Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Review Previously Published, Updated October 16th with Laura’s Review!

Salt to the Sea first came into my hands as an ARC (advanced reader copy) shortly after I was introduced to Ruta Sepetys’ writing when I picked up a copy of Between Shades of Gray at a not-so-little hidden gem of a used book store in center city Philadelphia. When I met Ruta at Winter Institute in 2016, I just knew I would love her books.

Synopsis

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets. Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies… and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Review

Laura’s Review

Salt to the Sea quickly became one of my favorite books even as I was in the middle of reading it. I was nervous about reading about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, thinking that the subject matter would be too depressing. Even though I knew Salt to the Sea is a work of fiction, I was also aware that nearly all of the events depicted actually happened.

I do not think I could have read this book if it had not been in the structure that it is. The chapters are all very short and the perspective shifts with each one between four very different teenagers, all of whom end up on board the Wilhelm Gustloff. The reason being that the subject matter is so intense (and since I am particularly prone to nightmares) that if it had not switched perspectives every few pages, I think I would have felt overwhelmed trying to comprehend all of the atrocities that happened to just these four people as World War II was drawing to a close. Despite shifting perspectives so frequently, every character was well-developed and I had strong feelings, both positive and negative, about all of them.

The experiences of these four teenagers was different than any other World War II historical fiction novel that I had read, and yet it was also very similar. Three of the four, Joana, Florian, and Emilia are attempting to escape into Nazi Germany, since for them, Nazi Germany was less dangerous that waiting for the Soviets to overtake their lands and ship them to the Gulag camps. The fourth, Alfred was a Nazi officer who had sociopathic tendencies. Ironically, I felt the most sorry for Alfred. He was barely an adult and yet his mind had been corrupted to believe that anyone who was not an Aryan German was inferior, and that it was his duty to enforce the superiority of the Aryan race. He had become highly dangerous, and yet he was essentially still a child. The sections of the book from his perspective were my least favorite because they caused me to feel a mixture of revulsion and pity at the same time. I was much more invested in the fates of Emilia, Florian, and Joana and was desperately hoping that they would survive the torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

While trying to escape into Nazi Germany made the experiences different than other characters in the other World War II historical fiction novels I have read, it was also heartbreakingly similar. All they wanted to do was survive, just as the British, French, Americans, and many others. The difference being that their best chance of survival was in Nazi Germany away from the Soviets, whereas the Allies’ best chance was if Nazi Germany was defeated with the assistance of the Soviet Union. Overall, this is one of the best World War II historical fictions books that I have read and would recommend it to anyone at all interested in the genre.

Sarah’s Review

Salt to the Sea is a beautifully written and moving book, written in four alternating points of view, three of whom are refugees fleeing the Soviet advance across East Prussia who are trying to get into Nazi Germany – a new perspective for young adult World War II fiction. The fourth character to offer his take on the situation facing the Germans in January 1945 is a complete and terrifying sociopath and his actions, relayed in his chapters and the others, creates the most friction and anticipation int eh story for those who already know the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff (go on, I dare you not to Google it if you don’t already know). These alternating points of view are woven together with expert hands and for those who already know and love Ruta’s storytelling, Salt to the Sea does not disappoint.

I flew through Salt to the Sea very quickly and would have read it even quicker if I didn’t have to take breaks to sleep and work (I read straight through meals) and for those two days it was all I could think about. Our three refugees, Emilia, Joana, and Florian, are traveling with a cast of characters including an elderly gentleman affectionately referred to as the Shoe Poet, an endearing little boy who has lost his entire family, a salty older woman who views traveling with the group as nothing more than a necessary step to freedom, and a blind young girl who quickly proves to be the bravest and most intuitive member of the rag tag collective.

Ruta (she told me I could call her that in person!) alternates quickly between her protagonists’ viewpoints which leads to anxious reading, wondering furiously what is going to happen next. And while the final action regarding their escape is known to history, the fate of the individual characters and the challenges they face along the way are unknown and I believe that is the true power of Ruta’s storytelling. One can quickly look up what happens in history, but that event is really just that, an event, but it becomes so much more when conveyed as part of the complex and interesting lives of all of Ruta’s characters.

While for many, this is a five/ten star book, and is, by right, a five/ten star book, I still hold all of WWII fiction up against the harsh judgment of my love for Code Name Verity and The Book Thief and while Salt to the Sea is absolutely wonderful, it still falls just a touch behind my two pillar of great YA WWII fiction.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780142423622 • 448 pages • first published in February 2016, this edition published August 2017 by Penguin books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in March 2016

Ruta Sepetys’ Website

Salt to the Sea on Goodreads

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Salt to the Sea

Fantasy, Fiction, Horror

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

Today my husband and I are celebrating the 7th anniversary of our first date so I figured I would review one of his favorite books, that I also read for our book club, The Modern Readers. 

