Book Review: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3) by Neal Shusterman

Title: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 625 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

It’s been three years since Rowan and Citra disappeared; since Scythe Goddard came into power; since the Thunderhead closed itself off to everyone but Grayson Tolliver.

In this pulse-pounding conclusion to New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, constitutions are tested and old friends are brought back from the dead.

 

The Toll wraps up the futuristic story begun in 2016’s Scythe and continued in 2018’s Thunderhead. In these books, author Neal Shusterman presents a post-mortal world, where an all-knowing AI has become sentient and has solved all of the world’s problems, from starvation to disease to crime to poverty. Humankind is essentially immortal.

To preserve the fine balance of resources and needs, the only authority left in the world is the scythedom — people given the authority and responsibility to “glean” a certain percentage of the world’s population in order to make sure that the perfect world can continue to support everyone who’s left. And it works, for the most part… except that it’s still true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there are those among the scythedom who revel in their own power and the thrill of the kill, rather than seeing themselves as servants of the greater good.

In The Toll, the world is, basically, going to hell in a handbasket. The reasonable and responsible old-guard scythes have mostly all been eliminated, and the most corrupt and power-hungry scythe of all has taken over, with the goal of nothing less than world domination.

In this scary world, there are still scythes on the fringes, working to evade or undermine this new order, as well as a group hand-picked by the Thunderhead to create a mysterious settlement in an unknown tropical location. Meanwhile, the oddball religious cult known as Tonists have a new prophet, and their popularity and power seems to be on the rise as well.

At 625 pages, The Toll is longer than either of the preceding books, and while I get that there’s a lot to wrap up, it’s also overstuffed and often meandering. What I really loved about Scythe, in addition to the fascinating world created in its pages, are the characters and their moral dilemmas, as well as their personalities and their relationships.

Much of that is sacrificed in The Toll for the sake of plot, plot, and more plot. We spend very little time with the young heroes from the previous two books. Instead, the cast of characters is even broader than before, and we jump around the globe constantly. On the one hand, it’s pretty remarkable how the author keeps so many plot strands in play and connected; on the other hand, this book feels much less personal and much more action-driven.

Also, for a YA trilogy, this final installment spends a lot more time with its adult characters than with its younger, teen/young adult people, which is perhaps an odd choice.

Did I enjoy The Toll? Yes, for the most part. I’m actually quite satisfied with the wrap-up to the trilogy and the clever solutions and outcomes. However… there were lots of moments within the book where the length just made me downright tired. I think a lot could have been trimmed, and I would have preferred a more intimate scale rather than trying to encompass the entire world.

Still, the trilogy as a whole is mesmerizing, presenting a flawed utopia and showing how a society can only be as perfect as its most imperfect members. I loved the concept and the world-building, and have no hesitation about recommending these books.

And now, for those who have already read the books, here are my lingering questions and quibbles.

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS!

Just a few of the little fiddly bits that continue to bug me after reading the book:

  • The Thunderhead is not able to break the laws that govern its interactions. Who created those laws?
  • Did the founding scythes program the Thunderhead so it would have no contact with the scythedom? Or did the Thunderhead institute the scythedom and then create the separation itself?
  • How did the founding scythes first form and settle upon their purpose? Again, were they created by the Thunderhead?
  • We only know that the Thunderhead can’t break the law because it repeatedly says so. Can the Thunderhead change its own programming? Could someone else change it?
  • How did the founding scythes create the scythe diamonds in the first place? We know that scythe technology is way behind what the Thunderhead can do, and that without the Thunderhead, technology just isn’t particularly reliable.
  • Why wouldn’t people rise up in protest against the scythes and their mass gleanings long before the events in The Toll?

Okay, those are just my initial random thoughts and questions immediately after finishing the book. If you’ve read these and have thoughts on any of these (or anything else related to the story!), please add your comments!

Shelf Control #200: Still Life by Louise Penny

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache, #1)
Author: Louise Penny
Published: 2005
Length: 321 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

As the early morning mist clears on Thanksgiving Sunday, the homes of Three Pines come to life – all except one…

To locals, the village is a safe haven. So they are bewildered when a well-loved member of the community is found lying dead in the maple woods. Surely it was an accident – a hunter’s arrow gone astray. Who could want Jane Neal dead?

