Book Review: Any Way the Wind Blows (Simon Snow, #3) by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Any Way the Wind Blows (Simon Snow, #3)
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: July 6, 2021
Length: 579 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In Carry On, Simon Snow and his friends realized that everything they thought they understood about the world might be wrong. And in Wayward Son, they wondered whether everything they understood about themselves might be wrong.

In Any Way the Wind Blows, Simon and Baz and Penelope and Agatha have to decide how to move forward.

For Simon, that means deciding whether he still wants to be part of the World of Mages — and if he doesn’t, what does that mean for his relationship with Baz? Meanwhile Baz is bouncing between two family crises and not finding any time to talk to anyone about his newfound vampire knowledge. Penelope would love to help, but she’s smuggled an American Normal into London, and now she isn’t sure what to do with him. And Agatha? Well, Agatha Wellbelove has had enough.

Any Way the Wind Blows takes the gang back to England, back to Watford, and back to their families for their longest and most emotionally wrenching adventure yet.

This book is a finale. It tells secrets and answers questions and lays ghosts to rest.

Carry On was conceived as a book about Chosen One stories; Any Way the Wind Blows is an ending about endings. About catharsis and closure, and how we choose to move on from the traumas and triumphs that try to define us.

Note: I’ll try not to be too spoiler-y about Any Way the Wind Blows, but since this is the 3rd book in a trilogy, there will be spoilers for the first two books. You have been warned!

In Carry On, we meet Simon Snow, the most powerful magician of his generation. Simon is the Chosen One, the boy destined to save the World of Mages from its most dastardly threats. Carry On is very much a Harry Potter-esque story — Simon is an orphan, brought to Watford, England’s school of magic, and nurtured as the protégé of the Mage, the school’s powerful, dashing headmaster who exerts influence over all elements of the magical world.

But what would have happened to Harry Potter if, rather than killing the evil Lord Voldemort, he grew in power only to discover that his beloved mentor Albus Dumbledore was actually the villain, set on gathering all power for himself and bending the magical world to his own wishes? This is more or less where Simon finds himself at the end of Carry On. He and his friends confront the greatest evil, ready for the ultimate showdown, only to discover that it’s the Mage himself who’s behind all the bad. And then, inadvertently, Simon kills him.

The end.

But what happens to Simon next? What happens after you face your biggest foe and win, but cause death and the end of the life you knew?

In Wayward Son, Simon and his friends go on a roadtrip in America, experiencing challenges and dangers and adventure, while also giving Simon time to process how very upended his life has become. It’s very action-packed, and there isn’t a whole lot of time for contemplation.

But in Any Way the Wind Blows, back in England, it’s time to confront their futures. For Simon, he’s finally romantically involved with Baz, who was his nemesis and awful roommate during their years at Watford, only to eventually realize that beneath their mutual distrust and dislike was a simmering attraction and depth of feelings. For Simon’s bestie Penelope, she’s ready to resume being the cleverest magician around, except she’s brought a Normal (Muggle) back from American on a mission to cure him of a demonic curse — and as a result, has to not only put all her magical skills to the test, but also challenge magical society’s prejudices about non-magical people. And for Agatha, Simon’s former school girlfriend, she has to find a way to make sense of her life apart from being the beautiful girl always being rescued by Simon.

They all have a lot to deal with, clearly.

Simon suffers the most of all of them. At the end of Carry On, he lost all his magic, but ended up with dragon wings and a tail. He’s madly and passionately in love with Baz, and they’re trying to have a relationship, but at the same time, Simon absolutely doesn’t know how to be intimate or open with another person. It’s not just about physical intimacy — he loves Baz and knows that Baz loves him, but he has literal panic attacks when they get too close. Simon has spent his early life in foster homes, has no family, and has spent his formative years being a savior. What does he do when he has no magic, can’t save anyone, and no longer belongs in the world he thought he was meant to save? And how does he let Baz in when he doesn’t understand himself or who he is?

Simon and Baz’s relationship has ups and downs throughout the book, and parts are painful to read. They’re awkward, and Simon is so clearly suffering. He’s so full of want, but also so fearful, and he just doesn’t know how to be. Baz is absolutely lovely with Simon, even as he also learns more about his own (vampiric) nature and what that might mean for the rest of his life.