3 - February 2016 - Vorrh

Synopsis

Outside the colonial town of Essenwald lies the Vorrh, a vast – perhaps endless – forest. Sentient and magical, a place of demons and angels, of warriors and priests, the Vorrh bends time and wipes memory. Legend holds that the Garden of Eden still exists at its heart. Now a renegade foreign soldier intends to be the first human to traverse its expanse. Armed with only a bow, he begins his journey. But some fear the consequences of his mission, so a native marksman is chosen to stop him. Around these adversaries swirls a remarkable cast of characters, including a tragically curious young girl and a Cyclops raised by robots, as well as such historical figures as protosurrealist Raymond Roussel and pioneering photographer Edward Muybridge. Fact and fiction blend, the hunter will become the hunted, and everyone’s fate will hang in the balance – in the Vorrh.

Review

Uhhhh, I’m still trying to figure this one out. Since finishing it and discussing it, I’ve sold more copies of this book by saying I hated it than I have sold books I loved to people by telling them how much I loved it. But I didn’t hate it… I think?

There are many stories working in tandem in this book and they are all confusing and befuddling and written in different styles based on the character’s perspective that we are currently viewing the world through. Told in at least four alternating perspectives, The Vorrh is the story first and foremost of the forest from which it gets its name and the people in the town right next to it. It bears similarities in equal parts to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Shelley’s Frankenstein. But it goes beyond that to discuss mental illness and paint pictures in the reader’s minds of things that are just downright unpleasant and, for some, upsetting. You have to have a strong stomach to undertake a serious reading of The Vorrh.

If anyone else has this book figured out, not just enjoyed it, but actually figured out the symbolism and intent, please do enlighten me.

Rating: 6 out 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9781101873786 • 512 pages published April 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 3.51 out of 5 • read in February 2016

Brian Catling’s Website

The Vorrh on Goodreads

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Vorrh

Fiction, Historical

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

I enjoy a well written WWII narrative as much as the next person – there’s a reason there is a whole sub-genre of historical fiction dedicated to the time period – 70+ years later it still holds the world’s attention, particular in the current world climate that seems to threaten WWIII. I picked up The Nightingale not only because it’s a WWII story, but because it is the story of two sisters and as an older sister, it is a character relationship I can relate to well.

Synopsis

France, 1939 : In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says good-bye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France… but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaëtan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can… completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and time again to save others.

Review

The Nightingale is a tale of the women’s war. With few resources and even fewer allies, the women of France fought back against the Nazis, oftentimes right under their noses. The Nightingale is a tale of remarkable courage and bravery and impossible decisions. Impossible decisions that, more often than not, only make things worse.

Our two protagonists, sisters Vianne and Isabelle, could not be more different. Ten years apart in age, their lives could not be more different. Vianne is mother and wife, steadfast in her ways in her small village and Isabelle is rebellious student, constantly moving and finding new directions, new paths, to follow. But The Nightingale does not start with their differences. It begins fifty years later, in the 1990s, with one of the sisters, we do not know which one, narrating and beginning to tell the story of the sisters’ experiences in France.

It begins with an exploration of family and love and how crucial such things are to surviving unbelievable adversity and hardship. The story quickly jumps back to the “beginning” of the story in 1939, and the decision making begins. Really, what is life, besides a constant stream of decision making? Over the course of 500+ pages, Vianne and Isabelle are forced to make decision after decision, the outcome of each and every one having incredible effects on the trajectory of their lives.

The sisters’ love for each other is constantly put to the test, and they do not always respond to such challenges with love and compassion. More than once, their arguments are of the strength that one or the other walks away doesn’t look back or come back for quite some time. But The Nightingale is not, at its heart, a book of regret, but a book of hope. A book of hope that no other family is put through the trials and tribulations that faced the women, and these two particular women and their families, of France ever again.

Over the course of the coming months, there will be a number of reviews of World War II fictional works populating this space. They are all unique and different, but certainly with many similarities. I have enjoyed each one, and I have bawled my eyes out while reading each and every one. As the granddaughter of a German woman who survived growing up in Nürnberg during such a difficult time and has had to live with the stigma of being a German of that generation, it is important to me that I hear as many voices from that time as possible to try to do my part to make sure that the world does not experience such horrors again.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781250080400 • 592 pages • first published in February 2015, this edition published April 2017 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 4.54 out of 5 • read in March 2016

Kristin Hannah’s Website

The Nightingale on Goodreads

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Nightingale

Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Legend by Marie Lu

In May of 2015 I traveled to NYC for my first BookCon, and what an experience it was – completely overwhelming, but wonderful as well. My favorite part of the experience, was a panel with Marie Lu, Sabaa Tahir and Renee Ahdieh and I told myself I would read all of their books! I started with Marie Lu’s Young Elites series, and when I found out she would be coming to the bookstore I work at in September, I figured I should read Legend as well!

Synopsis

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths – until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

Review

Marie Lu is a fabulous writer. And while not my personal favorite (Sarah J. Maas is), she is my favorite author to share with others. I love recommending her books to people because she has such wide appeal. Boys, girls, lovers of fantasy, science fiction, survival fiction (a la The Hunger Games), there is something in her books for everyone. Her writing is accessible to middle grade through adult readers. As a former middle school teacher, I understand the struggle that arises when trying to find books for 12 year olds that are challenging enough, but also appropriate to their maturity level. Marie Lu is one of very few authors that write about older teenagers in a way that doesn’t make parents of middle schoolers cringe.

