Off the Shelf: A Review of Scythe by Neal Shusterman

“There’s a very old expression,” Scythe Goddard told him. “To be painless is to be gainless.” He gripped Rowan warmly on the shoulder. “And I wish for you to gain much.”

Lately, life has been a little hectic, and I couldn’t be more relieved to have finally taken a relaxing little vacation. As with any vacation though, I needed something to read, and Shusterman’s Scythe definitely fit the bill. I know I’m a little behind on getting this ARC review out before the publication date (Nov. 22 – today!), but I spread it out over my trip and let myself get lost in the pages rather than racing through it to meet a deadline. Neal Shusterman writes in a way that you don’t want to miss even the smallest of details.

I have to say, I was absolutely giddy to get to review an ARC of Scythe. I discovered Neal Shusterman a few years back when I became totally engrossed by his Unwind series and the controversial themes that played out in such a dystopian setting. Shusterman is a master at crafting dystopias. Now, before you start getting all “Ugh. Dystopias are SO overdone!” – let me tell you this. These aren’t your typical post-apocalyptic YA stories about a character fighting for survival in a frightening environment created by a totalitarian government. Nope. That’s just not his style. In fact, the worlds Shusterman builds are almost ideal societies with just a small twist that make them somewhat unfavorable to the main characters. For instance, the world in which Scythe takes place, human beings have eliminated disease and freed ourselves from our own mortality, letting a virtual Cloud-on-steroids maintain our progression as a species. Scythes control overpopulation, a necessary job in this world, and a job which neither Citra nor Rowan had ever dreamed of wanting. Sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? But when the act of taking two apprentices is seen as a major controversy, particularly because of their affinity towards protecting each other, it is decided that only one will be named a scythe, and the other will meet his/her end at the new scythe’s hand.

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Summary (via Goodreads)
In a world where disease has been eliminated, the only way to die is to be randomly killed (“gleaned”) by professional reapers (“scythes”). Citra and Rowan are teenagers who have been selected to be scythe’s apprentices, and—despite wanting nothing to do with the vocation—they must learn the art of killing and come to understand the necessity of what they do.

Only one of them will be chosen as a scythe’s apprentice. And when it becomes clear that the winning apprentice’s first task will be to glean the loser, Citra and Rowan are pitted against one another in a fight for their lives

Things I Liked:

I won’t lie, when I first found out that Citra and Rowan were to be forced to compete against each other for scythedom and that one of these star-crossed lovers would have to die, part of me wondered if the ending was going to be something along the lines of Hunger Games (Spoiler alert for all three of you who may not have read it), and that they’d both just end up threatening to glean themselves or something of the like. And sure, throughout the story and through both of their perspectives, they both entertain this thought. But the glorious part? That’s not what happens. I flew through the last quarter of the book, and I did not see the ending coming. Fair warning – the last line is going to be one that sticks with you well after you close the cover.

As a female reader, I generally find more in common with female main characters, but with Scythe, I somewhat flip-flopped. In the beginning, I really enjoyed Citra’s perspective and didn’t really give much thought to Rowan, or “the lettuce” as he describes himself, the unremarkable one. When they separated for training, they both face unique challenges, but Rowan truly has to confront his own beliefs and the beliefs of his mentor. Rowan became more and more intriguing to me, to the point I actually started to root for him to be the victor. The character I enjoyed most of all though was neither Citra nor Rowan. It was Scythe Curie. Why? Because that woman gave off a total Professor McGonagall vibe, and I loved every second of it. Honestly, I’d be happy to see Shusterman write an entire book devoted to her story.

It’s brutal. Really brutal. Don’t go into this expecting something light and fluffy, because you won’t find it. The gleanings are gruesome, with death being administered in a wide variety of ways, from sword to flamethrower. One thing the gleanings are NOT though is just there for shock value. These killings/gleanings stir inner ethical debates for the readers, which may have them taking sides among the scythes.