To be honest, while I wasn’t exactly bored at any point, I did find Penelope and Agatha’s storylines less interesting than Simon and Baz’s, and since the book alternates focus between the characters from chapter to chapter and section to section, I was always a little reluctant to move away from the main points of interest to delve into the supporting plotlines.

At almost 600 pages, this book is much longer than the previous one, and while I loved it as a whole, I think a large part of that is due to how much I love the characters. When you read a long, involved series, the characters can become more than just people on a page — or at least, that’s true for me when reading really excellent stories with amazing world-building and character development. It’s something of a double-edged sword though, because I become so invested in the characters I love that I don’t particularly want any plot points to get in the way of their happiness… which wouldn’t lead to a very interesting story.

In the case of Any Way the Wind Blows, this means that I was unhappy whenever Simon and Baz were unhappy, even if their unhappiness was part of their journey toward finding their way forward in their relationship. (If I’m making any sense at all…)

In terms of the plot, I enjoyed a lot of this book, although the overarching mystery/drama about the rise of a new Chosen One didn’t particularly resonate for me. There were things I was hoping would happen by the end of the book that didn’t (being cryptic here), and even though that’s hard for me to accept, it makes sense. At the same time, I felt unsatisfied by the lack of answers to certain questions, and felt that the story just kind of ended. There’s an epilogue that gives a lovely ending situation to one character, but it’s a year after the main events of the book… so what happened to everyone else and where are they now??

I love the Simon Snow books as a whole, and I love Simon and Baz so much (and yes, even Penelope and Agatha)… but I wish I’d felt a little more fulfilled when all was said and done. I may need to let this one simmer for a bit and come back to it again, to see if my feelings change over time.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll go back and listen to Carry On all over again, to revisit the origin story with full knowledge of how it all turns out. Carry On is an introduction to a trilogy that — with Wayward Son and Any Way the Wind Blows — ends up not being about a powerful magician in a magical world, but what happens to a formerly powerful magician who doesn’t fit in in any world.

Overall, it’s a fabulous journey with characters who can make my heart happy and also break it into pieces. Come for the magic wands, stay for the Simon and Baz lovefest. And Agatha. And goats (yes, really). And even Penelope and her Normal. As a whole, I heartily recommend the Simon Snow trilogy. It’s not what it seems like it’s going to be, but what it is is very, very cool.

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Book Review: Flash Fire (The Extraordinaries, #2) by TJ Klune

Title: Flash Fire (The Extraordinaries, #2)
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 13, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Flash Fire is the explosive sequel to The Extraordinaries by USA Today bestselling author TJ Klune!

Through bravery, charm, and an alarming amount of enthusiasm, Nick landed himself the superhero boyfriend of his dreams. Now instead of just writing stories about him, Nick actually gets to kiss him. On the mouth. A lot. But having a superhero boyfriend isn’t everything Nick thought it would be—he’s still struggling to make peace with his own lack of extraordinary powers.

When new Extraordinaries begin arriving in Nova City—siblings who can manipulate smoke and ice, a mysterious hero who can move objects with their mind, and a drag queen superhero with the best name and the most-sequined costume anyone has ever had—it’s up to Nick and his friends Seth, Gibby, and Jazz to determine who is virtuous and who is villainous.

And new Extraordinaries aren’t the only things coming to light. Long-held secrets and neglected truths are surfacing that challenge everything Nick knows about justice, family, and being extraordinary. Which is a lot to handle when Nick really just wants to finish his self-insert bakery AU fanfic.

Will it all come together in the end or will it all go down in flames?

I’m not sure that I can say anything more positive about this book than the fact that I WANTED TO HUG IT throughout the entire reading experience. Flash Fire is sweet and funny and adorable. It’s also a superhero story! But secret powers and daring escapades — while awesome — are really secondary to me in terms of why I love this book so much.

The heart and soul of Flash Fire (and The Extraordinaries, the first book in the series) is Nicky, the sweet, nerdy fanboy who is madly in love with his best friend Seth… who just happens to secretly be Pyro Storm, the superhero who recently saved the people of Nova City from the villainous Shadow Storm.

Now that Nick knows the truth about Seth and his superhero alter ego, he’s even more head-over-heels in love. Fortunately, Seth is just as crazy about Nicky, and the two of them are are maddeningly sweet and goofy whenever they’re together.

