Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

“They took me in my nightgown.”

Like Moby Dick’s “Call me Ishmael,” a book’s opening line sets more than just the tone of the story. It humanizes a character, as it is the first introduction of the reader into a new world. And Sepetys demonstrates the striking quality of a few words in the first line of Between Shades of Gray. She narrates the fragile account of a persecuted 15-year-old Lithuanian girl and the story of an unmendable world falling apart.

Lina Vilkas was preparing to attend art school. In an already dark world, Lina looked up to the iconic Edvard Munch for inspiration in her sketches. She, alongside her mother and younger brother, was taken by the Soviet secret police and is introduced to the never-ending gruesome reality of a world ruled by the Stalinist administration. As Lina, her mother, and her brother struggle to survive in the cold labor camp, the syntax of writing seemingly wavers as well. Slowly, pictures of their previous lives in Lithuania appear across the pages, in italicized flashbacks.

Sepetys’ writing intertwines the feeling of a coming-of-age story, though constantly in juxtaposition to perpetual starvation, sickness, and loss. Well deserving of recognition as a #1 New York Times Bestselling author, Sepetys artistically crafts each anecdote, putting indescribable meaning to trivial occurrences, like the gaze from a loved one. It was reminiscent of the timeless Don McLean song, “Vincent” (“Starry Starry Night”). Between Sepetys’ use of language and Lina’s connection to Edward Munch, I found myself constantly paralleling the song to the story. As Vincent Van Gogh painted from his cell in a mental hospital in his final days, he tried to see the beauty in the bitter world. Similarly, I feel as though Lina would also find solace in this song, as the only way she can express herself is through her sketches in the snow, on the tree bark, or on the final pages in her notebook.

Ruta Sepetys composes a devastatingly realistic through the pages of “Between Shades of Gray.” I highly recommend the read, and I look forward to exploring more of her works, especially in the era of the Second World War.

-Maya S.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded from Overdrive.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea, written by best-seller author of Between Shades of Grey Ruta Sepetys, tells a heart-wrenching and gripping historical fiction account of an overlooked by-product of WWII. Tragically symbolic of the disaster, Sepetys eternalizes the story of human struggle across the pages of the novel from four intertwined voices: Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred.

The unique characters, of varying backgrounds—a compassionate Lithuanian nurse, an innocent German soldier, a young, pregnant Polish girl, and a careful Prussian thief—cross the paths of each other, pushed together by calamity and betrayal. The book follows their journey to the Wilhelm Gustloff, the only light at the end of their tunneled worlds. The ship, an escape from the Red Army, however, is overpopulated.

The cruel truth of the history, as well as the fictional characters created, brings the world in the book to life. Although the back-stories for the characters are not explicitly written, the mystery brings a kind of de-personalization to the series of events that occur. A reader can feel him or herself more realistically in the story, stumbling upon a group of strangers, coming together, and getting to know one another by circumstance. And then, when their stories are over, all that is left of them is a memory of the time spent together. A point evocatively hit upon in the story was how someone can be judged based solely on his or her shoes. Whether they are in good condition, made from good material, their laces (or lack thereof), a person’s shoes tell their whole story.

This particular comment reminded me of the Paul Simon song, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes. The song, though brimming with shifting poly-rhythms and clever lyrics, simply tells the story of a rich New York girl, her many suitors, and her shoes, the soles laced with diamonds. Likewise, although the shoes of Sepetys’ characters tell a bit about each of their individual and unique stories, the world full of horror and hardship will continue to label these accounts as simple stories, overlooking true human condition.

For all historical fiction readers and shoe lovers, I highly recommend Sepetys’ book. She maintains a striking balance between history and fiction. And because of her beautiful words, I give her nothing but the highest praise.

-Maya S.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Inspired by Marvel’s Thor franchise as well as the upcoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Gaiman’s book really took hold of my interest, as I could not help but pick it up.  In Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman re-paints the pictures of ancient Norse mythos to the modern eye, while still keeping true to its roots.  It begins with the legend of creation of the nine worlds, or realms, as also described in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). There are dwarves and giants, gods and goddesses, and a small section about the mortals living on Earth.  Two topics most compared were, however, the god of thunder and the god of trickery.

