Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

There comes a point in a book’s reading life where I can feel deep inside that the book isn’t going to be satisfying. Sometimes this happens early: a gut feeling as characters make flippant remarks about the worthlessness of women. Sometimes it’s right at the very end when I look at the small chunk of pages remaining and know that there’s no space to wrap up everything. But most of the time it happens quietly and somewhere in the middle: some mistake in the weaving that goes unnoticed until later when suddenly all the thread is being to fray and the piece unravels. This is what happened with Dark Eden.

It is the future and a group of 500 or so people are living on a dark planet called Eden. Eden has no sun to speak of, all light emitting from strange creatures and fauna that has developed on the planet, Eden itself warmed from the center of itself, heat and steam rising up from pools of water. The group is all called “Family” because that’s what they are. 5 generations ago, a small group of astronauts from Earth crashed on this planet and while 3 of them returned back to Earth to try to get help, 2 of them, Tommy and Angela remained. Now there are over 500 of them, after years and years of incest, and food is running out in Circle Valley, the place where Tommy and Angela first crashed. A young newhair (teenager) named John Redlantern believes that Family needs to travel up through Snowy Dark (mountains) and cross over to the other side, taking them away from Circle Valley, and the place where Angela promised Earth would return for them.

Right off the bat, I’m hooked. Give me a sci-fi story that focuses around space colonization and humanity having to deal with living on strange new worlds? I am here faster than you can figure out how to farm space corn, which might actually be fairly slow. Point being is that I love this subgenre. I also love the idea of watching how a culture that originated from one identity evolves over time and changes as certain truths and understandings get lost, so more points in this book’s favor on that account.

A thing you’ll notice fairly immediately, and has been brought up time and time again regarding why others didn’t like it that much, is the book’s use of language, specifically how everyone in Family talks. It’s at this point I’m going to mention that I listened to Dark Eden on audio, so expect some spelling mistakes as I heard everything rather than read it. One of the weird ticks that developed after 5 generations away from Earth (comboed with the aforementioned inbreeding) is that the Family of Eden has lost a great deal of nuance when it comes to language. Adverbs in general seem to have disappeared, with no way to qualify greater degrees of a certain emotion, like sadness. So instead of saying “I was very sad” or “I was depressed” or “I felt a hole in my very being so deep that all emotions fell into it and were sucked away until I was empty” the people of Family say “I was sad sad.” Ditto for “He was smart smart,” “I was tired tired” or “she was weird weird.” On top of that, everyone in Family has a very simplistic and childlike way of speaking, given that they only had 2 actual Earth people to teach them language and how things were, and lots of information has been lost generations down the line.

Although it took some time to get used to, I rather liked the strange dialectic that Family had. The narrators all had British accents and British euphemisms were often used (blimey, bloody hell, etc) since Tommy and Angela originally came from London, but they took it one step farther and made everything with an “a” sound be more like “eea.” So it’s “John Redlee-an-tern” or “Fee-amily.” This was a nice touch regarding how language might have developed on Eden, so far removed from Earth. Family also has forgotten how to read and write, having decided against “school” 2 generations ago when food in Circle Valley became more scarce, so the story of Tommy and Angela is passed on only though the Oldest, now. Concepts like “lecky-trickety” “sky boats” and “rad-yoh” are lost on the new members of Family, unable to figure out what these forms of technology could have been.

So what went wrong? If this is a anthropological look at space colonization and a somewhat twisted retelling of the Genesis story, why am I feeling so utterly disappointed by Dark Eden? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve been scouring goodreads looking for 2/3 star reviews to try to capture what I’m feeling and I just… I don’t know. Many people cite the language style as the reason for their lack of interest, but I loved it. Some say that they found the concept too unbelievable, but I have no qualms with a lack of realism in sci-fi. Some say that the female characters were weak and served only to produce children, but I disagree with that statement wholeheartedly as for the grand majority of the book, Family is a matriarchy and no one knows who their father even is. Women have all the power to slip (have sex with) whomever they like without shame and rape never has occurred on Eden to the point where they don’t have a name for it.

I think the problem for me was less one specific thing and more a combination of elements that just didn’t mesh. For one thing, the characters are overly simplistic and not that interesting. Dark Eden is told from several POVs (but mainly John Redlantern and Tina Spiketree) and although there are definitely differences between them, they all feel kinda samey due to how simplistic Family is in its thinking process. But combined with the flat characters, I don’t know what point Chris Beckett wanted to make with this book. Not every book has to have an underlying message, I know, but sometimes you just feel that the book is trying to tell you something. Dark Eden reminds me a bit of Oryx and Crake, where people make bad decisions and the characters aren’t very likable but Margaret Atwood is clearly using the novel to make a point about human ego and the dangers it poses when mixed with god-like science.