In a long and distinguished career with the Sûreté du Quebec, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has learned to look for snakes in Eden. Gamache knows something dark is lurking behind the white picket fences, and if he watches closely enough, Three Pines will begin to give up its secrets…

How and when I got it:

Picked up at a library book sale, sometime within the last few years.

Why I want to read it:

Talk about being late to the party. EVERYONE seems to love this series, and I can’t even tell you how many people have pushed this book on me over the years. And while I’m not a huge mystery fan, the small-town, remote setting absolutely appeals to me, and I’ve heard nothing but good things. In fact, the main reason I still haven’t started this book is the fact that the series is up to 15 books so far! I’m afraid that I’ll like it TOO much, will want to continue, and will end up with a new obsession. Call me crazy. I know I’m missing out, and just have to convince myself to dive in!

What do you think? Have you read this book? Have you read the whole series? And if I start, will I be able to stop?

Please share your thoughts!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Title: Such a Fun Age
Author: Kiley Reid
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: December 31, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

A striking and surprising debut novel from an exhilarating new voice, Such a Fun Age is a page-turning and big-hearted story about race and privilege, set around a young black babysitter, her well-intentioned employer, and a surprising connection that threatens to undo them both.

Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living showing other women how to do the same. A mother to two small girls, she started out as a blogger and has quickly built herself into a confidence-driven brand. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night. Seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, a security guard at their local high-end supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make it right.

But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.

With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone “family,” the complicated reality of being a grown up, and the consequences of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Such a Fun Age? Such a good book!

I’ve been seeing glowing reviews for this book on all sorts of book blogs over the last few weeks, and the hype has only intensified now that Such a Fun Age has been chosen as the newest Reese Witherspoon book club pick.

Debut author Kiley Reid highlights a complex web of issues surrounding race, income inequality, social power, and more in this intriguing look at the intersections of family and privilege.

25-year-old Emira is a college grad who’s at loose ends, never having found her passion or true calling. She makes ends meet — barely — by working as a part-time typist and babysitting three days per week for a precious little almost-three-year-old named Briar.

Briar’s parents, Alix and Peter, are recent transplants from New York to Philadelphia. Alix is a social media influencer who has somehow parlayed her talent for getting corporations to send her free stuff in exchange for media coverage into a career as an inspirational speaker and advocate for women’s voices. She lives for the attention and perceived power, loves the image of herself as an influential, visionary women’s leader, and doesn’t particularly have the attention or patience for a small child.

Alix and Peter are white and affluent; Emira is African American and living payday to payday, relying on her more successful friends’ generosity and worrying about her upcoming 26th birthday when she’ll lose her health insurance coverage as her parents’ dependent.

Emira and Briar have an amazing bond. It’s not that Emira loves kids — she just gets Briar and adores her, and the feeling is mutual.

The action starts as Emira is out partying with friends and gets a frantic call from Alix. There’s an emergency at the house, and they need Emira to come take Briar out for a bit. Yes, it’s 10 pm, but this is truly urgent. Emira agrees, and takes Briar to a favorite location, the snooty upper-class (and very white) neighborhood market, where Briar loves to look at the bins of nuts and teas.

Things go wrong, and quickly. Another shopper is suspicious of the young black girl in the party dress toting around a small blonde child. Security intervenes, and things get ugly, and the incident is captured on video by a do-gooder bystander. The incident is awful and upsetting, and Emira just wants to put it behind her once it’s over.

At the same time, Alix develops an odd fascination with Emira, who is unfailingly polite but not particularly interested in Alix. Alix sees herself in a saviour role, wanting to help Emira, bond with her, enrich her life, and become her bestie. She’d love to convince herself and all her friends that Emira is part of the family. But why this growing obsession? What’s behind her need to know and be involved?

As the story progresses, things get more and more complicated. The point of view shifts between Alix and Emira, so we get very different reads on the same situations. And when an unexpected connection between Alix and Emira’s new boyfriend is revealed, complication escalate even further.

