Ready player one by Ernest Cline
Reviewed by Nancy Liddle
This is a Russian Doll of a book! A boy in a room logs into his laptop to game on. He wears a visor and haptic gloves, a haptic suit if he can afford it (the haptics make sensations in the virtual world felt in the real world). He becomes an avatar, his online character, and goes into a virtual world to live a hero's life. A real-time video would simply show a boy in a room in a visor and gloves making little movements, maybe running on a treadmill (to escape the monsters). But to the boy, he's in a universe beyond his imagination. He's on an adventure, fighting off dragons, flying through the sky, chatting in rooms with friends, eating virtual food.
That's just setting the stage. In Cline's book, we meet Wade aka Parzival. (And there's a clue in that name right there.) This is a book about clues and luckily for some of us, it's completely referenced by the pop culture of the 80s - the music, the films, TV shows, burgeoning computer games, Dungeons&Dragons scripted games, the books. Remember the video arcades the kids used to spend all day and night in? Star Wars and prequels? All of it in this story about a boy in a room with his laptop.
The actual year is 2044, the planet is trashed, the poor live in stacked trailer/condos hoisted on top of each other by cranes. The sole addictive joy in this drab land is OASIS - the virtual universe where anyone with computer access can escape to because it's FREE. In the Oasis, you can go to school for free, play games for free, power up your avatar to the highest level and also take a crack at finding the multi-billion dollar prize of prizes, the My Precious of all time, the Easter Egg that James Halliday and Ogden Morrow have hidden behind 3 gates, which can only be unlocked by 3 special keys.
But who will take the supreme reins of Oasis? Parzival or the huge corporation IOI? That's the driver of this cyber novel. If IOI win the prize, they'll corporatise the Oasis, charge prices, put up advertising.
Questions arising from this book concern climate change, corporate takeover of the planet, the phenomenon of hikikomori, the young people around the world who no longer leave their rooms but play online incessantly. Addiction to gaming.
It's omitted in the story when Wade eats actual food, sleeps, toilets, bathes. He no longer does sunlight the further into the quest for the Egg he gets. He makes 3 friends online and it begs the question "Is that where we're headed? Online friendships instead of eye contact, physical proximity?" At some point in the story it's inevitable for the friends to meet up in person and you have to wonder how it will unfold.
And just how will they relinquish their addiction to online gaming/virtual universes after such intense emotional and virtual stimulation where avatars are perfect and heroic?
The boy takes off his online gear, steps outside his room and out into the day. Now THAT'S a story right there!
A book that is hugely enjoyable for adults.
Two Sisters by Asne Seierstad
by Nancy Liddle
Quite a while back I reviewed a book called The Islamic Republic of Australia by Sami Shah, in which the author reminded us that less than 0.006625% of 1.6 billion Muslims in the world are DCMs - Downright Crazy Muslims (his words). That comes to 106k dcms in the world.
Now THIS is a book that takes us on an extraordinary journey of insight and suffering into that very world of the "downright crazy". And it's not what you'd expect - not a book about a young Aussie bloke, for example, who goes off to a foreign war.... this is about two teenage sisters who deliberately take off one day from Norway to go to Syria, an historically war-torn country, as jihadhists to help found the Islamic State, or IS.
Seierstad is a renowned journalist who takes significant moments in current history and writes them into books, rather along the lines of Helen Garner's works but without the empathic authorial experience.
Given that the two sisters have disappeared into the budding Caliphate in Syria and declined to share their experiences, thought, regrets or hopes online, Seierstad gathered information from the parents, Sadiq and Sara, from their son Ismael, all internet social media exchanges, friends who twittered and facebooked and phoned, from smugglers and the police in Norway among others.
Her harvest creates a fascinating story of teenage thralldom to a cause, a search for identity and meaning to life, a protest and a rebellion. In effect, it's a profile of radicalisation. How to become radicalised and how to act upon that. We all know/remember how we looked for the point of existence - the meaning of life. That moment when something other than our Nikes or 501s was necessary to worship.
