Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

In 2044, things in the real world are pretty terrible, and most people prefer to spend their time in the OASIS, a virtual world designed by genius creator James Halliday.  Wade Watts is one of those people, and he chooses to spend nearly all his time in the OASIS utopia, where he can be anyone he wants.  Like millions of others, he dreams of finding the hidden ticket that will allow him to unravel Halliday’s legacy and inherit the OASIS.  Then, one day, he solves the first puzzle.  And all of a sudden, everyone is watching, and he’s in the race of his life to solve the rest of the puzzles before anyone else.

Ernest Cline’s detailed (some might say obsessively so) future world is pretty bleak.  However, the virtual world offers tons of appeal for both its denizens and the book’s readers, as long as they’re willing to suspend belief about, like, everything.  A future-world that doesn’t make sense as soon as its readers spend more than a second thinking about it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems in this pop-culture-ridden, geek-friendly adventure story.

Let’s start with the world-building in Cline’s novel.  Although the OASIS is obsessively detailed and Cline spends an insane amount of time filling the readers in on why things are they way they are and how the OASIS actually works, it still doesn’t make sense.  Other than the OASIS itself, has anything been created since the turn of the millennium?  It’s not realistic that an entire world would be obsessed with the 1980s to the point where it seems as though no other creative works have been created since.  The people in this world have no culture of their own, which might be the point, but that’s never really clear.

If readers can swallow the gaping holes in the book’s world, they might still find the incredibly lengthy info dumps hard to get through.  Cline allows Wade to give readers a blow-by-blow of every video game battle and movie reference, and the novel has a tendency to go on for way, way too long.  Holy exposition, readers.  Easily a third of this novel could have been cut, speeding up the pacing and keeping the story moving.

Many readers are going to gobble up the pop culture references and get caught up in trying to solve the riddles alongside Wade.  However, the pacing of the book is so off because of the exposition that it makes it hard to build the suspense.  Lackluster character development–particularly in the form of the book’s villains–make it harder to care about anyone outside of the book’s narrator.  Also, Cline tries to skirt the issue of race and gender by claiming it’s a post-racial world because everyone can live in the OASIS as whatever they want.  The problem is that the underlying message is that what everyone wants is to be a white male.  Gross.

Definitely appeal here, and some readers will race through it, despite the book’s structural problems.  This one didn’t work for me on any level.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Random House: 2010. Library copy read for book club.

 

Book Review: Half Lives by Sara Grant

Icie’s parents give her a backpack that has $10,000 in cash, a map to a top-secret bunker in Nevada, and the command of getting there no matter what.  A viral attack is looming, and they want her to get to safety.  With three other teens, Icie stays locked away for months, not knowing what the outside world holds.  Meanwhile, generations in the future, a mysterious cult worships the mountain where Icie and the other teens lived.  They never leave the mountain, but they have bizarre ties to Icie.  What is the connection?

Although Grant’s post-apocalyptic novel is thought-provoking, the execution is so shoddy that the result is a bit of a mess.  Blame this on Grant’s desire to examine the after-effects of a bioterrorist attack, both immediately and in the distant future.  The problem with the narrative structure here is that one half of the novel is so, so much stronger than the other.

Icie’s time navigating her way to the bunker and the subsequent months she spends sequestered with the trio of other teens is the far more compelling story.  The four teens are increasingly frustrated by their situation, and the claustrophobic life they lead makes for some harrowing reading.  There’s genuine anxiety here, and this part of the story will hook readers.

In contrast, the group of narrators who make up the second narration in the story are far less interesting.  While there is some cool stuff here, and some readers will love making the connections between the language of the cult and the girls who came before them, there isn’t enough to sustain the narrative as long as it goes on for.

That being said, this novel presents an interesting premise and some fascinating ideas, and it will find an audience.  Uneven pacing make this one more of a slog to get through than it should be.

Half Lives by Sara Grant. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Library copy.

