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: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Title: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
Series: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club 
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: June 20, 2017
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.

But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.

 

When we meet Mary Jekyll, she’s in a sorry state. Her mother has just died after many years of madness, and Mary is left in her family home, already stripped of valuables over the years as she sold whatever she could in order to make ends meet. Now, Mary has no choice but to dismiss the household staff, count her few remaining coins, and try to find a way to eke out a few more. When Mary learns that her mother was sending regular payments to “Hyde”, care of a religious society, she’s both suspicious of blackmail and motivated to find out more.

Seeking the help of the famous Sherlock Holmes, Mary sets out to discover the truth about these payments, and ends up stumbling into the mystery of the Whitechapel murders as well. Could there be a connection? 

As the story progresses, Mary learns that her deceased father was a member of a secret society dedicated to scientific pursuit outside the bounds of the established scientific community. Specifically, these mad scientists seem to be dedicated to transmutation — pursuing a faster path to evolution by creating new forms of life. Mary’s investigations lead her to the daughters/creations of these men. Soon, this group of women are bound together by circumstance as well as affection, as they pursue the truth about their fathers’ Society of Alchemists and end up fighting for their lives.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is utterly charming and engaging. It’s a clever concept, bringing together a group of young women who are at best side notes in the original classic fiction from which they and their fathers originate and placing them at center stage. As the author makes clear, these women cannot and and will not be thought of as scientific oddities; they are unique individuals, new and different and outside the norms of society, yet with rich inner lives and a strong will to set the course of their own lives.

The writing here is smart and quirky. The book is presented as the narrative of the women’s adventure as written by Catherine — but throughout the book, the others interject their comments and critiques, pointing out places where Catherine is being too flowery or dramatic, or where she’s getting the details wrong. Meanwhile, as Mary meets each new character, they get the chance to tell their own stories, and each one is powerful and fascinating. 

There’s plenty of action, and quite a bit of humor. The Victorian setting works perfectly as a backdrop for the adventure. I always love stories of found families, and this one is a terrific example. All these women have been maltreated and discarded, but together, they form a new family in order to face the world together. As with any family, there are squabbles and disagreements and bickering, but at bedrock, there’s also love and support and protection — the whole is definitely greater than its parts.

There are two more books in the series, and I do intend to continue… although I may hold off for a little while, after realizing that book #2, European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, is over 700 pages. Still, I definitely want to see what happens next with this eccentric group of daring women! 

Highly recommended! Fans of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger and the Veronica Speedwell books by Deanna Raybourn will appreciate the setting, the bantering, and the role of the scientifically adventurous women. It’s all great fun — don’t miss it!

 

Take A Peek Book Review: Winterwood by Shea Earnshaw

“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)

From New York Times bestselling author of The Wicked Deep comes a haunting romance perfect for fans of Practical Magic, where dark fairy tales and enchanted folklore collide after a boy, believed to be missing, emerges from the magical woods—and falls in love with the witch determined to unravel his secrets.

Be careful of the dark, dark wood…

Especially the woods surrounding the town of Fir Haven. Some say these woods are magical. Haunted, even.

Rumored to be a witch, only Nora Walker knows the truth. She and the Walker women before her have always shared a special connection with the woods. And it’s this special connection that leads Nora to Oliver Huntsman—the same boy who disappeared from the Camp for Wayward Boys weeks ago—and in the middle of the worst snowstorm in years. He should be dead, but here he is alive, and left in the woods with no memory of the time he’d been missing.

But Nora can feel an uneasy shift in the woods at Oliver’s presence. And it’s not too long after that Nora realizes she has no choice but to unearth the truth behind how the boy she has come to care so deeply about survived his time in the forest, and what led him there in the first place. What Nora doesn’t know, though, is that Oliver has secrets of his own—secrets he’ll do anything to keep buried, because as it turns out, he wasn’t the only one to have gone missing on that fateful night all those weeks ago.

For as long as there have been fairy tales, we have been warned to fear what lies within the dark, dark woods and in Winterwood, New York Times bestselling author Shea Ernshaw, shows us why.

