Kondo, has developed her own method (the KonMari method) through years of experimenting on how to de-clutter your house and (important!) keep it that way. Marie herself sounds like quite the crazy person in the funniest, most adorable way. As a small child, she became obsessed with organization and being tidy and has been that way ever since. Most of the experimentation was her own and the KonMari method stemmed from this. She has stories of racing home from elementary school to get the latest organization magazine or being frustrated with her siblings’ junk so she would hide it and then if they never missed it, she’d throw it away. I’m so glad she wasn’t my sister, but it’s funny to hear from someone else! All this is to say, the book is not dry, and she livens it up with childhood stories as well as examples from clients who she has had.

There are a couple premises of the book that are critical to the KonMari success of tidying. First is to focus on reducing the amount of stuff that you have. She provides a general list of the order in which you are to do this. Essentially begin with clothes, move to papers, books, and documents, miscellany, and lastly, anything with sentimental value. The point is that by the time you have made it to your sentimental things, you will have fine tuned your decision making skills on what is important to keep.

She does not recommend doing any of these over time. She preaches the “all in one fell swoop” method. I will use the clothing organization as my main example. She tells clients to find ALL their clothing (any in miscellaneous closets) and put it on the floor in a pile. Anything that doesn’t make it in the pile will be gotten rid of because it was obviously not important enough to remember anyway. Part of the method of putting it on the floor is just so that you can see HOW MUCH stuff you actually have. You then proceed to go through your items by group (i.e. shirts, pants, etc.), picking up each item and asking yourself “does this bring me joy?” If not, the item finds a new home.

The idea is to move through all your items keeping only what is absolutely necessary to your needs and happiness. Organization is a lesser focus of the book itself, however she does offer suggestions as to things like how to arrange your closet and how to fold your clothing, but the major focus of the book is how to make the decision to throw things away. Which sounds like a very easy idea. But if it’s easy and obvious, why doesn’t everyone do it?

She also mentions how to manage other people as you are going through the process. A few psychologyesc points that she makes that I find fascinating involve family members. Don’t let your parents (specifically your mother) see you tidying. Parents are specifically designed to want to protect you, and if they see you throwing away most of your stuff, they will feel stressed that you won’t have enough to survive and will try to limit your progress on tidying. Another point that was made was that people need to break the habit of passing on their junk to others. The big sister/little sister type of relationship is hard to break and because of years of conditioning, younger siblings have a much harder time with the tidying (because typically they have so much more stuff). I thought about this with regard to the thrift store as well. I want to be more mindful of the quality of the things that I take to a thrift store as I don’t want to pass on the burden of sifting out stuff that is far too warn onto those volunteers. That’s unfair to them. (I have a habit of never throwing away anything that is far too rigid).

Marie mentions that for most people, the full process for tidying takes about 6 months (although I would suspect that most westerners would find it to take even longer than that as we have bigger houses and therefore more stuff). I am looking forward to starting this in 2016 and I will keep an update of my progress!

Verdict: 4.5 stars

I know that seems high for something that I haven’t actually tried. However, the book is written in a way that makes it very easy to follow which I believe is the most important thing about a book like this. It’s an exhausting extensive task to clean out your entire house, but if you come away from the book thinking “I can do this!”, I think the author is fully successful! I also really like the zen spirituality of the book about how to deal with things that you once loved but don’t have a use for any more. It’s something that I think we as westerners need to do more often. (Thank the item for its contribution and release it from your care.) It sounds a little cheesy, but I think that making the conscious choice is sometimes all we need to be able to move past something. I’m legitimately excited to try out this method and hopefully get my house (and therefore my mind) in a clearer state.


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The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

  Summary (Amazon): Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: amazing

So I have been reading this behemoth of a book since the 4th of July. It’s been on my shelf waiting to be read since last summer, but I haven’t had the time to set aside to actually do it. The book recommendation came from a random place. While we were on vacation last summer, we took a sunset ride on a sailboat. Also on this boat ride was a family who we have dubbed “the best family ever”. Because honestly, they seemed so great. The parents worked for the School of Rock, which is actually a real place, not just the Jack Black movie. They had 2 biological college age daughters and one adopted (also college age) daughter, and all were amazingly well-spoken and just very cool. One of the daughters was an avid reader and recommended this book as a must-read.

Maybe her opinion biased me, but I really liked this book, and I thought it was worth the time spent.

