Book review: The Engagement – Chloe Hooper (fiction, ****)

In The Engagement, Chloe Hooper plays a deft sleight of hand, setting up a romance novel premise and then delivering a chilling psychological thriller. If you heard about Fifty Shades of Grey and thought it sounded like a great idea for a horror movie, this one’s for you.

The shifting sands of protagonist Liese’s relationship with aristocratic farmer Alexander (does he love her? …or does he want to kill her?) help to create a novel that’s rich in mood and emotion. The Engagement is also literary in the best way possible: Hooper uses her premise to tease out a fiercely intelligent discussion of female sexuality. In short: it’s a simple story that conceals oceans of intellectual thought beneath its surface.

This is the first novel in a long time that’s made me want to immediately run out and buy everything else the author has written.

Book Review: Ready Player One – Ernest Cline (fiction, ***)

Ready Player One, about a video game Easter Egg hunt with life-or-death stakes, wears its influences proudly. The references to various other sci-fi/fantasy, including but hardly limited to Neuromancer and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, feel variously like witty meta-fiction or loving homage. Unfortunately, they also stop the novel from ever finding its own voice.

This is 80s-child geek culture whizzed in a blender: old-school video games, Monty Python, and John Hughes movies all play a role. And it’s undeniably sweet for anyone of a certain age and a certain (nerdy) mindset. I found Ready joyously compulsive as I was reading it, but now that I’ve finished it… I’m almost beginning to forget why I liked it.

At its best, Ready is a thrilling adventure ride (sold as a movie before its publication, and gosh you can see why). At its worst, Ready feels like one long in-joke. There were times when I genuinely felt like I was reading fanfiction for a movie I’d never seen.

As a nerdy homage, it’s successful. (I’d give it kudos on AO3!) But, as a novel, it’s merely serviceable. A lot of the characterization is achieved in shorthand, while the central love story is told rather than shown.

What’s more, the apparently dire state of the world in Ready’s dystopian future is mere background noise, never developed by Ernest Cline into anything more than the equivalent of one of those Oxfam ads featuring wretched African children. Cline introduces some big themes, but never really finds anything profound to say about them. His conclusion, that everyone should just log off the internet and go outside, is laughably simplistic.

Negatives aside, I did like Ready. I found it worth my time and my money. But rather than recommend it to others, it made me want to re-read and recommend better books. Start with Neuromancer. Then move on to Little Brother

Book review: Jump In!: Even If You Don’t Know How to Swim – Mark Burnett (memoir, **)

The best compliment I can give to Jump In, reality TV producer Mark Burnett’s hotch-potch of autobiography and self-help nonsense, is that I read it in its entirety. Burnett (or his ghostwriter?) is a good writer and he manages to keep the pages turning, even as it becomes clear that this isn’t a book with much substance.

I read Jump In to get more of an idea of what goes on behind-the-scenes of reality TV. There’s a little of that (mostly regarding Burnett’s biggest hit – and his biggest logistic nightmare – Survivor), but it’s drowned out by the sheer amount of self-aggrandisement and business aphorisms.

In all, Jump In works better as a business self-help guide. Most of Burnett’s business advice seems Really Fucking Obvious to me (and at least some of it seems conducive to a heart attack), but there’s no denying that Burnett’s story is an inspirational one: son of an English factory worker turned Hollywood millionaire.

(I, personally, would argue that Burnett’s success is mainly down to personality type: he’s a charming chancer with nerves of steel – oh and he’s a white man with an accent Americans find appealing, which can’t have hurt him. I’m not sure his success is something you can teach or replicate easily. And I suspect there are more charming chancers who are bankrupt and penniless than there are Hollywood millionaires.)

Jump In is a pleasant enough way to while away a few hours if the subject matter grabs you. I might even have given it three stars, if not for the unfortunate fact that Burnett spends a lot of the book bigging up one of his projects that failed miserably (The Contender). Uh, oops?