My Thoughts:

It’s interesting that the blurb mentions Practical Magic — I definitely got an Alice Hoffman vibe while reading this story. The language is very lyrical and has that tinge of magic that elevates it above ordinary storytelling.

Walkers cannot trust our own hearts — our slippy, sloppy bleeding hearts. They are reckless, stupid things. Muscles that beat too fast, that cave inward when they break. Too fragile to be trusted.

The plot itself has a really unique setting — an isolated lakeside community surrounded by forests that becomes completely cut off from the outside world once the snow starts to fall. Shades of The Shining, perhaps? In this remote location, Nora thrives in her own isolation, while keeping an eye on the camp for troubled boys across the lake. As her path collides with the boys from the camp, she becomes enmeshed in a mysterious event and its violent outcome. The ensuing events threaten everyone around the lake, even the woods themselves.

“Trees have a long memory,” I warn, my voice like gravel. The forest remembers who carved names into their trunks, with little hearts dug into the wood; who dropped a cigarette into a clump of dry leaves and scorched their raw bark. They know who broke a limb and tore off leaves and pine needles by the handful just to start a bonfire.

They remember. And they hold grudges.

I’m being intentionally vague on the plot, because it’s best to just immerse yourself in the writing and let it flow over you, no preconceptions allowed! The romantic elements of the plot didn’t do much for me, but I did appreciate the interweaving of magic and nature, and a pretty cool twist that comes about 3/4 of the way through the story.

End note: Just being a geek here, but I do need to add that I kept having to remind myself that Walker is the main character’s family name. Every time Nora has a thought about “Walkers” (which is pretty often), I’d start picturing zombies… definitely not what this book is about!

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The details:

Title: Winterwood
Author: Shea Earnshaw
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: YA fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

 

The story is supposed to be over.

Simon Snow did everything he was supposed to do. He beat the villain. He won the war. He even fell in love. Now comes the good part, right? Now comes the happily ever after…

So why can’t Simon Snow get off the couch?

What he needs, according to his best friend, is a change of scenery. He just needs to see himself in a new light…

That’s how Simon and Penny and Baz end up in a vintage convertible, tearing across the American West.

They find trouble, of course. (Dragons, vampires, skunk-headed things with shotguns.) And they get lost. They get so lost, they start to wonder whether they ever knew where they were headed in the first place…

With Wayward Son, Rainbow Rowell has written a book for everyone who ever wondered what happened to the Chosen One after he saved the day. And a book for everyone who was ever more curious about the second kiss than the first. It’s another helping of sour cherry scones with an absolutely decadent amount of butter.

Come on, Simon Snow. Your hero’s journey might be over – but your life has just begun.

Note: Spoilers ahead for Carry on and Wayward Son!

Poor Simon Snow. In Carry On, he beats the big bad (the Insidious Humdrum) and the other big bad (the Mage), but at the cost of his own magic. Now Simon is a former magician with no magical power, and he still has the enormous wings and tail he spelled onto himself before his magic went away. And now, a year after the big showdown, he mostly just hangs around listlessly, sharing a flat with Penelope, still in a romance with Baz, but one that seems to not be particularly romantic or much of anything at all.

Meanwhile, their friend (and Simon’s ex) Agatha is trying to lead a magic-free life in San Diego among the Normals, going to school and hanging out with a health-conscious friend who’s trying to convince her to “level up” in her new, exclusive club (cult?).

When Penelope becomes convinced that Agatha is in danger, she talks Baz and Simon into coming to America with her (using magicked airplane tickets and cash), and off they go to explore a brave new world. First stop? Chicago, where Penelope hopes to set off some new sparks with her long-term, long-distance boyfriend Micah. But it turns out that Penelope’s determination (and inability to really listen) mean that she missed something important. What follows is one of the funniest break-up conversations I’ve ever read:

“You. Don’t. Listen. To me.”

“I certainly do.”

“Really? I told you I was tired of being in a long-distance relationship — ”

“And I agreed that it was tiring!” I say.

“I told you that I thought we’d grown apart –”

“And I said that was natural!” I half shout.

