I set myself a target of 40 books for this year’s Goodreads Reading Challenge, the same as 2015. (My target for 2016 was slightly lower at 35, as I was also doing a Harry Potter re-read that year.) So far, I’ve finished 19 books, in spite of not listening to audiobooks as much since getting a new job, as I’ve been driving to work instead of taking the bus. They’ve been a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and some of them have been really fantastic – so I thought I’d share my favourites for the year so far.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
This novel is set in the not-too-distant future, where humanity’s bad habits have finally caught up with everyone, and society is coming apart at the seams thanks to overpopulation, climate change and energy crises. With the world being such a unpleasant place, most people spend all of their free time (or even working hours) inside a massive virtual reality construct called the Oasis. The story begins with the death of James Halliday, the wealthy and reclusive creator of the Oasis: in a posthumous message to the world, he reveals that he has hidden an Easter Egg inside the Oasis, and the first person to find it will inherit his entire fortune. Five years later, our teenage protagonist Wade Watts uncovers the first step on the path to the Egg – but as he progresses on his quest in cyberspace, he also faces danger in the real world.
This is a great book on so many levels, beyond how compelling the main story is, and how much potential there is in a setting with thousands of virtual worlds to explore, challenges to complete and enemies to take on. There’s plenty of gaming action, as well as humour from the everyman protagonist: Wil Wheaton, who narrates the audiobook, is an excellent fit for Wade. Most of the challenges that must be completed to obtain the Egg are based around Eighties pop culture, from movies to music to – especially – games: even though much of it was unfamiliar to me, there’s an incredible amount of detail in this regard, inspiring me to look up many of the games, etc that were mentioned to confirm that they were real.
On a more sombre note, the dystopian real world of this book is depressingly easier to see as our eventual future than the more traditional totalitarian regime of various young-adult novels – as is the general populace’s response of using technology as a means of escape. Naturally, in this world where an incredibly detailed universe with endless possibilities is at most people’s fingertips, questions are raised about the value of reality, the meaningfulness of existence in the two worlds, and whether the Oasis is really any less “real” than the dying world outside: the answers may seem obvious at first glance, but as you read the book, it’s not that clean-cut.
This novel is highly recommended, especially for nerdier audiences.
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
After hearing Rachel Wagner talk about Anne of Green Gables on her social media – in preparation for the Netflix series Anne With An E – I decided to give this 1908 classic a go.
Elderly siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who live on Green Gables Farm on Prince Edward Island, decide to adopt a boy to help with their work – but through some mix-up, they end up with a red-headed eleven-year-old girl named Anne Shirley, who proves just too charming to turn away. Taking place over five years, the story has an episodic format as it covers various scrapes that Anne gets into, yet it still maintains forward momentum: Anne visibly grows and changes in how she speaks and sees the world, and when she makes mistakes, she learns from them.
There’s a great deal of charm to be found in this book: from the picturesque rural setting, to the relatively innocent conflicts that Anne experiences – from being wrongly accused of stealing a brooch to breaking her ankle thanks to a dare. Some of these incidents manage to be pretty funny, such as Anne trying to rid herself of her red hair and inadvertently turning it green instead. Then there’s Anne as a person: she’s such a great character. She could have been either sickeningly sweet or an absolute brat, but she’s neither. She often acts without thinking and has a streak of pride that causes some problems, but she has a good heart, a precocious vocabulary and a boundless imagination that makes her very endearing. I suspect she might annoy me if I knew her in real life – much of the book consists of Anne describing/explaining something to Marilla in a chunky, detailed paragraph, followed by a one or two-line reply from Marilla, often along the lines that Anne talks or imagines too much – but she’s lovely to read about.
Meanwhile, Anne With An E turned out to be a thoroughly disappointing adaptation: unneccessarily bleaker than the source material, and making changes which failed to impact significantly on the more faithfully adapted parts even when they should have. I lost interest halfway through the fourth episode. Apparently the 1985 miniseries is much better, so I’ll have to track that down.
I Have Asperger’s by Erin Clemens
Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman
I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but I have Asperger Syndrome. I’m often on the lookout for opportunities to learn more about the autism spectrum and other people’s experiences with it, and this year, I’ve found these books. I’ve also read Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin, which was very interesting itself, but I liked these two a bit better.
I Have Asperger’s is a collection of posts from the blog of Erin Clemens, where she goes into a variety of topics related to the condition: how she sees the world differently from neurotypical people, the difficulties that Asperger’s can cause in different situations, day-to-day events, and her advocacy work. As well as being both honest and positive, it’s clear enough that I think someone who doesn’t have Asperger’s can get a good idea of what it’s like from this.
Neurotribes, meanwhile, is largely a history of autism in society. Starting with the studies of Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, it describes how these conditions were diagnosed, initial beliefs as to their causation, and how they were often treated. Various case studies are used to demonstrate how societal attitudes towards autistic people have changed – there’s a chapter on the significant impact that the movie Rain Man had in this regard. Other chapters explore how autistic people in turn have impacted the world, having played an important role in the development of computers and the origins of the fandom concept. Just about everything in this book fascinated me, and it left me wanting to do more research into the topics covered, which is one of the best things that a non-fiction book can do.
Bring Back The King: The New Science of De-Extinction by Helen Pilcher
This is another one I listened to as an audiobook, narrated by the author, biologist Helen Pilcher. With human activities currently bringing about the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history, the idea of de-extinction – bringing extinct animals back to life – is a highly relevant one, and in this book, Pilcher does a great job of explaining the subject in an comprehensible (and, when appropriate, humourous) way to a general audience. She devotes each chapter to different life forms – dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, Neanderthals, thylacines, passenger pigeons, etc – and explains both whether they could be brought back, and whether they should.
For each one, it’s made clear that the process is far from simple, with many practical considerations to consider: if woolly mammoths were to be revived, for example, it would require much invasive work on Asian elephants (the mammoth’s closest living relative), which are themselves in danger of extinction. But even though it’s fully grounded in reality and doesn’t pull any punches when describing the man-made environmental crises that are making this research necessary, this book still manages to offer some optimism for the future.