Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 540 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

AMBITION WILL FUEL HIM.

COMPETITION WILL DRIVE HIM.

BUT POWER HAS ITS PRICE.

It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes. 

When the news first came out that a new Hunger Games book was on the way, 10 years after the release of Mockingjay, I knew I’d have to read it. And then, as the first synopses and excerpts starting coming out, I was probably as confused and nervous as all the other Hunger Games fans.

A book about President Snow? Really?

Did we really need this particular character’s backstory? And given what a horrible person he is, would a novel about his early years manage to satisfy readers or make us care?

Fortunately, Ballad (sorry, I’m just not going to keep typing out the full LONG title) exceeds expectations and shows that the talent of Suzanne Collins can make a man we all despise into a compelling lead character.

Coriolanus Snow is 18 years old when we meet him at the start of Ballad. It’s been ten years since the war ended, and he lives in his family’s luxurious home in the Capital. Or at least, it was luxurious once upon a time, when the Snow fortune was thriving and Coriolanus’s parents were still alive.

The war was brutal and cruel, and the streets of the Capital are still filled with the rubble left behind. The Snow family’s home is falling apart at the seams, and when District 13 was bombed into oblivion, ending the war, the Snow industries located there were also obliterated, leaving the once wealthy family destitute. Now, years later, Coriolanus lives in the shabby home with his elderly grandmother (referred to as the Grandma’am) and his cousin Tigris, where they subsist most days on cabbage soup.

Fortunately for Coriolanus, he’s a stellar student at the Academy, where his uniforms are provided and he’s guaranteed hot meals during the school day. He hides his poverty and hunger from everyone around him, determined to continue to portray himself and his family as upper crust, top tier, best of the bunch. After all, as he and Tigris reassure one another:

Snow lands on top.

This year, for the first time, Academy students are going to be given an exciting new assignment: Each of the top year students will be assigned as a mentor to a tribute in the Hunger Games. This is a chance for Coriolanus to shine. If he’s successful, if his tribute does well, he’s more likely to get the prizes and recognition that will get him a University scholarship. And his dreams definitely include University — the education and access will be necessary for his goal of restoring the Snow family to power, maybe all the way to the Presidency someday.

But first, he has to make sure his tribute does well. And it’s not looking so good. He’s assigned the girl tribute from District 12, the least prestigious assignment possible. And she’s an odd one — a girl dressed in poofy rainbow skirts with a beautiful voice and a magnetic presence, but clearly not a threat in any sort of way. Still, Coriolanus will have to work with what he’s given, and he begins to scheme and plan for how to push Lucy Gray Baird into the spotlight and into the public’s affection.

That’s a lot of synopsis, and there’s so much more to say, but I’ll stop here and talk about the pieces that really stood out for me in this book.

First, it’s truly fascinating to see life in the Capitol in the post-war years. In The Hunger Games trilogy, we only see the Capitol through Katniss’s eyes. It’s a cruel, spoiled place, full of pampered, shallow people, a place where other people’s suffering is entertainment for the masses.

Here in Ballad, the Capitol is a shelled, damaged city trying to rebuild and reestablish its absolute control. The black market is thriving, old families are starving and fading away, and social standing is the only possible avenue to regain what was lost.

The Hunger Games, ten years after their creation, are just one facet of the Capitol’s attempt to dominate the districts, and they’re pretty meager at that. The Games are held in a bombed-out sports arena, where the tributes are basically just dumped with a pile of weapons and left to kill one another. No high-tech tricks or elaborate sets, no cannons or anthems, not even any removal of bodies. The dead lie there until it’s all over, and it never does take very long.

What’s more, the tributes of these early Hunger Games don’t get any of the special preparation or luxury guest accommodations that Katniss experiences all those years later. They’re transported to the Capitol in cattle cars and housed at a cage at the zoo, given neither food nor water. It’s Coriolanus who draws attention to them, realizing that his tribute will benefit from having the public love her, finding ways to create interest and encouraging people to bring food to the caged tributes, who might otherwise starve to death before they ever enter the arena.

One of the truly fascinating aspects of this book is seeing the hated President Snow as a vulnerable teen. He’s not hateful when we meet him. He’s a young man who has to put on a good show while his private world falls apart, every single day. He’s driven and determined, but loves his family, and isn’t terrible at his core.

It’s his ambition that drives him forward, and he does have people he cares about. He also struggles with the morality of the Hunger Games, although as he views Panem’s actions from the perspective of a Capitol family, he has no sympathy for the rebels who caused such devastation in his home. Under the tutelage of the Academy professors, he hones his thinking on control and the social structure of Panem, and finds ways to push aside any personal disgust or moral ambivalence when it gets in the way of his goal to ensure the survival and triumph of the Snow family legacy.

