Book Review: Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

In the historical fiction novel Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys, 15 year old Lina Vilkas, along with her mother Elena and younger brother Jonas (who is 10 years old) are arrested and abducted by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) in 1941 Lithuania. They are stuffed into a tiny train car with many others, but the direct link between them all is unknown. The train car has horrible conditions, and Lina’s father Kostas was taken too, but he and the other men are in a different train. The book narrates the story of Lina, Elena, and Jonas’s journey as prisoners of the NKVD. The entire time, Lina, Elena, and Jonas are trying to find word of where Lina’s father, Kostas, could be.

This book has multiple settings. It begins in Lithuania in 1941, and Lina, Elena, and Jonas are first taken to Siberia and then taken back down to a labor camp in Altai where they are forced to do hard tasks in horrid conditions and minimal food. After that, they are taken on a ship back to Siberia, where they work to build for the NKVD.

The most obvious, main conflict is that Lina, Jonas, Elena, and Kostas have been taken by the NKVD, and so have many others, with no clear connection (in the beginning). This is an external conflict; however, each character also experiences their own internal conflicts. The story is told from Lina’s point of view, and she has many flashbacks of her life in Lithuania. The author very cleverly implements the flashbacks so each time, they get closer and closer to the present until they suddenly fit together like a puzzle and explain what led up to Lina’s family being taken (which I will not spoil!). 

As a 15 year old girl, and a wonderful artist, Lina draws what she sees, especially people, as a means of recording and expressing herself. She is the narrator of the story, and as a teenage girl her descriptions and emotions are very interesting to readers. Lina’s internal conflicts are specific to the mindset of a teenage girl, and it ranges from missing her father to being protective over her younger brother.

I think that the most influential character in the book is Lina’s mother, Elena, who is the rock for her children. Without Elena, Jonas and Lina would lose hope and motivation very quickly, and may even be separated from each other. Elena wonderfully symbolizes the theme of motherly protection, and it’s a delightful theme to see in such a story. The way she handles everything with kindness, but at the same time stays strong and does not tolerate anything unfair against her children is amazing. Her importance is especially seen since the entire mood of the book is a reflection of her. Lina is the narrator, and she often uses her mother’s facial expressions or posture while describing conditions. This shows the influence and love Lina has for her mother.

My favorite character in the book is Elena, since she is very protective, emotionally strong, and kind to those around her. I really loved the way Elena’s disposition shapes the novel, since Elena has such an impact on her daughter, Lina, who is the narrator. 

Jonas is a 10 year old boy, and is shown at the beginning of the novel to be obedient, sincere, and innocent. Young boys are famously known for being playful and mischievous. The horridness that people suffered during the time of the novel is very starkly shown through Jonas, since he is a young boy stripped of his childhood and being captured and forced into the workcamps. His presence makes the conditions of the book much more sad.

There was one event in the novel that may seem small but was very significant. In the train car, one of the people trapped in the same car as Lina was a boy named Andrius. During the train ride he found an oval stone with quartz and other crystals inside. At first, Andrius kept it, but then gifted it to Lina, who gifted it to Jonas, and the stone cycles through characters like this. It is always given as a gift because the person who is giving it wants the other person to feel better. The stone symbolizes luck and lifts the spirits of the captured people as soon as it is found. If the stone had never been found, the characters’ morale would have hurtled at a downward slope. The stone gave short, simple happiness, and throughout the story happiness and hope is what keeps the characters going. 

I would personally give this book a 10/10. This book was very interesting, and I finished it very quickly. It had wonderful characters, character development, and suspense. It incorporated themes of motherly love, the importance of family, and youthfulness. I usually do not like historical fiction books, but this book was very amazing and informative. The best part was that it did not seem distant and simply informative; the characters seemed so relatable in age and their emotions were easy to empathize with, making the book very powerful. People who enjoy mystery, suspense, the theme of family, and history would love this book. I think that this book is especially powerful, and a person who just likes one of the previously mentioned qualities would definitely enjoy this book.

-Ayati M.

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

The Memory Book by Lara Avery

The Memory Book by Lara Avery

The Memory Book, by Lara Avery, is the story of a girl who is diagnosed with Niemann-Pick C (NPC). I’m not the biggest fan of books based on illness. But this book was charmingly extraordinary and ideal for crying at 2:00 a.m.

The book is written by our main character, Samantha/ Sammie McCoy. She writes about having NPC. Which is a rare, life-threatening disease that will affect her motor functions, metabolism, cognition, and eventually it will steal her memories. In order to combat this, Sammie carries a laptop everywhere and writes down everything in her life. From talking to her guidance counselor about college to her long time crush, Stuart Shah. 