So once Penny’s heart has been broken, she, Baz, and Simon get back in the car and hit the open road on the way to California, but of course, their road trip doesn’t go exactly as planned. Along the way, they discover that what they don’t know about America can definitely hurt them. Magic is much less regulated, and is very much tied to the Normal population, so as they head across the great wide open of states like Iowa and Nebraska, they hit dead spots where their magic sputters and fails, leaving them easy prey for other magickal creatures who have a rather strong dislike for magicians. Oh, and they kill vampires. Publicly. And pick up a Normal sidekick, who seems to know an awful lot about the magickal world.

There’s adventure after adventure, all leading to a showdown with vampires in the vampire capital — Las Vegas, of course. And a big rescue. And lots of fabulous fashion.

I ate this book up — I think I finished it within 24 hours of starting. And it’s glorious fun, but left me hungry for (a) MORE and (b) maybe a bit more content?

Here’s what I wish and wonder, now that I’ve finished Wayward Son:

♥ I want Simon to get his power back! I know, that’s not the way it works… but still, it’s just so sad to see the greatest magician of all times without his power. Although he is still a fierce fighter, wings and all.

♥ At the end, Simon seems to be contemplating getting his wings and tail removed, starting uni, and leaving the magickal world behind for good. Does this mean leaving Baz behind too? SAD.

♥ Poor Baz and Simon love each other so much, yet they can’ seem to connect. Will Simon come around, or is their relationship doomed?

♥ We learn that a vampire bite doesn’t automatically turn a human into a vampire, which is what Baz has believed all along. So how does it work? How does a human get turned?

♥ Agatha is still the only person who knows who Simon’s parents are. It’s never mentioned in Wayward Son. Will Simon ever find out? What will it do to him when he does? And does the ritual that gave him all his power in the first place hold some key to getting it back? (Yeah, I really, really do want Simon to get magic back. Can’t help it. What would the rest of Harry Potter’s life be like if he defeated Voldemort but lost all his wizarding gifts as a result? Pretty sad, huh?)

Oh, Simon.

It’s time for me to stop pretending that I’m some sort of superhero. I was that — I really was — but I’m not anymore. I don’t belong in the same world as sorcerers and vampires. That’s not my story.

Baz wants a future with Simon. Simon seems about to tell Baz that he’s leaving their world (and Baz, too, in that case), when Penny rushes up to tell them that they need to get back to England immediately to deal with an emergeny at Watford.

Will Simon go? Will the crew save the day? WILL THERE BE ANOTHER SIMON SNOW BOOK?

I do really and truly love this world of Rainbow Rowell’s, and as always, I love her writing. There’s deep emotion and connection and searches for meaning, but it’s also just really funny.

We literally have three “pickup trucks” in all of England, but here they’re everywhere. What is it that Americans have to pick up that the rest of the world doesn’t?

But she can also break your heart:

There’s no safe time for me to see you, nothing about you that doesn’t tear my heart from my chest and leave it breakable outside my body.

I adore the characters (BAZ FOR THE WIN!), and the author’s spin on a magickal world and what it means for the various types of people who inhabit it. Wayward Son is very much a road-trip book, and I did wish for a little more of the sense of world-building wonder that was so powerful in Carry On.

Please, please, please let there be a book #3! I don’t think I can stand leaving the characters and the story this way. MORE, PLEASE!

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The details:

Title: Wayward Son (Simon Snow, #2)
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: September 24 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

The Monday Check-In ~ 8/19/2019

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. 

Well, my hand surgery went well, but now I’m in this big, bulky splint for about ten days,,, following which I’ll be in a hard cast for a month. And typing is just as slow and awkward and frustrating as you might guess, so after I finish this post, I probably won’t do much else online for a while.

Ugh, so many typos! This may not be worth the effort, gonna keep things really brief,,, reviews will (probably) follow once I have better use of my fingers.

 

 

 

What did I read during the last week?

 

Fresh Catch:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:
Now playing via audiobook:

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group read right now:

  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection, reading and discussing two chapters per week.
  • Virgins by Diana Gabaldon: Our newest group read — a novella set during Jamie Fraser’s teen years.

So many books, so little time…

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Take A Peek Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

“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)

It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.

It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.

But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.

