Sunday, June 24, 2012

The New Adult Project: "Ready Player One," by Ernest Cline

Goodreads Summary:

It's the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune--and remarkable power--to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday's riddles are based in the pop culture he loved--that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday's icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes's oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt--among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life--and love--in the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.
A quest for the ultimate prize.
Are you ready?


Imagine if first book of The Hunger Games was written by Tyra Banks or Kim Kardashian. In some ways, that's what Ready Player One is like. Except that instead of fashion and celebrity culture, Ready Player One is about nerd-dom. People live their entire lives on the internet, playing video games and going on quests. And since the real world has gone to hell, that gives them a perfect excuse to do so.

In other words, this book is a nerd's wet dream.

It's not that Ernest Cline doesn't explore the disadvantages of a plugged-in world. He does, but in a very shallow way. The fact is, he himself is very much a nerd. And this book was meant for nerds. People identify with Wade, (at least at first) because he is a nerd. He's even teased in school!*

But the thing about nerd-dom in this society is that, thanks to the contest, it has become fairly mainstream. And Wade never struck me as the kind of guy who can form his own opinions. Everything he loves is exactly what Halliday loved. Never once does he say "I have no idea why Halliday was such a big fan of ______, because it's utter crap." No, his success comes through his l33t haxor skillz and his religious obsession with all things Halliday.

I consider myself a nerd, but that doesn't mean I love every aspect of nerd culture. I don't understand why everyone loves Dune, for example. Sure, the worldbuilding's good, but just about every good character is a Mary- or Gary-Sue. And there is something very problematic about the trope where the locals need am outsider to lead them to victory against their oppressors. Also, D&D. Many of my college friends played D&D. They wouldn't leave the dorms on the weekends, because the game was such a high priority, and they would talk about the events of their campaign as if it were real life.

Granted, Wade's obsession with nerd-dom and the OASIS is a result of the world he grew up in, so for that reason, it's forgiveable. And I do think his feelings of loneliness were well written, even if other aspects of the book weren't.

But there were other issues. The prose was far too expository. The book starts with a huge infodump about the state of the world. While this is all stuff that's important to know, I think Cline should have had more faith in his readers to figure some stuff out on their own. Also, the voice meant that a lot of Wade's emotions didn't come through very well. As I mentioned above, the feeling of loneliness that Wade experienced midway through the book was okay, but other things just felt static. Wade never seemed to feel grief, even when someone close to him (or at least someone who should have been close to him) died. Also, making your villains more evil does not make your main character more sympathetic. And I'm sick of the "girl who thinks she's hideous even though she's not" trope. Seriously, the way Art3mis was so self-conscious about meeting Wade in person, I was expecting something serious, like quadriplegia or progeria, not an ugly birthmark.

Still, although I don't consider this a "good" book, it was very much a fun book. By the end, I was so wrapped up in the epicness that I didn't want to put it down. And although it was the sort of ending that should have been really cheesy, I was never bothered by it.

If you like epic stuff and nerd culture, and aren't bothered by expository prose, I would recommend this book for you.

*The book starts when Wade is nearing the end of his high school career, but for the most part, it does take place while he is a "New Adult."


Full list of New Adult Project reviews

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Are children 'ready' for certain books/movies/TV shows?

I know what you're thinking when you read that title: 'Oh, not another censorship post. Children can handle more than you think, blah, blah, blah.' But this post isn't about whether kids can handle violence and dark themes. That discussion has already rounded every corner of the internet, and I'm just as sick of it as everyone else.

My question isn't "Are they old enough to handle this work?" Instead, what I'm asking is "Are they old enough to appreciate it?"

One example: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was eight years old when it first aired, and it was one of my favorite shows. Sure, it was scary, and it sometimes gave me nightmares, but I watched it regardless. As much as I enjoyed it, I didn't realize how awesome it was until the last few months, when I re-watched the whole series. When I was a kid, I watched the show in a pretty straightforward way: action-filled, good-vs-evil, standard high school tropes. It never occured to me that the show was innovative. Back then, I laughed at the dialogue because I laughed at anything that was remotely funny; it didn't occur to me that realisticly-awkward-while-simultaneously-witty-dialogue was unusual. And those tropes? All the allegory and even parody totally flew over my head.

