Sometimes I get lucky with spontaneous book selections, and sometimes I don’t. A few weeks ago, luck was on my side when I stumbled upon Streams of Babel, by Carol Plum-Ucci, while perusing the audiobook shelf at the library. In this case, the cover description hints at an interesting premise, but as with many characters in the book, there is more to this story than meets the eye.
It begins when seventeen-year-old Cora Holman’s mother dies of a brain aneurysm in their home. Cora is not entirely surprised by this turn of events since her mother has been a morphine addict for years. But after her neighbors Scott and Owen Eberman’s mother suffers a similar death within twenty-four hours, suspicions are raised. And when all three teens begin to exhibit the same flu-like symptoms as their deceased mothers, it becomes virtually impossible to deny that this is more than just a coincidence, particularly since the daughter of a United States Intelligence Coalition supervisor has also become ill.
Determined to contain the virus, if in fact it is one, vigilant paramedic Scott arranges an unofficial quarantine at Cora’s house. At first, Cora is horrified that her pathetic lack of friends and family will be discovered by this group that is revered at school, but their shared experience begins to break down the barriers between them, whether real or self-imposed.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani boy is hard at work as the USIC’s secret weapon in the fight against terrorism. A virtual spy, or v-spy, Shahzad Hamdani has picked up some extremist chatter about a lethal and undetectable substance called Red Vinegar that will kill many people in Colony One. Will Shahzad discover the contents of Red Vinegar and the location of Colony One in time?
Set in New Jersey six months after 9/11, Streams of Babel is a gripping thriller that offers so much more than an all too feasible tale of bioterrorism. The story is chock-full of discussion material and teen characters that are richly developed, authentic, and relatable. In addition to themes of terrorism and courage, there is an underlying theme about perception versus reality, and how our own internal dialogues can be vastly different from how we are perceived by others.
Cora sees herself as unworthy of friendship, while others perceive her as perfect–from behavior to appearance. To protect herself from the shame of having an addict mother, Cora has built an impenetrable emotional wall around herself. A former photojournalist, Cora’s mother Aleese was absent for most of Cora’s life and emotionally abusive during the four years they did live together. But after discovering videos of Aleese in Mogadishu, Cora realizes that before the pivotal event that took away her ability to photograph and will to live, Aleese was unquestionably courageous and fiercely committed to her beliefs. And when the teens Cora has looked up to for years stand behind her throughout this discovery and their shared illness, her walls finally start to crumble.
Known as the quintessential jock who is universally adored, there is also much more to Owen than meets the eye. Prone to bouts of overwhelming sadness over the state of the world, the compulsively empathetic Owen refuses to judge the terrorists who have poisoned him and his family without first trying to understand them. Also stereotyped as a golden boy, Owen’s older brother Scott is extremely responsible, extraordinarily bright, and driven to get to the bottom of the mysterious death of his mother.
Shazhad is an interesting and complex character who provides valuable insight into a culture with which many readers are unfamiliar. Determined not to miss any bits of intelligence that could prevent the death of innocent people, Shazhad’s job as a v-spy for the USIC weighs heavily on him. Tyler Ping, another highly skilled hacker, is an irreverent and fascinating character whose mother is a spy for North Korea. Emotionally broken by the combination of his mother’s secret and her inattentiveness, Tyler has no sense of self-preservation–as if he wants to get in trouble so that his mother will be discovered without having to betray her himself.
All told, a riveting plot and intriguing characters make Streams of Babel a worthwhile read that is difficult to put down. And the really good news…there’s a sequel. Fire Will Fall is officially at the top of my to-read list! Enjoy.