The Toll (Arc of the Scythe, #3)

The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3) by Neal ShustermanFirst Lines: There was no warning.  One moment he was asleep, and the next he was being rushed through the darkness by people he didn’t know.

I checked this book out a few weeks before quarantine started and honestly…I wanted to read it but I also didn’t.  Based on how the previous two books went, I knew it was going to be a political and social commentary on our world.  And in the midst of everything, that wasn’t the “escape” I wanted.  But I knew that, with my state being one of many reopening, the library was going to want this back.  It was now or never.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

It’s been three years since Citra and Rowan disappeared, presumed dead like so many others caught in a vengeful plot. It’s been three years since Scythe Goddard came into power.  And it’s been three years since the Thunderhead closed itself off to everyone except unremarkable Grayson Tolliver.  The world has changed…but is it too late to save it?

It’s been a good while since I read Thunderhead and I was worried I wouldn’t remember much of the minute details of the story. (And I didn’t.) But whatever.

What I liked about this book is how much of a commentary it ends up being on our world, even though this book is set at least 200 years from now, probably more like at least 250 years. This book, more than the others, felt like a direct comment on the state of the world now. It commented on politics, religions, the corrupting influence of power, demagogues, morality, non-binary people, and more. In each case, you tended to see the good and the bad in both. For example, you see characters who are charismatic leaders–one who is reluctantly taking up the mantel and one that relishes it. And that very clearly showed the differences.

Actually, some of the book was downright frightening and hit way too close to home. There were times I had to put the book down for a while because it had gotten too real. I suppose it wasn’t hard to find inspiration for a lot of these events and characters because you could literally turn on the news and see a lot of this happening worldwide.

I think the story is woven together in a very interesting and fascinating way. There are many characters we see the story from. This story isn’t just about what one person is doing–it’s about the many. So that made sense. And it was brilliant how it jumped from one to the other most of the time, seamlessly flowing as events in one place influenced something else.

My minor complaint with that was that the timeline constantly changed. For some lines, we were 3 years after the events of Thunderhead. In others, it was a few months. Eventually they all caught up, but sometimes knowing where we were on the timeline was a struggle.  Usually I figured it out well after the fact.

The characters obviously are the ones who sell this book–both the good and the bad. We’ve been following Citra and Rowan the whole time, so obviously there’s a connection to them. But I found myself liking characters I didn’t remember (but were in the other books) like Greyson and Munira. The best character, though, was Jerico, a character we just meet this time. Goddard, I felt, became a scarier version of Voldemort in this book. Like, I think even Voldemort would have balked at some of the things Goddard was doing and that says something.

The first 200 pages were a rough read for me just to acclimate to the seriousness of it all and try to figure out what was going on. But after that, I did get drawn into the story.

My real issue with the story was actually the ending. For a series as amazing and dedicated to wrestling with good vs. evil as this series is, I pictures an epic Battle of Hogwarts style ending. Things had to come to a head. But instead, the conclusion was short and pretty unsatisfying. All that build up…and the story just fizzled. I know endings are hard to make everyone happy, but this was about as unsatisfying as the end of Mockingjay.

So yeah, most of the book was good, except the ending. I think this series truly is Shusterman’s crowning achievement and he’s written some amazing books before. But this series…this is next level.

This is a soft 5 roses. I’m actually more inclined to give it a 4.5 or 4.75, but obviously that’s not an option.

Reread: For Darkness Shows the Stars

Hey everyone!  So in my effort to find something to do during this isolation, I’ve started rereading books in series that I haven’t finished but plan to.  And since I owned this book and the sequel (that I hadn’t read), I decided to reread this.  Why not?  It’s been about 7 years since I last read it.  (If you’re interested, my original post/review is here!) For Darkness Shows the Stars (9780062006158 ...Obviously back in the day I loved it.  I gave it 5 stars.  But looking back on it this time, I didn’t really remember why.  In fact, for the last 7 years while I’ve stared at it on my shelf, I couldn’t even really remember liking it.  Not that I hated it or anything, but I was utterly indifferent to it.