Thor and Loki are considered brothers, despite their first introductions: Thor was the son of Odin, and Loki was the son of giants.  There were no definitions of the type of these giants, so the MCU may have created their own story to describe Loki’s past.  Moving past their beginnings, Gaiman takes the reader through an abbreviated retelling of the gods of Asgard and their troubles, especially with Loki.  However, the author kept true to the end, rather called Ragnarok, as the myth goes.

Norse Mythology was quite telling and insightful, as I was able to experience epiphanies, as holes in the myths were filled.  Also an author of comics, intelligent children’s books, and intricate novels of the history of divinity, Neil Gaiman definitely made these myths into a worthwhile story.  Fans of newly-popularized Game of Thrones, as well as the age-old Lord of the Rings, will definitely enjoy this light read for its crossover themes.  Five stars for Gaiman’s Norse Mythology!

Maya S.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

After reading her Six of Crows miniseries, I realized Bardugo had written a precursor trilogy introducing the Grisha world.  Naturally, I wanted to know more about world of Ravka and its beginnings.  If you are new to Six of Crows or Leigh Bardugo, both this trilogy and the Crows duology are standalone novels that can be read with or without the other.  Now, let us dive into the murky waters of the Unsea.

In an alternate-type of history, magical people lived among the common folk.  They were called Grisha.  Much like events in our own past, such as the Salem Witch Trials or religiously-driven peoples running riots, the Grisha were unliked and even killed by some.  However, as they began prominently displaying their powers in Ravka, their home country, people started to treat the Grisha as royalty.  Ruled by the Darkling, a mysterious leader flanked by highly regarded Grisha officials, everything in Ravka was alive.  Except for the Shadow Fold, an equally mysterious stretch of forlorn land, its light diminished to nothing, and its only inhabitants being vulture-like creatures.  This is where Alina Starkov’s story begins, as an orphan girl tested for Grisha powers.  She and Mal, her best friend (also an orphan) trek together through the Shadow Fold and find a force a lot larger than the both of them.

Leigh Bardugo has a talent for writing and creating a darker story, all the while still building and breaking crucial moments as another novel may. If you are new to both Bardugo and these series, I would definitely recommend checking them out, and if possible, starting with the prequel trilogy.

Maya S.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

In her new novel, American Street, Ibi Zoboi creates a different type of story which is both full of truth and meaning.  The first thing I noticed when I picked up the book, however, was the names.  And how much Zoboi was able to do with them.  Our protagonist, Fabiola Toussaint, shares an inspiring story through narrated as well as journalistic chapters, and I loved all of it.  Though not based on a true story, the author has taken the voice of each character and has written from their own fictitious hearts, almost as if she were interviewing them.  Blending the American lifestyle of today’s Detroit and a coming-of-age teenager’s story from Haiti made for a truly extraordinary read.

Fabiola:

According to my papers, I’m not even supposed to be here.  I’m not a citizen.  I’m a “resident alien.”  The borders don’t care if we’re all human and my heart pumps blood the same as everyone else’s.

Not only does this message strike home for my beliefs, but it is truly and utterly relevant.  Fabiola, conned ‘Fabulous’ by friends at school, was born in Haiti to a life supported by her American aunt. The story starts out as Fabiola leaves the airport without her mother, detained by the immigration officers.  This vulnerability reaches the reader on a deep level.  If this scene was cut from the novel, Fabiola would be treated as any other modern-day damsel in distress finding her way around twenty-first century Detroit.

What makes her story so special was the way it spoke to the reader.  It was unlike many other novels recently released, in that the reader felt something more than joy or sadness.  At some point in one’s life, they will experience being in a new and unfamiliar place.  Nothing seems to stop to allow one to catch up.  It is as if nobody else cares.  Zoboi captured this shared human feeling stunningly.

On a scale of ‘one’ to ‘amazing’, I would definitely rate American Street ‘amazing’.  Readers can also learn something new about cultures and their collision on the corner of American Street and Joy Road.

-Maya S.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

The Diviners by Libba Bray

There is a recently-added feature to the YA section called “Allen’s Pick”.  And, as I was walking through the library, I spotted this little tag and decided to give the recommended novel a try.  Little did I know it was the perfect kick-off to my summer, fulfilling my favorite three genres:  historical fiction, fantasy, and mystery.  Though the main character, Evie O’Neill (a Diviner, herself), and I got off on the wrong foot, I soon began to fall in love with her charming wit and Bray’s use of decadent literature.