These teens go to Syria, marry, have children. But it is the deep despair that the father Sadiq, and the brother Ismael, feel at the total loss of the two girls. It's also a story about a father's desperate attempts to rescue then kidnap them back to Norway. A brother's realisation that he has lost his sisters and consequently his parents, that they love him less than the missing girls, than the two younger brothers.
What an immense book. This is valuable reading in an effort to understand the whole Caliphate thing, love of martyrdom, the distinctions between the factions of Al Quaeda, Daesh, ISIS and IS. And opportunity to mourn for the country of Syria and its inhabitants. The machinations of Russia and the US over its oil resources. The role of Assad, its dictator.
Knowledge is power. I recommend this work. But then please read Sami Shah's book afterwards as sorbet for the soul.
The Forgotten garden by Kate Morton
Reviewed by Fiona
Late one night at home I was wanting something different to read, my “to read” piles of books were not grabbing my attention so I found myself browsing our eBook platfroms, BorrowBox and Wheelers for something. It wasn’t long before Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden caught my attention. I remembered that this had been recommended to me by a few friends who thought I would love it. At the time I had put it off, but the time was here to read it.
Nell’s life was not as she had been led to believe for most of her life. Her family was not hers, in fact her father her had found her alone on the docks as he was leaving work on evening. He took her home for the night, having been unable to have children of their own and no one seeming to be looking for a lost little girl they decided to keep her and raise her as their own. On her 21st birthday her father revealed the secret to her, and her life would never be the same again.
It took many years for Nell to go looking for her past, but just when she seemed to be on the verge of finding out the secrets her life took another turn. Her daughter left her granddaughter in her care and unable to turn Cassandra away she took her in and gave her the life and stability that the child needed.
Nell never spoke of the secrets of her life, not even to Cassandra who was the closest to her. Cassandra was once again living with Nell after the loss of her own family and was caring for Nell at the end of her life. But once Nell had passed the mysteries of her life before and after being found alone on the docks demand to be solved and it is in Cassandra hands to find out the truth. No matter how twisted that may be.
The Forgotten Garden is a puzzle that needs to be read and jumps between the 1910’s, 1930’s, 1970’s and 2005 telling the story in bits that will lead you to the truth. Just when you think you have it all figured out, a time jump and plot twist have you second guessing.
This book is available in in print and on both Wheeler and BorrowBox in eBook format.
Every Note Played by Lisa Genova
Reviewed by Nancy.
On April 23, 2015, it was announced that Genova will receive the third annual Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square, an award "recognizing a contemporary storyteller whose work has had a significant impact on the public dialogue".
Lisa Genova tackles stories about people who suffer from neurological diseases, such as autism, Alzheimer’s, Huntingdon's, left or unispatial neglect - sounds thrilling? Her award is deserved because she shines a light on otherwise hidden illnesses that only immediate family members would know deeply about rather than the world of the general public. Her book, Still Alice, won awards as a film at the Oscars. How's that for public dialogue?
This novel studies the impact that Lou Gehrig’s disease ALS - a disease which causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles - so that the sufferer becomes more and more paralysed from within. We follow as concert pianist Richard loses the use of his hands, his arms, his neck muscles, his legs, his lungs. He will eventually drown in his own mucus, suffocate from lack of oxygen. There is no happy ending to this disease, no cure.
But Genova studies the lives of Richard and his ex-wife Karina with such grace and sensitivity that the book is rivetting. She takes us through his slow dying and their reawakening post-divorce emotions of hate, rage, despair, blame and guilt. No plot spoiling here.
It's hardly a pleasurable read, but it is intensely moving and highly recommended.
Breath by Tim Winton
Reviewed by Maureen Clark
Tim Winton’s 2008 novel, Breath, was a deserved Miles Franklin Award winner. Like Cloudstreet, The Turning, Lockie Leonard , That Eye, The Sky, and a number of other Winton stories, it has been made into a movie, one that will be showing soon on our cinema screens. I always prefer to read stories before seeing their filmed versions and will look forward to seeing the fearsome waves of the Indian Ocean that so challenged our young protagonists and induced an adrenaline rush of mammoth proportions in both characters and readers.