Book Review: 172 Hours on the Moon by John Harstad

When NASA decides to hold a lottery for eligible teenagers to win a chance to go to the moon, the world pays attention.  It’s been decades since a human set foot on the lunar surface, but now NASA is hoping to drum up publicity for the space program.  Three teens are picked to spend a week on a station on the moon, and it’s certain to be a life-changing event.  The problem is that no one realizes just how life-changing it will be.  There’s something on the moon, and it’s not human.

This tense horror-suspense novel grabs readers from the start and doesn’t let go until the last page. A science fiction novel light on the science and heavy on the fiction, this one will keep readers up late into the night.  Part taut Scandinavian thriller and part straight-up horror novel, this is a story you’ll remember.

Harstad’s prose (translated from Norwegian by Tara F. Chace) is accessible, sparse, and tense.  This is a plot-driven novel, so readers looking for characters with a great deal of depth should look elsewhere.  Although the novel alternates between the three chosen teens’ perspectives as well as a few other characters, it becomes clear early on that this is Norwegian teen Mia’s story.  Tight pacing, especially in the last quarter, helps build the story to a thrilling climax and twisty, surprising conclusion.

Readers shouldn’t go into this one expecting much in the way of plausibility.  The mere fact that the story’s premise involves teenage astronauts should give you all the clues you need for whether or not the story is realistic, but once you get sucked into the horror, it doesn’t matter any more.  This is great suspense, and nothing else matters.

A good twist at the end will satisfy readers.  This is interesting, original, and extremely accessible.  There’s widespread appeal here, and the book’s simple prose makes it accessible to readers across many reading levels.  Recommended for those looking for a good suspense novel with some great thrills and chills.

172 Hours on the Moon by John Harstad. ATOM: 2012.  Borrowed copy.

Waiting on Wednesday: Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone

Expected release date: October 9, 2012

Anna and Bennett were never supposed to meet: she lives in 1995 Chicago and he lives in 2012 San Francisco. But Bennett’s unique ability to travel through time and space brings him into Anna’s life, and with him, a new world of adventure and possibility.

As their relationship deepens, they face the reality that time might knock Bennett back where he belongs, even as a devastating crisis throws everything they believe into question. Against a ticking clock, Anna and Bennett are forced to ask themselves how far they can push the bounds of fate—and what consequences they can bear in order to stay together.

Fresh, exciting, and deeply romantic, TIME BETWEEN US is a stunning and spellbinding debut from an extraordinary new talent in YA fiction.

(summary via Goodreads)

The first thing I’m struck by is how much our cover model looks like Keira Knightley, she of the protruding lower jaw.  It’s uncanny.  So much so, in fact, that I’m pretty sure it was calculated.  That’s okay.  I know that this ARC was one of the ones to grab at BEA this year, so I’m eagerly awaiting early reviews.  It’s got a lot of promise, and the super-early buzz has been largely positive.  I’m really looking forward to this one.  Time travel, when done well, can be a lot of fun.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

Araby lives in a world that is quickly decaying.  A deadly virus has wiped out most of the population, and those who are left are still in danger of contracting it.  The wealthy can afford masks that keep them from becoming infected, and they spend their time avoiding reality in lavish nightclubs like the Debauchery Club, where Araby goes most nights with her best friend.  Araby goes to find her own version of oblivion, but one night, she finds Will, one of the club’s bouncers.  Then she finds Elliott, who’s a wealthy aristocrat.  Both boys have their own agendas, and it isn’t long before Araby finds herself swept up into a building rebellion.  What does she have to lose, really?

Well, if this book is any indication, she doesn’t have much to lose.  Bethany Griffin’s neo-Victorian steampunk novel is a loose retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  Unfortunately it’s not nearly as interesting as Poe’s work, despite Griffin’s attempts to make the story edgy, sexy, and dangerous.  A lack of time and place make this novel somewhat confusing–and a convoluted plot only complicates things.

There’s no sense of when or where this story takes place.  Although readers can infer that the city is some version of New Orleans, there’s no telling if the world is supposed to be an alternate universe, set sometime in the past, or set sometime in the future.  While this won’t bother every reader, it certainly bothered this one.  Some sense of where we are in time would be helpful, as there were weird inconsistencies throughout the novel.