The year is in the 1920’s where 17-year-old Evie O’Neill is performing her party act in front of her slightly drunk friends.  She asks for a person’s possession.  She touches it, falling into a deep trance before delivering the verdict.  In one case, she uncovers one boy’s secrets.  Without thinking, Evie spills, causing quite the uproar and later the punishment of moving to live with her mysterious uncle in upstate New York.  While Evie’s parents believed they were sending Evie to her mortal hell, the star-struck-wannabe-flapper was cooking up something entirely different.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bray’s novel, for its language, plot, and musical references.  She certainly did her research, finding what a teenage girl in New York in the 1920’s would be doing with her life.  I even had to google ‘Libba Bray age’ to make sure she was not 108 and therefore was not 17 years old in 1921.  Bray then went on to write a sequel to the Diviners, entitled, the Lair of Dreams.  Next time you visit the library, I would definitely recommend looking for the “Allen’s Pick” tag, and try a new read!

-Maya S.

The Diviners series by Libba Bray is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah

Upon reading Mah’s Chinese Cinderella and its sequel, I recently was made aware of a precursor and her official autobiography.  Entitled Falling Leaves, the book follows the same plot line as her other two works.  However, what made it different was the voice Mah used as the story of her life progressed.

Little Adeline, originally Mǎ Yán Jūnlíng, was born into a high-class family in Tianjin, China.  Her mother, the light of her father’s life, died shortly after giving birth to Adeline.  This did not raise the youngest child’s status in the family.  From a young age, Adeline received nothing but resentment and mistreatment from her family, with the exception of her kind Aunt Baba.  Under the direction of the late mistress of the Yen household, Aunt Baba became Adeline’s surrogate mother.  But, Adeline was persistent to win her father’s attention, through and through, even to his deathbed.  She consistently was awarded medals and perfect report cards.  On few occasions, her father would notice, but with the addition of a new stepmother, Niang, Mr. Yen sent Adeline to boarding school.  Where, throughout the years she spent there, nobody paid her a single visit.

As Mah takes the reader throughout her painful life, she not only follows her own story, but retells her family’s (if they could ever be called that), so when the story concludes, all the pieces come together.  And, in Adeline’s case, quite heartbreakingly.

What Mah has written truly shows the willpower of human sufferance.  War-torn countries and refugees have stories worth sharing, inspiring the fortunate people of the free world.  However, within what may seem to be a noble Chinese household, the step-children, in particular the youngest girl, find a similar fates.  Though found the library’s adult section as it contains more mature content, I fully recommend Mah’s autobiography.

-Maya S.

The works of Adeline Yen Mah are available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

The Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson

Winner of the 2015 National Book Award Longlist, for Young People’s Literature, M.T. Anderson has created a story worth telling.  It is the unfortunate, yet true, biography of Dmitri Shostakovich.  

Growing up in a harsh life as a result of Communist Russian leaders, Shostakovich soon discovered his interest for music.  While his life in the world of the arts was beginning, however, so was the air of terror from Adolf Hitler.  Anderson takes the reader through the cold winters of Leningrad, the warm home of Shostakovich, and of course, the sweet melodies of Dmitri Shostakovich.

I really enjoyed Anderson’s writing style throughout the course of this book.  He told the story of Shostakovich truthfully and full-heartedly.  Anderson must also be a musician himself, as his insight and musical knowledge is vast. I picked up this book, as it was marked new in the Young Adult section, and I was intrigued.  The most interesting topics in nonfiction to me are WWII and music.  I had heard of Shostakovich before reading the biography, but never realized the story behind his masterpiece, Symphony No. 7.  

Anderson brought the reader back in time, into the early 1900s.  Shostakovich, born in 1906, grew up among a family of three children in St. Petersburg, Russia.  As he transitioned from a young scholar enrolled in a music school into a renowned composer, Shostakovich started a family of his own.  However, around him, the people of Leningrad were starving, caused by an unfortunate siege by the Germans.  Their food supply had been bombed.  Their leader had fled.  Citizens were trying to escape the city as fast as possible.  But not Shostakovich.  His pride and honor for the beloved city kept him there, even through the starvation.  Many high-ranking officials tried their hardest to relieve the Shostakovich’s, by bringing them to Moscow.  But, Dmitri insisted on staying in Leningrad to finish his symphony.

