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2012-Ready Player One

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline ($14)

Okay, so everybody's trying to write genre-busting novels these days, but Ernest Cline's first novel gives us a maniacally magical mash-up of dystopian cyberpunk science fiction, rousing action-adventure with a rag-tag circle of heroic friends fighting against the sort of dastardly evil villains you love to hate, and an expertly tangled mystery in the form of an old-school, puzzle-based treasure hunt. It's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory meets Hunger Games in the "Star Wars" universe.

Seriously. And we're not done yet.

Take what you're imagining now and add in a joyful mix of 80s pop culture references from New Wave music to John Hughes films to the earliest beginnings of Dungeons & Dragons (played with paper and pencil and polyhedral dice) and videogame arcades where you played Joust for a quarter a game until your hands were tired and your pockets were empty.

Yeah, I know, what I've just described seems like an awful lot for a debut author to pile onto his plate, but what Cline serves up is a heaping helping of cross-genre goodness. Ready Player One is truly special. If you have even the slightest latent streak of 80s nerdiness or techno-geekiness, I guarantee you're going to love this book.

Set in a dystopian future not too different from the one we're heading toward with our perfect storm of economic ruin, climate change, and accelerating digitization, this novel portrays a world where everyone lives in the used-up real world but escapes as often as possible into an immersive virtual world called OASIS that's like a cross between Facebook and "The Matrix."

When James Halliday, the multi-billionaire co-creator of this virtual realm, dies, he leaves his fortune to whomever in the world can first find and solve a complex series of puzzles he's hidden in OASIS. Halliday's clues are cryptic but they set off a global treasure hunt that has our plucky heroes, led by trailer-park orphan Wayne Wade, competing not only with countless other would-be billionaires but also with nefarious corporations who see an easy chance to use their greater resources to cheat the game and claim Halliday's fortune.

This baby's got a tractor beam stronger than the Death Star. Once you're sucked into its orbit you won't put it down until you finish it. You'll forget to eat, sleep, bathe, or walk the dog. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll stomp your feet and scratch your head. But most of all you won't want it to end. This novel is a delight from start to finish and not only because you want to figure out the puzzles but because you need to see what happens to these characters who have started to feel like your band of best friends.

No joke. I first read this thing about a year ago and when I picked it back up to reommend it as my favorite paperback novel of 2012, I got pulled back in and had to force myself to lay the book aside so I could write this for you. So, are we done here? You're going to read this book, right? Good. Because I'm eager to read this one again right now. And maybe this time through I'll even be able to solve the secret hidden puzzle hidden in the text for real world readers. Cline has promised a tricked out DeLorean to the first person who solves it. Sure, it's a gimmick, but the novel is awesome, so even if you don't get to take home your very own "Back to the Future" car, you still win!

--Chuck

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