Review: Wolf by Wolf

Trigger Warning: this contains some discussion of the holocaust and concentration camps.

Also, some mild spoilers, I guess?

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World War II is interesting from a storyteller’s perspective. It’s morbidly fascinating, full of stories that can be adapted and related over a wide number of genres. It’s good for action/adventure, a la Captain America, or can leave us with harrowing impressions of humanity and its debasement, as in Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose (one of my favorite novels as a younger person). Science fiction and fantasy have used it time and time again, and it makes a dramatic backdrop with high stakes for any romance novels. As someone who is querying a novel based off of some incredible WWII stories, I’ve sometimes been overwhelmed by the incredible truths that pop up in WWII fiction.

Wolf by Wolf, by Ryan Graudin, uses these incredible truths in the alternate history genre, mixing  in a little science fantasy to give us a different view on perspective, particularly where race and appearance are concerned.

Wolf by Wolf is set in a 1956 in which the Axis won World War II, spreading its influence through all of Europe and Asia, and down into Africa. Hitler is still alive and strong, with an iron grip over his part of the world that no one can seem to shake. But a resistance moves against him, and as part of that resistance concentration camp survivor Yael has vowed to do her part to free the world. Yael has a special ability – as a result of human experiments in the camp, she can change her appearance at will, and look like any girl in the world.

Yael’s opportunity to change the world comes in the form of a motorcycle race called the Axis Tour. All she has to do is shift into the form of Adele Wolfe, last year’s winner and the only girl to ever win the Axis Tour. If she wins the race again, she’ll get the chance to meet and kill Hitler. But the race is full of treachery, and not only does Yael have to overcome it – she has to navigate the complicated emotional waters surrounding two other contestants. Luka Lowe, a previous winner, has some kind of personal history with Adele, and Adele’s twin brother, Felix Wolfe, has entered the race to keep his sister safe.

Wolf by Wolf is an action/adventure book with light science fantasy elements concerning Yael’s skinshifting. However, it is not a light book. The action of the motorcycle race is interspersed with Yael’s history as a concentration camp inmate, escapee, and resistance fighter. For me, Graudin’s writing was highly emotional, and is one of the few books I’ve read that uses repetition to its full effectiveness. The tension wasn’t as high as I’d expected it to be for an action book, but the hook that pulls you on is Yael’s anger, her mission, her drive and subsequently her confusion as these perfect Aryan specimens, boys who grew fat off the destruction of her people, turn out to be more complicated than your average Nazi thug.

That was actually my favorite part about Wolf by Wolf. A lot of WWII based stories don’t do a lot of work with the Nazis – they’re presented as the element of pure evil. This makes it easy to cheer and feel satisfied when they get what’s coming to them. However, Graudin excellently portrays particularly Felix and Luka as products of their environment. They aren’t secretly part of the resistance (at least, not as far as we know!) and have no overt sympathies. But they are people, people who care, who try, who have lots of likable qualities. And they are Hitler Youth. I spent a large part of the book wondering what (particularly) Luka would think of Yael if he knew she was not Adele, but a Jew. I don’t know if the answer to this question is in the sequel, Blood for Blood, but I’ll bet his reaction wouldn’t be pretty.

It’s hard sometimes, to remember that while they degenerated to pure evil, your average Nazi wasn’t pure evil. We could argue the philosophies of the banality of evil all day, but I want to use just one story to illustrate my point.

I read an article some time ago, which I sadly can’t find now. It discussed the first allied excursions into concentration camps, in the days immediately following the war’s end. General Eisenhower took a tour of a camp, then sent one of his aides to the nearest town to fetch the mayor and his wife. Eisenhower had them taken on a tour as well, of the camp they’d sent prisoners to for years, a camp that had made them fat off the death of other people. The mayor and his wife took the tour in silence, went home, and killed themselves. When I read it, I began to see the disconnect – no doubt the mayor and his wife thought they were good people, good Germans, good National Socialists. Good. Perhaps to them, the people in the concentration camps weren’t people (that’s a common way to deny a person their human rights, to claim they aren’t human in the first place). But eventually, the mayor and his wife came face to face with what they’d done, what they’d been a  part of, and they couldn’t see both those truths anymore. It’s this disconnect that I read when I read Wolf by Wolf. I thought Graudin did an amazing job with it.