It’s a fascinating story. The characters are multi-faceted and often surprising. Honestly, it’s really difficult to like Alix even a little bit, even understanding some of the pain and difficulty in her background. Emira’s boyfriend Kelley also has issues, and despite seeming like a mostly stand-up guy, there are certainly some questions about his interpretation of events, his motivations, and his choices.

Emira is very much a woman of the times, 20-something, economically unsteady, wanting more but not sure what or how to move forward, torn between practicality, her own interests, and what everyone else seems to think is best for her.

The author captures so much about the chasms in today’s society in terms of race and social status and affluence. She shows the privilege that pervades self-identified liberals’ attitudes and the (perhaps) unwitting arrogance that makes a person of wealth and influence feel that they know how best to help someone with less.

I loved the writing and the zippy dialogue, as well as the plot that races through the story without short-changing the characters and their conflicts. It’s fascinating to see how different characters’ memories and interpretations of the same events can be so wildly different.

I’m not surprised to see this book being picked up as a book group choice both by mega-star clubs like Reese’s and by casual groups too. In fact, that’s my one complaint — where’s a book group when I need it?

It’s maddening to have no one to talk about this book with. There’s so much to discuss and pull apart and argue over! This is a book that I’ll definitely be pushing into the hands of as many of my bookish friends as possible.

Top Ten Tuesday: New-to-Me Authors I Read In 2019

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Bookish Discoveries I Made In 2019. For this week’s list, I thought I’d use a favorite annual topic, focusing on new-to-me authors I had the pleasure of “discovering” during the past year.

Here are some of the great books I read in 2019 that are by authors I’d never read before:

1) John Boyne — Now that I’ve read The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I must read more of his work.

2) Craig DiLouie — I loved the two powerful and disturbing novels by this author that I read in 2019: One of Us and Our War.

3) L. M. Montgomery – I finally read the Anne of Green Gables series — all eight books! In this new year, I hope to read some of her other works as well.

4) Christina Henry – I loved The Girl in Red and The Mermaid. Now I need to read everything else she’s written.

5) Leigh Bardugo — I really enjoyed the complicated, creepy Ninth House. I’m not sure that I’m interested in reading her YA books, but I certainly want a sequel to Ninth House!

6) Theodora GossThe Thorn and the Blossom was beautiful, and I got a huge kick out of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. I’ll be continuing that series shortly, I hope.

7) Kelli EstesToday We Go Home is a powerful dual-timeline narrative focusing on women at war. Now that I’ve read it, I need to read her earlier novel which I missed when it was one of my book group’s picks. Talented writer!

8) T. KingfisherThe Twisted Ones was perfectly creepy (and has great humor and a great dog). I’ll be wanting to read more by this author too!

9) Alix E. Harrow — Her debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January was brilliant. Can’t wait to see what she does next!

10) Lindy West — I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I’m so glad I made time for Shrill. This author has a lot to say, and knows how to say it.

Are you a fan of any of these new-to-me authors? Are there any of their works that you’d particularly recommend?

What bookish discoveries did you make in 2019? Please share your TTT links!

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The Monday Check-In ~ 1/13/2020

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

Well, once again — and for completely different reasons — this was a surgery week for me! Weird, right? I’d been on a waiting list for an elective procedure for almost two years, and right at the end of December got a call that my doctor had a cancellation coming up, and did I want it? I said YES and didn’t allow myself to do any second-guessing… and here I am, almost a week post-procedure, feeling fine and taking some time off work to rest and heal.

And hey, we all know that “time off” to “rest and heal” really just equates to more time to read!

What did I read during the last week?

Welcome to the Pine Away Motel and Cabins by Katarina Bivald: Sad to say, I didn’t end up loving this slice-of-life novel, which was a big disappointment to me, since I loved the author’s first book. Ah well, can’t win ’em all! My review is here.

Cibola Burn by James S. A. Corey: Ooh boy, I went a little Expanse-crazy this week, finishing not only this massive book (#4 in the series), but also 4 shorter works and a graphic novel. My review of Cibola Burn is here. The other stuff I read:

And also this week, after my Expanse binge:

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire: The newest installment in the excellent Wayward Children series. I loved it! My review is here.

Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse: A fun middle grade adventure grounded in Navajo mythology. My review is here.

