I love memoirs.  They read like fiction but they’re true stories.  Something about their being true makes the story incredibly engaging.  It’s almost enough to pull me away from fiction.

Until I read flops like this one and get discouraged from that.  Though it had so much potential (despite the tragedy of it, the author’s life has given her great writing material) this was a terrible memoir for two main reasons:

A: It’s choppy.

There’s no coherence to it.  It’s almost impossible to know in what order the events she’s describing happened. Her story sounds like a drunk person who tries to tell a joke but ruins the punchline because she says it first.  Reading it was not in any way enjoyable.  Perhaps it’s morbid to expect to be entertained by a tragic memoir. Don’t judge me. You all stare at car wrecks, too.

B: It feels fake.

This is supposedly a story about grief.  Christa’s twin, Cara, goes on a downward spiral of drug addiction and self-hatred, and eventually dies of an overdose.  Christa is a mess.  But when she writes about Cara when she’s alive, it’s almost like she can’t stand her. She never has anything flattering to say.  There is very little appearance that they love each other, frankly.  They’re portrayed as close, but it always seems like it’s almost reluctantly–at times, cruel or vindictive. It makes her grief seem embellished and fake.

I was so incredibly frustrated by this book.  Perhaps I’m insensitive. It is, after all, the author’s way of dealing with her grief.  But for a memoir, it lacked the genuineness one would like to expect from a true story.  There are probably hundreds better memoirs you can find.  Pass on this one.

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!

13.14–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.

12.35–State of Wonder

12.35–State of Wonder

A customer recommended this book to me as I was ringing it up for her.  She bought several copies to give as gifts because she said it was just phenomenal.  Naturally, I thought, Hey, I gotta get me some of this.  Maybe it’s because I built it up in my mind as being super awesome, but it was a little less awesome than I thought it would be.  It was still good.  Ann Patchett’s prose is lovely, but it wasn’t give-copies-to-all-of-my-friends-for-Christmas good.

Marina and Anders are lab partners at a massive pharmaceutical company in Minnesota.  When Marina finds out that Anders, who months before traveled to the Amazon, has died of a nameless fever, she journeys to the very place where he lived out his last months.  Her mission, for her own sake and for the sake of Anders’ wife, is to discover what exactly happened, how he spent his last moments, and what happened to his body.  While she is there, however, she discovers a lot about herself and what she truly wants for her life.

The premise had potential, but when Marina discovers what the doctors are working on in the Amazon, the research they are doing, and the drug they are attempting to develop, the novel takes a turn for the bizarre and the far-fetched.  It is reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, both in that the forest is a living entity with evil intent toward outsiders, and that the forest people are somewhat inferior to “civilized” people.  The jungle seems to change according to its own will, closing paths that once existed and opening new ones where none were before.  At first the natives that Marina and her fellow doctors live with sometimes seemed more like  domesticated pets than human beings.  Other tribes were more wild and would like nothing more than to put an arrow through any and every stranger.  Slightly less off-putting than the whiffs of racism, but perplexing nonetheless, is the truly odd project that Marina’s employer is funding, and the hard-assed doctor who is its leader.

I don’t want to give it away.  There are secrets and surprises that are necessary for enjoying the novel.  But there was also something strained about it.  The events are too far beyond the realm of possibility.  It is classified as fiction, but its element of fantasy is just a little too strong. That said, it at times feels more like an acid trip than true fantasy or simple literature.

A good many parts of it were enjoyable.  Ann Patchett’s characters are fully developed and enjoyable.  Her prose is simple but elegant, and the novel is deeply emotional, as it deals with the connections and relationships between human beings in spite of age, language, and lifestyle barriers.  Though Marina does not enjoy Brazil–in fact, she fears it greatly–Patchett’s descriptions of the ugliness of Manaus and the filth of the river are somehow beguilingly beautiful.  Whether it’s an accurate picture she paints I cannot say, but it certainly is easy to picture in the mind’s eye.

Due to its being well outside the realm of what I normally read, I did enjoy the novel.  Though the plot is a bit weak, other aspects like setting and character development are strong enough to hold up the book.  Like I said, not Christmas gift or rave review worthy, but a decent read nonetheless.

12.33–Days of Blood and Starlight

12.33–Days of Blood and Starlight

Laini Taylor does it again! I was hesitant about Days of Blood and Starlight because I didn’t like the way it began. I was really nervous about the theme of the book.  Where Daughter of Smoke and Bone is extremely romantic, Blood and Starlight is all about war.  It’s tough to read, absolutely fraught with emotion, and it’s definitely a nail biter.

For character, Taylor delivers.  Karou unfolds further as a character with untold layers.  It is so easy for the reader to get invested in her.  In this installment, she comes dangerously close to being broken and defeated, but pulls through to find her true self, ten times stronger and more passionate before.  With her people threatened like never before, she must stand against all the forces allied against her–forces she finds in unexpected places.  Her friend Zuzana is as irrepressible and hilarious as usual.  Her recently-acquired boyfriend adds a new element to her hilarity as well. Their banter is some of the best (and only) comic relief in this extremely heavy, war-torn novel.  And Taylor has brewed up a whole new cast of baddies for the reader to hate.  Taylor is a masterful creator of characters, and this novel is no exception.  Can someone please turn me into Karou? Give me some of her spunk? Thanks :)

For plot, I still can’t say much, because I don’t want to give anything away about this book or Smoke and Bone.  I’ll just say that it kept me on the brink of a lot of things the whole time: screaming, crying, throwing things, pulling out my hair, laughing hysterically in public, etc.  In addition to a stunning ability to create engaging characters, Taylor then sticks those characters in situations for which the reader can’t possibly dream up solutions.  She is constantly taking her reader by surprise and giving them new reasons to turn the page.

There is no end to the things I could say about Laini Taylor.  I really haven’t encountered a series I’ve felt this passionate about or affected by since The Hunger Games.  Once again, I can’t recommend this series highly enough.  I encourage everyone who doesn’t have this on their TBR list to get it on there, and those who do have it to bump it to the top. Now.



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