Hello everyone, and welcome to the last Weekly Reads post of 2016! How exciting!
Don’t worry, I’m still around through the end of 2016. But I’m going to forego reviewing/slow down on reading until I’m done with my end-of-year wrap-ups!
I’m curious to see what 2017 will bring, especially now that I’m rating everything on a five-star scale. Will I discover that I really do hate everything?
…I don’t actually hate everything. This is a joke. I probably seem like a very harsh reviewer, given that my average Goodreads review is about 2.6. But that’s actually saying that most of the books I read are okay to good, which is pretty stunning considering how many books I’ve read this year. (Goodreads doesn’t account for half stars, so some of my ratings are rounded up, but still.)
I mean, I guess I probably wouldn’t finish most books if they were tragically bad (and I did have one DNF this year), but still. I do have a bad habit of finishing trilogies when I’ve already cracked open the second book just for the sake of completionism (even if I recognize that things are getting worse).
But in any case, I have a couple of books on the good side of the spectrum to talk about today, thank everything. So let’s get to it!
Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
Premise: What if the Nazis won? And what if their experiments created powers (skinshifting) they never anticipated, powers a young Jewish woman can use to get revenge?
The Good: The flashbacks to Yael’s past have all of the necessary emotional weight and are written compellingly. The plot, in which Yael impersonates a famous female motorcycle racer in order to try to win a championship and get close enough to Hitler to assassinate him, makes it easy to stay interested. And the back-and-forth between the now of the story and the remembrances of Yael’s past is well balanced. The pacing is actually good! This is so noticeable and a huge deal after noticing how badly paced so many books were this year!
The descriptions of a variety of locations are engaging without dragging on, and the worldbuilding (in terms of what Europe and Asia look like in this alternate reality) is intriguing without feeling too intrusive/exposition-heavy (the beginning limped slightly, but after that the balance of this was good).
The Bad: The motorcycle racers definitely could’ve had more personality and done more sabotaging, politicking, or a lot of things; I would’ve liked to have racers other than the top three in it to win it. Given that a bunch of the racers seemed like “no threat” or like they didn’t even care about trying, the stakes in this race felt like they were lowered to the extreme, where the obstacles to overcome were mostly Luka and Felix’s hurt feelings. (It seemed like a bunch of the racers were just…there and wanted to be doing something else? In which case, give us a reason why they took up competitive motorcycle racing…?)
Also, Yael does a lot of complaining about how she can’t fake relationships, which of course you can’t, but while she reminds us how lonely she is, she’s constantly remembering her connections with others, past and present. (Also known as: she is constantly reminding us that she knows how to do human interaction while she whines that she can’t.) She makes a friend on the road without trying and she manages to accurately read who she can trust (although she can’t know the past of her fake relationships well enough to gauge details). So it seems off when she overreacts to closeness or misreads people in other situations so thoroughly, because her isolation/lack of people skills feels more told and self-imposed than shown and real.
Her angst about having lost people she was connected to & a sense of her identity was much more compelling than the vague hint that she was lonely and confused about feelings, constantly mitigated by introductions to or reminders of familial figures. (Also maybe I’m just whining because a boy got feelsy and she forgot how to do. Which is on one hand okay because we are all weak to feelings and she is a previously unkissed teenage girl for reasons, but on the other hand it’s like Do we have to do this in a book where the mission is to kill Hitler? Like right now? Okay.)
Overall: Solid pacing, a really interesting premise, and a compelling main trio (Yael, Felix, and Luka) scoop this book out of the potholes of its unkept promises and slightly inconsistent characterization/angst-focus. (And don’t worry, that main trio is not a love triangle.) I’ve already bought the Iron to Iron novella and I’ll definitely check out the sequel to see if it can mitigate some of the pitfalls.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
Premise: One head cheerleader becomes the pregnant girl pariah of her high school after a sexual assault, but she refuses to be a victim.
The Good: Hermione Winters and her best friend Polly are great characters with a great friendship. Hermione is determined not to let herself become a cautionary tale or a statistic; Polly is a fierce, tough love, would-murder-someone-for-you best friend. The plot of this book follows a steady, sturdy pace and the writing is stylistically clean and sometimes lovely. The setting is both established and used to effect in this story, which we all know I like.
Also, while I’m torn about this aspect of the story, I also enjoyed it on some level: for the most part, people in Exit, Pursued by a Bear provide Hermione with the support she needs, from her parents, to her friends, to her small-town preacher, medical staff, the police, you name it. (There are a few people who are jerks, but they are few and far between.)
This is not the case with most young women who go through an experience like Hermione’s. So on one hand, it’s really cathartic to read and almost reads as a field guide (how to not be awful in this situation). And it allows for a focus on the repercussions of the assault and on Hermione’s recovery, which is where focus should be in a narrative that tackles rape, in my opinion. On that note, I think this book provides something really important. But on the other hand, it occasionally feels as if it’s avoiding the difficulty of the subject…
The Bad: …for example, we don’t really know that Hermione has trouble sleeping until she tells us (through dialogue, I think). Though we are constantly with Hermione (it’s a first-person novel), it’s only later that we get a bit of description about how this troubles her. Similarly, the book runs through her panic attacks very quickly.
I’m not angling for a graphic description of the event of Hermione’s trauma; that’s beyond unnecessary. But I do think it would’ve been useful to dwell a bit more with Hermione’s feelings in reaction to her trauma. Not because I want to read about her suffering (I am not that kind of sadist!), but because, even if the emotional weight of what happened to her doesn’t really hit right away, Hermione is working through some things throughout the novel. And it would be easier to connect with her and to cheer for her when she overcomes things if we had more of a sense of those feelings. (And I think there would be a lot for readers who have had similar experiences to relate to.) Also, since Hermione isn’t overcoming a complete barrage of external obstacles in terms of unsupportive jerks, her inner life during recovery is more vital to the story.
I also feel as if characters who aren’t Hermione or Polly are underdeveloped, particularly Hermione’s parents and some of her friends/fellow cheerleaders. (Leo is also established and then carries on a thread that feels like it doesn’t make much sense. I’m not sure exactly what the plan was for that character, but it doesn’t quite work for me.)
This is not always a problem, but it becomes really obvious whenever Polly isn’t involved in a scene. This book read as short—not in terms of its plot, which had a satisfying arc with a satisfying ending, but in terms of how lightly it touched the edges of Hermione’s everyday life; when Hermione thanks her cheerleading team for being on her side, I want to feel as if I know these people and that they’ve been on her side, and I don’t get that sense because we’re short on interactions with Hermione’s non-Polly support system.
Overall: This isn’t Speak-level for me, but it did make a Dollhouse reference, so points for that. This feels like it needed just a little more work and content to be really exceptional, but all of the good-writing parts were there.
Honestly, a week of 3.5-star reads for me is a pretty dang good week. (I thought I’d lucked out last time with two 3-star books.) We’re ending off 2016 on a good note, and here’s hoping that 2017 will be a great reading year! Until then, goodbye from Weekly Reads—but stay tuned next week so we can wrap up 2016!