13.19–Between Shades of Gray

13.19–Between Shades of Gray

I have so much to say about this book and its author and the event I attended at BookPeople. But before I say any of it, I need to make a disclaimer:

This book is in no way related to the erotic series. It is not at all erotic. If you’re looking for novels about sex, look somewhere else.

Thank you for paying attention. Not to knock the Fifty Shades series (ok, maybe a little), but this book is so wildly out of the league of those, both in subject matter and in degree of skill with which it is written, that I am almost personally affronted when people assume they are related texts. No. No no no no no. Also, this one came first.

Now, to the book I say yes. Yes yes yes yes yes.  It is amazing.  It is beautiful.  It is heartfelt and heartbreaking.  And most importantly, it tells the story of a group of people whose plight has been overshadowed and nearly lost to general knowledge.

Goodreads Summary:

“It’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old artist Lina Vilkas is on Stalin’s extermination list. Deported to a prison camp in Siberia, Lina fights for her life, fearless, risking everything to save her family. It’s a long and harrowing journey and it is only their incredible strength, love, and hope that pull Lina and her family through each day. But will love be enough to keep them alive?”

This novel was suggested to me in my first week of work at BookPeople.  I was immediately drawn to both its premise and its beautiful cover.  I finally got around to reading it when I found out that Ruta Sepetys herself would be visiting our store and I would get the chance to meet her.

I have to be honest, I was a little put off at first.  There are no polite introductions in this novel, no quaint descriptions of what life was like before Lina’s world was pulled apart.  No, it takes off immediately, with Lina’s family being arrested in the middle of the night for completely unknown reasons.  From there, the plot explodes out of the gate, and Lina and her family are jostled from one place to the next without warning or comfort.  They must immediately go from what seems to be an affluent, happy family to one that must learn to survive or die almost immediately.  The sentences are short and simple, almost choppy sometimes.  The chapters are incredibly short, especially in the beginning.  While this frustrated me a bit at first, I realized how well it fit in with the events of the plot.  Sepetys’ style gives short, confused glimpses of what Lina’s life suddenly becomes, and they work well for the content.

The story, despite its horror and sorrow, also fills the reader with a sense of hope.  Not necessarily hope of rescue, for Lina’s plight seems impossible to overcome, but hope that, even in the absolute worst circumstances, human spirit and goodness can find a way to shine.  And the novel’s treasured, slow-blooming element of romance was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak, frozen landscape.

I loved the book on its own, but when I met the author herself I just became a total fangirl.  It was an intimate little gathering, and so those of us who asked questions got amazing, lengthy answers.  When she told us that Lina’s story is loosely based on the experiences of her own Lithuanian family, I was enthralled.  Sepetys exhibits such a passion for history and a fiery need for the unheard, forgotten voices of the past to be given a podium.  She herself is cheerful, funny, and tells a great story (duh), but her intelligence and compassion are evident in everything she says.  I can’t wait to read her latest book, set in 1950s New Orleans, called Out of the Easy.

My coworkers and me (on the far left) with Ruta Sepetys at BookPeople

I highly recommend Between Shades of Gray to everyone.  In fact, I encourage people to read it and spread the word about both the book and its historical basis, so that these nearly-forgotten victims of Stalin’s evil will not be left in the shadows any longer.  I am grateful to Ruta Sepetys for writing such a beautiful novel and for caring so much about the faded voices of history.  5 stars and 2 thumbs up, and a cookie on top. Lovely, lovely book!


13.15–Anna Karenina

13.15–Anna Karenina

Sadly, I read the movie edition. It’s what the library had.

I did it!! I made it through a Russian novel! And believe me, I am definitely patting myself on the back.  I’ve never been able to make it through a Russian novel before (much too long and rambling, and too many names!), but while Anna Karenina had the same elements that make me dislike every other Russian novel, the story was enough to redeem it.

There is so much to this nearly-thousand-page novel that it is difficult to cram it all into one blog.  There are two main stories (and countless little side-shows) that occur over the course of the novel–the messy drama between Anna, her husband Karenin, and Count Vronky; and the story of Kitty and Levin.  It is interesting that the novel is named after Anna because there are a great many characters that feature prominently, and perhaps even make more appearances than Anna does.  In fact, Anna’s story is the most interesting, and I wish that Tolstoy had spent more time on her and paid less attention to Russian politics, agriculture, and peasantry.  It’s an interesting glimpse into the time period, but seems completely unnecessary (and totally boring).

The novel tells the story of Anna’s doomed love affair with Count Vronsky.  She is married to Karenin, but falls in love with Vronsky almost the moment they meet.  I was surprised at how quickly the events moved in their story line.  I expected the subterfuge to last longer, I suppose because it was such a long novel, and I did not know that there was an entirely different story happening simultaneously.

Where one story is tragic–that of Anna and Vronsky, a family torn asunder, a woman driven to madness by jealousy and insecurity–the story of Kitty and Levin is almost fairy-tale-esque in nature and seems to suggest that by “following the rules,” so to speak, of society and religion, one may find happiness, contentment, and security.  I will say that Kitty was perhaps the most enjoyable character of the novel for me.  She is kind and sweet, though she’s often given to fits of womanly airs.  Anna, however, becomes more and more disagreeable as the novel progresses.  I’d say that the reader feels pity for her, but it is difficult to like her. And even by the end, my pity had evaporated as I became increasingly more irritated with her digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole.  And yet…

Tolstoy has a way of capturing the nuances of life that other authors seem to gloss over.  He has an eye and attention to detail that at times can be tedious but, more often than not, is quite interesting.  More than once I found myself thinking about a characters actions, I do that too!  It is fascinating to read about the subtleties of your own character in a book over a hundred years old.  In Anna, I saw a little of myself.  She often reminded me of myself in high school, when I too felt that panicky feeling in my gut at the idea of losing the person I (thought I) loved.  She seems to live in constant fear that Vronsky is falling out of love with her; is seeing other women; is mocking her in his face and tone of voice.  I recognize that fear and madness in myself, and it was quite a disturbing mirror.  I can’t say I enjoyed the feeling, but it was impressive the way that Tolstoy is able to capture the emotions of a woman so well.  And somehow, it is comforting to know that I’m not the only woman who felt this way.

I confess, only parts of the novel held my attention.  Especially in Levin’s parts, I found my eyes glazing over, and I realized I had gone through a page or two without registering anything that had been said.  And I was strangely okay with this, because it didn’t detract from the story at all.  I say, don’t feel guilty for skimming.

The story is worth reading, for sure.  It is a classic, and with Tolstoy’s eye for detail when it comes to minute human traits, it is easy to understand why.  Though the politics and technologies of the book are now long out-dated, the themes, events, and feelings are things that could very well happen today, tomorrow, or a hundred years in the future.  It’s a novel that takes several different views at what it is like the be a human in any stage of love, and it’s quite beautiful.  I definitely recommend reading this book to the very end.

I’ve heard from numerous sources that this is the translation closest to the original Russian. READ THIS TRANSLATION.


13.14–The Lost Daughter

13.14–The Lost Daughter

This book was so beautiful.  It was tragic at times, but the overwhelming beauty of redemption and forgiveness and healing and family are themes that really elevate it to a level above novels that are sad for no reason to a novel that is inspirational and sweet.

Goodreads synopsis:

“Brooke O’Connor — elegant, self-possessed, and kind — has a happy marriage and a deeply loved young daughter. So her adamant refusal to have a second child confounds her husband, Sean. When Brooke’s high school boyfriend Alex — now divorced and mourning the death of his young son — unexpectedly resurfaces, Sean begins to suspect an affair.

For fifteen years Brooke has kept a shameful secret from everyone she loves. Only Alex knows the truth that drove them apart. His reappearance now threatens the life she has so carefully constructed and fortified by denial. With her marriage — and her emotional equilibrium — at stake, Brooke must confront what she has been unwilling to face for so long.

But the truth is not what Brooke believes it to be.”

It’s truly a story that proves that the things we do in our youth have a way of affecting us for the rest of our lives.  A decision made in her teenage years never ceases to haunt Brooke, until the events of the novel allow her to confront the past she has only ever suppressed and run away from.

What I loved most about this book is that there is a happy ending. There is a lot of heartbreak in it, which realistically reflects life at its most incomprehensibly brutal.  But despite mistakes, anger, and ugliness, the end is a ray of hope.

