Series wrap-up: The Immortals by Tamora Pierce

Once again, I need to thank my amazing daughter for her never-flagging enthusiasm for Tamora Pierce and the world of Tortall. After seeing her obsession with these books, starting in her tweens and continuing into adulthood, past college and grad school, I just knew my involvement was inevitable. I re-read (and loved) the Alanna series over the summer (see my thoughts, here), and thanks to a reading-order list supplied by my helpful daughter, I decided to continue onward.

So, following the list, my next stop on the Tortall adventure was The Immortals, another quartet, set roughly a decade after the end of the Alanna books. The Immortals introduces new characters, settings, and challenges, but retains the familiar Tortall at its center and keeps some familiar faces in the mix — although it’s decidedly odd to see our previous teen hero, Alanna, through the eyes of a younger girl, so that Alanna is viewed as an accomplished, brave, grown-up. (Which she is, but it’s a big jump from hearing the story through her teen voice.)

The story of The Immortals:

In book #1, Wild Magic, we meet Daine (full name Veralidaine Sarrasri — isn’t that gorgeous?). Daine is a young girl of about 13, orphaned after raiders killed her mother, who signs on as an assistant to the horse trainer who supplies horses to the Queen’s Riders, an elite fighting force serving the kingdom of Tortall. Daine has an unusual skill with animals of all sorts. When she meets the mage Numair, she learns that it’s not just a skill — it’s magic. Wild magic, to be specific, a rare and unusual gift that allows her to connect with animals and speak with them mind to mind. Later on, as she learns to use and expand her magic, she’s even able to inhabit animals and shape-shift at will, giving her powers that enable her to triumph in the most dangerous of situations.

Daine becomes a key player in the kingdom, working with the King’s forces and range of allies to combat enemies who wish to overthrow him. In book #2, Wolf-Speaker, a fiefdom within Tortall has taken disturbing steps to shield themselves from the rest of the kingdom, using the mining of unusual gems to establish a magical connection with the Emperor Ozorne of Carthak. And in book #3, Emperor Mage, Daine travels to Carthak with a Tortallian delegation to negotiate peace between the nations, only to find herself enmeshed in the Emperor’s sinister schemes.

Finally, in book #4, The Realms of the Gods, there’s the ultimate showdown between Tortall and Ozorne, although Daine and Numair spend much of it literally in another world, having been brought into the realms of the gods for their own protection. Much of the 4th book is spent on Daine and Numair’s quest to find a way back to their own world, in order to fight alongside their friends and defeat Ozorne once and for all.

 

I really and truly enjoyed this series, although (and I hate to say it), the fourth book was somewhat weak in comparison to the earlier three. I love Daine as a character: She’s fierce, talented, and strong. We see her development from a young girl who’s been wounded by life, full of guilt and self-doubt, into a young adult with the confidence to use and control her gift, but who never abuses her own power. She’s devoted to the animal world and respects all creatures, coming to understand that even animals that humans find repellant have a purpose and a right to their lives. Daine is a loyal friend, who loves unconditionally and pursues what she feels is right, even at risk to her own life.

My problem with the 4th book is right there in the title. By removing Daine and Numair to the realms of the gods, too much of the book is spent with them outside of the central arena of the story so far. They’re isolated, encountering new beings and places on their quest to return home. This takes them out of Tortall for way too much of the story, so that they’re only there for the final showdown. Yes, while in the realms of the gods, Daine learns important facts about her parentage and her own powers, but it’s not a great way to wrap up the series.

 

 

 

I can’t talk about these books without mentioning the amazing animals and gods Daine befriends. There’s Skysong, also known as Kitten, an orphaned baby dragon whom Daine rescues and raises; the badger god, who becomes Daine’s patron and mentor; Tkaa, the basilisk, a strong ally; Cloud, Daine’s pony, and so many more. Because Daine can converse with animals, we get to know all of these as people with their own minds and attitudes, and it’s quite fun and fascinating to see how the author chooses to portray them.

 

 

I listened to the audiobooks — such a treat! The Immortals was recorded by Full Cast Audio, who specialize in full-cast recordings of children’s books. Tamora Pierce herself serves as narrator for the series, and each character gets his or her own voice actor. This was a bit of an adjustment for me at first, as I’m not used to listening to audiobooks with more than a single narrator. Once I got into it, though, it was really a great experience. I particularly loved the voices for Daine and Numair, but also really enjoyed the voices used for their animal and immortal friends.