Theo Decker lives with his mom; his dad left them and has not made contact. Theo is a smart kid who isn’t applying himself, and he finds himself suspended from school. He and his mother have to go into the school to discuss, and en route, they stop into the Met along the way when it starts to rain. Theo’s mother studied art history at NYU and wants to see a painting that is at the museum, The Goldfinch by Fabritius. It was her favorite as a child, and the tale of how Fabritius died in a fire in Delft with most of his artwork makes it even more rare. While at the museum, Theo finds himself mesmerized by another patron, a pale red haired girl with a man who looks to be her grandfather. When they are approaching the time to go, Theo’s mother tells him to meet her in the gift shop, but she wants to go back and get a look at another painting on display. An explosion occurs in the museum, and when Theo awakes, he has no idea what has happened. He realizes that the grandfather is in the room with him, and is struggling to stay alive. Theo finds some water, gives it to the man, and stays with him until he passes. The man gives Theo his ring and tells him to go to Hobart and Blackwell and ring the green bell. In his delirium, he also suggests to Theo that he take The Goldfinch (which has fallen from the wall in the blast) away from here, which Theo does.

Theo is unsure of his mother’s whereabouts, but when he exits the museum, he sees that they are preparing for an additional explosion. The plan is to always meet back at the house so he heads there expecting that she will eventually return. But she doesn’t. Eventually child protective services arrives. They ask him about his father, but he doesn’t know his father’s whereabouts. They allow him to go to stay with his friend Andy’s family until his grandparents or father can be located. Andy’s family is wealthy, but Andy is the nerdy odd duck of the bunch with his siblings Platt who is older and bullies him and the younger popular Kitsie and Toddy. As best as he can due to his traumatic experiences, Theo is happy at the Barbours, however, once he recovers somewhat, he remembers about the old man and his ring. He tracks down Hobart and Blackwell, rings the green bell, and he finds that the old man was Blackwell. Hobart “Hobie” is still there and explains a bit of the history. Hobie and “Welty” (Blackwell) were business partners dealing predominately in antique furniture. Hobie was the craftsman, and Welty was the salesman. Theo immediately likes Hobie, and is even more drawn to the shop when he finds out that the red haired girl from the museum is also there recovering until she heads to Texas with her aunt. In the meantime, Theo and Pippa become good friends.

One fateful day however, his father arrives with his new girlfriend Xandra. Theo is going with them to Las Vegas. Xandra works in a casino, and Theo’s father is a “professional” gambler. In general, Theo hates his life in Las Vegas, the only bright spot being his friendship with Boris, a Ukranian boy in a similar situation (no mother, deadbeat father). With no attentive parents, the two slip into a pattern of drugs, alcohol, and reckless abandon. They aren’t the only ones. Theo’s father is in trouble with gambling debts. Thugs are showing up at the house when Theo is home, and his father even tries to convince Theo to contact his mother’s lawyer for some of his inheritance. (He can’t withdraw it.) Theo’s father gets drunk and kills himself in a car accident. (This section in Las Vegas went on too long for my taste.)

Once Xandra is passed out after the funeral, Boris and Theo steal her money and drugs, and Theo leaves to head back to New York with the painting and Xandra’s dog who she never took care of anyway. When he finally gets back into New York, dirty and exhausted, he sees Mr. Barbour in Central Park. Mr. Barbour is off of his medication and scares Theo to the point that he has no interest in returning there or even with getting in touch with Andy. He heads to Hobie’s and asks if he can stay. Hobie agrees. Pippa is there again, on break from her school for broken girls, and they reconnect. Eventually Xandra calls and tells Theo that he’s just like his father. However, CPS allows Theo to stay with Hobie while he attends an early college program that he tested into.

The book then skips ahead eight years. We learn that Theo never did that well in school, and eventually returned to help Hobie at the store, taking the place of Welty when the past due notices begin to come in. Theo is wrought with problems. He still has The Goldfinch which stresses him constantly although it’s now in a storage unit. He is addicted to drugs, and he has also taken to selling counterfeit furniture to get the business into the black. He bumps into Platt on the street and becomes reconnected with the Barbours. However, Andy and Mr. Barbour died in a boating accident a few months prior. Theo agrees to dine with the rest of the family at their place since Mrs. Barbour no longer leaves to reconnect, and soon a relationship develops between Theo and Kitsey, although for both, it’s more a matter of appearance. Theo still loves Pippa (who has a boyfriend she lives with in London), and Kitsey is emotionally detached.