The closes Dark Eden comes to a point, I feel, is in its Genesis roots. Clearly Tommy and Angela are meant to be a twisted version of Adam and Eve (the book is called “Dark” “Eden” after all), and the novel itself has some similar beats found in Genesis: the paradise of Earth that Tommy and Angela find themselves separated from, their subsequent procreation of the human race, the eventual first murder, etc. But the Biblical overlay serves no point other than window dressing, in my opinion. Angela is simultaneously Eve and Mary: the mother of all of Family who is revered like a God herself while also being human. Tommy is a mix between Adam and Noah: father of all of family but also a sometimes cruel father who slept with his daughters. There is a first murder and it is technically between brothers in that everyone in Family is related, but the fill in for Cain has no other connection to the story other than he kills someone. The death is not caused by jealousy, and the one who commits it is seen in the right as the potential Abel was in the process of beating someone else to near death.

What am I supposed to take from these connections? What is the overall point? Dark Eden is not a book that excels in its plot or characters but in its worldbuilding and overall concept. Maybe that is why 80% into the book when we’ve exhausted everything we could regarding the world and Family’s mental and physical journey and instead tell only the conflict between John and other members of Family, that I grew bored and disastified. The characters are flat, the plot boring and the interesting Genesis comparisons are a surface dressing only. I loved the imagery of Eden and learning how this new civilization grew up, but in the end, Beckett still is telling a story about people and his people are simple simple and boring.

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Jen’s Favorite Books of 2015: Romance

Confession time: I was an anti-romance snob for the majority of my reading life. Like a lot of girls, I grew up not wanting to be mistaken for “that kind of girl.” I.E. I shunned everything feminine in a way to legitimize my own feelings regarding my gender. I complained whenever romance interjected itself in my sci-fi/fantasy books, I ignored the dragon-level hoard of romance books my mom read yearly, and above all else, I made fun of the covers. Oh, those covers. When I worked in a library, I would constantly pull aside the more absurd covers and poke fun at them. Being a teenage nerd also did not help my crisis involving the feminine, as I quickly learned that if you actively shunned all things stereotypically feminine, male nerds would be verrrrrry slightly more likely to take your nerd cred seriously.

“But why tell us you hate romance books in a top romance post?” I hear you ask, “I came here to find out about the kissing books, not listen to how dumb they are!” Well, 2015 marked the year where I finally came to terms with how much I simply enjoy romance! Screw you, haters of all things feminine! I like reading about two people falling in love and having sex! I still have my hangups, sure, and I DNF’d a handful of romance books this year due to overly-rapey men or overly-helpless heroines, but I found a much larger number of romance books that were amazing! And thus… without further ado… COMMENCE WITH THE KISSING!

Romance

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

As mentioned above, I was (and am) a massive nerd. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Stargate SG-1 were the primary focus of my obsessions and I miiiiiight have hit a classmate in high school with a binder because he claimed Episode 1 of Star Wars was better than the original trilogy. Look, I’m sure we can all come together and agree that despite any rage issues I might have had, my reaction was justified. But the one thing I never got into was fanfiction. Oh sure, I was aware of it (mainly how incorrect it was when written by Harmony shippers) but I never really read it and certainly never wrote it. So color me surprised that one of my favorite romance books this year revolved completely around teenage written fanfiction.

Fangirl is the coming of age story of Cath, and her twin sister Wren as they deal with their first year at college. Cath and Wren have always been inseparable, dressing alike, living in the same room, and being obsessed with the same thing: the Simon Snow Series. It went without saying that upon picking the same school, they would dorm together. Except… then they don’t. Wren sees college as a new beginning, a way to form her own identity outside of her twin sister and her Simon Snow obsession. She cuts her hair, gets a new wardrobe and specifically states on her application form that she is not to dorm with Cath.

Cath does not take this well.

Stubbornly refusing to accept her sister’s life changes, Cath instead buries herself deep within her world of Simon Snow fandom and completing the novel length epic she’s been writing online: Carry On. Simon Snow, by the way, is this world’s “definitely not Harry Potter wink wink.” It follows two wizards, our Harry and Draco if you will, as they go about their magical adventures at a Definitely Not Hogwarts and book 8, the final book in the series, is going to release later in the year. Cath (and formerly Wren) is a massive Simon/Baz shipper and has been writing her own finale for the Simon Snow series wherein Simon and Baz finally admit their true feelings for one another. As she tries to finish her fanfiction epic before the final book is released, Cath has to deal with all sorts of college awkwardness including how she feels about Levi, her roommate’s kinda sorta not boyfriend.

Fangirl isn’t the type of romance novel I mentioned above. There is no hot and steamy sex scenes, no magnificently sculpted hero or heavy bossomed heroine. What it is instead is one of the most realistic college stories I’ve ever read, complete with awkward college crushes and having to navigate your journey towards adulthood. Along with copious amounts of Simon/Baz fanfiction intertwined throughout. If you were at all an awkward nerdy college girl (hello!) and want to read an amazing revisit of those years combined with a sweet romance, Fangirl is the best book I can think of for this task!

Serving Pleasure by Alisha Rai

Imagine one of those hot wing sauce charts at sports bars. If romance novels were hot sauces, Fangirl would be somewhere around “garlic parmesan” whereas Serving Pleasure would be up around say…. super hot mango habanero. That is to say, oh my god this book was the sexiest thing I think I’ve read ever.

