I’ve been on a bit of a creative consumption kick again, voraciously devouring books. It’s helped that this past week has been perfect patio weather to settle into lunchtime reading, so I thought I’d kick myself back into writing mode and share what’s been on my book list of recent.
The bad: Armada (Ernest Cline)
I desperately wanted to like this book, newly published just a few weeks ago. I loved Fanboys (a film for which Cline wrote the script). I enjoyed Ready Player One (his debut novel). I wish I could blame my disappointment on my expectations being too high, but that wasn’t the case. It’s just a bad book. Not only is it a bad book, but reading it made me reevaluate how I felt about his first book.
The premise is solid – A teenager who excels at video games suddenly finds himself swept up in a real-life defense of Earth, enlisted along with the rest of the top scorers of a game that was designed to secretly train people to pilot drone ships. Not a totally original sci-fi plot, but it’s one with promise nonetheless. But that’s about where the promise ends.
Every paragraph is peppered with pop culture references, to the point that I started to wonder whether Cline is even able to describe anything on his own without pulling from Kubrick or Konami. Then, sometimes he makes a reference and explains the reference in the same sentence. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this practice irks me. The point where I actually, out loud, exclaimed, “You have to be kidding me!” is when he inserted (spoiler alert) into a sentence about the plot of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That wasn’t me warning you about me writing a spoiler – he literally typed the phrase mid-sentence when name-dropping a film that was released in 1977.
He not only referenced books, movies, games, and television, but also tons of scientists. Which led to groan-worthy sentences like this one –
Everyone but Hawking nodded grimly.
In talking with a friend on Facebook, I realized that what I liked about Ready Player One is that it was like a love letter to the author’s childhood. And since his childhood pretty closely mirrored mine, it was a light-hearted, feel-good reading experience for me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the world he created in that novel didn’t really involve much creativity. I described it as “not so much authorship as it is content curation,” which continues to ring true every time I come back to the statement.
And if RPO was content curation, then Armada is content curation on steroids – Cline sold the movie rights for the book two days after he announced he was writing it, two years ago.
The good: Replay (Ken Grimwood)
The novel opens with the main character dying. No need for a spoiler alert here, because this is actually the premise of the book. Jeff Winston has a heart attack in his office in 1988, passes out, and wakes up in his college room (and college body) in 1963. After stumbling around in a confused daze, he realizes that it isn’t the afterlife – it’s his life, ready for him to live it again. If you’re thinking this sounds remarkably like the plot of Groundhog Day, now is a good time for me to point out that this novel was published seven years before that film was made.
I really enjoyed Grimwood’s unique variation of time travel, out of the protagonist’s control and only ever backwards, within his own life. He explores this central theme of time in a lot of interesting ways – What is time? Is it more important to use your time for yourself or for others? Is it possible to do both? Given the right tools, can one person make a difference in the world (for good or bad)? How important is money to a life well lived?
Winston was a character that it was easy to identify with, because his reactions to waking up in the past seem similar to what my own would be: Confusion, followed by panic, followed by skepticism, followed by giddy opportunism. He’s likeable, even when he’s not, and still wholly relatable nearly 30 years after it was written.
The internet seems to be squarely divided on this one – reviewers either love it or hate it. Originally published in French, it won and was shortlisted for several major literary awards. When the English translation was released last year, I immediately scooped it up… and then left it languishing on my bookshelf. At 640 pages, I was preemptively daunted every time I thought about picking it up.
Cut to the beginning of this week, and the breezy sunshine inspired me to cram the massive tome into my purse and take it along to lunch. I tore through it, finishing the book over the course of two lunches and two evenings of reading. It is, essentially, a story within a story within a story. The character of Harry Quebert is a famous writer and mentor to the protagonist Marcus Goldman, also a writer. The book is structured as Goldman explaining the process of another book he wrote while researching the summer that Quebert also wrote his most famous book, all in an attempt to solve a murder that happened that same summer that Harry is being accused of committing in the present day after the body is discovered on his property.
Confused? I think that’s the whole point. The plot is beautifully woven together, floating seamlessly in time between different events, sometimes revisiting them multiple times. The best way I can describe it is a book written about writers, for writers, by a truly gifted writer. While I normally have trouble following a book that jumps around in time, here it felt natural and essential to telling the story.
The only reason I hold back a star is the author’s treatment of the so-called “love affair” between Quebert and 15-year-old Nola Kellergan. Multiple characters question the ethics of it, and he repeatedly explains it away with various iterations of “love is a powerful and mysterious force,” and “well, it was the 70s” and “Nola was mature beyond her years,” etc. I’m not thrilled that authors continue to romanticize this idea of a nubile child muse. I’m not saying that their affair shouldn’t have been part of the plot (I think it works as a plot device), but I do think it could have been handled better in the perspective of the narrator.
These three are next up on my reading list. I think I’m most excited about The Sculptor, because it’s been quite a long while since I’ve read such a substantial graphic novel. It also comes highly recommended by a handful of writers I admire, so stay tuned to see how it pans out. And if any of you have a book you’d like to recommend (or recommend against), let me know in the comments. My to-read list is epic, but I’m always ready and willing to add another book to the shelf.