October 9, 2013

Review: All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill
Series: All Our Yesterdays, #1
Published: 2013, Disney Hyperion
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction, Dystopian
Format: Physical ARC, 368 pages
Source: Won via contest hosted by Literary Rambles
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Time travel isn’t a wonder; it’s an abomination.

Before I begin my review, I have a confession to make: I cannot say that I've read or enjoyed very many time travel stories. Partially due to a general disinterest, and partially because I frequently find myself more confused than anything else. I do enjoy the "what if" questions that are inherent to any discussion of time travel, but I have a difficult time understanding the pure abstractions that time travel books have in plenty.

Em and Finn have been kept in cells for months, tortured by the Doctor and the Director in the hope that they'd reveal the location of classified information. Through it all, Em has a nagging suspicion that she knows more than she possibly can. A hidden list confirms that Em and Finn's have suffered the same fate many times in different pasts, always unable to stop the terrible destruction being done to their world. After more than a dozen failures led by previous incarnations of themselves, Em and Finn grimly agree on what their mission will be this time: kill the Doctor before he can ever create the time machine.

But things are much more complicated than simply murdering a sadistic genius. Before he became the Doctor, he was no more than James, an idealistic, intelligent boy coping with great loss. And Em and Finn were his best friends. Em is willing to do whatever it takes, however, to save her younger self Marina from enduring the suffering she's been through.

All Our Yesterdays is a time travel novel, but I'd argue that the actual concept of time travel takes a back seat to other aspects. Here time travel is a means to an end and also the reason the story exists, but little more. Neither Em nor Marina care too much about how or why the machine exists; it does (or will), and now they need to do something about it. Also notable is the fact that once Em and Finn travel to the past (Marina's present), that's where they stay. Flashbacks reveal a little bit of their lives between their present and Marina's present, but the action of the story takes place over a few days in one specific year.

At its heart, this story is about Em's relationship with herself. As she tells herself and Finn repeatedly, everything she is doing is for Marina, the sixteen-year-old girl she was prior to the creation of the time travel machine. She never wants Marina to have to suffer as she has, even if it means killing the boy she once loved. Even if it means that she and the future she's from will cease to exist. All Our Yesterdays is narrated by both a desperate, disillusioned Em and a spoiled but self-depreciating Marina.

Of the two protagonists, Em is perhaps a bit easier to understand. She's suffered through many tragedies and is willing to lay her existence on the line in order to save Marina from becoming her. In many ways, Em fits a traditional dystopian heroine mold. Unlike Em, Marina doesn't feel strongly about many things, and she doesn't have the drive that Em does. She's lived a life of privilege and any problems she does have (superficial friends, possible unrequited love, not much self-esteem) further demonstrate how naive she is. And I appreciated that. Unlike with Em, readers really got to experience Marina's growth. I also appreciated having clear images of who Marina is, who she can become as Em, and possible events that develop her character from one to the other.

Because this story is so focused on Em and Marina, I did think the secondary character development suffered a bit. Future Finn is a constant presence in the book, but as he did everything to aid Em I never could get a solid grasp on him (nor see much how he differed from the present Finn). James (and his future self) is a fascinating character, but I still wished that even he was a bit more developed. Em's drive is so intense that anything not directly related to Marina tends to get pushed to the side.

For a story about time travel, I do think Terrill's story is a bit too limiting. As a reader, I developed a pretty solid understanding of how things were and what they become. I mentioned earlier that I did appreciate seeing the beginning of Marina's transformation into Em, but it was only the beginning. Everything that occurred to Em, Finn, and James between Marina's narration and Em's is very vague. I know that James becomes evil due to misguided desires because I'm told that's what happens. I know that Em and Finn form strong bonds after being on the run for years because of how they act now. Terrill utilizes a few flashbacks to reveal some of Em's past trauma, but, to be quite frank, I always found myself wishing for more from those sections.

The ending broke me. It was poignant, tragic, and utterly perfect. I might have been able to guess this ultimate course had I done so, but honestly I was too wrapped up in the book's present to spare any thoughts on speculation. It was well done and wrapped up loose ends as much as one can possibly expect in a book that deals with so many abstractions and half-formed concepts. Apparently this is the first part of a duology, however. I have no idea where Terrill can possibly take the story from here, but I was impressed enough with her debut that I will stick around to see what happens next to these characters.

Rating: 4 stars
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October 8, 2013

Top Ten Best & Worst Series Endings

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we're discussing what each of us considers to be among the best and worst series endings. 