My Thoughts:

I’m trying to reflect on the reading experience separately from my feelings about the ending, so here goes: Wilder Girls has a terrific, terrifying premise: On an island off the coast of Maine, the student at a girls’ boarding school are starving, fierce, and desperate after eighteen months of isolation and quarantine. They’re all infected by the Tox, experiencing flare-ups in which their bodies are modified and distorted and changed — scales here, spiny growths there, gills, and spikes and other random mutations taking over their bodies. Once it’s bad enough to go to the infirmary, the girls never return.

For most of the book, the plot delivers. Conditions worsen. The girls don’t know if they’re being fed lies. The wild parts of the island seem to be closing in. We also get brief chapters from Byatt’s perspective, as outsiders attempt to treat her, maybe cure her, although her condition becomes more and more extreme, and the treatments seem cruel and painful.

I was wrapped up in the story and really intrigued by the overall plot. So what was my problem with this book? Either the ending is unsatisfyingly incomplete, or this is a set-up for a continuation. I don’t know which, and that’s part of the problem! We’re left hanging at the end, with only the most partial of explanations about what the Tox really is, what caused it, and what it means for the surviving girls. I really needed more from the ending — so while I was caught up in the story and enjoyed the book overall, when I finished reading the final pages, I felt frustrated and annoyed.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts! If you’ve read Wilder Girls, what did you think of the ending?

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The details:

Title: Wilder Girls
Author: Rory Power
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Audiobook Review: From Twinkle, with Love by Sandhya Menon


An aspiring teen filmmaker finds her voice and falls in love in this delightful romantic comedy from the New York Times bestselling author of When Dimple Met Rishi.

Aspiring filmmaker and wallflower Twinkle Mehra has stories she wants to tell and universes she wants to explore, if only the world would listen. So when fellow film geek Sahil Roy approaches her to direct a movie for the upcoming Summer Festival, Twinkle is all over it. The chance to publicly showcase her voice as a director? Dream come true. The fact that it gets her closer to her longtime crush, Neil Roy-a.k.a. Sahil’s twin brother? Dream come true x 2.

When mystery man N begins emailing her, Twinkle is sure it’s Neil, finally ready to begin their happily-ever-after. The only slightly inconvenient problem is that, in the course of movie-making, she’s fallen madly in love with the irresistibly adorkable Sahil.

Twinkle soon realizes that resistance is futile: The romance she’s got is not the one she’s scripted. But will it be enough?

Told through the letters Twinkle writes to her favorite female filmmakers, From Twinkle, with Love navigates big truths about friendship, family, and the unexpected places love can find you.

From Twinkle, with Love is my third book by Sandhya Menon this year, and while I loved the other two, this one was only okay.

Perhaps the issue for me is the focus on teen drama, rather than exploring the richer cultural aspects portrayed in the other novels. And yes, it’s quite true that I’m not at all a member of the YA demographic, so maybe I should have adjusted my expectations!

In From Twinkle, with Love, we meet Twinkle Mehra, a high school junior who dreams of changing the world through her films — but meanwhile, she’s an outsider who’s lost her best friend to the in-crowd, and who crushes from afar on school hottie Neil. But when Neil’s brother Sahil suggests making a movie together, he and Twinkle find a connection that takes her by surprise, and as the movie-making progresses, Twinkle finds her voice and her passion, as well as discovering a new set of friends and a place to fit in.

All this is sweet and fine, but then the story introduces a secret admirer who — for no reason at all — Twinkle assumes must be Neil. Why? Because his name starts with N, basically. Not that he’s ever paid any attention to her or is even present throughout most of the story. Still, Twinkle thinks there’s maybe a possibility that N is Neil, and that if she starts going out with Neil, she’ll finally move from outsider to insider status — so even though she’s very aware of the sparks and chemistry between her and Sahil, she leaves Sahil hanging so she can give N a chance.

I think I might have strained something through excessive eye-rolling. For a book about a smart girl, the whole N storyline was particularly dumb. The other thing that truly irritated me was the framing device of having Twinkle write in her diary as if she’s writing to various female filmmakers — Sophia Coppola, Ava Duvernay, Jane Campion, etc. This was so artificial and unnecessary, except as a way of saying ‘look how passionate Twinkle is about film!’. Also, her diary entries are written in the car while driving with people, at school, at parties, etc — really? She carries it with her everywhere? And writes obsessively, even when at Sahil’s house while he’s in the next room? It just felt weird and fake. Sorry.

