Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready-Player-One-Book-CoverShall we play a game?

On second thought, skip that. I’ve never been very good at thermonuclear war, and the only way to win tic-tac-toe is to not play.

Instead, let’s delve into the online world of the OASIS in Ernest Cline’s science-fiction-cyberpunk-gaming-80s-reference-fest Ready Player One.

Holy [Insert Reference], Batman!

The first thing you need to know about this book is that is it aimed solely, squarely, and with all intents and purposes directly at the heart of the geek community. Hardly a paragraph passes without some sort of reference, quote, or allusion to the geek culture of the 80s.

Ready Player One takes the reference-saturated jargon of the nerd world and injects it into every aspect of the writing, story, and world. One minute you’re seeing a Delorean with a Ghostbusters logo on the door, and the next, you’re quoting War Games word for word.

And it’s awesome. If you’re into that sort of thing, of course. Which I am.

Number 5 Need Inpu- No, Wait, Too Much!

So. Many. Infodumps.

As a writer, one of the first rules that gets stamped on every critique, solicited or not, is that the writer must avoid loosing a torrent of trivia and burying the reader under a mountain of minutia. The theory is that it slows the pacing and brings the story to a halt, especially when it happens every few pages.

Cline breaks this rule over his knee, waves around the pieces, and then sits on them while he tells you about the history of video games.

Child of the 80s and oldschool gamer that I am, I didn’t mind these pauses in the narrative in the least. I’ve been known to wax at length about the history of computers and video games, 80s pop culture, and the like, so I was right there with him as he described the history of Tennis For Two, Spacewar!, and the like.

Of course, I am hardly in the majority in this regard. If you are one of those who just wants to blaze through the story and not get caught up in the lore of his world and ours, you may be in for a bit of a slog.

Cyberpunk Meets Teen Angst Meets Gaming History Meets Frankenstein Meets…

The book manages to be a lot of things at the same time. At it’s core, it is a science fiction cyberpunk tale about growing up in a world in which the alternate reality of an online game is so far superior to the real world that most people come up for breath only when absolutely necessary.

It is also, as I mentioned earlier, a sort of primer on the culture of the 80s and the evolution of gaming during that time. This is done primarily through the use of the aforementioned lore-heavy infodumps, but they are always relevant to the plot and characters at hand.

Since the majority of the characters reside squarely in their late teens (though some of them are somewhat younger in the mental sense), there is no lack of the sort of drama or angst that permeates every aspect of the teen worldview. Life isn’t fair, everything sucks, everyone is out to get me (which, admittedly, is sort of true, in a way), girls are amazing and terrifying, and there’s a whole world outside that I never really realized was there.

The protagonist does a great deal of whining throughout the story, but he also manages to be proactive and interesting at the same time. It can be a difficult balance to pull off, and Ready Player One does it well.

Want some romance to go along with that coming of age drama? Here you go. And while we’re at it, let’s make it with sort of gamer grrl that is the great white stag of the teenage gamer guy. Fun and witty and acerbic as hell.

And what would be better than the inclusion of a criminal megacorporation out for world domination, no matter who they have to crush in the process?

A Mirror Into A Larger, More Connected World

Like all good science fiction, a good deal of reality is reflected through the lens of one possible future. In a world that exists mostly online, things like identity, real personal appearance, geographic location, and social status blue. At times, they become totally irrelevant.

At least until you get smacked in the face with the harsh reality that things like prejudice, class warfare, injustice, and deception simply become as amorphous as the artificial world in which they worm themselves.

Ready Player One presents a world with shades of real possibility, even though it has been veneered with a dozen coats of pop culture, video game references, and the worldview of a new adult who has never known anything different.

It’s a hell of a ride, and a lot of fun. Five stars. One of my favorite books ever. You should read it right now.

I’ll wait.

So, how was it? Did you like it, or is it not something you’re particularly interested in? Leave me a note in the comments below, and don’t forget to share my Ready Player One review with all your friends. Hell, share it with your enemies, too. They deserve a good read as much as anyone.

