The Toll

by Neal Shusterman
First sentence: “There was no warning.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Scythe, Thunderhead
Content: It’s very violent, but much of it is mass violence, which somehow doesn’t have the same impact (for me) on the page as it does on the screen. There is one f-bomb and some mild swearing.

Spoilers for the first two, obviously. If you haven’t read this series yet, you NEED to.

I’m going to try and do this with minimal spoilers for The Toll. It’s not easy. Especially since there’s SO MUCH going on in this one.

Endura has sunk and Citra and Rowan with it; the Thunderhead is only talking to Greyson, which makes him a “prophet” for the Tonists; Goddard has taken over as Overblade of the whole Merican continent, except for the Lone Start state; Faraday and Munira think they have found where the “fail safe” that the original scythes created is being housed. I think that’s it.

From there, though, this book winds its way through multiple timelines — sometimes I felt like I needed a chart to help put all the events in relation to each other. Sometimes I lost track of what was happening when. It was a lot to keep track of.

But, I think Shusterman juggles all his balls really effectively. He really is a master of revealing just enough information at just the right time in order for you to put all the pieces together just before he reveals what you just put together. It’s a good ending, too: he wraps up all the plot lines (even though K thinks it was a bit silly) and did one in such a way that made me tear up.

And because all good science fiction is a commentary on real life, this one has shades of what it would be like to live under a narcissistic dictator with unlimited power and funds. And the ways in which the public reacts (or doesn’t react) to that. It’s illuminating. And about halfway through I realized the brilliance of the title as well.. (Not going to spell that one out for you; you have to figure it out.)

It’s a solid ending to a fantastic series.

The Bookwanderers

by Anna James
First sentence: “
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s not long and it doesn’t have a lot of hard words, though it does seem to lean in to bookish kids, even if one of the characters has a hard time reading because he’s dyslexic. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Tilly has grown up in her grandparents’ bookstore, Pages & Co. (a quick real-life interjection here: they have a bakery and a store, but no evidence of customers? How are they paying the bills? I know, I know, it’s a kids’ book…) surrounded by books. She is an avid reader, partially because you can’t grow up in a bookstore and not be and partially because it’s a connection to her mother, who disappeared when Tilly was little.

And now that she’s 11, something unusual has started happening: characters are coming out of books. And she’s been pulled into them, not just metaphorically, but literally. It turns out that her grandparents and mother are part of this group called Bookwanderers, people who can literally travel between the pages of a book. And now, Tilly and her friend Oskar find they can travel in books too, which means, maybe that’s where Tilly’s mother went? And maybe they can find her.

On the one hand, this is super charming. I was charmed by the presentation, by the idea of taking something metaphorical (getting lost in a book) and making it literal. I liked Tilly and her willingness to take chances, even though she had a good support system with her parents. I liked that it wrapped the story up, but also left a thread open for more books in the series.

But. I’m not sure how much kids are going to like it. (Which makes me sad.) Because of copyright issues, James can only use the classics, which makes sense, but I’m sure that kids would much rather read about falling into books they love, and not Alice in Wonderland, Anne of Green Gables, and A Little Princess. It makes sense why she used the classics, but it is a drawback, and one I’m not sure many readers could get past. Which means it’s more for adults who love reading and have a fond memory of reading as a kid, and that’s kind of sad.

Even so, I was happy I read it!

The Starless Sea

by Erin Morgenstern
First sentence: “There is a pirate in the basement.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: November 5, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence and some swearing, including a few f-bombs. It will be in the Fiction section (though I think it fits better in science fiction/fantasy), but I bet it’ll have some YA crossover.

I haven’t read The Night Circus since it first came out, though I own it and I was thinking I need to reread it, but I imagine my reaction to The Starless Sea was pretty much the same: Morgenstern may not have a driving plot to her books, but she can write! Oh, she can write. Such lovely sentences, such lovely pages. Such gorgeous, haunting, twisting, lovely words. (And I don’t usually read for words.) There were pages I wanted to highlight and copy and, yes, get tattooed on my body (and I’ve never felt that way about words before, not even Maggie Stiefvater’s words). And, truth be told, the way this book unfolded kept me interested until the end.

The plot is simple: Zachary, a fortune-teller’s son, found a magic door when he was 11, but didn’t go through it. Fourteen years later, he’s at grad school in Vermont and finds — entirely on accident — a book called Sweet Sorrows, that has a tale about a fortune-teller’s son who finds a magic door but doesn’t go through. That piques Zachary’s interest, and he begins a journey — one that starts in Manhattan and ends by the shores of the Starless Sea and involves a reformed hit-man and a painter who may or may not be immortal — to find out what, exactly, was behind that door he didn’t go through all those years ago.

But, really: this book is a book for all of us who love and recognize the power of stories. Who recognize that truths can be found in fiction, that there is a need to tell stories and believe stories and embrace stories. It’s a remarkable book, and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Steel Tide

by Natalie C. Parker
First sentence: “The stars felt close tonight.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Seafire
Release date: September 17, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There is some mild swearing and a lot of violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for Seafire, obviously.

When we last left our erstwhile captain, Caledonia, she had attacked the Bullet ship of the Fiveson Lir, and commanded her crew and ship to leave while she took on Lir personally. It didn’t go well, and she was left for dead.