A caveat for my list: I have a tendency to not read many series to their conclusions. This tendency isn't necessarily indicative of anything other than the fact that there are far too many series out there and I have a hard time keeping track of all of those that I have started. So my list is based on a rather limited sample size here.

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3) by Suzanne Collins — An unpopular opinion, but deal with it. I didn't like Mockingjay at first, but upon reflection I've come to realize how very good it is. There's no happily ever after for Katniss and the characters I'd come to love, but then again there shouldn't be. There's just enough hope at the end for readers to rest easily, if not quite contentedly. 
Lady Knight (Protector of the Small, #4) by Tamora Pierce — I think this is Pierce's darkest work to date. She's stated that certain aspects of this book were heavily influenced by the events of September 11, 2001 and it shows. None of Pierce's heroines have an easy time finally achieving her full potential, but I do think Kel's journey is the roughest. And then ultimately the most satisfying. 
The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3) by Philip Pullman — I liked this series as a whole, especially what I've learned in the context of Pullman retelling the biblical Fall. The books really do put a different and creative perspective on everything. The ending is one of the saddest I've ever read, but it's so very fitting.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter, #7) by J.K. Rowling — No surprise here. I really do believe that the Harry Potter books only got better as the series progresses. Everything from the previous books comes together so brilliantly and Harry and his magical world are given the send-off they deserve. 
The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings, #3) by J.R.R. Tolkien — Technically The Lord of the Rings is simply one massive book that was split into three parts. None of the parts can really stand that well on their own, but that doesn't matter for my purposes here. The ending is perfect. Yes, good conquers evil, but there is a price that must be paid. Oh, but I do want to just ignore that little section about the scouring of the Shire. Perhaps that wasn't necessary.

Clockwork Princess (The Infernal Devices, #3) by Cassandra Clare — I was already fed up with the love triangle by the second installment, and this conclusion did absolutely nothing to assuage my anger from it all. Tessa, Will, and Jem aren't bad characters per se (even if they are a little derivative), but no. This is not how a love triangle should be resolved, and, unlike Clare's thoughts on this, I did not find it to be respectful or fitting.
Perfect Fifths (Jessica Darling, #5) by Megan McCafferty  I liked seeing Jessica and Marcus a few years down the road, but this wasn't the right way to show them again. Dual narrative in third person present tense? Taking place over the course of a day? The story contained more flashbacks than present-day action, too.
Breaking Dawn (Twilight, #4) by Stephenie Meyer — The whole series wasn't very good, let's be honest. I enjoyed the first two books the first time I read them, but Breaking Dawn is a perfect example of a conclusion that should not have existed. This was clearly written to appease fans and give every character his or her own happily ever after.
Mastiff (Beka Cooper, #3) by Tamora Pierce — I'll admit that I was slightly disappointed by the Beka Cooper series as a whole. Not only does the conclusion start with a few years' gap, but it features instalove and an absolutely ridiculous change of character. Not Pierce's best work, that's for sure.
Fire Study (Study, #3) by Maria V. Snyder  I still am just not sure what happened to this series. After the strong first book, it just kind of fell apart. It almost feels like Snyder didn't really know what she wanted to do with Yelena's story. The plot was rushed and repetitive, and many actions were unrealistic of the characters I'd come to love.

I do realize that a number of these are repeats from my Top Ten Best Sequels Ever list a few weeks ago. What can I say? I'm a creature of habit.

Well, those are some of my picks. Now please let me know what some of your picks are!
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October 6, 2013

Showcase Sunday #7

 Showcase Sunday is a weekly meme hosted by Vicki at Books, Biscuits and Tea. Its aim is to showcase our newest books or book related swag and to see what everyone else received for review, borrowed from libraries, bought in bookshops and downloaded onto eReaders this week. 

 For Review:
The Drake Equation by Heather Walsh
I received this for review from the author. From what I can tell, this is a contemporary romance about two Americans who are on either side of political, economic, and social issues. I've been in an adult fiction mood recently, so this sounds like it'll fit perfectly. Thanks, Heather!
Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow
Thanks, Netgalley and Scholastic! I haven't read Bow's Plain Kate yet, although it sounds like the type of story that I'd love. And this! About the dead being controlled by the knotted cords and yarns of powerful women. So interesting! Kind of reminds me of Sabriel and the dead being controlled by bells... Look for my review later this month! 

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October 3, 2013

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Published: 2013, St. Martin's Griffin
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Format: Hardcover, 434 pages
Source: Library book
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In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can't Google.)