Bruce Pike and his aptly named mate, Loonie, are 12 year olds living in a small timber milling town not far from the ocean in Western Australia. Bruce, known as Pikelet, is a quiet, lonely child of older conservative parents. It’s the seventies, so kids have more freedom to roam, keeping away from their parents’ constant view. Remember those days? Loonie’s dad is the local publican and his mother has left them so he has quite a lot of freedom. It’s the stuff of childhood dreams but this is not a book for children.
It is interesting to contemplate why Pikelet and Loonie need to “live on the edge”, constantly daring each other to bigger and more death defying acts. At first it is only diving to the bottom of the river, holding their breath for longer and longer periods, to scare innocent onlookers. Their graduation to surfing the eighteen foot waves at Old Smokey without the knowledge of their parents comes as they realise, at the age of fifteen, that they can never settle for an ordinary life. “We were proud of our maverick status, even if it was semi-secret; we were into things that ordinary townsfolk could barely imagine.”
Research has shown that the brains of teenagers have not fully developed and probably won’t before the age of twenty five. Sorry, kids but it’s true. This possibly explains the risk -taking behaviour of many teenagers today who believe they are bullet proof. Pikelet and Loonie go further, moving more into the realm of those extreme sport enthusiasts who live only for the danger and adrenalin rush they experience: “Then there were those rare days, the times we returned from a session so huge, surf so terrifying as to render us incoherent.”
A large part of the story involves the boys’ relationship with Sando, an “old hippy surfer” in his thirties and his wife, Eva. Remember, this is the seventies so there is no suggestion that Sando has any strange interest in the boys. He revels in their admiration of his daring and skill on the waves and they vie for his attention. Fifteen year old Pikelet’s relationship with Eva, however, is quite another story.
Breath is a coming of age story that explores ideas of masculinity, courage and the developing self awareness that comes with years. A recurring motif, overcoming “the monotony of breathing”, links the past, presented as a flashback and the present for the older Bruce Pike. Tim Winton has an easy way with language that engages the reader and he uses simple, effective imagery that places the reader in the environment, wherever it is. Even at the top of a monster wave gazing into the abyss of the reef. It’s quite a ride.
Stepping stones : a refugee family’s journey
This book is new to the library and is a very intriguing book. Classified as Young Adult, it works well for any age, being a simply-told, human story of a refugee family leaving war-torn Syria.
The author, Margreit Ruurs, creates books for young readers. Some time ago, while browsing on Facebook, Margreit came across a picture of a mother, holding her baby. In the background, the father followed, carrying a heavy load. It was an image fashioned entirely in stones, by Syrian sculptor, Nizar Ali Badr.
Affected by this poignant image, Ruurs sought out his Facebook page, finding an exquisite trove of his pebble art illustrating the gamut of human emotions. She put out feelers to make contact with the artist and through intermediaries, eventually collaborated to write the text of this book, while the sculptor provided the illustrations.
Written in English and Arabic, the book follows the story of a Syrian family and their lives, being gradually overtaken by the shadow of war and fighting. They see their friends and family gradually deciding to leave the country and flee to safety.
This is a short, readable story that describes the need to leave one’s homeland in the voice of a young girl. It is a tale of sadness and loss, but also of hope.
Ruur’s book got an emotional reaction from the staff members who read it. Much of the artist’s work is also available to view on Pinterest and you should really see it. Who would have thought that such emotions could be evoked by stone?
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Age recommended for: 13+
Book review by Himara Jayasundara Mudiyanselage
The Circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there when yesterday it was not. It doesn’t have a schedule. It’s open from sunset from sunrise. It is here you will experience a blooming garden made all of ice, acrobats soaring without a net, and a vertical cloud maze where patrons who get lost simply step off and float gently to the floor.
