Tyler MacCandless can’t focus, even when he takes his medication. He can’t focus on school, on his future, on a book, on much of anything other than taking care of his older brother, Brandon, who’s in rehab for heroin abuse… again.
Tyler’s dad is dead and his mom has mentally checked out. The only person he can really count on is his Civilian Air Patrol Mentor, Rick. The one thing in life it seems he doesn’t suck at is playing video games and, well, thats probably not going to get him into college.
Just when it seems like his future is on a collision course with a life sentence at McDonald’s, Rick asks him to test a video game. If his score’s high enough, it could earn him a place in flight school and win him the future he was certain that he could never have.
Playing Tyler has been described as "Ender's Game meets X" and I would say that's a very apt description. Not because there are space battles or aliens but because of the idea of children remotely fighting a war (which is a spoiler for Ender's Game but not Playing Tyler since it's pretty much written on the cover — and as for Ender's Game, the movie's coming out soon, so whatever). So Tyler is the one playing the "flight simulator" game and Ani, a sixteen-year-old Yale freshman is the one who wrote the program (and is paying her way through Yale by working for the government contractor who commissioned it).
I quite liked Ani (super-smart coder and gaming champion, what's not to like?) and her interactions with Tyler. It was amusing to read the alternating point of view sections and see how Tyler's view of Ani is at times wildly different from her view of herself and vice versa. Moreover, seeing Ani's opinion of Tyler helped the reader interpret how people other than his family and teachers might see him.
The bits from Tyler's point of view are written in a markedly different voice to Ani's (both are in first person) so it's not at all difficult to distinguish which point of view character we're reading (and the names at the start of each swap over also help). I found Tyler's thoughts quite frenetic, especially at the start, which made it much easier to relate to and understand his thought-processes. It effectively highlighted the way in which he differed from non-ADHD sufferers.
Although Playing Tyler started out fairly light (well, sort of), it got much more serious as the story progressed. It wasn't just the "fighting a real war" aspect, which I was expecting, but other subplots involving drugs and various issues with the main characters' family members. Both Tyler and Ani come from what might be termed "broken homes" and, although that wasn't the main focus of the story, it was nice to see realistic families with issues that weren't eleven on the scale of severity. When I started reading I was expecting as thoughtful a read as it turned out to be, and I was pleasantly surprised.
Playing Tyler was a quick and enjoyable read that I knocked over in a few hours on a plane. I highly recommend it to fans of YA, particularly of contemporary YA with some science fictional leanings. (I say some since the software etc isn't that futuristic, but the focus on technology definitely make is SF rather than plain contemporary fiction.) I would suggest that teen boys struggling with the percieved lack of YA books "for boys" would probably enjoy this book with it's fairly "masculine" focus. Obviously, there's absolutely no reason for girls not to enjoy it either.
4 / 5 stars
First published: July 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley