Journalist. Palindrome. Writer.

Category: Uncategorized (Page 8 of 11)

Read This: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I will give any book a chance if the author owns a DeLorian. And Ready Player One, by uber-geek Ernest Cline, did not disappoint.

If you don’t know already, RPO is set in the not-too-distant future, where most of humanity works, plays, and shops in a virtual reality simulation known as the OASIS. Meanwhile, the real world is pretty much falling apart due to pollution, an endless Recession, and general neglect–people live in “stacks” of trailers, little hillbilly skyscrapers. And then one day, the reclusive man who created the OASIS (Steve Jobs-stand-in Jim Halliday) dies and leaves his fortune to the first person who can solve the puzzle he’s cleverly hidden within the OASIS. Enter teen hero Wade Watts, a poor kid from the wrong side of the stacks, whose vast knowledge of 80’s video games and trivia may help him reach his goal before the evil corporate goons who are trying to get there first.

The story has been described as “Willy Wanka meets the Matrix,” but to me it was much more like a geeky Da Vinci Code. The frenetic pacing is there, and the narrative is driven by the hero solving seemingly complex riddles.

Ah, but the love is in the details. For anyone who grew up playing Atari 2600 or Commodore 64, while listening to RUSH, this book is a welcome reminder of why the 80’s were so damn cool. Zork. Monty Python. WarGames. Adventure. Blade Runner. Pac-Man. Back to the Future. Pizza arcades, for God’s sake! What happened to our pizza arcades?

It’s no wonder someone like Ridley Scott snatched up the film rights. But it’s going to be a copyright nightmare to get all the players on board. Can’t wait to see this one in a theater with my kid.

Oh, and for those who have not yet read it, take some time and brush up on your 80’s video game history by clicking the links below.


Read This… Koko, by Peter Straub

Found this novel staring at me from the shelf of a used book store about a year ago. I picked it up, saw it was a first edition, and decided I had nothing to lose at the discounted price of $2.50. As I walked it to the counter, a single playing card fell out of the middle of the book, where, I assume, someone had marked a page. Only later did I come to discover how disturbing an omen this was.

My only exposure to Peter Straub (excellent Slate interview here) before this book was through his collaborations with Stephen King in the Talisman saga. I feel a little sad that I’ve found him only now. It’s been too long since I’ve fallen in love with a book. And I’m smitten with this one.

Koko is my favorite kind of story–a quest that brings together mismatched characters who would never befriend each other under normal circumstances. It’s a tale about adults coming together to face a demon they thought they left behind years ago. In this way, it reminds a bit of King’s IT, another great story that sticks with you. Three Vietnam veterans (a lawyer, a doctor and carpenter) reunite to track down a serial killer who they believe was part of their platoon during the war. This killer has been going around offing people connected to their unit and leaving a souvenir in their mouths–a regimental playing card with the word “Koko” written on it.

Like the best novels written in the 80’s and 90’s, it’s a big friggin book, clocking in at 560 pages. Long enough to get lost in the story of these men and their hunt for a killer.

Straub’s writing is wonderful. Through scenes of mundane human existence he explores universal themes of redemption, grace, the nature of evil and forgiveness. In this way, his narrative–often revolving around cooking and writing–reminded me of John Irving more than King. But he also understands suspense and horror like King. I have to say I’m also humbled by the recognition of the research Straub must have done for this book–half of which is set in Saigon and Bangkok and Vietnam–especially when I consider this was done in a world before the Internet.

In the end, Straub’s alter-ego reflects on listening to good jazz in a tent in Vietnam. “We heard fear dissolved by mastery,” he thinks. The book is about applying this thought to life. And it’s something I intend to do as much as I can.

Read This: The Shadow of Death, by Philip Ginsburg

Shadow of Death is as much about the loss of innocence of a region in America—and, America itself—as much as it is about the dogged hunt by North Country detectives for a killer of women. First published in 1993, journalist Philip Ginsburg’s book tells the true story of a wave of murders that took place in the early 80’s around the town of Claremont, on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire. If In Cold Blood was a testament to its time, Shadow of Death shows just how far we’ve fallen in the decades since.

