Sunday, 13 January 2019

Books and audiobooks on a chilly winter morning...

My steaming cup of chai tea and yummy Date Bar are welcome treats on this bright, chilly morning.  Although we only have a dusting of snow, it certainly feels like winter.
I read a really interesting book last week that I saw in a bookstore while I was in Toronto over the holidays.  I didn’t buy it, but ended up taking it out of the library, and I was surprised at how good it was. The Natural Way of Things by Australian writer Charlotte Wood opens with a woman stumbling around in unfamiliar surroundings, wearing strange clothing and processing information through a fog.  She has clearly been drugged, abducted and moved to a remote location. She sees another woman, also dressed in strange clothing, also glassy-eyed and confused. Over time, these women, Yolanda and Verla, discover others in the same situation scattered throughout what seems to be a deserted sheep-ranching operation in the remote outback.  Their hair has been shorn, they are wearing scratchy old-fashioned pinafore-style dresses, and they are assigned to sleep in what look like dogboxes in a kennel-style building. They are controlled by two men, Boncer and Teddy, whose job, it appears, is to degrade them in every way possible. They eat poorly-prepared pre-packaged and/or canned food, they are forced to work for hours at taxing manual labour, moving heavy concrete slabs in order to build a road, or so they guess.  Nothing is ever clear, but over time, the women, at first all strangers, determine that they do, in fact, have something in common: they have all been involved in a sex scandal, and this, it appears, is their punishment. But who is punishing them, and why? This book was amazing, a real wake-up call to the possible realities of women, and not just in a fantastical world, but one that exists in other countries even today. Imagine The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, with all the symbolism and rituals, and Wood’s beautiful, frightening, hypnotic language to describe it all.  WOW, it was certainly an eye-opener, and, while at first frustrating, the vagueness serves to make it all the more believable and real.  If you are a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, then I’m sure you will enjoy this disturbing novel, which made me think of what the Colonies in Atwood’s book might be like, or what the designers of Gilead may have used as a small test group before they worked out all the kinks and “got it right”, launching their new and improved society in America.  
And I finished listening to a fabulous audiobook that is totally not the type of book I would normally read  or listen to. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a roller-coaster ride through a Virtual Reality (VR) world called OASIS on the hunt for a hidden “Easter Egg”.  James Halliday, creator of OASIS, has died, leaving no heir to his fortune.  His dying message, sent to all OASIS users (which, in 2040, is everyone), is that the finder of the Egg will inherit not only his fortune, but the sole rights to OASIS, a VR world that, in this desolate dystopian society, everyone uses for free, often as the only escape available from the drudgery of everyday life.  Everyone spends most of their time inside the OASIS, going to school, shopping, and playing.  Wade Watts, the main character, as his online avatar Parzival, or Z to his friends, is determined to escape the drudgery of his current existence living in “the Stacks” with his neglectful aunt and her string of abusive boyfriends by finding the Egg.  He has no friends in real life (IRL), but has made friends with others who have excelled at the game, mainly the elusive H, the amazing blogger wordsmith Art3mis, and a pair of Japanese brothers, Shoto and Daito, although they are pursuing the search independently.  The clues are all related to pop culture from the 1980s, the time when Halliday was a teenager, and there are numerous references to movies, music and video games from that era. After five years of searching, with no one achieving even the first level of success in the game, people are losing hope and winding down their searches; only the most persistent keep at it.  When Parzival finds the copper key and manages to solve the riddle to open the first gate, the world goes wild and the enthusiasm for the hunt begins anew! Unfortunately, his main rival is Innovative Online Industries, or IOI, a huge, multimillion-dollar, multinational corporation determined to find the egg and inherit the fortune and the rights to the OASIS, with the intention of making it available only to those who can afford to pay a monthly access fee, thereby depriving millions of users who are living in reduced circumstances.  As the hunt proceeds, the danger online and IRL mounts for all involved, and Parzival must determine whether it is worth continuing the search or just accept defeat and his new reality. Oh, and did I mention that Parzival is in love with Art3mis, even though he’s never met her IRL? This novel is set inside a virtual reality and is essentially a wild ride through a gaming adventure, settings and plots that should hold no interest for me, and yet I looked for opportunities to listen to this audiobook and find out what happens next. It was a classic quest of good vs evil, with the underdog taking on the giant, a David and Goliath story that totally immersed me in the 1980s, which is my era, too, so I got most of the references. The narrator, Wil Wheaton, did an awesome job of bringing the characters and story to life, and I enjoyed it to the very last word (it must be good if Cline could use the word "asshat" more than once without me groaning and immediately selecting "delete"!).  I’m now halfway through the movie, which is all special effects and totally geared towards kids, and not a very good adaptation of the book, in my opinion, but I think the intended audience has enjoyed it, as it got a good rating on Internet Movie Database. The book, though, is so much more than special effects. It explores issues such as poverty, environmental destruction, open access to information and technology, greed and fairness, friendship and love, and what it means to be responsible both to others and to the world we live in. It was a wonderful book, and one I’m planning to buy for my school library.
That’s all for today.  I’m going to bundle up and get outside for a long walk, then curl up with a hot cup of tea to finish April Henry’s Young Adult book, The Girl I Used To Be, which I will tell you about next week.  Then I have another book club book to read, The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, for my Friends’ book club meeting a week from tomorrow… “sigh*... so many books, so little time… (thank goodness there is so much tea!)
Bye for now…
Julie

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