In case this is your first time hearing about this book, it’s basically a dystopian take on Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  (Side note: I’ve never read Persuasion.  That may matter later.)  We follow Elliot, a rich Luddite who’s the only one in her family who truly cares about the servants on their land.  Her father and older sister only care about social class and whether they can continue living in comfort.  Four years ago, she had the chance to run away with her childhood love, Kai, a servant on the estate, but she turned him down.  Desperate to bring in some money, Elliot rents out some of the land to the renowned Cloud Fleet, a group of Post-Reductionists (the lower class, essentially) who are changing the world.  And one of their explorers is the famous Captain Malakai Wentforth–or Kai, as Elliot knows him.  There’s a lot of other stuff going on as well, like how Kai is determined to ignore Elliot at every turn, the estate is falling to pieces around her, and the changing of society as a whole.

Rereading my original review really showed me how much I’ve grown as a writer and a book reviewer because it feels really juvenile now.  So let me try to rectify that.

This book is stunning.  Absolutely stunning.  I spent hours at a time just constantly reading to see what happened next–and I’ve already read this once before!

My forte is characters, so let’s start there.  Elliot is a very complex character.  As a Luddite, she is supposed to look down upon the Reduced and the Post-Reductionists.  It’s a long story what those both are and maybe I’ll cover that soon, but just bear with me that they’re the serving classes.  Anyway, Elliot has a big heart that causes her to want the best for her servants, even if it hurts the estate in the end.  That is not a Luddite thought and she frequently gets called out for her “dangerous” ideas by other Luddite characters.  She’s very aware of her duty and while I wouldn’t call her selfless, she is very giving.  She knows what her role is and how to play it.  But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want more out of life.

There are many other amazing characters as well.  Kai isn’t as developed as I would maybe like, but that feels kind of Austen-esque anyway, you know?  (Her books fail the reverse-Bechtel test, which is kind of hilarious.)  But still, Kai is a fascinating character for the way he changes throughout the novel, from what we see of him as a child to the Captain to how he deals with seeing Elliot again.  You really do understand why Elliot loved him.

The minor characters are incredibly interesting as well because they put the social classes into perspective for you.  The other Luddites, the other Posts, the Cloud Fleet, the Reduced.  You see all the different groups and classes and it really helps to build the world that Elliot exists in.

Speaking of that, the world building is phenomenal.  Sure, it essentially looks like a 19th century British estate with some dystopian elements thrown in, but there’s more to the world than that.  There’s a different religious system with its own rich history.  There’s all the genetic engineering they reference and the history around that.  Even the term Luddites comes from the 18th century.  (They were a group of people who opposed the industrialization of Britain and frequently destroyed machinery and factories to slow the march of Progress.)  It was a weird–but awesome–mix of history and futuristic elements.

There are so many layers to this story that work incredibly well.  There’s the focus on social class, the constant question of what kind of Progress is acceptable and what’s playing God, and obviously the very human elements of trying to play nice with an ex you still happen to love.  It’s just so much fun and so immersive.  Like, I feel like I could just about write a dissertation on their world right now.  (That…might be a stretch.)

Anyway, if you’re looking for a fantastic book that will help you lose track of a few hours, I HIGHLY recommend this one.  I’m so glad I rediscovered it on my shelves.

Eve (Eve, #1)

Image result for eve anna careyFirst Lines: By the time the sun set over the fifty-foot perimeter wall, the School lawn was covered with twelfth-year students.  The younger girls leaned out of the dormitory windows, waving their New American flags as we sang and danced.

I’m currently in the process of a complete overhaul of my Goodreads to-list (which has existed since 2008).  Part of that overhaul includes finally getting around to reading books I’ve wanted to read for years.  Or, in this case, a decade.  I’m not kidding.  This was added to my list in 2010.

It has been sixteen years since a deadly plague decimated the Earth’s human population.  After the death of her mother, Eve is taken to a government run School, where she’s taught all the classics and arts with other orphan girls.  But now, at 18 and on the edge of graduation, Eve learns the secret of School and what the girls’ purpose really is.  Desperate, she flees School in an attempt to find somewhere to survive.  Along the way she runs into Arden, her former School rival, and Caleb, a wild boy living in the woods.  Eve has been taught to fear all men, but Caleb seems…different from what she was told.  He promises to protect her and slowly earns her trust.  But when soldiers come looking for Eve, she’ll have to make a choice.  Her life…or her love?

