REVIEW: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta SepetysBetween Shades of Gray
By Ruta Sepetys
Completed December 29, 2010

In her debut novel, Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys explores the Lithuanian deportation by the Soviets in the early 1940’s. Certain citizens of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland were swept up and arrested during World War II. The women and children were sent to labor camps in Siberia, and it’s this journey that is told through the eyes of Lina, the 15-year-old Lithuanian girl who narrates this story.

Between Shades of Gray is written for a young adult audience, but I think readers of all ages could read and learn from this story. Lina is a talented young artist, and her visual depictions on what she experiences leaves nothing for the imagination. Despite the plainness of the language (again, intended for younger readers), the reader gets a bird’s eye view of the torture, cold, labor and death that surrounded Lina’s camp life.

World War II history can be tricky. When we think of genocide during this period, we understandably think of the Holocaust. As someone who frequently reads about this historical period, I am often surprised at the complex layers of this war. You peel away one layer, and something new emerges. In this case, the new thing was the genocide of the Lithuanian people and neighboring countries. Knowing that these atrocities continued in the Soviet Union well after the war makes Lina’s story that much more important to know.

I received Between Shades of Gray as an ARC through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. The galley came with a video – a beautiful tribute by the author to her family and Lithuanian survivors of the Siberian camps. Please check it out:

If you have an interest in tales of human survival or learning from our past, I would recommend Between Shades of Gray to you. I think Sepetys’ writing style will appeal to young readers – and her story will appeal to many more. ( )


Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
By Jane Austen
Completed December 23, 2010

I should really call this post: How I Learned to Read Pride and Prejudice…and Liked It!

Admittedly, I was a little gun shy about reading this classic. I usually don’t do well reading Victorian literature, typically finding its prose too flowery and detailed. Indeed, as I began Pride and Prejudice, my typical impatience started to show. I was getting bogged down into the language, knowing I was missing the satire of the novel.I lamented my woes on LibraryThing, and my friend Joyce gave me a piece of advice: read every word. It proved to be indispensable advice.

To enjoy Austen, I needed to get in the Austen Zone. For me, that meant slowing down my reading pace, and at some points, reading passages out loud. Once I did that, Pride and Prejudice became more of a pleasure to read.

My favorite aspects of the novel were Austen’s characters: Elizabeth, smart, witty and challenged with societal and gender rules; Darcy who tried so hard to be crusty that he surprised even himself with his love for Elizabeth; and Mrs. Bennett, funny, outspoken, rude and determined. She will go down as one of my favorite literary moms.

I approached Pride and Prejudice like a homework assignment, first with dread and later with anticipation. If you are an impatient reader like me, you might be overwhelmed by a task like this, but trust me when I say that with a little patience, you can tackle – and enjoy – Pride and Prejudice. ( )

REVIEW: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden by Kate MortonThe Forgotten Garden
By Kate Morton
Completed December 11, 2010

The Forgotten Garden is Kate Morton’s follow-up novel to her bestselling The House at Riverton. I enjoyed Morton’s first novel immensely, and I couldn’t wait to read her sophomore effort. All in all, I was not disappointed.

The novel starts with four-year-old Nell, stranded on a wharf in Australia. With no one claiming her, she is adopted by Hugh and Lil, who raise her as their own. When she reaches adulthood, Nell learns the truth about her past and begins a quest to learn more about her biological parents. Unfortunately, she never learned the full truth, leaving her granddaughter Cassandra to unravel the mystery.

The novel takes its readers through multiple generations – the Victorian lives of Rose and Eliza (who are Nell’s ancestors), the 1975 quest by Nell to learn more about her family and the 2005 journey by Cassandra to England to pick up where Nell left off. Morton masterfully maneuvers through each time period, slowly unveiling clues to the secrets of Nell and Cassandra’s ancestry.  Where Morton shines is in her character development, even making a 200-year-old cottage a character of its own. Without a doubt, The Forgotten Garden is a classic Gothic novel, and if you love that genre, you’ll enjoy this book.

