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 Power

by Naomi Alderman
First sentence: “Dear Naomi, I’ve finished the bloody book.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some sex, and a few graphic rape scenes. It’s also incredibly violent. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

The basic premise of this book is that one day, suddenly, all women in the world get a power — the ability to channel electricity — that gives them the ability to “fight back” against men of the world. It starts with teenagers, but eventually spreads to most women. The narrative follows four people: a mayor of a New England town, a girl in the foster system, a daughter of a British mob boss, and a young Nigerian man. The change affects all their lives: the mayor becomes governor and then senator, creating for-profit training camps for girls to learn to better control and use their power; the girl kills her foster father (who was raping her) and runs away and eventually starts a new religion, becoming Mother Eve; the daughter of a mob boss ends up taking over the whole operation; and the young man becomes a news reporter, going where the stories — of rebellion, of resistance, of control — are.

It was, for me, a tough book to swallow, and it wasn’t until the end when I realized what Alderman was doing. It’s best to remember that science fiction is more about the present than the future; and Alderman is shining a light on violence against women by turning the tables. The women in this book, once they get the power, become very… well… masculine. They embrace and abuse power, they torture and rape and kill men solely because they are weak. They create laws that restrict men’s movements, and in the end, blow the whole system up.

It’s also a critique of the nature of power, I think. I feel like Alderman is saying that power over another person corrupts anyone, male or female. That there is no “better nature” that will, inherently, make a woman better at leading. That power is, at it’s heart, an violent act of controlling another person.

It’s not an enjoyable read, but it is an interesting one, and has given me much to think about.

The Testaments

by Margaret Atwood
First sentence: “Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Handmaid’s Tale
Content: There is an instance of sexual assault, some violence (some of which is pretty graphic), and instances of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m going to preface this with a couple of caveats: I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in about 10 years, though I have kids who have read it more recently and have talked to me about it. I remember basic plot points of the book, but not specifics. And, I have not (yet; I’m kind of curious now that I’ve finished this one) watched the series on Hulu. I think having watched the series and/or having read the book more recently may have an impact on your opinion of this one.

The Testaments follows three women: Aunt Lydia, who was there at the beginning of Gilead, and chose to become part of the founding structure of the regime; Agnes Jemima, who was born in Gilead and was raised to believe in its teachings; and Daisy, who was born in Gilead, but whose mother, a Handmaid, escaped north to Canada and who was raised by a couple there. The narratives intertwine and go back and forth through time; we find out through Aunt Lydia what happened when Giliead was formed, and the choices she made to become in the position of power she is currently in. We find out through Agnes what is being taught to the generation of girls that has since been born. and the challenges they face. And from Daisy, we find out not only what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead, but the future of it.

It’s a fascinating book to read, though I’m not entirely sure it’s 1) coherent with the world Atwood put out in the Handmaid’s Tale (see above caveat) and 2) necessary. It’s really all about the downfall of Gilead, because in Atwood’s view, no matter how “pure” or “righteous” your intent setting out, we are all human and, therefore, corrupt, and any system of government built upon anything but basic human rights for all is bound to fall. I’m not sure how I feel about that — it seems easy to believe that the Commander in charge of Gilead, Commander Judd, was inherently corrupt from the start and just did all this as a power grab and because he’d like any excuse to “marry” and kill off a series of increasingly younger brides. It’s disgusting, but I’m not sure it serves a purpose except to prove that all men who crave power are disgusting and corrupt. (Which may or may not be the case.)

But it’s Atwood, and her writing is engaging, and the storytelling interesting, and while it’s not as harrowing as Handmaid’s Tale was when I first read it, it’s definitely got a bit of a warning: dismiss the power of women at your own peril.

And maybe this is the book we need for this time in history.

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!

Dry

dryby Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
First sentence: ”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are many intense situations, some reference to drinking and drug use (by adults, mostly), and violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I will say this up front: this novel is TERRIFYING. The father-son team takes the plausible — what would happen if there was a severe drought in Southern California and then access to the Colorado River was entirely cut off — and turns it into a gripping, thriller-like survival ride, to answer the question: What would you do for access to water?

