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:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

 

In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades.

When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her–freedom, prison or death.

With The Testaments, the wait is over.

Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story more than fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.

“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” –Margaret Atwood

Note: Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale book and Hulu TV series are mentioned in this review, although not in great detail. It feels impossible to talk about The Testaments without referencing both.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, it was both revolutionary and revelatory. In it, Margaret Atwood imagined the nation of Gilead, an autocratic theocracy created through the violent overthrow of the United States government. In a world in which fertility rates had fallen drastically, one of Gilead’s prime commandments was procreation by whatever means necessary, including the forced servitude of fertile women as Handmaids, women forced to conceive and carry babies that they’d have no claim to. Through ritualized rape, Handmaids endured their roles as vessels and chattel belonging to the Commanders and their wives — or faced gruesome punishments, including mutilation and death.

Gilead was not much kinder to the Commanders’ wives, who were expected to know their places and stay there. Women’s rights were gone absolutely — no ownership, no money, no independence. No reading! Reading was considered such a sin for women that all public signs were replaced with pictures — a drawing of food to denote a store, rather than letters spelling out words.

In The Testaments, years have passed since the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead continues on, still in power, still subjecting its women to its caste system and degradations, at war with Canada and battling to take down the resistance group Mayday. In this new novel, the story is told through three different narrators’ first-person story.

First, and probably most familiar to both readers and viewers of the TV series, is Aunt Lydia. We’ve known her up to now as one of the system’s enforcers, one of the Aunts whose job it is to train Handmaids and keep them in line through whatever means necessary. Here, we hear Aunt Lydia telling her own story, and we see a much more complex take on who she is and how she came to be this way. Her backstory is fascinating — and, it’s worth noting, substantially different than that of the Aunt Lydia character in the Hulu version. Prior to Gilead, Aunt Lydia was a well-respected and well-established judge. When the forces of Gilead came to power, Aunt Lydia and her colleagues were rounded up, imprisoned, and tortured, until they either agreed to work for Gilead or were executed.

Lydia opted for self-preservation — although it’s left ambiguous as to what her true motivation is. Is she only about her own survival? Or is she playing a very long game, establishing her own power base in her own domain with the goal of bringing down Gilead from within? And if the latter is true, how could she stomach all that she had to do to gain and retain her power? She’s a perplexing character, clearly able to be quite cruel and manipulative and deadly… yet she does save girls from terrible situations as well, and finds her own sly and subtle ways to get back at the Commanders who wrong her and other women.

The second narrator is Agnes Jemima, whom we first meet as a young school girl. Agnes is the privileged daughter of a Commander and his wife Tabitha, and while Agnes’s relationship with her father is formal and distant, she and Tabitha have a loving, tightly bonded connection. Tabitha entertains Agnes with stories, including a fantastical story of rescuing Agnes from a castle and running away with her through the woods. This rings true to Agnes — she has a very vague memory of running through a forest.

Meanwhile Agnes attends school for girls and learns appropriately girlish subjects. But when Tabitha dies, Agnes’s life changes dramatically, from learning that she was actually born to a Handmaid to gaining a new stepmother. And the stepmother can’t wait to be rid of Agnes, pushing for her to marry (at age 13!) so the family can secure a connection to another powerful man. Agnes’s wishes matter not at all.

Third, we meet Daisy, a 16-year-old Canadian girl living with kind but overprotective parents, ready to become politically active despite her parents’ wishes. When tragedy strikes, Daisy learns the truth about her own life. She’s actually Baby Nicole, Gilead’s internationally famous poster child, who was smuggled out of Gilead by her Handmaid mother as an infant and who’s become the symbol of righteous struggle (for Gilead) and the battle to overthrow Gilead (for the opposition). Daisy’s protectors come up with a crazy scheme to smuggle Daisy back into Gilead, to become a resistance courier and retrieve a cache of documents so powerful they could lead to Gilead’s demise.

Insane as it seems, Daisy agrees to the plan, and returns to Gilead in the guise of a convert seeking to become a novitiate Aunt. Here, the three main characters’ paths intersect and become tightly woven together.

It’s an intricate plot, full of the social commentary and political intrigue we’d expect in the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale — but the book’s success hinges on the three main characters. We have to believe in them, understand them, and invest in their quests… and for me, at least, I absolutely did.

It’s a fascinating journey, although I couldn’t separate myself from the TV series while reading the book. Although it’s never stated explicitly, it’s plain that Agnes is the child taken from Offred (June) in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching to see that she has no memory whatsoever of her mother. We also understand that Baby Nicole is Offred’s second child, born during her time as a Handmaid. Baby Nicole’s birth and escape to Canada feature very prominently in seasons 2 and 3 of the TV series, although events seem to have unfolded in the world of The Testaments in a different manner. For those who haven’t watched the series, I wonder how long it would take for the connection between Agnes and Nicole to become clear.

