Book Review: Between Shades of Gray, A Fascinating But Incomplete Story

Books of historical fiction are not usually my favorite because subject matters in that genre tend to show humanity at its worst (e.g. during slavery, Hitler’s era, etc.), but if a book in that genre is done well, it’s enlightening and enjoyable. Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, for example, is an amazingly difficult story told with skill and hope.  The Help by Kathryn Stockett was full of real-feeling characters who not only fleshed out what it was like to live in 1960’s southern America for both whites and blacks, but also cheered and warmed me through their flawed but hopeful way of dealing with their particular circumstances. It was also told with remarkable voice.  Between Shades of Gray, a book by Ruta Sepetys about a Lithuanian family who experiences torture at the hands of the Soviet secret police under Stalin’s reign, is similar in theme to that of The Hiding Place. In that respect, it’s very enlightening. As a fictional reimagining, it’s fascinating. As a story, though, it fell short.

What Between Shades of Gray is About

The story is told through the eyes of 15-year-old Lina Vilkas, who is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. At the beginning of the book, Soviet officers barge into her middle-class home in the middle of the night, and, with no explanation, take her, her mother, and little brother captive. They’re crammed into the filthy box car of a train with a number of other Lithuanians they don’t know, and are made to endure a six-week long trip through Siberia, only to end up at a work camp north of the Arctic Circle. Lina and her fellow travelers are taunted and starved along the way, such that many die during the trip, and when they arrive at the work camp, they’re given the bare minimum to survive, meaning a corner of the floor of a shanty to sleep on, showers every six months, and hardly any food. In short, it is a horrible experience.

Lina and her family are fictional, but the things that they experienced happened to actual people, according to Sepetys, who extensively researched the travails of people from Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia who were caught between a despotic Stalin—who considered anyone educated to be anti-Soviet—and a ruthless Hitler. “It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than twenty million people during his reign of terror,” Sepetys says in her Author’s Note. “The Baltic States…lost more than a third of their population during the Soviet annihilation.” By those estimates, the damage Stalin did was more than three times as bad as that done by Hitler.

Those people who survived were freed after ten to fifteen years, but returned to find that the Soviets had occupied their homes, assumed their names, and enjoyed all of their belongings. They were treated as criminals, forced to live in restricted areas, and constantly watched by the KGB. Speaking about their experience meant immediate imprisonment or deportation back to Siberia. It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s, when Soviet occupation of their countries ended, that they were able to gain their independence, and most chose just to quietly resume their lives as best they could instead of rail against the injustices they’d experienced.

But As a Story…

If a story makes me really feel for the characters—whether fictional or real—and what they’re going through, I like it a lot. If it tells about injustices that have been done in the past that I can’t do anything about, I don’t like it. It frustrates and scares me, and there’s no positive outlet for that frustration or fear. And if a story doesn’t finish, I like it even less. Lina’s tale ends just after (spoiler alert) her mother dies and her little brother comes close to it. The story structure, if one could be plotted, would be: beginning: normal, beginning the descent; middle: getting worse and worse; end: the worst. The epilogue, a short missive penned by Lina some 15 years later, says she survived and things turned out okay for her, but there’s not much more of an arc of change than that for her. Some side characters experience subtle changes of heart, but not the main characters. In these respects, I was very disappointed in the story.

Still…

That being said, it’s still a fascinating and informative read. I would encourage everyone to read it.

 

Book Review: Love Remains, a Comfort Read

Sometimes what one needs is a “comfort read,” a book that is easy to read and in which the main character (or characters) experiences a happy ending that warms your toes. Love Remains was one such book for me this past week.

As I mentioned here, life’s been interesting lately. You could call it a mid-life crisis…combined with parenting a teenager with ADD, dyscalculia, and vestibular neuritis with migraines…combined with helping a husband through his midlife crisis. No pity party or anything. We’re dealing with it. I just felt like I needed an easy comfort read by an author who I already knew and loved. Sarah Eden’s Love Remains fit that bill perfectly, not only because I’d read five of her other books before, but also because I’ve met her at my favorite writer’s conference a couple of times and she’s just a really nice, talented, funny person.