Things I Didn’t Like:

There was a big chunk in the beginning/middle where I lost my interest in the story. I persevered, because I knew Shusterman would make it worth my while, and I wasn’t disappointed. There was just a rut where not much was happening other than the apprentices being trained, which of course gave a lot more insight into their characters and some of the secondary characters, but really, not much was happening overall. The journal entries at the end of each chapter from various scythes sort of bogged down the story for me because, if they contained any pertinent information to the story line at all, the information was often revealed to the characters in other scenes anyways.

I did enjoy that the characters seemed to come from all sides of the moral spectrum, but Scythe Goddard got particularly annoying in a lot of ways. He’s obviously the “big bad”, and at times, you can see the reasoning behind his beliefs. But in a lot of ways he’s just like what The Walking Dead tv show has done to the character of Negan – made him too over the top to where he’s constantly flaunting just how much of a jerk he is. That’s Goddard, and he earned plenty of eye-rolls as I read.

Overall Rating:

4/5 I originally believed Scythe to be a standalone novel, but then about halfway through the book, I took to Goodreads to update my progress – and it turns out, I was wrong! Scythe is the first book in the Arc of a Scythe series. My curiosity is already bubbling! Will the rest of the series be about the same characters? Or will it focus on entirely new scythes? Either way, I hope to get my hands on an early copy of book two, whenever it becomes available. I feel like this is going to be another exciting series from Shusterman that everyone should keep their eyes on. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out some of his other books, particularly my favorite – Unwind.

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Off the Shelf: A Review of We Know it was You by Maggie Thrash

I picked up a copy of BookPage this week at the library, and in it, someone had reviewed We Know it was You. You could tell from the review that the author wasn’t such a fan but was trying to spin the review on a positive note. The part that stuck out to me most was that, when reading We Know it was You, you may find that “the satire may not resonate with all readers”. I’m not sure if that was meant to be an understatement, but I can tell you one thing, nothing about this book actually resonated with me, and that’s including the satire.

I received an ARC of We Know it was You from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I emphasize “honest” here because as much as I WANTED to like this book, I just didn’t, and I think it’s important to discuss why.

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Release Date: October 4, 2016

Summary (via Goodreads)
It’s better to know the truth. At least sometimes.

Halfway through Friday night’s football game, beautiful cheerleader Brittany Montague—dressed as the giant Winship Wildcat mascot—hurls herself off a bridge into Atlanta’s surging Chattahoochee River.

Just like that, she’s gone.

Eight days later, Benny Flax and Virginia Leeds will be the only ones who know why.

Things I Liked:
It’s a fast read. Something moderately lighthearted that you can read quickly in a matter of hours. I had a night where I couldn’t get to sleep, so I picked this one up and had it finished well before my alarm for work went off. As much as I didn’t enjoy it, I can say that you will want to follow through to the end, just to solve the mystery.

Things I Didn’t Like:
First off, I didn’t like ANY of the characters. They are so offensively stereotypical that it was just painful to read about them. You’ve got your gossip, your socially awkward Jew, your jocks, your cheerleaders, your strange foreigners, etc. And guess what? None of their actions make any sense whatsoever. Was there a real motivation for any of them? If there was, I couldn’t find it. Perhaps it was buried somewhere under all of the irritatingly pointless plot lines. I really thought at first that I was just irked because they sounded like annoying high schoolers. I thought, well, I sounded pretty annoying when I was in high school. But NO. It’s just that the author is forcing so many cliched tropes down your throat that the whole story is hard to digest.

Second, and this is the part we really need to talk about – I am so grossly offended by the way the topic of rape is treated in this story. If you’re looking for a book that spreads an unhealthy message about rape and sexual assault, well, you’ve found it. I won’t spoil all of the details, but I was actually intrigued that a book finally tackled the subject of a female rapist. That intrigue didn’t last long. Whenever it’s discovered that a character is essentially being raped, it’s like everyone just brushes it off as no big deal. No, we shouldn’t report that to authorities. No, the abuser shouldn’t be punished – she’s so pretty and rich! Let’s just keep her victim in the dark and do nothing about it. I’m sure that will work out just fine. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?! No. Just no.