::ahem:: I’d like to take this brief moment to break the fourth wall and say, “Hi, Mom! I know you’re reading this because you read everything I write. I also know you read approx 125 romance books last year so explicit content isn’t new for you but it’s still a liiiiittle awkward to be writing about how hot and sexy some of these scenes are. So for my mental well being, I’m just going to pretend that you’re never going to see this while I write about super hot it was for artist Micah intensely going down on Rana. Good? Good.”

Serving Pleasure is book two in Alisha Rai’s Pleasure series, which follows the 3 Malik sisters, Devi, Rana and Leena. The previous book centered around Devi, the baby of the siblings who also is the head chef at their family’s Indian restaurant. She’s short and chubby and adorable and if you’re into polyamory and lots of 3-ways involving super hot twin brothers you should definitely read it. But if that’s not really your bag and you still want well written but super hot romance, Serving Pleasure is literally everything you need.

Serving Pleasure (a title I’m sure high school Jen would have balked at but adult Jen loves) follows the oldest and wildest of the sisters, Rana. Rana is the head hostess at the aforementioned family restaurant and known within her family for her rather long list of men she’s slept with. But she’s drawing closer and closer to her mid-thirties and Mama Malik is getting more and more anxious about her rebellious daughter’s chances at finding a perfectly suitable husband (i.e. a well off Indian doctor). So Rana makes a pledge to stop her one night stands and go on actual dates until she finds Mr. Right. That is, until she notices that the super hot artist neighbor she has has a tendency to leave his house curtains down and not wear many clothes around his house.

From there, Micah (aforementioned hot artist) and Rana form a pact of sorts: they’re both very attracted to one another but both aren’t looking to get emotionally involved. So Rana will pose for Micah professionally as a model for two weeks and beyond that they might have copious amounts of unattached sex. Just to get it out of both of their systems, you know? Micah can’t possibly be the type of man Rana should settle down with and she’ll definitely go back to dating to find Mr. Right once they’re done with their fling (three guesses how well this plan works out).

Beyond the sex scenes, which are amazing in case you were wondering, the thing that really made me fall in love with this book is its characters. Micah isn’t the alpha male domineering Fabio that is assumed to be the hero of romance novels. Rana isn’t the waifish white heroine in need of a man to fulfill her. They are both complex and flawed characters with their own personal hangups they need to work through in order to make themselves happy. Rana is dealing with her mother’s disapproval at her wilder lifestyle and her own feelings of self-doubt and self worth regarding her place in her family. Micah has extreme problems connecting with people not due to a Gaston-esque sense of arrogance, but due to a traumatizing event he went through and the literal physical pain he endured and those close to him were victims of. Rana’s relationship with her sisters and her relationship to Micah beyond the super hot sex they have is what truly carries this book. Everyone feels like a real person with their own hopes and desires. And, you know, Micah is apparently a god when it comes to using his tongue.

Serving Pleasure beyond any measure of a doubt was one of my favorite books I read this year, and my favorite romance novel I read, period. I cannot wait for the 3rd book in the series to revisit the Malik siblings and see what else Alisha Rai has in store (spoilers: amazing characters being interesting and behaving like real people. Potentially with orgies.)

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

(As I write this, I now realize that I wedged Serving Pleasure between two fairly mild books when it comes to sex and romance. Imagine Fangirl and The Wrath and the Dawn are two pieces of very high quality artisan bread housing a very spicy piece of chicken. Also in hindsight, I maybe should have not written this post directly during lunchtime.)

I wrote a full review of The Wrath and the Dawn directly after reading it, so if you want a more in depth and less food related review, I would recommend checking that one out. However, The Wrath and the Dawn was magical book in every sense of the word. It felt like a spell had been cast over me while I read it, making me fall in love with these characters and the setting and the mythology so entirely that I didn’t even realize what had happened until the book was over.

The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights the myth wherein a cruel prince takes a new bride every evening and murders her at dawn, until one woman tricks him into letting her live by telling him a fascinating tale and leaving him hanging in anticipation just as the sun rises. Like Fangirl and Serving Pleasure, the characters in this book are marvelous and rich. Renee Ahdieh takes the one note characters from mythology and fleshes them out into multi-faceted and complex people with their own motivations and hopes and dreams. The relationship between boy-king Khalid and his new bride Sharazad evolves throughout the entire book, with me hating and fearing him upon it’s start and feeling sympathetic and scared for their relationship by the end. If you enjoy YA, Middle Eastern Mythology and a good fantasy romance, you really should read The Wrath and the Dawn and then join me in eager anticipation for book 2 I NEED IT, YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND I HAVE TO KNOW HOW THE STORY ENDS.

