Random Review: Ready Player One

I meant to write a proper review of this, more fitting to the blog, but it’s been so long that the feeling is gone and you’ll all have to settle for what I wrote on Goodreads.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, 372 Pages

The basic plot is this: a Steve Jobs-type computer game-design guru died and left a puzzle for the world. Whoever solves it inherits his gaming empire, and control of the world-wide online environment known as the OASIS. The clues to solve the puzzle require a knowledge of everything James Halliday ever liked during his life: a whole bunch of films, television shows, games, and bands that were popular during the eighties. Impoverished, isolated, obsessed geek Wade cracks the first clue and the race is on.

This book was truly dreadful, the only reason my husband and I finished was because I read it aloud on a long car trip and we took to mocking it with added lines and created a drinking game from its repetition of words and phrases like “classic”, “vintage”, and “one of Halliday’s favorites”. Had we actually been drinking rather than miming, we would have been dead within two chapters. The basic plot is cribbed off of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, endless references to 80’s pop cultural artifacts are substituted for creativity, and the main character is utterly unlikable. There were a few points where the author might have taken the literary road slightly less traveled, but he plays it straight (and cliched) every time.

I am loathe to skip anything when reading, but after the third straight chapter of near-endless infodump my husband insisted we jump forward to the point where something actually happens. Dialogue reads like a thirteen-year-old boy’s IM conversation, and as an MMO player I would certainly know.

I picked this book up because I read to my husband on long trips, and having finished our last series we were looking for something new. This seemed perfect: gamer geekdom, D&D, epic quests, 80’s stuff…we love all of those things and are deeply immersed in that culture.

Sadly, it turned out to be an overhyped litany of loosely-related 80’s creative properties linked by a threadbare plot and the occasional political/environmentalist diatribe. Spend a little more time in the real world Cline, and less time patting yourself on the back for being smarter/more informed than everyone else.

I suppose I do have more to add:

This book disappointed me on a level most don’t achieve because I so wanted it to be a good, or at least fun and frothy, read. It is apparent from the author’s every sentence how much he looks down on other people, and his main character is a rather obvious author-proxy. He goes into mind-numbing detail explaining each of the bits of 80’s ephemera he inserts into the narrative. For example: he explains, at length, the premise of Family Ties. It’s insulting. I read the book because I was familiar with almost all of the things he fervently referenced. If I weren’t, I would still be perfectly capable of using Wikipedia/Google. It absolutely cripples the narrative.

He has serious continuity and logic issues: his main character is in his late teens and yet there are several movies and years-long TV series that he claims to have viewed literally hundreds of times each. I believe that maybe mid-thirties Cline has lived long enough for this to be true, but teenaged Wade? Who is required to be in school six hours a day? Not buying it. Wade is also a bit of a sociopath, many people die (people he has personal relationships with) because of him and  he displays no emotion other than fear for himself. Wade is rude, cocky, dishonest, and socially stunted. He seems to have no concept of the reactions he is likely to provoke in others when he treats them callously, or dismisses them out of hand. His attempts at flirting and romance are unintentionally hilarious, not to mention presented via pages and pages of IM conversation.

The level of pandering to geekdom is also nausea-inducing. In this novel, Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher of Star Trek: The Next Generation and current host of TableTop) is president of the OASIS and Cory Doctorow (BoingBoing) is his VP. Wheaton also narrates the audiobook, natch. There is a Wozniak-insertion to match the Jobs-insertion. Two characters of foreign (non-U.S.-American) nationality are rendered in downright offensive stereotypes. In the OASIS, Wade drives a DeLorean with a Gostbusters decal on the side. It’s embarrassing.

This might make for an entertaining film, where it is not possible to bore the audience to tears with too much infodump (unless someone opts for a thirty-minute Star Wars-style exposition opener). As a book, it’s downright painful. It’s clear that Cline is a Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master at heart, holding his players captive while he rambles on in love with his (very limited) storytelling ability. Forgive me, because I am about to get gross: this is literary masturbation. Gamer geeks like Cline are a dime a dozen. Just because people have stopped listening, doesn’t mean you are smarter. It just means you are boring.

Chair Rating:

Torture device.

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Random Review: Insurgent

This cover is dominated by Amity’s beautiful tree.

