Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review - All We Have Left

All We Have Left
by Wendy Mills
Date: 2016
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 368
Format: e-book
Source: Amazon.ca

Sixteen-year-old Jesse is used to living with the echoes of the past. Her older brother died in the September 11th attacks, and her dad since has filled their home with anger and grief. When Jesse gets caught up with the wrong crowd, one momentary hate-fueled decision turns her life upside down. The only way to make amends is to face the past, starting Jesse on a journey that will reveal the truth about how her brother died.

In 2001, sixteen-year-old Alia is proud to be Muslim... it's being a teenager that she finds difficult. After being grounded for a stupid mistake, Alia decides to confront her father at his Manhattan office, putting her in danger she never could have imagined. When the planes collide into the Twin Towers, Alia is trapped inside one of the buildings. In the final hours, she meets a boy who will change everything for her as the flames rage around them...

Interweaving stories from past and present, All We Have Left brings one of the most important days in our recent history to life, showing that love and hope will always triumph.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

WARNING: Major Spoilers! To read this review with the spoilers hidden, check it out on Goodreads.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this book. Some parts were good, but other parts left me really questioning the author's choices. This is one of those books that's probably going to be viewed very differently by different generations. My reading experience--being old enough to remember September 11--is going to be very different from the reading experience of the target audience, many of whom had yet to be born when the events happened.

One of my clearest memories from that day--and that's mentioned in the book multiple times--is the clear blue of the sky that morning. I lived on the opposite side of the continent, but our weather that day was almost exactly the same. It brought an eerie closeness to the whole situation, and it almost felt like the same thing could happen here at any moment. My mom and I took a break from the horrors on a never-ending loop on TV (pretty much every station that day was covering the events) and went down to the beach, where we watched diverted plane after diverted plane come in from over the Pacific, making a wide curve to land in Vancouver. The sight alone was unnerving, after seeing the tilt of the planes that we'd watched crash into the towers hundreds of times already.

I think that there's probably a mild element of PTSD for those of us who were old enough to remember that day. Just reading certain passages of this book--people jumping from the towers, the towers falling--was enough to raise my heart rate uncomfortably. (There seems to have been some sort of social consensus not to keep showing the worst images of that day. Unfortunately, millions of people saw footage on September 11 that we'll never get out of our minds.) Of course, this book likely wouldn't have the same effect on a teenager who's only learned about the events after the fact. So... just a warning to the older folks who might be reading this: it may bring up some disturbing memories.

As for the story itself, it was a mixed bag. Much of it felt contrived. What I mean by that is that I could almost hear the author's mental processes as I was reading it. "Okay. So... this needs to happen. What can I do that will put the character in X position so that Y will happen?" This led to a lot of the plot points feeling unnatural. I wanted everything to flow more organically, rather than be shoehorned into place.

The characters didn't help in this respect. To begin with, both main characters are rather bland. I just couldn't connect with them, or feel much about them. Being potentially doomed isn't really a character trait. Also a problem was the fact that Jesse (a girl... which I didn't figure out until I went back and read the synopsis; I don't know why her name uses the male spelling) and Alia, though from very different backgrounds, sounded pretty much the same. I could tell which POV I was in, because the setting was so different, but if the two of them had been in the same room, I wouldn't have been able to tell them apart. (When they are in the same room in the last chapters, I kept getting mixed up about who was talking.) Another problem was when the narration would lapse into this poetic sort of voice that didn't really fit with how teenagers talk. It might've worked better in a third-person POV to get around that problem.

I really didn't like Alia. She was kind of all over the place. Maybe the author was trying to paint her as a confused, unsure teenager, but she just came across as inconsistent to me. In one of her first scenes, she's refusing to take off her hijab to use it as a breathing mask when she's trapped in the smoke-filled, burning tower. But then we find out that she only started wearing the hijab that day! I just couldn't see how this stubborn and newfound adherence to her culture was more important than staying alive, and it rang a bit false for me. The other reason I really didn't like her was because she was too stupid to live, and she directly caused the death of Jesse's brother, Travis. She tried to run back upstairs to save her father, ignoring the firefighters who told her to leave. Her father wasn't even in the building, and how stupid and arrogant do you have to be to think you can rescue someone when firefighters can't? By the time she realized she'd been an idiot, it was too late. Travis stayed with her until the towers collapsed, when they could've made it out to safety. To make matters worse, she didn't seem to feel much guilt about it. Conveniently, there were terrorists to blame his death on. In the author's note, she states that Alia didn't survive in the first version of the story. I think I would've preferred that. Her survival--though based on a real survivor's story--seemed far-fetched (some things in real life are truly weirder than fiction... and therefore don't work in fiction) and kind of a slap in the face. She gets to live her wonderful life, getting everything she ever wanted... while Travis is dead because of her idiotic choices. If it was meant to be a story of hope, it failed for me on that account, because I was too pissed off at Alia for surviving.

Jesse's father was also a terrible character, and not just because he was a horrible person. His character arc was handled really badly. Yes, he's meant to be a sort of grief-twisted monster. He basically destroyed his family, blaming his son for something that the kid really couldn't have done much about. (Travis was with his grandfather when they were mugged. Gramps was stabbed, and Travis ran away because he was scared. His father called him a coward and basically disowned him. What on earth did he want his 17-year-old son to do? Get himself stabbed as well?) Then the father turned into a raging anti-Muslim bigot, and eventually disowned Jesse, too, when she made friends with a Muslim boy. All of this wouldn't be so bad... if not for how it was resolved. The last part of the book had so much telling, and hardly any showing. We're told that things are explained to Jesse's father, and he smartens up and stops being such a dick. We're told that Jesse's not quite ready to forgive him. We're told about how things are up in the air with Adam (Jesse's Muslim not-quite-boyfriend). There are huge swaths of dialogue that act like info-dumps. A lot of this is crammed into the last few pages, as if the author was getting tired and just wanted to wrap things up.

I can't really say I hated this book, because I didn't. My curiosity and the question of what was going to happen were enough to pull me through the story and keep reading. The story wasn't terrible, but it could've been handled differently. The characters were probably the weakest part for me, and unfortunately, if I don't care about--or like--the characters, I'm going to have a hard time caring about the story.

But, like I said, someone without all the memory baggage of that day might see this book in a completely different way. It's just that, when you're old enough to remember 9/11, you bring a lot of your own stuff to the reading, and expectations are likely to be high. The book better be damn good. For me, it didn't quite get there.

Quotable moment:

There's a bitterness in his voice I've never heard before, and I know that somehow he understands what it's like to feel anger that makes you feel powerful and powerless all at the same time.

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 3/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 3/5

Overall Rating: 3.13 out of 5 ladybugs

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