The Immortals was a terrific listen and a great adventure, and I will absolutely be continuing with my Tortallian quest! Next up (after a pause to catch up on some other audiobooks) — the Protector of the Small series!

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Book details:

Wild Magic – published 1992
Wolf-Speaker – published 1993
Emperor Mage – published 1994
The Realms of the Gods – published 1996

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A book & a movie: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

It’s the classic tug-of-war: Book or Movie?

In the case of To All the Boys I’ve Love Before, why not enjoy both? That’s what I did this past week!

I watched the Netflix movie last weekend. Here’s the synopsis (via IMDb):

When her secret love letters somehow get mailed to each of her five crushes, Lara Jean finds her quiet high school existence turned upside down.

Okay, that doesn’t really tell us all that much.

The movie is super adorable. 16-year-old Lara Jean, a high school junior, lives at home with her widowed dad and her two sisters — but older sister Margot’s departure for college in Scotland throws the normal family routines out of whack. Lara Jean is missing Margot… and then somehow, her old love letters to five different crushes from her past end up in the boys’ hands, and things get rom-com cute and chaotic.

But what about the book? After watching the movie, I decided I needed to read the book — ya know, just for comparison’s sake. The book, by Jenny Han, is sweet and quirky (kind of like Lara Jean!). Here’s the book synopsis, from Goodreads:

What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them… all at once?

Sixteen-year-old Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved—five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

In both versions, the main boys on Lara Jean’s very confused mind are Josh, the boy next door and Margot’s ex-boyfriend, and Peter Kavinsky, the super popular guy who once kissed Lara Jean back in middle school. Josh is blown away by Lara Jean’s letter confessing feelings for him, and Peter is trying to deal with a break-up from his long-term girlfriend, so Lara Jean and Peter end up as fake boyfriend and girlfriend, just to get everyone off their backs. Yes, the fake relationship plot has been around for a while, but To All the Boys manages to keep it fresh and fun.

The movie version is a great way to enjoy the full story without a whole lot of time invested, and the cast is pretty terrific. I have a definite weakness for John Corbett, who plays the dad (which gives you a good idea of my demographic, btw), but I appreciated the young’uns who make up the teen characters’ part of the cast.

I was a little confused, watching the movie, by the ethnicity of the sisters. According to the book, Lara Jean and her sisters are biracial, with a Korean mom and a white dad. The TV sisters appear to be from different ethnic backgrounds, which I kept thinking the movie might explain (are they adopted? I hadn’t read the book yet when I watched it). To complicate matters further, according to IMDb, the actress playing Lara Jean is of Vietnamese descent, and the actress playing Margot is of Chinese descent. No info on the younger sister (who, based just on looks, doesn’t appear to be Asian), but I thought it was odd casting to pick three girls who look nothing alike and then just ignore their diverse backgrounds. Sorry, I’m not trying to be offensive here, but not being familiar with the story beforehand, I was distracted by how distinctly un-related the sisters looked, and it took me a while to realize that the movie was just going to leave it all unacknowledged. Weird to get hung up on that, I know, but there it is.

The movie advances the plot a bit further than the book — the book leaves the ending on an open note. We know (and Lara Jean finally knows) how she feels, but not what the outcome will be. The movie has a suitably romantic and adorable ending… but since the book is the first in a trilogy, I assume we’ll get there in book #2.

Of course, I’m now a little worried about how there can be two more books’ worth of story left to tell, because the movie ending was pretty perfect and swoony. Now I’m anxious about what comes after that happy ending, and what direction books 2 and 3 might take the characters in.

So, which did I like more — book or movie? Hard to say! I’m glad I watched the movie first (which is definitely unusual for me). It strikes all the right notes, condensing teen worry, flirtation, hard family issues, mean girls, fitting in, first crushes, and the rush of first love, into a (less than) two hour experience that feels fun, fresh, and totally satisfying. If you need a quick mood boost, this is perfect (maybe with a mug of hot cocoa and some delicious cookies to go with). I liked the book a lot, especially the deeper look into the relationships between Margot, Lara Jean, and younger sister Kitty, and I’m glad I read it — but even if I hadn’t, the movie hits all the right beats and feels complete in and of itself.

