Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

“I tried to look on the bright side, to remind myself that, orphaned or not, I was still better off than most of the kids in Africa. And Asia. And North America, too.  I’d always had a roof over my head and more than enough food to eat.  And I had the OASIS.  My life wasn’t so bad.  At least that’s what I kept telling myself, in a vain attempt to stave off the epic loneliness I now felt.

Then the Hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg began.  That was what saved me, I think.  Suddenly, I’d found something worth doing.  A dream worth chasing.  For the last five years, the Hunt had given me a goal and a purpose. A quest to fulfill. A reason to get up in the morning.  Something to look forward to.

The moment I began searching for the egg, the future no longer seemed so bleak.”

It’s 2044, and the world is out of oil, food, space, and ideas.  Reality is bleak and the future is bleaker; the only place Wade can forget about his miserable existence (an overcrowded trailer park outside Oklahoma City) is OASIS, a virtual utopia where he spends most of his time.  However, his time in OASIS isn’t aimless; he’s on a mission.  OASIS’s creator, James Halliday, was a computer genius obsessed with 80’s pop culture.  Of course, the wild success of OASIS made Halliday a multibillionaire, and when he died, it was discovered he had no will.  No will, and no heir.

Instead of a will, Halliday left details about The Hunt.  Hidden deep inside OASIS was an Easter egg, and the gamer who finds it first wins Halliday’s entire massive fortune.  Of course, news of the contest inspires mass chaos and renewed interest in the trends of the 80’s.  Wade has dedicated himself to the hunt, pitting himself against a massive corporation in the race to find the egg.  There is a lot to lose: Wade has no other hope for his future.  Furthermore, should the egg fall into the hands of the professional, corporate hunters, OASIS would undoubtedly be further commercialized and exploited.  By collaborating with his friends and sharing resources, Wade sets in this pop-tastic, classic David vs. Goliath narrative.

I’ll admit, I resented any intrusion when I was wrapped up in this book.  The USA Today described it as “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix”, and I whole-heartedly agree.  Wade’s search takes him inside video games in a way that’s hard to imagine and completely fun to read about it.  Even if you miss some of the pop culture references, the book is still engaging; the pressure for Wade to get to the egg before the professional hunters do is believable and keeps you turning pages.  Fun?  Absolutely?

Ready Player One was well-received: a New York Times bestseller, and the recipient of my favorite award-the Alex Award.  My roommate read it and when I saw how much he liked it, I couldn’t wait for him to finish it.  However, when I was reading, I came across some issues of race and gender that I felt were somewhat problematic, and that affected my feelings about the book as a whole.  See, Wade’s closest friend is Aech, a person he thinks is another white male (In OASIS, one can choose an avatar of any race, gender or appearance).  Squeezed into a rushed-feeling chapter near the end of the novel, readers discover that Aech is, in fact, a queer African American woman who had been counseled by her mother to adopt the identity of a straight white man.  When she reveals this to Wade, rather than discuss the underlying sociocultural structures that led her to conceal her sexual orientation, race, and gender, Wade accepts it without much contemplation, and expresses relief that at least they’d been truthful when, in the past, they’d discussed attractive women.

I felt that Aech’s character was a clumsy attempt at creating a more diverse cast of characters in the novel, but the presentation left me feeling uncomfortable, and wishing the author could have 1. included authentically-presented minority characters, or 2. used Aech’s reluctance to self-identify in a world dominated by Caucasian males as an entry into a discussion of prejudice and inequality.  Furthermore, Wade’s reaction to Aech’s queerness, in that he immediately assumed they could bond over discussing beautiful women, felt exploitative.  At any rate, it was unsettling.

Ready Player One delighted the video-game-loving part of me, and I was further thrilled by the focus on collaboration over competition, but its treatment of race and sexual orientation left me with mixed feelings about the book.  Read it, love the adventure and the imaginative virtual reality interfaces, but I’d advise some thought on what messages the text is sending us about power and those who lack access to it.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ernestcline.com

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Broadway: New York, 2011. 372 pp. Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, try another Alex award winner for this year: RobopocalypseLegend also looks really interesting!  However, if you’re looking for dystopias or speculative fiction featuring minority characters in other-than-token-status, it’s still more of a rarity.  Here’s hoping for some fantastic, diverse offerings soon!