Speaking of problematic sexual scenes, I think I almost lost my cool over one scene in particular. *SPOILER WARNING*
At one point, a secondary character…someone who really doesn’t do much in the story overall…sits in his car with a bayonet in one hand and is masturbating with his other hand. Yes, it’s graphic from start to ‘finish’. No, it did not add ANYTHING to the story. I’m still clueless as to why it was included. What purpose did it serve to the story? I don’t think it had one. I feel like the author included it solely for the shock value, thinking that sexually frustrated teenagers are going to think this story is automatically ‘cool’ because it included some detailed masturbation. Trust me though, the descriptions are cringe-worthy at best.

My biggest problem with this book though? Nothing gets resolved. The killer rides off into the sunset, never to be punished. Another victim will never see justice for being raped. Law enforcement is never informed – actually, no, worse than that. Law enforcement is INTENTIONALLY not informed. Not even when one of the main characters sits in a cop’s car just shortly after uncovering a child pornography ring. Does she tell the police about it? Nope! That might somehow impede the work of her teen detective club. I’m sorry, but that was just ridiculous.

Overall Rating:
According to Goodreads, this is going to be a series. I somehow doubt it though, because although nothing was resolved at the end, it had a certain sense of finality to it.  Either way, if there is a sequel, I don’t think I’ll be picking it up.
Some books can make you uncomfortable and challenge you in an exceptionally good way. This is not one of those books. It just leaves you uncomfortable, and that’s it. I’m giving it a 1.5 on the sole fact that I actually wanted to finish it and see how it all turned out. Disappointing as it was, it was a quick (although not painless) distraction.
I’m still not sure if it was really meant to be satire, or if that’s just what people are going to say to defend it. Me? I love satire. I did not love this.

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Off the Shelf: A Review of A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

It’s a wondrous feeling when a book burns so brightly in your mind that it’s all you can think about for days and days. I’m especially drawn to books that combine fantasy and magic, and in particular, books that can do so with an exciting and unique premise. A Shadow Bright and Burning is exactly that kind of book. It has a wealth of intriguing characters, hair-raising battles with terrifying monsters, and an abundance of twists and turns which are sure to make this a series you won’t want to miss!

 

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RELEASE DATE: September 20, 2016

Summary (via Goodreads)
I am Henrietta Howel.
The first female sorcerer in hundreds of years.
The prophesied one.
Or am I?

Henrietta Howel can burst into flames.
Forced to reveal her power to save a friend, she’s shocked when instead of being executed, she’s invited to train as one of Her Majesty’s royal sorcerers.
Thrust into the glamour of Victorian London, Henrietta is declared the chosen one, the girl who will defeat the Ancients, bloodthirsty demons terrorizing humanity. She also meets her fellow sorcerer trainees, handsome young men eager to test her power and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her.
But Henrietta Howel is not the chosen one.
As she plays a dangerous game of deception, she discovers that the sorcerers have their own secrets to protect. With battle looming, what does it mean to not be the one? And how much will she risk to save the city—and the one she loves?

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Things I Liked:
There are several things about Henrietta Howel that I absolutely admire. She’s strong, passionate, and will do anything to protect her friends. A lot of this book is Henrietta finding herself and coming to terms with who she really is. She also has to deal with a lot of discrimination based on her gender, her magic, and her low birth. Henrietta handles all of these with a head held high and efficiently puts those who look down on her in their place. Her interactions with the other characters are both witty and clever, and I found myself taking a screenshot of quite a few humorous quotes from Henrietta and the other characters just so I could giggle at them again later. I think I fell in love with every scene where Henrietta truly used her power, setting herself ablaze, because you get a sense of how fearsome yet beautiful she is, and you feel the passion behind her desire to save people. She’s obviously one of the only females in a cast of characters that’s mostly male, but while the interactions with her fellow trainees are fun (especially the charming and sarcastic Magnus), I really enjoyed her conversations with the older characters like Master Agrippa, who first discovers her power, and the magician Hargrove, who at first I thought I would dislike but then rapidly became one of my favorite characters.