By having these two young women telling their stories, we gain a very different perspective on Gilead from that shown via Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. For Agnes, growing up in Gilead is just normal. She doesn’t miss reading, because it was never part of her life. She accepts the social structure as the way things are supposed to be, because that’s all she’s known, and being from a Commander’s family, she’s grown up with privileges and in as much safety as any female in Gilead could have. Through Nicole’s experience, we get to see how weird it would be to be thrust into this situation, to learn to hide by pretending to be obedient and meek, and to meet face to face with girls her own age who are completely alien to her.

Finally, through Lydia’s version of the tale, we see yet another view of the founding of Gilead and its power structure, and see how survival is both a choice and a price. Lydia is fascinating. I’m so eager to hear other readers’ interpretations of her character as portrayed in The Testaments.

The Testaments is a powerful, engrossing read, and absolutely a worthy sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Very thought-provoking, and very much worth reading.

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The details:

Title: The Testaments
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 422 pages
Genre: Dystopian fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher

“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.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

When a beloved family dog is stolen, her owner sets out on a life-changing journey through the ruins of our world to bring her back in this fiercely compelling tale of survival, courage, and hope. Perfect for readers of Station Eleven and The Girl With All the Gifts.

My name’s Griz. My childhood wasn’t like yours. I’ve never had friends, and in my whole life I’ve not met enough people to play a game of football.

My parents told me how crowded the world used to be, but we were never lonely on our remote island. We had each other, and our dogs.

Then the thief came.

There may be no law left except what you make of it. But if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you.

Because if we aren’t loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?

My Thoughts:

A man stole my dog.

I went after him.

Bad things happened.

I can never go home.

I’ll keep this short and to the point, because it would be way too easy to veer into spoilery territory, and this book is best experienced fresh and free from a whole lot of expectations. It’s a wonderful story about love and loyalty, centered around a quest to retrieve a beloved dog, and filled with danger, unexpected alliances and moments of grace, bravery, and defiance. And yes, a little sadness too.

The title says a lot about the basics of the book. The key point is that this is a world of after — nothing is as we know it. And it’s not because of a world war or other doomsday scenario. Instead, the world basically went infertile, except for a very small percentage of people who didn’t. There was a last generation, and once they died out, the people who remained — about 7,000 worldwide — were left to live on in whatever fashion suited them. The world we know was essentially dead. Nothing new was made or created, and people survived through farming and scavenging (or, as Griz’s family calls it, “viking” — they’d go “a-viking” to see what they could find to reuse and repurpose on their own little isolated island).

Told through Griz’s first-person narration, the story takes us along Griz’s journey, across the sea and through an abandoned and alien mainland… because a stolen dog cannot be forgotten. I loved the writing, both plain and unembellished, yet full of fun word play and cadences:

And then the thing that happened happened and what happened was really three things and they all happened at once.

I really truly loved this book. It’s sad and frightening, but also lovely and inspiring. Griz is a terrific, memorable main character. The story wraps up well, neatly enough to leave me satisfied, but I still wish I could learn more about this world and the people left in it.

Highly recommended. What a treat!

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The details:

Title: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
Author: C. A. Fletcher
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: April 23, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Speculative/post-apocalyptic fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #154: The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones

Shelves final

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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A little note for 2019: For the next short while, I think I’ll focus specifically on books I’ve picked up at our library’s fabulous annual sales. With all books $3 or less, it’s so hard to resist! And yet, they pile up, year after year, so it’s a good idea to remind myself that these books are living on my shelves.

Title: The Salt Line
Author: Holly Goddard Jones
Published: 2017
Length: 400 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the spirit of Station Eleven and California, award-winning novelist Holly Goddard Jones offers a literary spin on the dystopian genre with this gripping story of survival and humanity about a group of adrenaline junkies who jump -the Salt Line.-

How far will they go for their freedom–once they decide what freedom really means?

In an unspecified future, the United States’ borders have receded behind a salt line–a ring of scorched earth that protects its citizens from deadly disease-carrying ticks. Those within the zone live safe, if limited, lives in a society controlled by a common fear. Few have any reason to venture out of zone, except for the adrenaline junkies who pay a fortune to tour what’s left of nature. Those among the latest expedition include a popstar and his girlfriend, Edie; the tech giant Wes; and Marta; a seemingly simple housewife.

Once out of zone, the group find themselves at the mercy of deadly ticks–and at the center of a murderous plot. They become captives in Ruby City, a community made up of outer-zone survivors determined to protect their hardscrabble existence. As alliances and friendships shift amongst the hostages, Edie, Wes, and Marta must decide how far they are willing to go to get to the right side of the salt line.

How and when I got it:

LIBRARY SALE!

Why I want to read it:

Hey, who isn’t up for a good apocalypse every once in a while? Although, ticks? Shudder. I love survival tales and stories about the breakdown of society and civilization. I don’t think I fully read the synopsis when I picked this book up at the sale (again — TICKS), but I’m willing to give it a try. (Unfortunately, I just saw that two of my Goodreads friends — whose opinions are usually pretty aligned with my own — DNF’d this book, which maybe isn’t the best sign.)

What do you think? Would you read this book?

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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!

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Book Review: The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes LastThis is one tough book to describe.