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

You ever have one of those books that you go into expecting one thing and about 50 pages in figure out that your brain was tricked at some point and the book is something tonally different than you expected? That was me with Maplecroft. I’m not entirely certain where in life I was misled, but when I picked up this book, I was quite certain this was going to be a fun, quick read about Lizzie Borden on a vendetta against the paranormal, somewhat similar to the tv show Supernatural. So I settled in, ready to be entertained by a somewhat dark but in the end popcorn-level book of fun undead axing. Turns out, there was one small but very specific mistake I made. Lizzie Borden, infamous axe murderess from the late 1800s/early 1900s, is definitely chopping up unearthly beings in attempts to protect her family and town, but they aren’t demons with snappy one liners. Nope, instead it’s Lovecraftian fish people.

This mistake might seem inconsequential to those not familiar with Lovecraftian horror, but it changed the entire tone of the book. Lovecraft is slow and meaty text, full of lumbering monsters from unknown depths and serving unfathomable Eldritch Gods. A physical threat exists, but it’s much less important than the threat to our minds. There is a sense of hopelessness and despair to Lovecraft, where even the smallest glimpses of the horrors beyond our world can drive the sanest of men mad and where any solution found is only a bandaid put on top of a severed arm.

This tonal shift transformed everything about this book for me, and I was delighted. The book no longer felt that we were making light of historical figure Lizzie Borden’s (probable) murderous actions to tell a fun and entertaining jaunt making her the hero figure of the story. Instead, Lizzie’s actions are slow and eclipsed with a sense of ongoing dread as we have to watch more and more townsfolk falling victim to the Eldritch horrors that are slowly transforming them into crazed fish-people.

Speaking of fish people, Maplecroft seems to have drawn the majority of its Lovecraftian influence from The Shadow Over Innsmouth, one of the more well-known Lovecraft works. In the story, our unnamed narrator relays his investigation into the small Massachusetts town of Innsmouth, and the strange goings on there. He describes with first a strange curiosity and later abject horror at the transformation the townsfolk seem to be undergoing, along with their continual obsession with the sea and the “deep ones” that reside in it.

Similar to many Lovecraft stories, Maplecroft is told via letters and journal entries, although unlike the story it has drawn from, there is not one sole narrator telling this tale. Instead, we get the POVs of multiple characters ranging from Lizzie to her ailing sister to the mind of a professor slowing going mad due to the eldritch influence of the deep ones. This helped with the unsettling atmosphere and sense of dread, as you could watch throughout the book as different characters begin their transformation, or react to the transformation of others. Down side of this writing style, however, was that the passage of time is solely conveyed through journal entries at the beginning of each chapter and several times I got lost about how much time had actually progressed since we last heard from our characters.

Another positive of this being influenced by Lovecraft as opposed to actually written by him is that you get to avoid some of the author ickiness surrounding his works. I greatly appreciated having multiple female POVs as our primary voices, something which Lovecraft himself would have balked at. There weren’t random lines about how inferior black people or women are to startle me out of the dread I was experiencing with a stark reminder of how incredibly racist Lovecraft was. Instead, I got to experience all the thematic elements of a proper Lovecraft Horror with more relatable and somewhat diverse characters (or at least more diverse than Lovecraft would have ever written).

Unfortunately, the ending of the book didn’t quite land for me. Around the time where a certain character begins to succumb to the strangeness surrounding the town, the book seems to come to a stuttering halt. Time seems to be passing more quickly going by the journal dates but nothing much is happening story wise. A large section near the end felt like we were sitting around just waiting for the finale to start, and once it did start, everything seemed to happen at once. The pacing of everything seemed off, and not deliberately. Characters start behaving in more illogical ways but you can’t tell if the author intended this to be a sign of their oncoming madness, or if it’s just inconsistent character writing.

That being said, I still greatly enjoyed this book. The actual ending (not the build up to the ending that I struggled with) felt very fitting for the Lovecraftian style, and I came away from this book feeling small and hopeless, but in an intended way. I’m unsure if I’ll read the next book in the series, although that’s not a condemnation of this book. Instead, it’s because I enjoyed this book so much that I don’t want to read the next one. Coming back to this world and the horrors within it seems to destroy the point of this book. The hopeless note we ended on was so fitting and perfect, telling any sort of continuation or epilogue seems contrary to the book’s thematic influence. Regardless, Maplecroft was a wonderfully dreadful book of horror and hopelessness and I’m very glad to have read it.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, classic collection of Middle Eastern folktales from days of old. Sadly, I never read A Thousand and One Nights, although I’m much more inclined to after reading this book. But even without having read the original work this book is inspired by, the premise was one that was familiar to me due to the ever-constant presence of stories within our world.

The land of Khorasan is under the rule of the mad boy-king Khalid, who strikes a blow at the hearts of his people every sunrise. For months now, the cruel caliph has taken for himself a new bride, a new young girl to wed, only to have her strangled to death with a silk cord come the dawn. When her best friend becomes Khalid’s newest victim, 16 year old Sharazad vows vengeance on the boy-king, making herself his next bride and using her skill at weaving stories to entice him and keep herself alive for one more day, hoping to find a way to destroy Khalid’s grip of fear on her people once and for all.