Brooke can be frustrating at times, as well as her husband.  They are both too stubborn and at times too afraid to talk to each other, and knowing the perspective of both gives the reader the opportunity to see that they could just heal their relationship if they would do ABC and say XYZ.  Obviously, fixing any sort of relationship is never so simple, as human emotions and insecurities get in the way, and Ferris keeps the reader dangling in uncertainty until the very end about whether or not Brooke and her husband will bridge the rift between them.  Despite the frustrations that the characters cause the reader, there is still something lovable about Brooke.  She’s a girl that any of us could be–had it all, was on the fast-track to greatness, but normal, happy, and loved–when one mistake made in fear changes everything for her.  The reader cannot help but rooting for her as she struggles to reconcile her past and her future.

Set in New England (such a beautiful backdrop), the novel is surprisingly lovely and well-written for an author I’ve never heard of. If there has been buzz about her, I missed out.  But it seems that there should be buzz about her.  She is excellent at creating both story and setting, and her characters are rich and believable.  I’d definitely recommend this novel to anyone who loves a good happy ending.


13.3–If I Stay

13.3–If I Stay

If I Stay is a beautiful novel, but incredibly depressing.  I enjoyed it immensely, but it’s definitely something you have to prepare yourself for.  It is the story of Mia, who, caught between life and death, must choose if she wants to return to life and a world utterly changed, or drift softly and easily into death to escape the pain of the reality that awaits her in life.  As she makes her decision, she flashes back to the happier moments of her life–moments with her family, friends, and boyfriend.

Again, I am struck by the overwhelming sadness of a novel. Why do we like to read these things? At the end, the reader is left with a bit of hope, but the second novel sounds depressing as well.  Is it the feeling of Oh, thank God it isn’t me? Or do we identify a bit with the griefs and losses of the characters?  In any case, people write these novels, and we read them and enjoy them, as is the case with this one. I read it in one sitting. It’s a quick but heavy read, and left my heart a bit sore.  It also gave me a very strong desire to hug my family.

Mia is an interesting character, one I couldn’t figure out.  She is neither popular nor nerdy.  She is a cello enthusiast, though I’d stop short of saying prodigy.  Perhaps others view her that way, but she does not think that of herself, and since it is her narration that creates the story, we’ll stick with her version of things, making her neither less nor more than she is.  She is shocked when the cute punk musician boy, Adam, shows interest in her, despite the fact that he is not popular either.  She has a fantastic relationship with her family, which is unusual for novels these days.  She seems like a loner, and doesn’t like hanging out with her boyfriend, Adam’s, friends.  Instead she mostly hangs out with one friend, Kim.  She and Adam, honestly, seem a very strange couple, but his grief at her condition is incredibly real.  For some reason, I just didn’t buy them as a couple, and it soured the story for me just a bit.  Still, it was enjoyable to read about a normal girl with a normal life for once, instead of a girl with powers, or a girl with fangs, or a girl who is forced to learn to survive after the collapse of civilization.  I love those kinds of books, but I also love books about regular girls.

The cover says, “For fans of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight [sic],” but it’s not like Twilight at all. I hate that they stick that crap on the cover just to sell books.  For one thing, it is 100% more elegant than Twilight.  The writing style is lovely–simple, but full of imagery and emotion.  Mia is a good character, one that is somewhat admirable, and a little less dependent on a boy than some other characters *cough*cough*  She knows she has her own life to live, even if it tears her away from the boy she loves–unlike other “heroines” who throw themselves from cliffs because a boy leaves her. Just sayin’…

Anyway. Good novel.  Read it in a day because I had to know what she chose to do.  Live or die? To be or not to be? That is the question that Mia must answer, and I think you’ll enjoy her beautiful journey to that decision.


12.37–Ask the Passengers

12.37–Ask the Passengers

The benefit of working in a bookstore is that there are books lying around (duh). Everywhere.  Not just the ones on the shelves available for purchase. Oh no.  There are also the innumerable ARCs stacked everywhere.  One could drown in them.  Though the novel I write about today was actually released in October, I read an old, battered copy of the uncorrected proof that I found lying around in the kid’s section of the store.

