Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review: Ready, Player One, by Ernest Cline

Don't get me wrong, Ready Player One is an enjoyable book. It is inventive in its virtual reality world, the Oasis, and in its dystopian real-world America. It is at times funny and at other times intense. But it can also be immensely dull. Ernest Cline clearly geeks out on obscure references scattered throughout the book, but his in-depth descriptions of little-known video games and Japanese TV shows bogs down the narrative. There are times when we are literally reading about a kid talking about how much fun he is having playing an old Atari game, which isn't really all that much fun to read. But part of what makes Ready Player One so interesting isn't the obscure references, but the idea of virtual reality being better than real life itself - and this is also one of its most troubling notes. One could easily conclude, upon finishing this book, that it is perfectly acceptable to devote your life to doing nothing but watching and rewatching movies and TV shows, playing and replaying video games, and doing as little as possible to interact with the outside world, a place that Cline's hero Wade Watts views as a nuisance.

It's understandable that Wade, and many others in the world, would be obsessed with this virtual world, the Oasis. The Oasis is perfect. One can access anything they'd like - books, movies, music, shows, games. It's true that exploration of the world is limited to those who have the money to travel, but the world offers ways for even poor kids to replace their real world experience by offering such services as online schooling. On top of that, the real world, in the 2040s, sucks. Global warming has made parts of the world unlivable, and much of the people, especially the poor, live in mobile homes that have been stacked upon one another, the Stacks. In such a dystopic world, it's no wonder that everyone would rather live in the utopic virtual world. It just happens to be an added bonus that the Oasis's creator, James Halliday, has recently passed and will give his multi-billion dollar fortune to whoever wins his "Easter Egg" game.

Halliday is the reason for the intense focus on 80s culture, as those hunting this Easter egg study all of his interest intently. But Halliday's interests in this culture are so narrow and obscure that most references will go unrecognized by most readers - particularly the book's target teen audience. The book will no doubt spur interest in this obscure content. I feel sorry for the characters in this book, stuck to the confines of the cultural interests of Halliday. And these characters study his interests to such obsession they probably know it better than him. Wade himself mentions watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail exactly 157 times. I mean, it's an entertaining movie, but that's pretty excessive. And it seems physically impossible, particularly considering how much time Wade spends on Halliday's other interests. Coming from Wade's perspective, this way of living seems perfectly acceptable, even though Cline does attempt to moralize later, rather weakly.

Where the book is at its best are the moments when Wade is interacting with the real world. When threatened in the virtual world, there is a lack of tension, but when these threats extend to Wade's real self, the tension is palpable. Wade must also contend with the fact that although his online avatar doesn't need such things as food and sleep, his real self does. There are intriguing moments when Wade must deal with the annoying realization that failing to exercise and feed his body healthy foods may ultimately inhibit his ability to play in the Oasis. There's also a hilarious section on virtual sex/masturbation. Intimacy is not something that Wade is used to, and maybe that's why he falls in love with a famous avatar, Art3mis, without ever meeting her in person (or is it even a her?).

It's a bit ironic that the real world exploits and descriptions in a book about a virtual world are much more interesting than the virtual world bits. Cline is able to effectively paint a picture of his dystopic vision of the future with the smallest amount of description, and yet he bogs down his description of the Oasis with tedious details. The best thing the book does is to briefly remove Wade from the Oasis, where we discover just how awful the real world has become, and where we can feel real suspense. Cline seems to drool over his descriptions of massive battles that happen in the Oasis, but they lack suspense because what's at stake is the death of an avatar, which can be recreated. Cline describes these huge battles with an excitement that doesn't quite translate to real excitement since it sounds more like somebody explaining to you a sequence they played in a video game.

In the end, this book plays out almost like an anti-The Matrix - where characters are fighting for their virtual world rather than vice versa. In Ready Player One, people have given up on rescuing the real world from the plight it has fallen into, and James Halliday's creation gives people an escape, one more akin to Plato's Allegory of the Cave - a seeming paradise that is nothing more than a luxurious trap. And like Steve Jobs today, whose iPhone has changed humanity in countless ways, not all of them great, Halliday is seen as god-like. But while I do have a lot of reservations about Cline's book, it's a largely entertaining read, and creates a future and a virtual world that are very believable because they seem to be pointing to a direction we are headed, in terms of global warming and virtual reality at least. I'll be interested to see Steven Spielberg's take in the upcoming movie. Will Spielberg paint Wade's obsession in same flattering light that Cline does, or will there be more nuance?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch's Dark Matter is a well-oiled plot machine, written with the purpose of being a best seller, and at that it succeeds. And succeeds entertainingly, I might add, but only because it ingeniously makes use of science - quantum mechanics - and not because of any big ideas or strong characters. Those last two are mostly missing. Everything that happens and exists in this fast-paced novel (well, mostly everything) is for the purpose of reaching that conclusion. Crouch's prose is barren of superfluous detail, which means that there may not be a lot to contemplate from these pages long after you've closed this book, but you will be entertained while reading it.

