Book Review: Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

While I don’t quite agree that ‘Thunderhead’ beats ‘Scythe,’ they’re absolutely comparable in terms of quality. 

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Thunderhead by New York Times-bestselling author Neal Shusterman

Thunderhead Synopsis

Rowan has gone rogue, and has taken it upon himself to put the Scythedom through a trial by fire. Literally. In the year since Winter Conclave, he has gone off-grid, and has been striking out against corrupt scythes—not only in MidMerica, but across the entire continent. He is a dark folk hero now—“Scythe Lucifer”—a vigilante taking down corrupt scythes in flames.

Citra, now a junior scythe under Scythe Curie, sees the corruption and wants to help change it from the inside out, but is thwarted at every turn, and threatened by the “new order” scythes. Realizing she cannot do this alone—or even with the help of Scythe Curie and Faraday, she does the unthinkable, and risks being “deadish” so she can communicate with the Thunderhead—the only being on earth wise enough to solve the dire problems of a perfect world. But will it help solve those problems, or simply watch as perfection goes into decline?

(Via Goodreads)

About Neal Shusterman

Neal has made his mark as a successful novelist, screenwriter, and television writer. As a full-time writer, he claims to be his own hardest task-master, always at work creating new stories to tell. His books have received many awards from organizations such as the International Reading Association, and the American Library Association, as well as garnering a myriad of state and local awards across the country. Neal’s talents range from film directing (two short films he directed won him the coveted CINE Golden Eagle Awards) to writing music and stage plays – including book and lyrical contributions to “American Twistory,” which is currently played in several major cities. He has even tried his hand at creating Games, having developed three successful “How to Host a Mystery” game for teens, as well as seven “How to Host a Murder” games.

(Via Neal Shusterman’s website)

My Impressions

For a reader, an entertainment consumer of any stripe, really, hyped up claims about a new release tend to disappoint. I picked up Thunderhead from the library because I liked the prior installment, Scythe, enough to devour the last chunk of it in one Saturday afternoon (even with my Work In Progress judging me from my writing desk). But when I read somewhere (an offhand comment? an official review, maybe?) that Thunderhead surpassed Scythe, I became wary. When does book two in a trilogy compare with the first? Rarely.

Yet I found myself pleasantly surprised. While I don’t quite agree that Thunderhead beats Scythe, they’re absolutely comparable in terms of quality.

What I Liked

Over-Arcing Content

The narrative of Neal Shusterman’s Thunderhead brings expanded perspective to already established lore, homing in on previously mentioned sects like our wonderful and terrible Scythes, the religious Tonists, and a new class, the rebellious Unsavories. It touches on many aspects of what it means to be human in an immortal world, recognizing the need for deific reverence, rebellion, and guidance.

It also covers the perspective of an entity that recognizes itself as not God, but which concludes that it might as well be. It also begins to relate more and more to the humans which it protects as it discovers within itself the ability to experience betrayal, anguish, fury, and helplessness.

Characters

Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch, or rather, Scythes Anastasia and Lucifer, pick up with coming into their own separate but intertwined callings, each becoming more formidable and dangerous in the realms of politics and shadows. Scythes Curie and Faraday continue to impact Thunderhead‘s narrative, inciting change in the same vein as their protégés.

We meet a few new characters as well, including the Thunderhead itself, (the musings of which replace the Scythe gleaning journal excerpts present in Scythe), as well as Greyson Tolliver, a boy raised by the Thunderhead and used as an extension of its will. (Jesus son of God metaphor, anyone?)

The villains, whose identities I cannot spoil because it’s a huge reveal, get a little more focus as well. The allowance of a passionate and intelligent female villain satisfied me very much, and I do hope she gets a long existence of betrayal and revenge.

Motifs

The “war in Heaven” motif that grew present toward the end of Scythe becomes even more apparent with the insertion of the Thunderhead’s point of view on the increasing division between new order and old guard Scythes. Even without the blunt function of having Rowan use Lucifer as his Scythe name, it’s pretty clear that this immortal world stands in for Heaven and the divided Scythes represent pre-Fall angels and devils.