One of the people who Theo sold phony merchandise to has figured it out, and he confronts Theo. Theo returns his money plus some, hoping to buy it back and have it settled. However, Lucius Reeve has other ideas. He doesn’t cash the check or return the furniture, and one day confronts Theo with a thought. Lucius believes that Theo stole The Goldfinch from the museum since he was in that room when it was bombed, and Lucius is not above blackmailing Theo and Hobie for it. Obviously Theo is panicking since he still has The Goldfinch in a paid-in-cash storage unit. However, he can’t go check on it without being tracked. Theo’s anxiety is getting the best of him between the fraudulent furniture sales, Lucius Reeve and The Goldfinch and his upcoming wedding to Kitsey with all the parties and schmoozing that accompany it. He takes some time away from her to go see a movie, but ends up wandering around the city with a plan to find drugs. What he does find…is Boris!

It’s not clear what Boris has been up to or what his job actually entails, but it’s presumed to be a bit shady. (No one expected any differently.) In a surprise twist however, Boris reveals that many years ago when they lived in Las Vegas, Theo was blasted and showed Boris the painting. And Boris as a teenage joke, stole it. He meant to give it back, but Theo left in such a hurry, he wasn’t able to. Eventually Boris sells it, and he tells Theo that he will get it back. The pair go visit an associate of Boris’s who doesn’t really know what happened to it, however, through the behavior of the associate’s girlfriend during the meeting, Boris pieces together that her brother is the one who has it.

Boris makes an appearance at the end of Theo’s engagement party (where an associate of Mr. Reeves’ has been threatening him) and tells Theo to pack because they have a lead. Theo and Boris head to Amsterdam through separate routes and reconvene upon arrival. Theo is the American buyer, and they go to the meeting place where there are only 2 people waiting for them. They overtake the men, take the painting, and think they have made a clean getaway. However, a young boy in the restaurant saw what happened and gets the others. Boris and Theo are stopped on the way back to the hotel and a shoot out occurs. Boris is injured in the attack, but the big shock is that Theo shoots and kills one of the men. Boris keeps his cool in the situation. He sends Theo back to the hotel to await his call, and presumably he goes to take care of his arm.

Theo continues to wait for Boris’s call growing more impatient by the minute. His passport is still in the car that they drove to the rendezvous. After trying to get a new passport through the embassy (and failing), he tries to sneak to Paris via train (also failing). Then hee begins to concoct a plan. He writes letters to all the important people in his life–Hobie, Pippa, Kitsey, and Mrs. Barbour, and then does a bunch of drugs. However, the plan is not to commit suicide. The plan is go have a good night and then turn himself in. But before he gets the opportunity, Boris reappears with a bunch of money that he is giving to Theo. Boris indirectly called in an anonymous tip that led to locating the painting and many other pieces of stolen artwork.

Theo returns to the USA and confesses the entire story to Hobie. With his new windfall and essentially new life, Theo sets off to refund the money for all the counterfeit furniture that he sold over the years. He’s still engaged to Kitsey but still a part of him is hoping that something happens with Pippa. The book ends philosophically. One bad decision (stealing the painting) eventually led to a good outcome (recovering it and many other paintings). What does that mean about a person’s innate behavior? What is the meaning of the painting of The Goldfinch itself. A chained bird who looks content in its surroundings.

Verdict: 4.5 stars

I thought this was easily one of the best books I’ve read. The author seems so knowledgeable about everything she wrote about–from art to furniture to drugs. It made this fictional story seem like a real auto-biography. Definitely worth the time commitment.

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Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

IMG_0664.JPGSummary (Amazon): In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s 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.
But 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’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

My Review (Spoilers):
Executive Summary:

So this was the book that I picked for book club for this year. I had the “sci-fi/fantasy” category, and my husband has been suggesting I read this book for a couple years, so I thought it might be a good book club suggestion.

In my opinion, it was. This book was really impressive. It’s perfect for late Gen X’ers, but it’s written well enough that those of us who didn’t grow up playing Atari can still follow along!