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Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

“The air was thick and tasted of metal.  I was deafened by the roar of a hundred Singer sewing machines.  Dark heads were bent over each one.  No one looked up; they only fed reams of cloth through the machines, racing from piece to piece without pausing to cut off the connecting thread.  Almost all the seamstresses had their hair up, although some strands had escaped and were plastered to the sides of their necks and cheeks by the sweat.  They wore air filters over their mouths.  There was a film of dirty red dust on the filters, the color of meat exposed to air for too long.”

Kimberly and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when Kim is only eleven.  Her mother takes a position at a sweatshop, working for relatives who helped with her immigration papers.  In order to make payments on the debt they owe for the immigration assistance and still have enough money for food, even Kimberly must work in the factory after school.

For years, they live in squalor, squatting illegally in an unheated, roach-infested building.   Because of the nature of their work (they are paid-illegally-for each skirt they finish, rather than an hourly wage), Kimberly and her mother calculate the prices of all their purchases in skirts.  A dress for graduation is 1,500 skirts. A gift for a friend is 133.  Determined to improve their living conditions, Kimberly works hard at school, gradually learning English and soaring to the top of her class.  Her scholastic abilities earns her an unprecedented full scholarship to a prestigious private school, where she struggles to keep up with the classwork while concealing her poverty from her classmates.

This story is an Alex award winner! Alex awards are given to books that aren’t necessarily written for young adults, but may be especially appealing to them.  I’ve always been partial to Alex winners, and I was hoping this one had been nominated, too.  I’m glad to see it won!  The story is compelling; expect chilling descriptions of a workplace injury and page after page of a poverty so extreme that it is hard to imagine. I was genuinely sickened when I read about Kimberly’s apartment, and how she would sleep on the side of the bed nearest the wall, because she was less afraid of mice than her mother was, and wanted to give her the small gift of a more restful sleep by taking the spot nearer the mice .    There were many tender moments between Kimberly and her mother; I loved the portrayal of their relationship.  They were genuinely protective of each other and clung together in a threatening and confusing world.

Not only does this book explore issues that are often misunderstood or not discussed, like sweatshop labor, illegal immigration, and extreme poverty, but it is also very well-written.  The characters are realistically portrayed, and Kimberly’s storytelling changes and matures as she ages.  I picked it up and was reading it even while I followed my sister around at the grocery store; I just didn’t want to stop.  Even better: the author, Jean Kwok, was born in Hong Kong, immigrated to Brooklyn, and worked with her family in a sweatshop as a child.  While this book is fiction, it was inspired by her real-life experiences.  If you’d like to know which parts of the story really happened, you can check out the FAQs on her website.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://jeankwok.net/index.shtml

Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. Riverhead Books: New York, 2010. 303 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked the description of Kimberly’s experiences living in a new country, and you are an older reader, you might like Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  Younger readers who are interested in the experiences of Chinese-Americans could try the amazing graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese.  For another portrayal of the grueling work immigrants often do, younger readers might like Esperanza RisingThis is one of my favorite genres to read, and if you’d like more recommendations (or if you have some yourself), please let me know!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

“1. Why would you kill a dog?

a) Because you hated the dog.

b) Because you were mad.

c) Because you wanted to make Mrs. Shears upset.

2. I didn’t know anyone who hated Wellington, so if it was (a) it was probably a stranger.

3. I didn’t know any mad people, so if it was (b) it was also probably a stranger.

4.  Most murders are committed by someone who is known to the victim…This is a fact.  Wellington was therefore most likely to have been killed by someone known to him.

5. If it was (c) I only knew one person who didn’t like Mrs. Shears, and that was Mr. Shears, who knew Wellington very well indeed.”