The Ending

That ending. Hard on the heels of triumph comes disaster, relating in loving detail and fabulous pacing the follies of humanity. The denouement events stirred my anxiety and had me on the edge of my seat during my lunch break. I had meant to cut that break short to make up for lost paid time, but I literally couldn’t stop reading Thunderhead until I finished it. Delicious anguish, tagged with a note of hope. The cliffhanger has its hooks in me and I must know how this series ends. No doubt, I will be picking up book three, entitled The Toll.

What I Disliked

Without revealing any spoilers, I at first disliked the beginning of the villain arc. It seemed clichéd, just a trope that’s become a recognizably lazy storytelling insertion. But as Thunderhead progressed, Shusterman proved himself capable of handling a worn out trope and sparking new life into it.

So it grew on me and I no longer have much of a problem with it at all.

Recommendations

I recommend Thunderhead to readers of thought provoking, philosophical fiction, compelling narratives, and examinations of the human condition.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.54 stars


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The Nope Book Tag

Word Nerd Scribbles tends to feature only books that I liked enough to review (unless it’s one that truly pissed me off), so I think it’ll be fun to, for once, look at some books that I really don’t recommend.

 

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Photo by Lum3n.com from Pexels

I shamelessly stole this post from Literary Weaponry because I was unlikely to ever get tagged and I wanted to play anyway. Word Nerd Scribbles tends to feature only books that I liked enough to review (unless it’s one that truly pissed me off), so I think it’ll be fun to, for once, look at some books that I really don’t recommend. The tag’s originator can be found here.


NOPE. ending:

A book ending that made you go NOPE either in denial, rage or simply because the ending was crappy.

Capture The Death Cure by James Dashner

SPOILERS. Three entire books building up to the worst cop out solution I’ve seen. The stakes are high: sacrifice the main character or the world burns. Wait, the main character doesn’t want to sacrifice himself? Okay, here’s a utopia where he and his friends can have sex and re-start the world (I guess), like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, except Eve (Teresa), the only girl, dies first. They’re fine. Everyone else is screwed.

 

NOPE. protagonist:

A main character you dislike and that drives you crazy.

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The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare

I first read this series in high school and it may have been my first true introduction to YA urban fantasy. I loved the world and the side characters, but I cannot stand the main character, Clary Fray. Compared to the rest of the cast, she’s boring and I was more inclined to skip to the chapters featuring Simon than read anything about her.

NOPE. series:

A series that turned out to be a huge pile of nope after you’ve invested all of that time and energy on it.

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Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

I made an actual genuine attempt to read Twilight for the sake of my little sister, who loves the series. We made a deal that for however many of the books I read, she would read one of my suggestions. I only got through the first book through sheer stubborn spite, because I found the pacing slow, the characters flat, and the events uninteresting. I will never finish the series.

NOPE. pairing:

A “ship” you don’t support.

 

I don’t ship 99% of the pairings I read. Next!

NOPE. plot twist:

A twist you didn’t see coming and didn’t like.

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Ruin and Rising 
by Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo pulled a seemingly small but gut-wrenching plot twist in the final installment of her Grisha Trilogy. I wasn’t ready. I had to go back and reread that section to make sure I understood it right. Then I had to text my friend to tell her how mad I was about it.

 

NOPE. genre:

A genre you will never read.

Romance. It’s fine, it’s fine that other people like it. No worries. But the romance is never, ever the reason why I come to a story.

NOPE. book format:

A book format you hate and avoid buying until it comes out in a different edition.

can read books in a digital format, but I don’t want to. Also, I’d rather not read/own the movie cover edition.

NOPE. trope:

A trope that makes you go NOPE.

Coming back to romance again: I can’t stand the trope of characters–whether longtime friends, longtime enemies, or just met–falling in love over the course of a handful of days. No one does that. Such a thing is infatuation at absolute best, but probably amounts to much deeper psychological problems.

I also despise when female characters make little to no discernible contribution to the plot and/or when the narrative contains no female characters. Looking right at you, J.R.R. Tolkein. Along the same lines, narratives that contain little to no diversity get an eye roll and a negative review from me.