However, the novel is incredibly atmospheric, and this helps readers forget that they have no idea where they are in time.  The novel’s atmosphere is gloomy, dreary, and palpably dark.  Griffin does a fantastic job of making the setting feel suffocating.  Unfortunately, that’s where the good stuff ends.

Araby is a total bummer, as far as narrators go.  She provides a completely self-absorbed narrative that feels fairly authentic–in terms of voice, at least.  Her guilt over the loss of her brother is crippling, and while it provides much of the reasoning behind her actions (or lack thereof), it also makes for exceedingly dull reading material.  When the big reveal behind her guilt is revealed, one can’t help but feel as though it’s all just a little overblown.

To make matters worse, there’s a predictable love triangle.  At first it seems as though Araby and Will are meant to end up together, with Elliott acting as a distraction as they plan the rebellion.  But by the end of the novel, Griffin has blurred the lines between the boys and Araby’s feelings for them, and it becomes increasingly clear that we’re supposed to be as torn as she is.  The problem is that Elliott sort of blows and Will is kind of awesome, so there’s no real dilemma present.

A cliffhanger ending feels a little rushed and leaves way too many questions unanswered, but it certainly sets up the novel’s sequel.  It’s not one I’ll be rushing out to find, but it might work for some readers (especially those who haven’t read Poe’s original).  Readers looking for more of the same post-apocalyptic love-triangle stuff might find some fun here, but I thought this one was a total drag.

Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin.  Harper Collins: 2012.  Borrowed copy.

 

Book Review: Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne

Dean and his brother Alex left for school that morning like it was any other.  When hail the size of hubcaps started raining down on their buses, things started to go wrong.  They managed to get into a nearby superstore, but now it’s just them–and twelve other kids ranging in age from six to seventeen.  They’re mostly safe inside, but outside, a series of disasters (including a chemical weapons spill), keeps them from venturing out to find help–or their parents.  Will they survive?

Emmy Laybourne’s novel about a group of kids trapped in a superstore as the world collapses around them is tense, fairly claustrophobic, and ultimately pretty fast-paced.  The novel starts especially strong, jumping right into the action, and then almost immediately falters.  It isn’t until about halfway through the book that Laybourne really finds her footing with narrator Dean, and the rest of the novel is paced well enough to carry most readers through.  While it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel in apocalyptic fiction, this is a fun ride for readers looking for some adventure.

Despite being well-paced and tense, there are problematic elements to Laybourne’s debut novel.  Dean, as a narrator, has a rather flat tone.  For a character who is an aspiring writer, he never really sounds like one.  There’s some questionable stuff relating to his character: Dean casually throws out a “that’s gay” comment from nowhere, and his preoccupation with slut-shaming a 13-year-old girl borders on the creepy.  However, Dean’s voice becomes stronger the further into the story the reader gets, and the development of the other kids trapped in the store helps.

Everything feels a little stiff at the beginning.  The characters are numerous and not developed at all.  Everyone seems to fall into some sort of stereotype, and it isn’t until the events inside the store start to really speed up that things begin to loosen up.  For a remarkably large cast of characters, Laybourne does a pretty nice job of allowing them to all have their own personalities and traits.

A fascinating setting (seriously, who hasn’t thought about what it would be like to be trapped in a big box store with all that stuff at your disposal?) helps counteract the questionable science in the novel.  Those looking for hard science fiction might be disappointed: Laybourne’s convenient use of a biological weapon aimed at certain blood types is never fully explored, and the use of a world-wide computer network-cloud thing feels clunkily-inserted into the story.  Despite all this, the novel ends up being quite entertaining.

A rushed ending sets up the inevitable sequel, but the actions of the characters feel fairly authentic.  This is going to work well for readers who like apocalyptic fiction, and might especially appeal to male readers, which is never a bad thing.  Recommended.  Monument 14 is out today.

Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne.  Feiwel & Friends: 2012.  Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

Movie Review: Chronicle (2012)

When loner Andrew (Dane Dehaan) and his much more popular cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and their charismatic friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan) stumble upon some sort of alien-pod thing, they’re endowed with super powers that continue to grow and evolve.  As the three boys experiment with their new-found telekinetic powers, they discover that having that kind of power comes with consequences, and they’re going to have to make some tough choices.

