Review #16: Fiction

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


*I received this book as an advanced reader copy from Book Expo America in New York in May. The hardcover will be available 9/23/14.

I absolutely loved Uglies which I read for the first time this summer, and Scott Westerfeld quickly became an author I would read anything by. I was so excited to get this advanced copy at BEA I don’t know how I went so long without reading it. It looks daunting, what with the 600+ pages and all, but it’s a quick, fun and engaging read and in no way felt like it dragged on. So let’s get into what makes Westerfeld’s newest novel so great.

First of all, the premise/execution of it are phenomenal. The book is a novel within a novel essentially. One story line is about Darcy, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate who has written this amazing book (Afterworlds) and sold it for over $100k to a New York publishing house. She moves to New York to work on her edits and to write a sequel (which is part of her contract) and begins meeting YA authors and going on book tours and learning about life in NYC. Darcy’s story revolves around new relationships and her dreams and career verses her parents’ dreams for her to attend college regardless of her writing career. She has a younger sister, Nisha (who is one of my favorite characters) who acts as the middle man between Darcy and her parents and also as Darcy’s financial adviser as she starts living on her own in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

The other aspect of the book is Darcy’s novel itself, which revolves around Lizzie dealing with the blurring of lines between life, death and the afterlife. Lizzie endures a near-death experience and finds herself being able to pass into the afterlife, and interact with ghosts while dealing with her own relationship with her divorced parents, her mother’s childhood secret, and dating a death god. These parts of the book incorporate the Hindu religion in ways that are truly unique in the YA market right now, and blend with the characters from the other story, Darcy’s story, as she is a young Indian girl whose family (loosely) follows Hindu traditions.

The way these two stories melt together is perfect. They are presented in alternating chapters, and at first I thought it would be off-putting, as if I was picking up a different book every chapter. However, we read about Darcy’s thought process through her rewrites in her story and then understand why certain things are happening in Lizzie’s story. They play off of each other in ways that I was not expecting and truly tied both stories, both girls and their struggles with growing up, dealing with secrets, and navigating new relationships, together.

Westerfeld is an imaginative and inspiring writer. Not only did I enjoy both stories, I related to both girls’ struggles in different ways, and he brings much needed diversity to the young adult market. He gives us an Indian protagonist, themes of Hinduism throughout both stories, and two strong, independent and fleshed out female main characters. What he also does is give us both a heterosexual love story and a homosexual one, and the truly amazing part is that it is all woven together seamlessly. It all makes sense, it all feels right and it made me feel that much closer to his characters. Westerfeld has written a novel that the YA market has been missing for far too long; it is everything a modern young adult book should be–diverse, insightful, accepting, thought-provoking and relatable.

I want to give it to everyone I know and tell them to read it now. Westerfeld does so much in these 600+ pages: he pokes fun at the YA writing community; he highlights the publishing industry and its triumphs and shortfalls; he tackles death, murder, and loss; growing up and moving on; following dreams; new friendships and new romantic relationships; and gives a voice to minority subjects and characters with his inclusion of Hinduism and LGBT themes. It’s an important work for YA and is brilliantly executed by an author that I didn’t think could get any better, but with Afterworlds, Westfeld has truly outdone himself.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


Dark Eden


Review #15: Fiction

Blogging for Books #2

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett


I was really looking forward to a cool alien characters, scary alien world, science fiction story. This is not what I got. There was so much potential here, but it fell flat.

On the alien world of Eden, where it is always dark and light comes from the glowing trees and lanterns from various alien animals, there is a Family of humans who are the descendants of two other humans (Angela and Thomas) who were shipwrecked on this world. Three others (Dixon, Mehmet, and Michael) were shipwrecked as well, but together they attempted to fix the spaceship and return to Earth to send for help. Angela and Thomas stayed behind to populate this new world (which I guess had oxygen because there was no mention of breathing assistance devices, and this new population probably would never have grown without these devices or natural oxygen, so I am just left to assume this alien planet had a breathable atmosphere for humans).

Essentially this Family has been thriving for about 160 years; they’ve broken up into various communities inside of Family (some named after Earth cities like London and Brooklyn) and are surviving hunter/gatherer style. They’ve grown to over 500 members and are beginning to run out of resources as they have never left this one secluded area where the ship that brought Angela and Thomas to Eden landed. Naturally this is a big problem, and being a population of completely inbred people, they are facing not only their diminishing resources but also physical deformities (harelips and claw feet) that hinder many in their community if not kill them as children. They refuse to leave the area they have lived in so long because they are scared of the dark/cold unknown areas outside and they are waiting for Earth to come back to get them. They believe they need to stay in the same place for that to happen.