It is also the venue for the contest set up between two ancient magicians, pitting their two best pupils against each other. The only problem: the contestants don't know the rules, or how victory is determined. They only learn the identity of their adversary later. And when the contestants start falling in love which each other, things get complicated.
However, this book doesn’t thrive on its romantic component. It is filled with treachery, suspense and wonder. Erin Morgenstern constantly keeps you in the dark, luring you into a sense of false security. The book’s unpredictability grips you to the story as the imagery complements the plot – taking the story from seductive innocence to morbid beauty. There are so many twists and turns that your grip on reality and emotions leaves you. It’s as if your foot reaches for another step and instead goes into thin air and the whole world drops from beneath you as you fall into a realm of divinity.
The book is written in third-person present tense and is arranged to have a non-linear narrative from multiple viewpoints. This allows the reader to experience the world of the multiple characters- from the farm boy to the illusionist. The characters themselves are conflicted, multifaceted and morally ambiguous. They’re like mirages – deceptive, elusive and full of wonder. Even those who seem like the purest form of sunlight have their mysteries. Their ingenuity enhances the plot and twists the story arc into shapes unfathomable.
If I could trade places with anyone in the world, I’d be with someone experiencing this book for the first time. It was thrilling, compelling and unforgettable. I would recommend it for anyone 13 and over due to a few graphically explicit scenes. I can undoubtedly say it is one of my favourite books of all time.
Common People by Tony Birch
Reviewed by Nancy Liddle
Firstly, I hope that the library gets in all his books! He's a top Aussie writer who also won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Indigenous Writing for his Ghost River.
This book, Common People, is a collection of short stories so you can pop one a night before bed. There are fifteen stories which take us down uncommon roads with clear, elegant writing shining the way.
Straight into it with Lydia and Marian driving way out onto the plains at night to pack meat with a Vietnamese woman called Rose. A single night of meat packing in language sparse and direct. A whole world in fourteen pages. A thump ending.
Clearly Birch knows his stuff. The story of Harmless, a stray who keeps to himself and the young girl who unwittingly brings about his expulsion from the community but not until he's sacrificed himself entirely.
The one about Joe Roberts, the friendless man from the Boys' Home who is dying and yet unwittingly gains the trust of latchkey Charles and a black cat with some spaghetti - the image of him sitting with Charles waiting on the doorstep for his mother to come back home from work, the cat licking its paws and leaving.
Party Lights, the story of two boys venturing into drug running or not. The boy Pete whose decision to stay clean has him digging a hole to resurrect an old derelict house that had been murdered.
These are just snippets from a whole world out there that is rarely seen mainstream, hardly written about. Birch grabs the guts of the moment and retells it to us with economy in beautifully simple language.
The lives of common people, indigenous to the moment, the place, the heart. A reaching out and sharing of story.
Highly recommended. For more information - https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/common-people-review-tony-birchs-stories-are-full-of-compassion-20170823-gy2ncr.html
Out of the woods by Brent Williams
Book review by Nancy
Subtitled "A journey through Depression and Anxiety" and illustrated by Korkut Oztekin, this is a graphic novel about Brent's real life submersion into hopelessness. His marriage falls apart, he falls into despair and slowly begins to rebuild his world.
But what makes this story an excellent read are the illustrations that reflect the honesty of the tale. Oztekin draws Williams' pain and suffering and goes all Shakespearian on us. By that I mean the pictures are full of creepy woods, you can almost hear the wind whistling through, feel the chill night frost and the solitude. (In MacBeth, Shakespeare indicates the tragic unfolding in the castle by the owl screeching, the storms thundering and so on.)
That Brent is a bloke makes this trip all the more valuable since machismo deplores a man with emotions, considers him weak. Brent shares his pain with us and Oztekin's drawings give us the movie of it. He takes us through his fears, aversions, attempts at self-medication, healing methods, books, therapies and activities - the lot. In cinemascope.
Depression hits all of us - I personally consider it a normal and healthy response to our capitalist, money-god/less world, but that might just be me - and men may have more of a struggle in seeking help if the masculine culture of "strong man" has anything to do with it.