It’s a fairly simple premise that doesn’t waste any time trying to explain away the fanatical elements of the plot.  Director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis, both still in their twenties, take the found-footage phenomenon and provide a fresh twist for viewers.  As the boys become more powerful, the dynamics in their relationships begin to change.  This is most clear in the case of outcast Andrew, who begins to embrace his power in a way that the other two boys do not.  Although the plot is fairly predictable, it’s still a very fun ride up to the movie’s slightly ridiculous climax.  Fantastic special effects (especially considering the movie’s relatively low budget of $15 million) help round out this total thrill ride.

What is interesting to note is how good all three boys are in their respective roles.  There is nothing more natural than the way the boys react to their new powers: first with glee, then with a sort of reckless abandon.  Viewers know that things are going to get dark, but it’s impossible not to laugh along with them as they figure out how to move things, fly around, and play pranks on unsuspecting bystanders.  Both Jordan and Russell are completely charismatic and likeable in their roles, but it is Dehaan who is the standout.  Dehaan’s portrayal of the bullied and broken Andrew is poignant and heartbreaking, and his plight is sympathetic.

Although the film takes a noticeable stumble in its final scenes, it’s still completely enjoyable.  By not focusing on the whys or the hows, the film manages to sidestep much of what would slow down the excellent pacing and compelling story.  It’s surprisingly watchable and completely entertaining.  Recommended.

Chronicle is out on DVD now.

Book Review: Lost in the 90s by Frank Anthony Polito

Kurt is a little obsessed with the 90s.  He blames/credits his parents, who graduated Hazel Park High School the same year he was born (1994).  As a result, he’s a veritable 90s pop culture fountain.  When his band performs at his school’s 90s-themed dance, a wild stage-dive leaves him with a bump on his head…and a trip back in time to the 90s.  As Kurt navigates the past, he also deals with the fact that somewhere nearby are his parents…who are teenagers just like him.  What would happen if he bumps into them?

There are certainly things to recommend Polito’s latest novel.  It’s clear he knows his stuff: the novel is positively filled to the brim with pop culture references from the 90s.  This book will be a trip down memory lane for readers who are filled with nostalgia for the 90s.  Musical references abound in this quick read that’s going to appeal to adult readers more than it will appeal to teens.

Unfortunately, there are elements that didn’t work for me as a reader.  The book is narrated by several teens, and while they all have fairly distinct voices, their overuse of jargon and weird slang felt disingenuous and was off-putting.  I recognize the fact that this won’t be a deal-breaker for every reader, but it was for me.  I couldn’t get past the stilted narration (especially in the case of Kurt), and it made his voice feel less authentic.

However, the novel is frequently funny, and the pop culture references help to make up for the abundance of slang.  There’s some heart at the meat of this story, too, as Kurt struggles to understand that life doesn’t always wait for you to figure your stuff out.  Recommended to fans of 90′s pop culture, but I’m not sure this is a story that teens are going to gobble up.

Lost in the 90s is out now.

Lost in the 90s by Frank Anthony Polito.  Woodward Avenue Books: 2012.  ARC accepted for review via the author.

 

(#100) Book Review: Hourglass by Myra McEntire

Emerson Cole’s life has become increasingly complicated since her parents’ death.  She sees ghostlike apparitions that pop in front of her eyes when she touches them.  More than anything, Emerson wants to be normal: she wants to stop seeing these long-lost people, and she wants to get through high school relatively unscathed.  But Emerson isn’t normal, and when her brother hires a consultant from a secret organization called the Hourglass, Emerson’s world gets even messier.  Michael Weaver is handsome, mysterious, and totally off-limits.  But the two are tied together in ways that Emerson can’t even comprehend.