So yeah, I say do both! Watch the movie, read the book… and as for me, I’m already moving on to book #2, PS I Still Love You… hoping there’s plenty more quirky romance and sisterly shenanigans in store!

Book Review: Fatal Throne

 

The tragic lives of Henry VIII and his six wives are reimagined by seven acclaimed and bestselling authors in this riveting novel, perfect for fans of Wolf Hall and Netflix’s The Crown

He was King Henry VIII, a charismatic and extravagant ruler obsessed with both his power as king and with siring a male heir.

They were his queens–six ill-fated women, each bound for divorce, or beheading, or death.

Watch spellbound as each of Henry’s wives attempts to survive their unpredictable king and his power-hungry court. See the sword flash as fiery Anne Boleyn is beheaded for adultery. Follow Jane Seymour as she rises from bullied court maiden to beloved queen, only to die after giving birth. Feel Catherine Howard’s terror as old lovers resurface and whisper vicious rumors to Henry’s influential advisors. Experience the heartache of mothers as they lose son after son, heir after heir.

Told in stirring first-person accounts, Fatal Throne is at once provocative and heartbreaking, an epic tale that is also an intimate look at the royalty of the most perilous times in English history.

Who’s Who:

* M. T. Anderson – Henry VIII
* Candace Fleming – Katharine of Aragon
* Stephanie Hemphill – Anne Boleyn
* Lisa Ann Sandell – Jane Seymour
* Jennifer Donnelly – Anna of Cleves
* Linda Sue Park – Catherine Howard
* Deborah Hopkinson – Kateryn Parr

Let’s be clear about something right from the start: This is young adult fiction, written by a collection of YA authors and aimed at a teen reader audience. So, claiming in the blurb that this is a book for fans of Wolf Hall? Not exactly a true statement.

Fatal Throne is broken up into six first-person narratives, one for each queen and written by a different author, interspersed with Henry’s viewpoints on and reactions to each of his queens. The stories are kept brief and dramatic, following the highs and lows of each marriage, each leading inevitably to a disaster of one sort or another.

While each queen is written by a different author, there’s a certain sameness to the tone. Without knowing it ahead of time, I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to tell that there were different writers for each piece of the story.

As for the stories themselves, they’re fast-paced and interesting, but I can’t say that they reveal anything particularly new or different. Here’s where I feel it’s important to again stress the intended audience. For YA readers who are unfamiliar with anything but the basics of these historical figures’ lives, the presentation of the queen’s lives through their own voices could be a very compelling way to get immersed in their stories and learn more about the women behind the throne.

But for anyone who’s already read either non-fiction or historical fiction accounts of Henry VIII and his six wives, Fatal Throne is merely a retread of very familiar events, people, and historical speculation.

Of the six queens, the presentation of Anna of Cleves here is perhaps the most interesting, showcasing her inner strength and her ultimate triumph in regaining control over her own life. The others are, of course, all tragic in their own ways. Catherine Howard is a touch more sympathetic than I’ve seen in other portrayals — here, she’s a silly 16-year-old who simply doesn’t grasp the significance of her own actions or where they could lead. Anne Boleyn, as always, is a fascinating woman, although some of her rough edges are smoothed out just a bit in Fatal Throne.

I did end up enjoying the book for its quick pace and dramatic approach to the storytelling, but in terms of true depth, an examination of the historical records, or new insights, there are plenty of other books I’d sooner recommend. That said, this could be a good entry point for a YA reader without prior familiarity with the subject matter.

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The details:

Title: Fatal Throne
Author: See synopsis for list
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: YA historical fiction
Source: Library

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Series wrap-up: The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

Sometimes, revisiting a series you read ages ago is just the thing for lifting your spirits. Or at least, that’s definitely true for me!

I first encountered the Alanna books (by Tamora Pierce) when my daughter, then a middle-schooler in her tweens, fell in love with the story. Naturally, I thought I’d better check out what had captured my 12-year-old’s attention so firmly. And while I was delighted by the girl-power message of the story, I’ll admit that there was slightly more bed-hopping than I felt entirely comfortable with my daughter reading at that point.

Years passed. My daughter, now an adult, has devoured ALL of Tamora Pierce’s books and treats them like comfort food, revisiting not just the Alanna books but all the other books set in the world of Tortall on a regular basis. She’s been urging the other books on me for years, but I had only so-so memories of the Alanna series, and didn’t remember much of the details. I just couldn’t see myself re-entering that world.