Pop culture:

Somewhat against my first instincts, I ended up watching The Witcher. After two episodes, I was convinced it was pure cheese, but then the story started growing on me, as did certain characters (especially Yennefer.) (And I’m kind of fascinated by the bard, too.) I’m on the fence about whether I actually recommend this show, but it did keep my interest. And I may even have to give the books a try. And yeah, I’m sure I’ll be back whenever season 2 comes around.

Oh, and in case you’re as obsessed with the bard’s song “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” as the rest of the world seems to be, here’s a Twitter thread with versions of the song in twelve different languages: https://twitter.com/_lemonowa_/status/1210171703432765442

Fresh Catch:

One new book this week — Come Tumbling Down (above), already devoured! Yum yum.

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Ooh, debating which of these two to start next!

They both sound great!

Now playing via audiobook:

The Book of Dust (La Belle Sauvage) by Philip Pullman: I just didn’t make much progress this week, considering I was out of commission for most of it. I’m hoping to get back into a daily walking routine this week, and if I do, it’ll be with this book plugged into my ears!

Ongoing reads:

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck: My book group’s classic read! We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week. Really a fun book!

So many books, so little time…

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Book Review: Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Title: Race to the Sun
Author: Rebecca Roanhorse
Publisher: Disney Book Group / Rick Riordan Presents
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Lately, seventh grader Nizhoni Begay has been able to detect monsters, like that man in the fancy suit who was in the bleachers at her basketball game. Turns out he’s Mr. Charles, her dad’s new boss at the oil and gas company, and he’s alarmingly interested in Nizhoni and her brother, Mac, their Navajo heritage, and the legend of the Hero Twins. Nizhoni knows he’s a threat, but her father won’t believe her.

When Dad disappears the next day, leaving behind a message that says “Run!”, the siblings and Nizhoni’s best friend, Davery, are thrust into a rescue mission that can only be accomplished with the help of Diné Holy People, all disguised as quirky characters. Their aid will come at a price: the kids must pass a series of trials in which it seems like nature itself is out to kill them. If Nizhoni, Mac, and Davery can reach the House of the Sun, they will be outfitted with what they need to defeat the ancient monsters Mr. Charles has unleashed. But it will take more than weapons for Nizhoni to become the hero she was destined to be . . .

Timeless themes such as the importance of family and respect for the land resonate in this funny, fast-paced, and exciting quest adventure set in the American Southwest. 

What fun! Race to the Sun is the middle grade children’s adventure novel that we absolutely needed!

Written by the talented Rebecca Roanhorse, Race to the Sun uses Navajo mythology in an epic quest full of danger and trials. Main characer Nizhoni, a 7th grader who wants to be special, finds herself able to sense monsters — a gift which becomes crucial when her father goes missing.

Accompanied by younger brother Mac and best friend Davery, these three tweens must navigate the American Southwest through landmarks both real and fantastical, facing down monsters and accepting assistance from legendary characters such as Spider Woman, Yellow Corn Girl, and the Sun himself.

Along the way, the children learn lessons about bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, and the importance of their roots and their connection to their people’s past.

(It’s also an understated but quite effective premise to have the bad guy being the head of an oil company that wants to exploit ancestral clan powers to help his frakking business!)

The adventure skips along quickly, with moments of scary breathlessness as well more humorous interludes and moments of sadness and loss. All are woven together into a quest story that never flags, throwing in unexpected twists and turns as well as moments of grace and insight.

Race to the Sun is part of Disney’s Rick Riordan Presents imprint, described on Rick Riordan’s website as:

Our goal is to publish great middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage. Over the years, I’ve gotten many questions from my fans about whether I might write about various world mythologies, but in most cases I knew I wasn’t the best person to write those books. Much better, I thought, to use my experience and my platform at Disney to put the spotlight on other great writers who are actually from those cultures and know the mythologies better than I do. Let them tell their own stories, and I would do whatever I could to help those books find a wide audience!

This is a fitting home for Race to the Sun, as I can see this book absolutely being a hit for kids who’ve read and loved the Percy Jackson books and are eager for more tales of heroes and legends and the ordinary kids who find hidden gifts inside themselves.

I also think it’s important that both Native and non-Native young readers have the opportunity to be exposed to mythologies beyond the Greek and Roman that are taught in school. Race to the Sun does this in an engaging, authentic way without ever making it feel like being force-fed something educational.

