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

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is a graphic novel/comic that was adapted into a movie. The novel is an autobiography with true events that happened in the late 1900’s. The black and white panels of the novel can effortlessly grab the attention of any reader and make it entertaining.

Persepolis follows a young girl named Marjane who lives through the revolutionary changes in her home country of Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The most interesting part is that the ongoing crisis and corruption is viewed from a child’s perspective despite how complex it is. In a way, the reader grows and learns more about the government and cultural contexts along with the maturing Marjane.

Satrapi does not fail in grasping the reader’s attention and making them feel the rollercoaster of emotions along with the main characters. The series visits very critical and mature topics during the late 1900s that the Iranians/Marjane face. Thus, more mature readers should be able to handle these topics. 

Satrapi’s series is emotional and very moving. The oppression and government conflicts can be seen as a parallel to our world today. Just like Marjane who speaks up against the corruption of her government to maintain her rights, many of us participate in rallies or protests to uphold our values. 

Similar to Marjane who is facing a revolutionary change in her nation, many of us are currently facing a new change in our nation as well. Before Marjane knew it herself, her world changed for the better! Thus, just like Marjane, we must find the will to stay strong, inspire others, and survive. 

Ultimately, Marjane’s spirit and growing perspective of the world around her is inspiring. This series is not only a best-seller but also studied in academic literature courses all over the world as a work in translation. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is struggling to pick up a book during quarantine or in their free time (ahem, I know that’s some of us). It also opens up your ideas of Iranian culture and Islamic politics during the 1900s. 

I also recommend it for anyone who wants to try a new format of reading: comic-style. The panels are very easy to read and the black and white colors are used in such a captivating way. In fact, I read this entire novel in one sitting. I definitely hope others feel the same way as well. 

-Zohal N. 

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Authors We Love: Ruta Sepetys

Ruts Sepetys is one of the most well known young adult historical fiction authors ever! With historical fiction being my favorite genre, I consider myself proud to say that Ruta Sepetys is my favorite author of all time. I have read all of the books she has written and I consider every single one of them to be some of my favorite books. 

Unlike many historical fiction authors, she doesn’t exclusively write about one event in history. With a setting like New Orleans, Barcelona, and Siberia, Sepetys takes us into a plethora of historical events, with different time periods, people, and settings. 

One specific thing I love about historical fiction is you learn something along the way, and all of Ruta Sepetys writes about overlooked events in history. These aren’t things you learn from your history textbook, they’re much more than that. Her books take you on a journey through events like the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that took 10 times the lives the Titanic did, and is the biggest maritime disaster of all time. But for some unknown reason, nobody talks about it, except for Sepetys.

Not only does she shed these huge historical events to light, but she does also these events justice. Although what she writes is fiction, the historical events they’re based on are all too real. Sepetys does an amazing job of research. In her most recent novel, The Fountains of Silence, the back of the book offered more details about her writing and research process, as well as pages of her notes. Sepetys do years and years of research for just one novel, and by reading the books you can tell how much effort was put into them. 

As for her World War Il novels, she has interviewed countless figures, both strangers and family, that were involved in those events, and based some of her books off of real events her family has gone through. 

Another part that I really love about her books is her writing style. With short and quick chapters, the writing allows you to be constantly engaged. The constant point of view switches keep you on your toes and makes every single one of her books a page-turner.

Between Shades of Gray (2011): Not your everyday World War 2 novel, Between Shades of Gray shows the dark side of Polish deportation and labor camps. With a knowledgeable protagonist and a family trying not to fall apart in the face of war, this brutal novel is a must-read. My Rating: 9/10

Out of the Easy (2013): Out of the Easy is a novel describing the life of the daughter of a prostitute longing to be free and live her own life outside of the bustling city of New Orleans. When a customer at her bookstore is found dead, she finally finds the escape she’s been looking for. My Rating: 7/10

Salt to the Sea (2016): The biggest maritime disaster, and the long path refugees are forced to take to flee Germany, this story tells the tale no one wishes to tell about World War 2.  In this novel, everyone has a secret to tell, and with them come guaranteed tears. My Rating: 10/10

The Fountains of Silence (2019): the Fountains of Silence tells the unknown story of how the Spanish people recovered after their own civil war. Told through the eyes of a photographer tourist from Texas, and a hotel employee who works hard for every penny she earns. This novel shows the trials and tribulations of most families during the reconstruction, but the star of this novel is truly the romance. Greatest of all, you get to learn about what’s really happening with the Spanish government behind closed doors. My Rating: 9/10

-Asli B. 