So… as far as the audiobook experience itself, it was fine. The story is mostly told through Twinkle’s voice, but there are occasional blog posts and text messages by Sahil, and these have their own narrator. I’m not sure listening to the audiobook particularly added to the experience for me.

Sandhya Menon is a talented writer with a gift for creating unusual characters, and I love that she writes about teen girls who feel passionately about their talents and their goals. From Twinkle, with Love isn’t a bad read — it just doesn’t have the special something that really elevates her other works.

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The details:

Title: From Twinkle, With Love
Author: Sandhya Menon
Narrated by: Soneela Nankani, Vikas Adam
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: May 22, 2018
Length (print): 330 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 32 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

Take A Peek Book Review: There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon

“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)

Ashish Patel didn’t know love could be so…sucky. After he’s dumped by his ex-girlfriend, his mojo goes AWOL. Even worse, his parents are annoyingly, smugly confident they could find him a better match. So, in a moment of weakness, Ash challenges them to set him up.

The Patels insist that Ashish date an Indian-American girl—under contract. Per subclause 1(a), he’ll be taking his date on “fun” excursions like visiting the Hindu temple and his eccentric Gita Auntie. Kill him now. How is this ever going to work?

Sweetie Nair is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat. To Sweetie’s traditional parents, this last detail is the kiss of death.

Sweetie loves her parents, but she’s so tired of being told she’s lacking because she’s fat. She decides it’s time to kick off the Sassy Sweetie Project, where she’ll show the world (and herself) what she’s really made of.

Ashish and Sweetie both have something to prove. But with each date they realize there’s an unexpected magic growing between them. Can they find their true selves without losing each other?

My Thoughts:

It’s been a while since I’ve read any YA — and There’s Something About Sweetie was a great pick to reintroduce myself to the genre! A sweet, empowering romantic story about love and family, this book follows two teen children of Indian-American descent as they navigate dating, love, and standing up for themselves. Sweetie is a terrific lead character — a talented singer and athlete, a good friend, a successful student, but she’s held back by her mother’s view that she won’t be truly acceptable unless she loses weight. Sweetie is tired of the fat-shaming. She actually likes herself as is, and wants her mother to see her as beautiful and not in need of fixing. Meanwhile, Ashish is broken-hearted and feels like his whole energy is off. Maybe it’s time to rethink his avoidance of Indian girls and Indian traditions?

The story becomes truly charming as Sweetie and Ashish go on a series of parentally-planned excursions, during which they open up and get to know one another while also embracing their heritage and traditions. You might argue that Sweetie and Ashish fall in love in the blink of an eye… and you wouldn’t be wrong. I took this as more of a fairy tale version of teen love than a realistic look at dating and romance. There was just so much cuteness in the chemistry between the characters that a lack of reality can be forgiven.

I really like how this author makes a point of showing the importance of family and tradition, even while supporting the characters in standing up against family pressure and expectations when they don’t align with self-expression and feeling healthy and empowered. Sweetie and Ashish respect and value their parents, even when they disagree, and in general, the family relationships are quite lovely. Also, I love the inclusion of Hindi language, Indian-American foods, dress, and customs, and the respect the author shows for these elements.

Big shout-out too for the body-positive message this book provides. As Sweetie makes clear, “fat” is just a word — it’s society that gives it a negative meaning. Sweetie takes a stand and chooses to embrace herself as is — she’s a healthy, athletic, pretty, fat girl, and that’s more than okay.

Reading note: There’s Something About Sweetie is a follow-up and companion novel to When Dimple Met Rishi. It’s not essential to have read the first book to appreciate this one, but it does add something to understanding Ashish’s history, his family dynamics, and how he feels about his older brother.