Gah. I can’t seem to write a single paragraph about Flash Fire without using the word sweet. Guess I should just accept it and move on.!

As Flash Fire moves forward, Nicky and Seth are starting to explore more of their physical relationship, but they can’t seem to get very far without Nick’s super embarassing yet incredibly lovable father giving them demonstrations on how to use condoms or make dental dams. It’s SO cringe-y, yet also amazing. Meanwhile, Shadow Star has been caught and imprisoned, but there’s a sense that more danger is on the way.

Nick and Seth are joined by their best friends Gibby and Jazz, and with the backing of their supportive parents, the four are on high alert for any new threats. And new threats do surface, and violence seems to stalk Nick and Seth wherever they go — and they’re also endangered by nosy, unethical reporter Rebecca Firestone, whose mission seems to be to expose Pyro Storm’s secret identity, no matter the cost.

One of my favorite YA tropes is cataclysmic events happening at prom, and Flash Fire does this to the nth degree and then some. Who doesn’t love a streamer-decorated school gym becoming the setting for a superhero showdown? The battle at prom is all sorts of awesome, and I won’t say much more about it, but you’ll love it too. Nicky’s sequined and spangled prom suit is just icing on the cake. Trust me.

This book!! HUGS HUGS HUGS. The dialogue is amazing, the writing overall is lovely and funny, the plot zips along, and there’s so much heart in it all that I can’t stop talking about how fabulous the whole thing is. Basically, rather than writing a review, I’m apparently participating in a one-woman love fest.

I’ll just wrap by sharing some great moments from the book, starting with a snippet that’s comes up a lot in the book, whenever Nicky is about to do something incredibly stupid or brave or both. (Have I mentioned that Nicky is a lot? He’s very extra.)

“Nicky, no,” they all groaned

“Nicky, yes!”

Seth was pretty much the hottest thing in existence when he wore a cravat and spoke forcefully.

“Hello, boyfriend of mine,” Nick said, and because he could, he leaned forward and kissed Seth right on the mouth. He hoped a homophobe had been watching and was now filled with so much heterosexual rage, they were choking on it.

“Yeah, no,” Gibby said. “It’s weird. What are the chances that three people we know personally ended up being Extraordinaries?”

“And they’re all gay,” Jazz said with a frown.

“Seth’s bisexual,” Nick said, because he’d be damned if he’d allow bi erasure, even in the face of all the ridiculousness.

“Quiet,” Jazz hissed at her. “We can’t interfere. We can only observe. We talked about this. You know how queer boys are in the wild. If they know they’re being watched, they get skittish and run for the forest.

He didn’t even realize he was crying until Seth said, “Hey, hey, Nicky, it’s okay. You’re okay.”

“I know,” he sobbed. “I’m pretty much the best thing ever. You’re so lucky to have me.”

“I really am,” Seth said.

So yeah. Five stars all the way!! I love this SWEET book so much, and just CANNOT WAIT for #3.

Shelf Control #273: The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

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!

Title: The Beauty That Remains
Author: Ashley Woodfolk
Published: 2018
Length: 336 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Told from three diverse points of view, this story of life and love after loss is one Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, believes “will stay with you long after you put it down.”

We’ve lost everything…and found ourselves.

Loss pulled Autumn, Shay, and Logan apart. Will music bring them back together?

Autumn always knew exactly who she was: a talented artist and a loyal friend. Shay was defined by two things: her bond with her twin sister, Sasha, and her love of music. And Logan has always turned to writing love songs when his real love life was a little less than perfect.

But when tragedy strikes each of them, somehow music is no longer enough. Now Logan is a guy who can’t stop watching vlogs of his dead ex-boyfriend. Shay is a music blogger who’s struggling to keep it together. And Autumn sends messages that she knows can never be answered.

Despite the odds, one band’s music will reunite them and prove that after grief, beauty thrives in the people left behind.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle version early in 2020.

Why I want to read it:

After reading this author’s outstanding 2020 release, When You Were Everything, I just knew I needed more of her books! She’s so talented when it comes to portraying teen friendships and the emotional ups and downs that come with being at that stage of life.

The Beauty That Remains sounds very powerful, with themes of grief and friendship and loneliness. I’m going to try my best to squeeze this book into my summer reading schedule!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

Stay tuned!