There’s also what some might call a love triangle. In my opinion, I foresee it being a love square, but we will get to that. The romance doesn’t take a leading role in this book. There’s so many other things going on, that I would have been turned off to the book if Henrietta was solely focused on a boy(s) and his opinion of her. Luckily, the romantic moments take a backseat to the story, and what moments are mentioned actually do a lot to further the plot and Henrietta’s motivations. As for it being a love square, I have to say that there’s one of Henrietta’s fellow sorcerer trainees that stands out above the rest to me –  Blackwell. While the relationship between the two right now might not seem more than just a strained friendship, I picked up on some heavy Pride & Prejudice vibes between the pair. I think this is something that will play out more in the next book (hopefully), and it’s definitely the ship I’ll be rooting for.

The world building is another excellent factor to this book. From the first page to the last, I felt like I was living inside this alternate world in Victorian London, plagued by demons known as the Ancients. The descriptions are vivid, and the author makes clear distinctions between the types of magical people and how those inside/outside the protective ward live. I’m looking forward to exploring this world further in the next book.

Things I Didn’t Like:

I’ve seen a few people complain that this book uses the same old tropes, and if you’ve read one fantasy novel, you’ve read them all so you may as well forget this one. FALSE. I’ve read so many fantasy novels that take the idea of a “chosen one” and it plays out on repeat across the board. Nothing new or exciting. A Shadow Bright and Burning took that idea and twisted it, something I rather enjoyed, because it shows you don’t have to be “chosen” to do great things.

So, sorry, not going to hear any complaints from me. I loved this book the whole way through.

Overall Rating:

I reserve 5 star ratings for books that truly deserve it, and this book is a well earned 5 star for me. It’s exactly the book I’ve been waiting for, and it’s a magical adventure from start to finish! It’s exciting, empowering, and absolutely enchanting. You’ll race to the finish, be left stunned by the twists in the ending, and then we can all commiserate about how long we have to wait until the next book in the series comes out.  Add this one to your TBR list IMMEDIATELY. Seriously! You don’t want to miss out.

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Off the Shelf: A Review of Fear the Drowning Deep by Sarah Glenn Marsh

One of my favorite things to do after finishing a book is to find out more about the author. I like knowing a little more about the person behind the pen. To me, it makes them feel more like an everyday person. Someone I might know. It also makes me think about how I’d want to describe myself to readers in the future (if I ever get on the ball and make my book happen). Reading Sarah Glenn Marsh’s bio on Goodreads, I feel like we would get along swimmingly:
Sarah Glenn Marsh writes young adult fantasy novels full of danger, mythology, and kissing. Sometimes she writes children’s picture books, too.
She lives, writes, and paints things in Virginia, supported by her husband and four senior greyhounds.
If she could, she’d adopt ALL THE ANIMALS.

See? We’d totally be friends, bonding over our favorite picture books while exchanging photos of all of our rescue animals. Speaking of adopting all the animals, guess whose fur family just got bigger? That’s right. We’ve added an abandoned husky to our pack, one who thinks she’s the same size as the pug and has just as much desire to be in your lap… which of course can be mighty distracting while trying to type, so let’s get this review going so I can get back to husky cuddles!

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Summary (via Goodreads)
Witch’s apprentice Bridey Corkill has hated the ocean ever since she watched her granddad dive in and drown with a smile on his face. So when a dead girl rolls in with the tide in the summer of 1913, sixteen-year-old Bridey suspects that whatever compelled her granddad to leap into the sea has made its return to the Isle of Man.

Soon, villagers are vanishing in the night, but no one shares Bridey’s suspicions about the sea. No one but the island’s witch, who isn’t as frightening as she first appears, and the handsome dark-haired lad Bridey rescues from a grim and watery fate. The cause of the deep gashes in Fynn’s stomach and his lost memories are, like the recent disappearances, a mystery well-guarded by the sea. In exchange for saving his life, Fynn teaches Bridey to master her fear of the water — stealing her heart in the process.

Now, Bridey must work with the Isle’s eccentric witch and the boy she isn’t sure she can trust — because if she can’t uncover the truth about the ancient evil in the water, everyone she loves will walk into the sea, never to return.

Publication Date: October 4, 2016
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Things I Liked:

I’m picky when I request ARCs. My free time that I can spend reading at my leisure is limited, so I request only a few ARCs at a time, and only the ones that truly stand out to me as something different. For me, Fear the Drowning Deep hooked me not only with its mysterious description of the plot, but also with that absolutely GORGEOUS, haunting cover.