Ask the Passengers is stunning.  I read it cover to cover Thursday night, completely determined to finish it that night. It’s not that it’s the most suspenseful book I’ve ever read.  It isn’t really suspenseful at all.  It tells the story of Astrid–a seventeen year old girl in a small, conservative town who is coming to an understanding with herself about her sexuality.  Though she is attracted to and then later in love with a girl, she is not certain that she is gay for a good long while. Or, rather, she is not willing to admit to herself and to others that she is gay.

Lest my readers think that this is “yet another preachy book about the plight of gays in America,” (sadly, there are people who are tired of this issue) and indeed the world–it is not.  Yes, this is a major part of the plot. But Astrid, like every kid searching for his or her identity, faces multiple crises.  She must deal with her mother’s lack of love and her father’s apathy.  She faces the lies of her best friend. She gets busted for underage drinking.  On top of this, she is “outed” before she is ready to admit her sexuality to herself, much less to others.  The rumors, snark, and ill-will that follow in the wake of a certain incident are heartbreaking to read–doubly so because there are people who endure that and worse in real life.

Astrid is a fantastic character.  She is witty and fun, but her sadness tints everything she does.  She is creative, and very smart.  She names Socrates “Frank” because she doesn’t like him having only one name, and he becomes her conscience as she navigates the choppy waters of her personal and family life.  What is best, though, is her ability to overcome.  She is a person who literally sends love to everyone, even when they are upsetting her. Or she sends it to strangers. The quirk of the book–because there has to be one–is that she reclines on the picnic table in her backyard and sends love to passengers in passing airplanes.  What is interesting is that the author includes one- or two-page blurbs written from random passengers’ points-of-view.  Many times they can feel the love that Astrid sends and it influences a great change in their life. Very, very cool.

It is a beautiful book about a teenager who isn’t afraid to see herself as a person and stand up for her right to be so.  She overcomes the judgement and ridicule of others. Though it doesn’t go away–just like in reality–she manages to live her life in a proud and dignified way, unbowed by the cruelty of others.  I really think A. S. King did a fantastic job with this one.


12.28–Wicked

12.28–Wicked

I revisited this one because it’s been quite a long time since I read it.  I remember sincerely loving the book, and marveling at the darkness with which Maguire writes. By the way, how gorgeous is this cover? Mine doesn’t look that good. Mine looks like this:

Not as pretty

Anyway, I don’t know how many people have read this novel, since it’s been out for years.  For those who haven’t, it tells the story of Elphaba, who is more familiar to fans of The Wizard of Oz under her identity of the Wicked Witch of the West (which I will now refer to as WWW).  In this first novel of Maguire’s, he gives the reader the backstory of the WWW, from her humble beginnings in the country of Munchkinland to her college years at Shiz to her rebellious youth in the Emerald City.  From the novel, the reader learns that Elphaba, or WWW, is not the evil villain we love to hate.  She has been misunderstood her whole life, ostracized because of her green skin, and villainized because she disagrees vocally with the Wizard’s politics.  By the time she meets Dorothy (in part four of the novel), she is middle-aged and beaten down, having suffered a lifetime of loss after loss.

I remembered virtually nothing about this novel.  In my mind it got confused with the musical, which I’ve seen twice.

It’s pretty fabulous

Because I’d forgotten the novel, I was amazed by how different the two stories are.  For one thing, the musical is optimistic. It is the touching tale of two friends that somehow manage to overcome obstacles to their friendship and also make changes for the good of Oz.  The novel, conversely, is not.  For one thing, Elphaba and Glinda do not stay friends the way they do in the musical.  There is a massive cast of characters that pass through Elphaba’s life, but their presence is always fleeting.  Maguire’s novel is also a lot more political.  There is the Wizard, who blew into Oz in a hot air balloon and deposed the reigning child queen, and who oppresses the people of Oz indiscriminately. Munchkins, Quadlings, Animals–all fall under the Wizard’s iron hand.  There is a religious group that closely resembles Christians, known as the unionists, who worship the Unnamed God and attempt with futility to convert people away from the “pleasure faith.”  In fact, Elphaba at one point joins a group that, if not extreme enough to merit the distinction of terrorists, come pretty darn close.  No, it certainly isn’t the Wizard of Oz that we know at love from novel and film.