The Heart Goes Last centers on main characters Stan and Charmaine, a married couple who are living in their car as of the beginning of the story. They’ve lost their jobs and their homes as the economy in the US Northeast has completely tanked. Charmaine works at a seedy bar to earn enough for them to buy fast food and gas, but that’s about it. Gas is essential, because even when locked into the car at night, crazy or desperate people may attack, break the windows, and try to rape or kill them, and being able to drive off in case of emergency is what keeps them alive. Life really sucks, and even though they both remember what it was like to be newlyweds in love, it’s getting harder and harder to keep any affection alive when life is just that awful.

Is it any wonder that they sign on, rather blindly, to the promise of a new and better life? Stan and Charmaine are seduced by an advertisement for an experimental town called Consilience. The Consilience project offers a house, safety, security, meaningful life, and the absence of fear and worry. After a quick visit within the gated walls of the town, they’re ready to sign up. The catch is that, once in, it’s permanent, but no worries! Charmaine is too entranced by the idea of a house, her own kitchen, and a cozy couch to even consider walking away, and to Stan, it sure sounds like a great alternative to quick, unsexy sex on the backseat of the car while watching out for attackers.

Once Stan and Charmaine have committed, we start to learn more. There’s a flip side to Consilience: Positron. Positron is a prison, and here’s the deal. For one month, Stan and Charmaine live in their cozy suburban house and go off to work at their pleasant jobs. Then comes switchover day, and the two go over to the Positron Prison, don orange prison garb, and become inmates for a month. Stan goes to the men’s ward, where he tends chickens, and Charmaine goes to the women’s ward, where she’s a medications officer. The prison is safe, filled with other happy Consilience residents, offering delicious food, meaningful work, and even a knitting circle in the evenings to pass the time. Meanwhile, Stan and Charmaine’s house is now occupied by their alternates. Half the town spends each month as residents, half as inmates, and then they switch. This way, the project provides housing and occupation for all, and everyone is happy. Be happy, damn it!

Perhaps picture-perfect suburbia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

The hedge trimmer emits a menacing whine, like a wasp’s nest. The sound gives him an illusion of power that dulls his sense of panic. Panic of a rat in a cage, with ample food and drink and even sex, though with no way out and the suspicion that it’s part of an experiment that is sure to be painful.

Things are as weird as they seem, and weirder. There’s sexual obsession and deception, nefarious corporate goons, weird sexual fetishes, secret medical procedures, and a recurring motif of blue knitted teddy bears. Of course this utopian refuge has a dark side, and of course Stan and Charmaine become deeply involved as puppets in the greater scheme of things. When I say things get weird, I really mean it.

By the end of the book, we’re in Vegas. There are hordes of Elvis and Marilyn impersonators, Blue Man Group rip-off artists, brain wipes, and sex/love slaves. And as word of the goings-on in Consilience/Positron is leaked to the greater public:

Instantly the social media sites are ablaze with outrage. Prison abuses! Organ-harvesting! Sex slaves created by neurosurgery! Plans to suck the blood of babies! […] Talk shows roister on into the night — they haven’t had this much fun in decades — and bloggers break out in flames.

I wish I could say that The Heart Goes Last was a great read, but unfortunately, I found it somewhat problematic. I was intrigued at the outset by the set-up, by the collapse of society, and by the way Stan and Charmaine’s marital issues tied into their dilemmas and decision-making about Consilience/Positron. Unfortunately, the book keeps veering off in new and disjointed directions, and by the time the Vegas elements come around, the storyline has passed the line from odd to ridiculous.

There are some truly eerie or disturbing sequences, but eventually, as one after another scenario unfolds, the whole thing loses its power and feels too scattered to be truly affecting. The goofiness of certain plot points (Elvis… Marilyn… the bear) makes the whole story somewhat farcical. While there are some kernels of deeper meaning in there about choice and the illusion of choice, the trade-off between security and free will, and whether unwavering love adds to or subtracts from actual happiness, the lack of overall coherence blunts the impact of all of these.

“Isn’t it better to do something because you’ve decided to? Rather than because you have to.”

“No, it isn’t,” says Charmaine. “Love isn’t like that. With love, you can’t stop yourself.” She wants the helplessness, she wants…

On top of the all-over-the-place plot, the fact is that dystopias are pretty much a dime a dozen these days, and it takes quite a lot to offer something new or startling. The idea of a perfect little town paired with a prison is interesting, especially as the town seems like something out of the movie Pleasantville (the only movies shown on Consilience TV are from the 1950s, and Doris Day is everyone’s darling) — but we’ve all read enough of these new society, perfect world set-ups to know that the people in charge have ulterior motives, there’s surveillance everywhere, and that a controlled world must be intrinsically corrupt at its core. Even though there are some clever and unexpected twists, at its most fundamental level, there isn’t anything all that fresh in the overarching concept.

Sadly, The Heart Goes Last was ultimately a let-down for me. I wouldn’t NOT recommend it, but it’s not Atwood’s best work either. I was never bored, exactly, but at some point, I just kind of rolled my eyes and decided to go with it.

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The details:

Title: The Heart Goes Last
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Publication date: September 29, 2015
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley