Book Review: The Toll by Neal Schusterman

Title: The Toll

Author: Neal Schusterman

Series: Arc of the Scythe

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: 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. (Shortest Summary Ever) -Goodreads



The Review:

The Toll was a decent ending to one of the better YA series I’ve read.

The series had a consistent and solid writing voice. It reminded me strongly of James S.A. Corey’s writing style in the popular adult sci-fi series, The Expanse. It’s a way of combining character introspection and broad implications in a way that’s kind of telly vs showy but somehow you don’t care because it’s so fluidly done. It made for a story that was easy to breeze through.

I’ve mentioned this at length in my reviews of the first two books, but I love the concept for this series. Particularly the moral debate each Scythe has to have with themselves when deciding who to “glean” (kill) and why. It was fascinating. Events in the Toll broadened the ideas even more by focusing on the power, corruption, and the mentality of “do I conform even though it’s against my moral compass and maybe survive another day, or do I stand my ground and perish as if my sacrifice has no real meaning in the grand scheme of things?”

Good food for thought.

It’s worth noting that my rating probably would’ve been slightly higher had I started this book sooner, as time and distance from the second book had me forgetting some of the minor characters. When I wait too long, I lose a bit of context and depth, and therefore my connection to the story. And my ratings pay the price. It didn’t suffer much, but it was still a factor.

Overall, I’m glad I read this series and I’m looking forward to the new collection of stories that came out in November (Gleanings).

Recommendations: one of the better YA series I’ve read. Pick this one up for cool concepts, a great writing style, and a distinct lack of the usual YA tropes. This series is worth a looksie.

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by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Pure by Julianna Baggott

Title: Pure

Author: Julianna Baggott

Series: Pure #1

Genre: Dystopian (Too gritty for YA)

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: We know you are here, our brothers and sisters . . .
Pressia barely remembers the Detonations or much about life during the Before. In her sleeping cabinet behind the rubble of an old barbershop where she lives with her grandfather, she thinks about what is lost-how the world went from amusement parks, movie theaters, birthday parties, fathers and mothers . . . to ash and dust, scars, permanent burns, and fused, damaged bodies. And now, at an age when everyone is required to turn themselves over to the militia to either be trained as a soldier or, if they are too damaged and weak, to be used as live targets, Pressia can no longer pretend to be small. Pressia is on the run. Burn a Pure and Breathe the Ash . . . There are those who escaped the apocalypse unmarked. Pures. They are tucked safely inside the Dome that protects their healthy, superior bodies. Yet Partridge, whose father is one of the most influential men in the Dome, feels isolated and lonely. Different. He thinks about loss-maybe just because his family is broken; his father is emotionally distant; his brother killed himself; and his mother never made it inside their shelter. Or maybe it’s his claustrophobia: his feeling that this Dome has become a swaddling of intensely rigid order. So when a slipped phrase suggests his mother might still be alive, Partridge risks his life to leave the Dome to find her. When Pressia meets Partridge, their worlds shatter all over again. [Sheesh, read this and you wont need to read the book] -Goodreads

The Review:

Sick of typical YA Dystopia but still love those types of stories? I have a recommend for you…

According to Barnes and Noble shelving standards, this series is actually categorized in the adult fiction section rather than YA (this is the publisher’s call) most definitely because it’s much edgier than your typical post-apocalyptic story involving mostly teen POVs. There are a lot of gritty, visceral things that happen in this book. To the point where I had a hard time with it the first time I read it (this review is the product of a reread to continue the series), but I’ve grown a lot as a reader since then and was better prepared to handle it (it helps that I knew to brace for impact lol).

I’ve been consuming a lot of Grimdark novels over the last few years, and while I wouldn’t categorize Pure in that genre, it would help to have the stomach for that type of gritty, dark storytelling before diving in.

Worth noting: this book is weird.

Mostly within the story components. Fallout from mass weapon distruction has caused humans to become fused to whatever they were touching or near when the blasts hit. Which leaves some freaking odd results. Almost, almost to the point of hokey, but it just manages to pull it off with a serious edge. My advice: just go with it.

Overall, there are a lot of moving parts in this first book hinting at some deeper complexity I’m hopeful we’ll get to explore in future novels. Having read this one already but never initially making time to get back to it, my mind has lingered with the plot in a way that’s compelling me to start again to finally see what’s really going on in this world. I hope the eventual payoff is worth the effort.

My only criticism is a couple of too-convenient moments where the characters suddenly had the perfect answers without buildup or context. But as I was already in the “just go with it” mindset, I took it in stride… but it was still annoying.

Recommendations: for YA Dystopian readers who want something off the beaten path and significantly more mature than the norm.

