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“Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
~ Albert Camus

Ruta Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” is one of the most beautiful, evocative pieces of historical fiction I’ve ever encountered, teen or otherwise. It sheds much needed light on a largely hidden moment in history, when Soviet Premier Josef Stalin deported and imprisoned thousands of political prisoners from the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These innocent people — men, women, and children — were ripped from their lives, transported like cattle in filthy conditions, only to be beaten, starved, and worked to death at prison camps in remote areas of Siberia. Their only crime? Being deemed a danger to the repressive Soviet regime that had annexed their Baltic nations. Their real crime? Nothing other than being professors, teachers, doctors, army officers, and librarians.

We meet 15 year old Lina on the night in June of 1941 when Soviet NKVD (secret police) officers storm her house in Lithuania, taking her, her mother Elena, and her 10 year old brother Jonas into custody. (Lina’s papa has already disappeared.) Lina’s family has all of 20 minutes to gather their belongings before being herded onto a truck and, eventually, a train, bound for parts unknown. Mind you, they have done nothing wrong. The train car is a true horror: people are packed in with no room for movement and no bathroom facilities other than a hole in the corner of the car. Ona, a woman who has recently given birth, is left bleeding on a plank in the car, her infant daughter dying slowly from starvation. Author Sepetys captures the fear, humiliation, and anger that Lina and her fellow travelers feel, this utterly awful sense of shame and bone-chilling terror at what will happen next.

Eventually, over the course of six weeks, the Lithuanian prisoners make their way to Altai Province, in the southern portion of Siberia. Lina’s family, thin and weak, is thrown into a hut with a brute of a local woman, Ulyushka. Everyone at the Altai camp is forced to work at least 12 hours a day to earn one meager bread ration, which is barely enough to keep a person alive. Lina and Elena are eventually assigned to farm beets and potatoes, while Jonas works with Siberian women making shoes. The mother of the lone teen boy on the trip, Andrius Arvydas (his mother bribed an NKVD guard to have him deemed feeble), is forced into prostitution at the NKVD officers’ barracks. Many nights, the Lithuanians are roused from their sleep at gunpoint and threatened by the sadistic Commander Komorov to sign a “confession” condemning them to 25 years of hard labor. It is a lonely, miserable existence, filled with pain, hunger, and far too much sickness and death.

Lina’s escape from this wretched life lies in her sketches — of Lithuania, Jonas, Mrs. Arvydas, Andrius, her missing papa — and memories of a better life in Lithuania. Lina could be killed for her “treasonous” sketches, which she hides in the lining of her suitcase, but they are a lifeline for her. Many references are made throughout the novel to the works of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose depictions of raw emotional pain are models for Lina’s work. [Click here to see an image of Munch’s most iconic work, The Scream.] Lina is one brave and talented girl.

After nearly a year in Altai, Lina and her family, along with hundreds of Lithuanian and other Baltic peoples, are ferried by train, truck, and ship to Trofimovsk, an absolutely desolate land that lies above the Arctic Circle. Trofimovsk makes Altai seem like a luxury resort. The polar night (continuous darkness) lasts for months on end; dangerously frigid temperatures and continuous blizzards threaten the group’s very survival; starvation, typhus, dysentery, and scurvy are constant killers; and the prisoners’ living conditions — crude, self-built mud huts in a polar region — are subhuman. Without the late appearance of Dr. Samodurov (a real figure, as described here), all the prisoners would have perished during that first miserable winter.

In discussion materials and an author note afterward, Sepetys describes “Between Shades of Gray” as, ultimately, a love story. The Baltic people survived by using love as their sustaining force. I agree. Despite its devastating subject matter, this novel is warm, uplifting, and hopeful. Lina’s love for Elena and Jonas, for her imprisoned father and lost homeland, and, finally, for the strong, kind Andrius, buoys what otherwise may have been a bleak and depressing tale. There is so much life and love in these pages, so much hope and triumph, that it goes a long way in easing some of the pain. The prisoners continue to maintain their national and familial pride — Lina creates patriotic artwork, the Lithuanians celebrate their holidays in the depths of work camp blight, and the homesick and heartbroken share cherished family photographs that were hastily grabbed after arrests — which is beautiful and inspiring. Even small kindnesses, like the Siberian co-worker who saves Jonas from the ravages of scurvy, add to the impression that although we have seen the worst of humanity, the best of humanity still quietly endures. So, yes, love IS the central theme here. And what a necessary message that is for young people to receive.