For me, the novel doesn't really get good until a third of the way in, and even then it sputters a bit before picking up in the last quarter or so. The early parts of the book establish that Crouch is a good writer. He's an economical writer, in the vein of Dean Koontz, with one sentence paragraphs, but his prose is not terse in the vein of Hemingway - Crouch makes use of luxurious flourishes within his brief paragraphs. What stood out to me was how entertaining Crouch's prose was in the early sections of the novel. The opening chapter does its plot job of expository work. It lets us know the main character is Jason Derullo, a professor who sacrificed big money and more important work for a family. His wife, Daniela, has similarly sacrificed the life of a successful artist for her family. The two of them have a son, Charlie. And Jason's former best friend, Ryan, is out celebrating the big science award that could have been Jason's had he chosen a different path. Funny how books and movies portray life in such black and white terms. You either have a perfect family or career success. There's no in between.

Anyway, what these opening moments do a good job of is establishing key plot points. What they do not do a great job at is developing characters with any depth. Though Crouch makes some attempts at giving Daniela depth, he largely falls short. That Jason madly loves her, even after fifteen years of marriage, is a key to the story's credibility, but in that Crouch also falls short. These characters are mainly names, representations of ideas - Daniela the beautiful, loving wife, and Charlie, the son, the product of their love. Jason can't be quantified so simply because he's the main character of the story, but he isn't blessed with much depth either, despite having a brilliant scientific mind.

The plot wheels turn as, after describing his family life, Jason becomes abducted and knocked unconscious by somebody whose identity is fairly obvious from the get go, but Jason won't realize it until two-thirds of the way through. He wakes up in a world that's very similar, but different. Any fan of science fiction would realize what's happened to Jason right away, but it takes the novel about one hundred pages to finally explain it. And it's a shame, because between Jason waking up in a different world and realizing what's going on, the novel sputters. When it does get into the science parts, all of a sudden the novel comes to life. It becomes enjoyable for a while, stalls again, and then in the finale inserts a new twist that makes it enjoyable yet again. For the ingenious ways that Crouch makes use of quantum mechanics in his plot, I would say this is an entertaining read, and a quick one. If you read this as just an entertainment, you'll find it enjoyable. The problems come when you expect a little more depth, more contemplation of bigger ideas, because here Crouch fails to deliver.

First off, Crouch's prose is a double-edged sword. Writing all of those one sentence paragraphs helps it move along at a brisk pace and keeps the pages turning, as its meant to. Yet, it has the drawback of preventing strong character development, and it also hinders the emotional impact of the story. When Jason is first abducted, a great writer would make the reader feel afraid. I did not feel afraid for Jason. Perhaps it's because his character wasn't made real enough for me, but it could also be that I could see the rails upon which the plot was placed. The fact that Jason decided to walk back home the long way, the more dangerous way, made it all too obvious. I felt I was being played, and any emotional urgency was removed. Ditto the love Jason and Daniela feel. Crouch provides some mixed messages about how Jason feels about his marriage early on, such that when Jason decides later that Daniela is his purpose in life, it's not believable. Crouch's economical prose did not allow Daniela to become fleshed out as a person.

In terms of plot, understanding that Jason wants nothing more than to be with Daniela - his Daniela - is key to enjoying what happens. Failing to add much complexity to the character of Daniela does not allow the reader to connect with her, or Jason's desire to be with her, very strongly. There is some attempt early on at making her human. She has bouts of depression, but not much more than that. Later in the novel she turns into little more than a strikingly beautiful woman, an object of desire. She does as the plot requires - trusts rather than asks questions.