NOPE. recommendation:

A book recommendation that is constantly pushed at you, that you simply refuse to read.

I’m resistant to most recommendations at first because, naturally, no one really knows my taste in books.

NOPE. cliché:

A cliché or writing pet peeve that always makes you roll your eyes.

When a character sighs. Really, narrator? You want to describe them sighing? You couldn’t come up with something more interesting? When characters are exasperated or disappointed, I will take literally any other possible description.

NOPE. love interest:

A love interest that’s not worthy of being one.
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Wuthering  Heights by Emily Bronte

Romanticized manipulative, abusive, gaslighting, outright jerks. The classic Byronic hero Heathcliff of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights embodies my intense dislike of this love interest trope. NOPE.

NOPE. book:

A book that shouldn’t have existed.

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Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

The only thing this book has going for it is a lovely descriptive and syntactic style. I read the entire thing thinking surely prose this wonderful will amount to something in the end. But no. Nothing happened in this book.
Nothing happened in this book.

 

NOPE. villain:

A villain you would hate to cross.

Six of Crows Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

While Kaz Brekker functions as an anti-hero, not a villain, he’s certainly the stuff of nightmares for society in his world. Out of every true villain I’ve ever read, I’d much rather cross them than Dirtyhands.

NOPE. death:

A character death that still haunts you.

CaptureGregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

love the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins and Gregor and the Code of Claw, the final installment, has my heart forever. But there’s a character death in this particular book that kills me every time I read it. I haven’t reread it in a long time, because I just can’t face my favorite character dying all over again.

NOPE. author:

An author you had a bad experience reading and have decided to quit.

CaptureThe Lorien Legacies by Pittacus Lore

I used to be really into this series. The first book, I Am Number Four, was so good. But then the writers of the series–collectively under ‘Pittacus Lore’–started rolling out extras and short-stories and the series dragged out, so I dropped it because between releases, I was losing track of everything happening in that universe.

 

 

 


Well, that was cathartic. 10/10 I recommend you try this nope book tag yourself.

2018 Writing Goals Update

I don’t like setting the same goals or learning the same lessons.

Here it is, the second day of the new year, and I’m just now getting a goals post up. New Year’s resolutions about becoming a better person? Please. I’m definitely out to become a better writer, with the hope that the two will somehow equal out in the end. Here’s something of a 2017 recap to segway us into the 2018 future of your lovely scribbling word nerd.

In 2016, I began making a true effort at writing more. Well, writing at all, really. Funny how much getting to college graduation takes from you. At the end of the year, I tallied up my word count to find that I’d written roughly 75,000 words in total. Not too shabby. Like, three quarters of a slim novel’s worth of words. So I made this year’s goal to beat that word count. In an earlier post, I noted that I blew that goal out of the water 9 months in advance of my deadline. So since then, I’ve been keeping track of how much I wrote this year.

2017 Word Count

So… I didn’t get much farther beyond that goal, but 120k is nothing to sneeze at. The first 100k was 4/5ths of a novel. That extra 20k is made up of thirty (30) character descriptions and seven (7) individual short-stories, one of which received publication in Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers, Vol. 2–which I’ve written about extensively at this point–and another of which will be featured as an honorable mention in the 86th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Collection. (Don’t believe me? Go look for the title “Connections” with my name next to it. I’m super proud.) Two were for birthday presents, two are incomplete, and one was a total disaster and will never see the light of day. I don’t regret writing it, because experience points, but wow did it suck.

I can’t say at the moment that I’m too keen to try to beat 120k+ words for this new year. The point of the goal was to get myself writing, because in this craft, any amount of writing equals higher quality and greater skill. Just by setting and meeting that one goal, I expanded my knowledge and understanding of crafting fiction.

Okay, I probably could beat that word count in 2018 if I applied myself. But I don’t like setting the same goals or learning the same lessons. It’s those two incomplete short-stories, as well as the mostly but not quite finished novel, that keep snagging at the fine silk cloth of my accomplishments. I even have another half-done novel from 2016 that’s still awaiting my attention. Clearly there’s a trend here.