And then, I did.

I’m not sure why I decided to finally jump in, but I ended up listening to the audiobooks of the Song of the Lioness  quartet this summer… and loved them. Narrated by actress Trini Alvarado, the audiobooks were a low-stress, low-commitment way for me to dip my toe back in to the world of Tortall and see if I felt the need to truly swim deeper. Turns out, the answer was yes.

I became immersed in the story almost immediately, and continued listening all the way through until I finished the fourth book. Along the way, there were some surprises, such as the fact that I hadn’t actually read the 4th book when I first encountered the series. I was certain that I’d read them all, until I commented to my darling daughter that I didn’t remember certain of the characters or plot points from that book, and she informed me that I’d stopped before I ever got there! Silly me.

Let me now backtrack and explain a bit about the books, for the uninitiated.

In book #1, Alanna: The First Adventure, we meet Alanna of Trebond and  her twin brother Thom, two motherless 10-year-olds with a father who doesn’t particularly care about his children. They’re sent off to follow the prescribed path for noble children — boys to the capitol city to train as knights, and girls to the convent. But Alanna and Thom have different plans: Alanna dreams of knighthood and adventure, and Thom wishes to pursue a study of sorcery through the convent’s magical teachers. They switch places, and Alanna becomes Alan of Trebond, entering the palace as a young boy embarking on the training to become a knight, starting by serving as a palace page.

As Alan/Alanna grows up, she earns her place among the boys who are her peers through her toughness and her absolute determination to become the best. She’s loyal and fierce, and forms tight friendships with the pages and squires around her, including Prince Jonathan, heir to the throne. She also meets and becomes fast friends with George Cooper, a young man of the streets who presides over the lower class’s thieves and rogues. Between Jonathan and George, she has two allies and advocates who will stick with her no matter what.

Over the course of the series, we see Alanna advance to squire and finally to knighthood. She ultimately reveals her true gender, and sets out on a series of adventures, becoming a member of the Bazhir desert tribes, learning advanced magical skills as a shaman, and ultimately setting out on a quest that will either save the kingdom or end her own  life. There are romantic entanglements a-plenty (along with the bed-hopping that shocked me on behalf of my 12-year-old — although really it’s tame and non-graphic compared to today’s YA fare).

What I love about this series is the ongoing development of Alanna as an individual who refuses to adhere to the predetermined roles available to someone o f her social status and gender. She embraces her strengths, acknowledges her weaknesses, and never stops trying to improve and grow. She also refuses to be all one thing or another: Yes, she wants to be a knight, and to get there must hide her true gender, but she still manages to find kindly women to go to with her questions about women’s bodies, menstrual cycles, clothing, and relationships. Alanna remains true to herself throughout, and proves to be not just brave and skilled as a warrior, but a trustworthy friend, a beloved surrogate daughter, and a devoted lover.

Beyond all that, the Alanna quartet is quite simply a great fantasy adventure. There are sword fights and horseback adventures, battles and feats of chivalry, and all  manner of court dramas and  formalities. The world-building in the Alanna books is terrific, including not just the knighthood aspects but also its own brand of magical powers, sorcery, and a history of gods and goddesses with powers over the land. The pieces all come together brilliantly, and left me entirely satisfied by the awesome climax and conclusion of the final book, but also wanting more of the characters and this particular kingdom and world.

Luckily, there are plenty more books set in Tortall for me to explore, and my daughter has been kind enough to provide me with her recommended reading order. Next up is the Immortals quartet, starting with Wild Magic, which I’ll begin once I finish up the next couple of audiobooks in my queue.

I’m so happy to have finally revisited the Alanna books, and recommend them highly!

But please, not this set of covers. I can’t even.

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Book details:

Alanna: The First Adventure – 274 pages, published 1983
In the Hand of the Goddess – 264 pages, published 1984
The Woman Who Rides Like a Man – 284 pages, published 1986
Lioness Rampant – 308 pages, published 1988

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

“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)

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

My Thoughts:

I don’t think there’s anything I can say about The Hate U Give that hasn’t already been said. Released early in 2017, The Hate U Give has generated a tremendous amount of buzz, has been nominated for and won numerous literary awards, and won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards for Young Adult Fiction and Debut Author. Now that I’ve finally read the book, I can add my voice to the raves and say with certainty that all the praise is absolutely deserved.