__________________________________

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  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
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Book Review: Game Changer by Neal Shusterman

Title: Game Changer
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Publication date: February 9, 2021
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All it takes is one hit on the football field, and suddenly Ash’s life doesn’t look quite the way he remembers it.

Impossible though it seems, he’s been hit into another dimension—and keeps on bouncing through worlds that are almost-but-not-really his own.

The changes start small, but they quickly spiral out of control as Ash slides into universes where he has everything he’s ever wanted, universes where society is stuck in the past…universes where he finds himself looking at life through entirely different eyes.

And if he isn’t careful, the world he’s learning to see more clearly could blink out of existence…

Ash Bowman is a straight, white, 17-year-old male, a lineman on the high school football team, son of working class parents, a good student, and a good friend. He considers himself pretty woke, not particularly a social activist, but sensitive and caring, and certainly not making the world any worse.

As the book starts, in the middle of a high school football game during a particular hard tackle, Ash has a weird sensation, but it’s over in a moment. Probably just the impact from the tackle, nothing to worry about. It’s not until Ash is driving home and nearly gets hit by a truck in an intersection that he realizes something is wrong. The friend in the passenger seat points out that Ash blew through a stop sign. Impossible, Ash thinks, until he gets to the next intersection and sees the familiar shape of a stop sign — but it’s blue. And to everyone but Ash, that’s completely normal. Stop signs have always been blue.

Ash knows something is wrong, but can’t pinpoint what. But at the next football game, during his next hard tackle, there’s another strange moment, and this time, there’s an even bigger shift in reality. When he heads to the parking lot, instead of his beat-up old car, Ash realizes that he drives a BMW. Rather than living in a poorer part of town, his family now lives in a gated community. Rather than leaving behind his football dreams in high school Ash’s dad is a retired NFL star who now owns a successful business chain, and the family lives in luxury. And once again, Ash is the only person who remembers that the world was once different, although those closest to him seem to have some almost-memories that they can’t quite explain.

With each impact at each game, Ash’s world shifts further and further from his own. He finds changes within himself, as well as in the world around him. Ash suddenly finds himself needing to confront racism, homophobia, and sexism in ways that were never quite as immediate in his original life. And as he learns to control the shifts, he faces a dilemma — does he continue to aim for a better world, or to go back to his own flawed world and try to be a voice for change?

The hows and whys of Game Changer have to do with some sci-fi mumbo jumbo that’s fun but not all that important. It’s not meant to be real quantum physics or anything, just a bit of hand-waving to set up the story and what happens. And that’s okay. The mechanics behind Ash’s world-shifting aren’t what matter here — the heart of the story is about Ash standing in different versions of his life and finally understanding other perspectives from the inside.

Some of these realizations are a little simplistic, as he lives out the concept of walking in someone else’s shoes. Still, it’s interesting to see this character, who’s always considered himself one of the good guys, come to grips with what it’s like to be someone else, what it’s like to lose privilege, and finally get what a friend has been telling him over the years — you can’t explain someone else’s experiences to them if you’re not them.

In some ways, Game Changer reminded me of David Levithan’s Every Day, in which the main character wakes up in a different person’s body each day and has to adapt to living as them, whatever their gender, orientation, race, economic status, or body type. In Game Changer, Ash is always Ash, but with the shifts in worlds, he becomes different versions of himself, and must learn to inhabit that self in the world he finds himself in.

Game Changer is a quick, intriguing read, and I think the target YA demographic will really find it though-provoking and a great jumping-off point for some intense discussions. Definitely worth checking out.

Book Review: The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune

Title: The Extraordinaries
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 405 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra. TJ Klune’s YA debut, The Extraordinaries, is a queer coming-of-age story about a fanboy with ADHD and the heroes he loves.

Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right?

After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl meets Marissa Meyer’s Renegades in TJ Klune’s YA debut. 

Based on having read two of his books, I can now pretty confidently state that TJ Klune writes books that makes me want to hug them. I loved The House in the Cerulean Sea, which came out earlier this year, and now The Extraordinaries is here, with adorableness galore.

Our hero, Nick Bell, has no superpowers to speak of — unless you count his amazing imagination, his neuro-atypical brain that never slows down, and his ability to screw up no matter his good intentions.

Nick is starting junior year of high school with a promise to his dad to do better. No more getting into trouble. No more disrupting class or showing up late. And he really, really means to live up to that promise, but things have a way of not working out the way he plans.

