Review #38 Fiction

Blogging for Books #12

Otherworld by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller


This book caught my eye based on so many connections people were making to Ready Player One, which I adore, so I couldn’t pass this one up when the chance to read and review came my way. I’ll say that if you also find yourself reading this book based on your interest in RPO, there are many similarities, so you’ll probably like this one.

My main interest in RPO was the 80s pop culture and nostalgia, which is something that Otherworld lacks. This is not a love letter to the videogames or movies or music of the 80s, but it is a really interesting look into the future of videogames, and virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Segel and Miller create a not-too-distant future where VR is taking over the real world, creating a world that people never want to leave – which becomes part of the problem.

Segel and Miller pull in other virtual reality troupes we’ve seen before – dying in the game could kill you in real life, an evil corporation (creatively* called “The Company”) putting profits over people’s lives, parallels made to a “Quest” or “The One” coming to save the world. The Company is a semi-faceless organization, we are given a few of the higher ups and some of the low level pawns in the overall scheme, but essentially, it’s a large, overarching nemesis that feels impossible to beat. Some of these low level people believe they are doing the right thing, they believe the Company will use its technology to help people, to make progress in quality of life, but are in the end naïve to the desire for power and money.

Otherworld begins a unique conversation about artificial intelligence, and what it could be someday. Segel and Miller create VR filled with AI that is so advanced, it’s nearly human. These entities exist only in Otherworld, but they have their own wants, and needs, and experience their own pain. This brings up so many questions about AI and what is ethical, concepts of God-like creation, and what existing truly means. Are these entities “alive,” does Otherworld belong to them? They live and breathe and breed in this world – does that not make Otherworld their own reality? And who decides? This concept, and these questions, is really what make Otherworld different from other videogame stories. Segel and Miller take VR to a new level and spark some deep and difficult ideas.

Throughout there is some really good action. The story builds and ends with a few realizations, gun fights and fleeing, and ends on enough of a cliffhanger to set up sequels. A few loose ends are left dangling – who runs the Company? How can they be stopped? After some of the breakthroughs with the technology, are they not just more invested in their goal now? And how far are they willing to go to reach them? Segel and Miller definitely pique an interest in reading further.

With any VR story, the world building is extremely important. Segel and Miller do a decent job of creating and describing Otherworld. We have to understand various aspects of the VR in order to follow our main characters through the world and understand all the creatures they come in contact with. Unfortunately, they do a lot of bouncing around in Otherworld; it becomes a bit hard to keep up. At times it’s difficult to understand where the characters are, who is in charge of the territory they are in (these are entities that naturally exist in Otherworld – the Children and the Elementals), what vice the territory provides (each seems to speak to a vice that people cannot partake in in reality – sex, drugs, gluttony, murder, etc.), and how they got there/how they move on. Though many things within Otherworld are fleshed out, many more questions exist. Some of the stops in each territory are long and detailed – we understand why our characters are here and what they will get out of the journey – others are short and feel thrown in without much thought which really hurts the flow of the story.

Overall, I think the time and attention to detail in a VR universe was successful, the characters were interesting and had a report that kept the story moving through dialogue and action, and the concepts surrounding AI were fascinating and left me asking even bigger and deeper questions. Otherworld is a strong start to this series.

*Please note the sarcasm.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cover art from Amazon.com

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



The One Memory of Flora Banks


Review #36: Fiction

Audiobook Review #1

The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr


This is my first real go at audiobooks; I’m not sure if this helped or hurt the story honestly. I feel like it may have been better having my own control over how the story sounded. However, for reasons that will be addressed, if I had to read it, every word, on my own… I may actually have put this book down without finishing.

Flora Banks is our narrator, and she is struggling with a form of amnesia. Due to health complications, she doesn’t remember much of her life after her tenth birthday. She is 17 now. What sparks the story is that she remembers something from a party she attends, a going away party for a guy named Drake. She remembers kissing him on the beach. And that’s about all she remembers, and talks about, for the next 300 pages.

As a narrator, Flora gets annoying. She is terribly redundant. This is obviously the point, her character has amnesia and only remembers this one event, the first thing she has remembered in years. It’s a big deal. But as an audience it’s off-putting. This is supposed to let us into Flora’s world, we experience her mind and her life through her illness and it gives us empathy and understanding for her character and her struggles. After a while though, it became quite difficult to hear the same passages over and over.