The Hate U Give is a raw, unfiltered look inside a life and a world that people of privilege never see. It’s an eye-opening, upsetting, deeply human look at the costs of violence, prejudice, and brutality.  Main character Starr leads us through her double life, letting us see the conflicts she faces on a daily basis as she tries to navigate her neighborhood and her school. The entire book is engaging and impossible to put down. Where it really excels is by showing us, through the power of fiction, what the lives behind the headlines look like, and how the victim of violence is too often labeled a thug or a criminal when what truly matters is the person’s life being unjustly ended.

I’m so glad that I finally read The Hate U Give, and will be pushing it on my family and friends. Everyone should read this book.

I’m really looking forward to the movie version as well.

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The details:

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication date: February 28, 2017
Length: 453 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2) by Neal Shusterman

 

Rowan and Citra take opposite stances on the morality of the Scythedom, putting them at odds, in the chilling sequel to the Printz Honor Book Scythe from New York Times bestseller Neal Shusterman, author of the Unwind dystology.

The Thunderhead cannot interfere in the affairs of the Scythedom. All it can do is observe—it does not like what it sees.

A year has passed since Rowan had gone off grid. Since then, he has become an urban legend, a vigilante snuffing out corrupt scythes in a trial by fire. His story is told in whispers across the continent.

As Scythe Anastasia, Citra gleans with compassion and openly challenges the ideals of the “new order.” But when her life is threatened and her methods questioned, it becomes clear that not everyone is open to the change.

Will the Thunderhead intervene?

Or will it simply watch as this perfect world begins to unravel?

I absolutely loved Scythe, the first book in the Arc of a Scythe series. So it should be no surprise that I found myself swept away by Thunderhead, book #2, simply unable to put it down once I started.

Note: This review may be a bit spoilery, since it’s for the 2nd in a series. Look away now if you want to be spoiler-free!

Scythe ended on a suspenseful note. Apprentice Scythes Citra and Rowan make it to their final rite of passage, and while Citra is ordained, taking the name Scythe Anastasia, Rowan is not accepted into the scythedom. By rules of their apprenticeship, Citra should now “glean” (kill, permanently, with no revival) Rowan, but instead, she makes sure he gets a year’s immunity from gleaning and he escapes. By the end of the book, we know that Rowan has gone rogue, illegally donning the robes of a scythe and making it his mission to eliminate the worst of the scythes — those who kill for pleasure rather than as a means of keeping balance in the world.

Thunderhead picks right up with the action, as Citra/Anastasia carries out her scythe duties with thoughtfulness and purpose. Scythes are necessary tools in a world in which death has been banished. Without scythes, overpopulation and starvation would result, killing off humanity just as surely as war and disease did back in the mortal age. Anastasia treats those to be gleaned with respect and compassion, and while her task is still grim, she gives it a dignity that “new order” scythes find ridiculous, boring, and unnecessarily serious.

Things become deadly when Anastasia and her mentor Scythe Curie are almost killed in a bombing attack. Everything in the world is governed by the Thunderhead, the sentient intelligence that evolved from cloud computing. The Thunderhead is all-knowing, and has as its mission the preservation of life on the planet to the best of its ability. The one area removed from Thunderhead control is the scythedom — a rule created by the Thunderhead to ensure that humans could make the decisions necessary for their own species’ survival without undue interference. But over the course of the book, the Thunderhead realizes that the things it doesn’t know and doesn’t see, thanks to this separation, may spell doom rather than salvation for humanity.

Scattered throughout the book are pages narrated by the Thunderhead itself, and these are truly fascinating. The Thunderhead knows everything, and knows everyone. It understands what each person needs, and it understands how things must change in order for the world to endure. It knows every probable outcome and the statistical likelihood of every occurrence. And yet, the Thunderhead isn’t some evil computer overlord. It has what it considers the best interest of all things as its focus, and if it can be said to feel, we’d be likely to interpret its musings on human beings as a form of love. Still, there is perhaps something a little creepy about a world in which the illusion of complete choice is deliberately provided by the Thunderhead in certain situations in order for people to feel free, and in which a class of people known as “unsavories” are permitted (and even encouraged) so that those who need a sense of rebellion can get that satisfaction.