Sammie is a smart girl, who has won countless debate awards and plans to graduate as Valedictorian. Her dream is to eventually move to New York and attend university there. She’s determined to overcome her illness and not let it stop her. She makes lists about “Future Sam”, who is a mature and successful young woman, who is living out her best life. But instead of looking forward to “Future Sam”, we slowly watch Sammie deteriorate. She starts to forget things, At first, she loses the debate championship, after forgetting where she is. And decides it’s best not to tell her debate partner/ best friend, about her disease. But she does tell her old childhood friend, Cooper Lind. 

Even though she lost the debate championship, she is determined her life will be fine. Starting off with telling Stuart that she likes him and eventually becoming his girlfriend. This is great until Sammie is forced to tell him about her disease which she’s been hiding for months. Stuart handles it greatly and is attentive and caring. But he’s stressed about it and feeling less like a boyfriend and more like a caretaker.

As this is happening, she begins to have more frequent episodes. She forgets about her little sister’s existence, the names of her pets, and even where she is while driving to a party. You can feel her frustration and confusion in her writing. And it’s completely heartbreaking. Especially, reading about her family seeing all of this. Watching how her little brother’s confused when she brushed her teeth 3 times in a row, or her parents crying in the living room. But the upside of all this happening is that she’s grown closer to Cooper. They even manage to rebuild their friendship and admit their feelings to each other. 

This resulted in a fight between Stuart and Cooper, when Stuart found them sleeping together. This was my least favorite part since cheating (even if you’re sick) is not okay. But you can feel Sammie’s emotions, and how this disease is making her unsure of who she loves and who she thought she loved. She eventually breaks up with Stuart and goes to Cooper. There’s this huge scene, where she shows up at his work. Then goes on the intercom and tells him how she’s sorry and that she loves him. It’s a light-hearted and satisfying scene. It almost feels like the book should end right there.

But it doesn’t. Instead, we are cheerfully greeted by Cooper, who is writing a few pages explaining how he fell in love with Sammie. And how she had a seizure and was sent into shock. This part made my stomach drop. But luckily, Cooper wrote that Sammie woke up and is talking. There are a few cute pages of Cooper and Sammie leaving each other notes via computer/memory book. But there are also some parts, where Sammie doesn’t even recognize Cooper and asks why he’s there. But she eventually remembers and leaves the line “Coop I don’t know what I would do without you. I’m really happy- Sammie”

The next pages are characters writing in the book their favorite memory with Sammie. Again I thought the book was over, and that Sammie is okay. But then my eyes froze on the last page. It’s a single paragraph, a note really, from Cooper. It talks about how Sammie is now gone, and how his favorite memory is this entire book since it’s a recording of her life. My heart shattered when I read this and I started sobbing. Because the emotions you feel during this book are so genuine. You feel as if you watched Sammie grow, and learn to experience her life. You watch her chase after her dreams and connect with her friends. You watch her fix her mistakes and become a better person. Although you don’t see Sammie dying in her entries. You can put it together from Cooper’s note. 

This book is definitely a tragic, romance book. But I felt as if the romance and “love triangle’ were a bit too forced. I also felt like her death was so sudden and how we barely saw Sammie at this point. But I understand why the author didn’t do that. This is Sammie’s book. It’s Sammie’s life, and she can’t document her own death.

-Ashley Y.

The Memory Book by Lara Avery is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Little Men by Louisa May Alcott

Little Men, the second book after Little Women, once again written by Louisa May Alcott, is truly just as warm and cherishable.

Anyone who loves Alcott’s classic Little Women will undoubtedly love Little Men just the same. Though this book regards less about the characters in Little Women, save for Jo and Mr. Bhaer, it revolves around a new generation of children, including Meg’s children and Jo’s children. As we know from Little Women, Jo went on to establish a children’s school named Plumfield, which is where nearly all of the events in this book take place, as it revolves around the pupils who live there. Plumfield serves as a school and home for young children who have no other place to go; many of which are orphaned, poor, or alone whom the Bhaer’s kindly take in. 

The story begins by following a storyline but then changes course to be a series of random days and happenings at the school, following no particular order. This change in the way of writing is quite pleasant, as Alcott captures little flashes and special moments in the school. 

Warm sunny days and cold, yet cozy winters around the fireside. Berry picking, pie-making, pillow fights and storytelling, naughty instances and sweet moral lessons.

