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!

 

Book Review: If I Grow Up by Todd Strasser

“WHEN YOU GREW UP IN THE PROJECTS, THERE WERE NO CHOICES. NO GOOD ONES, AT LEAST.”

In the Frederick Douglass Project where DeShawn lives, daily life is ruled by drugs and gang violence. Many teenagers drop out of school and join gangs, and every kid knows someone who died. Gunshots ring out on a regular basis.

DeShawn is smart enough to know he should stay in school and keep away from the gangs. But while his friends have drug money to buy fancy sneakers and big-screen TVs, DeShawn’s family can barely afford food for the month. How can he stick to his principles when his family is hungry?

In this gritty novel about growing up in the inner city, award-winning author Todd Strasser opens a window into the life of a teenager struggling with right and wrong under the ever-present shadow of gangs.

A bit of context: My teenaged son is not, and has never been, a recreational reader. He’ll read what’s required for school, and that’s it.

So when he picked up this book without being forced to, then came to me and told me I had to read it… well, clearly I needed to see what it was that had made such an impression on him.

If If Grow Up is a tough, clear-eyed look at inner city life, as seen from the perspective of DeShawn. We meet DeShawn at age 12, still a child but growing up fast. He lives in the projects with his grandmother and older sister, and knows to drop to the floor when there’s the sound of gunshots and to steer clear when the Douglass Disciples are coming through.

Death and violence are everyday facts of life. DeShawn goes to school, but there’s little point when the teachers rotate out as soon as they can get a better assignment and most of the kids are there just to pass the time until they too can join a gang. DeShawn is determined to get an education and stay out of gang life, but with each passing year, his choices narrow further.

This book is devastating in so many ways. The author shows the hopelessness of inner city life, where children grow up without parents, where parents bury children caught in the crossfire, where murderous gang leaders may also be the only supportive adult figure for many of the kids who so desperately need someone to guide them. Through DeShawn, we see year by year as the goal of a better life dwindles away into impossibility, and we also see the inevitability of gang life for a kid who’s forced to think about feeding his hungry family at much too young an age.

While parts of the book, especially the ending, felt kind of preachy, I had to remind myself that If I Grown Up is firmly aimed at teen readers, and that I needed to let go of my adult reader perspective and think about what this book might mean to a teen who hasn’t seen real life reflected on the page in this way before.

I know my son was really affected by the story. I’ve never seen him not be able to put down a book, or find a book so meaningful that he both wants to read it again and wanted me to read it right away so we could talk about it. And that really says a lot.

I’ve never read anything by this author before, but apparently he’s quite a prolific writer of realistic YA fiction, and I plan to check out more of his works. I’m hoping If I Grow Up will be a catalyst for my reluctant reader son to continue reading books that he connects with.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: If I Grow Up
Author: Todd Strasser
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 24, 2009
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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!

_________________________________________

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

Fabulous short treats: A trio of mini-reviews!

These three books delighted me in different ways, so I thought I’d write up a quick post with thoughts on all three.

Title: The Beautifull Cassandra
Author: Jane Austen
Illustrated by: Leon Steinmetz
Release date for this edition: September 11, 2018
Length: 72 pages

Have you read any of Jane Austen’s early writings, collected as her Juvenilia? I hadn’t… but then my daughter sent me this gorgeous edition of The Beautifull Cassandra, a story Austen wrote when she was just twelve years old. It’s a total treat. The story itself is told in 12 chapters, each only a few lines long, with under 500 words in all. The illustrations here are lovely and perfect, and I adored this book so much!

If you’re looking for an unusual gift for an Austen lover, this would make a great choice!

_____________________________________________

Title: Snow, Glass, Apples
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by: Colleen Doran
Release date: August 20, 2019
Length: 64 pages

I have loved the disturbing short story Snow, Glass, Apples every since reading it in Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors collection, so when I heard that an illustrated version was being released this year, I just had to have it.

Wow.

The story is as powerful as ever — taking the fairy tale of Snow White and turning it upside down and inside out. It’s gruesome and scary and disturbing, and gives me a chill right down to my bones.