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The details:

Title: There’s Something About Sweetie
Author: Sandhya Menon
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Series wrap-up: The Beka Cooper trilogy by Tamora Pierce

Last year, I began a journey through the lands of Tortall, the incredibly rich and exciting fantasy world created by Tamora Pierce. This year, I continued the adventure by listening to the audiobooks of the Beka Cooper trilogy — and now that I’ve finished, I thought I’d share some thoughts.

The Beka Cooper books take place about 150 years before the beginning of the Song of the Lioness quartet, Tamora Pierce’s first Tortall books, which introduce the young squire who would grow up to become Lady Knight Alanna. The Beka books were published after the Alanna, Daine, Kel, and Aly books, yet they are chronologically the first books in terms of the kingdom of Tortall. I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure about going back into the kingdom’s past and the pre-Alanna days… but I can tell you now that these books are very much worth it!

Beka Cooper herself is a wonderful lead character, everything we could hope for in a young female protagonist. In terms of how these books relate to the (chronologically) later books in the Tortall universe, Beka is George Cooper’s ancestor. That’s about all you need to know, but it does tie together quite nicely.

The story of Beka Cooper:

 

In book #1, Terrier, Beka is a young woman just starting out as a “puppy” (trainee) in the Provost’s Guard — the kingdom’s law enforcement department, whose members are referred to as “dogs”. Beka is smart and strong, from the poorest neighborhood of the capital city of Corus, raised in poverty until she and her siblings became wards of the Lord Provost himself, Lord Gershom. As an untested puppy, Beka is paired with Tunstall and Goodwin, two highly respected and experienced dogs, and before long she proves herself in a variety of street fights and arrests. Besides her fighting skills and sharp eye for clues, Beka has a touch of magic: She converses with the spirits of the dead, who come to her attached to the city’s pigeons, and she can also converse with dust spinners — the funnels of swirling dust that show up on street corners, collecting and then sharing with Beka the random bits of conversation they pick up from passers-by. Over the course of her puppy year, Beka becomes embroiled in a life-threatening search for a murderer, digging into the corruption polluting the highest levels of money and power in the lower city.

In the 2nd book, Bloodhound, Beka is no longer a puppy but a fully qualified dog. Here, she is assigned with her partner Clary Goodwin to track down the influx of counterfeit coins that threaten to undermine the entire kingdom. Beka goes on the hunt with Goodwin to track down the counterfeiters, along the way making enemies of the criminal kingpin of a nearby town, but also finding herself romantically involved with a handsome gambler who may or may not be trustworthy.

Finally, in book #3, Mastiff, we rejoin Beka a few years later, still working as a dog and with the reputation of being one of the most talented and determined. She’s committed to fighting injustice and keeping people safe, especially those who can’t fight for themselves. When an attack is made on the royal family, Beka and Tunstall are sent out to track the evildoers, in a case that involves high treason and the realm’s most dangerous and powerful mages.

These books are long and complicated… and I just can’t say enough good things about them! My daughter has pushed me to read them for years, but the first few times I picked up Terrier, I was put off by the language. Tamora Pierce gives her characters a street language that’s rich and flavorful, but which at first glance seemed too out-there to me. When I finally gave it a chance, though, I ended up loving it. Probably listening to the audiobooks helped — I was able to get the feel of the words and their rhythm without getting too stuck on reading written dialect. It’s helpful, though, to keep a hard copy of the books on hand even if listening to the audio version, since the printed books include a glossary at the back, and it’s essential, especially when first entering Beka’s world.

Beyond the amazing language of the books, Beka herself is a wonderful character. Like many of Pierce’s heroines, she has an affinity for animals, and cat Pounce and dog Achoo become major characters in their own way over the course of the three books. Likewise, the supporting characters are fully developed, so we’re left in no doubt about their essences, values, skills, etc — except for the cases where someone’s motive are meant to be questionable, of course.

Pierce doesn’t shy away from sexual relationships, although thankfully she doesn’t seem to feel the need to give us anatomy lessons. Beka and others have sexual relationships as part of their natural lives, not a big deal, no moralizing or agonizing over whether to do it or not. Young women like Beka get charms to prevent pregnancy when they become sexually active, and that’s that. No fuss, no muss. Beka retains full agency over her body and her choices, and it’s a low-key message of empowerment that’s woven into the overall story.