Once I got past that beautiful cover, I discovered that Sarah Glenn Marsh has a fantastic way with words. She paints such a beautiful, eerie setting and crafts her story rich with culture and mythology. I felt like a part of Bridey’s family. You get to know the ins and outs of their daily lives, their struggles, their customs, as well as their relationships with the other town folk.This book really delivered when it comes to immersing the reader in the location’s history. Bridey is a strong character, plagued with a fear of the sea that stole her grandfather, and her suspicions have plenty of merit. I loved that the monsters in this book weren’t the typical, overdone sea monsters, and instead had depth in mythology.

Fynn, the stranger who washes up on the beach without a single memory of his life before, was definitely a highlight for me. His voice and mannerisms were a delight, and he’s one of those characters plenty of readers will soon have a major “book crush” on. I was hooked on his interactions with Bridey and how he challenged her to overcome her fears. If Sarah Glenn Marsh ever plans to revisit this world in a sequel, I hope it’s one that is told in Fynn’s point of view.

Things I Didn’t Like:
I knew going into this book that Morag, the local “witch”, would be one of my favorite characters. Throw a witch into any story, and she’s probably going to be my favorite. It seemed to me from the summary though, that she would play a much larger role than what she actually did in the story. Bridey is supposed to be her apprentice, so I expected their encounters to be mysterious, creepy, and mystical. What they actually were was almost nonexistent. A lot of the time either Morag was avoiding Bridey, or Bridey had something else to do that made her avoid Morag. It was a little bit of a let down in that regard, but that’s what I get for coming into this book with preconceived notions from the summary.

The ending was unfortunately where this book hit a low point with me. The story had such a good build up that it was a shame that the final scenes weren’t treated with as much care and delicacy. It was a hodgepodge of loose ends and plot holes. To illustrate my point, I will try to describe one moment that bothered me profusely without getting too *spoiler-y*….While battling a deadly sea creature, Bridey drops the one item that could clinch her victory (an item that kept being stressed in the story for its importance) into the water. She also happens to be wearing a charmed necklace which will absolutely prevent her from drowning. This is where I would fully expect her to rise to the occasion, put her newfound bravery to the test, and dive in after the object. Does she? Nope. It’s never mentioned again once it drops into the water. The ending felt rushed and not as well written as the rest of the book.  I guess endings can’t be everything we expect them to be or it would just get predictable, but I was really hoping for more here.

Overall Rating:
Somewhere between a 3.5 and a 4, so let’s just go ahead and round up in regards to stars. I really enjoyed the story most of the way through, and would have definitely given it at least a solid four or more… but the ending just lost me. The book is a standalone novel, yet I still feel incomplete. It makes me wish for a sequel so that the loose ends may be tied up. Maybe we can all beg and plead for the author to revisit this world? It’s definitely worth a read though, so don’t skip over it just because I had some concerns about the ending. Not everyone is going to like every ending. Fear the Drowning Deep has enchanting characters, intriguing mystery, and shows that we are all capable of putting terror and uneasiness behind us when the things we hold dear are at stake. You shouldn’t miss out on this unique and exciting story, so be sure to check it out when it’s released! For that matter, be sure to keep Sarah Glenn Marsh on your radar as well. I’m greatly looking forward to future books from her!

“And with the melody came the unmistakable sound of water slapping against the rocks far below us, slowly eroding the foundation of Port Coire and everything I loved.”
  – Sarah Glenn Marsh, Fear the Drowning Deep

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Luna would like to know if I’m done typing yet.