Lucy Gray is a wonderful character, as is Sejanus, Coriolanus’s school friend who is decent to the core. Sejanus’s family is from District 2, but moved to the Capitol thanks to their enormous wealth — but no one lets Sejanus forget that he’s District, and he himself can’t seem to fully accept the Capitol’s approach to ruling the Districts. Sejanus’s morality is both a guidepost and an irritant to Coriolanus, and their contrasting journeys over the course of Ballad is a key part of what makes this novel so compelling.

(If I had more of an education in the classics, here’s where I’d go into the symbolism of the characters’ names… but alas, all I can do is say that looking up Coriolanus and Sejanus on Wikipedia was very interesting!)

As a side note, I know people were commenting/complaining about the lengthy title of this book. And yes, I’ve opted to just call it Ballad instead of typing it out over and over again. That said, ballads and snakes and songbirds are all significant within the book and factor strongly into certain plot points, so it’s definitely not an arbitrary title!

There’s so much more to say about Ballad, so much food for discussion, but I’ll stop going into details and just encourage you to discover it for yourself! I could not put this book down. The author does an amazing job of taking an established villain and showing us the nuances and all the shades of gray in his development. Coriolanus wasn’t always the man we know in the Hunger Games trilogy; Ballad illustrates who he once was and how he became the person he ended up.

A terrific read. Don’t miss it!

Book Review: Four Days of You and Me by Miranda Kenneally

Title: Four Days of You and Me
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: May 5, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A new swoon-worthy romance following a couple’s love story on the same date over four years.

Every May 7, the students at Coffee County High School take a class trip. And every year, Lulu’s relationship with Alex Rouvelis gets a little more complicated. Freshman year, they went from sworn enemies to more than friends after a close encounter in an escape room. It’s been hard for Lulu to quit Alex ever since.

Through breakups, make ups, and dating other people, each year’s class trip brings the pair back together and forces them to confront their undeniable connection. From the science museum to an amusement park, from New York City to London, Lulu learns one thing is for sure: love is the biggest trip of all.

Such a sweet story! It’s been a while since I’ve read any YA, but I’ve always enjoyed Miranda Kenneally’s books, so I knew I had to read her newest.

Lulu and Alex start as rivals freshman year, both running for class president — Lulu on a green platform, and Alex capitalizing on his popularity as a baseball star. When Alex wins, they exist as frenemies for the rest of the school year, until accidentally getting locked into an escape room together on their class trip. As they finally acknowledge their mutual sparks, Lulu and Alex start a relationship that will last throughout their high school years, despite ups and downs and time apart.

As each section of the book focuses on the class trip for that year, we get to see how Alex and Lulu have matured, and how their relationship has matured with them. There are problems along the way, of course. Alex’s devotion to baseball and his commitment to working in his family’s restaurant leaves him unavailable except for late at night, past Lulu’s curfew. They both end up frustrated and unable to see past their own hurt, so a break-up is inevitable.

Still, every year on May 7th, as they set out on another class trip, Alex and Lulu seem to be thrust back into each other’s orbit. They really are great together, and even when trying to make something work with other people, they both realize that what they have is special.

I love how matter-of-fact the author is when it comes to teen relationships. There’s no judgment here, and the characters all enjoy varying degrees of healthy sex lives. Alex and Lulu take their time getting there, but they do enjoy gradually deepening levels of intimacy, and when they finally decide to have sex, it’s with lots of discussion, explicit consent, and pre-purchased condoms.

The supporting cast is quite good too — best friends and cousins and teammates, each with their own lives and quirks. They form a loyal and strong core, and I liked that we get to see Alex and Lulu not just 100% about their relationship, but really engaged with true friendships.

I also appreciated that Lulu and Alex each have their own passions — Lulu as an author/illustrator of graphic novels, Alex with baseball — and that they support each other’s dreams and goals. Neither one would ever suggest that their plans outweigh the other’s. It’s refreshing to see two characters work through their differences without losing sight of how much they care about each other.

Miranda Kenneally writes terrific, strong female characters, and Lulu is no exception. She’s talented and smart, and someone who’d be easy to like in real life. Four Days of You and Me is a quick read, and I really enjoyed this glimpse of high school life and all its drama, humor, and adventure.

Book Review: When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk

Title: When You Were Everything
Author: Ashley Woodfolk
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You can’t rewrite the past, but you can always choose to start again.

It’s been twenty-seven days since Cleo and Layla’s friendship imploded.

Nearly a month since Cleo realized they’ll never be besties again.