One teenager, John Redlantern, starts to deviate from this mindset and wants to leave Family and all their traditions and explore, to really live and make a life on Eden. He gets kicked out of Family for these ideas and his actions and moves on to explore on his own. A few of his friends follow him and eventually they have a group of under 20 people (mostly teenagers) trying to make a living in these new, unknown areas of Eden. A feud between this new group and Family is sparked and killing (as well as other violence against one another) is introduced to the world. There is a rift in John’s own group as well, between John and a few others who want to keep moving on and getting further away from Family, and those who are beginning to worry about what they will find if they keep going and want to go back to Family.

Eventually, John and his group find out the truth about what happened to the Three Companions that left so many years ago, and must truly embrace making a life on Eden, on all of Eden, and stop thinking of Earth as home.

I wanted so much more from this. It’s a true Adam and Eve story, two people populating one world, and the complications that ensue. It’s also a story of new exploration and re-imagining existence. But Beckett doesn’t seem to really examine any of that. He focuses a lot on the language, which has been praised for being imaginative, but is really just how a toddler would pronounce big words. Electricity becomes “lecky-trickity”, radio is “rayed yo”, vehicle is “veekle”, etc. Beckett has his characters double their words for emphasis (the world was dark dark, or John was clever clever). This book as been praised for it’s linguistic uniqueness, but to me it was just annoying. It got better as I read on, just because I got used to it, but as a whole, I felt like he didn’t do enough to make the language new or interesting, especially when some things were pronounced and spelled the same while others weren’t.

There was also a lot of emphasis on sex (which is called “slipping,” I’m guessing a play on sleeping together or having slept with someone). I really didn’t understand it. There was an urgency for procreation in the story, more so since many children were being born deformed, and obviously the characters don’t realize it’s the lack of regulation over who “slips” with who that is causing the birth defects. I don’t think it should have been removed from the book, far from it since keeping the community growing (and the complications of a growing community) are big hurdles in the story, but it was overused as a plot point. When used to further the plot, to complete the picture of this community, their troubles, and their daily lives it worked and was necessary. When it was used as filler and for no point at all, it was excessive and off-putting.

In Dark Eden a lot time went by, and almost nothing happened. Years pass between the start of the book and the end, and all that really happens is that one new group is formed and exploring all of Eden, and the story of the Three Companions gets an ending. Between chapters, months pass, with a line or two describing what changed; animals were caught and trained as horses, babies were born, fences put up and shelters built. And John just wanted to keep moving and keep moving. Most of the story comprised of the new group finding an acceptable place to live, a paragraph or two about how they made an area livable, and then John finding a flaw that allows him to pick the group up and move on. When there were two big conflicts in the story (the Family vs. John’s group, and Earth coming to the rescue) I think there was a lot of excess and uninteresting material. 

The world is also painfully underdeveloped. I wanted to envision this world so much (the cover looks incredible!) but Beckett does a terrible job of describing the landscape, the alien animals and the perpetual darkness. He also uses Earth names (like monkey and leopard) for these alien animals. This makes some sense because the new population got a lot names from the original people from Earth, however, it hinders the reader. I see the word leopard and I visualize an Earth leopard. I don’t think of an alien beast, who sings and throws its voice, and has saucer-sized eyes. There’s an underworld that is alluded to, Beckett has is characters theorize this is where the beasts live/come from, and this is where the light/warm substance that pulses through the trees (creating the light on the world and heat for the people) comes from. But it is not fleshed out, and is yet another aspect of the world that is left up to the readers’ imagination. Letting your audience do some of the work in visualizing your world is good, but asking them to do the majority of the work (especially with science fiction or fantasy) is lazy.

Overall I was underwhelmed. The story was sub-par, the characters were developed but just shy of relatable, the world building was awful, and the eventual climax as obvious. It could have been a great commentary on a society formed from one man and one woman and the inevitable complications and failures of it, all set in a beautiful Avatar-esque world. However, Beckett focused on the wrong aspects of this story and neglected the science fiction element, which prevented anything great from happening.

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Don’t take my word for it, read a sample chapter of Dark Eden by Chris Beckett here:

* I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.