Now, in terms of one of the most arguably beloved characters from Little Women, Jo, readers can now see what Jo is like all grown up; a school teacher, a mother, and a wife. She is older, quite motherly, and much more mature, but never lost her amusement in spending time with boys or her wild side.

 In this book, Alcott truly captures the spirit of both parenthood and childhood and the dynamics between the two. Though this book is about children and more so directed to young readers, it is a heartfelt, beautiful read for any age. Similar to Little Women, it’s characters are easily lovable yet do not lose a sense of realism and are each incredibly well-written. I highly recommend this book!

-Aisha

Little Men by Louisa May Alcott is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Six Traits Blog - Word Choice: An Excerpt from The House ...

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a poignant coming-of-age book centered around a young Latina girl, Esperanza, in 1960s Chicago.

In a series of vignettes, or short stories, Cisneros examines themes of maturity, belonging, poverty, and femininity. The vignettes are told from Esperanza’s point of view, laden with rich imagery and symbolism, and hazy- like they are being told in a dream. Each vignette focuses on small events in Esperanza’s day to day life, and provides insight into her thoughts and desires.

Cisneros skillfully presents the dichotomy of Esperanza and her family’s life- many of the vignettes center around happy moments in their lives, like playing outside with friends, getting a first job, or going to a neighbor’s party, but even so, the abject hopelessness and desperation of their situation lurks just below the surface. The entire book is a masterful study of not only Esperanza’s situation, but the human condition- a careful examination of ritualistic maturity, traditions, gender norms, and youth. 

Cisneros writes in a simple, easily understandable vernacular, complete with sentence fragments and a lack of quotation marks that makes each vignette easy to read. Nonetheless, the book contains a depth of emotion and, often, desperation that was immensely heart-wrenching to witness. I grew up in circumstances close to those of Esperanza’s, so reading about her experiences took me back to my own childhood, to times when I felt the same way she did. Personally, I would rate this book a 10/10. 

This book contains some mature themes.

-Vaidehi B.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

TV Show Review: Gilmore Girls

As you may have guessed, this television show features the girls of the Gilmore family.

I have probably watched each Gilmore Girls episode at least 3 times. I love the show. The series follows a hilarious and iconic mother-daughter duo living in a tiny town in Connecticut called Stars Hollow. 

Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory(Alexis Bledel) who play the mother and daughter are best friends first, mother and daughter second. This special relationship is a result of Lorelai having Rory when she was very young (16). Right after having Rory, Lorelai left her wealthy, extravagant life that her parents were living and raised Rory all on her own. 

The show starts with Rory beginning her sophomore year of high school and trying to gain admission into a prestigious, and expensive, private school. In order to afford the tuition, Lorelai must swallow her pride and ask her rich parents for financial aid in order to send Rory there. This leads to an agreement where Lorelei and Rory must have dinner at the Gilmore house every Friday night.

The two live in a small fictional town named Stars Hollow. There are many interesting characters living in the town. There is a grumpy, but loving diner owner Luke, the delusional dance teacher, Ms. Patty, the tight knit town mayor, Taylor, and many more cooky characters. 

The show features the amazing lifestyle of Rory and Lorelai, the rich lives of Emily and Richard, the weird characters in Stark Hollow, every Friday night dinner and every laugh relationship in between. This show will have you laughing out loud but also has its sad and serious aspects. No matter what comes between the two they always have each other’s backs as they navigate life.

Gilmore Girls can be found on Netflix. It has 7 seasons, starting with Rory’s sophomore year of high school and ending with her college graduation.

-Hidaya R.

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers is the story of a beloved nanny and the magical adventures that seem to follow wherever she goes.  Travers wrote several books about Mary Poppins.  In the first book, we are introduced to the Banks family, consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Banks and their four children: Jane, Michael, John and Barbara.  John and Barbara are the baby twins.  After their nanny quits, Mary Poppins appears seemingly out of nowhere to become the new nanny.  Poppins turns out to be much different than any other nanny they had known before.

The children realize right away that whenever Mary Poppins is around, amazing things happen.  I enjoyed reading about their unusual experiences.  One of my favorite characters is Admiral Boom.  He yells out random nautical phrases like “Land ho!” and “Heave away there!”  I also enjoyed a chapter called “Laughing Gas,” in which Mr. Wigg (also known as Uncle Albert) fills with laughing gas and elevates in the air when he loses control of his laughter.  For some reason, Mr. Wigg finds it especially difficult to control his laughter on Fridays, and when his birthday falls on a Friday he floats like a balloon.

This book is filled with many other quirky and amusing episodes.  However, one thing that surprised me was the personality of Mary Poppins herself.  She apparently has a vanity problem, because she always seems to admire herself when she sees her reflection.  I was also taken aback by the manner in which Mary Poppins treats the children.

