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

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Salt to the Sea

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Over the past few years I have read my fair share of novels set during World War II including my absolute favorite Montmaray Journals, the splendid Salt to the Sea, and the “pull-on-your-heartstrings” Letters to the Lost. So when Sarah told me that if I read Code Name Verity it would break my heart like no other book I was not going to read it. But I reconsidered, and armed with the knowledge of what would happen to each of the two main characters, I dove into the story and fell in love with all of it.

Synopsis

Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Review

Let me just say I’m a little shocked that this book is stocked in the YA section of bookstores. I’m not sure I would have been able to handle reading this when I was in high school. The book is split into two distinct parts – the first is from “Verity’s” perspective, the second, from her best friend Maddie. “Verity” has been captured by the Gestapo after parachuting into Nazi-occupied France and looking the wrong way before crossing the street. She has been given the opportunity to write down her story and extend her life for as long as it takes to satisfy her Nazi jailers with the information she supplies. However, “Verity” chooses to tell them the story of Maddie, her best friend, and the pilot of the plane from which she parachuted.

“Verity” explains how the young women met, trained together, and became best friends. But as she tells that story, she also details the events and torture that transpire while she is held prisoner. It is a powerful tale, and while fictional, is likely to be the truth for somebody. The second part is Maddie’s story and what she has lived through during the time that “Verity” has been held prisoner. After crash-landing her plane, Maddie spends the next few months trying to escape from France and get back to England. However, when she learns of “Verity’s” fate, she decides her foremost goal is to help her friend. Both women face deadly obstacles, and the heart-breaking, nail-biting conclusion will leave you in a puddle of tears.

Code Name Verity is one of the best books I have ever read. I loved the characters and I experienced just about every emotion possible while reading this book. Personally, I preferred “Verity’s” part of the story more than Maddie’s, but it was all worth reading.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781423152880 • 368 pages • first published May 2012, this edition published May 2013 by Disney-Hyperion • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in June 2016

Elizabeth Wein’s Website

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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

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Nightingale

Biography, Non-Fiction

Kick Kennedy by Barbara Leaming

Ever since I was introduced to Kick Kennedy as a character in the Montmaray Journals (review to come!), I have been fascinated by her life and her experiences as an American in England during the Second World War. When the ARC for this biography arrived at the bookstore, I got ridiculously excited, so happy was I for a contemporary account of her life.

Synopsis

Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy was the incandescent life force of the fabled Kennedy family, her father’s acknowledge “Favorite of all the children” and her brother Jack’s (JFK!) “psychological twin.” She was the Kennedy of Kennedys, sure of her privilege, magnetically charming, and somehow not quite like anyone else on whatever stage she happened to grace.

The daughter of the American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Kick swept into Britain’s aristocracy like a fresh wind on a sweltering summer day. In a decaying world where everything was based on stultifying sameness and similarity, she was gloriously, exhileratingly different. Kick was the girl whom all the boys fell in love with, the girl who remained painfully out of reach for most of them.

To Kick, everything about this life was fun and amusing – until suddenly it was not. For this is also a story of how a girl like Kick, a girl who had everything, a girl who seemed made for happiness, confronted crushing sadness. Willing to pay the price for choosing the love she wanted, she would have to face the consequences of forsaking much that was dear to her.

Review

Oh Kick. Barbara Leaming’s biography is really Kick’s coming of age story and while her last name allowed her to grow up in a family full of wealth and privilege, her story is that of what happens when Kick decides she is no longer content being one of the nine Kennedy children, but wants to be one of one, just Kick, defined on her own terms. One of the things that I’ve discovered that I really love about ARCs is that I get to read a book without my view being, even unwittingly, skewed by the thoughts and opinions of other readers and I can judge the merit of the book on just that: it’s own merit, and I can make my own decisions, without any outside influence, about how I connected with Kick’s life story.

Kick Kennedy was truly an early feminist, though I’m not entirely sure she’d admit it, just like twenty-somethings today. And like modern twenty-somethings, Kick’s life goal was really quite simple: do things that bring happiness into life. The things that brought Kick happiness included debating politics and current events with both her brothers and the young aristocratic men of England, dressing up and enjoying parties, and falling in love. But unfortunately for Kick, she went from bride to widow in under six months (not a spoiler, it’s history), due to the violence of the Second World War. Understandably, her life changed dramatically, as did her attitude towards how she lived it.

While contemporaries of Kick may have seen her as an impulsive and naive young woman, in reality she was just doing what every young woman has tried to do since the beginning of time – figure out who she is as a daughter, sister, friend, wife, and ultimately as an individual.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781250115935 • 320 pages • first published in April 2016, this edition published April 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books for St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 3.56 out of 5 • read in March 2016

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Kick Kennedy

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, Historical, Novella

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

The same publisher rep who sent me Pantsuit Nation may have sent me more than a few other books as well! He officially retired on April 1st and my guess is, that after telling him repeatedly that he worked for my favorite of the publishers, he threw some caution to the wind and sent me well over half of my lengthy “wish list” for the spring and summer season, including Passing Strange!

Synopsis

San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the world’s fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Review

Passing Strange is the first book by Ellen Klages that I have read. By the looks of her extensive list of published works, and her Nebula award winning status, it should not have been the first time I was introduced to her stories. Passing Strange wrangled me in from the very first sentence and the time shifting story line is expertly done.

Starting in the present day, the majority of the story then shifts back to 1940, exploring the relationships between 6 intriguing women, who, despite having a shortened amount of time to leap off the page, still manage to make strong impressions on the reader. Klages flawlessly weaves the women’s stories into one, sweeping story of discovering for who you are, and who your real family is.

The two primary figures, Haskel, the artist, and Emily, the performer, are the heart and soul of the group, despite not being familiar with each other at the start of their story, and the rest of the women quickly come together to support them when the going gets tough. While a shorter novel, a novella, theoretically seems like it would be easier to write, I find it is often harder – there is less time and space to convince the reader that the story you, as an author are telling, should stick with them – and so any time it is done particularly well, I appreciate it even more.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9780765389527 • 224 pages • published January 2017 by St. Martin’s Press • average Goodreads rating 4.01 out of 5 • read in April 2017

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Passing Strange