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!

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.

The Monday Check-In ~ 12/30/2019

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.

I got on skis for the first time in about 5 years! And I wasn’t… awful. It was actually pretty fun. My husband, kiddo, and I enjoyed a few days away in the mountains, skiing by day and relaxing by night.

I didn’t do much reading, but that’s okay! It was nice to have time together as a family.

What did I read during the last week?

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. Absolutely a five-star read. This is the one and only book I finished this past week, and it may actually be my last complete book for 2019, which is not at all a bad way to end the year. I’ll try to write a review this week when I get some breathing space… but suffice it to say, this book is beautifully written, often funny, frequently heart-breaking, and simple a must-read.

Pop culture:

Along with the rest of the human population, I saw the new Star Wars movie this past week. I liked it, didn’t love it… but then again, I’m not a die-hard fan, so deep dives into mythology and the greater meaning of events are somewhat lost on me. I went to be entertained, and I was.

Fresh Catch:

No new books this week. Not that I lack for reading material…

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan: This non-fiction account of a major mountaineering disaster is fascinating so far!

Now playing via audiobook:

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman: Continuing my re-read of the first two books in the trilogy, before starting #3. I barely had any listening time this past week, so my progress is more like baby steps. I hope to finish this week so I can start The Toll finally.

Ongoing reads:

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck: My book group’s classic read! We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week. I really like the writing, and I’m finding the characters really funny.

So many books, so little time…

boy1seria

The Monday Check-In ~ 12/23/2019

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.

What did I read during the last week?

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn: Contemporary romance — my review is here.

Shrill by Lindy West: This collection of essays is a must-read. My review is here.

I read three graphic novels this week:

  • Poe: Stories and Poems by Gareth Hinds: Great illustrations for a selection of Poe’s best-known pieces really bring the stories to life. This might be a good choice for a teen reader who scoffs at reading anything that smacks of “classic literature” (like my own reluctant reader…)
  • Runaways, volume 4: But You Can’t Hide by Rainbow Rowell: The Runaways series is always fun, and it’s nice to revisit these characters, although the plot itself isn’t particularly memorable or earth-shaking in this volume.
  • The Magicians: Alice’s Story by Lev Grossman and Lilah Sturges: For fans of The Magicians, this book tells the same story as volume one of the trilogy, but from Alice’s perspective. It’s nicely done, but the story feels a bit repetitive, since we already know it all. (Also, I can’t help getting the TV series characters stuck in my mind as the definitive characters, so it’s jarring to see them illustrated so differently here.)

In audiobooks, I finished my re-read of Scythe. The audio version was terrific!

Pop culture:

I went to see this movie. It was excellent.

Fresh Catch:

Yay, Goodreads! I won a giveaway, and the book arrived this week!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: My husband started this book last week, and convinced me to read it too, even though I thought I had all my end-of-year reading already figured out and lined up. Liking it so far!

Now playing via audiobook:

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman: Continuing my re-read of the first two books in the trilogy, before starting #3. The audiobook narrator is great!

Ongoing reads:

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck: My book group’s classic read! We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week. I’m liking it so far, although it seems like the rest of the book group isn’t all that into it. Let’s hope it picks up as we go along.

So many books, so little time…

boy1seria

Take A Peek Book Review: Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Title: Love Lettering
Author: Kate Clayborn
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: December 31, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐

Synopsis:

In this warm and witty romance from acclaimed author Kate Clayborn, one little word puts one woman’s business—and her heart—in jeopardy . . .

Meg Mackworth’s hand-lettering skill has made her famous as the Planner of Park Slope, designing beautiful custom journals for New York City’s elite. She has another skill too: reading signs that other people miss. Like the time she sat across from Reid Sutherland and his gorgeous fiancée, and knew their upcoming marriage was doomed to fail. Weaving a secret word into their wedding program was a little unprofessional, but she was sure no one else would spot it. She hadn’t counted on sharp-eyed, pattern-obsessed Reid . . .

A year later, Reid has tracked Meg down to find out—before he leaves New York for good—how she knew that his meticulously planned future was about to implode. But with a looming deadline, a fractured friendship, and a bad case of creative block, Meg doesn’t have time for Reid’s questions—unless he can help her find her missing inspiration. As they gradually open up to each other about their lives, work, and regrets, both try to ignore the fact that their unlikely connection is growing deeper. But the signs are there—irresistible, indisputable, urging Meg to heed the messages Reid is sending her, before it’s too late . . .