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by Niki Hawkes

Book Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver


Title: Delirium

Author: Lauren Oliver

Series: Delirium #1

Genre: YA Dystopian

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: In an alternate United States, love has been declared a dangerous disease, and the government forces everyone who reaches eighteen to have a procedure called the Cure. Living with her aunt, uncle, and cousins in Portland, Maine, Lena Haloway is very much looking forward to being cured and living a safe, predictable life. She watched love destroy her mother and isn’t about to make the same mistake. But with ninety-five days left until her treatment, Lena meets enigmatic Alex, a boy from the “Wilds” who lives under the government’s radar. What will happen if they do the unthinkable and fall in love? -Goodreads

The Review:

The book takes place in a reality where love is considered a disease. Making you do things that don’t make sense and go against your better judgment. There are even physical signs – shortening of breath, increased heart rate; it can be dangerous. Don’t worry, though, because luckily, there’s a cure.

When I first picked up Delirium I was certain it would sound like every other YA on the market. No surprise: it does. Here’s the funny thing, though… I really liked it. There’s something incredibly absorbing about the author’s writing. A relaxed quality that makes you feel like you should be in a cozy chair with some tea while reading. I also found this true with her novel, Panic, which is even further away from my preferred reading genre, but I loved it also. Something about her storytelling just works for me.

I’ve heard a lot of people bash Delirium because, even though it’s a dystopian, it lacked the same edge people expect from comparable novels like Divergent and Hunger Games. It’s definitely more of a romance-heavy title (for obvious reasons, given the concept), which didn’t bother me too much in this first book. In fact, I’ve read it twice. The second time was in preparation to continue the series, but I never quite made it around to reading more… again. I think I’m worried it will go the route of most YA trilogies and give me an entire middle book of useless angst and very little plot progression. I also think, aside from a few side enigma characters I’d like to know more about, I probably have a pretty good idea where the story is going to end up, and am not sure I want to commit the time to get there. It’s weird lol. Maybe eventually I’ll finally pick up the rest of the trilogy, but for now I’m content to consider it an open-ended stand alone that I enjoyed immensely.

Recommendations: if you like the more fanciful, romance-driven YA dystopians, this is one of the better ones. There’s a whole sub-genre that I call “girls in pretty dresses in a slightly dystopic world” that I can’t seem to get enough of. This book has the same feel as those.

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by Niki Hawkes


Mini Book Review: Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau

 Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau

Title: Graduation Day

Author: Joelle Charbonneau

Series: The Testing #3

Genre: Teen Dystopian

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: In a scarred and brutal future, The United Commonwealth teeters on the brink of all-out civil war. The rebel resistance plots against a government that rules with cruelty and cunning. Gifted student and Testing survivor Cia Vale vows to fight. But she can’t do it alone. This is the chance to lead that Cia has trained for – but who will follow? Plunging through layers of danger and deception, Cia must risk the lives of those she loves – and gamble on the loyalty of her lethal classmates.

The Mini Review:

Since it has been a really long time since I posted my reviews for the first two books in The Testing Trilogy, I’ll give a little recap:

The Testing: I loved the concept and the actual “testing” these teens were put through, but I found the deaths in the story oddly placed, as if for shock value alone rather than any real plot advancement. I was also not sure what I thought about unique voice and writing style. [3/5 stars]

Independent Study: WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN ALL MY LIFE??! I LOVED Independent Study, and it was one of my favorite books of 2014. Scratch that, it’s one of my favorite books ever. I can’t say what flipped, but everything from story (the tests in particular), to setting, to characters, to voice came together for one hell of a book! Loves. [5/5 stars!]

Graduation Day: was somewhere in between. I enjoyed it immensely and appreciated it as a trilogy ender, but it didn’t have the same X-factor as the second book. Although I will say I liked the ending better than a lot of other dystopians on the market. There was a really nice escalation of events and I felt the resolution was fulfilling and complex, fitting in well with the story as a whole. I also think I appreciated the characters a lot more in Graduation Day than in the previous two books. Cia had to do a lot of peer evaluation as she tried to figure out who she could trust, and I enjoyed trying to psychoanalyze them along with her. The best thing I can say is, by the end of the book I was genuinely worried about who would and wouldn’t make it to the end (gotta love those dystopians).

Overall, I consider this dystopian well worth your time if you like the genre. To me it’s worth it for book 2 alone. I loved them enough to buy them all in hardcover and will definitely be rereading them.

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by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Under the Empyrian Sky by Chuck Wendig

Title: Under the Empyrean Sky

Author: Chuck Wendig

Series: The Heartland Trilogy #1

Genre: Teen Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Corn is king in the Heartland, and Cael McAvoy has had enough of it. It’s the only crop the Empyrean government allows the people of the Heartland to grow? And the genetically modified strain is so aggressive that it takes everything the Heartlanders have just to control it. As captain of the Big Sky Scavengers, Cael and his crew sail their rickety ship over the corn day after day, scavenging for valuables, trying to earn much-needed ace notes for their families. But Cael’s tired of surviving life on the ground while the Empyrean elite drift by above in their extravagant sky flotillas. He’s sick of the mayor’s son besting Cael’s crew in the scavenging game. And he’s worried about losing Gwennie? his first mate and the love of his life? forever when their government-chosen spouses are revealed. But most of all, Cael is angry? angry that their lot in life will never get better and that his father doesn’t seem upset about any of it. Cael’s ready to make his own luck . . . even if it means bringing down the wrath of the Empyrean elite and changing life in the Heartland forever.  

