Monthly Archives: July 2013

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Ready Player One

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

I have to admit that I would not have picked up this YA novel to read, optionally.  It was set as homework for me by one of my students, at school.  While I’m not sure I think it was, ‘completely fricking awesome,’ (Patrick Rothfuss) and I admit that I don’t know if it is ‘pure geek heaven,’  (Chris Farnsworth) or not, and I am usually suspicious of any novel that uses three pages to quote recommendations for the book in its beginning (less is more, in my opinion) I found this a very readable, engaging 4/5 star novel.

If you’re not drawn in by the futuristic real and virtual world (the teenager), then you are likely to be hooked in by the 80’s references (the parent).  Basically, the novel is set in 2044.  Things in the real world are pretty bad, what with there being no oil, weird climactic conditions, over population and terrible extremes of poverty and wealth.  Most people choose to spend most of their time in a virtual world called OASIS, developed by James Halliday.  When Halliday, who becomes super wealthy, dies, he has no heirs.  The book begins…

‘Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.  I was sitting in my hideout watching cartoons when the news bulletin broke in on my video feed, announcing that James Halliday had died during the night.’

Of course, with no heirs, who will inherit the huge dynasty, virtual and real, that he has built?  Inevitably, he sets a challenge, a quest, ensuring the winner will be someone truly worthy of his fortune, and suitably qualified to manage his world.  The quest is presented through a video message, ‘actually a meticulously* constructed short film titled Anorak’s Invitation’ (Anorak being Halliday’s Avatar).  As an aside, I can’t help but think that Anorak is a slightly unfortunate name for a socially reclusive computer geek – worrying, even.  But this classic quest is worthy of a Greek Legend.

“before I died,” Anorak says, speaking in a much deeper voice, ‘I created my own Easter egg, and hid it somewhere inside my most popular videogame – the OASIS.  The first person to find my Easter egg will inherit my entire fortune.’

Another dramatic pause.

‘The Egg is well hidden.  I didn’t just leave it lying under a rock somewhere.  I suppose you could say it’s locked inside a safe that is buried in a secret room that lies hidden at the centre of a maze located somewhere” he reaches up to tap his right temple – ‘up here.’

‘But don’t worry.  I’ve left a few clues lying around to get everybody started. And here’s the first one.’  Anorak makes a grand gesture with his right hand, and three keys appear, spinning slowly in the air in front of him. They appear to be made of copper, jade, and clear crystal.  As the keys continue to spin, Anorak recites a piece of verse, and as he speaks each line, it appears briefly in flaming subtitles across the bottom of the screen:

Three hidden keys open three secret gates

Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits

And those with the skill to survive these straits

Will reach the end where the prize awaits.

Five years go by, and none are able to crack the bad poetry – I mean – super clever code!  Enter Wade Watts, poor orphan neglected by his evil stepmother – I mean – drug addled, mean-as aunt, having to make his own way in the world.  Wade Watts navigates the straits with the kind of light bulb moments his name suggests.  Talk about the anti-hero.  Wade Watts is an overweight, super geeky, social recluse who deals with his life by withdrawing almost permanently into the virtual world Halliday created, becoming a ‘gunter’ (geeky Easter egg hunter).  With all the time he has on his hands, Wade becomes an expert on the 1980’s and Halliday.

Miraculously (Yes – I do have a slightly raised eyebrow here):

‘on the evening of February 11, 2045, an avatar’s name appeared at the top of the Scoreboard, for the whole world to see.  After five long years, the Copper key had finally been found, by an eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.

That kid was me.

Dozens of books, cartoons, movies, and miniseries have attempted to tell the story of everything that happened next, but every single one of them got it wrong.  So I want to set the record straight, once and for all.’

I’m no technology geek.  I have two teenage sons for that.  But, I was completely engrossed in most of this story.  The plot is complex.  I love a mystery – and the clues (if not the verse) got better.  It was possible to work things out – especially if you lived through the 1980’s.  I remember when the Commodore 64 was flash.  We had a machine we plugged into the TV and I remember coding in Basic for hours to watch dots move across the screen, using IF/THEN to make things a little more exciting.  So, this book was fun to read from that perspective.

