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

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

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.

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

Starter Villain by John Scalzi

The author’s previous novel Red Shirts plays off the trope that every time in Star Trek a team goes on an away mission, a red shirted security officer dies. The characters slowly realize this is happening to them, and they need to figure out what to do about it. I read this book and enjoyed it very much. It was clever, funny, and propulsive. So when Scalzi came out with his latest novel Starter Villain, I was excited to read it.

The main character is Charlie, a down on his luck divorced substitute teacher trying to buy a pub and change his life. After learning that his estranged Uncle has died, one of his employees shows up with an unusual request. She wants him to “stand up” for his uncle at his funeral. While doing so, things get even weirder. Eventually, he learns that his uncle was a villain, complete with a volcanic island lair and genetically altered sentient cats.

Despite the absurd premise, this novel actually works in the same quirky way that Red Shirts works. Charlie is an every man that is easy to root for as he begins to learn the family business and attempt to hold his own against his competitors. Naturally, not everything goes to plan and the ending is one that I feel like I should have seen coming, but I didn’t. I was simply too busy enjoying the ride to try to figure out where it was going.

My rating: 4/5

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore

I first learned about this book on the podcast What Should I Read Next?. It is the story of a young woman born on New Year’s Day. As the clock strikes midnight ringing in the new year and her nineteenth birthday, she finds herself suddenly in a strange place in a strange version of her body. It turns out that she lives the year nineteen on the inside but fifty-one on the outside. And on the eve of each of her birthday’s she has no idea what year of her life she will live next. In this way, she really does live her life out of order. I found this unusual take on time travel interesting and decided to read the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Oona’s father died when she was a girl and her mother was unusual in the way she raised her. She readily accepts the weird life that her daughter is experiencing and is the one person always there for her on each of her birthdays. She learns about an assistant she has when she is 51/19 who is also there for her in her older years. As such, this is a story of relationships explored through unusual circumstances. In many ways, Oona is forced to mature much quicker than young people often do.

What really touched me about this book is how real it felt despite the rather absurd (but fun!) premise. The challenges that Oona faces may be out place time-wise, but they are very relatable to the reader. And the way she addresses them feels very realistic. I can see someone behaving as she does. The book reminded me of a combination of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. If you liked either of those books, you might enjoy this one as well. It is an amazing story of family, love, growing up, aging, and all the other messy things we call life.

My rating: 4.5/5

Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

I read this for my book club. We are reading it January We read a different genre each month, and January is Science Fiction month.

This book was on a lot of “best of” lists for 2023, and I can see why though it is not a lighthearted read! In the near future, private companies have taken over the prison systems and have created a kind of gladiator system. The federal government passed a law making it possible for prisoners to opt into a death-match program that is televised. In these matches, members of different prison conglomerates (chain gangs) fight each other to the death. It is bloody, violent, and never-ending. That is unless you survive for three years. Then you are exonerated and freed.

The story follows one particular link (what they call members of a chain gang) as she approaches her last two matches. It also follows a protest movement and a particular couple who are watching it. The emotions are strong and deep. I often put the book down at the end of a chapter and got up and walked around just to take a break from the unrelenting drive of this book and its message. it really puts you in the place of the prisoners and how they must be feeling. Interspersed as footnotes are also facts about the US prison system that are just as shocking.

The writing is visceral. It delivers body blow after body blow. But somehow, it isn’t completely bleak. There is hope. And the story is driving and compelling. I would say that I loved this book, but that isn’t quite the correct word. It isn’t really a story to love. I appreciated it. It moved me. I think it is important how through hyperbole it shows what prison does to people, both those incarcerated and those who house them and administer the system. It makes you uncomfortable while it makes you think. That is my kind of book.

My rating: 5/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 55

This is my last magazine review for my year of short fiction. I’ll continue to read short fiction in the new year, but it will be individual stories and anthologies rather that magazines. My reviews here will be mainly for books, though I may read the occasional short fiction magazine as well. My short fiction page will continue to list my favorite short fiction short stories.

Now, here are my reviews for the November/December issue of Uncanny magazine.

The Year Without Sunshine” by Naomi Kritzer: A neighborhood block bands together after a disaster returns them to nearly basic subsistence. The action is centered around making sure a woman with COPD has supplemental oxygen to breath and stay alive. More broadly, it is about how this one neighborhood unselfishly worked together to survive while a nearby suburb was more like every man for himself. (My rating: 4/5)

The Pandemonium Waltz” by Jeffrey Ford: A neighbor and his wife learn of their neighbor couples’ odd experience at an exclusive traveling waltz exhibition. This starts out very matter-of-fact and gets more creepy as it goes on. The question explored is when does a story told to you become your story rather than theirs? Not really my cup of tea. (My rating: 3/5)

The Quiet of Drowning” by Kel Coleman: A teenage girl whose aunt killed herself is checked into a psych ward after attempting suicide. Very disturbing story of someone dealing with urges of self-harm. It is the first thing that has helped me to understand even a little the temptation to harm oneself. The girl sees herself and an Other. The Other is the one who keeps tempting her. (My rating: 4/5)

We’re Looking for the Best” by Cecil Castellucci: A woman who has just lost her job meets an old boss going to a job interview and agrees to join her. I can’t say much more without giving too much away on this one. An interesting tale of finding your niche. (My rating: 4/5)

A Piece of the Continent” by Marissa Lingen: A young woman and her friend set off from Boston to Alaska to scatter their grandfathers’ ashes. They encounter supernatural danger along the way that brings them even closer. (My rating: 4/5)

End of Play” by Chelsea Sutton: The author tells of a play he has written and its first performance. It is also sort of in the style of a play. It feels like a lot of things that don’t really come together for me. (My rating: 2/5)

Esqueleto” by Ana Hurtado: A child tries to get his mother to understand that they live in a whale carcass that is being consumed. This story is a word salad that makes almost no sense. It is like a poem trying to be a story that succeeds at neither. I didn’t even finish reading it. (My rating: 1/5)

The average rating for a story in this issue was only 3.14 out of five stars. That story with a one rating and none with a five really brought the average down for this issue.