What Love Remains is About

So, what is Love Remains about? It’s the story of Cecily Attwater, a young woman in the American West in the early 1800s in the fictional town of Hope Springs, Wyoming. She gets hired as a tutor to a newly-blind Finbarr O’Connor, in part because she’s almost blind herself and supports herself by teaching the blind how to function, and by translating print books into braille. It’s also the story of Tavish O’Connor, a character from the previous books in the Longing for Home trilogy who (spoiler alert for those previous books) ended up being the odd man out at the end of them (end spoiler alert). It’s Tavish that hires Cecily to teach his younger brother Finbarr, who was (another spoiler alert from the previous book) blinded in a barn fire at the end of book 2 (end spoiler alert).

Cecily is fiercely independent because she’s had to be to survive, Tavish has sworn off women after two previous heartbreaks, and Finbarr is very depressed about being blind and reluctant to learn the skills he needs to be happy. Plus, he’s a teenager, and feels like his life has ended. To make matters worse, she’s the only British person amongst a clan of Irish, at a time when there is still a lot of bad blood between the two nationalities

Why You Should Read This Book

Love Remains is, first and foremost, a romance, an unlikely one that develops on the rocky ground of Cecily and Tavish’s different personalities and circumstances, with a few weedy misunderstandings. But more than that, it’s a book about love in general, and how it “doesn’t abandon. It doesn’t give up. Even when everything else falls apart, love remains.” Tavish loves his younger brother Finbarr, and is heartbroken watching him suffer. He wants to protect him, so Cecily’s tactics of making him try to do things on his own right off the bat at first seem cruel to him. Much tension develops between Tavish and Cecily because of that. But he doesn’t know the suffering she’s been through, how close she is to falling apart herself, and how much she needs to be loved, to belong somewhere, even if she won’t admit it.

Tavish’s family doesn’t like Cecily either, both because of her perceived “prickliness” and her being British. They don’t want Tavish to be hurt again. But Eden develops a romance between the two that takes into account the family’s feelings and ameliorates them. It’s not “insta-love,” nor does it develop in a vacuum. Plus, both Cecily and Tavish are easy to root for.

 

Book Review: Dangerous Dreams by Mike Rhynard: a Difficult Read

I’ve said before that I really wish that books came with “nutrition facts” labels that gave accurate, somewhat numerical indications of their contents in terms of incidences involving violence, sex, profanity, etc. This would be far easier than any kind of ranking system, and remove any possibility for bias or accusations thereof. It would enable consumers to be more informed about what they take into their minds, which I think is at least as important than what they take into their bodies. Such labels, I think, would also enable authors and publishers to more appropriately market their books.

I got a free copy of Dangerous Dreams: A Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke through NetGalley, where I was provided with the book’s genre (adult historical fiction) and a description, but not much more. I’m not generally the best reviewer of historical fiction, although I do occasionally enjoy books in that genre, but this book’s description indicated that it involved really interesting dreams. That piqued my curiousity, in part because the book I recently wrote also involves similar kinds of dreams. But I should’ve known that it would have been a more difficult read than my usual fare because of its adult genre, but went into it somewhat blindly given its lack of my desired label. So I have to qualify my rating of this book with this caveat: for its genre, it’s a really good read. But I didn’t enjoy it.

Why Dangerous Dreams is a Good Read

What I mean by that is that, as an adult historical fiction, it’s a fascinating fictional “filling out” of the real mystery surrounding the second group of European settlers to try and establish a colony on American shores in the late 1500s. It follows 117 colonists who landed on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what would become North Carolina. For a variety of reasons, their circumstances, which were tenuous to begin with, rapidly deteriorated. Their governor sailed back to England for additional supplies and colonists, but his return was delayed until 1590, when he discovered the colony had vanished. The book’s plot development–slow, complex, and based on the turning emotions and actions of various characters–is spot on for the type of book that it is. I would say it’s an R-rated version of Dances With Wolves, with a significant added plot facet being that everything that happens to the colonists is seen in vivid dreams by a girl 400 years later who embarks on a quest to understand them.