So the new goal is this: finish three manuscripts begun in 2017.

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My First Book Signing: Road Kill at Burrowing Owl Books

Here’s a thing to add to my future autobiography: I’ve signed books for people who bought them. 

Here’s a thing to add to my future autobiography: I’ve signed books for people who bought them.

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Summer Baker (left) and Keith West (right) at Burrowing Owl Books. Photo credit Russell Parker of photographybyrussell.com

I had my first book signing event for Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers Vol. 2 at Burrowing Owl Books in Canyon, TX, alongside Keith West, a fellow contributor who wrote “Cemetery Games.” It was just before Halloween, and, as you can see, I dressed the spooky part.

The wonder of such a thing hasn’t yet worn off. Keith said it best as he took his seat next to me: “Nice to finally be on this side of the table.”

Which was to say, on the signer side. How right he was. At the time, I was too nervous about how the event would go to really appreciate the reality that I was signing books, not just getting one signed. But looking back, I’m a little awed at past Summer. That was really me. There’s even photographic evidence to prove it wasn’t a dream.

The signing itself was two hours long and that first hour passed like a blur, with several of my friends and family turning out to snag a copy of the book for themselves. With a bit of gimmicky brilliance, both Dallas and I had the idea to bring candy (since Halloween was soon) and I brought colored sharpies in a spooky box for fans to select for our signatures. Those are probably the most psychedelic copies of Road Kill out there. Though I tried my absolute best, I still messed up on one signature as I tried to write out his nickname instead of his real name. We sold most of the box, all but ten books — far more than I expected for a first signing — and signed some stock for Dallas afterward.

Keith West is the first of the other anthology contributors I’ve met in person. He turned out to be courteous and willing to talk writing shop with me, which we did for the last part of the signing when things slowed down. We were both riding in the first-signing boat and I was impressed with his enthusiasm for the craft. You can visit his blog at Adventures Fantastic.

Burrowing Owl Books itself is a cozy bookstore on the square in Canyon, filled with a comfortable array of new and used books. Its shelves are close enough to be cozy, but its open floor plan and high ceilings ward off any sense of claustrophobia. Dallas Bell, the owner, was incredibly helpful and cheerful as she guided us both through our first signing. Overall, it’s one of my favorite places in Canyon to visit.

If you missed the signing, you can  still purchase a paperback copy of Road Kill on Amazon.com for $19.95.

I did a lot of research beforehand over what to expect at a book signing. The Tricked Out Toolbox was a huge help with preparation guidance and I would recommend taking a look at their tips for your own signing. 

 

Road Kill Available on Amazon

As of this morning, Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers, Vol 2, featuring my short-story “Thirsty Ground,” is now available for purchase on Amazon!

This Halloween season, embrace the creeping dread of Texas living with a copy of Road Kill for your very own. For those of you who can’t make it to any of the book signing events in October, you now have the option to purchase Road Kill online. Check out the chilling synopsis below:

RK2_FRONT_COVER

Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers, Vol 2 edited by E.R. Bills & Bret McCormick

 

A hanging tree takes the law into its own limbs in “The Tree Servant.” A mother’s love is tested by the walking, crawling and thumb-sucking dead in “Mama’s Babies.” A famous author lays his process bare in “A Writer’s Lot.” Not for the faint of heart, this terrifying batch of Texas horror fiction delivers a host of literary demons who will be hard to shake once they get comfortable.

The second volume of the critically acclaimed Road Kill Series from Eakin Press, featuring seventeen Texas writers. Some of the writers are established and have been published in a variety of mediums, while others are upcoming writers who bring a wealth of talent and imagination. Edited by E.R. Bills and Bret McCormick, this collection of horror stories is sure to bring chills and make the imagination run wild. Writers include Jacklyn Baker, Andrew Kozma, Ralph Robert Moore, Jeremy Hepler, R. J. Joseph, James H. Longmore, Mario E. Martinez, E. R. Bills, Summer Baker, Dennis Pitts, Keith West, S. Kay Nash, Bryce Wilson, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Stephen Patrick, Crystal Brinkerhoff and Hayden Gilbert.