My Thoughts:

This is a mostly sweet urban romance, featuring the creative Meg and the numbers-focused Reid, who initially seem like total opposites. Meg’s hand-lettering business is taking off, but she’s feeling blocked and uninspired until she and Reid begin exploring the city together, looking at all the hidden lettering scattered on signs throughout different neighborhoods, playing intricate games with their discoveries, and getting to know one another in unexpected ways.

There are complications, of course, but the story is fairly straightforward and light. I did enjoy Meg’s female friendships, especially how she learns to confront and argue constructively rather than avoiding the relationships and dynamics that make her uncomfortable. The plot takes a turn toward the end that feels like a tonal shift, although the love story elements remain. I felt somewhat distant from Meg and her business, as it’s so specialized and caters so specifically to a rich clientele who can afford to splurge excessive amounts of money on things like hand-illustrated day planners, and likewise her endless thoughts on the meaning of letters and their shapes didn’t really do much for me.

Still, as a whole, I enjoyed the book. It’s a quick read, and I think it would be a decent choice for some non-taxing holiday reading.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books on my TBR list for winter 2019/2020

snowy10

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 about our winter reading plans.

Last week, my TTT was all about the ARCs I have coming up at the start of the new year. This week, I’m focusing on other books I’m looking forward to reading — some upcoming new releases, some books I’ve bought recently, and one that I’ve had for way too long and really need to get to.

The first four on my list are all new volumes in ongoing series, and just thinking about them makes me happy.

1) Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire: This book comes out in early January, and I can’t wait! I love this series so much, and I’m especially excited for this one because it picks up where one of my favorites (Down Among the Sticks and Bones) left off.

2) No Fixed Line (Kate Shugak, #22) by Dana Stabenow: I love this series, the Alaska setting, and Kate herself, who is just an awesome lead character. I’ve been itching for more Kate — so excited for this upcoming January release!

3) Imaginary Numbers (InCryptid, #9) by Seanan McGuire: Yup, even more Seanan McGuire! And yes, I do love everything she writes. The InCryptid series is really fun, and I’m super excited for this book, especially since I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway. (Thanks, Goodreads!)

4) Smoke Bitten (Mercy Thompson, #12) by Patricia Briggs: Mercy is one of my favorite lead characters, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for her and her pack.

Other (non-series) books I’m looking forward to reading:

5) Well Met by Jen DeLuca: I’ve been on a roll with cute romances lately, and this story, set at a RenFaire, sounds adorable.

6) Alice by Christina Henry: I’m officially in love with Christina Henry’s writing, so it’s time to go back and read the books I’ve missed.

7) The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri: This is my book club’s pick for January, and I’m really determined to make more of an effort to keep up with our monthly reads this year.

8) Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey: From the Goodreads blurb: “The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.” Um, yes please! I love Sarah Gailey’s writing, and this sounds pretty amazing.

9) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: I finally picked up a copy, so this is high on my priority list! Maybe even this week…

10) Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik: I bought this when it came out in 2018 — it’s about time that I finally read it!

What books will be keeping you warm this winter? Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

The Monday Check-In ~ 12/16/2019

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.

What did I read during the last week?

Two novellas — a sci-fi space adventure and a heart-warming personal story — reviewed here.

Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory: Simply terrific! My review is here.

I had one DNF this week:

 

I was struggling to get into this book, and ended up DNFing at 20% when I got to this passage and decided it just was not worth the effort:

A mother’s description of her daughter: Her hair was a dull shade of cornmeal, and her skin was pale, sallow almost, and sprinkled with freckles. She had Jack’s nose, flat and prominent as an Eskimo’s, and two lumps, tablespoons of flesh, that represented breasts.

Ugh. I just couldn’t any more.

 

 

Pop culture:

The two shows I’ve been watching this week are completely different in tone and content, but I’ve been having lots of fun with both:

V Wars (Netflix): It’s a little campy, and the series as a whole isn’t quite as good as the first episode made me hope for, but I’m still enjoying it.

Shrill (Hulu): I binged the first season (only six half-hour episodes), and can’t wait for season 2! Meanwhile, I really should read the book.

Fresh Catch:

More new books! It’s just so hard to resist all the deals on offer at this time of year.

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn: I’m not entirely swept up by this story yet, but lately I’ve been enjoying romantic comedies, and this seems like a good fit for my mood.

Now playing via audiobook:

Scythe by Neal Shusterman: Really enjoying this audio re-read.