My only complaint was the overabundance of detail in the story. Morton is talented enough to tell a story without the minutia, and I think about 20 percent of this novel could have been trimmed. Admittedly, it’s a small qualm and does not stop me from recommending The Forgotten Garden to other readers. But if you’re an impatient reader (like me), consider yourself warned.

With that said, Kate Morton continues her storytelling mastery, and I look forward to reading her third book, The Distant Hours, very soon. (  )

REVIEW: The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert

The Dark Room by Rachel SeiffertThe Dark Room
By Rachel Seiffert
Completed November 30, 2010

Over the past year or two, I have been drawn to books about World War II. Most are told from the perspective of the Allied nations or Jewish people affected by the Holocaust. I am glad to have stumbled upon Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, which offers the perspective of the average German citizen affected by World War II.

The Dark Room is divided into three separate stories:

1) Helmet is a young photographer’s apprentice, whose family supported Hitler and prospered during The Third Reich’s heyday. Even at war’s end, Helmet still clung to Nazi Germany’s ideals. Then, one day, he stumbles into a round-up of gypsies by German soldiers and sees the gross mistreatment of these people. He took pictures of the atrocity and ran away from the scene. As he reflects over his photos, you feel his heartbreak for a nation lost in so many ways.

2) Lore is a teenage girl – one of six children – who must embark on a treacherous journey from Bavaria to Hamburg at the end of the war. Through Lore’s journey, you see how war affected the home front and the people who once were bound by the same cause. No longer united, they stole and cheated from each other. Like Helmet, Lore didn’t realize Germans was killing innocent people, until she saw pictures posted in a village. Confused by what she saw, she befriended a young man, Tomas, who confirmed the genocide. Lore was devastated, especially as she considered her father and brother might have been involved in these mass murders.

3) Michael is a school teacher living in 1990’s Germany who began wondering why his grandfather had been imprisoned for so long after World War II. He began to research and learned that his grandfather was part of the Waffen SS, the elite police force of the German Army. He traces his grandfather’s service to Belarus and traveles there to learn more. The important theme in Michael’s section is national guilt – how after 50+ years, some Germans truly mourned what their country did, while others didn’t grasp it, or were too far removed from the war to be impacted. Michael, though, couldn’t forget and carried the weight of guilt for his whole family.

Admittedly, The Dark Room is a bit bleak, but Seiffert pulls you right in so you can experience the characters’ emotions. Seiffert writes simply but effectively, and her sparse prose adds to the brevity of her stories. Despite the grim subject matter, I found this book to be enlightening and engaging – and would highly recommend it, especially to those who believe, like me, that war has no true winner. ( )

REVIEW: Getting the Girl by Markus Zusak

Getting the Girl by Markus ZusakGetting the Girl
By Markus Zusak
Completed November 26, 2010

Wanting to read more beautiful prose by Markus Zusak, I stumbled into the final story of a trilogy for young adult readers. Haven’t read the first two, I languished over the insighful Getting The Girl, the story of Cameron Wolfe and his challenges being the youngest brother to popular older brothers.

Cameron was a loner, and through Zusak, he comes alive to show the anguish and sometimes-fun of being a teenage boy in Australia. Cameron might have liked to be alone, but he was typical boy – girl crazy, liked sports and wondered what people thought about him. At the end of each chapter, the book changes font, and we get a deeper look into Cameron through his journal writings. It’s in these writings that we see the true Cameron.

Admittedly, Getting the Girl can’t be loved for its plot – for it really doesn’t have one – but it can be appreciated for Zusak’s lyrical writing style and showcasing of the human spirit. If my boys were older, I would definitely add this book to their shelves. I hope to read the first two books, The Underdog and Fighting Ruben Wolfe, in order next year. Until then, Getting the Girl was a satisfying read – not in the same class as The Book Thief – but a book that’s perfect for young adults who, like Cameron, are struggling to find themselves. Markus Zusak knows how to speak to that generation.