That makes this book vitally important - especially with the pictures that show an Everyman journey through the long tunnel of depression and anxiety. You can find Williams' own website at https://www.outofthewoods.co.nz/author-and-illustrator/ which also provides resources and help lines for blokes (and partners of blokes) who may think their own story has similarities. He also lists other books about same.
Very worthwhile and visceral because of the pictures!
And then we ran by Katy Cannon
Book review by Jacqui
Megan is seventeen and living in the shadow of her dead, older sister, Lizzie. Everyone had liked Lizzie. She was the bright one, with a brilliant future ahead of her when she died in a tragic accident. Since the cold shock of that day, Megan’s parents had seemingly transferred the hopes and dreams they had for Lizzie on to her. It was a heavy burden, for Megan had ambitions of her own.
Elliott was Megan’s childhood friend, but time and life events had caused them to drift apart. He also his aspirations, but circumstances seem unlikely to support them and he has sadly shelved his plans for the future and resigned himself to a life in the small seaside community that had frozen him out.
Then Megan came up with a plan. Just like Megan, it was bold, insistent and all about her. Elliott could hardly believe the audacity, but just perhaps… he would also benefit.
They planned an extraordinary road trip, which would free them from the encumbrances stifling their plans for the future.
I really enjoyed this book. It was a light read and a romance, which is not a genre I would usually choose, but this is quirky and a lot of fun, as the road trip does not go to plan at all.
Although aimed at young adults, it is an entertaining read for any age.
WeirDo by Anh Do
Review by Fallon
Weir is the new kid in school, his introduction in front of the class had his teacher in fits of laughter because his last name is Do, that’s right his name is WeirDo. He’s a little bit weird in character and not just in name, but that’s okay because we all have our own little quirks. School issues, unique family characters, fart jokes and lots of laughs!
Filled with humorous illustrations and antics this is perfect for young readers and those who are little reluctant to read will enjoy this one! The best thing about picking this book up now is knowing there is another nine in the chapter to read; I read this book with my stepson and we can’t wait to continue number two! Check out the author, Anh Do talking about the book
Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
Book review by Nancy
A book about an idea whose time has come! And the idea? That to eradicate poverty around the world, what people actually need is cash, not programs. The opposition to that? That an unconditional basic income will encourage sloth, drunkenness, degeneracy et al.
Bregman is a journalist in the Netherlands who has written four books on history, philosophy and economics, winning prestigious prizes and is now renowned as the Basic Income Guy. Google him.
He defines Utopia as more practical than a land of milk and honey. In fact, we are mostly already there in comparison with how it all used to be. However, Bregman shines the light on the growing inequality of the present system, Capitalism, with statistics about how the richest 1% on the planet own more wealth than the rest of us combined and the gap is widening, with many living way below the poverty line.
For Realists, rather than "do-gooders" or quick fixes, the solution lies shortening the working week to 15 hours, an unconditional basic income to raise all out of poverty and open borders for easy labour exchange. He makes the point that all borders are now closed to people but do not affect trade of goods and services. But we people are restricted in our freedom of movement around the planet.
And the money for this basic income? He clarifies that more is spent on national Defence budgets and is easily attainable as a target because it's also self-repaying. For example, all services around anti-social behaviour are minimised when a family no longer has to worry about how to pay the bills. People have an innate common sense about what they need and how to budget when they aren't constantly struggling to survive.
Bregman illustrates with statistics and research how arguments against a basic income are empty - including those against open borders eg. they're all terrorists, criminals, out to undermine social cohesion, take our jobs, forcing wages down, too lazy to work and they'll never go back. These arguments come out of contempt for the non-rich, the hoi poloi, the great unwashed, the "other".
There's so much in this book to fill you with hope for the future rather than accept Joe Hockey's arrogant statement that all you need to do is get a "good job". And this from a man who is now living on a pension that you and I are subsidizing.
Guaranteed to bust a few myths around the place!
13 reasons why by Jay Asher
Reviewed by Jacqueline Smith.