I also enjoyed the non-typical love triangle. I consider it a love triangle even though one side of it was fraternal love, rather than romantic love (thank God). I liked that Yael wasn’t being beset by all the boys ever, but had two boys fighting more over their perceptions of her, rather than over her. I found it to be a refreshing take.

You will like this book if: you like alternate history, action, motorcycles, or WWII.
You may not like this book if: you don’t like heavy topics such as genocide, or if you dislike a repetitive style.

Review: Crooked Kingdom

 

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This review was supposed to come out a few days ago. Sadly it got gummed up in the gears of personal problems and the sort of despair that keeps a writer staring at her blank screen, doing nothing more productive than thinking, I really ought to be productive.

Leigh Bardugo is one of those authors that throws me into a cycle of elation and despair. I love reading her work; I hate comparing my work to hers. She has the sort of style and intricate plot that I’d love to be able to come up with but know in my heart I never can (This isn’t what stuck me on the review. It’s just a general observation). The first time I came across her work was a library copy of Six of Crows. Kaz and his crew convinced me that Bardugo is my new favorite author, and while I prefer the duology to her Grisha trilogy, I still lapped up the epic of Alina Starkov.

Crooked Kingdom picks up where Six of Crows left off – Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off the most daring heist imaginable – and for their troubles they’re the most wanted crooks in Ketterdam, not to mention they’re missing a crew member. As the crew fights to stay one step ahead of their enemies, Kaz is busy working on the heist that could save them all.

I can’t go much more into detail than that, because it would spoil the book. Whereas the Grisha series had gaps between books, the Six of Crows duology fits seamlessly together. Crooked Kingdom has all the elements of a novel and can stand alone in its own right – emotional arcs, rising action, a classic plot. We go back into the heads of all our great friends and even get a shot at seeing the world from Wylan’s perspective.

I loved each of these characters more than the last. Bardugo creates compelling situations for our heroes to get caught in, and manages to weave political intrigue, action, violence, humor and romance into the novel. It’s hard to get people to care about all the points of view in a book like this, which I think is another testament to Bardugo’s ability. Her descriptions are also perfect – a blend of sensory description and triggered memories that give us a lot of information about the characters without making it all seem like an info dump.

I could probably go on about this book all day, but I won’t. I’ll go back to re-reading it instead. It’s that good.

You might like this book if you like: complicated plots, heists, high stakes, low fantasy.

You might not like this book if: Who wouldn’t like this book? Seriously? Okay, don’t read it without reading Six of Crows first.

Review: Shadowshaper

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So, I met Daniel José Older in a discussion about writing, and his style was so down to earth I knew I had to read some of his work. I nabbed this one as soon as I spotted the cover.

Shadowshaper is the story of Sierra Santiago, a high school student looking forward to a summer hanging out with friends and painting murals. As soon as the summer starts, she’s swept up in a battle that nearly tore her family apart years ago, a battle that’s been kept from her all her life. A magical battle involving her art and her heritage.

Three words I would use to describe this novel and its heroine: Strong. Proud. Real.

Strong

Sierra is strong and not afraid to show it, and that shines in the prose even though it’s written from a 3rd person perspective (that’s not a knock, by the way. I loved that. I miss 3rd person so much in YA).

The plot was also strong. Older knows how to keep his novels lean and each scene served multiple purposes to develop all aspects of his story. The only thing I wasn’t so sure about in this novel was Sierra’s emotional arc. I guess she went from being unsure of her powers to being an accomplished user of them, but to be honest she’s already a pretty great and well-balanced character at the start of the book.

Proud

Sierra is proud of herself, her talents and her heritage. Shadowshaper brings Caribbean legends to New York City and stands with them, giving movement to both art and the dead. I am by no means an expert in Caribbean legends, folklore or culture, so coming at it as an outsider I can say that I enjoyed not just the magic that Older put together, but the way he stood by it. It’s not a creepy horror show act, it’s not whitewashed voodoo, it’s fresh and it’s proud to be what it is.

Speaking of proud, a lot of people have called Shadowshaper a kind of message-fiction. I’m going to be honest, I don’t really see a lot of ‘message’ in here when I look at Sierra’s emotional arc, because the message definitely isn’t, ‘It’s okay to not be white.’ Shadowshaper goes waaaaaaay beyond that. Race politics definitely play a role in the novel, as Sierra has to deal with people who are suspicious just because she’s got dark skin and a fro, not to mention stand up to her racist aunt. But the book isn’t about Sierra learning that her body is okay. From the beginning she’s a fan of her fro: “She loved it the way it was, free and undaunted.” She’s got complaints about her  body, but I’d like to meet the teen that doesn’t. Shadowshaper proudly paints a corner of the world where nobody’s white and nobody needs to be told that that’s okay. And I love that.

