Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepetys

salt-to-the-sea-bigcoverA couple years ago I read Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray with my grade nine students and we all really loved it. Salt to the Sea treads familiar ground, telling the story of four very different young adults fleeing their homes to escape advancing Russian troops during World War Two.

There’s Joana, a Lithuanian nurse, who had fled her homeland four years earlier for the relative safety of East Prussia and who is now on the run again.

There’s Florian, a talented Prussian artist who had been working for the Nazi cause  as an art restorer.

There’s Emilia, a pregnant fifteen-year-old from Poland.

And there’s Alfred, a self-aggrandizing sailor for Hitler’s navy.

Joana, along with an old shoe-maker, a little boy and a tall woman named Eva,  is already making her way towards Gutenhafen where she hopes to board a ship that will take her to safety.

Germany had invaded Russia in 1941. For the past four years, the two countries had committed unspeakable atrocities, not only against each other, but against innocent civilians in their path. Stories had been whispered by those we passed on the road. Hitler was exterminating millions of Jews and had an expanding list of undesirables who were being killed or imprisoned. Stalin was destroying the people of Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics.

Emilia and Florian meet by accident in the woods. They don’t speak the same language, but Emilia sees Florian as a white knight, a title Florian does not want or even believe he deserves. They soon meet up with Joana and her group. They are all heading in the same direction and it is at the port where they meet Alfred.

The novel’s short chapters and alternating points of view make it a perfect novel for younger readers, although the subject matter is quite often upsetting. As happened with Between Shades of Gray, I fell in love with these characters (well, not Alfred) and I so wanted to see them find their way to safety.

Salt to the Sea, while a work of fiction, is based on the real life sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff,  “the deadliest disaster in maritime history, with losses dwarfing the death tolls of the famous ships Titanic and Lusitania.” In her author’s notes, Sepetys tells us that in 1945, it is estimated that 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea.

I think one of Sepetys’ gifts is her ability to create flesh and blood characters, giving voice to the thousands of innocent children and men and women whose lives were irrevocably changed by the horrors of war.

I loved the time I spent with these brave young people, and only wish that the ending hadn’t felt so rushed. This was the one little niggle I had with Between Shades of Gray, too. I would have happily read another fifty pages just to have a little more time with these characters.

 

I Found You – Lisa Jewell

IFoundYouIn present day, Lily Monrose’s husband is missing. Newly married, Lily is frantic to find the man she loves, the man who came “home with gifts, with ‘two-week anniversary’ cards, with flowers.” Her husband, Carl, is “certainly never more than a minute late,” but he’s seemingly just vanished.

Alice Lake is a single mom with three kids who lives in a ramshackle cottage by the sea in Ridinghouse Bay. One day, from her window, she spies a man sitting on the beach.

He’s been there all day, since she opened her curtains at seven o’clock this morning, sitting on the damp sand, his arms around his knees, staring and staring out to sea.

Finally, Alice goes out to see if the man is okay and he admits “I think…that I have lost my memory…Bcause I don’t know what my name is. And I must have a name.”

Alice invites him in to her home and together they try to uncover who he is and where he came from.

In 1993, we meet Gray, 17, and Kirsty, 15, who are staying Rabbit Cottage in Ridinghouse Bay with their parents. They are on holiday, enjoying their family time when they meet Mark, a boy just a little older than Gray and for whom Gray takes an immediate dislike.

When Mark stops to chat to the family on the beach, Gray notes that the

smile on his face [looked] to Gray suspiciously like triumph. As though this ‘spontaneous’ conversation with his family was not just a passing moment of friendly human interaction, but the first brilliant stroke of a much bigger master plan.

Gray is right to be wary.

From these seemingly unconnected threads, British writer Lisa Jewell weaves an often riveting account of family, love and obsession. Although I was less interested in Lily’s situation – something about her irked me – I was wholly invested in Gray and Kirsty.  Their relationship was really believable and their part in the story provided the most heart-pounding moments.

As for Alice and her mystery man, well, obviously I don’t want to spoil anything. Alice is a likeable character, kind-hearted  and slightly reckless. As they work to peel back the layers of missing memory, the threads of this story start to come together. I found some of the machinations a bit clunky, but overall I Found You had me turning the pages way past my bedtime.

Off the Shelf – Just in time for Christmas

Listen here.