 

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Off the Shelf: A Review of One Was Lost by Natalie Richards

Do you ever get really excited when you read a book, and it mentions someplace you are familiar with, maybe even someplace you call home? While reading Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys series, I bombarded my friends with photos of every mention of West Virginia, particularly when she talked about I64 and Charleston (which happens to be about 30 minutes away from my library). Well, I had the same excitement when I found out that Natalie Richards and I have something in common – we’re both from Ohio. I live in the southern half of the state, but I like to go camping around the areas that Natalie writes about. The teens are students from Marietta (a great little place to visit that’s right on the Ohio River and full of history). There’s also a hospital in Columbus that is mentioned, and I’d say most every Ohioan has visited Columbus at least a time or two. Let me tell you though, when you’re reading a story as frightening as One Was Lost, you don’t exactly get excited that you know the places the author is describing. You get creeped out. You start questioning visiting that part of the state again, especially to camp. You know it isn’t some made up fictional city. Knowing that makes every aspect of the story more real, and when things start to get scary, it makes your fear more real. One was Lost is a fast-paced, thrilling adventure about fighting to survive, and one that you will probably want to read from the comfort and safety of your own home.

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Summary (via Goodreads)

Damaged. Deceptive. Dangerous. Darling. Are they labels or a warning? The answer could cost Sera everything.

Murder, justice, and revenge were so not a part of the plan when Sera set out on her senior camping trip. After all, hiking through the woods is supposed to be safe and uneventful.

Then one morning the group wakes up groggy, confused, and with words scrawled on their wrists: Damaged. Deceptive. Dangerous. Darling. Their supplies? Destroyed. Half their group? Gone. Their chaperone? Unconscious. Worst of all, they find four dolls acting out a murder—dolls dressed just like them.

Suddenly it’s clear; they’re being hunted. And with the only positive word on her wrist, Sera falls under suspicion…

I received an ARC of One was Lost from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The current publication date for One was Lost is October 4, 2016.

Things I Liked:

This isn’t some cut and dry murder mystery. There’s a killer on the loose, and he/she is toying with a group of teenagers that wouldn’t exactly refer to each other as “friends”. Add to that, mysterious words have been drawn darkly onto their wrists which call into question the nature of each character. Damaged, Deceptive, Dangerous, and  Darling can all be heavy labels to bear, but there is a special reason why these words in particular were chosen for the group. Natalie Richards does a great job only revealing what she absolutely has to at any given moment, and she effectively builds the rising tensions. There may be a few moments where readers will feel like something was predictable, but it won’t be in regards to who is hunting the group nor will it be that person’s motivation behind the hunt. It will keep you guessing from cover to cover.

One was Lost has a great core group of characters. I felt attached to each of the four main campers, even when I didn’t trust them. I think this story would have benefited more if it included multiple points of view and still maintained the suspicions and possible unreliability of the narrators, something similar to what Laurie Stolarz does in the Dark House series. If we could have seen the situation from Lucas, Jude, and Emily’s points of view, I think we would have learned a great deal more about their characters and personalities. Sera is the soul narrator, we only receive her outlook, and so it’s hard to be 100% invested in her when she is surrounded by so many character’s with backgrounds that are more rich than her own. The other great thing about these characters is the fact that there’s an actual depth to each of them, one that as you can probably tell, I wish had been explored more…but that depth keeps them from coming across as corny or overly stereotypical teenagers.

The most important thing that I liked – the big reveal. So many thrillers cop out on an ending. It’s like they spend the whole book building up to it, and the second the bomb drops, everyone cleans up the debris neatly, and it’s all over. Not here. This was what I needed in an ending for this book. I needed it to be messy. I needed to know not only who but also why. I needed a motive, and I needed a thrilling confrontation between hunter and hunted. Not only that, but I also needed the characters that I spent the whole time getting close to to have a consensus about what happened between them and what the aftermath would be in the wake of their terrifying ordeal. This ending hit the mark and gave me everything I was looking for.

Things I Didn’t Like:

Honestly, I feel like the references to Sera’s mother slowed down the story. I loved the Sera and Lucas young love angle, but I kinda felt like I should make a drinking game out of it. Take one drink for every time Sera thinks about her mom in relation to her feelings about Lucas. No winners in that game. These mommy issue monologues felt very forced, and I just couldn’t get interested.
Beyond that, I feel like the built up animosity towards Lucas, especially in the beginning of the story, was unwarranted, and the slow-to-reveal reasons behind it didn’t really provide an acceptable explanation in my eyes.  This was the only real let down I had with this book.

Also, without spoiling anything, I still have a few unanswered questions about some of the circumstances leading up to this trip and an unexplained link between two characters, but maybe I just need a good reread. I could have possibly missed a small detail somewhere while playing the mommy issues drinking game.

Overall Rating:

I’m giving this one a solid 4/5. It had some predictable moments, and I wasn’t a fan of Sera’s fixation with not being like her mother, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book the whole way through. It was a thrilling ride from start to finish, didn’t seem overly corny, and had characters that I wanted to personally know. I raced through the pages because the tale gets very twisted, and it kept me anticipating how the ending would play out. You’ll definitely want to get your hands on this one come October and read it on your next camping trip.

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Off the Shelf: A Review of The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

On the day that the news broke about the shooting in Orlando, I thought about the state of the world that we live in, and my heart wanted to break. I picked up The Steep and Thorny Way and delved into the last few chapters I had remaining. Usually, reading serves as an escape for me, a way to leave the horrors and tragedies of this world behind me just for awhile and run away to someplace new. But I didn’t pick up The Steep and Thorny Way to take me someplace new. It’s not that kind of book. This book is a reminder that atrocities such as racism and homophobia are not just an embarrassing part of our past that can be swept under the rug of history. The cruelty that stems from these ideas still exists, and our society must constantly combat them with beliefs rooted in equality and love. We’re making progress, but we still have so much further to go.

As usual, Cat Winters delivers a narrative that not only focuses on social injustices, but also transports the reader back in time to experience these issues through the eyes of the characters. The Steep and Thorny Way gives us Hanalee Denney, a biracial girl in Prohibition-era Oregon, who is trying to seek justice for her murdered father, Hank Denney, whose ghost now haunts the street where he was killed. Joe Adder, a teen boy convicted of accidentally killing Hank, also knows what it’s like to be “different” in their town of Elston. Joe claims that it wasn’t him that killed Hanalee’s father, and that the true criminal is now married to Hanalee’s mother. “Uncle Clyde” has plenty of secrets to hide, and when the story of Hank Denney’s death starts to unravel, Hanalee and Joe have to protect themselves from the prejudices propagated in their small town by the Ku Klux Klan.

Readers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be delighted to draw together all of the parallels in this retelling, but they will also find that this story has a unique twist and will keep you guessing until the very end. Certainly, writing about the kinds of prejudices faced by the characters in this book had to be tricky, but their story is one that needs told, especially in this day and age when hate is still prevalent. Winters does a masterful job and bestows upon her readers the ingredients for overcoming hate: bravery, hope, and love.

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“Hate doesn’t even begin to describe what’s happening. (…) People in this state are controlling who can and can’t breed, Hanalee. They’re eradicating those of us who aren’t white, Protestant, American-born, or sexually normal in their eyes. They’re ‘purifying’ Oregon.”

Summary (via Goodreads)

Scene: Oregon, 1923.

Dramatis personae:

Hanalee Denney, daughter of a white woman and an African American man

Hank Denney, her father—a ghost

Greta Koning, Hanalee’s mother

Clyde Konig, doctor who treated Hank Denney the night he died, now Hanalee’s stepfather

Joe Adder, teenage boy convicted of accidentally killing Hank Denney

Members of the Ku Klux Klan

Townspeople of Elston, Oregon

Question: Was Hank Denney’s death an accident…or was it murder most foul?

A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.

1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.

The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night.

Things I Liked:

I did something with this book that I’ve never done before. Five pages into reading it, I sat the book down, picked up my phone, and texted all of my reader friends that THIS was a book that they needed to get their hands on. Seriously – five pages. That’s all it took, and I was hooked.

Everything about this book feels authentic, from the setting and the characters right down to the language. Cat Winters does make mention in her author’s note that she had to tread a delicate line when it came to authentic yet offensive terms and labels, but that she really wanted to reflect how people from the 1920’s would have actually described Hanalee and Joe. “There are some words, however, whose power to hurt and belittle goes beyond the need for historical accuracy,” she says, and those words are not included in The Steep and Thorny Way. I don’t think anyone should shy away from this book due to the offensive terms because if you or your child are uncomfortable with the terms used, then likely it’s because you don’t agree with the terminology and can therefore converse about why terms like that are considered offensive and shouldn’t be used.

Things I Didn’t Like:

You’re not going to find me complaining about anything here. This book is too important to nitpick at little details.

Overall Rating:

It’s a hard concept to comprehend – a person wanting to harm someone based simply on his/her skin color, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, etc. – if you’ve never been the victim of it yourself. The world can be a brutal, horrific, violent place for those that are deemed “different” from the norm. Hanalee provides the reader with a realistic outlook on the cruelty she and so many like her have experienced. I’m sure many of us would like to believe that this time period is vastly different from our own, but we still see so many crimes against humanity committed by those filled with evil and hate in their hearts. The Steep and Thorny Way will push readers out of their comfort zones, awaken a thirst for justice, and inspire the fight against discrimination. Prepare yourself to feel ENRAGED while reading. Take note of WHY you feel that way. Then, always remember Laurence’s words to Hanalee – “Don’t ever let them make you feel small.”

Cat Winters is masterful at her craft, blending history, mystery, and a dash of supernatural into every story. The Steep and Thorny Way will replay in your head long after you’ve closed the covers, and with a message as important as this one, that’s a good thing. This book receives a perfect score, 5/5, from me for being a beacon of hope in a really dark time. I hope I live to see a world that one day puts hate behind us and embraces equality for all.

Also, I look forward to shaking her hand and thanking Cat Winters for this book at this year’s Ohio River Festival of Books, the book festival presented by the Cabell County Public Library. Yet another reason why I love my job is getting to be involved in this fantastic event that highlights both national and local authors, and I’ve been ecstatic ever since I found out that I will get to meet the woman who has had such a profound impact on my love of both reading and writing young adult fiction.

“Do you hope to get married someday?” he asked.

“As long as I don’t fall in love with a man the wrong color.”

He exhaled a steady stream of air through his nostrils. “I think love and wrong are two deeply unrelated words that should never be thrown into the same sentence together. Like dessert and broccoli.”

 

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Check out my Waiting on Wednesday post for The Steep and Thorny Way prior to publication

Off the Shelf: A Review of Paper & Fire by Rachel Caine

I was blessed beyond measure to receive an advance read copy of Paper & Fire from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

You can read my review of the first book in the Great Library series, Ink and Bone, by clicking here.

As someone who grew up with an immeasurable amount of love for books and reading, I remember the fiery passion with which I first devoured Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. To this day, it is still one of my favorite books, and I think the reasoning for that is because it sends a message…a message that Rachel Caine clearly communicates throughout the Great Library series as well: If you take away a person’s right to knowledge, you also take away their freedom. Nothing could ever be more effective at controlling a population.

I share Ink & Bone with everyone that I possibly can. It’s my go-to recommendation for young adult readers in the library. It’s a book that I feel very strongly about, and that I know will have a lasting impression on my life the way Fahrenheit 451 did. When I received the ARC of Paper & Fire, there was nothing that could hold me back from jumping right in, desperate to see if it lived up to the glory of book one. At the same time, I had one of the most demanding projects of my grad school career thus far due, but even that couldn’t stop me. I read the book from my phone in snippets of stolen time whenever I ate lunch, whenever I used the restroom, whenever I was fighting sleep, etc. This book absolutely lives up to the first one, if not surpasses it in greatness.

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Summary (via Goodreads)

With an iron fist, The Great Library controls the knowledge of the world, ruthlessly stamping out all rebellion, forbidding the personal ownership of books in the name of the greater good.

Jess Brightwell has survived his introduction to the sinister, seductive world of the Library, but serving in its army is nothing like he envisioned. His life and the lives of those he cares for have been altered forever. His best friend is lost, and Morgan, the girl he loves, is locked away in the Iron Tower and doomed to a life apart.

Embarking on a mission to save one of their own, Jess and his band of allies make one wrong move and suddenly find themselves hunted by the Library’s deadly automata and forced to flee Alexandria, all the way to London.

But Jess’s home isn’t safe anymore. The Welsh army is coming, London is burning, and soon, Jess must choose between his friends, his family, or the Library willing to sacrifice anything and anyone in the search for ultimate control…

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