The Simon Snow series has been a constant fixture in the lives of twin sisters Cath and Wren. Reading the stories, watching the films, and re-imagining the world through fan fiction together has turned Cath and Wren into two of the biggest fans and incredibly popular fan fiction writers. And it's helped them cope with some harsh realities, like their mother's decision to no longer remain a part of their lives.

But now Cath and Wren are headed off to college and the carefully constructed lives they've fashioned held together most prominently by Simon Snow are slowly starting to crack. Cath doesn't think that heading to college means that anything has to change, not really. She and Wren are attending the same university, after all, and they still have the Simon Snow fandom. Wren, however, looks toward college as a chance to do something else with her life, to be someone different.

At its heart, Fangirl is Cath's coming of age story. It's about her struggle to not only accept, but to actively embrace, the many changes in her life. 

I fear I'm a bit of the odd one out when it comes to Fangirl. I was expecting to love this story. I came of age alongside the Harry Potter books and its incredibly widespread fandom. I read quite a bit of Harry Potter fan fiction and dabbled in writing some fan fiction myself. In other words, I thought that I'd get a story like this. That this type of story was something I could relate to on a more personal level. Unfortunately, that wasn't quite the case. While I liked it and I appreciated the story that Rowell had to tell, there were a number of factors that stopped me from loving this book.

For at least the first half of the book, the characters all felt like complete caricatures to me. I get that Cath is really uncomfortable with starting college and breaking routines and all. Really, I do. But through her attempts to avoid human contact at all possible costs, she crosses the divide between merely socially awkward (which I'm sure is more of how Rowell intended she be viewed) to plain dysfunctional. Cath's social anxieties are hard to take seriously at times simply because they're to such an extreme degree. 

Similarly, I had a difficult time seeing many of the secondary characters in more than two dimensions. Cath's identical twin sister Wren fits the stereotype of the good girl who parties hard in college in an attempt to forge a new identity and fit in. Once again, I felt as though Wren's character was simply too much. In the span of the summer leading up to college, Wren completely reinvents herself and arrives at school with shorter hair, nightly drunken escapades, and an insipid best friend. I realize that these things do happen, but Wren's freshman year transformation just seems extreme. And for the majority of the novel she treats Cath, her twin sister, confidante, and best friend, horribly. 

For a while, readers only know the barest details about any of the people Cath meets in college. That, at least, makes complete sense, as Cath goes out of her way to avoid interactions. And fortunately that is something that improves over time.

One bright spot related to Rowell's characters being near-caricatures is that any transformation they undergo is bound to be an improvement. And Fangirl is all about transformations. Cath's journey to become a writer in her own rights, rather than a purely fan fiction author. Cath's successes and failures in romance. Cath's realization that there are important things in life outside of Simon Snow. Even Wren's realization that the partying life may not be for her. The sisters, particularly Cath, encounter many pitfalls along the rocky road of freshman year. 

While readers are treated to bits of the canon Simon Snow stories and also pieces of Cath's (and sometimes Wren's) Simon Snow fan fiction, for the most part these scenes are little more than fillers between Cath's story. Simon Snow has a constant presence throughout the book, but it lacks... heart? I get that Cath loves the Simon Snow stories, for literary and personal reasons. But I'm not sure I ever truly understood her love of the fan fiction community. And clearly Cath isn't writing for purely personal reasons, as the book makes mention of her many followers and of her sense of obligation to finish her own version of the eighth Simon Snow book before the canon version releases during the following summer.

Part of what makes massive fandoms so much fun to be a part of is the community. And besides a few mentions here and there (Wren betaing Cath's stories, a brief discussion with a fan of Magicath's "Carry On Simon," and a few sessions where Cath read her stories aloud to Levi), the fandom felt strangely distant. Perhaps that's part of the point. A major part of the story is about Cath's efforts to hold on to her past life at the expense of her new one, and the challenges that creates. One thing I will add, though, is I really enjoyed the role it plays within Cath and Wren's relationship.

I realize I've primarily listed the problems I had with the novel. That's not to say that I found Fangirl to be a waste of time or a terrible novel, however. Rowell writes well, and I appreciated the novel's distinct quirkiness. And, really, the idea to write a novel that taps into the unique subculture surrounding fandom was long overdue. The overarching theme of finding one's individuality (through writing and literature in this case) is also very well done. Ultimately I do believe that this story is worth reading simply to experience Cath's increase in confidence, in her relationships, in her writing, in herself.