Real

I’ve never been to New York. I’ve relied on my sister’s descriptions and the media to give me an impression of the city, and here’s what I’ve got:

-tall buildings
-Broadway shows
-Central Park
-homeless people
-black people in harlem, white people everywhere else.

Yeah, my sister really, really loves Broadway.

I’ve long known in theory that New York is an incredibly diverse place where people from every country in the world converge and bring pieces of their own culture with them. But that’s not the part of New York that we see in other urban fantasy or tv shows like How I Met Your Mother. Older brings us the part of New York that we know is there, but we tend to forget, just like he brings us the story of people we know are there, but tend to forget. We’re doing ourselves a disservice by not giving the places and people he describes more space in our public forums.

But back to technical developments. The writing feels real, the places feel real. The style Older uses is bare bones, which moves us from scene to scene with stark efficiency. I usually prefer a more lyrical style but Older definitely kept the pace up.

You will like this book if: you like urban fantasy, you like diverse casts, you like non-western magic systems, you like strong heroines.

You may not like this book if: you don’t like urban fantasy.

Review: Star Wars – Dark Disciple

You know how sometimes, when you read fanfiction, you get kind of annoyed because the story is focusing on two completely random characters whose hijinks will have zero impact on the overarching plot of the saga? Anyone? Just me?

That was Dark Disciple for me, in a nutshell. I’ve been sitting around for twenty minutes trying to figure out why it bothered me, and that goes a long way towards explaining it. Which is a shame, because the plot of Dark Disciple is just similar enough to the story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall that it provokes comparison – and let’s be honest, no story ever compares unfavorably to the Star Wars prequels.

Author: Christie Golden
Timeline: The first of the tie-ins. Between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Set during The Clone Wars.
Publisher: LucasBooks, July 7, 2015
Summary: Based off unaired Clone Wars episodes, Dark Disciple chronicles the struggles of happy-go-lucky jedi, Quinlan Vos, as he attempts to do the most un-jedi thing possible – kill another being in cold blood. The Jedi Council is determined that Count Dooku should die, and sooner rather than later. Vos must team up with Dooku’s former acolyte, Asajj Ventress, who hates the Jedi nearly as much as she despises her old master. Together, they might be able to bring Dooku down – if their own darkness and desire doesn’t destroy them first.
How much of a Star Wars Nerd to I need to be to get this? Let’s be honest, if you’re looking at a review of a tie-in novel, you’re probably all the nerd you need to be. However, I started this book before watching any of the Clone Wars series, and it’s been a looooooong time since the prequels. I had no trouble following the story or getting into the world.

Review

My first impressions of Dark Disciple were quite strong. First, that cover. Somebody get that cover artist a big, fat raise. That cover doesn’t scream badass, no. It comes up, it punches you in the face, it leaves you in the mud like a badass anything ought to do. I love that cover. Second, the audio. I listened to Dark Disciple via audible, since I have a subscription and my credits have racked up. The audio production was obviously put together with a lot of care, and at first I really enjoyed it (yes, only at first. We’ll get back to that).

The first half of the book seemed to make good on the promise of the cover and the back blurb.  The romance between Vos and Ventress didn’t really excite me – it’s not anything new, to be honest – but the action was exciting, they had something compelling to move them forward, and the edge that Vos walked, between Light and Dark, made for a tense read. It was hard for me not to compare this part of Dark Disciple to the prequels’ love story between Anakin and Padme. And I didn’t really hold back, if I’m honest. I felt that Christie Golden provided a much more compelling, entertaining and believable story of a man in love and in danger with the Dark Side.

Dark Disciple takes a major turn about halfway through, and things started to unravel from there for me. First off, the plot. It descended into convoluted territory, and featured such devices as, “lovers have the can we/can’t we argument ten thousand times rather than just MAKING A FREAKING DECISION and sticking to their guns;” and a personal favorite of mine, “I can’t tell you this Big Secret because that would resolve the plot of the book in ten pages and besides, this will give us more tension.” The sad part is, I think Dark Disciple would have had a lot more tension if we’d known the Big Secret before the very last chapter.

