The Eye of Minds by James Dashner

AUTHOR: James Dashner

LENGTH: 320 pages

PUBLISHER: Delacorte Press

SOURCE: purchased

SUMMARY: Michael is a gamer. And like most gamers, he almost spends more time on the VirtNet than in the actual world. The VirtNet offers total mind and body immersion, and it’s addictive. Thanks to technology, anyone with enough money can experience fantasy worlds, risk their life without the chance of death, or just hang around with Virt-friends. And the more hacking skills you have, the more fun. Why bother following the rules when most of them are dumb, anyway?

But some rules were made for a reason. Some technology is too dangerous to fool with. And recent reports claim that one gamer is going beyond what any gamer has done before: he’s holding players hostage inside the VirtNet. The effects are horrific—the hostages have all been declared brain-dead. Yet the gamer’s motives are a mystery.

The government knows that to catch a hacker, you need a hacker.
And they’ve been watching Michael. They want him on their team.
But the risk is enormous. If he accepts their challenge, Michael will need to go off the VirtNet grid. There are back alleys and corners in the system human eyes have never seen and predators he can’t even fathom—and there’s the possibility that the line between game and reality will be blurred forever.

REVIEW: Dashner has done something that seems quite the challenge for authors who have written a popular trilogy…he’s followed the successful Maze Runner series with the first in another promising series. The Eye of Minds is the first installment in The Mortality Doctrine and it is a masterful mix of science fiction and reality. Virtual video games have become more and more accessible to the average gamer in the last 10 years so the premise of The Eye of Minds is not complete science fiction. The extent to which society is entrenched in the virtual world is exaggerated in the books but it takes no large stretch of imagination to see Dashner’s created world where the virtual is more appealing than the real world may be a reality sooner rather than later.

Michael and his friends Bryson and Sarah are recruited by the organization that polices the virtual world because they know that to defeat a hacker sometimes the only solution is to hire another hacker. There is a cyber terrorist named KaIne who is perpetrating the unthinkable: he’s holding players hostage in the VirtNet. The police believe that the kids have a better chance of infiltrating Kane’s organization than if they go after him outright. In order to defeat KaIne, Michael and his friends must go off the known grid and delve into the seedy underbelly of the VirtNet.

Michael and his friends being asked to hunt a cyber-terrorist might at first seem far-fetched. However watching my own students and, for that matter my own children, become immersed in video games, it doesn’t seem such a stretch that these kids could lose themselves and alienate themselves from their parents in a virtual world. At 15 Michael is given almost unfettered independence save a housekeeper who lurks on the periphery. As he ventures deeper into the off-grid areas of the VirtNet, the connection to the real world becomes more and more tenuous for Michael and for the reader. Bryson and Sarah seem a little flat but because Michael only knows them through the VirtNet and has never met them in person, that seems plausible.

The settings used in the VirtNet give the story a sense of scope and surrealism akin to the feeling one has at an amusement park. This feeling of Big and Other helps readers feel the pull of the VirtNet in the same way the characters do. There is also a surprising amount of violence in the story. The closer Michael gets to discovering who and where KaIne is, the more aggressive and brutal become the tasks he must complete to stay on The Path. The violence and gore rise to peak levels in the Winter and led me to wonder how much violence is too much violence – in gaming and in books. The description of the kids’ hacking seemed a little vague and the only reference I had for it was scenes from The Matrix. Using that mental image gave the story an even stronger sense of surrealism that enhanced rather than detracted from the overall experience of the book.

The tension between Michael’s virtual experiences and his detachment from the real world (along with the fates of Bryson and Sarah) is honed throughout the book striking a good balance between action and nightmare. The suspense of seeing whether Michael will reach his goal while evading KaIne’s clutches builds to a climax that will make readers retrace their steps through the book, looking for clues and seeing Michael’s actions in a whole new light. Gamers will love the premise behind The Eye of Minds and wish that the VirtNet could become a reality. Even readers with a limited knowledge of gaming will marvel at the possibility of the VirtNet become a very real part of life in the near future.

Mid-Summer #Nerdlution

I finished post-planning on June 17 and this weekend marked the one-month mark of my summer. I have almost exactly one month to go before teachers have to report for pre-planning. I always have personal and professional goals for myself and my kids during the summer. I always want to read and write more and encourage my kids to practice those skills over the break as well. There are the ever-present professional goals of reading more, writing more, and growing professionally. Personally, I always try to focus on shedding some pounds.

I have read quite a bit in the last four weeks, so I feel like I’m keeping up with that goal well. I’ve kept my ear cocked to my PLN through Twitter and blogs that I read. My Nerdy Book Club friends put me to shame in the professional growth area: they all seem to be traveling the country attending PD conferences and NerdCamps galore. I have done some tinkering with my Ideas and Changes document that I keep throughout the school year thanks to the sharing they have done via Twitter and their blogs. And, to my own surprise, I have managed to shed a few pounds. I hardly ever manage to stick to my self-made promises to exercise regularly and eat better, but I’ve done well this summer. The only thing I haven’t managed to do is write more. Neither is it lost on me that in writing this, I am procrastinating yet again from “real” writing.