Add to the power of the story the absolutely stunning illustrations by Colleen Doran… and you have a book that is both beautiful and deeply frightening from start to end.

_____________________________________________

Title: Galatea
Author: Madeline Miller
Release date: 2013
Length: 37 pages

After reading and loving both The Song of Achilles and Circe, I knew I had to try this earlier short work by Madeline Miller. As with her other books, the author starts with a premise out of Greek mythology: The sculptor Pygmalion creates a sculpture of a woman so incredibly beautiful that he falls in love with her, and begs the goddess Aphrodite to bring her to life so he can marry her.

In Galatea, we learn what happens next. Sure, Pygmalion got the woman of his dreams — but how does she feel about it? What’s it like to be so completely beholden to your creator, a man who only wants you in still, silent perfection? This story is strange and disturbing, and not easy to put from your mind once you’re done reading. Highly recommended.

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!

_________________________________________

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

Vacation reading wrap-up (summer 2019)

I haven’t done a vacation wrap-up post in a while… mainly because I haven’t had a real vacation (i.e., travel plans not involving family health visits) in AGES! As vaactions go, this week’s was a mini — just four days, but hey: I found sunshine!

My husband and I drove down the California coast to San Luis Obispo county, where we spent a few days hanging out in beach towns, enjoying balmy weather, good food, and even venturing into ocean water that was just a shade warmer than ice. But seriously, it was a good time, even if a bit too short.

And now I’m back, waiting for my laundry to finish (yes, I lead an exciting life), so I thought I’d share a taste of the reading I did these past few days. Because hanging out in beach towns means lots of time basking in the sun on comfy chairs, beach mats, and towels — book in hand, sunglasses on face, not enough sunscreen on body. (Ouch).

Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read on vacation, with my take on the vacation-worthiness of each book. The number of little beach umbrellas reflects my own personal feelings about whether or not this is a good choice for tucking into your beach-tote!

sun-151763_1280

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev: A modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice (obviously), set in the Bay Area and featuring the unlikely pairing of world-class neurosurgeon Trisha Raje and up-and-coming master chef DJ Caine, whose initial meeting is fraught with haughtiness and false impressions. As it turns out, Trisha is the only doctor offering a cure for DJ’s beloved sister’s brain tumor, so despite their mutual dislike, the two are forced together again and again. I liked that the author didn’t follow the P&P plotline 100% — there are plenty of familiar beats, but the story here stands on its own and isn’t shoehorned into unnatural shapes just to make it fit the pattern. I also like that it’s Trisha who’s in the Darcy role here, hiding behind her snobbiness and self-image and repelling the very person she finally realizes she wants to attract. The story moves quickly, has some key emotional moments, LOTS of mouth-watering descriptions of DJ’s culinary creations, and definitely succeeds as a love story with plenty of modern twists. Quite fun — I’m hoping Sonali Dev writes more in this world!

A five-umbrella vacation read for sure! Between the romance and the food, what more could you want?

Vacation ratingumbrellaumbrellaumbrellaumbrellaumbrella

sun-151763_1280

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory. This book (and this author) have been recommended to me repeatedly — so I finally tossed it in my beach bag and gave it a go. What a weird but oddly compelling story! We Are All Completely Fine is about a group therapy session for people who’ve survived encounters with the supernatural, and have the scars to prove it. Each of the group members has their own horrifying story to tell, and all are joined together through their process of sharing and healing, ultimately banding together to fight off a big bad coming after one of their own. It’s a short read, easily digestible in one sitting. I really liked it, and now that I’ve dipped my toe into his work, I’ll definitely be reading more by Daryl Gregory!

Giving this one 4 beach umbrellas — easy to read on the beach, but the subject matter didn’t really meld well with the bright light of day.

Vacation ratingumbrellaumbrellaumbrellaumbrella

sun-151763_1280

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin: I went at this story a little bit backwards — this is book #1 of 2, but I read #2 first (reviewed here). Oh well. It still works! In this first book, we meet Ava and Gen, two best friends embarking on their freshman year of college on opposites sides of the country. The story is told through their emails and texts, which really capture their personalities and their quirky friendship. It’s light and sunny, but also contains moments of self-discovery, pain, and challenge, as the two characters discover new aspects of themselves and question whether their friendship still works as they grow into their college selves.