(Via Amazon)

Available in paperback for $19.95 at amazon.com.

Road Kill Update: Release Date

An update on the Roadkill anthology publication

I talked in a previous post about how my short-story submission was accepted to be published later this year in Volume 2 of the Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers anthology. Last night, as I was falling asleep, dreaming big dreams about the trip to the San Japan convention today, I got an email from E. R. Bills with two things:

The cover image for Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers Vol. 2

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Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers Vol. 2, edited by E. R. Bills and Bret McCormick

(P.S. I love it.)

The release date: October 21 

There’ll be a launch party at Fleur Fine Books in Port Neches on Oct. 21, featuring the editors E. R. Bills and Bret McCormick as well as many of the as-of-yet unannounced contributors to the anthology. Since Port Neches is over 600 miles from the Texas Panhandle, I likely won’t be attending myself. Still, if you can make it, you should.

Flier for the Road Kill launch event at Fleur Fine Books in Port Neches, TX

(P.S. The picture with the ground cracks refers to my story “Thirsty Ground.”)

If you miss this one or if it’s too far away, there’s a second confirmed signing event at Book People on Oct. 29 in Austin, TX.

Flier for the Road Kill signing event at Book People in Austin, TX

I still won’t make it to this one either. But if you want to see me — and pick up a copy of Road Kill featuring my short-story “Thirsty Ground” — there may be an event in Amarillo soon. To be announced.

I’ll also update when I have more information on where to purchase the book after its release.

Writing Update: I’m Getting Published

Here’s a thing to add to my future autobiography: last weekend I was on a trip with some friends in Tulsa and early on Sunday morning, after a night of precious little sleep, I drowsily checked my phone. There I found an email from one of the editors of Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers, which is an anthology of regional horror. I’d sent a submission to them a couple months before after hearing about Road Kill from Madison and Mattie because I’d just written a regional horror story myself.

The email was this:

We like your story, but it needs work. Please call.

I wasn’t sleeping anymore after that.

I waited until we came back from Tulsa and until I got home from work on Monday to call. Which is to say, I freaked out about it for two days straight. But I didn’t have a chance to call any sooner. On the phone, E. R. Bills told me that we needed to do some revisions, but that they were going to include my story in the anthology.

I’m getting published.

In many interviews, I’ve read about famous writers getting asked some variation of the question, “What did you do when you heard the news?” Their answers always involve celebrating, usually with a fancy dinner or with drinks or whatever. They have to, because success in this difficult craft deserves reward. For my part, after the call ended, I paced back and forth across my apartment a couple of times, then I called my parents, who took me out to eat at Furr’s. Such an innocuous restaurant choice as that is also going straight into my autobiography.

Here’s a funny for you. Mr. Bills asked me to send an author bio to include with my story. Even though I doubt they’ll accept it, I sent this to them today:

In those ‘describe me in one word’ social media posts, Summer Baker always gets the word weird. She grew up in Texas panhandle country just outside of Amarillo and, as an adult, still lives there with her ancient toothless dog because the city won’t let them leave. It’s gained sentience and no one can escape. Send help.

While she and the Wonder Dog cower in her apartment, Summer spends her final days writing fantasy and horror, playing videogames, reading, and playing tabletop RPGs with her friends.

Let me tell you, though, this whole thing is hard to process. I’ve gotten so used to no that I’m not sure how to react to yes. I did spend all of this morning tweaking the revisions they sent to me, so it feels like I’m back to doing the work I always do. Just with more people involved. I keep plugging along and in the time since I first submitted ‘Thirsty Ground,’ I’ve trashed one story and completed another. After this post, I’ll move on to drafting the next one. Business as usual.

Still. Kind of screaming inside.

P.S. I’ll update with more details on Road Kill Vol. 2’s release date and where you can snag a copy in a future post. With or without my story’s inclusion, I have a feeling it’s going to be a deliciously thrilling read.