The Review:

I’ve been interested in this book for a while because of its major cover appeal and interesting premise, but didn’t expect to like it nearly as much as I did. Under the Empyrean Sky offered a unique voice, immersive world building, and characters who were as vibrant as they were gritty.

The story starts out with a clear perspective and only gets stronger from there. The book was front-loaded with a lot of profanity, which might bother some readers. I actually like profanity in books as long as it does one of two things: provides comic relief or helps developed character. Even though it wasn’t totally apparent from the start, I believe Wendig’s use of language positively added to the great atmosphere, character profiles, and world building of the novel. All of these elements are what left me feeling like the book was a cool experience.

I liked the plot because it surprised me. I thought I could see the predictable trajectory right from the beginning, but was proven wrong at every turn. There’s something oddly compelling about a clearly conveyed story that lacks plot transparency (meaning you always understand what’s going on, but the plot isn’t easy to see through). I give major kudos to Wendig for coming up with so many twists… It was refreshing. My only issue with the entire book was with pacing, as in I wish the story had clipped along a tad faster. Other than that, it was great.

Overall, Under the Empyrean Sky was a cool (albeit weird) book that I enjoyed thoroughly. It gave off a sort of Maze Runner vibe (sort of like the Maize Runner… eh? eh?) but with a lot more sass. I don’t feel the need to pick up the next one right away, but I am definitely interested in seeing where it goes within the next couple of months.

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by Niki Hawkes


Book Reviews: The Fire & Flood Series [So Far] by Victoria Scott

The Fire & Flood Series
by Victoria Scott
3/5 stars

The Overview:  [I’m only including the overview for the first book to help avoid spoilers for those who haven’t yet started it] Tella Holloway is losing it. Her brother is sick, and when a dozen doctors can’t determine what’s wrong, her parents decide to move to Montana for the fresh air. She’s lost her friends, her parents are driving her crazy, her brother is dying—and she’s helpless to change anything. Until she receives mysterious instructions on how to become a Contender in the Brimstone Bleed. It’s an epic race across jungle, desert, ocean, and mountain that could win her the prize she desperately desires: the Cure for her brother’s illness. But all the Contenders are after the Cure for people they love, and there’s no guarantee that Tella (or any of them) will survive the race. The jungle is terrifying, the clock is ticking, and Tella knows she can’t trust the allies she makes. And one big question emerges: Why have so many fallen sick in the first place?

The Review:

There are a lot of things about this series I really like – the fact that the plot revolves around a competition (which always sparks my interest), the constant change of settings as the characters raced through different ecosystems, and the animal companion “Pandoras” that each contestant received at the beginning of the race. Any one of these would have prompted me to pick up Fire & Flood, so I just consider a bonus that all of them are present. I also liked Victoria Scott’s writing voice, even though it was a bit heavy-handed to start out with. She’s really cheeky, and made me laugh several times throughout with her humorous, semi-unconventional approach to storytelling.

So, while there were many things I enjoyed about the series, I have to admit that it required a strong “just go with it” attitude and definitely would not hold up to close scrutiny: the characters sometimes jumped out of character or acted inconsistently with past behavior for no other reason than to advance the plot, the framework for the race itself (and the people running it) felt underdeveloped, the settings, while exotic, were a bit under realized, and there were occasional issues with visualization, where time lapses were unrealistic, spaces and objects got bigger or smaller, and characters and Pandora’s all but vanished from scenes until they became relevant again.

As you can see, there were a LOT of issues, but they oddly didn’t seem like a big deal to me while I was reading, maybe because the things I liked about the book were done well enough to compensate. It occurred to me after I was done reading that having inconsistencies within the plot, while not ideal, means there is ample opportunity to surprise your reader. And surprised I was – these books definitely took some twists and turns you don’t see very often in today’s cookie-cutter YA novels. THAT if nothing else might make this series worth reading because it made them unique.

Overall, I liked the first two books enough to want to finish the series. They struck a good chord with me and I admit I was surprised at how forgiving I was willing to be. It just goes to show that you don’t necessarily have to have a full arsenal of writing strengths to be a successful author and to produce entertaining books – you just need to do what you do best to the best of your ability… sometimes that really is enough. Where Scott was most successful, in my opinion, was creating a story that was a lot of fun to read – that’s hard to do with than a dystopian genre, but somehow she managed. Fire & Flood probably wouldn’t be my first recommend of the genre, but I feel it has enough positive attributes to entice a lot of readers. If you do pick it up, take my advice: just go with it. :-)

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by Niki Hawkes