Flora has to be reminded every day about her illness, her memories, but we as readers do not, so it becomes grating. It’s a lot like if 50 First Dates were being told form Drew Barrymore’s character’s point of view. As a movie, this may have actually worked, being visual and fast-paced. But a book demands the reader encounter the same text over and over and over again for hours.

The one thing I will say about this concept – it is a really unique take on the unreliable narrator. Flora is not a narrator that is lying to us; this is not malicious or deceitful. Flora is innocent in her unreliability. Neither she nor we know if what she’s experiencing is the truth.

Flora has all of her memories up until she was about 10 years old. After this, her memory does not stick. One great detail in Barr’s writing is that Flora comes across as very young, very innocent, very curious. She does a great job conveying youth in this character. At times Flora is invincible and impulsive, and at times very scared and meek. Though she is actually 17 years old, we definitely feel her 10-year-old memory in her actions.

The One Memory of Flora Banks is a little like Groundhog Day, though instead of living the same day over, we are living the same memory over and over; the only memory Flora has since her illness. We follow the same process as Flora finds out who she is every day, what happened to her, notes she leaves herself to know where she is and what she’s been doing recently. This is a very real detail, something that must undoubtedly be a reality for anyone suffering from such an illness. However, it is also one of the things that make this book so hard to get through.

It is difficult to be patient with Flora, and relive parts of her story that we’ve heard before many times. Eventually, I was just as curious as Flora to figure out why she has this one memory, and what actually happened to her so long ago, what the real deal with Drake is, and what’s happened to her brother. We are essentially thrown into a world where we are forced to only know what Flora knows, and what she knows might not be real. Though frustrating at times, Barr does create a very distinctive world in Flora Banks’s memory for readers to wade through.

Unfortunately, probably half this book is repetition. We must get through being told over and over again about Flora’s condition, why she’s doing what she’s doing, her one memory of kissing Drake, etc. Without this material being used again and again and again and again and again… the book would be much shorter, move much faster, and be much easier to get through.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

*Cover art from Amazon.com


We Were Liars


Review #17: Fiction

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart


I really enjoyed this book; it was fast-paced and intriguing, it kept me guessing, kept me curious from start to finish. I think it was well thought out, and the characters were perfectly described and fleshed out. Lockhart did a great job in creating this perfectly imperfect, wealthy East Coast family. I read this in less than 24 hours, with roughly a 10 hour nap in there somewhere, so it’s a quick, easy read that grips you and pulls you along; it demands to be read.

Cady is the oldest grandchild of the Sinclair family, she’s nearly 18 and is recovering from an accident that she can’t quite remember the details of, and we as readers find out about as she does along the way. We see her growing up through various snapshots of her summer vacations on an island in Martha’s Vineyard where her family owns several houses — there’s a main house (Clairmont, where her grandfather and grandmother live during the summer) and three other houses (one for each of their daughters and the grandchildren.) Cady has two cousins that are roughly her age, just a bit younger, Johnny and Mirren. She has a few younger cousins as well who come to the island every summer. When she is 8 years old, the nephew of her aunt’s boyfriend comes with, and together she, Johnny, Mirren and Gat become inseparable during the summers. They are the liars.

Gat and Cady start forming a more romantic bond around when Cady is 14. Around that summer, her grandmother dies, and this puts a lot of strain on her grandfather and the relationship between him and his daughters. The aunts are always fighting, always arguing over who gets what, whose children will get what, and the four liars are witness to this outwardly perfect and pristine family falling apart on the inside.

When Cady is fifteen, she has her accident. She wakes up in the ocean, has hit her head, spends a lot of time in the hospital recovering. She gets migraines that leave her unable to function for days at a time. Her father, who divorced her mother when she was younger, takes her on a trip to Europe the next summer and she misses going to the island. She doesn’t hear from the liars while she’s away, and she fears she is losing them as friends. The next summer she gets to return, she still has headaches, still doesn’t remember her accident completely, and finds that her grandfather has completely renovated the Clairmont house, she assumes to deal with the loss of her grandmother.

She reconnects with the liars, and finds that no one will talk to her about her accident. Everyone has been instructed by her doctors to let her remember on her own. She spends the time collecting little pieces of memories, trying to put it all together. She remembers the aunts fighting, she remembers the liars being fed up with how everyone was acting. She remembers a fire.

