Tag Archives: boys

Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

13541514Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

Winner of the Newbery Medal 2012, Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2011.

Middle Grade – Readers 10 – 13+

When Jack Gantos was seven, his favourite game was to pretend he was on fire and roll down a hill to put the flames out – and that explains a lot, really. There’s not a lot of time to reflect, in his novels. Usually, you’re on fire and rolling down the hill before you’ve really decided whether or not you’re going to play the game. Things happen at break neck speed, with the odd pause to get yourself back up to the top of the hill, ready to roll for your life again. (This game, by the way, never seems to wear out. I watched a group of 8 year olds playing it the other day. Do you remember the sheer pleasure of seeing how fast you could roll, how many kids you could bump into on the way, and the smell of the grass – especially if it was damp and had just been cut.)

This novel has more than an element of the ‘do you remember’ about it. It is nostalgic for  1962, small town, America. Norvelt has a special history in that it was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt (hence Norvelt) for families who were struggling financially. To be honest, at times it does feel a little self-conscious about ensuring you know when it is set – for example, ‘It was a good thing John Glenn had orbited the earth back in February.’ And, of course, JFK is still alive. But it does well to introduce a version of the early 1960’s small town America to today’s young readers. ‘My uncle who had painted the pony claimed he had seen a UFO come down over that very same hill before the drive-in was built. He was in the newspaper and said he had ‘touched’ the UFO and that it was ‘covered in a strange Martian language that looked like chicken feet.’ My dad called my uncle a nut, but it wasn’t so nutty when the army sent troops and a big truck to take the mysterious UFO away and afterward military police went door-to-door to all the little towns around here, warning people not to talk about ‘the fallen object’ with any strangers as they might be Russian spies.’ Without going into the politics in depth, the reader gets a sense of the cold war, space as the next frontier, and a more censored world, possible in a less technological era.

It is the golden rule of middle grade fiction that, if you haven’t killed off the parents, they must be incredibly unfair, and unwilling to listen to reason. Certainly they will be misguided. Maybe they are even a bit mad.  Probably they are so busy in their own lives that they barely notice the antics of the hero, who has the mindboggling challenge of needing to put the world to rights, without anyone noticing that it wasn’t right in the first place. No one must know anything is wrong, because usually it is the fault of the hero, who had a misguided moment of klutziness, whilst doing something forbidden. Things get worse before they get better, despite the best intentions of our hero, but in the end… well, I’d hate to ruin a good story, so I’ll stop right there.

Jack is not so much a klutz, as a bit day dreamy, ‘because my mind wanders in the morning my feet are always a few steps ahead of me…’ When we first meet him he is on a picnic table in his back yard, with his father’s WW2 Japanese war souvenirs, watching a drive-in war movie, using the Japanese binoculars. Jack also has his father’s sniper rifle, and the movie enemies are for target practice, ‘because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaked into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack.’ Jack doesn’t realise that the rifle is loaded and one thing leads to another, which leads to Miss Volker dropping her hearing aid down the toilet, and the town plumber, who is also the local ambulance driver, roaring up to Miss Volker’s house in the ambulance to help.

Mom now has Jack over a barrel, so to speak, since Dad will blow a fuse if he knows Jack has been playing with his war souvenirs, and especially that he broke the rifle safety rules. Jack is mystified as to how the gun came to be loaded, but accepts the error of his ways, and the inevitability of a severe consequence. Mom grounds him until his father returns, with the only exception being that he is allowed to leave the house to help out their eccentric octogenarian neighbour, Miss Volker. It turns out that Miss Volker needs him because, due to her severely arthritic hands, she is unable to write anymore. She has Jack scribe the obituaries of the elderly townspeople, who suddenly seem to be dropping like flies.