Highly recommended for middle grade readers and their parents, teachers, and anyone else who appreciates seeing well-written, engrossing stories with multicultural perspectives end up in the hands of excited readers!

Book Review: Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Length: 206 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The fifth installment in Seanan McGuire’s award-winning, bestselling Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down picks up the threads left dangling by Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister–whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice–back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.

I adore Seanan McGuire. I adore everything she writes. I adore the Wayward Children series.

So is it any surprise when I say that I loved Come Tumbling Down?

In this, the 5th installment in what I hope will be a long, ongoing series of fantasy novellas, we return to the events of book #2, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and finally find out what happened next.

Which, right off the bat, tickles me pink, because Down Among the Sticks and Bones is — no question about it — my favorite in the entire series. So I was thrilled to return to the world of the Moors, the war between mad scientists and vampires, and the struggle to resurrect and reanimate that which has been lost.

For those new to this series, the basic idea is this: Eleanor West runs a boarding school for children who’ve returned to their parents’ homes after an absence which has left them strange and unmanageable. What the parents don’t understand, but Eleanor West certainly does, is that these missing children found doors to other worlds — world of logic or nonsense, worlds of virtue or wickedness, and all sorts of points on the compass between extremes**. Whether kicked out or voluntarily returned, the children no longer fit in their mundane lives, but find solace and shelter with the other misfits like themselves at the home for wayward children.

In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we learned about twins Jack and Jill and their time spent on the Moors. We pick up their story in Come Tumbling Down as one of the twins returns to the school – but which one?

Oh, I really don’t want to give anything away! This book, like all the others, is filled to the brim with fantasy and danger and challenges, but rooted deeply by its unique and memorable characters. There’s Sumi, a nonsense girl who knows her destiny lies in the world of Confection; Cora, a mermaid who longs to return to the sea; Kade, a Goblin prince who accepts that his chosen world may not choose him any longer; and Christopher, who dreams of life in the land of Mariposa with his true love, the Skeleton Girl.

When the missing twin returns and needs help with her life-or-death quest, the friends are quick to stand by her and venture through the door to the Moors, risking their own lives in an attempt to right the balance so crucial in that world.

As in all of the Wayward Children books, Seanan McGuire’s writing is lyrical and magical, infusing every moment with otherworldly flavors and fantastical elements, some menacing, some magical, some downright funny.

I’ll share some chosen selections here, although narrowing it down to just a few is hard. Here’s what my book looked like by the time I got close to the end:

 Sometimes Christopher thought any chance he’d had of falling for a girl with ordinary things like “skin” and “muscle tissue” and “a pulse” had ended with the soft, moist sound of Jack driving a pair of scisors through her sister’s horrible heart.

“My parents,” she said. “They were like Nancy’s but the other way around, chasing monochrome instead of spectrums. They didn’t understand. Thought if they threw enough gray and gray and gray at me, I’d forget I’d seen rainbows and learn how to be their little sparrow-girl again. She died in Confection and I rose from her ashes, a pretty pastry phoenix.

Sumi looked up and smiled serenely. “Look at the moon,” she said. “It’s like the sugared cherry on the biggest murder sundae in the whole world.”

Indoor lightning storms, resurrected girls, and giant, bloody moons were terrifying enough without throwing in headless corpses, vampire lords, and something called a “Drowned God.”

And another from Sumi, because she’s awesome and so are her sundae analogies:

“This is terrible,” said Sumi brightly. “I mean, we knew it was going to be terrible when we followed a mad scientist and her dead girlfriend to a horrifying murder world, but this is bonus terrible. This is the awful sprinkles on the sundae of doom.”

Ah, I’ll stop here. I loved this book, and I love this series wholeheartedly. Each of the books is lovely on its own, and Come Tumbling Down is a worthy, enthralling addition to the series.

Beautiful, haunting writing, a creep-tastic setting, mad scientists and Drowned Gods, and the bestest friends squad you’d ever want at your back. What more could we ask for?

A note of advice: If the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones aren’t fresh in your mind, then definitely pause for a re-read (or enjoy the excellent audiobook version) before diving in to Come Tumbling Down.

