I'm the author of the ASHFALL three-and-a-half-ology: ASHFALL, ASHEN WINTER, SUNRISE, and DARLA'S STORY.
I can see why Ernest Cline got all the attention for READY PLAYER ONE.
The story is a remarkably original take on the idea of a story set in virtual reality.
For those who haven't read it, here's the basics:
1) Boy is trapped in a dystopian reality in which the infrastructure has decayed and most of humanity is hanging on by their fingernails.
2) The chief entertainment and the constant amusement of most of the population is the 3D immersive world they live in thru headsets and taptic interfaces.
3) The creator of this incredible immersive 3D world died, and decreed that if someone could solve his puzzle and follow a virtual reality quest -- based on nerd trivia from the 1980s -- then they would own his empire.
4) Our hero succeeds in the quest.
The contrast between the "real" world and the fake 1980s world in the 3D environment is what intrigued me the most about the story, and I think that Cline does a nice job of ratcheting up the tension regularly by cutting between the two worlds. The story really matters: we really care about our hero. And the longer he has to navigate his way between dangers in the real world, the more I care about him. He's intriguing and he's in danger... that's always interesting.
But fundamentally, I find any SF that leans too heavily on activities and events happening in a 3D simulacrum universe to be hollow at the core. And I think that unfortunately, Cline falls into this trap -- and ends up letting nerd trivia tell the story for him, instead of allowing for some interesting and thought-provoking character development.
* (p.s. I consider myself a HUGE nerd... so the "nerd trivia" references are not put-downs... I love them, and live them. But they are definitive handshakes to an "in-crowd" and may not be recognizable to all readers.)