REVIEW: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah's KeySarah’s Key
By Tatiana de Rosnay
Completed November 10, 2010

I tip my hat to Tatiana de Rosnay for picking a “hidden” historical fact and shedding light on it. In Sarah’s Key, the hidden fact is actually an event – the round up of French Jews by French police on July 16, 1942. These French citizens were crammed into the Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor bicycle arena, without food, water, sanitation or ventilation. Then, they were shuttled into cattle cars to concentration camps – first in France and then Poland. Of the 42,000 Jews rounded up that day, only 811 came home at the end of the war.

In Sarah’s Key, the reader follows young Sarah Starzynski, a 10-year-old French Jewish girl, who was part of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. As the police banged on her apartment door, she hid her little brother in a locked cabinet, assuming she would be back to rescue him. Unfortunately, Sarah didn’t make it back, and we follow her journey through the Vel d’Hiv and her imprisonment.

The book rotates between Sarah’s story and that of Julia, an American-born journalist living in Paris, who was researching the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup for work. Julia takes an interest in the roundup when she learns that her husband’s grandmother’s apartment was occupied by a Jewish family who was imprisoned that fateful day.  Through Julia’s research, the reader learns more about what the Jewish people faced and how French people ignored their participation in this horrendous event.

Where de Rosnay stumbled, though, is in her telling of Julia. Julia’s personal life, in my opinion, detracted from the story. Julia’s marriage to an egotistical French man, her unexpected pregnancy and predictable resolution to her situation did  not enhance the story. I felt like I was watching Schindler’s List mixed with The Young and the Restless. I couldn’t reconcile the two themes.

So, I recommend the good parts of Sarah’s Key to readers.  It’s a quick read, and if you skim through Julia’s sections, you’ll walk away with a solid understanding of another sad chapter in Jewish history. ( )

REVIEW: Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne PhillipsLark and Termite
By Jayne Anne Phillips
Completed November 4, 2010

Allow me to start this review with a confession. I didn’t finish Lark and Termite. I tried to, but after reaching the half-way point, I decided to skim my way to the end. Unfortunately, and despite high hopes, I just could not get into this book. After reading other book reviews, I am glad to know I wasn’t the only one.

Lark and Termite is full of beautiful language and prose. I could never say that Jayne Anne Phillips can’t write, because she can, but I think what was missing from this book was the story. For me, it takes more than lyrical language to tell a story – you need something to say, not just the words to utter.

There was promise with the characters – Lark, a teenage girl who took care of her handicapped younger brother, Termite. Some of the chapters were told by them , but even their perspectives couldn’t help me feel invested in these characters. Nor did I feel much for young Bobby McLeavitt, who was fighting in Korea. I thought I would get wrapped up into their tales, but Phillips just didn’t evoke any connection from me for her characters.

So, after skimming to the end, I am officially done with Lark and Termite – and ready to move on to other stories. ( )

BOOK REVIEW: Regeneration by Pat Barker

By Pat Barker
Completed October 25, 2010

One of my favorite eras of poetry is the War Poets – a group of British soldiers who served during World War I and used their poetry to express their disillusionment with the war. After learning that Regeneration, the first in a trilogy by Pat Barker, features two war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, I couldn’t wait to read it.

Regeneration focuses primarily on Sassoon and his stay at Craiglockhart, a hospital for World War I soldiers who were experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome. Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart after writing his famous Finished With The War: A Soldier’s Declaration – an open letter of protest, which alluded that the British government was prolonging England’s involvement in World War I (and at the expense of young British men). At Craiglockhart, we meet an interesting cast of characters, including Sassoon’s physician, W.H.R. Rivers, Owens and many soldiers who were traumatized by their time in the trenches.

Barker does a spectacular job depicting the stress of the soldiers at Craiglockhart. Many had nightmares, screaming fits and panic attacks, while others experienced physical symptoms such as mutism and paralysis. Sherman once said that “war is hell” – and there’s no mistaking its terrible effects on the men staying at this hospital.