I may be the only person in Australia who has not watched this on Netflix (and I plan to keep it that way, as I believe the film version departs significantly from the book).
Certainly, it’s a sad tale, but I found it very gripping. At the beginning, you meet teenager, Clay Jensen, who receives by post a box full of cassette tapes, marked 1-13 in blue nail polish. Curiously, he begins to listen to the first tape and is shocked to hear the voice of Hannah Baker, a classmate and crush who has recently committed suicide.
Hannah’s story sets out the thirteen reasons she decided to end her life and the people who contributed to that resolve. The parcel of tapes is to be sent to each of the thirteen and Clay realizes with pain and dismay that he is one of them. Horrified, he wracks his brain to discover his part in Hannah’s death.
Through the space of a night, Clay listens to each of the tapes as he follows the map provided, each significant place in the story marked by a red star. “There are only two rules,” says Hannah’s voice, “Rule number one: you listen. Rule number two: you pass it on. Hopefully, neither of these will be easy for you.”
The book alternates between the condemning voice of Hannah and the thoughts and feelings of Clay. I think it makes two important points: that our actions can have unexpected consequences and the devastating effect suicide can have on a community.
I know that Asher’s book has been criticised by some reviewers as either unrealistic, or distasteful because it glorifies suicide, but I disagree. Without spoiling the plot, Hannah does not come across as entirely the sweet little victim. At times she appears as thoughtless or downright vindictive, but for me this adds to the depth of her character. At no time did I feel that Asher presented suicide as an appealing option.
Suicide is an uncomfortable issue, but unfortunately it is a real life circumstance for many people. On the whole, I liked Asher’s treatment of the subject and the novel way in which the story is presented. The book finishes with places to get help if you are dealing with mental health issues, bullying or abuse, although as the copy I read was printed in the U.K., it references services there.
I won’t say it was an enjoyable book. It was confronting, but compelling. I became very involved in Clay’s journey and am glad to have read it. It is not an easy read, but I do recommend it
Cardinal : the rise and fall of George Pell by Louise Milligan
Reviewed by Jacqueline Smith.
This is a very topical book, while the community waits to see whether George Pell is committed for trial on historical child sex abuse offences.
Whether Pell is guilty remains to be seen, but in her book, Milligan puts forward a compelling case. Painstaking it its research, the book sprang from a 7:30 report the author, an investigative journalist, put together in 2017, suggesting that numerous complainants had made allegations relating to Pell’s sexual misconduct.
Last year, many of us will have seen Cardinal Pell’s appearance in front of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse. The allegation of the Royal Commission was that Pell had dismissed reports made to him (in his various positions as he ascended in rank through the Australian Catholic church) of acts of sexual abuse and indeed had been complicit in covering up such behaviour by moving the guilty priests around when the whiff of wrongdoing surfaced.
Pell did not inspire confidence through his testimony, appearing arrogant and crafty: trying to convince listeners that he had been duped and misled by others who had acted without his knowledge in concealing the crimes of these priests who were later convicted and punished. His plea of ignorance was hard to accept. This is an intelligent and ambitious man. Was he really so easily fooled?
Tellingly, Pell said of one complaint that he admitted hearing, it was, “a sad story and not of much interest to me.” Really?
Regardless, the Royal Commission’s focus was on Pell’s culpability as one who should have reported the transgressions of others. Milligan’s book goes much further, detailing claims by a large number of people relating to the abusive behaviour of Pell himself.
The complainants are diverse and from various locations, although a number of grievances relate to Ballarat, where Pell resided for many years. Some alleged victims are named, some anonymous. Some have sought or are currently seeking compensation, where others just want acknowledgement. Many have had a history of substance abuse and in some cases, criminal offences. Many are now dead – tragically, often by their own hand.
Milligan details each claim, many of which are heartbreaking. She has made an effort to substantiate the allegations as far as possible with corroborating information from family, schoolmates and other sources.
Although it is worthwhile remembering that these stories are yet to be proved in court, Milligan’s book makes for gripping reading and I highly recommend it.