Cover of Cure for the Common Universe. Lots of video game graphics

About the Book

Title: Cure for the Common Universe
Published: 2016

Cover Story:Level Up
Drinking Buddy:
Hero’s Journey
MPAA Rating:
PG-13 (sexuality, drug use)
Talky Talk: Achievement Unlocked
Bonus Factor:
Select Your Avatar, Video Games
Bromance Status:

Cover Story: Level Up

Yes. This is it. My favorite cover of all time. Eye-catching, relevant to the plot, no giant teen faces. Besides, there’s something about pixilated covers that appeal to me.

The Deal:

Sixteen-year-old Jaxon spends his time playing video games. All his time. Every day. And why not? He’s a god online. He has (virtual) friends. He rocks. Not like in the so-called real world, where his mother is gone, and his father has married a twenty-two year old crossfit enthusiast who insists on mothering Jaxon and getting him to exercise.

But one day, when Jaxon is running an errand, he meets a girl named Serena. And they hit it off. For the first time in his life he makes a girl laugh. And when he asks her out, she says yes! She won’t give him her number, but agrees to meet him at a restaurant in four days. Jaxon has a real, honest to goodness date! Does he have time to get his back waxed?

Of course all this falls apart when he comes home and finds two huge guys waiting for him. It seems his father and step-mother have decided to send Jaxon to rehab. Video game rehab! In the middle of the damn desert.

The chirpy, happy leader of the camp wants the poor addicts to experience the pleasures of real life. But he knows it’s hard for them to adjust to analog-based experiences, so the camp is kind of set up like a huge video game. How fun is that? An in order to be released, all they have to do is earn a million points. Sports, arts and crafts, teamwork, it all adds up in the end. Why, Jaxon may even end up enjoying himself!

Jaxson is determined to escape this hellhole in time to make his date. After realizing he probably wouldn’t survive a trek through the Utah wastelands, he decides to earn the million points. The previous record is two weeks, though it normally takes at least a month. Jaxon is going to get the points in four days. This camp just opened up. They’re still beta testing. Jaxon is going to exploit those flaws.

His princess is waiting.

Drinking Buddy: Hero’s Journey

Two pints of beer cheersing

Now Jaxson starts out as pretty unlikable. He’s determined to get out in four days, and he’s willing to trample over any other inmate and break any rule to achieve this. He lets another camper take the blame for starting a fight. When a boy who doesn’t want to leave the facility offers to let Jaxson take credit for some of his points, Jaxon agrees. Hey, it’s a video game. Nothing wrong with shooting an opponent in the back.

But, despite his best efforts, Jaxon begins learning things about himself. He has talent as a leader. He maybe doesn’t suck at sports as much as he assumed. He might have the potential to be handsome. Maybe his isolation stems from problems he has with his real mother.

But who cares? He’s got a date waiting for him. If he can just bust out of this place…

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (sexuality, drug use)

Now Jaxon’s obsession with Serena is kind of, well, obsessive. He only met her for a few minutes, she claimed not to own a cell phone, and I kind of worried maybe she was planning on standing him up.

But this is Jaxon’s first date ever, and when you’re an awkward guy, that can be exciting. He’s not going to let his father ruin this for him. He will be at that restaurant, 7:00 on Thursday! Excelsior!

Each chapter begins with Jaxon’s point level and the time left until the date. There’s no second place in this contest. Every point counts, not a minute can be wasted. I found myself caught up in the action, cringing when he failed and cheering when he succeeded.

Talky Talk: Achievement Unlocked

This was a unique concept, and I’m glad the author did it well. It’s not easy to write an unlikable protagonist, but Jaxon fits the bill. While I never wanted him to fail, it was funny to see some of his schemes go up in smoke. In one chapter he convinces a bothersome camper to investigate a strange corridor, just to get rid of him. Turns out that was the entrance to a side quest, worth a half-million unloseable points. Whoops.

Occasionally, the author went overboard. Casey, Jaxon’s stepmother who’s not much older than him, was a little too obnoxious, quoting Dr. Phill and telling Jaxon how she’s going to sell his computer to buy a treadmill while he’s away. I found myself hating her, even when she made sense, just because she was so annoying. I think if Heidicker had made her thirty (too young to be Jaxson’s mother, but old enough not to be the same generation), I wouldn’t have ignored Jaxson’s personality flaws as much.

Bonus Factor: Select Your Avatar

So obviously, Jaxon winds up in a dorm with a bunch of oddballs. But they’re all lovable, in their own way (they go by pseudonymns at camp):

Meeki: The Vietnamese-American lesbian girl who’s here because she bashed her brother’s head open with a Wii remote. She sees through Jaxson’s self-serving ways and does not like him at all. Maybe enough to sabotage his attempts to get out.

Aurora: The cute, somewhat flighty girl, who wound up at camp after she got into video games to impress her asshole boyfriend. She sees Jaxson as someone with potential, if he’d just let go of his anger and obsessions. And she makes Jaxson realize that maybe there are other girls out there besides some chick he talked to at the car wash last week.

Soup: A very young boy who was committed when his step-brother died and he rejoiced at having the video game console all to himself. He loves camp and never wants to leave, refusing all points. He worships Jaxson and will do anything to cultivate his friendship, something Jaxson takes full advantage of.

Zxzord: A semi-comatose dude who claims he’s actually a heroin junkie who pretended to be playing video games when he was shooting up.

Scarecrow: A guy from another dorm who has a vendetta against Jaxson, but won’t say why.

Fezzik: The dorm’s counselor. Once a video game god, he quit the electronic world when he tried to leave his apartment one day and found he was too fat to get through the door. He’s a jovial giant who truly likes his charges and is totally crushing on the female astronomy teacher.

Bonus Factor: Video Games

Video game controller

Obviously, this book has a lot of video game references, and as a guy who literally played ‘Pong’ in its heyday, I was afraid of feeling left out. However, in the grand tradition of Ready Player One, Heidicker ensures that nothing is too much of an insider reference, making this book enjoyable for noobs and grandmasters alike.

Bromance Status: Replay

While I don’t usually reread books, I believe someday I’ll reset this one and playing it over from chapter one.

FTC Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, but no money or purchasable content.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.