In terms of bigger ideas, Crouch largely leaves these off the table as well. There are moments, understandably, of identity crisis. When seeing other versions of yourself, of your world, your apt to wonder who you are. Outside of identity, Crouch does not dig too deeply into the complexities of human thought and feeling. In Jason's despairing situation, for example, he never wavers in the fact that he wants Daniela back - his Daniela. This seems to position Crouch into suggesting that there are soul mates, and that once one finds this true love nothing could get in the way of it. This, although it is known that people, in desperate situations, are likely to revert to survival instincts. Jason is made too pure of heart to accept the offer of love from his companion on his bizarre journey, or to even give it any thought. To go in that direction would take a braver writer.

Still, I think most people would be willing to accept the premise of the novel at its surface and enjoy it as the thriller it is. And it is an entertaining thriller. My review points out many of its shortcomings, but as a plot-driven sci-fi action story, it is well-done, with ingenious imaginings of what might happen if quantum technology is used as it is here. I find that the novel is a great medium to teach quantum mechanics, the basics at least, to a broader population. Crouch explains it in understandable ways, and even adds a little to my understanding of it. William Sleator's The Last Universe is another novel that does a nice job of explaining quantum. While Sleator's novel does not feature the ingenious plotting of Crouch's novel, one thing Sleator succeeds at that Crouch does not is taking a complex look at the human element. Sleator also takes bigger risks. If somehow the two authors could merge into one, they might write one tremendous novel based on quantum mechanics.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Review: Into the Dream, by William Sleator

Probably the most powerful takeaway from William Sleator's, Into the Dream, is his insightful look into how a person views others and themselves, and how those views may change. The telepathic link between two characters serves to illuminate this even more strongly. While readers may be intrigued by the sci-fi/fantasy of the telepathy and UFOs, or horrified by the recurring dream had by the main character, Paul, and foreboding something terrible, or enraptured by the pseudo romantic comedy as you follow the conflicted relation between Paul and the second main character, Francine, it is the way the two characters change in their regard for one another that is most intriguing and insightful. Shortcomings aside, there is plenty to admire in this short YA novel.

Paul has a nightmare that he doesn't understand, except that it makes him more and more frightened each time he views it. It feels so real, like a warning. In the dream a young boy appears to be in danger, but doesn't realize it, as hulking beasts surround him. Each time Paul dreams it, he discovers something new. The problem is, nobody understands him when he explains this dream. A dream is always more meaningful to the dreamer than it is to somebody listening to you explain the dream. It frustrates Paul the way his friends and family either shrug off the dream as if to say, "It's just a dream," or the way they try to interpret it by discussing how it shows Paul's mood or state of mind. It's more than that to Paul. It's real, and soon he withdraws from the world because nobody will listen to or understand him.

Until Francine, that is. Francine is a girl in Paul's school, but the sort of girl who doesn't interest Paul - a "silly" girl. She hangs out with other "silly" girls, girls who aren't interested in academics like Paul is. Francine is the type of girl Paul would never talk to if it weren't for a special connection (and here it's tough to avoid spoilers). They discover a telepathic link to each other, catching occasional glimpses into each other's thoughts or mood or life. Each time Paul learns something new about her, he grows to like her a little more. Seeing a new part of her, such as where she lives, catching a glimpse of her family's poverty compared to his life of luxury, in comparison, takes him away from his own egotistical world and allows him to empathize with Francine. The same is true of her. While telepathy is not possible in the real world, Sleator is showing how people can let go of animosity if only they take time to understand one another. When nobody understands him, Paul pulls away from the world, but when he finds somebody who grows to understand him and who he grows to understand, he becomes happier and better connected. The way Sleator shows this is quite powerful.

While Sleator nails the human element, especially in that middle school age range, the plot staggers at the end. For about three-quarters of the book, the plot moves along nicely, with twists and turns that keep the reader guessing and the pages turning. It's peppered with humor, particularly the tense exchanges between Paul and Francine. And the reveals get more and more interesting, seeming to lead up to something big. I don't want to spoil anything, but more than likely you will find the ending disappointing, anti-climatic, like Sleator could have done more with his short little novel but ran out of steam far too early. The ending makes sense, of course, and fits in the world of magical realism that Sleator establishes, but for all the hype and tension the end fizzles rather than erupts. And yet, in many ways this is a book that will stay with me for some time to come.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney

Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid is nothing more than the days in the life of his main character, Greg. There's no real plot to speak of. Only Greg's day-to-day interactions, including minor conflicts that pop up and are resolved in a matter of pages, only for something new to come up. And yet, the descriptions of these conflicts and events, told with the aid of simple, yet unique, drawings, are very entertaining. Kinney writes with a dry, flat tone and simple style that make his jokes somehow funnier, and the drawings, too, are incredibly entertaining. There is not one dull page in this 200+ page first book, and in spite of myself I want to read more.

I think part of the appeal of these books is that they are not patronizing. Kinney is not trying to teach a lesson. He is merely trying to entertain. There is no big message, and yet it is filled with thematic value. Through Greg, Kinney has things to say about family, school, friendship, boredom, and just every day life, especially the life of a teenage boy, and it all feels real - it all feels like something that anyone can relate to. And it's refreshing that Kinney's tone lacks any cynicism or the sulkiness of many young adult books. Kinney portrays the negatives of life with a comedic silliness, as if to laugh off those little nuisances that a teenager like Greg might take seriously. It's nice when a book makes you feel like you can connect with the characters, feel that you're not alone, and then makes you realize that there are some things we shouldn't take so seriously about ourselves. Kinney does that here.

The comedy works largely because Kinney does not stray from his flat characters. There are no sudden changes in character, no moment when they suddenly realize they were wrong. Because, let's face it, people rarely realize or admit when they are wrong. And that's what makes Greg such a great character, though he doesn't have a whole lot of depth. Kinney portrays him as a self-centered teenager without disparaging said teenager. We can laugh at Greg's mistaken perspective as a flaw in his person and as a flaw in many young people (and sometimes not so young). For example, when Greg's grandmother's house is toilet papered, partly due to Greg's actions, he feels bad but decides that she probably doesn't mind because she's retired and has a lot of time on her hands anyway. Greg's logic makes sense, but a wise reader will realize that, retired or not, nobody wants to clean toilet paper off their home.

As funny as Greg's perspective is, the supporting characters help out a lot as well. Rowley, his best friend, the one Greg is embarrassed to admit as his best friend, is reliably nerdy, either taking things too seriously, or unable to control his laughter over childish jokes. Rodrick, Greg's older brother, is reliably rebellious. Manny, Greg's younger brother, always calls Greg "Bubby," a name he doesn't want his friends knowing, and also always gets whatever he wants, just like the youngest generally seems to. There is also Greg's mom, whose purpose in life is to embarrass her children, and Greg's father, who is pleased when Greg decides he wants to take up weightlifting. And this is but a small assortment of the many characters who make their way through this story. Everyone meanders into Greg's life, and his diary, occasionally and leave without explanation only to return again. And in the end it all feels just right.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park

This is a devastating and touching portrait of what happens to people and society in war-torn, impoverished nations. As bleak as it often is, this is not a hopeless caricature of human civilization at its worst. In fact, it is hopeful and it shows how people often persevere when things get tough and this perseverance can help elevate a person's situation, even if it does take some time. Linda Sue Park's unsentimental, simple prose allows the story to flow smoothly and easily and adds to the power of the tragic and uplifting moments. Where this story excels is not in character, but in plot and its portrayal of life in a third world nation. This is a story everyone should read.

The story opens with Nya's story in Southern Sudan, 2008. She has to walk eight hours everyday to get water for her family. Nya's story is briefly told, just enough to give us an idea of survival in modern day rural Sudan, revolving around that ever-important source of life: water. The book mainly focuses on Salva, a boy, in Southern Sudan of 1985. His story opens with civil war forcing him to flee without his family, unsure if his family is even alive. He finds himself alone, unwanted, because adults fear he will just drag them down and use too much of their scarce resources. He finds help and kindness from very few adults, and as a young boy he little understands what is going on, except that his life is at stake.

These alternating story lines eventually connect, of course, but during much of the story they seem connected only by geographic place. Students of mine who have read, or attempted to read, have complained about confusion from these alternating perspectives. In that way, it teaches students the importance of prediction, as any good reader will trust that there is a purpose in telling these two stories, separated so far as they are by time - 33 years. But 33 years isn't all that far apart, in reality. We see that the conditions for Nya have not improved much, if at all, from where Salva comes, and where some things are better for Nya (no war), others are worse (harder to get water, no school). And the connection made between both stories teaches a powerful lesson about how history impacts us today. That is one of Park's many gifts from this book, to so powerfully, so simply, and so clearly show this connection between the past and now. A terrific read.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: The Adventures of Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey

It's not hard to see why, twenty years later, Dav Pilkey's The Adventures of Captain Underpants is still seeing reprints and now has a movie (which is largely what spurred me to read this). The adult in me sees the cover and title with contempt. This story can't be anything but stupid, I think. But the adolescent inside me snickers at the superhero dressed in whitey-tighties and a red cape. So while the kids all open the book with glee, the adult scoffs. What the adult may be surprised to find is that this is not stupid, not at all. It's actually pretty clever. Yes, it's definitely something better enjoyed as a pre-teen or teenager, but adults can breathe easy knowing that their young boys and girls are not reading trash, but something with real humor and even heart.

