Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds

Wow. It has been a while since I reviewed a book on this blog. I’ve read a lot of good ones along the way. However, for whatever reason, none of them compelled me to write a blog post. There were a few I wanted to, but the words just didn’t come. Then Afterworlds came along. Something about this book is so. . .unique, it just had to be written about.

To begin with, it’s important that we realize that Afterworlds is actually two books in one. It is part Afterworlds, a novel written by fictional 18-year old Darcy Patel, and part the story of Darcy becoming a published author. These two stories are told in alternating chapters.

I won’t bore you with the details of either story, because, quite frankly, they’re good, but not the most interesting part of this book. The most interesting part is reading and watching Scott Westerfeld wield his pen and do magical things with this book.

First off, there’s the fact that the story-within-the-story is written by an 18-year old girl named Darcy, not a 51-year old man named Scott (who actually wrote the story). It’s also not only Darcy’s first published novel, but she wrote it in a month, and has spent a year revising it. I don’t know how he does it (probably because the man is a genius), but Westerfeld manages to create a novel (Darcy’s Afterworlds) that a publisher would take a chance on, but also reads like a debut novel from a teenage girl. By itself, it may not get a second glance from me, but the story is interesting.

Okay, I mentioned the story; perhaps I should talk about it a bit. The story of Darcy’s novel is of a girl named Lizzie (and yes, the fact that a girl named Darcy wrote about a girl named Elizabeth is addressed in the book). Lizzie is in an airport when 4 gunmen come in shooting up the place. A 911 operator suggests she play dead, so she does. Lizzie then discovers that she can sort of pass through between worlds — the overworld where we all live, and the afterworld where we go when we die. The story goes from there, there’s some paranormal romance type stuff going on, and she’s faced with difficult decisions along the way. You know, kind of like a debut novel from a teenage girl would read.

Then there’s the other half of Scott Westerfeld’s novel. The story of Darcy herself. As someone who has often been intrigued by the publishing world, I find this story fascinating. Darcy decides to postpone her freshman year of college to move to NYC and work on both Afterworlds and the sequel. She deals with her editor, her agent, and fellow writers. She finds love, and deals with being a young adult in the big city.

In this story, I can see Scott Westerfeld’s experience coming through. His experience as an author in the publishing world is evident, as he has been through the ins and outs of this process many times. Reading this book felt at many times like a veteran pulling up the curtain and poking a flashlight around for everyone to see what really goes on backstage. His experience as a writer comes through in ways I didn’t fully anticipate.

I have never written a book. I have a few I’ve started, but none I’ve seen all the way through. I imagine, though, that if I write a book and have it published, I would love to tell my readers certain things to look for — little pieces that I’m particularly proud of or that took a lot of effort on my part. Darcy, through Scott Westerfeld, gets this opportunity.

By telling us Darcy’s story of getting the book published, Scott Westerfeld can guide our thoughts on the book. We can see the connection between a ghost in Darcy’s book and a “ghost” from Darcy’s mom’s past. We can see how much work has gone in to the ending, so we will read it more eagerly, knowing what could have happened, or what was an earlier draft. We can even keep an eye out for a few words to make their appearance, as Darcy mentions they’d be good to use. How often does an author get to do this? Never. Never times. It’s a unique look into the mind of an author as she is creating the book — even if it is all entirely fictional.

That is the mastery of this book, and that is the genius of Scott Westerfeld.

I give this book a rating of 5 out of 5 fish, just for the flawless execution of the dual story-telling.
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The Strange Case of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

I have to be upfront with you. This review is not about The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Well, it is, but it’s really about the strange case of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. And it involves Ryan.

Ryan is a 7th-grade student of mine. I’ve known him for about a month now. Ryan, by his own admission, does not like to read. He’s read The Hunger Games and he liked it, but he’s not someone who will read something for him (not because his friends are reading it or there’s a movie coming out).

So one day, Origami Yoda comes into my classroom. Ryan’s ears perk up, much like Origami Yoda’s ears do. He is the first to check the book out.

THE NEXT DAY, Ryan says to the whole class that this book is the best book he’s ever read. EVER. READ. He’s not finished, but already there’s a waiting list growing.

THE NEXT NEXT DAY (actually, the following Monday, because the previous school day was a Friday), Ryan takes advantage of a pause in class to say the following to me: “I just want to thank you for buying this book, because I don’t like to read, and I love this book. A lot. And you have inspired me to read the series. Since you don’t have The Fortune Wookie, I’m going to go buy it.” [Side note: when one student asked him where he was going to buy it, he said Nicola’s Books. Support your local independent bookstores!] At this point, there’s a noticeable buzz in the classroom. Ryan’s classmates know he’s not really a reader. He’s way more concerned about sports (currently: football) than he is about reading. But he is taking the time out of class to sing the praises of a book? There’s gotta be something magical about this book.