Nick and his father live in Nova City, where his dad is a hard-working cop on the night shift. They live in the After — the years that have passed since Nick’s mother was killed during a bank robbery. Now it’s just the two of them, and while they love each other very much, it’s just not always easy.

Nova City is also the home of two Extraordinaries — superheroes who swoop in to fight crime and save the day. Shadow Star is the good guy, the masked man whose every move causes people to swoon in awe (and Nick to swoon in lust). Shadow Star’s archnemesis is Pyro Storm, the villain who can create and control fire, blocked from evil deeds by Shadow Star’s ability to manipulate shadows to carry out his will. They engage in epic battles over and around Nova City, but lately, these battles have escalated in their seriousness and the amount of damage left behind. The police chief is determined to put a stop to the havoc caused by these Extraordinaries.

Besides having a huge crush on Shadow Star, Nick writes incredibly popular fanfiction about him, and lives for the idea of meeting him eventually. Meanwhile, he goes to school and spends time with his best friends, who love Nick unconditionally, even when his brain and his tongue get him into trouble again and again. He’s a lot. But he’s theirs, and he’s a good guy (so lovable!), and they have his back no matter what.

Where do I even begin to describe how much I loved this book? It’s delightful and funny, but also surprisingly tender and lovely.

The relationship between Nick and his dad isn’t always smooth, but it is always grounded in love and devotion, and it’s really special to read about. While Aaron, the father, often causes Nick to squirm with his frank talk about sex and other matters, he’s coming from a place of support, and he’s determined to be the parent Nick needs, knowing that the two of them have to stick together through good times and bad.

Nick’s friend group is amazing — each quirky and unique in their own way, and so much fun to read about. Also, all queer and proud, in a no big deal, this is who I am sort of way. Each one of them deserves so many hugs! (Except Gibby might twist your arm if you try to hug her, so watch out. She’s tough.)

The writing is funny and charming, and Nicky especially has great lines. He’s a total smart-ass, even when he doesn’t necessarily intend to be.

The Great Romance of Nick and Owen came to an end as quickly as it started. (“You’re a great guy, Nicky, but I’m a wild animal who can’t be caged.” “Oh my god, you are not!”)

Nick really didn’t understand straight people. They didn’t seem to have any sense of self-preservation.

He wasn’t very adept when it came to comforting people he’d made out with. Or, at least, that appeared to be the case. He’d never made out with anyone else. He wondered if he needed to find someone else to make out with and then have them talk about their damaged relationship with their family to make sure.

Nick wondered if it were possible to disappear into the floor. He tapped his foot against it. Solid as always.

Nick groaned. “This sucks. Not only am I the comedic relief/love interest, I’m also the clueless comedic relief/love interest who is a pawn in a game I didn’t even realize was being played. God, my life is so cliche.

I feel like I could go on and on about how awesome this book is, or spend another 10,000 words or so just picking random paragraphs from the book to prove to you how fantastic and whimsical and hilarious and touching the writing is.

But let’s leave it at this: Nick is a damaged, imperfect guy living in a superhero world, and he’s extraordinary in his own ordinary way. I love him bunches and bunches, and I’m thrilled to know that The Extraordinaries is apparently the first book in a trilogy. I will absolutely read more about these characters and this world, and wish I didn’t have to wait for 2021 for the next installment.

Meanwhile, I’m clearly going to need to start working my way through TJ Klune’s backlist, pronto.

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!

Shelf Control #219: Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

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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QUESTION FOR SHELF CONTROL PARTICIPANTS: Would you like me to add a “this week’s participants” section with links back to your posts? The basic idea would be for you to link back to me when you publish your Shelf Control post, and then I’ll add a list of participants and their links in the body of my post as they come in. I’ve used a link-up platform in the past, but found it was just extra work that didn’t seem worth it. Please let me know your preferences in the comments! 

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Title: Tempests and Slaughter (The Numair Chronicles, #1)
Author: Tamora Pierce
Published: 2018
Length: 465 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Arram. Varice. Ozorne. In the first book in the Numair Chronicles, three student mages are bound by fate . . . fated for trouble.