The Backstory:

James Halliday was the man responsible for designing the OASIS, the global virtual reality “game” that most everyone used on a daily basis (akin perhaps to the Sims except a lot more). Halliday was a major introvert and never married or had children. Upon his sudden death, a short video of his was released, inviting everyone in the world to find the Easter Egg that he had hidden in the OASIS. And whoever found it would inherit his fortune. Halliday had been born in the 70s and had grown up during the advent of video games. So most of the gunters (egg-hunters) spend all their free time beefing up on their 80s pop culture and video game knowledge. From the video, it is known that there are 3 keys and 3 gates. At the end of those, the egg will be there.

The Pre-Story:

Now, five years after Halliday’s death, the Scoreboard of people who have found keys or gates still empty, the story begins of the first person whose name gets on that list–eighteen year old Wade (Parzival) Watts. Wade lives in Oklahoma City, which sounds like it’s actually gotten worse in the next 40 years. He lives in “the stacks”, a series of trailer homes stacked on top of themselves to conserve land. He lived with his aunt and 14 other people after his mother had died from an overdose. Apparently the world is in shambles due to an over-attachment to fossil fuels which collapsed the economy and extended the economic recession into a great depression. (This was a bit cheesy and dramatic but luckily the book spends almost no time in the real world).

Even though Wade was very very poor, he was able to get access to the OASIS through school. His grades were good enough that he was accepted at a virtual school in the OASIS and was therefore given the gloves, goggles, and access to get in. His avatar had the original clothes that it came with –a black shirt and pants–as he didn’t have the money to buy new ones. He spent all his time on the school planet, Ludus, as he doesn’t have enough virtual currency to travel from it. For a while, he was able to hop rides with his one friend, Aech (“H”), so that he could level his avatar and then have enough money to return to Ludus. But lately Aech has gotten too good, and he has missed too much school to make it work any more. And if he misses too much school, he has to relinquish his OASIS gear, which would defeat the purpose. Aech, whose avatar is a brown haired, brown eyed white man, makes a lot of money competing in PvP competitions. He has his own “chat room” in the OASIS (aka a place where invited people can go and hang out. And play video games.)

Wade has a secret hideout in an old van in a junkyard where he sleeps, catches up on his 80s trivia, and goes into the OASIS. The search for the egg is a salvation for him, and he spends every waking moment working on it. Meanwhile, he knows that even after 5 years, there are still others looking for it too. Aech, for one. A blogger named Art3mis who Wade has a mega-crush on. Numerous other gunter clans (groups of gunters working together who would then split the bounty), and also the Sixers. The Sixers were a group from IOI, a large conglomerate and the largest internet provider, who hoped to gain the egg to gain control of the OASIS. They wanted to cover the OASIS with advertising, start charging a fee to use it, and in general, make it everything that people hate. All the other gunters hated them.

The Story:

As Wade is daydreaming in Latin class, he begins to think back on all he has learned since the original message from Halliday. He’s studied music, movies, TV, and video games. He scoured through Anorak’s Almanac (Halliday’s journal that was released after the video aired). Through that, he found a series of notched letters, that he put together to spell out the first clue:

The Copper Key awaits explorers
In a tomb filled with horrors
But you have much to learn
If you hope to earn
A place among the high scorers.

He’d already figured out the first two lines. The first one was obvious. And the second line referred to an old D&D pamphlet called Tomb of Horrors. (Halliday and his partner Morrow, the face of the operation, spent much of their youth playing D&D and is how they met in the first place). And as he is sitting in Latin class, he wonders who would have more to learn than students? And to top that off, the planet where all the schools are, Ludus, also means “school” but it also means “game”. After school, he searches the topography of Ludus for something that looks like the Tomb of Horrors, and to his delight, he finds it. It’s far away though, and he doesn’t know how he’ll get there, until he remembers that the school gives free inter-school teleportation vouchers to attend away game sporting events. He finds a nearby school that they are playing in football, and teleports there. He then runs the rest of the way to get to the Tomb, and finds a way inside. Wade has the pamphlet with him, which helps him navigate the monsters and traps. He knows there is one boss in there, Acererack, and he is surprised when he finds him somewhere different from where the pamphlet specifies.

Acererack challenges Wade to a best of three game of Joust–an old game where you joust each other while riding on birds. (Totally unfamiliar but sounds hilarious.) Acererack wins the first, and Wade is a little disheartened, but he knows he knows the game and asks Acererack if they can switch sides. Wade manages to eke out a win on game #2, and goes on to a solid victory in game #3. Acererack presents him with the copper key and tells hims, “What you seek lies hidden in the trash on the deepest level of Daggorath.”