“Between Shades of Gray” also impressively tempers even its most beastly characters, including some of the heartless NKVD officers, the stoic native Altains, and the “bald man,” an embittered Lithuanian prisoner who constantly criticizes his fellow detainees. Sepetys uses one NKVD officer, the young Nikolai Kretzky, most dramatically to show the withering effect of these atrocities on a basically decent Russian who is “just following orders.” The real villain here, the one never actually seen, is Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who masterminded the deaths of MILLIONS of innocents. As a stand in, we get all the people who spared themselves but made that devastation possible — Lithuanians who gave information, Soviets who abided by a culture of fear and secrecy, and NKVD officers who channeled their own personal failings into either wholesale prisoner abuse or, at the very least, willful ignorance of the horrors surrounding them.

I absolutely recommend “Between Shades of Gray” to students in upper middle school and higher. This is a difficult book, and I don’t mean to minimize that in any way. There is violence, death, and depravity, but much of it is handled “off screen” and little of it is overwhelming in detail or presentation. As mentioned above, the sum effect of this novel, the feeling you are left with at the end, is one of joy and promise. Please, give “Between Shades of Gray” a try. You will be glad you did.

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Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Y’all, summer reading preparations have kept me from writing up my book reviews. But, I promise, I have been reading! Scout’s honor. :-p

Here’s a review of one of the BEST books I’ve read this year, Elizabeth Wein’s intriguing, twisty, deeply engaging World War II novel “Code Name Verity.” When was the last time a book was part history lesson, part spy game, and part emotional drama? Yeah, I thought not. How about that same book also featuring two FEMALE leads, one a British spy and one a young British pilot? That’s right. Unique concept, beautifully written … read on for more, friends.

The novel is divided into two sections with two separate narrators, and it’s up to us as readers to piece the overall story together and decide how much is truth and how much is a lie. In the first section, we have aristocratic Scot Julie (Verity) who works as a spy for the British. Julie was captured inside occupied France and is being held by the ruthless Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) as a prisoner of war in a commandeered hotel. Julie has been starved, terrorized, and tortured for information, which she is finally revealing in a confession written daily on recipe cards, prescription pads, and other leftover reminders of normal life. Julie’s confession is structured as the story of her friendship with a young British pilot named Maddie (Kittyhawk), and throughout her discourse, Julie interweaves secret details of British planes, airstrips, codes, and missions. Repeatedly, Julie laments that fact that the Gestapo have broken her and that she is now the worst kind of coward and traitor for revealing these details of the British war effort. But is she?

In the second half of the novel, we hear much of the same story from Maddie’s point of view. Maddie’s plane, carrying Julie to her mission, crash landed in occupied France, and she’s now being kept hidden by some French Resistance folks. Maddie records the story of her pilot training, her friendship with Verity, and the crash landing, as well as details of the Resistance effort to return her and other downed British pilots safely to England. Maddie figures her British superiors will want a full recounting, and the writing helps her maintain her sanity as whole days pass with her trapped in a claustrophobic barn loft. Straight off, we notice some striking differences in Maddie’s account, most tellingly her repeated conviction that Julie is the bravest, strongest, and smartest young woman she has ever met. Interesting. Even Julie’s staged meeting with an appeasing American journalist is markedly different here than in Julie’s version.

I really cannot reveal more plot details — I won’t ruin it for you! — other than to say that “Code Name Verity” ultimately becomes an absolutely heartbreaking story of friendship, honor, and sacrifice. The two lead characters, Julie and Maddie, are both believably terrified while also being believably brave, feisty, and selfless. The secondary characters are also well developed, especially the Gestapo Captain von Linden, Julie’s captor, who is strangely kind and charming while also being incredibly sadistic. I think teens will be drawn in by the spying, codebreaking, planes, secrecy, and adventure, all of which keeps the story flowing even when we’re not exactly sure what’s happening. And the big reveals at the end — when the whole truth (?) is finally revealed — are staggering. I wanted to go back and reread everything again to catch all the clues!

“Code Name Verity” is a brilliant novel that is perfect for boys and girls who are older middle schoolers. Although there is torture and violence in this story, the majority of it is very discreetly presented and entirely age appropriate. I adored this beautiful, gut-wrenching novel, which will surely be one of the best books published for teens in 2012. Please check it out.