And that brings me to my next Ryan-centered point. I am requiring my students to read from different genres this year. So, of course, they’re asking what genre Origami Yoda is. I say it’s realistic fiction. Ryan steps up and says: “Well, maybe. It depends. We don’t really know yet.” [Another side note: at this point in the conversation, Ryan is most of the way through Darth Paper Strikes Back. It’s also been less than a week.]

So now, in a week’s time, Ryan has gone from someone who doesn’t really read to someone able to intelligently discuss the genre qualifications of a book. Oh, and he asked me if I could pass on a note of frustration to Tom Angleberger (and his publisher). So here I shall do so. Ryan is upset that he cannot purchase these books on an e-reader.

I must revise my previous paragraph. In a week’s time, Ryan has gone from someone who doesn’t really read to someone able to intelligently discuss the genre qualifications of a book and is finding himself indignant over the ability to easily purchase the books he needs to feed his now insatiable appetite.

This book is a gem. I don’t know when I’ll see it again on my bookshelves.

 

Oh, did you want a review from me? We’ll go quickly. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is a book about a group of 6th grade friends, one of whom creates an origami finger puppet that looks like Yoda. This finger puppet then begins answering questions, many of which turn out to be right! The book itself is a series of testimonials about Origami Yoda, from those who believe and those who don’t. What is the truth? Read to find out you must.

My rating: 5 out of 5 fish. 

Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

Are you like me? Okay, that’s a pretty bad question (and for the most part, I hope you’re not like me, because you probably are pretty good at being you). But are you like me in that you just seem to have a soft spot in your reading heart for escapist fantasy? Does it help if there’s a school in a strange land and magical powers (but rules for them), a young main character who is somehow special and leaves his or her normal family behind to fulfill his or her destiny? Well then, have I got the series for you.

(Did you click the link? The joke only works if you click the link. Actually, you’re probably smart enough to have figured that one out on your own.)

But really, Shannon Messenger’s debut novel, the Middle Grade work Keeper of the Lost Cities is bound to draw some comparisons to Harry Potter. Quick, raise your hand if you think any book being compared to Harry Potter would be something to avoid taking a look at. Anyone? Bueller?

Well, let’s avoid doing too many comparisons and look at Keeper as its own work. Because it really is good, and deserves that treatment.

Sophie Foster (hah! Just caught the last name — totally fits) is a 12-year old who has been able to hear other people’s thoughts ever since she hit her head when she was 5. She can’t control it, and it’s actually quite annoying. Can you imagine hearing the part of the sentence that your mom purposely didn’t say, trying to spare your feelings? When you know your sister is the favorite of the family, and there’s no denying that truth because you can hear everyone think it? Not exactly enjoyable.

Well, it turns out Sophie doesn’t have to be the favorite of the family, because she is destined for more. You see, Sophie. . .is an elf. And her true home is not where she was raised. Her true home can only be reached by riding a beam of light. And that is where she soon finds herself.

This first book is all about Sophie learning of her powers (she is one of the most natural and powerful telepaths around), learning of the world of creatures thought to be myths or extinct (the people who house her [since she has no parents there] also take care of dinosaurs, because, you know, they’re not really gone), and trying to figure out who she is and where she came from. That is probably the most interesting part of all (and the part that I’m not going to say anything about because it would spoil it for you, but it’s cool!).

Everything Sophie discovers seems to also have a twinge of mystery attached to it, though. Why do so many of the adults around her seem to be holding information back? Is she dangerous? Why does she seem to know things that only a handful of people — and certainly nobody her age — have ever heard of? Is she on the good side or the bad side of some brewing tension? And what is the deal with the wildfires that are plaguing the humans? Is she somehow related to that?

There’s so much to talk about with this book, but I really should stop. It’s great, though. It took me about 100 pages to really buy into the world, but once I did, I was hooked. I can’t wait to find out what happens next!

I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes books like the Harry Potter series. It’s not as good if you compare them head-to-head, but it’s a wonderful read on its own merit. It’s good for probably 4th grade and up. Maybe 5th grade. I don’t know; I’m not too good with those elementary ages. The publisher says ages 8-12, so I guess you can let that be your guide. I read it when I was 27, though, and I really liked it.

Be sure to grab this one when it releases October 2nd!

My rating: 5 out of 5 fish! 

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

 

Wow. This one. . .this one is quite good. I’ve only read one other Maggie Stiefvater book: The Scorpio Races. That one was a Printz Honor Book, but something just didn’t quite click for me. Well, whatever didn’t work for me was not Stiefvater herself, because The Raven Boys just about blew me away.