For example, we read: “’Ask him.  He knows—Mr. Know-All!’ said Mary Poppins, nodding her head scornfully at Michael.”

As another example, we read: “’Oh, really?  I thought it was the other way round,’ said Mary Poppins with a scornful laugh.”

Yet another example of her attitude toward the children: “Mary Poppins turned and regarded him with something like disgust.”

There are many other examples of this kind of behavior by Mary Poppins.  She is not always mean-spirited toward the children, and she seems to have their best interests at heart.  I was just surprised to read about her snapping at the children from time to time.  Still, by the end of the book, the children seem to love her (for some reason).

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book.  There were many humorous and delightful elements to the story.  The book is also full of surprises, especially when it comes to the occasional rude or even scornful remark by Mary Poppins.  If you have seen the 1964 Disney movie, then you will be surprised by the differences.  I would say that the Mary Poppins character is much more gentle-hearted in the movie than in the book.  In spite of that, I would recommend this book, as well as its sequels.

-Oliver H.

Marry Poppins by P. L. Travers is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott

Jo’s Boys: the final book of Louisa May Alcott’s precious series, beginning with the famous Little Women. 

Jo’s Boys is a fast-forward of ten years after the events that take place in Little Men, and is, once again, just as lovely as its previous two installments. It features all of the characters that were at the forefront of Little Men and takes the reader through what everyone’s life looks like ten years later. Jo is now a successful children’s writer, and the children are now all grown up. 

Just like the other books, Jo’s Boys never fails in showing the beautiful relationship between the parents of the story and their children, and showing the differences in wisdom and in youth, and the lessons and beauty that can be derived from each.  I enjoyed Jo’s character in this book more than ever, as she is such a wonderful mother and incredibly loving, wise, and warm as a character. 

Her advice that she gives throughout the book to these young individuals is always one that is heart-warming and insightful as she helps the young men and women of Plumfield navigate the beginning of a new chapter of life. And with the beginning of this new chapter, this gentle entrance into adulthood, the book closes the chapter on childhood and instead focuses on growing up, navigating through life’s difficulties, and staying true to your morals and beliefs. 

Unfortunately, despite this being such a wonderful book and the last of the trilogy, I did not find myself enjoying the last few pages as much as I thought I would have, but, nevertheless, this series now owns a new spot on my list of favorites, due to the beauty in this simplistic series. The wonderfully life-like characters, the writing style, the moral lessons, the descriptions of different aspects of life, and the passing of time all make up this book as well as the other two, and it is for these reasons that I have enjoyed them so much.

One thing I enjoyed quite a bit was how this book made certain references, often in conversation, to events that happened in the first book. This made the books feel like a continuous stream of life, like an inside look at the March family, rather than just a fictional set of stories. I also enjoyed seeing how each of the Plumfield pupils turned out later in life, both in terms of career path and character. All in all, I would recommend Jo’s Boys, and the entire series, for that matter, to anyone from any season of life.

-Aisha E.

Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Book Cover, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, 1947 | Objects  | Collection of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

A Streetcar Named Desire is a tragic play written by Tennessee Williams. It is centered around Blanche DuBois, a fragile thirty year old woman who is detached from reality. After being fired from her previous job as a schoolteacher and losing her home, Blanche decides to go and stay with her younger sister, Stella Kowalski. Stella Kowalski lives with her Polish husband, Stanley Kowalski, a plain and straightforward man. Despite falling out of touch with her sister, Blanche arrives with her large trunk at the Kowalski household.

The title of this play is very crucial to its message and illustrates its entire plot. In the beginning, Blanche recounts her journey to her sister’s house. First, Blanche rode a streetcar named Desire. Then, she took a a streetcar named Cemeteries, which took her to a street called Elysian Fields. Elysian Fields is the land of the dead in Greek mythology. This entire journey symbolizes Blanche’s life and her fear of death. At first, Blanche allows her sexual desires to overcome her and ruin her life. As a result, she is evicted from her childhood home, and lastly, she is taken to an asylum and ostracized completely from society.

Throughout this entire play, we watch as Blanche DuBois gradually becomes completely out of touch with reality. Because of her adherence to lies, fibs, and illusions, she clashes with Stanley. Stanley is a grounded and vicious man who represents the vital force, the strength which animates all living creatures. Everything that he does, he does with extreme passion; he loves passionately, treats Blanche cruelly, and is extremity loyal to his friends.