Book Review: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

The-Gifts-of-ImperfectionIf you’ve been following me on Goodreads this year (or stalking; don’t think I can’t see you hiding behind that squirrel), you have probably noticed that I’ve been reading a lot of self-help and life-improvement books this year. Part of that is due to a renewed effort to help myself (see what I did there?) improve my life (I did it again! +25 XP), break out of a decades-long depression, and just in general makes things better for myself and the people who put up with love me.

To some extent, despite a constant string of disasters and setbacks, I have done that. The latest book from which I sought to extract knowledge by means of dental pliers learn is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. The idea is to learn to accept yourself for who you are, faults and all, and show that same compassion to those around you. So, did it work, or did these Gifts of Imperfection turn out to be full of so much coal with much nicer, more personable hair than I’ll ever have?

Here we go.

There Is Still Hope

Why do you linger here here when there is no hope?
There is still hope.

When you struggle with the constant threat of self-shame and the depression that follows it around like an evil little puppy, it can be hard to remember that things can, and probably will, get better. One of the points made over and over is that perfectionism, along with much of the negativity we direct at ourselves and others, is the result of shame, and that shame’s kyptonite is compassion.

This gives you a weapon that you can deploy (or have Green Arrow shoot, if you have Justice League connections) when the shame kraken rises up out of the sea and tries to eat the Andromeda of your happiness.

No, that didn’t make any sense to me, either, although Andromeda of Happiness would be a great name for a Jefferson Starship cover band.

Basically, the idea is that you’re going to screw up, I’m going to screw up, and that’s okay. Forgiveness all around, and then we get on with our day. Things can’t suck forever. Just learn from your mistakes and try to not be a jerk.

A Roadmap to Compassion

The Gifts of Imperfection is divided up into what Brown refers to as guideposts. Each one is focused on a particular aspect of perfectionism. Think of them as minions of the shame kraken. Each one attacks you from a different angle in order to break down your self-esteem and make you put up all sorts of barriers that prevent you from seeing things objectively.

I thought that breaking things down this way made it easier to isolate and identify each of those little minions and attack them one at a time, rather than going after the shame kraken and its army all at once. Everyone stacks up differently when faced with those aspects of imperfection (which totally sounds like an Enigma album name). One person may be particularly weak against the fear of scarcity, while another might have a problem where they constantly compare themselves to others.

And if you have to face a Charmander, I recommend using Squirtle. Water Gun is super effective!

A Little to the Left

While I did learn a few things from this book and feel that, overall, I am better off for having read it, I couldn’t help shaking the feeling that I am not the target demographic. Most of the stories, anecdotes, and advice cover people and situations more in line with mothers, many of them single, and almost all of them of a strong financial background. As I have not (to my knowledge, at least) given birth to a baby human or become financially independent from my workplace, I felt a little left out.

This is not a mark against the book or anyone more suited to its material. It just would have been nice for it to be more inclusive for people in differing situations or less affluent monetary conditions.

I still want a Scrooge McDuck money bin. Ah well; maybe next year.

I’ll Have One With Everyone

As someone who has flirted with Buddhism (but never closed the deal; I’m not easy, you know), I couldn’t help but notice quite a few similarities between Buddhist teachings and many of the recommendations on the book. The central theme revolves around letting go of the fixations and obsessions that make you unhappy and color your perspective with excrement-colored glasses.

That’s some old-school sutra right there.

Spirituality is a fairly constant theme throughout the book, but it doesn’t seem to point the reader toward any particular faith. Maybe the idea is that happiness depends on having some sort of connection with something larger and more powerful than yourself, whether it’s God, Jesus, the universe, or Andre the Giant.

Have fun storming the castle.

So, the book. Definitely some good lessons, though many people may find themselves on the other side of the shop window, looking in and trying to gleam whatever knowledge they can from how the other half lives. The focus on spirituality may come across as new-age-ey, but I can understand why it was included. Like any self-help book, you’re free to take what you find helpful and ignore the rest.

Overall, I would have to say that while there are some good lessons to be had, the book isn’t perfect, and that’s okay. I forgive.

Book Review: Take Off Your Pants! By Libbie Hawker

Book Review: Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker

Like many authors, I’ve worked my way through all manner of craft books in an attempt to streamline my process and make it easier to convince a reluctant muse to give up the story for whatever project I happen to be working on. From Million Dollar Outlines to On Writing to Writing the Breakout Novel and beyond, every one of them offered valuable insights on how to proceed, but none of them helped me convince that stubborn muse to loosen her grip. As I discuss in today’s book review, Take Off Your Pants! By Libbie Hawker may have done just that.