**Want to know more about the worlds of the Wayward Children books? Check out this excellent guide!

Illustration by Rovina Cai from Come Tumbling Down.
You will love these two horses. Promise.

Book Review: Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4) by James S. A. Corey

Title: Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4)
Author: James S. A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: June 17, 2014
Length: 581 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The gates have opened the way to thousands of habitable planets, and the land rush has begun. Settlers stream out from humanity’s home planets in a vast, poorly controlled flood, landing on a new world. Among them, the Rocinante, haunted by the vast, posthuman network of the protomolecule as they investigate what destroyed the great intergalactic society that built the gates and the protomolecule.

But Holden and his crew must also contend with the growing tensions between the settlers and the company which owns the official claim to the planet. Both sides will stop at nothing to defend what’s theirs, but soon a terrible disease strikes and only Holden – with help from the ghostly Detective Miller – can find the cure. 

One of my reading goals for 2020 is to make progress with the sci-fi book series The Expanse — and now that I’ve read book #4, I can safely say that I’m off to a great start!

Before going into the book, its plot, or why it’s so great, I should state up front that there will be spoilers! I can’t talk about the 4th book in a series, or a book with an amazing TV adaptation, without getting into specifics.

There. You’ve been warned. Turn away if you don’t want to know!

Cibola Burn picks up after the events in book #3, Abaddon’s Gate, in which a mysterious alien ring provides a conduit of wormholes leading to thousands of unknown worlds. As the story continues in book #4, humans are eager to explore and exploit the resources of all of these new planets, but caution and legal complications are keeping a land rush on hold — for now.

One group of settlers, after being in homeless, planetless limbo for years, makes a dash through the rings and sets up a new colony on the planet Ilus, where they find a rich source of lithium ore, potentially representing enough value for them to truly create a livable world for themselves and their children.

But because there are fortunes to be made, the squatters’ rights aren’t allowed to stand, and an Earth corporation, the RCE, is granted a charter to explore and develop the planet, which they call New Terra.

Tensions are high, and when a militant group of settlers blows up the landing pad RCE is about to use and deaths result, it seems like violence is inevitable.

Enter our heroes, Captain Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. Holden is the idealistic man who has time and again found himself at the center of interplanetary intrigue and war, and who always follows his conscience and does the right thing, even when it’s counter to his own interests or the interests of the political factions who think they own Holden’s allegiance. Rounding out the crew are pilot Alex Kamal, XO Naomi Nagata, and mechanic/muscle Amos Burton. Over the years, these four have formed a family, and their loyalty and love is a wonderful thing to behold.

The Rocinante is send by the UN to act as mediator between the settlers and the RCE, and of course, it all goes to shit pretty much from the start. There’s a murderous head of security, settler terrorists, and the not minor fact that the planet is populated by both deadly organic species and seemingly dormant alien artifacts that — obviously — have the potential to wipe out all human life… if the humans don’t manage to kill each other off first.

“Apocalyptic explosions, dead reactors, terrorists, mass murder, death-slugs, and now a blindness plague. This is a terrible planet…”

Yup. Death-slugs. How would you like to be surrounded by death-slugs while losing your eyesight? Shudder. Space exploration is clearly not for me. I prefer a death-slug-free environment, thank you very much.

The writing is fast-paced and exciting, so much so that I finished this almost 600-page book in about 2 and a half days. The dictionary should have a picture of Cibola Burn as the definition of “page-turner”.

The action isn’t at the expense of character: Each of our four main characters get a chance to shine. I’m particularly fond of Amos, the sociopathic enforcer who loves his captain, his crew, and his weapons. The authors (yes, James S. A. Corey is actually two people) seem to take special delight in writing for Amos.

“What,” Holden said, “is all this?”

“You said to gear up for the drop.”

“I meant, like, underwear and toothbrushes.”

“Captain,” Amos said, almost hiding his impatience. “They’re killing each other down there. Half a dozen RCE security vanished into thin air, and a heavy lift shuttle got blown up.”

“Yes, and our job is not to escalate that. Put all this shit away. Sidearms only. Bring clothes and sundries for us, any spare medical supplies for the colony. But that’s it.”