In the end, after Blanche’s depressing and indecent past is revealed to Stella and Stanley, they decide to send Blanche to an insane asylum. The final moments of this play are heart wrenching and painful. As a broken, depressed, and insane Blanche pleads for her sister to save her, she is lead to the asylum like a prisoner.

Despite its tragic finale, this play discusses very important themes such as death, illusions, and sexuality. Overall, this was an extremely intriguing and deep play that I would recommend to anyone who does not mind a sad ending and loves to explore complex themes.

-Yvette C.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Christmas Movies!

Home Alone (1990) - IMDb

During the winter season, there are a plethora of different Christmas movies to choose from. Once I sit down to watch Christmas movies with my family or friends the hardest part is choosing which one to watch. There are varieties of different Christmas that appeal to different people. I will be breaking down my favorite Christmas movie of all time.

My personal favorite Christmas movie of all time has to be Home Alone. I have watched it over and over again since I was a kid. Starring Kevin McCallister played by Macaulay Culkin this movie is a comedy that will never grow old. Beginning with young Kevin who got in trouble and was sent to sleep in his family’s attic.

The following day Kevin’s family was going on their holiday trip, but they forget Kevin at home. Kevin thought his wish to have no family, since they were mean to him, had come true. Living up his solo life until 2 thugs come to try and rob the McCallister’s house. Kevin then sets up bobby traps and tricks to try and protect his house from the robbers. Kevin successfully fights them off multiple times, but the robber’s Harry and Marv will not quit. After many battle rounds Kevin was finally able to fight the burglars off permanently. Later on, Kevin befriends an elderly man, who was known to be a criminal, but finds out he is just a man who lost his connection to his son and feels lonely. After Kevin encourages him to make up with his son, he realizes that family is important along with the impact children have on their parents. During all these events Kevin’s mother was finding the fastest way home from Paris to make sure Kevin was safe at home. Once his whole family returns they get to spend the Christmas holiday together and realize the importance of family.

Though it may be a little cheesy, this movie remains one of the best Christmas movies. Not only is it a classic, but it is also a rollercoaster ride. The character development from a bratty kid to one that is able to spread joy and love. The action scenes are also a great laugh. We get to see a little boy beating up two full-grown men with his mischievous little tricks up his sleeve.

-Lilly G.

Home Alone is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Is it a kid’s book or all ages one?  Madeleine L’Engle’s classic (but not too classic) story A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children focuses on Meg and Charles Wallace Murry and their new friend Calvin O’Keefe through time and space on a mission to save Mr.Murry.  While some argue that this work of science fiction is aimed at youth, it is actually a timeless piece that will transcend time and space itself.  

A Wrinkle in Time tackles different scientific theories by putting them into play and describing them with simple words and emotions making them easily comprehensible.  For example, L’Engle talks about tesseracts or anything which is four-dimensional.  As the three heroes move through time and space, or tesser, L’Engle uses simple but effective words coupled by vivid descriptions of the event.  This allows readers to fully grasp the advanced scientific and mathematical concepts.  Some confuse L’Engle’s use of basic vocabulary as a way to aim her story at children.  While I am sure that she is pleased for children to read her story, this does not mean that A Wrinkle in Time is a kid’s book.  The use of base-level vocabulary simply makes these ideas accessible to everyone and not just rocket scientists.  

Moreover, L’Engle’s characters all deal with absent and neglectful parents, a theme which is definitely not aimed solely at children.  The Murray children practically grew up without their father who was kidnapped by the evil It.  Charles Wallace had not ever even properly met his father.  Calvin O’Keefe’s mother struggled to keep the house in proper sanitation and neglected her children.  While these ideas are important for children to understand, it is certainly not limited to them.  For all I know, reading about how these parent’s identities have shaped their children could give some parents a wake up call.  In any event,  the theme of unideal parenting is one that can resonate with any generation.

Further still, A Wrinkle in Time focuses more on timeless themes and morals than anything else meaning that it will withstand the test of time for all generations, not just children.  L’Engle’s’ story, though it is classified as science fiction, is largely about love and how it connects all of us throughout the universe.  From Meg’s sisterly love of Charles Wallace, Charles Wallace’s love of Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which, to Calvin’s love for Meg, love is all over.  Love is something timeless and will never fade away, and neither will A Wrinkle in Time.  

It almost goes without saying that any book which has obtained a Newbery Medal is fantastic, but Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is a truly extraordinary work of science fiction. Though many declare that it is a children’s story, it is in actuality a story for all ages or anyone who likes scientific theories explained simply, themes about absent or neglectful parents and enjoys a good old fashioned story about the power of love.

– Ainsley H

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.