Now, Cleo wants to erase every memory, good or bad, that tethers her to her ex–best friend. But pretending Layla doesn’t exist isn’t as easy as Cleo hoped, especially after she’s assigned to be Layla’s tutor. Despite budding new friendships with other classmates—and a raging crush on a gorgeous boy named Dom—Cleo’s turbulent past with Layla comes back to haunt them both.

Alternating between time lines of Then and Now, When You Were Everything blends past and present into an emotional story about the beauty of self-forgiveness, the promise of new beginnings, and the courage it takes to remain open to love. 

It’s refreshing to read a contemporary YA novel where romance takes a backseat. In When You Were Everything, the focus is on friendship — or more specifically, on the end of friendship.

Few things are more traumatic for teen girls that losing a best friend. In When You Were Everything, we witness the pain and sorrow and rage that occurs when besties forever, Cleo and Layla, fall apart.

It happens the way these things do. Friends since age twelve, the girls start moving in different directions at the start of their sophomore year of high school. Layla wants more than anything to join the school chorus, and while the “Chorus Girls” adopt her right away, they have no interest in including Cleo in their elite circle.

Cleo’s feeling are hurt over and over again as Layla spends more time with her new friends than with Cleo, and small slights turn into bigger and bigger betrayals, until there’s a final and irreparable break.

Cleo is also dealing with her parents’ separation, and her new friendless status is made even worse by a stream of bullying and harassment she endures from the Chorus Girls while Layla stands by and does nothing.

Cleo is smart and driven, but she also makes some poor choices, lashing out in hurtful ways when her own feelings are hurt. And while I felt that Layla was more to blame for the friendship break-up, Cleo isn’t blameless either.

When You Were Everything is hard to read at times, specifically because it’s so relatable. My own high school years are way in the past, but Cleo’s feelings as she’s isolated and tormented ring very true, in a sadly timeless sort of way.

I enjoyed seeing how Cleo opens herself up to new friendships and learns to see what’s in front of her instead of living inside her own head so much. There’s a sweet romance too, but it’s less important than what Cleo learns about herself and about friendship.

The cast of characters is nicely diverse, and I liked the way the story includes the importance of family and the impact of parents’ and grandparents’ support, love, and involvement. Despite the sadness of the end of a friendship, the book ends on a hopeful note.

Definitely a recommended read!

Book Review: Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Title: Only Mostly Devastated
Author: Sophie Gonzales
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: March 3, 2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA meets CLUELESS in this boy-meets-boy spin on Grease

Summer love…gone so fast.

Ollie and Will were meant to be a summer fling—casual, fun, and done. But when Ollie’s aunt’s health takes a turn for the worse and his family decides to stay in North Carolina to take care of her, Ollie lets himself hope this fling can grow to something more. Dreams that are crushed when he sees Will at a school party and finds that the sweet and affectionate (and comfortably queer) guy he knew from summer isn’t the same one attending Collinswood High.

Will is more than a little shocked to see Ollie the evening of that first day of school. While his summer was spent being very much himself, back at school he’s simply known as one of the varsity basketball guys. Now Will is faced with the biggest challenge of his life: follow his heart and risk his friendships, or stay firmly in the closet and lose what he loves most.

Summer loving had me a blast
Summer loving happened so fast.
..Save

Well, you know how it goes.

Two cute teens meet on their summer vacation, fall head over heels, say sad good-byes… and then end up attending the same high school in the fall.

But in Only Mostly Devastated, we’re not talking good girl Sandy and bad boy Danny. Instead, we have two adorable boys, Ollie and Will, who have a magical summer together. They should be thrilled to end up at the same school unexpectedly, right?

The problem is (and of course, there has to be a problem): Ollie is out; Will is not. And while Ollie came out to supportive parents and a chill circle of friends and school acquaintances back in California, Will grew up in more conservative North Carolina, where homophobic jokes are de rigeur for the cool jock crowd and their hangers-on.

When Ollie and his parents relocate to North Carolina to be near his terminally ill aunt and help with her children, he doesn’t really expect to run into Will without some effort. Not to mention that Will appears to have ghosted him right after their final summer good-bye kiss.

So when Ollie tells the group of girls who befriend him on his first day of school about his summer love — and shows them a picture — complications almost immediately crop up. Because of course, Will goes to the same school, and of course, the girls are thrown for a loop by this news that straight hot basketball star Will is maybe not so straight after all.

Ollie is sweet as can be, and it’s so sad and painful to go through all his emotions alongside him. He’s firmly out and will never accept a situation where’s he’s forced back in the closet — but he has to respect Will’s choice, even if it means accepting that Will has to pretend not to know Ollie, and can’t hang out with him too visibly for fear of being teased about turning gay.

