So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld

So Yesterday by Scott WesterfeldGoodreads: So Yesterday
Source: Purchased

Official Summary: Ever wonder who was the first kid to keep a wallet on a big chunky chain, or wear way-too-big pants on purpose? What about the mythical first guy who wore his baseball cap backwards? These are the Innovators, the people on the very cusp of cool. Seventeen-year-old Hunter Braque’s job is finding them for the retail market.

But when a big-money client disappears, Hunter must use all his cool-hunting talents to find her. Along the way he’s drawn into a web of brand-name intrigue-a missing cargo of the coolest shoes he’s ever seen, ads for products that don’t exist, and a shadowy group dedicated to the downfall of consumerism as we know it.

Review:  Hunter will draw in readers from the opening pages with his quirky narration and down-to-earth personality.  He may be a “cool hunter,” absurdly talented at finding awesome fashion details that will be the country’s next biggest trend, but he is also a teenage boy who finds it awkward relating to his parents or interacting with girls.  He is cool, but he is also approachable, and he will charm readers.

The setting  of the book is equally alluring, and appropriately New York City.  Hunter helpfully describes each neighborhood of the city he enters, painting a vibrant picture for readers who might never have visited.  The descriptions are clever and apt enough, however, that even New York residents will not find them boring.

Hunter, and his new friend Jen, lead readers on a wild chase throughout the various districts of New York, introducing them to cramped apartments and luxurious celebrity parties in turn.  The pace is fast, as Hunter and Jen have a limited time to test their amateur detective skills and discover who kidnapped Hunter’s boss and why.  Readers will keep turning pages.

The book’s only potential flaw?  Its premise.  So Yesterday is about what makes something cool.  The book’s heroes are seeking a way to make coolness more organic, something that arises naturally when people see things they like, instead of something so heavily defined by companies and advertisements.

This is interesting food for thought, and readers will have a lot to consider.  Why do they think things are cool?  Because they like it or because they see it everywhere?   Do they fall for ads and fads?  Who does get to decide what’s cool?  Ultimately, however, the book’s cause falls a little flat.  Changing the definition of cool is unlikely to be a priority for many readers when there are arguably more important problems in the world.  So Yesterday is fleetingly captivating, but its message is not urgent.

So Yesterday is both entertaining and very real.  The protagonists are charmingly unique, intelligent, and flawed.  Their struggles will help readers think about how they define who they are, as they follow Hunter’s and Jen’s journey through the exciting world of fashion.

Published: 2004 (Razorbill)

Touching Darkness by Scott Westerfeld

Goodreads: Touching Darkness
Series: Midnighters #2

Summary:  In the town of Bixby, five special teenagers called Midnighters discover they have one extra hour of the day, one hour starting exactly at midnight when every other human freezes in his or her tracks.  The only problem: darklings also walk at this hour, and they like to eat humans.  The Midnighters have developed ways to fight the darklings using metal and their special skills, but it seems as if the darklings have found human allies—and they can hunt at all the other hours of the day.

Review: As a beginning disclaimer, I read this book without having read the first book in the series.  I was, in fact, oblivious that Midnighters is a series at all.  Nothing on Touching Darkness says “Book 2,” and there are not even any review quotes that say something to the effect of “a stunning sequel!”  Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Midnighters title is much larger and more noticeable than the Touching Darkness, which I only saw after having been suddenly enlightened to the fact that this book belongs to a trilogy.

One conclusion we can gain from this story is that I have my moments of being singularly unobservant.  But it also reveals that Touching Darkness is great as a standalone.  I was halfway through the book before I meandered over to Goodreads and discovered I had been missing the first part of the story all along.  There are a few vague references to the fact that Jessica had previously fought the darklings and now they are all deeply afraid of her, but I was able to shrug this off as an eccentric back story.  Otherwise, the book is full of enough background information that I had no difficulty understanding what Midnighters are, who all the characters are, or what types of things they do to fight the darklings.

Interestingly, this does lead one to question whether there is too much background for readers who choose, quite sensibly, to read the stories in order.  Perhaps it could all come across as old news to anyone who reads straight through the trilogy, but it is doubtless a helpful reminder to anyone who puts a bit of space in between reading the first and second books.

Touching Darkness, as a standalone, is a very creative, creepy, and suspenseful work.  Images of evil crawling things and humans that will hunt others down for money stand out on the pagers and will bring horrible visions to those reads this book late at night—even if the space in which darklings are able to materialize seems to be fairly localized.  Westerfeld, as always, manages to create a unique, fascinating, and still believable world.  In fact, a lot of focus is put onto how numbers and math can explain Bixby’s oddities.

The characters in Touching Darkness are also skillfully drawn.  The focus is on the five Midnighters, all of who have distinct personalities to match their personal Midnighter talents.  Together they have an intriguing and complex dynamic that readers will enjoy watching develop.  Whether they are actually likeable, however, will be up to personal taste, as even they become testy with and annoyed by each other.  I personally did not really relate to any of them, although I could see each of their merits.  My favorite character may actually have been Jessica’s younger sister, whom I hope will have a larger role in the next book.

Touching Darkness was a fun, eerie adventure with a lot of action.  It does not have the same urgency as Uglies, however, and even though there are a few loose ends, the third book does not even have to be read for it to feel like a complete story.  A very solid book, but not mind-blowing.