The story alternates viewpoints between Alyssa, who with her brother Garret, have to figure out what to do when their parents go missing; their neighbor Kelton, a son of a survivalist who has prepared for Times Like These. When things go from bad to worse — let’s just say their other neighbors aren’t forgiving of the fact that Kelton’s family has prepared — they go on the run, nominally to find a place to ride out the “crisis” and pick up two other kids — Henry and Jacqui — on the way. Interspersed are “snapshots” of how the wider community is reacting and gives the reader a bigger picture of how this is affecting the community as a whole.

Shusterman is an incredible storyteller, and he knows how to keep a plot going from page to page. There are funny bits and touching bits and terrifying bits (lots of those actually), and it all felt incredibly realistic. I could see this playing out — especially with the way society is in denial about climate change — pretty much exactly like this. I’ve heard it said that science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, but rather about what it’s happening in the present. If that’s true, then this should be a wake up call to take better care of the planet. Otherwise, this “prediction” might just become reality.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

by Hank Green
First sentence: “Look, I am aware that you’re here for an epic tale of intrigue and mystery and adventure and near death and actual death, but in order to get to that (unless you want to skip to chapter 13–I’m not your boss) you’re going to have to deal with the fact that I, April May, in addition to being one of the most important things that has ever happened to the human race, am also a woman in her twenties who has made some mistakes.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It will be in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore, but a high school student who was interested could definitely read this one.

April May is just living her life — and not really her best one, at all — when she stumbles upon a… thing… in Manhattan at three a.m. She has enough presence of mind to grab her filmmaker friend and upload a video about the phenomenon that will come to be known as The Carls, which shoots April into the world of the famous. She¬† is at the forefront of everything Carl-related: TV stations want interviews, her YouTube and Twitter followers skyrocket. And, yet, no one knows what the Carls really want.

Soon, April is experiencing the darker side of fame: There are factions out there that want to defend the world from The Carls, and see April as a traitor for being a “spokesperson” for them. And it doesn’t help that April keeps burning the bridges between her and everyone in her life that cares about her.

There are two ways you can read this book:

1) as a straight-up science fiction story. And, to be honest, it kind of lacks on this level. It’s not really a great plot; you only find out what The Carls are up to at the end of the book, and it turns out to be rather anti-climatic. April is a questionable human being, more concerned about her own fame than the lives or feelings of the people around her (though I do wonder if I’d feel the same way if Green wrote April as a man). There’s a bit of action, but not much; it’s mostly talk about coding and uploading videos and dealing with people.

2) as an exploration of what fame can do to a “regular” person. This is where I thought the book actually worked. If you know anything about Green (one half of the Vlogbrothers, etc.), it seems that he is coming to terms with the way fame works, especially in the era of social media, and how that affects people. I found that part of the book to be fascinating; how the masses glom on to someone — anyone really — who says things we like (or don’t) and by the sheer force of numbers make that person famous. And how that fame — and the money advertisers and corporations and “news” stations are willing to throw at them — ultimately changes a person. It was an interesting exploration into April’s psyche and the ups and downs of fame.

An interesting read, in the end.

Seafire

by Natalie C. Parker
First sentence: “Cadelonia stretched along the prow of the Ghost as the ship sliced through black water.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s some violence and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Caldonia Styx is the captain of a rogue ship, Mors Navis, one of the few that’s not in the clutches of the feared drug lord, Aric Althair. She has a crew of all girls, ones that Caldonia and her best friend Pisces, have collected and saved from Althair. They also are a thorn in Althair’s side — hitting his barges and collection ships, trying to stop him whenever they can.

But, they end up with one of Althair’s Bullets — his soldiers — on board and even though Caldonia doesn’t trust him, he has information about Caldonia’s and Pisces’s brothers, information that will allow them to be rescued. If only the Mors Navis can get to them.

Going in, I was expecting pirates and old-fashioned ships, but got something more futuristic: these ships are solar powered and cut through the water at high speeds. There’s scuba diving equipment, bombs and some heavy-duty drugs that brainwash people. There’s a drug lord that kidnaps little kids as “payment” and subjects them to a life of servitude. There’s awesome girls, and Parker’s a ruthless author: no one is safe in her world, which ramps up the tension. It’s action packed — there are several battles and narrow escapes in this book — and even though Caldonia carries a secret that I felt like yelling “just tell it already”, she was a good character to spend a book with. She’s a smart captain, and gets Parker gives her the respect she’s due as that. And her crew works together really well, as well.

It’s a great start to a series, one I’m definitely going to keep an eye on.