The Toll by Neal Shusterman

This is the conclusion of the Arc of a Scythe trilogy. It centers around the climax of the second book and how the world reacted. Its hard to say much more without spoilers.

I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first two. The action takes place over three years but it isn’t always clear what order things happen in. The story is not sequential. Some action is told toward the end of the three years, then it moves to right after the second novel concluded. It is made explicit the first time, but after that you pretty much have to track it on your own. And there is a lot more happening with more characters in more places. I liked the focused nature of the first two books better.

That said, I still enjoyed this book. There is a lot of action and introspection by the characters deciding who they are and what they are about. I have to admit that I saw in part the end coming, but even so, I found it satisfying.

My rating: 3.5/5

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

This is yet another book that I likely would never have read if it weren’t for my reading club. In April, we read a biography or memoir. While I was a fan of Bruce Springsteen in the ’80s, I had never heard of him before that. After that, I didn’t really follow him. So I was kind of “meh” about reading this book going in.

It is a little slow and choppy in the beginning part where he is talking about his childhood and family. The language is very poetic and flowery with similes and metaphors all over the place. Essentially what you would expect from such a prolific and successful songwriter. And the storytelling leaves gaps that seem to be expected to be filled in by the context but for me did not quite work. It left me feeling a little lost from what he was trying to say in places. But when he starts on his independent life and starting to make music for a living, it really hums! I listened to the songs as he mentioned them in the text. It felt a bit like having a soundtrack to the book.

Springsteen is a real poet and storyteller. He really gets to the heart of the human condition and shares it in a way that really connects with the reader and listener. While he doesn’t “tell all”, he is very open about the things he struggled with, particularly his mental health. He really did feel like an NJ working man who just happened to make it big.

My rating: 4/5

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman is the sequel to his previous book Scythe in his Arc of a Scythe series. This book picks up about a year after the events of the first one. Rowan, as renegade Scythe Lucifer, has taken the ring of Scythe Goddard and is killing and burning the bodies of scythes who treat their role without the respect it deserves. Citra, now Scythe Anastasia, gleans in a new manner, giving her victims a month to get their affairs in order before she gleans them. But there is a someone out there who doesn’t seem to be okay with her new ways and seeks to end her.

There are a few new characters in the story, the main one being the Thunderhead itself. There is a quote from it before nearly all of the chapters. It is not allowed to interfere with the affairs of scythes but is concerned about the direction the scythedom is taking. It is fascinating to have the perspective of an all-knowing, all-seeing benevolent AI in this story. This sequel continues to look at the moral underpinnings and questions of this society while combining it with a rip roaring thriller of a mystery that has a number of mind-bending twists. This series still has me, and I can’t wait to read the next.

My rating: 4/5

Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

I’ve been hearing about this book almost since it came out. There has been a lot of buzz around it. But historically I have not been a big fan of fantasy. When I think fantasy, I think elves and dwarfs and kings and queens and court intrigue and am just bored to death. Not interested. But I have read a lot more fantasy than usual lately and really liked it, though most of it has been urban fantasy. Recently, as my partner was reading this book, she told me numerous times that I would really like it. She has been right every other time, so I decided to finally read it. I think I need to change my first reaction to fantasy going forward.

The story is about a young woman who has studied to be a Scribe her entire youth. But as the day approaches for her to officially choose that direction, her military general mother requires her to become a Rider. This is a dangerous pursuit where most candidates die during training. At the end of the training, the cadets parade before dragons who may or may not choose them. And if they don’t find them worthy to even consider, may incinerate them. This would be challenging for any cadet, but the protagonist has limbs that easily disjoint and break, making her appear weak to other cadets and the dragons. The young woman makes her way through this school for Riders where her male best friend growing up preceded her by a year. Their relationship isn’t what is used to be. At the same time, the son of an executed traitor has it in for her as do many other cadets who see eliminating her a way to make their own path easier.

As I write this description, it all feels very melodramatic, but the writing is tight and keeps the story humming along. It never felt overly dramatic to me and very true to life as far as relationships go. This book falls into the newer category often referred to as romantasy, that is romantic fantasy. And there are some steamy sex scenes that would not be out of place in a romance novel. Remarkably, this all held together for me. I always wanted to find out what would happen next. But I never felt I knew for sure what that would be (though I had ideas). This is the first book in a series. I don’t often read the second book in a series these days, but I will be reading the sequel to this one very soon!

My rating: 4/5

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

I first heard about this book last year when someone suggested it in my book club. It didn’t get chosen then, but I heard more about it on a podcast episode. I was blown away by the story of these young women (girls, in many cases). So when this book came back around this year as a possibility for our book club, I was excited when it was selected.

It is the well-researched history of mostly teenage women who worked painting luminous watches and other instruments in the early part of the twentieth century. What made the watches glow was radium in the paint. At that time, they weren’t fully aware of the dangers of radiation. In fact, radium was often seen as a miracle cure. But as the dangers became known to the employers, they did nothing to protect their employees. These young women would even put the tip of the paint brush in their mouths to get a fine point. And they were playful with it, painting themselves with it like makeup before they went out after work.

Years down the road, they started having medical problems that no one understood. The most common was their teeth falling out and their jaws literally coming apart. Eventually they discovered that it was the paint that had caused their issues. They hired lawyers to sue the employers who fought them with everything they had.

This is a hard read, but not because of the writing. The writing is excellent. But to read what these women went through physically and emotionally due to the negligence and heartlessness of their employers was deeply effecting. If this had been fiction, I would have had a hard time finding it believable. It is important to remember what these women went through to fight for workers’ rights.

My rating: 4.5/5

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

This was a humorous, fun novel filled with adventure and plot twists. It opens with the main character getting fired during his first performance review at a startup delivering food just as the pandemic kicks off in 2020. I know, not so funny but hang in there with me. The humor is in the situations themselves as well as the banter between the characters. Ironically, he ends up being a driver for the same company. While driving he connects with one guy he delivers to regularly who ends up offering him a job “lifting things”. This job turns out to be for the titular organization in a parallel universe. The kaiju are Godzilla like creatures in this alternate universe that were the inspiration for the original Godzilla movie. The secret organization that preserves them also protects our world and theirs from intermingling too much. Naturally, that is a harder job than it seems.

The prose is a little more explanatory than I would have liked. The description of what the kaiju are and how they work is interesting if a little convoluted. But in the end it all comes together for a rip roaring adventure that really had me turning the pages right to the end.

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

Before the recent Academy Awards ceremony, the nominated short documentary The ABCs of Book Banning was available to watch in its entirety (you can watch the trailer here). The premise of the short film was to give banned books to school kids to get their thoughts on why they might be banned. It is well worth watching and is available on Paramount+. Gender Queer was one of those banned books, so I decided to read it myself.

The book is a memoir in graphic novel form. In it the author tells eir story of growing up with gender dysphoria and coming to understand that e was nonbinary and asexual. I have to admit that the whole transgender and nonbinary controversy is a little challenging for me. As a cishet man, I honestly don’t understand it. That’s part of why I read this book. But I don’t need to understand it in order to allow others to be themselves.

This book was exactly what I was looking for. It gave me a glimpse at the life of one real person who lived through the confusion of dealing with gender dysphoria and how e came to understand who e was. It was both educational and transformative for me. I now feel I have a better understanding of what this issue means and how it can be addressed with compassion and understanding. I still don’t completely get it, but this book was an excellent start on my growth in this area.

My rating: 4/5

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

I found the premise of this book absolutely fascinating. In a future that feels much like our own, death has been conquered. All disease has been cured. Anyone who accidentally dies can be brought back to life at a regeneration center. Effectively, everyone lives forever. In this society, a need was felt to mitigate this with people whose job it is to select people to be “gleaned”, that is killed permanently by a special class of people referred to as “scythes”. This premise sets up a lot of questions about ethics and population control and what meaning does life have if it effectively has no end? And the book delivers on that promise.

While delivering on the philosophical aspects of its premise, it also tells a rip roaring adventure tale of mystery, intrigue, and suspense. The two main characters are teenage apprentice scythes who once they graduate will be licensed to glean on their own. Their teacher is a scythe of the old school who takes his responsibility very seriously. In fact, he feels that anyone who wants to be a scythe should not be. He sees something in these two teenagers that he feels would make excellent scythes. In contrast to this is a group of newer scythes who revel in what they do and feel constrained by the ethics of their order.

This is my favorite kind of science fiction. It takes a “what if” position and nudges it into our future. Then it extrapolates and explores what might happen in those conditions. At the same time it tells a rousing story of everyday people trying to find their way in this world. This is the first book of a series. I cannot wait to get started on the next one.

My rating: 5/5

Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo

Last year was my year of short fiction. In addition to all the short stories I read, I collected a number of novellas to read. This was one of them. I was drawn to it because part of its premise is a scientist who figures out how to share the experience of a wolf. It did not disappoint.

As the story opens, the scientist and her team are performing surgery on a wolf in the wild to implant a device in her brain that will broadcast to a corresponding device in the scientist’s brain. When the connection is turned on, the scientist is able to experience all that the wolf sees, hears, smells, and feels. Naturally this experience is in many ways quite foreign for a human and begins to affect the scientist. At the same time, the scientist is experiencing relationship difficulties with her wife.

I loved this short novel! It deals with so many complex topics in ways that really connected with me. It didn’t feel heavy handed or like it was trying to give particular answers. It was more of an exploration of the complexity of human relationships as well as relationships between human animals and the rest of the animal kingdom and the natural world. I found it incredibly moving and a rich reading experience.

My rating: 5/5

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

In my adolescence, Heinlein was one of my favorite authors. I read both Stranger in a Strange World and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and enjoyed them both a great deal. So, I decided to read this other Hugo winner by him. I have to say I was largely disappointed.

Perhaps my disappointment was due to unmet expectations. I knew that the story involved a space soldier in the future when humanity is at war with an alien race referred to as the Bugs, since they look like giant earth insects. This was further reinforced from the ads for the movie that came out in 1997. As a result, I was expecting a war story largely about battles with the aliens. It wasn’t that at all. It was largely the autobiographical journey of a young man who decides to enlist, from boot camp through to his going to school to become an officer. Most, if not all, of the battle scenes were in the largest and penultimate chapter.

Once I got over my unmet expectations, it was simply a story of a future soldier, why he joined up, and his journey in the military. It seemed fairly accurate to how military things go. It also went into some detail about the culture and how society was built around military service. I didn’t think it was spectacular, but I also didn’t think it was that big of a deal. It was certainly no award winner to me. But maybe it was in the time it was published. After all, it was originally published in 1959.

My rating: 3/5