I remember when I was little and first heard the premise of A Thousand and One Nights and being amazed that a young girl telling stories could soften the heart of such a cruel man. How could only words and the promise of hearing what happens next in the story be enough to prevent her death? Thinking about it now, isn’t that what all good stories do? They weave a magical world that doesn’t tangibly exist and yet keep the reader entranced and enthralled and wanting more even when the story is finished. The Wrath and the Dawn did precisely that for me. The word I best can use to describe it is “magical” even though actual magic are only hinted at at best. But the book entranced me, pulled me in and caught me in its spell until it was over. And just like Scheherazade in the original tale, it left me before the story was finished, but with the promise that more will come.

The characters of The Wrath and the Dawn are far more complex than their folklore counterparts. Sharazad is not simply a weaver a words, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She holds her own in a world that wants to chain and silence her. She refuses to be a quiet little pet of a seemingly mad king and demands to be heard and valued equally. Khalid is not just a single-minded cruel boy, caring so little for the wives he’s killed. There’s suffering behind his callous exterior, reasons for the deaths, pain and sadness and remorse even while he continues to destroy lives. There’s layers to him to understand, even while his tendency for violence horrifies and disgusts. Similarly, the advisors and servants within the palace each have their own stories, their own wants and needs outside of our main characters which add a richness to the story. Even the family Sharazad leaves behind is not a forgotten sidenote in her life. As her understanding of Khalid grows, her family rears their heads, reminding her of what she has sacrificed to be in this position, scorning her for feeling any sympathy for the king who murdered so many.

I will say not everything worked perfectly in this book. Although I appreciated Sharazad’s journey of emotions as her time with Khalid grew, I found the jumps back to Tariq and her family a bit confusing to follow. Once the storylines converged more, things fell more into place but whenever we’d cut back to them, I’d find myself growing restless as I cared much more about Sharazad and her journey than I did anything Tariq was planning. Although I understand and appreciate the importance he serves in Sharazad’s backstory, I found him more annoying than anything else, a smaller player in a much larger story that he didn’t fully understand.

I loved this book, although I didn’t realize how much until it was over and the story was not yet done. I wouldn’t use the word cliffhanger to describe the ending, for there wasn’t any singular event cut short. The story of Sharazad simply wasn’t done yet. But the spell had already been cast and there was nothing I could do but wait until the Renee Ahdieh came back to me with more magical words to weave and a promise of a conclusion to the story.

The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi

It’s always disheartening for me when I pick up a book by an author whose previous work I love and the book just… isn’t that good. A sense of guilt overwhelms me as I trudge on and on, continuing to dislike the book and wishing it wasn’t the case. Such has happened with Paolo Bacigalupi and The Doubt Factory as I really kinda hated this book. In fact, I’m very thankful that I read Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities before I read this novel, because there’s a good chance I’d have not continued on with any of Bacigalupi’s other works, which really are quite good. But as it stands, very little about The Doubt Factory landed for me, and reading it left me only tired and frustrated at the characters and the plot. (Sidebar: I will attempt to not spoil major plot points but in order to detail what about this book annoyed me so much, I’m going to have to explain certain character actions in vague generalities. Please be warned if you wish to remain completely spoiler free).

The Doubt Factory follows 17 year old Alix Banks, daughter of a fairly affluent and powerful PR executive. Living in her sheltered and privileged world, Alix doesn’t particularly bother herself with worries over how most other people live. Not out of a calloused and uncaring worldview, mind you, she just hasn’t had anyone challenge her view of the world. She’s a child living in a pristine house where the reality of life hasn’t broken in and soiled up the place yet. But when an underground protest group called 2.0 start threatening her and her family, Alix is forced to confront what exactly her father does and how it affects those less fortunate than her.

Paolo Bacigalupi tends to write message fiction. I’ve recommended him to my father many times due to his heartfelt passion for environmental problems and fixing climate change. His books tend to be set in the not too distant future where Earth as we know it is gone, ravaged by floods or a lack of water or a mass shortage of food where everything is genetically modified. The books are close enough to recognize our society and culture but far enough to allow for elements of the fantastical/dystopian to drive home the point of “we need to fix this NOW.” And similarly, The Doubt Factory also has a message Bacigalupi wants to impress upon his readers: that of how much power lobby groups and PR companies have over organizations like the FDA. That the general health and safety of the public is compromised by greedy capitalistic corporations who are well aware that their drug has serious and/or deadly side effects, but hire PR companies to bury the evidence in order to squeeze out more years of sales before they are forced to put warning labels on their products. An easy example of this would be the amount of marketing work done for cigarette companies in the 50s and 60s when science was coming out about how dangerous smoking actually was.

Now the message, although somewhat heavy handedly driven home, is not the reason I hated The Doubt Factory. I fully believe and understand that government is controlled by lobby groups and PR firms are masters of spin and influence and trick the consuming public every day. No, my problem was that every single one of our characters seemed to be as intelligent as a bag of bricks and only half of them operated in the real world.