I was a little worried about reading this because I’ve found a good number of books that have not aged well over the past decade.  I was concerned this would be one that halfway through, I’d find myself somewhat disgusted with.

But truly, it was pretty good. I really liked the world that was created, its mix between old and new. It’s set roughly around 2039, if I did my math right. In about 2025, there’s a massive plague that kills off something like 98% of the population, leaving many kids orphans, including our lead Eve. Since Eve was 5 when her mother died, she can sort of remember the world before the plague. And we run into other characters who remember that world (our world) pretty well. But then you have that new world layered on top of it, the one where there’s a King in charge of New America, gangs and soldiers rule the unprotected lands. The land where boys and girls are kept separate and girls are taught how dangerous men and boys can be.

Eve was an interesting character. She’s smart and curious, a combination that pays off well for her at School. As valedictorian of her class, Eve has completely absorbed the government teachings provided to her. But when she gets on the outside and sees that most of what she was taught was skewed, she’s quick to try to learn the truth, even when it hurts. I thought that was an interesting twist to her character.

The plot was interesting, but sometimes it seemed a little over the top. Other times it was fantastically daring. I guess my main beef with it was that Eve couldn’t just be an ordinary girl, she had to be special. Eve running away caused a million complications. I kind of just wanted her to be normal, but then, of course, the series wouldn’t go anywhere. It’s a Catch-22. But there were other times when the plot did not shy away from the harsh realities of Eve’s new life on the run and I appreciated that.

Mostly, I liked it. It’s been a long time since I read a dystopia and this one had really good world building to make me feel like part of it all. The characters were well-written and the plot was good. I do want to see what happens next. Hopefully I don’t wait another 9 years.

Verify (Verify, #1)

Image result for verify joelle charbonneauFirst Lines: My stool creaks in the slate-gray silence.  I stretch, then turn once again to stare at the partially finished canvas.

Oh hey, look at me reading an ARC before it comes out!  On top of reading books I’ve had on my to-read list for a decade, I’m also trying to intentionally read my ARCs before their release date.  (This one drops on September 24th!)  I was drawn to this by the cover and the synopsis.

I’m just gonna copy the synopsis in: Meri Beckley lives in a world without lies. When she turns on the news, she hears only the facts. When she swipes the pages of her online textbooks, she reads only the truth. When she looks at the peaceful Chicago streets, she feels the pride everyone in the country feels about the era of unprecedented hope and prosperity over which the government presides.

But when Meri’s mother is killed, Meri suddenly has questions that no one else seems to be asking. And when she tries to uncover her mother’s state of mind in her last weeks, she finds herself drawn into a secret world full of facts she’s never heard and a history she didn’t know existed.

Suddenly, Meri is faced with a choice between accepting the “truth” she has been taught or embracing a world the government doesn’t want anyone to see—a world where words have the power to change the course of a country, and the wrong word can get Meri killed.

I nabbed it because I liked that it was about books and that it seemed to have a lot to say on our current world.

But oh my gosh, did I almost put it down.

I had a really hard time getting into it. It was such a slow start and I really didn’t see what the point was for a long time. Meri’s world really wasn’t all that different from ours in the beginning, which could be kind of scary if you think about it too much, but it just seemed kind of boring for a dystopian. I didn’t feel like there was much plot until I was at least a quarter of the way through the book.

To me, as well, every character except Meri felt pretty flat. We never get close to any other characters and everything just felt focused more on the book’s philosophy rather than the characters. I just wanted more, something to dig my teeth into.

The philosophy, though, was pretty interesting. It’s definitely a commentary on post-truth ideology. There’s so much about just taking everyone at their word and believing everything you hear because you have no way of checking it (dare I say, verifying their information) when the government is managing all internet access. But again, it took a long time to even get that far.

Maybe this was just the wrong book at the wrong time for me. I just didn’t enjoy it much. There were points when the action kicked up that were pretty good, but I just couldn’t get into it.

The Giver (The Giver, #1)

Image result for the giverFirst Lines: It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.  No.  Wrong word, Jonas thought.  Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen.

This book has caught my attention since it was on the Great American Reads list last summer and did so well.  And then this month, this was an option for my students to read in a book project, so I decided I needed to read it.