By The Power Of Greysk…Tone!

Like On Writing, Take Off Your Pants! speaks to the reader in a conversational tone that lets the education you’re receiving sneak up on you and lodge itself in your grey matter while you feel that you’re receiving an entertaining lecture from a favorite teacher. In fact, by the time you’ve learned about the three-legged outline and the importance of your character’s flaw, you feel ready to launch yourself into the sky, leaving a trail of rainbows and brilliant prose in your wake.

Of course, like any undertrained superhero who doesn’t actually know how to fly, you’re more likely to splat against a wall like Wile E. Coyote than you are to suddenly discover your inner Shakespeare. (Little-known fact: Shakespeare moonlighted as a superhero called The Tempest. No, really, look it up). But if you can keep reading and not rush off to fight crime write your masterpiece, that powerful sense of…um…empowerment…will help get you over that total lack of confidence responsible for word-paralysis among author-kind.

Something Old, Something New, Something Something, Something With Words

As I said a few inches above, I’ve gone through a lot of craft books over the years. If you’ve also read through the entire shelf on writing in the bookstore, there is going to be a lot of familiar ground that you will recognize as you make your way across the landscape of Hawker’s book. But you’ll also come across quite a bit of new snippets of information, golden acorns of writerly goodness that might make you shout, “Eureka!” if you were inclined to do such a thing.

Even though there is quite a bit of similar material as other books, the way Hawker breaks it down and presents it to the reader shaves off the intimidating edges and leaves with you plush, friendly instructions that you can snuggle with while you make up stories of mayhem and destruction. The presentation is excellent, and it brings everything together in a way that’s easy to understand and apply.

You Can Keep Your Pants On (Or Not)

I’m going to risk a brief sojourn into the DMZ between the Republic of Pantsers and the Plotter Kingdom to explain how Hawker addresses the never-ending battle between writers that has raged since two cavemen disagreed about how to tell the others about how they caught that totally awesome caribou they’re dragging back to the cave until they were both eaten by prehistoric wolves. At the risk of betraying my own allegiance to the Plotters, I have to say that Hawker bridged the divide with as much diplomacy as is possible.

While she does focus on a few aspects that she deems critical to a cohesive, successful story (a major flaw, a character arc trying to overcome it, seventeen bottles of wine, etc), she there is no absolute insistence that every little thing needs to be plotted to death ahead of time. Plenty of room is left for writers to enjoy their pants as much as they want. On the other hand, if you prefer to write sans-trousers, she outlines (get it?) a method to get everything down ahead of time so you can breeze through your first draft with all due speed.

Triangles. Lots of Triangles

This method is primarily based on the concept of plot being structured like an inverted triangle, with individual chapters and scenes broken down into smaller triangles that you stuff into the bigger ones like so many slices of literary pie. This is a great way of describing the theory of limiting options and driving the character towards the goal, but I don’t feel that enough time was spent on how to actually accomplish this.

While this doesn’t prevent it from still being an excellent book, it does mean that it’s not the One Outlining Book to rule them all, and you will still need to supplement with other books to get a good grasp on three-act structure, different plot shapes, and how best to lay out your actual plot once you have the story down. It’s not a huge criticism, but it bears noting.

Please, Miss, May I Have Some More?

At just about every step of the way, Hawker provides examples of the device she is describing. Most of these examples focus on Lolita, Charlotte’s Web, and her own book, Tidewater. These examples go a long way toward helping you understand how to apply what she’s talking about, but including a few more would have been very helpful, especially toward the end of the book when she gets into plotting and pacing.

Take Off Your Pants! is by no means the perfect outlining book. It takes a number of familiar concepts and presents them in a friendly, actionable way that empowers the writer and makes you feel like this whole writing thing is easy. While it could use some additional examples and an expanded section on the actual plotting portion, there is something in it for everyone, and it has become by far my favorite book on outlining. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the muse is smiling at me and playing with a cootie catcher. I think she wants to tell me a story.