With almost exactly one month left, I am making another Nerdlution. I am committing to write 30 minutes a day. If I can continue to make sure I’m physically active for at least 30 minutes a day, surely I can take some time to write 30 minutes every day. I want to be more transparent with my students about my writing this coming school year. I want to show them my own writing and write with them on a consistent basis. I have done these things sporadically throughout my teaching career and to an instance, my students always respond better to those assignments I create with them or when i share my own struggles with a particular aspect of craft. It will help immeasurably to come to the table with a few works in progress. If I expect my students to consider themselves writers and take it seriously, I have to do the same.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

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LENGTH: 320 pages

PUBLISHER: Scholastic

SOURCE: purchased, Scholastic Book Fair

REVIEW: With Lloyd’s first novel, whimsy reigns. Ice cream that helps one remember, a network of do-gooders throughout the city, and a little girl who sees words floating around people that can help them find themselves. Lloyd also tackles some tough topics like broken families, abandonment, and the effects of transience on children, but does so within a definite structure of hope.

Felicity loves her mother and knows that her wandering heart is a product of suffering love’s loss. Felicity along with Aunt Cleo attempt to convince Mama that home is a feeling rather than a place. The characters, although not all strictly members of Felicity’s family, definitely comprise a loving community of support for Felicity, Frannie Jo, and Mama. In the end, Felicity’s is a story of coming home. It is Lloyd’s blend of small-town wholesomeness and big-city acceptance that makes Midnight Gulch the perfect place for the Pickles to call home.

BRIDGE: This would be a great book with which to teach folklore. The stories that frame the history of Midnight Gulch have all the elements of traditional folk tales. The most obvious bridge would be discussing vocabulary: specifically connotations. Felicity sees words floating above people and places and while the words themselves are related, the implications behind the words are much more powerful in the context of the story.

READERS and OTHER TITLES: Readers who need a little magic in their lives or want a story to warm the heart will enjoy Lloyd’s story. This title would also be a good text to use as a bit of light, but meaningful reading between heavier texts. This book reminds me of several other stories in which magical realism plays a major role: Savvy by Ingrid Law, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, or Ida B… by Katherine Hannigan.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

PUBLISHER: Philomel; Penguin Audiobooks

LENGTH: 352 pages; 9 hrs, 51 min

SOURCE: purchased (audio)

SUMMARY: Click here to read from author Ruta Sepetys’s website.

REVIEW: This story, on the surface, seems quite different from Sepetys’s acclaimed Between Shades of Gray. Looking more closely, there are thematic similarities that resonate with readers regardless of setting or background of the characters. Josie Moraine, just like Lina, must rely on herself to “be the change she wants to see in the world”. Even though Josie is already out of school, the story is indeed a coming-of-age tale that also touches on social class, betrayal, homosexuality, and guilt.

With a detailed and unique cast of characters, Sepetys drops readers into the seedier side of New Orleans in the early 1950s. Josie’s mother is a prostitute who is self-centered and neglectful of Josie. Josie has a “created family” of supporters through the brothel and the surrounding community. With one decision to omit part of the truth surrounding one of her bookstore customer’s recent visits, Josie finds herself tangled in a web of deception that leads to her mother abandoning her to leave with an abusive boyfriend, Josie considering the life of a kept women which she swore she would never live because of her own mother, and having to choose between her dream of a college education or saving her mother’s life while dooming her own.

The intricacies of character and social class in this book are commendable. Cokie, Willie, and Jesse are unique and provide the perfect contrast to Charlotte and Charlotte’s world. The story itself seemed a bit burdensome in its development. Once Josie keeps the information about the watch to herself, it seemed to take quite a while to discover exactly how that decision would impact her plans to join Charlotte at college. The climax is predictable and Willie’s ultimate rescue of Josie seemed unavoidable. However, the decisions and experiences that Josie must work through ring true and young women on the cusp of independence will identify with Josie’s willingness to take risks as well as her reservations about venturing into new territory.

Top Ten Books for Young Readers about Encountering Obstacles by Kristine Mraz

rdmauk (@yabookbridges):

Once again, my friends at the Nerdy Book Club have great things to share!

Originally posted on Nerdy Book Club:

That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

Tim O’Brien

It is June in Kindergarten and we are getting ready to say goodbye. It is one of the hardest times of year, for any grade, as little kids try to manage rather big feelings. How many times has a five-year-old been through such a transition, or an eight-year-old for that matter? Much of what they know in their world is about to change. For some, we are the first teacher, the first classroom, the first extended community. Others may have had one or two such transitions before, but no one is exactly an expert at the cycles of the school year. So in my classroom, we do what we all do when faced with times of stress, change, and uncertainty- we turn to stories to help us…

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