Books are an excellent gift to give someone, but it’s actually pretty hard to pick books for other people. I have often had people give me books as gifts and while I certainly appreciate the gesture – I am, after all, addicted to books – those gifts have often languished on my tbr shelf for eons. My brother Mark gave me a book literally five years ago and I still haven’t read it. Sorry, Mark. I am sure it’s a very good book.

So, now it seems ridiculous that I am going to offer some books suggestions for the bibliophile on your list – but there you have it.

i think i love youSo, David Cassidy just died. My poor heart could barely stand it…but the last few years have not been kind to him. If you loved him, though, or you know someone who loved him – I highly recommend Allison Pearson’s novel I Think I Love You. It’s the story of 13-year-old Petra, a Welsh girl in love with David Cassidy during the time when he was the biggest star on the planet. And yes – there was a time when he was just that. It’s also the story of Bill, a young writer who has been hired to work for The Essential David Cassidy Magazine, not just write for it but to be David himself. It’s just a lovely story about being young, being in love…and it will be total nostalgia for women of a certain age. It’s a great little book.

And, hey, while we’re talking about death…Emma Cline’s novel These Girls is a gripping read for anyone interested in Charles Manson. This is a fictional account of a young girl, Edie, who meets a group of older girls and falls under their spell. They take her out to the desert where they have this commune led by the charismatic Russell. And the story unravels and we pretty much know how it turns out. It’s a page-turner, though, and the writing is terrific.

If you’re looking for a meaningful book to give to mature teenagers, I highly recommend hate Angie Thomas’ debut novel The Hate U Give. This title might be familiar because it’s been on everyone’s radar and for very good reason. It’s the story of Starr, a 16 year old African American girl who loves with her siblings (one older half-brother and a younger brother) and her parents in Garden Heights, an inner city neighbourhood. Starr and her siblings attend a predominantly white school in a better part of town and so Starr straddles two very different worlds. Then tragedy strikes and Starr must face up to the prejudice that she always knew existed. It’s so important that teens be exposed to diverse books and this book was just eye-opening, heartbreaking and  it’s important. I actually think it should be read by everybody…and there’s a movie in the works so I definitely encourage people to read it before that happens.

thornhillFor middle grade readers, I recommend Thornhill by Pam Smy. It’s a hybrid novel – so it’s both pictures and text – and it tells the story of two pre-teen girls separated by 25 years. In text we read Mary’s diary about her time at Thornhill, a sort of half-way house for girls waiting for adoption or fostering. Mary’s an odd, silent child, who spends her time mostly alone making puppets and avoiding one of her housemates who is doing her best to make Mary miserable. In pictures only we meet Ella, who moves into a new house with her dad, and her bedroom happens to look out on the shell of Thornhill. She becomes curious about what happened there and the mysterious girl she sees in the garden. It’s a mystery, it’s sort of spooky and it’s also sort of sad, but very accessible for middle-grade readers…say 11-13.

As for me, there’s a few books I hope Santa puts under the tree.

I am looking forward to reading Celest Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. You may remember me gushing about Everything I Never Told You a few months ago. I loved that book sooo much – if you haven’t read that, definitely put that on your wish list. Little Fires Everywhere is “Both an intricate and captivating portrait of an eerily perfect suburban town with its dark undertones not-quite-hidden from view and a powerful and suspenseful novel about motherhood… Ng explores the complexities of adoption, surrogacy, abortion, privacy, and class, questioning all the while who earns, who claims, and who loses the right to be called a mother.”  – Publishers Weekly

I am also hoping to read Gabriel Tallent’s novel My Absolute Darling which has earned rave reviews and also cautions about its difficult subject matter. There are also a few books about books that I would love to get my hands on: My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul, a memoir from a woman who kept a record of every book she’s ever read…so Bob is not a person, but a book of books. I’d also like to get my hands on Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo, which is about the relationship between the author and a former student who is in jail for murder. As an English teacher, I am fascinated by any books that deal with the notion that reading can change lives…and this one sounds like a winner.

I am hoping for a few quiet hours over the holidays to catch up on some reading.

 

Welcome to the Dark House – Laurie Faria Stolarz

darkhouseWho doesn’t love a good scare? Not Ivy Jensen. That’s not her fault, though. When she was 12, someone broke into her house and slaughtered her parents. In her recurring nightmare about that horrible night, Ivy wakes “with a gasp, covered in [her] own blood. It’s everywhere. Soaking into the bed covers, splattered against the wall, running through the cracks in the hardwood floor, and dripping over [her] fingers and hands.”