Rating: 3 stars
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October 1, 2013

Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Series: Code Name Verity, #2
Published: 2013, Disney Hyperion
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
Source: Library book
Contains spoilers for Code Name Verity (my review)
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Hope is treacherous, but how can you live without it? When you lost hope, you turned into a schmoozichnothing more than a starved mouth and snatching hands that even the guards ignored except when they were counting everybody – or you died.

Elizabeth Wein has done it again. Although, if I'm being perfectly honest with myself here, I didn't expect anything less from the incredibly talented author who wrote Code Name Verity. While both Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity deal with strong female friendships, Allied female pilots, and women placed in unfathomable situations, they tell very different stories. Many of the historical elements of Code Name Verity have been expanded upon more prominently here, and Rose Under Fire could almost be considered to be politically-driven. While Julie and Maddie's story describes some of the suffering that could have happened, the trials and tribulations of Rose and her comrades are more concretely rooted in historical fact.

It is 1944 and the war effort is beginning to slow down, but that knowledge does not deter American Rose Justice from traveling overseas to become an Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) pilot for the Allied Forces. It becomes quickly apparent that Rose, a naive but idealistic aspiring poet with years of experience flying planes but a life of little hardship, has no idea what she volunteered for. Written in an epistolary style, Rose Under Fire recounts Rose's experiences as an ATA pilot, as a prisoner of war, and as a concentration camp survivor, from August of 1944 to December of 1946.

Rose Under Fire is a story about loss, hopelessness, and all forms of suffering. The story opens with Rose's observations from a fellow ATA pilot's funeral. She is supposed to write up a report detailing the accident. There's a bit of guilt on Rose's part, but she admits that she has no idea where to begin and seems to take a more clinical approach. Although Rose has started to realize that serving in the war is nothing like the propaganda she was given back in the States, there's still a curtain that shields her eyes (and her brain) from fully processing all that has been happening in Europe for the past few years. It is only after Rose is captured and sent behind enemy lines that the curtain rises abruptly and Rose loses her naivete for good, forced to adopt a new understanding of humanity's capacity for evil.

Rose Under Fire is not merely the story of a young American's loss of innocence in the face of the horrors of war, however; it is the story of the multitudes of women who were affected by the Axis Powers in the final years of World War II, most especially the prisoners of Ravensbrück women's concentration camp. And this is where the magic of this story lies.

For this is also a story about life, and the extreme measures that people take to survive and to help others survive. Once at Ravensbrück, Rose comes to realize just how petty her concerns and complaints as an Allied pilot truly are. A mislabeled nationality, a few close encounters with doodlebug flying bombs, and scanty rations are nothing compared to what the other women at the camp endured before coming there, and while there. All the women at Ravensbrück have lost something; most have lost everything. Most compelling is the friendship that Rose forms with a number of young Polish girls, referred to as the Rabbits. Due to their nationality, youth, and pure bad luck, these girls have essentially been tortured in the name of "scientific advancement." Their story is horrible enough, but through Rose Wein describes many more of the horrors that awaited women at this concentration camp: daily executions, starvation, lack of medicine, lack of hope.

Rose and her friends do manage to find hope, however, in small acts of rebellion: pocketing extra rations of foods and meds for those who need them most, smuggling out messages with their names, asking Rose to write poems about that elusive concept of hope. The camaraderie that forms between the women is perhaps the only grain of hope that readers can discern from Rose's captivity. They all are suffering, but there's a bit of comfort in the fact that they're together, that they understand what each other is going through.

Rose as a protagonist is not very similar to Julie of Code Name Verity (one of my top fictional narrators, I think), and I missed Julie's witty and unreliable narration. I do think, however, Wein's choice in protagonist for this story is perfect. I had little difficulty in seeing myself through Rose, and I'm sure that many readers can attest to the same. While Rose lived in America, the war was something far-off and distant. While she served as an ATA pilot, the war was still more something she heard of, her own missions kept out of harm's way. Until suddenly they weren't. It's easy to dismiss stories about World War II as old and no longer relevant, and getting easier as fewer and fewer people remain who lived through any of those experiences. Like Rose, through this story readers become exposed to some terrible truths about World War II. Terrible, but so very important.

As I've mentioned many times already, Rose Under Fire is no Code Name Verity. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. For their beautiful writing and focus on important aspects of history, I will read all future works of historical fiction that Elizabeth Wein decides to write.

Rating: 5 stars
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