On his way out, Wade runs into Art3mis who admits that she discovered the tomb 6 weeks prior, but isn’t very good at Joust. She’s been returning every night to try again. Wade suggests maybe she should try playing on the left side, and he heads to Middletown, the planet designed after Halliday’s hometown, Middletown, Ohio. (Wade loaded up on lots of money and items while on his way through the Tomb). Wade heads to Halliday’s home and inserts the cartridge of “Dungeons of Daggorath” into the computer and begins to play. At the end of the game, the printer (dot matix obviously!) printed a line of text: Congratulations! You have opened the first gate! Wade glances around and sees that there is now a wrought iron gate in the bedroom wall where previously there was a WarGames poster. He inserts the key into the poster and falls into the movie WarGames. Wade has to proceed through the entire movie saying the correct dialog at the correct time. Luckily he had seen the movie many times and makes it to the end where he gets the clue for the second key:

The captain conceals the Jade Key
in a dwelling long neglected
But you can only blow the whistle
once the trophies are all collected.

When he gets out, he sees that he has 110000 points on the leaderboard, and Art3mis has 9000. She has made it through Joust! The next day Ogden Morrow gave an interview about the sensation that not one, but two people have found the first key. He speaks directly to the camera telling them that they should not speak to the media especially because of the Sixers.

Wade calls Aech who has left him a million messages. Aech turns on his video feed to show Wade that he’s at the Tomb of Horrors. He knew that Wade didn’t have the cash to go anywhere so it had to have been on Ludus. He makes it through and adds his name to the leaderboard.

Wade receives a bunch of offers for endorsements and other things. He goes through them and calculates that he’ll have enough money from the endorsements to move to an apartment and live frugally for some time. He also has an email from Nolan Sorrento at IOI. They have a lucrative business proposition for him. Wade decides to meet with them via chatlink to see what they have to offer. They offer him a position to be the chief egg hunter over everyone else and a salary of $2million per year with a bonus if he finds the egg. He negotiates back and says that he wants Sorrento’s job. IOI offers Wade the job, and he proceeds to turn them down and tell them that he can’t be bought. They proceed to tell him that they know who and where he is and that if he doesn’t tell them how to reach the First Gate that they will kill him right now. (They think that he is in his aunt’s house when he’s actually in his hideout.) He thinks they’re bluffing and he logs out. And then he hears the explosion.

Wade goes to tell Aech what has happened and Aech tells him that the Sixers have figured out that the first key is on Ludus and have fully invaded the planet. They decide to warn the other on the Leaderboard (Art3mis, Shoto, and Daito) what is happening and they invite them to Aech’s chat room that evening. By the end of the evening, the remaining spots on the scoreboard had been filled with Sixers.

Wade changes his identity and moves to Columbus, OH (apparently it has the fastest internet) and vows to do nothing but search for the egg. Falling head over heels for Art3mis wasn’t exactly part of the plan. They get invites to Ogden Morrow’s 73rd birthday party (80s dance themed) and decide to go. Totally unsurprisingly, Sixers crash the party, gunning directly for Wade and Art3mis. Luckily Morrow’s super-powerful avatar vaporizes them, but in the confusion, Art3mis leaves and stops answering any of Wade’s communications. Wade slips into a depression and begins to just go through the motions for a few months…until Art3mis finds the jade key which shakes him out of his wallowing.

Wade decides to go to Archaide, a planet where all the trophies that Halliday had won for being game designer of the year were located. He’s trying to piece together the rest of the clue. When he gets to the museum where the trophies are located, he stumbles across Happytime Pizza, a replica of a pizza place in Middletown. In Happytime Pizza, there was a Pac-Man game displaying a high score of 3,333,350 points–10 points shy of the perfect score. Wade doesn’t have any other clues on where he’s supposed to be so he decides to try to get a perfect Pac-Man score. Eventually, after a handful of false starts, he manages to get a perfect score. And he adds a quarter to his inventory. Perplexed, Wade realizes he has an email from Aech who gives him the clue that he needed to get the jade key. And he forgets all about the quarter.