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Posted by on June 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Book of Blood and Shadow” by Robin Wasserman

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

In this young adult version of “The DaVinci Code,” a group of teens are drawn into a deadly mystery involving an ancient text, shadowy bands of zealots, and a mystical machine that communicates with God. Um, yeah, you read that last part correctly. Although largely compelling, “The Book of Blood and Shadow” is a bit too bloated and oddly paced overall to be a truly first-rate thriller.

Robin Wasserman might be best known for her “Skinned” and “Seven Deadly Sins” series. Here, she reaches back to Renaissance era Europe to frame a story of friendship, secrets, and betrayal. Nora, a senior at Chapman Prep, begins an independent study working for “The Hoff,” an eccentric history professor. Nora will translate the seemingly inconsequential letters of minor poet Elizabeth Weston. Meanwhile, her college age best friend Chris and Chris’ roommate Max — both master Latin translators like Nora — will help The Hoff translate the newly discovered letters of Edward Kelley, an alchemist to the Holy Roman Emperor who was later imprisoned and killed for treason.

I hate to needlessly reveal plot points, but there’s simply no way around it here. Turn away, dear reader, if you don’t want to know!

Spoiling …

In short order, The Hoff is attacked; Chris is murdered; Chris’ girlfriend Adriane is rendered catatonic; and Max disappears. A grief-stricken Nora is left to figure out what really happened and how a secret letter she stole from The Hoff factors into everything. Nora’s investigation takes her to Europe, with a recovered Adriane and Chris’ smart, resourceful cousin Eli. The crew races across Prague, frantically deciphering Elizabeth Weston’s clues to the location of the Lumen Dei, the alchemical machine Edward Kelley — and later Elizabeth Weston herself — was inventing to speak to God. The teens are hunted by two secret armies, both ruthless and intent on capturing the Lumen Dei for themselves: the Hledaci, an ancient Czech religious group hoping to acquire the machine for its own aims of power and glory, and the Fidei Defensor, church defenders who want to destroy it as heresy.

There’s a lot of darting about, running down alleys, looking over shoulders and such, which I’m all for in a thriller. Bring on the action! We are also treated to some pretty neat ciphers and clues, plenty of double and triple crosses, and the rare revelation of Latin translation (of all things!) as something gripping and — dare I say it — sexy. But Wasserman just cannot sustain the breakneck tempo and pulsing beat of danger that should accompany such a novel. Instead, we are left to muddle through lumbering descriptions, confusing bits of history, cumbersome exposition from main and secondary characters, and long passages that feature nothing but Elizabeth’s increasingly ponderous letters. This book would have benefited from some judicious editing as it stops, starts, and meanders more than it ever sustains a consistent, driving pace.

I guess there’s a love story here between Nora and Max? Or Nora and Eli? Or Nora and Chris? I never felt much of anything between Nora and Max, as their romance felt rushed and convenient. While Eli is a solid, interesting character — he clearly is withholding an awful lot of information, yet remains somehow trustworthy — the spark between he and Nora never really develops. Maybe this is because Nora, this sort of broken, withdrawn girl, always remains a bit elusive herself. Of all the characters, I actually loved petulant Adriane the best; I bought every minute of this complicated girl’s “frenemy” relationship with the other kids.

“The Book of Blood and Shadows” was released this week. There is some violence and suspense, so maybe older middle school is the early range of the target audience. While I wasn’t completely sold on this novel, I definitely think it has appeal for fans of smart, twisty thrillers. Please let us know what you think!

PS ~ Thanks Net Galley for access to the advanced copy. You guys rock!

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Last Little Blue Envelope” by Maureen Johnson

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Maureen Johnson's insanely delightful "13 Little Blue Envelopes" is one of my favorite teen books EVAH. And, believe me, I've read a lot of teen books. So I was beyond stoked to have the opportunity to read an e-galley of its sequel, "The Last Little Blue Envelope," courtesy of the good folks at HarperTeen and Net Galley.