The author does a great job of helping us (and Ollie) understand why Will might fear being outed, showing the social environment at school and the not-so-subtle pressure to conform, as well as the scorn reserved for those who don’t fall nicely into socially acceptable gender and relationship roles.

Meanwhile, Ollie forms close friendships with a trio of girls who seem to adore him and take him under their wings. They’re all interesting and varied, not just a generic crowd of high school girls but real people with distinct personalities and conflicts and challenges.

Ollie’s family life is also portrayed sensitively, and it’s quite sad to see Ollie processing his aunt’s decline while also being there for his two little cousins. As if Ollie wasn’t adorable and sweet enough already, he’s also a terrific babysitter and loves his family unconditionally, and it’s heartbreaking to witness his grief when the inevitable finally happens.

The cast of characters in Only Mostly Devastated is nicely diverse without making a big fuss over it, which I really appreciated. The romance at the heart of the story is so well done, and even though it’s almost too sad at times to see how hurt Ollie is, by the end, it feels like a realistic journey that the boys go through to get to where they end up. (Being vague here, so as not to spoil too much…)

If you enjoy sweet, sensitive young adult romances with well-earned happy endings, definitely check out Only Mostly Devastated!Save

Shelf Control #203: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

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!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
Author: Holly Black
Published: 2013
Length: 419 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.

One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a wholly original story of rage and revenge, of guilt and horror, and of love and loathing from bestselling and acclaimed author Holly Black.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a copy at a library sale a few years back.

Why I want to read it:

I’m on a Holly Black kick! I just finished the amazing Folk of the Air trilogy, and I want more! And while this isn’t a faerie book, it still sounds pretty awesome to me. I understand it’s a vampire story… which is okay by me. And I like the fact that this is a stand-alone, because I have more than enough ongoing series that I’m trying to keep up with.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

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!

Shelf Control #201: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

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!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: Challenger Deep
Author: Neal Shusterman
Published: 2015
Length: 320 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

National Book Award and Golden Kite Award Winner

A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman.

Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.

Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.

Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence to document the journey with images.

Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.

Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.

Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a deeply powerful and personal novel from one of today’s most admired writers for teens. Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak, calls Challenger Deep “a brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frightening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary.”

How and when I got it:

I bought an e-book edition when there was a price drop, either last year or the year before.

Why I want to read it:

A certain bookish friend has been reminding me that I NEED to read this book for years now! I’ve read several Neal Shusterman books, so I know I enjoy his writing and his approach to young adult fiction. Challenger Deep is an award winning novel that tackles mental health issues and has received so many rave reviews. I really do look forward to finally reading this book, and look — I’m publicly committing to reading it in 2020!

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

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

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

Have fun!

Book Review: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Title: Long Way Down
Author: Jason Reynolds
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication date: May 2, 2019
Length: 306 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

An ode to Put the Damn Guns Down, this is New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds’s electrifying novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.

A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he?

I picked up Long Way Down knowing next to nothing about it. I’d been searching for examples of realistic urban fiction for teens, at the request of my son, and stumbled across a recommendation for Jason Reynolds’s books in general and Long Way Down in particular.

Fortunately for me, I think, I only read the back of the book before starting it, rather than the detailed synopsis above (which I’ve shortened, because I feel like it gives away way too much).

Long Way Down is not what I expected! For starters, I had no idea that it was written in verse. This isn’t an approach I usually gravitate toward, but once I got past my initial reluctance, it completely sucked me in.

The story is sad and straight-forward. Will’s older brother Shawn has been shot and killed. But Will knows where Shawn kept his gun, and he knows what he has to do — find the person who killed Shawn and get revenge.

As Will gets on the elevator from his apartment down to the ground level, Shawn’s gun in his waistband, he starts encountering different people who all have a connection to Will, to Shawn, and to the never-ending cycle of violence that has taken so many lives.

As each new person gets on the elevator, Will learns a little bit more about events of the past, and has one final minute to consider whether or not to get off the elevator, whether or not to go after Shawn’s killer and become a killer himself.

Jason Reynolds’s words are stark and powerful:

I HAD NEVER HELD A GUN.

Never even
touched one.

Heavier than
I expected,

like holding
a newborn

except I
knew the

cry would
be much

much much
much louder.

I tore through this book in an hour, and really do need to go back through it again more slowly to savor the language and the story development.

Jason Reynolds has just been named the newest National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress, which is amazing and awesome. Here’s a clip of an interview with the author:

And here’s a clip of him reading from Long Way Down:

Finally, I love this tweet from a teacher whose students wrote six-word responses to Long Way Down:

I will definitely want to read more books by this talented author. Do you have any recommendations?

Check out Long Way Down, and give a copy to all the teens in your life. It’s an important book, and I’m so glad I gave it a try.

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 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:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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