The works of Ruta Sepetys are available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. They can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful novel about patience, faith, and the transcending power of love.

The novel focuses on three main characters and their intertwining stories. Aibileen Clark is an African-American housekeeper in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Tormented by her mistress and haunted by her son’s recent death, Aibileen begins to seek change. Minny Jackson is Aibileen’s best friend. She’s been fired from job after job because of her smart mouth. With five mouths to feed and an abusive husband, Minny is hardened and bitter. However, when she goes to work for Celia Ray, she discovers something new. Eugenia Phelan has been different her entire life. She’s never exactly fit in with her parents’ wealthy, white friends: she longs to be a writer and find true love on the side. As she navigates the treacherous minefield of high society and tentative love, she meets Aibileen and Minny, and the three unite to write a book that may very well get them killed.

The Help is about so much more than the complicated race relations in the mid-90s South. At its heart, it’s a coming-of-age, an opening-of-heart story. Over the course of the plot, the three women learn to find themselves in the blank noise of society, to stay true to themselves when everyone else is telling them to lie. At the end of the day, that is what the novel is about. The enormous power of opening your heart and mind is realistically and hauntingly portrayed here. The hauntingly heartfelt writing style employed by Miss Stockett is perfect- the book reads like a letter written to an old friend. This is a thought-provoking novel that will elicit tears and laughs in equal measures.

-Vaidehi B.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded online for free from Overdrive

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

T.H. White’s 1958 novel is a must-read for all. The book follows the journey of a kingdom with dictators and soldiers that inspired your childhood bedtime stories about King Arthur and the wizard, Merlyn. The characters and plot were based on older novels and true events in history. The entire novel includes five shorter “books” filled with themes of knights, war, lost love, and unraveled secrets.

The first book called “The Sword in the Stone” also inspired the Disney adaption of the story. This book creates the setting for the entire journey and introduces the unknown future king, Arthur, as a young boy living as a peasant. Arthur learns, loves, hurts, and goes through multiple obstacles to find his inner truth.

Personally, the story stuck to me because of its well-thought plot and storyline that makes you feel like you are a part of its world. The story strikes you especially when you realize that the destiny of the characters was already written and known (by Merlyn) since the very first chapter of the book. For this reason, it feels overwhelming when you finally finish the novel and think of the different ways it could have ended.

White’s themes in The Once and Future King accurately apply in today’s world, despite the time between the book’s publication and now in the twenty-first century. This novel not only shows development in its characters but also within the reader.

Although this novel is recommended to be read by young adults, anyone eager enough to gain a higher understanding of the world can read it. Personally, The Once and Future King has stayed with me since I read it for my English class five years ago. Hopefully, the future readers of this novel come to love it and cherish it as much as the past readers have.

-Zohal N. 

The Once and Future King by T. H. White is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain

The Gilded Age is a novel published in 1873. The novel boldly reveals the decayed darkness of the capitalist development stage after the American Civil War by means of realism. The author makes a bitter satire on the bourgeois democratic system and exposes the speculative epidemic, corruption and bribery prevailing in the whole country at that time. Through his own experience and by witnessing the social phenomenon, the author employs exquisite artistic techniques to depict social reality and condense it into the novel, so as to fully present the scene of corruption to the readers.The period from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century became known as the Gilded Age because of its widespread use to describe the corrupt politics and vulgarity of materialism in the United States.

From the end of the Civil War to the first half century of the 20th century, the United States experienced a period of rapid economic growth. The end of the Civil War cleared the way for the development of capitalism, and a large number of workers and immigrants provided the United States with abundance of cheap labor. The continuous discovery of mineral deposits and the nascent technological revolution brought abundant resources for the liberation of productive forces. By 1894, the United States had become the world’s largest country by virtue of its industrial output. However, rapid economic development has not brought people the same happiness. A large number of migrant workers in cities lead to the increase of urban operating load; air, water and noise pollution can be seen everywhere; workers’ income security does not match the scale of enterprise development; the problem of food safety is extremely serious; infrastructure construction in urbanization lags behind; corruption involving collusion between government and business occurs frequently; the anxiety of the people at the bottom and the impetuous mentality of the society are increasing.

The Gilded Age is more of a social survey than a novel. It reveals and criticizes the reality of life in American society during this period from several aspects. Corruption, opportunism and plunder, as well as the social noise and smoke of wealth, are presented to the reader in the images of politicians such as Dilworthy and Colonel Sellers. The Gilded Age combines humor and satire, with unique personal wit, profound social insight and analysis. Humor not only plays a role in regulating life and releasing worries in this novel, but more importantly, enables readers to deeply observe reality, life and society. Society is mercilessly exposed in the humor of The Gilded Age, and the oddities of the underclass are kindly mocked.