In regards to Legend, I love how Marie Lu portrays her characters – June as a rule following member of the military, and Day as a kind-hearted fugitive. As their paths intersect, they both grow and evolve as characters, given the effect that each has on the other’s sense of responsibility and loyalty. Told in alternating perspective chapters, readers get to know both June and Day equally well and both are so intriguing that the balance is near perfect – you don’t want to skip either character’s chapters to get to the other’s.

I have been asked by customers at the store if Legend is too much like The Hunger Games or Divergent and while I mention that they are considered to be part off the same dystopian genre, there is a uniqueness to the diversity of characters that Marie Lu includes, as well as the story telling – in my opinion, she is a better writer than the authors of The Hunger Games and Divergent and therefore a better selection for young readers and budding writers.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780142422076 • 305 pages • originally published November 2011, this edition published April 2013 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Marie Lu’s Website

Legend on Goodreads

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Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

As a lover of WWII historical fiction, I had heard that Between Shades of Gray would most likely be a book I would enjoy. When I happened to find it by chance at a used bookstore in Center City Philadelphia, I knew I needed to get it. After meeting Ruta Sepetys back in January of 2016, I was even more excited to read it!

Synopsis

A knock comes at the door in the dead of night, and Lina’s life changes in an instant. With her young brother and mother, she is hauled away by the Soviet secret police from her home in Lithuania and thrown into a cattle car en route to Siberia. Separated from her father, Lina secretly passes along clues in the form of drawings, hoping they will reach his prison camp. But will her letters, or her courage, be enough to reunite her family? Will they be enough to keep her alive?

Review

First, I read Salt to the Sea (review to come later), in a day and a half – for a slow reader like myself, that was quite speedy. Then, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ruta’s storytelling and gnawing, sinking feeling I felt while reading, knowing the MV Wilhelm Gustloff’s fate. And I realized that any writer who can tell a story that I cannot forget must be amazing, so it was time to read Between Shades of Gray.

Ruta turned her magic storytelling to a topic near and dear to her heart – the plight of Lithuanian refugees. The daughter of a Lithuanian refugee who spent years in refugee camps after suffering horrors during the war, she has a unique perspective on a war story not often told. She made the world of the Soviet gulags so real. The absolutely terrifying world of Siberia and the horrors of what the Soviets did to their prisoners. To women and children. I cried. I bawled my eyes out.

Not only to I love Ruta Sepetys’ storytelling. But, I also love how open and welcoming Ruta herself is. I had the opportunity to meet her again last month and when I ran into her outside of her autographing session, I asked her kindly if she had a quick moment. She said yes, and I proceeded to tell her how much not only I love her books, but my sister, Laura, does as well. She was exceptionally sweet and asked if Laura was with me. I said, alas she was not, but would love to have been able to come. Ruta then asked if she could send Laura a message, so I went digging for a notebook, and she said she wanted to send her a video! The result is below.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780142420591 • 352 pages • originally published March 2011, this edition published April 2012 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 4.35 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Ruta Sepetys’ Website

Between Shades of Gray on Goodreads

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Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Two years ago I attended BookCon in NYC and I’m so excited to be going back for the booksellers part, BookExpo, in just two short weeks! When I attended back in 2015, I attended a panel on which Marie Lu, Renee Ahdieh and Sabaa Tahir discussed the need for diverse books and I decided there and then that I needed to read at least one book by each of them. An Ember in the Ashes was the first I purchased, but the last I read, because for some reason, I couldn’t get into reading it, but, the audiobook really changed my impression of Sabaa Tahir’s storytelling.

Synopsis

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier – and secretly, it’s most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined – and that their choice will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Review

At the bookstore, I’ve become sort of the go-to YA fantasy expert, but I haven’t had the heart to tell all of my little “book-groupies” (as my coworkers call them) that my heart hasn’t really been in the genre lately and that half the recommendations I’ve been giving them are books that I haven’t actually read yet. An Ember in the Ashes was one of those books – one I had heard very good things about, but had not actually managed to read.

And to be honest, it took me three tries before I really found myself enthralled by the story. The first to times were “traditional” reading attempts, and thankfully, I still persisted after those two failed and I checked the audiobook out of my local library and, thankfully, was instantly hooked. So this review is equal parts story review and audiobook reader review.

As a story, Sabaa Tahir weaves together two characters from completely different worlds, making their paths cross occasionally, but without unnecessarily intersecting – a real challenge of writing in multiple perspectives. Laia and Elias’ stories join at important plot points, but without complicating the timeline or narrative. Both are strong narrators on their own which means that while one character is narrating, the reader/listener is fully immersed in that part of the story, not anxiously reading through to get to the other narrator, as is wont to happen in some multiple perspective plots. The two readers also do an exceptional job of conveying the urgency and emotion felt by both Laia and Elias in their individual and joint circumstances.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $11.99 • 9781595148049 • 480 pages • originally published April 2015, this edition published February 2016 by Razorbill • average Goodreads rating 4.32 out of 5 • read in March 2017

Sabaa Tahir’s Website

An Ember in the Ashes on Goodreads

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An Ember in the Ashes