The story revolves around not quite the raven boys (we’ll get to them), but Blue. Blue is a teenage daughter (I think she’s 15? 16? I remember reading it in the book, but I didn’t write it down) of a local psychic. And not only is her mom psychic, but a lot of others with this second sight live in their house. So it’s something Blue’s had around her her entire life. And, before you ask: yes, they’re really psychic. But more on that in a bit.

The thing is, Blue doesn’t have this gift.

No, Blue’s gift is even more interesting: she makes their senses stronger. She’s like the windex on a foggy window, or a juiced-up battery in a dying flashlight. She’s like BASF: “we don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” That’s Blue, but in the psychic realm.

Well, we’re thrown into the story because Blue is hanging out in what used to be a church on St. Mark’s Eve. With one of her psychic housemates. You see, on St. Mark’s Eve, those who are going to die in the next year are seen. Not a bad thing to know when your business is running a psychic house. The thing is, Blue — not psychic — sees someone that night. Gansey. But how could she see him? Well, there are only two reasons: either she’s his true love. . .or she killed him. And given a particular prediction about Blue, there’s a good chance it’s both.

Gansey is a raven boy, so called because of the logo on the sweaters of the preppy school they attend: Aglionby. He is quite interested in certain energies. Things psychics would know about. Can you see where this might be headed? Blue and Gansey (and his group of 4) are bound to cross paths. What happens once they do (it’s a touch slow until they do, but once they do, HOLD THE HECK ON)? You MUST read this and find out.

I loved this book. Absolutely loved it. Like The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, though, I wasn’t sure how to categorize it by genre. Is it fantasy? Well, sort of. Is it realistic fiction? Again, sort of. So I think I’m going to go ahead and create a genre just for books like this: realistic fantasy. Books that could take place in the real world, if just one small thing were true. And that small thing makes the world a vastly different place. Is there a name for this already out there? Probably. Please let me know what it is. But anyway, this book is total amazeballs.

Buy this one when it comes out September 18th. And then read it by September 19th.

My rating: big ol’ 5 out of 5 fish. 

Insignia by S.J. Kincaid

I’ve been excited to read this since hearing the wonderful teachers Mrs. Heise and Mrs. Andersen talk about it back in November (I think it was November). It helps that just about everything they recommend turns out to be gold. Well, Mrs. Andersen was nice enough to send me her ARC so I could check it out (the book drops July 10th — look for it!). Thank you, Sarah! Okay, to the review!

Side bar: when I say “to the review!” it would help your enjoyment level if you imagined it being said much like “to the blueberry!” said by Shawn on the possibly hit TV show Psych. Just trying to help you out, because I’m here for you.

The world of Insignia is World War Three. Well, sort of. The thing is, this war isn’t fought like the first two World Wars. Much like WWI brought us wide-spread use of machine guns and the introduction of tanks and submarines, and WWII brought us aircraft carriers and the atomic bomb, the WWIII of Insignia has introduced war machines fighting in outer space being controlled by teenagers on earth. Also, countries are less meaningful than large, multi-national corporations (gee, can’t see that happening in our world. . .oh, wait). And actually, in the world of the book, that’s not as far-fetched as it sounds, and completely works with the plot.

Virtual-reality gaming is incredibly prevalent in this world. Casinos have VR parlors. Schooling can be done through VR. (and is for our protagonist, Tom Raines). That’s not really the technological leap that makes this book sci-fi. No, what does that is the neural processor.

In order to control those aforementioned war machines in outer space, the teenagers are given a neural processor in their brain. This actually melds with their brains, so they are a sort of cyborg. Thus, learning the things most of us take years to master (calculus, for example) is downloaded and processed in a manner of hours. What needs to be developed are the abilities to use these processors to their fullest extent, and perhaps how to take advantage of others who both have and don’t have the processors. A large part of the book, behind all the action (which I’ll get to, I promise!) is dedicated to the teenagers having these processors and dealing with them. Insignia does a good job of making sure these thoughts and emotions are very real, and very teenager. Also, teenager is now an adjective.

All right, enough set-up (though that is important when discussing sci-fi). To the plot and characters! (Again: “to the blueberry!”) WWIII is going on, and we see mostly what’s happening with one Tom Raines, an American. I know I said countries aren’t as important as the corporations, but the countries have sort of aligned with corporations. India and America are one main player, with Russia and China comprising the other.

Tom is sort of your typical atypical main character. He isn’t bred to be a combatant like many of his friends at the Pentagonal Spire (the future Pentagon). He’s a really good gamer who roves the country with his vagabond father. He was hand-picked to be in the military, and now he’s just finding his way, making friends for the first time. And he makes them, and let me tell you: they’re AWESOME together.

Reading these characters is much like reading any pseudo coming-of-age tale (pseudo because that’s not really what it’s about), and the way they all learn to work with each other. Sort of Harry Potter-esque in a way. I’m trying to not go on too long here, but just trust me when I say the characters make the story.