The fact that that girl’s experience reflects a similar, real-life experience of the author’s is also pretty interesting. He says, in the preface:

On several occasions in my adult life, I have experienced dreams so real…that I awoke believing I had actually participated in a true American historical event: the battle of the Alamo. I spoke [with the other Alamo defenders], laughed with them, feared with them, and ultimately died with them.

Why I Didn’t Like It

So why didn’t I enjoy it, and what does that have to do with my desire to have seen a nutrition-facts label on the book before I read it? Because it has a fair amount of brutality and murder, references to rape, actual rape, and some profanity. While perhaps true to life, it was not true to my moral code or my usual reasons for reading. One of those reasons is to acquaint myself with the better realities and possibilities of the human race.

By my ten-star rating system, which measures books on their artistic and technical merit and doesn’t take into account my personal tastes, I’d have to give Dangerous Dreams a 7. Its premise was great (2 stars), its plot and pacing were genre-appropriate but a bit slow (3 stars), its characterization was solid (2 stars), but its style, which was generally elegant, was occasionally disturbed by stiff dialogue. If I were to factor in my personal tastes, though, I would rate it closer to a 3 or 4.

Would I recommend this book to others? Yes, if this kind of book is your cup of tea. No, if not.

 

Book Review: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson, Fascinating and Charming

Trying to find books like the one I just finished writing, fiction ones that deal with dreams but that aren’t necessarily fantasy, I asked for some recommendations from my Facebook book club friends. The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson, was a book that was highly recommended. I just finished it, and while it didn’t have anything in common with my book other than the main character has vivid dreams, it was a highly enjoyable read because of its amazing execution, relaxed style, charming setting, and final truth.

Book Review: The Bookseller

The Bookseller is about a woman, Kitty Miller, who owns a bookstore with her best friend, Frieda. They’re both single and childless, content with their imperfect but uncomplicated lives. Then Kitty starts having vivid recurring dreams of another life altogether, in which she’s married to a wonderful man, has beautiful children, and a perfect house. At first, she enjoys these nighttime excursions. But, as they become more frequent and vivid, she starts to wonder what’s real and what’s not. She investigates the things she dreamed about when she wakes up, as the man she’s married to actually existed.

It’s set in early 1960’s, in Denver, Colorado. Swanson masterfully weaves the details of what life would’ve been like then and in that location into Kitty’s tale, into her reactions to “current” events like the Cuban missile crisis, into her fashion sense, which is an emulation of Jackie Kennedy’s, and into her investigations of both her dream and real worlds. If I had to describe the setting in one word, it would be really hard to pick, but I would call it “charming.” Kitty, or Katharyn as she is called in her dream world, becomes keenly aware of the attributes of both, desirous as she becomes to figure out which one is real.

Similar to the 1998 movie Sliding Doors, Bookseller’s plot advances on parallel examinations of those worlds. It’s fascinating, really, how  Swanson’s style reflects Kitty’s uncomplicated, earnest, perceptive personality, but yet reveals someone who has very real reactions to deep, deep hurts, which form the book’s final truths.

So, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the best, I rate this a 9, maybe even a 9.5. The only thing that keeps me from giving it a full 10 is that sometimes the descriptions of things and people tended to get a little bit long. In typing this review, I discovered that it’s $1.99 on Kindle. It’s easily worth that much, if not full price. I also finished A Million Worlds with You by Claudia Gray, one of the sequels of Ten Thousand Skies Above You by Claudia Gray, which I reviewed here. I think part of the reason I liked Bookseller so much is that it was such a smooth read after the turbulence (fun turbulence, but turbulence nonetheless) of Ten Thousand Skies.

And as I mentioned, I finished writing my second book. Briefly, here’s what it’s about:

A girl whose dreams come at the cost of her memory. A grandma who thinks she can read them. A country, defending itself against invaders, possibly on the brink of war.

Her dreams might be the only things that can keep them safe.

I’m getting it ready to be beta-read, and then I’ll start querying and pitching this one. Keep your fingers crossed for me that this one will get published!

I’ll be reviewing Ever the Hunted by Erin Summeril next, so stay tuned!