The Adventures of Captain Underpants is a graphic novel that combines prose and dialogue with colorful pictures. These pictures do not just serve to enhance the story, but also help tell it. In the opening chapter, for example, the prose explains that the two main characters, Harold and George, are troublemakers, while the pictures show how they cause trouble when they change a flower shop sign from "Pick your own roses!" to "Pick our noses!"

But Harold and George don't just pull pranks, they also create a comic book series called "The Adventures of Captain Underpants" to distribute to classmates. This series features the titular superhero taking care of elementary school related problems, sometimes with monsters involved. But the book is not about their comic book. It's about how they transform their mean principal into Captain Underpants by using hypnosis. But they underestimate how Mr. Krupp, said principal, will take on this role, which is surprisingly well, running around in his underwear and trying to stop, among other things, bank robbers.

Pilkey's prose is simple and to the point. There's a lightness to his writing that gives the sense he is not trying too hard for laughs, nor that he's trying to dumb things down for the age level the story's aimed at. The drawings are also amusing, and at one point they even become interactive, as Pilkey provides instructions for his "Flip-o-Rama" during an action scene, providing a mini-cartoon activity that's as amusing to watch as it is fun to do. The story is also, apparently, semi-autobiographical. Apparently Pilkey got the idea back in elementary school, and it's sad to learn that his teacher reprimanded him for his work rather than praise him. Lucky for Pilkey it all worked out. Not all class clowns get to turn their mischief into success later in life. And Pilkey proves that you can't write something off just because it appears immature and adolescent.

Review: Dragonwatch, by Brandon Mull

With Dragonwatch, Brandon Mull takes a rather safe, conservative approach to fantasy. There's never really a sense of danger or terror, not much of a sense of adventure. That's because in Mull's fantasy world characters largely remain within magical safe havens that protect them from demons and dragons and ogres. Perhaps this is nothing new for readers of Mull's Fablehaven series, which I have not read, and if you haven't read it, there are plenty of spoilers in Dragonwatch. What you will find in Dragonwatch is a mildly amusing fantasy adventure.

Seth and Kendra are hot off their Fablehaven adventures when we first see them. Seth is finishing a quest for some witches, testing his new abilities as a shadow charmer (something that doesn't see much use in this book, actually). Kendra is back home, relaxing and exercising. She is now Fairy Kind, an ability that gets some use. Now that the demons have been defeated, things feel safe, but both Seth and Kendra receive some warnings about the dragons, who are enemies of the demons. With the demons defeated, the dragons stand ready to fill the vacuum left behind. As it turns out, with their newfound abilities, Seth and Kendra will have a major role to play in protecting the world against the dragons.

As exciting as that sounds, you won't find a whole lot of excitement in Book One until the end, and even there it's sort of rushed through and drained of suspense. Some of the plotting is amusing and holds promise, but the characters are all paper-thin dull. Seth and Kendra serve as the two perspective characters. The narrator alternates between them at will and sometimes even seems to forget about them. Both have personalities that could be explained in one word. Seth is reckless and Kendra is cautious. Not a whole lot of complexity, and it's made easier by having the characters fall into society's expectations of gender roles. And like other YA heroines, Kendra swoons at the sight of cute boys, including the unicorn Bracken and then later another boy, which bothers her because she thinks she loves Bracken. Seth has no romantic interest, but he's at the age where boys apparently think girls are gross. Parents can rest assured that Mull plays it safe with the young girl and boy, but this means they do lack the sort of depth that might make them more intriguing characters.

Plenty of fantasy appears to revel in combining the real world with the fantasy world, from Neil Gaiman's work to Harry Potter to The Spiderwick Chronicles. This is probably most comparable to Spiderwick, but in that series the characters feel real and so does the danger. Where Spiderwick could scare with small goblins and other beasties, Mull's massive dragons are tame by comparison. Never once did Mull have me believe any of these characters were ever in harm's way, even when they did inevitably venture out from their safe havens. Fans of Mull and YA fantasy will probably find enjoyment here, and I didn't find the book without amusement. It's a fast-paced, unchallenging work that will likely have readers curious to know what will happen next.