Ongoing reads:

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck: My book group’s classic read! We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week. I’m liking it so far, although it seems like the rest of the book group isn’t all that into it. Let’s hope it picks up as we go along.

So many books, so little time…

boy1seria

Book Review: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Title: Royal Holiday
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley 
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Vivian Forest has been out of the country a grand total of one time, so when she gets the chance to tag along on her daughter Maddie’s work trip to England to style a royal family member, she can’t refuse. She’s excited to spend the holidays taking in the magnificent British sights, but what she doesn’t expect is to become instantly attracted to a certain private secretary, his charming accent, and unyielding formality.

Malcolm Hudson has worked for the Queen for years and has never given a personal, private tour—until now. He is intrigued by Vivian the moment he meets her and finds himself making excuses just to spend time with her. When flirtatious banter turns into a kiss under the mistletoe, things snowball into a full-on fling.

Despite a ticking timer on their holiday romance, they are completely fine with ending their short, steamy affair come New Year’s Day. . .or are they?

Thank you, Jasmine Guillory, for giving us the romance heroine we never knew we needed: Vivian Forest, a 54-year-old African American social worker — hard-working, devoted mother, caring professional, and all-around amazing woman! And let me just say this part again: Vivian is IN HER 50s. When’s the last time you read a fun, upbeat love story with a woman in her 50s as the star? I’m guessing the answer is never.

Royal Holiday is the fourth in the author’s loosely connected Wedding Date series — the connection being that the stories’ characters are all linked by friendship or family, although each can easily be read as a stand-alone. Here, Vivian is the mother of Maddie, the lead character in the previous book (The Wedding Party), who in turn is best friends with the lead character from the first book (The Wedding Date). It’s fun to see how the characters’ lives connect and weave together, but as I said, reading the other books isn’t truly required to enjoy each one, and that’s especially true with Royal Holiday.

The basic plot: Maddie, a successful stylist, is asked to fill in last minute as the stylist for a member of the British royal family for the Christmas holidays, and asks her mother to come along. Vivian rarely travels or takes vacations, but she and Maddie always spend Christmas together, and with a bit of prodding, she agrees to go. Staying at the Sandringham estate is magical, and Vivian is delighted by the beauty and splendor… and is instantly attracted to the very handsome Malcolm, Private Secretary to the Queen, when he appears at the guest cottage on the estate and offers to give her a tour.

Vivian and Malcolm connect right away, bringing out each others’ playful sides as well as listening and appreciating one another as people, and they also find each other incredibly attractive. As Vivian’s holiday with Maddie draws to a close, Malcolm asks Vivian to stay on in London for a few more days — and while Vivian is the type to draw up pro and con lists for all decisions, she goes with spontaneity this time around and accepts Malcolm’s invitation.

Ah, this book is such a delight! The romance and chemistry between Vivian and Malcolm is sparkling and fun and sexy… and yes, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this book features attractive 50-somethings having a romantic and physical relationship that includes sex and flirtation and public kissing, and it’s glorious. 

Granted, there’s not much conflict or dramatic tension in Royal Holiday. There are a few minor disagreements and misunderstandings, but the main source of tension is whether the relationship should be a holiday fling or if they’re willing to consider a long-distance relationship — and even then, there really isn’t much question that it will all work out.

I really like how seriously Jasmine Guillory takes her characters’ careers. Vivian is absolutely committed to her work, and it’s refreshing and inspiring to read about how much she cares for her patients and how energized she is by her ability to help people and improve lives. The big dilemma for Vivian much of the book is being up for a big promotion at work that would provide a higher salary and more prestige, but would mean focusing her time on administration rather than on direct care. I love how deeply Vivian feels about her work and the seriousness with which she weighs her decision. And at no time is it suggested that she chuck it all to move to London to be with Malcolm — they each have careers, and their challenge is how to make their relationship possible without either abandoning the work that is so meaningful to them.

All that may make this sound more serious overall than it actually is. Above all else, Royal Holiday is a sweet, romantic, joyous romp, full of happiness and appreciation and heart. I can’t say enough good things!

Except maybe one last comment: Vivian Forest rocks! More of her, please!!

♥♥♥♥♥♥

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of:

The Wedding Date

The Proposal
The Wedding Party

 

Take A Peek Book Review: The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Title: The Cactus
Author: Sarah Haywood
Publisher: Park Row
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Synopsis:

In this charming and poignant debut, one woman’s unconventional journey to finding love means learning to embrace the unexpected.