Unfortunately for Jack, when Dad comes back he has an agenda of his own that involves Jack mowing down Mom’s cornfield. Dad says Jack must mow it down. Mom says Jack mustn’t. The reader knows Jack can’t win this one, and feels the injustice. Jack mows down the corn and is grounded for the rest of summer, by his mother. Jack’s adventures might well make a great read aloud – if you can stand all the blood and gory bits – Jack’s nose bleeds constantly, his best friend’s father owns a funeral parlour, a Hell’s Angel motorcycle club member is flattened by a truck, and several elderly residents are found dead. Jack’s errands for Miss Volker are often dubious, if not downright dangerous and law breaking. He dresses up as the grim reaper to break into a house where Miss Volker suspects a senior citizen lies dead. She needs him to check, so that she can write the obit. He drives her car round town at break neck speed, and buys 1080 poison from the hardware store to kill the rats in her basement. There is also the mystery of why the town’s elderly are suddenly dying…

I have a couple of boys lined up to read this one over the next couple of weeks – they have already read the blurb and are keen. I’m keen to see what they think. I think it’s a great read, but I’m interested to know if there’s just a bit much history tucked into the book. As any parent knows, there are only so many green things you can hide in something yummy before it is spotted for the vegetable that it is.

Speaking of which, here’s a titbit for the Kiwi’s. Jack is reading about Kennedy during WW2.  Apparently, ‘Kennedy and his torpedo boat crew were on night patrol in the sea around the Solomon Islands when a Japanese destroyer came roaring at full speed out of the mist and sliced their boat clean in half. Eleven men survived the collision but some were burned badly from the fuel fire that took place after the crash. Kennedy had been hurled across the deck and fractured a vertebrae in his back but he could still move.

Kennedy tied one end of a belt onto the most wounded man’s lifejacket and put the other end of the belt in his own mouth and swam the breaststroke for five hours before he got the man to the island. There was no food or fresh water…(lots of things happen and many days pass but…) But just before the men lost all hope, the native islanders tracked them down. They were friendly and wanted to help so Kennedy scratched a rescue note on a coconut and gave it to the islanders, who paddled their war canoe to an Allied base. More days passed, and just when Kennedy and his men thought they all would die, they were rescued by soldiers from New Zealand.’

There is a sequel to this book, ‘From Norvelt to Nowhere’, so if this goes down well, then I may buy it.

Read some other reviews here:

Betsy Bird’s Review

Book Browsers Review

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Filed under Boys' Reading, Children 10+, coming of age, Five stars, Historical, humour, Middle Grade Fiction, Prize winners

Fortunately the Milk – Neil Gaiman

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Fortunately the Milk – Neil Gaiman (Ridiculously bestselling author) and Chris Riddell (Illustrator)

Young Fiction, 7+ years, UK Author

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZFSbGY7L7g

This is a partnership made in heaven, I think. A little bit like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake – quite a lot like that, in fact. There is an energy between the story and the drawings that means the sum is more than the parts. This book is a must have for every book shelf home and school – even if your kids are big (My 15 year old chuckled his way through it in one sitting). Or they’ve left home. Or they’re a cat and a dog. Or a goldfish. Anyone who’s been a child living with adults will enjoy this book.

I loved recognising Gaiman as Dad in the illustrations, and one of the things I liked about that was that it made the story even more believable – well – perhaps authentic is a better word…

Mum has to go to a conference, and Dad is left looking after the kids. Dad can be a bit distracted at times. We know this because a) Mum checks a list of instructions with him AND leaves them pinned to the fridge b) defrosting a frozen dinner ends up a bit of a mess and it’s Indian for dinner instead and c) well, we just know.  He’s the kind of Dad who can make a spoon sound new and exciting:

‘We can’t eat our cereal,’ said my sister sadly.

‘I don’t see why not,’ said my father. ‘We’ve got plenty of cereal. There’s Toastios and there’s muesli. We have bowls. We have spoons. Spoons are excellent. Sort of like forks, only not as stabby.’

‘No milk,’ I said.

‘No milk,’ said my sister.’