The main issue I have is with our main character Alix, and not just because of her incredibly millennial spelled name. I do not understand any of Alix’s decision making. When 2.0’s leader starts enacting “pranks” (more on whether or not I consider these instances pranks later) at her school and essentially begins stalking her, she is drawn to him, entranced. Time and time again she defends 2.0 and his actions, balking at the harsh labels her father and his security company use to describe him (terms like, say, terrorist). She feels a sense of teenage allure to him as he’s a slightly older handsome black man and she a VERY sheltered rich white girl. He’s the dangerous bad boy she’s never experienced. That part is fine… up until he starts assaulting people and continually threatens her and her family. About then is where she logically should stop sympathizing with him and start fearing him.

The reader might feel sympathy for 2.0 because we’re getting POV from him and understand some of the pain he’s gone through to lead to this point, but Alix knows none of this. All she knows is that a scary and clearly physically strong black man is threatening her and her family and appears to want to kidnap her to get at her father (I’d like to clarify that I’m not bringing up the stereotype because I believe it true, but because in the book, Alix makes it clear how incredibly sheltered and white her upbringing has been. There are only a very VERY small amount of black people at her school, and she’s barely interacted with them. In this context along with the context of the world we’re operating in (our own), that stereotype and prejudice would be in the forefront of her mind). Throughout the book Alix routinely withholds information from her father and the security people set to protect her and her family for no good reason, other than she doesn’t want to get 2.0 in trouble. Screw getting him in trouble, he’s threatened your family and assaulted a person! Why are you behaving like this?

Earlier I described 2.0 as an “underground protest group” but that’s… not entirely accurate. It’s just that I don’t know how else to classify them without either sugarcoating the ramifications of their actions or using extremely harsh language (like, say, terrorist). The book too seems to struggle with how dangerous 2.0 is, or should be perceived. Alix refers to all of their actions as “pranks.” Except that the actions include things like: assaulting a person, calling in a bomb threat at a high school that isn’t entirely untrue, causing a literal explosion when security enforcement attempts to protect Alix and apprehend 2.0, and, of course, kidnapping. The reader gets POV of the group and understands their motivations and they truly do not seem to understand the seriousness of what they are doing and brush off any terrorist-esque label as PR spin meant to make them the bad guys. But…. they kinda are. Their actions are very serious. They assaulted a SWAT team called in to protect the school. They are implicated in multiple kidnappings and keep one person locked up in a cage for periods of time. They are doing things specifically meant to cause fear and, well, terror, in Alix’s household. They are trying to punish Alix’s father for things they believe he has done. They are a serious threat and rightfully are treated like one by the security team and Alix’s parents. It’s just that the book seems to have missed that memo because time and time again I’m meant to feel sympathy that they’re being treated this seriously.

I think this all could have been resolved with a few changes. If, for example, Alix had an established difficult relationship with her father when the book began, we might believe her withholding information from him. If she already was suspicious of his job and what he does for a living, it’d make sense why she’s so sympathetic with 2.0. But as it stands, she and her father have a good relationship, if a little strained by how busy he is. But when Alix’s life is threatened, he immediately comes home and calls in as many favors as he has to to keep her safe. He worries and cares for her and goes to great lengths to protect her. 2.0 even comments on how good of a father he is.

Another solution would be to do what so many other Bacigalupi books do and set this in the not too near but not far off future. Make this a world that isn’t present day. Because it’s set in 2014 America, all of its actions are painted by how 2014 America would behave. A very rich, very privileged white girl with little to no interaction with people who aren’t her race or financial bracket WOULD be scared of a threatening black man. The actions of 2.0 WOULD be labeled as terroristic and threatening acts. A 17 year old girl WOULD NOT be able to enact any real change on how her father or the world operates in regards to PR spin. But every time Alix behaves strangely or reacts not in our reality, I get confused because we’ve gone out of our way to establish this as present day America. If this was the year 2050 or something and PR spin has gone amok, endangering the lives of Americans nationwide on an exaggerated scale, I’d have a much easier time sympathizing with 2.0’s actions, or believing Alix’s behavior, because it wouldn’t have to make sense in our current world.

This book was the biggest disappointment I’ve encountered this year. I loved Paolo Bacigalupi’s previous works but there’s very little about this book that I enjoyed. Pretty much the only part that worked for me was near the middle where Bacigalupi went on a rant about PR firms covering up the dangers of aspirin. When in full blown message mode, the book works. I understand and agree with the point Bacigalupi is trying to make. It’s just the plot that continually falls apart at every turn.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, by Chris Taylor

If you had asked anyone in my high school who was the biggest Star Wars nerd, they probably would have mentioned me. More accurately, they probably wouldn’t have known my name but “that one quiet girl who is always reading the Star Wars books” would be referring to me. As part of the somewhat maligned prequel generation, I was coming of age as episodes I, II and III were being released in theaters, and boy, was I ever obsessed with Star Wars. Padme was my halloween costume of choice for 3 years in a row, I read nearly every Expanded Universe book I could get my hands on (goodreads has logged 35 books but I know there were more that I’ve forgotten by now), my first ever online forum account (not counting neopets because I think every 90s kid had a neopets account) was to theforce.net as “yodarulez,” I even went to high school dressed up as a jedi to celebrate the release of Episode III, an act which alone should clue everyone in as to how much Star Wars meant to me.