Flash forward in time: I live with three children. Of particular relevance are my seven-year-old niece and my almost-six-year-old nephew. Every time I watch a Legend of Korra episode, I think about how I can't wait to introduce them to Avatar. If they're going to watch TV, I might as well ensure that they're watching good TV, rather than 20-minute toy commercials. But are they going to know the difference? Sure, they'll probably love Avatar, but will they really appreciate it? Will a seven-year-old notice the unconventional humor, or the way Mike and Bryan very openly troll their fanbase? Will they appreciate the diversity of the show and the extensive research that formed the basis for the world-building? Maybe some kids would, but my niece and nephew have yet to develop that sophistication.

Likewise, there are many books I can't wait to give them. Some of them, like Harry Potter, are very straightforward in terms of themes. These are okay. However, there are others, such as His Dark Materials, that I wouldn't give to any child under the age of twelve--not because they wouldn't enjoy the books, but because they wouldn't get the most out of them.

What do you think? Do you take a "the earlier the better" approach with introducing kids to good fiction, or do you wait for when they'd most appreciate it?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Recommendation: "Liar" by Justine Larbaliester

People often criticize YA for being simplistic and formulaic. And while I don't entirely disagree with that observation, allow me to make two points: a) the majority of the books that comprise most genres are simplistic and formulaic, and b) there are exceptions--very notable exceptions. Case in point: Liar.

The protagonist of Liar is, as the title suggests, a compulsive liar. She is also the narrator of the story--a story that centers around the death of her boyfriend. If that information alone doesn't make you want to pick up this book, I hereby declare you boring.

Micah is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. If you expect to walk out of this book with answers, then you will be very disappointed. You don't get answers. What you do get is an engaging narrator whose voice rings true (or, I guess I should say 'authentic,' since she's a compulsive liar). You get wild exaggerations--or maybe they aren't--and a wild story that you might not believe--or maybe you will.

But let's go back to the prose and structure. The story is written in a circular, fragmented manner, through which you get to know the main character both before and after the inciting incident. You get glimpses of her family, her school life, her running dates with Zach, etc--and these glimpses reveal a lot. And if you pay close attention to the prose, you really see Larbaliester's expertise in word choice, especially how to throw maximum impact in the last sentence of each passage.

My praise doesn't end there. A few days ago, I listed Liar among the best books at depicting character death. While Zach's death happens before the start of the book, Micah's grief and/or obsession really comes through. She's constantly thinking about him, even going far enough to break into his house to get some feeling of closeness with his memory.

And the body theme--there is very much a body theme: the corporality of death, the unwanted physical changes that happen while one is alive, the urges and 'call-of-the-wild' instincts that come with being human. (Stop me before I start sounding like an English professor.)

Liar has a hundred things I look for in a good book: riskiness, masterful prose, characters that feel real, themes that (especially given my profession choice) I very much respect.


But another question: Do I believe the protagonist? (Or, more specifically, when do I believe the protagonist?)

Note: This is more for people who have already read the book. While I'm not going to mention any spoilers, reading this might affect your own interpretation and expectations for the book, so don't read this if you haven't read Liar yet.

At first, I was seeing a lot of exaggeration in Micah's narration, so my gut instinct was to take that with a grain of salt. However, when Micah made her big reveal in the middle, I was much more inclined to believe everything. It explained a lot of the stuff that seemed if-fy to me and it gave the story a sense of consistency.

If there's anything that real pathological liars suck at, it's consistency. The thing about compulsive liars, (or at least the few I've known over the course of my life,) is they're not very good liars. In fact, they tend to be idiots.

Take this example: I was talking to some friends from my study abroad group in Spain. We were talking about this person in our program who shall be referred to as A.B.