I’m not sure why, but as I read it, I heard Ardal O’Hanlon reading it – I’m pretty sure that’s the perfect voice for this book (although there is apparently a very good version of Neil Gaiman reading the book, which would be excellent, too.)  It’s a born read aloud for parents, or in the classroom – there is plenty of room to play with funny voices, ridiculous accents, spectacular pauses, and even the odd loud, scary noise.

The story is really a riff on why Dad took so long to get the milk from the corner shop, and it is story telling at its best. Most of us have someone in the family who spins a good yarn – kissed the blarney stone, so to speak.  And Dad really does tell a fantastic adventure involving flying saucers inhabited by globby snot green aliens, a professorial stegosaurus, several wumpires (or possibly vampires), and more…

Potentially a modern classic – buy or ‘borrow’ it now!

Click on the link below to see Neil Gaiman introduce the book, and watch Chris Riddell draw Professor Steg.

http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/fortunately-the-milk–9781408841761/

 

 

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Filed under Children 8+, Classics, Five stars, humour, Uncategorized

NZ Rugby World – Issue 164 – Massive respect!

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I had an epiphany the other day. It all began when I was at the bookstore browsing and I caught sight of the lovely Richie McCaw – not in person unfortunately – but on the cover of NZ Rugby World. It reminded me that I hadn’t bought the younger son one of these in a while, and so I handed over nearly $10, thinking ‘oh well, at least he’ll read it’ and took it home.

The day passed, and, pretty much as normal, I hadn’t heard a lot from the younger son – 15 year olds prefer cave dwelling to hanging out with the mortifying fellow house mates called family. So, I went down to explain that it was time he got off the play station and got outside for a while – when I got to the whatever room it is since we’re not allowed to call it the play room anymore – braced for battle, I poked my head in the door, and saw him engrossed in the new magazine. Wouldn’t want to stop a boy reading now, would I? So I quietly snuck away to celebrate.

A while later I called the 15 yr old for lunch. No answer. Nothing unusual there, what was more unusual was that pretty soon he was trailing into the kitchen… reading…! I politely didn’t comment and we all sat down to eat. His father reminded him it was rude to read at the table, and the 15 yr old grunted and eventually put the magazine to one side. Open.

This is when the neurons started working in my brain – it can take me a while – and synapses were firing. I’d seen this behaviour before. Somewhere – but where. As lunch continued, I glanced out of the corner of my eye at the 15yr old.  Uh huh! There it was. He was discretely reading his magazine while he ate.

Lunch ended. And it was his older brother’s turn to load the dishwasher. The 15yr old headed straight to the pantry (it’s in their DNA even when they’ve just been fed) grabbed an apple and took off back to his cave.  Nothing unusual in that. Except it was all done with his head stuck in the magazine.  Occasional snorts also emanated.

Later, when more snacks were required, he emerged again. This time slightly more sociable. Still with magazine in hand. Now, though, he was in a lighter part of the reading, and laughing, and reading aloud bits to the rest of us – which I tried to understand, and see the point of, but mostly failed miserably.

Dinner time, and he emerges, looking a little more part of our world, but still holding the magazine. Closed. But there. Next to his dinner plate.  He kept glancing at it, and I could see he was thinking about what he had read, reflecting, remembering… After dinner the retreat to the cave.

I wandered down, curious. Surely he wasn’t still reading? Half hopeful I poked my head into the cave. No – the PlayStation was on. But, what was this, the boy sees me and speaks to me, pausing his game to do so.  The world is indeed a funny place today, I thought. I’m replaying the (who knows which) game, he told me. You know, the one where…(my mind goes fuzzy at this point)…I snuck out, leaving him to it.

My epiphany, when I finally got there in the middle of the night, was that I had seen his behaviour before. In me! When I am reading my favourite, or just about any good, books. I am so lost in their world, that everything else is sideline. I reluctantly put it aside for meals, I read parts aloud to the family (and they nod in the same half interested, mostly bemused way I had earlier in the day). I carry it round the house with me. I glance at the cover and rethink.  In my mind I rewrite parts of it.