I don’t remember when I first watched the original Star Wars in their entirety, although I’m certain it was before the release of Episode I in 1999. But what I do remember is the first scene of Star Wars that peaked my interest, that grabbed my brain and refused to let go throughout my adolescence and adulthood. My Dad was sitting on the couch in the living room, watching one of his movies after dinner like he of so often did and pre-10 year old Jen wandered inside to the tv screen projecting a snowy landscape. An injured looking man was lying on the snow and a large, blue, ghostly figure appeared and started talking to him. “Luke, you must go to the Dagobah System. There you will encounter Yoda, the Jedi Master who taught me.” Little Jen was entranced. Who was this ghost guy? What was a jedi? Was the hurt man going to be okay, he must be very cold out in the snow like that. I vaguely recall my dad somewhat distractedly telling me that this was the 2nd movie and most of my questions were answered the movie previous. Ever since then, I was hooked. Star Wars became the most important series of films in my childhood, my core obsession, and the franchise that continually brought joy to my life.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe reminded me of how deeply my love of Star Wars runs. It tells the tale of George Lucas’ most beloved creation from pre-THX 1138 to disney takeover, showcasing throughout its pages the expansive reach the Star Wars universe has on the entirety of Earth. We learn about the early drafts and ideas Lucas had for the original trilogy, the immense problems he had pitching the films to movie studios, the bad ideas paired with the good ones, and how fan made creations such as Star Wars kid and the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers began. I’ll admit, I knew a lot of the information detailed in this book, especially regarding the scriptwriting process of the original and prequel trilogy, but I still felt a rush of nerdy glee reading this book.

As the title indicates, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe specifically looks at the ubiquity of the Star Wars franchise. The book starts off with the author attempting to find someone who doesn’t know anything about Star Wars. Not someone who hasn’t seen it, not someone who can’t detail the plot, someone who has never heard of Star Wars. Someone who could be shown a picture of Darth Vader or Yoda or any jedi and have zero clue who these people were. This exercise alone showcases how monumental Star Wars is as a cultural force. We all know someone who hasn’t seen Star Wars (and probably all can recall feeling a sense of amazement that said person has escaped the unstoppable force that is the Star Wars movie franchise) but the odds are, that person still could name some plot points or recognize some characters. Pretty much everyone knows that Darth Vader (or “the evil helmet robot guy”) is Luke Skywalker’s father. Heck, even I don’t remember this being a twist when I first watched the movies. I think even pre-10 year old me who hadn’t seen Star Wars before had picked up at some point this once shocking plot twist.

The book doesn’t necessarily provide a formula as to why Star Wars became the cultural mega-force that it currently is. It does, however, explain the environment and circumstances and carefully structured corporate decisions that kept Star Wars in the spotlight and capitalized on its initial popularity. If you know someone who is a Star Wars nerd and is reading this book, be warned: you’ll probably be inundated with endless facts found in the book. As my family and fiance can attest to, nearly every time I had this book in my hands, there’d be frequent interruptions of me raising my hand and going “STAR WARS FUN FACT TIME!!” And so, here are some Star Wars fun facts I would like to share:

  • In early drafts of A New Hope, Lucas gave names to both the light and dark side of the force. The dark side was called the Bogan and the script had such great lines as Luke telling a depressed Han “Don’t give in! It’s just the Bogan force talking!”
  • All of Boba Fett’s lines in the original trilogy can fit in the space of a single tweet, complete with attribute.
  • The 501st legion of Stormtroopers had a charity fundraiser to allow for Peter Mayhew, the original actor of Chewbacca, to get knee surgery who he could play Chewbacca again in the new Disney movies.
  • Star Wars was one of the first movies to not have credits in the beginning of the movie and George Lucas had to fight the studio tooth and nail to keep the transition from exposition crawl to the Star Destroyer free of meddling text.
  • The Star Wars logo we know and love today was designed by a 22 year old female new hire after George Lucas thought that the original logo designed by a more senior designer at the company needed to be “much more fascist looking.” Also, the Star Wars logo began as Helvetica Black which was then heavily modified (I’ll be honest, this fact is my favorite simply because I’m a designer and typography nerd). Unfortunately for her, she was hired on contract basis and as such has received zero copyright rights over the logo or money for its now infinite usage.
  • Lucasfilm retained merchandising rights for Star Wars related toys over Twentieth Century Fox because it had all rights to things under the name “Star Wars” whereas Fox had rights for the title “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker” which was the running title of Star Wars for the longest time.
  • Tatoonine is never actually named in Episode IV. Luke refers to it as “this rock,” “if there’s a bright spot in the galaxy you’re on the planet where it’s farthest from,” and “back home.” No one ever says the name “Tatoonine.”
  • James Early Jones recorded all of his lines for Episode IV in a single session and was paid only $6500 for his contribution to the film.