But   it also has all of the necessary elements for any great quest – the under dog/pauper seeking a fortune and perchance a princess, the arch nemesis and his army (in the form of Sorrento and the Sixers), success, defeat, Monty Python, The Tempest, Castles, Sir Lancelot and more.  It’s almost as though the author wrote down everything he knew, and somehow incorporated it into the novel.  By the way – Ernest Cline – the name is a worthy pseudonym, and I suspect he is an avatar…really…an earnest geek, a cline… (a continuum with an infinite number of   gradations from one extreme to the other)…Visit his very cool website here:   http://www.ernestcline.com/blog/about/

There were moments when the plot had too many easy answers.  There were moments when it was just a bit too geeky for me.  There were moments when I was confused by the sheer amount of information I was given.  However, this really is a good book.  A serious 4/5 stars for me.  I recommend it.  Even if there are parts you read once over lightly – a bit like a technical manual, there are other moments you will connect with and take delight in.  You might even go and watch an 80’s film or two, and reminisce.

Age group: 13+ (complex)

* meticulous   may be a slightly over used adjective, in spirit if not in actual word, in this novel.

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Filed under Four stars, speculative fiction, Uncategorized, YA 14+

NZ Post Children’s Book Awards – 2013

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Congratulations to all finalists and Prize Winners in this year’s NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.

There were some surprises in this year’s winners, and some books that I felt deserved more recognition than they got.  I am only commenting on the Junior Fiction and Young Adult Fiction categories, as these are the ones for which I have read all of the finalists.  For the results click here

My prize list would have looked something like this:

The book I enjoyed the most and would like to pick up again:

Reach – Hugh Brown.

The book that has been most read and passed around by children in my three English classes:

The ACB by Honora Lee – Kate de Goldi

and

Honours in this category to

Red Rocks – Rachael King

The book that had the most compelling narrative:

Into the River – Ted Dawe

The book that is well written and informative, with a fresh perspective, but is it really written for kids (it won Junior Fiction):

My Brother’s War – David Hill

NZ Post childrens book awards

Some thoughts I have about the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.

* Are three judges enough? Many judging panels for book awards are larger.  Does five sound unreasonable?

* Should there be more judges who are in touch with what children are actually reading? (This year’s panel were a very fine team of pe0ple, with Bernard Beckett – high school teacher and writer of Young Adult novels; Eirlys Hunter – writer, writing tutor at Victoria University and in Wellington Schools, and Lynn Freeman – wonderful host of National Radio’s The Arts on Sunday – which is always worth a listen).  My quibble is not with them, but where are the representatives for younger readers, and particularly those at the challenging ‘tween’ stage (specifically, Year 8, 12 and 13yrs)?

* Do we need a category for Middle Readers?  Young Adult, as a category, seems to have evolved into a beast of its own, important, but not relevant to most teachers and librarians who will not be able to put the books on their shelves, or in their classrooms, because of the explicit content.  Middle readers are very different to Junior Readers, in that they are wanting to read dystopian fiction that challenges the status quo and explores the separation from families that begins to happen at this age.  But, they don’t particularly want or need the serious relationship, drug and alcohol, and other stuff explored in young adult books.

* What really makes a great book?  For example, in my classroom of late, a series that has caught the imagination of the children and has been devoured by most of them is, ‘Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading’, ‘Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Extra Credits’, and ‘Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Summer Vacation’.  I have waiting lists for these books – with boys names on them!  Lots of names.  They are humorous.  They are full of action.  They deal with real issues in a very matter of fact way.  They are getting kids who haven’t been readers enthusiastically recommmending them to their friends.  I know this doesn’t make them great books necessarily, but they are well-written and they have a witty, current voice.

* Have we done the war theme now?  I kid you not…go back through the last few years of the NZPCBA and you will find acres of material on the war (WW1, WW2 – mostly).  Let me illustrate (in case I exaggerate, and have to eat my words).