The second half was where the audio started to get on my nerves as well. Dark Disciple is narrated by Marc Thompson, and while he’s mostly spot on with his accents and imitations, at times he got…a little too into the performance. Dark Disciple is told in the third person, from a fairly close point of view; i.e., we should be right up inside the main characters’ minds, feeling what they’re feeling. All the same, not every sentence has to be tense with emotion. Sometimes I felt like Thompson wanted to convey every nuance of How Exciting! It was! For Vos to blow his nose! Um, no thanks. Also, the sound effects. They were mostly all right, but in the lengthier scenes, the sound effects were looped on repeat. Once I heard that, I could never unhear it.

My last issue with Dark Disciple is something I feel kind of bad for. And this should not be a reflection on Christie Golden – I have no idea how much input she had on the story, and I don’t have much experience writing tie-in fiction. However, as the novel had originally been planned as part of the Clone Wars series, I imagine her guidelines were pretty strict.

My problem is that I went into the book knowing the outcome of the main plot. I saw both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and I remember (ish) how they turned out. So even when I was having the most fun listening, a little voice kept whispering, as though millions of critics cried out in irritation and were suddenly silenced: “So what?” Everything that happened in the story would ultimately be pointless. Because the main characters of Star Wars are not Vos and Ventress, as much as they may enjoy their fifteen minutes of tie-in fame, the saga is not their saga, and the impact of their story will be light. At the same time, it set itself up for such epic proportions that it was hard for me as a reader not to expect grand things of it. And let’s be honest, Vos and Ventress make a much more kickass team than Anakin and, well, anybody. Oh well. At least he barely featured.

This series part of my grand plan to review the Star Wars tie in novels. At the moment I’m just doing the adult novels, and just the ones for the new canon. Questions, comments, polite rants and offers to join the Dark Side welcome.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Spoilers? Sorta.

I just wanted to jot down a couple of thoughts I had upon seeing Star Wars.  I saw it yesterday; yes, I know I’m late. But I wanted to say a couple of things about it.

I liked it. I didn’t necessarily expect to; it was, after all, made by the same man who redid Star Trek, and I wanted to burn my eyes out and bleach my brain after seeing that thing. But while J.J. Abrams did a lot of the same things for Star Wars (scenes full of fan service, for example), this one went down better with me. Why that might be is the subject for a different sort of argument, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have the energy for it.

Overall I greatly enjoyed the film. It took me back to when I first saw A New Hope on our twenty year-old television, sitting on my dad’s knee. Fun, excitement, eminently quotable lines. And the cast of The Force Awakens does an amazing job. I came to see Luke, Leia and Han again. I’ll come back to see Fin and Rey again.

One thing I will say about The Force Awakens is that, even as it was playing, my family and I noticed one or two or five thousand similarities to A New Hope. Yeah, it’s essentially the same film. The plot beats, even some of the scenes and scenery. So if you know the original films, nothing in there is going to blow your mind. Though this was apparent throughout, it didn’t bother me so much. Maybe because I was having a good time anyway, maybe because everything else about the film was stellar (no pun intended), maybe because I was just glad we didn’t get a repeat of the prequels.

I enjoyed the film to the extent that I want to get back into the Star Wars universe. And now that we’ve got a reboot, I’ve decided to read the new canon books. I never got into the old ones, because there was simply so much. But it’ll be a fun project for the blog – read, review, comment.

So I’ll be starting with The Dark Disciple, which Wookieepedia claims is the first (chronologically) of the new canon books. I’ll be listening to it on audio, then I’ll post my review.

 

Review: Fangirl

Note: I like in-depth reviews, from the writerly side of things, and I like positive reviews. Therefore my reviews are lengthy, full of spoilers, and only of books that I love.

The Spoiler-Free Version

I’m not sure what initially turned me off reading Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. A few Goodreads reviews claimed that it was ‘disparaging’ towards people who wrote fanfiction, and suggested that they were immature (I found zero evidence of this in the book). But it didn’t hold much interest for me until a friend working at a geek bookstore tried to get me to buy Carry On. “It’s so good,” she gushed. “It’s about…well, it’s super meta.”

I didn’t feel like reading Carry On first. But I figured I’d try Fangirl, because hey, reading. I was very nicely surprised.

Reading Fangirl was an experience similar to eating comfort food. It was never the wrong time to read it, it went down easily, and it gave me the warm fuzzies. I expect I connected with it better than some people might do – I grew up in Colorado, which has that same midwest feel, a mix of farm and city.