She was rescued, thankfully, by a group made up of former Bullets, calling themselves the Blades. They live free on an island, not bothering anyone. Until someone gets wind that’s where Caledonia are, and they join her fight against the all-powerful Aric. Caledonia’s crew has been captured and so she and the Blades work together to get them out, and then prepare to take on Aric and overthrow his all-consuming control.

It’s not the best summary, but there’s a LOT going on in this book. It’s definitely a middle book: it doesn’t really build to much, though there is a great battle scene at the end, but is more laying ground for what is to come next in the final book. That’s not to say this isn’t a GREAT read: it totally is. Parker has succeeded in writing ship battle scenes that keep pages flying, while developing intriguing and complex relationships not only between the girls on Caledonia’s regular crew, but also among the Bullets. You actually feel it when people die (and they do die; she’s not a timid writer). And I adore Caledonia as a captain; she knows how to lead, and the fact that she doesn’t do things on a whim, but actually has a purpose for her madness is brilliant.

I can’t wait for the next one!

The Girl the Sea Gave Back

by Adrienne Young
First sentence: “‘Give me the child.'”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 3, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of violence, some of it gory. It will be in the YA section of the bookstore.

Tova, a member of the Kyrr tribe and covered in tattoos that brand her as a Truthtongue, has spent the last 13 years in exile with the Svell tribe. Their Tala (religious leader? I wasn’t entirely sure the role of the Tala) took her in, even though most of the people of the tribe are terrified of her and what she does. And for a people that believe strongly in Fate, Tova is terrifying: she throws the runes and reads them and They Come True.

The Svell tribe is at a crossroads: they are planning to attack of the tribe to to the north, the Nadhir, but the reasoning is kind of fuzzy. I think it’s because the Svell just wants to conquer the world. At any rate, they massacre a border town, kill the Nahdir leader, and then massacre another town on their way to invade the capital.

Tova, in all this, has been throwing runes that perhaps show the ultimate domination of the Svell, but she becomes uneasy allied with them. And, upon seeing Halvard, who becomes the Nadhir leader after the leader is killed, she decides to throw her fate in with them.

As you can tell, the plot of this one is a bit, well, hard to sum up and make interesting. I did like Tova as a character — she’s an exiled person (she’s supposed to be dead, but it’s never really explained why she’s not) trying to make a home with a people who never trusted her. The romance is a bit forced; I liked Halvard, but I never really got why they were attracted to each other. Thankfully, the romance is mostly only implied; the real conflict is Tova and her desire to get away from the Svell who are really committing an act of genocide. But I’m not sure that Young really delved into the conflict between Tova and the Svell leaders. Tova took the blame for the genocide — because she threw the runes — rather than the leaders, where it belonged. I guess I just wanted more out of this; it just felt hollow.

And the ending is… weird. I won’t go into it, but I felt like it came out of nowhere.

So, I wanted to really like this book. There are parts that are great. But, in the end, it wasn’t all that I was hoping it would be.

Wyrd Sisters

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “The wind howled.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Equal Rites
Content: There’s some brief talk about sex, and the more Shakespeare you know the better this one is. It’d be in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore if we had it in the store.

First off: you really don’t have to read these in order. I kind of am, and so I’m going to list them as part of a series, but each of these books stand on their own. (That said, there was a small footnote about a professor at the wizard school being turned into an orangutan and I was able to laugh because I *remembered* that, which makes it so much better.)

Things that make Wyrd Sisters fantastic: all the Shakespeare references. I know I didn’t catch them all, but they’re there. And the ones I did catch made me laugh. It’s not just that the whole book was loosely based on Macbeth, but other little things, like the theater being called “The Dyske” or various characters trying to speak Shakespearean. Or my favorite: “I’d like to know if I could compare you to a summer’s day. Because — well, June 12th was quite nice…”

I also thoroughly enjoyed the witches. I didn’t much care for Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites, but I feel like, set against Nanny Ogg and Magrat (who I kept calling “Margaret” in my head), she was awesome. Super practical, very blunt and always Right. I liked the three witches together, how they worked with (and against, sometimes) each other, for the better of this silly little kingdom. I could definitely read more of this Granny Weatherwax.

And so I probably will. There’s a handful more in the Witches Discworld series before you get to Tiffany Aching and I’m planning on going through them all.

The Stone Sky

by N. K. Jemisin
First sentence: “Time grows short, my love.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate
Content: There is swearing and some violence, though none of it brutal. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Well… if I didn’t want to do spoilers for the other two books, that leaves me with very little to say, here, doesn’t it?

Impressions: It’s definitely a book on the evils of colonialism, systemic racism, and oppression. No, it’s not overt, but it’s there. It’s also a book about forgiveness, and if not forgiveness, then maybe a sort of peace. It’s a book about parenting, and what children expect and/or need from their parents, which are not always the same thing. It’s a book about resilience and endurance and sacrifice. (No, I didn’t cry at the end, like a coworker suspected I might.)

It’s still a wildly beautifully written book, though I found this one had bits that pulled me out of the narrative more than the other two. And it was a satisfying conclusion. It definitely deserved all the awards it received.

And I’m going to try and read more Jemisin soon.