Ivy is just one of the teens in Laurie Faria Stolarz’s YA novel, Welcome to the Dark House. She decides to enter a contest sponsored by Justin Blake, director of several famous (infamous) horror films featuring the Nightmare Elf. Intrigued by the promise that her nightmares will disappear, Ivy submits an essay describing her worst fear. So do Frankie, Garth, Parker, Shayla, Natalie and Taylor.

These teens win an exclusive weekend away to meet Justin Blake and get an exclusive look at his latest project. For some of the attendees, this is the chance of a lifetime. Boy-crazy Shayla is on a mission to “”make the most of every moment” [and] have a fun and fulfilling life.” Garth, Frankie and Natalie are uber-fans. Parker is an aspiring film maker. Taylor is…well…missing. Ivy just wants her nightmares to go away.

When the group arrives at the B & B where they will be staying, they find their rooms kitted out with their most favourite things. Their hostess is Midge, “the psycho chamber-maid who collects her victims’ fingers in the pockets of her apron.” The next afternoon, the teens are taken to a nightmarish amusement park in the middle of nowhere.

It’s like something out of a dream. WELCOME, DARK HOUSE DREAMERS is lit up in Gothic lettering, hanging above an entrance gate. There’s also a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, and a ride called Hotel 9; with multiple pointed roofs, it looks like the hotel in the movie.

The rules are simple: the group has to leave their cell pones and recording devices behind, ride the rides and have some snacks, but each participant MUST ride the ride that has been specifically tailored to them. The prize? Well, “the camera’s already rolling” and so essentially, in a found-footage way, these guys are the stars of Blake’s latest project.

Of course, this is when things start to get a little hairy.

Welcome to the Dark House is reminiscent of teen horror movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fans of horror movies (and horror fiction) will likely enjoy the inventive ‘rides’ and these characters – although you don’t get to know any one of them particularly well. Of course, you wouldn’t want to get too attached now, would you? There are some truly creepy moments and a cliff hanger ending, so you’ll have to read the sequel, Return to the Dark House to discover how it all turns out.

 

 

Nutshell – Ian McEwan

nutshellThere’s no arguing with the fact that Ian McEwan is an astoundingly good writer. I have read enough of his books over the years to know that I like him, even when he’s hard work. (I have read Saturday, On Chesil Beach, and The Children Act   Predating this blog I’ve read First Love, Last Rites, The Comfort of Strangers, The Cement Garden and my favourite McEwan novel, the devastating Atonement. I have a couple more on my tbr shelf.) McEwan is astonishingly prolific and you really never feel like you are reading the same book over and over. He has lots to say about a variety of topics and he says it well.

That’s the saving grace of Nutshell, which was chosen as our book club selection this month. I did a little inward grown when Sylvie revealed this book. Not because it was McEwan – clearly that wouldn’t bother ne – but because I already knew about the novel’s conceit and I wasn’t really interested in reading this book. At all. But then: it’s McEwan. In less capable hands, this book would be a dog’s breakfast and instead it was, while not exactly enjoyable, an easy read.

So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth.

That’s the opening of Nutshell. If it’s not obvious, the narrator of McEwan’s book is an unnamed fetus. He’s sentient and trapped inside his mother’s womb. I say trapped because instead of biding his time until he’s born, he must listen to his mother, Trudy, plot with her lover, Claude, to kill Trudy’s husband, John. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Claude and John are brothers. If any of this sounds familiar, you know your Shakespeare. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Although the conceit of having the story narrated by a fetus might have proven problematic in less capable hands, Nutshell, is totally readable. Of course it is. Our narrator relates overheard conversations and imagines others to which he is not privy. Through him we see the adults in this story – none of them particularly likeable.  For example, he describes Claude as “a man who prefers to repeat himself. A man of riffs….This Claude is a property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing.” As for Trudy, “my untrue Trudy, whose apple-flesh arms and breasts and green regard I long for”, our narrator both loves and hates her. John, his father, was “Born under an obliging star, eager to please, too kind, too earnest, he has nothing of the ambitious poet’s quiet greed.”

As the narrator contemplates his mother and her lover’s plans to kill John, he also waxes poetic on a variety of topics including philosophy, poetry, and the best wine. He might be stuck where he is, but remarkably (or maybe not remarkably: this is McEwan, after all) the plot moves along at the pace of a good page-turner. Careful readers will love the allusions and readers smarter than me will likely find the overall reading experience intellectually satisfying.

