Sunday, July 26, 2015

Book Review: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

(From Goodreads) Darcy Patel has put college and everything else on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. Arriving in New York with no apartment or friends she wonders whether she's made the right decision until she falls in with a crowd of other seasoned and fledgling writers who take her under their wings… 
Told in alternating chapters is Darcy's novel, a suspenseful thriller about Lizzie, a teen who slips into the 'Afterworld' to survive a terrorist attack. But the Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead and as Lizzie drifts between our world and that of the Afterworld, she discovers that many unsolved - and terrifying - stories need to be reconciled. And when a new threat resurfaces, Lizzie learns her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she loves and cares about most.
Ever since I read the "Uglies" series by Scott Westerfeld, he has continued to be one of my favorite authors. His stories are varied and fascinating, even for the science fiction/fantasy genre. They're also inventive.

So when I saw the pitch for Afterworlds, I just knew I had to read it. First of all, Lizzie's story sounded fascinating. Ghosts and Indian mythology? Of course! I'm a big believer in diversity in fiction, especially when it comes to world mythology.

Think about it. Have you ever seen a YA novel about African mythology? Probably not, I'd say. I think that today's mythology market is supersaturated with Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology (although I could slide on Egyptian).

Granted while Greek and Roman mythology is fascinating, I also think that there are lots of other mythologies we could be making use of. Not only are other cultures and their mythology fascinating (Aztec mythology is crazy, but even more so, Japanese mythology is the craziest, coolest mythology I've yet seen), but I think using other mythologies can help us diversify our writing and help teach other people about other cultures.

ANYWAYS. I was super excited to see the use of Indian mythology in here. Even if it is used loosely at times. It was fascinating and delightful. It added another layer to Lizzie's story and more to Darcy's story once you understand her heritage.

Lizzie as a character was well done and I think her voice was distinctive from Darcy's. Darcy striked me as a more nervous and cautious person, willing to do whatever it took to achieve her goals, even at times when it became a fault. Lizzie on the other hand was impulsive and more willing to put her family and other people above herself.

I can't say much for Lizzie's love interest though. He seemed to be a bit more moody and calmer, but knowing his history, I also found him to be a little creepy at times. He was more discontenting to me than anything.

One of the more interesting things about Darcy though was the surprising twist to her love interest that I wasn't expecting from the pitch. Darcy decides to put off college to pursue her YA novel publishing adventure in New York City (THE place to be, of course) and lives on her own. I found her situating a little bit more unlikely, just in the fact that to me I'm not sure what the chances of one finding their own nice apartment and other things. It just seemed a tad bit stretching to me. Granted, the money part of it did seem well thought out, but I don't know, something about it didn't sit well with me.

I did like though how her family still played a part in things and it was interesting to see how they influenced her life even though she wasn't living with them. I thought though that Darcy moving into her apartment and then finding out that she needed things like pots and pans and a broom to actually sufficiently live on her own. And then figure out that she hadn't exactly budgeted for those things. It seemed like a young adult thing, not exactly well thought out plan, but a thought out plan. I thought though maybe her parents could have stepped in a little bit more there though instead of relying on her younger math-whiz sister.

As I was saying, her love interest was another writer. Which was a lovely and interesting choice, as a wanna be published author. I think all writers just a tiny bit hope to find another writer to fall in love with. The thing that surprised me though was that the other author was also a girl. I hadn't expected our protagonist to be bi, but it was a refreshing choice, nevertheless. And seeing Darcy's own surprise about it was interesting too.

Having her love interest be another writer, I thought was well done and realistic. Although Darcy loved her and her stories, Darcy also at times felt jealous towards her about her writing and how she treated other writers. The relationship itself was also realistic and I was satisfied with the way it ended.

One of the most fascinating parts about this book to me of course was the inside look of publishing. Granted, its probably a more jazzed up, fantasy version of every author's dream, but it still was fascinating to me and I thought displayed a lot of real things about the publishing world. For the non author out there, I think this is another point that they could learn from.

Overall, I thought the novel was very well done. It was also refreshing and exciting to see an author my age live out her dream and then also read the resulting novel. In truth, Scott Westerfeld combined two novels together and did it wonderfully. Both stories were exciting and interesting and had an abundance of different things to capture my attention. The plots and voices of each story were distinct and separate. One wonders how he wrote this. One after the other or both at the same time?

Goodreads- Afterworlds
Scott Westerfeld- Goodreads

Sincerely,
Sareh

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

Summary taken from Goodreads:
Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner's HandbookBlum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.  
Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner's Handbook—chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler—investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey's Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can't always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler's experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed "America's Lucretia Borgia" to continue her nefarious work.  
From the vantage of Norris and Gettler's laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren't the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide; potent compounds, such as morphine, can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist's war between bootleggers and government chemists while in Gotham's crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York.
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Wow, that's a really long pitch!

Okay so I don't usually review nonfiction...but when I do, I post long pitches!

Hahaha.

Whispers to self: *No one else finds that funny* 

So bad jokes aside, I've been in a non-fiction reading habit. Not exactly sure what reason, but I do know that I saw this book a couple months ago in my university library while I was shelving books. I've been fascinated by the Jazz Age for a long time now and so of course when I saw the title, I was instantly intrigued.

The book follows the careers of Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, two of the people who made forensic chemistry and justice into the huge thing it is now. The murders featured in this book are stories that I would expect to see on a CSI show and are exciting and puzzling they would be on air.

Charles Norris
The writing style of the book was easy to follow and not hard to read. Some nonfiction tends to read like a textbook and drags on, but not this! Each chapter followed our heroes chronologically but centered around a different poison. I'm curious on why the author chose those specific poisons and not others.

For those who aren't familiar with chemistry like I am, have no fear, the author's descriptions of chemical compounds were not that perplexing and were fairly easy to understand. Granted, I didn't really understand most of them, but they weren't horrible to read.

Alexander Gettler
I learned a couple cool things from this book, For example, how different poisons affect the body and how you can tell if someone's been poisoned or not. I also learned that during Prohibition, the U,S government went so far as to poison illegal alcohol hoping that it would scare bootleggers and drinkers off. Alas, people are not that smart and literary drank themselves to death. It was a fascinating, dark side of U.S history I hadn't heard of before. 

Some negative reviews I've heard often rate the book lower on the obnoxiously long title "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York" and while I admit it is a pain, its also a trend on nonfiction right now and authors often don't have control over what their book is renamed after agreeing to be published. Another thing is that I think it might be a way to distinguish the book from fiction and to give readers an idea of what its about (although the titles themselves should be that good, and shouldn't have to rely on subtitles). 

I read this book fairly quickly and enjoyed it. I thought it was well researched and a fascinating read. There were some style points I'd take off and perhaps some of the examples got to be a little bit too much, but nevertheless, it was a great read. 

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in Jazz Age New York, Prohibition, chemistry, medical issues, and the legal system. 

The Book's Goodreads page
Deborah Blum's Goodreads page

Extra things related to this book: (For fun)

PBS features and extras about The Poisoner's Handbook
Wikipedia- Alexander Gettler
Wikipedia- Charles Norris

Sincerely,
Sareh

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