-Coreen C.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Farewell to Arms tells the story of an American teenager, Frederick Henry who met Catherine Barkley, a British nurse, while volunteering as an ambulance driver in northern Italy during World War I. Henry was wounded by a shell while on duty at the front and was taken to a Milan hospital. Due to the shortage of nurses, Catherine also came to Milan; the two meet again. This time, Henry found himself deeply in love with Miss Barkley. During the medical treatment in Milan, the two were in love and had a good time. During this time, Catherine became pregnant. When Henry returned to the front from his wounds, he found the Italian army demoralized, full of defeat and despair. German attack finally crushed the Italian resistance.

The soldiers were very excited and anti-war enthusiasm was high.In front of a bridge, the Italian front army began to arrest officers who were alleged to have deserted their posts. Henry escaped execution by jumping into the river while others were interrogated. He finally realized that his duty as a soldier had been washed away with the river. At this time, he has only one purpose: to find Catherine, and then the two would escape the bitter sea of war. Henry travels to Milan and finds that Catherine has gone to a resort town on the frontier. When Henry found Catherine, they were happily together again. However, they were chased by the Italian police and had to flee to Switzerland. Catherine died in childbirth, leaving Henry alone in exile.

Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms successfully created the war-torn hero Henry as a strong, brave, confused, and desperate hero. Through Henry’s disillusionment from hope to disappointment and then to despair, Hemingway profoundly revealed to people the great destruction and injury caused by war to society and humanity. He called on people to have a thorough reflection and awakening to the war, to persist in opposing it as a major and far-reaching cause until one day all mankind can finally say “farewell” to weapons.

-Coreen C.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

For Whom the Bell Tolls (film) - Wikipedia

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a novel created by American writer Ernest Hemingway in 1940. This novel tells the story of Robert Jordan, a young American who teaches Spanish in a university and has deep feelings for Spain. He volunteered for the Spanish army to blow up behind enemy lines. To cooperate with the counterattack, he was ordered to contact with the local guerrillas and complete the task of bombing bridges. He enlisted the support of Bilal, the wife of the guerrilla captain Pablo, and the rest of the team. He then isolated the demoralized Pablo, and arranged each man’s task in a step-by-step manner. In the midst of the flames of war, he heals the trauma of Maria, the girl whom Bilal has taken in because she was raped by his enemies. In these three days, Robert experienced the conflict between love and duty and the test of life and death while human nature continues to sublimate. When the bridge was bombed, Robert was wounded in the thigh and left alone to block the enemy. In the end, he sacrificed his young life for the Spanish people.

In “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, efforts are made to achieve a universal sense of harmony between nature and man, and man and woman. This harmony, Hemingway tells us, is the most difficult type of struggles. To understand one’s intimate relationship with nature and one’s co-existence with others requires breaking the consciousness of the human ego, overcoming the arrogant sense of domination and understanding the ethics of interconnectedness, interdependence and care.

-Coreen C.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in all of it’s blue and gold shimmering splendor, is regarded as one of the greatest American novels of twentieth-century literature. Focusing on the story of Nick Carraway and his involvement with notoriously wealthy Jay Gatsby (followed by his legacy of the American dream and bitter love pursuit), The Great Gatsby dives into 1920’s American society in which the ideal life is painted as an extravagant party, born out of wealth and materialistic grandeur.

Hidden within the folds of Fitzgerald’s florid language — words of “yellow cocktail music,” a “universe of ineffable gaudiness,” “roaring noon” — the novel captivates the audience until it’s profound and raw close. The seamless flow of one thing to the next, the vivid images of a fast-paced and rich life, the timeless theory of long-lasting love and ambition: Fitzgerald renders a chaotic and recklessly beautiful portrait of the roaring 20’s Jazz Age and the world that buzzed within its history.

The incorporation of reoccurring symbols, such as the green light at the end of the dock or the constant juxtaposition of the colors yellow on blue, deepens the horizons to which The Great Gatsby stretches. Across the novel’s pages, Fitzgerald repetitively uses the colors yellow and blue to convey the ideas of truth versus wealth and false wealth in an abstract manner. Likewise, the green light brings the audience closer to Gatsby’s personal ambitions, his true substance over his outward actions.

Fitzgerald’s gradual characterization of each character increases the mysterious aura that revolves around Gatsby and those associated with him, wrapping the entire story into an enigmatic piece of literature rooted deeply in American history.

—Keira D.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive