Friday, April 29, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Thank you Goodreads for knowing me well enough to recommend the latest work by young adult author Ruta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea. Granted, it certainly helps that I gave glowing reviews to both Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy.

The Situation: It is the winter of 1945 and World War II is still raging in Europe, though it feels like defeat is near for Germany, but not near enough. Four teenagers from four different countries are doing what they can to survive the event that has already claimed so many, and relocated others away from their home. Joana, a Lithuanian girl, travels with a small group, hoping to eventually gain passage on one of the ships that will carry evacuees away from the war-torn area. She uses her skills as a nurse to help and treat whoever she can along the way, even taking in a small child who seems to have separated from his family. Florian, a young Prussian boy with experience in art preservation, also heads in the same direction, but alone, and he prefer it stay that way. Unfortunately for him, he comes upon the young and pretty Emilia and ends up saving her from the unwanted advances of a Russian soldier. Now he has a travel companion in the young Polish girl, who is also on the run from her former life. And then there is Alfred, a German soldier with illusions of grandeur who is unflinchingly supportive of what Hitler has tried to do.

The Problem: The four teenagers may have come from different countries, but their lives end up intersecting as they all have one real goal: survival. But things are easily complicated due to language barriers, cultural differences, and the secrets that they each carry. Joana uses her nursing skills and her innate desire to be helpful to mask the real guilt she feels. Florian wishes to travel alone because it would be easier to keep a low profile and not be found out. If a German soldier were to find Emilia and find out she was Polish, she would most likely be killed on the spot, even if she is pregnant. And Alfred may be German, but it is clear that even his fellow soldiers and countrymen do not respect him. He shirks work, has an inflated view of himself, and despises anyone who has the nerve to notice just how inadequate he is. Add to all of this the background of WWII Germany and it makes for an intense journey. And Sepetys makes it clear from the book jacket that the ship they all end up boarding, the Wilhelm Gustloff, will end up being a maritime disaster with very few survivors.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that is also historical fiction, much like another book by Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray. Both books take place during WWII and chronicle the hardships that are endured by those victimized by either Hitler or Stalin. The four teenagers in this book each come from a different country, from different circumstances, and must act accordingly if they hope to survive to the end of the war. The one at most risk is Emilia as she is not only Polish, a race despised by Hitler, but also incredibly pregnant. Knowing only Polish and broken German, it is ultimately good fortune that she runs into Florian. He may not want her around, but by joining up with him, she becomes connected to Joana, who wants nothing more but to help and heal. The book is a look at what war brings out in people, and what it makes them do just to survive another day. And then of course there is the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship they will all board but will ultimately end up sinking after being torpedoed by the Russians. It is an event few people know about, even though the number of people killed is even higher than that of the Titanic

My Verdict: Is there a such thing as heavy handed but in a good way? Because that is how I would describe this book. Or maybe heavy handed, but on the right side of handy handed. Something that felt slightly off were the secrets that each character was carrying. I am not sure if it was the revelation of what the secrets were, or if it was just that there were secrets in the first place, but it seemed like the WWII setting would be enough to put these characters in desperate situations, but Sepetys managed to take it a step further. It is war after all: people find themselves doing unspeakable things even if just in the name of survival. While Joana, Florian, and Emilia are victims of the actions of Hitler and Stalin, Alfred is a willing advocate and participant, although not a good one. So the reader gets to be in the mind of those desperate to survive, and one who has bought Hitler's message and wishes to do his part. It is not an easy book to read, but it does shed light on a little known event in history, which took place during arguably the biggest conflict that world has ever seen.

Favorite Moment: After composing one of his ridiculous letters to Hannelore, the love of his life back home, Alfred quickly shifts back to reality where he is not only seasick, but also currently vomiting on his own shoes.

Favorite Character: Joana wants nothing more than to be helpful. Part of it may be an attempt to mask her own shame and guilt, but she still manages to help a lot of people.

Recommended Reading: While Out of the Easy is a good book, I would recommend Between Shades of Gray as it also deals with WWII. But instead of telling the story of those attempting to evacuate, it follows Lithuanians who were forced by Stalin's regime to leave their home and travel north to Siberia.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Historical Fiction: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Like many readers, I was first introduced to the writing of Yann Martel through his international best-seller Life of Pi, though he had written and published a few things before that. And despite the disappointment that was Beatrice and Virgil, I decided to pick up his latest work, The High Mountains of Portugal.

The Situation: In the first section, titled "Homeless," Tomas heads out to the High Mountains of Portugal on a personal quest to find an artifact created by Father Ulisses in the year of 1904. Using Father Ulisses' diary as a guide, Tomas heads out on the adventure with his rich uncle's car, although automobiles have not yet achieved mainstream use. In the second section, titled "Homeward," it is 1939 and Dr. Lozora is once again up late in his office. After a day of autopsies and a visit from his wife, the doctor receives a late night visit from a woman who wants an immediate autopsy on her husband, whose body she has packed in the suitcase she is carrying with her. The procedure will turn out to be one of the strangest autopsies he has ever done. And in the early 1980s, in the section titled "Home," Peter Tovy will leave everything behind and move to the High Mountains of Portugal with his newly purchased ape, Odo. His new life will bring all three stories to full circle and connect all three men in a strange and somber way.

The Problem: While the car Tomas drives is a marvel not only to himself, but also to everyone who sees him along the way, his lack of experience in driving and maintaining it only adds stress to his trip. And while reaching a town can allow him to buy supplies and food, it also means being bothered by curious onlookers. Meanwhile, his trip takes longer than he thought, and what he finds may not be what he was hoping for. In 1939, not only is the late-night autopsy the strangest Dr. Lozora has ever done, but it reveals some issues going on in his personal life. And for Peter Tovy, living in a foreign country, where he does not really know the language, and with an ape that was a former science experiment, is not as complicated as it would seem. He is able to sell his car; get rid of most of his belongings; get himself and Odo to the High Mountains of Portugal; secure a home, a maid, and weekly supply deliveries; and even relieve the fears that the townspeople may have of the large ape. But every once in awhile, a sudden fear will grip him, usually while reviewing his situation honestly, and the fact that he now lives with a very dangerous animal that could decide to turn on him at any moment.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I chose to place under historical fiction, although it eventually moves forward as far as the early 1980s. The High Mountains of Portugal is told through three different stories and focuses on three different men, each of which has lost the woman they love, and two of which have lost their only child. Eventually all three stories are revealed to be connected, but not all of them take place in the High Mountains of Portugal. Both Tomas and Peter end up traveling there, but Dr. Lozora only meets the woman from there who wants the autopsy of her husband. There is some discussion of religion, Portuguese people and culture, travel, apes, and even Agatha Christie novels. Much like Martel's other novels, there seems to be an importance placed on the overall journey, and not just the destination. While all three men would love to simply have the trip go as quickly as possible, they are almost forced to take a longer journey, or go through a sort of process, before arriving at their destination and ultimately learning about themselves, their families, and the community around them. Nothing comes easily in this book, and certainly not without a little tragedy and despair.

My Verdict: I am glad to say that I enjoyed this book more than I did Beatrice and Virgil, but it still does not come close to Life of Pi. During the beginning of Tomas' story, I was worried that all three stories would be cluttered with details that ultimately the reader would not care much about. Tomas' uncle described the automobile he was lending his nephew in great detail, giving him extensive instructions. While I understand that this would be necessary since Tomas had never driven before, and cars were a new thing at the time, the length of the instructions were incredibly tiring and, well, boring. Thankfully, the story picks up once Tomas is on his way, and gets better as he becomes more familiar with car. Also, both Dr. Lozora and Peter's story are considerably free of such intricate detail and description, giving the reader just enough to imagine the world Martel is describing and eventually get lost in it. And the way all three stories end up coming together in the end is extremely well done and does not feel cheap in any sense.

Favorite Moment: When Odo insists on helping with the groceries, but the way he walks causes the bags to split open, allowing everything to fall out.

Favorite Character: I choose Peter because he seems less hapless than Tomas, and better able to deal with his grief than Dr. Lozora. And while his decision to pick up and move to Portugal is not exactly the most logical, he approaches it practically and takes the least dramatic approach to achieving his goal.

Recommended Reading: Naturally, I recommend Life of Pi if you have not already read it. If you have, then I recommend The Day of Atonement by David Liss, which is also set in Portugal. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Nonfiction: The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner

I first saw Ruth Wariner's The Sound of Gravel while meeting with a friend at my favorite coffee shop. As a fellow introvert, the book was her choice of reading material while waiting for me to arrive. At first I did not think much of the book or even take any real notice of it. And then it was mentioned in an email from Goodreads, and after reading the synopsis, I knew this was a book people would soon be talking about, if they were not already, and I wanted to be in on the conversations.

Genre, Themes, History: The Sound of Gravel is a nonfiction book or memoir that tells the story of Wariner's life from a little girl of five years-old, to a teenager of 15, but with enough worries and life experience for two or even three life times. Wariner would be her mother's fourth child, but her father's thirty-ninth, and this is not even the father she would grow up to know. Until she would leave as a teenager, Ruth and her family live as part of a community of Mormons living in rural Mexico. And because this particular community continued to believe in and practice polygamy, Wariner's real father had many wives, and her step-father would as well. Despite the stress and jealousies that comes with being one of many wives, Wariner's mother continued to believe and espouse the value of polygamy, while Wariner herself would continue to wrestle with the idea, knowing that the expectation would be for her to grow up and become one of many wives as well, having child after child as part of God's will. But polygamy would not be the only thing Wariner would wrestle with. The entire family would be moved around between Mexico, California, and even Texas over the course of her entire childhood. And when the sexual abuse begins, and continues, at the hands of her stepfather, Wariner finds herself not only questioning the values of the community she has grown up in, but also her mother's loyalty to an awful man that barely supports her and her family - a loyalty that often makes it seem her mother chooses him over her own children.

My Verdict: I knew this one would be hard to read, and it was, but it was also worth it. Without being too detailed, but while also not shying away from the awful reality, Wariner honestly and bravely tells her story of how she grew up. At first glance, after realizing that Wariner grew up Mormon, it may be easy to expect that polygamy will take center stage in this story. And while polygamy is most certainly an issue, so is sexual abuse, poverty, gender roles, disability, education, mental illness, and what it means to be a family and want what is best for those closest to you. Something else I did not expect was for this book to be a page-turner. I do not think I have finished a nonfiction book this quickly in a long time, but I had to know how this chapter of Wariner's story ended, even though I got a general idea from both the 'about the author' section and the prologue. It is a story of a journey that was neither easy nor pretty, although few are. But Wariner talks about it with unflinching honesty and courage, and that is really all a reader can ask for.

Favorite Moment: When Wariner's oldest brother Matt stands his ground and tells his mother that he is leaving to work in San Diego. Despite her protests, she realizes she cannot keep him from going and helps him prepare for the trip.

Recommended Reading: Years ago I read Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres. While Scheeres did not grow up Mormon, she did grow up with fanatically religious parents who ended up doing much more harm than good, but continued as they believed themselves to be right.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Science Fiction: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Thanks to the listing feature on Goodreads I was able to find All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders in the list for 2016 Most Anticipated Science Fiction books. The premise of an epic war between science and magic seemed promising, and it did not seem like the type of science fiction that would hurt my head, being the novice with the genre that I am.

The Situation: Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead both attended Canterbury Academy on the east coast, and had naturally assumed they would never see each other again after they had parted ways in more than unusual circumstances. Neither of them were popular, and they both were subjected to a good amount of bullying. Laurence was a science nerd who paid Patricia to help him fool his parents into believing that he actually went outside once in awhile. And Patricia was known as the weird emo girl. Aside from their mutual lack of popularity, both Laurence and Patricia were also blessed with parents that never understood them, and much preferred to either lock them away in a room or send them off to military school than to actually deal with them. Add a psychopathic school counselor who is trying to convince the two to kill each other, and the whole scene makes for a horrific childhood.

The Problem: Patricia and Laurence have run into each other again now that they are no longer children, and instead are adults living their own lives in San Francisco. Patricia is a promising and powerful witch whose main hobby is healing the sick and exacting revenge on murders and rapists. And Laurence has gone on to a career in science that is far more advanced than the two-second time machine he managed to build when he was kid. Their lives would be pretty great if the world was not crumbling around them. With major natural disasters happening all over the planet, mass genocides, and terrible famines, the scientists Laurence works for have come up with a last ditch effort that may save humanity...or tear apart the very earth that is already on its way to destroying itself. Those on the side of magic, which include Patricia, find this unacceptable, even though they have their own plan B. The battle between science and magic has finally come to a head, with nature in the middle as both the prize and the victim.

Genre, Themes, History: This is both a science fiction and a fantasy novel, though I chose the science fiction heading for the purpose of this blog. Laurence represents team science, while Patricia is definitely on the side of magic. Early on in the book, Patricia learns that to be a witch, or at least a good one anyway, Patricia must learn to serve nature as opposed to control it. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that the scientists in Laurence's camp wish to control nature, therefore making them the bad guys, but that would be making things too simple. As the book goes on, it is clear that both sides are guilty of what the witches keep calling Aggrandizement, or basically making it all about yourself, even though they cannot stop lecturing Patricia on the dangers of such a thing. Both sides have a plan for humanity and nature, both equally destructive, but they each believe that their own course of action is the correct one. Of course Laurence and Patricia are each loyal to their chosen camps, but they struggle to also remain loyal to each other.

My Verdict: I wish there were more books that would let me say this: this book is incredibly well-written and put together. The characters are great and three-dimensional and feel real. The plot is incredibly creative and intriguing. And the settings are easily pictured without the author forcing it. Also, the tension is real, not only between the two main characters, but just in the world that Anders created. But then the ending happens, and my world was a little less bright, and a little more deflated. I literally turned the very last page expecting there to be more, just one last chapter, and there was nothing. The fate of the world just got on a massive upswing, with hope in every one's sights, and then the book ends with no clue as to whether or not that hope wins out. Sure, you can make an educated guess, but things could easily go the other way too. Of course, the kicker is, we will never know. But aside from that, the other 312 pages are pure gold.

Favorite Moment: When Patricia manages to escape her awful parents and her evil sister, Roberta.

Favorite Character: Peregrine. He is just a lonely computer looking for love. Makes absolutely no sense but it was still incredibly touching.

Recommended Reading:  Parts of this story reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, particularly Patricia's experiences at the school for witches. Ishiguro's novel is also set in a sort of future dystopia, but the end is not so imminent, and it is science that is saving humanity, with no input from magic.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: Untwine by Edwidge Danticat

I was introduced to the writing of Edwidge Danticat the same semester I was reintroduced to the writing of Junot Diaz. Needless to say, that was a very good semester. And since Danticat is one of the few living writers I studied in graduate school that I am still willing to read, I was excited not only when I saw that she had published a new book, but also that it was for young adults.

The Situation: Isabelle and Giselle are identical twins. Family members outside of their mom and dad sometimes have a hard time telling them apart. And even though their parents make it a point to have them live separate lives - different clothes, different class schedules, different hobbies - the pair are still incredibly close, despite having different talents and interests, and even a different set of friends. The two of them cling to each other when it is announced that their parents are separating, and their father even begins to live his own life away from their small family. Giselle keeps going back to the moment they were born, when the two of them were holding hands and the doctor had to pry their hands apart, already unwilling to let go.

The Problem: Dealing with the possible divorce of their parents was hard enough, but when the entire family is involved in a horrific car accident, things go from hard to heartbreaking, making every day a struggle. At first Giselle is in a near coma and cannot move or speak. Doctors, family, and friends come in to see her, but she cannot respond to them, or even ask about the rest of her family. She does the best she can while trying to read the body language of her visitors, as well as listening to what little they say. But she still cannot get the answers to the questions she cannot ask, and often she is not even sure if she wants those answers. Plus, authorities seem to believe that the 'accident' may not have been so accidental. Even after Giselle does wake up, it is obvious she is going to have a long recovery ahead, both physically and emotionally. Before blacking out after the crash, she and Isabelle were holding hands, just like after they had emerged from the womb. But if Isabelle is no longer around, what happens to a twin that is missing their other half?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in present day Miami, Florida. Isabelle and Giselle are twin Haitian-American girls born to parents who came to the U.S. from Haiti as young adults. There is much mention of Haitian culture, language, practices, food, and even some geography, buildings, and landscape around Port-au-Prince. Of course, the phenomenon that is identical twins is also discussed, and there is much to marvel at as these girls have so much in common, and are incredibly close, but still managed to have separate lives at school. With only Giselle as the narrator, the reader actually ends up finding out more about Isabelle, as she knows her better than anyone, maybe even better than she knows herself. And because the book deals with a tragic car accident, the "what if" game is played quite a bit, with Giselle blaming herself for running late, for being irritated at her sister, for taking things for granted, etc. Plus, there is the extensive amount of healing that has to take place after such an event, as well as all of the questions that often do not have answers. And is the car accident going to be enough to brings their parents back together? Life is hard without big tragedies making things worse, but often they will make us focus on what is really important.

My Verdict: I will just go ahead and say it: this one is a crier. But that probably will not surprise you since it involves a tragic car accident and the long road to recovery. At first I found it to be pretty slow moving, but that may be because the first half or so of the book has Giselle, the narrator, in a near-coma and not able to communicate or respond to anyone or anything around her. All she can do is listen, observe, and think. Once she is out of the hospital, things pick up speed considerably, and some of the more common elements found in young adult novels start to appear. As a narrator, Giselle is not at all frustrating or angsty, like a lot of young adult narrators can be. And if she fails at communicating something she is given a pass because of what condition she is in. There are some parts where the point of the story is not entirely clear. And some plot points, specifically when it comes to the driver of the other car, seem forced, like they were put in just to give the book something extra. But overall, I enjoyed the book a great deal.

Favorite Moment: When the entire family travels to Haiti for the annual celebration of the twins' birthday.

Favorite Character: As I said before, Giselle was not at all frustrating or annoying as a narrator. Her limited view, especially as a patient in the hospital, was often trying or difficult, but that was hardly her fault.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Breath, Eyes, Memory, also by Danticat. It follows a young girl who came to the U.S. with her mother from Haiti, but focuses more on their strained relationship as they try to survive in New York.