The end of this book is brilliant. I was trying so hard to put the pieces together myself and just couldn’t get there. Lockhart reveals everything perfectly and seamlessly, and once you know, you find you knew the whole time. All the clues were there, and they make perfect sense. The crumb trail that is weaved into the story is so delicate and precise, you can’t help but be in awe of Lockhart’s imagination and writing. She does a wonderful job as a story teller.

Throughout the book Lockhart’s writing is very lyrical; she uses unique line breaks and repetitions in areas that I think really help the reader. I loved how the line breaks forced me to slow down and take in those moments of the story, and the repetition of certain lines and names clued me into important messages and Cady’s thoughts. I thought it was poetic and hauntingly beautiful; it really made this work stand out in its delivery and not just in its content.

Lockhart also has Cady retell her family’s story as a fairy tale several times throughout; different “variations” of her family’s life. She makes her grandfather the king and her aunts and mother the princesses, and integrates the themes into those stories to further underline main topics, and to help the readers understand the Sinclairs. It’s as if Cady uses these stories to cope with her family’s issues, and at the same time they help the reader relate to Cady’s feeling of needing to cope with family issues. I thought these additions were really unique and a pleasure to read; they were stories within a story and were just as imaginative and heartbreakingly emotional as the story itself.

You could say there are aspects to this story that have been done before (that is all I will say because I am not going to give any spoilers for this one, the ending is too good, you need to read it for yourself) but I think everything around those aspects is fresh and lively. Lockhart puts a new twist on some been-done-before plot devices, and you should not miss her take on them.

The only thing that bothered me was the use of the word “Mummy.” Cady calls her mother Mummy, and it is just one of those words that I personally cannot stand. I think it does help to show the kind of class and wealth that belongs to the Sinclair name, but I was not a fan. Every time I read it, in my head I heard a little girl whining or a twenty-something man complaining to his mother (think the blue-blood guy Christina Ricci almost marries in the movie Penelope.) It just turned me off, and then every time I it came up, I was removed from the story a bit; the spell was broken just a little.

Overall, this was beautifully written and just really shows a master at work. Do not pass up Lockhart’s We Were Liars.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

*cover art from Amazon.com



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

The Young World


Review #13 – Fiction

The Young World by Chris Weitz


*I received this book as an Advance Reader’s Copy while attending Book Expo America in New York in May. It has since become available in print (July 29th, 2014).

I’m not sure where to start this post. Let’s just say I was not altogether impressed.

The premise of The Young World is that some kind of virus (“the Sickness”) was released and killed off all the adults and young children in the world. Basically those left are kids/teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 or so. And they’re not safe, because the virus is held at bay in their system by hormones that show up around age 12 and fade around age 18, so everyone will eventually die by becoming an adult. This story takes place in New York City, focusing on a bunch of the teenagers who are living in make-shift communities, basically just surviving, about 2 years after “What Happened”.

Our main group of teens have made Washington Square their home, and after his older brother (and leader of the group) Washington turns 18 and immediately succumbs to “the Sickness” and dies, Jefferson is chosen to take his place as leader. Jefferson’s brainiac friend (aptly choosing the new name Brainbox for himself) says he found an article abstract in the nearby library that may shed light on “What Happened” and possibly lead to a cure. Of course, this means the full article needs to be found, so Jefferson rounds up a group of five people (himself, Brainbox, Donna, Peter, and SeeThrough) to make the journey to the Mid-Town library to find it.

As is expected, they find opposition from other groups of teens along the way, moving through territory that has been claimed by others. Upon reaching the library, they eventually find the whole article and Brainbox works out the location of a lab on Long Island that may be the place of origin of this virus and therefore the place where they could possibly find a cure. It wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t decide to make the trip, so they head off on this new adventure.

Again, they have to make their way through several other already occupied/claimed territories, finding trouble among a make-shift market that has taken over Grand Central, roam through abandoned subway tunnels, escape wild animals in Central Park, and move uptown into Harlem in search of way to Long Island.

The group they meet in Harlem agrees to take them to LI in exchange for the cure if they find it. This Harlem group has a boat, and they set out. Once there, they are all taken hostage by a drugged out group of tweens (no one over 14) and brought to the very lab they were searching for. They find the person running the lab – “The Old Man” – someone they had only heard rumors of. This man has some sort of hormone imbalance/condition that stopped him from getting the virus and also knows how it was created and why (biological warfare, clearly), and has been working on the cure. However, our Washington Square heroes have now been taken hostage and will be used as human guinea pigs to test his work. Brainbox is able to save his life in exchange for helping The Old Man with his work and within a few days they think they’ve found the cure. However, The Old Man is in no hurry to let anyone go in order to keep testing, and Brainbox is forced to trick him, kill him, and help his friends escape, because he knows something no one else does – [SPOILER] the adults are not really all dead! And a Navy chopper full of adults is making its way down to the lab, which is where we find the end of this book.