I won’t give away too much more, other than to say that the ending is a TREMENDOUS CLIFFHANGER,  with a lead-up that left me gasping. I mean, I could not believe what I was reading, was utterly horrified, kept waiting for things not to be as bad as they seemed (but they were), and could not look away. Really, the ending is a stunner.

Note: Pretty big spoiler here for anyone who’s familiar with classic opera:

At the end, I couldn’t help but chuckle sadly once I realized what exquisite foreshadowing the author used by having characters attend a performance of Aida.

Sorry, I couldn’t not say that.

End of spoilers!

I could rave about this book (and Scythe) a whole lot more, but I think you get the point! I just wish I had someone in my life to discuss this with! I’m trying to push the books on a few bookish friends, and hope to have some success soon. These are books that just NEED to be talked about!

Really, read Scythe and Thunderhead! You’ll thank me, I promise.

And now we wait for #3, coming (I hope) sometime in 2019.

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The details:

Title: Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 9, 2018
Length: 504 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Scythe by Neal Shusterman

 

Thou shalt kill.

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

What a fascinating story! I hadn’t heard of Scythe until my son’s high school picked it for their school-wide summer reading book. Once I picked up a copy (ostensibly for my son), I just had to read it. Utterly compelling and impossible to put down.

In the world of Scythe, modern history dates back to the year 2042:

It’s a year that every schoolchild knows. It was the year when computational power became infinite — or so close to infinite that is could no longer be measured. It was the year we knew… everything. “The cloud” evolved into “the Thunderhead,” and now all there is to know about everything resides in the near-infinite memory of the Thunderhead for anyone who wants to access it.

With the coming of the Thunderhead and infinite knowledge, humankind had the answers to everything — disease, hunger, death. People became immortal, and thus, the need for scythes emerged. Generations later, scythes have rockstar status (there are even trading cards), but are also feared and treated as outside normal society. Scythes bring death as they “glean” people, some with thoughtful process and compassion, others with showy spectacle. Yes, people still have accidents and can be “deadish”, but everyone who dies in any manner can be revived, apart from those who have been gleaned. Gleanings are final, and irrevocable.

As Citra and Rowan have their lives transformed, from humdrum teen life to the world of apprenticeship, they’re thrust into a secret society of laws and infighting and a morality all its own. And as the year of apprentice progresses, they learn that some scythes have embraced a more corrupt, corrosive form of scythedom, and that these scythes seem poised to take over completely.

I was utterly absorbed while reading this book. There are some truly deep notions that I can only imagine would make for fabulous discussions. In Scythe, we learn that with infinite knowledge comes a lack of true meaning. Everything that can be known is already known. All accomplishments have been accomplished. Life stretches on forever, and when a person’s body reaches a more advanced age than desired, he or she can simply “turn a corner” and reset back to an earlier age. Without the fear of death or the sense of a limited time to make one’s mark, life is persistent and pleasant, but there’s no sense of urgency. Art suffers — there are no heights of passion or suffering to scale. Everything is nice… but it kind of sounds like a pretty boring way to live forever.

The power plays of the scythes is scary and upsetting to read about. Scythes are untouchable and answer only to their own governing body — so when corrupt scythes who tow the line of the letter of the law while committing horrific acts start climbing to dominance, there’s no balancing force to keep scythedom pure.

I really just can’t say enough good things about this book! I was completely hooked, and can’t wait to start the sequel, Thunderhead.

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The details:

Title: Scythe
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: November 22, 2016
Length: 435 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

A word of warning right from the start: There will be some spoiler-ish discussion later on in this review — but I’ll put a big spoiler warning on top when we get there!

 


Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison. Dante is fair skinned. Ari’s features are much darker. It seems that a boy like Dante, with his open and unique perspective on life, would be the last person to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself.

But against all odds, when Ari and Dante meet, they develop a special bond that will teach them the most important truths of their lives, and help define the people they want to be. But there are big hurdles in their way, and only by believing in each other―and the power of their friendship―can Ari and Dante emerge stronger on the other side.

My Thoughts:

I was completely engaged throughout my listening experience, and thought both Ari and Dante were charming as hell. The story is touching and emotional, with lots of humor as well. At the same time, I realized at the end that the story I thought I was listening to was not in fact the story I was getting. I’ll explain — bear with me!