Friend A: I can't stand A.B. He lies a lot.
Friend B: Oh yeah, he was telling me how he studied abroad in France last semester and how he hasn't been back to the US in six months.
Friend A: Wait, but I could have sworn he and I were on the same flight from Chicago. He was at the bag claim... (Turns to me.) You were on that flight, too, right?
Me: Yes I was. I sat next to him.

(There were only twenty people on our program, three of whom were on the same plane. Did he really not expect us to talk?)

Anyway, this was one of many lies, exaggerations, and otherwise crazy, unverifiable stories A.B. told. Of course, the other friend and acquaintances I know who have a tendency to lie are a bit smarter about it, but not by much. ("I'm cancelling our trip to California at the last minute because I have to go to my uncle's funeral in Korea!" --> two weeks later, her boyfriend posts facebook photos of her celebrating Christmas with his family in Columbia, MO.) These people often tend to be careless with their lies, and as a result, you can usually catch them because of their lack of consistency. But Micah's story was fairly consistent. So either she's unusually good at lying, or I just know some of the worst compulsive liars on the planet. (Or, of course, there's the possibility that Micah's telling the truth.)

But whether or not Micah is a realistic depiction of a pathological liar, this is still one of my favorite books.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Good writers and the characters they killed

Well, okay, so that title is misleading. This post has almost nothing to do with specific writers (I just thought that title sounded cool), though it is about character death.

I have seen a lot of talk on the interwebz recently about character death. The posts ranged from "Death makes the danger real" to "Lol, I just kill them when things get boring" to analyses of one the best-depictions of character death in all of television.

It made me think of all the character deaths I've seen in fiction -- good, bad, shocking, laughable, etc. Funny enough, I couldn't find any definable trend in a "good" character death. Many were characters I really liked. Others weren't so much about who was killed, but more about the treatment of that death.

Here are the examples I came up with: (Note: they're not in order, but the ones closer to the bottom of the list had the biggest emotional impact.)

Watchmen (Alan Moore): I'm not referring to specific character deaths here. However, one of the areas where this graphic novel succeeds is in how it depicts apocalypse. One minute the characters are in the middle of a conversation, and the next they're dead.

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro): This book is a tearjerker, and the deaths aren't quick. The reader knows they're coming, and the characters live their lives knowing they're coming.

Witches on the Road Tonight (Sheri Holman): The obsession with death runs through this book, both in a vague, cult humor sort of way, and in a very serious, traumatic way. The time frame of the book jumps around, so you know that a certain character is going to die. However, it's the fucked up events leading up to this character's death that make it simultaneously shocking and inevitable.

Harry Potter: I didn't cry when I read Sirius' death. I cried two hours later, when it finally hit me. And Dobby's death was beautiful in the cruelest way possible.

Otherland (Tad Williams): I really liked Paul Jonas. And although Orlando's death was inevitable, it wasn't any easier to read. (Too bad Tad Williams had to resurrect them at the end of the series. That ruined it for me.)

Feed (M. T. Anderson): Violet's desperation to cling to her life and memories is scary enough, but the really hard part is seeing Titus' reaction. He doesn't know how to deal with something of that magnitude, which makes it all the more scary.

The Hunger Games: This one is obvious. Some of them were the deaths of innocent characters (Prim, Rue). Others were characters you wish you got to know better (Thresh). And then, of course, there was Cinna, who I really, really liked.

Liar (Justine Larbaliester): (Review coming soon!) The death of a character plays a central role in the book, and you can see how it overwhelms the protagonist. The corporality of death is also beautifully explored in this book.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak): No book handles character death like The Book Thief. You know these deaths are coming from very early on, but the characters are so sympathetic that it's impossible to let go of them. And the scene where Rudy gives the teddy bear to the dying soldier? That was probably one of the most touching scenes in the whole book. If you didn't cry when you read this book, you have no soul.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Review Policy

I would be happy to consider all review requests. Most of the books I read fall into these categories:

-Science fiction and fantasy
-Young adult
-Books with college-aged or twenty-something protagonists

I will also consider other genres of fiction.

My reviews are honest but thorough. I do not give numerical ratings on this blog, though I do list the books I enjoy as "recommended." To get a better sense of my review style, check out some of the reviews listed on the right-hand sidebar.