In the community, everything is planned to perfection.  Your job, your spouse, your kids.  Everything big has been decided for you and no one minds because it creates stability.  There’s no unemployment, no divorce, no fighting…and no choice.  Everyone is the same, except for Jonas.  At twelve, it is time for Jonas to begin his training for his future career.  But while everyone else is getting normal jobs, Jonas is chosen for something really special.  He begins his work with a mysterious man known only as The Giver and discovers that power lies in feelings.  And when someone he loves is threatened, Jonas has to decide how far he’s willing to go to break society’s rules.

Ok, I know that some of what I say is going to be controversial here, since it’s such a beloved book. But I had a hard time getting into the story.

First of all, I thought everything started off so slow. I know it’s world building (and there were definitely interesting parts to that), but I didn’t really get into the story right away. I couldn’t connect. I didn’t start connecting until we finally got to the Ceremony of Twelve.

I liked the scenes involving The Giver and Jonas. Those were an interesting commentary on our world and theirs. And I liked seeing the way Jonas suddenly saw his world after. That was all really interesting.

But I felt like the plot wasn’t full enough. Everything, to me, felt rushed. I didn’t feel like we saw enough with the Giver, that we saw why their world was the way it was. And that ending? Totally abrupt. I didn’t care for that, even though I think it’s supposed to be that way for a reason.

Maybe I’m just outside the demographic. Maybe because I didn’t have an attachment to it as a child, it doesn’t appeal to me as much. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t my book.

Restore Me (Shatter Me, #4)

Image result for restore meFirst Lines: I don’t wake up screaming anymore.  I do not feel ill at the sight of blood.  I do not flinch before firing a gun.  I will never again apologize for surviving.

As I was walking around the library, I came across this.  Now, I know I’ve been out of the YA game for a little while (like an 9 month hiatus to read mostly nonfiction), but I was a little surprised to see it.  And more than that, excited to jump back into Juliette’s world.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Juliette Ferrars thought it was over.  She’d won Sector 45, was named Supreme Commander, and had the love of her life by her side.  She can still kill with the touch of her hand, but her control is strong.  But suddenly the ground is shifting underneath her.  Juliette thought ruling would be easy–but when the realities of the job and tragedies all strike at once, what is she going to do?

Like basically everyone, I assumed this series was over after 3 books.

I sort of wish I could go back in time.

I’ve always respected Juliette in this series. To have risen from her horrific beginning to become the strong, incredible leader she was was amazing. And her metaphorical, lyrical way of describing everything was nothing short of beautiful.  Like, I would get some of her quotes tattooed on my body beautiful.

So it’s really unfortunate that basically everything I loved about Juliette wasn’t present in this book. As the Supreme Commander of Sector 45, Juliette is now treated like an imbecile because she doesn’t know how to rule a country. And that completely disregards the fact that no one is telling her anything. They’re making her look stupid, so she feels weak and stupid rather than the brave, powerful girl she is. It was disheartening and difficult to read.  Not to mention her lyrical observations are also gone.  I don’t know if that’s a reflection of her sanity, her practicality as a ruler, or laziness on the author’s part.  But I missed it.

And as far as the other characters go, I feel like we saw remarkably little of any of them besides Warner, who was really the only one that I actually liked reading about in this book. Even Kenji, who is so hysterically funny when he wants to be, seemed muted.

The plot, to me, seemed fractured. If you asked me to summarize this story, I’m not sure I could. There’s so much going on that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. And the fact that none of them are really resolved only makes it worse. But it basically started to focus on one thing, then, because the story flips between Juliette and Warner narrating every like 10 pages, it jumps to whatever the other one is doing at that time. Like a broken mirror, the pieces of this story were everywhere and it was hard to keep track of all of the parts.

It just seemed forced. So much of this story was, “Oh, you’ve never heard of this? Yeah, it’s been around forever.” Which, in a way, was understandable given Juliette’s background. However, it seemed so fake.  No one treated her–the Supreme Commander–like she was worth respecting.

What I will say for this book is that, as always, the suspense is there. Even when I didn’t want to keep reading, I was still thinking about where the story would go. And that ending…let it never be said that Tahereh Mafi doesn’t know how to end a book on a cliffhanger.

But all in all, I kind of wish I’d just let Juliette’s story end before this.