Published: March 1, 2005

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Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Goodreads: Leviathan
Series: Leviathan #1

Summary: Prince Aleksander is fleeing for his life after the murders of his mother and father, the rulers of Austro-Hungary. Deryn Sharp has disguised herself as a boy so she can serve in the British Air Service. The First World War is starting, and Alek and Deryn are not sure they are on the same side, but a series of events will bring them together on a surprising adventure.

Review: Leviathan started out slowly, taking time to build a world where Germany and her allies have invented machines that walk like animals and England and her allies rely on enormous fabricated species to do the work of machines. For the first 100 pages, I admit I was somewhat bored. However, after the scene is set, Westerfeld takes readers on a fairly exciting adventure complete with battles between the different Clanker and Darwinist technologies and a plethora of political and personal secrets. The story is populated with a great cast of characters, including Alek and his loyal followers, Deryn, a lady scientist!, and the Leviathan itself. The interactions between them are fascinating and sure to become more complex in the sequel. Though there was only the faintest whiff of a romance in Leviathan, that is obviously coming, too. Overall, Leviathan will be a good read for fans of history or science fiction and will be equally appealing to readers of either gender.

Also included are a number of fantastic illustrations of goose bump-inducing scenes by Keith Thompson and a note on the actual history of WWI for comparison with the story.

Published: 2009

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Extras by Scott Westerfeld

The fourth book in the Uglies series

Summary: (Spoilers if you have not read the previous three books.)

After Tally Youngblood took down the Specials regime and sent the mind-rain, the world came out of its Pretty stupor quickly.  But the people had no pattern on which to base their new world. Aya Fuse’s city decided to implement a reputation-based economy, where the people who are the most popular get the most things for the least amount of work, and citizens try anything to get their face rank bumped.  Aya herself is a kicker, someone who looks for stories about others to publish to the feeds.  She thinks her big break will come with a story about a secret clique, but she may actually have stumbled onto something much bigger—and much more dangerous.

Review: Extras is an excellent addition to the Uglies series, a book that tackles big themes but different big themes and with different characters.  Westerfeld gives his readers the satisfaction of seeing what happens after the world changes, but is smart enough to tell the story from a fresh perspective—that of  Aya Fuse, a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl with dreams of becoming as popular as her older brother.  Society has accepted a broader definition of beauty (though what is ugly still seems to be quite clear), and the new obsession is fame.  Westerfeld expertly explores the value of fame, the meaning of fame, and how far one should go to acquire it.  There is a fair amount of discussion about truth and integrity in journalism, though the conclusions are a little hazy.  Of course, amongst all the philosophy he gives readers action, adventure, and romance of the caliber that colored the first three books.

The one annoying element (and this is very much a matter of opinion) is the continuation of the comments about Rusties’ horrible treatment of the planet.  Many readers will agree that pollution is something better avoided and that, yes, humans ought to have some respect for nature, but the characters’ constant condemnation of all the Rusties’ habits is somewhat insulting since we are the Rusties.  Westerfeld (and the characters harp on the topic so much that they do eventually come across as Westerfeld’s opinions) begins to give the impression he does not like us very much.  Continue reading

Pretties by Scott Westerfeld

Summary: (Spoilers if you haven’t read Uglies) Tally has allowed herself to be captured by the Specials to be made pretty, so she can test the drug David’s mother has prepared and see whether it will successfully cure the brain lesions—or leave her a vegetable.  But when the pills arrive, Tally is scared.  With her pretty mind, she does not know whether the risk is worth it.

Review: Pretties is a dark and exciting sequel to Uglies that will keep readers on the edges of their seats.  It may be difficult to believe, but the tricks are bigger, the stakes are higher, and everything is more dangerous once Tally and her friends become (supposedly) complacent pretties.  New tensions arise between Tally and the Specials, Tally and Shay, and Tally and David—and the choices she must make to try to keep everything together are harder than ever.  This is a book fans of Uglies will not want to wait to get their hands on—and of course it ends with a huge cliffhanger that will have them scrambling for Specials. Continue reading

Uglies By Scott Westerfeld

Summary: Tally is counting the days until her sixteenth birthday when she will finally be able to undergo the operation that will make her pretty.  She’s been playing with the computer program to decide exactly what she wants to look like after the doctors have smoothed her skin, sucked away her fat, and made her the perfect height.  She is also dreaming about being with her friends again, who turned sixteen and pretty first and have not spoken to her since they moved to New Pretty Town; probably the perpetual parties have distracted them.  But then Tally befriends Shay, a girl exactly her age who is not sure at all she wants to be made pretty.  When Shay runs away on their sixteenth birthday, Tally is told she cannot become pretty until she finds her and brings her back.  She has two choices: betraying a friend and getting what she’s always dreamed of or facing the fact that her society is not quite as beautiful as the government wants her to believe.

Followed by Pretties, Specials, and Extras.

Review: I avoided this series for years, for some reason under the impression that the books featured petty teenage dramas about who was attractive and who was not and the discrimination that could result from society’s rigidly defined ideas of beauty.  In case anyone else thinks the same, let me reassure you that they are not.  Uglies is actually set in a future dystopia, and the drama comes from chase scenes and confrontations with the government’s special forces, not from cliques and catfights. Continue reading