I am subscribing to NZ Rugby World, and I can’t think why I haven’t before now. I know that it is reading he loves. I understand that it is worthwhile reading. It’s just that, in my heart, I guess I still wanted his reading to be more like my reading. Until this day, when I saw that it was his reading. And not bad reading either. There is some quality writing and reporting in this mag! Funny, intelligent, carefully composed, reflective and engaging writing. I think, once he’s read them, they might make their way into my classroom – except his favourites, which are stacked up on his bedside table…. hmmm – where have I seen that before?

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Filed under Boys' Reading, humour, Rugby, Uncategorized

Keeper – Mal Peet (2004)

Keeper Keeper – Mal Peet (2004)

Awards: Branford Boase (2004); German Youth Literature Award (2007).

 

I bought this book because I had recently heard Mal Peet and his wife, Elspeth Graham, interviewed on Saturday Mornings with Kim Hill, NZ National Radio: http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player/2558762

I remembered having read Tamar, his Carnegie Award winning book, and loving it.  I also have a young man in one of my English classes who is football/soccer mad.  He has finished reading the ‘Goal!’ series and I was looking for something that might capture his imagination (and have more to follow).  And the reality is that a lot of books that are specifically written for kids who love sports but don’t love reading, are of a pretty poor quality – which is frustrating.  I believe that to get children to love reading, they need to be exposed to quality writing.  Just like you can’t expect to get a beautiful sound out of a poor quality instrument, why would someone who only gets to read pedestrian writing learn to love reading!

This book certainly didn’t start out the way I had expected.  Faustino is a sports journalist interviewing El Gato, goalkeeper of the winning World Cup team.  This is to be a front page story, and Faustino knows exactly how he wants it to go.  He wants the story of El Gato’s journey from poverty to fame and fortune.  The only trouble is, El Gato doesn’t seem to want to play the game Faustino’s way.  He starts telling the story of how he came to be the one of a kind goal keeper, with seemingly superhuman powers, that he is, and it’s a story that’s hard to swallow.  It seems that this mythical goal keeper might not quite have a secure grip on reality.

I shared Faustino’s concern, initially.  I was completely taken by surprise.  I was sceptical.  I was anxious.  Faustino was worried about the sanity of his football hero.  I was worried about the credibility of this author.  Like Faustino, I decided to play along with the story – to hear El Gato out.  Certainly I was enjoying the language.  Mal Peet writes evocatively – he draws you right into a story:

Standing there, with its back to the trees, was a goal. A soccer goal. Two uprights and a crossbar. With a net. A net fixed up like the old-fashioned ones, pulled back and tied to two poles behind the goal. My brain stood still in my head. (Don’t you just love that image?  My brain stood still in my head…Wow!)  I could hear the thumping of my blood. I must have looked like an idiot, my eyes mad and staring, my mouth hanging open. Eventually I found the nerve to take a few steps toward this goal, this quite impossible goal. The woodwork was a silvery grey, and the grain of the wood was open and rough. Weathered, like the timber of old boats left for years on the beach. It shone slightly. The net had the same colour, like cobwebs, and thin green plant tendrils grew up the two poles that supported it.

It seemed to take an age, my whole life, to walk into that goalmouth. When I got there, I put out my hands and held the net. It was sound and strong, despite its great age. I was completely baffled and stood there, my fingers in the mesh of the net and my back to the clearing, trying, and failing, to make sense of all this.