Ari and Dante are both of Mexican descent, living with their parents in El Paso, Texas. The story is set in the late 80s, which is important to keep in mind in terms of situations within Ari’s family as well as societal norms and prejudices of the time. Both boys are only children — Dante in fact, Ari in terms of circumstance, as his siblings are significantly older and he’s the only one living at home. Both sets of parents are loving and supportive, but in Dante’s case, this is tempered by the walls of silence he experiences around the two forbidden subjects in his home: his father’s wartime experiences in Vietnam, and anything and everything to do with his incarcerated older brother.

Ari loves his parents and they love him, but he finds them unknowable, as their secrets create barriers. Ari is an angry young man with no  friends, but something in him connects to Dante from their very first meeting, in the summer when both boys are fifteen. Dante is friendly and outspoken and honest, and he likes to talk about everything. Something about his willingness to accept Ari for who he is forces Ari to see Dante as a friend. They’re soon inseparable, connected and honest and supportive in ways that Ari has never experienced.

Here’s where I’m getting into spoiler territory, so look away if you don’t want to know more!

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Dante’s feelings for Ari go way beyond friendship. As the boys mature over the course of the book, Dante is pretty forthright about where he stands — he’s interested in kissing boys, not girls, and no, it’s not just a phase. Finally, he confesses his feelings to Ari, but Ari isn’t interested in boys — or Dante — in that way.

And that’s where things stand for most of the book, until close to the end, as Ari’s emotions and anger threaten to finally get the best of him. By the end of the book, the walls between Ari and his parents have started to come down, and his parents have started to open up to Ari about their family’s past and all the secrets between them. Finally, his parents confront Ari and tell him that they know that he’s in love with Dante. After tears and a huge emotional release, Ari acknowledges this too.

And I mostly felt… huh? I did not see that coming.

Earlier, I alluded to the fact that I thought I was reading a different book than the book it turned out to be. And here’s what I meant by that: The book is told through Ari’s first-person narration. We get to hear this thoughts on his life and his family, on his frustrations and anger, and on his friendship with Dante. And there’s just nothing that I heard that made me feel that what he felt for Dante went beyond friendship. He talks about Dante’s good looks, but not in a way to make me think there was physical attraction. He talks about the closeness he feels for Dante, but I didn’t have the impression that there was romantic love behind it.

So, I thought I was reading a book about how friendship — real, true, deep, strong friendship — could be possible between a straight boy and a gay boy. And I thought that was really cool. So different, so refreshing. What a great way to break down barriers!

And I have no problem with reading a book about a romance between two teen boys. Coming out stories, first love stories — done well, these can be so sweet and moving, and it’s so important to have these stories available in the YA market. But that’s just not what I thought this book was going to be!

Don’t get me wrong — I loved the book. The writing is marvelous, and I loved the characters. I thought it was so interesting to see how the boys’ Mexican heritage came into play in different ways, and to see how having a loving home isn’t the magical answer to all the problems in a young man’s life. Given the setting in the 80s, it’s also very clearly a different world than the one we live in. Being gay in the time period of the book is something to be hidden, something dangerous, and not an identity to be worn openly and proudly. My heart absolutely broke for Dante when he ended up in the hospital after being on the receiving end of a major beating simply because of being spotted kissing another boy.

End of Spoilers!

Still, I ended the book feeling a little let down. The ending is romantic and hopeful, but it just didn’t match my expectations for where the plot was going. I have to wonder whether part of this is due to listening to the audiobook rather than reading the print book.

The audiobook is amazing, thanks to the insane talents of LIN-MANUEL FREAKIN’ MIRANDA as the narrator. He breathes life into the characters, giving personality to Ari, Dante, and their parents with drama and flair. I did have a hard time in spots keeping track of the dialogue, as there are lengthy exchanges full of quick back-and-forth comments and quips, and despite the different voices given to the characters, I occasionally got lost.

In terms of why I expected the story to go in a different direction (as described in my spoilery section above), I wonder if I’d been reading a printed edition of the book whether I would have absorbed more of the subtext and nuance of the language. The writing is really lovely, and being inside Ari’s head is a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions — but by listening to the audiobook, perhaps I didn’t focus and really spend enough time with the words that build the story. Does that make any sense?