Part of me really didn’t like reading it this time.  I still give it five stars, because it is masterfully written, is a great and engaging story, and is engrossingly creative.  But there is a hopelessness that dominates the tone of the novel, and sometimes I wasn’t in the mood to pick up such a downer.  The novel seems to hint that resistance to the status quo, to tyranny and oppression, and to evil itself, is a useless pursuit that should be abandoned so that one might have a happy life.  Maybe this is mostly true, as it seems like one person has little power to make change, but I didn’t want to read about it in every word of the novel!

Still, as I said, it is a masterful work.  Maguire has a very dry and sometimes offensive sense of humor, playing with things that one would not normally find amusing (for instance, senility in the elderly). His words are beautiful.  It is a novel that is effortlessly thoughtful, which forces the reader to contemplate their own complacency.  Maguire also creates wonderful characters.  Elphaba is, despite being prickly and somber, a character that the reader can love, though it may stem from pity.  She tries so hard to do the right thing, and it often goes wrong for her.  She is going against the whole of Oz, and one cannot help but admire her courage.  The other characters that come and go (Boq, Galinda, Fiyero, Sarima, Liir, Nessarose, and others) are, if not always fully rounded out, entertaining.  They complement each other well, and yet, simply by existing, create conflict between each other.  Their differing beliefs and ideals clash enough that very little outside strife would be necessary, though it often makes an appearance anyway.

I definitely think the novel has more value than the musical.  Don’t get me wrong. The musical is great–beautiful costumes and sets, catchy and sometimes moving songs, and an entertaining plot line.  But where the musical is fun, the novel is important.  It is a witty, dry, and entertaining commentary on the world in which we live today.  If you’re one of the last people in the world to read this novel, I recommend you get around to it soon!

Or she’ll get you


12.25–Labyrinth

12.25–Labyrinth

For those of you hoping I’d be reviewing the David Bowie movie or something along those lines, I’m sorry to disappoint you! No, this is definitely a book.

The novel jumps back and forth between 2005 southern France, and the same location in the 13th century.  Alaïs and Alice are the same person living in two entirely different times–Alaïs in the ancient past and Alice in modern France.  While volunteering at an archeological dig, Alice discovers artifacts in a cave that launch her on the path toward her destiny–a picture of a labyrinth painted on the cave wall, a stone ring, and the skeletons of two people long-deceased.  The story then takes off almost like a Dan Brown novel (a bunch of baddies going after an ancient and mystical secret and leaving a huge trail of bodies that somehow no one really notices), centered around several things, namely the quest for the Grail and the Inquisition in Europe.

In part, it was this that confused me. I didn’t particularly enjoy the novel that much, and now that I think about it, it may have been the fact that I couldn’t pin down a central focus.  The jacket text makes it seem as though it’s more about the persecution of a sect known as the Cathars in France in the 13th century, who were considered heretics by the Catholic Church and were hunted down and burned.  In reality, this is merely setting for the shadowy, secretly-embarked-upon quest for the Grail, the truth about which is known by a very small group of people.  I suppose, though, that there was too much detail about the Cathars, and it got confusing keeping track of who wanted to kill the main characters because they were heretics, and who wanted to kill them because they were the protectors of the Grail.  There was too much conflict coming from every side, and it made me go cross-eyed.

It was a decent story, but I didn’t love it.  Alaïs and the people in her time were well-written and interesting, but Alice and the modern counterparts of the people from the past were somewhat lame.  Alice herself was a bit of a bimbo, and I didn’t really feel her personality matched all of the actions she was required to take.  If it had been real life, she would have been the first to give up her secrets and die…just saying.  The bad guys, with the exception of maybe one, were also kind of…not scary.  There was no moment when I was like, “Oh no! They’ll find the Grail first!” or “Oh no, he’s actually going to kill that dude!”  It was more like, “Ok, I know exactly where this is going…” and I ended up being right.

Overall, I thought the premise and the period in history about which Mosse chose to write were interesting and unique.  I appreciated that about the novel, at least.  But the rest of it–plot, characters, believability–all fell flat for me and made it difficult to get excited about picking up the book and reading more. And those are the most important parts of the books, so that super stinks :/ Sorry guys! Hopefully the next book will be a humdinger! It’s about Doctor Who! How could it not be?

I cried when I found out he was married