This book was way too long. I have made this review as un-spoilery as possible for those who haven’t read Divergent.

Insurgent by Veronica Roth, 525 Pages

Unlike many of the reviewers on Goodreads, I came to the Divergent party late and was able to launch right into Insurgent the day after I finished Divergent with the story fresh in my mind. This was helpful since the sequel picks up right where the first one left off, without any re-cap or synopsis. This bugged some people but I am fine with it, it’s not like Wheel of Time or something, this series will only have three books. It’s not that huge of an imposition to start with number one.

In this installment of the trilogy each faction must decide where they stand after the tragic genocide of one of the factions at the end of Divergent, and how they will proceed.Tris is at the forefront of the action throughout the novel thanks to her knowledge of what’s happening and her Divergent status. There will be war and all that remains to be determined is which side each faction (and the factionless) will fight on.

The novel’s strongest moments were in seeing the headquarters of each faction and getting a feel for their culture and priorities. The thought that went into each faction’s sociology shows without turning into an infodump.The author’s preferences seep through in places, but it’s interesting to see Tris’s reaction to ideologies other than the one she was raised in and the one she chose. Equally satisfying is seeing her grow enough to realize that each faction has something beautiful to offer.

Insurgent‘s weak point was directly related to its length. There were a lot of plotlines running in harmony through the first novel, which left a lot to address in the second. Tris was dealing with the emotional fallout of the things she was forced to do for the greater good at the end of Divergent, though she is not an overtly emotional person. This chewed up a lot of time and became frustrating as she made the same mistakes over and over, becoming reckless to avoid dealing with her feelings (though I guess that’s honest for a sixteen-year-old) She and Four had the same fight several times and neither one altered their behavior in any way…it felt like running in circles on a hamster wheel. Characters related to various side plots popped up between revolutions for a little variety and/or resolution.

Things do come together toward the end, action picking up and speeding the reader along as Tris embraces the gifts that come with her Divergence and takes charge (satisfying considering how much of the book she spent being either a numb robot or completely reckless). The novel is left on a note that could either be an ironic cliffhanger or a bittersweet conclusion, but the rumor is that there is another (as yet un-named and un-written) sequel in the works.

This novel still provides plenty to think about, but it was not nearly as well-paced or plotted as Divergent. Perhaps that is to be expected in this age of every publisher looking for the Next! Big! Series! and rushing installments to publication before the public loses interest. The Divergent trilogy still has mine, I’ll be back to read that third volume, I just hope that the author gets the time she needs to make it all it can be.

Chair Rating:

A little too much, doesn’t quite work as intended. Still impressive in a way.

Random Review: Divergent

Dystopia with a capital D.

Divergent by Veronica Roth, 576 pages

Books like these make me wish I was in a book club. I read this novel in twenty-four hours, and when we’re talking 500+ pages, that says something. From the first page the reader is immersed in the life of Beatrice Prior, a sixteen-year-old on the cusp of making a life-defining decision. In Beatrice’s world every person belongs to one of five factions: Dauntless, Candor, Amity, Erudite, or Abnegation. Each of the factions has a prized trait that they seek to cultivate above all others, and factions come before blood. Beatrice and her brother are tested along with the rest of of their peers for aptitude and must publicly decide which faction to commit their lives to (each has its own community in the ruins of Chicago). A poor choice, a mistake, means becoming one of the destitute factionless. Our heroine is torn between the faction she’s always known and the one that calls to her, but changing teams may mean losing her family forever.

My summarizing will stop here because I don’t want to spoil even one choice or discovery. This novel is so tightly plotted that it sweeps the reader along without a single good place to take a break. The stakes are high from the start for Beatrice, who reinvents herself as Tris during initiation to her chosen faction, and they get higher. Tris is a complex character with a consistent core, and she remains true to herself as she makes new friends and enemies (and falls in love for the first time). The world of Divergent is richly detailed, and learning more about Tris’ faction only made me more curious about the others. Tris gradually realizes that the friction between the factions is something more than the usual grumblings, and her individual struggle goes global in the action-packed ending of the novel.