Beginning as early as 1968, as many as nine people fell victim to a sadistic serial killer who kidnapped, tortured, and then brutally stabbed his prey to death. Finally, in 1988, a woman managed a miraculous escape and the killer fell silent. Ginsburg’s book is told from the perspective of the detectives, the victims, and a college professor who is recruited by police to figure out the killer’s mind. The professor, John Philpin, eventually becomes one of the first criminal profilers, though the effect of getting into the mind of a murderer takes its toll on him.

Though the killer is never caught, several suspects are identified by investigators one other bad man is sent to prison during the course of their search.

My interest in this book stems from my research into the 2004 disappearance of Maura Murray, who vanished not far from where this serial killer once hunted. In fact, the circumstances of finding Maura’s abandoned car locked on the side of the road mirrors once murder in particular.

Could a long-silent killer be stalking prey in the Valley again? Or are these cases related only in their similar depravity?

If you’re a fan of true crime, you must own this book. It’s taut and suspenseful all the way through. And Ginsburg’s grasp of character and place is quite artful. This book is one of the very best in its genre.

Read This: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

All good things must come to an end.

Finished Mockingjay last night around 2 a.m. because the last 75 pages grabbed me tight and wouldn’t let go until it had its way with me. In this third and final book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss and company wage war against the Capitol, revenge for 75 years of games and death for the working class of Panem. But Katniss is most interested is putting an arrow through President Snow’s cold heart.

Like Catching Fire, this third story meanders for a bit at the beginning and readers are left wondering about the goals of the narrative. Again, many deaths happen off-stage. I actually growled when Katniss (and the reader) were left behind for a “high stakes” Capitol raid. But then something wonderful happens. Collins, like many of her YA saga-writing peers, could have played it safe and written a pat ending where everything is sweet and wrapped in a pretty bow. J.K. Rowling committed a literary travesty by not actually sacrificing Harry and others at the end of her series. Heroes, after all, can only be as good as the bad guys are bad and how bad can they really be if everyone is still alive at the end? Anyway, Collins is a risky writer. She put all her chips on the table for the final third of this book and she kicked some ass. She more than makes up for the off-stage deaths that happened before. By the end, the stage is soaked in blood. There is a death in here that is so shocking and meaningful that the very act of daring to write it elevated the series to the level of Ray Bradbury or perhaps Joseph Heller.

Speaking of Bradbury, did you catch the homage in Katniss’s troop number? Fahrenheit 451 is certainly an influence on Collins. Panem is a world glued to the television and preoccupied with war games, too.

There are many parallels here to Hamlet, as well. Especially the whole business with Katniss constantly wondering just what the hell she should do. There was this production of Hamlet at Kent State many years ago. At the end of the play, when the king is lying dead, Fortinbras enters with his troops and takes the thrown. And he’s dressed like a Nazi. If all we’re really doing is replacing one tyrant with another, why are we even fighting?

This book is required reading for any author daring to end a saga. Collins gets it right.

Read This: Who Killed Betsy?

Long before Jerry Sandusky, Penn State learned well how to cover up the darkest aspects of human nature. During the Thanksgiving break, in 1969, a young student named Betsy Aardsma was murdered in the creepy stacks inside the Pattee Library. Stabbed once, through the heart. Her killer was never found. These days, reporters can’t even request the old student newspaper articles on the case. They’ve been scrubbed from the web and “misplaced” by the university.

That didn’t deter Derek Sherwood, who works as a credit card processor during the day and a reporter at night. In his book, Sherwood takes the existing articles and rumors about the case and uses the documents to tease out new leads. The first half is a detailed account of the days surrounding the murder, in 1969, an introduction to the real Betsy and the men who may have killed her. The second half becomes a kind of character study, in the creepiest sense, of the main suspect, associate professor of geology Richard Haefner. Sherwood takes us deep into the man’s mind and systematically lays out the circumstantial evidence suggesting Haefner’s guilt. Let’s just say Haefner had a lot in common with Sandusky.

I read this book in a day and had terrifying dreams about Haefner last night. The writing is stark and simple but Sherwood shines whenever he allows himself to explore tangential characters who are as weird as Haefner, himself. Fans of true crime need this book.

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