Fangirl follows the story of Cath, a shut-in twin just starting college. Cath’s twin Wren has performed the twin equivalent of a we-should-see-other-people breakup, and Cath isn’t sure how to navigate the real world without her. More than that, she doesn’t really want to. She’s got a massive online following thanks to her fanfiction epic, and she’d happily spend all day churning out chapters for them. However, a fun cast of characters is determined to pull her into life at her Nebraskan college.

A lot of Fangirl is episodic, so if you want a tight, racing plot, this may not be the book for you. But the book is incredibly strong in terms of craft. The description and dialogue were perfect for me, and every sentence was compelling. The characters were mostly fun to be with, and well-rounded. I related to a lot of Cath’s experiences as well, and I appreciate that we can get a different side to college life than a focus on parties or academia.

I would recommend Fangirl overall, and especially to people looking for a light read, a slightly (but not too) nerdy story, and a male love interest that doesn’t make you want to claw your eyes out or shout, ‘abuse!’

The Spoiler Version (You’ve Been Warned)

The Characters

Having just finished Fangirl (literally, I closed the book and then started this review), I’m a little muddled in this territory. I can’t figure out whether some of them were a little too tropey, or one-sided, or just the right amount of each.

Cather was sympathetic and funny, flawed and fun to read about. She was, of course, the most developed character, as the book was written in a close third person. I loved how much I could relate to Cath – I’ve had a lot of the same mentalities as her, and I’ve had some of the same experiences as her. I loved how she dealt with the various crises presented by the book, as they showed a character with both good and bad traits. I do feel that the ending came a little too easily to her, but we’ll cover that in the plot.

Levi was really great as Boyfriend Material. I am so sick of seeing these bad boys sauntering around, acting like the whole world pissed in their Cheerios and like women – or at least, the women they’re interested in – should be pushed around like chess pieces in their sick mind games. But Levi supported Cath in everything, worked to enjoy her interests, and sometimes pushed her to do better. At times Levi was too good, but for me that’s forgivable as we saw the book through Cath’s eyes, and they spent most of their time together in their honeymoon period.

Reagan was the ultimate Cool Roommate. I enjoyed her strengths, her prickly support of Cath, her brashness. She’s the type of character that’s good in small doses, and Rowell knew how to use her.

Wren was the most problematic character for me, as oftentimes it seemed she entered Cath’s life just to present her with a problem for the book to solve. Wren’s troubles ended up being about Cath and not about Wren. For example, she made the choice to pick up contact with their mother, but the book doesn’t directly show how that affects her. Later on she goes overboard on the party and drinking wagon, but that seems more like a vehicle to getting Cath and their mother in the same room together, and not a way to develop Wren on her own arc. She even corrects herself with what seems like little influence from Cath, and re-enters Cath’s life to make everything shining and beautiful again shortly thereafter.

 

The Writing

…was fun. I felt it had the perfect balance of description, action and dialogue, never got confusing on one end or bogged down on another. And most of all, it was compelling. I almost missed my train stop both going to and coming from work because I couldn’t stand to put the book away. And in case I don’t give a compelling enough case, the tattooed Viking squashed in next to me on the train was reading over my shoulder.

The Plot

…wandered a bit, in my opinion. I don’t have to have a strong plot thread, but I thought that Wren’s trip to the hospital would be the climax of the story, and then the denouement took another hundred pages. There wasn’t much conflict after that, and what was there felt a little shouldered in.

In a way, I didn’t need a strong climax or a quick pace. But I also felt like the ending wrapped things up a little too neatly. Cath falls more and more behind on Carry On, yet manages to make up with her family, finish her finals, and get the story done with no repercussions. She has an ongoing struggle with her writing professor, Piper, and the short story she’s supposed to write, yet she bangs out her ten thousand words in the middle of all this stress, after hating and hating the assignment. Not only does she presumably get her A, but her short story is selected for publication in the university’s magazine, which is supposedly a big honor. I loved virtually every part of Cath’s writing struggles and victories, but this one was a little too much for me. I guess I like keeping my endings a little bit messy.

I hope that at least some people got to the end of this post, and that you enjoyed it. All in all, Fangirl is probably one of those books that appeals to a specific audience, but boy is that audience me. I’m not sure how much I’ll like Carry On by comparison, but I’ll only find out by reading it, right?