“Later,” Amos said, “when you’re wishing we had this stuff, I am going to be merciless in my mockery. And then we’ll die.”

Another Holden/Amos conversation:

“Okay. Murtry’s pissed about the rescue.”

“Yeah, but fuck him.”

“I also,” Holden continued, “may have shoved him down and stolen his hand terminal.”

“Stop making me fall in love with you, Cap, we both know it can’t go anywhere.”

Besides the Rocinante crew, there are several other POV characters, including both RCE and settlers, and I enjoyed seeing the unfolding events from their perspectives.

I will say thought that the only thing that bothered me in Cibola Burn was scientist Elvi’s infatuation with Holden. It was unnecessary and oddly demeaning for her character, and even though it eventually unfolds that it was more about her hunger for human connection that about Holden himself, it’s an off-putting choice to have this amazing scientist suffering through school-girl crush symptoms.

Now, you may be wondering how the books relates to the (excellent) TV series, currently airing its 4th season via its new home on Amazon Prime. The 4th season has the events on Ilus/New Terra as its centerpiece, but also includes quite a bit of action with Earth politics, Mars crime, and Belter terrorism. None of this really comes into play in book #4, although based on what I’ve read about book #5, I’m guessing those plots will all feature heavily there.

Listen, if you haven’t read any of these book or watched the TV series — and if you’re a fan of science fiction — then start one or the other, or both! The books are long but absolutely obsession-worthy, and the massive page volume just flies by.

The TV series is brilliantly done, and I’m tempted to start over again from the beginning just to enjoy it all once more.

And I can’t wrap up talking about The Expanse without a shout-out to Chrisjen Avasarala, who is a great book character but an absolutely AMAZING TV character. Played by the glorious Shohreh Aghdashloo, Avasarala is a glamorous, powerful, foul-mouthed woman who is always ten steps ahead and gives zero fucks for anyone or anything that gets in her way.

So let’s finish up with a look at Avasarala’s greatest hits, because even though this is a book review, it’s all from the same world, and any day I can hear Avasarala dropping f-bombs is a glorious day indeed.

Oh yeah. Back to the book. Read it. It’s terrific. Start at the first book, and keep going! As for me, because of the huge size of these books and the frighteningly huge size of my TBR pile, I’m going to hit pause on the book series and wait a bit before starting #5, Nemesis Games. Still, I don’t think I’ll be able to wait for long… I may just need to power through the remaining four available books long before 2020 grows much older.

Shelf Control #199: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Author: Mary Roach
Published: 2013
Length: 348 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions explored in Gulp are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? In Gulp we meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of—or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. With Roach at our side, we travel the world, meeting murderers and mad scientists, Eskimos and exorcists (who have occasionally administered holy water rectally), rabbis and terrorists—who, it turns out, for practical reasons do not conceal bombs in their digestive tracts.

Like all of Roach’s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies.

How and when I got it:

Found it on the book swap shelf at work last year, so I grabbed it!

Why I want to read it:

Mary Roach is a truly funny science writer, and even though her books are way grosser than I can generally stand, I’m never not amused by her writing. I haven’t been drawn to Gulp because the subject matter sounded like it might be too icky for me, but hey, who can resist a free book? I did really enjoy two of her previous books, Stiff and Packing for Mars, so I know I like her writing style. Now it’s just a question of whether I can stomach (sorry… groan) this topic!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2020 (plus July!)

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2020.

I do fee like I’ve covered this topic already in previous TTT posts (like my winter 2020 TBR list and a list of upcoming ARCs), but what the heck — I never get tired of making top 10 lists! So, here are ten MORE books releasing between now and the middle of July that I’m super excited to read.

  1. Parable of the Sower graphic novel (1/28)
  2. Meat Cute by Gail Carriger (2/16)
  3. When We Were Magic by Sarah Gaily (3/3)
  4. The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey (4/14)
  5. Malorie by Josh Malerman (5/19)
  6. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (5/19)
  7. The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner (5/26)
  8. The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn (6/9)
  9. Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16) by Jim Butcher (7/14)
  10. The Relentless Moon (Lady Astronaut, #3) by Mary Robinette Kowal (7/14)

What new releases are you most looking forward to in 2020? Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!