Tris is an incredible heroine. She is brave and smart and protective of others, not particularly self-aware (which makes sense considering that she was raised in the selfless faction, Abnegation). She navigates her initiation through sheer force of will, failing miserably and standing out by turns. The reader can cheer for her and be frustrated by her at the same time. She grows into a new person over the course of the novel in ways both horrifying and impressive.

The novel is brutally violent at times, but it is never gratuitous or gory. All of the characters are three dimensional, even the “bad guys” are intriguing enough to arouse curiosity. There is a lot to dig into when it comes to the world of Divergent. Should government positions only be filled by the selfless (and just because someone identifies as selfless, does that mean they actually are?). Do the pet causes of the selfless actually address the needs of a whole society? Can a group of people all work toward cultivating a single trait without becoming corrupted by that pursuit? I suspect picking your faction will become the new sorting-hat-style craze (the author even provides a helpful quiz to that end in the novel’s extras).

Speaking of the extras, they are fantastic. There are the usual discussion questions along with an interview with Veronica Roth, the aforementioned quiz, manifestos from each faction, and an excerpt of Insurgent (the next novel in the series). A novel which I just so happened to purchase today.

I told my Facebook friends that Divergent was better than The Hunger Games, and it is. Not a million times better; but the writing is tighter, the story fuller, the foreshadowing never heavy-handed, and the characters run deeper. I cannot recommend it more highly than that.

Chair Rating:

Built to last, future classic with an edge.

Live Deadly Girls! A Hunger Games Movie Review

We went to the Hunger Games midnight showing last night. Sandwiched ourselves between heavy-banged teens in chunkifying “skinny” jeans and middle-aged adults escorting texting tweens in a line that wrapped all the way around the theater. It was cold. The theater had been trashed by hours worth of indifferent people crushing snack food underfoot. Our small band of three was not able to sit together, because the theater was so packed.

I’d do it all again.

Gary Ross’ take on The Hunger Games is the most faithful book-to-film adaptation I have ever seen. Every actor was perfectly selected, the score delicately augmented the moods created by the thoughtful cinematography. All those melodramatic exclamations from the trailers that made me squirm worked within the context of the whole scene. It is apparent that the film was lovingly crafted by a true fan. Clever solutions were devised to prevent the film from being Katniss’ endless internal monologue, like showing Caesar Flickerman’s Monday-Night-Football-style commentary on the games as they happened,  and the minor alterations to plot and pacing worked well.

One of my favorite things about the film is that it didn’t play down to the viewer. Many things were communicated via soundless memory sequence or a significant look, rather than an expository speech. This reserve served the film’s few moments of romantic tension well, whether between Katniss and Peeta or a simple shot of Gale reacting to what he sees onscreen during the games. Purists will be relieved to hear that the romance was not played up at all, no mercenary need to milk the Twilight crowd on display here. Lenny Kravitz was an inspired choice for Cinna, and his brief scenes with Lawrence are more emotionally raw than ten screaming Prims.

Was every tiny detail perfect? Not quite. Certain things, like Haymitch’s evolution as mentor and Katniss’ relationship with Rue, were not given quite enough time to develop. But on the whole, this film was a triumph. Ross’ direction is substance over style at every turn (though his style ain’t too bad). He is not afraid of quiet, revealing moments that build tension or illuminate deeper feelings. The contrast between the hardscrabble scenes of daily struggle in The Seam and the clownish spectacle of The Capitol is masterfully executed. Ross navigates the line between watering-down the horror of the games and wallowing in gore without veering too far in either direction. Elizabeth Banks adds much-needed levity to the pensive film with her pitch-perfect portrayal of Effie Trinket, and Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta is all heart and nobility. Even Gale gets fleshed out as we see his subtle but constant role in Katniss’ life (and Hemsworth plays him with an unsuspected subtlety). Jennifer Lawrence does Katniss justice. Harrelson as Haymitch was hard to swallow when I heard the casting news, and he takes the role to a different place than I had imagined in my reading, but it works.

It’s just great. Watch it. Watch it again. I know I will (and I can’t wait for the director’s cut).

30 Days of Books – Day 28 – Your Favorite Title

I rather like the title of the novel that I am currently reading to my husband whenever we take long drives: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. The title really gets at the 80’s geek-culture theme of the novel while evoking that feeling of heightened senses, that hyper-alert readiness one feels when about to begin playing (or in my case, losing) a video game.

