Friday, July 18, 2014

Guy Friday: Video Game Experts

One of the interests that my students put on a beginning of the year interest inventory is frequently "video games". Oddly, there are very few books that even mention video games, Kincaid's Insignia being an exception. Interestingly, that book, as well as the two following, all begin with the same assumption: if you get really, really good at video gaming, you will, in fact, be approached by the armed forces or another entity to use your awesome skills to defend the World As We Know It.

If my lack of success at DinoPark Tycoon is any indication, I don't have to worry about being recruited.

18222839Wesselhoeft, Conrad. Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly
April 8th 2014 by HMH Books for Young Readers
Also reviewed at Young Adult Books Central.

Arlo lives in a dying New Mexican town with his sister Siouxsie, who has Huntington's disease, and his father, who is barely functional. There are reasons-- not only was Arlo's mother killed in a convenience store robbery, but Arlo's father lost his job as editor of the local newspaper, which folded. Arlo survives by immersing himself in motorcycle riding and in planing war games where he manipulates drones. His skills are such that he comes to the attention of the Air Force, who want Arlo to come and try his hand at operating drones. He does well enough that the Air Force wants to train him, but Arlo is leery of the military, especially when they want him to operate a drone that will take out an evil leader. He is torn, however, because the Air Force promises him a large sum of money and care for his sister as long as it is needed. In the meantime, he hangs out with Lee, a motorcycle riding beauty from Washington state who is living with his mother's best friend while her father is off fighting in the Middle East, and attempts Evel Knievel style motorcycle jumps in order to get on a television program and secure money for Siouxsie's treatments. How can Arlo manage to take care of his family and still be true to his own values?
Strengths: This had so many good elements to it: motorcycle stunts, video games, an adolescent fantasy scenario where the military needs Arlo to save the day, a romantic interest who is cute and shares Arlo's fondness for motorcycles, and an obnoxious dog to add a little vulgarity. Add a strong sense of place, a character with a specific ethnicity (Hispanic) that is important to the story but not the whole story, and a family dealing with grief in a realistic but practical way, and this was a winner for me.

I always enjoy books more when I am rooting for the main character, and Arlo was fully developed, flawed, but tried so hard to help everyone around him while relying on his own coping mechanisms. The supporting characters are interesting as well, and the plot device of having the Air Force interested in Arlo because of his skills is handled in a way that made me believe it could actually happen. 

Weaknesses: I kept waiting for an explanation of the sister's name. I know it was a southwest setting, so probably more Native American oriented, but all I could think of was Siousie Sioux and the Banshees!

Mr. Wesselhoeft replied with the following comment on, and I was right about the rock reference-- I just read too fast and missed the explanation. I love when I head from authors about their books!

"Many thanks for the generous and eloquent remarks about "Dirt Bikes, Drones." You're absolutely right about the origin of Siouxsie's name--it's from Siouxsie and the Banshees. At one point, Uncle Sal tells Lee: "Arlo's mom and dad were a little behind the times. They named their kids after a folk singer and a gothic rocker girl."

18850680 Klavan, Andrew. MindWar
July 8th 2014 by Thomas Nelson Publishers 
E ARC from

Rick has had a tough couple of months. His father left Rick's mother and Rick and his little brother Raider, and shortly after that, Rick was in a bad car accident that broke his leg and effectively ruined his football career, so he's been spending his days in his darkened bedroom, playing videogames. When he finally leaves the house and goes for a walk, he gets jabbed with a tranquilizer, kidnapped, and recruited by the government to work on MindWar because of his skills. An evil doer named Kurodar has melded himself with a computer and is trying to mount a cyber takeover of America through the Realm, and Rick is supposed to go into that realm. It's tremendously dangerous; he can only stay for short times, and anything that happens to him there affects his actual body, even though in the Realm he does not have a broken leg. Kurodar has an agent, Reza, who is a former terrorist who considers Kurodar his god, and who is trying to take down Rick in the game. Rick is helped by two people, Favian and Mariel, who appear to be fading badly and whom he would like to rescue. There's also the Traveler, a scientist who has the code to bring Kurodar down, and his plane is attacked. Rick has to find a way to prevent Kurodar from attacking any more of the US, and many secrets about his family and his involvement in the Realm are brought forth, although I'm sure there will be more in book two.
Strengths: This book was the closest thing I have read to being in a video game. There's lots of fighting in the realm-- crocodiles, dragons, lots of swords. Rick is, of course, a superb athlete as well as a skilled video game player, so there's tons of fantasy adventure appeal in this. Klavan's If We Survive and The Last Thing I Remember Series are very popular in my library.
Weaknesses: I always feel vaguely uneasy about the villains-- Klavan doesn't seem to worry about being politically correct, and The Homelanders series got a little too... right wing for my taste. Are Russians still villains? Why not make the villains Icelandic? That would be innovative, at least. (They are isolated, live in a cool climate, have complicated names, and there aren't a whole lot of them, so I totally see this working!) This seemed okay, but it was one more thing that kept me on the edge of my seat.

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