 
Later revealed at its debut in Leningrad, Shostakovich had written his masterpiece for the city of his home, the city of the dead.  For young musicians who may want to learn more about some of the greatest composers of the last few centuries, please check this out.  While the book is lengthy, I would recommend it, as it is a 10/10.

Maya S.

The Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Every Falling Star: the True Story of How I Escaped North Korea by Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland

In utopian societies, life is perfect.  To young Sungju Lee, this was North Korea.  His father, an army general, was his greatest hero.  Someday, Sungju would fight in the North Korean army to beat the nasty Americans and cruel South Koreans.  In fact, when he was little, he and his father used to play a game with his father teaching young Sungju the ways of war.  North Korea would always win, for in Sungju’s mind, it was the best country in the world!  One of the strategies he used was a series of stones.  If a hideout was overtaken or deemed unsafe for the soldiers to return to, stones would be placed in front.  Little did Sungju know, this strategy would save his life.

One day, Sungju came home from school to find his parents packing up their things.  Sungju wondered if they were going to vacation to the ocean like he wanted.  But, instead they were going to the country.  Sungju then asked about where his dog would go while the Lees were on vacation.  His mother shamed him for asking, and Sungju felt bad.  He needed to be a good son so he could be in the regime and in the ranks of North Korea’s Eternal Leader, Kim II-sung.  As time passed and despite his complaints, Sungju would never return to Pyongyang.

Throughout the author’s heartbreaking story, I kept trying to push him forward.  I thought of the song “When You Believe” sung by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.  The lyrics speak of hope, and it was this hope which I was trying to infuse in Lee.  He endured many hardships at the tender age of 11 and suffered for five years before finally escaping the torment of his country.  Compared to other books highlighting political struggles and the impact on its citizens, this was one of the most compelling stories.  Unlike Chinese Cinderella, a deeply saddening story of a disowned little girl, everybody around Sungju loved him.  They were trying their hardest to make ends meet, but to say more would take away from Sungju’s story.

On a scale of 1 to10, Every Falling Star definitely deserves a 9 for its well-written passages and amazingly illustrated emotion.  Because Lee was not a native English speaker, when he came to the United States, he received help from Susan McClelland to lay out his story.  After finishing the book, I read an excerpt from him, saying that many of the characters’ (family members and brothers) names were changed because they were still living in North Korea.  This was done to protect them.  Please check out this book and be drawn into an intriguing story of overcoming life’s worst obstacles.

-Maya S.

Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

startouchedqueen_roshanichokshiBeautifully illustrated from the first line, Chokshi’s fantastical The Star Touched Queen shows the path an Indian queen who finds her way to the light.  Through thick and thin, obstacles and triumphs, Mayavati searches from hiding behind her own shadows to grasping the stars that lay above her.  My favorite part of the novel was the writing style, especially the amazing imagery used when describing the young queen’s journey.  Mayavati, a very dynamic character, grew along with the words throughout the tale.  At the start, when her story was a routine of palace life and a shameful astrology, the vocabulary chosen was more ominous.  However, there was always a light, a small hope, which rose and fell as Maya (for short) ventured through the times.  And, upon reaching the final few chapters, the writing climaxed to a breath of new life.

At the same time the queen was a strong, ferocious, and gallant leader, she was still the vulnerable seventeen-year-old introduced at the start of the novel.  This clashing of alternate personalities describes teenagers very well.  So, it always brought me back to the song “Vincent” by Don McLean.  The piece, emotional and ballad-like, tells the story of Vincent Van Gogh.  The first line, “Starry, starry night” is a reference to one of his most famous paintings.  But, it also ties in well with Mayavati’s destiny.  The two are both artists:  one, an illustrator of life and the other, a storyteller.

I can usually sense when a book is an author’s first publication.  However, in Chokshi’s case, the novel was very well written, and she was able to truly capture the life of the characters.  In addition, I have no doubt her second book, released in March of this year, will be no different.  It will be in the same universe, but delving more into characters briefly introduced in The Star Touched Queen.  This first book; however, was one of those novels which olds a special place and one I will definitely read again.  So, if you are intrigued, check it out!

-Maya S.

The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library