Obviously something like this had to happen, otherwise I don’t know how this was supposed to be a trilogy, but it all just seems very played out. I think it’s safe to say that dystopian novels are getting to be a dime a dozen, and they need to be extremely new and fresh in order to stand out in the over-saturated field. This novel does not do that. The plot is alright, it feels a little under developed and a little too familiar. And the writing didn’t really help.

The story is told from two points of view throughout, alternating every other chapter. These points of view are Jefferson’s and Donna’s. Jefferson’s parts were good. I liked him as a character, as a doesn’t-want-to-be leader (though this is a character that has been done time and time again, I think it still works), and as the voice of not giving up and surviving even if they’re all only going to live to be 18. Donna’s chapters, however, were tough to get through.

It was as if Donna was made up of every teenage girl stereotype Weitz could think of, and then to make things interesting, he made a point to tell us she is a feminist. Throughout Donna’s account of the events that are happening around her, we are subjected to her constantly worrying about her looks, whether or not she loves Jefferson (or Washington for a while), and the word ‘like,’ the phrase ‘or whatever,’ and tons of text abbreviation. Chris Weitz is also a screen writer, and it comes across (in a bad way) by his lack of understanding that people do not read the way they talk. Dialogue that will be read aloud to the audience is different than dialogue that the audience is delivering internally to themselves.

This screen writer mentality also comes out in the way the dialogue is presented in Donna’s sections. When characters were talking in Donna’s POV chapters, it looked like this:
Me: “Dialogue.”
Peter: “Dialogue.”
Jefferson: “Dialogue.”
Me (feeling embarrassed): “Dialogue.”

I think it was quite possibly the most annoying thing I’ve come across in a book for some time. It took me right out of the story. I would read the name as if it were the beginning of a sentence, or someone else was saying the name, and then have to regroup and tell myself that was the name of the person speaking. It would be a lot different if this were the way all the dialogue throughout the book was, but it wasn’t; this only happened every other chapter.

I could probably go on and on about Donna as a character and how she turned me off to this book. I’ll try to keep it short. She begins by addressing the reader, breaking the character/audience wall and telling us she will try to be a reliable narrator. I don’t understand; is she aware that people could be reading? Are her sections of the book a journal or something? We don’t find out, at least not in this book. Also, she isn’t in love with Jefferson until another girl shows up and gets his attention, and then she does love him (and she begins referring to this other girl by names like Sexy Mcsexerton and Tits McGhee – super feminist of her.) She was my least favorite character, and she narrates half the book. It was difficult to get through the whole thing.

Other than Donna, and the overdone feel of the dystopian world, the book was also pretty grim. There was a lot of violence; violence against animals, violence against girls (I’d say women, but the whole point is that no one is over the age of 17, which made it that much worse.) The whole thing had a very misogynistic and rapey vibe to it. I know the book is a YA and these tend to deal with more mature content and all that, but at 25 if I’m baulking at certain scenes, I can’t imagine how the 15 year olds (this book is suggested for ages 15 and up) are taking it.

I don’t want to come off like there’s nothing good about this book. The pacing was done well; as a dystopian novel the whole point is survival, and therefore you need a lot of obstacles that threaten the survival of your characters to move the story along. Chris Weitz gives us obstacle after obstacle for these characters to get through. He sets up a clear objective—get to the Long Island lab—and then he makes it really difficult for the group to get there (and he does it using the world he built and with obstacles and complications that made sense.) If you’re into dystopian stories and don’t mind if they overlap in areas of subject matter, you might like this. If you don’t mind some graphic violence, you might like this. If you don’t mind under-developed and one-dimensional characters, you might like this. I like dystopian and I don’t mind some violence, but I could not get passed Donna. Maybe if she hadn’t been a co-narrator and only showed up as a character from Jefferson’s point of view it would have worked better for me. Actually, I’m sure I would have had a much more positive reaction to this book had it been narrated entirely by Jefferson. As it is, I highly doubt I’ll be picking up the next one to see what all these not-dead adults are up to.

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

*Cover art from Amazon.com