Peet says that he has long since got tired of categorising by age or genre.  And this is apparent in ‘Keeper’.  There is enough about football in this book for any avid football fan to love.  But I don’t love football – at all.  And I really loved this book.  I highly recommend it.  Somehow, the weirdness works and becomes fantastically believable…Read Jan Mark’s review at the following link:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/nov/15/featuresreviews.guardianreview3

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Filed under Children 12+, Five stars, Prize winners, Read Aloud, Young Adult

Boom! Mark Haddon

boom

boom! – Mark Haddon

This is a fun story by Mark Haddon, of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time fame.  Don’t expect anything like The Curious Incident, though, with this book.  Its target market is much more in the 8-12 year range.  Although, to be fair, there are several curious incidents, and some of them at night.

The origin of this book is explained by the author in an introduction to the book (which almost feels like an explanation for why the book came to be, an apology, maybe…)  ‘This book was first published in 1992 under the title Gridzbi Spudvetch! It was a ridiculous thing to call a book. No one knew how to pronounce it.  And no one knew what it meant until they’d read the story.  As a result only twenty-three people bought the book.  Actually, that’s an exaggeration, but not much.  It rapidly went out of print.’

Haddon was persuaded to update and rewrite ‘Gridzbi Spudvetch’, and the outcome is ‘boom!’.

I wish I could have read the first version.  It appears to have had a cult following I’m not sure its ‘slicker’ version will get.

I have talked before about how an author needs to ‘believe’ in what they are writing.  Okay – a big ask for Science Fiction maybe, but at least they should not be mocking it.  You get the feeling Haddon sees this book as a somewhat unruly child that he has a passing interest in, but could do without.

The book has a very teenage tone to it; it is an adolescent.  It has a confidence it hasn’t earned, an underlying ‘whatever’, and a slight impatience with having to tell the story.  It has a couple of pimples –undeveloped characters, and a thin plot.

BUT… it is a fun read.  Kids may well enjoy it for a quick read.  There are some great lines, and some quirky humour.  It would do no harm on the class library shelf.

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Filed under Children 8+, Read Aloud, Three stars

The Unforgotten Coat – Frank Cottrell Boyce

the unforgotten coatThe Unforgotten Coat – Frank Cottrell Boyce (2011)

  • Winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, 2012.
  • Shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Awards, 2011.

Short, short, short review: Odd, strangely compelling, mysterious, beautifully written, gorgeous production.  Absolutely worth a read for the story, the message and the images. 5/5 stars.

Longer review:

Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote this book in response to a true story from his first author visit to a primary school, Joan of Arc Primary, in Bootle, England.  He says:

‘The thing I remember most is meeting a girl called Misheel.  She was a refugee from Mongolia and she just lit up the room…Then one day the Immigration Authorities came and snatched her and her family in the middle of the night.  Misheel managed to get one phone call through to Sue Kendall before one of the officers grabbed her phone.  And of course she has not been seen since.  I don’t know much about immigration policy or the politics of our relationship with Mongolia.  Maybe there is some complicated reason why a depopulated and culturally deprived area like Bootle shouldn’t be allowed generous and brilliant visitors.  I do know that a country that authorises its functionaries to snatch children from their beds in the middle of the night can’t really be called civilized.’

He also wrote this book to support The Reader Organisation www.thereader.org.uk.  50 000 copies of this book were given away in the UK.  “It wasn’t a commercial book at all – it came from a very different place,” he said. “The Reader Organisation promotes reading to all kinds of different groups, from kids with difficulties to alcoholics, and they were looking for a book which would cross all the groups. They found it very difficult to find, so I wrote this as a gift.”  And what a gift it is.

I read and loved ‘Millions’, which won the Carnegie Medal in 2004.  Cottrell Boyce has a gift for telling a great story, and his children’s voices are utterly believable.  He does have seven children aged between 8 and 27, the youngest of whom are homeschooled, so I guess that there is plenty of opportunity for hearing the way children say things.

In ‘The Unforgotten Coat’ Julie tells the story of two Mongolian boys who arrived at her school rather mysteriously, when she was in Year Six.  Now working, she visits her old school, because it was about to be knocked down, ‘and there at the back of our old classroom was a big blue plastic tub with LOST PROPERTY written on it.  Mostly trainers and socks and a few books, a lockable Miffy diary, a couple of In the Night Garden lunchboxes. And the coat.