Readers, I must provide a foreword to this review: Hourglass let me down.  This is probably my own fault.  Before reading the book, I was under the impression that it was a book containing magical realism.  For some reason, inside my head, this book was tied loosely to Nova Ren Suma’s excellent Imaginary Girls.  I have no clear understanding of why this was the case, but there it is.  Hourglass is nothing like Imaginary Girls in any way.  This book is much more paranormal romance than anything else.  Unfortunately, that romance left me absolutely cold.  Here we go.

There are no shortage of positive reviews out there for McEntire’s debut novel.  There’s obviously a readership for this novel (and for its future installments, as I believe that this is–wait for it–book one in a planned trilogy).  However, McEntire’s novel suffers from a great many things that made it almost painful to get through: slow pacing (worsened by a less-than-compelling central problem), poor characterization, and an overall blandness that fails to distinguish it from other paranormal titles.

For a book that clocks in at nearly 400 pages, McEntire sure takes her sweet time getting to the meat of the story.  The pacing is slow–uneven at best–and by the time the book gets to its climax, I was so bored by the story and its characters that I could hardly be bothered to care.  It seems as though McEntire struggled to find a central problem for her characters, because by the time Emerson is finally let in on the secrets of the Hourglass and why she’s needed, readers are almost halfway through the book with nothing to show for it.  When the big reveal is finally, um, revealed, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “That’s it?”

That isn’t it, though.  In addition to a lackluster plot, McEntire’s characters fall totally flat.  Emerson is boring, exhibiting no real interests or hobbies.  Her instant and immediate attraction and connection to Michael was more irritating than intriguing.  The two had little chemistry (despite McEntire’s repeated attempts to create chemistry–sometimes almost literally).  Comparisons to Twilight can’t be avoided as the two engage in a boring, predictable pull-apart, push-together dance that features a lot of angst.

Despite McEntire’s attempts to engage in some pretty serious genre-blending, the book never lives up to its premise–or its promise.  The science fiction elements don’t mesh well with the paranormal elements.  The time travel subplot feels completely out of place.  The romance threatens to overtake the story as a whole, and because none of it is particularly interesting, the result is a big, bloated, boring mess.

Give this one a pass, you guys.  I’m sorry to say it–and it might work for some readers, but unless that reader is a die-hard paranormal romance fan, there’s just a lot of other stuff out there that could be read first.

Hourglass by Myra McEntire.  Edgmont USA: 2011.  Library copy.

 

 

(#99) Book Review: Blood Red Road by Moira Young

For eighteen-year-old Saba, her entire world has always been the dried up Silverlake, a place where sandstorms and drought influence everyday life.  Although life is hard, Saba feels comforted by the fact that her twin brother Lugh is there for her.  When some men ride up, shoot her father, and kidnap her beloved brother, Saba is determined to save him.  As she navigates the chaotic world outside of Silverlake, Saba discovers that she’s a strong fighter and a quick thinker.  With the help of the maddeningly handsome Jack and a group of girl rebels called the Free Hawks, Saba might just be able to save Lugh after all.

Moira Young’s tale of a girl living in a post-apocalyptic society is pretty epic.  The first book in a planned trilogy tackles loss, love, the pains of growing up, and giant killer sand worms.  This is an adventure story of the highest order, and it’s entertaining, engrossing, and worth every minute of its 450-odd pages.

Told in Saba’s phonetic, illiterate dialect, the writing takes some getting used to.  Once the reader is able to adjust to Saba’s unique voice (there’s nothing to be afeared of here), they won’t be able to get enough of it.  Saba’s voice lends authenticity to her tale, and Saba herself is remarkably well-drawn: she’s persnickety, and there’s a great deal of impressive character detail given to her and to her friends.

There’s a lot going on in Young’s novel–some people will argue that she crowds too much into it.  There are so many subplots occurring that Young can’t address them all.  As a result, some of them are dropped, but it’s this reviewer’s guess that they’ll be picked up in future installments.  Despite being perhaps overly crowded with ideas and events, Young’s novel is extremely well-paced and completely captivating.  This is an engrossing story that features a strong female protagonist in the same vein of Katniss Everdeen.

Recommended to fans of sci-fi post-apocalyptic fiction.  Readers who are missing new installments of The Hunger Games might find a kindred book spirit here.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young. Doubleday: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review.