In any case, I really and truly enjoyed this book and recommend it highly… despite feeling both puzzled and a little out of sorts about how it all works out. I’m full of admiration for the author, and will definitely be seeking out more of his books.

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The details:

Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author:  Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Narrated by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 1, 2012
Length (print): 359 pages
Length (audio): 7 hours, 29 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Audible download

 

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Children’s Books: Two terrific girl power books by Chelsea Clinton

 

 

Sometimes being a girl isn’t easy. At some point, someone probably will tell you no, will tell you to be quiet and may even tell you your dreams are impossible. Don’t listen to them. These thirteen American women certainly did not take no for an answer.

They persisted.

If you’re looking for easy-to-follow kids’ books to empower and inspire, check out this pair of picture books written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexander Boiger.

Each book offers a selection of profiles of women who persisted — women who were told “no” or faced major hurdles, whether legal or cultural or physical. Each of these women followed their dreams, and made their marks on history by achieving something that no one thought possible.

She Persisted tells the stories of thirteen American women, among them such luminaries as Harriet Tubman, Florence Griffith Joyner, Sonia Sotomayor, and Sally Ride. Each gets her own two-page spread, with images lovingly drawn to show each woman’s progress and achievements, and often, a childhood image to show where she started. A brief, easily digestible paragraph tells each woman’s story. What I especially loved is that for each, there’s a quote, so the young reader will get to hear each woman speak in her own words.

 

Wonderful selections include:

“I have never had to face anything that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with.” (Sonia Sotomayor)

“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall.” (Nellie Bly)

“One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.” (Helen Keller)

 

It’s not always easy being a girl — anywhere in the world. It’s especially challenging in some places. There are countries where it’s hard for girls to go to school and where women need their husbands’ permission to get a passport or even to leave the house. And all over the world, girls are more likely to be told to be quiet, to sit down, to have smaller dreams.

 

Don’t listen to those voices. These thirteen women from across the world didn’t.

They persisted.

In She Persisted Around the World, Clinton chooses thirteen women from all over the globe, all of whom made a difference against the odds. Highlights include Malala Yousafzai, J. K. Rowling, and Marie Curie — but really, they’re all wonderful. The Around the World book follows the same format as the first book, and once again, I really loved the pages with the quotes.

“We are tired of having a ‘sphere’ doled out to us, and of being told that anything outside that sphere is ‘unwomanly’… We must be ourselves at all risks.” (Kate Sheppard)

“I don’t really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it.” (Wangari Maathai)

“The more I did, the more I could do, the more I wanted to do, the more I saw needed to be done.” (Leymah Gbowee)

I do have one complaint about these books, and it feels almost petty to bring it up… but I found it odd and kind of frustrating that no dates are provided for any of the stories. I’m not sure how young readers would know where these women fit into American and world history without providing some sort of timeline or dates as context.

Other than that, I think these are wonderful additions to the world of children’s literature. Both books are lovely, thanks to the clear, intelligent writing and the colorful, eye-catching, girl-positive illustrations. In some ways I loved the Around the World book more, simply because it introduced me to the names, faces, and stories of women whom I hadn’t heard of before. But really, I do recommend both, and hope that lots of parents and teachers will make these books available to the girls and boys they love, nurture, and inspire.

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Shelf Control #106: Madapple

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Madapple
Author: Christine Meldrum
Published: 2008
Length: 410 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

THE SECRETS OF the past meet the shocks of the present.

Aslaug is an unusual young woman. Her mother has brought her up in near isolation, teaching her about plants and nature and language – but not about life. Especially not how she came to have her own life, and who her father might be.

When Aslaug’s mother dies unexpectedly, everything changes. For Aslaug is a suspect in her mother’s death. And the more her story unravels, the more questions unfold. About the nature of Aslaug’s birth. About what she should do next.

About whether divine miracles have truly happened. And whether, when all other explanations are impossible, they might still happen this very day.

Addictive, thought-provoking, and shocking, Madapple is a page-turning exploration of human nature and divine intervention – and of the darkest corners of the human soul.

How and when I got it:

I barely remember, but I believe I bought a copy online after reading a review, back after the book was first released.

Why I want to read it:

The reviews for this YA novel made it sound sinister and unusual, and while I don’t remember now exactly what caught my eye, there was definitely something there that attracted me as soon as I heard about it. I’m really going to try to bump this one up higher on my book stack this year!

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

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

Have fun!

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