I feared "The Last Little Blue Envelope" might suffer in comparison to the wholly original premise of the first book. In "13 …," high school (Jersey!) girl Ginny follows her deceased, super eccentric aunt's clue-laden letters on a solo tour throughout Europe. "13 …" is a magical novel about discovering yourself, growing up, and creating your own identity while experiencing the wonders of European art and culture. Plus, it's a mystery — where do the clues lead?! — and a love story and a travelogue and … well, if you haven't read it, please stop what you're doing right now and go seek it out. I will wait. 😉

I was saying … ? Right, the sequel. It is difficult to follow up such a clever and brilliantly executed concept. And, yes, "The Last …" doesn't quite reach the incandescent heights of its predecessor. But that's cool. It's still a lovely, highly readable novel with a winning combination of funny, sweet, sarcastic, and touching moments. So while it didn't move me in quite the same way as "13 …," I'd still recommend it without hesitation. And I still plowed eagerly through it. And I'm still thinking about reading it again!

I hesitate to give away too much of the plot, because — and I'm thinking particularly of my difficulty in reviewing Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" — part of the interest here is in seeing how Ginny ends up back in Europe again following Aunt Peg's cryptic, art-related clues. I will say that this journey is more personal for Ginny and has a deeper sense of finality to it.

Here's what else I can safely reveal: Ginny; a mysterious loner named Oliver; our old pal, wacky theater boy Keith; and a charming, posh Londoner named Ellis traipse through Paris, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland puzzling out the details in Aunt Peg's final, long missing letter. Some of the adventures are hilarious. The gang's Paris caper is an absolute hoot, barely edging out their night in a Belgian inn populated by a truly odd caretaker and his dozens of affectionate cats. I laughed — out loud! — several times. Yet, some parts of the trip are certainly more bittersweet and emotional, including one pivotal scene where Ginny is alone in the Irish dusk with her memories of Aunt Peg. The richness of that scene and its aftermath are stunning. As in her prior novels, Maureen is masterful at conveying a full range of emotion — everything from lighthearted screwball whimsy to "lump in your throat" pangs — and smoothly managing those shifts in tone without unsettling the reader.

I also really enjoyed how much more mature — sometimes in small, subtle ways — Ginny has become. It's great to see a beloved character evolve and grow while still retaining her core essence. It's Ginny, version 2.0. Ginny's quiet relationship with her "uncle" Richard, in which so many important ideas are conveyed through soft gestures and unspoken sentiment, is a fine example. Her changing relationship with former / sorta / maybe boyfriend Keith, whose clownish antics frustrate her one minute while his tender warmth draws her further in the next, also felt real. Any first love — let alone a transcontinental one! — can be a fragile, conflicted thing, making Ginny's love / hate struggles with Keith resonate. A newly perceptive Ginny can also detect the hidden depth, complexity, and secret compassion in our new teen, the elusive outsider Oliver, keeping us interested in what could otherwise be a potentially loathsome character.

So, yes, GO READ IT!! when "The Last …" is released by HarperTeen in April. Although it falls a bit short of the original, there's still so much to adore here, putting this novel miles ahead of much of current YA literature. It's real. It's heartfelt. It's funny. It's entertaining. It's touching. Really, what more can I ask for!? FYI, aside from a drinking scene, there is very little here to offend even the most sensitive reader. "The Last …" is a perfectly appropriate novel for older middle schoolers. Even better? It's a pretty great novel for them, too. Happy reading!

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“13 Little Blue Envelopes” by Maureen Johnson

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"13 Little Blue Envelopes" tells the story of 17-year-old Ginny and the series of mysterious, clue-filled letters her Aunt Peg left before she died. Each letter contains a task that Ginny must complete before she can open the next envelope. The letters take Ginny from her home in New Jersey, into Manhattan, and on to a European adventure. On her own, Ginny must figure out clues related to paintings and architectural sites in places like London, Scotland, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and the island of Corfu. Along the way, Ginny struggles to overcome her natural shyness, believe in her own strength and independence, and decide exactly how she feels about zany British performance artist Keith.

This is a fun book, since it takes the reader through so many interesting spots throughout Europe, and, along the way, you get art, romance, and adventure.

By the way, we're starting a Moms & Daughters Sunday Book Club at the Library this fall, and "13 Little Blue Envelopes" will be the first book we discuss. Kinnelon teens in grades 6 and up — and their moms, grandmoms, sisters, etc. — who sign up starting September 1st will get two copies of the book. Come pick up the book and join us on Sunday, September 24th at 3pm.

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2006 in Uncategorized

 

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