One thing I need to say, though: TOM. IS. CLUELESS. I actually had a whole paragraph here talking about why, but I think it might ruin the experience for any readers. I just want to say: well done, Ms. Kincaid. Well done.

I highly recommend this book to those looking for a good YA sci-fi that hedges on dystopian. I would say an updated Ender’s Game, except I. . .never read Ender’s Game. ::hangs head in shame:: But if you like what’s going on in the world of YA dystopian stuff, check this out. It has the same publishing house (Katherine Tegen) and editor (Molly O’Neill) as the highly-celebrated Divergent series, so that’s something.

All-in-all, this was a good book, though not without some minor setbacks along the way. Not really worth getting into, just small stuff. Okay, I just can’t remember what it all is, and I finished the book almost 2 weeks ago. But anyway:

4 out of 5 fish. 

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

With the amount of positive press Breadcrumbs had been getting, especially as of late, I knew I had to take a look for myself. It didn’t take long before I was completely caught up in the world of Hazel Anderson and her best friend and neighbor, Jack Campbell. Or, as he soon turns into, the person formerly known as Hazel’s best friend. The thing is, something got in his eye one day, and it appears to have turned his heart to ice. Now, instead of sledding with Hazel and hanging out at recess with Hazel and making goofy faces at Hazel every morning and riding the bus with Hazel, Jack is doing all of those things. Without Hazel.

Of course, these things happen with boys and girls in 5th grade. Or so Hazel’s mom wants her to believe. . .but Hazel knows that’s not it. Boy or not, best friends don’t just stop acting like you exist. And they certainly don’t just disappear one day. But that’s exactly what Jack had done.

The only person who seems to offer any help to Hazel is her new friend Adelaide’s uncle Martin. He offers a world of fantasy to Hazel; a world she is all-too-willing to be a part of. But hey, she’s in 5th grade! Who doesn’t love a world of fantasy at that age (and for some of us, we never escaped that — but that’s another story for another time)? Hazel soon realizes that she must go find Jack. She must enter the woods where he was last seen. She must rescue him.

I wish I could write a review that would somehow encapsulate the amazing work that Ursu does with this story. Everything is interwoven in a way that I have not seen much in children’s literature. Fantasy and reality meet in an absolutely lovely way seldomly done. I was wondering where the line blurs between our world and the world of this story, and I’m still not sure. That is much of the charm in Breadcrumbs.

If you are at an age where you are comfortable reading chapter books, you should read this book. It really has just about everything: reality, fantasy, tough decisions, parents who just don’t understand, friendships that friends just don’t understand, innocence, experience, that feeling when you forget your boots and the snow is really deep but you’re so hard-pressed to go on that it doesn’t matter that you’re only 5 feet from your door you have to continue on anyway. . .. Read this book. I know my review is lacking. There’s so much to enjoy here, and I can’t say it all. If you’re not convinced, go read a couple other reviews, then go read Breadcrumbs. And watch for this next month when the Newbery Awards are announced! I think it’ll be in the mix somewhere.

Rating: 5 out of 5 fish. No doubt. 

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I’m still trying to recover from this one — and that’s a very good thing. This story — this tale — of Conor O’Malley and the monster he has called (or perhaps has called him) is 2 parts heart-breaking, 3 parts heart-repairing, a couple dashes of enchanting, and garnished with the miraculous. Conor is awakened at 12:07 to a monster calling for him. This monster is the yew tree from outside his window, and it doesn’t frighten Conor one bit. And why should it? He’s seen much scarier monsters.

We find ourselves lost in a fantasy-but-really-reality world of Conor’s mom, who is battling cancer, Conor’s grandma, who is taking care of the house and Conor, and Conor’s monster, who is pushing Conor to tell his own story by telling three of its own. There is a certain magic to the monster, or so it seems, yet it is at the same time nothing special. Therein lies the secret wonder to A Monster Calls.

I could not put this book down, except when I needed to (to sleep, to eat, to teach). It grabbed me from the beginning and I did not let go, until I had to. And when I had to, I was okay doing so. I cannot imagine this story being any better. The flowing language almost reads like a prose poem. The images it creates are astounding. And then there’s the book itself.

Illustrated periodically with pictures and images that perfectly match the tone of the text, the book looked perfect in my hands. The pages are also thick and heavy — so much so that the book is quite deceptively weighty. This is perfect for the story being told. It’s as if everyone — author, story-teller, illustrator, publisher, manufacturer — was working towards the perfection of this book as a book. If they didn’t reach it, they came awfully close.

There isn’t anyone I would not recommend this to. The cancer story may be too close to home for some, but perhaps the ending of the book will be that much more meaningful and needed to them. It is a very quick read, despite being a shade over 200 pages. I cannot imagine someone being disappointed in this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5 fish.