He goes to Frobozz to find a house similar to the one that Zork began the game outside of. Inside that house was a trophy case. He arrives and begins his quest. He collects all of the trophies and puts them into the case. At the end, he gets the whistle out of the Captain Crunch cereal box and blew it. The whistle transforms into the Jade Key. Wade is back in second place on the leaderboard. The key has the following clue etched into it: Continue your quest by taking the test. As he’s flying away from Frobozz, the Sixers begin to attack. His ship is damaged, but he doesn’t fare the worst. Daito is killed during the attack.

As Wade is debating the next clue, Sorrento jumps to the top of the scoreboard. He has made it through the second gate. Wade invites Shoto for a visit to find out what had happened with Daito. Daito’s avatar was ambushed by the sixers when trying to make it into the house to get the Jade Key. But that wasn’t all. He had also been killed in real life. Presumably by the sixers. As Shoto is leaving, he gives Wade the Beta Capsule that Daito had kept from a mission that they were on.

Wade begins analyzing the Jade Key’s package in a microscope when he figures out what’s next. He thinks of a final scene in Blade Runner and whispers “the unicorn”. The package folds itself into a unicorn, and Wade heads to the Tyrell Building to use a Voight Kampff machine to “take the test”.   He arrives and inserts his key into the machine which drops him into the game Black Tiger. Similar to the movie, he is actually in the game. At the end of the game, he gets to choose a giant robot as his reward. He chooses Leopardon, a robot who appeared in Supaidaman. He watches all of the credits, and at the very end, the Crystal Key appears spinning slowly in a red star. Wade knows where the symbol is from–a Rush album called 2112. The title track of the album has lyrics that say

We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls.
We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls.

Wade heads to the planet of Syrinx. Using other details from 2112, he finds a cave behind a waterfall where there is an electric guitar buried in a stone. He pulls the guitar out, gets a guitar pick from his inventory and begins to play the song “Discovery” from the 2112 album. A message appears in the stone:

 The first was ringed in red metal
The second, in green stone
The third is clearest crystal
and cannot be unlocked alone

He returned to the temple he had found on Syrinx and as he did, the guitar changed into the Crystal Key. The key has a calligraphic A on it. It appears to be the same A that is on the gates of Halliday’s Castle Anorak–a place where no one had ever been able to enter. Wade heads to Chthonia, the planet where Castle Anorak is, and finds that the Sixers have shielded the castle. He realizes that he needs a new strategy and he concocts a plan. He emails Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto telling them where to find the Crystal Key and then initiates the rest of his plan.

The IOI (Sixer) police come to arrest Wade (seriously. I didn’t miss anything.) He wipes his hard drive and lets the police escort “Mr. Lynch” out of the apartment. The go to the IOI building where he begins his work as an Indent (Indentured Servant) as Bryce Lynch, his fake identity who owes the . He performs some aptitude tests and intentionally fails any regarding Halliday so as to not draw attention to himself. Wade receives the ankle monitor and eargear that all indents receive, and he heads to his room. He has an entertainment console, but most of the programming is blocked until he receives good performance evaluations. He’s also monitored by a camera. During the day, he works doing technical support customer service. And it’s awful.

Wade has figured out a system for every night. He watches Tommy Queue on his console until he falls asleep. Roughly the same time every night and then he sleeps soundly until morning. But what actually happens is that in the few seconds when he switches off the lights and his monitoring camera switches into night vision, he has found a way to override it with the feed from the first night where he is sleeping soundly. And he proceeds to get inside the IOI network by way of some black market passwords he obtained before his arrest.

He finds out that the Sixers know a lot about him, Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto. And they knew a lot about Daito but his folder has a red X on it now. He realizes that they know where Art3mis and Shoto live, and that they kept a video of them pushing Daito over his balcony. He copies as much data as possible to a jump drive and then programs it so that his ankle monitor and eargear unlock. He walks out of the IOI building and goes to a wireless point to alert Art3mis and Shoto to get out of Dodge. And he changes his identity back to Wade Watts.

He goes to an OASIS parlor where he logs in and meets Art3mis, Aech and Shoto. He tells them what he’s been up to. Together they watch the Sixers’ video that Wade swiped of trying to open the 3rd gate and they immediately figure out what the Sixers are missing. The door says Charity Hope Faith, and they realize that it is from Schoolhouse Rock’s song Three is a Magic Number. And that it will take 3 of them together to unlock the door. But they still have a problem–the Sixers.