2013:  My Brother’s War category winner– (1914-1918 – conscientious objectors, and war), Earth Fire, Dragon Hare finalist (1948 – 1954 Malayan Emergency)

2012: Nice Day for a War Overall winner and category winner (WW1)

2011: Zero Hour: The Anzacs on the Western Front category winner (WW1)

2010: Dear Alice Category winner (WW2)

…You get the picture.  I admired Mandy Hagar’s ‘The Nature of Ash’ to some extent, and Jane Higgins’ ‘The Bridge’ very much, for being New Zealand stories that place themselves in possible futures.  I’d like to see a little more dystopian, speculative fiction out there and being taken seriously.  I think also of Joy Cowley’s ‘The Hunter’, which plays with time in a uniquely New Zealand way.   Let’s get some real variety into the book award finalists lists.  Where’s the humour and fun edginess of Melinda Szymanik’s ‘The Were-Nana’?  I ramble, but I’m looking for diversity here.  Other favourites from the past, for me, include ‘The 10pm Question’ – Kate de Goldi, and ‘Juggling with Mandarins’ – VM Jones.

Next year is the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of the 1914-1918 Great War.  I am sure that has not slipped the mind of publishers, and I’m guessing a flurry of ANZAC books, but we really do already have some great ones, and some not so great ones.  If there is a flurry, I do hope that quality wins through and we find some new narrative persectives (as David Hill did, this year).

The most important thing to me is that the books that win their categories, and the overall prize, are books that children and young adults will read, and that will encourage them to read more.  I am sure that this years ‘Into the River’ could have an audience in the 15+ age groups, and ‘Reach’ falls well into the YA category.  I also felt that ‘The ACB with Honora Lee’ and ‘Uncle Trev and his Whistling Bull’ are well pitched as Junior Fiction.  ‘My Brother’s War’ is an excellent book, which, in my opinion would be best represented by a Middle Years category.  Congratulations to all writers in this award.  It was a fine vintage!

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Filed under Hugh Brown, Kate de Goldi, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Prize winners, Ted Dawe, Uncategorized

Uncle Trev and his Whistling Bull – Jack Lasenby

Uncle Trev and his Whistling Bull

Finalist: New Zealand Children’s Book Awards, Junior Fiction, 2013.

For as long as I can remember, Uncle Trev stories have been around.  Uncle Trev’s a bit of a ratbag.  He’s always getting himself into some kind of trouble or another.  Set in small town New Zealand, in the early 1930’s, the wide-eyed, all believing narrator is a young lad (let’s call him Jack – I’m not sure we ever find out his name), bed-ridden for six weeks.  Uncle Trev pops in now and then, usually just after Mum has gone into town for something.  Mum and Uncle Trev don’t get along so well.  To be fair, Mum’s pretty scary, with ears so sharp she can hear the echoes of conversations, and eyes so sharp she can read the lino like a book.  Young Jack tells Uncle Trev that he’s afraid of the dark, and Uncle Trev replies, ‘Don’t go telling her I said so, but I think the dark’s probably scared of your mother.’ Mum’s also a pretty good baker, and Uncle Trev can’t help himself getting into the cake tins, even knowing Mum’s probably going to find out…

Uncle Trev spins a pretty good yarn, and each chapter in this delightful book is yet another tall tale to entertain both the child listener and the adult reader.  The tales get a little taller and a little more fantastic each chapter, until even very young children can realise that Uncle Trev might just be a little bit lenient with the truth, now and then.  Oh, how wonderful to be wiser than the boy in the book, who believes everything his Uncle Trev tells him.  I can imagine this as a wonderful read-aloud, either in the classroom, or at bedtime each night.  There’s a warm, affectionate and reassuring tone to the stories, that assures children that the adults in their lives care about them very much.  There’s also a nice amount of sheer silliness to have fun with – what a great intro into telling tall stories of your own, about your childhood.  It has the alive feeling of a story told, rather than a story read.  I always imagine a Barry Crump kind of voice for Uncle Trev.

While I really do love this book, and it is extremely entertaining, consistently well-written and just the right mix of sincere, slapstick and a tiny bit scary, for me it reads best as a series of short stories.  I have had children read it, and enjoy it, but I have also had children read a few stories out of it, put it aside and say they will come back to it later.  I think both kinds of readings are fine.

Highly recommended!

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Filed under Children 8+, Four stars, humour, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Read Aloud, Uncategorized