Nutshell  is classy fan fiction by a writer whose talent and intelligence are undeniable, but I wouldn’t have ever picked this book up on my own.

 

 

We’ll Never Be Apart – Emiko Jean

wetogetherSeventeen-year-old Alice is a patient at Savage Isle, an institute for adolescents with mental health problems. She’s recovering after a devastating fire, set by her twin Cellie, killed her boyfriend, Jason.

In the prologue of Emiko Jean’s YA novel We’ll Never Be Apart, Cellie says

…I’ll say it was an accident. An unfortunate tragedy. But it was neither. When they asked me what happened that night, I’ll say, It was a mistake. But is wasn’t. I don’t remember, I’ll say. But I do.

After the death of their grandfather, Alice and Cellie bounce around to various foster homes. In one of those places, “the worst home yet,”  they meet Jason. Jason becomes their protector from their foster father. “He’d wrap his arms around us like a comforting blanket. He smelled of clean laundry, a smell that still makes me feel loved and protected. Cherished.”

Jason’s flaw is that he loves fire. Cellie does, too. Alice can only watch helplessly, but it doesn’t prevent her from falling in love with Jason. After his death, she vows revenge against her sister who turns up at Savage Isle, too, albeit in a locked ward. Alice needs another patient’s help to find her so she can kill her.

The story is told in present day – as Alice, with the help of Chase, attempts to find a way to get to Cellie, and also unfolds the girls’ tragic story through a series of journal entries.  Readers might sense that the narration is unreliable – and they’d be right. There’s a propulsive element to Jean’s story, as we follow Alice on her search for the truth of what happened the night Jason was killed.

We’ll Never Be Apart will probably be enjoyable to mature teens who like a twisty tale with a sympathetic narrator.

 

Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You – Todd Hasak-Lowy

me-being-me-is-exactly-as-insane-as-you-being-you-9781442495746_hrDarren Jacobs isn’t having a particularly great year. He’s a slightly over-weight almost-sixteen-year-old who lives with his workaholic divorced mother (his father moved out about two years ago). His older, significantly cooler, brother Nate goes to school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Todd Hasak-Lowy’s YA novel Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You is comprised completely of lists. That’s right, lists. For example: 5 Contributions Darren’s Dad Makes to This Morning’s Conversation Before Darren Makes Any Himself and 13 Adjectives Darren Wouldn’t Be Surprised to Hear His Peers Using to Describe Him.

The story follows Darren as he navigates  his prickly junior and senior years. As if being a teenager isn’t problematic enough,  his father has just told Darren that he’s gay. His mother is often on the West Coast for work. Plus, there’s this girl, Zoey, who is suddenly back on Darren’s radar even though “they actually went to elementary school together.” Although they don’t share any classes and although they’ve barely spoken, this one time

she looked at Darren, right at him, for a moment or two, her pale face either curious or confused, and it was then that he realized she may be the saddest person at North High, sadder than him even. And so he would hug her if she ever asked.

Impulsively, Darren kind of takes off on his own to Ann Arbor hoping that his older brother has some sage words of comfort. Zoey ends up tagging along and that turns out to be one more complication in his life.

7 Predictions That Darren Makes After Zoey Leans Over to Put Out Her Cigarette on the Underside of the Bottom Stair, Because Immediately After She Does That and Sits Back Up, She Smiles at Darren in This Impossibly Straightforward/Friendly/Kind/Open/Supportive/Sympathetic/Reassuring/Optimistic Way

  1. Darren will fall in love with Zoey.

  2. Zoey will welcome this development.

  3. Meaning she will too (fall in love with him).

  4. Darren will smoke cigarettes with some degree of regularity for the last couple years of high school.

  5. Zoey will remain a bit unusual, but Darren will learn that she’s not really such a freak overall.

  6. Darren’s running off to Ann Arbor with her will prove to be the best decision he ever made.

  7. Everything will be different from now on.

Darren is a completely endearing character. He’s smart and wry and is trying desperately not to disappoint his parents. He is filled with doubts and anxieties, and spends a lot of time on his own because his best friend Bugs has moved away.

All of Darren’s relationships are a combination of confusing, infuriating, and heartbreaking.

The narrative isn’t exactly linear, but careful readers will have no trouble tracking Darren’s story. Some of his lists are funny, some sad, but every list reveals some essential part of Darren’s journey towards adulthood. It’s a trip worth taking.