The unforgettable coat of Chingis Tuul.’

(The contents of the lost property box are so authentic, I wonder if the author went and inspected a real one!!)

Julie finds some pictures from an old polaroid camera in one of the pockets, and it brings back memories. ‘It was the second week of the summer term.  During morning break, Mimi spotted two kids – one big and one little, the big one holding the little one’s hand – staring through the railings of the playground.  The little one was wearing a furry hat and they had identical coats. Mad coats – long, like dressing gowns, with fur inside.  But any coat would have looked mad.  The sun was beating down.  The tarmac in the car park was melting. Everyone else was wearing T-shirts.’

The children go into class and the teacher, Mrs Spendlove, tries to get the little one to take his hat off.  Stig-like, the little brother does not speak. Chingis, the big one, does the talking to the teacher.

‘I take off his hat,’ he continued, ‘maybe he will go insane and kill everyone.’

He was definitely threatening her . Threatening all of us.  With his little brother.

‘Chingis…’

‘When you need your eagle to be calm, what do you do?’

‘I don’t know.’ She looked around the class.  Did anyone know?  Why would anyone know?’

‘Of course,’ he said, ‘You cover its eyes with a hood.  When you want the eagle to fly and kill, you take off the hood. My brother is my eagle.  With his hood on, he is calm enough. Without his hood, I don’t know what he will be like.’

Year Six.  We had been at school for six years and until that moment I thought I had probably learned all I would ever need to learn.  I knew how to work out the volume of a cube.  I knew who had painted the ‘Sunflowers’.  I could tell you the history of St Lucia. I knew about lines of Tudors and lines of symmetry and the importance of eating five portions of fruit a day. But in all that time, I had never had a single lesson in eagle-calming.  I had never even heard the subject mentioned.  I’d had no idea that a person might need eagle-calming skills.

And in that moment, I felt my own ignorance spread suddenly out behind me like a pair of wings, and every single thing I didn’t know was a feather on those wings.  I could feel them tugging at the air, restless to be airborne.’

The quality of writing is poetic, and entertaining.  I love the irony here, with what Julie thinks is important to know, and the discovery that other kinds of knowledge might be even more important.

Chingis is one smart cookie, serious and inscrutable.  He asks Julie to be their Good Guide, to help them make their way in this place.  Julie is completely caught up in his thrall.  They boys are exotic and mysterious and she wants to know more. She researches Mongolia and lobbies for the class assembly to be ‘All About Mongolia’, thinking Chingis might join in or even be pleased.  But he did nothing.  Later she realises that she had been wanting him to turn her into ‘some kind of Mongolian Princess but instead he was turning into a Scouser*.’ Julie is desperate to find their Xanadu, in Bootle. But, every time she comes up with a plan to find out more, Chingis neatly sidesteps.

He tells Julie and her mum that Nergui believes he is being chased by a demon.  ‘It’s in disguise. It looks like an ordinary man.’

Adults are beginning to get the idea.  Children may still be just enjoying the telling of the story.  But there is beginning to be a more foreboding tone to it – slightly less gentle.  But still humorous.

The production of this book is something beautiful, too.  It is printed on lined pages, as if it were the pages of a notebook.  There are Polaroid photos ‘stuck’ in the book, worthy of some time spent looking at them.  I can imagine some great photography club work coming out of them. The cover of the book is textured, like cloth, and the title is embossed (if that’s the right word), so there is a lovely feel to it.  I think that children of about 8-12yrs could manage to read this easily on their own, however, I do think they would benefit from reading with an adult.

Some reviews by children can be read here.

And some information about Frank Cottrell Boyce can be read here.

*Scouser – stereotypical inhabitant of Liverpool,

 

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Filed under Children 8+, Five stars, Prize winners, Read Aloud, Uncategorized

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+