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: 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?