By setting the books so much earlier than the other Tortallian books, we get a glimpse of how certain facets of life in the later (chronologically; earlier by publishing date) books came about. In the Beka books, women are well represented in law enforcement as well as among the knighthood — yet in the Alanna books, it’s considered unheard of for women to become knights, something that hasn’t happened in centuries. So how did the kingdom go from a fairly progressive stance toward women in combat or physical roles toward the idea that women must be proper ladies relegated to fashion, etiquette, embroidery, and other ladylike pursuits? We get a hint of the origins of this change in Mastiff, as Beka travels to one of the kingdom’s fiefdoms where the cult of the Gentle Mother seems to be taking hold — setting the standard that fighting is for men and that women’s greatest joy lies in hearth and home. Likewise, we see how the kingdom moves from a land that tolerates the slave trade to one where slavery is outlawed, thanks to the events initiated in this trilogy. It’s really fascinating to see the seeds here for the changes that are so apparent in the books set later in the kingdom’s history.

The audiobooks are narrated by Susan Denaker, who does an amazing job with the character voices, capturing the regional accents of characters from different geographical and ethnic backgrounds, as well as the language and slang differences in the dialogue of characters from different social strata, from street thugs to children of lower city slums to the nobility and even royalty.

Lots of Beka books in my house!

I really, truly adored getting to know Beka, who instantly jumped onto my ever-growing list of favorite fictional characters of all time. I’m absolutely loving my adventures in the world created by Tamora Pierce. Fortunately, I still have a few books to go!

Want to read my other Tortall series wrap-up posts? Here are the links:
Song of the Lioness (Alanna)
The Immortals (Daine)
Protector of the Small (Kel)
Daughter of the Lioness (Aly)

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Book details:

Terrier – published 2006
Bloodhound – published 2009
Mastiff – published 2011
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The Monday Check-In ~ 2/11/2019

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’m back! After a tough week, I’m back home and trying to get back into my normal routines, including blogging. Thank you to all who reached out for your support! It’s nice to be part of a community that cares.

What did I read during the last week?

This is actually two weeks’ worth of reading, since I was offline most of last week.

Reviewed:

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse: My review is here.

Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan: My review is here.

Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks: My review is here.

Not (yet) reviewed:

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: I did it! I finally read the book I’ve been talking about reading for YEARS. I’ll write up some thoughts later this week (or maybe after I read more in the series), but the short version is — I loved it! I definitely want to continue the Anne books.

Triquetra by Kirstyn McDermott: An excellently creepy novella about what happens later in Snow White’s life. Check it out — it’s available as an e-book or you can read it for free on the Tor website.

And in audiobooks:

The Last Days of August by Jon Ronson: An Audible Original telling the sad story of porn actress August Ames, whose death by suicide rocked the porn world. Jon Ronson narrates his investigation into the life and death of August, and while he doesn’t come up with any easy answers, the story paints a portrait of a woman worn down by her life and by mental illness at much too early an age, and at the same time illustrates some of the unfortunate circumstances facing women in the industry as a whole. It’s a moving, interesting listen, although the takeaways are a little muddled at times.

Bloodhound (Beka Cooper, #2) by Tamora Pierce: Ah, this trilogy rocks! I just finished listening to the 2nd Beka Cooper book, and loved it. I’ll write up my thoughts on the series as a whole once I finish #3, which I’m starting immediately!

Fresh Catch:

Yay, Quirk Books! I received this ARC in the mail while I was away this week, and couldn’t be more excited:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev: This is my book group’s selection for February (the group tends to pick romances every Feb for Valentine’s Day). I’m just a few chapters in, but liking it so far.

Now playing via audiobook:

Mastiff (Beka Cooper, #3) by Tamora Pierce: I’ve been listening to Tamora Pierce’s novels since the fall, and I just can’t stop! The Beka books are so darned good, and the narration is terrific. I’m just starting, but expect to love it.

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing reads with my book group:

  • A Plague of Zombies by Diana Gabaldon: Continuing our journey through all of the Lord John books and stories.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Our group classic read. The audiobook version is fantastic.

So many books, so little time…

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