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

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

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

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

A twelve-year-old girl leans over to scratch her ankle.

Growing up, I was familiar with Judy Blume. One of my teachers read to our class Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing. On my own, I read her story of a young boy navigating puberty called Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. The writing in them was accessible and really connected with my young self. However, I never got around to reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. That is, not until my recent vacation.

The story is told in the voice of Margaret, a girl turning twelve. And she deals with all the normal things that young girls are challenged by. Among these are buying her first bra, figuring out the place of God in her life, navigating her changing relationship to boys and her female friends, and (eventually) getting her period. And these all feel genuine. They are told in a matter-of-fact way that is frank without being salacious.

Some may find that much of what modern girls deal with is missing. After all, this book was published in the early 1970s. But I would argue that is its charm. Because the things she deals with are universal, they are also timeless. Girls in any decade in the past or future will find something to relate to here and realize that they aren’t alone in their experience. Perhaps that’s why it has touched so many women over the last fifty years.

My rating: 3/5

A Road Trip Audiobook

The Cousins book cover

My partner and I recently took a vacation. We drove from our home in western North Carolina to the Florida panhandle for a week on the beach relaxing. We are both big readers, so on long car trips we borrow audiobooks from the library to listen to while we drive. On this last trip, we listened to The Cousins by Karen M. McManus.

This book is in the young adult (YA) genre. My partner and I both enjoy these books. Many popular and best-selling books are also YA, such as the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games trilogy. This is a stand alone book about three cousins who are invited to work at their grandmother’s resort. Doesn’t sound like much of a story. The twist is that the grandmother disowned the cousins’ parents twenty years ago via a mysterious letter from her lawyer. None of the kids is much interested in going, but their parents make them hoping to get back in the good graces (and the will) of the grandmother.

As you would expect, there are many interesting turns in the story. The characters are well-developed and likeable. There is growth and change for the adults as well as the kids. Each of the cousins was read by a different actor in the audiobook, and the reading/acting was very well done. We really enjoyed listening to this book, and whether you read or listen I encourage you to give it a try.

A Short Review

Cover of book Archenemies

I finished reading Archenemies, and I loved it! It reminded me of how I felt when I watched The Empire Strikes Back. The story was full of action and twists. I was at the edge of my seat in anticipation; I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. The end was a cliff hanger that left me wanting the next in the series right away. Fortunately, the next book has already been published so I don’t have to wait three year for the sequel like I did with Star Wars.


Difficult Questions

Renegades Series Book Covers

I am reading the second book of a young adult trilogy named after the first book of the series, Renegades. It is the story of a world where “prodigies” discover they have super powers. The world is very reminiscent of Marvel’s X-Men. The themes involved are very similar as well. What do we do about people who have powers? What does justice mean in such a world? Who gets to decide?

The story takes place in a city that ten years previous had suffered a great battle between the villains (known as the Anarchists) and superheroes (the Renegades). The Renegades won and now are trying to put the city back together and establish society and culture. The founding members form a council that runs the city and much of the world through a sort of police force of prodigies.

What makes this most interesting is that the story is very open about questioning what it means to be the good guy. The characters start to question why an unelected group of people get to make all the rules. It is clear through the characters that good and bad, hero and villain, are not two sides of the same coin but rather a spectrum. I haven’t yet finished the book, but I am thoroughly enjoying how the two main characters are starting to question who they are and what side they are on.