For Susan Green, messy emotions don’t fit into the equation of her perfectly ordered life. She has a flat that is ideal for one, a job that suits her passion for logic, and an “interpersonal arrangement” that provides cultural and other, more intimate, benefits. But suddenly confronted with the loss of her mother and the news that she is about to become a mother herself, Susan’s greatest fear is realized. She is losing control.

Enter Rob, the dubious but well-meaning friend of her indolent brother. As Susan’s due date draws near and her dismantled world falls further into a tailspin, Susan finds an unlikely ally in Rob. She might have a chance at finding real love and learning to love herself, if only she can figure out how to let go.

 

My Thoughts:

I borrowed the audiobook of The Cactus from my library on a whim, based on its being available and also being a Reese’s Book Club pick (because I do seem to like most of their selections). This was an enjoyable, diverting story, although I’m not sure that I loved it. Susan is set in her ways, negating emotion at every turn, always aiming for efficiency and neatness. When her life turns upside down, she’s forced to start letting others in, and learns some hard truths about her own childhood. 

The cactus metaphor is a little heavy-handed, in my humble opinion. We get it: Susan is prickly, defensive, making sure others don’t get too close… but with proper attention and nurturing, she’s still capable of flowering. Geez.

I mostly enjoyed Susan’s brand of no-nonsense bossiness and solitude, although some of her behaviors are a bit extreme. The love story didn’t grab me — I didn’t feel convinced by the relationship and its development. I was much more interested in Susan’s family history and its dysfunctions, and how her childhood experiences slowly turned her into the woman she’d become. 

The Cactus is a fairly light read, and I enjoyed it overall, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of my priority recommendations.

Book Review: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

Title: The Twisted Ones
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

When a young woman clears out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina, she finds long-hidden secrets about a strange colony of beings in the woods.

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?

Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.

Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.

The set-up of The Twisted Ones hooked me from the start. Freelance editor Mouse heads off to her dead grandmother’s isolated home to prepare it for sale, but upon arrival, discovers it’s stuffed to the rafters with newspapers, coat hangers, clothing, and all sorts of useless junk. If it were me, I probably would have made a run for it at soon as I pushed open the front door and saw the mess waiting inside, but Mouse decides to stick it out. After all, she can work anywhere, and her father has offered to split the sale proceeds with her when it’s all done.

Accompanied by her beloved but not entirely bright coonhound Bongo, Mouse gets to work. When she discovers an old journal kept by her long deceased stepgrandfather, things get weird. Mouse was well aware that her grandmother was a hateful, mean woman who was universally despised, but through the diary, she learns even more about her cruelty. What’s more, she also sees hints of madness or dementia through her grandfather’s writings, particularly through his repetition of lines that seem to have become a sort of mantra for him:

I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones…

When Mouse and Bongo accidentally find an impossible hilltop through the woods in the backyard — when there aren’t actually any such hills in the area — things get weirder. Strangely carved stones and menacing trees are clear indications that things are not normal. As Mouse encounters more and more oddities, the woods near her grandmother’s house and the things they contain become even more menacing.

This was a terrifically creepy read. One ray of sunshine to note up front: As my friend who recommended this book pointed out, Mouse opens the first chapter with Bongo by her side as she looks back on the events she’s about to describe. So, for those who might enter in fear of something awful happening to a very good dog, rest assured, Bongo will be fine! Somehow, this seems important to know from the get-go.

I really enjoyed Mouse’s narrative voice. She’s plainspoken, but not without a sense of humor. As she recounts the events that occurred, she recognizes that most people would assume she’s lost touch with reality, but she feel compelled to tell the story anyway.

I am going to try to start at the beginning, even though I know you won’t believe me.

It’s okay. I wouldn’t believe me either. Everything I have to say sounds completely barking mad. I’ve run it through my mind over and over, trying to find a way to turn it around so that it all sounds quite normal and sensible, and of course there isn’t one.

As the story progresses, I found myself telling Mouse to get in her truck and drive away as quickly as possible, which really would have been the smart thing to do. When she finally decides to do just that, there’s a very good reason why she doesn’t, and the big showdown at the end practically begs to be made into a horror movie (that is sure to keep viewers from ever getting a good night’s sleep again, especially if they’re attempting to sleep in a cabin in the woods).

Something about the answers to the book’s mysteries didn’t quite feel as monumental to me as I expected, which is why I only went with 3.5 stars. Still, it’s a terrific, engrossing read that provides plenty of creepy, scary atmosphere and plenty of reason to be afraid of the woods, the dark, the woods in the dark, and anything that comes tapping at your door.