This is a fabulously popular murder mystery, written by Mark Haddon, in the voice of Christopher, a fifteen  (and three months and two days) year old.  The dog next door has been killed during the night, and he sets out to do some detective work, like his idol, Sherlock Holmes.  He talks to the neighbors (even though his father forbids it) and gathers evidence, and eventually uncovers something that takes his life in a surprising new turn.

Christopher has special needs: he doesn’t like to be touched, the color yellow, or foods that touch each other.  He likes prime numbers, the color red, and similes (but not metaphors).  Sometimes navigating the world is difficult for him, and to be honest, it’s not the mystery part of this book that’s amazing: it’s Christopher’s voice.  He’s unfailingly honest (lies make him nervous), and his perspective is disarming and endearing, occasionally pitiable.

I’m a little behind the game with this book: I picked it up a few years ago, and was horrified by the murdered dog on page 5, and then dropped it.  But this time, I’m on vacation, and read through my six day book supply in the first two days, so I had to start in on my mom’s books.  I held my breath, and once I got past poor Wellington’s death, I fell in love with Christopher and his view of the world.

This book has won over seventeen awards, but I’ve been having trouble finding a complete list.  I do know it’s an Alex award recipient, which is the prize for books written for adults that have a special appeal for young adults.   It’s short and really engaging: a great way to spend an afternoon, especially if you are a fan of prime numbers, awesome diagrams, dogs, Sherlock Holmes, and unconventional narrators.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.markhaddon.com/

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Vintage Books: New York, 2003. 224 pp. Grades 10-up.

 

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

” The sauce was good, and simple, and thick.

Sadness, rage, tanks, holes, hope, guilt, tantrums.  Nostalgia, like rotting flowers. A factory, cold.

I pressed the napkin to my eyes.

It’ll be ok, said Dad, patting my hand. ”

I stayed up half the night reading this book, listening to the even breath of the dog and the sirens outside, the random neighbors coming home from late nights.  Nighttime reading seemed appropriate for the story.  It’s a little magical, in the unusual-things-happen sense, not the intoxicating-fairy-tale-esque sense, and a lot melancholy.  I was surprised and pleased to see it’s an Alex Award winner for 2010. Remember The Book of Lost Things, my favorite book ever?  That won the Alex, too.  The award is for adult books that are especially appealing to young adults.

Rose can taste emotions in food: a great idea, in theory, but one that relegates her to a diet of Pringles, Doritos, and other factory foods, untouched (and therefore, untainted) by emotional humans.  Her 9th birthday cake comes replete with a dose of her mother’s powerful grief and loneliness.  Rose is already somewhat of an outsider, with an emotionally distant family: a genius mother, detached lawyer father, and flighty, desperately unhappy mother.  Her synesthesia isolates her further; the school nurse hints darkly about eating disorders, and a friend force-feeds her, using her as a sort of foodie-fortune teller hybrid, thrusting foods on her and demanding to know how she really feels.

Woven in the sober tale is a mystery, or rather, several mysteries.  Where is her brother disappearing to?  Why does her father refuse to set foot inside a hospital, preferring to sit on a crate on the sidewalk, reading a novel and waiting for the birth of his children?  Where does the deep grief of her mother spring from?

I was actually a little shocked when the mystery was revealed.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s nothing earth-shattering when you consider the magical feel to the novel.  Even though I understood the magical feelings-taste connection, I wasn’t familiar with the author, and her reputation as a “fabulist”, or her genre, what Publisher’s Weekly refers to as “pessimistic magical realism”, but I do think they are perfectly descriptive of the novel.  This is a sad, layered, complex story, and I’m interested to see what Aimee Bender writes next.

My only issue?  I wanted much more description of the eating of the emotions.  After all, food and love and culture is so connected already:  we eat the love and effort of those who cook for us.  It’s only a small chimerical extrapolation to taste their feelings, as well.  And Bender has a lovely, pensive style; I think this good story could have been even better.  I also loved the strange and eerie disappearances of the brother, as well, but again, I wish there were more of it.

I think I’ll check out another book of hers, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.flammableskirt.com/

Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. New York: Doubleday, 2010.  292 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, try A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass, or The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by DC Pierson.