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Benjamin and the Paradise Project Paperback – September 15, 2009
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About the Author
Kevin is an educator and writer whose love of books was born when his sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Aida Stroud, read to the class for the last half-hour of every school day and then brought her students to the library and got them each a library card. Pretty soon, Kevin was carrying home and reading stacks of novels. Kevin has a M.A. in English Literature and has written novels, screenplays, TV pilots, and teacher editions of textbooks.
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I will start out by saying that I really enjoyed this story. As a near-middle-ager, I am not the intended audience (it is written for middle-schoolers), but like any good children's story, an adult is not likely to find it tiresome. The "feel" of the story reminded me of "The Giver" by Lowry and "Brave New World" by Huxley (and- somewhat less so- Orwell's "1984"), what with the goal of paradisiacal living and the adored (and strictly regulated) united government. However, the plot felt less "heavy" and less threatening overall, with more room for individuality and human experience. The only character whose development we are really able to observe is that of the protagonist Ben; the others are less-developed and would run the risk of being called "shallow" if this were an entirely self-contained story and not the intended first book of a series. Fortunately it is not, and by the end of the story, the reader knows that there is much more than meets the eye for everyone involved.
Although younger grades (depending on the reading level of the individual) should be able to easily understand the storyline, there is a rather strong presence of the threat of bullying which a parent might wish to be aware of before letting a younger child read it. There are other themes that probably make it best geared towards the middle-school crowd, but as the plot is laid out in such a way that things are gradually introduced, I won't mention them so as to not give anything away. There are certain assumptions that a reader would generally start out with, and it was enjoyable to find that some of my own assumptions were erroneous.
This book is what good science-fiction for this age bracket ought to be. I don't often read sci-fi, since I find that the genre tends to create elaborate technological systems and terminology to the point of tedium. I will admit to an internal "groan" when I first started reading because there is some "futuristic" language, but it is only what is strictly necessary for the storyline, and does not go overboard at all. Despite my prejudice, I found that it did not distract me from the story.
All in all I would say it's a fun read, and would be a good way to engage reluctant readers (particularly boys, I'd wager). The worst part of this book is that a sequel has not yet been written. 4 1/2 stars.
Benjamin is growing up in a place that seems much like the earth of Orwell's 1984: single world language, totally state-controlled media, completely militarized society that seems engaged in perpetual war, students brainwashed into adoration of a charismatic leader from a young age, thought police, etc. There are also vulnerable minority groups which are dehumanized and can be exploited as objects of use. Benjamin senses that there is something amiss in this "perfect" world, and that his family is somehow different, but he's unsure what action he should take. Conflicts at school intensify, and he finds himself increasingly marginalized. Then, just as we think things will improve, we discover more about the "paradise project" --- and learn that the stakes could not be higher for Benjamin and his family. I like these characters very much, and found myself rooting for them and thinking about them long after I'd put the novel down.
The story has some echoes of "Ender's Game," without feeling at all like a knock-off. I mention it because those who enjoy Orson Scott Card will also enjoy this book.
"Benjamin" is the first of a series, and ends not so much with "resolution" but by answering many questions raised in the story and laying out the massive scope of the conflicts to come. I found myself very much wanting to pick up the next book in the series, and hope Mr. Aldrich is able to publish it soon.
Ben's world could almost be ours in America -- for instance, the school system -- but in other ways there are stunning differences: a space fleet of destroyers, a world dominated by one government and one language (eerily like Orwell's 1984), a certain sect of society that is mistreated and looked upon as animals. Is it our world a few years from now? Are we in danger of becoming this world?
It is great fun to watch Ben battle against what he only dimly perceives as either boring or wrong: the indoctrination classes, the school-backed bullies, the arid regimentation of the society. He develops a love for navigating the ocean - called "the Lady" by his fellow surfers. The ocean is like the only true reality that he can reach.
At a certain point in the book, a chink of light from our own history suddenly comes into the novel. I won't say what happens, but that is when I really got hooked. I am eager to read the next in the series!