I was commenting to Matt the other day that it amazes me how varied Star Wars fans can be in their knowledge, a reflection of how vast the Star Wars universe itself is. I have friends who are experts are Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, the two canon cartoon shows fleshing out what happened in between the movies. Others know everything there is to know about the Old Republic, an era of Star Wars history occurring 5000 years before the Battle of Yavin. I, myself, have read nearly every post Battle of Yavin through Legacy of the Force books, and can talk to you endlessly about Yuuzhan Vong, Coran Horn, Jacen and Jania Solo and Chewbacca’s death (spoiler, a moon falls on him). Similarly to this variety, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe contains information that will appeal to different Star Wars nerd’s interests. I, personally, read every word about the different drafts of the scripts and behind the scenes process of filming, while skimmed through parts discussing museums of Star Wars merchandise created by fans. You might not be interested in Star Wars Kid or the drama that happened between Lucasfilm and the original effects creator but absolutely love hearing about how the 501st legion was formed. There’s something here for every Star Wars nerd.

Above all else, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe helped solidify my excitement for the new movie coming out this December. Regardless of what JJ Abrahms and Disney creates, for a brief moment I will feel the excitement that child Jen did sitting in the theater waiting for the prequels. And so, I leave you with the ending passage of this book, which for me perfectly encapsulates the joy and emotional outpouring I will experience sitting in that theater once again waiting for a new Star Wars movie to begin.

The screen will go black. Then up will come ten familiar words in blue: ‘A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…” Then silence. Blackness again. Then an orchestra will explode in B-flat major, and the largest logo you’ve ever seen will fill the entire screen. And no sooner has it appeared than it will immediately begin to recede, slipping away, pulling back into the stars as if daring you to give chase.

Pre-teens are the worst, a review of The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop follows 5 boy scouts and their Scout Leader partaking in a yearly camping trip up in the Canadian wilderness, on an isolated island. While on the island, an emaciated man devouring everything he can find (dirt, algae, animals, etc) stumbles across Tom and his scouts and then all hell breaks loose. One by one, the boys and Tim begin to realize that the man was infected with some sort of creature, a creature that they are now exposed to with no way to escape the island.

Look, I don’t want to beat around the bush, I hated this book. About 50 pages into the book I figured out that I hated this book and was too stubborn to just put it down and walk away. And so I continued on, flipping page after page, hoping at some point everything would click and my ever growing loathing of our main characters would dissipate. Surprising no one, this did not happen. Mainly because our main characters continued to be intolerable to be around.

Imagine a stereotypical 11-13 year old boy. Puberty is about to hit, hormones have begun to course through children’s bodies and they aren’t anywhere near mature enough yet to realize how horrible and obnoxious they are being. And in adolescent boys particular, you get an unhealthy mix of aggression and alpha male dominance as they try to figure out who will lead their social circle. Their sex drive is revving to life and so now the previous gross out talk of boogers and poop become masturbation and well, we still are talking about poop except now we’re calling it shit because WE’RE MEN. And unfortunately, these are our protagonists for the entire book.

That’s not to say every 11-13 year old boy is the Absolute Worst TM but the characters in this book have no nuance.

Kent is the “leader” of the group, alpha male complex in full effect due to his cop father giving him a heightened sense of self-importance. He refuses to show Tim the scoutmaster any respect because “adults are f**ked anyway.” He bullies the other kids and asserts his dominance in stereotypical insulting ways.

Ephraim is the kid with anger management problems. Constantly about to fly into a rage, hates life, hates everyone around him, fantasizes about hurting them.

Max is Ephraim’s best friend and polar opposite, quiet and unassuming. He’s reliable and probably the least horrible of the bunch.

Shelley is creepy. That’s his defining characteristic. No one really likes him because everyone picks up on the unsettling vibe he always gives off. He hangs around in the background until he does something particularly strange to remind everyone that he probably will grow up to be the teenager who sets up cameras in the girl’s locker room.

Finally, we have Newton our nerrrrrddddddddddddd. He’s fat. He’s constantly bullied by everyone else. His mother calls him a “sensitive boy” and babies him. He brings up facts and rules in a pitiful meek voice and gets beaten for his neediness.

In a horror book or film, normally the readers should be endeared to at least one of our protagonists. We know pretty much everyone is going to die and don’t care about half of them, but there should be a couple character who we like and want to see succeed. And unfortunately, I don’t care about any one of these blundering idiots. They’re just too one-dimensional and that dimension is simplistic teenage boy. We have a conversation early on with all the boys arguing about whether they’d want to jerk off a donkey or “finger bang” a girl in their class who is rumored to have given someone else a hand job. Everyone picks the donkey because LOL. EVEN ANIMALS ARE BETTER THAN SLUTS AMIRITE???

::sighs::

If you don’t mind caricatures of over masculine teenage boys then you might like this book. The pacing and atmosphere when the creature was doing it’s thing was well developed. Descriptions used to set the eeriness of the creature were genuinely unsettling. With other characters, I would have better enjoyed the way the boys start observing each other for the slightest hint of infection with increasing suspicion. Someone’s stomach is rumbling, is that legitimate hunger or signs that the creature is slowly taking over and turning him into an ever consuming and dangerous fiend? But unfortunately every time we got hints and threats of infection, I was simply glad to know that we’d soon be eliminating another idiot from the troop.