Arram Draper is a boy on the path to becoming one of the realm’s most powerful mages. The youngest student in his class at the Imperial University of Carthak, he has a Gift with unlimited potential for greatness–and for attracting danger. At his side are his two best friends: Varice, a clever girl with an often-overlooked talent, and Ozorne, the “leftover prince” with secret ambitions. Together, these three friends forge a bond that will one day shape kingdoms. And as Ozorne gets closer to the throne and Varice gets closer to Arram’s heart, Arram begins to realize that one day soon he will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie.

In the Numair Chronicles, readers will be rewarded with the never-before-told story of how Numair Salmalín came to Tortall. Newcomers will discover an unforgettable fantasy adventure where a kingdom’s future rests on the shoulders of a talented young man with a knack for making vicious enemies.

How and when I got it:

I bought a “special edition” version of this book during the 2018 holiday season — it’s a hardcover with a fold-out poster inside. A little holiday treat for myself!

Why I want to read it:

I spent about half of 2018 and the first few months of 2019 reading the entire Tortall body of works by Tamora Pierce. For those who don’t know. Tamora Pierce writes excellent young adult fantasy, with a major portion of her work set in the fictional kingdom of Tortall. I’ve read three quartets set in Tortall, a duology, a trilogy, and assorted other stories too. My daughter feel head over heels with Tamora Pierce’s books back in her tween/teen days, and finally, FINALLY, I decided to see what I’d been missing all these years.

What can I say? I fell in love. Pierce writes wonderful, complicated characters, and revels in having strong young women break down barriers and have their voices and their strengths recognized. Plus, awesome magical systems, complex family dynamics, magical creatures, and even a few dragons. The only Tortall book I haven’t read yet is Tempests and Slaughter, the newest book set in this world. Numair Salmalin is introduced in the Immortals quartet as an adult mage with unrivaled powers, serving as mentor (and eventually lover) to a young student new to her magical abilities. Numair is a terrific character whose history is only referenced in these books, but in Tempests and Slaughter, we get his backstory. The new book tells the story of Numair as a boy, and I’m incredibly excited to finally read it.

So why haven’t I read it yet? Well, two reasons, really. One, the same reason I haven’t read most of my Shelf Control books — so many books, not enough time. Second, though — I’ve been trying to more or less stick to my policy of not getting involved in open-ended or incomplete series without at least knowing when the next (or final) book will be released. In this case, I believe there are supposed to be three in all, but have not yet heard a definite release date for the 2nd book. So yes, I intend to read Tempests and Slaughter for sure. I just don’t know when!

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

Check out this week’s Shelf Control participants!
A Hot Cup of Pleasure
The Book Connection
Literary Potpourri
Bookmarked

__________________________________

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 #206: A Map of Days by Ransom Riggs

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: A Map of Days (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #4)
Author: Ransom Riggs
Published: 2018
Length: 480 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The #1 bestselling series returns with a thrilling new story arc set in America!

Vintage photographs reveal the never-before-seen world of peculiar America with a stunning addition—full-color images.

Having defeated the monstrous threat that nearly destroyed the peculiar world, Jacob Portman is back where his story began, in Florida. Except now Miss Peregrine, Emma, and their peculiar friends are with him, and doing their best to blend in. But carefree days of beach visits and normalling lessons are soon interrupted by a discovery—a subterranean bunker that belonged to Jacob’s grandfather, Abe.

Clues to Abe’s double-life as a peculiar operative start to emerge, secrets long hidden in plain sight. And Jacob begins to learn about the dangerous legacy he has inherited—truths that were part of him long before he walked into Miss Peregrine’s time loop.

Now, the stakes are higher than ever as Jacob and his friends are thrust into the untamed landscape of American peculiardom—a world with few ymbrynes, or rules—that none of them understand. New wonders, and dangers, await in this brilliant next chapter for Miss Peregrine’s peculiar children. Their story is again illustrated throughout by haunting vintage photographs, but with a striking addition for this all-new, multi-era American adventure—full color.

How and when I got it:

I bought myself a brand-new copy right when the book was released in 2018.

Why I want to read it:

I really enjoyed the original Peculiar Children trilogy when I finally got around to reading it… but the story had a definite ending, or so I thought at the time, and was surprised to hear that there would be another three books in the series. When #4, A Map of Days, was released, I had to have a copy, but then I never felt particularly in the mood to read it. Book #5 just came out last month, so I suppose I should go ahead and jump back into this world. The odd photos add so much to the story, and I am interested in seeing how the new adventures play out. 

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!