Wade sends out an email to the entire OASIS and tells them all to arrive at the castle the next day at noon to take down the Sixers and the shield. (Wade has already programmed that the shield will come down at that exact time.) But they realize that it’s going to be tough for all of them to get there as Shoto and Art3mis are on the run. Wade is using a portal. And Aech lives in an RV. And then…SURPRISE! Ogden Morrow appears. His avatar can enter any chatroom invisibly and he has been listening in on them. He doesn’t want the Sixers to gain control of OASIS so he invites them to his home to try to find the egg. He arranges private jets to pick up Shoto in Japan, Art3mis in Vancouver. Aech is currently in Pittsburgh (Go Steelers!) and will drive his RV to Columbus to pick up Wade, and they will take a jet from there. They’ll all meet at Morrow’s house in Oregon.

When Aech arrives in his RV, Wade realizes that Aech is NOT as expected. He’s not a tall muscly white man. She’s a chubby black woman! Her mother had told her that life would be easier for her as a white man (ugh I hope we can fix this by the future) so she created her avatar as a good looking white man.

They arrive in Oregon and immediately go into their OASIS bays (they’re on a timeline). They arrive on Chthonia and to their pleasant surprise, many, many gunters are there to support them.They activate their robots (from the 2nd gate) but many of the Sixers also have robots, including Sorrento. He comes out and his robot is Mechogodzilla. It’s 11:59 and Sorrento has no idea that his shield is about to go down. 12:00 and the shield falls exactly as Wade planned. An epic battle occurs, and Shoto continues to fight Sorrento allowing Wade, Art3mis, and Aech to get inside the castle to get to the gate. Shoto’s name disappears from the scoreboard, and Wade realizes that he has been killed by Sorrento so Wade decides to use the Beta Capsule to kill Sorrento. The three go to the gate, recite the Schoolhouse Rock song and open the gate. And then they are killed!

Except Wade isn’t. The Sixers had used a device to destroy the castle and all the avatars in the area. All that remained was the Crystal Gate. And while everyone else saw “Game Over”, Wade had an extra life. From the quarter he got at the Pac-Man game. It was up to him alone to defeat the Sixers!

He’s still able to hear Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, and he agrees to split the prize with them. (Duh!) He has to play the game Tempest, and he has to beat Halliday’s score. Before the Sixers do. It’s not one of Wade’s best games, but luckily the model of the game has a glitch allowing the player to gain a lot of extra lives, which Wade takes full advantage of allowing him to beat Halliday’s score eventually. But the Sixers are close behind him. As the game fades away, Wade finds himself in the midst of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He recites the appropriate words and makes it to the end where he appears in Halliday’s office and finds the final clue.

Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits 
Will reach The End where the prize awaits

Wade knows the egg is hidden somewhere in the office, but where? His link to the others has ended, so he is fully all alone. He tries booting all the computers in the office, and he finds that only one, the IMSAI 8080, will boot. The screen says “Login:” Wade tries “Anorak”, “Halliday”, “Og”, “Ogden”, a bunch of others, and then he remembers something. Ogden’s wife, Kira, was the one woman that Halliday ever communicated with. And he only ever called her by her D&D name. Wade tries “Leucosia” and the computer begins. He inserts the game Adventure and finds his way to the secret room in the game. It doesn’t contain the name of the programmer. It contains the egg! Wade picks it up, and Halliday appears.

Halliday congratulates Wade and transfers all the money and powers to him. Wade’s avatar can now do everything that Halliday’s could. Halliday tells Wade that he has now programmed the office so that only Wade can enter. He has the power to shut down the OASIS if there is ever a need. And Halliday gives him a bit of a life lesson. He tells Wade to not spend all his life in the OASIS like he did. And then he wishes Wade good luck and vanishes.

Wade reconnects with the others. He reactivates their avatars to their pre-death state and holds true on his promise to split the prize. Shoto and Aech log back into the OASIS but Art3mis doesn’t. She wanted to go outside, and Wade goes to do the same. But before he does, Aech shows him the news–Sorrento is arrested as the video of the IOI agents killing Daito has somehow been leaked. Wade logs out of the OASIS, leaves the bay, and thanks Morrow for all his help. He goes outside to meet Art3mis, and he tells her that he loves her. And that for once, he has no desire to log back into the OASIS.