We’ve just begun the novel but the basic idea is that an impoverished gamer-geek in a dystopian future stumbles onto the first clue in a decades-old puzzle left by the designer of the virtual world most people now spend large chunks of their lives logged into. Willy Wonka style, whoever solves the puzzle gets the keys to the kingdom: the video-game mogul’s vast fortune and a controlling share of the stock in his company, which controls the OASIS (the aforementioned virtual world).A lot rides on that controlling interest: the privacy of every gamer using OASIS, its accessibilty to all regardless of financial status, the OASIS refreshing lack of in-game advertising.

Upon his death, the tycoon left an 80’s-reference-packed video announcing this contest. Decades later many have lost interest in the hunt for that first copper key which is hidden somewhere in OASIS, his magnum opus. Those keeping the flame alive study 80’s film, television, video games, and cultural paraphernalia with a religious fervor.

The title is a reference to those early coin-op favorites that alerted competitors to the start of gameplay with the phrase “Ready Player One”. Fitting, because once the narrator unearths that first key, he’ll have to be on his game.

30 Days of Books – Day 27 – The Most Surprising Plot Twist or Ending

The kinds of novels I read aren’t really given to plot twists or surprise endings, and non-fiction certainly isn’t.

The only book I could think of for this one was Mockingjay. I don’t know if it was completely surprising but it was like “Damn, Suzanne Collins. You went there.” It actually felt like how things had to end for Katniss, honestly, but so many authors would have tried to soften it. Pulled up at the last moment. I was surprised that she so unapologetically wrote what needed to be written.

I am deathly terrified to spoil anything for those who have yet to finish the series, but for those who have read it I will clarify to what “twist” I am referring. The entire segment of the novel from sewer lizards to Coin’s speech.

A lot of people found this book a disappointing conclusion to the series, and I have to say I don’t get that. I found it completely fitting. My only guess is that they hoped for a happy ending, or thought Katniss was strong in a way that she wasn’t and were disappointed to find she was only human (and a very damaged one at that). The third Hunger Games novel was heartbreaking, but it was never a fairy tale to begin with.

Science Fiction Double Feature

Just went to watch the movie Chronicle with my Mister on a whim. It was unexpectedly good (and the previews had me truly scared: The Three Stooges, Battleship, and the sacrilegious 21 Jump Street remake). It’s a found-footage style film following the lives of three high-school guys who develop telekinesis after some late-night spelunking at a rave (no part of this is a euphemism).

The guys explore their growing powers with a series of pranks and stunts ranging from the sophomoric to exhilerating, and the effects are very well done. Never too much, everything looks downright plausible.

The final third of the film turns philosophical (but definitely not dry), taking a look at what a sudden increase in personal power would lead to in the lives of its three main characters.

As I said, surprisingly good. I would recommend it to fans of Unbreakable or the more philosophical aspects of X-Men. Forewarned is forearmed: it has its violent and shocking moments.

 

But wait, there’s more!

Yesterday, the cover for the third novel in Allie Condie’s Matched trilogy, Reached, was revealed. The first novel of the series, Matched, is dystopian YA sci-fi set in a strictly-controlled future. One hundred songs, one hundred poems, and one hundred works of art are all that remain of our once-rich culture. Only a handful of activities are approved for leisure time, preferences are statistically tracked and predicted, and life partners are assigned by the government.

Cassia is a girl on the eve of being Matched, and everyone is fairly certain they know whom she will be paired with. While they are not wrong, at the Matching ceremony another face flashes across the screen before showing the expected male. Suddenly Cassia is questioning the perfection of her perfectly plotted society, and whether the powers that be really know what’s best for her, while getting to know the mystery man whose face flashed before the one she expected.

 I read Matched a few months ago, and it was okay. The world-building was pretty good, it was reasonably well-paced, and the characters weren’t totally two-dimensional, but I didn’t feel compelled to seek out the second novel when it was released (much like Beth Revis’s Across the Universe). Actually, I remember thinking Cassia was kind of a dope.

Anyway, now that I’ve damned the first with faint praise, I will admit that I’m considering reading the second. The first novel very much read as a set-up for the second and showed enough promise that I’m willing to believe reviewers who claim it gets much better.