Though written about a war almost 100 years ago, the messages about war’s atrocities bears much relevance to today. Regeneration is a cerebral book, delivering its readers to much introspection about the characters and their circumstances. I look forward to reading the other books in this trilogy. ( )

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger
By Sarah Waters
Completed October 16, 2010

Come by The Little Stranger, and you’ll meet one heck of a creepy character. You may be surprised to learn that it’s not a person or monster. In fact, it’s a house: Hundreds Hall – a sprawling English manor that takes on a life of its own. Turning an inanimate object into a seemingly living character is no small task, but left in the hands of Sarah Waters, Hundreds Hall becomes exactly that – something living, animate and downright spooky.

Inside Hundreds Hall lives the Ayres family, who is struggling to keep their farm profitable after World War II. The once-grandiose home was falling apart – and taking the family down with it. We meet the family through Dr. Faraday, a country doctor who came to Hundreds Hall on a house visit. He starts to treat Roderick Ayres for his wartime knee injury, but it became apparent that Roderick was suffering from more – a type of severe mental stress that was affecting him day by day. Roderick claims something in the house was trying to hurt his family – and this something was leaving burn marks all over his room. Roderick’s delusions and paranoia rob him of all logic, and he becomes the house’s first victim.

As Dr. Faraday helps the family with Roderick’s illness, he gets closer and closer to Mrs. Ayres and Roderick’s sister, Caroline. The weight of caring for Hundreds Hall is great, and Dr. Faraday does what he can to ease their burdens. Despite his best efforts, the house continues to affect the family – first with the haunting of poor Mrs. Ayres and then Caroline. The whole time, the family believes the house was to blame. However, many in the community chalk it up to the Ayres’ reluctance to adjust to the new order of things in England. Others claim it was a “family taint” – a mental condition that struck all of the family members. Whatever the cause, the family was on an unstoppable downward spiral.

The Little Stranger, in a word, was spine-tingling. Certain scenes left me white-knuckled and near sleepless. It was the perfect book for cool autumn nights. Many were disappointed in the book’s ending, but I thought it was somehow appropriate. Waters left it as mysterious as Hundreds Hall itself. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the mysterious, the old and the creepy. The Little Stranger has it all. ( )

BOOK REVIEW: Trespass by Rose Tremain

By Rose Tremain
Completed October 11, 2010

When one reads the word “trespass,” it triggers the thought of someone illegally entering another’s land or property. While this definition of “trespass” is a minor theme in Rose Tremain’s newest book, readers learn that Trespass can be so much more than an errant footstep on a piece of land.

In this book, we meet two sets of siblings: Anthony and Veronica, British brother and sister who were very close, and Aramon and Audrun, French siblings who were not. Anthony’s career as an antiques expert was petering out, and he escaped to Veronica’s French home to collect his thoughts. Veronica’s home, which she shared with her lover Kitty, was near the mas of Aramon and Audrun. The pairs of siblings did not know each other until Anthony expressed an interest in purchasing the mas from Aramon. The potential sale was the turning point of the story, erupting into a tale of mystery, murder and unreconciled pasts.

Sigmund Freud might have had some fun with this story, as the effects of the mothers, Lal (Anthony and Veronica’s mom) and Bernadette (Aramon and Audrun’s mother) continued to influence their children’s lives, long after their deaths. The boys (Anthony and Aramon) individually loved their mothers strongly (some might argue inappropriately). Anthony was more concerned about pleasing Lal, which was often hard to do, while Aramon respected the beauty and domesticity of Bernadette. Their dysfunctional affection for their mothers affected them profoundly, with Aramon committing the worst sin by raping his sister, Audrun, repeatedly.

Trespass of the body, land, trust and love – indeed, it could be argued that many forms of “trespass” were at work in this novel. I caution readers who have not read Trespass that this novel doesn’t feel like a Rose Tremain book. It’s very dark, and the mystery aspect of the novel is atypical for her stories. If you can stomach the exploration of the darkest sides of people, then Trespass should be a satisfying read for you. ( )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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