Another 5-umbrella read — once you start, it’s impossible to stop!

Vacation ratingumbrellaumbrellaumbrellaumbrellaumbrella

 

sun-151763_1280

And that’s it! Not too shabby for a four-day vacation!

Now I need to go plan my next get-away… I’m not ready for a return to reality just yet.

Book Review: Please Send Help by Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin

 

In this hilarious follow-up novel to the New York Times bestseller I Hate Everyone But You, long distance best friends Ava and Gen have finally made it to the same time zone (although they’re still over a thousand miles apart).

Through their hilarious, sometimes emotional, but always relatable conversations, Ava and Gen are each other’s support systems through internships, relationship troubles, questionable roommates, undercover reporting, and whether or not it’s a good idea to take in a feral cat. Please Send Help perfectly captures the voice of young adults looking to find their place in the world and how no matter how desperate things seem, you always have your best friend to tell it like it is and pick you back up.

First things first: When I requested this book from NetGalley, I had no idea it was a sequel. Despite my qualms, I decided to read it anyway, and I”m glad I did. While it might have been nice to have read the first book, not having read it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this cute, quirky, quick read. (More on this later…)

Please Send Help is written entirely in texts and emails between two best friends, Ava and Gen. Recent college grads, both are now facing grown-up life as they pursue their career dreams. Ava, in New York, is interning with a comedy show, dying to gain real-life experience as a writer while working her (unpaid) butt off. Gen, in Florida, is trying to break into serious journalism, but the only job she could find is at a small-town newspaper with nothing much at all to cover and no room for advancement at the family-run paper.

Ava and Gen have history together, and their bond is immediately apparent. Ava is coping with anxiety that stops her in her tracks from time to time, and because of Ava’s previous experiences related to mental health, Gen tends to worry about her well-being — especially once Ava gets disastrously involved with her older boss, who’s so clearly a player who preys on young interns. Meanwhile, Gen is bi, out and proud, from a dysfunctional family and with no parental support whatsoever, trying to find connections as well as a juicy story in a backwards, socially conservative town where she has no chance of fitting in.

I loved the humor of the texts. Both Ava and Gen are wickedly, crassly funny, even when freaking out, making absurd decisions, or talking about insane events in their lives.

Tabby finally gave in to her gluttony and came inside. I jumped up and shut the door. She did NOT like that but I have put vodka on all of my scratches so I’m sure I’m fine.

These two are definitely not perfect. But they get one another, and they’re there for one another — and even when they ignore good advice or act out in particularly questionable ways, they still are there to comfort, pick each other up, and kick a little ass if that’s what needed to shake some reality into each other’s minds and hearts.

Genre/library shelf-wise, I’m not quite sure where I’d put this one. NetGalley lists it as teen/YA, but since the characters are 22-ish (I think), I wouldn’t have thought to consider this young adult. (Side note — why are young adult novels mostly about teens and not about actual young adults — which is what Ava and Gen are?) So sure, put it on the YA shelf if you want, but just know that it’s about women in their 20s figuring out life, sex, STDs, and more. Not what I’d typically consider teen fare!

Please Send Help is heaps of fun. I’m glad I wasn’t put off by finding out it’s book #2. Now that I’ve finished it, I think I’ll try to track down the first book (I Hate Everyone But You, set during Ava and Gen’s college years). I’d imagine that the topics of the girls’ families, mental health, sexuality, and more are explored in greater depth in that book, whereas here they’re mostly backstory to the struggle to be independent and start a career and a life in a new city.

BUT, please don’t feel that you can’t read Please Send Help without reading the first book! Please Send Help works perfectly well as a standalone. I’m living proof that you can read this book without any prior knowledge of the characters and their stories. I really did feel like I got to know Ava and Gen through this book, and would love to hear what happens next in their lives! *fingers crossed for a book #3*

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Please Send Help
Author: Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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?

_________________________________________

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

**Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

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.

_________________________________________

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

**Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save