Monday, August 11, 2008

Peeps (book) by Scott Westerfeld

Cal came to New York City a year ago as a somewhat naive undergraduate freshman biology student. Now, he spends all his time tracking down and capturing his former girlfriends. These girlfriends have become parasite positives, or "peeps" for short - the parasites within them cause them to hate sunlight (as well as anything they once loved), have great strength and senses, form bonds with rats, and crave blood. Cal isn't a full-blown peep, but he's a carrier. Carriers get a lot of the physical benefits of being a peep (longer life, better strength, etc.), but unfortunately the parasites make their carriers horny, and carriers' bodily fluids can transfer the parasites to other people - hence the peep ex-girlfriends.

Now that Cal knows he's a carrier, he does his best to stay away from temptation while he hunts peeps as part of the Night Watch, a secret organization mostly made up of carriers. It isn't always possible to avoid temptation, however, and Cal finds himself seeing more and more of Lace as he investigates the area where she lives. The person who first infected Cal used to live on Lace's floor, and something creepy and potentially very bad is going on in the basement of her apartment building. In order to save New York and the rest of the world, Cal has to find the woman who infected him, figure out what to do about the giant monsters that may be hiding under New York City, find out if the parasites have evolved so that cats can now become peeps, and deal with the frustration of being around Lace.

I think this book would probably make a good recommendation for older teens and even adults - it's an interesting twist on the vampire myth. I don't consider it as fast-paced as the books in Westerfeld's Uglies series, but it's not really slow-paced either. It's just that this book isn't as action-packed as you might expect - rather than spending a lot of time hunting peeps, Cal spends most of this book investigating what may be a new variety of peep-causing parasite. Chapters that further the story alternate with chapters that discuss various parasites - the parasite chapters are interesting, and informative, as well as frequently disgusting, strange, and horrific. These chapters may seem unrelated to the story, but the messages these chapters have are important and do actually apply to the rest of the book. The idea is that parasites can be good, bad, or neutral, depending upon your perspective, and a world without parasites would be unable to function in a nicely balanced way.

The whole book, including the parasite chapters, is written from Cal's perspective, and Cal is understandably interested in parasites. The parasite chapters were a lot more interesting than I expected, and reminded me of all the biology teachers I ever had that I really liked, the people who were so passionate about their subject that I couldn't help but become interested as well.

As both a lover of rats and cats, I enjoyed those aspects of this book. Rats appear early on in this story - they tend to cluster around peeps, so the presence of lots of rats, even in areas that have been thoroughly worked on by exterminators, is a good indication of the presence of a peep. Rats can infect people with the parasites, but they don't tend to go out and do that much unless the peep they are bonded to has been taken away. Cats are also a really important aspect of the story, although the extent of their importance won't be clear to most readers until nearly the end of the book. Simplifying things a bit, and without giving any details away, basically, cats save the world.

The relationship between Cal and Lace amused me. Since the book is written from Cal's point of view, readers know about as much as Cal does about Lace's feelings for him, which isn't much. Not that it really matters what Lace feels, since Cal spends most of the book knowing that he can't act on his feelings without infecting Lace. That doesn't stop poor Cal from agonizing over what he's wearing when he meets up with Lace - considering the number of girlfriends he had after he became infected, I found it kind of funny how awkward Cal was with her.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I thought that the science bits were really interesting and nicely incorporated. I was a little disappointed that there was so little action - there weren't many chances to see what a carrier like Cal was actually capable of. However, there is apparently another book that comes after this one called The Last Days. When I get a chance, I'll try it out. Eventually, I'd like to read everything Westerfeld's written - he's become one of my new favorite YA authors.

As an added bonus, this book includes an annotated bibliography, listing some books that those who enjoyed Peeps might want to try. Some of those same books are included in my list.

Read-alikes:
  • The Story of Rats: Their Impact On Us, and Our Impact On Them (non-fiction book) by S. Anthony Barnett - Those who found the aspects of Peeps involving rats interesting might like this excellent and readable book about rats. The author, who was Emeritus Professor of Zoology in the Australian National University at the time this book was first published, has had a great deal of experience with rats, with his interest in them beginning early in the Second World War. Barnett writes a little about rat/human history (early references to rats in human history, theories about how rats came to populate the world, etc.), rats and public health, rat behavior, rats in research, rat feeding habits, and more.
  • I Am Legend (book) by Richard Matheson - A terrible plague of some kind has turned almost all of humanity (and many animals) into blood-thirsty creatures of the night. Robert Neville, who is immune to the disease, appears to be the only remaining uninfected human, although he is hopeful that there are others like him out there and that he can find a cure for the disease. Those who'd like another story in which vampires are caused by something that is grounded in real-world science (virus, parasite, whatever) rather than magic might like this book. Similar to Peeps, things are not what they seem, and there is more to the vampire-like creatures than Robert Neville realizes. This book has also been made into a movie featuring Will Smith - the movie is, not unexpectedly, pretty different from the book, although it keeps the basic premise. Personally, I enjoyed the book more.
  • The Night Watch (book) by Sergei Lukyanenko - I'll admit that the "Night Watch" aspect was what made me think of this book in connection with Peeps, but they have more in common than a name. In this story set in contemporary Moscow, Anton Gorodetsky, a Night Watch agent, falls in love with Svetlana Nazarova, a troubled young doctor under a Dark Magician's curse. Anton's attention is divided between trying to encourage a young man to join the Light Side, helping Svetlana with her curse, and dealing with his own philosophical pondering about the relationship between the Light and Dark Sides. In Lukyanenko's world, the Light and the Dark have an uneasy truce, in which both sides must be allowed to do as their nature dictates, keeping the world in balance. Those who'd like another story dealing with a secret organization/world might like this book. As with Peeps, the mood of this book is a little lonely - Anton's position as a Night Watch agent keeps him removed from the world known by humans, and even his relationship with Svetlana can't be comfortable and nice forever.
  • Neverwhere (book) by Neil Gaiman - Richard Mayhew is any ordinary Londoner with an ordinary life, until he helps out a wounded girl named Door. Door is a resident of London Below, a lost and forgotten world filled with people and places that no one in London Above knows about (or even notices when it's in front of their noses). Richard joins Door, the Marquis of Carabas, and a mysterious woman called Hunter in Door's quest to find out who hired the assassins who murdered her family and want to murder her and why they did so. Those who'd like another book featuring a shadowy other world that exists overlaid on our own world might like this book. As with Peeps, there's a bit of action and romance.
  • Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures (non-fiction book) by Carl Zimmer - Those who'd like to find out more about parasites might like this book by science writer Carl Zimmer, which is also mentioned by Westerfeld in his bibliography. This work of popular science non-fiction is very readable, but also very disgusting - those with weak stomachs may want to avoid it. Like Peeps, this book argues that parasites can be either good or bad and are necessary for the balance and health of the environment.
  • Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants (non-fiction book) by Robert Sullivan - This book is basically New York City history through the lens of its rats - although Sullivan, a journalist, does write about rats, he doesn't write as specifically about rats as Barnett does in The Story of Rats. Besides writing about history, Sullivan writes about his attempts to observe New York City rats, his discussions with exterminators, and more. If you're wondering where Westerfeld got the bit about there being creatures living under New York City that have never seen human beings, this is the book. Those who'd like to read more about New York City and its rats might like this book (it's also listed in Westerfeld's bibliography).

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