Verdict: 4.5 Stars

This book was a lot of fun. It was an adventure and a love story, futuristic and historical, all wrapped into one. I really got absorbed into the book (which I always like) and was disappointed when it was over. Eventually the book will be turned into a movie (Cline sold the screenplay the day after he sold the book) and I definitely will want to check it out. In the meantime though, I need to catch up on some of my 80’s movies!

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I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai

photoBook Description (Amazon): When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education.

On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when she was fifteen, she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive.

Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest nominee ever for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who, himself a school owner, championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

I am Malala  will make you believe in the power of one person’s voice to inspire change in the world.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: inspiring

Of course I had heard of this book when it came out, but I really only knew the just of it–a girl in Pakistan had been shot by the Taliban for standing up for education for girls. I had partially intended to read it, but at the same time, I was nervous that it was going to be really hard to read and sad. It was honestly really neither. Malala, who would have been 15 or 16 at the time of the book (and English is not her first, or second, language), is a really impressive writer (which of course makes the idea of girls’ education even more obvious). Separately, the end, where they get into more of the details of her shooting and recovery, is sad, but in the most pious, hopeful sort of way. It was very emotional, but not really that sad. (In fairness, it did probably help that I knew she lived).

This book is going to be very hard for me to summarize, as it is quite dense on details. So you’ll just have to read it yourself. The first 1/2 -2/3 of the book is a lot of the details of the history of Pakistan (interspersed with stories of Malala’s life). While the reader is introduced to the story of the shooting at the start of the book, the full story including the aftermath doesn’t happen until the end.

Malala was born in the region of Swat which is near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It has a rich history, having been lived in by a variety of groups of people over many thousands of years. It’s in the northern section of Pakistan where there are hills, valleys, and rivers. (It used to be a major tourist destination.)

In the 90s, Pakistan’s leader was a woman named Benazir Bhutto, one of Malala’s heroes. (Bhutto was eventually voted out and was in exile. She eventually returned to Pakistan where multiple assassination attempts were made on her, one finally succeeding). After the events of 2001, the hunt for bin Laden created serious tension in Pakistan and the Taliban rose to power in the region. It started innocently enough with a radio program talking about being a better Islam (with ideas that everyone agreed with) and then slowly but surely transitioned into more radical ideas. It’s incredible to me that in less than a decade, enough wide spread panic occurred to set Pakistan back hundreds of years (my great aunt was in school in the rural US in the early 1900s and continued until high school graduation).

Through the Taliban’s rule, women were “strongly encouraged” to wear the burqa. (Malala’s family were Sunni Muslims which are only required to cover their heads, not even their faces, and did not wear burqas.) They were also forbidden from attending school (which was eventually lessened to girls could only attend school up until a certain grade). The girls continued to pretend they were younger, and also thought they were safe in the region once the Taliban claimed that they had left the region. (Of course they actually didn’t).

During 2008, when the education for girls was announced to be stopped, Malala began being the spokesperson for girl’s education. She did many interviews and did a diary program for the BBC speaking of her general feelings. In the middle of 2009, a peace agreement was formed with the Taliban, which they pretended to agree to so then they were forced out by the government (more fighting in the region). However after this, Malala and her friends returned to school. Things were tumultuous but fine until bin Laden was found hiding in Pakistan. US-Pakistani relations became even more stressed. The Taliban, which was not ever really gone, came back.  Then in 2012, Malala is shot.

After Malala was shot, the world opened up and poured out help for her. She was taken to the hospital where emergency surgery was performed. She was then transferred to a military hospital where her recovery continued. It was obvious that additional, more highly technical surgeries were needed so she was again transferred. This time on a private flight by the UAE royal family to a military hospital in Birmingham, England. She went without her family (who could not get passports in time for some asinine reason). Her recovery continued and eventually her family arrived. Malala’s father was offered a job in England, allowing the family to stay. Malala wants to eventually return to Pakistan and continue her activism. I hope she succeeds.

Verdict: 4.5 Stars

I realize that I provided a very short summary for this book. The book is so detailed that for me to provide a summary would have been to rewrite the book. I tried to hit on the main points. This book really is amazing and worth reading. My husband actually lived in Pakistan his first few years of life as his dad was on job rotation there. I am sure that rotation no longer exists. I truly hope Malala succeeds in changing the face of Pakistan back to one that supports all its people regardless.



Filed under 4.5 stars, Book Club, Book Review