For more information, please contact me at yael_itamar (at) live (dot) com.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Armchair BEA: Networking and Blogger Meet-ups

Wednesday's topic for Armchair BEA is 'using your blog for real-life networking.' Examples include author signings, literary events, blogger get-togethers, etc.

Honestly? Yeah, I got nothing. The only "event" I've ever attended was one of Patrick Rothfuss' signings, and that was before I started this blog. Patrick Rothfuss is a really entertaining guy, so I'm glad I went. I'm not sure if I consider that "networking" though.

But what about meeting up with other bloggers? The problem with blogger relationships is that I'm never sure what our relationship is. Are we friends, or just people who enjoy what the other person has to say? And how do I know if our relationship goes both ways? Do you see me as an interesting person, or am I just one of a hundred other blogs you follow? (And I'm sure you're wondering the same thing about me.)

With that said, I would definitely be open to meeting other bloggers face-to-face. So if you're ever in the New York or north Jersey area...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Armchair BEA: "Best of 2012"

I already listed some of my favorite books from this year in my last post, so I will use this post to focus on 2012 releases.

Books I really liked that came out in 2012:

(Actually, this one came out in December 2011, but I think that's officially considered 'Spring 2012')

2012 Books I'm excited/curious about:

(I already bought this one!)

(Sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns)

(Book 3 in the Gentleman Bastards sequence)

(I'm going to read this one for the New Adult Project)

(I think I'm the only person who hasn't read this yet.)

Those are all I can think of off the top of my head. Are there any other cool ones I missed?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Armchair BEA Introduction Post

Just for funzees (read: need a break from writing my med school personal statement), I decided to participate in this Armchair BEA thing. (More info here.)

So here we go!

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging?

I'm 23-year-old wannabe fantasy writer. I also work in a spinal cord injury lab. [More about me.]

I started this blog in September. I want to meet other readers and writers. Also, I have a lot of opinions and since most of my friends don't read, I have very few people to share them with.

2. What are you currently reading, or what is your favorite book you have read so far in 2012?

I'm currently reading Justine Larbaliester's Liar and like it a lot. I love risky books with complicated protagonists and unreliable narrators.

My favorite book from 2012 was probably The Secret History by Donna Tartt, though I also loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Like Mandarin and Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard.

3. Tell us one non-book-related thing that everyone reading your blog may not know about you.

Do you ever stare at a really tall building and think "I wonder how I could get to the top of that"? I do. All the time.

4. What is your favorite feature on your blog (i.e. author interviews, memes, something specific to your blog)?

My favorite feature is probably the New Adult Project, though I haven't been adding books as frequently as I should.

5. Where do you see your blog in five years?

On the internet. Where do you see yours?

6. Which is your favorite post that you have written that you want everyone to read?

Ooh, hard to say. Take your pick:

-Why I don't like writer protagonists.

-Rant about the movie In Time and how "themes" do not make great literature.

-Wondering why we don't see more post-dystopian novels.

-The kind of "internal conflict" I want to see more of.

-Response to the "dead girls on covers" trend.

-Rant about racism and sexism in upcoming Arabian Nights movie.

-If you're interested in New Adult books.

7. If you could eat dinner with any author or character, who would it be and why?

I hear Amelia Bedelia is a really good cook.

8. What literary location would you most like to visit? Why?

Hogwarts. Duh.

9. What is your favorite part about the book blogging community? Is there anything that you would like to see change in the coming years?

I love how vocal everyone is. Remember when the whole Jessica Verday/Wicked Pretty Things/Trisha Telep scandal broke out? Everyone came out in support of gay characters in YA, and it actually made a difference. I'm not sure whether or not I'm a "YA writer," but that's the incident that made me want to be part of the YA community.

What would I like to see change? I don't actually expect this to change, but I feel like a lot of writing advice and opinion posts are really repetitive. It would be nice to hear more people say something new, rather than just repeating what a hundred other people already said.

10. Have your reading tastes changed since you started blogging? How?

I've only been blogging since September, so not a lot. Ask me again in five years.
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